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Episode 12: Night at the Brick Factory | Mongolia

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Morning slowly returns over our improvised camping space. We smuggle our way out of our sleeping bags and find our neighbors already up and running. They had almost finished packing up their tents, the organizers had already loaded the chairs, the pavilion, the kitchen and were ready to set off.

With the rising sun motivating us, we get up and start packing up quickly as it was already starting to get hotter and hotter and we all know that there’s nothing worse than starting your day sweating while you try to fold back the tents. We say our goodbyes, exchange contact details and start heading West, towards Bucharest, a mere 6500 kilometers away. We didn’t have a plan in mind for where we would spend the next night. We were on a “ride on as long as we can” sort of mentality.

Fortunately, the wonderful landscape from yesterday, carried on throughout the day. Plains as far as the eye can see, with some mountains in the far horizon. On the ground, your everyday washboard with some dirt here and there and the occasional sand.

By the way, after the experience in the Gobi Desert, those little patches of sand covering the road are yesterday’s news to me. Trying to understand why the sudden lack of anxiousness towards them, I figured out that I’ve created a successful routine of managing them – when a sand strip was coming in view – they were around 15-20m long – if I could see the end of it, I would be more confident in crossing it. I would accelerate a little bit, keep my eyes up towards the end of this strip and it was smooth sailing. Unlike these friendly sand strips, the ones in Gobi were so much longer and my lack of experience on crossing these sorts of terrains had turned the whole experience gruesomely painful.

Coming back to our story, the road was amazing… sometimes we would travel side by side on different tracks, other times we would separate so none of us had to endure the dust that was rising as we went along, it was really nice. This was exactly what I was picturing the roads to be in Mongolia :)

The first break of the day finds us in a village, on almost empty tanks. We found there a store which was strangely enough, really well stocked – they had from your regular grocery stuff, to all sorts of candies, some tools, shovels – a wide array of items.

While we hung out there for a Fanta and a Snickers, around 10 kids on horseback gathered around. They must have been out practicing – the Nadaam festival was just a few days away. We snap a few pictures, talk for a bit and then head back out again – as the saying goes “hit the road, Jack”. On a side note, I believe this place was one – if not the only one – of the gas stations in Mongolia where we found 80 octane petrol and not the regular 92 we were used to everywhere else in Mongolia.

A piece of advice that I was given at Oasis by a well-travelled fellow: if we had a choice between 92 octane and 95, always pick 92. Being cheaper, the lower octane fuel was fresher as everyone used it around here. The 95 was rarely used and was sitting for a longer time in the gas station’s tanks.

After a little while we reach some newly-poured tarmac which we gladly enjoyed for the next 250 km. To be honest this type of long, paved road is hard to find in Mongolia, and, as usual it was not marked, but impeccable. It took us as far as the edge of Lake Khyargas. And, as always, the perfect tarmac road ended rather abruptly, in such a familiar Mongolian fashion.

The next 200km were purely off-road, heading mainly South. Don’t imagine though that our route South was straight. At some point we were all over the place going in all directions. We would see, from time to time, that we were going further and further away from the track on the GPS and what looked like a right path would end in a yurt or would just simply vanish or, even worse, it would be cut over by huge ravines formed during the rainy season.

And when I say ravine, I really mean big gaping ditches, around 1 or 2m wide and just as deep. The only way through was to find a path around them. Looking back, the most dangerous things I found on my journey were these ravines along with boulders that would be as small as tennis balls and as big as football balls. You have to keep your eyes peered for these boulders on the road and then also look in the distance for any oncoming ravines or sand patches in order to be able to find the best way around them.

Another small side note: these boulders along with vodka glass bottles (both broken or whole) are really common in Mongolia. Smooth riding across wide plains was something foreign to us. Here, you had to be on alert the whole time you were riding because of the traps that nature laid ahead (boulders, ravines, sand, ditches and steep hills) but also because of what other people left behind (bottles, shards etc). No place for day-dreaming.

Slowly but surely, we made our way out of this mountain area and moved on to an area that was much more barren. There were no more mountains in the horizon to guide us and the nature around us was almost desert-like. And the cherry on top of the cake: some really big, black clouds were making their way towards us. At some point, while the lighting was striking heavily in the distance and was coming towards us I think to myself: “Oh man, we are riding hundreds of kilos metal in freaking nowhere...”

Through an act of God, the road took a sharp left and we managed to navigate right between the storm clouds. We were barely sprayed with a few drops that the wind carried our way.

30km from Bayankhoshuu, the sun had already started to go down, the threatening clouds were now on our right side and it seemed like we managed to get around them completely. Only the blowing wind continued to keep us aware of the wrath we managed to avoid through sheer luck.

The last fraction of the road before getting into Bayankhoshuu was made from some sort of finely crushed rock. And it was definitely not laid down compacted on the road, but it was loose or would be completely missing. One thing was clear – despite the different terrains we had been on, this was the “highest” washboard we came across. I couldn’t find any “safe” speed to ride in. And by “safe” I mean that no matter the road, if you were doing 80km/h you would find the vibrations were kept to a minimum. However, you need to be pretty sure about the road ahead when doing that speed since even one small pothole or any sort of obstacle would be really hard to avoid.

We rode at this “comfortable” 80-ish km/h speed when returning from Bayandalai. The difference at the time was we came on the same road one day earlier so we knew where all the hidden traps laid. On the other side, the bike was rattling like crazy and, the chain was jingling like mad sort of asking me in a painful tone to tight it up. But my thought was only with the panniers that had already taken some serious tumbles in this trip.

However, 30km later we reach the asphalt at the edge of the village and use our award-winning recipe of going towards the village center. Guess what – the city center was completely deserted. We eventually find a parked white van with a lady around 30 in the passenger seat, carrying a small baby. We ask for some recommendations for lodging and she assures us that we won’t find any here as most travelling riders would prefer to overnight in Bayandalai rather than here.

Doubtfully, we ask for the general store as we were sure we would still find something here. And if there was really nowhere to sleep here, we would just put up our tents and that’s that. The only issue we had about spending the night in a tent was that the black clouds in the distance really didn’t want to die down. It was like they stalked us to see what our next move was.

At the store, we’re told the same story: no place for us to sleep at. While we were outside thinking our options out, the white van stops b. The husband steps out and makes us an offer we can’t refuse: sleepover at their place – they were visiting the missus’s father and had a spare room. Without even thinking about it twice, we get back up on our bikes and follow them. We exit the village and head… somewhere – mostly back towards the black clouds. We keep riding, and after around 10km we see in the distance some sort of factory with a lot of small buildings around it. As we got closer, our fears grew bit by bit. If it were not for the lady with the kid in the car keeping us a bit at ease, we would have flown out of there instantly. It really looked that bad.

We pass this huge building which we later found out to be the “oven” for the brick manufacturing process, but the situation really looked dire… Some people dressed in camo, hiding their faces under what looked like ski masks were wondering around the open space between the factory and some containers and bungalows. We reach this open space and obviously, everybody stopped what they were doing and came towards us.

We meet the missus’s father, who was the one managing the whole thing and who had a strong smell of alcohol about him and he tells us that we can stay overnight with them. Without further ado, one of the masked men opens the door of one of the bungalows and tells us that this is where we would sleep, whereas the bikes would be stored in one of the metallic containers.

The insides of the bungalow were absolutely disastrous. Some really rusty bed frames were scattered around the room, composed basically of the frame and some longitudinal coils to sleep on. When we turned around in bed during the night because of the coils, it would take a long time for the bed to settle down and stop bouncing. On the floor there was this wax cloth that sort of wanted to imitate linoleum and the walls were striped by water traces from when it was leaking through the roof. The whole image of misery was completed by a few pieces of electrical wire that dangled from the ceiling.

We take to counsel for a quick minute and, in the end, decide to stay. It was already almost dark outside, and the storm had almost reached us by now. Also, our mind was put at ease a bit more by the reaction that the boss man had when he saw his daughter with his 2 grandchildren – the small one she was carrying in her arms earlier and another one around 5 years old. The older one jumped right into his arms. This made us perceive him not as threatening, but rather as a warm grandfather figure. We take out our sleeping bags, setup our stuff in the room and change.

In the next following 5 minutes, whatever anxiousness we had left went down the drain as the husband came in and says that the boss man asks if we want to join him for a beer. “Bless you my man” were the only thoughts rolling through my mind. We get 2 cold beers and one of the masked guys brings us this little anti-mosquito coil that he lights up. We let it burn in the room, but we still use our anti-mosquito spray- Autan- on every piece of uncovered skin.

This circumstance also unveiled to us why these people were wearing masks – to protect against the mosquitos which were abundant in this area and were really vicious. We lend them our spray and the masks come off and some shiny happy faces pop out from under them. Total change of scenery.

Shortly after, we were called for dinner and let me say it was in really due time. Adi goes ahead towards the end of the bungalow row and enters through a door. I was a bit behind and didn’t manage to see exactly what door he went through. I take my chances and choose the door that seemed to be for a big space, fitting for a dinner space for all these people. I find everyone sitting at the tables, waiting eagerly for the cook to bring the food. I see our new friends and head towards them, sort of guided by the familiar Autan mosquito spray they used and sit next to them. They open the floor to already usual questions for me – where we are coming from, which ways we took and so on. All of them accompanied with large gestures, laughter and of course, mimicking.

After around 2 or 3 minutes, the cook comes into the hall and starts picking on me. I don’t make a lot of the situation except that I’m now standing instead of sitting and the men around me started laughing. I follow her out of the dining hall, we take a left towards the last bungalow. Apparently this was the VIP Lounge! At a round wooden table, in a Chinese style with the round elevated and rotating “shelf” in the middle of it. Here, the boss, Adi, the lady’s husband with the small child and another kid around 17 years old chatted around the table. Around the room were a few other decorative elements that sort of didn’t tie into the whole story design wise – 2 comfortable armchairs, a wooden bookshelf and some traditional guitars.

We all settle in at the table and we start the storytelling all over again. The missus told us that this is a brick factory and that, in fact, the camo guys outside are indeed soldiers. Weirdly enough, the boss man had no connection to the army, however we didn’t push on finding out the behind-the-scenes details of this whole operation :)

After some time, the children go to bed and we head to our sleeping place congratulating ourselves on taking a chance and staying overnight here.

This factory was by far the worse sleeping arrangement we had in our lives: the rusty beds, a whole lot of filth, the window didn’t really close, and neither did the door, the lighting bulb was hanging there on what looked like the improvised job of the year.

On the other hand, the type of people that pick you up off the streets and show you kindness by sharing their little – a bottle of water, a beer, a watermelon – these are the people that stick with you.

Most definitely this experience and the road from misery to glory is not something I’ll soon be forgetting. I believe that something, somewhere inside me changed for the better in that old factory, in the forgotten bungalow, on those coil springs.

In the next episode, we’ll be reaching Ulgii. The journey to it will be an interesting one filled with ditches stories and “lost and found” baggage.

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