In 2007 and 2008, CMG ran monthly stories from Canadian adventurer Rene Cormier, who told us about riding around the world on his BMW F650 GS.
They were terrific stories, and helped establish Rene as a global motorcycle tour authority. He went on to write his wonderful book, The University of Gravel Roads, about the four-year journey, and now makes a living leading motorcycle tours in southern Africa. In 2017, he’s planning a two-week organized tour of Mongolia that you can sign up for, which he first visited on that four-year journey.
This is the story of that first ride through Mongolia, published in October, 2008. If you want to read more, buy his book. It’s a fabulous armchair escape. – Ed.
Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s “Long Way Round” documentary has really bolstered Mongolia’s reputation to the adventuring moto-folks, but using heavy, grossly overloaded bikes – and a poor choice of roads – had them suffering for many days. Happily, I did not endure this fate.
The documentary itself, doing its best to capitalize on drama, focused on a rough and tumble, wet slog rather than the spectacular scenery and culture found there.
Listen folks: I am here to tell you that Mongolia is the best place in the world to ride a motorcycle.
FOUR DAYS WITH THE BRITS
From Kazakhstan I spent a few quick days in Russia in the beautiful Altay Mountains before dropping down into Mongolia at its western edge. At the border I met Paul and Tim, two English guys on a charity rally to Mongolia.
They were participating in an event where people (normally from the UK) buy a 4×4 and drive it at their own pace to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. Here, the vehicle gets auctioned off and the money goes to local charities, then the drivers fly back to the UK.
I welcomed the chance to have them tag along. Paul was a retired photographer and I really wanted this section of the trip to be documented with photos. They could also carry water and beer for me – a real luxury!
We talked about the trip and it soon became apparent that they were not prepared for this section. Like, at all. I was entering coordinates into my GPS unit and they asked if they should get a map …
“It’s 1,600 kms of dirt road and you guys don’t have a map?” I said.
“We have a camping map of Europe, and this Russian Atlas with a map of Mongolia in it,” they replied. “And two compasses.”
The map of Mongolia in the book was the size of a postcard.
“Uh, yeah, you guys need a map,” I said. They also wanted my GPS, which is part of the reason we traveled together for the next four days.
There are road maps of Mongolia, but that doesn’t mean they’re accurate. The roads have a life of their own; twisting, bending and changing course with time. For this reason, leaving a city was always more difficult than entering it as you are faced with literally dozens of tracks that look like they could go in the right direction.
My GPS was little help as it only told me the direction of the next town – often hundreds of kilometers away – not the best route to get there.
Usually the tracks merged into just one or two main ones, and as long as they went in the general direction of the next town, I was happy.
Locals don’t use maps. They drive for 5 kms in the preferred direction, stop at a ger (similar to the yurt of Kyrgyzstan), and ask for directions. They repeat this procedure all the way until they reach their destination.
Sadly, my Mongolian was not handy enough for this approach, so we suffered the old fashioned way.
Loaded with petrol (the chaps with diesel) and a new map, we set off for our next destination of Hovd, 200 kms to the east.
THE LONG WAY TO HOVD
The roads were completely unpredictable, with easy smooth tracks one moment, giving way to rocky sections of washboard the next. In general, the tracks that wandered through grasslands were in much better condition than those that had suffered the unfortunate fate of so-called Mongolian road ‘construction’.
Here, although the road was wide and straight, it was also nastily grooved with endless corrugations. All but the big tanker trucks would avoid the worst of it by weaving rollercoaster-like along the side of the main road on makeshift detours.
This weaving effectively added another 20% distance to the trip, but at least we were not constantly being jarred.
The amount of land and sky visible in this terrain was always amazing. It was possible to see storms brewing far off on the horizon and the black sheets of rain that would follow them.
Generally, the wind would whip up as we got closer to the storm, and so we learned after a particularly slippery section that the best way to deal with storms was to avoid them altogether.
This is what busted Ewan and Charlie. If they had found a ger, said hello and gone inside to drink Mongolian tea (a weak milky affair usually with a dollop of salted butter in it), then they could have stuck their heads out after every few cups, and if the storm had passed, continued on their way.
The Brits preferred to follow behind me (making navigation easier for them), but I still managed to take a wrong track, taking us deep into a boggy valley. I could see the road that we wanted on the other side of a shallow valley, but the area was a catch basin for the large hills on either side and so too soft to make our own route through.
I kept looking for a road cutting across the valley to connect the two sides, but found none.
Eventually our trail disintegrated and the truck got stuck and we lost the light. So we admitted defeat and set up camp in the dark, surrounded by millions of excited mosquitoes.
Paul and I made the tents and dashed inside. Tim slept in the truck and kept us up as he banged away at the ceiling of the truck, trying to kill the mozzies that had made it inside.
The next morning it took us three hours to double back to the correct route, but once on it we made good time again.
During a pee break I noticed that one of the springs holding the sidestand up was dangling below the GS. The tab on the stand that held the spring in place had sheared off. This was the second time that this broke, so I put the spring in my pocket and strapped the sidestand up and out of the way.
It had started to rain as we pulled into Hovd. Paul and Tim went off looking for a new tire for their truck while I found a welder to tack on another tab – which held the spring in place – and was on my way 15 minutes later. All for less than $1.
Although its legendary horsemen made Mongolia famous as far back as the thirteenth century, these days horses are being traded for horsepower, and there are plenty of Chinese and Russian motorcycles and sidecars to be found in the towns.
They prove to be convenient taxis across the steppe, and rarely have less than two people on. Once I saw four people on a single bike – dad driving, his child was on the tank, wife second, and grandma sat as tail gunner. I was awfully impressed.
I retreated from the rain to the town restaurant (a converted railway car) where some girls made my favorite Mongolian food – buuz: dumplings made from a filling of mutton and fat and then steamed. At $0.20 each, they were cheap and hot and a welcome treat on a cold rainy day.
After the vehicles were back in full working order, we fell into a pattern of steady driving at a reasonable pace. Trucks make the 1,600 km run from the Russian border to the capital of Ulaanbaatar in six days, but we were planning on making it in eight.
We tried to be done by 6 pm most nights, but we often went later, either due to having to avoid storm zones or because we were eager for a beer at the next town.
Accommodation was always easy in Mongolia because it is simply the best country in the world for camping. There are plenty of streams coming down out of the mountains for washing and cooking, which also tend to have a good area of flat and soft grass by them on which to pitch the tents.
Locals were never far away, and apart from coming to look at the motorcycle and to say hello, there were never any issues with safety.
After five days of traveling together we pitched up at a riverside camping spot in Bayanhongor (about two thirds of the way to Ulaanbaatar), where we met two more teams from the charity rally and had an idyllic evening next to the river.
This also gave us a chance to go our own way; the Brits could travel in caravan with the other trucks, and if they got separated it was only 200 kms to the next town where a paved road could take them into Ulaanbaatar.
I decided to head to some hot springs 60 kms up the valley and discovered the most buffed out double-track on the trip. Cushioned by grass, and without a bump to be found, I rolled up and down hills like Mary Poppins on LSD.
Every day brought me closer to the city of Ulaanbaatar but I wasn’t ready to finish this run of spectacular roads and scenery, so I took side trips to temples and monasteries whenever I could.
In the 16th century Buddhism became the state religion, although religious freedom was widely accepted for 400 more years. That was until 1937, when Stalin and his communist nutcases wiped out 700 monasteries in Mongolia and killed an estimated 20,000 monks.
The democracy movement in 1990 led to the opening of several hundred monasteries, but only two monasteries in this area survived the carnage of 1937, the Shankh Khiid and Erdene Zuu.
It was good to be riding solo again and I took my time soaking up the beauty of Mongolia. On the overcast days, I spent hours in isolated roadside cafes, drinking tea and waiting for the clouds to move out of my intended path. In late afternoon on sunny days, I reveled in the beauty as the sun soaked the hills and plains in spectacular golden light.
There were many instances – driving through valleys of great roads, racing a Russian van on the far side of the valley with great plumes of dust rising up behind it – when I needed to stop and write down exactly what I was seeing and thinking about.
There were just so many spectacular sights and events that I wanted to record … I was afraid that the more I saw the less I’d be able to retain.
THE FINAL LEG
The last 40 kms to Ulaanbaatar was somewhat depressing as I struggled through road construction and all the crazy drivers that came with it.
But I found a small guesthouse soon enough, and after a shower and a beer, I fired up the washing machine and logged onto the Internet and started to plan the final leg of my great around the world trip.
The paperwork and planning issues had been piling up while I was in the bush. It appeared that my original plan of riding to eastern Russia and then shipping the GS by plane to Alaska was out.
The cargo company was raising the prices every week on the shipment quote, and my dwindling funds were forcing me to cut out the Alaska leg anyway (which I’d already travelled to on another trip).
After all this driving I didn’t want to end this adventure at the Vancouver airport. I wanted to make that one last border crossing into Canada!
So I decided to ride around China and through Siberia to the eastern port of Vladivostok. There I would put the motorcycle on a container ship to Seattle and take a ferry to South Korea for a last personal holiday.
This would still allow me to ride back into Canada, stopping quickly in Vancouver for the ‘Ending Shot’ at Kitsilano beach before zipping back to Edmonton where I would spend the winter.
On my way north to Russia, I found a small town just shy of the border. It had a delightful river winding along the south of the town, and so I stocked up for one last perfect Mongolian campsite, and take the time to enjoy a beer and reflect on all the good times I’d had there.
Sipping beer, I watched lazily as a storm over the far hills lit up the sky and drenched the hills. Within seconds the wind suddenly picked up and I decided to hold the beer and hurry to put the tent up.
Thirty seconds later the wind went wild. With only two pegs in the ground, the tent flew around like an over-sized flag, and the wind whipped up the water on the river so much that I was now getting waves crashing over me! Down went the GS and while I struggled to hold onto the tent my sunglasses, and parts of the stove went tumbling in to the next field.
After twenty minutes, the wind and rain let up enough to let me hastily collect my things and ride quickly into town to grab a cheap hotel room. From there I watched the lightening and rain pound down for another hour from the safety of my room.
Mongolia was giving me more to remember her by, but it was awesome to see.
The morning was met with bright and blue skies. A quick trip back to the campsite to look for my sunglasses was unsuccessful, and with no Mongolian money left, the only thing to do now was get back in to Russia, and my final jaunt 4,000 kms east to Vladivostok.