it started with a chinese man feeling my penis and ended with a search for drugs through my luggage. in between there was illness, near-hypothermia, food poisoning, a few punches to the face and a death threat, zero romance and a whole lotta pain. what did i take from all this? that i am a navy f*cking seal when it comes to dealing with the blows (my strange) life can land and, also, that i am not alone on this voyage, as i had for so long speculated – i belong to a tribe, and they are out there. i just had to go to one of the most inhospitable places on earth to find them…
flew from Singapore to Beijing, and China Airlines you suck, your food sucks, your seats suck, your uniforms suck and there wasn’t even a nice pair of calves to let the weary traveler’s eye linger on. what did feminism achieve, if standards like these are dropping with such abandon? eh? tut tut.
beijing airport. not sure if it is going through renovations or if it is in the running for the most inane floor plan in the history of public spaces award.
just. makes. no. sense. that is an architect that needs some cultural revolutionising.
compound that with the smallest book store ever seen in an international airport and then magnify that by factoring in that airport staff the world over are generally by nature at the very least borderline sociopathic and unable to empathise with other human beings but that the staff in beijing airport are chinese on top of that and you have an environment in which ‘the passenger’ feels more like ‘the beef’ – a bolt gun to the head is expected at any moment and would almost be welcomed.
i swear, the capacity for language disappears at beijing airport. instead, passengers bleat and mew, defecating little pellets on the carpet with fearful abandon.
prodded, pushed and pissed on.
the toilet attendant shouted at me for using two tissues to dry my hands, gesturing frantically with the top of his mop to a sign above the sink that said ‘preserve nature, use less paper’. it was one of those moments that i wished my chinese was fluent, because by the end of my tirade about china’s contribution to preserving nature and what little effect my using one sheet instead of two would have in the great scheme of things he’d have needed a 100% increase in paper to deal with the 100% increase in holes in his ass.
as it was, my protest was much more feeble – i grabbed another piece of paper, pointedly scrunched it up, and tossed it straight in the bin. that showed him.
then it was onto customs as i transferred through to the Mongolian flight. ugh. i won’t even mention the queue for the passport check, suffice to say that people turn into beasts to save themselves two minutes waiting in on place so they can hurry up to wait in another. if you want to see humanity at its most base forget warzones and even political rallies, go to any customs queue to get your fill.
or Costco on a weekend, where grandmothers will suckerpunch other people’s babies for an inch of sausage on a stick.
through the beeper thing, of course it goes off, then a woman does the sweep thing, then she feels around my pockets and brushes past my old boy. she signals to her male colleague to come over and he repeats the whole sweepy thing, then the pockets thing, and again brushes my penis. however, he’s not satisfied with a drive-by – he wants a full on squeeze. by the third fondle i’m more than a little perturbed and though i can forgive him as he is wearing rather thick white gloves and it might feel like a grenade launcher’s been stuffed artfully down my Marks & Sparks y-fronts, this is getting a little out of hand, if you’ll excuse the pun.
when he looks up at me (yes, he is on his knees by this point, and he hasn’t even gotten me tipsy, the cad) and raises his eyebrows i look back and say, very definitely:
‘yes, that is my cock,’
letting that last ‘ck’ loiter in the air like a headbutt. not sure if his english was that good but he seemed to know what ‘cock’ meant. he blushed. thankfully, i did not.
finally i was in Ulan Bataar, or UB as it’s known locally. elation rushed through me. this was the culmination of a 27-year old dream. i’d watched a documentary on Ghengis Kahn at 14 that had left me enamored not so much with the history of the man but the land in which he lived. the wide open expanses of gentle green called out to me in a way that no other landscape ever had or has since. it looked like freedom. no walls, no fences, no boundaries, no limits. it was a concept, a way of living, made tangible. there in this wild country called Mongolia, i felt, was a space into which i could disappear.
i knew i had to go.
and there i was.
it was grey, cold, miserable and wet, the road was bad, rammed with traffic, wastelands of gutted or incomplete (it was hard to tell the difference) shells of buildings littered the eyeline, pavements looked like they’d recently been bombed, people by the road looked numb and pinched and hard and tough and i loved every second of it. in the distance, bleak and unforgiving, lay hills and peaks, glimpses of the hinterland. their tracks were already calling out to me.
‘come,’ they said. ‘we’ve been waiting.’
i spent the first day walking around the city, struck by the Russianness of the place, clambering over half-finished sidewalks and ditches, jumping over puddles of mud and dodging splashes from passing cars and trying to get a bead on the town. but it wasn’t possible, not for the whole time i was there. i love exploring cities and i’ve been to countless, and always i can quickly get my bearings and get a sense of the place pretty quickly – but not UB.
this is a frontier town. it exists on an edge, literally, metaphorically and even philosophically. comforts are few and expensive and the overall feel of the city is one of hardness. i found that Mongolian people are not too quick to throw out smiles, not that they are unfriendly, but there is a sense that there are far more pressing things to be concerned with than civil niceties. like surviving. like getting through. like not being dead. with nature at its most extreme never very far away at all the grip on life is one you better be sure of. there can be no wavering here, and even if the populace of UB live amongst the apartments and the shiny facades of hotels and new shopping malls, it is not much other than a pretense. just a few short kilometers away from the shabby downtown area there are the ger areas, where the poor (the normal?) live still in traditional housing, jammed up close together on hillsides overlooking the city on mud streets that overflow with the refuse the inhabitants produce.
the roads on the outskirts feature manholes with no covers, though some are crudely cemented over, others bear evidence of tampering, with the hole half-gaping and the busted lid nearby. i asked a Mongolian guy why this was. ‘when it is really cold, people go down there to keep warm, in the night. there can be sometimes 5,000 people in one area, down there in the sewers. when the sun comes up, they come up.’
as i said, this is one tough town.
i got the bike fixed up next day, went out in 14 degree rain and wind for three hours, couldn’t find a decent trail and promptly came down with a cold that quickly developed into a 48-hour bout of ‘flu. two days in bed was not what i needed after weeks of disrupted training, but it wouldn’t have made much difference as the weather deteriorated outside the fogged-up window of my room. this weather, they said, was ‘unusually bad.’
by wednesday afternoon, 3 days before the race was to start, i felt better and the weather was spectacular so i suited up and headed out. three hours into what was shaping up to be the best ride of my life, i flatted on a mountain. or rather, i ‘holed’. the rent in the tire was unfixable, so i trekked a good 7km down a mountain through a small hamlet where curious, weather-kissed faces with beautiful eyes peeked out at me through gaps in fences or from behind dented aluminum doorways, and down to a road.
i’d been standing there for no more than 5 minutes with my thumb out when a small flat-back truck pulled up. out of it emerged a massive Mongolian fella, who picked up my bike without saying a word and deposited it in the back, then gestured for me to get in besides the driver, another well proportioned local with hands like shovels. there’s me stuck in between them in lycra, suddenly overly-conscious of my skinny and rather hairless legs.
‘we are miners,’ says the guy on my right. ‘you?’ he asks.
‘i’m a miner too,’ i almost said. but didn’t.
‘cyclist,’ i said.
‘good! Mongolia is beautiful?’
‘man, you said it. incredible.’
‘good! very good!’
he then produced an ancient plastic 2-litre coke bottle from behind the seat that was half-full with what looked like milk. i suspected it was something a little more than that though. and it was. fermented yak milk. warm and sour. and when i say sour, i mean like battery acid. it’s the single worst-tasting liquid i have ever imbibed. and i must have had 7 swigs of the stuff, each swig followed by huge ringing cheers and ever-more forceful slaps on the back, which i returned as my hosts accompanied me in the drinking.
not sure if i was drunk after that or just high on the thrill of feeling so god damn alive, there in Mongolia in a truck with two random guys and having a ball. heck it was fun – near-vomit inducing, sure, but a whole lot of fun…
part 2 to follow soon, stay tuned