If you missed part 1, it’s here.
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!