No journey across Mongolia on a bicycle is complete without sand. While my fat tires writhe through it, it sticks to me like a second layer of skin. Then, add rocks and washboarding to the mix – these are Mongolia’s tracks. While my route from Tsetserleg to Ulaangom wasn’t all off-road, I was able to experience a solid 600km of it. My journey along the tracks began north of Tariat via the stunning Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (White Lake). Up until the Tariat, the scenery was equally gorgeous.
The road itself was long and lonely, with often only the yaks to keep my company.
The camping is also lonely yet wonderful as the barren ribbons of road.
The road continuously climbed and descended through the mountains. Mountain passes are often marked by ovoos, a shamanistic offering to tengers, the sky gods. These large piles of rocks and sticks are wrapped with blue scarves, representing the sky. The gods are honoured by flicking drop of vodka into the air before drinking.
The landscape changed as I approached the Chuulut River Gorge and wound my way along a track through a wooded area.
Then, coming out of the gorge, a familiar beast once again reared its ugly head – wind! The headwinds blew relentlessly for the rest of the day, greatly slowing my speed to Tariat. In fact, the next couple of days provided me with enough wind to blow me all the way back to Ulaanbaatar. About 25km before Tariat, I met Estelle and Thomas, a French newlywed couple on a year-long honeymoon cycling around the world. You can follow their adventures at www.intothewheel.com. Shortly after, the pavement disappeared, and for the next 600km, Dozer the bike would be tasting dirt.
When I ride into a town in Mongolia, I am immediately the centre of attention. Everyone wants to know more about the strange foreign woman on the bicycle. Men and women on motorbikes will slowly trail me, hyper children shout “hello! hello!. Often they will follow me, stare, laugh and throw questions at me that I seldom understand.
The route to Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur started off with the crossing a lava field of an extinct volcano. The ride was incredibly rocky and felt like I was riding a jackhammer the whole way.
A nice man on a motorbike saw me riding and let me follow him the whole way to the lake, ensuring I didn’t get lost (it was pretty obvious). The lake was a spectacular sight and I enjoyed a great night camping right on its shore.
The next day, the real fun began. I skirted the Northern edge of the lake along a faint sandy track that would occasionally disappear into a small creek or bog. Sometimes I would have to remove my shoes and push the bike across ice cold creeks.
Leaving the lake, I entered a wide valley and experienced the worst winds of the trip. I decided to stop for my usual lunch of bread peanut butter to build up my energy stores for the grind ahead. I was joined by a man and his horse, who sat down with me to chat as I shared my bread with him (peanut butter didn’t appeal).
He couldn’t quite understand my insanity as I mounted my bike and fought to stay upright against the wind. Soon after, I was followed by a young guy on a motorbike that inquired where I was sleeping for the night. When I said I was carrying a tent, he asked if I was looking for someone to share that tent with. I said no. He rode away. Five minutes later he sped back. He inquired again just to make sure he had heard correctly. I once again confirmed that I was not looking for a tent companion and he eventually left laughing, acknowledging my rejection. That night I was beyond exhausted. The wind had ruined me as I had barely made it 40km.
So far on this trip I have had a recurring pattern where a tough day is following by a good one (at least in comparison.) The ride to Jargalant was beautiful and the struggles of the previous day were soon forgotten. After a short steep climb and a long, rocky descent, I cruised onto some heavenly dirt tracks. They criss-crossed through rolling grassland and were absolute bliss to ride.
Eventually, I came to another creek crossing and this lovely man galloped to my aid and pushed Dozer across, while I walked with his horse. Kindness is rarely absent in this country.
As the road slowly morphed from smooth dirt to rocks to sand, the cycling slowed down and became more strenuous. Just outside of Jargalant, I came across a hill so steep and sandy that pushing up alone wasn’t possible. Lucky for me, another fellow on a motorbike saw me struggling and came to help. Without him, I would have had to unload all of my gear and ferry it to the top.
The endless tracks toward Khyargas Nuur wound their way through a stark desert landscape. The sand clung to my skin in a semi-permanent layer as it had on my bike and panniers. Occasionally the wind would send clouds of it hurtling in my direction and I would have to crouch down in cover.
After an extended period of time in the desert, a lake is always a welcome sight. I camped right on the shore of Telmen Nuur close to some gers. As always, when I am in sight of ger, I was greeted by my friendly neighbours on a motorbike. They asked if I wanted to sleep in their ger, thinking that my paper thin tent wasn’t warm enough. Also it was hard to convince them that my gore-tex (actually, technically “e-vent”) jacket layered over thin merino wool was also sufficient. I can understand, seeing the the thick wool-lined coats that they wear, which would beat even the best brand of outdoor apparel. I politely declined their invitation, as was already set up for the night. My new friends hung around for a while, playing with my bike and checking all of its weird gadgets.
The next morning, I had this adorable little cow hang around me for about an hour. He seemed to be lost and stayed close to me while grazing around my tent. I was happy when I saw the little guy reunite with his mother after.
The ride across the desert continued and when I reached Tudevtey, I was glad to have a GPS. It was a maze of tracks leading out of the village, and finding the right one wasn’t exactly obvious. Local knowledge is of course just as good as any GPS, but it isn’t always easy to understand the directions given. If Mongolian “roads” were to be viewed on a very small scale this is what an intersection would look like:
Just outside of Tudevtey, I scored the best camping spot of the trip so far. It was also one of the most brilliant sunsets I had seen – the sun casting swaths of fire across earth and sky.
In Songino, I loaded 12L of water onto my bike that would get my through the next 3 days. On the second day, I came across a ger/restaurant in the middle nowhere where I was able to get a little extra water. I had grown used to seeing gers fairly often and it was strange to be on such a remote stretch where I only saw a few over 3 days. The road 145km from Songino was in a terrible state – the usual Mongolian trio of rock, sand and washboard. Still, I enjoyed the emptiness and solitude of the desert.
Then, about 25km from Khyargas Nuur – paved road! A unexpected surprise. It is a shame I couldn’t enjoy it as the wind once again fought against me the entire 60km along the salt lake. I would rather struggle through sand than struggle to go downhill on a pristine paved road. Instead of wallowing away in self pity, I did my best to enjoy the ride along the piercing blue lake. I passed groups of camels close to its shore and further down the road towards Ulaangom.
At this point, I was tired and in need of a rest day. Riding Mongolia’s rugged dirt roads and trails has been an awesome experience and it isn’t over yet! I am now in Ulaangom and will leave to head west to Uureg Nuur, before turning South towards Olgii, via a rough and steep jeep track over the Bairam Davaa pass. I am almost 1500km into my trans Mongolia ride with about 1000km left to go. I am looking forward to seeing more of Bayan-Olgii province, Mongolia’s predominantly Kazakh region.