Day 72: Hill to Hole , Mandalgovi

Smiling selfie with the roofless building.
Wow, this is awesome!

I’m up at first light to greet the sun.

There’s little incentive for sleeping in, when bed is so chilly. I always seem to underdress and not realise my mistake until the middle of the night.

The vodka dreams have returned, too. Last night, some friends were selling off their sound system. They were cyclists and wanted to keep their gear ‘in the scene’. Apparently I was ‘in the scene’, because I was dating a girl who got around via the roof tops, and because a workmate, who was also ‘in the scene’ said that I could use his roof and drones for lighting my gig.

Over breakfast my companions talk about their own dreams, which are far more quirky. Lloyd dreamt that he was in love with a dog called Mary. I guess I can’t complain!

The guys have headed off into town to find supplies, so I continue on alone, until I find a gated fairground.

It looks like a fun alternative to the long, straight road, but sadly it’s closed.

A large sign at the tiled entrance is a strange mix of black and white and colour tints. It shows kids enjoying a playground, ferris wheel, dodgems, and a merry go round.

It’s hard to tell if the place is disused or just awaiting the kids of summer.

After stopping off for a few groceries, I spot my motorbike friends nearby.

They’re halfway through upgrading their tyres to hardcore ruggedised ones, more suitable for the desert sands. A couple of local mechanics watch as they disassemble their bikes, littering the ground with spanners in the process.

It all looks pretty technical, but they take it in their stride. Tim rebuilt his ancient yellow Dakar bike by hand. I guess changing a tyre is a walk in the park after that!

Rolling into Mandalgovi, I park up in the middle of a huge square.

It feels like an achievement to reach this town, a named waypoint on my route. I guess that’s mainly due to the lack of landmarks out on the road. It’s hard to get excited about simply reaching a hill or a large barren patch of nothing, even if this empty square doesn’t seem far off it.

In a flashback to the previous afternoon, a cyclist rides over while I’m busy taking selfies.

He grins widely and ropes an unsuspecting bystander into taking pictures of us.

His small frame straddles a stock GT mountain bike. Adorned with a full complement of touring gear, a single wheel trailer holds a large dry bag, while taut and carefully tied ropes convert his tramping packs into makeshift panniers. His speedo reads 3937, the kilometre count outstripping my own trip metrics. And on top of this, I learn through his hand signals that he’s deaf.

He treats me like his adventure kinsman, throwing me lots of thumbs ups, which I dutifully return. But, as with the motorcyclists, his approval seems misplaced and inaccurate. Maybe if I’d come straight from Russia, but not after a month of coding and drinking espressos in Ulaanbaatar.

A photo collage on his back shows various younger incarnations of himself. A map of labelled mountain peaks is accompanied by the text DEAF BIKE MONGOLIA 4100M, and a bike selfie with the text DEAF BIKE MONGOLIA 6300KM. Elsewhere he is seen cresting mountain peaks, camping in heavy snow, and showing his appreciation with the Y from YMCA. He’s obviously passionate about adventure travel, and, while I am too, I feel envious of his low-cost setup and no-barriers approach to life. Perhaps it’s just a classic case of Imposter Syndrome.

We lunch together at a local noodle house, sharing and taking photos with three local monks. The two younger men are dressed in crimson robes, and happily lean into our photographs, while an older man in golden robes seems less approving.

I learn via Facebook that my new friend’s name is Mungundalai, and that he’s just been released from hospital. Apparently he pushed himself a bit too hard in the wintry conditions. I want to tell him that he’s only young and needs to slow down! But I think my advice would fall on deaf ears.

Noting the rapidly disappearing day, I wave goodbye and leave town in a hurry.

Following a dirt road into the countryside, I’m glad to be off the boring highway, though I’m not sure why I am, as my planned route followed the main road all the way down to Dalanzadgad. I do seem to be headed in the right direction, so hopefully this track will join up with the main highway at some point.

As the day grows long I set about finding a place to set up camp.

On the horizon, an abandoned building beckons and I detour across the steppe to check it out. Up close, its walls of mud mosaics glow in the late afternoon sun. But, upon checking out the interior, I’m disappointed to find the dirt floor littered with empty vodka bottles. I could certainly hide my tent in there, but I’m worried that my peaceful sleep would be gatecrashed by rowdy and possibly dangerous locals.

Reluctantly pushing on, the sun soon starts to set and I start second guessing my decision.

I’m worried about being caught out in the frigid darkness and so when I spot an inferior but incognito site, I stop and set up camp immediately, aided by the stealthy glow of my red head lamp.

The shallow hole is just the right size for my tent and I. Surrounded by low sloped walls, it doesn’t offer much protection from marauders, but I hope that anyone familiar with the area knows not to drive into it.

Nursing this worry in the back of my mind, I stand guard outside my tent, as the hum of car engines permeates the night air. Passing by at a safe distance, their round headlights float like lighted buoys through the dark and featureless expanse.