|The Gobi Desert Story|
reached Airag, an "oasis" town in the middle of the Gobi, after days of
struggle crossing the desert. Airag is on the railroad line that connects
UlaanBaatar with Beijing, China. Like all the towns and villages
along the line, Airag’s link to the outside world is by way of the railroad.
Few people in these villages know the roads which lead away from their
towns: the limits of their familiarity with the "roads" usually do not
exceed a kilometer or two from the edge of town. I met people in
Airag who had been to Russia and China. They knew when the trains arrived
and left. They could not tell me much about the roads, however.
I had to find my own way.
Spring has been in the air for weeks, but it is still trying to get a foothold on the rolling South Gobi. The bloom of wild flowers, an explosion of bright colors mingling with the dusty hues of desert grasses and shifting sands, creates a magic carpet, an Oriental tapestry which seems to drift with the puffy clouds under Mongolia's vast blue sky. The total effect reminds me of a tropical sea – heaving, ebbing wash of spectral light.
Pan, my trusty steed, and I crossed the border from China a week ago. The days, lengthening toward the summer solstice (still more than a month off), have been hot and dry. Yet, I sense we have only been riding a summer-like tide, a seasonal flux that could turn against us any day. Something tells me Winter is not ready to surrender her reign to the warmer, milder season just yet. Weather, the change of seasons, the thousand moods of Mother Nature command respect.
I have given much careful thought to, and months of planning in anticipation of what the road might serve us. Something makes me wonder now whether I might have overlooked something, misread a sign, because of lost concentration or distraction, missed an important cue. No. This is totally new to me; but, I welcome the newness with gusto. I draw on all that I have been and am to conquer self-doubt whenever it rises in my throat. Right now I'm feeling pretty good: healthy and strong, balanced. I like the sport: finding the way, going with the natural flow, becoming the road.
Pan and I have taken advantage of the season and we have ridden - ridden hard and far already; but, I know the season is long and we have much farther to go. I am sure many surprises await us, lurking out there, eager to test us. Although I know there are obstacles ahead that I have not anticipated, I reassure myself – what awaits me are adventures, learning experiences, opportunities to live. I ride with confidence checked by humility - this is a huge wilderness.
Fire embers glow in the east. Morning blush. May 21 dawns. 4:45 and all is calm. The short grasses stir and my tent shudders - brushed by an invisible hand. I poke my head out into the morning quiet. A curious hush is upon the land. A deathlike chill slaps my face. As I fire up my stove for some morning porridge, I realize what is wrong. It is too silent. No bird songs to accompany the break of day. Even the insects are still. Morning odors lie ossified upon the hard ground. I have waken on a lifeless sea.
The stove flame flickers... goes out. A whisper of a breeze - pause, sniff. Hmm.... It isn't really the kind of morning breeze a biker welcomes for the company and help it might provide. It carries a hint of something eerie, dark, ominous.
Last night's dreams may have given birth to an overactive imagination but one thing is indisputable - a new note has drifted in under the music that has carried me north since leaving Beijing. I'm sure something foul is afoot. I look around. Not a living soul in sight. I sense eyes are watching but no one sees me. I am alone and no one else knows what's happening here. It is a ghostly hour. A masochistic smile writhes deep inside and finds its way to my face. This is going to be a day for living - living alone - and loving life by finding pleasure on the distant side of pain and discomfort.
I stifle the grin by tightening my jaw. There is no room or time for recklessness - especially out here. I decide to hurry my breakfast and postpone the morning meditation to break camp and return to the road.
The rising sun warms the land and toys with my mood. A heavy but fragile, unearthly light covers the land. Something in the air portends unsettled accounts. I ride on, hour after hour, following paths and tracks with an eye on my compass - north by northwest, in the direction of UlaanBaatar.
By early afternoon it is obvious that a very unfriendly contest is being played out just over the horizon – the horizon I am heading for. The breeze carries the whisper of ancestral voices and a prophesy of war. From east to west, a hungry darkness rises from the distant edge of the earth and begins swallowing desert and sky. A black curtain billows across the land. As the afternoon wears on, the roiling rage rolls south. The storm front, with black ice teeth, comes on, chewing up the blue sky.
The desert calm around me now dissipates rapidly. Like an old man whose sleep is disturbed, the desert groans irritably. Confused ions course the ether like spooked phantom horses. Gentle southern breezes yield to a tide of winds crashing about aimlessly. Clouds of sand rise and are carried aloft. Wind, every biker’s fickle friend, has been tentative throughout the day. Now he comes head-on, a runaway locomotive, snorting lead clouds, sand shot, cold-hearted vengeance. The wrath of Chinggas Khan has turned against me. The storm comes on full force - angry, frightened, wild and furious. Like a black mouth it swallows the world. Air swirls and twists upon the land. Winds gust right and left, collide, leap, dip and bob. A frenzy of poltergeists surround me: phantoms spar, demons howl, long ghoul fingers cling to my clothes and grab my bike - dragging us back, pulling us down. This is insanity. There is no escape: no place to hide, nowhere to run, no shelter.
EBB sets out to cross the Gobi.
|Suddenly the gyroscope stops spinning;
the scene freezes. All is still, fallen quiet, into a vacuum.
Someone hit pause on the movie projector. Pan and I leap through
a frame and find ourselves in a photograph. Somehow, we have slipped
between the "tick" and "tock" of time. But it is an uneasy peace,
the pause between inhalation and exhalation, the calm of slack tide, caught
between ebb and flow with nowhere to go. This can’t last. I
look up, as if out of a deep chasm, at the clouds pressing in, a black
curtain, a shroud, the end of light, an early night.
A fleeting tremor, a shiver within the sand, telegraphs a warning through tires, frame and saddle to feet, hands and my seat - desertquake. Suddenly there's too much air – can’t breathe. Brinding white electric sizzle ignites the sky. And then, like a tidal wave of unchecked ferocious rage, the Siberian freeze-dried thunder crashes over me. Crack – roll - the peal of a thousand kettledrums, the roar of a hundred locomotives. Temperature plummets. Arctic blast. The desert tilts, pitches, rolls. My steed rears and we crash to the ground. I hold on tight and try to keep my bearings as the world birls and tumbles around me. Train-wreck pandemonium. Colors run for cover. The landscape is but a beige smear of wind-borne sand and plant debris. A second assault bears down on me. If not for my grip on Pan, I would surely be lifted high, blown overboard and carried away, like a rag-doll, tumbling across the wind-whipped desert sea. "Steady steed." Shield my face from the roaring tide. Sand-laden foam blasts my face, arms, exposed legs... icy burn. Land closing in, over me. Totally exposed. There’s another tide rising, a primordial response surfacing. The situation is suddenly beyond precarious. Should I fight this beast or flee? Fight? How? Flee? Where?
Adrenaline is flooding my system. Bitter-sweet vapors rise in my throat. I let go of Pan and take off running. I dash 200 meters into the desert. What am I hoping to find? For the past two days, the desert, an undulating sea of sand and scrub grass, has been expanding forever toward an unchanging horizon, rolling on and on and on… in every direction. No tree, no bush, no hollow - no rock big enough even to stub my toe. I stop and spin around. The world, once broad and deep, is now a circle closing in, a noose choking my view.
Suffocation and exasperation push. I push back to overcome the panic. This turn of events is part of the adventure, I tell myself. I really am prepared for what is happening. I project myself into tomorrow, "there’s always a morning after." I take a deep breath and focus on the present. The day is fading quickly. Must save - use - what I can of it. A mountain has risen before me and there is no way around it. Ahead lies the devil's anvil and a searing path through hell. I try to look through the storm; I think I can see the morrow.
Time is an issue. It’s 6:45 pm. The horizon calls. I hurry back to Pan - for a man without his bicycle is only a man! - and for the next 1.5 hours coax, drag, pull, push, heave and haul us up the track, all the while hoping some kind of shelter will reveal itself. Yet, none does. As the dark clouds around me hasten the night, I resign myself to end our exhausting and fruitless struggle. I cannot afford to expend any more energy on this wasting enterprise. I must create shelter where there is none. Now that I have stopped, I accept the challenge with some relish. Now the fun begins.... I goad myself: "Who would choose this scene over the comfort of the home you know on the banks of the Charles River in Boston?" That knowing smile returns. I chuckle. Some mistake my determination to go forth for hubris - experience has resulted in belief in my abilities. Every day my understanding of what is possible becomes more clear.
|With no hillock, boulder, mound, nor bush to hide behind, I wonder whether I can depend on my equipment and gear. Pan makes a fine storm anchor for my tent. The deck, the small patch of exposed desert I have chosen, seems to be pitching wildly underfoot. I have chosen a spot of relatively smooth ground on an old track. I haven't seen a vehicle all day. Even if a vehicle should venture out on this rough desert tonight, I dismiss as highly improbable the chances it will try this track or pass this way. The ground here - everywhere - is a centimeter of loose sand and loess on a rockhard exsiccated palate. Stakes are useless. My tent wants to fly as soon as I pull it from its sack. I wrestle the struggling turkey buzzard for a few minutes. In the end I win. It is a dubious victory though. I lie panting in the desert with the tent pinned beneath me. As soon as I give it the slightest opportunity I know it will take wing and fly. Panniers will have to weigh the corners of my tent down until I can get inside. Somehow the tent stands, heeling in the storm winds, flapping like the broken wing of a large bird. I attach extra lines from the poles and corners to Pan. I have successfully raised a sail, reefed against the gale. I pause to catch my breath. Cyclone roar. White sand scudding across the land. Forget the fly. It would be like a spinnaker…. I imagine Dorothy flying off across Kansas to Oz. No Oz out here… just the Witch of the North throwing a serious temper tantrum.||
...it rolls on ...and on...and on.
|I am exhausted. But I make
sure everything is stowed. All hatches are battened. Everything
is secured. Checked and double-checked. Free of a mooring line,
my lifeboat tent might simply disappear, carried off in the desert surf.
Night is closing in fast. A heavy darkness smothers the day. Light
extinguishing under coal skies. No sunset. I struggle to get
into the tent and keep the flying sand out, keep the flaps from tearing
away. Tent thrashing about me is better than the wind chill and driving
sand. I feel I should strap myself in. I am alone, a dory in
a North Atlantic nor’easter. No, I’m in the Gobi. This is it.
For months I dreamed of the possibilities. I am here. This
is now. I feel so alive. Everything is being pushed to the
edge; but, as crazy as it may seem, I am loving it. My body relaxes
in the soft folds of the sleeping bag. As sleep engulfs me, I feel
like a hawk floating on a warm updraft. Soon the raging world is
Sometime during the night the wind too decides to rest. I wake when the rhythm and volume of the buffeting fall away. I dream of a train disappearing into a long tunnel. The whistle dropping into a deep hole. Click clack... clickitty clack... flap flap.... receding... fading... silence. In the warmth of my cocoon I am floating still; only, in contrast to the extreme sensory experience of the previous hours, I now feel I am suspended in a black liquid void - sensory deprivation. I am not sure whether I am awake, asleep, dreaming, alive even, or dead.
I blink. Cool air splashes on my exposed face - it feels icy on the thin lining of my nose. I raise myself up and unzip the door. Ahh, brisk – I can see my breath. Totally silent. The desert is calm, asleep. There is no sign of the tempest. I imagine the Ghost of Chinggas must rest, too. His troops must have camped beyond the horizon. Now I am the owner of the night and the desert sphere.
Above, coal skies are transformed into a magnificent field of diamonds. Above and around, extending to forever, I am awed by a dazzling sight: a king’s ransom in gems, icy blue, ruby red, emerald green and fire spark gold. "I thee a stately pleasure dome decree." I stand and drink in the sight of the Milky Way as it divides the universe like a ribbon of silver glitter. Magic twinkle down dust. My desert eyes drink in the sight - transfixed and brimmed with light. The sky is so crowded, it’s standing room only tonight. Yet, this is a sky I know. Delpinus, the dolphin, my constant friend, my guide, my favorite constellation, is where he should be, directly overhead. I see the bears, large and small, pursued by Bootes and his greyhounds (Canes Venatici); Aquila, the eagle with her bright Altair; Pegasis, the winged horse; Cygnus, the swan; Centaurus, that fantastic man-beast; Lupus, the misunderstood wolf. I am in fantastic company. What a night!
I return to my tent and inhale a litre of water. I wrap my sleeping bag around me - it has held its heat - and that is all I know. Horizontal hold… auto pilot… and I am soaring among the stars in a traveler’s dream that will last a million millennia.
5 am and I am wide awake again. It takes me a second to remember the tranquility of the middle of the night. I peer through the bug net mesh. Indigo streaks the sky to the east. The tip of a heated fire iron is parting the darkness. As the minutes pass the flame spreads, burning away the edges of night. From the reddening sky, morning cracks and sizzles into the promise of a bright dawn. No wind. I decide to hurry. "Forget breakfast… got to have something though" - I stuff some dried apples into my mouth between bites of a carrot cake Cliff Bar and deep swallows of cold water. I have 3.5 liters of water left - water, always an issue.
I check my tires. "Phew, no flats." (I've had over 10 punctures in the past two days. The area around Sainshand is bicycle hell: microscopic thorns slip between the rubber fibers of tires like syringe needles and pierce the tubes. The punctures are so small that they are practically impossible to find.) "I’m outta here."
I pause. Even though I’m sure another storm is coming, I decide to stop my rush. There’s plenty of time. I stretch for a few minutes and then sit, facing the east. It is cold. The ground is hard, uncomfortable, cold. I roll my shoulders back and raise my face to the reddening sky. I imagine I drink the dawn – heat flows past lips and cascades down my throat. I hear the crack of morning light – fire leaping like a gazelle across the grasses. I imagine the herd following, flames darting across land and sky. I smell the desiccated breeze – sage brush, grass and sand, dusty, smoky dry. Last night, I successfully separated myself from the fury of sky and land. It feels good to join with the dawn. It only takes 15 or 20 minutes....
Everything is packed, ready to go. I stretch and climb onto my saddle. "Red sky in the morning...." It's time to go. Pan and I fly like Pegasus before the dawn. The chill (2 degrees C.) numbs my fingers but motivates me to keep pumping.
I decide to ride until 7:30 and then stop to make my morning porridge and enjoy the sunshine. By 7, however, I find myself in a heated debate with my stomach. I have to be careful and not get myself into a caloric deficit. No dinner last night. I start looking for a place to stop. Within minutes I come upon a bar of cement. Inexplicable. "Where did it come from?" "Fallen from the sky?" This "why" will not be answered today. One end supports Pan and I set up my morning kitchen on the other. While preparing my meal, I feel the morning begin to slip away. A ripple of air is stirring the day. Although the sun climbs steadily, warming air, warming land, expanding the horizon, zephyrs are quickening to breezes. I focus on breakfast and take advantage of the opportunity to relax. The rising sun nourishes me as much as the food I prepare.
7:05 and 7:30 three vehicles, two Russian jeeps (beige and olive green),
stuffed with people and freight, and a baby blue Soviet truck pass on parallel
tracks. (Here 8-9-10 tracks, separated by mere meters in some places and
kilometers in others, carve lines across the desert.) Like ships
at sea, they steam past. No toot. No wave. They disappear
over the horizon, rising dust cloud trailing behind, up, away.
8 am and I'm on my way again. I feel good. The temperature has climbed to 10 degrees C and I am peeling off layers. I can ride for hours when it's like this, as long as….
The washboard begins. Bump-bump-bump… bump-bump-bump… bump-bump-bump.... Three wheels. Each bump hits three times. Teeth rattle. Shoulders and elbows are taking a beating.
Brakes! Soft deep sand. Braking. "Stay upright." Gear down and keep peddling. Please don't make me put my foot down. To do so is to force a stop and a heavy drag. Can’t escape the sand. Want to get out of this pit, to ride on the shoulder, mount the berm, diverge from this path and make my own way across the desert – Can’t. Hungry thorns are waiting. Grind... grind... grind.
An hour passes... two.
Meanwhile, the wind resumes it’s assault. Coy breezes become more bold; they grow by puffs and gusts into wind. Nuisance. Darting from east and west, sometimes the north, they snap and bark like mongrel curs. "Be nice. Fall in behind; help me on this eternal grind." Birr, comes the retort.
Progress is slow. I crave the thrill of speed. Whenever smooth track and relaxed winds coincide, I crank hard, push Pan to the edge. My flirtations with speed have produced several close calls - near falls. So far I’ve been lucky.
Ah, here’s a welcome change of scenery, a different challenge - a hill to climb. Steep rise. Track washed out. Sharp shards of flint, stone knives, whittle rubber from my treads. "Please don't make me put my foot down, can’t stop here… impossible drag up this slope." I keep pedaling. Legs of lead. Chest heavy too. Focus on breathing, blowing: out… out… out…. I pick my route meter by meter. I remind myself that I love hills, mountains – "every up has a down, and a view on the crown." I con my body and steed to the summit.
A flashback to the Sino-
Mongolian border: modern-day
nomads, traders, with Russian
jeeps, loaded to the gills, gather
to travel across the desert
|I’ve seen the
same picture for so long, the new view is a very welcome sight. I
stop to breath it in - no camera can capture this. A broad blue-green
valley stretches before me. The colors flow in waves as breezes sweep
through the valley. Beneath the surface currents, insinuating itself
into the scenery here and there, lies a floor of golden hues. Protrusions
of rock add vermilion, slate blue-gray, tangerine-orange, rust and a blush
of pink to the mix. There’s a stroke of clay red framing the farside
of the valley where the land rises up to form another ridge. 50 varieties
of wildflowers sprinkle the canvas with delicate blossoms, radiant and
muted, hot and cool, distinct and subtle. Cumulonimbus clouds surging across
the sky cast patches of purple shadow upon the landscape. These chase each
other, tumble down distant slopes and gallop across the grassy plains like
young stallions. The sun’s rays, when they peak through the bank
of billowing clouds, splash on the desert floor in pools of liquid gold.
The play of light and shadow across the hills and down on the valley floor
reminds me of a ballet, gossamer silks floating on a breeze, butterflies
Off to the northeast, at least 4 kilometers away, a single ger (yurt), beluga white in the afternoon light, floats, with assorted outhouses, on liquid waves of radiating heat. Even though there are no animals near the ger encampment, I can tell from here that the family living there is quite wealthy. They have healthy heard. Surrounding the ger encampment is a large ring of sheep, goat, cow and horse manure. A figure on horseback sets out from the compound. Like a boat leaving a black island or a fighter pilot banking away from his carrier, he cuts out across the verdant sea. Man and equine move as one. Racing the clouds toward a large herd of horses, they circle wide and zero in. The herd turns and breaks into a gallop. It doesn’t take long for the herd and lone horseman to fade away, consumed by rolling waves of heat and sandy green dust.
A cloud of white and gray, drifting on a hill 6 kilometers the other way, catches my attention. Sheep, hundreds of sheep and goats, sweeping the hillside. More evidence that the family occupying this valley is livestock rich.
A shadow darts by, rising and falling with the terrain. I look up. A huge hawk swoops along the ridge, playing the current, watching for the slightest movement below: mouse, marmot, rabbit.
The road ahead looks very rough, but it calls me. The wind whistles over the ridge. The clouds are picking up steam. They are conquering the blue sky again. I really do not want to re-live the trials of last night. I see several places in the valley that might offer some shelter. No, it’s too early.
Push on. Nothing else to do. I dip into my bag of gorp and take a long swig from one of my water bottles. I can make it through tonight on the water I have. I descend the steep scarp to the valley floor. It takes me 1.5 hours to cross the expanse and reach the next rise. The new view is a cruel throwback to yesterday: no valleys, no hills, no habitation, no trees, no animals – only long swells reaching to the horizon. And the wind is in my face. With one last glance at the bucolic scene behind, I push on again.
And so it goes. Hour after hour. Once every 45 minutes I reach for my water bottle and wet my lips, wash my parched throat. I have to stay focused and keep my eyes on the track. The way is too uncertain, always changing, littered with sandy surprises and sharp demon thorns.
The wind is coming on, always coming on. It screams through my head. The pain returns. I can’t escape the howl. From the east, northeast, north, northwest, and back again, wind blowing, the howl just won’t let me alone. (The wind’s howl echoes around in my head, day and night, for days.)
By 3 pm I face a focused headwind. The wind blows steadily now, driving clouds from the north. Like frightened sheep, tumbling over one another, they race by.
my front tire goes flat. I am getting low on water. I try to
find the hole by putting the inflated tube to my ear. I can’t hear
anything. The wind’s howl is far too loud. Have to waste water.
The hole is so small the bubbles rising from the puncture site escape my
attention twice. Take a breath and try again. By 4:05 I’m ready to
I pause to consider the mounting static in the air, electric tension, heated shiver. The blue sky is gone. The atmosphere is heavy, gun powder gray, charged. I look north and commit myself to pushing on, riding hard for another 2 hours.
4:20: another flat! Rear tire this time. Hell...damnation. This is a pain. "Haven’t I already proved I know how to fix a flat!?" I ‘ve had more flat tires in the last week than I have had all the previous years of my life. "Why am I being tested so?" The wind whips my thoughts away. He has no interest in my moaning - he can’t hear it for all the noise he’s making anyway. I set about repairing the flat. More water wasted.
FLATS! FLATS! FLATS!
An unbelievable test: from
the ridiculous to the sublime,
from thoughts of suicide to
|Just as I am
ready to roll I notice a plume of smoke - dust rising on the northern horizon.
Within 30 seconds I spy the unmistakable profile of a truck plowing its
way southward. "Water! The truck is on a parallel track.
Got to move quickly." By the time I unzip the trailer bag and grab
two 1.5 liter bottles, I can hear the sound of the straining gasoline engine,
the hiss of air escaping from an overactive compressor, the clatter of
a loose tailgate, and the squeal of dry bearings. I sprint to the
east – "got to intercept him." I immediately realize how foreign
this new activity is: I leap over tracks, stumble through low brush, alternating
steps land on hard ground and soft sand. My biking shoes are not
designed for this. My legs feel like they belong to someone else.
The roar it getting louder. They’ve got to have seen me by now.
I leap over three or four more tracks and come to a panting stop in front
of the truck.
It slows. Faces strain to comprehend as the truck gears down and drives past. Twenty meters down the track the truck stops. Engine quits - a sputter and a final spit of black smoke. Dust settles. Three guys climb out of the cab and we great each other. I ask if they have water, knowing full well they do. All the vehicles crossing the desert carry large 20 litre jugs of water, to quench their vehicle’s thirst as much as their own. They gladly fill my bottles. The code of the desert: "Give what you can spare." They want to know where I come from. Words and waving arms tell the story: "Korea, China, Mongol... Ruskie, Portugalia...." Their eyes round in disbelief. One returns to the cab and pulls a bag of hard white chunky substance from under the seat. I am invited to help myself. I do. Not bad – sweet, dry. (I later find out this is one of many milk curd products made by Mongolians.) I ask them how far it is to the next town. One says 33 kilometers - he scratches the numbers in the desert sand. Another argues "no"; he insists its 45. I smile. We salute each other and they climb into the truck. The starter won’t crank over. The door opens. Out jumps the passenger with a metal bar. A few seconds, a manual crank or two, and the truck is coughing black smoke - the truck is running. We wave and off they go. A cloud of dust chases them away. Within minutes they disappear over the southern horizon - the drone lingers for another minute; and then, I am alone again.
I sigh with relief. "Water... Yeah!"
I look across the sands and can just make out my bike lying on it's side. "I wonder whether those guys saw it?" I walk back to Pan and stow my bottles. I’ll use one for cooking and filter the other to drink.
Got to get going. It’s almost 5:45. Another stormy night is on its way. To the north the scene is all too familiar – the road disappears under a black screen – I’ve been here before.
The track is constantly changing. I have to pick my way carefully: large pebbles, sand, hard pack and soft, ridges, washboards, truck parts, wheels, wire and glass. The shoulder temps me – "get thee behind me Satan." The grass is but a centimeter or two high and the ground is rock hard – but those invisible thorns lie there, their hungry needle-teeth ready to bite into the soft rubber of my tires and arrest my progress again. I have no choice but to slip and slide and plough through the soft sand, bump my way across the long washboards. I push on.
I try to visualize slipping between the molecules of the wind, riding without resistance, in a vacuum. I imagine the wind blowing right through me. It’s a mind game I play while my body pushes against the current. I’m not very good at it - the wind has slowed my progress these past few days to a few kilometers an hour. It’s impossible to tell how far I’ve really come, or how far it is to the next town. There are no sign posts or mile markers out here – I only know where I’ve been.
One thing’s for sure, there’s no time to dawdle. Crank... crank... crank.
As I approach each rise I hope for a clue, the outline of a village in the distance. Each time, nothing. The featureless horizon expands forever. The anticipation could be physically wearing, psychologically taxing. I’ve taken to sighing and shrugging, a display of indifference. In fact, I return to myself quickly. I actually like the solitude and know it will not last forever. I play my other game: kedging. I throw out a sight line, hook it on to a distant object (rock, tuff of grass, dead camel), and reel it in. In this way I pull myself across the endless void.
6:10 PM I begin looking for a place to camp. The ceiling is sinking
quickly and thunder has been rumbling all around for 15 to 20 minutes.
I am not hopeful. At 6:25 I come upon a curious feature, the ruins
of a building strewn about in a slight hollow. The red rock walls
("where did these rocks come from?") are all but completely destroyed.
The highest wall is barely 4 feet high. The area is covered with
dried ovine manure – obviously sheep (and goats) use this place for protection
from the elements. I waste no time determining that, in spite of
the manure, the ruins offer my best bet for shelter.
After I park my bike, building up rock supports under the panniers and trailer, like stacking sandbags around the foundation of a house, I watch the weather. The drama unfolding around me tonight is quite different from last night’s multi-cell cluster storm conflict. Last night I got caught at ground zero, the epicenter of a macroburst. Tonight it looks like the desert will host a series of single cell skirmishes. It looks like the show is about to begin. The musicians in the orchestra pit are tuning their instruments – that familiar rumble is building; unlike last night when it charged out of the north, tonight it cascades through the clouds from the stratosphere.
After I park my bike, I watch the drama unfolding around me. Crouching behind my wall, I watch as gun-barrel-gray rain squalls sweep the landscape, armor-clad ranks of infantry and cavalry taking the desert by storm.
|At 6:30, like
a train following a schedule, the first wave arrives. Crouching behind
my wall, I watch as gun-barrel-gray rain squalls sweep the landscape, armor-clad
ranks of infantry and cavalry taking the desert by storm. Rain pelts the
hard ground. The thermometer sinks. A damp chill passes by
like an advance party on reconnaissance. I have chosen hallowed ground
it seems, at least for the time being: It looks like the major battles
will all miss me. I watch the drama, ducking occasionally to avoid
the intermittent blasts of cold wind and sand. In the distance these
blasts rise like smoke from cannon fire. The rumbling continues,
rises, fades, echoes: cavalry advancing – retreating, artillery pounding.
As I watch the swirling action I imagine waves of armies clashing through
the ages: Mongol warriors on horseback here, Russian tanks there.
Time to set up camp. I pitch my tent and start on dinner. The wind swirls around me lifting clouds of sand and dried manure. It’s getting into everything. I’m inhaling the stuff and it’s getting in my food. I move inside my tent – Sand and black dust swirl into the tent whenever the door is opened. Dinner is noodle soup, half a loaf of bread with peanut butter, apricot jam, chocolate spread, and a few cloves of garlic. Everything is seasoned with grains of black dust – I imagine pepper.
At least the water's pure - I gulp down 700 ml, adding two multi-vitamins with the last swallow. Still hungry. I dip into my bags of dried fruit – bananas and apples – and chew slowly.
I clean up my kitchen and stow my gear. Time to do a little writing, catch up on the continuing saga of my trip across the continent. I write until the darkness makes it impossible to see.
The wind has calmed significantly by the time the light fades. I lie back. Last night I was caught in the chaos raging about me. Tonight I have an opportunity to review my day. I enjoy reliving the events, the trials, surprises, lessons, sights, sounds.... Not a bad day in the life of....
On the morning of 23 May, I awake suddenly at 5:30 when a blast of wind and rain crash into my tent. I peek out a small opening at the top of my cloth shelter. Not rain. Hail. No early start today. I roll into a tight ball and try to catch a few more winks. The wind and hail came in waves that last from 15 to 40 minutes. The wind roars and the tent flaps violently, deafeningly. I lie low - almost cowering - hoping my weight will hold the tent on the rocky ground. Last night I took the precaution of adding several tie-downs, anchoring the tent to Pan as I had the night before; and, like the night before, I am now not sure whether the tent will hold or break loose and fly away. For two hours I wait in a state of indecision, mounting frustration. By 7:30, wracked by the violence thrashing my little world and acutely aware that a chill is invading my warm cocoon, I decide that lying in the desert under these conditions is not such a good idea.
I make my first foray out into the mêlée. Everything looks okay. No, not okay! I discover I have two flat tires. "At times like this", I tell myself, "I know for sure that nature just doesn’t care - she’s merely doing her thing." The only road out lies on the path of calm resolve, patience and determination. Progress today, like everyday, will be made through many small steps. I debate staying put through the day, for another night. Can’t. Ridiculous notion. It’s still early. I push the thought aside. Under these conditions, action, not idle procrastination, is the best course. Inaction will only exacerbate my growing discomfort. My water supply is running low, again. The tent could suddenly lose it’s purchase and fly off – in this wind it might simply rip apart and be transformed into Buddhist prayer flags - rags on tent poles. The cold keeps sneaking in and I can’t shake the feeling that a dead wet rat is draped around my neck, hanging down the center of my back. I shiver – it doesn’t go away. My storm anchor is holding still; but I can almost hear the fibers in the lines groaning under the strain. All systems are being stressed to their limits. I feel like my little world might capsize at any moment. This is not a safe place and there is no evidence that conditions will improve before they worsen. I feel my equipment and I are clinging precariously to the rocks of a tiny island. The tide could easily rise suddenly, and without warning, sink me and my gear – dire consequences to be avoided at all costs. I have to move. I have to weigh anchor. Lots to do before I can do that though: breakfast, flats, packing. The storm keeps coming. Even though there is nowhere to run and my course is directly into the mouth of the storm, I know the fun factor will improve as soon as I am moving again.
Now a wave of hail blasts across the desert. I dodge the ice bullets and dive back into the tent. Whenever the wind abates slightly and the hail showers pass on, I clamor out and continue the chore of breaking camp. I play this game – in and out, twice an hour - for the next 7 hours. Finally, after getting something to eat, packing in spurts, and seeing to the tire repairs (there were three punctures – all three tires were flat!), I am able to break away.
At 2:30 PM, everything accounted for, secure onboard my little craft, I plow into the wind. Once again, I can’t help drawing on my experiences at sea. I imagine the plight of another man who, in a different place, is trying to get his small boat off an exposed shore while legions of towering waves roll in on him. I am barely able to get on my bike and get it moving forward. The seas keep coming, I’m taking blue water over the bows – over the pilot house. As soon as I gain the track north, however, I feel collected, safe, in control again. My nature lies in movement. I am the road again.
Two hours later I came over a rise and there ahead lies Airag, a bleak desert settlement. Something, however, tells me I am approaching an oasis, a safe anchorage, shelter from the tempest. I have reached an island in a raging sea. Like all the towns of the Gobi, Airag is ringed by mounds of garbage. Piles of soot and rubble, decaying organic waste, twisted metal and wire, broken glass, blackened animal carcasses, greasy bits of cloth and canvas, plastic and paper, rusty oil drums circle every town like dead coral reefs in a sea. Rats scurry and flies buzz – children play. I have come to imagine each town as a South Pacific atoll, an atomic test site, in this vast desert sea. Unlike the islands of the South Pacific, there is no beauty here. Searching for the paths that lead through this dump zone is extremely depressing. An odiferous vapor hangs in the air, thick, pungent, greasy. The way through, any way through, is littered with bits of metal and glass. Pan hates these passages as much as I do.
I cannot help but believe that, in time, if not already, the municipal water supply (in every case, wells drilled into the desert) may be poisoned. The desert surface is baked rock hard; however, I do not imagine that it is entirely impermeable. Is it my western hyper-sensitive perspective or are serious public health problems being seeded in these dumps?
wind my way through the reef barrier. Upon reaching the first group
of houses, a woman and a small girl emerge to greet me. The girl
is dressed like any occidental girl her age might be. The woman is
wearing the traditional del, the woven wool long coat of the Mongolians.
“Hello. Where are you from?” she asks. I introduce myself and
compliment her on her English. She demurs and then introduces herself
and her daughter. Her name is Hundaa. Her daughter, Anya.
One thing leads to another and soon I am invited to her house for a cup
of tea. I accept enthusiastically.
Hundaa speaks English quite well. It is several hours before she tells me she is one of two English teachers at the local school. She also teaches Russian there. I am informed that a US Peace Corps volunteer, Bob Wolf, lives in the town, that he is an English teacher at the school too. Bob is not in town when I arrive. He was in Sainshand visiting another volunteer, but will be back on the 11:00 PM train. I am invited to stay the night so that I can meet him tomorrow.
It’s now 5:30 and I have no intention of riding any farther today. I tell Hundaa that I would like to meet Bob and, if possible, visit the school. I ask her if I can pitch my tent in her door yard - the area there seems well sheltered from the wind. Hundaa brightens. She thinks that’s a wonderful idea. I am grateful for the opportunity to stop, and tell her how lucky I am that the road has brought us together. This is a warm, safe place.
Hundaa’s husband, Bazar Sumiya, appears and seems genuinely happy to have a guest. Sumiya is a mining engineer at Mongolrostsvetmet Mining & Trade Corporation’s Airag fluorspar mine. At first his English is difficult to understand, but as the hours together pass, I am able to tune into his wavelength and we have little trouble discussing a variety of subjects. It is getting late and dinner seems to be the next thing to address. I ask whether there is a market in town. Might I go and buy some things there and might we share the evening meal? Hundaa accompanies me to the local market where I buy some garlic, potatoes, two carrots, an onion and a loaf of bread (great Russian bread). Hundaa says she has lots of mutton and the items I’ve bought will make a great stew. Sounds good to me!
While Hundaa prepares dinner I shave, take a shower and put on some clean clothes. I emerged from the bathroom a new man. The sun is setting. Outside the buffeting rages on. The windows of the Sumiya house rattle – Siberian fingers rap on panes. Air oozes between frame and shash – oooh, it’s cold outside. February shiver.
After dinner, I teach the Sumiyas how to play Rummy 500. We play late into the night. As the evening wears on, I am encouraged (it doesn’t take much persuasion) to use the bed in Anya's room. The bed beckons, "rest here old boy." It looks good to me: warm and wind free.
The next morning the cold and grey continues. I go to the Dornogobi Province Airag Ten-year School with Hundaa, meet Bob, teach a class, attend a l talent show, and then tour the town. I wash my clothes. One of the students in the class I taught comes to find me and invites me to visit his family. They live in the ger district. I feel I have been given the royal treatment. I call my contact in the capital city (the local telephone operator – there’s one phone in town – has to ring a switchboard in Sainshand, the switchboard operator then makes the connection to the exchange in UlaanBaatar) and am able to get a message through to NMR headquarters in Boston for much neededsupplies, i.e., tires and tubes.
I stay in the Sumiya home another night. After another communal meal - mutton and noodle soup, garlic bread, steamed cabbage, and Bob’s Hello Dolly dessert - we play Rummy 500 until midnight. The next morning I waked much refreshed, eager to be on my way again. After a breakfast of the leftover dinner and some group photos, I saddle up and say goodbye. The gun-barrel gray skies are gone. Blue is poking through a lighter, higher ceiling. Pools of shunshine splash on the desert. There's an invigorating, fresh chill in the air. I’m getting a good start – it’s 7:30 and the town is barely stirring. I’m happy to be moving on.
I wind my way through the mounds of garbage and trash ... soon I am alone out on the rolling desert.
The way is mine. Whether courser or shallop, when the wind surges I am prepared to gallop. I have become the way again.
I was tempted to take Anya