Off The Map In Central Mongolia — A Photo Essay

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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.

A sudden change of weather is never far away. The speed at which storms blow in is incredible, given the vastness of the landscapes. Usually they threaten rain but deliver only a stiff breeze that makes pitching camp somewhat arduous.
'Road' sign
This was the only roadsign I saw for a week. It doesn’t point to a settlement, either — this reads ‘Hanuy Tour’. Hanuy is the name of a small river and of a natural spring which we couldn’t find.
Evening campfire
It was a great change of scenery when forests started becoming more commonplace. Trees are harvested for timber and firewood, but there is no evidence of large-scale deforestation thus far. The trees grow quickly during the short summer in order to survive the bitter winter.
A shrine such as the one Andy is photographing here is an essential piece of furniture at the top of each pass, no matter how remote. We’d been following a very faint pair of tyre tracks all day and were surprised to come across a shrine of this size at the top of the final climb.
River crossing
We crossed the Hanuy river with the intention of taking a cross-country shortcut to the next town, but eventually crossed back to the other side when it became clear that the hills and cliffs were going to be very difficult to cross.
Off-road climb
Sometimes the laws of physics take over and hike-and-bike is the only option!
Approaching Bayan Agt
Approaching the small town of Bayan-Agt. Despite the remoteness and lack of transport infrastructure, these small towns are well-stocked with provisions and facilities for the traveller. A packet of Korean instant noodles is never far away.
Basketball in the middle of nowhere
High up a long climb in a remote valley, we came across a set of goalposts and a basketball net. The nearest ger was several kilometres down the valley.
Another epic valley
Off-road travel in Mongolia generally seems to involve repeated traversals of vast valleys twenty or thirty kilometres wide. A long climb precedes an adrenalin-filled descent, followed by a monotonous grind across a windy valley floor. The process is repeated. Luckily, each valley often seems to have its own micro-climate and its own distinctive character, which keeps things interesting in the long run.
White Horse
Horses play a large part in the rural lifestyle. Sometimes they are herded in large groups, like other domestic livestock, and sometimes they roam in small units or alone.
Gladed downhill trail
One morning we were treated to a hidden gem of a descent through a cool forest, a few hours ride away from the town of Rashaant.
Storm coming in...
Another pass, another shrine. This one marked our rejoining of the main route to Moron. Another benign storm loomed across the valley but ultimately failed to deliver.
Grimy self-portrait
This is me, looking grime-stained and sun-tanned and I guess not particularly smiley!

If you haven’t already done so, please consider a small donation to help me raise £1000 for The Wilderness Foundation UK. At the time of writing I’ve raised 15% of that target — I really appreciate your support so far!

Comments (skip to respond)

10 responses to “Off The Map In Central Mongolia — A Photo Essay”

  1. Thanks for the comments — I think I’ll try another photo essay next time. (Once I’ve recovered and found a decent net connection!)

  2. Finally some of the photos where loaded and what I saw and read caused to miss you even more. Have fun, enjoy and come back safe. xxx

  3. Fearghal avatar

    Careful Now!
    Seriously, you’re making me really jealous : )

  4. Thanks for sharing. Wonderful photos and inspirational!
    Will you post a detailed route (maybe as recorded on your GPS)?

    Cheers and enjoy,

    1. I’m not sure… posting a detailed route might sully the spirit somewhat?

  5. Liz Allen avatar
    Liz Allen

    Great photos

  6. Wow, Tom, amazing pics! I’m loving the scenery and the feeling of being on the ride with you… congrats on the trip and do get in touch when you’re back in Yerevan 😉

  7. For the first time in quite a few years this post has almost made me itch to get back on a bike again…

    1. Only ‘almost’?!! Better try harder on the next post…

  8. Wow. The photos are spectacular. As are the landscapes. It sounds like quite the adventure. Thanks for the update! I wish I could summon the courage to follow you.

Something to add?