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Mongolia 2010

On The Rails — Sochi to Ulaanbaatar

As I write, it’s 5:30am in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Through the window of my host’s flat I can see the pale orange of the morning sun picking out the shapes of the new industrial complexes and apartment blocks that are sprouting at great speed. After a couple of years they will be crumbling, plaster falling from the walls; victims of overzealous development combined with corner-cutting for profit maximization in the name of the free market.

Behind the city skyline, a range of low mountains is silhouetted against the sky. They will be my target for the day. Tonight I’ll be sleeping under the stars — an invigorating prospect. I’ve spent about 5% of my life camping and I never tire of it.

It was a 15-day overland journey just to get here. It’s funny to think that for many, 15 days would be a year’s worth of foreign holidays. On the ferry from Trabzon to Sochi, I tried to work out how Russia fitted into my concept of the world. I’d never been before, but I’d spend the best part of two years living amongst the fallout of the Russian century, with all its faded grandeur, reminiscing of the days of denial and plenty, and the folly of post-Soviet opportunism.

But my first impressions of Sochi were far from what I was trying to avoid expecting. I immediately felt that I was in a place where the system appeared to benefit more than just the ultra-rich. People looked healthy, middle-class, distracted by whimsy and were far from struggling to eke out a living.

I’d made friends with an Armenian woman on the boat. She lived in Rostov-on-Don, Russia’s so-called ‘father of crime’, and was heading for the railway station. I shared a taxi with her and she sorted out my train ticket for Moscow — a great help, as my Russian extended to “Good day, I don’t understand Russian, thank you, goodbye”. While I was waiting I got chatting to one of the station policemen. He also turned out to be Armenian. The train’s guard was Armenian, the baggage porter was Armenian and refused to believe that I spoke his native language, and I walked past another passenger who was on his mobile phone, speaking Armenian (“…and it was five thousand dollars! Can you believe it?!?”). Between Yerevan and Moscow, travelling through four countries, I spoke more Armenian than any other language.

Lugging Luggage

Andy came to meet me in Moscow. He’d travelled by bus from London via Dortmund and Riga and had arrived the previous day. We booked tickets on the weekend train to Ulan-Ude, 5,600km away in Buryatia, Siberia. The four-day journey in 3rd class cost just 45 pounds — about the same as London to Leicester — and included a bed, free hot water and the entertainment of an assortment of enigmatic local characters. Chores over, we met up with some local Muscovites, wandered randomly through the streets of the gigantic capital, got repeatedly lost on the metro and stocked up on the cheapest instant noodles we could find.

Death By Noodle

The Trans-Siberian train is a bit of a misnomer. There are loads of trains plying all or part of the classic route to Vladivostok, including variants heading for Mongolia and China and other Russian destinations. It is very difficult for an islander such as myself to grasp the concept of a country which spans no less than nine timezones and has swallowed countless independent states over time along with their inhabitants, customs and languages. Russians have almost as much difficulty travelling in Russia as foreigners do. Imagine you lived in London and decided to go to Edinburgh, for example, but discovered that you weren’t allowed to stay for more than 30 days outside London without special permission, and that you had to register your presence in any town or city outside London in which you spent more than 3 days at a time!

My train journey passed in a blur of flat, unchanging swamp, steppe and woodland. The Trans-Siberian railway is itself an intensely monotonous thing. The only variety came on the second morning, when the climate had undergone a drastic change overnight. When we’d left Moscow it had been 28 degrees and we’d slept with the window open. In the dim grey light of that morning, stepping off the train to stretch our legs, we were surprised to find that it was ever-so-lightly snowing.

Being the only foreigners amongst the 3rd class wagons we attracted a fair amount of attention, and were kept occupied by a variety of elaborately mimed conversations. All was going well until the final night, during which I was unable to sleep. Our stop was scheduled at 3:47am, and it arrived on the dot, being as it was a Russian train, the stalwart mode of transport for cross-country journeys, highly punctual and reliable.

Blustery Day

Ulan-Ude was another chore-stop, this time for Mongolian visas which were luckily quick and easy to obtain. It would have been nice to have spent some more time in Russia, but I decided that it would be better to do so when I had an Armenian passport and didn’t have to worry about a visa. Before long we were on the little Taiwan-made bus, bouncing along the pot-holed road towards the Mongolian border and — finally — the start of the ride itself.

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Mongolia 2010

Rain, Train and Pain — Yerevan to Sochi

Her familiar, tearful, smiling face was framed by the tinted window, then a silhouette, receding; finally she joined the flecked shapes swaying within the departing bus as it began its 24-hour journey to Tehran. I put my hands in my pockets and trudged towards the subway. For the next few days I would put loneliness aside through the process of packing, tying up loose ends on website projects, and readying the flat for several months’ vacancy.

For what seemed like an eternity, Tenny and I had been looking forward to the day when we could turn the key one last time and pedal off together towards new lands. Circumstances had not been kind, and Tenny had gone to Iran to seek out a sports injury specialist to diagnose her knee pain, which had been persisting since the New Year. Free of work and alone for several weeks, I’d decided to use this window of opportunity to do something I’d been dreaming of doing for years — exploring Mongolia on my bike.

May arrived and with it the Russian business visa I’d been fretting over for several weeks. I dragged my luggage down to the railway station — one bike box, a 60-litre drybag, two panniers, three bike wheels and a handlebar-bag — and booked a seat on the overnight train to Tbilisi. The shabby old wagons creaked out of Yerevan’s grandoise, deserted station, named after the Armenian hero David of Sassoun. Our stewardess looked as much in need of renovation as the carriage, collecting tickets and sprinkling cigarette ash down the aisle as she casually whinged at the occupants about nothing in particular. The dim, orange bulbs flickered above. An ancient old woman muttered in my direction as the last lights of Yerevan slid into the distance. I rolled out my lumpy mattress to get some sleep before the rigmarole of the border crossing.

In Tbilisi I met up with Erik, a Swede who had cycled to Georgia and decided to take up residence there, and his flatmate Marija. She also had a history of long distance cycling, riding from her home country of Slovenia to China and back. (You can hear an interview with Marija on TravellingTwo.com.) Unable to carry my gear more than a few hundred metres at a time, I left it all at the left luggage office of Tbilisi station for the day, and went to drink tea with friends until the night train to Batumi.

A long time ago I decided to quit flying. This was for purely ideological reasons, and I was aware of the high probability that it would have no effect on society’s addiction to air travel whatsoever. But I couldn’t really bring myself to replicate the hypocrisy of those who jet about the world, expounding green-ness and sustainability between one airport and the next. So the prospect of cycling across Mongolia involved much more than actually cycling across Mongolia. I would also have to somehow get myself and all of my kit there by crawling across the surface of the world. I wedged my various bags and boxes into all available crevices of the Batumi night-train cabin. It would be the second of four train journeys totalling almost 8,000km in distance.

In motion, with the weight of imminent departure behind me, I started to find my feet again. It always took a few days to make the transition back to the traveller’s state of mind, one which accepts the fluidity and unpredictability of things, and refuses to let unforeseen setbacks cloud progress. I found myself sharing a cabin with three Georgians. The train pulled silently away and, after a perfectly timed comic pause, the middle-aged man opposite glanced at me and the two young women, reached under his seat and, with a wry grin, produced a five-litre bottle of home-made red wine. The rest of the journey passed rather quickly.

Hotel Iliko, Batumi

I stayed a night in Batumi. It was Sunday and the port was closed. “Come back tomorrow”, I was told on enquiring about the ferry to Sochi, Russia’s premier Black Sea resort and the future host of the 2014 Winter Olympics. The following morning it was raining. Batumi seemed to be perpetually under renovation. Puddles and flooded pot-holes made entire streets impassable without a small canoe or a pair of waders. I felt as if in Venice.

At the port I blocked the ticket office window to avoid being shoved to the back of a growing crowd of Georgians. At 11am on the dot I handed my passport through the window to buy a ticket for the next sailing. The manager smiled broadly. “England passport!!!” I returned his smile. “England! Very good! I am very sorry!” Still smiling. “England passport Georgian soldier no problem. England passport Russian soldier” — dramatic pause — “BIG problem. Very bad. I am very sorry.”

I said I had a Russian visa and that it had cost me a total of $504 US dollars to procure and that I really really needed to get to Russia on a boat. “I am very sorry. Only Georgia Armenia Russia Azerbaijan passport. Soviet passport you know? England Germany France Italy Albania passport — no.” A small amount of blood drained from my face. He looked sorrowful. “Trabzon OK. 150 kilometre. Car autobus no problem. I am very sorry.”

Sunset From Trabzon-Sochi Ferry

So I marched arbitrarily though Batumi in the pouring rain until I found a travel agent selling bus tickets to Trabzon, then went to my musty little back-alley hotel, attached all of my bags to myself and spent half an hour in intense pain shuffling the 500 metres or so to the bus stop, thanks to my stubborn refusal to pay for a taxi. 3 hours later, in Turkey, the moody mini-bus driver failed to keep up his moody act as he dropped me off outside the port of Trabzon and I hobbled off with a smile and thank-you-very-much in Turkish, Georgian, Russian and English. I crossed the road to the little row of turizm offices and bought a ticket on the next ferry to Sochi, which was boarding at 5pm. I looked at my phone. It was 4:55pm.

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Mongolia 2010

Get A Postcard From Outer Mongolia

When was the last time you got a postcard from Outer Mongolia? Probably a fair while ago, I’ll warrant.

So here’s the deal. I’m trying to raise £1,000 for The Wilderness Foundation UK by — appropriately — mountain-biking just over 1,000 miles off-road across a big wilderness area of Mongolia.

I’ll send a postcard from Mongolia to anyone who helps me achieve this target. All you have to do is visit the fundraising page and leave a donation of any amount, then come back to this post and put your mailing address in the comments. (Or, if you’re not comfortable doing that, send me a private message.)

Donate now

Thank you for your support! Please follow me on Twitter to receive very sporadic updates — I’m going low-tech, no live-tweeting — or, better, follow the expedition journal via the RSS feed. The perfect chance to grab a cup o’ tea and have a good read!

I’d also appreciate it if you could help spread the word about this fundraising target on Twitter by clicking on that green ‘retweet’ button.

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Books & Reading Planning & Logistics Product Launches

The Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook

One of the most valuable resources I had when preparing to make the leap and begin cycle touring was the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook*.

In fact, I’d say that it’s responsible for my ideas becoming anything more than just ideas.

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Mongolia 2010

Mountain Biking Across Outer Mongolia

A couple of weeks ago, I went to watch Armenia play ice hockey. The match was part of the 2010 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships. Being a 3rd division group match, it featured countries not usually associated with winter sports — South Africa, North Korea, and on this occasion, Mongolia, who were promptly thrashed 15–0 by Armenia.

Goal!!!

I’ve dreamt of biking across Mongolia for many years. Back in 2006, when I was preparing to start a new life on the road, I made vague plans to include the country in my route. I never expected it would be this long before I went there. But such dreams aren’t easily forgotten. Right now, I’m journeying across Siberia by train, heading for a distant city called Ulaan Bataar.