Sorry for the long absence folks… got the procrastination bug lately… but during that time I was in Mongolia! land of the blue skies! here is my take on it –
Having survived my 4 week mountain bike trek across Mongolia, I am slated to head south into the Gobi for 8 days with a tour operator.
Mongolia is truly made for mountain biking and horse trekking. It’s like riding one massive long golf course, except the massive steppes have mountains on all sides, a river running through the valley, gers that are always in sight, rocky outcrops, and perfect grass/lawn as far as the eyes can see. We (i.e. 3 of us) didn’t bump into any other cyclists, but we did bump into a few horse trekkers doing central Mongolia on horseback, and yes if you haven’t ridden a horse much you can get blisters down there.
I had an epiphany on my first horse when I realised I was allergic to them, that was the end of that. After a couple of hours it was off the saddle and straight back onto the bike seat.
After 4 weeks tenting, cycling and “ger’ing” in the country side, you start to make a few observations –
- There is no time in the country.
- The sun always sets west.
- One finger between the sun and the horizon is equal to approximately half an hour
- Every ger is a potential restaurant, hotel and pub.
- Every ger is a distiller.
- Every ger will have at least a few guard dogs. If the owners aren’t there to hold the dogs so you can pass through, nothing quite turns you into their best friend by throwing them some beef jerky. Had to do it a couple of times on the trip.
- Young kids in the country learn to ride at a very young age, I’m pretty sure I saw one no more than 6 or 7 years old mount a horse with his little brother holding tightly behind him with no saddle.
- With 4 million people and 40 million livestock, there is plenty of meat to go around, but for some reason the country folk only seem to eat mutton.
- $hit is literally everywhere, yak, cow, horse, sheep, goats.
- Dry dung burns pretty good, keeps the mozzies away too.
- Illegal logging is rampant. We heard chainsaws and spotlights in suspect areas after dark a fair few times.
- Airag is fermented mares milk. Refusing to drink it is not polite.
- The locals love storing airag in old car motor oil containers. A policemen actually poured airag straight out of a Castrol GTX bottle, refusing was not a choice. I was like WTF, how do you clean a used motor oil bottle?!?! anyway we drank it and survived.
- If there is 40 million livestock, there must be at least 10x the amount of squirrels. The steppes were littered with squirrel holes everywhere. Not safe for mountain biking but fun.
- Country folk are definitely more inquisitive than city dwellers. Hospitality was better too.
- Every herder was fascinated by our mountain bikes and they all wanted to ride it. Most of the time you just do a swap for a little while.
- Mongolian vodka is distillate from yoghurt made from yaks milk. To get enough distillate to fill a 2 liter bottle might take a while.
- Alcoholism is a big problem in small town areas. We had 3 annoying drunk locals come to our tent on one night, one after the other. After that we learnt to camp away from well used dirt tracks.
- Do not take a detour unless you are sure what is ahead. We realised the dirt tracks where there for a reason after being stuck at an impossible river crossing, we had to back track.
- Old Russian minivans and jeeps are the preferred choice of transport across the country. They are unreliable from what we were told but that it was much easier to fix than a Japanese equivalent. Landcruisers are also highly prized.
- If you see a motorbike in the countryside it is most likely a Shineray, a Chinese cheapie. You can get one for $950 at the black market cheaper if bought second hand.
- The bird life in mongolia is large, abundant and awesome. Many times we saw flocks of mountain eagles, falcons and even vultures swirling around looking for feed and they don’t mind getting close to you. I saw a bird that was much bigger than a golden eagle, its wingspan was massive just not sure what bird it was.
- For all the talk about mongolians eating marmots, we were never able to spot one.
- Men must always walk clockwise in a ger and women anticlockwise.
- It is disrespectful to step on a door threshold of a ger.
- If Mongolians give you the little finger it means dissatisfaction.
- It is bad luck to give and accept gifts and travel on a Tuesday and Saturday. This comes from Mongolian shamanism.
- Finally, though I haven’t experienced it myself, I’ve been told up north if you pay enough to the right reindeer herder, you can become Santa Clause for one day and ride it.
UB itself is a pretty drab dull looking city. Being a soviet satellite it’s not unsurprising, but it does grow on you. At least here you can avoid mutton. The wealth gap is pretty huge and obvious. No doubt it has something to do with the explosion in mining here. Tall buildings are popping up all over town and construction does not stop during the 3 good months of summer they have. Everything grinds to a halt in winter where it can reach minus 35. I’ve been told that the worse part about winter is not the cold but the pollution, all the smoke from burning wood just hangs in the valley. There seems to be a huge Korean influence, there is also a noticeable Dutch and German influence. If UB is an eyesore, than the countryside surely makes up for it.
Not much else to say about the cycling itself, except to say that you can never have enough rope, duct tape, hose clamps, carabiners and cable ties.