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Mongolia 2009 - Peter Bolton

Gabriel, our son, is travelling around the world on a motor bike.

He invited me to join him in Mongolia, where many roads are unpaved tracks. My experience of off-road riding was limited to a couple of frightening episodes, one entered voluntarily. During the first, I vowed that if I survived I’d never do it again. My condition after the second, heart thumping with excitement after skittering with little control over 6” of thick mud spread over a 100 yd long pot-holed drive, did nothing to change this resolve.
(On an R100RT, much loved and tatty, Honda coil and rear brake switch, seat lowered and recovered by me, felt handlebar muffs. Not the ideal off-road machine)

This conflicted with the privilege of being asked to share a small part of Gabriel's adventure, and my wish to see him.
I’m indecisive by nature, and it was probably the repeated encouragement of others which persuaded me to take the risk, spend money which we could ill afford, and fly out to Ulan Bator.

Gabriel had met Simon and Dave in Kazakhstan, and biked with them across Mongolia. Part of my mission was to take spares for the bikes, including a front tyre, which I used to contain most of the luggage.
The resulting package looked like a bulging flat-pack trampoline, but had the advantage of being able to be wheeled along. It was quite heavy.
This somewhat ungainly item was strapped to my back as I sat behind Mary on her bike.
I held it underneath, hands hooked backwards, as we sped to Bristol bus station, trying to prevent it from rolling to my left.
Mary rides with great skill and considerable speed. I dislike riding pillion, and had my eyes shut for much of the journey. My hands were numb by the time we’d arrived.

I flew with Aeroflot via Moscow, and had to have my passport cleared at a special desk because of going on to Mongolia. A chap there had learnt that Aeroflot hadn’t accepted his payment, that his ticket had been cancelled. He couldn’t fly, and Aeroflot had not contacted him. The situation was difficult for all, his treatment impersonal and inflexible.
Our experience of travel by aeroplane is limited. We’d used Aeroflot once before on another cheap-as-possible journey to India about 15 years before.
On that occasion, as the passengers boarded the plane, a stewardess asked them to subtract 2 from the number of their seat rows. She was unable to keep up with the flow of people, and the chaos was considerable. And entertaining. As was the manhandling of the food trolleys over the rucks in the carpets in the aisles.

It was all much smoother this time, though one of the television monitors was showing its picture upside down.
The chap who’d sat next to me, and with whom I’d talked, showed me the way to the transit lounge at Moscow airport, and then gave me an apple.

There were spare seats on the plane from Moscow to Ulan Bator, and I was able to watch the sun rise over grey rocky mountains streaked with snow, dramatically lit with long shadows.There were clouds varying from thin felt to fluffy wool in white and grey.

A rich mix of textures.

Extract from the diary:
I’m so lucky to have seen the sun slowly revealing mysterious marks, lines of snow? water? under cotton wool clouds, flying over mountains now almost completely covered in snow.
Snow slightly grey, clouds drifting above white. Low sun now showing the great folds in the rocks, the scale vast, snow showing for an enormous distance. Grey rock, two tone, dark where there is no snow. Craggy, brutal. Saw an enormous lake of ice, sun throwing long shadows, the angle so acute. It looks as though the landscape has been made with love. I feel tremendous joy.

As we descended, I began to see tiny white dots, yurts in twos or threes in the landscape.

Gabriel was waiting to meet me, driven by the daughter of a friend of a friend of the son of a now dead close friend of ours (no, really, you needed to know that).
She and her mother, Nuul, sat in the front of the car and were wonderfully kind and polite, allowing Gabriel and me to talk and ignore them, before realising how rude we were being, and including them in our conversation.

I’ve since exchanged emails with Nuul. Every one from her has the reassurance ‘you were not rude’ included.

We passed a flock of sheep and a group of horses on the 10km ride into town.

One of the above-mentioned friends, Zaya, had lent Gabriel an apartment in Ulan Bator. This act of generosity gave us a secure base which we otherwise couldn’t have afforded.

It transformed our stay.

Until I arrived, Simon and Dave had been sharing the apartment with Gabriel.
They proved difficult to waken.

Later, Zaya phoned, and arrived with a wide-screen TV, a small fridge, and an electric piano.

As we all went down to help carry the stuff upstairs, he turned to me and asked, How old are you? and gave me a couple of carrier bags to carry. I was given something equally light to carry next time too. Kindly meant – or perhaps he was worried I might drop his TV – but I felt as one does the first time someone stands up to offer their seat on a bus. So I’m told.

Gabriel and I spent much of that first day walking around Ulan Bator.
The city is about the size of Brighton and Hove, and has a population of just less than 1 million, nearly half that of the country. The surrounding green mountains can be seen from most places.

It is laid out on a grid system, main roads having two wide lanes in each direction.
Traffic is controlled by lights at each junction, and the traffic edges forwards when their turn to go is imminent. This means that the front drivers can no longer see the lights, and have to be told by hooting when they can go. Sometimes persistently. Overtaking on either side is common, horns used as reminders. Vehicles turning across other lanes head into small gaps in oncoming traffic, apparently daring others to hit them.
Zaya suggested that the cars were driven as if they were horses, and that getting a driving licence might not be anything to do with passing a test.

There are four-storey flat-roofed apartment blocks, which, though in need of external maintenance, provide good quality housing.
There are about 10 high glass tower-blocks of interesting design. Curved green glass cylinders on one. Another has gently curving shell-like sides rising very high, joined by a criss-cross structure of shiny metal bars.

There are many sculptures, both stone and bronze, some on a massive scale – a stone seated figure about twice life-size, and Henry Moore influenced bronze figures. Also a very delicate bronze ram on a rock. Walking by, we had to look up at him.
There is also a modest four-faced clock tower, decorated with mosaic in a flowing pattern.

We found one large department store, a great five storey solid block with many different businesses on each floor.
Most shops are small, their doors the same as house front doors, with padlocked metal gates in front.
Some doors are open, some we had to open to get in.
The hand painted Cyrillic script above was the only clue as to what was on offer. The city has an air of excitement, things are on the move, and some businesses have been started by westerners for the growing tourist trade. One, a café, served filter coffee – a rarity in Mongolia – and had wireless internet connection available. It was run by an American, and had an English-speaking waiter and waitress. They had learnt their English after leaving school.

Many young ladies were immaculately dressed, clicking along the pavements in high heels, and many men were in suits, with well made shiny leather shoes.
There were also more poorly dressed folk. I was among them.
Some stood on the pavement by bathroom scales.
Others waited at trestle tables, offering seemingly random objects, and there were a few better organised fruit and vegetable stalls under awnings.

Gabriel laughed at my T shirt. It had been his, beautifully indigo dyed by Ama.
There can’t be many 65 year olds who are wearing hand-me-downs, he said.
My biking jacket, gloves, boots and trousers had all been his. Hand-me-ups.

It wasn’t uncommon to see other westerners walking around clasping the Lonely Planet guide in the city.
Our apartment was perfectly placed, close to the centre.

There is a communal central heating system. Huge insulated pipes, about 6ft in diameter carry hot water from a boiler house before going underground. Zaya said that the system serves new buildings as well as old. Charges are based on the square or cubic area heated.

Kerbs are raised above road and pavement level, as are manholes, some of which do not have covers. I trod on one cover, and it pivoted as I jumped off.
As Simon noted, the blame culture hasn’t arrived yet.
Crossing main roads is a challenge, and there were times when Gabriel and I were standing between four lanes of traffic which rushed by, too close for comfort.
I learnt to tag on to a local.

We arranged to meet an English biker who was thinking of returning home by plane.
He’d had mechanical problems, three cameras had been stolen, and he’d been unwell.
We wondered whether he’d let me hire his bike, but he was understandably unwilling.
He was also very negative, and after more than an hour of listening to his almost non-stop talk and advice, I had some sympathy with the camera thieves.
We had the spare regulator/rectifier he needed, and a water container he was looking for. Simon was throwing the water container away.
We offered him both, but got no response.

We needed to find semi-synthetic oil for Gabriel’s bike, and to find out where we could rent a bike.
Zaya put himself at our disposal the second day I was there, and both were achieved.
It took all day, the deals completed at 8pm.
It would have taken much, much longer without Zaya’s help.
I rented an almost new 250cc Yamaha Serow, powerful enough off road, and I could lift it fairly easily.
The agreed rent was 65$ a day.
Zaya took us for an evening meal in the dining room of a very up-market hotel.
A uniformed doorman ushered us in. A modern chandelier hung in the marble floored entrance hall.
We were more than a little underdressed for the surroundings.
Fortunately Zaya was in the same state. There were very few other diners, and, unusually in those circumstances, I felt at ease.
Zaya talked about the history of the city, and how the Russians were regarded as their partners.
I got the impression that Ulan Bator was a collection of yurts and huts which the communists modernised.
Mongolia became a communist state voluntarily, he said, and relations with the Russians were very friendly.
He also talked briefly of his own history, his two periods abroad to get qualifications.
He had to sell a property in Ulan Bator to finance some of it, and had known difficult times.
When I’d returned home, David, the American friend through whom we’d met Zaya, said that many people sold their properties to get out of Mongolia.

From there we went to a bar near the apartment, and I left Gabriel and Zaya to continue talking and drinking. Gabriel learnt a lot more of Zaya’s history, and expressed his admiration for him the following day.

We’d been told to collect the documentation saying that the bike was taxed, and who owned it, at 10.00 the next day.
It arrived at midday.
The rent was reduced to 60$ for the first day, because of the delay. Then the rent was reduced to 60$ for every day. No haggling on our part.
Gabriel said he’d recommend the company on the Horizons Unlimited website, and this may have had some effect.

No mention was made of my driving licence, and I still don’t know whether the bike or I was insured.

I was daunted by the necessity of driving in the chaotic traffic, but it looked much worse than it was. We strapped on our luggage and finally set off from the apartment at about 3pm.

There is an area of suburbia surrounding the city which consists of fenced off yards. Within each is a yurt or a shack, and perhaps some animals, then the countryside proper begins.
About 250,000 people live in this area.

Roads out of Ulan Bator are surfaced for varying distances. The road we used was tarmaced for perhaps 5 miles, then had a stretch under construction and became a series of interweaving sand tracks of varying smoothness.
I progressed with great caution. Gabriel was understanding and encouraging.
I knew I was holding him up, but at no time during our journey did he lose patience.

We saw three or four horses standing side by side being transported in open lorries. Great mounds of sheepskins, bulging out wider than the lorries carrying them were also a common sight.

The first evening we camped, going up a slope about 500yds from the road, putting the tent on the flat ground beyond. There were rocky outcrops at the top of the mountains, but the rest of the land was green, thinly covered with grasses and wild flowers. Mongolia is high above sea level, about 6,000 ft I think, and the difference between the high plains and the top of the mountains is not great. The air is very clear, and Gabriel asked me how far I thought the nearest mountain was. I guessed 20 miles. He said he thought it was much less, and that we could walk to it easily.

The stars were remarkable. I’d seen stars in a clear sky before in India and Canada. These seemed larger and closer.

Many long lorries were on the road at night. We were some distance away, but they sounded like aeroplanes flying by. Perhaps the sound travelled through the ground.

Leaving Gabriel to sleep on, I walked to the mountain top. It took about 45 minutes.
Seen from below, it was a simple edge to the wide flat plain.
The view beyond was of an infinite number of mountain tops as far as could be seen.
In the early morning light, an astonishing sight.
Another moment of joy and gratitude.

Small birds flew from the grasses from time to time, the wings of some only moving from horizontal downwards. I saw three deer.
Large white rocks proved to be a skull and pelvis of a horse.

Ama had bought us a camcorder, and Gabriel had started experimenting with it, filming my extremely cautious progress the day before.
He took the camcorder to the top of the mountain and recorded the 360 degree view, and a horseman who had got there before him.
He saw a hare and a lizard.

Having started bright and sunny, the day changed to warm drizzle. We rode on tarmac to Karakoram, the original capital of Mongolia.
All that remains of an ancient city are two large stone carvings of turtles, about 6ft high and 8ft long.
Originally there were four, placed at the corners of the city, to act as its protectors.
The turtle was a symbol of eternity.
The one we saw has a shallow box carved on its back, and had blue scarves wrapped around its neck.
It was the only place where I saw evidence of the start of a tourist industry. A large notice read Welcome to Dreamland. There was a P for parking sign, and around one of the turtle rocks was arranged a semi-circle of trestle tables, most covered with polythene, protecting wares from the rain. As we, the only tourists at that time, approached, the sales folk emerged from a nearby yurt, and ran to their tables. As we left, so did they.

In the area around Karakoram there are a number of tourist camps, offering horse and camel riding, and yurts or small pretty pointed huts to stay in. The huts look like witches’ hats with a little pointed porch. It’s just occurred to me that they might be toilets or wash houses.

The camels were the first I’d seen. Also in this area we saw herons in groups of two or three, and eagles, at first singly, then about 15 around a waste dump.

There is a marker, called an ovoo, at the top of many passes. They consist of a pile of rocks with a substantial piece of wood pointing upwards from its centre. They are decorated with blue scarves and pieces of material.
People put offerings of what they want? what they’re praying about? on or under the stones. There is always money, sometimes quite large denomination notes, often crutches.
We knew that it was correct to walk around the ovoo three times, we thought anti-clockwise.
As we finished doing this, a group led by a Buddhist monk arrived and walked around in the other direction.

All the yurts we saw were white, covered in canvas. The covering used to be made of felt. I think it likely that there is a layer of felt under the canvas. It’s cheap, available, light weight, and an excellent insulating material. The yurts used to be carried by animal, traditionally camels, and their walls are of wooden trellice-work which expands to support roof ties to a central wheel. The original flat-pack dwelling. Their interiors are often richly decorated with rugs and carpets. They have a central stove fuelled by dried animal dung, and are warm and snug inside.
The area around the stove is the wife’s, and I’ve been told that for a wife to kill her husband within that area is not considered to be murder.

The tarmac road from Karakoram was scarred with potholes. Cars lorries and coaches weaved all over the surface attempting to avoid the holes. We had a much easier time.

The tarmac ended, and then came our first river crossings, two in quick succession. Gabriel led, and I followed where he’d crossed. Neither was as slippery nor as dangerous as I’d feared.
The off-road tyres were brilliant at gripping with their sides, and the engine didn’t falter.
Sandy tracks thereafter. The older tracks develop dips, some quite deep, which retain standing water. Usually it’s possible to either avoid them or ride on their edges, but some are the full width of the track, and there’s no alternative to going through the water. Decisions have to be made quickly, and it’s not possible to change speed or direction suddenly. There were times when I found myself riding too fast through these quite deep pools.
As the older tracks deteriorate, the vehicles branch out to create new ones. Wide valleys become criss-crossed with them.

We stopped at a small town – it would be a village here – for coffee and a meal.
The waitress was extremely beautiful, polite and charming, and obviously much taken with Gabriel.
When we asked for two forks, she took the plate and put more food on it.
An elderly man was so drunk he was bashing into things and shouting, upsetting things, and was eventually carried out by a young man. Another man in a similar state was ushered out.
There’s a lot of unemployment, and a lot of drinking.
I suspect that part of Gabriel’s attraction was the fact that he was sober.
We wondered what the future could hold for this beautiful and obliging girl. The businesses seem to be mostly run by the women in these small towns. I suspect that if Gabriel had offered, she would have climbed on his bike and come with us.

Thereafter we travelled mostly on sand, skirting puddles, through more wide green valleys, where we followed tracks that were sometimes so far apart that I wondered whether we were going to arrive at the same place.
There was continuous light rain.

I think we saw our first yaks here. When they’re lying down they look like a large very long haired bundle of wool, and when they’re moving like an even larger one. The hair from their tummies almost touches the ground. Comedy characters.
Also the occasional marmot, scuttling across the track into its hole.

We met tarmac again just as the rain became heavy, and arrived at Arvayheer very wet. I was shivering. There were a number of hotels, and a lot of standing water in the streets. One hotel had a large puddle up to and around its tiled entrance. Even approaching from either side it was quite a jump to avoid it.
All the hotels had clean pleasant rooms, one had a shared wash basin and toilet downstairs, another a washbasin in the room. We needed a hot shower.
Gabriel was disgusted by the prices. The hotel was my treat, and he asked how much I was willing to pay. I said £10 each – a high price in Mongolia. He found a floor of luxury rooms in a hotel, and, overheard by a stranger who understood English, made an offer to the manageress. She phoned her boss. The stranger told Gabriel that she wasn’t allowed to negotiate, and when she’d got through, Gabriel gently took the phone from her and offered the equivalent of £8 each for the room. The director said he’d call the chairman and phone back. The linguist said they’d accept the offer, and he was right.
Gabriel had negotiated a price lower than that of the room upstairs with a wash basin. The manageress was not best pleased that evening, but full of smiles the next day, and gave us a free breakfast.

Gabriel and I, warm and showered, were asleep by 9.30, but were woken at 11.00 by someone hammering on the door, offering secure parking for the bikes. Gabriel, bless him, got up and pushed them to the back of the building.
Neither of us got back to sleep quickly, but had time to talk before dozing off.
We both realise how fortunate we are to get on so well. It is just luck.
Biking with someone else has caring inbuilt. Each is periodically making sure the other is there and ok, and most of the caring this time was from Gabriel to me.
We’d motorcycled across Canada together just after he’d passed his test, and at that time I was the more experienced. Less competent probably, but more experienced.
We both remarked how odd it was that it seemed perfectly normal that I should be biking with him there.

I had lost my reading glasses, and realised how disabled I’d be without them.
And I needed to finish How to be Good by Nick Hornby.
I knew I’d used them in a hotel in the evening, and went to look for them early the next day.
The case was on the ground, broken, where I’d got on the bike outside the hotel, but the glasses inside were intact.

At breakfast a chap detached himself from his two mates at another table and offered us a large glass of vodka. Gabriel smilingly turned it down. When another friend joined them, he again came over and did the same. I showed some irritation.

Praise be, the next day was dry and warm. We walked around the town, used the internet, and found a man working in a shed who sharpened our penknives for 20p each.

There was a large bronze sculpture of a horse in this small town.

Having started at about midday, we stopped for lunch at about 3.30 at a small settlement.
Where there was a petrol station, there was usually a collection of shacks, and often one provided food and drink. They were where the family lived. It was easy to see into the other room which was both kitchen and bedroom. The room with tables and chairs took up about half the floor area of the home.
Both mother and father made us a meal while their children, full of bounce and mischief, danced and laughed and hid as Gabriel filmed them.

We had about 40 miles to go of our 130 mile ride. Speed varied greatly depending on the road or track surface. Sometimes the sand tracks were faster than tarmac.

Gabriel seemed impressed with how quickly my off road riding had improved (but I had been very slow!). I was riding more confidently on sand and gravel, but I had to concentrate hard on the more difficult surfaces.
On occasions I was only able to look at the countryside when we stopped.
Meantime Gabriel was waltzing all round me, riding with one hand, using the camcorder with the other, looking back into it still filming as he passed me.
And not falling off.
Infuriating.

We rode north from Bayanhongor, up a wide valley, crossed two rivers, one the widest I’d crossed at that time. I got a wet and cold foot.
Both our bikes were designed to be ridden on rough surfaces, and through water.
Nonetheless, I felt some satisfaction at having managed this far, particularly at getting across rivers.
I was congratulating myself, when a couple of very basic road bikes puttered towards us.
Sitting on each was a small child, wedged between its parents.
They stopped and we exchanged greetings, then they puttered on across the river, smiling and waving. Out for the evening. Easier if you’ve been doing it all your life, I told myself.

We camped, again on flat land above a slope.

I filmed four men taking about 50 or 60 horses past our camp to another part of the valley. They passed, stopped, and said hallo. Good to see Gabriel so open and friendly.

Both of us got very cold in our sleeping bags. I had on all the clothes I carried except wet boots and socks, and still slept fitfully.
Gabriel said I snored. I didn’t believe him.

Awake in the early morning, I heard baaing, and got up to see a great herd of mixed goats and sheep running up the wide valley, spreading right across it – over ¼ mile wide. They looked like flowing water.
I’d never before seen men and animals and landscape in such harmony. The animals had great freedom, though they were bred for meat, milk and skins. They looked healthier than many cows and sheep I’ve seen here in England. In a way the herdsmen were more trapped than their animals – in that landscape they had little choice in how to survive.

The next morning Gabriel asked me to set off first, and I got to a small town about 10 miles away before waiting for him.
For quite some time.
I had time to find a small square with sculptures of the five animals vital to the nomads’ life, horses, sheep, goats, yaks, and camels. These sculptures were in concrete I think, and were weather damaged.
I eventually started retracing my route, and soon met him coming the other way.
He’d had a puncture, and had expected me to return when he’d not caught up with me after 10 minutes or so.
He’d had images of me having had an accident, as I had of him.
We should have agreed a plan to cover that eventuality.
He was irritated. I was mystified.

He found a tea place – I never knew how he identified them – and peace was restored.

We then had a wonderful day of 120 miles of off road riding.
Some surfaces I found very difficult.
There were about 5 miles of large round stones. I tried going off the track to avoid them and fell over twice, once trapped under the bike. There was one steep rocky downhill section.
I was leading, and I think chose the wrong one of two tracks
There were cracks in the rock which had to be avoided, and we had to ride the bikes across the cracks from side to side, trying to stop them running faster and faster without braking suddenly.
Later Gabriel said that that was the most dangerous section we’d ridden.
He sensed that I was enjoying the challenge.
I suspect it was more of a battle between survival and fear, but there was some joy in swinging the bike around water-filled potholes, using the sides to negotiate bends, having to react quickly to miss the bigger rocks and sharp stones.

Two Mongolian bikers joined us as we were having lunch. We shared a can of beer and a sandwich with them, and took photos, which we were able to show them.

We went through some park-like woodland, quite a contrast to the green open scenery we were used to. The track went over protruding tree roots, with soft mud between. The idea that this was marked as a road suddenly became extraordinary.

We crossed 7 or 8 rivers, and I fell in 2. I was trapped in one, but I wish Gabriel had left me to try to get going again in the other. He said it wasn’t in him. That one was filmed.
He struggled to get his bike through it too.
My skills were improving, and I had the scars and bruises to prove it.

Both bikes behaved perfectly.

The day’s last 5 miles or so were on fast sand tracks, with occasional twists around and over hills.

Seeing Tsetserleg from the top of the last hill was like a glimpse of the promised land.

We were both tired. I was unable to lift myself on to the pegs.

We found a backpackers’ guest house with a book exchange system and shared bathrooms with showers and toilets. It was run by a western couple, either English or American. I was wet from my unintentional bath. The shower was wonderful, though its plastic floor flexed, and I found myself leaning against the wall to keep upright.
Age.
I was reassured when Gabriel told me he’d done the same.

Both in the larger towns we visited and in Ulan Bator, there were islands of scrubby grass surrounded by low railings, often used as traffic islands on short dual carriageways.
Some contained sculptures.
These areas were poorly maintained, though I saw some folks weeding in one in Ulan Bator.
In Tsetserleg one of these areas contained a very large quantity of plastic refuse.
What Bill Bryson would have called a rubbish festival.

Neither internet cafes nor the black market were open by 10.30, and we left soon after.
The black market was a collection of transport containers in a large secure yard.
Zaya had taken us to a much bigger one in Ulan Bator when we looking for oil.
We’d had to pay to drive out.

The roads out of Tsetserleg were newly tarmaced, and were at intervals blocked by mounds of earth. Like 4x4s before us, we drove over the mounds until we met road works, then diverted on to sand.

We were overtaken by a landcruiser travelling fast and, for the only time, too close for comfort. When the sand became uneven, we overtook it, and I waved my thanks as its driver slowed to let me pass.

We pulled into a café, and while the lady was making us coffee, the child of a family who’d been there when we arrived brought over a plastic box of cakes, light pastry wrapped around some sort of sweetish cheese/yoghurt mix. They were delicious. We showed our appreciation, and were given a small loaf, a lump of meat about 9”x4”x4”, a long salami sausage, some cheese, a tin of spam and some small round cakes.
We tried some of the food, and when they left returned the rest.
They just wouldn’t accept the food back.
Tremendous generosity.
I followed them out of the café, and discovered that their car was the landcruiser which had been with us on the sand.

Gabriel had received extraordinary kindness in Croatia, Turkey, Georgia, Russia and Kazakhstan After thanking folks – often bikers – in Kazakhstan for their wonderful hospitality and kindness, they assured Gabriel that it would be nothing compared to what he could expect next in Mongolia. He asked what more could be offered. They had fed and watered him, and invited him to stay in their houses and use the internet for as long as he wanted.

All the border officials into Mongolia wanted bribes before they’d let the three bikes through. After negotiation, only one had to be bribed, but it set the tone for their experiences in the countryside.

Someone invited them to have a meal for 3,000 tg, then charged them 3,000 more for tea, and 3,000 more for a biscuit.
Some people asked for money for showing them the way to the next town. This happened to us once.

Despite attempting to take a more direct route, and following the only signpost we’d seen, we found ourselves at Karakoram.
We pushed on, and rode 300 miles back to Ulan Bator.

The most memorable episode of this part of the journey was a pee in a toilet at a petrol station. It was one of two adjacent sheds under which a pit had been dug. There was a gap between floorboards. It was extremely smelly and had a door which could not be locked, and swung open.

Swinging round a bend on sand I was aware of a substantial bar of steel embedded in the ground at the ideal height and angle to have impaled me in the chest if I’d slipped or cut the corner.

We arrived back at Ulan Bator at 8pm. Most of the day’s riding had been on tarmac.

Despite sore bottoms, it was good to get the less interesting part of the journey over.

We met with Dave and Simon.
Simon has a lively sense of humour, empathises easily, and could see that we’d had a good time.
Dave was considering taking the train back to Moscow, riding across Lithuania, and getting to the States from the UK.
It had cost him £2500 to ride to Mongolia, and he’d heard that to ferry him and the bike from Vladivostok to the States was going to cost about the same.
He was also considering selling the bike in Ulan Bator and buying another in America.
Others had done the same thing. There were two Africa Twins in the city as a result.

Simon was still waiting for a front sprocket.

The following morning, sitting outside our usual café, we got into conversation with Sam, who’d ridden a push-bike from Bridgwater. We’d seen a number of cyclists, but he said he’d not met any, probably because they were all travelling at about the same speed.
He and Gabriel got on very well, and talked about people who’d travelled without money. Gabriel told of one of them who realised that he was changing his appearance from a middle class traveller to a tramp. He found that he was starting to notice other tramps as he did so, not something he’d done before. Sam said he’d noticed folks giving him change at arms’ length.
He was riding on into China, where a pushbike doesn’t need an official guide.
A motorbike does, making travelling there very expensive.
As Gabriel said, they could have talked all day.

The difficulty we had in finding the bike hire place brought home to us how much we’d relied on Zaya’s help, and how much time he’d saved us.
We returned the bike. I had bent the front brake lever, but all was ok.
They allowed Gabriel to power wash his bike, and to change his oil and filter.
I mended a press-stud on his jacket.

Back in the apartment we watched the films taken on our trip. I found that my memories were out of sequence.

We worked outside the apartment on Gabriel’s bike, and were approached by an alcoholic who fluctuated between lucidity, twitching and suddenly shouting.
Two other men came up later, separately, and apologised for his behaviour.

Simon was trying to find tyres for both his and Gabriel’s bike, everything taking a long time. He had the option of buying some second hand, or waiting for a possible delivery…

We met the lovely Khishge, another friend of a friend of… for a meal in the evening.
Immaculately dressed, with long varnished finger nails, she talked excellent English which she’d spent five years in America perfecting. She thought our English sounded harsher than the American she was used to hearing.
She’d returned to Ulan Bator a year before, and said she hardly recognised the place.
I usually have a good sense of direction, but was constantly getting lost in the city.
To my delight, Gabriel got us lost on the way not back to the apartment. We went through an area of night-life, and I realised just how lively the place was. Flashing lights, restaurants and music and clubs I’d not seen before.

The following day, my last, Gabriel and I went to the café to use their wireless internet connection. We sat outside, and he was asked by a stranger if he was married. And why not. Gabriel asked if he was. He was.
I asked why.
We took the little computer inside. Gabriel continued using it, and I went back to the apartment.
Zaya brought some milk for us, and spent some time talking to me about his plans to create a Mongolian only railway company. The existing one is a Russian/Mongolian partnership, and is not working efficiently.
There is also corruption in the city government. As everywhere probably.
The old guard seem to be in charge, and Zaya said that to do anything, it was best to ignore them and go ahead without their permission.
It sounded close to a breakdown of law and order.
The literacy rate under communism was 99.7% - higher than in England.
Since the 1997 change to democracy it has dropped drastically.
I got the sense that things were developing very quickly in Ulan Bator, and those in power who were doing well under the old system would of course lose some of their influence.
An exciting but for some not a comfortable time.

When Zaya was 15, he used to buy something, shoes perhaps, for say 1$, and sell them for 1$50. Under communism this was a crime, and he was arrested and if he’d been a year older could have gone to prison.
The change in attitude when that trading for profit became essential, and had to be encouraged, must have been very difficult for some.

Zaya’s generosity transformed our stay in Ulan Bator.
I know I’ve said that before, but it needs repeating.
He transformed our stay. Many many thanks, Zaya.
We were able to leave things in his apartment while we went into the countryside.
When we were in the city he was unfailingly helpful and supportive, not least with his time.
Learning some of his history, and that of the country, enriched our stay.
It was not easy to adequately express our thanks.

In the afternoon we finished the bikes’ maintenance.
Curing an oil leak on his KTM, Simon broke a banjo bolt which served two oilways.
It was almost certainly fractured in a fall, and that had caused the leak.
Fortunately the stub unscrewed easily.
Gabriel gave him a lift to find another, and to my surprise and Simon’s delight they found one.

I walked back to the apartment, just missing a torrential downpour.
It meant that Simon was working on his bike under cover, but in a couple of inches of water.
And that I had some entertainment watching folks negotiating the large puddles at the sides of, and in some places across the roads.

Simon’s sprocket arrived late that day. He intended picking it up the next day, when I was leaving. Good to know that I’d not held Gabriel up.

My flight left at 7.30am, and I planned to be at the airport at 5.30.

Gabriel gave me a lift, and after drawing the Mongolian symbol in red on his white tank – a bit wobbly, I was cold and in a hurry and the pen was indelible - we said our farewells and parted.

Travelling east by motorbike Gabriel has been hardly aware of cultural changes because they have happened so slowly.

I mentioned the provision of slippers to wear indoors, preventing dirt from outside being spread around the house.
Oh, he said, that started in Turkey.

Living in the Mongolian countryside is altogether different from living in Ulan Bator.
Great quantities of goods come from China to Ulan Bator, and almost everything is available.
Fruit and vegetables, beer, fashion accessories.
Food in the countryside is limited to meat and pasta, though mobile phones and televisions are commonly in use.
The nomads seem to thrive on the limited diet.
Neither there nor in the city did I see any overweight children, nor anyone limping.
There were a few well built adults in the city, but no gross obesity that we’re used to seeing here. It’s possible that the halt and the lame are either unable to get out, or die young.

Survival in the countryside probably depends on mutual reliance and hospitality.
I wonder whether an increased influx of travellers has limited the nomads’ traditional generosity to their own kind.

Aeroflot provided adequate service. There was so much spare space on the flight to Moscow that at least one person stretched out over four seats to sleep.
To our mutual amusement I awoke with a start when a stewardess roused me to give me a drink. This happened three times.

An elderly lady and her granddaughter were also travelling to Heathrow, and the child’s mother, who had travelled with them as far as Moscow, asked me if I could look after them. Neither spoke English, and, I discovered, had only a few words of Russian.
They were being met at Heathrow by a relation, and had an address in Manchester written on a piece of paper.
The elderly lady was about 5ft high, the little girl about 4 years old, carrying a stuffed fluffy bear as big as she.
At Heathrow I took the hand of the grandmother’s, who then changed places with her granddaughter. We took the full width of the corridor, each of us enjoying the little walk.

We had to separate and queue at different check-ins. The lady checking my passport assured me that they’d be fine.

Gabriel and Simon planned to ride the Road of Bones to Magadan. Gabriel wants to get there in time to catch a ferry to Vladivostok on the 1st August. If he misses that one the next is a fortnight later. It means that he’ll have his birthday in Magadan, which he’s heard – from the somewhat negative English biker we’d met in Ulan Bator - is a dreary and expensive industrial town. He hopes to meet Charlotte in Korea before his birthday.
The combination of a demanding road, long days and a tight deadline is not a good one.
I don’t think he’ll have been able to resist the challenge.

 

 

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