|Rossano Salvatori and Giacomo Meglioli (Italy) - Mountain biking trip in north Mongolia|
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have you been?
Ehm…in Mongolia…- I repeat to myself almost
embarassed- …only two of us with the bikes - I mumble, while looking
upward to uncover into my interlocutor’s eyes the emotion I’m sure
is assailing him.
are in Moscow’s airport, with in front of us a group of persons
showing typical attitudes of vacationing Managers.
“Aaah, Mongolia…, good deal !.. We were in China, and with no SUV to
drive around…Yeah !..we have been in Mongolia five years ago…kind of
boring, don’t you think so ? Where are you from ? “
Yes, mmmh...we are from Scandiano , Italy, a small city lining beneath
Reggio Emilia’s hillside, and…
Great, but forgive us, now we must go..ok ?
they just leave without even asking us how and if we made it well in
Mongolia, or the miles we rode around there. Maybe we wanted to also
tell them about all those efforts and toil we had to afford throughout
those lands, and that, definitively,
for us that journey had been “The Trip of our life”.
luckily meet with an oldish american lady who is just back from trekking
up the Altaj, and who is showing some interest in what we did, …and
here my recount begins…
don’t even remember exactly when Mongolia started to insistingly
represent in my mind the most suitable place on earth for a mountain
bike raid. Maybe two or
three years ago, I guess. Anyway, such
an idea grew on assailing me
days after days, until
converting in my firm convinction that,
whenever I would take an opportunity
to bike far away from home, Mongolia
would be the destination.
thus began to spread around such my thoughts among my biking friends,
with initially some kind of hesitation when figuring out that, in fact,
such perspective could become real, for which after asking “ok guys,
who’s coming with me ?” I ensured to quickly add something like
“never mind, I was just joking !”…this until when the certainty of
making it true prevailed on whatsoever unconfortable sensation... and
until when my friend Giacomo strictly affirmed his will to join with me
in the adventure. Let’s make it !
steps were to gather information, any available information from whoever
having possibly done it before. I could at first contact with a german
guy, who pioneered an alike trip as far back as in the 80’s, when with
a friend he had a 3-month ride throughout Mongolia’s mid-southern
territories. I also came to know that two Italians and two Australians
made something alike, but
my attempts in locating them produced no results.
after having accumulated information from many different sources, we
definitively elected Mongolia as the perfect place for our biking
adventure: wild regions of
boundless distances, where you can run for hundreds of miles in almost
complete loneliness, and
where you must produce physical efforts (hard pedalling, in our case)
for any moving, in fact like Mongolian shepherds when searching for
greener pastures. We wanted to make all in absolute autonomy, I mean
completely on our own, with no interpreter nor any kind of logistical support.
many images and scenarios toggled in my head, like that of making it at
once by bike from Ulaan Batar to
our starting point in the mountains,
by crossing the Taiga and the northern swampy region of lakes.
Giacomo, my venture companion who
used to cheerfully support my psychopath-like euphoria, on such dreamful
plan of mines had to forcefully shake me down to effectiveness, by
making me notice that time to us available was too short for considering
such an approach, for which we should use transportation to get the
mountains … “unless
you and I
for a special 3-month freedom permission from either our families and
job places !! – he added - ….Better forget it !
we had only one month due for all the trip, which our planning indicated
as maximum 20 days of effective biking and the remaining days as loss
time for handling possible problems.
having set the overall strategies we passed to define the details:
distance: actually our experience suggested to split
the itinerary in stages not exceeding 50 km/day, therefore the sum came
out straight: a 1000 km raid !…
itinerary: the lands of our interest extended throughout
the regions of Arkangai and Khovsgol, by connecting some of Mongolia’s
most typical locations - The
trails of hard mud or gravels seemed to offer acceptable off-road biking
conditions, and ran across not excessively isolated landscapes (towns
every 50 – 100 km) – Many lakes and rivers ensured for water supply.
The only area to be entitled as the most lonely, which by the way was our key-destination, was the north-western region of Moron, lining up with Siberia and seemingly accessible only by walking, by horse, or by air.
welcomed us with unexpected previsions: the exceptional heavy raining of
July had caused devastating floods in the valleys we had to cross, with
destroying bridges and other transit structures.
However such adverse prospects did not cause us excessive worries,
nor made us feel
disappointed nor minimally dissuaded to achieve our original plans, for actually the most important for us was to have arrived in
Ulaan Baatar with no piece of equipment missing. Never mind to sit down
and redesign an itineray map…!
it was only then, at 6 p.m. of a rainy and cold Wednesday
July 18th, , after our smiling driver dropped us off
in Tsetserleg (our elected starting point), that we could truly feel the
genuine sensation emanated by a yet really starting adventure !
the beginning we rode on extremely troublesome grounds, with layers of
gross gravels alterning to sections of powdery sands. However and
despite such harsh conditions we could ensure enough stability of our
overloaded bikes. Rather than keeping on the main tracks we proved more
effective to use the streams of pressed-mud footprints oftenly running
parallel to center trails.
that part of Mongolia the
concept of “road” is very personal, for anyone can chose his way
among a multitude of disseminated track traces leading anywhere
throughout endless landscapes. Naturally all these many options are not
formed randomnly, but a rainy period may oblige vehicles or herds to
move deplaced from the center of current trails. Some are then
definitevely abandoned, due to the erosion by water streams using their
path to flow in. For sure, in terms of biking, the few gravelled trails
were to be avoided !!
we would see on the next days will forever remain impressed in our
memory: endless wild plains running out of sight, hours of bike riding
without meeting any life, shallow skies with clouds winding so low you
could almost touch them, a completely new world but inspiring no fear…just
a strong will to cross it all to see what’s behind another hillslope.
When for outflanking a collapsed brigde we rode on the oceanic meadow I
felt the same gorgeous impression
of a skier gliding on vergin white snows…Marvellous and unforgettable
those latitudes the sun sets down late, very late, never before 10.30
p.m., reason why going to sleep for us was either late, never before
midnight, and since our
very first camping night we had visitors coming by, kind of visitors we
would then always call “those
having coughing attacks”. The same ceremonial repeated every night: a
couple of horsemen appeared at distance in the land, and who from far
seemed to take other direction than ours, like ignoring our presence -
all of sudden they made their horses grossly converging toward
our camp line, and when
close enough for us being aware of their presence they started to cough
loudly prior pointing firmly to our tent and asking us if we needed some
help. In fact that was what they wanted us to believe…while in reality
you could sense their unrefrainable curiosity, only partially smoothen
by their natural pride and foreigner-reluctant
temperament of mongolian nomadic horsemen.
when we happened to set our tent close to their campgrounds, children
used to come by. Always polite children who in respectful postures
grouped still and silent to observing us in our routinary camping tasks
of washing, cooking, or maintaining our bikes. Sometimes you could see
their moms and dads pacing at distance from us, with feigning unconcern.
It also happened for some of them to suddenfly run away and return later
with cheese or airag to gift us.
to children our “coughing visitors” showed more chatty,
and usually attempted a speech in Mongolian or in Russian. As
soon as becoming aware that we could not understand at all their
language they amazingly shifted to an enjoyable mix of mimings,
scribblings and drawings. This way of communicating resulted after all
quite effective, and by the way evidenced their exceptional ability in
learning and emulating. After quickly grabbing our words and gestures
they could effectively repeat and reproduce them easily at once. That
was their way of approaching us !
on going for not sinking…
all the first week we had to fight against quite unstable weather, with
unceasing front blows of north-western winds that seemed to still hit
frontward us even if we changed direction. Every day at around 4 p.m.
the skies started to turn out crowdy of dense dark clouds, as the daily
storm was preparing its blows. Then
we knew to have hardly longer than 10 minutes for alltogether finding a
safe place, unloading the equipment, rising the tent and disseminating
luggages for appropriately ballasting our fluttering shelter. Squalls of
water, or even hails, usually
lasted up to one hour, but stormy blasts happened to strike back with no
warnings, with us in such cases ending up totally drenched. However, on
the other side, we could see the Tsetserleg steppes dressed up in
splendorous green mantel constellated of Edelweiss flowers.
on we could however much regret for wind and rains, when with
temperatures around 40° we crossed the desertic valley between
Jargalant and Shine Ider. Under a breaking sun at altitude 1700 m above
the sea we pedaled for hours among total dryness,
with never meeting with any tree nor whatsoever kind of greenery.
We were burnt on our legs and arms and ran practically out of water when
we luckily encountered an unmarked esile water stream behind another of
the many hills to crossed over. We must here assume that in that
circumstance, like in a few
more, we ran with luck, for
the water in Harkhangai is not abundant at all, and the one to be found
is often yellowish and dense of unknown material and larval suspensions.
Anyway, after appropriate
treatment it can be used for laundry, cooking and
Mongolia is not only broad grassy plains. We aslo crossed through
gorgeous alps-like valleys (northern part of the Khovsgol, the region
lining up with the moutainous chain of Horidol Saridag), large forests
of larch trees, wide swampy areas,
limy and granitic highlands of dull vulcanoes over 3000 m high,
with endless lakes of limpid waters and frightening turbulent
torrents charged of treelogs.
in these places the contact with the wild is quite intense we had most
of the time to rely only on intuition for discerning smallest crosses or
openings allowing us to go one step forward.
In the forests the tracks just vanished , or turned out too
garbled for ensuring a reliable leading. In such conditions neither the
GPRS is useful for possibly showing you how to make it around some next
pond hidden under a carpet of musk.
many days we kept wearing sandals, with our feet always soaking in
waters. There were times when keeping on forwarding demanded for great
conviction and extreme efforts, only stimulated by swarms of hungry
insects ready to feast on us whenever we halted.
For sure in these portions of itinerary our bikes converted in
heavy means, but still indispensable
to prevent us from sinking down above the knees. Also in this region,
famous for consistent heavy rains, we ran with some luck in terms of
weather conditions, for it remained stable for all the 10 days spent to
cross it all. Such climatic stability did in some manner favorize our
slow but permanent progressing, in still acceptable “discomforts”.
day up north from Ulan-Uul we met with a shepherd family in process of
manually moving their camp, followed by their herd of jaks. We could
cross through that antique scenery, probably one of the last someone may
still be witness of. These
people stared at us with open smiles, prior continuing in their
activities, giving the impression that for them
we were just few more than a curious attraction, maybe something
to spend a few words about around next night campfire.
the long days spent on our bikes we often happened to run into herds of
long-haired jaks. Calfs
were just adorable, looking like cotton curly-haired fat joung sheeps,
while the enormous males looked at us in
menacing postures, prior escaping rapidly when we got too close.
quantity of animals in Mongolia is quite impressive: for a population of
2,5 millions, which half are nomadic, there are 30 millions of pasturing
animals among horses, sheeps, jaks and camels, and the distinction
between domestic and wild animals is quite aleatory.
Once, in very hot and lonely valley with no human settlement for
at least 50 km around, we met with some wandering camels, actually busy
in peaceful pasturing. With us obviously using smooth and cautious
approaching manners we could practically achieve to caress them. The
fact is that steppes animals in general have no fear on humans, except
the marmots that are in constant alert., for they are preyed by
different rapacious birds and also chased as food by the local people,
who eat them stewed.
echosystem, even if still genuine, is notably suffering from the
continuous rise of pasturing animals. In some areas the grass has
difficulty in regenerating from weakened soils, due to poor raining and
excessive exploitation. By
luck summer heavy rains can still keep steppes green enough to resist
the next-to-come chilly winter, when for a very long time the land
remains totally covered by snow. These
are hard months to live for both shepherds and animals. In Mongolia the
winter survival in northern territories is anyway easier than in the
southern regions, for the availability of grass conserved by ices and
for the water supply represented by the snow itself.
to the land…
Mongolia it is life that must adapt to land, not the opposite.
raid snaked through the most populated areas of the country, but
actually the only infrastructures appearing to resist to natural threats
were the electricity posts ! Mongolia’s orography is still genuine
with same forces that have been forging it for millions of years: those
all rivers are torrent-like rocky streams rushing furiously downward the
valleys, free to expand and overflow widely without control. At every
such events the few bridges are just swept away, or keep standing alone
out of reach in the middle of waters. However we could see that
collapsed bridges not always represent a problem for the local shepherds,
who sometimes grab at once the opportunity for improvising themselves as
ferrymen for buses of tourists, walkers…or just bikers like us.
It happened once that, to cross an inundated piece of land, we
accepted to board on a wooden trailer towed by jaks: yes, a funny
experience, but also a wise decision since the powerful tide of almost
one meter water would have forced us to unload all the equipment from
our bikes, and pass it piece after piece to the other side by walking
several times back and forth. On that occurrence our elder ferryman
could not resist to give a try on my bike,
and only by inches missed to fall down a ravin. Unuseful to say
that in such an event both of us would have run in great troubles !
Bargain for cheaper price…
fording a river on a jak-operated trolley we agreed a price of 2000
tugrik (less than two US dollars), this after a forceful bargain started
from 3000. On achieving the deal our ferryman cried out and gestured
with joy, as if having achieved some goal, while on our part we
reluctantly afforded such a sum. While fording we tried to plan
something to obtaining another cut on the price, in that moment without
however considering that the sum was worth a couple of coffees.
bargain for dropping prices at bottom was,
however, not always
appropriate: in a small town near Toom (north of Moron) I bought a
bottle of water for 700 T , against 550 T spent in Moron for a same one.
On my arguing to the seller for such big difference I was replied that
food and water supplies were delivered only once a month to their town,
and that they had to pay for trucking. Those words were enough
explaination for me to immediately buy a second bottle.
Mongolia price bargain should be conducted cautiously, and respectfully
to the local situation. Average
earning is quite low in the country, and it is understandable that
inhabitants try to make maximum benefits from “comparatively”
wealthy tourists. Mostly important is not giving the impression
that money rolls up easily in your hands, and better actions are
certainly to buy supplies and services directly in the country, rather
than from agencies, which are mostly owned by western companies.
The quest for iron thread…
for an alike raid in a place such as Mongolia means to leave absolutely
nothing casual, you must consider any detail among a multitude of
taking into account previous raiders’ misadventures in terms of flat
tires, equipment breakages and other inconveniences we spent a
consistant amount of time in analyzing a long collection of possible
breakdowns. We then set what we believed was the most suitable list of
spare parts to carry with us, according
to maximum weight allowed for luggages.
Among the infinite items to consider for efficiently preparing
such a journey I can underline the following:
ready-to-serve food to cover about half of our
daily nourishment needs (lyophilized - vacuumed products)
clearly memorizing the itinerary
accurately determining and mapping
of prime importance: to appropriately prepare
the bikes !
we had been impressed by the large number of flat tires related by
earlier venturers, at first we listed to carry with us 3 spare air tubes
+ 1 new tyre /person, plus tube rags in enough quantity to solve up to
four flat tyre/day. Then, as the idea of “better preventing than
healing” grew stronger in us, we
opted to fit anti-perforation Kevlar bands in-between the air tube
and the tyre. Then, after an accurate check of actual bikes
conditions, we determined
what should be structurally repaired, modified, replaced or adapted.
don’t know if due to an efficient prevention or again to our being
lucky, but the unconveniences we effectively experienced on the ground
turned out to be in only one flat tyre for the entire tour,
and four times the breakage of my luggages rack but this in only
10 days !
the sooner in using all the spare luggage racks the only we could
possibly do in the event of such another a breakage was attempting to
repair it, for which we
started to quest and collect like a treasure any pieces of iron thread
to be found around. Fortunately
the last luggage rack resisted for the rest of the raid.
programming our tour in terms of nutrition we estimated for a need of
about 4500 kcal/day/person,
and in our paranoia to make it all by ourselves we initially inclined
for carrying all food with us. Such an idea did not however make a long
course, for we opted with no hesitation to take with us vacuumed
aliments for only 1000 kcal/day/person, after becoming aware of the
economical implications of every “calory” transported from home.
all nobody in Mongolia is starving. Shepherds, even if of meager
constitution, are typically vigorous and display rows of sparkling teeth,
this being the sign of a generally appropriate nutrition. May I say
however that, while cooking our expensive dishes, the prospect
of possibly being obliged to eat every day lamb and fried doughs
appeared to us quite uncomfortable and discouraging
truly happened is that we started rationing aliments since the third day
already, for our sudden and unexplainable sensation to possibly get
short on food supply. It also happened that Giacomo, of very slim
constitution, was consuming too quicly his daily supply of calories and
therefore his body downed rapidly to lack of energy …and I, who in the
initial days had generously left him wipe up any culinary remnant from
pots, got to an alike condition after just one week. Since then the idea
of “starvation” installed unvanishing in our minds, and for
absolutely no reason since food was effectively lacking only and
exclusively in our worries. Effectively
and in addition to our own food reserves in all the villages on our way
we never missed to buy flour, cookies and
bread, this at very last every two days, as said before.
and far from this reality we constantly felt our stomachs claiming for
food, for what everywhen arriving to the next“guanz” we just sat
down to eat anything available, it’s to say lamb with fried pasta.
at the end of our journey, on the banks of the lake Khovsgol, we met
with workers of the Edernet mine being busy in fixing a barbecue. To the
view and smell of such feasty foods Giacomo could not leave to
intensively stare at them,
so insistingly that these men called us to join for some sausages and
fact only on the morrow I would then understand why they kept
questioning us in an amused manner, about the presence of wolves in that
lived its upmost magnificience at the time of Gengis Khan’s glorious
empire, and is now fighting a hard struggle for taking back the control
on its destiny. The country
became an independent republic when the shattering URSS abandoned this
region to itself at the end of the 90’s, but the resourceful Mongols,
actually not discouraged by the catastrophic economical situation,
dispersed again to raise their cattles throughout their endless
territories. About half of the population (2,5 millions approx.) is
nomadic and survives with worth 2 dollars/day. Now-a-days Mongolia is a
country living in apparent calmness the big contradictions of our times.
You can see families of shepherds living in felt tents like at times of
Gengis Khan, and who certainly have relatives settled in cities with ten
times earnings as them, as
well as young people spending their life in riding horses who look at
the passing of powerful SUV cars without showing major concerns.
Mongolians are very proud of their identity, looking with disinterest at
western cultures. We travel like meteorites, and they just watch us
Mongolia is a poor country it is not at all underdeveloped. People’s
literacy is at good levels and latest technology like photovoltaic
panels, eolian power groups, radio/tv communication means
are available at accessible prices. In fact Mongolians are
perfectly aware on what’s going on worldwide. However, such a wide
spread of mass communication, together
with the massive increase of oftenly non-ethical tourism, are little by little sweeping away the cultural biodiversity
of the country. Many small ethnics living in remote regions have no
alternatives except to bow over tourism, if they want to survive, like
for example the Tsaatan (otherwise called the “reindeers people”),
whose destiny is going quite the same way as their cousins Indians of
…the elderly lady, who patiently let me talk in my garbled English, is
now gone….and after one month together my tour mate Giacomo is not
standing me anymore…so I finished my recount on my notebook…For a
moment I have a sensation like a “Déjà Vu” …I look up…and
stare to emptyness: Forrest Gump ?
Surface : 1 566 000 sq.km
Population : 2,2 millions
Density : 1.4 people/ km2
Capital : Ulaan Baatar
Religion : Buddhism, sciamanistic
Mongolia is definitively not appropriate for mountain bike beginners,
for it demands accumulated
experience, determination and extremely good physical shape.
Roads are awful, most of the time reduced to almost invisible tracks.
In the region of Horidol Saridag you must practically always walk &
push your bike throughout
swampy forests cloudy of mosquitos.
Always remember that you are in remote wild regions, then being
self-sufficient is a must. Indispensable: satellite phone, GPS,
vaccinations and full-coverage insurance.
Nominally the best conditions are to be found from mid-August to late
Our travel lasted July 27 – August 16 and met with variable
Ground conditions generally good, even after raining, but particular
caution shall be paid to storms, oftenly of extreme violence.
Night temperature may drop down to 0°, while it may reach up 40°
during the day.
Practically no humidity.
maps are available on Internet . In Ulaan Baatar are available maps
1:1.000.000 and 1:3.000.000.
information to be found in Google Map, but do not excessively rely on
the option “show the way” !.
on site arrangements we used the agency e-Mongol by UB, that
supplied us with excellent services.
section of our itinerary- from Tsetserleg to Moron – can be fully
covered by bike without excessive difficulties,
on gravelled or raw-hearth tracks.
section of our itinerary – start Moron – arrival Moron (roundtrip):
quite difficult from Ulan-Ull
Jiglegyn Daava . Our daily average run did not exceed 50 km/day,
oftently reduced due to storms and terrible soil conditions.
lost is a personal condition. The absence of clear tracks/roads in wild
open spaces do not oblige
you to specifically take a direction, this if you use a compass
and are aware of the destination you go. However, even if they will
hardly understand your questions, the best is asking indications to the
shepherds. Very useful to this purpose is having available a copy in
Cyrillic of the city/site names.
suggestions for equipment
bike equipped with robust carrier racks and top quality anti-perforation
tyres. We only got flat tyre once, thanks to Kevlar protections and high
class camping equipment, with cooker using preferably gasoline.
biking synthetics wears.
footwears (for long tracks in water we used specific sandals and
backpacks/camping packs, for the many water streams to be crossed (we
had cloth-fabrics ones, but made it anyway)
is everywhere, thus electronics such cameras to keep appropriately
sealed in plastic bags.
photovoltaic panel is the most appropriate for recharging batteries.
satellite phone can be rented in UB at good price. In our case we used
E-Mongol to have it ready on site.
can camp anywhere. However, in sign of respect, it is good practice to
stay at some distance from “Gers”.
in full autonomy allows closer relationship with local inhabitants.
Mongolians do not refuse gifts, but are not in conditions to afford
presents. It is however not unusual to be gifted of cheese or
“airag” (fermented mare’s milk).
is not very abundant. Water supply shall be sourced from rivers and
purified. In all cases water in plastic bottles is available in
villages, to be found every 50-100 km.
kind of goods are available in Ulaan
and Moron, thus to be considered when preparing luggages. A large
variety of food can be purchased at average price of 10 Us $ /Kg as
biking raid in August 2006 by Rossano Salvatori and Giacomo Meglioli”
- Travel summary and text edited
by Rossano Salvatori
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
visitors since the 15/11/99