Bayankhongor has a swelling population of 30,000, putting it amongst Mongolia's largest mega-cities. There was 'high' fashion on the streets, a couple of almost coffee houses, and a full two restaurants to choose from. In these nomadic regions, Karaoke houses often prove the only place to eat out in a town. In quirky modernity they play the central role of community building, the eternal power of communal singing is harnessed in this late 20th century guise. In one sitting we bought the equivalent of three square meals each, we half-hoped this feasting would make us valuable customers and allow us to stay for the night, it wasn't to be. And nor would it have been plausible, a circle of Mongolian hell was strung out on the Karaoke corridor flanking the kitchens. Woeful worldwide karaoke classics churned with traditional Mongolian folk-opera, no sound isolation in any of the separating 'wonder'walls. The stark white strip-lighted corridor had seven doors for seven booths, each private circle that could have well have inspired Dante in this millennium. The floor of a damp hotel store-room was our eventual heavenly-retreat, a small but solid respite before exposure on the steppe again.
If we'd experienced the worst of Mongolian music, we were in for a treat the next day at tea time. Sat by a river, devouring nuts an dried fruits, we heard a gentle warbling carry across on the wind. From the other side of the bridge we could see a collection of cars on the steppe, and so we off-roaded to join them and see what was the commotion. It seemed to be a picnic birthday party for some seemingly important people in flash 4x4's, before we could find the music's maker, we were exchanging details with the CEO of Mongolian Post and a few other dignitaries. Eventually were were led over to the singer who was packing to leave, he looked more a wrestler than a musician, he was - he had trained with Mongolian Olympic team for 10 years, before becoming a famous exponent of throat singing. The rendition was fascinating for his high notes, it was impossible to tell if they were hit as intended, or if the voice breaking was stylistic. Either way the outdoor setting fit the tale of life on the steppe, and pertained to an era long before SUVs. Spontaneous live recitals have been provided some of the rarest but most memorable times of the trip, and a Mongolian one was much needed.
Whilst one element of cycling improves another will fail, only in the rarest moments have we had the holy trinity of wind, slope and surface all work in our favour. It is in these mythical moments that 200 km+ days can occur without obscene struggle. And so the rule proved here, we traded in a helpful wind for a decent surface, and so were heads down and low in the handlebars against a head-cross wind that had raced in from the Russian border. The scenery was flickering between almost Arabian desert and grass steppe. Often deserts merge steadily into more luscious terrain, here the border was stenciled out, definitive and decisive desert. After cycling through plantation of sorts, we crossed a sign emblazoned with the Chinese flag entwined with the Mongolian reading 'Great Silk Road Belt Program for anti-Desertification'. According to Lotus volunteer manager Connor in Ulaanbaatar, China has a poor reputation with Mongolian people at least partially due to the flood of low quality quick-to-break consumer goods that have flooded upon Mongolian markets. Korea owns cool here: K-pop or it's local imitators dominate mainstream music, the trendiest restaurants in UB were Korean chains, and the dandies follow Korean fashion. An older demographic have retained stronger ties to Russian and are more likely to speak the language, but the youths' soul seems to lie in Seoul.
Waking up to the grass sea of the steppe each morning sets the mind in a clear open stead. As you unzip the tent, an stand up to stretch, you gaze in every direction follows the flat horizon your mind calibrates the day to be spent living, on and across the earth. When waking in a bedroom back home, you follow the corridor to the bathroom, ready yourself in the confines of your flat, then down the stairs, and onto the pavement, through doors of all kinds and into an office. All of these settings and paths are restricted in vision and physicality, the walls, the buildings, even the trees if you are lucky. But on the steppe, you have one zip, and then you are out on landspace limited only by the earth's curvature. From the beginning, you and your mind are more open to that day's potentialities. Then at any later moment in the day, when a rush of thoughts look to encircle and stampede your mind out of awareness, the same horizon can serve a timely reminder to live as is.
The storm drains underneath Mongolian roads are not the same as the luxury palaces of China, they tend to be shoulder-width pipes so here we lost our ever-present home-from-homes. Yet on one shivering evening we weren't greeted with the perfect celestial dome we have come to expect, jet black clouds covered the whole night's sky, thick enough to fully obscure a waxing moon. A wet Westerly wind gusted and then flashes lit the distant Southern sky. We had hoped to press on a few more hours to leave us an easy ride to UB the next day, but even my usual foolhardy optimism couldn't disguise these omens. Riding with my spotlight we searched for shelter a few hundred meters either side of us, pure steppe, nothing higher than ankle height to offer cover. After deliberation and some disgust, we realised that one of these same storm drains or concrete coffins was our safest bet on such an ominous night. The rain built from a patter to deluge in the 90 seconds we unloaded our sleeping gear into the tube. We picked the end with less shit inside. Rob went first and deepest into the pipe, he didn't share my reluctance over cleanliness or confinement bordering claustrophobia, since Kazakhstan his fear was of the storm and little else. I quickly cobbled together the inevitable instant noodles at the mouth of the pipe, whilst Rob collected and ejected two dozen sizable spiders from our makeshift bedroom. The tube's diameter was just wide enough to fit the sleeping mats with both sides curled upward slightly. The bikes were stood up along from my feet at the mouth. For me the arrangement as a whole dwarfed any other sleeping set-up on this trip or before in how utterly grim it was. Yet, with the storm battering outside, wrapped in a liner an sleeping bag you could be as cozy as our mind would let you, this was the challenge.
However after a few hours the storm intensified, distant rumbles ow sounded as near as the lorries on the road meters above our heads. The tunnel-vision onto the world and sky at my feet went from lighting up every few minutes to flashing brightly every few seconds. Now I started to worry about the two lightning rods standing up at my feet, they were likely the highest metal for kilometers around. If they were hit, as seemed almost 50:50 in my nocturnal paranoid mind, would my feet inches away be unscathed. Rob was awake, I got him to move almost a meter deeper inside the tube, it was enough to assuage my mind, but I think little else more than that. Yet as happens, we awoke scorch-free but filthy, ready to make a last 190 km push to Ulaanbaatar, where our cycling could take a break and our with Lotus was the priority.
Rob and I lock horns more and more, the delicate suspension systems that have kept our characters neatly in tandem are being eroded and broken down by the distances and days without break. Rarely do these disagreements or tensions arise from practical matters, but are voiced through off-topic de using art or music as mere subject matter for contempt. One figure (usually me) will take a willful position, and the other will try to deconstruct in a heavy-handed or grinding repetitive manner, looking from all angles for a point to be scored. In a way it's more damaging than petty arguments, as it is more thickly veiled and less direct, but the bile stems from the same source.