The day will come when I will die. So the only matter of consequence before me is what I will do with my allotted time. I can remain on shore, paralyzed with fear, or I can raise my sails and dip and soar in the breeze.--Richard Bode

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Mongolia from the north

I left Ulan Ubi early because I knew I was going to have to go through Russian/Mongolian customs on the way down to Ulaanbaatar, and that would require 6 hours. The road in Russia was mostly pretty good, interspersed with mile after dusty mile of sand and gravel. Once in Mongolia (surprise, surprise) the road got good again. Northern Mongolia is actually quite pretty, green and hilly. Gotta watch out for livestock though, so don't be admiring the scenery and not paying attention.

U.B. was not at all what I expected. I thought it would be a smallish big town with cows on the street. I guess it was that way 10 years ago, but now it is an enormous city with some of the worst traffic I've ever seen.  I decided to park the motorcycle in the hotel's shed and to take a tour instead.  That turned out to be a good decision. The first thing the tour went to was a giant statue of Gengis Kahn who is the country's hero and, I guess you could say, the country's father, sort of like how George Washington is the father of America.  The statue is way out in the country (I never was able to figure why) and the roads to it are mostly pretty bad.

To show you how big the statue is, I took a telephoto shot of people up on the horse's neck.

Our tour group eventually got there on that horse's neck ourselves. The people in the picture are from various parts of Canada, but they didn't know each other. The guy just to my left in the red shirt was our tour guide. Interestingly enough, he once lived in Illinois and worked in a program for kids ran by Jessie White, Illinois' Secretary of State.

Down in the belly of the statue you can dress up and sit in a Mongol throne.

You see eagles in the skies all over Mongolia, and they often get captured, tied down by a leather leash, and made to pose for pictures. I don't like to encourage such goings on because eagles should be free; still, I wanted to see one close up. They are huge.

There are also a lot of wolves in Mongolia, or so I am told. I never saw one alive and running after some of those many sheep, but I did get to see a lot of their skins hanging by front doors. Maybe the skins are good luck charms.  I don't know though, because the poor wolf wasn't too lucky to get himself shot.

I guess the two hump Bactrian camel once used to be all over Mongolia. Now,  I think they are mostly seen a couple of hundred miles south in the Gobi desert.

Mostly these days there are sheep, goats, cows and horses, but there are a lot of yak also.

I guess they are a little bit mean. I couldn't get any closer without the beast warning me away. Anyway, I don't have time to be yaking about things because our tour guide wants to take us up to the Buddhist shrine  down the road in the National Park.

One of the ladies in our 5 person group thinks she is going to be sore tomorrow.

It's a nice view from up there in the shrine.

The next day we went to the main shrine. It is in the heart of  U.B. It was a special day, but I never could get it straight just what the occasion was. The main monk gave a nice long speech.

I guess it was a good speech because nobody in the audience fell asleep.

Even the band seemed alert and ready to play.

Well, maybe some eyes were starting to sag a little. The instrument with two strings to bow that old droopy eyes is holding is a "horsehead" violin. Here is a big one. Look at the top of the instrument and maybe you can see why it is called horsehead.

Hoses, by the way, are very revered in Mongolia. Kids learn how to ride when they are five or younger. I wish I could be here next month when all around the country there are big fairs where 7  year old kids ride as hard as their horses can go on a cross country race. I don't remember the exact distance of the race, but it is something like 20 kilometers (12 miles). That is nothing by Mongol standards, because the longest horse race in the world is in Mongolia and it is 1,000 km.

Anyway, time to go get some pictures in the monastery; we can let the head monk drone on without us. What do you think of this huge Buddha?

That statue must be 20 feet tall. I think I like the smaller guys better.

There are several smaller shrines in the monastery, and church services were going on it some of them. I felt out of place walking around while people were praying, but our guide said it was okay.

After several days in U.B., I rode back to Russia and I am in the same Ulan Ude hotel I left from days ago. Tomorrow I head on east toward Vladivostok. Time to mark out my route. Here is one last picture of the monastery in U.B. Goodnight.

Ulan Udi and Lake Baikal

I am still riding east across Siberia. This is a huge, but also hugely beautiful, part of Russia. I came by Lake Baikal and stayed the night in place that I saw a sign for along the highway. You never know what you are going to get when you stop at one of these places. My GPS led me way off the road to get to the hotel, and usually when it does that I wind up going back because the road gets terrible. Not in this case, however, because what the hotel turned out to be was a gorgeous ski resort high up over Lake Baikal. It is summer, of course, so no skiing is going on, but there were a lot of people there anyway. Obviously I did not take this winter picture of the ski resort.

 I had planned to camp along the shores of Lake Baikal but I wound up staying in the ski resort instead.  Still, it was fun seeing Lake Baikal. It is huge, and as clear as its reputation says it is.

All I had read said that I should stop at Ulan Udi which I was told was a good place to visit Lake Baikal from. As it turned out, Ulan Udi is a huge, beautiful and clean city, but it is also quite far from Lake Baikal. However, it did have other interesting things to see and do, one of them being a park with pioneer buildings in it.

It was kind of fun wandering around and taking pictures of the way things were in Siberia around 1920 or so.

Another must do thing in Ulan Udi is to visit the brand new Tibetan Buddhist monastery up on the hill overlooking the city.

Do you recognize the guy in this next picture. Yep, its the Dalai Lama. He "okay-ed" the construction of this monastery, and was here to open it when it was done.

I got to attend a church service while I was there. It was pretty interesting, but far different from the one I went to in Vietnam. It that one, the place was very dark except for a single tiny light, and there we all sat quietly and meditated. It this one here in Ulan Udi, there was a lot of singing and chanting. The singing was "throat singing". You will have to look up "throat singing" on Youtube if you want to hear a sample.

There are some pretty cool statues inside the church. Again, I have to say that this Tibetan Buddhism is a lot different than the kind practiced in China. There, the fog of incense is thick and the churches are dark inside.

Also, in this Tibetan Buddhism there seems to be a lot of emphasis on prayer wheels and prayer flags. Whereas in China you would  buy a stick of incense to carry your prayers to heaven, here it is done with flags which are often placed outdoors in memory of loved ones.

I stopped here in Ulan Ude on purpose because it is from here that the road goes south to Ulaan Baatar, the capitol of Mongolia. I wasn't able to negotiate the paths to U.B. across the mountains from the west, so now I will find out it it is better coming in from the north.  Wish me luck.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A failed attempt to navigate through Mongolia

Crossing the border from Russia into Mongolia was quite the frustrating experience. It took 5 hours to cut through all the red tape, going from one window to another and from one checkpoint to the next. One of the problems was that the Mongolian and Kazach bus drivers, who all seem to know one another, kept jumping the line while holding a fist full of passports belonging to the passengers in their vehicles. At one point, as the border guards were going through my luggage, they started asking for my "Emergency Book" for the ambulance. I had no idea what they wanted from me and tried showing them my insurance certificates and my emergency transport cards, none of which they wanted. Finally they located my first aid kit: "Ah", they said, "Emergency book." What they seemed to want was to make sure I didn't have any syringes with morphine in them.

Once through, I was instantly set upon by people wanting to sell me insurance, change my money, act as a guide, rent me a place to sleep, sell me a meal. One guy on a motorcycle was especially persistent and tailed me for miles trying to get me to stop and buy stuff.

The Mongolian roads were nice in spots, wash board rough in other spots, and a true mess much of the time.

I was trying to follow a main highway across Mongolia to Ulan Bator, the capital.  You gotta be careful because there are cows, sheep, goats and horses all over the place.

Mongolia is the land of the yerts or yurts.  They are a pretty good place to spend the night.

The yurts that the family live in are often carpeted and ornate inside. The ones rented out, though, were often shared by six or so men and women. That was okay by me, but I needed to blow up my sleeping pad and my pillow for the hard beds. I am such a spoiled old man.

The road I was trying to follow is supposed to be a major one, but about 80 miles of it is not paved. Sometimes I followed big trucks who threw up huge clouds of dust. At other times I went up thick sand berms. It was a struggle. Once, while going through a town, some kids were blocking the road, and one of them, a boy of about 12, shoved my bike from the side. I felt it, but didn't go over, thank goodness. Later, I encountered that same boy and he picked up a big rock and acted like he was going to throw it at me. I don't know if he did throw it or not. At any rate, it didn't hit me. No picture of him, but here is a picture of the road at one of the many water crossings.

The road kept getting smaller, and I was really worried that I could not do the full 80 miles of it before I was due to hit asphalt again. Suddenly I ran into a narrow stretch of fist sized rocks, and, bam, just like that I was down.

Th crash sheared off my center stand, and that is something I will really miss having. Fortunately I merely bruised my ankle on a big rock and didn't break it. That was good because I needed my entire body to function as I picked up the bike. And, as it turned out, I had to unload everything to get it up. To make matters worse, after I got it up, and as I tried to get it going straight again, it flipped over on its other side.

As you can see from the pictures, there were no vehicles coming from either direction. There was a herd of yaks passing by however.

With no other vehicles on this "major road" and with miles and miles to go before I got to the "good road" I decided to turn back and go around the north side of Mongolia to Lake Baikal where my map shows a tarmac road down to Ulan Bator.  Unfortunately that meant going through customs again; five hours again.

So, now I am back in the Altai region of Siberia. I went west, back through the big, snow covered mountains that had so impressed me as I rode east days ago.

As soon as I cleared the mountains, he turned north and east. I was still in the Altai region of Siberia, but the hills were much smaller. I liked them a lot. They reminded me of the Ozarks in Arkansas.

Mostly, the roads here are the nicest I've found in Russia. Maybe that is because there is not a great deal of heavy traffic to tear them up. The people are nice too, and seem to want to help me. I try to talk to them with Google Translate, and I wonder if the translations they see of mine look as funny as those I see of theirs. I mean, what is "fur coat soup"?  The cities are nice too. One I stayed in, Biysk, had a big party going on -- I think it was "Signing of the Russian Constitution" day or something. Unfortunately for them it was raining. I tried walking around on the river walk, but the rain kind of made most people stay inside except during the rare moments of clearing.

It turns out that Siberia is far from the bleak area I had pictured from my reading of the days when Stalin exiled his political prisoners here. The cities and countryside are absolutely lovely.  I mean, who but happy people would put up this whimsical elephant on their walking paths?

I loved this bench. Notice that it slants to the center so that lovers have no choice but to cuddle together. Also, notice the locks lovers have put on it.

Several of the streets were blocked off when I arrived in town, and I could not get through to my hotel. A policeman noticed that I was having trouble, and he flagged down a passing cop car to lead me through the bottlenecks. How nice is that? Don't be confused by the blue skies in this picture. I took it the following morning. Still, you can see how wet the streets still were.

I spent way too much over budget for both my hotel and my evening meal, but both were worth every penny. Around 10 pm, after the rain had stopped, they set off the most dynamic aerial fireworks display I've ever seen.

                                Image result for fireworks

Something I did not tell you was that, as I was coming around a curve while leaving Mongolia, I suddenly found myself in the middle of a herd of cows. I almost hit one in its right rear quarter, and would have too had it not suddenly jumped out of the way, spraying cow diarrhea all over the right side of both Odysseus and me. Yuck. What an embarrassing predicament that was. This morning, while buying gas, I asked the girls in the station, by Google Translate, where I could wash my motorcycle. Laughing, they showed me that there was a car wash attached to the station and manned by two teenage boys. They did a marvelous job washing Odysseus, and now he purrs like a kitten and runs like a cheetah.

My 5 star hotel last night, the only hotel I could find, cost me a budget busting $114.00. Tonight I am in one that I like just as well and it only cost me $14.00. I guess things average out.

I think I will be to Lake Baikal is another two days -- distances are so vast here in Russia. I guess my next post might be from there, but don't hold your breath waiting.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Riding through Siberia

I haven't posted anything since Djin and I left Moscow in the cold, miserable rain. That seems like ages ago. Since then, the weather has cleared up and it has gotten much warmer, especially after I crossed the Ural Mountains into Siberia. At first, riding through Siberia was like riding through Minnesota, tabletop flat with lots of bogs and lakes and trees growing in patches. Maybe because it was still early in the season, but there was nothing growing in the enormous fields. There were also no farmhouses. Instead, all the people were in small villages which were scattered from time to time along the road.

One of my favorite things has been meeting the people. The first thing they always seem to want to know is where I am from, and they are surprised to find out that I am from the USA, although the initials USA are meaningless to them, but they certainly understand when I say I am from America.

This tall young man wanted to practice his English with me, and talked with me for the longest time at a gas station.  The gas station lady came out and took our picture. I'm 6'2", so I am considered tall, but he is NBA material.

I stayed one night at a large lake which, they proudly told me, is considered "the little Bikal". By that time, my bike was filthy and I borrowed a bucket and washed it with lake water.

A family with two young kids stopped to talk with me. I let the kids sit on my bike. Aren't they cute?

My tires were starting to get some miles on them. They were still okay and would take me as far as Ulan Bator in Mongolia, but I got afraid that I would not be able to find tires there, and then what would I do.  I stopped in Barnaul, a huge city with about 20 motorcycle shops, none of which I could located. Not knowing what to do to find tires, I stopped in a hardware store to ask for directions. The staff there was so nice. They printed me out a map, gave me a gift of a key chain with a built in screwdriver, and finally the young co-owner got in his company car and led me out to look for tires. That's him, Alexander, on the right. I didn't get the name of the young lady behind the desk, but she was working at the first motorcycle shop we went to.

It turns out my bike requires a rather unusual size tire by Russian standards. The girl got on the phone and finally located what are apparently the only two tires of my size in that huge city. Alexander led me across town to find the shop, and I have to say that without his help I never would have located it. It was in the back of a building, up and concrete ramp into the building, and down a dark, dark hallway. It was the strangest ride I've ever done. The shop was a filthy looking place, but the old man who changed my tires (and oil) sure knew what he was doing with his primitive equipment.

The tires are knobbies, and this is the first time my motorcycle, Odysseus, has ever had shoes like that. The tires are 40% road and 60% off road tires, which I am told I will be glad I have once I get to Mongolia. I will say they handle fine on the tarmac and give me a lot more confidence when in the gravel.

As I left Barnaul, the road passed through deep forests. Soon I was riding through swarms of white butterflies.

Those guys committed suicide by the hundreds against various parts of both Odysseus and me.

I was passing along through the Altai District of Siberia which lies between Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Gradually the rode rose up out of the forests and followed a river higher and higher.

Soon I started seeing snow on the mountains.

At one mountain pass there were the souvenir stands that always seem to crop up at such places.

These two guys from Austria were taking a break there. They had just came from Ulan Bator by the northern route and were headed back to Moscow and on home to Austria. There are three routes across Mongolia. The northern route, they told me, is sandy desert with no marked roads and very little gas. They have me convinced to do the middle route.

All day long I have had to be careful rounding curves in the road because you never know what is going to be camped out in the middle of the road: horses, cows, sheep, goats, or even another vehicle. Gotta stay alert boy.

I am stopped for the night at the last town of any size before the Mongolian border. It has perhaps 10,000 inhabitants and absolutely no restaurants. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they had WiFi here. That is very rare in these small villages. My bedroom is fine, but I can't say there is a scenic view. That is a street down there, and every so often a car goes down it.

I have to say that the view from last night's window was better.

So, no more internet until I ride the 1,000 miles to Ulan Bator. I will post again from there, and maybe I will have some cool pictures.