As we continue to head westwards battling the dominant westerly’s it seems like a good time to reflect on both the fortunes and vagaries of the past 60 days through China, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan.
The Gobi Desert of Inner Mongolia, sitting within the governance of China, was the first real test of our tenacity. A three days long raging headwind turned 450 kilometres in the desert into an unpalatable psychological experiment. Daily, it was race against time as 5am starts helped to avoid the worst of this silent killer as the sun rose like a ticking time bomb. By the time it reached 8am our speed had been reduced to 10kmh as we admired the monotony of sandy plains as the wind blew like numbing static in our ears. For the remaining seven hours of these long day’s we looked onwards, with only the string of power lines as vantage points. Such windy days I find are the most psychologically taxing of obstacles when riding. They are so fickle and arbitrary, whilst having the capacity to reduce a perfectly pleasant day into an on-going torment. It does not even grant you the tangible satisfaction which you achieve when grafting up a 12% gradient hill.
The cherry on the cake in the Gobi came when we got caught in a sandstorm. The wind whipped across the road sandblasting our skin as we winced with bandanna's and glasses shielding our faces (we dared not take out the camera). Sand swept across the road as billboards were toppled and tyres tracks became our guide in the wavering visibility. With no shelter available we had no choice but to beat on as toppled cattle on the road side took on additional meaning. Of the 5,500 kilometres that we have covered these were some of the most demoralising and challenging days.
Of course, it has not all been hard graft. Despite 1000km of off road terrain in Mongolia on suspension-less road bikes, which had the effect of rattling us like a loose rear fender, we were rewarded with stark but stunning landscapes. Plains of grass rose up to wind swept hills and sparsely located yurts pimpled the landscape as the nomads of Mongolia reared their cattle as they have for millennia in this modern ‘Wild West’.
Some of the most pleasurable riding yet was in the Altai Mountains of Russia; a fitting prologue to the fast approaching days of climbing in the Pamir’s. Our three weeks in Mongolia was a tree-less affair and the avalanches of alpine green cascading down the valleys was a heart-warming sight. The newly tarmacked roads and windless conditions allowed us to speed along at upwards of 35kmh as the days off road had substantially improved our fitness. With the summer solstice looming so also came warmer weather as thermal layers were discarded for additional water bottles as our consumption topped seven litres whilst riding. Unlike in Mongolia where the cold and rain resulted in near hypothermic conditions and shifting gears became painful on numb fingers, here in the warmer Russia it was a more welcome interlude.
It was here amongst the glazed peaks of the Altai region in Siberia that we reached our highest latitude of 52° north before taking the third exit on the roundabout and heading south. Although this meant my compass arrow was pointing downwards it sadly did not mean it was all downhill for the next month. Kazakhstan was consistent with the other countries as it pulled strong headwinds out of the hat for example during a 188 kilometre ride as we reached camp severely dehydrated and ready to hibernate.
Now we enter the mountains and meadows of Kyrgyzstan and traverse the south side of Lake Issyk-Kul (the second largest alpine lake in the world). We are prepared and optimistic for the coming two months with both the challenges and joys it will present. It is all worth it to support the amazing work of the charity* A Child Unheard*.