The great Gobi Desert reaches up from China and sweeps into southern Mongolia where it eventually transitions into the Mongolian highlands to the north, the Russian Altai to the west, or the great plains of eastern Mongolia. I rode for about a week in the Gobi Altai region, privileged with desert tracks and tasty options for exploring the valley walls up into the snowline. This is a harsh and magnificent place.
Its a major transition from the rolling green valley’s and tree topped mountains of the highlands to the north. The ger camps here are few and far between, requiring vast stretches of desert to support their herds.
The windblown town of Altai drew me in for fuel and food. Everything was pretty average,..kinda of an unappealing place limited to concrete soviet style apartments. Mongolia’s beauty lies not in its cities, but in its captivating natural landscape. Perhaps that why Ghengis khan never invested much in building cities or monuments. How could he compete with the natural beauty of his homeland? What few ancient cities existed in Mongolia were used as trade depots and congregations for foreigners, while the majority of the Mongolian preferred the autonomy and open space of the ger camps.
One thing I sometimes struggled with in regards to the locals was the hands on approach to curiosity over my motorcycle. Typical of this end of the world, the sense of personal space doesn’t exist, so they crowd in on me as soon as I pull into town. It’s a bit claustrophobic as hands go everywhere on the motorcycle and I can barely move to put the kickstand out. A favorite place for them to grab is the throttle. There’s not the slightest bit of hesitation in walking up and rolling the throttle regardless if my hands is on it or not. This seriously pisses me off! At one point I was about to set off– left hand was just sliding off the clutch and right hand was gently pulling on the throttle, when a kid grabbed the throttle over my hand and rocked it back, mean-while two other kids stepped in front of the bike. It was a hairs breath from me running over the two kids as the other kid rocked the throttle. Fortunately I subconsciously pulled in the clutch, and nothing dramatic occurred. I wanted to belt the kid. But what can you do,..nothing, its their culture, their country and I’m just a guest passing through. I will add that frustrations in dealing with throngs of aggressive kids was only ever in issue in the Gobi Altai region. In most places the Mongolian children were well behaved and under close supervision, especially in the ger camps off the beaten track.
It was perhaps 200 kilometers of well graded road followed by about 300 kilometers of great desert track.
There’s no such thing as too much good luck, so in hopes of upping my game I paid my respects to a desert Ovoo.
Ovoos are very cool. A sort of portal to the spirits in the form of a rock cairn adorned with blue silk and located in far away windy places….any where in the middle of nowhere is suitable for an Ovoo. You’ve got to put forth an offering and than circle the ovoo three times. One shot of vodka for me and 4 for the ovoo, then it was a DD test to ride the bike around the rock cairn three times.
As far as the Ovoo thing went, I might have screwed something up. Reminds me of that scene in the movie “Army of Darkness” when he screws up the ritual. Anyways, not five kilometers down the road I can see a massive storm building in the distance.
The wall of dust and dark clouds stretched across the entire valley and was approaching at an alarming rate. I pulled over, snapped some photos and tried to figure out what to do. I could make a run off road for the hills and try to shelter it out in a draw. I could sit it out alongside the road and if it was a proper sand storm I could drop the bike and lay behind it under a tarp. Or I could ride on into it and have go! I could always stop if things got nasty. Like most things, it wasn’t as bad as it looked. The dust storm was only a 300meter thick wall of sand kicked up before the storm. Once I got into the storm proper, it was high winds and rain. I just put her in second gear, trudged forward. This is one of those times when a big heavy BMW earns its pay as it muscles through the mud and high winds with out a care in the world. You might even say the bike and I enjoyed it! An hour later I emerged on the other side to a magnificent sunset. Sailors, mountaineers and pilots are privileged to know that mystical and beautiful vista that materializes in the aftermath of a big storm.