After a great night and relaxing morning camping on the deserted eastern bank of Khovsgol Nuur (Khovsgol Lake) I packed up and rode back round the way I’d come the night before to Khatgal, the little village on the south coast.
The road was much nicer and quicker in the daylight, hardly surprisingly, and I saw the dodgy looking bridge I’d ridden across in the dark.
I rode further round to the west bank, where all the tourist camps are, did a spot of yak spotting, and then rode back to Khatgal to do a bit of shopping at the local grocers. I was looking forward to dinner because I’d found a tin of ham in the shop – the first in I don’t know how long!
The bike had still been playing up a little and cutting out occasionally as I as riding, and I thought maybe I hadn’t re-connected the wires to the bypassed side-stand safety cut-off switch well enough. On inspection the wires were still covered in mud, mud seeping out of the insulation, so I made another join higher up on the bike well out of the way.
After lunch down by the lake, and another swim (the lake had warmed up a lot by midday), I started my journey to the west.
The forecast was right and around lunchtime the black clouds started rolling in from the south. I passed right underneath them and only got rained on for a few minutes before I escaped into blue skies the other side.
I thought I would try the Northern Route across western Mongolia to Ulaangom. Everyone else I had met (on bikes and cars) had taken the Southern Route because the Northern Route was supposed to be wetter, sandier and generally more difficult. I tried to research some information but could find very little on the state of the Northern Route, except that there may be some major river crossings with no bridges that might make it impassable. Worst case, I thought, I could always turn back.
Khovsgol Nuur to Tsagaan-Uul
I got back to Moron quickly on the new, paved road, and then turned west towards Tsagaan-Uul. There was still a road, and bridges, but it was a rough, stony road waiting to be surfaced. I imagine the whole Western Route (and Southern Route) will be surfaced at some point in the future, so now’s the time to come (if you like that kind of thing!)
The ride was stunning as the road stretched out for miles across the vast, green Mongolian steppe and then twisted up and around various mountain ranges.
As I’d made a late start (enjoying the morning and lunch at the lake) I only went 80 km or so down the road before I decided to camp at a beautiful river the road had met and followed for a while. It had been a hot, dusty ride and I was ready for another swim.
It was a great camping spot and I was glad I’d decided to stick with the Northern Route, as the Southern Route was supposed to be fairly uniform scenery, and dry and dusty sand.
Tsagaan-Uul to Tes
The next morning started out beautifully (a dry tent in the morning is always a delight to pack away, compared to a wet one) and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. The forecast announced I was heading into rain and thunderstorms, but that seemed hard to believe.
Soon after I set off the road left the river and turned from an un-surfaced road to a sandy, stony track. It was still good and solid, and easy to ride on.
I stopped for some fuel in Tsaagun-Uul and then I met Tim and Nick, father and son, driving the other way in their 1980’s classic Land Cruiser. They had come up from the south on the ‘Middle Route’ and were now heading back to the capital to await some parts they needed.
The track continued on, good and solid, up and down beautiful scenery that rivaled some of the best I’d seen in Mongolia.
The next town was another Tsetserleg (the third one I’d seen – had the Mongols run out of names?). However, having plenty of fuel, water and food, I followed another good quality track that bypassed the town to the south, and also avoided the need to ride through the same river twice.
Then I came across the first motorcyclists I’d met on the Northern Route – two guys from Norway and one from Germany on three BMW 800 GS’.
We did the usual thing and swapped information on the roads ahead, and they looked very relieved when I told them it was generally plain sailing from here on to the east. Conversely, they told me I was about to enter some very deep sandy areas, and it had been a very difficult 4 days for them to get this far from the western border.
Riding on with apprehension, parts of the track soon did become a bit sandier, but was nothing high revs and quick blasts of the throttle couldn’t sail over (I think my TKC 80 rear wheel was a good (lucky) choice). I had gone from beautiful mountain passes to expansive desert scrub in just a few minutes.
Further on, in some parts, the sand got much deeper, and I found it much quicker to jump up onto the grass verge (where it was possible) and ride along on firmer ground than to battle through the sand. However, this wasn’t without its dangers, and several times I almost fell into hidden wash-outs, large potholes and crashed into hidden boulders. Eventually I took a glancing blow from a large rock, having just managing to avoid a head-on crash at the last nano-second. The blow snapped the retaining spring off my side-stand, and now the side-stand wouldn’t stay up. Having your side-stand always flopping down is obviously not ideal, so I secured it up to the frame with a cable-tie and carried on, aiming to get it repaired at the next town. From then on I mostly stayed on the track, as they were intended.
Then the sky turned black and the heavens opened; rain, thunder and lightning. On the plus side, the rain matted down the soft sand, making it easier to ride on. I placed my rain mac over my leaky camping dry bag as I thought it was more important to have a dry sleeping bag than a dry Bowen.
I got into a good rhythm and was enjoying skidding around the sandy berms, when I came up on another biker paddling along slowly with his feet. I pulled to say “Hi!”
It was a Korean biker on his Honda CBR 250, on road tyres. I did feel sorry for him, as he and the bike were covered in sand, obviously having been down several times. However, he was still smiling (just), so good for him! It must have been a nightmare on his road tyres in the sand, but you can do almost anything on anything, as long as you have the determination, and the time. I recommended to him riding on the firmer verges when the sand got too deep, but to make sure he kept a good look-out for big rocks if he did!
I made the next town, Bayantes, soon after and asked at the fuel station if there was a mechanic in town who could fix my broken side-stand. The young girl at the pump didn’t know, but luckily a man rode up in a jeep and told me to follow him.
The guy parked outside a beat-up old house. It was now 6pm and still raining, but an old guy limped out on a crutch with another guy, and they both sat down and started working on the stand right away.
I’ve fortunately never had any trouble finding someone abroad help me with the bike whenever I needed something fixing; try finding a mechanic in the ‘western world’ who’ll come out in the rain at 6 pm without notice!
In no time they had found another spring and drilled a new hole in my side-stand to attach it. I was so happy I gave them 20 quid and they were also well happy- thanks guys!
Although it was getting late, I decided to ride on the short 45 km distance to the next town called Tes, as that was the target I had set for myself earlier that morning.
It was a tough hour’s ride through more deep sand, and at one point I found myself riding into a mini Grand Canyon, steep and full of deep sand. I didn’t like the look of it, so I branched off and rode over the adjacent mountain instead, making my own brand new track for someone else to follow (hopefully the Korean biker!).
It was still raining and back on the plains the tracks had mostly turned into rivers, so again it was much easier riding on the verges dodging the hazards.
I rode into Tes thinking I deserved a nice, warm hotel after such a wet and miserable afternoon, but anyone who’s ever been to Tes will know there’s about as much chance of that as finding gold under a rainbow. I did meet one random guy who promised me a nice room, and then took me to a yak shed – Hmm, let me think about this for a while…
I rode on and out of Tes, despite the rain, and set up camp by a river a few kilometres away. The forecast said it was going to clear up, and as if by magic, the sun suddenly popped out to say ‘good evening’.
It turned out to be a pleasant night after all!