Shep Kopp's Excellent Adventure
Journey to Tuva Summer, 1993
What follows is an account of a cycling/mountaineering/horse-riding expedition that I
undertook along with seven friends, in two stages, in Tuva, Mongolia and the Altai
Mountains during the summer of 1993.
In 1990 I found myself in Urumqi, in northwestern China's Xinjiang province, with my
friend Tom Quinn (a co-instigator of the Tuva trip). We wanted to go to the ancient Silk
Road oasis of Kashgar and then travel over the Karakoram Highway leading to Pakistan;
however, these places were temporarily closed to "foreign devils" because of
riots in the area. While waiting for Kashgar to re-open, we decided to fly to Altai, a
town in the foothills of the Altai Mountains, an immense range which extends from Russia
and Kazakhstan down into China and Mongolia. At the Urumqi airport, however, we managed to
exchange our Altai tickets and get on a plane to Kashgar the authorities apparently
hadn't thought to notify airport employees that the flight was off-limits to
"big-noses". So we never got to the Altai Mountains.
I didn't forget about them, however, and upon my return to San Francisco, I started
researching the region. In the library, I came across two books which turned my attention
a little further east of the Altais Unknown Mongolia, by Douglas
and, of course, Tuva or Bust!, by our own Ralph Leighton. Carruthers' report and
photographs of a remote land of mountains and rivers, taiga and tundra, inhabited by
people of Mongolian heritage and Turkic tongue who herded camels, yaks, and reindeer; who
practiced a religion combining elements of Siberian shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism
well, it sounded pretty good. And Ralph's account of a modern-day struggle to reach this
exotic land brought home the point that this was the time to go just as Tuva opens
up after centuries of nearly total isolation.
Not being bashful, I called Ralph up and asked him a lot of questions about his trip to
Tuva, including whether or not it was possible for ordinary U.S. citizens to get over
there. He replied that it was, with an invitation and a little luck. Well, that was it: I
was sold. One way or another I was going to get to Tuva!
The only question was how. The obvious obstacles on our road to Tuva were a lack of
funding and official permission. The only thing we had going into the planning stages was
a core group of travellers: myself, Tom, and our friends Neil Maher and Randy Hibbitts. We
thought we could swing an invitation to Russia through an acquaintance of mine whose
public relations business had an office in Moscow, but we weren't sure.
Then things just sort of started to fall into place. On my 1990 trip, I had lucked into
a bike trip through Vietnam just as it was opening to tourists. During that trip I became
a convert to bike-touring, especially in Communist countries which like to keep certain
areas out of bounds to foreigners.
Upon my return to the States, I happened upon an advertisement for the Shipton-Tilman
Grant, given annually to three or four lightweight, self-sufficient expeditions.
In addition to mountain biking, my friends and I had also been doing a bit of
mountaineering, and we conceived an expedition combining the two sports in one of the most
remote regions of the world Tuva and northwestern Mongolia. We spent quite a bit of
time doing thorough research, applied for a Shipton-Tilman grant for summer 1992, and
waited. The judges contacted us, and were very interested in the expedition, but
eventually we learned that although we had made it into the final eight out of over 100
applications, we weren't one of the final four expeditions selected.
Severely disappointed by coming so close to our dream without realizing it, we resolved
to gear up for it the following year and to have our own financing together so that if we
didn't win a grant we'd be able to do it ourselves.
During the fall of 1992 our expedition lineup changed from the original four. Neil had
gotten engaged to Jennifer Baron, and we decided to do the trip with her as well as my
girlfriend, Liza Ryan, and Tom's girlfriend, Marie Foley.
With the new team, we reapplied for the Shipton-Tilman grant and another one we had
discovered, offered by Polartec, a company
manufacturing fleece/pile and other synthetic fabrics for outdoor garments. In early 1993
we learned that we had won a small grant from Polartec, consisting of some cash as well as
warm clothing. This paved the way for obtaining additional sponsorship from Blackburn, who
provided us with six sets of bicycle racks and panniers (saddlebags), and Tecnica, who
gave us all excellent boots, as well as other outdoor firms who offered us gear at
At the same time, we proceeded with other arrangements. In February 1993 we hosted the
group of Tuvans then touring the U.S.: the singers Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, Kongar-ool Ondar,
and Anatoly Kuular, as well as Rada Chakar, who was helping translate for them on the West
Coast, and her brother Soyan, who had taken care of arrangements on the other side. They
all provided us with crucial information as well as warm personal invitations to come and
We had quite a bit of trouble obtaining Mongolian visas and for a while it looked like
we might have to just wing that part of the trip. Finally we found the right travel agent
and managed to get two-month visas for $80 each.
Meanwhile, Ralph had made a contact in Moscow and was able to get us all invitations to
Russia, including Tuva, in a matter of days. After several trips to the Russian Consulate
in San Francisco, we received our coveted visas for Tuva!
The last couple of weeks were unbelievably frantic, but finally, we were ready. On June
6, five of us Tom, Neil, Marie, Liza, and Iset off, flying Aeroflot from San
Francisco to Khabarovsk in eastern Siberia. Jennifer was to meet us in Tuva in July, and
Randy and Peter Bogardus were to come over at the end of the summer.
We Set Off
From Khabarovsk we immediately flew west to Irkutsk, near the southern tip of Lake
Baikal. There we made an awful discovery which was to handicap us for the first five weeks
of the trip: on the way over, Marie's brand new bike had been damaged while being
unloaded. The box had been caught while on a conveyor belt and the rear wheel had been
totally mangled. In fact, it looked like a taco. We looked around Irkutsk for anything to
use as a replacement wheel but came up empty. So we would just have be flexible until we
could get a replacement brought over from the States.
After an eventful week and a half spent on Lake Baikal, during which we were
commandeered by a vodka-swilling, trigger-happy Russian military detachment, we decided it
was time to get to Tuva. From Irkutsk we got the 36-hour train to Abakan, where we were
met unexpectedly by Rada and a whole crew of Tuvans who had driven the six hours north
from Kyzyl to meet us. They packed us up in their two cars and we were off to Tuva!
The road to Tuva was beautiful, passing through the fields and forested belts
surrounding Abakan, then climbing into the densely wooded northern foothills of the Sayan
Mountains, higher up to where large mountains with granite faces swept up from the
greenery, through the heart of the mountains along a river valley, over the passes through
alpine meadows carpeted with brilliant orange and yellow wildflowers, and finally into the
treeless steppe that characterizes the countryside around Kyzyl. Mirgen, the Tuvan driving
our car, was tired, so I got a chance to drive the Russian-made Lada part of the way!
Finally, after many roadside police checkpoints, we caught sight of Kyzyl, tucked away
in a fold of brown hills. It was hard to believe that after more than two years of
planning, scheming, and plotting, we were there, at last!
Rada had arranged for us to stay at a dacha, or summer house, about 15 kilometers
outside of Kyzyl. Although the amenities were minimal (no bathroom, just an outhouse), the
place did have a kitchen, and, more importantly, the essential Russian sauna!
The first thing we did on arrival was to get in touch with our friends Kaigal-ool,
Kongar-ool, and Anatoly. We had really enjoyed having them stay with us in San Francisco
and knew that they were leaving Tuva soon to tour and record in the States for the whole
summer, and we wanted to make sure we saw them. Plus, when they had left, they had
promised they'd slaughter every sheep in Tuva when we arrived! (I don't think they really
believed we were coming.)
Well, sure enough, early the next morning we witnessed a traditional Tuvan sheep
slaughter right out in our front yard. The procedure is just the same today as it was when
Genghis Khan first decreed that blood, a sacred substance, should not be spilled; the
sheep is turned on its back, an incision made in its breast, and a hand plunged in to
separate the aorta from the heart as demonstrated very effectively in the excellent
movie Urga, released in this country as Close To Eden. I had never seen
anything like it before, but it seemed a fairly humane way to kill an animal quick
and relatively painless. The practice is also very sensible in an environment as harsh as
Tuva's, where the diet for most herders is mainly meat and milk, and where nothing can be
wasted. The blood is used for Tuvan blood sausage, consisting of congealed blood boiled
inside of the sheep's intestines, which all of us (except Tom) somehow avoided having to
That afternoon we had our throat-singing friends over for some food, conversation, and,
of course, a little music. Yep, we got an impromptu private khoomei performance, with
Kongar-ool strumming away on a battered old guitar that was lying around, and all three
guys taking requests. After hearing them several times in the Bay Area, we had our
favorite songs. Mine was "Kongarei", a beautiful and haunting song I had heard
them record at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch. For Liza, Neil, and Marie, it was the first
time they ever saw khoomei performed, and they were as blown away as I had been when I
first heard that noise come out of the Tuvans' mouths! All in all, it was a very enjoyable
first day, and we wished the singers the best of luck on their own trip.
Next, we had to decide on a course of action. There were several things we had in mind:
we wanted to cycle somewhere, obviously, but any group ride would have to wait for Marie's
replacement wheel. We wanted to go up to the Tozha region in the northeast and try to find
some nomadic reindeer-herders. We also wanted to do a horse trip, probably around Erzin in
Rada, however, had news that decided our first foray for us. A week after we arrived,
there was going to be a festival in the west near Chadan. It was the 110th anniversary of
the Tuvan uprising against the Chinese, who then controlled Tuva. The festival was called
"Aldan Maadyr", which in Tuvan means 60 Martyrs, the number of rebels who had
perished when the Chinese cracked down. Some things never change.
The festival sounded too good to miss, so we decided that Neil, Liza, and I would cycle
the 150 miles from Kyzyl to Chadan. Rada, Tom, and Marie would travel in a support van
with food and camping gear, and would later go ahead and try to arrange for some horses on
which Tom and Marie would ride up to the festival.
Biking in Tuva
On our first day out from Kyzyl the sun beat fiercely down on us. It was now the end of
June and the hottest time of the year. Still, the road was good, all paved, and generally
flat as it followed the Yenisey downriver through rolling, golden-brown steppe. Even
though this is the main road inside Tuva, traffic was light, consisting mostly of trucks,
with a few private cars and the occasional bus. Everyone passing by either waved or stared
With our gear in the van we had rented, our bikes were light, so we made good time.
Just before lunch we came across a Tuvan family making an offering by the side of the road
at the grave of a relative who had been killed there in a car crash. Our strange and
sudden appearance excited them, and they offered us fried dumplings. We countered with
Tootsie Rolls, which the kids especially liked (although the adults weren't shy about
trying them out!). This kind family was also observant enough to notice our extreme thirst
and generous enough to produce a couple of cold beers, a treasured rarity in Tuva, from
the depths of their trunk. With the brew soon in our stomachs we went merrily on our way.
After a pleasant lunch an hour later and a swim in the Yenisey, we were again on the
road, looking for our appointed rendezvous spot. It was now hot enough to melt the tar on
the road, some of which found its way onto our bikes and clothes. Due to a mix-up, we went
much further down the road than we were supposed to be. We finally stopped at a bus
shelter at the 50 mile mark and waited for the van, which failed to appear. As night would
soon be coming on, Neil hitchhiked back to look for the others; while he was gone they
drove up, having passed him without seeing him. Then some of us drove back to look for
Neil, who was nowhere to be found. Finally, we all got together back at the bus shelter,
and found a place to camp in the dark. It had been a long and tiring day.
The next day went more smoothly. We did a little extra shopping in Shagonar in the
morning and then set off. The road remained relatively level for a few miles, then began
rising slowly after the Yenisey turned north on its way through the Sayans to the Arctic,
several thousand miles away. We crossed a fertile marshland through which meandered many
streams, runoff from the Tannu Ola Mountains to the south whose snowcapped foothills we
could see in the distance. Birds were abundant not just the raptors which are
present in amazing quantities all over Tuva, but also brightly colored ducks and the like.
In the afternoon the road started climbing to the first significant pass, and near the
top our van appeared. Tom, Marie, and Rada had had trouble finding horses to rent, so they
were spending the night with us. We piled in the van and drove up the road a few miles to
our campsite in a field next to a Tuvan summer camp. There was a cold spring nearby, a
site considered by Tuvans to be sacred, with open wooden troughs leading the water to a
spot where we three bikers showered according to local custom. While Neil entertained the
kids with some magic tricks, the rest of us cooked up a dinner of macaroni and cheese
which, I'm sorry to report, our Tuvan companions didn't seem to enjoy very much
something about that orange glow, I think.
That night it rained hard, and it was drizzling when morning came. We broke camp,
skidded and sloshed our way over the dirt road that had turned into mud overnight, and
made it back onto the main road, hoping we would soon see the sun. But the drizzle turned
into a light rain. Neil had inexplicably left his rain pants behind in Kyzyl and was
getting chills; all I had to lend him were my warm gloves. As we pedalled up the main pass
between Kyzyl and Chadan, an enormous brown owl floated ghostlike across the road not
forty feet in front of us. Liza claimed it was as big as a bear.
At the top of the pass we stopped at a shelter next to a big rock cairn around which
many trees were festooned with strips of white cloth. They reminded me of prayer flags I
had seen in Tibet.
Coming down the pass the rain began in earnest. After a long downhill roll we pedaled
through a long stretch of wide-open prairie, where we saw our first group of upturned
stones left behind by a pre-Tuvan civilization. The rain finally let up just as we finally
pulled into Chadan. Luckily we found the van Chadan is not a big town and,
even better, found a friend of our driver's assistant who had a sauna at his house. This
was a very welcome discovery, as we were soaked to the bone.
Our friends had struck out again in their attempts to rent horses, so after a quick
meal at the only stalovaya (cafeteria) in town we decided to drive up to the valley where
the festival was to be held.
The route to the festival wound up dirt roads from Chadan, north past the village of
Süt Khöl, to the high valley in which the rebels hid. On the way there we encountered
numerous police checkpoints; the authorities wanted to make sure that there were no
troubles at the festival. For the same reason alcohol was prohibited, but there was
endless free soda.
We arrived in the late afternoon in a wide, green steppe valley. The festival didn't
begin until the next day, but preparations were underway. People were driving up in trucks
and setting up yurts and tents in groups on either side of the valley. We parked on the
far side near a big yurt, which turned out to be for the President of Tuva. Since the
President wasn't going to need it until the following day, the officials were kind enough
to offer it to us for the night! We were pretty excited at the prospect of spending our
first night in a Tuvan yurt, even if it wasn't a functional one lived in year-round by
shepherds. After all, how many people can say they've slept in the President's yurt?
The rest of the day we wandered around taking pictures, watching people set up camp
including several outdoor restaurants and getting psyched up to see a
traditional Tuvan festival. We learned that the scheduled events included a horse race, an
archery competition, a foot race up a steep mountain nearby, a volleyball tournament,
singing and dancing, and, most important, the Tuvan-style of wrestling called khuresh.
The festival began the next day on "Tuvan Time," which can mean anything from
a few minutes to several hours late. People were still streaming in and the population of
the valley had swollen to over 5,000 people. Registering the contestants, who came from
all over Tuva, took longer than expected, but finally everything was ready and the opening
ceremonies commenced. These took place on the main events field and were directed towards
the President and other dignitaries who were seated in a shaded grandstand. Since Neil,
Tom, and I had entered the volleyball tournament, I had to represent the American
contingent by marching around with captains of other teams and standing by while the new
Tuvan flag was raised. (We would later meet the artists who created the design.)
With that, the festival was underway, and we headed over to the volleyball courts to
practice up. We were excited about playing in the tournament and half-joked that we'd win
the whole thing, as the three of us are all over six feet tall and Neil and I had played
college volleyball. We'd picked up some Tuvan teammates and liked our chances until
the competition began. As we watched several games, we realized that Tuvans, although
short in stature, were excellent volleyball players. Apparently, when the sports-mad
Russians came to Tuva in the 50's, volleyball which doesn't require much equipment
to play had been the easiest sport to introduce. From the looks of it, the Tuvans
had picked it right up. [Ralph told me later that at the top of Kongar-ool Ondar's list of
items to buy in the U. S. was a volleyball which he purchased at Venice Beach in
When our turn came, the crowd, which had been large and enthusiastic to begin with,
tripled in size and volume. They roared with approval on every point by either side.
Although the games were hard-fought and close, we were shut out, 2-0. The Tuvans were just
too good for our towering but rag-tag team. Still, it was great fun and turned us into
celebrities for the rest of the festival. Unbeknownst to us, the news program covering the
festival had filmed our match and broadcast it on one of the Tuva's two channels. So for
the rest of our trip, people would approach us randomly, all over Tuva, to tell us they'd
seen us on TV playing volleyball!
Our competition done, we were able to spread out and experience the rest of the
festival. There was fine khoomei and graceful dancing, boy's wrestling, an exhibit
documenting the history of Aldan Maadyr, and (by standards in Tuva) lots to eat and drink.
In the afternoon we were introduced to the President of Tuva, Sherig-ool Oorzhak, who
welcomed us warmly. His wife, Sarah, was very friendly and told us to contact her if we
needed anything during our stay in Tuva, an offer we later took up.
The next day, the festival's last, involved the big events: mountain climbing, the
20-mile horse race (which ended with a wild sprint right through the crowds of
spectators), and of course, men's wrestling.
We all begged Tom, a college wrestler, to compete, but he adamantly refused. (Losing
once at a sport we thought we knew something about was enough for Tom.)
In Tuvan wrestling, the object is to force any part of the opponent's body, other than
his feet, onto the ground, or to pick an opponent up and keep him in the air for a few
seconds. The wrestlers usually grapple bent over at the waist and try to force their
opponents off balance, sometimes by kicking their feet out from under them. They wear
short trunks and a sort of long-sleeved vest which the other wrestler grabs and yanks on.
After each match the winning wrestler does an "Eagle Dance," flapping his arms
like wings and prancing around. It's a good sport to watch except for the occasional long
matches, during which the judges yawn, act bored, and urge the wrestlers to speed it up.
With top prizes of several sheep or goats and even a horse (not to mention the
unofficial prizes put up by wrestlers' friends, which were announced over the
loudspeakers), over 150 wrestlers had entered the Aldan Maadyr competition most of
them named Mongush, an exceedingly common clan name in the west. That meant eight straight
hours' worth of wrestling, almost all of which we watched! Actually, it remained
interesting pretty much the whole time, as we learned the finer points of the sport and
cheered our favorite wrestlers, who we called "Older Brother," "Younger
Brother," "Fat Man," and last but not least "The
Terminator," who must have weighed 220 lbs. and wore a Shwarzenegger-like buzz-cut.
In the epic final match, which lasted about a half an hour, "Younger Brother"
actually hoisted "The Terminator" over his head to win the championship in
Lake Süt Khöl
The final wrestling match signalled the end of the festival, and everyone began making
their way out of the valley towards home. We stayed the night and drove out the next
morning, back towards Chadan, and then up another river valley. We were headed for Süt
Khöl not the village, but the lake, which sits high up in the mountains for
a few days' camping. In Tuvan, Süt Khöl means Milk Lake, and indeed, when we got up
there after a grueling drive through streams, mud, steep grades, and finally an hour's
hike (because the van just couldn't make it all the way), the sun's rays slanted obliquely
off the surface of the lake, turning it milky white. On the way up we saw our first herd
of yaks grazing peacefully on a hillside. Although the approach to the lake was through
muddy tundra, we found dry ground just up from the shore, and set up our tents in one of
the most beautiful campsites I've ever seen.
Around the lake were scattered yurts and herds of animals, so the next day we squashed
our way over through the mud to visit with the herders. Although surprised to see the
likes of us way up there, the families took us in for tea and fried bread, even some tsampa
(ground barley mixed with butter, tea, and sugar just delicious!). One of the women
complained that she had been blessed with many sons but no daughters, and so had no help
with all her chores. It was our first visit in a working yurt, so we asked many questions:
were the goats, sheep, and horses theirs or the state's? (some of each); did they have to
buy much from the cities? (grains, mostly); where did they go in the winter, when it was
sometimes 40 or 50 below? (lower down in the valley); did they prefer the winter or
summer? (it was all the same to the patriarch of one family). At the end of our stay, we
took Polaroid prints of our hosts and presented them with the pictures. (Of all the stuff
we gave away, instant photos were by far the most appreciated gift.)
It looked like the area around Süt Khöl would be tremendous to explore by horse or on
foot, but we didn't have time to get any deeper into the mountains. Rather than drive in
the van down the 3500 vertical feet from the lake to Chadan, Neil, Liza, and I decided to
ride our bikes. It was the only time on the whole trip that we were able to do any
sport-riding, and flying down the hills and through the streams without any baggage on our
bikes was exhilarating! At the bottom, we had a refreshing dip in the river, then drove
back to Kyzyl in the van.
Back in town we learned that Jennifer would not be able to come and meet us. Her friend
Rita, however, who had always wanted to go to Mongolia, was coming and would bring over a
replacement wheel for Marie.
Before we could get to Mongolia there remained the little problem of getting permission
to cross the border. We wanted to enter Mongolia at Khandagaity, a small town in
southwestern Tuva, but our visas did not specify this. The Khandagaity crossing had been
used by a few scientific groups and one tour group, but was officially open only to
citizens of Mongolia and Russia. Certainly no independent travelers had been over this
border before, and when Rada asked the authorities if we would be allowed to cross it,
they said no, not without special permission from Moscow. Hearing that, we immediately
knew what to do: contact our new friends, the President of Tuva and his wife. We pled our
case before Sarah Oorzhak, and she promised to see what they could do for us we
should return in a week.
While we were waiting to see if we could cross into Mongolia from Tuva, we thought we'd
try to get up to Tozha to look for some reindeer herders. Thus began an exercise in
frustration as we waited at the airport for three days in a row as flights were cancelled
because of bad weather. We had thought the plane tickets were a bargain at $4 roundtrip
and now we knew why: they never actually flew.
With only a few days before Rita arrived we decided to salvage something of the week
and went camping at Lake Chagatay, which sits at the foot of the Tannu Ola Mountains on
the way south to Erzin. The lake, named after one of Genghis Khan's sons, is nothing
special, although we were able to take a nice hike up into the mountains, which were
ablaze with wildflowers (and bugs).
Returning to Kyzyl, we learned that the Russian Frontier Office had granted us
permission to cross the border at Khandagaity. We met Rita, rented a van with a driver,
and drove all day to get to the border. We were in a hurry to make it to Ulaan Gom for
Naadam, the traditional Buddhist summer holiday which has been combined with Independence
Day in Mongolia and celebrated with festivals all over the country.
At the border we sailed through the Russian side, which was manned by the 18-to-20 year
old draftees common in the Russian military. When we reached the Mongolian side, however,
things got weird. First of all, everyone was drunk it took about an hour to sober
up the commander. While we waited, who should drive up behind us but "The
Terminator" and his coach, a jolly Tuvan version of Burl Ives. They were headed to
the wrestling competition in Bayan Olgiy, a region in Mongolia where many Tuvans live. We
congratulated them on the 2nd place finish at Aldan Maadyr, took some photos, and wished
them luck in Mongolia as they breezed through the Mongolian side of the border checkpoint.
Finally the border chief was prepared to deal with us. I explained that we were
"sportsmen" (a word understood in Mongolian, as well as Tuvan and Russian) who
just wanted to ride into Mongolia and compete in the Naadam volleyball competition. The
chief smiled and shook his head, amused at the sight of these brazen foreigners. Although
he seemed pleased that we were there and wanted to let us in, he kept repeating that since
we weren't Russian or Mongolian, he hadn't the authority to admit us. Finally, he agreed
to call his superiors in Ulaan Gom, the administrative center of the aimag (sort
of a cross between a state and a county). He wasn't able to reach them but promised to
call first thing in the morning. Meanwhile, we would have to spend the night in the border
We decided to resort to bribery, but our initial attempt failed miserably: we tried to
give the commander and his translator vodka, cigarettes, and Polaroids right in
front of everyone else! Naturally, they couldn't take anything out in the open. Later,
however, in the privacy of the visitors quarters, they had no qualms about accepting
whatever we offered, so we pulled out all the stops, handing out American pins, postcards,
and other trinkets, as well as performing our full complement of magic tricks, and roaring
through most of our vodka (which we had brought as the best thing to trade for food,
reputed to be scarce in Mongolia). By the end of the evening we had become fast
"friends" with our hosts. Still, as we settled down for the night and took an
informal team poll, none of us thought we had better than a 50-50 chance of making it into
In the morning, we all tried to sleep as long as we could, not wanting to wake up and
hear the bad news. Then, to our surprise and disbelief, the chief ran into our room,
shouting, "Get up! Get up! You can enter!" Apparently, the big bosses in Ulaan
Gom thought it wouldn't hurt to have us down for a visit (and a bribe, perhaps?).
In Mongolia, we had some great experiences cycling to Ulaan Gom for
staying in yurts with nomadic herders on stunning high plains but the rain,
uncharacteristically, never stopped falling: 1993 was an unusually wet summer in Asia as
well as in North America. We tried to ride from Ulaan Gom to Olgiy, the westernmost aimag
of Mongolia, but the roads were a morass. After several days of slogging and some
ineffective hitchhiking (the trucks bogged down too) Liza and I decided to return to Tuva
for a horse trip before she had to return to the States. On our way back to the border
several bridges that we had crossed on our way in had been totally washed away by the
Excursions in Tuva
Back in Tuva, Liza and I had little luck attempting to explore the densely forested
eastern Sayan Mountains: torrential rains had knocked out most of the roads there as well.
We did manage to ride a boat up the Yenisey into the Tozha region. We stayed at a little
resort on Lake Azas for a couple of days, but were unable to get out into the taiga and
find the reindeer herders, who move into the high mountains during the summer to keep the
reindeer out of the warm weather. The only way to reach them was by helicopter or a long
and gruelling trip on horseback through thick forest, something for which we didn't have
We reluctantly returned to Kyzyl and Liza departed for home. Just after she left, there
was a spell of good weather long enough for me to make a trip on horseback with a group of
hunters in the Tannu Ola Mountains in southeastern Tuva. We left from the town of Erzin,
where I met a young Buddhist lama. He had studied at the great monastery outside of
Ulan-Ude in Buryatia, and maintained a small shrine at the back of his house. It contained
some beautiful old relics and pieces of Buddhist artwork that had been hidden in the hills
during the long years of religious repression.
My horse trip was short but enjoyable. We rode along clear streams through thick pine
forests, occasionally topping out on the wide, rounded domes that form the peaks of the
Tannu Ola Mountains. My companions assured me that the woods were full of bears, but we
didn't see any. They were after maral, a type of big Siberian deer, but only glimpsed a
fleeing pair and never took any shots. We had mutton and pasta soup three times a day, did
a little Tuvan wrestling, and practiced English, Russian, and Tuvan with the help of a
pocket dictionary. After a few days, however, I had to return to Kyzyl to meet Peter
Bogardus and Randy Hibbitts for the second stage of the expedition.
Pete arrived fresh from a bike trip in Ladakh, India, and Randy came directly from San
Francisco. Their timing was good: they got to Kyzyl just in time for the festival
commemorating Tuva's National Day on August 14. In Kyzyl's main stadium we heard khoomei
singers serenade a wrestling exhibition between some locals and a delegation of Japanese
wrestlers the visitors allowed the Tuvans to beat them, 31 matches to zero. Then
the khuresh championships began, which ended in a brilliant final match with a
Mongolian brute defeating "Younger Brother" (Boo!).
On August 17, the three of us embarked on what I consider to be the major
accomplishment of this expedition a 600-mile ride west from Kyzyl, through
southwestern Tuva into the heart of the Altai Mountains, and then into Kazakhstan. We rode
along dirt tracks you couldn't really call them roads which often
disappeared into mud bogs or forked unexpectedly, and which, for much of the way, ran
parallel to (and as little as five miles distant from) the Mongolian and then the Chinese
border. Our route ran through areas which were at best sparsely inhabited; other areas
were completely devoid of people. This forced us to carry plenty of food and fuel, since
we couldn't count on finding any supplies along the way.
For the first leg of the journey we were accompanied by another Tuvan named Mirgen, a
sportsman who had ridden his bike over parts of our route and who had climbed Möngün
Taiga, at 13,000 feet the highest mountain in Tuva and indeed in eastern Siberia. Mirgen
was a tremendous addition to our team: he had a great sense of humor, knew the roads, and
seemed to be related to almost everyone we met along the way.
We started by riding west from Kyzyl to Chadan, then turning south along the road that
leads to Mongolia. Before reaching the border, however, we turned west again onto the dirt
road to Möngün Taiga. It was the last asphalt we'd see until we reached Kazakhstan.
The road we followed ran through gorgeous steppe valleys in which nomadic herders live
year-round. One group of families in whose yurts we slept were so excited by our arrival
that they just had to slaughter a yak. Since it was dark, we lent them our head lamps for
the job and were rewarded(?) with a hearty bowl of yak soup.
This stage of our trip was also notable mainly for the number of flat tires and other
mechanical breakdowns we experienced. The road was in relatively good shape, except for
one stretch where the river cut across it several times. After five days, we reached Mugur
Aksy, the town closest to Möngün Taiga, where we were able to get a much-needed Russian
sauna and replenish our food and fuel supply. The next day we got our latest start ever
6:30 pm! and rode 30 km to some yurts near the base of Möngün Taiga. The
herders living there welcomed us warmly maybe a little too warmly: they brought out
a platter of marmot for our consumption.
We knew that bubonic plague is carried by the fleas which live on marmots and other
rodents. In fact, plague and marmot-eating jokes were among our favorites, especially
after some of my companions in Stage One had been quarantined in western Mongolia for
several days. Still, how could we deny such heartfelt hospitality by our hosts?
Well, I had also read that cooked marmot was safe, and figured if the plague was around
we'd get it from our hosts anyway. So, on behalf of our whole group, which was to climb
Tuva's highest peak the next day, I dug in. And guess what: it wasn't bad! It didn't taste
very much like chicken, the standard benchmark for small animals; it was very greasy, but
nevertheless preferable to some parts of sheep we had been offered on other occasions.
The next morning I woke up with no ill effects from the marmot, and we set off early
for the climb. Möngün Taiga is a beautiful mass of a mountain with a round, snow-covered
summit. It towers at least 4,000 feet higher than anything else in the area and has a
commanding presence that continually draws the eye. Our climbing route was
straightforward: up a moraine to the foot of a big glacier (where Mirgen lit an incense
offering to the spirit of the mountain although many Tuvans call themselves
Buddhist, the old animist ways die hard) , up some steep scree gullies on the left
of the glacier to the end of the rock, roping up and then onto the glacier to the summit.
At the top we had a tremendous 360 degree view from Khindiktig Khöl, the big lake to the
north, to the Turgun Mountains in Mongolia to the south. We lacked an American flag, but I
did have a Harley Davidson T-shirt with an eagle and some stars and stripes, so I reached
into my pack, pulled it out, and we posed proudly for our summit photos.
We descended by a slightly different route and ended up back at the yurts as it grew
dark. We had been on the move for about 13 hours and were shattered: although the climb
was non-technical, we'd started much further down from where you'd normally put a base
camp, and so had done over 6,000 vertical feet up and another 6,000 down. Still, we were
elated: we'd made the first American and likely the first ascent of Möngün Taiga after
the fall of the Soviet Union. More importantly, we'd finally achieved the main objective
of our expedition: riding our bicycles to the foot of a significant mountain, then
Another ascent of Möngün Taiga under his belt, Mirgen was ready to head back to
Kyzyl. From here on in, we Americans would be on our own. Before he left, Mirgen showed us
on our map which way he thought the road would go. We loaded him up with our climbing
rope, thanked him for his help and his cheerful company, and bade him farewell.
In Mugur Aksy we purchased whatever food we could find (Polish chocolate was the key
buy), and set out. The route we wanted curled around Möngün Taiga. We missed our first
turn, discovered our mistake, and had a short but brutal climb over a ridge to bring us to
our goal for the day, the large lake Khindiktig Khöl. There, the road fragmented as we
ran into several swampy patches. Around each bog, tire tracks fanned out in every
direction. Each truck driver must have figured he knew the best way around. We stuck to
the likeliest track and found a superb campsite. Perched on the edge of this immense,
sparkling lake, around which a few yurts were scattered in the distance, we sat and
watched the full moon rise behind us over our recent conquest, Möngün Taiga.
The following day we suffered another route-finding mistake and a broken chain, but
managed to make it to the next major landmark on our route, Ak Khöl (White Lake). The day
after that we climbed a big pass, left Tuva, and entered the Altai Republic. We were
headed down to the Chuisky Trakt, an immense expanse of barren ground in the Altai
Mountains, where we began to see Kazakh and Altai people. Finally, on a day which began
with a driving rain and fierce headwind, we reached Kosh Agach, the capital of the region.
In Kosh Agach we had trouble finding provisions for the next part of our journey, the
part about which we were most concerned, as there were no towns along the way. In this
regional center there was nothing familiar in the shops but six beers, which we nursed the
rest of the day for the nourishment, of course. At the pitifully small bazaar, the
only transactions were with a guy selling some pretty decent champagne from the back of
his truck. As Pete looked for a new chain for his bike, and Randy searched for a sauna, I
met a helpful family who squired me around to some unmarked shops and I managed to buy
some jars containing an unidentifiable brown substance. Because the stuff was relatively
expensive, I figured it had to be good.
An ongoing concern of ours was that we would be hassled by officials for being in
closed areas. The closest call came on our last day in Kosh Agach. Around nine o'clock in
the morning a military official came to the hotel and told me we had to go with him to his
headquarters. I didn't like the sound of it, so I told him that Pete and Randy were
sleeping and that I couldn't in good conscience wake them up. I assured him that we'd come
by later in the afternoon, around two o'clock. He argued with me for a while but finally
agreed that as long as we showed up later, he'd leave us alone for the time being.
After he left I immediately woke up Pete and Randy and we decided we shouldn't try to
leave town today we didn't have enough provisions. Our best bet was to lie low and
unilaterally "reschedule" our appointment to take place after we left. If the
authorities came back to the hotel and were angry with us, I'd say I had misunderstood.
We managed to avoid any run-ins with the authorities for the rest of the day, and found
out later that no one had come looking for us at the hotel. We found the nice family that
had helped me the day before, and they treated us to dinner. We explained our predicament
with the authorities, and the family arranged for a friend to drive us out of town the
next day in his truck.
The next morning the truck came for us at the hotel. We were able to leave town with no
problem our missed appointment must not have been anything too important. Pete
likes to refer to the incident as "the time you told that guy to just go away."
The truck ride had another advantage: there are dozens of tracks out of Kosh Agach into
the surrounding mountains, and we didn't want to spend days looking for the right one
especially with officials possibly looking for us. And if a free ride pointing us
in the right direction wasn't enough, the family had sent us on our way with a big bag of
freshly cooked beef! The family from Kosh Agach was a godsend.
Along the Frontier
Despite our good luck, we were worried about this next leg of the expedition because
the road we wanted to take just happened to run right next to the Mongolian and then the
Chinese border. We figured it might be a sensitive area and thought we might not be
allowed out there. We hadn't had any real problems yet, but we didn't much like that
morning visit two days before. Additionally, we would cross from Russia into Kazakhstan
along this road, and since we didn't have Kazakh visas, we weren't sure what might happen
at that border. Basically, there were a lot of uncertainties, but we figured we just had
to go for it and see what happened.
Once into the mountains, there was a military checkpoint. We thought, This is it,
they're going to nail us they'll tell us that foreigners aren't allowed out here,
turn us back to Kosh Agach. Inside the compound we gave the soldiers a little
misinformation said we were heading to Kazakhstan on the more-traveled road to the
north. They checked our passports, smiled at our description of ourselves as
"sportsmen", wished us luck, and waved us through!
The truck driver dropped us off where the road splits, one fork staying north of the
big massif containing Belukha, the Altais' highest peak, and the other our route
passing to the south. We rode up a little ways and found an abandoned shack to stay
in. That night it snowed it was September 1st, maybe a little late to be riding
through these mountains!
As we unpacked the bag of freshly-cooked beef, I opened the jar of expensive brown
substance I had bought in Kosh Agach: it was barbecue sauce! In the middle of nowhere,
suddenly we were eating like kings. We toasted the family from Kosh Agach.
The next day we encountered only six people, all of whom informed us with emphatic
gestures that it would be impossible to get over this road on bikes only on horses
would we stand a chance. It was an unwelcome message, but we pushed on literally:
in the afternoon we started up a pass the biggest of the whole trip that was
so steep (and the road so bad) that we had to push our bikes up the last two or three
kilometers. And the pushing was pretty rough: either my backpack, which was strapped onto
my rear rack, would bump into my legs, or, when I put the pack on my back, I'd lose my
footing and slip every couple of steps. As we pushed slowly upward, I kept thinking about
the locals who warned us against attempting this route on a bike, and about the
possibility of having to backtrack, defeated, a very long way. There was no way but
forward, as difficult as it might be!
Finally, at near exhaustion, we reached the top. Once over the pass, we were rewarded
with a tremendous view of Tavanbogd, the 15,000 foot mountain at the conjunction of
Russia, Mongolia, and China.
From the pass we followed the valley of the Bukhtarma River all the way to Kazakhstan.
The place was totally uninhabited for over a hundred miles. The only people we saw were
Russian border guards, who were shocked to see us but never hassled us we even got
gas for our stoves from one convoy! All they wanted was to look at our passports, check
out our gear, pose for a few pictures, and then would wave us on.
In this river valley, routefinding was not a problem. The new difficulty, because of
the run-off from all the snowy peaks, was stream-crossings. We had encountered streams
before, but never in such profusion twenty or thirty in a day was now normal. The
routine was monotonous: take your boots and socks off, push or carry your bike across the
rushing stream, dry your feet, put your socks and boots back onand then do the same thing
all over again a few hundred yards down the road. After a while, I began trying to ride
through some of the smaller streams. This was the best way to go since I would eventually
fall in, soak my feet, and then no longer have to worry about getting my boots wet. After
my boots were soaked it was enjoyable to splash through every stream!
When the border we were paralleling changed from Mongolian to Chinese, all of a sudden
up sprang a tall but thin barbed-wire fence which ran right next to the road for over a
hundred kilometers. We knew about the historical tension at the Russian-Chinese border,
but still we wondered: how could you imagine keeping out a modern army with a single
fence? Besides the fact that it could be blown up easily, every 20 kilometers or so there
was an open gate. The fence did look as if it might have been electrified, and perhaps it
was there only to detect an invasion. Whatever its purpose, its flimsiness was baffling.
For several days we had been debating whether or not we would have problems because we
lacked Kazakh visas. When we finally reached the border we just had to laugh. We couldn't
even be sure that it was the border, because all we saw was a pathetic little gate in the
up position, with a STOP sign (in English) dangling in the wind. Next to the gate
stood an abandoned shack full of hundreds of empty tin cans. That was it. Not only were
there no border guards around to hassle us, there wasn't anyone. It was the kind of
welcome we could appreciate.
After the border, the road dropped fairly quickly into a lush, pine-forested valley
the first trees we had seen in weeks! We had a nice camp by the riverside, and the
next day rolled down the valley into populated areas, finally reaching the Kazakh village
of Uryl. There we were taken for Russians and treated with suspicion at first. As soon as
it became clear that we were American sportsmen, everybody's attitude changed completely.
The area beyond Uryl, inhabited by Kazakhs, was settled with Russian-style villages and
didn't offer much in the way of exploratory interest, so we called an end to Stage Two and
took the bus.
The Way Home
The trip wound up as follows: Pete, Randy, and I did a bus-plane extravaganza to Almaty
(formerly Alma Ata), capital of Kazakhstan, where we were quarantined by an outbreak of
cholera. After a trek and climb in the nearby Zailisky Alatau range, the quarantine was
off, and my compatriots returned to the States.
I was then joined by my step-brother, Michael Goldstein. We crossed into China at
Korgas, a border newly opened to foreigners. Then, in mid-October, we traversed the
stunning eastern Tian Shan (Heavenly Mountains) by bike. Snowstorms pinned us down and
forced us to deal with icy conditions at the top of each pass (which made for some highly
comical faceplants), but we managed to ride the whole way from Narat south to Kuqa.
Surprisingly enough, we encountered none of the official obstacles usual in remote parts
of China. The place seemed wide open.
Finally, after busing from Kuqa west to Kashgar, we tried to ride over the Karakoram
Highway to Pakistan in late October. We were going strong and headed for the Khunjerab
Pass when the rim on my rear wheel cracked too many miles with too much weight. I
managed to jury-rig a replacement in Pakistan from a bike that just happened to have been
left at the border, so we rode down the upper part of the "KKH" before heading
home from Islamabad.
I believe our expedition achieved many of its goals. Although we got off to a slow
start in Tuva, we managed to explore some very remote parts of Mongolia, particularly the
team members who stayed on after Liza and I returned to Tuva. (That's a story in itself
that Tom Quin can tell.)
Stage Two Tuva/Möngün Taiga/Trans-Altai/Kazakhstan I rate an
unqualified success. In addition to being physically demanding, this leg presented us with
great mental challenges, especially in crossing the pass that the locals told us was
impossible with a bike.
Not knowing what the availability of food or fuel would be, we had to carry as much as
possible. This translated into a physical challenge, since our bikes, fully loaded,
weighed between 90 and 100 lbs. With this much weight we could only average between 30 and
35 miles a day.
Routefinding presented other problems. Mistakes could cost us valuable time, food, and
fuel. Forks in the road or places where tracks disappeared into mud were always scenes of
intense debate. Although we had a compass and maps, the scale of the maps was insufficient
to show roads in this region, so we had to make plenty of educated guesses.
These challenges combined to make the second stage of our expedition one of the
greatest experiences I've ever had. Lack of knowledge and sheer uncertainty can be
debilitating, but we didn't let these handicaps discourage us. The three of us (and
Mirgen, when he was with us) functioned as a real team, with the cooperation necessary to
ensure success. We agreed that biking is the ideal mode of transportation to explore these
far-flung regions: you can fully experience the elements there without unduly disturbing
them, and the local people can relate to you easily after all, nearly everyone has
been on a bike sometime in his life! Finally, the fact that we were able to accomplish so
many of our goals inflamed our desire to set out on future expeditions.
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