It takes most of the day to reach Khyargas Nuur (lake), following power lines straight down for an easy 30 kilometres, followed by 15 of loose gravel downhill and 5 fast across hard mud on the flat riverbed. There’s little traffic and we only slow as we sight our first two humped Mongolian camels. Compared to the hard push up over a 1800m pass we did out of Olgii the day before, we are flying. With high hopes we reach the outskirts of Naranbulag looking to resupply before tackling the 350 kilometre stretch to the next town on our map.
As we cycle into the town, the clouds that have been chasing us all day have disappeared and its suddenly scorchingly hot. Worse still the town appears deserted with high walls surrounding wide empty boulevards. We’re low on cash but the bank is closed, which is when we realise its Sunday afternoon. We find a street of small shops and though we find the holy grail of frozen juice, products on the shelves are covered with a thick layer of dust. I manage to pull together enough food for five days by searching all four tiny but open shops, but can’t find any fruit or vegetables to add to the meagre supply of carrots, potatoes and onions we’re already carrying.
We’re unlucky on the water front, only adding an additional five litres of dirty debris filled water to our bikes. The petrol station only dispenses diesel and is shut anyway so we figure the 500mls we have will last us until the next pump.
Finally leaving town at 7pm with half of our essentials un-sourced we realise we are unprepared for a section we know will be very tough. As we cross 10 lanes of overgrown tracks to set up our free camp in the first camel free area we come across, the reason for the lack of towns on this stretch slowly sinks in – we’re cycling through a desert.
Having cycled continuously for a week since leaving Bayan-Olgii we had planned to pause for a day at an old Soviet era hotel 50km from Naranbulag. They have no room for us so instead we spend the afternoon hanging around a small guanz (roadside cafe) nearby, where we fill our water containers from a natural spring and entertain the owners’ children. We reluctantly cycle on in the late afternoon knowing that it will be another week before we have a day off.
The spring is the last easy water we have access to, and getting enough to drink is a huge challenge over the next few days. It is hot from 9:30 and we’re drinking twice as much as we would have expected – 19 litres that we carry between us isn’t enough. We get up early and stop for long breaks in the middle of the day, sheltering under our makeshift shade and fighting off a lively assortment of insects.
Our attitudes towards our dwindling water supplies are at odds which doesn’t make matters any better. With a reasonable amount of traffic passing us each day, I optimistically think rivers, gers or guanz shops will appear and cars will have water if we stop them. Justin worries and recalculates what we have left against the number of days we have to cycle, gets dehydrated and worked up and wonders at my lack of concern.
Whenever we ask about the next water source, the answer is invariably 45km away, and as we pass 45km mark without finding a magical stream, river or ger this number takes on mythical proportions. We do pass a roadside ger doubling as a shop or restaurant every day but the water for everyone in this part of Mongolia is hard to come by. Our water filter is used daily and we reflect on how tough life must be for the few inhabitants here.
We pay £10 for 10 litres of water in a tiny restaurant where the only children that I dislike in all of Mongolia reside. For the hour it takes to source the water, us weary and thirsty travellers have to actively pull the children off our bicycles, stop them chewing on our bottles and taking things out of our handlebars.
Riding with fully loaded bicycles weighed down with water through a desert is tougher than either of us had imagined. Our riding speed is unmatched, Justin usually getting fed up of washboard quicker than me and swapping tracks often to ride on the smoothest path. Justin is still a little under the weather and wants out of the desert, fast. For my part, I’m usually daydreaming when I stumble into into big bumpy zones of washboard which I crawl through blind to alternatives. Sometimes I can see Justin literally kilometres away on the flat plain and I have to repeat ‘its your own journey’ as I plod slowly towards him, running my own race.
I’m entranced by the space out here, being able to see for kilometres in every direction. Up close thousands of wildflowers cover the rocky ground while mountains frame the view in every direction. I’m not alone in admiration, with a regular stream of Mongolian travellers also on our road. When they stop to talk to us they’re invariably large families from Ulaanbaatar who are taking a two – three day drive to Ulaangom, a town in the North East of Mongolia. We’re offered water and iced tea by a few kind souls plus a range of Mongolian snacks including a dried cheese made from mare’s milk (nicer before you know its made from mare’s milk).
As we crawl across the map, Justin dreams of ice-cubes and I wonder if I can scull a 1.5 litre bottle of water. We make good progress with several 60 km days but then a truck driver lifts our spirits no end. The next town on our route will be Songino, which is almost a full day riding closer than the one we had expected.
Sure there’s still no cell-phone reception, no vegetables save for a few onions and cabbage and we won’t have a shower or break off the bikes for another two nights but Songino does have a street lined with tiny shops doubling as canteens where we eat big plates of rice and vegetable soup (both with healthy doses of mutton) and gas stations to fill our almost empty fuel bottle.
We now haven’t showered for a record 12 days and our clothing is so stiff we’re considering harvesting salt for cooking from it. Add to that Justin’s increasingly bushy beard, Emma’s default 1980s hairstyle and the number of scabs we have both accumulated from various falls and we’re starting to feel like proper adventurers.