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

P1030680Hmm…I don’t know how I feel about this…

P1030691But let’s try it anyways!

P1030694P1030697“Grit riding”, which then turns into “free-ze” riding. I wonder, do I prefer this over the slushy roads in Boston over winter?

One day was particularly miserable riding. The whole world seemed to have fallen on me; at one point in the day, I decided I had enough and wanted to hitch a ride to the next town. Heck, maybe even hitch a ride all the way to Ulaanbaatar. But, after I decided I would flag down the next vehicle that passed, no cars came. I slogged on for another hour after hour. The wind grew stronger, the air colder, and it started hailing. I felt so wet, cold, tired, and lonely.

Up to this point, I had also felt the Mongolians weren’t particularly hospitable. My interaction with the locals had been quite negative. One time two guys on a motorbike bothered me while I was trying to sleep (even unzipped my tent and started smoking–I knew they meant no harm; they were just curious and wanted to talk to me, but still not pleasant). Several times I felt cheated. And other times I felt so lost not speaking Mongolian. Whereas in other countries, people were usually very patient with your language attempts, it seemed that in Mongolia, I just got blank faces.

But on this miserable day, I knew I couldn’t go on so I stopped at a nearby ger. I walked up to two men next to a ger and asked if I could pitch my tent nearby. They said yes and offered their help to set up the tent, but not long after rolling out the tent, they said the tent would be too cold, and told me to sleep inside the ger. I agreed. When I stepped into the ger, I was greeted by a friendly Mongolian auntie. Of all my ger stays in Mongolia, she was my favorite one. She knew some Russian and tried to talk to me; she also asked me what I wanted to eat.

P1030706inside of ger. Notice the raw meat just hangin’ out under the TV.

P1030703Auntie makes noodle soup with mutton (pretty much the only thing you eat in Mongolia)

P1030701Auntie shows me “tsagaan idee” (white foods)–the various dairy products that comprise the main diet of Mongolians. Here is “orom” (dried cream) and yogurt.

P1030704Typical breakfast/ snack food. Barsook (fried dough pieces) and suutsei tsai (milk tea), perhaps with other dairy products. Aarul (the dried white pieces under the barsook) are a bit like cookies–made from mixing orom and sugar, forming them into cookie-shape, then dried.

In the morning, I was still feeling tired and contemplated hitching a ride to the next town. But when I stepped out of the yurt, I was greeted by this:

P1030705Cute little goats, sheep, and cows and a glorious sunny day. I was invigorated by all of it and decided I wouldn’t hitch a ride. I wanted to ride!

I don’t know what happened overnight, but it sure was something magical. The next day, a blanket of joy seemed to touch upon everything. I was invited for tea three times. Every truck that passed by seemed to be full of smiles and waves. Mongolia suddenly turned into a wonderfully hospitable place.

P1030707Saying goodbye to Aunt and Uncle who saved me from the miserable day before

P1030711P1030714Fresh powder snow is a million times better than slush riding. All I could think about all day, was: how glorious would it be to cross country ski here?! Someone should cross country ski across Mongolia! Maybe it will be you one day.

P1030715More grit and snow

P1030718Then almost suddenly it seemed the snow disappeared. The next valley had no snow at all. Mongolia is extreme like that. One moment you’ll have extreme weather one way, and the next moment, you’ll have extreme weather the other way.

P1030720Solar panels in Nomrog town.

P1030721Another silly road sign that doesn’t make sense. The sign says the main road goes straight ahead, but actually the main road went to the left. After awhile on Mongolia roads, you start developing a sense of how to look for the main road. Although I had lost my compass, it turns out you can live without it. I should learn to stop worrying about everything!

P1030729P1030726P1030728P1030730This morning near Lake Telmen, I was invited to tea by this horseman. Inside, I was greeted by a little baby girl and her mother. I must say, Mongolian children look incredibly cute bundled up in their warm clothes; they’ve also got such rosy cheeks!

P1030735Snow sun shower. And 10 minutes later, there’s blue sky…

P1030737P1030736…when this bus full of Mongolians from Ulaangom invite me to have late lunch with them at a roadside ger. First course was “makh”, literally “meat”. This is the Mongolian staple dish where they boil a whole sheep with all its parts and everyone picks off pieces to eat–tripe, liver, fat, everything. I am one that eats everything, but I’ve never seen people eating meat like this! Second course was liver rice soup.

P1030738Camping on the frosty open steppe. Befriended some horses there.

P1030740P1030742Serenity: watching clouds float in and out of the mountains.

P1030743Over another windy and snowy pass. To celebrate, shared some of my chocolate with a local on a motorbike.

P1030745P1030751Now it’s snow. Now it’s not!

P1030752Ikh-Uul town

P1030755P1030758Long ascent up the last major mountain pass.

P1030764animal tracks

P1030768P1030769a small settlement; nomads herding cows and yak

P1030774P1030775Winter wonderland: blanket of fresh snow and a wide road all to myself

In the late morning, I was invited to tea in a ger with a large family of grandparents, parents, and at least six kids all living together. Almost the entire time, they were trying to tell me that the snow at the pass was knee deep, and I couldn’t bike up it. Aside from the physical challenge, the hardest part about biking in the winter in Mongolia is convincing the locals to let you do it. They kept repeating that the snow was too deep and the weather was too cold. These were legitimate concerns, but I figured I would try and if it was impossible, I would hitch a ride. As I expected, the stories they told were a bit exaggerated.

P1030778road construction continues in the snow

P1030779P1030783P1030785Sologtyn Pass–last major pass of the journey. the snow was clearly not knee deep. Cold, but pretty.

P1030788Camped the night in an abandoned building. Extremely cold night. Even with a hot water bottle in my sleeping bag, I still woke up several times.

P1030790Sketchy bridge

P1030792Bundled up in everything I have…and still cold.

P1030793P1030794P1030795Fortunately, I passed a road construction camp (this one was Mongolian not Chinese) and they invited me into their dining ger. I was only planning to stay for tea, but they convinced me to stay until lunch was cooked. Though it was a long wait (3 hours), it gave me the chance to catch up with journal writing. My fingers were too frozen for the last week write; I always had to keep cycling to stay warm. Also I fixed my stove which was having technical difficulties for the last few days. The road workers were really great and gave me the right tools when they saw I was struggling with the repair. All in all, the 3 hours was definitely a morale booster after a week’s worth of miserable cold nights of sleep.

P1030797Instead of “people watching” as I would do a lot in the city at home, in Mongolia I did a lot of “livestock watching”. There was something so zen about watching animals grazing.


Finally one evening, I figured I had endured enough in the cold. I stopped in a village at the end of the day and stayed in a “buudal” (rural guesthouse). A young couple ran the guesthouse and I followed them in their evening chores, such as milking the yaks and cows. They milk both yaks and cows into the same bucket.

P1030809the couple that ran the rural guesthouse in Dongoy village

P1030811a large plate of drying aaruul

P1030814“leaf peeping” (going to see autumn colors) in Mongolia

P1030816P1030817P1030819Tsetserleg city. Treated myself to a comfortable night at the Fairfield Guesthouse, formerly run by a British couple and now run by an Australian family. I had a wonderful conversation with the owner Elizabeth (4th generation Austalian-Chinese). Thanks for the company Elizabeth! After so many long hard nights, the comforts of a cozy bed and hot shower brought me to tears.

Riding out of Tsetserleg, I hit another snowstorm. But since it was a tailwind and I was warmed up from the guesthouse, I was able to ride through it. When it was time to camp, I found an abandoned animal pen that acted as a lean-to and kept me out of the wind and snow for the night. Very warm!


P1030840entering the semi-Gobi area about 200km outside Ulaanbaatar. Camels!

P1030842Buddhist stupas

P1030848P1030849One day I tried a local cafe/restaurant in a small village Rashaant. I ordered “Nogootoy shol” which means “vegetable soup”, then had a laugh when I was presented a bowl of soup with a lot of mutton. Good thing I’m not a vegetarian. Another Mongolian food item is “khushuur”–fried pancakes stuffed with–you guessed–mutton! Very yummy.


P1030863Sign says: Trees Our Future! Ironic in a place that has no trees…

As I neared Ulaanbaatar, I could not contain my excitement. Ulaanbaatar, the long awaited destination. So many months on the road, the tiredness was finally settling on me. I was looking forward to the journey’s end–to speak a language I can understand and most of all, to seeing friends and family.

But as I hopped on my bike the day I was due for Ulaanbaatar–only 80 kms away– a sudden north wind came through. And when the wind blows in Mongolia, it really blows like hurricane force winds. Unlike the snowstorm outside Tsetserleg which gave me a strong tailwind, this snowstorm gave me a strong headwind. Everytime I tried to pedal, the wind would blow me over. It was impossible–I struggled and struggled for two hours. Then fog and snow set in and I couldn’t see anything anymore.  The wind just blew and blew violently. It was too dangerous for me to ride. When I stumbled upon a roadside yurt, I decided to wait until the weather cleared. At first I thought the wait would only be a few hours. Then it became clear that I would have to stay overnight. As the wind howled outside, inside the yurt was quiet except for the crackle of the fire from the stove.

I wondered, this close to the end, would anything else prevent me from reaching Ulaanbaatar that day?

P1030877peaceful morning after 2 days and 2 nights of snowstorm.

P1030879ate some buuz (dumplings) before Ulaanbaatar

P1030880Always a good reminder to stay safe: DON’T DIE

P1030887the long awaited–ULAANBAATAR, capital of Mongolia

P1030888beginning of Ulaanbaatar and the hills

P1030892Going through tollbooth on a bike. Tollbooth guy laughed at the lunacy of me being on a bike then asked me to pay. When I asked him how much, he gave me a confused look (clearly, the cost of a bicycle toll was not written anywhere). I gave him 500 TG and bade him a nice farewell. I was finally in Ulaanbaatar!

P1030896P1030897After 27 days on the Mongolian steppe with endless horizons and grazing livestock, the city seems to spring out of nowhere.

P1030902 P1030900statues of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan and other ancient Mongolian heroes

Many people rack on Ulaanbaatar as an inhospitable and ugly city, but I think their judgement is particularly harsh. I didn’t find the city that bad. It certainly has a lot of smog and some very grungy neighborhoods, but it has all the amenities as other cities and if you look closely you’ll discover some hidden gems.  You can walk into a non-descript building and find it opens up to a bustling market full of fresh food. At the very least, it was a place I could stay for a few days to warm up and regain my energy.

Now from Ulaanbaatar, I will be headed to final destination Beijing to meet my brother on November 6. To get to Beijing on time, I have decided to take the train across the Great Gobi desert to the Mongolia/China border at Zamyn-Uud, then cycle 700km into Beijing. I think would have enjoyed cycling the desert, but after all, I have been cycling in Mongolia for one month now and feel it has given me a true Mongolian experience.

See you in Beijing!

8 Thoughts on “Cold Wars

  1. Wendy Z on October 27, 2013 at 12:09 pm said:

    Beijing is around the will be soon seeing David.. Wish we could be there to hug you and celebrate. But please know, our soul is with you. So so proud of you!



  2. Hooray! You look so happy in your pictures after coming so far! It’s crazy when I look at your map. Mongolia looks incredibly beautiful in its own way, but it does look like everything besides the landscape just randomly got dropped down from outer space. It’s funny to see the camels…I guess you can recognize those from miles away! And the yaks and marmots are pretty awesome too :) Happy train and bike riding!

  3. Wow! You are super woman, we are all rooting for you back home! Almost there!

  4. Karen L on October 30, 2013 at 4:37 pm said:

    congratulations!! I enjoy reading your blog a lot!

  5. Jason Katz-Brown on November 3, 2013 at 9:23 am said:

    This is unreal. Amazing job! I’ve been following since Eric Gilbertson mentioned your trip at Matthew’s wedding and it gets more and more incredible. Enjoy China!

  6. You are a wonder to behold, Minwah. I’ve love reading about your journey. Khushurrrr!!! omg, Mongolia can’t get enough of the mutton. Can’t wait to see you again someday soon, hopefully. <3<3<3

  7. It’s been a while since an update – anyone know whether Minwah finished her trek to Beijing yet?

  8. Heather on January 30, 2014 at 10:00 am said:

    Your blog was the first one for me to ever read. My ex boyfriend is from Mongolia and now I guess I fell in love. I thank you dearly for that little peer into what Mongolian living is :)

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