The Altai Traverse Part 2: Two Towns with the Same Name and a Mongolian Paradise in Between

This is a continuation of Ryan Wilson’s Altai Traverse Reportage. Read part one here: The Altai Traverse: Finding Tracks in the Mongolian Countryside

In a remote corner of the Mongolian Altai, about 40 kilometers from the border with China, I set off toward a desolate valley from the small, windswept, and dusty village of Bulgan. My next resupply point, about 125km down the road, was, confusingly, another town named Bulgan. I never quite got the hang of the Mongolian naming schemes in my time there, as it was quite common to find a handful of towns and villages across the country with identical names on any given map, and sometimes each town had two or three names they might be referred to by depending on which map you’re looking it, which sometimes makes it tricky getting reliable information.

Thankfully, on this road, I’d have a nice water source flowing next to me the whole way, and I was assured by a man speaking English at the local market that I would hit a market of some variety in the next settlement, so there wasn’t anything to be concerned about from a re-supply perspective.

I had a couple of days worth of food loaded up and a plan to spend a quiet night next to the river after tackling the first 70 kilometers or so of the road.

As most Mongolian roads go, this track was a pretty isolated affair. Soft and sandy in spots to start, with camels clumped together to shield from the blowing dust.  I was just thankful that in turning north, the wind from the west was partially dampened by the valley walls surrounding me.  

Eventually, the road collided with the river as the valley narrowed and I spent the majority of my time on a rocky track that was about as picturesque as bike touring routes get. This is one of those roads where you wouldn’t mind turning around and having another go at it right away after reaching the end.

Every once in a while a motorcycle or an old Soviet van goes by, but they can’t continue with their journey without stopping to kick the tires and test out if I speak Mongolian, Russian, or even Kazakh (I do not). This far western portion of Mongolia has a large number of ethnic Kazakh people, which people were always proud to point out.

The vast majority of these encounters are very pleasant and friendly, like my friend on the motorcycle that wanted to invite me to their house for tea and bread. This sounded like a great little rest stop until I realized the place he was referring to was about 30 kilometers in the wrong direction, so I had to politely decline, which can also be difficult at times in Mongolia.

After an evening camping along the river, in what was basically I bed of goat-head thorns (come tubeless!), I continued up the valley, passing small signs of life along the way in the form of some small houses, though not many people around to go in them. As I found out, most residents of these homes are likely out living with their animals out of ger camps (yurts) in nearby valleys and will move toward these permanent shelters at different times of the year.

I reached the village of Bulgan later in the afternoon and it was quite clear that there wasn’t going to be much happening in town. Two places maybe looked like restaurants but both were locked up. Thankfully the “super” market was open, so I stocked up and planned to head a little bit outside of town to find a place to camp.

I didn’t even make it out of the village before a man in what looked like a Soviet van outfitted as an ambulance flagged me down and asked where I was headed so late in the evening via Google Translate. It wasn’t long before he invited me over to his place for a classic Mongolian dish of noodles with sheep meat. One big plate goes in the middle of the table and every generation of the family swarms around to dig in with hands and a knife, while more and more pieces of meat and noodles are added to the plate until no one can eat another bite. 

After letting me sleep in the yurt outside of their home overnight, the next morning my adopted Bulgan fam took turns posing and taking little test rides with the bike all loaded up and ready to hit the road. This is always the hardest of any of these interactions. You say your goodbyes just as soon as everyone has reached a nice comfort level with one another. But, in bike touring, that’s often how it goes.

I continued up the valley, with eyes on reaching the slow pass to the climb in the late afternoon to see if I can catch a Mongolian sunset. The wind was rage, as is often the case around here. You could spot a vehicle coming about 30 minutes before they reach you by looking for the cloud of dust working its way up the valley.

I stopped on the side of the road for a rest and a snack when a van pulled up and a whole pile of people streamed out of the sliding door. I was in luck, this time, as one of the women in the group spoke English, so she could act as translator. We mused about the idea of wolves coming to hunt me down while I slept in my tent at night, with one man pointing up on the ridge and making a dramatic motion to his neck while everyone burst out laughing.  “He is just kidding, it will be fine… but you must be very careful,” she said, which did not fully reassure me.

They left me with a bottle of Coke and a jar of spicy fermented vegetables and continued on their journey, while I pushed on toward the top of the pass. I’d killed enough time along the way to reach the summit about 30 minutes before the sun disappeared behind the mountains just as I had hoped and descended the switchbacks into the valley below where I’d look for a spot to camp.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that as I was setting my tent up in total darkness that evening, I could hear the closest howling wolves I’d come across so far on the whole trip. I could only laugh to myself thinking of the man in the van who’d brought them up just hours before. Thankfully, I’d grown used to the sound of their evening howls at this point. Though that doesn’t mean I didn’t put some extra pep in my step to get the tent up and hunker down inside my tent. It’s funny how such an absurdly thin piece of Sil Polyester can feel like a protective barrier.

The next morning I made my way toward the next settlement, finding some prime single-track trails, usually made by shepherds heading up and down these valleys on motorcycles, so they are often faster and smoother than taking the double track.

Arriving in the afternoon, I stopped by the local market, where luck would have it that I ran into Sapta, who kindly invited me over to his family’s yurt camp to swap stories, talk about the customs of the area, and share some food. While I was expecting to be blown away by the scenery before I ever stepped foot in Mongolia, I didn’t fully grasp the warmth and hospitality I’d experience from its people along the way.

Part 1 of the Altai Traverse reportage can be found here.

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.