Into the Mongolian Steppe
Andreas reports from Mongolia, where he is scouting the Silk Route bicycle expedition:
After re-scouting the Bamboo Road, it was off to Beijing for the next mission. I’d be scouting the new Silk Route through Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan for 2016. With an eccentric new driver, Mr. Ping, and Zabi, our all around fixer, and I headed north for the Mongolian border. Two long days of driving, and we were there. It’ll take six days by bike, but the incredible contrast of environment should feel similar; most populated country to lowest population density on the planet in days.
After spending three weeks in cities of millions, suddenly I was alone! No driver or interpreters, heading for the capitol of Ulaanbataar by Trans-Mongolian Railroad. Ulaanbataar was nothing like a major Chinese cities, it sprawled. Even towards the core of the city, you could see traditional Gers (Mongolian yurts) set up on spare parcels of land or rubble. This city is a strange mix of old Soviet styled concrete housing, ancient Gers and colourfully roofed wood shacks.
I was on a personal mission though, and with a bit of extra time before Russian visa validation, I was going to get out of the city to see the Mongolian steppe by motorcycle! In China, things are difficult for travelers, the language barrier is immense, and even basic numbers can prove a real problem. Don’t try hand-signing numbers either, as they use their own system (confusing at first, but genius. Lets you count to ten with one hand, while the other is playing? Mahjong?).
In China, with a population approaching 1.4 billion and a healthy local tourism industry, there isn’t much motivation to learn English. Mongolia, on the other hand, while few are fluent, many people have the patience and basic English knowledge to help you get what you need, or where you want to go.
One thing I’ve always said of travelling is how I enjoy being surprised by how every country I’ve travelled to, differs from my preconceived ideas. Mongolia is the closest to my mental picture yet, and that’s a good thing! I had seen images of nomads living fragile lives, closely tied with their environments and horses were supposed to run free across the grasslands. That Mongolia still exists and it’s accessible.
What I wasn’t expecting, was that Mongolia would have more Toyota Priuses (Prii) than the parking lot at a Julia Roberts hosted fundraiser for wild Mongolian horses, or that basketball courts would be poured in the most unlikely of places, and be in constant use! That’s a surprise I guess. Don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler, it’s just the teaser. Speaking of which, it’s time to get back on the road, and see the second half of this wild country!