Circumnavigating the world through Human Power while connecting different societies, civilizations and landscapes.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Arrived in Zharkent, Kazakhstan




Zharkent, Kazakhstan
44°10′N 80°0′E

Казақ тілі - Nexus Information in Kazakh language

2013 mileage in Mongolia= 1320 kms / 820 miles
2013 mileage in China = 1332 kms / 827 miles
2013 mileage in Kazakhstan = 45 kms / 27 miles  as of Nov 21st
2013 Total Mileage: 2697 kms / 1675 miles in 49 cycling days

Very happy to report that we have arrived in Kazakhstan!

We would love to relate to you on this blog in pictures and words how went our 1332 kilometers in Xinjiang province, China, but at this stage we prefer postponing this matter until we take a break from the expedition in late December.

The temperatures are rapidly dropping in southern Kazakhstan,  and therefore we need to first and foremost keep moving west during the next few weeks.

In the meantime,  feel free to enjoy a few shots we have taken in China and posted recently on Instagram.

So, we were able to contrive our way to cycle the 7 kms No man's land / buffer zone on Wednesday night between Khorgas,China and Хоргос, Kazakhstan, without been forced to ride any bus as it has been somewhat customary recently for some other cyclists/walkers going across this border.

No GPS were confiscated, 2 time zones were gained, and we had the pleasure to witness one of the most circus-like border crossings we had both ever seen.

A scene out of a Fellini's movie, giant Russian black-clad contracted security guards wearing intimidating black face masks, carrying and lifting my bicycle over a 4 meter high separation wall, while shouting at a myriad of smuggling Kazakhs, busy shoving each others and pushing their large bags full of Chinese Adidas/Vuitton/Gucci counterfeits...

Last year, there was a deadly incident in the region which could explain the tense environment at this border crossing

Once past the initial threshold described above, we were very well greeted by the multiple Kazakh border guards/ immigration officers we met, all welcoming us to Kazakhstan.

We were also amused to hear several Kazakhs shout in English: "Welcome to Kazakhstan" out of their moving cars as they were overtaking us while we were riding our first Kazakh kilometers in the night...

Since we arrived in Zharkent three days ago, we first spent an enjoyable diner with two helpful young Kazakh cousins Ernur and Ermek.

We also spent time at the local bazaar/market where we observed a mishmash of Kazakhs, Uyghurs and ethnic Russians, all selling some of their respective traditional food items which we were glad to sample, such as Uighur kebabs, pilafs, home baked bread, Kazakh manti and Russian pirozhki .

At the market, I received  free service from a welder and a cobbler, both telling me that they couldn't charge a travelling cyclist, no matter how much I insisted to pay.

This definitely made me feel even more welcomed in Kazakhstan!

While in Zharkent, we also took the time to visit the local orthodox church which was the first christian establishment I visited since the time I spent at the Catholic cathedral in Ulaan Baatar, back in August.

Indeed, since then, on our way, we have mostly spent reflecting time in Mongolian or Chinese Buddhist temples as well as in Chinese Hui, Uighur or Kazakh mosques.

In Xinjiang province, we also had the opportunity to visit Buddhist temples and Manicheist ruins which were built by Uyghurs before they converted to Islam, 600 years ago.

On this topic of coexistence, we had the pleasure today to visit as well in Zharkent, a beautiful Chinese designed mosque which, with its floating roof, resembles more of a pagoda.

Now, on a separate matter, let me warn anyone else planning a similar westbound route by bicycle or by foot from China into southern Kazakhstan:

Kazakhstan has complex registration rules for foreigners.

Gulnara, as a Russian citizen does not have to register for one month, but myself with my Kazakh visa on my American passport, I am required to register within my first five days in Kazakhstan at one of the two migration police posts "nearest" to Zharkent, either 300 kms away in Taldykorgan or 300 kms away in Almaty.

To avoid this wasteful and cumbersome task, I tried to register with our hotel in Zharkent and at the border crossing as it is customary in other places. The hotel gave us proper documents to allow us to register but couldn't do it themselves.

We then talked to the chief of the immigration police in Zharkent who told me that no one could register me in Zharkent and that I had to do the 600kms round trip. This information was confirmed by  the immigration police in Almaty.

The problem is that I am travelling by bicycle and was not made aware that I couldn't register in Zharkent until my 3rd day.
Usually people enter the country by car, train, bus and therefore get to Almaty within the first 5 days.

So, yesterday, I had to travel a fast 600 kms  round trip in an affordable shared taxi  in order to go and register at the Almaty migration police office. At least now, I am properly registered for an entire month in Kazakhstan.

It definitely helped my case in Almaty to have the docs provided by the hotel and a long letter we wrote which explains what Nexus expedition is all about and what we are doing in the country.

I am now back in Zharkent where I have been reunited with Gulnara and my bicycle!

Starting tomorrow morning, we plan to ride 350 kms from Zharkent to Almaty and visit on our way the "Valley of the castles" in the Charyn canyon .

Cheers!
D&G



Friday, November 22, 2013

Казақ тілі - Nexus Information in Kazakh




Қазақстанның
жергілікті әкімшілігіндегі барлық мүдделі тұлғаларға берілетін мәлімет
Менің есімім Димитри Киффер.

Мен француздан шыққан америкалық азаматпын, және бүгінде бұлшық еттің күшімен әлемді айналып шығу экспедициясына қатысудамын, оны мен АҚШ, Аляска штаты, Анкоридж қаласында 2005 жылы бастаған болатынмын.

Сапарға шыққан сәттен бастап Анкориджден Уэльске дейін Алясканы жүріп өттім, сонан соң Беринг бұғазы арқылы жүздім, жаяу жүрдім, шаңғымен сырғанадым, кейін 2006 жылдың сәуірінде Ресейдің Уэлен ауылында түсіп қалдым. Сонан соң сапарымды жаяу жалғастырып, соңынан велосипедпен, шаңғымен Ресей мен Монғолия арқылы оңтүстік-батысқа жүріп отырып 2013 жылдың қыркүйегінде Қытайға жеттім.
Жолымды Қытай арқылы жалғадым, әзірше қытай-қазақ шекарасына (Қорғас) жеткен жоқпын.

Қазақстанда Қытай мен Алматы шекарасының арасында мен велосипедпен келесі елді мекендер бойынша жүріп өтуді жоспарлап отырмын: Қорғас, Пиджим, Ават, Жаркент, Көктал, Чунджа, Шарын ұлттық саябағы, Көкпек, Шелек, Бәйтерек және Гүлдала.








Толығырақ мына сайттан көре аласыз:


134 км: қытай-қазақ шекарасынан Қорғас арқылы Чунджаға. 
(Пиджим, Ават, Жаркент, Көктал арқылы)

233 км: Чунджадан Алматыға дейін.
(Шарын ұлттық саябағы, Көкпек, Шелек, Бәйтерек және Гүлдала арқылы)


Алматыға келген соң мен кейінгі маршрутты таңдаймын:
Қырғызстан мен Тәжікстан арқылы оңтүстік бағытында
немесе
Өзбекстан мен Түркіменстан арқылы батыс бағытында
немесе
Қазақстан арқылы Ресей Федерациясына қарай кері жүретін солтүстік бағытында


Сіздің тіліңізде жақсы сөйлей алмағаным үшін кешірім сұраймын.
Дегенмен, бірімізді біріміз түсінеміз деп сенемін!
Қонақжайлылықтарыңыз бен қолдауларыңыз үшін алдын ала алғыс айтамын!

Димитри Киффер
Nexus Expedition

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Riding through the Middle Kingdom

Ürümqi, Uyghur Autonomous Region, Western China

1863 kilometers cycled since Kharkhorin, Central Mongolia

1223 kilometers in Mongolia; 640 kilometers in Xinjiang Province, China

34 cycling days since Kharkhorin



Cycled into Urümqi (Chinese Xinjiang Uighur autonomous Province) on Wednesday October 23rd.





First of all, let me say that after my first 640 kms through this Chinese western "new frontier", I can honestly say to anyone who still thinks of China as a sweat shop on the Pearl River, to please come and see this place with their own eyes.

It is definitely definitely a very rapidly changing country, at the forefront of technology, computing and medicine. The scope of the industrial development, even in this "far flung" western province is mind boggling by any world standards, let alone cycling out of Mongolia...




So, here are the latest news on the expedition:

- Gulnara flew in Urümqi on Thursday Oct 24th from Kazan to cycle the next section with me.
Quite thrilled to have her back on the trail by my side!

- In addition, my 1 year Kazakh visa has been approved and it will be ready on Thursday October 31st.
This gives us in the meantime, one week to explore Urümqi and its surroundings and start cycling westward 660 kms towards the Kazakh border on Nov 1st.

You might wonder: Why am I asking for 1 year Kazakh visa?
To give myself all the flexibility that I need in the event that I try to go through Iran, get denied entry and decide instead to proceed north around the Caspian Sea through Kazakhstan.
Stay tuned for that one...

2005-2012 Pictures Update!
We have posted new Nexus Expeditions pictures in Flickr for the years 2005-2012, from Anchorage, Alaska until Kharkhorin, Mongolia !

We will probably wait until we stop cycling sometimes this winter for a limited period (to take care of administrative and visa related matters) to seriously update the blog with latest stories from Mongolia and China as well as post 2013 pictures!

It is indeed not the easiest to access/update this blocked blog website within China (because of current Chinese governmental imposed restrictions) and therefore it makes the most sense to wait until we have cycled on to Kazakhstan and further west to do so.

In the meantime, we hope you will enjoy these shots taken on the trail between 2005 and 2012!

Cheers!
Dimitri & Gulnara

Sunday, September 15, 2013

From Yakland to Cameland

Bayankhongor,  Mongolia 
47° 11′ 72″ N, 106° 43′ 07″ E

386 kms since Kharkhorin in eight cycling days...

1000 kms to go to reach the Mongolian-Chinese border (Bulgan-Takashiken)







So, needless to say that since I departed from the ancient Mongol capital of Karakorum (Kharkhorin) towards southwestern Mongolia and western China, a few things have happened which have tremendously hindered my progress but I will surely get there...

I now plan to cover the remaining 1000 kms within Mongolian territory in the next 14 days, in order to arrive at the border on Monday September 30th, prior to the expiration of my latest Mongolian visa on October 2d 2013.

China will be observing their " National Day" holiday between October 1st and 3d and consequently, the border will be closed for these three days.
This is an additional reason why I really need to pass through the border prior that date.




This is actually easier said than done, because this next section entails only 200 kms of asphalt while the remaining 800 kms are mostly covered with sand and rocks.

The current altitude in Bayankhongor is 1880 meters and  I will have at least one mountain pass to cross at an approximate altitude of 3000 meters.



Along my route, I will only pass three villages, distant apart, where I will be able to  resupply in food and water.

Between these settlements, they are only a few goat and camel herders in this northern part of the Gobi desert where I will be able to resupply potentially in water and camel milk.






However, I must say that I am very much looking forward to these two weeks of Mongolian solitude and somewhat remoteness, prior to entering western China where I was told I will be confronted to a massive amount of people.




Click here to READ  more information about the 2013 route


Click on the map below to SEE further 2013 route details 

2013 Route Details

Before  I take the time to describe what has happened over the last few weeks, I would like first of all to emphasize three matters:

1. Besides our existing nexusexpeditions blog,  we do now have a new website and we once again  invite you all to peruse through it:  Nexusexpeditions.com 

2. We are currently posting lots of  2005-2013 Nexus Expeditions pictures in flickr and in the photography section of our new website.  We will add further descriptions and details over the next few months but for the time being, feel free to enjoy them in their raw form!

3. Explorersweb published in August an interview of Gulnara and an interview of myself.
Feel free to read these two articles as well.

Once I arrived in  Kharkhorin , and prior to my 2013  late expedition departure, I had the pleasure to stay with Ekye, the kind and generous owner of  Monkhsuury guesthouse in Kharkhorin.

While in town, I  met Xavier, a Frenchman who organizes horse rides for tourists in the beautiful surroundings,  as well as  my Mongolian friend Tuya who locally runs a metal junk yard.

I also  had the opportunity to listen to a stunning Mongolian throat singing concert.


Mongolian Throat Singer
Erdene Zuu Monastery
  
Erdene Zuu Monastery

Erdene Zuu Monastery
After having spent some reflecting time in company of lamas at Erdene Zuu monastery, I finally departed this ancient Mongol capital of Karakorum  on Sunday August 18th to progress towards southwestern Mongolia and western China with a fully loaded bicycle. 

I covered the next 386 kms in eight cycling days, having to deal with some hard rain, deep deep mud, strong winds, a few mountain passes and  two flat tires (which now makes a total of three flats in a total of 6500 kilometers since I departed Omsukchan, not bad considering the terrain and the amount of weight I have been pulling ).

Of the three options I had previously identified through Western Mongolia, I finally selected to embark on what I was callling the  "Central adventurous route through hot springs".

This route  lead me  through some beautiful and remote landscape where I enjoyed the company of a large amount of prey birds as well as countless intriguing and curious yaks.




Mongolian Prey Birds
Stopping for lunch break in company of grazing Mongolian Yaks

Grazing Mongolian Yak














Goats and sheep progressing in a heart formation...


Mushrooms!

Trees!



Missing Bridge
Ancient Mongolian Tombs


Bareback Rider


This plan went well indeed until I reached the town of Zuunbayan-Ulaan where a russian speaking Mongol   told me that the road to Uyanga  had been closed.

Downtown Zuunbayan-Ulaan

Indeed, he mentioned that the river crossing had a strong current and that the water level had raised with the recent strong august rains to reach an alarming "neck high" mark.
Therefore, this was definitely too high for me to ford with my heavy long tail end bicycle.

He also stated that on the previous day, a 45 years old Mongol man had perished and drowned while attempting to cross this furious river at this specific location.
Bless this poor man's soul.

This is when I realized that I seriously needed to leave the mountain range and get back to the lower lands in order to embark on the safer and drier southern route through Mongolia, which travels through the northern section of the Gobi desert.

I was now committed to leave the wet "Yakland" to embark on to the drier "Cameland".

Deviation Route followed through western Mongolia because of an unsurmountable river 

While going through "Yakland", the thick mud definitely caught me by surprise, despite what I have experienced in the past in Northeastern Russia and Vietnam.
At one point the mud was so compact, that my entire wheel disappeared.

While attempting to yank it out, I torn my Brooks saddle which I was stupidly pulling on.
In the end, I had to wait to ask for the help of two Mongols, who were passing me by while attempting a similar perilous journey on their motorcycle.
They stopped and aided me to pull this bicycle out of this "quick sand" and in exchange, they asked for cigarettes which I could not offer since I have barely ever smoke.

Embarrassed by my situation,  I could only think of uttering Баярлалаа (Thank you) and rode quickly away from this mess...

Bicycle stucked in heavy Mongolian mud

Disappearing wheel 
I ended up having the Brooks saddle welded back together, the next day,  as soon as I arrived in Arvaikheer at the first welding shop I could set my eyes on.

Welding Brooks saddle back together

Over the next 1000 kms of Mongolian trail, I have also  at least one major river to ford/swim through which is Badrik Gol.


Badrik River Crossing



I had the pleasure to spend my last night in Yakland, with a family of yak and sheep herders.

As I was coming down the mountains on a sandy and muddy trail, I noticed how Yargal, a Mongol herder on his Chinese motorcycle, intrigued to see me cycling through this trail, leapfrogged me on several occasions, stopping every time a bit ahead of me to observe how I was  progressing.

On a dryer patch, he finally asked me if I could let him try to ride my bicycle.
Having observed  when I was kindly asked, on countless other occasions,other Mongols and Russians struggling while attempting to ride my fully loaded bicycle and often consequently falling. I was a little nervous to loan to Yargal my tricky bicycle, thinking that  in the event of a "catastrophe", the nearest shop was probably quite a few hundreds of kilometers away...

But then again, this type of "loan risk" is nothing new for me. I can still recall in  2006 in the remote village of Nashken in northern Chukotka, when my expedition partner Karl Bushby justifiably went ballistic on me for having loaned my precious and only pair of back country skis to local Chukchi boys. Luckily the skis reappeared safe and sound from the tundra two hours after having been loaned.
Consequently, we were able depart from the village  and progressed on a few more hundred kilometers of open tundra while pulling our sleds.

Call me unwise if you wish but I guess now that I have been running my own expedition for a few years, I am willing to assume this risk from time to time in the name of "nexus" while connecting with a multitude of earthlings along my way,,,

Yak herder Yargal attempting to ride the Big Dummy



After having attempted to ride my Big Dummy  while wearing his deel, and falling, Yargal asked me  if I would be interested to escape the incoming strong rainstorm in order to have a cup of Suutei Tsai (Mongol tea) in his ger with his wife Aretseren.



Yak herder Aretseren breaking down a tea brick



However, before tea, as he stated, we needed to herd  his animals back to his camp.

This is when he inquired whether or not I would be interested to herd a dozen yaks back home while he was fetching the hundreds of geographically scattered goats and sheep.

I am not sure if anyone of you has ever done so, but herding rambunctious yaks through 5 kms of trail-less rocky Mongolian open steppe with a fully loaded bicycle is a good work-out in itself!



I quite enjoyed the experience but I must say that I do understand why I have never seen any other yak herders on bicycle.  Horses and motorcycles tend to be their modus operandi.


After a few minutes of gestural discussion, Yargal proceeded to show me in his ger "pantry",  the body of a freshly shot dead marmot. He mentioned how tasty it was and asked me if I was interested to purchase it.

I declined the offer, not quite sure how I will proceed to skin and eat this marmot on the road, (and especially after having enjoyed watching countless prairie dogs and other marmots popped up and down out of their dens  in front of me while I was cycling quietly through the Mongolian steppe.

Nevertheless, Yargal invited me to spend the night in  his company and the one of his wife in their cozy, well furnished and well maintained ger, located in the middle of the open steppe.

 For diner I was offered copious amount of fresh ayrag (fermented mare's milk) and boiled chunks of horse meat which were to be dipped in a pinch of salt.
Nothing less, nothing more.  Definitely all the proteins my body was craving for after a long muddy ride.

I believe that Mongolia can be definitely one of the most challenging countries to cross  for any hard-core vegetarian self-supported cyclists, unless they can heavily rely for their intake of proteins, on  the abundance of Mongolian dairy products.

Vegetables and especially fruits are definitely a rarity on the Mongol  herder's table.

Historically,  a vegetarian diet is really not part of a nomadic life style, which requires a certain sedentation to grow vegetables.

Yargal and Aretseren






On a few other nights, I was also invited to sleep in other herders' gers but I thankfully turned down these offers since I wanted to make further progress while going uphill and actually quite enjoyed spending some peaceful nights in my tent, nestled in a few mountain passes, somewhat hidden from the road, and while being " lullabied" all night  by the sound of nearby ruminating and roaming horses.

If possible, while going through mountainous regions, I usually enjoy forcing myself to ride to the top of a mountain pass in the evening or early night and find in its vicinity a peaceful place to camp.
This usually allows me to start the next morning with a nice downhill which I very much look forward to.


A mountain pass at sunset: Time to camp!




One morning, I woke up and found fairly near my tent, two herders sleeping, simply wrapped up in their deels, near their motorcycles. When they woke up, they seemed quite puzzled when they saw my tent on "their" land but  rapidly departed, before we had a time to chat....

On my way to Bayankhongor, while riding my bicycle,  I was also on several occasions interrupted by older Mongol herders who were riding their motorcycles loaded with yellow plastic jerrycans full of ayrag.

In the mornings, they would stop to offer me bowls of their refreshing slightly alcohol-ed equine elixir and often gave me chunks of  aaruul (dry curd), the de facto Mongol herder convenient travelling snack.

In the evenings, after having sold what was left of their ayrag at the nearest town,  on their way back to their distant ger and pasture land, they would stop, pull out of their deel's sleeve,  a snuff bottle to share and/or one vodka bottle which they had just purchased with part of their ayrag's money and which they were definitely eager to share with me a few shots.

This might explain partly why my progress was quite slow in this section...

Ayrag businessmen



Ayrag businessman

Inside this man's deel sleeves where a snuff flask and a vodka bottle which is generously offered to share. 


















Giving me his ger address so that I can send him these pictures in printed format

In addition, besides being very thankful for their generosity, I must say that I was and continue to be definitely impressed with their wide taste in hats and face masks which I enjoy photographing!





















At one point, I crossed a poorer part of Mongolia, where a few herders were apparently desperately hanging on their ancestral land despite the growing aridity.







Herding sheep and goats

Yaks


Oovoo




I observed then an interesting phenomena: some of the male herders and their children were approaching me on the road at regular intervals and were either offering me food, candies, chocolate, not expecting anything but a Баярлалаа (Thank you) in exchange, OR
were simply asking me to give them whatever they could think of, such as my sunglasses, speedometer, gps, watch, even cigarettes which I definitely did not have.

Better yet, some of them were  trying to swiftly steal out items of my zipped bags when I was not looking such as my Juice C2 Leatherman multi-tool  (which I was able to promptly retrieve by screaming loud in my threatening native French language....)

This was definitely an intriguing dichotomy between the adjacent "givers" and "takers".
I was glad to swiftly pass through this region in one and half day.
On a side note, going forward, I may need to have a better locking system, while  travelling alone.




Children stopping me randomly to give me a chocolate candy!





Along my way, I also met countless road workers which I incessantly thank for progressively turning this southern Mongolian dusty and sandy trail into a beautiful asphalt pleasure dome!

Road workers on the new asphalt!



I was even offered once, copious amount of quenching salty dark tea by two engravers/sculptors who were busy creating a map of Mongolia, while working in the exposed sun.

Sculptors in front of their masterpiece
The southern Mongolian wind which I was anticipating, came to visit me on a few occasions.
As some of you can probably guess, it was of course always a headwind, which intensify itselt on a few evenings.
At one point in time, I was completely unable to proceed further, and stopped to lay on the ground, hiding behind my bicycle for an hour, waiting for the storm to pass.
This is when I started wondering what I could do, if in the course of this long human powered circumnavigation of the globe, I would ever come face to face with a tornado while riding my bicycle.

Before leaving Kharkhorin, a Mongol friend had also given to me a drawing to  fully warned me to not come in contact with Olgoin-Khorkhoi, the infamous Mongolian giant death worm.





This has not happened yet but I still have two weeks of riding on Mongolian soil to have the opportunity to come face to face with the beast!


Olgoin - Khorkhoi

 Approaching Bayankhongor, after having gone through beautiful canyons, while riding on a large arid plateau, I finally came across a beautiful herd of about thirty camels, apparently free roaming and quenching their thirst at a muddy pond.

I, of course, decided to stop so that we could enjoy a discussion together and which we did.

Although, it was obviously out of the question for me to get a hug from any of these Bactrians despite all of my begging.














While in Arvaikheer, I actually had the opportunity to enjoy a camel ride on wheels!












In Arvaikheer, I also noticed a truck transporting young Mongolian conscripts.






Throughout this eight days section, I also continued to enjoy eating, whenever I came across a village, at one of the local cafés set up in either a ger or a small home made of bricks.

Often the dish offered was a plate of mutton noodles named  Цуйван (Tsuivan) , Buuz (Бууз) or  Khuushuur (уушуур).

I was amused once to have it served in dish shaped like a fish, which for the most part, is traditionally not part of the Mongols diet, supposedly because of their historical Buddhist vegetarian faith (which leaves me perplexed since they do not hesitate to eat copious amount of beef, mutton, yak, goat and camel meat...)


This is also thankfully partly why the Taimen, the world's largest trout is still able to thrive in Mongolian rivers... 


Tsoivan in a fish!

Ger cafés
Buuz

Khuushuur

Mongolian Hot springs!
Remember, this is something I very much was looking forward to experience along my route and this is partly why I chose to embark on my "central mountainous trail through hot springs".

So, on my way, I was first able to ride through the town of Khujirt, where despite all of my imploring, I was not allowed to used any of the thermal waters, with the duly noted exception of the use of a shower piped with sulfur water and thankfully the free use of an employee ger, all to myself for two consecutive nights, while I was desperately sorting through my over abundant gear to see what I could either give away or ship home by mail...

Sulfur water shower

While touring Khujirt facitilites, I discovered that to the best of my knowledge, the place is simply a well run sanatorium which treats a large amount of patients brought in from distant Ulaan Baatar.
From what I could tell, this obviously was not the place to be for a white healthy foreigner such as myself, no matter what I had read on the Lonely Planet website...

Welcome to Khujirt

Khujirt Sanatorium





When I finally arrived in Bayankhongor, I stopped at the comfortable Bayankhongor hotel located near the center square.
There, I stored my gear and bicycle and knew then that I was stopping the expedition for at least a week, because:

1.  I was not willing to give up quite yet on the idea of visiting more Mongolian hot springs.
Indeed,   I wanted to go and experience on a hitch-hiking excursion the Shargaljuut Hot Springs which I had not been able to get to by bicycle, directly through the mountain range because of the unsurmountable river I have mentioned above.
Thankfully, the southern route was still opened to access the hot springs.
 
2. I also needed to hitchhike quickly 2000 kms round trip  to the nearest Mongolian border in order to leave the country,  so that I could re-enter it legally with a new thirty days Mongolian visa. This trip needed to be completed prior to the expiration of my Mongol visa  on Sunday September 1st.

So, the next morning, after having waited for 1 hour at the beginning of the Shargaljuut 60 kms long dusty trail, a first vehicle (a Nissan pickup truck) came through and offered me a ride. I was suddenly in company of two Bayankhongor police officers with their two respective young children.
The officers,  in similar fashion to quite a few middle-aged educated Mongolian provincials I have met, were quite eager to practice their rusty Russian with a foreigner. This is how we were able to communicate on our two hours ride up the mountain.

On our way, we stopped at one of their friend, a yak herder who entertained us with large bowls of ayrag, dry curd,  Өрөм (Clotted cream - white butter) and some  Монгол Архи (Mongol Arkhi) which was a light tasteful liquor made out yak kefir.






Dry curds in the making




Ayrag in the making

Ayrag

Smörgåsbord of Mongolian dairy products
Mongol Arkhi  in the making

Mongol Arkhi  in the making

Mongol Arkhi

Yak butter

Өрөм (Clotted cream - white butter)

Upon arriving in Shargaljuut, my new friends helped me secure an abode for the night through the local police officer.
I was given the kindergarten ger for the night, where I could peacefully sleep surrounded by toys while being this time, lullabied by the sound of grazing yaks, roaming around my tent.

In Shargaljuut, I discovered once again that the hot springs baths contained into little huts and gers were to be used exclusively by sick patients.
The mountains had actually more than 100 small springs, all of them marked with small wooden signs explaining what ailment  they could each treat.

As a "non-patient" visitor, I was allowed to either:

- lay fully clothed on top of the steaming rocks which was an interesting, relaxing and new experience for me. I especially enjoyed doing this at night, while staring at the stars, except for the fact that my clothes became quickly drenched with the steam...

- drink some of the purifying water at some of the springs.

- sit at a wooden desk set up on top of a spring where I could inhale some of the steam in order to clear out my sinuse while widening my nasal passages, making it easier to breath and expel tainted mucus.

I should have done my homework more thoroughly and read that for the most part,  Mongolian hot springs are definitely more aimed at treating medical ailments rather than accommodating hedonistic  pleasures as I have experienced in other parts of the world.

Click here for more information on Shargaljut Hot Springs

Finally, I must say, that I still enjoyed having done this "excursion" and having taken time away  from the expedition.
The journey was interesting, and the landscape and fauna (mostly made of roaming yaks and soaring prey birds) was some of the most beautiful I have seen in Mongolia.


Shargaljuut Hot Springs









Hot Springs baths available in gers and huts for sick patients

Patients inhaling hot springs steam to clear out sinuses 





My kindergarten ger surrounded by grazing yaks

The inside of my kintergarten where I was invited to sleep

The next morning, I was strongly recommended to "join the party" and crammed myself with 25 others, yes,  you read right, 25, some of them adults and some of them thankfully children,  in the local minivan UAZ 452  to make the 2 hours journey down the mountain trail.
This type of minivan in Mongolia is privately owned and traditionally does not depart until it is packed tighter than a sardine can...

Crammed, I  was definitely missing riding my bicycle alone in the open air but I was also realizing that for the sake of this side trip/excursion, (outside of the scope of my human powered expedition) I was definitely moving much  faster and therefore gaining precious time....









On that night, back in Bayankhongor, and fearing the use of additional way-overcrowded Mongol buses and minivans,  I decided to embark on my 1000 km "New Mongolian Visa Quest" to the Chinese border by hitchhiking.

Hitchhiking (usually on trucks), is a recognized form of transport in Mongolia, where the country is so vast (size of Western Europe) and public transport is quite limited. It is seldom free and often no different from just waiting for public transport to turn up.
It can be (if you are lucky) definitely less crowded that a minivan or bus but is tends to be much slower...
Public buses on long distances have two drivers, relaying each other nonstop, having even a comfortable bed set up next to the driver for the one who rests.

On the other hand, non-bus regular drivers WILL stop at ger cafés along the way to drink tea, eat, fix cars/tires. They will also stop to sleep and their vehicle will potentially get stuck in mud and river crossings, break down or even run out of gas.

So, despite knowing all of this, I decided to take my chances and hitchhike.

Did not have the best success for an "express ride": my combined four successive rides to the border took 48 hrs while my return on the overcrowded bus took a mere 25 hrs.

On the outskirts of Bayankhongor, I was first picked up at 20h by Bimba, a Mongol truck driver with whom I spent the first 24 hrs, riding, cooking and eating soup together in his cabin. I slept at night in the pick truck he was hauling, while he was resting  up in his cabin.

Well equipped Chinese trucks and Russian made buses are definitely the best way to ford rivers but these  Chinese trucks definitely lack an adequate suspension making the ride rather loud, uncomfortable, tiring and bumpy.

These 24 hrs spent in this large truck definitely reminded me why I have had so much respect over the last few years for the truck drivers who spent their lives fixing their trucks and roaming through dusty trails and pistes in developing and third world nations. It is a very hard job.






Gobi desert gecko castaway





Once I reached  Delger, since Bimba's route and mine  were splitting, I hitchhiked a ride, strangely enough, on a not-so-crowded bus, full of Western Mongolian Kazakhs. I rode with them  for the next 100 kms in order to reach Altay while we exchanged information in Russian.



In Altay, since  the sun was setting on a Friday night, which meant I could potentially expect to see a few Mongol drunks on the streets and on the road, I decided to play it safe and found a couple that welcomed me into their modest ger for the night.




The next morning, I was able to secure my 3rd and final ride in a Toyota Land Cruiser jam packed with nine of us and quite a large amount of cargo.


Once I arrived in in the town of Bulgan on Saturday night, I discovered that the Bulgan-Takashiken border was closed for the weekend, which meant that I could only be able to cross the border on Monday September 2d at 10am, 10 hrs after my visa had expired...

I spent the weekend in Bulgan in a small hotel where I met four Chinese businessmen hotel guests. On monday morning, they kindly allowed me to share their ride in their 4*4 to  the border, 45 kms away.

On the Sunday, while strolling through this interesting and quaint terracotta town of Bulgan, amongst roaming pigs, cows, horse-riding, camel-riding Mongols, zigzagging through a few poplar trees, I noticed quite a large amount of karaokes and ad hoc gambling parlors among  the sandy streets where trans-border trafficking truck drivers, cashmere goat herders and "Ninja" illegal gold miners  were apparently enjoying losing some of their disposable income.
All of this activity, felt like I had  reached a mixture of a gold mining "Last Frontier" town and a  "border town" as I have experienced in other parts of the world, such as in Paraguay and Mexico.

Click here to see photos of Ninja miners are available here






Dowtown  Bulgan








Bulgan Street Art






In the end, I found the local "internet hub/terminal" (for lack of a better word, since it was definitely not an internet "café"), where among young Mongol boys playing computer games and Mongol girls staring at pictures on Facebook, I came across Martin, a German hydraulic researcher, who is currently part of a Sino-Mongolian-German  project consortium, (watercope.org) which brings together researchers, farmer-herder organisations, and policy makers/planners.

Their goal is to develop and test technologies to better cope with climate change effects on scarce agro-ecological resources in the vulnerable steppe and semi-desert ecosystems of the Altai mountains and of the Dzungarian desert basin.

This transborder region is indeed facing severe conflicts resulting from increase competition to scarce water resources and pastures shared by Mongolia and China.  The region is confronted to rapid population growth (on the Chinese side with the important influx of western Han Chinese in historical Uighur territory),  transformation of pastoral land use systems (from central planning to market economies), changes in precipitation patterns and the decreasing availability of snow-melt water.
The latter is evidenced by the rapid salinization of agricultural land.
All of these changes also threaten the traditional livelihood of the local ethnic minority populations.

I spent a very enlightening evening in their company, learning about their research as well as how they perceive the noticeable differences between this part of Mongolia and its adjacent Chinese counterpart.

On Monday morning, arriving at the border in company of the four Chinese businessmen who were returning home, I was with my expired Mongolian visa, needless to say, a bit anguished after having experienced a few difficulties in my past at some other border crossing...
Thankfully the Mongol immigration/border officer  was quite lenient with me and accepted my circumstances.

I was told that as long as I would step in China, I could return in Mongolia and obtain an additional 30 days visa which is why in the first place,  I had undertook  this five days long 2000kms journey.

So, yes, I did step in China for approximately 10 minutes.
However the whole border crossing process from Mongolia into China and back into Mongolia took three hours, during which my passport was scrutinized 20 times, my small travel bag searched five times and I was asked once for cigarettes by one of the Mongolian border guards.

Not quite sure if this was usual for entering China lately or if it was because I was entering the Xinjiang province, which is highly guarded by the Hans.

I am now furthermore eager to discover this in my own eyes when I will be cycling through the Chinese Xinjiang province in October!

Click here to read a blog written by British cyclists who crossed that border crossing.

Click here to read some official information about this crossing.

Coming back from China, I was quickly able to catch a ride to Bulgan and there, was actually excited to get a ticket for the non-stop 24 hours overcrowded bus ride to Bayankhongor.
This was indeed an experience as well...

On board were a mixture of Mongolian Kazakh  and Mongolian Mongols, apparently mostly migrating (as sadly countless other Mongols feel forced to do) to the capital Ulaan Baatar.  This meant that of course, they were trying to take with them as much of their belongings as they could.

As a result, the bus was surely filled to the rim.
We were all laying/squatting not on seats but on top of a large amount of packages which were placed on top of our original seats.

On several occasions while going through a beautiful canyon, we were asked to get off the bus so that this mighty Russian beast PAZ 32053 could maneuver effectively through a rocky section of the trail which we were clearing by removing rocks along the way.
This is what I call audience participation!

Through the night, the bus rode over the rocky, sandy and bumpy trail, pushing forward such as a ship going through rough seas.
All of the passengers huddled together on top of each of other in similar fashion to a cluster of grapes rocking back and forth from one side of the bus to the other. The driver to remain alert, was playing repeatedly a set of six Mongol songs at full blast.

Although, from time to time, the music would stop and the Mongol cluster of grapes (of which I was now part of) would start to sing a few traditional Mongol songs in a beautiful tune.  While listening to the cluster of grapes, I was definitely taken by Mongols' stoicism, able to endure such  a form of travel.

Having at any point in time an older respectable lady leg laying on top of my right one and a younger man's leg laying underneath my left leg, I was smirking at the idea of  how some New-Age Americans feel the need to organize cuddle parties  when all what they would need to do to satisfy their cuddling craving would be to enjoy some overnight Mongolian public transport.

Some of the migrants were also very keen on storing above their heads, their  plastic jerrycans of  freshly pressed Mongolian sea buckthorn juice, which eventually, over the chaotic trail, bouncing up and down one too many times, exploded and started pouring on everyone's head in  a nice yellow sticky cascade....
I can only presume that they are bringing this precious juice for the sake of their distant homesick relatives, who had previously migrated to the capital city.





Mongolian Sea Buckthorn

Once I returned finally safely in Bayankhongor, I abandoned this Ulaan-Baatar bound bus with its bouncing motley crew and returned to my hotel.

I spend the next few days in Bayankhongor where:

- I climbed the main hill where stands a stupa and a few cell phone radio towers. From there, I was able to have an impeccable view of the entire town and its immediate surroundings.

I could clearly observe that this town had definitely been designed/orchestrated in a very orderly matter, with perfect rows of individual dwellings in its ger district, cantonment-style apartment blocks and parade grounds.







Wind coming through town





- I explored the main square where several well organized youth parades were taking place on multiple occasions. Felt a bit like I was travelling through  80's Soviet times...

[Note: Not so surprising, since in April 1976, Bayankhongor was awarded the Outstanding Red Award for livestock, meat, and wool production.The aimag received substantial investment from the former USSR, including infrastructure and education.
However, the USSR also systematically repressed the religion and cultural heritage of the aimag, purging famous monasteries such as the Geegin Monastery and killing thousands of monks.]



Bayankhongor administrative building







- I explored the adjacent park where I was puzzled by an incredible hodgepodge of statues and rides which were rapidly decaying.











 - I spent time admiring and reflecting at the nearby peaceful minuscule Namdolchoinhorlin monastery.


















-  I chatted with young children playing pool at the Dinosaurs Park where large prehistoric statues have been set up in celebration of the dinosaurs eggs which were discovered in the region in the 1920s by american naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews.








- I explored Bayangkhongor public market and its nearby outdoor "billiard square".

Bayankhongor Market area

Stove maker

Bayankhongor recycling




Creative name for a gas station
Billiard square at dawn









 In the market, I  was able to meet Battuys in his bicycle shop who graciously offered me to fully tune my bicycle for free!
That was a great surprise. Thank you once again Battuys!

By the way,  this is , I believe the only bicycle shop in at least a 1000 kms radius, and therefore I highly recommended  it for any cyclists coming through the region.

Battuys and son Enh Erdene

- I met a few members of the Mongol Rally who were waiting in town for the potential repair of their wrecked vehicles after having crossed one too many rivers on their way from Europe to Ulaan Baatar.










Mongol Rally participant

Broken Mongol Rally vehicles being towed to Ulaan Baatar
 - I also met Guillaume and Laure, a  young Parisian couple riding their motorcycle around the world eastbound, with whom I exchanged quite a bit of useful information on our directionally opposite mutual roads to come.

- I had an interesting discussion with several mineral/coal/oil  English, American, Serbian geologists, all separately working for smaller Mongolian mining companies.
They were all returning from having spent several weeks prospecting through large mining concessions spread across Western Mongolia.

- I was also regrettably bed ridden sick for 36 hours because of either an allergic reaction to an east-indian cold medicine pill I took or my potential second case of Mongolian food poisoning...

- Lastly, I took a  few days to finally transfer  all of the GPS coordinates I have had accumulated since the beginning of the expedition in 2005 into a complete spreadsheet which will allow us to create a detailed map of the entire Nexus Expedition route since its inception, with matching posts, pictures and  videos.

I definitely hated to stop the course of the expedition to complete this task, but I was running the risk to potentially loose one day all of this data if I ever came to misplaced any of my older GPSs which I was carrying with me.

I can now say, that after having completed all of this, I am once again  very eager to get back on my bicycle in the next few hours!

Finally, this morning, while having breakfast with Matovic, a Serbian prospecting geologist, I was somewhat griping at the idea of having spent so much time on the computer instead of bicycling over the last few months, when he rightfully responded:
 "Well, it's important for you to write and share, it proves that you exist"...

Cheers,
Dimitri