It takes a while to put a finger on what is different about Jargalant. Allegedly the home of the tallest man in Mongolia, on the surface its just another dusty town which is still waking up when we arrive just before 10am on a Saturday morning. We pass shuttered up restaurants, hotels, pubs and even a museum when it sinks in that these signs are all in English – we’ve crossed some invisible line and hit the tourist trail.
Its a grey and chilly morning, and with a hard climb to a 2100 metre pass before the Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (Great White Lake) where we’re hoping to treat ourselves to a stay at a plush tourist ger, but after slipping in mud in the morning, I’m reluctant to jump back on the bicycle and we manage to deliberate in the town until 11am.
When we finally wind our way up through ger-studded grasslands in the direction of the lake, we sight our first tourist vans – a woman with blond hair in the window of one, a guy hugging a backpack in another. In groups of two or three, this steady stream of beaten up Russian vans proudly wave Mongolian flags as they wind down roads through the sort of scenery you would expect to see in Mongolia.
The climb is an up and down affair, sharp up-hills which force us to jump off the bicycles before their peaks and daunting down-hills which counter any height we’ve gained. In the late afternoon we finally leave the idyllic grasslands behind for a steep pine lined track which is too hard to pedal up, though we take turns trying to cycle stretches of it. We finally reach the top of our biggest pass to date just before 6pm after 40 kilometres of challenging cycling. From Jargalant we have gained 800m elevation but with the hilly road it feels like at least double this.
We’re cooking breakfast in a sunny spot down the valley the next morning when a van stops and a French group gets out to offer us Pringles and quiz us on our trip while their driver and guide check out our cooking equipment. Not much later we meet a Spanish couple who are sightseeing by van before starting a cycling trip to Nepal. Its not long before we meet other travellers on bicycles as well, most looking a lot less weathered than us.
The descent to the lake isn’t as easy as we had anticipated, with as much up and down on this side as the Northern side of the pass. When we reach the shore in time for a late lunch we contemplate an afternoon swim, but Mongolia’s changeable weather has different plans and instead we’re treated to a spectacular storm on the far side of the lake, the distant rain a dramatic backdrop to our afternoon’s riding.
We tackle one last steep climb before descending to a road across the volcanic lava field that leads towards Khongo Ger Camp. The rain catches up with us just before we reach the site. Justin is greeted at the gate by a worker on a bicycle and we decide to treat ourselves to full board for a night for the princely sum of 35,000 togrog per person (about £17.50).
As soon as our ger is opened we’re glad to have made that decision, its cosy and well furnished and a fire is quickly lit for us. Dinner includes our first tastes of yak meat and yak yoghurt. Over the coming meals we feel spoilt by the best food we’ve had in Mongolia including freshly baked bread and rhubarb jam.
The next morning we spend a couple of hours seeing the world at a slower pace, hiring a local villager to take us for a horse trek back over to the lakes. We’re back at the ger camp in time for a proper storm to begin and spend the afternoon keeping the fire in our ger stoked so our hand washed clothes can dry.
With a few days until our next scheduled ‘tourist stop’ at the Fairfield Guesthouse in Tsetserleg we’re surprised to come across the new road under construction just out of Tariat, the closest village to the ger camp. We follow it for a few kilometres before getting sick of the potholed mess and returning to the dirt roads that still run parallel. Halfway through the day our track leads back to the road and our wheels roll onto a smooth and flat surface. We’ve hit tarmac!
Just after the tarmac starts, we stop at a row of roadside restaurants and Justin looks for our Mongolian phrasebook in my handlebar bag, wanting to ask if a place makes his new favourite dish, tsuivan. Its not there and I realise I must have left it at the ger camp, which is now 40 kilometres behind us. Frustrating as it is, we’re at least in an area where we’re not the only tourists and we’ll be able to survive until Ulaanbaatar without its help.
We get 25 km of easy riding before making camp but the next day our road turns to dirt again for 40 kilometres and sees us cross a particularly deep and fast flowing river. We welcome the sight of tarmac at the top of a pass, stopping to talk to a Swiss cyclist who’s beard growth rivals Justin’s whose pushing his bicycle up the last of the hill.
The appeal of a long descent ahead of us dims as another storm pulls close but 25 kilometres downhill in heavy rain on tarmac is still preferable to the same distance on dirt roads. We pull into a flooded stretch of cafes to eat a late lunch of tsuivan (Justin) and dumpling soup (me) before the heavens open. We sit out the worst of the rain, playing cards with the help of the owner’s children before cycling on. Camp is set up before low clouds sink around us and heavy rain continues to fall through the night.
We have only 20km to ride into Tsetserleg, but the rain doesn’t let up and the tarmac ends at the outskirts of town. As we push our bicycles down a steep and muddy track, Justin remarks that the scene in front of us is something out of a mad max film – cars are abandoned, a motorcycle is being towed out of a ditch and roads have turned into muddy streams. We slip and slide our way into the centre of the town, arriving at the door of the Fairfield Guesthouse and Bakery grubbier than ever.
The aroma of fresh bread and coffee surrounds us as we unload our sopping luggage in the entrance hall. Pushing our bikes through the kitchen to a storage cupboard we spy a busy cafe filled with travellers, cakes and other culinary delights. We don’t specifically need a long break but swiftly book in for three nights, convinced that hot showers and real coffee will help in planning the next leg of our trip.