From Preparation

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!

Random acts of kindness

I am still in the process of assembling gear and while this can be fun, it is also quite exhausting. And expensive, at least when looking at the sum total. Based on recommendations by other long-distance cyclist, I am trying to set priorities of which things I need in excellent quality (many parts of my bike), which can be ok quality and which ones can be cheap knock-offs.

Bike shoes were in my middle to last category. Yes, I want to be able to pedal well and have shoes that are comfortable for walking stretches inbetween. But not at any price. After a long search all over Berlin, I finally slipped into a pair that fit really well. And was really not in the price range I wanted them to be in. There was another pair at a reduced price which fit well, but not as remarkably well. The vendor had peppered me for quite while with questions about my trip (most of them in utter disbelief about why on earth I would do this). When I mentioned that these shoes were actually not in my price range, he looked at me sternly: ‘Listen, if you are crazy enough to go for this trip and do so alone, I want you to have the best-fitting shoes that can be found’. Said this and handed me a voucher for a discount. There are some very kind and helping people out there. Thanks so much! My feet already love you for this!

Time is running

It has been a rough couple of days… Essentially, I am getting into that part of the preparation phase, when you realize that you do not have many fallback plans anymore. Things work out in time. Or they don’t. For some journeys, it is actually quite doable and not a big deal if you forgot an item – simply get it at your country of destination. For this particular journey, this is not an option – once I am on my bike in the middle of nowhere in Central Asia, I will have few possiblities to make up for anything I forgot. This is particularly true for the Pamir mountains, where I will rely heavily on everything I brought. No chance to get anything beyond that. If I forgot something, I won’t have it. If it fails, it fails.

This morning was ruled by panic mode. The kind of ‘why on earth did I not take care of this and that a month earlier? why does this have to be such a close call? what if…?’. Not helpful, in particular when time is scarce. But then, a friend of mine reminded me that this is part of my trip. I am mentally already on my way. If I panick now, this is a good excercise. Right now, I still have resources at hand, friends who help me out, shops and fast internet around that can help me solve things. I will certainly have those break-down moments up in the mountains, when I will have to rely on my self to sort things out. In rational. non-panic mode. And I will.

Another aspect of panic phases: they have to happen. I have rarely had a long journey, when this did not occur at some point. There is no point in ignoring it, as it will just pop up again. I usually give myself a time limit. 12 hours of self-pity or drama. Usually, I am sick of that a lot earlier and can move on. It worked this time as well, fortunately. Back into working mode. Keep your fingers crossed for me – still an awful lot to do!

 

PS:  I took the photo in winter 2014 during my last visit of Prague, Czech Republic

Flight: booked!

Holy cow – I just booked my flight! A decision long postponed, long debated (which airlines transports bikes? where to fly to?), and then delayed by more than an hour due to the complications of the booking service of the airline. BUT: I now have a flight for starting my expedition! Hurray! This already feels a gazillion times more real than anything else I have done so far (except getting my bike).

In the end, I decided not start in China, but in Kyrgyzstan – still an important silk road country, a lot easier and cheaper to reach and a lot less restrictive in terms of visa. Plus, I do not have to start my expedition crossing one of the most hostile deserts of this planet. Learning from experiences – be nice to yourself :-). In particular, be nice to yourself when you are getting yourself into an adventure which is a complete novelty for you. So I will start my trip in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and not the deserts of China.

Leaving for Central Asia on September 2nd. Unbelievably excited!

Where to cycle exactly?

Where will I cycle EXACTLY? Route planning – something, I believed I could put off until late. Until I realized that quite a few gear questions depend on factors that are determined by the roads/paths I take: At which altitudes will I be? Which temperature range? Which chance of snow in the mountains? Is rain more likely or dust?

  • On the upside: I learned a lot of quite critical facts in the last days, saving me from making wrong gear decisions. On the downside: Going throughthese questions made me feel slightly stupid and naiv. Some of the lessons I learned:
  • Some electronic hardware will be prone to fail at these altitude.
  • I will face more 4,000m (13,000ft) passes than I ever thought I would tackle by bike.
  • I am likely to face snow at some point (and also potentially some wolves, if I cannot avoid it)
  • Getting any internet connection in Central Kyrgyzstan and through most of Tajikistan will prove… interesting ;-).

If any of you has advice on how gear copes with altitudes above 4,000m (kindle, smartphone, camera, etc), do let me know.

PS: I took the photo on a journey from Dunhuang to Golmud (China) a few years back. Yes, the roads I will face now won’t be as nicely paved most of the time…

Search and rescue, anyone?

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Small absurdities of travel planning…

If you are travelling solo in remote areas, you have a certain need (and your family & friends as well): having a big, red rescue button that you could press when things go very wrong (picture a broken leg somewhere off the road in high altitude wilderness.. there are more pleasant ways to die, I guess). Now, there are very powerful devices for exactly this, called PLBs (personal locator beacons), which are relayed to local search and rescue teams. Great technology, based on a network of military satellites, that has already saved more than 30,000 lives!

Now, this sounds like a device I should be getting, right? Well, it needs to be registered in your country of residence. And the German authorities decided that Germany has no wilderness nor very remote regions without cell phone coverage – so no registration is needed. Fantastic! What about citizens who travel abroad? I have spent quite some time calling ministeries, the German army, several shops concerned with rescue devices. The answer seems to be: Germans do not need to be rescued. I COULD register, if I had an airplane or boat (aka search and rescue for air traffic and sea). Bikes are not on the agenda. And I have no intentions of buying a boat for that (maybe a canoe??).

Now, I will have to search for a country that is kind enough to let a poor German cyclist register. Or maybe I can convince the German army… (option A is more likely, I guess… ;-)).

Trial tour… or not?

Well, well… There was this gorgeous idea, that spontaneously popped up: European championships of ultimate frisbee are happening this week in Copenhagen and a lot of very good friends of mine are playing there, many of them for the German national teams. And those are doing really well, each on their path to winning a medal. As you can imagine, I would have loved to be there to watch games, particularly finals.

So, when I did not get the lifestream to work two days ago, a friend of mine and me spontanteously came up with the idea ‘why don’t we simply cycle to Copenhagen to watch the games live?’. What an electrifying idea! Combining my trial tour with viewing European Championships!

A day filled with whirlwind action and last minute planning later (plus a visit to my physician), I had to face the truth: even though I could have pulled this off in terms of quickly getting the missing gear, there are too many urgent things on my todo list now which cannot be postponed. After all, this whole trip (including stretches by train) would have taken almost a week. Plus, as my physician told me yesterday, I injured one of my joint capsules in my latest accident. Which explains why I cannot walk without pain. Well, cycling roughly 600km might not have been that much fun… In particular since this has to heal well before I head off to Asia.

Sometimes, the truth is a lot less fun than spontaneous actions… But I am there in spirit, dear EUC-playing friends!

‘So… what do your parents say?’

I am sure all of you had had situations with parents or loved ones who were concerned about what you were doing at some point of your life [If not, maybe they were good in concealing their feelings, or maybe you have not dared greatly enough. In the latter case, you could think about which project you always deemed to crazy to try – and then go ahead and realize them :-).]

In any case, telling my parents about this trip was an important milestone. It was a long process (6 years!) for me to step into my fears and dreams, to dare making this real. So who am I to expect my parents to fully play along from the first moment I told them? My mother’s first reaction in April was to question my sanity. She told me that she had always thought I was joking when I had mentioned the idea of this trip earlier. I had not gotten such a reaction ever since my first journey to India when I was 20 (i.e., quite some time back)… well, this adventure now is also quite a step ahead from all the previous adventures I have taken.

Last week, I was visiting my parents. And my mother handed me some bungee cords she had bought, telling me that I might need those for my bike ride. That was a really emotional moment for me, the manifestation that she had accepted that this is going to happen. In a way, also a manifestation of how my family works together: a lot of personal freedom, but even more mutual support, no matter whether we fully dendorse every one of our projects or not.

Fun with visa

Hurray for changing visa regulations! And hurray for Kazachstan! I was biting my nails to see whether they would change their visa regime again – and the embassy announced that the decision would be made on July 15. And guess what? From today on till Dec 31, 2017, German nationals can enter the country for 15 days without a visa :-).

Visa applications can be a hassle for any journey. But in particular for longer overland trips, the timing of all the visa is somewhat of an experiment… Trying to estimate when I enter which country, filling out a lot of forms, getting even more passport photos, … Now I have one item less on my todo list- brilliant! 

In fact, quite a few of the countries along the Silk road have eased the bureaucratic burdens of visiting in recent years. Nowadays, you can spend up to 60 days in Kyrgystan without needing a visa (as a EU citizen, at least). And the visa for Azerbaijan is issued by e-mail. So overall, I surely cannot complain :-).

The beginning

Every blog starts with a famous little post that, upon inspecting it years later, will seem a little obsolete. So here we are. The first post for Anne Westwards. I am delighted to start a new blogging project, after 8 years of blogging elsewhere. A fresh start so to speak, a white canvas. And, to be honest, I am probably the one who is most excited about what will be posted here in the upcoming months. I hope you will follow me along! The road is long and I would love to share it with you.

PS: the photo was taken on my journey from Dunhuang to Golmud (Western China) in 2009. Fantastic landscape- and even more so when exploring it by bike!