Operation Desert Storm: Xinjiang Part 2

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Stormy skies on the long haul to Kashgar

On a long cycling trip, sometimes you get those days where you are just “going through the motions.” When the scenery around you is uninspring, the traffic steady you are merely pedalling to cover distance. On the long haul to Kashgar, I had several days like this. Sometimes it was difficult to stay off of the main highway and I grew tired of the monotonous Taklamakan desert scenery.

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zzzzzz…are we there yet?

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Of course, not all of it was dull.


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I tried to stay on the smaller roads that paralled the highway. These little poplar lined streets were like portals into the past. Leaving the modern highway, I was soon pedalling beside little old men riding donkey carts. These two worlds existed parallel to one another and couldn’t be more different. If was on these backroads, resisting the modern world that one could see traditional Uyghur life unfold.

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special parking

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Leaving Korla I took the old road 317 until it eventually turned into a dirt track, which led me backtracking to the main highway. On the way I stopped for a lunch of laghman, my new favourite noodle dish. The lady serving me insisted that I sit at the back in front of a large air conditioning unit to stay cool. Soon she and few other kitchen staff sat around me and asked me a few questions. Unable to understand I took out my “Magic letter” written in Mandarin:

您好,亲爱的中国朋友,

我叫黛拉,是一个来自加拿大的女孩。骑自行车周游世界是我自儿时以来就有的梦想。我计划分别横穿亚洲和非洲大陆。具体路线是从蒙古到乌兹别克斯坦,然后经开罗骑行到开普敦。这次旅行预计持续18个月,行程2万5千公里。很开心中国将是我这次旅行中的一站。我会特意放慢我的脚步,细细欣赏这东方国度神秘而美丽的景色。

我会向我远在加拿大的朋友及家人讲述我旅途中见闻,讲述我所领略到中国风俗文化, 进述我所遇到的热情友好的中国朋友。

我已随身携带了旅行所需的全部物品,包括一顶帐篷和厨具,因此这次旅行花销都在我的预算范围内。

能够在这次漫长的旅行中遇到你,我的内心倍感激动。但是很遗憾,我无法用中文和您交流。

衷心希望您能帮我,使我的旅程更加安全和愉快。

谢谢,祝好!

黛拉

(Thank you to my friend Ye Huang for the translation)

and in English..

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

After that I was given many more smiles and thumbs up. They asked if I needed more noodles and a second heaping plate came my way. This was follow by a whole watermelon, and another plate of rice and mutton. Even for a starving cyclist, it was too much and I could barely finish it! At the end they refused to accept any payment and gave me another big bag of rice and meat to take with me. I was truly humbled by their kindness and I left that restaurant almost too full to ride, but very happy.

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I think I needed a shower just as much as I needed food…

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The kind people at the restaurant that fed me heaps of food at no charge

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Remote off-roading? No, this is my attempt at avoiding the main highway 80m away.

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dirt track beside the highway – very scenic.

Late in the evening I managed to escape the highway again and ended up passing through a picturesque Uyghur village. Small rectangular homes surrounded by groves of apricot trees lined the road. I asked a local woman if there was somewhere that I could pitch my tent. I was taking a risk doing this as foreigners are technically supposed to stay in hotels every night. She offered me a place in her home to sleep that night. I followed her back to a very cosy little house. There, I met her husband and children. They gave me a bowl of fresh apricots from their garden and a vase of water to wash off. She made fresh laghman for dinner which was absolutely delicious. The language barrier was challenging as I only knew about three Uyghur phrases (and maybe five in Mandarin). The husband knew the word “yes” very well which he used many times. Many Uyghur people can speak Mandarin but cannot read it, so my Mandarin phrasebook was not as useful. Still, we got by well enough through the universal language of smiling and gestures. Later in the evening, I was visited by the Uyghur police. I was afraid that they would make me leave the village but they took photos of me and my passport and went on their way. I had a wonderful experience that night staying with the family.

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My Uyghur home for the night

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Children of the family I stayed with

_DSF2287  Down the road, the hospitality was never ending. One morning I stopped by some fruit sellers to buy apricots. When I said that I wanted five, they motioned for me to sit down and then handed me the whole box to munch on. As I said thank you and stood up to leave, they dumped another full box into some bags for me to take. It was ridiculously heavy to cycle, but I crammed them into my panniers anyway – eating apricots all day.

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I was given a full box to take with me for free!

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I also had many great encounters with the local police. The passport checks were frequent – at least 1-2 times per day. The police were just as keen on examining my passport as they were handing me over giant watermelons and cold drinks. One man came over to talk to me while I was having lunch and insisted on paying my bill. Another invited me into the station and insisted that I have dinner with them. I only had one unwanted encounter with police and even then it was with a pretty relaxed demeanour.

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This kind officer bought me lunch just outside of the city of Aksu

There is certainly a bit of paranoia in Xinjiang. This is felt by the heavy police presence. I also noticed right away that most gas stations were blocked off with barbed wire fences. When I wanted to buy gasoline for my camp stove, I found out that it was illegal for foreigners to buy gas. Even for Chinese citizens, only the driver was allowed inside and the passengers had to exit the vehicle and wait outside the fence. Foreigners were also not allowed to stay with locals in Uyghur villages, because it was deemed “unsafe”. After my first successful night of staying in a village I decided to make a second attempt. This time it didn’t work out so well.

35 km West of the city of Luntai I stopped in a small village in the late afternoon. After eating melons given to me by a shopkeeper and nan (bread) I decided to carry on.  The lady said that I should take the highway because the road surface ahead wasn’t very good. I had no desire to go back to the highway so I said that I would try to continue straight. Sure enough, the road disappeared altogether and I ended up backtracking to the village. At this point, menacing clouds roared over head and thunder crashed. I knew that if I returned to the highway I would be stuck on it for a while. I asked the shop keeper if there was any guesthouse in the town that I could stay in. She said there wasn’t and offered me the use of a dirty old apartment by the store. I was grateful to have shelter from the storm that began to rage, but it was far from relaxing. Some annoying kids gathered around the window, yelling out “hello! hello! hello” and kept banging on the glass. I was worried about drawing too much attention. Right away, I wish that I hadn’t decided to stay. Sure enough, around 9pm, there was a loud bang on my door. Not surprisingly, a policeman stood outside. He told me to bring my passport and camera to the station. I felt very guilty for imposing on the locals. The man took me into the station and sat me down with about six other officers. I gave my innocent naive foreigner look again while they pondered what to do with me. One man spoke very little English and said that I could not stay in the village, but had to move to a hotel. The only hotel was 80km away in Kuqa or 35km back in the wrong direction to Luntai. I was definitely not keen on going backwards, so I lied and said that I would cycle all the way to Kuqa. They insisted that this was too dangerous and would arrange a taxi to Luntai for me. Eventually I had to accept that I would have to cycle the 35km again the next day. The officers were very polite and helpful and wanted to make sure that I would get to a hotel safely. I couldn’t really get upset since I was the one technically breaking the rules. So that night I paid more than I wanted to for a hotel, but it was luxury. I felt like I was paying $30 for a $250/night value back home in Canada.

Despite my run-in with the police, I still camped most of the way to Kashgar, but I had to be discreet. From the ugly city of Kuqa I was cycling very long days – covering around 160km and stopping around 9:30pm to camp. I had some of the most “interesting” campsites to date. One night I found a gap in the barbed wire fenced along the road and ran with my bike towards some hills near hydro towers. It was about 500m of pushing frantically out in the open until I could get out of sight. That night a crazy thunderstorm raged in the distance and I was certainly glad it didn’t come any closer. On my ride across to Kashgar, I definitely experienced some extreme weather. At least once a day there was a short, but powerful thunderstorm. Then, mixed with a sandstorm, created another beast altogether.

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This was actually one of my better campsites.

I experienced several sandstorms on my ride across. Normally riding was possible, covering my nose and mouth with a buff and wearing sunglasses. There was one such storm, however that was too dangerous to attempt to cycle through. Visibility was reduced significantly and the sand became mixed with rain – whipping a sludge mixture through the air at breakneck speed. So I hid under a tunnel for 30 minutes and let the storm pass. After riding through dull scenery all day, it provided me with some much needed entertainment.

After the storm had passed I was able to ride an amazing tailwind for the rest of the day. The wind throughout the ride was very unpredictable, but I was lucky enough to have tailwinds most of the time. I was eager to get to Kashgar, pushing hard through heat and terrible saddle sores that were only relieved by a double daily dose of ibuprofen. The kind people along the way and the delicious food helped to  carry me through. One man gave me a cold green melon that was perhaps the most delicious piece of fruit I have ever had in my life. The sweetness, dripping juice was like medicine in the heat. In my state of fatigue it was hard to describe how good this melon tasted. Even now, its taste lingers.

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Kashgar’s old town

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nan

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I was thrilled to finally be in Kashgar, staying at the Old Town Youth hostel, where my bicycle joined several others. I met many interesting travellers including one from Russia who was also headed to Pakistan (not by bike). I didn’t think I would find anyone else! With the oppressive heat I spent several lazy days hanging around the hostel, chatting to other travellers. At night I visited the lively night market, sampling various types of Uyghur cuisine. I tried many types of kebabs including some kind of testicle, which was surprisingly tasty. I also tried a delicious mixture of yogourt, ice shavings and honey, which my stomach paid for later. More exotic dishes such as goat’s head soup were also available.

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unknown animal parts at the market


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In Kashgar, the Uyghur culture is thriving. Chaotic streets in the old town were crowded with vendors selling fruit, sweets, bread, clothing and other miscellaneous goods. A chorus of men shouting to advertise their various products on offer joined the constant roar of motorbikes whizzing through the narrow streets. I also witnessed the skinning of a goat that had just been slaughtered. Smells of grilled meat wafted through the air. Kashgar was a thriving and fascinating place, if a bit exhausting at times. Unfortunately a lot of the old town has been destroyed in attempt to modernize the city for “economic progress.” Kashgar is also famous for its Sunday livestock market which I was unfortunately unable to attend due to an expiring visa. Kashgar is the official start of the Karakoram highway into Pakistan.

I had a lot of climbing out of Kashgar to get to the mountains again. The first day was extremely hot and after 80km I hit road construction. The road was quite broken in parts and I was eating dust from passing trucks. It looked like a freeway was being built beside the old highway, with some significant bridge construction.

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New super highway?

The mountains grew higher and higher and I finally hit smooth paved road near a beautiful aquamarine lake.

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This continued all the way to stunning Karakul Lake at over 3000m, surrounded by Kyrgyz yurts. The locals were friendly if a bit pushy, with many boys approaching me on motorbikes trying to get me to stay in their yurts. Eventually I agreed to pay for dinner and breakfast in a yurt and pitched my tent near the shore of the lake. The cool temperature was a relief after the scorching heat of Kashgar. I slept very well that night.

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Karakul Lake

The next morning I cycled the final 100km to Tashkurgan over the Ulugh Rabat pass at 3955m. While it was supposed to be downhill most of the way to Tashkurgan, strong headwinds made it a very unpleasant ride. I passed many small Tajik settlements on the way. The border town of Tashkurgan is also mainly Tajik. I met several people from my hostel in Kashgar, including my new Russian friend Semen that would take the mandatory bus to Sost in Pakistan with me the next day. Since 2001, the Chinese have banned cyclists from riding the 200km stretch of no man’s land between China and Pakistan. Because of the Muslim Eid holidays, many Pakistanis were taking the bus and we worried that we wouldn’t be able to get a seat. I had to, as my Chinese visa would expire in two days.

The next morning we got up unnecessarily early to get our tickets, only to find out that Chinese customs would open almost four hours later. I talked to several Pakistanis waiting in the crowd and was already given several numbers to call in case I needed any help at all while in the country. The Pakistani hospitality had already begun. I was relieved when I finally got my ticket. I had butterflies in my stomach as I boarded the bus to Pakistan. One of my long-time dreams would soon be a reality – I was about to cycle the Pakistani Karakoram highway, a truly legendary road.

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The Fruits of My Labour: Into Xinjiang, China

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Xinjiang is famous for its melons in the summer months. Many truckloads lined my route.

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Uyghur village near Mongolian border

At the Chinese border town of Takeshiken, I had the sweetest melon I ever tasted. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous province of China is famous for its fruits in summer. Being deprived of fresh fruit in Mongolia, the site of a truckload of watermelons sent me into a frenzy. I tried a watermelon and a large yellow melon, similar to a cantaloupe. One bite sent sugary sweet juices gushing down my chin – I was in heaven. I also had several bowls of laghman at a friendly restaurant.

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Laghman, a delicious staple of Uyghur cuisine

Laghman are hand pulled noodles, served in several varieties. Typical laghman is usually cooked in a spicy tomato sauce with vegetable and mutton. It was absolutely delicious and flavour rich compared to the simplicity of Mongolian food. After a day of rest in Takeshiken, I turned West and then South into the desert towards Urumqi.

Emerging from the vast emptiness Mongolia, I knew that developed China would come as a bit of a  shock. Rows upon rows of power lines stretched across the landscape and real traffic appeared. The ride from the border to Urumqi was quite dull and fairly busy. I had decided to take the main road so that I could get to Urumqi as quickly as possible. But in between the long stretches of dull desert scenery were short bursts of brilliant colour to break the monotony.

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A small sign of life 

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Shades of the desert

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The long, dull road

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In Mongolia, I spent the majority of my time wild camping. In China, foreigners aren’t technically allowed to camp, as they are supposed to be registered in a hotel every night. Since there is no real way of keeping track of your whereabouts, camping is possible if you keep out of sight. Thus, I learned to master the art of stealth camping. Tunnels under the main road became my site of choice.

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Stealth camping at its finest

Sometimes there would also be a break in the barbed wire fence lining the road and I could sneak behind a sand dune. I emerged from my sandy campsite early one morning to find a large convoy of trucks parked. This line of trucks turned out to be 10km long and were stopped due to an accident (a truck’s load had tipped). In this situation, it was clear that I had the vehicle of choice. I enjoyed a rare traffic-free 30km of riding. Then, disaster struck.

Suddenly, my brakes started to jump sideways as I was pedalling. After making several adjustments, it took about 20 minutes for me to realize that my rear rim was severely cracked. Luckily I was only 130km from a large city, Urumqi, where I could get a new rim I consider myself lucky that this didn’t happen in Mongolia as I would probably have had to take transport across the entire country.

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cracked rim

Soon a police car drove by and I waved them down. The kind officers took me back to their station, fed me nan (bread) sweets and drinks. After, they found a passenger van that would take me and my bike to Urumqi at no charge. This was only the beginning of the incredible hospitality and kindness that I would experience throughout Xinjiang.

The Xinjiang province of China is home to the Uyghur minority, whose language and cultural traditions draw similarities to those in Central Asia. Many Uyghurs are Muslim. Once, the Uyghur population made up the majority of the province, but with Han Chinese immigration it is now less than 50%. As the Uyghurs fight to preserve their culture, there is constant tension in the region.

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Making samsas in Urumqi -pockets of dough stuffed with mutton and spices

In the large, chaotic, city of Urumqi the traditional Uyghur way of life could only be experienced in small pockets. Tucked in between the flashy shopping malls and intense traffic were small stalls cooking up laghman and grilling kebabs (skewers of meat or vegetables). You could have just about anything cooked on a stick from potatoes to tofu to goat intestines.  Delicious food was to be had everywhere and I spent a lot of my time gorging on Uyghur street cuisine. Fruit was also abundant – cartloads of the juiciest peaches, apricots and melons. I was also able to get a new rear rim and had my wheel rebuilt within 30 minutes. At my hostel, Maitan, I met three other French cyclists. Lucy and Pierre were a couple that were cycling for a year from France to Ulaanbatar. Christophe was solo cyclist who had already zig-zagged 28,000km from France to Urumqi. Together, the three of them were headed in the direction I had just come from. My first day in the city I met Jay from Colorado, USA who was headed West from Urumqi to Central Asia via train, bus and folding bike. I also met two very passionate birdwatchers from the UK, one of whom had identified over 8500 species in his lifetime! I enjoyed my days and nights in Urumqi, gorging on food and wandering around the city. I had a wonderful time with some great people and it was very difficult for me to part ways. I knew that I had a very challenging few days ahead of me. Over the next 130km I would be ascending 3000m to cross the Tian Shan range, the “Heavenly Mountains”.

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Out of the desert and into the hills

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The first day I climbed steadily out of the chaos of Urumqi. On the way I stopped by a woman selling watermelons. It made the perfect snack to provide relief from the oppressive heat. As I climbed higher and higher, the traffic became lighter, the air cooled and large green hills emerged. I passed the ugly industrial town of Houxia and found a place to camp by the river. The next morning I continued to climb and the scenery grew increasingly spectacular.

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The road zigzagged higher and higher and I struggled to find the energy to carry on. The weather had turned foul and a cold rain beat down on me for several hours. The altitude was also starting to get to me and I only managed 30km that day. Finding place to camp was difficult as the road hugged the edges of cliffs that plunged steeply to the river below. The second I spotted one small patch of flat land I decided to stop, not knowing when the next opportunity to camp would arise. I had another 15km to the Shengli Danba pass at 4280km, which I would tackle the next day.

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Just below the start of the steep switchbacks to the pass, I stopped for a simple lunch of bread, onions and tomatoes in a Kazakh yurt.

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lunch in a Kazakh yurt

After lunch, I pedalled to the start of the switchbacks. Then, a van stopped and a group of wonderfully energetic Chinese tourists jumped out. They took many photos of me, shouting out phrases like “Superman!” and “you’re my hero!” They gave also gave me some delicious snacks that really saved me afterwards. I felt like a celebrity and it gave me great motivation to start the climb.

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“You’re my hero!” 🙂 I loved these guys.

The switchbacks took me several hours to climb and I finally reached the top of the pass.

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View down to the yurts where I stopped for lunch

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Scenery along the climb

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Getting close..

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A view of the switchbacks I had just climbed. This is about 100m from the Shengli Danba pass at 4280m

The descent was slow and rough. I passed lush green hills and meadows with wildflowers – a scene that was reminiscent of Mongolia.

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The condition of the road, however, went from bad to deplorable and would stay this way for the next 50km. This was surprising to me as the majority of my cycling in China has taken place on pristine paved roads. The truck traffic began to increase and I grew very tired of the endless potholes rattling my bike. Finding a place to camp once again proved to be very tricky. I eventually pulled off the road and camped behind a tree next to the river. It was a little too close to the road for my liking, but I was exhausted and didn’t have the energy to continue. I slept poorly that night, disturbed by the constant truck traffic.

The next morning I thankfully had only 30km left of the terrible pot-holed road. When I reached the small town of Balguntay, I was stopped at a police checkpoint. The police tried to tell me that the road to Korla was closed to foreigners. I knew that this was nonsense as I had heard of several cyclists that had passed that way quite recently. They kept pointing to a picture of a Chinese passport and I responded by saying, “no, I have a Canadian passport” – playing the clueless, naive foreigner. By the fourth “wo bu mingbai” (“I don’t understand”) they let me through. I finally hit a first class sealed road – the type that China is known for. I freewheeled at high speed for the next 40km and eventually shot out into open desert.

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Desert camping

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landscape on the road to Korla

Soon, more green started to appear and the road became lined with poplar trees. Several stops by roadside melon trucks brought me relief in the heat. Eventually I reached Korla – a  green and chaotic oasis city. From here I would head west 1000km to Kashgar, one of the most famous Silk Route cities. Long stretches of empty desert beckoned. To the North lay the Tian Shan foothills and the vast expanse of the Taklamakan desert to the South.

The End of the Beginning – A Farewell to Mongolia

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scenery just south of Olgii

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Tolbo Lake

I was starting to get pretty comfortable in Olgii. The rough ride from Ulaangom had taken a lot out of me and one day’s rest turned into three. I stayed at a nice guesthouse with a ger to myself and spent a lot of my time resting, eating and surfing the internet. I ate at the same tasty Turkish restaurant called Pammukale every day. I also met a Dutch couple Anna and Julian who were driving across Mongolia. It was great hanging out with them.  I also came across another group from the UK, Ireland and France who had driven across from Europe. Eventually, the day came when it was time to get back on the road. I was spoiled with brand new paved road for the first 60km out of Olgii to Tolbo Lake. One thing I had missed about a tarmac road was the ability to descend at a high speed. On one steep incline with a strong tailwind I hit 69km/hr!

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I hit 69 km/hr on this descent!

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Rare photo of me cycling on a rare stretch of paved road.

Close to Tolbo Lake, I met a couple from the Czech Republic who had been backpacking around the world for 1.5 years. They were dropped off to do a day hike. They had about one month left of their epic trip before they were returning home. _DSF1760

After passing the edge of Tolbo Lake, the tarmac disappeared and the familiar rocks and corrugations began. I passed the small village of Tolbo, which holds a small Eagle festival at the end of September. The largest takes place in Olgii in October. I was in the realm of Kazakh eagle hunters.

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Tolbo village in the distance

_DSF1768 I was very low on energy at this point and didn’t want to continue much further past the village. I veered off the main track towards some hills to camp, when a couple on a motorbike waved for me to stop. They asked where I was headed and I mentioned that I was looking for a place to camp. The pointed at the road ahead, saying that there was somewhere to stay in 4km. Then they made flapping gestures with their arms. I was guessing this meant eagles! I decided to carry on. Five kilometres passed and I saw one small cement compound, but no eagles. I was too exhausted to keep going and pulled off the road to camp beside the river. While setting up, a boy on horse came over with a man walking beside him. They pointed to the small cement block homes and said I should sleep inside. I took up their offer and they help me take down my tent. I was in luck because it happened to be a family of Kazakh eagle hunters! Afterwards I saw the boy standing beside an eagle tied to a post. Holding the rope, taut, he got her to perch on my arm, What a magnificent bird!

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The eagle used to hunt is a burkit, a female. Females are often chosen because they are bigger and more aggressive than males. Training a burkit is a challenging process. She is kept tethered to her pole and taught to chase small skins until she can be trusted to be released to hunt in the winter. Soon, I was invited into the family’s  home for some welcoming snacks, tea and vodka shots. Inside, the home was tiny and cosy. This was the first home I had been invited into that wasn’t a ger. There was a small black and white TV opposite the seating area playing a Chinese war show dubbed over in Kazakh. The setup looked like it was right out of the 50’s. The family seemed to have a strong opinion against China, even though they were into their cheesy wartime dramas. There was a small cooking area with the typical ger stove setup and two other tiny rooms. I had a late night feast of my beloved noodle dish, tsuivan, Kazazh style, which seemed very similar to Mongolian. I slept well on the floor that night, sheltered from the wind howling outside.

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Starting the ascent from my Kazakh homestay

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Well, hello little friend!

The next morning I climbed higher into the mountains and was surprised to see that they were snow capped. It was a stunning ride that lead to a great descent and road that carved its way through the rock cliffs

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The road followed a river a gradually the condition went from mediocre to deplorable. Sometimes it can be hard to enjoy the scenery when most of my attention is focused dodging the rocks in front of me. That night I had the luxury of camping beside a river, which isn’t always so easy in Mongolia, where water can be quite scarce. The rest of the ride to Khovd was through more desert like scenery.

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About 20km from Khovd, I unfortunately had a bad encounter with a man on a motorbike. He waved to me while I was riding and motioned for me to stop. I had done this many times with friendly local men travelling on motorbike and horseback, who were eager to say hello and curious about where I was headed. Right away, I had a bad feeling about this one and kept the conversation short. I said bayartai, (goodbye) and starting to pedal away. He grabbed hold of my handlebars and bags and tried to stop me from riding away. I started yelling at him and swearing like crazy (wish it could have been in his language). I pedalled away as fast as I could and didn’t stop yelling. He followed me for about 20 seconds and then left. The encounter left me a lot more angry than afraid. It is infuriating knowing there are men out there like that. It was a shock because many of the local men were very kind to me, some trying to protect me as if I was their own daughter. My message to women travelling solo (cycling or not) is this: do not be afraid. I don’t want women to think that it is unsafe for them to travel on their own, but it is important to be cautious and stand your ground. If you are at all uncertain about a situation, GET OUT IT, no matter how rude or abrupt your actions might seem at the moment. Avoidance is key.  I will never believe that women should live in fear or that we need to be protected. I wish that a universal society could be created where these men will fear the repercussions of committing such acts. This one negative encounter did not ruin my image of Mongolia and its people. I did, however cycle onwards towards China with slightly more caution towards single men on motorbikes. Back on the road, just south of Manhan, the road began to climb and didn’t really stop for the next 50km.

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The company of friendly road workers give me a break on the climb out of Manhan

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Nearing the top of the endless climb

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The paved road gave out again and I inched my way slowly up the pass. My mood turned foul and I I was tired of climbing. A group of road workers waved to me and motioned for me to come over. They fired the usual questions at me and curiously inspected my bike, squeezing the tires. As usual, I could only understand about 10 per cent of what they were saying, but their enthusiasm and positive energy provided me with the break that I needed. In 35km I had already gained about 1000m in elevation. When the road eventually started to descend I decided to camp for the night, only making 50km out of my 100km goal for the day. The next day I continued to climb to the highest point I had cycled to in Mongolia at 2850m. Then, the best descent of the trip followed.

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The high-speed descent that awaited from the 2500m pass

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While the first 50km of the day had taken a great amount of effort, the last 50km took none whatsoever. I freewheeled at high speed down the pass and along a gorgeous river.  To top it all off I had a screaming tailwind. I passed many gers along the river and decided to stop and ask permission to camp next to one. I met another wonderful family with absolutely adorable kids. The girl was having a riot with my camera, acting like a pro photographer and getting me to do all sorts of poses, while the boy couldn’t stay away from my bike.

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In the last week of my trip, I felt like I could finally get a grasp on some basic Mongolian. It taken me quite some time. I really connected with the mother and wish I knew more of her language.

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I had mutton dumplings, buuz, made from scratch in their ger that night, which were absolutely delicious. Further up the road in Uyench, I met another wonderful woman and her adorable young daughter.  She had the most positive and infectious spirit. When I asked if she was married, it was devastating to hear that she lost her husband in a car accident only a year ago. I drank many many cups of suutei tsai (milky tea) with her in her tiny home. We communicated with the aid of my phrasebook and tried to learn as much about each other as we possibly could.

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buddies – outside of my family homestay in Uyench

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Road worker camps on the way to Uyench

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The backyard where I pitched my tent in Uyench

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I loved this little girl – Uyench

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She told me that a typical salary for a Mongolian is only $250-350 USD per month. In the countryside, Mongolians and largely self sufficient, raising their own animals and fueling the gers with dung. Among the things purchased would be flour to make noodles and fuel for motorbikes. With a move into a town, it becomes much harder to make a living. I have learned on my travels that people who have the least tend to give the most. With all that this woman had been through, her spirit had been unbroken and she had so much to give, even to a total stranger like me that showed up one night at her doorstep. I camped in her yard that night and her and daughter slept in her small car. I imagine she didn’t want to to sleep in her own bed because of her husband. The next morning I left for Bulgan, the final town before the Chinese border.

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Desert towards Bulgan

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Dirt roads, paved roads…the sheep and goats take over – Bulgan.

My last night in Mongolia slept in a ger, which seems fitting because my first night cycling I also slept in one.

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My final ger stay in Mongolia

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Making dumplings for dinner

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Originally I had intended to camp beside a group of gers. I approached a man and asked if I could put up my tent. He tried to tell me it was too windy (it was) but helped me set up anyway, not needing any instruction. Later on another man approached me from his ger and invited me inside for tea and snacks. Him and his family convinced me to take down my tent and to stay inside with them. So the whole family came out to take down my tent along with the neighbour that helped me setup. He smiled with the look of “I told you so.” The family made fresh dumplings in suutei tsai (milk tea) soup, which was delicious. These dumplings were more like the variety I had seen in China called jiaozi and less like the typical Mongolian buuz.

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homemade buuz

I drank another ridiculous amount of milk tea and at this point I feel it will be impossible for me to became lactose intolerant. Where Mongolia lacks in Vitamin C it makes up for in meat and dairy consumption. Exiting Mongolia was a breeze while entering China involved a series of thorough bag searches, computer and camera inspections. On the other side I met two cool girls from Singapore that had been working in Mongolia for 6 months and were making their way through China. They yelled encouragement from their vehicle as they headed towards Urumqi and me towards the Chinese border town of Takeshiken. I wish that I could have hung out with them longer.

Sitting at my hotel in Takeshiken, I reflected on my  journey across Mongolia. What a country. Before I had left Canada, it was the country I was most nervous about crossing, it terms of the rough roads, lack of water and unpredictable weather. While challenging, it was far more manageable than I had anticipated. I really miss the wide open, spectacular landscapes and unbelievable hospitality from the people. I don’t think that wild camping will ever get any easier. It is one of those few places left in the world with vast areas that still feel truly wild and untouched. Mongolia is a place that every cyclist should experience.

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A flashback to Terkhiin Tsaagan Nuur