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Fair wind to Mongolia: from China on foot

I stood at dawn eyballing the chillingly indifferent portrait of Chiarman Mao and pondering the paths ahead. The man himself lay (dead) a hundred yards south of me with an already long queue of fans waiting to pay homage to his preserved corpse. The People’s Liberation Army soldiers had just finished their daily flag hoisting ceremony over Tiananmen Square.

I procrastinated for a few extra minutes knowing that, once I started walking, I would only truly be able to rest once I reached Ulaan Baatar over 900 miles away to the north-west in Mongolia. I considered my ill-preparedness: the £8 pair of fake “Timberland” shoes which I’d neglected to wear even once since purchase; the £5 fake “North Face” 40L rucksack brought in a Nepalese mountain village four years ago; my general state of unfitness after a stationary and indulgent winter. The decision to walk this section of the journey (a route I had already cycled in 2009) was made whimsically and with little consideration for the realities of an extended hike. Pushing these thoughts aside, I put one foot in front of the other; the first of well over a million steps.

Beijing dragged itself out of bed as the sun rose and I followed a road northwards, slowly crossing each of the six ringroads that had encompassed my life for almost five months. Overhead was a wide, unblemished blue sky: a fitting start for a journey to The Land of Blue Sky. In the distance, apparently low hills – wallowing in the haze of a hot day – grew at an irritatingly slow pace. The world was busy around me but already I had tuned out of city life and was thinking of hills and villages, trees and animals.

The urban sprawl spluttered to a crawl as the afternoon unravelled. It eventually ground to a halt in the evening at the foot of the hills which I limped into with relief and slumped down onto the earth. Everything ached: feet, shoulders, hips, neck. At 28 miles, I’d walked more than a marathon and possibly more than I’d ever covered on foot in a single day. Predicting dry weather, I’d foregone a tent when packing and opted instead for an army surplus bivvy bag which I now unrolled. In fact, I’d foregone many things in favour of travelling light and my rucksack (without food or water) weighed about 10kg. A slim crescent moon hung in the east and sleep came quickly.

Waking up under a paling grey-blue sky, I felt like I’d been in a boxing match and had to stretch thoroughly before my legs would work almost normally. The first few steps on the tender soles of my feet were torturous. From then on, every morning, I had to accept and even embrace the pain in my feet until it slipped from my mind.

The next few days were spent following a winding road through rocky hills; brown after the recently-thawed winter freeze. Occasional sofa-sized slabs of ice still sat resiliently, sheltered from the sun in the crooks of streams. Little sections of crumbling Great Wall offshoots dotted the landscape and crenellated spines of the wall itself ran along ridges: the most impressive and enduring time, money and labour-wasting monument to paranoia ever built (and ultimately futile as Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde waded casually around the wall’s end where it plunges into the Pacific).

In the shadow of one well-preserved stretch of wall, I performed the first of what was to become a daily ritual: lancing blisters. A safety pin sterilised with a lighter followed by time to air and a smudge of anti-septic cream. Some blisters, where the skin was already hard, formed deep below the surface and I’d sink the pin several millimeters into my foot to draw the pus. Given time, each ex-blister would harden and leave a toughened patch of dead skin in it’s place. This routine was both unpleasant and strangely satisfying.

Great Wall of ChinaThe roads were peaceful, wiggling through basic brick villages garnished with pretty spring blossoms to break the otherwise uniform brown of the land. I soon relaxed into the walking way of life and felt like I was taking my time despite walking between 8 and 10 hours each day. The slower pace was a refreshing change from the relative rush of cycling. When I passed things and people I had ample time to thoroughly observe them while maintaining what became a steady plod of about 3mph; whether uphill, downhill or flat. My body soon acclimatised to the labour but the first steps each day remained agonising. The uphills were comfortable but, quite unlike cycling, the downhills were an unpleasant assault on the knees and hips.

Each night I’d carefully consider where to sleep. Somewhere flat(ish), sheltered from wind, hidden from people, hopefully devoid of biting ants and preferably with low risk of starting a bush fire with my stove. To save space in my backpack, a twice-read National Geographic provided plenty of loo paper; each page repeatedly scrunched and unscrunched to achieve adequate fibrosity. Lying in the open, gazing at the speckled night sky, was a privileged way to drift off after a long day, and waking to a blood-read east was the first of several simple daily pleasures.

The villagers are simple, hard-working, friendly and photogenic; their dark, walnut faces cracking into broad smiles at the sight of a camera. Mostly without youth, the villages are seemingly the preserve of the elderly whose children and grandchildren have joined the mad dash to the swelling cities. What will happen when the current crop of agrarian grandparents have entered the soil themselves? They are possibly the last true Chinese peasants. Future farmers are likely to be grown city children with unfulfilled dreams.

I crossed from Beijing Municipality into Hubei province on the fifth day and was invited to lunch by a family of weekending Beijingers. They sat in a neglected courtyard around which ran a picturesque but decaying bungalow. Empty baijo (rice liquor) bottles and stray playing cards littered the ground. A shrinking granny sat, toothless and ignored, in a wheelchair outside the circle of increasingly drunk men. One had nine fingers and on had nine toes: all were ugly and all were friendly. That afternoon I passed a vast rock, apparently second only to Uluru (Ayers Rock).

More villages; short tunnels; drier hills; browner land; men ploughing with donkeys; delightfully unabashed childish waves from adults – a far cry from the stiffled and slight nods of the head I received in Europe. My diet was simple and unexciting. Lots of instant noodles (just 10p a pack) and plenty of fruit. The little village shops all sold the same scant range of goods. In one a dog vomited casually in the corner while two women argued, apparently about the price of an egg.

One evening, after joining a geriatric group for a restaurant dinner, ominous clouds gathered for the first time and thankfully I was invited to sleep in a hut with four workers who found my appearance endlessly amusing. A spectacular storm performed outside while I struggled to understand my companions’ provincial accents. In Hubei the ‘ch’ and ‘s’ sounds are switched around and so, confusingly, ‘4’ becomes ’10’ and vice versa.

The rocky hills gave way to yellow grasslands and I approached Inner Mongolia (the 3rd largest province in China). Horses hauled ploughs through sandy soil, preparing it for cultivation, and shepherds drifted slowly behind flocks of shaggy brown sheep. I turned onto farm tracks for a couple of days where wide-eyed, open-mouthed stares of astonishment took several seconds to break into brown-toothed smiles and respond to my greetings as I trudged by. A couple of marmots bounded among tough tussocks of grass. The days grew hotter but were still in the realm of ‘pleasantly warm’.

I neared the edge of the ever-growing Gobi desert and started taking siestas; walking later into the evenings. On the 12th day I joined the road I’d cycled in 2009 and from then on had copious bouts of extended deja vu. My first night in a proper bed was in the sleepy little town of Hua De where I cleaned my clothes and self in a cold shower after two weeks without washing. I also made repairs to my steadily deteriorating rucksack which I now simply knotted around my waist since the buckle broke.

Headwinds were a common companion beyond this point and I’d sometimes find myself leaning improbably far forward while it whistled in my ears. Sonid Youqi was the next town and I went in search of new shoes as the soles of mine were wearing worryingly thin. None in the town were big enough but I met a shopkeeper called Li Chen Hua (English name: Amanda) who spoke some English and took me to get a layer of rubber glued onto my shoes. Afterwards she invited me to dinner with her and her husband in a hot pot restaurant so I checked into a hotel , washed and joined them. The beer and baijo came thick and fast; each glass being clinked with another before being knocked back. Before long Amanda was stroking my thigh under the table. I tried to stop her but in my fuzzy state my protestations, although existent, became weaker than they might have been. In the end I sat awkwardly, making polite conversation with the unsuspecting husband. Suddenly I was whisked off to a booth in a KTV (karaoke) parlour and found myself crooning tunelessly, still sat between husband and persistent wife and with a couple of their friends.

Amor on the plains

The husband is singing a song when Amanda suddenly starts nuzzling my neck. He looks around at that moment and sees my confused/embarrassed face with his wife at work on my neck. There is a sudden scuffle and in seconds we are all outside. The husband shouts, the wife screams and is then seized by him. She goes limp and falls to the floor. I clumsily help her up. Her friend slaps me. Amanda slaps her husband. he slaps her back. I step between them and try, in vain, to be the voice of reason. His punch glances harmlessly off the side of my head before he sits down in the dust and starts crying. Things seem to have cooled down and I make my exit.

At 7am a knock brought me to my door to find Amanda accompanied by her husband with his head bowed penitently. They apologised profusely and we ate breakfast together in a painful silence before I walked out of town and into a headwind with flying sand biting at my calves. It grew into a mild sandstorm in the evening so I slept in an abandonned, rat-infested hut by the railway which runs parallel to the road.

The following day the wind blew on but it rained a little so the sand stayed down. The rain soon turned to wet, heavy snow which stung my face for two hours while I walked briskly to keep warm. The temperature in this area drops to thirty below freezing in winter. It felt strangely liberating hurling myself into the elements and I laughed maniacally while screaming King Lear’s “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!…” at the top of my voice with nobody to hear it. The sky cleared and I maintained my fast pace until dark to complete my longest day yet, hitting the target of 50km (31 miles).

Close to the Mongolian border now, I passed through an area where several dinosaur skeletons were unearthed. To celebrate those discoveries there are about 50 sculptures of various dinosaurs dotted in the desert on either side of the road. It was here, on a hot day three years previously, that a pickup truck loaded with watermelons passed me on my bicycle. It’s cargo had somehow caught fire a few seconds earlier and I helped the frantic driver to put out the flames by smashing more watermelons on them.

Erenhot (the border town) had grown to roughly twice the size since my last visit. I sneaked into a building site and slept on the first floor of one of the many unfinished apartment blocks on the outskirts of town. Wind screamed past the window carrying litter out into the desert and the sinking sun was swallowed by dancing clouds of dust.

After 15 minutes spent convincing the Chinese immigration official that I was the man in my passport photo, I left China and crossed into Mongolia and the 30th country on my journey. Irritatingly I was forced to take a jeep for the one mile across no-man’s land, thereby cutting my unbroken trail of footsteps leading back to Tiananmen Square.

Zamyn-Uud is a dusty frontier town with an edgy feel to it. Here I met Ganshagai who spoke good English and offered to help me find a cheap hotel. A drunk, egg-shaped man said he had one and we drove there in Ganshagai’s Toyota. The room was in a half-made building and had three chairs pushed together for a bed. I asked how much and he replied simply: “beer”. I fetched some cans from a shop and the three of us sat down to drink. A weasely man arrived, evidently unwanted by my companions, and started talking from his perch on the floor. The eggman soon started savagely kicking the weasel in the face. This done, the weasel was given a beer and swigged contentedly, beer and blood trickling together from his swollen lips. Mongolia has a rough, macho culture in which men often prove their point with their fists. Men in towns often seem to eye me as if sizing me up for a potential fight. Wrestling is a national sport and most men are burly due to the diet of little other than meat, dairy products, bread and potatoes. Almost no produce is grown in Mongolia.

Ganshagai said he was uneasy about me sleeping there as he feared I’d be attacked in the night so we went to the shop and bought frozen mutton dumplings and two bottles of Chinggis Khan Vodka en route to his friends who lived in a ger (the traditional, circular felt tents of nomadic Mongolians) on the edge of town. In the 5-meter wide ger was a family of nine persons from three generations. I was presented with the first glass of vodka and (remembering from my previous visit to the country) I dipped my middle finger in and flicked a little liquid up (an offering to Tengger the sky god) and a little down (an offering to the Earth) before tipping the remainder down my throat. Ganshagai, the family’s father and I labouriously finished three bottles of the stuff while the children watched and giggled. Finally I was allowed to sleep on the crowded floor. It seemed fitting to spend my first night across the border sleeping in a ger and partaking in the national pastime: alcoholism.

After a breakfast of more dumplings (warmed by being plonked in a bowl of salty milk tea), I thanked my host and drove about 10 miles out into the desert with Ganshagai in seach of a two-wheeled trailer. Rob Lilwall and Leon McCarron (who recently walked from Mongolia to Hong Kong) had hidden “Molly Brown” the trailer for me a few months earlier. The detailed directions were hilariously obscure and I found the spot but unfortunately someone else must have found Molly first as she was nowhere to be seen.

As we drove back to Zamyn-Uud I was fretting over the trouble I might have carrying sufficient water without a trailer. I stocked up with a week’s supply of food (seeing a brutal fist fight in the supermarket), plenty of fuel for my stove and 8 litres of water before walking to the northern edge of town where the paved road ends and a tangle of seemingly random, winding tire tracks begins. A dusty, sandy expanse of dryness spread away from my feet. It would be about 150 miles to Sainshand where I could rest and resupply. Already staggering under the weight of my overloaded bag, I’d have to rely on wells and chancing upon nomadic families for water.

After a while I reached the first ovoo. An ovoo is a shamanistic cairm built in worship of Tengger and tradition dictates that one always passes on the left side and makes an offering of some sort for safe passage on the road ahead. This one had a post a few meters tall, was covered in blue rags and surrounded by rocks, vodka bottles and broken car parts. Two cars arrived and each passenger poured a splash of vodka on it before continuing. I threw three small pebbles on it, circled it three times in a clockwise direction and set off on a compass bearing, away from the tire tracks. I’m not superstitious but it seemed to please the truck driver watching with a quickly emptying bottle.

The next week was peaceful and hot. I swayed back and forth between happy solitude and mild, but though-evoking, loneliness. There were no vehicles and only an average of one ger each day where I would ask for water, was always welcomed in and usually fed. Benedict Allen observes: “In the end, no-one can cope alone. In Mongolia it’s a group effort. You rely on each other. As long as everyone plays their part and offers hospitality, you are never at a loss, except in the Gobi.”

For most of the day I sucked a small pebble which prevented my mouth from drying by making me salivate and breath through my nose so as not to loose extra moisture from evaporation. The heat was bearable (maximum 30°C) but it was very dry and if I did breath orally I very soon had a swollen tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth.

Small herds of wild horses would flee upon seeing me; hoping to evade capture for the summer. Most horses are turned loose to fend for themselves throughout the brutal winter and then rounded up again in spring. One day, an old man on horseback appeared and rode quietly alongside me for half an hour before cantering into the distance. Two-humped bactrian camels sometimes wandered past me as I lay reading in the twilight; their tough mouths working on the sparse tufts of spiny grass. I sat by a well for an hour, watching as a shepherd tirelessly drew bucket after bucket up from the 10-yard depth and poured them into a wooden trough for his 200 eager goats and sheep. Each day I was again surprised by how wrecked I would feel at night and how fresh I felt when waking just 9 hours later.

The day before I reached Sainshand was windy. The windiest yet. I leaned heavily into it, wearing a hankercheif over my nose and mouth to keep sand out. The force picked up and the sand started hurting my small patches of exposed skin. Towards the end of the afternoon it was getting hard to move and I’d still found nowhere to shelter. I battled on for a while until it was both futile and too painful to fight anymore. I unstrapped my bivvy bag from my rucksack and nearly lost it as it violently unfurled into a 3-meter long windsock. With difficulty I got my rucksack inside it and bundled in after it, head first. With the opening closed up beyond my feet, I wrestled my way into my sleeping bag and lay eating dried banana chips in the darkness while the roaring wind wrapped the bag tightly across my face. Needless to say, it was a rough night’s sleep. In Sainshand I washed, ate and read for a day – nothing else. Sand kept falling from my hair and appearing when I blew my nose. I was my first full day off since leaving Beijing.

Sad to say, the next week’s walk to Choir was relatively boring. There was 20 miles of paved road before the off-road tracks began again and, this time, I followed them. Infrequent trucks trundled by, each giving me a dust bath. I acidentally slept on a beetle nest one night and woke to find a couple hundred of the small, oil-black insects crawling over me and inside my sleeping bag. The stars seemed clearer and brighter each night and there was spotless blue sky most days. Small lizards, disturbed by my footfall, would scamper frantically away every 10-20 yards. They like to bask on flat rocks and, as on two occasions, sleep in my shoes. Two things litter the otherwise unblemished land in Mongolia: vodka bottles and skeletons. Sun-bleached bones are everywhere, sometimes with a hoof or some fur still clinging to them.

Mobile settlements of road-builders were scattered along the way and the completed road (which was already in progress when I passed in 2009) had extended almost a full half mile further south in the last three years. It starts at the town of Choir where the desert ends fairly abruptly. It’s a small, depressing town of Soviet apartment blocks. It’s possibly the ugliest town I’ve ever seen (and I’ve spend many months travelling in China). I stopped only to buy food and quickly passed on into the grasslands. From here on northwards, the altitude gradually rises and the temperature drops accordingly as one climbs onto the steppe. One night was particularly cold and in the morning my 2-litre bottle of water was nearly completely frozen. Luckily I had a physics-defyingly warm Khunu yak wool sweater which kept me comfortable.

While walking early one morning I saw a Mongolian man suddenly appear beside me, running and carrying a flaming torch. He was wearing a smart blue and white tracksuit and cap and I thought for a second that the Olympic torch was making rather a large detour on its route from Athens to London. Then I read “World Harmony Run” on his shirt. I jogged with him for a couple of miles while we tried to communicate. Then a support van drew alongside carrying five other runners from Russia and Mongolia. The torch was en route from Auckland to Astana in Kazakhstan. I put my bag in the van and ran with the torch for 5 miles before they went ahead, leaving me with kind words and big smiles. I fell a little ill after that and was welcomed in by Dashka (a cheery railroad worker), his wife Obi and their six children. They lit the stove in an old log hut they had and ushered their snivelling guest onto an exhausted cot. I was brought a bowl of potato and mutton soup and the whole family happily sat in a circle around me while I groggily slurped it down. After 13 hours of unconsciousness I was somewhat revived and began the last few days to Ulaan Baatar (UB).

I felt I was gathering momentum as I neared my goal. The grasslands are entrancing and contain an evocative scattering of gers, dwarfed by the enormous surrounding landscape which serves to amplify their remoteness. Theirs is a romantic existence. Or rather, a tough and lonely existence romanticised by our busy western minds. Following the road through wide, shallow valleys, I happily gazed at everything and nothing. It grew colder still and sometimes rained lightly. Heavy clouds threatened one evening and I approached a lone ger. The old woman inside gave me some barley flour gruel and invited me to stay. As I stooped under the 4-foot high lintel I had no idea I was walking into another bizzare night.

Two grandsons played with goat bones on the floor and, looking around me, I noticed there were no electric appliances (which are usually common in gers). There was little of anything. It was the poorest home I’d visited in Mongolia. The dark, pregnant sky began to deliver and the mother and father arrived on horseback in the fading light. Both were deep in their cups. The husband fell off while dismounting and crawled into the tent where he promptly squatted on his haunches and fell asleep. He hadn’t even noticed the foreign stranger in his home. His wife wobbled in and nearly suffocated me with the stale, alcoholic potency of her heavy breath. She soon started trying to stroke my leg in the dim candle light. I moved away repeatedly, and increasingly less politely, incredulous that this was happening again. Evidently my two-weeks-unwashed allure was pungent.

Everytime she made an advance her sons and her mother shouted at her and dragged her back. Eventually she went too far and, catching me unaware, thrust her hand down my shorts. Her eldest son (11-years-old) launched himself at her and began beating her. The granny seized a cushion and started smoothering her. The distraught younger son (5-years-old) screamed and started manically thumping his struggling grandmother’s back. All this proved a little too much for me to remain calm. Losing self-restraint, I swept the smaller boy off the floor and bellowed at the rest of them. I can’t remember what I roared but it was in English and likely something pathetically British along the lines of: “Stop this madness! Have you no shame…”

Four surprised faces turned to me (the father slept on having keeled over during the fracas, retaining his squatting position before, like a claw unclenching, his limbs eased to the floor). They had stopped fighting and looked a little frightened. I sat down; the mood was tense and I didn’t know what to do now. Luckily my clumsiness cut the tension. I leaned too far back and my hair strayed into the candle’s flame. Weeks of accumulated oil and grease aided the short conflagration and it took two seconds of beating from granny with her cushion put it out before everyone laughed.

We all chose spots on the floor to sleep and I let the little boy curl up against me to act as a buffer against any further advances from his mother. I dozed for few short hours and was awake when cracks of dawn light became visible in the tent. I pulled on my shoes, picked up my rucksack and unpacked sleeping bag and crept silently out the door. When I stopped a few yards later to pack my sleeping bag I realised I’d left its case in the tent. I turned back at the same time as the door opened and the young boy appeared with a sheepish smile and holding the case. I thanked him and was on my way.

Ulaan Baatur: wet but done itIt drizzled miserably on the day I entered UB. I stopped briefly at the city gate for a quick photo before trudging the final few miles to the city centre. The traffic thickened and I was severally soaked by the spray from trucks crashing through puddles. My tattered shoes now both had large holes in their soles and my feet were soon numbed. I found my way to Sukhbaatar Square and took a couple of photos in front of a ludicrously fat statue of Genghis Khan. I had finished. Six weeks and over 900 miles ending in a sombre feeling of anti-climax. Nobody was their to greet me and nobody knew I was there. However, a warm glow of satisfaction now grew inside me as I walked away in search of a bed.

I take this opportunity to mention that this journey is not just for thrills, head fires and the purpose of being punched by jealous husbands. I am also walking/cycling to raise money for two very worthwhile charities: Future Hope and the RNLI. If you would like to make a donation please click on the relevant links. More about my two-year journey on my website.

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