Riding up to the little known border in the far east corner between Russia and Mongolia, I had one thing in mind - we were entering into a vast and beautiful region, full of rich nomadic culture and somewhere completely new and unknown to us. Entering into Mongolia, especially to a region void of most tourism, I came in with few expectations and a deep curiosity of what this new country would be all about.
Camping 10 kilometres before the border the previous night, we were full of energy and excitement during our quick morning ride. The excitement, however, was zapped rather quickly when we came up to locked gates with a sign of operating hours indicating a four hour wait in the flat, open plains with a fiercely cold morning wind. Standing at the gates, planning to set up the tent for shelter, we saw a Russian patrol officer walking in the corridor. With a look of confusion and disbelief of seeing two cyclists, he began walking towards us to let us in.
Passing through the Russian crossing was quite effortless and as we pedalled into the next set of gates, our flood of excitement was back. Again, however, this high was shot down once we reached the Mongolia gates and saw a deteriorating building, lacking any sign of life. Locked between the gates of the Russian and Mongolia border we stood in confusion and hesitation, but ultimately we couldn't help laugh at how ridiculous the entire situation was. After about ten minutes of waiting around, a young Mongolia woman came out for a smoke and, also to her great surprise , spotted two disheveled and cold Canadians on their bicycles. Quickly running over to let us through, we passed the border control by midday and finally cycled into our next country on the trip.
Riding into the nearest border town of Ereentsav we realized the lack of road signs and the vast network of dirt tracks going in every directions. Naturally, it turned into a game of 'Choose Your Own Adventure', but all the while, we were thankful to have GPS on our phones for sections of the road when you really did not know if you should take the 4th, 5th, or 6th dirt track going out in opposite directions.
From Ereentsav, we headed into the town of Dashbalbar and further into Choibalsan, fully in awe of thousands of wild gazelles we witnessed gracefully prancing through the fields, the wide open plains and endlessly rolling hills, the unreal sunrises and sunsets, and the remarkable spaces to pitch our tent in the heart of the steppe. We were incredibly thankful for the sunny days and spectacular, starry night skies, but this also meant some of the coldest nights we had endured with temperatures plummeting down to as low as -14°C. For me, this meant snuggling into my -9°C sleeping bag and sleeping bag liner, wool socks while pulling my wool gloves overtop, long johns and a base layer long sleeve, a thin merino hoodie, my toque and gloves, my down jacket wrapped around the feet, my shell jacket laying over of my legs, and a knit scarf I bought at a local market draped over top. Brandon, on the other hand, lies next to me in his 0°C sleep bag and sleeping bag liner, along with his base layer top and bottoms. I don't quite get it.
After taking a couple days to rest in Choibalsan, we continued to head south. The morning we left Brandon began feeling a bit sick, but figured he would be okay as we started to ride. As we continued pedalling further away from the town, he only got worse. Unfortunately, the days ahead included a 200 kilometre stretch of riding with Brandon in his worse health ever, as we later learnt he got salmonella poisoning. Coming into the village of Baruun-Urt, this gave Brandon a chance to get some much needed rest while I checked out the local monastery and ventured through the town. To be honest, I still don't understand how he managed to ride the 200 kilometres in such a state of sickness. So, with a couple more days rest and Brandon gaining back most of his energy we headed further south in to the Sükhbaatar province.
The province inhabits over 20 extinct volcanoes, which granted us days of riding which felt almost other-worldy as we passed through the hills littered with these impressively large craters. Camping at the base Shiliin Bogd, the highest peak in the region and one of Mongolia's most sacred mountains, we woke up early the following morning to reach the summit.
Riding up I anticipated leaving our bikes near the base to hike up, but Brandon had another idea in mind. Much to my initial reluctance, we began pushing our bikes up the rocky, steep terrain. High winds, heavy lungs and exhausted muscles, the push was well worth the effort for the views from on top.
Historically, this sacred mountain played by the rules of 'no girls allowed' but today many local woman now climb the peak with pride and fervour, leaving copious amounts of biscuits, candies, other food and prayer flags as offerings at the top. After enjoying some time at the top with the company of a group of men from Ulaanbaatar, we hit the trail for an unbelievable descent down the the volcano, having circled the entire circumference of the crater.
From Shiliin Bogd we began our long stretch heading west towards Dariganga. Here we witnessed a few of the areas remaining migratory swans, drank from the locals fresh and sacred spring (it was customary to sing to the water before filling up and somehow Johnny Cash made an appearance), and had the opportunity to swap out our tent for an enjoyable night in a yurt. We also took the time to check out the local monastery and volcanic crater surrounding the village limits, while enjoy our time among locals in this tucked away little village.
From Dariganga we didn't know much about the terrain or area ahead, other then the possibility of being a small dirt track to Sainshand, over 300 kilometres west. Little did we know that this section would be some of the most challenging parts of the journey so far. What could have been quite enjoyable riding, turned into four days of hell.
We've experienced some pretty harsh wind on this trip, but coming through the open plains with horrendous and truly unending headwind for four consecutive days reached a whole other level of both physical and mental exhaustion. When you are pedalling with all your strength on a big downhill, pleading to reach at least 8 kilometres/hour, you know it's bad. Along with the wind, came a massive drop in temperature, thorny desert plants puncturing both tires and our sleeping matts (nothing says 'I love you' like waking each other up multiple times a night to blow up the others deflating mattress), unrideable sections of deep sand and a dwindling supplies of both food and water.
On our third day, with all our remaining water frozen solid we had no choice but to ride to a near by yurt asking to fill up. Similar to the first time we had done this a couple weeks before, the younger lady looked at me as if questioning why on earth I was not yet inside their toasty warm yurt. Incredibly thankful for a place to fill up our bottles and thaw out our hands and feet, the younger couple also offered us hot tea, dumplings, aaruul (dried cheese curds), candies and a place to stay for the night. Full of such gratitude for their generosity and the chance to warm up, we set out in the harsh winds knowing we still needed to cycle further.
Continuing towards town with the hopes of dying winds, they only became more fierce. Our final push into Sainshand, 42 kilometres away was truly the last test of our resiliency, patience, and sanity. We woke early to the howling winds only to discover all four of our tires had been punctures by the desert thorns while rolling into camp the night before. Running incredibly low on patches we fixed two holes, while planning to pump up the other two slow leaks every half hour of riding. Leaving just after 9:00 am, our days ride into Sainshand didn't end without a fight. After fixing two tires and re-pumping the others, Brandon's front tire had another huge hole. As the freezing winds continued we patched his tired and continued on. Coming closer to the end, my back tire was shot once again. Fixing it quickly, it was a mere three kilometres before my front tire became dead flat. One single tire patch left, we fixed the tube. Placing the tire back on, we realized the thread on my quick release to hold my tire in place was completely bare and wouldn't lock tight. At our wits end, we had no choice by the walk our bikes the remaining eight kilometres into town.
Stumbling into Sainshand we breathed a huge sign of relief. Checking into a local hotel we knew a few days rest was necessary, while also giving ourselves time to figure out the bike situation. We had heard from endless sources online that the only bike shops in Mongolia were in Ulaanbaatar (over 400 kilometres away), so you can image our immense happiness when we found a little shop tucked away in a small apartment building with tubes and patches, along with a small hardware store, with much to my surprise, the proper quick release I needed for my bike! Now on the other end of this last section of road and taking a solid couple days of rest, all we can really do is laugh and acknowledge our efforts to reach it to the end.
With the weight of fixing my bike off of our shoulders, we took a days time to visit the famous Khamaryn Khiid Monastery and Shambhala Energy Centre. Coming up to the temple, we were in awe of the vibrant colours, endless prayer flags flapping in the wind, and the overall ambiance of the grounds situated within the Gobi Desert.
After meandering through the monastery grounds, we headed over to the Shambhala Energy Centre where 108 stupas circle the area. As soon as we came into the centre, we were invited by four brothers to join them for tea and a home cooked meal. Many Mongolian Buddhists believe Shambhala to be the centre of the world’s spiritual energy, and therefore may sit within the centre to absorb it all. After sipping on tea with the company of locals, we walked over to the main stupa where we sang the ‘energy song’ together.
After leaving Shambhala, we ventured down towards the ancient caves nearby where 10 Mongolian monks lived and meditated many years ago. The entire area was remarkable as we ventured from site to site on the desert road all adorned with numerous more stupas in the vast desert landscape. The whole day was such an incredible experience with so much to see, witness and learn.
Our final days in Mongolia, I thought back to when a few locals asked if we enjoyed our time here and would want to come back. While there have been great challenges these past three weeks, we also feel there is so much more to see and explore. So, yes, the answer is absolutely yes! Due to fast dropping temperature and time, we were unable to travel further into other areas of the country which we would love to go back and visit. But not only that, the people have also been so hospitable, there is so much to learn from their nomadic culture, the landscapes are breath taking, and we feel as if we have only just scratched the surface of this incredible country. We both know Mongolia is a place we will return to one day!
Now having just crossed over the border into China things are already so different from Mongolia. The border crossing in itself was one of the most insane experiences of our trip (quite the story for next time) and we are now on the final leg of our journey to reach Japan for the winter season. With a short amount of time in China before reaching Beijing, we already know we will come to love the crazy culture of China!