Cycle Touring in Mongolia
Mongolia is the 11th largest country in the world, but has a small population of about 3 million people. There are 34 million head of livestock by comparison! 1.5 milion people now live in the capital city of Ulaanbatar, with 1.5 million scattered across the land.
It is hot in summer but especially cold in winter with temperatures dropping a record breaking low of -57 one year. Mongolia is made up of desert in the south (Gobi) and rolling steppe grasslands in the north.
The Mongolian Empire once ruled most of Asia, stretching as far as Turkey. Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan) is still revered and admired in Mongolia for bringing laws, goverment and infrastructure to the country, as well uniting the warring tribes. Dominated by the Chinese and then later by the Russians and communists, Mongolia has only been a democratic, free country since the 1990s.
Mongolian people are some of the friendliest, most hospitable people in the world, and with a culture of nomadic living, you are welcomed in to a ger (yurt) even in the most remote parts. Many are now learning English, rather than Russian, especially in the city.
The infrastructure in Mongolia is limited, in that the main roads and train lines exist purely to import and export goods to and from China and Russia. These are well maintained and run North to South, including the tran-siberian passenger train (you can travel from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia). The road south of Choyr is a dirt track through the desert, but a new road is building built. However going east or west, you will find no train line and the roads are mostly dirt tracks criss crossing the landscape.
Take a compass and a good map if you plan to cycle (and learn how to take a bearing of course)!
Zamyn Uud - Sainshand - Choyr - Ulaanbatar
This route took us from the border with China at Erenhot (Erlian) to the starting point in Mongolia of Zamyn Uud. From here we cycled through the Gobi desert via Sainshand and Choyr arriving in Ulaanbatar 21 days later. Detailed information about the Gobi crossing here. Others have cycled this route in a much shorter time and didn't encounter the headwinds and sand storms that we did!
Ulaanbatar - Lun - Ogii Nuur - Tsetserleg - Tariat - Jargalant - Tosontsengel
Leaving UB we headed west on a good surfaced road towards Lun. At Lun we took the northern road towards Bayanuur and Ogii Nuur, a wetland and lake area, with roller coaster hills to climb and spectacular scenery. The road stops abruptly just before Ogii Nuur and you are onto gravel and sand tracks. The route from here south west to Tsetserleg is 100km cross country with some very bumpy roads and long climbs. There is also a fair amount of sand. Once you pick up the main road again, it's plain sailing to Tsetserleg, until the last 8km which takes you up and down a few hills. It's about 500km from UB to Tsetserleg.
Leaving Tsetserleg takes you up a big pass and the road to Tariat, 160km north, has another 2 big passes to climb which were cold and windy when we were there in September. There are lots of hills along the way too, but there is tarmac road for a good section of it. Before Tariat you'll come to Chuluut Gorge which is worth a look and then you have about 20km of big ups and big downs all on well worn dirt tracks.
Once in Tariat you can take the south or north route around the White lake (Tsagaan Nuur). We highly recommend Khorgo ger camp just before the lake - excellent food, hot showers and fires in the gers. It's near the Volcano, on the northern road.
Cycling the northern route of the lake is stunning and more enjoyable than the south part that we saw whilst horse riding. Camping along the lake is easy and peaceful. From here head north to Jargalant, heading up the 2300mtr pass in between (rocky and steep, but doable). About 25km after Jargalant you pick up the main road to Tosontsengel, about 60km away. The road deteriorates after the town of Ik Uul.
Make sure you have enough cash out here to buy food - there isn't much in the way of ATMs, and banks wouldn't changes our dollars. The ATM at Tosontsengel was out of order when we got there too! Ulaistai the next big town, is 200km south - they have ATMs.
We had rain and mist, sun and blue skies, snow and ice, wind and sand along this route, so come prepared for all weathers. There are also several small river crossings too.
- Seeing real wild camels and cycling alongside them
- Sleeping in a ger (yurt)
- Naadam festival (July)
- Making it through the Gobi Desert in one piece
- Mongolian food, if you like soup, bread, meat and potatoes you'll be in heaven
- Mongolian people, funny, strong, extremely helpful, unfussy and warm hearted
- Amazing landscapes and blue skies, open space and peacefulness
- Beautiful, abundant wild flowers
- Very little traffic outside of the city
- True nomadic culture
- Horse riding
- Sleeping out under the stars
- Getting to know Mongolia children
- Teaching English
- Tourist ger camps for hot showers and good food
- Roads are terrible, mostly dirt tracks, wash board style and sandy in places. Distances are long, and journey times unknown.
- Weather can be very unpredictable dropping or rising 20 degrees in a day
- Water is in short supply, particuarly in the south. Hot water is hard to find outside of UB
- Limited infrastructure - roads, train lines and fuel supplies. Few road signs.
- Trucks on the roads can be very dirty and give off black fumes
- Drivers in general are not used to seeing bikes and don't really allow much space at all as they pass you. Get eye contact and ring your bell.
- Driving is quite aggressive, it's as if everyone is in a race, the roads don't really have edges and they will happily overtake into oncoming traffic!
- Mongolians work on mongolian time, it's a little bit Manana - be prepared to wait a while...
- There is a problem with theft - we had a helmet, water bottle and light stolen in the Gobi; mobile phone taken whilst walking round UB; and people were trying to take stuff off the bike as we went west into the countryside.
Liz and Chris cycle touring in Mongolia photos from May August 2011.
Naadam festival, horse-riding, wrestling, stay in a ger, buy cashmere...