Bored and dissatisfied with her life in the Pacific Northwest, Erika Warmbrunn perused the Seattle travel bookstore where she worked searching for a place for which no travel guide existed. A well-traveled woman to begin with, she wasn’t satisfied just returning to Europe. She said, “I wanted, once, to trace my own path across a land as yet untrampled by hordes of tourist feet. I wanted to lose myself in unmapped landscapes and to meet the people who inhabited them.”
Mongolia. No travel guide existed for Mongolia and most people she talked to didn’t even realize it was actually its own country. Mongolia captured her imagination with visions of vast steppes, creamy white yurts, and desolate expanses of freedom.
Erika had bicycle toured previously, but she wasn’t sure a bike was the right way to travel in a country without a modern road system. She considered buying a horse, a more traditional Mongolian forma of transportation, but as she poured over maps she noticed that Vietnam wasn’t really so very far away from Mongolia. Beyond that lay the allure of Saigon; she’d never been to China. A horse was not going to work to get her through Vietnam or China.
A timely phone call asking her to be a translator for a theater group in Far Eastern Siberia put the final piece in place. This job would get her as close to Mongolia as she was going to get for free. She bought Greene, the neon-green mountain bike she painted with gray automotive primer, packed up her apartment, and got on a plane bound for Russia.
A really good travel tale should not just relate the author’s experiences on her journey, but should entice the reader, give her a case of itchy feet, make her want to travel herself. I was reading Where the Pavement Ends: One Woman’s Bicycle Trip Through Mongolia, China and Vietnam while eating outdoors at an authentic Mexican cantina in Whitehorse, Canada. Several times I raised my head, looked around with a puzzled expression and thought, “Where am I?” It was that easy to get lost in Erika’s story.
Where the Pavement Ends is divided into four parts: Bicycling in Mongolia – A Crazy Dream of a Faraway World; Teaching in Arshaant – A Small World in a Vast Landscape; Bicycling in China – Chasing a Man Across the Middle Kingdom; and Bicycling in Vietnam – Time Travel Leaping. Each section covers the associated portion of her bike ride, with the exception of section two.
After bicycling around Mongolia for a month or so, she happened upon the small town of Arshaant. She spent a few days and was asked to stay on for a year as an English teacher. Unwilling to abandon her goal of crossing Mongolia before winter set in, she agreed to come back after a few more weeks and teach for a month or two. The second section of her book focuses on her time in Arshaant.
While Erika does a credible job of describing the territory she cycles through, where her talents really shine is in her ability to make the reader see the people she meets and empathize with her reactions to them. She had an evident fondness for Mongolians, perhaps because she had an opportunity to live within a community, even for a short time. Her relationship with the Chinese and Vietnamese she encountered was more difficult because of cultural differences and her trip weariness. Her willingness to encounter people on their own terms is never completely overshadowed by her frustration with never being alone or with not knowing the local languages.
Where the Pavement Ends: One Woman’s Bicycle Trip Through Mongolia, China and Vietnam did not leave me eager to visit those countries (no fault of Erika’s), but it definitely added new dimensions to my bicycle travel fantasies. I can’t find any evidence that Erika has written any other books, but if she had, I’d read them.
Note: This book was purchased with my own money and with no expectation of profit from this review.