It was on the sixth day after leaving Hatgal that the trail petered out. In its place, a tangle of tiny channels began to eat its way westwards down a long valley floor, paved by fist-sized, weather-rounded stones. On either side of the river basin rose steep, jagged walls of rock enthusiastically smothered in green by the spring’s new growth of larch and pine. A whopping green trout flashed past beneath the clear waters that trickled and filtered down from the lofty whitewashed crags.
But for all its unspoiled splendour, the landscape was accompanied by no soaring Hollywood overture, no epic camera-swoop across the path of a silhouetted hero. All lay still and silent. This was the kind of wilderness that turned a man into a tiny speck, his unseen travails rendered vain and pointless. There was no romance in the thought of spending days passing amongst these pristine peaks. Like much of so-called adventure travel, it was simply a job that had to be done. Smiles and satisfaction would come later.
Mongolia carried the essence of the un-tethered freedom I’d long been craving; a land where self-sufficiency was an everyday reality rather than a Ray Mears-inspired daydream, where paved roads were a whisper of the extravagant pampering into which the rest of the world had fallen, where the very environment had the power to make or break a generation. Fantasies aside, what eventually let me there was the prospect of another set of preconceptions lying shattered by the roadside. Months alone on the road had taught me that this was the only expectation worth having.
I’d spent three weeks dragging a rickety cardboard box full of clanking metal across the unimaginably vast expanse of Russia to get to Ulan Bator. To explore this land by bicycle was an inevitability: it was the only way I knew. Soviet sleeper trains were the ideal opportunity to plough through a few books and keep company with the wagon’s other occupants. It took twenty times longer than a flight, and never once seemed a waste of time.
The smog of the capital a few days’ ride behind me, life off the road in Mongolia came to be defined by a kind of quiet practicality alongside nature at her most humiliatingly vast and harsh. Permanent routes having become a distant memory, navigation – a common-sense case of taking the next town’s bearing and scanning the grassy watershed for the nearest likely-looking pass – mirrored cultural interaction, which with the scattered population of ger-dwelling families was infrequent and always characterised by a slow, contemplative concern for purpose. Hungry? Eat this. Thirsty? Well, of course: you’re out on the steppe! Hot, watery tea stalks with a spot of freshly-squeezed milk provided the universal, palatable, sterilised, hot beverage. Lack of common language meant that news from the next valley was unlikely. Small-talk being refreshingly non-existent, and having rested and refilled with water, to hang around would be self-indulgent; the family had work to do.
It was four weeks after leaving the city that I found myself in the mountainous north, topping that nameless pass, such as it was – several miles of putrid marshland churning their way upwards, and no choice through but to drag self and steed on foot amongst squelching pools and black clouds of hungry mosquitoes. Sweating into my waterproofs, I eventually reasoned, was the lesser of two evils – but the insects had done their work, and fat swellings soon burst out on my hands and neck and legs.
Part-biking and part-hiking, my adventuring partner Andy and I had made our way across the country and north, striking out along the roadless west bank of the thawing Lake Khovsgol, a rare, frosted gem of crystal clarity on the fringe of the Siberian taiga so pure that its water was potable without treatment – though after I’d taken a swim amongst the ice colonies of its shallows, shedding many days of grime in the process, it would probably have been advisable to run it through some kind of filter.
In this uninhabited naturalist’s paradise it was uncannily easy to feel at home, the flora and fauna being so bizarrely reminiscent of central Europe’s alpine meadows and snowy mountain flanks – a far cry from stereotyped notions of sunburn and sand in the Gobi desert, hundreds of miles south. A prime expanse of new-growth forest led down to the water alongside the outlet of a wide brook, adorned with the tents and tarpaulins and camp-fires and clothes-lines of a makeshift holiday camp. We entertained a bevvy of grubby Mongolian kids and their half-cut horse-mounted fathers – mothers busy in the background stirring cauldrons of something doubtless far tastier than the instant noodles and deep-fried doughnut balls that bounced around in our panniers – as we passed through the camp on our eccentric mountain-bikes with their Extrawheel trailers. A bicycle? Up here? What’s wrong with a horse?!?
Now, beginning what we expected to be a long and wearing trudge towards a distant point on the map, life on the lakeside had already faded into a hedonistic memory. The purity of that water… the sensational remoteness of it all, neither a local nor a tourist to be met for days on end… now came the slog, the pinning of our hopes on the successful navigation out of these mountains and onto the flood plains below. The bikes were unrideable now, the terrain a cruel joke. I checked the zips and fastenings of my waterproofs: the air was still and whining with dancing little black blighters. Six days was the longest I’d ever travelled without encountering a single settlement of some sort. And it would still be some days more before civilisation was even hinted at.
We started to push, rolling fat tyres west into the wilderness amidst the choppy sea of stones. It was simply a job that had to be done. Smiles and satisfaction would come later.
This article originally appeared in edition one of Sidetracked, a new online periodical featuring a limited collection of personal adventure stories. It’s really good. Check it out. It’s a welcome tonic to the content-overload of the rest of the web.