In Dan Carlin’s podcast about Genghis Khan (Wrath of the Khans) he describes the Mongolian steppe and its harsh weather conditions like an ocean, in which a tsunami could blow off any minute. And why would anyone be surprised?
We are talking about the lands which shaped Genghis Khan, the Great Conqueror. The lands which shaped the little boy who killed his older brother with arrows shot from one meter’s distance into his chest (accusation being that he had stolen fish from Genghis, who back then was more known as Temüjin). The lands which shaped the man who would kill 20-50 million people in the 12th and 13th century.
The man who united the reckless Mongols and who brought order and discipline into the former lawless, wild steppe lands. Who gave no warnings or second chances and raised fear like no others in the Chinese empire. The man who would make his enemies his allies. Who taught his riders to feed on horse blood by cutting their veins open – not deep enough to actually kill the horses.
Mongolia. The lands which shaped Genghis Khan the Great Conqueror. Not great as in noble. But Great as in Merciless.
When I was 18 I hopped on a plane to Nice, France. From there I planned to bike to Montenegro, and I had never made such a trip on a bicycle before.
Arriving to Nice in the afternoon, I guess a sane thing would have been to have booked an accommodation already. But my mind was set on not planning anything whatsoever. Nope, I was just going to ride my bicycle and see where I’d end up each night, you know?
I met an old bearded man that very first evening of my tour. He was sitting on the street in Nice next to an extremely decayed house, consuming beer bottle after beer bottle, and he proposed I could sleep in the house’s backyard. And I thought: Why the hell not? He seems ok to me – and beyond everything you could expect from a Frenchman: He spoke English!
At first glance I thought he was homeless, but it turned out he lived a few blocks away. At first glance I also thought the house he was sitting at was abandoned, but it turned out it belonged to a man that the bearded man spoke of as “the boss”. Still in my mind I keep calling these men “the Boss and Beer Santa”. Beer Santa because he looked like Santa Claus and sure loved beer.
As we waited for the Boss to come back that evening, we had a lovely chat about beer brands all over the world and Beer Santa also told me – with a little pride in his voice – that he had a collection of more than a hundred cactuses in his home; One of which you could make tequila from.
The Boss didn’t mind me pitching my tent in the backyard, so that’s what I did. The next morning Beer Santa was sitting in the garden reading the newspaper. Not only did he hand me breakfast to bring, he also guided me out of Nice on his motorbike.
My idols Beer Santa and the Boss. I just won’t stop talking about them!
Another night I slept in a basement with blood stains on the floor. A third one in an apartment I had all to myself (and didn’t pay anything for), a fourth one in the home of a loving family.
Needless to say this trip gave me a new life philosophy: That everything always works out in one way or another, no matter what you may need help with.
More than two years later I am cycling the lands of Mongolia. And I’m realizing that my so long trusted philosophy has an Achilles heel. It only applies when there are people around.
So this is one of Mongolia’s main roads. Sometimes, it disappears completelyI don’t know what’s worse in the sense of loneliness in Mongolia: Being a human or being a tree…
I had to face storms before Mongolia. One of the worst was in Turkey, when the lightning kept striking the lands surrounding me and the wind was so strong it took down a full-grown tree right in front of my feet just as I was planning to pitch my tent next to it. But things worked out. I found an abandoned barn in which I could sleep safely that night.
In Armenia I had to outrun thunder clouds touching the ground alarmingly close to me, and I rode through the most frightening thunder storm I have ever witnessed. But things worked out that time too. Angela, a kindhearted English teacher and her son David, took me in to their home. She spent the whole evening washing and drying my clothes and gave me so much food to bring.
East of Tehran storms seemed to be constantly present, and since the steppe wouldn’t provide any shelter I spent most nights lying awake worrying that my tent would break. Actually there was this one pole that broke open in both ends. I repaired it with a sleeve. The other end broke. I repaired that one with a sleeve too. The sleeves broke. I switched ends of the sleeves so that the none-broken ends would support the broken ends of the pole instead. One of the sleeves broke in that end too. I fixed it with one of my spoons and a lot of duct tape.
Just about a month later, in Dushanbe, I could finally have that one tent pole replaced but man I missed my sleep in Iran… Still, I always knew that if the tent would break completely people were never far away. I would never have to risk to spend a night without shelter.
Since September it has no longer been possible to apply for a visa at the Chinese embassy in Ulaanbaatar, and hence my plan was to end this trip in Ulaanbaatar and not Beijing as I initially was thinking.
But it ended sooner than that, just about 1300 km before – just in the beginning of my ride through Mongolia.
I am facing a furious headwind all day, but as I set camp it is all still. I feel relieved, because my tent is all exposed on the steppe. At 10 PM when I’m about to go to sleep however, it happens. A storm rolls in.
It feels like I have been thrown into a washing machine and I just cannot bring myself to fall asleep. The tent is bending from one side to the other horizontally as if a bunch of giants are using it as their wrestling arena. I can’t stand the noise. Not only the noise from the tent being shaken, but that howl coming from the distance. That howl telling me the next gust is on its way. It comes closer… and Bam! The next wrestling round is on.
At midnight I have had enough. There got to be something I could do about this whole situation, right? It’s all dark but I start carrying rocks to my camp to build a wind stopping wall. After an hour I realize it’s pointless. The wind is coming from all directions, and it would take the whole night to build a wall high enough to protect the tent from it. Repositioning the tent, seems pointless too even though I make various attempts to do so.
I decide to go back in. You’re panicking for nothing, I tell myself, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Just stay calm and try to get some sleep. Dawn will come eventually.
I listen to music next, trying to distract myself from what’s going on around me. It doesn’t help that much though. But I am afraid Eminem, man I’m so fucking afraid!
At 3 AM I am still awake, my body trembling from fear. There is sand everywhere by now. Layers of sand on my stuff, in my face. That’s when I know it. I know that if I don’t take my tent down now, it will break. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to get out there, in the sand gusts, and take the tent down. But I am too late. The tent breaks. One of the threads holding together the poles snaps, and the poles fly around everywhere as if scattered to pieces by an explosion. I can hardly stand up in the wind, but I rush to collect them all – it turns out several of them are bent but only one is literally broken in half.
I spend the rest of the night lying on the top of my tent under bare sky with sand swirling around me and getting into my eyes no matter how I try to cover my face in the sleeping bag. I let all of my other things remain inside the tent as I sleep on it to keep them from flying away. My pair of thicker pants already did as I tried to put them on – the wind pulled them from my grip and they were gone in a blink.
Dawn seems an eternity away and the ground is shaking so violently I am convinced there’s an earthquake coming for me. But it’s just the storm playing tricks.
Sometime at 5 AM I manage to get some sleep, although constantly waking up to brush away sand from my face. At 7 AM I wake up to find that my face and sleeping bag are getting wet. A snow storm is approaching, so I better pack and get moving.
I managed to hitch a ride here – the truck looks so misplaced…
In summers the Mongolian steppe is crowded by shepherds and nomads living in their gers. In October however, the steppe is completely desolated. People have moved into the villages over the winter already, and the villages usually seem to be about five days’ riding apart. Adding up to the fact that maximum one vehicle passed me each day, I realized there was no such thing as “everything always works out” anymore. Because there was no one around, just me. There was lucky and there was unlucky.
That night when my tent broke it was only about minus 5 °C, but later on in November temperatures could easily reach minus 25 at night. Imagine sleeping through that in a snow storm if your only shelter breaks.
Even if I repaired the tent, it had proved no reliability in storms. Not even if I would somehow obtain a brand new tent of that same model, would I have continued across Mongolia. Because there is no way I’m ever going to trust that tent in stormy weather again. And there is no way I’m taking on such vast, sparsely populated lands as Mongolia in extreme weather and temperatures without a reliable shelter. Because if things really would go wrong – if the temps would have been colder that night – there would be nobody around to help.
When I was little I was so scared of bugs I decided I had to do something about it. So I started to pick spiders up in my hand each time I spotted one. And I forced myself to keep them in my hand until I wasn’t afraid anymore. But man it’s so much easier to pick up a physical being (ok so maybe not a hippo) than it is to pick up a whole fucking country.
I wanted to keep Mongolia in my hand until I wasn’t afraid anymore. But I just couldn’t. It freaked me out way too much. My tent had broken and I was too alone, too exposed. So I decided to let go. I decided to go home and leave the last leg of my trip behind. For now.
It’s not a “hey I’ve had enough of this bike touring shit now, I’ll go home and just do charter and five star hotels from now on”.
It’s a “hey, I’m starting to like this life a plenty lot and I’d like to keep it a little longer, you know?”
Mongolia sure is one heck of a remarkable, extraordinary place and I’ll have to go back. In fact it might just be topping the list. But I’ll bring a better tent next time… and preferably some company too.
And there are so many other places to see as well. Wow, in fact I can’t help but feeling a little stressed about it!
The Dalton Highway, Yukon river, and “Lost Coast” of Alaska.
The Jasper National park and that new built 22 000 km long road in Canada.
The Pacific Crest Trail, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon in the USA.
The jungles of Guyana and Suriname.
The Patagonia region in Chile and Argentina.
The outback of Australia and looking for hobbits on New Zealand.
The Himalayas, the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan, and the Karakoram Highway of Pakistan and China.
The wild savannahs of Africa, and further on the mountainous deserts of Namibia and the Zambezi river.
And then of course, there are places more nearby such as Iceland and Lofoten and Svalbard and Sarek and Muddus and…
OH GOD I REALLY CAN’T BE THE ONLY ONE FEELING A LITTLE STRESSED ABOUT THIS, CAN I??!
Soooo what’s your next move?
I’ll yet have to figure out mine (though a part of it will be to hike parts of the Pacific Crest Trail in the USA next summer with my sister of another mister; Saga 😉 )
In the meantime however, I’d like to thank you for following and supporting me during this little venture. Though I am not going to go all cheesy here because that’d just make my cheeks red.
Anyhow, I’ll be back.