A few weeks in Japan was a beautiful introduction to life on the road, what would become my existence for the next year or so. The uber developed country was “easy” in that all the supplies you could need were highly accessible. This wouldn’t be the case in Central Asia, where I’d be for the next few months. My time in Japan gave me a chance to really dial in my kit, my routine and make all the minor adjustments to the setup that would start to become a continual process along the journey.
The view out of the window of the Mongolian Airlines flight was exciting. For hours I could see the vast interior of Inner China and Mongolia sprawled out beneath me. From 30,000 ft the features of the landscape subtly showed themselves. The sandy dunes of the Gobi Desert, the baron plains of the lower steppe. From the small window portal I could spy a tiny spec of white on the ground far below me. Every now and then I would see another, these white dots were Yurts, the mobile homes of the nomadic people. I would become well acquainted with these in the coming months. That sense of nervous excitement, of adrenaline was beginning to rush through my blood stream. The feeling of adventure, of unknown. I thought of the Australian Tim Cope, one of my own inspirational figures who had rode on horseback through this landscape all the way to Hungary. I would soon be living an adventure of my own.
I landed into Ulaanbaatar international airport late in the afternoon with the sun setting over the gentle hills on the edges of the city. The airport wasn’t much larger than the Moree regional airport in New South Wales. Not much more than a bathroom and a waiting room with a door to walk straight out onto the tarmac of the runway. Inside the waiting room in a glass cabinet lay a number of fossils, petroglyphic stones and other bones with the translated message, “It is against the law to take these items outside of Mongolia”. Not something we are used to seeing in our good old Australia.
A few days later after unpacking my gear, experiencing the chaos of the city and preparing to set off I was headed out into the north west of the country. From there I would start an expedition into some of the more isolated and remote parts of the country. The wealth of information out there amongst the cycling community makes trips of this nature much more accessible. Digesting the many resources out there I had the basis of a route which I would work from over the next few weeks. I set off from Tsetserleg, a small town with a techno music party over the towns PA system each night and after cresting a small hill I was onto the Steppe. The hills parted ways and the land opened up in front of me exposing an endless green plain. It was as if the green felt had been pulled off a billiards table and pulled taught over the gentle rolling terrain stretching out beyond the horizon.
After a pleasant start to my first day on the Steppe the evening fell quickly as I had ridden up above 2000 metres elevation. Before the sun could set a snow storm quickly enclosed around me. I rushed to setup my tent next to an old stock yard in the middle of a wide valley. As I pushed the last stake into the ground the snow began to come down around me. I dove into the tent and waited it out, wanting to defer hypothermia for later in the trip. An hour later the snowfall settled and I unzipped my tent to a sea of white, mountains around me which had been green moments earlier where now blanketed in white snow. As I scanned around a lone white horse galloped past me in the distance. It stopped and gazed back at me for just a moment before continuing on. An eerie omen of simple beauty. The snow fell for a while longer and as I cooked up some dinner on my stove I had a knock at the door. In this case the muffling of voices outside the tent fly. I popped my head out of the tent to shock a few nomads, their thick coats were covered in white snow and they looked at me strangely. With no shared language they were able to communicate through various hand signals that I would be cold and hungry. I nodded, smiled and they laughed. They climbed aboard their horses and rode off toward their yurt in the distance.
Little did I know that would be the start of many interactions with the nomads of Central Asia. These highly skilled, adaptable and strong-willed people live off the land in the purest sense. Packing up their house made from the felt of their own sheep through the year and moving it to a new location based on the seasons. They give off an aura of calmness and simplicity, a sense of purpose driven by the daily tasks of survival. The endless search for food, water, and shelter. There are many lessons to be learnt from these people.
For weeks at a time I went without speaking English, something I never expected to feel so strange. The Cyrillic alphabet used in the local languages makes it extremely difficult to communicate much more than a simple greeting or a thank you. I met an American school teacher named Caleb who was working in a small isolated village. It was a five day drive to Ulaanbaatar, he told me exactly the hamburger he would be ordering when he returned only in a few weeks time. He had been living in a Yurt built by the villages for almost one year, in that time he’d not had a shower only bathing a part of his body each week using a bucket of water taken from the river nearby. He was employed to teach English to the young children of the school, a government initiative to educate their youth with the aim of bringing economic growth to their country.
I carried with me pen and paper, for my own journaling purposes but also to offer young children something as a gift. It was nigh on impossible to pass a yurt without the children and dogs chasing you down with the offer of coming inside. The hospitality would never end with tea, horse milk, and a full meal usually being offered. I would sit with the children and draw on the paper of my journal using the coloured pencils I had brought. For most of these children, it was a completely new and unfamiliar experience.
From crossing the wide expanses of the steppe to climbing high altitude mountain passes I was forever changed by the landscape of this place, the people and their welcoming nature. I was a guest in their land but felt as if I was happily accepted. The mutual respect of a passing traveller in a brutally harsh landscape such as that could be shared without any need for the common tongue. At times I had pedalled, pushed and lifted Kevin over mountains and rivers. Looking back I couldn’t quite believe where I’d been. Some of the most beautiful places on earth.
After months of remote bike packing living solely in the clothes on my back and my tent I would be headed west to Europe and more civilisation.