The infinite steppe means that real progress on a bike is to be made only with the favour of the wind gods. A decent tailwind can almost double our cruising speed to over 35 km/h, whilst a head wind can crush it near half. The prevailing wind in this season in Mongolia is south-eastward, the eastward element has proved essential in reaching far-off towns and rivers to fill up. At times we've been reliant on a fortuitous wind not to run out of water. When the wind is good and the asphalt exists, one can appreciate the scenery or indeed the company to a fuller extent. The long lonesome terrain proved fertile ground for some richer and meaningful conversations. Because of the isolating chamber of air rushing past at 35km/h and no human existence for hundreds of km, ideas are spoken that would be too fragile or bashful for any more of a public setting. A forever vain but useful attempt to frame love in language, and consequently how one defines the self, where our respective definitions of art fall, and an attempt for the existence of objective truth in the face of all devouring spectre of post-modernism. The very mention of these topics, let alone any substantial discussion, will inevitably cause choking sounds for miles, a global rise in eyebrow levels, and the a la mode (and wholly comprehensible) favourite of how two white, privileged, heterosexual, and able-bodied men could even dare to contemplate these matters, let alone discuss the out loud. The perfect privacy and protection that talking on the steppe in a moving air bubble provides allows for views on these subjects to be expressed and flourish, not wilt in the toxicity of any of the usual preventatives.
This opportunity for contemplating and freedom of expression away from judgement was one of the big reasons for both of us in doing this trip now. I saw this trip as a culmination of education in a way: 14 years of formal schooling, 3 years of university, 3 years of international on-the-job lessons, and then a significant personally driven challenge to burnish the learnings of before, and drag the article in question (i.e. us) through the world in the most thorough manner possible. This along the Rockefeller principle of a life in thirds (25-50-75 plus life expectancy growth), these are: education in the widest sense; creating value in the world, and then giving it back to do the most good. With the majority of the journey done and nearing its outward purpose, the expansive steppe of Mongolia gave space for ourselves to open into. The fermenting emotions and contemplative thoughts could take form here, and take their nascent steps into beliefs and principles - green shoots of meaning for us in this life.
The other emergent purpose of the trip was to push Rob and I to creating more in our respective fields. Regardless of quality, what you're reading now testifies humble progress for me, Rob found the scenes, landscapes and lighting of Mongolia to be almost custom-made for photography. The country was like the friend that is always dazzling in group photos as others gawk, it is a photogenic land par excellence. The perspective of the infinite allows the casual eye and the trained photographer to play with perspective. Size and distance work more independently here where the horizon is the only landmark. The same geography also makes for demotivating optical illusions, the gentle slope upwards is masked to the eye by the completeness of the surrounding landscape. Struggling to what seems downhill, after all this conditioning, burns morale away like butane.
One challenge we faced was capturing the ever present and ever noble eagles circling in flight, of course whilst cycling yourself. Their flight speed and direction was an exaggeration of ours. When head to wind they go nowhere, just propelled upward on a pedestal of win. When turning in their loop, tail to wind they would speed out of eyesight in seconds, covering great distances away in the draw of a camera. Theirs' is a lesson in rising in all conditions, comfortable with the inevitable wandering that life gives, knowing when to seize the moment and use and lose what has been built. It was far easier and yet less rewarding to try to capture or indeed to contemplate their prey - the desert mice and shrews that scurried the roadsides.
The rich and almost rainbow colours of mountains reflected the great and varied mineral wealth of the land, each hue of rock was another treasured ore to pull from this as of yet untouched and unbroken land. The western regions of the country have largely evaded this fate but their time is now in the coming decades. Years ago, I was told how one could dig down anywhere in Mongolia, and it would always prove their while, Chinese-Mongolian mining collaborations are putting this saying to the test. As we were to find in Ulaanbaatar, this industry, and the money it brings, are perhaps changing the Mongol people more than the Mongol land.
As mentioned above, our first experience of this was the coal mountain we crossed after Tsetseg, the road quality fell away from peerless tarmac to utter rubble the moment we passed the coal operations. This was the clearest and most concise insight into the motives behind Chinese road-building and neo-imperial investment in Mongolia. Where they were built, they were in the main newly built, and so the the roads were excellent here. Free rolling on these new-fangled asphalt contraptions, my thoughts turned to how fundamentally different our experience of cycle touring Mongolia would have been at the time of my last visit in 2013.
It was in this state of breezing along in a full throated wind, firing off parodied 'A.Partridge' business-speak, when a hellish path came before us. The silken surface concluded in a clean-cut line and the roads returned to their Bronze Age state. The major modern change were the dust clouds conjured by the heavy transit vehicles, the 16 wheelers looked like rockets taking off sideways in the sand such were the brown billows from their tails. Within a minute or two every crease of our skin was filled to the brim with a powdering of fine dirt and sweat, and our panniers and bikes had taken on an earthy matte finish.
I was heavily frustrated. The source of this was not our current plight, but disbelief and consternation at how such a previously wonderful and critical road, the main highway down the spine of the country no less, could be left in such an abysmal state in a single section. Just 150 km left unfinished of a 3000 km work of civil art-chitecture left unfinished, probably because of some regional government ineptitude or similar. It's enough to torture even a mild perfectionist, and stop dead a real OCD sufferer. I was more indignant on behalf of Mongolian drivers than I was disappointed. The sudden disintegration drove us to stop a car coming the other way, and ask maybe if we had taken a wrong turning, we were on the right path, and found out we had another two towns until the situation picked up.
The way seemed custom-made to aggravate cyclists, the fine but compactable nature of the sand combined with regular HGVs had makes for two surfaces wholly different but equally painful. First the default surface is a continuity of 3 inch high ripples. Going over these at more than 30 km/h allowed cars to skim along fairly smoothly, on a laden road-bike without suspension it resembles a cartoon, where the butt of the joke (cyclist) is bumped with perfect regularity for hours on end, worrying for the bike's integrity as well as his own. The occasional alternative is anything more than a couple of inches of fine loose sand. If this lasts for less than a few meters, you have to steer dead straight through it, any turn of he handlebars is a certain crash. If the sand lasts for any longer than this a gentle standstill is the best result, the worst is another crash splayed groaning and swearing in the sand. Rob and I crashed more in 15 km and an hour one evening, than we had on 14,000 km or seven months of touring. Although many of these crashes were at a slow speed, Rob managed to crack his phone and damage his brand new steady-cam. Individual morale plunged to a trip record low, although neither of us was willing to admit this too openly.
Just moments after dusk we pulled over and made the earliest camp we had in months, relief at the day being over but all to aware in building dread at the day ahead of us. We had two salves for this. Firstly, the sandstone all around allowed the setting sun to paint the surrounding hillocks and harsh outcrops pink hues and purples shadows. The sight was a clean reminder for why we had pained ourselves in the last few hours. Secondly, the repetitive constraint of instant noodles had by now allowed me a degree of mastery with them. Given the observed standard of gastronomy so far and the remoteness of our now location, I felt confident that our onion and pepper noodle stew rated in the top 5 meals consumed that evening in a 500 km radius. If the eyes and mouth can be appeased in an evening much can be forgiven of the day.
Often in the morning after, I would find myself in great relief, cycling gently over the steppe, hoping the so-called road wouldn't cross my path again. This was the ironic extent of the affair, where the road was so poor to the cyclist that the surrounding untouched land was preferable. In these torrid times, our coping strategies diverged. A numbed attempted auto-pilot was my choice of mental frame, where time and distance merely had to pass with my lowest possible external awareness. Rob reverted to a short but looped techno mix, where his mind frenzied into a constant assault across the land. A few hours of this meant that passers-by and even some potentially interesting Buddhist monks at lunch were left with fleeting and perfunctory interactions. Unfortunately we allowed the land to close us off to it's people, a briefly sustained crime on a trip where exposure and experience is the polestar.
It took a motley meeting of two pairs of motorbikers from Austria and Russia that shook us from a lunch grump. The Austrians, typically Gunter and Stefan, were queer reflections of Rob and I. Stefan was a blonde and bearded videographer, wearing an Afghan scarf over leathers and an edge of the mouth cigarette he cut the figure of what a motorbike tourist should look like. His fellow Gunther was a seriously enthusiastic man-child, who's intonation exaggerated every element of his eagerness for life. A budding tree surgeon was an aptly outdoors career for him, a cheerful and glad lumberjack in any other age. We shared a second lunch date with them further down the road on another chance meeting, and then a third and final lunch Ulaanbaatar. It was intriguing to guess how they split the practical and emotional roles of travelling together, and how their dynamic worked in comparison to ours. When the long-bearded Russians strode in and sized up the fellow bikers, Stefan joked how their bikes were 4 times as costly as theirs. The Russians flatly agreed with this, and sincerely questioned how the Austrian's mid quality cross-road tires could function on these roads, surely their own off-road tires would have been a far better choice. Rob and I shared a pained and knowing grin as stereotypical dynamics played out louder and louder.
After lunch we were treated to the evolution of the modern asphalt road. Relief and understanding emerged as we saw the swarms of diggers, rollers and mixers that littered the next 50 km in varied states of activity. The offending hole in the country's transport system was eventually to be plugged, even if a first failed attempt had been made on the ground that had tortured us before. There's far more to road building than meets the eye, the foundations must first be dug out and 3 sizes and layers of stones to be added before raising the surface above ground level, then building in drains, then there seemed to 5 or so different layers and mixtures to be laid to eventually give the flatness and durability we've come to expect, without mentioning the measurement process. Seeing and struggling over every layer of road-making gave me a new intimate understanding of the complexities modern road construction, and mellowed my previous indignancy at the last unfinished section of this grand national highway. Contemplating what cycling cross Mongolia must have been like just 5 years ago made me grateful for what there is now.
All these reflections were formed that night, after washing in a fly infested river meadow under a full moon. The river was only shoulder-width but waste deep and fast-flowing, the whinnying of horses closing in on me bathing completed the immersion. Stark naked in that stream, the weeks of outdoor living aggregated and for a moment broke that conceptions of us humans as a part. This veil, between us and nature as is, is thrown up from our first cry when already swathed in the already artificial cotton skin, it is so rarely pierced in our well insulated lives, and ever less so digitalisation adds another layer. This impression wasn't able to take root, and retracted fully the next evening upon our first night in civilisation for 10 days.