JULIAN CHALLIS tastes the intoxicating freedom of riding through endless miles of wide-open plains in magnificent Mongolia
We’re stopped at the top of a hill on the outskirts of Karakorum, the ancient capital of Mongolia. Ahead of us is a vast valley framed by impossibly large mountains that stretch into the distance. From our vantage point we can see the criss-cross pattern of the trails that will take us into this remote wilderness.
For 200 miles, we will have the entire landscape to ourselves, free to ride anywhere we want for hour upon glorious hour without a single square inch of tarmac anywhere to be seen. If you like off-road riding, this place is heaven on earth. It’s time to drop the clutch and get riding.
I’d arrived in Mongolia a few days before, touching down at Genghis Khan International Airport in the unnecessarily vowel-rich city of Ulaanbaatar in the early morning sunshine. Having already got my visa, I breeze through customs with surprising ease and once my kit bag rattles off the carousel, I’m relieved to see a driver waiting for me, name card in hand.
The city is a strange mix of faceless Soviet-style shops and blocks of flats for mile after mile, before we reach the jarringly modern glass-clad skyscrapers that surround the central square in front of City hall. It’s suitably bedecked with heroic statues of Genghis Khan, the only Mongolian the rest of the world has ever heard of. The hotel is alongside the square and, seeing my tired-looking face, the receptionist sends me off for breakfast while she organises a room.
Hours later, I’m refreshed and rested and I catch up with Toby from the tour operator Ride Expeditions who’s just arrived from South Africa via Dubai. I’m here to join him and another British rider, Paul, for a recce trip prior to running full tours in the country next year. Our video guy and drone operator Ian is due to join us too.
The next morning it’s time to get riding so we take a frustratingly slow drive out to the dealership where we’ve organised to pick up the bikes. Because we can’t be sure we can rely on the weather or the trails away from the tarmac, we went with a safe and lightweight option in a trio of Yamaha XT250s with their torquey but reliable air-cooled lump. When the tour runs for real, it will be on KTM EXC 450s.
We also meet up with our guide, the impossibly smiley Tolga and, as we need to cart about luggage, camera equipment, fuel and our cameraman Ian, our support truck with its driver Dorje. His vehicle is a Russian built UAZ 452, which looks like a VW Camper on steroids with massive ground clearance, four-wheel drive, and legendary off-road capability.
All loaded up, we set off out of the city, the UAZ making slightly slower progress than the bikes as we weave through the morning traffic. It’s more organised and orderly than many places I’ve driven in Asia, but still requires a high degree of concentration to survive unscathed.
As the buildings begin to thin out, we pass through what is clearly the slaughterhouse district of Ulaanbaatar, with packed lorries loaded with uncertain looking livestock waiting outside menacing looking warehouses. The air thick with the coppery tang of spilled blood.
Then, in an instant, the buildings and cars have gone and we are into massive open plains that form the backdrop to the pencil straight roads that slice across the country. We’ve got a lot of distance to travel today, so we keep the bikes pinned to eat up the miles. By midday, we’ve travelled some 85 miles, so it’s time for a food stop. The roadside restaurant is packed, and deservedly so, as we are served an unexpectedly tasty home-cooked meal chosen from their extensive menu. Suitably refreshed, we’re back on the road for another 80-mile schlep to reach our evening destination. After about an hour, Toby decides we need to break away from the road and ride down to the river half a mile or so away from the tarmac.
Paul wisely stays put, but I bravely go along with the plan and, in fairness, the first 100m are fun, but then we enter into a huge flood plain covered with tufts of grass surrounded by water. The Yamahas bounce up and down and we’re getting progressively damper and muddier. I stop and a few minutes later and Toby is also forced to concede defeat.
At 5pm, the profile of the enormous Elsen Tasarkhai Sand Dunes appears on the distant horizon and in such a green landscape it looks like it’s been CGI’d into the scenery. The area is known as the Mini Gobi and for good reason, the mountains of soft sand cutting across plains like a deep slash. It’s a popular place to visit, with tourists catered for by a community of locals and their camels and horses that plod across the dunes.
Not keen on the four-legged options, Toby disappears into the dunes and does his best to turn his little XT into a Dakar winner. After half an hour or so, both he and the bike are exhausted, so we press on alongside the dunes to our first overnight stop at a yurt camp, the support truck arriving not long after with a smiling Dorje and, more importantly, cool beers.
We’re up and loaded by 8.30am, excited by the thought of starting the off-road section of our route. The day passes in a blur of sensational riding. We swoop along the trails drifting our back ends into corners and popping wheelies like we’re 10 and riding our BMX bikes. With nothing to stop us riding anywhere, we’re constantly criss-crossing over the main trail, one-minute heading high up to the side of the hill, the next going all the way to the side of the river where wild horses are cooling off in the afternoon sun. The freedom is intoxicating.
As we climb onto a small plateau, we see a small group of yurts, and when Tolga stops to chat to the people, it turns out that we’ve arrived during a wedding celebration. As strangers, we are apparently considered good luck, so we’re invited to sit with the family for some of the feast.
It might be a great honour, but I can categorically tell you that horse cheese isn’t great, but it’s vastly better than the bowls of fermented horse milk we’re then offered. To recreate the effect, mix gone-off milk with vinegar and a dash of battery acid. The vodka and snuff that finish the festivities are more welcome than I could have ever imagined.
As we continue along the high ground, we pass a polo camp, the yurts clustered together on the side of the pitch, before the trail begins to drop down again to the banks of the river and leads us eventually to our second overnight stop at the Talibun Orkhon River Resort. The yurts are cosy, the showers hot and the spaghetti bolognese is delicious. When Toby whips out a bottle of Johnny Walker Red, it’s hard to imagine a better way to finish such a fantastic day of motorcycling.
After breakfast, we’re excited to get out to the bikes again. After around 25 miles, we stop to visit an incredibly beautiful waterfall that drops down into the rocks below. It’s a popular tourist spot, so in Mongolian terms that means there are about seven people there. Back on the bikes, we retrace our steps to pick up a trail that follows a wide, lazy river along the valley floor. Toby finds what looks like a suitable river crossing and decides that we should all crossover with the truck following as it will make a cracking drone shot.
I’m unconvinced and suggest he tries on his own rather than risking drowning three bikes and more importantly getting my feet wet for the entire day. He plunges into the water which comes up to just below his bike’s tank as he bravely powers the little motor through the torrent. I’m pretty sure I made the right call. The truck follows through successfully, and I jump aboard to keep my feet dry.
A few miles later, we start a long climb from the valley floor that will take us towards a distant ridge. The trails are simply wonderful, and we swoop right and left either side of the main track as we head higher and higher.
When we eventually arrive at the top of the ridge, the view is beyond incredible, with mile after mile of giant hills and valleys in every direction, dotted with the occasional larch forest. This place is just beautiful.
We slowly drop down from the ridge, carving through the landscape, one moment ripping along wide trails, the next cutting through cool forests over root strewn tracks. Dropping out of a tree, a large insect finds its way into Paul’s helmet and stings him on the neck.
He manages to shrug this off, but when the beast then tries to crawl across his face behind his visor, he loses the plot and the front wheel simultaneously, ditching the bike and rolling of into the long grass beside the trail. With the antihistamine tablets and cream quickly administered, order is restored, and the afternoon delivers hours of stunning trails in truly vast landscapes.
Just after 6pm, we arrive at the Duut Hot Springs and Hot Spa resort at Tsenkher. Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity, it’s off with the riding kit, on with the board shorts, and straight into the deliciously hot bubbling spring water armed with a big glass of Mongolian beer. What a way to end a day.
We’re up again bright and early, and after a breakfast of pancakes and coffee, it’s back onto our trusty XTs and off out of the village. For such a modest little bike, the Yamahas have been wonderfully fun to ride, their compact dimensions but punchy little motor taking on the vast landscapes without complaint, and best of all, the seat is comfortable all day long. The trail climbs swiftly for a mile or so, and then we’re up on the high plains again with nothing but wide-open space in every direction.
After 30 miles, we drop down from the high country and head to the first town we’ve seen in 200 miles to refuel and get supplies. Leaving the town, we have a mile or so of tarmac before we hit a long climb over rutted and uneven gravel which results in a thoroughly unpleasant to ride. Apparently, they don’t surface the hills because once the winter comes and the roads get covered in ice and snow, the vehicles stand more chance of getting up if it’s rough underneath rather than smooth asphalt.
Once down the other side, we regain the tarmac and ride for about a couple of hours of long straight roads. We’re heading to Ikh-Tamir for lunch, and as we drop down a winding hill, we see an enormous monolithic rock called Taihar Chuluu, without a single other rock for miles in any direction. No one is quite sure how it got here, but local legend implicates a benevolent giant who placed it there to trap a vast serpent beneath the ground. It’s a bit of a tourist destination, so we grab a lunch of fresh meat pasties and I even get to ride a highly decorated, if slightly bad-tempered Yak.
The afternoon brings more road work to take us up towards Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake. After a small village, our route leaves the road and turns into a rock trail leading west towards our overnight destination. Before we reach it, we stop off to climb up the crater of the extinct Khorgo volcano, and the view from the top is jaw-dropping.
We can see for hundreds of miles in every direction, and of course, down into the vast crater below. Back on the bikes, we continue on the trail, which according to the signs, is frequented by wild bears so we up the pace a bit and in an hour, we finally reach the enormous lake. It’s perfectly still surface mirroring the azure skies above.
Our camp is a little further up the lake, and as we follow the shore, we pass a flock of jet-black cormorants diving for fish and then a small herd of Yak stood in the shallows cooling off from the late afternoon sun. When we reach camp, our yurt is right on the shores of the lake and there’s a cold beer waiting. It doesn’t get better than this.
The following day passes quickly on roads, interrupted briefly by lunch in a strangely Russian looking hotel in the town where the menu is vast, but the service lamentably slow. Another 30 miles later we leave the tarmac to catch a 60-mile long sandy trail that will lead to our last overnight stop of the trip.
A huge storm is brewing to our left and for two hours we are chased by massive black clouds, blasting as fast as we can to avoid getting drenched. Briefly safe form the rain, we break off for a few minutes to do a bit more camel herding and thankfully Ian manages to hit the record button as we circumnavigate the herd.
As the sun sets, we reach the camp at Ugii Lake just as the storm catches up, and we dive into the central restaurant building as the heavens open. After the deluge abates, we ditch our riding kit and return for dinner.
Our final day beckons and, while the full Mongolian tour won’t return this way, we head back to Ulaanbaatar on the highway, a long if enjoyable blast east, flanked by the vast open plains either side of the road. There are more flocks of goats, more eagles, more horses and more sights than we can ever hope to remember and, although we don’t say anything to each other, you can see that we’ve all been overwhelmed by the experience.
This will be our final day on the bikes, and although we are due to visit the enormous Genghis Khan statue in the morning, even a 60m-high metal sculpture casting a shadow over the city can’t compete with the beauty and scale of this incredible country. It’s been a fantastic trip and if you ever have the chance to visit this vast and friendly place, seize it with both hands. Mongolia is epic.