It is a strange morning for us. We wake up in Bayangkhangor knowing we have made the right decision to order a truck to transport the bikes and ourselves across the 280kms of corrogation and sand. Walking from hotel to hotel last night, searching for a room, reminded me of how tough today would have been for me everytime we picked either Streak or Storm from napping along the way. Walking at over 1800 metres altitude after a day in the saddle has got me out of breath and today will get even higher.
The truck owner knocks on our hotel door at 6.40am, a little earlier than planned but we are ready. After a bit of confusion as to why a taxi also turned up, we set off following truck and taxi across town to an empty yard with a ramp to load the bikes. It is not the easiest of angles and after loading his bike, Anthony kindly offers to ride Streak for me if I’d like – yes please, especially as the second bike will have an even tighter turning space. But with the taxi driver, the truck owner and truck driver, they all lift the back of Streak to spin it around on its front wheel with Anthony precariously hanging on. By 8am, the bikes are loaded and securely strapped, payment is made, the owner proudly shows me that he swapped the completely bald and cracking front tyres for us, having noticed my concern the evening before when they brought the truck over and promised to change them, and we’re ready to go.
As we pile into the cosy truck cabin, I look back at Streak and Storm – it seems like they are asking mum and dad why they are not with us.
Our driver Baltar is a cautious driver, obviously aware of the truck’s limitations but it is soon apparent that he has no idea of the way!! He stops a few times asking other drivers for directions. So out comes my mobile with MapsMe. MapsMe is a fantastic tool: download the maps you may need and you can then use it without the need for internet/comms access. As you will see from the photos, there are often numerous route options, generally merging back to a couple before branching out again. But occasionally, one left hand track that seems to run parallel at first will eventually take you in the wrong direction. We understand how easy it is to get lost and completely off track.
An hour out of Bayankhongor, Baltar suddenly starts whistling and singing. It is beautiful, soulful. It reminds me of Aboriginals singing for their country. Something is happening for Baltar, it feels to me like he is coming home. Then suddenly, over the rise, we see a camp being built. It is his family! He asks if we want to stop – of course! An opportunity for Anthony to lend a hand with building a ger. Baltar seems happy to have given us this experience.
Over the course of day, as we approached an obvious ‘junction’, Baltar would simply look at me to ask me which way, a quick left or right sign, and our course is adjusted or corrected. At times, I would point out to Baltar where the official route was but as we are travelling parallel, within 500 to a 1000 metres, we are ok.
As we encounter different surfaces, both Anthony and I would comment on how manageable we felt the road would have been for us. Occasionally, there were sandy patches but they were not too long – just treacherous as you can be zipping along a hard surface then suddenly hit a soft patch and your front wheel digs in and over you go. Being the slow speeds, we feel we could have ridden the road. That’s at the start of the journey. But after hours and hours of relentless corrugation, we are grateful we made the choice we made. It would have been a long, tedious, uncomfortable and even unpleasant slog. A totally miserable route. We are glad we made the decision to take truck.
Then when we get to the river that split into 3 branches, again, we are grateful.
It is a bouncy and dusty ride. We get the inevitable puncture.
It took us 10 hours to drive the 280km section. By the time we get to the pristine tar with just another 100kms to go, we are all exhausted, and especially Baltar. The concentration has been intense for him. At 50kms an hour, it takes us another couple of hours to get to Altai. We could have unloaded the bikes and riden the tar section but we didn’t want to leave Baltar out there, knowing he would probably drive straight back. We realise how tired he is so Anthony plays upbeet music from his phone which Baltar enjoys and I feed Baltar biscuits, chocolates and whatever snacks we have left. Baltar tells us each make of car going the other way or where they are from, Prius, Ulaanbaator, Toyota etc. We all know what is happening here: trying to keep Baltar awake.
It took us 12 hours to from Bayankhongor to Altai. We drive straight to a hotel I have simply picked on MapsMe, the Entym hotel, and book 2 rooms. Baltar wants to unload the bikes tonight and return straight to Bayankhongor. As luck would have it of course, someone comes up and chats to us in Russian not expecting us to speak Mongolian. I am struggling to understand everything and try to ask for his help in getting a ramp from the hotel staff so he calls out to his family already on the top floor of the hotel to come down!!
We now have a superb interpreter: Josh explains that he is 11 years old, lives in Chicago, has a Mongolian mother who decided it was time he spent his school holidays in Mongolia so that he can connect with his heritage. I ask Josh to explain to Baltar that we are worried for him and feel he should not be driving home when he is so tired and that we have booked a room for him. Baltar thanks us and tells us via Josh that to experience Mongolia fully, we should spend time with him and his family… oh how I would love that… The hotel staff find us a ramp and with the help of Josh’s uncles, Streak and Storm are unloaded by 10pm, and we are ready to have a shower before dinner. How amazing to get all this help!! I never thought we would have managed to get the bikes off so easily and quickly.
Baltar must have fallen asleep as soon as he got to his room as he didn’t join us for dinner. We are exhausted too yet we just sat all day – what would we have been like had we ridden this stretch?!…
The next morning, Baltar joins us for breakfast. I start using my google translate to communicate with him. It is the first time we have ‘spoken’. All day yesterday, he would simply gesture, realising that talking to us in Mongolian was useless – usually, people end up shouting to make themselves understood!! Baltar would occasionally whisper something ever so gently, but use his hands to converse. His eyes somehow communicated so much. Then suddenly, I am overcome with a terrible sadness. I find myself crying at the breakfast table. I explain to Anthony that I am so sad we were not able to communicate with him. Anthony wisely suggests I should tell Baltar how I feel (writing this is making me choke up again). Baltar looks at me and his eyes say so much. Yes, he says simply in English. We gesture towards our hearts and understand each other. It is hard to say goodbye to Baltar.
Once again, had we not made the decision we made, that is to take the truck, we would have missed out on meeting Baltar, witnessed his connection to his land, heard his soulful singing, and experienced his warmth and gentleness or met Josh. We dreaded this day and now we have the most wonderful memories…