For the next 650 km there were two big towns and a few little ones where we could pick up more food and water. Apart form that we had no real idea what the road ahead would bring.
We packed the bikes up outside the small hotel in the desert town of Zamyn Uud, Mongolia. I was nervous, I had never tried to cycle with this much weight on the bike. Between us we had 32 litres of water and enough food for six days. I thought of Ranulph Fiennes. On one of his polar trips he had got dropped off having never even attempted to pull all the kit he had, so had no idea if it was possible. This seemed a little silly to me but here I was in the Gobi desert hoping that, as I pushed down on the pedal, the bike would move through the soft sand.
We set off cautiously at first, Sukhbat, the Mongolian cyclist we had met the day before, leading the way. On the edge of town, Sukhbat got out a Mongolian flag, we took some photos and waved goodbye. We were on our own. For the next 650 km there were two big towns and a few little ones where we could pick up more food and water. Apart from that we had no real idea what the road ahead would bring.
The sun was out and it was perfect cycling weather, not too hot and hardly any wind. A stark and welcomed break from the crazy winds and snow we'd experienced the week before in China. We followed the compass bearing and gradually eased into cycling over varied types of sand. Mostly though we were pleased that the ground was quite hard and our speed had only dropped by a few kms/h. With space to cycle side by side we talked as we rode over the small ridges that cut across the landscape.
We crested another of the small ridges late afternoon and stopped for a break. As we drank our coffee a beautiful black horse started to approach us. It seemed curious, making lots of noise. It disappeared for a while then came back followed by two foals and then a team of other horses. They galloped past us not more than 50 meters away. It was an awesome sight and our first taste of Mongolian wildlife. As we packed up the cups we pondered if they were truly wild or if they were owned, part of a herd left to wander on there own.
Descending the ridge I was keen to stop and take in the vastness of this landscape, to sit and enjoy the warm evening sun. Liz on the other hand seemed to have bounds of energy and wanted to make the most of the great cycling weather. We reached a compromise and set up a slightly early than planned camp. Relaxing in our camp chairs and eating our dinner things seemed quite civilized. If the desert was going to be like this we were going to enjoy it.
It was a strange day of enforced captivity but it reminded us how venerable we really are to the elements and that it's not often you get to experience the full force of what nature can do without having the option to take shelter inside.
The next day did we were both keen to make some progress, whilst I did not want to rush this experience we still had to move at a reasonable distance each day. Our food and water supplies would not last forever. It ended up being one of those days where nothing seemed to flow, we struggled to get into any kind of rhythm and the wind had picked up hindering our progress further. By mid afternoon we had hardly covered any ground but were thankful that the rain clouds had missed us and things were starting to flow again.
Just as things started to flow I got a flat tyre, I unloaded the bike and set about changing the tube. We were soon on our way again but now dressed in full waterproofs. The sun had literally vanished, the rain clouds were back and the sky was an ominous dark black. Lightning started to strike in the distance and we soon realised that we were on a collision path with this storm.
As the thunder started to sound and the lightning got closer we made a bee line for some electricity poles not too far away. The theory being that they would get struck before us. As we leant the bikes together and took shelter in a dried river bed, the driving rain turned into marble sized hail stones. We hunkered down using our water bladders to protect our heads from the hail. I started pondering what to do, it really depended on on how long this would last. Before I had a chance to come to any conclusions Liz shouted 'MOVE' . Not having time to think why I leapt forward with Liz out the dried up river as a torrent of water swept by. Perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to have taken refuge in a dried up river during a rain storm, it had just seemed so unlikely that in a desert that there would be flash flood. We watched the water fill up the river laughing with disbelief. This was almost comical, the rain and thunder passed just as quickly as it arrived and the once dry desert now looked like a mud pit.
We cycled on a bit further into a driving wind and eventually found a spot that seemed to provide a little more shelter to set up camp. By the time we were turning off the head torches and settling down into our sleeping bags the stars were out and it was calm again.
Sometime early in the morning we were both woken up by the tent rattling around us. A ferocious wind had picked up, I told myself to go back to sleep, the tent was strong and all the guy lines were out.
Waking every few hours with the noise of the wind it eventually got to breakfast time. It did not seem like the weather was going to let up. The sand was somehow making its way into the tent and settling on the sleeping bags. I ventured outside to asses the situation. I retuned to give Liz the weather report, Windy, Very windy. We were stuck in a sand storm and there was no point in trying to move. The tent seemed to be holding up so we agreed to stay put. We spent the day eating biscuits and watching movies on the iPod until the battery ran out. Then we had to resort to old school battle ships and talking. It was a strange day of enforced captivity but it reminded us how venerable we really are to the elements and that it's not often you get to experience the full force of nature without having the option to take shelter inside.
As I prepared the breakfast and the coffee the next morning a guy on a horse came up to our camp site. We got one of the spare cups out that we carry just for this reason and made another coffee. I was keen to chat but it was frustrating as our languages were different and even sign language did not seem to work. Despite this he seemed happy just to be sitting there drinking coffee.
Liz and Chris, both from the UK, met in Wanaka, New Zealand in August 2005. Chris was on his second gap year and Liz was on holiday. When they first met, Chris mentioned that he would like to cycle around the world, Liz didn’t really think he was serious. Turns out he was.
You can read about their cycle journey from New Zealand back to the UK on their website: www.bikeaboutuk.co.uk. If you are interested in cycling through the Gobi Desert, they have written a useful guide here.
The next morning it was still windy but the sky was no longer a yellow haze of sand, we had to at least try. As we were packing up a couple of Mongolians came past our camp site on their motorbikes. Liz prepared coffee for us all and we managed to have a basic conversation about the weather using sign language. The guys were friendly and smiley, but did not stay for long, it was too cold sitting around.
Despite the constant head wind we managed a reasonable day, by evening the wind had died down and we found a good camp spot. The following day we were due to pass a small town to resupply. We had sort of got used to the wind now, our pace was slow but so long as we kept at it we made progress. We passed quite a few vehicles during the day and always asked the way to the next town. Based on our understanding of their reply it seemed we were still going in the right direction. However, just before sunset we saw no sign of the town. A shiny car stopped, some young guys got out and started chatting with us, the town was not far. They gave us some water and we continued up the hill towards the setting sun.
Things did not seem quite right. Based on our understanding of where the town was we should have passed it hours ago. It was late now so we set up camp by some rocks on the ridge admiring the small groups of camels that we had almost grown accustomed to seeing.
Daylight meant that we could see a lot further. Using the monocular we spied a group of yurts and buildings in the distance - this had to be the town. We still had a way to go to get to the big town of Sainshand where there would be a hotel and shower so it was important that we got water here at least. The closer we got the less likely this seemed to be our little town. The collection of a few fallen down wooden buildings and yurts had an eerie feel to it. We called out Sain baina uu - Hello to the people in the yurt. They did not seem that surprised to see us. After some creative sign language and drawing in the sand we managed to work out that this was not the town. The town was 18 kms away to the east.
It was not worth going back, we still had plenty of food left, enough to get to Sainshand. We managed to fill up our water bladders from a large water tank near the yurts and we were on our way again. We soon realised our mistake, from Zamyn Uud to Sainshand was pretty much a straight line, this small town was slightly to the east. For most cars or trucks, it would not be worth taking this extra detour.
We pushed on that day keen to cover ground, so long as we did not get trapped in the tent again we would make it. During our snack stops we collected camel poo and by dinner time we had plenty to make a good fire to cook with. After dinner we carried on cycling until late evening. Exhausted, we put up the tent and collapsed into our sleeping bags. It had been our longest desert day so far and we were completely shattered.
As I prepared the breakfast and the coffee the next morning a guy on a horse came up to our camp site. We got one of the spare cups out that we carry just for this reason and made another coffee. It turned out that he was one of the two men that had come over to the tent the night before as we were setting up. I was keen to chat but it was frustrating as our languages were different and even sign language did not seem to work. Despite this he seemed happy just to be sitting there drinking coffee.
Another day of head wind awaited us but an unexpected stretch of asphalt road that lasted for just over 20 kms made up for it. At 15 km/h it felt like we were flying. In places the sand had been flattened just enough by some cars that we could cycle in unison over them, following the tyre tracks. As the day progressed the mounds of sand got bigger, eventually we conceded and got back to the gravel and sand.
Towards the end of the day we approached the base of a large ridge. Liz was convinced that just over this hill would be the large town of Sainshand. I was not so sure, I had expected to be able to see a large town stuck in the middle of the desert from some distance. Either way it was not going to be far. We agreed that if the town was there it was also not worth turning up at night.
We set up camp to an amazing sunset, I turned on the phone and got really excited when the signal bars started to appear. Using google maps we checked our position, we were right where Liz thought we should be and it was only 10 km to the town.
Mid-morning the next day we were eating ice cream and drinking cold coke outside a small shop surrounded by interested people. We had made it and were awash with a mixture of joy and relief. Liz somehow managed to find the best Hotel in town - I could hardly say no.
We rested here for a few days then continued our journey to Ulaanbaatar. It took us another 13 days of cycling to reach the capital, by the time we arrived there we had cycle 650 km over 21 days with an almost constant head wind.
Liz is glad and proud to have made this crossing but would never do it again. It's going to take a lot of beach holidays apparently to make sand appealing again.
I found a sort of comfort in the Gobi despite the hardships of the wind. The open space, lack of people and remoteness has a strange draw. I will return.
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