2wheels: The Return
Edward Genochio's bicycle expedition from China to England
September 2005 - November 2006
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Horseman Stole My Bicycle!
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The Great Mongolian Bicycle Robbery
This article first appeared in The Adventure Cycling Handbook, available in bookshops or at www.trailblazer-guides.com, and is reproduced here in edited form by kind permission of the book's editor.
I was only 2,000 miles short of the end of my 13,000 mile bicycle journey to China when something bad happened.
I lost my bike.
In truth, I didn't exactly lose it. It was stolen from me as I slept.
But this was not your ordinary cable-cutting bike theft. Plenty of cycle tourists have had their bicycles nicked, but I think I have the distinction of being the only one to have had his bike stolen by a horse.
It was the small hours of Sunday morning. I was camped on the riverbank not far from Ulaan Baator, asleep in my tent.
And then, suddenly, my tent collapsed on top of me. The sound of tearing canvas quickly gave way to the beat of galloping hooves.
My bicycle had been ripped from the tent, to which it had been locked, and dragged away by a four-legged bike-thief. The galloping faded into the distance as, still half asleep, I struggled to escape the tangled remnants of my tent. I fought my way into the outside, and found myself standing in the silence and darkness of a moonless night, bikeless and alone. The evening before, I had welcomed this darkness for the views it allowed of a spectacular meteorite shower. Now, I was afraid: afraid that whoever it was - assuming the horse hadn't been acting alone - would be coming back soon for the rest of my belongings. I worried especially they would get my diaries - precious to me but worthless to anyone else. Gathering my thoughts and as many of my remaining possessions as I could carry, I went to hide behind a low ridge, and waited to see if anyone would come back. A few minutes passed. Nothing; everything was still, quiet and dark, just the gentle sound of the river flowing by, a few yards from where my tent had been.
I went back to my campsite and grabbed everything else I could find. I hid half my stuff behind the ridge, and, prioritising as best I could in the dark, staggered with as much as I could carry across the steppe towards the lights I could see shining a few miles away to the south. I kept my torch switched off, afraid that the beam would attract the robbers' attention. In the event, my position was quickly given away by barking dogs, beaconing news of a stranger in the steppe from one homestead to the next.
I struggled across the rough ground; several times I tripped and fell in holes. I was worried about breaking a leg but I felt I needed to get to the road as quickly as possible in case the attackers came back after me. They must have known that I would have money with me; Mongolia is a poor country and presumably someone who would steal a bike would be interested in money too.
It took perhaps one hour, perhaps two, to reach the lights: as luck would have it, they came from a check-point on the road heading east from Ulaan Baator into the desert. In a little booth I found a man whose duty it was to raise the wooden barrier and allow vehicles to pass - or not, according to his whim. He smelled of alcohol from twenty paces. I tried to explain to him what had happened; he stuck his tongue out and complained how hard his job was.
"Seven different things I'm responsible for checking, you know," he slurred, in broken Russian. "Number plates, goods, livestock, passengers "
"I have been robbed. Can you call the police?"
He stuck his tongue out again. "Seven different checks, it's a lot to ask ."
I sensed that I would not be getting far with the man in the booth. The responsibility for seven different checks weighed on him too heavily. I wandered round the back of his booth; stretched out on the concrete steps was a man in police uniform.
"Hello, are you a policeman?" I asked. At the time it seemed a reasonable opening line.
The man looked surprised.
"I am English," I added, unhelpfully. "I have been robbed. I need to find the police."
The man nodded, and said something in Mongolian. Another man appeared, followed by a woman. She was eating sunflower seeds and spraying their shells over a wide field of fire. The three of them conferred. The man in the booth came out to see what was going on, and stuck his tongue out.
After several minutes of theatrical mime, sound-effects and jumping up and down, I felt I was beginning to get the message across.
I sleep - two hands under head - in tent - triangle shape in the air - man on horse - Monty Python-style coconut shell noises - steal my bicycle - rotate fists in front of chest. (Why do people always mime "bicycle" by pedalling their hands like that? It looks more like Chinese shadow-boxing than anything to do with a bicycle. Any attempt to put it into practice would be doomed to painful failure.)
The two uniformed men nodded, climbed into a car, and beckoned me to follow. The booth man was left to look after the check-point; he stuck his tongue out. We drove wildly across the rutted steppe, feeble headlights barely picking out the large rocks that littered our path.
"Which way?" mimed the driver.
"I've no idea," I mimed back. "We've been spinning so much I've lost my bearings." I spun my finger in the air.
The driver spun the steering wheel.
"No, no, no, we have already been spinning enough, I mean. We don't need to spin any more." It is hard to do tenses in mime - past, present and future merge.
A bang, a crunch of metal and a sudden stop announced that the car had hit a trench. The policemen climbed out to inspect the damage. I climbed out to inspect the trench - I recognised it as the one into which I had fallen and nearly broken my leg an hour or two earlier, a hundred yards from where my tent had been.
Over by the riverbank we found the remains of my tent. The policemen walked up and down, tutting. After a while, tutted out, they climbed back into the car. I wondered what clues they might have uncovered in the course of their tutting. Perhaps they would send for a forensic team to comb the scene of the crime, taking hoof-prints and collecting mane samples for DNA analysis. In any case, they remained tight-lipped.
Stuck in the trench, the car would not budge; we climbed out again and started heaving, hauling, pushing and shoving, sometimes in unison but more often in opposing directions. A steady stream of oil was now flowing from the car's undercarriage. Suddenly the wheels found purchase and the car lurched backwards out of the trench. The policemen drove me back to their checkpoint, where the man in the booth had passed out, tongue still jutting out between clenched teeth.
As the first hints of dawn began to lighten the eastern sky, a jeep arrived from police headquarters. They drove me back to Ulaan Baator, leaving the man in the booth to dream of his seven different checks, and me to contemplate completing my bicycle journey without a bicycle.
It was August. Iraq was in the grip of violence. Thousands faced starvation in Darfur. But, for some reason, news editors liked the story about the Englishman who had his bike stolen by a Mongolian horse. The story appeared in newspapers and on television around the world. Since I had foolishly failed to arrange for TV crews to be present at the time of the robbery itself, I had to re-enact it for the cameras a few days later, in broad daylight, in what remained of my tent, on a pavement in down-town Ulaan Baator. I suppose when they got back to the studio, they mixed in some library footage of a horse galloping away with a guilty expression on his face.
Thanks to the media coverage of my plight, I quickly received not just one but five offers of replacement bikes from companies back home. Should I accept just the one and carry on with my journey? Or accept all of them and set up a bike shop in Ulaan Baator?
I was touched to receive hundreds of email messages from strangers, many of them fellow cyclists, who had heard about my predicament and wanted to sympathise. I had one very angry message from a Mongolian, who told me that his country makes the news internationally only about once a year, and that the last thing it needed was for its 2004 slot to be a story that cast Mongolians in a bad light. I felt bad about that. Let me set the record straight here. Mongolia is a beautiful country, and, with one notable exception, everyone I met there was extremely friendly and welcoming.
Losing the bike wasn't really so bad in the end. Marin sent me a nice new one. But I also lost something much harder to replace: a pair of official-issue Russian Border Guard trousers.
So if, while you're touring Mongolia, you should happen to see a horse riding around on a bicycle and wearing camouflage trousers, you'll know that he's the one.
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|Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005 Edward Genochio
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