Nomadic Mongolian Winter Adventure
I stood next to a snow/sand mixed road with cold stiff hands, frozen face and could feel the sweat underneath my thin wind-breaker jacket freeze as I stood in a total whiteout, trying to have a quick few sips of tea before jumping back on the bicycle to get the blood flowing. The four long dragging minutes standing in the wind, as snow hit me from all angles felt like an hour, but all I could think was…. This is exactly where I should be!! I’m in Mongolia, in the middle of the winter and learning more than anything I have done before.
The moment when I cycled into Mongolia, I’ve been on the adventure for seventeen months. I’ve heard a few stories about Mongolia and read alot with my personal research. The norm was…
- Go in the summer, not in the winter
- If in winter, make sure you are warm and that your vehicle has a workable air conditioning
- Don’t stay outside for long periods of times in the winter and have a companion with you
- Temperatures can fall below -40*C
- VERY REMOTE & NOT MANY PEAPLE
All these things made me exited! Im going in winter, alone and will be camping everywhere except when reaching Ulaanbaatar. For almost a decade I had these pictures in my head of rolling hills, snow horizons and lots of camels. I’ve been dreaming about visiting Mongolia for a long time, but never knew I would to it as I was about to do it. It was now time to take this adventure another notch up… lets cycle through Mongolia in winter!
As I crossed over the Mongolian border, which could hardly been seen in the sandstorm, things changed dramatically from how its been in Siberia. The road turned bad, it was freezing and the wind were twirling through the mountains. I covered my mouth with two Buff’s, slid the snow goggles over my eyes, put on another layer and stared into the distance… or more straight into the sandstorm around me. The weather was miserable and I have only been in Mongolia for ten minutes!
Everything I’ve learned in the seventeen months on the road was about to be tested at the same time… cold weather, strong winds, remoteness, snow, gravel, rocks and all these will be combined on the Mongolian roads. It was in the middle of winter and was about to learn more about the winter, my capabilities and how to handle extreme low temperatures. This was the kind of challenge I was looking forward to and this is what adventure is really about. If there is no risk, massive challenge or dangers, you are on a holiday and not an adventure!
Mongolia has a total populations of 2,8 million and almost half lives in Ulaanbaatar. This meant there was not much going on between “the big towns”, with only a few Gers with farmer families every 50km or so. 1,5 millions people is spread out over 1 565 008 km2!
The ink frozen thermostat was hitting the same low temperatures of Kazakstan and Siberia, but felt much different. The wind made the feel temperatures drop dramatically, the direction of the wind was very unpredictable and will about to change throughout the day. So to be happy with a tailwind when I jumped out of my frozen tent in the mornings and smile with a current tailwind did not happen as the direction will soon turn into another direction. On the third day in Mongolia, I quickly realised what the effect the windy weather had on your body. In -30°C, with winds soaring at around 50km/h, my fingers lost feeling for the first time on the adventure.
Every single part of Mongolia had something special, but I personally loved the provinces of Bayan-Olgii, Hovd, Dzavhan and Arhangay the most. This was the areas where you might find some nomadic farmer guiding his livestock through the cold valleys on his horse or the Gers where the families was always happy to give tea or a plate of food. The Gers also became my main water source as I could no longer melt snow and there was not many frozen rivers along the way.
I was surprised when the snow totally disappears in the West and then had to struggle through the sand, loose gravel and rocky areas. The days became long and extremely cold, as I could not help to sweat as I cycled or pushed the bike through these terrains. 95% of the time there would be some kind of freezing wind blowing throughout the day.
Its hard to explain what makes Mongolia so special. You would sit in the middle of nowhere looking over the rolling hills, untouched nature, animals and its so quiet your ears feel like exploding because of the utter silence. In the short amount of time I spend in Mongolia, I fell in love with this nothingness around me. Since then I’ve been wondering how many times I would get this on the rest of the adventure. Not seeing any cars for days on end… thats how it should be!
I love being around people and to socialise, but while saying this I also believe I’m very good on my own. I don’t get bored or tired of just living in the moment. There is always something to do, think about or experience that keeps my mind from becoming crazy. As I cycled through this amazing country, I would shoot through towns as fast as I could, trying to get to the nothingness and into the real nature again. Thats where I really want to be!
The cycling throughout Mongolia has been the toughest part of the whole adventure. The remoteness came with extremely bad roads, most of which was sand, loose gravel and very rocky roads. I was going at a very slow pace most of the time, trying not to sweat. I pushed my bicycle over 100km through deep sand and gravel as cycling was impossible. Sweat was unavoidable at times and my clothes froze on regular intervals. I have never been so physically tired as I have been throughout Mongolia, but this was why I was here… and I loved it!! If there is not huge daily challenges, I don’t see it as an adventure. I have to keep challenging myself mentally, physically, learn new things and try to find and exceed my limits. This is why Im here and Mongolia really gave most of what you want out of an adventure… physically and mentally.
My 1 200 km stretch from Bayan-Olgii towards Ulaanbaatar took three weeks of non stop cycling. Without a break day I was exhausted when I reach the Mongolian capital city after experiencing temperatures down to -38°C, feel temperatures of -45°C, frozen sleeping bag, winds up to 90km/h and the craziest roads to date. Most days I had to stop every 30 minutes to shake my jacket to get rid of all the ice underneath. Every kilometer was hard work, but it was totally worth it.
Most of the locals greeted me with a smile as I asked for water. Some of the locals would not let me go without drinking some tea, eat or drink a shot of vodka with the men. One guy surprised me as he took a sheep head from the pot, placing it in front of me with a massive smile.
In Ulaanbaatar I met awesome people from Australia, Germany, USA, NZ and a few more countries. Made great friends that I will definitely met up again sometime in the future! These people took me into their houses and we had so much fun and great conversations… something that I really missed! I applied and received a 60 day Chinese visa, chilled a few more days and then hit the road again. Have to say it was hard to leave all the great people I’ve met, but it was now time to finish my Asian leg!
When I cycled into China, it was the first time that I truly understood the massive challenges I was facing on a daily basis and how hard I pushed my body throughout Mongolia. My bike was loaded at around 60kg to 65kg (heaviest to date) and the terrain was much worse that any region I have been. But this was the challenges I liked the most, even though I was screaming, shouting and swearing lots of days as I struggled through sand, gravel, snow or bumpy roads. The harder things got, the more I learned and the more I fully enjoyed what I was doing.
So, after a decade of wondering and dreaming about Mongolia I have finally visited this amazing country!!
Some Mongolian stats:
- Km cycled : 2 500 km
- 4°C to -38°C (Feel temps down to -45°C)
- Winds up to 90km/h (mostly head- & cross winds)
- Light snow on some peaks along the way
- Roads: Sand, gravel, rocks, sand and tar
- Off-Road 60%, tar road 40%
- Longest time without seeing one car : 4 days
Cheers for now…