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.
Day 4 – 119 km
We woke to flapping tents and a storm building on the horizon. With a strong tailwind and surprisingly smooth, hard-packed dirt, we blasted out first 30k at near-road speeds. This is why we had come: to rip across Mongolia on high-speed gravel machines. Our Exploros certainly did not disappoint.
The storm slowly disappeared behind us as the bumps reappeared late in the morning. We found ourselves surrounded by high desert, devoid of hills and most vegetation—an endless gravel field, bisected by a corrugated ribbon of dirt track.
Three days in the saddle and our bodies dictated that bumps should be avoided at all costs. Skipping the road and taking to the smooth gravel seemed the obvious choice.
Nothing comes for free. The cost of avoiding the now severely deteriorated road was flat tires—lots and lots of flat tires. Growing seemingly everywhere the road wasn’t were tiny plants covered with even tinier thorns.
Every kilometer meant another puncture. By the time we discovered the culprit, our tires were full of these nearly invisible barbs. The next 20 kilometers gave us more than 20 flats as we slowly lost all of the time we had gained that morning.
Sometime after lunch, Jennifa had had enough. The risk of another puncture and our now non-existent spare tube supply meant all riding had to be done on very bumpy roads. A problem that had started as a slight knee pain a few days before had intensified considerably and the idea of a free ride in the support van became too much for her to turn down. Now there were two.
As the day wore on and the kilometers went by, our energy began to fade—along with the driver’s patience. No longer did the support vehicle stay within a reasonable range. Instead, the van would rocket off into the distance, disappearing entirely from view. As soon as it would reappear as a tiny dot, miles away on the horizon, the vehicle would spring to life and vanish once again. We chased our crew for hours this way, until the sun had dipped well below the horizon.
Exhausted, hungry and more than a little angry, we finally spotted Mogul and his flashlight motioning us on from the side of the road, as we discovered the motivation behind the chase: a tourist camp complete with warm beds, hot food and a cool trickle of water deemed a ‘shower’. It’s hard to stay mad with a wash, a mountain of lamb and rice and a good night’s sleep.
Day 5 – 68 km
We woke up late, partially due to the previous day’s effort—mostly due to the soft beds. We enjoyed a long breakfast and slowly prepared to head out. Jennifa was feeling refreshed and joined us as we crossed the 20k from tourist camp to a small town.
The previous day’s tailwind had done a 180 and was now making us fight for every pedal-stroke. The hills had returned. The bumps remained. This would end up being our shortest full-day, but also our most draining.
When we got to the town, our plan was to visit a tire repair shop to fix the leaking tubes we had amassed the day before.
We were down to only the tubes we had currently in our tires and fewer than four patches. Getting our tubes repaired and keeping the emergency patches for the next few days seemed to be the best option.
Unfortunately, the shop was closed. By this point, the sun had vanished behind a thick cloud layer. Jennifa had had it again and got back on the van.
The two of us rode into a headwind for what felt like days. We started late and stopped early. Nothing was beautiful and everything hurt. Day five sucked.
But as we made camp, the clouds rolled away and the wind slowed. Golden rays of light illuminated the mountains in the distance, the horses grazing in the fields.
With a bit of extra time, we shared drinks and dinner with our crew. We rested well and prepared ourselves for what we hoped would be our final push. We slept with full stomachs, happy once again as a sea of countless stars floated above an endless horizon.
Day 6 – 90 km
The horses had moved into our camp as we crawled out of our tents into the predawn light—around a dozen of them. Perhaps a good omen, we felt.
The wind felt otherwise. Roaring up and over the sandy, rolling hills, the wind, it seemed, would be our grand challenge of the morning.
The three of us set off again with promises from our crew that we could finish that day—and warnings that through the mountains, the road was un-rideable. We’d all have to end the trip in the van.
We rode the first 50 kilometers or so with the mountains on our left and hardly a word spoken between us—partially due to exhaustion, mostly because the wind would steal our words, carrying them far away from their intended recipient.
When the road turned south again, we were elated to shake the headwind. Our relief was short-lived, however, as we knew we had reached the mountain pass. At several points along our journey, when our crew had seen us struggling, they would encourage us to jump on the van. They could drive us out and to better roads, they’d say. Staying off the van became our rallying cry.
The section we were now facing, a 10km climb on deep, loose sand, is one that we had been warned about more times than just that morning. In the days before, when we would argue that we couldn’t get on the van, as we had to ride every kilometer, they would reluctantly comply, reminding us that our plan was simply impossible. “The mountains will stop you.”
The climb was difficult. For every two pedal strokes, you might be lucky to get grip on a half of a wheel turn. Sitting back on the saddle didn’t offer much help either. The sand was too loose. Two spins forward, one slide back. But it wasn’t impossible. Not even close. It wasn’t a particularly steep climb or particularly long.
By the time we reached the top of the pass, we were more surprised that it was finished than we were exhausted.
From our high vantage point, we realized that we had done it. After six days of of bumps, wind, cold nights and great memories, we could finally see the Gobi Desert, its white sands shimmering through the dust and haze suspended in the dry air.
Excitement mounting, we set off, chasing one another on a full-out sprint to see who could reach the dunes first.
The desert has a way of playing tricks on the eye. While the Gobi’s existence wasn’t a mirage, it’s distance was. We were still more than 35km from the edge of the desert.
Our sprint slowed, but our excitement remained. We had completed our journey. There were beautiful white dunes. There were flocks of grazing camels. There were beds! There were showers! There was food!
We slept the kind of sleep that only comes with being fed, clean, and utterly exhausted in a tourist camp made up of a dozen family size ger situated two kilometers from the desert’s edge. We were the only guests. Before bed, we loaded our bikes onto the roof of the van, making plans to ride the final two kilometers to the desert by camel. This would be followed by a two-day drive back to Ulaanbaatar on dirt roads with minimal suspension. It seemed, for us, the bumps were not yet finished.
Tips for Riding in Mongolia
- Ride Gravel Bikes—They’re just so much fun.
- Go Wide—Put some wide tires on those bikes. Southern Mongolia has no roots or stones to bump over, but you will certainly appreciate the increased grip afforded by wider tires when the dirt turns to sand, as well as the added suspension when the washboarding begins.
- Go Tubeless—Thorns shred tubes. Mongolia has lots of thorns. We learned this the hard way so you don’t have to.
- Come Prepared—Ulaanbaatar has very few bike shops with very limited selections. Outside of the city, these are practically non-existent. Bring tools, bring tubes, bring patches (even when riding tubeless). You never know what will come in handy, but know this: if you don’t have it, you won’t be able to find it.
- Hire Support or Prepare to Carry—Mongolia is vast. Mongolia is sparsely populated. Be prepared to carry food and water for multiple days between refills, or hire a support crew, like we did. The local insight and new friendships are added benefits.
- Know the Weather—We visited in fall and had sun and warm temperatures. A few weeks later and the temperatures had already dropped well below freezing. Bring layers, no matter the time of year. Even in the middle of summer, the nights can still be quite cold.
For more on this story and others, be sure to grab a copy of Far Ride Volume 08. Out now!