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 adventurer 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. It 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 either of us ever gone on a 6 day off-road motorbike ride in a totally foreign country with little more than a paper map and compass 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 when we were well beyond the reach of the three guest houses in the capital equipped with wifi nearly fast enough to check your 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.
407km 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 12+ 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 beutifull sunny summer day. I remeber as though it were yesterday the smell that hit me as I walked out those airport doors into the sunshine, an intoxicateingly 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 need 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 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 down 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 o ering 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, aittle 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 obstructed 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 a find 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 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. As soon as we waled to the ridge line the winds whipped at our clothes so we decided to take our chances 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 him 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 and things.
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. And now we’re off again.
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 bigger reason is 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 up to the place.
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 infact 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 in their their belly 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.
— 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.