A broad band of tracks lines the sand of the vast valley, but soon the ruts converge until only two of them are left. I am traveling on my BMW F 650 GS/PD in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia. A barely discernible path leads over the highest pass here, the Buraatyn Davaa, which is the sole route from west to east in southern Mongolia.
At the base of the mountains lies the aímag, the district capital of Khovd. On my map it's marked with a big dot and a little plane. In fact, there are two airstrips. One is paved, just like some of the streets in the village, where I find a few basic shops: three petrol stations, two banks, a school and the post office with its internet café. That's all the infrastructure there is to serve the roughly 90,000 people living in this 76,000-square-kilometer administrative region which is also called Khovd.
I emulate the nomads, refilling petrol and water, buying food, and moving on. I want to camp at Lake Khar-Us Nuur, about 100 kilometers further south; but as I get closer, my plan changes. The high-pitched whine of masses of mosquitoes almost drowns out the noise of the engine. I pull the throttle and ride as far as I can before dark. In vain. The road follows a tributary through marshland where the plague of mosquitoes persists. They "sing" me to sleep.
Beneath the Spangled Sky
I have long dreamed of a trip through China. You must, of course, have a guide to travel in the country with your own vehicle. But I am a solo traveler and want neither guide nor minder. So I jumped at the chance that Jim offered me two months ago. An American living in China, the husband of a Chinese national, he insists that he can get my motorcycle into China; and once it's in the country, traveling alone won't be a problem. Relying on little more than Jim's say so, I rode from Germany across Poland, the Ukraine and Kazakhstan to meet him in Mongolia and cross into China.
Gobi-Altai is the name of the next district. Its flat steppe is almost double the size of Khovd. But it has only two-thirds the population and the internet café is the main attraction of the aimag, Altai, for me. As I step over the threshold, a man turns to ask, "Are you Doris?" It's Jim, and he's accompanied by an interpreter, Tilek, a member of the Kazakh minority.
The next day we hit the road together and drive the whole day. In the evening I set up camp and Tilek joins me. Jim goes on, riding to Bayanhongor, the next provincial capital. But to me driving at night makes no sense. It is too dangerous on two wheels, I cannot take any pleasure in the landscape and I will be too tired the next day.
In the morning Tilek stops at the next yurt and we get breakfast there. "This is the normal thing to do," he says to resolve my doubts about inviting ourselves. Outside the nomads' tent we pass a power generator and a satellite dish. Apart from the TV, the interior is quite traditional, with a wood stove in the middle, the men's living quarters on the left and the women's area on the right-hand side. Facing the entrance at the back of the yurt, there's the decorated family altar. As guests of honor we take a seat on the left side, close to the altar, where our hosts serve us warm salted milk and sweet, sun-dried curd.
Around noon we rendezvous with Jim in Bayanhongor, and after having a typical lunch of mutton-filled dumplings, we start out together but split up soon again. Today, both men want to drive into the night to stay at a hotel.
Equipped with suitable gear, I have no reason to hurry along. Bizarre mountains edge the small valley I am traveling through. I camp behind a beautiful rock formation and savor the opportunity to follow my own rhythms. With a cup of tea, a spangled sky and the silence of the desert, I feel at home.