Day 83: Dalanzadgad to Ger , Cold comfort

A pale yellow sun lights up a mountain in the distance, while in the foreground grey clouds colour the steppe dark blue.
A positively arctic sunset.

I wake at 6.24am, to a cold and wet tent.

I’m 90% warm in my sleeping bag, but the missing 10% is, unfortunately, focussed on my frozen feet. They’ve been this way all night. Rolling onto my side didn’t help, nor did frequent helpings of chocolate. I wish that I’d bought one of my childhood hot water bottles with me, instead of wrestling with blankets that fall off in the night. Cold extremities are signs of an under heated core, and, while most of me feels warm, I know that my sleeping bag is just not designed for these temperatures, and that’s why I’m suffering.

Camping in the snow, last night’s dreams were an odd match for the flat terrain. Dreaming of home, I rode, ran, and climbed my way up to a camp site by our city’s first wind turbine, high up on the summit of the Brooklyn hill. A practice run for Kilimanjaro, I lay there, wrapped in my blanket, feeling nostalgic for running. Perhaps this is because running makes you warm!

Getting up is the only hope I have of defrosting my feet. I could pack up now and ride for 12 hours straight, easily making my target of Tsogttsetsii. Or I could do what I always do and wait a few more hours for the sun to come up. There’s just something about sunlight that makes it all possible.

Regardless, I’m quite excited by the prospect of reaching Tsogttsetsii. The photos I’ve seen on the internet show a strip of futuristic hotels surrounded by a barren wasteland, trimmings of the lucrative coal economy. Despite my eco tendencies, I’ve often entertained the idea of a post-apocalyptic life, a fantasy which doesn’t seem so far removed from the barren days and freezing nights of my current predicament.

Eventually, my bladder gets the better of me.

Carefully extracting myself from the tent, I’m surprised to find that I’ve had company in the night. The snow is pockmarked with paw prints, their dot-to-dots joined by potential tail trails. They’d have done better to come at breakfast time though. The near apocalypse of not being able to buy oats has forced me to diversify, and breakfast sees the ground littered with the yellow and brown sachets of cereal malts and rich hot chocolate. Comfort food, it truly is the breakfast of champions.

Out on the trail, the cold wind is back.

Blasting across the landscape, angular snow drifts are caught on the backs of small shrubs, like white shadows.

I’m not really enjoying myself, but I commiserate with the fact that you couldn’t see this beauty on a hot summer’s day.

The herd’s troughs are filled with frozen water, sending them to browner pasturers, while I continue into the snow.

At sunset, I grab a quick shot of a positively arctic sunset, before setting up camp in amongst the snowy mounds.

Keen to sleep warmer than last night, I hope to block the cold wind by building snow walls around my tent. But as I start on the second wall, a man pulls up on a motorbike. Chuckling to himself, he invites me to his place for dinner and rest. Annoyed that he spotted my stealthy red headlamp and bummed that I can’t reap the fruits of my labours, I try to shake him off, but he is persistent. And he’s right, there’s no sane reason to turn down a warm bed tonight.

I leave the tent and ride with him to his ger, setting a GPS waypoint on arrival. But backtracking to my tent is more difficult, with no waypoint to return to. It’s hard to see anything in the dim light, much less a bright orange tent, and I realise that my worries about being caught out while wild-camping are overstated. All the same, I’d rather not leave thousands of dollars of gear unprotected overnight.

Eventually I find my hidden lair, count my blessings, pack up and head back to the man’s house. It’s dark now, and I’m glad I know where I’m going, but as my bike bumps over the snowy fields, my Ortlieb attachment breaks again and I have to dismount and awkwardly walk while straddling the bike. It’s a mission, but I know that getting to the warm ger will be worth it.

The man introduces himself as Naranjagult.

Fifty-five years old, he jokes and sniggers constantly, his inability to grow up adding decades to his life. His humour is infectious and his wife seems to appreciate it too, the tight living space promoting a tight bond between the compatible couple.

They share their dinner with me, an instant feast of buzze, bought bread spread with a yummy Nutella substitute, and salty Mongol tea, more milky than usual. Their relatively close proximity to Dalanzadgad affords them access to store-bought goodies, and I’m surprised when, after gifting my vodka, my host reciprocates with a plastic hip flask of Jack Daniel’s.

Their home is well appointed, perhaps a bit more personalised and a bit less purely functional than I’ve seen before. A low dining table sits on a patterned green carpet rug, the ingredients of future meals filling the shelves of a cupboarded wooden pantry. An ornately painted wardrobe bears the scuffs of repeated relocations, while large plastic barrels store water from a nearby well and one bears the milky scars of frequent fermentations. In the entertainment corner, an Airag filled Coke bottle sits next to a low stand containing a widescreen TV, VCR and a large Chinese battery meter, practical off-grid electronics.

Naranjagult says that he has six babies and three of them live in Tsogttsetsii. I have visions of mini-mes living in a cot, but he’s probably referring to his grown children. Apparently it’s supposed to snow tomorrow, and he and his wife would be happy to drive me the rest of the way to their kids’ place.

Having a warm bed after a cold day is one thing, but I’m not happy with the idea of leap frogging to the next bed without earning the right to sleep in it. It’s hard to decline their generous request without seeming rude, but we agree to look at the weather and make a final decision in the morning.