June 28, 2015

Windy beer bottles and nomadic hospitality

A quick managerial note then we'll get to the business. I set up a Google group some 5 years ago to send email copies to each group member after every new blog post.  I think it worked fairly well for keeping up to date with my posts without having to continually check to see if I've posted something. So the same Google group, email system is in place this time and I've just kept the same list of followers from my previous cycle trip. So if you'd like to receive email copies of each post after they are made send me an email and I'll add you to the list.  If you are on this list from the last go-around and don't want to receive email notifications, you can always unsubscribe by following the instructions at the bottom of the email. Ok....that's done.

So we left Ulaan Baatar in the late afternoon on Saturday with awkwardly heavy bikes and even heavier traffic. We had no city map nor tangible directions other than the hostel lady telling us to turn left on Peace Avenue (all of the street signs were in Cyrillic, so Peace Avenue was not exactly helpful). So we ended up stopping at a gas station and getting directions from a gas station attendant, who ironically was Mormon and had fairly good English. He informed us that the road we were planning on taking was not paved and suggested that we go the longer, less direct route with better roads. Apparently every car in the country had the same idea that day, or perhaps Mongolia has some serious weekend warriors because the traffic on this two lane road with no shoulder was thick.  So thick that we ended up cycling on the dirt/grass path that paralleled the road for the majority of the afternoon. Not exactly the Mongolia experience that I envisioned but we were only about 30 km from the capital. So we just kept weaving between the road and the dirt path between spurts of traffic, road construction, pot holes, and loads and loads of cars that never seemed to end. Then I heard an extremely loud hissing sound....it literally sounded like an air compressor was being discharged. I turned to see Andrew's tire spewing, puking, rapidly discharging air. We got off the bikes and inspected the rear tire to find a huge gash. A gash you could easily fit your pinky finger through. We retraced the incident and found the bottom of an incredibly thick broken beer bottle sitting in the dirt path. So day one, less than 20 miles on the road and we were performing major tire surgery as the miles of traffic blew past us. At one point, a bus filled to the brim with passengers pulled over and the driver approached us. We thought he was going to ask if we were ok or needed a ride..... then he said 'Vodka' in a thick russian/mongolian accent. Turns out he just wanted a nip before finishing his drive to the big city. So we repaired Andrew's tire as best we could and hatched a plan for getting a backup tire if/when the gash grew to blowout status. We pushed the bikes to the top of a nearby knoll and made camp. Our first night in the Mongolian outback.

Superhero Schurr

Then came our first proper introduction to the wind. I'd imagine Mongolians have about as many words for wind as Native Alaskans have for snow. During my research for this trip, I read lots of blogs about people cycling through Mongolia. Typically the first thing they mention/complain about is the wind. I remember one blog describing the wind as somehow blowing in all directions at the same time. Well, I now understand that statement. Leaning hard into a cross wind, then almost getting knocked off the bike from a wind in the complete opposing direction. Headwinds requiring you to continue to pedal, even when going downhill, otherwise you're brought to a complete stop and pushed backwards. It's really frustrating but I'm trying to combat the wind frustrations with jazz music, typically of the Miles variety turned up really loud. When there's a reprieve from the wind or perhaps a morning when the wind isn't full throttle, it's time to log some miles. Otherwise, it's loud jazz and pretty slow going.

So we made it to a small town only about 25 km from Darkhan after a fairly long morning/afternoon of loud jazz. We stopped for some food and a quick shelter from the wind. From the window of the cafe, we watched the wind grow into Incredible Hulk proportions, levitating and launching empty plastic bottles in the opposite direction of our intended travel. So we kicked it in the cafe for a few hours, practicing and learning more Mongolian phrases with the locals. After a few hours the wind slowed, we said our goodbyes and hit the road. We made it about 5 km and set up our tents in a small pasture near a river with lots of cows, horses and a few local herders. It was a glorious camp spot and we soaked up the beauty for all of about 5 minutes...then the wind made another Hulk like gesture that crippled Andrew's tent....suggesting that we were in need of some shelter more significant than tent poles and lightweight fabric. So we took shelter under a train crossing culvert until our eyes, ears and noses were full of dirt. We made a quick decision to ride the wind back to the cafe that we had left only a few hours before and seek refuge. We opened the door to the cafe and they produced a large smile and laugh when they saw our dirty and gritty faces. They let us sleep in their extra shack around back.

The next morning was cold. We rode with puffies, pants and gloves the remaining 25 km to Darkhan. Then it starting raining. We found internet and called a few bike shops in Ulaan Baatar for arranging a spare tire. Then we went looking for a hotel. Instead we found Otgon. Within a few minutes, Otgon, who used to perform as a tumbler/aerialist in the Wringling Brothers Circus, invited us to stay at his house. Otgon had incredibly good English, along with German, Russian, Mongolian and various other languages. He played impromptu tour guide; showing us restaurants, monasteries, rivers, supermarkets, guiding Andrew in Tibetan calisthenics, and providing no shortage of jokes and laughs throughout our all-too-short time with this guy. Truly a good souled human with the most futuristic shower I've ever experienced. We, and by we I mean Otgon, arranged the spare tires to be brought by a bus driver from Ulaan Baatar, which prevented us from sitting on a bus for 6 hours. Otgon is the man.

Otgon and Andrew by the river

So we left Otgon and Darkhan....and it was blistering hot. Something like 32C (90F). There aren't always proper places in between towns to fill up or filter water, so we look for gers (yurts) who are always more than happy to fill up our water bottles (and most times offer tea and biscuits). It is nomadic tradition/code to take care of travelers as they themselves are travelers. This is one of the reasons I chose to come to Mongolia; to experience the rich cultures and traditions of nomads. It's actually disrespectful to knock on the door before entering a ger. Mongolia feels a lot like Kyrgyzstan. People are extremely hospitable, lots of livestock, herders, weird milk/yoghurt concoctions, remnants from the soviet era (high rise apartments from the communist era, lots of Cyrillic, roadside vodka parties). The main difference that I've observed thus far is religion. Most people are Buddhists compared to Muslims in the Stans. Which basically amounts to colorful Stupas/Monasteries instead of Mosques, call for prayers and little white hats. And a lot of people here speak English. I'm amazed how many people can speak English. That doesn't really happen in the Stans.

Sorry...got sidetracked there. We ended up making our way to Erdenet, the 3rd largest city in Mongolia with the help of some extremely loud jazz and some roadside kindness (agriculture workers at a tiny Norfolk plant took us in, filled our water bottles and fed us dinner). Andrew has a friend of a friend whose wife is from here (mighty convenient). So we're currently staying in one of their extra apartments (one of the large apartment complexes from the communist era). We are sore and wind burnt. We've logged just over 200 miles in less than 6 days of cycling. Definintely the heaviest bike I've ever ridden. So this is the last of the big cities before launching off into the countryside. I'll get internet about once a week from here on out. Wish us well, we'll be blaring jazz music and eating canned horse meat!  


Andrew riding from a campsite

Another epic campsite

And another one

We've been kicking it with these guys the past few days, watching the Little Mermaid

June 20, 2015

On the road again

So it's been a while since I last posted on this blog. Not that I've had any shortage of blog worthy adventures since I packed my bike in a box and flew home from Cairo...but I've preferred to share those stories in person and not spend hours pasted to a computer screen while on various adventures. Nonetheless the blog does have its advantages, namely allowing me a creative outlet for documenting my longer adventures and sharing those experiences with friends and family that I love so dearly (you). So now that I've justified and qualified this blog, let us begin.  

Let's see, my last post from December 2009 reads "...could I really be done ? ...with my mind constantly scheming each time I see a map, I know it's only a matter of time before my feet get restless and my wheels are rolling again."

Reading that post some 5 years later, I'm wondering if perhaps my younger self knew how easy it would be to get caught up in those societal gerunds that make traveling a further and further reality as we get older. Perhaps I was reminding my older self how important these experiences are. Either way, my feet done got restless and my wheels will indeed be rolling again. I found some inspiration one night laying in bed, reading an article entitled "20 Things to do when you're 30 that will make life better at 50." Number 15 was: "Travel. As much as possible. Whenever you can".

So I'm travelling again. On the bike. This time it's Mongolia, China and Central Asia. A lot of people have asked me how Mongolia and Central Asia got on my radar. The first thing that came to mind is the hospitality and sincere kindness of nomadic cultures. I fell in love with the semi-nomadic cultures of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on my previous trip and after 4 weeks in Kyrgyzstan and 6 weeks in Tajikistan in 2009, I knew I'd only scratched the surface and would someday return to these amazing countries for round 2. I've managed to stay in touch with an amazingly kind family in Kyrgyzstan and have always dreamed of returning to visit them. Then there's Mongolia. During my last trip, I cycled with a Spanish friend, Alex Prieto, who shared stories of cycling through Mongolia, of vast landscapes of wilderness inhabited by nomadic cultures, forging routes over landscapes with no roads, lots of wind, strange food and lots of Type 2 fun. It sounded like an adventure that was right down my alley.

So here we go. I have basically little to no preconceived notions of this trip other than a general idea of the route, a handful of potential border crossings, a Chinese visa, a Surly bike with some serious stories to tell, and a good friend, Mr Andrew Schurr to cycle with for a few months. This trip will be different from my previous travels in many ways and somewhat similar. For one, I'm slightly older. Don't mistake that for lacking in energy, psyche, and overall excitement for adventures and random dance parties....but I've had some body fails in the past 3ish years (particularly my back) that seem to consistently remind me that I'm no longer the young chap that I once was. The next similarity is traveling through Central Asia. This will be the first time that I've ever returned to an international location. I've always thought of the world as being such a gigantic place of potential travel opportunities, that I simply couldn't justify spending precious travel time returning to a place that I'd already been. But when I thought of the idea of traveling by bicycle again; I couldn't get Central Asia off my mind. Then there's the cycling partner dynamic. My last bicycle adventure included lots of alone time, independant decisions and minimal English speaking. This time I've got an adventure companion, Dr. Schurr, along for the adventure. I'm excited to share adventures, speak English, suffer, recover and travel with someone. And then there's the bike. The same Surly that carried me across 3 continents is back in action. Hopefully bike years are fractional to human years, with my bike just as resiliant as it was 5 years ago. I also need an appropriate name for my beautiful forest green machine. I'm open to ideas if you want to suggest something?
So we've made it to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, with bicycles (in one piece!), not nearly enough sleep and lots of gear. I don't anticipate much internet access throughout Mongolia. So I'll post whenever possible. Looking forward to sharing some stories with you!

I'll end on a note taken from a conversation with friend Jeff Deikis before he dropped me off at the airport in San Francisco. "Never forget the difference between traveling and vacation." Vacation being the relaxing, reality check-out typically consisting of cocktails on the beach and sun bathing. Traveling being an exploration of self, far from relaxing at times, but far more rewarding in the end. Here's to traveling! 

Here's some pictures thus far:

Cycling in Beijing

Chinese artwork

More Chinese Artwork

Cycling in Ulaan Baatar with German friend, Nathalie
Dinner last night: Beefsteak and fried dish with rice: Total bill: $6