No doubt this is going to be the toughest section of the journey. I have seen nothing but sand tracks corrugated with washboard surfaces from shaky suspensions of passing Mongolians and tourists in Russian UAZ Bukhanka 4X4 vans until the northwest Empty Quarter where the tourists vanished into the scrub steppe hillsides and rocky outcroppings taking over the edges of my periphery. There were still an occasional Mongolian driven motorcycle until clocking out 2000 kilometers from the capital Ulaanbaatar. Where have all the locals gone is a mystery right now, when the rivers dried into rocky escarpments tearing north-south through my path today, I cannot see where I will refill my reserves."An Ovoo (Mongolian: овоо, heap) is a type of shamanistic cairn found in Mongolia, usually made from rocks or from wood. Ovoos are often found at the top of mountains and in high places, like mountain passes. They serve mainly as religious sites, used in worship of the mountains and the sky as well as in Buddhist ceremonies, but often are also landmarks.""When travelling, it is custom to stop and circle an ovoo three times in clockwise direction, in order to have a safer journey. Usually, rocks are picked up from the ground and added to the pile. Also, one may leave offerings in the form of sweets, money, milk, or vodka. If one is in a hurry while travelling and does not have time to stop at an ovoo, honking of the horn while passing by the ovoo will suffice." [Reference: Wikipedia]"
Out here, the surroundings are vastly different, desolate, rocks overturned and corrugated sections take over every track, all running beside another, and sandy berms with thistles, painting the scenes green stretching out 40 kilometers around me on all cardinal directions. Mesmerizing sunshine and lack of any tree cover, no where to shade myself and the flies double, small ones in clusters always following me, with horse flies that sting with every tasty bite of flesh removed on my thighs, and calves, they are all relentless battling and debilitating with no breaks allowed today. I stop only to swat wildly, rhythmically, annihilating as many in this swarm as possible. Flies sucking perspiration from my back and neck, these wanderers of the Empty Quarter have no other hosts.
Out here, I see no usual animals like sheep, goat, horses and yaks for the past 5 hours, except the lone camels in their herd of 4. The camels are wild, timid and scattered into the desert when I approach on the mountain bike. Another strange feature in this other worldly landscape burning in an orange sunset, lighting the scene on a mars rover landing, are the wheat fields and several abandoned farms I finally came across.
I have been ticking off liters of water per hour today, about 1.5 liters per hour, 9 liter supply, I am usually good for 6 hours ride time, slowed by the sand traps as Schwalbe trekking tires sink deep into the sand, an extra 500cc/hour of water is lost through my 5km/h trekking next to the survival machine. 5 hours in today and I realize a shocking situational disaster in wait, my last 700ml bottle is contaminated with bacteria and river water mixed with a remainder of powdered protein, I forgot to wash it out and didn't use it a few days ago, I had been carrying this supply just in case. With no rivers accessible, no vehicles stopping to meet me, riding through this high plateau desert only points me West to the Emptiness that is already enormous and all around me now. The lone SUVs pass defensive and never open up, instead throwing dust and rocks in their wake. The most I can summon in response to my flailing arms pointing at my overturned and empty bottles is a wave from a closed tinted window as the vehicles blur past. It's still back breaking work to push, but I cannot stay where I am, if I don't move, I won't drink or find someone willing to help me.
Hours earlier on this same day, Nomad Herders on Chinese motorcycles had stopped to chat with me, although I haven't seen them for hours, when I think about it now, I understand the consequences of water and what it means to me more than ever - right now. In Mongolian custom, I must offer water since they ask and have none themselve, this is an ordinary gesture. The Camelback podium bottle usually sends squirts of water up their noses, they grimace and thank me in Mongolian. On the whole, I don't mind helping others, as Nomad families have been helping me throughout this journey so far. But timing and consequences of the bad off roads snarling with sand and the desert that now envelopes the entire scenery, this isn't fun, it's become crucial to find water somewhere.
Across the steppe, earlier in the journey, I am salted and buttered with bread and chew Mongolian "arroz" cheese like bubblegum, the salt sustained me for days, and my bodybuilder powdered protein provides the "meat" I would otherwise not consume and waste my own muscles away."
I have kept a good pace with the mountain bike, but I have been for 50 kilometers forced to walk as the sand is now unrideable with 26x2.0 trekking Schwalbe tires. I am without water resupply now since there are no Gers and Nomads to share with. I reduce my chances for a successful day surviving, with no available offerings from motorcycle Nomads as they carry so little and move too fast to keep up, they have no supplies to offer. And the Gers are all miles from here, those Nomads were smart and left this place a long time ago, the Empty Quarter.
Only the abandoned and properly boarded-up, log-tindered cabin farm houses are the establishments I finally come across at hour 6, except they are dormant and wind swept, the grass and wheat growing in the twin jeep tracks. I step forward, thinking back that a vehicle just stopped moments ago and the driver wouldn't offer any water, or didn't understand me, it was confusing explaining how desperate I was, where I was, and why in the world I would be cycling through a desert region of northwestern Mongolia.
The GPS was useless now as it wouldn't speak to me and I couldn't squeeze water from it's battery cells, and when the last driver passed, he looked in his rear mirror and drove off leaving a fishtail of dust swirling over the last mountain horizon where I could still see him as I walked and turned my head back in disbelief. I thought of some choice swear words, they all vaporized in the setting sun.
My chances for water before night (the most important time of all to be in good supply), as there would be nowhere which I could find it, and the roads impassible at night were slim to none, since Mongolians stop traveling overland after the setting sun, unless they are up to something involving vodka, only then will they carry on. Up at the abandoned farm house, looking all around the property, there are empty stables for horses, all overgrown with wild grasses, there is no one and no animal here either. Along with the Russian cultivation practices that were introduced and later abandoned in this area at the end of era of Russian occupation of Mongolia, all had gone away and back to nature. Since "wheat" was still growing wildly from what I could see, it was uncultivated and mixed with desert sand and grass, the terrain was wicked tough, too dry and too soft to till. Everyone had now gone from this land.
My chances now dwindling into a set of amber headlights ahead in the darkness while the orange glow if the sun still took control over the light switch to the sky. Lights and dust were now coming from the West, I could see them about 5 kilometers away, and this vehicle was crawling the rough rocky and sandy tracks where I had already pedaled and walked earlier, I doubled back when I found nothing and assumed the farms were manned.
"This is my last chance, last shot for water for tonight, 12 hours till dawn, must get this car and find out if they have water, must...."
I cycled down the weedy tracks northwest again, retracing my steps that were directionless without water in wait. Reversing myself and at that moment, getting in position, back to road to "stop" the vehicle, I couldn't let life pass me by this time. When the immaculately new, shiny black Hummer H3 pulled up, I explained,
"Bako Oos, Bako Oos...Gol oos bako bako!" (No water...No river water)Between the drivers, on the center console was a 1.5 liter bottle of Minute Maid orange juice, I was shocked to see it sitting right there, I reached into my money belt and took out a $10 American dollar note and offered it to them for the orange juice. They said, "NO!" I couldn't believe it, I would pay almost anything for water, juice was unthinkable at that moment, and still they wouldn't respond, "I have no water, Bako Oos, look at my bottles" as I motioned and showed not a drop inside, but they refused and this was it, I knew it.
Just as they started to drive off, an arm of a young passenger whom I couldn't see beyond the tinted window, reached out with 700ml of fizzy soda drink. I reached and took the bottle and immediately tightened the top which was only sitting, as they really hadn't planned to give anything away, not even a drink, but this kind soul gave it directly to me, and the Hummer engine roared with air intakes, and away they swept through the desert night. I had been saved and redeemed by a single act of generosity, it really helped me.
"This is it, I'm settling right down here for the night."About 40 meters away from the road, I eased the Lynskey mountain bike to the ground leaning on my packs, untied the bungee straps on the rear nylon bag holding my tent, Thermarest, sleeping bag, and clothing sack. The front panniers contained outer layers and my notebook computer, some electronics, repair tools and medical first aid. My backpack had protein, Gatorade powder, multivitamin packs, and "arroz" cheese and a half jar of Nutella. I used my remaining water and mixed with protein for the first shot, then with Gatorade for remainder of the fizzy pineapple soda, I had some hydration and protein now. To sooth myself now, I chewed and sucked salt from the "arroz" cheese I had in chunks in a plastic bag, which I may have carried for weeks, it didn't matter. I went down for the night knowing to a small degree, I had made it.
The next day arrived, some 8 hours later, I heard an engine running, my bottles were all dry. Some Mongolians on summer tour were outside my tent perplexed to find an orange tent perched on the horizon so close to the dirt tracks. Their daughter a Nursing student in university in UB, were together with family in a black Nissan SUV truck. When my head popped out of the Tadpole tent, they took one look at me, this wild hair and swollen eyes and started jumping around joyous to discover something here. Apparently, they couldn't believe they found a cyclist, alone in the desert. What in the world was I doing here with a bicycle (that question I had asked myself), for which there was only one answer - I came with a mountain bike to cross Mongolia, to see the country, meet the people and learn about their culture and practices of daily life that is as modern as it is ancient life of the Nomads.
Their daughter listened and then translated for me, it definitely helped bridge some communication and I really appreciated meeting them. Without a word in a common language we celebrated, they gave me water, a piece of meat on a large bone and flies immediately swarmed when I opened and found it in a cardboard box. No problem, I protected my meat in a plastic bag I carried the goat "arroz" cheese, we laughed, we hugged, they even kissed me, it was unbelieable, quite an unreal moment of serendipity.
Of course, I was beyond thankful, it's impossible to explain when you have gone to these scenes hour after hour, to reach the ends beyond your limits, beyond the aches and pains of my body, the true survival lie in drops of water, the open hands that shared with me, all the most precious gestures and substances on Earth, second to none, true life human connections.
Thanks for reading the X journals from my adventures mountain biking in Mongolia. These are private memoirs from the overland journey by mountain bike. More adventures are coming soon!