Road To Ulaanbaatar

posted by: Emma

The sunshine reappears quickly, but it takes a couple of days for us to undo the damage done by our rainy arrival to Tsetserleg. As a break from mud related chores, we make the obligatory hike up a hill to the local temple early one morning, admiring the pagodas and bells on the way with just a handful of devotees. More fascinating to us is the cliff behind where the aim seems to be to get your strip of blue cloth as high up as possible, which must be a variation on the ribbon strewn hill-top ovoos we see each time we climb.

After our clothes have been rung out, tent has been dried and (thanks to Fairfield Cafe) we’ve spent some serious time absorbing old newspapers and magazines from England and drinking real coffee, we begrudgingly head outdoors to do something about our bicycle chains which are thickly coated with sand and mud.

Galdaan Zuu temple Galdaan Zuu temple buddha

We’re distracted from this and other important tasks when an Australian Landcruiser pulls into the car park and Ian introduces himself. He’s a Canadian who has spent eight years working in Australia and after quizzing us on our travels to date, he admits that he promised a friend that he would cycle across Canada in 2012. We spend the rest of the afternoon happily sharing our gained knowledge of bicycle touring before heading out with him for dinner and beers to an empty Mongolian restaurant.

The next day our plans to post new blog entries and sort out onward travel details are thwarted by an aimag-wide (county-wide) power cut so we spend an afternoon impatiently reading trashy novels instead and learn that it may be two or three days until power resumes. Worryingly we’re low on cash and the town’s many ATMs are out of order so chores incomplete we depart in the direction of Kharkhorin.

The roads aren’t all sealed but the cycling is fast and we cover the 115 kilometres between these two towns quickly. Twenty kilometres or so from Kharkhorin we set up our tent in a field of brilliant purple flowers and have just escaped from the usual dusk mosquitoes when our evening is interrupted by a park ranger. He stops his 4WD outside and comes over to show us his ID through the tent’s flyscreen, asking for a “fee” despite the fact we’re fairly sure we’re not in a national park. Opportunistic or not, the guy is out of luck as we tell him that no electricity in Tsetserleg means no money for us, so no money for him unless he can take payment by Visa. His family comes for a quick look at us through the tent door, he mumbles in Mongolian and leaves us in peace.

Tsetserleg market during blackout Ovoo with prayer flags

There is electricity in Kharkhorin and after replenishing our cash supplies we settle into a travellers hangout run by a couple of French expats. Not speaking much French we’re clearly the odd ones out, but the other travellers are a nice enough bunch. Its the town that confuses us, with hotels seeming to outweigh all other businesses, including supermarkets and cafe’s by a ratio of 10:1.

Our night isn’t very quiet. We share our basic dorm room with 50 or so black beetles who seem to enjoy falling off the ceiling onto our beds, a staff member who is scared of staying in the adjoining cafe by herself and the hotel’s dog who we suspect is French by the way he cowers in a corner of our room rather than doing any sort of guarding. With what sounds like a hundred dogs engaging in some sort of dog ruckus outside, not much sleep is had.

The next day, we cycle over to the Erdene Zuu monastery for a quick look before heading out of town. Enclosed by high wall of white stupas, its an impressive sight. Inside there are only a few temples and we peeked our heads in one to admire the devotional paintings crammed into every available space. The inside of the grounds are vast and for the most part empty, but as Mongolia’s oldest Buddhist temple it once held 100 temples and 300 gers.

Erdene Zuu Monastery Erdene Zuu Monastery

Outside the main gates we catch sight of a number of birds of prey waiting to have their photos taken with tourists, though not by choice we suspect. We stop to have a closer look but decline a handler’s offer of a thick leather glove. While at least one of the birds looks visibly unhappy, it was amazing to see these giants up close. We spend the rest of our ride into UB trying to compare the size of the birds we could see in the wild to these specimens.

Buoyed by the knowledge its only a few days of tarmac roads to Ulaanbaatar we get some mileage under our belts at last. Our biggest day is 120 kilometres, two or three times the distance we had managed on unsealed roads. It feels great to eat away at the remaining distance so quickly.

We start to see more cycle tourists pedalling towards us in the distance and usually cross over to swap news on the side of the road. We ask the distance left to Ulaanbaatar while those leaving are interested in just when they would run out of asphalt.

Stopping at a restaurant for lunch one day we come across another cycling couple, one of which has a recumbent bicycle. Nathalie and Michael are on the home leg to France after cycling from Burma to Mongolia, having done a total of 45,000 km on their bicycles so far. We’re still not sure how a recumbent can manage the rough roads here, but they assured us it was not only possible but more comfortable as well.

Emma cycling after Kharkhorin Cultivated fields

Not all news was good, and another French cyclist we talked to reported a harrowing experience in the North of Mongolia near the border with Russia. He had been robbed by a group of illegal loggers who left him tied to a tree. We thought he was very brave for continuing his trip alone and took his warning about not camping too close to Ulaanbaatar to heart. The only problem was he told us that we were only 50 km from the city. While we had planned to camp for one more night, it was only 11am, meaning we could easily complete the remaining distance by mid-afternoon.

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route map for this post

The map below shows the waypoints for this blog post. To view the details of our trip to date take a look at our complete route map.