Cycling the Mongolian Steppe --- Part Two.
Home: Sydney, Australia
Favourite activity: Bikepacking
Favourite brew: Coffee or Shiraz
Favourite snack: Peanut butter.
Nick Kohn is an outdoorsman who spends most of his time bikepacking, though he has hiked, dived, motorcycle toured and travelled throughout SE Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, Europe and Australia.
He has cycled through Italy, France, Spain and across the Silk Road from Mongolia through to Turkey, as well as a little in Australia. Next stop - USA and Canada.
Who? - Nick Kohn.
Where? - Western Mongolia.
How? - Bikepacking
Highlights & Recommendations?
- Do not rely on Soviet era maps for information of survival related details such as fresh water.
- Mosquitos can in-fact drive you insane - take repellant
- Running out of water while alone and lost in the desert is terrifying - DO NOT try this.
I stayed at Achit Nuur for two and a bit days total. It was incredibly relaxing to be able to sit and do absolutely nothing, though, simultaneously I was losing my mind. I wasn’t going crazy because I had temporarily stopped riding, but rather that the bugs were insane and the wind wouldn’t cease for a moment. It got so gnarly that, even after setting up protected on two sides, the gust changed direction and completely flattened my previously pitched tent.
I spent time sitting, reading, watching nature and observing a very angry Kazakh man slam on the breaks to an abandoned, locked up house, break the lock off and repossess everything inside. As he was finishing up, the locals became to trot over on horseback. When trying to make for a quick escape, the Kazakh’s crank-start, Soviet era van/Ute combination wouldn’t turnover. I was glad to be distanced, in the comfort of my tent, under a goat barn – protected from the elements.
The day after, I woke to a windless morning. Stoked, I packed up and hit the road. Within the first two kilometres, I heard the sounds of very distressed animals coming from a ger. I assumed they were slaughtering an animal for food but then saw they were going through the painstaking process of removing the thick winter wool from the sheep – this would be a significant portion of their income for the coming months. I was invited over for tea, snacks and to watch the almost tortrous process of a hand-sized rake getting dragged through the dense wool, til it tore off the skin.
These people kept shaking their head, gesturing ‘no’ then pointing to my intended direction of travel. I laughed and gave them a thumbs up, confident in my ability to look after myself. My gosh, was I wrong. The next 48-72hrs were some of the hardest of my life.
Before long, I was exhausted, but knew there was a town where I could resupply my food stocks about 20km away so i kept plodding along. Out of nowhere in the middle of the desert a young boy appeared on a motorbike. He looked hardy, with red cheeks and eyes that squinted even when they were opened. He saw I was struggling so he showed me the direction of his ger. Within the next hour and a half i drank eight cups of tea and three bowls of noodles. They even bought their goat inside for me to pat while I ate and drank.
The village I had planned on resupplying at was a real ghost town. Of the many shops only two were opened, the servos all abandoned and even the police station had no one in there. With only about one day’s worth of fuel for the stove, and at least a two and half day ride to the next town, I got moving. I was less than excited to find the road to Bayannuur was ankle high sand.
By now my legs were exhausted from needing to push the 60 kg bike and I knew that pain wasn’t ending any time soon. After about an hour and a half, a construction truck came past and I double checked my directions with them. They informed me that the alternate route to what i chosen was easier despite double the climbing and 50 kilometres more distance. I understood they were going to a town about 80 kilometres up the road. Pretty good considering I only needed to go 180km. They offered me a lift, so in addition to the five guys on the two seats up front, four in the back and the giant excavator shovel that was barely strapped to the tray, I loaded Tania up and climbed onto the rickety and rusted Chinese truck. The ride was rough – everyone and everything – including the two ton shovel, was bouncing around with the corrugations of the road.
As we arrived to the bottom of a mountain range, the vehicle came to a halt. Tea time, I figured. They got out and we entered the tiny door for bread, tea and to play cards. I started getting worried as one man started to get changed and another fell asleep. Turns out this is where I get off – right at the bottom of the mountains. They offered for me to stay the night but there was still two hours of light left so I got moving. When I did so, they pointed to the setting sun and began howling like wolves – not overly comforting.
Tyre pressure right down, I made my way through the sand – making far more distance than expected. Soon, the notorious headwind picked up, so I headed to a mountain that looked like it’d keep me out of the brunt of it and headed over to set up camp.
The next morning was typical. A little riding, lots of walking up hills. Though I received a surprise reward for my efforts. After cresting some hills, I was greeted with the view of a giant lake, tucked into a valley of nothing but grass, goats, ducks and swans. After the ride the previous afternoon, I was low on water so this was perfect. I jumped right in, enjoying the chilly water on my sand encrusted skin. I read my book while my tea brewed. My stomach sank when I took my first sip – it was a saltwater lake – heartbreaker. This ruined my mood, so I packed up and began to ride on the waters edge rather than on the soft sand. Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of carcasses around – they must have also fallen for the same trick I did. It took four hours (and more stops than I could count) to get out of the valley. I could see the next town in the distance – I meer 30km away. Looking at my speedo, I saw that I’d managed only 26km thus far. I worryingly checked my water to see that I had just 1.5L remaining, meaning in the previous 36hrs, I had consumed 7.5L. The temperature was over 30 in the day and around 25 at night – that wasn’t going to last.
Understandably, I was scared. This was the first survival situation I’d ever been in and it seemed almost surreal. I had spent the afternoon trying to rest with as much of my body curled under the knee high shrubs, or if I was lucky, a waist high rock – just to try to reduce the intensity of the heat.
I barely slept due to the stress of the day ahead. Dinner took about 600ml of water – I knew I’d be useless without food so I made the sacrifice. I woke up several times throughout the night to my mouth feeling more dry than the desert I was stuck in. I awoke at 0430hrs to try to make some distance before the sun gained it’s strength. I ate a single raw carrot, the only food I had that didn’t require cooking, and began the ride.
Within the first few hundred metres, I noticed an eagle soaring overhead. I am fascinated by these animals so got fixated by its gracefulness. This was incredibly dumb as I was riding on soft sand and fist sized rocks – an area where full attention to the terrain is necessary. I tracked her to the right, hit a rock and almost came off – ‘serves me right’, I said to myself. But I’d noticed something from my peripherals. I thought I’d seen green. Surely not, I was in the desert with no water. I double checked. Tucked away between two small hills sat a few metres square of lush grass. Unbelievable! I sped over, suddenly full of energy. There was something in the middle. From afar it looked like a well! ‘No way in the world’, I said out loud. I got to the structure and almost threw my bike down to check if there was anything inside. It was a little manky with bugs and a strange reflective film on the surface of the water but other than that it looked clean. I can’t tell you what I said to myself at this moment, for fear this article won’t be published.
The next problem was that there was no bucket. There was a large pump for moving the water to troughs for animals and I made the (dumb) decision to climb in and use my knife to cut the old frayed rope. I attached my Nalgene to the rope via a Voile Strap and was able to scoop a litre out. I poured the icy water through my Buff in order to filter off the bugs and whatever other funky business was on the surface. The fact it was cold was a great sign – fresh spring water! The thought that this liquid may be undrinkable was still very present in my mind. I blasted the now clear water with the Steripen. That 90 seconds went forever. When I finally took a sip it was unbelievably refreshing. I could feel it trace down my throat, the cold instantly making me feel more alert. Another sip. Brain freeze. I wasn’t upset with that – beats the inescapable heat!
I had soon filled all nine litres, just in case I ran into some other unexpected troubles on the way to the town. My feet were on the pedals, ready to move when I got off, took my shoes off and lay in the grass. I still couldn’t believe it. It was like something out of a mad dream or crazy LSD trip.
The ride into town took most of the day. I was exhausted but a massive weight had been removed from my shoulders. I meandered through town, looking for a store where I could by my normal diet (purely due to lack of choice) of buckwheat, potato, carrot and onion. An old lady was sweeping the outside of her resturant – a never ending task when you live in a sandy desert with constant wind. She saw me and lit up with a beaming smile. She waved me over. By the time I got to her, she already had a bowl of tea waiting for me -steaming fresh from her floral thermos. I thanked her profusely and decided a nice cooked lunch was in order. I slumped onto the hard timber bench, rested my elbows on the plastic table cover depicting yaks and horses and drifted away to another world, awaiting my noodles.
… To be continued.
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