Mongolian Madness 2018

My friend and cycling buddy Bekah wrote a wonderful post about our Mongolian bike tour on her blog and I simply had to share it here!

NoBody Knows Her Bounds

It all started with a casual text back in September.

“Hey Briana! What new adventures are you planning these days??” I asked. Or something like that.

A few short texts later, and we were talking an international biking trip. And we were serious about it from the start. Our intended destination changed a few times: first the Andes, then Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan—I can’t remember which—until we realized that country would have too much snow during the April/May dates we were looking at for our trip; even Nepal got a mention thrown in there somewhere; until finally we settled on Mongolia by the end of October.

6-some months later, 8 1/2 after that first text exchange, we were eating a delicious dinner at Namaste (a fantastic Indian restaurant in UB that I highly recommend visiting if you ever find yourself with an evening to spend in Mongolia’s capital), celebrating the completion…

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One Watery Mistake I Will Never Make On A Bike Tour Again

Arriving home in Lewis County fills me with the wonderful, comforting sense of belonging. I fit here. Although I have spent four months in two far-flung corners of the earth; first, the lush tropical environment of the Amazonian rainforest, then the open, everlasting expanses of Mongolian terrain and sky, as I return to Northern New York, I feel as though I have never left. But, I must admit, part of me is missing.

Before leaving for Brazil and Mongolia, I had a misconception buried in my subconscious. Deep down I believed that by visiting the rainforest of Brazil and the wild steppe and taiga of Mongolia, I would somehow master them, and could check them off some imagined list.

Mongolia?

“Been there, done that.”

The Amazon?

“Oh yeah, it’s super cool.”

What a lie I told myself!

Instead I am returning to the United States to find that I am leaving a big part of my heart in a tiny jungle village with my sister and friends. Another bit of my heart has been scattered across Mongolia.

Oh, Mongolia! You captured my heart in numerous ways and I am still reeling, trying to find a way to wrap my mind around the journey you took me on!

It is high time to tell some stories from our bike tour but I am not sure where to start. So I will begin in the most logical fashion and I’ll start at the end.

The Final Day

Light filtered into my tent and my first conscious thought was,

“Is it time to wake up yet?”

Sunrise comes early in the northern Mongolia spring, the sun shines brightly by 5:45, but this morning I had missed the early sunrise and it was almost seven. I lay in my tent and basked in the sun’s free warmth, because warmth is a rare luxury in this corner of the country. Bittersweet thoughts swirled in my mind. Today was a monumental day, our last day of actual bike touring. On one hand, it is a relief to finish a bike tour and realise that your body and bike are still functional; but on the other hand, AHHH!!! CAN I PLEASE JUST KEEP BIKING HERE FOREVER?

But then a more important thought crossed my mind. We needed water.

The night before, Bekah and I had found a small lake and were quite thrilled by the prospect of having a beautiful place to set up our tents and refill our water bottles. But the closer we rode to the lake the more our initial thrill dissipated. It began when Bekah made a comment about something smelling rank. I glanced over to make sure her nose wasn’t pointed in my direction because I not only smelled rank, I felt the rankness rising from my body. Hot showers were nearly nonexistent on this bike tour. But soon we both discovered that the source of the smell was not us (this time) it was the lake.

What a stinky, stinky lake.

Closer inspection revealed a shoreline composed of thick, grey mud with a layer of white powder to top it off. And rotting carcasses of dead animals. Refilling our water bottles with that muddy sludge? Not gonna happen. We went to bed disappointed.

But mornings are a prime time for water-refilling expeditions so I sent off on my bike to see if the other side of the lake was a bit more, ummm, watery. Less dead bodies would also be a plus.

As I rode, my mood slowly rose to a glorious height. Waterfowl chattered softly amoungst themselves, the gentle sun turning their tan feathers a cheerful golden color. Protective mares led their new, spindly legged, wide eyed foals to the water’s edge. The land rose up from the lake, curving towards the sky in series of hills in every direction. And speaking of the sky, the light hue of that azul masterpiece was the perfect backdrop to the calm of the Mongolian steppe. The track I had chosen to ride on was just sandy enough to rouse my muscles from their night of rest and into the comfortable heat of a moderate cycling pace.

Contentment.

As my mind reached past this contented state, I morphed into a downright determined state of mind. This ride was going to be successful. I was going to find drinkable water. And once I get my mind this set about something, there is no turning back.

So turn back I did not.

A few miles further along the shore, boulders jutted out into the lake. Perching carefully on one of these rocks, I skimmed enough clear water off the surface to supply Bekah and I with fresh water for the entire day. I chortled happily to myself. Success is so sweet. I rode back to camp, the cool, heavy weight of the water bag slung tightly across my back, my own triumphant treasure. Bekah congratulated me as the conquering hero that I clearly was and a jubilant mood abounded.

We had visitors during breakfast and at first they were not of the human variety. Large herds of livestock started swarming past us to get down the lake’s edge. Behind us, sheep and goats slowly grazed their way down to the lake. Flanking us to the left and right, horses tossed their manes playfully in each other’s direction, trotting effortlessly along the shore. Front and center, the yak herd reigned supreme, snorting loudly to each other. A contingent of yaks plunged past the sludge and into the lake, stopping only when their massive bodies were half submerged by its depths while a responsible yak stayed on the shore with a nursery of young calves.

The atmosphere was what I imagine an African oasis to feel like: diverse animal species coming together to enjoy a morning by the water. The only part that was missing was the African part.

Then the human visitors showed up, two curious herdsmen, whose animals I was ogling so closely. We showed them where we had come from and where we going and one of them was utterly fascinated by my fold out map of Mongolia. He even pointed at the different Asian countries on the front of the map, wanting to know and/or confirm each country. The other herdsman arrived a bit later and despite the language barrier he made it clear that he was very impressed and congratulatory of our cycling tour. Bekah shared some food with them before they went on their way.

It was time to get rolling. We slowly gained in elevation as we headed away from the lake and back toward the paved road that would take us to Murun.

An hour or so later, I reached the paved road and stopped to refill my water bottle with the lake water that Bekah had painstakingly purified. As Bekah joined me on the road I drank deeply.

The taste that met my lips sent my brain spinning through one of those flashback montages where the clueless character in the story finally pieces the truth together.

My great conquest, my treasure; carefully purified and then filtered, was, of course, salt water.

Salt water!

The horrible stench, the white powder that caked our shoes and dried on the top of our water bottles became very clear signs that we had camped on the edge of a salt lake.

My morning’s ride to get water, once bathed in the light of a glorious victory, now was revealed to be a fool’s errand. Our once precious water was soon trickling down the road as we emptied our water bottles. The utter ridiculousness of the situation kept me amused for miles. What a bizzare way to end a bike tour.

But I was also worried, how were we ever going to make it Murun alive without any water?

(To calm the fears of my friends and family, I promise I that the the above sentence is sarcastic. Murun was only twenty miles away at that point and it turned out that sixteen of those miles were down hill. Plus, there were gers dotting the hillside, if we had really needed water we could have asked at any of the homes and refilled our water bottles. And Bekah did have a smidge of water left.)

By the time we reached Murun, we were a bit on the thirsty side but still elated. We had completed our cycling tour, now all we had to do was crowd onto a bus with our bikes and survive the thirteen hour trip to Ulaanbaatar. It was time to head to Northern New York. ‘Cause no matter how much I miss my sister or fall in love with a country in Asia, when I am in Lewis County my heart still feels at home.

Eleven Days and Eleven Epic Mongolian Adventures

Fording, sometimes barefooted, across barely thawed mountain streams and rivers.

Sipping hot, curdled mare’s milk on a mountainside with friendly herdsmen.

Finding camels just beyond the sand dunes of the the Mongol Els.

Cycling up crazily steep, intense mountains.

Spotting wild, extremely rare Przewalski’s Horses.

Soaking up the beauty of Mongolia’s tallest waterfall.

Camping in and riding through an unexpected snowstorm.

Riding against forceful, howling winds.

Weaving our way through volcanic rocks in Orkhon valley’s lava field.

Shooing away the giant herd of sheep and goats that invaded our campsite one night.

Making friends with nearly everyone in the tiny town of Lun.

Bekah and I certainly did not foresee the adventures Mongolia had in store for us. We still have fifteen days left to explore this beautiful country and I am so excited to see what magical moments are right around the corner.

Forty-eight Hours in Ulaanbaatar

Two mornings ago, Bekah and I flew in to the Chinggis Khaan International Airport and disembarked, breathing in the crisp, dry air. Our visit in Mongolia’s capital city has been a whirlwind since then; involving a staggering amount of jet lag, inordinate amounts of sleep to ease the aforementioned jet lag, the assembly of the bicycles, a trip to several stores to collect the last of our supplies, eating the best Korean food I’ve ever had and planning and downloading the rest of our proposed route.

These events have all been brightened by friendly and helpful people. Even when there was a language barrier, they were willing to go out of their way to help us out. Obviously, I can’t draw any sort of conclusions from the meager amount of time we have spent here but so far my experience in this city of 1.3 million people has been overwhelmingly positive. The staff at the hostel cautioned us about the traffic, mentioning that Mongolian drivers are unused to dealing with bicycles, but so far they seem completely fine to me!

But the time has come to head out of this unique city and into the Mongolian countryside. And what a countryside it is! With the exception of several remote islands, Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world. This fills me with varying emotions. On the one hand I am so thrilled to explore the vast expanse this country has to offer, but on the other hand I keep questioning myself: do I really have what it takes to be here and have I really planned enough for this crazy adventure?

I guess it is time to find out.

You can find a link to our tentative route on the Mongolia Tour page.

Cycling Adventures in Beautiful Brazil

When I left the United States on January 18th, I had a plan. A simple plan.

  • Buy a bike in Ji-Parana.
  • Buy a turbo trainer so that I could use the bike effectively in a small village.
  • Take the bike and trainer to the village.

Buying a bike was simple. Thank you, Streetbike! Finding any sort of bike trainer, however, proved to be impossible. My sister and I had visited every bicycle shop in Ji-Parana and they had all told us they had no turbo trainers. But the last bike shop, Palace of Bicycles, held out a beacon of hope. They did not have a turbo trainer, but they were sure one of the other shops did. So the super helpful lady at Palace of Bicycles picked up the phone to call the other bicycle shop. She had a bit of trouble convincing the folks at the shop that they did indeed have a trainer, but with her persuasion they decided to take a look around. Sure enough, they soon found it hanging on the wall, in plain sight.

I was in business at last!

Once we made it out of the city, over six hours of bumpy red dirt roads and across a river, we made it to the village and to my sister’s small thatched roofed home. I set up my bike on the hard dirt floor and then it was time to ride!

I had never ridden a bike on a trainer before. I had certainly never ridden a bike in such humid heat before. Let me tell you that this distinct combo of bike trainer and humid heat produces an amount of sweat that is extremely overwhelming and absolutely disgusting. I had rivers of sweat running down my arms and dripping merrily onto the dry dirt floor! Dabbing the sweat away with a towel helped temporarily but once a few seconds passed my arms became the Rio de Sweat once more.

As I kept riding the trainer every day, I soon grew accustomed to my new cycling (aka sweating) regimen. I was quite pleased with my bike/trainer setup. But the children in the village were not only pleased by my shiny red and black bicycle, they were enthralled! All of them took at least one turn pushing the pedals. Two of the girls, however, made it part of their daily routine to gleefully ride my little bikey. And once they discovered that three girls could ride on the bike-all at the same time-they realized my bike was way cooler then I was! Is there anything more joyful then three little friends giggling on a bike?

I had to leave the jungle and my newfound friends far too soon. But my Brazilian bicycle adventures were far from over, there were many more memories to make in the last ten days while I was in Ji-Parana.

In Ji-Parana, I rode my bike “for real”, without the turbo trainer, for the first time in ten weeks. I felt so giddy to be riding down a road with beautiful fields on both sides and with the wind, the glorious wind in my face. The traffic on the road was light and the cars gave me a respectful berth. But at the very end of my ride, something happened that shook me to my core.

I saw a dog. I thought the dog hadn’t seen me, so I kept riding past, unperturbed. Somehow that single dog multiplied suddenly into a pack of three dogs, all lean and fast. I sprinted with all my might, with my vulnerable legs only inches away from a dog’s leering teeth. Foolishly, I had provided myself with no protection for such a scenario, even my water bottle was tucked into the bag on my back. I screamed,”NO!!!” at the top of my voice, but the dogs didn’t even flinch.

There was no way out but through. I went for it, accelerating like my life depended on it. My life didn’t depend on it, of course, but my left leg sure did. The triumph of leaving a pack of athletic dogs in the dust was soon mine and once I could breathe again, I looked up to see three guys leaning on their motorcycles, laughing at me! What to me had been a narrow escape and glorious victory, had been to them the unexpected sight of a screaming girl weaving her way amongst three canines. Feeling that my version of the event was more justified, I plastered on a huge smile that hopefully said, “I was totally in control of the situation and bested those fierce beasts” as I passed them by.

On the rest of the ride I berated myself. Free roaming dogs in Brazil aren’t aggressive, they just like to chase things. If I had slowed down to a boring pace when I first saw that dog, my legs would not have been put in such peril. Lesson learned. I decided to continue riding the same route in the days to come to make sure I got over my fear and could put my new plan into action.

And it was on that very same road that I met a group of cyclists out for a ride. I couldn’t help myself, I had to go talk to them! They were very friendly and although I could barely communicate with them, camaraderie among cyclists crosses language barriers and we had a great ride together. I even tried to tell my dog story to one of them in very, very broken Portuguese. One of the cyclists did speak English and he told me of his travels which have taken him all over, even to New York City. It was a wonderful experience and I even got invited to come back and ride again sometime!

Two of the group cyclist’s photos are courtesy of Salles, who shared them with me!

What made my time cycling in Brazil really special were all the rides my sister and I went on together. Most of them were shorter rides, running errands all over Ji-Parana, but on two occasions we left the city behind and enjoyed a quieter, more rural road. I might have even been lulled into thinking we were back in Lewis County together if it weren’t for the tropical trees and pairs of macaws flying overhead.

As I leave Brazil, I bid a sorrowful goodbye to this beautiful country and it’s wonderful, friendly people, but most of all to my dear sister. It is hard to be excited about returning to the United States even though a bike adventure, more thrilling then I ever dreamed, is right around the corner. It’s time for me and a friend to go on a bike tour. It’s time for Mongolia!

Why I Quit Winter Cycling

Anyone who knows me well has reached the conclusion that when it comes to winter in general and winter cycling specifically, I am a bit crazy. I love winter.

I couldn’t imagine not enjoying the sparkling jewels littering the sun-lit snowy fields, the pure, achingly frigid air that fills the lungs or the delightful snowflakes that fall so gently. I couldn’t dream of spending the winter months anywhere other than Lewis County, plowing my mountain bike though snow drifts to my heart’s content. I couldn’t fathom anything that could draw me away from the all encompassing season of winter, away from the cold, the ice, the wind and the snow.

But a single phone call turned out to be so significant that I happily abandoned my glistening, snowy fields on January 18th, with scarcely a second thought. You see, last summer, during a Skype call, my sister invited me to spend a few months living with her. Due to certain circumstances in her life it would be beneficial to have another person come and stay with her for awhile and she knew that I wanted to experience the world she lives in.

My sister, born and raised in the frigid northeastern United States is now a missionary in the Amazon Rainforest of Brazil. I knew that by accepting her invitation, I was making a trade: giving up the final months of white winter snow in exchange for the hot, humid, rainy and green jungle of Brazil.

But to be honest, I had no concept of how brilliantly and aggressively green a rainforest truly is. Plants grow in the rainforest with astounding speed. The fertile soil of the Amazon Rainforest, the hot humid climate and endless supply of rain combine forces to ensure rapid growth. Giant corn stalks in the jungle gardens? Sugar cane stalks that tower over my head? They were planted only a handful of months ago.

 

During my jungle visit, I’ve been keeping my eye on a banana plant with two tiny offshoots emerging from its base. Banana plants grow to astonishing heights, which makes my mind classify them as trees although technically they are giant perennial herbs. Offshoots continue the lifecycle of the banana “tree”, as the main stalk dies, the new shoots take over. Every so often, while I was washing dishes under the mango tree, I would happen to glance past a few hens scratching in the dirt and maybe a roaming dog or two to see those two little tendrils stretch their paper thin fronds toward the warm sun. Over the course of the past ten weeks, I have see this pair of banana shoots grow and grow and grow some more. By the time I left the village this Tuesday, those two offshoots that once were barely peeking out the soil have grown strong and tall, with leaves reaching past my head.

Jungle magic.

Much of 2017 was bleak and gray for me. Like this blog, my life was dormant. Sure, I kept on going about my everyday life, but some essentials were missing: the spark of new ideas, the passion for new adventures, joy, wonder and my enthusiasm for life. My relationship with God became stagnant as well as many of my relationships with my friends. That’s all I will say about it for now, but I do want to write about it in the future, I don’t want to pretend that that time of sadness wasn’t real or didn’t happen.

But to get to the heart of the matter, I had become so focused on myself that I had stopped growing.

I didn’t realise that when my sister invited me on this jungle adventure she was offering me a chance to grow. But that is exactly what happened. It wasn’t nutrient rich soil or daily rainfall that sparked my growth, it was love.

  • It was the love between my sister and I that grew deeper everyday as we went on thrilling little jungle adventures with her friends, laughed at jokes old and new, gave each other countless big hugs and prayed and sang together. My sister encouraged and challenged me to keep following Jesus and loving him more.
  • It was the love of the people who live in this tiny jungle village who opened their arms to me as if I was a treasured member of their family instead of a strange foreigner with very white skin who can’t speak their language.
  • It was the love of the children who played silly games with me, made bread with me, giggled when I dramatically acted out stories in English and gave me great big hugs when it was time to leave.
  • It was the love of a God who has always been right beside me, loving me through all my ups and downs.

Oh, how wonderful a thing it is to be loved! And how wonderful it is to love in return!

It turns out that love, mixed in with a good dose of jungle adventure and a splash being a part of something bigger than myself is just the right soil for me to grow in. Looking back on my almost three months in Brazil, I feel just like those two little banana sprouts.

I have grown.

Jungle magic.

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Now you may have noticed the title of this post is, “Why I Quit Winter Cycling”. But does living in a remote jungle village force a person to quit cycling as a whole? I wasn’t sure when I left the United States in January, but I desperately hoped the answer would be no.

Little Snippets of Fall

Fall has been wonderful. Here are a few pictures from my bicycle adventures this season.

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Looking down on the Black River Valley in the fading daylight.

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Seeing the stately green forests suddenly splashed with frantic color fills me with wonder. It feels like a whole new world.

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Lately I have been rebelliously riding my road bike where no road bike should be forced to go. I don’t leave the house planning to go off paved roads…but it somehow happens anyway.

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My bike and I have also been quietly stalking foxes through fields.

But the best adventure of fall happened a few weeks ago when my mom and I were able to go on a mini, three-day bike tour. We were dropped off in Rome, NY by my dad and then spent the next three days riding along the Erie Canal. It was the first bike tour my mom has been on since she and my dad rode down the Pacific coast, 34 years ago but she was an old pro. We took our time each day to wander 30-40 miles along the canal, chatting the whole way. My mom even braved cold rain on the last day just to ride with me! wp-1477338603674.jpeg

There are a lot of wonderful things in this world but I must say, bike touring with someone you love is right up there at the top of the list! We ended our tour happy, excited and with hopes of possibly riding the entire canal trail (360 miles) together next year.

But in the interest of complete disclosure will end this post with a confession.

Yes, fall has been splendid. But I am getting downright antsy. I don’t even think it is my fault. Not at all.

It is the fault of everyone constantly speculating about how we are going to have an early winter, a cold winter, a really snowy winter.
It is the fault of the mornings that fill my lungs with stunningly, bracing cold air.
It is the fault of the trees for beginning to lose their leaves. The barrenness is begging to filled with something.

November is almost here…why can’t there be snow?