“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A Bigger River
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.
Welcome To Mongolia
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Home to Tairin, Hanu and Leslie
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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—