After finishing the route up from Bulgan, I arrived in the largest city I’d come across in the entire trip outside of Ulaanbaatar. Yet, with a shade under 30,000 inhabitants, it’s not exactly a metropolis. Still, after so many days out in the middle of nowhere, it was nice to have a hot shower and a couple of restaurants to choose from. A serious upgrade from settling for boiling instant noodles in a hotel’s electric kettle in some of the smaller villages.
I intended to come here to visit the military guard post, which is responsible for issuing permits to reach the Altai Tavan-Bogd region at the border with China. In the past, one was allowed to simply use their satellite tracker as a means to be allowed entry or higher a guide on a horse right at the park entrance to obtain a permit, but since Covid, they changed the rules up and tourists could no longer go to the region without a local jeep tour guide straight from the city of Ölgii.
Being tailed by a jeep for a week in the countryside isn’t exactly my idea of a great time, so I started looking for alternatives to fill that gap in my route. A quick glance over some satellite maps showed a small cluster of snowy peaks that were only about 50km away as the crow flies, and there was a little white-checkered line crossing them on the map, so this seemed like a nice plan B, no chaperon required.
I was all packed up and cruising through the main square on the way out of town when a young man named Umirtay came up and persuasively invited me over to his family’s home for some tea and snacks. “Sure, why not?”. Umirtay played some Kazakh folk music on the dombra they had hanging up inside of the yurt and translated back and forth between myself and his parents. Before I knew it, a lone sheep was being pulled into the yurt where they performed a traditional prayer for the animal before Umirtay’s father slaughtered it.
Eventually, the day was starting to tick down, so I said my goodbyes to Umirtay and his family and set off out of Ölgii to start the daily search for the perfect campsite. I already had an area in mind, with a view toward the mountain I’d be heading for in the next days, Tsambagarav, in the distance. The only question was if I’d be able to find a suitable barrier to not get hammered by the notorious Mongolian winds all night.
Thankfully, I lined up a spot with a little rocky outcrop that was just high enough to block most of the wind, because it was raging all night.
After a quick detour to the tiny village of Tsagaantunge the next morning to top up my water and grab a few things from the shop, I finally started my bee-line toward Tsambagarav mountain. There wasn’t a direct road on the map, but the locals assured me that there was a track that would send me in that direction. It is Mongolia, after all, so there’s always a track! “Follow the river!” At least that’s what I think they said.
The rest of the day was spent riding up toward a big open valley that was filled with yurt camps as far as the eye could see. Everyone was spread out across the huge valley, but there was probably a population larger than many villages I’ve been to here. A web of confusing tire tracks split in every direction, so I found myself asking locals about which one would send me toward Tsambagarav. A woman pointed in a general direction, but then quickly asked if I wanted some tea. It was getting late, so I said yes, and they invited me to set up my tent next to their yurt camp for the night as locals from nearby yurt camps began to gather and scope out my bike setup.
With another big glass of milk tea in my stomach, I left the camp and started heading up maybe the toughest climb I’d face in all of Mongolia. It climbed at an absurdly steep gradient away from the large multi-colored lakes below and the temperatures immediately started to drop. After a month or so in Mongolia without taking off my Bedrock sandals to this point, it was suddenly snowing little flurries down, seemingly out of nowhere.
With a few more layers on, I reached the high point of the road and was awarded one of the more insane views that I’ve ever seen, down to the orangey-red terrain below. Light danced across the landscape. With the way my brain works, I couldn’t help but scout out roads far in the distance and imagine routes I could do on future trips to Mongolia. Endless possibilities.
The weather was getting worse, so I descended from the ridge and pitched my tent next to a man-made rock wall. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake as I was unaware that a massive swarm of mice was living amongst these rocks and they were very excited to try digging their grubby little mitts into all of my bags at night. At one point I woke up to no less than 6 mice clinging to the inner mesh non my tent, with one just a couple of inches from my face. Though I’ll consider myself lucky that none decided to chew through the mesh and join me on the inside. They were too busy trying to get into my food pannier.
I made my way along the foot of the glacier, undulating up and down on the faint track that was present. It was clear that some nomads were staying up here recently, but it seems they’d descended the mountain, perhaps knowing this frigid weather was coming in. All that was left were some wild horses roaming around, portions of old trucks, and a sea of yak poo.
A brake-pad annihilating descent lead me back toward the main dirt road that cuts up the valley, until eventually I crossed with a freshly paved highway that would help me cover some serious ground en route back to Khovd, to complete the full loop of the Mongolian Altai. Here I’d chill for a few days and prepare to cross the most remote stretch of Mongolia I’d visit in the whole trip, the Zavkhan steppe.
My Rig for Mongolia
As with any trip I do, small tweaks to my setup occur as I try to dial in what works best for me and for the place I’m visiting. In fact, I think the only pieces of gear that are exactly the same from my first long trip through the Andes in 2016 are my Jones handlebars, the Pass and Stow front rack top (the legs were swapped to fit this bike), my Opinel knife, and my Paul Klamper brakes.
For Mongolia, I mashed up the best of my Rohloff equipped Tumbleweed and Porcelain Rocket-laden setup from my trip to Central Asia and the Tailfin and Bags by Bird kit I’ve been loving the last couple of years on my Surly Bridge Club. This gives me lots of water and food capacity for some of those longer stretches without many guaranteed resupply points, but still is well balanced and everything is super stable.
One other notable change was to my cooking setup with the MSR Whisperlite instead of my usual alcohol stove. Decent cooking fuel is impossible to find in Mongolia, so it was back to the lovely soot of unleaded gasoline.
Frame/Fork: Tumbleweed Prospector V2, Size XL
Drivetrain: Rohloff Speedhub 32×16
Rims: Knight Composites 27.5+ carbon
Front Hub: SON Dynamo
Tires: Maxxis Chronicles EXO/TR 27.5×3”
Headlamp: Schmidt Edelux II
Brakes: Paul Klamper
Handlebar: Jones H-Bar Loop
Saddle: Brooks Cambium All-Weather C17
Seatpost: Thomson Elite 31.6mm
Stem: Salsa Guide
Front Rack: Pass and Stow 5-rail
Bags x Bird Goldback handlebar bag
Porcelain Rocket 52Hz framebag
Porcelain Rocket Microwave panniers
Tailfin 10L mini panniers
Outer shell stem bag
Choike Jumbo stem bag
RandiJo Jeff N Joans bag
Tailfin prototype top tube bag
Rockgeist Big Dumpling hip pack
Below is my route for this segment of the trip, which is part of a larger loop of the Altai range. You can find a GPS track and more info on the full loop here.