Alright. Let’s start at the beginning, TWO YEARS after the fact! The guy on the right is my BEST FRIEND. Labeling someone my BEST FRINED is something I kinda of stopped doing after I turned 12 or so, but Brandon; my grade four desk mate in Mr. Tan’s class, my Short Stop Screamer companion and my Frontier Video Street Fighter nemesis, my ally when I was certain we could lead a crew better than Warren, Kevin or Curtis, the roommate that helped push an abandoned sofa in a “borrowed” shopping cart a few kilometres down the road to our blue and green bachelor pad on Washington Ave, a guy you can sit through a whole CD in silence with, the traveler who’s weekly emails filled with wild stories of South East Asia inspired me to take my 6 month backpack around the place, the risk taker who took off to Japan to teach ESL and then decided to switch it all up (perhaps after some persuasion by a good friend) and take a teaching position at Wonkwong University Language Centre in Korea, the colleague I constantly traded classroom management strategies and kick-ass games with, the adventurer who said “Greg, I’m going to Mongolia in 2 weeks, wanna come?” and the traveling companion that lasts longer than three days because neither of us really care where we are going, as long as we’re in it together…
Whhhhheeeeewwwww! Okay, after that lengthy tribute to our bromance our story can now resume.
So Brandon (on the right) and me (guy in outlandish boots) are sitting at Inchon airport waiting for our flight that will go directly from Seoul to Ulanbatar. The reason I’m wearing heavy duty motorcycling boots is because I didn’t want to pay $45 a kilo for my 3KG overweigh suitcase. The reason Brandon is not wearing his motorcycle boots is because Brandon doesn’t pack nearly as much shit as me.
Our “plan”, which came together about two weeks prior to our departure, was quite detailed:
1. Book plane ticket to Mongolia
2. Ride motorcycles in Mongolia
Neither of us had ever been to the place nor had we ever gone on a 6 day off-road motorbike ride in a totally foreign country with little more than a paper map and compass. We just had a paper map to go on because Mr. Technology, me, had mistakenly only downloaded the top tile/layer of the GPS map showing the entirety of Mongolia in just one tiny iPhone 4s screen. We discovered this technical glitch when we were well beyond the reach of the three guest houses in the capital equipped with wifi nearly fast enough to check email on.
From this point forward the I can only hope the descriptions will be shorter otherwise it will take me most of my life to complete this album. Tomorrow we will be welcomed to Ulanbatar by a hail storm in Mid July, rent our bikes, get a goat’s milk blessing, find out the blessing has a clause that excludeds mechanical functions, view some ice-cream and have a very light sleep in a what I though MIGHT BE a flash flood area.
656km Motorbike Route Map Through Mongolia
Here’s an overview of the trail Brandon and I blazed “through Mongolia” which is a bit of an exaggeration considering we only saw something like 0.0001431% of the country. What isn’t an exaggeration is that we spent 90% of our time off-road and a good portion of that making our own paths. Believe it or not, we were generally putting in 10+ hour days. Some of you mathematicians out there will look at those numbers and say that’s impossible but you have to factor in the first and last day were pretty much write-offs as we departed the city after 7pm the first day and dropped off the bikes early on the last day.
Motorcycle Gear in Overhead Bin
The smog from Korea and China dissipates to reveal our first glimpses of Mongolia through the clouds.
From the air so far everything looks rideable!
Dressed for the lake.
It is JULY 13th 2015. A brief hail storm greets us on an otherwise beautiful sunny summer day. I remember it as though it were yesterday, the smell that hit me as I walked out those airport doors into the sunshine, an intoxicatingly rich smell of wet, peaty dirt just waiting to be explored.
Business in Mongolia got off to a slow start. When our cab finally found the address, we wandered through the door of a corrugated tin enclosure into an abandoned yard filled with broken bikes and scattered parts. Despite having organized the bike rental with the owners a couple weeks in advance they were anything but prepared for us. All the bikes were still locked up in the container and the mechanic slowly rolled each one out looking for the two that would require the least amount of repairs to get us on our way. With hours to kill, we decided to head out for some grub. but Just before leaving, this weathered Aussi couple rolled in and shared their Mongolian adventures with us. They also passed on the USB charger they had used to keep their phones running which was absolute gold! We promised to pass it on when our tour came to an end.
Cheap Shop in Ulaanbaatar Mongolia
They had pictures on the wall. We were sold.
I don’t make a habit of photographing bathrooms but I was absolutely stunned to find this local restaurant bathroom to be more sanitary than the 80% of South Korean bathrooms at a similarly sized and priced restaurant. So what are the key differences:
1. Clean and inviting vs OH MY GOD lets make this quick!
2. Porcelain sitter vs hole squatter
3. Toilet paper supplied vs bring your own
4. Soiled toilet paper disposed of in toilet vs waste bin next to shitter
5. Soap dispenser vs no soap or maybe at best a disgusting dried out communal bar soap
6. Hot and cold water vs cold only
Better than most.
Delicious flavours. The meat was chewy but we would soon discover compared to buckets of innards this stuff was grade A fillet-mignon.
Impressed by the fact this huge bag of crushed paprika chips from Germany, package of gum and what looks like a Magnum bar only cost 3.55 USD.
Adverts on Yellow Wall Ulaanbaatar Mongolia
The Streets of Ulaanbaatar Mongolia
“Milk and meat are the pillars of Mongolian cuisine. Milk also holds a special symbolic place as a ‘white food’. Milk is used in several Mongolian rituals, including the ritual of tossing milk into the air or sprinkling it onto a person, animal, or object, as an offering to the spirits, a supplication, a blessing, or a protection.” -Sharon Hudgins
Tsatsal may include a clause that excludes mechanical breakdown…
All packed up and ready to hit the open road! Motorbike Mongolia rents a surprising amount of gear should you find you’ve forgotten something or if you just can’t be bothered to buy it and haul it on a plane. We rented a gas stove and set of cooking pots for a buck or two a day. In my backpack I carried a sleeping bag, Thermorest, tent, clothes, and the usual hardware like ropes and a small repair kit. On top of the ruck my tripod.
In a ThinkTank modular waste belt I packed my Fuji XT10 Mirrorless with a single XF 16-55mm f/2.8 (24-82mm 35mm equivalent). I went with the Fuji for the size smaller size and the single zoom lens because when you ride dust gets in everything and I didn’t want to spend my whole trip cleaning lenses and sensors. In retrospect my only regret is not having brought a wider lens. To capture Mongolia the wider the better. I made a lot of use of my iPhone’s panorama feature.
By the time my bike stand was fixed it was 8pm, a little bit of a late start for a motorcycle tour around Mongolia but Brandon and I were fixated on getting out of the city and camping. Given Motorbike Mongolia was situated on the western outskirts of Ulaanbataar, and we had no route plan whatsoever, we figured it would just be simplest to continue in that direction. The moment we had an unobstructed line of sight to the horizon we veered north off the road and made set our eye on the furthest steep. We didn’t get too far before our path ended in a gravel yard. We asked this fine gentleman to help us find our way to a road. Aside from not really knowing where we wanted to go, there was a language barrier and he wasn’t able to confirm much except for the fact the road ended at his facility. Brandon and I u-turned and found our way over the grass onto something that resembled a path.
We were hardly an hour out of the capital but you’d think we were on another planet.
Mongolian Sheep Grazing
Brandon and I would quickly discover that foreigners in Mongolia are still quite a novelty, especially a foreigner outside the capital in the middle of seemingly nowhere on a motorbike. The locals took as much interest in us as we did in them.
The cow looks on…
During a rest stop we noticed our vodka bottle had disappeared. We had no idea how far back we had lost it. There was no question about turning back to look for it, after all, it was a critical part of our travel plan. Honestly I didn’t think we had a hope in hell of finding it. If another Mongolian had spotted it on the road it would have been too good to pass up. Unbelievably, we spotted the bottle after only a few kilometres of backtracking and so we named this portion of our track LOST VODKA ROAD.
Here’s a wider view of where we found our dropped bottle of vodka. Any idea why the roads are so wide? I’ll explain soon.
The sun set as we rode back overjoyed at having found our bottle of vodka. It was only when I started looking for a place to setup out tents that I REALLY noticed how barren, arid and exposed the landscape surrounding us was. As a Canadian who grew up in British Columbia, I was used to finding shelter under the trees, in the valleys and against rocks. There was NOTHING here! We were loosing light fast and the temperature was dropping. The best protection we could find from the persistent winds was in this tiny little ravine. I had my reservations though. The erosion, rocks and sand where we wanted to setup all lead me to believe that water had once, perhaps even recently, flown there. My guess was that during heavy rainfall this whole channel would turn into a river. I was worried about a flash flood in the middle of the night. We walked to the ridge line scouting for a safer spot but as soon as we crest the ridge the winds whipped at our clothes and so we decided to take our chances with flash floods and I resolved to sleep with one eye open.
Our first supper in Mongolia: noodles cooked in barely enough water with tuna and sausage mixed in. It was amazing!
The Dog With No Face: Far up on a hillside we spotted a white yurt/ger. I can’t remember now if we were after directions or just eager to meet our first nomad. Either way, we rode towards the yurt and suddenly this massive dog missing part of his face barrelled towards us barking. Brandon and I had read many a biker’s story of being chased by dogs in Mongolia. We were just about to abort the plan when his owner screamed something that switched the K9 out of kill-mode. The man examined us and our bikes closely and then beckoned us to come inside his ger.
Inside the yurt we were greeted by the man’s wife, mother and possibly sister or daughter. The interior smelled earthy and slightly sour with yak milk. The space was clean and simply furnished.
An old transistor radio hung from the wall, next to it some odds and ends. You could see the wool lining that was pulled around the wooden structure to insulate the ger during the harsh winters.
Being nomadic and all, Mongolians are extremely hospitable. They’ll take you in, shelter and feed you without hesitation. It’s the law of the land, everyone looks out for each other. Our host was no exception and as soon as we set foot into the yurt his wife started getting a few snacks and drinks together. I could see what was coming and I was absolutely terrified.
I’m a little squeamish when it comes to meat. The less I can identify with the the animal the easier it is for me to eat. Sausages, deli-meats and skinless, boneless chicken breasts, I can eat these things all day. Pot of random goat innards with bits of hair, skin, bone and cartilage – well it took everything I had not to throw up. Of course it would have been rude to refuse food so I picked a few tiny threads of the stuff the most resembled red meat from the bones and did my best to chew and swallow with a smile on my face. Honestly, there was nothing yummy about it. Just a pot of goat bits, no spices, no salt, just game-y tough goat innards.
None of us shared any common language but we got our points across regardless. Most of the time was spent gesturing at things around the tent. We tried to explain that we came from Canada and where we were going. After many attempts we got the pronunciation of our next town close enough that they could insinuate what we meant. I invited the family to sit for a photo and they did!
I discovered yurts have beautiful directional lighting from the doorway so I asked this beautiful grandmother if she would sit for a portrait.
I picked up a mini printer that could connect to my camera wirelessly especially for this trip and I’m so happy I did. It allowed me to circumvent the language barrier. I could show my intention and then DO something with these people that didn’t require words. The process intrigued everyone from taking the image, to reviewing the photos on the back of the camera and then watching them magically print out of a pocket sized printer. Most importantly, I could give something back. The majority of these people have never had a professional portrait taken in there life let alone been given one they can hang on their wall. It’s amazing for me to think that the photos I made could be up on their walls for generations to come.
What a dress. What an smile. What an experience. The visit ended with the old man removing the leather luggage tag on my backpack, you know the kind you slip a business card into so your bag can be identified and returned. He didn’t ask for or sneak it, he just causally removed it right in front of me and attached it to his belt. I was good with that… and I wasn’t about to mess with the faceless dog.
Death was a much more common site in Mongolia. Throughout our adventures we would find dead sheep, goats, cows and horses.
We road from ridge line to ridge line hoping to see a town in the distance where we could resupply.
The terrain we crossed was like nothing I’ve encountered before. Soft brown hills and humps rolled endlessly in every direction. Under our feet and tires was a mixture of light sand, patchy grass, animal dung and scattered scree that got progressively thicker towards the tops of the hills. I struggle to find the language to describe how amazing it felt to look out onto those hills knowing we could climb any of them.
Since leaving Ulaanbataar we’d be using Brandon’s paper map to plan our route and my phone as compass. We were quite elated when we actually arrived at our desired destination using such rudimentary navigational tools for this day and age.
We rolled into the small town of Altanbulang expecting to find shops and restaurants scattered about. Convinced we must have missed the main road on our first pass through the town we turned around and explored a different route. Again there was nothing. The whole town looked abandoned. Finally we found someone walking on the street and did the international mime for restaurant bringing an invisible fork to our mouths repeatedly. The passerby pointed to a structure that looked like any of the other houses perched on the roadside.
We were warmly welcomed into the restaurant. The interior was very sparse and cold feeling with it’s grey walls and silver table cloths. We learned they didn’t have the ingredients for most of the items on their small one page menu in stock. We ended up ordering the quintessential Mongolian fried meat dumplings. They hit the spot!
These scrumptious Mongolian cookie snacks quickly became my main sustenance for the next 5 days.
Mongolia is CHEAP. We had 6 lamb dumplings, cabbage salad, 2 fried eggs and 2 cups of tea for 7,200 Togrog which is just under 3 USD as of this writing.
These two ladies ran a clothing shop and asked me if I could take their picture for their business.
Two Canadian dudes in full motorbike gear, we were quite an unusual sight for the locals.
With full stomachs, fresh water and loads of cookies, we were ready for the open road again. Hard to believe it’s 6:55pm in this image!
Mongolian Highway Sign
This is a Mongolian multilane highway. You may wonder why so many lanes when there is so little traffic. Freedom to roam wherever you want certainly plays into new tracks being created but the primary reason for new road formation is that when one track gets too bumpy, flooded or muddy, drivers blaze a new trail around it. This creates an ever shifting highway through the steppe. You can actually see quite clearly how much the roads wander on Google Earth.
The first thing you’ll notice driving down Mongolian roads is the abundance of empty vodka bottles that have accumulated along the sides. We could have collected 100 empties from just this 1km stretch. It’s quite sad to see the otherwise pristine, though overgrazed, environment littered with all this glass. We kept asking ourselves how the hell this came to be. The best explanation we got was that Mongolians love their vodka, especially when they’re driving these endless barren roads. After polishing off the bottle they lob it out the car window, one, to get rid of the evidence should an officer ever show up and two, it’s supposed to bring good luck if the bottle smashes. There are a couple other contributing factors I know of. Later in our trip we saw groups of Mongolians having road side parties and it seems most Mongolians don’t think twice about leaving their garbage behind. When the heavy rains come the water carries much of the garbage into the ditches leaving bigger deposits of glass, plastic and bone.
Mustang 150 Motorcycle Mongolia
Just after 8pm Brandon spotted a Ger/Yurt a ways off the road with a bunch of horses tied up. He told me later he had a good feeling about the place and that’s what had motivated him to roll in.
The men and children greeted us warmly. Brandon was diligently putting the phrases he had been practicing from his Lonely Planet to use.
Two days into our trip some themes were emerging. One, Mongolians are extremely warm and hospitable people. Two, Mongolians love vodka. Three, Mongolians love wrestling.
This adorable little two year old girl came to see what all the commotion was about. She put on a little show for us adopting her dad’s wrestling stance and then performed a make-belief pile driver for us. I was so enthralled by her toughness. Turns out things weren’t quite as they seemed.
SHE was in fact a HE! I guess it was the pink sweater and long hair threw both Brandon and I. The only reason we ever figured it out was because he started zooming around the place naked just before bed!
Discovery number four, Mongolian men take great pride in their bellies and Genghis Khan.
Inside the yurt we found a collection of medals. As we tried to decipher what they were for I suddenly had the idea to use my iDoodle app for communication.
We quickly learned our host was a horse racer/jockey. From what we could tell, his business was horses, racing and goats.
Mongolian Girl in Yurt
We continued to share in Mongolian, English, sign and sketch.
The wife of the horse racer made soup for everyone. It was far less scary than the bucket of innards at the last yurt so I ate it graciously along with some fried Mongolian bread.
Animals Grazing Mongolian Steppe
Mongolian Girl with Toy Gun
The kids were interested in the time-lapse I made..
After we’d eaten and the kids had gone to bed Brandon and I sat with the men out in the grass for a couple hours and communicated our lives in pictures over drinks and smokes.
Then we turned in for the night.
Day 2: Grrrr Galore | Mongolia GPS Track
This time when the light patter of rain came in intermittently in the night it was actually soothing and lulled me back to sleep. I awoke at 7:30 am to the sound of sheep and bright blue skies.
Here’s what our camping spot looked like.
We were invited in for a quick breakfast before leaving. This was the first yurt we’d seen with a flat screen TV.
Just before leaving our host handed me his number. I chuckled out loud when imagining me in my South Korean flat, him in his yurt with family gathered around and a very very long silence after the inital “hello” – this is of course assuming he could even get reception way out here!
Mongolian Boy in Yurt
When Brandon geared up to leave he noticed his helmet reeked of gasoline. Our host implied that livestock had knocked his bike over in the night. When that happened gasoline must have ran down the tank and handlebars into his hemet liner. Wearing the helmet meant choking on intoxicating fumes, not fun. Luckily we had finally hit the river and we were able to find a spot where Brandon could go down and wash it.
When I imagined myself riding Mongolia I had pictured a very lush landscape filled with pristine lakes and rivers in every direction. Aside from some puddles and raindrops on our tent this was the first water we’d seen in two days of riding and I wouldn’t even dip my foot in it. The river was filled with thick green algae, likely the bi product of too much animal manure and that the byproduct of a country that’s 300% over-grazed. The water had strong slimy smell and there were herds of animals grazing in the water just up stream. And then there was the usual garbage problem. Given the choice between a face full of gasoline or a face full of animal crap I’d rinse my helmet in there too.
Mongolia Motorcycle Tour
Motorbiking in Mongolia
We hit what I imagined was once the bottom of an ocean or great lake. Nothing but flatness for miles.
The wide angle on my Fuji XT1 just wasn’t able to do the vastness of the Mongolian landscape justice so I pulled out my iPhone and shot another panorama.
Seemed like a really odd place for a hut to be which made it perfect for a photographer.
Given the heat, landscape and the fact we had FORGOTTEN to stock up on WATER this seemed like the perfect way to communicate all that.
After doing his best to wash the gasoline out of his helmet, Brandon air dried the foam pieces on the back of his bike. It didn’t take long in this environment. Now he tried to reassemble it feeling what might have been the onset of heatstroke.
Perhaps my most memorable moment in Mongolia: a dehydrated, absolutely sun-fucked me sharing a shadeless desert flat with stray dogs and birds of pray that looked on enviously as a borderline heatstroke victim sucked the only remaining liquid, tuna-juice, out of a can that split open and leaked all over his backpack. This is how this stretch of road earned the name, The Tuna Flats. At least I had enough wits about me to ask Brandon for a picture. We were getting into the silly zone and needed water BAD!
Probably a vulture waiting for Brandon and I to die of dehydration.
It constantly amazed me how quicly the terrain changed in Mongolia.
Despite being hot, dry and thirsty, this was one of my favourite landscapes.
The only kind of clouds you really get in Korea are the overcast kind. I was mesmerized by these puffy giants.
Puffy Clouds Blue Skies Mongolia
Finally we reached the bend of the river we had been beelining towards for days. It was the greenest thing we had seen in Mongolia since our arrival.
Horses Drinking in a Mongolian River
What are the odds that when we happen to get our first flat tire, which we have ZEOR experience fixing, the first people we’ve seen all day come rolling over a rocky ridgeline and show us how to fix it. Amazing.
I don’t usually get excited about bridges. There must be more than 20 of them that traverse the Han River in Seoul. This was the first bridge we saw in Mongolia and to me it was quite an awe inspiring symbol of modern civilization.
Wild camels in Mongolia – well I’ll be….
CIVILIZATION!!! Maybe we weren’t going to dye of dehydration after all!
A fairly typical Mongolian town. We found water. A boy found us.
The Mongolian boy who came running up to greet us spoke some English. He self assigned himself as our host and took our photo.
We asked if there was a place to sleep in town and he took as to a spot.
You haven’t seen road erosion until you’ve visited Mongolia. Here in the middle of town, a channel big enough to swallow a city bus has formed. Note the exposed piping Brandon is mooning the camera to give a sense of scale. You could fit 55 mooning Brandons into this crevasse.
We were initially disappointed with this hotel as we were lead to believe from the exterior that the rooms came with a view of the stars, instead we had standard ceilings. The staff/locals however were very welcoming.
As you can see the hotel went with a very sheik minimalist concept. Here Brandon is trying out his Mongolian phrase book.
A construction worker from the adjacent room joins us for cocktails (orange juice and vodka) and educates us on some of the cornerstones of Mongolian culture.
— LINKS —
As I piece together this journey my google searches for spellings, facts and locations have lead me to some great stories by others about their time in Mongolia. I’d like to share them here:
- Benji shares a story filled with far more hardship than mine and understandably so as he spent a month biking through Mongolia solo. He has beautifully put into words much of what I have tried to capture in photos. I admire his blunt, honest and slightly melancholy style.