The old city of Karakorum was the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century but it now lies in ruins near the present day town of Kharkhorin and adjacent to the Erdene Zuu monastery in central Mongolia, almost 400 km (of mostly paved road) west of Ulaanbaatar. It was eventually destroyed during the Chinese during their occupation.
It seemed like something I should see, although when I arrived in the late afternoon, there wasn’t actually much to see at all, except for a few ruins and the grandiose, long wall of Erdene Zuu monastery, built from stones scavenged from the fallen ancient city.
On the plus side, the bike was running well after its little dunk in the river, and my leg was much better.
I had given away my 20 litre fuel can in UB as it saved a lot of weight and I really didn’t think I needed it. I had been surprised to see an abundance of brand new fuel stations all over Mongolia, even in the smallest of villages run by a couple of goats. I had also ruthlessly purged a few more unused items, and the bike was feeling much better for it.
It had turned cloudy and then started to rain, so I started looking for somewhere nearby to camp.
I thought I might have a ride down the Orkhon Valley the next day (a UNESCO World Heritage site) to try and get to a waterfall I’d heard was nice, so I rode down the road towards Khujirt and found somewhere off-road to camp. It wasn’t the nicest spot I’d ever found, but it was OK, and nobody was around.
Well, I thought nobody was around, but as always when you think you’ve found the most secret camping spot in the whole world, you hear the distant sound of a Chinese moped slowly getting louder and louder, until it stops outside your tent and an interested local stands there staring at you.
“Sain baina uu!” (“hello”) I shouted, as I crawled out of the tent.
Of course the Tiger then had the usual touchy-feely ordeal as the interested herdsman examined it in minute detail. Smiling and polite, as always, I offered him some of my dinner, and he tried a little, and then went off on his merry way.
In the morning the weather was still overcast with occasional showers, and as I’d heard Orkhon Valley could get pretty muddy, I didn’t really fancy riding down it in the rain. So I packed up and started heading west to a town called Tsetserleg.
I hadn’t gone far when something made me hesitate, stop the bike and pull over. Was I really going to let a bit of rain stop me seeing a potentially very beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site river valley and a waterfall?
I mean ‘No’.
I turned the bike around and headed back to Karakorum to pick up the track following the Orkhon River down the valley. As soon as I did, the sun came out, so I took that to be a good omen.
The track was sandy, but after my dune riding in the Gobi I didn’t mind a bit of sand every now and then.
The track passed some interesting rock formations as it twisted down the valley alongside the river. I had made the right choice after all, because the views across the flood plain were stunning.
I’d been riding for a couple of hours when I reached the entrance to the ‘Orkhon River Valley National Park’ and paid a couple of dollars entrance fee.
Just around the corner there was the most beautiful view of the river as it hair-pinned around a sharp bend it had carved into the hillside.
There were a couple of my favourite river crossings…
The sign at the park entrance said there was only 27 km to go to the waterfall, so I ‘put my foot down’. However, the weather had made a turn again and it started to get very dark and overcast. The rain from yesterday and the morning had left large, muddy puddles all along the track, and sometimes the track seemed to have more water in it then the river.
Added to this, I was now riding right next to the river, and the ground was pretty wet and boggy in places anyway.
It wasn’t fun riding, as there’s not much you can do in slippery mud, and I wished I was back in the dry Gobi.
I rode on for another 2 hours in these conditions covering 50 km, so obviously the sign at the National Park office was wrong. It was so much further than I thought, I wondered if I’d have enough fuel to make it back out of the valley; typically, just when I’d dumped my extra 20 litres!
I reached a particularly nasty muddy mess and helped push a local truck driver out of the quagmire he was stuck in. Then my bike refused to start! Well, it started OK, but as soon as I put it into gear it cut out. It had been playing up shortly before, cutting on me every now and again. I guessed this was likely a faulty side-stand safety cut-off switch (designed to stop you riding away with the side stand still down) – the same thing that had happened to Geoff’s Kawasaki bike before Khabarovsk, Eastern Siberia. I tried to clean it with water, but it was so muddy, it was pretty useless. In the end I just cut the wires to the switch and reconnected them, bypassing the switch altogether. I crossed my fingers and, it worked!
It was getting late when I eventually ended up on the high banks of the river at the end of the valley where the waterfall was. The only problem was, I was on the wrong side of the river and couldn’t see the waterfall!
The river was far too deep to cross, so I just gave up and rode up a nice hill next to the tree-line to pitch the tent. It couldn’t have been that nice anyway…
In the morning things were completely different and the sun was out in full force! I do love it when the sun shines – it somehow makes riding seem so much easier and more enjoyable.
I flew over the mud much quicker on the way back, mainly because it was much drier. I was right about the low fuel situation – I ran out about 10 km before Khujirt. Luckily I have 2 small emergency 1 litre fuel containers (I used to use them for my old optimus camp stove), and one was enough to get me to the fuel station. Just after lunch I was back on the original (surfaced) road to Tsetserleg.
The ride was wonderful and I made a couple of short diversions into some beautiful woodland and down a nice river bank for lunch.
Tsetserleg is a small city 600 km west of UB and the capital of the local aimag (province). Nestled in a valley on the slopes of the Khangai Mountains, it is often quoted as the most beautiful aimag capital in Mongolia. I would agree, but I haven’t seen all the others yet, so I won’t comment.
I found my digs for the night at the immaculate, extremely comfortable and great value Fairfield Guest House, run by Aussie Murray Benn and his wife Elizabeth.
I had a great afternoon & evening relaxing at their guesthouse, and did I mention they do a great English fried breakfast in the morning? It was almost worth coming just for that! Yes, I do miss a proper fry-up. I considered staying a day longer, but the weather forecast for Lake Khovsgol to the north, where I wanted to visit next, was rain and thunderstorms in 2 days, so I had to get my skates on if I wanted to see the lake in its full glory.
I met Murray just as I was preparing to leave, and I’m glad I got the chance to, as he’s a top bloke (except for riding a BMW, ha ha). He and his wife also do a lot of great things for the local community, such as trying to educate herdsmen on sustainable farming, and trying to limit & repair the damage widespread alcohol abuse is having on a large number of local families.
We sat down and Murray took the time to talk me through the best route from Tsetserleg up north to the lake. He even gave me the route that he had driven before as a gpx.file and showed me a great iPhone App to run it on (MotionX GPS).
Murray’s route was 500 km in total, 400 km of it off-road, and I had my work cut out to get there in one day, especially as it was 1 pm by the time the route had uploaded to my iPhone & I left.
I waved goodbye, sad to be leaving so early, and set off on a rough track winding northwest through lovely forested mountains.
After a couple of hours I stopped for a late lunch around Tsagaan Davaa to look at some Deer Stones Murray had told me about. These ancient 3,000 year old Bronze Age stones stood over 2 m tall depicting images of ancient deer-bird spirits that were once worshipped by Mongol ancestors.
Occasionally along the route there was a river to cross.
And occasionally someone had been kind enough to put a wonky-looking bridge there.
Ever since my recent ‘river mishap’, my new river-crossing technique involves walking across the river first, in my flip flops, to find the best route, and then riding across in my flips flops so as not to get my boots wet (I hate having wet boots!). It works pretty well. If I ever come up against deep water again, I’ll not be too proud to get off my bike and push it through either, rather than risk another soaking.
I was then in for a lovely surprise as the track rose over several mountain passes with stunning views of the surrounding area, and then swept through a beautiful forested flower garden full of orange and yellow wild flowers. And, being a ‘new man’, I do love a good meadow full of flowers.
The track then worked its way down again onto the expansive steppe and I increased the revs to make up some time on the solid ground.
As I cleared the brow of a hill I was surprised to find a large river blocking my path directly in front of me. Luckily this was the river Murray had told me about, and also right in front of me was a guy waving me onto a wooden platform precariously balanced on top of two old, rusty, (just) floating hulks.
I loved it!
I rode on, parked up and enjoyed the crossing as the floating platform made its way over to the other side attached to a steel cable, using the flow of the river to drift across.
Not long after I found myself approaching the city of Moron, 100 km south of Lake Khovsgol, and brand-new tarmacked all the way. It was approaching 9 pm and I had ridden 350 km off-road in 8 hours – not bad. But I still had some way to go to get to a gorgeous camping spot Murray had recommended on the east side of the lake.
It didn’t get dark until about 10 pm, and by then I had covered the 100 km from Moron to the lake, and decided to go for the remaining 50 km to Murray’s camping position. After all, it was only 50 km, and I had already come 450 km.
After an hour I was beginning to regret the decision, as it was now pitch black and the road was a nightmare of potholes and large rocks on sandy tracks. I could hardly see any distance in front of me with the standard Tiger headlamps, and had to ride pretty slowly.
Then I came to a river crossing.
By now I was pretty wacked, but still got off and did the (now) mandatory walk-through. Luckily it wasn’t deep, and I sailed through and continued following the track on my GPS. I once went the wrong way and almost rode over cliff (bad idea), but managed to turn the bike around on the narrow track to go back and find the correct route.
After what seemed like forever, I finally reached the camping spot just before midnight – 11 hours after I left Tsetserleg. Funny, but when I arrived I didn’t feel too tired, and I could tell it would all be well worth it in the morning, as I could already see the beautiful lake shimmering in the starlight in front of me.
I pitched the tent right on the bank overlooking the lake, had a quick snack for dinner (which I’d forgotten about) and slept like a baby.
In the morning, I was right – it was worth it. The lake was the perfect picture of peace and tranquillity. I had a swim (freezing!) and relaxed in the sunshine all morning.