Mongolia - part of the New Frontier; certainly for motorbikes. While tourism is expanding, especially since the unravelling of the USSR, which brought independence to the previously tightly-controlled Soviet vassal state, the Mongolian People’s Republic, there are still many sparsely trodden tracts. This applies most of all in western Mongolia; and that’s where the Mongolia Tour took place.
Probably, the main if not the only images that spring to mind at the mention of Mongolia are vaguely imagined hordes of well-armed, horse-riding warriors charging across the endless steppes of Central Asia, golden in the sunset of tribes and cities they trample under hoof and foot; and with a fierce and intimidating Lucifer-like figure at their helm.
In the days of the USSR, Genghis Khan didn’t get a look-in at all; as though he never existed. Not surprisingly, given his role in subjugating most of present day Russia. However, with Mongolia’s new-found freedom, he’s been elevated to the highest national pedestals of reverence and homage. There’s not much that’s not called after him!
As hugely significant as it was, the mighty empire established by Genghis Khan and expanded enormously by his grandson Kubilai Khan is only part of the history of Mongolia. Long before the Mongols appeared, clans, tribes and various ethnic alliances ebbed and flowed across today’s Mongolia and spawned the Turkic people who would spread into Central Asia and Asia Minor culminating in the creation of empires across India, Arabia, the Middle East and North Africa; as well as other ethnic groups who fled westwards transforming themselves into the Vandals, Goths and Huns that brought down the Roman Empire and conquered much of Europe’s steppes and cities.
What we traversed, encountered and became immersed in during our stay in Mongolia was the life and terrain that produced the elements from which so much of Mongolia’s history was formed. Thankfully, a few of us preceded the motorbike tour with a three day venture to Genghis Khan’s capital of Karakorum and the Orkhon Valley – the homeland of successive ruling tribes; followed by a full day in Ulaanbaatar. This aspect of the tour broadened appreciation of much of Mongolia’s culture and history; and provided a valuable balance to the narrower focus of the bike part of the tour. The Karakorum/Orkhon Valley/Ulaanbaatar segment is described here under Non-Motorcycle Meanders.
Map of the Tour
Here’s a map of the tour route (roughly). The lines that Google Maps mark as a “road” are indicative at best. Sometimes when you zoom in, you can make out tracks; sometimes they just don’t seem to be there. My red line sometimes follows the Google line; at other times there’s not even a Google line! On many occasions we rode up valleys across the open steppe with no trace of a track to be seen.
You can click on the coloured square in bottom left corner to toggle between map and satellite modes. Clicking inside the four small right angles in top right corner will take you to the bigger map on the Google Maps site.
Guide to the Tour
I usually prepare guide of varying scope and quality for meanders abroad. They are all of very different structures and lengths reflecting the idiosyncrasies of each tour. This one focuses initially on Western Mongolia, where we would be riding; and then provides a bit of history to provide a feel for and insight into the evolution of the Mongolian Steppes (the “steppes” being the vast grassland plains stretching from Europe to Asia, for the most part below the forests and above the deserts and mountains). In fact, much of it is perhaps more pertinent to the four days spent prior to the motorbike segment.
The tour, which was undertaken with Extreme Bike Tours, started in the town of Uliastai nestled in the western foothills of Mongolia’s second biggest mountain range – the Khangai Mountains. We flew there and met up with our bikes – Royal Enfield Bullets – all set to go at our already established camp site just out of town.
The camp, which was replicated every night, consisted of a kitchen tent, mess tent, toilet tent and individual sleeping tents. A support team of some nine personnel with four vehicles ensured the camp operated effectively and meals were cooked and served.
We first headed North West partly along tracks and partly over open steppe to the small Black Lake (Khar Nuur). Then North East to the town of Telmen before finding a camp site nearby. Heading further west, we encountered the Great Lakes Depression – a vast area of semi-arid and desert country with lots of sand, dirt tracks and shrubs. There wasn’t much by way of roads – even gravel roads – as we know them. It was mostly a myriad of tracks and non-tracks that are chosen randomly by drivers past.
As the name suggests, the Great Lakes Depression includes spectacular lakes. We camped on the shores of Khyargas Lake (Khyagas Nuur). We still had semi-desert riding south until we reached the provincial city of Khovd. From there the tour had us climb into the highest and largest of Mongolia’s mountain ranges – the Altai. We camped by Lake Tolbo before ending up in the far western Mongolian town of Olgii or Ulgii (depends on transliteration!). This is Kazakh country: the majority ethnic group and language is Kazakh, a spill-over from the almost neighbouring Kazakhstan. It was then a flight back to Ulaanbaatar.
Movie of the Tour
Now that you’ve studied the map, read the guide and absorbed the overview, you’re ready to watch the movie! I could wish! Anyway, here is my movie of the tour. Hope you enjoy it.
On arrival at Uliastai, our first task was to get acquainted with our bikes and take a short run into town for a bit of sightseeing and purchase of last minute supplies. Beer and vodka were the obvious options for evening relaxation!
Next morning it was break camp and begin the saga – without really knowing what was in store for us beyond a few general descriptions.
Introduction to Western Mongolia
Over the first few days riding, we became more aware of this amazing country. This is western Mongolia. It is stark and remote, mostly bare of tress, with a mix of open steppe, hills and rocky outcrops, and semi-desert. Even in the more fertile parts, large sand dunes with wide sandy grasslands surround the partly ice-covered lakes. We encountered isolated gers (yurts) with the family livestock nearby or being watched by a lone nomad on his pony. Finding one’s way in this terrain was a challenge even for our Mongolian guide and support team. There were lots of stopping to talk to local nomads and discussions amongst our crew to determine which valley we should head for. There were no roads as such; and a lot of our riding was across open grasslands dodging the plentiful rocks and marmot holes that hide in the low covering grass. Battling the edges of the dunes at our first camp at Khar Lake was our initial introduction to sand; but there was more to come in the thick drifts in the wheel ruts of the “roads”. After only the first three days, we were down to only three who hadn’t come unstuck in the sand somewhere or other. I’d managed to have four meetings with sand. We also faced our first river crossing. That was a fun challenge. Nobody dropped a bike but a few got very wet feet. I regarded keeping my feet firmly on the pegs all the way across as some small compensation for the several drops in other circumstances.
Great Lakes Depression
The next stage was making our way along wheel tracks and over grasslands heading roughly north-west to meet up with the main “highway” heading west. The main “highway”, which could reasonably be described as a ten or so carriageway, was, in reality, a confusing maze of wheel tracks spread across a few hundred metres and constantly crisscrossing one another. Soon after reaching it, we stopped at the town of Songnio to refuel and stock up on supplies in anticipation of three days without any permanent habitation. Got lots of attention from the local folk, especially the kids. We were obviously items of great curiosity.
It wasn’t too far further west that we entered the Great Lakes Depression. This is a vast areas of semi-arid desert. In fact, it’s regarded as a northern extension of the Great Gobi Desert. The terrain changed from the thicker vegetation of the rolling grasslands with a firm soil base to a much flatter, sandy base with a thin scattering of short struggling grass. Close up, the grass barely camouflaged the sandy base, but at a distance the ground had a vaguely yellow hue. The maze of wheel tracks reflected the desert terrain, with an ample supply of loose sand particularly in the deeper ruts. The tracks varied in their firmness of compacted sand, some road base of sorts at times and treacherous sand. There were lots of times when riding on the thinly grassed sand base beside the tracks was a better option. We final headed away from the “road” to make camp for the night in the lee of close-by hills. The day was a good one for me: the first of our ride days that I didn’t drop my bike.
From our camp site, we took a short cut by heading over the ridge behind the camp and across the semi-desert, sandy, thinly grassed terrain until we could re-join the “highway”. That worked, but the initial climb over the ridge presented deeper and looser sand than the flat country, making the first five minutes of the ride an unexpected challenge, with lots of sudden paddling through the sand to get to the ridge. The next section was back on the multi-tracked highway constantly having to make a call as to which track might be more manageable. After several falls in deep sandy sections of the tracks, a few of us (less experienced) applied an increased alertness to the tell-tale change in track colour that might herald sand.
The unexpected surprise of the ride this day was the sudden appearance of tarmac as we approached the large salt water Khyargas Lake. It was a pleasant surprise and a welcome relief for the rest of the day. No sooner had we reached the bitumen, we stopped for lunch, which we could comfortably have in the middle of the road – undisturbed over an hour and a half. The bitumen took us to a point along the north shore of the lake for the night’s camp. An opportunity for a full body wash and an afternoon enjoying the lake view.
South to Khovd
It was a long day today but not all riding. We woke to a savage westerly that was proceeding to dismantle the camp before we could intervene. Although we had planned for a late start the wind forced us to break camp ahead of schedule. The first 50km was on the bitumen road riding at an awry angle struggling with the wind. Then the turn off to head for the night’s destination. The next 30-40km was across open semi-desert whose base alternated between fine shale, sand and a mixture of both. The fine shale was deepish and loose, competing with sand to be the most challenging and tiring experience. Then followed sections of decomposed granite, soil, sandy loam, grass, rocks…and whatever! The wind kept up and was later supplemented by some decent rain. We stopped at the small village of Olgii (not to be confused with our final destination) and took over a tiny “Tea House” where the support team prepared a very welcome lunch where we could dry out and regain some warmth. The nearby Olgii Lake (Uvsiin Khar Us Lake on the map) was our intended destination but the wind drove us to the shelter of a string of rocky outcrops where we found a protected meadow amongst the towering granite walls. Fortuitously, the wind and rain dissipated and the sun highlighted the idyllic setting of our intended camp site.
As has become inevitable whenever we stop, nomads appear on motorbikes or horses either out of curiosity or to welcome us to their patch. On this occasion, still relatively early in the afternoon, what soon emerged was an invitation to a nomad family in the adjacent valley. We were welcomed into their family ger (yurt) with their freshly produced Yak yogurt followed by a long discussion about their lifestyle. That was after a climb to the rocky peaks surrounding the camp. Another exhausting but satisfying day!
The next day started with a ride across the semi-semi-desert steppe past grazing Bactrian camels and a lone herder with his goats until we reached the “highway’ south. More multi intersecting sandy tracks were to be the order of the day. It was mostly an uneventful ride until about the middle of the day. I went a little wide on a gentle enough right hand turn and (sensibly) traversed the mound of loose sandy gravel always present along the edges of the tracks. That wasn’t a problem. Going cross country for a while is sometimes a better option than the wheel tracks; and, in this case, I could see the tracks winding back to the left. What I didn’t see until it was too late was a deep culvert between me and my intended re-entry point. I remember thinking that the bike was sure to hit the far bank of the culvert and send me flying beyond it. Miraculously, the bike emerged from the culvert with me still on it. Later measurements confirmed it was air borne for 4m before landing, proceeding some several metres further and tumbling, tossing me off in a way that had me land upside-down to the extent that the GoPro camera was ripped off the helmet and tossed aside. I came to rest on my back a short distance from the bike. I was happy to stay put for several minutes. No real harm done to me apart from a gash to the shin. But the day would get worse. Two of us got separated from the main group (some of the diverging and converging tracks can be kilometres apart). That meant a cross country run over particularly soft, rock-strewn, thorn bush covered sand to re-join them. Apart from dropping the bike once, it was an exhausting escapade. To add insult to injury, mental and physical exhaustion contributed to later bring me undone in the soft mounded verges of the tracks. I decided to call it a day and retired to one of the support vans with a very sore ankle. We were only about 40kms short of our camp site for the night, where I was caringly looked after by the support team; and greatly benefited from and appreciated the ministrations of George of MP who worked his pharmacy magic on me.
Hobbling somewhat in the morning from the fun of the day before and feeling that my head wasn’t quite in the right place (metaphorically speaking), I decided to take at least a half day out; and possibly a full day. So I enjoyed the company of one of the drivers, Bagi, who had already established a reputation for his ultraloud pop music. I hadn’t previously heard of “I’m a Barbie Girl” – and something about partying, undressing anywhere, the United Nations, Ken. It seemed all the more incongruous as we passed shines on the side of the road, which Bagi would devoutly acknowledge by an upturned palm facing the shrine while the music blared – it might have been “Hotel California” by then!
We had camped just 30km short of the provincial capital of Khovd where we refuelled the bikes and vans. I ended up enjoying a lot more of Bagi’s music as he ferried petrol back to Gamba’s Russian “Furgon” 4x4 “go anywhere” van. As it turned out, the main group, after a visit to the local market in Khovd, set up lunch within the remnants of the Manchurian garrison dating back to days when the Chinese Empire regained lost “possessions” from the Mongols and exerted control over much of the Mongolian Steppes. There’s not much left of it.
By lunch time I was in a much better frame of mind; and discovered, having got a boot on my somewhat swollen ankle in the morning that it felt so much better when I did the ankle and calf locking clips up. So it was back on the bike for the ride out of Khovd and into the foothills of the Altai Mountains. – Mongolia’s highest mountain range. I had missed only 30km of riding. Despite being assured that the sand had ended, the foothill ridges and plateaus had lots of sandy sections in the early parts. By the time we reached a river flat to camp the night – just sort of the climb into the main mountain range – the road had become mostly gravel and firmly packed soil. I remember thinking: mercifully it might stay that way.
The Altai Mountains
It was now time to head into the Altai Mountains proper. I had been expecting something akin to crossing the Himalayas but without the same altitude. The twisting gravely road was similar but the pass we crossed was barely discernible except for the vista of distant snow-covered peaks, the valley plateauing out in front and the road snaking its way across it. That was a unique spectacle for our tour so far. A couple of decent-sized water crossings added some additional excitement to the day. While sand was minimal, the gravel road base was loose, constantly shifting and heavily corrugated – interspersed with deeply trenched and sharply undulating hard-packed clay or dirt. The two prominent characteristics of the ride were the need for vigilant concentration and unforgiving shuddering. I found the day pretty tough. In contrast to the first half or more of the trip when at the end of every day I was fresh and chirpy, over these later days I was finding that I was absolutely dead-beat. So, it was a great relief to get to the camp site, which a few of us with a couple of the vans, having lost sight of the main group at some stage, eventually “found” tucked away behind a promontory into Lake Tolbo. Once again we had a spectacular camp site.
Finally, the last ride day dawned. I’d have to confess that I felt somewhat relieved; but careful not to be over confident until I see the sun set in Olgii – our final destination. One of the ‘payments’ for our spectacular camp sites was the sometimes devious and arduous access. Last night’s site was right up there with side-sloping, river-stoned wheel tracks round a promontory jutting to the lake’s edge. Having retraced that part, it was then a run across the open steppe to the main road, which had turned to bitumen a few kilometres before we turned off to camp the night before.
It was an easy 50km run into Olgii on the bitumen road. Of course, there was the inevitable “access to camp site” challenge to end the ride. This time our site was just beyond the town by the fast-flowing Khovd River which had been far more genteel when we crossed it in Khovd a couple of days back.
I was pleased to have rested the bike at our final camp site feeling that I had accomplished the goal of riding across the wilds of Western Mongolia. But the day was still young. A plan quickly developed to visit some eagle hunters in the neighbouring countryside. That would be an 80-100km round trip. That was a very welcome proposal but as far as I was concerned, my bike wasn’t moving – at least with me on it. So I opted to make the trip with Bagi and his Barbie Girl music. Good call on my part: the roads out and back were as bad as we had encountered on the tour.
Kazakh Eagle Hunters
The family we met were still in their winter home – a solid wood construction. They would soon move to their summer ger higher in the hills. Their hospitality was overwhelming. First, a table of mixed goodies, followed by a meal of their cooked-up dried mutton. They dry their meat and keep it for several weeks before cooking it as needed.
Far western Mongolia – essentially the province of Bayan-Olgii where we ended our tour – is populated predominantly by Kazakh people who have their own (Kazakh) language and culture. They are also Muslim who practise their religion in their own private and unostentatious way. While today’s international borders separate them from Kazakhstan by a thin sliver of Russia, there would have been a time before super power (in this case Russia and China) interests drew borders with scant consideration of ethnic affiliations. One of the lasting Kazakh traditions in western Mongolia – now lost even in Kazakhstan – is eagle hunting (the eagles being the hunters NOT the hunted).
While the trip to find the family we were being taken to was long and arduous (less so for me in Bagi’s van), the great surprise and joy was to discover we were visiting the very family that had featured in recent international attention to this tradition of eagle hunting. The head of the family is Aisholpan who is a renowned eagle hunter with national and international prizes in the skill as well as in falconry. It was his then 13-year-old daughter who had been written up in the media; and about whom I had posted on the Motorcycle meanders facebook page last November (18 Nov 2014). She is also called by the same name. In between being hosted to their hospitality, we met his newest eagle. The whole visit was a unique treat. Here is write-up on her and other hunters from my previous posting on it.