Tuesday, December 20, 2016

2016 Cycle Tour in Mongolia

Writing and pictures by Charles Hughes, 2016 participant.

Going to bed with the sound of rain hammering down on my (not very watertight) tent, was rather depressing, but not nearly as bad as waking up, in my now damp sleeping bag, to the sound of even heavier rain still pounding down on the flimsy structure. I tried comforting myself with the thought that a tent always makes the rain sound worse than it actually is, but still, I was disappointed that our last riding day in Mongolia looked to a wet, cold and muddy affair.

Perhaps the pleasantly warm and dry weather we had had up until then was making me soft. A little rain and mud was nothing to what the locals experience in winter, when a blanket of frigid air sweeps down from the arctic, crosses Siberia and malignantly settles over Mongolia, causing temperatures to plummet down to -40 C.

A campsite with a view.

Braced with that thought, I leapt out of bed, which is an impressive feat when sleeping on the floor, and joined the other 11 riders as we prepared to splash off into the rain. The group’s resolution to ride every flipping inch (EFI in touring jargon) of the trip only lasted until the tea break, at about the 30km mark, when a quick pow-wow resulted in most of the group deciding to end their tour in the dry of our quaint, but spectacularly unreliable, Russian made support vehicles.

The thought of relaxing in the dry of the vehicles was tempting, but was a bit too much like giving up, so I joined Tristan and Carlos in riding on, but with some trepidation. My legs were not in great shape following the mini race Thys and I had had the previous day, up some surprisingly tough climbs. Mongolia is famous for its endlessly flat steppes, but in the North West, where we were riding, it was definitely more than a little hilly, at times reminding me of the Rockies with its pine covered mountains.

As always, it’s hard to avoid a bit of surreptitious racing on the hills.

Our pocket-sized Mongolian mechanic and guide, Turu, was probably less than thrilled that some of us felt impelled to ride on, and that he would have to join us in this foolishness. But with Turu it was hard tell, and he simply mounted his (extra small) bike and, like the wrestling champ he is, led us out for another 50km of wet and mud. The only time I saw Turu’s demeanour slip a bit was when Cheryl and Rose were going some minor surgery on his ankle, unfortunately without the benefit of any anaesthetic. It clearly hurt like hell, but it was clearly necessary as his ankle was a bit of a mess, and it healed quickly after their painful attentions.

Some Mongolian teamwork on display - Turu being playfully assisted by his boss.

Part of the reason I persevered in riding those last, muddy, 50kms (other than plain bloody mindedness) was because there was the prospect of hot showers and a dry bed that night. We were heading for a ‘Ger Camp’, a collection of the round, wooden framed and felt covered tents that are elsewhere known as Yurds, but in Mongolia are known as Gers. Being surprisingly spacious, warm and pretty water proof, sleeping in a Ger was going to be a bit of an improvement on a two-man tent.

The design of the Ger is fairly standard, and is thousands of years old, and yet they are still the only form of accommodation used by the local nomadic herders, and are the only structures that are seen outside of Mongolia’s few towns - and in rural Mongolia they even serve as motels.

As we peddled into our Ger camp on the outskirts of Karakorum (originally the fabulous capital of Genghis Khan, but now a sleepy backwater) it struck me that the Ger is a symbol of the significant contradictions that are evident in the modern Mongolian state. Gers are quite practical, and very picturesque, but also a bit archaic, and look strange, if not a bit ridiculous, when there is a late model Land Cruiser parked outside and satellite disks and solar panels decorate the roof. It is evident that the Mongolian herders, for all their ancient nomadic lifestyle, have done very well out of the burgeoning demand for protein from their increasingly wealthy Chinese neighbours. Although large herds of horses still grace the landscape, ever fewer Mongolians are riding them, and today motorcycles and jeeps are the preferred mode of transport.

Sunset over a Ger Camp motel

If Land Cruisers and Gers make strange bedfellows, then so too do other aspects of the Mongolian lifestyle, as is vividly displayed in the land ownership issue. In order to support their nomadic lifestyle, the herders have to be able to travel where they please, unhindered by farms and fences. This means that outside of the few Mongolian cities, there is no private ownership of land, and hence no farms and no fences.

With no private ownership of the land, there is little but local custom inhibiting herders from expanding their herds beyond the capacity of the available grazing. This has not yet developed into a social and environmental problem as Mongolia is one of the least populated countries around (next only to Namibia), with the harsh climate having previously limited herds (and herders). In more modern times a communist system limited herd sizes, but the introduction of a democratic government in 1984, and the un-leasing of free market forces, has resulted in Mongolia becoming vastly more prosperous, and the national herd growing very much larger. Competition for grazing rights is therefore likely to strain the current harmonious relationships between families and clans, and without private ownership of the land, resolving future land disputes is likely to become a major headache.

Not normal horse riding gear – and check out that horrendously uncomfortable saddle (Mongolians understandably  ride standing-up)

BUT……… that’s a problem for the future - for now it’s heaven for mountain biking and outdoor types. It’s like the whole country is just one massive public park. Roads are scarce and most travel is by a bewildering web of jeep tracks crisscrossing hill and dale. Just turn off the road and ride where you like, camp where you like, and you do this over THOUSANDS of kilometres. You can also get horribly lost, so a guide is not a bad idea, as are support vehicles, as food and water are not readily available. The locals are friendly, but mostly just ignore the odd mad mountain biker, so you can just get out there and do your own thing - and above all, it’s big, beautiful and unspoilt.

Some hard-to-beat MTB territory

So, as we came to the end of our brief MTB tour of Mongolia (we only had time for 650 kms of riding), it was with some regret that I abandoned my hired bike (a not too bad giant 27.5) for the flight home and the looming chaos that is Beijing airport. Almost predictably, two of our group missed our connecting flight to JHB, and for some time we feared that they might be lost forever in the airport chaos.

Now for that Moroccan trip……

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A 3-day hike in the Little Berg - Amira, Sook Leen and Hermina - March 2012

A typical scene in the Little Berg with the ever-present layer of Clarens Sandstone

One of the perks of working as a mountain guide is that you meet lots of interesting people. Amira from Algeria, Sook Leen from Malaysia and Hermina from Romania, are all now living and working in London. They met eight years ago when they started working in banking and have lived there ever since. They came to South Africa for a wedding but also took the opportunity to see more than just Franschhoek. Amira, being the most adventurous of the three, convinced Sook Leen and Hermina to join her for a hike in the Drakensberg. It was out of their comfort zone but a very enjoyable experience, it seemed.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Pondo-Pedal – A Wild Coast Ride from Port Edward to Mtentu

A piece of paradise

A few weeks ago we joined our friends from Active Escapes for a ride along the Wild Coast. The Wild Coast is an incredible 300km stretch of virtually pristine coastline from Port Edward to East London. I usually guide their Wild Ride mountain bike tour in the Wild Coast which runs from Kei Mouth to Port St John’s, a 200km ride of sheer fun and fatigue. However I had never visited this northern part of the coast.

Amphitheatre Heritage Hike - Bernhard and Christine - February 2012

Bernhard and Christine with the iconic Amphitheatre

Bernhard and Christine from Cologne in Germany had hiked to Zulu Cave with me in February last year. They enjoyed their trip so much that they came for a second trip this February. I was once again happy to assist them with another hike. On their last visit they have only experienced the berg from the foothills so it seemed appropriate to share the experience of having a bird’s eye view of this incredible mountain range from the top of the escarpment. The easiest way to do this is by hiking to the top of the Amphitheatre from the Sentinel Car Park via the famous Chain Ladder.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Giant’s Castle with Markus and Christiana – February 2012

Markus and Christiana from Munich with Giant's Castle

Giant’s Castle, the easternmost point on the Natal escarpment, is a prominent peak in the Drakensberg. 3314m above sea level it is the 10th highest point in South Africa and can be ‘easily’ climbed on foot via the Giant’s Castle Pass, its head being only 2km from the summit.

While researching for their 3-week holiday in South Africa, Markus and Christiana from Munich had read about the Giants Castle in the Drakensberg Mountains, and decided to start their journey with a hike in the area.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Mafadi with Bradley, Ruan, Peter and Donovan - January 2012

The escarpment illuminated by the first beams of sunlight
The first hike in 2012 was Mafadi, our most popular hike in the Berg. Bradley, Ruan, Peter and Donovan, 4 fun-loving law students from Pretoria, made up a super vibrant party. It was their first trip to the escarpment so this was a great adventure for them, a great way to charge batteries before the start of their final year at university.