The journey to Lake Hövsgöl left us completely exhausted. We spent 12 days and cycled 648 km riding at an average of 35 to 45 km per day, through trails of sand, mud, rocks, roots, crossing rivers carrying our stuff on the shoulders, fighting evil insects, dealing with an impending cold and in my particular case, having a terrible toothache that I will never ever forget. Reaching the 100 km stretch of asphalt that separate Hatgal village in the southern tip of the lake from the town of Mörön, felt almost like a fantasy. After so many rough days, we welcomed the asphalt with utter enthusiasm. We were filthy, tired and it was only 100 km left to find a shower and a bed to sleep. Asphalted roads always take the charm away from a place, but the surrounding landscape on the way to Mörön was still amazing. Dense forests gradually disappeared turning again into vast expanses of steppe, which in some areas already started turning from green to yellow in the first week of September already.
With a population of 38,000 and only a handful of paved roads, Mörön is a dusty city in western Mongolia. It has good supermarkets to restock, internet cafes, one decent restaurant and a simple and cozy guesthouse where to take a nice shower and lie in bed for a couple of days doing nothing. And that was just what we did to recover energies before setting off to a new lake, Terkhiin Tsagaan nuur (if you pronounce it properly right away I will send you a Mongolian sheep as a present)
The corridor of tracks that separates the city from the lake is about 300 km and it is a glorious return to the heart of the steppe. Unlike the previous stages, this stretch is remarkably more mountainous, much higher in altitude and therefore colder. It was not the sweet ride that used to be the first weeks anymore. The slopes were significantly steeper, the roads rockier and we had to get across at least three mountain passes per day up to 2300 meters high. Despite being harder, at least we had left behind the nightmare of constantly having to cross rivers. But the best of all was that the high altitude also brought the disappearance of the clouds of mosquitoes with it.
The extensions were again vast and they brought back that wonderful feeling that Mongolia is better enjoyed looking far ahead, where the minds finds rest on the smooth shapes, the harmony in colors and the ruggedness of the textures and those sweet long stretches of soft grass on which to ride without difficulty were back.
Visually intriguing scenarios that lead to unknown and apparently uninhabited lands.
But it only takes a sudden turn to find incredibly hidden fairy tale villages. Paths that lead to little houses with vibrant color roofs that in this vast green universe look like watercolor stains that stimulate the retina.
At a time when I found myself alone, I took a moment to visit the cabin of a family. A grandfather and his little grand daughter greeted me with joy and curiosity, while the grandmother served me the usual tea with a delicious melted cheese that tasted a bit like provolone but only a bit sweeter. We had been frequenting very few people in the days of the high steppe, so I was keen to engage with the nomads again and spend time with them. In any place of the world I visit, no landscape, no matter how spectacular it may be, means much to me if I am not experiencing the country through the human touch of the local people. They are the ones I look for in the midst of such a stunning visual treat. It is only through the local people that I learn about a country, that I better understand it and the ones who leave something rich inside me.
Several days passed by, they were not extreme but were harder than we had thought at first. Well into the second week of September (equivalent to the second week of March in the southern hemisphere) Mongolia gave us an introduction to its most inhospitable side. After the last pass before the lake, at 2350 m high, by 5 pm the temperature dropped to -4C and the way downhill was painful . By sunset when we had camped already, the weather kept getting worse at warp speed. By 9 pm a storm of wind and snow broke out and temperature plummeted to -15C. That's when my photographer's masochist side took me out of the tent one last time to take some pictures. I did not last more than a few minutes before running almost petrified back to the tent to bury myself deep in my sleeping bag .
The cold had finally come to stay and the days after, even during daytime we had to cycle with warm clothes. The next day we finally reached the amazing lake, once again via its most remote and least explored part. It was an exciting arrival because I did not expect it to be so beautiful.
Lake Terkhiin Tsagaan is not a round and uniform lake, but quite the opposite, it is rather a splash of intense deep blue paint splattered against a green carpet. There we said goodbye to Marek and we decided to stay in complete solitude camping on its banks.
The long descending sun gave me time enough to hike up to a couple of surrounding peaks and experience one of the most amazing sunsets of this trip so far. I saw the colors go from cold blue and green, to the warmth of a reddish orange that lit up the colors of the soil.
On that ridge, trying to stand the intense cold, I stayed to see how the stars took over the sky as an incipient waning moon fell on the horizon.
The night finally fell over us, the stars had already made clear who would reign that night and under them we slept in yet another frosty night. Unforgettable moments, folks. Phenomenological experiences that could never ever be erased from my retina.
After the lake we started the end of our journey through the steppe on the way to the Gobi Desert . Magic accompanied us to the very last minute, but unfortunately, an unexpected surprise wiped out the smiles from our faces in the blink of an eye. Our stove, that had long been struggling to work, due to the shitty Mongol fuel, collapsed and died on us at the very time when we would start needing it the most.
I hurt my hands trying to revive it to no avail, it was impossible, from that day on we would have to find a way to survive for the rest of our journey in the country without being able to cook. Now there would be a greater need to find nomads every day to get some help . The days preceding the desert were relatively easy. There were many gersalong the way and every night we found help. Either they would let us cook our food or they would cook for us, we never had any problems. Hospitality at its best.
The final days in the steppes consequently brought a profound coexistence with the local people. We needed them more than ever and they haven't failed us any single time, we could rely on them without feeling the impotence of not being self-sufficient. No one understands a nomad better than another nomad. The gers have no locks. Traditionally the door is deliberately left unlocked to allow any other nomad step in in case of need and find free shelter with food if needed in his/her way. Each nomad knows that tomorrow, he/she will also need the same hospitality in their own journey that's why they all do it.
Leaving Harhorin on the way to Hujirt, the green fertility slowly begins to give way to the arid yellow. It is only in a handful of kilometers where a beautiful transition from the gleaming green grass to the dry sand occurs. It is in this short transition where the last few gers, find their spot on the remaining patches of steppe
It is a land of horse tamers. It is common to find men coming and going riding with those long poles with which the tame even the wildest of the horses. Horses whose fame has given international prestige to Mongolia. From the time Genghis Khan used them as the primary mean to subjugate half of the planet until today, the Mongols are natural born riders. A Mongolian hops on a horse before learning how to walk, they ride them at wish, sitting on them or even standing on them, with or without saddle. Seeing it from a foreign perspective, the image is one of total fusion between man and horse. Rarely the horse has ever struck me as a beautiful animal, but here in Mongolia I have learned to appreciate its true beauty.
Horses are used for all the daily activities of the nomads. Herding cattle through pastures, moving around the steppe, using them as means of transportation to subdue other untamed horses, etc. Mares, in turn, are the source of the national drink, airag, a typical alcoholic drink of Central Asia made off the fermentation of their milk. As in Kyrgyzstan, where at each yurt I stopped, nomads would offer me Kymus, here they offered us the Mongolian counterpart, the airag. Rejecting it is not an option. It is rude and of extremely bad education to reject what a Mongolian nomad offers you. It's not an obligation to finish everything you are offered, but it is a must to accept it and at least try it. There were so many times we were invited airag that after a month, I began to enjoy the taste of this initially disgusting drink.
With the last sunsets in this land of amazing riders we began to say goodbye to the steppe and started the stretch that we imagined as the toughest of the whole country, crossing the Gobi desert.