After 2 days of very cold weather and snow, it brightened up again, and despite being very cosy and happy at Fairfield guesthouse, we knew we couldn’t stay forever! I did however, stock up on two big slabs of chocolate cake and 2 slices of carrot cake, which I decided we would definitely appreciate once we were 50km down the road! We bought the next lot of supplies, fresh bread, cheese and coffee, not knowing if we’d find it in the next town, and then got on the road. We knew there was a big pass to climb almost immediately and no sooner than we turned back onto the main road, it started going up. The tarmac ran out, and once again we were on gravel .
Tsetserleg is surrounded by mountains, with craggy outcrops, and pine trees cover the hill tops, giving it a very alpine feeling. So the snow we had had seemed pretty apt. Today was bright and sunny, but some snow still remained. As we climbed we were surrounded by trees and it was very beautiful, although extremely steep in places.
We reached the top and began coming down, this was even steeper with lots of loose gravel, so we both took it easy, not wanting to skid too much or come flying off – getting gravel grazes on this stuff would be very sore! I’ve decided that riding a bike downhill on loose gravel is a lot like skiing down a piste that is icy in places. In fact there are a lot of similarities with skiing, both require concentration and focus, along with confidence and nerve. You have to choose your route and look ahead, but also you have to not think about the actual movement too much and let your body do it, trusting the skis/bike underneath you.
Finally it levelled out and we were able to release the brakes and enjoy whizzing down the final bit. We stopped for lunch near the river and tucked into the first of our supplies. It’s always nice one the first day you leave, as everything seems so plentiful and fresh. Lunch at the moment is cheese sandwiches with apple slices, some biscuits and coffee. A group of yaks sauntered over as we were packing up. I do like yaks, they walk like long haired, old hippies and remind me of the puppets in the Sound of Music, cos their heads seem to be a long way from their bodies, bobbing up and down as they walk.
From here it was 20km to the next town Ihktamir and I was confident we would fly along now and get there in now time, but as we rounded a bend a strong headwind hit us and it seemed to take forever to cycle that 20km. We reached the town and decided to camp near the river, not before having more food (yes cyclists are always hungry!) as a nice little cafe by the roadside.
Chris wasn’t too sure about being by the river as there were a number of gers around and it was quite open, despite a few trees. We cycled over to have a look and came across a group of kids by the river. They rushed over to see us and one of the lads was very keen to have a go on my bike. So I let him after showing him the brakes and holding the bike whilst he got going. He managed a few metres before turning too sharply and coming off, he was laughing and shaking his head, eager to have a another go. All the kids wanted a go and they asked us to take the bags off, so in the end we decided to camp there and unloaded the bikes. The kids did a few more circuits, before their grandmother arrived and telling them it was time to go back home. She was very nice and interested in what we were doing and concerned about where we would sleep. We put the tent up and showed her our sleeping bags and rollmats etc, so she was happy by then that we would be ok.
After they left we had a nice relaxing time by the river, ate the chocolate cake and watched the sunset, before crawling into our sleeping bags. Tomorrow we face another big climb up pass number 2 – Shar Bulagiin pass.
The next day we climbed for long time, with a side/headwind to contend with again. We took it steady and kept going, but it was hard work. Towards the end I got off and pushed up to top, before sitting down in a heap to rest. Looking forward to a nice long downhill, we were disappointed to go a little way down only to go back up again. The nice road ended as we met the road builders resurfacing, we tried to go around the edges but one guy seemed adamant that we couldn’t get passed and told us to go up on the dirt track above. We did this but it was really bumpy and up and down, we think he told us to go there for a joke as there was another lower track on the other side that seemed smooth and much easier. Once passed them, we decided to swap sides and get off this silly track. As we did this, Chris went down into a shallow ditch and somehow his derailer got bashed and ended up getting caught on one of his spokes, jamming everything.
We stopped and unloaded his bike as it was really jammed. We then spent an hour or two trying to fix it and get it to run well enough for Chris to cycle. However it was bent out of place meaning the chain wouldn’t run smoothly and on some gears it slipped off the cogs. Eventually we got it working well enough and carried on, but with Chris unable to use his lowest gears. Finally we saw the real downhill and enjoyed a few kms cruising down dirt tracks in the late afternoon sun.
As we reached the valley floor we saw some gers in the distance. We wanted to camp somewhere along here but also wanted to get as far as we could before it got dark, to make up for lost time. However as we passed the gers, one of the men beckoned us over, waving his arm towards him. We decided to stop and say hi. We were invited into his ger and given Su tet sai (milk tea) and a plate of cheesy dairy products was offered to us. One was like clotted cream and was delicious, I picked up a hard piece of what i thought was cheese, but struggled to bite into it and sat there nibbling it like a mouse! We were then given horshor, which is a pancake filled with mutton and onion, we have had lots of horshor, but these were really lovely. We thought we ought to be going and didn’t want to out stay our welcome, but then more food was brought and we joined the family as they shared their dinner. It was fresh sheep meat and we were given slices of meat with big chunks of fat either side, liver, kidney and intestine filled with blood sausage meat (a bit like black pudding at home). It may not sound that nice, but for the first time in my life I actually enjoyed the liver and intestine sausage meat, it tasted nice! This was all served in a big bowl and we were passed various bits while the family dug in together. At the end the juice and stock was drank as a soup, which tasted amazing. It was a great experience and we were happy to have been invited in.
We did leave though, just before it got dark and headed off down the valley. About 5 mins down the road Chris got a puncture – it really wasn’t his day today! So with the moon appearing in the sky and the temperature plummeting, he quickly changed it. But it really, really wasn’t his day and the new inner tube went flat instantaneously! Aggghhh!
In the end we changed it again and camped a few minutes later, putting the tent up in the dark! We were both full from all the meat and so we didn’t need to cook. We had a coffee and the carrot cake for pudding, Ah bliss!
Next day we had fun cycling along the valley floor for 15km with one river crossing to do along the way. The water was icy cold, but my feet were glad to see water and soon warmed up again.
We reached a small settlement called Dongol and rejoined the tarmac road, ready for pass number 3. Climbing steadily along a straight road, it didn’t seem to bad and i kept looking into the distance to see a steep climb. There were some huge birds flying overhead and i couldn’t help wondering if they might be eagles, they were massive. It was great watching them cycling in the sky, flying sideways on the wind and hovering above unsuspecting prey below. At 32km I could see an Ovoo and realised that we must be near the top, yet we hadn’t had a steep climb at all? I was smiling away to myself once i figured this out, 3 more kilometres and we’d be at the top, hurrah. I looked back and we were pretty high, but it was so gradual. Pretty sure that listening to Florence and the machine helped too.
We whizzed downhill, and then like yesterday started to go up again, blimey – is there no end to the hills in this place? Ahead of us was a really steep hill, straight up and then straight down, but too steep to cycle. So we pushed and pushed and at the top the heavens opened, with the wind rushing to join the fun. We quickly pulled on our waterproofs and boots, before heading down. It turned out to be a really long downhill, but the wind was ferocious and made it very hard. After a few kms and cold rain, we decided to stop. It was late and we really wanted to enjoy this nice long downhill rather than going into battle. Tired and hungry we pulled off and set up camp. It was an amazing view, as we were still so high, we could actually see mountains below us!
In the morning, I reached for our little titanium kettle, left in the porch of our tent, and the water in it was frozen! It had been pretty cold overnight. When we set off we were both wearing lots of layer and gloves – going downhill can be cold.
Not long after we set off, we passed a JCB digger along the road, tilted at a funny angle and the driver was slumped forward in his seat. The engine was still running, but he was not moving. We pulled over quickly, worried that he might have been taken ill or passed out. Chris approached and knocked on the window. The man woke up and seemed to be ok, giving us a thumbs up. He put the digger into gear, reversed a bit and then carried on. He must have fallen asleep – not the best thing to doing whilst on a mountain road driving a huge digger!
We continued downhill for a long time before reaching Chuulut Gorge and stopping for an early lunch. It was still cold and I was keen to go inside and warm up a bit. One lady beckoned us over and we went inside. It was toasty in there and we seemed to be in her front room, although it was technically a small restaurant. She cooked us up some fresh soup with meat and Tsiuvan for Chris. Basically flour and water dough, cut like pasta strands, with mutton. This is the backbone of each meal in Mongolia, if you are lucky you may get a few vegetables too, although it seems the further you get from UB the less veg you get.
We tried to find somewhere to buy water, but the shops were all closed. However Tariat was only 37km away so we thought we would be ok with what we had. As we headed off, we saw that there was a gorge to our right. So we stopped to check it out and found a ‘gorgeous’ (get it?) scene below us! It was lovely, with clear water, pine trees and rocks, all hidden from sight, like a mini paradise. Glad we stopped to have a look.
The gorge continued alongside us as we cycled and we wondered if there might be some information about it. But the only thing we saw was this old crumbling sign.
We were back on the dirt tracks again now and pushing on, hoping to reach Tariat and Tsagaan Nuur (The white lake). I had a sudden craving for some fudge and was day dreaming about a fudge shop in Christchurch, NZ. About 10 minutes later a 4×4 pulled alongside us and some people got out wanting to take our photo. They were very friendly and as they were leaving the woman gave us a handful of sweet each. Later on when stopped for a little rest, I open one of the sweets and guess what it was? Fudge!!!! How amazing is that? Really does make you wonder if there are bigger things at work sometimes.
The road climbed once again and a big hill took us a while to get up. This was swiftly followed by another big hill, but in the distance we could finally see Tariat. We were about 10km away and it was 5.30pm, so we could make it. The weather had other ideas though. As well as seeing Tariat we could also see big clouds forming and bad weather closing in. A little later, and it was all white – we could no longer see the town. As we continued downhill along the valley we realised it was snow! A few minutes later and we were cycling into a full on headwind with cold icy snow hitting us in the face. Er, time to stop I think, had enough now. But we needed water to cook. There was a river marked 6km before the town but we couldn’t see it anywhere. It turned out to be just ahead of us in a small valley.
Both cold and ready to stop, we decided to camp by the river as it was a little more sheltered and away from the road. But was really cold and by the time we were in the tent and stripping off wet clothes, the snow had completely covered all the surrounding mountains. Crazy! Despite the snow being cold and not great for cycling – we can’t help but be a little excited. I can only think that it comes from a childhood in England where snow means a day off school, snow ball fights and sledging – it’s fun!
The next morning however we we both reluctant to get out of our sleeping bags and it was really cold outside. Chris made porridge, only to realise that what he had bought was not actually porridge! so we ate a few biscuits. We finally got packed up and ready to go when it started snowing again. We cycled along slowly and what were sandy tracks, now became white snowy tracks. We were warm as we cycled, but my toes were numb with cold.
It wasn’t very far to the town, but once there we struggled to see anywhere to stay despite knowing there was a guesthouse and a hotel. Buildings in Mongolia are not labelled and most are gloomy affairs with concrete or brick walls, one low closed door and windows if you are lucky. The lights will not be on and you literally have to go inside to figure out what might be in there. Luckily we managed to meet Tunga in her jeep, she runs a guesthouse and showed us the way. A very basic affair, but with a roaring hot stove we were warm and toasty in no time, and able to dry out our wet clothes. No wonder fire is sacred here in Mongolia.
So we made it 170km and now plan to spend a couple of days here to rest, go horse-riding and see the lake!