Undoubtedly one of the best sections of the course across Mongolia, was reaching "Eden" - a vast green Steppe grassland area with trimmed forest mountain tops, white Ger tents, their Nomads and flocks of goats, sheep and horses. My ankles are pulsing with pain right now, the swelling after days of punishing climbs too rocky to ride up. It's the reality in a dream destination like this, to encounter some unforgiving days of physical torture that leaves the lungs stronger and ankles a bit worse for the wear.
"I think I've found "Eden." This place is beautiful, completely awe-inspiring beauty in land and people."
This spectacular location scenery is lush and full carpeted grassland. Sitting back in front of my Northface tadpole tent, I am spotting herds of sheep and goats, represented by white and black dots across the gentle slope of smoothed out mountains. I am camped between these panoramic sloping hills beneath sliced forests a kilometer away from Ger clans. Distant sheep and goat are tracking in formation as they munch their way across Steppe. Slow movement is urged by distant honking and rumble of a Herder on a small single-bore motorcycle. Some have remained true to their roots in pastorialism, and keep their beautiful horses fit while herding flocks of up to 300 sheep and goats in a healthy stock. All seems perfect and serene for these Nomads living on the land without ownership. Nomads have learned these sustainable practices which are now foreign to the rest of us in the developed world of the West. However, there is one serious threat to this perfection in life forces at work here. Nature's mighty weather and climate changes, can in a single season wipe this serenity off the face of these pristine inhabited plains.
Today, I am very fortunate to come across a Youth group and their Elders from Erdenet. They have a large camp being setup while I am silently cycling past on these dirt tracks. Every hand in their group was pitching together to prepare a night of evening festivities. I am the lone wolf out here now.
Although I am tempted to make more distance today, I just put my head down and cycled further for a few minutes. I do not know what is waiting around the next bend or mountain climb to pass ahead. I just know there will be many. I'm tired and my ankles are swollen now, I need a serious rest. What's ahead, could be anything from what I have encountered the first 7 days, another arid desert-Steppe plateau or will it be rocky and steep, anyone knows. As I'm climbing toward this steep pitch of the dirt tracks, I turned to look back just before crossing over the horizon. What I can see is a flame flickers out of their wood, a campfire is getting started with light twists of smoke rising into the blue.
I turned and kept pedaling up the mountain for 2 minutes of exertion I'm ready to collapse and wouldn't let that "fire" leave my mind, I had not seen one anywhere, and I knew I wouldn't see another "open fire" again for days. Mongolian Nomads cook on stoves with wood or animal dung, they wouldn't waste it burning fuel without heating their homes and cooking at the same time. I turned back, pedaled hard for a few minutes and rode over to greet them.
At first, one university student didn't like my presence at all, looking disagreeable about my visit, "You can't stay here, goodbye." I waited and tried to speak to others standing nearby. And when others came around, I explained what I was doing -quite simple, "I'm mountain biking across Mongolia for the summer and needed a safe place to camp for the night." The rest of their group were agreeable, and I went over and found a spot to pitch my tent away from their circles. It turned out to be a fabulous night after all. A night of two campfires, meeting their Elders and all the Youth together, we sipped shot glasses of vodka, listened to music, the group sang traditional Mongolian song, again I was reminded, this is Eden. It was awesome and a welcomed huge relief.
Their Elders asked that I sit directly in front of them during the ceremony and accept the gifts of candy, sweets and drinks of salted goat milk that they offered me. I graciously accepted their offerings, reflecting, it was a stunning situation. I even drank "airag" or horse milk that was partially fermented and enjoyed it too.We stayed up late, we had the warm campfires, some student went off with my Cygolite 350 lumen to light up the camp and help others with cleaning up, the rest of us drank vodka in surprising shots from nowhere, as they slipped behind me as I filmed our fire. It was heavenly, and I went back and retired for a goodnight's rest.
The next morning, the group packed earlier than I had even remotely planned to. Given the severity of of my anklescondition,I would give it another day here that wouldn't hurt my summer schedule at all. I pushed extremely hard starting out and made good progress for the first 7 days without stopping except an overnight camp each night. I took the surroundings in, the safety and comfort of the green pasture land replacing the vacant deserted Steppe deserts I had just climbed out of days earlier - time for a break. I'm glad I did, except for the sunburn on my right leg, when I collapsed into a comatose in the late afternoon, my thigh cooked like a roasted wiener on a spit. The weather was serene, although I do wonder in way worry about the conditions that all Mongolian Herders will inevitably face each year in the dead of winters.
Terrible situations can come from Mother Nature. These Nomads reflect introspection, gentleness of their people on their lands. Mongolians take care of their people, hosting other Nomad travelers.
They take care of their animals and are gentle on their land. Weather, however, can have adverse affects to their enduring and enchanted way of life on the Steppe. There are different severe winter conditions classified in Mongolia, depending on freeze/thaw droughts, heavy snowfall, or other factors - known as Dzud. The 2009/2010 winter was one roughest on record for Mongolians, where an enormous amount of snowfall (200-600mm) covered the Steppe grassland, burying the grassland which is feed for millions of grazing livestock animals. As a result of this Dzud, it had devastating effect on Nomadic herders and their families losing a combined 2.1 million animals (sheep, goat, horse, cattle and camels) devastating their sustainable way of life which has endured into the modern times. Alternatively, many Herders who lost more than 1/2 of their flock resorted to urbanization as the solution, moving their Ger tents closer to the peripheral Ger districts of Ulaanbaatar, a city already teeming with development issues. The National Geographic Magazine wrote on this subject in their October 2011 issue located here.
Despite the recent climatic changes which devastated Mongolia Nomadic herding and affected families, these people are survivors and despite economic and climatic challenges being faced each year, they remain some of the warmest people in one of the coldest and remote places on Earth.
Today, I am recovering from 7 hard days mountain biking across the Steppe, a landscape as ever changing as the weather here - I've seen rain and sunshine, high wind and scorching sun. This variable topography is like nothing I have seen moving with mountain biking. Mountains and valley transform into plateaus and these crossings (Davaa, Mongolian) are the Great Divide of Central Asia. Regional borders have been drawn on maps, divided into 21 provinces (aimags, a Mongolian word used that means "tribe"). Most start traveling from the capital Ulaanbatar which is in the central province inside Tov Province. The harsh and breathtaking scenes witnessed while overland traveling through Mongolia are the countries main attractions, as are the Herder Nomads and their flocks of sheep, goat, yak, horse and camel - and a guard dog at every Ger village. I have grown accustomed to these animals and notice that goats are bold creatures, they will come right up to my tent, try to sniff or chew on a cable or pull the ropes staked in the hard ground supporting my tent's rain cover. I can also hide up in the hills, isolated from view of others, and keep myself stocked up on water supply - the most essential piece of equipment.
A Nomad with a horse appears along the horizon, we greet one another in Mongolian, and seem to make a great connection today. I can't walk so well, or don't want to - my ankles are swollen and they need some rest. He joins me for figs and raisins, we sit in the sun and through Mongolian and body language - he demonstrates his skill for directing a herd of 200 goats and sheep through a pasture about 600 meters away. He whistles and he chants "Ack! Ack!" and these herds wandering over the stream in the valley between us and the larger mountains (Ikh Uul - large mountains), we watch them cross back over in order. These flocks are obedient and flow across the lush green pastures, a truly beautiful smooth movement of animals through an undulating landscape that someone painted green in portrait. He whistled and pointed to his two top teeth, they were replacement artificials, as he explained in body language and Mongolian that he had fallen off a horse on a hard dirt track and lost them. He couldn't whistle without them and had them made. He also explained to me that he called the flocks back from their pasture across a river in the valley because he said the word "Chono, or pronounced "Chun" in the video I made while we sat together. He imitated an animal stalking it's prey that I couldn't figure out at first, thinking he meant another herder would steal his sheep, or I suggested it was a vulture. After some reflection on my journal and internet research, I know it was the wolf.
Thanks for reading my private journals written while mountain biking across Mongolia. More adventures are coming soon!