There are times in life when things start to feel stagnant. The extremity of the feeling varies person by person but there is little doubt that every person who has walked this beautiful earth has felt that helpless feeling. Helpless no more we decided. After a year in ultra-conservative, think-in-the-box South Korea, we needed a trip that would test our limits, justify why the hell I had picked up and moved from a happening city where I could drink beautiful, rich beers in tiny corner pubs to a place where the local “Hite” tasted more like formaldehyde than anything resembling a brew. After careful consideration (internet travel message boards after a few glasses of whiskey) we decided Chinggis Khan’s kingdom was beckoning. We would head over to China and catch a northbound train to Mongolia. We knew little about Mongolia, we knew even less about motorcycles. It was settled, we would ride motorcycles across Mongolia.
For the last 2 months of my contract in Korea, I passed away the days by teaching, working out, then doing as much research as I could about Mongolia and how we best could pull this trip off. I still think it was fair to assign my 5th grade E.S.L. class a project on miles per gallon for motorcycles and Mongolian infrastructure. If only Joon-Kim would have stopped asking me why we were studying backroads of Mongolia. “But Mr. Acker I don’t even have a motorcycle, and what is Mongolia?” isn’t an acceptable answer to “Where is the best place to fill-up your motorcycle between Ulan Batur and Erdenet. I hope that kid got his stuff together.
What we found out was probably as much as you currently know. It’s a country somewhere between China and Russia. It has a ton of open space and not very many people. Most recommendations about motorcycling from people who traveled there went something like this—“I saw someone doing it, he looked pretty sad” or “Are you going for a BMW-R1200?” (that bike costs upwards of $16,000). We finally concluded that we would arrive to the capital and buy two Chinese models. Buying a Chinese bike over a Russian bike is apparently the equivalent of buying a Pontiac Sunbird over a Saab. But as those of us who have owned a Sunbird before can attest, they are a hell of a lot cheaper. By the way, if anyone has seen that car, (I lost it in a bet to a guy named Phillip and a three-legged dog), give her a hug for me and whatever you do, under no circumstance should you try and drive it with out your seatbelt on. You’ve been warned.
Preparing for the trip in our South Korean studio apartments proved to be a challenge. We had shit strewn around like a garage sale in the ghetto. This was organized chaos with out the organized part. We didn’t want to take much gear so it mainly consisted of really cheap, really useless stuff we found in Chinese markets. For example, a small Chinese-made flashlight equipped with a red laser beam. I’d like to say I bought this because it was a flashlight when in fact I bought it because it had a laser beam.
The train ride to Seoul was uneventful. We just wanted to be in Mongolia already. We caught a 36 hour ferry ride to Tanjin, China from Seoul. The ferry had the feel of the Titanic and we were definitely sleeping where Jack slept. 4 of us jammed into a corner of a back room that smelled like fish and poo. It was the most glorious 36 hours of my life. Regardless we made it to Tanjin and then because of a lack of busses, had to take a taxi to the train station to catch a train to Beijing.
The taxi driver spoke no English and wrote down his fare request on a napkin on our way to the Tanjin train station, a roughly 45 minute ride. Seeing as how we had never been to China before and we failed in our preliminary research to find out the exchange rate for the Yuan, we had no idea if the smelly driver was requesting the equivalent of $50 or $500. Not caring for our predicament, the driver sped on to Tanjin and we knew we had to figure out how much he was requesting before arrival to a dark alley in Tanjin where Mr. Wong, the only person who lifts weights in China would strongly recommend we pay the agreed upon fare.
I yelled for the driver to stop at the equivalent of an American Wal-Mart and told the cabbie to keep the meter running while I booked it inside the store. I needed to find something priced universally where I could quickly calculate the exchange rate. Beer. I can rattle off the top beers in 43 different countries so I was quickly directed to the beer isle where I learned the cabbie was indeed charging us a very reasonable rate. An hour later we were waiting for our bullet train to Beijing in the Tanjin airport, a cold six pack of Tsingtao in hand.
We stayed in Beijing for a few days. It was my second trip to Beijing in as many months so we didn’t do much exploring. We soaked in our last bit of modern civilization (food courts, movies in the hostel, e-mail) and woke up real early one morning and humped it a mile over to the Beijing Central Train Station. We had booked our tickets in advance (strongly recommended) and headed down towards the cement platforms to find our train. Finding the train would not be a problem. You mean we weren’t going to be taking this super shiny silver train that looks like a spaceship to Mongolia? Our train looked like a real version of a model train a 7 year old kid would get from his grandfather for Christmas.
We spent the next 36 hours en route to Mongolia in a small cabin car with two old guys from Mallorca, Spain. They didn’t speak any English so I became David Holt’s personal translator. The northern part of China we saw was very industrial. It was easy to see how almost 1.5 billion people live in that country. The “small” cities looked like 3 Detroits all lined up next to each other.
At the Chinese-Mongolian border, the train stops and you have two choices, stay on the train while they change the wheels (they use a different size track in Mongolia) or get off and wait at the customs “station.” We opted for the former (how often do you get to see a train change its wheels?) and then were forced into the latter when we were sitting on a stoop outside of the customs station having a drink and our train pulled away. I’d like to tell you all I knew the train was just going down the tracks a mile or so to a waiting garage to change out the wheels but that’d be a lie. 10-12 seconds of panic led me to believe I was being deserted and would spend the next 3-4 years of my life in the customs station on the Mongolian-Chinese border.
We pulled into the Ulan Batur train station and were more than happy to get the hell out of our now-stinky, dirty 6 x 6 cabin car we spent 40 hours in with two hairy old guys. We stepped out and a young woman approached us speaking pretty decent English telling us about a place we could sleep. We weren’t really sure what she meant but at this point we had no options so we did what any stranger in a strange land would do—got in a strange car with her and another really big Mongolian guy and off we went. They dropped us off down a dirt alley and a giant steel door slid open. Behind it was the man who would single-handedly make our adventure possible, Papa Mongolia.
Behind the massive steel door that could have been bigger than the one at the U.S. Embassy was a short, 50-something, pot-bellied, Mongolian man with grayish-black hair and a firm handshake. He immediately tried to sell us the most expensive room in the “hostel” for a whopping 25 dollars a night. I use quotation marks with hostel because it was more his house that had a few spare bedrooms that he may or may have not built himself. In the middle of his driveway, he had a giant ger tent that also had beds. We decided to compromise between the two and settled for a semi-private room for 15 bucks.
We headed to bed early that night, unsure of what the hell would we do in the morning. The first night inside the hostel was shockingly cold. We weren’t sure what we expected Mongolia to be like but 20 degree (F) temps in August wasn’t what we had in mind. We both woke up the next morning somewhat awestruck staring into our backpacks which had sandals, tank-tops, one pair of pants, and lots of socks and underwear. That night and are ill-equipped rucksack was a lesson in foreshadowing. Bitter cold was in our future and we both knew it.
The next morning Papa Mongolia came into the kitchen with bread and butter that he offers all his guests. He tried to pawn us off on some guided trips to the Gobi or a jeep trip to the ancient capital of Mongolia but we knew why we had traveled 3 plus days and it wasn’t to sit in the back of a jeep and listen to: “There is sand, and tree, and now we meet typical Mongolian family.” We told Papa Mongolia of our plans and I wish I could say he didn’t immediately look us up and down. Dave and I both liked to believe we had prepared physically for this trip but mostly we just played with BB guns and drank beer our last 5 months in South Korea. We knew if we were ever in a BB gun fight in Mongolia we’d crush, but motorcycles in Mongolia? I think Papa was right to be sizing us up.
He reluctantly agreed to take us down to the black market (not stolen things, just what they call it) to search for a motorcycle. We grabbed a taxi for a 4 km drive to the other side of town where we walked the aisles of the old car area looking for acceptable bikes. My eyes immediately drifted for the scooters but Dave convinced me a man’s bike was needed. I nodded my head in fear and off we went to the more “manly” bikes. I’ll admit it was an awkward few of hours.
Living in South Korea, we had grown accustomed to being stared at, but as we walked the dirt aisles lined with bikes and spare parts for horses we noticed we were being sized up as well. The conversations weren’t how you’d think typical bike-bartering conversations would go but this was to be expected as both of us had NEVER ridden a motorcycle before in our lifetimes, a sample if you will
Jared (looking at random bike): How much for this?
Vendor: I make good deal, you want to try?
Jared (becoming nervous) Try? Hmm, so hypothetically speaking, if I were to crash this bike on my “try” would I have to buy it?
Jared: Yeah, it looks good to me, I’ll buy it.
9 days after leaving our comfortable one-bedroom apartments and our cushy job with air conditioning and heat, we were standing in the black market of Ulan-Batur, Mongolia with two
motorcycles about to embark on a 2000 km trip. All the bullshitting had become a reality, tomorrow we would hit the road. We were prepared little for what was to come, but we preferred it that way.
Check back in a week for the 2nd part of the 3-part entry.
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