ITS very name – Mongolia - sounds exotic, conjuring images of hardy horsemen galloping across endless rolling plains.
There were motorcycles instead of horses for Grant Felton and six mates who travelled across this sprawling country, on a trip that was full of adventure, and some pain, as Grant relates;
I am writing this e-mail on my Chinese smartphone, lying on my motel bed in Ulan Bataar, the capital of Mongolia. My left foot is in a sorry state, having badly twisted it around the footpeg of my Suzuki DR650 motorcycle, as I attempted to cross from one rut to another of a sandy downhill track.
I was heading towards the Genghis Khan equestrian statue about 50 km east of Ulan Bataar (UB), on the last full day of riding in this exciting adventure.
The thought of attempting to put on and take off my boot (steel toecaps are not welcome in airport security) was enough reason to seek an alternative, so I have cobbled up a makeshift sole from a knee protector which I have taped under my compression bandage wrapped foot.
How did I get here? Well, there was this great multi-part television series, Long Way Round, in which Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boorman travelled around the world. A highlight of that show was their traverse of Mongolia, where the people were tough but friendly, the landscapes were surreal, of unpopulated beauty, but challenging (especially the muddy areas ...more of that later).
Six years ago upon hearing that my application for a job in China was successful, I remember thinking ‘Gee, I wonder if I could do a motorbike tour in Mongolia?’
Three years ago I arranged my first bike tour in Vietnam and what a hoot that was, a relatively easy-riding tour with great people and landscapes (and the best fresh food). Then in May this year (2016), a work colleague asked if I was interested in a motorbike tour of Mongolia, 16-22 September. I said, "Definitely"!
Miles, a South African executive based in Japan, booked the tour with a UB-based tour operator, Tenuun Tours. Seven of us expats participated; two Aussie, one Brit, one Irish, one American, one South African and one Canadian. We all arrived at Chinggis Khan airport on Friday, 16th September, from our different departure points (We four from Nanjing had connected at Incheon airport Seoul first). Our local tour team of Ijil, Jarg and Munlhsuren, met us at the airport to transfer us to the White House hotel in UB. A late night of drinking local Chinggis beer after a good steak dinner at a popular Irish pub in downtown UB ensued. We had a good night of getting to know our new friends a bit better. This was important as we would soon be needing to act as a team for this adventure.
Fortunately, the following morning start was 10am after a tasty western style hotel breakfast. We got into our biking gear that had been taking much of our luggage space and the ride was on!
We headed north from UB with three support vehicles following; two Nissan Patrol 4WDs and a pickup with petrol cans and a spare non-running parts bike. The road turned very quickly from bitumen to dirt, followed by gravel and large rocks, heavily rutted and quite slippery in areas. My riding style was apparently too much like a road rider, keeping the bike too upright in turns by leaning my weight over the side of the bike, rather than the recommended off-road riding style of sitting further forward on the seat and letting the bike lean into turns beneath me while keeping my body upright. We had a good few hours of riding to get to our first night’s accommodation, but we were to let our enthusiasm get the better of us.
As the terrain got more wild with near-vertical hills and golden forests, one of us Nanjingers, Brent, decided to try to ride up one of the hills for a more commanding view. I thought this was the plan as I followed Brent up the steep grass slope, only to find us both unable to go further forward with bowling ball size rocks strewn along a crevice in front , so we had to try to walk the heavy bikes in reverse back down the hill. I lost my footing and the bike fell over, with fuel peeing out of the custom extra-large fuel tank. I finally got it upright and pointed the right way down the hill with the help of one of the local team, and used the rear brake to slow me down on the steep decline.
However, it was not long before I found myself following the group along a narrow ridge running along the circumference of another hill, with a steep drop to my right.
Somehow I managed to tip my bike over the hill, this time the fuel gushed out and I needed help. Along came a local man on a horse, who jumped off his horse to help.
Rather than just pointing the bike downwards, he thought the decline was too steep, and despite his diminutive size he proceeded from the low ground side to pull the bike to a position where we could shift it sideways. We did this by shuffling and alternating front wheel and rear wheel down the grassy slope, until it was safe enough to ride down the remaining downhill bit. I was quite concerned the weight of the bike would tip over on top of him but he was OK at the end of it. What a great guy to have helped me, a total stranger, and this was only the first example of many of these caring and supportive local people. So far we had been riding for just two hours.
Having arrived at the bottom of the hill I found my bike would not start. I had noticed the bike from the start had been surging badly. The tour team pulled the fuel tank off to access the carburettor, it was brown with fine sand. It turned out my bike had recently been two weeks in the Gobi desert!
The team played with ideas for a bit, then pulled a carb off their parts bike, fitted it to my bike and voila, all fixed.
The bike ran so much better and I was enjoying it so much that I found myself following Brent at the head of the group up on to a lovely forest trail area past a farmhouse. We were moving at a good clip, jumping over the dips and peaks, when I thought to stop and wait for the rest.
Minutes went past and I realised, maybe, we had gone the wrong way. Not good considering there was no phone reception and we were off the grid in a strange country! I backtracked and saw a flash by the farm house we had passed earlier. We had not noticed a fork in the road and the team honked and waved me over. Brent and I should have taken the other road, but the trucks waited for Brent to return eventually and once again we were all accounted for.
Our first accommodation outside UB was a ger resort, where one could stay in the traditional sheep-hide covered round tent that is a ger, but have the convenience of showers and a group dining area, kind of like a ger Holiday Inn!
This was very nice and clean, the food was tasty and we could get clean after the ride of the day, but I was looking forward to a more traditional setting, not just a representation. This was to come later. After wandering about we settled in for the night, and aside from the ger maid coming in to add logs to maintain warmth from our stove at midnight, we all had good sleeps after an eventful day.
The next day, our first full riding day, began with a quite chilly morning. After breakfast, we descended into a valley and stopped at a river. Our tour leader proceeded across on his Grizzly (a motorcycle size 4 wheeled all-terrain vehicle steered with handlebars) and stopped halfway to show us the 600mm water depth....and the best way to proceed. Aside from the more experienced off-roaders most of us had never tried such a deep crossing before. As usual Brent was gungho to lead. Halfway across the slippery river stones his momentum slowed, and falling over sideways, Brent and bike were totally submerged.
Water and engines don't mix. The team helped to get the bike to the dry gravel island in the middle of the stream, and had to remove the spark plug from the single cylinder engine to drain out water. Any hydrolocking could result in a bent connecting rod as the piston would not be able to travel upward. Water does not compress. Twenty minutes later Brent was ready to ride again. My turn came, keeping my feet on the river bed at all times to be better stabilized, I modulated the clutch while keeping my revs up, and popped up the muddy bank on the other side with no drama, aside from wet feet. I was at that moment feeling relieved and very accomplished.
Our next challenge took the form of a narrow uneven bridge made of logs with a poor approach, and practically non-existent departure point on to slippery and muddy grass at the end.
Three out of seven of us, including myself, dropped the bike at the end of the bridge, but I went one further. Whilst I dropped my bike over without it entering the water, I managed to submerge my left side. The team thought it was really funny that I managed to sacrifice myself to save the bike from the water. We headed over to a bog and I was feeling game and proceeded straight down the middle.
What I thought as a shallow patch of water between vast tracts of thick black mud would be the easy route turned out to be a bit of wet icing on top of a giant melted mud marshmallow! I managed to bury both front and back wheels up to the fenders and my knees!
No way was I getting out of this, as I pulled myself out of the sucking mud leaving my poor half-consumed bike. With one of our backup team and myself on either side (I had to wait five minutes watching Munlhsuren putting on his blue plastic bags to spare his sneakers from the mud, and Ijil fitting a strap to the front of his Grizzly and my bike) we worked in unison with Ijil and Grizzly ferociously bouncing around and going sideways, throwing black mud everywhere to get us free.
There was more to come as I faced having to unbog again…
Grant Felton #63111
There are two more chapters in this great adventure story, Part Two can be read here.
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