Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Cold eyeballs in the Gobi



‘Ganbei!’

Again?

I heaved myself to my feet and raised my glass of ‘wine’, it swayed in front of me, vague, like a ship’s lantern. ‘Ganbei!’ (‘Cheers!’) and I brought the glass to my lips. A pungence stormed my sinuses, my stomach replied with a mutinous rumble.

I’d lost count of the times ‘Ganbei!’ had been bawled across the table; but the once-barren spread of mahogany spoke of a great many. Dribbling beer cans lay toppled like drunks in ragged alleys of plates mounded with tofu, shrimps and sweet and sour fish. A scattering of small jugs impounded a portentously clear spirit – Baijiu is not wine in the traditional sense, it’s made from sorghum, this one was home-made and ‘only 50%!’ – a fact I discovered was deserving of an emphatic ‘Ganbei!’ in itself.

I sat among sixteen Chinese men and women, in various stages of life, and consciousness; the progressively less wholesome members of an Outdoors Club, and it was hard, amid the wreckage of our booze-ageddon – presided over by bloodshot eyes and twisted grins – to imagine any of them as hale hikers and bikers, though they were clearly determined. Each ‘Ganbei!’ was becoming more dogged and garbled than the last, less an act of celebration now than a savage spur to depravity.

I sat down again and an arm trailed my shoulder – I turned to find a bristled fume-breathing creature on the end of it, lurching. He locked his dewy eyes on mine, or tried to, and ripped into song – some low, wavering Chinese lament that made sudden rapt faces of my comrades until another man leapt to his feet and blundered out to howls of laughter – he had eaten one of the ‘special’ dumplings spiked with red chili and was in hot pursuit of liquid less than 50% alcohol.

The meal was a fusillade of gestures and roars and orders and offerings. I didn’t need Chinese to catch the drift. Cigarette? No thanks. Give him food! A chunk of meat arrived. Photo, I posed. Ganbei! I drank. Have this keyring. Thank you. More meat! Thank you. Refill his beer! Thank you. Photo – OK. Stand up and say something! I heaved myself up on legs which had apparently turned to rope. ‘Ganbei!’ was all that came to mind and mouth. Cheers exploded, guzzling ensued.

It’s the travellers delusion that every experience in a foreign land is characteristic – and as I escaped to the bathroom I wondered if this wasn’t a particularly Chinese affair at all, maybe I was simply hanging out with a tribe of frenzied alcoholics? But no, that wasn’t it. The China I had come to know, the surface version anyway, was an unyielding racehorse of a nation, everyone I’d met so far ate furiously, drank even faster, and spoke at indecipherable speed.

Between the group-calls to drink there were numerous one to one challenges; you could nominate anyone, any time. Drinking Baijiu may be brave, but it repays the courage it once obliged: I grabbed my glass and offered a ‘Ganbei!’ to the prettiest girl, and to a clamour of wicked hoots she blushed to something approaching beetroot and our faces cracked into scrambled smiles.

‘This is for Volunteer’s day!’ rang a voice from my left. I turned to the young hair-gelled cigarette-toting man beside me, who may have been nodding, though not all of him was content to stay in focus.

‘Two girls are no married!’ he yelled, and two pretty faces, one from my left and one from my right, framed in furry hoods, laughed by squeaks into manicured hands. Ahhh, Valentine’s Day, my drunk-slow brain churned out. ‘This is Flower, and this is Meow, like a cat’.

‘How old you?’ asked Flower. The man to my right replied for me and I recognised the Chinese for my correct age, 34, a sibilant chaos that, to my ears, sounded like a drunk failing to order samosas.

‘What kind of women do you like?’ asked Meow. I answered rashly ‘All kinds!’ maybe because I was drunk, or wanted to be judged open-minded or was feeling honest, I can’t remember. Her eyes narrowed – it was the wrong answer.

Kevin, the host, introduced food to me by way of the translating app on his iPhone. ‘Home-smoked elbow’ said the screen and he pointed to a meaty mountain. Then: ‘we are kinsmen’, arm around my shoulder. Then, pointing, ‘Beggar’s Chicken’. Gulp.

The food was sensational, better even than his iPhone boasted, but as I readied chopsticks and prepared for an expedition in dining, ‘Ganbei!’ assaulted my ears and set me downing another long pour of beer.

It couldn’t last of course, and gradually we climbed down off this profligate peak – the hugs grew less gripping, the selfies dwindled, even the ‘Ganbei!’s became less charged with violence. As I looked about me the once smiling eyes were sinking into groggy retreat, but it was a happy scene, the end of a vigorous battle. It had been either a resounding victory or a patent defeat, it was impossible to tell which, but we’d fought audaciously together.

Soft daylight glittered the battlefield of beer cans, spilling through the jugs of half-glugged Baijiu, refracting over the cows tendons with coriander (‘Kevin, easy on the tendons, OK?’). It was 11.30 am, I’d been drinking hard for less than one hour, and I wasn’t sure how to spend the meat of another Chinese day. Probably though I would sleep off the liquor and go out for dinner, somewhere with a picture menu, I thought. My stomach might protest any more elbows.

Gobi-time

In Datong I discovered that the border would be closed for four days over the Chinese new year, and I’d have to take a short bus ride. To wait meant overstaying my visa and I wouldn’t be allowed to re-enter in the west of the country.

The road north passed through sere grassland, with gatherings of stout conifers here and there. We stopped briefly in a town to disgorge passengers onto a pavement where seven newly decapitated sheep languished, preparation for the festivities, a delta of bloody trickles spanning the road.

Soon we reached the southern Gobi - a derelict world, massacred into raw plains by extremes of climate and foisting poverty on those who dwelled in clutches of tumbledown brick houses - places apparently untouched by any trickle of wealth from the steel and coal industries that reign over inner Mongolia. One time steppe had been violated by the desert, grass reduced to occasional stubble, though sheep still roamed - the colour of their fleeces somewhere between the dun desert and the dove grey snow which gathered in the dips and gutters of land. The herders were like Tolkienian wraiths, faceless, wooly-hooded, they turned invisible eyes to our bus as we bumped by. We gained some altitude and the snow and ice became more sprawling, reaching from the hollows to bleach whole slopes and wreath the trunks of trees, above us the sky was cloud-smeared; as lifeless and hostile as the land. Mileposts lost meaning here amid the long, wan, snow-dappled spaces.

The sky above cleared as I expected it to as we approached the border - Mongolia is famously ‘the land of blue skies’ with around 250 sunny days a year. I’m a glass half full man, but I had to wonder about those 115 other ones, a blizzard here would be brutal as even sunny days in February come with daytime highs of minus 10 or minus 15 °C.

We pulled into a windy Erlian, the Chinese border town whose raison d’etre seemed to be to sate Mongolian shoppers. Signs in the town, on shops, came in up to four different scripts – Latin, Chinese, Mongolian Cyrillic and Traditional Mongolian (which looks like Arabic, but is written vertically). I wondered if anywhere else on earth could boast the same quirk (suggestions welcome!). I’d studied Russian for three years at school, and though the language itself had ebbed away to leave some rusty nuts and bolts, I was glad I could still read the Cyrillic script having not used it for 18 years.

I was assembling my gear on my bike when a felt a figure approach, turning I saw an old man ambling over, smile shining. We exchanged a few words about my journey before he gave me a friendly pat on my arm, then my back, then my stomach and then, in a lightning quick, indefensible lunge he grabbed a handful of the crown jewels! I shook him off and he acted like this kind of thing was normal manly play, and asked, still smiling, if I needed a hotel. It turned out to be China’s parting gift – getting felt up by a depraved geriatric.

I knew the temperature in the Mongolian Gobi in winter could fall to minus 30 or below at night, and for that I was ready: three sleeping bags, three sleeping mats, a down jacket and a frankly farcical ratio of gloves to hands. But how cold it would be and how cold it would feel were two different things: wind and snow would make the difference.

I cycled towards a manmade rainbow constructed over the road marking the border, snow had fallen overnight, so I used the soles of my trainers to brake. Bikes are not allowed to cross so I loaded my gear into a vehicle stocked with a bunch of booze-reeking strangers and we chugged into Mongolia.

Zamyn Uud, on the Mongolian side, was a smaller town than I’d hoped but after China it was a welcome change: shops actually stocked recognisible produce! And no chicken feet! There were 17 brands of vodka – a hangover from Soviet era socialism, and alcoholism is an epidemic here.

With several days of food, and eight litres of water I wobbled off onto a sandy track that snaked and branched and within minutes I was lost. I dumped by bike in the sand and ran to the train line to see if there was a better track, but there was nothing, and a dog deterred me from roaming any further. Mongolian dogs outsize their Chinese toy counterparts by 20 fold. They are monstrous, wolf-beating things, and when you approach a Gur (a traditional Mongolian nomad’s tent) Mongolians will call ‘Nokhoi Khori!’ – literally: ‘hold your dogs!’ It is the single most useful phrase in Mongolian because ‘thank you’, ‘please’ and ‘you’re welcome’ might not be necessary, or possible, after a mauling.


At last I found a paved road but a headwind kicked up so that night I camped behind an icy bluff which lent some shelter. The sun set, deflections of tangerine light seeped from remote ridges, settling to a royal blue overhead. It was too cold to admire the stars for long, but for a minute I gawked at Venus, a brilliant mote in the east. Silence. I thought then that whatever it is that makes me appreciate wild spaces is nothing learnt or acquired, it’s innate, it’s soul-deep, and it’s unshakable.

Sunrise was a sudden illumination of my tent, light switch fast. Beforehand, in the dark, the choice between my sleeping bag and minus 20 had been an easy one. But as a white sun lit the frosty desert - sun beams glancing off pools of snow, sparkling the rocks - I began to stir. I had stored water, the gas for my stove and anything sweaty enough to freeze solid overnight inside my sleeping bag. The low humidity had made it easier, so far, than Europe when wet nights of minus 20 turned my trainers to clogs and my gloves to stone. Any moisture in my tent had mostly emanated from me - a mix of my sweat and breathes, which froze overnight, glittering the roof of my tent.

The snow patched the desert like land over a globe, throwing off peninsulas and archipelagoes of hoar frost and ice. One car an hour dashed past in a scratch of sound. A crow flew overhead, making an unearthly ‘eh-aw’ sound I’d never heard, or perhaps had never been given the silence profound enough to appreciate before. I set off with a luxurious tailwind which sent footballs of tumbleweed raging along the road with me, like a wave of rioters speeding toward police lines. Always in the wind and space of deserts I recall the others far behind me: the Sahara, the Namib, the Atacama, the Sonoran. The sky over the Gobi was as wide and vast as any desert sky, and the jet trails didn’t diminish the wildness, they lent perspective, flaunting its vaulting sprawl. Several could often be seen at once, lower to the horizon they stood up straight like rockets taking off, though I knew they ranged through another spread of unblemished sky, over a similar swathe of rock, sand and silence. Directly above, the planes inched over the blueness, proving the sky massive in their lazy trespass.


I passed tribes of brown goats, camel herds ridden by wild looking men, and groups of wild horses. I stopped to investigate any glitch in the monotony, a dead Bactrian camel, a pack of vultures, a rustless and long-ago plundered car. The animal carcasses, like the car, decayed slowly in this freezing, arid place - they looked dissected and plasticized, like a prop from an 80’s horror film.

The highlight of my days in the Gobi were the Bactrian Camels which would halt their grazing and watch me as I got close – tight zigzags peaking at heads, humps and tails. Often I would get within ten metres from a pack and watch them for a while as the males swished and slapped their urinated-on tails in that most obscene of mating rituals, familiar from BBC nature documentaries. They were in rut, it was mating season, and I was advised not to get too close, apparently the males can get a bit crazy – biting and spitting and even sitting on other males. I wasn’t sure exactly what this could mean for me, but potentially a male Bactrian with a glint in his camel eye could be a lot worse than a groping Chinese granddad.




I came across a small house and a Gur and stopped to refill my water. The only human I’d met in 200 km, the owner, was a miserable man, with a dog that helped itself to the bread in my front pannier. His wife gave me a fair price for some water but he looked me over and doubled it, smirking. It wasn’t clear if his isolation was the cause or effect of his douchebaggery.

After a few days the desert lost grip of its beauty, becoming featureless, and it was hard to think of anywhere I’d been so barren. From time to time a train forged a lonely rumble across the desert, reviving the desolation as it passed on. The road gave an occasional impression of mounting to a precipice, but when I arrived it was just the crown of a low hill and the land apathetically rolled on to the next horizon.

My eyeballs grew cold, I had not planned for this. The air leaked around them, oozing into my head. And I was now unable to wiggle my toes. I considered stopping and jumping around, but although my medical knowledge asserted otherwise, I worried they may be too brittle to bear it and I might hear a shattering sound followed by the fateful tinkling of toe fragments from within my frozen trainers. It hadn’t got above minus 15 today and at night the temperature slumped to minus 30.

I stopped again by a few houses on the railway line to restock on water as mine was frozen. A tall, vigorous man greeted me as I arrived; a mouth overflowing with yellow teeth cut a big smile. I was hurried inside his home and sat down in front of a feast – a tower of biscuits, part of a dead beast centre-table, not so much a steak as a slab of meat and gristle. As I pondered it the man put his hands to his head indicating the horns of a cow. They cut off strips of the cold fatty beef for me to scarf and poured me some fermented horse milk. Children sat on the floor watching the TV which showed Mongolian music videos – men dressed in traditional deels in the mountains or aside icy lakes crooning bassy and heartfelt songs. A visitor arrived, a young lady, and she bent down and gave money to an old woman sitting near the door, then greeting her by placing her outstretched arms underneath, and holding her elbows – a gesture known as Zolgokh. ‘Vodka!’ the man announced. I drank a shot and he shouted ‘da da!’ in approval, perhaps assuming me Russian. With replenished water, and after two more shots of vodka, and various presents (a bottle of Fanta, a pack of cards, some colourful fabric) I was ushered out. Unwittingly I had stumbled into a Mongolian home during Tsagaan Sar, the lunar new year.

After I set off on the back of this hospitality, the tail wind, and perhaps the vodka, lent an invincible feeling - it’s a sensation I’ve grown to associate with everything going wrong, immediately and cataclysmically.

And then wind changed, by 180 degrees.

The next day the clichés used to cajole people into adventures had no relevance. ‘Live without regrets!’ ‘Carpe Diem!’ they sing. Yet today, I thought, I have cycled into the wind, spoke to nobody, saw nothing but plains of fine rock, became dulled by my own rotating thoughts, and then pitched my tent and slept. How, exactly, is that taking life by the scruff of the neck? I’m one day older, a little more wind-blown and much more pissed off. ‘You’re living the dream!’ a Canadian man told me in Pingyao. Only if you dream about Maggie noodles, numb toes and weekly changes of underwear. The next days scrolled by, unseized. Each morning I threw sand into the air to assess the wind direction, but it was grabbed and tossed back across the unfurled parchment of desert, lickety-split, to China.



Why am I doing this to myself? To prove I can? Patagonia was windier. I’ve been colder, lonelier, more tired, more bored. It’s unreasonable! It’s masochism!

I could hitch a ride

Give up? I’d open Pandora’s Box, I’d find increasingly pathetic excuses to take lifts all over Asia.

I’ll never get these three days back, they will zip away like tumbleweed. Give up. It doesn’t matter.

Its only three days to Ulaanbaatar, if I persevere…

My knee hurts

Not enough

I need more food

I’ll find some

OK. I’ll get a lift. The next car.

Maybe one more hour, then see…

Get a lift!

But I said I’d do this…

That’s not a good reason!

OK. But maybe I should ride to prove I don’t have to listen to my doubts, to show I control my demons. If that takes three days, that’s three days well spent, right?

Silence

I’d out-thought my demons! I’m unbreakable! Nothing can stop me!

Two hours later I was sitting in the back of a people carrier heading towards UB.

The wind had picked up, sand-filled gusts of 50 mph pummeled me for hours. I’d covered 20 km all day. I was cold. I needed to register in the capital within 7 days to avoid a 100 dollar fine and the possibility of being denied a visa extension. Plus I had no food, and about as much will to live.

‘No regrets!’ they say. Well, I have none.

The car carried an incalculable number of children who were stuffed between, on top of and probably underneath the adults. The radio played Mongolian hip hop, which sounded like the CIA were waterboarding a Klingon.

Pollution was the first sign of the city, it sagged over Ulaanbaator, the world’s coldest capital, generated mostly from the coal burning stoves and traffic. The outskirts of the city were taken by the Gur district - a great spread of fenced off nomad’s tents and shacks – many residents, once true nomads, had been lured into the city from afar, 40,000 newbies every year. Some had lost their land to the expanding desert, the steppe is overgrazed and the climate is changing. Some lost their animals in the dzuds – punishingly cold winters, the last in 2010, when it became impossible to reach animals and they perished in the snow. 

9.30 am in Ulaanbaator
A lot has happened during my two weeks in UB – I met four other around the world bikers (Twisting Spokes, World Bicyclist and Around 7 Continents), I visited hospitals and children’s shelters, I fitted a new Rohloff Hub (number four!), I presented at the International School, explored temples and scored visas.

But the highlight was undoubtedly meeting Susanne and Martin who have cycled from Holland – great dudes who I really bonded with. And of course Froit - the charismatic Dutchman who hosted me on my first night.

I thought about getting a Russian visa, but things were complicated by the fact that the UK wasn’t on the list of approved nations at the embassy. Plus a Russian working there was reputedly to be, and I quote from an internet source: ‘A mild Sociopath.’ Someone so implacably rude he was causing problems internationally.

So my hope is to ride up to 150 km across the (hopefully) frozen surface of Mongolia’s deepest Lake - Khovsgol, and through the very remote northwest of the country, the realm of reindeer herders. For five weeks I will explore the remote reaches of this country, which promises to be some of the toughest and coldest riding yet, and then hopefully I’ll cross into China – into the autonomous region of Xinjiang - before hitting Kazakhstan.

My itinerary is taking shape: Central Asia for the summer, caucuses in the autumn, and then a possibility of rowing/kayaking/pedal-boating the Black Sea coast, TBC, before Europe at long last and for a second time.

Thanks yous – Froit, Kevin, Susanne and Martin, the three soon to be trans-asian riders: Ben, Ian and Jon, Chris and Betsy and everyone at the International School, Shari and Richard.

Finally here’s some TV news footage from Myanmar - http://youtu.be/0VZzitQMzls