PERFECT TRAILS FOREVER: INTO THE WILD MONGOLIAN STEPPE
Words: Jon Florea Photos: Ana Hogas
From where we parked, the single-tracks look like wrinkles on a beautiful face; down there, there were as many chances for our resolve to crumble. In Mongolia, nothing happens as you expect. The elements are so powerful, they can physically prevent you from moving forward, and the lack of human presence is both thrilling and unnerving. I brush off the thought that if my 690 Enduro or Ana’s DRZ succumbed yesterday to the punishing terrain, or, if one of us had sustained an injury, we would have been on our own. Outside the capital and a handful of sleepy towns, Mongolia seems devoid of people. Most roads are raw, the landscape barren. Once you enter, from either east or west border, as the country meets both Russia and Kazakhstan at a dead angle, the evergreen Altai taiga stops and the steppe takes over. Roads fork ad infinitum; you can ride and camp wherever, pick any track, or switch off the GPS and do like the Mongols: carve your own path towards whatever cardinal destination, guided by stars and ovoos - those shamanic totems that nobody drives past without leaving some food and a prayer for benevolent gods.
We have arrived in August, when the summer heat is just settling in. As old mold softens, furry edelweiss bracts scatter and cacti unfold in batches. The trails are perfect, each bivouac idyllic - Mongolia would be motorcycling Eden, if only the damn sky would stop crying. But since days back life’s been difficult, albeit in a fortunate sort of way. Water is surging across the land and creeks are becoming rivers, any with the potential to turn us around. By now I’ve lost count of how many we crossed; numb feet and miserably soggy everything else - from boots, to oats, to underwear - help us remember.
We pack and point the bikes to Tsagaannuur, rain drumming again against our visors. We’re hoping for a hot drink in a friendly place, and we find it at Janka’s, in a dim-lit room charmingly agglomerated with memorabilia: there are carpets woven with Buddhist symbols, plastic medals from school, and grand-grandparents in traditional garb, smiling eerily from weathered photos hanging on the walls. Janka lays the table. Raisins. Homemade cookies. We pull pickled sardines from Russia, bread, a knob of kurut cheese from Kazakhstan. Then she pours a cloudy concoction into bowls, and I take my first sip of Mongolian “tea.” Hmmm. Suutei tsai is a mixture of mare’s milk, butter and salt. “Sometimes real tea is added, for economy,” says Janka, who, like all locals, prefers tsai over drinking water. Three weeks of this may give me a heart attack, but I won’t complain about some lousy arteries: here, most cattle are sacrificed by end of summer, and milk is considered an almost sacred food.
We wheel off and run into a very Mongolian scene. Iron Man-like robotic exoskeletons from the future are mixing concrete, while meters away, a group of local herdsmen are sorting yak wool with their bare hands. One year from now, this will be done. Brand new Chinese tar will span border to border. Trucks will be trucking. Medical supplies, the world wide web, and the inevitable soda cans will be delivered across the country, and with that, some say, rural Mongolia shall be tamed. But not yet. Until capitalism arrives, the ATM in Olgii remains the sole harbinger of the new dawn.
Deeper into the highlands, the landscape becomes clean and orderly… like a computer wallpaper. Any man or woman with something on their mind should come here - bring no schedule and no fixed itinerary, ride, and let peace seep into your bones. The rewards are many: fast tracks, some up to 25 km long without a turn, and boy, can these get your ears buzzing! There are bold climbs, where shale crumbles like shortcake, slashing into our rubbers. There are washboards and loose rocks the size of kidneys that make my wheels drift. There’s dirt, in all its corrugated or sticky manifestations; and then, there’s sand. Lots of it, which is a test of nerve for short-legged 5’1” beginners like Ana. Watching her ride that super-modified DRZ, with its weird handling and whatever geometry a minimal preload and custom rear suspension linkages allows, gives me one panic attack after another. I know that if she goes down at this speed she could get properly hurt, so sometimes I fall back a couple of kilometers, for my own sanity. Luckily, at least one of us loves to feel the bike float. The 690 seems designed for it; it’s both nimble and brutal, a machine that redefines my notion of what’s possible; it may help that I’ve honed my skill on a much heavier and less powerful bike, while crossing the Congo, in what feels like an entire lifetime ago. In the intense heat of midday, our water consumption triples and the sandy track preys on mental fatigue. “We are in motorcycling limbo,” says Ana, as a bunch of wild horses zoom past. Suddenly, a distant dot starts blinking, and my delirium deepens. Is that an overlander? They could have precious intel about water - out here we have each other’s back; then the dot grows into Yuri, a Russian biker, and he says that we’re close to a well. I swear I almost huddle him up for a hug.
Days into the ride, our stoke for Mongolia keeps dialing up. We learn to favor freedom over comfort, to take what comes. Waking up under a sky so hot that makes our lips blister is lucky: the morning brew will need less fire to boil. A stream with clear waters can be home - as they say here, “the land is tough; the sky is far” but wait, why did they fail to mention mosquitos? We can’t camp on some insatiable insect’s watch! A broken irrigation pipe equals laundry and a shower. An ovoo offers shelter against rain. Most of the times though, ovoos are completely clogged with guano and the weather is stacked against us. Storms leave little time to act, and when they hit, they do the steppe justice. It’s like nomadic hordes advancing in one move. Tugged under our battered tarp, we watch the land crack open, knowing that when the roar ends, we’ll have a swirl of sleet to drag our bikes across.
The ride continues with an unusually grim week. Sometimes happiness is difficult to appreciate as it happens, because your limbs are sore and your partner’s wrist is badly sprained in a stupid spill. But at least we’re nailing the endure part of this enduro trip. I must say that the inhabitants of this part of the world match their formidable homeland. Watching them dart on mopeds across the steppe makes me whistle the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. These gruff people know that Mongolia is a place to not come unstuck and are always eager to help. If we ask for directions, they debate strategies to escort us on horse. If we ask for water, they give us milk (vodka if we insist we’re really thirsty). Anytime we stop, curious folk arrive, and with our sign language more limited than our Russian, it is humor that eventually unlocks the barriers between us. We laugh with them when they kick our knobblies, when they push the kill switch, or give congratulatory pats that almost knock Ana over. At times the crowd rustles - enthusiasm so hard to contain, that a guy dressed in impossibly elegant silk sash may even burst into a song.
One time, we decide to ask permission to pitch next to a homestead. Many Mongols lead a semi-nomadic existence, so we find only the grandmother at home with the kids. A couple of rounds of sour tea and lots of giggles ensue, then we’re hustled into family chores: Ana milks the cow under direct supervision of 16-year-old Urt-Nasaan; I’m told to follow the boys. They seem engrossed in counting big, furry yaks. To a city-dweller like me this is a ferocious-looking creature, but out here a yak is just a cow drawn by a toddler. When they get bored with work, Nenkh-Bayr (12) spins a lasso, tosses it at Baah-Baaatar (4) and yanks. Bang! - he hits the floor laughing. These cowboy kids can certainly handle rough, just like they do extremes of weather, hard-tempered parents, or traveling alone to distant jai loos and back, without ever getting lost. Meanwhile, the burden of household lays on fragile shoulders: girls who cook and clean; women who slaughter chicken, fix furniture, and nurse babies without skipping a beat. Their coats aren’t cute or girly. Their hands are rusty, worn out from work. Their hair, dark as oblivion, is seldom wrapped in scarves – the only spark in a world where harsh wind stop trees from growing, where few words are spoken, and where what one needs, one simply takes.
Over the night wind swirls and howls like an orphaned beast. Cows moo. Horses sputter. Inside his yurt, Baah-Baaatar cries, un-lullabied by grandmother, who doesn’t want him grow into a whiny adult. She also wants these summers spent with purpose, which is why she’s up at dawn, making arkhi. You’ve got to have some, she says, pulling us inside, where acrid, choking steam rises out of a huge pot. Apparently, we’re getting drunk this morning. Arkhi is a traditional spirit, distilled from the beloved milk. This stuff is strong! We try to breathe in and swallow up as little as humanly possible, while admiring the simplicity of the yurt. All Mongol homes are completely portable. A skilled man needs few hours to build or to dismantle the latticed structure that supports the roof and the circular skylight; then he wraps it in several layers of wool and water-resistant fabric, to ensure that the temperature inside remains constant.
In a classic scene from a 1940s cartoon, Tom and a rival are feuding over imprisoned Jerry, who attempts escaping from a sardine can. The mouse is quickly spotted. The alley cat grabs him, then points as if to order “Get back in the can!” I’ve been watching this in a grocery store from Numrog, of all places, because there is simply not a lot of shopping to do. The only food they have is candy, so, not unlike Jerry, I grudgingly resign to return to our bikes empty-handed and hungry. Fortunately, Ana’s found onions, a jar of pickles, and… is that the head of a broken doll? “Could be the one we need,” she says, and adds it to the lucky-charm collection that has been accumulating in her tank bag. This time, the voodoo works. Rains pause, mud stiffens, and we cruise to Tosontsengel, where a huge rainbow hovers over the first petrol station we’ve seen in a week. Once the bikes are refueled, we head north-east. Today we’re having Mongolian dirt for lunch and our road is tight and off camber and scarily exposed in places. Sometimes we can barely squeeze the front wheel around the bend. We relish every inch, and two hours later we are at the bare-boned Jargaland bridge - an omen of dozens I’ll be crossing in Siberia. We exchange high-fives, dusty and happy, thinking that we’ve finally managed to outrun a storm. But before we kiss, temperature drops to single digits, the sun dies into a blanket of cloud, and the promise of blizzard is fulfilled. Experience has shown that when the Mongol gods thunder, we must listen, so we start searching for a bivouac immediately. With visibility reduced to an arm’s length beyond my dashboard, I nearly run something or someone over. I hear a voice calling me to stop. A siren, I whisper. She’s come to guide us voyagers through the storm. We park, throw the tent on the floor, and follow the bundled-up, ear-muffed ghost into her yurt. Inside the nomads’ home, scarves fall, new wood is burnt, and dinner is laid. We try to unfreeze our hands at the open cooktop, while water and mud flows from our feet toward the entrance door. “Eat,” says Ertin Jaaral, picking for us the fattiest bits of meat from the communal plate. Heavily pregnant and home alone with two daughters while their father runs errands in another district, our host seems genuinely concerned that we’re riding bikes through this wild land. She calls her husband for advice, and promises a hearty breakfast tomorrow. I guess she thinks we’re idiots, but she really wants us to succeed.
The next day Ertin’s yurt feels too small for the crowd of neighbors and friends who’ve come to meet the strangers. They smile and say we should drink more milk. We hug. We take selfies with kids, many brown-skinned from sunny days on the steppe. Altin-Olzii (9) has to have a photo on his horse. When we leave, my eyes are dewy. But surrounded with so much beauty, with cranes and even a bald eagle roaming around, with frogs frogging and mysterious squeezels, well, squeezeling, one cannot stay sad for long. Besides, we know that our days in the steppe are numbered: after the last big river, it’s easy riding to the White Lake, and then this enduro playground will relinquish power to the tarmac, a sort of penance for all the reckless and incredibly fun things we’ve done. For now, we’re busy. Ana strips, to probe for the shallowest line and to spare her gear from another soak. As we cross, our eclectic audience - one shepherd, two helpers and their flock of sheep - seem quite entertained by the show. Then my girlfriend recovers her dignity fixing everyone a cup of tea, while I change a fuse.