Category Archives: By Country

Red China Blues

“Living in China has made me appreciate my own country, with its tiny, ethnically diverse population of unassuming donut-eaters.”- Jan Wong, Red China Blues (book)

Being in China this time was very different from times before; I noticed issues that I hadn’t before. In my life, I never really paid attention to Chinese politics much. I am, afterall, an American, having lived here practically all my life. But a few issues struck my attention on this visit.

The first issue was China’s censorship. I now realize the extent to which the Chinese people live in a very insular bubble. Because of the censorship, China has created its own social media outlets such as QQ, WeChat, and weibo. With everyone in China glued to these social media channels, everyone there believes that the way the world works is the way China works. When I met the Chinese road workers in Mongolia, they could not understand how I didn’t have QQ.  “But everyone has QQ!” they said. I tried to explain that China, and only China, has QQ. I wrote down my email address for them and they stared at it as if they had never seen an email address before. Maybe ignorance is bliss?

The omnipresent control was evident in the internet cafe system too. In order to use a computer, you must swipe a Chinese ID card into the system. Because I don’t have a Chinese ID card, often I wouldn’t be allowed to use the computer. Only if I were lucky could I get the internet cafe worker to use their own ID cards to turn on a computer for me to use. It was frustrating when there were a million internet cafes in town, but I couldn’t use a single one. So, note to foreign travelers in China thinking they can use internet cafes–not an easy endeavor!

The second issue that I could not escape was the pollution. Looking out the window in Beijing and Suzhou, the high-rises just across the street were hard to see through the haze. Just a 30-minute run in Suzhou, and I could feel my lungs burning by the end of it. The air pollution wasn’t even considered too bad at the time by locals. It got worse in the summer months; people said when the pollution was really high, the sky was yellow. Besides air pollution, I stopped drinking boiled tap water (what locals drink) because I realized that though the tap water would not kill me tomorrow, it might have heavy metals and god-knows-what-else to cause health problems in the long term. I started drinking bottled water, but even that, who knows where the bottled water came from?

P1040094 air pollution in Suzhou

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China – It All Ends With Mao

***As promised, the final chapters of the journey.

The train from left Ulaanbataar at 6pm and before I knew it, I woke up 13 hours later just as the train was pulling into the border town Zamiin-Uud. The train arrived at 7am and I was eager to get across the border to China early. But my hopes sank when I found out that the luggage department where my bike was didn’t open until 9am. Even until my last moment in Mongolia, it was true: things never happen quickly in Mongolia.

The border crossing into China was a slow process. I was not allowed to ride my bike across the border area, so I had to find a jeep to take me and my bike. People were friendly though and before long, a Mongolian woman and her son took me in their jeep. We went from the border checkpoint across some no-man’s land, then through a Chinese drug test drive-through that was much like a car wash, before arriving at the immigration building.

The funny thing about being Chinese-American in China is getting treated differently depending on whether you are Chinese or whether you are a foreigner. At first when the Chinese border officials saw me wandering around at immigration not sure where to go, they would yell at me “What are you doing”! But after they looked at my passport and saw that I was American, they gave me special privileges like getting moved to the front of the line, or letting me pass through the border area on my bike instead of getting in a jeep. Time and time again in China, I encountered this double standard. If others knew I was a foreigner, I would be treated like a special guest. But more often people just ignored me since, at first glance, I was just another one of the billion Chinese people in this country.

There are some borders that simply lie in a field and change nothing; other borders are thresholds to a whole new world. I first experienced the latter a couple of years ago cycling through the Ethiopia-Sudan border at Metema. Now I experienced it again at the Mongolia-China border.  On the Mongolian side, the town of Zamiin-Uud was only one small street with a couple of small buildings and the train station. You hardly saw anybody on the streets, except for the jeep taxi drivers who lingered by the train station hoping to grab customers while smoking their cigarettes. But upon entering China, I was greeted by not just a border town, but a border city. Here in Erlian, China, though on the edge of Gobi Desert, there were things–lots of things–including a KFC! The experience was both dazzling and dizzying. It was immensely comforting to see the KFC logo with Colonel Sanders smiling down on me. Gone were the terrible roads in Mongolia. In China, the streets were covered with endless smooth pavement, exceptionally wide bike lanes, signs to tell you where you were supposed to go, and bike-lane traffic lights to tell you when to stop. The streets were bustling with people, shops, scooters, and electric bikes. There were large commercial banks, furniture showrooms, fancy lobbies, cosmetic shops, and shopping malls.

But the best of all was that there were so many places to eat. Oh, the sweet aroma of noodles, steamed buns, dumplings, congee, hot soy milk, and fried pancakes! The food of my childhood and the food of my dreams! No more Mongolian mutton soup! The side streets were filled with the brilliant colors of all the fresh fruit and vegetables you could think of. I could not help but stop at every food stand. Needless to say, I didn’t bike very far that day.

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China border city Erlian (Erenhot) on Mongolia-China border

P1030916P1030915In the province of Inner Mongolia, road signs are in Chinese characters and Mongolian script. The road signs also sounded like propaganda slogans. “Protect the road, everyone has responsibility!” and “Please don’t drive when drowsy!”

P1030922P1030919Dinosaur fossils were found nearby Erlian in the Gobi Desert, so the Chinese decided to build giant dinosaurs to attract tourists.

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Cold Wars

All the times in Uzbekistan when I wondered why I brought my 5 degree F (-15 C) sleeping bag, I finally thanked myself when I got to the heart of Mongolia. With everyday I rode in this country, the cold became more bitter. Even having done quite a bit of winter wilderness hiking in the mountains, I found the Mongolian cold merciless, chilling to the bone. In addition, the days became much shorter and everything like packing your tent, cooking food, boiling water required much more time than usual.

I don’t know what compels me to make myself endure such physical challenges of riding through vicious winds and sub-zero temperatures. Maybe it was trying to test my limit–to see how it felt like or how far I could ride. Maybe it was accepting this as part of the journey–there are easy times and there are hard times. Or maybe it was I didn’t know what else to do with my day. Though it might seem a bit foolish, there was something very Zen about biking through such conditions. In order to stay on your bike, you zone everything out and become very focused, which then results in a contemplative mood. Not to mention, the sweeping landscapes of Mongolia evoked the contemplative mood too. No wonder Buddhism spread to Mongolia and made an impact here.

 

P1030636P1030630After a very windy day–where I was pretty sure I was riding lopsided at a 45-degree tilt into the wind the whole day—I pitched my tent beside this truck stop, a roadside ger.  My first encounter with a Mongolian family in the country. They cooked up “guriltai shol” (noodle soup). This is where I learned to say “with mutton” with every food dish, because virtually every Mongolian dish has pieces of mutton in it. So “noodle soup” is actually “noodle soup…with mutton”. They make the noodles from scratch–rolling out thin crepe-like pieces of dough, then cutting it into strips.

P1030654horseman and yurts

P1030657P1030664yakety-yak! (having no one else to talk to)

P1030667main religion in Mongolia is Buddhism, in contrast to the rest of Central Asia which was Muslim. Often there were monasteries or stupas off the side of the road. The piles of rocks on top of mountain passes were also places of spiritualism.

P1030670At one point, I started hearing a constant squeaking sound. At first I thought it was because my chain was full of grit. Turns out, it was coming from the marmots who burrow their homes beneath the road. Marmots saying hello!

P1030674P1030673Songino town center and water pump shed. Mongolia is REALLY populated.

The toughest part about Mongolian weather was the sudden weather changes. It would be sunny and you would be almost sweating, then suddenly a north wind blows and you feel freezing even with all your layers on.

With sudden weather changes, I also discovered several new riding styles. First, there’s “grit riding”–when dirt roads become  mixed with snow and slush, everything on your bike becomes covered in an awful grit, so that with every pedal, all you can hear and feel is your chain and gears grinding hopelessly together. At some point, “grit riding” becomes “free-ze” riding–when the wind suddenly blows and all the slush and grit on your bike freezes. It becomes riding because all your brakes and gears are frozen so you can’t brake and can’t shift gears. Often I would want to ride faster, but couldn’t because I was stuck in a low gear or because I wiped out quite a few times on the downhills. I thought, maybe this is the world telling me to live and enjoy life slowly.

P1030678P1030681Riding one evening; waking up the next morning

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Made in Mongolia, With Love from China

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As I headed deeper into Mongolia, my mind was full of worry about what the challenges ahead. In such a sparsely populated place, if something happened, there would be few people passing to help me. Finding water, managing extreme weather change, and navigating dirt tracks became serious concerns. I soon learned also that despite rumors that Russian would be sufficient for communication, almost no one spoke Russian, and if they did, they only knew basic words or phrases. I would have to struggle with yet another language–Mongolian–and it turns out that Mongolian is a rather a difficult language to learn. I was filled with dread thinking about how to face these challenges on my own. Luckily, things are never as you expect and the world has other plans for you. In the end, I had little to worry about, because what you can’t make in China (like Mongolian roads), bring Chinese labor to it!

A pleasant surprise, I got an intimate look into the force of today’s global economy–Chinese labor. Riding out of Ulaangom, I cruised on perfect asphalt and soon discovered the source–the new road was built by none other than the Chinese. About 20km outside of Ulaangom, I encountered a group of truck drivers, the first of many working on the new road.  After we learned we were all Chinese, we had a lot to converse about. (What a relief to speak a language I can understand!) As I responded to their questions–how much I cycled, what I ate, where I slept–they offered to help me in whatever way they could. Contrary to the 500km of limited civilization that I planned for, they told me that there were Chinese camps all along the road they were building. Tents on both sides of the road were all Chinese and they all had hot water and food. They urged me to stop in the tents if I needed anything. No longer did I need to worry about finding water, lack of people to help me, and communication issues! There was also clearly one road, so navigation was not an issue. Sure enough, as I cruised along on the perfectly graded new asphalt/ packed dirt,  I passed countless camps, some being just one tent, and others being large gravel production sites.

Throughout the next few days, over lunch breaks, rest breaks, and just stopping to talk to people on the road, I had the chance to meet all the different people involved in the project. I met the managers, the laborers, the aunties who cooked–and learned more about their work.

They began 3 years ago and they work here only 6 months of the year. Once the weather becomes too cold, they go home to China for the winter and leave the equipment for Mongols to look after. This year, they came in late April and were going home in another 2 weeks. Most of the workers came from Xinjiang province but there were many from other parts of China too.

P1030593this truck driver gave me a heap of instant noodles for the journey

P1030617P1030602This was one of the larger Chinese road construction camps. Stopped here for lunch and offered a large bowl of rice and delicious Chinese cooking.

P1030601P1030598P1030600As I ate lunch, I watched the Chinese aunties making steamed dumplings from scratch. They cooked everything on traditional wood stoves. Almost everyone at this particular camp were from place called Chitai in Xinjiang province. After lunch, I chatted with an old man who’s originally from Gansu province, but moved to Xinjiang province 40 years ago (something to do with politics at the time) and has been living there since.

After leaving the camp, I continued cycling, giddy about the smooth pavement. As the sun went down, I happened upon another camp. This one only had 2 small tents. When I asked them if I could camp there, they gave me a warm invitation, but as they helped me set up the tent, they became very worried about me sleeping in the cold. A young auntie later came over and suggested that I sleep in the workers’ tent, assuring me that it would be safe despite the fact that I was a single woman sharing a tent with six older men. Another delicious bowl of rice and Chinese cooking.

P1030607P1030606sleeping at a Chinese road worker camp. Several of these guys worked in Libya (also building roads) before they came to work in Mongolia. As I listened to their stories, I thought about how their life was not so different from my forefathers who came to the US to build the railroad.

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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!)

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P1030365villages set in idyllic countryside

P1030403met a nice Russian family having a picnic

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