Tour Cycling in Mongolia- A Battle With the elements
Written by George Balarezo, Intrepid Global Citizen
Mongolian weather is notorious for wreaking havoc on anyone that attempts to challenge it to a duel. Summer snow storms so cold that toes and fingers turn numb for months. Blinding winds that toss sand and dust into any passerby’s eye sockets, leaving the poor souls that attempt to tough it out running to the nearest yurt for shelter. Heavy rains that transform the land of Genghis Khan ‘s dirt roads into impassable mud pits. Mongolian weather is full of extremes; and changes faster than the time it takes Lebron James to run the length of a basketball court.
Along the corridor to Ulgi, the country’s Western oasis town, the infamous Mongolian weather decided to put me to the test. Nature versus human. Who would come out on top? This human was determined to show Mother Nature he would not bow down so easily. My opponent knocked me to the ground, left me drained of my energy and nearly beat me into submission on my previous cycling journeys. How much mercy would the Mother of the natural world have on me this time? I must take on fierce opponents in order to be reborn as a warrior-like version of myself. Come on Mongolia. Give it to me!
The uphill climb started off slowly. The mountain pass was straight ahead in the distance and did not look as challenging as others I encountered along the Pamir or Karakorum Highways. Mother Nature must have read my mind, because she suddenly began to taunt and have her way with me.
The previous night I stayed with a local man in his yurt and the evening wind gusts left me rattled. Vroom! His makeshift tent rumbled and vibrated back and forth. “Was that an earthquake?” I asked.
“No it’s the wind,” he answered, appearing to not even be the least bit worried.
“If a local Mongolian guy does not freak out, then I don’t need to either. I hope the same wind does not come back when I am out there tomorrow on my bike,” I thought.
The wind gusts were other worldly. Dark grey clouds hovered above me, blocking the sun I enjoyed for the previous few hours, signaling a drastic change in weather. This was totally unexpected as I left in the morning thinking the day would be filled with sunshine and mild weather. The wind pounded right into my face, heaving sand and dust into my face. I was moving slower in my lowest gear now. Despite pedaling with all of my might, I was moving at a leisurely walking speed. I would have been better off tossing my bike into the sand embankment and hiking up the slope. “Should I leave my bike behind?” I thought. That was not a viable option. I purchased this piece of metal machinery exclusively for this leg of the trip. Any other bike would not have survived up until this point.
Keep pedaling. One turn of the wheel after another. One hour went by and the top of the mountain pass still looked exactly as far away as it did sixty minutes before. The wind was deafening. As air struck my helmet, it let off a whistling noise that even an army drill sergeant would deem impossible to duplicate. The sound of whistling in my ear left my head aching for peace and quiet.
Whoosh! The noise caught me off guard that I almost flew over my handlebars. An eighteen-wheel semi truck whizzed past, coming only an arm’s length away from knocking me into another world. The wind was so loud I did not even hear it creeping up from behind. My sense of hearing was deemed useless at this point and I continued to glance behind me every five minutes to make sure I did not get picked off by another vehicle.
This was completely insane. I was on my way to Ulgi, a major town in Western Mongolia. One of my tire spokes snapped already on account of roads so torn up that they leave cyclists feeling like they are undergoing epileptic seizures. I had visions of my rear tire bending itself out of proportion on account of supporting my panniers and an 80 kilogram rider, rendering my bike useless. All I had to do was make it another forty kilometers into town. Come on!
The wind shifted at will. Every change in direction nearly knocked me off my bike onto the rocky terrain. I had to use every once of concentration and all of my metal strength just to stay up on my bike. It was like I was undergoing a Mongolian right of passage test. Would I pass this one? When would the celebration ceremony start?
That’s it. I am getting off. I pushed my bike up the remainder of the hill for another thirty minutes that seemed like four hours. Each step weakening me and leaving me more mentally drained than final exam week in engineering school.
I finally made it. I threw my bike to the side and scanned the grassy mountains all around me. Admiring the distance I covered in such wretched conditions was my short victory celebration. The wind continued to beat me into oblivion. It must have been gusting at at least 60 kilometers per hour.
Lets go. I glided down the mountain and the wind dissipated. Now I was flying at full speed down the hill, the butterflies in my stomach fluttering like a teenager on his first date. Let the right of passage celebration begin. I became a Mongolian man that day and was ready to take on whatever this mysterious land had in store for me.