Wednesday, 17 September 2014

vamos a la playa

As we ride into Olgii a van veers wildly across the road towards us and the three men in the cab all start laughing uproariously.  What larks!  So much fun, they turn around, ride up behind me and one of them slaps me hard on the back before the van overtakes us and cuts across Gayle at the next turning.  Welcome to Mongolia - land of the drunk driver.  I make a note of their number just in case I get the opportunity to have the last laugh (I was thinking of a brick through the windscreen).  
old friends
Alas, or perhaps thankfully, we never see them again.  In the late afternoon sunshine Olgii looks quite the provincial capital it is.  A sprawling town full of houses with bright coloured roofs - new corrugated plastic roofs that look like they'll last forever.  Each house is set in a small fenced yard.  A ger sometimes stands next to the house.  In the town centre it all looks much more Soviet - ugly grey concrete buildings of unspecified purpose.  Is it a hotel? A shop? A block of flats?  The container market is just like the ones in Central Asia - and result: I find a pair of shoes that fit. The bike container turns up nothing more useful than a spare tube - well, you never know. 

would you go down there?
We stay at a 'ger camp' in the town.  A tour agency has set up a clutch of gers in a small yard next to their cafe.  It's simple and fine and gives us an inkling of the kind of tourism that Mongolia is set up for - tours booked from Ulaanbaatar that take groups of tourists aroud the country in private transport.  Most of the tourism must be July and August because we only meet three Americans who have breakfast with us on the day we are departing.  When we explain our plan to cycle to UB they laughingly explain that they've just arrived by plane on a 3 hour flight from UB and on the way they looked down and remarked how hard it must be to drive all this way.  And we're thinking of cycling it.  We surely are crazy.  Their Mongolian guide tells us it's all downhill from here to UB.  And then adds with a smile "except for the passes".

this girl and her dad were collecting plastic bottles on the outskirts of town - rich pickings round here

The weather is warm and sunny as we plod out of town on a dirt road that climbs over a small pass and drops down to a lovely river surrounded by autumnal trees.  Looking back over towards Olgii we can see the snow-capped peaks of Mongolia's highest mountains.  Down by the riverside are dotted gers and the occasional regular tent.  The traffic on the road is light - a few trucks and some cars.  It looks like the motorcycle is the vehicle of choice for a lot of ger dwellers.  It's replaced the horse for most, but not all, herders. 

The dirt road is alright most of the day and we all enjoy the ride along the river and through a gorge before finally climbing up and out onto a plateau where the road just deteriorates into two rutted sand pits separated by a narrow strip of earth.  Away off to our right trucks and cars pass - somewhere back there the tracks have split and we must have chosen the wrong one.  Gayle disabuses me of this impression. "There is no right track or wrong track.  There's just tracks." before falling off her bike.  Bruised and scraped but nothing serious, it's a reminder that you have to watch the track all the time.  One minute everything's fine and you're flying along, the next minute you've hit soft sand, the front wheel turns abruptly sideways, or the backwheel skids to and fro.  We have to learn how to ride on these tracks very quickly because the second day the road gets much worse.  It's hard going mentally when you know the track is reasonably flat, the climbs are usually long and slow and you'd normally have no trouble just rolling along but with washboard and gravel and sand you're constantly adjusting, slowing, crossing to firmer ground.  Or falling off.

Mongolian beach
We pass by a large lake, collect water for the evening camp and then start the slowest climb ever up to a pass.  The land is dry and looks barren at a distance.  Up close there is dry yellow grass but it's clumpy and sparse.  We've seen camels each day - they just stand around looking a bit stupid.  They probably look at us cycling past them in the sand thinking the same of us.  Camping out here is no problem - lots of space, places to hide away from the road.  It's so dry there aren't many gers about.  The best thing is that since we left Olgii the days have been warm and the nights are comfortable again.  We cook under the stars.

Gabor fills up

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