Where the Pavement Ends: One Woman's Bicycle Trip Through Mongolia, China & Vietnam
In August of 1993, with only a bicycle named Greene for a traveling companion, 27-year-old American Erika Warmbrunn set off on an eight-month, 8,000-kilometer trek that would take her from the shores of Lake Baikal through Mongolia, China, and Vietnam, all the way to the Mekong Delta. Where the Pavement Ends, published in March, 2001, is the story of that ride.
I envy Erika Warmbrunn her beautiful, heartfelt articulation of encounters with little-known hearts and souls of Asia. – Gordon Wiltsie
Warmbrunn captures the natural beauty of the people, customs, and landscapes by opening herself up to their lifestyles on their terms. … This well-written book is for all who aspire to venture beyond their traditional frontiers. – Booklist
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.