Lost in Mongolia: Cycling across the Mongolian Steppe

Posted by James Anderton on August 24th, 2018


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With the exception of Greenland, Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world. Cycling across it this is easy to believe. It often seems like there is no one here. Landlocked and sandwiched between Russia and China only 1% of the country is used for human habitation and agriculture. The vast steppe goes on and on dotted with the occasional yurt in which the traditional Mongol family lives. Preserving a way of life that goes back thousands of years.

The rewards to cycling in Mongolia are enormous. It is a beautiful country untouched by what we call progress. Rolling grasslands cover the steppe. There are snow capped mountains in the west. Taiga forests in the north. The south east is dominated by the Gobi desert with its towering sand dunes. There are stunning lakes in every part of the country. However it is the steppe which dominates the country where you can watch the shadows of clouds roll over the land for as far as the eye can see. You are more likely to see wild horses, gazelles and camels than people. Every now and again wild horses would canter alongside as I slowly inched my way across the endless plains. Every sundown was a picture postcard moment. Mongolia is also wild camping heaven. Whenever you've had enough for the day you just pick your amazing camp spot and revel in the glorious peace of the Mongolian steppe.

Rare tarmac in east Mongolia

Rare tarmac in East Mongolia

Cycling in Mongolia is also a constant challenge. The roads are a mixture of the good, the bad and the very ugly. Getting off to push is an everyday occurrence. The rule seems to be the further west you go the worse the roads get. Often a mixture of rocks, sand and washboard. Washboard is a series of hard ripples in the road that are the nemesis of all cyclists. A bone shattering experience. Sometimes the washboard was so bad I would meet the sand with some relief. Then the sand would be so bad I'd meet the washboard with some relief. After one afternoon of dragging my bike through sand into a relentless headwind I arrived in a dusty village looking somewhat disheveled. An elderly woman beckoned me into her home and made me pancakes. I ended up sleeping in the yurt in her backyard. There seems little point in sorting out the roads. There's hardly any traffic. A passing vehicle is often such an event you stop for a chat. That said the Chinese are investing to improve road surfaces in the far west of Mongolia as they look to improve the trade route to Russia. I didn't make it across unscathed. On the penultimate day I cracked my front pannier rack. I don't think there was one particular impact responsible. More the cumulative effect of the 1000 that went before. I had to remove one of my front panniers, strap it to the back and proceed with a lop sided bike.

Wild Horses Mongolian Steppe

Wild Horses on the Mongolian Steppe

Occasionally the roads would have something resembling a cycle lane. Not quite like the ones you get in Switzerland. Motorbikes would get sick of the washboard and veer away to the side to form a single track alongside the road. The vehicles leave this track alone and with only the weight of bikes to cope with the track would not be worn down to washboard. Making it smooth to ride. The track is often very narrow, i had to concentrate to stay on it, but fun to cycle. Navigation can be difficult. I got lost most days. There is a certain romance to being lost in Mongolia but the novelty does wear off and the reality can be a little more alarming. There's no one around to ask. You can't rely on the sun being available to guide you. GPS and a compass are essential to getting across the country. Especially exploring in the west where the roads regularly give way to series of tracks crisscrossing the steppe. Some will lead you where you want to go. Many won't. Your GPS won't show you on any road, but at least you'll be able to see what direction you are heading in and adjust your route accordingly.

Cycling Western Mongolia

Mountains in West Mongolia close to the Chinese border

On the steppe the majority of Mongolian families live in yurts that are sprinkled across the landscape. Portable round tents covered with skins or felt. They would often be basic fare with little more than a stove in the centre surrounded by mattresses and blankets. Many though are elaborately decorated and extremely comfortable. With solar panels, satellite dishes and jeeps parked outside. By day the men herd the animals around the plain. Some on horseback in traditional costume, many on motorbike smoking a cigarette.

A yurt on the Mongolian Steppe

Yurt near Lake Khosvol

The food in Mongolia is great. If you like meat and potatoes that is. There isn't the wide range of food we are accustomed to back home. Being landlocked, there is no seafood. Mongolia is a land of permafrost. Winters are long and extremely cold. Vegetables and fruit are a rarity. At the Chinese border you see many Mongolians returning home with boxes of fruit under their arms as a treat for the family. I would often eat in a restaurant in the occasional villages I passed through. There are no menus. You get what you are given. Whatever the chef happens to be making. Meat and potatoes normally. All healthy portions however, it never failed to hit the spot.

wild camping on the mongolian steppe

Wild Camping Heaven

As is often the case with cycling in remote corners of the world the greatest reward is the people you meet in those places in between. The Mongolian people are no exception. They are tough, humorous and extremely hospitable. I lost count of the times I was invited into a yurt and plied with biscuits and horse milk. When pitching my tent, if there was a yurt nearby, i would often be invited in for dinner. The locals were always approachable and helpful with directions. Even if they are capable of swinging their arms in 4 different directions at once. They are very liberal with the vodka. A few evenings by my tent, I would be joined by local herdsmen returning home to their yurts. We never had much to say. I failed to master the Mongolian language. Actually closer to Arabic than any other. We would just sit and quietly share my biscuits and their vodka. One evening my neighbour left for the evening with his cows. With a wave of his hand seemed to ask me to ensure his sheep came down off the mountain and down to the flat lands. Happy to oblige I did some tipsy twilight sheep herding. I soon made the cardinal sin of splitting the pack, but eventually I had them all off the mountain and headed in the right direction.

a lake in eastern mongolia

Tsagaan Nuur (White Lake) in Central Mongolia

When I tell people about my cycle across Mongolia they often ask me if I made it to Outer Mongolia. Outer Mongolia is in fact the Mongolia you see on a map today. Over the border in China there is a province known as Inner Mongolia who often refer to Mongolia as Outer or North Mongolia. The country has become synonymous with a remote, distant almost forgotten land. I have cycled in over 40 countries across 6 continents and it is up there as some of the most rewarding cycling I have done. Never easy. There were moments when I wondered what on earth I was doing, but then I would stop, look around and remember. If you like wide open spaces, peace and quiet and a bit of an adventure then Mongolia will provide you with memories for a lifetime.

Roads:

Yeah not great. There is a fair amount of asphalt in and around Ulanbataar. Leaving Ulanbataar and heading west you will get a few days smooth riding and then not a lot after that. The rule seems to be the further west you go the worse the roads get. In fact a lot of the time you will be following paths that may or may not lead where you want to go. GPS and compass are essential. Embrace the poor quality and lack of roads. It's what makes Mongolia such a wonderful adventure and will make that moment when you do hit tarmac again all the more special.

Wild camping:

Easy. Wonderful. Mongolia is wild camping heaven. Water is generally easy to come by outside of the Gobi desert but some means of water purification is recommended. Strong tent poles are advisable as you are likely to spend a few nights being battered by the wind. You can get camping gas in UB. There are a couple of camping shops. You are unlikely to find it anywhere else in the country.

Visa's:

A visa is required for the vast majority of nationalities and must be obtained before you arrive. One month is the standard, but extensions are easy to get in UB.

Costs:

Opportunities to spend money are few and far between in Mongolia. When there are it is dirt cheap.

When to go:

Winters are long. Temperatures begin to plummet towards the end of September. Things begin to warm up again at the beginning of April.

Bicycle Shops:

There a few in UB but not a lot outside of the capital. I didn't have to use one myself but Cycling World comes recommended

Wind:

There is a little protection out on the steppe so expect a lot of wind. The wind tends to come from the west more often than not. Ventusky is an excellent site for wind forecasts.

Current wind direction/speed in Mongolia

Tips:

Traditional map apps are pretty useless in Mongolia. I used Soviet Military Maps which provides excellent topographical information when in truly remote areas. It helped limit the time i spent lost.

Mountain bike tyres are a good idea especially if Mongolia is the extent of your trip. I managed on Marathon Schwalbe tyres but there was a lot of skidding around.

Spend all Mongolian money when in the country. You'll find it impossible to change Mongolian currency outside.

Side of the road:

Whichever is smoothest.