For anyone not so knowledgeable about bikes, these are basically about the best possible bikes one could go exploring this type of terrain on! So after a fitful nights sleep akin to Christmas eve aged ten, we awoke early to start our journey into the wilderness. We picked the bikes up from the garage and tied our meagre supplies and kit onto the back, consisting of a tent, sleeping bags, some food and some water and soon hit the road. The first leg of the journey involved getting out of the city, which was an eye opening experience if nothing else. As with most Asian countries, drivers pay little regard to the rules of the road and tend to do pretty much whatever they want. This, combined with riding an unfamiliar bike, made for an edgy start to the journey. We soon hit the open road though and after about 15 more miles we finally reached the end of the tarmac and the start of the dirt roads. Although Mongolia has tens of thousands of miles of roads, only around 10% of those are actually tarmac, and of those very few are in good condition. The rest range from moderately potholed gravel tracks to an almost imperceptible pair of tyre tracks through the grasslands. This is where things started to get interesting.
I'll start by saying that I find it difficult to describe in words how amazing this terrain is for an offroad bike. It consists of vast, grass covered plains surrounded by rolling grass covered mountains. Because Mongolia is a nomadic country, nobody actually owns any of the country side and the whole place is therefor free to roam as you please, there's no fences or walls to contend with. This means that on the bikes you can basically pick a direction and head that way, crossing any rivers or mountains that stand in your way. It's an incredible sense of freedom compared to the UK. So as we hit the dirt roads we soon found ourselves on a massive valley floor where the roads snaked all over the place forming massive berms and embankments, perfect for launching the bikes off. These were surrounded by grass flatlands where the throttle could be fully pinned back, hurtling the bikes along at over 70. As anyone who knows me will agree that I have a certain addiction to motorbikes, which all started on offroad bikes at the age of 12. If someone had asked me before this trip to describe the perfect biking trip, biking nirvana if you like, I would have pretty much described what we were now experiencing. It was incredible!
For some reason though there was a little part of my brain, some little sceptical nodule somewhere, that was telling me that it shouldn't be possible for someone to have this much fun. And just like that, reality came crashing back as we realised after half an hours riding that we'd lost Neils backpack, which was lashed to the back of his bike. And despite a lengthy search of the area, we found no sign. It had clearly been found by a local and claimed as their own. As it contained the food and bike spares for the next few days, along with Neils phone, Ipod, jacket and hat, we had no choice but to head back to UB, utterly dejected and frankly pissed off. And believe me, riding through midday traffic in UB, with the sun beating down and a major huff on is one of the worst possible experiences. By the time we re-stocked and headed off again later that afternoon we were both absolutely knackered, and we hadn't even got anywhere yet! Then, as a final act of sadism by the powers that be, that evening one of the bikes engines suffered some kind of catastrophic failure and completely seized, leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere. What a fekin day!!!!
The next two days however were a different story entirely. To their credit, the hire company delivered to us a replacement bike to our camp, so on the morning of day 2 we were again ready to hit the road. We spent the next two days endlessly meandering through the Mongolian countryside, stopping every now and again to check our position with map and compass, and taking detours for fuel where required. I can quite honestly say it was about the best couple of days I've ever had. But don't take my word for it, here's a little video to let you all see for yourselves (click on the pic below and turn up your volume!!)
So after a couple of days rest in UB we figured we would go on one of the organised tours to see some of the more remote parts of Mongolia. We met Laura, and American lass working in Seoul who's plans tied in with our own, and we soon all signed up for a 9 day trekking tour with the "Ger to Ger" tour company.
The tour basically involves alternate days of camping at a nomadic family's ger (big tent) followed by a night camping in the wilderness, each time trekking for many miles in-between. The idea is that you are exposed to the life of a nomadic family, to learn about how they survive on the land and what a typical day consists of, while also getting the opportunity to trek through some pretty spectacular countryside.
So off we went, and after a 9 hour bus journey along some of the worst roads I've ever seen we arrived in Tsetserleg which was the jumping off point for the tour. We were picked up in an old beat up jeep by an even older and more beaten up driver and taken about 40 miles into the middle of nowhere to meet the first family. The idea of the tour is that there's no tour guides or company reps to guide your way, it's simply you and the families and nobody else. After each stay at a ger it's the responsibility of one of the family members to guide you to the next family, so it's very much in at the deep end in terms of being cut off from the world, which is pretty much exactly what we were all looking for.
Our first stay was with the Bultenbor family, who fed us and looked after us for the first night. The idea was that we pitch our tents near the ger so that we were in the protection zone of the family dogs, who would spend the evening chasing the wolves away from the camp. The Bultenbors have 4 kids and while the adults (not us!!) were away doing their herding duties, we spent the evening being playing frisbee with the kids and chilling out. They really were one of the friendliest families ever and it was sad to have have to leave in the morning for our first night of camping. Our stuff was loaded onto an ox cart, and the eldest son of the family took the helm as we walked alongside. The first day was baking hot and the wide valley floors offered no shade from the blistering sun, so it was on with the factor 30 sunscreen as litre after litre of water was inhaled and subsequently perspired back out in an endless stream. By the time we'd reached the campsite we'd consumed the entire days water supply and spent the evening boiling up panfulls of water to restock levels for the next days trekking.
Near to our first campsite a local herder was gathering up some of his livestock and separating a few Yaks out from the herd. Our guide went to lend a hand and it soon became apparent that the poor yaks being singled out were the ones ready for the cooking pot, and we were soon witness to a completely uncensored display of yak culling.....Mongolian style!
Lets just say the Mongolians don't have the same moral concerns over ensuring a quick death as we do, and instead of the tried and tested bolt gun used in the west, they prefer a big stick, which is repeatedly swung at the inmates head until the skull eventually succumbs to the attack. It takes a fair number of blows across the napper before the desired effect is attained, yes it's brutal and bloody but that's just how it's done here so i don't want anyone moaning about animal rights and stuff!
Butchering of the animals continued long into the night under the illumination of car headlights, while our attentions turned to our own campfire where we sat playing games and telling stories as the cloudless evening drew the cold in to chill the backs of our necks. Then, as we were contemplating turning in for the night, a figure slowly emerged from the pitch black heading for our camp. As the firelight started to make clear our visitor, it was a shock to see the image of a blood spattered yak butcher striding towards us with a glinting blood soaked knife in one hand and a huge unidentifiable hunk of butchered meat in the other. It was only for the friendly smile on his face that I didn't reach into my own pocket for my rather pathetic swiss army knife to at least defend myself from the approaching horror film on legs. As it turns out, the friendly knife wielder was simply bringing us a cut of yak as a wee present, so without any delay the hunk of flesh was diced and boiled up on our fire and we were all soon tucking into the bounty like a pack of hungry dogs. Even Laura, who had taken a break from 5 years as a vegetarian just for this trip, was enjoying the spoils, although even I'll admit it wasn't the finest meat ever, consisting mostly of fat and grissle. Still, I'm sure it helped the energy levels for the next days hiking.
The next few days consisted of much the same thing, every couple of days meeting a new nomadic family and learning about their way of life. This was all very interesting and educational and all that, however my lasting memory is how much it made me realise how good life is back home and how many things I've take for granted over the years, like electricity, running water, mobile phones and PC's. These guys have none of these things and manage to get by just fine, which is all very commendable, however it definitely wouldn't be for me. I'm a westerner and I like my western life!
We'd each been given a small handbook for the trip which contained a selection of choice Mongolian phrases and questions which we could use to at least partially communicate with the families. It soon became apparent though that the selection of translations was somewhat limited, and after getting through the small repertoire of questions such as "what's your name?","how old are you?" and "how many goats do you have?", we found ourselves sitting staring at the families with idiotic grins on our faces not knowing what to say next. If only we'd thought to bring vodka with us!! This was usually the point where we'd suggest going to pitch our tents, just to break the awkward silence.
So we reached the final day of trekking, and by this time we were all looking forward to getting back into civilisation and more importantly to a good meal. For the past 8 days we had been living on various combinations of rice, mutton and noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner and were all craving some decent food. In fact, by this point the topic of most conversations was food as we fantasised about the perfect meal back in UB. Perhaps it was this lack of concentration which led us into a bit of bother. We had reached the final river crossing for the day and our guide, who was on horseback, had already crossed and was waiting on the other side for us to do the same. Only we didn't have horses. So after rolling up the trouser legs and swapping the Merrels for sandals, we all set of into the river. Admittedly the current did look a bit ominous, but figuring every other tour before us must have made the same crossing, we trusted our guides experience and charged on. What a mistake! At about the halfway point we realised the depth and current of the river was too strong, and despite a pathetic attempt by our guide to rescue us with a long twig, one by one we all lost our footing and were washed down the river. It was by no means life threatening, although we all came out with various cuts and bruises, but what really nipped was that both mine and Laura's camera's were completely submerged in the river and were totally water logged. Fortunately the pictures taken up to that point survived, however both camaras are now out of operation, potentially for good, so unfortunately the photos come to an abrupt halt at this point while repairs are sought.
So after another epic bus journey back to the capital, which included the highly pleasant experience of having one of our fellow passengers spew all over himself a short way into the journey, resulting in an acrid vomit aroma being present for the remainder of the journey, we arrived back at the Golden Gobi for our last couple of days in Mongolia. We were all still fantasising about the perfect meal, and after thumbing through the Lonely Planet guide we decided upon an Italian restaurant which had been given a top recommendation by the authors. And even though we got the last seats in the restaurant, and even though they messed up our order and ended up bringing our starters and mains at the same time, it was without doubt the finest meal I've ever had, bar none. I think Laura and Neil pretty much thought the same thing, and we were all astounded when the final bill, including 2 bottles of amazing wine, came to a little under 40 quid!
So now we leave Mongolia behind and head south to the Chinese border. Unfortunately at this point we lose Neil for a few weeks as he flies back to Europe to take care of some stuff. Our plan at this point had been to head to South Korea for a few weeks, we had met a few travelers along the way who had recommended it. As luck would have it, just as Neil was heading off, Laura was heading back to Seoul (capital of South Korea) where she lives and works so I'm going to accompany her back there where I've even got the offer of free digs for a couple of weeks. Sweet!
After that last epic blog this one should be a bit shorter. We arrived at the Golden Gobi hostel in Ulan Bataar (Mongolia's capital) around 3 weeks ago, not really sure what to expect from the country. As it turns out the first thing you do when you get to the city is to try and get out of the city! It's not necessarily a bad place, it's quite busy and dusty and noisy, but the mongolia most visitors want to see is far away from the cities in the great mountains and plains the country has to offer. On the train to Mongolia Neil and myself had discovered that it was possible to hire offroad motorbikes here, so after a brief deliberation we decided this should be our first port of call upon arrival, as to us this would be the best way to see the countryside. We contacted "Drive Mongolia" and before long we were the very proud temporary owners of a pair of Yamaha WR450's.