Bikepacking

Bikepacking the Mongolian Steppe


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Part 1
We spent months preparing for our bikepacking trip to Mongolia. It would be our longest bikepacking trip to date, by miles and days – so to make it interesting we decided to go to a remote and not very well traveled foreign country where they didn’t speak English! Ryan spent hours studying both digital and paper maps. After a few days he’d have a route created only to scratch it and start over fresh a few days later. In the end, google maps and Murray from the Fairfield Guesthouse in Tsetserleg turned out to be invaluable in helping shape Ryan’s route for our trip. In addition to planning the route we had the usual travel logistics to consider – like how to fly across the world with two mountain bikes. I decided to work on my bike handling skills and technical ability before the trip, since I was still a novice mountain biker I wanted to make sure I would be comfortable with whatever terrain came our way. I rode with my coach, Dave, once a week at Trail 100 and by the time the trip came around I almost felt like a mountain biker. We even decided to get new bikes for the trip, because, who doesn’t need a new bike? We ordered our Roca Roja custom Ti frames earlier in the year, but wouldn’t you know days before we were supposed to leave we found out my frame had a hair sized crack in one of the welds. I started making back up plans, and considering which bike I would rather take, but our friend Kaolin would do anything for us and he made sure I had my new bike with me when it was time to leave.
Ryan compared planning our trip to planning a wedding – and I guess it was pretty similar. The final week leading up to our bikepacking adventure included 50 hours of travel through China to Mongolia, a day exploring Ulaanbaatar (UB) – the only city in Mongolia, packing, unpacking and assembling our bikes, driving six hours from UB through the Mongolian steppe to Kharkhorin and Arvaikheer and endowing 130 bicycles to young girls on behalf of 88bikes. The preparations and week leading up to our adventure were full of emotional highs and lows. The day before our departure was Children’s Day, a national holiday in Mongolia that coincides with the last day of school. All the kids got dressed up and there were concerts, recitals, activities and games planned throughout the town. Our hotel blared children’s songs for twelve hours straight – this would have been no big deal, but by mid morning a Hollywood-esque Middle Eastern dust storm blew in from the Gobi desert. The sky turned brown and the wind howled. Visibility was reduced to a few feet in front of you and the temperatures rapidly dropped. We retreated to our hotel and spent the rest of the day inside listening to the Mongolian version of the Wheels on the Bus on repeat. The storm settled by evening and we went to bed anxious and excited to finally get on our bikes and leave our soviet style hotel behind us.
The next morning, I woke up to the sound of vomiting. Pro tip, if you ever visit Mongolia don’t eat Salami pizza, stick to the beef and mutton, no matter how tired of it you might be. With Ryan battling a serious bout of food poisoning we ate one last breakfast on our metallic elementary school style lunch trays and packed up our things. Despite Ryan’s illness he decided he would rather leave and start riding then spend another day in Arvaikheer. And I have to admit I was relieved. While Arviakheer was friendly, another day in our hotel may have put me over the edge. As we left I made note of the fact that Ryan had hardly consumed any calories and made sure we had plenty of snacks available knowing that we had a long day ahead of us. The previous days weather had delayed our departure, so we now had to ride roughly seventy miles on our loaded down bikes to reach the ger camp we had reservations at for the night.
Our ride started with ten miles of pavement, that would put dusty Arvaikheer behind us. We slowly pedaled into a headwind towards the province gates and the unknown. The further we rode the bluer the skies got and my excitement grew thinking about the green stretches of the Mongolian steppe that awaited us. It would however be quite a while and take a bit of effort to make those dreams come true. We finally veered off of the road onto some dirt two-track that splintered in every direction. We pointed our bikes towards a hill in the distance and slowly inched towards it. The closer we got the rockier the terrain became. We kept pedaling, our fat tires kicking up gravel and loose rock. We were now climbing the steep rocky hill and getting closer to cresting it – even though Ryan wasn’t feeling well he pulled ahead of me on the climb and I slowly followed him, eventually dismounting and pushing our bikes up to the top where a large stupa awaited us.

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After descending from the stupa on the rocky hillside we reached our first of many stream crossings. We also saw yaks for the first time! The next few hours were uneventful as we followed the river and a ribbon of green grass around it cutting through the otherwise dry and rocky terrain. As the minutes passed by I could feel my energy levels dropping and knew I was going to need large amounts of sugar to make it through the rest of the day. I asked Ryan about our route and if we might be passing any small towns. Fortunately, the small town of Zuunbayan-Ulaan was ahead and not too far off route. Eventually the colorful rooftops that decorated every Mongolian town came into view like gumdrops scattered over the green hillsides. One of the unique things about riding in central Mongolia is that there are almost no physical barriers obstructing your route. You can ride anywhere without worrying about fences, trees or mountains in your way, this also means you can see things that are much further away than they appear. After the colorful rooftops came into view it took us nearly an hour to reach the town, by then I was near exhausted and eager to find some C++ soda.

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We pedaled through the town gates towards a cluster of buildings that looked like the town center. This town made Arvaikheer look like a major city and was made up of just a few buildings. It didn’t take long to figure out that Zuunbayan-Ulaan wasn’t a regular stop on the Mongolian tourist circuit. Every eye followed us as we pedaled up to the market. Ryan and I parked our bikes alongside a building and dismounted. As soon as Ryan disappeared into the store I was surrounded by a few dozen people, mostly men. They were all crowding around me, poking and prodding at our bikes. Their eyes were wide with fascination as they tried to measure our tire width with their fingers and curiously pushed buttons on our Garmins. They were all speaking Mongolian and laughing with each other as they pushed closer and closer to get an up close view. I nervously smiled and tried to stay calm in the middle of the circle, making eye contact with the one other female nearby. Finally, Ryan emerged triumphantly with some soda and bottled water. I’m not sure what thoughts go through a husband’s head when he sees his wife surrounded by large men all grabbing at her possessions and pushing to get closer, but whatever Ryan was thinking he didn’t show it. His face broke out into a huge smile and he started waving and calmly laughing with jolly to greet our hosts. When I later asked him he said he was trying to ease any tension so we wouldn’t come off threatening, we were the strange ones after all. Once Ryan scooted his way through the crowd and back towards our bikes he let one of the men ride his bike, everyone cheered and erupted into laughter.
On the edge of the crowd was a small group of young boys all trying to get a closer look at the bikes. One or two of them could speak a few English words and proudly said hello to us and asked if we were from America. One of the boys had a basketball and we somehow figured out their was a basketball hoop a few yards away. We walked towards the hoop to leave the crowd of adults behind us and all of the kids started heading that direction. One of the leaders in the group split us up into teams and I started playing two on two with some of the boys while Ryan took pictures and helped some of the other kids ride our bikes around the town. With each jump shot and dribble my energy returned and my negative thoughts about how slow we were riding or how far we had to go disappeared. Even my fears and nervousness dissipated as I watched Ryan let kids take our bikes out of sight without a care in the world. Everything we had with us in country was on our bikes; our food, clothing and money could all be taken from us. And we would be stranded here in the middle of nowhere, where no one spoke our language, but Ryan wasn’t worried. He was to busy laughing and taking selfies to care about watching where our bikes were. In between passes and rebounds I caught a glimpse of Ryan getting a photo with a group of boys and I loved him more in that moment than ever before.

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Part 2
After an hour or so our fun came to an end and we had to keep riding. We pointed our bikes in the general direction we needed to go and waved goodbye. Two of the boys found their bikes somewhere nearby and followed us to the outskirts of town, but soon enough the vibrant rooftops and friendly faces were a small splash of color in the horizon and we were left alone in the vast expanse of the Mongolian steppe. A few hours later we were ready for a break and found a nice rock to sit down on. While we ate some snacks we watched what appeared to be a father and son team working with their herd. They seemed to be separating some of the animals and getting them to move in different direction. We sat silently watching as one goat waited further away from the others. Eventually one of the men approached the goat, at first it was like watching a misbehaving child get disciplined in public, then the goat was dead. It was hard to watch.
We spent nearly 11 hours on our bikes that day and traveled 70 miles. We crossed a few more rivers and streams and only passed through one more town before the end of the day. The last seven miles were filled with rolling hills and I had to stop and eat a Snickers bar to muster up the strength to keep riding / walking. We finally arrived at Ursa Major Geolodge, a tourist ger camp in the Okhorn Valley.

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The next morning we enjoyed a continental breakfast at the ecolodge before heading out on our bikes for day two. Originally we planned to ride to the Okhorn waterfall, where we would find another ger camp for the night. We hadn’t made any reservations, email and online reservation systems haven’t really caught on in Mongolia like they have in the states. It seems most tourists travel with a Mongolian tour guide that handles all of their lodging and travel logistics. Since the waterfall was dry and Ryan was still sick this worked out to our advantage and we were able to easily change our plans for day two.
Despite the change in plans we still got to ride through the Okhorn Valley, a protected unesco world heritage site. The valley is protected due to its cultural and historical significance. Throughout history it has made a suitable settlement for nomadic cultures and has been occupied by the Huns, Turks, Mongols and other tribes. The valley is still grazed by nomadic herders today. Along the way we stopped at some deer stones, which mark important gravesites, and Uurtiin Tokhoi Cliff. The cliff overlooked a bend in the river, and we sat down for a snack and watched a few herds of horses enjoying the water below. While we were relaxing on the cliff we were joined by two men who parked their motorcycles next to our bikes. They sat down cross-legged right beside us and we sat in a semi-circle as if we were going to enjoy some rich conversation. Of course we were unable to converse, our limited Mongolian vocabulary coupled with their inability to speak English and their drunken state left us sitting silently enjoying the view. Eventually we parted ways and headed on each in opposite directions.  After leaving the cliff we continued riding high above the riverbank. Throughout the rest of the afternoon Ryan got progressively slower limited by his fuel source of Pepto Bismol – which may not even have a single calorie. He was wary to eat due to his sensitive stomach and the Pepto made matters worse by drying out his mouth. He was constantly drinking from his Camelback and whenever I urged him to eat he couldn’t stand the thought of eating another dry granola bar. I forced him to eat some Skratch chews and tried to keep him moving.

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Eventually our route took us back down towards the river banks in an area where the water was flowing fast enough to collect and filter. We dragged our bikes down the embankment and filtered several liters of water. Since we had no plans for the evening we had to collect enough water in case we needed to cook our own food. We spent about an hour collecting water before we crossed the river, this time we were fortunate enough to have a bridge – although crossing the bridge seemed more dangerous than wading across the river. We later learned that we should have been more worried about drinking the water than crossing the bridge. Apparently the river is filled with metallic run-off from nearby mining operations. Six months later we are still healthy and haven’t dealt with any side effects.

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In addition to the waterfall, our second day had originally included a side hike to Tuvkhun monastery. By the time we reached the area where we would stop for the hike we were both feeling exhausted and opted to keep riding to look for somewhere to camp or sleep near Tsagan Sum Hot Springs. One of our drivers in UB had mentioned a Japanese ger camp there so we anxiously pedaled towards another night in a warm ger. As we got closer to the ‘town’ we realized it wasn’t much of a town at all, none of the gers were set up and there were only five other people in sight. Two women working at the hot spring and three men working construction on some nearby cabins. It was reminiscent of a western ghost town, all the resources dried up and everyone disappeared.
We rode around the town twice trying to figure out where we might stay or pitch our tent. Finally we rode towards where the three barefoot men were working. One of the men put down his power tools to try and speak with us. He didn’t speak English so we got out our phrasebook to try and ask him if he had a place for us to stay. The phrasebook didn’t help because he couldn’t read it. We finally started using charades and gestures to tell him we were looking for a place to sleep. He welcomed us into the grounds and showed us a dormitory style room with two twin beds. Unsure and skeptical we politely declined and started riding back the way we came. We had seen a few gers scattered about and thought we might ask a local family if we could pitch our tent near their land. While virtually all of the land in Mongolia is public, we read that you should always ask a nearby family before pitching a tent, the family would look out for you to make sure nothing happened. This seemed like a good idea since everytime we stopped we seemed to be approached by men that appeared out of nowhere. As we rode away from Tsagan Sum and towards three gers we were charged by two angry guard dogs. We quickly jumped off our bikes putting the frames between us and the dogs. They didn’t back off so we started yelling “No! No! San Bainuuuu!!! San Bainuu!!!!” Finally, a middle-aged women emerged from one of the gers. She didn’t seem to care or notice that her dogs were about to attack us, but her older mother came outside too and tried to hold the dogs back. Her frail frame was no match for the watch dogs and we quickly tried to explain we were looking for somewhere to sleep. To our surprise the woman spoke clear English and said, “You sleep there. In town.” And pointed back to where we just came from. We must have still looked unsure because then she pointed to her young son and said “He show you” she spoke to her son in Mongolian and a huge smile broke out on his face. He jumped on his tiny bike and took off in the direction of the cabins to show us the way.
We arrived back to the camp the three men were constructing and they rented us their room for $16. I gave the boy a pack of skratch chews as the men cleaned off a picnic table for us and we unpacked our things. Our room was simple with a window and ornate wallpaper. There were two twin beds with several heavy blankets, but no mattresses. Even though the men offered us some food we decided to make our own freeze-dried food since Ryan’s stomach was still acting up and we wanted to get rid of some of the cargo we had been carrying. We cooked our food and watched the men continue their work, the little boy was now helping them and running around with a hand saw that was taller than him. Shortly after eating we settled into our room and fell asleep. The next morning we woke up to the sound of rain falling on the roof and cooler temperatures, we were in awe of the events from the previous day and thankful for the warm blankets and a roof over our heads.

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Part 3
We sat in our room wrapped in blankets watching the rain fall before we finally got up enough nerve to layer up in our warmest clothes and rain gear. I put on almost every piece of clothing I had brought with me and we set out. The men were no longer on site so there was no one to say goodbye to as we left. The rain kept falling as we kept riding into darker clouds. Luckily, Ryan was feeling better than he had the entire trip because I was having trouble mustering up the energy to ride through the cold, wet weather. The roads were quickly getting muddy and our tires slid across the ground beneath us. I tried to keep moving, but was aware that I was slowing down trying to avoid falling in the mud. I also couldn’t shake the nagging thought in the back of my head that we didn’t have any water left. We had finished all of our water the night before and I was getting more and more thirsty. I think just knowing that we didn’t have water made me think I needed water more urgently than ever before. Ryan had told me that we would cross a few streams within a few miles so we’d be able to stop and fill up. After riding for an hour I asked Ryan the question I already knew the answer to, we’d already passed the spots where we were supposed to cross the river – it was dried up. I tried not to go into a dark place as we kept moving along. We had been gradually climbing uphill ever since we left that morning, but ten miles into the ride the grade exponentially increased. The grades were now over 10% (at the steepest they reached 20%) and the road was pure mud. Our tires were sliding in the mud and it was nearly impossible to move forward. We moved to the edge of the road and tried to ride on the grass, this was also incredibly difficult so we gave in and started walking. We kept pushing our bikes as we watched three trucks try to navigate the muddy slope only to veer off into the forest to blaze another trail over the pass. The most entertaining thing, and the only thing that kept me sane, was watching a Prius try to navigate the pass. Halfway up the climb it ditched all of its passengers in an effort to make it over the summit. The car moved forward and backward and drove in circles through the grass repeatedly attempting to make it up the hill. At one point I thought we might actually beat the car over the pass – but the Prius finally succeeded. As we got closer to the top the rain turned to snow flurries. When I got to the summit I was hoping to see an equally steep descent into a flat river valley below – this had been common occurrence over the past few days and always made the short steep climbs more rewarding. Instead it was more rolling hills, I felt defeated and we still had no water.

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We kept going and eventually we came to a tiny stream, it wasn’t much but we were desperate so we filtered two bottles of water and immediately drank one. We got back on our bikes and the rain started to slow down and the skies got a little brighter. It was still cold, but at least it wasn’t coming down like it had all morning. As we continued we were passed by a work truck that slowed down to say hello, we were pleasantly surprised to see our three hosts from the night before. They seemed equally pleased to see us and waved with joyous smiles and laughter. This lifted my spirits and an hour or so later we arrived at a proper riverbank where we stopped to make coffee so we could warm up. While Ryan collected and filtered water I found some logs for us to sit on and pulled them up to the riverbank. The river was so beautiful that we took our time and soaked in all the views, eventually the sun came out and we dried out as we sipped our coffee. As per usual we were joined by a few men who appeared out of nowhere. First a motorcyclist joined us and squatted beside us carefully examining our bikes and watching us boil water to make coffee. Soon enough, someone who appeared to be his acquaintance arrived by horse. They only said a few words and continued contently watching us in silence.

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After the river we kept riding towards Duut Hot Springs resort. The further we rode the greener everything became. We even started seeing more trees for the first time. The greener pastures brought more animals, more animals brought more flies. We passed by two young men on horseback as they rode passed they asked us for smokes. Ryan politely told them we didn’t have any and we watched them continue moving their herd in the opposite direction. At one point we rode by a small goat that was injured, its herd nowhere to be seen. The small animal was standing alone and crying. It was hard to look at, much harder to stomach than watching the other goat get killed a few days earlier.

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A few hours later we arrived at Duut Hot Springs. It was our third full day, close to 8 hours, on the bike. We were both tired of pedaling and desperately wanted to give our butts a break from our saddle. When we arrived at Duut we checked in and our hosts brought us a thermos of green milk tea and brought firewood to warm our ger. After a short rest we enjoyed dinner in the lodge and a relaxing dip in the hot springs. The resort wasn’t very busy, but there were a few Mongolian families from UB enjoying vacation in the mountains. We were relieved to have time in the schedule for rest day and spent our ninth anniversary at Duut, enjoying the hot springs, hiking in the mountains and waking up to the sound of yaks eating grass right outside our ger.

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After two days we were eager to keep moving and make the final push to Tsetserleg and the Fairfield Guesthouse. Our last day was less than twenty miles and took us just over two hours – it felt like a short jaunt around the block compared to our previous days of riding. The only thing that slowed us down was all of the river crossings we encountered. We seemed to be incessantly criss-crossing the river and it was extremely cold! Ryan joked that it must have been moving day because we saw several families breaking down their gers or driving fully loaded pickup trucks – with all of their possessions, including their furniture and house in the truck bed. When we arrived at Fairfield we finally got to enjoy a proper cup of coffee and some western fare. While there isn’t a lot of literature about bike touring in Mongolia, a lot of bikepackers choose to start their trek from Fairfield. While the location is ideal for setting out on several routes through different parts of Mongolia, I was very glad we chose to end at Fairfield. After two weeks in Mongolia I was desperate for real coffee and something to eat besides meat and noodles. We enjoyed a day and a half in Tsterleg before we got a ride back to UB. The seven hour car ride was long and tiring, but gave us one last chance to soak in the views of the vast Mongolian countryside before arriving back in the busy city of UB and packing up for our long journey home.

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Bikepacking in Mongolia is probably one of the wildest adventures I’ll ever take. Even now after nearly 4500 words I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface on our experiences. We experienced every emotion and helped each other through physical and mental highs and lows. Over the course of the 200+ miles that we rode together we were never both riding strong at the same time – while this meant that we were always working really hard it also was a great way for us to work together as a team and serve each other. And to keep it real – we got in plenty of arguments over the course of the two weeks – but luckily those seemed to reduce significantly once Ryan stopped carrying around the $10,000 in cash we needed to pay for the 130 bicycles for 88bikes – and the further we got into the remote reaches of the steppe the more in sync our emotions became. Bikepacking with Ryan has taught me a lot about myself and a lot about what it means to work together. Bikepacking in Mongolia taught me so much more than I can put into words. Months later I sometimes struggle finding joy and purpose in everyday life and I often fight feelings of guilt about all of my possessions. In Mongolia I enjoyed sitting in silence and enjoying a strangers company – communicating with eye contact and a simple smile. In a country where livestock out number humans 22:1 I learned that sometimes love means going out of your way to stop and sit with someone, to share a smile or just be still.

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