A flash flood of hailstones
I woke up with an icepick headache. It felt like an alcoholic horse had pissed in my mouth. I lay in my sleeping bag trying not to retch, struggling to remember exactly what Laura’s breasts looked like, when there was a familiar noise. It sounded like me and Tama … pedalling our bikes?
I stuck my head out the tent. A pair of cyclists kitted out in full battle spandex and aerodynamic sunglasses and riding matching racing bikes, expensive ones, had just crossed the little bridge and were cranking past us up the hill. A couple more followed, all headed west. I ran towards the road in my underwear, laughing and waving. The lead rider, a sleek, freshly shaven dude in his early forties, waved at me and pulled over. The cyclist on his tail—a middle-aged woman, tanned and stringy—gritted her teeth and rode on. The guy’s shirt said ‘Avanti’.
‘Hello,’ he said, ‘we are ciclisti, from Italia. Where are you from?’
‘Mörön Khövsg—uh, New Zealand!’
‘Nuova Zelanda—in Australia!’ he declared with authority. ‘You ’ave many sheeps, but no people, yes?’
‘No, well, sure.’
A peloton of eight riders came round the hill and whizzed over the bridge. I waved and gave the riders a big thumbs-up, grinning with all my teeth.
‘Nice bikes!’ I said to the ciclista.
‘I know,’ he replied.
‘How far are you going?’
‘We start in Ulaanbaatar, five days ago. We ride to Mörön tomorrow, then easy day to Khatgal and the lago. We ride one ’undred twenty chilometri per day. I am, how you call, pace man,’ he nodded in appreciation of his own talent.
‘Sweet,’ said Tama, pulling a dirty T-shirt on as he walked over. ‘Where’s all your luggage?’
‘We ’ave autobus for that,’ he said. Moments later a couple of grey Russian Furgon mini-vans came slowly round the corner. ‘Our guide, they driving ahead and make us lunch, at night they set up the, the …’ he pointed to our tent, ‘the tende.’
‘We carry all our gear ourselves,’ Tama said. ‘In panniers. On our mountain bikes.’
‘Really?’ he looked at us incredulously. ‘And ’ow far does your trio ride?’
‘About 100 kilometres a day,’ I said.
‘Or more,’ Tama said.
‘On those?’ He looked suspiciously at our bikes. ‘That must be … please excuse me, I must to catch up with the peloton. You see, I set the pace—they need me! Ciao!’
He biked off extremely quickly, grunting in a too-high gear. The Furgons and their bored drivers rumbled past and overtook him. Back at our tent, the third moron was sitting in the vestibule, wearing his new blue sunglasses and playing with an ockie strap.
Tama went to wash in the river, which never got above shin-deep. I didn’t. I told Tama I was scared of Mongolian water snakes, which was partly true, but being in the Mongolian wilderness was the best excuse I’d ever had for not washing. So I sat in the sun with the kid and put on my matching sunnies. I rubbed a new layer of sunscreen over my dirt-caked skin and with the cooking knife cut the end off one of my socks so I could wear it high on my right calf to prevent further sunburn. The kid watched me with undiluted wonder, then took off his shoe and sock, grabbed my knife and started cutting the end off his own sock. I stopped him and tried unsuccessfully to explain about my melanin-poor skin, how this brand of skin was useless south of London, or Khatgal. He just looked at me with sad eyes.
We biked off across the bridge east towards Khutag-Öndör and found ourselves on a dusty, featureless plain. The sun was raw and fierce; my salmon-coloured right leg was grateful for the extra sock. We approached a blue metallic road map atop tall grey pole. It was eighty kilometres north to Teshig and 210 kilometres west to Mörön Khövsgöl. We had just completed a nine-day semicircle, a big wonky horseshoe arc in the wilderness. We could’ve been here a week ago if we’d ridden on the main road instead of detouring to Khatgal, but then we wouldn’t’ve been able to get lost in that swamp.
In the distance was a speck on the road. As we got closer we could make out a motorcycle with sidecar and flat tyre. An elderly woman sat in the sidecar in her best deel, looking grim. There were no gers or houses around—just the road, stretching dusty and brown to both horizons. She looked listlessly at our bikes; we looked uselessly at her puncture. Tama fished out the cigarette stash and decided to give her a whole packet. She accepted with a subdued bayash laa and lit one up. Five k’s down the road we passed a hunched old man who was trudging towards Khutag-Öndör in a now dusty suit.
When we reached Khutag-Öndör it was Naadam—again. We headed straight for the huushuur quarter, ordered fourteen and ate nine on the spot. The huushuur vendor sat with us. He looked different to most of the Mongols we’d met; he could’ve played a Red Indian in a sloppily cast Cowboy movie. No one else really talked to him, and he didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the Naadam celebrations.
We got a few funny looks from people walking past. I thought it was because we were so dirty and greedy, plus I stank. Then a drunk cowboy came panting and muttering towards us and pointed angrily at Tama’s Mongolian flag, which was lashed to his pannier bags and lying sideways in the dust. The vendor helped Tama stand his bike up, and while Tama apologised in English, he apologised in Mongolian. The cowboy demanded to have a ride of Tama’s bike. Tama refused, politely, I thought.
The cowboy spat in the dust and reeled off, shaking his head and repeating, ‘Julchiin … julchiin …’
‘Julchiin?’ Tama said quizzically to the vendor.
‘Ah … tourista,’ he replied with a sad smile.
We thanked the man for the food. Tama took his picture before shaking his hand and wheeling his bike away.
‘He seemed like an odd man out,’ Tama said. ‘He was nice, but people didn’t seem to like him.’
I just nodded. The guy reminded me of photos of Tama from early high school, just after his parents divorced: hopeful, haunted eyes.
Tama wanted to call Ami again. I stalked off down a dusty street to get supplies, a bit annoyed. Did he have to call her every single time we saw a damn phone tower? Why couldn’t he just … be, in the moment? Or keep a diary? It made me feel like I should call Laura, but I didn’t want to call Laura. I wanted him to not call Ami all the time. We were meant to be in the middle of nowhere.
I found a store crammed with nomads, in from the country and plastered already, loading up on cheap vodka for the festivities to come. When I asked for Chinggis Gold vodka a murmur went through the store—it was the fancy stuff, eight dollars instead of five. The shop also sold ice-creams in a cone, a delicious shock since refrigeration hadn’t really caught on in rural Mongolia. I wandered back with a couple of double-scoop strawberry ice-creams. Tama was down a side street leaning against a fence, still on the phone. I stood around and tried not to watch as Tama’s ice-cream melted in its cone. A plastic bag blew down the alley and tangled itself in my pannier bags. I kicked it loose and the wind carried it away.
Tama put down his phone. ‘Mongolian tumbleweed,’ he deadpanned.
‘How is she?’ I asked.
‘What’s going on in Ramcouver?’
‘Oi, it’s not Ramcouver until I arrive. She’s in bed. Tomorrow morning she’s got meetings with clients from Seattle.’
‘It doesn’t seem real,’ Tama said, sounding slightly confused. ‘All that … meetings and stuff. Crazy.’
‘Totally man, I don’t wanna think about it. I’m just trying to … be, in this. Y’know?’
‘If you say so.’
We rode out of Khutag-Öndör up a wide brown scar of a road. Heaps of jeeps rolled down past us, on their way to Naadam. We weaved on and off the grassy verge. It was bursting with Mongolian phosphorescence. Tama had his map-eye on a thin red line heading up a valley to the northeast. This would lead us in a wonky 100-kilometre horseshoe through to Selenge, ‘the breadbasket of Mongolia’, hopefully via some more of that sweet Khövsgöl-esque wildflower meadow and taiga forest. From there it was two days east to Amarbayasgalant Khiid (say that three times quickly), Mongolia’s largest surviving Buddhist monastery, where we could say some final prayers then züün east at top speed into the Khaan Khentii wasteland, never to be seen again.
We spotted a thin goat track winding off to the left across a steep hillside. It seemed like the way to Selenge and we took it. A couple of valleys over we came upon a tiny patch of beech trees, thriving incongruously on an otherwise parched and bleak hillside. After yesterday’s battering by the sun we were keen to sit out the worst heat of the day. I wrote in my diary:
Monday, 17 or 18 July. Seventh day straight riding. Exhausted, elated. Tama off for his daily poo. Jealousy.
Half an hour later we rode up an obscure valley. It was roasting hot in the sun and I was thankful when the tree cover began. The country was was stony and dry; we could have been in southern Europe, sunstroke in Sicily. The gradient increased. My right knee creaked in complaint and sweat soaked through my shirt. After an hour Tama stopped and spread Vaseline on his inner thighs to lessen the chafing. At the top of the valley an hour later we were greeted by the first ovoo in days: welcome (back) to taiga country. Tall dark conifers stretched for the sun, alone or in clumps, and the brown tyre tracks we were following unrolled over endless wrinkles and ruffles of bright green hill. Blue ridges in the distant north faded into purple peaks and silver-grey sky. We had a second lunch out of the sun on the lee of a ridgeline among the bracken and larch, forcing down cold huushuur and fish sandwiches. The boundless paddocks reminded me of New Zealand back-country farms, except purged of fence, tractor and pie shop.
I woke from an accidental siesta to the sound of bleating and maracas. A couple of hundred goats were coming up over the pass, herded by a nomad jiggling a plastic bottle full of pebbles that had been jammed onto the end of a stick. He rattled his makeshift shepherd’s crook in our direction when he saw us. We clambered groggily back onto our bikes and cruised on for a couple of sweet, dreamy hours. Slightly nearer the northern ranges the path cut a high line across the hillside to the left, rising up and staying high. There was also a cheeky smaller path dipping downhill and right into some wide wheatfields. We strapped on our helmets and went right and it was the best riding we had all day. We sailed through dark green fields of wheat along a dirt trail next to a wide grassy ditch. The storm clouds gathered behind us, really gathered, piling into the sky like I’d never seen before, not even in Mongolia. Once again we were in the middle of an open field, and I rode hard towards nothing in particular, towards the idea of shelter; Tama was ahead of me, riding harder. Every time I looked back the clouds were taller and darker. Thunder rumbled in the distance. A yellow-white flash, close. Tama pointed to the ditch and yelled something.
‘What?’ I yelled back.
‘If the lightning gets really bad, we can hide in there!’
I nodded and changed into top gear to try to outride the storm but the rain came and kept coming. We rode past some high wooden fences hiding farm equipment and a couple of half-built log cabins and a yellow construction hut on wheels that was roughly the size and shape of a packing container. A couple of workers poked their heads out of the hut and watched us ride past. In a couple of frenzied minutes the temperature plummeted and the rain turned to hail. Tama jammed on his brakes.
‘We should go back,’ he said, shielding his face.
‘Go back where?’
‘To that hut.’
The hail thickened. A big one got me on the right knee.
By the time we made it back to the hut hailstones the size of strawberries were vomiting out of a white sky and shattering on our helmets. We banged on the door and gestured could we please come inside please? The workers looked at us like we were very foolish and nodded. Inside, the racket of the hail on the steel roof was like being in a saucepan full of cooking popcorn. The room had metal walls on three sides and little windows on the fourth, and outside the hail made the fences and piles of timber look staticky, badly tuned. Hailstones the size of walnuts lay in the mud. There were no chairs inside but Bayarmaa, a solid, kindly woman in a purple jumper and pink sandals, made room for us to sit on their beds even though we were drenched. Moments later she presented us with steaming bowls of mutton soup and a plate of boov—deep-fried dough nuggets, for dipping. Ah, Mongolian hospitality.
There were three men in the trailer: Chuluun, a quiet, wolf-faced dude who wore his cap low; Gantulga, affable and slightly dim; and the aptly named Batsaikhan (‘Strong Nice’), Bataa for short, who had intelligent, cheeky eyes and seemed to be the team leader. They were building log cabins for the farm. I pointed out the window and shouted ‘shuuraga’ (‘storm’) above the racket. Bataa nodded and rolled his eyes like it happened every other day, then lit a cigarette. We said we were from Shin Zeland and that yes, it was very jijig—small—and very far away. Tama got out the map of the Khantai region to explain our route. Bataa looked up from the map and shook his head sadly, then laughed with twinkling eyes.
I was just getting used to the din when, out of the far left corner of the window, I saw a geyser of white concrete spray upwards into the air. No, it was hail, but it was going in the wrong direction. I shouted and pointed; Bataa threw the door open and we all piled outside to see a river of hail and ice-melt surging through the ditch that ran beside the road. Where the ditch turned a sharp corner the flow had burrowed into a nearby rubbish pit and it was spraying broken glass and plastic filth mixed with soiled ice high into the air in a toxic fountain. The ditch that me and Tama were going to shelter in to hide from the lightning now resembled a rampaging glacier on fast-forward. The workers ran inside and grabbed their jackets; Tama and I ran inside and grabbed our cameras.
On the other side of the ditch the wheat fields we had just been pedalling through were smashed flat and half-submerged in ice and water and mud. Bayarmaa stood with her hands on her head, distraught. Bataa, Gantulga and Chuluun pointed at the devastation, rooted to the ground in disbelief. Tama and I couldn’t believe our luck and dashed back and forth to make sure we got all the angles. This was it: Doig and Pugs vs Wild, meteorological carnage in the Mongolian wilderness, Steve Irwin sticking his finger up a stingray’s arse. I burned through all the memory on the Flip-cam and had to delete random files on the fly, wincing as I trashed clips of our lovely dinner with the moron and the cute geologist to make room for this mess.
‘Strewth, look at that flashflood. That’s a real ripper right there!’ I yelled in a bad Steve Irwin impersonation. ‘I wouldn’t wanna be caught in all those hailstones!’
‘If you fell in there you’d be dead meat, mate!’ Tama Irwin replied.
‘Zang … this is one of the craziest …’
‘De-va-sta-ting,’ Tama said, his accent lurching towards Austria. Then in his normal voice, ‘Have you seen that shit?’
‘It’s on YouTube—California’s burning to the ground, these crazy-arse forest fires frying everything, and a helicopter lands on a scorched hill. Arnie jumps out in a suit and sunglasses and the reporters are like, “Mr Governator sir, what do you think of the fires?“ Arnie is quiet for a moment, then he just goes [vaguely German accent] “De-va-sta-ting”—totally deadpan, and jumps back in the helicopter and flies off. It’s awesome.’
We ran around like kids in a burning candy store, stomping on banks of hailstones so they collapsed into the torrent. The temperature had plummeted but we didn’t care. Chuluun was hunched over a decrepit motorcycle, tapping at the engine with a stone and a broken chisel that looked Bronze Age. The bike wouldn’t start. Bataa ran up to me and motioned that he was going to use my bicycle to alert the neighbours downstream, or contact their boss, something—then he was gone. Five minutes later he was back; the road downstream was flooded out. He dumped my bike in the mud and took off in the tractor, which had a dishevelled little Mongolian flag fluttering sadly from its roof and a top speed of ten kilometres an hour. I had a feeling that any farmers downstream would probably know about the flash flood by now.
We weren’t going to make it to Khantai that afternoon. If we’d wanted to sleep in our tent that night we’d need an inflatable raft, so when Bayarmaa invited us to stay in the hut we accepted gratefully. Tama and I had changed into our wool layers, all of them, and Bayarmaa had our shirts drying over the pot-belly stove.
I dug a jar of jam out of my pannier; it went well with the deep-fried dough. I put some jam and dough on a plate and offered it to Gantulga and Chuluun. They looked at me strangely, said something that made Bayarmaa giggle, then smiled and tucked in. Towards sunset me and Tama went for a little cycle to see if we’d missed any destruction. The ditch was now overflowing with a steaming broth of dirty water, while inexplicable clouds of freezing fog from the melting hailstones were rolling across the fields. I rode into a corridor of mist and yelped: it was five degrees colder in the fog than out. It was impossible to work out why some of the hailstones were long melted while others remained piled in frosty drifts until the following morning.
When Bataa returned he was pleased to see us still there. I took him aside and gave him a couple of packets of Marlboros, gesturing that they were for the team. He looked at me in deep appreciation then quickly pocketed both packs before the others could see. We stood outside the hut and watched the doomed icebergs of hail melt into the brown soup. I wanted to ask him if this kind of thing happened often, but ‘extreme weather event’ and ‘anthropogenic climate change’ weren’t in the phrasebook. Bataa pointed at the wheat fields then waved his hands, as if erasing it all. Then he pointed at the half-finished log cabins. The same motion. No more wheat fields, no more construction. No more construction, no more job.
‘Where will you go?’
He pointed up the valley. Back to his village, back to his family. He stared at the ditch, motionless.
‘Muu,’ I tried to say. ‘Mash muu.’ (‘Very bad.’)
Bataa nodded sorrowfully. Then he shrugged his shoulders and laughed, his eyes smiling.
I pointed at him. ‘Buddhist?’ I asked.
‘Tiin, bi Buddyn shashintan!’ he cried.
That night we finished their dough and our jam and drank our bottle of Chinggis Gold vodka with some older men who had materialised on ancient but apparently sturdy motorbikes just after dark. We sat out under the stars and took turns ceremoniously throwing down shots of vodka. I snapped and bludged a Marlboro off Bataa, lit it up and sucked deeply. A little atom bomb detonated in my head and I returned shuddering to my body. I was so tired my whole face hurt.
‘Damn, you smoke your cigarettes like joints,’ Tama said.
‘Yeah … you want some of this?’ I coughed and giggled.
‘No way. But bro, I’d kill for a joint right about now.’
‘Yeah … not kill.’
I took another big gut drag. ‘Just snap a spine—Chinggis Khaan style!’
I went for a high five but Tama was talking to Chuluun, trying to tell him about Pakistan.
As the night wore on, we all got a little bit drunk and taught each other the words for night (shon), star (od), moon (sar), unidentified flying object (sansriin ül medegdex biet), alien anal probe (doesn’t exist in Mongolia). It was a beautiful clear shon and the ods were bright, as bright as they got on an obscure New Zealand beach, brighter. It was hard to comprehend that Bataa, Bayarmaa and co. had just lost their jobs. We finished the Chinggis sometime after midnight but no one showed any sign of going to bed. Finally I found the phrase for ‘we are tired’—bid yadarsan—and showed it to Bataa. Instantly he sent the old-timers packing and bundled the rest of us into the trailer. Bed was a raised platform about two metres long and four metres wide where Bayarmaa, Bataa, Chuluun and Gantulga slept side by side like Kiwis in a NZ tramping hut, or Tama’s three dads in their custom-made bed. Tonight it was six in the bed, tatty spare blankets, Tama’s feet sticking out the end. We laid down and I promptly passed out. The next morning Tama told me they had waited till they thought we were both asleep then got back up and sat by the door, smoking and talking quietly about the future.
This is an extract from Moron to Moron: two men, two bikes, one Mongolian misadventure by Tom Doig, published by Allen & Unwin. RRP $24.99 available now.