Ulaangom – Oeglij over 2 days 411 kms travelled – total 8876 kms
The last two days again have been challenging in the extreme. It seemed to me, plotting gingerly along the Piste, that Mongolia tried to prevent me leaving. I know, a strange thought, but I am lost for words to describe the riding conditions. I had the now usual obstacles, however still impossible for me to feel comfortable, presented on the on road. NO! … wait a minute … “Piste” … Sand, bulldust, gravel in all sizes, rocks, sharp ones indeed, mud, hard-packed river beds … you imagine the worst roads you’ve been on in Australia, double this!
Moreover, Neil and I faced extremely strong winds, rain – albeit still somewhat lucky to skirt past on the fringe, clouds you came down on me so fast you could not not notice it!
Almost any obstacle was thrown into the path. On top of all this we got lost ‘just only’ three times. My compass and a papermap came in handy (thanks Eric S!). The Piste presents with no pattern, no logic to it. Sometimes four or eight tracks are in front of me and I need to pick one, hoping it is a ‘good’ one. Ideally you have a camera-drone ahead of you, displaying all options of Piste on a screen (here’s a market-niche for adventurer touring), if you are not being a local who presumably know each track like the back of their hands
The second best thing, since I haven’t a drone) is to steer towards a Ger on the distance, asking for help in finding the right track. Twice we did so and each time the locals are happy to assist. Two of them hop on their 125ccm Chinese, double rear-shock sprung motorcycles and ride ahead. I can tell you that they are faster riders than me.
The final day brought two more obstacles for my riding mate Neil: a flat front right at the start. Fortunately we were still in the City of Ulaangom. One of the many local bystanders/curious onlookers offered to drive Neil and his front wheel to a repair place. It probably saved us two hours.
The next one was that Neil’s side-stand failed. Already it had been a ‘special’ sidestand made by the same motorcycle mechanic in Ulaanbaatar who fitted my new tyres. However “schwer mit den Schaetzen des Orients beladen” the bike’s weight claimed its toll and the special sidestand bent. A roadside repair, ~40kms before our destination – Oeglij, the most north-western town in Mongolia – was necessary. We clamped it together with a tyre-leaver and managed to continue.
Then we run out of water, despite having carried almost 5 litres each. Fortunately I had my Lifestraw bottle (Thank you Rudi F.!) with me and at the next river it got it’s debut. Worked well, as the next day my stomach was still fine J.
Late afternoon, after already a long and hard day of riding we both were stuck in the middle of nowhere. We tracked back to a valley, which was wind-protected and had some Gers as well. The camping gear came out and by 21.00 we could have a meal. These freeze-dried meals are delicious, especially if you had nothing all day!
The next day I arrived in Oeglij almost at the same time, after navigating to another lot of pistes. I finally found a hotel and crashed. The day after was declared a rest-day. Getting my head together, washing out the dust from every conceivable surface and crack, me included!
Tomorrow I am are off to the Russian border. This should be an ‘asphalted’ ride of about 100 kms. I rather slalom around potholes than going back to these treacherous roads Pistes! As it turned out, it wasn’t. Despite being marked as asphalt on two different maps, the final 40 kms were again piste. This indeed tested my resolve, I felt as if any expectation, regardless how little or low it was, still was being under-delivered by the circumstances.
Somebody, whose name I won’t mention, Les, … said that “riding sand is character-building.” Well after almost 3500kms on these roads my character should be as strong and big as the Rialto building in Melbourne’s CBD! I can tell you now – it ain’t! I also can assure you that – in my world – riding on sand is just shit! – and to be avoided for the future of my riding career.
I just had the wrong expectation of Mongolian roads despite a lot of research and reading reports from previous travellers. I knew they were dirt roads, what I didn’t considered was the extra-bad state they are in and the adding complexity of orientation and conditions.
One last whinge: I carry two navigation systems: a Garmin Zumo and Maps.me (on my phone). Both showed a major road, the one we had planned to travel on, but the road did just not exist!! We drove around to find a clue (tyre marks in the dirt), but Nada! Nix! Naturally we got lost. Moreover the alternate road we choose ended abruptly at a swollen river. No bridge in sight, nor even a shallow for crossing. The water was fast-flowing and hip-height! I checked it myself (my boots are not waterproof).
A final lesson learnt was the issue of riding in Mongolia alone, or as a pair, or in a small supported group. Pick one of the latter two! This is definitely my advice for anybody planning a motorcycle ride through Mongolia. However the first and also the second option offer a huge amount of dealing with uncertainty. I rode careful, as I didn’t want to end up with a broken collar-bone and/or damaged-beyond-repair bike or both. I knew that there was no back-up other than my riding partner. I DO carry a Spot and have the emergency-deal, but even in case of a serious mishap it would have taken days for any help to arrive. This was front of mind whilst navigating the tracks and adds another – perhaps unhelpful – dimension to such a ride.
Ultimately the joy of riding was bit-by-bit disappearing for me, replaced by a constant focus on the surface ahead. To take-in any of the amazing sights I had to stop – needed it anyway – and take a photo. Despite all the care, I had three offs. Bulldust, a heap of dirt and a stony goat-track whizzed away my front wheel and I bite the dust. Luckily besides pride and a few bruises nothing more serious happened. I am glad this capital is over. My riding-mojo has a large dent.
Would I do this ride again – well, you surely can guess the answer: a nicely equipped 4-wheel drive shall be my choice. Even one of the old UAS Russian vans would be a good option.
As I am writing this, I realise this may sound ungrateful, perhaps negative or even adventurous. No, not really to me. It is just an honest reflection of how I am feeling about the last week’s riding here. It certainly has taken the Mickey out of me. In a few months time, looking back, I am certain these sentiments will be less raw and I shall be able to better appreciate my entire time in Mongolia.
Following some photos, some I took, others by another Mongolian traveller. They have in common that they are all sights I have experienced in the past 30 days.