Words and Images by Mick McDonald.
Mongolia, the very word conjures up images of wild horseman galloping across and ancient empty steppe landscape, with bow & arrow in hand, which today, isn’t that far from reality in what is the most sparsely populated country on earth and where the locals still practice the three “manly” sports of horse-riding, archery & wrestling.
The plane broke through a thick blanket of cloud to reveal a worrying sight, as we made the final approach into Chinngis Khan International Airport the view out the window revealed swollen rivers, flooded roads and inundated buildings, the countryside, it seemed, had turned into a flooded quagmire. We knew we were in for the ride of a lifetime with some serious challenges, if the view from the plane predicated what lay ahead of us?
Riders had gathered in Ulaan Baatar from around the world for an epic 14-day ride that travelled over 2500kms of stunning vistas following a circular route that took us east toward China then north to within a 100kms of Russia before riding west then due south to return to Ulaan Baatar. I was not alone in my concerns, everyone it seems was talking about the “once in a century” floods that had hit all of Mongolia, tragically, sweeping over fifty people to their deaths, swept bridges away and isolated countless remote communities across the country, even the great Gobi Desert was waterlogged.
We collected our motley assortment of motorbikes consisting of Teneres, XTs, KTMs and Transalps, along with 4 mechanics and three support vehicles and made our way out past Sukh Baatar Square, with a giant statue of a stern looking Chinngis Khan standing guard over Parliament House, that bordered the northern end of the square.
Our destination was the first 5-star hotel ever built in Mongolia located at the stunning Terelj National Park, via the biggest statue of a horse in the world, with of course, Chinngis Khan sitting astride the horse. In fact, the statue was so big you needed to take an elevator to the head of the horse where one can walk out to marvel the view across the landscape where legend has it that Ghinngis, (as he is locally known), found his golden sword, a sword that guaranteed battle success, it must have worked as he built up the largest empire the world has ever known!
Our first shakedown ride on the dirt was via the wonderfully remote Kerlin River Valley to Mongoramit, in the far east of Mongolia, not far from the Chinese border. The recent rains had indeed swollen the rivers and it wasn’t long before a bike was drowned, the riding was immediately challenging especially for those who had never been off-road before! The scenery however was the stuff of legends with impossibly green steppe landscape dotted with brilliant white yurts, with nomadic families eking out an existence in this wild landscape. Mobs of wild horses galloped by while nervous sheep & yaks roamed the green endless pastures, devoid of fences and other such constraints, it was epic Mongolia.
Immediately our itinerary was changed due to a bridge being washed away with no possible way to cross what was a raging torrent, a town of 6000 people were utterly isolated!
Sun had returned as we rode northwest toward the Russian border to one of only a handful of monasteries that was spared destruction during the Stalinist purges of 1937 where thousands of monks were executed, and most temples in Mongolia destroyed. Crossing two creeks occupied by horses cooling off, we reached Amarsbayagalant Monastery that lay at the confluence of three valleys. The monastery was beautiful, its bright colours in sharp contrast to the surrounding landscape. We were fortunate enough to witness Buddhist chanting, horn playing and prayer time, there was something ethereal about witnessing something so traditional in such a remote silent environment. The visit was an incredible insight into the monks’ way of life. Our stay was shortened due to some of the blackest clouds any of us had even seen as a mighty storm approached, we raced across a green empty landscape, as day turned to night, to our first yurt camp, arriving just as the heavens opened up.
The yurt stays provided us with a unique opportunity to experience the time-honoured nomadic way of life of the Mongolian people, although I think we had it a lot better than most nomads’ yurts, with hot showers, restaurant and bar all laid on for the guests. At night a log fire inside the yurt was lit ensuring a toasty warm yurt before bed.
Our ride west was slowed as we came across a wonderful traditional Mongolian country fair, the highlight being a 14k long horse race with over 100 horses racing along an undefined course with a plethora of vehicles following behind the horses, some of which were riderless as they crossed the finishing line? Locals had turned out in the best finery and horse trainers wiped the sweat off their horses with wooden paddles, you couldn’t pay for this truly local experience.
Arriving at the “jewel in the Mongolian crown”, Khovsguul Nuur, the weather had remained stunning and Mongolia basked under its legendary blue skies, quickly drying the sodden landscape out. To this point we had mostly been on paved roads however the following days would be all on dirt and we were worried.
Bikes put aside for a day we enjoyed the superb landscapes around Khovsguul Nuur, of towering granite peaks, pine forests, intense rainbows and a breathtaking full moon as it rose silently over the still waters of the lake, the day left us in awe of the endless beauty of Mongolia.
Riding the Mongolian dirt is an experience within itself as there is always dozens of tracks to choose from, all going, generally, in the same direction but the rule of thumb is always to follow the single powerline, that will lead you to the next village. The 3-day dirt track ride from Khovsguul Nuur to Tsaguun Nuur was, for some, the greatest days riding of their lives and a huge challenge. The tracks varied wildly from easy, fast single tracks that were barely discernible across endless grassy steppe to challenging rocky tracks that wound their way over lofty mountain passes.
The rains returned, and we slid and scrambled our way up muddy fog shrouded 2500mt mountain passes and crossed waist deep rivers averaging around 20kph. More bikes were drowned riders were wet & exhausted but as we shared a beer at the Tsaguun Nuur yurt camp after an epic 10-hour day we all agreed every moment was worth it, we all felt a huge sense of achievement remembering some had never ridden off road before.
After three days of dirt we finally hit the pavement again and welcomed the chance to soak up the endlessly beautiful surrounds as we rode east toward the legendary Fairfield Hotel, run by Australian expats Malcom and his wife, legendary for its food including “aussie burgers” and curries. We had been in the “bush” for nearly 2 weeks and we savoured familiar food again.
Our final run in Ulaan Baatar saw another itinerary change as the planned 230kms of dirt was now 230kms of deep mud, where even the local 4 x 4 guides were refusing to venture. We visited the former capital, established by Chinngis Khan, of Erdene Zuu Khid, at Kharhorin before riding back into the chaos of Ulaan Baatar, well anything would seem like chaos after two weeks in some of the most empty and remote landscapes on earth, we all wished we could have turned around and ridden back out into the country.
I had never seen Mongolia so wet and the rivers so high, never, and talking to locals neither had they, in their lifetime. The ride had proven to be a huge challenge for some, but all came away with a real sense of achievement and vowed to return to what has to be some of the finest riding on earth, it was as the names suggest Mongolian Magic.
This ride had proven to be the biggest challenge for me in over a decade of visiting Mongolia, three weeks earlier, on the previous Mongolian ride I led, Mongolia was in the grip of a drought, I had never seen it so dry!!!
For more information on this epic riding destination visit: http://www.compassexpeditions.com/tours/mongolian-magic/