Day 84: Dalanzadgad to Field , Cross-country

A man with a black jacket, brown hat and ear muffs surveys the landscape with my monocular. His motorcycle is parked behind him.
I spy, with my monoculeye.

I awake refreshed after a good sleep, though I still feel sore.

Expecting the worst, I peer outside and am relieved to see blue skies and sunshine, the weather much better than forecast. Armed with this information, we agree that it’s OK for me to make the journey to Tsogttsetsii alone. Regardless, Naranjagult gives me a letter to show to his grown babies on arrival. I’m networking without even trying.

He effortlessly reattaches my left front pannier, applying strong knots so that I can focus on riding the bumpy terrain without fear of losing my baggage, or balance. As a result, I’m feeling slightly kinder towards my unreliable brandname gear, but simultaneously dreading the coming night, when I will have to cut it off and start over.

With everything more or less in order, I set off.

The path is less well defined here, so I head in the direction indicated by Naranjagult. This takes me along a vague roadway marked by elongated patches of brown dirt.

The sun is out and it’s pretty hot for a change, at least when I’m moving. But it's a risky distraction, as pedalling through the sand and snow requires constant vigilance to prevent the bike from sliding out. I wonder if snowmelt would expedite my progress, or erase the delicate road altogether.

To break up the monotony, I have regular tea stops at twenty minutes intervals. Aquarius & Tayla’s “Bringing Me Down” lifts me up and provides a much needed third dimension to the vast whitewashed landscape. But I can’t stop for too long. Being static causes my temperature to flop like a bipolar bear. I have to keep juggling layers, and it’s really hard to do that while wearing my thick thermal gloves.

Slinging my G1x around my neck, I try to film my progress but the camera jumps around like crazy, the smooth audio seriously undermined by visual epileptics. Stopping to switching the camera off, I pull out my monocular and scan the landscape for signs of life. A herd of cattle catch my eye and I stop to study its makeup more closely.

Putting the monocular away, I carry on, but am soon joined by a serious looking character. Part Armed Offenders Squad and part stealth ninja, they are dressed all in black. Their gender-neutral balaclava has just two cut outs for their eyes, a blank expression masking any motives that hide beneath the surface. It occurs to me this might be a private security guard, and that my cattle gazing may have been misunderstood. Maybe it does matter where you ride.

I feel slightly weird about asking for the ninja’s photo so I quickly snap off a selfie, which they just happen to be in the background of. To my surprise, the ninja reciprocates by pulling a phablet out of their coat, and taking their sweet time to frame the perfect shot of the Troll and I. Hitting the shutter button, they disappear as quickly as they appeared, leaving me to my monocular gazings.

Aside from the odd ninja encounter, navigating the Gobi is pretty stressfree.

There’s no right or wrong, only faster and slower. The difference between a few centimetres of snow and a few feet is more than technical. So, when my makeshift road is suddenly accompanied by another, I feel obliged to stop and consult my GPS. Crossing my fingers, I hope that my phone’s battery will support the query and its 35% charge won’t suddenly flatline. Low temperatures really affect batteries out here.

In the distance, the desert peace is slowly interrupted by the spatial wash of powerful engines.

Scanning the horizon with my monocular, I spot a large truck passing by, just off the horizon. Towing a long trailer, it’s the kind of truck that requires a road.

Road means speed. Speed is good. I reorientate myself and make a beeline for the distant highway.

Eventually I reach the road, which, it turns out, is little more that a set of wide tyre prints in the snow.

I’m amazed that the huge truck-trailer managed to drive through this. I point the Troll at the centre of the tread mark and feel it fly on the hard packed surface. I’m now managing 10-12 km/h though I’m cautious of ice, unsure of the lasting effects of the sun and heavy traffic.

But it isn’t the ice that gets me. As I spin the pedals to get warm after a tea break, the heel of my Russian boot connects with my rear pannier and kicks it off the rails. This requires an immediate stop and much swearing and frustration, as the pannier cannot be reattached without first removing the dry bag containing the camel blanket, and the solar panel which is carefully strapped on top. Fairly or not, Ortlieb get the lion’s share of the blame. It just seems that their attachment points are really not designed for off-road use, and I despise the ignorance of all the tar seal tourers who have up-voted their brand to near God-like status. You might have heard that Ortlieb are really good, but you might have heard wrong.

A motorcyclist approaches and I pause Moby‘s intense “Thousand”, to avoid freaking him out. After a Sain baina uu I give him a walkthrough of my GPS waypoints, while he corrects my bad pronunciation. Man-dal-go-vi / Mandalgoev. Tsogt-Ov-oo / Tsocktova. He asks about my tent and comments that it’s cold, which hopefully means that I’m not alone in thinking so. Despite his age and conservative, old-skool appearance, he’s a friendly chap, and we share chuckles, ahhs, and, apparently, a love for monoculars. We try each others’ out to see which is better at spotting his lost sheep, and he obliges for a photo of him doing so. As he’s leaving, I try to repay him with a warming whiskey, but he declines. He’s got places to be and cattle to see.

Riding alongside pylons now, a herd of horses congregate nearby.

But when I turn my head to get a better look, I hit a dip in the road, lose control and wipe out into the snow. Feeling cross, angry and embarrassed in front of my equine audience, I seek immediate revenge via a trailside pee. But this only encourages the herd to investigate more closely – funny peeing Kiwi!

Deciding that I’m done for the day, I head half a kilometre off the track to set up camp. It’s ten to five and I’m confident of getting into bed early and hitting the big red Reset button.

I unpack the tent but – horror of horrors – the guy lines have succumbed to the knot theory and become entangled in a tight ball. What the..?!

But then I remember the previous night and rush packing my tent in the dark after accepting Naranjagult’s invitation. A half-assed job, I should have repacked it in the morning. Shit.

Now, theoretically my tent is freestanding, so its guy lines are only necessary in rain or high wind. The free-standing tent structure is formed by pushing the three tentpoles into their sleeves and then locking the pole ends into the sleeve boots to tension the outer shell. But, this only works if the guy lines can hang freely. Tonight, the individual ropes are locked into a stiff net. The tent can’t go up until the binding knots are released.

And I need to get this tent up. Because, even though it’s uninsulated, its thin walls do effectively block out the wind, dirt and snow. It provides a safe haven for myself and my sleeping gear, through the long, cold autumn nights. There would be grave implications if I were suddenly to find myself tentless.

I pull off my gloves and set to untangling the ropes, slowly and methodically. The knots are tight and there’s rope everywhere. It’s fiddly work and my numbing fingers warn me that I have limited time before it will be too cold to get this done.

My fingers ache and I stop to pile on layers, in the hope of keeping them working a little longer. The knots are slowly starting to come loose, but there are just so many ropes in the net. After every second or third unknotting, I reward myself by swearing like a possessed man and running around the field to stave off hypothermia. The situation is both darkly comical and downright scary.

Finally, through sheer doggedness, I get the tent up, but the ground is rock hard and I’m not able to plant all the pegs. Whatever. Chucking my stuff inside, I make up the bed, get in to my sleeping bag and cinch it up tight. Stuffing butter and biscuits into my mouth, I take swigs of lukewarm hot chocolate and follow them up with a shot of Naranjagult’s whiskey.

My head torch illuminates a thick cloud of breath, the warm vapour crystallising into ice. Lying in wait on the tent ceiling, this later falls onto my face whenever I shift around, like icy waterboarding. It’s going to be a long night.