It all started with a casual text back in September.
“Hey Briana! What new adventures are you planning these days??” I asked. Or something like that.
A few short texts later, and we were talking an international biking trip. And we were serious about it from the start. Our intended destination changed a few times: first the Andes, then Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan—I can’t remember which—until we realized that country would have too much snow during the April/May dates we were looking at for our trip; even Nepal got a mention thrown in there somewhere; until finally we settled on Mongolia by the end of October.
6-some months later, 8 1/2 after that first text exchange, we were eating a delicious dinner at Namaste (a fantastic Indian restaurant in UB that I highly recommend visiting if you ever find yourself with an evening to spend in Mongolia’s capital), celebrating the completion of our approx. 632 mile-trek (some 1,0000 km) across the mountainous steppes of Mongolia. We did it! And survived.
There’s a lot I could say about our month-long adventure. For one thing, it kicked my butt. Turns out, cycling can be pretty hard work, especially when you’re carrying everything you need to survive on your bike. Also, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend picking a place as rugged as Mongolia for your first-ever bikepacking/cycling tour, especially if you’re not really gonna train first…that’s rough. (Intense & extreme would also work as adjectives here.) Then again, I did it and made it home in one piece, and I’m of fairly average physical abilities. I think it was the first time I had ever ridden a bike for more than 2-3 hours in a single day, even…Not sure what I was thinking, exactly.
Or maybe I do. I was thinking (at least in part), “NEW COUNTRY.” Also, “That sounds like a cool thing to do!” And it was…even though I definitely underestimated how physically/psychologically taxing it would be. Turns out, I’m a fairly slow cyclist when an incline’s involved. Also turns out, biking uphill with a loaded bike is tough…add a head-wind to that, and it becomes downright disheartening. And biking through sand…yeah. Let’s just say, I got off and walked my bike up/across more than a few slopes & stretches of loose ground.
To put it in context a bit more, my biking buddy was a woman my age from the same county as me in rural NNY who lives car-free—no small feat when your home’s in the North Country! She bikes everywhere, year-round. And this is in a place where half of the year is snowy winter. (To read about her cycling life, you can check out her blog, Bike Like Crazy.) To say she was infinitesimally patient with me throughout our month in Mongolia is an understatement.
I could also tell you about the awesome expansiveness of the country, how there is so much space and SO MANY MOUNTAINS, and more herds of grazing animals—sheep, goats, horses, cows, cows with coats, yaks—then I could keep track of…all spread out free & open beneath the sky, with no fences & few power lines. Since we were there in spring (April 16-May 16), there were a lot of baby animals to see, too. They were so cute.
Or about the Mongolian people we met during our sojourn in their home. And a few helpful expat’s who have made Mongolia their home by choice. Most evenings, about 30 mins or so after setting up our tents, a Mongolian herdsman (or two, or three) would come up to our camp on motorbikes or horseback to check us out. They didn’t speak English, and our own Mongolian skills were severely limited to a couple phrases & botched words, but with help of hand motions and our map, we were able to communicate with our daily visitors. The map was usually a hit. Two of these end-of-the-day visitors brought us airag (or kumis), a drink of fermented mare’s milk traditional for peoples of the Central Asian steppes. I didn’t particularly care for the sharp taste myself, but it was a pretty neat experience for Briana and me to share that drink with two Mongolian neighbors on a mountainside one night.
Another nomadic herdsman helped us cross an icy river, and stood by watching until we were all saddled up & ready to go again, making sure we were okay. (He had knee-high boots & a horse; we did not, and so had to resort to crossing the snowmelt water in our barefeet, to save our hiking boots from a soaking.) And another came by our evening camp shortly after it had begun to snow; he was out checking on his herds in the wet weather, and pulled out a tiny baby goat he was carrying from the front of his deel (coat) and let Briana pet it. The first (and only) herdswoman to visit our campsite came by one morning, and stood on the ridge of the hill above us, looking down curiously & chatting to us, her long dark braid blowing in the wind. A group of women we befriended at a store named “Galaxy” in a town on our way to Orkhon waterfalls chased away cows attempting to climb the cement steps leading up to the store entrance more than once as we stood outside, eating snacks & refilling out water bottles. Other women & girls filled up our water bottles for us at their restaurants, sometimes even boiling it for us even though we had filters & that wasn’t really necessary.
What else? We ate a lot of Snickers for lunch, some with sunflower seeds or hazelnuts in them. I’m kinda sick of Snickers. We climbed a small mountain overlooking Lake Khuvsgal, the freshwater lake with the largest volume in Mongolia, and gazed over the border into Russia—no visa required. We tented in snow three different nights. We never once got a flat (hallelujah!) or had a bad fall. We scared a couple skittish yaks, and fended off a herd of goats from eating our tents. We cooked a lot of noodles, some of which we packed out rather than finish (I’m also kinda sick of noodles). We camped in dry river beds, on gravelly slopes, cold mountainsides that also hosted purple, fuzzy-coated wildflowers, beside a river, sheltered by volcanic rocks and massive stumps, on soft orange pine needles beneath trees, in a forest by a frozen lake, next to a saltwater lake that reeked. We biked a lot. We slept a lot. We got up at 2:00 a.m. or so once to stargaze. We got sore. We got dirty & sweaty. We worked hard. We had fun.
About 3 days before my September 5th text to Briana set this whole thing into motion, I was at a wedding, telling a couple of friends about my travel plans for the upcoming year. I’d go anywhere, I joked, “Even Mongolia!” …
Isn’t life funny?
Turns out my “throw-away” country was well worth visiting. I had never thought or wondered about Mongolia before very much at all, and now I’ll never forget it. Though I doubt I’ll be undertaking anymore ambitious cycling trips anytime soon, or ever.
Then again, I did just bike 11 miles with my mom this morning, when about this time last month I was feeling like I’d be ecstatic to never even sit on a bicycle seat ever again, and those 11 miles felt pretty good and I feel fine now. So you never know.
“I’ll (still) go anywhere! Even _________.” But I think I’ll let the future fill in the blank this time.
(Pictures to follow in another post sometime soon.)