25-Jun-2023 -- The predawn sky yellowed as I loaded my bike. I'd camped overnight in a hilltop clearing at 47°19′11′′ N 101°53′55′′ E. I came across it after venturing up an eerie, overgrown trail, seeking seclusion. No ger or motorcycle-herder was in view, not a yak, not a goat. As if I had passed through a portal to an empty world without noticing. In the morning, bike loaded, I plunged downhill through a meadow wet with overnight dew, panniers clattering. There was a set of overlapping dirt tracks that cut up to the ridgeline, the sort scribbled by cars throughout these valleys. Pausing on the crest, I walked around a large ovoo three times clockwise, tossing new rocks onto the pile. While this may have kept me safe on my journey, I am disappointed to report that it did not ensure a successful confluence visit.
But I didn't know that yet. A bucolic few hours followed. Stony hillsides in shifting patterns, herds doubled in shadow, gers dotting the landscape like pieces of fluffy cloud fallen to earth. I drank from the paragon of a creek, its water was so clear and cold. Later, bent against a headwind as I crossed a valley floor, a woman invited me into her ger – insisted, actually – calling and waving at me fifty metres from the side of the track. She pinned her dog to the ground by placing her foot to his head so I could approach without being mauled. Inside the tent, the ger framework and furniture was painted orange, and there was the usual layout: a stove and chimney in the centre, matching beds on either side, altar at the back. The husband and son were bundled in the right-hand bed. The left bed was for guests. I sat there and looked around. A small CRT television was on the floor, a collection of buckets and tools near the entrance. The man grunted, turned away. The boy sat up and stared, alert as a marmot where he was nestled between his dad and the wall.
The woman entered and closed the bright-orange wooden door. From one of the buckets she ladled me a bowl of yak yoghurt and watched as I ate. It was identical in taste and texture to Greek yoghurt. I topped it with a dash of sugar and a handful of grape-sized brown balls that I later determined was aaruul (curds dried on the roof of the ger). They were shockingly hard. As I gnawed away, the grittiness seemed to be fragments of my own teeth. After that, I rummaged in my pannier and offered her a pack of sesame-peanut bars from an Asian grocer in Australia. This made her very happy. She shook her husband on the shoulder to show him, feeding him and her son one each and then herself. She had such energy. I showed her a map of where I planned to go. She offered me the guest bed, but I turned it down. It was too early to stop. I farewelled them and trundled on across the windy steppe.
After hike-biking two more ridges, I stopped to eat lunch at a former palace. Destroyed in Soviet times, nothing remained now but the outermost wall mounds embedded here and there with remnant brickwork, enclosing a space the size of a football field. But sitting atop the highest mound, its strategic value was clear, being in the centre of a vast plain. I could see the ger resorts across the river, which I think was where the previous confluence visitor to this area had stayed. The sun was warm. An eagle drifted low over the ground.
I was now just five kilometres from the confluence point, which is located on a forested hillside. As I started southwest, picturing my first confluence visit in my mind, dark clouds rolled in. You could set your watch to the afternoon storms in this province. The thunder became almost continuous. It was difficult to determine, but I thought the worst of the storm was moving away from me. A few minutes later, the winds became so strong that I wondered if I had made a serious mistake not to seek shelter. I considered knocking on the door of a nearby ger to ask if I could wait out the storm. My fear of social imposition won out, though. And these storms were usually short and sharp. Push on, I said to myself. So I pushed along the little-used track, mud caking the tyres and chain, making incremental progress.
I made it to the base of the hill. To reach the point from here I needed to ascend on foot. So far I was wet but not soaked. I was only in a t-shirt. No rain gear. In hindsight, the best decision at this point would have been to acknowledge that the storm was far from over, and to put up my tent right there and then. But the confluence point was right there! Just pop up the hill, take a few photos – then I could work out the campsite situation. That was as far as my thinking went.
Heave-ho, I pulled my loaded bike into the forest edge until the ground was too steep to continue. I began clambering over fallen logs and across springy ground, the rotted fall of countless autumns. My shoes and pants were immediately soaked. The slope became steeper still. How far had the previous person climbed? I couldn't recall. My hands were numb. My heart pounded. I reached a clearing at 47°00′21′′ N 101°59′57′′ E. Elevation 1995 m. The bike was at 1850 m. The point was still hundreds of lateral metres away. I wasn't sure what elevation it was, or how many minutes it would take. Drenched, and worried that the storm could worsen or that I'd snap an ankle, I reluctantly called it quits and turned around. As I descended, the sky kept on dumping water. Hillsides became shrouded in grey. Seeing no other option, I crossed the boggy ground to an empty stable on the opposite slope, finding access through a back door. Its log roof dripped heavily, but it was an improvement.
Hugging myself warm, glaring at the hill before me, I thought: now what? I couldn't stand around shivering indefinitely. So I pitched my tent on the soft mat of a million goat pellets – old enough that I didn't smell anything, truly. I changed into dry clothes. Massaged life back into my toes. Cooked dinner. The storm had abated now. Had it started an hour earlier or later, I would have been calmer and drier during the climb, and reached the confluence without difficulty. I contemplated whether to try again. But I suddenly realised that if I did the remaining 85 kilometres to Tsetserleg in one long ride, I could reach a guesthouse for a hot shower and comfy bed the very next night. Lying on goat shit, this cheered me.
I set off the next morning at 5 am without even a backward glance and reached town by mid-afternoon, dazed from the effort. Scoffing a late lunch outside the guesthouse, I was told that a storm the previous day had taken out power across the region. Perhaps the same storm system I had been caught in. Generators thrummed all over town, servicing essential needs. Strangely, the showers needed electricity to function, and they weren't considered a priority. I cleaned off the day's slog with a bucket of cold water. Three more days I spent without power, reading in bed, writing my diary, shopping for groceries with a head-torch. Then I caught the six-hour bus back to Ulaanbaatar, where I finally had a shower – and thanks to 48°N 107°E, went on a second, more successful confluence hunt.