Rivers, Alligators, and Chocolate Bars

.Bosnia+Herzegovina.

I spent the morning carving my way downhill after the climb to the physical border between Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The entrance to this new country was grandeur as I stood overlooking green mountains, exposed rockfaces and the wide river that cut through the valley below. I had been riding through the beautiful mountains of Montenegro for the past week but this was the first time that I got a river. It is emerald green and so clear that I could see the rocks and stones far below the surface. I marveled at it. Stopping multiple times to just watch the ripples dash across its green surface. Little did I know, that later that evening, this celestial body of water would be the source of despair, a call to my inner-strength and the catalyst for a really bad cold.

Being alone on the road has been conducive to a lot of inner dialogues. “I’m tired” my lazy self would say “Come on, Nicole. This country is too beautiful not to camp in!” my adventurous self would plead. I never know which will win the argument but yesterday, it was my adventurous self. I picked myself up out of a café chair which I had lingered at far too long, got myself to a grocery store, and picked up some pasta and vegetables for dinner. The grocery store in Trebinje was big and lit up and stood in great contrast to the surrounding town which was old and quaint with stone bridges and homes, red roofs, monasteries on cliff sides and wooden water mills in the rivers making one feel like they’ve stepped into an old storybook.

 

I knew from the onset that I wanted to camp by the river, so after my 66 km descent into the town, I rode 15 km into the countryside, past tiny villages dotted along at the foot of a rockface smattered with some greenery but mostly standing tall and exposed and protecting of the valley below. Idyllic is an understatement. I rode up and down little hills, a smile spread wide across my face and deep in my heart. I passed trail after trail but none of them called to me. None of them were by the river which I was determined to fall asleep near. Clouds started to gather overhead, deep and threatening rain. Eventually, a pitter-patter began and I knew that I had to make a choice–Stop and set up my tent as quickly as possible or keep riding into the rain. After almost a week of sleeping in a damp tent, I decided to stop and duck for cover as quickly as possible. Falling asleep with a damp, down sleeping bag sticking to your legs, on a cold damp mat is not ideal, no actually, it flat out sucks. To my right, I saw a small herders path. I dropped my bike and sprinted down it to see what I could find.

There it was, the perfect spot. Flatland directly beside the cool calm emerald river. I ran back up to my bike, pedaled down and set up my tent as quickly as I could manage. The rain stopped just in time and I was able to sit in the grass, relaxing and journaling before the sunset and it was time for sleep. I was so pleased. “Everything works out in the end,” I said to myself. “Sometimes, you just strike gold with a campsite.” There are many reasons why camping by a river is ideal. The water supply for cooking and cleaning, the tranquility, the soft sound of water moving along its course as you drift into sleep, being some of the main reasons. I have been so lucky to camp by rivers much of the time over the last year and take advantage of all the gifts it has to offer.

On this particular night, the river offered a different kind of gift. It was 11:30 pm when I woke up suddenly and grabbed for my phone to check the time. As I felt around the dark tent for my phone, I wobbled. “Oh no.” I grabbed my phone and turned on the flashlight. But as I sat up, I sank, as if on a trampoline, and water started to come up from the beneath me. It felt as if I were on a waterbed, and in a sense, I was. I unzipped the inner layer of my tent and saw my red Ortlieb panniers bobbing about, trapped, thankfully by the rainfly. I unzipped the other side to see my slippers floating, my toilet paper roll soaked through and deteriorating and my water bottle pressed against the rainfly wall trying desperately to break free. I opened the zip and stepped out to assess the situation. I was in the river. Water was rising fast. But where was it coming from? It wasn’t raining, there weren’t even many clouds! I stood, ankle deep in water eyes pointed to the stars and stared, frozen. Moments passed and passed, but I couldn’t move. I just stared at the stars hoping for some stroke of urgency or plan of action. Nothing. The water spread up my pant legs, I shivered, a knot formed in my throat and tears started to streak down my cheeks as my belly trembled from both the cold and the panic that was starting to wake up inside me. Helpless and utterly alone I begged the stars for a sign, and when it didn’t answer, I heard one within myself. “Move, you idiot, the situation won’t fix itself.”

 

Still crying I moved toward the back of my tent, my legs were heavy as they sloshed through the now calf-deep water, and I started carrying bag after bag toward my bike which, at this point, was still on dry land. I took whatever I could grab in the darkness from the front zip and removed the pegs around my tent. Water had now filled the inside of my tent and I tried to drag it over to my bike. It was so heavy with water that I started to take everything out one by one– my heavy soaked sleeping bag, my saturated sleeping mat, my bag of clothes (which doubles as my pillow), my handlebar bag with my most valuable items in it, also filled with water. Eventually, it was just light enough to drag through the water up to where my bike leaned against a rock which was now becoming less and less dry land and more and more claimed by the river. “It’s not good enough. I have to move everything elsewhere.” My inner get-shit-done-voice said again. So with heavy legs and heavy arms, I grabbed bag after bag and brought them uphill to the road. I searched my bag for my headtorch. It was dead. “Batteries… I know I have spare batteries somewhere!!” Digging through my bags I found them and put them in the head torch. I went back down to get my bike and was now knee deep in water. Each trip down to my bags and back up to the road was efficient, fast moving and motivated. With the emergence of this new inner voice as a guide I, though fighting myself the whole way, got everything out of there while holding my emotions relatively together. Until I saw it. A dense elongated jaw bone, the length of my foot with sharp polished teeth glaring up at me. “oh my GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD!!” This is when my inner-strength voice ran and hid and my THIS-IS-AN-EMERGENCY voice decided to step up.

Standing up the road, now with all my gear around me, my tent still set up, I called Jerry. He didn’t answer. I called Charlie. “Hey! What’s up?” He said ever so casually. “THE. RIVER. ROSE. I’M. SOAKED. AND. SO COLD. AND ALLIGATORS ARE IN THE RIVER. TELL ME WHAT TO DO!”
“Okay, tell me the situation,” I told him everything–About the river rising, about my gear being soaked and the cold, about the jaw bone with spiked teeth glaring up at me from the water. “Alright, just take a deep breath, you’re out of it now, why don’t you just hang up your stuff in a tree and try to sleep.” This is the most classic Charlie advice. The rough-and-tough response. The phone then went silent. I tried calling again and again but we couldn’t hear each other. Alone. I have to do this alone. I CAN’T DO THIS ALONE! I tried calling Oliver and Claudia, a South African couple I braved the Mongolian steppe with. They’ll know what to do.

“HEYHEY WHATSUPPPPP!” they yelled from the other side of the world. We haven’t caught up much since we split ways in Mongolia so they were definitely not expecting what followed. “I’M ALONE AND ALL THIS SHIT HAPPENED AND IDK WHAT TO DO!”
“take a breath Nicole, I can hear your voice is shaking. We’ve got you and we’ll figure this out. Send us your location and we’ll find the closest town. Pack up your bike and go there. WHAT A LIFE! HAH!” Okay. A plan. And some comedic relief. God, I love those people. I packed my sopping wet gear into my panniers and into plastic bags I had tucked away for “just-in-case” situations, undid my tent, rolled it up and slopped it onto the back of my bike and rode into the night. The cold wind rushed past my face, chilling me to the bone. I rode for about 10 km until I saw a gas station and pulled over to take a look at my phone and see if there were any guesthouses. I found one and gave them a call… being that it was 2 am I was not very hopeful, but Apolon Guesthouse provided. “Hello. I am sleeping. What are you saying?”
“I have a problem!!! Can I come now?!”
“Yes.”
“see you in 10 minutes.”

I left the gas station and out of nowhere, the rain started. “ARE YOU SERIOUS?!” I yelled at the clouds. But at this point, the fear had fallen away. I was taking action. I was riding in the night in the rain and I felt alive. After a few wrong turns, I made it to Apolon Guesthouse. Without any questions or any interest, he showed me the room, turned heel and went back to bed. I dumped my things in the room and jumped in a hot shower, ate an entire bar of chocolate, and passed the F out around 3:30 am. I woke up the next morning feeling hungover. Sloppily dried out my things, cooked some pasta and called my friends and fam to tell them what happened and that I was alright. Sitting in numb reflection on the patio of this lovely guesthouse, I thought about the happenings of the night before. The fluid transition of shock, fear, tears, action, empowerment, comedy that transpired in a matter of hours. Remembering the glaring white teeth, I googled “Bosnian wildlife” and realized that my panicked mind had turned a Gar or Pike fish jaw into an alligator. Go figure.

Rivers are the givers of life and usually, the givers of a great damn camp spot. Last night, the river gave me something else. Yes, fear and shock and terror, but a meeting with a usually evasive inner strength that took hold and got me the fuck out of there. There are very few times that I have had an encounter with this Nicole Voice. She hasn’t really had to come out much. But the river brought her to me and she got me out of there alive and well and with a hell of a story to tell.

Hospitality in Kazakhstan

Edoardo and I sat in a green pasture at dusk cooking yet again another feast for dinner. The mountains in front of us were starting to glow red and we laughed at the curious bee’s digging burrows all around us.

Steam rose from the pot, heavy with the aroma of Turmeric and cumin spices. It was our second day cycling together since meeting at Zharkent, the border town from China and were still adjusting to each other’s cycling style, or rather, each other’s eating style. After cycling with Jerry all those months, I was used to eating heaps of rice and vegetables for lunch and dinner with all sorts of spices. Edo, on the other hand, would eat instant noodles for dinner and porridge for lunch. We adjusted eventually. He would cook breakfast, porridge a la snickers, and I would cook a hefty dinner of rice and vegetables with curry powders.

In our days cycling together, we went up hills dotted with shashlik shacks and exposed rock cliffs, past wild weed fields and through small villages. While I feel most comfortable out riding around in nature, feeling like I have the whole world to myself, villages provide some profound insights into what life is really like.

It pulls on the imagination, begging me to step in someone else’s shoes, someones else’s donkey cart,

someone else’s life for a while. What I saw in these villages were head scarfs and golden teeth. I saw round bellies with aprons wrapped around and I saw deep meaningful eyes. I saw hands that were roughened by work and gardens that grew because of them.

In one village, on a not-so-particular day, Edo and I stopped for a snack, as we normally did around 1 pm. The sun was hot and Edo and my naturally dark skin absorbed it and shone gold. As we ducked into a small shop, our eyes adjusting to the darkness, a woman shuffled over and smiled. There is something about the Kazakh smile that just makes you feel like home. We bought our snacks, snickers and some bread, and were about to head outside when she started rattling off in Kazakh and beckoning us toward a door behind the counter.

As curious cycle-tourers, we had to know– what was behind this door? What layer of cultural insight were we about to peel back? It was a kitchen, connected to a house. The floors were wooden and painted yellow. Sun peeked through the windows and painted the white walls in gold. The table which we were invited to sit at, was covered in a layer of dough. Flour was everywhere.

Our glorious host moved through the room with grace as she handled task and after task, filling our teacups, tending to the stove, feeding the dough through a crank that produced noodles. She had big hands. Hands that were touched with love and caring.

We spent just about an hour there, munching on snacks and showing her photos of our journeys. Filling our bellies with fried dough and our minds with every detail of this experience. We were in Kazakhstan for only 5-6 days. The shortest I’ve stayed in any country thus far. But experiences like this made it a wholesome few days. This is cycle touring. It is a conduit for meaningful moments that spring seemingly out of nothing and almost always involve food and a cup of tea.

 

Q & A

Has your bike broken very often?

Nope! Not once! The Surly LHT has been incredibly good to me. My racks on the other hand broke in the middle of nowhere which could have been a disaster! Ive since switched to Tubus racks and they are really great.

How many times have you cried on the side of the road?

More than a few haha! Most of those were in the Mongolian steppe when my racks kept snapping and everything seemed to be going wrong.

How did you choose routes?

I don’t really plan much ahead of time. I’ll take a look at the map the night before and draw out a route on MapOut or ask other cyclists which way they liked.

How old are you?

Turning 26 on December 16

How awesome have your travels been on a scale of 1-10?

10!!!!

Whats the weight of your bike fully loaded?

With food and water it can be up to 40kg

Whats the most unnecessary thing you carry?

My ukulele, but I’m so happy I have it.

Whats your budget for this trip?

I started with around $3,500. At about 8 months in I have around $60 left of it haha.

When do you think you’ll reach Spain?

Summer 2019 is the most specific I can get right now.

Whats your favorite meal thats easy to cook while traveling?

Pasta with lentils and tomato sauce

What is the Happy Kids Center and why are you fundraising for it?

Learn more about HKC here!

What the one food you miss the most?

Bagels

Whats your plans for the winter season in Georgia?

I’m renting an apartment on AirBnb. I plan on teaching English and getting back into rock climbing.

Whats first shower or food when you reach a town?

Food.

Will you ever live a normal life?

Mmmm. Not sure!

Any ideas for the next big trip after reaching the Atlantic?

I have a few ideas stirring. The pack raft+bike packing combo is really intriguing, as is traveling by van, horse or something of the same spirit.

Do you cowboy camp or do you use your tent?

Usually in my tent but I think I’ll try sleeping out under the stars when its becomes warm again.

Favorite piece of gear?

Either my kindle or my sleeping bag.. Tough call.

Did you skip parts of the way or did you really cycle every meter?

Definitely got rides. Sometimes for visa reasons or broken gear or just because its too hard to pass up the offer.

How many hours would you cycle on an average day?

5-6 hours on the saddle. A lot of cycle touring is just packing and unpacking our damn tents and stuff!

Are you scared sometimes to get your bags or bike stolen? Is there a risk?

I lock the bike up every night but its not out of real concern, just good habit.

From Georgia are you riding through Turkey or taking the ferry across the Black Sea?

Not sure yet! We’ll see how I feel about it after winter.

How has the more traditional touring set up been on the more off road sections?

Difficult. Often, I have to get off and push but for the kind of trip that i’m doing I wouldn’t change a thing with my set up.

Any dog bites?

No, but we get chased quite often!

Do you have a daily budget?

Not really, because it will very country to country and whether i’m in a remote area or in cities.

Will you got to Latin America by bicycle?

Its not in the plan now but you never know. 🙂

What uni did you go to?

Penn State University!!

Will you go to Iran?

Unfortunately not. Its not currently possible for US citizens to get visas to Iran, though its a shame because its supposed to be an incredibly beautiful country.

What has been the most surprising thing on your journey thus far?

Probably just how normal its become. Before I started, I was terrified! I couldn’t have imagined such a journey become normalized but its just a lifestyle now!

How can I get a sticker?

I don’t have any stickers currently but if you want a t-shirt you can contact me here!

How are you able to post?

I just wait until I’m somewhere with wifi.

Strange Sleeps in Xinjiang

In my last post “Alone In China” I mentioned being ushered from foreign hotel to foreign hotel. In Xinjiang Province, there are certain hotels specifically for foreigners. They are a rare find, however.

One afternoon, for example, I was taken in a police van for 200 km, past four different cities, in search of a foreign hotel. Once we finally reached the intended city, the border patrol told us that, in fact, there was no foreign hotel here, either. It was 11 pm at this time and I actually started laughing out loud. “HAHA Why did you take me here!!!?” They were just doing their job, I understood that, but REALLY?! Isn’t that something that you’d check before driving for hours?!! It was a bit comical, but I had a situation on my hands. Camping is forbidden, but there is no foreign hotel. What to do?

Then, I saw him. A tall, lanky, string bean of a man with white hair, sun tanned skin and micro mini pink short-shorts. I probably scared him half to death when I ran over screaming “HELLO! WHERE ARE YOU FROM? YOU’RE THE FIRST FOREIGNER I’VE SEEN IN DAYS! WHEN DID YOU GET HERE?” It was a bit much. But I was so unreasonably excited to speak to someone and have a big ole laugh about what we were going through separately but together.

His name is Marcel, or something like that. He’s an adventurer from Belgium that was traveling by tricle (trycle?) The point was to race other Europeans to Beijing using only solar power and human power.

Anyway, overwhelmed by my energetic presence or not, Marcel and I decided to persuade the guards to let us pitch our tents at the border where they could see us and we’d be on our way early morning. They reluctantly agreed and we started unloading our things.

Marcel didn’t have a free-standing tent so I offered for him to share my tent. He looked trustworthy enough. We spent the night sharing tales of the road and about our lives before this adventure and at some point in the conversation we drifted to sleep. Thank the universe he wasn’t a creep or a snorer. We slept well, despite the occasional truck headlights illuminating the tent and were both up at 7 am saying our goodbyes and riding our separate ways.

 

I had many a strange sleep in Xinjiang Province, the last, however, was probably amongst the strangest. It was my last day in the province and I had spent that day zooming downhill through a lush gorge with waterfalls, horses and small yurts tucked between rock walls. Finally arriving to the border town, Khorgas, I searched for a foreign hotel to sleep. It was near nightfall and I had been to about 15 hotels which had all rejected me. “No foreigners allowed” they said. Strange for a border town. So, I went to the one place that I had been avoiding for the past week– the police station, to ask for help. They accompanied me to 3 or 4 more hotels until eventually, they also gave up. I was nearly in tears, exhausted from the day and from the constant rejection.

A woman who worked in the last hotel was watching and listening as the police officers tried to decide what to do with me. Eventually, she approached. She spoke to them in Chinese, left, spoke to her boss and returned. They chatted some more amongst themselves until eventually, they told me she’d let me sleep in her room beneath the hotel. “Is that okay?” They police asked me through their phone translators. “Yes, thank you!!! Any bed at this point is fine!!”

The woman led the police officers and me to the back of the hotel through an alley way that smelled of piss and cigarettes. Rats scurried from behind boxes when they heard our footsteps approaching the backdoor. It creaked open with difficulty and we proceeded down the dark steps and into a hallway lit with flourecent flickering lights and finally into her bedroom. There was a single bed with colorful bedsheets and a dresser with photos of her friends and family, a hairbrush and some make up. In the corner of the room were a couple of pairs of clothing and her uniforms.

 

She told me I could stay for free and that she would go to a friends house for the night. “The shower’s just there” She pointed to the room next door. “Sorry about the smell.” It was, indeed, repulsive. But I hadn’t showered in a few days so I held my breath and made it a quick one.

I slept well that night, got up in the morning, and got the hell out of China.

Alone in China

On the 23rd of July 2018 I wrote

“I’m doing it! I’ve been cycling since 10 am. Its now 3 pm. Four scorching hours on the highways are starting to get to me but I’m listening to Eye in The Sky by Radio Lab and that helps. I still have 45 km to go today but this break in the shade of a bus stop is more than needed. I’m going to let my phone charge but then I’ll be ready to go again. My feelings are overall great toward my first riding day solo since partnering up with Jerry a few months ago. Hopefully, I can find a nice camp somewhere tonight. I’m feeling up for it, for sure. I only have a bit of petrol but these veggies need cooking! Ah, I wish it wasn’t so damn hot on this highway.”

Life was moving along and all of my fears about continuing without Jerry were starting to roll off of me with each turn of the wheel. “I can do this. I am doing this. Everything is fine- more than fine!”

Little did I expect that by the time the day was done, I’d be taken to two different police stations and escorted in two police cars to unknown destinations, sans passport nor any idea of what in the world was going on.

My happy-sweaty-full-face rode off from my slice of shade on the side of the highway for about 20 kilometers before I arrived at my very first police checkpoint. These checkpoints, as far as I was aware, were set up to monitor movement and “control” the Uygher people, an ethnic minority primarily living in XinJiang Autonomous region of China. They wouldn’t care about a random American cycle tourist, I ignorantly thought as I strode in to give my passport to the desk clerk. She looked at my face, and then at my passport and then at my face again and starting rattling off a multitude of sentences in Chinese. “So sorry” I said. “I don’t actually speak Chinese!” With a subtle look of confusion she turned to her partner who barked “Where from?”

“Wo she Meguo ren” I replied in crumpled Chinese before repeating it in English. “I’m American.”
Both faces lit up “AH! MEGUO!” they exclaimed with great surprise. “Tu-rump-uh!” The two began discussing with each other at length about, what I assume, was what to do about me. They spoke, sent some messages on WeChat and told me to sit down. Happy to be inside a semi-cool and shaded building, I sat and accepted the hang up as a chance to relax and cool down before continuing the ride. I waited for one hour, and then two, being fed watermelons and gifted ice cold bottles of water the entire time, when eventually the desk clerk said “come.” I stood up, thanking everyone for their generosity and headed out the back door. A big police van was outside with the back door slid open.

“Oh no..” I thought to myself.

I unpacked my bags from my bike. Sweat started beading all over my face both from the heat and a new pang of nervousness. “Where are we going?” “Why would it be a problem for an American cycle tourer to pass these parts?” “Is this for my safety or for theirs?” Questions began circling around my brain. My VPN wasn’t working in this region which meant Google was off limits, as was Facebook, Instagram or any other western apps that filled my color coordinated iphones folders. I was left to my imagination.

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“Come” They said, mostly expressionless. Two men got in the front and my bike, my bags and I were put in the back behind a barred gate— not the most comforting ride I’ve ever taken. We drove for a few minutes in silence and then they pulled off at a shop. The driver got out and in a couple minutes returned with an ice cream and two bottles of water for me. “Okay? They wouldn’t give me ice cream and all of these gifts if I were in any real trouble.” I thought, delighted with my new coconut flavored ice cream. I sat in peace for the rest of the ride to, what turned out to be, the second police station. I was held there for three hours, ate 5 more slices of free watermelon and practiced English with one of the officers. They looked at my passport again, called some people, asked me questions and eventually ushered me into another police van.

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“Carry you to Hotel” were the words on the screen of the Chinese version of Google Translate. Finally, some answers. “They’re taking me to a hotel! Great!” I got into the front seat of this police car. The driver was an older man– much more stern then the two Chinese officers who escorted me on the last ride. He was intimidating but kind. We didn’t speak much. Until, we stopped… on the side of the highway… at around 8 pm. He got out of the car. I stayed in. When he motioned me to get out, I was quite confused. “They said you were taking me to a hotel!” I wrote in a translator. “Bu ren” he replied. I was to get out and cycle as the sun was setting. On a highway. And I had no idea where I was. I quickly checked my map and saw there was a city about 8 km away. If I really rushed, I would make it before sundown. So, not so cheerfully, I repacked my bike, got on and pedaled hard in the golden light of the day toward a city.

I found a hotel that accepted foreigners, which was a big surprise and success, as most do not, took a glorious shower and fell asleep chuckling. “What a day… what a life…”

This day was to be repeated throughout my time in Xinjiang Province of China. I would cycle in the morning, feeling strong and empowered until about midday were I would be “escorted”, sometimes by 5 different police cars in one day, to checkpoint after checkpoint, foreign hotel after foreign hotel. A 10 day ride turned into 3 as they ushered me toward the border as quickly as possible. But why?

Since 2016, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs have been subjected to imprisonment, torture and death. Xinjiangs “reeducation camps” or rather internment camps operate secretly and outside the law and can detain anyone without any trial. The United Nations and other human rights organizations claim that there are an estimated 1 million people in these camps being “reeducated” as a means of stopping extremism and terrorism.

The Uyghurs who are not imprisoned, essentially live in an open air prison, as well. They are monitored severely and have had their passports taken from them. They are not allowed to leave their province, let alone the country. What does this have to do with a young American girl cycling through? I’m not entirely sure, but I assume that the Chinese government would be very displeased if a foreigner were to see these camps or converse with locals and spreading “Western Ideologies.” Just an assumption.

When traveling slow through the world, you pick up on the subtleties. You see things you shouldn’t see, go to places that the government doesn’t necessarily want you to go. On a bicycle you are kind of free. You get to see things as they are– really are, in that present moment in time and space, instead of being ushered in tourist buses to the pretty faces of a country. After two months and a half cycling in various parts of China, I have seen many faces of the country. Some so beautiful you feel like its otherworldly and an example to other nations, some that confuse me, and some that make my stomach turn.

My experience in Xin Jiang Province was a bit of a mix. At a time where I was finally alone again, feeling free and empowered, I had the juxtaposition of being controlled and man-handled by Big Brother China. I was experiencing great kindness from the police officers who were just doing their job but also feeling contempt for the same structure that was responsible for oppressing so many people. However many contradictions I felt leaving China, I am grateful that I have the option to move fluidly from country to country and to continue to learn and unlearn through experience. Onwards to Kazakhstan.

 

 

Seeing In Silence

.mongolia.

We set up camp a few kilometers outside of Dasichilen, where we had resupplied earlier that day. The smell of onions, garlic and cabbage wafted from a sizzling pot that sat expectedly, under Olivers care. Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” mixed harmoniously with the crackling fire and the sound of an air mattress being inflated, as if they were born from the same star, cut from the same cloth, birds of the same feather or what have you. Everything felt in its right place, and I, the observer and participant sat still and absorbed it all. I sat still, and the bread i’d kneaded a few minutes prior rose, slowly, like the yellow/white moon above. The sky began to change color, as did the song. Geese began to make their way home and the horses have all cleared out of the pastures. As if right on queue, we turned our faces toward the sound of a motor in the near distance. “They’ve found us.” Claudia stated, slightly disheartened.

Its tempting to feel alone in the Mongolian countryside— to set up camp “stealthily” looking down the meadows seeing no one in sight for miles. Almost always, the nomads know we are there. Almost always, right as dinner is nearly ready, someone arrives. So he did. The Mongolian man rode over on his motorbike, dressed in traditional nomadic horse riding clothes. Essentially, its a really big coat with a sash around the waist and homemade leather boots. With no emotions, he comfortably walks over to us and squats, just watching, as our Mongolian visitors seemed to do. Claudia, Oliver, Jerry and I, being used to these visits by now, assumed our normal roles in the interaction. They all kept to their tasks and I made a fool out of myself, pantomiming, showing pictures, playing ukulele and throwing up nonsensical hand gestures to try to explain whatever it was that I was talking about. In the end, I was pretty much having a conversation with myself. He didn’t even crack a smile. So, giving up, I, too, tended to my task of baking bread. It had fully risen by now and was ready to be put on the dying out campfire. Finally, the stone man moved. He walked over to my bread, gave a nod, got on his bike and road away.

This isn’t “not normal.” In fact, this kind of interaction was a daily occurrence. Mongolia’s nomadic people remain a mystery to me. After two months in the country I’m still unsure. “Are we friends?” “Are you mad?” “Are you okay?” Back home in the States we have a way of expressing ourselves so outwardly and loudly and energetically that anything less than that feels dull, angry or sad. Maybe, the magic in Mongolia lies in its subtleties and nuances. Maybe, it was a positioning of the feet, the amount of blinks of his eyes, or his passiveness that communicated what, back home, would normally manifest as “WOW! This is so cool! Soooooo nice to meet you!” Or maybe not. Maybe, he truly didn’t care. I, however, like to play with the idea that, in a place so remote as Mongolia, the mere act of coming over, and sharing company, in the silence and stoicism of a sacred ritual, is simply enough. It is enough to communicate the “I see you.” Not just physically acknowledging our existence, but “I see you” as in “I listen. I smell. I see. I hear. I understand.” I think of my role in the interaction, how conditioned I am to try to create a sense of jubilance, of animation and energy—that extra layer, if you will. I think of how unnecessary and probably foolish I seemed, trying to kick up dust in the silence, when the silence held everything already, and more.

Lost in Mongolia

In the sandy distance, I saw Oliver crouched down next to, what looked like, a dog. As I approached, I saw the lone, baby cow. It was shaking and weak and sniffing the air for milk and familiarity. Somehow, the babe had lost its way and became separated from its herd. Slowly, it wobbled over to each of our bikes, searching for an udder and the possibility of staying alive. Alone on the steppe, this little cows fate would be the same as numerous animals we found sunken, and half eaten on the side of the road.

The babe smacked its lips and nuzzled its wet nose into our panniers. It could barely stand either from its youth or hunger. Having no udder, or means of helping the little thing, we painfully accepted its fate and decided we should just keep moving. But I couldn’t. Oliver, Claudia and Jeremy cycled on and I dismounted my bike and walked slowly away. “How can I just leave it there to die?” With my heart so heavy, I turned back to see the little babe one more time. There she was a couple steps behind me, stumbling along. I stopped and she stopped. I moved and she followed. “Come on little one!” I pleaded. “Just a bit further.”

Up ahead, Oliver, Claudia and Jerry had stopped. I thought they were just waiting for me to catch up. And then I saw them. A big herd of cows just on the other side of the road grazed and munched on grass. “Let’s try it.” We all decided. Jerry, scooped up the calf and carried it over the sandy road that scared the babe so much that it lost its herd because of it. We stood back to watch as the calf approached a cow. It nocked her away with its big head. “You’re not mine, get away!” It seemed to say. Heartbroken and heavy we looked at each other with eyes of resignation. “It was a good effort.”

From a distance, a cow peeped its head up and started charging our way. It’s eyes were locked on the calf. We watched as it tried its luck once more on the new cow’s udder and she accepted. She licked her baby and walked off with the little one at her heels. Claudia and I stood and cried at the beauty of reunion and a death sentence being overturned.

We are quick to give up, us humans. We’re quick to wash our hands and say, “well, nothing can be done.” accepting our fates and the fate of others. As I stood, in a bovine dream with tear stained cheeks I unlearned this truth– sometimes, something can be done. Sometimes, it’s worth it to just try.

Are You Happy?

Ellen Carney, the Director of Youth Programs at the Happy Kids Center, wrote me a Facebook message a few days ago. “Are you happy?” She asked.

I stared at the screen, digesting the question. Swirling it around in my head, letting the urge to intellectualize the question and answer immediately settle down. I let the feelings arise and after settling into the feelings, I answered.

“GOOD QUESTION. There are tough moments for sure, but it really is freedom. Every night that Jeremy and I set up camp we make it into a little home with a kitchen and the “house” and all our stuff spread around and it really makes you feel like you are home everywhere. You become less scared of the world and feel more apart of everything that surrounds you.

That being said, in the tough moments– cycling up hill at a 10% gradient at the end of a very long and hot day, I question why the f*** I’m doing this and a really ugly voice comes out that fills me with a frustration directed at nowhere. But I think the point of a trip like this is to allow that voice to rise, to get to know it, acknowledge it and then let it go. All the pent up anger and frustration that I feel rises from the same point, and at this time in my life, the feeling takes control. However, it doesn’t always have to be that way. Making space and taking time to observe it separates it from ME and just leaves it as just a feeling.

In general, being outside all day every day, cooking my own food, watching the sky change color and spending an hour every night looking at the constellations, has been a huge blessing and a means for me to slow down and really become a part of my surroundings. Whether I was on a bicycle or just walking, or sitting at camp, being outside this much is the most healing thing in the world for me. So, it is a journey, and it is not always pleasant, but it is clearing the algae of the soul away, its letting me slow down, and its DEFINITELY showing me to myself. I think that is happiness and wealth. Having the great privilege of time, and space, nature and healing is a sort of wealth. Going through trials and tribulations and overcoming them, is happiness.”

 

featured photo by Jeremy John

 

 

The Land of In-Betweens

We rode out around 10 am. The sky was blue and filled with clouds that reminded me of my childhood drawings– big, puffy, white and animated. We waved goodbye to Claudia and Oliver, two cycle-tourers we had met in Kunming and had decided to cross paths with as often as possible. Legends, they are. And after a few days of hard resting, we pushed pedals toward the lake, past a plethora of wedding photos and Chinese tourist buses and back into the land of in betweens.

My experience of China has showed me overcrowded cities designed for Chinese tourists, filled to the brim with carbon copy jewelry and clothing shops and souvenirs. Hoards of people arrive on the bus, pour into the city like a flood, consume, take photos and leave. Outside these tourist traps, is the land of in betweens. Its scattered parts of the country where no tourist stops but simply passes by through the window of an air-conditioned tour bus.

On a bicycle you have to experience it all. The beautiful, the ugly, the natural and the designed. The only thing constant about the land of in-betweens is that it is always changing. On this mornings ride, we passed the lake after 30 km of lakeside riding and headed into the hills. Up, up and UP we went, panting and hot and covered in sweat. I was tired and starting to go to unpleasant place of “I can’t’s” when we heard a loud “BOOM”

A giant army base appeared seemingly out of nowhere. With no fences or security of any sort, we were able to look over at the barracks, the tanks, the target practice happening before our very eyes. It was surreal, exciting and frightening. We stopped for a few moments, silently watching these incredible and dangerous machines, only feet away from us, practicing to do what they are meant to do– kill.

If that doesn’t shake you out of an internal mental slump, I’m not sure what will. We cycled away discussing our opinions on the army and war and comparing different rhetoric surrounding these subjects in our respective countries. Before we knew it, we had cycled 30 more kilometers and it was time to camp. We usually stop cycling and start looking for a place around 6:30 pm so that we’ll have enough time to set up camp, eat and gaze at the stars.

The camp that evening was glorious. We had pushed our bikes off the road and up a slope to a clearing with flat ground beneath towering wind turbines that spun a whole new evening scene. The sounds were loud, like a never ending crashing ocean– much better than the explosions now heard faintly in the distance. The sky was dense and starry that night. We ate curry in starstruck silence.

This is the land of in-betweens, where the tourist buses pass in a blink of an eye and where we spend most of our days– ears open, eyes open, skin tingling and alive. It takes a while to get used to this life of moving and, seemingly, never arriving. Spending days cycling between cities and watching the land and the architecture change is a whole different way to experience a country and life in general. Not rushing– just moving, observing, becoming as present as you allow yourself to be in there here and now.

Tailwinds,

Nicole

ONE MONTH!

ONE MONTH!!!

We are all connected. I left down a road in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and with fewer turns than you can imagine, I am in Dali, China. The roads may have changed names but they flow into one another, into country after country and after a while this road will bring me all the way to the other side of the world. Let that sink in for a moment. You can leave your front door in Princeton, Denver, Bhaktapur, Changwon– ANYWHERE– and end up on the other side of the world with the push of a bicycle. If that isn’t a unifying and freeing thought, I don’t know what is. It is a thought that has utterly consumed my mind from the commencement of this journey and brought me a sense of connection that startles the soul. It’s journey that allows you to join in on the dance of human spirit.

While all of these roads are connected, they are only mere splices of the countries that I am traveling through. They are glimpses into Thai hippy towns, stilted Laos villages and Chinese cities that seem to be popping up out of nowhere. With slow and sometimes arduous pushes of my bicycle pedals I’ve seen landscapes change under my tires and customs changes across borders. I still miss the Laos children running out into the streets  with a big ‘SABAI DEEEEE!’ with their hands outstretched for a high five.

On these roads that connect us all, I’ve started my days quite similarly. After a terrible instant coffee, I take the few items I own and shove them down my waterproof Ortlieb panniers and open up maps.me to scout out possible stopping destinations and altitude maps for the day. The rest of the day however, I am in the hands of the road. Whether the day is marked by the watermelon truck drivers who pull me over to share some watermelons and selfies or the Laos Gibbons Experience Tour Guides who shared conversations with me before all jumping into a river fully clothed to find relief from the heat of the day, every day has its mark.

Sometimes, the day brings me the most glorious of gifts. New friends from different countries crammed into an abandoned shack in the middle of a rice patty field, surrounded by fireflies and the sound of water making its way through the fields, eating a hodgepodge of sticky rice, tomatoes and mushrooms and laughing at the absurdities of life, comes to mind. Being alone on the road can be difficult sometimes but luckily, when you need it the most, friends appear.

5 months ago, I met Oliver, who had been working in Beijing for three years. He heard about my bike trip and months later, after taking a flight to meet me in Xishuanbanna, we were cycling along side each other en route to Kunming. In Kunming, I met three cyclists in a hostel and nearly one week later, here we are all together in Dali, planning a route out together.

In this month, I have been invited into so many homes, dinner tables, and even given free lifts when the day is heavy with heat and my face, painted with exhaustion. I have been baffled with how much can change in only a few miles and yet how much stays the same. The human spirit– the will to help one another, the innate curiosity for that which is different and the ability to enjoy and bring life to the mundane, is what stays the same.

It’s been a hell of a month full of unlearning and an increased level of curiosity and a trust that everyday has a gem waiting for me somewhere. Let’s see what these next few months have in store..

Tailwinds,

Nicole.