Paddling through the time of sand

Paddling through the time of sand
A sign on the new tar road in the Gobi desert that's being constructed -- it reads 'Speed Kills',

A fortnight of cycling through the near-empty vastness of the Gobi desert in Mongolia

Pearly Jacob
March 22 , 2014
11 Min Read

It was a restless wind that welcomed us to Mongolia, spilling defiantly into the neighbouring Chinese town of Ereen. Icy gusts from the Gobi ripped through the town, upsetting garbage bins and tossing street litter like candyfloss. If we were superstitious at all, this would have seemed like an ill omen, as we were preparing to cross the harsh desert on our rather wobbly bicycles. But we had cycled here from Thailand, passing through Laos, Vietnam and China. With over 7,900km in our legs, we weren’t easily deterred.

Crossing immigration required even greater tenacity than cycling headfirst into the wind.

The gusting wind had ripped a power-line, which only made matters worse. An impatient queue fidgeted in the dark hall of the Mongol immigration check-post, while drivers flitted nervously around. The seven-kilometre stretch between the two border posts was a strict non-pedestrian zone, with fuel-powered vehicles being the only permitted way to cross. And so, a brisk ferrying trade has sprung up here.

Once we were deposited in Zamin-ud, the border town, we decided to start right away on tackling the vast emptiness that greeted us. The wind had eased off a bit by now. But the sand beneath our wheels proved to be a tougher foe than what blew in the air, leaving us crunching grit. Two hours of straining through swathes of beach-like sand, persistent wind beside, and we covered only fourteen kilometres. This was the Gobi — Asia’s largest desert. We had reason to worry.

We realised our tents would not be able to take the wind and cycled towards the closest habitation we could spot—a ger (latticed wood-and-felt tent) and a dilapidated building. The walls of what was an abandoned railway cabin promised wind cover and our only hope of spending the night in relative comfort. We approached the ger to see its occupant a little way off, milking his camels. Not wishing to alarm him, we waited to ask him for permission to pitch our tent. When he finally saw us, he made a puzzled sign as if to ask why we weren’t sitting inside his ger. He ushered us in and, without a word, gave us stools by the stove and poured us salty Mongolian milk tea. We could no longer hear the wind and it was quiet and warm for the first time that day.

With a few sparse words and sign language banter, we managed to communicate what we wanted. He seemed surprised by our request and motioned around his ger and spare bed and bade us to stay with him. Suddenly, the Gobi seemed less foreboding.

We set off again the next day. The wind had shed some of the previous day’s intensity, but it was still a menace, as was the sand, wind’s faithful sidekick. We slogged hard all day long and managed a mere fifty-three kilometres — but at least we’d managed to spot what could be called the main highway from the dozens of trails that litter Gobi’s monochrome vastness. The going was easier, as traffic dislodged much of the clogged sand. I kept thinking of Yogi Berra’s instruction — “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”—each time the track split in two. With no road signs around, we steered our course north, keeping our eyes on the distant railway tracks, the lifeline of the Gobi.

Soon, there will be a second vein — of slinky black tar — winding through the Gobi. Mongolia may be dirt-track haven, but there are plans to connect Zamin-ud with the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. A skeleton of the planned road pops up in sections to advertise the grand transportation project. Progress seems steady in places, only to reach a sudden dead end, and looks decidedly abandoned in other areas. Whatever the timeframe, once this is complete, crossing the Gobi will no longer be the challenge it is right now. Meanwhile, given the slow rate of our progress and dwindling water supply, we weren’t starved for adventure.

On Day 4, we managed to restock water and get hopelessly waylaid by the hospitality and curiosity of the folks at Erdene. For a ramshackle settlement, Erdene had a surprisingly well-stocked store. Pastas, cookies, sauce, chocolates, beverages and vegetable preserves from all corners of Europe lined the shelves. After six months in China, we were delighted with this little insight into the Russian influence over Mongolia’s dietary affairs. Especially since we’d been warned that mutton and potatoes was all we’d find.

The air remained still the next couple of days and so the sand stayed put.

We slogged on — slithering, sliding, slipping, straining. I had gotten so used to falling, I no longer bothered to control the speed of my bike when we crossed patches of sand drifts. Strangely, it seemed to help, at least until one wheel kicked sand and there I was again — untangle self, and pick up bike and pride. Progress was painful. We crossed Orgon and were closing in on Sainshand, provincial capital of this area of the Gobi and the biggest town around, and so far the only one with a hotel. We promised ourselves a bed, shower and laundry session.

There is a new air of wealth sweeping across Mongolia, as more and more people abandon their herding lifestyle and opt for jobs in the many mines springing up all over. The desiccated steppes — depleted by over-grazing after capitalism repl­aced the Russia-imposed socialist structure — is one reason for this change. The numbers of cattle swelled unchecked and with it came what is now Mongolia’s biggest environmental crisis. But it’s easy to gloss over the tragedy in these times. A couple of years ago, finding food and water was the biggest challenge for travellers; but now, with bustling markets in every isolated settlement, it looks like boom time for Mongolia.

Our first taste of airag came the day after we left Sainshand. We had camped close to a settlement of nomads and expected the inevitable visit. Even when a ger is a distant speck in the horizon, a visit is assured. A horse will canter in, carrying the quixotic rider, who had spotted us through his trusty binoculars. Visitors usually sat for a cup of tea, satisfied their curiosity and left. A few would stay to converse in sign language and Pictionary doodles, something they’re surprisingly resourceful at.

It is from these nomads that we hear of the hard times that herders face, many wandering miles from their original yearly migration route in search of grazing lands. Gazing at the bleak wilted landscape around, I’m astonished they could even consider this suitable pasture for their livestock. I get an insight into their desperation when one points to the map towards Thailand, where we started our journey, and solemnly enquires about the quality of grass there. If not for the deadpan look in his eyes, I would have thought it a jolly joke.

This time, though, our two young visitors returned with a litre of what tasted like beyond-sour buttermilk. “Airag, airag,” the bolder one informed us, pointing to his horse and encouraging us to drink more.

I had read of the drink made from mare’s milk and knew it was three per cent alcohol. Not enough to get inebriated on, but likely to bust the guts of the uninitiated. Afraid to offend and seeing that the boys were going to stay until we emptied the bottle, we complied. Other than a few nasty burps, my tummy held that night. Cedric and I squabbled for the toilet paper the next morning. I reasoned that that’s the price for wrangling something other than a ride from an equine.

There is a never-ending monochrome blandness about deserts. We spent days cycling through arid scrubland — the only scenery the Gobi provides. It was late autumn and little green remained. The landscape was swathed in different shades of brown, with the washed-out blue of the sky providing the only relief. I felt colour-starved, until I slowly woke up to the nuances of the ubiquitous brown. A tint of gold, a shade of red, the brown that reddens to mellow ochre with the setting sun, the deft shaft of green peeping out from stalks defying the winter drought — colour isn’t dead in the desert, it’s just elusive.

Long solitary hours of cycling were interspersed with brief encounters with a motley bunch of people: geologists tapping uranium or a Danish anthropologist researching Chinese immigrant workers and, more often, local travellers with vodka to share. These brief but entertaining meetings gave us a glimpse into the Mongolia that was a hotbed of mineral resources, which the world is vying for. We were already crossing a few mines a day and we heard reports that Mongolia was about to sign the world’s biggest copper-mining deal. The times they are a-definitely-changin’ for the Gobi. The good news, we were told, was that a tarred road awaited us from Choir town. After ten days of roughing it out, we had enough of the rugged road.

The night before we reached Choir, our visitors arrived with two litres of airag. So the next morning’s ride to Choir was beset with a queasy Cedric and a fierce north wind that sprang up with the sun. I fared better, with only mild burps, but the wind steered me off course with a vengeance. The only way to progress was to stay in Cedric’s shadow and try not to think about the latest twist of fate. At least we were on tar.

Despite the wind and a break at Choir, the sealed road allowed us to cycle a record sixty-two kilometres that day. The last five kilometres had been an extra push because we were trying our best to avoid the nomad tents we saw in the distance. Cedric adamantly pushed on, muttering “no more airag”. Once my humour wore off, I reminded him that it was futile to try and hide in an open expanse. Thankfully, there was no airag proffered that evening.

The landscape visibly changed after Choir, reminding us that we were appr­oaching Ulaanbaatar. The horizon brea­ks into undulating hills and the wind brings frost. One evening, we camp by a wall miraculously placed in the middle of nowhere, a shelter from the wind and storm. We share it with a Korean cyclist who came in from Ulaanbaatar. With the wind against us, it will take a day-and-a-half to complete the 120km he’s done.

Day 14, and we make the final climb before we can descend to Ulaanbaatar. I’m amazed at the size of the city that greets me from the crest of the hill. The sharp contrast to the emptiness of the vast plains we’ve been cycling through takes me by surprise and my eyes take time to adjust to the sheer density of the sight. I remind myself that fifty per cent of Mongolia’s 2.7 million population lives here and marvel awhile at the statistics.

As we cross the Tuul river to enter the city, I reflect on the long ride that has brought us here. The Gobi desert is certainly the harshest terrain I’ve been through, but I’m more overwhelmed by the resilience of the people who’ve made it their home. Our journey was a fourteen-day challenge for us, but for those living off the land, it is a never-ending struggle. Though relieved to arrive, I suddenly missed the desolate beauty of the desert and was strangely touched by the nomads we crossed. As I face my first traffic light in days, I can’t help but think — for all the sand, wind and mare’s milk we battled — I would do it all over again. And, heck, I could toast an airag to that.

The information

Getting there: Your best option is to fly to Beijing (Delhi from Rs. 27,000 return, Mumbai Rs. 31,000) and cross the border, because China is the best way to approach Mongolia overland. A flight to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia will take much longer and cost more. From Beijing, take a train or bus to the border town Ereen or Erlian in China. From here, cross over to the Mongolian border town Zamin-ud by jeep. Then board the daily local train to Ulaanbaatar.

 Visa: Visas are free for Indian passport holders, though you will be required to pay a processing fee in China.

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