The Frozen North

We camped in the shelter of a disused quarry. It seems a lot of local roadbuilding consists of digging into the nearest hillside and harvesting rocks and gravel to fill the potholes, so quarries are plentiful, close to the road, level, and often sheltered… if not the most romantic.

Next morning we were up early and heading north to lake Khövsgöl – little sister of Lake Baikal and another place we’d earmarked for mountain biking. The forecast, however, had it earmarked for a snow storm later that day and well into the next. Undeterred, we went for a ride to a pebbly beach with an awesome view up the (frozen) lake before hotfooting it back to the town and the shelter of a much lauded coffee shop. Coffee isn’t much of a thing in China or Mongolia so reading about a place who roasted their own beans and had an Italian coffee machine (and baked cakes daily) was too much to resist. To Mike’s utter dismay the only other customer was eating the last slice of cake. The coffee was still excellent so we made a tactical plan to come back earlier the next day.

Michael has been brewing some kind of bug for a couple of days. We haven’t (knowingly) eaten any marmot, cooked or raw, so it’s probably not bubonic plague, but something almost as debilitating… between that and the weather forecast it seemed sensible to stay put for a while and so we checked in to the only place that was open – a small Ger camp situated on the edge of town a short walk from the lake, the mini market and the coffee shop. It blew an absolutely freezing gale for the next 48 hours so we read books, chatted to the other hotch potch of travellers and I let Michael beat me at Bananagrams.

Restless after two nights in one place we refilled the water tank from the locals’ spot at the edge of the lake and returned to Moron (Mu-roon) for some supplies. This involved a visit to the local black market (which is just the market) – a huge warren of shipping containers, stalls and sheds with very distinct districts for eg car parts, clothes, beauty products, home wares and everything you might need to build your own Ger. Yes, I was sorely tempted… We found the ‘meat’ district and some kind local ladies showed us various unidentifiable carcasses before merrily hacking a section off one once we’d clearly established it was cow.

I called this one ‘Yak-Michael’

From Moron we were taking another long/short cut across country heading west. We were driving along another stunning river valley and heading up to a high pass when, just short of the top we saw cyclists (cyclists!) toiling up the track ahead. Delighted, we stopped to donate sweets and beer and had a great chat – they were Swiss, had been travelling by bike and train for months throughout south east Asia, China, Mongolia, and ultimately were heading homewards like us, though they would arrive about 6 months later. We’d both been tempted to suggest camping together but Mike was coughing like he had the consumption and we desperately didn’t want to pass it on to these guys, so we carried on.

Instead we stopped by a small frozen lake just down from a windy, snowy plateau and cooked some of the meat in our camp pressure cooker (genius addition), and sat down to enjoy a delicious mutton stew…

In our preparation for this trip it would have been easy to get carried away upgrading and modifying every inch of the truck and we had to constantly, sagely, remind ourselves we were going overlanding, not off-roading. Since starting we have driven every kind of surface – from sand dunes to snow drifts, cratered mud trails to immaculate tarmac. We are learning to judge the ruts and differentiate between ‘maintain speed and Mike’s skull will only just graze the headliner’ and ‘bury the wheels, bottom out the suspension and squeak an apology to Giles as we get airborne’… The next morning we faced several hundred more kilometres of cross country tracks. It’s pretty arduous driving so we stop often and change over, replenish tea or make porridge. We were doing just that when a small flat bed lorry complete with a pair of horses in the back pulled up alongside us and stopped. They were out of fuel… could we help? We tried siphoning some diesel from our tank but it turns out it has an anti siphon valve. Hmm. What about towing them to the top of the pass, from whence they could coast down the other side? they asked. well… Ok!

It was 20km to the top so we ate our porridge, put in the towing hitch, strapped Giles to their truck and set off. We stopped at the top by an Ovoo (shamanistic offering consisting of rocks, tree branches, colourful fabric and often, bafflingly, crutches), unhitched, and watched them merrily coast off down the other side. Half an hour later we pulled up next to them at a Guanz (canteen) at the bottom of the valley where Mike order tea and soup like a local. Tea is generally tsutee tsai (salty tea) and soup is generally mutton plus – today’s being mutton plus some kind of noodles.

The Swiss cyclists had been assured that the road from this point on was tarmac so we were dismayed on their behalf to find it isn’t quite finished yet. For the next hundred km we mostly drove alongside what will be the road, sometimes sneaking back on for a section before diving off again at an incomplete bridge or culvert. Eventually we reached pristine, continuous tarmac and it was the quietest road we have been on in the whole of Mongolia.

The next day saw us travelling through some of the most discomfitingly barren, desolate landscape I have ever seen in an area known as the Great Lakes depression. We arrived at Ulaangom which was also a fairly forbidding place and carried straight on through – there was another storm forecast and we were heading into the mountains – for snow leopard country.