Thursday, 16 April 2015

Ice lakes and frozen worlds


To the lake...

I was just a few kilometres from Ulaanbaator, but there was no hint a world capital lurked close by. The sky reached to wider horizons, plucked of the reaching soviet tower blocks, city traffic surrendered to silent space. Concrete was traded for yellowed steppe, salt and pepper peaks and the odd gur clinging limpet-like to the leeside of hills.

I stopped to watch two men load freshly shorn fleeces into a truck, one of them then arrived beside me and grabbed my cheeks, one in each hand between thumb and finger, like a vigorous granny might, jabbering away in the breathy music of Mongolian. Perhaps I’d received a compliment for the hardiness of winter biking, but given all the hacking and the untamed torrent of consonants, he could have been avowing to remove my liver and feed it to his dogs.

The road I’d planned on was rough and more of a notion than a singular thing. Like the Silk Road or the Panamerican Highway, a Mongolian ‘road’ is more often a network, and in this case, scribbled carelessly across the steppe. Cars forge new tracks continually (Mongolian roads are said to be nomadic, like the people) so without knowing where to put signposts, they aren't any, and I had only the occasional inkling of where I was or where I was heading. One track could birth four at once, the offspring fitfully twitching through shallow valleys, fancifully darting over hills, as hectic and aimless as lines on a palm.

I've drawn up a basic guide for Mongolian Cyclists:

1. Are you on a recognisable road?
  • Yes : You are almost certainly not in Mongolia. Consult world atlas and check last passport stamp
  • No: Go to question 2
2. Are you on a vague track with the barely visible tread of car tyres in the dust / mud / sand?
  • Yes: You are on a Mongolian Expressway which will lead eventually to a bustling Mongolian Metropolis of half a dozen families, a padlocked shop where you can buy chewing gum if the owners around, and 97 goats. If still concerned then wait for a car, there should be one along in a few hours.
  • No: You have probably veered off onto a dry river bed. Ration your noodles, write a note to your family, and watch the sky for vultures.
When I asked for directions Mongolians would, very literally, give me a direction - pointing not to a track, but to the particular bit of the horizon to head to, sometimes decorated with insurmountable mountain ranges or ice-layered lakes. (this is a habit replicated in cities too - people point diagonals through tower blocks). To add to the confusion some Mongolian towns have identical names and the duplicate can be painfully close geographically to the other one – Altay and Altay. Tosontsengel and Tosontsengel. Darvi and Darvi.

So I navigated on instinct, which may sound a romantic, even heroic way to travel, unless your instinct sucks, like mine. After some time lost (around two days), I decided local knowledge would be a better guide, but in Mongolia local people were as rare as my instinct was right.

I moseyed from gur to gur, and between sips of salty tea I’d assess the flap of a herders hand and set off on his advice. This was a GPS of sorts (the Gur Positioning System) and when it wasn’t brow crunchingly stressful, it was liberating. Rarely a 4x4 would throw up a scar of dust, like African animals on a stampede and I’d jerk away from my preferred trail and follow them, hoping the driver was going somewhere important.


One of the rare proper roads of Mongolia

The man next to me is 'One of the very important people in Mongolia' I'm told!

I climbed to a low pass where an ovoo marked the high point, and then joined a family for tea and hard Mongolian biscuits in their gur. Hospitality is a given in Mongolian – there is no fanfare. The Chinese are extremely unpopular in Mongolia and this was the subject of conversation in the gur – ‘they eat their dogs and horses!’ a boy told me in disgust. ‘China Fuck Me!’ he yelled extending his little finger, which translates as ‘bad’ in Mongolia. ‘You mean: China Fuck You!’ I corrected, making sure he was grammatically correct in his racism.

I left as snow thickened in the sky, ushered into the steppe from Siberian skies, which were getting closer all the time as I moved northwest. The trails were soon stolen by stacking snow and I was lost again until a man in a truck I’d met earlier returned. He hadn’t discovered me on the correct ‘road’ and had come looking for me. The Mongolian instinct is fine-tuned, this was hundreds of miles from his home and he had no map or GPS, yet he knew which of the 78 trails was heading the right way. I followed him to the right one.

At last trails converged to a 12 lane Mongolian superhighway which carried about one car every two hours. I flagged each one down, throwing myself madly in front of the wheels to ask, wild-eyed, if I was staying on the right track. Bemused herders squeezed amid seventeen family members confirmed I was right. The snow was dry and powdery, too cold to melt or turn to slush.

The steppe was scattered with horses, blond-maned curious creatures that rushed towards me as I cycled, trotting alongside and only jinking away when I stopped riding to reach for my camera. The stallion was aloof, cantering remotely from the mares, neighing and acting up. Vultures sat bulkily twenty yards off, surveying the steppe like morose police officers. I saw a whole team of sandgrouse too – speckled yellow-throated pigeon sized things that waddled on masse across the grassland, too dumb to realise that moving at a right angle from me would be less stressful than a parallel charge.



The next day I woke just before dawn, looked out of my tent at yellow-gold grass sticking up through blue snow. I cycled into a cold wind - my feet were the first to lose sensation, but then it crept all over me until my brain started working slowly and my daydreams came in tepid waves, of hot drinks and duvets. At last I saw a gur tucked away behind stubbled crops.

I opened the door and a family made space for me, moving a baby goat that was lying on the rug, days old. I leafed through my phrasebook ‘are your animals fattening up nicely?’ it was a good question – the man heaved backwards and with a slow proud nod told me yes, his goats were fat and hardy. His wife sat on a stool nearby and as she moved she farted and laughed. The man looked vaguely embarrassed but laughed too, and that set me off. If evidence were needed of the commonalities between nations, of our shared humanity, that fart humour survives amongst nomads in Outer Mongolia is the most compelling example I know.

The next day I reached Orhon and slept in an eating house but I was suffering from a bad sinusitis with fever, and by morning a large swelling had developed over my left cheek bone. Larch appeared and I knew I’d entered a new realm – the taiga, a vast boreal forest that circumscribes the planet. More snow fell, white rabbits darted about and local people warned me of wolves.

As I was heading north a car stopped and a guy and girl stepped out, looking astonished. ‘We’ve met before!’ She cried. I couldn’t immediately place the face but then it clicked – I’d met Sylvia in Namibia four years ago. It’s the fourth time I’ve run into someone by sheer coincidence on a different continent – but to meet a German girl in Namibia and then Mongolia is perhaps the weirdest.

I got to Hatsgal, on the shores of Lake Khovsgol with Sylvia and Torge, and shared a gur with their driver – a former professional wrestler. Sleep talking is a freaky business, but when it comes from a wrestler with cauliflower ears, in Mongolian, it is heart-explodingly fearful.


Around five years ago a surgeon removed a 2 cm chunk of cartilage from my left knee which had broken loose in careless fashion as if it no longer wanted a part of the cyclical madness I was putting it through. It wanted off the waltzer. That was after 4 months of riding through Europe. Ever since each twinge sends me into a cold sweat and I begin thinking about hand-cycles and kayaks, convinced I must get home one way or another. But by Hatsgal I realised this was more than the usual niggle. Femoropatellar syndrome? More cartilage damage? Patella tendonitis?

It was, I knew, an overuse injury, which was frustrating on two levels. Firstly - I’ve been cycling for five years now, which means I was overusing my knees around 4 and half years ago. It doesn’t seem fair that my body is only now lamenting the work out. And secondly because the treatment for overuse injuries is to stop using the bit being overused, and that couldn’t fit into my plans. I had to cross the entire country of dirt roads in four weeks. I’d recently bought new boots, with a different thickness to the sole, and this meant I was flexing my knee slightly more than I was used to. I can no longer adjust my saddle height as the seat post has long since fused through corrosion, and freeing it would be a massive task probably involving pouring chemicals into the frame. So my only option seemed be to alter my riding style and perhaps the soles of my shoes. Maybe in a year’s time as I will pedal into London wearing stilettos.

Cycling Across Lake Khovsgol


Khovsgol is an ancient lake, over 2 million years old. It the 2nd most voluminous freshwater lake in Asia and over 1000 metres higher than the first, lake Baikal in Siberia, which is around the same latitude, and is actually fed by Khovsgol.

It wasn’t the sound of ice cracking that was the most terrifying part of teetering out onto the frozen surface of Lake Khovsgol, it was the thuds. The bassy heartbeats from deep underneath the cracked ice ended with the unmistakable sound of bubbling water. The cracks came two or three a second, and gave the resounding effect of a fleet of hidden archers letting loose - swoosh! - but the proceeding bubbles meant water, as cold as water gets, was reaching for the surface, aching for my feet, ready to send me flailing and maybe trapping me beneath like some ancient hominid, preserving for ages my iPod and eyeballs.

This was a foray, if you like. An experiment. My plan was to cross the lake not by foot, but by bicycle, and even camp on its surface, a task now rendered bat shit crazy by the thunderous counsel from beneath my feet.

The surface was a crazy hatchwork of silvered fissures, like reams of tin foil suspended in glass - the ice rent and sheared by forces too myriad and complex to understand. There were whole solar systems of snow in there, pale frozen orbs, and vertical trails of one-time escaping bubbles impounded by the winter chill. Khovsgol was mesmorising, a sprawling Medusa, flatly poised, and dying at the base of the permanently snow-topped Sayan mountains to the west and taiga forest to the east. I lay down on my belly to get a closer look in, sensing the cold oozing through my down jacket and base layers, down in the bottle green deep I imagined what might twitch and jink. Nothing did.

I thought of all those becalming stats I’d heard from a Mongolian guide in Hatsgal. I knew now that in March the nighttime temperature would fall to around minus 15 or 20. I knew that the ice was over a metre thick and that it bears the weight of cars and trucks until May. I knew that if you broke through the ice, like the illegal ice fisherman do every day on the fringes of the beast, or the Russian bikers who use chainsaws to cut holes before taking vodka-fuelled leaps into the wet, the ice would start to reaccumulate at a rate of 5 cm a day. But lying here, with my cold eyeballs and sweatless fear, it was like being on an aircraft and thinking too much about the precariousness of altitude, the idle threat of gravity, the apparent tenuousness of the Bernoulli principle. I still had no idea how much ice could hold a man. ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’ I imagined people might say to my relatives ‘how did it happen?’

‘Well, he was cycling across the sheet ice of an extremely deep lake, in winter, in outer Mongolia…’

I wonder whether they would have to stifle a disapproving head shake or a guffaw for the sake of my bereaved.

I dragged my humbled self back to the gur and set about fitting my studded ice tyres, layering clothes and packing panniers – really tasks that should have been filmed, performed and set to the soundtrack from Rocky, reproduced via montage.

I pedalled out to the ice once again at the harbour where two rusted ice-packed tugs sat firmly, no need for anchors. I watched a jeep careen through the foreground and sheepishly I pedalled off in its trail.

There were some bumps in the ice, which was puddled with snow, but my tyres held firm and soon I was skittering along, tail-wind assisted, indulging the matchless joy of roadless riding.

Every winter Khovsgol hosts an Ice Festival and some sculptures remained.




I reminded myself of the fruit of a last minute google search ‘how to ride on ice’. Back brake only, if at all. Keep a straight line. Don’t get jittery. But it got warmer, what I’d taken to be five degrees the right side of zero turned out to be the wrong side – when the temperature rises above freezing invisible water films the ice and I slipped twice, my front wheel having a sudden unannounced change of heart and heading for the shore, my back wheel responding in blind panic, me stuck between the two madnesses and preparing a fall, shoulder-side down. Now I was jittery, but at least the strength of the ice had been confirmed.

I decided to bike on the trail on the west shore of the lake until the temperature dropped again in the evening when I could rejoin the ice – and looking into the needleless larch, I hoped for glimpses of wolves, moose or wild sheep. The bears were still hibernating.

The audible cracks grew in number and volume in the evening when the ice became warmer, and cantankerous. The most soul-chilling snaps came from further out, so loud they echoed off the mountains and could be felt under my feet even when standing on the iceless shore. Once I saw a crack reach the surface, the ice rose abruptly – pop! - as if the lake was smiling by opening a sardonic shelf.




By dusk the sky was a lavender spread, the ice soured to almost black, the snow went glacial blue, and the wind became fragile. I picked my spot to set my tent – the most limpid, photogenic ice, but a sudden crack, close by, sent me gutlessly retreating to nearer the shore and rechoosing a spot where at least I could see the stony lake bed. I stood back to admire my tent and its woozy double painted on the ice like some drug addled vision of the netherworld.

Around 40 trucks had fallen through the ice over the years, sending their drivers and loads of oil to the deep, and in 1990 they closed this ice road to nearby Siberia to prevent further pollution. I heard no mention of cyclists, but I still couldn’t shake the idea of making precedent, and someone having to edit wikipaedia on my behalf: ‘Over the last half century Lake Khovsgol has claimed 40 trucks, and one guy on a bicycle.’

A few cars still go in according to the guide I’d met – ‘city types’ he’d said with a wry smile ‘they don’t know the weak points’. ‘WHERE ARE THE WEAK POINTS?’ I think I’d shouted, wildly, at the time. The ice around spits of land, he told me, and where rivers enter (96 of them, only one leaves) and of course where fishermen have cut holes. We’d sat around a giant decrepit map, one centimetre per kilometre, that had been a secret during Mongolia’s Soviet years and he’d cheerfully pointed out where two years ago he’d lifted a bunch of Russians from the sunroof of their car as it slipped down on a sinking fragment of broken ice.

I slept well though on the ice, lulled to sleep by the tortured groans which I’d grown to accept as ‘nature’s music’ like the guide remarked, dreamily. I woke to a gilt band seaming the taiga, the night sky had shifted to a royal blue, moonless, and my bike and tent were again reflected onto the ice. I took a few photos, and gave a great sigh of awe, and then cursed furiously. To use my camera I had to remove my gloves, the temperature was minus 20, and my hands were the colour of Mongolian ice.





Back on the trail, on the west bank of the lake, a white dog – which looked part husky part retriever, took a shine to me and for the next two days he ran alongside my bike and slept outside my tent. He even became territorial after I fed him and barked savagely if any of the local nomads ventured too close. I called him Lassie. If I fell through the ice I was hoping he might live up to his namesake.

After a bit more ice-riding I developed a puncture – but I realised the wire bead in my back tyre had snapped – which meant I couldn’t go any further. I camped by the lake and later a young man in a deel, orange sash and a hat - which was in essence a fox on his head - came over and offered to give me and my kit a lift back to Hatsgal on two motorbikes, for cash. Three of us were to make the journey: my gear and his brother on one motorbike, him, me and his wife on the other. I was worried – I know that one dodgy van or motorbike ride with a bicycle can do more damage than 50,000 km of touring. But of course, I was grateful too - they were my only choice.





It turned out to be an epic and hilarious expedition that went something like this...

· Dog chases motorbike for five kilometres, we leave it behind, it whines.

· Pannier drops off motorbike

· I check binding – it’s either tense enough to cheese wire my tent, or so limp the rest will fall soon too. I readjust it.

· Snapped motorbike chain – I am sent to search for rocks - this suggests they might not have the appropriate tools. He manages to replace the broken link.

· The other motorbike runs out of fuel – we try and find some by checking at local gurs and eventually score some

· We’re off

· Flat tyre – which we inflate, but their pump is terrible so we use mine. They realise after some time that punctures tend not to heal themselves. Decide to repair puncture. They have patches but no glue, luckily I do. It takes us most of an hour.

· We transfer all my stuff from one motorbike to the other to reduce pressure on the punctured tube.

· Two stops required to fiddle with the fuel line and tilt the motorbike until the entire thing is milimetres from being supported by the front forks of my bike which are sticking out of the back.

· Bag falls off back of one bike, we return to collect it.

· The fox hat on my driver’s head hits me repeatedly in face with it’s paws (claws attached) and tail.

· No fuel – this time it’s the brother’s bike.

· The husband and wife have an argument about who knows what

· We cipher a coke can full of petrol from another motorbike but can’t open the fuel tank because the key won’t fit. After 20 minutes trying we begin searching for rocks again. His wife brings the wrong ones and he shouts at her. Then, using a spanner and a rock he bangs on a bit of wire and makes a lock-pick. Amazingly it works and we are into the tank, and soon off again.

· No fuel – this time it’s the first bike. Again.

· I laugh, we all laugh, but within seconds I can only hear faint howls as we are engulfed in a dust storm

· A van stops – maybe he can help? But the driver just runs round the front of his van and pumps up the slow puncture in his own flattening front tyre. Ridiculous was a waypost several miles ago. We are in new territory.

· We get a coke can full of petrol from another motorbike. The driver has lost the wire lock pick, so again we go searching for rocks.

· We chug to another halt. ‘No benzene?’ I ask. He nods and looks at the ground. This time we decide I should wait with one bike and the other will drive to Hatsgal to refuel.

· We arrive! I pay, we smile at each other again, laugh, stop and nervously appraise the horizon. There’s no sign of a dust storm.

I am grateful though, I had no other option and some of this wasn’t their fault, they’re poor and have to fix things rather than throw them away.

‘Mongolians don’t think ahead, they live for the day’ a Mongolian man told me later.

‘We'd always leave home without enough fuel to get somewhere, we'd just figure it out out on the way’.

You have to love them for that, even if it means 35 km motorbike journeys take all day.



Thank yous – Sylvia and Torge: bad ass superstars.

Once again my journey is ahead of the blog – the next post will cover the trip from Moron in Mongolia to Urumqi in China, Xinjiang Province.
Follow my blog with Bloglovin