Mongolia calling

(Or: knowing when you’re ready)

First things first: the next leg of my journey is coming up really soon (hopping onto my bike Emily tomorrow)! After a long preparation phase with Kafkaesque struggles, I am finally ready to hit the road again. Well, not a road in the sense most of us know roads. The next two months will see me crossing Mongolia by bike, where the way will be unpaved for large sections, both following GPS coordinates and navigating with my paper maps. I will then continue into Northwestern China, cycle via the Karakorum highway into Pakistan and then onwards to the Indian Himalayas. At least, that is the plan. Plans are as volatile as life (in a good way), but that is the plan I have visas for, at least. To give you an idea: this is what my journey looked like so far…

… and this is where it will take me next:

The longest preparation ever

You won’t believe how excited I am. You won’t believe either how scared I was for a long time – particularly about crossing Mongolia. The two times on this journey when I was as hesitant and anxious were probably before embarking into the Pamirs and before heading into Iran with next to zero preparation. Both parts of this journey turned out to be life changing (again, in a good way), so I knew that my doubts about Mongolia were a good pointer. Unless it is about playing with bear cubs, fear is usually a great guide that shows you were to head next if you want to get out of your comfort zone and grow. And boy, Mongolia was far out of my comfort zone when the thought arose first! The help of my Canadian cyclist friend Tara (who writes a great blog also) was invaluable in terms of how to prepare and what to expect.

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Many, many topographical maps of Mongolia (bought in Ulaanbaatar)

While I was starting to feel confident on that level, the logistic obstacles grew sky-high. The Chinese bureaucracy that required me to show a booked flight ticket from my home country into China and back. The Pakistani embassy that seemed to follow no rules whatsoever in their procedure of issueing visa (or changed those rules whenever I communicated with them). Then, when I was ready to book a flight into Mongolia, the one airline with cheap tickets cancelled their service to Mongolia altogether, on the very day I wanted to book that flight. Parcels with important spare parts for my bike disappeared in the black hole of customs. And meanwhile, the change of my blog hosting turned out to be a logistic nightmare. To make matters even more complicated, time was ticking as some of my visa were running already.

The bare essentials

After all this, I needed to give myself a sign, a symbol, that I was ready, no matter the circumstances. At the very last minute (the evening before my flight), I finally followed through with what I had planned in September last year already: shaving my head. When I had embarked in September last year, the idea had been to shave my hair in order to more easily pass as a man if needed. However, I had not quite felt ready for it. Instead, I had went for a very short haircut, which still served the same purpose. And which, while being very practical, looked rather awful on me (well, looking good is not really a priority on this journey – I only have two t-shirts to wear, if that gives you an idea). I have to admit that I was afraid of not having hair. How my head would look like. What people would think.

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My hair: gone

After all that has already happened on this journey and after all the obstacles involved in getting to Mongolia, I very much felt ready for that step the night before I left. And so my hair went. And all that was left was… me. I looked into the mirror and saw my eyes maybe for the first time. If there is no hair that takes your focus away, the eyes get a lot more attention. There is also nothing that limits your field of vision. Complete freedom. The bare essentials. A feeling that I needed some time to get accustomed to, but one that I really appreciate now.

 

Saying hello to Kyrgyzstan

Finally, much later than anticipated, I made it onto an airplane with the destination Mongolia. The itinerary included a one-day stopover in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where I had first started out on this cycling adventure. What a fitting coincidence! I used the one day I had in Bishkek to say hello to this country that I seemed to have left just yesterday. I must have smiled for the entire 24 hours. My brain slowly started to produce words in Russian again. I recognized streets and places I had discovered here last summer. I treated myself to a really nice Kyrgyz meal in a good restaurant (which, as usual for Kyrgyzstan, cost next to nothing). I walked through supermarkets and enjoyed recognizing products. Random things, maybe, but utterly joyful for me. It felt like connecting with the last leg of my expedition with all of my senses.

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Enjoying typical Kyrgyz food

In the evening, I took a bus back to the airport, escaping a torrent of rain. Immediately, I was taken care of by Fatima, a middle-aged woman who was sitting in the bus already. After my day in Kyrgyzstan, my Russian was back to small talk level again and with Fatima’s contribution of some English words, we managed to rustle up quite a nice conversation. Fatima was excited to hear that I had already cycled through Kyrgyzstan last year. When she left, she gave me her phone number, saying: ‘Please stay with my family when you visit again next year.’ The gesture was even more meaningful to me when I realized where she lived: in the very village where a Kyrgyz familiy had taken me in so kindly on the very first day of my trip (see this blog post).

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In the streets of Bishkek

A complicated start in Mongolia

Despite my usual ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime, sleep was elusive during the long journey into Mongolia. I had not found time to sleep before the flight and when I arrived in Mongolia three flights later (spending two nights at airports), my level of sleep was down to about eight hours in total for those three days.

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My gear upon arrival in Mongolia

To make matters worse, my bike Emily was in a really poor condition. She might have never been packed as carefully (in a box, this time), but never been treated as badly by airport personnel, either. The box was torn open in some crucial places and the cushioning of the bike ripped off in parts. In any case, she was not rideable, with a dysfunctional rear mech and a ripped-off saddle clamp. Fortunately, I was given a ride into town by the driver of a guesthouse – where I immediately fell onto bed and slept some 12 hours.

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Typical building in the neighborhood I lived in during my Ulaanbaatar days

During the next days, I caught up on sleep and worked on getting ready: fixing my bike, organizing good topographical paper maps, extending my visa. Things had not fallen into place easily during the preparation phase and neither did they in Mongolia. Ulaanbaator has lots of resources, but they are pricey and not always easy to find.

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Friendly neighbors

But somehow, despite the difficulties, I enjoyed those days in Ulaanbaatar. After exploring the shops mentioned in my guidebook, I found the hidden markets where only locals go, and then the small shops that you find by chance and recommendations. I started getting to know all the girls who work at the guesthouse I am staying at. I met very inspirational travellers and very ignorant ones. I practised my Mongolian with the cashiers at the small supermarket next door. I discovered – in Mongolia, out of all countries! – that I very much enjoy vegan food (Ulaanbaatar has a thriving scene). I started to randomly run into people that I know. In other words, I simply spent some time living a rather normal life in this city.

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Soviet style architecture

Ulaanbaatar is not a pretty city, with a jumble of architectural styles, none of them very aesthetic. Different from the newer highrises and Soviet style living quarters is the Ger district (a Ger is similar to a Yurt), which consists of, well, Gers and mostly wooden houses. Many visitors say that you have to leave Ulaanbaator to actually see Mongolia. I am tempted to disagree. The city may not be in line with our _image_ of Mongolia, but this is an essential part of the country. More than one third of the Mongolian population (1,3 million) live here. Sure, this does not correspond to our romantized image of life in the Mongolian steppe, but a significant portion of the Mongolian people spends their life here nowadays.

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Ger district of Ulaanbaatar

 

My days here were not touristy at all, rather focused on getting things done. But at the same time, I have the impression that I got a feeling for this city, maybe more than I would have by visiting sights. The one sight I did visit was the Buddhist Gandan monastery, one of the largest in the country. In fact, Ulaanbaator itself was once founded as a Buddhist monastic center. Buddhism (and religions as such) were almost wiped out in Mongolia when the country came under Soviet control. 1937 was a black year in that regard, with 700 monasteries destroyed and 30,000 monks killed or sent off to labor camps. Religious freedom was only established again in 1990, after the Soviet Empire finally fell appart.

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Monks at Gandan Khiid

Gandan Khiid was the only monastery to escape destruction during Soviet times, but was reduced to a bare minimum of staff. Nowadays, the number of monks is back at 150 and the daily morning prayers attract tourists and believers alike. While the bus loads of tour groups came and went, I stayed for a bit longer to listen to the monks chanting. While I am not a religious myself, it was beautiful and soothing to listen to their voices, letting myself get entranced by the peaceful atmosphere of the place.

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The giant statue of Avalokiteśvara (26m) at Gandan Khiid

Knowing when you’re ready

It has become a pattern during this journey that I take my time before embarking on my bike for a new leg of this journey. I remember what felt like long days getting ready in Bishkek when I first started out (which really was not long at all, in retrospect). I also remember many days spent on the shore of the Caspian Sea (Aktau, Kazakhstan), pondering over the question whether I should take a ferry across to Azerbaijan or a flight to Iran (deciding for the latter). And in the upcoming months, I will remember those days in Ulaanbaatar getting ready to cross the steppe.

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There are two souls residing in me. One is the curious child, hardly reigned in, who cannot wait to finally be out there again. I imagine that this is how Huskeys must feel like when they are consumed by the thought of running. Go, go, go! The other soul is the zen part of me, that reclines in a comfortable position, knowing that I will be ready when I will be ready. And that I will know when I am ready.

The doubts and fears are gone. I am ready now. Leaving for the wide steppe tomorrow. Wish me luck!

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