After the trials of our desert riding, it feels good to be able to cycle just a few kilometres from Songino before erecting our shelter to wait out the midday heat with bellies full of food and water. Even the ever-present swarms of flies don’t dampen our spirits although they do force us back onto the road an hour or so earlier than usual.
We stop for Justin to do an impression of a wildlife photographer as he sneaks up on some horses grazing at the edge of a salt lake, before speeding uphill on some of the smoothest Mongolian roads we have had to date. Its great to be able to spin along at speeds up to 15km per hour for a change.
As the sun sets we are aggressively invited to stay at a ger by a passing driver but smelling the distinct whiff of vodka and noting the accompanying glazed eyes we decline and cycle on. Whether it is the vodka fumes or tired legs, a few kilometres later Emma slips on some loose gravel and adds a new graze to her already banged up legs. We take that as a sign to stop, and pull into a quiet roadside spot where a local motorcyclist stops to chat and indicates rain is on its way. We scoff down our food as our new found travel companions, the flies, try to share but manage to get tucked into the tent with flies on the outside before the rain starts.
The flies are waiting next morning, so we skip breakfast and pack the tent up before speeding onwards on the still smooth road. We arrive at a ger settlement where every single ger is working as a guanz (roadside cafe). Picking the one with the most customers Emma goes inside to order breakfast while Justin supervises the hordes of children and men inspecting our bicycles. After the usual round of questioning, feeling tyre pressure and spinning the pedals that fills the period we call Mongol-time (the time you wait between ordering and receiving food that is way too long for a hungry cycle tourist), everybody settles on ground with cups of tsai and plates of food. The food served is tsuivan, fresh noodles steamed over a mixture of fried meat and vegetables.
Checking we are headed the right way to Nomrog and that it is only another 30km we cycle on and almost immediately hit soft sand that forces us to push our bikes uphill. With the heat increasing and not a breath of wind, the flies totally swarm us. We think that word must have spread about our 12 day unwashed bodies and the plentiful supply of fly habitat they present.
Its Saturday when we reach Nomrog, population 300 (not including horses), only four open shops and with no cell-phone coverage for our provider, but we still stop at the first hotel we see. There is no shower in the hotel but the owner leads us directly to the town bathhouse, failing to understand our need to visit the bank before it shuts to get some local currency. By the time we have washed 12 days of sweat and dirt from our bodies the bank is closed until Monday morning. This forces us to negotiate paying for our room with (the never seen before in this town currency) Euros. A local English language student is called in to help with the negotiations and sits chatting through a sudden hail storm that turns the sandy streets white for a few minutes. Everyone is glued to the hotel windows and we are informed that hail in summer is very unusual.
Leaving Nomrog we cycle along the shore of Telmen Nuur described as “a large salt lake home to migrating waterfowl (and swarming flies)” in our guidebook and even though our bodies and bikes are freshly cleaned the flies once again follow us. Our windy lunch spot is fly-free but attracts a visit from two local horsemen riding 40km to the local town for supplies and a Mongolian family who veer off-road to share their airag (fermented mare’s milk) and vodka with us. Before leaving they try to force some cured marmot meat onto us but our explanation that we have no container to store the meat allows us to politely refuse.
Our evening camp-spot sees us both eating on our feet as we wave our arms and stomp our feet trying to keep the flies at bay. Some passing goatherds stop to chat bringing their goats and yet more flies to join the party. As soon as the goats, herdsmen and some of the flies have moved on we seek shelter in our fly-free tent. We are woken late at night by a foreign sound we can’t identify. Peering into the gloom from our tent we realise it is a herd of horses passing by the tent snuffling and gently neighing.
We have an estimated 30km the next day to reach our first major town since Bayan-Olgii, Tosontsengel. We don’t expect such a big climb to the 2020m pass and it takes us most of the morning to cover the distance. Along the way we pause to give some horsemen a trial ride on our loaded bikes hoping they will take them a few metres closer to the pass but they only manage to ride them downhill however leaving us further away than when we stopped.
In Tosontsengel we resupply on local currency, enjoy the first fresh fruit and vegetables we have eaten for two weeks and celebrate with cold beers (thanks to a donation from reader Neal Short). The town has a bustling main street with so many shops we make ourselves a map of which stores stock which supplies while a constant flow of cross-country traffic ensures that the food at our chosen cafe is always fresh and delivered faster than usual. After two rest days we are feeling not so well rested as other hotel guests tend to stay up late singing and wandering the corridors. One night at 5am Justin gets up to answer a knock at our door and we wonder that some Mongolians can tell their seemingly identical gers apart but get confused by numbered hotel rooms.
Leaving Tosontsengel, Emma spots yaks grazing beside a road that is much busier and more well maintained than anything we have cycled on so far in Mongolia. There are even bridges and occasionally a hand painted road marker. After a few hours Justin turns and sees huge black storm clouds approaching. Suddenly the storm is upon us with strong winds blowing sand and blasting us over the uneven road. We bravely (or stupidly some might say) cycle on, glad the gusts of wind are behind us as cycling into the wind and sand would be impossible.
The storm passes us quickly as we reach a small town for a lunch of Tsuivan preceded by the requisite Mongol-time wait. We realise that so far today we have stayed largely fly-free and wonder if the still circling storm clouds might be the reason.
The afternoon riding sees us leave the main road and bypass a partially collapsed bridge in favour of crossing the shallow river on foot. A second river crossing is made as the storm clouds return this time bringing freezing wind and rain making the river water seem surprisingly warm in comparison.
In the distance we spy a small temple with five animal statues outside, representing the five herded animals of Mongolia, and head for it. We are not sure of the required etiquette but racing the storm we prepare a fly-free dinner on the temple steps and use it as a windbreak for our tent. Among the yak, camel, goat, horse and sheep we identify a vacant space and think maybe a statue of a fly should be added.