Making Tracks across Mongolia
Posted on August 24, 2015
Looking at the map, it seems that we’re about as far from an ocean as we could possibly be anywhere on the planet, about 500 miles northeast of the Mongolian border. It must be more than 2000 miles in any direction to find an ocean coastline. The Stans had turned out to be kind of a bigger deal than we thought with searing deserts, landslides, flooding, and broken bikes. I suppose it’s silly to presume to judge what any place holds just by examining the outlines of its borders, but they just didn’t look that big on the map! We’ve got a hell of a long way to go to the other side of Asia and summer is fading fast. Winter is coming.
Barnaul, Russia is our waypoint en route to Mongolia where I had a set of tires shipped to replace our badly worn set that have been on the bike since Croatia, more than 14 thousand miles back. We rode off from Barnaul without a clue what we’re headed into, just because we had tired of looking stuff up and figuring out where to go. We headed into Russia’s Altai Mountains on some brand new knobby rubber. Our plan was to simply blast to the Mongolian border as quickly as possible, but as we rode, the landscape turned lush and beautiful as the road wound along a river. We kept seeing awesome camp spots by the riverside and finally just had to stop to make one of them our home for the night.
Jamie made friends with the tiny locals.
I got woodsy.
The rain dumped on us all night, finally abated in the morning long enough to pack up and get riding, but not for long. The Altai is a beautiful place if you don’t mind enjoying the views a bit soggy.
We mostly camped in cow pastures and have gotten rather used to being surrounded by cow patties.
The cows played coy at first, but in the end kept creeping up on Jamie. We think they were planning something nefarious. Sneaky little buggers.
After spending several days more than expected in the Altai, we finally motored up to the Mongolian border, where we found our cage driving counterparts in line. The Mongol rally participants racing from London in the crappiest cars they could duct tape together were already kicking up the dust in front of us, ready to tackle Mongolia’s tracks in comically inappropriate vehicles.
Jamie got down with some maps to figure out the best way across a thousand miles of the wild Mongolian steppe. We forgot to bring a map. They laughed at us. We took photos of theirs instead. Problem solved.
Unfortunately we’d arrived to the border at about lunch time, which turned out to be a fairly drawn out affair. It was pretty annoying since we only needed one more stamp to get moving. We were less annoyed when we looked outside the office and saw that it was snowing, and no longer felt like riding anywhere. This didn’t bode well for our crossing of Mongolia along the northern route that had lots of creeks that could swell to flow levels that made them uncrossable on a bike.
At the border, we’d met up with a Swiss rider called Jonathan on a KLR who we’d first met in Kazakhstan. The three of us rode together; taking a detour to bypass the biggest river crossings that we’d heard had caused two riders to turn back the day before. At every meadowy stop, the local band of horses seemed to find us and come over for a look.
The Mongolians are virtually born on horseback and can just about ride before they can walk. They ride everywhere and seem more comfortable in a saddle than standing on the ground. We eventually learned that the bands of horses we found roaming around everywhere always belong to someone, and have been trained for riders. They are allowed to roam the grasslands freely until needed by an owner. They aren’t really wild, but they seem to lead a pretty close-to-wild existence out here on the steppe that’s wonderful to see. Back home I never really understood some people’s fascination with these creatures, but after so much time watching them in Mongolia I now do.
Outside of a few hundred kilometers of Tarmac, mostly laid down on the approach to the capital city, Mongolia doesn’t really do the road thing. They’re into tracks. Lots of tracks. The dirt tracks spill down hillsides and snake off into the valley as far as we could see. The pale green canvas is framed by low mountains and is only occasionally marked by the herder’s white gers, what we would call yurts, and their continuously munching livestock. The vastness of it all just fills your lungs with air and lightens heavy thoughts. A journey through this landscape can’t help but feel epic in scale.
We rode with Jonathan all day, traversing north from the town of Elgii towards the northern route and the town of Ulaangom. He rode faster than us and was soon out of sight. The route is often a dozen tracks wide and we couldn’t possibly always select the same one. Usually they converge with one another, but sometimes they don’t. At some stage we lost each other and we never saw him again. We had a long break on a hillside above a lake, so we figured he couldn’t still be behind us and rode on figuring that we’d eventually find him in Ulaangom, but he wasn’t there either.
We hoped everything had gone OK for Jonathan, but by noon the next day it was time for us to ride on. There were a few creek crossings and mud pits created from the rain of the past few days, but it was usually possible to find a way around any obstacle through the grass.
I’ve never ridden anywhere like Mongolia. It’s mostly fast two track that alternates from flowy dirt with whoops and bowls to bank off of, and faint tracks through the short grass. Some sections seriously feel like you’re ripping straight across a golf course. The dirt tracks are generally smoothed from the rain and when they get too bumpy or rough from a truck getting stuck in the mud, someone makes a new track. Lots of the time, you don’t really need a track at all. The only place where you can normally ride cross-country like this at a good clip is in the desert. Here, you get that same riding freedom, but don’t have to deal with extreme heat or lack of water. Even loaded and two-up, it was some of the most fun off-road riding I’ve ever done.
For the first time in months we weren’t cooking in the desert or freezing in the mountains, the storm front had moved on ahead of us and we had nothing but clear blue skies. We were riding about a hundred miles a day and good camping spots were always easy to find. We could see a spot way up a hill or across a valley from a track we were riding and just blast cross-country towards it. It was so cool. Mongolia feels like a motorcycle play land.
At camps far away from gers or animals, we were surrounded by the stillness of the steppe. A falcon flew overhead and I could hear every beat of its wings clear as a bell. I even managed a bath in a stream.
The Mongolian people are usually friendly and curious about us, but generally more reserved than those we met in the Stans. In Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the kids would hear us coming down the road and there would be a stampede of them out to the road waiting at the ready to slap us a high five. I never got tired of that. But here we were generally left on our own unless we happened to camp right where a herder was grazing his animals.
Mongolia is a hard place to live. The whole country is situated on a plateau with an average elevation of about 5250 feet (1600 m) resulting in very harsh winters where the temperature drops below 40 C and a blanket of snow covers the grassland. The climate doesn’t allow the Mongolians to grow much in the way of grains or vegetables and there isn’t much food available other than meat. Most people out in the countryside depend wholly on their animals for survival. They eat their meat, wear and make shelters from their hides and fur, and drink their milk. We encountered animals we hadn’t seen before: yaks (which look kind of like gigantic dogs), and two humped camels, better suited for the cold weather than the single humped variety we’d bern chasing all over the road in Africa.
After days of riding the tracks with no sign of any other riders, let alone our Swiss riding companion, we were stoked to find two other riders, Anthony and Jenny from Israel, both riding Honda CRF 250’s that they’d been riding all the way from Europe for the past five months.
As we rode east, trees appeared on the hills and the four of us found some fuel for fires at night while we talked story of bikes and adventure.
We turned north to find one of the few Buddhist monasteries that survived the Soviet purge of the 1930’s. The track followed a valley and was rougher than what we’d been riding out on the open steppe. The final obstacle was a wide creek. We couldn’t judge its depth the whole way across until a truck came by to show us the path along the shallow gravel bar.
We found a campsite in the saddle of a ridge high above the monastery and bedded down for the night with our usual cadre of four legged neighbors whinnying and neighing into the night. We packed up the next morning and bounced down the hill to check out the monastery as the Tibetan Buddhist monks-in-training went about their morning chants wrapped in robes burgundy and gold.
Approaching Ulaanbaatar, the tarmac returned along with the towns and cars and it was as if waking from a week-long dream in the grassland. The air became was tinged with diesel, a car horn honked, a mini-market appeared, and the spell of the steppe was broken. Given half an excuse I would turn around a ride the same route right back the other direction.
When we arrived at the default overlander flop house in Ulaanbataar, we finally found Jonathan again. A week prior, when we’d last seen him, he’d ridden way up a track that just went to someone’s ger. We’d taken somewhat different routes to Ulaanbataar, but arrived within hours of one another! His front tire was wearing through to the steel belting a week ago, so he sawed off some of the rear tire knobs and super glued them to the worst spots on the front. The prosthetic knobs stayed put during the whole journey. How’s that for a backcountry bodge!
Before arriving in Mongolia, we’d grown a bit road weary and thinking of home, but the time out on the steppe has re-forged the will to wander. I can’t wait to find the next spot to pitch our tent.