A Few Steppes Off The Rails

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June 19th 2009
Published: June 19th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

Summer Camp on the SteppeSummer Camp on the SteppeSummer Camp on the Steppe

Sitting atop her new home
Dawn had given fresh colour and perspective to the grassy, oceanic expanse of the steppe. The deep green, gently rolling contours, flecked here and there by the tiny white outline of a distant ger, were now free of the bullying heat that had harassed me for the previous three days. After a mammoth train journey from London to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's congested capital, I was relieved to be on the road, under my own power. In a land of horsemen and women, I was back in my own preferred saddle, cycling through an adventure tourer's wonderland of rugged, remote country.

From the lunchtime St Pancras crush to a balmy late afternoon Brussels, from Cologne's beery Saturday evening swagger to the sobering thunderstorms of Sunday morning Warsaw, I had just managed to squash my luggage - my dismantled bicycle and everything I would need for the next two months - onto each train. However, as I dragged my cases onto the Polonez, the Polish sleeper train that would take me to Moscow, I could see that this time, it wasn't going to be so easy.
In my three-berth cabin, Sergei and Svetlana were already safely installed, along with an enormous trunk that

St Basil's Cathedral
barely left enough room for me, let alone my bags. Nevertheless, after a good deal of head-scratching, we eventually settled on an arrangement of limbs and cases that enabled us to breathe, and, just occasionally, move.

Unsurprisingly, upon reaching the border with Belarus, the surly customs official's eyes lit up when he saw our jammed compartment with its enormous cargo, and demanded it all be opened. He tried his best, but eventually had to concede that there was nothing illegal about my bicycle, nor the contents of the trunk, which to my surprise seemed to mainly consist of Polish confectionary. With the beauracratic hurdles over, everybody visibly relaxed and thoughts turned to dinner. My companions quickly produced a spread of salami, pickles and cheeses and insisted I join them. Numerous shots of Russian vodka followed, accompanied, of course, by sweets from the trunk.

For the four and a half days I was on board, the rhythm of life on the Trans-Mongolian Express from Moscow was easy and predictable. At a crisp pace, we steadily rolled Eastwards across the broad scope of Russia's vast, flat heartlands. Sweeping past minor country settlements, often looking idyllic in their secluded surroundings, we
After morning teaAfter morning teaAfter morning tea

I was given a fond farewell
would periodically reach a city, slowly trudging through a protracted urban sprawl of worn-out and abandoned buildings before pulling up at the station.

As the train was replenished with water and occasionally a new locomotive, the ten minutes we were given on the platform were mostly taken up with the business of buying supplies of food and drink. This had become an essential task, as the lavish interior decoration of the train's Russian restaurant car, seeming to hint at the availability of a stylish culinary experience, had quickly proved to be a shallow deception. Although the initial frostiness of the hard-faced Russian trio running the operation seemed to gradually thaw, their food remained overpriced and terrible throughout. Whilst the boss smoked cigarettes and chatted to his expressionless sidekick, the rounded waitress would breezily deliver items from the preposterous menu, whose highlights included red caviar, sprats and semolina.
The ladies who pushed their food carts to the platform as the train pulled up provided a much tastier alternative, with homemade meat and vegetable-filled pastries, fresh fruits and scary-looking fish on offer to those who were brave enough to try.

Days later, just a few miles out of Ulannbaatar, pedaling

Off to work
a Westerly course towards the unpronounceable town of Tsetserleg, I was already in the empty, unspoiled plains that epitomise what Mongolians call "the countryside". On one of the country's few sealed roads, I was relishing the chance to unleash some pent-up energy and rattle off some miles, and, after a lively 50-mile afternoon sprint, I reached a truckstop in high spirits.

With rooms where you were lucky to get a mattress on the floor, and a restaurant that served only beer and crisps, it more than met my needs. Given that the place seemed to be entirely empty apart from me and the ballsy young girl who appeared to be in charge, I was surprised to be woken at 4am by a dragging, scraping sound that was getting progressively louder.

Having stayed in my fair share of cheap, squalid lodgings around the world, I was well used to the slightly sickening rustling sound of cockroaches scurrying through a room's accumulated grime in the small hours, but this was something much bigger, and as a dark shape appeared at my slightly open first floor window, I realised that someone was trying to get in. I leapt up and turned
Easy RiderEasy RiderEasy Rider

Where are the brakes again ?
the light on. Presumably having rolled up after a late night drinking session to find the door locked, my intruder had obviously spied my open window and climbed up onto the front porch before launching himself into my room.
He looked at me with an alcohol-fuelled nonchalance and said simply, "Window. Finished. Sorry."

Mongolians, both men and women, are strong, powerful (and apparantly agile) people, and, as a skinny foreigner standing there in just my underpants, I felt in no position to argue and opened the door for him. Out in the corridor, a couple of bemused onlookers watched as he staggered into the room next to mine and slumped onto the floor.

The next day, the heat was taking its toll as I pulled up next to a row of gers at the top of a steep pass. As I rested, a young girl in her early twenties spotted me.

"Are you tired ?", she asked in English.
"Yes", was the obvious reply.

"Would you like to come in for some tea ? This is my home", she said, pointing to the second ger. The interior of this cool sanctuary was arranged in the same traditional manner as all other gers I was to encounter. The inside of the circular tent's felt walls were decorated with large hanging carpets. On the left and right, the beds, in the centre, the stove and at the rear, on the top of a large storage chest, the family's photographs, ornaments and medals. I was handed a bowl of salty, milky tea as various family members wandered in and out for a rest or a drink.

"My brother has just killed a sheep, would you like to see ?", I was asked.

Before I could answer I was being ushered into the ger next door, where the recently killed animal was lying on its back, just in front of the stove. With a small knife, her brother began to expertly detach the skin from the body before removing the internal organs and placing them in a large bowl.
Other family members helped out, and my host cheerfully told me about her plans for a career in Mongolian diplomacy as she rinsed out the sheep's stomach and arranged the intestine into a neat pile.
When the meat had been cut and the skin hung on the wall, barely an hour had passed, and only three or four drops of blood had to be wiped from the floor.

That night, I was looking forward to sleeping in the undisturbed sanctuary of my tent. Spotting a ger on the steppe, unusually just a couple of hundred yards from the road, I sauntered over with my bike and asked if I could pitch my tent next to theirs. They agreed, and, through the medium of my Mongolian phrasebook, we made pleasantries. In exchange for a ride on my bike, I was offered tarag, a tasty, tangy natural yoghurt that was scooped from a large bucket. Purewtsogt, the youngest of the family, told me that they were spending the day erecting their summer camp of two gers. Having finished the first, I was invited to help assemble a second, slightly smaller version next to it.

A small door was firstly fixed into place in a circular trellis that formed the basis of the ger wall. The chimney, a large wooden ring that would be the centre of the roof, was then held aloft like a halo by Purewtsogt's father as we quickly put in place long sticks of wood that eventually supported the chimney by themselves. Successive layers of felt were then wrapped around and on top of the frame, before a final canvas coat was strapped around and the home was complete.

Now that the weather was milder, I was once again pursuing a manic pace across the Steppe. For much of the way, the road was still being built and, as an alternative, a series of dirt tracks ran alongside.
Some would meander away from the main road, only to turn back later and continue in the right direction. Others would slowly, subtly move gradually away before I realised I was now on a private route to someone's ger, and had to alter my course to rejoin the main body of the route.

My eventual reward for my 500km, five day dash was a stay in a guesthouse run by an English couple who provided a rare treat - good service, Western food and English-speaking staff. However, despite the comfort of the familiar and the humanizing solace of some English conversation, I was soon keen to go it alone once again, back to the other world of wandering nomads, a thrilling, unspoilt world that would push
Building a Ger, Stage 4Building a Ger, Stage 4Building a Ger, Stage 4

Outer layer on - finished
me physically and leave my mind free to go on its own manoeuvres.


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