The Gobi

[Note from Henry–Billy is now in a part of China where all WordPress Blogs (and many others) are blocked by internet censorship (damn Communists!). He had initially sent out this update as an email on September 23rd, I am publishing it here for him now.]

Hello Everybody!

Well, I made it through the Gobi desert safely. I’m in the Chinese Province of Inner Mongolia. The Chinese and Mongolian parts of the desert are nearly the same geographically, but they couldn’t be more different culturally.

Heading south from Ulaanbaatar on nice pavement, I kept looking for the edge of the desert. These steppes were pretty desert-like, with no trees or bushes, no water in the gullies nor in the bone-dry stream beds. But growing amid the sage and tumbleweed was enough dry, yellowish grass to support occasional small herds of twenty to forty horses and cattle, and larger flocks of sheep and goats. Here and there a ger, or a group of several, stood at a distance from the road, with a few horses nearby and a truck or motorcycle parked outside.

And there was water. Small shallow ponds, from a half-acre up to a couple hundred, were to be seen several times each day. I know they were shallow because the water was knee-deep on horses walking far from the edge. I think they were temporary, because they supported no aquatic plants, frogs or fish, and were surrounded by tracked-up muddy margins which gave the impression that they were shrinking. It looked like the desert to me but, hey, I’m from Vermont.

Before the end of the second day the pavement ended. There began a 250-kilometer road construction project. A large sign declared that the $31,000,000,000 “Millenium Challenge Highway Construction Project” was funded by the United States, engineered by a Korean firm, and
built by a Mongolian construction company with workers from many countries. With another large project planned to the south of this one, it will provide the first paved highway link from China to Russia, something the Soviet Union prevented during their tenure of strong influence in Mongolia. And it will mean the loss of one more wild desert track for adventure travelers to traverse in Asia’s least populated region.

The new highway was in various stages and, where I could, I used the new roadbed, nowhere paved but often smooth and packed down. Because the concrete culverts were unfinished, I had to leave the smooth part every kilometer or so, make a short, hair-raising descent down an embankment (I only fell twice), and, after crossing a gully, attempt a short, gut-wrenching ascent on the other side (I only made it twice). In all I spent about a third of the time using the new roadbed.

Though it was deserted for long stretches, I met many road workers. The engineers and surveyors sometime spoke English. At least twice a day I played music for the men and women taking breaks in the shade of a truck or excavator, and several times I joined them for lunch; rich mutton soup with noodles and onions, ladled from big pots on small wood fires (the wood was, unmistakably, surveyor’s stakes), served with spicy hot pickled cucumbers and sweetened mare’s milk tea. They gave me bottled water. Although I started with ten liters, I was running on low rations and deeply appreciated their gifts.

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When I wasn’t using the under-construction roadbed I was struggling. No temporary lanes were provided; a network of rutted tracks on both sides of the construction zone served the thirty or so trucks and cars that passed me each day. Hugely overloaded tractor trailers crawled along in first gear, and every single motorist slowed, honked and waved. Thirty a day is not a lot; hours went by sometimes between caravans of five or more. The dirt tracks looked like braided strands from above (check Google Earth between Ulaanbaatar and the Chinese border). On the ground they swerved around rocks and gullies, ruts and sand, and the occasional mud bog (there had been rain a week ago). The
surface varied from hard washboard to packed rocky gravel to loose sand. Every few meters I faced a fork; one way was better, but which one? In loose sand I struggled to stay upright, straining in low gear. I was on and off the bike a hundred times a day, maybe more. I’ve been in easier mountain bike races.

After several days I noticed fewer horses and cattle, then fewer sheep and goats, and fewer people. There was more bare sand between the sparse vegetation, less grass. To the horizon, in every direction, was nothing but earth and sky, nothing man made but the road.

One day I made a big mistake. A short section of packed gravel had been spread with tar. I tested it; hard and dry. I proceeded slowly. Down a slight grade it got thicker, and before I could react I was sliding on a half-inch of liquid tar, as slick as oil. With luck and concentration I eased it onto the shoulder, almost falling when I lightly squeezed the brakes. I landed with both feet on the gravel, fortunately. But the bike and panniers and mandolin were a mess of tar. Pushing through the sandy soil clogged my fenders with a tar-and-sand mess that brought me to a stop. It took a half hour to get going again, using stones to scrape the goo from my tires and fenders (there are no sticks, remember?) Then I was a mess. To took all my rags and all my naphtha (Zippo lighter fuel) just to clean the mandolin case. I could no longer bring my panniers or shoes into the tent, and I got tar in there anyway, and on my sleeping bag. Probably on my clothes, too, but they are all black so I can’t tell. To make matters worse, that night I camped off the road a few hundred yards, walking through grassy weeds that had barbed seeds, like tiny darts that stuck to my shoes, socks and tarred bike. What a mess! It took an extra hour to set up, and I cooked in the dark. I called it “Camp Tarred and Feathered”. Now, two weeks later, I’m still dealing with
tar every day.

Halfway through the Mongolian part of the Gobi stands Sainshand , a town (or city) of some 10,000. I arrived with half a liter of water, worn out and dirty. I sat in a run-down hotel bar with a cold Tiger beer in my hand. Restaurant supplies were arriving; whole butchered sheep were carried in and placed on the dining room tables. Burlap bags of potatoes, carrots, onions and cabbage piled up on the lobby floor. Milk arrived in large metal cans. I had to wonder what this town lives on. An unpaved east-west highway crosses here and three railroad lines converge; maybe that’s enough. There were apartment buildings, stores, restaurants and bars, and at least four hotels. The main intersection had a traffic light.

I took a room at another hotel, the largest in town. It was fine except that the entire city was without power, so the water was cold and there was no wi-fi. No one spoke English, but the front desk people graciously charged me half the posted room rate. The cold shower wasn’t so bad.

Next day I loaded up on water and groceries and headed out again. The smooth pavement didn’t last long. Now the road was a braided maze of tracks in the sand, with no construction and no culverts. Miles-long zig-zags skirted deep gullies and brought me to the other side; I could look back across and see my tracks where I had begun the detour hours ago. Here and there I pushed the bike through soft sand. Nowhere could I go faster than a jogging pace. Instead of a hundred kilometers a day I was making perhaps forty, and falling asleep at night more exhausted than ever.

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Now I was in the Gobi; camels were the only livestock. Iconic desert movie cliches were everywhere: a long-horned cow skeleton bleached white by the sun; twenty buzzards picking at a dead horse; lizards scurrying across my path; tumbleweed rolling by; a snake disturbing my lunch. Far from any dwelling I passed a man on a camel leading a dozen other camels; we tipped Fedoras at each other without stopping. Once a family of three passed me on a small motorcycle with bags of food and jugs of water hanging front and rear. One day a car stopped and dropped off a passenger, then sped off. The woman was forty or so and, except for tall black leather boots, was dressed for town in slacks, a white frilly shirt, earrings and painted nails; she carried a purse and two tote bags bulging with groceries. After saying hi to me, she walked off into the trackless desert. Scanning the land carefully I finally saw a speck of white far, far away; her ger, at least an hour’s walk from the highway.

I will never forget he desert sky at night. Stars rising and setting on the very horizon, so clear and bright I shivered in the cold watching them rather than go into the tent. I could actually sense the globe turning. Shooting stars lit up the whole landscape, and I felt like a primitive organism on planet earth, with few thoughts, only sensations. Not a single light shined from city, home or auto, and the silence was complete. A week or more of this, every night, is enough to change anyone.

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Somewhere along this stretch, at an altitude of about 5000 feet, I passed from the Arctic watershed to the Pacific. Not that there’s much water to flow either way, but the last rivers I crossed, in northern Mongolia, flowed north to the Arctic Ocean. The next rivers I cross, in China, will flow south and west to the Pacific.

I pushed hard to reach Zamin Uud, the Mongolian border town. I was low on water, for one thing, but another error was causing me distress. I entered the desert with a nearly depleted salt supply. I had used it up, and eaten my four salty pickled Umeboshi plums, a medicinal and survival item I carried all the way from home. After four hot days
with no salt I was having headaches and my eyes were sore. I saw Zamin Uud on the horizon at sunset and decided to ride there in the dark rather than camp. My light was plenty bright for the slow speeds. I hit the edge of this town of maybe ten thousand people at about 9:30PM.

I’m pretty sure it’s the worst town I’ve ever been to. On the outskirts the dirt tracks I had been following just widened out into a big dusty lot with dozens of huge, overloaded trucks parked or idling or moving, men and dogs and cars and motorcycles churning up clouds of dust which, lit up by headlights, gave a menacing, apocalyptic appearance to the scene. Everyone was wearing dust masks and they seemed to glare at me in fear or anger or something other than welcome. Traffic followed no pattern; cars passed me on the left or right, approaching or overtaking. The center of the four-block downtown was paved but still dusty, and busy with people coming from a crumbling train station, carrying or dragging overstuffed boxes and bags. The men all looked tired and mean.

One hotel was full, the other had a choice: hot and cold water for $23, or just cold water, daytime only, for $17. What would you do?

I managed to get a beer and a meal next door while they warmed up the water, then washed a week’s worth of grime and tar off in a pretty dirty bathroom, then slept like a marmot for twelve hours.

Zamin Uud didn’t look any better in the daylight. The hotel staff seemed happy to see me go. Money changers approached me with huge stacks of Mongolian and Chinese currency in hand, and hustlers of several varieties harassed both me and the travelers still coming from the train station. Even the taxi drivers looked like thugs. I mounted the trusty bike and rolled down the road.

But one town won’t change my love of Mongolia. I’ll remember the fenceless land and endless sky, the horses running free, and the open friendliness and warmth of the people. It was not hard to communicate with Mongolians. Despite the lack of a common language, their open hospitality and natural gestures were easy to understand. The landscape constantly reminded me that I was in a remote, sparsely inhabited corner of the globe. But at the same time I felt at home with the people I met. Picture the white-haired New York City Christmas tree man and the Buddhist nomadic herdsman’s family laughing it up in a dark and smoky ger late at night while the wind from the steppes howls at the door. I really love the place.

Down the road was China. Mongolian customs and immigration couldn’t have been nicer. A kilometer separated the two nations’ border facilities, and apparently China doesn’t allow pedestrians or bicyclists to traverse the distance. A a number of entrepreneurs with little Chinese jeeps are authorized to take passengers across for a fee. I declined and rolled down the road to shouts and frantic arm waving. At the actual border (an actual red line on the pavement), I was stopped by armed Mongolian soldiers in a panic. Behind them were armed Chinese soldiers in a similar state of excitement. While one soldier spoke anxiously into a walkie-talkie, the other made clear to me with sign language that if I went further I would be handcuffed and jailed. The Chinese soldiers seemed ready, even hopeful, smiling to each other. I stood straddling the bike in Mongolia with my front wheel inches from China, trying to bluff the four soldiers, pointing at my bike and then at the road ahead.

At that point I was rescued by a Chinese fellow in a van with his family, returning from Mongolia. He spoke a few English words; he was an off-duty policeman from a nearby city. He told me to get in the van. I resisted, still hoping to ride my bike. He was pissed. He grabbed my handlebars and, with his face inches from mine, growled, “Obey!!”

I obeyed. I removed my panniers and mandolin and loaded into his van, sitting in back with his daughter and baby grandson. At immigration and customs he sent me into the building with my luggage and drove off with my bike. To my surprise, the paperwork was brief and there was no inspection of my stuff. On the other side of the building he picked me up, and after showing our stamps to another soldier, we went down the road. A pretty crazy border crossing.

The Chinese border city, Erenhot, couldn’t be more different from Zamin Uud. Wikipedia says 16,000 people (2006); I would have guessed 40,000. Wide, smooth, clean streets bustling with traffic; pedicabs, little scooters with toddlers in baby seats, three-wheeled motorcycle/trucks with everything from produce and live fowl to bricks and steel. There were tall buildings, some under construction, modern hotels, shops of all descriptions, street vendors, parks, statues, artistic monuments, trees (trees!) and wide pedestrian walkways, all laid out on a grid on a perfectly flat landscape. Wi-fi everywhere. When I stopped, guys crowded around me admiring the bike. They’re not shy, squeezing the brakes and thumping the saddle. The clip-in pedals are a hit. I quickly learned the word for “generator”; and of course “USB” and “iPhone” are the same in English and Chinese. That really
causes a stir in the crowd. (After all, it is the coolest part of my rig.)

English is rare except for “hello” and “howayoo?”, both of which are shouted to me from sidewalks, cars and motorcycles. I guess it’s obvious I’m a Yankee.

At the main intersection on town I was showing off the bike to a group of Mongolians and I heard a thick Irish accent, “Need a hand there mate?” James, an electrician from Ireland working on a Mongolian wind power project, was stranded in Erenhot waiting for turbine blades to arrive. He was to accompany them north along the same treacherous road I had just poured two weeks of my life into, and he wanted to talk. And I wanted to hear some English!

We went to an Irish pub. There are Irish pubs in every country I have visited so far, almost every city. Sitting down to a couple of Guiness stouts, James told me his story in a colorful Donegal brogue. He doesn’t give a damn about Irish politics. When the economy went downhill he found that working in Mongolia for an Austrailian wind power company was just the thing. A small town kid, 25 or so, he has learned what it is like to be a gawked-at minority, and living in a ger with Mongolians has broadened his outlook. He is so red-haired, green-eyed and freckled that in Asia he is regarded as a freak. The money is good. He loves his Guiness and his iPhone, and has nearly got over his disgust at Mongolian housekeeping. “I got a me a Hoover and a generator,” he said, “I’ll teach them bloody bastards right livin’.”

The Mongolian owner of the Irish pub spent an hour helping me find ethanol stove fuel. He drives a Hummer back and forth from Erenhot to Ulaanbaatar and loves life. He also loves Zamin Uud, where he has a restaurant and is in the Chamber of Commerce. I told him I would soften my criticism of the town in my blog, and I have.

Then a shy young Chinese man named Li helped me find the essentials of my camp cuisine: bread, cheese, fruit, rice, raisins. It was easy but for he cheese. We finally found a nice sheep-milk cheese at a Mongolian specialty shop. He spoke no English but had an English dictionary on his phone, and I had a Chinese dictionary on mine. Some fun.

He took me to meet his mom. She was a pretty woman working in a retail fashion shop. Li conducted the conversation: how old? (me, 60; mom, 43); children? (me, 3, grown; mom, 1, grown); married? (both divorced). We had quite an audience. It was awkward but in a nice way. I played her a tune right there in the store, bowed and kissed her hand. Applause. Encore. Applause.

Errands complete, I mounted up and headed south. Erenhot is famous for its dinosaur fossil discoveries, the richest source in Asia. Along the smooth, flat highway heading south past the archeological sites the city has placed hundreds of actual-size, anatomically correct metal sculptures of dinosaurs, all the species, in lifelike poses among sculptures of the trees and plants of the dinosaur era. For three miles it is hard not to imagine, what if they were real? Finally a pair of stylized sauropods make an arch over the highway. It’s pretty cool.

Then I was back in the desert. This time the terrain was as flat as flat can be in all directions to the horizon. I don’t think I’ve ever been in quite so flat a place except for the Bonneville salt flats in Utah, and even then there were mountains in the distance. The road was four lanes with a wide shoulder and almost no traffic. I made 60 kilometers in no time, gliding past an airport, a huge air force base, some big communication installations, and hundreds of wind turbines.

Up ahead I saw a dark cloud of black smoke drifting across the road. I couldn’t see a source, but as I got close sniffed to see what it was. It turned out to be a bug storm. Like a snow storm only bugs. I put my head down and pedaled on, and they piled up on my hat and arms like snow on a parka. They were tiny winged gnats, not biting, but buzzing and crawling. The air was thick with them. I got through, stopped and brushed them off my bike and body. A few minutes later I rode through another bug storm, hopefully my last ever.

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I scanned the featureless landscape for a campsite. In a sense it was all campsite, all the way to the horizon. But a fence ran along this divided highway on both sides. China, not Mongolia. A tiny desert town appeared on the horizon, ten kilometers away. There were some big, low, attractive buildings, neatly landscaped, that I couldn’t identify, and the rest were hovels. One hovel had the weathered skeleton of a pool table outside, and a six-foot tall stack of empty beer bottles. A bar!

A woman emerged and immediately made beer-drinking sign language. I nodded, we went in and she popped open a nice warm one. It was a bar and general store of such rough character that a movie set designer couldn’t have done a better job. Most impressive was a large pile of gigantic leeks on the floor. I won’t try to list the merchandise; they had everything a desert rat could wish for. After one swig she made sign language for sleep. Surprised, I nodded. She led me out back to a brick bunkhouse and opened a door. Four cots with straw mattresses, a pile of blankets, a dusty brick floor, one bare bulb, one wooden table. She bent down and scratched 15 in the sand. 15 yuan is $2.37. That’s a record for me. I nodded. She led me to an outbuilding where she pointed out a big earthenware crock with water, a dipper and a plastic wash basin. The ameneties.

In my misspent youth, I have stayed in cleaner and more comfortable jail cells. Even so, I kind of enjoyed the place. A kind of Chinese cowboy hole in the wall. Two sheep poked their heads in the door to say good night. I cooked up some rice with garlic scapes, had a couple of beers, and finished reading Crime and Punishment by midnight.

The smooth pavement and dead-flat terrain continued and a tailwind pushed me south at a fast clip. I had been expecting more unpaved desert struggling, and had loaded up with a week’s worth of water and provisions. Now I was traveling at four times the pace, and reaching surprisingly large, modern cities every day.

In these cities I am a curiosity. On the map, Sonid Youqi looked to be a little burg with ten streets. On the ground it was huge, with a central square, monuments, skyscrapers both new and under construction; the works. Searching for a place to eat with wi-fi, a was directed to a new hotel with a fancy restaurant. The restaurant guests crowded around my table and an English speaker helped me order enough food for three men. Four waitresses lined up and stared at me.
The manager of the hotel served me and introduced me to the owner. Through the English speaking diner they offered me a free room for the night and free meals. Why? I don’t know. I don’t like to waste a tailwind, but after the previous night’s hole in the wall, a deluxe suite seemed like a reasonable choice, even though it was not yet three o’clock.

From there south I was still in the desert, but soon I saw trees and crops growing. The trees were aspens and evergreens planted in long rows, thousands of them, growing in slight depressions with circular dikes around each one, to hold irrigation water. The crop land was irrigated. Huge fields of leeks and squash and other crops were being harvested by hand, with hundreds of laborers loading caravans of small trucks. The surrounding hills were treeless sand and rock, but the valley floors flourished. Villages were squalid and primitive, cities were large and modern. The highway continued to be smooth, traffic increased, and I passed large factories and quarries.

At one factory a friendly wave from some squatting cigarette smokers brought me to a stop, and they made sign language for eating. They brought me through the factory gates and into the cafeteria. It was 2:30, between meals, and we passed through the dining room (metal tables and benches for 200) and into the kitchen. Here two strong women and a couple of young helpers feed the workers from an ancient scullery. Wood- and gas- fired brick ranges held thirty-gallon woks, and the tile sink was big enough to climb into. They seemed to be butchering their own sheep and pigs, and making tofu from soybeans. I was served a big bowl of beef stew with ginger (it had several hard-boiled eggs in it), a gooey deep fried fritter with sweet bean paste, and a large white dumpling, barely cooked, with no stuffing in it, to dip into my stew. I sat at the kitchen table and the women joined me. I couldn’t stop looking around at the high-ceilinged room with oversized antique kitchen equipment.

In addition to taking rooms in the inexpensive hotels, I camped in the desert a couple of times before reaching the agricultural lowlands of Central China. I may not be camping any more. Not only is it forbidden by law, but the land use patterns here discourage it. With a high population density for centuries, every scrap of land is in use for something: vegetables grow right up to the edge of the road, and the fields extend back to the bare hills, too rocky and steep for a tent. Old old stone cottages are surrounded by stone walls in the countryside, and a donkey, goat or cow is tethered on any corner of grass that might have escaped the plow.

Cycling toward Jining, a bustling city busy with construction cranes, huge storms swept the hills to the left and right, with thunder and lightning. I could see that the rain was heavy just a kilometer away, but I was only lightly sprayed with the cold rain. With five miles to go and a tailwind, I fled the storm, hoping to reach a downtown hotel before the storm caught me. I haven’t put out such an effort since my
racing days. I reached the city center and a fine hotel minutes before the storm swept in and darkened the streets, sending citizens scurrying. The torrent lasted only a full twenty minutes, and it was fine to behold from the lobby.

With plenty of time to reach Hong Kong, and the rigors of Siberia and the Gobi behind me, I am taking a more relaxed approach. I have lowered the pressure in my tires for a more comfortable, although less efficient ride. I still push hard when I’m in the saddle, but for fewer hours each day, and I am covering only fifty miles or so, sometimes less. There are more distractions here with all the people and cities. It seems funny that with six weeks and over a thousand miles of cycle touring left, a good long trip by any standards, it feels like I am at the tail end of my adventure. Surely there will be more adventure to come, but I ride along with the feeling that I just
have to cruise down to Hong Kong, book a flight, and take my seat until New York is in view.

Two ideas alternate in my mind. First, I miss Vermont and Greenwich Village and most of all my kids and grandchildren. Second, this is the life, and I would set out on another year-long tour after Christmas without hesitation.

But there are compelling reasons to stay closer to home next year in addition to friends and family. Music, writing, skiing, and gardening are all things that I love and miss. On my to-do list, there are mountains to climb, roads to ride and streams to paddle right there in New England. With only my camper to call home, and a promise to myself to develop new forms of livelihood, I have challenges enough to keep me busy. These and other thoughts of home sustain me as I wend my way south toward Hong Kong.

I’ll keep you posted.

With Love,

Billy

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