The Altai Traverse: Finding Tracks in the Mongolian Countryside

Traveling to Mongolia has been a dream for Ryan Wilson since he first got into bike touring. Vast open spaces dotted with interesting geographical features, dirt tracks as far as the eye can see, and a history and culture that runs incredibly deep all contribute to making this east Asian country a dynamic experience. Sandwiched between Russia and China though, Mongolia can be tricky to access and, as a result, it often seemed to get pushed down the list of places for Ryan to visit, but when he finally had a chance to spend a summer there, he jumped on it…

With a landmass about 1/6th of the size of the US and a population that is 1/100th the size, you start to get a sense of just how vast Mongolia feels. Then, when you realize that nearly half of Mongolia’s population lives in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, it really puts everything into perspective. When you leave the city, it gets wild in a hurry. Even on a simple 20km test loop out of the country’s largest population center, I was greeted by horses roaming free and endlessly rolling grassy hills dotted by “gers” (i.e. yurts).

I planned to head out to the Altai Mountains in the far western reaches of the country to make a big loop near the border with China and then ride my way back toward Ulaanbaatar (aka UB) over a two-month period. First, that would require cramming my bike and body into a small cross-country bus for nearly 30 hours (with bus mechanicals along the way), while an older Mongolian man used my shoulder as a pillow, eventually reaching my ride’s starting point in the town of the Khovd.

This region immediately had a distinctly different feel from the green grassy hills and forests that surround UB. Here, the steppe was arid and the rolling terrain was replaced with rugged peaks.

After a couple of days in Khovd to clear out the cobwebs in my legs from being crammed in the bus for days, I was loaded up and ready to hit the road out of town. I was, of course, immediately greeted by a notorious Mongolian crosswind as I headed south on one of the few big, paved roads in the country. It was certainly a sign of things to come!

There isn’t a whole lot of info or previously established bike routes throughout Mongolia, so I mostly relied on some local paper maps that I found at a bookstore back in the big city along with satellite images and some good old-fashioned local advice. My first destination would be through a long valley to the small village of Mönkhkhairkhan. I’ve certainly made a fool of myself trying to pronounce the names of various places around the world to locals, but this one might take the cake.

After a quick blast down the main asphalt highway, I turned down what was just a series of vague tire tracks in the dirt that were aimed for the mountains where I was able to find my first campsite of the trip. The hype is true, that Mongolia is essentially one giant idyllic wild campsite after another, and the first one did not disappoint. After so much time in places like Colombia and Nepal in recent months, where it can be extremely tricky to find places to pitch the tent, this was the aspect of Mongolia that I was most looking forward to.

In the morning I set out to try to find the “road” I was supposed to be on. This would prove tricky at times in the wide open valleys of Mongolia, as tracks tended to veer off in virtually every direction, or sometimes with a few dozen tracks all heading one way in parallel. You jump on one set of tracks and then notice it’s starting to steer you a few degrees off course and you stare at your GPS wondering if you messed up somewhere along the way.

As I neared the entrance of the narrow part of the valley, I found myself on the correct track heading up the gradual climb alongside a flowing river. While I’d already had to ford the river once in a wider section further down the road, I’d been concerned about the prospects of having to cross it again as it became narrower, deeper, and a stronger current as I continued up the valley. Thankfully, these concerns were put to rest when a man on a motorcycle coming the other direction confirmed to me through various hand motions (given the language barrier) that there was indeed a bridge to cross the river up ahead.

After a windy night camped next to the river, I rode a couple of hours into Mönkhkhairkhan where some locals were cooking up Khuushuur, which are basically like Mongolian empanadas filled with sheep meat, and a man speaking English offered up a couch to crash on for the night while I stocked up on supplies and even had a steaming hot shower at the local public bathhouse. A rare treat!

The next morning I set off from the windswept streets of Mönkhkhairkhan for the first proper mountain pass of the trip. I said goodbye to the river for a bit, and soon the only sound around was the wind buffeting against my eardrums. I reached the pass and hid behind a rock barrier from the gale for a bit before I was spotted from a distance by some dogs, whose owners soon noticed and came storming down on horseback from a nearby mountaintop where their sheep were grazing to investigate.

It was two young girls, out doing their shift, tending to their family’s herd. After some moments of awkward smiles and giggles, it wasn’t long before they popped out cell phones from their traditional robes, known as “deels”, and asked to take selfies. I imagine they don’t see tons of foreigners out on this remote mountain pass.

I said goodbye and descended from the mountain into the next valley where I saw my first Mongolian camels, an icon of this part of the country, at the northern fringes of the Gobi desert.

There aren’t many people traversing these roads, but when you do cross paths with someone they’re almost guaranteed to stop for a “chat”, so I got accustomed to these slightly awkward encounters that usually involve a lot of staring back and forth at the bike and me and a lot of pinching the tires as I try to recite names of places I’ve been and where I’m heading.  Of course, it’s always entertaining when someone wants to hop on my Tumbleweed and take it for a test ride!

I split once again from the road I was on to head down an overgrown track through a valley where a local horseman utilized my help in keeping his horses moving down toward his yurt. For the better part of an hour, he’d motion for me to ride up behind them to keep them moving forward while he rode at their side to keep them in formation. When we reached his yurt, he offered up some traditional salty Mongolian milk tea and fried bread before I pushed on toward the town.

One day back on the paved highway battling one of the worst headwinds of my life awaited before I’d reach the metropolis of Bulgan (Population 8,262). Okay, so maybe it isn’t a metropolis by western standards, but a town with a hotel, a restaurant, and a couple of shops sure felt like it after a number of days up in the sparsely populated Altai Mountains. I was looking forward to a rest day and a hot shower before I’d start heading back north, toward (confusingly) another town named Bulgan, about 125km away.

Below is my route for this segment of the trip, which is part of a larger loop of the Altai range, which you can find a GPS track and more info on, here.