Mongolia – Km 85,070
Argentina is one of those countries where you can grab a fruit from a tree and eat it? A child asked me when I just crossed the Mongolian border. I could hardly believe it, the boy who was no more than 15 years old, ennobled what I have never noted. For the first time in nine years of trip, it was not Maradona neither the Argentine football which identified me, but by the grace of the place where I was born.
I was in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia, one of the largest desert regions of the world where the climate is extreme, because it does not rain and the temperature reaches 35 degrees below zero during winter or it can exceed 40 ° C during summer. But their rapid temperature changes occur not only throughout the year, but within 24 hours, changes that can be up to 30 or 40 ° C.
I entered Mongolia in the early autumn, when the cold weather started and although it was not the best time, I understood that to mix with the Mongol people I should demand of myself as few times.
Since the beginning of the trip through Mongolia I found difficulty, the first 400 km to the capital city are dirt roads, which are interwoven among them, and therefore I had to guess which the best was. Too, I often found sand paths, where I had to drag the bike or some stretches under construction, so I had to take alternative routes, which are worse than the main road. So during this first part I have never exceeds 12 km / h. A really test of perseverance and patience.
The first day, my birthday, at dusk I sighted two yurts, which are the traditional houses of the Mongols. And I did not hesitate, I walked toward them. On the way I met a middle-aged man, who was returning with his goats, so by signs I asked to camp near his houses. Then, the man who was too serious invited me to enter one of the yurts, where his brother and his mother, a very old lady, were. The lady, who since the first moment smiled at me, served me tea and then she offered to eat. So she started to knead noodles. Thus she prepared a noodle soup with meat. It was delicious and I ate three plates. Then she served me more tea, some biscuits freshly baked, yogurt with sugar and vodka home-made. If I compare this family with farmers from other countries which I have already crossed, I have the feeling that completely isolated from everything and everyone as they are, not lacking anything.
Mongolia is as big as Spain, France and Italy together, but its population density is less than 2 inhabitants per km², it is the lowest in the world. The Mongolian population is less than 3 million inhabitants and half of them live in cities. And although in many places, agricultural settlements have began to replace the nomadic and semi-nomadic groups, there is still many people living like a millennium ago.
That night I did not take long to realize I was with one of these families.
When I left the house it was totally dark, and when I looked to sky I was dazzled, it was really amazing. I felt that thousands of stars rushed toward me. It was the Milky Way like I’ve never seen. I set up the tent slowly shocked by such a spectacle; I could not stop looking up. Then, after a while I went to sleep, it was 8.30 pm and the temperature was 3 ° C. But I didn’t sleep well, due to the goats licked some dirty pans and roamed my tent for almost the whole night.
In the morning the lady helped by one of her sons took more than 30 goats and tied them by the neck to milk them. Then I was invited into the yurt where she served me the breakfast and gave me some food and water to carry. I said goodbye to them surprised, I didn’t expect such a reception in my first experience with a Mongolian family.
During the following days I cycled with headwind and too much cold, I crossed different cities like Sainshand, Airag o Choir, where some areas seem ghost towns. But it always happened during day when I bought some food to keep cycling. So every night I camped next to local people, alone, or when I was lucky I slept in a yurt if someone invited me. But not always, because it meant to sleep with several people and children.
Yurts are the traditional Mongolian homes, single room in a circular form which are made of a skeleton of wood and covered with animal leather, nylon and canvas. Depending on the number of layers are cool in summer and warm in winter. They have a hole in the top center that allows the smoke output and input light. I remember one night arriving to a village a woman was surprised to see me and took me to her yurt to drink tea and then she offered me to stay and sleep there. That moment was a blessing for me because that night was colder than ever. The house was hot so I took off my clothes and half-hidden by the bike I bathed in a basin. Then I ate some food I had while Mrs. feeding the boiler with dried animal dung. Later her son came and soon we went to sleep. But after what seemed a blessing turned into a nightmare, because the lady started to speak and she did it for nearly an hour, nonstop, talking to herself, I could hardly believe it and I got nervous. But I took a deep breath; I counted to 100 and calmed down, then I fell asleep. In the morning, as is my habit every time I am hosted by humble people I give them some money, but this time I gave her little less than other Mongolian families.
Every night in Mongolia was a real adventure, once I had to camp in the middle of nowhere, but during night I wake up after a nightmare, I dreamed that I was being stolen; and suddenly I hear footsteps and the noise as if someone is dragging the bike with all the baggage. In a fit of desperation I want to open my sleeping bag but it is new and I can’t, so I get nervous and go out dragging myself, and quickly I take the knife and scared I leave the tent, naked. Fortunately it was a cow that grazed near the tent. “Alhamdulillah” I think, what in Arabic means God be praised. And while I curse the cow, with terrible cold weather I go back inside the tent.
While I camped in the middle of nowhere and none saw me to do it, I think that Mongolia is not the most peaceful countries. During my trip through Asia I heard many stories by travelers who were assaulted or robbed in the capital city, where the tourist is just a gringo with money. So during my trip in the country I have always preferred to approach the local people and avoid camping alone, but I wasn’t always able to do it.
On the road again I was surprised how people lend a helping hand. I often crossed trucks broke down and there was always one or two trucks who stopped to give a hand. Then, talking with Idre in the capital city he explained me that due to the extreme weather conditions of the desert people help each other as relatives, as if it was a commandment. One afternoon, although unknowingly, I had to fulfill the commandment, as if I was one of them. The scenery was bleak; there were two people in the infinity of the desert pushing a truck (cement mixer) in a slight rise. And while I cycled through another road parallel to them, despite the distance they asked help. It was late and I understood that I could be their only opportunity. According to the luck one can spend hours or much more waiting to be assisted. So I left the bike on my way and I walked to them, knowing that pushing such a truck would not be an easy task. And it was funny, because they did push from the sides while I made it from the back. So we pushed 50 meters up and then only two of us another 150 meters in a subtle descent, while one of them tried to start the truck. But the truck did not start, and every time I saw my bike further. They made me sweat even more than when I cycle. “No way” I thought, wanting to go back, but I didn’t want to give up. So with a last breath I made the last effort before leaving, furious. …and the truck started and at once it left and the other man running back, waving, possibly thanking. Also the man who was driving. I was happier than them. I walked back to the bike, I was exhausted and inexplicably with an immense joy.
And that was not the only time I met with workmen, a couple of nights I camped next to who have to spend the night watching a tractor. I remember with great grace Batukhan who ate all my almonds and kept for himself the raisins and Ungern who I invited to have dinner together. I had cooked pasta but very polite he did not accept to share the last plate, insisting that it was me who had to eat it.
Finally, during the last three days I cycled nearly 300 km on asphalt road and while everything should have been easier, that was when I have been worse. Two days far from the capital city, I felt as if the cold weather and the headwind were splitting my head open. And during the sunset I began to feel sick. Fortunately I sighted a house with lights on. I went to it and knocked the door, and a young boy opened it, and by signs I asked him for a place to spend the night. “You are welcome to my house” said to me Esuguey in broken English and he invited me to his house, where at once I washed and dressed dry clothes. I was shivering. Then he served me a plate of food, some rice with vegetables and meat which I devoured and I got better. I took some medicines and almost without talking with him I opened my sleeping bag and lay down on the floor of his room. That night the fever made me delirious, but the next morning I was totally new, I could hardly believe. And I had an easy day, warm and without wind, it was like a gift from God, so I cycled 108 km during the whole day.
Then after sunset I stopped in other yurts. There, two families welcomed me, inviting me to go into the house. They made me feel like a king, they sat me down on the only couch and while tired I stretched my legs I ate a lot of meat pies which were served me permanently plus tea, I was treated as if they were my family.
Indeed in the Gobi Desert the Mongolian people treated me with great kindness!
After 8 long days on the road I arrived to the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, which is located at 1400 m above the level of the sea. With a sub-arctic climate, surrounded by mountains and hundreds of km away from any coast, it is the coldest capital city in the world with temperatures in winter that can reach 40 degrees below zero.
On my arrival I went to the hotel which I had booked, and on the way I witnessed a car crash. At once the three guy from a car got off to argue with who was driving the other vehicle, who was alone. The local people moved away while I kept still with my bike looking them due to I had to go through where they were discussing. But the argument became violent and one of the three guys took the car key from the other one. Then the three guys left the place taking the two cars and the other guy with them. It was strange, but it seemed more a kidnapping than a crash.
The next day I went to have lunch with Adrian, a Swiss guy who was in the same hotel than me. While we walk I hear: “hello”, from a group of 5 or 6 guys, so I turn around and answer them saying, “hello”. But then one of them runs to me and grabbing my arm starts to ask me money. I try but I can not get rid of him, the boy who is 22 or 23 years old doesn’t let me go. So I threaten him with my fist pointing to his face. And it works, he lets me go, but one of his friends, the biggest one comes to me and now he is who grabs me and asks me money. The Swiss guy watch and who walk on the other side of the street doesn’t involve. The situation gets tense, I say to him everything, and with my fists up I threatened him too, but now the rest of the group run toward me, but I get rid of him before they arrive and I keep walking like nothing happened, but looking and waiting for them. Although the last thing I wanted is to fight with them. But they let me go. I was lucky.
Throughout my stay in Ulaanbaatar I had the feeling that the capital city is not safe as any other Asian capital city where I came from. I have seen signs warning over thefts in the hotel and even in the monastery I visited. Therefore unlike other places, almost always I avoided going out with my cameras. In the city people seemed not so friendly. One day I went to the central market with friends and I took my video camera to make some shots but at once people started to yell me, forbidden me to do it.
During my stay in the capital city I contacted Alejandro Verni, the sales representative of Arcor in Asia, who I met at the Argentine stand in the Shanghai Expo, months ago when I was there. Through him and Nicolas Moretto I contacted the Arcor team in Mongolia. So we organized a couple of interviews with the two most important TV channels of the country, in which the Argentina Company “Arcor” was benefited by advertising. Thus “Arcor Mongolia” became one of my sponsors and through a donation they gave me a push to keep cycling.
Finally in the last days in the capital city I met Alvaro, a Spanish guy who is traveling around the world by bicycle since 2004. We contacted each other through Internet long time ago but we met in Thailand by the first time at the beginning of the year. Alvaro is a professional on his project, ex-lawyer and now clown for pleasure; he performs free shows in each country he visits. To talk and share few days with him was like being with a lifelong friend. It was a pity we couldn’t share few days cycling together, maybe next time. To learn more about his project you can visit his website: www.biciclown.com