Cycling from Calgary to Beijing with Brandon

Cycling to Asia

Cycling from Calgary to Beijing with Brandon

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Brandon Hartwig is what I hope the traveller of the future looks like. For three reasons.

1. He’s disarmingly modest. I didn’t learn until several days after we’d met that he had cycled 150,000km from Canada to China. Or that his photography has been featured in a number of impressive publications like Canadian Geographic.

2. He makes you want to travel responsibly without telling you to. His descriptions of working in community based tourism in Kyrgyzstan and traveling the world on his bicycle make you want to pick up your bike instead of a plane ticket and wave goodbye to the harms of mass tourism.

3. He has some pretty outrageous travel adventures to share. And let’s be honest, we could all use more amazing stories in our lives. From a rogue bear ripping his tent apart in Russia, to getting into a real-life bumper jeeps experience at a border crossing, Brandon has weathered just about every high and low you could dream of facing on the road.

Forget trying to find something to watch on Netflix, you may want to grab your popcorn to hear this Explorer of the Future’s odyssey.

Veering off the Gringo Trail into the unknown

Brandon has spent the past decade consistently working towards his next adventure. After lengthy stints abroad that ranged from surfing around Australia to hopping along the Gringo Trail in South America, Brandon was ready for something different.

 

“After so many trips you just start looking for those real experiences. South America was a big one for me because they call it the classic “gringo trail” – you’re always doing the same things and constantly running into the same people and same places. And I was like, okay, how can I branch out of this?”

 

This desire to travel differently and to finance his adventures through his career ultimately led him to pursue a degree in Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership. The ecotourism focus of his degree resulted in a three-month contract in Kyrgyzstan working in community based tourism.

 

“There was a small article on this up and coming ecotourism destination where it’s just beginning its tourism career in the international realm. And I was thought, oh, I should go there! What can I do? It’s so undeveloped for tourism that community based tourism is kind of the first thing that gets set up. So I headed over there, contacted the Community Based Tourism Association of Kyrgyzstan, and they were super keen to bring me on. I really enjoyed it because it’s just at the grassroots level and it’s often with people in rural and poor areas who are usually marginalized in some way. They can come together in a community collective and start things like guesthouses or traditional craft workshops for women. Then they pool 1% of that back into a community fund and apply those funds to bettering their lives, whether it’s protecting certain areas in the environment or building schools and playgrounds.

 

It’s a nice way to travel because often people are looking for those authentic experiences and they can be, in areas where mass tourism has taken over, hard to find or to differentiate – is it or is it not? But in community based tourism it really is.”

 

With this experience under his belt, the outdoors focus of his degree also required him to push the limits by leading an expedition that lasted at least 10 days in his fourth year.

 

“The experience of being in the wilderness I find after 7 days has a super, I don’t want to say, profound effect on you. You become a lot different and start to think of a lot more things after you’ve been alone – especially away from people for that long and phones and technology. I just fell in love with it and realized I wanted to do it every year. So I kept on doing it. I did ski trips and kayak trips. And then it was alright, I need to do a big trip and I should incorporate it with some travel.”

The start of a 7-month, 150,000km expedition 

This initial thought to do a longer expedition led to what would become a 7-month, 150,000km expedition by bike from Brandon’s hometown of Calgary, Canada all the way over to Beijing, China.

 

“It all started with Mongolia. So [my partner, Kara and I] thought, Mongolia, Mongolia, what can we do? Maybe we can traverse some mountains, and then it was, oh, biking, it’s such a massive country, we can see a ton of it on bikes! How cool would that be?

 

And then you’re thinking down the line maybe I’ll bike around the world. I’ll turn left out my front door and maybe I’ll return one day from the right. So I started looking into it and realized it’s kind of practical, we can go up to Alaska and take a 3 hour flight to Russia and then we can keep on biking. It kind of blew up from there and we told too many people and once you start telling people you have to back it up.

 

The day came and I grabbed the bikes from the garage, waved goodbye to mom…. and called her 15 minutes later with all the things I forgot to bring and she drove them across the city, gave them to us, and we kept going.”

 

Even once his mom had delivered him his forgotten items, things didn’t quite get off to a smooth start.

 

“We were off to a horrible start actually. On the second day my partner crashed her bike. Really, really bad. We had to get evaced. We had just gotten into the mountains and we had to get evaced out and we ended up spending another two weeks at home before we set off again. She went ripping down our first big gravel hill and I turned around and she was just a heap on the middle of the road. She was super lucky – no broken bones – just a ton of road rash. Her skull and everything was fine. [She had] lots of check ins with the doctor because of the pressure and swelling, that’s a big thing. But it was all good and she left probably earlier than most people would have. We did a couple of test runs around the city and decided we would go super, super slow and not worry about anything. We were just happy to get out again.”

 

Pushing through any apprehensions, they got back on their bikes two weeks after Kara’s crash and conquered the same hill she had previously crashed on. For the next two and a half months they peddled from Calgary through British Columbia, into the Yukon, and finally to Anchorage, Alaska where they would take a three-hour flight to Russia with their bikes and resume riding.

“Canada was pretty good. We had one day where we were trying to link these backroad towns on the bike. So we ended up having to walk these train tracks and we were asking people, “can we walk these train tracks?” and they were like, “well, I wouldn’t do it without a gun…”.  We ended up doing it anyways and we saw about 28 black bears in 5 kilometres. We could hear them in the forest crashing around us. Then the rest of that trip was fine all the way through. Russia was a different story.”

One rogue bear, one shredded tent, and 20 hours of walking to escape

We were in Kamchatka and we didn’t take out the bikes. We thought we’ll take a little bit of time off, just do some hiking and trekking around and just get used to being in a new country. So we were in this national park and we hiked in for a couple of days to these hot springs. We were hanging out in these hot springs and we go back to our tent. And I was like, oh my shoe’s moved, I didn’t leave it here. And Kara was like, nah you probably left it there that’s where we were moving everything. Then we walked around the corner and our tent and our entire campsite was just destroyed. The tent was completely shredded and knocked down and poles were broken, my air mattress ripped in half, sleeping bags were shredded with feathers floating through all the trees and forest. Some of the pockets on the backpack were ripped off. All from a Kamchatka brown bear.

 

It’s the middle of the night, it’s around midnight, and we don’t have bear spray because we couldn’t fly it and we couldn’t find it in Russia. All we had was a little flare. So we try to gather what we can, get our food which was 100 metres away up in a tree so there was no cause for the bear to come by. But we learned after it was a bit of a problem bear. It had destroyed a quad that was in the area that was the ranger’s. They just kind of failed to tell us any of this when we first saw them.

 

And then we’re two days into this hike, and we’re thinking how can we get out? We have nowhere to stay. No shelter, no sleeping pads. We thought maybe we could make this work but it was this northern miserable rainforest. It had rained the full two days for us to get in there. In the end we just decided to long haul it out in one giant push. I think we left at 4 in the morning and didn’t get to lay down until midnight. Just like steady walking, whatever that is like 20 hours of walking.

It was entertaining that’s for sure. I wasn’t even shocked when it happened, well no I was shocked. I thought, it’s fine, it’s just crap, at least we weren’t in the tent. I think I started laughing – this is so ridiculous, what just happened. With our little flare to protect us.”

Human challenges

Besides a rogue bear, humans posed the occasional additional challenge for Brandon and Kara on their journey.

“There were a couple of human involved experiences that were a bit scary. Always alcohol was involved. We had an issue with one person who pulled over and became a bit threatening. Every person pulls over and wants a selfie with you – so I thought it was the same thing – then he grabs my hand and doesn’t let go of it. He’s squeezing it as hard as he can. I’m thinking uh, oh. He’s clenching his other fist. Hs mouth, his gums, are all bloody, I can just tell he’s super intoxicated. I was like, oh this is an uncomfortable situation. Then he was threatening to rip out my partner’s nose ring because she had come up. Luckily we did our best to say “we really like Russia!” in my broken Russian, and “oh this is a great place!”, and “oh sorry I don’t understand!”. Then slowly just backed out of the situation. We were backing away and his buddies came over and we just got on the bikes and went off in the other direction.”

In spite of this experience, the majority of people they met were extremely hospitable and intrigued to see these Canadian strangers on their bikes.

 

“We met a lot of people who had never seen a foreigner before. And there are a lot of indigenous groups up there. They were very, very kind – just wanted to say hello. A lot of them would tell us, they had grandchildren who spoke just a little bit of English, that we were the first foreigners they had ever met. It was a really, really cool experience.

 

We were always invited in [when we were biking]. People invited us into their homes, people were feeding us, they would pull over and give us food and snacks. It was overwhelming the hospitality all the way from Calgary into China.”

From galloping gazelles to border bumper cars

After cycling through Siberia, they finally entered the fabled country that had inspired their trip in the first place: Mongolia.

“We come into Mongolia and we’re so excited. Land of the big blue sky, it’s like Alberta, so we’ll get like 300 plus days of sunshine a year. So it’s cold but we’ll get the sun and feel warm during the day. And sure enough that’s how it plays out. As soon as we cross into the border, we’re biking along and there are herds of hundreds of gazelle galloping through the steppe, they’re galloping near our bikes as we’re riding. Essentially it became this magical, beautiful place where there’s no cities, there’s just the tiny village here and then just herdsmen and their yurts and motorcycles and horses all over the place. It was so cool.

I remember one morning we were camped up on this hill because you could camp wherever, Mongolia’s like the world’s largest open campground – amazing. And we were on this hill,  I think we’d just started the stove for breakfast and we could just hear the ground was shaking and unzip the tent and this huge herd of gazelle is like cresting up over the hill where the tent is and running along the ridge line. We were just laying in the tent looking out the little tent door window and thinking this is just the most magical moment in my entire life.”

This calm was a stark contrast to what they would soon encounter at the border between Mongolia and China.

“We noticed these jeeps going into the border. They were lined up for kilometres and they were super old and smashed to bits. I’m surprised any of them could even drive. We get to the border and it’s all lined up with these things, so I guess you have to go through the border in these jeeps. We were like okay so that’s why they’re all here. So we put our bike in one. And we get to the border in Mongolia and he says, you gotta take your bike and  go through the crossing and get your stamps and stuff, I’ll see you on the other side to do the actual crossing between the checkpoint in Mongolia to the checkpoint in China. And we go in and the guy says “you gotta put your bike through the x-ray”. And I was like, that x-ray machine is like 1 foot by 1 foot. And he’s like okay, just whatever, doesn’t scan our bikes or anything. Then he goes through and says you’re supposed to have this stamp. And he’s like eh whatever and waves us through this border. I don’t even know if we got a stamp out of Mongolia.

Then we get to the other side and we’re wondering is this guy going to pick us up? So sure enough we find him. We get back in the jeep with the bikes and we get to the border and it’s getting a little crazier and a little crazier and this took 4 hours or something – there were so many people. We were like what is going on. The cars start to funnel together and I go oh, they’re obviously only letting one vehicle in at a time and I’m thinking these vehicles are getting really close to one another. And the next thing I know our driver is sideswiping the car next to us and all of a sudden we’re smoked from behind by the other jeep. And then it’s just a thousand of these jeeps crammed together, smashing into each other, trying to get into this one single lane to cross into the Chinese side. It was mayhem. It was a thousand vehicles smashing into each other. Like, wow, this explains why these things are in pieces on the other side of the border.

I couldn’t believe it and our driver is laughing hysterically as it’s like smash, smash, smash – it’s pandemonium. And we get to the other side, the Chinese border and he doesn’t even want any money! He just takes off in his jeep around the corner. Then we come out on the bike path and we’re thinking where are we?”

Finding a new routine and pushing through the cold

Bears, bumper cars and gazelles aside, life fell into a new, meditative kind of routine on this journey for Brandon.

 

“You’re almost wanting to escape routine and life when you go on a trip like this and then it just turns into a daily routine anyways. 7am rolls around I turn on the coffee, then it’s 8 o’clock I’m turning down camp, and oh I’m biking for 2 and a half hours and I’m going to stop and have a tea and some cookies, and then in 2 hours I’m going to stop and have a sandwich, and then bike for two hours and have another cake, bike for another two hours, put up camp. On repeat all the time. It was a lot of time to get inside your own head and to not think and just to be on the bike and be like wow, did 2 hours just pass? It feels really good.

 

But the hardest thing were a couple of the cold days we had on the trip to be honest. I’ve never felt my hands or my feet go so numb that they weren’t there. And knowing that I have to keep moving because I don’t have enough food to stop for the day or oh we’ve gotta get to this next town and just the bitter cold and shaking and trying to get the pedals to go forward. Just the worry is it going to be like this every day, am I going to be able to do this for 2 months because this was already happening in September I think. It would feel so terrible to cut this short and just take the train to Beijing but we kept telling ourselves maybe we’ll get to Mongolia and we’ll get that blue sky and sunshine, so that kind of helped. And near the end of Mongolia it was kind of the same thing – with wind ripping through the Gobi Desert, we couldn’t even keep our water from freezing during the day. So we’d ride with water bottles in our coat. And you’re in the middle of the desert realizing this is your lifeline. You’re shaking water bottles to try to melt the ice out of it. That was uncomfortable.

 

Near the end of the trip we couldn’t even cook. We’d just get in our sleeping bags in all of our clothes, all of our layers, and just lean out the door of the tent and fire up the stove. And we’d be done eating and we’d crawl into the sleeping bag and wake up and barely stick an arm out to get breakfast going. You’d only get out when it was like, okay, it’s time to bike and that’s the only thing that’s going to keep me warm.

I was being very stubborn the whole time. People would offer us rides too – “oh I’ll give you a ride for a couple hundred kilometres because this section is going to be boring, you’re not going to see anything”. But in the back of my head it was oh we’d be cheating, we want to do this thing from start to finish. And I mean at the same time you don’t want that to be what it’s all about. Whatever if you miss a few kilometres here and there. But in the end we ended up doing it all.”

Getting off the bike in Beijing

With jobs lined up for the winter season in Japan, Beijing ended up being the end point of Brandon and Kara’s 7-month, 10,500 kilometre odyssey. If you’ve been on a big trip yourself, you know how strange it can feel once it’s over, but for Brandon it was even stranger getting off the bike.

“We went straight to a microbrewery and we hunted down burgers. […] It felt very very weird. It was strange. We had a week in Beijing and we were like what do we do? I guess we’ll just walk. And walking hurt and I remember putting on a backpack for the first time in Japan and that hurt. I think I’d lost 25 pounds on the trip and I was not a big person when I started but I was very, very tiny by the end of it.  My sense of time was also skewed. I’d think I need to go here, it’s only a couple of kilometres. I was used to doing 70-140 kilometres in a day, so I couldn’t really make sense of distances. And also what do I do every day? That was probably the biggest thing.”

 

Finding faith in humanity

 

Besides getting used to walking again and putting on more weight, this kind of extreme adventure impacts a person in other ways that don’t go away so quickly.

 

“For me, it was that the human factor became the most valuable part of the whole experience for me. Because before I used to always go on these – I mentioned I was doing skiing and kayaking trips and expeditions – it was always about going to the backcountry and getting away from people and from all that and just escaping. And this trip there certainly was lots of times when we didn’t see anyone and we were remote in the backcountry. But the most important element ended up being the people we’d meet along the way and the people that would invite us into their homes for dinner, or the people who would give us a bed at night. Especially in really unexpected places where these communities are clearly not well off and just for someone to share that little bit with you of what they already have was just overwhelming. And all of a sudden it was like wow, I do all these trips to get away but the human part of this trip was so amazing and it kind of gives you a little faith back in people. [Before] I was like I need to get away from people and then I realized oh, people are so wonderful. The hospitality from people was completely overwhelming, I’ve never experienced something like that before.”

 

Brandon has no plans of slowing down any time soon after completing this first big bikepacking trip. With his sights set on a bike trip through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan next, you’re going to want to follow along with this Explorer of the Future.

You can find him and his incredible photography (featured throughout this article) on Instagram @freeluftsliv and at https://brandonhartwig.com/home.

 

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54 Days Walking Across Mongolia with Caeli

Banana Backpacks Explorer Series

54 days walking across mongolia with caeli.

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Imagine walking 1,150 kilometres across Mongolia. You have food drops scheduled along the way, but you’re not certain what’s going to be in each package. You have 5 ways to filter water, but you’re unsure where you’ll be able to find sources. You have a 19-year-old local riding along on a motorbike as your sole way of communicating with anyone, but you can hardly communicate with him yourself.

This was Caeli Barron’s life for 54 days as she walked across Mongolia. Her story is an incredible one – and one that she tells with such humour, humility, and honesty that it will make you feel as though you were along with her on this gruelling journey. It takes an incredible explorer to plan a trailblazing trip like this, and Caeli is just that.

Jumping into the adventure deep end

Some of us like to wade out into the world slowly. We don’t want to lose our feet and get swept away. Caeli was never this kind of traveller. Growing up with the Canadian Rockies as her playground, her love for pushing herself out of her comfort zone started at a young age. While other 19-year-olds with the travel bug were planning the hostels they would stay at in Europe, Caeli decided on a whim to do a very different kind of adventure.

“I definitely was in a bit of that soul searching part of life. I think I decided it in one day. My mom came home from work and I was like “I’m going to Nepal, I’m going to book my ticket this week”.”

Once she had her ticket booked, she decided to combine 6 weeks of volunteering, 10 days of silence, and 3 weeks of trekking into one physically and mentally demanding journey.

“The [volunteer] placement that I was in was up in this mountain village for 6 weeks. The town was northwest of Pokhara, the other major city there. It was a few hour bus ride and then you had to hike up the mountain – there was no road access – so it was another few hours of hiking up the mountain to get to the village. And it was pretty crazy because I was the only person who spoke English there. Pretty funny to be up there using sign language for 6 weeks.”

While this initial 6 weeks already pushed Caeli, she went on immediately after her placement finished to do a 10 day Vipassana meditation course in Nepal.

“That was also very intense because it was no speaking, no writing, no eye contact, one meal a day – so that was another huge challenge. I came out of the meditation just talking nonstop, I called my parents, and just talked at them for 3 hours. And I pretty much left for my trek right away [to do] the Annapurna Circuit Trek there. So that was a huge relief to finally be doing something more familiar.”

The decision to walk 1,150 kilometres across Mongolia

After returning to university in Canada and filling her days with adrenaline-fueled activities in the nearby Rocky Mountains, inspiration struck again.

“My inspiration for Mongolia was that I saw a film at the Banff Film Festival about this guy who rode horseback from Mongolia all the way to Hungary. His story was so cool and I was really drawn to the Mongolian landscape, so I was pretty set. I talked about Mongolia for a few years, just like how much I wanted to go there, and eventually started making actual plans for it.

I think, coming from a sport background, I’ve always been drawn to the especially hard things. I like to push myself physically and mentally. I like the challenge of being thrown into a scenario where you’re really uncomfortable because I feel those are the times when you have the best experiences and learn the most. Maybe not at the time, but afterwards you look back and realize it was one of the best things you’ve ever done. And then watching films about these epic adventures, I wanted to have my own expedition and, I mean, I don’t have a lot of mountaineering skills or crazy climbing [experience], but I was like, I can walk a long ways so why don’t we do that.”

Logistical challenges

“I started to do a bit of research and then eventually got one of my friends on board in the pretty early stages of the planning and then it took quite a while, like a few months I would say of emailing different people and trying to find a contact that could help because contacting locals in Mongolia is extremely difficult. I’m sure there’s a few organized trekking groups there but for the most part there’s not a whole lot. And I also wanted to do this unique type of trip and a lot of them basically said no, or a couple of companies that were Australian or European wanted like 30,000 [Canadian dollars] for what we wanted to set up.

Eventually there was a European company that had worked with a local Mongolian man and said “we can’t offer you the services for the budget that you have, but this guy we’ve worked with and he’s looking to start his own guiding company, he might be willing to work with you”. And so we were just lucky that they referred us to this man and he helped organize all the logistics and what was a reasonable route to take. It was very individualized – basically he helped us do something that nobody else was willing to work with us on.”

It became even clearer just how unique this adventure to Mongolia was going to be when the Mongolian embassy in Canada knew Caeli by name.

“It was kind of an ordeal [with the visa processing]. You had to have a letter of invitation. And once [the local organizer] signed that, it was actually pretty funny, he sent the letter to the embassy. I’d called to see if our visas were in and they knew who I was. I was the only person who applied for a visa at that time. They’re like, “oh are you Caeli?!”. And I was like, “yeah?”, and they were like, “yup, we have your visa here!”. Because nobody else at that time had applied for a Mongolian visa in Canada.”

Once she had her visa arrangements and months of route preparation finalized, she arrived in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar. From there Caeli, her friend Ella, and their local guide (a 19-year-old who didn’t speak much English), drove for two full days to where they would start their expedition for the next two months.

“It ended up being 54 nights, I think was the exact number. We were averaging between 25 to 30 kilometres a day. You’d wake up have breakfast, walk until dinner more or less. So it was 8 hours or so [of walking]. The hours of sunlight were very long there. It was pretty much as far as we wanted to go, we would go. The first like week and a half or two weeks, I found it very hard to walk that far with the heavy packs and stuff. We didn’t train for it so it took awhile for the body to get used to it.”

Food, fuel and water

“Food, fuel and water. They’re all interconnected. Because you need the fuel to obviously get to the next gas station, we needed fuel for cooking our food, you needed water to cook the food because it was all dry food, and then you needed water to drink obviously. And then just running out of food so you could get to the next station which was reliant on how much fuel you had. So they’re all interdependent of each other and it was quite stressful. There was really no way to prepare for it in some ways.”

With Mongolia having an incredibly small and spread out population, accessing food and water along the way had to be carefully planned before she set out on the trip. 

“[Our local organizer] originally set out 9 or 10 food caches that he would send out on a bus or with somebody he knew who dropped them in certain places. We had the GPS locations of all our food caches, so we were always trying to budget our time in order to get to the food cache to have enough food to go on. So we didn’t have to carry all of our food at once which helped the weight.

We didn’t have much role in planning the food. A lot of it was what our organizer had put in, which was a lot of packaged food from Russia. So we had very, very, very disgusting food the whole time. It was actually awful. Almost like Mr Noodles but worse. We did have some cereal with powdered milk and then we’d have little packages of coffee – it was called Coffee King. Which had like one ground of coffee and then just sugar. Then we had this sunflower seed block. It was this grey brick of mushed sunflower seed that was pretty good. He had lots of chocolate bars. That was our main source of energy. Just hundreds of chocolate bars and peanuts.

One time we got to a food cache and there was barely anything in it and we were able to get some bread and cheese from the local people. We were able to buy some of their homemade stuff off them which was really nice. And then the odd people would invite you into their house for tea, like milk tea, which had obviously milk in it and salt and butter sometimes. So that keeps you going a bit.”

Running out of water

“The food caches were somewhat reasonably placed in terms of distance between each other but we didn’t know exactly where we were going to find water. So, yeah, it was very stressful. We did get very close to running out, and our guide didn’t know how to ration. He was using water to wash his face and stuff and I was at the point of tears and I was like, if you wash your face one more time, we’re not going to survive kind of thing. And he’d blow his nose and use the water to wash out his nose and I was like, oh my goodness, I just kind of accepted my fate, I was like this is either going to be bad or we’re going to figure it out, so one way or another you just have to do it.

It was hard when we’d take water breaks to stop yourself from drinking. You know when you’re thirsty you want water and to restrain yourself and you’d hand the bottle over. My friend Ella was hiking with me and she’d drink some and I’d be thinking oh, she’s drinking a lot, she’s drinking a lot! Then I’d be all worried about running out.”

This new understanding of water shortages shifted Caeli’s perspective and understanding immensely.

“Obviously there are people around the world that have to worry about food and water so much more than we do but coming from and growing up where I have, in a privileged lifestyle, [running out of water] has never been something I’ve had to worry about. It was a different set of challenges.

Just how resourceful the Mongolian people are and the ways which they conserve water and stuff is pretty inspiring. One technique that they’ll use if they want to wash their hands but they don’t want to pour the water over their hands because you’ll waste a lot that way, they’ll take a big sip of it and they’ll hold it in their cheeks and slowly spit it out over their hands so they use the most minimal amount to actually wash their hands and then they can drink the rest if they don’t finish their mouthful or whatever. But at least they know they’re not going to use more water than what’s in their mouth.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me [how they access their water]. We came across some wells. In one well the water was so sulphuric we actually felt sick after drinking it. Our stomachs were so rumbly. Also one time we saw a bunch of people filling up their water bottles and it looked like it was just mud, but there was just a little bit of water. There were times we were filling up our water bottles in a little stream, and we’d like hold our water bottle under the water and be wafting away chunks of poo that were floating down. We had like 5 treatment water systems that we’d use to try to purify our water and we actually didn’t get sick which is a miracle. But there was literally chunks of poo floating down the river and we had to use that water, we didn’t have a choice.”

Crazy hikers, crazy experiences

When I asked her if the Mongolian people they met along the way thought they were crazy, she laughed.

“Yeah I think they thought we were crazy! They couldn’t believe that we’d be walking out there. People that would drive by occasionally would offer to drive us because they didn’t understand why we wouldn’t get in their cars. They were pretty shocked all around I’d say.

I feel like every day was crazy. There was a day when our guide disappeared for 4 hours and we didn’t know if we’d find him. There was a day where we ended up exactly where we started because our map was wrong. There was a day when we did get a short ride from somebody and they had a baby in the car and the baby was being sick. So he stops the car, turns the baby upside down, pats it on the back so it throws up a little bit. Then puts his mouth over its nose, sucks out its boogers and spits that on the ground, throws the baby back in the car and continues.

There were challenging days, more so when I was physically hurting. But on this trip, I wanted to be there the whole time, which I feel hasn’t been the case on a lot of other trips that I’ve done. I usually am thinking about the end or ready to be home. And not once on that trip was I struggling with it. Maybe because I was so focused on just getting to the next point and making sure we were going to have enough resources – that more consumed my thoughts. And I mean obviously being with another person trekking for that long, there were days when we wouldn’t talk much and that would be hard going the whole day being pretty silent. But I don’t feel like I really went crazy. I went more crazy in Nepal. Maybe that just toughened me up.”

“The Dude Abides”

All of these crazy experiences left a lasting impression on this explorer that, understandably, continues to remain with her today.

“I think about that trip all the time. It’s something that I think about every day because it was such a unique experience and whenever I’m out hiking or finding something challenging I often think back to it. At the end of our trip me and my friend got tattoos done in Ulaanbaatar and it’s kind of ridiculous but it’s “the dude abides”. We got it written on our forearms. It does come from a movie reference but I haven’t seen the movie. Basically we actually wrote this on our arms early into the trek and it became our, I don’t know, our inspiration. We were like everyone in Mongolia is so laid back and so chill and they just deal with the most ridiculous things in their life and they’re just such resilient people and I love it. They’ll come up to you and lie down on the ground and have a conversation when they first meet you and talk to you, well not talk to you because they don’t speak English, but they’ll lie down and just stare at you. Anything is cool. So we had this motto, “the dude abides”, and whenever anything challenging would come up, we’d just be like “well, we’re just going to deal with it”. So I guess that’s what was inspiring and what we wanted to take forward from the trip. And obviously we got it tattooed on our arms so it was meaningful to us at the time and still is: to just be a bit more relaxed and to take the challenges that come up in life and not take everything so seriously.”

Quick Qs with Caeli Barron

What item won’t you travel anywhere without?

“I would say for a trip like that definitely an inReach. So that was a device that would call for emergency evacuation if we needed it. And you could also text, communicate via text with emergency responders or also just text anyone you want if you need to communicate with the outside world. So I think that’s a necessity for big trips. And then a water purifier. Those are the two things, the top two for sure.”

What’s the most uncomfortable thing that’s happened to you on any of your trips?

“I would say probably the marriage proposals I got in Nepal. It sounds funny now but it was actually so stressful for me because they were relatives of the women I was living with and it was very hard when people would invite you over into their homes and cook you a meal and then eventually you knew that it was coming. And I found that very awkward and stressful and I couldn’t really communicate with them either so it was very hard.”

What was your worst night of accommodation?

“I feel like Mongolia wasn’t so bad because we were just in a tent. But there was one night we were staying just on the outskirts of the city. It was 35 or 37 degrees that day and obviously it’s really hard to be sitting around baking in a tent. And we were basically in a garbage dump, more or less. There was garbage flying around everywhere just outside the city because they don’t really have a proper way of disposing things there, they just dump it away from where people are. So we were amongst the garbage and that night we were caught in a sandstorm and we thought the tent was going to fly away like with us in it. So we were holding down the tent for hours and hours that night. We didn’t get any sleep, there wasn’t any water, and just stressing about where to go to the washroom. There was the odd person who comes around, there’s nowhere to hide in these desert areas, there’s not one bush that you can crouch behind. You’d have to walk like a kilometre to where the horizon line would like dip down and you could get away far enough so they couldn’t see you.”

Where is next for you?

“I’ll probably stick to North America. I want to do some climbing trips and stuff to the States and up north would be cool to do some more exploring. Maybe Greenland one day would be a pretty neat place to go.”

Anywhere that’s not very inhabited right? I feel like those are your spots.

“Exactly. I like people, just a few people at a time you know?”

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Escaping Police Custody And Experiencing Ayahuasca With Emerant

Escaping police custody and experiencing ayahuasca with Emerant.

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I first met Emerant Barclay in an undergraduate university course on the intersection of religion and human rights. After just a few exchanges in class, she invited me to go to her favourite vegan restaurant in Montreal, chatted to me about energies, and imparted this permanent warmth upon me. She was a breath of fresh air after the usual conversations I had with fellow business majors. It came as little surprise to me that after finishing her first degree she went on to work as a consultant for UN-Habitat in Ecuador, live in Zambia (in a room full of cockroaches and be held in police custody), try ayahuasca in Peru (and not throw up), and live with a family who didn’t speak a lick of English (on an organic farm, of course). When I asked her what items she couldn’t live without when she travelled, she laughed and told me she was the world’s most impractical traveller; she wouldn’t leave home without her twinkle lights (so she feels at home wherever she goes), Bengal Spice tea, and a yoga mat in her backpack.

If I’ve ever met an Explorer who marches to the beat of her own authentic drum, this is her. Settle in with your own cup of Bengal Spice tea and prepare to be inspired by this one-of-a-kind woman’s journey.

Growing up in beautiful Montreal, Canada, as the grandchild of Air Canada employees, her young life was made up of trips to Scotland. Perhaps it was the haggis or maybe the kilts that sparked a passion for the unknown and the different, but whatever it was, Emerant developed a passion for the unknown. From adventuring around Italy for a month to traveling to Ecuador as a consultant with UN-Habitat, Emerant’s real perspective shift came when she was offered a coveted internship through Global Affairs Canada to work as a youth engagement officer in Chipata, Zambia.

Cozying up with a co-worker and cockroaches.

“The day that I arrived in Chipata it was pitch dark. There was a power outage. So I had no idea what the surrounding area looked like whatsoever. My colleague (who I was sharing an apartment with) and I were taken to our apartment. We had our flashlights out and were trekking up three flights of stairs with our massive backpacks. There were two bedrooms and I beelined it to one of them. I put my stuff down and started unpacking my pillowcase, when what do I hear on the ground but “click click click click” everywhere. I was like, “what is that?” So we turn on our flashlights and there were cockroaches. Everywhere.

We killed like 14 of them maybe. It was insane. I didn’t have a mosquito net on my bed and I was like what is going on here, these cockroaches are everywhere. So I ended up sleeping with my colleague in a single bed just so we could be close with one another, trying to forget where we were. When we woke up the next morning we were like, “wow, this place is very special”. We had this beautiful balcony that looked out on the mountains. It was absolutely stunning.”

Cross cultural experiences in Zambia.

After the initial cockroach greeting party, she settled into her new life in Zambia, working as a youth engagement coordinator for Chipata’s YWCA branch.

“Working cross culturally it’s very different. My position was very open-ended. I was supposed to be facilitating workshops, but there was just no funding whatsoever. I would go into the office and try to keep myself busy, try to learn as much as possible. I learned how to make a lot of the local dishes while I was there. I learned how to make Nshima. It’s a maize-based dish which is the staple food of Zambia. It’s a lump of porridge essentially, it’s very hard, you use your hands to eat it. You pick it up and roll it into your palm and use it to scoop up whatever you’re eating it with. I wouldn’t say it was my favourite meal… because it made me extremely constipated, but I learned how to make it anyways. You would make it with tomatoes and onions in a pan with a ton of salt. And if you’re lucky some sausage or chicken. It’s the national food of Zambia, so if you ask anyone “what’s your favourite food,” they’ll respond, “Oh, Nshima, Nshima!”. But it has very little nutritional value, it really just sits in your stomach and fills you up.”

Escaping police custody.

Alongside the cooking adventures and gastro-intestinal challenges, Emerant also had a run-in with the authorities in Zambia.

“I was visiting some friends in the capital of Lusaka and I was alone. On my way back, I was traveling with just my backpack and an official stopped the bus. I was sleeping when the official came on the bus. I was the only white girl, or person. And he’s going around checking papers. And I didn’t have any kind of ID on me, so he was like “get off the bus”. So I take my backpack and get off the bus. The bus leaves. I’m in the car with the cops and they’re like “you have to be traveling with your identification”. So I was freaking out and called my roommate, saying I need my passport and all my documents. In the end he just wanted a bribe but I didn’t have any money on me either, so they kept me there for an hour.

They said “oh don’t worry, you’re in police custody now, everything is fine!”. I was balling my eyes out. I was scared. Then he realized I didn’t have any money so he was telling me I needed to invite him to this festival. He was weirdly flirting with me. But he eventually got me on the next bus and gave the bus driver the equivalent of 10 dollars to get me home. But I was in the middle of nowhere. Middle of fricken’ nowhere, three hours away from anywhere. I was freaking out but at the same time, so much shit had happened it was just part of the course now. I can handle anything – just another day in Zambia!”

How an injury abroad shaped her understanding of community.

This motto served her well when the next hurdle of her adventurous life struck. In an unfortunate hiking accident she ended up with what was suspected to be a torn meniscus.

“I went to the hospital in Chipata with what I think was a torn meniscus, but I was really just put on bed rest for a good month. My neighbour took me to the hospital and they did a X-ray but I really needed a MRI to see what was wrong.

That was the toughest thing for me because I knew there was nothing I could really do about it in terms of being proactive. I feel like there is always a solution here in North America – like I have a plan for how I’ll get out of this or deal with this – but there it was just like ride it out, be in the moment, settle in and learn what it has to teach you. That was the biggest challenge and that’s something I often forget now. Nothing needs to be done right away. Trust in the process of allowing for things to be and allowing for healing to happen. It was completely uncomfortable but so much learning can happen when that’s the approach you take.”

Dealing with a month of bedrest in a different country gave this Explorer entirely new insight into what it means to be part of the community in Chipata.

“You realize what it means culturally to be there for someone. What it means here [in Canada] is really different than what it means in Zambia. If someone is sick, for example, in Zambia you go and check up on them. You don’t even call. You just show up at their house and bring food and you say let’s hang out, let’s watch a movie. There’s no kind of pressure wondering if you should call or not. There’s no second guessing. I think it’s because there’s a feeling of community. There’s a feeling of faith, of gratitude for everything there is in this life because you don’t know the moment that it’s going to be taken away: that you’re going to get hurt, or that sickness is going to strike, or you won’t have water, you won’t have food or you’re going to be thrust into abject poverty because a family member is sick, or you don’t have the kind of resources to provide for yourself. So all there is is just be there for each other and be good.

It’s something so very different to be immersed in this community where people have your back. It was very beautiful. There’s a lot of faith, a lot of belief in God, a lot of belief in a higher power, a lot of worship, a lot of singing, a lot of rejoicing. I loved going to church there. It was very, very different. I think it did spark some kind of spirituality in me, to think about what does it mean to be a good person, how do you live that way without necessarily needing to go to church. But it is really about community at the end of the day. That place where the community is brought together is through the church.

The Zambian motto is “feel free”. Don’t worry about anything, just feel free. With all the things that went wrong; I didn’t leave the house at night, I was afraid to walk home at night, the two times I went out to a bar people are very aggressive, it’s easy to harp on those things, but the pros so outweighed the cons. Hands down Zambia changed me the most.

Learning Spanish by true immersion.

Zambia was just the start of Emerant’s desire to push herself outside of her comfort zone. As she was working on her Master’s degree in Sustainable Development, her passion for organic farming pushed her to want to see how this looked in practice not only in Canada but also in Peru.

“My idea before going down there was to work on an organic farm, to live with a family, and to learn Spanish. I was in the central jungle of Peru in a place called Pichanaki. I was essentially just like part of the family for three weeks. They taught me the process of being a coffee farmer – you go around and pick the beans, you take the bean out of the pod, you let it dry, after it’s dried you roast it in this little kiln (little oven you put on your stovetop), then you lay them on the table, pick out the ones that don’t look very good and then you grind the coffee. It’s an extremely labour intensive process.

My Spanish was not great when I went into it and, truth be told, I don’t think it really got better those three weeks. I think it was amazing that I was just surrounded by it because it puts you in the mindset of “if I need to be heard, I have to speak up and use my Spanish”. That being said, the Spanish was not very clear, they spoke very quickly, it was colloquial Spanish and I wasn’t taking any classes. A real learning experience but I felt very isolated. Very lonely. The family was amazing and they were very warm, very welcoming, and just beautiful people, so I felt very blessed for that. At the same time, it’s very hard to feel misunderstood or to not feel you have a language, or you don’t have a voice. So when I did get back to speaking English, I was like, “wow, I know how to speak a language! I’m not just a five year old with a language!”

Ayahuasca: The experience and the insights.

After this plunge into the deep-end of cultural immersion, Emerant had a moment of doubt, which led to a twist in her adventures and towards the trending, yet elusive ayahuasca experience. A mixture of an Amazonian vine called Banisteriopsis caapi and the leaves of the chacruna bush, ayahuasca is an ancient Peruvian plant medicine used for both healing and spiritual purposes. Commonly consumed as a tea, ayahuasca brings about deep personal reflection, but frequently induces a violent vomiting attack (or purge).

“So there came a moment when I was just lying in bed one night, like what the hell am I doing here, what was my purpose for coming to Peru? And all of a sudden it came to me – I’ve always had an interest in doing a yoga teacher training, I’d had a consistent practice for around a year, what better time would there be to do this? So I looked up yoga teacher trainings in Peru and I found one that was happening in Cusco. I found it 5 days before the training actually began but it all came together. The training was a total of 21 days. It was a very healing experience and I want to credit a lot of that to the ayahuasca as well.

They offered the ayahuasca experience through the yoga teacher training. It was by no means mandatory. They offered it because you’re in Peru, you’re in this sacred location, this is a traditional medicine they have here, if you’re interested in it they offered it as an option. So I decided to do it the day before but I was on the fence about it for a little while. I wasn’t sure if I was in the right headspace but I figured you know what, when in Peru, might as well.

As for the experience itself, it was led by this woman, she was our guide. And it was held in a yoga shala – a circular structure with a domed roof that can fit about 15 people inside in a circle. So we had beds set up for ourselves and a small bucket in case you had to expel anything. It’s essentially a purging ceremony and it evokes the spirit of the grandmother. The spirit of the grandmother leads you in the right direction. So if you’re having any type of mental health issues, apparently Mother Ayahuasca will show you the path to getting over it and kind of slaying your own dragons. But things do come up for people during the experience itself that can be quite violent, quite scary, and quite jarring.

For myself, I didn’t have any of the symptoms to purge – I wasn’t ill during the experience. I felt very light and just kind of happy during it. I only did it once – there are people who go on an ayahuasca experience that can be a week-long. So they give you different strains on those retreats. The one strain we did on the yoga teacher training affected certain people in a violent way, but it didn’t affect others. I think when you actually go on an ayahuasca experience you get a different array of ayahuasca. I don’t want to say if it was good or bad but I didn’t purge when I did ayahuasca. But a lot of people did. They had like violent bowel movements and puking. There was a point where I did cry. I had a vision of having a family and I just felt a lot while doing it. Mainly I felt the feeling of unconditional love of having a family and what that would mean.”

When I asked her if this experience stayed with her after the ayahuasca was out of her system she told me it did have some lasting effects.

“It was really interesting because I did the ayahuasca and then the next day we went on an excursion to thermal baths. So it was really fascinating because we were in the car and we were passing through this beautiful, ethereal mountainous area that was parallel to Machu Picchu so all of the same energy was there and I came back from that day just feeling like, wow, I need to get my life together! It’s an eye-opening experience in a lot of ways to sort of go deeply within yourself and kind of see things you wouldn’t necessarily see in your everyday experience. It activates DMT which is really only available to you when you sleep, or when you’re being born, or when you die. But you’re not sleeping when you’re on ayahuasca, you’re actively being engaged with this chemical in your brain. It’s very fascinating and kind of opens you up to a different realm.”

As for what’s in store next for this free-spirited Explorer, only time will tell. But it’s certain to involve unique food, changed perspectives, and, of course, Bengal Spice tea and twinkle lights.

You can follow along with Emerant’s adventures on her Instagram

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