Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Old Man and the Steppe

What follows is an insight into the little things that we notice atop our bikes. This is for those whom crave some descriptive words inspired by the view from a Surly Long Haul Trucker bicycle traversing Mongolia. And an excuse to post a bunch of great scenery photos.

City life:
We have just reached the first real ‘city’ for 1000km – Ulaangom, the capital of Uvs aimag (province). The luxuries of running water (luke warm between 8-9pm), electricity and our own hotel room are almost too much for us after 9 consecutive nights of camping. This place has pubs, internet cafes and cows walking down the main street – generally enough happening that we aren’t the only show in town. We are relishing the lack of attention. The few dusty towns we pass through have little more than a main street, a few shops and eating places and a few rows of hashas (fenced yards with one or two gers, maybe a jeep or motorbike and a dog).
We tend to avoid staying too long in towns, stopping just for food supplies and maybe water from the town well as the curiosity of Mongolians can be intense. It is mostly men who approach us, inspecting the bikes and asking us questions, often very helpful with directions and indications of road quality. The younger ones, boys and more outgoing girls, like to touch everything: squeezing brakes, putting on helmets, ringing bells and playing with lights and bike computers. The women, of course, are too busy running the shops, cafes and homes to bother with such details.

On the road:
We have also just been briefly reacquainted with tarmac after a 1000km period of separation. What we have ridden on through most of Mongolia are vehicle tracks that wind through the varied terrain, ideally over the smoothest or most traversable path. These are ‘roads’ that are marked on maps and detected by GPS, but there are many to choose from. We spend a lot of time focusing on where the narrow strip of road without sand, gravel, corrugations and rocks might be. It often isn’t there, and we have become used to bumping along slowly until we hit a good patch. Our eyes have sharpened, reading road surfaces in an instant and switching tracks to avoid a hidden sand trap or aiming for a patch of rocks (this means shallow sand, and is good!). I have learnt to ride through sand and gravel, though a few bouts of bike-sumo have left me as the loser. One of the main hazards to swerve around, though, is broken glass from the numerous bottles smashed by townsfolk and long-distance truckers alike.

Our companions on the road are generally jeeps, passenger mini-vans, trucks transporting family gers to the countryside for summer and transport trucks. Many stop for a friendly chat, and are decent enough to drive around us (mostly). Herders on horseback (or lately, camel) will trot over when we stop (sometimes for a toilet break, which is a bit inconvenient), having spied us with their monocular that they all carry to keep an eye on their flock. Curious and friendly without fail, we have come to enjoy these interactions, particularly as our Mongolian improves enough to actually hold conversations.

The countryside:
Mongolia is largely steppe, or treeless grassland plains interrupted by craggy mountain ranges. What this translates to for us is long periods of fairly flat or gently undulating riding, with occasional hill climbs. The lack of trees and other objects in the environment leaves you feeling both exposed and in awe of the vastness of it all. It is also incredibly quiet – sound travels well here. The scenery has changed with altitude – as we ascended to above 2000m, we passed by some still snow-capped peaks and frozen lakes. Some areas, well-watered with snow-melt, even had trees (mostly conifers, clearly supporting a small firewood industry). As we dipped back down towards 1000m, we entered a region of salt-lakes and semi-arid desert. Dusty and scorching in late spring, this must be a harsh region to live in all year round.

Despite being one of the least densely populated countries in the world, it is rare that we are not in sight of a ger somewhere (even if that is 15km away on a hillside). With gers come herds. The mal (animals) also vary with altitude, with horses, goats and fat-tailed sheep almost ubiquitous, whilst yaks are only found on the higher slopes and Bactrian camels on lower plains. Yaks have character – they snort and play, and turn to face us as we pass. Camels tend to stare at us in an almost offended manner, but are also quick to gallop off over the plains.

And the wildlife does not end there – although we may make it sound empty, there are scores of creatures from tiny lizards and insects up to large circling birds of prey. Of the latter there are many – black kites, many eagles (that I can’t name) and smaller ones (a possible peregrine falcon) – that circle overhead waiting for us to disturb roadside wildlife. Amongst their prey must be the numerous small mammals – jerboa (apparently nocturnal, but perhaps their delayed spring has shortened their mating season and led them out in daylight), gerbils, and marmots (carriers of our old friend, yersinia pestis, causative agent of bubonic plague which still breaks out frequently in Mongolia) – and the desert lizards that scurry away from our wheels with their feet and their tails held high above the heated rocks.

Birds are also numerous – small twittering songbirds, wheatears and in the semi-desert areas flocks of dusty coloured pigeons with a black oval on their underbelly (identification, anyone?). My favourites are the demoiselle cranes: large and grey, with droopingly elegant black tailfeathers and bibs and a white crest. They lope around in pairs, often near water, and are a little camera shy (I should have brought a larger lens!). Migrating waterbirds are also fairly common: ruddy shelducks, bar-headed geese, a couple of white swans and seagulls. Yes, seagulls. In one of the largest landlocked countries in the world.

And the people:
From cosmopolitan UB, where youth fashion mirrors that of downtown Melbourne and karaoke bars are on every corner, we slipped out into the countryside where traditional deels and long boots are the norm and cycle tourists are an event. Our Keen sandals and multiple layers of merino can hardly compete with the ladies who stroll through dusty streets in heels and immaculate get-up. Children are bold and will crawl onto your lap and start correcting your pronunciation, given half a chance.

Mongolians are renowned for being a friendly people, and aside from the conniving taxi drivers of UB and the dastardly youth of small towns, we can confirm that this is true. As we entered the more remote stretches it seemed even more welcoming, as our regular roadside visitors came across as open-hearted, interested and genuinely keen to help. In a land where every door is open to a visitor, this meant that our tent and hotel room doors were sometimes privy to a burly guest come to check out the foreigners. This takes a bit of getting used to. But best of all, they know their countryside well, traversing it regularly by motorcycle, horse and vehicle. Whenever our maps and GPS were imprecise about the location of a road or water source, we knew we could ask the nearest nomad.



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