we told friends that this year we were going back in Mongolia for our
vacation, the most common reaction was amazement. "Mongolia... Again?!
But there are plenty of other beautiful places to see!". Given the
commonly held belief that Mongolia is a barrenm empty and monotonous
land, it may seem strange that we keep returning there, but this
impression of Mongolia could not be further from the truth. The
Mongolian landscape is incredibly varied, it has peaks of over 4000m,
alpine lakes, the Siberian taiga, boundless prairies, and both sandy
and rocky deserts. Mongolia is so immense that although the landscape
can sometimes seem repetitive when viewed from a car or bus, travelling
by bicycle means you get to appreciate the subtle variations and facets
of the Mongolian countryside which you might otherwise miss. On two
wheels is the ideal way to experience and appreciate the warmth,
strength, and kindness of people who live in simple tents, isolated
from the world, even in winter, when the temperature drops below -40 C!
There is just so much space! For as far as the eye can see,
nothing but space and what nature has to offer. No roads, no houses,
nothing. The people who live here lead a simple life, with no
obligation other than survival. Free to roam this boundless wilderness
wherever there imagination takes them, in a land where there are no
facilities and the nearest help is days away, they fend for themselves
in endlessly creative ways. Such places no longer exist in Europe. So,
yes, Mongolia again, and what’s more, we hope it will not be too long
before we return there ...
In the far north of Mongolia, between lake Hovsgol and the Darhad
depression is an area which fascinated us on our previous trips, and
one which we had promised to ourselves that we would revisit. In
particular we were fascinated by the idea of being able to reach the
camp of the Tuvian tribe, the famous Reindeer People. This ethnic group
has now been reduced to just over 300 people, divided into two main
groups of about forty families each. They live all year in the taiga,
on the border with Russian Siberia, moving their camp about six times a
year, in search of pasture for their reindeer. They live in tents
similar to the American Indian tepee, with a single outer layer, a
rudimentary wood stove in the center, wooden bunks and nothing else.
There are no access roads, no telephone connections, no doctors (other
than the shaman), no television, no internet. As if this was not
extreme enough, in the winter, temperatures fall to -55 C. Yet they are
still there, and for the moment at least, they resist. It is not clear
how long this way of life will continue, because the younger
generations now attend schools in the neighbouring countryside in the
winter, and may choose not to pursue such a hard existence. These
people, the beautiful lakes of Tsagaannuur, and the plains around
Tsagaan Uul are the unforgettable highlights of this, our most recent
ride in Mongolia.
To be continued .... Paolo & Sonja
Our circumnavigation of Mongolia in four stages
in the summer of 2006, we were climbing with some fellow
climber/travellers, in the area of Lecco. In the shade of an
overhanging cliff, we stopped to consider what would be the perfect
place for an unusual, fascinating mountain biking trip, far from the
usual destinations, with wide open spaces and no roads. At some point,
someone suggested Mongolia. Who could have imagined that this was the
beginning of a beautiful adventure that would take us on four trips to
Mongolia, each trip lasting for three weeks, pedalling among the
"The cousin of the wife of a friend of mine knows a Mongolian who can
help you" ... thus began the search for information to be able to
organize a future trip. The initial idea was to travel independently by
bike, bags and tents on the bike, along with food and water. However we
found an account of a voyage by a pair of lone travellers, saying that
after several months of exhausting effort, they only managed to cover a
relatively small distance. We decided that in just three weeks of
vacation we would see too little of Mongolia. The ideal solution proved
to be to cycle, but with a support vehicle, which would transport all
the material, and set up the tents or prepare the ger camp each night.
We contacted an agency in Ulaanbaatar which would be able to organize
the logistics, and with their help, we organized our first trip from Lake Hovsgol to the capital.
There was a wonderful togetherness amongst our small, quickly
assembled, group of intrepid cyclists (Sonja and I, Amos, Sergio
Barbalama and Elide). We will never forget the electrifying experience
of riding our (dilapidated rented) bikes through a beautiful golden
Back in Italy, my senses overwhelmed as I looked back on the photos of
our trip. I found it hard to imagine another place which would be so
perfect for this kind of travel. So it was, that in September of 2007,
the same group, with the addition of colleague and friend Raffaele,
returned to Ulaanbaatar. This time, again supported by the UAZ agency,
we set off directly from Ulanbaatar on our (hired and once again not so
good) bikes, heading east and on to Dalanzadgad in the heart of the Gobi desert.
For Raffaele, this, his first such adventure, was a pleasant surprise.
For the rest of us, it was confirmation of the beauty of these wild
places and the extraordinary people who live there in extreme
conditions for most of the year.
So it was that we cycled halfway around Mongolia. We began to think
about how we might complete our circumnavigation of Mongolia.
Unfortunately, a serious accident to Sonja, meant that the journey from the Hovsgol to west
planned for 2008 had to be postponed. In 2011, we assembled another
group of intrepid cyclists to accompany us on this trip; no Amos or
Raffaele this time, but we were joined by Mario, Franz, Silvana, and
our Swiss friends, Carlo and Lorenza. After some some serious
searching, we managed to track down some decent bicycles to rent for
this trip. September 14 found us on the shore of Lake Hovsgol in the
middle of a snowstorm and for the first two nights, temperatures of
-18°C! Fortunately, the ger camp where we were staying was well
organized, and there was plenty of firewood. After that chilly start,
the blue skies which are more typical of September in Mongolia,
returned. From Hovsgol lake we moved on to the breathtakingly beautiful
Tsagaannuur lakes area. Then we headed west to Ölgii, crossing
mountains and valleys. Of all our trips, this was the most beautiful
and varied from the point of view of stunning landscapes! The icing on
the cake was that we arrived (not by chance) in Ölgii on the first day
of the famous Eagle festival – that experience alone was well worth the
discomfort of our first couple of days in the cold.
With only the section from Ölgiy to
to do to complete our perfect circle, we were having trouble getting
together a group for this trip. Purely by coincidence, four cyclists
from Tuscany contacted us for information about cycling in Mongolia;
they were more than happy to join our group, which was then finally
joined by the "old hands" of previous trips who could not resist the
opportunity to return to Mongolia. By the time we set out, there were
fourteen of us in the group which tackled this final leg. Apart from
the first few days in the mountains of the Altai, this fourth trip
probably had the most repetitive views, as we spent most of the time
travelling through the Gobi region. But even here, from the hills to
the steppes to the dunes, every day held a surprise, and the nights
were illuminated by showers of shooting stars, the like of which are a
distant memory in Europe. Each day, the planned itinerary had to be
adapted to allow for the weather and for conditions, but the harmony in
the group was excellent and there were no complaints from anyone –
which is not always the case in such a large group of people, most of
whom had never met before embarking on this trip.
The circle is now complete, but I have yet to find a place which is as
magical for an adventure on a mountain bike. I think I will do as I
have done in previous years, alternating between Mongolia and other
places – Africa perhaps, because the lure of Mongolia is still there!
To the Tuvian Reindeer Herders, day by day
Click on the dates for the Photo-Gallery of the days
Monday 29 aout
arrived in Ulaambaatar early on a grey, drizzly morning. Because, for
economic reasons, there are now fewer flights between Ulaambaatar and
Mörön, we would be setting off to cross most of Mongolia by minibus in
order to reach the start of our cycling adventure. First change of
plan! Instead of shaking off the jetlag with a day getting to know
Ulaambaatar, after a few hours spent waiting for our two minibuses to
arrive with our hired bikes (Mongolian time – these things take as long
as they take), we climbed into the minbuses to start the 24 hour
journey to where we would start pedalling. For the members of the group
who were visiting Mongolia for the first time, the long day spent in
the bus, getting a first taste of the beauty of the Mongolian landscape
(whilst the minibus driver played Italian seventies pop music on the
stereo) would be the first of many unforgettable experiences. We passed
through Bulgan, and as night fell, arrived at the Uran Togoo ger camp.
Sleeping in a ger, under a sky overflowing with bright stars, is always
a fascinating experience, one of which I never tire.
Tuesday 30 August
Uran Togoo-Mörön-Uushigiin Uver-Hargant
We awoke in Uran Togoo
under Mongolia’s traditional blue September skies. After a hearty
breakfast (bacon and eggs!), we climbed back into the minibuses to
continue our journey. We finally arrived at the start of our bike ride,
a few kilometers before reaching Mörön. After the first of many
memorable meals enjoyed al fresco, in stunning locations, we set off on
our (excellent quality) hired bikes. On what was to be almost our only
experience of cycling on a tarmac road in two weeks of cycling, we
headed for Mörön. Once in the city, the tarmac ended, and we were
cycling on the dirt roads of the city of Mörön. We crossed the city,
passing its small airport, and finally reached the beautiful dirt road
that was to lead us into the wilderness, to the heart of our adventure.
After an hour or so, we reached the archaeological site of Uushigiin
Uver, a site with many reindeer stones - megaliths bearing beautiful
bronze Age engravings. A brief stop to admire the reindeer stones, and
then we continued our ride to Hargant. The ger camp which had hosted
the group in 2006 was being renovated, so this was our first night in
our two-person tents, camped beside a bend in the river Delger Mörön.
Before retiring to our tents we enjoyed the spectacle of the Milky Way
looking like a carpet of Christmas lights!
Mercredi 31 August
had already travelled this stretch in 2006, but was happy to be once
again surrounded by the beautiful landscapes of these endless Mongolian
hills. As our band of contented cyclists passed by a wooden shack
situated in the middle of nowhere, with typical Mongolian hospitality a
family invited us in, and from the little they had, offered us
something to eat to help us on our way. I saw in the eyes of my
friends, the same wonder that I had experienced 10 years ago on my
first trip to Mongolia. After spending some time with the family, and
admiring the horsemanship of the young son, we continued with our ride.
The day ended with a spectacular descent to the shores of Lake Hovsgol,
and a wonderful day was completed with the spectacle of the lake laid
out before us. The braver ones amongst us (the temperature of the water
must have been around 14 degrees) opted to go for a swim in the lake.
Thursday 1 September
This is area is one of Mongolia’s most popular tourist centres, and for
good reason. However by September, almost all of the tourists are
gone. We had this beautiful place almost completely to ourselves
for this, a rest day, staying in a luxurious ger camp. Some of us
fished, some of us swam, some explored on their bikes, and some went on
a horse ride led by by Baatar (Mongolian for hero), the charismatic son
of a famous shaman (himself a shaman), to a nearby peak with stunning
views over the lake and beyond. Some just sat by the lake, soaking up
the peace and the tranquillity of the setting.
Friday 2 September
Lake Hovsgol-Har Us-Ulhonii Davaa (2298 m)- Arisa river
plan for today was to cross the Horidol Saridag chain of mountains, but
we woke up to grey skies and drizzle. Baatar urged us to move quickly,
because if the rain continued, we would be unable to ford the rivers to
reach the planned campsite for the evening. We reach the Ulhonii Pass
by bike, with some wading across marshy hillsides (nothing compared to
what lay ahead). The marshy ground proved to be too much even for our
rugged Russian-built minibuses – one of them got bogged down. Four
hours later after a lot of digging and pushing and pulling, just as
dusk was starting to fall, we finally managed to free the minibus and
so avoid having to camp on the marshy ground. The minibus now freed, we
spent the last hour of daylight cycling over some rough terrain, and
fording numerous rivers, to arrive, cold and damp, at the campsite on
firmer ground on the banks of the river Arisa. We wanted an
adventure holiday in Mongolia, and we were certainly getting one!
Saturday 3 September
Arisa river-Horidoliin Davaa (2238 m)-Renchinlhumbe
expected rain, which had largely stayed away the previous day, arrived
today. The terrain for the next stage was very stony, so the decision
was taken to travel in the minibuses for the next stage. The decision
proved to be a wise one: the fords that we had to cross to get to the
Darhad depression were swollen by the recent rain, and the minibuses
only just managed to make the crossing. Thank goodness we listened to
Baatar - a day later and we would never have got across those fords.
The only regret is that the conditions meant that we did not get to
fully appreciate the spectacular mountain range that we were crossing.
A family in Renchinlhumbe kindly offered us a large room in their home
(the only room in their home in fact!) where we would spend a dry and
warm night in our sleeping bags.
Sunday 4 September
Renchinlhumbe- Darhad Depression -Targan-Hogorgin Gol
was one of the most beautiful days cycling of the whole trip. The
Darhad Depression is an immense prairie dotted with countless sapphire
blue lakes, many of them populated by beautiful white swans. Cycling
under a cloudless sky on good tracks left by cars, we were so
enraptured by the scenery that the kilometres flew by without us
noticing. We camped near a settlement on the banks of a river, and
watched as the sun set over the distant hills. Local shepherds and
horseman came to join us, sitting around the camp fire.
Monday 5 September
Hogorgin Gol- Tuvian Reindeer Herders camp
was by far the most demanding day of the trip. We left Hogorgon
Gol, to cycle to the autumn camp of the reindeer people. The first two
hours were tiring, first we were faced with a a steep slope, and then
we were trying to cycle through really marshy taiga. It had been a wet
summer, and it proved impossible for us to cross the taiga on our
bikes. We eventually abandoned our bikes under some trees, and
walked/waded through the taiga for four hours in order to reach the
camp. We are probably the first people to ever reach the camp without
the use of horses or reindeer! The Tuvian people’s camp is in a
beautiful setting, and as we sat around the fire drying our shoes and
socks, we enjoyed a magnificent sunset, with the glorious spectacle of
the Milky Way as an encore.
Tuesday 6 September
Around the Tuvian Reindeer Herders camp
emerged from our cosy tents to a cold, beautiful, clear frosty
morning. Most of the group had spent the cold night pleasantly
cocooned in their warm sleeping bags, but for a couple of the group,
whose sleeping bags were not quite up to the job, the night had been a
bit on the chilly side! We were to spend the next two days sharing this
beautiful place with the reindeer people, and seeing how they live. We
found it difficult to imagine how they can spend a lifetime surviving
in these conditions all year round. The reindeer people spent the
afternoon preparing for the move to their winter camp with calm, almost
military precision. Everyone knew their job, and silently went about
their tasks to perfection. Within a few hours, everything was
disassembled and the caravans of reindeer departed with their loads of
people and possessions: kettles, clothes, toys, bikes, stoves -
everything they owned. Their efficiency was fascinating. The Tuvian
people are one of very few ethnic groups like this that still survive
on the planet, so it was a great privilege for us to meet these truly
Wednesday 7 September
Tuvian Reindeer Herders camp –Tsagaannuur
we awoke on the morning of our second day at the camp, only a few of
the reindeer people’s tents remained. The village had already been
almost completely moved to the winter camp. If we had been a day later,
we would have missed them completely. When we heard that Erke, our
charming logistics manager, had managed to arrange for horses to carry
us back to our bikes, everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief, safe in
the knowledge that another four hour trek through the marshy taiga had
been avoided! Instead, we enjoyed a pleasant horseride through the
taiga (although for some of us the two hours on horseback involved more
discomfort than the entire two weeks spent on their bikes!). Once back
on our bikes, two hours hard pedalling through the muddy taiga, brought
us the welcome relief of a nice dry dirt track which took us to the
village of Tsagaannur. The ger camp where we were to sleep was closed
due to an accident involving the owner (the nearest hospital is in
Mörön at least a days drive away), but thanks to Erke, we were lucky
enough to be invited to stay at the nearby military camp. No bathrooms
and no showers, but at least a warm room with camp beds and mattresses
to sleep on. After a good evening meal, as we shared a good bottle of
Chinggis vodka, the officer in charge of the camp told us how his 24
men had to patrol 300km of border with Russia on horseback, and the
tale of a gruesome encounter between his soldiers and the Tsaatan.
Thursday 8 September
idyllic setting. We spent the day on our bikes, exploring the
countryside around Tsagaannuur. The vibrant colours of the landscape,
the blues of the sky and the lakes, the greens of the meadows, in the
clear unpolluted air make this place a paradise for photographers.
Because the next few nights were to be spent camping, we were keen to
make the most of being in town, especially the ability to take a
shower. However one of the two public showers was closed, and the other
was rudimentary; the water was heated by a stove on the ground floor,
and the lady running the public showers carried buckets of hot water up
a narrow rickety staircase to be poured into a tank on the first floor.
The water then flowed through a series of badly joined pipes before
dribbling out of the shower head. With eleven dirty cyclists needing a
shower, the poor lady was kept busy for a quite a while!
Friday 9 September
long but memorable day on the bikes. We left the lakes and meadows of
Tsagannuur behind us, to climb up onto grassy plains, crossing many
rivers as we went. There were snow-capped mountains in the distance,
yaks and camels grazing on the plains, and the noise of the hooves of
the herds of wilds horses running alongside us was a never to be
forgotten sound. A family invited us into their ger, and served us tea
and delicious freshly made cottage cheese sweetened with sugar.
Finally, tired but happy, after a beautiful day, we arrived at Ulaan
Uul, where a family had invited us to put us up for the night in their
Saturday 10 September
plan was for us to cross the next mountain pass by bike, but the
weather took a turn for the worst, starting to rain, so we loaded the
bikes onto the minibuses and climbed in. Once again, the muddy ground
caused big problems, and the one of the minbuses got stuck; it required
much discussion and a couple of hours of serious digging to free it. A
small 4x4 jeep carrying a family of eight (yes eight!) also got stuck a
few yards away from the minibus, so we helped to free them. There are
no tow trucks and very few passing cars, so goodness knows how long
they would have been stuck there had we not been there too! By
late afternoon, the weather improved, so we took to our bikes for the
last couple of hours. We stopped for the night to camp at a beautiful
spot in the loop of a river, surrounded by cliffs of all different
Dimanche 11 September
had already ridden this stretch in 2011, but were keen to share this
enchanting stretch with this year’s group. It was hard work though! We
cycled up a steep slope to reach a plateau overlooking Siberian
woodland. A hair-rasing descent followed, to emerge onto endless
grasslands, dotted here and there with gers. Curious shepherds would
emerge out of nowhere as we passed, curious to see this strange band of
travellers. When we stopped for lunch on the banks of a stream, the
family from a nearby ger came to visit us – the young daughter wearing
her very best boots for this special occasion. Arriving in Tsagaan Uul
in the early evening, we had to make an unscheduled stop because of a
mechanical problem with one of the minibuses. Amazingly, by the next
morning, the local mechanic had fixed it – if you turned up at a garage
in Europe at six o’clock on a Sunday evening with a serious mechanical
problem, it is pretty unlikely that it would be ready for you to
continue your journey first thing the next morning! We spent the night
at a guest house in the village – the owners surprised but pleased to
to see the unexpected sight of eleven weary cyclists and their
Mongolian support team!
August 12 September
off on our bikes in the morning, the terrain was flatter and less
spectacular at first, but we descended into a pleasant river valley,
and found a nice spot by the river for our last night under canvas. The
afternoon was spent sunbathing, reading, fishing, sleeping, and we
gathered around the camp fire in the evening to share our last evening
in the wilderness under the sparkling Milky Way!
Tuesday 13 September
day on the bikes for this year. Not so many kilometers, but closer to
Mörön. It was like cycling on a corrugated iron roof! The surface
of the dirt roads was hard and bumpy, corrugated by the many heavy
vehicles using them. If all of our cycling tour had been on roads like
this, most of the group would have spent the entire trip in the minibus!
Wednesday 14 September
all over for this year! we flew back to UB in a Fokker twin propeller
plane, to spend half a day as tourists, shopping, enjoying a show
featuring Mongolian traditional music and dance, and eating out. After
that, it was time for the flight back to Italy, with us already
thinking about when we might return. PV
group of this trip was composed of Sonja Brambati, Giulio Ceppi, Eric Chabert, Camillo Gerosa, Cesare Mauri, Franco Scotti, Alessandro Pozzi, Pascal Tillard, Ruggero Vaia, Paolo
Vitali, Steven Wall.
We were accompanied by our Mongolian friends: Erke, Damia, Baatar, Andra, Bogii, Bihaa e Gandaa.
Support: cycling with no support vehicle,
with bags, water, and without knowing which tracks to take is very
difficult, and would definitely take at least twice as long. You would
also be dependent on the hospitality of nomadic families and some
Best period: September might be the best time because of more stable weather. Do not underestimate the ford streams in case of rain!
Quote: We travelled on average between 1500 and 2100 meters above sea level. Some stages were a little higher, max 2315m.
Temperature: at night and early morning, in
the taiga where the reindeer people live, September already falls below
zero, during the day the sun warms nicely and you can reach 20 degrees
in the warmest areas.
Visa: you need the tourist visa for 30 days,
and the entry must occur within three months of issue. From the Embassy
of Mongolia website you can download the form to fill out and send with
a photo and proof of payment of a fee.
Flight: The Aeroflot flights via Moscow are typically the most
comfortable, or with Air China via Beijing, sometimes cheaper but a
Currency exchange: In September 2016 one Euro
corresponded 2500 Mongols Tughrik. The cost of living is much lower
than in Europe, but agencies now ask tourists for much higher figures
in Euros or Dollars.
Bike: The pass between Hovsgol lake and
Renchinlhumbe is hard going, with several fords and a very stony final
stretch. The rest of the cycling is mostly on good dirt tracks or
roads. To reach the reindeer people encampments you should go on
horseback; we tried by bike, but after two hours we had to abandon our
bikes in the taiga and walk for another 4 hours through marshland.
Bring your own or rent: On the international flight to bring your
bike you pay an addition lump-sum which depends on the airlines
company. In domestic flights, the weight limit is 15 kg, including hand
baggage, but the fee for overweight is quite low. Some agencies have
bikes to rent, but check the quality!
Gear: Although backed by an agency always bring some tool for basic repairs to bicycles.
very rare, the worst danger is the glass from broken bottles of vodka,
but better to have robust tires, self-repairing inner tubes and bands
between inner tube and tire. On this trip, with eleven cyclists, there
were only two or three punctures and a couple of damaged tires.
Cartography: There is a Russian cartography
to 500,000, maybe available on some website; on the place (Large State
Stores) you can find some tourist maps to very vague 2,000,000, and the
1,000,000 ATLAS ROAD which is definitely the best thing.
Where to sleep: The best accommodation is in fixed ger camps, which
are used by tourists and travelers. They are similar to our camping,
with common bathrooms and showers, and usually a bigger ger that serves
as a restaurant. The ger where you sleep has a diameter of about five
meters, and contains two or three beds, a rudimentary wood-burning
stove and a cabinet; they are very welcoming and pleasant, and can be
quite luxurious. Unfortunately on this route there are only two ger
camps, one on Hovsgol Lake and one in Tsagaannuur (we found it
closed!). The rest of the time, we slept in tents, with the exception
of two nights spent with families in the villages of Renchinlhumbe and
Ulaan Uul. At Tsagaan Uul there is a "Hotel" (rudimentary rooms without
220V as in Europe. The sockets are like our old two-pole with no earth.
Only the biggest ger camps and close to the city are connected to the
220V network; most use solar panels or generators. The cigarette
lighters sockets in the minibuses and cars are useful for recharging
telephones, cameras and GPS devices.
outside the capital there’s network within a few tens of kilometers
from the main towns, but the network in recent years is spreading. No
cover in the taiga.
normal bicycle clothing, with the addition of a sweatshirt and warm
jacket for cloudy days, a light waterproof jacket, warm clothes for
morning and evening, warm sleeping bag for the night. Tents and cooking
equipment are generally provided by the agency if you use one -
otherwise equip yourself!
unless you are a vegetarian, there is no problem for the food, which is
varied, but predominantly meat-oriented (beef, sheep, mutton, horse,
yak). Some vegetables, some pasta, chocolate, milk, yogurt, bread. The
cook supplied by the agency, who travelled with us for the whole of the
trip, produced some amazing meals with these basic ingredients!
on the web you can find free maps with sufficient definition for
traveling. One of these is the OSM (Open Street Map), also available
Have a nice trip! PV