August 18, 2015


And so the China adventure begins....rather abruptly. Up to this point, everything was written in Cyrillic, which is at least phoenetic. The humbling and extremely confusing world of Chinese and Uighur language reduced me back to baby-like hand gestures. The Chinese have a rather convenient way of counting to 10 on one hand (surf's up = 6, handgun = 7, pirate hook with index finger = 9), which makes understanding numbers much easier. We had luckily held onto some Chinese money from our previous time in Beijing (around $75), which turned out to be crucial. I'd read on a few travel blogs that the Chinese border town was surprisingly large, with a few proper hotels, supermarkets and restaurants. So I expected to encounter an ATM or at least a bank that would exchange US dollars....which was quickly laid to rest by the hotel proprietor, reminding me of the quirks of traveling in China. Even extremely small towns in Mongolia had ATM's while even some of the bigger cities in China don't have ATM's for foreign cards, nor are the banks interested in exchanging US dollars. So we were about 600 km from the provinvial capital of the largest province in China: Urumqi. Andrew and I decided to stay in our first proper hotel of the entire trip, with a bathroom, shower and wifi in the room!.....then I was reminded of the quirks of Chinese internet (Blogger, Facebook, Google, Skype, pretty much everything that you'd want to use on the internet was blocked), which didn't really matter at the time.  We washed the layers of dust from our skin (which we thought was a sun tan) and enjoyed our first proper noodle dish (Lag Mien) since leaving Beijing some 6 weeks prior. We launched off the next morning towards Urumqi.  

We made good progress on pavement. 150 km (90ish miles) easy in one day, weaving through rolling hills and eventually dropping into the flat desert stretch that remained between us and the big city. Then came the oppresive heat. 42 C (107 F). Living in Alaska for 5 years has made me soft to this sort of heat....especially exercising in this sort of heat. So Andrew and I made the easy decision to stick out a thumb (metaphorical thumbs....Asian hitch hilking is more like waving a fire with an imaginary piece of cardboard). We sat on the side of the road, sweating, trying to find a truck or SUV heading in the same direction. We successfully flagged a few cars and truck, all of which spoke/yelled at us in Chinese and eventually drove away. One car we flagged rolled down their windows, handed us half a watermellon and drove away. Then we flagged a large bus, which stopped and waved us aboard. We loaded our bikes and found seats on a nice air conditioned bus. After about 10 minutes, a guy aproached us asking for money (at this point we were down to less than $30). We were hoping to hitch hike, maybe sharing our half watermelon with a truck driver. Instead, we found ourselves sitting on a bus that we couldn't pay for (watermelon in our laps) which we pulled out our remaining Chinese money and showed that we didn't have enough. We speculated being thrown off at the next stop. We went through multiple iterations of trying to make the hand gesture that we were good for it. We could hit the next ATM....or maybe pay using a credit card? The Chinese guy just looked at us with an extremely confused look (fairly typical for us in China). Andrew even pulled out a crisp 100 dollar bill, to which the guy was completely unimpressed. Somehow I finally got through to the guy using a mime of using an ATM and pulling out money in Urumqi. The guy gave a satisfactory nod of the head, and we continued to speculate being thrown off at the next stop, and every stop until we got close to the city. We were beat tired and passed shortly after we didn't get thrown off at the first few stops (watermelon dripping in our laps) and finally arrived in the big city towards sunset. I sat on the bus while Andrew ran around the bus station, hitting 3 ATM's before finally finding one that accepted foreign cards. We had arrived at the biggest city of the entire trip (3+ million people).
Big City of Urumqi
We met Igor, a self described Russian/Texan, in Mongolia who actually lives in Urumqi. He connected us with his friend, Caleb, who was gratious enough to put us up. We enjoyed some well needed time off the bikes. We realized the Chinese symbol for noodle (mien) in Chinese and explored the city pointing at various noodle dishes on menus (having no idea what we ordered but pleasantly surprised when they brought out some conglomeration of noodles, vegetables, unidentified seafoods and meats). It was quite the change from the remote steppes of Mongolia, eating gelatto and passing KFC's and Pizza Huts, but a plesant change nonetheless. We met a group of Cameroonians living in Urumqi that single handledly convinced us to travel to Cameroon as soon as possible.

We took a day trip to Turpan, the second lowest place in the world (500ish ft below seat level) and one of the best preserved ancient cities in the world. Turpan is a desert oasis, one of the marvels of the ancient Silk Road trading routes, hydrated by ground water giving way to acres of vineyars, watermelon patches and trees in a seemingly uninhabitable desert nothing. An antrepologist wonderland, with the salty environment preserving tombs from BC and the largest minaret in China (constructed in 1777). An amazingly fertile desert oasis with a rich history.    

Emin Minaret, constructed in 1777, the largest in China. 

Modern Mosque in Turpan

So we decided to skip the desert oven and take a bus across the border to Kazakhstan; the 9th largest country in the world, the site of the first successful space launch and home of Borat. Kazakhstan has an interesting  visa policy. They allow 15 days visa free, with the exception that anyone traveling overland must register withing 5 days of arriving in the country. Registration can only be completed in big cities, with the fine of $100 per day for each day that you don't register. So we are racing to get out of the country in 5 days. The bus ride and border crossing into Kazakhstan were complete junk shows, full of bribes, confusion, little-to-no sleep, asian's pushing their way through cues and the redeeming smiling faces. We have to make it to the border of Kyrgyzstan before the end of day 5, which is never music to a cyclist's ears. Luckily we are poised for the challenge and the promise of mountains and sleeping in tents makes the carrot seem that much closer to this horse's mouth. We should be in Kyrgyzstan in the next 2 days.....barring any proper push biking. Wish us luck.
Uighur district in Urumqi

This is Volkan, the Turkish cyclist from the previous post. Really cool guy.
What a humbling language
Emin Minaret in background


August 15, 2015

Mongolian Farewells

So we'd crossed the stretch of remote sandy desert that involved sizzling hot temps, sweating out 9 liters of water and pushing our bikes through impractically deep sand. Our reward was a short but sweet stretch of freshly paved tarmac and the promise of cooler mountains ahead. We arrived in Ulangom during their 90th celebration of Nadam (we realized our uncanny gift of arriving in various towns during their Nadam festival as this was our 3rd go-around with the horse, wrestling and archery games). We had no idea what the road conditions were like ahead of us. We tried to pick as many people's brains as possible, talking with a road engineer, some Australian motorcyclists and even calling a tour company in the mountain town that we were heading. Everyone gave wildly different versions of the road ahead; some saying it was mostly paved and would be no problem on bikes, some saying a bridge had failed and we would have to contend with a major river crossing, some even saying that 2 motorcyclists had to turn back the road was so bad. So perhaps more confused about what lie in store for us than when we had arrived, we closely studied the maps for potential water sources and decided to go for it. We launched off into the mountain that border Russia, intending to do a slight semi-circle mountain detour. We enjoyed about 40 miles of smooth pavement before settling back into the typical Mongolian 'roads' that we grew to loave (nope, not a typo). The sand turned into hard packed dirt, turned into a mix of graded dirt and stones that followed mountain drainages, weaknesses and alpine lakes, making the navigation much more straight forward and the views even more rewarding.

The mountains felt good. The temps dropped considerably that night allowing us to finally cozy up in our sleeping bags, a leisure we hadn't enjoyed in nearly 2 weeks. We pushed (no pun intended) passed a few mountain passes before dropping to the base of a large mountains, our third and finaly pass of this mountainous stretch. Luckily we found ourselves at a beautiful mountain stream, which turned out to be a life-saver as the water sources indicated on the map were few and far between. Then came the pass. We cycled for all of about 3 minutes on loose angular stones before giving into our destiny of push bikers (puns all around). The 'road' was more or less straight up a large mountain side of large loose rocks. We pushed, grunted, swore and sweat our way up the mountain. More of a core workout than anything else. I was putting so much stress on my handle bars that my handle bar tape started unwrapping and bunching and my right brake lever folder under the stress. About 3 hours of this brutal core, calf, quad workout delivered us to the summit. We descended the mountain like champions, dropping loads of elevation and delivering us to a coal mining town the size of a grape and the soul of a black lung. We awoke the next morning to ominous clouds and a sore core. We biked for about 2 hours before the storm caught up with us and delivered it's gift of rain mixed with hail mixed with sizeable lightning bolts. The road had turned back into sand which, thanks to the delivery of masses of water, was rapidly transforming into a river beneath us. This made for some exciting cycling, being pelted with hail riding on sand that regularly caved into the newly formed channel. Luckily the storm was short lived and we found ourselves at a beautiful fresh water lake, Achit Nur.

The next morning shortly after caffeination we found ourselves staring at one of the most established cities we'd seen in Mongolia: Olgii. We couldn't figure out how this remote and seemingly disconnected mountain town could have so many tall buildings, amenities and permanent structures (most of the towns up to this point were comprised of houses mixed with yurts). I started noticing a very different architecture from the soviet/mongolian mixed styles from every previous town. Large minarets were scattered throughout the town, the people were noticably different in ethnicities, language and lifestyle, speaking a mix of Kazakh, Mongol and Russian. This was really cool to experience. There was a Turkish restaurant! We enjoyed multiple Adana kebabs and Turkish coffees (anything other than fried dough with mutton). The Kazakh language brought me back to my previous travels through Central Asia. Kazakh is very similar to Uzebek and Turkish, which is widely spoken throughout Central Asia. I re-jogged my memory of numbers and various travel phrases and even bargained on a hotel room using Kazakh numbers.

So after we'd had our fill of minced meat cooked over a grill (still not sure why that's not a thing in Mongolia), we hit the road for Khovd. This was to be another exciting mountain traverse but the road reports all came back positive. We enjoyed another small stretch of fresly paved tarmac before spotting a figure in the distance that resembled a cyclist. As we grew closer, we confirmed out suspicions of a handle bar bag and ortlieb panniers. His name was Volkan, a Turkish cyclist who'd left Istanbul nearly 3.5 months prior. After some introductions and travel banter, we decided to continue cycling together. Volkan was really cool to cycle with, he boiled eggs using dried horse dung, played us some traditional Turkish music, did morning stretching routines and overall brought a really interesting perspective to our dynamic.

The next day cycling as a group of 3, Andrew pointed out a skinny tire track that weaved across the washboards of sand, resembling only what we could infer as a bicycle track. Shortly after this realization, we saw what resembled a slow moving motorcyclist in the distance. As we caught up with this figure, we realized that we had somehow run into another cyclist. He had a fly rod strapped to the back and two large shopping bags dangling from his handle bars. His name was Dragan, a Serbian cyclist who cycled from Serbia on a racing/cross bike with skinny road tires and reportedly carried 60 kilos (130 lbs). By far the heaviest setup I've ever heard of cycle touring and the least practical setup for Mongolia. We chatted for a few moments before deciding to grow our cohesive cycling blob to a group of 4.

We enjoyed some amazing mountain cycling the next day, dropping into a beautiful valley surrounded by tall mountains, glaciers and little to no civilization. The camels seemed a bit out of place with glaciers in the background. Andrew and I decided on a new band name: Camels and Glaciers. We said our farewells to Volkan and Dragan, as they had just entered Mongolia via Russia and were about to embark on the sothern route to Ulaan Batar (where we started nearly 5 weeks earlier). Occasionally I think about Dragan with his gigantic payload and his skinny tires traversing the deep sandy stretches that lie ahead. He's definitely in store for some adventure. So this is where Andrew and I would turn south towards the Chinese border and close the Mongolian chapter of this wild adventure novel. As we turned south and entered our final stretch of Mongolian mountains, we encountered a gigantic Chinese road construction crew embarking on an impressive mission to pave some 400 km from China to Khovd. This resulted in some well deserved cycling on roads that were fresh out of the pavement oven (tires and body give a sigh of relief). We were able to cover some serious ground, regardless of the elevation gain through the mountains. The Chinese road was really nice but already falling apart. I witnessed a few places where bridge crossing were already failing and the road was being washed out (way to go China). It wasn't long after being on pavement and knowing that the Mongolian clock was ticking that I already missed the wildness of Mongolia. 51 days in total. 51 days felt like 2.5 weeks. My body was beginning to adapt to the nonstop jackhammer motions and sandy push biking. We had covered some serious ground in Mongolia, probably seeing more Mongolia than most Mongolians. All of the physical challenges that we'd persevered seemed to dissolve when I realized it was almost over. We arrived at the Chinese border (we did have one last sandy push and a few interesting half-built bridge crossing as a sort of proper Mongolian farewell).

Before we knew it, we were stamped out of Mongolia and into China. This was an exciting and comical experience to say the least; Chinese officials going through all of our bags piece by piece, geting stuck in the Chinese immigration system during their lunch break, which consisted of being fed steamed buns and a brief lesson in Chinese language by two Chinese immigration officers in a room full of Mongolian women and Andrew and I. And like that we were back in China. All of the effort learning Mongolian words and phrases was no longer working in our favor as we were humbled and confused by the Chinese and Uighur language. I'll also foreshadow that we crossed the border with under 400 RMB (about $75) in our possession. I'll elaborate on that in the next's exciting. I'll also point out that I added a link to our route through Mongolia to the blog site. For those of your on the email blog group, you can see this on the blog homepage. I'm also posting this from China...with most everything blocked (Google, facebook, youtube, Twitter, Skype, even Blogger is blocked), which amounts to me doing this tediously over my phone. We obviously overcame our money problems and have spent about a week in Urumqi, China resting, eating amazingly cheap Chinese and Uighur food, and playing tourists. Yesterday we visited the second lowest place on earth, some 500 ft below sea level. It's been really nice to be off the bike but we've just about had our fill of the big city and ready for the next adventure. I'll post when we get to internet again...until then, you know the drill. I can't add comments to the pictures (from my phone) but there's stories behind each one. I'll leave it to your imagination....