Departing Ulaan Baatar towards Western Mongolia
Sunday October 14, 2012 - 48.4302° N, 114.31303° E
N48° 43′ 02″ N, E114° 31′ 303″
Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
Monday October 15th: After having spent the last few weeks touring the region with Gulnara, I am finally ready to leave Ulaan Baatar, planning to go westbound towards Western Mongolia and Western China.
Indeed, it's definitely time to quickly start cycling again since the temperatures in Ulaan Bataar have started dropping to -15C at night and recently a few snow flakes fell on the city.
So far, I have cycled 981 kms in Mongolia in 14 cycling days between Ereentsav (North Eastern Mongolia) and Ulaan Baatar, going through Choybalsan and Ondörhaan.
Ereentsav-Choybalsan: 4 days/279 kms
Choybalsan-Ondörkhaan: 6 days/352 kms
Ondörkhaan-Ulaan Baatar: 4 days/350 kms
Then, between my arrival in Ulaan Baatar on Sept 19th and today, October 15th, I took the opportunity with Gulnara to spend time exploring the region, (Ulaan Baatar, Gorkhi Terelj National Park and the Gobi desert) leaving my bicycle aside. More details on that touring period are available at the end of this post and will be potentially as well as in future posts...
CLICK HERE TO SEE ADDITIONAL PICTURES TAKEN IN EASTERN MONGOLIA.
On Friday morning Sept 7th, Gulnara, still struggling with an injured knee and therefore unable to bike, left Choybalsan on a crowded cross-country bus, bound for Ondörkhan where she spent the next few days, exploring the town while waiting for me to arrive on my bicycle...
I left later in the afternoon, after having spent time at Choybalsan autumn fair and having taken pictures of the empty stadium built for Naadam, and a few soviet buildings and statues along my way.
This first section between Choybalsan and Ondörkhaan allowed me to ride at first through steppes in the Kherlen river bed.
On my way, I quickly decided to ride on a smaller trail which was progressing parallel 3 to 5 kms south of the "main" sandy trail/piste, where I could see from time to time, trucks driving through dust clouds...
I quickly started calling this nicer yet smaller alternate trail, the "ger trail" since it was dotted all along the way with gers on both sides, 3-5 kms apart.
This "ger trail" allowed me to come in contact with a great amount of herders raising their horses, sheep, goats and cows near their white gers all along the way.
Often, not used to see a cyclist coming near their ger, they actually came to greet me on the trail...
Almost every time I stopped to take pictures of the landscape, the animals, the gers and/or the herders, I was ultimately invited to come inside an ethnic Mongol ger or an ethnic Buryat wooden/brick house for a cup of Suutei Tsai ( mongolian salty milk tea), homemade Tarag (mongolian yogurt), Urum (clotted cream), potentially a meaty soup and/or meal , a potential cup of airag (mare's milk) and undoubtedly given some aarul (Mongolian dried cheese) to take on the road.
In exchange, I tried to retribute with some of the items I was carrying on my bike such as russian honey which was given to me near Chita by kind apiarists, fresh vegetables I had picked up at Choybalsan market, american beef jerky, lärabars, nuun and some of my last Mountain House dehydrated meals.
This invitation often led to a "discussion" using sign language, pictograms and if possible an exchange in rudimentary Russian, Mongol and in some rare case English...
Even though, I was getting quite concerned that I was not able to ride as many kilometers as I had planned for each day, as a result of these subsequent invitations, I must say that I was also quite eager to learn more about this Mongolian nomadic lifestyle!
I was also very much enjoying watching and filming herders corralling, breaking and taming their wild horses, as well as corralling their goats, sheep and cows at nights in wooden enclosed pens, to protect them from potential wolf attacks.
Indeed, it is not uncommon in Mongolia for wolves to attacks farm animals, and I have noticed on several occasions large "scarewolfs" (instead of scarecrows...) placed at nights, near animal pens.
On that note, I was also able to see how much historically wolf attacks are part of the Mongolian nomads psyche when admiring in Mongolian museums several 2000 years old bronze statues vividly representing wolf attacks on horses.
On my trail, I was also able to let some herders amuse themselves while riding my fully loaded bicycle and in exchange receive the opportunity to learn to ride a Mongolian horse in a bareback fashion as well as on a Mongolian wooden saddle which is made to stand up in the saddle to gallop a horse and therefore requires different techniques.
I had a more rough experience with some of the Mongolian dogs in some cases fiercely guarding their masters' gers. In one incident, one lunatic dog forced me to temporarily and quickly retrieve on my bicycle, while accidentally dropping my mongol monocular which I had just acquired at the Choybalsan market in an interesting shop selling ger artifacts, furniture, saddles, Mongolian hats and boots.
Thankfully, I have, since then, been able to replace this necessary item at the infamous Ulaan Baatar's Naran Tuul aka "black market"... (Video on Naran Tuul's market).
It is indeed an important item to have while travelling through Mongolian steppes, allowing me to evaluate in the horizon what type of vehicles are coming at me and whether or not gers are temporarily occupied or not...
Along my way, as I have experienced in the Russian Buddhist enclave Buryat Agin Okrug, I came across on the side of the trail/road on mountain passes and elsewhere a large amount of ovoos/ shrines, often made of a mound of rocks, often wrapped with khadags (ceremonial silk blue scarfs), placed for good luck.
Some of the ovoos were also covered with a large amount of steering wheels, steering wheel covers, broken musical instruments such as Morin Khuur, Buddhist statues and especially wooden and metal crutches.
The crutches are usually left on ovoos when one has been able to recover successfully from an injury.
I often also saw these khadags (silk blue scarfs) tied to stupas, bridges, rocks and some of the rare and beautiful trees present near the trail.
It was also common to see at mountain passes, a large amount of coins, small bills and cigarettes squandered on the road which have been tossed out of driving-by trucks/cars asking the gods for good fortune on the trail.
On my way, I was also able to visit Kherlen Bar Khot, and impressive 10 meters high brick tower from a 12th century Kitan-state city, now standing proudly and alone in the middle of the steppe, dominating the surroundings.
Even though I noticed much less rubbish on the trail than what I had observed on Far Eastern Russian roads/trails, I still saw a noticeable amount of empty vodka, beer and soda bottles present from time to time.
I also came across a large amount of decomposed animals as well as animal parts such as goat legs, severed horse and cow heads, left for birds of prey such as eagles and vultures to munch upon.
One time, I definitely felt like I was watching a shocking scene (Warning: parental viewing discretion advised for this link!) from the movie The Godfather, when I came across a severed horse head staring at me from the side of the trail...
Mongolians historically practiced for themselves and for their favorite farm animals, open-air sacrificial burials. This practice for humans has ceased and been replaced mostly with incineration or ground burials but apparently still lives on for some of their favorite animals.
In one instance, remembering Georgia O'Keefe classic painting "Cow's skull: red, white and blue", I decided to mount on a back of my fully loaded bicycle, a beautiful cow's head I had found on the trail.
A few hours later, coming across three Mongolian women herders, I understood that according to Mongolian tradition, I should not alter with nature, and having placed this skull on my bicycle could only bring me bad luck... Undeterred and foolish, although somewhat perplexed by their words, I decided to ride on with my cow's skull still firmly attached to my bicycle...
Further on my trail, I met a young Mongol couple and their cousin, collecting their water supply from the Kherlen river in large plastic containers.
After having explained to them what I was all about with my homemade "Laisser-Passer" Nexus Expedition letter translated in Mongolian, (which a Mongolian friend in Yakutsk had kindly translated for me in Mongol), they looked at my bicycle and quickly brought the point that I should definitely not mount a cow's head on my bike since it could only bring me, guess what, bad luck...
This time, I decided to listen to them and released my "piece of art" from my bicycle to their contempt.
At that point, they mentioned that their ger was located about 5kms ahead and wanted to invite me to join them for a meal.
On a side note, I have noticed a few times that Mongolian nomads use an interesting gesture to indicate when they wants to invite you in their gers: pulling down their earlobes with their thumb joined with their index.
Amongst other non-verbal Mongolian communication patterns, I have also observed that Mongolians used a similar gesture to the Russians to indicate when someone is intoxicated: stabbing/tapping the index finger to one's throat.
Excited to be invited once again in yet another friendly and welcoming ger, I rode the next 5 kilometers under the pouring rainstorm that had shortly started to fall upon me.
I finished quickly the last 1.5 kilometer, going off the the main trail, while climbing a very steep grassy hill to reach their ger, which dominated the valley with an unbeatable view.
Very quickly, I noticed in their presence that my xtracycle wide loaders had broken down after having hit too many sand banks on the trail, splitting in half, no longer able to support the weight of my bags.
My new Mongolian friends were very quick to point out that this mishap had happened of course because of the bad luck the cow's head brought on to my bike and consequently my current life..
Sort of: "You see, we told you so..."
Now having to face a serious impromptu repair on my bicycle in the middle of the steppes and spotting in the sky another approaching and threatening strong rainstorm formation, I decided to accept their invitation to spend the night with them and their extended family, being fed an incredible amount of meat, which I had not experienced since spending time with Russian Chukchi reindeer herders in Chukotka and Russian Koryak reindeer herders in Kamchatka Koryak Okrug!
However, I was surprised to learn, despite the numerous rivers, in contrast with the Chukchi and the Koryak who also love to eat the fishes they catch and smoke, the traditional mongolians do not eat fish or of course any type of seafood. Being in a landlocked country, Mongolians obviously traditionally do not have access to sea products and tend to shy away from fishing their rivers, potentially for religious/animist reasons and therefore have hard times to digest fishes and related products.
Of course, the situation is different in the capital where the diet for Ulaan Baatar's urban city-dwellers is currently changing with the arrival of new international cuisine such as Japanese restaurants and sushi...
My nomadic mongolian friends invited me then to spend the night in one of their ger, but since the weather was still fairly "warm", I decided to give them their privacy and instead planted my own tent, 200 meters away, on the eastern side, near grazing horses.
As I have experienced on quite a few other nights, while camping in the mongolian steppe, grazing horses apparently NEVER stop to graze through the night, and of course always seem to love grazing loudly very near my tent...
But of course, this is not a complaint since I MUCH rather have loud grazing Mongolian horses surrounding my tent than having the visit of one roaming curious Russian bear...
Being nomadic herders, having to move their ger locations several times a year to better facilitate the grazing for their thousand sheep and goats as well as their horses and cows, my friend Chagaa and his girlfriend were very curious to learn more about my own camping equipment such as my robust 4 seasons North Face Mountain 25 tent, my Thermarest Zlite mattress and my MSR Dragonfly stove (which I have only used so far, once this summer and early fall, relying on thermos bottles filled with salty milk tea and hot water at gers and cafés along my way to warm up my dehydrated meals.)
I was amused to see them, under the pouring rain, crowd themselves in my tent, almost as curious to check it out as I was to learn about their daily life inside a ger.
This was also the first time that I did a presentation on Nexus Expeditions on my laptop for an attentive audience inside my cramped tent!
In exchange, they asked me then to return in their ger to not only watch them used their landline fixed phone apparently connected via satellite but above all "enjoy" some live mongolian TV program which they were accessing through their south-Korean made satellite dish connected to their Chinese made solar panels.
Indeed, from what I have observed while riding through the Mongolian steppe and from what I have read recently, half of the Mongolian rural population already has solar electric power.
I have also noticed that some gers use wind turbines and read that the first wind farm is currently being set up 70 kms away Ulaan Baatar with 31 large wind turbines.
So, in regards, to Mongolian ger living, here are the some of the "universal" facts I have learned:
- The door always faces south, primarily because the wind comes from the north and the south-facing door will catch the most sunlight.
-Once inside, men move to the left (to the west, under the protection of the great sky god, Tengger) and women to the right (east, under the protection of the sun).
- The back of the ger is the khoimor, the place for the elders, where the most honored people are seated and treasured possessions are kept..
- On the back wall is the family altar, decorated with Buddhist images and family photos (mostly taken during trips to the capital Ulaan Baatar).
-Near the door, on the male side, are saddles, ropes and a big leather milk bag and churn, used to stir airag (mare's milk) .
- On the female side of the door are the cooking implements and water buckets.
- Around the walls are two or three low beds and cabinets.
- In the center, sits a small table with several tiny chairs.
- Hanging in any vacant spot, or wedged between the latticed walls, are toothbrushes, clothes, children's toys and of course, PLENTY of slabs of uncooked mutton.
-There is often no toilet but you should go on the southern side of the ger where they might be a pit...
The drinkable ice/water is usually collected on the western or northern side of the ger.
The sheep/goat/cows pen is located on either the eastern or western side of the ger but not on the northern side to avoid the drifting smell since once again, this is where the prevailing steppe winds come from.
- Often, family relatives live in gers relatively close-by, only 2-5kms away, allowing everyone to help each other for some of the larger herding tasks as well as being able to often share meals together.
If you wish, click here to learn more about Mongolian culture and ger etiquette.
The movie "Bébé" (2010) by French director Thomas Balmès also gives great insight on the life of a typical Mongolian family.
Through that night, near my friends' ger, while listening to the grazing horses... I also became quite preoccupied with the idea that I was going to have to repair my bicycle without any welding equipment in the middle of the steppe.
In the morning, Chagaa quickly explained that his father and him had "cooked up" a "Mongol nomadic solution" which involved of course wood and leather.
Indeed, we replaced the broken metal pieces with a long wooden piece, sustained by screws and leather straps. This allowed me to ride successfully 88 kms on sandy trails that day until I arrived in the evening in Ondörkhan.
Once my bicycle was repaired and fully loaded, and prior to leaving Chagaa and his family, i was invited to share a last departing meal with them. While gulping loads of homemade delicious yogurt (truly, the best I have ever tasted!), salty milk tea, roasted goat ribs and potatoes, I was surprised to be asked by Chagaa, obviously a tech-savvy herder, if I could share my personal Facebook address.
Although, I must report that sadly so, several weeks later, I am still not able to find Chagaa amongst the 1 billion members of the ever-growing "social network" Facebook and being able to share with him the pictures I took during my visit...
Chagaa, if you are reading this, by all means, ping me!
At 8h00, full, after having indulged myself with a very hearty Mongolian Nomadic breakfast, saying my last goodbye to the whole family and thanking them for the kind and welcoming experience, I rode back down the steep grassy hill to rejoin the main trail connecting me to Ondörkhaan.
On my way, I went through a near-ghost town, where I saw a team taking apart a an old metal hanger from the glorious communist heydays and filling large Chinese-made trucks with this scrapped metal, probably on its way to to be recycled in China.
This reminded me the large amount of similar trucks I used to be passed by while riding through the Russian far east. All of this to satisfy the ever-growing needs of the Chinese manufacturing process and consequently the capitalist consumerism crave...
Approaching Ondörkhaan, I started noticing ten to twelve parallel sandy trails/"lanes", all leading to the town.
This also reminded me the Russian Far East where I had observed in previous years' early spring conditions, when the snow and ice started to melt, all-terrain vehicles, trucks and tanks progressively created sometimes up to 10 or 12 alternate, parallel trails/"lanes".
In Mongolia, apparently, the same approach is used to be able to drive on sinking soft sand.
In this environment, one constantly look around to see what is the best "lane" to follow, watching the speed of the incoming traffic, and therefore zigzaging between "lanes".
Of course, I follow suit and started switching back and forth between sandy "lanes" to increase my "speed".
Although, I must report that it was sometimes of a challenge to pass through the sandy banks separating the different trails, and of course, I was afraid that this could lead to further breaking down my bicycle frame and racks.
While riding further into the sunset towards Ondörkhaan, I also noticed a team digging a trench to place a new fiber optic cable connecting distant Choybalsan to the capital Ulaan Baatar, therefore helping to overcome sparsely populated Mongolia's telecommunication challenges.
In a long sandy stretch, while riding along one of the ten parallel trails, Gulnara's cross-country bus passed me by for the 6th day in the row, since I left Choybalsan. The bus driver and I, then waved each other for a sixth time, like two old friends...
Around 18:00, after having stopped one last time, to gobble a can of sardines, a bell pepper and a few slices of bread which I withdrew from my front bicycle pannier, I arrived in Ondörkhaan, where I was reunited with Gulnara at the Erdes Hotel, after having come across yet another round of hard rain, which inundated the town and myself...
Gulnara had indeed been waiting patiently for me for a few days, touring the few sights and market and was also invited one evening by a Mongolian lady to join her in the local ballroom to learn Mongolian traditional dance moves, despite her hurting knee...
Together, we spent the next two days, touring this Eastern Mongolian provincial town / regional center of 15,000 inhabitants, mostly living in individual wooden homes.
In Ondörkhaan, we also took the time to enjoy the ethnographic museum which is housed inside a beautiful 18th century home of the Tsetseg Khaan, a Mongolian prince who governed most of eastern Mongolia during the Manchu reign.
We ate a few Mongolian buuz, a meal at a fancy Chinese restaurant and spent hours at the local autumn fair, where countless farmers beautifully dressed in their traditional dels, came to sell their local vegetables, tea bricks, dried curds, wool/leather/felt products and clothes in the open-air and inside beautifully crafted gers.
At the fair, we also enjoyed watching Mongolian farmers compete in rope-pulling contests and above all spent time watching some of them calculating the thickness of their sheep wool coats in order to determine which one was winning the prize!
I also took the time to fully repair my bicycle frame at a local metal shop, replacing the temporary nomadic Mongol hand-made wooden stick by a proper metal rod which hopefully will last a very long time!
Sadly, still unable to ride her bicycle, Gulnara departed Ondörkhaan on Saturday Sept 15th, this time in a cramped Mongolian minivan, with her bike carefully strapped to the roof rack and after having played magnificently the "Minivan waiting game" for 4 hours.
Her minivan did not depart until it was as filled as a can of packed sardines.
The minivan took 5 hours to complete the 350 kms between Ondörkhaan and the bustling capital city of Ulaan Baatar, while barely missing crater sized potholes along the way on this dangerous paved highway.
Gulnara reached Ulaan Baatar late in the evening, stranded on the side of the road, and having to quickly find an hotel/guest-house with a room big enough to welcome her and her loyal bicycle for the next few days...
I myself spent my 3rd and last night in Ondörkhaan at the Erdes Hotel where the Mongolian weekend crowd was quite drunk and rowdy, keeping me up most of the night, thanks to the hotel thin walls and their singing and "athletic" abilities...
I depart the next morning, under a bright sun, while enjoying watching roaming cows eat potato peels straight out of discarded cardboard boxes, near the local dump site.
I quickly left town and rode straight seven kilometers away to see a balbal , a turkic-era squat-figured stone statue, covered in khadags (ceremonial silk blue scarfs), situated in the middle of the open steppe, which I was able to find easily since I had copied its exact GPS coordinates from my Mongolia Lonely Planet guidebook.
I was especially surprised to notice that this balbal had long hair, curled behind his ears, an unusual feature for this type of statue in this part of the world...
He also had a disproportionately large head with pronounced eyebrows and deep-set eyes.
Briefly after having shared a cup of tea with this balbal, I went straight to another beautiful ovoo I could spot in the horizon and this is when I came across Mustafa, a Syrian businessman and restaurant owner, who had been living in Mongolia for one year, and who only spoke Arabic and Mongolian.
It felt somewhat like a dream/vision to come across this Syrian gentleman dressed in his robe and his head covered with his traditional keffiyeh, driving a 4x4 vehicle with his Mongol partner by his side, in the middle of the mongolian steppe.
He invited me for lunch at his place, which I regrettably turned down because it would have taken me an additional further 10 kms away from the paved Ondörkhaan-Ulaan Baatar I was finally eager to get to.
Indeed, I had set my mind on covering a minimum of 100kms per day for the next few days, so that I could reach quickly Ulaan Baatar, and be reunited with Gulnara.
A difficult goal for a curious mind as mine, eager to photograph and discover everything I could along the way...
As a matter of fact, a few minutes later, I started noticing hundreds of Mongolian small mouse-like pikas and larger tarbagan (Mongolian marmots), standing straight up in front of each one of their dens, all facing the morning sun and apparently sunbathing. Of course, anytime, I wanted to photograph one, they would disappear in their dens, fearing for their lives.
Rightfully so since right above my head I could now see around thirty eagles flying in a circle, waiting to grab tasty bite-size Pika treats!
So, here I was, desperately trying to photograph elusive pikas and eagles instead of riding...
Oh well... this only meant that in order to reach my 100kms target for the day, and taking into consideration the autumn daily diminishing hours of daylight, I will have to make up the lost time in the evening, wearing my "Tour de France" fluorescent vest and use my powerful Light & Motion Solite 250 headlamp. d
After 10 more kilometers, cutting straight through the open steppe, passing a few stupas, and a small village along the way, I finally landed on the paved Ondörkhan-Ulaan Baatar road, excited to reach asphalt!
This was going to be indeed my first section of paved road after having riden 650 kms on sandy trails!
Along the way, riding through more rolling hills, I stopped at a roadside café to enjoy a Mongolian soup, and a bowl of tsuivan (Mongolian noodle stew) in a town called "Moron", where I quite enjoyed taking pictures at the town road sign, deeply reflecting on all the morons I have come across in my life...
Riding along the way, I continued to notice how Mongol horses often congregate in catch-water tunnels/tubes built under the paved road to escape the sun and mosquitoes.
On this matter, I have also observed how Mongolian horses often walk while constantly shaking their heads up and down, to chase mosquitoes and smaller insects away.
Ahhhh, the smaller bugs... thankfully, those don't bite but I definitely had copious quantity of them covering my bike from time to time and could only protect myself by riding with my face almost completely covered...
I noticed along my way as well teams of road workers living in gers and attempting to amend these infamous dangerous crater-like potholes on this otherwise magnificent paved road.
An interesting feature on each side of the road were also the man-made eagle nests placed every kilometer, made up of tire placed on top of a two meters high metal pole planted in the ground.
I was wondering if Mongolian road workers had placed those on purpose to attract eagles near the road and therefore being able to hunt down the pakis and tarbagan marmots off the road...
Less marmots/pakis "roadkills" could indeed potentially mean greater safety on the road!
Between two road pot holes/"craters", I came across French motorcyclist Julien Dressaire, on his multi-continents 3 years motorcycle journey, who first told me that once I would get in Ulaan Baatar, I should meet him again and stay at the infamous Oasis guesthouse, where a large amount of European and Australian motorcyclists, 4*4, trucks, and very few long-distance cyclists love to stop while touring the capital and waiting for Chinese or Russian visas...
Julien also offered me to camp together in the hills so that we could share road stories but undeterred to fall short of my 100kms for the day and since the sun was starting to set, I decided to push on for the remaining 45kms to go for the day...
At 20:30, in complete darkness, at a mountain pass, having just reached my goal of 100kms on my odometer, I decided to stop, a bit off the road, and pitch my tent.
Mongolia feels indeed a lot safer than riding through Far Eastern Russia, which means that I am a lot less concerned about hiding myself completely when camping at night. I just try to get 1-2 kms off the road in the middle of the open steppe or in a little depression if I can find one, to be out of the truck headlights realm.
So, yes, it was just me, camping safely in the middle of the open steppe, but of course once again lulled through the night by the lullaby of the ever present grazing horses, free roaming and surrounding my tent...
The next morning, Monday Sept 17th, I went down my mountain pass and landed in Jargalthaan where I was offered breakfast (eggs and delicious potatoes) by one café owner, who had been an emigrant in Czech republic, in the early 1990's, amongst 10,000 other Mongols living then in Prague, when Mongolians freed itself from communism.
I discovered that a large amount of Mongols who had moved overseas when they were allowed to leave their country and to search a "better life" were now returning in masses in their homeland, to find work and therefore ride the current Mongolian mining economic boom...
Riding further, I came across bactrian camels (two humps furry mongolian camels) and was amused to see them free roaming in company of horses.
I then climbed three mountain passes which each reached 1650 meters and subsequently dropping down to 1300 meters.
Along my way I continued to be escorted by a flock of beautiful eagles and once saw on the side road a dead beautiful one which I placed on a nearby ovoo in form of an open-air burial).
I also found an old and abandoned Mongolian del which strangely (unless you know me...) I decided to add to my cargo on the bicycle...
A potential authentic Mongolian souvenir I could definitely wear some day!
A few hours later and now pushing through the evening hard rain and strong head wind, I arrived in Tsenharmandal where a drunken mongol motorcyclist ran into my bicycle in a "head collision", breaking my aluminum tubus front rack which I was able to get welded in Ulaan Bataar at a special metal shop specializing in aluminum welding...
Quite frustrated with the matter, I decided to stop for another quick meal (more eggs and potatoes...) and moved on through more rain and head wind until I reached my 100km daily target and once again camped in the darkness, lulled by more free roaming grazing horses...
The next morning, coming down yet another pass, I rode on a 2006 bridge which had been built thanks to Japanese donations and arrived near Bayandelger where I stopped on a curve to eat my lunch while staring at local cows, when I suddenly noticed among them a few beasty mongol yaks intermingling...
In Bayandelger, I stopped at a local café where I was amused to come across two young punk Mongols, coiffed each with a red and purple Mohawk haircut, while riding their horses through town...
An interesting mix of culture which sadly i was not able to catch on film...
I could however enjoy the moment and realize that I was obviously getting closer to the vibrant capital Ulaan Baatar, feeling its influence 100 kms away.
I also started to notice UB's influence when meeting a few Mongol English speakers in the roadside cafés accustomed to dealing with foreigners and spotting along my way, large ger camps who had been set up on mountain flanks to accommodate visiting tourists and city-dwellers on their weekends.
Definitely a change after having cycled two weeks through eastern Mongolia, where I had seen barely any local or foreign tourists.
Further on, I rode along a huge coal quarry, spread a few kilometers long and passed through the village of Erdene as the sun was setting. I climbed then one more 1600 meters high mountain pass, facing the bright headlights of the incoming traffic which made it more difficult to spot the large pot holes in the middle of the road.
Coming down the mountain pass, in a curve, I was surprised to come across local police (which I had not seen on Mongolian roads, since I entered the country, 900 kms away), directing traffic around a crashed small Japanese made car which apparently had rolled a few times to end up in a nearby ditch.
This was definitely a clear reminder on how I need to try to ride safely, coming down this mountain pass, through the fog and darkness while being passed by high-speed cars, crossing free roaming horses and cows and of course dodging incoming crater-size pot holes waiting for me in the middle of the asphalt, just ahead of my front wheel...
At 21h30, after having completed 100kms for the third day straight, I finally landed at Tsonjin Boldog, a hill topped with a huge statue of the great conqueror Chinggis Khan!
I was indeed very excited to arrive at this new monument since Gulnara and I agreed to meet there. She had taken the minivan backwards from Ulaan Baatar earlier in the day in order to come and meet there!
We thought we would have to camp in front of the magestic statue but instead we were kindly invited by the staff at this complex to share a meal and spend the night inside the museum near the world's largest leather boot, a beautiful masterpiece of mongolian craftmanship!
The next morning after having enjoyed the view of the entire valley from inside the statue, and having benefited from a private tour of the ancient bronze collection museum, Gulnara and I had a picnic in front of this grandiose statue. She then proceeded to hitchhike her way back to Ulaan Baatar inside a near-empty minivan while I rode my last 50 kilometers to reach the capital.
Along the way, I stopped near Nalaikh to take advantage of the local roadside tourists attractions such as being able to ride my first Mongolian camel and converse with vultures.
A very touristic, not so ecological, although amusing way to end my journey through eastern mongolia...
Riding the last 20kms through Ulaan Baatar's smoggy and dusty eastern suburb where one can see an intriguing mix of gers, wooden houses and brick buildings, I finally arrived at the Oasis guesthouse, located on the eastern outskirts of the mongolian capital city where Gulnara and I planted our tent in the backyard for the first few days before moving into a ger.
Between my arrival in Ulaan Baatar on Sept 19th and today, October 15th, Gulnara and I met interesting international travelers, expats and local Mongols,
We also took the opportunity to travel with some of the people we met to explore the region, (Ulaan Baatar, Gorkhi Terelj National Park and the Gobi desert) by horse and 4*4 while leaving temporarily the expedition route and our bicycles behind.
We also enjoyed quite a bit of international and local cuisine and visited the bustling capital city in depth: monasteries, museums, markets, parks, Buddhist temples and even spent some time at Ulaan Baatar's Catholic cathedral with Father André, an expatriate catholic priest from Cameroon.
We also spent time watching swiss and french films at a refreshing francophone film festival, partook in a beer-drinking Octoberfest evening with mongols at a german brasserie and enjoyed listening to жонон "Jojo" , a great Mongolian ensemble playing Morin Khuur and other traditional string instruments at a Mongolian rap, hip hop and mostly metal rock festival, we stumbled upon.
We also took the time to repair/replace/amend some of our gear and bicycle.
For this matter, we want to take the opportunity to thank our friends at The Cycling World, a great local bicycle shop as well as the aluminum welder at a local metal shop!
Now, there is so much I would like to write about what I have observed/learned/discovered in Ulaan Baatar, and above all about its 1.2 million urban dwellers which make 40% of the total Mongolian population but at this stage, I really need to stop writing this long post and get going on my bicycle, before it starts getting way colder to ford rivers coming ahead...
So, here I am, departing this intriguing city, going westbound, and taking with me, warm winter gear, and even for the first time, a studded bicycle front tire to potentially help me get some grip while riding on icy Mongolian roads in the weeks to come.
Sadly so, Gulnara's knee has not recovered from her injury and this is why Gulnara cannot join me on this next section. However, wanting to take advantage of her Chinese visa in the meantime, she has decided to travel by train to visit Beijing and northern China, in company of Ruth, a German violin-maker and fellow long-distance traveler, we met in Ulaan Baatar...
Finally, Gulnara and I want to thank the new friends we made in Ulaan Baatar such as Mongolian national railroad employees who went the "extra mile" to help shipping Gulnara's bike and gear back to Moscow, and above all Sibylle and her great Mongolian team at the cozy Oasis guesthouse which definitely was a difficult "oasis" to leave.
Dimitri and Gulnara