Bikepacking Mongolia: Magical cycling in the middle of nowhere
Holidays in Asia
For centuries, it's been a byword for the middle of nowhere. That makes Mongolia a magical trip, says David Flanagan.
For the last eight hours my friend Michael and I have been cycling up a remote valley, following a sandy track that weaves its way through grassy meadows, glades of pine and across the occasional stream.
As we get further up the valley, the track gets narrower and fainter until it disappears completely, leaving us with no option but to haul our heavily loaded bikes up a dry stream bed.
There is no sign of the path that is marked on our map. But that's not all that's surprising - the map, the most recent one available, dates from 1970. If we can't find an easier way over the pass we will have to camp here tonight and spend tomorrow retracing our steps.
Eventually, after ditching our bikes and thrashing through the heavy undergrowth, we find a way forward. A hard push up the steep slope brings us to the top of the pass. A vast wilderness of snowy mountains and forested valleys stretches in every direction. There isn't a single road or house. Even for Mongolia, the most sparsely populated country on earth, this is a remote spot.
Outer Mongolia, along with Timbuktu, has long served as a byword for the middle of nowhere. Times are changing - a major new airport is set to open next year, and Lonely Planet lists it as one of the top 10 countries to visit in 2017 - but it's not exactly the first place to spring to mind when planning a holiday.
However, if you want to experience a unique culture and a pristine, wild and uncrowded landscape, then it should be on your radar.
Four days ago, Michael and I landed at Chinggis Khaan International Airport just outside Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. UB, as it's known, is a fascinating mix of Buddhist temples, Soviet-era concrete buildings and modern skyscrapers, but after two days of sight-seeing we are itching to start our adventure - a 500km cycle around Ghorkhi-Terelj National Park, carrying everything we need on our bikes and camping along the way.
Our self-sufficient approach is apt, as more than a third of Mongolians still lead a nomadic life, relocating at least twice a year to find fresh grazing for their herds of goats, cows, yak and sheep. Everything a family owns, including their home, must fit on the back of a van or cart. This is why Mongolians have, for over a thousand years, lived in circular wooden framed tents known as gers. They are perfectly suited to the harsh climate - in the heat of summer the dark interior stays cool and during the bitterly cold winters the heavily insulated felt walls and wood-burning stove keep them warm.
In the distant past, Mongols had a reputation as fierce warriors who, under the leadership of Genghis Khan, ruled the largest empire the world has ever seen, but we are struck by the kindness and hospitality of everyone we meet.
Many times strangers invite us into their gers for delicious homemade cheese and salty milk tea. Along the way we get a few opportunities to repay this hospitality in kind, helping to push a truck from the mud and lending our phone so that the driver of a broken down jeep can call for help, for example. And even though we can only communicate with gestures (few Mongolians have any English and our Mongolian is basic, to say the least), it's amazing how much information it's possible to exchange using just your hands and the occasional drawing in the dust.
It turns out that crossing the mountain pass is by far the hardest part of our trip. In fact, the majority of the route is actually pretty easy, following good, reasonably flat tracks. Most days, we cover about 50km, but we aren't in a rush; we stop frequently to relax and enjoy the views, taking care to select a really nice spot to camp each night.
The vast steppe and network of tracks makes Mongolia one of the world's best bike touring destinations, but after a week in the wilderness it's time to make our way back to the city. Our route takes us through Gorkhi, a spectacular valley surrounded by rocky peaks and ridges, at the southern end of the National Park. Only an hour's drive on a good road from Ulaanbaatar, it's very popular with city residents at weekends as well as with travellers on a brief stopover in Mongolia.
There is plenty of accommodation in the valley, mostly ger camps and even a few hotels, so we treat ourselves to a night in a ger equipped with comfortable beds and a wood-burning stove.
That evening we climb the steps up to the Aryabal Buddhist Meditation Centre, a beautiful monastery nestled high up at the head of the valley. It's a very peaceful place to relax and take in the magnificent view across the mountains.
Even through we are dog tired and profoundly hungry, it's with heavy hearts that we pack up for the last time and ride back into the city. The busy road is a shock to the system, a sharp contrast to the quiet meadows, forests and valleys that we have spent the last 10 days exploring. But the thought of a warm shower and a soft bed drive us on, back to civilisation.
What to pack
There can be large temperature fluctuations between night and day, even in summer, so pack plenty of layers. Cash is essential, as there aren't many ATMs outside UB. In the countryside, it can be nice to have something to offer as a gift if you are invited into a ger - a small toy or sweets, for example.
It’s possible to fly into Ulaanbaatar from Moscow, Istanbul, Seoul and Beijing. If you aren’t in a rush, the best way to get there is by rail on the Trans-Siberian, which takes over four days to travel from Moscow to Mongolia.
See visitmongolia.com, seat61.com and bikepacking.com for more info.
30-day visas are required for Irish visitors to Mongolia.
Where to stay
Accommodation in Ulaanbaatar ranges from cheap guest-houses to five-star hotels. Outside the capital options are much more limited, but there are plenty of simple ger camps in most of the popular tourist areas. A stay in one is an essential part of a visit.
See tereljlodge.com or heavenenvoy.mn for examples.