Coming home meant two things: a very long journey by public transport, and lugging an unwieldy collection of funny-shaped bags and bits of metal through a variety of cities in the summer heat.
Choosing to travel exclusively by land meant that the excursion was really much more than just a bike ride in Mongolia. It was also an opportunity to spend a few days watching the world go by, and to experience one of the world’s great train journeys — the Trans-Mongolian from Moscow to Ulaan Baatar (and back). There was also the logistical challenge of it all — anyone who’s been to the Caucasus will know that the borders are in something of a pickle.
Having no need to visit any Siberian cities on our return leg, we took a coupé (a 4‑berth compartment) on the direct train to Moscow from the Mongolian capital. As luck would have it, nobody else was booked in the same compartment, so we had no issues with our luggage — a bike box, 3 drybags, a pannier, two bar-bags and six wheels were all safely stowed away with room to sleep.
Not long into the 96-hour journey I began to crave company. Most Russian trains have a 3rd-class option, which is the equivalent in train terms of a youth-hostel: Each wagon has 60 or so bunks in an open-plan design. There’s no privacy and it’s a lot more fun for it. This train unfortunately didn’t have the option, so the journey passed with little social contact. Two months had passed and Siberia had transformed from a bleak, grey wilderness to one bursting with life, with trees and grasses desperate to surge skywards in that short, hot summer before winter’s grip began to tighten again.
In Moscow I said goodbye (and good luck) to Andy who had no onward tickets and was going to try his luck at the bus station. As a parting present I gave him some roasted chicken wings, a tub of fresh coleslaw and several pieces of fruit. After four days of instant noodles, I think he would agree that there was no better gift!
The train to Sochi was the familiar platzkart affair, full of bare flesh and flip-flops heading for the Russian Riviera. Sochi’s sea-side sprawl is a whopping 145km long, and at the heart of it is Russia’s prime Black Sea holiday resort, with prices to match. I arrived early in the morning, bought a ticket for the evening sailing to Trabzon, and spent the day pedalling around the clean, leafy backstreets, eating cheap and tasty Chicken Cordon-Bleus from street-sellers and stumbling over yet more facets of Sochi’s Armenian community, who seemed to pop up literally everywhere.
On the ferry I met a Hungarian cycle-tourist and, as tends to happen, conversation turned to previous trips and the ins and outs of bicycle travel. I was astonished to hear that — in complete contrast to my own experiences — he’d never been invited to stay with anyone in over 50,000km of riding in several long trips all over the world. This made more sense when he mentioned that his daily average distance was somewhere around 170km, and often up to 200km! To me, this represented an insane amount of pedalling. He’d covered the entire distance from Budapest to Sochi — somewhere over 2,000km — in less than two weeks.
I would see him a few days later in Yerevan, and hear how he’d been invited to stay with people in villages in Turkey and Georgia, and what a memorable experience it had been, and I was happy to hear that. For my own part, I rode the 210km from Trabzon to Batumi in one particularly wet afternoon and a slightly drier morning before my legs gave up the ghost, and I filed this little experiment in the ‘failed bike travel philosophies’ section (next to the entry about cycling in pitch darkness without a head-torch). However, I had done what I had been looking forward to doing for several days; namely to ride the Turkish section of my return journey purely in order to stuff my face with gorgeous Turkish food at every opportunity.
It was just before sunrise, ten days and about ten thousand kilometres distant from Mongolia, that I rode through the slumbering suburbs of Yerevan, up the familiar boulevard past Victory Park, off into the maze of alleys and towards a nameless little yard where a tailor was unlocking his workshop and a familiar face was standing in a bedroom window, waiting for my return.