Wednesday 20 November 2013

Mongolia - As The Crow Fly's (Part 1)

OK first things first, those of you who read/look at this blog purely for the kayaking, stop reading now or I guarantee you will be disappointed, this however is a one of story and kayaking will be back shortly!
Now to start this story I have to go back some 13 years when my father moved to Mongolia to start a new gold mining venture. Since then me and my family for better or worse have had a connection to this country. Jumping forward some nine or so years now to when I had just finished my first year at university, for Christmas I believe it was dad gave me a large laminated map of Mongolia with a straight ruled line from corner to corner and the words “The Trip” hand written at the top. The explanation that went with it was along the lines of “If you successfully complete your university degree it will be walker first and proud moment for the family. As a final graduation present I will shout us both a new motorbike and together with no support crew we will attempt to ride a straight line across Mongolia.” Over the next three years “The Trip” was somewhat forgotten as I had to first concentrate on actually passing university. Then about a year ago we realized that it was time to start thinking about logistics if were to go ahead and ride through august of 2013 as originally planned. We decided upon Honda CRF250x’s as our bike of choice and purchased these in NZ took them for a single test ride and shoved them in a container Mongolia bound. I also bought a $200 box of one square meals to join the bikes and two top of the line Garmin GPS’s to guide us on our journey! My flights were booked for the 18th of July and we intended to set off before august allowing up to a month of riding time. Then once again the trip was forgotten for about 5 months whilst I kayaked across Papua New Guinea and the States.
It was not until the 18th of July when I finally landed in Mongolia that it was remembered again, I arrived at dads mine and as expected zero preparation had been done and dad was flat out trying to get the mine under control so that it could cope with his absence over the coming month. We were to depart on the 25th this giving me 7 days to do 100% of the preparation, plenty of time! The biggest job was fitting our long range fuel tanks this would have been simple if we had been given the correct tanks however ours happened to be designed for a CRF450R not ideal but 2 days of modification and they were good to go with a range of about 230 km.

The next couple of days were spent organizing our route and planning this on our GPS’s. After talking with many Mongolians we had decided to adjust our original start point putting it some 100 km further south to avoid 400 km of mountainous forest which is said to not even be navigable by horse back. The new route was to take us from the Chinese border in Mongolia’s eastern Dornod Aimag (Province) to the Chinese border in the western Khovt Aimag. 
The original line (red) and line we actually decided to take (blue)
The last couple of days before departure were spent organizing gear/tools/spare parts. Everything we took had to be carried on our backs so we did our very best to pack light. This however proved impossible, carrying both a spare front and rear tire, spare tubes and repair kits, oil and filters to change every three days, frame and tire tubes to float the bikes across rivers, brake and clutch levers, tools, 10 L extra fuel each, sleeping gear, food and water and whatever else ive forgotten. Our standard pack weight after a resupply of fuel and water was somewhere in excess of 30 kg and got up to over 40 kg on our last leg when we each carried 14 L of fuel extra and 8 L of water to get us across the Gobi Desert.
Ok now to let the Journey actually begin, on the evening of the 27th we flew domestically from UlaanBaatar to Choybalsan where a van with our motorbikes was to join us. No such luck but no big issue, a night in a very medioka hotel prior to many nights on the ground was welcomed. Our bikes made an appearance come 7am the next morning, a final pack up and we were off!
Ready to roll! Gumboots, overalls and all.
The plan from here was simple, make our way to the start point along the easiest route possible then simply follow the line until the end. Simple!
Well not so simple it was less than 5 minutes and we decided that 30kg packs are really not a lot of fun whilst riding over rough ground and knew we would be sore by the end of the day. We pushed through tho and half an hour of riding seen us at our first break in the lush long grass. Half an hour further in, the first real hiccup of the trip with dads carrier breaking which we till this point had relied on for carrying our extra fuel! Not any more something else for the pack. In the rolling grasslands it was easy going and we made it 80 km to the border in about 3 hours. It is supposedly illegal to come within 20 km of the border (which we later find out the hard way) so we didn't mess around did a u turn and finally begun our epic journey along “The Line”. We made our way back along the line for three hours then took a brief detour into Choybalsan for fuel. Continuing on our way the outlook was ominous riding directly for a raging thunderstorm. It was a beautiful sight to ride towards and into the middle of with 360 degree lightening the rain though was less nice drenching us on day one. The wet and cold was something unexpected for this time of year but turned out to be ongoing and something we would just have to suffer through. Camp 1 followed soon after a flat mosquito filled spot which was exactly the same as everywhere else proved to be one of our less impressive camps but not so bad nonetheless. 

Day 1: Rolling grasslands as far as the eye can see!

Camp 1: A beautiful sunset and 360 degree lightening until the early hours of  the morning
The following few days flowed into a blur, beautiful knee high grass over rolling hills for hundreds of kilometers made for easy riding and a good way to ease into the trip. By the end of day two we were certainly sore bruised and rubbed raw butts, bruised shoulders and aching muscles which all continued for the remainder of the trip. Our first real challenge came at the Herlin River. This we were to cross using an untested metal frame tied to two truck tire tubes which the bikes would be laid on and floated across. Again simple right? Well actually somewhat, the crossing spot proved ideal and only waist to chest deep making it easy to support the load while directing it across. Both bikes and packs made it to the other side totally dry and ready for the next leg. 

Lunch stop on another beautiful day in the grasslands

Such a vast landscape, looking back at where we have just come from

Small town of Bayan Ovoo in the distance was our first fuel detour

Camp 2: A stunning spot except for the mosquito's, 10 dung fires surrounding camp helped keep them at bay.

The Herlen river and our floating device ready for a test run.

Bike #1 on the home stretch and through the difficult waters
From this point on the grass grew gradually shorter and shorter and the riding got gradually more and more difficult. Hills got bigger and soon became what I would call mountains  All the while the landscape remained absolutely stunning ever changing and unbelievably beautiful. We began to encounter difficult mountains that required careful consideration as to weather or not we could get up them and if so could we get down the other side? It turned out that yes we could in almost every situation even if it did mean walking up with our packs first and scouting the best route up then riding up light and unloaded. At this point our riding skills although not to our knowledge were certainly poor, by the end of the trip hills that we now were considering going around we would breeze up fully loaded without a second thought. Two days from our first crossing we ventured through our first real mountain range for about 20 km this was exhilarating we broke 2000 m high for the first time and all day rode up and down, up and down all the while nearly perfectly on line. By the end of the day we were exhausted, back at the Herlen River and made camp before our second and final major river crossing for the trip.

An ominous outlook from our lunch stop, rain ahead and behind.

Another storm on the horizon.

A young vulture not yet able to fly allowed me to walk right up to the nest. 

Camp pre torrential rain and gale force winds.

The hills before the mountains, stunning as always!

Now we are getting higher and into the mountains proper.

A lone ger (Traditional Mongolian House), the nomadic people are incredible in the places that they manage to survive and the lifestyle they live.

Just post crossing, 1 bike and our rudimentary floating device!

The coming days were the much anticipated easy days of the tip. As we passed immediately south of UB we made the largest detour of the trip 70 km each way to meet Baagi who was delivering us much needed supplies. It was on the return journey from here that that the flat tires began. From this point on flats were a never ending problem and something we had to nearly expect everyday and up to as many as 4 on one day. Needless to say by the end of the trip we had repairs down to an art and could be on the move again within 20 minutes.  Over the next two days we crossed the plains and through a completely unanticipated short steep mountain range filled with incredible wildlife and rocky treacherous slopes. Day 7 we came towards the end of the plains and to our fuel stop in the town of Buren, Buren was a sad and desolate little town, it was here that we ran into the next major issue of the trip that persisted again and again until the end. 80 octane gas, yep 80 which is far from ideal for high performance engine. However with no other option we filled up in hope that we would soon find them some good juice. Good juice we did not find at either of the next two stops in country of ever increasing steepness and altitude, this forced another long detour through a mega hail storm into the relatively large town of Arvaikheer to fully resupply on food and fuel. 

The difficult road ahead.

And behind!

More easy going through beautiful grasslands.

Hiding from the sun under a lone and seldom found tree.

Arvaikheer post hailstorm 
Cold, wet and heavily loaded we were back on the muddy road some 40 km to where it met our line. From here on we began to venture into the Khangai mountains, this we knew would be one of if not the biggest challenge for us on the trip. The going started out good with large ups and downs difficult but very possible for some 50 km, in this 50 km we stumbled across the Uyanga gold fields. These gold fields are famous across Mongolia for being very rich, they have unfortunately been over run by local Ninja (illegal gold miners) who are ruining the countryside in search of the precious metal with no effort to reclaim the ground after excavation. We passed by and spent a night relatively high in the mountains overlooking the next days challenge. We woke to rain which left us sheltering under our fly until 11 am before venturing on, small creeks were all swollen making them difficult to cross and getting ourselves very wet in the process. The day was bitter cold also and we eventually found ourselves climb onto an alpine plateau (2900 m) in a wintery storm. Frozen to the bone we finally decided it was time to retreat. Another 2 hours of wet riding off the mountain and down a difficult valley we stumbled upon a ger camp which just so happened to have a tourist ger available for us. Next morning refreshed from a nights sleep in a warm bed we woke to a crisp and crystal clear morning high in the mountains and ventured onwards. Unbelievably we were able to pass through the mountains in under a day spending much of the day above 3000m high, the views from the mountain tops were incredible and the riding equally amazing.

Our traditional nights accomodation

The difficult mountain top road ahead

Above 3000m for the first time enjoying the view ahead and behind

Lake Shiret 

Over 500m vertical decent proved to be to much for our brakes, 20 mins to cool off and we were able make it to the bottom.

A few scattered trees as we approached the far side of the mountain range.

I am now writing this some 3 months later as i have not had access to internet since then, reading back through what i have written ive decided to make this a 2 part post and will hopefully write up the second half of the trip in the next week or so. Enjoy!

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