A small steppe for Mongolia, a big step for us !
We left you after Beijing. We are now in Mongolia where the days on the bike are quite intense. A look back at our adventures of the past few weeks...
Part 1/2 : we cut this article in two parts so that it is not too long!
And again by bus!
We leave Beijing on Friday May 8th. The direct train to Ulan Bator being out of budget, we cut the trip in two parts: bus to the Mongolian border, then train.
The bus station to go to Mongolia (Muxiyuan station) is quite far, 10kms south of downtown Beijing. Our Breton cycling friends passed 48 hours before us so it's easy, we have all the necessary information. Next to the bus station, we come across this kind of place that I love: fabric stores and haberdashery over several blocks. We buy stuff we've been looking for for a long time for patching, but above all... fabric, blue, white and red to redo a flag (we had it stolen, remember)! After that, we go to the bus station, a little stressed to know what reception we will get this time, us and our bikes. We arrive early, so we load our things first. The holds are huge, they don't even ask for a bribe; tremendous ! The interior of the bus is much more comfortable (and clean) than the sleeper bus to arrive in Beijing. In short, everything is going too well, and we have a good night!
Mongolia! It's gone for a month!
In the early morning, we wake up under beautiful sunrise lights, in the middle of the Gobi desert. And two hours later, we are in Erlian, a border town on the Mongolian side. With 2 other Westerners met on the bus we go to the border, but it is not yet open; and it is forbidden to pass on foot: you have to take special taxis, sorts of professional smugglers: brilliant. During our 2 hour wait, other Westerners arrive; we find ourselves with 9 people: French, Canadian, Polish, Singaporean, Argentinian, it's multicultural!
Then we can finally cross the border. It's a bit long but everything goes smoothly. Arrived at the train station of Zamin Uud, the Mongolian border town, once the new currency in the wallet, an Internet sim card and our train tickets for the evening in the pocket, it is noon (we discover in passing that here is 1 hour longer than in China). We leave our bikes in a cargo car for 5€ in all. All that remains is to wait for 7 p.m., the departure of the train; waiting that we occupy pleasantly warm in the restaurant at the station.
At the end of the day, a sandstorm rises. Impressive ! It is under this sandstorm that we get on the train: it is a little old fashion, very pretty. We spend the evening chatting with Westerners, and also with a Mongolian grandpa who is very happy to exchange a few gestures – for lack of being able to speak the same language – with us.
After a good night, we wake up in the middle of the Mongolian steppes. Stunning !
Another capital… but very different this time
In Ulan Bator, our Warmshower host, Froit, picks us up at the train station. We discover his house in the center of Ulan Bator. There is no running water but ingenious dry toilets. We stay 3 nights at Froit, this colorful Dutchman, passionate about history, from Mongolia, creator of yurts intended for export to Europe. We learn a lot about Mongolia: with him we discover that it is a really precarious and corrupt country, which survives depending on the help provided by other countries, especially Russia and China... He shows us around the city with lots of anecdotes, gives us lots of advice for our journey in the country. And then he teaches us to decipher Cyrillic, which will prove very practical later! In short, an exciting and great host!
In Ulan Bator, we also apply for our Russian visas with the Legend Tour agency, and we visit the Gandantegchinlen monastery. The city is neither exciting nor really pretty, it does not make you want to stay there too long and it does not feel like being in a capital.
A few things that stood out to us though:
– leaving China, traffic is super easy. People let us pass and drive slowly; and they honk less, it's nice!
– in Ulan Bator, as we will also see in the rest of the country, at least 80% of cars have the steering wheel on the right: it is cheaper, but above all much more dangerous! Of course, the state does not regulate.
Wednesday, May 13, on the way to the bus station: today we are going to Tariat, a (very) small town in the west of the country.
After 11h by bus, we arrive… under the snow! We who were thinking of camping, it cooled us down… and we found a small hotel room. There is no running water in the city, like everywhere in Mongolia after all. We learn to do with it!
Two days around Therkhiin Lake
In the morning, we leave with the sun peeking out behind the mountains. The landscapes whitened by the snow of the day before are magnificent, we are amazed… Lake Therkhiin was formed after an eruption of the Khorgo volcano whose lava flow prevented the proper flow of the river. As a result, we drive next to volcanic rocks – even on them. We discover on the way the Mongolian tracks: the track in “corrugated iron” mode, pebbles, sand, everything goes there; sometimes you have to push the bike uphill. We will ride 35kms that day, but it is well worth double given the state of the track.
We pass our first fords but Thomas playing the engineer of points and pavements (stones, branches…), we keep our feet (almost) dry! The lake is still 3/4 frozen, and all white with the layer of snow fallen: Lake Therkhiin is also called the white lake because it is frozen from September to May. That day, this name takes on its full meaning!
We put the tent at the very end of the lake; Thomas concocts a good little fire for us, with dried yak dung (yes, yes, it burns really well!). The sun disappears behind the mountains around 9:30 p.m.… the night will be very cold despite the survival blanket placed on us…
The next morning, we try to find the passage to the other side of the lake, but a big river ends up blocking our way and it is impossible to find a shallow area to cross. We search, we search… in vain. We decide to go the opposite way of the day before, after a lunch by the still smoking fire of our camp of the night.
We find the small town of Tariat in the late afternoon, sore legs and especially back after these 2 days of tracks and the cold night.
During these two days, the fauna around the lake was exceptional. Many raptors, wild ducks and other various birds; little prairie dogs everywhere running away when we arrived; huge herds of long-haired yaks and their recently born young (very curious young yaks by the way: always coming to see us up close); horses and their foals. In short, superb! The camera got really hot!
5 jours de route toute neuve
On pensait qu’en Mongolie, on aurait essentiellement des pistes. Mais non, quelle (bonne) surprise ! Nous avons passé 5 jours et 300 kms, de Tariat à (un peu après) Karkhorin sur une belle route goudronnée, et ne croisant que quelques rares voitures.
The first day, we have a strong tailwind which pushes us well in the climbs, and a great descent of at least 20kms at the end of the afternoon! We meet Tava, a Canadian cyclist at the very beginning of her trip. After a moment to exchange, she leaves to face the headwind. Hard !
The next two days, the wind is from the front or from the side, but less strong, that's fine. This is truly blue sky country, and the few times the sky is overcast, it clears up fairly quickly to give way to big blue skies and clear, clean air.
The road oscillates between 1800m and 2000m in altitude, in large fairly green plains separated by small passes. Large herds of sheep, goats, yaks, cows, horses are free everywhere. Sometimes there is a rider or a motorbike watching them.
The sleep spots in the evening are always with superb viewpoints. But it is still quite cold at night and different strategies are being developed to combat the cold. We end up buying a blanket in Kharkhorin, which will solve the problem!
Twice we set up the tent near the yurts of the nomads, but we have little contact with the locals. The first time, a good deal of fun all the same, when the goats returned: the little kids were quite crazy, running in all directions, climbing on the pile of wood and… playing trampoline on our tent.
In the plains, we get into the habit of coming across animal carcasses, more or less recent, or various animal bones: these are animals that have not survived the winter (even 15 days earlier , there was a severe snowstorm). For example, a friend of our Warmshower Froit host lost 200 animals out of a herd of 1000 animals this winter… These carcasses are the delight of the many raptors that can be seen everywhere. There are very large ones (vultures, eagles) and smaller ones (kites, buzzards, etc.). We see them hovering in circles in the ascending currents, sometimes resting in their nest on the electric pylons; we also crossed a “cloud” of kites, a migration maybe?
Two Mongolian cities
We pass through two Mongolian cities: Tsetserleg, after a fairly hard 5km pass where the bitumen disappears just the time of the pass, who knows why; and Kharkhorin, formerly called Karakorum, which is the historic capital of the Mongol Empire, but which has kept nothing of it. In short, one like the other does not have much charm... Is this the case for all Mongolian cities?
In Karakorum there is a guest house yurts run by a very nice English-speaking Mongolian family; a very quiet place at the exit of the city, where it is good to rest for half a day.
We visit the Buddhist monastery in this city, where a guide explains to us (in English but with a strong Mongolian accent… not always understandable) the history of the monastery and the particularities of Mongolian Buddhism. It’s different again, with a few different characters; Buddhism is definitely a complicated religion!
At the exit of the monastery, we see in the distance two boudchoux, bicycle helmets on their heads and a mother in shorts! Cycles!! Plus they're French! We have lunch together and we have a great time with this adorable family just starting their journey. Déjà on se trouve plein de points communs, et on connaît les mêmes blogs (ils connaissaient notre site ! La classe ! 😉 ). Pendant qu’on discute passent par hasard 2 belges qu’ils avaient croisé à Ulan-Bator ; ils sont aussi anciens cyclos mais finissent en ce moment leur périple en moto.
Bref on quitte la ville à 17h après ces belles rencontres ! On roule un peu avant de se poser pour la nuit.