Green rolling hills as far as the eye can see, white round gers inhabited by nomad families and strings of horses galloping free across the endless steppe. This is how I always pictured Mongolia in my head whenever I dreamt of one day visiting this fascinating country. Last year I finally decided to turn that dream into reality. Together with Arnaud, a fellow Frenchman I had met in Ladahk the previous year, I bought plane tickets to Ulaanbaatar, packed my bike and bags and headed into the Mongolian wilderness for three weeks. The following is a photo diary of my most memorable moments.
“Pay up or your bikes are not getting off this bus!” This is more or less the hostage situation in which we found ourselves after a never-ending 16-hour journey from the Mongolian capital to Mörön, in the north-west of the country. Earlier that day at the Ulaanbaatar bus station we had paid the regular fee for our tickets, plus a little extra for the bikes. Because the baggage hold was full, the bus driver had told us to bring the bicycles inside and store them in the back of the bus. Not safe and not entirely legal according to him, hence the extra charge. Fair enough. Halfway through the journey, the bus is stopped at a checkpoint. I am half asleep but conscious enough to notice a Mongolian police officer enter the bus and take pictures of our bicycles with his mobile phone. I think nothing of it and doze off again. Upon arriving on Mörön everyone gets off the bus rapidly and soon we are the last ones left. Arnaud unloads our luggage onto the street while I look after the bikes inside. When he is finished I try to take one of the bicycles outside but the driver is blocking the way, with a look on his face that clearly shows he is not going to move. Every time I attempt to make my way past him he grabs the handlebar firmly and pushes me back. What is going on? An older woman appears behind him. She introduces herself in perfect English as Baigal, the owner of the guesthouse which we had booked for the night. She had seen the bus arrive and had decided to come and greet us. After a short talk with the driver she tells us that the police had fined him for transporting bicycles inside the bus and he won’t let us go until we pay him back. “Surely that’s exactly what the extra charge for our tickets was supposed to cover?” I tell her. With her help we try to worm our way out of this inconvenient situation but the driver won’t hear any of it. We are tired and hungry and he seems in a rush too, so eventually we agree to pay half of the fine, a result that neither side is really happy about… This incident does not tamper with our mood for very long though, it is after all part of the adventure and tomorrow we finally start cycling!
The curious shepherds
We couldn’t have dreamt of a better first day. It had everything I had come to expect of Mongolia: beautiful rolling landscape, lush green steppes as far as the eye can see, sunny weather, rainbows, pretty villages, friendly people, shallow river crossings, yurts, horses and of course a blissful tailwind. Late in the afternoon we decide this is enough enjoyment for one day and find a quiet and flat camping spot beside a water stream. While we are preparing dinner I notice a shepherd on horseback heading towards the water. He lets his mount quench its thirst and then approaches our tents. He dismounts and quietly sits down on the grass near me, observing us in silence. I offer him one of the energy balls that Angela prepared for me before I left. After five minutes he still hasn’t uttered a single word. Suddenly out of nowhere a second shepherd appears behind Arnaud’s tent. Then a third and finally a fourth, all on motorbikes. Where did they all come from? And how did they suddenly know we were here? They seem very interested in our bicycles and spend quite some time inspecting the different parts and discussing them amongst themselves. Then, as unexpectedly and quietly as they had appeared, they are gone.
The longest day
The sky is cloudless today, but the wind has picked up. We pack up our gear and push our bikes back onto the track heading north towards Khövsgöl Lake, following the route suggested by our friends Ivo and Brigitt. They rode this same way three months earlier.
Even though we had an early start, it feels like we are making little progress today. The rolling terrain is keeping our average speed at a depressingly low level. Soon we leave Brigitt and Ivo’s track and continue on an alternative route that I picked to take us directly to the eastern shore of Khövsgöl Lake. A single trail leads us through a dense forest that covers the highest pass of the day and then into a wide green valley dotted here and there with white yurts. Suddenly the trail disappears and Arnaud and I aren’t really sure which way to continue. My GPS is pointing us towards a steep pass to the north but we cannot see any tracks or trails leading up to it. Arnaud approaches a local woman gathering her herd of yaks. She tells him heading that up there with our bikes might not be the best idea, making gestures that suggest it is very steep and very swampy.
At this point we are both feeling quite tired and hungry and don’t really feel like tackling that pass so late in the day, especially since we are not sure if there’s actually a way over it. So we decide to backtrack part of the way and follow a road west towards Khagtal. The evening light is spectacular, turning the vast surrounding plains into a warm orange colour. The scenery looks even more wonderful once we reach the long and wide valley leading to Khatgal and the lake, with the last orange rays of sunshine flickering on the peaceful Egiin Gol River and dozens of jeep tracks disappearing in the distance. We can now see Khatgal to the north, but it is quite a bit further than we thought. I still have some energy left in my legs, but Arnaud now looks like he is struggling. By the time we reach the little town it is almost completely dark and bitterly cold and we are both starving. We pass many closed guesthouses, but the one saved in my GPS looks full of life. We are greeted by a young lady who offers us two beds in a yurt and agrees to cook us some fried noodles even though the kitchen is now officially closed. A younger girl leads us to our yurt, throws a couple of logs in the stove in the middle of it and lights it up. Within minutes the air inside the yurt is deliciously warm and we can start feeling our extremities again. By the time we come back from our respective showers the temperature inside is almost unbearable. Time to go to the dining room, a ridiculously big plate of fried noodles is awaiting us.
Since our planned route from Khatgal takes us directly east across the Khoridol Saridag mountains, Arnaud and I decide to spend an extra night in the village in order to see Khövsgöl Nuur, the biggest lake in Mongolia and second biggest lake in Asia after Lake Baikal. From Khatgal a dusty potholed road leads us over a small pass directly to the western banks of the giant lake. The high season is over and the many lakeside resorts look abandoned. In one of them the shore advances into the lake to form a tiny peninsula. A perfect spot to soak in the midday sun and contemplate the spectacular views far into the north. We follow the quiet and pristine lakeside for another three kilometers, both impressed by the riding-ability that our wide tires provide on the loose grey pebbles, then push our bikes up a small trail until we are high enough to grasp the sheer grandeur of Khövsgöl Nuur.
I cannot wait for today to be over. The relentless headwind is depressing and the dull scenery, exacerbated by the harshness of the midday sun, isn’t providing the usual motivation. The day had admittedly started well. After leaving the guesthouse in Khatgal that morning under a clear blue sky and enjoying the first couple of hours, the track had started sporadically disappearing, sending us more than once in the wrong direction. A succession of steep hills and cold river crossings had then started dampening our mood. Now the weather is taking a turn for the worst. The valley we had been following most of the day is slowly opening up onto long, flat and dry plains, exposing us even more to the headwind. It is so strong and loud that I can’t even hear the music through my earphones. Just as we reach the 50 km mark, rays of sunshine manage to pierce through the clouds and a magnificent rainbow appears behind us. What a view! Not for long though, as it suddenly and unexpectedly starts pouring and hailing, drenching us completely before we have time to put on our waterproof gear. We decide to call it a day and set up camp near the riverbed. Our two tents are tiny little dots in the middle of the plains. There is no noise, there is nothing around us. Not even a yurt in sight. Grasslands and mountains as far as the eye can see. Never have I felt so far away from civilisation.
I had originally planned to ride along the west banks of Lake Khövsgöl northwards and then cross the Khoridol Saridag Mountains over the Jigleg Pass, but changed my mind after talking to Brigitt and Ivo and decided to follow their advice and take a more southerly route across the mountain range. They had promised me a more scenic and most importantly far less swampy ride. Now knee-deep in marsh with my bicycle balanced on my shoulders, I can’t help but curse them silently under my breath. The ground looks perfectly normal, dry and hard, when in fact it is an enormous wet sponge, sucking in our shoes every step we take. It is tiresome and slow. Eventually we realise is it faster and more efficient to walk or ride inside the narrow pebbly riverbed. Our feet stay wet, but at least there’s a hard surface underneath them. We are slowly reaching the end of the valley and the mountains are closing in on us. The scenery becomes a lot more interesting, especially in the late afternoon light. The bright yellow Siberian larch trees growing sparsely at this altitude are in striking contrast to the bland slopes. We reach the top of the pass early in the evening, exhausted but delighted. The views up here are phenomenal, extending far into the north-east towards the vast plains of the Darkhad Depression. Despite the strong wind, Arnaud and I decide to set up camp right here. We have enough food and water for the night and both just want to take in as much of the scenery as we can. I decide to take some photos of our camping spot from a more elevated point of view and start hiking up the side of the nearest mountain. I snap some shots and decide that higher might look even nicer, so I carry on, enthralled by the scenery. Before I know it I’ve reached the summit, just in time for sunset. The tents are now two tiny little dots far below. The panoramic view from the top is mesmerizing.
The remote sauna
It doesn’t take us long to reach Ulaan-Uul the next morning. From the top of the pass, after an initial steep descent, the rest of the way involved riding within a dry riverbed and along a smooth dirt track. We are both desperate for a wash and need to resupply for the upcoming days so we agree to take the rest of the day off. We check out two or three hotels and settle for a quiet and clean one situated above a grocery store by the main road. There is no running water and the concept of filling up a bucket with hot water seems quite alien to the Mongolian lady in charge of the establishment, something quite common in some other less developed parts of the world that we have visited. She points to a bright orange house on the edge of the village and tells us we can shower there. Arnaud is the first one to go, while I keep an eye on our belongings in the hotel room. When it is my turn to wash, I am amazed to find an old-fashioned wellness area inside a small wooden hut with a shower, a sauna and a wood-burning stove to provide the heat. No wonder Arnaud spent almost two hours here.
Today is grey and cold. The unexpected climb over a pass just outside of Ulaan-Uul heading south sure gets me sweating, but the short break at the top is long enough to freeze me to the bone again. My feet are affected the most, I just can’t warm them up. Even the good old plastic-bags-in-your-shoes trick doesn’t work today. The cold air seems to mess with our sense of direction too, making us miss two important turns and sending us completely in the wrong direction. Luckily in Mongolia that is never really a problem, because one can basically just ride across the grassy plains in the right direction until one reaches the right track again… The afternoon is marked by a succession of river crossings, some shallow enough to ride across, some much deeper, forcing us to dismount and push. The latter are of course the worse, since they involve stopping, changing into adequate footwear and shoving the heavy bicycle across freezing water while trying not to fall in. At one of the last crossings before the small village of Bayan-Tzur, Arnaud deems the river shallow enough to attempt crossing it on his bike. He gathers some momentum and rushes through the deep icy water with a determined look on his face. Halfway across his front wheel hits a small boulder. He loses his balance and falls sideways into the river. For a split second all I can see is his right foot raised in the air, everything else is submerged. He emerges from the water with a bloody left leg, shaking from the cold and the shock. Everything is drenched, including his camera and the content of his rear left pannier, which wasn’t closed properly. Luckily it’s only another fifteen minutes to Bayan-Tzur. Upon arriving in what looks like the center of the village we start asking for direction to a hotel. There’s only one here it seems, and it looks like the secondary residence of Vlad the Impaler. Its front door is locked, naturally, but the owner is soon to be found behind the counter of one of the nearby mini-markets. We are taken into a small cold room with a table and two single beds. The man brings some wood from the garden and gets the stove going. Shortly after the owner’s friendly wife arrives with her son to check up on us. Her facial features are very uncharacteristic of the Mongolian women we have encountered so far, she looks more Caucasian and has amazing bright greens eyes. After hearing about Arnaud’s accident she has even brought some bandages and antiseptic cream for his wounds. I spend most of the evening talking to the son, using Google on his mobile phone (almost all villages in Mongolia have perfect 4G reception!) to translate our respective questions, until I start hearing loud music and singing coming from the reception area downstairs. It turns out our hotel is also a karaoke bar where the cool kids of Bayan-Tzur like to hang out to sing and drink. By the time we join them a collection of vodka bottles are already standing empty on the tables. The atmosphere is however friendly and relaxed. Some of the lads are very talented and the traditional Mongolian ballads they are singing sound beautiful. One of them is heavily bandaged around the lower jaw. His friend tells us he just had one of his wisdom teeth removed. Perhaps that explains why he is drinking so much. Later in the evening while talking to the owner’s son again upstairs, the man with the bandaged jaw enters our room, holding a pen knife and looking even more intoxicated than before. All of a sudden he jumps at the young boy, pretending to cut his throat with the knife. The kid looks petrified as I pull the drunkard away. It is certainly bed time for our assailant and he doesn’t complain too much when I lead him back downstairs and out of the house through the front door…
It is late afternoon and I am exhausted. For some reason my legs feel like jelly today and every uphill is draining what is left of my energy a little bit more. I am also not in the best of moods, leading to some tense discussions with Arnaud on which tracks to follow. The narrow valley that we have been following for the last hour eventually opens up and turns into lush green plains, dotted here and there with white round gers. We both agree that we should try to camp near one of them tonight, in order to meet some nomads and if we are lucky even get to experience a little bit of their daily life. After one fruitless attempt, we notice an entire family standing outside their yurt. They start waving at us and gesture for us to come over. The family of five, two young parents and their three daughters, greet us with warm smiles and curious looks. We ask them if we can set up camp near their ger, a request they are more than happy to accept, I suspect since it allows them to observe us and inspect our bikes for a little longer. They all take turns helping us unload our cargo and setting up the tents, and in turn I am more than happy to let them try my bike. At dusk they invite us inside their dwelling for a cup of butter tea and homemade Aaruul (dried cheese curds) and yogurt. The inside of the ger is surprisingly spacious. In the middle a wood-stove is used as a heater and a cooker. The different bits of furniture that the family own have been placed in a circle against the wall. Everyone sits either on one of the two beds or directly on the rug-covered floor. Communication is unfortunately very limited again, but I manage to tell them where Arnaud and I come from and where we live, using a map in my Point-It booklet. After playing with the girls a little we thank our hosts for the lovely drinks and food and make our way back to our tents. I leave the vestibule zip open tonight and fall asleep to a wonderful view of orange sparks shooting out of the stove chimney and millions of stars in the night sky.
The shower hunt
Tsagaan-Uul is a dusty town just off the main road leading west from Mörön. We have just reached it from the north, late in the afternoon, after a rather monotonous day of cycling through dry yellowish steppes. We quickly find a hotel near the main road junction, dreaming of a hot shower to properly clean ourselves and our clothes. As is usually the case in most smaller towns in Mongolia, the hotel does not have running water. Even the bucket sink in the hallway is dry. Bigger town usually have a communal shower house though, and after a few phone calls the woman running the hotel points to a green roof in the distance, on the opposite side of town. We are hungry and tired and having to hunt down a place to wash is the last thing one wants to do at the end of a long and tiring day of cycling. We find the shower house quite easily, considering how vague our directions were. It is closed but very soon a young and friendly lady arrives, lets us in and waits patiently until Arnaud and I finishing taking turns in the only working shower. The place is very clean and there is even hot water. I linger on the steps outside the shower house while Arnaud takes his turn, enjoying the feeling of the warm evening light on my clean skin and the tranquility of this place. Tomorrow we start heading south towards the Khangai Mountains…
To be continued…