We left off two weeks ago, just as I had crossed the border into Mongolia. From there, it was a cold and wet ride down to the capital of Ulaanbaatar, which is home to more than half of the countries 3 million inhabitants.
The capital is still what we would consider a developing city. Compared to the minimal infrastructure or man-made influence found across the country, it was surprisingly modern. From international hotel chains and designer brands, to the shanty town of dilapidated huts, Ulaanbaatar is growing, however only a few have the means to enjoy the western lifestyle.
With the sun shining and a few days before meeting the group, it was the perfect opportunity to take a ride out to the enormous Genghis Khan statue. Riding through the rolling green hills, it rises up like a mirage shimmering on the horizon.
Although there is a parking lot, I felt it necessary to get Yogi to the top of the monument and take photos right in front. We managed to get quite a few good ones before we were moved on!
Over the next few days, resting, eating and casually looking around were just what we needed before we set off on the 2,000km trek across Mongolia’s untamed terrain.
The group gathered, 8 riders and 3 crew, nervous and excited to get on their bikes supplied by Motorcycle Expeditions, and roll out of the city into the countryside. Navigating our way through the morning traffic, we followed the main highway out of Ulaanbaatar and headed west.
Only an hour into the ride the rain started to fall and stayed with us for most of the day. It was a soggy roadside lunch before the clouds finally parted late afternoon as we left the tarmac for the first time.
A full day’s rain had turned the dirt track to our first night’s camp into a muddy mess. We all managed to get there in one piece and experience the hospitality of the Mongolian locals in our own yurts, complete with log burning fires. Whilst the day had been warm, the nights out on the open plains were surprisingly cold, even in the middle of summer.
Waking the following morning to a thick blanket of fog, it was a daunting thought what lay ahead for the day. The mountains peaked through the low-lying clouds as we passed through endless valleys. The air was crisp and there was nothing but the hum of engines breaking the silence.
As the temperature rose, we arrive at our first stop of the day, Karakorum. The city was the original capital of Mongolia, it is now a World Heritage Site. After invasion by the Chinese in the 13th century, all that remains are the ruins of the many temples and stupas that once served as the holy meeting place for the Mongolian people.
As the afternoon wore on riding across the steppes, the sun disappeared behind menacing dark clouds in the distance. As thunder clapped and lightening danced across the sky, it was a race against the clock to make it to camp before the storm took hold.
With the air thick and clouds ready to give way at any moment, it was not going to be an easy ride in for one reason, deep river crossings. Some were simple stream crossings, others were much deeper. Unfortunately, the last couple of crossings caused several riders to become stuck in rushing waters. With engines flooded and needing major attention, the group pushed on to the camp through slippery mud to arrive early evening.
The two bikes and riders that had succumbed to the water crossings arrived much later with one needing to be towed in by rope behind the support car. This would be the cause of our very late departure the following day as mechanical repairs went late into the morning.
The clouds cleared after heavy rain during dinner, the sky revealed its spectacular stars so rarely seen by us city dwellers. With the fire going, the inside of the yurt was unbearably hot, but less than a minute outside star gazing was enough to have you running inside shivering.
As bikes were brought back to life the following morning, the group took the chance to ride on and see Orkhon waterfall. It isn’t as spectacular as those found in the European alps but with wild horses grazing and the endless green landscape it was still worth the visit.
After the bikes had been fixed, we set off on the water-logged plains via a rocky detour in an attempt to avoid the rising rivers. With thick mud causing more than half of us to go down, I joined in, treating both Yogi and I to a Mongolian mud bath.
The day was challenging with slippery conditions and rivers being higher than expected. Arriving at the second last crossing for the day, it was obvious it was going to be dangerous. Fast flowing water, more than knee high, this was going to be tough.
The guides and members of the group walked the river to assess it and although it was going to be treacherous, with people holding the bikes up as they crossed, it should have been ok.
Unfortunately, this time Yogi was the causality as the lead rider jumped on and took off across the river without waiting for the support of the team standing in the river. The force of the raging waters pushed both rider and Yogi over and in a second, he was completely submerged.
Watching from the river bank my heart sank, it was going to be a long afternoon. The guys rushed through the water to retrieve him and although he had only been under a few seconds, it was too late. His engine had been flooded with water and he wouldn’t start.
The rain had once again started to fall, it was decided that the rest of the group would ride on towards camp whilst we stayed to administer some urgent mechanical attention. Although he did reluctantly cough back to life after a bit of coaxing, the water had made its way into the oil meaning it had to be drained.
After two oil changes, a new air filter, dried spark plugs and the sun setting after four hours of work by the team mechanic, it was time to head the last 5km to camp. That is of course, after one last deep river crossing.
This time I lined up on the muddy edge of the river and promised myself we were not going under. Without so much as a stutter, Yogi roared through the rushing waters and up the slippery bank on the other side. After such a massive day, I was prouder of my little bike than I was of myself. He had been doubted by the crew and fellow riders alike, but he had shown what he was made of.
Arriving at 10pm, the group gave us a warm welcome at dinner and plenty of stories were swapped from an epic day’s ride. The roaring fire dried soaked boots and riders, ready for yet another challenging day to come.
The rained had pounded the yurts throughout the night and the morning sun shone on a lake of mud, puddles and soaked tracks. Sliding our way out of the camp gates we immediately climbed into the hills. With the sun helping to dry the tracks, the day was a fun and challenging ride over mountains towards our first lake camp.
Fun that is until one final very steep hill to climb. For some reason unknown to myself, the guide stopped at the bottom of the hill meaning all momentum was lost before we even started to climb. The ‘tracks’ were heavily rutted and there was no easy path to the top. Concentrating on picking the right line I left it too late to change gears and Yogi decided it was time to stop for a break.
Sliding on my back down the hill I had no option but to wait for help. Once the cavalry arrived, I hopped back on and rode into the setting sun towards our lakeside camp. The lake was beautiful however we weren’t the only ones to think so. To my absolute horror, it was also home to millions of spiders. As someone who suffers from arachnophobia, it doesn’t get much worse than that.
After a sleepless night, I was more than happy to be up early and leave. Rocky terrain and gravel roads were a large part of the day as we headed deep into remote central Mongolia to stay on the open plains. Arriving into camp early with the sun still high above us, the group took the opportunity to relax and enjoy our total isolation. With no showers this was the most primitive of all the camps we stayed in, but the pristine environment and serenity more than made up for it.
The family hosting had slaughtered one of its free-range sheep for our dinner and we ate nose to tail, with a starter of soup made from bones and off cuts. This was followed by a traditional Mongolian BBQ of meat and vegetables cooked in broth by the heat of stones from a camp fire.
The smoky flavour was intense but simple as the ingredients were the heroes of the meal. For those game enough to try it, the final course was intestines and blood sausages cooked over charcoal. The hospitality was wonderful, and it was easily one of the best experiences of the trip.
We were told to be up early, ready for a long day and that turned out to be more accurate than anyone had anticipated. The morning’s ride took us back onto tarmac and gravel roads so we made good time as we headed further west. That is, until we reached the sand. Our destination was Khyargas Lake, which when translated means, hard to get to.
With a few spills in the thick sand I thought it would eventually get better, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The back up car had a flat tyre and had become bogged meaning the mechanic and lead rider left the group to help, only to blow a tyre himself on the way. As the sun bore down on the desert like landscape and stress levels rose, one of the group succumbed to dehydration and had to be packed into an already over-crowded local car to make it to camp, still another 30kms away.
That left the remainder of us to try and choose our own paths through the thick sand, with varying degrees of success. After my third big crash, I realised I had bent the handle bars, making control of the bike almost impossible. Three of us, Ian, Viv and myself chose a path that led into un-passable sand dunes meaning we had no option but to turn back.
As we tried to inch our way through, stopping to help each other pick up dropped bikes or dig our way out of being bogged, exhaustion and dehydration set in. More than four hours after we had entered the sand, with the sun was going down, we had another painstaking 5km to ride. With Yogi not steering straight I had no hope of being able to pick up speed so I paddled my way through, often using my feet to push him.
As we crossed the last few kms into camp, the sky was ablaze with the most beautiful crimson sunset. I found myself still being able to take in the beauty of the moment despite the hardships of the afternoon. We arrived tired and dirty but with no back-up car in sight and no one being able to make contact with the driver or mechanic, it looked like no one was getting their luggage anytime soon.
Having sweat like a pig all afternoon, I couldn’t bear the thought of going to bed in my filthy clothes, so I opted to have a shower and wear a towel through the camp instead! Luckily the car showed up only minutes later, we all slept late into the morning.
Waking to the view of the white marble cliffs over the enormous blue lake it felt like it had almost been worth the effort, almost. Taking a dip in the fresh cool water was an invigorating way to start the day after such an ordeal.
With the previous days disaster fresh in our minds and the only way out being the way we came, it was organised for a local truck driver to take the bikes back to the gravel. I for one was incredibly happy to be sitting in the back of the 4wd going back through the sand.
Back on firm ground today’s surprise was a night in a hotel. Although it was simple, having a shower and toilet within a few meters reach was pure luxury. We all celebrated at the restaurant with a huge meal before our final days ride together the following day.
Of course, there was to be no easy ride in and the rocky hill climb that seemed to last an eternity was just the start of it. Yogi charged his way through and by the time we were at the top the scenery changed dramatically once again. Although the hard-packed earth was red in colour, it felt as though we had come across a salt plain, each of us spreading out to make the most of the firm flat surface. Racing our way to the other side, things once again turned for the worst as more sand was waiting for us.
I think I can safely say that riding in sand is not one of my skills and whilst trying to keep momentum I caught my front wheel and had a spectacular crash at 70km an hour. Hitting the sand side on and being stuck under the bike I was afraid to move in case I had broken something. Thankfully I was intact, Yogi once again with bent handle bars.
A quick straighten up at lunch and I gingerly rode the final 100km’s across the gravel alongside a beautiful river into our final camp.
Having ridden almost 18,000kms to join the group in Mongolia, it was a huge high coming across the finish line, both Yogi and I relatively unscathed.
The group spent one last evening together, hosted by a local family for dinner. The man of the house makes his living as a traditional eagle hunter and he was more than happy to introduce us to his newest protégé. Typically, an eagle takes a year to train and will live with their handler for up to 12 years as they work together, before being released back into the wild.
Everyone was tired and with most people needing to be up at 5am for a flight back to Ulaanbaatar it was a quiet night and early morning goodbyes. We were lucky to have such a great group of people to tackle this challenge with.
It was a special trip and certainly one I don’t think I would have survived on my own. I am glad I made the choice to cross this amazing country as part of a group for the support and fun times we shared. I expected it to be challenging but it turned out to be much harder than I imagined.
Having spent so many years dreaming of riding my motorcycle across Mongolia, it feels surreal to have finally achieved it and I think it will take a bit of time as I reflect on this amazing part of my journey for it to really sink it.
Whilst it was a tough and challenging adventure, it was at times also quite rushed as we tried to tackle the wild terrain each day. For that reason, I am glad I made the decision to stay another week and quietly explore some more before heading back to Russia.
Yogi is having a very well-deserved break the next few days as Ian and I take a Russian van tour to the Altai mountains to see the snow-capped mountains and camp.
Up to this point the whole trip has been about making it to Mongolia, now we start a new chapter. So much more to come.
Kylie and Yogi x