With warning signs that sandal season has officially closed in Mongolia, Ryan Wilson high-tails it through a 600-kilometer leg of riding to reach his last stop of the journey. But while much of this trip has found him wondering at the vastness of the steppe, this closing section shows a different side of the country. Read on for Ryan’s final (for now) account of riding in Mongolia…
I was held up in the town of Uliastai for a few days, feeling pretty cooked from finishing a long stretch across the Zavkhan desert with a round of food poisoning at the beginning, and something about the place seemed so inviting. Maybe it was the golden trees all around town after crossing such a desolate stretch of steppe, or maybe it was the Korean restaurant serving up a ridiculously good Jeyuk Bokkeum. I’d grown a bit tired of the usual mountain of sheep meat with rice, so this was quite a nice change of pace.
Unfortunately, when I looked at the calendar, with limited days on my visa and a forecast showing the temperatures dropping off of a cliff, I knew I couldn’t afford the extra time resting that I wanted if I hoped to finish the last 600-kilometer stretch of riding.
I left town, with some reluctance, along another track from Brigitte & Ivo over at bikepackground.com that would send me north toward the Khövsgöl region. The first stretch entailed heading down an 80-kilometer dead-end valley that would require a good old-fashioned hike-a-bike to link up a couple of classic Mongolian grassy tracks. The impassable (by car, at least) nature of this road meant that there wouldn’t be a whole lot of traffic, save for some local shepherds, which was fine by me.
After a couple of hours meandering my way up a valley dotted with autumnal trees and a handful of yaks here and there, I finally crossed paths with a local who was curious to find out where I was heading. “Ider,” I said in response to their puzzled face. It was a small town on the other side of the hike-a-bike section. The man in the truck still looked confused by this, but a shepherd who had walked up to see what the fuss was about knew what I was talking about, making a swooping motion with his hand to indicate the section I’d have to push over to reach another road.
Still, he shook his head with that classic “Are you SURE this is the way you want to go?!” look on his face. No words were needed. I laughed and the driver of the truck rummaged behind his seat for a bag that had a few apples in it and handed it to me before saying something in Mongolian that I didn’t understand at all, but I assumed was something along the lines of “good luck, you’re gonna need it.” Maybe they were right.
As I continued up the gentle climb through the valley, the smattering of trees that surrounded the river gave way to larger patches of golden forest covering much of the surrounding hillsides. It felt like a different planet from the desolate dunes I’d been riding through just days before.
The onslaught of fall color coming from every direction was another stark reminder of the changing seasons in Mongolia. I’d had quite decent luck with the weather since I’d been here, spending most of my days frolicking through the hills in my sandals, but that was about to change in a hurry, as it tends to do around here.
Evening set in and, as shadow overtook the valley, I started eyeing up places to camp. There were a few shepherds out wrangling their herds back to their Ger (yurt-like structures) camps, but I managed to find a spot near the river where it looked like another Ger camp had recently been taken down for winter.
The next morning I continued up the valley, eventually having to turn off the road to head 350 vertical meters over the grassy hillside. The path wasn’t clear, the ground was swampy, and most of the time it felt like I was probably going the wrong way. However, I was too committed to go back down and find a better path, so I kept at it until I eventually reached the summit and joined the actual goat path that I probably should have been on in the first place.
The wind was hammering at the pass about as strong as I’d felt in Mongolia so far, which gave me a good sense that the weather was indeed about to change as I’d seen on the forecast a couple of days before, and the sky and turned a hazy white.
The track was once again unclear after reaching the valley floor on the other side. I found myself crossing a stream back and forth, searching for the path of least resistance across the swampy grass field. Another hour of this went by before the faint tracks in the grass turned into more obvious tire tracks, and I was able to improve my glacial pace.
Soon I was on a fully-fledged dirt road and the village of Ider, my goal, was nearly in my sights. I’d made it over the pass just in time because on the way down I started getting pelted with freezing rain. Looking back, the hills I’d just trekked over were already covered in a layer of snow. Suddenly I was very thankful that I didn’t take those extra couple of days in Uliastai.
I lucked into finding a little hotel in town and settled in for a couple of nights as two full days of miserable weather came through town. I had to bundle up into all of my clothes just to walk five minutes to the shop from the hotel, with the temperature plummeting to around -15°C at night. I decided to make some adjustments to my route to give me one more decent sized town along my route, Tosontsengel, to pass through before I’d enter the Khövsgöl region. That would give me one extra warm-ish night in a heated hotel room.
I rode out of town in the morning with a bitter wind already blowing. I was layered up with two long-sleeved shirts, a fleece, my down jacket, and a rain jacket on top. I couldn’t help but laugh thinking about how I was wearing sandals and shorts just a couple of days before. After a couple of hours, the temperatures crept above freezing, and I could make some decent time working my way along the river, before plunging through it myself, and watching a local cattle herder chase his animals around to get them in order.
Before I knew it the road once again randomly turned to singletrack and cut through the forest. It looked like any normal road on the map, but it was clear that only motorcycles and animals were heading through here.
The moments of mild daytime weather vanished about as fast as they came, so I had to seek out a place to set up the tent for the night. My original plan was to see if I could ask if I could camp near a yurt camp somewhere for a chance to warm up next to their stove for a while in the evening, but the valley I found myself in as night fell was totally empty. I’d have to brave the frigid temps out in my poor -2°C rated sleeping bag in nearly -20°C weather.
Hot Tip: On a particularly cold night, heat some water on your stove, put that in a water bladder, and stuff it down by your feet to give them a boost before you get to sleep
In the morning, everything was covered in a thick layer of ice (including my sleeping bag). There was frost fog all around, which the sun thankfully burned off in relatively short order, so I hauled ass to Tosontsengel as fast as my legs could take me.
A window of slightly milder weather was on the horizon, followed by what looked like a week-long snowstorm, so I didn’t hesitate to hit the road after one night in a warm bed.
The Bayanzurkh Valley was the last place I was set on seeing before I’d wrap up my trip in Mongolia, and I would get there come hell or high water.
The next couple hundred kilometers cut through forests over small clusters of hills with big open valleys connecting them. It was clear that most of the people around this region, one of the coldest in Mongolia, had already packed up and headed elsewhere as I didn’t see another person until basically two straight days of riding later in the small village of Tsagaan Uul.
Winter’s approach is only one of the reasons this area was so empty though. Much of Mongolia’s population has left these small countryside settlements to look for opportunities in the expanding urban sprawl of Ulaanbaatar. Nowadays, livestock outnumber humans in these areas by a ratio of about 100:1. Most of the villages around have declined in population by 15-20% over the last 20 years or so while Ulaanbaatar’s population has more than doubled in that time.
Continuing north, I slipped into a narrow valley that snaked its way down to the Beltes River along a two-track road and set up camp about 40 km from the Russian border.
One last punchy climb awaited me the next morning, which finally plunged steeply into the section of the Bayanzurkh valley that I’d ridden all this way to visit. The craggy rock formations sprang up from the ground all around me, accented by clusters of golden trees and the howling Mongolian wind.
I was relieved to find the floating bridge that crosses the Beltes River to still be intact for the season despite the lack of activity in the area. I’d also seen satellite images that showed the bridge disassembled for winter. That would have been a pretty unpleasant couple-day backtrack to get to a different road.
That still left me with three frigid rivers to wade through on my way to Bayaznzurkh village, where I could see some of the last remaining shepherds packing up their Ger camps for the season and heading for their winter pastures.
With my visa winding down, and blizzards in the forecast, it was time for me to head for my winter pastures as well. A little place called Colombia. These two countries really couldn’t be any more different, and that’s what I love about bike touring. You see such a range of diverse places and meet people that you’d likely never have a reason to encounter otherwise.
Mongolia was a place that I’d dreamt about visiting for a decade before actually stepping foot in the country, and it lived up to every expectation I could have ever had. The fascinating culture, hospitable people, the endless rolling steppe, and the web of double-track roads in every direction. It’s like the place was made in a lab to be perfect for meandering down dirt roads and wild camping. Even now, writing about it months later, I can’t help but feel the pull to go back and see what else this country has to offer.