The Mongolian border guards differed sharply to the megalith of Chinese bureaucracy. At the Chinese immigration desk we were pulled across into a side interview room, and were confronted by two officers: one young, friendly, even rather hip, the other a middle-aged and rather bull-headed individual. There was some consternation from the bovine specimen about the dubious freshness of my passport, whist every question accused rather than asked. The younger officer seemed to be auditioning to become the third member of our team, given how complementary and supportive he was. I want to say Good Cop - Bad Cop, but it was more extreme than that. There was an in depth examination of photos - which we had been careful to upload previously, and I was able to hastily hide my essay on the Chinese police in a dark corner of my laptops files.
On the Mongolian approach to borders was miles apart from this. Rather than being identified and chaperoned through, we had to hunt out the necessary officials, and we were processed by a solitary immigration officer, who was dealing with the flow of people in both directions. Eagles circling above the first rock outcrop on the Mongolian side greeted us, and marked for us a transition from a country of scaled society, to one dominated by the wide wilderness of the steppe.
Initially, we only shared the road with coal trucks, and they were to be our constant companions for next 300km, passing us every 20 minutes, a jet black conveyor belt to the Chinese border. Despite the dust and the dangerous driving, we were eventually grateful though for when the flow of truck stopped the good asphalt did too. This was not a road built for the people of Mongolia but for the factories of China. We found the source of this river to it's spring on a mountainside, the black quarry now dwarfed it's host, the metallic churnings were heard for miles over the silent steppe. In a small and indirect way, this why we were installing the solar project at Lotus, and this battalion of trucks, perfect asphalt and black mountain were what we were up against.
From the fertile farms of China and into Mongolia, the terrain instantly opened up and emptied out, arable agriculture seemed to have been forgotten. The Mongolian Adam and Eve hadn't touched that alluring apple: there had been no fall of grace, no broken-back from working the land for a clutch of corn. That being said the steppe, this sea of grass, was a poor man's Garden of Eden; hunting, gathering (and herding) here was no playful pursuit. The dried-out animal corpses were like ominous road signs, testifying to the unforgiving nature that encased us.
Our first settlement was the town of Bulgan, where Gers were now more common than houses, here nomads are majority in motion. We saw kids stream from their canvas mushrooms into the river and splash around with their family horses. One could see the bonds forming that have defined these people in history. From playmates to place-mats though, as horsemeat dumplings were the only available fare upon inspection of the handful of cafes. Served as a trial of six, each grizzled and grease soaked ball of mincemeat was set in a dough fortress, and the rancid meat juice burst forth like cavalry from a castle under siege. A single and symbolic plate of these was all we could manage, upon each attempted mouthful my stomach would tense up and my spine would roll in a wave of disgust. We then offered to pay for two bowls of hot water to make a pair of instant noodles for each of us. Over the next fortnight these noodles wound around the rest of our diet and constricted it, at our peak ate six packs a day, and not much else. More than the laziest uni student could even contemplate. The humans of this world eat a more diverse diet than any animal, I do not mean to insult with the paragraph above, I think it is very much a case of each to his own, and knowing thyself.
On the road out we met another cyclist, a wiry Mongolian chap who was aiming to be the first person to cycle around the whole border of his country. He was perfectly placed to tell us of the roads ahead. He assured us that the smaller of the two roads was properly surfaced, and that although there were no towns for 350km nor any rivers marked, there were some mountain streams that would allow us to refill. On this and this alone, we chose the more remote route to the East, placing our fate in the word of a fellow cyclist. Whether it be a small thing like picking the right restaurant, a mid-level issue like finding a campsite, or a major route decision, we've become more in tune with gut feeling. I feel now like I have a toy 'black 8-ball' down there that is shaken and judged at each juncture. It seems to be right far more than half the time, and as such I'm learning to place more faith in this internalised shamanic entrail spilling.