Tuesday, 17 July 2012

To the Gobi

Well, we got here, but what a tough two days it was. I think today is the anniversary of the first moon landing today way back in 1969, and having ridden the roads we have since leaving UB, I think we had the tougher time. And we did it without mission control.

We didn't leave UB until 12noon because it was tipping it down – really fat torrential rain that soaks you and floods the streets within seconds. And that is too dangerous – and unpleasant - on a motorcycle, particularly given the potholes there. So we had to wait, and lost half of the day as a consequence. But as soon as it cleared up, we were off.

The first bit was ok. Headed south towards Mandalgovi, 280kms distant. Initially, it was paved road and there was even a signpost to guide us, although this wasn't the M6 that we actually wanted, but then we hit sandy tracks which slowed us down.

 It had clearly been raining out in the middle of nowhere too as there was mud and puddles – huge ones, blocking tracks and which had to be circumvented.

Still this terrain is great for honing off road skills, even if we are on the most unsuitable of bikes. But I take back what I said about the new Chinese Mustang. It is much better off road than on and the wobbles and tinniness are hardly noticeable because of the rough ride, and it makes easy work of the corrugations, which are pretty extreme. However the suspension is appalling and magnifies every bump into spine crunching thuds, and the foot pegs are too high, making it impossible to stand. Its a bit like a very low sofa minus the comfortable bit – your legs are too high and you have to heave yourself up, which isn't easy when trying to manipulate a moving bike around constant obstacles. And although these bikes are common out here in the countryside, I am yet to see any local standing; we now know why.

Despite the difficulties, we made it to Mother Rock, albeit more by accident than design, having veered off the intended track. En route, we were befriended by three locals – husband and wife, and a friend, who through sign language told us they were on their way to pray. But not before they had inspected us and our bikes and ridden them. Then they rode with us for about 10kms. The husband and wife's bike wasn't too bad but the single bloke's had the most buckled rear wheel ever; maybe he was off to pray for a new one.

Mother rock is one of a series of rocky outcrops in the hills to the south, just beyond a monastery in the middle of nowhere.

 It is all sacred and we were really surprised to literally ride over the brow of a hill and see a collection of huts and people all sitting around doing nothing much. Apparently during the Communist era, it was a political crime to visit, but people still did, in secret. The Communists tried to destroy the site by blowing it up which didn't work, but the whole would-be demolition team suffered bad luck, illness and even death. Not a place to be mucked about with then, and Mongolians do believe in the Rocks mystical powers.

We carried on west after that but the tracks ran out so we were on rough grass. I was on Nadine's scoot because the clutch had finally got the better of my hand. It didn't fare well on the wet grass with no grip street tyres and dodgy brakes, particularly when descending gravel tracks; that became more of a barely controlled slide rather than a ride, and I did slip off a couple of times. But Nadine did OK on the Chinese bike with its knobbly tyres, though still without a number plate.

We stayed at about 1500 metres for most of the afternoon and saw hardly anybody, except for the odd herder rounding up huge herds of horses. But then we realised we were lost and had gone further than we needed to, but managed to find the road – unmade of course- that we should have been on. We camped way up on a hillside away from the road building gang down below. It was cold up there though; 1700 metres and windy. Had a bit of a mishap with the petrol though; whoops.

The following morning, we were up and out early, more because of the cold than anything else, and to our delight, the unmade still under construction road turned into a paved miracle very soon, and continued for 40kms of nice smooth road. But how mad is that? Why would you stick a section of good paved, smooth road in the middle of nowhere? It doesn't connect anything and doesn't run from anything to anywhere; it is literally in the middle of nowhere. Somebody has clearly just poked a finger on a map and said " here" and built a road.

But we were happy, although the gang of road sweepers we encountered after about 20kms were not pleased to see us on their pride and joy and tried to shoo us off with their brooms.

We slalomed round them and kept going because there was no reason not too. Even the diggers and graders parked across the carriageway were easy enough to get round on bikes, even though Nadine managed to strand the Chinese bike on its bash plate but a tug and a shove sorted that.

 But the machinery meant that we had the whole road to ourselves for almost its entire length.

Then we came across two locals on a bike, who waved us down. They had run out of petrol so we gave them some of ours; karma and payment for some of the help we've had along the way from assorted strangers.

Then it was back onto sand, and that continued for 200kms. The front suspension on Nads' bike then collapsed on the right, making it very difficult to ride. Its now more like a rudderless ship than a motorbike. But the only way was forwards as there was definitely nothing behind, so for hours, we banged and crashed and wallowed over very rough desert in full sun until the back end of Nads' bike fell off, forcing us to stop.
But after nearly three months on the road, we are now class bodgers and fixed it with a length of wire from B&Q in Wimbledon. Not pretty but job done, and it allowed us to continue.

 But somebody was clearly looking after us and thought we'd done enough hard riding, and after about an hour, struck some lovely black top in front of us. I didn't see it at first as it was way in the distance but when Nads screeched to a halt with her arm outstretched, I knew it had to be something impressive. And it was, and well worthy of a kiss. And it lasted all the way to Mandalgovi, petering out into dodgy cement slabbing on the city outskirts.

We found a hotel almost instantly; The Gobi Hotel, hardly palatial, but a clean but tatty big room, clean beds, secure parking and a nice owner, all for £15.00 between the two of us. The town is something else though; sand ,dust and broken glass everywhere, despite being the aimag capital, but that's ok. There is a small park just down the road with a statue of Sukhbataar plus some other bloke in a pointy hat, and weeds. Lots of them. We had planned to go further into the Gobi but the state of Nads' bike now makes that a bit unwise and we both know that two up on my bone shaker of a Chinese bike would not be good either, especially with luggage. So the plan is to stay here for a couple of days and have a poke around, two up on my unladen bike before heading back to UB. The ice canyons will have to wait until next time.

Dinner last night was an interesting experience though. There is a posher looking hotel just round the corner which we would probably have picked had we seen it first. But we didn't although they do have a restaurant, and we went there to eat. It was staffed by giggling 18 year old girls who had clearly never seen westerners before, and initially wouldn't come near us. But they eventually sorted themselves out and gave us menus, but then said ' no' to everything we ordered, even drinks that we could see behind the bar. We finally winkled a bottle of Merlot out of them and then ended up with the chef, the owner, the waitress and the barmaid all sitting at our table arguing about what food we could or couldn't have, while we sat there bemused but patiently awaiting their verdict. It was a bit bizarre, particularly when the very food we had asked for but had been refused then turned up as if nothing had happened But that is Mongolia for you; things happen without explanation.

We were woken up by the hotel owner this morning, who presented us with a torn bit of paper with some figures on it. It was the bill – but we are staying tonight too, so we need to pay tomorrow when we leave, not now when we are asleep. She eventually got the message and went away but they just don't get it here when it comes to service and stuff. They are not nasty or anything but just so set in their ways and seemingly unable to think beyond what they always do; you pay now because you have stayed one night, and you do so in exact money. Thank goodness we're not here on a two week holiday.

It is so obvious that experiences here are just repeated rather than developed or evolved. That is not supposed to be rude and perhaps results from being in such a remote part of the world but then they do have TV, radio and internet like the rest of us, so it is surprising that basic service industries have not yet mastered stuff that goes on in the rest of the world – especially stuff which people will happily pay for. It seems such an alien concept here, and maybe a left over from the old Soviet ways, and perhaps the way Mongol society works but it is particularly when the two cultures meet (western and Mongol) in places like UB. Whilst there are modern buildings, hotels and set ups that cater for non Mongols – far more so than when I was last here – something is still missing in many places.

For example, the Marco Polo restaurant on Seoul Street is a good Italian style restaurant. The food is good but the service is appalling, even when they are not busy, and that is down to staff just not communicating, Twice now our food has taken forever, and when questioned, it transpires that the front of house staff had forgotten to tell the kitchen people that there is an order. Or Pub 23 where you ask for the bill and it doesn't come because the waitress is busy chatting on her phone or to her mates. Or even the motorbike shop where staff break off dealing with you for a chat elsewhere. Its almost like vendors' attention deficit disorder.

Lateral thinking isn't done here either and everything is very literal. So for example unless you ask for something exactly and they have it, and want to sell it to you, they invariably say 'no'. It never seems to occur to offer something in its place or suggest an alternative. For example, if you ask for a bottle of Shiraz and they don't know or haven't got one, they will say no, rather than 'I don't think we have one, but we do have Merlot or Champagne or water or something', then look at you blankly. Or if you ask for directions and say 'is this the way to....' they will again say 'no' and just leave it rather than the more usual (to us) 'no turn right not left'. It is quite wearing and after a while it is very easy to get a bit fed up and overlook the good bits and experience the interesting bits that do happen right under your nose everyday.

This place is a odd combination of nomadic ways and what we would term development. But having been here a couple of times and also having had the opportunity to get behind its public face (family connections) the gaps become more obvious. The town's younger generations are already more settled and have possessions.

As for the bikes, well hopefully Nads' will make it back to UB and will join mine for a few days, before being taken apart and being sent back to London. We will use the Chinese one and travel two up but only on better roads, which is OK as there are several places that we want to see not far from UB which this bike will do. Then I will sell that one a few days before we leave.

But whatever the bike problems, we made it all the way to the Mongolia and the Gobi on a small and unsuitable scooters that we built in my dining room. Job done!