The End Of The Road

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

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Hong Kong. The cultural, commercial, banking, shipping, fashion, architecture and vice center of Asia, the Orient’s answer to New York City. Under British rule from 1842 until 1997, then returned to China under a century-old agreement, it retains a British flavor here and there, while the population remains more than 90% Chinese. For me it’s a complete change from the last six weeks: I encounter blonde hair, blue eyes, and British-accented English here every day.

When the Chinese regained possession of Hong Kong in 1997 they surprised many observers by creating an Autonomous Region scarcely distinguishable from a sovereign country. Hong Kong issues passports, controls immigration, and has retained its own currency (the Hong Kong $, one of the most traded currencies in the world). Very little tax revenue goes to Beijing, and the tiny Chinese Army contingent is confined to their tiny base. The local joke is that nothing changed but the postal codes.

Bicycling in Manhattan and a handful of the world’s largest cities didn’t really prepare me for Hong Kong. For one thing, nobody else bicycles. The spaces between the huge, two-story busses and trolleys (I’ve lived in smaller houses) are filled with shirtless men straining to push loaded carts of goods, trucks loading and unloading, shops with wares spilling out onto the street, and always relentless throngs (real throngs!) of pedestrians flooding each intersection, crowding the bus stops, and pouring like a river down the sidewalks, bumping shoulders and squeezing through somehow. It’s hilly, even mountainous, and many streets are elevated, winding through the skyscrapers like a life-sized video game. They drive on the left here, and it takes a surprising amount of concentration to stay oriented and look in the proper direction for traffic and danger.

This describes “downtown”, which is vast and separated into mainland and island areas, linked by futuristic bridges. Dozens of ferries and hundreds of other craft make a lively, chaotic waterfront scene. Helicopters ferry people around and through the skyscrapers, landing atop the largest. I was told that some bankers and CEOs commute by helicopter daily, and rarely set foot below the hundredth floor. I have seen more Ferraris, Maseratis and Lamborghinis here than in all the other places combined.

But the magic bicycle brings me to the abrupt edge of downtown, and suddenly I am gliding through park-like boulevards past gated mansions, and into huge parks; a palm-treed tropical paradise. Actually, gliding is not the best term to describe the riding in this steep terrain. Sweating and zooming is more like it. Sweating because I am as far south as Cuba, and the weather is like Vermont in midsummer. Palm trees, banana plants, and unfamiliar flora and fauna catch my eye and slow me down. So do the expansive coastal mountain vistas, hazy in the humid warmth. I am liking this place.

My route to Hong Kong brought me through China’s agricultural heartland. A few posts back I described my plan to take a train to mountainous Yunan Province, then another to historic, scenic Guilin, before cycling to Hong Kong.

Instead, I mapped out a route from city to city, more or less directly south from Xian. One reason was because I had great, varied riding between (mostly) nice, clean and interesting cities, and I had little motivation to seek an improvement. Secondly, my train ride to Xian, while fun, did not make me eager to repeat the experience. And even though I have confessed to being a lazy tourist, passing by the usual attractions, I managed to accidentally visit Mao Zedong’s boyhood home, and the birthplace of the of the paper making process, and some pretty nice natural areas: waterfalls and hot springs bamboo forests.

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I followed the main provincial highways through terrain that became increasingly hilly and mountainous toward the south. The agriculture and industry was varied, and tended to concentrate in regions. Harvest season seemed to be in full swing everywhere as I traveled from temperate to tropical zones. Crops were being loaded into trucks, and roadside stands were everywhere, often offering a single product like grapes or kiwis. I tried a new citrus fruit, new to me anyway, the pomelo, like an oversized grapefruit with an inch-thick skin, juicy and tart. The list of crops I saw is long. Very little of the culture and harvest was mechanized. Rarely was the landscape without hoeing or harvesting farmers. Many were women, who surprised me by dressing for field work in clean stylish clothing, except for rubber mud boots.

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Southward, through the countryside, through city after city, I cycled for weeks. The road was mostly good, occasionally a muddy mess. Once every week or so when the opportunity arose, I left the main highway and chose some back roads, navigating by compass rather than turn-by-turn. One of these rides brought me deep into a mountain valley where a tiny, rutted and rocky dirt road carried little traffic, no trucks or cars but many pedestrians and motorcycles. Bicycles were rare, too, because the terrain was up and down and the road rough. Back there the terraced rice paddies were busy with the harvest, and villages with their 500-meter stretch of concrete roadway were bustling with trade, kids, elders, and life in general. I had to wonder what it was like living there, hours of difficult travel from the nearest highway, hours more to the nearest city. I got a taste of it when I ran out of daylight while still miles from a hotel. Sign language, my phone’s translator, and a very enthusiastic citizen helped me find a “guest house” in a tiny village of perhaps 500 people. A nice extended family in a small village home kept a room for visitors; they had a bountiful garden, chickens, and a pig out back, and their front doorstep was right on the street. Dinner was great; greens cooked with bacon, rice, eggs, dumplings. But I was a bit disappointed to find that my room was reached by passing through the room where grandma and teenage daughter slept, and lacked screens on the window. The straw mattress housed fleas, and I was never sure if the half-bucket of water was my toilet or not. Battling mosquitoes and fleas, I didn’t sleep well. Still, I felt compelled to leave more than the $3 or so that was requested. I skipped breakfast and was on the road early.

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I fell into a routine, bicycling through the countryside during the day and staying in a city hotel at night. Up at 7:00, breakfast was included at most hotels. Packing and checking out put me on the street at 9:00. My needs before leaving the city included buying drinking water, fruit and baked goods for the day’s ride. Fancy downtown bakeries had the best baked goods, but I was often fooled by the products. What looked like a fruit pastry might contain seafood; what looked like a grilled-cheese sandwich tasted like cheesecake; a roll or bun could contain anything. Bananas, citrus fruit, plums and grapes would be purchased on the street without dismounting. My other need was wi-fi for e-mail and the day’s map and route calculations. (The hotels rarely had wi-fi, but often had computers in the room with fast internet connections.) I would find wi-fi reliably at large cell-phone stores, especially Apple iPhone dealers. They would give me the password and a seat, and bring tea. Sometimes I would just walk down the street and find, among the password-protected ones, unlocked wi-fi from a mystery source. Once hooked up I would punch in my target city (decided the night before in the hotel computer, aiming for something at least 45 miles away but less than 80, preferably less than 70). Then I would set off knowing what kind of day I had ahead. Earlier in the year I was stopping often for rest and snacks. Now I ride until I find a lunch spot, either picnic or restaurant, trying to pass the half way mark before stopping. After lunch I would ride to my target city in one go, pushing hard in the afternoon. Arriving in the new city I slow my pace and look around, finding the city center before checking out a couple of hotels. I aim for the middle-grade hotels at $25 of $30; the best are twice as much money, and the cheaper ones, $15 or $20, are not clean enough for comfort.

After checking in I wheel my bike to the elevator. (If I ask about the bike, I am often directed to store it downstairs, but I find it really convenient to bring it to the room. Half the time the staff objects but the manager lets me go. In the final weeks I had much rain and mud, and cleaned my bike in the room, taking care not to leave a mess.) After showering I rinse out my clothes in the sink and hang them to dry. Then I head down to the street and find dinner (unless lunch was in a restaurant), walk around the neighborhood, and return to my room with a couple of bottles of beer. There I read, use the computer, and eat the fruit and baked goods if I skipped dinner. I play mandolin for a while, and then read my books, my New Yorker and Atlantic magazines, either on my phone or on the hotel computer. By 10:00 or 11:00 I am asleep. If this account of life on the road sounds boring, I can assure you that it isn’t. The riding is interesting and fun, and the evenings are relaxing and pleasant. The contrast with my recent experiences in Siberia and Mongolia is extreme; those places were an extreme contrast with Eastern Europe, Europe, etc. I feel lucky to enjoy all this variety of experience, with only a simple bicycle and some things I packed way back in January, way back in Vermont.

As I approached Hong Kong I crossed the huge, dense Guangzhou-Dongguan-Shenzhen urban area. My final day was through completely congested city traffic, mostly on a six-lane superhighway. With a stiff tailwind and a generally downhill ride to the sea, it was a fast, wild ride. I was pumped up. The Pacific Ocean came into view, and I burst out laughing! I boarded a fast hydrofoil passenger ferry and an hour later I was in Hong Kong, grinning like a fool. It was a rather challenging three hours of navigation to find David, the Couch Surfing host I had arranged a week earlier. When I parked my bike in his living room, it was a moment, and the whole trip ran through my mind, fast-forward style, instant replay. Whew!

David is a quiet and somewhat shy librarian from Utah with a Mormon upbringing; we are not exactly similar personalities. He quickly made me feel at home in his elegant high-rise apartment overlooking the busy harbor. He’s a musical person who just acquired a mandolin, and we enjoyed some jigs and reels with his friend How, a young concert violinist with incredible skill. By the next day David and I had, in spite of our seeming dissimilarities, shared our stories and found that we understood each other. I have to say that I was soon very fond of him. We are kindred spirits after all.

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After dinner one evening we went for a walk. David surprised me by climbing a fence, scrambling over rocks and bringing me down to a tree-shrouded section of shoreline. Scrambling behind him in my clunky bike shoes, I was the slow one. He shared a lot of Hong Kong history with me, and knew about the flowers and trees growing nearby. (Did you know mangoes have males and females, and grow in pairs, husband and wife?) When he threw off his t-shirt and jumped in the harbor for a swim, and I declined, I had to wonder who was the wild one and who was the mild one. Without much fuss, David threw a little music party for me, with some good local musicians, a banjo player and mandolinist. David’s wonderful housekeeper Maria made it a feast as well.

Early in the trip some members of the Hong Kong Bicycle Alliance, a club and advocacy group, made contact with me and offered to help me when I came to Hong Kong. I’ve been in touch and Martin, the main man, is getting a bicycle box for me and preparing to help me get to the airport. I will stay with David for another day or two, then stay with Martin on the other side of town. I scheduled more than a week here, thinking I might buy a tailored suit of clothes, legendarily cheap here, and enjoy some night life. But the road and the money ran out at about the same moment. Maybe next time.

I’m spending part of my time here reading about the storm in New York. Some of my good friends were quite affected by the storm, and I have been checking Facebook frequently, getting up-to-the minute reports from Greenwich Village. Also, I bought some inexpensive clothing to wear on the plane, and I am relaxing in jeans and a t-shirt, and real shoes, for the first time in ten months. And, about once every half hour, I break into a goofy grin and think,”Woo! I did it!”

My flight is on November 9. On November 11, Sunday evening, I will be at the Tavern on Jane Street dispensing stories, hugs and souvineers. I hope to see you there. And of course, I’ll be back on Jane Street a week or so later for my 26th Christmas tree season. After Christmas I’ll sleep for a week and then look back on a significant year. But only for a minute. I’m looking toward the future mostly, and it looks great. So many choices, all of them appealing! My plans include more travel, more music, more outdoor life. I have a craving for a tiny little home, a fire in the hearth, a garden. It could be anywhere, but I likely won’t settle very far from my grandchildren and my friends.

I want to thank you sincerely for reading. It’s wordy, the pictures are lame, and it’s only a bike ride, but more than 200 of you have read every post. I really try hard to evoke the feelings and describe the experiences vividly and honestly, and it has been a privilege to share it with you. I like blogging so much that I plan to put these “London to Hong Kong” pages off to the side and start blogging on other topics: music, bicycles, my world view, politics, philosophy and other nonsense. Check in now and then. Double thanks to all those people who eased my path and shared their lives for a brief moment. I will never forget your kindness and love. Dear readers, my love goes out to you. Spread it around.

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China’s Heartland

“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” – Freya Stark

 
I reported last from Jining, where I just barely outran a storm and avoided a soaking. It rained all night and I set off in the morning on wet roads under cloudy skies still spitting drops here and there, with a cold tailwind chasing me. Somehow I lost my highway, Route G208, while still in Jining. It’s often easy to do that in these big cities, with signage in Chinese and crazy dense traffic. It doesn’t help that the government restricts GPS accuracy to 500 meters, which means that I can’t always tell which corner I am stopped at, and out of town my location is often indicated to be off in the fields. I was already far from the city when the road became a country lane, separated from G208 by some five kilometers of agriculture. But it was good fortune after all, because it gave me the opportunity to get closer to the country folk, and the road went south for 50 kilometers to a little town where a right turn would bring me back to the main road. 

I have mentioned the contrast between the busy, prosperous cities and the seemingly forgotten countryside and villages. On this day I had a ride into the past, where some of China’s 300 million poor live on less than $2 a day. Cars and trucks were few, except for dump trucks with dirt or coal. The ubiquitous three-wheeled motorcycle/trucks were in abundance, carrying all kinds of agricultural stuff. Donkey carts, and the occasional oxcart, we’re working hard in this harvest season. Threshing and winnowing by hand was taking place on the best surface available, the paved road. The road also served as a surface to dry crops such as peanuts, corn, onions and garlic. Habitations were primitive, power lines were few, and water was carried in buckets. Everyone who wore eyeglasses had the exact same style: perfectly round lenses in black plastic frames. Old men and women carried extremely large loads of sticks or cornstalks, and small motorcycles carried whole families, three generations, in addition to big cargos. Bicycles were sometimes modern, but often they would not have looked out of place in 1900. Now and then, through this landscape of peasant toil, drove a Chinese couple in a Lexus or SUV. We were only an hour’s drive from luxury and opulence. 
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The town I reached, Chahar Youi Qianqi, an agricultural center with a population of perhaps 10,000, was a third-world village with one foot in the modern world. The four-story hotel was the largest structure, and my room looked out on main street, bustling with pedestrians, bicycles and motor scooters on this rainy weekday evening. I stood watching at the window a good long while before venturing out to find dinner (rice, garlic scapes, and a steamed fish with the head still on it). If I was a curiosity in the city, I was a phenomenon in Chahar Youi Qianqi. The restaurant filled up with spectators, and eventually a young English-speaking man was sent for. When he told the crowd I bicycled there from London, a murmur filled the room like the sound of bees in a hive. When I finished eating, my interpreter told me the meal was paid for. I proceeded to shake hands for half an hour, and stole a few kisses from women young and old, to the noisy delight of the townspeople. A round of picture taking followed. 

Next on my itinerary was the city of Datong, at 1.7 million the most populous so far. Center of a coal mining district said to be the one of China’s most polluted areas, it looked to me, as I approached it from the northern hills on a clear, windy afternoon, like a huge, gleaming metropolis on a twisting, shining river. Before I reached it, however, I had an unfortunate experience. Either I lost the main road, or the main road itself deteriorated into a rutted, puddled, pothole-filled nightmare of black mud and slime. Coal dust mixed to a sticky batter by recent rains and traffic stuck to my bike, panniers, shoes and legs. Sloshing through puddles of black, oily slime, with truck traffic suddenly grown dense, I had to my left and right only smoke-belching factories, awful looking truck repair yards, industrial detritus and urban decay. My face was spotted with my own splash and the spray from passing trucks and motorcycles. I have never been so thoroughly filthy. It seemed to go on forever, five kilometers or more of hellish punishment for my many sins. 

Then suddenly a traffic circle, a right turn, and I was cruising down a wide graceful boulevard with a separate bicycle lane separated from the auto traffic by shrubs and flowers. Rows of artistically designed street lamps disappeared into distance, and the road was lined with new, modern and very tall apartment buildings, all identical, with a handsome brick-red and bone-white treatment. Well-dressed mothers pushed expensive strollers on the wide sidewalks or cruised on electric motor scooters with toddlers on board. Amid this urban elegance, I was still a filthy mess. 

The city was a beehive of activity. At one point I counted forty cranes from a single vantage point. All streets were busy, all sidewalks crowded. Even the byways and seedy neighborhoods were full of life and bustle. The fall harvest holiday, a national week of celebration second only to New Years’, meant that moon cakes and flags were for sale everywhere, and oversized fireworks were on display every night. There were four major displays that night, in addition to smaller “wedding” displays, and almost constant neighborhood firecracker competitions starting in early morning and going all day and night. 

At the center of downtown were three or four thirty-story hotels, a Crown Plaza among them. I checked it out; only $90 for the standard single, up to $1200 for the “Presidential Suite”.  An elegantly uniformed traffic policeman directed me to more reasonable accommodations nearby. It was still a fancy place with uniformed doormen; I secured a room for $30. The staff provided me with rags and basins of water at the curb, and in half an hour I was clean enough to enter. I spent the evening cleaning my panniers and clothes, and decided to stay two nights, my first layover since Ulaanbaatar. In the morning I had a thorough, two-hour massage, then set out to find a bike shop. I had worn out another chain and cog set, and they were now so dirty and worn that they weren’t worth cleaning. After a long and entertaining search, I found a small pro shop that had the goods. It was hidden in plain sight, ironically, within view of my tenth-floor hotel room window. I left the bike overnight with the excited owner and had dinner before retiring. 

My bike was not only ready in the morning; it was spotlessly clean. The coal dust and mud, and the tar from my misadventure in Mongolia, were gone, and the bike gleamed and shined like new. Someone had spent hours on the project. The bill was for parts only, no labor. I rode out of Datong feeling much better than when I rode in. 
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Leaving town I had navigating difficulties, as I would have at the edges of many cities, due to road construction. They don’t close off construction areas here as they do elsewhere. Instead of flagmen, the workers control traffic by simply making speed bumps out of dirt or gravel, a common sense approach I have to admire. Cars wind in and out among the bulldozers and dump trucks, and where it’s too rough for cars, bicycles and motorcycles still go through. Construction workers lay down their shovels and help push motorcycles and bicycles up steep banks or over deep ditches. When this kind of highway construction spreads over a large area, with no signs, it is not easy to emerge on the proper route. It is time consuming. After an hour I was back on track, but still only five kilometers from Datong. 

The following week varied some. Pedaling through mostly flat agricultural countryside with light traffic (with the exception of one mountain pass marked by large coal mining operations), I stayed in a series of hotels, some nice and some not, in a series of cities, some large and some small, and ate at a series of big city restaurants, roadside noodle shops, and neighborhood vendor’s carts. 

The weather slowly changed from cool and clear to warm and hazy, until finally a temperature inversion engulfed the region in a thick, yellow, sulphuric smog. Normally many Chinese wear face masks; now everyone clutched them to their faces and peered anxiously through half-closed, watering eyes. My own eyes hurt and became bloodshot, headaches accompanied a loss of appetite, and for four days I breathed through a bandana. Through Taiyuan, Taigu, Jeixiu, and Huozhuo it worsened, and each night I washed black filth from my bandana, my clothes and myself. 

The sunrise viewed from my hotel window in Huozhuo showed that man’s pollution sometimes creates beautiful effects: a dimly glowing orange disc in a pale yellow sky. I skipped breakfast and cruised over to the train station, where a chaotic scene was taking place due to the ending of the fall holiday. I pushed my bike into the cavernous ticket hall so I could keep one eye on it as it rested against the far wall, and joined one of the six long lines of chattering passengers, mostly masked against the smog. In a stroke of good luck, the woman in front of me was a university student in a “Business English” course. She was terribly shy, and confessed that I was the first western person she had ever spoken to. Without her help it is unlikely that I would have, in the course of the next hour, placed my bicycle and gear in the baggage car, and my self in a train seat, bound for Xi’an, 500 kilometers southward. Because the huge city of Xi’an has several train stations, some of which do not handle freight, there was much confusion regarding my bike and kit. This resulted in a last minute scramble with railroad policemen escorting me through hallways and stairways at a run, and through crowds at a snail’s pace, onto a forty-car train so packed with travelers as to defy description. From newborns to ancients, we were four to a pair of seats, sitting on the little tables, and crammed standing up in the aisles until not another skinny kid could have fit in. The next six hours were quite stressful for all of us, made bearable by the good cheer of the passengers and the heroics of the China Rail staff. Food and drinks, normally served from carts in the aisles, as on an airplane, were passed from hand to hand, and payment passed back. Trash was removed the same way, and the emergency windows were opened to provide air; smelly as it was, the maneuver provided great relief. Children (and some adults) peed in cups, which were passed to the window and dumped. Somehow, by piling several people on the laps of others,  elderly women gained access to the car’s toilet. I, standing pressed between a beauty and a beast, ate but a few cookies and peed not. A few people got off at one station, and it seemed to make breathing easier. 

In Xi’an I got off at the right station, but my bike and kit didn’t. The staff couldnt have been more helpful. After taking my paperwork and giving me a comfortable seat, two agents worked the phones until my stuff was found at the main downtown station. An English-speaking customer was found to convey the news. With just a shoulder bag and mandolin, I took a taxi to the main station, arriving just after the freight offices had closed for the night. At least the air was better.

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Xi’an is truly big, over eight million inhabitants in the city proper. It is called China’s Chicago, with commodity and mercantile exchanges, and the centers of the country’s banking and insurance industries. The train station itself was the size of a small city, with hotels, banks, clubs and supermarkets within it’s walls. The hotels were full, so I left to wander the city center. There are hundreds of hotels in this city, but because of the holiday  finding a room was not easy without a reservation. Near midnight I wound up paying far more for a room than I like to, and slept in far more luxury than I could enjoy. I could fill pages describing the over-the-top appointments, but I’ll restrain myself to just one or two. The lobby/lounge featured a Steinway grand piano on a marble island in a pool dotted with lilly pads and swimming with giant goldfish (these same fish swam beneath sections of glass floor as well), The computer in my room had a monitor the size of a large television screen, and a television the size of a large coffee table. 

I spent the morning in the lobby sipping coffee and writing e-mails. Then I went to the train station and retrieved my goods with a minimum of fuss and a lot of help from the China Rail folks. Then I was rolling again. I wandered aimlessly through Xi’an without map or plan for the entire afternoon. It’s too big to say I saw most of it, but what I saw was different from my travels so far. 

Historically significant sites are thronged by vacationing Chinese and a very few Westerners. Within the city these include the 1300’s era wall and moat that enclosed the original city, now in Xi’an’s center; important Buddhist pagodas; and the site where Chiang Kai-shek was held for nearly a year by Maoist forces during the Chinese Civil war and war with Japan. The city is home to many Hui people, a predominately Muslim ethnic group, easy to spot because of the white scarves worn by women and distinctive white hat worn by men. I found myself in their quarter at lunchtime and enjoyed some of their distinctive cuisine,

But Westerners mostly assiciate Xi’an with the Terra Cotta Army, located a few kilometers west of the city. There nearly ten thousand life-sized terra cotta soldiers, cavalry, horses, chariots and other figures were buried along with the most elaborate tomb in the world (larger than a football stadium). It is the afterlife home of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, and was discovered by farmers digging a well in 1974. The Emperor ordered work to start on it in 269BC when he assumed the throne at age 13. The reason it remained undiscovered throughout history is because the estimated 700,000 artisans, workers, engineers, artists and soldiers who built it were buried alive along with the Emperor, and the soldiers who sealed the chambers and concealed the entries were executed as well. They didn’t mess around with half-measures back then. Some weapons were excavated from the site and found to be in pristine condition, with chromium dioxide plating, a process that Europeans first developed in the eighteenth century. 

I was lucky enough to visit the site in 1983 when it was an archeological dig with a few small buildings and only a small portion of the grounds excavated. I actually got down in the pits and touched a few pieces. Today a huge climate-controlled hangar encloses the site, and the tourist infrastructure is said to be the size of a small city. After hearing how costly and crowded the site has become, I decided against a second visit.

At the desk of a small hotel near Xi’an’s center I met the first westerners I had seen since Ulaanbaatar. Jan and Mike, young engineers from Germany, were on an excellent adventure. They are both bicyclists and motorcyclists, seasoned two-wheel travelers already. For this month-long tour of China they chose to fly in and buy two cheap bicycles. After seeing Beijing and the Great Wall, they sold the bikes and bought a motorcycle. $450 bought them a brand-new 100cc Chinese moto, with dated engineering, pitiful performance, and loud horns. They put a couple of thousand kilometers on it and were in the process of selling it in Xi’an (it was pretty much used up, and they weren’t asking much for it). They are continuing their tour by plane, train, bus and riverboat before flying back to Germany. We had dinner at a sidewalk place with tiny stools and tables like pre-school furniture. The food was great, various meats roasted on skewers over a charcoal fire, crayfish (crawdads) and other good stuff. We also went out looking for a club or disco or bar, an excursion that found us in some pretty loud, expensive, crowded and disorienting places where we never did find a beer. But we had a good time and were back to the hotel by a reasonable hour, drinking beer from the store. Good guys; I hope to visit them in Germany some day.

I left Xi’an and had some navigation difficulty. The route I had chosen turned out to be an expressway and a toll road, no bicycles allowed. I took a paralell road that, after some kilometers, ended with a box canyon in front, a river to the left, and a tall ridge to the right, so tall I had to lift my chin to see the top. My map showed a small, squiggly line going over the ridge from the last village back, so I tried it. A narrow road, some concrete and some gravel, led through cherry and persimmon orchards clinging to the side of a very steep ridge. The road was as steep as any I have ridden, and it took two hours to reach the top. There I found a long narrow plateau with cornfields and a couple of villages, and a confusing network of roads, one of which finally brought me down to a highway on the right side of the ridge, and onward to my target city, a small one with a nice old hotel.
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The very next day I was faced with two routes leading to my destination, both about the same length. I am so happy that I chose the mountain route. Five hours of low-gear climbing brought me through the most spectacular rocky, steep, pointed-top mountains; massive light brown and tan rocks clad with green trees and shrubs, with a rushing river sharing the impossibly narrow canyons with the highway. After an hour, back among these giants, I was shocked to find villages clinging to the rocks and cliffs, and little plots of cultivated land here and there between rocks where the river had deposited some gravel. These mountain people looked tough, carrying sticks for firewood and buckets of water up the steep road. Their front doors were sometimes inches from the travelled lane. At one point a woman suddenly came out of a door and into my path. We climbed the hill side by side chattering in our respective languages for a while. She pulled two moon cakes out of a bag and handed them to me, and I ate them while we strolled along. 

Most of the side canyons had a little rushing stream, but several had terraced fields, none larger than a half acre, rising back up into the mist. One canyon had a concrete dam, with a little village at the foot of it, and a couple of acres of corn and cabbage along the river. Near the top a Buddhist shrine with a footbridge across the river far below tempted me over, and to my surprise I found a little restaurant there, and rooms. I ate lunch but since it was still early, I resisted the urge to stay overnight. I was invited into the kitchen, where small wood fires in brick stoves kept big woks hot and chased my chill away. 

Because the mountain pass had slowed me down (two hours of zooming does not make up for five hours of crawling), I was still quite far from the next city when I rejoined the main highway. I was wet, it was getting dark, and a steady cold rain looked to be staying that way. I turned on my lights, pulled my wet hat on tighter, and put my head down for three more hours. I reached the huge, luxurious (and cheap!) International Hotel in Shangluo (another surprisingly large city) at 8:00PM. That’s how I came to make a bath, a dinner and two beers seem like heaven on earth. Image

 
The next four days were similar; long days on flat roads through countryside and villages busy with the harvest. Smoke from burning crop residues and general air pollution kept the air hazy and my eyes sore. The weather has been warm and rainy, but not unpleasantly so. 
 
I’m afraid I am not a very good tourist. The cities I am staying in are full of history and attractions, and there are hot springs and waterfalls nearby that attract Chinese honeymooners and vacationers. But I pedal, rest and eat, and in the evening stay in my hotel room with a beer or two reading and relaxing after washing the day’s grime away, and looking at the map for tomorrow’s ride. Tonight I have good wi-fi in the room, so I’m sending this off to my son Henry to post for me. Thanks for checking in and THANKS! for the e-mails. I’ll be posting again from Hong Kong in just three weeks. See you all soon!

The Gobi

[Note from Henry–Billy is now in a part of China where all WordPress Blogs (and many others) are blocked by internet censorship (damn Communists!). He had initially sent out this update as an email on September 23rd, I am publishing it here for him now.]

Hello Everybody!

Well, I made it through the Gobi desert safely. I’m in the Chinese Province of Inner Mongolia. The Chinese and Mongolian parts of the desert are nearly the same geographically, but they couldn’t be more different culturally.

Heading south from Ulaanbaatar on nice pavement, I kept looking for the edge of the desert. These steppes were pretty desert-like, with no trees or bushes, no water in the gullies nor in the bone-dry stream beds. But growing amid the sage and tumbleweed was enough dry, yellowish grass to support occasional small herds of twenty to forty horses and cattle, and larger flocks of sheep and goats. Here and there a ger, or a group of several, stood at a distance from the road, with a few horses nearby and a truck or motorcycle parked outside.

And there was water. Small shallow ponds, from a half-acre up to a couple hundred, were to be seen several times each day. I know they were shallow because the water was knee-deep on horses walking far from the edge. I think they were temporary, because they supported no aquatic plants, frogs or fish, and were surrounded by tracked-up muddy margins which gave the impression that they were shrinking. It looked like the desert to me but, hey, I’m from Vermont.

Before the end of the second day the pavement ended. There began a 250-kilometer road construction project. A large sign declared that the $31,000,000,000 “Millenium Challenge Highway Construction Project” was funded by the United States, engineered by a Korean firm, and
built by a Mongolian construction company with workers from many countries. With another large project planned to the south of this one, it will provide the first paved highway link from China to Russia, something the Soviet Union prevented during their tenure of strong influence in Mongolia. And it will mean the loss of one more wild desert track for adventure travelers to traverse in Asia’s least populated region.

The new highway was in various stages and, where I could, I used the new roadbed, nowhere paved but often smooth and packed down. Because the concrete culverts were unfinished, I had to leave the smooth part every kilometer or so, make a short, hair-raising descent down an embankment (I only fell twice), and, after crossing a gully, attempt a short, gut-wrenching ascent on the other side (I only made it twice). In all I spent about a third of the time using the new roadbed.

Though it was deserted for long stretches, I met many road workers. The engineers and surveyors sometime spoke English. At least twice a day I played music for the men and women taking breaks in the shade of a truck or excavator, and several times I joined them for lunch; rich mutton soup with noodles and onions, ladled from big pots on small wood fires (the wood was, unmistakably, surveyor’s stakes), served with spicy hot pickled cucumbers and sweetened mare’s milk tea. They gave me bottled water. Although I started with ten liters, I was running on low rations and deeply appreciated their gifts.

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When I wasn’t using the under-construction roadbed I was struggling. No temporary lanes were provided; a network of rutted tracks on both sides of the construction zone served the thirty or so trucks and cars that passed me each day. Hugely overloaded tractor trailers crawled along in first gear, and every single motorist slowed, honked and waved. Thirty a day is not a lot; hours went by sometimes between caravans of five or more. The dirt tracks looked like braided strands from above (check Google Earth between Ulaanbaatar and the Chinese border). On the ground they swerved around rocks and gullies, ruts and sand, and the occasional mud bog (there had been rain a week ago). The
surface varied from hard washboard to packed rocky gravel to loose sand. Every few meters I faced a fork; one way was better, but which one? In loose sand I struggled to stay upright, straining in low gear. I was on and off the bike a hundred times a day, maybe more. I’ve been in easier mountain bike races.

After several days I noticed fewer horses and cattle, then fewer sheep and goats, and fewer people. There was more bare sand between the sparse vegetation, less grass. To the horizon, in every direction, was nothing but earth and sky, nothing man made but the road.

One day I made a big mistake. A short section of packed gravel had been spread with tar. I tested it; hard and dry. I proceeded slowly. Down a slight grade it got thicker, and before I could react I was sliding on a half-inch of liquid tar, as slick as oil. With luck and concentration I eased it onto the shoulder, almost falling when I lightly squeezed the brakes. I landed with both feet on the gravel, fortunately. But the bike and panniers and mandolin were a mess of tar. Pushing through the sandy soil clogged my fenders with a tar-and-sand mess that brought me to a stop. It took a half hour to get going again, using stones to scrape the goo from my tires and fenders (there are no sticks, remember?) Then I was a mess. To took all my rags and all my naphtha (Zippo lighter fuel) just to clean the mandolin case. I could no longer bring my panniers or shoes into the tent, and I got tar in there anyway, and on my sleeping bag. Probably on my clothes, too, but they are all black so I can’t tell. To make matters worse, that night I camped off the road a few hundred yards, walking through grassy weeds that had barbed seeds, like tiny darts that stuck to my shoes, socks and tarred bike. What a mess! It took an extra hour to set up, and I cooked in the dark. I called it “Camp Tarred and Feathered”. Now, two weeks later, I’m still dealing with
tar every day.

Halfway through the Mongolian part of the Gobi stands Sainshand , a town (or city) of some 10,000. I arrived with half a liter of water, worn out and dirty. I sat in a run-down hotel bar with a cold Tiger beer in my hand. Restaurant supplies were arriving; whole butchered sheep were carried in and placed on the dining room tables. Burlap bags of potatoes, carrots, onions and cabbage piled up on the lobby floor. Milk arrived in large metal cans. I had to wonder what this town lives on. An unpaved east-west highway crosses here and three railroad lines converge; maybe that’s enough. There were apartment buildings, stores, restaurants and bars, and at least four hotels. The main intersection had a traffic light.

I took a room at another hotel, the largest in town. It was fine except that the entire city was without power, so the water was cold and there was no wi-fi. No one spoke English, but the front desk people graciously charged me half the posted room rate. The cold shower wasn’t so bad.

Next day I loaded up on water and groceries and headed out again. The smooth pavement didn’t last long. Now the road was a braided maze of tracks in the sand, with no construction and no culverts. Miles-long zig-zags skirted deep gullies and brought me to the other side; I could look back across and see my tracks where I had begun the detour hours ago. Here and there I pushed the bike through soft sand. Nowhere could I go faster than a jogging pace. Instead of a hundred kilometers a day I was making perhaps forty, and falling asleep at night more exhausted than ever.

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Now I was in the Gobi; camels were the only livestock. Iconic desert movie cliches were everywhere: a long-horned cow skeleton bleached white by the sun; twenty buzzards picking at a dead horse; lizards scurrying across my path; tumbleweed rolling by; a snake disturbing my lunch. Far from any dwelling I passed a man on a camel leading a dozen other camels; we tipped Fedoras at each other without stopping. Once a family of three passed me on a small motorcycle with bags of food and jugs of water hanging front and rear. One day a car stopped and dropped off a passenger, then sped off. The woman was forty or so and, except for tall black leather boots, was dressed for town in slacks, a white frilly shirt, earrings and painted nails; she carried a purse and two tote bags bulging with groceries. After saying hi to me, she walked off into the trackless desert. Scanning the land carefully I finally saw a speck of white far, far away; her ger, at least an hour’s walk from the highway.

I will never forget he desert sky at night. Stars rising and setting on the very horizon, so clear and bright I shivered in the cold watching them rather than go into the tent. I could actually sense the globe turning. Shooting stars lit up the whole landscape, and I felt like a primitive organism on planet earth, with few thoughts, only sensations. Not a single light shined from city, home or auto, and the silence was complete. A week or more of this, every night, is enough to change anyone.

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Somewhere along this stretch, at an altitude of about 5000 feet, I passed from the Arctic watershed to the Pacific. Not that there’s much water to flow either way, but the last rivers I crossed, in northern Mongolia, flowed north to the Arctic Ocean. The next rivers I cross, in China, will flow south and west to the Pacific.

I pushed hard to reach Zamin Uud, the Mongolian border town. I was low on water, for one thing, but another error was causing me distress. I entered the desert with a nearly depleted salt supply. I had used it up, and eaten my four salty pickled Umeboshi plums, a medicinal and survival item I carried all the way from home. After four hot days
with no salt I was having headaches and my eyes were sore. I saw Zamin Uud on the horizon at sunset and decided to ride there in the dark rather than camp. My light was plenty bright for the slow speeds. I hit the edge of this town of maybe ten thousand people at about 9:30PM.

I’m pretty sure it’s the worst town I’ve ever been to. On the outskirts the dirt tracks I had been following just widened out into a big dusty lot with dozens of huge, overloaded trucks parked or idling or moving, men and dogs and cars and motorcycles churning up clouds of dust which, lit up by headlights, gave a menacing, apocalyptic appearance to the scene. Everyone was wearing dust masks and they seemed to glare at me in fear or anger or something other than welcome. Traffic followed no pattern; cars passed me on the left or right, approaching or overtaking. The center of the four-block downtown was paved but still dusty, and busy with people coming from a crumbling train station, carrying or dragging overstuffed boxes and bags. The men all looked tired and mean.

One hotel was full, the other had a choice: hot and cold water for $23, or just cold water, daytime only, for $17. What would you do?

I managed to get a beer and a meal next door while they warmed up the water, then washed a week’s worth of grime and tar off in a pretty dirty bathroom, then slept like a marmot for twelve hours.

Zamin Uud didn’t look any better in the daylight. The hotel staff seemed happy to see me go. Money changers approached me with huge stacks of Mongolian and Chinese currency in hand, and hustlers of several varieties harassed both me and the travelers still coming from the train station. Even the taxi drivers looked like thugs. I mounted the trusty bike and rolled down the road.

But one town won’t change my love of Mongolia. I’ll remember the fenceless land and endless sky, the horses running free, and the open friendliness and warmth of the people. It was not hard to communicate with Mongolians. Despite the lack of a common language, their open hospitality and natural gestures were easy to understand. The landscape constantly reminded me that I was in a remote, sparsely inhabited corner of the globe. But at the same time I felt at home with the people I met. Picture the white-haired New York City Christmas tree man and the Buddhist nomadic herdsman’s family laughing it up in a dark and smoky ger late at night while the wind from the steppes howls at the door. I really love the place.

Down the road was China. Mongolian customs and immigration couldn’t have been nicer. A kilometer separated the two nations’ border facilities, and apparently China doesn’t allow pedestrians or bicyclists to traverse the distance. A a number of entrepreneurs with little Chinese jeeps are authorized to take passengers across for a fee. I declined and rolled down the road to shouts and frantic arm waving. At the actual border (an actual red line on the pavement), I was stopped by armed Mongolian soldiers in a panic. Behind them were armed Chinese soldiers in a similar state of excitement. While one soldier spoke anxiously into a walkie-talkie, the other made clear to me with sign language that if I went further I would be handcuffed and jailed. The Chinese soldiers seemed ready, even hopeful, smiling to each other. I stood straddling the bike in Mongolia with my front wheel inches from China, trying to bluff the four soldiers, pointing at my bike and then at the road ahead.

At that point I was rescued by a Chinese fellow in a van with his family, returning from Mongolia. He spoke a few English words; he was an off-duty policeman from a nearby city. He told me to get in the van. I resisted, still hoping to ride my bike. He was pissed. He grabbed my handlebars and, with his face inches from mine, growled, “Obey!!”

I obeyed. I removed my panniers and mandolin and loaded into his van, sitting in back with his daughter and baby grandson. At immigration and customs he sent me into the building with my luggage and drove off with my bike. To my surprise, the paperwork was brief and there was no inspection of my stuff. On the other side of the building he picked me up, and after showing our stamps to another soldier, we went down the road. A pretty crazy border crossing.

The Chinese border city, Erenhot, couldn’t be more different from Zamin Uud. Wikipedia says 16,000 people (2006); I would have guessed 40,000. Wide, smooth, clean streets bustling with traffic; pedicabs, little scooters with toddlers in baby seats, three-wheeled motorcycle/trucks with everything from produce and live fowl to bricks and steel. There were tall buildings, some under construction, modern hotels, shops of all descriptions, street vendors, parks, statues, artistic monuments, trees (trees!) and wide pedestrian walkways, all laid out on a grid on a perfectly flat landscape. Wi-fi everywhere. When I stopped, guys crowded around me admiring the bike. They’re not shy, squeezing the brakes and thumping the saddle. The clip-in pedals are a hit. I quickly learned the word for “generator”; and of course “USB” and “iPhone” are the same in English and Chinese. That really
causes a stir in the crowd. (After all, it is the coolest part of my rig.)

English is rare except for “hello” and “howayoo?”, both of which are shouted to me from sidewalks, cars and motorcycles. I guess it’s obvious I’m a Yankee.

At the main intersection on town I was showing off the bike to a group of Mongolians and I heard a thick Irish accent, “Need a hand there mate?” James, an electrician from Ireland working on a Mongolian wind power project, was stranded in Erenhot waiting for turbine blades to arrive. He was to accompany them north along the same treacherous road I had just poured two weeks of my life into, and he wanted to talk. And I wanted to hear some English!

We went to an Irish pub. There are Irish pubs in every country I have visited so far, almost every city. Sitting down to a couple of Guiness stouts, James told me his story in a colorful Donegal brogue. He doesn’t give a damn about Irish politics. When the economy went downhill he found that working in Mongolia for an Austrailian wind power company was just the thing. A small town kid, 25 or so, he has learned what it is like to be a gawked-at minority, and living in a ger with Mongolians has broadened his outlook. He is so red-haired, green-eyed and freckled that in Asia he is regarded as a freak. The money is good. He loves his Guiness and his iPhone, and has nearly got over his disgust at Mongolian housekeeping. “I got a me a Hoover and a generator,” he said, “I’ll teach them bloody bastards right livin’.”

The Mongolian owner of the Irish pub spent an hour helping me find ethanol stove fuel. He drives a Hummer back and forth from Erenhot to Ulaanbaatar and loves life. He also loves Zamin Uud, where he has a restaurant and is in the Chamber of Commerce. I told him I would soften my criticism of the town in my blog, and I have.

Then a shy young Chinese man named Li helped me find the essentials of my camp cuisine: bread, cheese, fruit, rice, raisins. It was easy but for he cheese. We finally found a nice sheep-milk cheese at a Mongolian specialty shop. He spoke no English but had an English dictionary on his phone, and I had a Chinese dictionary on mine. Some fun.

He took me to meet his mom. She was a pretty woman working in a retail fashion shop. Li conducted the conversation: how old? (me, 60; mom, 43); children? (me, 3, grown; mom, 1, grown); married? (both divorced). We had quite an audience. It was awkward but in a nice way. I played her a tune right there in the store, bowed and kissed her hand. Applause. Encore. Applause.

Errands complete, I mounted up and headed south. Erenhot is famous for its dinosaur fossil discoveries, the richest source in Asia. Along the smooth, flat highway heading south past the archeological sites the city has placed hundreds of actual-size, anatomically correct metal sculptures of dinosaurs, all the species, in lifelike poses among sculptures of the trees and plants of the dinosaur era. For three miles it is hard not to imagine, what if they were real? Finally a pair of stylized sauropods make an arch over the highway. It’s pretty cool.

Then I was back in the desert. This time the terrain was as flat as flat can be in all directions to the horizon. I don’t think I’ve ever been in quite so flat a place except for the Bonneville salt flats in Utah, and even then there were mountains in the distance. The road was four lanes with a wide shoulder and almost no traffic. I made 60 kilometers in no time, gliding past an airport, a huge air force base, some big communication installations, and hundreds of wind turbines.

Up ahead I saw a dark cloud of black smoke drifting across the road. I couldn’t see a source, but as I got close sniffed to see what it was. It turned out to be a bug storm. Like a snow storm only bugs. I put my head down and pedaled on, and they piled up on my hat and arms like snow on a parka. They were tiny winged gnats, not biting, but buzzing and crawling. The air was thick with them. I got through, stopped and brushed them off my bike and body. A few minutes later I rode through another bug storm, hopefully my last ever.

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I scanned the featureless landscape for a campsite. In a sense it was all campsite, all the way to the horizon. But a fence ran along this divided highway on both sides. China, not Mongolia. A tiny desert town appeared on the horizon, ten kilometers away. There were some big, low, attractive buildings, neatly landscaped, that I couldn’t identify, and the rest were hovels. One hovel had the weathered skeleton of a pool table outside, and a six-foot tall stack of empty beer bottles. A bar!

A woman emerged and immediately made beer-drinking sign language. I nodded, we went in and she popped open a nice warm one. It was a bar and general store of such rough character that a movie set designer couldn’t have done a better job. Most impressive was a large pile of gigantic leeks on the floor. I won’t try to list the merchandise; they had everything a desert rat could wish for. After one swig she made sign language for sleep. Surprised, I nodded. She led me out back to a brick bunkhouse and opened a door. Four cots with straw mattresses, a pile of blankets, a dusty brick floor, one bare bulb, one wooden table. She bent down and scratched 15 in the sand. 15 yuan is $2.37. That’s a record for me. I nodded. She led me to an outbuilding where she pointed out a big earthenware crock with water, a dipper and a plastic wash basin. The ameneties.

In my misspent youth, I have stayed in cleaner and more comfortable jail cells. Even so, I kind of enjoyed the place. A kind of Chinese cowboy hole in the wall. Two sheep poked their heads in the door to say good night. I cooked up some rice with garlic scapes, had a couple of beers, and finished reading Crime and Punishment by midnight.

The smooth pavement and dead-flat terrain continued and a tailwind pushed me south at a fast clip. I had been expecting more unpaved desert struggling, and had loaded up with a week’s worth of water and provisions. Now I was traveling at four times the pace, and reaching surprisingly large, modern cities every day.

In these cities I am a curiosity. On the map, Sonid Youqi looked to be a little burg with ten streets. On the ground it was huge, with a central square, monuments, skyscrapers both new and under construction; the works. Searching for a place to eat with wi-fi, a was directed to a new hotel with a fancy restaurant. The restaurant guests crowded around my table and an English speaker helped me order enough food for three men. Four waitresses lined up and stared at me.
The manager of the hotel served me and introduced me to the owner. Through the English speaking diner they offered me a free room for the night and free meals. Why? I don’t know. I don’t like to waste a tailwind, but after the previous night’s hole in the wall, a deluxe suite seemed like a reasonable choice, even though it was not yet three o’clock.

From there south I was still in the desert, but soon I saw trees and crops growing. The trees were aspens and evergreens planted in long rows, thousands of them, growing in slight depressions with circular dikes around each one, to hold irrigation water. The crop land was irrigated. Huge fields of leeks and squash and other crops were being harvested by hand, with hundreds of laborers loading caravans of small trucks. The surrounding hills were treeless sand and rock, but the valley floors flourished. Villages were squalid and primitive, cities were large and modern. The highway continued to be smooth, traffic increased, and I passed large factories and quarries.

At one factory a friendly wave from some squatting cigarette smokers brought me to a stop, and they made sign language for eating. They brought me through the factory gates and into the cafeteria. It was 2:30, between meals, and we passed through the dining room (metal tables and benches for 200) and into the kitchen. Here two strong women and a couple of young helpers feed the workers from an ancient scullery. Wood- and gas- fired brick ranges held thirty-gallon woks, and the tile sink was big enough to climb into. They seemed to be butchering their own sheep and pigs, and making tofu from soybeans. I was served a big bowl of beef stew with ginger (it had several hard-boiled eggs in it), a gooey deep fried fritter with sweet bean paste, and a large white dumpling, barely cooked, with no stuffing in it, to dip into my stew. I sat at the kitchen table and the women joined me. I couldn’t stop looking around at the high-ceilinged room with oversized antique kitchen equipment.

In addition to taking rooms in the inexpensive hotels, I camped in the desert a couple of times before reaching the agricultural lowlands of Central China. I may not be camping any more. Not only is it forbidden by law, but the land use patterns here discourage it. With a high population density for centuries, every scrap of land is in use for something: vegetables grow right up to the edge of the road, and the fields extend back to the bare hills, too rocky and steep for a tent. Old old stone cottages are surrounded by stone walls in the countryside, and a donkey, goat or cow is tethered on any corner of grass that might have escaped the plow.

Cycling toward Jining, a bustling city busy with construction cranes, huge storms swept the hills to the left and right, with thunder and lightning. I could see that the rain was heavy just a kilometer away, but I was only lightly sprayed with the cold rain. With five miles to go and a tailwind, I fled the storm, hoping to reach a downtown hotel before the storm caught me. I haven’t put out such an effort since my
racing days. I reached the city center and a fine hotel minutes before the storm swept in and darkened the streets, sending citizens scurrying. The torrent lasted only a full twenty minutes, and it was fine to behold from the lobby.

With plenty of time to reach Hong Kong, and the rigors of Siberia and the Gobi behind me, I am taking a more relaxed approach. I have lowered the pressure in my tires for a more comfortable, although less efficient ride. I still push hard when I’m in the saddle, but for fewer hours each day, and I am covering only fifty miles or so, sometimes less. There are more distractions here with all the people and cities. It seems funny that with six weeks and over a thousand miles of cycle touring left, a good long trip by any standards, it feels like I am at the tail end of my adventure. Surely there will be more adventure to come, but I ride along with the feeling that I just
have to cruise down to Hong Kong, book a flight, and take my seat until New York is in view.

Two ideas alternate in my mind. First, I miss Vermont and Greenwich Village and most of all my kids and grandchildren. Second, this is the life, and I would set out on another year-long tour after Christmas without hesitation.

But there are compelling reasons to stay closer to home next year in addition to friends and family. Music, writing, skiing, and gardening are all things that I love and miss. On my to-do list, there are mountains to climb, roads to ride and streams to paddle right there in New England. With only my camper to call home, and a promise to myself to develop new forms of livelihood, I have challenges enough to keep me busy. These and other thoughts of home sustain me as I wend my way south toward Hong Kong.

I’ll keep you posted.

With Love,

Billy

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Mongolia

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“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream.” – Mark Twain

Here I am in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, an ancient city, a crossroads and gathering place for travelers for over a thousand years, stronghold of Genghis Kahn, and a sweet sight for me after two hard weeks of Siberian forests and Mongolian steppes. I’m renting a ger (the Mongolian yurt) for three days while I rest my bones, fill my belly, clean my body and bike, and grow some skin back on my nose and ears. The nights are cold here, at 5000 feet elevation, and the days are sunny and warm.

Leaving Irkutsk I encountered some serious mountains, still in the Siberian forest, and after a couple of days I reached legendary Lake Baikal. This high-altitude lake, the deepest in the world by far, is a source of national pride for Russians, and is considered sacred by most.

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Siberian River

Clear, ice cold rivers run over rocky riverbeds from the surrounding mountains, some of which are 7000 feet high and snow-capped ten months of the year. I took some ice-cold baths! Camping was good, with cold nights, but each morning the tent was wet with heavy dew on the outside and condensation on the inside. So most days at lunch I had to set the tent up and hang my sleeping bag to dry.

I arrived at the lake on a windy, rainy day and saw it’s steely grey surface extend to the horizon. Looking around at the mountains, it was at that moment I noticed the first of the leaves turning yellow on the birches and poplars here and there.

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First Glimpse

I followed the lake shore for a few days, just the southern end of this 400-mile long lake. On clear days the lake was amazingly blue; at the shore waves crashed on clean rocky beaches.

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Blue

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Crystal Clear and Ice Cold

The sheer size of the lake and surrounding mountains is enough to absorb the vacationing Russians; even in this high season for visitors the shore was mostly deserted and the wild campsites were mostly empty. There are no private “campgrounds,” and the national forest facilities are limited to a few signs. Dirt side roads typically have stone fire rings where generations of campers have spent the night, and much less litter than elsewhere in Russia.

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Camping in Style

One evening, investigating a woods road for camping, I joined a Siberian family preparing dinner after a day of berry picking. These were city folk, from Irkutsk, and their style, like many other campers I had seen, was reminiscent of family camping in America, circa 1950. They had a canvas lean-to, some stools and a makeshift kitchen table, and a large campfire with blackened pots hanging from sticks, one with tea and one with potatoes. Dad was roasting sausages on sticks; Grandpa was drinking vodka and trying to get us all to join him. Mom and Grandma were slicing tomatoes and cucumbers and hard boiled eggs. With bread and cookies and fruit, they put on quite a spread. The teen-age kids, a boy and a girl, we’re jabbing away at their cell phones with red, berry-stained fingers. They jumped up quickly, though, when called to help. They fed me until I could barely move. Mom crushed the red berries (like small cranberries, tart and juicy) into my cup, added sugar and tea, and it was divine. I played music for them until the fire died down and darkness came. I have no idea where the mosquitoes went. In the morning they were out picking berries by the time I woke up. They left cookies and a thermos of tea on a stump outside my tent.

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A Bigger River

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A Smaller Lake

Later that day I met a young French couple who were ending their year-long bicycle tour in a week, at Irkutsk. I got some valuable information about the road ahead in Mongolia and China.

Then the rain came. It varied from light to heavy, warm to cold, and seemed to suit the mosquitoes especially well. I managed, struggling cheerfully through two soggy nights and two wet, windy days.

Since last year at this time I have been anticipating the adventure of leaving the pavement at Babywink (my pronunciation, not far off, of Бабушкин) and traversing the bear- and wolf-infested mountains between Lake Baykal and Mongolia, some 225 kilometers. You’ll have to look on Yandex; it’s not on Google maps.

First, the road was hard to find. I had to ask several times. Nobody spoke English, but they all shook their heads emphatically and said, ” Nyet! Nyet!” Two guys held their hands at their knees, indicating the depth of the mud. They pointed to a four-wheel-drive truck and said, “Nyet,” shaking their heads. They made sign language for rifles and shooting and bears and wolves. They said there were dozens of unmarked turns and wrong roads, all looking the same. They said nobody goes up there alone.

I said, “Bah!” and found the road. It had rained hard the day before and was raining lightly again. Within an hour I was pushing the bike up a steep hill in mud over my shoes, little streams running down the road. Mud was clogging my fenders. The mosquitoes were intense. The woods were dense. I pushed and rode some more, making about four kilometers all afternoon. There was no place for my tent, the woods were so thick. I calculated; it would take ten or twelve days to reach the pavement again, with luck. (I had enough food, but not enough stove fuel: I would have to cook on a wood fire.) On the highway, 150 kilometers longer, it would take four or five days. So I copped out.

Down the hill I went, back to the pavement. It rained hard and washed the mud off, most of it anyway. I took shelter at an “employee smoking lounge,” a rough three-sided shelter at the entrance to a saw mill. I swept it out and spent the night there, disturbed at intervals by people and dogs and spiders and mosquitoes. I got an early start in glorious sunshine. Cold, though. I dried out my kit on a windy hilltop, and did 120 kilometers that day.

I went around the mountains. Near Ulan-Ude I turned south, after having travelled in an eastward direction ever since crossing the Pyrenees in February. The terrain changed to huge treeless valleys. The weather was windy with occasional showers, and to my right I could see the mountains that I didn’t go through. Up there it was stormy, with big black clouds and lightning, which made me feel better about my decision.

From the beginning I had planned to enter Mongolia on September 1. After skipping the mountain route, I saw that if I pressed hard for a few days I could maybe make it, so I did. On September 1, at 6:00PM, I reached the border. I passed a hundred cars and trucks waiting in an hours-long line. The lady took my passport and papers.

For three months I have been wondering if my botched paperwork was going to cause me delay, expense and anxiety at the border. I had some rubles ready for a bribe. The woman asked no questions. She carefully compared my face to my passport photo; I smiled my most friendly, innocent smile. Although she shook her head a bit, frowned some and took her time, I finally heard the stamp and got my passport back in my hands. Customs waved me by without stopping. Mongolian customs and immigration officials welcomed me cordially. By 7:30PM I was camping on the open Mongolian range with horses nearby and yurts in the distance.

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Welcome To Mongolia

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Home On The Range

Mongolia is the best! Huge valleys with no trees, just a few on the distant mountains. Mountain passes with Buddhist shrines at the top. Little traffic, few people. A shepherd on a horse now and then. The steppes support minimal livestock. It is the most sparsely populated country in the world, and a third of Mongolians are nomadic herdsmen. Cattle, sheep, goats and horses roam everywhere on the open, fenceless range, tended by men on horseback in traditional garb. Horses are kept for food and milk as well as riding. Mare’s milk is made into strong tea with lots of sugar. It’s really good, like hot cocoa only better.

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Mongolian Rivers Are Cold Too

In the first three days I found only one town, bigger than Middlebury but with horses tethered outside the bars and livestock in the streets. But modern cars and people in western-style clothing mixed in, too. No English. In a bigger town, Darkhan, a couple of days later, I found a bar with wi-fi and sent a few e-mails. Other than that I had long days, big valleys, mountain passes, great campsites, and little else. I covered 70 or 80 miles a day.
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I Will Pose But I Won’t Smile

I reached the top of one of the bigger mountain passes near sunset. A dirt track seemed to lead from there around the back of a nearby peak. Since there are no trees for cover, that’s the kind of thing I look for to provide some privacy for my campsite. I pedaled up and up in my lowest gear, slowly circling the peak and getting farther from the highway. To my surprise I heard music and voices. Then I came upon seven men outside a ger slaughtering two sheep. The music was coming from a truck radio. I surprised them just as much as they surprised me. I hollered, “Sanbanoo!” and they waved me into their camp. We were just around the bend, out of sight of the highway.

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A Good Camp

It was a temporary camp, as I could see from the paths in the grass and the newly made ditch on the uphill side of their ger, to divert water in case of rain. The boss man invited me to stay and eat, sign language style. With some difficulty he explained why they were there. It was like charades. They were a work crew building a brick and masonry building at the top of the peak, which was to house the equipment for a planned cell phone tower. It was still 500 meters up to the top, and they had already succeeded in moving tons of materials up the steep slope, apparently by manpower. They were a tough crew.

Soon the sheep were cut up. Most of the meat was hung in the ger, and the organs and cleaned entrails and fat went into a great pot on a propane burner. They brought out potatoes and cabbage; I contributed carrots and onions. (I had bought a bunch, more than I needed, from a vendor a couple of days back in Darkhan, because he had watchd my bike when I went into the bar to use wi-fi, and he wouldn’t take any money for thanks.) The vegetables went in whole, except for the onions which were sliced and kept raw. I set up my tent nearby, shot some video, (here) and after a while the feast was laid out on a wooden board. A sheep-dung fire burned smokily nearby to keep the mosquitoes down. Eight of us gathered around the food and each man took a big sharp knife from his sheath. They tried not to laugh at my little folding Opinel knife. We sliced pieces of heart and liver and other organs I could not identify and ate them from our knife tips, or put them on chunks of bread with some globs of fat on top. At the four corners of the board were little piles of salt to dip meat into. We ate the vegetables the same way. Broth was drunk from bowls passed around.

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Smells Good

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Chow Time

We were still going at it when a late-model SUV pulled up. The young driver got out and opened the door for his passenger. Out stepped a very old man in traditional garb, a canvas tunic with sheepskin trim and a matching hat. Matching pants were tucked into big calf-high black boots. He looked like Genghis Kahn himself, with the bearing of a chief. His face was nearly black; two tufts of white hair stuck out horizontally from somewhere near the corners of his mouth, two more formed a vertical pair beneath his lips. His eyes were just slits—very powerful ones.

The boss man bowed (actually, we all stood and bowed), and the visitors were bid to sit and eat. While I couldn’t understand the words, it seemed clear that this was his land, or at least his territory. They may have been his sheep. When the boss man spoke to him, the old man seemed to answer with his eyes, and the young man with him would speak. We were introduced to him, but we shook the young man’s hand, not his.

We all sat back down. The old man pulled out the biggest knife of all and deftly sliced meat and popped it in his mouth, one handed, while his left hand remained tucked into his tunic. Only then did he smile; everyone else seemed to breathe a little easier, and we returned to eating. The young man ate nothing. The visit was short and ended cordially, with smiles all around.

A little while later the boss and foreman left in the truck. I was to see them on the highway the next day, when they pulled over with a load of materials and greeted me like a long-lost brother. The rest of the boys kept me up pretty late singing and playing mandolin. Although they were Buddhists, they wanted songs about Jesus Christ. Turns out I know quite a number of them. A big moon lit the way to my tent, and I slept well. Breakfast was leftover dinner and mare’s milk tea, strong, sweet and lukewarm. They each gave me a kind of a hug by gripping my shoulders tightly at arm’s length while looking directly in my eyes and smiling. As I left they were already carrying concrete blocks up the steep slope. Good guys.

A couple days later I topped a hill and saw Ulaanbaatar’s skyscrapers in the distance, sort of startling in this wild land even though I was expecting it.

Back near the Russian border I had met a Dutch traveler, a woman named Petra, who was taking a year off from her career as a truck driver to tour the world in a big Mercedes Benz camper. She was parked at the top of a mountain pass taking a break, and we had coffee in her neat kitchen overlooking a huge valley at midday. Before I left she handed me a tiny brochure for a place called The Oasis, a guest house and café which she recommended with unusual enthusiasm. She was such a nice woman, sending me off with gifts and food, and I decided to take her advice.

Ulaanbaatar’s main drag is a long busy street with comically dense traffic when I hit town at rush hour. Dust flies up from the broken, gravelly pavement as cars and busses try to maneuver around huge holes. Two nattily uniformed policemen direct traffic at each corner, while four crossing guards control pedestrians crowding the crosswalks. They all blow whistles loudly, some of them through holes in their dust masks. At least fifteen corners were manned this way, and chaos reigned at the others. I had to traverse the entire city from west to east in order to reach the Oasis. With only a few minor incidents and no real damage, I reached the Oasis at sundown.

It was worth the struggle. I can not express how fortunate I feel to have found this place. Although it is tucked behind a gas station on a dusty dirt street, and surrounded by a pretty funky neighborhood, it is truly an Oasis. Within its fence stands a guest house, a café with a terrace, and a dozen ger. (I’m pretty sure the plural of ger is ger. It’s the Mongolian term for yurt.) A couple of small tents are set up, and laundry hangs from lines. The parking lot is full of big off-road touring motorcycles; tricked out Land Rovers with with spare tires and gear loaded on roof racks; dust-covered cars and trucks from all over the world; an antique Russian motorcycle with a sidecar, outfitted for desert travel; and a huge house-truck. A couple of the motorcycles are stripped down, their owners putting on new tires or chains, and there is work going on under several hoods as well.

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Home to Tairin, Hanu and Leslie

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Fred’s Rig

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Fred’s Rig and Kurt’s Bike

An unbelievably professional Mongolian staff woman approached me and asked, “Deutch? English? Russki…?” I took a ger for three nights, brought my bike inside it, and went directly to the showers. Then I brought my laundry to the laundry lady. Then I got a haircut from the barber. Then I went to the bar and had a beer and a bowl of soup. All this was before they mentioned money or even asked my name. I was given a card to fill out and keep in a file box with the other guests’ cards. On it I mark down what services, food or drink I consume, and we settle up later. It is extremely clean, like I haven’t seen since The Netherlands, and the food is great. The Austrian couple who run the place have been in Mongolia for ten years; they and their staff seem dedicated to excellence. I have rarely seen such natural, professional and attentive hospitality anywhere.

My ger has wi-fi, a wood stove, one light bulb and one outlet. Four comfortable bunks and a small sink and mirror complete the amenities, and it’s clean as a whistle. I am in heaven.

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My Ger at the Oasis

One other bicyclist, Cyril, is here, a young Frenchman ending his long tour. I made friends with the only other American, Kurt, cleaning my bike while he worked on his motorcycle. The rest are Swiss, German, French, Dutch, Columbian, Austrian, British and more—I haven’t met them all, and more arrive daily. They are all really nice and really interesting. I am respected here because of my self-powered mode, long miles, and age. Plenty of younger folk are exhausted from their auto or motorcycle travels. I’m full of energy.

I must admit, though, that my usual outgoing and talkative ways have moderated somewhat. I am taking a more subdued and quiet approach, observant. I answer briefly and ask the same question back, and listen. People are fascinating! Perhaps it’s a consequence of the solitude I have enjoyed these past few months. I’ve been meditating more than ever before. At any rate, I seem to attract attention at the same old levels.

I’m still not shy about playing music, and the travelers here are not shy about asking. I debuted my mandolin-harmonica act, practiced in so many Siberian campsites, and got a hell of a reception. I even got these folks singing. Who would have guessed that Ricky Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou, Goodbye Heart” would be an international sing-along hit? The Beatles are big with all ages, same as always. Likely the Mongolian beer with 7.5% alcohol helps, too.

There seems to be little reason to leave the Oasis. But Ulaanbaatar is a big, legendary city. The “Black Market” is located at the “edge of the center”, and it was worth seeing. From hay and vegetables to iPhones (real and fake) and Rolexes (real and fake and in-between), it is there. Knockoff YSL handbags are big. Some vendors have tents and stalls, some just tarps and blankets, some a box or upturned bucket. A significant number just stand there in black leather jackets and sunglasses, their arms folded, selling who knows what. You can change any currency, even from African and Pacific Island nations. Illegal ivory, fossils and antiquities are on display. Chinese vendors sell American style consumer electronics and other goods in original boxes at silly cheap prices. Ten-year old Sony laptops, still in the box, were 22,000 tögrög, about $16. Car and truck parts take up a sizable section. I was so overwhelmed I bought nothing.

Cyril and I headed for the bike shop: I needed brake pads and he needed a box to ship his bike. We lost our way and hailed two Mongolian bicyclists, pretty young women on carbon-fiber road bikes, wearing team jerseys. No English or French, but they motioned us to follow. At the bike shop I got the owner to translate a dinner invitation; they accepted and a rendezvous was arranged. Solongo and Orkhon, musical names unpronounceable for western speakers.

Also at the bike shop were Miriam and Steve, a Swiss/German couple who had traversed Russia on bikes a week or two ahead of me. We had heard of each other through Alex of Omsk and Eric, the wild Frenchman in the antique Renault. We picked up Johannes, a German on the last day of his 14-month tour, and had lunch at a French Bakery, where I learned a lot about the deserts and roads ahead.

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Biker Gang

The streets were busy with stylish students, foreign travelers, and sophisticated urban Mongolians. Nomadic herdsmen from the steppes, visiting the big city, walked about in little groups.

In the evening Cyril and I, freshly cleaned up, met the girls at the Blue Sky hotel, Ulaanbaatar’s downtown architectural landmark.

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The Blue Sky, From the Internet

We got a tour of the city in Solongo’s car and had dinner at a nice place with a traditional Mongolian folk band. The language barrier was actually funny, but with a dictionary and phrase book Cyril and I were able to learn that these two are professional bicycle racers who had just recently completed, and placed well in, a big international ten-day stage race. We viewed their team web site, and looked at their results in the stage race, with photos of their best finishes. They were so nice and sweet; after dinner they presented me and Cyril with gifts, little souvenirs of Mongolian horse art.

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Solongo is Shy

Friday night in this city of more than a million is quite the scene. There are lots of clubs with live music and the streets are busy, even crowded, with dressed-up partiers. In the main square there was a free concert, a cool Beatles tribute band from the UK with a great look and sound. They even had Beatles instruments and a left-handed Paul McCartney bassist. I enjoyed it so much that at the end of the show I pulled my usual trick and headed backstage to meet the band. (With my mandolin case I just pointed toward the backstage area and put a hand on Cyril’s shoulder; the Mongolian policeman politely lifted the rope.).

This may mean little to non-musicians, but I learned that the bassist was actually a right-handed player, and had taught himself to play left-handed for the act. That’s incredible. Still, he was interested in my left-handed mandolin, and we got to meet the band and exchange a few words before the stage manager politely hinted that “the boys are knockered…”

The girls dropped us off at the Blue Sky, where we had left our bikes under the protection of the front desk staff, pretending to be guests at this expensive, swanky international hotel. The streets were still busy at 2:00AM, and back at the Oasis there were three more Land Rovers crowded into the yard, and people still awake.

I decided to extend my stay another night. Our innkeeper Sibylle speaks four languages fluently and several others passably, and has the most natural talent for hospitality. Like the best Vermont innkeepers I know (that’s you, Doug and Shelly), she is constantly working but never too busy for any request, and cheerfully keeps dozens of people comfortable with little discernible effort. But my experience in the hospitality world tells me that the effort is great, like acting or musical performance, and only the best can make it appear effortless. A bunch of us took Sibylle out to dinner in the city last night, and I was selected as featured entertainment. I wish my jokes worked here, but only Kurt, the American extreme motorcyclist, gets any of them.

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Sixteen for Dinner

Kurt is a character. The rest of the motorcyclists have big BMW or similar huge bikes, with hard aluminum or fiberglass cases and enduro setups. Kurt uses a tricked-out KTM 950 Adventure off-road racing bike with a single waterproof vinyl bag draped over the seat behind him. His kit weighs about the same as mine; that is, half of the typical motorcyclist’s. 80% of his kilometers are off-road, and he has visited some of the planet’s wildest places. littletinyplanet.com

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Kurt

I am still researching the rest of my route. There is plenty of time to reach Hong Kong, by the looks of things, but I know how time seems to dwindle away on the road. I have visited Beijing and Shanghai on previous cycle tours, and the eastern provinces, which are China’s most densely populated, so I am designing a route through the rural, sparsely peopled center. My friend Bud Reed, who has much more experience in China than I do, has pointed me toward some of the best cycling in Yunnan Province, near the Cambodian border, which would involve some train travel to reach (unless I add a month or two to the schedule!). At this point I am wishing I had another 12 or 24 months, instead of two. I’ll head south, make it up as I go along and, of course, keep you posted.

The Gobi desert stands between here and the nearest Chinese cities, and I am gathering information and resting up for the passage. There has been rain, and the temperatures have moderated, so I will go through it rather than around it, saving many miles but not much time. Hundreds of kilometers of unpaved road will slow my pace, but I feel prepared and eager.The danger is low; adventure travelers are heading south as winter approaches (last year the snow came on September 15), so my route will be well travelled. Likely I will meet up with some of the fine people I have met here at the Oasis.

As always I am thankful for your e-mails and good wishes. Except for you, Bob; you’re a jerk. My next post will be from China where, I am told, wi-fi is abundant. It’s a great life on the road, but it is absolutely painful to miss a year in the life of three particular people: Colby, Thomas and Charlie Bishop, my grandsons. I’ll be home for Christmas, boys!

Please enjoy this Rogue’s Gallery—

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Siberian Epic

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“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

So far I have been posting every couple of weeks and trying to include as much as possible of my experiences and activities. This comes at the expense of some detail. This time I will try to provide some extra detail by describing a few days in Siberia.

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Sitting in a birch grove on my lunchtime tarp, full belly, drowsy; dappled shade around me, and beyond a small lake surrounded by meadow; on the far shore a small party picnicking and splashing in the shallow water. A pregnant woman walks her dog nearby, and closer still a brown-faced man stoops down to add mushrooms to his overflowing bucket. He walks near and says something in Russian and, seeing that I don’t understand, asks for a smoke by holding two fingers to his lips. I give him three, and he tips his cap, bowing slightly with a smile that shows big, strong teeth. I decline his offer of mushrooms, and he nods, closing both eyes for a second and smiling knowingly as he gestures with his open palm toward the forest. I take this to mean, “Of course, there are plenty for the taking in the woods.” He tips his hat a second time and says goodbye. Faintly heard squeals come across the lake from children splashing and diving.

It’s five PM, August 11, my daughter Ellie’s birthday, and the sun is still high in the sky. The Siberian summer heat has cooled already, and the breeze smells fresh and fragrant. The sound of the highway, a quarter-mile off, reminds me that I want to ride thirty more miles today. But I linger, reading and writing with my shoes off and food at my fingertips. Finally I pack up and go. A tailwind brings me twenty more miles over rolling hills with some smooth road, some bumpy. Traffic is light. I choose a perfectly beautiful campsite, down a little dry road that ends in a thick birch forest.

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The cool breeze keeps mosquitoes away, and a few flies attack while I pitch my tent. It takes ten minutes exactly to dismount, change from sunglasses to regular ones, set up the tent and zip myself inside with the gear I will need for the evening: sleeping bag and pad, handlebar bag, food bag (which contains the stove, fuel and kitchen gear), and the mandolin in it’s case.

Exactly twenty minutes later, I have chopped onions and carrots, brought rice and vegetables to a boil (seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper), and covered the pot with my goose-down sleeping bag to cook for a while more. I play mandolin and harmonica for twenty minutes (I’m learning Jethro Burns’ Stumbling and David Bromberg’s Dying Crap Shooter’s Blues). Then I check dinner; it’s done. While it cools I blow three big puffs of air into my mattress, and lay back to read Anna Karenina with my mandolin case raising my pillow (a goose-down suit stuffed loosely into my sleeping bag stuff sack) up to a comfortable height for reading. It’s cooler now so I cover my legs with the sleeping bag. It’s 8:00 o’clock and the sun is low. It sets noticably earlier now, nearly two months since the solstice, but this far north the summer twilight is long and the sky is light until after 10:00.

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For the next few hours I eat, drink water, read, clean up, play a few more tunes, and then read some more, until sleep overtakes me at about 11:00.

Awakened by my bladder at 7:00, I go out out with my hat ready to fan away mosquitoes but there are none. It’s chilly. The sun is already up. Back in the tent I could sleep some more, but I resist the temptation. I sit up and meditate for half an hour. Then, munching cookies, I read more of Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

By 8:30 I feel like moving. By 9:00 I am rolling down the road in the sunshine. The sky is completely clear and blue; the fields and forests are very green. A tailwind develops and I make good time, stopping for tea at a diner and later for a bathroom break at a bus stop outhouse. (The bus stops here are provided with concrete outhouses, painted blue and white. They are much cleaner than the restaurant outhouses and the bus-stop outhouses further west. This one lacks a door but is otherwise very serviceable.)

Clouds creep in. I make 35 miles before feeling hungry. By lunchtime it is completely overcast and the wind has picked up, still mostly in my favor. I choose a bus stop shelter to escape the wind and have a bench to sit on. This one is very clean. Relaxing and reading after eating my fill (ham sandwich with mustard, cookies, peanuts, tangerine, chocolate), I am surprised to see rain. Not a sudden, short shower but a steady rain by the looks of it. In a way I’m pleased—I am engrossed in my book, and my phone battery is almost fully charged. The rain lets up after a half hour more, and I consider leaving. But…just one more chapter. By then the rain has started up again, and the sky is a uniform grey from horizon to horizon. (“Just lettin’ loose for a second so’s it can get a better grip,” as the old Yankee says.) Since it appears that I’m going to ride in the rain this afternoon, and a cold one at that, I’m thankful that I chose to lunch in this shelter as I begin another chapter. What a writer!

I put the mandolin in it’s dry bag and suit up. I have a rain jacket with no hood which I use with the Fedora for light or intermittent rain. But today I put the Fedora in it’s waterproof bag before securing it in place atop the mandolin. This weather calls for a rain cape and rain pants. I curse the merchant who botched my delivery of parts and gear while I was in Ukraine; the order contained rain boots.

The cape is like a hooded poncho, but the sides are not open. In use, elastic loops hook onto my brake levers and saddle. It covers my handlebars and bag, and fits taughtly around my butt to make a little open-bottomed tent on my bike. With mudguards on the bike controlling road spray from below, the cape provides excellent protection and ventilation. A visored hood with adjusting drawstrings keeps my glasses pretty dry.

Thankfully, the road is fairly level and the traffic is light. The rain varies from light to heavy. Three hours later I am still pretty dry (except for my feet) and comfortable. The temperature is in the sixties. I reach Kansk, a city of perhaps 20,000.

I take shelter at a corner store in Kansk while I examine the sky to the west, the direction from which the weather is coming. To the southwest the sky is dark, but in the northwest it is brighter. I eat cookies under the grocery store canopy for a while, and dash across the street to get some cash from a bank machine. It is 5:00 o’clock and the traffic is heavy. Cars and trucks splash big waves of brown water from potholes and puddles.

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How can I describe Kansk? Like the larger Russian cities, the outskirts are dystopian: barely passable roads (even if the highway leading in is OK), no signage, low hovels for housing, with yards that feature tall weeds and fences made of scrap metal or saplings. The electric wires are scary, with tangled messes of wire on the poles, transformers on the ground with rickety wood fences around them, and obvious do-it-yourself wires powering some homes and businesses. Stores have gravel parking lots with mud, huge puddles, and tall weeds. Overflowing dumpsters and trash cans are a common site, as are vacant lots full of construction debris and mangy dogs in packs of three or four. Toothless old men sit around on stools, or squat on their haunches.

Closer to the center I encounter the huge grey concrete apartment blocks that Russia is famous for. They are indeed grey and bland, but they have positive qualities, too. Each and every apartment has a balcony, most of which have been “winterized” by the owner or occupant. From the street you see laundry, plants, bicycles, tapestries. I’ve been in several of these buildings. The halls and elevators are awful; dirty, smelly, and scary, because some government bureaucrat somewhere is in charge, and corruption is the culture. (“Can’t you call and complain?” I asked. “Hah! Good joke!” was the reply.) However, the apartments, most with double steel doors and multiple locks, were nice, well-kept, cozy and clean, with modern plumbing and appliances. Under Communism, the apartments were owned by the government and neglected like the hallways. Rent was cheap but it required connections to get one. Now they are privately owned and rented from the owners. Most of the apartments I have been in were rented by young couples from their parents, very cheaply or for free. Or they were inherited.

When I reach the center of Kansk, as in most small cities, I see a nice square with a few big heroic statues, trees and a fountain and benches; a main street with attractive shops and buildings, banks and offices, cafes and bars, and nice old buildings. Well dressed men and women are shopping, talking on cell phones, hopping out of cabs and eating at cafés and restaurants. In a town the size of Kansk, this is confined to a few square blocks.

Back to my break. Outside the bank three very old babushkas selling garden produce call out to me. They seem to be both angry that I am not buying and pleading at the same time. “Pahjalusta!” they say, pointing to the fine-looking garden vegetables. “Please!” I run back to the shelter of the canopy.

I’m thinking: an hour or so riding to the countryside, then set up the tent and cook dinner. The real test of my equipment and technique is in the morning—getting packed up in the rain, into wet shoes and damp clothing, onto the bike and down the road.

Then the rain stopped. I saw actual patches of blue sky to the north. A few more sprinkles, and then it cleared. I jumped onto the bike, dodging puddles and splashes, and headed east.

Then I thought, “Babushkas!” I turned around and pulled up to the women’s produce, displayed on boxes. They were wet and cold, huddled together. I pointed to a bunch of broccoli, a bunch of parsley, a bunch of dill, a bunch of scallions. The bunches were tied with thread. They had no bags, but handed me my purchases, which I put into my panniers as is. They wanted thirty rubles: ninety-five cents. I gave them a hundred rubles, $3.16, removed my hat and bowed, then sped off. Still cheap.

I navigated through town and back to the highway. Not far from town I took a left, then a right onto a dirt road. A small overgrown double-track led up to a cell tower, and behind it a pine woods, still dripping big drops. There I made camp, hanging rain gear to dry on tree branches. A few rays of actual sunlight reached my campsite through the trees before the sun set behind a hill. Soon I had rice cooking, with some mighty fine fresh garden vegetables in with. Mighty fine.

Next day the kilometer posts indicated that I didn’t make 100 kilometers in the previous day’s rain. More like 80. So I determined to press hard and rest little. The road was smooth, with rolling hills and little traffic, through the wildest country yet: miles and miles of forest, with no towns or truck stops, not even a gas station or intersection, for miles and hours. Standing up on the uphills, zooming downhill in top gear, I made good time. Topping a hill I would see forests to the horizon. I have never been in such wild country, even in Alaska. With the sun shining and my engine running strong, it was a day to remember with a big smile.

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I lunched in another clean concrete bus stop shelter just to have a bench to sit on. More Anna Karenina. While I ate and read my tent and sleeping bag was spread out in the hot sun to dry.

Toward evening I went through a little village and found a tiny grocery store. Several days from Krasnoyarsk now and my supplies were running low. I got yoghurt, cookies (weighed out for me from bulk bins), plums (the old-fashioned purple kind), a round loaf of good heavy rye bread, peanuts, and raisins.

At the edge of town I met two hitch-hikers, a Russian couple on break from college, on their way to lake Baikal. I’ve met several pairs of hitch-hikers, all of whom fit that same description, with the same destination.

I’ve made my 100 kilometers and 15 more, and I’m looking for a campsite. But before I am far from the village I come to road construction. After the day’s heavenly roads, this is five kilometers of purgatory. The surface is rough and loose, and the dust is thick from the suddenly dense traffic. After a kilometer of slow-speed bouncing and dodging, a sign announces: 12% uphill grade, 1.5 kilometers. I’ve seen this warning before and it has turned out to be exaggerated. Not this time. I believe it was the most challenging climb yet, short as it was. The sweat I worked up was soon turned to mud from the dust that tractor trailers were kicking up inches to my left. Black flies and mosquitoes found me easy pickings. The descent on the other side was pretty tricky, too: narrow, potholed, loose and crowded. By the time I reached pavement I was a mess.

But I was back in nice territory, where I soon found good camping, cleaned up as best I could with a washcloth and a liter of drinking water, and left my dirty clothes outside the tent for the night. It was late and chilly and I shivered outside the tent as I shook myself dry like a dog. (To a gram-obsessed cyclo-tourist, a bath towel is an unnecessary luxury.) In the tent I received the nicest surprise: my sleeping bag, stuffed in it’s sack after drying in the sun, was still warm, like a blanket from the clothes dryer. Aaaahhhh!

Good dinner: pasta and fresh garden vegetables. I finished my book and wrote a couple of e-mails.

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Late next morning, a stroke of luck. I crossed a big, clean river with a rocky, pebbly shore. There have been plenty of clean rivers, but in this wilderness most have had weed-choked mud banks, which discourages bathing. This river was deluxe, swift and clear and cold, and bigger than most. I cleaned up extra clean, did laundry, and laid on the pebble beach to dry.

Later on, a ten-kilometer detour around a stretch of road construction brought me through a small Siberian village. Small, steep-roofed log homes were crowded together along a short stretch of unpaved road. Here and there a small stool or table held produce for sale by the roadside: potatoes, greens, cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplants. I smiled at the notion of New-World nightshade family plants finding a home way out here. Some were selling wild mushrooms and cranberries. Old men and women sat smoking and chatting on benches or stools outside their neat, tiny log homes, and cows, goats and sheep wandered in the road and in the yards, munching on roadside weeds. Back on the highway I found a campsite that was just a little too close to the railroad tracks. All night long an hourly train shook my bed and made a huge racket.

A cold, damp, overcast morning followed, after a restless night with light rain. I packed up wet and shivered until the first uphill warmed me up. A light mist developed into a drizzle, then into real rain. Since I already had on a wet rain jacket and Fedora, I just stayed with that arrangement. I was not pleased to see a ten-kilometer construction zone, the surface of which was baseball-sized rocks, mud, and huge puddles. Thunder and lightning and a downpour turned it into a slow-motion nightmare. The trucks were only a bit faster than I was, and the drivers seemed to take care not to splash me, taking a wide berth and sometimes honking or shouting encouraging words. But the cars were able to go faster, and I took a few mud baths as they sped through the puddles. It finally ended, and the downpour reduced to a steady hard rain. When I got back up to speed on the pavement I realized that I was not going to warm up. The faster I went the colder the wind felt. I grit my teeth and wondered what kind of shelter I would find. Fifteen minutes later I was considering setting up the tent, emergency-style, right on the shoulder, in order to change into dry clothes. Side roads into the woods had become muddy streams. When a middle-of-nowhere bus stop shelter came in view, I was so cold my hands could barely squeeze the brakes.

I changed into wool shorts and shirt, rain pants and a windbreaker, made tea, ate lunch and read my book (finishing Dracula, which I had started in Romania but set aside when I downloaded a bunch of Tolstoy’s novels). Then I prepared properly for the rain, stashing my wet clothes in plastic bags and donning my rain cape. The sky was dark from horizon to horizon, but I set off with optimism, knowing that sooner or later I would be basking in sunshine; hoping for sooner, of course.

At the top of a hill in a drizzle of rain I met an angel, and she spoke a little English. Her occupation was gathering, preparing and selling forest products. She was about thirty and quite pretty, with a healthy glow to her cheeks, bright red lips, big blue eyes and long blonde braids. She wore a head scarf and a blue apron. Her roadside stand was the most complete I have seen. The products included pine nuts, mushrooms fresh and dried (four varieties), goldenseal, chamomile, ground pine, staghorn sumach, club moss, finely crafted birch brooms, herbal teas (she had a wood-fired samovar going for free samples), and other things I could not identify. All were packaged in labeled bags or available in bulk to be weighed on an antique balance beam scale. She also had balsam oil in little bottles, two sizes. Other roadside vendors I have seen make do with a few items, a tarp shelter, and a smoky fire. She had a charming little steep-roofed shelter with a wood stove, benches and table.

“My name is Julia,” she said. “Would you like some tea?”

I drank tea. She refused payment. Her English was limited but without an accent. We talked of Siberia and America. Her village contained 300 people and was only 4 kilometers from the highway. Half modern, half primitive, she said. She was the only English speaker, the only midwife, and the only healer, but most people went to a clinic forty miles away for health care anyway. There were many old people and children in her village. Among the men, alcohol was a problem. The villagers were poor by most standards, but with a peasant mentality that was satisfied with the basics; a snug log cabin, food and firewood. They had electricity and phones and televisions, but considered them to be luxuries. Some few were dissatisfied and wanted city life and glamour. It was from these, both young and old, that most of the trouble and strife of the village originated. She held herself apart from village politics, she said, because it interfered with her healing practice.

Needless to say, I was charmed. I dreamed of marrying Julia spending the rest of my life in that village, gathering forest products and raising blonde-haired blue-eyed kids. But I resisted the urge to ask if she was married, and reluctantly left the shelter and warmth, and headed east after a fond farewell.

That night camping was a challenge. It took some time to find a private, well-drained, level spot. The woods roads were puddled but sandy. When I found a place, the rain was coming down, and the mosquitoes were heavy. My tent and sleeping bag were wet from last night’s dew and condensation. I set up in a hurry. My tent, which has provided good shelter so far, has begun to leak at the seams. (These days, most tents under $900 come with a tube of seam sealer and instructions. My seam-sealing job has broken down after more than a hundred nights of use.) By the time I had cooked and eaten, my bandanna and kitchen towel were soaked from fighting drips, and my sleeping bag was wet in places. I slept well, but in the morning I had a soggy camp.

But the rain had stopped. I packed up and got on the road. The skies were overcast and the wind was ferocious, but in my favor. Twenty MPH, gusting to thirty, was my guess. It blew me down the road thirty miles before I was hungry. I hung my sleeping bag from a road sign, and it flapped noisily while I ate. Huge clouds, some dark and some light, race across the big sky, and sometimes the sun shines on me for a minute. The tent and ground cloth dried quickly, tied to my bicycle and flapping just as madly as the bag. I was cold in my windbreaker and long pants, but happy.

It just so happened that my wettest, most miserable camp was followed by the best, most beautiful and comfortable camp yet. I have a video of it posted here.

The sky cleared but the air stayed cool. The forest changed to shorter scrub pines, and there were big lakes every few miles on both sides of the highway, connected by streams and rivers. Some had road access and a camp or two; some were completely wild. At dinner time I followed a sandy woods road down to one small bay of a bigger lake and found a grassy spot near the shore. Except for the distant train and highway sounds, it is pure wilderness.

It’s still windy and the sun is low, so I set up and cook dinner in the lee of the tent. Swallows and Purple Martens in abundance swoop close to the lake’s surface, catching their dinner. No flies or mosquitoes disturb me as I stand at the shore and play a few tunes while my dinner cooks. The sunset is magnificent, and soon a chill drives me into the tent and under my (dry!) sleeping bag. I think: no matter what the future brings, it will not erase from my mind the clear and detailed memory of these days in Siberia.

The next few days are nearly identical: sunny mornings, with big huge clouds coming in by noon, and blustery tail winds. All afternoon I can see patches of rain falling in the distance, and when one of the patches catches me from behind, I feel the temperature drop with the first few sprinkles. The rain comes hard and cold, but rarely lasts an hour. I get wet and dry out later, or escape the rain altogether at a diner or bus shelter, once under a bridge. Once the rain came in on a side wind. I saw it 100 meters ahead, pelting the pavement although I was still dry. I rode into it and thought, “Why?” So I turned around and rode back to dry pavement with only a few drops on me. I stood in the wind and watched it for half an hour, then proceeded onto wet pavement after the rain had passed.

That evening a new weather pattern arrived. The sky cleared and the air became still for the first time in weeks. Then as I made camp a cold breeze from the east came up. This camp was in a very nice birch grove; it’s only flaw was that it was visible from the highway, a few hundred meters away. I like to stay hidden from view when I camp, for security reasons. In fact back in Omsk, Alex had warned me to camp out of sight. He had been mugged by drunk villagers with rifles while camping in Siberia, and had showed me photos of his bruised and swollen face. But I didn’t give it a second thought as I cooked dinner and settled in.

Around midnight, half asleep, I was awakened by the sound of a truck nearby and saw lights on my tent. The truck stopped, doors slammed and I heard voices. Men with flashlights were approaching. I got my glasses and shoes on and stood up outside he tent, ready for the worst, just as three men with assault rifles surrounded me. They had leather jackets and camouflage pants, no hats, and barked Russian commands at me, which I did not understand. I was very relieved to hear the next words: “Polizei! Polizei!” I’d rather deal with Russian police than muggers any day. Since they didn’t look like cops, my response was to ask for proof.

“Polizei? Document!” I said. They looked at each other and tried to keep from smiling (there were three big flashlights lighting up the scene now). I held out my hand to the one closest, obviously the boss, and he smirked as he fished out his wallet and showed me his badge and ID. Then he started asking me questions. I told him I didn’t speak Russian (which I can now pronounce perfectly, with no accent), and he demanded MY documents. They looked over my passport but didn’t turn to the page with my visa. “Irkutsk? Krasnoyarsk?” he asked, pointing east and west.

“Irkutsk,” I answered, pointing east. “Baikal, Mongolia, China, Hong Kong.”

They shook their heads and smiled. Chief pointed west and said, “Moscow?”

I shook my head, “London.” This provoked chuckles and a round of, “Oy!” “Oy!” “Oy!” The chief looked around and asked, “Adin?” This means “one” but also “alone.”

I said, “Da,” and they looked at me, nodding with amazement and, I thought, respect. One by one they gripped my hand and shook it, patted my shoulder and apologized for the disturbance. “No problem,” I told them. Back in the sack I had to laugh.

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A few more days of this enjoyable kind of traveling brought me to Irkutsk, the proud welcoming sign for which you see above. Every day road signs told me just how far I had to go, and I watched the distance shrink from 1200 kilometers to 1000, 500, 200 and finally I was within a day’s cycling.

For thirty years I have been looking at Irkutsk as I pored over maps of the world, my old National Geographic Atlas, Google maps and Google Earth. It sits near Lake Baikal, and has half a million people, although it had more than that fifty years ago. With a long and colorful history, stretching back to 1652, it has always fascinated me as the city where, in the 1820s, Russian artists, writers, academics and noblemen were exiled by Tsar Nicholas I for their part in the Decemberist revolt. 600 miles of bleak, wolf-infested wilderness separated the city from its nearest neighbors, and the military controlled the road that provided the only means of travel. Later, Bolsheviks and other dissidents were exiled in Irktusk. By 1890, nearly half the population were exiles. But did they suffer and wither away in exile, thousands of miles from the cultural centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg? No. After a disastrous fire in 1879 they built a modern, beautiful city with theaters, a university, libraries and museums, and a world-class train station. By 1900 Irkutsk was called “the Paris of Siberia.” It is still a major cultural and educational center, with a half-dozen major science, economics and medical universities. It’s a cool place, and here I am, staying for two days with Evgeniya and her three delightful kids.

As one of Irkutsk’s few Couch Surfing hosts who are not traveling in August, Evgeniya has her hands full. Two Danish college boys were leaving as I arrived, and tonight two Polish backpackers arrive. Lake Baikal is the draw; July and August are the only frost-free months for travelers to enjoy it.

I will spend a few night’s camping on the lakeshore, then turn south for a wild stretch of unpaved mountain back roads to Mongolia, leaving the forest for the steppes and the desert.

I have decided to skirt the edge of the Gobi Desert rather than cross the middle, where I had hoped to stand on the second-lowest spot on earth. Drought has dried up water sources that have been reliable for decades, and extreme heat has caused deaths among experienced desert travelers. (I am not an experienced desert traveler.) Still, I will need to carry a week’s worth of water over one stretch, sixty pounds, in addition to a week’s worth of food. Some fun now!

Thanks for checking in. I should have some good stories to tell when I reach Ulaanbaatar two weeks from now. Drop me a line when you get a chance.

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More Siberia

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“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.” – Samuel Johnson

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My Pals in Kemerov

Siberia is treating me well. The people remind me of Alaskans, who live there because want to. They love beauty and the extremes, they feel special, and they look out for each other.

After Alex and the gang showed me the best Omsk has to offer a visiting cyclist, I filled the feed bag at a supermarket and headed for Novosibirsk, where I had a couple of invitations. Eight or nine days would do it.

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Me and Misha

After several days of fair weather and good camping, I could see storm clouds gathering. The thunder and lightning caught me miles from shelter. Just as the first big drops started, a guy in a mini-van pulled over and opened the hatch. We loaded my bike and gear within thirty seconds. He was Sergei, whom I had met at a gas station an hour earlier. The rain was intense, and I was happy.

Sergei is a Siberian Jack Black (the American actor: School of Rock, etc.) What a character! Sweet as pie, with a baby face, but a tattooed biker with a pony tail and muscle shirt at the same time. We cranked up the rock and roll and drove through three huge prairie thunderstorms, laughing all the way. And what a driver he was, going 75mph past thick truck traffic doing 50, on two-lane blacktop no less. His family has tourist cabins in the mountains to the south, and an automotive business (he was delivering the mini-van). When it was discovered that we both had sons named Tim, he went wild and gave me a bear hug while passing a line of tractor trailers.

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Sergei

After the third storm it looked to be clearing, and I was three days ahead of schedule. Then we saw Rolf and Felix, the electric-powered German cyclists I met in Omsk. I hopped out and joined those guys. Sergei was blown away by the electric rigs, and we had a touching goodbye. What a guy!

Rolf and Felix had their sights on a truck stop up the road. This was no primitive Russian truck stop, but a proper Siberian place with a cafeteria, motel, grocery store, showers, and the first laundromat I’ve seen in Russia (in addition to fuel, tire shop, garage, etc). Thirty rigs were parked outside. The boys made a stir with their space-age bikes, and I made a party with the mandolin. Refusing vodka and beer with difficulty, we finally camped out back after midnight, mosquitoes notwithstanding.

We parted after breakfast. Although we were heading in the same direction, I can’t keep up with their electric power.

I arrived in Novosibirsk at lunchtime and immediately found wi-fi at a nice Japanese restaurant, where I did my e-mail and downloading over a very good meal.

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Lenin, in Novosibirsk

Novosibirsk is the biggest city in Siberia, with a million and a half population. The name means “New Siberia”, and the city is by no means old, dating to 1893. As late as 1970 Russia was still clearing the forests and establishing farms in this area. It reached a population of one million in less than seventy years from it’s founding, the fastest growth in history. The city is modern and attractive, with skyscrapers, big hotels, and a bustling downtown made pleasant by wide streets and big squares. Even the blocks of apartment buildings were varied in color and architecture, a nice change from the dismal, grey and crumbling apartment housing elsewhere in Russia.

Since I was in town a couple of days ahead of my plans, and wasn’t needing a rest, I e-mailed apologies to my Couch Surfing hosts and pressed on. Reaching the countryside in the evening, I found a good camp site just before a rain. I suppose I would have enjoyed meeting some locals and seeing more of Novosibirsk, but I have calendars and kilometers on my mind.

As I ride along with time to think, algebra helps fill the hours. Remember the first-year algebra problems? “If Billy rides 100 kilometers a day, minus rest days, when will he reach Mongolia?”

I have little in the way of schedule on this trip. Apart from the start and finish dates, I had only planned to enter Russia June 3 and leave Russia September 1 (90 days, the length of my visa). Visa delays, my own fault, put me in Russia June 20. Ever since, I’ve been doing algebra in my head to answer the basic question, “How many kilometers per day will put me at the Mongolian border on September 1?”

When describing the trip to incredulous non-cyclists back home, I would explain that fifty miles per day, five days a week, would enable me to reach Hong Kong by early November. In wintery England, The Netherlands, Belgium and France, I rarely made fifty miles. In Spain and Italy I often did. Then I started shooting for 62 miles (a nice round 100 kilometers) and averaging more than 50 miles per day. In Russia, with very few exceptions, I have been riding a minimum of 62 miles each day, more than five days per week. I frequently ride 68 or even 74 miles, and have reached 86 on occasion, with a tailwind helping. The non-round numbers are because I’m thinking in kilometers and converting to miles for my American readers.

I can almost always hit 100k, (62m), but it is surprising how much harder it is to ride 12 more miles to reach 120k. It hurts. In fact, all my long days have been due to early starts, like 7:30AM (9:30AM is more usual), and favorable winds.

My most recent round of algebra shows that 100 kilometers per day will put me at the border on September 1, but that’s without rest days. I have noticed that after 8 or 9 days without a rest, everything gets harder, even eating and sleeping. To earn a rest day I need to do 120 kilometers (72 miles) five times. To earn a few more days to visit magical lake Baykal, I have to do more. Or take a train overnight to ease the pressure, so I can slow down and smell the roses. I shall decide later.

At an afternoon stop, drinking an ice tea at a Siberian roadside bar/diner, a guy saw me outside and, through an English speaking (sort of) customer, invited me to stay with him. He plays air guitar and says, “Guitarra,” so I say OK, even though it’s only 3:00PM. I discover that he owns the restaurant. He leads me behind the restaurant and it turns out he means pitch my tent out back. I almost change my mind—I could go thirty more miles and the campsites are abundant. Good thing I didn’t.

Malik is a memorable character. Out back he has 400 acres, hay meadow and birch forest. At least a dozen workers live in log huts and trailers, and in a converted oil tank! Some are hauling in birch logs to add to the giant firewood pile, already the size of a house. Some are milking cows, killing chickens, gathering eggs, chasing sheep. A generator hums in a shed; we are far from the grid.

We walk far across a meadow, past an tethered old mare grazing, with his number one man, Volva. They bring me to an idyllic birch grove with a fireplace and firewood. Volva clears the sticks and stones from a level spot and points. “Palatka,” he says. Tent.

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Staff housing

Next is my outdoor, sun warmed shower. I wash my clothes, too, and hang them with the employees’ drying laundry. Malik and I compare iPhones; he is baffled by mine’s lack of a SIM card.

He barks at a woman, “Chai!” and then, “Chop chop!” with a laugh, making her laugh too, and bids me to sit on a birch round. Soon a tray of tea and sweets arrive. We relax and survey the ducks, geese, chickens and sheep. Then he asks if I wish to eat, in sign language. On the way to his office he orders food, and we eat big and long: lamb, chicken, potatoes, salad, fresh bread, beer. Damn good beer, my first alcohol since June. Today is August first.

Malik’s office is without a computer, but with a gun safe and wolf skins hanging on the wall. We manage to share stories without an interpreter. He’s from Azerbaijan, and moved here because he loves the wilderness. He’s a Moslem, not devout. He has three kids and a Toyota Land Cruiser he uses to commute 5000 kilometers to the city where they live a couple of times a year.

Malik is a businessman and asks about my livelihood with much interest and pantomime. I have learned the Russian word for Christmas tree, and show him photos of Jane Street. When he learns about my divorce and house foreclosure, he opens a safe and removes 3000 Rubles (about $96) and, despite my refusals, stuffs it in my shirt, punches my arm and makes us both laugh. That’s the kind of guy he is.

Back at my campsite I put fresh brake pads on my bike. There are no mosquitoes. Malik comes out with a couple of beers and makes a fire, and we sit and try to talk. Then we just sit. I play mandolin and he sings Russian folk songs, so sweet and pure that I can learn the melody and play it back.

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Malik

He googles Billy Romp on his phone and is blown away by the New York Times article and Christmas on Jane Street. He translates my blog to Russian and reads. Then he tells me to sleep, and when the sun goes down, to bring my mandolin to the restaurant, which I did.

We played a few tunes for the staff out back, but Malik seemed too shy to play and sing for the truckers in the bar. They were watching the Olympics anyway. With difficulty I managed to be a good guest while having only two beers all evening. Malik’s minor-key Russian folk ballads were just made for mandolin accompaniament, and my Americana music was much appreciated.

Next morning, after a hearty breakfast, I was sent off with hugs and gifts. After an experience like that I always grow a big smile on my face as I take my first few pedal strokes and find myself on the road again, rolling along all alone with memories to process and a feeling of, “Wow, that was something. What could possibly be next?”

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Camp Haystack

Next came a series of campsites and long days in the saddle. In my calendar I keep notes each day, noting the location and naming my campsites so that I will remember them later at a glance. Camp Skinny Birches, Camp Startled Horses, Camp Haystack, and Camp Behind A Cemetery, among others, led me to Krasnoyarsk, the last big city I will visit until Beijing. There my Couch Surfing host Tanya picked me up in the city center and brought me to her pleasant, roomy apartment. She’s a professional dancer, 29 years old, who just returned from a four-month tour in China with a dance troupe, or team, as she called it. She is as sweet as honey. After my shower she brought me to see the city sights and historical landmarks. Krasnoyarsk has an interesting past, first as a frontier fort, then an early logging and mining center, and a transportation hub with Siberia’s first railroads and Russia’s second-largest river, the Yenisei. Siberia’s many rivers flow north, to the Arctic Ocean, and the Yenisei is huge, originating in Mongolia. It’s watershed includes Lake Baikal (the preferred spelling hereabouts); it is the largest river flowing into the Arctic Ocean.

After midnight Tanya and I, with her beautiful and charming roommate Larisa, had lots of ice cream and good conversation in the kitchen. Both psychologists, they quickly diagnosed my neurosis and pronounced me likely to survive without much trauma. Then they learned what they could from me about American culture, and I from them about Russia. They are too young to have experienced much of the Soviet Union, but they knew a lot about it and the transition to the Russian system in place today.

The history of Russia is one of reform after reform, and Russians wearily endure the changes with a fatalistic attitude, making the best of things. At least that’s the stereotypical view. Left over from Soviet days is the government’s tendency to exert control over citizens, and a huge bureaucracy persists for that purpose.

Corruption is rife. It is said that 90% of the Russian transportation budget is siphoned off; from the Transportation Minister down to the guy with the shovel, everyone gets bribes, overpriced contracts, no-show jobs, cash, and various illegal perks. The highways, railroads, ports, waterways, and airports limp along on the remaining 10%. I can personally see it on the highways, with bridge projects that have obviously been stalled for years, workers more often sitting in trucks talking on phones than working, and railroad crossing attendants with comfortable housing and nice cars parked outside, their duties long ago automated, Awhile they draw a lifetime salary to putter in the garden and watch the cars go by. If you are stopped for speeding or other violations, a $15 or $30 bribe will save you hundreds in fines. In a related note, accidents are more frequent and more horrible than in the USA, and leaded gas is still in use. (So is DDT).

The latest reforms, starting with Perestroika, Glasnost, and market capitalism, have produced some outsized corruption scandals, but also the greatest spread of prosperity in Russia’s history. Therefore they are popular with all but the most conservative Russians, mostly right-wing military nuts and rural rednecks. But there are plenty of them. Even though unemployment is around 1%, conservatives point to Communism’s 0% rate. (Curiously, in America, Socialism and Communism are regarded as extreme left-wing ideas; here they are right-wing.) There is more regulation here in the banking and financial industries, and the “stock market” (such as it is) is in it’s infancy. Result: hard-to-obtain mortgages carry a 12% rate; a car loan is at 20% after a three-month wait; revolving credit (credit cards and the like) range up to 40%, and few people qualify. With all this revenue, at least the banks don’t have to charge ATM fees! In Soviet times, people were poor but had money in their pockets; there was a shortage of goods to spend it on. Now people more prosperous but always broke; there are so many enticing goodies to buy!

This is the impression that I have picked up on my travels. It may contain errors or ommissions, and may be colored by the tiny sample of people from which it is drawn. But economic and political life, as different as it is, only underscores how similar we all are. Russians are not so different from people anywhere else. I am fortunate, I think, to be meeting some fine folks, and I am always struck at how they remind me of folks back home.

Actually, as I go farther east, into Russia’s wild parts, I see changes. I haven’t had any truckers throw trash at me in a couple of weeks, and more rarely do I suffer aggressive horn blasting from motorists. There is some improvement in the litter situation, in places, and the roadside vendors are a less desperate-looking bunch with nicer goods and smiles. The roadside diners have certainly improved since my first weeks in western Russia, and the roads themselves are much better. Truckloads of watermelons from Kazakhstan, convoys of them, line the roadside at the edge of the cities while their wild-looking drivers squat in bunches around tea pots on tiny little wood stoves. I occasionally see a long-bearded mountain man walking along the road with a heavy pack and steady gait, heading who knows where.

I have about 1900 kilometers more to Mongolia and 22 days in which to do it, aiming, that is, at my September 1 goal. I’ve read two of Tolstoy’s books and I’m deep into Anna Karenina. Having rested a day, showered and shaved, cleaned the bike, patched some clothing and answered all my e-mails, I feel ready for my longest stretch of wilderness yet, two weeks or so to Lake Baikal. From here on I must eat far from camp, and hang my food high at night, higher than bears can reach.

Last week a grizzled old woodsman, selling mushrooms by the roadside, told me through a young interpreter about wolves. One or two or three wolves are no more dangerous than so many dogs, fearful of man and easily scared off. Four wolves requires effort to scare off, and five wolves requires effort and experience and a stout club. Six or more is serious danger for an unarmed man. Climbing a tree is only good if help will arrive; otherwise the wolves will wait until you drop, however long that takes. If there are six wolves, he said, quickly determine the leader of the pack. He’s the wolf that never looks at the other wolves; the other wolves look at him every few seconds. Never take your eyes off the leader, even though other wolves may circle behind you. Fend those other wolves off with a stick, but keep eyes locked on the leader, and always stand taller than him, never crouching or downhill. Fend off his attacks with a stick and a roar, remembering that he is full of fear. It better be a good stick. Eventually they will give up and retreat. They may return, so get out of there. Then he told me the best part. In midsummer food is abundant, their attention turns to small game, and packs break up as they hunt rabbits and such, avoiding larger prey. Only in winter do they band together to team up on deer, moose and men. And when I hear them howling at night, sleep easy. If they’re howling they’re not moving and not hunting. Enjoy the music.

Tanya and Larissa are intent on fattening me up for my upcoming efforts, and I am happy to oblige. They also plan to keep me up late tonight. So I’m madly blogging , route planning, downloading and trying to keep awake with a full belly while they nap.

Then in comes Arnold, a musician, and we play R&B for a short spell, he on Tanya’s classical guitar. Then we went out for a ride around the city’s back streets and forgotten history. Great ride, Arnold. Back at Tanya’s at 9:30PM, it’s time to go out. Arnold has to work (music), so Tanya and Larissa and I visit a Mongolian restaurant, a yurt with seating on the floor and an outdoor kitchen. Great food and tea, people smoking sweet-smelling tabac from hookahs, exotic desserts and exotic waitresses. And great company—I’m with the nicest women; beautiful, smarter than I am and full of stimulating conversation.

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Tanya

We lingered until past midnight, then stayed up until nearly dawn with Arnold in Tanya’s kitchen, drinking local beer and talking Buddhism, philosophy and, to my surprise, quantum physics. This may be the proverbial middle of nowhere, but you wouldn’t know it from the conversation. Now I’m really ready for a few hours’ sleep. Tomorrow I will once again load up on groceries and hit the road. I’ll see you in Irktusk if the bears don’t eat me.

Thanks for the e-mails. More, please! I think of family and friends each day and, now that I’m more than half way, thoughts of Vermont and Jane Street come to mind often. Love to all.

Siberia

“Wherever you go…there you are!”—Douglas Adams

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Hello from Siberia! I made it to Omsk, and it was a hell of a trip, ten days. I’m making preparations to leave already and time is short, so I’m going to cheat with this blog post by constructing it out of notes I’ve written, e-mails I’ve sent, and journal entries I have made in my calendar. So please forgive the disjointed nature and poor photos this time.

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After my last post, and before leaving Kate and Pasha in Chelyabinsk (it seems so long ago!), I received some good information about my visa violation. At first the Russian lawyer at the American Embassy in Moscow told me on the telephone that the rules had changed as of May 2012 and no stamp was required, unless I spent two weeks in a single location. In a subsequent e-mail, however, he admitted to a mistake: a single stamp is required within 7 days of entry. Now that I have missed that deadline, only three Federal Migration Service offices, all far behind me now, offer a remedy (which is paying a fine and getting a stamp.) So I’m still outlaw, and I’m still seeking a solution that doesn’t involve backtracking a thousand miles.

Also before I left, Kate (the angel from heaven) presented me with ten 100ml bottles of pure medical ethanol, the best alcohol for my cookstove. No charge. From her friend who works in a hospital, she said. I’m telling you, Pasha, hang on to that woman. She’s the best. So I headed out of Chelyabinsk with fresh laundry, a clean shave, new tires, new shorts, and everything checked off my list except for the visa problem. Feeling good!

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Eric

A few miles out of town I met Eric, a Frenchman driving a vintage Renault all the way from France to Japan and Korea. He was solo now, having just sent his wife and young son off to their home for a break from the road. A great guy and kindred spirit, we spent an hour on the roadside talking. you can meet him at http://www.quatreailes.top-depart.com.

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Aaah, the decadence. A cold bottle of Schwepps Bitter Lemon Tonic, a package of tea biscuits, and home-made wild strawberry preserves (picked and made by Kate Kholyavskaya’s Babushka) in my little tent on the first cool evening in weeks.

After Chelyabinsk I had to swing north to avoid Kazakstan. The roads are smaller and nearly traffic free. The towns and even the gas stations are farther apart, so much so that I have to keep close tabs on my water supply. And I’ve been drinking four to six liters a day in this heat—high nineties every day.

There are lots of woods and big meadows, lakes and swamps, and some agricultural land. It’s mostly flat with some mild hills now and then. I topped a hill today and there in the distance was a city! The map showed just a dot, the same size as the little villages along this road. But Shadrinsk looked to be 15,000 or 20,000 people. I pulled in, stopped to check my map, and Arnold the aikido man pulled over to help. No English, but I told him, “Bhankomat, wi-fi.” (Bhankomat is Russki for ATM). He tried to tell me, but gave up and motioned for me to follow. With his lights flashing on his little car, he led me first to the bank, which didn’t look like a bank, then to a bowling alley with a restaurant where the wi-fi is free. He shook hands, bowed deeply, and left. I love him to pieces; it would have taken me hours. I spent the evening at the restaurant, ate and e-mailed and downloaded and cleaned up in the men’s room. I left at 9:30PM and, since it’s light out until 11:00, I had plenty of time to leave town and find this campsite. Life is good. Just had to share that with you all. Now I’m going back my Atlantic magazine (on my phone). Maybe one more cookie. Wild strawberry preserves! What could be better?
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A couple of days later now, in a roadside café, a pretty darn basic one. Just having tea. Five or six more days to Omsk.

This part is not hard on my body—riding 60 to 80 miles, eating, and sleeping all come pretty easy to me, and it feels good. I’ve been able to keep clean, using sinks at truck stops every day, sometimes for fifteen cents.

But it’s hard mentally. No English, no conversation, little mental stimulation. I’m meditating daily, and avoiding intoxicants, which is good. But with all the saddle time and tent time, I think too much. The past. The future. My kids. My grandchildren. My friends. My life. Love. Money. The bike. The role of conscious awareness in the measurement of quantum phenomenon. And so on. No big worries or regrets or anxieties, just…thinking.

It’s best when I keep my thoughts on the present and immediate future. The road directly ahead of me (as I transform it into the past with my legs), my next meal, my next campsite, turn, city, country. Siberia, Lake Baykal, Mongolia, China. I daydream about pulling into Hong Hong; it brings a smile.

The very recent past is satisfying, too. Kate and Pasha in Chelyabinsk, Maria in Volgograd, Kerem in Istanbul, Andrey in Odessa, Florentina in Constanta, Simon and Stane in Nova Vas, Slovenia, and more going all the way back to Jordi in Girondella, Spain Fay and Kate in Frome and Simon in East Bergholt, England, and especially Imelda and David in Staines, England. They all treated me like family, and I have very little chance to ever return the favor properly, or even express my gratitude. I think about them by the hour in order to fix them in my mind, and assure that I’ll never forget them.

So I go along and look around and think. It’s not a bad life.

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Actually, it’s not totally without human contact. I make the most of my brief interactions with gas station convenience store clerks, (mostly young women), waitresses and truck drivers at diners, and roadside vendors of honey, berries, fruit and vegetables. I’m really good at saying, in Russian, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” 99% of the time it’s no, but it usually gets a smile. Often they try their few words out; no, hello, bye-bye. I can tell what they are asking, and I answer, “America; Gong Kong (Russki pronounciation); London; one year (easier than saying eleven months); palatka (tent); sixty (my age, rounded off, often scratched in the dirt or drawn on a dusty car—the question has a distinct sound that’s easy to remember, and almost always I am asked).

The other day I was drinking a bottle of iced tea at a gas station when a family in a Mercedes pulled in. They were Chinese, and on their car were what looked like sponsor logos, from a Shanghai bank and a Volkswagon dealer, and other lettering in Chinese, Russian and English: “Shanghai to St. Petersburg—2012”. They were a very clean-cut, well put together family, very friendly and open. They gave me their e-mail address and told me to look them up in Shanghai.

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Now at lunch in the middle of nowhere. Although there are occasional signs indicating a picnic area (the sign: a picnic table with a jauntily leaning pine tree), what I actually find is a garbage-strewn dirt lot with no facilities whatsoever and no shade, with a tractor-trailer or two parked there. So go farther until I find a grove of trees, and spread my ground cloth under one of them for a lunch break. Horseflies (some as big as my thumb, with a nasty bite) and mosquitoes are an issue, but I’ve got to eat, and midday is when they are least active. If the breeze keeps them away I’ll nap after I eat; otherwise I read, write or play mandolin for half an hour, making my break an hour long altogether.

It seems mechanical difficulties are part of my Russian experience. First it was my worn chain and cogs. Then the tires. Now my bottom bracket (crank) bearings are failing, making noises that get worse each day. I imagine Omsk, now three days away, will have replacement bearings; it is a city of about a million. I’ll be sure to time it so I arrive there early in the day, in case it proves difficult to locate bearings.

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Now in the tent. At 7:00PM or so I found a likely spot, and it is nice, with a meadow and birch grove, shade tonight and in the morning, too. But the mosquitoes are crazy, man, the most absolute! In minutes I had the tent up and necessary gear inside, but what intense minutes they were! I was dancing and flailing my hat like a madman, wiping ten at a time from legs, arms, face, back. A dozen got in the tent; when I finished killing, I laid back and watched the rest madly throwing themselves at the tent screens. After they calmed down somewhat I prepared dinner as much as possible indoors, then quickly opened up, cleared a spot, filled and lit the stove, put the pot on, and retreated. I got a few bites from that maneuver, and a couple more when dinner came to a boil and I unzipped to bring it in. I’ve been bit enough now that I’ve developed some resistance. Bites don’t raise much of a welt, and don’t itch for long. Still, swarms of madly attacking kamikazi mosquitoes like that get me worked up. Woo!

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I’ve got to learn more Russian. I’m finding some (comparatively) decent roadside diners now and then. I order by pantomime, hoping to get something good. Yesterday I got some cold, salty, vinagery soup with raw onions and cucumbers, meat, a dollop of sour cream and lots of chopped parsley. I had been hoping for some baked goods. It tasted awful at first, then better, then great. The waitresses at these places take your order from behind a counter, take payment right away, then bring it to the table after it is handed from the kitchen through a little window. They are mostly middle-aged, hefty, and have a gold tooth or two. Some are pleasant, some are not, but mostly they are well dressed in clean, ironed uniform waitress clothes, with a little hat carefully bobby-pinned to their fresh hairdos. It’s a contrast to the decrepit surroundings, broken and mismatched furniture, half-empty shelves, warm coolers and flypaper decor. Here in the less-populated, less-industrial Asian part of central Russia I’m seeing more families at the truck stops and roadside diners, many with Asian, Mongolian-looking faces.

I just had the worst, the most awful couple of days, but with a happy ending. My crank bearings have failed, and it’s noisy and feels bad (I can feel it through my feet and hands it’s so bad). Yesterday was the pitsl, with rain showers, a headwind, narrow, bumpy roads with tons of traffic, and a twenty-mile construction zone. Couldn’t find a break from the mosquitoes to eat lunch, and by 5:00PM I was a wreck. I camped down a farm road and overnight it rained hard. The tent leaked and got my sleeping bag wet. Next morning was rainy, and I packed up wet. The farm road turned to sticky clay that stuck to my shoes and tires, jamming up in the fenders so badly that I couldn’t even push the bike. And the mosquitoes were thick and vicious! By the time I dragged the bike to the pavemen, clawed the mud from the fenders with my fingers, and got biking fast enough to escape the mosquitoes, I was covered in mud, had hundreds of bites, and was exhausted. Then it rained again, on and off, sometimes hard, for the rest of the morning. But I just kept smiling and saying, “No problem, all part of the game. Iit’ll change soon.”

I got into Omsk, my first city in ten days, I found a nonsense bike shop with no parts. I wandered around wondering what to do. A cop stopped me and started asking questions in Russian.

Then this guy Alex walks up and says in heavily accented English, “Do you need some help?”. He’s a cool looking dude about thirty. I said yeah, this cop is bothering me and I need a good bike shop that has bearings for this bike. He said something to the cop and the cop left. Then he said, “Bike will be fixed tomorrow morning. You sleep at my house. Next problem?” I said that was it. So we went to his apartment, he carried my bike up the stairs, he pointed out the shower, the washing machine, the fridge, the computer (and his sleeping wife shhh!) and said, “I’ll be back in two hours. Then we’ll eat.” The way he took charge in a calm and firm manner was very striking, and I admired his style of hospitality; he more or less ordered me to eat, wash up, and make myself at home.

Alex is 28, a grafitti artist who grew up to be a Grafitti Artist. He’s well known in Russia, and in Omsk his network is large and dense. He does commissioned outdoor art works, and has brought his underground work slightly into the daylight. He creates bicycle lanes on the city streets by painting bicycles and arrows, in the absence of any real bicycle lane policy that Omsk has. There is virtually no bicycle awareness or policy anywhere in Russia, and Alex’s work is popular enough that the government leaves him alone with no comment. You can check out his daring, one-day Stella Artois commission in Moscow, excecuted with his crew, at 214art.livejournal.com

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Alex

Alex’s wife Xenia deserves special mention. Quiet and beautiful, expecting their first baby in November, she seems perfectly delighted to have three foreigners camped out in her living room. She effortlessly feeds us really good home made food, repeatedly filling the table with hearty fare, soups and salads, fruits and cookies, home-baked pastries, tea and home-brewed kvas. And it’s not only us she’s feeding; members of the “bike gang” drop by, in helmets and cleats, crowding the living room with their machines, early and late (last night it was after midnight), and they get the same treatment, with no fuss but with abundance and good cheer. I aspire to be like Alex and Xenia in matters of hospitality.

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Xenia

Alex had with him two German bicycle tourists that he was in the process of rescuing from a breakdown on the road. Rolf, a thirty-something publisher of trade magazines, and Felix, a nineteen-year-old engineering student, are the only bicycle tourists I have seen that with a cooler setup than mine. They are on recumbent trikes with electric motors in the rear wheels, pulling a trailer with a large solar panel and big lithium batteries. Their rigs allow them to go twice as many miles per day as I do, and they recharge with the sun. Even the energy from braking is recovered and goes to raise the battery charge levels. Felix engineered them in a hurry just before they left on this 55-day trans-Russian tour. The Burley trailer frames, perhaps a little overloaded for these rough Russian roads, had broken, and Alex had his friends fabricate new, sturdier platforms. I enjoyed the time I spent with Rolf and Felix. They are smart and cool and genuine gentlemen. Both spoke great English and encouraged my primitive German. And they had the courage and imagination to test their complicated rigs in Russian Siberia when they could have taken a tour of Germany and Holland for 55 days. I tried out their bikes and it instantly made me wish I had one. I feel like I have made two very good friends who will someday help me with that wish. You can check them out at http://www.hbmedia.info/sistour

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Felix and Rolf

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In the evening I went with them to the very finestt kind of bike shop (in my humble opinion): a couple of great mechanics, a back-alley entrance with no sign, a full-service repair shop with modern tools, no real showroom but lots of bikes around and, best of all, lots of bike enthusiasts with pro mountain bikes and road bikes hanging around, coming and going, and gathering around Rolf and Felix’s and my bikes and asking lots of questions. I watched as Andrey replaced my bottom bracket bearings and overhauled my pedals. He was very, very good, fast and thorough. He even chased the threads on my frame when the bearings wouldn’t thread in smoothly. The best.

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Andrey and Andrey

Meanwhile the recumbents were put back together with their repaired trailers out in the yard. By then there were fifteen bike dudes hanging around, it was 8:00PM, and a ride was in order. We took over the streets of Omsk for a tour of downtown like a harmless, quiet motorcycle gang. After blinis at a blini stand, it was decided that lots of pizza and Coca-Cola was what we really needed. We brought them down to the beach by the river and had a midnight party. They are a fantastic bunch of velo enthusiasts, and it was a great evening with Alex, Rolf, Felix and the gang. And remember, the day started out in mud-and-mosquito hell in the rain.

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On Omsk TV

So I’m once again ready to hit the road in the morning. I’m bound for Novosibirsk, which should be six days from here, and will be the last real city for about 2400 kilometers (1600 miles). The next leg will be three weeks long or longer. But you’ll hear from me before that. I have hosts lined up in Novosibirsk, which is the largest city east of the Urals. I am told that east of there the country changes, with real wilderness stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and sparse population. In the middle of it sits Lake Baykal, the deepest and cleanest lake on earth, bigger than Lake Champlain. That’s where I’ll be turning south toward Mongolia. Thanks for checking in with me, and thanks for all the e-mails.

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