A Mad Mongolian Road Trip
(Article originally appeared in the Australian Conservation Foundation's Habitat magazine, May 2011)
In 2010 Tama Pugsley and I attempted to cycle 1400kms from a small Mongolian town called Moron to a smaller town, also called Moron. This had long been a dream of ours. We were looking through an atlas when we noticed Mongolia had two towns called Moron (MѲРѲН, in Cyrillic). As outdoor enthusiasts and self-declared morons, one question
burned in our hearts: how could we not ride from Moron to Moron? It would be like Vladimir and Estragon not waiting for Godot. Besides, the two Möröns looked pretty close together. (It was a small atlas.) How hard could it be?
After about a decade’s procrastination, we flew to Beijing and bought some bikes there – not necessarily the most sensible option, but definitely in keeping with the moron ethos. Then we hopped a 30-hour train to Ulaan Baatar (known as UB). The first Moron is in Khovsgol province, up by the Russian border. We arrived there after by far the worst bus ride in my life – 25 hours sitting in the back row, over the back wheel, hitting our heads on the roof after each and every bump in the road. This is a road which is only sealed for the first 50kms of a 600km journey. The only sleep I got was when Tama ocky strapped me across the chest to the seat. This worked for 20 minutes or so, until the ocky strap snapped. I arrived in Mörön feeling fresh as a daisy covered in manure.
For cyclists, Mongolia is a dream come true. Outside of the cities, the roads are just mud tracks made by jeeps and old motorcycles and less bumpy on two wheels than four. The country feels like a specially designed mountain bike touring fantasyland, complete with marmots to chase off the tracks, and eagles to swoop down and gobble the cute rodents.
The other main way in which Mongolia resembles paradise is that almost all of the country is public, not private, property. Approximately one third of its three million inhabitants are nomadic, spending the summers in the fields (and the minus 30 degree winters huddled in makeshift towns burning dung to keep warm). So as tourists you can literally rock up, pitch your saikhan (summer tent) on the shore of a beautiful lake / edge of glorious
river / middle of eerily quiet and empty paddock. The locals you do meet are also travellers and they’re friendly.
Most nights we were too exhausted to make phrasebook conversation in a friendly nomad’s tent for six hours, so we’d wave goodbye, fire up our stove (running on Russian benzene) and cook up our rice / canned Polish fish / cabbage (if we’re lucky) / potatoes (if we’re really lucky), have a slug of Chinnghis Khaan vodka, and feel like we were in a pastoral version of The Road, sans cannibals.
The trip was thrilling, exhilarating, not particularly relaxing. We rode 60-110kms per day with 30 kilos of luggage on our 16kg steel frame bikes, up and down semi-Siberian mountains (Mongolia’s not as flat as it looked in the atlas), argued about directions, got punctures, got lost, and were unable to cross flooded rivers where the bridges had been washed away years ago.
An anecdote from our blog:
A peasant boy rides up on horseback and offers us dried horse milk curds, crumbly stuff that looks like stale brown soap. It’s rude not to accept food from strangers, and I’m curious about this fabled delicacy. I take some, with a Bayash Laa (thanks); Tama pulls a face, but takes a few pieces anyway. The boy smiles as I crunch this gross but more-ish curdled milk stuff, sour with a tang of wrong. Once the rider has disappeared from sight, Tama asks me
“Weird, but I kind of like it,” I say. “It’s like ... rancid yoghurt.”
“Well, you can have my share,” he says, pulling the brown lumps out of his sock, “I didn’t want to be rude.” I hesitate for a second, then wolf them down. At the end of a very big day of riding, we pitch our saikhan on top of
a gorgeously bleak ridge, the ghost of Chinnghis Khaan feeling very close indeed. I wolf down a hearty serving of rice and fried cabbage, and go to sleep feeling a trifle bloated.
I sleep badly, feeling increasingly queasy, and in the middle of the night stick my head out of the tent, again. Up there on the ridgeline, glowering under the full moon is a sullen Black Beauty, who snorts derisively at me,
rears onto her hind legs and gallops off into the night.
Needless to say, we made it to the final Mörön. It was dusty. This wasn’t a surprise in itself, but it was weird for our farcical quest to be over. Imagine if Godot actually turned up – what would Vladimir and Estragon have to say to him? What would they do?
Well, we hitched a ride back to UB, slept for three days, then wrote a blog about it.