Published: June 5th 2009June 4th 2009
We hit a strip of pavement a dozen kilometers before Moron. It felt like riding into some glassy, fourth dimensional plane. After a few days the riding style becomes adapted to dirt roads and a brief return to pavement can be an exulting (if eerie) experience. Two weeks of pounding the dirt have brought us here healthy and sure footed with only one slashed tire to show for it. We heard many a sadistic tale of the horrors of Mongolian roads but, knock on sand, few have come to fruition in the 700+ kilometers since we left the scruffy pavement of the capitol. The multitude of tracks leading off in all directions has proven to be more of a help than the navigational nightmare we had imagined. If we do not like the conditions of a given track, there are always several others going to the same place. To be fair to the guidebooks, some days have been a little, well, hellish. These are the days that we are running out of water as we try to no avail to quench our thirst while thumping through seemingly endless series of gravel washboards and sand (which we detest most of all)
under the blazing sun..... into a headwind. But for every day of this sort of activity there are two days of the kind of glory that any mountain biker can relate to; ripping down silky, banked double-track though Nevadaesqe basin and range landscapes with noone in sight. The few people we do encounter tend to greet us with kindness, respect, and hospitality. Compared with our experiences in, say, Ethiopia we are amazed at how much privacy and space we are given, despite the fact that we are often the first westerners to make contact with many of these smiling people of the steppe.
One Challenge is the ever changing weather. Our experiences with mountain meteorology have prepared us and it is this knowledge and sensibility that we call upon daily to make decisions about how, and when, to move. A week ago we ascended 50 kilometers of wide, open valley on one of the hottest days either of us could remember. As the day continued, a light tailwind strengthened and began to noticably assist our riding. We have learned to be suspicious of these warm tailwinds (as they often mark the arrival of a cold front from the north)
and so we pushed on through the latter part of a hot day; making use of the wind's assistance. As the sun began to sink and the air cooled we set up shop for the evening in a small meadow fed by a seasonal spring. Before we could finish cooking dinner the sky to the northwest turned dark, then black and the warm, southerly winds began to shift to the west. When guying out our tent we tried to accomodate for the shift by facing the foot northwest, a decision we would not regret. As darkness fell we were visited by two local herders who came to warn us of the coming storm. They were busy rounding up their stock in preparation but took the time to see that we could take care of ourselves and express concern for our situation. Their horses were restless and the ever chilling winds seem to agitate them more and more with each passing moment. By the time we crawled into the tent the temperature had fallen over thirty degrees celcius from the sweaty final hours of our riding day. The barometer had also dropped over 20 milibars and the wind had pulled an
about-face; blowing from the northwest at 50 km/h. By morning the storm showed no signs of stopping and snow was beginning to accumulate on our bicycles. Given the ferocity of the wind, and utter lack of visibility, we chose to rest for the day and read books. We were reminded of the advice from a travel directory aimed at bike tourists in Mongolia: "The notoriously fickle weather should be taken seriously". Duly noted.
Thus far we have been on some of the most used paths in the country. When we start the next phase that will change as we travel into territories that we have been advised not to ride. We have had a taste or two of sand riding/pushing in the past week and the thought of encountering long stretches of such conditions in the west makes us a bit nervous. This next stretch is probably one of the most exposed in our journey and we are comforted by the general good nature of the people in this place as we may come to rely on them to get by. We have tried to avoid asking the nomads for anything other than directions as we are well aware of their limited supplies in harsh country. This also could change with the onset of impending hunger and thirst. This is a new chapter for us and we are filled with that wonderful mix of fear and excitement. New situations require new strategies and our minds are a constant ramble of calculative scheming. Open to anything, we will do what we can do: ride and see what happens, carry lots of water.