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, 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.
Davenport’s decision to attempt his walk ‘unassisted’ – i.e. taking his entire stockpile of supplies with him – seems to me a little odd,. 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.
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!
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.)