A blast from the past…from 2015, when we spent a month cycling in Mongolia. On this day 5 years ago, we left for Mongolia and to celebrate the anniversary, here’s the travelogue…
Cycling in Mongolia
Pedalling through the vast expanse of the endless land that is Mongolia, there are two Ws that a cyclist worries about – Wind and Water. Too much of the former and too little of the latter.
This tale started many moons ago in 2012, as I sat by the side of the moon lake (Chandra Tal) in Spiti Valley, contemplating the offer of a fellow cyclist I met in Nako.
The offer was to go on a cycle ride in Mongolia. I showed great false enthusiasm of accompanying Prakash (my partner in crime), without having the faintest idea whether Mongolia was the name of a country, region or continent!
Summer of ’15
Fast track to the summer of twenty-fifteen and the dream which I hadn’t dreamt was materialising. After months of sporadic physical preparation and trip planning, I found myself sitting mystified on a flight from New Delhi to Ulaan Baatar (UB). A small voice inside me screaming, that I am woefully unprepared!
After an eventful journey, where everything that could go wrong did go wrong, we landed in UB. That included 48 hour thunderstorms, delayed flights and sleeping on hard airport benches for two consecutive nights.
The country of Mongolia has a population of 2.8 million with almost half living in the capital city – Ulaan Baatar. Compare that to Delhi which has a population of 10 million and you suddenly find joy in every breath you take as it no longer feels like you are robbing your neighbour of oxygen!
UB was organised and orderly. Life centred around the Chinggis Khan Square. Traffic wasn’t aggressive and people were by and large polite. The only thing we were warned about were pickpockets, barring which there was no reason to feel unsafe for man or woman.
The biggest shock was the vehicles. I expected to find decade old rattle traps plying on dirt roads. Instead the 4-lane roads were infested with gigantic SUVs. Vehicles more appropriate for a Texan ranch than a city! I saw more Hummers in a day in UB, that I’ve seen in 6 years in Delhi.
Mongols were clearly well off, or so it seemed.
Prakash had pre-booked cycles for us from a local store. We collected our bikes from there and were surprised to find that the shop doubled up as the Belgian consulate! Joel the Belgian Councillor was also the store owner and a big source of help and information for our little cycling adventure.
Train for the Untrained!
With Joel’s advice we took the train out of UB to a small industrial town called Erdenet, where our adventure started.
It was a great decision. We had less boring tarmac to cover and enjoyed the Mongol railways, with their seemingly Russian rakes. We bought the cheapest train tickets available and were pleasantly surprised to see the quality of machine and service. A far cry from India.
As soon as our train chugged into the Erdenet railway station, we picked our bikes out of the luggage van and were on the road within minutes.
The First Pedal is the Hardest, so is the Second…
For me it wasn’t the best start to the trip, as I was running a light fever and cold, our crap luck was hitting us sporadically but consistently! We trudged along, giving our rusty legs a workout they didn’t want.
The first day also taught us a hard lesson. We hadn’t carried sufficient water, that added to the misery as my fever shot up and I struggled uphill against the wind cursing my decision of cycling in Mongolia. Or cycling at all for that matter.
I had lost all hope of completing the ride successfully and was incredibly dejected and depressed. I dropped onto the hotel bed on the first evening with a raging fever and zero enthusiasm!
From the second day we were better prepared. With sufficient water and an early start to avoid the afternoon headwinds.
Starting early was never easy, as the sun would set at 10 PM, and the sky would still be bright till 11, making it incredibly difficult to sleep on time in preparation for the next day.
Bugged to be Mugged
The second day also saw an amusing incident, where a couple of young boys on horseback with a big knife in hand threatened to slit Prakash’s throat if he didn’t give up his belongings.
Fortunately a bit of traffic intervened and they scampered off, having stolen a couple of bars of chocolate and a torch. The incident was amusing for me, but not so much for Prakash!
We stayed overnight at a lovely campsite in a place called Uran Togo, which had Gers, the traditional tent accommodation used in Mongolia. We were still on asphalt highways with intermittent traffic of cars and trucks, with the odd Chinese make motorcycle passing us.
Once again the contrast to India was stark, with cars getting off the road to make room for us and never showing the slightest aggression while overtaking. In India, motorists swerve towards you just for the fun of it!
In the town of Hutag Ondor there was a bomb tower next to where we stayed. The siren would be sounded every time an air raid was imminent. It was small consolation that such activities were things of the past.
Once again we saw Mongol hospitality at its finest, with a guy on a motorcycle riding a few kilometres out of his way at cycle speeds to show us the hotel; which we wouldn’t have found without his help. An important point to add is that Google Maps is useless in Mongolia.
With sufficient water and an early start, cycling wasn’t so hard and we reached Murun. A relatively big town, though I have seen bigger society complexes in urban India! The beauty of the countryside is mind-boggling, the land is expansive. The horizon is miles away in every direction; one truly feels small and insignificant.
Post Murun, we stopped for the night in the middle of nowhere in an attic above a shop. And that was a stroke of luck. A little girl befriended Prakash and overcame the language barrier to pull us out of bed at midnight to go cattle herding.
Yes, that’s right, middle of the night in complete darkness we were herding cows. These were ink black and each animal bigger than all of us put together! Fortunately cows understand English, Hindi and Tamil just as well as Mongol; and we did a stellar job of going round in circles!
Finally, it was time to visit the serene Khuvsgul Lake. This is the largest fresh water lake in the country and provides water to a dry country where many lakes contain salt water.
As we neared the lake we first had to pay toll to enter the Khuvsgul National Park. The park is home to many animals, including wolves and bears. Since we rode during the day and stuck to the beaten trail, we weren’t accosted by any blood thirsty creatures.
We did see reindeer, but not in the wild. These poor captured animals were being paraded for tourists to click pictures. We crested the final pass on a dirt trail and saw the most beautiful sight.
The 136 km long lake was shimmering blue in front of us in all its glory. The waters clear and majestic, the size of the lake seemingly dwarfing humanity itself, and we were witness to naught but a fraction of its size and even that was overwhelming.
Rest Day. But Not for the Sheep…
We spent a day resting our legs at the lake, soaking in the sun and enjoying the food. I was treated to delicious yeast dumplings. While that was being steamed, I witnessed a singularly spectacular sight.
The camp cook invited me to the slaughter of sheep for supper. They flipped the animal onto its back, made an incision in its abdomen and put in their hand and pulled out the heart. That’s it. The animal was ready for dinner!
The sheep was skinned and cleaned and not a bit went to waste. The entire animal was to be consumed.
The heart of the animal was cut, salted, skewered and put in the blazing fire for five minutes. After which it was offered as an aperitif!
Murun made us morons
It was time to retrace our steps to Murun, for which we hitched a ride with a vacationing family. It was fun communicating with them in the 3 hour car journey, as they didn’t speak English and by then we were quite adept at sign language and guesswork!
Murun appeared to be a town from the American western flicks. At every street corner you expect a gunfight to ensue and we the innocent ducking for cover in the nearest tavern!
Fortunately truth was not as strange as fiction. Though we did get unlucky there. It rained incessantly for the next day. We were forced to camp in our small hotel room doing absolutely nothing!
It was taxing to sit in a tiny room for 48 hours after enjoying the freedom of endless earth and sky. Fortunately the rain stopped and we left the city for muddy trails, green steppes, clear blue sky and the blazing sun.
It was tough work pedalling on the dirt trails. We climbed pass after pass which were not high. At least not compared to the Indian Himalayas, but were extremely steep, some with gradients as much as 12% or so.
Often we had to push our bikes up the last few kilometres and a distance of 3 km could take up to an hour.
The descents were so steep that with our 20+kg of luggage it wasn’t possible to ride down. So we would walk our bikes downhill as well!
We rode late into the evening. As the sun was setting, we pitched our tents and camped under the starry sky. With a dinner of dry bread and jam, we crashed for the night. I shivered myself to sleep as the night wore on and got some rest only after the sun rose and warmed my weary bones.
After a night of camping we looked for a good place to spend the next evening and we found it at another lake before the town of Shine Ider. Zuun Nuur was tiny in comparison to the massive Khuvsgul we had left behind. It was not very important on the tourist circuit, it was a quiet, peaceful place.
There another bunch of kids befriended Prakash, along with a guide who was accompanying some Italian tourists. The friendly guide spoke good English and gave us insights about the Mongol lifestyle.
The amusing bit was that I overheard the entire conversation from the other end of the camp ground; Indians are really ‘loud’!
By late evening, the camp was filled with lots of European tourists. The vans used to transport people in Mongolia are of this peculiar Russian variety, which look like a bread box fitted with wheels!
Though we saw the drivers pelting these vans faster than the many times more expensive Land Cruisers and Land Rovers.
Hospitality Amidst a Storm
As we moved on from the lake towards the town of Jargalant we had to climb a steep and difficult pass, at the top of which we didn’t see a pleasant sight.
Dark clouds were rolling in from the horizon towards us. Within minutes those faraway clouds were over our heads lashing us with wind and water. Our rain gear kept us dry. But we shivered with our hands and feet soaked. We gingerly made our way down the pass and approached the closest Ger looking for a dry spot to stand in. But a barking canine kept us at bay.
Finally an old woman got out to see the cause of the barking and found us drenched cats. She led us in and gave us hot milk to drink, along with cheese and cream.
Her hospitality was only overshadowed by the fact that there were three young women in the Ger and we were two strange looking men. Yet not for a moment did she have any hesitation or fear of inviting us in.
Something I noticed throughout Mongolia. Women are safe and have absolutely nothing to fear from men.
As the rain trickled down, we left the warm Ger with the even warmer hospitality.
After a few kilometres we got the sun shining bright again, but we were both hungry and with not a hut in sight. I pulled a rabbit out of the hat, or so it felt!
I had a loaf of stale bread in my panniers which was three days old. Normally I wouldn’t even think of eating it. But we were famished and devoured the dry stale chunk of bread like a pack of wolves.
Never again will I be choosy about food. Real hunger was experienced and satiated with the simplest meal. A lesson I hope to remember for life.
Jargalant was another speed breaker for us. Thanks to the inclement weather, we were cooped up for three days in a motel room.
Travellers found snowfall in those same passes where we got drenched. They were bemused to see us in shorts, as they were shivering from the cold in their thick jackets!
Cross that Bridge when you get to IT!
We left after two days of being holed up in the rather insipid town of Jargalant. Though I did go for a motorcycle ride on a Chinese bike with a local and tried my hand at chopping wood.
But the going was slow and tough, as the rain from the previous days had left the tracks in a state of slush! Compounding miseries were the many swollen streams that we waded across. With our luggage on our head and pushing our bikes across.
It was deep enough that most vehicles could not cross, while we shivered at the grey sky overhead. The sun didn’t show its face till 8 at night, and for the first time on this trip I was thankful for belonging to a tropical country!
By nightfall we had almost reached our destination for the day, the White Lake. But crossing another stream in the dark wasn’t particularly tempting. So we hurriedly pitched our tents in the middle of nowhere and crept into our sleeping bags for the night.
The next morning we awoke unsure of which direction we had to travel in. Fortunately we saw a shepherd on horseback. After much waving and shouting he approached us and gave directions.
I noticed that he was totting a rifle casually on his lap, as he closed in on us. I hoped it was to scare wild animals and not for people!
Like experts we waded through 5 more streams which lay ahead!
With the sun shining bright in the sky, the water wasn’t as cold and our feet would dry immediately once back on land.
We circumnavigated the White Lake, known as Terkhiin Tsagaan, and it was a good 35 km to reach the other side. From there we climbed a pass to an extinct volcano called Khorgo. We stayed in a camp by the side of the volcano. The sight of fields of lava rocks was enough to make your hair stand on end.
You wouldn’t want to be near one while it is spewing smoke! We bargained at a rather expensive looking camp to get extremely cheap cyclist rates for accommodation. Very pleased with ourselves we went and hogged on delicious food. I ate yak meat and Prakash tried the milk.
Fortunately we didn’t ask the price of the food till the next morning. We wouldn’t have been able to digest it, had we known the exorbitant rates! Indulging oneself every now and then isn’t a crime, exclaimed our stomachs. Our wallets didn’t concur!
From Khorgo we pedalled towards Tsetserleg and for the first time on the entire trip, we didn’t get any wind. It was unusually still and with that stillness came the flies. With no breeze to keep them off. We were swatting away to glory. Yet they hung on for the two days that it took us to Tsetserleg.
From there we loaded our bikes on to a van and caught the bus to UB, since cycling wasn’t an option. We had 500 km remaining and just 4 days till our flight back home. It didn’t make sense to risk it.
The End of Cycling in Mongolia…
An 8 hour journey later we were back in the capital, handing our bikes to Joel. Brimming with tales of the open road.
We had a couple of days around town. We visited the Winter Palace and walked the city, with no desire to ride anymore!
As our flight was taxiing down the runway, I stared out of the window with a heavy heart. Absolutely no desire to return to India, the crowds, the pollution, the people.
After a month of cycling in Mongolia, landing in Delhi felt alien! The wind and water of Mongolia is sorely missed and I hope to return someday.
For the day to day blog check it out on the Cycling Monks Forums…
A quick video of cycling in Mongolia…