MTB Club100 Tour to Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar, Erdenet, Chinggis (Or Gehngis) Khaan, and Karukorum – these were just strange sounding names to us before we left for Mongolia. After completing our journey they are still strange, but a bit more familiar to us. Why Mongolia? Simple, we wanted to ride in a remote place, with limited presence of Homo sapiens and a place nobody we knew had ever visited. Mongolia ticked all the boxes.
The core of our group came from the scatterlings of our previous exotic tour to the Himalayas. Carlos, Macks (x2), Sachs (x2) and Thys were in again. Some of the previous touring members were nursing heart attacks, working too hard or just old age (!), but we had the core. We had the new youngsters Michael, Chris and Tristan via Sydney as well as the newcomers Geoff and Charles with us. Our tour leader was Bat Bagar and the riding mechanic Toro. During the next 10 days we would get to know them a lot better and they would become friends.
All the riders
Mongolia is three times the size of France. It shares a border of 3485km on the north with Russia and on the south a 4677km border with China. The country is an independent sovereign state and was previously under control of Russia, a very young democratic state in its infancy although it ruled an empire in the 13th century. After changing planes in Beijing we were on our way to the capital Ulaanbaatar on a 3 hour flight. The population of the country consists of 3m people and +40m animals – Homo sapiens is outnumbered by 13:1 – perfect, limited tar roads – perfect.
Chinggis Khaan (1162-1227) was the amazing warlord and finally statesman that unified more than 80 Mongolian tribes. The Mongolian Empire eventually controlled a massive area from the east coast of China up to Austria with the headquarter in Beijing. Sadly, like all empires this one did not endure due to infighting between later generations and upcoming leaders.
We were amazed by some of the modern buildings in Ulaanbaatar, but it was clear that the world wide resources slump had caused havoc in their economy. Quite a few buildings were vacant and quite a few abandoned concrete structures for high rise buildings were testimony to the slump. Our friendly and experienced leader, Bat Bagar from Mongolia Trekking tours collected us at the airport and organised a tour of the city as well as the local national museum and lastly a cultural show. That was enough culture for most of us and we were eager to get going. Our bikes were provided by Bat’s company and we would make friends with them at the start, but we first had a night to spend on a train ride to Erdenet!
Ulaanbaatar Guards & Chinggis Khaan
We were four in a compartment and we soon realized that the trip would be a new experience for most of us. Each coach had its own female attendant and she quickly sorted out the discipline, stopped all jokes, handed out our sleeping goods and gave us a sachet of coffee or bad tea and hot water. The next morning we arrived at our destination Erdenet and were collected by our drivers with their Russian vehicles. Most of us thought (incorrectly) that these battered vehicles would never complete our tour.
Bat checking that we are safe Tough Cookies
After a quick trip through the small town of Erdenet we were dropped off in the green fields of Mongolia. We met the most important member of the touring party, our cook Bagie and his wife Bogie. The quality and digestibility of the food on a foreign trip play a major role in the success of the tour. Bagie was an excellent choice and as the tour got a life of its own this team played a major role in its success. We had slipped in a few big pieces of biltong on tour and Bagie could carve the slices in amazingly thin slices – all the Boertjies on tour were impressed with his skill!
We had our first breakfast in the sticks, in our new tented dining room, surrounded by our three Russian busses and our rented bikes still to be assembled. Life was great, Siberia was a stone’s throw away and our beloved Africa was now very far away. Our cycling tour was about to begin.
Our First Breakfast
Within a few minutes our most experienced rider and his stoker (Sachs machine) were on the ground – it seemed that this was going to be a long tour. The next time they went down was many days later when they rode into a muddy patch and Cheryl made a spectacular dive into the mud. The tandem conquered the Himalayas, and Mongolia would be no problem for this team either. We were accompanied by Bat and our mechanic Toro.
It quickly became pretty evident that without them we would have no idea where we were and which one of the many jeep tracks we should be riding on. Fortunately we also had the route on GPS. Without this tool it would have been almost impossible to stay on our designated route. The valleys were huge and never ending and we were surrounded by hills in all directions. Bat and his team had developed this route over time. Over the next 10 days we realized that this was quite an achievement over such a vast area.
Stepping on to the green fields for the first time, we were greeted by an eerie noise, similar to the hiss of a puff adder. Wherever you stepped you were met with this strange sound. It turned out to be a certain type of grasshopper insect on a double turbo. For the rest of the tour we got used to these strange insects. One morning, after a night’s rain, we were woken up by a cacophony of sound around our tents – these insects were in breeding mode and they seemed to locate each other by sound and movement in the air!
The scenery was spectacular. Massive areas of rolling green grass. On closer inspection the areas that had not been grazed, had many types of beautiful flowers. It was hard to believe that in a few months’ time the temperatures in this area could be as low as -40 degrees centigrade. In the bigger valley we sometimes counted between 25-30 ger settlements. Each of these ger settlements had between two to five round gers. We visited a family in their homes and were served their delicacies made from horse & goat milk.
Rose checking out the Sheep
In the corner of the ger the carcass of a sheep was maturing beautifully. (A ger = a nomadic tent)
We quickly settled down and started to get a feel for what +40 million sheep, cattle, goats, horses, yaks and camels looked like. Each ger owner and his family are nomads. They move their total group of gers up to four times per year, relocating to better pastures. The number of animals per family could easily be more than 1000 animals. We literally would pass millions of these animals during our tour. I made the mistake of handing some pencils (marked City of Cape Town!) to a few young girls in the settlement we visited. This caused massive unhappiness with the “have nots”. Eventually I had to hand out my whole stash of pencils at the one settlement!
Our Camp for the night
We had prepared for mosquitos and other creatures, but the first few days were amazingly insect free. Then one night we were attacked by silent biting insects. The next day the damage became evident on our legs. We were expecting other creatures such as snakes and scorpions, but this was not the case. Other wild animals such as wolves and bears kept to the far hills. One night there was a commotion at a neighbouring ger family. Red lights were flickering and nomads were active on their motorbikes. It turned out that wolves were active around their camp that night. The nomad’s animals return to the safety of their owners gers every night.
Rose fulfilled her ambition to ride a Mongolian horse after we were visited by a local nomad in traditional dress code. We offered him a few slices of our biltong, which he ate reluctantly and then went for seconds! His highlight was when Brett took him on a spin on the tandem. His horse seemed very impressed.
Insect damage Brett and the Nomad on his horse
Being fed on a tour is even more important than the riding (to most of us). Providing three meals on the fly for 10 days is a real achievement. Bagie & Bogie made an excellent husband and wife team and we were amazed at what was produced every day, sometimes under rain and windy conditions. The climax of Bagie’s cuisine, was when he bought a 2 tooth goat from a neighbouring ger village and prepared this delicatessen for us over the next three days. Carlos showed his real colours and he is clearly not a goat eater. Tristan loved the goat and went for a second helping.
Our 2 tooth goat Baggie presenting our last dinner
Cooking in the Rain Taro our Mechanic
The cycling on the tour was typical touring cycling. About 90km per day broken into three sections. Most of the cycling was rolling flat, typical jeep track, no single track and almost no tar. We had a few days with good and serious climbs pushing the heart into the red.
The first stop of the day was for “tea time” in the middle of Mongolia. This was normally quite a welcome break and we consumed biscuits, coffee or coke (the drink). Next stop was for lunch and Bagie was up to his normal magic. After completing the third session of the day we were in the camp for the night and we would be erecting our tents, washing our clothes or showering.
Geoff (from Durban) is an avid birdwatcher and he turned every stop or breakdown to an opportunity to check out the birds. We all became bird spotters for Geoff and it brought another dimension to the tour. Geoff had a few exciting “lifers” on tour.
Geoff's Feathery Friends
At last we arrived at our final cycling destination in Karukorum. This was where Chinggis Kahn had his original headquarters. Only the mounds of soil remain, but it must have been an impressive set-up in its heyday. We visited the local museum and spent our last night in a tourist ger complex. Unfortunately the last cycling day was spoilt a bit by rain from start to finish. Our green Russian bus broke about an hour from the start of our ride back. Major breakdown. When they eventually had the oil pump in their hands and starting improvising to make new bearings we thought we would be camping next to the road. However our drivers were once again masterful mechanics and improvisers. After ±5 hours the bus started and we were on our way to Ulaanbaatar.
Magic Driver (Mechanics) Before we lost the "Macks"
The group returning via Beijing was first off to the airport in Ulaanbaatar. Our plane from Air Mongolia was delayed by 2 hours. This meant that we would miss the plane back to SA. Fortunately after a lot of sweat Bat’s man on the ground persuaded the local staff to transfer us to the Air China plane. With a bit of luck we would make the plane back from Beijing. We jumped all queues at Beijing airport, raced through customs and made the bus by a minute or two. On the plane we realized that the Macks were missing! Somehow they were held up due to a solar powered battery at customs and they were not with us anymore. Carlos was up & down on the plane, tried to stop the captain taking off, but we were unsuccessful. The Macks had to make other plans back via Hong Kong and landed in SA a day later.
After Himalayas we asked the question, “would we do it again”. Most probably not, because there are so many other places in the world to visit. Mongolia still has the Gobi which should be a stunning tour. Should you do it? For sure – life is short!
Once again it was great having Carlos on tour. Bat and Toro from Mongolia Trekking became mates as we progressed. Bagie and Bogie were superb cooks and our drivers were amazing. Mission accomplished. We have started giving thoughts to the next tour in 2018. Destinations such as Alaska, Greenland and the favourite at this stage, Morocco & the Atlas mountains. If you want to join our next adventure on the bike, send your name to one of us. If you have a great destination with many dirt tracks and roads and a limited amount of Homo Sapiens in the area, send the suggestions!