Day 80: Rock Garden to Cell Tower , Great reception

A cell tower dwarfs an adjacent building. It is held in place by long dialogonal cables.
The Pointy Place.

I wake at 8 to nature’s version of a novelty alarm clock.

The tent’s ceiling is coated in ice and the wet stucco is slowly peeling off, ragged flecks floating apathetically onto my face.

I assume this faux snow is just my lungs’ output in frozen form.

Only when the tent walls are fully illuminated by the sun, do I dare leave my sleeping bag.

Breakfast is the last of the porridge oats, and – wonder of wonders – I finally figure out how to the prime the Primus!

Soon the kerosine burner is roaring away triumphantly, and I vow to dump the temperamental Korean butane as soon as possible.

I pack up, fix my guy lines, oil my chain, and check my rack screws.

When facing a physically challenging environment, it’s reassuring to be able to respond by dealing with the man-made things, though my ego does sap my energy and pushes my departure time out to 1pm.

On the road, I make slow progress and an attempt to pick up the pace results in a painfully frozen left foot.

Perhaps the exertion resulted in a trickle of sweat, or my packed gaiters do more than I realise. I consider knocking off early, but it’s hard to pick a good campsite in the snowy fields.

After a while I meet a stocky motorcycle herder who reminds me of my friend Peter. Drawing numbers in the snow, he explains that Dalanzadgad is still some 70km away, but there is a pointy place where I can sleep after 10km. 70km seems pleasantly doable, but my aching foot convinces me to take the easy option.

10km on, I reach a hilltop and spot a building and some machinery. Wondering if this is in fact a mine, I face a moral dilemma about what to do. I’d give almost anything to avoid another night of frozen tossing and turning, almost. I decide to enquire inside, hoping that the equipment can be explained in a less objectionable way.

As it turns out it can be.

I approach a man who is walking outside. He agrees to let me stay and leads me inside, to a smokey communal room with a single bed.

Two others are already there – his portly girlfriend, and a heavily weathered, chain-smoking man. Dressed in camo, he reminds me of the British musician, Tricky.

The man that I came in with seems to be the one in charge, so I’m a bit confused when he and his girlfriend both ask me for my phone number and tell me to ring someone. Who?

However a quick tour of the building shows that it contains the telecommunications gear for all four Mongolian cell phone networks – I’m in a cell tower! I realise that the cellular performance of my two phones would be a measure of the tower’s capabilities.

And it does seem very capable. The small space is crammed full of humming servers, a shedload of batteries and an awesome black monolith reminiscent of 2001. A tiny screen attached to the latter allows the man to periodically check the tower’s vitals, and I wonder if the three of them simply rotate between screen checking duties, or whether they have unique credentials befitting their remote placement.

They’re a friendly bunch and I happily gift them some chocolate and my latest bottle of local vodka. The man shows me where I can sleep, then I cook up some noodles, surprised to be regularly interrupted by shots of vodka. Sharing is caring!

In response, I further gift my Korean cooker and butane to the man, although my self-serving generosity comes with a large helping of guilt. I’m not actually sure if the cooker still works after being tossed in the snow, but it’s far more likely that they will be able to fix it than me.

I learn that the men are straddling 50, while the man’s girlfriend is the youngest of the bunch. At 33, she is also the most passionate. Multi-tasking, she cooks while watching a Shortland Street-esque sitcom, overdubbed into Korean. The man uses his hands to signal that she loves it, he hates it, and that she will kill him if he lets the fire go out while she’s cooking.

Through more hand signals I understand that dinner is cooked dog, although it could, of course, be anything else. I taste it somewhat hesitantly, and find that it reminds me of the cheaper cuts of beef or lamb which I ate as a kid – slightly chewy, but flavoursome in a this-was-from-an-active-animal kind of way. Its origins unknown, I can’t help feeling that we’re monsters.

After dinner, I duck outside for a pee and am numbed by the cold air. I’m definitely glad to be indoors tonight! Retiring to bed, the man comes in one last time, to give me a blanket. There’s a lot of love in this small techno shack.