It is the end of September and I have made it to a city named Ayagoz somewhere between Almaty and Semipalatinsk in eastern Kazakhstan. The air is raw and biting cold and I did a mistake walking to the supermarket in my flipflop sandals. I hurry on my steps as I walk back to the hotel I’m staying in for the night, drawing my hood tighter around my neck as the wind howls at me. The owner of the hotel speaks to me when I get back – those standard questions about where I’m from and where I’m heading. His son, maybe 10 years old, eagerly showed me his tricks on his new, flashy mountain bike before and even showed me the way to the nearest ATM. I had given him some pocket money for it to show my gratitude and encourage his initiative.
The hotel owner says to me, with concern in his voice: “But October in Mongolia… Winter.”
Lars unfortunately, due to his mother being sick, has to end the tour and catch a flight home from Almaty. Thus I am once again on my own as I leave the European-looking city surrounded by high mountain peaks that could just as well have been the Alps behind. I enjoy the silence and calm which is such an inversion from the crowded city of Almaty that first day, and hit camp early. My tent is pitched in the middle of the grassy steppe and I can vaguely perceive the blue contours of a big, dreamy lake a few hundred meters ahead.
I guess those next days are somewhat entertaining as well. The nature is still quite hilly and I take pleasure from the clear blue skies. But as the landscape flattens out and the wind keeps fighting me (no wind, you’re doing it wrong! I’m going this way, not that way!) I lack motivation more and more. Thoughts are rising in my head. Thoughts questioning what I’m doing.
I share a water melon with these guys by the roadside – guessing it’s my last water melon this year
The thoughts go: Why are you wasting your time doing something that doesn’t give you anything whereas Siberia is losing its fiery autumn colors and Mongolia isn’t getting any warmer?
And then there’s the response to those daredevil, new-age thoughts.
Wasting time or not, I’m biking every single inch of this trip, those are the principles! Period!
I shove the thoughts presumptuously challenging my fundamental principles aside, and ride through another day with monstrous headwind. Wind? Nah, it’s more like a headstorm.
As the sun approaches the grass-lined horizon folding out the red carpet for dusk’s grand entry, my focus stays on finding shelter. I am a little troubled since all I see is steppe, steppe, with no hint of a hill or one of those groove of trees that I have set camp in so many times before. Then at last, I glimpse a bushy area next to a river. As soon as the road is clear from the few vehicles on it, I head off onto the steppe.
The grass is shoulder high – no kidding – and I find myself trudging around barefooted with water up to my knees in a swamp as I struggle to push the bike forward. The red plate of sun is almost gone by the horizon now, and I’m giving up as I can’t seem to find any solid ground nearby the trees providing shelter. I decide to investigate the area one last time however, and lay the bike down in the grass so that it’s barely visible from a mere meter’s distance and then circle around the trees.
You will think they are villages from a distance, but they are actually just graveyards in the middle of nowhere.. looked the same in Kyrgyzstan
In the next moment I feel like Lucy when she stumbles into Narnia through the wardrobe that first time. Hidden in the middle of dense shrubberies and low trees with dry branches creaking hysterically in the extreme wind there is a sacred haven: A fresh-colored green patch of grass just perfectly sized for my tent. I crouch down so that I am no taller than the tent would be pitched and stay in that position as the next round shakes the trees. Just as I had hoped, the blockade of bushes is enough to stop it from reaching my haven. The ground feels moist and soft onto my palms, but I judge it solid enough and the decision is easily made. I have found my home for the night.
Kazakhstan to my left…And Kazakhstan to my right…The days dissolve into each other as the nature is all the same and the wind seems convinced I should turn the other way around. Additionally, the temperature goes below zero at night working as a reminder of what is soon to come. The thoughts keep rising in my head, and I keep shoving them away. But at some point they gain establishment so great that I can’t ignore them anymore.
Would I rather spend another week here, or would I rather be in Siberia now to enjoy those colors before they fade and save myself some time from cold temperatures in Mongolia?
By this time I have ridden about 1000 km into Kazakhstan and about 13 000 km in total and this is finally the rhetorical question that determines it. The one that makes me break my principles and hitch a ride with two different truck drivers for about 250 km and then hop on a train for about 500 km, from Semey – or more known by its old name Semipalatinsk – to Barnaul, Siberia.
And I don’t feel too bad about it as I had first expected. In fact it feels pretty damn good still when writing this from an old, rugged village in the southern Altai Republic of Russia and the principle-breaking definitely turned out to be a micro adventure on its own.
The second truck on the quite desolated road picks me up. The driver introduces himself as Islam (didn’t know one can be named that!), from Chechnya. He’s not driving all the way to Semey but we agree that he can drop me off at a smaller town halfway there. When my bicycle has been lifted onto the top of that huge pile of onions he’s transporting, I climb up to the passenger seat and we head off.
Islam sure isn’t the guy who appreciates silence. Despite the fact that we don’t speak each others’ language, he goes on and on in Russian and gestures wildly whilst at the same time maneuvering the truck sharply to the right and to the left to get around the pothole-infested Kazakh road – seriously the roads in Kazakhstan may just be the worst.
And as we make conversation I’m thinking it’s all a game. Who is the better pretender… who convinces the other part the best that one understands the other as he goes on in Russian and she goes on in English.
Kazakhstan’s roads niet harasho…When time comes for Islam and I to diverge paths, he doesn’t just drop me off at the roadside, no matter how I try to convince him that I’ll be good on my own. Nah, through a radio speaker he calls all the truck drivers passing to find one that is heading in my direction (I didn’t even know they could do that!)
It doesn’t take long until he has fixed me up with another truck driver, a Russian named Jura. Before the next drive however, we all – including Jura’s friend driving another truck – have lunch together at a little diner next to the road. It turns out both Jura and Islam order food for me separately, and I end up with way too much edible stuff on my part of the dining table…
Jura to the left, his friend in the middle, and Islam to the rightThey had to lift the bike like four meters above ground to fit it in the truck…
The drive with Jura is quieter, and I get the impression he is embarrassed to speak with the few words of English he knows. He does however calls his sister to talk to me for a bit, since she – of all places – lives in Nora, a little town situated in the southern parts of Sweden! It feels odd. There I am, sitting next to a Russian truck driver who can’t speak a word I understand, talking with his sister who doesn’t only speak Swedish but got that typical dialect!
As I make myself ready to hop on my bike again to pedal those last km into Semey’s city centre Jura and his friend look at me with concern, as if they believe I’m not going to make it out there. Maybe they are thinking about the great cold getting nearer – they already shuddered when I told them I usually sleep outdoors in a tent – and I apprehend those last Russian words they speak as a “take care.”
I think this one wants to hitch a ride too!
I stay in a hotel over the night and since the train to Barnaul doesn’t depart until 2.30 pm the next day, I take a cab to the station in the morning to buy my ticket and then spend another few hours in my hotel room. As I then bike to the station to catch the train however, something’s not right. The station doesn’t look the same – maybe I’m just in another part of it – and I can’t seem to find the women whom I was supposed to hand my bicycle to. I spend some time walking around the station, but then give it up and simply show my ticket to a uniformed worker, hoping he can direct me. He just laughs when he sees my ticket – and that is my confirmation that something is indeed wrong. It takes him forever to explain by google translate – with two words at a time – that I am at the wrong station and that the train had already passed this one. Well fuck, how could I have missed out on the fact that there were more than one station in the city!?
And as a matter of fact – speaking with a little shame in my voice – I break down in tears right in front of him and a few other men. Do I cry because I missed the train? Well that’s the trigger I guess, but not the cause. The cause is simply a mixture of stress and exhaustion and self-loathing and who knows what. Stress and exhaustion because I have been rushing this whole trip from start to get to Mongolia before the wrong season. Who knows what because of who knows what.
Congratulations Elvira – you finally did it. You broke down in public!
So there I am, crying publically in Kazakhstan. Yay me. But it doesn’t even end there. A man asks me if I got 1000 Tenge and before I know it my bike is in his car’s trunk and I am sitting in the passenger seat and we’re rushing to the next station. But we don’t make it in time. Sobbing like a child once again, I hand him my money but he just shakes his head; he doesn’t want it anymore. So I walk away, head low, and sit next to the entrance of the station. An elder couple walk by and ask if they can help? The man even pulls out his wallet, and I quickly reply: “No no sir, keep your money I don’t need it! Spasiba!”
It takes a while until I’m stable and can see things clear again. After all it’s no more difficult than walking up to that same woman in the ticket’s booth and buy a new ticket for tomorrow’s train. And it might have been obvious to you already three paragraphs ago. But hey, to a girl who just left her teens nothing appears easy! 😉
Plenty of workers help me out to get myself and my stuff onboard the train the next day and I’m directed here and there with Russian words constantly buzzing into my ears. All the passengers are by no doubt Russians as many of them are blonder than I am, and I, the foreigner, seem to be the main attraction when I do all the don’ts and don’t do all the do’s. At last, I am seated next to two older men, one older woman and a younger guy. They leave at different stations in the end, but to me it seems they all know each other from before. The phenomenon of being the outsider I guess. I get most attached to the old lady. She keeps singing Russian songs and gives me sweets.
The young guy doesn’t say a word. But it’s he and I who are the targets when the Kazakh border guards enter the carriage with their dogs searching for narcotics. It takes forever and the guards keep calling back the dogs to us. The foreigner and the guy from Chechnya – couldn’t be more obvious why we are the suspects. They don’t look through the other passengers’ stuff – just ours, item by item. I think we stand still for about two hours. The Russian border guards take their time as well, but they don’t discriminate. Ok so of course they interrogate me more than the others… but not nearly as much as I had expected. I expected to be grilled, but they were easy on me.
“Why are you going to Barnaul?” Easy one.
“I will bike, velociped, from there to Mongolia sir.”
“Do you got any books?” The uniformed man continues and I make sure to keep eye contact as I reply:
“What kind of books?”
And I – with everybody’s eyes upon the foreigner – climb up to my seat above the bottom one and pick up one of my books to show him. He browses through it briefly and goes on:
“Do you write books about your trips? Articles?”
“It’s just a hobby?”
I repeat his words.”Just a hobby sir.”
And it’s all done and he stamps my passport without even making a comment on the fact that I am a tourist entering Russia on a business visa. Phew.
Those first days look more like a resemblance of Skåne than Siberia in my eyes. The space is occupied by winding farmlands with shoulders of birch trees defining their frontiers. I pitch my tent in one of those. As I make my way out of Mayma however, the sceneries get more delicate by each day.
What the… flowers, in October? Siberia, are you alright!?So atmospheric 🙂I am riding the Chuysky Trakt road, by some spoken of as “Siberia’s Great Divide” and built by Gulag prisoners in the 1930s. Gulag prisoners. People who were deprived their liberty by Josef Stalin, who caused the deaths of millions of people, and who coined the infamous quote: A single death is a tradegy, a million deaths is a statistic.
These thoughts – backed up by my vision registering a mountainous pine tree landscape very similar to Svaneti – bring me back to Georgia, where there were numerous streets named “Stalin’s street”; Where there were streets named after a genocide murderer who killed more people than Adolf Hitler.
Name a street after Josef Stalin and no one bats an eye.
Do the same with Adolf Hitler and everyone loses their minds.
Just gotta love the logic of this world.
As I embark further onto the composition of those Gulag prisoners, the deep woods decrease in density and the steppe takes overhand (still doesn’t mean it looks anything like Kazakhstan though).
I am following the river, which after summer’s hard work taking care of the glaciers’ melt water rapid and vigorous is now calm and still, preparing for its winter slumber. The sunbathing trees by the waterside shimmer like golden decorations on a crib and I let my eyes scan the nearby hillsides to detect any potential movement. To my disappointment, the movement detected is always caused by a cow or a gracing horse – never do I see a wolf, an eagle or a moose. And I’m guessing the bears went to sleep already anyway. I do however spot a huge deer when descending Seminsky pass, but what puzzles me is the orange paper tag in its left ear. Domestic or wild deer? I don’t know.
So does anyone know what kind of deer this is!?
I’m lovin it…I pass through another village, looking no different from the one before. The timbered logs are positioned in a quite delightful pattern to the eye; Some of which bleached from age and weather and some with light brown, stainless wood letting you know they were built just last year. The loop-holes for windows are all black and none-see through, cutting you off from what’s going on in there.
A few people add some life to the streets though; A couple of school girls all geared up in winter clothes carrying rucksacks which I assume are stuffed with books, and a woman holding onto a toddler’s hand exiting a shop. There are also the dogs frenetically barking from inside the fences as I ride by.Please come with me to Mongolia dog, guard me and keep me warm!Ah well, I guess my big and fluffy down jacket will have to do it instead…The temperature is minus 5 degrees Celsius and a light snow fall introduces itself as I leave the village of Aktash at 8 am in the morning. This means, I disappointingly state to myself, I won’t get those remarkable views of the Altai mountains that I was hoping for. And I get this confirmed a few hours later as I face my first big mountainside in Siberia – veiled in clouds and barely visible. I try to comfort myself: At least you got wonderful sights of the woods in autumn colors before. But it just won’t do it. I want to see those mountains. I have to see those mountains.And I do see those mountains. As I reach the first plateau, vague rays of sun pierce the clouds. Hope starting to rise in my chest, I decide to take a break and await a clearer sky. I end up staying on that same spot for more than an hour, witnessing how the clouds slowly disperse and give way to the high peaks behind. Before I know it, I am jumping around in ecstasy under a clear blue sky with the biggest grin you could possibly imagine. And that grin stays glued onto my face for the whole rest of that day.
That fact that I am here, I am now, right in this moment makes me feel happier and more fulfilled than anything. And I really can’t believe my eyes when each time I think that I’m leaving the greatest sight behind – there is a better one waiting around the corner!
As I get nearer Kosh Agach, the landscape transforms into what I imagine Mongolia looks like. Rather than timbered brown logs, the houses are a palette of blue, green and yellow. The steppe-looking plateau in the enchanting evening light plays with my perception, making me believe it’s somehow half liquid, floating around in space.
Panorama views of pointy snow capped mountains are surrounding me in each direction and I feel like a loyal dog who reunites with her human for the first time in years. Just like a dog licking its human all over, I’m making sure to have my eyes all over those mountains; Spinning my body around until I feel dizzy and bending my neck as close as I can get to 180 degrees so that it feels like I’ve just been headbanging all evening to Kreator.
Temperature falls below minus 10 degrees that night, but I fall asleep comfortably tucked in my sleeping bag thinking that this day will be forever manifested in my mind.
I am loving every bit of my ride in Siberia, and it seems my only “problem” is that I have troubles getting anywhere due to the fact that I’m continuously stopping for another great view. It’s that magic of the autumn that’s gotten onto me I guess. Autumn. When everything’s on fire and the air’s so fresh you feel reborn, just like the phoenix rizing from ashes. But nevertheless am I aware that autumn is soon to give away the baton to the next runner.
The freezing night by those pine trees at Seminsky Pass told me.
The light snow fall powdering the mountains white in Aktash told me.
The hotel owner in Ayagoz told me.
They all told me.
Winter is coming