, we awake to the sound of "Please fasten your seat belts, we are descending towards Ulaan Baatar". The endless steppe is unravelling before our eyes and here and there, we can see yurts and yak herds. Where are we going? It seems that there are no cities, no sign of urban life at all…
Rapidly, we take possession of what will be our home for the next months; everything is there, and seems to be fine. New smells, new faces, we just opened a door to a new world; we wanted and had been needing this for some time now. With conviction, we talk about this gene for adventure, which has become a real addiction for us!
The kindness, the curiosity and the determination of the Mongols impress us right away. Taxi! Taxi! No thanks; we have our own means of transportation! We’re off! Our first pedal stroke, our first look at the immensity of the steppe and our first smile to a child in the street… We’re finally here and ready for an adventure of a lifetime! Of course, from the sky, we could not see how this city is changing, how modernity seems to hardly cohabit with tradition…
, Mongolia: the immensity of the steppe, hundreds of wild horses galloping with the wind and of course, the nomad tradition: hospitality. It is all so enormous and grand… The windy season doesn’t make it easy for us, but the beauty of the culture, of the people, of this country can only make us progress, always further, in our minds and on the road. Here and there, locals invite us for tea, to taste Mongolian yogurt and sour cream. Hospitality is a rule here, just like smiling.
The more we progress, the more we discover a world in which traditions seem to live forever, where education, the one from the steppe, is at the heart of the nomadic way of life. Often, we sleep in yurts or next to them, sharing spaces and lives, and these moments become magical instants, hence unforgettable. We ate sheep intestines, but liking it was gastronomically challenging. Not sure we succeeded well doing it!
Beautiful images were in our minds from books we had read at home. But how do people of the steppe live every day? What are their daily realities? Without a doubt, the nomad Mongol lives with and for his livestock. With our western eye, we first see freedom, a will to live day by day, following the seasons, listening to nature. But accordingly, living in harmony with nature is also living with its excess, and in this land, excess from Mother Nature is common.
The nomad man, despite the impression of serenity he seems to have on his horse, has to ask himself hundreds of questions every day. Where are my goats? Are they all here? Do they have enough water and grass? Will the wolves come tonight? Women, on the other hand, stay at the yurt. Early in the morning and late at night, they go to feed the herd and get their milk, which is used to make a variety of food products: cheese, sour cream, fermented milk (koumiss), traditional yogurt, and the famous salted tea, served to everyone who travels the Mongol land. Throughout the day, these women keep an eye on the house, prepare the meals, tidy the yurt, etc.
We left the paved road a while ago now and sincerely, we are now, literally, mountain biking, but with all the extra weight on our bikes! It is not always easy with the wind blowing, sandstorms, endless cols, and the heavy sun; however, the people we meet, the things we learn, the cultural exchanges, is what is truly satisfying to us. We are now heading towards the Altai Mountains, where we will try to spend a few days with a Mongol family. One pedal stroke, two, and we’re off again!!
Finally, we spend eight days with a Mongol family, eight days living the nomad life, milking goats and building a yurt, shearing sheep and cooking meals. Eight days during which, we rapidly bond with a great family, eight days that we will remember for the rest of our lives...
, just try to think of 2100 kilometres in the desert and the mountains across Mongolia, in extremely harsh conditions… We were dead tired and drained. Our visas were expiring soon, and we needed to cross the border, which we heard, would take us to a more lenient land, where water and food are more abundant.
But despite the information we obtained, despite the long discussions we mimed and elaborated with our little dictionary, the Chinese border was closed to us. Only Chinese and Mongols could cross it.
In the end, the Mongols accepted to let us go, but the Chinese were strict, it was a big NO on their part. We would have to go back to Ulaanbaatar, our starting point, and then fly to China or India. For three days, we desperately tried to contact the Embassy, but never reached them, phones not being very efficient in this part of the country. The only two times we reached the Embassy, we got the answering machine.
How could we describe this bitter feeling, this disappointment? How could we go back after all these efforts? On the road, we met other travelers from Europe who heard about an opening to cross the border. They had already made arrangements with a Chinese businessman for visas; all they had to do was pay $660 US each and this meant no negotiating with the authorities! Welcome to corruption land!! We had never wanted to be part of this kind of business or to have planned it. But in our situation, what else could we do? We were already illegal in Mongolia, since our visa had expired, even if we had changed the 0 for an 8 on our paper (July 20th becoming July 28th)! We decided to call this man, and we negotiated a different price: $400 US each (the price was still less than going back to the starting point and flying to China!). We then had to wait for ten days in stressful conditions. When we finally saw it, we could not believe it: we had THE red stamp on our passports! On the morning of the 24th, we biked to go back to the border, going through a variety of emotions and paper controls! Then we slowly made our way to the Chinese flag. One of the border officers, who first denied us the access to his country, came to shake hands with Mel to wish her Happy Birthday in broken English!
As soon as we crossed the border, China opened its doors to us! We had smiles, horn honks, fruit juice, watermelons, spicy foods and even sesame bread. On a freshly paved road, I think we broke a biking record crossing an immense desert, to finally arrive to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, an autonomous province in China. In the heart of this truly charismatic city, the ouighour culture is mixed with Eastern China. We were happy in the immensity of the steppe, but what a feeling this part of the world brought us, a part of the world where music meets festive smells!
, we're on our way, with this feeling of aliveness. Around us, all these smiles, these thumbs up to cheer for us! Often, Chinese as well as Uyghurs, offer us water bottles and watermelons. Here and there, we see clay houses with straw roofs, donkeys pulling chariots, men and women with a sense of humility that makes us appreciate sharing a moment with them, here and now.
To progress in this environment, where Uyghurs try to counterbalance the massive Chinese presence makes us realize the extent of this emerging Chinese nation, and the concern society should have towards this situation. It isn’t tens, but rather thousands of coal plants we see on our way. They even seem to be part of the landscape in some regions. We also feel like we are in an anthill because of the high number of people working on the roads.
Xinjiang was invaded 60 years ago by China at the same moment as was Tibet. Here however, there is no Dalaï Lama. We barely speak of the political situation they are in. Like in Tibet, the Ouïghours rights are mocked on a daily basis. Once again, the Chinese government's solution seems to be to assimilate the greatest amount of people. We do not know China, but here, and now, we have a feeling that this nation will make an impression on the world.There are moments when…
Some moments are remembered forever. They are rare, unique… Yesterday, we woke up early, before sunrise, to film the vastness of the salt desert. The beauty of this moment was memorable: the emptiness, the immensity, and the desolation.
Then, softly, the wind started to blow, very slowly. But suddenly, what first seemed to be a morning breeze turned out to be a real sandstorm! We could feel it in the air when we breathed. A wall of sand was surrounding us. We didn't have any other choice but to continue biking, since the villages we passed by where abandoned and our water and food reserves were going down quite fast. We progressed in this natural yet chaotic environment, our faces covered with a scarf, with the wind blowing sand miles away. This chaotic vision was rough but soft at the same time, because we knew that we were living a unique moment, the kind you experience only once in a lifetime.
Further ahead, this desert we had been crossing for the past three days transformed itself into an endless sea, on both sides of the road. We were shocked, astounded, how was it possible? Water everywhere, at least up to the sand wall the storm had created. Even marine birds flew over this surreal landscape! We will never forget this moment… Then, five kilometers further, we were back into the real desert, with its sand and its 45° C!
Tibet is now very close. Tomorrow, we will bike our first col; more than 4000 meters high. But most of all, we are getting ready to cross the border that is forbidden to cyclists.
, our rib cage crushed by altitude, short of breath, we just crossed one more col at an altitude of 5200 meters. Locals, on the other hand, do not seem to have any problems, letting their crops wonder on the hills where even the most advanced climber would not dare go without all his gear…
The road is brutal. Thousands of people, from children to old Tibetan women, work on these roads for almost nothing, in terrible conditions. Despite all of this, nothing stops them from smiling at us, even from inviting us in for tea! We can feel the effects of tourism: many ask us for clothes, money, food or pens. We also see a man throwing pens from his jeep as he drives by. Is he that rushed that he cannot stop? It is hard to create honest friendships in those conditions.
We are starting to go down to a more comfortable altitude when we see, far in the horizon; a village perched in the last rays of sun light. It is a mystical vision: no roads go there, there are at least two rivers to cross, but we feel we have to push our luck. This is how we ended up spending the night on the porch of the house of a welcoming family. Because it is harvest season, Olivier helps the men to load the donkey's backs, while Mel helps the women with house chores. Momo (yak meat in a thick pastry), butter tea, and bâc (cereal puree) are also things we have during our stay. It is sometimes hard to push your luck, here or abroad, but it is often what allows us to learn, grow, and share.The hill of a lifetime…
Our last col! What a feeling! We started our last hill, our last pedal strokes in the Himalayas... It is hard to describe the feeling! Since we started our journey in Mongolia, we have not seen any forests, trees and suddenly, we go down from an altitude of 5200 meters to 1000 meters, making our way in the dense Nepal jungle, disconcerted by the presence of culture in terrace, women in saris, and Hindi temples. We missed life and nature so much… We have to learn to talk with people again, to interpret body language… Welcome to Nepal!!!
, the Tibetan plateau with its white mountains, its gorgeous canyons and its never ending cols, wow! The desert was so intense that even here, where altitude imposes its own restrictions, we feel blessed.
The plains are so green, a green that we forgot existed! There are also lots of gazelles, wild donkeys, and herds of yaks enjoying the green pastures. There are numerous rivers, cols as well. We make our way in this environment, short of breath because of the 4500 meters altitude. The more we progress, the more we can feel Tibet, the one we read about and didn't seem to exist anymore. Slowly, we get to meet its warm and colorful people, profoundly religious, who seem to truly respect foreigners who come to support their cause.
Old women come to meet us to say hi: "Tashidelek!" and they keep walking, their praying wheels in hands. We didn't enter Tibet easily. Today, it is still forbidden for individual travelers to enter the territory. Already, we feel what has astounded so many people around the globe: the religious cult, the customs, the art that is certainly endemic, but most of all, the Tibetan people who inspire respect. Undoubtedly, they are mysterious to us.
We also feel that Chinese authorities are determined to assimilate the Tibetan population for good. The army is omnipresent, everywhere. The Chinese government seems to use a restraining tactic to assimilate the Tibetan culture, just like they did in Urumqui, the capital of the Xinjiang province. It is hard to understand…We are truly frustrated because of our helplessness towards the situation
We try to relax and regain strength by spending a few days in a Monastery and by dropping into a small village on the road to Nepal (the Sikkim border is still closed to foreigners). Until then, we will try to get a taste of "what is left of them", being truly optimistic, we do believe that what is left of them will be there for a long time…
* Tibet was invaded by China in 1950 and the Cultural Revolution, which took place at the end of the 60s, killed more than 1 million Tibetans and caused the destruction of thousands of temples. Entering Tibet is forbidden to individual tourists and cyclists. A special visa is necessary to enter, and it can only be obtained by a group traveling by motorized coach. There is a fine of $50 for illegal intruders and they can be expelled from Tibetan territory.
, our arrival to Katmandu was not easy. After having to deal with a steep hill of 30 kilometers in hot and humid weather, we got stuck into the intense traffic of the capital. Our schedule was changed because of the steep hill, and therefore, we arrived in jammed streets, biking at night in a car jungle, with the sounds of screaming drivers, horns, and howling engines.
This was definitely the first impression of what our next destination would be like. The closer we got to India, the more people were surrounding us. Crossing our last border was a chaotic experience but for once, a rapid one! And then… the shock… Thousands and thousands of people: women wearing colorful saris, children begging in the streets, men carrying incredibly large bundles on their heads. After having spent three days in this little rural village, we knew more about the caste system, which is still very present today in India. We also learned about a woman's role is in a very patriarchal society.
And here we are, at the doors of what is supposed to be our final destination: Varanassi! Majestic and mystic, Varanassi is unique. The popular belief is that in this spiritual place, the soul leaves the body to go directly to paradise, escaping forever from the reincarnation cycle. Every morning, at sunrise, thousands of Hindis come to the Ganges, one of the most polluted rivers on the planet, to purify themselves for the Gods.
How could we abandon our bikes so rapidly? Because the road and the adventure were calling us, we decided to continue our journey to Calcutta, our “real” final destination. So here we are, jumping on our bikes for the last 1000 kilometers…
, with the sounds of tablas echoing in our heads, we make our way towards Bihar, one of the poorest, most populous and dangerous states of India. Three days ago, a shooting took place in one of the towns we need to cross. People warned us: "Never stop, do not take any detours and most of all stop biking before sunset". Not very reassuring! Admittedly, as we made our way into Bihar, we could feel the difference. Here, more than anywhere else, men and women have to fight for their survival.
But it is not thieves, nor armed groups nor revolutionaries that we met on the road, rather thousands of eyes with exclamation marks in them (or question marks!?) and people so curious that they were uncontrollable. Every day, India unveiled itself with new faces, different manners and customs. We were now so used to dealing with differences and the unusual that almost nothing surprised us anymore. Then, as we biked, we started to smell the ocean breeze, to see palm trees, and to understand that our journey was coming to an end.
And curiously, it is a few hundreds of kilometers away from the arrival point that we started to feel joy, accomplishment. 7951 kilometers… already? Us, who didn’t know anything about cycling to start with! But the adventure doesn't stop here, oh no! We wanted more than ever to continue. In our everyday life of course, but also continue with all these new projects we created while we were cycling. But more than anything, this adventure enabled us to accomplish this dream… this dream to share our film and to share with as many people as possible our values, our ideas, our ideals.