Cycling the Mongolian Steppe --- Part One
Home: Sydney, Australia
Favourite activity: Bikepacking
Favourite brew: Coffee or Shiraz
Favourite snack: Peanut butter.
Nick Kohn is an outdoorsman who spends most of his time bikepacking, though he has hiked, dived, motorcycle toured and travelled throughout SE Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, Europe and Australia.
He has cycled through Italy, France, Spain and across the Silk Road from Mongolia through to Turkey, as well as a little in Australia. Next stop - USA and Canada.
Who? - Nick Kohn.
Where? - Southern Mongolia.
How? - Bikepacking.
Recommendations & Highlights?
- Headwinds suck so drafting your mates or a truck can change everything
- Sitting down to unwind for a brew with mates is a game-changer for morale.
- Listen to the locals. They know best.
- Red wine helps everything *important*.
The idea of cycling around Central Asia came from reading a book of a man who, completely on a whim, decided to follow the trail Ghengis Khan conquered – from Mongolia all the way through to Hungary.
The thought of the trip seemed incredible and adventurous. Maybe even romantic.
Out in the wilderness, just Tania, my red brick Surly Troll and I. We would ride through the mountains, the steppe and the desert. I would witness one of the last real nomadic cultures, who rely on nature for their own survival, as well as that of their animals.
That’s a bloody big change from the Northern Beaches of Sydney.
Arriving in Mongolia by train from Beijing was an experience in itself. The bus ride to the border was super lush with lay down beds onboard and stops at roadside resturants for cheap and delicious noodle bowls. The train from Zamiin Uud (border town) to Ulaanbaatar (capital of Mongolia) was an old Russian train with traditionally dressed up assistants, addressing patrons as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ in their broken English. It featured cabins like on the Hogwarts Express and the views through the Gobi Desert were an exciting yet terrifying image of what I was to endure in a few days time.
Purely by chance, I met three other cyclists in immigration while extending my visa. They happened to be going the same route I had intended through Mongolia so I tagged along with Chris, Maren and Ivan.
Thank God I met these people, as I may have considered quitting in the first week if it wasn’t for their presence and support – I’ll try to put the reasons into words.
The first two days were riding fresh laid tar with a tail wind – speeding our way up and down hills and smashing at least 80km/day. However, soon we entered the desert. The world that would be our reality for the next few weeks, whether we liked it or not. I consider myself to be a well travelled individual who enjoys being outside of his comfort zone, though never in my whole life have I experienced temperature ranges, wind, terrain and desolation like what I did here.
There were days on end of rough corrugations, soft sand and an unbelievably consistent and soul-destroying headwind, where, after a whole day of riding we would only make 25km. I could count on one hand the times in my life that my morale has been that low. Seeing how little wildlife was around also got on my nerves. It seemed for every animal that was alive, there were two or three dead. The stench of rotting carcass became the scent of this first week.
However due to having the others, keeping it weird on a daily basis ensured everyone would have a good day. Ivan, for example, kept talking about how heavy his bike was. He couldn’t figure out why he kept lagging behind on some sections. Was it his fitness? Did he carry too many luxuries? Or was it the three litres of home made Bulgarian alcohol and two logs of salami he had packed away to share amongst the group?
We found it to be far more efficient to ride in single file as to avoid the added pain of the wind. Each kilometre or so, the person in front would swap out. Instead of being boring and keep it to a whistle or yelling ‘yep!’, it was decided something creative was neccesary. There were all sorts of funny noises occurring but the best was Chris screaming ‘Rakija’ (the Bulgarian homebrewed alcohol) at the top of his lungs, and Ivan somehow managing to get the bottle out of his pannier while riding to the front, giving everyone a drink along the way. That’s kook as – don’t drink and ride kids!
After about four days in the desert, we made it to a town – a massive relief as the hard riding and constant exposure to the elements had us eating like pigs and our food was getting pretty low. We went to the super market to purchase our diverse diet of either rice, millet or buckwheat as a base; maybe potato, carrot or onion as vegetables (often not available) and seasoned with a delicious sprinkle of salt. If we were super lucky, maybe the shop would have apples – exciting!
Coming out of the shop, we were left with the typical issue of where to cook in wind like this. We tried to avoid cooking in town as the locals all crowd around and by this stage we are already pretty tired. But this day, there was nowhere to go.
We stopped by a building, using the wall as a shelter so our stoves could cook more efficiently. Within a minute, a car had stopped with a gentle-looking old man getting out. There was the typical lost-in-translation conversation but then he kept saying ‘ger’ – the Mongol version of a tent that the nomadic (and all other people outside one of the four major cities) live in – while drawing one in the sand. He took us to his house, and as we entered through the tiny ‘Alice in Wonderland’ esqe door, we were surprised at how warm and cosy yet roomy it was inside.
His wife was in there, working away on the sewing machine, the kids glued to the TV, and our host busy getting the poo-fuelled stove started in order to brew is a salted tea for us (you read that right). He encouraged us to use his stove and utensils to cook but once we were all done, he wouldn’t let us leave. I called my Mongolian friend who lives in the capital to help translate.
This man was so concerned for our wellbeing, going out with the bikes in this weather – referring to me as the madman in shorts – that he legitimately thought we were going to die. Hence, he was trying to make us stay in order for us to live another day.
I had made jokes about this trip being of great risk before I left, but it was definitely an eye-opener when a tough local is so concerned.
The next day, we were on a bus to Altai after our host explained that the next water was 270km away and the terrain was harder than what we were riding when making only 25km per day. I watched worriedly as Tania got strapped to the roof of a Soviet-era minivan and we got going. At first it felt like cheating, but watching the dust storms engulf the van, and feeling the wind push such a vehicle through the soft sand, made me sure we had come to the right choice.
From Altai, it was still rough, however things were changing. Now, not all the animals were dead on the side of the road. There were camels – with two humps that wobble like an obese man’s belly when running, goats, sheep, plenty of wild horses and majestic eagles and falcons soaring overhead.
There was one afternoon, where, over a steamy brew, we were all checking out the map. We sat in silence, confused, as it showed there was a river coming up soon. Not believing the outdated charts, we kept riding against the wind with no expectations.
Suddenly, we crested a hill and turned a corner and Maren started yelling. Down, nestled into the valley, there was what seemed to be something similar to an oasis. A patch of bright green grass, about 1km x 1km, sat next to a rushing stream. Instantly, energy levels went sky high.
Crossing the river was the first of the excitement – too deep to ride through and almost too wide to jump across. Shortly after, the shoes came off and we were able to enjoy the lush turf under our toes. Heads dunked into the hair-raisingly cold water was refreshing in a way I can not describe.
We set up the tents and began to prepare dinner, when the wind stopped and Mother Nature gave us the most beautiful sunset. Every divet of the surrounding mountains was illuminated in a burning orange, with a near full moon rising over the animals grazing on the pasture. It was one of those beautiful moments when you realise this is an image that will stay with you forever.
Riding into Khovd was definitely an exciting experience as one of the first things we saw was the giant Russian supermarket. This is a significant change from the tiny roadside stalls we had had the past few weeks. Excitement levels were high, as we had choice of buying a range of goods that we would expect from the corner store at home, but are a luxury over here.
I had almost finished shopping when something caught my eye. I couldn’t believe it, was it true?! Surely not, I must be going mad! I rubbed my tired eyes and checked again. There was red wine of the shelf – an indulgence that I didn’t expect to experience for a long time indeed. In my typical style, I picked up the cheapest bottle and damn near skipped out of the supermarket with joy. Wrapped in a fleece and carefully strapped in my basket, we headed to Cai’s house – a WWF volunteer who had kindly offered us to stay at his for the night.
We went via the bazaar to grab ingredients for tonight’s feast – we had an oven! Veggies were purchased to roast when I smelt the strong scent of the free-range Mongolian meat. The meat market was next door! This was a real experience – meat and offal on the tables, with old ladies sharpening their knives or grinding meat in the hand-turned mincers. A little blood was on the floor and the heads of the animals were at the base of the table, both a good measure to prove the produce was fresh. At just $4.60/kg, some mutton and goat was purchased to add to our meal. The combination of having a roof over our heads, with a homecooked meal, a mug of red, good tunes and better mates was a very welcome change.
Over the next period, nights would continue to be cold, though the wind stopped blowing so hard and finding rivers became more regular. Each night, there were visits from locals, whether that be the livestock, or their shepards, trotting in on horseback. They stand back, sipping from the bottle of vodka they inevitably have hidden in their robe. They are surprised at how we have chosen to live – touring by bicycle – then even more shocked when they see the solar panels, water purification devices, cameras and other electronics we are carrying.
I am often left wondering whether they are aware of what the rest of the world is like. Do they know and choose to maintain their simple, traditional lifestyle, or are they oblivious (through no fault of their own) of how so many others are living?
The further we went west, the steeper the hills became. There were a number of long stretches that we were told would be a tough slog due to the soft sand. To our surprise, a half constructed road of varying levels of readiness was there, closed to vehicles, however easily accessible with a bike. Although we had to get off every few kilometres due to drainage still being in construction, it was much faster than the alternative option.
Soon enough, these roads ended and some of the up hills felt like trying to climb a vert ramp in a skate park, but on a fully loaded bike and in the sand. The addition of roadworks and mining trucks zooming past with no warning didn’t help the situation.
On the crown of the mountain, we were met with the view of glistening, snow covered mountain ranges, contrasted against the purple and maroon highlights of the Mongolian geology. The best news came when Chris informed us the next 10km would be downhill, however on some very rough terrain.
For some reason, this set a fire off in me. I tend to be a cautious rider, however I plugged in some banging tunes and absolutely sent it. I sang at the top of my lungs, while weaving around potholes that could swallow my tyres, speeding up to skim over sand patches, and even hit a dirt mound that resembled a jump, leaving Tania (weighing in at 58kg) and I gliding through the dusty mountain air. The rush I felt at the bottom, being left completely out of breath, with a beaming smile, was really something special.
As I write this, I am sat alone, at Achit Nuur, a freshwater lake, a day and half ride from the city of Bayan-Olgii. I have since split with the others as they are continuing their journey through Russia whereas I’ll head down through Xinjang in China. Before commencing the journey to the border, I made the choice to enjoy some time alone, to relax and do absolutely nothing for a day or so. It started with an almost instant invitation into a ger owned by a family of eight, for tea, bread and aruul – a local snack.
While the tea was brewing, the 94 year old man and his seven year old grandson insisted on seeing my knife – a common practice in Mongolia. While I was happy with its condition, the man was obviously not impressed, as he pulled the small fruit knife out of his boot with one swift movement and cut a piece of paper to shreds. Before long, he had taken a large stone from his pocket and began roughing up my blade til it was slicing his arm hair with the lightest touch.
While this is most definitely one of the toughest experiences of my life – it is also one of the most rewarding. The landscape I am immersed in now is like a painter’s colour palette with blinding yellow straw and grass so bright it almost looks artificial. My ears are constantly filled with the deafening hum of bugs, with the dull crunching of livestock feeding on the grass, or birds of prey diving to pull fish from the water. It’s the real life David Attenborough experience you’ve always dreamed of. And I’m lucky enough to be sitting here, with a tea in hand, watching time go by.
To be continued
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