Off The Map In Northern Mongolia — Another Photo Essay

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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.

Horses are losing favour to motorbikes as a form of cross-country private transport in Mongolia, but horsemen are still a fairly common sight.
Soviet relics
The reach of the Soviet Union’s building projects spans an unimaginably large swathe of Eurasia. Relics like this can be found from the Bering Straits to Eastern Europe.
Best campsite ever?
In all my days of wild camping I can’t think of a more idyllic campsite than this. We stayed two nights — why not?
Khovsgol lake's melting ice
It was a dramatic time to be at Khovsgol. The fractured ice was ever-shifting and creaking noisily as it slowly disintegrated. The water was rather chilly but incredibly refreshing. Post-ride swims became the norm for several days.
Sunset over Khovsgol
No caption required here.
Riding cross-country
Riding was always fun, sometimes difficult, occasionally impossible. Adventure cycling doesn’t get much better than this.
Abandoned tourist camp 2
Khovsgol isn’t immune to overzealous construction projects for the annual sprinkling of summer tourists.
The track gets worse
On a scale of bad to good, this track was about average.
Yet another river crossing
No track existed at this point so we just headed downriver. We didn’t know we’d be doing so for the next two days.
Lingering snow on the higher slopes
The landscape here was spectacular and pristine, compared to much of the country which was covered with horse poo and smashed vodka bottles. It’s all relative.
Progress downriver
The valley floor was extremely wide and we meandered as much as the channels of water ever did.
There's a track here somewhere
This, believe it or not, is a route substantial enough to be marked on a 1:2,000,000 sheet map of Mongolia.
Wading through yet more marshland
Coming out of the river valley, our difficulties hadn’t quite finished.
Looking out over the rugged trackless plain
Epic, trackless and endlessly carved through with dry channels, this was our route for another two days.
Waist-deep river crossing
The last major river crossing? we hoped. But we were wrong.
Family gathering
The day ended in stumbling across a family gathering, to which we were enthusiastically invited.
Toasting in Mongolia
Vodka was dished out in all directions for the duration of the afternoon. There were about 30 people at the party. We never did work out what it was for.
Staggeringly drunk
This chap’s day ended prematurely. The sun was still out at 9:30pm and rose again at 5am.
Vodka blur
Understandably, my memory of the day grew more and more blurred as time went on.

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Comments (skip to respond)

9 responses to “Off The Map In Northern Mongolia — Another Photo Essay”

  1. pramod avatar

    Truely awesome photos.…excellent blog

  2. Bayardalai avatar

    Hey,That’s absolutely awesome fotos of my homeland .Where I live and grew up and work now.Fantastic.B
    Bonda Lake Camp Khovsgol lake Khatgal village

  3. Absolutely wonderful photos, Tom. What an experience. I want to go too!

  4. Fantastic! I want to get back on the bike!

    1. My work here is done

  5. Great shots bro

  6. Liz Allen avatar
    Liz Allen

    Brilliant !

  7. Fearghal avatar

    Loving it!

    Great Photo Essay!

    Itchy Feet Inducing.

Something to add?