Category Archives: Russia

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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Temporary Post from Ulaangom, Mongolia

Hello friends,

Sorry I cannot write a real post here — internet is very slow and inconvenient — but I wanted to let you know that…I MADE IT TO MONGOLIA! There are still 2000 kms to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, one endpoint of my trip, but it feels surreal to be here–6 months and 9 countries since Istanbul!

From Barnaul, I rushed to the border and managed to exit Russia just 2 hours before my visa expired. More details to come later, but it was quite the adventure: taking a bus, biking very fast, having bike problems, sleeping in a cozy log cabin, taking a bath in a Russian banya, hitching a ride, more biking very fast.

I knew I arrived in Mongolia when the paved road ended. Welcome to Mongolia! From reading other bike journals, I knew Mongolia was going to be a tough haul on bad roads. The roads aren’t “roads” but rather dirt “tracks” that go in all different directions and there are no signs. Some people recommend a GPS, but I had no such gadget. Besides, I wouldn’t know how to use it anyways. So, clutching my map and compass, I hoped that my navigation skills would guide me. And when all else fails, start singing “Listen to Your Heart” (or the cheesiest song you can think of)! “Listen to your heart/ There’s nothing else you can do/ I don’t know where I’m going/ And I don’t know why/ But listen to your heart”

I had one last piece of bureaucratic business to take care of — registering my stay in Mongolia. As an American, you can stay up to 90 days without a visa, but if you stay more than 30 days, you must register. So I headed from the Russian border to the city of Olgii. Olgii Wankanobe! May the force be with me on these terrible roads and fierce winds… Despite the elements, I climbed a big pass and pummeled through the strong winds to arrive in Olgii at 3pm on Friday. I found my way to a white building and got registered in time!

Being in Mongolia is like turning your clock back several centuries, which is both good and bad. The good part is that most of the country remains quite remote. As a result, you feel like a true nomad roaming the lands just as it was 1000 years ago and everywhere the scenery is stunning, seemingly untouched by modern society. The bad part is the usual “This is Central Asia” problems–it takes an eternity to “get things done”, electricity will just go out randomly, there are no signs when you need them (but there are signs when you don’t need them), etc…the list can go on and on.

But as an Irish guy I met in Olgii said: “Mongolia is a state of mind.” After my first week of cycling in Mongolia, I began to understand what he meant. It is the state of mind of nomadic life and melding oneself into sun, sky, mountains, winds, snow, and dust.

Now in the city of Ulaangom picking up supplies and headed to Nomrog and Tsetserleg via Khargayas(sp?) Nuur. Will update with pictures when I can! See you soon!

Mother Russia and Soakin’ Siberia

After travelling through so many ex-Soviet countries from Georgia to Kazakhstan, it was crazy to finally get to the mother of it all–Mother Russia.  I don’t have too much time to write, but I wanted to share some photos. This series is called:

“You know you’re in Mother Russia when…”

1) …when shortly after the border, friendly police officers give you a HUGE CHUNK OF SMOKED PORK FAT (called sala)…

Last winter I went hiking in the White Mountains with a group of Russians and they had introduced me to sala, so I knew what it was. Thank you Russian friends back home for preparing me well!

Also the police officers were so nice they invited me for tea in their little van, printed maps for me, let me use their internet, and even gave me toilet paper. So helpful!

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2) …when the houses and villages are just so darn cute!

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3)…when you find on the side of the road things such as rubber face masks.

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4) …when you see large eerie concrete buildings

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5)…when you hide from the cold, wet weather by having a hot bowl of borsch in a roadside stolovaya

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From Oskemen heading north, everything just got more and more Russian until I entered the country itself in Siberia. At the border, the officer asked me “Ni holodna? Not cold?” “No, I have warm clothes and sleeping bag” “Znayesh, zdes Siber. You know, this is Siberia”. I guess we’ll see how I fair!

I didn’t really know what type of landscape to expect, but it turned out Siberia largely lives up to its reputation of large open spaces that are cold and wet. The landscape was mostly just agricultural fields; it rained everyday and some days I woke up to frost covered fields. Most people would find such a place depressing, but there was a calm, serene atmosphere about it. And really, the villages are too cute–with little wooden houses of bright colors, duckies and farm animals roaming about in the streets, and gardens filled with beautiful flowers. Also sometimes for clouds would clear for an hour or so to reveal blue sky and sunshine that feels brighter than ever!

Out of Kazakhstan on the way to Russia (Oskemen -> Shemonaikha -> border):

P1030270P1030275P1030279P1030281P1030282P1030285P1030294P1030295many sunflower farms P1030300

After crossing into Russia:

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P1030310Breakfast of Champions: cookies, butter, instant coffee (loaded with extra sugar), honey, and hard-boiled eggs. Most of these things I would never eat for breakfast at home, but bike traveling is a different life. And in biking life, this is what I call a DELICIOUS breakfast!

P1030311Zmeinogorsk town (where there were many helpful people!)

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P1030324P1030325waking up to a frosty sunrise  P1030328P1030330eating potato chips is a great way to kill time when the road is flat, asphalt is smooth, and there’s not much to see on the road

P1030333also eating chocolate. Kazakh chocolate is famous in Russia.

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Entering Barnaul city:

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When I was deciding which route to take through Russia, I ultimately chose a longer, more roundabout route on the main road through the city of Barnaul. I had messaged several couchsurfers, and one of them responded “I love Americans and my parents love Asians, so you would be the perfect guest!” With such a warm invitation, how could I refuse? But it would mean I would have to hitch a ride or take a bus for part of the way to Mongolia. Russian visa expires Sep26 which means 800km in 5 days. I’m a superwoman, but not super enough to average 160km a day!

When I arrived in Barnaul, I didn’t have a map of the city, so I stopped to ask for directions. That’s how I met Alena. She worked as a journalist in a nearby office building, and she was so wonderful that she took me back to her office to look at the map on the computer. In the meantime she gave me hot tea and pirishchki since it was wet, cold, and rainy outside.

Eventually I made it to the home of my Couchsurfing host, Alex, where his parents greeted me warmly. In the end I stayed in Barnaul for 3 days because Alena, Alex, and Alex’s friends and family treated me so well (and also because figuring out tourist registration in Russia was an adventure). It’s so hard to leave warm, cozy places with friendly people!

P1030346a bliny cafe

P1030344Olga (also couchsurfer who lives in Barnaul) and Alena (the journalist)

P1030345blinies!

P1030347my hosts Alena, Olga, and Alex take me to “Anticafe”, a hangout place with coffee, tea, and boardgames. Instead of paying for food and drinks like a normal cafe, you pay for the time you spend there and you can eat and drink as much as you want and play boardgames or foosball or just lounge on the couches.

P1030348 P1030349Alex and his parents host me in their apartment. Alex’s mom makes piroshkis!