Saturday, 7 March 2015

Cycling through Clouds in Central Asia: Goodbye iPad; Today: 100 km; Total: 4225 km

July 17, 2014

We woke up early, had breakfast, and prepared to experience our first day in Mongolia. A flat tire was the first thing I noticed when I finished loading my bike. I got a little anxious then: This is just the beginning of Mongolia; can my tires withstand the rough routes in Mongolia?

The road was smooth, the air fresh, and the scenery beautiful, but not for long. Gradually, the greenery gave way to arid land, and the sun turned into a scorching fire ball. With no trees in sight, we kept looking for some shade to make lunch in. To our surprise, we found a roofed bench with a make-shift table on the side of the roadwhy was it there? No clue. That was our dining/kitchen table, like manna from heaven.  After an hour of rest, we left, but the road turned into sand, and controlling the bike became a constant challenge. After going through deep sands, we were pleased to have met asphalt againso rewarding, but it was the end of our day anyway.

At about 6 pm, we arrived in a small town where we bought some water and groceries. And when I say town, dont expect even a small village. Town in Mongolia means a group of houses sporadically placed in an area. But according to our map, it IS a town.  We rode our bikes for another five km where we found a perfect spot for camping: by the river, under old trees, beside a tall cliff with an eagle nest on top.

We pitched up our tents, bathed in the river, washed our clothes, and relaxed for a while. It had been a rough day. After dinner, when I wanted to write my journal, I realized that my iPad was not in its place in the bag! In disbelief, I checked the bag again and again and again. No iPad! I had left it 100 km of hot sand back, in the hotel room!

I shared the news with Fausto. Then, I kept thinking what to do. I thought I would go to the last town, which was 5 km back, and get a Jeep to Bulgan. Fausto could go ahead, and I would catch up with him on the road or in the next town. The idea came to me rather late, so I couldn't wake Fausto up to tell him. With this thought in mind, and with a lot of hope, I went to sleep.  

Camp for the Night

Our Dinning/Kitchen Table

Cycling through Clouds in Central Asia: Goodbye Chilly China, Hello Adventurous Mongolia; Today: 60 km; Total: 4125 km

July, 16, 2014

At 9 am, I went downstairs to see if it were my cyber lucky dayno Sir. Then, unlike other days, we could sense some hustle and bustle in the hotel. Rumor had it that the Mongolian border was open. In half hour, we were ready to evacuate China avec plaisir.

At the Chinese border control, we had no hassle. Thrilled, we entered the Mongolian border control. No one went through our bags. No questions asked either. Some officers doubtfully looked at us as we talked about our route to Ulaanbaatar, the capital.  

Outside the border station, everything suddenly changed: bunch of people outside the gate clinging on to the vertical bars, overloaded old jeeps and SUVs, and a sense of emptiness in the air that filled us with both relief and uneasinessrelief from leaving polluted China behind, and unease with the unknown Mongolia. A Mongolian elderly woman tried to sell us some sort of fried food in a plastic bag, a young student warned us of Muslim terrorists in the area, and a man gave us some tips on banks and ATMs.

We had an easy ride to Bulgan, the first town, due to a tail wind. In Bulgan, we used an ATM and changed some money in the bank as we didnt know when we would see another ATM.  

When we were at the bank today, we met a German scientist who was researching on water quality in agriculture in Mongolia and China. He invited us to have a drink in the evening. We accepted but only I met them at seven thirty in the only restaurant open at that hour to grab a bite and have a drink. We had a great time and some joyful conversation about traveling, and culture.

Toward Mongolian Border Control

The German Scientist and his Girlfriend in Bulgan

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Cycling through Clouds in Central Asia: Stuck in a Border Town; Today: 135 km; Total: 3965 km

 July 14-15, 2014

Having very little money left for food or for a hotel if we had to, we had no choice but to push it to the border which was 145 km, again in the desert. We were lucky yesterday with the weather but today, right from the beginning, the sunshine was intense.

We left the camp at 7 without breakfast. After five minutes outside the village, we stopped to have "breakfast": coffee, stale bread, and a little bit of Chinese honey. After breakfast, I tried to keep pace with Fausto, but he was fast and strong. I fell behind with little money in my pocket, not even enough if I wanted to buy a bottle of water. I remembered the BBC documentary I was listening to the other day about an Indian peace activist group who walked from India to Moscow, Paris, London, and Washington for peace during the Cold War era with no money. I thought I should be able to survive for a day without money. After 50 km, I had half a bottle of water left. I saw a truck parked on the side of the road. The driver was inside, on the phone. I stopped and showed him my water bottle. Immediately, he hung up and gave me two small bottles of water. I thanked him and left. After five km, a young guy on his motorbike slowed down to take a close look at me and my bicycle. Then he stopped. I stopped too. After talking for a few minutes using gesture, I saw a bottle of juice in the back of his motor bike. I gestured if I could drink it. He gave it to me. It was peanut butter juice/milk. After taking pictures, he left.

After half hour, I arrived in a village where Fausto was waiting. We tried to withdraw money from an ATM, but it didn't work, so we kept riding to the next village/which was the last big village before the border, where there was no ATM. Hopeful, we kept riding to our last rope to hang on--the small village just before the border. Before we left, another truck driver gave me two small bottles of water, and I bought one with the only money I had. We left for the village near the border.

There was a hill to climb. I was alone when trying to get on the top of the hill in scorching sun. I could hear a truck trying to climb the hill behind me. The truck and I both got to the top of the hill almost at the same time when I saw a man in the passenger seat holding a pop out gesturing me if I would like to have it. I nodded and speeded up. I reached out to his stretched arm and got the bottle. Right away, I opened it while riding, raised the bottle to the guy to solute, and enjoyed the drink. I hope you understand the level of my appreciation for this random act of kindness.

Just before the village, there was a police checkpoint. They checked our passports and radioed our information to their HQ. It was when we got our biggest surprise: the Mongolian border would be closed for three days!

Great! We have no Chinese money, there is no ATM in this village, and we cannot change dollars. Mmm....

When the officer told us that the border would be open on 17th of July because of Mongolian Summer Festival, I took out my iPhone to check the date. The officer got my iPhone and went through all my personal photos--all of them. He sometimes would ask me who the girls in the photos were. I had read about this practice on some weblogs, so I tried to keep my cool, but inside, I was burning with a sense of anger because of my rights being violated. The other officer gave us two bottles of water though. We left for Tarkshken to spend T H R E E days.

In the first hotel we asked how much it would cost and if they would accept dollars. It cost Y137, but they wouldn't accept dollars. With a rough idea how much money we needed, we ventured in the town to find a bank. We found the only bank with an ATM, but it wouldn't accept our debit or Visa cards. Desperate, we talked to two guys who happened to be the bank clerks. We demanded either change our currency or find a way to use our cards. After ten minutes of gesturing, a lady showed up who could speak good English. Then she yelled at a driver of a pickup truck who happened to be entering the strip mall we were at. I think she asked her if he would change $100. Apparently, he would. We went to his grocery shop and got rich.

The hotel is the worst we have stayed at so far in China. It is very noisy, specially late at night. There is no air conditioning in the building, and the springs of the mattress hurt our back.

I needed Internet. Only in the last hours of the second night, when I begged the receptionist if I could use the Internet to check my email, did she say the word WIFI! And it only worked for a few hours. What is worse, a man came to our room when we had left the door ajar for some fresh air, and then said something in Chinese which I suspect it meant, "sorry". Of course it was an excuse. He was a thief. 

The Guy Who Gave me a Drink

Where We Got Stuck

The Menu of a Restaurant

The Ocean View from our Hotel

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Cycling through Clouds in Central Asia: Longest Ride; Today: 215 km; Total: 3830 km

July 13, 2014

At 7 am China time (5 am real time), we were on the lonely, desert road. There was no wind at the beginning, so we were doing fast. The only thing ahead, according to the map, was a short side road meeting this road 90 km away, where we expected to see some sort of town or village. Not having eaten enough for the past couple of days had made me really weak. After 50 km riding nonstop, I had no energy left to move on, but I had to keep going. I remembered that I had had some dried dates in my bags. I stopped and put them in my pocket. Every time I had a pang of hunger or no energy, I would put a few of them in my mouth and dampen them with a sip of water.

After 90 km, we reached the short road we had seen on the map. Yes... There was a 500-meter dirt road but for the trucks to load big boulders from a mine. However, there were some tents and a cafe. I went to the cafe to get some water. The woman showed me a sticker of "Nexus Expedition" on the wall in his kitchen. That meant Dimitri, the French cyclist we had met on our way in Kyrgyzstan was there. We decided to stay there and eat lunch knowing that the next town is 140 km away. We ate some noodles with vegetable and some chunks of meat. After an hour we were on the road again, not knowing where or when to stop.

We were very lucky because the sun was not scorching today. There was a thin layer of cloud blocking the burning, blinding sun. The wind was also not a head wind except for 15 km in the morning. So we kept riding and riding because, there was nowhere to stop, and we wanted to get out of this desert as soon as possible.

At about 7 pm and covering 215 km, the longest ride I have ever done in a day, we reached a village on a river side. We had to camp there, but the challenge was the fact that all the wooded areas were protected by barbed wires. We could not camp near a tree. There was only one opening, but there were some young men swimming in the river near the opening, so we could not go in.  We waited and waited. We went up and down the road, we lingered some time pretending everything except any indication of camping there until we found a moment when there was nobody around and we sneaked in.

The camping spot was horrible, swarms of biting mosquitoes covered us immediately. We used our sprays, but it could not stop them from biting. We had only half hour of sun light, so we had to be quick and discreet. We pitched up our tents, made instant noodle, and tried to sleep.