Day 33: The Altai Mountain Region of South Siberia
Left at 6am, road winds crossing streams & scant isolated fauna. Rob punctures and stays with Gavin while the rest ride to 52 miles from Onguday where a large house on the left sells lamb stew minus the lamb. The creamed Nescafé would ordinarily be average but 6000 kms from Moscow in the wilds of South Siberia it was better than a cappuccino on the Kings Road watching the girls go by.
Sexuality, or femininity is disguised or at least not recognisable to western eyes. Make up is not obvious and the women do as the men, hoe and till the land, walk the horses with special reference to carrying the shopping (sometimes the horses walk the women). The only glamour was on the television and watching cosmetic commercials in a cafe where the toilet is set on planks over an open cesspit, needs to be seen to be understood.
All day In the distance the peaks of high mountains were covered in snow. Lower down two foot fell a couple of days ago and the warmer thaw caused flooding in the villages.
Here, ramshackle settlements sat next to new buildings made with coloured steel prefab units and red or blue roofs. A sense of people having been resettled to a frontier is evident.
At 50 miles before Tawant, a cafe on the left as you enter town allowed for another short break. The few cafés that do exist sit next to a small supermarket
Ural side cars, wild horses playing and on we go from village to settlement, garage to small provision store by-passing anything that resembled anything of spiritual interest or cultural significance. Certainly it's true that if the Pyramids were around the corner but out of sight most bikers worth their salt would not make a visit unless they could ride their bike. The difference here is that broken down fences and shiny tin roofs don't make the shortlist for a world heritage site. In terms of bodily needs, a sachet of noodles heated in boiling water is as good as something you'd ordinarily pay a lot of money to see. So 'Sights of Cultural Interest' - Nil, 'Not To Be Missed Experience,' - Invaluable.
The rude immigration official in the End-of-the-Road shed spent his life on the outskirts of what is the last small town in Russia before Mongolia. If you really knew where I was at that very moment you would understand why he threw our passports back at us not even bothering to scowl. A hundred yards further on we parked at the gates which when opened would start the process of allowing us to technical and legally leave the country. The photograph page of our passport is placed in a computer reader scanning a code which identifies me and in some way associates this with a visa bar-code existing somewhere in hard drive deep space linked only to me. I admit to considering a dreadfully ill thought out ruse to save Jim's bacon. Maybe a colour photocopy of my visa stamp could have been glued onto a clean page if his own passport with a mate photoshopping in some sequential number. It would of course be doomed from the start and Jim would be deported for attempting an illegal entry, and I don't know if that means a free flight home, but decided to err cautiously.
Inside the immigration and custom building properly the officials were cheery. The chap handling our paperwork wore his peaked hat tilted on the back of his head. Andy the Brummie said he looked like Inspector Blakey in the 1970's television sit-com 'On the Buses.' He even had a little moustache but he didn't get the joke. Andy was always joking – his ability to keep the spirits of the group high was strong. He was one of the good guys. Having changed dollars into Mongolian Togrogs I exited through a barrier in the perimetre fence as a young girl soldier saluted me and said "Welcome to Mongolia," and as a prelude to 'Day 1' I thought 'how sweet.'
DAY 34: Camping to 20 miles SE of Hvod
Hilleberg the tent maker from Sweden had provided me with my home for 50% of this journey and whilst it didn’t need me to test it – many had tried it out before – it was my comfortable house across parts of Iran and the ‘Stans’ and now Outer Mongolia. Having quickly collapsed and packed it away, we set off again but this time there were two adjustments to our schedule, one small, one not so. On account of the cooler weather everyone was allowed an extra hour to cook up a tea before leaving at seven instead of six. The second change had a lot to do with us being in Mongolia and apart from the first 100kms of asphalt, there would be little more hard surface for a thousand miles until Ulan Bator. Today however was also going to be a hell if a day.
To begin with, the tea concept was received well as was the tarmac which was unexpected. I led over the construction with 3 or 4 riders and a gap formed. After stopping for the rear group to catch up we chatted and overhead raptors of some sort hovered – eagles. There was a wind and the vistas of faraway mountains were magnificent. Everything was relaxed, too relaxed because the other riders had not arrived and had taken an inordinate amount of time and I suddenly became concerned. There was a problem, I knew it. I asked Gavin to ride back and see if anything had happened and then I rode after him, meeting him as he rode back to me. "Scotty's had a big crash, he's alright but they are loading his bike on the truck." I told him thanks for the news and carried on to meet more riders now coming towards me, each with more news.”
DAY 35: Crossing the Gobi Desert
Breakfast at A0304 & A14 junction 51 miles from Hvod - great camping. Great breakfast cafe 51 miles from Hvod. Friendly, obliging people serving omelets and rice washed down with got instant coffee. The Mongolians cook a mean stew and their lamb dumplings are out if this world, but gastronomic geniuses they are not. Most eating houses, few that there are, would be condemned in the west and their toilets are one level away from how an animal shits.
Up the road, through the edge of a sandstorm and a small tornado, Major Oliphant punctures again - the third time in 24 hours. Either the bike is too heavy for the off-road sections of the route or he himself is sitting on it hard and not standing on the pegs. Once repaired we ride another ten miles and on the northern edge of the Gobi Desert as a harsh wind blows so much sand across the road you have to squint through your visor to see, he punctures again.
Perhaps it's the breakdowns and forced stops that let me look around. The view as you travel on the road is a narrow one with quick turns of the head but when you stop.
After 50 miles of easy piste we arrived at Davroz where there was a gas station and a couple of stores stocked mostly with vodka and chocolate.
DAY 36: 90kms before Altay to Altay
Difficult corrugations, use parallel side track. Last 60kms not too bad.
We all set off with me as last man and an agreement with everyone that every 10 kms we regroup. 5kms after leaving camp Andy crashes badly. I find him under his bike. Rob crashes, reports come back that he’s had to dig himself out because he got his leg stuck under the bike – not injured but the front headstock assembly of his bike is now in a pile on the side of the track.
Rob turns up with Steve who tells him, "you look really cool for a wanker who keeps smashing his bike up," and as his fan cools he comes over to me to chat. He said he'd lost his confidence and that after the mornings crash he would need a whole day to rebuild his headlamp assembly.
We’ve left the campsite and I’m just ahead of the support vehicle, Steve waving me down, a bike’s down, Andy on the floor face down. I stop, pull off my helmet and Paul is holding him, cradling him. Andy is barely conscious. It’s serious. The truck pulls up minutes later, Dr Caroline is there immediately, not taking off the helmet until she’s examined him. Nothing broken. Several riders are around him, all helping. The bike is pulled off his legs and after a full look over, his helmet is pulled off ever so gently. We are talking to him, trying to bring him round. We are in the desert, on the edge of the Gobi, there is no help just us. No one around for 100 kms that can get us out of this situation. Andy starts to talk but he is concussed so slowly we lift him up and walk him to the truck, putting him in the front passenger seat, deeply in pain, but soon we make him more comfortable.
20 kms away there was a small settlement where we sat him and again gave him time to recover from the hard piste driving. It was further to Altay than we thought and I couldn’t leave the other lads waiting in the desert day and night so I drove back quickly to retrieve them and regroup. Peter could not drive fast because it was too painful but we set off once again for the town. Progress was slow but essentially careful. Dr. Caroline kept Andy upright and secure in the cab, he sometimes lapsing into semi-consciousness.
Two hours later we arrived in Altay after a hard 60km journey across the northern edge of the Gobi Desert. Riders went ahead to source a hospital and a hotel. An airport marked on the map appeared on the edge of town as operational. Out there on the plateau, waiting for the truck to see if Andy's condition was still stable the mountains were separated from the road only by slightly shimmering air. It was a moment of peace.
The riders had sourced a cheap hotel whilst Dr Caroline and I dealt with Andy as he was carried into the ward by a team of nurses. After being scrutinised by the doctors it transpired that he had a broken collarbone, fractured all of his ribs down his left side, concussion to the right temple and a split bladder. This was repairable and I felt confident that we would have a positive outcome. Brain scans, X-rays and various other diagnostics were immediately activated and he was to be operated on within 3 hours of being admitted. Another 24 hours and his condition would become critical. Considering we are in such a remote area he is lucky not to have further complications.
By midnight further scans revealed a burst spleen and whilst waiting for an air corridor to open to South Korea where Andy was to be flown for further treatment, it became necessary he should undergo surgery immediately. It was a routine operation and the hospital had a 100% success rate in such treatment. Andy was chirpy and called his wife and we were all confident we’d see each other in the morning.
DAY 37: Altay - Rest Day
Dr. Caroline and I were summoned to the hospital at 06.30 and Andy died at 07.05 on Sunday 8th June. I was listening to Dr Dagwa's concerns about being unable to wake him up even though the surgery had been successful. Caroline murmured something into my ear about the survival chance of such a post-operative problem being reduced to 20% and while I digested that a nurse walked in through the door. She said something I obviously didn't understand but what she had to say silenced the room. Andy's blood pressure had fallen so low his heart just stopped working. The surgeons had tried through the night to stabilise his condition but underlying medical complications prevented that from happening. Caroline started to weep. As a doctor she has seen little girls grow into women who have babies and then die young but she said you can never be prepared for the death of a friend. Jimi Hendrix’s words, “I'm the one that's got to die when it's time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to,”came to mind and somehow by maintaining my composure it kept me in control.
I looked out of the window to see hundreds of yurts scattered across this small city, each parceled up in small regular compounds. Mongolian flags hung limply as blue prayer scarves tied to anything staked into the ground coloured the mediocre brown landscape. The strength needed to let go is maybe of the same order as that needed to carry on. I had to stay in the game. The riders were already preparing their next move, it was their way of dealing with a catastrophic situation. To be aware of death is one thing but to experience easily avoidable death puts that understanding onto a completely different level. Andy could have missed that hole, never before having been troubled by such an inconsequential change of ground shape. He'd done that a thousand times but this morning was different. Apart from discussing arrangements to repatriate the body I went to my room and stared at the wall in shock and disbelief. Andy was my friend and I cried.