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The Girl from Jupiter and the Boys from the Land of the Houyhnhnms

Mongolian summers are short and brutal, like a day at Romaniacs.

Since we’ve came, the road kept pushing us forward, the steppe unrolled its deceiving monotony, until we got lost in the guts of this endless and bottomless Mongolia. When your wheels and thoughts are stuck in mud, both me and Ana have discovered, one easily looses track of time. Similarly, when you sleep night after night with only a thin sheet of rain cover separating you from the universe, the boundaries between what’s yours and the living substance from which you separated at birth become blurred. It’s not always comfortable: it happens that rain drums all night, you may be cold or sun may turn your tent into a sauna. The pragmatism on which our day to day life depends makes you consider an abandon: after all, what sane person leaves home to sleep under the rain?

But the process of resetting your destiny is a mischievous mechanism, that urges you to stay, and to endure. You reading this ride report, regardless if you’ve been in my skin hundreds of times before or if you are planning and saving towards some adventure, you know. The road between you of this particular moment and the one you aim to be goes through the Caudine Forks of those days when you are taken to your mental and physical limits, which in the end you will somehow remember as the best part of the entire thing. So it happens that the smelly damp socks, the tasteless morning porridge and the pruning bodily parts are counterbalanced by a fragrant field of wild thyme, by the crunchy carrot topping our lunch, and by the mild muscular fever that shots an electric impulse from the arms to the stern.

This sunny picnic for instance is exactly what I am talking about: we can forget about the grim morning if we’ve got an innocent river to pollute with our sconcsy socks mentioned before. Until the next rain, of course :D

Every time I’m on the road another question keeps popping into my head: why, when we are truly happy, we find it difficult to be aware of our happiness? Is it to protect our human neurones from an eventual implosion? Or is it to reveal us later, in the aftermath of the climax, when we are browsing our stills and writing our blogs, the scale of the change? Or perhaps it’s just to put a satisfied smirk on our faces while people stuck together with us in rush hour traffic start wondering if we have lost it. Those people don’t know that we are smirking to the memory of distant moments, when we wrestled the landscape, as one should, because you cannot make love to your motorcycle, can you, only within the hygiene of traffic rules and favourable weather.

Of course, to each their own “torture”. Even if it looks like it, this is not a report dedicated exclusively to motorcycling. We share our roads and trails with other travellers, who choose to ride without the aid of engine. Their fuel is food and their time takes different value. Cyclist Helen Lloyd is one of those people. When we were readying to depart to Africa we followed the Brit’s cycling journey across the Western half of the black continent and her Niger adventure. Since then all three of us passed the African test, she wrote her first book about Desert Snow, and we’ve become classmates on Jupiter. As we were not up to date with her latest adventures, we were not expecting to meet her in the middle of Mongolia!

The African route of this brave girl largely resembles our own and includes a good chunk of DRC. What we did in 9 months of riding took her over 2 years of cycling. This time around Helen is journeying our reverse route. She started on the Trans-Siberian, then crossed the scenic Tuva republic on her way to Mongolia, from where she is heading via the Altai towards the Pamir, only to return in January for an incredible winter ride in Siberia. The encounter is extremely meaningful to us. With so much to talk about, Ana forgets to take off her helmet and Helen to get off her bike. The girls encourage each other; Helen confesses that she has been longing to try a different vehicle for her trips and that she has recently passed her motorcycling license, and of course Ana urges her to try on the DRZ. Business cards and promises to keep in touch exchanged, we must go our separate ways.

Enter one of the most enjoyable stretches of Mongolia, where we all we do is ride, never stopping for photos or for talking, eyes only on the narrow dirt trails curved to vertigo. Two hours later we arrive dusty and happy on the bank of a river, not far from Jargaland. The impassable bridge is an omen. Sometime in the not so distant future, dozens of bare-boned bridges await me. As sketchy as the Jargaland structure may appear, compared to those yet to be uncovered, it’s nothing but child’s play.

The bridge is lit by a rainbow that almost tricks us into believing that the rain has already passed through here. Clouds rapidly advancing from where we’ve arrived suggest otherwise.

While we toy with our camera and lens, the promise of rain is fulfilled. Within minutes the sun dies into a dense blanket of cloud, and even if it’s still daytime, it turns dark. the road is mushy, our front wheel groping in the blind, through puddles sometimes half a meter deep. The day is spent, we’ll never make it across the river ahead, so I figure we should better start searching for a bivouac. I ask for some sort of direction to the hazy silhouette that I take for a woman busying around her yurt. The silhouette steps forward. Now I can see the smile lighting up her wide face, the slanted eyes and the black braids under a colourful scarf. A siren to guide us voyagers through the storm, I think. I follow her sign, but a few meters away I stop again, and Ana knows why. Have you seen the yaks and the kefir cloth, I say, I think we should go back and ask them to let us camp there. The woman cannot look happier that we’ve returned, and she is joined by others, waving and clapping. We throw our tent on the floor and step into the yurt to warm ourselves by the fire and socialise with our accidental friends.
Inside the nomads’ home scarves fall, new wood is burnt and dinner is laid. Only now we notice that our host is pregnant. Ertin Jaaral is home alone with her two daughters, while the husband is away to the grasslands.

The yurt ceiling is decorated with drying cheese, and on the fire there’s a pot with bubbling fatty liquid that Ertin turns daily into kefir, cheese, butter and other manifestations of milk.

We sample everything on two thick slices of homemade bread. After a snack of sweetened cheese crackers Ertin pulls the last trick down her sleeve. She takes a yak thigh and chops the aged meat into small pieces that are quickly sautéed; a couple of handfuls of rice, a piece of lard and a ladle of water and the food is ready. It tastes and smells incredible. Meanwhile a stream of rainwater and mud is flowing from our feet to the entrance door.

Fed and dry, we sleep like babies. We are awaken by the yaks. A cheeky beast is licking our tent; chased away, the furry creature retreats close to the dripping kefir bag and waits for the commotion to die off, so he can feed on his colleagues’ milk. During the night Ertin’s husband has returned home, so we are invited again to eat with the family.

A second round of yak meat with rice and fatty kefir ensues. To our dismay, Ertin pours milk directly on top of the meat. They do this to milk in Mongolia. In her book “Hearing Birds Fly – A Nomadic Year in Mongolia”, Louisa Waugh gives more insight into this culinary habit. She explains that according to nomad custom, most cattle is sacrificed when summer ends. The animals spared for breeding are taken to the winter cabins, up in the highlands. Milk therefore is only available during the brief Mongolian summer, perhaps less than three months per year. Milk is used to make butter, cheese and alcohol, and the Mongols consider it an almost sacred source of nutrition. Milk is always preferred to drinking water, but water is added to the mixture, for economy. Such concoctions are called tea, but actual brew is seldom included, and drinking black tea is almost frowned upon, as a sign of poverty that must be endured only until the next season of milk begins.

Ertin’s yurt suddenly feels a little too small for the crowd of neighbours and friends gathered to enjoy a breakfast with the strangers. They all wonder why we don’t drink more milk.

Before we say our good-byes the kids want us to take some photos of them and their horses. Again, we are profoundly touched by how they talk and behave to their animals. Ertin’s daughters, Amar Tupsin (9) and Amar Jargal (18) gently clean yak cows. A young boy, Altin-Olzii (9) says that his horse is like family.

Semi-nomadic children, brown-skinned from sunny days on the steppe: Altin-Olzii, Altin-Ondrah (15) and Atumbaatar (14). And me, the white man, on Altin-Olzii’s houyhnhnm.

Altin-Olzii accompanies us for a while, then the boy and his horse disappear in the background. Our eyes have become a little wet, but we are surrounded by such beauty that we cannot be sad for too long. Cranes roam the steppe, a bold eagle searches for carrion and there’s a whole herd of disoriented sheep by the river we’ve been anticipating since a day before.

I search for the shallowest way across.

While we push our motorbikes, on the other bank an eclectic audience has gathered. A man arrived on horse has joined the sheep, and he is savouring the show. After we’re done, we try to mitigate the ‘situation’ as best as we can. Ana has stripped down earlier to spare her boots from getting wet, and now she recovers her dignity by fixing everybody tea and a snack of cheese. Whatever got wet is left to dry in the sun. And the sheep encouraged at their own crossing of the river, to where a couple of thankful lady-herders await.

Soon after we get rolling again, we encounter another broken bridge.

This time we cross without undressing: Ana climbs the bridge, I take it to the water. D

Our days on the moutain are numbered: as soon as we hit stretches of road that are under construction my eyes are on the Garmin, where altitude keeps dropping.

As we are in no rush to arrive in the city, we linger for picnics and every time I see a stream I jump on Ana’s DRZ and go fetch fresh water. Even if it’s severely modified to accommodate an unusually small rider like Ana, this bike is quite fun – a solid option for any off-road adventure. The interesting analysis of Colebatch @Sibirsky Extreme grants this frisky machine its righteous place among the three bikes that have proven the strongest competitor in the light adventure class. An important and much needed shift in adventure motorcycling is intricately linked to these bikes. Walter puts it better than me: since the pioneering expeditions of the past century, the journey taken by Ewan and Charlie and onward to the Terra Circa/ Mondo Enduro collectives (not to mention Walter’s own infamous rides to the depths of Siberia), things have changed quite a bit. Roads were paved, and the “grey” spots on the map are no longer tackled with a compass in hand. Cruise boats have become available for the travellers who can work their tan and snorkel while them and their vehicle are being carried across. Many 2013 adventurers appear more concerned to keep their Touratech gizmos unscratched than to allow themselves to be reshaped by the adventure. This isn’t necessary a bad thing, but let’s not forget that this is the art of propaganda and marketing, it severs the connection between public policy and the individual consciousness, it cancels the instinct for what’s right. The proliferation of mass media and the development of infrastructure brings people closed to what they desire: the poor to the consumer goods (and only later to medical services and information), and the rich to the few places left untapped. We are contemporary with the democratisation of access: anybody to be able to go anywhere they want to go. Consequently adventure motorcycling, already a controversial concept seldom confused to touring, requires a new paradigm. I guess I’ll be returning to this in a future report…

For now I’m busy advancing together with my girl to the place where the enduro playground Mongolia is famous for relinquish power to the tarmac. Where a panorama will no longer look like this:

or like this:

It will pretty much look like this:

We are advancing to the kingdom of concrete, where Coca Cola has replaced milk. Speaking of that, I’d mention that the Mongols’ passion for dairy adds to their already excessively protein-based regimen, rendering them quite vulnerable to diseases. But of course these people are crazy about yak milk, I cry a day later, if their yaks feed on edelweiss! Indeed, the hills where we bivouac are covered in flowers.

It’s the first rainless day. The grass is heavy with dew, the field reverberates with yaks hoofing about. Besides frog frogging and mysterious squeezels, well, squeezeling, we also had trucks horning for lullaby. Since yesterday we are on their battleground. An enormous operation is well underway to cover Mongolia’s untamed steppe under layers of sand, gravel and asphalt. But because of its seemingly intangible quietness and sheer size, the vulnerability of this mongolian landscape is hard to grasp.

The gentle tract of the road hides patches of washboard corrugations. The southern route is predominately this, and riders who choose to follow it end up hating it. In the background mountains rise to barren summits, with the White Lake a silent mirror of the sky. Mongolia’s lakes and rivers reveal strange new colours, the kind that seem to exist only here, under this cold light, and if I blink or turn my eyes away, they’re gone.
On the border of Terkhiin Tsagaan lake we stop to watch yak fighting for a partner, or to kill boredom.

A few adults are galloping or riding their mopeds in circles to keep the herds compact. They pay no attention to us. On the contrary, their kids run over to feature in my reportage. Here they are: Bolyn-uu (14), her brother Baah-baaatar (13) and Namuu-naah (6).

This paradise is only going to last for another day. As we are soon to be repeatedly disappointed: by the outcrops of Taikhar Chuluu, where Neolithic inscriptions have long disappeared under contemporary graffiti and where offerings to ancestors lay alongside piles of discarded packaging.

A bizarre sight: the so-called “penis rock”, another omen of a certain breed of Chinese tourists we will meet a few months from now. Taking a bow in front of the penis rock some say equals to a shamanic benediction. We both refrain from following the lead of Mongol tourists, but we at least take some photos. It was not enough for the magic to work. On exiting the trail back to the main hard-packed, Ana takes the first tumble in days, and the fist to end with consequences. She hurts her right thumb tendon.

Out of tourist sites we are in search for a place where we could attempt to resuscitate our cooker. As it becomes evident that the gear must be retired, we return to our friendly spats with non-tourist Mongols. We must have gotten accustomed to their irreverence, to their lack of social skill or respect for personal propriety, because we are no longer bothered to be almost kicked off the bikes with vigorous enthusiasm. We are now worried about the citizens of the capital who have been recently our constant ‘companions’, their opulent cars driven carelessly across the steppe, their beer bellies proudly exposed and their newly acquired consumerist habits leaving behind a changed Mongolia.

We see from afar the first group of foreigners dumped by their tour bus in the saddle of the houyhnhnms that carry them to the temple.

After Karakorin, the former capital of Mongolia, and all the way to Ulaanbaatar the road is poorly sealed, making us curse between crunched teeth and Ana to sprinkle her right thumb. We bivouac a few kilometres shy off the highway, next to a deserted mountain cabin.

The following day is as bleak as they come; we spend it navigating through an ever dense flow of vehicles, stopping only 50 km from Ulaanbaatar, quite pissed that our Mongolian adventure is coming to its inevitable end. In less than 24 hours we will have every reason to congratulate ourselves:

We are about to discover in the capital of this extraordinary Mongolia an unexciting place of gluttony and polluting industries, with accidental urbanism and an urbanity very hard to like. But beyond all this we will also find the solution to continue our pursuit to the Far East and an unexpected resolution to a personal challenge that has been haunting me since Uzbekistan.

Vizualizaţi 2013 – Mongolia pe o hartă mai mare


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