written by V.Canini
Published in Retrobike Magazine, April 2020 Issue #38
The timing of everything that had transpired over the recent months, my faith in the human race, had taken a severe beating. I won’t bore you with the details, but a last minute decision and under two weeks to plan everything, saw me in a flurry of paperwork and emailing like a machine to prepare for an adventure across Mongolia. I had to organise flights before I could even apply for a VISA. There was no doubt I was cutting it fine, with my passport arriving, only the day before my flight was scheduled for its departure.
My flight from Perth to Hong Kong was quite peaceful, departing at midnight on virtually an empty plane, 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 do, 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. Lucky for me, watching take off and landings, with the logistics of the harbour in the background added to the serenity
I finally 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, as tension was building and I was thinking 'Maybe I should have gone somewhere else!!' Finally after 24 hours of being in transit, I made it to my accommodation, and as there is no time difference between Mongolia and Perth, this was a bonus. I could only imagine how cranky I could 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.
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, ahh, 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 a good 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.
Once at camp, the excitement of staying in a Yurt or Ger (whatever floats your boat) became reality. I couldn't believe how sound 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, reaching oven like temperatures.
I had to have the door open, but 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, before enjoying a very generous lunch in one of the local restaurants.
Karakorum, 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 Palace, whereby now, 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.
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 day two, 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.
While waiting for riders to get their bikes across the more challenging crossings, I had some time to do some nearby exploring. As I balanced my way across the slippery uneven rocks through one of the rivers (carrying all my gear), it was inevitable, I had lost my footing and ended up completely under water... twice!
Surprisingly, the water wasn't cold at all. Having now bathed in a Mongolian river, I could now cross that off my 'to do' 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 that rolled in thick and fast giving us a spectacular lightning show with a torrential overnight down pour. The quantity of rain actually was making its way into the Yurt, and all I could hear throughout the night was the constant sizzle of the water dripping on the central heating stove.
A couple of the bikes actually had been drowned severely earlier that evening, which meant our departure the next morning was going to be delayed. The mechanics worked frantically on the bikes throughout the morning, and those of us that could, ventured a few km's down the muddy slush to visit 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 at all comfortable or pleasant. 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 collected my gear from the Yurt towards 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 riders, 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 small, but watching vehicles crossing one at a time, made a few of us a little 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, with the rushing river clearly visible between the shifting timbers, 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 we raced across the green plains to catch the group ahead. One rider’s rear wheel had 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 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, could feel the sweat pour off you. We did all we could to seek shade from our bikes or the back up vehicle in the absence of trees.
After more river crossings, more tarmac, corrugated roads, and for something new, around 35km of soft sand, we were losing light fast and we still had no visible sight of our next rest stop.
This undoubtedly was the hardest days of the tour. With one rider 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. He was losing fluid at a great rate of knots, it literally looked like someone had turned a hose on him, and shortly after collapsed in a heap, right in front of me. A vivid reminder on how quickly things can turn for the worst.
The soft sand, made it very difficult to get the bike to stay up right, I could see his side stand was slowly sinking into the sand. I frantically tried to get my bike on its centre stand, to catch his bike before collapsing on top of him. A few riders had caught up, and thankfully a passer by in a vehicle was heading to the same camp we were. We helped the rider get some water into him in before putting him 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. The camp owner learnt of our situation, and came to our rescue. 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 metre sand tackled. From a distance, I could hear one of the riders cursing at the top of his lungs. 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. After a few more hours of the struggling antics, we came over the final crest, and with relief, saw our lake side camp.
Our adventure continued on for a few more days, until we reached 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.
With the level of challenges given, it was definitely worth it and if all goes to plan, will be revisiting Mongolia again in June 2020. Get in touch if ya wanna come along. VEC