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Prologue

Throwing Myself at an Idea

 

A circle in the center of the roof is open to the sky. The opaque winter dawn above it is impossibly devoid of color. I am lying on the floor, my sleeping bag covered by a thick quilt. Next to me, the evening’s dung fire is a pile of ashes in a cold stove, but the bottoms of my thick woolen socks are still scorched from where I held them too long against the hot metal the night before. Behind me, a family of four is asleep in the home’s only bed, a six-year-old boy and his infant brother cuddled between their young parents. I know nothing about them, not even their names. But the night before, arriving out of the dark and cold, I asked—in the few words of their language that I have learned—if I could sleep in their home. I lie still, trying not to make any noise. The longer they sleep, the longer I can stay inside my warm cocoon. Without moving, I glance over to where my bicycle leans against the curved side of the tiny felt home. The snow and ice that had been clumped in her wheels has melted into little puddles on the floor, but her thick tires are still clogged with mud. Her chainwheels are a mess. Her blue panniers are dingy brown. Spots of neon green peek through scratches in the gray automotive primer that I spray-painted on her back in another world, where my floor was carpeted, where there was electricity and running water.

The circle of light is growing brighter, and soon I hear the family stirring. Once the sun has risen, there is work to do. Outside in the crisp morning, we wash our hands and faces quickly in brutally cold water. All around us, desolate, glittering grassland stretches as far as the eye can see. Two other homes huddle close by, but beyond this tiny enclave of three nomadic felt dwellings, there are no power lines, no fences, no sign of a road; there is nothing but untamed space. I have never been so in the middle of nowhere, the sensation of lostness made greater by the humans eking out an existence than if the wilderness had been pure wildness. The other families rose even earlier than we did, and two women are already smoothly milking their cows, glancing up furtively at me. The woman in whose home I slept hands me a stool and a pail and points to her cow. "I am very bad," I warn her, but dutifully sit on the three-legged wooden stool and squeeze the cold metal pail between my knees. I reach for a teat and the animal sidesteps, and as I try to move with her, the pail slips. The three women are watching, trying not to giggle. I jam the pail back into place and try again, pulling hard and getting a skinny little squirt of white before the cow stomps a hoof and I jerk back, startled. The pail clatters to the ground and we all laugh. Then the young woman takes the pail and sits down to get the work done.

When the chores are finished and the mutton-noodle soup left over from dinner has been reheated and eaten for breakfast, it is time for me to go. I give the woman two candles. I give her little boy a pack of gum. She makes sure I understand that her family returns to the same place every year, so I can find them if I come back. I check my bicycle’s tires and tighten the straps holding my sleeping bag to her rear rack. My bicycle is ugly, but she is tough, and in memory of what she is beneath the dull gray primer, I call her Greene. One of the other women steps out of her home. Her face is deeply wrinkled, her eyes narrow pools of vivid black. She holds a ladle full of fresh milk. She says something that I do not understand, but I say "Bayarlalaa (thank you)," and she nods, then with a flick of her hand she throws the milk into the air above me. The white drops splatter down onto my head, onto my shoulders, onto Greene’s mud-spattered panniers, the milk mixing with the dirt. I do not duck or close my eyes. It is a good-luck wish for the traveler. The women point me in the direction of the road. I find a vague dirt track in the prairie and follow it east. It is warm now, almost hot in the sun reflecting off the snow. A hunter growls by on a motorcycle. Then, as he lies prone in the prairie, his rifle trained on a distant marmot hole, Greene and I pass him. We play leapfrog for hours, bumping over rocks, crunching through ice and snow, wading through freezing streams, until in the early afternoon a black snake of pavement wells up on the horizon. Like a deep gulp of oxygen after staying too long beneath the waves. Like a western plane from a Soviet airport. Like a language I know after one that I don’t.

I wanted to run away. Far away. Drawn by its thriving theater community, I had moved to Seattle after college, ignoring my Russian major to pursue a life in the footlights. Five years later, I knew that I had failed. The only jobs I had had in the theater in two years had been as the interpreter for visiting Russian companies. I was working in a travel bookstore, hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter, but never setting foot inside a theater unless I had a ticket in my hand. I went to auditions and was not called back. I went to work and stared at maps and imagined getting so far away that it would be like starting over again. I had traveled a lot, by some people’s standards; by others’, I had barely begun. I had made beds in a nursing home in Berlin, tended bar on the French Riviera, and gone to Mass in Krakow because in 1984 the church was the only place open at 5:00 a.m. when the train pulled in. A friend and I had rented bicycles in Ireland, bungee-corded our backpacks to their rear racks, and spent a week tooling around the south coast, making tents out of our rain ponchos and sleeping on the cliffs. I had studied in Moscow, played the heroine in a little movie shot in the Caucasus, and walked out of Georgia into eastern Turkey. But I had never been to South America or Africa or Asia, and to make things new, you have to keep going farther and farther away from what you know.

The bookstore sold maps of Botswana, Delhi, and Antarctica. We sold phrase books for Arabic, Swahili, and Tagalog. We sold guides to traveling the French canals by barge, crossing Russia by train, and hiking the Andes. There are very few corners left on this planet where you are not following in everyone else’s footsteps. I wanted, once, to trace my own path across a land as yet untrampled by hordes of tourist feet. I wanted to lose myself in unmapped landscapes and to meet the people who inhabited them. I wanted uncompromising, boundless space, and nature’s reminders of how minute a human being is. I wanted the kind of empty, demanding landscape that some people call lifeless or inhospitable and that fills me with a visceral sense of freedom. One of the few countries not in the title of any guidebook we carried was Mongolia. I did not know much about the vast north Asian land, but I imagined untamed expanses of steppe rolling to the horizon. I imagined puffy white yurts nestled in the middle of nowhere. I imagined hardy little horses running free across desolate stretches of grassland unmarked by the twentieth century. Mongolia sounded like freedom to me.

Four years earlier, in Munich, Germany, on my way to buy a train ticket to southern France, I had decided, on a whim, to buy a bicycle instead. When I started pedaling, I thought I knew where I was going. I thought I knew France and Germany pretty well, but over the next five weeks, my department-store bicycle’s two wheels suddenly opened up the lands’ remote corners—the farmhouses, the mountains, the villages where the trains don’t stop. So now, as I stared at a map of Asia, I knew that where I wanted to go lay beyond Mongolia’s dozen scattered towns and cities. I knew that I wanted to move freely, unconstrained by the routes and schedules of infrequent and unreliable public transportation. But I am not a hard-core cyclist. The charms of intense off-road travail are lost on me. I doubted that a bicycle was the optimal mode of travel in a country three times the size of France with fewer than a thousand kilometers of paved road and not one single bicycle shop. I moved on to a better idea: buy a horse—Mongolia’s age-old form of transportation. But staring at that map of Asia, I could not help but see that there, not really so very far away from Mongolia, was Vietnam. White sand beaches, the inevitable mystique of war, and, in 1993, the attraction of an until recently inaccessible land. If I got to Mongolia, I might as well keep going. My finger traced a line across the paper, from Russia’s Lake Baikal south to Saigon. I had no particular interest in China, never had had, but there it was, smack-dab between the other two, so across China I would go. I had no doubt that a horse was not the optimal mode of travel in China and Vietnam. A bicycle was.

So I had a plan. Or at least an idea, a fantasy floating around in the back of my mind. Then one day the phone rang and a man I had never met, a friend of a friend, offered me a job as interpreter for his theater’s tour to Vladivostok, in Far Eastern Russia. Russia east of Siberia. They would be leaving in less than two months. Vladivostok, all things being relative, was just around the corner from Mongolia. This was as close as I was ever going to get for free. But a recent audition had gone well and it was a great part. If I got it, I would not say no, even for Mongolia. The phone rang again a few evenings later. They had cast the thin, beautiful blonde who could sing.

I started applying for visas. I started packing my apartment into cardboard boxes. I started bicycle shopping. I knew my trusty road bike was not up to the trip. I knew I needed fat, knobby tires. I knew I needed a frame that would withstand months of brutal abuse. That was all I knew. I tripped into cycle shops and asked, "If you were riding across Mongolia, what would you ride?" It was like a metaphor, "Mongolia." The middle of nowhere. The back of beyond. Someplace far, far away. Nobody thought that I actually meant Mongolia, the country. Almost nobody knew that there still was a country called Mongolia, that it was not part of China, that it was not part of Russia, that time and history had not wiped it off the map altogether. I rode bicycles up and down Seattle streets trying to imagine rocky, sandy, muddy grassland. With five weeks to go, I settled on a neon-green mountain bike with the fattest, knobbiest tires in the store. I rode her the few miles home, named her, painted her, put her in a box, and got on a plane to Russia.

After three weeks in Vladivostok, the American theater company flew home, and Greene and I aimed west toward Irkutsk. As the plane tilted over southeastern Siberia, I couldn’t believe where I was going. There had been heady days of anticipation and quaking days of terror. One minute, life was unalloyed exhilaration and I was pure courage. I couldn’t wait to be on the road—just me and Greene and the weather and the wonderful, terrifying freedom of never having to be anywhere ever again. The next minute, there was a churning in my stomach. I wanted some really good reason to stop before I started. I wanted to burst into tears and flee home to an easy Seattle summer of baseball games and hiking trips. I knew nothing about Mongolia, and little more about self-sufficient bicycle travel. I was throwing myself at an idea, leaving everything behind and heading blindly into I knew not what. I was running away. But I was also running toward something. Ahead of me lay the unknowns that are the soul and purpose of a journey. I was completely intimidated, and I was absolutely at peace. I was at the beginning of an adventure. Tomorrow was a mystery, and that mystery was terrifying. It was also the most enticing thing in the world.

 

 

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by bicycle across Mongolia, China & Vietnam