The more I travel the more I understand that idyll doesn't come in one but multiple forms. As time passed by, I discovered that the beaches of turquoise crystal-clear waters are as idyllic as the snowed peaks of the mountain ranges or the infinite grasslands of the steppe. I learned that what changes is not beauty itself, which is always the common denominator of any idyllic place, but the effects that the phenomena produced by a certain type of beauty has on oneself. This basically makes that each idyllic place feels completely different than the others. In this aspect, the crossing of the Gobi desert revealed to my eyes a new form of idyll that I would have never imagined would be possible. Because the initial image that one has of a desert is that one of a desolate and inhospitable place, and it certainly is in many ways, however, the Gobi, of all the deserts that I have already ridden across, ended up being a dazzling surprise that I didn't expect.
From green to yellow
Most of the cycle travelers ride a section of the Gobi along the road that connects China with Ulaanbaatar. The road has already been asphalted (by Chinese contractors) almost in its entirety and due to its relevant nature, it is the most transited road of this desert. I did not find it very exciting really and since we didn't want to ride all the way back to horrible Ulaanbaatar, we decided to embark on a risky adventure: crossing more than 1200 km (745mi) of raw and inhospitable desert across a very remote region. It was risky not only for being sparsely populated and the very limited access to food and water, but because of our inability to cook due to our broken stove, our tent having one of the main broken in one point and badly fractured in another and the total lack of signs of any kind along the way. We really didn't know what to expect. It was the very first time in all the trip when having a GPS would be relatively useful and would determine the difference between being able to leave or not to leave the desert. Quite a beating lied ahead...
The Gobi is not generally what one can associate to the image of a desert. Most have even probably seen advertisements of it showing camels riding in line on top of golden dunes of sand, Sahara style. However, those dunes barely represent 3% of this vast and almost empty land and they are used for taking tourists like herds to probably leave them with a completely wrong image of what this immense desert really is. The Gobi is a massive and virtually infinite space covered by dry bushes, sand, rocks, dust and sometimes even some grass patches. It is everything but flat and there are very few times in which one is not either going up or down. The town of Hujirt marked the breaking point from where the vibrant green hues of the steppe get bleached and turn into a pale yellow. Large settlements disappear completely and even gers are not everywhere anymore but very few and very far in between spaces of complete lack of life.
They are also not found along the way but they are always seen far away in the distance. Our inability to cook forced us to cycle a lot of extra mileage every single day to make it to one of them to ask for help. The experience is tough but the reward is increasingly bigger. The hospitality and the joy we see on the faces of the people of the Gobi seem to become bigger and purer the more isolated the place. The affection with which we are welcomed is immeasurable. I don't feel they are surprised though, they are nomads and I suspect that they see us as nomads as well. They take care of us, they feed us, they open the doors into their lives and let us participate in them. We live priceless moments. They are the kind of moments of intimacy in a different culture around which all my traveling search revolves.
It took only one day to leave the first gers of the Gobi behind and therefore becoming to feel intimidated by the nothingness. Everything was left to our instinct. The tracks that we followed would become inconsistent, they would appear as fast as they would dissolved in the sand. The GPS helped a lot to avoid losing the right direction but one track that you would think it's taking you the right way could quickly turn to a completely different direction without you even noticing it. It's all so vast, so empty that no reference is truly reliable. It is so easy to lose the right tracks that at times I don't want to take my eyes off the GPS. And the sand......the goddamn sand that more and more often swamps the tracks. The bicycles sink in it and we have to get off and push, but their weight and the pressure you exert to push them out make them sink even worse and the effort necessary to take them out becomes much harder.
There are very few clouds in the sky and the blue is immaculate. It is the end of September and the shrill whistling of the wind breaks the silence and it is deafening. There is no one and nothing for dozens of miles that are increasingly harder to cycle. The solitude and the feeling of emptiness brings peace inside but anxiety as well.
They days go by and no vehicle comes our way, even on wide tracks. One or two gers appear here and there but they are always very far, they are a white little dot in the middle of an ocean of nowhere. Practically speaking, they are as real as a mirage. We are loaded with lots of water and disgusting cold food in cans which is the only thing we can eat in the days we cannot make it to a ger.
Windy days are unbearable. At times, it was excessively strong and even though we had the huge fortune of having head wind very few times, having it on the side was bad enough so that we had to pedal leaning against it as though letting the full weight of the bikes push against not to be thrown to the ground. Even riding inclined against it, we still wouldn't fall, such was the strength of the powerful Mongolian wind. The worst was that it would seem to adapt to fit our daily routine. That is, it would start blowing in the morning and would keep blowing for 6 to 8 hours continuously without stopping. We had to wear our jacket hoods and our polar hats because at times it was so much to take that after 4 hours it would start giving us severe headaches. The wind alone was like adding an extra physical effort to an exercise that was already being extremely strenuous.
Every once in a while we would come across herds of horses running in the wild, trotting in solitary in this vast endless space. It is one of the very first times that I was able to really appreciate their true animal beauty. Because of the wind, they get together in groups and sometimes the postures are so sweet that I can't help but feeling moved by them. In couples, they stand parallel to the wind's dominant direction, like holding, they rest their heads on the other's back as though waiting for the wind to stop and leaving them in peace. They protect each other. They make me stop and I swear I could stand there and look at them for hours without getting bored. They are in complete fusion with nature, they understand it, they are patient and they support themselves. Their hairs blow in the wind and they seem to stand there to absorb every bit of sun heat that the wind wants to steal from them. Watching them brings peace inside me and helps me deal better with my anger against the wind.
The strength of the nothingness is overpowering, it grips you. No matter the harshness of the road, the beauty has no measure. The aridity of the Gobi doesn't skimp on colors and it gives back a palette of yellows that mix with the red of the soil, the purples, the browns the greys.
The days begin to split equally between cycling and pushing incessantly along sandy tracks in the middle of nowhere taking you to the middle of nowhere in this vast space. Getting completely lost was also part of this journey and it wasn't easy at all to find the way back having moved 10 km in the wrong way and needing 16 km of pushing to find the right track across a geography that punishes those who make a mistake. Those are the times where you don't want to think what would happen if the battery and the compass broke.
We go slow but we get far. It got to a point where I realized that the beauty surpasses the hardship and finding a ger is the greatest gift after a long day. Experiencing the life of the nomads from the inside is fascinating. In the Gobi, the goats take the place of the cows in the steppe and at the end of the day they are tied up together in the most ingenious way, sort of weaving a rope around their heads. Nomads do this at a speed and with such ability that I find it hard to believe. When they finish, they are all perfectly lined up in a way that it allows women to milk them one by one.
The affection we receive from the people of the Gobi makes up for any difficulty that we had during the day. A man visibly in love with his little granddaughter and accompanied by his whole family invited us to camp next to their ger. He knows the wind brings cold during the cloudy days and not being aware of our sleeping bags he brought a pile of thick blankets made of sheep wool to keep us warm inside the tent during the night, but before that we had a treat drinking several bowls of the goat's milk that had just been milked.
Finding nomads is also a blessing because in case of not know what road to follow, they are the only ones and not the GPS who are truly able to help. Their sense of orientation is nothing short of mind-blowing, it left us speechless over and over. One is in the middle of nowhere, where tracks have no signs at all, there are no reference point of any kind (or at least not for the foreign eye), you look around 360 degrees and it all seems to be exactly identical. Following one direction seems exactly the same as following the opposite. However, when you tell a nomad the place you are intending to reach, he will look around him, extend his hand and with the conviction of a true expert will conclude: "that is where you have to go, that is your track" and the accuracy is so perfect as that of a satellite on earth, they never make a mistake. The GPS has lead us to the wrong way several times, a nomad never. It's incredible, but it's real.
A new animal joined the horses and the goats along our way. Mongolian camels are true camels, those who have two huge bumps instead of the one-bump dromedaries found in almost every other desert. These camels are pure muscle, they are covered by a thick fur and they are capable of drinking 200 liters of water at once. We found them running freely in various sections of the desert. They are generally shy and use to run away as soon as they see us coming, but at other times they would just tick around and observe us with the same curiosity that we observe them.
Days are long and we make use of every single minute of daylight, we ride until the very end of the day. It is then when the magic falls upon us. The colors of the sunset transform the desert, it makes it go from an Impressionist looking landscape to an almost Expressionist one, sometimes even bordering Surrealism.
The sun falls but its glow remains on the horizon, taking it up to 2 hours to fully disappear whilst millions of stars start populating the sky. It's a magical process, it's a time to just sit there and contemplate indefinitely. There are no words to describe it because the mind doesn't want to occupy itself in that silly process called thinking. The experience of feeling occupies everything. Beauty skips the mind and goes straight into the body.
By the time night finally sets in everything starts to vibrate inside oneself. The wind that whistled all day died with it and what occupies this vast empty space is the most absolute silence. I have never ever experienced such a powerful silence, so intrusive, a silence so tight that it makes the noise of the slightest of the steps unbearable, and the stridency of the toothbrush brushing against the teeth truly deafening. Looking up sublimates the soul, it is as though somebody had shaken a sack of flour and had spread it all over the sky giving shape to the very cosmos itself. The milky way is so thick that it becomes blurry, it's a giant arc that runs from one side of the horizon to the opposite one and one wants to go over it from beginning to end over and over again. It is such an infinite universe, so inspiring and incomprehensible at the same time.
To sleep means taking minutes off such memorable beauty but it's also impossible to describe the quality of it in this, the most perfect of all silences. In 35 years of life, I would have to struggle real hard to be able to remember, if this were actually possible at all, a time in my life in which I have been able to sleep so incredibly well as in the nights I spent in the Gobi.
After about a 1000 km of crossing the remote desert, the end of the magic comes quickly to an end. Coming out of the middle of nowhere on a sandy track, we finally reached as if by magic the asphalted road that would take us to the Chinese border. We still had 200 km along this incredibly boring road, which was busier and certainly much less attractive. It still is the Gobi desert of course, but it was never the same again, beauty wasn't as intense as it had been the previous days anymore and the closer we got to China the horizon of those previously immaculate skies became more and more grey and polluted.
We got to the border very exhausted and poorly fed. We had been surviving on disgusting canned fish, old bread and pig's liver pate sausage that we used as spread for it. Julie suffered of very unusual migraines all the way whose origin we can't figure out and at times they made her life miserable, but once again, she showed that she's a tough nut to crack and kept going (not that we had much more of a choice anyway). On the other hand, I never cease to prove to myself that the most extreme journeys leave the greatest gifts in our souls, and as the motto that drives my life says, they give us the satisfaction of proving to ourselves that there's more in each of us than we know. They leave the taste of having lived through truly unique moments where one has the place completely for oneself and where the strength of body and are both put to test. After such an overdose of beauty in th days of the steppe, I reached the gate to the Gobi with certain skepticism, believing that the journey that lied ahead of us would be closer to torture than to anything else. 1200 km later, I left feeling that the sensations result of the effects produced by the beauty of this kind of idyll were even more powerful than those of the steppe I had had the month before. I was so surprised by this that it took me quite a while to really comprehend it.
After 55 days, 3300km and 4 showers we finally left Mongolia, smelling more like sheep than humans. We had dust and sand up to the very last orifice of our bodies. On the way out the border, we masterfully mocked the evil mafia that runs on both sides of the border. We were lucky enough to run into some German overlanders traveling by truck who were happy to drive us for those damn 200 meters of no man's land where it is forbidden to walk or cycle. Once again, we were back home, with a desperate need to eat well, in quantity and quality. We still had 750 km left to reach Beijing but once back in China, everything would be easy once again.