We all the know the story. Charley and Ewan rode the long way round, and on their travels, they crossed Mongolia. A strange land of desolate fields and never-ending water crossings. A country of nomadic people, living then as they had done in a harsh environment for several thousand years, undisturbed by the western world.
Like so many fellow adventure bike travelers, it was this story that left an image imprinted on my mind that I couldn’t let go of. I had to see it for myself. I put it on my wish list of places to go and got on with life. Until last year, when I found myself out of work and I asked myself the question, if not now, when? So, it was set, I would ride solo from London to Mongolia and live my dream of seeing this beautiful country.
With little off-road experience, I realized that I would be foolish to attempt to cross Mongolia on my own, so I joined a group to face the challenging terrain. First though I needed to cross the border from Russia to Mongolia with my motorcycle, a process that became almost comical after 7 hours of returning to the same border building more than a dozen times to receive unknown stamps and tickets, none of which appeared to serve any purpose other than to make the crossing as bureaucratic and painful as possible. Once through, you pull up to the small demountable hut selling insurance, a requirement to drive on the roads; this proved to be quick and rather cheap in comparison to the local insurance I had purchased in Russia.
Within kilometers of crossing the border, the landscape changes dramatically. The stark, bare land seems so foreign as you search in vain for a single tree on the horizon. The tundra is blanketed in green and purple velvet grasses which roll on endlessly. Without so much as a fencepost in sight, it dawns on you; this is freedom.
The main road from the Eastern border down to Ulaanbaatar is in surprisingly good condition, fuel readily available and the descent into the capital, unlike anything I had imagined. The single-lane road gave way to 4 lane motorways and congested traffic. The roads filled with second hand Toyota Prius everywhere you looked. They have no concern for the environment, throwing garbage out of the windows as they drive along, but the cars were everywhere.
Highrise apartment blocks, international hotel chains, exclusive rooftop bars, and restaurants. This was not the Mongolia I had dreamt of. Thankfully it was only the start point, and with the fellow riders and crew together, we rode out of the city into the wilds of Mongolia.
With strong economic growth coming from the abundant natural resources to be found in this relatively untouched land, there is major road construction across the entire width of the country. Within a year or two, travelers will be able to traverse it without leaving the smooth tarmac. That’s not what we were here for though and after a day of heavy rain, we left the sealed road and ventured towards the mini Gobi dessert.
The heaviest rains in over 100 years had turned the dirt track to our first night’s camp into a clay mess. Skating our way across the ice like mud, we managed to mostly get there in one piece and experience our first night’s hospitality of the Mongolian locals. Sleeping in traditional yurts complete with log burning fires. While the day had been warm, the nights out on the open plains were surprisingly cold despite it being the middle of summer.
A good night’s rest was broken by an eerie silence. A horse grazed just outside of the thin yurt walls, its breath and the munching of grass the only sounds to be heard. Stoking the fire, I opened the door and was greeted with a wall of thick white fog.
After a somewhat chaotic breakfast in the main yurt, we set off, the sun still a long way from making an appearance. Heading towards the mountains, they peaked through the low-lying clouds, seeming to part as we rode through endless valleys, creating one of the most magical landscapes I have ever seen. The hum of the engines the only sound breaking the silence. The feeling of total isolation was profound and an experience I will never forget.
One of the main draw cards of the unique Mongolian landscape is the ability to quite literally ride wherever you like. There are no fences, no division of land, not a single gate to open or close. Riding with such a sense of freedom, following crisscrossing tracks into the horizon, is bound to bring a smile to any motorcyclist’s face.
As the afternoon wore on, riding across the steppes, the sun disappeared behind menacing dark clouds in the distance. As thunder clapped and lightning danced across the sky, it was a race against the clock to make it to camp before the storm took hold.
With the air thick and clouds ready to give way at any moment, it was not going to be a comfortable ride to the camp for one reason, deep river crossings. Some were merely streams, others, much deeper. Unfortunately, the last couple of crossings caused several riders to become stuck in rushing waters. With engines flooded and needing significant attention, the group pushed on to the camp through slippery mud to arrive early evening.
The two bikes and riders that had succumbed to the water crossings arrived much later with one needing to be towed in by rope behind the support car. This would be the cause of our very late departure the following day as mechanical repairs went late into the morning.
The clouds cleared after heavy rain during dinner, the sky revealed its spectacular stars so rarely seen by us city dwellers. With the fire going, the inside of the yurt was unbearably hot, but less than a minute outside star gazing was enough to have you running inside shivering.
As bikes were brought back to life the following morning, the remainder of the group took the chance to ride on and see Orkhon waterfall. It isn’t as spectacular as those found in the European Alps, but with wild horses grazing and the endless green landscape, it was still worth a visit.
With the bikes now been fixed, we rode into the water-logged plains via a rocky detour in an attempt to avoid the rising rivers. With thick mud causing more than half of us to go down, including myself. The day was challenging with slippery conditions and rivers being higher than expected. Arriving at the second last crossing for the day, it was obvious it was going to be dangerous. Fast flowing water, more than knee-high, this was going to be tough. The guides and members of the group walked the river to assess it, and although it was going to be treacherous, with people holding the bikes up as they crossed, it should have been ok.
Unfortunately, this time my bike was the causality as the lead rider jumped on and took off across the river without waiting for the support of the team standing in the river. The force of the raging waters pushed both rider and the bike over, and in a second, it was completely submerged.
With rain starting to fall, the rest of the group rode on towards camp while we stayed on the river bank to administer some urgent mechanical attention. Although the bike did cough reluctantly back to life after a bit of coaxing, water had made its way into the oil meaning it had to be drained.
After two oil changes, a new air filter, dried spark plugs and the sun setting after four hours of work, it was time to head the last 5km to camp. That is, after one last deep river crossing.
Arriving at 10 pm, the group gave us a warm welcome at dinner and plenty of stories were swapped from an epic day’s ride. The roaring fire dried soaked boots and riders, ready for yet another challenging day to come.
The rained had pounded the yurts throughout the night and the morning sun shone on a lake of mud and puddles. Sliding our way out of the camp gates we immediately climbed into the hills. With the sun helping to dry the tracks, the day was a fun and challenging ride over mountains towards our first lake camp.
Fun that is until one final very steep hill to climb. For some reason unknown to myself, the guide stopped at the bottom of the hill meaning all momentum was lost before we even started to climb. The ‘tracks’ were heavily rutted and there was no easy path to the top. Concentrating on picking the right line I left it too late to change gears and down I went.
Sliding on my back down the hill I had no option but to wait for help. Once the cavalry arrived, I hopped back on and rode into the setting sun towards our lakeside camp. The lake was beautiful however we weren’t the only ones to think so. To my absolute horror, it was also home to millions of spiders. As someone who suffers from arachnophobia, it doesn’t get much worse than that.
After a sleepless night, I was more than happy to be up early and leave. Rocky terrain and gravel roads were a large part of the day as we headed deep into remote central Mongolia to stay on the open plains. Arriving into camp early with the sun still high above us, the group took the opportunity to relax and enjoy our total isolation. With no showers, this was the most primitive of all the camps we stayed in, but the pristine environment and serenity more than made up for it.
The host family had slaughtered one of its free-range sheep for our dinner, and we ate nose to tail, with a starter of soup made from bones and off cuts. This was followed by a traditional Mongolian BBQ of meat and vegetables cooked in broth by the heat of stones from a camp fire.
The smoky flavor was intense but simple as the ingredients were the heroes of the meal. For those game enough to try it, the final course was intestines and blood sausages cooked over charcoal. The hospitality was wonderful, and it was easily one of the best experiences of the trip.
We were told to be up early, ready for a long day and that turned out to be more accurate than anyone had anticipated. The morning’s ride took us back onto tarmac and gravel roads, so we made good time as we headed further west. That is, until we reached the sand. Our destination was Khyargas Lake, which translated means, hard to get to.
With a few spills in the thick sand I thought it would eventually get better, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The backup car had a flat tire and had become bogged meaning the mechanic and lead rider left the group to help, only to blow a tire himself on the way. As the sun bore down on the desert like landscape and stress levels rose, one of the group succumbed to dehydration and had to be packed into an already over-crowded local car to make it to camp, still another 30kms away.
That left the remainder of us to try and choose our own paths through the thick sand, with varying degrees of success. After my third big crash, I realized I had bent the handle bars, making control of the bike almost impossible. Three of us chose a path that led into impassable dunes meaning we had no option but to turn back.
As we tried to inch our way through, stopping to help each other pick up dropped bikes or dig our way out of being bogged, exhaustion and dehydration set in. More than four hours after we had entered the sand, with the sun was going down, we had another painstaking 5km to ride.
As we crossed the last few km into camp, the sky was ablaze with the most beautiful crimson sunset. I found myself still being able to take in the beauty of the moment despite the hardships of the afternoon. We arrived tired and dirty but with no backup car in sight and no one being able to make contact with the driver or mechanic, it looked like no one was getting their luggage anytime soon.
Waking to the view of the white marble cliffs over the enormous blue lake it felt like it had almost been worth the effort, almost. Taking a dip in the fresh cool water was an invigorating way to start the day after such an ordeal.
With the previous days’ disaster fresh in our minds and the only way out being the way we came, it was organized for a local truck driver to take the bikes back to the gravel. I for one was incredibly happy to be sitting in the back of the 4wd going back through the sand.
Back on firm ground today’s surprise was a night in a hotel. Although it was simple, having a shower and toilet within a few meters reach was pure luxury. We all celebrated at the restaurant with a huge meal before our final days ride together the following day.
Of course, there was to be no easy ride in and the rocky hill climb that seemed to last an eternity was just the start of it. I charged my way through, and by the time we were at the top, the scenery changed dramatically once again. Although the hard-packed earth was red in color, it felt as though we had come across a salt plain, each of us spreading out to make the most of the firm flat surface. Racing our way to the other side, things once again turned for the worst as more sand lay in wait.
I think I can safely say that riding in sand is not one of my skills and while trying to keep the momentum I caught my front wheel and had a spectacular crash at 70km an hour. Hitting the sand side on and being stuck under the bike I was afraid to move in case I had broken something. Thankfully I was intact, my bike once again with bent handle bars. A quick straighten up at lunch and I gingerly rode the final 100km’s across the gravel alongside a beautiful river into our final camp.
The east to west crossing had taken us across more than 2,000km of northern Mongolia. With the unusual rain event it was a tough ride, something that I am glad I didn’t attempt alone. Our final destination was the small town of Uglii on the far west only 100km south of the Russian border.
Mongolia had certainly provided the off the grid ride I had been hoping for. The untamed terrain is not for the inexperienced off-road rider and precautions should be taken to ensure a safe journey if you plan to leave the tarmac.
- Spares should be carried for tires
· Two air filters in case of high river crossings
· Oil is required if a bike is submerged and contaminated. As is an oil filter
· Fuel contamination can be an issue; filter socks won’t stop the very fine silt from entering the engine. Take a spare fuel filter for this reason
· Cash should be carried for food and fuel supplies
- Maps Me works exceptionally well, even on the off-road tracks