Ryan Wilson Crosses Mongolia’s Desolate Zavkhan Steppe

After getting acquainted with Mongolia during a big loop through the Altai Mountains to start his trip, Ryan Wilson was intent on riding as far east as he could, with the ultimate goal of reaching the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. A 550-kilometer track from Brigitte & Ivo over at looked like a promising guide. After enjoying the luxuries of Khovd for a few days, Ryan set off into the arid expanse toward the Zavkhan province, retracing their steps through the land that connects the Gobi Desert with the Khangai Mountains. 

The initial stretch of this trip would prove to be some of the more intimidating riding I’d done in Mongolia so far. Sand dunes to drag my bike through, sparse villages, carefully planned water re-supply points, and endless Mongolian steppe in every direction. Just looking to the east from some of the mountain passes I’ve been on and seeing the empty terrain fade into the distance was a little unnerving, but at the same time, exciting.

I was hoping that heading east would reduce my chance of encountering the notorious headwind that often plagues western travel in this part of the country, but if I’ve learned anything here it’s that you cannot outsmart Mongolian winds. From day one it was apparent that this wouldn’t be the case when I was crawling along the plateau at a very gradual incline, with my three-inch tires sinking into the soft sand, and getting blasted by a face full of wind. I looked down at my map to see the minuscule progress I’d made into the daunting route and wondered if this was such a great idea.

Some rather threatening storm clouds were brewing all around me, and the day was getting long, so I took shelter in a strategically placed cluster of dirt mounds.

The sky let out a burst of rain that lasted only a few minutes just as I got my tent set up, and when I unzipped the tent to survey the surroundings, I was treated to one of the more spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen along with a herd of camels grazing just a little ways away from my campsite. They shot me camel looks that seemed to say “wtf are you doing here?!” all the while appearing to be way more intrigued by my presence than by the combo double-rainbow sunset that was so captivating to me.

I woke up early in the night in my tent with an all-too-familiar feeling. Apparently, the mysterious canned dinner I’d consumed the night before and my insides were going to war, and I was losing that battle. Every forty-five minutes or so I’d wake up to the nauseous feeling of that unfortunate meal traveling the wrong direction, scramble away from my tent, and then crawl back.

Restaurants are sparse in rural Mongolia to begin with, but along this route there are basically none, so I was typically cooking up my usual stir-fried take on instant noodles with whatever vegetables I could find, but this time I’d gotten a little experimental with the canned rice and meat concoction from the market in Khovd and it came back to bite me.

In the morning I was feeling like I got run over by a truck, but with no water resupply around, I knew I still had to get on the bike and press on to the next village on the map, which was about 50 km of soft washboard away. I put my head down and put on some Yat-Kha in my headphones and gave everything I had left just to make it to town.

I had a feeling this was going to be a very small village based on what I could see on my map, but the luck I didn’t have with last night’s dinner was with me this time. A local woman informed me that there was a single small hotel in town for me to crash at for a couple of days to recover before I’d once again face the desolate steppe.

A couple of days passed, and I still wasn’t feeling 100%, but I was good enough to get moving. Here, my days were dictated by water re-supply points, which were conveniently spaced to find about one per day, but that would usually mean I’d have a pretty sizable minimum distance I could travel for the day if I wanted to reach water again by the evening. I couldn’t afford to have a bad day and only make it halfway.

There’s something incredibly satisfying and reassuring about riding out in the desert all day and falling asleep to the sound of a river flowing just outside your tent. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

The following day, my health was improving bit by bit, which was good, because it turned into maybe the toughest day I had in all of Mongolia. At times the sandy track I was following would disappear entirely and I would be left to follow the tracks of random camel hooves, which seemed to vaguely be heading for the part of the ridge-line in the distance where my GPS was telling me a track would cross the hills.

The wide-open expanse was growing all around me. I could just barely make out herds of animals through the heat mirage that stretched across the horizon. It was the closest I’d felt to a place like the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia since I was there in 2017, except the soft and slightly-inclined terrain here was much more of a slow drag to cross when compared to the hard salt flat. I was pedaling toward the mountains but they just weren’t getting any closer.

After a solid 30 km wandering through the roadless plateau, I stumbled across some faint tire marks, which eventually led me toward a more confident set of tracks. Picking up another’s trail made me feel more confident that I was heading the right way.

In the distance, I spotted a small yurt camp, the first I’d seen in a long while. Usually, camps are set up near some sort of water supply, but this one was way out in the middle of nowhere, with no signs of rivers anywhere around. As it happens in Mongolia when you’re spotted, someone usually jumps on a motorcycle (or horse) and comes to check in on you and find out what your story is, and this was no different.

I finally reached that ridge I’d been aiming for all day and was relieved to find a nice, firm track through the mountains to go with a camp spot with a great view (aren’t they all?!).

The next day I finally met the Khungui River, which would give me a couple of days of mental relief, riding somewhat near a water supply, along with a few villages that have sprung up near its shores. On the other side of the river was an impressive chain of dunes that seemed to grow as I continued heading east.

Passing through a few more yurt camps, I saw young kids that couldn’t have been more than 10-12 years old out on horseback, controlling large herds of animals with the ease of a grizzled veteran herdsmen. Around here, you’re born on a horse. It comes with the territory.

The impressive (but empty) village of Zavkhan Mandal sat on the horizon with a wall of sand sprawled behind it, giving a real sense of scale to the landscape. I stopped in town to find that all of the shops were locked up by about 6 p.m., so I made my way just outside of town to set up camp for the night and try again in the morning before hitting the road to Erdenekhairkhan. The latter would be the last village before a long stretch with tougher terrain and no resupply points for a few days, at least.

I was once again separated from the river for a full day of undulating along a sandy track, with those omnipresent dunes inching closer and closer. On my route notes, there was a spot that would require walking through sand to reach a water source for about five kilometers each way, that I was somewhat dreading. I didn’t like the idea of leaving my bike alone in the middle of nowhere for a couple of hours while I went to haul water, but I certainly didn’t want to drag it through the sand either.

When I arrived to the point where I’d have to start the walk there was one yurt camp nearby and the sound of a radio playing from inside, so I decided I’d go and ask if I could leave my bike at his place while I trekked out to the river. He shook his head for a moment and laughed at me as he walked around to the back of his yurt, and then came back around holding a huge metal jug filled with water, which he then used to fill me up with enough for the next day and a half.

I always try to keep some extra fresh fruit or things that are just difficult to access in these more remote places that I can spare to give away, so I handed him a couple of oranges and apples as a thank you and hit the road again to try to knock out some more kilometers before the day was done.

The next day I woke up from another mind-blowing campsite at the edge of the sandiest stretch of the route, straight through a dune. I knew this was coming, so I probably made it out to be something grandiose and brutal in my head beforehand, but when I got there it was just a couple of hours of pushing the bike, slow and steady.

The relief of having the dunes behind me was short-lived as I found myself at the bottom of a sizable climb with a solid four-kilometer section in the middle that averages over a 14% gradient. That’s a tough climb if you’ve got fresh legs and a 25-pound bike, but something else entirely with days of riding in your legs and your whole life strapped to your bike, not to mention a few days of supplies.

Thankfully, those tough climbs always seem to pay off with incredible views around here, and this was one of the best yet, seeing the plateau splayed out beneath me as I pedaled toward the summit.

This was no ordinary mountain pass summit though. At the top of this climb, the road went straight through a huge natural stone arch and unveiled a landscape full of interesting rock formations.

From there I had a day and a half left of riding through remote valleys. While I was loving the roads and views in this section of the particularly desolate Mongolian countryside, I also found myself starting to daydream of having a nice day or two off in a town somewhere with a bed and a hot shower. Spurred on by the thought of creature comforts, I hightailed it as fast as I could toward the nearby town of Uliastai, by far the biggest I’d seen since I left Khovd well over a week ago. Uliastai was a small town by normal standards, but a metropolis on the Mongolian steppe, and it was a perfect place to rest up for a couple of days before I’d head out on my last stretch of riding in Mongolia, to the northern Khövsgöl region near the border with Russia.

Here’s the route I took for this stretch, for additional route info check the “Central Route” at Brigitte and Ivo’s site: