Tracks: Tsetserleg to Ulaangom

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No journey across Mongolia on a bicycle is complete without sand. While my fat tires writhe through it, it sticks to me like a second layer of skin. Then, add rocks and washboarding to the mix – these are Mongolia’s tracks. While my route from Tsetserleg to Ulaangom wasn’t all off-road, I was able to experience a solid 600km of it. My journey along the tracks began north of Tariat via the stunning Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (White Lake). Up until the Tariat, the scenery was equally gorgeous.

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stormy skies

The road itself was long and lonely, with often only the yaks to keep my company.

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The camping is also lonely yet wonderful as the barren ribbons of road.

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sunset view from my campsite

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The road continuously climbed and descended through the mountains. Mountain passes are often marked by ovoos, a shamanistic offering to tengers, the sky gods. These large piles of rocks and sticks are wrapped with blue scarves, representing the sky. The gods are honoured by flicking drop of vodka into the air before drinking.

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A ovoo on the top of a pass

The landscape changed as I approached the Chuulut River Gorge and wound my way  along a track through a wooded area.

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ger camp along the gorge

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Chuluut Gorge

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Then, coming out of the gorge, a familiar beast once again reared its ugly head – wind! The   headwinds blew relentlessly for the rest of the day, greatly slowing my speed to Tariat. In fact, the next couple of days provided me with enough wind to blow me all the way back to Ulaanbaatar. About 25km before Tariat, I met Estelle and Thomas, a French newlywed couple on a year-long honeymoon cycling around the world. You can follow their adventures at www.intothewheel.com. Shortly after, the pavement disappeared, and for the next 600km, Dozer the bike would be tasting dirt.

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scenery approaching Tariat village

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slowly climbing up to Tariat

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road construction

When I ride into a town in Mongolia, I am immediately the centre of attention. Everyone wants to know more about the strange foreign woman on the bicycle. Men and women on motorbikes will slowly trail me, hyper children shout “hello! hello!. Often they will follow me, stare, laugh and throw questions at me that I seldom understand.

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curious children in Tariat

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I like his shirt

The route to Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur started off with the crossing a lava field of an extinct volcano. The ride was incredibly rocky and felt like I was riding a jackhammer the whole way.

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lava bed

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curious visitor at my campsite

A nice man on a motorbike saw me riding and let me follow him the whole way to the lake, ensuring I didn’t get lost (it was pretty obvious). The lake was a spectacular sight and I enjoyed a great night camping right on its shore. _DSF1097 _DSF1090  _DSF1134 _DSF1125

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sunset by the lake

The next day, the real fun began. I skirted the Northern edge of the lake along a faint sandy track that would occasionally disappear into a small creek or bog. Sometimes I would have to remove my shoes and push the bike across ice cold creeks.

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small creek crossing near Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur

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the track along the northern shore of Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur

Leaving the lake, I entered a wide valley and experienced the worst winds of the trip. I decided to stop for my usual lunch of bread peanut butter to build up my energy stores for the grind ahead. I was joined by a man and his horse, who sat down with me to chat as I shared my bread with him (peanut butter didn’t appeal). _DSF1145 _DSF1146

He couldn’t quite understand my insanity as I mounted my bike and fought to stay upright against the wind. Soon after, I was followed by a young guy on a motorbike that inquired where I was sleeping for the night. When I said I was carrying a tent, he asked if I was looking for someone to share that tent with. I said no. He rode away. Five minutes later he sped back. He inquired again just to make sure he had heard correctly. I once again confirmed that I was not looking for a tent companion and he eventually left laughing, acknowledging my rejection. That night I was beyond exhausted. The wind had ruined me as I had barely made it 40km.

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If you could only hear the wind in the photo…

So far on this trip I have had a recurring pattern where a tough day is following by a good one (at least in comparison.) The ride to Jargalant was beautiful and the struggles of the previous day were soon forgotten. After a short steep climb and a long, rocky descent, I cruised onto some heavenly dirt tracks. They criss-crossed through rolling grassland and were absolute bliss to ride.

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heavenly tracks

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Eventually, I came to another creek crossing and this lovely man galloped to my aid and pushed Dozer across, while I walked with his horse. Kindness is rarely absent in this country.

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As the road slowly morphed from smooth dirt to rocks to sand, the cycling slowed down and became more strenuous. Just outside of Jargalant, I came across a hill so steep and sandy that pushing up alone wasn’t possible. Lucky for me, another fellow on a motorbike saw me struggling and came to help. Without him, I would have had to unload all of my gear and ferry it to the top.

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Mongolian beach

The endless tracks toward Khyargas Nuur wound their way through a stark desert landscape. The sand clung to my skin in a semi-permanent layer as it had on my bike and panniers. Occasionally the wind would send clouds of it hurtling in my direction and I  would have to crouch down in cover.

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These hills disappeared the further west I travelled towards Songino

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I stopped at this small, very friendly shop en route to Telmen Nuur

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After an extended period of time in the desert, a lake is always a welcome sight. I camped right on the shore of Telmen Nuur close to some gers. As always, when I am in sight of ger, I was greeted by my friendly neighbours on a motorbike. They asked if I wanted to sleep in their ger, thinking that my paper thin tent wasn’t warm enough. Also it was hard to convince them that my gore-tex (actually, technically “e-vent”) jacket layered over thin merino wool was also sufficient. I can understand, seeing the the thick wool-lined coats that they wear, which would beat even the best brand of outdoor apparel. I politely declined their invitation, as was already set up for the night. My new friends hung around for a while, playing with my bike and checking all of its weird gadgets.

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having some fun with my bike

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Sunset on Telmen Nuur

The next morning, I had this adorable little cow hang around me for about an hour. He seemed to be lost and stayed close to me while grazing around my tent. I was happy when I saw the little guy reunite with his mother after. _DSF1296 _DSF1298

The ride across the desert continued and when I reached Tudevtey, I was glad to have a GPS. It was a maze of tracks leading out of the village, and finding the right one wasn’t exactly obvious. Local knowledge is of course just as good as any GPS, but it isn’t always easy to understand the directions given. If Mongolian “roads” were to be viewed on a very small scale this is what an intersection would look like:

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The map…

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…and what it really looks like

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Just outside of Tudevtey, I scored the best camping spot of the trip so far. It was also one of the most brilliant sunsets I had seen – the sun casting swaths of fire across earth and sky.

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Can you spot the tent?

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line of fire

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In Songino, I loaded 12L of water onto my bike that would get my through the next 3 days.  On the second day, I came across a ger/restaurant in the middle nowhere where I was able to get a little extra water.  I had grown used to seeing gers fairly often and it was strange to be on such a remote stretch where I only saw a few over 3 days. The road 145km from Songino was in a terrible state – the usual Mongolian trio of rock, sand and washboard. Still, I enjoyed the emptiness and solitude of the desert.

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Dozer taking a nap

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What is that – a road sign?!

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lunch break! don’t make fun of my nerdy sun hat…

Then, about 25km from Khyargas Nuur – paved road! A unexpected surprise. It is a shame I couldn’t enjoy it as the wind once again fought against me the entire 60km along the salt lake. I would rather struggle through sand than struggle to go downhill on a pristine paved road. Instead of wallowing away in self pity, I did my best to enjoy the ride along the piercing blue lake. I passed groups of camels close to its shore and further down the road towards Ulaangom.

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wild camels along the shore of Khyargas Nuur

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At this point, I was tired and in need of a rest day. Riding Mongolia’s rugged dirt roads and trails has been an awesome experience and it isn’t over yet! I am now in Ulaangom and will leave to head west to Uureg Nuur, before turning South towards Olgii, via a rough and steep jeep track over the Bairam Davaa pass. I am almost 1500km into my trans Mongolia ride with about 1000km left to go. I am looking forward to seeing more of Bayan-Olgii province, Mongolia’s predominantly Kazakh region.

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Wide open: Ulaanbaatar to Tsetserleg

After about 20km of hectic Ulaanbaatar traffic, the Mongolia of my imagination opened up before me.

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Here, the landscape is so vast that it feels almost limitless. With no fences in sight, the land seems to have no boundaries. What seems like a short distance away is really many kilometres. Sheep, goats, cows and horses outnumber the population of people by an astronomical amount. It is an exhilarating place to ride a bicycle.

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Dozer (the bike) standing proud

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looks like a painting, doesn’t it?

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As remote as the place feels, you are never really completely alone. Gers, the traditional dwelling of the nomadic herders are always around.

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Spot the ger

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I was happy to be starting out on paved road, giving me a chance to get used to my 35-40kg load. I knew that some tough off roading was ahead – no bicycle tour of Mongolia is complete without it. For now, the biggest challenge was dealing with the headwinds. The prevailing winds are West or Northwest, the direction I am heading. The weather is also quite variable. Heat and sun turn to snow, snow to sleet. After reaching my distance goal for the first day, I pushed my bike off the main road and into some hills to camp.

Over the crest of the hill, I spotted a ger. I approached and immediately a couple of dogs started barking. A woman came out and I asked (more like gestured) if I could set up my tent beside her ger. She motioned for me to come inside and stay.

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Home for the night

She gave me suutei tsai – a traditional type of tea boiled with milk, salt, butter or mutton fat. It is prepared in a large pot over the wood stove in the centre of the ger. I quite enjoyed it. She also fed me sweets and a rich meat stew. It was a great experience being in a ger. Mongolian people are some of the kindest in the world.

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I cycled on and the landscapes continued to amaze me. The grasses have not yet turned green, but I loved the stark beauty, desert- like. For me it was reminiscent of parts of my ride through Tibet four years ago. As the countryside slowly emerges from its wintery slumber, green will start to appear. I am already seeing patches of it. Mongolia is also one of the greatest places for camping. You can pretty much pitch your tent wherever you feel like it.

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About 15km from Erdenesant, I approached a man on a motorcycle on the side of the road. He waved and motioned me to stop. He made a drink gesture and pointed to his ger in the distance. I had only cycled 20km at that point, but I couldn’t refuse. For the next 3 hours I was hosted by this wonderful family.

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World’s cutest kids…

Communication is challenging, but I get by with a Lonely Planet phrasebook. This is often passed around by the family, looking for questions to ask me. They are usually about  where I am from, my age, if I have children or if I’m married. I also have a “special letter” that I give to my hosts. The idea came from reading Alastair Humphrey’s books about cycling around the world. He would have this letter explaining his journey translated into various languages. I have mine translated in Mandarin, Russian and Mongolian. Here is the English version:

Dear Friend

I am a Canadian cycling around the world. My route is taking me across Asia from Mongolia to Uzbekistan and then into Africa from Cairo to Capetown. The journey will take approximately 18 months and will cover around 25,000 km. I am travelling slowly by bicycle as it gives me time to enjoy your beautiful country.

I am writing to my friends and family in Canada about my trip and will enjoy telling them about your culture and meeting local people. I am able to travel cheaply as I have everything I need on my bike including a tent and cooking equipment.

I am excited to be riding across your country and I apologize for not being able to speak your language.

I hope that you can help my journey to continue safely and happily.

Thank you.

With warmest regards,

Tara

In the ger, I was treated to fresh handmade noodles made into a dish called tsuivan which is fried with beef or mutton. The meat is usually made into a jerky before it is used so it can be preserved. Endless cups of suutei tsai are also on offer.

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Making noodles in the ger from scratch

Tsuivan has become part of my daily diet – it is greasy, loaded with carbs and fat and delicious. Perfect for cyclists. If you are lucky you can get some vegetables in it other than onion, but this is rare.

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This plate of Tsuvian had way more vegetables than usual. Served with tsai.

The family asked me to stay for the night  but I wanted to continue on. I stepped out of the ger into a snow-covered landscape.

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Although it was cold, it looked majestic.

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Mongolians say that you can encounter all four seasons in Spring.

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Further down the road, it started to snow again – a lot. I cycled on, continually putting off stopping to set camp for the night. Eventually I had to call it quits and dragged my bike through the snow over a hill. When I thought I was alone, I saw another ger. I had wanted a bit of privacy that night. Even though it is wonderful to experience staying in a ger, it can be exhausting with the language barrier when I am tired from a day of cycling. Soon, a man on a motorbike with a small boy approached me from the distance. He insisted that I stop setting up my tent and stay in his ger with his family. At this point it kept snowing and I obliged.

The ger was in a spectacular setting. The snow capped mountains in the backdrop made it that much more beautiful.

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View behind the ger at night

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I played in the snow with the little boy. There was a lot of laughing. Language barriers don’t exist with young children.

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The couple also had an adorable young girl, not even a year old. I was treated to more incredible Mongolian hospitality. Here, the people are as spectacular as the land.

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Me with the man of the ger

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The riding, however wasn’t always the greatest. I had planned to cycle 115km from the get to Kharkhorin and was 50km short of my goal due to the intense headwind. When it becomes a struggle to go downhill, I know it is time to call it quits for the day. This will be significantly tougher when the paved road ends. Luckily the wind died down late in evening and I enjoyed another great camping spot

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The next day, I cycled the remaining 50km to Kharkhorin, where I took a rest day to see Erdene Zuu Monastery. It was a wonderful, atmospheric place. I enjoyed walking around inside the large walled compound.

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The monastery has 108 stupas lining its exterior walls. It is a sacred number in Buddhism.

Founded in 1586, Erdene Zuu Monastery was the first buddhist monastery in Mongolia. At its height, over 1000 monks attended. The monastery was largely destroyed during the Stalinist purges of 1937. It wasn’t reopened for worship until 1990 when communism fells and religious freedoms were restored.

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Monks wrestling before prayer?

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Entering the Tibetan temple

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I am now in Tsetserleg, plotting the remaining 2000km or so left to ride in this fantastic country. I think so far out of the 18 countries I have travelled I have found a new favourite.

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Beijing and Ulaanbaatar

It has taken me a bit of time to get back into the travelling mindset. Remembering just how foreign everything suddenly feels again. The language barrier was of course the biggest challenge – especially in China. Even the smallest of tasks, like ordering a meal, takes more mental energy than usual. The best way to confront your new world is to have a sense of humour about it while making every effort to communicate. My Warm Showers host, Ray, helped make my transition so much easier.

I originally had planned to stay only 2 days in Beijing and to take the Trans Mongolian train to Ulaanbaatar. In order to bring a bicycle on the train, it has to be checked into customs the day before departure.  Ray took me and my bike to Beijing Central and helped me navigate through the chaos. If I was on my own it would have taken me hours to get an answer, due to my lack of Mandarin.  He told me to wait with my bike and he disappeared into the swarms of people. He came back with bad news. My bike could not be checked in because it was a Chinese holiday and customs was closed. Also, it was impossible to take it on the train with me the same day. I was frustrated to say the least.

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Beijing Central Station

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That bike wasn’t going anywhere…

The next train wasn’t leaving until Wednesday. The only other option was to fly. So I took it. I may have missed an interesting trip, but I didn’t come out here to ride trains. So this meant an extra day to explore Beijing.

When I am travelling, I generally try to spend as little time as possible in the cities. Though they offer many comforts for the touring cyclist, I find them overwhelming. Beijing has lots to offer as a city, but it is a place I couldn’t spend too much time in. Overall I found it a bit too chaotic. Also, the air pollution is a real problem. But, tucked away from the insane traffic and incessant honking are little hidden communities called hutongs.  These are the old neighbourhoods of Beijing. When you walk down the narrow alleyways past tiny produce shops, clotheslines and old men sitting on tiny stools,  the noise disappears and time stands still.

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For me, strolling through the hutongs was the highlight of Beijing. The city also has excellent cycling infrastructure with super wide lanes – some almost big enough for 2 cars side by side.

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Super wide cycling lanes

I am a pretty lazy tourist, so I didn’t do much in the way of sightseeing. I did cycle by Tiananmen Square and Mao Zedong’s  mausoleum.

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People lining up for hours to see Mao

I spent a good amount of my time in Beijing relaxing and recovering from jet lag. I really enjoyed hanging out in Ray’s apartment, which was in a very nice neighbourhood called Sanlitun in Beijing. He took me out for baoize (steamed buns) and delicious handmade noodles – 2 foods I enjoyed many times during my first bicycle tour in China. Ray had also cycled a few of my planned routes – Pamir Highway and Karakoram highway and had lots of good tips to share. He told me that he also had a Polish guest that had cycled Mongolia. Apparently he had to push his bike through 200km of sand. I am hoping with my research that I will avoid that kind of insanity. I was getting pretty excited about cycling the country. After 3 days in Beijing, I I boarded the plan for Ulaanbaatar, where I was meeting my next host, Froit from Holland and his Mongolian wife Bolora.

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The edge of Ulaanbaatar

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Crazy traffic everywhere

Ulaanbaatar is another crazy city, with equally insane traffic. The exterior is less modern than Beijing and the infrastructure is bursting at the seams. There are 3 million people living in Mongolia, with 1.5 million in Ulaanbaatar. According to Froit, itis a city designed for half the population that it currently sustains. Cycling in the city was quite the experience and sometimes there was barely enough room for my bike to squeeze through the gridlock. Ulaanbaatar, like all cities is also not without its social problems.

Mongolia is a nomadic country, with its traditional peoples living in gers (yurt-like structures) dotted across the immense, unforgiving landscape. With factors like climate change and desertification of the steppe, their way of life is becoming much harder to sustain. As a result, these people are being forced into the city. Thrown into a alien world, alcohol abuse unfortunately becomes the coping mechanism and it is a country-wide problem. Despite the chaos, Ulaanbaatar has some interesting character. I really like the area where Froit and Bolero lived – in one of the many ger districts around the city.

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Traditional structure (ger) in a modern landscape

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Ger district

On my last day in Ulaanbaatar, I got up early to see the morning prayers at Gandan Monastery.It was a hypnotic experience to listen to the monks chanting for over an hour. It brought me back to my travels in Tibet 4 years ago.

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A few photos from the exterior of Gandan Monastery (they were not allowed inside during prayer)

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When I wasn’t running around getting a visa extension or supplies for my tour, I was well taken care of by Froit and Bolora  – I will miss them a lot when I leave! After a week of travel in the cities, I am looking forward to cycling into the emptiness of Mongolia. This is what I came to this country for – the remoteness and the silence. The next update will be a cycling one and I will probably have a lot more photos (I don’t usually take a lot in the cities)  I leave tomorrow. I am nervous and excited about what lies ahead.