I had flewn into Mongolia and Ulaanbataar’s Chinngis Khan airport by night, so had not been able to see the relatively small city, home to 1.7 million of outer Mongolia’s 2.9 million population. Now waking up up in the Soviet era 4 star Bayangol Hotel I could tell that the rest of the city was developing it’s character with a plethora of building projects, shedding previous influences that had shaped it.
Being early October, the weather was a cool 5-15 degrees by day, and a positively cold -15 degrees at night, very different from the humid warmth of the SpiceRoads office in Bangkok. Nonetheless, I wrapped up in fleece and gloves to spend the morning meeting with our Guide team, Batbayar and Aldra. With formalities out of the way, they took me for lunch and then to their workshops to inspect the bikes, camping equipment and saddles that we would use over the next 6 days activity. Confident that arrangements were in place, I headed out alone to explore Ulaanbataar before the rest of the group arrived and the adventure began in earnest.
The first stop was the Parliament building in the main square. This opulent looking structure overlooks the city centre, flanked on either side by the sons of the great Khan and guarded by a huge statue of Chinngis himself. Chinggis Khan, ruler of the Mongolian Empire, and relative to a reported 0.5% of the worlds male population, is revered as a hero to Mongols. The name means Oceanic Greatness, and was bestowed upon him following his uniting of the clans.
Religion in Mongolia was suppressed during it’s time as a Soviet satellite, long before that it had adopted Buddhism in an effort to calm the infighting after the death of the Kahn and subsequent re-dividing of the country under his fractious sons and heirs. When the country separated from it’s Soviet Allies in the early 1990’s the revival of Buddhism was strong, and it is often said that the low population numbers in the country are a result of a large proportion of the male population being monks. One of the main temple complex’ in UB is Gandan Monastery with it’s towering image of Janraisig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. I visited the temple, with its Tibetan styling, saffron monks and thousands of burning oil lamps.
From the Temple, I headed to The Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs. It is a little known fact that Mongolia’s Gobi Desert has been a source of some of the most complete dinosaur skeletons ever found, including a number of unique species. The highlight was a fossilised nest complete with eggs, frozen in time whilst hatching.
Weary from the incredible sites, I met with the other members of our group in the hotel and shared a table in the Silk Road restaurant before retiring to prepare my clothes and equipment for the challenge to come.
When I came down for breakfast on day 1 of the challenge, I found that our guides and drivers were already lined up outside, despite the cold temperatures. The transport vehicles were UAZ four wheel drive minivans designed for the Siberian terrain and Mongolian Steppes. Our equipment truck was an even larger Russian military troop carrier, all vehicles were bristling with bikes, and looked formidable lined up outside the hotel lobby. With a hearty Mongol breakfast inside us, the group transferred a short distance to our start point 150kms from the Siberian border and just inside the ‘Khan Khentii Strictly Protected Area’ which marks the edge of the Siberian Tiger’s habitat.
Our journey would be a point to point expedition, on bike, foot and horseback. It was a custom designed SpiceRoads itinerary and would cover over 200kms in 6 days on the Steppe. Accommodation would be tented for 4 nights, finishing in a Ger Camp on the last night before returning to UB.
The bikes were a mix of Giant XTC 27.5er, Trek 29er and Centurion 29ers. I was pleased to see that all were in new or nearly new condition and that the two mechanics we had along were suitably well stocked with tubes and tools. Speaking to them later, it turned out that one of our mechanics was the national mountain biking champion, and was a regular rider on the infamously tough Mongolia Mountain Bike Challenge.
Our ride began with a steady climb, followed by a long sweeping downhill where I clocked just under 60kmph. As the ground
levelled out, we ploughed through some soft sand, which thankfully did not re-appear during the trip. I had initially thought that Mongolian landscape would all be the same, but interestingly, as we crossed from one livestock spattered valley to another it was clear that there was a variety of terrain and flora. Mongolia is a sparse country, with only 9% of it’s huge area covered with trees, however the autumnal colours and scattering of forest on the mountain tops made for a beautiful backdrop somewhat reminiscent of western movies, with huge skies and expansive plains.
Climbing up over a steep pass we met our first snack stop. Tea, biscuits and snack bars were on offer, as well as a swig of the local Kumis, a fermentation of Mare’s milk which tastes better than I had imagined, sweet with a hint of of lemon and containing around 2% alcohol.
The group now descended a 7 km downhill section, with whoops of delight and plenty of Go-Pro footage recorded. At the bottom
we stopped briefly at a local herb spa and Ger camp before carrying on along a new valley line surrounded by mossy green rocks and circled by large eagles on the hunt for mice and marmot. The track then followed a steady climb where at the top we were rewarded to find our parade of vehicles laid out like a wagon camp, protecting the group from the wind as we sat down to lunch. As usual for a SpiceRoads trip the food was iincredible a hearty mutton stew with steamed bok choi and rice on the side.
After lunch we continued to climb before leaving the track and descending through fields along another valley which housed our camp, nestled in the crook of two hills and with sleeping and mess tents already prepared for us.
Having found a place for the night and changed to some warmer clothing I joined the rest of the group in the heated mess tent, comparing stories of the downhills and enjoying a coffee before dinner. With a 3 course meal inside us and the generators hum silenced at 10pm, we all retired to our sleeping bags in anticipation of the ride to come.
A light snow covered our tents in the morning, making it all the more difficult to unwrap from the sleeping bag. However with fresh clothes and the promise of the gas heater in the mess tent, the group finally emerged. We arrived to breakfast to find cheese, sausage, omelette and fruit as well as hot oatmeal. Sated and warmed, we headed out for Day 2, starting with a long uphill climb to warm the body and shed layers, before being rewarded with a 12km downhill that had hearts pumping and gravel flying as we picked our way down the paths to the centre of the deep valley ahead.
At the bottom of the hill we stopped at a couple of Gers guarded by fierce looking Mongolian Mastiffs, the breed, famous for its resilience to the cold climate turned out to be good at two things, barking and getting their bellies rubbed. The family of herders living there welcomed our group with smiles, and after a brief cultural lesson from the guides on how to enter a Ger, the riders were ushered inside for a look at the beautiful tents that have housed these nomadic people for centuries. Inside, the small space was kept impeccably clean, however shoes were allowed. The walls were adorned with animal skins, and the basic furniture and wooden frame were painted with brightly coloured traditional designs.
Outside I found the lady of the house, she was making curds from sheep milk, and surprisingly spoke German having studied the language several years before in Ulaanbataar. She kindly showed me how the curds were made, hanging in a sheep stomach and being occasionally turned. Waving goodbye to our hosts, we rode towards the next pass, climbing up and over the saddle to the valley behind. Our crew had set up the wagons for lunch as before, and we gorged on a bean casserole with lentils and steamed vegetables washed down with hot tea.
The last part of the ride crossed around 6 rivers between 5 and 10 meters across, most of them were less than 50cm’s deep, so a large number of the group chose to ride through, while others got ferried across by support vehicles. The first river was not too deep, with my shoes managing to keep out the dampness, however the next two were considerably larger, so that by the time we reached the third my feet were wet through, and I didn’t mind splashing through as fast as possible. Finally we had crossed all the rivers, and our camp lay in sight on the side of the low valley with a few trees for cover. We arrived in time for the wood burner to be lit, and dried socks and shoes by the fire whilst looking at the heroic photos taken by the drivers of the river crossings.
Day 3 was an easy walk, a rest in preparation for the harder mountain climb to come. However, none of us were prepared for the stunning scenery and rock formations that we passed en route to our next camp. The dry forests and pin needle carpets were reminiscent of Switzerland in autumn, and the rock formations looked like something that you might find in parts of North America. We climbed and descended several valleys before eventually catching sight of our next camp at the base of a snow covered mountain. This was the Golden Cradle, a sacred mountain worshipped by shamanistic Mongolians. It climbed from our current 1200metres to 2650metres, sitting over our camps like the statue of the khan I had seen at the square in UB. Having arrived back in the early afternoon, the support team had set up shower tents and boiled water in a drum for us to cleanse and relax before the climb to come.
That evening, we were treated to a lecture by Aldra and Batbayar on the recent history of the country as told by Mongolians, the talk was incredibly informative, and went on for nearly 2 hours. Afterwards the round of applause was testament to the respect which the group had already found for the crew who were working so hard to create a seamless experience.
Early the next morning, we had a full breakfast and set out to climb Altan Olgii ‘The Golden Cradle.’ The climb began with a 7km trek through forest and brush to the base of the mountain. From the start it was a 40-50 degree scramble with a couple of areas that levelled out where we could rest. The surface began as moss and trees, but soon opened out to bare rock which after millennia of freeze-thaw action had become a mountainous pile of shale and scree. The climb was long and tough, but the group were experienced, and picked their way with small steps through the uneven surface until finally the summit was in sight. Our guides performed a shamanistic rite throwing food to the four winds, before the group took photos and clapped backs then began the arduous climb back down.
At the halfway mark, we found shelter and ate a packed lunch while resting weary muscles. With full stomachs and fresh lungs we picked our way to the base before setting out through the forest to stay in the same camp for a second night.
The celebrations on our arrival at the camp were cut short, as the far more incredible sight of 40 horses galloping towards our tents held everyone silent in awe. These would be the horses that would carry us 40km tomorrow to our next camp. The horses were accompanied by 6 horsemen to supplement our 4 main guides and take care of the group whilst riding. Many of the group including myself had not ridden before. Aldra was not worried though, he simply said “horse is animal, you are man.” I took this advice to heart and decided not to be intimidated by the steep learning curve ahead. Worried faces soon turned to smiles over dinner, as pasta and meatballs followed a mushroom soup and a few dashes of whiskey or vodka in a mug of coffee for those willing to partake.
Overnight the horses could be heard neighing, and the temperatures had dropped to well under -15. Everyone was up early though, excited to start this final stage of the challenge. After a long briefing on how to control a semi wild Mongolian horse that only understood the word ‘go’ (choo) the group mounted their steeds. The horses were small, but extremely strong. After all, it was this brave bloodline that had carried the Mongol horde and conquered half the known world to create the largest contiguous empire in history.
The horses were surprisingly patient with our inexperience, and after picking through snow covered rocks and through streams and rivers we entered more open grassland. The more experienced riders cantered ahead leaving the less confident to try trotting for the first time. Very soon the group had found a faster pace, and made steady progress to the lunch spot. Sat by the river, amongst the horses, and surrounded by mountains and roaming livestock, I don’t think a single person did not yearn for a more simple life at that moment.
Following another excellent meal of mutton stew with slaw and lentils, the group remounted with groans and moans on sore backsides. Gripes were soon forgotten as we cantered out onto the open plains, and picked up the speed again. Now many of the group had gained confidence, we began to canter and gallop. The experience on horseback was astounding, as the horse was able to watch the road the rider could take in the scenery. I fell in love with riding at that moment, and look forward to the next chance that I have to experience the flying exhilaration of galloping.
Our camp for the night was hidden behind a ridge of trees, overlooked by a carved stone in the wasteland which simply stated that this area had once been the site of the former capital of the Mongolian Empire. We slept with dreams of riding through the open plains and I was sure that I heard a few people muttering ‘choo’ in their sleep!
The group awoke early from our last tented night of the journey. As we unzipped and climbed out into glorious sunshine I think that we were all keen to see our horses again, having now formed a bond, albeit based only on constant repetition of a single word. I was sure that like me, no-one would have swapped their mount at that time. Once the horses were saddled and everyone had mounted up, the group picked it’s way through deep rivers and thick forest to the base of the valley’s steep side. From there the horses climbed up the slope
with us on their backs, panting and plodding until they reached the top.
Before descending the pass, the group dismounted and stopped for snacks and more gulps of the refreshing Kumis. Some of our group were keen to know about the Mongolian national sport of wrestling, and it wasn’t long before our guides were taking on all comers for one-on-one ‘lessons.’ Despite having martial artists and some keen personalities, not one Mongolian suffered defeat. Aldra proudly told us of the Japanese Sumo championships which had remained in Mongolian hands for nearly 15 years now.
With our horsemen guides now firm friends, we started down the hill to ride on another 10k to the lunch spot. This was another beautiful riverside location, in grasslands steadily munched and chewed by curious goats and cows. From there we rode on, climbing another steady incline for 7k before dismounting and walking our horses down a steep rocky slope, remounting to pick our way along precarious mountain paths emerging at a picturesque Ger camp in the golden light of the setting sun.
Hot showers and soft beds awaited as we swapped stories and email address’ over beers and 3 courses of dinner. It was the end of an epic journey, one which no-one would forget. We had made friends, with Mongolia, each other and of course our horses!