Basically there are two most commonly used routes from the western border crossing at Tsagaanuur to Ulaanbaatar – the northern route via Ulaangom and Moron ( :)) and the southern route via Khovd, Altai and Bayankhongor. We weren’t going to use either of these, we would forge our way by a more central route which would be much quieter in terms of traffic (not that any of the routes is exactly busy!) and more ‘interesting’ roads.
Now Mongolia doesn’t have much in the way of tarmac,
Roads are predominantly dirt, sand and/or gravel. So those lines on the map that to you and me signify ‘roads’ are pretty meaningless. Even the ‘major’ routes shown by thick red lines that you are probably thinking of as equivalent to a good quality ‘A’ road (UK) or even a dual carriageway…..oh no…think more like the worst road you have ever driven on in the UK…or the sort of road that people with old Land Rovers, with exhausts pointing skywards and unfeasibly wide tyres, actively seek out every weekend in their quest to push vehicle and driver to its limits (and if they’re lucky, annoy a few ramblers on the way). In fact, erase completely from your head any western bourgeois concept you may have of ‘road’ – think more like ‘sandy track’ and you are beginning to get close to what the red lines signify on the map. In fact, erase ‘sandy track’ from your mind and replace with ‘sandy tracks‘ – that single red line on the map, is, on the ground a bewildering number of criss-crossing tracks where vehicles have meandered across the landscape, avoiding each other, (mostly), craters, small lakes, wandering yaks, ditches, large boulders, etc. You pays yer money and you takes yer choice, pick one that is heading vaguely in the direction you want to go and keep checking that you haven’t veered off line and it’s taking you into the wrong valley.
With Sam’s accident and the river crossing, we hadn’t managed to cover many miles on the previous day, so another early start was scheduled. It was now Thursday and we were supposed to be arriving in UB on Sunday – about 1500km away as the crow flies (and crows don’t get to fly very straight in Mongolia, they have to keep dodging the eagles).
We passed through another small village called Olgiy, (which had us worried we were riding around in circles for a few moments) and then we came over a small rise and had a fantastic view down to the shores of an amazing blue lake (Hyargas Nuur for those fluent in Mongolian – from looking at the map and using my amazing powers of deduction and logic I have worked out that ‘nuur’ means lake; either that or Mongolians are very unimaginative when naming their lakes)
It was shortly after I took this shot that I had my first fall (I’m not counting silly, stationary drops outside hotels in Russia). After getting through yesterday, in the rain and the mud and crossing rivers, without falling, I was obviously now a fully-fledged off-road super-hero and was contemplating entry into next year’s Dakar and giving Simon Pavey a run for his money. However, even super-heroes need to keep their concentration up. I blame being distracted by the view, one second, there I was happily trundling down the track dreaming of …(I can’t remember exactly what I was dreaming of, but it probably involved nothing more exciting than a good night’s sleep and a decent meal) and the next I was on the floor spitting sand and trying to wrestle the bike upright before anyone else noticed. I had just let the front wheel drift off the main track into the softer ‘lip’ of sand that builds up at the edge, got a ‘bit of a wobble-on’ and pitched off. Luckily it was a pretty soft landing and there was no damage to the bike, bar a bent brake lever and a sky facing wing mirror.
The lake was absolutely stunning – The picture below of Mark, shows just how beautiful it was and also sums up the effect it had on me, and I think all of us, as one by one, we pulled up and just gazed out. My thoughts were taken by the hand and led slowly away to a far-off magical place.
We rode around the north side of the lake and were treated to many breath-taking views. Despite all this water, the land around the lake was particularly dry, dusty and moon-like (not that I’ve ever visited the moon – but I’ve seen pictures).
We pressed on, making good progress on relatively easy terrain. We would ride for around 25km and then stop to allow the trucks to catch up. The system was working marginally better than it had through Europe as the speed we were travelling at was now much slower, but it was still a source of much frustration to have to keep stopping so often (especially to the more competent off-road riders…mentioning no names, Bruce). Obviously, it was important that there was some control of the group. Maybe some didn’t appreciate that if someone had a problem and the support vehicle had to stop to assist, then, if the front runners didn’t stop, the whole group could end up spread over many, many miles. What would happen then if one of the front group had a problem and needed assistance? So we hopped from waypoint to waypoint.
The geography of Mongolia is varied, with the Gobi Desert to the south and with cold and mountainous regions to the north and west. Much of Mongolia consists of steppes. The name “Gobi” is a Mongol term for a desert steppe, which usually refers to a category of arid rangeland with insufficient vegetation to support marmots but with enough to support camels. There is very little arable land, approximately 30% of the population are nomadic or semi-nomadic and herd sheep, goats, horses and bactrian camels. (Wikipedia) – Given that we were riding through the ‘cold and mountainous’ region, where even camels would have a hard time, there wasn’t a whole lot of choice on the menu when it came to food.
Our camp meals had started off pretty well – for our first meal in Kazakhstan our cooking team had prepared a sumptuous feast, with a choice of two main dishes and a dessert. Since hitting Mongolia the standard of cuisine had declined somewhat. This was probably down to two factors: the quality of the ingredients and the enthusiasm of the kitchen team. After a long, long days hot and dusty ride it was a scramble to get the tent set up before it got dark and then get stuck into preparing some food.
We carried supplies of pasta and rice and dried goods and various packets of powdered sauces, the problem was getting hold of fresh meat and vegetables. There had been talk of trying to buy a goat and doing a full blown Mongolian feast (bollocks and all – it would obviously have to be a male goat), but it never happened. We had to make do with tinned meat bought by the support crew along the way. There was a picture of a cow on the front but little else to determine its provenance unless you were fluent in Mongolian (we never saw any Mongolians buying it). In consistency it was somewhere between a coarse pate and cat food (not the tender succulent morsels that cats get offered these days – more like the old minced up scrag ends that your granny used to feed her pussy).
It was amazing how a few simple condiments and a bit of culinary skill could turn such basic ingredients into a steaming plate of … cat food curry. There was no dressing it up really. All I can say is that it was a good job that it was dark by the time we were eating and we were so tired and hungry that we really didn’t care what we shovelled down – especially if it had been preceded by beer and/or vodka!
As you can see, we managed to find another pretty reasonable campsite. It had been a long day. We had left around 07.00 and began setting up camp at 20.00. That night around the fire we started a sweepstake on the time and day we might arrive in UB.