Cycling through the Gobi Desert – an overview

Most of you reading this will not even be contemplating cycling through the Gobi, yet there may be a few ‘adventurous souls’ (read: crazy people) out there who are now tempted by the idea. Not cos it’s easy or fun, but because of the challenge involved. So here is a quick overview of the route and our journey to give you an idea. If you want more detailed info, please contact us directly.

“The Gobi measures over 1,610 km (1,000 mi) from southwest to northeast and 800 km (500 mi) from north to south. The desert is widest in the west, along the line joining the Lake Bosten and the Lop Nor (87°-89° east). It occupies an arc of land 1,295,000 km2 (500,002 sq mi)[2] in area as of 2007, making it fifth largest in the world and Asia’s largest. Much of the Gobi is not sandy but is covered with bare rock.” (From Wikipedia)

Cross the Chinese border at Erlian by train or jeep and you will arrive in Zamyn Uud, Mongolia.

Zamyn Uud is a well stocked town and you’ll be able to buy vegetables, chocolate, fresh bread and vegetables, toiletries, tuna, milk, fresh cream cakes, potatoes, rice, pasta, sausage meat, tins of beef meat and of course water. In the building left of the train station there are ATMs and  a mobicom shop where you can buy sim cards and phone credit. There are a number of hotels, not much of a water supply for showers though, and places to eat. In fact coming from China we were pleased to see food that we hadn’t seen for ages, like cheese and pasta sauce. We stocked up with 8 days of food here and 30 litres of water. Leaving Zamyn Uud you’ll be on tarmac, however after the first kilometre it rapidly turns to sand and dirt track. It is very flat and quiet though.

There is a new road being built all the way to UB, and you will see it as you go. It is not sealed yet (June 2011) and ends abruptly or has big mounds of sand and dirt every few hundred metres. However it does go all the way to UB, so you can use it as a guide.

Ulaan Uul (102km north) – make sure you change the bearing on your compass in order to find this town. We missed it completely as we were headed for Sainshand and we heard reports of other missing it too and having to get a lift! There are NO road signs or markings of any kind and people you ask give very vague waves of the hands in one or more directions. Ulaan Uul is a place to stock up on water and food supplies, and fuel if you need it. If you do miss it and end up going to the west then you will see a small settlement about 20km after you’d hoped to see Ulaan Uul and you’ll be by the new road. You may be able to buy water from the people living there, we did, but it depends on their supply. They didn’t have any fuel (petrol) though.

If you see signs outside yurts or makeshift buildings saying ‘XOON’ that means food, so you could stop for something to eat and some milk tea if you needed to.

As you approach Sainshand (100km north of Ulaan Uul) you’ll reach a 20km stretch of new road that is tarmaced. It goes up and down and is a nice respite for the bumpy road. You can’t see Sainshand as you approach as it is just over the top of a ridge and well hidden from sight. The climb up is really quite steep, however there is a road going off to the left that is more gradual and takes you a more direct route in Sainshand too! Sainshand is the provincial capital and a strategic town historically and now. It has lots of small shops and supermarkets so you’ll be able to get whatever you need there. We can highly recommend the Dornogobi Hotel, although it’s not cheap, it has hot water and all mod cons – ask to put your bikes in one of their garages. The restaurant is great and has a menu in English too. As you enter the town you’ll see Best Restaurant on the right hand side. This is also good and the staff speak some English. Good mobile phone reception and wifi in the hotel. ATMS here too. Watch out for power cuts!

The road out of Sainshand is very sandy and bumpy. Tsaagandorv is the next stop, about 110km north of Sainshand. This town appears after you climb up and down for a while and then cross the railway track. The small centre has various shops and a butchers where you can buy big hunks of fresh meat. You can buy most things here and the locals are very helpful and friendly, if a little surprised! Couldn’t see anywhere to stay here. Good mobile phone reception.

About 20km on from there is Tsomog, a very small settlement that has a shop. It is just after the mine/industrial site. The shops sells fresh bread some veg, water, coke, chocolate etc and the girls there speak some English. You’ll see a sign for Ulaanbatar saying 300km as you leave. After this a you climb for a while, the the route is very up and down, not steep just rolling.

About 40km before Choyr you will see the new road like a scar across the landscape. Eventually you’ll see the tarmac road going up a reasonably steep hill. Once you reach the top, Choyr is about 6km from there. At the petrol stations turn left up the hill and follow the road into town. It’s not a very nice looking town but there is a nice hotel by the station. It’s not marked but ask and people will help you, particularly the kids as they can speak English. There are no showers or hit water in this town form what we could find. There is an ATM at the station and good mobile coverage. There are shops and places to eat.

From Choyr the new road goes all the way to Ulaanbatar, 230km north. The first 160km is all flat or mostly flat. There are several very small towns along the way where you can restock and get water or food, although not all shops were open. Then the following 30km is up and downs some spectacular hills. Not too bad though, and the scenery is a welcome sight after the desert. Once you reach the military compound at the top of a hill you’ll see a town to your right and UB is ahead of you. It is pretty much all downhill to UB for the next 30km.

The road into UB is busy and trucks and cars don’t have much idea about giving bikes room, that said they are ok and most were pleased to see us. As we got nearer the centre into the heavy traffic we found that behaving as if you were car was the best tactic – just sit in the centre of your lane and stay behind the car in front. The traffic moves slowly so this was fine. We wore our reflective jackets though and used our bells a lot, particularly for the buses, to let them know we were there. Plus we have a mirror each. Head for Peace Avenue to find beer, nice food and guesthouses! Look for the big blue sky tower, shaped like a half moon at the top.

Relax and enjoy!

Oh and by the way…  in May the wind is very bad and blows constantly. Apparently in June it is better. Some recommend going at the end of winter, early spring as the ground is still hard and easier to cycle on, however the weather can be very changeable and you’ll still get extreme temperatures and snow. In summer it is very hot, despite the Gobi being called a cold desert, it’s still flippin’ hot by most people’s standards!

On the whole route, there are no bikes shops or places to buy anything vaguely bike related – come prepared! Don’t leave your stuff unattended, possession is 9 tenths of the law here in Mongolia and a handful of people think it’s ok help themselves. That said, the people are lovely and will help you out without any fuss!

Top Tip – Bring a toothbrush for the zips on your tent – the sand trashes everything and you’ll need to brush your zips each day if you want to keep your tent doors working! And bring baby wipes… need I say more!

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One Response to “Cycling through the Gobi Desert – an overview”

  1. Steve says:

    At least you don’t have to cope with whitevanman….

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