WHERE : Mongolia, China WHEN : May-November 2015 OBJECTIVE : East-West Solo Traversal of Mongolia DISTANCE : 3,500 kilometers / 2,175 miles CLASSIFICATION : Wheels (Bicycle), Walks (Bicycle!)
Mongolia. I’m not sure what this word conjures in your mind, but as I boarded the plane from Kathmandu to Ulaanbaatar it was a cluster of images which could all be labeled “terrifying.” And I am not a timid person. I have done plenty of extreme things, many of them on a bicycle.
Superficially, I had done this before: travel a long distance on a fully loaded bicycle, alone. Superficially. Yes, I toured Europe alone. Yes, I rode a remote stretch of the Canadian and US Rockies alone. But for all their beauty and challenges, I was never truly far from civilization (or emergency services). Maybe I’d have to wait a couple of hours for a car to come by when I was pedaling the Badlands, but…really, truly alone? No.
And now I was off to traverse the world’s least-densely populated country—from easternmost settlement to westernmost town, about 3,500 kilometers—without a GPS, unable to speak the language, and in a climate that, well, harsh is too kind a word. No, Mongolia was different, exponentially so, and I was terrified.
The reality, as always, was far less frightening. It always is. Yes, there were challenges, some severe. Yes, it was far beyond anything I had ever done. Yes, most people would say it was “ill advised” given my experience level; but that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? Our psyches are inculcated from our earliest hours: the Unknown and the Other are scary. Stay Close to Home, Child! The Boogeyman’s Out There, and He’s a-gonna Getcha! Venture too far afield, and the outcome will always be bad.
What claptrap. It’s all an illusion—a lie to straight-jacket our imaginations and empathy, enabling dangerous fictions like racism and patriotism, and hamstringing our self-worth. “Hey, that’s not possible! That place is full of wolves and pagan horseman descended from Genghis Khan the Evil Conquering Baddie! You’re gonna die!!” [Anyone offering over-unders on how many times I heard pretty much that exact warning? No?]
Yet here I sit. I crossed Mongolia alone. On a bicycle. I relied upon wits and bad pantomime and my own horrible cooking more times than I can count. I went hungry and thirsty a couple of times. I was turned back by border patrols and bad roads and was schlepped across the river of Temüjin’s childhood by drunken Mongols on horseback (because there was no other way to cross).
But what you quickly find out is that these external things are merely window dressing. The wilderness is personal and internal. The really scary stuff appears when you have no choice but to look inward; to meditate for countless hours on your own shortcomings and unresolved issues and biases and preconceptions—because here they are inescapable. There are no distractions; no opportunity to hide behind things or routines or your own smug sense of being right or special. Here you are reminded, inescapably, that there is no Other and there are no unknowns except the ones we carry within us. Here you see clearly the world’s true dangers: hatred, closed-mindedness, self-doubt; conformity to the fears and assurances of others; the belief that your way is the right way, that you know better.
But we don’t know better. We are exactly the same as everyone, everywhere. Our lives run the same gamut of good and bad and joyous and disappointed and angry and hopeful and frightened and right and wrong. Every time we close a door—out of fear or spite or hate or arrogance—we become smaller.
In Mongolia I learned to open the doors. Always. Open every single one you can, and walk right in. Whenever someone says “no! not that door,” you know you’re going the right way.
Making my way across a wide, muddy valley, trying to heft my bike across a dirty, frigid brook, I was startled by a loud scream, three meters away. It was the terrified cry of a newborn foal, lying on its side in the water, shivering, trapped in the silt. She had been abandoned to her fate, and would not last long in the freezing water.
I checked her limb by limb for injuries. She had none. She wasn’t even stuck, I soon discovered–she simply hadn’t learned to stand! Gingerly I lifted her up, warmed her, and held her steady as she got her balance. Before I managed to summon help (this took quite a while), I had also helped her take her first steps. I was smitten, and she was hungry.
This unexpected incident was the emotional highlight of my entire Mongolian adventure.
You can see a few moments of the discovery for yourself, in the video teaser below. Pay attention near the 1’15” mark.