Exactly at the very border the nice Russian asphalt ends. I have been looking forward to the bumpy mongolian tracks. Often it is no real road but rather trails that everyone follows. On wide plains it is often dozens of trails all going the same direction.
On the very first day it is already pretty rough. There is a little pass just before Öglii and the trail heads straight up to it, way to steep. The very strong headwind adds up that I reach the top quite exhausted.
The ride from Ölgii to Khovd is very beautiful. There are some lakes, making a nice contrast to the otherwise very dry landscape. Then I climb some passes from where I have great views into some glacier covered mountains. As soon as the landscape is a little bit green there are many yurts and huge herds. But there are also many desert like parts.
At the moment it is Nadaam, the big mongolian festival. Just as I arrive in Khovd the horse race is taking place outside of town. Next day there is the wrestling competition. A great spectacle, not only because of the competition but also the spectators and the whole fun fair spirit.
With filled up panniers I start again the next day. 430km it is to the next town, and there are only two litte villages in between. The last part before Altai looks worrying on my map: no village and no river for 240km! Had I known what it would be like I probably would have taken even more then the 16 liters of water with me!
At first there are some high plains. Wide grasland as far as you can see. Often I see herd of horses and camels. But then it gets very dry. The trail becomes very sandy. So far I could not complain about the roads here in Mongolia. But the next 50km look like they just want to show me that it can be different too. More and more my front wheel drowns in the soft sand and I have to push the whole bike out of it. There are only two possibilities: the soft sand or the extreme washboard next to it. What a drudgery and my water reserves get less every minute.
A minibus with locals is just having a break. They cannot believe that I am traveling by bike here and ask if they can take a picture of me. Sure, if I can fill up my water bottle then. At least I have some water now. It is again very hot, in the upper 30th. But on the horizon the are suddenly some black clouds: I storm is approaching. This smell just before the rain, when you can already smell the water in the air is just fantastic. Then it really rains. For about 20minutes I cycle in the light rain. Honestly said, filled up in bottles I would have preferred the water...
Just before Altai a car overtakes me. Wasn't that a number plate from Lucerne? I really meet a family that lives close to my hometown and generously get invited for lunch. As we have a coffee a Russian motorbike passes... with a number plate from Zurich! So we have a little Swiss meeting here in the middle of nowhere.
Enough desert for now. I make a detour into the mountains. The trail constantly passes wide, green pastures. That is fantastic for cycling, often tough but very nice. There is no more traffic here, only some shepherds on motorbikes that ride from one yurt to the other. But how am I supposed to find the route here? Constantly a trail goes in every possible direction. I have converted that route from the map into my GPS. That is not very exact but it helps to know the direction. Together with the shepherds who always curiously come on their horses who I can ask to confirm if I am still on the right trail I find my way. It is like a 5 day quiz, I am constantly guessing where to go next.
On the last day I seem to have taken a wrong turn off. The trail I am on passes a deserted plain. For half a day I haven't seen anyone I could ask. Then the trail becomes very sandy until I can hardly cycle anymore. More and more I have to push the bike. am I still going in the right direction? No one seems to have taken that route for a long time. When I finally see some houses of the village I was looking for late in the evening I am relieved.
I am back in the desert for a stage. Suddenly a car overtakes me in full speed. I turn around: on the whole width of the plain I can see dust in the air. Of course, that is the rallye I have heard of. What a picture: Imagine the cars racing real Paris-Dakar-like across the desert and in the middle of this all me on the bicycle!
So far I was mainly in the south of the country. Now I want to go to the north. For that I cross the mountains towards Tsetserleg. What a great ride! I pass green valleys with lots of forest. On the pastures there are endless flowers. Hugh meadows full of edelweiss. On the first day I have to deal with a trail that is more a river bed than anything else. But it soon gets better as the trail goes strait across the meadows. It has often been very dry in the last weeks. But now there is almost to much of water. Every couple of kilometers I have to cross a river.
The closer I get to Tsetserleg the bigger and deeper the rivers become. Here I cannot just push the bike across anymore. I first bring the front panniers to the other side. That is already quite difficult. Now the bike. At the deepest point the water reaches my belly. The current is very strong and I can hardly hold the bike anymore. Scared I realize in what a critical situation I brought myself: one wrong step and the bicycle is gone! Very careful I press against the current and search for the next step until I reach the other side.
From Kharhorin I go for a couple of days to Ulaan Baatar. Here I have to extend my visa and I pick up Andrea at the airport. Yes, in the following weeks I will no more travel on my own! When everything is organized, we go back to Kharhorin and start here again with our bicycles.
In a nomads country buildings worth visiting are rare of course. The monastery in Kharhorin is one of these exceptions and very much worth seeing.
We cycle in a big loop first back to the west and then up north in the following days. This summer it has rained exceptionally much and so everything is very green with lots and lots of beautiful flowers. We can perfectly plan to stay almost every night at a nice lake or river where we always go swimming.
No matter where we camp, we always have shepherds visiting us in the evening. These 'conversations' are always very funny. With sketches and maps, pictures and lots of body language we mostly manage to understand each other.
The food in Mongolia is a story of its own. Fruits and vegetables are almost not existing at all. But there is plenty of meat, mostly sheep. We are often invited to try milk tea, yoghurt and dried yoghurt. At the yurt where we are offered a piece of their freshly cooked marmot we politely decline. In the north we want to go up all the way to Tsagaan Nuur. But in the village where we ask for directions we are told that the water in the rivers to cross is very deep. So we take another, longer way to get there.
Navigation on these minor roads is not always easy as I found out before already. We cycle for days on hardly existing trails across the open pastures. When the trail doesn't go to the desired direction anymore we simply go off road until we find another, better trail.
The small villages up north with the dusty roads, the blockhouses and the horses in front of it very much look like little wild-west towns.
The further north we come the greener it gets. And it is colder, much colder. 4 days ago we were taking every opportunity to go swimming in every river. Now it is snowing at the passes and the water is frozen in the morning.
The change is very dramatic at the pass just before Ulaan Uul: great snowy mountains appear and endles forest even in the valley floor.
In Tsagaan Nuur it is definitely the end of the road. We change from our bike saddle to horse saddles on a trip to visit the Tsaatan. Families that live here in the forest of the border region in tipis breading reindeers.
The horse ride through the forest that is now changing to the autumn colors and the wide swamp land is just a dream. After two days we reach the Tsaatan in a beautiful valley. Their reindeers look very nice with their fur covered antlers. The people here live with very little in their basic but cosy tents in harmony with their animals. From a hill that we reach on our walk we enjoy a fantastic view: endless forest, some lakes, beautiful mountains and no sign of human existence.
After 4 days of horse riding I also know for sure that my bike saddle is more comfortable.
The route to Khovsgol Nuur is marked as a horse trail on our map. That is exactly what it is going to be. At first this is very good for cycling. Then the river crossings are getting bigger and more often and it finally ends in a swamp. For 6km we push our bikes through the knee-deep mud over a pass!
Then we reach the lake. Wow, the water is just so crystal clear. Even though it is very cold we go for a swim.
We enjoy some great days at the lake with fantastic weather and a 'single trail' along its shore that is second to none.
The time with Andrea is coming to an end unfortunately. She has a flight home from Ulaan Baatar. After almost two and a half month and 4000km on trails for me the time has also come to say goodbye to Mongolia.
When I planned this journey it was not difficult to get a Chinese visa here. But there is no chance of getting one now. The Russians also want to give me only 5 days. Much to short to get anywhere. So it has to be a flight out of here. But where to...?