An unsigned right hand turn onto a sandy track leading steeply uphill marks our exit from Bayan-Olgii and the start of our route east to Ulaanbaatar. We ask a local if this is the way to Hovd to which he smiles and nods. We think this means either “Yes it is” or else “You are going there by bicycle?”. With the road surface varying from loose gravel to deep sand it requires all our attention so breaks are increasingly frequent as we pause to absorb the scenery around us. The snow capped peaks around Olgii provide a marker of the distant horizon and a strip of vibrant green that snakes along the course of the Khovd Gol (river) breaks up the endless foreground.
Slowly the novelty of cycling on what we come to call “off-road roads” dwindles and the realisation that an average speed of 6km an hour is now the norm sets in. Finding a camp spot in a landscape that stretches as far as the eye can see and is devoid of features to hide our tent behind is hopeless so we pitch over the brow of a hill and enjoy a stunning Mongolian sunset.
Waking with legs that feel like they have cycled at least double the recorded 53km of the previous day we head onwards towards Achit Nuur (lake). Emma learns how to cycle in a controlled skid during the long sandy descent to the lake shore. The deep blue coloured lake and shoreline dotted with pure white gers makes a striking impression against the backdrop of mountains.
Reaching the lake shore we pass a number of households on the move with belongings and people piled high in trucks. The local children excitedly chase us on their bikes easily keeping pace with us through the deep sand as they shout “Hello”. A Kazakh man invites us into his ger that also doubles as the local shop where his English teacher daughter translates his queries and our answers between sips of salty tsai (tea) and mouthfuls of home made cheeses.
The combination of uphill, sand and blistering hot sun make for a long sweaty afternoon of pushing and riding before we reach the next pass and find a roadside pitch for the evening. Our brightly striped shade cloth attracts some passing locals on their way to Hovd over for a chat. We enjoy another glorious sunset and head into our tent only moments before the locals return with vodka and large jars of gherkins. With our tent doors shut, as per typical Mongolian hospitality they don’t disturb us. We hear their laughter for a few hours, until vodka and snacks consumed they gun their motorcycle engines and roar off into the darkness, foregoing the road in favour of a more direct cross-country route.
The 15km to Hovd takes us most of the morning due to a particularly sandy 7km stretch that sees us pushing our bikes and wondering how we will ever make it to the village ahead let alone Ulaanbaatar. Our first rural town makes our stomachs sink, with no fruit or vegetables available, no open cafe and store shelves filled only with sugary junk food. Collecting some water from the village well but dispensed through a strange yellow hose pipe we head out of town. We lunch on something that was once bread but having been stored in a fridge for so long it has now almost decomposed back to flour. Our lunch-time visitors quiz us through the now familiar routine of “Where are we from?”, “Where we are going?”, “We are really doing this on bicycles?”.
Our afternoon highlight is a river crossing which requires us to porter our bikes and bags across while other traffic roars through the thigh deep water. The cooling effects of the crossing and accompanying swim are quickly forgotten as we try to cycle on a dry riverbed filled with boulders and rocks that also doubles as the road. Our evening camp spot gives us front row seats for an epic thunderstorm that fills the valley below us and makes us hold our tent poles for fear they may snap as the wind whips and whistles around us.
Our confidence in cycling on Mongolian roads increases and the road quality improves enough that the next few days see us covering reasonable distances and beginning to relax into a more comfortable rhythm. Arriving in the town of Omnogov we are fantasising about cold drinks and delicious snacks and it doesn’t disappoint. Never before have we been so excited about finding cherry tomatoes for sale in a small shop and a cafe with fresh buuz (dumplings). A brief encounter with a drunk local intent on riding our bikes leaves us slightly wary of camping too near the town and we cycle on into a fierce head wind along the shore of Olgii Nuur before finding shelter for the night behind a low rise and some small shrubs.
The next morning we receive a visit from a local horseman who tries unsuccessfully to ride an unloaded bike on the sandy ground. He invites us back to his ger but forgetting to get clear directions when we set out to follow him realise we have no idea which ger is his amongst the 8 or so in a 3km radius. Continuing along the lake shore towards a town confusingly also called Olgii, we are passed by a constant stream of horses and motorcycles all with accompanying shouts of “Hello” and waving. We arrive in Olgii to milling horses and people in ceremonial dress, loud music and flags waving wondering if this is all for our benefit or if there is something else afoot.