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Day 59 of a motorbike ride: Olgly, Mongolia

In Search of Greener Grass is Graham Field’s refreshing account of a solo overland motorcycle journey from England to Mongolia and beyond. In this extract Graham arrives in Mongolia.

It’s one of those get up and jump around mornings. Not with snowy excitement but to circulate blood around my chilled body.

There are clusters of Christmas trees and a twisting wild road. The cloud is moody but uneven, giving glimpses of a snowy mountain range then wisping back down as if to bring my attention back to the rugged terrain that I’m riding through.

There is a forty-foot tanker trailer overturned at the side of the road; it’s back on its wheels but it’s rolled right over. The tank has split and bitumen has poured out but frozen in the atmosphere. It’s like liquorish, suspended animation. It looks like it’s in motion, liquefied and flowing, but it’s not. I can stand on it and touch it with my tongue. I’m glad I wasn’t coming round the corner when this driver overturned his truck and I’m wondering when we are going to hit the dirt this load was intended to seal.

The terrain is harsh and desolate now. Vast cold tundra, inhospitable, wild and beautiful, the remoteness made all the more evident because at this moment in time we are the only two grains passing through the narrows of the egg timer. We reach the border village. I’m sure if there wasn’t a border it wouldn’t be here at all. Wooden shacks, mostly boarded up. A little store that has only rice and biscuits, so I buy rice and biscuits. No fuel, no café, not many signs of life at all. It’s time to cross into Mongolia.

We are processed. This time my visa was not registered and again it’s not checked. Then a stretch of no-man’s-land, a concrete strip of road to follow to a modern two-storey building which is Mongolian immigration. It’s a little chaotic but there is productivity amongst the chaos and we are stamped and let loose. We continue, and then a gate, just a gate the other side of which is Mongolia.

The change is instant. Yaks and camels wander the grasslands, eagles stand on the trail, reluctant to move, and when they do the wings span the track. There is nothing but compressed dirt to depict a road. No signs, no markings of any kind. Perhaps this was where the tar was destined for. A whistling wind blows across this barren wilderness. Another time zone but it’s completely irrelevant; this land says survive or die, don’t snivel and threaten to sue.

And then it starts to snow. The third of August and it’s snowing. I’ve just ridden my bike to Mongolia and I’m scared and exhilarated, nervous and victorious. Thrown in the deep end of wild, western Mongolia. The track has forked, I’ve got a map and there is a settlement to the east. I haven’t grasped the scale yet. What depicts a village? Come to that what depicts a road?

I am approached by a man on horseback. He rides up from out of the hills. I don’t know what he was doing before I got here. Wrapped in a long, black, fur coat tied with a colourful scarf and a weather-beaten face of leather skin and deep wrinkles that told a hundred stories. I don’t understand the first thing of his life. We are worlds and times apart. There is no comprehension of each other’s lives, but I ask if I can take his photo and he agrees. This wild man on his horse has ridden over to check me out. I have to assume he is friendly. I’m on his territory, I’m vulnerable, not armed with language or knowledge and certainly not weapons or wisdom and he could have all of those. To reach his age in this land I think he must have. Knowing how to select shuffle on my iPod doesn’t make me smarter than him. Not out here.

His interest in me is short. He didn’t say anything and he didn’t stay long. He was a product of his environment, a proud man, who knew what he needed to and his understanding of me was not a necessity in his world.

I need to head south. I climb a mountain and follow a track. All I can see is mountains. I follow the dark soil of a single track. There is a row of telegraph poles; it’s as good a thing to follow as… well there is nothing else to follow. When I reach a peak I can see nothing but white-topped mountains all around. I suppose this is what I expected, but I’m still blown away. I think it’s the absolute lack of any kind of security: no ambulance, no breakdown service, no food, no shelter. If I’m stupid I will die. High visibility jackets and warning signs won’t help me here.

To the south is some evidence of inhabitants and from my high altitude vantage point I think I can see a strip of black tar. And off to the west in the distance a few vehicles and workmen. Next year it will be paved and bypassed.

I quickly discover that Mongolia does wilderness very well but the town and cities are awful. A lot of people drink a lot of vodka a lot of the time. We found a town and try to find a recommended room. The first place is awful. We ride round the square. One place is expensive but they promise Wi-Fi, towels and hot water. We take their last room. We can ride our bikes round the back for secure parking. The room has no towels but that doesn’t matter because there is no water at all, hot or cold, no Wi-Fi and no power to charge phones and camera batteries. Back at reception they suddenly don’t understand English. They get that I want my money back and I get it. We throw our stuff on our bikes and head back round the square. If awful is the only choice at least it can be cheap….

In Search of Greener Grass by Graham Field is a Available from, Amazon or all good bookstores. ISBN 9781780880884/£12.99

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