I was getting my first taste of the Asian steppes on the road to Choibalsan, and I was loving it. The vast sweeping plains of Eastern Mongolia spread out before my handlebars.
Herds of antelope raced across the tracks before me. Riding along, I spotted my first ger way off in the distance. The ger, perhaps the icon of Mongolias nomadic culture, is the round tent like structure that shelters a family. I’ve read that somewhere around 50% of Mongolians live out of gers, pursuing nomadic lifestyle on the steppes, in the mountains or in the Gobi deserts. Imagine 50% of Americans living out of Teepees in a land with out fences!
In my excitement of witnessing this ger, I stopped along the track and pulled out my camera to capture the moment. I was a full kilometer away, but one of the occupants of the ger camp spotted me and was immediately on his horse, galloping towards me. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but since the guy obviously wanted to make contact with me I waited up for him.
Although neither of us spoke the other’s language, we exchanged our appreciation for each other’s rides. I had promised myself to stay away from the livestock due to the cattle plague, but I couldn’t help holding up a hand for the horse to sniff and giving her a scratch on the neck. It was not as tall as horses back home, but it sure looked capable. Muscular, stocky, and exuding a sense of power, she was the ultimate creature of the steppes.
Although not wealthy in a conventional sense, the people came across as strong, healthy, proud and free. As I write this I’ve traveled over 1,000 miles in Mongolia and I haven’t spotted a single span of barbwire or any range fencing what so ever. Cities here are like cities anywhere, folks are generally too busy trying to make a buck to give you the time of day. However, in the country(99% of Mongolia), if I so much as slow down near a ger, I’m waved down and ushered inside for airag (fermented mares milk) or chai.
My police issued document that authorized me to travel through the quarantine zone required that I drive directly to Choibalsan. I was actually told that I’d be arrested if I was caught straying off the track. So, naturally I pushed on late into the night to make it to Choibalsan and complete my obligations to the police. Beyond Choibalsan I was a free man.
Maneuvering to the town center amid soviet era apartment buildings, I located the town center..and then pounced on the first hotel. Prices where less than half of what I was paying in Russia, and for oh so much more. After the ordeal of the last few days I was only too happy to have a shower, hot chow, and warm bed for the night. And imagine my surprise when I found free internet in the room.
The following morning, I was ready for the fun to begin. I marked this as the first real day of riding Mongolia since I was free of the quarantine stops and police control. However, Mongolia had a new challenge for me….weather! It felt like a sand storm was going to blow in at any moment. Winds were high, sky looked grim, visibility was low, and I was expecting a major storm to lash out. I pushed forward, eyeballing the menacing weather on the horizon.
Aside from a lot of dust in the air, and some strong winds,..the storm continued to linger on the horizon and never quite hit in full force while I was riding. The road was a slightly improved from the previous day’s route,..but it was still a wild and wonderful track. The true highlight of the day was chancing upon Bactrian camels.
In my opinion camels are some of the most interesting animals out there. Mostly feral, but grudgingly domestic on occasion, and always boasting an enourmas amount of character, camels are fascinating! They smell bad, spit, cough, growl, bark, and are generally ill tempered. Much credit goes to the man who first considered these hairy monsters for domestication.
I’d never seen a two humped long haired camel before, so it was off the bike and out with the camera. I sat among them for about an hour just enjoying the company of animals I’d only previously read about.
I was stoked for my first night camping out on the steppes. I had a magnificent view of the valley below…..for about five minutes. The uber menacing clouds above should have been an indicator. Seriously…is that or is that not a skull looking down on me?!
I had barely erected the tent, when all hell fell out of the sky. I’ve been through worse, but I can’t remember when, and I definitely was not exposed on top of a hill during any previous gales! I lashed the tent to the bike and jumped inside out of the torrential downpour. The winds nearly flattened my tent as I tried to hold it up from the inside. As the storm distorted the shape of the tent, rain water poured in from every side. I was beginning to wonder if Mongolia had some personal vendetta against me. It was yet another test on top of the last few days of trials. I voiced my opinion of the matter to the storm, yelling through the tent flap. This didn’t help with the weather, but it did make for some comic relief. There was nothing I could do but lay low and hope things cleared up by day break. With earplugs in I pulled the sleeping bag over my head and eventually drifted off to sleep.
By dawn the rain and wind had abated. It was a cold and dreary morning but the sun looked like it just might burn through. I brewed up a hot cuppa then set to hanging my kit out to dry.
There was no sign of man for just about as far as you could see from my campsite, so I wasn’t expecting visitors. However, the herdsman, I would learn, are always watching the hills. Armed with monoculars, they are vigently keeping an eye out for wolves, rustlers or anything else that might threaten the herd. So it wasn’t long before a few homed in on the wet gringo.
Each day in this country gets better than the last, and the adventure and awe of Mongolia grows with every consecutive mile. The experiences I’m catching up with now in this blog, are miniscule compared to more recent excursions in the highlands and of course the Gobi. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The sun did come out, and my kit did dry out, except the boots-these are still wet today. I’ve been burning through foot powder ever since the first deluge. Even though I was out of the quarantine zone I was still running into a few mandatory stops.
These camps were run with less enthusiasm than the posts closer to Choibalsan. At one camp, I think they completely forgot what they were suppose to do in their excitement over my bike.
I was ushered into their ger and told to take a seat.
It was hot chai in a bowl and some horrifying mutton substance. The chai was good, but it took a lot of resolution to force the meat down. Clusters of cold fat, skin and meat were placed before me in a plastic bag.
They were all watching in expectation,. so there was no backing out. The taste wasn’t so bad. It was the texture that challenged my gag reflexes. Animal hair, bits of bone, massive chunks of cold fat, and some sort of grit really tied it all together. The certain fact that it had been cooked (who knows how long ago) over a dung fire made it even less desirable. I got the first one down, but the second bite managed to lodge in the back of my mouth, which was discharged when I was down the road and out of sight. For the most part, I like Mongolian food. This was the only experience where I struggled a bit.
It had been a few hundred kilometers of dirt from Choibalsan, but then out of the blue the track transitioned into a near perfect tarmac road. I was rolling along at full speed now. With a black strip of smooth tarmac all the way to Ulaan Bataar there was nothing to slow me down. Except a potential paragliding launch that is. There’s always time to pull the wing out for a little sleddie. (a sleddie is quick descent flight) The wing had been in the bag since Pusan Korea and I reasoned it would be good to do an inspection on it and conduct a test flight on something minor before I stepped off anything big down the road.
I love how you can simply pull of the road and ride strait up hills in Mongolia. The ground is perfectly smooth and the grass is trimmed down by livestock, making riding effortless. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the reason the police at the border crossing had threatened me with jail time if I didn’t stick to the route to Choibalsan, was because they knew I could have forged my own route..over the grass for hundreds of miles in any direction, easily evading the quarantine posts. Much of Mongolia is ridable off road, but there are exceptions in the forested highlands, the gobi canyons and of course you’re obviously not going to ride across the mountain glaciers in the west.
I blasted up the hill with the Tourance rear tire easily gripping the turf. I was thrilled to see a valley unfold below me, with a light wind flowing directly up the face. It wasn’t lift conditions, but it was stable and safe for a sleddie.
While unfolding my wing I heard a voice off on another ridge top. A young girl on horseback was yelling out to her dogs and rounding up a herd of goats. She herded the goats down to a gully then popped back up on some high ground to have a look at me. Her dogs caught my scent and raced for me. I’m not usually intimidated by dogs, especially while wearing size 10 motorcross boots. These dogs were simply excited to check me out.
Super friendly and particularly interested in my paraglider, the dogs hung around waited for the girl on horseback to join us.
She was effortless riding her pony bareback across the rolling terrain. She kept about 40feet away,..apearing curious but wary.
I smiled and tried to explain what I was doing, but then settled for a little paragliding demonstration. I took off with ease and enjoyed a short and non turbulent flight to the valley floor. I wasn’t at all worried about my kit, I almost felt safer having the herdswoman and the dogs nearby. I packed up my kit and hiked back up to the bike to find a young man had joined the show.
I was away from my motorcycle and kit for about 30 minutes. The gal and guy could have scored some serious booty off my motorcycle had they been inclined. However, I never felt any threat from these folks. In fact, outside the cities, I feel pretty safe around Mongolians. I may be presumptuous in saying this, but I sense a sort of pride about these folks that doesn’t lend itself to thieving. There are always exceptions, every country has their share of knobs, and for that reason I still make every effort to lock things up and keep honest folks honest.
The guy and gal were friendly and inquisitive, and I loved their dogs! You’ve never seen happier or healthier canines.
It was back on the tarmac to the capital city of Mongolia, Ulaan Bataar. En route I got a glimpse of a massive statue of Chingis (Ghengis) Khan. I arrived at the memorial just as the sun was setting.
City driving in third world countries is always a challenge and UB(Ulaan Bataar) is no exception. Its full on combat driving. Ride hard or be driven over! However, thanks to that Canadian biker I had met in Russia, I had near perfect GPS tracks taking me right to the hostel Oasis.