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THERE IS NO END TO LIFE

How Apocalypse magazine was born.

The storm has wrecked the road West between “Red Hero”- Oulan Bator, and “Rich Lake”- Bayannuur. We are ten bikers led by a Mongolian guide. Behind us, a pre-Berlin Wall Russian UAZ-452 truck with on board a mechanic and a 4X4 in case of medical evacuation: it won’t come amiss.

 

We swerve towards the track or tracks to be precise – almost as many as vehicles – in an anarchic landscape of sand, mud and scrubland. An evocation of the Sea of Aral with lorries sunk in mud, the lost child look of their drivers, weary of being played by fate, further on a stranded bus with its resigned passengers: anachronic figures of women under white parasols, a "Déjeuner sur l’herbe" more Mad Max than Manet. Every which way speeding 4X4s raise huge dust clouds to be negotiated blind with the hope that nothing will crop up.   I am drenched in sweat. One of us falls, his bike pitched into the sand, he hit the handlebar, three ribs impacted, ride ended. I remember him arriving the day before at the Puma Imperial hotel, with nothing but the promotional tee-shirt offered by the organiser, the rest of his gear mislaid by Aeroflot at the Moscow stop. Raw deal.

 

We hit the tarmac again and run across an exotic haulage of unruffled camels, lashes to the winds, long snaky necks. In the evening, first night in the yurts set out for tourists on a would-be parking lot between a hotel and a service station where Mongolian horses wander. Their hoofs echo under the iron awning in the oil company livery. I shun the floods of beer and vodka. Riding blasted is beyond my capacity. I am fifty-one and my motorcycle licence is four-month-old. It is my first off-road experience.

 

A wonderful whiff of peppermint: the wheels of the motorcycle ruffle absinth sprigs and exude their scent. I discover the steppe. No human construction as far as the eye can see: no road, no dwelling, no crumbling wall, no pole, no tended field which, back home, pattern the landscape and frame our gaze. The oppressive impression of a world predating the advent of humanity, of travelling in space and time: past or future? Dawn or dusk? Nature unspoilt were it not for the broken vodka bottles on the wayside, the occasional severed yack head about to rot. Back in France, I will ride through the Vercors, the Queyras and the Alps and everything will have shrunk in my eyes: dolls houses.

 

I engage up a sloping track edged with scree, its right side practicable, its left side slumping into a sand-filled rut in which I lurch. I manage to slow down, humiliatingly extracting myself pedestrian style. But the guy behind me, too close, hits the brakes and vaults to the ground, his face taut, he clings to his stomach, a torn muscle, serratus anterior or exterior oblique. A halt to take the bike apart and stow it in the back of the UAZ, bedazzled by the oriental pratincoles’ indifferent trills.

 

A cluster of yurts by Ugii Nuur Lake.  Horses, a hundred or so, roaming free. Still no alcohol. In the middle of the night, a knock on my door: a Mongolian woman in tears, I don’t understand a thing, she has woken me up, I think she is looking for her yurt, I tell her “not here, not here” and shut the door, I hear her some more then, nothing.

I shall find out in the morning that she was alone with her child, seeking shelter, which she fortunately found with some Mongolian travellers. “Reality is when you bump into something,” the psychiatrist Jacques Lacan said. Reality had bumped at my door on that night and I had reacted like a tourist in his bubble, crossing the steppe on his motorbike in a tang of peppermint: a jerk.

 

A fresh fall. The floored man is ashen. He is stretched on the ground, a strange terrain pitted with cavities as if after a volley of shells or meteorites. He rode into the mined surface too fast, dug himself out of the first hollow, sank his wheel into the next one looped over his bike which crashed inches away from him. His helmet is dead, the bike out of action. He gradually comes around but in the grip of pain. The 4X4 takes him away: six hours on tracks before the closest hospital. Double clavicle fracture. He will be immobilized the whole summer long. We are down to seven riders three days into the road-trip. I recall the driving instructor’s mantra: “focus, breathe, enjoy.”

Reality is when you bump into something? It is, I believe a taste for reality which drove me to motorbiking. The sense that it was to be found there, balancing over two wheels. On closer inspection, bikers come across as people to whom it falls to tell stories. Stories which differ with the bikes’ brands, which may be delicate, or colourful, or have already been written – legends in which they project themselves – or the promise of stories that they strive to invent and live beyond the commercial gloss. Therein lies the paradox and the catch: you straddle, fiction in mind, a moving machine which keeps you on the alert. Too much fiction and you crash. Not enough fiction and you are delivering pizzas on a scooter. Motorbiking drives our imagination and attunes us to the real. This tension bequeaths intensity. “The way of paradoxes is the way of truth” Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891. The motorbike exposes us to the risk we pose. Exposing oneself to one’s own risk: the meaning of “traveling”? of “living”?

 

Hard by a decommissioned mine turned wild slaughterhouse – sheep and goat carcasses, muddy hides, hoofs, tripe, sickening odours and sights – we meet with three French nutcases on Chinese motorbikes, washed up almost out of gas, bereft of water or GPS, three lads with a South-Western accent and a ready laugh, only one of them has a motorcycle license, they guffaw on the brink of disaster. We share supplies and information. We ride away, uneasy. I shall meet them again at Genghis Khan Airport, perky and roaring with laughter. A great lark with the mates, the disco version of “Into the Wild”.

 

My first time to ford a river, to the delight of Australian mountain-bikers taking a break on the verge, smartphones at the ready to internationalise my tumble. Focus, breathe, enjoy… I am through! Towards Tsenher, the gradient rises and the landscape is breath-taking. Rolling hills, green grass, fresh air, not a soul in sight. A little further on, in the nook of a rock, not even yards away, two young eagles ready to take flight. “All this will soon be gone” a Mongol tells me meaning nature and the nomadic way of life, prey to the climate and resource exploitation though I can’t tell whether he shows resignation or combativity. Does he voice the millenary sensibilities and pride of a conquering people today forced to re-invent itself, getting, over thirty short years, and not without bitterness or hardship, a first taste of democracy? Living, after conquering the world, reduced to reconquering oneself: is that humanity’s fate?

 

The meandering, narrow track encased in serrated edged-volcanic rocks exacts constant attention and yet I nose-dive. We call a halt to observe a cascade. I take my helmet off, lie directly on the ground and fall asleep.

In the yurt, raw meat, freshly cut rests on a piece of card under the bed next to a pair of boots. On top, a little girl with a serious face looks at us. The family only had sons, so the father, a nomadic breeder of horses and yacks, decided to adopt her. I do not know her history. We share the khorkhog, a dish of mutton, slow cooked in an aluminium pot with stones thrown in to give a smoky taste. The mother sitting by the entrance remains silent and watchful. The atmosphere is warm and strange: our realities are juxtaposed like oil and water. Coming back here alone over four seasons might help me understand. But not before I mentally took myself apart piece by piece, prejudices, fears, habits… let alone my taste for English gardens that makes the steppe rather unfamiliar to me, supernatural.

 

The contradiction is obvious between the notion of adventuring and the fact of touring as an organised group, travelling “tame”. And yet, on a motorbike, we feel an affinity with the nomads we come across, horsemen from childhood and often bikers too. What do we share without knowing each other? The open air? Solitude? Motion? Balance? Speed? Risk?

“"To risk one’s life" is one of the finest expressions in our language. Is it necessarily facing death – and surviving… or could there be, set in life itself, a secret mechanism, a music uniquely capable of shifting existence on the front line we call desire. “For risk […] opens an unknown space. […. It] calls into question our intimate relationship with time. It is a combat with an adversary whom we never identify, a desire that we would never know, a love whose face we would never see, a pure event.” Thus the philosopher Anne Dufoumantelle in "In Praise of risk". Do we share with nomads this pure event? A secret passage between consciousness and matter?

 

A lashing rain slashes the dead-straight road. On a car park rutted with potholes full of muddy water and plastic sheeting, long-horned Mongolian cows wait on a trailer under the dark sky. Soaked to the bone, we get into a shack with a steamed-up windowpane. A small room behind a hatch acts both as kitchen and bedroom. The girl folds back a garish manmade blanket. To the front, benches and oil-clothed tables clutter the space. The tea is burning hot. The television on the counter spills its flood of sound. The trip is coming to its end.

 

I sway, drunk in the night on “ultimate leader”- Genghis Khan Square. I have bought two cuts of Kazakh cloth dotted with wildflowers, stars and bold-coloured patterns highlighted in black, traditional items embroidered by the bride before the wedding or by the mother for her son. A strip of the cloth is always left uncomplete, illustrating the Kazakh thinking according to which “there is no end to life.”

 

I watch the earth blacken under the pale shreds of high-level clouds, the mountains dissolve in nightly darkness. The sun sets between Mongolia and China and its amber rays ennoble us. I am wedged between two spright-drinking American women. The thought surges, here, in this plane, and imposes itself between dream and proven fact: in two years -time, I shall return to Mongolia on a motorbike from France this time. I am listening to “Ninety-nine and a half” by Creedence Clearwater Revival and consider potential routes, southwards via Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan… For me so many “empty maps to people” in Colin Thubron’s words. Or northwards, the Balt countries and Russia or why not Denmark, Sweden, Finland, reaching Moscow via Saint-Petersburg and thence crossing Siberia towards Lake Baikal? Thinking of taking off again before you’ve even landed – so that there is no end to life.

***

 

It was the summer of 2019. A few months later, an epidemic swept across the world. It froze it. During this strange period, the idea arose to create an object to match the incredible experience of riding a motorcycle. And so Apocalypse Magazine was born.

JRZ

founder and editor

Photo: O. Laban, Mongolia.

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