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Travel tales from from our travellers
 
  Rossano Salvatori and Giacomo Meglioli (Italy) - Mountain biking trip in north Mongolia 
 
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 Prologue

…Where have you been?

Ehm…in Mongolia…- I repeat to myself almost embarassed- …only two of us with the bikes - I mumble, while looking upward to uncover into my interlocutor’s eyes the emotion I’m sure is assailing him.   

We are in Moscow’s airport, with in front of us a group of persons showing typical attitudes of vacationing Managers.  

- “Aaah, Mongolia…, good deal !.. We were in China, and with no SUV to drive around…Yeah !..we have been in Mongolia five years ago…kind of boring, don’t you think so ? Where are you from ? “

- Yes, mmmh...we are from Scandiano , Italy, a small city lining beneath Reggio Emilia’s hillside, and…  

- Great, but forgive us, now we must go..ok ?  

And they just leave without even asking us how and if we made it well in Mongolia, or the miles we rode around there. Maybe we wanted to also tell them about all those efforts and toil we had to afford throughout those lands, and that, definitively,  for us that journey had been “The Trip of our life”. 

I luckily meet with an oldish american lady who is just back from trekking up the Altaj, and who is showing some interest in what we did, …and here my recount begins…

 

The nail…

I don’t even remember exactly when Mongolia started to insistingly represent in my mind the most suitable place on earth for a mountain bike raid.  Maybe two or three years ago, I guess. Anyway,  such an idea grew on assailing  me days after days,  until converting in my firm convinction that,  whenever I would take an  opportunity to bike far away from home,  Mongolia would be the destination. 

I thus began to spread around such my thoughts among my biking friends, with initially some kind of hesitation when figuring out that, in fact, such perspective could become real, for which after asking “ok guys, who’s coming with me ?” I ensured to quickly add something like “never mind, I was just joking !”…this until when the certainty of making it true prevailed on whatsoever unconfortable sensation... and until when my friend Giacomo strictly affirmed his will to join with me in the adventure. Let’s make it !

 

Initial steps were to gather information, any available information from whoever having possibly done it before. I could at first contact with a german guy, who pioneered an alike trip as far back as in the 80’s, when with a friend he had a 3-month ride throughout Mongolia’s mid-southern territories. I also came to know that two Italians and two Australians made something alike,  but my attempts in locating them produced no results.

Anyway, after having accumulated information from many different sources, we definitively elected Mongolia as the perfect place for our biking adventure:  wild regions of boundless distances, where you can run for hundreds of miles in almost complete loneliness,  and where you must produce physical efforts (hard pedalling, in our case) for any moving, in fact like Mongolian shepherds when searching for greener pastures. We wanted to make all in absolute autonomy, I mean completely on our own,  with no interpreter nor any kind of logistical support.

So many images and scenarios toggled in my head, like that of making it at once by bike from Ulaan Batar  to our starting point in the mountains,  by crossing the Taiga and the northern swampy region of lakes. Giacomo, my venture companion  who used to cheerfully support my psychopath-like euphoria, on such dreamful plan of mines had to forcefully shake me down to effectiveness, by making me notice that time to us available was too short for considering such an approach, for which we should use transportation to get the mountains … “unless you and I

 

apply for a special 3-month freedom permission from either our families and job places !! – he added -  ….Better forget it !

Effectively we had only one month due for all the trip, which our planning indicated as maximum 20 days of effective biking and the remaining days as loss time for handling possible problems.

 

After having set the overall strategies we passed to define the details:

 

Biking distance: actually our experience suggested to split the itinerary in stages not exceeding 50 km/day, therefore the sum came out straight: a 1000 km raid !…  

Main itinerary: the lands of our interest extended throughout the regions of Arkangai and Khovsgol, by connecting some of Mongolia’s most typical locations -  The trails of hard mud or gravels seemed to offer acceptable off-road biking conditions, and ran across not excessively isolated landscapes (towns every 50 – 100 km) – Many lakes and rivers ensured for water supply.  

The only area to be entitled as the most lonely, which by the way was our key-destination, was the north-western region of Moron,  lining up with Siberia and  seemingly accessible only by walking, by horse, or by air.    

 

First impact…

Mongolia welcomed us with unexpected previsions: the exceptional heavy raining of July had caused devastating floods in the valleys we had to cross, with destroying bridges and other transit structures.  However such adverse prospects did not cause us excessive worries, nor  made us feel disappointed nor minimally dissuaded to achieve our original plans,  for actually the most important for us was to have arrived in Ulaan Baatar with no piece of equipment missing. Never mind to sit down and redesign an itineray map…!

But it was only then, at 6 p.m. of a rainy and cold Wednesday  July 18th, , after our smiling driver dropped us off in Tsetserleg (our elected starting point), that we could truly feel the genuine sensation emanated by a yet really starting adventure !     

 

Since the beginning we rode on extremely troublesome grounds, with layers of gross gravels alterning to sections of powdery sands. However and despite such harsh conditions we could ensure enough stability of our overloaded bikes. Rather than keeping on the main tracks we proved more effective to use the streams of pressed-mud footprints oftenly running parallel to center trails.

In that part of Mongolia  the concept of “road” is very personal, for anyone can chose his way among a multitude of disseminated track traces leading anywhere throughout endless landscapes. Naturally all these many options are not formed randomnly, but a rainy period may oblige vehicles or herds to move deplaced from the center of current trails. Some are then definitevely abandoned, due to the erosion by water streams using their path to flow in. For sure, in terms of biking, the few gravelled trails were to be avoided !!

What we would see on the next days will forever remain impressed in our memory: endless wild plains running out of sight, hours of bike riding without meeting any life, shallow skies with clouds winding so low you could almost touch them, a completely new world but inspiring no fear…just a strong will to cross it all to see what’s behind another hillslope. When for outflanking a collapsed brigde we rode on the oceanic meadow I felt the same gorgeous  impression of a skier gliding on vergin white snows…Marvellous and unforgettable !      

 

 The coughing visitors…

At those latitudes the sun sets down late, very late, never before 10.30 p.m., reason why going to sleep for us was either late, never before midnight,  and since our very first camping night we had visitors coming by, kind of visitors we would then always call  “those having coughing attacks”. The same ceremonial repeated every night: a couple of horsemen appeared at distance in the land, and who from far seemed to take other direction than ours, like ignoring our presence -  all of sudden they made their horses grossly converging toward our camp line, and  when close enough for us being aware of their presence they started to cough loudly prior pointing firmly to our tent and asking us if we needed some help. In fact that was what they wanted us to believe…while in reality you could sense their unrefrainable curiosity, only partially smoothen by their natural pride and foreigner-reluctant temperament of mongolian nomadic horsemen.

 

Instead, when we happened to set our tent close to their campgrounds, children used to come by. Always polite children who in respectful postures grouped still and silent to observing us in our routinary camping tasks of washing, cooking, or maintaining our bikes. Sometimes you could see their moms and dads pacing at distance from us, with feigning unconcern. It also happened for some of them to suddenfly run away and return later with cheese or airag to gift us.  

 

Opposite to children our “coughing visitors” showed more chatty,  and usually attempted a speech in Mongolian or in Russian. As soon as becoming aware that we could not understand at all their language they amazingly shifted to an enjoyable mix of mimings, scribblings and drawings. This way of communicating resulted after all quite effective, and by the way evidenced their exceptional ability in learning and emulating. After quickly grabbing our words and gestures they could effectively repeat and reproduce them easily at once. That was their way of approaching us !    

 

Keep on going for not sinking…

For all the first week we had to fight against quite unstable weather, with unceasing front blows of north-western winds that seemed to still hit frontward us even if we changed direction. Every day at around 4 p.m. the skies started to turn out crowdy of dense dark clouds, as the daily storm was preparing its blows.  Then we knew to have hardly longer than 10 minutes for alltogether finding a safe place, unloading the equipment, rising the tent and disseminating luggages for appropriately ballasting our fluttering shelter. Squalls of water, or even hails,  usually lasted up to one hour, but stormy blasts happened to strike back with no warnings,  with us in such cases ending up totally drenched. However, on the other side, we could see the Tsetserleg steppes dressed up in splendorous green mantel constellated of Edelweiss flowers.   

Later on we could however much regret for wind and rains, when with temperatures around 40° we crossed the desertic valley between Jargalant and Shine Ider. Under a breaking sun at altitude 1700 m above the sea  we pedaled for hours among total dryness,  with never meeting with any tree nor whatsoever kind of greenery. We were burnt on our legs and arms and ran practically out of water when we luckily encountered an unmarked esile water stream behind another of the many hills to crossed over. We must here assume that in that circumstance,  like in a few more, we ran with luck,  for the water in Harkhangai is not abundant at all, and the one to be found is often yellowish and dense of unknown material and larval suspensions. Anyway,  after appropriate treatment it can be used for laundry, cooking and  body washing.  

 

But Mongolia is not only broad grassy plains. We aslo crossed through gorgeous alps-like valleys (northern part of the Khovsgol, the region lining up with the moutainous chain of Horidol Saridag), large forests of larch trees, wide swampy areas,  limy and granitic highlands of dull vulcanoes over 3000 m high,  with endless lakes of limpid waters and frightening turbulent torrents charged of treelogs. 

 

For in these places the contact with the wild is quite intense we had most of the time to rely only on intuition for discerning smallest crosses or openings allowing us to go one step forward.   In the forests the tracks just vanished , or turned out too garbled for ensuring a reliable leading. In such conditions neither the GPRS is useful for possibly showing you how to make it around some next pond hidden under a carpet of musk.

For many days we kept wearing sandals, with our feet always soaking in waters. There were times when keeping on forwarding demanded for great conviction and extreme efforts, only stimulated by swarms of hungry insects ready to feast on us whenever we halted.  For sure in these portions of itinerary our bikes converted in heavy means, but still  indispensable to prevent us from sinking down above the knees. Also in this region, famous for consistent heavy rains, we ran with some luck in terms of weather conditions, for it remained stable for all the 10 days spent to cross it all. Such climatic stability did in some manner favorize our slow but permanent progressing, in still acceptable “discomforts”.          

 

Unaltered world…

One day up north from Ulan-Uul we met with a shepherd family in process of manually moving their camp, followed by their herd of jaks. We could cross through that antique scenery, probably one of the last someone may still be witness of.  These people stared at us with open smiles, prior continuing in their activities, giving the impression that for them  we were just few more than a curious attraction, maybe something to spend a few words about around next night campfire.     

During the long days spent on our bikes we often happened to run into herds of long-haired jaks.  Calfs were just adorable, looking like cotton curly-haired fat joung sheeps, while the enormous males looked at us in   menacing postures, prior escaping rapidly when we got too close.  

The quantity of animals in Mongolia is quite impressive: for a population of 2,5 millions, which half are nomadic, there are 30 millions of pasturing animals among horses, sheeps, jaks and camels, and the distinction between domestic and wild animals is quite aleatory.   Once, in very hot and lonely valley with no human settlement for at least 50 km around, we met with some wandering camels, actually busy in peaceful pasturing. With us obviously using smooth and cautious approaching manners we could practically achieve to caress them. The fact is that steppes animals in general have no fear on humans, except the marmots that are in constant alert., for they are preyed by different rapacious birds and also chased as food by the local people,  who eat them stewed.

 

Steppe echosystem, even if still genuine, is notably suffering from the continuous rise of pasturing animals. In some areas the grass has difficulty in regenerating from weakened soils, due to poor raining and excessive exploitation.  By luck summer heavy rains can still keep steppes green enough to resist the next-to-come chilly winter, when for a very long time the land remains totally covered by snow.  These are hard months to live for both shepherds and animals. In Mongolia the winter survival in northern territories is anyway easier than in the southern regions, for the availability of grass conserved by ices and for the water supply represented by the snow itself.

 

 

Adapting to the land…

In Mongolia it is life that must adapt to land, not the opposite.

Our raid snaked through the most populated areas of the country, but actually the only infrastructures appearing to resist to natural threats were the electricity posts ! Mongolia’s orography is still genuine with same forces that have been forging it for millions of years: those of nature.   

Practically all rivers are torrent-like rocky streams rushing furiously downward the valleys, free to expand and overflow widely without control. At every such events the few bridges are just swept away, or keep standing alone out of reach in the middle of waters. However we could see that collapsed bridges not always represent a problem for the local shepherds, who sometimes grab at once the opportunity for improvising themselves as ferrymen for buses of tourists, walkers…or just bikers like us.  It happened once that, to cross an inundated piece of land, we accepted to board on a wooden trailer towed by jaks: yes, a funny experience, but also a wise decision since the powerful tide of almost one meter water would have forced us to unload all the equipment from our bikes, and pass it piece after piece to the other side by walking several times back and forth. On that occurrence our elder ferryman could not resist to give a try on my bike,  and only by inches missed to fall down a ravin. Unuseful to say that in such an event both of us would have run in great troubles !   

 

Bargain for cheaper price…

For fording a river on a jak-operated trolley we agreed a price of 2000 tugrik (less than two US dollars), this after a forceful bargain started from 3000. On achieving the deal our ferryman cried out and gestured with joy, as if having achieved some goal, while on our part we reluctantly afforded such a sum. While fording we tried to plan something to obtaining another cut on the price, in that moment without however considering that the sum was worth a couple of coffees.

Excessive bargain for dropping prices at bottom was,  however,  not always appropriate: in a small town near Toom (north of Moron) I bought a bottle of water for 700 T , against 550 T spent in Moron for a same one. On my arguing to the seller for such big difference I was replied that food and water supplies were delivered only once a month to their town, and that they had to pay for trucking. Those words were enough explaination for me to immediately buy a second bottle. 

In Mongolia price bargain should be conducted cautiously, and respectfully to the local situation.   Average earning is quite low in the country, and it is understandable that inhabitants try to make maximum benefits from “comparatively”  wealthy tourists. Mostly important is not giving the impression that money rolls up easily in your hands, and better actions are certainly to buy supplies and services directly in the country, rather than from agencies, which are mostly owned by western companies.      

 

The quest for iron thread…

Planning for an alike raid in a place such as Mongolia means to leave absolutely nothing casual, you must consider any detail among a multitude of possibilities.

With taking into account previous raiders’ misadventures in terms of flat tires, equipment breakages and other inconveniences we spent a consistant amount of time in analyzing a long collection of possible breakdowns. We then set what we believed was the most suitable list of spare parts to carry with us,  according to maximum weight allowed for luggages.  Among the infinite items to consider for efficiently preparing such a journey I can underline the following:   

-          ready-to-serve food to cover about half of our daily nourishment needs (lyophilized - vacuumed products)

-          clearly memorizing the itinerary

-          accurately determining and mapping  GPS points

-          of prime importance: to appropriately prepare the bikes !

 

For we had been impressed by the large number of flat tires related by earlier venturers, at first we listed to carry with us 3 spare air tubes + 1 new tyre /person, plus tube rags in enough quantity to solve up to four flat tyre/day. Then, as the idea of “better preventing than healing” grew stronger in us,  we opted to fit anti-perforation Kevlar bands in-between the air tube  and the tyre. Then, after an accurate check of actual bikes conditions, we  determined what should be structurally repaired, modified, replaced or adapted.

 

I don’t know if due to an efficient prevention or again to our being lucky, but the unconveniences we effectively experienced on the ground turned out to be in only one flat tyre for the entire tour,  and four times the breakage of my luggages rack but this in only 10 days ! 

 

For the sooner in using all the spare luggage racks the only we could possibly do in the event of such another a breakage was attempting to repair it,  for which we started to quest and collect like a treasure any pieces of iron thread to be found around.   Fortunately the last luggage rack resisted for the rest of the raid.  

 

Atavic hunger…

On programming our tour in terms of nutrition we estimated for a need of about  4500 kcal/day/person, and in our paranoia to make it all by ourselves we initially inclined for carrying all food with us. Such an idea did not however make a long course, for we opted with no hesitation to take with us vacuumed aliments for only 1000 kcal/day/person, after becoming aware of the economical implications of every “calory” transported from home.  

After all nobody in Mongolia is starving. Shepherds, even if of meager constitution, are typically vigorous and display rows of sparkling teeth, this being the sign of a generally appropriate nutrition. May I say however that, while cooking our expensive dishes, the prospect  of possibly being obliged to eat every day lamb and fried doughs appeared to us quite uncomfortable and discouraging     

 

What truly happened is that we started rationing aliments since the third day already, for our sudden and unexplainable sensation to possibly get short on food supply. It also happened that Giacomo, of very slim constitution, was consuming too quicly his daily supply of calories and therefore his body downed rapidly to lack of energy …and I, who in the initial days had generously left him wipe up any culinary remnant from pots, got to an alike condition after just one week. Since then the idea of “starvation” installed unvanishing in our minds, and for absolutely no reason since food was effectively lacking only and exclusively in our worries.  Effectively and in addition to our own food reserves in all the villages on our way we never missed to buy flour, cookies and  bread, this at very last every two days, as said before.  

Instead and far from this reality we constantly felt our stomachs claiming for food, for what everywhen arriving to the next“guanz” we just sat down to eat anything available, it’s to say lamb with fried pasta.

Almost at the end of our journey, on the banks of the lake Khovsgol, we met with workers of the Edernet mine being busy in fixing a barbecue. To the view and smell of such feasty foods Giacomo could not leave to intensively stare  at them, so insistingly that these men called us to join for some sausages and vodka.

In fact only on the morrow I would then understand why they kept questioning us in an amused manner, about the presence of wolves in that area !  

 

 

A mutant country…

Mongolia lived its upmost magnificience at the time of Gengis Khan’s glorious empire, and is now fighting a hard struggle for taking back the control on its destiny.  The country became an independent republic when the shattering URSS abandoned this region to itself at the end of the 90’s, but the resourceful Mongols, actually not discouraged by the catastrophic economical situation, dispersed again to raise their cattles throughout their endless territories. About half of the population (2,5 millions approx.) is nomadic and survives with worth 2 dollars/day. Now-a-days Mongolia is a country living in apparent calmness the big contradictions of our times. You can see families of shepherds living in felt tents like at times of Gengis Khan, and who certainly have relatives settled in cities with ten times earnings as them,  as well as young people spending their life in riding horses who look at the passing of powerful SUV cars without showing major concerns. Mongolians are very proud of their identity, looking with disinterest at western cultures. We travel like meteorites, and they just watch us passing by.      

Though Mongolia is a poor country it is not at all underdeveloped. People’s literacy is at good levels and latest technology like photovoltaic panels, eolian power groups, radio/tv communication means  are available at accessible prices. In fact Mongolians are perfectly aware on what’s going on worldwide. However, such a wide spread of mass communication,  together with the massive increase of oftenly non-ethical tourism,  are little by little sweeping away the cultural biodiversity of the country. Many small ethnics living in remote regions have no alternatives except to bow over tourism, if they want to survive, like for example the Tsaatan (otherwise called the “reindeers people”), whose destiny is going quite the same way as their cousins Indians of America.    

 

Epilogue 

…the elderly lady, who patiently let me talk in my garbled English, is now gone….and after one month together my tour mate Giacomo is not standing me anymore…so I finished my recount on my notebook…For a moment I have a sensation like a “Déjà Vu” …I look up…and stare to emptyness:   Forrest Gump ?

  

The country

Surface : 1 566 000 sq.km

Population : 2,2 millions

Density : 1.4 people/ km2

Capital : Ulaan Baatar

Religion : Buddhism, sciamanistic

 

Few guidelines

·         Mongolia is definitively not appropriate for mountain bike beginners, for it demands     accumulated experience, determination and extremely good physical shape.

·         Roads are awful, most of the time reduced to almost invisible tracks.

·         In the region of Horidol Saridag you must practically always walk & push your bike  throughout swampy forests cloudy of mosquitos.   

·         Always remember that you are in remote wild regions, then being self-sufficient is a must. Indispensable: satellite phone, GPS, vaccinations and full-coverage insurance. 

 

Best travel period

·         Nominally the best conditions are to be found from mid-August to late September.  

·         Our travel lasted July 27 – August 16 and met with variable conditions.  

·         Ground conditions generally good, even after raining, but particular caution shall be paid to storms, oftenly of extreme violence.   

·         Night temperature may drop down to 0°, while it may reach up 40° during the day.

·         Practically no humidity.    

 

 
Comments & hints

·         Appropriate maps are available on Internet . In Ulaan Baatar are available maps 1:1.000.000 and 1:3.000.000. 

·         Reliable information to be found in Google Map, but do not excessively rely on the option “show the way” !.

·         For on site arrangements we used the agency e-Mongol by UB, that supplied us with excellent services. 

·         First section of our itinerary- from Tsetserleg to Moron – can be fully covered by bike without excessive difficulties,  on gravelled or raw-hearth tracks.

·         Second section of our itinerary – start Moron – arrival Moron (roundtrip): quite difficult from Ulan-Ull  and  Jiglegyn Daava . Our daily average run did not exceed 50 km/day, oftently reduced due to storms and terrible soil conditions.  

·         Getting lost is a personal condition. The absence of clear tracks/roads in wild open spaces do not oblige  you to specifically take a direction, this if you use a compass and are aware of the destination you go. However, even if they will hardly understand your questions, the best is asking indications to the shepherds. Very useful to this purpose is having available a copy in Cyrillic of the city/site names.             

 

Personal suggestions for equipment

·         Mountain bike equipped with robust carrier racks and top quality anti-perforation tyres. We only got flat tyre once, thanks to Kevlar protections and high inflating pressure. 

·         Mountaineering class camping equipment, with cooker using preferably gasoline.

·         Specific biking synthetics wears.

·         Polyvalent footwears (for long tracks in water we used specific sandals and neoprene socks).

·         Rubber-fabrics backpacks/camping packs, for the many water streams to be crossed (we had cloth-fabrics ones, but made it anyway)

·         Dust is everywhere, thus electronics such cameras to keep appropriately sealed in plastic bags.  

·         A photovoltaic panel is the most appropriate for recharging batteries.

·         A satellite phone can be rented in UB at good price. In our case we used E-Mongol to have it ready on site.     

  

Traveler’s information

·         You can camp anywhere. However, in sign of respect, it is good practice to stay at some distance from “Gers”.  

·         Traveling in full autonomy allows closer relationship with local inhabitants. Mongolians do not refuse gifts, but are not in conditions to afford presents. It is however not unusual to be gifted of cheese or “airag” (fermented mare’s milk).   

·         Water is not very abundant. Water supply shall be sourced from rivers and purified. In all cases water in plastic bottles is available in villages, to be found every 50-100 km.

·         Any kind of goods are available in Ulaan  Batar  and Moron, thus to be considered when preparing luggages. A large variety of food can be purchased at average price of 10 Us $ /Kg as extra luggages.  

 

 

“Mongolia’s biking raid in August 2006 by Rossano Salvatori and Giacomo Meglioli”

   - Travel summary and text edited  by Rossano Salvatori

   - English version freely interpreted and authored by Silvano Bizzarri  -  silvano-bizzarri@libero.it

 

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

 

 

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