|Worldcycle > World Friends > Maarten Index > Newsletter 10|
Two days ago I arrived in Almaty, formerly known as Alma Ata , the capital of Kazachstan. A city embedded in the foots of the Tian Shan mountains, which drastically indicates the border of my next country to visit, Kirghezstan.
Kirgezstan can wait for a while though. After riding under severe rules of the calendar, eating away too many miles of asphalt for the limited amount of days, I finally have some spare time on my Kazachi visa. I am supposed to climb Tian Shan in 12 days time Almaty and its mountains seems to be a nice city to spend some time and with whom better than my girlfriend who is coming tomorrow. For the next week, don't expect any email activity from my hand. We really want to relax, I can image a nice shady spot under a tree next to a trickling creek, fed by the glaciers above us.
I have a mailbox full of unread mail and I decided to write the newsletter first. I hope you are all fine I have one sad announcement to make. A friend of mine from Holland, 'Gerrit' passed away. It strikes me deeply since I relate to his ambitions and his quest for squeezing the juice out of life. The announcement which I found at the Dutch Embassy, learned me that this quest turned out too much for him, he couldn't carry it anymore. He asked me only a month ago if he could support me by any means in my tour, to send MD diskettes or something else So much energy I got out of his supportive letter, so much energy drains out of my soul reading the news of his death. I can image him questing his plans and his frustrations regarding not finding perfection.
I think it is good that my friends from all corners of the world cross Gerrit through their minds.
I also have the habit of questing plans too intensively. Than as soon as they are realized, not to stand still and enjoy the result but already looking to a next horizon too quickly and hungry. If they don't succeed the way as foreseen, to be frustrated. Even after being 7 year on the road, improvising, adapting to such different and uncontrollable environments, trying to understand the different cultural realities, I still have a tendency to get frustrated with "imperfections" perceived through my occasional impatient mind. I think we all should except it is gray. It should not be perfect too, because imperfection makes life possible, colorful, interesting. As long as we value differences, and not try to trim our unique human characteristics(children) into perfect 'top dog' programmed creatures ,ready to swiftly hunt to the most desirable goals, outlined by opinion makers. Free from expectations of peer groups one can release stress and find the inner path.. We have to be happy with who we are, cherish our characteristics. Ones that is achieved it is much easier to put 'water-in-the-wine' and see the virtue in differences, imperfection doesn't exist no more::
I am getting a bit sucked away in my "train-of thought",(thanks Richard for the expression).
Let me continue with some stories about my quest through the world. I did get to the edge of loosing it a couple of time. A combination of pushing my body and mind a bit too much. Three constant factors I had to cope with: heat, competing against time and the constant company of "Kammore". Kammore is , russian for buzzing, stinging insects, from sand-, horse- and normal flies to mosquitos and bees. All in various calibers. Summers in Siberia are known for this nuisance. I got a nice email from my Australian friend, Julie. She warned me to not fight the elements but harmonize, compromise with mother nature. Their is a natural timing process too, Quote:" If there appears to be an obstacle in your path, consider that even a delay may prove beneficial. Do not overly eager to process forward, for this is not the time or situation in which you can make your influence felt. Patience is the counsel Eihwaz ( is the Rune Stone and Viking symbol for defence) and offers: nothing hectic, no acting needy, or lusting a desired outcome. ", end quote.
She felt from previous letters that I have been fighting the elements too much, I quess she is right. My road experience learnt me that by the time I get to fed up with answering the people's curiosity, I need to rest and charge up the batteries, mentally even more than physically. But in my limited 1 month stay in Russia I had too force it a bit. Mother Nature has been with me though, since Lake Baikal, the wind was mostly blowing in the back.
I had to sing Sherry's song, "Hey Mister Wind you are a good friend of mine", a couple of times.
Ulaan Baatar to Lake Baikal
I had only 4 days to ride 330 km to the Russian Border. I left Ulaan Baatar late and quite emotional too. Chimeddorj, my host, and his family gave me presents the night before. He mongolianised my tent with a beautiful drawing of the countryside. He loves the life on the steppe as well. Besides he painted on a T-shirt a green horse galloping in the night while looking up to the yellow moon. That strikes me because greenhorse is his nickname and visiting his atelier it is my favorite painting Besides he baked 'borsak', Mongolian fried biscuits, which Mongolians take when they go travelling. Riding out of the sunny capital, I feel magic moments with people. On the 'Black Market' open air market I buy an extra tyre and patches. A little further, inside a smelly shack full of freshly peeled-off sheepskin, I record the radio-newsflash on me in town on MD player using my shortwave radio. It is the only quiet spot I find in the immediate area at the time of broadcast. The people looked at me if I was from Mars, Riding out of the suburbs, 2 cars stop and give me each a big bag of borsak for on the road. What a superb sponsoring, it gives so much power the love of people. Tears run down on my cheeks.
And than, a sudden change. After 11 days in the buzzing city, all at once complete silence and surrounded by green meadows and mountains. It is a loud sound of silence as I make a slide of the road sign. I left already late and I get more delay as I find a bird stuck in the soft asphalt. I pull it out and visit the next yurta (nomadic house). I get a warm reception , the whole family gallops back to their house and share the circle inside. I get my first cup of 'Kumiss', horse milk and I am extra sensitive for the social gathering in the silent grassland, just having left the city an hour ago.
They give me the butter I ask for and I clean the bird, an elaborate job, but it pays off since its feet are undamaged. I leave the bird to the care of the family and ride back to the road. I would have loved to stay there , no time. A strong headwind but beautiful late afternoon light gleaming the herds of yaks, horses goats and sheep. I have never seen grasslands being grazed by such quantities and mixture of color The herders carrying the long stick. Guiding them back to the yurta, where they are kept in round fenced areas, protected for the night.
I ride in the evening, after a unforgettable moment as the day flows into a windstill night. Dust billows as silhouettes of trucks tremble over the dirt road, behind them the orange horizon. I see soft lights glaring out of the open doors of the yurtas, I listen to fine music as I scream out loud my feelings towards this sheer beauty. I feel so free, I am on the road, I feel no fear, I feel so much in control I feel in my element, I look up to the moon and I realize that Chimeddorj's green horse is my windhorse, Lung Ta, in Tibetan. I remember reading a book about windhorse visiting Anette in Salt Lake. This feeling is described in the book I might write about it later in the tour.
Yes, the feeling of no fear, the feeling of being at home wherever I am is nice. People along the road are stunned that I have no fear for the bandits, mafia. Not afraid to sleep "na Ulice", along the road in the steppe or forests. Almost everyday a couple of times, this issue is raised. Because of most questions being similar, they think I speak their language quite well.
This very cold night ends sad. It is part of life but why so cruel ? After having saved a bird from being flattened on the road, I found my tent being pitched next to a fowl having its torturing death. I am guided here by a soft light glimmering out of a yurta's door in the distance. I ride over the grasslands using the starry night as light and a soft light as beacon. I present myself to a cluster of surprised eyes lit up by a candle on the table. A big family whom just had dinner. The girls' long black hair shines in the candlelight too. They feed me, they quench me, they trickle my soul in the hour before bedtime. Than as I pitch tent the sound of agony, lungs are being squeezed, earth is being scratched. I think it is a dog but as I caress its soft and warm skin, much to the surprise of the family, I realize she is a caramel toned fowl. I take a thick blanked which was ironically covering a motorcycle next to her, thug the poor thing in and stay for an hour, accompanying her last hours. I feel sad and angry. It is unfair, why this fowl has to suffer so much and can't grow into a horse ? I ask the stars as I lay my head on her neck. Why are the people so indifferent about the suffering ?. I asked them to shoot her, they just shake their head indifferently. I hear them still whispering as they lay on the wooden floor and in their beds. Tears flow down my cheek. Too much for one day. I speak nice words to the fowl whose bowels are not functioning. Her journey on this earth was only meant to last 2 days. I sleep in an upset mood, still hearing her suffering . As I wake up by sound of a herd of released goat, I go and see her., She is as cold as the morning. As stiff as ice. I will never forget this cruel part of life.
I speed through the more and more forested mountains. People cook on wood rather than manure. It must be quite an altitude here. It stays cold the whole day and days to come. A lot of the promised paved road is under construction and the headwind slows me down as well. I am tired after little sleep and as I lay under some scrub eating borsak, an old Mercedes diesel passes. Friends of Chimeddorj. They insist on taking me to their house in Darhan, 90 km north. They can't image why not, I must admit it is for a moment difficult to decide as rain clouds where approaching and I feel undercooled. I am glad I didn't, I can't, I have to bike it all. I made it to Darhan that dark evening and slept in my last Mongolian yurta, hosted with a father and 2 sons.
Another highlight on that tour to the border was a nice river where I recover myself in the wound of mother nature. I meet 4 Mongolians on bicycles to Suhbaatar. It is nice to share the passion for 2 wheels for a while. They are much faster though. Just before Suhbaatar I am entering the landscape I will glide through for the next month called 'Taiga'. Pine- and berch tree forests in mountains The pine trees have orange skin, glowing in the evening sun as I cycle into Suhbaatar.along the Selenge river, June 21th. I camp in a garden of an old couple. I watch the river water flowing without visa to Lake Baikal. Will I flow tomorrow too?
I am surprised to see mainly Caucasian people after almost 2 months around only Asian people. Not only the Russian immigration, which very gently escort me through the formalities, but the entire community wear mainly long noses and fair hair.
In the postoffice I meet Anatole, a man in his fifties, working in the frost department of the railway. He tells me about Russian travelers, he loves to read the books. He buys my last Turuks, mongolian currency, and gives me 50 roebels extra, he wants to sponsor me.
The map I got from the customs, give me a bad start in terms of kilometers but an interesting side way. The red line is not a road but a railway line, usually black on maps. During the communist years, the railway had probably more power than the highway department so they managed to get their iron track painted red. I find myself a little later pushing my bike in the Selenge river delta looking for a railway bridge while villagers are having a good time near the water. I have to add 120 km to my tour, of which half on slow dirt. I was frustrated, but realized the beauty of the moment too. Had a midnight camp and arrived next morning in a decaying army barrack. My knees hurt so much that I can hardly peddle, I creep like a turtle towards Alexander and Jura, sitting on the porch of that barrack in the distance. I never felt so low on physical energy while not being sick. As they cook on a outside stove generously fueled by old USSR army building, I cook on a tiny fire my lunch. A stunning picture of the old mighty Soviet army, who would have imaged only 10 years ago. The bleached and torn Russian flag adds to this picture. Both 32 year old men have wife and children in the village below. They haven't received wage for a while. We have a nice supper under the stars and the Russian flag, which hangs 24 hours. A can of pig meat and bread, and a big kettle of tea. A memorable stay with these 2. Well recovered I manage to be on the right road to Ulan Ude the next day. I still see them waving me out.
Nicknamed as "the blue pearl of Siberia", it is the worlds biggest lake, around 1300 meter deep if I remember it right. It is here that I really get in the forested area. Small villages at its side, typical wood logged houses with blue window frames with decorative wood sculpture. I have a swim in the ice cold water. The trans-siberian railway runs right along the lake. I remember it from 1996 as I was in the train. The lake was frozen and everything looked white. All houses have their own garden with mainly potatoes , food reserve for their barren winter. Onions are ready to eat some carrots and lettuce if they have a small greenhouse. Tomatoes and apples are worth day salaries a kilo .I haven't eaten much fruit and vegetables since China. But I like onions, together with 'Salad', fat white lard and bread it makes good tucker.
Every family has a pig and a cow, so milk, butter and 'smetana', cream are plenty.
People unlike in Mongolia, are all living in clutters, I didn't see many houses on their own. Many communal agricultural entities called Sovchoz and Kolchos too.
I meet first travelers coming from Europe, 3 swiss friends from Zurich on motorbikes. I am amazed that it is only 16 days ride to Lake Baikal for them. We have a nice chat, just at the spot where I am running out of a map. They gave me theirs, since they just rode off theirs too. Unfortunately, 2 weeks later I loose a part as it inflames cooking lunch. Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, "the Moscow-trock", vain of the Russian empire connecting East and West, runs through endless "Taiga", Siberian forest. Surprisingly little traffic, many potholes and amazing distances. I sleep a lot in the woods, being too tired to socialize at night. Not much behind a campfire too since the mosquitos are in clouds. Safehaven is my inner tent, I lay there naked while mozzies agressively try to catch my skin as I play with them against the mozzie-maze. I got to know all the tunes of the shortwave stations, I never listened that much than last months.
The Russian cities are quite interesting. Quite a contrast to the countryside are the way the girls are dressed. I just come up with this theory. Not only is the fashion not so accessible in countryside, appearance pays more in a city, where upward mobility is within reach. Unlike villages where every man seem to own the same and gossip is flourishing The girls are really dressed spicy. Knowing where I am going too, south to the moslim world I mean, I enjoy the latest fashion with great interest.
The calendar didn't allow me to daydream too much, I only spend one night in Rubcovsk, at the Kazachi border. In the huge house of Sacha and Lena. Sacha is a former 'musikant', and he played the guitar and accordeon so nice. They belong to the first "nouveau riche" after communism and is in business. They live in a new development area along a river and everybody seem to build in a same way, huge and in white brick-stone, very distinct from any other Russian architecture.
It is July 22th, escorted by 4 cars to the main road leading to the border. While they wave me out, the Western horizon glows orange as the sun sets. It is the evening I head South to be safe for the coming winter. I feel like a migrating bird.
'Steppe, horses and yurta's", I answered when people ask me how I image this land. I have been in the Lake Aral area in 1993 riding from Tashkent north, but only for a short time. The days that Kazachi lived their traditional nomadic lifestyle are over. Many years of communism being part of the Sovietsky Saljoes (USSR) made them settle down in concrete apartment blocks close to some smokestack industry.
However, the nomadic features of being very hospitable to strangers is in their soul.
Now that era belongs to the past too and while the economy is dragging, huge unemployment, inflation, delayed government pay, many people tell me that at least in the USSR days things seemed to work.
In the city I also meet Yuppies and students who believe in a strong 1st world Kazachstan in 30 years time. I see also billboards with a flying horse saying "Kazachstan 2030", probably government ambitious plan to do so.
But sofar corruption seem to be enormous, Mercedes 600 series are popular here in Almaty and the Gross National Product seem to be divided very biased.
Yesterday a Kirghiz woman asked me if the people in Mongolia are poor. I told her "in the city yes , in the steppe no". She couldn't understand it. She perceives a tent as poor, "look at the clothes", she remarks while watching my just processed photos.
"But these people are independent, eat well, are extremely social and not afraid for strangers since crime is not existing(apart from some cattle thiefs)", I try.
I have a smooth roll through the steppe riding towards Almaty. Apart from my steering stem which broke the evening I crossed the border and a tire that ripped. In the newsflash I already wrote about my dinner with the immigration.
In Semipalatinsk on a Bazaar, I found something to replace it which I only did 600 km's further down the road. I found out that I mostly steer by balancing bodyweight. Besides this main road south is very quiet. But when some mountains appeared, bordering China, I had to fix it and the appropriate opportunity unfolds. Anatole and Lena, a young couple with their son Stas, running a little store in a village.
Tired and mal-fed I stand in front of their window. Lena only started smiling and opening up as her husband joined and invited me in. As I eat away a dish full of food in their garden, I ask him for tools and we have a great afternoon, improvising it. He confirms the state of economy, no jobs so he runs bazaar and sells audiocassettes prerecorded.
We manage to force things to fit and it seems ok . I can stay the night and I enjoy a real Russian "Bano", a sauna like bathroom to sweat out and pour water over me.
Another memorable morning is meeting some 20 men living in a camp to harvest 5000 hectares of wheat, 11000 acres. They run 5 John Deere combines. I share breakfast, a social morning some play guitar awaiting lunch and the fields to dry.
Close to Almaty I find social life in a recreation camp aside a lake formed by a dam called "Kapshigai". The barren low mountains, blue water, wind and heat reminds me of the Columbia river gorge. In the distance I can see the snowcapped Tian Shan mountains and I realize I made it in time, so many miles in a row after leaving Ulaan Baatar 6 weeks ago.
Tonight my girlfriend is coming. I am exited.
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