Aaron Steinmann has spent three years riding around the world on a KTM 500 EXC, a choice of motorcycle that was perfect for exploring the remote landscapes of Mongolia.
“We have a problem,” I heard from behind me. I turned around to see the Mongolian money changer who had given me a shitty exchange rate on a €50 note 15 minutes earlier.
“We have a problem,” he repeated, running his finger over the ruffled edge of the note before trying to hand it to me.
I wasn’t going to touch it and replied “Nah, there’s no problem mate,” and I continued to put my jacket on.
He placed the €50 note on the seat of my bike. The wind blew it on the ground. I still wasn’t going to touch it. He finally stooped down to grab it and again told me we had a problem. This time he sounded grumpier.
“We had a deal,” I replied. “I don’t see a problem.”
I looked over at one of the people I had entered the border with and told them I’d meet them down the road. I quickly threw my helmet on and got out of there, waiting about 2 miles down the road while my friends sorted out sim cards for their phones.
It wasn’t long before I saw my friends coming. One flew by while another stopped just long enough to yell at me to get going fast. I looked back to see a car in the distance with a trail of dust behind it. I was pretty sure it was the money changer with a couple of his mates. ‘Oh shit,’ I thought. ‘Now we have a problem.’
I took off pretty confident that a car wasn’t going to catch a 500cc motorcycle on a fast gravel road and I put a gap on them pretty quickly. However, 10 minutes later I looked at the upcoming bridge to see two guys standing on it waving their hands above their heads. I figured the guy must have called ahead to his mates. Crap, we still have a problem.
What should I have done? Stopped and confronted them, or kept the throttle pinned? I have a feeling you know what I did. I dropped a gear and got out of there. That was my entrance into the vast country that is Mongolia. To tell the truth, it wouldn’t have surprised me to find myself getting chased out of a country, but I never thought I would find myself getting chased into one.
We stopped at a gas station in Ulgii, the first city we came to after the border. Feeling a tad bad about making the other guys push all the way through to the city without stopping, I apologised. However, it turned out they also had a little altercation at the border and needed to get out of there pretty smartly as well.
I do most of my travelling alone, but I had met Holger, Janet and Ronny earlier in my trip in Kyrgyzstan and we had ridden together on and off ever since. Holger and Janet were two-up on a KTM 1090 Adventure. Ronny was on a KTM 1050 Adventure, while I was riding my little old KTM 500 EXC. They were fun people to travel and hang out with and it’s nicer to drink with company around a campfire, so I don’t feel so guilty for doing it alone.
After eating what turned out to be our last decent meal in a while, we headed out of town to camp at a spot we had seen on the map by a river. It looked like a perfect camping spot, but as soon as we stopped and took our helmets off the mosquitoes immediately swarmed around us making the area absolutely unbearable. I’ve never experienced anything like it. We were all pretty tired. It had been a long day crossing the border from Russia, but there wasn’t any choice but to continue on.
We kept an eye out for a place to camp but everywhere was either too rocky or by the mosquito-infested river. We decided to head north and inland towards Achit Lake, which sits at a higher altitude. We hoped there wouldn’t be as many mosquitoes.
Just before we reached the lake, the road opened up into vast open plains. It was the type of terrain you see in photos of Mongolia where you don’t have to stick to the track, but instead, point yourself in the general direction you need to go and make your way across the landscape. I looked over to the others as we picked our own paths across the plain. As tired as we all were, I knew they would be grinning under their helmets as much as I was, feeling the freedom and openness of Mongolia for the first time. The camping spot worked out well and we watched the sun go down with a few shots of vodka. I blame the Russians for that habit I picked up.
There are three main routes through Mongolia; the northern, the middle and the southern. The northern route is the more remote and isn’t paved. It was the one we had decided upon. We headed out that morning working our way north, pleasantly surprised to find the rivers that were shown on my GPS were all dry and easy to cross. It meant we made pretty decent time.
We stopped at the first town we came across, fuelled up and got some food. I didn’t find there were too many big gaps between finding fuel in Mongolia, but at times there were big distances between finding decent octane rated fuel. For this reason, when I found good fuel, I would fill up my Giant Loop fuel bladder. If I knew there was another town ahead, I would only partly fill so I never ran purely on poor-quality gas.
What I did struggle with was the food. We tended to come across one or two shops that sold the basics, such as bags of two-minute noodles, water, Coke, bags of crisps, and luckily, usually Snickers bars.
The other option was so-called ‘restaurants’ that didn’t have a menu and would serve you some dumpling type things with unknown meat filling them. I’m a pretty picky eater at the best of times, but after travelling through 50 countries, I can confidently say Mongolia was the hardest place to find decent, edible food.
The other option was simply going without. The advantage of this is, if you don’t eat, you don’t poo. This is an advantage because the loo situation in Mongolia was worse than the fuel and the gas. Some toilets were so bad I dug a hole and did the deed outside instead. We continued riding and soon linked up with the northern route across Mongolia which, for the next few days, provided a little bit of everything. There were more wide-open plains, some nice tacky dirt roads, sand, gravel and a bit of mud, while the whole time we were surrounded by stunning scenery and hardly saw another soul.
We often encountered thunderstorms late in the day but we mostly had decent weather and, if anything, the rain kept the dust away and wasn’t a big deal. A result of that rain was mud and, on one occasion, I saw Holger’s front wheel dig in on the side of a puddle and he went down with Janet on the back. He is a very solid rider but on a fully-loaded big bike with two people, there wasn’t much he could have done.
We picked up the bike, but Holger’s hand had got caught under the bar and it looked like a knuckle had disappeared. We suspected his hand was broken which turned out to be the case.
Janet got on the back of Ronny’s bike and, I take my hat off to Holger, because he toughened up and, without any moaning, he persevered on. That day we encountered more sand than any other day and it was pretty slow going with Janet having to walk a couple of sections and Holger having to give his hand a rest at times. We did around 40 miles in eight hours and I was pretty damn thankful to be on my little light bike.
That night Holger made the sensible decision to change routes. The next day, he and Janet went to pick up the middle route and take that into Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Ronny decided to stick with them which made sense in case Holger needed help. They were all flying out of Ulaanbaatar together anyway. So that left me with a decision. Should I stay with my friends or stick to my current path? Honestly, it wasn’t that tough a decision. Although it was fantastic travelling with them, there is something about travelling alone that is both rewarding and satisfying. I felt like it was time for me to tackle some of this incredible country on my own.
Early the next morning we said our goodbyes, and before I knew it, I was back in the wilds of Mongolia heading down a dirt road alone. I stopped about an hour later as I had been keeping an eye on the hour meter on my bike. It flicked over the 1,500-hour mark so I stopped to take some photos. For me, it was a pretty big milestone. Standing there alone surrounded by silence, all of a sudden, this country seemed a whole lot bigger than it had the previous days and, to tell the truth, I felt a tad vulnerable. I was back to relying only on myself and my bike.
I don’t carry any type of tracking device or a GPS but, for the first time, I thought perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad idea. I choose to travel without these items. I call it old school travel. Some might say it’s stupid. Yes, it may not be the smartest thing to do, but the great thing about travel is we all have our own style. I choose to do it this way just like some choose to climb mountains solo or without ropes.
It wasn’t long before I had another decision to make about my route. I could either stick north, where technically the northern route finishes in around 60 miles, before taking the road into Ulaanbaatar. Alternatively, I could do a massive diagonal and head down to Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, which lays on the northern edge of the Gobi Desert. It was about 1,000 miles away and, without a set route, I would have to piece it together. That’s the thing with Mongolia you can’t just type into Google from A to B and expect it to show you.
I sat next to my bike at a little gas pump for about 20 mins eating peanuts and drinking a Coke while trying to decide. I knew reaching the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan would add another few days and it would be a mission. It would probably be easier to just carry on the way I was going, but each time I thought about the shorter easier route, I felt like I would regret it once I got into Ulaanbaatar. It’s funny how your mind has these little discussions. Finally, I told myself I was here to adventure ride, so let’s make this an adventure. How can I come to Mongolia and not see a Gobi? With that, the helmet went on and it was game time again.
That day, I found a groove on some amazing dirt roads, with lots of fifth and sixth gear stuff. One thing about travelling alone is I can always put in bigger distances more quickly. I only have my pace to worry about and I only need to stop when I want to.
Later that day, I rolled into the town of Tosontsengel. I had intended to get a room as I was going on three days without a shower, but after seeing my options, I brought some noodles and a couple of beers and found myself a fantastic place by the river to camp. I pulled out my fishing rod and walked down the river, casting more for the therapy of it than anything else.
The next day was shorter. After four days without a shower and a proper loo, I stopped early when I found a city and a room for the right price. I also had my first decent meal in over a week.
Feeling clean and refreshed, I got an early start the next day. To begin with, the road was paved but then my map led me onto a dirt track and back into the middle of nowhere. It became slow going, with lots of second and third gear riding and the need to cross some dry riverbeds. I didn’t see anyone for a couple of hours and some of the terrains looked like it hadn’t had much traffic in a while.
I was a tad concerned, but after rechecking the maps, going back wasn’t an option at this stage, so I continued forward. I had intended to camp that night, but at 5 pm, I came into a little town with a howling wind and, through some sign language, managed to get a room in an office building of some type. It had no amenities other than a couple of single beds, but it had a window I could park my bike next to, so it was good enough for me. I tucked into Oreos and a Snickers bar for dinner.
The next day was the final push to the town of Dalanzadgad, located on the edge of the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park. It was one of the best days I’ve had on my bike. I rode on mostly open, fast terrain and I had one of those days where you feel like you just can’t crash. The bike was on autopilot and it felt like nothing could go wrong. It’s on days like this that I don’t think you could pick a better bike to be on. It’s just made for this terrain.
For the last half-an-hour, a thunderstorm rolled in and I got hammered by rain, but I didn’t give a crap. I was on a high. I had made it. I had just crossed 1,000 miles diagonally across Mongolia since leaving the other guys. A total of 800 miles of that was on dirt. It was probably the most mentally challenging few days of travel I have had, navigating my way through one of the most remote landscapes in the world.
Mongolia has it all. Once you put up with the food, loos and days without showers, it rewards you with life-long memories of spectacular scenery, friendly people, amazing riding and a yearning to come back and do it all over again. Luckily for me, this wasn’t the end of my time in Mongolia. I wasn’t done with her and she wasn’t done with me yet.
The Bike: KTM 500 EXC
My bike choice, the KTM 500 EXC, was questioned by a few when I bought it, including the salesperson when I told him what I was going to use it for. I knew for a start I didn’t want something big and heavy that would be hard to pick up in the mud or sand, as I was travelling alone. I also wanted the fun factor, so I needed something bigger than a 250 and a bit more dirt orientated than say a KLR650.
The KTM 500 EXC seemed to be the perfect fit for me. I did have concerns about its comfort over long distances, fuel range and reliability. However, putting a bigger tank on it and an aftermarket Seat Concepts seat, along with frequent oil changes, helped with those issues.
Over the years, I’ve added things like the Scotts’ steering damper, Haan wheels, Renthal bars, a stiffer rear spring, Barkbusters, and break away levers, just to mention a few. I’ve been very happy with how the bike has held up. I think it has surprised many people and inspired them to go down the ‘light is right’ path.
Want to ride in Mongolia
Mongolia is a cheap country to travel through accommodation-wise. It is one of the biggest campgrounds in the world. You can pretty much set up your tent anywhere you like.
I found fuel pretty easy to find even in very remote places, but sometimes it wasn’t the best octane rating, so when I found good fuel I always filled up. My food costs were minimal, but you don’t come to Mongolia for the food. I ate more noodles and Snickers bars there than in any other country I’ve been in.
I was there in July and had a mixture of weather, some quite hot days and some others where a thunderstorm would roll in the late afternoon.
If you want to join a guided tour around Mongolia, where all of the logistics are taken care for you, Motorcycle Mongolia offers six tours through the country on 2020-model KTM 450 EXC Six Days. To find out more, head to www.motorcyclemongolia.com.