Altyn Altai – Nothing Gold Can Stay

“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold
Her early leaf’s a flower
But only so an hour
Then leaf subsides to leaf
Nothing gold can stay.”
-Robert Frost, Nothing Gold Can Stay

The Altai Mountains–the corner of the world where Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China meet. As the birch trees shimmered golden in the cool autumn air, I wondered whether the name “Altai” comes from “Altyn”, the Turkic word for gold. After all, the Altai people–like the rest of Central Asia–are Turkic people. Listening to locals, I thought in awe of how far I’ve traveled from Turkey,  yet I was still hearing familiar Turkish words. And while I was used to seeing and hearing Asian people speak Turkic, here  it was remarkable to listen to Turkic flowing out of the lips of tough Russian men.

Although I wanted to linger among the snow-capped mountains and yellow birch trees, I couldn’t stay long–from Barnaul, I only had 6 days till the end of my visa and 800 km to the border. Since I would not be able to manage the distance, I took a bus 270km past flat agricultural land to  the beginning of the Altai Mountains at the city of Gorno-Altaisk. When I got off the bus, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the air was crisp with autumn. I was filled with fresh energy to bike fast to the border, averaging >110km per day.

P1030351P1030377Went to the Russian version of Home Depot in Barnaul and bought myself a large sheet of foam. Part of it would be my sleeping pad (I didn’t have one before) and part of it would be for wrapping my metal, heat-sucking handlebars–extra insulation for my cold hands.

(Thank you to Olga for running to the bus station in Barnaul to say goodbye!)

P1030399P1030355

P1030365villages set in idyllic countryside

P1030403met a nice Russian family having a picnic

After riding a few days through some hills, the subtle wobble (“play”) in my front wheel that had started at some point seemed to get worse. When I inspected my bike more closely, I notice a few other subtle issues in my headset and brakes. Hmm…not a good thing to have serious bike problems when you’re entering Mongolia, a place with a lot of crappy dirt roads and maybe only one bike shop in the entire country. The other problem was my Russian visa was expiring the next day, which doesn’t leave much time for repair detours.  As I stood by the side of the road contemplating what to do, a van drove up with a nice man and two women. After a few broken words, the nice man seemed full of purpose and within a minute, my bike was in the back of the van and we were going to the car mechanic shop in the previous village. I thought, “How will a car mechanic shop help me?” I continued to worry. When we arrived at the car mechanic, the nice man told the guys what to do and within an hour, my bike seemed rideable again–I was confident it would survive the remainder of my journey. (They loaded up the hub with grease and helped me change the brake cables and manage some brake adjustments.)

By now it was dark, and the nice man (Andre) arranged for me to stay at his friend’s campground which had really nice log cabins for the wintertime. Andre insisted that it was too cold outside and that I needed a cabin with a nice warm fire and a hot Russian banya (bath). His friend Sergey was a friendly country guy who lived alone on the campground and maintained the site. For dinner he cooked up some beef macaroni soup. Sergey kept shaking his head at me when he saw that I was cycling with sandals and seemingly light clothes. The problem with having good gear like waterproof socks and down jackets is that the locals don’t believe such things will keep you warm–they’re used to thick, heavy woolen jackets and boots!

P1030416Russian bath–hot water heated from the sauna and cold water from metal buckets

P1030419Eating the seeds of this Siberian fir cone

P1030420Andre and Sergey

The next morning (last day of visa), I was still 150km from the border, so it was clear that I would need to hitch a ride to the border town, Tashant. Andre drove me to the local gas station where we met a trucker with a petrol truck.  During the ride, we kept stopping at gas stations to deliver petrol which made me nervous, but in the end I arrived 2 hours before my visa expired. Then I still had to cycle fast to cross the 25km of no man’s land between the Russian border post and the Mongolian border post before the Mongolian side closed at 6pm. Luckily the border crossings were smooth and despite a bloody nose from stress, I entered Mongolia with no problems. Woohoo! (A lesson to stop worrying about everything all the time…everything always works out!)

Some cycling purists might call taking the bus and hitching a ride “cheating”, but to me it still counts as “cycling” because I cycled the same distance as I would’ve if I had taken a shorter route through Russia, not through Barnaul.

P1030421putting my bike on a petrol truck–hitching to the border 6 hours before visa expires.

P1030427P1030438P1030422the Altai

P1030441kids playing in the town Kosh-Agach

P1030444the eerie 25km of no-mans land between the Russian border post and Mongolian border post

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