Mongolia: The Cream Of Adventure Cycle-Touring

In 2006, Andy and I took our mountain-bikes up to Inverness and spent a week riding an off-road route to Fort William, which we had put together from detailed Ordinance Survey maps. We made a lot of mistakes – carrying all of our kit in heavy backpacks, relying for a good night’s sleep on a £10 tent from Lidl, and being rather optimistic about our daily distances cycling on hiking trails.

This, my first ever bike trip, was about trial-and-error, climbing the steep learning curve of our inexperience. It was the most fun I’d ever had on a bike, or ever have since.

Until, that is, I took my bike to Mongolia.

The last few weeks of riding have fulfilled the desire that inspired the very conception of Ride Earth – to ‘take mountain-biking to it’s logical conclusion’, as we originally put it. One of the intrinsic attractions of bicycle-travel is the feeling of liberty, to go at your own pace, under your own steam, on a route of your choosing, but in practice you are generally limited to roads or tracks, be they paved or unpaved. Out on the vast steppes of North-East Asia, it is possible to take a bearing to the next settlement and then to quite literally follow the compass.

This rugged, unfenced swathe of mountains and steppe is currently being crossed by the expeditioner Ripley Davenport, who has chosen Mongolia as the venue for “the longest solo and unassisted walk ever completed”. Davenport’s website talks up his mission in terms of “plung[ing] deep inside the most sparsely populated independent country in the world” and spending 3 months crossing its “ruthless landscape”, together with a list of extreme adjectives describing the conditions he’ll face. He’s got a lot of sponsors and media to keep happy, something that only the most dramatic prose can do.

But from my experience in central and northern Mongolia – lesser in scope and duration than Davenport’s – there can’t be many places in the world more accessible to the adventure-seeking biker. Yes, I did experience dust-storms, tornadoes, freezing nights, scorching sun, terrible tracks, howling wolves, hail, snow, rain, unrideable swamp, massive climbs and descents, and all that kind of thing. But isn’t that the fun of it?

These words might sound extreme. That’s what they are – the extremities, the noteworthy moments. Vast swathes of time also passed for which there are no adjectives worth using. When nature sends something interesting your way, you sit out the storm, put on another fleece, don a sunhat, tighten your bolts, keep your waterproofs handy, get off and push, sweat a bit harder; you lap it up, smiling through gritted teeth at the life-affirming exposure to the elements, reminded sharply of the contrast between the mundane and the extraordinary and how the combination of the two constitutes life’s seasoning.

Rain coming in

Davenport’s decision to attempt his walk ‘unassisted’ – i.e. taking his entire stockpile of supplies with him – seems to me a little odd, as others have noted. Sparse the population may be, with less than 3 million people inhabiting the 19th-largest country in the world, but what is less often said is that the population is very, very well dispersed. On the steppe, it was a rare occasion indeed that we found ourselves unable to see a ger (yurt) or herd of livestock from wherever we happened to be stood.

Even during the most remote parts of the journey, when we made a conscious effort to leave even the faintest tracks and spent 10 days in the wilderness without seeing any settlements, we spotted at least one vehicle or horseman a day. Davenport could be accused of creating something out of nothing. But then the same accusation could be made of any number of expeditions whose funding hinges on an easily-marketable concept. He will undoubtedly have achieved a great feat of human endurance if he succeeds, so all power to him – but he’s not hauling 90 days of food out of necessity, and to portray the whole of Mongolia in those terms is misleading.

In practical terms, help is always close at hand. If in need, the inhabitants of every ger will help out of tradition. Unconditional hospitality amongst nomads was a survival mechanism, and such cultural artifacts die hard. On the few occasions we needed directions or water, we were always accepted without question, and often there would be a cup of tea (with milk!) offered, or maybe a spot of solar-powered satellite TV. Fantasy land of wandering shepherds this most certainly is not.

Herding family in Mongolia

In fact, such is the accepting, uncomplicated attitude of Mongolians to out-of-the-way travellers, bike or otherwise, that I initially mistook it for rudeness, as herders on horseback (or more often on Chinese motorbikes) would often seem to completely ignore our presence on their land. But it wasn’t long before I realised that it was the opposite – far from being unfriendly or suspicious, it was a sign that we had been accepted and that there was no need for small-talk. If we needed anything, we soon realised, it was supposed that we would simply come over to the ger and ask. In the end, we never felt more at home.

(Incidentally, I found a tattered guidebook in a hostel when I returned to Ulaan Baatar and made the mistake of flicking through it. The authors had come to the conclusion that it was perfectly OK to knock on a ger door and accept the inevitable invitation to stay as if it were some kind of consumable tourist attraction on offer to anyone who fancied it, and that simply handing over some cash was sufficient justification for doing so. They had even coined the phrase “Ger-to-ger touring”. I have an issue with this attitude – while I did knock on the doors of a few gers during the trip, I never did so without an express need for assistance – mainly directions, sometimes water, but never food or a place to sleep. These are things on which you should be self-reliant.)

Route-finding is easy in Mongolia. You begin with the assumption that you can go anywhere. Absolutely anywhere. Then you use common sense. On the steppe, each valley has a variety of tracks traversing it. When one set of ruts gets too deep, the drivers will drive alongside it, thus creating a new track. The result after a few seasons is ten or more sets of tracks going in the same direction, with passing vehicles taking the faintest, shallowest, outermost route. Similar tracks lead from one valley to the next. Sick of these, you turn left or right and ride directly cross-country to your heart’s content!

Riding singletrack

Paper maps of Mongolia are accurate when it comes to settlements (the roads and tracks can be completely ignored, however), so all you need is a bearing, a compass, a good judgement of distance and a bit of common sense (and/or a GPS receiver). Contrary to popular misconception, there are hundreds of small towns all over the country, and each one has a handful of shops selling a variety of local and imported produce (including instant noodles), at least one place serving hot food at mealtimes, electricity, and mobile phone reception, including a GPRS connection so you can check your email or update your Twitter status if that’s your thing. When we stuck to the routes, we passed a town like this every one or two days.

All of this comes together to make Mongolia an adventure cyclist’s paradise. Safe in the knowledge that the ‘uninhabited wilderness’ is for the most part an illusion, it’s possible to explore the stunning landscapes in a huge amount of depth and with unparalleled freedom of movement. With practically no paved roads, you need a strong bike and an affinity for off-road riding, and the willingness to put daily distance aside. (For the record, our longest day was 76km, and our shortest was 12km, with the average hovering between 40 and 50.)

It was with sadness and a few tears that the trip came to an end. A surprise invitation to a family gathering in the middle of a maze of plains and lakes, a short ride to the next town, and it was over. We crammed the bikes and bags into the back of a four-wheel-drive minibus and spent the next two days being thrown around inside it on our way back to Ulaan Baatar. Once there, we secured our train tickets to Moscow and began the important process of digesting the weeks of intense, memorable adventures we’d had in this very special place – a place of huge spaces, skies, silences and hearts.

(Some photos by Andy.)

20 Responses to “Mongolia: The Cream Of Adventure Cycle-Touring”

  1. Fearghal

    Bravo!

    Really enjoyed following this little chapter in the Ride Earth series. I remember the “logical conclusion” tag line- possibly something that can only be achieved through multiple smaller rides rather than a RTW epic?

    We found the Altiplano in Bolivia a similar experience- getting lost for five days off the map, following tracks the plain north of Salar dUyuni. It was a special experience one that allowed us to indulge the feeling of exploration. Though, we felt we were in the middle of nowhere, and aside from some llamas there was little evident means of subsistance there was still at least a hut every couple of hours and a village every day- though food was sometimes difficult to come by.

    Reading about your experience has made me nostalgic.
    Thanks

    Reply
  2. Lars Demant

    First…I don’t see Mr. Davenport slagging you off or even mentioning you. You seem to have picked up his story just because others have also dared to rip into him.

    Regarding sponsors…It seems you also have your fair share of them. Seems a shame that you should mention Mr. Davenport’s line up when you…honestly!
    Just contributing sponsors are they? Perhaps Mr. Davenport’s are in the same league…

    Do you know Mr. Davenport? Just a question. I don’t but would rather check in on both sides of the fence before I take a side.

    …but he’s not hauling 90 days of food… How do you know? Do you check in with him every day to weigh in his gear and supplies?
    Give evidence if you know better…

    Davenport’s decision to attempt his walk ‘unassisted’ – i.e. taking his entire stockpile of supplies with him – seems to me a little odd… Why is it odd. It is his choice, his expedition after all? He’s not the only one that picks this method.

    You also said: I never did so without an express need for assistance – mainly directions, sometimes water, but never food or a place to sleep. These are things on which you should be self-reliant.)
    So would it be OK if Mr. Davenport did the same?

    Like Mr. Davenport, your also raising money for good causes. You couldn’t credit that though, could you?

    I think it’s funny that he walks, almost the same as you cycle per day, and he’s hauling weight, in heat over a mixture of terrain.

    Fair do’s , freedom of speech etc, blah, blah but don’t use another, or anothers expedition, as a lever to make yourself a better person.

    I am sure he’d love to read your blog, and comment on you, on his return. I’ve just copied this link to his email for you!

    All credit to Mr. Davenport.

    Lars Demant

    Reply
    • Andy

      Tom certainly isn’t slagging of Mr Davenport. I don’t think suggesting that he is doing so in the spirit of the adventuring community.

      Sponsorship has it’s positive and negative qualities. Essentially sponsors what to garner as much attention as possible and talking up the expedition is a way of doing this.

      A big part of an expedition is the ‘idea’ of it. That idea may not match the ‘ideal’ experience or the actual end experience. I don’t know what your experience of travelling is but Tom and I spent quite a long time with the idea of cycling around the world playing a significant part in our actions, but the idea evolved into something else. However, that’s the nature of an open-ended ever-evolving travel experience and fixing on a end goal at all costs.

      Tom has some different opinions and approaches born from having just come back from Mongolia and gathered experiences and information.

      Each is pushing their own envelope of experience and boundaries. Debate and sharing ideas is a very healthy process to hopefully eventually end up with more valuable and fulfilling experiences for all parties.

      Reply
    • Tom

      Hi Lars, thanks for the comment.

      I certainly wasn’t ‘slagging off’ Davenport. I’m sorry if you got that impression. I’ve never met him, no. The point was simply that Mongolia isn’t an uninhabited wasteland for which it is necessary to carry complete supplies for an entire traversal, and I wanted to make clear that this is an inaccurate view, but I think a commonly-held one – one which I myself carried before I went there.

      I make no judgement on his mission in any other terms, just a point about how the place in which he’s doing it is being (in my opinion) misrepresented, and I write about my travels in order to break down cultural stereotypes, so in this respect, Davenport’s project is very relevant. As I said before – all power to him, and I hope he is successful with his human-endurance mission.

      There is a more general point here, I think, about the compromises that ‘professional’ expeditions have to make. I’m lucky enough to have a set of sponsors who have simply donated pieces of equipment to test to destruction for product-development purposes, and who are happy enough with that and a logo in the sidebar. Aside from this, I fund my adventures out of my own pocket through my own hard work and I don’t have any obligations to present my journeys in any particular way.

      A high-profile, sponsor-funded trip comes with a lot of strings attached, not least presenting the project in a way that makes the media ‘bite’ so the financial backers get their money’s worth of exposure. It’s a little naive to think that this arrangement doesn’t swing the PR in the direction of the dramatic!

      My hope is not to create conflict, but to create better understanding, and hopefully the debate can continue in an intelligent way. Why not have a look at my and Andy’s photos on Flickr, so you can see some of the Mongolia that we experienced over these last 2 months?

      Reply
  3. Fearghal

    Lars, I feel I have to pitch in here again.

    I think you’re over sensitive to the tone of the post. I’ve been following Ripley’s adventure- and quite enjoying it. I never questioned his logic of towing all his food etc. It did cross my mind that he must have to refuse hospitality from time to time, but that, as Mongolia is the wasteland that we assume it is, this wouldn’t be too frequent. Tom and Andy’s experience of the same place provided an interesting counterpoint; one of an accessible enjoyable adventure rather than Ripley’s epic push.

    Its important that claims are challenged and questioned and sometimes even ridiculed. That’s how we get to the core of the zeitgeist in other fields of endeavour why not adventure?

    As far as making a challenge more of a challenge goes- how about walking land’s end to john o groats unassisted and un-aided? Sounds a little silly doesn’t it.

    Reply
    • Tom

      The final point is a good one – but if someone did walk LEJOG unassisted, and wrote about and photographed it as if Britain was an uninhabited wilderness (which they could), they would be ridiculed, because everyone knows what Britain is like, right?

      Is there an element of ‘fuelling the stereotype’ here?

      Reply
  4. Lars Demant

    I did read somewhere that Ripley is Lactous Intolerant, so any form of diary offered to Ripley would have to be refused – Obviously for medical reasons.
    I am sure that Ripley is communicating with his Russian language skills in such a way as to not offend, if he was offered anything.

    Mongolians are friendly enough not to take offence and I am sure no major cultural boundaries would be breeched, or Mongols offended, if he refused politely.
    He also said in many articles that he also funded the entire exped out of his own pocket and moved to a smaller house or something.

    All in all, I think he deserves credit for doing something so demanding – at the age of 40!
    This morning I read in another forum, that his next desert expedition in 2011 is at the other end of the spectrum using four legged beasts and he’s taking students or something like that?

    Lars

    Reply
    • Tom

      Undoubtedly he deserves credit for his undertaking, as a demostration of human strength and determination, especially if it is self-funded. I’m sure he wouldn’t offend any locals either – in my experience you’re often accepted wordlessly and so left alone as a traveller; it’s expected in Mongolia that if you need help, you ask for it, rather than invitations flowing from every direction as in some parts of the world!

      Hopefully this debate, here and elsewhere, has shed some light on the complexities of communicating the reality of these kinds of journeys to lay audiences. It might just be true in the end that you can’t imagine it unless you’ve been there…

      Reply
    • Thomas

      Hi Lars. Where did you read that Ripley is Lactose intolerant ? Have you ever met Ripley? He did once live in your neck of the woods.

      Reply
  5. Tim

    Ripley’s certainly causing a few ripples at the moment, isn’t he?

    It’s difficult to say anything critical without coming across as angry/jealous or bashing people for the sake of it. But I think you’ve raised an excellent point Tom…

    What Mr Davenport’s doing sounds incredibly tough and all respect to him for taking on such a challenge. But just as it’s misleading to claim that an expedition has honourable and self-less aims when it’s more about an adventure for its own sake, it’s also misleading to portray a destination as something that it’s not.

    Honesty and openness, as ever, are the best policies.

    Thanks for sticking to them Tom.

    Tim.

    Reply
  6. Liz Allen

    Informative and enlightening piece of writing. Very useful for folk planning their travels.

    An interesting debate has ensued too.

    Reply
  7. Edward

    I was just seeking this information for some time. After six hours of continuous Googleing, finally I got it in your web site. I wonder what is the lack of Google strategy that do not rank this kind of informative sites in top of the list. Normally the top web sites are full of garbage.

    Reply
  8. Dan

    Hi Tom, I’ve just started following your blog. I like the way you cut through the hype and tell it more or less like it is, it certainly doesn’t make these far off locations any less exotic or appealing! I wondered if you’d documented your route anywhere, or, given the lack of tracks, where you started/stopped? I’m heading off on my bicycle in September and, perhaps stupidly, am considering starting in Mongolia, as I heard that the weather is best/safest then. Cheers, Dan

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      There’s a simplified but mostly accurate GPS tracklog of our route here. Bear in mind that we just recorded this as we went; we had no route planned out when we began and most of our navigation was done by organic means…

      Reply
      • Dan

        Thanks Tom, that’s great. How long did that ride take? I’m trying to gauge how much of Mongolia I can expect to ride within a 2 month visa while still allowing time to soak it all in. Cheers, Dan

        Reply
        • Tom Allen

          We also had 2 months in the country (1 month visa plus extension), with time to spare in Ulan Bator…

          Reply
          • Dan

            Thanks Tom. Another question if you have time.. which paper maps did you take with you / or did you pick up something in China? Come to think of it, a blog on route planning would be super useful if you haven’t done one yet.. 🙂 Cheers.

          • Tom Allen

            We took one map, which was mostly useless. We got it from Stanford’s. I’m afraid I don’t remember the brand, but I think it’s the only one they sell!

  9. Vietnam Motorcycle Tours

    We’re planning to organize a Mongolia trip myself. The trip will be started from Ulaanbaatar to Gobi desert, up north via Orkhon valley, visit Kharkhorin ancient town, White Lake, etc. But not sure whether we can do it without tourguide or not and is it easy to fill gas on the trip.
    This kind of article is very very useful for my trip. Big thanks

    Reply
  10. Anatole Papafilippou

    Hi Tom,

    Thank for this extremely useful and frank blog.

    If you have anytime I could really appreciate some advice.

    I will fly into Beijing start of August and out form there early around September 9th.

    I am planning to ride a bicycle from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar and beyond (not sure where yet) I am photographer so if you have any suggestions I will take them, I was thinking Khovsgol lake??

    I plan to camp and shoot and would if possible have a go at the wrestling, riding, archery if possible.

    I have a Giant Defy road bike with 28c tires (does not take more than that) but from what you say about unpaved roads that seems like a disaster.

    I really love drop bars so I was thinking an aluminium adventure bike like Jamis Renegade (700 c wheels) , Kona Rove AL (700 c wheels) or Giant Great Journey (26c wheels) is what I was thinking affordable, light enough for baggage allowance they come with 35mm -44 mm tires but do I need more like 40mm or 50 mm ? should it have 26 tires for small town repair or could i use 700 do you have any suggestions sorry for the bike geek questions, I really wanted to road bike it, but I am coming to the conclusion that it might be a very stupid idea.

    http://www.studioanatole.com

    Reply

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