Rediscovering Mongolia: a Motorcycle Odyssey through the Untamed Beauty of the Steppe and the Gobi Desert
Ulaanbataar, after a four year sojourn we are back in the city. Touring in this remote and beautiful part of the world is a challenging but awe inspiring experience. On a motorcycle you are at one with the elements as you ride the nomadic tracks in search of the ‘back of beyond’.
Ulaanbataar is a city which has classic soviet era styling juxtaposed with modern high-rise and there is no doubt that buildings are going up fast. The Black market is a seemingly endless shopping area that has to be seen to be believed. Everything is sold here and shops are made of shipping containers. I can only imagine the scene in mid winter when temperatures plummet to minus 40.
The city is centred around the Chinggis Khan Square with an imposing statue of the man himself, the city is choked with traffic.
The Mongol empire conquered the world and when you look at the rugged people who endure extreme weather through the year you can see why.
Genghis Khan was undeniably one of the most impressive figures in world history. Born into a small nomadic tribe near Lake Baikal, Temüjin, as he was originally named, grew into the man who united Mongolia and ruled over an empire that spanned from the eastern edge of China to the Adriatic Sea. Legend has it that as many as 1 in 200 people are descended from his lineage.
This year the nuts and bolts had to be thoroughly checked. Years sitting in a container with temperatures as high as 30 and as low as minus 40 could have taken their toll on the fleet of Bullet 500’s. More than up to the job they have seen a bit of service, our intention was to spend a couple of weeks making some changes, doing some rebuilds and styling the bikes for the roads that they were going to ride. Quite amazingly some of the batteries worked.
A tour such as this has many moving parts. Four support vehicles keep the show on the road one for luggage another for the kitchen and food, then there are the boxes of spares and finally the camping equipment. There are no designated campsites although our Mongolian Guide Jenya has a mark in mind but distance is not always his strong point. A river might be it, or some protection from the wind that sweeps across the Gobi. The best laid plans can always get scuppered from bike problems or injury so we have to always play it by ear. The occasional Ger Camp, traditional tents used by the nomads layered in felt with fireplaces at their hearts and rented to guests, the more remote the less choice.
This was a new route for Extreme Bike Tours and one that was conceived between ourselves and Black Shaman, the company headed by Jenya and Ogi.
The idea was to ride the Steppe out to the East and the border with China before heading south west towards the Gobi Desert.
Be under no illusion the Gobi Desert is a vast wilderness and we were going to dip our toe in to test the water.
The Steppe has undulating rolling green hills that flatten and reappear, riding across these is one of the joys of touring Mongolia, you really do not need to stick to the tracks, however beware the marmot holes!!
Every night the crew kicks into action setting up the mess tent and the kitchen while we pitch our own tents. They smoke furiously as is their habit and laugh incessantly. At night snores drift across the camp, damp covers the tents in the morning, the sun rises to dry them out. The weather was kind to us this year. In fact it was sunny beyond belief, at one point the temperature rose into the 30’s. On the Steppe there is no shade, the vans provided our lunch time shade, the guys sitting in their shadow.
The Steppe is home to much livestock, herds of horses run from the thump of the bikes, sheep and cows, there are plenty. The nomadic Ger’s are placed in these vast grazing pastures and these people are at one with animals. We collect meat on route, we buy from one of the locals nomads that we pass.
They butcher the animal on the spot with a skill that is fascinating to watch, nothing is left to waste, not even a drop of blood is spilt, this shows a deep understanding of animals. The further east we went the more remote it seemed groups of wild gazelle speed across our tracks running at great speed a flash through the green grass.
Our furthest point was to be Shillin Bogd, an extinct volcano and a mountain that is sacred for men. We climbed to the top of the caldera to reveal far reaching views over to China a sea of green with extinct volcanoes or even just the craters pitting the landscape a glimpse into the past and millions of years old what an awe inspiring view.
The trusty Delicas forged across the landscape sometimes in front leading but often behind to avoid excessive dust. Our drivers Ganbaa, Ganaa, Bolda, Zorigoo and Djeniaa – the guide – instinctively know this type of terrain and drive fast and with confidence. For the bikes it takes a bit of getting used to, charging across open wilderness and it is not an easy ride, sand traps come out of nowhere to catch riders unawares and there are areas or patches of deep sand which require footwork to negotiate.
Richard unfortunately became the victim of one such trap and from there on was in the van substituted by Ganna who could ride like the wind. The group came to be known as the 38 club, a reference to Jenya, our illustrious leaders’, reference to the number of kilometres to go. Some days were tiring and the group did well, there will be some adjustments in the distances for next year but as the forerunners the riders have completed the first run of the route and when it comes to adventure that is always the least known and most exciting albeit a bit nerving for the team.
In the Gobi desert stands Khamarin Khiid, a red hat Buddhist monastery and energy centre. The monks were at the ceremony and the dress was reminiscent of Tibet. In 1937 the temples were destroyed in a Stalinist purge and many lamas were executed. In 1990 after the democratic revolution in Mongolia, the monastery was rebuilt and the restoration efforts continue today. We happened to visit on the day of a festival and walked with the pilgrims.
Desert gives way to rolling hills and a fast pace ensued across the open wilderness, a lone wolf moving across the landscape. Out of the sea of green rose rocky areas with lonesome rocks balanced on rocks, turned orange by the setting sun. Stars are plentiful out here where the horizon is so vast and night revealed these in all their glory with no light pollution.
Mongolia’s wilderness is vast, varied and immaculate. Part of that lies in the nothingness that populates these wild grasslands. Hills that dot the landscape are surreal and having the opportunity to explore on the bike with no barriers is a special type of freedom that I have only experienced in this country. Sure there are mountains in the west and forests in other parts but this area really gave us the sense of space in this amazing country.