Mongolia 2010

Off The Map In Northern Mongolia — Another Photo Essay

After I’d recovered from a sudden illness, we hit the road again with fresh enthusiasm. We set out from Hatgal at the southern tip of Lake Khovsgol, knowing nothing about the state of the route other than that two Finns and an Aussie told us on returning from a mountain-biking trip that it wouldn’t be possible to get through the first 25km with luggage on the bike. That sounded like an excellent way to keep things interesting.

It was 10 days before we reached the next settlement. During that time, we rode swooping forest singletrack and dragged our bikes up impossibly-steep scree slopes. We pushed through axle-deep swampland and camped by the most pristine lakeside I’ve ever set eyes on. We found Mongolians on horseback and others who had driven huge ancient Russian off-road trucks cross-country, carrying numerous families to a natural hot spring for a few days’ camping. We spent two full days hiking along a valley floor of dry gravel and wading across channels of meltwater from the mountains above. My feet started to disintegrate from several days spent in permanently wet boots. We got completely lost and finally found our way out onto the vast, pock-marked, marshy plain to the west of the Khovsgol basin. This had been some of the most interesting and challenging adventuring of my life.

We planned to visit another settlement at the far end of the plain, but instead we spent two days lost amongst the hillocks and small lakes, unable to find a way through the tangle of rivers and sand pits and marshes in this rapidly-changing landscape in which nothing corresponded to anything we’d seen on a map. Faint tracks disappeared over newly-eroded riverbanks and into spontaneously-appearing patches of desert. We trudged through the worst of it and otherwise ground the gears between gers and timber-built dwellings, asking in quiet desperation for the way out of the labyrinth and accepting invitations to drink milky tea (without salt in this region) and eat bread and freshly-churned butter.

We spent the evening attending a family gathering quite literally in the middle of nowhere, where vodka combined with a cyclist’s metabolism and a severe lack of resistance to the effects of alcohol to produce a variety of interesting effects. This dip into Mongolian society, sparse as it is, was for me the final piece of the picture of Mongolia that I had been looking for in order to go home satisfied with the experience I’d had here.

Since the last photo essay proved so popular, here’s another! I’ll be writing the trip up in more detail over the next few weeks.

Leaving home
We left our guesthouse in Moron and headed north for Khovsgol. Tourist season hadn’t started and things were still very quiet. And cold.
Mongolia 2010

Off The Map In Central Mongolia — A Photo Essay

Mongolia is a far more accessible place for a mountain-biking expedition than I’d imagined. Navigation has been a mixture of old techniques and new technology. Our GPS unit didn’t help us to choose a route through the maze of tangled tyre tracks, but it did provide a bearing and an approximate distance to the next small provincial town — which would always provide supplies, electricity, a meal and a mobile phone connection. In terms of facilities, everything we’ve needed has rarely been more than a day or two away.

After Bulgan we headed for the back-country. Riding the main route, though relatively easy going, quickly became a monotonous undertaking. Away from this, our sheet-map of the country provided us with the name of the next settlement, and armed with this knowledge we proceeded through the silent vastness of the countryside, pedalling along the streak of bare earth that best corresponded to the gestures of passing motorcyclists and horsemen, out herding for the day, and our combined common sense and experience.

We found ourselves covering more distance than we’d expected — our plan was to average somewhere around 35km per day, but 55km has been more common. The conditions have been challenging, but not overpoweringly so. It really helps to have benchmarks like Sudan and Ethiopia when tackling unpaved routes like this!

We’ve spent several days off in Moron, a relatively large regional capital in north-central Mongolia, in order to rest and to let an unexpected cold/cough to work its way through my system before continuing. There’s plenty more to say, but just for a change I’ll let the pictures do the talking. It’s been a fantastic ride so far.

Faint tyre tracks?
Sometimes the tracks were barely visible. In many countries this would be a cause for alarm, but in Mongolia it’s possible to ride directly across the step, and following a valley or heading for a water source is guaranteed to bring you in contact with at least one herding family and their ger in order to check directions. Once we got used to this kind of geographical freedom, we started to push further and further off the well-worn paths.
Mongolia 2010

Back In The Saddle From Ulaanbaatar To Bulgan

The life of a cycle tourist is often dictated by the forces of nature. This was never more true than for the first week’s journeying from the Mongolian capital out into the depths of the steppes. Rain, snow, hail, headwinds, tailwinds, sidewinds, dust-storms, baking sun, freezing cold, cloud tapestries and clear blue skies all made an appearance, often within a couple of hours of each other. This was going to be no place for whingeing about the weather.

Empty asphalt out of UB

I felt pretty low as we left the city behind us. It was something to do with the wind and the monotony of the empty asphalt combined with the humbling vastness of the landscape. I remembered just what a slog bike travel could sometimes be. I was unfit. A few hours in and I was already bored of grinding the pedals and feeling like I was going nowhere.