We were 14 miles into our 15 mile backpacking trip around Pyramid Peak when I started crying because my feet hurt so badly. Which was ironic, because neither an Ironman nor the toughest cycling races in the gravel scene have brought me to tears. Turns out a short jaunt in the woods is all that it takes. Each step on the rocky terrain sent pain searing through my toes and the soles of my feet. I continued hobbling down the mountain, wincing in pain. Then my mind went back two months earlier to a bike ride I did with eleven girls from Arvaikheer, Mongolia. I thought about those girls and saw each of their faces, I took a deep breath, wiped my tears and kept moving. I guess that’s when I realized I have a story to tell, a story about how much 130 girls and two weeks in Mongolia meant to me.
You see, I tend to think I’m pretty tough, though I don’t think the local cycling community gives me enough credit, because I’m not gifted with speed. I still have a sense of pride when I think about the fact that I’ve ridden my bike 207 miles, without aide stations or course markings. I’ve done a solo bikepacking trip, and continue to set goals like I’ve got something to prove when it comes to grit and determination. The thing is though, eleven middle school girls from Mongolia showed me that I’m not so tough at all, and quite frankly toughness isn’t about the miles you ride, or how fast you ride them. In early June 2018 I gave 130 girls bikes on behalf of 88bikes and in return, they gave me perspective. I know the bikes won’t last forever, especially not against the harsh Mongolian terrain, but the perspective they gave me will be with me for the rest of my life. In a way I feel a bit of shame about that, which is why its been so hard to put it down on paper, but stories aren’t stories at all if they aren’t shared.
88bikes typically endows bicycles to girls that are survivors or at risk of human-trafficking. Usually in Southeast Asia, where human-trafficking is an epidemic and getting around on a bicycle is a way of life. That made our trip to Mongolia unique in and of itself. Seven years ago, Dan Austin, the founder of 88bikes went to Mongolia with his brother before he’d really found his niche with trafficking survivors in Cambodia. He did a small endowment with a Peace Corp volunteer in the tiny town of Arvaikheer, Mongolia. Fast forward to 2017 and a Peace Corp volunteer with the current cohort contacted Dan asking if 88bikes would come back for another project. The town had just finished some welding classes, in which some young adults welded bike racks to put around town. They were all eager to fill the racks with shiny new bikes. With Dan’s busy schedule and young daughter a trip to Mongolia wasn’t in the cards for him, but by June 2018 Ryan and I with our Roca Roja bicycles and $10,000 of cash in tow were on an Boeing Economy 777 headed to Mongolia.
While human-trafficking exists in Mongolia (like everywhere else), the girls receiving bikes on this endowment were orphans and survivors of domestic violence. They were all from small villages in Ovorkhangi, Mongolia. This state in central Mongolia sits between the Gobi desert to the south and the mountainous forests of Northern Mongolia. Like most of the country herding is a way of life and the nomadic culture is alive and well. Ryan’s blog posts can give you a sense of our experience in central Mongolia, but what the nomadic culture means for the families and girls living on the steppe is that in order for parents to make a living and children to get and education, the children end up raising themselves. Parents follow their herds to green pastures while children live together in soums (villages) so they can go to school. As many as eight kids live together in a ger. Gers, known as yurts in America, are basically a round canvas tent. Perhaps 10-20 feet in diameter – with twin beds along the perimeter and a wood burning stove in the center. There is no plumbing, no kitchen, no computer and no central air. In winters the temperature reaches zero degrees celsius and Mongolian children keep their gers warm by burning cow dung or unrefined coal in the stove. In the summer sandstorms blow dust and sand into the gers and it is a constant battle to keep the ger clean.
So while the parents are raising their livestock in the country-side, young girls are raising other young children in the villages. The villages, while small are vast, which means lots of walking to get to and from school, to and from the market and to and from any extra curricular activities. The ironic part about the girls staying back in the villages to get an education is that there are limited jobs in the countryside. Arvaikheer was one of the larger towns, because it is a state capital, however with a population comparable to Anthem (a community in north Phoenix) its not like there is a booming economy with a vibrant job market. What is education without opportunity?
There is one city in Mongolia that has a modern economy and a well educated workforce, but its overcrowded, polluted and depressing compared to the beautiful Mongolian steppe. It seems one of the saddest facts of life is that unemployment and poverty lead to alcohol abuse, and alcohol abuse leads to domestic violence. In 2009 the World Health Organization reported that alcohol abuse could be Mongolia’s biggest stumbling block to economic and social progress. While Ryan and I only ran into a few drunk men in Mongolia, we saw the evidence. We saw it in grocery stores filled with candy and alcohol, vegetables were rare and fruit was non-existent. We saw it when we passed men on the street corners in the middle of the work day. We saw it riding our bikes through the steppe where we had to worry about slicing a tire on glass shards from broken vodka bottles. And we saw it on the women and girl’s faces, bruises hidden by large sunglasses and eyes averted in shame.
So, that’s the backdrop of the story. The setting, or my perception of it, for 130 girls in rural Mongolia. The backdrop is not their story though. They each have their own story, a story that evolves and changes each day. I’d be lying if I told you I knew much about any of the girls lives, the language barrier was difficult and with very few English speakers in Arvaikheer conversation was minimal. But as I tried to talk to each of the 130 bike recipients during the endowment I saw a resoluteness and strength in their eyes. It couldn’t be hidden. I also saw excitement, joy and gratitude. I’m not sure if there is a word for punctuality in Mongolia, everything runs a different time schedule. However, on the day of the endowment girls were waiting at the town square for us before 6 AM. When Ryan and I walked up they excitedly ran toward us, eagerly waiting to receive their new bicycles. When all the bikes were handed out and the girls rode around the square their serious stares were softened by smiles and laughter. It was a sweet juxtaposition.
The next morning we were planning to leave on a overnight bike camp with eleven of the bike recipients. When we got to the town square the wind was howling and it started snowing. The temperature was near freezing. The girls rode up one by one with their backpacks strapped to their racks or in the baskets on the front of their bikes. The adults from the community center decided to cancel the camping trip. The upcoming week was final exams and the girls couldn’t afford to get sick by being out in this weather. The girls weren’t ready to give up and kept riding around the square. There was a lot of discussion back and forth. Ryan and I started coming up with a new plan for the next two days since we didn’t have any accommodations booked. Then the girls staged a coup d’etat. With one of the youngest as their spokeswoman they told the adults they were all prepared to ride. They had all called each other the night before and decided they would ride no matter how bad the weather was. They even came up with a backup plan since they weren’t allowed to camp. We were headed to a nearby ger camp outside of town for a day trip. The camp was only seven miles away but we had to climb rolling hills, cross sandy washes and pedal across boulder strewn pastures to get there.
As we rode towards the ger camp it was obvious several of the girls had never ridden bikes. There were collisions and wipe outs, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone. With each fall they dusted themselves off and climbed back on the saddle. When the group got to spread out the girls leading the way would stop and wait for the others to catch up. When the wind got to strong we found boulders to hide behind. Halfway through the ride one of the adults asked the girls how they were doing. The young spokeswoman informed us that they weren’t tired, but their hands were very cold and we kept moving. When we arrived at camp we parked our bikes outside one of the gers and went inside to play games, make bracelets, drink tea and eat lunch. While we all got settled two of the girls collected cow patties in a large metal tub so we could keep the fire going. Despite the fact that we couldn’t speak their language the girls taught us how to play Shagai, a traditional game played with sheep’s ankle bones.
A few hours later it was time to ride back. This time we had to pedal slightly uphill and into a headwind the entire way. There weren’t as many falls this time around, but there was a lot of walking and pushing of bikes. Just like on the way out if the girls got to spread out they waited for the group before continuing further. When we started getting closer to town we had to watch out for dogs. In Mongolia people keep dogs as guard dogs more than pets, and the dogs do their job well. At one point I was riding with Tseveldulam, a fourteen year old who wants to be a dancer. She was one of the strongest riders and always near the front of the group. A dog started charging toward us and she jumped off her bike and put it between her and the dog, I followed her lead and she started shouting at the dog and grabbed a baseball sized rock from the ground and raised it over her head. As soon as her arm went in the air the dog retreated and started trotting in the other direction. We got back on our bikes and kept going, Ryan joked that Tseveldulam was my body guard.
When we got back to the town square the girls continued riding around, it seemed as if they didn’t want they day to end. The adults on the other hand were exhausted, hungry and ready to change into warmer clothes. We said our goodbyes and Ryan and I rode back to our hotel for one more night in Arvaikheer before we started riding across central Mongolia. Both Ryan and I were amazed at the tenacity that we saw in the girls throughout the course of the day. It was like the thought of giving up never crossed their minds. We even talked about how athletic some of the girls were. Three of the girls, Tseveldulam included were such strong riders. They rode their steel, single speed, city bikes through the mountainous steppe with ease. They were naturals. If I brought any of them back to a NICA race and gave them a race bike they’d win, easily. But that’s the thing, girls aren’t racing on school mountain bike teams in central Mongolia. They aren’t dreaming of becoming engineers, accountants, nutritionists or c-suite executives. They are going to school and raising other kids on the steppe. They are braving the harsh winters and battling the summer sandstorms. They are growing up to become some of the strongest young women I’ve ever met. They could change the world if they knew they could dream to. Part of me is sad when I think about that, but on the other hand there is a beauty and a freedom in life on the Mongolian steppe. It’s different than America and western society, not better, not worse just different. Despite our different language, despite the different backdrop to our stories and despite all of our other differences we shared a bike ride, and the simple and unparalleled joy that comes from riding a bike.
On our last day in the Mongolia countryside Ryan and I were walking around Tsterleg when school let out. As we walked up the sidewalk towards one of the buddhist monasteries we passed two boys and a young girl talking on the sidewalk. The girl seemed upset about some elementary school drama and pushed one of the boys off his bike. I grinned to myself and kept walking climbing to the top of the monastery. I know bikes won’t end human-trafficking, domestic violence or poverty and they won’t give anyone the eternal salvation that we all desperately need. But for some reason God gave me a love of bikes. He’s given me a bike to celebrate the good times and to cope with the bad. And I plan on sharing my love of bicycles with girls around the world for as long as I can. And with each brief conversation or shared pedal stroke I hope for three things. I hope that each girl will have a few moments of joy, despite whatever circumstances are the backdrop of her story. I hope that each girl will know she is loved. And I hope that when I ask each girl what her dream is she will be inspired to dream bigger than she ever has before.