Mongolia and the frailty of life

In our everyday lives, most of us have a buffer between life and death, and a comfortably huge one at that. We have insurances, access to a health care system, houses that protect us from thunderstorms, access to clean drinking water and nutritiuous food, neighbors that would hopefully get alarmed if we did not leave our apartments for too long. And still, we seem to feel worried. What if I get cancer? What if there was a substance in this meal that I am allergic to? There is much to worry (and some of it for good reason), but this does not cover the main fact: the buffer between life and death tends to be much bigger than we believe.

Sometimes, however, we encounter situations when the buffer becomes paper-thin. Maybe non-existant. Life, death, and nothing between. The edge of the sword – and it is up to luck which way we fall. Seven years ago, this happened to me. A close friend of mine found a tragic death while mountaineering. Had I accompanied him, as was planned originally, these lines would not be written by me. When death knocks on your door at the age of 26, you start to think about life differently. I did not stop my life out of fear, but it did take years until I ventured into the mountains again. I began to weigh my risks. I started making decisions with more care. In essence, I became aware to the frailty of life. And that the buffer between life and death can collapse easily, even if you are far from having grandchildren yet.

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Getting up a glacier in the Alps, during the last mountaineering trip with my friend Patrick before his death

So Mongolia it is…

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Roadsigns are rare in Mongolia – and they often show disheartening distances, in particular when you consider the state of some tracks

Crossing Mongolia by bike, solo, was a hard call in that regard. This country concentrates all the fears that cyclists have: enormous distances, scarce water, bad to non-existant roads, mosquitos gallore, … you name it, it’s there. The buffer between life and death? It depends on your preparation, your physical ability, your mental strength, … and luck. Wide open landscapes, horizons that seem to stretch to eternity. For some, this already ignites fear. Fortunately, I have found out in the Pamirs that I thrive in such conditions. That my soul sings when I am absolutely alone in nature (you can find some photos of these incredible landscapes in this post).

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Mongolia at its very best – limitless, beautiful, raw (and wonderful dirt tracks to ride on).
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Houses and shelter are rare (Tosontsengel)

However, the situation can easily change. When you are low on water. When a thunderstorm looms. When you are eaten alive by mosquitos. When the brutal sun burns all life out of you. When a storm almost knocks you off the bike. When you are fighting your way through ankle-deep sand. When a region is so forbidding that there are no nomads anywhere that you could ask for help. And sometimes all of that at once. What tasted like unlimited freedom before quickly becomes endless agony. You cross a pass… and the next plateau again shows none of the things that you so desperately want. No sign of human habitation, no water, no shade, no rideable path, no shelter, no passing trucks. Life starts to feel really frail, then.

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Mongolia at its most awful – fighting my way through a desert with ankle-deep sand and insane headwind

It was those days that taught me an important lesson. When I started out on this bike ride, I left my fierce competitiveness behind, the overachieving, perfectionist me. And that was good. I fully embraced not caring about my mileage, being as nice to myself as possible (some might say, I failed at that by definition – cycling over 4,000m passes on terrible roads in Central Asia is not necessarily the definition of being nice to yourself). Remember that blog post about moving beyond rules that resonated with so many of you (this one)? That the only thing I care about is Staying sane, healthy and out of prison? I am still fully convinced of what I wrote. Leave all and any rules behind. There are no rules in life. You decide to make them up – or you don’t.

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A nomad with his horse – a better choice to cross Mongolia than a bike, probably

…. and my old self comes back

Yet, Mongolia required something else. It required me to dig deep and get out the Anne with a stopwatch in her hands. The hardcore athlete. The Anne who gets onto the track for a sprint workout late at night. The Anne who can beat her body through most anything. The Anne who is defined by discipline. Honestly, I had started to wonder, whether this part of me was still there, still breathing, or if I had lost it altogether. It had been a hard, but necessary step to gain some distance from that part of me. I know that, if the Anne-with-the-stopwatch gets too much space in my life, it ruins my health and my happiness, as I keep pushing myself too far. It is not the competitiveness – that I appreciate very much. The issue is the competitiveness that takes no prisoners, that goes way over the top. However, for crossing Mongolia by bike, through these conditions, that was exactly what I needed. Failure, here, was not an option. And with failure, I do not mean turning back. Failure, here, could easily mean the end of my life.

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A storm building up behind Emily

The last weeks restored my appreciation of the Anne-with-the-stopwatch. I had abandoned her for a reason. Not only did I push myself too far, too often. I also realized that I had been inherently afraid that if I did not perform, if I did not deliver, I would not be loved and appreciated. None of this is the case, as my bike ride has taught me so far. Yet, the Anne-with-the-stopwatch is an inherent part of me. She has a reason in my life. And she deserves to get recognition for that. After all, she has aided me in accomplishing a lot, from scholarships to sports competitions. Most recently, she helped me to survive.

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Tracks in the Mongolian steppe (this is considered a highway, in case you did not realize). Wonderful scenery – but no water for the next 180km (110miles).

Thirst

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Even in the desert, you sometimes find flowers (in the rainy season)

Dying from dehydration is one of the most horrible ways of leaving this life that you can imagine. Pure agony. When I reached Khovd (where I am right now), I read up on the process and what happens to your body. The failing organs, the effects on the brain, the shrinking body sucking all water out of its cells in an attempt to keep the blood flowing and to stay alive. Fortunately, I was never close to death. Usually, I found a source of water every day or two. In rare cases, I asked nomads for water – their ressources are limited, so this was a last resort (also, even though you often see gers in the far distance, they are mostly rather far away from the road, so just getting there can take up to an hour one-way). A few times, I met just wonderful Mongolians, who stopped their vehicles to offer me water and food. Prior to this cycling expedition, I had no idea which level of gratefulness I am able to attain – in partiular when I am low on water. Literally, I could have kissed their feet. What was maybe even more important than their help: these people restored my faith in humanity and that alone fueled me more than any cup of tea could have. The same is true for the nomads who helped me out – and the harshness of their lives make their hospitality even more remarkable.

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Wonderful Mongolians offering me milk tea, biscuits, chocolate and a ride (the ride I declined, but it was still a very nice gesture)

However, I did have a few (three) critical situations, when I had to stretch my water way beyond comfort levels. When there were no nomads anywhere, nor any passing vehicles that I could ask for help. Some of these situations were partly my fault – after all, I am human so I am bound to make mistakes. But essentially, what happened in those cases was that the odds just conspired against me.

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Mongolia is not all lush green (and even a landscape that looks fertile does not mean that you’ll have access to water)

Because the house (and water) my route notes mentioned was abandoned. Because the road was so terrible that I needed twice the time I had anticipated to get to my next water source. Because the temperatures soared sky-high (> 40 degree Celsius / 100 Fahrenheit). Because I had to cycle in my rain gear (jacket and pants) for long stretches. Which – combined with intense sun and soaring temperatures – is pure torture. I can think of few situations in my life that have felt nearly as awful. Why rain gear? There were simply long stretches where the mosquitos went completely crazy. I can tolerate a few bites per hour. I cannot possibly cope with a few bites per second. Cycling in my rain gear was the only way to keep my sanity (even though melting in it was agonizing as well). The mosquitos would bite through anything else, including thermal wear (yes, I tried).

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Setting new fashion standards. And no, I did not feel victorious at all (I still had to put on a second pair of gloves…)

In addition to rain gear, I was wearing two pairs of gloves to protect my hands (one layer was not sufficient). And, critically, a tropical hat that a cyclist from California had given to me as a present (Misha, I will be indebted to you for the rest of my life!). Actually, the hat only kept the mosquitos out of my face. I still needed to wear another hat underneath and my helmet on top to keep them from feasting on my skull. Lesson learned: short hair is not the best choice for a mosquito heaven… Why not DEET-based mosquito spray? First, it only helps for a very short time frame. Second, I would have had to *bathe* my entire body in it, every half hour or so (hurray for your skin!). And the issue with that is was the very limited access to water: I could not wash myself for days on end. In the last weeks, I set up a new personal record in that regard, which I intend to never *ever* break again in my life (18 days. Yes, that sounds awful. It feels even more awful). The quintessence? Cycling through intense heat wearing rain gear, gloves and multiple hats does not help with conserving the water in your body. Not at all.

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My two dromedary bags (blue and black) strapped on the bike

Yes, I did carry a lot of water. I loaded my bike to the absolute limit it could bear (140kg, including myself). Cycling in very remote, hospitable regions means that you have to be self-sufficient beyond water and food (meaning that I carry tools and spare for anything that could possibly break on my bike – quintessential, but heavy). On top of that (and besides food for multiple days), I carried 16-18 litres of water with me on the longest arid stretches. That sounds like a lot. It is not, when it has to last for up to five days. Why not loading more? Firstly, my frame cannot carry more. Secondly, you still need to *move* your bike on difficult terrain. And finally, water transport is not that easy per se. I have four bottles on my frame (5l) plus two dromedary bags strapped on the back (12l) plus sometimes another bottle or two clipped in on the side of my green bag – I don’t know where else I could possibly put water. I even sent my stove home in order to reduce weight – and for using the bottle cage on the bottom of my frame for water as well (my fuel bottle is filled with water instead of gasoline).

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Emily turned into a rolling water tank with a capacity of 18 liters – and yet, more would have been better

Remember the fiercely competitive Anne, the one with the iron discipline? Anne-with-the-stopwatch? It was that part of me that came to my rescue. Rationing your water when your body is screaming for it: probably the hardest task I have ever accomplished in my life. You *see* that there are still bottles on your frame, that your dromedary bag is still full. You *hear* the water in it. Your senses, all of them, beg. Just a little sip more. Just one. It won’t matter much. There is still so much water left. Water. Water. Water. The word reverberates in your mind, echoing from the bone of your skull. All other thoughts are gone. One word rules your mind, your entire being. But there she is. Anne-with-the-stopwatch. With discipline. With an iron will. The part of me which knows that I can’t possibly give in.

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Water is wonderful to look at – but not that helpful if it is salty, except for washing some dirt off my body (Khyargas Nuur)

One rule

It is that part of me which reminds me of the rule. The rule how much water I am allowed to drink. And when. On the way to critical dehydration, your mind becomes confused and dizzy. Clear thoughts and ratio become elusive. So whenever I realized that I was running into water issues, I stopped. Took stock of my water, double checked the distance to the next water source. And rationed my water, as long as my mind was still clear. Sometimes even the thought was painful. 4l per day. 1l per 20km. 100ml in 1km. Once, I had to cope with 2l for 20 hours (I don’t wish this to my worst enemy). Whatever was needed, I set up a rule. And I embraced it as if my life depended on it – because it did.

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When are you allowed to drink? And how much? (water taps at a fresh water source, Khyargas Nuur lake)

100ml in 1km sounds much. Unless you are making 3km per hour, it is 40 degrees Celsius and you are pushing a fully loaded bike uphill through sand (my last days before Khovd). Which, in essence, sends your brain to a state beyond reasoning, beyond logic thinking. So the rule is what you cling to. Nothing exists but the rule. Your mind forgets that there is a goal *behind* the rule. That you ration water because you are going to *get* somewhere. All that counts is the display of your speedometer. The distance you make. Because the distance will allow you to drink. There were times when I stumbled onwards, mumbling to myself “only 20 more meters, you can make that, you *have* to make that, I need those 100ml, I need them so badly, please,…”. The rule (whichever I set) was excruciating, but it did me a lot of good. It allowed me to function, when my mind had entered a state where it was uncapable of grasping anything beyond a short time frame. Thanks to the rule, I could let my mind go blissfully numb, allowing me to concentrate on what counted: moving onwards.

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Desert cycling

Anne-with-the-stopwatch also reminded me of the golden rule of mental strength in sports: Control the controllables. Even thinking about anything outside your realm of control is a waste of energy. There is no point in complaining about heat or the condition of the track you are on. All that counts is what you can control: Keep going. Observe the rule. Nothing else. Focusing on the controllables also allows you to ignore the buffer, the buffer between life and death. You do  everything in your means to keep the buffer as thick as possible. Beyond that, even thoughts are useless. If you cannot change it, don’t waste your energy thinking about it.

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Camels on the wayside – surely better suited to the arid conditions than cyclists

It is the same with panic and fear, really. This may sound absurd to you, but there were times when I considered sitting down and just cry. But rationally thinking: what do you gain? Does it move you forward? Does it even *help* to move you forward? No? Well, then keep going. Besides, your body has no fluid for tears anyways (and there is no shade either).

In all those cases, once I got to water, I just collapsed on the ground. I just sat, dumbfounded, looking at the water. Admiring its beauty. How the sunlight is broken in it. How it sounds when you move the bottle. And then, the absolutely, undescribably wonderful taste of it (turns out that I am easily capable of drinking two liters in one go).

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A nomad fetching water from a stream – my daydream a thousand times over…

Thunderstruck

Dehydration is a slow process. Even though the buffer between life and death gets thinner, step by step, sip by sip, that happens incrementally. However, once during this Mongolia jaunt, the buffer vanished. Zero. Life, death, and nothing in between. Cycling through Mongolia in summer, particularly July, means that you are in full thunderstorm season. Thunderstorms are a double-edged sword – at least, they were for me. They are a photographer’s dream with their dramatic clouds, beautiful rainbows, wonderful play of light and shadow. But they are also a cyclist’s nightmare when you are out in the wild without a shelter from the elements.

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Thunderstorms often reward you with spectacularly beautiful rainbows

As long as I still was on good roads, I was capable of outracing the clouds. Or, when seeing a storm front ahead of me, simply to wait it out. Reading the weather is a skill and you get better at it with every thunderstorm under your belt. You feel the direction of the wind, you look at your topographical maps. Which mountain ranges might serve as a weather divide? Based on that, you try to estimate where the storm is going. After a while, you also get a feeling which clouds are dangerous and which are harmless. You realize that raining is actually a good sign, while black clouds banking up without rain are not. Although I never felt completely at ease when observing thunderstorms from afar (and you can look *very* far into the distance in Mongolia), I started to get a bit calmer with increasing experience. I got an understanding how weather moves and where to be in order to minimize the risk (apart from the risk of being out in the open). When to pedal away as fast as you can. When to wait. And when to abandon my bike instead to huddle on the ground.

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Race ahead or stay put? (Race ahead, as a) the wind came from the left so the rain on the right would move away from me, and b) the dark clouds ahead of me would not climb over the mountains)

Then, one day, I learned that I actually had no idea about thunderstorms. Are you familiar with the term positive lightening? I was not. Sure, there is lightening between the clouds and lightening from the cloud to the ground. As I learned later, there are two types among the latter: the typical negative lightening (bottom of the clouds to the earth) and the unusual positive lightening (top of the clouds to the earth). While positive bolts are extremely rare (5%), they are also a lot more dangerous than negative bolts: 6-10 times the amount of voltage and a discharge current lasting 10 times longer. What makes them even more hazardous is that they travel horizontally over long stretches, away from the thunderstorm (up to 6 kilometers / several miles), striking in an area where the sun shines and blue sky beckons.

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Shortly before the incident

I was just studying my maps, standing on the ground and balancing my bike between my legs. Yes, a thunderstorm was building up North of me, but it was still far away. Then, literally out of the blue, a bolt of lightening hit the ground a few meters away from me. What saved my life, probably, was that lightening hit when a jeep approached me, heading in the other direction. It seemed that the bolt of lightening split and travelled in both directions, towards the car and me. But none of us got actually hit. The shock still shook me to the bones. I almost bit off my tongue. What happened after that is blurry in my memory, lost in the frantic attempt to get away from the thunderstorm. In essence, my body switched to survival mode, whipping itself forward driven by pure fear. I raced my bike over a terrain that I would usually never ride but push (big, sharp rocks). According to my speedometer, I achieved a surreal speed, despite going uphill. When I was finally stopped by huge amounts of sand, my entire clothing was dripping from sweat, my breathing was hard and my mind still blank.

Despite my attempts, the thunderstorm had caught up with me. In fact, lightening hit the ground repeatedly at the pass ahead of me. The pass that lay between me and a lonely house, which – according to my route notes – had given shelter to cyclists in the past. I stood and waited. Stood and observed. The pass was hit by lightening about every 15 minutes. I had just survived one bolt of lightening. I would not risk another, even if that meant camping in a thunderstorm instead of sleeping in a safe house. A tent is not a safe place in a thunderstorm (actually, it makes no difference if you are out there or in a tent, despite the admittedly *huge* psychological difference). But I had no choice. So I got off the road, put up camp and sat in there, waiting for the thunder to roll away from me. Which it did, eventually, allowing me to lie down. I fell asleep the very instant my head hit my sleeping pad.

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My lovely neighbors during breakfast

The next morning, the world looked completely different. I woke up to the whickering of a heard of horses passing by. The sun was shining, warming up the fresh air. And I realized that I had put up camp in a meadow full of edelweiss. Yes, this is also Mongolia, the quaint, idyllic face.

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My campsite abounding with edelweiss (and with horses in the background)

 

 

Beyond control

I consider myself to have been given a third chance in life. Once, I was born. Then, seven years ago, I did not go on a mountaineering trip that proved fatal. Now, I escaped being electrocuted by a bolt of lightening, by pure chance. The long bouts of extreme thirst that I survived after that felt a lot different. In those cases, I was still in control, at least partly. I still could swing the odds by pulling out my old companion, self-discipline. Anne-with-the-stopwatch. The bolt of positive lightening, however, was absolutely beyond my control.

If I am learning one thing, it is that the buffer between life and death is almost always beyond control. It can be the forces of nature, it can be a car accident: control is just an illusion. It is just a matter of accepting that. Life is frail. There is nothing we can really do to change that, except living our lives as fully as we can.

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Lonely truck at Telmen Nuur lake – kudos to all the courageous Mongolians who brave the elements and vast distances, time and time again

Each country so far has had its challenges. Each of them has made me learn and grow. Mongolia, so far, has driven me to my utmost limits. This is not about leaving my comfort zone, this is about survival. And this is how far I can possibly go. Actually, I have been pushed a *lot* further than I believed I could possibly be pushed. And I accept that whatever I have not learned in Mongolia I will probably never learn. If there is a lesson that requires more than Mongolia has thrown at me (or rather: that *I* have thrown at myself by chosing to cross it by bike), I am fine with missing out on that.

I am taking a break for a few days in Khovd, trying to recover from the challenges of the last weeks, mentally and physically. It took me multiple times of showering to even *start* getting the many layers of sunscreen – mixed with sweat and dust – off my skin. 1200km in the books (plus 300km of hitchhiking). 500km more to the border to China. Be gentle with me, Mongolia, be gentle. Please.

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This is how Mongolia can also look like: nomads’ gers, clear streams, wonderful evening light. Let’s hope that this is what is awaiting me in the upcoming days

 

6 comments

  1. Eddy & Ute says:

    Wow!
    Wir sind auf deinen Blog durch Suse und Micha (Emmenreiter.de) aufmerksam geworden und haben reingeschaut, weil wir auch gerade mit dem Fahrrad unterwegs sind, durch SüdOstAsien.
    Die zweite Gemeinsamkeit: wir kommen auch aus Berlin, sind also quasi Nachbarn 🙂
    Dann haben wir gelesen, wo du überall lang gefahren bist – welche Strecken, welche “Straßen”. Das ganze noch, im Gegensatz zu uns – allein.
    Wir haben hier auch >40 Grad Celsius erlebt, aber wir konnten Wasser trinken, soviel wir wollten. Die Versorgungslage in SüdOstAsien ist dahingehend ein Schlaraffenland.
    Unsere Berge auf Flores in Indonesien schrumpfen bei deinen Schilderungen auf eine platte Flaniermeile – wir hatten immer Asphalt unter den Rädern…
    Also Hut ab! Respekt und paß auf dich auf! Jeder braucht Schutzengel, aber man sollte sich nicht zu sehr auf sie verlassen.
    Wir werden dich im Auge behalten 🙂
    Viele Grüße – zur Zeit von der Ostküste Malaysias – von Ute & Eddy

  2. Prl says:

    Dear Anne,

    Intrigued what route you took. We cycled into Mongolia from China on the Erlianhot border in 2009, did a lot of shorter trips while living in Mongolia for three years and left on our bicycles again and we crossed Nomrog (In your photo of the road sign) and Hyargas Nuur as well. But we never found a stretch like 180km without water on our way. We have good maps that took us to water every evening so just wondering which route you took. And I also feel terrible to hear about your bad experiences. As residents we generally avoid small soums like plague to avoid drunks when cycling stopping only to refill water and buy supplies. I would advise cyclists not to linger too long in these ramshackle towns but really distraught to hear all the sexual advances even from nomads. It’s something I never had to counter except from drunks but it helped I spoke a bit of the language. Mongolia has been the best cycling for us and I also did a 1000km trip with a female friend in the North East provinces all the way back to Ulaanbaatar and mosquitoes were the only terrible annoyance we crossed. Really sorry for your experiences but lovely photos.

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