“I’m not putting my bike on that!” spat Lottie as she looked on horrified at the metal bath tub complete with drunken sailor that served as our only means of crossing the swollen river. We had chosen a small ‘road’ north of the infamously challenging northern route and unfortunately the bridge builders had got bored and finished up after only the first of many river crossings which lay along the route through the mountains of Bulgan Aimag (Mongolian province). This left us with 3 options; turn around and take the main road, ride/push the bikes across, or, hop aboard and keep our fingers crossed. Lottie adamantly strode into the river and once up to her chest in water and on seeing a horse swimming across beside the ‘boat’ conceded option 2. So it was either turn around or take the boat. But here we were, on an adventure in a country so far unparalleled for adventure and what motorcycle adventure would be complete without a dodgy ferry crossing. Just think of the photo opportunity!
All those things that you hear about Mongolia; the great empty expanses, the thunderous rivers, the endless dirt roads, it’s all true and it adds up for a magnificent adventure. With every year, the ribbons of smooth asphalt stretch further from the Capital, Ulaanbaatar (UB) and the prevalence of GPS make the featureless deserts and great plains easier to navigate but it’s still a country that offers the adventure seeker almost limitless opportunities. In the west, the glaciated peaks of the high Altai are still home to snow leopards and ibex and present challenging climbing or remote trekking. In the north, the world’s largest forest, the Taiga, hides ancient tribes and the secrets of Mongolia’s biggest lake by volume, Khovsgol Nuur. In the east, lies an ancient untouched land, sealed off to everyone for centuries, first by the Mongols, and then by the Soviets as the final resting place of Chingis (Genghis) Khan. The south of the country is dominated by the Gobi desert, which harbours awe inspiring geology but very little life. And in the middle of it all lies a knot of mountains and valleys, which expel gushing rivers allowing particularly bold adventure seekers to canoe all the way to arctic (read ‘Lost in Mongolia’)! Even the streets of UB require nerves of steel to negotiate either on foot or by vehicle due to its reckless drivers and manic congestion.
For us the greatest adventure was to be found in the riding on offer and in this respect Mongolia was a near Nirvana. There are 3 main roads traversing Mongolia from UB to the west, imaginatively named; the Northern, Middle and Southern routes. These are in various states of repair but gradually becoming more and more tarmaced. Should one wish to, it is nearly possible to drive from the Altai border in the west to UB and barely dirty their wheels, but stray from these routes and asphalt becomes a rare sight.
It was this that we relished but were also intimidated by. Right from our very arrival in Mongolia we encountered challenging riding as we soon found out that our tyres were utterly useless on snow and ice. Just a few kilometres down the road, our suspension was tested on relentless washboard (rippling of the gravel surface) that forced us to ride faster and faster in order to find a smoother ride as we skipped from bump to bump. Not long after we entered deep sand, then loose gravel, rocky outcrops, narrow gorges, steep valleys and boulder bottomed rivers. Perfectly smooth packed dirt gave way to squishy 4×4 ruts after the storms passed. We raced (and almost ran over) critically endangered Saiga antelope as we powered over lake beds that had the structural integrity of creme brulee.
Our time in Mongolia necessitated that we ride on every surface in the book and quickly helped us overcome the fears associated with them. It wasn’t long before we were playing on sand dunes, shooting rooster tails of mud into the air and eagerly anticipating the next river crossing. In Mongolia we improved our riding skills and learned more about balance, clutch control and road craft than in our previous 7 years of riding. We also fulfilled those adventure motorcycle dreams of forging our own tracks and riding to the top of mountains that no picture can do justice to. It was quite simply magical.
However, Nirvana is earned and our bikes took the brunt of the challenging riding conditions. Our first bike problems arose before we even entered the country as the bikes choked and spluttered over the border, our only explanation the extreme cold (-10°C) and high altitude toying with the carburetor. Next issue was Lotties bike mysteriously expiring as we crossed a semi arid desert. No explanation could be found other than her heavy key rings turning the key around in the ignition! In the middle of the Gobi, under a hot sun, we had our first puncture since leaving Glasgow. 30km down the road the patch failed and Ryan had a chance to once again put Jonny Bunga’s (Glasgow based mechanic and holder of world’s best mechanic award) magic tyre lever to use. Front and rear tyre changes and a further patch failure, enabled Ryan to blossom as a tyre changing hero, barely breaking sweat. After finding a split link in his chain, a replacement was hobbled together from 2 rare, black market Chinese chains of the correct size and a spare bagged for good measure. After only 4000km the new chain was toasted and the spare replaced it, you get what you pay for. He also had opportunity to inspect and clean the inside of his carburetor, TWICE, whilst in the middle of nowhere. The first carb disassembly was due to drowning his bike during an overly confident river crossing and the second disassembly after a minor tumble lodged dirt in the jet and precious fuel poured out without stop!
Mongolia forced us to become expert bodgers. Lotties pannier rack succumbed to the weight of all her knickers and finally broke apart but it was nothing a few expertly placed spanners and cable ties couldn’t hold until the next welder. Ryan also found that he wasn’t able to change gear while negotiating a mountain range due to a broken gear shifter. Second gear would suffice until he could buy a hacksaw blade and make a temporary fix. Every day is a school day when on the road in Mongolia.
It wasn’t just the bikes that took a beating. Our gear and our bodies departed Mongolia battered and bruised also. After a particularly speedy tumble, the straps fastening Ryan’s panniers to his bike broke off and Lottie’s phone was crushed. We are now sleeping on 2 flat rollmats and our heads on deflated pillows. On the same day as Ryan drowned his bike, Lottie tripped over a tent guy line and tore a hole in our tent. We also had to bodge our water filter after we lost its seal, and we replaced 2 waterproof battery boxes. Falls on the ice twisted our ankles badly, falls on the dirt left us with impressive bruises, Gobi sun roasted our skin and mosquitos feasted on our blood as we invaded their desolate homelands. Mongolia is incredible, but takes it toll and is not for the feint hearted.
Our bikes, gear and bodies were not alone in their fight for survival in Mongolia. The countless motionless and decaying corpses surrounding us were testament to the harsh realities of survival on the steppe. Corpses including those of local Mongolians. At one campsite Lottie returned to the tent reporting that she had found a human skull. Used to Lottie’s fallacy and totally unfamiliar with the idea of readily found human remains, Ryan initially dismissed this account as another Lottie fable. Upon seeing the irrevocably human skull with his own eyes Ryan was forced to eat his hat, plead forgiveness and take back everything he had ever said about Lotties bouts of hysteria. It was the American owner of a local cafe, hipster enough to be at home in NYC, that cast light on our morbid campsite discovery. Shamanism/Tengrism was reviving after Soviet oppression and as part of that culture, bodies were not buried but returned to nature by scavenging animals. Wolves, bears, eagles and vultures feed on the remains and thus aid the spirit on its journey to heaven. Most strangely to western custom, the location of the body must be unknown to the relatives as demanded by the societal laws so either the body falls from an unsupervised horse or a volunteers car roof without anybody taking notice. It is therefore not uncommon in more remote corners of this mysterious country to come across human remains, which in the west would initiate police investigations and village ghost stories.
The smorgasbord of animal remains that we encountered only furthered our morbid perspective of Mongolia. Bits of yaks, cows, horses, goats and sheep could all be found in various states of decay either as a result of road kill, slaughter for food, or, natural causes. 2 natural events probably added to the mortality rate; a particularly harsh winter known as a zuud causing widespread starvation, and, an outbreak of highly infectious foot and mouth disease. Oh and did we mention that Mongolia still has annual outbreaks of the same plague that we know as the Black Death, courtesy of its resident marmot population acting as incubators and transmitters for the horrifying disease.
It was the expanding Mongol Empire which is often blamed for bringing the Black Death to Europe. The greatest land empire there has ever been (stretching from modern Indonesia to the borders of Poland and Germany, from the snowy reaches of northern Finland to the hot sands of Arabia and conquering every great civilisation of the era) was ravaged itself by the disease carried by the furry rodents of the steppe. As a nomad people, they built very few permanent structures and therefore, as we rode through their country, there was very little for us to see to say they ever existed. However, it is thanks to the vision and laws of Chingis Khan and his successors that the world was given its first rapid postal service, diplomatic immunity safeguarded overseas missions and free education was rolled out to the masses. Without doubt the Mongols were fearsome warriors and some of their tactics were obscenely violent, but they were also purveyors of the arts, tolerant of all religions and catalysts of truly global trade. Never before or since had trade passed as freely and securely along the Silk Roads than when under control of the Mongols.
To be the home of just one Empire is impressive enough, but Mongolia is also believed to be home of the Scythians, Huns (think Atilla who marched his war elephants on Rome) and Uighurs all of whom had empires spanning out across huge tracts of Eurasia. With all of this history we found it a little disappointing how little remains for the casual visitor. The huge Capital of the Mongols, Kharkhorin, was long ago ravaged so that only a temple foundation now remains courtesy of some German archaeological excavations. The stones of the city walls were used in the construction of Mongolia’s largest and most important Buddhist Monastery, Erdene Zuu, but like most other monasteries in the country, the Soviets all but dismantled it in the 1930’s to crush any possible nests of uprising.
However, the rarity of visible remains did mean that we were particularly appreciative of those that do still exist and made extra effort to visit them. 20 bridgeless river crossings were involved in reaching Gurvan Tsenkherin Agui, a cave system which houses 15,000 year old ancient paintings. 4m tall, intricately carved Deer Stones demanded a 40km search along Khannui valley but blew us away when we found them still standing unmolested after 3000 years of punishing winters and baking summers. Lottie became an eagle-eyed bronze age burial cairn spotter pointing out dozens scattered along remote valleys and even spied third century BC Turkic Babals high in the Kharkhiraa Turgen mountains as we drove through them.
Although Mongolia may not be rich in physical artefacts, plenty of traditional culture still exists even in this rapidly modernising country. The ger is a great example of this; almost unchanged in its construction of wooden lattices, wrapped in felt cloth, with a dung fuelled fire in the middle. Many families still chose to live in these mobile tents even when settled in towns and cities, but now most gers commonly house; TVs, computers, telephones and even karaoke machines. Sumptuously decked out in chintzy Chinese made fabrics, they still have an open door policy to passing nomads and saddle sore bikers who need food and shelter.
Nomadic shepherding too is still thriving with grazing animals far outnumbering the Mongolian population. However we more commonly saw nomads herding their animals on cheap Chinese motorcycles whilst still wearing their traditional Mongolian deels.
The annual Mongolian holiday festival of Nadaam was a great opportunity to observe traditional Mongolian customs as whole families dressed up in matching deels to cheer on their favourite wrestlers, horseback archers and child jockeys. Mongolian khoshor, (battered beef pancakes) were eaten by the plateful and washed down by urns of airag (fermented mare’s milk) before the evening recital of traditional Mongolian ballads performed by local divas entertained the masses. Much more to our taste was Tserendavaa, a traditional khoomei (throat singer) who we found in an isolated village who was kind enough to give us a private concert and even a lesson on playing the traditional 2 stringed steppe instrument, the Morin khuur. Despite his best efforts, we’re a long way off playing anything resembling a tune.
Mongolia also marked our furthest extremis from home of our travels. Just east of UB lies a monumental statue of Chingis Khan and it was here that for the first time in 15 months that we pointed our bikes west and towards home. Mixed emotions flooded our heads as we were simultaneously excited at the prospect of seeing family and friends, but sad that we would not be seeing anything of the exotic lands further east. Questions of where we would live, what we would do and how we would cope with the routine of normal life arose and gave us the look of people with much greater, actual problems on their minds. But with 4 months of riding still in front of us, we resolved to put those worries to the back of our minds and focus on the present. There was still so much to see even before we left Mongolia!
With over 1.5 million square kilometers, there is a lot of Mongolia and therefore space for a lot of amazing scenery to explore. As we moved through the land we passed through countless different landscapes. There were the typical lush grassy plains dotted with gers and grazing animals which adorn every Mongolian postcard and barren dusty scrub were somehow nomads convinced their goats to eat dust. We rode through rolling hills lined with conifers and followed narrow gorges which cut through desolate rocky mountains. We camped by shining silver lakes and crossed dodgy bridges over white frothing rivers. In the distance we spied pristine white snow covered peaks and then cut our way through lush summer flower meadows, a dense tangle of life and colour. It was a photographers dream yet photos could never capture the true scale or beauty of what surrounded us.
It was also interesting to reflect on how we felt in these different environments. The harsh, dry, lifeless climate of the Gobi and other arid areas intimidated us immensely. Shade and water were near constant concerns as well as the question as to how long we would survive if something were to go wrong. In contrast, we felt so much more relaxed when in the mountain environ where green trees and flowing water made us feel at home and soothed any worries even if we were very remote and isolated from civilisation.
We experienced great variety in the weather also which again had huge effect on our mood. At -10°C, nothing else mattered other than finding shelter and getting off the terrifying frozen roads. At 38°C the draining heat made us hot and bothersome with tempers on ever shortening fuses. We watched amazed from our tent as huge electrical storms danced across the sky but got bored and irritable after a day stuck in the tent waiting for the rain to stop. Like all Brits, sunny days were never taken for granted and we couldn’t have been happier than when riding under crisp blue skies dotted with dreamy fluffy white clouds.
In general, Mongolia is an overlanders dream. Infinite camping opportunities resulted in us staying in only 3 hostels during our 2 month stay. Clean drinking water was easily found in every small town either from a spring or pumped well. Despite probably not having basic running water to its houses, every village had 4G internet coverage and many shops would accept card payments. Most villages would also have their own bathhouse, complete with double showers hence answering the question on everybody’s lips, how do you make babies when sharing a tent with your granny?!?
However, we were also left a little disappointed by Mongolia in a few ways which some may disagree with but others will share. Firstly its much more expensive to travel in than other central Asian countries we have visited. Food and fuel are imported and this cost is naturally passed on to the consumer. Second, the food is every bit as bad as you have heard. Vegetarians will seriously struggle and variety is near non-existent. Lastly and perhaps most controversially we were disappointed by the hospitality. Although we never had a nasty experience, we also didn’t have many great experiences with local Mongolians who we found rather more quiet and stand-offish than their central Asian neighbours. On finding our campsite or coming across us parked up outside their local shop, many Mongolians would stop what they were doing, take up a comfortable squat position and simply stare. Communication was abrupt to non-existent and even when it was obvious they knew some English, it would not be uncommon for them to refuse or not want to use it. Unquestionably, the language barrier is our fault, we do not expect anybody to know our language in their country and perhaps we were just getting familiar enough with Russian to allow better experiences in Kazakhstan etc. Perhaps also hospitality is a relative thing and recently we have been spoiled by amazing experiences in Kazakhstan and Russia. However, perhaps it’s just that like our experience in Kyrgyzstan, tourism has a darkside and that like all parents we just have favourites! Needless to say, we met lots of lovely people who were kind and generous and we are by no means wanting to put anyone off exploring this amazing country.
So to summarise, it’s a gargantuanly large country with more adventure hidden away inside it than is possible for 2 people to adequately explore in 2 life times nevermind 2 months. It is a country beyond photogenic, enough to render the humble camera useless. It has aeons of history that still require the interested visitor to dig around for the story and not just hop on a bus tour. It is a country alive and still thriving on millennia old nomadic culture and tradition yet welcomes technology and innovation which will improve its prospects with an open door like every ger on the steppe to wandering nomads. And finally, it will be one of the most rewarding countries for you to explore by foot, horse, bike or car but be well prepared to take a beating for it.