I have recently returned from a ride from Mongolia to my home in California. My story began when I visited Mongolia in 2018 to ride with my son, Andrew and his wife Heather who then rode back to the USA. I was inspired by their adventure and I returned to Mongolia in 2019 to ride solo back to California via Russia, Europe, North Africa, and North America. I wrote this travel log for my friends and family but along the way, I met many fellow adventure riders and was introduced to ADVrider and decided to share my story with all of you. The posts will be published as I wrote them during my adventure. They are not me retelling the trip, but rather me explaining what I was doing and experiencing at the time.

Right to Left: Andrew, Heather, and John Phillips at Lake Khovsgol, Mongolia, June 2018

Time is tricky and I’ll change gears through it recounting this journey – please indulge me.  Right now I’m taking you back to 1997.  By birth (much further back in time – mid 20th century) I’m Canadian and proud of it.  In the fall of 1997 I drove a U-Haul (with my 25′ sailboat on a double axle steel trailer) across the continent from Ottawa Canada to the San Francisco Bay area in California USA.

Coming to America: October 1997 Emigrants Gap

My wife Vicki, a Canadian Lawyer by training, gave up her growing practice in Ottawa and followed a few months later with our three, at the time,  little kids.  I lived on the boat for a month.  While Vicki shares my spirit of adventure, she also enjoys the finer things in life – 5 people and a cat living on a 25′ sailboat on the San Francisco Bay in December was not her idea of a good and right living situation.  Upon the arrival of the family in California, we took advantage of my new companies relocation policy and found a nice bridge apartment.

1990s: Vicki and the Kids (Left to Right: Spencer, Marnie and Andrew)

This began our 10 ten year legal journey to American Citizenship which I’m also very proud of – people across the world like Americans.  They may not like the policies of our leaders but they like our culture and they like our spirit as a people.

Trained in Computer Science I was recruited out of Ottawa based Canadian Telecommunications Firm, Bell Northern Research (BNR),  to join a silicon valley startup.  And so the Canadian chapter of our lives closed and America opened.

Skip ahead a decade or so and son Andrew married his high-school sweetheart, Heather Cantua Phillips.

2014: Clockwise from the beard… Spencer, Andrew, Marnie, and our new daughter, Heather

Heather and Andrew are true adventurers and got the bug for motorcycling after watching a television program called Top Gear where the hosts rode motorcycles from Saigon to Hanoi.  Having never ridden they asked me for help, “You’ve been riding all your life and know a lot about motorcycles, can you help us get started?”.  “Take the safety course”, was my number one response, then I asked if Spencer and I could go too!  They agreed, OK, it’s on!  The three “kids”, Heather, Andrew and Spencer signed up for the course (Marnie, much to her dismay, was busy at UCLA law school). The course complete, we bought a disposable Ninja 250 and rode the hell outta that thing mostly in the parking lot of local College Campus, Los Positas.

2014: Training for Vietnam: Ninja 250

My Hayabusa was just too big for the kids to practice on, and truth be told I’m just too damn fond of the thing.  Built in 1999 that machine is bulletproof. Today it has over 186000 miles it still sets my heart pounding.  Here’s a clip of the machine a few years ago:

Come Thanksgiving 2014 we were in Hanoi with 4 rented bikes headed south.  I will someday capture that journey in print and if Adrider is willing I’ll share it with you.

Let us keep moving forward in time.  Early in 2017 we started watching the documentary, “Long Way Round” by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, capturing their ride from London to New York City.  Their footage in Mongolia was mesmerizing – water crossings, deep sand, endless Steppes, and Nomads.  Here’s a brief clip from “Long Way Round”.  If you haven’t seen it, set aside some time – you are in for a real treat!

Heather and Andrew resolved to live this adventure.  And so in June of 2018 their journey began and I muscled my way into this, the Mongolian starting point, for a month of solo off road adventure in that vast land.  Therein lies another tale of challenge, defeat and minor victories for the soul.  My 2018 adventure ride in Mongolia was restricted to a month as I had to return to work at Sea Tel Inc. in California where I was General Manager and Vice President of Engineering.  Sea Tel Inc., owned by UK based defense contractor Cobham PLC, designs and manufactures stabilized satellite antennas for the Maritime Industry.  As an example of the type of vessel utilizing this technology, if you ever take a cruise ship those large white radomes several meters across contain an amazing construction consisting of stabilized satellite antennas relaying internet traffic to and from orbiting spacecraft 50,000km up in space.  The robotics used to point the antennas to within 0.1 degree accuracy – in all sea states – is impressive.  I was winding down my tenure with Sea Tel but had to return to California and wrap things up.  The taste of adventure riding I had in Asia in 2018 only strengthened my resolve to return and complete the journey from Mongolia home to California.

SeaTel VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) Satellite Antenna, Bringing the Internet and Television to Ships at Sea

While it’s important to talk about the bikes and I will throughout, the machines are a means to an end in our world.  Make no mistake I am a gear-head through and through but these passages I write in no way hold the wealth of technical information and guidance that inmates craft for ADVRider. Those forums and archives are the true ADVRider intellectual property. I am merely a court reporter who stumbled into a trial set on roads of planet earth – I am here to report to you my findings – I hope you, my jury, stay with me.

When it came to selecting the right machine to traverse the globe Heather and Andrew did the research and recommended that the triple of price, versatility and ruggedness was best met by the first generation Kawasaki KLR650. These particular bikes are really hard to kill.  They are simple, old school, single cylinder, carbureted machines where the only concession to “electronics” is ignition – which I support having spent too many hours in life setting dwell and point gap. Probably the greatest compliment I received on the KLR came from a citizen in a western state, perhaps Arizona, when she said somewhat disdainfully, “It looks Industrial” – exactly.  I refer to my machine, with deep affection, as  “The Steel Mule”. It fits.  I rescued the Steel Mule from the fate of being hitched to a sidecar. I added: crash plate, doohickey, bark busters, crash bars, hard panniers, LED headlamps, throttle lock, thermo-bob, frame through bolt, HD mono shock spring and progressive fork springs.  The Steel Mule was ready to carry me across the earth.

We freighted the 3 machines in a 20 foot container by ship across the Pacific, and by train through China and ultimately into Ulaanbaatar Mongolia. By “we” I really have to pay respect to Heather for coordinating logistics and freight forwarding companies to get the machines delivered.

So that quick skate through two or three decades brings you to my present – alone in Ulaanbaatar Mongolia about to start a roughly 30,000km journey home.  I had no set itinerary, no deadline save the North American winter, and no-one to argue with except myself.  I now return in time to May of 2019.  Much of what I write is in the present tense as I captured moments and thoughts as I went.  Please excuse me if I slip in and out of the present tense – our nemesis time is up to his old tricks again!

May 2019: Ulaanbaatar Mongolia

Initially, I started posting on facebook and will continue to do so but I wanted a place to capture longer passages and Advrider seemed ideal.  Beware, there are some pointless ramblings in here – read at your own peril (of falling asleep).

I’ve been to Ulaanbaatar for 5 days. My visa into Russia isn’t valid for another few days affording me the opportunity to reacquaint myself with this unique city. Ulaanbaatar is old world, industrial, reasonably high altitude (similar to Denver) and not culturally diverse. Westerners stand out yet people pay no attention. The food is somewhat bland but hearty – likely due to the severe winters.

I stayed at the Zaluuchuud hotel, a short walk from Sukhbaatar Square where parliament is located along with the massive statue of sitting Genghis Khan.

Ulaanbaatar Parliment, Sitting Genghis Khan (for scale look at the live soldier standing guard right)

The hotel is old and rundown. I suspect its heyday was during the Russian era pre-1990. The rooms are clean and you get free breakfast (hearty) for 67k MNT (roughly25USD) a day. Best of all there is a locked compound for vehicles.

I spend a lot of time in the square.

Sükhbaatar Square

The art vendors target me and practice their English once they realize I’m a cheapskate! The square is where people go to be together and to celebrate. You see women in bright traditional dress and men wearing the heavy deel wrap. I’ve seen nomadic herders on motorcycles and horseback across the land in this attire. It offers shield from the sun and warmth during harsh weather. Even in mid-May it’s cold.

Traditional Celebrations in Sükhbaatar Square

The language is unique. Perhaps reflecting the countries central location between China and Russia. The sounds are throaty, almost guttural with the sharp twang of more Asian dialects – at least that’s what this untrained ear registers.

The locals refer to me as Russki until I communicate that I’m from the USA. There is a genuine interest which reflects just how few westerners you see among the general population.

Part of what makes travel interesting are the people along the way. I say only part because I travel alone – no-one could tolerate me I’m sure. My wife Vicki, who is my life soulmate supports me in this foolishness but does so from the comfort and security of our home. As a solo traveler when a chance encounter turns into an unexpected plus I am grateful. Koji Ajito is one such person. He and his wife run a motorcycle guesthouse north of the city. He stored and serviced my bike for a year. He’s a guy in his middle years with young kids running around the property. I met an extended family member sitting with children as Koji proudly showed me guesthouse accommodations. I hope he makes a go of it. He and his family’s warmth and kindness lifted my spirits.

Koji Ajito Stored and Serviced my “Steel Mule”, KLR650 from 2018 to 2019

Koji’s guesthouse is roughly 10 miles north of the city center. Rather then use Uber locals have an age old and much simpler version of ride sharing.  You simply hold your hand out in traffic and a car will stop and offer you a ride for which you pay a reasonable fee, in this case around 6$.  It just works!

In correspondence with Koji before returning to Ulaanbaatar he indicated that my brake pads were shot and fork seals were leaking and recommended bringing parts.  This started the tricky order/acquisition process of what parts beyond pads and fork seals to bring and which ones to expect to acquire on the road. For my one month ride around Mongolia in 2018 I had a decent toolkit but limited spares.  Crossing continents solo was a different challenge.  Let’s hope I chose correctly!  Here are a couple of maintenance pictures I took in the compound at Zaluuchuud hotel.

Simple Brake Job. KLR Always Needs Loctite

Started with maps.me and Garmin – both heavily dependent on LAT/LONG coordinates

I also took time to make sure my heated glove inserts still worked.  These little beauties have made the last ten years bay area commuting possible 365 days a year  – no rest for the wicked.

I met Bud and Kathy at the Zaluuchuud hotel where they were making ready for an expedition to the Gobi. They are Raptor Biologists and they specialize in Peregrine Falcons. The expedition is to locate a particular variety and log its DNA – meaning trap it and take blood. It was thrilling to window into their world if only for a couple of shared breakfasts. A larger group of guides, international scientists gathered and they were off.

Bud and Kathy; Raptor Biologists. Note the leather Snare Trap. Baited with a small rodent allows temporary containment of the Falcon – long enough to draw blood.

Some of our chats had nothing to do with Falcons or adventure motorcycling but rather why humans do the things we do. Bud was in his seventies and he observed of me “you’re not a young man at least to be riding cross continent”. I thought a bit before responding because the answer is not an easy one. I have watched a loved one stop trying and that has affected me to my core. The reasons for stopping are so complex that I can’t comprehend but as an onlooker I know, it could just as well be me. So, I’m running as hard and fast as I can to keep from stopping.

I am not a salon kind of guy however the Green Hair Club is amazing. Climb up a steep twisting dark staircase open onto a warm, bright oasis of friendly faces and pampering beyond belief: two trips to the wash basin, head, neck, shoulder, arm and hand massage, the haircut of course and green tea while waiting between phases of pampering all for the equivalent of $12. I just smile when I think about it. Good joss, good karma.

The post office and the bank:  Preparing to ride a motorcycle across continents consists mainly of determining what you don’t need. So today I packed a bag of nice but not necessary stuff and looked for the post office. As any good modern-day shopper, I searched “Post offices near me”, located the central one just across the square and then my eye started reading “reviews”. Absolutely toxic. Nevertheless, off I went prepared for the worst. The person who helped me could not have been kinder. Her English was OK and we communicated using signals, calculators and phones. Even the customs officer who came over to inspect the contents was soft spoken and considerate. Damn reviews. To my wife Vicki, please be prepared to receive the most uninteresting box of odds and ends!

My son Andrew has said this of India and now, alone in Ulaanbaatar, I understand completely. The anonymity of melting into a completely different culture is nirvana. You are at once brand new and simultaneously able to draw on your own cultural norms for contrast and reference. It’s a virtual opiate.

Depressions sneaky sidekick, anxiety is on full alert for victims with solo adventurers. I lack foolproof defenses so I resort to making lists, creating busywork and ultimately giving in and crawling under the covers and hiding. Alcohol is useless, or at least I never got really good at it so I quit trying. Smoking is evil and tricks me into thinking I control the urge from time to time. And so it goes, I battle just like everybody else – winning and losing every day.

What’s it called when you are mugged but they don’t get anything?  I’ll write this down while it’s fresh. I had a nice final supper in UB at the Grand Khaan Irish Pub that makes great Margarita Pizza’s. Walking back, I had just crossed Sukhbaatar Square and was thinking this is likely the last time I’ll pass this way. I felt something tug at my pants pocket. I rammed my hands into both pants pockets clutching phone in one and wallet in the other and I yelled, “Hey Stop”. Two men bumped passed me, turned and we all stared. I thought to yell ‘stop thief’ but who’d understand. As we all stood, eyes locked, I didn’t raise my hands – with two of them younger and bigger. If they wanted to start all I could do would be, catch up. They turned and disappeared into the crowd. Should I have alerted Police, perhaps but I was unharmed and lost nothing so I let it go. A good alertness reminder.

Riding distance requires a certain level of strength and stamina.  I’ve tried over the years to keep fit.  I find that daily exercise done as a group is slightly less boring than lone workouts.  For several years I used LifeStyle gym in Livermore California until a freak accident set me looking for something different.  Imagine this, you’ve been participating in a TRX class for years, every morning at 5:30am, then on September 22 2015 an elderly driver experiences pedal confusion and accelerate 70 feet through the front doors, the lobby, deep into the establishment, finally crashing into the studio where 6 classmates and I are exercising.  Kathy Baker, CFO of Lawrence Livermore Lab was killed and the rest of us injured.  One takeaway is this, while riding motorcycles is risky when your number is up fate can get you anywhere.

Livermore gym crash: Driver nearly crashed through front doors year before, police say

Soon after I joined OMNI Fight Club in Livermore.  This club focuses on kick boxing, endurance and strength training. It’s even more fun when you get to use skills (and basically hit stuff really hard) to keep yourself fit.  It had been decades since I had boxed and I find this exercise a good match with adventure riding.  What’s amazing is that as we’ve become a global culture things like boutique fitness centers are common the world over.  In Ulaanbaatar I found a boxing gym where I could have a few final workouts before embarking on the journey home. Check it out.

I was ready to depart Ulaanbaatar and head west for California.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Thank you for subscribing!
This email is already subscribed.
There has been an error.