Beijing to Ulanbaatar – Part 1

Words: Brock Usborne/Lawrence Hacking   Photos: SSER Organization/Marianne Smith
A couple of weeks back we paid homage to the Dakar rally with an article outlining the logistics of the rally, followed by interviews with two Canadians who had actually finished it. This week (and while the Dakar rally is still in full tilt) we thought it would be cool to focus on another big rally out there, the Beijing-Ulanbaatar.

We’re pleased to be able to bring you a first person account of the rally by Canadian Brock Usborne, who took part in the 2006 rally back in August.

We’re going to split Brock’s story into two parts – the first one covering the intro and set up of his rally, and the second part covering the day to day account of the rally itself. We also have a fact sheet on the rally and a short interview with Lawrence Hacking (who was the first Canadian to tackle this rally back in 2005), which we’ll post at the end part one below.

Now, we’ll hand you over to the beginning of Brock’s story of the 2006 rally …

Taking a moment to ensure that two plus two is indeed four.

It’s 4:00 am and my coma-like sleep is interrupted by the thunderous tone of my alarm clock. I stir, and slowly start my robotic-like movements. It is the 8th morning like this and each day gets a little harder to wake up. I know what I have to do, just crawl out of my sleeping bag and put on my riding clothes, then pack up my tent, get on my bike and head to the starting gate.

I dig deep into my energy reserves and am soon out of the sleeping bag, but then pause; today I cannot seem to put two and two together. The seconds turn into minutes as I stand there and ask myself “What do I do next?”. My mind knows that I need to wake up and do the ritualistic preparation that I have repeated for the previous seven days, but my body does not follow.

Today is different, my mind and body are a hundred kilometers apart.

Thankfully after a few minutes I manage to de-fog my brain, then finally, slowly, I begin to function again. Seven days of flat out riding through the desolate lands of Mongolia have left me physically exhausted, but now the sheer mental fatigue has finally caught up to me.

This is what it’s all about.

Only three more days and 1100 kms to go before it’s all over and I’m at the finish in Ulanbaatar. Welcome to desert rallying – Mongolian style.


My 2006 Beijing-Ulanbaatar rally started this past August when I decided to take the quantum leap from Ontario single-day enduro rider, to multi-day desert racer. Like many off-road riders, I have always dreamt of taking part in a desert race. Since off-road riders are in general a little weird, I thought I would follow that tradition and by-pass the more logical step of small single day desert races, and head straight for a big one.

There are a number of big off-road races around the world – it seems each continent has one or two – so why choose Mongolia? Good question, and I have Lawrence Hacking to thank (or blame) for it. While at the Toronto Motorcycle Show last year, I ran into Lawrence who had just come back from racing the Ulanbaatar, and was the first North American to enter the rally. After a brief chat it took me all of five minutes to decide to be the second North American to do it.

The rally crosses over from the Eurasian prairie into the Gobi desert (and back).

2006 marks the 10th anniversary of the Beijing-Ulanbaatar 2006 International Cross Country Rally, organized by a Japanese company, Shikoku Super Enduro Race (SSER). 2006 also marks the 800th anniversary of the founding of Mongolia, which the organizers used to justify making this year’s rally the longest and most grueling to date, encompassing 4000 kms of desert in a 10 day span.

The rendezvous point for the competitors was in Beijing, China. Here we would meet the organizers and fellow competitors for the first time. We were treated like kings, with a big banquet and a night’s stay in a five-star hotel. Since I was a racer about to embark on probably the toughest race of my life, only one beer was consumed.

The next day we flew to Ulanbaatar, where I would be re-united with my bike – a KTM 450 EXC that I had last seen six weeks prior as I crated it up before flying it out for the rally. The bike arrived unscathed and after some reassembly work all that was left to do was wait for start of the first stage the next morning.


Camp on day 6 was at a desert oasis.

Each day of the rally is considered a stage, and comprise the same basic ingredients: Wake up at 4:00 am, put your riding gear on, eat some breakfast, pack your tent and sleeping bag, go to the riders’ meeting and then get on the bike and race for the next 8 to 15 hours. Every day.

While you’re out there racing, all your gear is then shipped by the rally organizers to the end of the day’s stage, where a new tent city is then erected. It is a nomadic troop of 150 competitors and organizers hauling themselves and all this gear through the Eurasian prairie, Mongolian plateau and the Gobi desert.

Although the terrain is very diverse throughout the rally, the most common surface is a sandy base mixed with fine gravel, which would prove to be very treacherous. The course would also see us tackle sand dunes, boulder fields, mud, a fast flowing river crossing, and a 3,000 meter mountain pass.

Don’t get lost!

Navigation is done via a handlebar mounted road book – a paper roll with kilometer distances in one column, symbols of what to do at that distance in another and a warning symbol, if needed. A GPS unit is also used, but only as a back up emergency unit in case of difficulties.

Each participant is also required to provide and carry a small survival kit, spare parts for their bike and a satellite phone in case of emergencies.

Now it’s just a matter of getting to the starting gate for Day 1 of the desert race adventure of a lifetime!

Click here for part two and the day to day account of Brock’s desert race …


History: A long-distance endurance race organized by Japanese rallyists SSER, the first Mongolia Rally was held in 1996. The BTOU originally featured a starting location in Beijing, China (thus the name), but with the Olympics heading that way in 2008, the organization has changed the route to focus only on Mongolia for 2007.
Features: An annual off-road endurance race with three categories: motorcycles, buggys and cars. Interestingly, the car category usually includes some of the old minis and in 2006 even a Toyota Prius.In addition to the standard Rally Raid version, the SSER also simultaneously runs the Eco Challenge version, where ranking is determined by “reducing the Bonus Time from the Actual Time when the fuel consumption is more than standard” (Yes, this was a translation from Japanese… we don’t really get it either.)
Route (2007): The rally will start in Ulanbaatar cross the country westward to Uvs, and loop back to finish in Ulanbaatar with start and finish locations throughout Mongolia.
Distance: 4,000 kms give or take a few Mongolian terrain.
Duration: 10 days of riding with one full rest day (day 6)
Dates for 2007: Sunday, August 5th to Tuesday, August 15th
Terrain: Eurasian prairie, Mongolian plateau, Gobi desert, 3000-meter elevation mountain pass, water crossings and sand dunes
Challenges: Sleep deprivation, navigation difficulties, mirages, camel grass
Riders: In 2006 there were 40 motorcycle riders at the start, and 28 at the finish
Rules: Similar to the Dakar, there are stages that include liaison sections and specials; the competitors are racing during the specials and transferring locations during the liaisons.
Canadian factor: Lawrence Hacking was the first Canadian to compete, and he actually won his category in 2005. Last year two Canadians participated, Brock Usborne and Steve Langdon. Don’t let a simple flat stop you until it really stops you!
Useful Links: Official website English version here.


Lawrence started riding bikes back in his teens, first with motocross events and then enduros. In 1985 he entered and completed his first International Six Day Enduro (ISDE) going on to finish it four more times. A job with Yamaha Europe meant that he got to see the Rally des Pharaons and his interest in rallies was set.

After having successfully completed the grueling 2000 Dakar Rally, in 2005 he decided to try to be the first Canadian to complete the Beijing-Ulanbaatar Rally, which he did, finishing 19th overall and actually winning the 250 class on his Honda CRF250X.

The Mongolian Rally (BTOU) is a great example of a rally other than the Dakar to participate in; it’s not only competition, but it’s going to see a part of the world you’ve never been to before, meeting new people, discovering new things to challenge, and coming back with a great story to tell!
You meet the nicest Mongolians on a Honda.

And it’s an exotic place, Mongolia is a beautiful country and the people are friendly; there are no fences in the whole place and as far as riding bikes goes it’s welcomed with open arms.

The mind set they have in Mongolia is that there’s no private ownership of land except in the bigger cities, so the spirit of ownership of land doesn’t exist, it’s everybody’s land to use as they choose and that’s why off–road riding and rallying is welcome there.

Although the BTOU was fun, it was still tough – with 10 hours of riding a day – but it was just total enjoyment and that’s what motorcycling off-road is all about, there’s so much it can offer. There are some Dakar rallyists there as well. The format is similar – very challenging navigation and not so technical as far as riding goes.
Soaking up the magic …

The last day of that rally was probably the best day of my life riding a motorcycle as far as sensations and experience goes – it’s really, really good. I don’t know about you, but motorcycling has enhanced my life like you cannot believe and it has nothing to do with the money – if you let it, it’s like magic.

I’d like to do the Mongolia rally again, it was a very, very nice experience. You know, I was welcomed with open arms and treated like royalty, the Japanese guys were great, even though we don’t speak the same language we’re all off-road riders, so you really don’t have to speak the same language to communicate!

Lawrence Hacking

Don’t forget to tune in to CMG tomorrow for Brock’s day to day account of the BTOU rally!

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