Moron to Moron: two men, two bikes, one Mongolian misadventure
Here are some excerpts from Moron to Moron - enjoy!
More specifically, the following scenes are all examples of 'the lived experience of climate change'—the personal experiences of an Antipodean tourist in Mongolia, not really knowing what's going on, but experiencing things just the same ...
(from "2010-10: Getting My Shit Together", p6)
Four hours before our plane left, my new girlfriend Laura cycled over to my place through some particularly miserable Melbourne rain with a spandex leopard-print unitard for Tama (I’d already packed my skeleton suit). In true straight-to-DVD romantic-comedy style, Laura and I had denied our true feelings for each other for close to a decade until things came to a head on New Year's 2009/10. We were performing at the Falls Festival, on the tiniest stage there, playing a pair of incestuous hermaphroditic twins in spandex onesies. The increasingly grotesque ritual climaxed with Laura squatting over my head and spraying explosive diarrhoea—600 milliletres of chocolate milk—into my open mouth while a couple of dozen big-eyed teens gazed on, tripping balls, horrified by our overacting. After our final show Laura and I got munted and made sweet, sticky, mutant-clown love in my tent until the sun came up. Tama let us tell him the whole shonky story, laughing and cringing in the right places even though he'd heard it all before.
‘So I washed the leopard suit,’ Laura told Tama. “It was pretty filthy –’
‘But bro, you should've seen the tent!” I interrupted. Tama stopped sniggering and looked at me.
‘Doig! Did you … you didn't, did you?’
‘Did I … what?’
‘Did you clean the tent, after you filled it with chocolate milk and jizz?’
‘Good question. I did …’ I rustled through the scraps of paper on my desk, looking for my To-Do List. ‘… Not. Yet. But, it is on the list?’ I grinned as innocently as possible.
‘You're such a scabdog!’ Tama punched me in the shoulder. I punched him back. We started play-fighting on my bed.
‘Uh, boys,’ Laura said, ‘do you want me to leave you to it?’ She dropped the unitard on the floor.
We needed the ‘tards for Naadam, Mongolia’s two-day national holiday of ‘the three manly sports’: archery, horse-riding and bökh. Bökh was traditional Mongolian wrestling, a cross between sumo and prison sex. The plan was to make it to the photogenic lakeside town of Khatgal, about 100 kilometres north of Mörön, by 11 July, where we would compete in Khatgal Naadam bökh dressed up WWF style. We figured we could just rock up on the day and try our luck—it seemed like that kind of country. I was actually more excited about wrestling Mongols in spandex than riding 1,500kms across a blasted heath on bikes we were yet to purchase, but with a bit of luck we could have our cake and stomp on it too.
I said goodbye to Laura, then looked hopelessly around the chaos of my room until I found it: the list.
Third and final rabies vaccination—that was worth remembering. I needed to sort that out in Beijing, or Ulaanbaatar at a pinch.
Length of hose pipe filled with ball bearings—for beating off wild dogs. Laura's step-dad's suggestion from his time in the Rhodesian armed forces. Sort out in Beijing?
Other than setting fire to a forest, flying is the single worst thing an ordinary individual can do to cause climate change—no, wait, that was just a disturbing quote I copied out from The Age of Stupid,a docoI watched the other night. Um, cross out?
Tama threw a mini-soccer ball at my head. ‘Get your shit together bro – taxi's here in five minutes.’
We finished our whiskies. I stopped trying to jam more stuff into my panniers and stowed my rusty old single-speed racer and my conscience away in the back shed. Then a taxi arrived and took us to the airport.
(From "Day Minus 4: Beijing, Bicycles, Trans-Mongolian", p24)
As we headed north, the concrete towers and overpasses were replaced by steep hills and dammed river valleys, then small mountains with gouged-out rockfaces, decapitated peaks. We passed trains that stretched out of sight, carriage after endless carriage stuffed with Mongolian coal and timber headed south to the sweatshops of Beijing. There were bridges and tunnels, more tunnels, blackness.
When I woke up, Tama was deep in the Lonely Planet.
'Man, there are all these rules for staying in a ger. You should never lean on the support beam, it's bad luck.'
'What, cos the tent will fall over?'
'Probably. If you kick someone's feet, you have to shake their hand straightaway. And you have to sleep with your feet facing the door.'
'True, especially my feet.'
'This is a good one: you should never touch another man's hat.'
'I wish someone had told me that before I moved to Australia!'
Tama threw his hat at me. I sat up and checked out the view. Apart from the odd industrial nightmare smoking away on the horizon, Chinese Inner Mongolia was mostly flat plains, gritty terracotta villages, plantations of wind turbines. It finally clicked that this part of Mongolia was only ‘inner’ in relation to Beijing and the Han Chinese empire. From Ulaanbaatar’s perspective, we were in deep southeast Mongolia, and ‘outer’ Mongolia didn’t exist – it was just Mongolia, straight, no chaser.
But ‘Inner’ Mongolia has been out of Mongol hands for hundreds of years now. Since the late 1600s, a whole baffling clusterfuck of imperialism and mismanagement has gone down. These days Inner and Outer Mongolians couldn’t read each other’s writing, and unification was little more than a neo-fascist pipedream. Meanwhile, unregulated mining, deforestation and desertification were spawning dust storms, carcinogenic ones, that made for refugees in China, health scares in Korea and marvellous sunsets over the hazy golden steppes.
Hours passed. The dining car ran out of water, then food. We didn't know it at the time but nearly two-fifths of Inner Mongolia—approximately 400,000 square kilometres, half the size of New South Wales—was in a state of severe drought. Funny that a bunch of westerners on a tourist train should briefly suffer the fate awaiting all of northern China in a few decades—that is, unless China decides to invade Siberia. Via Mongolia. By the time things get that dire, there probably won’t be much room on the Trans-Mongolian for a couple of Kiwi adventurers and their stripy smuggler bags.
We were nearly in Mongolia.
(from "Day 0: The Worst Bus Ride of My Life", p35)
As the bus rattled on, I looked out the window for lingering signs of the dzud, Mongolia’s notorious ‘white death’—a winter thaw followed by a cold snap and snowfall, where the ground refreezes and prevents animals from feeding, or living. When a mild Mongolian winter brought temperatures of twenty degrees below, it was hard to imagine a harsh winter, but just six months earlier Mongolia had weathered its harshest dzud since records began, with temperatures nudging minus 50 degrees Celcius. Mongolia’s overall supply of the ‘five snouts’—horse, camel, yak-slash-cow, sheep and goat—plummeted from 45 million to 37 million. This would be bad news anywhere, but in a country that is still literally horse-powered, this was very bad news indeed. By April 2010, roughly 200,000 black beauties had died a white death, and thousands of nomad families were left with the grim prospect of hitching to Ulaanbaatar to become unemployed post-nomads. These dzuds used to occur about once every twenty years, but between 1999 and 2002 there was an unprecedented three dzuds in a row—and then this one, the worst ever.
A month before we left Melbourne, Tama had emailed me a dzud article peppered with lurid quotes: ‘Two small goats had crawled into the cavity of a dead cow seeking protection. Unfortunately, even they did not survive … A little further on, a frozen heap of six skinned horses had been dumped in a ditch, their legs and heads twisting into a macabre sculpture …”
The link was followed by a perky PS, saying ‘Better bring some extra trail mix, bro!’
On the last ten hours of the train ride to Ulaanbaatar, the Gobi desert had been sprinkled with shiny white piles of bone. We had passed the time playing ‘Old Corpse, New Corpse’, wondering what we were going to eat for the next three weeks. Months later I would stumble upon an online UN report with a colour-coded map, and realise that our dire bus ride to Mörön passed through most of the provinces not affected by the disaster, while to our west, and south, and east the white death had provided the New York Times with all the macabre sculptures it could wish for.
But that day—crossing into Khövsgöl province, pinballing our way across what the guidebook called ‘the Switzerland of Mongolia’, in the height of summer, twenty-five perfect degrees above zero—there were no bleached skeletons to be seen in the pristine green fields. In fact, even to my aching eyes the view out the window looked suspiciously like mountain-biking paradise.
(from "Day 10: A Flash Flood of Hailstones", p177)
We strapped on our helmets and went downhill. It was the best riding we had all day. We sailed through someone’s farm next to a grassy halfpipe of a ditch. The storm clouds gathered behind us, really gathered, piling into the sky like I’d never seen before, not even in Mongolia. Once again we were the tallest things in the middle of an open field, and I rode hard towards nothing in particular, towards the idea of shelter; Tama was ahead of me, riding harder. Every time I looked back the clouds were taller and darker. Thunder rumbled in the distance. A yellow-white flash, close by. Tama pointed to the ditch and mumbled something.
‘What?’ I yelled.
‘If the lightning gets really bad, we can hide in there!’
I nodded and changed into top gear to try to outride the storm but the rain came and kept coming. We rode past some high wooden fences hiding farm equipment and a couple of half-built log cabins and a yellow construction hut on wheels that was roughly the size and shape of a packing container. A couple of workers poked their heads out of the hut and watched us ride past. In a few frenzied minutes it got colder and the rain turned to hail. Tama jammed on his brakes.
‘We should go back,’ he said, shielding his face.
‘Go back where?’
‘To that hut.’
The hail thickened. A big one got me on the knee.
By the time we made it back to the construction hut hailstones the size of walnuts were vomiting out of a grey-white sky and shattering on our helmets. We banged on the door and gestured could we please come inside please? The workers nodded, looking at us like we were very foolish.
I was just getting used to the din of hail on the roof when, out of the far left corner of the window, I saw a geyser of white concrete spray upwards into the air. No, it was hail, but it was going in the wrong direction. I shouted and pointed; Bataa threw the door open and we all piled outside to see a river of hail and ice-melt surging through the ditch next to the track. Where the ditch turned a sharp corner the flash flood had burrowed into a nearby rubbish pit and it was spraying broken glass and plastic filth mixed with soiled ice high into the air in a toxic fountain. The ditch that we were going to shelter in to hide from the lightning now resembled a rampaging glacier on fast-forward. The workers ran inside and grabbed their jackets; Tama and I ran inside and grabbed our cameras.
On the other side of the ditch, the wheat fields we had just been pedalling through were smashed flat and half-submerged in ice and water and mud. Bayarmaa stood with her hands on her head, distraught. Bataa, Gantulga and Chuluun pointed mutely at the devastation, rooted to the ground in disbelief. Tama and I couldn’t believe our luck and dashed back and forth to make sure we got all the angles. This was it: Doig and Pugs vs Wild, meteorological carnage in the Mongolian wilderness, Steve Irwin sticking his finger up a stingray’s arse. I burned through all the memory on the Flip-cam and had to delete random files on the fly, wincing as I trashed clips of our lovely dinner with the moron and the geologist to make room for this mess.
‘Strewth, look at that flash flood. That’s a real ripper right there!’ I yelled in a bad Steve Irwin impersonation. ‘I wouldn't want to be caught in all those hailstones!’ ‘If you fell in there you'd be dead meat, mate!’ Tama Irwin replied.
‘Zang … this is one of the craziest …’
‘De-va-sta-ting,’ Tama said, his accent lurching towards Austria. Then in his normal voice, ‘Have you seen that shit?’
‘It's on YouTube – California's burning to the ground, these crazy-arse forest fires frying everything, and a helicopter lands on a hill. Arnie jumps out wearing his sunnies and the reporters are like, “Mr Governator, sir, what do you think of the fires?” and Arnie just goes [vaguely German accent] “De-va-sta-ting”—totally deadpan, jumps back in the chopper and flies off. It’s awesome.’
We ran around like kids in a burning candy store, stomping on banks of hailstones so they collapsed into the torrent. The temperature had plummeted but we didn’t care. Meanwhile, Chuluun was hunched over an decrepit motorcycle, tapping at the engine with a stone and a broken chisel that looked Bronze Age. The bike wouldn't start. Bataa ran up to me and motioned he was going to take my bicycle and alert the neighbours downstream, or something—then he was gone. Five minutes later he was back; the road downstream was flooded out. He dumped my bike in the mud and took off in the tractor, which had a dishevelled little Mongolian flag fluttering sadly from its roof and a top speed of ten kilometres an hour. I had a feeling that any farmers downstream would probably know about the flash flood by now.
When Bataa returned he was pleased to see us still there. I took him aside and gave him a couple of packets of Marlboros, gesturing that they were for the team. He looked at me in deep appreciation and quickly pocketed both packs before the others could see. We stood outside the hut, watching the doomed icebergs of hail melt into the brown soup. I wanted to ask him if this kind of thing happened often, but ‘extreme weather event’ and ‘anthropogenic climate change’ weren’t in the phrasebook. Bataa pointed at the wheat fields then waved his hands, as if erasing it all. Then he pointed at the half-finished log cabins. The same motion. No wheat fields, no more construction. No more construction, no more job.
‘Where will you go?’
He pointed up the valley. Back to his village, back to his family. He stared at the ditch, motionless.
‘Muu,’ I tried to say. ‘Mash muu.’ (‘Very bad.’)
Bataa nodded sorrowfully. Then he shrugged his shoulders and laughed, his eyes smiling.
I pointed at him. ‘Buddhist?’ I asked.
‘Tiin, bi Buddyn shashintan!’ he cried.
(from "Day 21: Dried Fermented Milk of a Horse", p303)
We stopped for a sugary drink at a little town that turned out to be Bayandelger, not Erdene. The map confirmed it: we were twenty kilometres further east than we were expecting and had spent the last couple of hours rock-hopping down a completely different valley from what we had intended.
‘An accidental Kiwi shortcut!’ I said.
‘Yeah, and for once it paid off!’ Tama was amused, even though he’d got it wrong.
‘Maybe it’s a sign.’
‘Dunno—that, Mongolia wants us to hurry up and get to Mörön?’
‘Nah, if Mongolia was serious about it, she’d give us a proper tailwind.’
'And a travelator!’
Even without a mechanised walkway we made good time along that flat grey road under that flat grey sky. The hills were still beautiful, sort of, but after a fortnight of gaping it was getting harder and harder to really see the landscape. In my fifteenth year of Third World sightseeing, I needed larger and more outrageous spectacles to be truly astounded: not just nomads on horseback but bigger nomads, better horses—Chinggis Khaan himself, thirty metres tall and shining in the sunlight. Kinda thing.
The asphalt veered sharply to the left and suddenly we were heading due north. This didn't make any sense until we realised that the ‘town’ of Baganuur was actually a massive open-cut coalmine. Our road made a discreet twenty-kilometre detour around what we could only glimpse as a darker grey on the horizon, endless piles and drifts of it, offset by the lighter grey of smoke plumes. Baganuur's coal was apparently responsible for the heating and smogification of Ulaanbaatar for the duration of its nine-month winter.
‘I love Mine-go-li-a,’ Tama said in his Governator voice. ‘I dig its big gaa-ping holes.’
‘Ha, Minegolia—you make that up?’
‘Nah.’ Tama had read an article about Mongolia's resources boom, which was apparently even boomier than Australia's.
‘The mining industry's going mental, the economy's growing like fifteen, twenty per cent a year. Apparently there are mines in the Gobi desert that make Erdenet look like a kid's sandpit—and they’re all run by Aussies.’
‘Yeah, it's crazy—these wanker mining executives are all saying that in a few years, Mongolia is gonna to get rich like Australia.’
‘Believe it when I see it.’
(From "Day 23: The Final Mörön", p328)
I was awake before sunrise, happy not to be vomiting. The pre-dawn light was exciting enough to make me crawl out of the tent, set up the tripod and attempt a few shaky 360-degree pans of our campsite. Above a ring of jagged black hills the tiny white dot of an airplane drifted like an ember through a light blue sky smeared with thick streaks of peach and silver. I was really glad I wasn't colour-blind. In the shadows below, a thin grey line led east towards the horizon—to the final Mörön.
There was no traffic on the Millennium Road that day, no birds in the sky. It was unreasonably peaceful. Months later I found out the reason for the morning's excessive beauty: on 1 August 2010, southern Russia started to burn. A July heatwave brought temperatures a nutsack-roasting eight degrees Celsius hotter than normal. Then half a million hectares of taiga forest and wheatfield—about 100,000 hectares more than Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires—went up in smoke. Western Siberia burned, and Buryatia, just north of Khövsgöl, and the eastern Siberian town of Boryza, a few hundred kilometres northeast of our campsite. People died. Vladimir Putin visited the charred remains of a village that he said looked like ‘something from a horror film’. And as the worst wildfires in Russian history sent smoke and soot and billions of little embers drifting lazily over Mongolia, I got to savour a once-in-a-lifetime sunrise on the steppes by clambering up to the ridgeline and singing Mongolian opera at the top of my haggard lungs.
... if you still want more, best buy the book already!