Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper online is publishing travel stories written by women in a series called “In Her Words.” Here is a small feature about my travels by bike. Check it out.
Check out an interview I just did for Mighty Goods – a website showcasing adventurous lifestyles through sport and travel. Here, I talk about what originally inspired me to start touring, past trips, why I choose to live the life I do and what’s next.
“MightyGoods aims to share stories and knowledge from the most interesting and experienced people from all over the world. We talk with adventurers, nomads, athletes and other people who live life to the beat of their own drum.”
Read the article here.
Mongolia. A land so vast, empty and silent. Where earth joins sky in a endless horizon. Where the only sound to disturb my thoughts is the rhythm of my breathing against the crunching of my tires through forged tracks of sand. These wavering lines stretch endlessly in front of me, swerving in unknown directions towards an indefinite goal lost in the steppe.
It is a cold morning in May and I am loading the last of my panniers onto the bike before continuing towards the salt lake of Khyargas Nuur. The early morning sun starts to reveal itself, creating a play of shadows and colour across the landscape. It will be three days before I see any real human settlement. My main company are a large heard of goats and sheep strewn across the steppe. The odd time I encounter local men in traditional robes on horseback or motorbikes, who stop for a brief chat that is mainly carried out through hand gestures. Riding a bicycle through Mongolia can be a lonely existence. But this feeling of loneliness is not detrimental to my state of mind. Instead, I feel a powerful and spiritual connection to the land. With so much silence and so much space, it allows for a pure, uncluttered mind.
I am often asked why I have made the decision to cycle solo. When you are solo, I believe that travel becomes more challenging, more raw, more real. Without someone by your side to provide a sense of familiarity you are forced to give yourself 100% to the the unknown. In this way, I believe that deeper connections are made with the local people, even without a common language. But one of the biggest myths of female solo travel is that is simply isn’t safe.
In many places of the world, a solo female is often seen as vulnerable and this way more people want to be there to shelter and protect you. In Mongolia I was often invited into yurts because the locals feared that my tent and my clothing wouldn’t be warm enough. In Pakistan I was taken into a family home as a stranger and within minutes I became a “daughter.” And in Tajikistan I was fed and given endless cups of tea to comfort on a cold night. For me, safety was never a large concern with my decision to travel alone. On the road, I have encountered a much more powerful demon – loneliness. Not the elevated kind that I experienced in Mongolia. Sometimes you meet people on the road that you develop strong connections with. These encounters are fleeting, leaving you satisfied or creating a longing that you hadn’t felt before. It is then that I start to feel real, unwanted loneliness.
I can remember one beautiful, crisp day riding the rough sandy road of the Wakhan Valley in Tajikistan. I was tracing the outline of the Pyanj river and on the other side was Afghanistan and the towering, spectacular Hindu Kush. For me, this was adventure cycling at its best – it had everything that I wanted to experience. But my mind was as far away from the present as it could possibly be. I had met someone months ago, when I had least expected it. When I was reminded of the beauty and warmth of companionship, I suddenly struggled to be alone. It really started to hit me in Tajikistan – and I loved and hated him for it.
That night, in a low state of mind, I started to search for a homestay or a place to pitch my tent. I pushed my bike down a small dirt track and saw a woman standing outside a square block Tajik style home. I approached her, making the gesture for “tent”. With a warm smile, she beckoned me into her home and pointed to a room where I could stay. After unloading my stuff she took me into the main living room and sat me down on a mat in front of a table. She then took off her jacket, put it over my shoulders and propped up some pillows behind my back. Next came bread, butter and a pot of steaming hot green tea. Even though we couldn’t communicate through words, there was something deeper. This woman brought me more comfort than she will probably ever know.
While I didn’t speak Russian, she continued to talk to me as if I were fluent. For most of the night, she didn’t leave my side and I was warm and fed. Soon I met her husband and little boys. They put on some traditional Tajik music and started to casually dance. This was a family that had so little and was willing to give so much to a total stranger. Without a common language, it is difficult to make deep connections with someone, which leaves you longing for familiarity. But that night, in that little home in the Wakhan Valley, I was reminded of the beauty of travelling on my own. I temporarily felt like a part of that family as I gave as much of myself as I could to this new and strange world. At that moment, I no longer felt alone.
Loneliness is a being that lives inside all of us, suppressed by the noise around, waiting to be woken in the silence. When you give into this silence, immersed in your own thoughts, you really begin to discover your true self. For me, meditation is riding my bicycle along a deserted road through the mountains, through only space with not a soul in sight. I am happy, at peace. But then more serious thoughts begin to emerge – how long can I continue this life on my own? Will I ever meet another to share it with? These are questions that have no immediate answer. So I ride on, and let these thoughts temporarily escape from my mind, throwing themselves into wind that pushes my wheels forward.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My last night in Mongolia slept in a ger, which seems fitting because my first night cycling I also slept in one.
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.
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.
The last stretch from Ulaangom was the scenic highlight of my trip so far. The amazing views were hard-won as I pedalled, pushed and dragged my bike through the mountains on horrendous road conditions (even for Mongolia). Leaving Ulaangom, I was exhausted. I really should have rested for two days instead of one. Ignoring my tired body I continued on the paved road for 40km out of the city. Then, to my left, a dirt road snaked its way uphill through a crack in the mountains. This was the gateway to the the Ulaan Davaa, or Red Pass, where I was headed. The next few hours were torturous for me. The initial moderate grade got increasingly steep and I had no power left in my legs. I started to push. Pushing is equally difficult, relieving one set of muscles while seriously stressing the others. The weather turned and it briefly began to rain, which turned into wet snow. I saw a van parked up ahead and a woman stepped out, motioning for me to sit inside and warm up. I was grateful for the break and chatted with the family inside. They were having engine troubles. Eventually I left and continued to struggle, pushing up the pass. I could see now why it was called “Red Pass” – the hills all around have a reddish hue to them. I made myself smile through gritted teeth and laboured breaths at the beauty around.
The traffic warden was busy clearing it…
Soon, I saw the ovoo (rock cairn) in the distance and finally pushed my way to victory at the top.
I had wanted to reach Üüreg Nuur that day, a spectacular lake with excellent camping. This was not to be, as I was too exhausted from all of the pushing. I pitched my tent near the bottom of the pass amongst the surrounding green hills. The next day I decided that I would stop to camp at Üüreg Nuur, even if it was only 30km away. The ride was beautiful, carving a wavering path through the mountains.
Along the way, I met a motorcyclist from Germany. He was on 23,000km round trip journey from his hometown Germany to Mongolia and back. He looked pro with a Red Bull branded jacket and pants and flashy iridescent googles. He wondered why I was cycling, when I could have chosen a much faster form of transport. If he asked me that the day before, I probably would have agreed.
I soon crested a hill and was rewarded with the first view of Uureg Nuur.
On the descent towards the lake, a jeep followed and stopped beside me. It was father and son that lived in a ger right on the lake. They wanted me to come by and have tea. I think it was one of the most scenic ger locations I’ve seen yet.
I was given süütei tea, which I have grown to really love. I also tried some of the most delicious fresh yogurt. I went through my usual communication routine of flipping through my Lonely Planet phrasebook and in turn passing it over for my hosts to find questions to ask me. Later in that ger, I faced one of the biggest mental challenges of the trip so far. My kind host prepared a meal for me and boiled sheep innards was on the menu.
I must say that I have a fairly wide palate and the very idea of what it was did not put me off. I just thought to myself that maybe it would taste better than it looked and smelled. It failed in both categories. I ate as much as I could stomach so as not to be rude to my hosts. They gave me a large bowl and continued to fling miscellaneous chunks into it. I read later in my Lonely Planet e-book that there are two types of cuisine in the Mongolian countryside. “Nomad’s food” is normally prepared by women and included the noodle type dishes I was used to. And then, there is “Hunter’s food” prepared exclusively by men – usually meat and intestines that are boiled or barbecued. So maybe next time if I see no women around, I will pass on the offer for lunch.
I camped near the ger that night, right by the lake.
The father came to my tent in the middle of the night to make sure I was OK and felt safe. He took my hand a briefly cupped in his to make sure I wasn’t cold. I felt like he was my own father looking out for me. I regret not giving him a proper goodbye the next morning.
I knew I had a tough day ahead as I would have to cross the Bairam Davaa pass (2570m). I had read in several cycling journals that pushing was almost guaranteed due to the rocky and steep track.
I started to climb away from lake and about with about 5km to the top of the pass, the pushing began and continued for a few hours. My bike is a 60kg transport truck so pushing up was agonizingly slow. I would only be able to go 50m or so before I felt dizzy and would have to take a break. When the road finally became rideable, the view opened up to the surrounding peaks.
After another kilometre or so, I could see the ovoo!! I was beyond excited and yelled out loud for no one to hear. I reached the top. I was finished.
After that a great (if rocky and slow) descent followed.
I dropped down into a beautiful valley and was soon spotted by a group of people near a ger. They waved for me to come over. After much ooohing and ahhing over my special letter “Ohhhhh, Tapa!” (Tara in cyrillic),this awesome and enthusiastic bunch let me take a photo of them. My “special letter” is a letter I have written giving details about me and my trip, which I have translated into Mongolian.
About three kilometres from the mining village of Khotgor, I camped for the night. Khotgor was a pretty desolate and dreary place, right beside a coal mine. The next day I picked up what meagre supplies were available and moved on towards the next lake, Achit Nuur.
The road morphed from washboarded dirt, to a rocky mess and then into a dreamy desert track
Overall it was a great day and I spent the night on the shores of Achit Nuur, where several Kazakh ger settlements dotted the shore line.
I gave myself an earlier start the next morning because I had wanted to reach Olgii, about 80km away. I knew there was another very rocky stretch of road ahead that would take a long time to cover. I continued my ride around Achit Nuur before climbing into the hills again.
Later, I reached the track from hell. Rock, rock and more rock. 20km of it. I was offered rides by about five vehicles that day, who tried to tell me that the road was no good for a bicycle. I pedalled on at about 7km per hour, the severity of my saddle sores increasing by the minute. The road followed the Khovd Gol (river) for most of the way to Olgii. It offered pleasant roadside company to distract from the horrendous condition of the track.
About 20km from Olgii, the wind turned on me and I felt very drained. I knew I had one more small pass before the city. I was thrilled when I reached the top and could finally see the buildings below.
What a ride. But I was exhausted, finished. I have spent the last two days relaxing around Olgii at my cozy ger guesthouse, not really doing much, and I love it. Olgii is very different culturally from the rest of the Mongolia that I have travelled in. It is mainly Kazakh with a decent part of the population being Muslim instead of Buddhist or Shaman. There are several mosques around the city of about 28.000 people. This region of Mongolia is also the home of Kazakh eagle hunters and there is a large festival in Olgii every year, taking place in October. Eagle hunting takes place in the winter. Marco Polo even documented the tradition in his travels.
“The Emperor himself is carried upon four elephants in a fine chamber made of timber, lined inside with plates of beaten gold, and outside with lion’s skins (for he always travels in this way on his fowling expeditions, because he is troubled with gout). He always keeps beside him a dozen of his choicest falcons, and is attended by several of his Barons, who ride alongside him. ..[when one of the barons sees a crane flying overhead, Kubilai] casts one of his falcons, whichever he pleases, and often his quarry is struck within his view, so that his has the most exquisite sport and diversion… So it is not without reason I tell you that I do not believe there ever existed in the world or ever will exist, a man with such sport and enjoyment as he has, or with such rare opportunities.” -Marco Polo
I am not sure if I will encounter any eagle hunters en route, as they are not active in the summer. This region is also home to the Khoomei throat singers, a very old and sacred tradition. I had thought about making an excursion to see one, but on my rest days I tend to be a lazy tourist. Tomorrow I am heading southwards towards Khovd and will continue south until the Chinese border at Bulgan, about 800km away. My wheels will be rolling through mountains most of the way.
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.
The road itself was long and lonely, with often only the yaks to keep my company.
The camping is also lonely yet wonderful as the barren ribbons of road.
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.
The landscape changed as I approached the Chuulut River Gorge and wound my way along a track through a wooded area.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
After about 20km of hectic Ulaanbaatar traffic, the Mongolia of my imagination opened up before me.
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.
As remote as the place feels, you are never really completely alone. Gers, the traditional dwelling of the nomadic herders are always around.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
With warmest regards,
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.
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.
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.
Although it was cold, it looked majestic.
Mongolians say that you can encounter all four seasons in Spring.
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.
I played in the snow with the little boy. There was a lot of laughing. Language barriers don’t exist with young children.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.