Dated: 08 JUL 18
Over the past few days I’ve found myself not on a bike but a train, a truck and a camper van. After much internal deliberation and conflict I have decided to commit to reaching Mongolia in time for their summer festival, Naadam. Annoyingly in their summer jubilations the Mongols close the border over this period so it is going to be a mad motorised dash to get there in time despite my tree trunk legs – they are more sapling than Sequoiadendron giganteum (redwood).
This was no easy decision, I had an internal struggle to justify missing the miles, after all this is meant to be an around the world cycle not the Trans Siberian Railway journey. As I lie in the dark on fold out bed rattling along the rails en route north from Kazakhstan into Russia I massage my ego, conceding to my competitive self that it is ok to get the occasional lift if needs must. And needs must I may never be in Mongolia again, who knows I might be struck down by sudden death syndrome or more likely scenario hit by a car before I ever get a second chance. Hopefully not though.
I said to myself from the beginning of this trip that if I need to hop, skip and hitch to reach a border crossing or simply because I liked some spot or another and over stayed, it is ok. I’m not breaking any records after all. Naadam Festival or “The Three Games of Men” is an annual event in which males from across the country compete in horse riding, archery and the national sport of wrestling or Bökh. A sexist notion that women are not involved in the events, but I am sure many food stalls and cafes will represent the fairer sex. But as a man and a feminist I do object to this notion that a festival is just represent fifty percent of the population; I am a strong advocate for women wrestling in a pair of blue Y-fronts and a petty coat, just as the men do.
My whirl wind trip across the south eastern region of Russia, the Altai Republic, involved two trains, some cycling and a hitch with some Germans. The train was a sleeper, if it went at the speed of a normal train the beds would be unnecessary, it took approximately twelve hours to go just 450km, it crawled along. A mobile sauna on tracks, as the only westerner on board I was some what of a sceptical as passenger after passenger came to talk strings of Russian or Kazak at me for five minutes at a time whilst all the I was on looking blank faced and despondent . And at the border when the customs officials came on board I would be amazed if anyone else had their passports checked for they almost queued up to riffle through mine; its already well thumbed but I was worried that it may just fall apart if one more border guards rigorously checked every page. At least six of them asked for my passport; it always makes be chortle when they ask what country I am from or that my name is in fact “Harry” which so often happens despite them holding an obvious clue.
There was one hitch on the train other than unwanted curiosity, the Russian Railway Children, a small group of youths were travelling unaccompanied and what do youths do when they are left to their own devises? Drink and be loud. They staggered up and down the carriage or huddled around a phone screaming at it, Russia were playing in the world cup. Not a single person asked them to pipe down not even the railway Nazi of a carriage conductor who earlier had given me a lot of stick from bringing my bike on board. Or at least that’s what I thought he was doing, Russian always sounds angry to me.
Once off the train in Russia, I had approximately 700km to the border with Mongolia and two days to make it. The plan was to hitch hike a third of the distance and cycle the rest arriving in time to beat the border closure. It turns out I don’t have the patients to hitch and after about ten fruitless minutes I hop on the bike and decide to stretch the legs before trying again. Come late afternoon I reside to the fact that hitching is my only option to make the deadline. Having a bike with you does not make for an appealing passenger so I opt to take a wheel off and feign a breakdown. After failing to squeeze my kit in the boot of a delightful blonde Russian women I once again stand thumbs up with my best fake smile on my face.
A mobile home full to bursting point with bikes and Germans rounds the corner and I know I am getting a lift, though at this range I did not know they were German or that there were six of them. Jackpot, five minutes later my bike is strapped to the roof and I am sat on a sofa drinking lukewarm beer with three blondes, the boy friends are sat up front so I don’t open the champagne. Its my first proper taster of what over landing must be like and it seems great to me. It turns out that I am not the only one rushing to reach the border they hear there is quite the queue to pass over the Mongolian frontier and onto the steppe. When I reach the border the next day I see what they mean, I roll by to the front of a long line of locals and travellers sitting idle in the vehicles waiting to cross.
It was a jolly old hitch complete with a complimentary dinner but it must be said that after a few hours I realise that over landing isn’t for me, life by bike is much better. In the cabin you see the world through a window, listen to music instead of to the birds and the bees and miss being out in it. On the bike you have the fresh or sometimes not so fresh air, you can smell the wild flowers or manure, hear the birds singling or the warning calls of the marmots, you can feel your surroundings. And yes sometimes you get cold and wet. On the Pamir a kitted out Land Cruiser drove past, sat swinging her arm lazily out of the passenger window was a stunning brunette, she looked like her and her husband were off to Waitrose; where is the sweat and grime?
I part ways with my continental companions and cycle the remaining leg to the border, I only spent a mere 60 hours or so in Russia and had just a taster of the Altai Mountains; but its enough to scratch off Russia on my travel map, its a big piece of real estate. It is a beautiful region with vast pine forests sprawling through wide valleys and snow caped mountains on the horizon. Along the river parents keep one eye on their children frolicking in the river and one on their glass of wine as they sit around a camp fires. It must be said that I am disappointed that I did not spend a week at my own pace cycling and camping in this idyllic setting through what I now know is part of Siberia, another tick off the bucket list but with an astrix next to it *must revisit and travel properly.
Now its time for Mongolia and the Three Games of Men and Women.