Day 87: Tsogttsetsii to Zamiin-Uud , Fast-forward

Selfie with myself, driver and two younger people in the back seat.
Our multi-talented team.

Unsure what time ‘early’ is, I resist the urge to sleep past my 6:30am alarm.

Getting up, I start collecting my belongings, which, as usual, have expanded to fill the entire hotel room. It’s a real luxury to be able to pack clean clothing and I feel guilty that it still takes me the best part of two hours before I’m ready to ship out.

However, peering into the hall, I see no signs of anyone waiting, so I sit in my room, survey the drab outlook and surf Facebook.

After a while the wife comes past and sees that I am packed. Sene. Good. She invites me to the family flat, for a breakfast of box noodles, bread, coffee and tea.

A naked boy is there, as he was yesterday. His name is Loowah, but I think of him as Little Louie. He is only two years old but, full of smiles and mischievousness, he reminds me of my older nephew Max.

Her husband, though, is strangely absent. She explains that he has gone to buy a spare tyre for the journey ahead. He left at eight and hopefully won’t be much longer.

I head back to my room, feeling a little foolish at getting up so ridiculously early. Finally, at 10:30, she comes in and announces that he is now here.

I ferry my gear downstairs and say goodbye to her and Little Louie, who, still naked, is having a bath.

Ninety minutes later I have paid my T 700,000 and we are off.

We’re headed to meet Tommy, but have detoured to visit the nearby mining complex at Oyu Tolgoi.

Confident that this won’t impact the schedule or budget, I relax into the role of tourist and passenger.

We reach the complex a little before two, but the mine is a bit of a letdown. I’d hoped to see below the Gobi’s shifting sands, deep down into the throbbing, bleeding heart of the Mongol quandary.

Instead, the complex is more of a compound and has all the depth of a Greenwashing. The cluster of nondescript site offices, warehouses, power pylons and large concave satellite dishes provide little to write home about. This is likely by design, the diamond wire mesh fence and barbed wire keeping prying eyes well away from the real action.

At a quarter past two, we reach Khanbogd.

From afar, it looks like a little stain of a place. But, as we crest the hill, the town comes alive in a colourful pastiche of brick and paint.

But closer inspection isn’t kind to Khanbogd. Waiting in the van in the frozen town centre, the low, snow-splattered hills surrounding the town give it a messy, partially excavated feel.

We’re led inside one of the buildings where we meet Tommy, who is a lot younger than I imagined. Still with that trademark confidence, I question whether he really is an international businessman, or more of a fledgling entrepreneur. We head upstairs to a large lounge area where there are several comfortable couches. It could be a student flat, but the otherwise sparse furnishings suggest that we might actually be in some sort of off-site work office, a modern 21 Jump Street.

The now ubiquitous Chinese hotplate provides hot water for tea and noodles. Over lunch, it is decided that we will bypass Sainshand and instead head directly to my exit point of Zamiin-Uud. This route across the Gobi is not marked on any of my paper or digital maps, but the team are confident that it will be probably be okay. In their defence, we have several new passengers, including someone who knows the area, the owner of a fancy compass, a young lady in a white coat and a good English speaker. At worst, someone will be able to reassure me in perfect English that we are ‘not lost’.

We leave Khanbogd at 4pm. With just two hours before sunset, I’m somewhat skeptical about how far we’ll get. Only time will tell.

The road out of town is more of the same as the road in.

The brown sandy trail becomes progressively obscured by white snow, but the surface texture doesn’t seem to slow us down at all. The only time when the driver’s foot comes off the accelerator is when we bottom out the suspension on a large dip. He drives cautiously for a few metres, until the road becomes level again.

There are no speed signs or traffic police out here and our pace is a far cry from the careful line picking that I have to do my bike.

At 5:30 pm there is a gorgeous sunset and by 6:30 pm it's pitch black.

It’s odd to be out and about at this time. After a long day in the saddle I’d usually be focussed on the dual priorities of shelter and refuelling. The black void extends in all directions and it feels like the only thing that’s real is the road directly in front of us, a few metres of dirt and snow illuminated by the van's headlights.

With no visual confirmation, we’re flying by our instruments. But the van is driven slower and slower, then repeatedly stops and turns around. We’re lost. The dirt tracks all look the same to me, but we’re obviously searching for something, perhaps an agreement from our fickle GPS. Our headlights pick up a large tour bus, perhaps someone’s home, but they think the driver lives nearby. Several of them go and talk to him, returning with increased confidence.

Things carry on uneventfully, until the van starts to behave erratically. We pull over and jump out to find that the left front tyre is flat. It’s 10.30pm and freezing, but I’m grateful for the spare which caused our delay this morning. With our fast and loose driving I’m surprised that we didn’t need it sooner.

Driving duties are handed over to Tommy. Relishing the role of leader, he is keen to see us the rest of the way to Zamiin-Uud. But youthful bravado only gets you so far and I grow increasingly anxious as he starts to nod off. There’s little in the way of obstacles out here, but I’m aware that even a small tree or bump could be deadly if met with the wrong combination of speed, angle and reaction timing.

My self-preservation reflex kicking in, I become more insistent, until I finally succeed in talking my barely conscious driver into a roadside nap.

He nods off quickly, leaving the engine and heating running. I’m aware that this unplanned stop could put extra demands on our fuel supplies, but that seems like the lesser of two evils right now.