The reception I get is not very pleasant. It is gray and it has rained for quite some time already. I cycle over some small passes and then pitch my tent next to the road.
Next morning I can feel the intense sun already. Outside animals snort. When I open the tent there are about 20 horses grazing next to my tent. I am in the middle of an endless meadow that is dotted with white spots, the Gers of the nomads. While I eat breakfast I get a visit from the ger on the other side of the river and receive my first language lesson already. No question, I am in Mongolia!
In the first days I ride on one of the few paved roads directly towards Ulaanbaatar. Thanks to the good road and a strong tail wind I make good progress. The arrival to Ulaanbaatar is not really nice. The capital is everything the rest of Mongolia is not: dirty, loud, traffic chaos, modern buildings, new shopping centers.
I came here mainly to organize a couple of things. The Mongolia that I search starts there where the paved roads end. And this is where I am heading now...
In search of an interesting route to get away from Ulaanbaatar I chose to cycle along the Tuul Gol. Right after the airport the nicely paved road changes into a rough dirt track within a few meters. Great, that is exactly what I was looking for. But on the second day it gets sandier every kilometer and I often have to push the bike long sections. There has not been any traffic for quite some time already. Damm, what should I do? It is still another 50km to get to the next village with water which I have to reach by the next day. Only for that time my water reserves will last. But if the track stays so bad I will not make that in a day. The decision is not easy, if I turn around now I will have to cycle back 120km on bad bad roads. Finally I do turn around. I rather have one time too often too much respect of a route then one time too few.
After 3 very hot and dry days I reach the Olkhon River for the first time at Ogiy Nuur. For the next days I want to follow that river now. After Harhorin I really get into the mountains. The whole ride is just absolutely fantastic. Following a hardly used trail I first follow the Olkhon River and then go from one valley to the next. They are all different and they are all incredibly beautiful. In one the gras is as high as my hips, one has a beautiful larches forest and in the next there are wide meadows full of Edelweiss. I finish off this route with a bath at the hot springs at Tsenkher.
4021m high Otgon Tenger is Mongolias holiest mountain and may not be climbed. Taking a track through the Khanhai Mountains I want to get to reach this mountain. I follow a wide, barren and lonely valley heading for the mountain range. Just before the pass suddenly a loud bang in the midst of all this silence. Arrg, my rear tire has been cut open and there is now a 5cm gaping whole on the side. This could not have happened at a more remote place. Forward and backward it is about 2 days to the next village and there is hardly anyone on the road here. With wire I try to sew the whole in the tire back together. Looks good, but after only 15 more kilometers there is another bang. This time I try using a gear cable for ’sewing’ and it looks like it really is going to hold this time.
After 2 days I reach Nuhen Davaa, a 3000m high Pass. The final climb is typical for Mongolia: the trail leads straight across the meadow to the highest point with no regards of how steep it is.
From atop I can see Otgon Tenger with its snow cap for the first time. The descent is about as exhausting as the climb because of storm-like head wind. The landscape is truly stunning and every evening I camp next to a mountain stream.
After refilling my supplies in Uliastay I start for Char Nuur. I ride through lonely valleys and over some steep passes. The lake is well hidden behind high mountains and surrounded by big sand dunes. On the next pass I ride through an imposing rock arch. From atop I can already see the big sand field that I have to cross further down. Instead of describing in detail how I dragged my bike through there, I just tell you how long it took me: one and a half hours, one and a half hours for 2 kilometers!
Muchartin Gol is a strange river. First it springs in the middle of big sand dunes, then disappears under one of those, only to emerge again a few kilometers further in the middle of a meadow.
For the next days I follow an huge sand dune and a river that lies just in front of it to the west. The track gets worse constantly. Every day I get slower and slower. The low point is reached on a day where I can not cycle one single meter and in 6 long and hard hours of pushing only get 28km further.
I make myself a strap with which I can pull the bike with my whole body to better distribute the load. A 50kg heavy touring bike can not by pushed through soft sand, it has to be pulled.
I now leave this valley and cross a desert to get to the next river. All day long I see no human being and in the middle the sandy plain goes all the way to the horizon in all directions. Very impressive to stand here all by myself. Fortunately the sand is here coarse-grained and I can mostly ride. But it is not much faster than walking. It is extremely rough.
Anyway this whole route is nothing less but a battle of destruction: twice the front rack breaks, the bottle holder breaks, a lens of my camera is not working properly anymore and my patched up tire causes problems again. But then just before Khovd it is all of a sudden over. Dusty, the dirt track spits me out and I quietly roll into town.
Finally equipped with a new tire I leave Khovd. Exactly 3 day it lasts and then blows up in a spectacular explosion. So much about cheap Chinese tires.
The ride to Olgiy passes next to the 4208m high Tsambagarav Uul. On a great trail I can travel right along the foot of the mountain.
Almost overnight it has now gotten much colder. The morning I wake up next to the mountain all my water bottles are solid frozen. For the first time it has also snowed down to about 2500m. And this just now that I am seriously heading into the mountains…
The Altay Tavang Bogd national park lies in the western most part of Mongolia and has been on my wish-to go-list from the very beginning. Because it is right next to the border to China I need a special permit to go there. Unfortunately I cannot organize this permit on my own and finally decide to take a taxi to the park, from where I can cycle on my own through the park and back. On the way to the park I am almost happy, that I have to ride this road only once on the way back, so bad it is.
I feel a bit like an animal that is being brought back into the wild when I leave the Land Cruiser with my stuff and suddenly find myself all alone at the seemingly end of the world.
For the first leg, the manager of the Ger camp in Olgiy has given me a tip where to go. This trail I don’t have on my GPS map and I only know the approximate route. At first I ride over a huge glacial moraine. As always, there are trails that turn off in every possible direction. Several times I take the wrong one and then have to find a way back through the moraine. A very slow progress but finally I reach the lakes that I was looking for.
I pass beautiful high plains and lots of lakes. This part of Mongolia is almost exclusively inhabited by Kazach. But on these high meadows there are now, shortly before the winter only very few shepherds. Those that I meet are all the more impressive. Men with faces lined by the harsh environment here. Covered in big leather jackets and furry hats and of course always on horseback. They are always happy to meet someone and always stop me for a little chat.
On the third morning it rains when I get up. I am just below the snow line. When the weather gets better I start. But in the climb to the next pass it starts raining again, soon changing to snow. At 2300m I reach the snow line. Soon I push the bike through 15-20cm deep snow and just before the pass I literally get stuck in the snow. Next to a rock I find a sheltered space and put up my tent. It is one of the worst nights I have ever spend. Much of my stuff is still wet and damp, it is -20º and all night long the furious snow storm continues and almost buries my tent.
When I see the sun rise on the horizon next morning, it is the most beautiful thing I could think of this moment. Of course it is far from warm but I can now see on the other side of the pass. There is even more snow there and I soon realize that it is pointless going down there. So I turn around and go all around the mountain towards the lake I was aiming for.
The chain and cassette of my bicycle are one big chunk of ice. To be able to pedal, I first have to clean everything. But then it happens. The chain blocks in the derailleur and with the next turn of the pedal I rip it of the frame and in two parts. worst case scenario in the middle of the wilderness. If have no other choice as to shorten the chain and make my bike into a singlespeed. Two days I ‚ride‘ like this until I reach the first village where I find a vehicle the brings me back to Olgiy.
The Mongolian Altay is also known for its eagle hunters. These hunters raise eagles and train them for hunting. The prey (marmots, foxes and even wolves) are then shared between the hunter and the eagle. Right now they meet at a festival where they compete their skills in games. A great spectacle with unique characters and animals.
Back in Olgiy I focus on the hurt bicycle again. Of course I cannot find spare parts here. But after a day of welding, drilling, hammering and screwing I can actually ride again, and even more import and change gears.
When I leave Olgiy I am nervous. To get to the border, I have to cross over a much higher pass then the one where I got snowed in only days ago. If I cannot cross this pass I am really in the offside here. After Tolbo I leave the main road. For some days I ride through lonely, deserted valleys. The weather is fine but just on the day when I start for the high pass clouds appear on the sky. Fortunately it stays dry and so I reach the 3100m high pass without snow. Because of the strong and constant wind it is bitterly cold. Now down as quick as possible. Easier said then done, as I ride for quite some time across beautiful high plains and finally camp there. Next morning I wake up in a true ice cave. I put on all my warm clothes and start. The sun can only slowly warm things up. The valley gets narrower and drops in a canyon down to the next wide plain.
Bulgan is a dusty little town and after that the valley gets narrower quickly agian. For some time there are Gers along the river but soon it gets lonely again. Steep, barren rock faces flank the valley which itself is nothing more than a stone and rocky desert. Everything is kept in monochrome colors. It looks real gloomy, even more due to the fact that the clouds hang really low.The only color but all the more intense, is the single string of now autumn-gold trees that line the river all the way long.
Like a snake the river winds its way past all these rocks towards the south. Always right next to it the track, which sometimes barely has space in the narrow canyon anymore and then looks like it is glued to the rock face. Not a single vehicle I see for two days. How the surface of a track in this environment looks like you can probably imagine. In the evening I always fell all my bones but it is never really bad and always ridable.
During last night it rains. I am in a section where more and more sand has appeared. I welcome the rain, as it makes the sand more compact and much easier to ride. The first meadows appear and with it the first animals and Gers. Soon I don’t quite like the wet surface that much anymore and actually get stuck in the mud. But the sand is soon back.
Finally I reach more solid and quieter ground under my wheels just before Bulgan. I have just crossed the Altay mountains and stand next to the border with China.