Altai adventures

After a few weeks on main roads in Kazakhstan and Russia, I was looking forward to getting off the beaten path. There seemed nowhere better than Mongolia in that regard so I set off from Olgii on a dirt track into the mountains.

The road climbed up to a short mountain pass. There was still some traffic on this section of road, perhaps ten cars an hour. These mostly seemed to be going to the village of Sagsai, which I could see from the top of the pass.

On the way down a passing car waved for me to stop. The occupants introduced themselves as Chinggis and Bek, and handed me some fried bread filled with meat. They were going fishing, and offered me a shot of vodka before continuing on their way.

Near the village I took a left turn onto a track which ended up disappearing. No matter – I could see the bridge I needed to get to and rode cross-country to reach it.

Past the village the traffic dropped off almost completely, and on average I saw a car every 1-2 hours after that. There were two route options ahead, according to my map. One of them crossed a river via a bridge, then followed it’s far side. The other stayed on the near side for a while before fording the river.

I’d rather a bridge than a ford, so I tried to take that route. There were many tracks across the plains, none of which perfectly aligned with the one on the map, so it took me a few wrong turns and some cross-country riding to get onto the right path. Once I reached the river I was glad I had chosen the bridge option.

The road followed the river for a while until the river started to meander and the road took a different route. There were a few turnoffs here and the track I followed ended, leaving me to some cross country riding again. I ended up in a very green area with several yurts, and animals grazing. I had to get away from there quickly as there were some aggressive-seeming dogs. I found my way back to the “main” track.

The path continued along the plains for while, until the valley narrowed into a gorge. The road diverged from the river and climbed up the mountains. It was a particularly sandy section which made for tough going, but the view from the top was worth it.

The descent was ridiculously steep and had a lot of loose gravel so I rode very cautiously. Part way down the road merged with a dry riverbed which was at a much gentler gradient so I was able to relax on the brakes. The descent levelled out at the particularly colourful village of Buyant.

The plains opened up again here and there were various animals grazing. There were the usual suspects: sheep, cows, goats and horses. There was also a somewhat more interesting addition: yaks!

I cycled along the plains for a couple more hours. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of shelter for camping, so when I passed a hill I rode away from the road and set up camp.

Unfortunately the wind changed direction, persisting all night making for a disturbed sleep as the tent rustled under the wind’s force. It wasn’t a particularly cold night (about 4°C) but once I packed up and stood outside, the windchill made it feel far colder.

I soon warmed up once I started cycling though and set about the usual morning process of gradually removing layers. As before the road was wonderfully traffic free. I saw a herd of camels, ten or so, and they outnumbered cars for the day.

I was lucky with where I camped as it seemed to have been raining up ahead. There were lots of puddles and the dirt track had in many places turned to mud. I churned my way through into the village of Altai, where I stopped and bought a couple things from the village shop.

On the way out of Altai there were lots of tracks running in various directions. I ended up on one that seemed to be heading toward the Chinese border. Checking my map, I saw that the road I was supposed to be on made a large detour and curved around. I guessed this was to avoid a ridge of mountains so I just aimed for that ridge and met up with the path.

I saw a couple of signs stating that I was now entering a border zone. They said something like “citizens with permission may enter except those areas prohibited by law.” I’m not a Mongolian citizen, I don’t have permission, and I had no idea what areas were prohibited by law. I decided not to photograph the sign so that I could claim ignorance if questioned!

I then reached a military outpost with a barricade on the road. The soldier stationed there said something which I did understand, so I just told him where I was going (Deluun). He said something in to his radio but didn’t seem to get a response so he let me through.

From here I cycled for some time across a huge plain. There were some gers set back from the road but for the most part I was alone in this massive expanse of land.

The track I was on mostly paralleled the one on the map but seemed to be getting gradually further away. I considered turning and riding cross-country, but I couldn’t be sure the path on my map actually existed. I checked with a passing horseman who indicated this was the right way to Deluun.

I continued on, getting further from the map’s track, until I met a minor track going left. I followed this for a while, reaching a steep mountain ridge that I pushed my bike up.

From that ridge I descended into the next valley, following the road through the grass. Well, road may be a slight exaggeration.

I soon came to another ridge which I had to push up to get to the next valley. As usual it doesn’t look as steep in the photo as it was in reality!

This time I followed the track through a valley, passing a herd of yaks, and reached a large green open area with several gers. Here I was able to join the path marked on the map.

Ger is a Mongolian word, with the same meaning as Yurt in Russian. The gers in Mongolia looked identical to the Kyrgyz yurts I’d seen. Traditionally a family would make their own but they are now often produced by the Chinese. These ones even had solar panels!

I followed the track as it made its way gradually uphill across the plain. After an hour or so it turned into a narrow river valley. Soon the track I was following petered out, and I saw a better-established trail on the far side of the river.

It was likely to be another cold night and I didn’t want to get my feet soaked by simply wandering across the water. I made my way upstream until the river split around several “islands.” I jumped across three sections of the river, then stepped across several stones to pass the fourth and final section. I then resumed riding up the valley.

As I climbed higher it got colder. The south side of the valley, which sees little sun, was coated in a thin layer of snow. As I climbed higher there began to be patches of snow on the path, with increasing frequency. Where there wasn’t snow the ground was often muddy or waterlogged which necessitated slow and cautious riding.

Gradually I made my way upwards, pushing occasionally when the ground was too rough. After a time the valley became wider, and I saw several circular areas of dead grass that had clearly once held gers. A wider track then appeared, large enough for a car. That made for easier going.

The pass itself, topping out at 2842m, was on a plateau. The snow stopped here and I was able to ride much easier.

Back onto grassland I cycled along for a while before descending down to a lake.

The road took a large detour rather than sticking near the lake. I decided to cut across, which turned out to be a bad idea. There were lots of rock fields and very bumpy terrain.

It was getting late now and the plains around the lake provided little shelter from the wind. When I saw an unlocked storage shed, I decided I would sleep in there.

Not long after I heard a motorbike arrive so I went out to greet the man who I assume is the owner of the shed. I shook his hand and asked (via hand gestures) if I could sleep in there. He smiled and indicated it was fine. He seemed curious so I demonstrated setting up my tent, blowing up the air mattress, and laying out my sleeping bag; he seemed impressed. I offered him a biscuit and some chocolate and tried to find out his name, but no matter how I asked he didn’t seem to understand.

The man forgot his sunglasses and a little while later another motorbike arrived, this time with who I assume were his son and grandson. They took the sunglasses and returned shortly with a bottle of warm milk and a bag full of sugar lumps and fried bread! Pointing at myself, I said “Sam” and these two understood. The man’s name was Sieboz, and the child was Babosh. Sieboz showed me a video on his phone where he seemed to be breaking in a new horse. The animal was bucking like crazy! There are definitely advantages to a bicycle, which has never tried to throw me off. It was really kind of these guys to bring me food, and I really appreciated it. It was a lovely end to a great day.

I expected a cold night but my thermometer showed it only dropped to about 3°C. It was nice to be able to pack everything up while sheltered from the wind, and I set off about dawn.

It was immediately apparent that it had indeed been a cold night – puddles and even small streams were iced over. I hadn’t accounted for the extra warmth being in a building provides!

I cycled alongside the river for a while. There were a couple of small streams I had to cross; I mostly managed to find narrow places to jump and stay dry. The weather was still bad with impenetrably dark clouds covering most of the sky.

It began to snow as I climbed up into the mountains that surround the lake. I was nonetheless getting warmer due to the effort of climbing. Unlike the pass yesterday, there was a clear vehicle track the whole way. I pushed occasionally to avoid ice or large patches of snow, but it was generally ridable.

By the time I reached the pass (at just over 2800m) it had been snowing moderately heavily and the ground had a decent covering of snow. I decided to walk the initial steep section of the descent rather than risk a fall.

At the end of the steep section I reached a building with a family outside. Just as I arrived so did a van with a policeman and a soldier. The soldier spoke English and offered to help me but I assured him I was fine and was now able to ride on the gentler (i.e. safer) gradient.

As the altitude reduced, so too did the amount of snow, until it was entirely gone. I was warm enough while riding, but quite cold if I stopped even for a few seconds; that was due a strong tailwind.

I cycled along the plains for a couple of hours before reaching another pass, climbing back up from around 2200m to 2500m.

Past here the ride was mostly downhill for perhaps another hour, though it was slow going on a combination of sand and washboard. This brought me to the village of Deluun, where I stopped to buy some food at a shop. Village shops in Mongolia seem to be much better stocked than they were in the ‘Stans, a welcome surprise.

Not far past Deluun I reached a river crossing. There was no bridge and at several metres wide it was much too big to jump. I checked my map and saw that it had a path marked about a kilometre upstream, so I decided to check that out. It was no better.

I removed my shoes and socks before pushing the bike through the river barefoot, trying to dry my feet as much as possible before replacing socks and shoes. I repeated this process for another river a couple of kilometres later. It was still well under 10°C at this point, not accounting for a strong windchill, so this was a cold experience!

On the open plains here one is at the mercy of the wind; there is rarely any shelter from it. I had a tailwind for some time and was rolling along at speed, until I turned into a headwind and slowed to a crawl.

Just after taking the above photo I checked my map and realised I’d diverged from the route I wanted to take. This was good timing as it was just a kilometre of cross country riding to reach a bridge. From there I began to climb again, regaining a few hundred metres of elevation.

At about 2500m I reached the end of that part of the climb. From here the road dropped a little, then levelled out for several kilometres before the climb would resume.

The next part of the climb would be up to over 3000m. It was late in the day and although I’d be able to reach the pass, I wouldn’t be able to descend far beyond it. The sky had by now cleared, promising a cold night. There were still almost two hours before dark but to be on the safe side I set up camp, sheltered from the wind in a dry riverbed.

I was in no rush to leave the tent this morning. The temperature had dropped to about -4°C during the night and it took a couple of hours past first light for the sun to reach over the mountains and start to warm things up. Eventually I did pack up and set off, climbing up to what would be the highest pass I’d ride in the region.

A fierce headwind meant it remained bitterly cold even as the reading on the thermometer increased above zero. As I rode across the gradually inclined plains toward the steep switchbacks ahead, I was wearing even my down jacket, which I wouldn’t usually wear while riding, let alone uphill!

Eventually I reached the base of the switchbacks and began to climb in earnest. The road was steep and the wind was still coming down from the top of the pass. I slowly turned turned the pedals as I inexorably made my way upwards, passing the snowline. For the last few hundred metres the dirt turned to mud, but the gradient reduced so that it was still ridable. Finally I reached the top, at an elevation of about 3080m.

After the initial steep descent from the pass the valley opened up, with here occasionally visible and large herds grazing. I would be descending slightly for the rest of the day, though never very fast thanks to the unrelenting headwind.

A change in scenery came when the valley narrowed into a gorge for about ten kilometres. On the narrow section of flattish ground by the water, there was a line of trees, something I hadn’t seen for a couple of days.

When the valley opened up once again the ground was of a more sandy surface, which had given rise to washboard on the well-worn track.

As I rode over a bridge, the bump from the 20cm or so difference between the bridge and the ground sorted me to the low tyre pressure in my back tyre. I had a puncture. I found a big rock which sheltered me from the wind, used the river to identify the leak in the tube, and repaired it. I then continued on cycling, heading toward the village of Bulgan.

The sun was setting as I arrived in the village, so I left after quickly buying supplies from the shops. I made my way over to the side of the valley and set up camp in a dry riverbed between some hills.

It was warmer than it had been for several night; the temperature did not drop below freezing and I set off not wearing my down jacket. After fording a river I started cycling up a valley. With a tailwind rather than yesterday’s headwind I was much warmer and within an hour was riding in just shorts and jersey.

For a couple of hours I rode up the gently sloping valley. For quite a long stretch there was a large fence paralleling the road. Fences are rare in Mongolia; I’m not sure why there was one here.

Eventually I reached the steep incline at the end of the valley. Though it was of similar gradient to yesterday’s pass, it felt so much easier without the headwind. That was, at least, until the last hundred metres of elevation gain. The gradient dialled up to a ridiculous extent; it would have been almost impossible to ride on tarmac, which this was far from. The “road” almost disappeared and I pushed over large rocks and through patches of snow.

As I was pushing I saw the shadow of a large bird moving over me. I looked up and saw the most impressive bird I’ve ever seen. I think it was a golden eagle. It was soaring over me, looking as though it was considering pouncing on me. It was enormous; I’m not entirely sure it would have been unsuccessful! I was too amazed by it to get the camera out until it was flying away.

A few more eagles passed as I continued pushing, though none so close or so impressive. At the top I reached a plateau I would be riding across for the next 15km. Or, rather, pushing. There was too much snow to safely ride.

When greeted by this long stretch of pushing through cold snow, I did what anyone would do. Put on warm clothes? Of course not. I built a snowman.

My artistic creation complete I set off for the walk. After a couple of hours of mostly pushing, the snow reduced to the extent that I was able to ride for most of the next hour. I was still riding slowly and cautiously as melting snow had turned the ground to mud.

Dropping down a couple hundred metres from this plateau the terrain turned to desert. Here I saw the first person for several hours. A common sight in Mongolia, he was a shepherd, armed and on horseback, driving his flock forward with the aid of a sheepdog.

That elevation was soon regained and I was faced with another plateau. This one was slightly higher, with the far ridge at en elevation of 2900m, but now there was no snow in sight.

After climbing up to that ridge I began a long descent, losing about 900 metres of elevation. Most of this was at about a 10% gradient on a mixture of sand, gravel and bumpy rock. I took several breaks when I could smell my brake pads melting!

The descent bottomed out at the village of Munkhairkhan. I detoured slightly to go to the village centre and buy some food. Everyone stopped to stare and kids started chasing and shouting after me. As seems to be the Mongolian norm, the village had several shops, but the first seven or eight I passed were closed. One of the kids following me was on a (surprisingly nice) bike and gestured for me to follow him. “Maghazin?”, I asked, the Russian for shop. He gestured again for me to follow.

He brought me to his home, and showed me to his mother. It seemed they wanted me to pay to sleep there. When I asked about a shop, the mother directed the child to show me to the open one. We (me and my entourage of pursuing children) went there and I bought some food before making my way out of the village. Again I was followed and shouted at by the children, stared at by the adults.

I do recognise that for them it is very rare to see a foreigner and is probably a relatively exciting event in the life of a child in a small Mongolian village. But for me it is a regular occurrence and this can be a bit overwhelming when all I want to do is buy some biscuits!

I was quite happy to return to the countryside and set up camp, in what is becoming my habitual spot: a dry riverbed.

Sept 10: 88km

Sept 11: 97km

Sept 12: 103km

Sept 13: 90km

Sept 14: 85km

10 thoughts on “Altai adventures

  1. Great post! Loved the photos – particularly the ones of the people and the camel :-). Impressed that you managed to get a loaded bike over some of that terrain…don’t think you’d have managed that with the set-up you had in the Americas.

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  2. I do wonder at the sheer practicalities of your trip. Like where do you store a down jacket on the bike, and what are you eating apart from biscuits and chocolate? What would you do if you couldn’t repair your latest puncture for some reason? The eagle sounds amazing and I love the photo of the man by the pink door. Keep safe (and warm).

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  3. Eating… Apart from biscuits and chocolate? Why would I do that!?

    Jokes aside, it is a pretty limited diet. I eat cheese and nuts for protein. I bought a lot of cheese in Olgii before this section, and was able to buy some nuts along the way. At times I also eat sausage for protein, but that requires bread which is a somewhat bulkier item.

    When I’m in larger towns I eat some fruit, and at the occasional restaurant – 2 pizzas in two days while in Olgii!

    The down jacket packs up quite small; it goes in the saddle bag. There are lots of fixed-shape objects there like power banks, so the down jacket is good for filling in the empty space.

    Your question about the puncture is quite a prescient one! I thought you were referring to a particular event, but that’ll be in the next post. I had quite a bad puncture, which I was able to eventually fix, but had to consider what I’d do if I couldn’t. I would have walked/hitched to a village or town, and found somewhere to store the bike. I’d then have hitched/taken a bus to a larger town (in Mongolia it would probably have to be the capital, Ulaan-Bataar) and bought a new tyre before returning to my bike.

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  4. Hey Sam, credit to you for cycling across Mongolia on a diet of Peanuts and cheese – you’re like the Terminator on a bike! I was just thinking why you didn’t get a cellular enabled tablet and do away with the two phones. That way you could have made space for a few crackers to go with your cheese!! Seriously though, well done Bach…you’re a Welsh hero! I can only hope to emulate some of your determination and stamina on my two-day wild camping tour across the South Downs.

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    1. Hello, and thanks!

      I did have a tablet as well actually, though (for no good reason) it wasn’t cellular enabled. I’d still have wanted a phone for navigation though, since it wouldn’t be convenient to use a tablet while riding! I think the battery usage of a phone would be lower than a tablet, too. Since I’m using the phone for navigation and GPS tracking all day, it uses a fair bit of charge. I think a tablet would use more? When I’m away from mains electricity for a while, minimising the mAh used per day is quite important.

      Sam.

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