The sun is powerfully hot here and rapidly warms the land enough to give rise to mirages and thermals, but the wind has been penetratingly cold at times and the nights freezing. In spite of sleeping bag liners, double down duvets and an extra wool blanket it’s been cold enough for us to need socks, thermals and woolly hats in bed. Then on blue sky days we have had to regularly apply factor 50 and resist the urge to switch on the air conditioning…
After just such a night we woke to a beautiful clear day with a biting wind. We headed into Hustai National Park to see what we could see. In what is hailed as one of conservations biggest triumphs the team at Hustai, with only private funding, have successfully reintroduced the previously extinct (in the wild) Takhi, also known as Przewalski’s horse. A great success in its own right, it has had knock on effects on biodiversity in the area and provided new opportunities for the local nomadic families including, to our delight, an artisan cheese making collaborative! We’re not sure it was much like the Gouda it claimed to be, nor could we tell from which of the 5 pictured animals the milk had originated, but it was certainly tasty.
We carried on along the road for a few hours but the pastel colours of the velvety hillsides beckoned and we pulled off to go explore on our mountain bikes, before enjoying another hot pot dinner in the lea of the truck and the late afternoon sun. Whilst most of the places we’d planned to go biking haven’t worked out, the truth is that Mongolia is a huge, wild, unfenced place with a bazillion tracks heading off in each and every direction. And what’s slow and uncomfortable in a car makes complete sense on a mountain bike, even if it’s not quite single track.
The next day we continued west to Harhorin/Kharkhorin, a small town near the site of ancient Karakoram, most of which is in ruin or stages of disrepair – incredible considering it was for a short time the capital of one of the largest empires the world has ever seen. But there’s still the original monastery, a really excellent museum and, perhaps more surprisingly, a huge phallus in the hillside.
We’d been told to stop in at Fairfield guesthouse in Tsetserleg – famous first and foremost for its bakery and second for the owners’ enthusiasm for mountain biking which sounded like a double win . Sadly the bakery is closed on Sundays and the owners away until summer, so we rerouted into the hills where we’d read there were several Ger camps surrounding some thermal springs. Two river crossings and a few mountain passes later we arrived to find steam emerging from the hillside and the camps a hive of activity – just getting ready to open for the season in fact! Unperturbed we asked the workmen if we could jump in for a dip which they had no objections to, before heading into a col to camp for the night.
The next day we were woken by a couple of Shelducks, then a large herd of horses and finally the unmistakable revs of a motorbike. It’s not unusual to get visitors even when you think you’re tucked away in the middle of nowhere, what’s more unusual is to be asked for a drink at 8 in the morning. We tried offering tea but no, that wasn’t what was needed at all. I poured our guest a mug of vodka whereupon he dropped to one knee, took it, gulped it and handed the mug back. He tried with increasing vehemence to communicate something to us which we couldn’t understand – Mike tried drinking some vodka too, again we offered tea and food but eventually we gave up and carried on assembling our mountain bikes whilst he carried on drinking our vodka. That is until my bike was built and he took it for a spin, before waving a cheery farewell and setting off down the hill. It only occurred to us later that perhaps he wanted the bottle of booze to take with him, instead of being made to drink it at such an early hour…
We’d looked at the map and decided there was a reasonable loop around the mountain we were camped on – 15km more or less – for a leg stretch before getting back in the truck. So, unbreakfasted, we set off. 4 hours, over 40km and only 3 mini snickers bars later we coasted back down to camp: it had been a stunning and fun ride, we’d chatted to horses, yaks, sheep and goats along the way and taken in some fabulous views. We devoured everything that didn’t require cooking then packed up.
We drove to the Chuluut gorge where we camped before heading on to a town called Tariat near Tsagaan Nuur lake – another popular tourist spot when the weather is friendlier and the lake isn’t frozen. We biked up to the crater of the extinct volcano before carrying on west.
People who know Mike won’t be stunned to hear he spent a lot of time planning, preparing and researching for this trip. What might surprise you is that he scoured the maps and came up with one single 200km section of track along a river valley and through the mountains that he really wanted us to drive. In all of Mongolia. And so it was that late on Wednesday night we turned off the (amazing, smooth and finished!) tarmac road to spend the night by a beautiful river in what was our most gorgeous camp site yet, before really heading into the unknown.