Landing at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar, we quickly learned two things:
Carrying four bike boxes between two people presents a unique set of challenges.
Mongolia is cold at night.
This wasn’t Far Ride’s first trip to Mongolia, although it was our first planned ride in this beautifully remote location. Our previous visit to Mongolia was a year earlier when we spent a week chasing riders in a media van as part of a team documenting the Mongolian Bike Challenge—a six-stage race often billed as “the world’s toughest mountain bike race.”
This time around, we had a different sort of adventure in mind. Our team of four riders would cycle from the old capital of Mongolia, Karakorum, to the Gobi Desert on 3T Exploro gravel bikes kitted out with CeramicSpeed BB’s, pulleys and chains—these things were gonna be fast.
Joining our team of two Far Ride editors were Jennifa Cheung, tattoo artist and one tough rider from Hong Kong, and John Braynard, friend of Far Ride and Global Head of Social Media at Red Bull.
We first met Mogul while documenting MBC. Having worked as part of the race support team, Mogul offered to help us plan our own adventure across his home country. Picking us up at the airport, he filled us in on everything he had arranged in the weeks leading up to our arrival—from route planning to securing a support vehicle and driver.
John and Jennifa had arrived earlier in the day and were waiting at the hotel as we rolled in near midnight. Immediately, there was a problem. Departing Vienna the day before, John had had a slight fever, nausea, and pain in his most sensitive of areas. By the time he landed in Mongolia, the symptoms had intensified dramatically. A quick trip to the ER and the news was not good. John had epididymitis, a bacterial infection, common amongst male cyclists, yet severe enough to potentially end his trip before it began.
While John followed doctor’s orders and rested, we spent the following day stocking up on supplies, assembling and fitting our bikes and pouring over paper maps while excitedly discussing our route.
Day 1 – 65 km
Up well before the sun, we loaded four Exploros on top of our van—a Soviet era all-terrain vehicle with rock-solid suspension and room for eight. John was feeling a bit better as we made the four-hour drive from Ulaanbaatar to our starting point of Karakorum. Turning off the smooth tarmac of the highway, however, it became abundantly clear that any jostling immediately intensified John’s symptoms. We were at the point of no return and knew that were John to continue, we’d be risking more than just the trip’s success. With heavy hearts, we saw John off as he boarded a local bus back to UB.
With one bike remaining on the roof of our support vehicle, we set off, pedaling alongside the ancient walls of the Erdene Zuu Monastery as we turned onto 20 kilometers of smooth tarmac, the last we would ride for some time.
For Jennifa, this trip would mark many firsts—her first time camping, her first multi-day cycling trip, her first time in such a remote destination and her first time riding gravel. Luckily, as we transitioned from paved to not, we were greeted by perfectly smooth gravel. The path before us wound its way up and around rolling green hills, through shallow river crossings and past herds of galloping horses and flocks of grazing sheep.
Our excitement had been well warranted. We chased our support vehicle and the sun for the next 45 kilometers before setting up camp for the evening—all while joking about how easy this trip was going to be, what we would do with all of our extra time once we reached the Gobi. We were remarkably wrong.
Day 2 – 102 km
The weather in Mongolia can be severe, with winter temperatures dipping below -40˚ Celsius. In September, however, chilly nights soon give way to mildly pleasant mornings as soon as the sun rises. The mercury crept back up as we packed away camp and set out on our second day.
The warming air and first few kilometers helped to wake our legs as we exchanged our thoughts on our surroundings and the suddenly relevant accuracy of our sleeping bag temperature ratings.
Our wheels crunched and whirred in unison as the path turned temporarily east and crossed back over the highway, pausing briefly outside of a small shop while our guides and driver restocked their vodka supply in anticipation of several days off the grid
Sometimes in life, things go well until, suddenly, they don’t. In this, life imitates bike path.
After around 80 kilometers of immaculate gravel, our good fortune ran out, the highway serving to delineate good from bad, gravel heaven from hell. Our path had changed. The perfectly crushed stone and dirt from the previous day had been replaced by seemingly endless washboarding, the surface now closer in resemblance to a corrugated tin roof than a G-road.
Serving to exacerbate the challenge of riding across these ‘dirt speed bumps’ was the unfortunate spacing of each mound—about .75 times the wheelbase of our bikes.
The half-foot-high crests of these dirt waves would greet our front tires as the rear wheel reached the trough of the previous bump. Instead of pumping through these sections, we were forced to perform a riotous, bouncing see-saw motion for kilometer after ass-destroying kilometer as we clattered our way across this broken surface.
We made camp that night under clear star-filled skies, happy that the day’s work was behind us, hopeful the morning would bring smoother roads and fresh legs.
Day 3 – 105 km
Breakfast, coffee and we were off on day three. The road opened up as the scenery began to change with every passing kilometer.
The thinning roadside vegetation meant that bumpy sections could be somewhat avoided by riding off-road and around particular stretches. At points the road would fork in two or three or four directions—these new roads slowly carved out by drivers who, like us, had determined the current path was too bumpy, motivating them to forge their own. It was often difficult to determine if a fork was a simple detour or a turn in a wrong direction.
Feeling maybe a bit too fresh and slightly ahead of the team, I stopped by a small pond to wait. After around thirty minutes or so, I began to wonder about the cause of the delay and cycled back up the road a few kilometers. What I found was not two cyclists on the horizon, as I had hoped, but a fork in the trail, previously unseen, with two sets of very distinct tire tracks headed in a very opposite direction as the one I had chosen.
What ensued was an all-out-adrenaline-fueled-10k-bone-shaking-off-road sprint. It’s true what they say: “you’ll never ride as fast as you do when you fear you’ve been left for dead in the Mongolian wilderness.”
Catching the others and continuing south, the rolling hills remained as the dirt began to change to sand. This made climbing particularly difficult, a challenge that would only get worse the closer we got to the desert. We fought our way over a few small passes and finished out the day with a sunset descent past flocks of camels and the occasional family ger.
Camp, according to our guides, always seemed just a bit further than our legs wanted to take us. However, the spectacular light and silence marking the end of each day never failed to raise our spirits and energy levels just the right amount to cover the distance, set up shelters and cook dinner before passing out each evening.
Stay tuned for PArt 2 of this amazing adventure.Coming soon on our Blog, subscribe to get notified and not missing any story.