A journey across remote lands: Tibet and Mongolia (by Nicolas Marino)

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Today's guest post "A journey across remote lands: Tibet and Mongolia" is by Nicolas Marino (Website | Blog | Facebook | Flickr | Twitter):

Hi Everybody! My name is Nicolas and I am a documentary and landscape photographer who, since 2006 has chosen a bicycle as means of transportation to travel and reach some very remote regions of this world. I have cycled 41.000 km (25.000mi) in Asia so far and due to the nature of traveling by bicycle I can relate very intimately to the people of the places I visit, as most of the time I can share quality time with them. So in this opportunity, allow me to take you for a ride along two places that truly touched my heart out of all the ones I have been to, Tibet and Mongolia.

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Exploring the Tibetan plateau by bicycle has been one of the most rewarding yet tough experiences of my life. Throughout my years based in Chengdu, China I have made several solo extreme cycling trips across the provinces of Kham and Amdo and in each one of them, I had to endure the extreme weather of the region to be able to experience the soothing warmth of the Tibetan people. Averaging 5000 m (16400ft) of altitude, the Tibetan plateau is by nature an inhospitable land where I would spend several days, riding solitary tracks and getting across one after another and another incredibly high and cold mountain pass.

Stitched Panorama

When you are cycling uphill a sea of stones at walking speeds, running out of breath at 5000 m and struggling to keep your body warm when the cold catches your body soaked in sweat, that's when your mind starts playing tricks on you and telling you: “why in the world are you doing this?” Sometimes even making me hate being a photographer. I carry an average of 60kg (132lb)including the bike's weight, out of which 15kg (33lb) belong to photography related stuff. This is a lot of extra extra weight to take and it is only when you look at the LCD and you know you got that shot that the pain suddenly disappears and everything you've gone through was totally worth it.

Stitched Panorama

Opposite to what one might think, it is in these harsh lands where I found some of the most wonderful people in this world. The more I travel the more I am convinced that the harshest the environment the more hospitable the people are. In the roughest of the environments I met nothing but smiles.

Tibetan nomad on the grasslands. Tibetan plateau
People who even in the middle of a blizzard, while undertaking the tough task of bringing their yaks back to their camp, would stop to welcome a complete stranger on a bicycle (while wondering what the hell he is doing there) , pose for a photograph, feed him later and make a space in their tent at night.

Tibetan nomads herding yaks at 4400mts high in the Tibetan plateau
When the night sets in, temperatures plummet and you bury yourself deep in your sleeping bag while seeking courage to go out and capture that insane retreating blizzard that had just caught you on your bike before camping, leaving the cleanest of the starry skies and a shinning moon illuminating a 4340 m (14370ft) high azure lake.

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Despite 60 years of invasion and violent harassment, Tibetan nomads still struggle to keep their way of living and their spiritual beliefs. In very remote regions, kids still wrap themselves up in traditional clothes. Their houses are warm inside while outside can be blistering cold.

Tibetan kid wearing traditional clothes. Remote Tibetan plateau
They come outside regardless of how cold it is and they become resilient from very early in life. They use to look curiously at me because most of the time I am riding across regions where foreigners simply do not go, let alone riding a bicycle.

A tibetan kid from a nomad family on the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau
They are used to be outside following their parents around, learning how to engage in a life that it is essentially about dealing with surviving a harsh environment.

Tibetan kid on traditional clothes. Tibetan plateau
In regions where the Han Chinese influence has become strong enough for people to start giving up their culture, traditional clothes are sadly gone and even in nomad's tents, you can see the new generation wearing cheap Chinese-made clothes that are completely foreign to their culture.

Nomad Tibetan kid inside her tent. Grasslands around Zorge.
Life inside revolves around the stove, it's the only place where you can keep yourself warm. Mothers prepare the food for the whole family and are in charge of constantly adding dry yak dung to fill the stove and keep it running.

Tibetan woman in her golden kitchen.  Tibetan plateau
Spirituality is as inherent to a Tibetan as breathing is to life. Praying and reciting mantras is something they do pretty much any time of the day but early morning and late afternoon is the time when they particularly dedicate time to it.

Tibetan woman deep into her prayers. Tibetan plateau
Nobody but Tibetans understand more the harshness of their environment and there was not a single time that I haven't felt safe thanks to their care and their love. They give it to whoever is in their land. If you liked these images, then don't forget Tibetans, their culture is in the hands of a sadistic government who is year by year strengthening their measures to wipe it off the map.

Tibetan kids waking up in the morning. Tibetan plateau
Far up north from the Tibetan plateau lies Mongolia, a nation of nomads and rigorous weather where I have ridden 3300 km (2050 mi) earlier this year, now together with my life's partner. Entering Mongolia is like coming into a tale, it's like going back 400 years and take part of a life that can only be compared to what one has read in history books. The scenery is nothing but stunning all over and like in Tibet, the nomads' hospitality is overwhelming.

Stitched Panorama
Riding on the steppe is a truly magical experience. Mongolia has only a handful of paved roads and thousands and thousands of miles of tracks that have been engraved on the soil by thousands of years of nomads moving around the country. The flashy green and the smooth shape of the hills is beautifully intoxicating, a true treat to the eyes. Life happens at a slow pace and you can see shepherds going around with their herds.

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Nomads live in their gers, the traditional Mongolian yurts that can be seen scattered all over the country. They are cool in summer and warm in the extremely harsh winter and beautiful inside. It takes only a couple of hours to mount them or dismantle them. They are the ultimate perfection in terms of vernacular architecture.

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Like in Tibet, life inside revolves around the stove and everything in the ger is arranged around it.

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In the high steppe, bordering Siberia there are less gers and more cabins made of tree trunks. People are extremely welcoming and as soon as they would see us from a distance, they would wave their hands to invite us and come inside. They would treat us with salted tea,dry goat's cheese and airag (fermented mare's milk) the national drink.

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The beauty of cycling the world is having the place completely to yourself and having total freedom over what you photograph. Even places that are visited by tourists can be shot from places where these don't go. You have all the time you want to explore and get unique perspectives. Lake Terkhin Tsagaan is one perfect example of this, a place where I could've spent a month in solitude.

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The Gobi desert covers the southern half of the country and we rode 1200 km (745mi) across it, most of the time in complete solitude as gers are very few and far between and most of the time seen from miles away. The Gobi is harsh and inhospitable and even though this is the nature of a desert, the colors and the scenery can be as stunning as those of the steppe and people even friendlier.

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Undertaking the crossing of a desert by bicycle isn't an easy task. It takes huge determination, courage and strength, its immensity is intrinsically intimidating and without the ability to determine your orientation it can be deadly as tracks split dozens of times in very short stretches and most of the time there is absolutely nobody around, perhaps for more than 2 or 3 days. Finding a ger in the middle of it is relieving experience as people will see you and take you in as part of their family. Like Tibetans, they are fully aware of how harsh their environment is so they do everything they can to help you and treat you like a guest of honor.

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When the day is over and the tent is pitched, you are left to enjoy the best of what the world has to offer. True beauty, dazzling skies and the most absolute silence, an experience that sublimates the soul. The desert offers little foreground subjects, that's when you and your stuff come into place to be the subjects that accompany an unforgettable night.

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The beauty of cycling the world as a photographer comes from having total freedom, the ability to reach places where very few can and participate intimately of the life of the people you visit which gives you unprecedented photographic opportunities and the chance to enrich yourself with experiences that you can hardly find when traveling with motor transport.

If you have an interesting idea for a guest postyou can contact me here.

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