Cycling across Mongolia has been a long-held dream for mountain biker and adventurer Tom Allen.
“Back in 2006, when I was preparing to start a new life on the road, I made vague plans to include the country in my route. I never expected it would be this long before I went there. But such dreams aren’t easily forgotten,” Tom wrote on his cycling blog.
That was in May. Since then, Tom has fulfilled his dream to bike in this relatively unknown corner of the earth, first by taking a train from his home in Armenia to the Mongolian capital Ulaan Bataar and then by spending a few weeks mountain-biking just over 1,000km off-road across the Mongolian wilderness.
He did the trip with his friend and long-time cycling partner Andy. Now back home, Tom has kindly shared some of his experiences and advice for cycling in Mongolia with us.
1. Cycling in Mongolia is a total unknown for most people. Can you paint a picture of your experience?
The Gobi desert, which is usually associated with Mongolia, didn’t come into my journey at all. Leaving Ulaan Baatar for the west, I found myself crossing huge expanses of pastured, hilly grassland (steppe), climbing long, flowing valleys with the fragrance of wild thyme in the air, and crossing tiny streams and fast-flowing rivers.
The views were vast and spectacular, but there was always a ger (yurt) or two in sight; herds and their owners were permanently draped across the hillsides, and a small town popped up every day or two at which I could stock up on noodles and snacks and eat a big plate of dumplings.
Each day I would speak to a few herders on motorbike or horseback as they passed by, checking my directions and explaining how my ‘Extrawheel’ trailer worked! On a couple of occasions I approached a ger for directions or water, and I was always invited in for a cup of “tea” – actually more like hot, watery milk with a pinch of salt and some tea stalks floating in it. It tastes a lot better than it sounds.
As I progressed north-west the landscape gradually became more alpine and forested, until the end of the trip in the northernmost part of Mongolia, on the fringe of Siberia, where I was surrounded by valleys of pine and larch and 3,000+ metre peaks, and the tea came without salt. The variety of landscape was far greater than I’d expected, and overall the country is safer, more inhabited, and more practical for the biker than I think many people believe.
Out of 30 or so countries in which I’ve cycled, it’s been the cream of the crop for a challenging, varied and accessible adventure.
2. You sometimes went 10 days between settlements. A couple times you got completely lost. This sounds dangerous, rather than fun! How do you ensure that you don’t run out of food and water as you’re crossing vast tracts of wilderness, far from anywhere to buy supplies?
Our trip was relatively short, at only 5 or 6 weeks, but we had no grand idea to cross the entire country – we kept our plans extremely flexible. After a couple of weeks Andy and I decided that there must be more to Mongolia than riding bumpy jeep-tracks across endless plains and hills, so we very deliberately set out into the Khovsgol protected area on the most insignificant-looking track on the map.
This turned out to be a rather rough hiking single-track, so we did a fair amount of pushing!
We took enough food for a couple of weeks – noodles and biscuits don’t take up much space – and for several days we were travelling alongside the second-biggest freshwater reserve in Asia, Lake Khovsgol, whose water is famously ready-to-drink.
It was still almost completely frozen over from the winter and acted as a giant refrigerator for the local climate, but it was a stunning backdrop to several days of care-free journeying through the beautiful alpine landscape, and provided a few very refreshing swims in the ice-free pools by the shore! We savoured our surroundings when we could, and dug our heels in when the conditions got tough.
The track eventually disappeared and we followed a valley through the mountains to a town whose location we had saved on a small GPS receiver. Basic navigational concepts were all we needed – following a river downstream is a pretty safe bet for exiting a mountain range.
Our previous experience in the country suggested that people would never be far away. Despite the lack of settlements in the protected area, I don’t think a day passed when we didn’t spot a horseman, four-by-four or Russian Kamaz truck bouncing across the landscape somewhere nearby. Water from mountain streams was plentiful and we had quite a few packets of noodles left at the end of it all!
3. In addition to the sparse population, the terrain itself looks difficult. How would you describe the roads, or lack of them? Were there better roads that you deliberately avoided, in search of a more remote experience?
If you go any distance from the capital, bad roads and river crossings seem to be a daily experience, although the short road-building season is now being used to pave the main cross-country and touristic routes, so eventually there looks like being an asphalt cross-country route. To cycle that though would be to miss out on what makes Mongolia a unique experience for the biker.
Some dirt roads are more travelled than others, and we tried to avoid them, although it was sometime difficult as alternative routes from one town to the next seem to come in and out of favour over the years and seasons. On the steppe, little or nothing was unrideable, although sometimes the track conditions and the long climbs made the going slow and tiring. Up in the mountains it was a different story, and we once pushed solidly for two days.
As with anything like this, your body adapts pretty quickly. When we were able to pedal, we were managing 40 or 50km per day, riding fairly consistently throughout the day. We could walk and push 20 or 25km in the same time.
I didn’t realise how much fitter it had made me until I rode from Turkey to Georgia on my way home to Armenia and managed 200km in 24 hours (on asphalt!) – by far the furthest I’ve cycled in a day.
I used the Gizi 1:2,000,000 geographical map of Mongolia. Settlements were accurate, roads less so – any ‘road’ or track on this map generally signifies that you could probably go that kind-of way if you wanted to! You are by no means limited to the ‘main’ routes. There are seemingly no fewer herders or towns in the more remote areas, but they might be a bit more surprised to see you!
What that all means in practice is that navigation has to be approached differently – forget trying to find an ‘exact route’ from A to B. An educated guess is the best you can hope for, safe in the knowledge that if you find yourself heading in the wrong direction, you can most likely just turn off the track and follow the compass/GPS/sun/landmarks in the right direction, and sooner or later you will come across a track and hopefully a family of 4 on a motorbike to ask for directions.
4. Such a remote and extreme trip requires special gear consideration. What essentials do you recommend?
I approached the gear question from a mountain-biking perspective. Four things I’m glad I had were front suspension forks, disc-brakes, a single-wheel trailer rather than front panniers, and wide tyres (Marathon XR 2.25’s). You’ll thank the suspension forks not just for the wrist cushioning but also for the extra control they afford on the rough stuff, and the same goes for ditching the front panniers – you need to be able to see and avoid rocks, roots and holes at a moment’s notice, all day, every day.
I used the XRs for their durability and surprisingly good off-road characteristics, and as hoped I didn’t get a single puncture.
I found the disc-brakes invaluable for the level of control they afford while negotiating technical sections of terrain, as well as for their great performance in wet and muddy conditions and on long bumpy downhills.
Aside from that I carried little of note – just a lightweight, whittled-down selection of the usual bicycle-touring cooking/camping favourites, leaving plenty of space for food.
5. What’s one stand-out moment from the trip that you’ll carry with you for years to come?
After 5 weeks with fairly little cultural interaction I stumbled upon a family gathering in a maze of trackless plains and lakes. We were invited to join in and stay the night and were treated as part of the family. I was so far away from my own loved ones.
Maybe it was the combination of this, the overwhelming hospitality, and the spontaneous, haunting, passionate singing that sprung up as the day drew to a close that caused me, unnoticed in my little corner of the room, to burst into tears of joy – joy, after weeks of living in my own head, at this intense expression of human spirit in the lost depths of the steppe.
I am aware that this probably sounds incredibly corny.