Day 92: Erlian to Motel , Alien encounters

A large metal gate with a right pointing arrow pattern set into it.
Go that way, they said.

Waking early, the morning brings blue skies and a healthy appetite for the ride ahead.

Finally able to plan my Chinese route in earnest, I fire up GaiaGPS. It tells me that there is only one highway out of here, and one destination. Sonid Youqi (saw-nee-doh-kai). This makes planning easy, just ride to the next place and then figure it out from there.

As Google is blocked here, I ask Bing for advice and quickly find a blog about two travellers, who walked their way from Mongolia to Hong Kong (opens new window)! I suddenly feel very fortunate to have 26″ wheels and very embarrassed at having hesitated to leave.

I also find a blog, from a guy who cycled through Mongolia and China (opens new window). He now feels a lot better equipped to deal with different situations, although he only really went there to be just me on my own on a little dirt track in the middle of nowhere . This, curiously, is what also drew me to Mongolia.

When you’re travelling alone through places your friends have never been, it’s reassuring to know that others have gone before you, with a similar mindset and similar problems. And that they lived to blog about it.

At breakfast I meet a friendly young guy from UB who wears a NYC hoodie.

He is travelling to the southern city of Guangzhou, a 5,200km round trip. China is hardly short of cities and I wonder what’s so important about that one.

He’s also a huge Wu Tang fan and proceeds to rattle off a roll call of the Clan. Perhaps it is his hope that we can bond over our favourites, but my ignorance alienates me into silent submission. Even though Wu Tang are my generation, I’m ill-equipped for this situation which the guide books failed to warn me about.

Offering me an olive branch, he explains that Ezy-E was shot in the shoulder. I mention that Biggie Smalls suffered a similar fate, bad news for him, but points for me. What people say on the mic is often taken far too seriously. About this at least we can agree.

Segueing from one misunderstood gangster to another, he asks me if I know of Genghis Khan. This is a regular occurrence in modern day Mongolia, yet I’m still amazed that the man continues to inspire from beyond his hidden grave. Showing me the various conquer-the-world apps on his phone, it’s obvious that he’s subconsciously honing his skills for future campaigns.

Segueing back again, I ask him who his modern hip-hop heroes are. He kindly obliges with a list of the best Mongol crews:

I brew up a thermos of hot sugary tea and finally leave Erlian around 1:30pm.

The day is a stunner, yet people pat me down to check that I’m wearing enough. Accordingly, I’m dressed for freezing, but at standstill I am uncomfortably boiling.

On the outskirts of town, a toll gate blocks the road. I dutifully stop at the barrier arm, but the young officer manning the booth only seems to know hello and after some friendly smiles he proceeds to raise the barrier arm for me. Perhaps cars and trucks need to pay, but cyclists seem to get a free pass here.

A bit further on, two golden lion dogs stand guardian outside a modern building. Man-sized, they remind me of a childhood companion, a tarnished miniature whose head flipped off to provide easy access to a quiver of toothpicks. I now wonder if this usage was culturally inappropriate, or whether the Chinese keep them for the same reason.

With a nice tail wind, my ambient temperature drops to bearable and I cruise onwards in good spirits. My GPS is redundant here, but its interconnected lines provide peace-of-mind against a steady trickle of alien road signs, authored in both vertical Mongolian and Mandarin, but not in English. My bulky Beijing map book would have come in handy here and I now regret ditching it in Ulaanbaatar to save weight. If my GPS was ever required, I’d be hard pressed to find someone who could read its English labels and if it dies I’ll be riding blind.

But the road signs aren’t the only alien thing about this place.

In the fields around me, life-size models of dinosaurs dash back and forth, sprinting their stop-motion relay race. Behind them, windmills tell a similar story, of a time when a different dominant species hoped to prevent its own extinction event.

When I reach the fabulous entranceway/exitway to Erenhot (erlian-how-ker), I dismount to take a lot of photos. Unfortunately, this unseated position sends a strong signal to my bowels and I have to dash round the back of a Brontosaurus’s bum to make a dinosaur-sized deposit.

When I remount the bike I feel cold. The wind is stronger and I seem to be riding uphill. My hands are really sore and I feel a bit nauseous.

I let out a loud burp - just as a man and a woman pass by. Also on their bikes, they’re just out for a spin and I remember why I want to like China. Because for people here, riding a bike is a normal part of an un-rushed life. And everyone rides a bike, or some variation of one.

Mr Brown is knocking again so I scramble down a snowy bank, relieving myself in a snowbound culvert. Then I’m back on my bike again. My feet are cold now too, my core cooling from too much stopping.

At 4pm I spot a small town off the left hand side of the highway.

It’s a relief because this isn’t going to plan and if I knock off now I’ll be able to have an early night and start fresh first thing tomorrow.

I turn off and ride through the town, which contains long lines of cookie cutter houses. Passing a woman who is pushing her bike, I ask her if there’s somewhere to sleep here. She says no, go the other way.

I ride the other way and pass a shop. I ask the shopkeeper the same question and he also says no. His three customers stare at me, like I’m the alien around here.

Around the corner, there’s a place that looks vaguely like a motel. I ask again and again the answer is noyou have to go to Erlian.

No – I just came from there.

Half an hour later, I’m back on the main road, frustrated that I’ve wasted the last few precious rays of daylight and am still homeless.

The sun is setting. The sun has set. Now I’m riding in the dark with only my headlamp to light the way.

I’d stop and pitch my tent, except that there’s nowhere to pitch a tent. On my right there’s an airport with radar dishes, not the best spot for a stealth campsite.

I’m not wearing enough and I’m hungry, but my hands are frozen and I can’t work the clips and zips on my bags. My headlight doesn’t help because it shines forwards, rather than backwards. Funny that.

I continue on, feeling tired and grumpy, swearing loudly and often. I have déjà vu. The cold winds of Inner Mongolia feel a lot like the cold winds of Outer Mongolia.

Eventually I decide that I have to stop and warm up my core. I pull over and dismount. My bike keeps wanting to roll down the ditch which just pisses me off even more.

After a lot of effort, I manage to get both the pannier and dry bag clips undone. Two jumpers and a puffer go on under my jacket. I remount my bike and immediately start to feel better. My hands start to defrost but my feet will take longer.

Eventually I come to a road sign showing a picture of a house and a tree.

Perhaps it’s a rest stop, or a motel, or a town? I come to a building. The lights are on and it looks cozy.

As I draw nearer, I can see that it’s a police station. I’m not that desperate so I pull away, but not before the hounds have been unleashed on me. I tell them to Chill Out but they continue to pursue me, barking and growling.

Eventually I outrun them and come to a grocery store. The lady storekeeper is super friendly and tells me that there’s a motel on the other side of the road.

I walk my bike across the road and see a sign bearing a symbol of a chalice in a circle. Knights of the Round Table? The ground underfoot is snowy and slippery, and treacherously potted with hidden ditches.

The first building I come to looks like a grocery store. It appears to be deserted and I knock for ages and poke around with my torch. Eventually a smoking man comes out. He says that the motel is just down the road.

I ride in the general direction of just down the road, but it’s dark and it seems that there’s nothing to see here. Finally I find a compound with a light on. I peek through the windows, unable to avoid scaring the inhabitants with my goggles and headlamp.

A lady appears. She’s holding a baby and we converse through the window. I ask the same question I’ve been asking all day: Is there somewhere to sleep here?

She lets me in and a man who is also there takes me down to see the room.

It’s one of many and it’s a dump. It contains four bunks and a lot of rubbish. Cigarette butts, seed hulls, half-eaten mandarins, three-quarter-drunken beers, kids’ sneakers and dirty bedding.

The man asks me what I think. I don't think much, but it'll do.

The potbelly stove isn’t working, but in its place there’s a dangerously illegal panel heater. It sits on top of a stone, on top of a stool, on top of one of the beds. The wiring runs up the walls. Presumably it terminates at a plug, because the heater does switch on, which is good.

He takes me back to the main area where there’s a restaurant. A prominent sign on the wall shows the restaurant’s hygiene rating. The one in Erlian had two greens, denoting a rating of pretty good, but here they have an orange and a red, denoting pretty bad. But I’m hungry, so the lady cooks me a bowl of wide noodles, meat and yummy spicy packet sauce. As I eat this, I warm up next to their pot belly stove, which is working, and chat to the man, the woman and her baby. I think we’re doing introductions, but who knows. The baby seems pretty freaked out by my presence and another lady looks at me like I’m from another planet.

Thinking it wise to take care of business before heading to bed, I ask the man where the loo is and he waves in the general direction of outside.

Considering the state of the room, I’m not expecting much. But I am expecting some sort of outhouse, not the series of craps which adorn the base of the outer wall.

When in Rome.. I do my crap next to the wall and go back to my room, locking my bike to something on the way. I drag a few prized possessions inside with me, though to what end I’m not sure. There’s no lock on the door anyway.

The squalid room isn’t really a long term solution, but it’s friendly and out of the cold wind. And I have whiskey, water, chocolate and a sleeping bag to protect me from the questionable bedding.

It’s 50km to Sonid Youqi and I hope for better weather tomorrow.

Some hours later I wake up boiling, the dodgy heater and Chinese duvet adding too many degrees to my now habitual overdressing.

I get up and strip off half of my layers. It’s my second time up tonight, following an urgent need to relieve my bowels a couple of hours ago. Not wanting to navigate the line of craps in the frigid blackness, I'd tried the fish-and-chip method instead. Obviously designed for solids rather than squirts, let’s just say that I won’t be trying that again.

Lying here now in the darkness, comfortable in spite of it all, I reflect on how my current situation maps onto my life in general.

Defined by a series of expectations, it seems I’ve always been disappointed with how it has actually played out. Otherwise, why would I not be happy in my nine-to-five job, which provides a reasonable income? And why should I not expect my relationships to have a few bumps, as well as the good times?

Expectations generate a lot of stress for me, and perhaps others as well. After all, each region imparts a different set of values and coping mechanisms to its members and their offspring. Maybe we’re all endowed with this culturally skewed baggage? If so, why does it always feel like I’m always the one in the wrong? Pining for failed relationships, I grasp on to the memories tightly as if this will somehow prevent them from slipping away. But surely it’s unrequited? Surely I’m the only one doing the grasping?

Anyway, relationships aren’t really compatible with this kind of life. At 42, any ex worth their salt would have moved on with their life by now. It’s pointless trying to please the other half, when when all they really want to do is have kids, and kids mean settling down. If I’d done that I wouldn’t - couldn’t - be here now.