The life of a cycle tourist is often dictated by the forces of nature. This was never more true than for the first week’s journeying from the Mongolian capital out into the depths of the steppes. Rain, snow, hail, headwinds, tailwinds, sidewinds, dust-storms, baking sun, freezing cold, cloud tapestries and clear blue skies all made an appearance, often within a couple of hours of each other. This was going to be no place for whingeing about the weather.
I felt pretty low as we left the city behind us. It was something to do with the wind and the monotony of the empty asphalt combined with the humbling vastness of the landscape. I remembered just what a slog bike travel could sometimes be. I was unfit. A few hours in and I was already bored of grinding the pedals and feeling like I was going nowhere.
Then I stopped and gave myself a kick up the backside to remind myself that there were always times like this, and that they always balanced out in the long term with the unpredictable joys of independent, unplanned bicycle travel. Moan over, get going.
But something had definitely changed. My enthusiasm for bike expeditions had always been matched by my tenacity when undertaking them. But now I was beginning to realise something, with a certain feeling of gladness: There is life beyond bike trips. I don’t have to spend my time off the bike wishing I was still on it. This realisation came with happiness; it meant that I was getting ready to move on, and to concentrate on things in my life which had become more important – and to take these responsibilities with the experience of the world I’d been so lucky to have.
In the meantime, however, I was in Mongolia, for the first and probably the last time, doing what I suppose Andy and I had always felt was the epitome of our original idea: a long and challenging off-road mountain-bike expedition. We headed north-west, and I found myself pedalling into the sunset every day instead of away from it. The asphalt petered out and I followed dirt tracks through rugged, treeless pastureland; land so smooth and bare that we could spontaneously lurch off the route and go spinning across the open country, drinking in the exhilaration of such absolute freedom; the symbiosis of perfectly engineered machine and re-awakened, long-conditioned leg muscle.
Distances in Mongolia are vast, and at any given moment we could see twenty, thirty kilometres in every direction, nameless hilltops fringing our particular valley, each capped with a little pile of stones and trinkets, evolving and unplanned monuments to nothing in particular except humans’ obsession with reaching the highest, furthest, hardest point. Sometimes more distant ridges were visible, with no pollution to soil the atmosphere; we could pick out cloudscapes and mountain ranges a hundred or more kilometres distant.
The spectacle would often change in a matter of minutes. We’d be riding under a clear blue sky, avoiding washboard tracks and patches of loose sand, stopping for a bit of ger-spotting, trying to guess how many hundred sheep or horses there were in a distant herd, avoiding the broken glass of a discarded vodka bottle – then a shawl of grey would begin to drag itself over the horizon, the wind would pick up; half and hour later we’d be churning heads-down into a fierce gale or cowering behind a crude bike-and-poncho shelter. Once a huge dust-cloud appeared ahead of us with all the malign intent of a Hollywood monster, we dropped our bikes and charged across the plain in an attempt to outflank it before we were engulfed. We returned to our bikes to find every exposed surface covered with a thin film of fine brown dust.
After several nights pitching our tents on windswept hillsides or behind piles of rocks, we found something resembling the dream campsite – a few hundred paces from a flowing river, in the shelter of the hills on the far bank, far from the track we’d followed. The sun was shining and we had a bag of dill-flavoured instant mash and a can of spicy beef stew waiting to be cooked for dinner.
Just as we were sharing out that delicious meal, a horseman came over to check us out. We’d seen him rounding up his horses in the distance. His name was Bolta and he asked us – as everyone did – The Questions: Where are you going, where are you from, where did you start, how many days? He took a seat on the ground and contemplated our merry little camp. Wolves might come and eat us in the night, he chuckled. He wore a pair of long leather riding boots and a long overcoat that extended to his fingertips. On his head was a faded baseball cap with an indecipherable graffiti-style logo. Life moved slowly for Bolta. There was no rush; plenty of time for comfortable silences. His horse tossed her head. Andy and I were thinking about our mashed potato going cold.
Suddenly he pointed to the sky and I looked round to see a dramatic assemblage of rainclouds depositing their load on the hills a few kilometres away. We’d been in Mongolia for long enough to assume we were next in the firing line. Bolta got up and invited us for breakfast in his ger the following morning and departed on his little Mongolian pony, just as the first raindrops spattered off our tents. We dived for cover as the rain turned out to be golf-ball-sized lumps of semi-frozen slush. I threw my dinner into the tent and followed after it, fumbling with the strap that held my tent door open and getting it tangled – the sleet was now coming down in sheets, accompanied by tremendous gusts of wind – finally freeing the strap and zipping the awning closed. My lower half was already drenched. I sat halfway inside the tent with my feet sticking out, laughing at nature’s whim from beneath the waterproof shell, and began to eat my mashed potato.