Monday 16 May - Sunday 22 May
As we entered the Gobi freshly laundered sheets and Western luxuries blew away with the prospect of a favourable wind and easy ride. The days before in China, though long, had not presented us with the challenges of 50kph winds, sandstorms, rain and freezing temperatures which reduced hourly progress to less than 10 miles an hour. Unlike, the abrupt borders which divide countries, the changes in landscape and climate where much more gradual as we approached the Mongolian boarder. Each day the temperature dropped a few degrees as we felt the icy prickle insidiously creeping into our extremities. With each day the landscape transformed from urban to rural, lush to barren, vibrate to desolate.
On Monday, our second day of riding we were surrounded by jasmine tree lined road which emitted an aroma similar to the courtyard of an upmarket hotel. A gentle light and green mountains provided an ideal backdrop for a photo opportunity. By Sunday the environment has degenerated into a monotonous plain of sand and dust as far as the eye could see. Trees and even grass gradually disappeared; houses vanished too as power lines became our sole points of reference. My Garmin, though working, could no longer provided data on the road we were on, as I looked down at the small arrow travelling into emptiness on our north-westerly heading.
A gentle breeze at the beginning of the week had turned into 50kph gusts by the weekend, resulting in us cycling tilted at 15 degrees into the wind like a halted pendulum. Sand blew from across the barren plateau of the Gobi Desert into our eyes and faces stinging like pinpricks as they refused to be stilled. The road increasingly gathered undulations of mounting sand as our tracks made temporary imprints. The force of the wind had toppled billboards as the sand limited visibility to several hundred metres as we tightened the wraps of our face masks. Disappearing fences on the sides of the road signaled our increasing solitude. Before carefully lined stakes marked property but now even the wiry and corrugated fences vanished as the extremes of weather evaporated human boundaries and desire for possession. Where in China rich pastures and thriving industry covered the sides of the road by the time we reached Mongolia this was replaced by the carcasses of famished animals with their young toppled like road kill. As Will and I attempted conversation during the long miles he wondered how many had died building the affectionately named G208 road that we rode as we were battered by wind and sand. After a thoughtless giggle it occurred to me that it was possible people did perish during its construction and a certain sobriety returned once again. We wouldn’t have survived the night in those conditions as the carcasses of those sheep took on additional meaning. This area had apparently suffered a four year long drought and the consequences at times were painfully clear. As we entered the border town of Erenhot on Saturday to a remarkably English drizzle some in the town thought that we had brought good luck as it was some of the first rain they had seen in years.
Faces and physiques changed as the slender and delicate features of the Han Chinese turned into the more robust builds of the Mongolian tribes. A guttural ‘Welcome to Mongolia’ greeted us at the border along with smiles and waves as they had in China. A women standing curiously by the door of her yurt, protected from the elements by rolled out 50 litre barrels of oil drums, waved as we passed. From when we were outside of Beijing to the border of Mongolia the friendliness and compassion was the guiding star that remained constant. On Friday as the heat clutched the roads, shimmering and glistering like reflective pools, I stopped to slowly sip the last remains of my tepid water, trying to make it last. A man in a white Honda stopped and in his open palm held out a bottle of water. Delighted, and touching my hand to heart in that symbol of appreciation which language does not obscure, I finished it in two second flat.
The trucks and lorries which streamed up and down the roads to ‘The Wolf Economy’ of Mongolia were one of our greatest fears. They have been no problem, almost always showing respect as they first give a courteous beep in recognition of us and then granted us plenty of space so as to put many of their equivalents in the UK to shame. As we continue up the road to Ulan Bator - the capital of Mongolia - over 500 kilometres in the distance, now we can only hope for more favourable weather.