Temporary Post from New York

Hello Readers,

Greetings from New York! Sorry it has been so long since my last post. Between visiting friends and family and getting over jetlag, I had little opportunity to post. But in the past few days, I realized that many readers had started worrying that I got kidnapped or something in Mongolia. Well, friends, I am happy to announce that I made it safely to Beijing on November 6 and eventually back to the US.

I will provide a more detailed update soon. In the meantime, thank you for all your kind and encouraging words. I cannot express how much they have meant to me. Perhaps it is not possible to express these emotions in words, because it is something so universal and deep, something that transcends language, something to do with love. Though I had little space on the blog to write about it, you–my friends, family, and strangers I met along the way–have inspired me more than anything else in this world.

Last week, the brother I met in Uzbekistan, Ulugbek, arrived in New York to start a new life. I suppose after 8 months of traveling, I came back to America to start a new life too.

IMG_0591

 

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

Continue Reading →

Made in Mongolia, With Love from China

P1030595

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.

Continue Reading →

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

Continue Reading →

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!