Made in Mongolia, With Love from China


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.

P1030608small monastery in Narambulag town

The next few days of riding, I met many other friendly road workers (both managers and laborers) . Though the road was perfect, I only managed 60-70 km a day because I stopped to talk to everyone. I began to learn about the different regions in China where all these workers were from.



P1030622Besides Chinese construction workers, I ran into local Mongolians too

P1030624As the wind blew like crazy, I pushed on longingly for the next Chinese camp. Sadly, this old road worker informed me that the road ended there and there were no more camps! In need of a break from the vicious winds, I chatted with this old man while he waited for someone to come with repair tools. He gave me a very refreshing bottle of Coke. Though his accent was very strong and I couldn’t understand a lot of what he said, he was an animated storyteller and we joked about the lack of roads and road signs in Mongolia.

P1030625Goodbye yellow brick road–the perfectly graded road (and construction camps) end suddenly in the middle of nowhere. Back to corrugated sandy tracks!

One Thought on “Made in Mongolia, With Love from China

  1. Yay people and familiar language and food! Great job superwoman! Love you!

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