Between leaving and staying there is a very fine line called fear.
This sensation acts over us like an invisible veil that, many times, is a limiting barrier to the step forward. As Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now, you’ll be more disappointed in the things you didn’t do than in the things you did. So, get rid of the bindings. Sail away from your safe haven. Catch the trade winds with your sails. Explore. Dream. Find it out.”
In this X-Perience, we ride together to Mongolia with our NEXX Riders Anabela and Jorge Valente (DiariesOf): a couple of adventurers who decided to take the first step and break through the barrier of fear, leaving behind what they had already gained – to add up what they still have to know and to gain – to travel the WORLD, without looking back.
Visiting a country for the first time is always an adventure, an opportunity to see if the preconceived ideas about that place are right or wrong, is it true what we read, research and analyse before reaching our destination?
“For us, Mongolia is the homeland of the vast empire conquered by Genghis Khan, a kingdom that finally collapsed to its titan neighbours, China and Russia. As we approach, our minds fill with brave knights, fearsome warriors and nomadic tribes in the vast and scenic steppes.”
They leave the Russian border behind and don’t immediately see the Mongolian one. Occasionally, there is a no man’s land between two neighbouring countries, especially at the most remote borders. They continue on their way until, after a few kilometres, they begin to wonder if they are not completely lost.
“A small building we saw gave us the strength to continue. We would certainly find someone to help us understand our location. Unfortunately, when we arrived, there wasn’t even a soul. In fact, it was an abandoned warehouse. We couldn’t help but think it was funny because the arm of the barrier was standing there, alone in nature, like one of Magritte’s doors, easily bypassed. A meaningless existence. As we prepared to round the lost border, a man with the most stunned face we’ve ever seen jumped out of the house, obviously not expecting visitors, and slowly composed himself. He mumbled the word ‘passports’, still incredulous that someone was passing there, in the middle of nowhere; very quickly he returned the documents to us and motioned for us to proceed.”
With just 30 days to explore the world’s 18th largest country, Jorge and Anabela were torn between running to see as much as possible or idling to absorb more of that country. The trip turned out to be a combination of both. They abandoned the idea of visiting the most remote tribes like the reindeer herders, the Tsaatan, but even so they didn’t hurry and took the time to camp near the Gers where they found nomads and got to know more about their lifestyle, culture and beliefs.
“Our first 20 km in Mongolia, from the border towards Olgii, gave us an excellent idea of what to expect from the roads in this country. There would be a lot of off-road and dirt roads that tend to get very slippery in the rain but, luckily, Mongolia lived up to its reputation as the land of blue skies and the roads remained dry throughout our trip!”
Upon reaching Olgii, they spot another foreign motorcycle, a Honda Transalp. It belonged to a couple from northern Spain who were also planning to find a route that would take them to Ulaanbaatar. They would gain knowledge, experiences and sympathy, thus traveling part of the journey together.
The trip falls very quickly into a simple routine: riding a motorcycle, eating and setting up wild camps without any obligatory visits, completely free of obligations; even habits like combing your hair, wearing clean clothes or taking a shower are packed and forgotten in the bottom of your suitcases, all of this exchanged for dazzling places, warm bonfires at dusk and gazing at the stars, in the company of new friends.
“We feel free. We felt like nomads on the road with the sole purpose of traveling east to reach Ulaanbaatar before our 30-day visa expires. Besides, we were free to do what we wanted. All that was left for us to do was enjoy the walk, the landscape, eat and find a safe place to set up camp and spend the night. Could Life be simpler and more meaningful than this?”
Life couldn’t be simpler but it was there to remind our Riders that it could certainly get more complicated. These obstacles appeared in the form of crossing a river, water or even the landscape that opened in all directions. This is the beauty of Mongolia and something they really appreciate, an endless world and limitless expanses of Mongolian pastures. This landscape often comes with additional challenges, especially on the way from Altai to Uliastai where the dirt road multiplies into several tracks without knowing which one to follow.
“The map showed us the existence of a single road. Where did all these others come from? Which one is the road on the map? After a meticulous review of the map and prolonged discussion between the four of us, we made the decision with a game of rock-paper-scissors! So, we finally moved on, calculated that all paths would probably lead to the same place. It wasn’t like that, sometimes we had to go through the fields to get back on the road and not go in the wrong direction. It was also here that we found sand for the first time in Mongolia, it was a big challenge, not because of the terrain itself but because of the total weight of the bikes, our weight and all the equipment – we had to drive with extra care to avoid more sandbanks. “
Positive point, not sharing the road with impatient trucks and drivers but with goats and horses, sometimes a slower ride, sometimes a race alongside a herd of horses, once again, the freedom to feel nature in its most pure. During the entire route, the village is almost non-existent, so they always take the opportunity to get closer to the gers that appear along the landscape. They never find ger settlements, only two or three together and generally belonging to the same family. They camp near them or are even invited to stay with their family. From the outside, the gers look like fragile dome-shaped tents but their structure is really robust.
“Entering a ger is like entering the magical world of Alice’s rabbit hole. They are like big apartments that accommodate all the furniture of a family in a single room. Comfortable and cosy. The finishing touch is given by the colourful rugs that cover the floor, walls and ceiling. We were really surprised because some families had electricity generated by solar panels and batteries and even TV with satellite dishes.”
Staying in a ger or camping next to one is the opportunity for Jorge and Anabela Valente to witness the nomadic lifestyle first hand, in which everyone participates, including children. The work is done by all members of the family, each one knows their tasks and what is to be done with each passing day, from simple milking to keeping the land green so that the animals can graze. Children play, everyone breathes the same fresh steppe air and everyone shares the same goal: TO LIVE!
“After setting up the camp and letting the kids sit on our bikes for a while, it was time to move on. The kids ran after us until they got tired and we were able to follow the plain in front of us, at least until our stomachs called for food. Near the villages there were grocery stores that sold the mythical instant pasta we cooked on our gas stove. We always avoided full stomachs because there are many paths that are difficult to cross.”
“Not creating expectations” goes hand in hand with the discovery of great revelations. In Kharkhorin, the unexpected happens, our adventurous couple discover a very good hotel and some hostels. Home to the Erdene Zuu Monastery, the most important religious centre in Mongolia, UNESCO heritage and museum, its name means ‘a hundred treasures’, a number referring to the hundred Stupas that form the outer walls of the sacred site.
“Here, in this religious place, was also where we said goodbye to our friends Oscar and Cristina who had less time to spare than us and had to move on while we had planned some more detours. Tears in our eyes; the tight hug and the well-being of having known and experienced the pleasure of new friends for life, the wish for good luck and the desire to meet again anytime, anywhere in the world.”
Continue on to the Naadam festivities, a traditional festival that takes place across Mongolia in July. A strategic break to rest and once again enjoy the good in life and in that country.
When the festivities are over, they take a detour to the Gobi Desert without thinking twice, it’s two ‘YES’. Two lovers of the desert would not miss this opportunity, even knowing the difficulties of riding motorcycles in the sand and the poor conditions for fuel and heat. They could have opted for a 4-wheel drive vehicle but it wouldn’t have been the same thing.
“We left Ulaanbaatar towards Dalanzadgad, with mixed feelings. From what we were told, the good news was that we would probably not die of thirst in the desert. However, the bad news was that there was a good chance we would never get there. If the sand is too much for Jorge’s sand driving skills (and his nerves can take it), we may have to make a U-turn before the dunes. The area we wanted to reach was called Khongoryn Els and is notable for its huge sand dunes.”
When they arrive in Dalanzadgad, the biggest city before the desert, they don’t fail to notice all the 4×4 and old Buhankas Russos (the Russian off-road equivalent of the VW vans), all fully equipped and ready for the Gobi adventure. It is also here that the last service station to refuel before the desert is located and unfortunately, it is closed. But thanks to their new Mongolian friends, they manage to get someone to open the gas station, refuel and move on.
“We had everything we needed. From here, we leave the asphalt road behind. The next 180 kilometres were just gravel and sand. As a bonus, we also experienced a strong storm that turned into a sandstorm. When the storm hit us, we looked around and came to the awful realization that we were at the highest point in the desert, so we stopped and sat on the ground, away from the bike, and waited for the clouds to clear.”
The desert’s difficulties appear in sequential order. You have to drive very carefully due to the sandbanks. A fall or other accident can be fatal. The sun, usually an ally, becomes one of the main challenges, the arid terrain and the heat don’t help and Anabela feels weak, the only shadow that exists is the shadow of the bike, which also emanates a lot of heat around it.
“We were hoping to find some gers closer to the dunes where we could rest and get some shade. So we keep going, stopping every now and then. We were relieved when we spotted some gers on the horizon for the night. The spectacular dunes were already in sight. We could go to them after a good night’s sleep. But as soon as we got to the ger camp, Anabela started vomiting. We must have underestimated the weather. These can be the symptoms of heat stroke. The campers realized our fragile condition and treated us as special guests, which included preparing rice soup to soothe our stomachs and not let us sleep in our tent. Instead, they offered one of their most comfortable gers.”
Refreshed after a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, they follow the path to the dunes that are right next door, however, the final part of the desert to climb them would have to be done on foot, a challenge that not for everyone…They stop at the fourth dune where they are already at a good height to see all the beauty that surrounds them.
“After a few minutes there, admiring the landscape of frozen waves of sand, we stopped hearing our hearts beating. Our heart finally rested and so did our eyes, with this monochromatic and minimalist landscape, which repeated itself as far as our eyes could see. When the heart and eyes rest, so does the soul. Silence sets in, we feel our body and meditation happens organically. Is that what attracted us to the desert? This healing silence? That state of graceful awareness that easily makes so clear what’s important and what’s superfluous? Silence, darkness, seclusion, vast expanses, wide open spaces. Do we all carry a hermit within us? Someone who yearns for silence and seclusion? Or are we just tired of the maddening noise of our accelerating civilization?”
Mongolia, what a country! Although they would have loved to stay longer, our NEXX Riders visas would expire in 2 days, so they had to continue their journey towards the Republic of Buryatia, Russia. This would be the couple’s second time in Russia but in a completely different region and with 10 days they were granted to travel 4000km to Vladivostok…
TESTIMONY / PHOTOGRAPHY / VIDEO
‘DIARIES OF’ by JORGE & ANABELA VALENTE