Day 86: Tsogttsetsii , The ride stops here

A woman in street clothes and a man in overalls stand in front of their van.
My guardian angels drop me in Tsogttsetsii.

After breakfast, my guardian angel gives me a lift to Tsogttsetsii proper.

On the way, we pick up her husband, who works at the Tavan Tolgoi coal mine. A major source of energy for power hungry steel, iron and chemical factories in China, it’s also an education. Apparently kind people work at mines too. I guess mining is just a different way for Mongols to live off their land.

Her husband is quietly friendly, but somewhat surprised to find that his wife has given me an orange jumper to wear. The cuddly cashmere will certainly make a great addition to my wardrobe, but apparently it is part of his work uniform! However, in true Mongol spirit, his wife just smiles away any lingering tension, and he knows better than to pursue the matter.

We continue on to Tsogttsetsii and they drop me at the address given to me by Naranjagult. I wish I had time to get to know them a little better, but I need to push on and organise a ride to the border.

I’m relieved to find that grown people live here, rather than giant babies.

They are Naranjagult’s daughters. One runs the upstairs hotel with her husband, while downstairs there is a karaoke bar. The vertical split gives the hotel a wild west feel, and I imagine the rowdy bar periodically going quiet, as lost out of towners accidentally sing the wrong ballad.

The sisters kindly give me one of their rooms for free, feed me again and wash my stinky 19-day-old clothing, much of which hasn’t left my body in this time.

I’m grateful for their help and the ongoing goodwill from their parents, but am highly anxious about the next leg of the trip.

The host husband passes me a phone, so I can talk to a man in another town.

Going by the All-American name of Tommy, he’s the go-between in organising a ride to Sainshand. A Mongol who runs a business in Singapore, he exudes the confident, international air of a fixer.

There is much back and forth between myself, my host, and Tommy the fixer. Like a taxi driver offering their passenger the chance to pay less, or more, I’m repeatedly asked which route I’d prefer. But this is an evacuation, not a guided tour. My sole concern is getting to the border before my visa expires. I emphasise that they should choose the route, rather than me or my GPS.

Eventually they tell me that we will drive from Tsogttsetsii (TT) to Khanbogd, Manlai, ?, Mandakh, and finally Sainshand. The 421km route is basically the same as the one that I’d planned to ride.

Successfully selling me on the concept, he moves on to the price. Quoting a cost of T 800,000 (NZD 600), he asks me how I feel about that? Shell-shocked, is how I feel.

He says he could get it down to T 700,000 but no less. It’s a return trip for the driver, and, beyond T 700,000, it’s just not worth it. Whether they view me as a rich tourist with discretionary income, or some sort of inconvenience, I’m unsure. I don’t even drive in my own country, so I have no yardstick against which to weigh up the price that I’ve been given.

I ask him about travel times, and he says that, if we leave early, we should arrive late in Sainshand. Guessing that the driver would need a rest after driving all day, I ask him whether the price includes accommodation for him? No, he doesn’t think so, this would be extra. Obviously. But why do I have to think of that?

I feel irritated by the casual planning, which doesn’t seem to justify the potentially inflated price tag.

But it’s not their fault, it’s mine. I’ve allowed myself to be completely beaten by Mongolia. I knew that the destination would be hard won, but I thought it would be doable. But the distance, climate, terrain and timeframe have all conspired against me. I’ve got nine more days to do 600 k’s. It's just not possible.

I’m sure that it would be possible, on good tar seal roads, with a tail wind, functional gear, a decent sleep each night and the resulting motivation to get up early and do it all again. But on the cusp of winter, on my own, it’s an unnecessary risk. Self-preservation trumps glory, so I’m admitting defeat. I’ll go on to fight another day, but my confidence has taken a hit and I’m afraid that I’m just not cut out for this two-wheeled lifestyle. For a self-proclaimed cyclist, this is a damning judgement.

My mind fills with regrets and what-ifs. What if I’d spent the $600 on a better sleeping bag? If I’d not taken the work, remained well and left Ulaanbaatar earlier, catching the end of summer? What if I’d not ridden all the way down to Dalanzadgad for a couple of oversized sand dunes, or if I’d forced myself to be a morning person, or ridden the bumpy trails more carefully? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but only a fool would think that the past could have played out any differently.

And, while we’re playing what-if – what if I hadn’t met that kind woman in Tsogttsetsii, if that was even where I was, or any of the numerous others who stepped up to make my journey a little less dare-devil and a lot more comfortable?

The hard truth is that I might want this to be a journey of self-affirmation, but all it really affirms is that we’re all interconnected, and we all need each other if we’re going to survive this mess called life. None of us is an island and I, certainly, am not.

My room is like a sauna and I’m sweating in my orange gift jersey and togs, my only wearable items as everything else is drying on the rack.

The basso profundo of the karaoke drifts aggressively up the stairwell. I want to go down to there, throw caution to the wind and heavily drown my sorrows. But not dressed like this.

I will ride again, that much is true. In fact, there’s still 210km of road between Sainshand and the border. It’s some kind of consolation, but not enough. Tonight at least, I am beaten.