After Lotus, we had a long and ranging run south out of Mongolia true, then through China's Inner Mongolia, before heading East again to Beijing. Near enough we were creating the route taken by the Mongol and 'barbarian' hordes that washed like waves over a millennium on the northern shore of China. We were riding in the hoovesteps of Ghengis Khan, nomadically camping across the land, through the Great Wall and into the Chinese imperial citadel.
The rare holy trinity of wind, surface and elevation combined for much of the distance through the two Mongolias. we strung together a series of +200km days, where sheer time in the saddle outweighed effort. For the cyclists out there, there were times where we could maintain 35kmh for a couple of hours without straining. Likely due to mining and proximity to China, this part of Mongolia seemed more affluent and modern than the wild West. This step up was mainly in the existence of good roadside restaurants, this and the favourable conditions led to these few days being a blur of steppe and road, and little else besides. It was by far the closest I've come to groundhog day syndrome on the trip, and hours of audio-books and splendid sunsets were the companions that kept the sanity. The road-only lifestyle also led to a deterioration of hygiene: we camped without any break, washable rivers were few and far between, besides people can't smell you through their car windscreens - whole days would go past with almost no personal interactions.
The chinese border the change in food couldn't come fast enough. Actually besides our time at Lotus, the three weeks in Mongolia were the clear gastronomic lowpoint of the whole trip. We were now looking to the progressively soaring peaks of Chinese, Korean and Japanese cuisine. It is far easier to mentally and physically deal with external factors like the weather, mechanical problems, or terrain, but food eventually becomes more internal than these. There is no escaping poor food, that is until after it escapes you. Where ingredients in the Mongolian meals could be counted on one hand, in China we would play a mystery daily guessing game of what snacks were made of. Usually they remained unidentifiable even after tasting, the variety was always appreciated even if the flavour was occasionally feral.
Officially the border at Zamiin-Uud is closed to pedestrians (and thus-ish cyclists). At lunch in the border town we were picked by a fast guy in a fast jeep. Before setting off, he sprinted to the local store, and picked up some tea-cakes and a jar of kimchi. We had assumed this was for his wife south of the border and that he was merely doing us a good turn. We realised he was a hardened professional when he raced through the border checkpoint down the wrong lane, throwing the tea cakes out of the window to the calling guards. The second lot of guards were more animated, shouting and waving their hands at us, it took a heavy flying jar of kimchi to pacify them. We negotiated, or translated, the price of the trip down from 700 dollars, to 70 dollars to 7 dollars, before he passed us on to his mate who took us the rest of the distance. Presumably this freed our first driver up for more hustling and kimchi assaults.
The difference in approach between the Chinese borders in Xingjiang and the one here was astonishing. If you remember, panniers were removed and searched 4 times each crossing, my writing and rob's photos were fastidiously examined, and we had had to post the drone ahead. Here a giant rainbow arched across the customs building, both symbolically and physically, we sped through entirely unhindered in less than 20 minutes. This reemphasized again to us quite how contentious the Xingjiang region is within China and abroad. Cycling through this new part of China, we had expected the same police presence and treatment we had first observed in this 'autocratic police stare', we were utterly wrong in this regard. Xingjiang is a people in crisis governed experimentally. But to the casual observer, Eastern China feels as free as anywhere else we've toured through from Istanbul.