One of the nice things about this time of year is that Facebook reminds me of a period that was a turning point in my adult life. 10 years and a couple of days ago, I was riding into Paris at the end of Le Cycle Tour de France, and a few days after that, I was introducing Sarah to my parents (and vice versa), at Wellington airport. "French, Kissing and the USA", posted in January 2014, was the first of many posts on this blog documenting our family cycling activities.
It took us a long while to organise my first trip to Mongolia, but timing of the 10th Mongolia Bike Challenge in 2019 worked out well, and the long overdue mission was made, with my parents as company.
We came back to NZ knowing full well (and with me declaring at the end of the write up) that we'd need to make that trip more regularly. Of course, COVID-19 had other ideas, and so 2020 and 2021 were impossibilities. The draw got that much greater in March 2022, when our only niece on Sarah's side, Tsomoo, had her first child, Urin. In August we booked return flights to Seoul Incheon for June 2023, a long way out, but giving Mongolia a chance to get through its winter freeze, the airline industry a bit of time to settle back into moving people (and their luggage) around without mishap, and us plenty of time to look forward to the trip. In January, we finally pinned down the balance of our time away from NZ, and booked a separate return ticket from Korea, where we'd squeeze in a cycle tour on the way back home.
As much as I dislike the "gravel bike" terminology (much preferring "fat tyred road bike", though finding it harder and harder to use, given the growing ubiquity of the former), Mongolia is a destination that really suits the format. Virtually the entire country is public land, and there are beaten trails criss-crossing the place, most of which would be hard going on a road bike, but with enough pavement to make a mountain-bike frustrating.
Travel with a bike seems to be all about compromise though, and we optimised for the Korean leg of the journey. Besides, we were going to Mongolia to see people, rather than ride. We had every intention of using the bikes, but the vastness of the country quickly became apparent when we looked at the possibility of connecting up some of the key locations in Sarah's upbringing - her home town of Darkhan, her grandfather's birthplace Khuvsgul, and the capital city, Ulaanbataar (or UB, as everyone seems to call it). The necessary 1000-plus-kilometres in the Mongolian wild seemed like a bad use of our time. Instead, we planned make do with short rides around UB, all the better if friends or family would be on hand before, during or after.
We had a daytime flight from Seoul to UB, and flew into Chinggis Khan International Airport for the first time, just shy of its second anniversary of opening. Views on approach were uniquely Mongolian, and once we did get out on the bike, it was amazing to see the extend to which outback "roads" were mapped and an official part of the network.
Ride 1: to Chinggis Khan Statue Complex
The (skinnyish) road tyre format was a little constraining, but simultaneously helpful in cutting down the options. I felt like I had unfinished business at the Chinggis Khan Statue Complex - about 50km east of the city, we'd visited it with Ma and Pa, but there was something I'd opted out of then, and since regretted.
We'd had a day and a half to settle in, and it was mid-week, so were slotting rides in and around my (remote) work, and usual routines for the non-riders around us. Weather conditions on our second morning screamed "come get it", and while we were a touch short on fitness, 100km at holiday pace seemed manageable.
It seemed to take no time at all to adjust to the unique flow of the UB traffic, but we did need to be more conscious of the road surface - holes and other hazards were common, and had a habit of appearing out of nowhere.
We left the city fairly promptly, and crossed the Tuul River which runs between UB and the Bogd Khan Uul Biosphere Reserve, which, according to Wikipedia, claims to be the oldest national park in the world, with usage restrictions dating back to the 13th century.
For the first half of the ride, we were on a separated cycle path alongside the major route east. The eclectic mix of buildings was intriguing, from gers (Mongolian word for yurt), to very modern buildings that wouldn't have looked out of place in an expensive NZ suburb (albeit with vastly superior insulation!), to older buildings that looked very harsh to my eye and which probably resemble eastern European apartment blocks. These were in pockets, with grassy areas in between, and all under a dramatic and vast blue sky.
|Looking back towards UB about a half hour into the ride|
We slowly climbed, reaching a high point of just over 1500m above sea level, before taking the necessary off-ramp. Here marked the end of the cycle path (if you don't count the occasional, short, unbuilt sections), and the time for a pick-me-up. Convenience stores were common, and obvious, and these I could navigate on my own. "Cafes" and small restaurants were easy to pick out, but I doubt I'd have been able to make do without Sarah. We weren't quite ready for khuushuur (fried dumplings), so made do with some simple snacks.
It had been nice to be on the cycle path, and being on a fairly major route took a little bit of getting used to. The traffic was awesome though, and my stress levels slowly subsided. While I hadn't reread my earlier blog, I did notice I was mentally prepared for the mind-bending distance distortions - what road features we could make out did seem to creep up much more quickly than expected. It wasn't lost on me that in part, this was because of a stunning tail wind. Progress wouldn't be so easy on the way home.
I'd slightly misremembered the approach to the statue, so it was a nice surprise to see it all of a sudden, in all its majesty.
Once in the complex, we found a few very welcome tourist traps - I'd been hoping to pass them on the road, and was disappointed by their absence. We passed on archery, but felt compelled to pose with a magnificent golden eagle.
Quickly getting into the swing of things, we followed that up with a short camel ride, Sarah nattering away incessantly, often explaining the unusual package that we are (especially with the bikes thrown into the mix)!
When it was time to head into the building I strolled straight past the ticket booth, assuming that we would only have to pay for rooftop access. That caused the staff quite some alarm, though I was oblivious to the commotion, and it was quickly smoothed out with a Sarah-plus-credit-card combo!
We did go up top, but the thing I most wanted to do was play dress-ups. Last time, I'd declined to do so, writing off as silly, but subsequently realised I'd forgone a somewhat unique opportunity. I chose "king" over "hero", and we got a few lovely photos together before starting to overheat in the heavy garb!
After having a solid crack at enough lunch for about four people, we started the ride back to UB. As predicted, the wind was going to make it a real slog.
We swung by an interesting collection of roadside stalls, which seemed to consist of a "shop front" with living quarters behind. Returning to the road, I made a real mess of things, and lost my front wheel in some loose gravel. I was barely moving forward, so only had to deal with the rapid movement downwards. Fortunately, my bike coped with the sharp hit, and I had plenty of fresh water on hand to rinse out a few divots in my skin.
Once back on the main highway, we had both the cycle path a 250 metre drop to help counter the nasty headwind. It was a real slog though, and necessitated a coffee stop about 20km from home. We made a good choice, and the barista in turn made a very good coffee.
We took a slightly different route into UB, and soon found ourselves weaving between though some very jammed traffic. Shortly before we discovered the cause of it all, we had to dodge an entrepreneurial local who was walking the queue with a tray of cold drinks!
Perhaps he was paying commission to the small handful of drivers at the root of the problem. It did appear that significantly many cars had made a simultaneous play for the same patch of side road, and by virtue of the cars behind them, were unable to untangle themselves. We couldn't see damage to any car, but there just wasn't quite enough empty space, and probably more to the point, no conductor to take charge. It was a remarkable sight, and all but guaranteed us a stress free ride back to our hotel!
Stats: 114km ridden, plus 500m on a camel. Altitude-adjusted to 900m by the end, if my GPS was to be believed.
Ride 2: from Hustai National Park outing
The next day, we headed out to Hustai National Park with one of Sarah's closest friends, university class mate Tungaa, her husband Tsogi, and their two youngest children, Baysaa and Misheel.
Baysaa was well into English lessons at school, and could clearly understand all of my cheeky comments to him. While he steadfastly refused to reply, he wasn't quite so able to surpress his amusement! For her part, Misheel looks a lot like Khulie did in photos of her at that age - a very precious part of her life that I missed out on. I enjoyed being around so much cuteness, even though it made me a little envious.
We rode short distance from our hotel to their apartment, but once there, put our bikes on the back of their SUV. We'd originally planned to ride to our overnight destination, but the combination of headwind and wanting to spend time in their company, meant that we were both very happy in the car.
Hustai is famous for being one of the few places in the world that you can see Tahki. Despite having a perfectly good name already, these wild horses were renamed Przewalski's Horse upon discovery in the 19th century by a similarly named white guy. Their natural habitat is the Gobi Desert, but Hustai is one of the key areas in the conservation efforts to save these animals from extinction, thanks to significant support by the Dutch government (of all people).
After dropping off luggage and bikes at our overnight ger camp on the boundary of the park, having lunch, and getting directions, we set off in search of the Tahki. Said directions were given in Mongolian, and as the drive went on, including a few false turns, it seemed inconceivable that we'd find anything in this huge and apparently empty space!
How wrong I was, and we soon got to enjoy a collection of 7th century "man stones" which commemorated the death of an affluent, powerful, or otherwise influential man of those times.
That done, our search for the Tahki began in earnest. We drove up and over a ridge, and after one observation point with nothing to observe, things went from the sublime to the ridiculous, and we got to enjoy half a dozen small troops, marvelling at one, before moving on and seeing a larger or closer group almost immediately after. The kids enjoyed watching me fly the drone, but my lack of practice and the wind meant I didn't enjoy it at all!
Horses duly admired, we headed back to base. We'd been very lucky, and were booked into the last two available gers. It turned out Sarah and I were in the VIP ger - our sole and unusual ensuite had been retrofitted for the 2006 visit of Dutch royalty!
In the morning, we checked out a nearby Bankhar trainer - preparing huge Mongolian wolfhounds to keep an eye on livestock with minimal human intervention - and then spent a bit of time exploring a local sand dune. Tungaa introduced me to Mongolian rhubarb, which, chewed and spat out, has a range of medicinal properties.
We drove just over half way back to UB, before finally taking the bikes off the car near an area used for the massive national Naadam festival. The wind was in full effect, but we began the ride elevated, and this helped take the edge of the wind at critical junctures.
|Permanent carpark for the once-a-year festival area|
We were circling around the northwestern corner of UB, and soon crossed the main road to Darkhan, on which we spent a blissful minute or so - our first time with block tailwind. We then continued north-east for a while, before turning a hard right (under the watchful eye of Tsogi and family). Now with the wind permanently at our backs we began slowly climbing. Up ahead, we could see the last part of the climb - a gravel wall. Time would tell if it was as bad as it looked!
|The road passes through the low saddle mid-shot (wooded to the right, and clear below)|
Tsogi had warned us the saddle was unsealed, and this seemed to be common, and is necessitated by the winter months. (I guess the sealed roads do not cope well with the extreme cold.)
|Misheel - a captive audience|
I wasn't so worried about the climb, though it turned out to be a pretty stern challenge. I overcame the issue of the dust by pretending I was in NZ, and hugging the left "gutter". Sarah didn't click that this was a great way of getting out of the dust cloud each and every passing vehicle would generate, and instead stayed on the right side of the road (in both senses) and downwind of everyone. The road was also steep and managing traction was tricky, with some parts lumpier and looser than others.
Fortunately, the descent was shorter, less steep, and less rough, so better in every respect. We were soon off the brakes and enjoying a sealed blat into an outer suburb of UB. Before too long, we arrived at Tungaa and Tsogi's dacha, and not long after that, were back in the vehicle and taking a spectacular short-cut to another university friend's place in next valley.
There, we had a lovely meal together, during which Baysaa treated us to a tune or two on his horse-headed fiddle. I was fascinated that in his mind at least, speaking English to me and playing a musical instrument for everyone were not equivalently performative.
|Not far from the dacha|
Stats: many more kilometres on the bike rack than on the road, but 57 kilometres ridden.
Ride 3: Ariuna's to Terelj
The next morning, we saddled up once more, and set off towards Terelj, not far from the Chinggis Khan statue. We were headed for Tumen Khaan Tourist Camp, where we would overnight with Sarah's sister, Saruul, and Tsegi and Khulan, who we'd first met in Wellington when Tsegi was a master's student at VUW (and Khulan a five-year-old, now a teenager). They were driving out with Tsoomoo, her partner Tsemee and wee Urin, who on account of not having any experience of overnight outings with Urin, would return to UB at the end of the day.
While we did have bikepacking bags for the next leg of the journey, we'd packed overnight clothes into a backpack, mostly so we could each have a pair of walking shoes. Kilometres 30 to 53 overlapped with our route out to the statue, the vast majority of which was cycle path. To get there from Ariunaa's we had nice suburban arterial routes, plus a few big roads nearer the centre of UB.
Once on the cycle path, we knew we were ahead of the vehicle, so there was a sense of anticipation that at some point they would relieve us (i.e. me) of our backpack. It was a bit of a stuttery ride to that point, in part due to their uncertain arrival, but also with various half-hearted and somewhat unsuccessful attempts to top up caffeine and/or food levels.
We met them just before we turned off the cycle path, and agreed to regroup not far up the road for a picnic. Despite the imminent food, I realised I was a little desperate, and forced Sarah to stop for a quick pick-me-up. 15 minutes later we were joining the others for some fantastic chicken sandwiches, which I enjoyed in part because we'd temporarily claimed a vacant spot of land for ourselves, as one does in Mongolia.
After lunch, Sarah and I set off, and quickly dispatched a short climb. While I waited for Sarah at the top, I noticed an eagle sitting on a pole and went up to investigate.
In short order, Sarah had commissioned on my behalf a heavy leather glove. Once that was on, a four-year-old golden eagle soon promptly joined it, and as instructed, I gently flapped my arm to ensure the eagle would do the same.
|Not your average mid-ride activity|
Feeling elated, we descended, first on gravel, to cross the Tuul River again. We took an old bridge with a wooden deck, and from it admired the beautiful clear water, and the various groups on hand who'd chosen the spot to spend their Saturday afternoon.
We had yet another unsealed saddle to deal to, before descending to the town of Terelj.
There, the (mostly) sealed road came to an end, and we spent 5km or picking our way along a dirt road corridor, which was mostly a perfectly pleasant ride (and way more pleasant than SH2 through the Wairarapa would have been on the same set up, i.e. smooth)!
We arrived at the Tumen Khaan Tourist Camp to find the others waiting. Tumen was the given name of Sarah and Saruul's dad, and became their surname (as "daughters of Tumen"). We arrived a little frustrated by the dirt road, and feeling like we'd quite happily have shortened the ride by 15km or so. However, as the hours ticked over, the charm of the place really grew on us.
|Tumen Khaan Tourist Camp, Terelj|
After dinner, we farewelled Tsomoo and family, and then retired to our gers. Soon, a staff member knocked on the door and asked if we wanted our fire lit. While it wasn't that chilly to start with, it was incredible how the "summer stove" quickly heated up low-ceilinged and well-insulated space. Tried and true design, no doubt.
The nicest experience of all was drifting off to sleep to the sounds of Mongolians singing and otherwise enjoying an evening away from the city. I was probably the only non-Mongolian in the camp that night, and it wasn't lost on me that probably every other place we'd passed would have offered a more curated, and less genuine, experience. Name aside, the choice of the place made wonderful sense all of a sudden.
Stats: 90km ridden, very many wow moments, and a few that crept up on me.
Ride 4: home again
My addiction for "new roads", and general aversion to out-and-back rides was at the the forefront of my mind in the morning. Google maps showed no distinction between the major paved road to Terelj and the dirt road that would have avoided the need to back-track. I really wished the Opens were in their usual "go-anywhere" state, and promised myself that next time they would be.
Aside from inappropriate tyres, we had another good reason to go back the way we'd come, and that was to do a side-trip to see the Turtle Rock, and a Buddhist monastery tucked up the valley behind it. Absent those, I'd have really been torn, and would rather have been regretting something I did, than something I didn't (at least for as long as we had puncture repair capabilities)!
After breakfast, we wished Saruul, Tsegi and Khulan good luck for their mission back to UB (they had to walk to Terelj, and then catch a couple of buses), and then set off ourselves. Almost immediately, there was a massive yak to sneak past - definitely the biggest I'd seen, and very close to the road.
Before leaving Terelj, we stopped at a minimart for water, and enjoyed a few peculiar sights.
It took about 40 minutes to get back over the first saddle and to reach the turnoff to Turtle Rock. I was committed to getting the drone out again, and managed to get a photo of us posing in front of the rock before deciding to do a videoed orbit of the thing. At the risk of retraumatising myself by writing about it, all went well until the massive rock was between the drone and its controller. There, the radio signal struggled a bit, and I intermittently lost control. There was nothing around but the huge rock, and it seemed unlikely but not impossible that I might crash the drone into it while trying to regain control. Panic ensued, though a bit of flailing around later, I'd managed to find the thing in the sky, and bring it safely home.
My GPS showed the road looping in the upper valley, and continuing a run of bad choices, picked the left fork. Past the apparent point of no return, that subjected us to picking our way over a low ridge using indistinct tracks, which while physically demanding, and a touch stressful on the bike front, was a lot of fun once it was over. We emerged right at the carpark for the monastery, and locked our bikes just inside the main gate.
There was a loop path to walk, adorned with signs with Buddha Quotes. I read each, and very mindful of the early stages of a very unpleasant downsizing process being underway at work (approximately 15% of the workforce needing to be made redundant in order to respond to a shortfall in revenue relative to growing costs), I was particularly taken by one, which may or may not have been first uttered with the academic community in mind.
|"If wise beings discontinue their great deeds, this empty world will look much uglier"|
The approach to the monastery itself consisted of a brutally steep set of steps, I guess to minimise unwanted interruptions. We went up, and sat quietly inside for a while. There were no official proceedings underway, but many of the visitors undertook similar rituals which I enjoyed surreptitiously watching.
The ride back to UB almost took a turn for the worse, when we made a poor restaurant choice. Despite being fairly quiet, the wait for food was interminable, and became a bit outrageous. It was very hot outside and we'd had a stressful morning what with the drone incident and hike-a-bike, so we were relatively happy to sit quietly, playing on the internet and waiting to be fed. After an hour though, a fellow a couple of tables down took offense on our behalf, and spoke his mind to one of the staff. His physique was not unlike that of the Incredible Hulk, and aggressively spoken Mongolian added to his menace. Sarah could of course understand everything that was being said, but I was only able to absorb the volume and tone, and became fairly convinced there was about to be a fight. Fortunately, the chap was content with pointing out that the kitchen staff were a disgrace to the Mongolian Tourism industry, and we got our tasty enough lunch soon after!!!
The final highlights of the ride came as we rode alongside the Tuul before cutting across and into the city. One was a massive peloton of motorcyclists - at least a couple of hundred of them - many flying Mongolian flags which looked spectacular in the sunshine.
The other was a section of roadside stalls to service the needs of those chilling out beside (or in) the river. The water was as clean here as it had been out in the countryside, and the folk enjoying it were soon to notice it was almost dinner time. To that end, there were dozens of BBQs being fired up, ready and waiting to serve.
I'm not so keen on meaty delicacies at the best of times, and particularly not in a part of the world where pretty much everything soft is consumed. So, we passed on the various temptations and made a beeline for the hotel.
Stats: 85km ridden, 44 degrees maximum temperature (30 average)
* * *
In many ways, the ride we didn't have back to UB was a perfect place to end, as it left me craving a bit more, and in particular, the dirt roads that cover the place like an endless spider's web (with no "spiders" to watch out for other than the lack of shops, and no dead ends).
The next trip back might not the be with that in mind though. The gravitational pull on Sarah by her homeland is stronger than ever, especially with Urin's arrival into the family. Khulan hasn't been back for over a decade, and Kaitlyn hasn't been at all. Both of those things need to be remedied, and without a pushbike to be seen! If we can get our diaries to mesh, that might be next year.
Sarah's family and friends were wonderful hosts, and the time we spent in and around UB was wonderful in and of itself, but also a great antidote from stressful goings on at work, and an opportunity to clock up a solid 350km week before doubling that soon after on the roads of South Korea. On about every dimension, it was a much needed break. (And the dirt roads will keep.)
PS: anyone whose whistle this has whet, hit us up. Sarah's sister sidelines as a tourist guide, when she's not exploring the world herself and offering translation services.