I crossed the border into Mongolia from Kyakhta (Russia) into Altanbulag (Mongolia) with no problems whatsoever. I’d found a cheap hotel in Kyakhta the night before so I could be at the border at 8 am sharp. When I arrived there was already a line of lorries in the lorry lane but the car lane was empty, so I went right to the front.
A friendly Russian came up to chat (he was waiting for his business partner to arrive from Mongolia) and sweet talked the lead lorry driver and border guard to let me through first, which saved me a lot of time. He too was in construction, like the last Russians I’d met at Lake Baikal, and it seems to be a good business to be in.
The gate actually opened at 9 am and I was quickly & efficiently stamped out of Russia.
Riding across no-man’s land into Mongolia I was greeted with the usual disarray I find in many countries when I appeared to be the first motorcyclist to ever cross the border. The lady at the initial customs kiosk didn’t have a clue how to fill in the form on her computer and kept phoning someone to ask for help. In the end she gave up and waved me through without completing it.
The rest of the procedure went fairly well as I bounced from one counter to the next collecting the series of four stamps required on what I assumed to be my ‘temporary import paper’ to enter the country. I was just glad I was first in the queue as I could see chaos developing behind me.
As I passed the final gate (after a glancing bike inspection) I got the familiar rush of excitement as I entered a new country on my bike – a whole month ahead of me to explore!
The Russian/Mongolian border area is beautiful highland taiga pine forest with stunning views as far as the eye can see. Elk, reindeer and bear roam wild in these parts, and to the west there are even local reindeer herders (although I didn’t see any).
As I rode south along the paved road the trees quickly disappeared and soon I was into the Mongolian steppe basin lined with green, rolling hills, which was more like the Mongolia I was expecting.
The road is one of the few surfaced roads in Mongolia, paved for 350 km all the way from the Russian border to the capital Ulaanbaatar (UB). But before I went to UB I wanted to stop off and do a bit of exploring first.
Almost immediately after entering Mongolia my Garmin Satnav decided to quit on me, which was not the most convenient of times or places – probably something to do with all the dust that covered it on Olkhon Island after I’d broken & lost the protecting top cover. I pulled over at a monument to a famous horse (I guessed) to try and fix it (unsuccessfully) and then I discovered the back-up Satnav I’d bought in Russia (in Russian) was also broken as somehow the screen had cracked (great build quality!) (although it probably wasn’t meant for off-road bike travel).
Together with the loss of my handheld Garmin somewhere in Thailand I would have been well and truly up the junction had it not been for my trusty iPhone (phew!). Soon it was mounted to the Garmin holder with gaffa tape (you can fix anything with gaffa tape) and, pre-loaded with the ‘maps with me’ App, I discovered it was a fantastic navigational aid with almost all the off-road tracks in Mongolia. It would at least do until I got to the capital and bought a decent road map (if one existed).
While I was pulled over a local pulled up alongside me to see who I was and what I was doing. As my Mongolian consisted of ‘Genghis Khan’ and ‘vodka’ we didn’t get far on the intellectual conversation front, but he did provide questionably useful moral support as he stood and stared at me. I was rather surprised to see him wearing a helmet (he was sensible at least), and he was probably the last one I saw wearing one.
Then a local guy called Bebe turned up in a Russian van and called out “Alright mate! What are you up to?”
This threw me somewhat, but I soon found out he’d studied in London for 3 years, hence the Cockney/Mongol accent.
Setting off again I saw the App showing a ‘point of interest’ off along a rough sandy track, so I wasted no time darting off to investigate.
It led to a sandy clearing with a pile of rocks and tree-trucks arranged into a pyramid structure covered with coloured ribbons. It was an Ovoo and there are millions of them all over Mongolia (and elsewhere where Mongolic tribes live, such as the ones I saw around Lake Baikal) – a Shamanic offering to the gods. Several locals were there praying and lighting candles.
Shamanism is making a comeback in Mongolia after many years of harassment, pressure to convert and Stalin’s religious repression (when many of them were shipped off to Siberia to die in the Gulag camps).
On the way back to the main road I had some fun riding around a network of sandy tracks which crisscrossed at random across the plains.
Of all the countries I’ve visited so far, Mongolia is very much unique in that you can ride your motorcycle vitally anywhere. All the land (with a few exceptions) is owned by the State which allows the nomadic herdsmen to move freely anywhere to find the best grazing ground. It is often coined ‘the last unfenced wilderness on Earth’, and it probably is. Because of this though, you have to be careful you are fully prepared and self-sufficient, or you could end up stranded and in trouble.
Once I had skidded out from the sandy track back onto the main road, I went in search of a traditional bow and arrow workshop I’d read about (one of only three in Mongolia according to the ‘Lonely Planet’ guidebook).
While riding I was surprised to see people waving at me as I passed, and cars beeping and flashing headlights in a friendly manner. People were actually smiling! Having been in Russia for 3 weeks I’d forgotten that other people actually do this to strangers 🙂
I eventually found the bow and arrow workshop in a small shed in a small village called Dulaankhaan after stopping to ask a local where it was (in well known ‘sporting a bow and arrow’ sign language). It just happened to right where I’d stopped to ask, and I was immediately ushered inside for a personal tour.
A couple of old men sat around on stools making composite bows from bamboo and goat horn, and a couple of old women sat around binding sinew and animal glue to hold it all together.
I was invited to boast my technique, but obviously have some work to do. Historical records talk of Genghis Khan’s cavalry units firing arrows in excess of 500m, and hitting something.
Back on the main road to UB I was heading to a horse ranch called Anak Ranch few miles further south in the beautiful Orkhon Valley as I fancied trying a bit of horseriding (anakranch.com).
Having received ‘loose’ directions from interesting Cossack/Czech ranch owner Martin (who owns & runs it with his Mongolian wife, Minjees), I was searching for a while in circles around the small town of Orkhon when I pulled up at a local farmhouse to ask directions. No sooner had I waved to attract their attention from afar, I was ushered inside and sat down in front of a steaming bowl of mutton stew and rice. Wow! I’d heard Mongolian hospitality is second to none, but I hadn’t expected to experience it on my first day. I asked the mother why she wasn’t eating, and then realised they only had 4 bowls, and she had given me hers. Then I felt really bad, but she grabbed a plate and loaded it up with rice instead.
In (what I’d heard to be) typical Mongolian fashion, the family put on their stern ‘photo faces’ for the photo I took of them, and the mother made a quick dash away to hide.
After lunch, which was pretty tasty (and I was pleased I hadn’t been presented with any goat eyeballs or innards), we were joined by more extended family members who took great interest in the Tiger.
Then, without hesitation, they despatched a young lad on a bicycle to lead me to Anak Ranch. How about that for hospitality!
The young lad was fast on his beat-up bicycle, and biked for a couple of miles to lead me to the ranch gates on the outskirts of town. I thanked him and handed him a little something for his trouble, and ventured inside.
As soon as I arrived ranch owner Martin made me feel right at home and it felt like I had instantly joined their large family. As well as children and ranch-hands, there were five young ‘western’ volunteers who had been working on the ranch for a few weeks in return for free food and board through websites called ‘wwoof’ and ‘workaway’.
After afternoon tea I thought I’d take the Tiger out for spin down the valley and try to reach the river for swim (there were no showers on the farm – just a well for fresh drinking water). It was great riding wherever I pleased, over the alternating grassland and sandy soil, surrounded by picturesque rolling hills.
Riding without a care in the world, as I approached the river I suddenly found myself boot-deep in a bog. I tried to power through, but it was no good – I just kept sinking deeper and deeper into the mud as the back wheel span. Darn! Eventually it as so deep in mud the bike stood up on its own without the side stand. That’s never good.
This was the first of several lessons I learnt the hard way in Mongolia:
1. Always look well ahead when riding off-track and ride with caution, expecting the unexpected.
Lesson learned, it was time to rescue myself as I was miles from anywhere and no-one was going to pass by to help me out. I also still had my panniers attached (as one was tie-wrapped on where the locking mechanism had broken), so I had to cut the tie-wraps and tramp out of the swamp with them to make the bike lighter.
The bike wasn’t moving ahead, so it had to go back. Lacking a reverse gear, as you do on most motorcycles, my only option was to pull the bike over onto its side, drag it round and out of the hole, and stand it back up again. Dragging the bike round out of the hole and standing it back up again in deep mud was much easier said than done, as I kept slipping and sliding around with not much purchase to move it.
By the time I eventually got the bike out of the bog, it and I looked like we’d gone several rounds at world championship mud wrestling. I found a water puddle and washed myself down best I could so I wouldn’t look like a total wally when I got back to the farm. My river bath would have to wait, and I’d have to use a bucket like everyone else until then.
On the ranch they keep 100 head of cattle, 30 horses and numerous goats, sheep, dogs, cats and ‘an occasional wolf’ (as they quote). I arrived back late afternoon just as the cows arrived for their second milking of the day, and it was very interesting to watch as the young calves were held back in a pen and released one at a time to start suckling, and then removed so the ranch-hands to collect a litre or so of milk.
During milking I learned why you never see farmers wearing flip flips, as it really hurts when a young bull steps on your toe. I decided to call this day a ‘Learning Day’.
After milking, we all had a game of basketball on a homemade ring. The ball kept rolling in cow pies and after an initial couple of attempts to clean the ball, I gave up trying not to get covered in mud and cow poo; everyone else was!
During the game a young volunteer managed to dislocate his thumb by inadvertently running into me (it was promptly pulled back into place the ‘Mongolian way’ by a ranch-hand).
Since the luggage was now off the Tiger I thought I’d take it for another ride across the valley; it’s always a lot more fun without the luggage bouncing around.
At dinner we all sat around a large, square, wooden table, all chatting merrily away over a nice meal of rice, carrot, cabbage and mutton. It reminded of a scene from ‘The Waltons’.
Martin is a lively, entertaining fellow who has also lived in Germany and then Australia where he owned a mine and then started his own business as a lawyer. He isn’t short of a story or two, or a quick remark to lighten the mood, and soon I found myself on the Tiger heading to the local supermarket to buy a batch of beer to accompany the evening’s entertainment.
It was a good night, and somehow we managed to convince a volunteer called Norman (from Austria) that he’d look cool shaving his goatee into a Hitler moustache. Scary thing was he liked it! He was picking up a new female volunteer in the morning (also from Austria) and so we all had bets on how long she would take to run away.
I was staying in a private Ger on the ranch grounds, which is a round traditional tent lived in by nomads made of wooden ribs covered in sheep’s wool felt. Inside was clean with a bed, which was all I needed.
Just before I turned in, I was invited by Minjees and her two friends to sample her homemade Kumis (fermented milk from a mare or cow), which basically tasted as horrible as it sounds – watery, sour milk. They then told me, with amusement, it was Mongolian custom to down three glasses of it the first time you try it. Great. I held my breath and gulped down the second, and the third followed shortly after and just about stayed down. Although it’s not very strong in alcohol content (similar to weak beer), I think three glasses of the stuff is enough for anyone. I was then treated to an impromptu chorus of the 3 ladies singing a melodic traditional wedding song under the starlight. Were they trying to tell me something?
I felt like I’d lived a month in one day, and couldn’t help thinking how lucky I was to have experienced all that (apart from the mud and the cow toe). I loved it and couldn’t wait to see what the next 29 days held in store for me.
Next morning I was saddled up by a big friendly Mongolian ranch-hand nicknamed ‘Santa Claus’ (due to his big, hearty ‘ho, ho, ho’ laugh) and he led me out on an amazing horse ride through the Orkhon river valley.
I’ve only ridden a horse once before in Ecuador and it took me a while to make the horse to understand my poor attempts at Mongolian commands, but eventually we got there and I started cantering along quite nicely.
We rode all morning and rounded up a stray horse along the way (well, Santa Claus did). The views from the top of the surrounding hilltops were great.
Back in the valley we stopped by to see a mate of Santa’s and we sat and ate a selection of curdled milk products, cheese and drank tea.
Outside the guys were making horse bridle from goat horn fibres, and were stretching and softening the bridle by repeatedly twisting and untwisting it on a wooden frame using the weight of a heavy iron girder.
I was surprised to see many Gers with Satellite TV and solar panels – this one was no exception.
One of the highlights of the ride was stopping off the river on the way back for a swim – yes, I finally made it to the river!
Back at the farm I went to get some more beer for my last night, but before we drank it Martin and Minjees took us all in their truck to see Minjees’ uncle down the valley. When we arrived, out came the vodka and diary product snacks, and we all took turns to down shots until the bottle was dry, as is the custom.
The uncle’s wife then produced a guitar and treated us to some tuneful traditional songs, similar to the Cossack music I’d heard in Russia. Then she started on the accordion and invited me to play the guitar along with her. I was a bit rusty on the traditional Mongolian music front, as she was on the Beatles front, but we did manage to cobble something together that sounded a bit like Mary Hopkin’s ‘Those Were The Days’, albeit with different words (and different tune). Anyway, the vodka certainly helped forget it sounded terrible.
In the morning, after a couple of days at the ranch, I really didn’t want to leave, but I was conscious I only had a 30 day visa and Mongolia was so big I would need it all to explore. Martin too didn’t seem keen on me going, and even offered me a couple of extra days free of charge, which really made me feel part of a new family. I’d like to go back one of these days.
Before I left one of the local ranch-hand girls noticed the gaping hole in my biking trousers’ crotch and made me take them off right there so she could sow them up for me. She did a much better job than my attempt to re-seal them with super-glue (which failed miserably and just made a mess), and they looked like a new pair of trousers once she’d finished.
The family, ranch-hands and volunteers all came out to see me off, and off I bounced down the track to rejoin the short remaining 225 km of paved-road to the capital UB.