Tour Cycling In Mongolia- Unexpected Friendliness
Written by George Balarezo, Intrepid Global Citizen
The long and winding road never seemed to end. Mountains soared above us in the distance along every direction, creating a panorama of green fields as it seemed we were in the center of mother nature’s canyon. Yurts dotted the grassy plains to the left of us. Signs of life. People looked like small ants running back and forth, from one small house to another. There was one person riding a bicycle in circles along the grassy fields, rounding up cattle and going on a joy ride.
The sun was about to set and my tour cycling mate Josh and I decided it was time to look for a place to crash for the night. It was our first evening on the other side of the Western Mongolian border. We heard all the stories about the rugged locals and were quite apprehensive about what would happen to us during the night. Rumor has it that no matter where you set up camp, the Mongols know everything that is happening on their terrain and will come ride up to you on their horses and perhaps try to open up your bag looking for booze and money. To avoid a confrontation or potential robbery, we decided it was best to go and introduce ourselves to some locals and ask them to camp by their home. We were both nervous about their reaction to two guys with big bags on their bicycles. There were so many homes and several people roaming around to choose from. One teenager was wobbling back and forth on his bike, chasing around goats that were breaking the steppe silence with their grunts. “That is the guy we need to talk to,” we agreed since he was already on his bicycle. We thought the commonality would help us break the ice and persuade the locals to offer us some hospitality.
Lets do it. We steered our bicycles off the main road in the directions of the yurts. “Oh my god. This is so adventurous!” we said to ourselves. As soon as we traveled a few meters in the direction of the yurt, children gathered together to form a big mob and started running towards us. We kept our fingers crossed and hoped they would not be hostile toward the big Caucasian men heading in their direction.
A few kilometers down the road and one hour before approaching the bicycle riding teenager, a group of children stood blocking my path. I kept going straight at full speed in their direction yelling “move! move!” in English. Even though I am sure they had no clue what “move” means, I assumed they would understand what I meant by the tone of my voice and by the fact that I kept pedaling faster in their direction. Obviously their parents did not teach them to respect tourists, so I took their education into my own hands. As I moved faster and faster in their direction, they held their bodies steady, creating a barricade in the road. I suddenly found myself in a game of chicken with the kids and was not going to back down. At the very last instant they must have realized I was not going to stop and I zoomed by them. Two of the kids grabbed my bags but the momentum of a loaded up bike and an 80 kilogram man was too much for those small hands. The boldness of those children shocked me as I nearly knocked two of them down to the ground. I can play naughty too. Sometimes children need to learn the hard way. Luckily nobody got injured.
Would these children gang up on us and create a big rumble on the steppe? Images of me body slamming kids on the grass flashed through my head. The Mongolians are known for wrestling, but surely I could take out these kids one by one if necessary. What would happen if one of their parents caught us in a scuffle with their children? Perhaps they would skin Josh and I and have us for dinner alongside their roasted beavers and steppe critters. This would be a welcome change to their diet of lamb meat and noodles.
The kids sprinted towards us and the ring leader was on his bicycle in front of them. The scene reminded me of a modern day Genghis Khan and his troops approaching an enemy, but this time on a bicycle instead of horse. “Sem ben oo,” I said. Greeting others in the local language always creates rapport right off the bat and signals that I respect the local culture.
The ring leader smiled at us as Josh and I attempted to explain ourselves using body language and simple English words. “Bike. Sleep. England. United States,” we said. Much to our surprise, the teenage cyclist started speaking to us in clear English. “Sure. You can put your tent by my house,” he said smiling. “My sister speaks English well and will be happy to talk to you,” he continued.
What a relief. After so much anticipation, we finally were able to relax and let our guard down. The tension faded in an instant as the children led us to their yard. The kids helped Josh and I set up our tents and invited us into their home to share a meal. Noodles and lamb meat were on the menu and we enjoyed every last bite.
That evening, we swapped bikes and road back and forth in the endless grassy field outside of their home. The kid got to test drive mountain and touring bikes and looked so happy to be riding our solid pieces of machinery. It was obvious that our teenage friend would never forget sharing tea with us and doing a bike swap and neither would we. What started out as a bold move by two risk takers ended up being a cultural exchange that none of us will ever forget. We heard plenty of shady stories about the lawless Mongolian steppe but became the victims of vicious hospitality and friendliness.