Seeing Mongolia -- by bike. A captivating land of shepherds, monasteries, mutton

WE felt like modern-day Marco Polos, intrigued by the homeland and culture of Genghis Khan. How best to see this distant frontier land of Inner Mongolia?

By bicycle, of course. Bicycling is transportation that all of China understands. There are 3 million bikes in Peking alone, and the bicycle is an ideal way to experience China's northern autonomous province, several hundred kilometers west of Peking.

With a modest 12-day itinerary through 10 villages and towns, my husband and I cycled 300 kilometers (186 miles) through the grasslands with an American group last summer. We were accompanied by a China Sports Service crew, including interpreter, guide, mechanic, food coordinator, and a Mongolian driver who composed impromptu limericks when persuaded to perform at the evening songfests.

Part of our support crew led the way in a two-ton Russian-built stake truck full of supplies, while we bikers pedaled across the sparsely populated steppes.

Each morning I started out around 8, as designated lead biker for the group, because my 10 m.p.h. pace was considered average. The truck quickly disappeared over the far horizon and I was often alone under the big, Montana-like sky. As each biker rode at his own pace, some enjoyed solitude, and others cycled in groups of two or three. There was no traffic to interfere with one's thoughts or conversations.

Following our group of 11 was the rest of the support crew in a van, ready to pick up stragglers. Biking ability and ages (23 to 57) varied; some welcomed the option of riding in the van, especially when it was rainy, windy, or steep. But the weather was usually dry, with clean air and bright sunlight, and the terrain mostly flat.

Lunches were unhurried on the treeless grasslands under an old parachute canopy for shade, while Chinese music played on the truck's tape deck. We sat on tarps around a low table crowded with a variety of breads; canned vegetables, fruits, and fish; nuts, sweets, and drinks. Succumbing to our easy pace of 25 miles a day, we stretched out for napping or reading after lunch. Or we played Chinese checkers with the crew and attempted to grasp the nuances of Chinese chess.

The 15-gear American Stumpjumper mountain bikes we used were well suited to the dirt roads, sandy riverbeds, and occasional cross-country forays. A few squirts of lubricant and adjustments of gears, brakes, seats, and handlebars were all the attention the bikes received; no one even had a flat tire. The bikes were a source of wonder to the locals, who rode the standard Chinese, single-gear, black-frame Flying Pigeons.

Biking usually ended by midafternoon, giving us time to explore each new village and shop in its small, government-owned store. Overnight accommodations were usually in dormlike hotels, and we spent four nights in large tents called yurts.

Four or five herdsmen can set up or take down a yurt, a round, 20-foot-diameter structure, in about half an hour. With a center pole, its wooden umbrella-like frame has a lattice support secured with camel-skin ties.

Various ropes pull together the covering for a snug, cozy interior. A ceiling hole for ventilation is closed by ropes when it rains.

The small wooden door, facing southeast to avoid wicked northwestern winter winds, is brightly decorated, as are the small painted chests placed in the yurts for storage. Beds are pallets on raised platforms, which we found quite comfortable. A single light bulb burned relentlessly, however, whenever the local generator was on, even when we wanted to go to sleep early.

Dinners on the grassland steppes were delectable, many-coursed feasts, appealing to meat eaters and vegetarians alike. We often counted 12 serving plates in the middle of our table for 10, with mixtures of tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, bean curd, eggplant, mushrooms, noodles, millet, rice, breads, soups, fish, chicken, pork, beef, and the ever-present mutton.

As we pedaled to the more distant villages, we were often their first Western visitors. Local residents couldn't get enough of us -- staring, watching, studying everything we did.

An elderly couple in Bulitai invited two women in our group to tea. This was a meal of millet, toast, and mutton fat added to a bowl of hot tea mixed with milk. The women communicated with their hosts by pantomime.

There seemed to be no restrictions on our contact with local people, although when an English-speaking Chinese geologist doing fieldwork asked permission of his boss to talk with us, he was called away when a crowd of spectators grew.

We welcomed the villagers' attention after a day of sharing the open range with herds of sheep, cattle, horses, and sometimes camels. In the villages, the children were intrigued with my portable typewriter and tape recorder. We leafed through magazines as they called out Mongolian words for the pictures, and some people in our group taught them clapping or running games.

Coasting down into Honggeer, about 50 miles from the border of the Soviet satellite nation of Outer Mongolia, we admired a change of scenery from flat grasslands. Old monasteries and other village dwellings were nestled in mountain ridges at the confluence of three dry riverbeds. A flock of sheep flowed like a wave across the road ahead of us as we fishtailed our bikes hopelessly in the deep sand.

``Sei no!'' we called out in Mongolian to a shepherd, but he only stared at us. Would you speak to seeming creatures from another planet, trying to ride strange bikes with big knobby tires through your riverbed?

We then came to the steppes' equivalent of a ticker-tape parade as our group straggled down Honggeer's main street one by one. Children lined up on both sides of the road. Mothers held babies up to see us. Toothless old men grinned. They waved, giggled, stared, or answered our sei no as we pedaled by.

In Honggeer we stayed in a hotel, if that's the right word for our monklike cells. There were four iron beds with straw mats, sandbag pillows, and a decorated, enameled wash basin in a metal stand festooned with one tiny, threadbare towel for four. The rural toilet was an open-pit outhouse with rectangular slits in its concrete floor.

At most of the villages, with populations from 30 to 1,000, there were pigs, chickens, and goats in the courtyard to greet us, shortly joined by a donkey cart carrying water from the well to the boiler. Sometimes water was carried by a villager in buckets on a shoulder pole; often our fresh vegetables arrived in the same manner in baskets.

In Honggeer for two days, we were able to spend our morning hours at the town's restored Buddhist monastery. We filed quietly into the sanctuary behind several rows of monks chanting amid an array of incense burners, dishes of oil, candles, shrines, and little chests. The ``American cycling team,'' as they were calling us by now, was stunned by the cultural impact.

A harmonic hum rose and fell with improvisations as the 20 men, aged 40 to 85, punctuated their chanting with cymbals and conch shells. Dressed in gold-braided brown robes and orange or fuchsia stoles, their heads close-shaven or bald, the chanters sat cross-legged on mats.

To reach this captivating land of monasteries, music, and mutton, a train from Peking is recommended to cover the 200 miles to Huhehot, Inner Mongolia's capital. From that point, tour buses bring dozens of tourists to Zhaoge, our first village, to stay in yurts and view a first-rate Mongolian program of songs, dancing, and horse- and camel-racing.

The Inner Mongolian bicycling vacation is for people in good physical condition who expect to rough it for some off-the-beaten-path adventure.

We advise, however, prior cross-country mountain-bike experience, including gravel roads and hilly terrain. Be sure to take sun screen and a water bottle, and drink only boiled water. Practical information:

We arranged our biking trip through China Passage, 302 Fifth Avenue, 10th floor, New York, N.Y. 10001. The Sierra Club offers a similar trip (530 Bush Street, San Francisco, Calif. 94108). Tovya Wager, 336 Westminster Avenue, Los Angeles, Calif. 90020 also offers bicycle tours to Inner Mongolia. Those who don't like to bicycle can gallop over the grasslands on horseback via Boojum Expeditions, PO Box 2236, Leucadia, Calif. 92024.

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