Even in the big city you’ll find folks living out of gers. They’re spacious, warm and perfect for drying out wet boots.
But I didn’t linger long in Ulaan Bataar. I was eager to push on into central Mongolia and I was soon on the move. It was an hour of tough traffic just to exit the city. However, once I was free of the urban grind, the Mongolia I had envisioned begin to materialize before me and exceed my expectations.
It was the vast tracks of wild land as in Eastern Mongolia, except the terrain here was further graced with mountains, canyons and the occasional stretch of sand dunes. As the day drew to a close I started eyeballing potential camping spots. An isolated draw leading off the valley wall drew me in. As you do in Mongolia, I simply pulled off the main route, pointed my front tire towards good camping terrain and drove several kilometers off road until I was at the base of the mountain.
There were certain pleasing amenities at this campsite, like paragliding launches. I put off setting camp, rucked up, and began ascending the mountain. While scanning ahead for the best launch zone I spotted a herd of elk along the ridge top just above me. They were pretty far off, and I was doubting myself on if they were truly elk or some other ungulate. I didn’t think that elk frequented this end of the world, but those animals certainly weren’t deer or ibex.
It was a relaxing, sunset glide back to within a few feet of my motorcycle.
As temperatures seemed to be dropping further each consecutive night, I was becoming more and more familiar with certain cold spots in my worn out sleeping bag. From this night forward I’d be sleeping in full Capilene 4 Patagonia long underwear and my Primaloft insulated jacket.
My doubts about the elk siteing were dissolved at dawn when I heard the their tell- tale bugling from a nearby draw. There are elk in Mongolia, along with loads of other cool animals, like bear, fox, marten, wolves, wolverine, wild boar, and snow leopard.
It often takes me a few hours to break camp and ride off. I know that sounds like a lot, even I’m still amazed how long it takes me to pack up and do maintenance. Along with packing up there is always something that needs to be tightened, sewn or glued back in place. On this particular morning it was stove maintenance.
The MSR Whisperlite International stove is a rock solid device that can burn just about any fuel. However, I’ve been running auto petrol in it for two years, which is not clean burning like the white gas usually used with camp stoves. There was a nasty carbon build up and the stove was barely operable. Armed with my Leatherman, I dismantled the stove and washed each piece in my “solvent washer”(dug a depression in the ground, lined it with a plastic bag, then poured gasoline into the bowl for washing parts) An hour later the stove was operating like new, I reeked of gasoline, and my fingernails were stained black.
I have already mentioned my excitement over the Bactrian Camels, but this day I would come across yet another exotic critter. I’d always wanted to see a yak, and this was my day.
Since this occasion I’ve seen them everywhere, including on my dinner plate. Since your average cow would not survive the winter out here and Mongolians are enthusiastic meat eaters, yaks got the job. Their brilliantly adapted to the environment. Yaks play a domesticated roll during summer months as herdsman round them up, but in the winter they are left to fend for themselves. (some horse herds are also left to fend for themselves, roaming wild through out the winter months) The long coat that gives Yaks that weird and almost indiscernible shape wards off the Siberian wind and keeps them cozy as they dig through the snow for grassy edibles.
I’d be riding along early in the morning, freezing my ass off in subfreezing temps, and I’ll notice a herd of yaks happily wallowing in a half frozen pond.
The immaculate tarmac running for 200k out of the capital ended in classic dirt tracks. However, the national highway is expanding and my track ran alongside what will soon be paved highway. Like the gorgeous dirt road from Bolivia to Brazil, its only a matter of time before the trans Mongolian tracks are buried forever under black tarmac. But for now, and probably 10 years to the future, Mongolia will remain one of the best off road rides in the world.
I like hot springs, and those that know me will know that “like” would be an understatement. My map had a number of hot springs listed on it. It was a national map and there were no specific grid locations, nor could I arose any intel off the internet. I resorted to getting as close as possible then asking for directions. A recipe consisting of limited information and vague directions often results in an adventure of sorts, if not half baked at times. Anything involving hot springs is worth a shot in my book.
I don’t know how to say hot spring in Mongolian, but I managed to get the concept of hot water across to some folks in the town of Tsenkher. They pointed up the valley and off I went. The riding ranked up near the top the list for my most enjoyable two wheel jaunts.
The track ran along the floor of a beautiful mountain valley, tracing back and forth across the crystal blue waters of a trout stream. At some point I had a feeling that I was off course. There were no signs, only a few tire tracks in the grass leading off in any number of directions. I decided it was time to make contact with one of the gers I’d seen off in the distance. Not sure on what the etiquette was on approaching the locals, I parked the bike a good 50meters from the ger and dismounted. Immediately the man of the house came forward.
If there is one easy Mongolian word, its hello (Sain-bai-na), and its usually enough to break the ice. The guy responded to my hello and then I started to bable, “hot water” out of my phrase book. He waved it off with disinterest, insisting instead I come inside the ger.
I’d been invited inside a ger before, but that was more of a transient living quarters set up for the quarantine post guys. This was different. This ger was a legit home for a family. The outside of the ger was adorned in red quilted patterns and the inside was richly decorated in hand made rugs and tapestry. The dirt floor was mostly covered by intricately woven rugs. Beds made up in quilts and furs lined the perimeter of the household, while a wood stove for cooking and heat centered itself beside the main support beam. There was what seemed to be an altar, adorned in gold framed black and white photos honoring bygone relatives. Between the beds and along the walls of the ger were wooden trunks laced with artistic patterns of silver. I was impressed with an inescapable element of tidiness, care of detail and pride in one’s home.
I was ushered to the far end of the ger to a seat obviously set for guests. I sat next to the grandfather of the house and was offered airag(fermented mare’s milk), followed by what tasted like watered down vodka. I was also offered something that tasted like cream yet had a bread like crust. I’ve got no idea what this was but it was tasty, as was the refreshing airag.
Since I’d been invited into ger, fed, and had the whole family as company, I could then explain my visit. One of the women of the household, grasped what I was attempting to explain. The grandfather immediately offered to personally guide me to the hot springs.
The grandfather rode a 250cc Chinese something. The back wheel had a very mean wobble and I made sure not to ride to follow close…lest it fly off along with the rider. I took along one of the younger boys of the household as pillion on the GS. (which he was insanely excited about)
I hate to admit this, but I was a full valley and about 4 kilometers off from my intended destination. The Mongolian herdsman was kind enough to guide me all the way to the hot springs, which I’d likely not found on my own. These folks are not wealthy, and I understood the sacrifice in petrol that he’d made to guide me out there. As a sign of appreciation I gave up 2 liters of petrol, and a bottle of vodka, both of which brought a big smile to his face. It was a hand shake and a big thank you(and I had to pry the kid off my bike), and I was off to see about some hot mineral water for some travel weary bones.
Although I’d count myself as an enormous hot spring fan…bordering on freak level..I also have high standards. There’s nothing more disappointed then a hot spring…that’s a actually a “warm” spring, or even worse..a full on spa! I’m not wasting time with luke warm water and I don’t want a mud mask with cucumbers!
I’d give Tsenkher hotsprings a 9 out 10. A 10 being remote, non-commercial, super hot, and along an icey cold river. But even back in the states I can list only a few of these.
This hot spring was just what I needed.
Although a commercial operation, it was inexpensive, rural, and natural. After meeting the lady in charge I immediately felt at home and committed for a few nights stay. I regret that I can not remember or much less pronounce her name, but she was an amazing host. In addition to revenue provided by the hot spring fee and yurt accommodation, her family lived off the land, managing healthy herds of yak and horse. As I lounged back in the lovingly hot water, 200 plus horses would meander by in the evening, and baby yaks would drop by for a visit in the morning(this would suggest I a lot of time in the hot spring- guilty!)
The hot springs were wickedly hot(just right for me)! After a full day of exploring in the mountains, I’d stay up late into the night soaking in the steaming sulfur water. The cold night breeze would freeze my hair as I lounged back under an expansive night sky. One night I could just make out wolves howling from far away and high up in the mountains. For me, this is living.
For several days I searched out the area for potential launch zones. Often, I could simply ride to the top of the mountains.
It was a pleasant transition to ride without loaded panniers. Without the extra hundred pounds of kit my shocks easily absorbed big drops into creeks or popping in and out of massive ruts. (I regret not having had my stock shocks reworked for a heavy loads while in Australia- an average day riding in Mongolia while fully loaded means bottoming out about 50 times a day)
The problem with flying this region is that the windward (flyable) side of all the mountains is covered in trees, leaving the only launch spots on the grassy leeward side of the mountains. This meant flying sleddies in the evening, or risk flying the leeward side during the day.
I’ve seen good thermic flying everywhere in Mongolia, as evident by circling eagles. But its hit or miss, and I just havnt been in the right place at the right time to catch one of these thermals. Strong winds, an unfamiliar environment, and a very conservative approach to flying solo, have limited me to descent flights. That said, I’ve still enjoyed my airtime over Mongolia.
Can it get any better than camping out near hot springs…yes..you can add the availability of an excellent feed. At any time I could order up a home cooked meal. By order up, I mean I just told the lady I was hungry and she’d cook something up. There was no sense in telling her what you wanted because it was all tasty and filling. It would take about an hour because she cooked over an open fire. Virtually all the food came from her farm. This is where I learned to like Mongolian food. It was yak ribs for dinner, and yak cream and yogurt for breakfast. Yak meat is a hell uv a lot better than sheep meat. I’ve developed a certain gag reflex towards the smell of cooked sheep fat. (although I’ve learned to suck it up and eat it when I have to)
The lady of the hot spring spoke fairly good English and I enjoyed long hours of conversation with her. She was beautiful in a proud and noble sort of way, but it wasn’t a romantic attraction that I felt by any means.(she was probably 10 years my senior and I have no idea if she was married or not) I simply enjoyed her conversation, hearing her thoughts and learning about her subsistence life in the highlands of Mongolia.
As I packed my panniers on my final morning and prepared to set off, she walked over and handed me a sheep pelt. She was concerned about me riding and camping so late in the season and offered it to me as something warm to sleep on at night. It was a beautiful pelt and I felt twinge of guilt for accepting such special gift. I ride with it on my seat during the day, and it covers the cold spots on my sleeping bag at night. I wish I could tell her now how much I love that sheep pelt,…especially on these cold Autumn nights.
I heard rumors of short cut leading through the mountains to Tsetserleg. I made my best guess on the track and headed out on a compass bearing. I dismounted at creek crossing to check the depth out. Upon returning to my bike I noticed my security cable had become entangled between the final drive and the wheel. Its interesting how “issues” (mistakes on my part) seem to come in series. Earlier that day I’d realized that I’d lost my beloved Oakley sunglasses…a critical piece for riding. I had unloaded my entire kit, hoping to find the glasses. I returned to the hot springs, feeling like a dumb ass who cant keep track of his kit…warranted at that moment!
I ultimately realized that the glasses had fallen out of a pocket while I was inversing my flight harness for a launch. The grass was tall and my glasses could be anywhere in a 6 square kilometer area. I’d just burned through my second pair of oakleys (my other pair was pinched by aboriginals in Newman). I accepted the blunder, took the hit and rolled out. While frustrated and distracted by losing my glasses, I never reattached the security cable and it was left dangling next to my final drive.
So there I was at the creek crossing realizing my second blunder for the day. So I made a conscious decision that I’d get my head in gear and get things right. I decided I was going to do a full maintenance on bike right then and there.
I spent the next hour removing the jammed cable, then followed up with a full bolt check, final drive oil swap, engine oil check, and air filter check. Only when I was absolutely sure everything was in order did I mount back up and continue. I think its critical to realize when you’ve got your head up your ass and you need to stop and sort things out. This was my moment. I no longer had glasses and my cable was jacked, but that was the end of that round of mistakes and things were smooth there after. An example of smooth, would be remembering to plug in the snorkel for the water crossing….which turned out to be absolutely essential.
Probably for the first time ever, a shortcut actually turned out to be a short cut. I arrived in Tsetserleg after an hour’s ride of soothing dirt tracks.
This town had all the charm to match its very cool name. It’s a mountain village set in a grassy valley with an impressive mountain backdrop. I only stopped long enough to upload a blog entry (on lightening fast internet) and stuff some chow down. I pushed on that evening until the fading light pushed me off the road to a camp site. I found a sweet spot on a hill top along a strange rock outcropping. However, I remembered the last time I camped on a hill and got caught in a storm. So I abandoned the epic view and retreated to the wood line. I had not had the pleasure of an open campfire for a long time. It was usually too hot in Australia to light a fire. In korea it was always raining. In Russia I didn’t want to attract attention to myself. In most of Mongolia there’s no trees. But here I was, out of site on a cold night and surrounded by plenty of timber laying about the ground. I briefly considered if it was okay to light a fire out here, then I thought of what Ghengis Khan would do. I reckon he’d light the mountain on fire, sack nearest town, and ride off with all the women. As the temperatures dropped well below freezing I was toasty warm in the glow of a proper camp fire!
I arrived at the town of Tosontsengel and pulled up for a feed. To my delight I found that they served Khuushuur, which is a yak meat filled pastry-may favorite! I ordered up a massive serving with the idea that I’d takes some with me, but I couldn’t help eating it all on the spot. Looking for a bit of a caffeine hit for the ride ahead I asked for a coke, but she only had the big 2 liter bottle. This was a small town, low end café, and I could more than afford it. I bought the bottle, poured myself a glass then distributed the rest to the other guest in the café…which appeared to be a quite a treat for them!
From Tosontsengel I turned south and headed for Altai. This was a transition point in geography. As I rolled south the terrain and climate changed to a drier, desert like environment. Even as the geography and climate changed, the five star trend in Mongolian vistas never faltered.