Reaching Choyr was a milestone in itself and I was very pleased to be there even if the town itself wasn’t much to write home (although I appear to be doing just that!). At this stage our journey gets a little bit complicated as our visas were due to expire in about 4 days, so we really needed to get to the capital Ulaanbatar (UB) to get a visa extension. UB is 230km north, so although we could get there in 3 days, we might not and we couldn’t take the risk. So we left our bikes and jumped in a taxi so that we could get it sorted quickly.
Our taxi driver was a bit crazy and I feared for my life several times. There isn’t much traffic in Mongolia so drivers tend to think they own the whole road and can drive wherever they like, overtake on the brow of a hill or blind summit, talk on their mobiles, drive very fast and play music really loud. But after a few unscheduled stops we made it to the outskirts. Thankfully with google maps and gps on our phone we were then able to jump on a bus and make our way the remaining 8km into UB central. The bus system here is very good and very cheap, but busy and nothing is in English so we had to keep looking out and watching where we were going. The roads are pretty chaotic here, even by Asia’s standards!
By 9pm we were in the centre and looking for a guesthouse or hostel. We had the name and location of one, but couldn’t find it. After an hour of looking and going round in circles, we finally called them and they gave us directions. It turns out that many guesthouses here have no signposts or signs on the front to tell you where they are. Many are simply a 3 bed apartment turned into a hostel, with 2 private rooms and a dorm room. So it’s up 4 flights of dark stairs in an unmarked building, through a keypad door… in something resembling a small council estate. No wonder we couldn’t find it! However when we did, it was very nice and cosy, and we had a great nights sleep.
To cut a long story short, we managed to get our visa extended for another 30 days, unfortunately they wouldn’t give us 60 days despite our reason – that we travel by bike. We returned to Choyr, with a much safer and calmer taxi driver, ready to get up and cycle the next day.
One other feature of our trip at this point, was Sukhbat, the Mongolian guy we met in Zamyn Uud on our arrival in Mongolia. He was also cycling to UB and caught us up in Choyr. He said he had got to Choyr in 5 days. Wow, it took us 15 days!! He’d text Chris on the night we arrived and we’d our left bikes with him and his family friends. They put us up for the night when we returned and gave us a meal. Sukhbat was very keen to cycle with us so we agreed. I was a little nervous as he could obviously cycle fast and was well adapted to the Mongolian roads and climate. Maybe I would be too slow? Oh well.
We set off the next day after a quick visit to a nearby solidarity statue and posed with old Russian bullets cases, scattered nearby.
The road was smooth and flat, and it was so nice to be able to go fast. I raced off and before long, Chris and I seemed to be a long way ahead of Sukhbat, so we stopped and waited. After that we were on and off, having a few breaks and things. Sukhbat seemed very pre-occupied with the time and kept checking his watch. He also wanted to keep checking the route and where we were. There is only one road to UB and having just travelled there by car a couple of days ago we were pretty confident that we didn’t need to check anything, all you need to do is cycle. However everyone is different and we gathered that he hadn’t done any cycle touring before. I had to remember that when I first started cycling I also wanted to check where we were every five minutes and know where we were going.
After 50km, Sukhbat was obviously unhappy, he was tired, the sun was too hot and burning his skin, his legs ached and he wanted to stop. For someone who had cycled 100km a day through the desert, this seemed a little odd. He asked what time we would stop to camp and we tried work out what he wanted to do, as he wanted to cycle 60+km but also wanted to stop. Being deaf and not speaking English/Mongolian, plus any cultural differences made communication quite challenging. When you travel like this communication is key to everything.
At 60km we stopped anyway and set up camp as the wind was pretty strong and it was exhausting cycling in it. Sukhbat didn’t have a tent, but a clever system where he used his bike and a big army jacket as a wind break, using his trailer to balance the bike. He then rolled out a mat and sleeping bag and slept next to his bike.
He was carrying a small gas stove and pans, but not very much in the way of food. We were carrying heaps of food, as we always do, so that we can be self-sufficient and not get caught our if we are delayed. As you probably know from our previous blogs we also enjoy cooking and eating nice things whilst on the road. I cooked up some pasta, veg, salami and tomato sauce, cooking enough for 3.
For the next 4 days we cycled together and it was pretty hard at times. Not the cycling, although the wind didn’t help much, but just being with another person. It’s all about dynamics and when you are together 24/7 eating, living, camping and cycling together it can be a little intense. Chris and I are used to each other and we have our own routine and know what each other likes to do, and perhaps after so long together on the road we were less open to another person joining us than we would have been earlier on in the trip. However it was just one more challenge to face, first we had the sand and wind, now this. Hopefully we would learn some lessons about ourselves from this whatever happened.
On day two we discovered that Sukhbat’s trailer had broken not long after he left Zamyn Uud and so he took a truck to Sainshand (200km north). When he set off again for a second time, he found that it was too hard in the sand and sun, and once again got a lift in a truck, to Choyr. So he had got there in 5 days but not by cycling. Now it was all starting to add up and I felt a bit better as I couldn’t believe he did it in 5 days without feeling totally inadequate! No wonder he found the first day with us a bit tough then.
We cooked food for all 3 of us at most meal times and bought a lot of the water as we travelled. Sukhbat didn’t stock up on food when we stopped at shops and after a few days we couldn’t help but feel a bit taken for granted. However we weren’t about to sit there and eat without offering him some of our food, it wouldn’t be right and by now we’d set ourselves a bit of a precedent. He did buy sweets and offered us big handfuls, so I think he wanted to contribute but perhaps wasn’t able to? Although he planned to cycle for 50 days so who knows…
We had talked about getting to UB and he was keen for us all to stay in a hotel and celebrate our arrival together. We had a place to stay with friends, but decided it would be nice to stay in a hotel together for one night and go out for a meal or something. On our final evening camping we broached the subject and checked what his budget was for a hotel. He didn’t seem to know and shrugged a lot. We explained that we would have a double room if we could, so we asked would he like a dorm room or a private room, as the cost differs. He suggested that he would simply sleep in our room on the floor. Chris got creative and managed to find a way to explain that we didn’t really want to share a hotel room with him when we got to UB, not after so many days in a tent or sleeping out!
You might be reading this and thinking that we were being taken for a bit of ride (no pun intended) and that we should have just told him to go away, but he is a really nice guy and quite naive really. For 23 he seemed very young and lacking in experience. So I guess we felt partly responsible for him and wanted to make sure he was ok. We both made a lot of effort to communicate with him via sign language and writing or drawing pictograms in his note book. It isn’t as easy as it sounds and perhaps other people are generally less patient with him, Chris has a seemingly infinite amount of patience and spent a great deal of time with him. I think he appreciated that. It was a good experience for us and made us appreciate how well we get on together when it’s just the two of us and we realised that we are good at communicating.
The last 50km of the ride was through the mountains and hills. After 600km of flat nothingness, it was a joy to see green hills and big majestic landscapes again. Chris wants me to put this in writing “I was pleased to see hills” – even if I had to ride up them!! Ha ha.
Up and down we went and it was really good. I enjoyed the cycling and knowing that we were close to UB made it all the more rewarding. The photos don’t really do it justice…
We arrived in Ulaanbatar on the 6th June and it was raining. The traffic was solid and it took a lot of energy and concentration to navigate the three of us into town safely for the last 10km. We cycled aggressively so that we were very visible to the cars, buses and truck, ringing our bells and making eye contact with as many drivers as possible so they wouldn’t run us over – hard to drive into someone you’ve just smiled at. The Mongolian way is just to push your way through and to drive as close as you can, or find a way round, whatever it takes. However it was ok and we stayed in one piece. But in the centre it all came to a standstill and it was quicker to get off and push, so we did. Arriving at the bank we stopped and asked Sukhbat if he needed to get some cash, for the hotel. It became clear pretty quickly that he wasn’t going to withdraw any money and then said he would go and sleep at a friends house. We were a bit surprised (and maybe we felt a little bit mean) however after 5 days together we were ready to be on our own again and we agreed to text him and meet up in a few days. He seemed happy enough with that.
We headed for Cafe Amsterdam, time to celebrate – we’d made it 650km through the desert, sand, hail, wind (and more wind), bumps, heat, tears and hills all the way to UB. That could only mean one thing: BEER! We both ordered a cold draft Chinggis Beer.