Both Paul and I felt the need to write about our experience and how Mongolia left us, so instead of writing one piece, here are both our views. And as usual, we are in agreement. Paul kicks off with his bit, and then I follow.
Ok, so we have ‘done’ Mongolia. We can scratch it off the map, we can brag about it on Facebook and we can participate in cool conversations with other Overlanders.
But was it everything I hoped for, or everything I feared? Well, I am not sure if I may say so, but no, actually not.
It is a weird feeling, having left Mongolia now. And the weird feeling already started when we went from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan, before even being in Mongolia. I mean, we did not just dipped our toe in the country: we came in from the west, did part of the southern route, crossed over to the northern route, spent some days in Ulan Bator and left the country via the north border to Russia.
But can we say we ‘did’ it? Did we get all of the Mongolian experiences? Did we do the difficult river crossings and we’re we blocked in deep sand in the Gobi desert?
Well, the correct question is: did we want to do it? Did we look for these challenges? Were we hoping to get blocked at a river that was impossible to pass? The answer is no.
A few months before we left, Erik and I discussed the choice of our motorbikes. What bike should we take for this trip. The good old BMW 1200GSA, the enduro bike for grannies like someone I know called it, or some lightweight bike that could easily take all obstacles?
We chose the first. Instead of choosing the bike based on the most difficult stretch, we chose to take a bike that would be best for the longest part of our trip. And the BMW is perfect for almost everything. Tarmac, gravel, stones, you name it. It is just not really made for deep sand, slippery mud and tricky river crossings. So before we left Holland we decided to plan our trip along a doable route, not too much tarmac, not to much risk of sand; just enough unpaved and off road to get the real experience, but not so much that we would regret it.
My folder on my computer about the trip is called Mongolia, when I talked about this adventure I called it my Mongolia trip, yes, for me, in the beginning, Mongolia was THE highlight of the whole journey.
Then when I started to research more, I was really looking forward to Georgia, was very curious about Uzbekistan, excited about the Pamir, and I thought Kazakhstan and the Altai mountains would be amazing. And you know what, it all was exactly like that. I have absolute loved all the different aspects of these places and when we were riding through Kazakhstan on our way to Mongolia, I felt like we had already done a great trip. For me the trip could have ended there and then, and it would have been perfect. Maybe a 3 month journey was just a bit too much. Maybe Mongolia was a bridge too far.
It felt like we had to do it, whether we liked it or not.
And then there was the fact that it made us nervous. If Mongolia had been a magnificent country with great roads and many highlights and things to see, it might have been different. But actually there is not much to see or do there. It is all about the journey itself. And we had read so many reports and seen so many videos that showed us all these challenges, that we were quite nervous about it. We were more dreading it than looking forward to it.
We had already done quite some challenging roads in Tajikistan, mostly unpaved and now, riding in Kazakhstan, I was just getting used to nice and smooth tarmac again. I was not really in the mood for even worse stretches of sand and impassable rivers.
But we did it! We got through!
And frankly, it was easier than we expected. Maybe even easier than we hoped for. Only one day was a bit challenging, and that was the most fun day! In the end, I liked Mongolia and I am happy that we did it, but if I would do it again, I would hire a lighter bike in the area, I would not listen to well ment advice and go a little more off the beaten track.
Finally, Mongolia. The country that filled me with a mix of anticipation and apprehension. Anticipation of the vast landscapes and the beautiful emptiness that would await us, and apprehension caused by the question if we could travel on the tracks (you can’t really call it roads) on our heavy motorcycles.
But let’s start at the beginning. We were rushing towards Mongolia because we learned, thanks to Tom and Matt, that the border would close for 6 days as of the 11th of July for the Naadam festival. We already had a deadline of the 13th of July, that was the last date on which we could enter the country, after that our visa would be expired. So sitting out the border closure was not an option. We had to speed up. But like Paul already wrote, we made it to the border in time. We arrived on Sunday the 8th of July, after 2 days enjoying smooth asphalt in a stunning scenery in the Russian Altai Republic, at the border. The border between Russia and Mongolia is always closed on Sundays. I still find that a weird concept, just closing a country, no one could get in our out.
When we arrived in the afternoon, there was already a queue of 10 cars. We decided to join the queue, just to be sure. For motorcycles it’s usually easier than for cars at the border, we almost always just drive past the queue and get preferential treatment, but we did not want to take that chance with the Russian border guards. So just line up.
We found a hotel close by, dumped our bags and locked the motorcycles in the queue. Paul had already made contact with 3 Russian friends – Alex, Nicola and Надежда, (Nadeshda) who where just before us in the queue and had put up their tent next to the line of cars. He asked them if they could keep an eye on our bikes. Sure, they said but only if you eat with us and drink our vodka. This was our first introduction to Russian hospitality, and it is so much more fun if you replace Google translate by vodka and beer. Robin and Kim from the UK joined, added even more vodka, we donated our rations and we were one big family.
The next morning the queue had grown overnight to more than 50 cars, but we still had secured our spot in the front. At 9 there was finally movement at the border, and then a group of motorcycles drove past and jumped the queue. We decided to join them, sine nice guys finish last. It was a mixed group, with riders from Romania, Spain and Turkey, together with Benjamin and Edouard from France and Tom and Matt from the UK, whom we’ve met before. They agreed Paul and I should go first, since we’d been at the border since the day before. The Russian border guard was a bit p*d off at all of us motorcycles, but let us through before the cars.
I will try to be brief about the border crossing itself. I am always impressed by people who will not be wavered by the amount of work there is or the amount of people who are waiting for them. I found another fine specimen. The Russian customs border guard who had to sign me out of the country took his time. And I mean really took his time. He had to check a couple of documents, and the process went like this: 1. Look at document. 2. Look at computer screen. 3. Touch a key 4. Look puzzled. 5. Pauze for 1 minute. 6. Goto step 1.
After what seemed an eternity, I did get my stamp, got my passport and visa checked and could progress out of Russia. Between Russia and Mongolia there is 20km of no man’s land. The Russian side is still asphalt, the Mongolian side is a dirt track until you reach the border post. First you pay 1 US dollar for disinfectant that’s not there, and then the fun starts. The Mongolian entry process is completely randomized. None of us who went through the border went through the same steps. I was refused entry twice because I was missing stamps, I just got random officials to stamp my passport, Paul was let through but then called back and refused entry the second time because he did not have a piece of paper that they took from him the first time he was let through. Kafka was here.
But in the end we managed to enter Mongolia. And yet again the landscape had changed. It’s empty, barren mountains, desert, nothingness. We drove the first 120km in Mongolia over a washboard dirt track, marvelling at the landscape.
We were finally in Mongolia.
Because we had been rushing to the border we decided to spend a few days in the first big town, a place called Ölgii. I’ve heard also people calling it Ugly. Which is a fitting description. But we did not care, we stayed a few days and went to see the Nadaam festivities. These usually consist of three parts: archery, wrestling and horseracing.
We met other overlanders at the Nadaam festival, there was Martin who travelled around Mongolia on his rented Chinese motorcycle, and Tom and Wafa from Belgium in their Suzuki Vitara. And of course Harry, whom we met already on the Pamir Highway on his bicycle. He had been able to catch up with us – very impressive.
We tried to gather information about the state of the roads, especially areas with deep sand and deep river crossings. We decided to follow a mix of the southern and central route to Ulaanbaatar. Tom and Matt, whom we met in Kazachstan went the same route and were a few days ahead of us. From Ölgii (B) we would drive to Khovd (C), then to Altai (D) at the edge of the Gobi desert. From Altai the route goes north to Uliastai (E) and then to the villages of Tosontsengel and Tsertserleg, and finally Ulaanbaatar (H).
While we were in Ölgii we heard about an eagle hunter in a village nearby. So we went to Sagtai to see if we could find him. The information we had was that the hunter was called Arman and lived next to the river. Not much to go on, but we went off. 30 kilometers of dusty washboard road through the mountains. Once we arrived in the village we asked a random guy at a gas station. He made some calls and he pointed us in a direction. We drove through the field towards a yurt, and I don’t know how we did it, but there was an eagle. A little girl came from the yurt and spoke surprisingly good English. She told us that this was the family of the brother of Arman and that Arman was away himself, but his brother was also an eagle hunter.
We were invited into the yurt for tea, and after that the hunter showed his eagle. He had a 5 year old bird, and his daughter explained that eagles hunt in winter only, and in summer they are shown to tourists.
It was an impressive bird weighing 15 kilograms, and we could hold it on our arms.
The next day we set off for Ulaanbaatar. From Ölgii to Khovd it was all unpaved, a gravel track through desert mountains with some sandy patches. It took us the better part of the day to reach Khovd, the landscape was stunning. Western Mongolia is full of barren mountains, which change color all the time. There are no real roads, there are tracks heading in a certain direction and as long as you keep the general direction you will end up at the right spot. But driving these tracks takes a lot of focus, so there is not a lot of time to look at the landscape while driving. So we stopped many times.
From Khovd to Altai was all asphalt. 400k of brand new tarmac. I had been looking forward to asphalt – asphalt means no sand – but I found it really boring really quickly. On the way we met a few guys from Australia who had come from the southern route, and told us horror stories about deep sand in the southern route. Fortunately our route would take us north before we would hit the sand.
We had heard from other travellers on the route we were taking that the next section was really hard, so we both were quite nervous. We have big and heavy motorcycles. They are great for long distance, they handle really well in rough roads, especially gravel and dirt, we’d conquered the Pamir Highway with them but Mongolia was different, we thought. So in the morning we went off from Altai. It was about 250km to Uliastai. The first few hours were great. A green plateau with tracks running in many directions, and the tracks would come together many kilometers further ahead.The tracks were wide and straight, and we could easily get our speed up to 70 kph on these tracks, we were completely alone in the landscape. After a while the scenery changed. The tracks became less wide, more curves, more rocks and more sand. But we had come into the swing of the landscape, and had a great time. At first my heart rate would go in overdrive when I would reach a sandy bit, but after a while I got the hang of it. Eyes up, open gas, get the speed up and let the bike find its way. You have to ignore your instincts to slow down, when your front wheel threatens to go off track you need to accelerate, so it lifts up and finds the right direction again. Scary at first, but after a while it becomes easy. It is such an amazing feeling, riding through these remote areas with nobody in sight.
We were still wondering when the hard parts would start by the time we reached Uliastai. We thought we would take all day to reach Uliastai, but were there early afternoon already. After a lunch we decided to go on to Tosontsengel. We had some unpaved piste, and then 75km of asphalt. Mongolia weather is 4 seasons in a day. We started the day off with a cloudy sky, had some sun, saw thunder and lightning at the horizon and now it was pouring rain. When the asphalt stopped we had still about 1 hour to go to Tosontsengel, through muddy tracks up the hill. We were not alone anymore, there were many cars heading in the same direction. It is a funny sight, seeing all these cars just driving out in the field, each finding their own way. It was the added bonus challenge, driving through the rain on muddy tracks while dusk was setting in. But we managed just fine, and I had a lot of fun.
Sometimes too much information is not good. We had been looking for information, and we found it, but it is really hard to make it objective. What is hard for one person is easy for another. And vice versa. And this was not the first time we had been warned about a road, and we had wondered what we missed by the time we completed the road. Our running gag is “a long descent with a sandy patch”, that someone warned us about on the Pamir Highway. He had driven it many times and each time he struggled, he told us. To this date, we still don’t know where that was.
And I had the same feeling about Mongolia. Maybe we’d listened too much to others and took the easy way, or we are better riders than we think we are. I feel we barely scratched the surface of Mongolia. And we did not have a whole lot of time to go exploring in Mongolia, and I feel that’s the way this country needs to be approached. Just head into a direction, see where you end up, put up your tent when you feel like it, and experience the emptiness.
It is definitely a country to come back to. Probably not on my own bike – it’s a bleeping long drive, and a lighter bike will be easier in any case. And more camping, which we did not do at all in Mongolia.
The rest of the days to Ulaanbaatar were uneventful. A bit of piste and mostly asphalt. I would have loved more of the day we had before. We stopped in Karakorum, the old capital of the Mongol Empire of Ghinggis Khan in the 13th century, and visited his statue (it is officially the biggest equestrian statue in the world). About Ulaanbaatar I can be brief. It’s the opposite of the countryside – chaotic, messy and busy. Not a very special place, but we stayed a few days anyway.
To finish off my post I will leave you with pictures from Mongolia and Ulaanbaatar.