« | »

The Longest Wheel

We woke up plenty early on Scott’s birthday. We had plans to do a really serious wheel, all the way out to the Tarelj national park, 40km outside of Ulaanbaatar. Depending on how we planned our route inside the park, this could be as much as 100 km of wheeling. We had mapped the whole thing out on Google maps, and it looked like an amazing loop.

We began by loading up our packs with foodstuffs that we had purchased the night before; we also included sweaters, a large map of the area around Ulaanbaatar, including most of the Terelj national park, and our cell phones, just in case. We then headed around the corner to a grocery shop and bought 5 liters of water each. We stashed all the stuff in our bags, strapped them down and headed out into the city.

We were lucky. Traffic was not bad as we pounded south and east, past the ger district where we’d wheeled that first day and on into the countryside.

The larger freeway type road that we were riding on petered out into a crumbling two lane highway a few kilometers outside of the city, and with it the traffic fell even further.

We hit our first security checkpoint not far after that, but they seemed totally uninterested in us as we cautiously wheeled through.

It has been blazingly sunny when we left Ulaanbaatar, and had been cloudless for our entire time there, but as we road on clouds began to roll in adding a certain appropriately lonely feeling to the landscape. This was wide open country, with barely any trees in sight, you could see the topography of the land, flowing out for miles in front of you.

We rode by a rather large looking missionary operation out here, which was puzzling since there appeared to be nearly no one around, but then again I guess these were still probably some of the most densely populated non-Ulaanbaatar areas in the whole country.

We stopped next to an old beaten up car, hoisted up onto a block on stone, so that we could take a leak.

If anyone can explain to us what the sign underneath it means (Khurd Ukhel?), or even better why the old car is significant to the message, please do so in the comments.

It was great to be out of the city, in the fresh air, wheeling hard over these rolling hills. The world around us was beautiful and we could count on it getting much better before it got worse. A few kilometers of hard wheeling later we spotted our left, turning off the main highway and heading towards Tarelj.

We decided to stop there to snack a bit. It was going to be a long day, and maintaining blood sugar would be key.

We snacked on some delicious dried horse meat that we’d bought at the super market, and some little sesame rolls which we squeezed some Russian cream cheese onto .

It started to rain ever so slightly as we finished our snack, but it stopped as soon as we put our sweaters on and started wheeling again.

We continued to wheel on, through gorgeous wide open country, just drinking in the refreshing nature of the landscape.

When we saw this sign that let us choose between Tarelj (the trees) or Baganuur (the factory), we put away all thoughts of the Russian space program’s launch site in Kazakhstan by a similar name, and the associated debris fields which we would have liked so very much to have visted while in Kazakhstan, and kept to the left.

Not far after that, we hit our next checkpoint. We pulled up to the booth, and to my surprise the fellow sitting in there said “ztrazvuitye!” (a formal hello in Russian). I responded to him excitedly in Russian, but he seemed to take some sort of offence, and called out to us for 7,000 Tugrug each. I did not have exact change, and when I handed him a 20,000 tugrug bill, he laughed and took it, handing me a giant stack of receipt like vouchers, and waving me on. I stood there demanding my change, but he just kept waving. Now the giant soviet transport truck behind us was honking deafeningly, and we just wheeled on.

I took out the stack of vouchers and could see that each one of them showed that the proper tariff for a normal car was just 1,000 tugrug. He had just taken us for quite the ride. But in a desert this beautiful, one can’t waste their time dwelling on the only negative thing that’s happened since we got to Mongolia… well with the exception of some truly hard to eat dishes.

It was a desert, be sure of that, dry and mostly devoid of plants and animals, but it did not feel that way. It did not feel desolate, instead the Mongolian steppe felt somehow rich, mysterious and inviting, all good motivators to wheel on.

Soon we began to spot little encampments of gers along the way, which we had been trained to identify by their clean white exterior, and arrangement into grids to not be the homes of locals, but large ger-based hotels that are set up to serve tourists.

Soon we came to a much wetter place, where a long river snaked through the center of the valley. Now we reached our third checkpoint.

Here too the attendant called out to me in Russian, but similarly was vaguely offended when I replied in kind. I showed him the giant handful of receipt/vouchers that I’d gotten from the second checkpoint, and he laughed as if to say he’d seen that one before. We proceeded to pay him 4,000 tugrug each to get into the park, and he provided us with a much more legitimate looking ticket, which even explained in English that our money would be put towards the betterment of the park, and maintenance of it’s natural wonders. That was a heck of a lot better than the bottle of Chengis Vodka that the fellow at checkpoint two was no doubt thinking of investing in with the money we’d paid him.

We wheeled across the long wooden bridge which spanned the river and headed from there into the park. Now the traffic fell to almost none, with the presence of a car being just as likely as that of a horse and rider, and either one being interesting and unexpected.

We wheeled deeper and deeper into the park, watching the river’s valley revealed below us as we slowly climbed in elevation.

We passed a family selling camel rides, and thought briefly that one of the most common questions when someone sees the AsiaWheeling business card is “Well, have you ridden a camel?” We had the chance here to forever more answer yes to that question, but from our vantage point we could see the well trodden loop that each tourist takes on his ride, and just couldn’t bring ourselves to do such a senseless thing.

So on we rode, deeper into the park. The mountains started to grow nearer to us, now not in the distance at all, but by the roadside, then we road turn and began to actually climb into them. As we rode further and further into the mountains, things began to green up more too. Now we could see trees changing color on the mountainside, and there was enough grass for cattle to be grazing around us.

Mongolia has a geology that is uniquely positioned to do a great job of preserving fossils, and they were proud of it out here, with life sized statues of dinosaurs being not an uncommon site along the roadside.

Now things we really getting lush, with trees and shrubs lining the road. Something about coming out of the city and through the desert makes the green all the more intense, drawing you in. It might also have just been the polarization of the Dawn Patrols. But, as with all these things, the truth almost certainly lies in the middle.

We were well into the mountains now, and as we pulled onto a large and gravely uphill section, we spotted a rustling in the bushes nearby the road, and out popped a Mongolian man on horseback, drunker than anything we’d seen on the entire trip. He was like a zombie, sloshing around in his saddle, with a cigarette permanently glued to his lower lip, the filter deep in his mouth. He did not spot us until he was almost right next to us, and as his horse decided to make a turn to head uphill there was a moment when I thought he might fall right out of his saddle and onto the ground. But he had developed some very deep seated reflexes and twitched back upright. Scott called out to him, asking whether we were in Tarelj or not, and whether the road we were on would indeed loop back to Ulaanbaatar.

His answers appeared to be in the affirmative, but it was hard to tell for he was truly now more beast than man.  He made a motion and some gurgling noises which might have been best interpreted as a challenge to race him up the hill, and then galloped off.

Extreme Stuff.

At the top of the hill we paused for a moment, reasonably confident from our investigations of the map that this was the highest point on the wheel, and therefore marked the 2/3 point of the wheel.

After we crossed over that crest and began wheeling down, things became even greener. We were riding bow through meadows backed by forests. All day the weather had been oscillating between bright sunshine and dark rainclouds, but here it felt as though we’d passed through the darkness and come out into the light.

Then, suddenly, we came upon a huge luxury hotel. This was unexpected. We were suddenly wheeling through manicured lawns, by tennis courts, and eventually into the entrance of a huge 5 star hotel. What was this place doing literally in the middle of a deserted national park? It felt like we’d entered a dream world… Could this place actually be real?  Were we delirious?

Well, dream or not, it seemed as good a place as any to ask for directions, so we headed in.

The front desk staff spoke perfect English, and was more than happy to pour over the map with us. They confirmed the worst of our fears, however, which was that while there was a way to head all the way through Taralj, looping around back towards the city of Ulaanbaatar, it was not on exactly what you’d call a road, and they assured us that from here on the way was unwheelable.

What this meant was that the 2/3 point that we’d though we’d hit a while ago was not even a half way point, and that, unless we decided to sleep in a Ger or at the 5 star hotel, the entire wheel was going to be much more like 140km. This was nothing to face on an empty stomach so we sat down on the steps of the hotel to have another snack.

While shoveling thumbfulls of funky tasting peanut butter into our mouths, and tearing into another package of Jerky we decided that we should just try to wheel the whole way home. A brief calculation suggested that if we raged, we would probably be just be able to make it home before dark. In our favor was the fact that it was more downhill on the way back than on the way here, as well, but not by much…

So we wheeled on, really tearing into it now, with a new resolve and a new stomach full of processed foods to keep fueling us into the ride. And so we started climbing, up and out of that valley and down the gravelly hill where he’d seen the very drunk horseman.

We rolled on, through the next valley, over the crest of another set of hills, and then into a long slowly downhill sloping straight away.

As we rode, we were joined by another rider, this one on a horse, with the help of the downhill, we were going just barely faster than him, and gave the man our best as we rode by.

As we rode back across the long wooden bridge, a work crew was now active down in the river, piling up rock for a new concrete bridge that was under construction.

The sky continued to threaten rain off and on as we pedaled out way back up and over yet another set of hills, and finally back onto the straight away towards Ulaanbaatar.

It rained briefly on us again as we pedaled by that old dead car. The rain stopped quickly, leaving us riding along on a slick wet road.

The road was beautiful, but dangerous. It reflected the world around us like a long thin strip of mirror, laid out in the sandy desert soil, but also hid untold obstacles. Twice, I rode through what looked like just more glistening rode, but turned out to be a deep, water filled pothole that almost flung me over my handlebars.

The sun came back out once more as we drew closer to Ulaanbaatar, exposing the countryside in some of the most dramatic hues imaginable, and conjuring rainbows all around us.

Sunset was just laying in for real as we completed the last leg into Ulaanbaatar, triumphant in completing what would almost certainly be the longest ride of the entire trip.





Comments

Post a comment

Privacy Policy | Terms and Conditions