We're groggy and tired, bouncing around in a taxi that feels like it could be a louage. Our driver hums along to the radio, while every joint in the body of his rickety van creaks and squeaks and complains about its old age and neglect. Out of the smoggy capital we ride, escaping the traffic, back to the beginnings of countryside, into the real Mongolia.
Tyler sits opposite me, resting his head on the seat, drifting off to sleep. A humorous thought winds into my brain, and I repeat it aloud… I wonder if the runway is paved? Or will it split apart into four or five winding tracks? Does the first flight of the season determine the runway for the year? We chuckle and bounce around some more.
We've arrived at Chinggis Khan International airport at 7:30AM, though our flight is at 11AM. We wanted to make sure we'd have plenty of time to navigate any unexpected problems, and we've more than succeeded. We're a bit too prepared, really – the check-in gate won't even open for another two hours!
Always game for a quiet morning of writing, we buy a pair of awful coffees, and then find a sunny corner of the airport in which to park ourselves and our belongings. Out come the laptops, and we take advantage of the quiet, uninterrupted time to write and work.
A minute after we've sat down, a man approaches us and asks if we want our boxes wrapped in plastic. Confused, we say no thank you, then wonder if we are supposed to have our boxes wrapped in plastic. A half an hour later, a different man approaches us, asking the same question!
It isn't until I see a guy whose rolling suitcase has been enveloped like Frodo in Shelob's web that I realize the benefit of this procedure. Converted to the idea of plastic wrapping, Tyler takes our bikes over for the treatment.
For the low price of 4,000 togrog each (a bit more than a dollar apiece), we no longer have to worry about our crappy packing tape loosing its oomph under the stress of the manhandling it will surely see in transit.
I find it telling that after the last action-packed, stress-filled month of our lives, embarking on an international flight feels quaint and restful. At the security check, as I slip my laptop out of its case, I wonder if every obstacle in life will seem mundane compared to what we've just been through. With a smile, I set our wallet and ticket and passports in the little plastic basket and push them forward.
Next, there is waiting in line, customs forms to fill, passports to be stamped, and for good measure, more waiting. An incomprehensible garble blares over loudspeakers, first in Mongolian and then in… is it English? A security officer rifles through our belongings and takes our small screwdriver used for glasses and camera lenses (a hazardous object!), paying no mind to our plainly visible arnis baston.
No matter, I've long grown used to life not quite making sense. They charge us 20 dollars per kilo over our allotted weight allowance, but thankfully this amounts to what we'd paid at home to fly with bike boxes. We're allowed only one carry on, but they don't seem to mind us each having a backpack and one massive, heavy duffel.
None of it fazes me. It all feels peaceful. A new chapter has begun. Our team is gone. Our friends are gone. Though I will miss them, I am grateful to be alone with Tyler again; I've become more introverted than I thought during this past year and a half.
We follow a line of people down the gangway, and I feel a familiar sense of excitement when I smell the unmistakable odor that inhabits the inside of every plane. We squeeze through the aisle, duffel bags in front of us, narrowly making it through the passage.
Arriving at 35A and B, we hoist our belongings up to the overhead compartment, then scoot into our seats. We sit by the window, and a middle aged British man joins us, getting settled in the aisle seat, quietly working on a crossword puzzle.
After kicking our backpacks under the row in front of us, Tyler shoves our GPS into the window so it hangs down, recording our route. Paying no attention to the "turn off all electronic devices…" admonition, we keep our tracker in place; we want to watch when our trail crosses the dotted line from Mongolia to its southern neighbor!
The engines begin to roar, and the plane moves slowly, then faster and faster, along the runway, which, of course, is paved! Mongolian nothingness is passing by in our small windows, and then smoothly, the plane alights, and we're seeing the country from above. Tyler and I hold hands, enthralled by the mountain ranges expanding below us.
Once the take-off is over, and we're high above it all, traveling at several hundred kilometers per hour, it feels like we're just drifting in the clouds. Turning our attention to other things, we're just digging out the laptops once more, when a chubby little face suddenly peeks over the seat cushions. Well hello there!
Thus, we meet little McKenzie, and her mother, Stephanie, who lives in Beijing with her husband and children. During our flight, we enjoy conversation with the pair, and are endlessly entertained and amused by her little girl.
We're not expecting it, but they serve a full lunch during our short one and a half hour connecting flight to Beijing! There's stir-fried pork and rice, salmon and potato salad, bread and butter, and a strange gelatinous barely-sweet green-tea flavored dessert that rests in a puddle of raspberry jam.
Nearly as soon as we've finished our meal, the plane begins to descend. Soon the boxy lego squares of Beijing's buildings come into view, planted close together on a swath of dusty green.
Stepping off of the plane in Beijing, a wave of heat hits my face and I begin to sweat. As we're all shuffled to a bus that will transport us to the gate, I peel off several layers of clothing; it is quite a bit warmer here than it was in Mongolia! Inside the bus, with a tightly-packed crowd of people, the hot air is stifling. My duffel bag hangs heavy on my shoulder as I chat to two elderly Australian women going home after their holiday in Mongolia.
We arrive inside the airport, and there's more waiting, more checking, and yet another customs search. This time, they immediately notice the obviously placed baston, and eye us warily, checking with their supervisors before allowing us to carry on. Tyler tells them he uses it as a kickstand for a heavy bicycle and they reluctantly nod our weapon through.
The airport is light and airy, with clean glass windows that stretch all the way to the ceiling. Tinkly piano music plays, accompanying our stroll around the upscale duty-free shops offering silk clothes, Chinese dolls, and fancy green teas in tall glass canisters.
We find a quiet place to sit down and wait a few hours for our flight to Bangkok. Power outlets are sleek silver disks on the floor- the cover is lifted to reveal the plug, which we use for our laptops. There are water fountains and hot water dispensers for tea or instant noodles.
To our delight, there is free internet in the entire airport. I simply have to insert my passport into the kiosk; it scans my information, spits it back at me ("are you Tara Alan?"), and I press a button to activate my free five hours of browsing time. With everything we need, we wait and work, and watch other travelers go by.
It's getting dark now, the lights of the little trolleys and cars blinking and shimmering through the clean glass windows. The time is growing near. In just a few minutes, we'll be boarding our plane to Bangkok!
I find it amusing that we picked our route specifically so we wouldn't need to fly, and yet here we are, flying. Oh the decisions we made arbitrarily, knowing nothing, chasing an idea with little or no experience. I thought at first that flying would seem strange (too fast, too easy, not "going slowly" enough), but it feels the same as it always has, and I am glad to be doing it.
I've always loved airports – the anticipation of new place, the time to sit and read, an endless variety of people to observe, all with their own stories and their own lives. I always wonder who they are and where they're going, and how, on this particular day, we've all wound up here together. Stephanie said the trains would be absolutely insane today because of China National Week; I am more than happy we'll be high above it all.
Around midnight, we arrive in Bangkok. A trip that would take us months to cycle, we've traveled in just a day. We find our boxes at the over-sized luggage claim, and wheel them around the airport, and then file through yet another customs line. We're stamped into the country, given thirty days to do as we please, and are sent on our way.
And then, after guiding our bike boxes up and down smooth, tilted escalators (a dangerous operation, actually), we find our way to the taxi pickup area. I've booked a cheapish hotel near the airport, saving us from the task of assembling and riding our bicycles in the middle of the night.
Among the throng of people there is a man holding a piece of paper with our names printed on it. When we arrive and tell him we're on his sign, he smiles and leads us to the free shuttle van. He loads our bike boxes into the trunk, lends us a hand up the high step into the vehicle, slides the door closed, and then we drive off into the night.
On the way to the hotel, I am so excited to be in Thailand that I can hardly contain it. I open the small shuttle van's window, weary of the climate-controlled environment I've been in all day, and stick my head outside. Hot and humid air rushes past, and I spot decorative street-lamps that have golden statues of gods frolicking about on them, and bright purple orchids growing in abundance in planters along the road.
I'm agog already, swiftly becoming smitten.