Mongolia as a destination has always been a place I wanted to explore, but I was quite dubious about this particular trip for many reasons. I wont bore you with the details, but the timing of everything that had transpired over the recent months, and my faith in the human race had taken a severe beating, I really just needed a break from all the surrounding toxicity. It truly was a last minute decision and with under two weeks to plan everything, I had to organise flights before I could even apply for a VISA. There was no doubt I was cutting it fine that's for sure, my passport arriving back to me, only the day before my flight was scheduled for its departure.
My flight from Perth to Hong Kong was awesome, departing at midnight and the plane virtually empty, meant i had an entire row of seats to sprawl out on and get one of the best sleeps ever. Arriving into Hong Kong, was quite spectacular from the air, and once reaching check-in of the connecting flight, things were put on hold temporarily. I was told that there would be a delay to Ulaanbator, as the Typhoon that hit Japan had caused major delays grounding everyone in Tokyo. There wasn't really much else I could, as by the time I found out about the delay, it was too late to organise a trip into the city. While mother nature was doing her thing, I was content to sit and read about one of my favourite artists, Freddie Mercury. Lucky for me I had a great view, watching take off and landings, with the logistics of the harbour in the background to go with it.
Eventually I boarded Mongolia Air and landed in Ulaanbatar 8 hours after I was scheduled to arrive. My airport pickup was a little unimpressed and unaware of the delay and I was thinking 'Maybe I should have gone somewhere else!!'
After 24 hours of being in transit, I finally made it to my accommodation. There is no time difference between Mongolia and Perth, so that was a bonus. I could only imagine how cranky I would have been if i had to deal with Jet Lag too.
The very next morning I met up with a friend and wandered around to look at some temples and just the city in general. I was quite impressed at how clean Ulaanbatar was. We stopped for a bite to eat, and as we found out at lunch time, apparently on the first of every month, the city has an alcohol ban for a 24 hour period. One of the locals did say that if I was really desperate for a drink, that I could possibly find some on the black market, generally the boot of a taxi cab. That made me laugh so hard, and here I thought the Aussies were bad.
One of the things that attracted me to Mongolia is, the wide open spaces that I had only seen in pictures and videos. With it being approximately 1.55 million square kilometres, and the population, double that. On average, there are only 2 people per square kilometre. 45% of the population actually reside in Ulaanbatar itself, while the rest are nomadic. Thus making the number of people per square km outside of the city even more appealing, serenity heaven, here I come.
Our first day, riding out of the city was a little hectic with all the traffic, but having experienced riding through Delhi and Jaisalmer in India, this was a walk in the park. The clouds grew closer and darker, as we left the city behind us. About an hour or two into the ride, the heavens opened up and pretty much rained incessantly throughout the rest of the day. To give you an idea of the amount of rain we had, i literally felt like someone was pouring buckets of water over me. I had cold water running through every crevice it could find its way in, and standing was the only option, as sitting allowed pools of water to gather in my most intimate places, which I can definitely say, was a very interesting sensation to say the least. By the time we got to our camp site that evening, the rain had subsided, making the last couple of off road kilometres a mud wrestling match. I was right behind one guy when the mud beat him down. By the time I realised my go pro was off, he had already got the muddy bike up. I couldn't stop laughing watching him battle the weight of the bike in the slippery mud.
We eventually made it to camp, when the excitement of staying in a yurt became reality. I couldn't believe how awesome these things were. A pot belly stove sits in the centre of the room, and heats the Yurt very efficiently, it was too good in fact, as it reached to oven like temperatures. Seriously, it felt like I was being roasted and ready to pass out, I had to open the door it was that hot. The only real issue was if you didn't constantly monitor the fire, it would die very quickly. The wood in Mongolia burns just as fast as you light it, unless of course it was wet, and in that case you couldn't get it to light at all. Some of the accommodation staff had mini blow torches to get them started quicker.
Heading out the next morning, the sun made for a more pleasant ride. With the recent rain and many kilometres of tarmac road that seemed to go on forever straight, we eventually stopped at what was once Mongolia's capital city for a little history lesson and just before we had lunch in one of the local restaurants.
Kharakhorum was once known for its administrative trade and cultural centre of the Mongolian Empire, it also served as a link between the East and West regions. Founded under the orders of Chinngis Khan, it was also one of the biggest cities of the world. After the Jin empire was defeated, walls were erected around the site to protect the remaining temples and a Palace built where now it has become a tourist mecca and heritage site.
With the sun shining, there were people everywhere. Some chose to dress up in traditional clothing and get photographed in front of the 13th Century walls. You could also get your picture taken holding one of the majestic eagles if you wanted.
After lunch, we hit the road again, until we eventually came a cross a small community of Yurts. Finally, it was here we turned off the main highway and onto nomads land. We went from one extreme to the next, and with all the wet weather the weeks and days before, this is where the riding became more interesting and definitely more of what I was looking for in the challenging aspects.
By the end of the day, we had tackled over 30 river crossings to get to our next camp. Some, of course were mere splashes in a muddy puddle, while many others were deep enough to drown a few bikes and get a few vehicles caught out too. It tested all riders including the more experienced ones. A few of the less experienced riders became a little stressed and overwhelmed, as the days ahead became long and tiring. The only off-road experience they had, was riding on graded roads back at home, if at all any.
While waiting for riders to get their bikes across the more challenging crossings, I had some time to walk around and do some nearby on foot exploring. As I walked across one of the rivers, carrying all my gear, I had lost my footing on the loose rocks which had shifted beneath me and I ended up completely under water... twice!
Surprisingly, the water wasn't cold. Having bathed in a Mongolian river, it could now be checked off my bucket list. My helmet, boots and everything else was now completely saturated, and as the sun was setting I knew my gear was not going to dry in time for the morning, especially as the dark weather was starting to roll in thick and fast. That evening we had a spectacular lightning show along with a torrential down pour over night, so much so, the rain actually was making its way into the Yurt. All I could hear throughout the night was the water dripping and sizzling on the central heating stove.
A couple of the bikes actually had been drowned severely that evening. Getting water in the engine meant our departure was going to be delayed the next morning. As the mechanic worked on the bikes throughout the morning, those of us that had functional bikes ventured a few km's down the muddy slush to visit another tourist destination. Once we arrived we had about a 10 minute walk to get to the local waterfall.
My helmet and gear was still very wet from the day before, and with the heat of the sun, the humidity was definitely not a comfortable or pleasant experience at all. We stopped about half hour or so to soak up the atmosphere, before we ventured back to the bikes and then onward back to camp.
On our return, the mechanic was still working on the bikes, and as it didn't seem we were going anywhere too soon, I took advantage of the situation and stripped my clothing off and laid them out in the sun to dry. Thankfully by the time both bikes were serviced and ready to go, my helmet, boots and gear had completely dried out.
All of our hosts along the way were very accommodating and very helpful, and although their english was limited, I loved that we could still manage to communicate with each other. As I took my gear from the Yurt to the back up van, a couple of the young girls ran over to help me carry it, I insisted I was ok, but they were quite persistent in wanting to help. So when I handed them the bags they literally dropped them to the ground. Their reactions of the weight was priceless. They struggled to even pick one of them up. I guess that is one of the cons of having more camera gear than clothing. Needless to say, I did not make them carry my bags, but we did have a good giggle about it all.
Between a few of us, we had joked and nicknamed Mongolia 'The land of No Bridges' and as we took off for the next leg, we had a few more crossings and varied terrain to get through, and to our surprise came to our very first bridge.
It wasn't a small one, but watching vehicles crossing one at a time, made me and a few others a little nervous and anxious, as it certainly didn't look stable. Even at a fraction of the weight of the 4wds, we also crossed one at a time. Riding slowly across avoiding nails protruding through some of the rotted wood, the timber under the wheels kept moving and lifting, as I could see clearly through to the river below, but we all managed to get ourselves and the bikes over it safely with out any mishaps.
Once we got on to much easier dirt tracks, racing along the fields was very much welcomed. One of the things I loved about the open plains was the fact that we were riding along side horses and cattle, with not a fence to be seen anywhere. You did have to be careful though as sometimes they would actually run out in front of you, with no warning at all.
It wasn't all plain sailing though, even the most experienced riders can sometimes come unstuck. As Buddhi and I raced across the green plains trying to catch the group ahead, his rear wheel rail roaded in some of the earths naturally formed corrugations, which made him high side the bike. I watched the whole thing unfold right next to me, and I can tell you its not a pleasant sight or feeling when you see one of your mates hit the deck like he did, and luckily for him, he walked away unscathed.
It could have been a whole lot worse, and considering where we were, was a good thing it wasn't. Out here, there is no local hospital or pharmacy near by. There is literally nothing out there but a few Yurts with their nomadic owners. After some classy bush mechanic modifications, we were back onto greener pastures for our next rest stop over the hill.
With one of the rarest views of the Mongolian landscape we stopped for a lunch break. Trees in Mongolia are very few and far between in the open steppes. The heat was quite intense, and when wearing motorcycle gear, i could feel the sweat pour down the front of my shirt. We did all we could to seek shade from our bikes or the back up vehicle in the absence of trees.
Every morning we would be given how many kilometres we were to expect to travel for the day, but from the previous days I was not convinced that it was an accurate account of what we actually did. Everything was apparently, only up the raod, just around the corner or not too far away, and became one of the many jokes of the tour.
I set my odometer to zero one morning, as we were told that we only had 250km to get to the next camp. After more river crossings, more tarmac, corrugated roads, and for something new, around 35km of soft sand, a quick odometer check showed the reading of 350km, and we still had no visibile sight of our next rest stop.
This was undoubtedly the hardest days of the tour. One rider was hit very hard with dehydration and severe heat exhaustion. He pulled over not feeling well, so I stopped with him. He was leaning up against his bike, when he started to sweat, like I'd never seen anyone do before. And with no warning at all, he completely collapsed in a heap, right in front of me. The soft sand, made it very difficult to get the bike to stay up right, and I could see his side stand was slowly sinking into the sand. I frantically tried to get my bike on its centre stand as quickly as I could, as his bike was about to collapse on top of him. A few riders had stopped, and luckily, a passer by in a vehicle was heading to the same camp we were, and so we helped the rider into the car to get to camp for some well needed re hydration and rest.
For the few of us left behind, we now had a bike with no rider to get back to camp. We still were not sure how far we had to go, or how far behind the backup vehicle was. Once the camp owner learnt of our situation, he came to our rescue with their truck to load the bike. We also learnt that the back up vehicle, had a flat tyre, and the driver was in strife of his own. I could only imagine the struggle of trying to change a tyre on such terrain.
Not knowing how long the backup vehicle would take, we decided to continue on. I grew more and more tired with every 100m of sand dunes I tackled, and as I could hear one guy cursing in the distance, I was thankful that I was not the only one getting a little frustrated with the whole scenario. I would have a giggle to myself every time i heard him, and still do everytime i think about it, because deep down, I knew his pain. Although my patience was being tested, it was one of the best bonding and laughing experiences I had ever had. A few more hours of the struggling antics, we came over the final crest, where with relief, we finally saw our lake side camp.
Our adventure continued on for a few more days, until we reached our final destination of Ulgii. A small city approximately 100km short from the Russian border. A final group farewell dinner with a local family, was a great way to end a trip. Most of us flew back into Ulaanbatar the next day, where we all said our last goodbyes. I was very unimpressed knowing that I now had the long trip home back to mundane life in Australia. The first few days of Mongolia was not what I was expecting, and thought I was going to be disappointed, but I was certainly satisfied with the level of challenges given. I'll definitely revisit Mongolia again sometime, as there is a lot I didn't see.