Peaceful tracks, forgiving pastures and then the steep, hardened arid dirt tracks of the northwest. I seem to be making good progress today. I am above the mosquito deserts now, out of the inhaling swarms. I am almost a free bird now and the kilometers have stacked up in my favor. Going back now, the herders and I gathered by the coal stove that cold night, the smoke twisting up and around the tent, the downdraft of plateau winds taking us all inside. I warned them of "carcinogens" but all my words are incomprehensible now, they have been for weeks and weeks.
I might never be entirely successful at communicating without a common language, but I always make considerable efforts to communicate beyond borders, beyond languages, and connect with people of cultures new to me. I believe it's important to consider that all life on Earth has a connection, though there may not always be direct communication. For us humans, we communicate through language, voice tones and intonations, through movements and body languages, and it can be understood. Throughout my journey across Mongolia this summer, I have encountered many people, met their families and we gathered together in a single location - the Ger. The steel pot stoves are at the center, there are usually 2 supporting interior poles inside, linoleum mats for the entrance area then rugs, the women sit on the right and the men sit on the left (visiting too). There is an organization and order about the Ger, it's a sacred place and a living space at the same time, one room.
We gathered around the pot stove, the twigs and branches were all collected from the craggy mountain chasms and boulder areas above us. Now the dry timber wood was starting to "pop, crackle" as the steel pot stove opened and closed with gasps of oxygen surging into the glowing embers. Other Nomad herders were behind me smashing coal rocks into small shards and hand-sized chunks to fuel the fire's hearth. Some Herders were also summering on the 2500 meter plateaus while on their university vacations, their families tended to a herd of 50 goats and a few dozen sheep, they were prosperous holding a Ger store in the camp, they catered to all other Nomad families in this area. We all ran into the motorcycle Nomads here, the alcohol-driven madmen had appeared over the same horizons that I climbed for 12 grueling hours mixed with relief of local Nomad tents, children sawing wood the old fashioned way, or wrestling with each other. The summer is a pleasurable time in Mongolia, it also requires Nomads to keep to their flocks, working longer days, and preparing for the inevitable harsh winters.
I had been lost for a few hours after crossing the divide (2500 meters, 8200 feet). There were 1400 meters now between myself and the deserts below had taken me only to this ledge. Only a few horse single tracks were distinguishable, and I was moving 12km/h cycling or stepping down and walking 5km/h for the past 12 hours. "Soon..." I thought aloud to myself that the end should be in sight. I looked across the mountains, I could easily climb right off and para-glide out for 20 kilometers across the translucent blue sky to reach the valley floor. Checking the Garmin 705 GPS again, a small track is visible here, nothing visible to the north in my gaze, except the visibility of a twin jeep track across the deep valley running from East to Wes,t where I wanted to go. I started the techincal XC mountain descent without tracks or any hesitations, jumping stones, pushing the Fox Racing forks in their element and avoiding the marmot holes. My mind wandered as I wondered about wolves and where this trackless space was heading. The topography of this area was now important because I had no route to follow and needed to take even more care not to become injured while riding off-tracks, alone.
The huge curving mountain luring me below on a grade too steep to see clearly, although the desert floor was always in sight. The pitch increased 200 meters down and over the mesa, it was unrideable to reach the end. I turned my head around and saw the silhouette of a Nomad on a horse over the crest of the mountains. I checked the GPS again, and then my compass, there would be no turning back after another 500 meters out and I had 750cc of water left, so I would need to refill before dark.
Earlier, I amused seeing a white sheep-man hunting. I thought, "What in the world is sheep doing with a gun, haha" I kept pedaling down, catching the surface and cutting lines on the rough 9% grade. The sheep-man leveled his wooden rifle, I took out my camera and he was facing downhill towards me, perhaps a good shot for a marmot, this must be a sport hunter of some kind. When he fired his shot, he pegged the poor marmot standing on it's hinds 50 meters ahead of me, the gun was pointed right at me but the bullet hit the little burrowing creature. Mongolians will blow torch small game like marmot, stringing it up by it's hind feet, they tie off it's orifices with steel wire and use a butane torch and proceed to burn the hairs right off while cooking it. There was no torch needed here, the sheep-man bagged the marmot into a white sack, and shooed me away once I was level with his location, I shouted "Canat-as-ir-sen" I'm Canadian and he motioned that I move up the mountain and not to take any pictures. I was scared when I first saw him laying in the green fields, but relaxed after I passed the hissing bullets in his shooting galley. The hunter was working with other biologists from the WWF (World Wildlife Federation) and was hunting at 2250 meters, collecting specimens for laboratory analysis - the bullets might have been tranquilizers.
The WWF group were Mongolians, based in Ulaangom, and they welcomed me to goat tea, and fried bread. I opened my backpack and shared some "arroz" Mongolian cheese, which to me, is delicious and quite indispensable on an overland journey by mountain bike. We spoke about their work, another man represented the group, his English command was superb, the driver was about 50 years and the others all professional biologists were females in their 40's. The young biologist explained their mission in the area, monitoring the species of marmot and wolf. There were wolf?! He warned that wolf roam the higher plateau's at night and attack game, they would attack someone walking alone, but wouldn't come through a tent setup for the night. Their plan was to pack up and return to the O.T. Ger Camp that was less 10 kilometers up through the mountain pass that I had been trekking for the last 10 hours. 2 hours later, when I emerged from the valley trails, there were no Mongolians in sight and certainly nothing of a Ger camp for tourists, all directions was immense and drifted endless towards the Siberian borders to the north.
I aborted the knobby downhill spin after 500 meters descent, I realized even to camp here, I would do so without chance at all for water replenishment. The WWF biologists spared 500cc of their water for a single Camelback podium bottle, but this wouldn't be enough for the next 12 hours till morning. Disappointing to see the unbelievable moonscape and not be able to continue riding across it. At least for now, I would turn back and climb the mountain again and search for herders and their flocks of sheep, goat, and horses. They would be out there, since the lone Nomad had a horse and he stood on the ridges above me about a kilometer way, then disappeared to where he had come.
What I forgot to mention were all the families, since they were all summering at high 2000+ meter altitudes, it was an ideal time for grazing their horses, those Mongolian bands of sleek horses that trot to the rhythm of the winds. The children gathered together and it was joyous time since we're in August summer days with cool Siberian winds from the northwest always keeping temperatures comfortable. I feel a little cold here, since this altitude and climate is something I am unaccustomed to coming from Korea or North America, where both geographical locations are - just above sea level. Out here, I am already over 2000 meters above and it's considerably more exposed, windy and barren without any tree in sight. The families were friendly, as were their children. Boys were helping push my bike up the climb but insisted I stop in to meet their families. They keep inviting me into their Ger tents to meet family, to drink salted goat tea and converse through the graphics I take in photographs, or guests write into my journal pages, or with the maps. There is always mystery and excitement in meeting new people from different places, in open spaces, especially in unusual locales like mountains.
Traveling by bicycle is a curiosity to many, sometimes I even surprise myself with what I am doing at any given moment on these expeditions, truly believing in serendipity and those challenges that lead up to it. BELIEVE. EXPLORE. ADVENTURE ON.
Thanks for reading. More journals from the Mongolia expedition coming soon!