Friday, June 11, 2010

Push It! Ulaangom to Olgii

No, not an 80s pop classic, but rather the theme of our last Mongolian leg through the high country of Uvs aimag and into the Kazakh-dominated Bayan-Olgii. Leaving the luxuries of Ulaangom – internet cafes, restaurants, electricity – was harder than we expected. But with a reconstructed rack-fork combination and 37km of tarmac at our disposal, we had every reason to be positive.

The cross winds started about 15km down the road, and increased in strength as we neared our turnoff. Looking off at the well-sealed long downhill run towards Russia, an illegal border crossing did enter my mind. But we were not done with the land of Chinggis yet, so we dutifully lined up our steeds with the prevailing wind and headed uphill. Several struggling hours later we realized that my ambitious plan for morning coffee at the summit had been ludicrous. We wedged ourselves in a low pressure trough behind a hill for a late lunch, and later set up camp, exhausted, in a steep-sided valley some 3km from the top of the hill. Our legs were out of form and we had pushed too hard on the seemingly great roads. Just as we got the tent up, the rain set in.

The next day yielded a dry spell for us to pack up and continue our uphill trek over Ulaan Davaa Pass (1970m). Just as we were ready to roll, the first of many minor snowstorms of the day chilled our fingers and added to the slurry of the road ahead. Once again we found ourselves pushing for the top, and again thanked Huw for the foresight to install mudguards with generous wheel clearance. The summit revealed a pleasant valley and downhill run before our next ascent. At the top a herder was taking rest with his horse tethered to a nearby pagoda. Andrew indicated he was going to the pagoda. The herder implied that this would be fine. The horse inferred that this would not go down well. Andrew approached non-the-less only for the now bucking horse to break free from its ties and take off. The herder wasn’t too concerned and sat with us as his sensible horse waited at a safe distance 200m away. Following numerous apologies, we headed off for the valley. By the time we had hauled the Surlys up the distant hill, passing through snow, sun and loose gravel, we had definitely reached a low point.

And this is where things got all surreal. If there is a cycle-tourist’s version of ‘the Secret’, I think we found it. As we sat dejectedly finishing a packet of stale biscuits and an instant coffee wishing for a way to lift our energy levels, a car pulled up beside us and out bundled a portly Kazakh man from Russian Altay (we think) and three Mongolians from UB. They greeted us with warmth and cold khuushuur, the Kazakh man (Albert) regaling us with political commentary and life stories in a combination of Mongolian, Russian and emphatic German (Alles Gut!) very little of which we understood. He tried to give us many gifts – the loaves of bread we accepted gratefully, the money and contents of his toiletry bag we managed to turn down. Then the vodka came out. We have avoided invitations to drink daytime vodka up until now, knowing that we could never keep up with locals. But at this point we thought, what have we got to lose? After two and a half shots, perhaps our balance. When the bottle was empty, photos taken, hands had been shaken many times and a hug or two were distributed, they piled back into the car and we waved a burbling goodbye. But the universe still had more offerings for us.

No sooner than their car had left, a white mini-van pulled over the crest of the hill and a group of people in blue tracksuits poured out. One started doing warm-up stretches, then someone handed him a torch and he started running. Curiouser and curiouser. It turned out we had intersected with the Mongolian leg of the World Harmony Run, a peace initiative of Sri Chinmoy in which a relay of teams cover a route around the globe. The support team seemed as surprised to find us there as we were them, and offered us good wishes for our own version. After a more polite and subdued exchange, again with much shaking of hands we waved them off on their journey. If our spirits were low before, they were now replenished in two different forms. Vodka and world peace – how could we not be reinvigorated?

We rode on with surprisingly refreshed legs, to our lunchtime spot overlooking the spectacular Uureg Nuur. The green pastures rolling down to a freshwater lake backed by snow-sprinkled mountains also proved to be our evening slideshow, as Andrew’s tyre decided to let itself down in a slow fashion requiring a camp stop for repairs. From here we also had a view of the steep pass we would need to climb the next day – plenty of time for the incline to get steeper and steeper in my mind. This campsite reminded us, though, why we love doing this. An almost deserted, incredible location that rewards our hard work to get there with mesmerizing changes of colour and light as the sun sets.

The morning brought both pleasure and pain. Beautiful lake views, with clear blue skies and no threatening snow clouds were juxtaposed with a 4 hour pushing bonanza. 1000m of altitude over 9km. The incline was too great and the roads too rocky for us to ride any but the smallest sections. We completed the steepest part with short bursts of pushing and even longer rests. Once again, though, the pain dissipated as soon as we sat down for lunch just past the Baiman Davaa pass (2560m). Then for the downhill – bumpy to start with, but then a long run for 64km to Achit Nuur. We stopped briefly in the desolate village of Hotgor to stock up on water and entertain the local children, then continued to our campsite. We set up within sight of the lake (still some 28km away) at around 9pm, and had to repeatedly refuse an enthusiastic young herder’s invitations to join him in a few rounds.

The next day had been planned as a semi-rest day. Ride to the lake, set up tent, laze around, eat food. We completed the first part, finding a lush green border of grass along the edge of this freshwater oasis that would have been a perfect camping spot. That is if it were not for the incredible concentrations of bugs and bitey things that we have been blissfully free of until now. So, a swim and more water-gathering sufficed, and we moved on for our final night of camping, cuisine and stargazing (see GAStronomy entry). We completed the afternoon ride up sandy hill with comparative ease. Perhaps we had finally warmed up?

As the morning sun rose to warm our vestibule with predicted efficiency we started to think we might miss all this rugged craziness. We commenced our final Mongolian ride with the same war-cry with which we had begun most mornings “To Olgii!!”. Yet today’s cry had a little more gusto rather than simply providing mane comic relief. Of course, Mongolia laid on the mandatory corrugations, intermittent rain showers and headwind. We found ourselves pushing our bikes downhill at one point – 5.6kph walking was much more comfortable than 6.9kph while bumpily riding. The final pass before Olgii was melting away as we ran over and over in our minds what gastronomic delights and warm showers awaited us. One final roadside stop with an enthusiastic Mongolian man in a motorbike side car involved swigs of a milky drink, and he demonstrated how to make an offering to the gods by flicking some into the air. Having pacified the spirits, we made the final summit and there was Olgii. From a distance, an orderly metropolis sprawling over the banks of the Hovd river. Such a welcome sight.

Cycling summary:
Ulaangom to Steep Valley Camp: 49km
Steep Valley Camp to Uureg Nuur view: 40km
Uureg Nuur view to Achit Nuur view: 47km
Achit Nuur View to GAStronomy camp: 50km
GAStronomy camp to Olgii: 65 km

Ulaangom to Olgii


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