Last night the wind swirled and howled like an orphaned beast. In this vast steppe there’s no tree, no mountain to stand in the way of nature’s unleashed forces. Cows mooed, horses sputtered, and a toddler cried in his yurt. His grand grandmother cuddled him and put him back to sleep, making sure that his adult memories of the childhood summer holidays spent on the land of nomad ancestors will be vivid, not grim. When we wake up, our flesh is rested and our souls are primed for another day in Mongolia.
Noon finds us next to another ovoo; this time it’s the grave of a famous Mongol goddess. While we fix lunch – perhaps a little disrespectful, we later thought – two different sets of travellers arrive. Vanchaa , the Mongol, is an English teacher and he is meeting here his best friend, whom he hasn’t seen for five long years. The Chinese Guo Jianlong is a writer, and he has endured an even more extraordinary journey, having bicycled to here from Beijing.
Evidently we have a lot to talk with Jianlong, after all, we will soon bicycle on his almost identical route, only from West to East. Meanwhile Vanchaa is joined by his friend, and the three of them climb 100 meters up the hill, where Vanchaa starts singing. The sound reverberates on two different tones, as if we are listening not one, but two singers. What was your song about, we ask Vanchaa when he comes back to the ovoo. I was saying good bye, says the Mongol, as my friend is going again for a long time. Indeed, the Mongol art of tonal singing is much more than entertainment. Be it magical remedy, shamanic instrument or mere superstition, this ancient technique requires significant trekking to the most auspicious spot, and only then the song may flow.
The daily scenario remains unpredictable. When we plan for example a more vigurous ride to a certain place, we end up negotiating a labyrinth of trails, stumbling upon an irrigation pipe left open. So we grab the chance and treat ourselves to a free shower. The water is wonderfully brisk and clean – we refill our bottles and thoroughly do our laundry. As we finish our lunch the winds has already blown them dry. But we cannot indulge in such moments for too long, because within minutes a curtain of rain starts sweepings across the steppe. I’d say that Mongolia wants to keep us guessing, to teach us the lesson of the always ready, always on the move.
The landscapes are deceivingly monotonous, but never boring. It’s just we are not used to the scale of it, as it takes many hundreds of km to transition from steppe to barren deserts and to moonlike calderas. It’s an almost lifeless expanse of wilderness, except for the Chinese Decepticons fighting to turn Mongolia into another tarmac wonderland. Next year this trails we have become highways and the diminutive teahouse where we are not allowed to pay for our drinks will have to relocate, or reinvent itself into another generic bistro.
Day 80 of our Asian journey. Ana from the earlier days is no more. A shift in her riding style and confidence has become evident. She must have started to really appreciate the freedom that can only be experienced on a motorcycle.
We have descended from the highlands to an arid plateau, devastated by wind and rain, yet lined with the blue of an improbable lake. After enjoying the adjoining playgound of fast gravel we attempt a dip. Sadly the waters are again too dirty to swim, so we contend to basking in the surreal lights of the sunset.
Classic Mongolia. The landscape is so clean, so orderly. Any man who has something on his mind, should come here to think his thoughts through.
We wake up under a sky so hot that our morning brew almost needs no fire to boil.
We have the entire steppe to ourselves
And we start playing the game, all over again. We never stop to talk, but I know that she must wish what I wish: that these perfect trails never end, that we stay, trapped forever in this limbo, suspended between the real, and the imagined. A bunch of wild horses roaming about only deepens the delirium. We ride past them silent graceful beasts, wondering if we have just seen unicorns.
It happens to clock up to 25 km of straight line: the Mongolian trails can get your ears buzzing.
Perfect trails forever
We spot a hut conveniently built next to a water well. Time to refill supplies and bedazzle some camel herders with our shiny machines.
Lunch happens to find us again in the vicinity of an ovoo.
We get our mobile kitchen going: fire, three handfulls of bulgur soaked in water, two cans of smoked fish, a precious carrot cut batonette and a humble and delicious onion. A few yurts glisten in the distance and the sky hastily changes color. To the north-east clouds thick as wool; right underneath whitish strings of water hang like the wet hair of a Mongol virgin. Night comes in the middle of the day. This is the unforgiving weather of the steppe. The voice of the Mongol gods is the storm. After all morning we’ve been scorched, now we’re gonna shiver.
The scale of rain and thunder does the steppe justice: it’s titanic. And when it’s hits, it’s like nomadic hordes advance in one move, leaving behind a field massacred by violence. It cracks the land open and weeps the skin to arresting pain. The ovoo would do for shelter, if it wasn’t clogged with pigeon guano, so we pull our tent footprint and continue with our meal.
By the time we dunk the last cracker in our tea, the clouds are gone. Phew, this time it was more of a nuisance than a proper tempest. The real trouble is yet to be discovered down the valley, where the sandy trails has just been flooded with long wounds of mud’n’rainwater puss. I have waterproof boots, but Ana tries to avoid the soak riding with her feet up the tank. It only works for a while, as fresh mud means poor traction. With her feet wet and exposed to the wind blasting at 2000 m altitude, I bet she must be quite cold.
We ride past a solitary yurt. There’s a small wooden shack nearby and a women gawking. At her feet, a little girl with her head half shaven and a nude toddler are playing, seemingly indifferent to the freezing weather. It’s our third attempt of the day to fetch drinking water. The woman looks at the empty bootle, then disappears inside the yurt from where she comes back with a key to open the wooden shack. It’s a store, we see, but we don’t want to give up quite yet and we don’t want to buy bottled water. We try in vain to make the woman comprehend that we want to fill the bottle from the enormous plastic tank sitting next to the yurt. Then Ana has an idea: Milk? she says in Mongolian (thanks Janka!) pointing to the grazing yaks and the cheesecloth dripping whey. The woman gawks again to her shelves lined with instant soup and candy and shakes her head. As Ana walks back to the bike, the woman suddenly wakes up: milk? she cries. Milk, I repeat, alienated, and the Mongol goes again inside the house, returning with a pot of milk. It will be poured for a reasonable price into our bottle, except for a few drops, spared for some mysterious and undoubtedly superstitious reason.
Meanwhile the road has become a river of dark mud, but the rain is both curse and blessing. For Ana the stretches of deep sand are not easy, but definitely easier to ride in the wet. Swamp-munching we happen upon a couple of Polish travellers on bicycles. As we linger for a chat, I notice that while we cannot contain our shivering, the cyclists are comfortable in their much more spartan attire. By now temperatures must have dropped to single digits. Mongolia is not always a joyride, but it’s nevertheless magnetic. It makes our lips bleed, our bodies ache. It makes us feel alive, hating and loving her in one oxymoronic bout of emotion. It makes us question why we’ve come so far, where road crumbles like shortcake, where every detail of the landscape requires a confident response. I realise that for Ana it’s hard. Mile after mile she assembles her future self, an ever improved riding position, an endurance mentality of trying again even when failure is almost guaranteed. I’m curious to witness her transformation after this adventure will have ended. But already the effects of trial and error, of trial and success, cannot be denied.
Of course, there are still moments like this…
Cars suffer more. A truck axel deep sunken into the mud reminds us of DR Congo. Passengers and driver dig furiously to release the wheels. We can do nothing for them. Cold and quite miserable, we have been having difficulties to focus on the road for the past hour. We must stop, to avoid ending up stuck like those people. Tomorrow we’ll ballet cautiously across the last 18 km to the next village, and we will find a hot meal and a friendly face.
As unforgiving as the weather may be, the colours stay within a subtle palette of greys and olives. We pull out the helmets to inspect the surroundings, and dark silhouettes of pine trees start sprucing out from the spine of a hill curved behind layers of fog. It smells of mountain, but the valley is a depressing tableau of metallic mirrors of stagnant water where the roads and deviations should be, with cars stuck here and there, like ships on an ocean in storm.
We climb the hill to claim a stunning bivouac. From up here we can see the entire valley swept by torrents and Ana swiftly starts gathering wood for a fire. After such a rain it takes me a while to start the flames, but the heat is soothing, the milk bought earlier quite tasty and the edelweiss charming. After taking the precaution to shovel all our gear under the rainfly, we cuddle inside and try to heat each other enough to fall asleep.
Rain wakes us up. At 7 a.m. is noisy, at 8 has stabilised to a drizzle. Fog floods the valley and no one is out on the roads. For a while we debate if we should stay put or get going, with me voting to suck it up and do what we need to do and Ana voting against. But after a filling serving of hot oats sprinkled with a final spoon of raisins and the accompanying moths, we are too bored not to act, so we pack our gear and roll downhill into Inferno.
Vizualizaţi 2013 – Mongolia pe o hartă mai mare