Posted On 20 May 2024
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This entry is part 9 of 28 in the series AusMotorcyclist Issue#32


Finding one’s way in this terrain was a challenge even for our Mongolian guide and support team

Western Mongolia is stark and remote, mostly bare of trees,with a mix of open steppe, hills and rocky outcrops, and semi-desert. Even in the more fertile parts, large sand dunes with wide sandy grasslands surround partly ice-covered lakes. We encountered isolated gers (yurts) with the family livestock nearby or being watched by a lone nomad on his pony.

Mongolia remains a mystery to most. Once it was ruled by Genghis Khan. Then it was his grandson Kubilai Khan. It was once the greatest land empire the world has seen. It had a humble beginning with a small tribe, the Mongols, and an ambitious young leader called Temujin, who was destined to become the Great Khan – the Genghis Khan. Today, it’s again a humble backwater still better known for its past than its present.

While the Gobi Desert to the east and south and the reindeer people of the north are increasingly gaining tourist attraction, the far west of Mongolia is less known, except, perhaps, for the famed Kazakh eagle hunters.

It was through this wilderness of steppe, desert and mountains that we ventured on the not-so-well suited Royal Enfield Bullets.


The ride started in the western town of Uliastai nestled in the foothills of Mongolia’s second biggest mountain range – the Khangai Mountains. We flew there from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and met up with our bikes – all set to go at our already established camp site just out of town.

Our first task in Uliastai was to get acquainted with the bikes and take a short run into town for a bit of sightseeing and purchase of last minute supplies. Beer and vodka were the obvious (read ‘only’) options for evening relaxation!

Next morning it was break camp and begin the saga – without really knowing what was in store for us beyond a few general descriptions.


Over the first few days riding, we became acutely aware of this amazing country.

Finding one’s way in this terrain was a challenge even for our Mongolian guide and support team. There was lots of stopping to talk to local nomads and discussions amongst our crew to determine which valley we should head for. There were no roads as such; and a lot of our riding was across open grasslands dodging the plentiful rocks and marmot holes that hide in the low covering grass.

Battling the edges of the dunes at our first camp at Khar Lake was our initial introduction to sand; but there was more to come in the thick drifts in the wheel ruts of the “roads”. We also faced our first river crossing. That was a fun challenge. Nobody dropped a bike but a few got very wet feet.

Bactrian camel


The next stage was making our way along wheel tracks and over grasslands heading roughly north-west to meet up with the main “highway” going west, which, in reality, was a confusing maze of wheel tracks spread across a few hundred metres and constantly crisscrossing one another. Soon after reaching it, we stopped at the town of Songnio to refuel and stock up on supplies in anticipation of three days without any permanent habitation.

Got lots of attention from the local folk, especially the kids. We were obviously items of great curiosity.

It wasn’t too far further west that we entered the Great Lakes Depression.

Route went from right to left

This is a vast area of semi-arid desert.

In fact, it’s regarded as a northern extension of the Great Gobi Desert.

The terrain changed from the thicker vegetation of the rolling grasslands with a firm soil base to a much flatter, sandy base with a thin scattering of short struggling grass. Close up, the grass barely camouflaged the sandy base, and at a distance the ground had a vaguely yellow hue.

The maze of wheel tracks reflected the desert terrain, with an ample supply of loose sand particularly in the deeper ruts. The tracks varied in their firmness of compacted sand, some road base of sorts at times and treacherous soft sand. There were lots of times when riding on the thinly grassed sand base beside the tracks was a better option.

Town of Uliastai

After four days of sand dunes, water crossings, open steppe and confusing wheel tracks, we were stunned by the sudden appearance of tarmac as we approached the large salt water Khyargas Lake.

It was a pleasant surprise and a welcome relief for the rest of the day. No sooner had we reached the bitumen than we stopped for lunch, which we could comfortably have in the middle of the road – undisturbed over an hour and a half. The bitumen took us to a point along the north shore of the lake for the night’s camp. A rare opportunity for a full body wash and an afternoon enjoying the lake view.

No one’s coming,let’s have lunch!


It was a long day today but not all riding.

We woke to a savage westerly that was proceeding to dismantle the camp before we could intervene. Although we had planned for a late start the wind forced us to break camp ahead of schedule.

The first 50km was on the bitumen road riding at an awry angle struggling with the wind. Then came the turnoff to head for the night’s destination. The next 30-40km was across open semi-desert whose base alternated between fine shale, sand and a mixture of both.

The fine shale was deepish and loose, competing with sand to be the most challenging and tiring experience. Then followed sections of decomposed granite, soil, sandy loam, grass, rocks… and whatever! The wind kept up and was later supplemented by rain. We stopped at the small village of Olgii (not to be confused with our final destination) and took over a tiny “Tea House” where the support team prepared a very welcome lunch and where we could dry out and regain some warmth. The nearby Olgii Lake (Uvsiin Khar Us Lake on most maps) was our intended destination but the wind drove us to the shelter of a string of rocky outcrops where we found a protected meadow amongst towering granite walls. Fortuitously, the wind and rain dissipated and the sun highlighted the idyllic setting of our new camp site.

As had become inevitable whenever we stopped, nomads appeared on motorbikes or horses either out of curiosity or to welcome us to their patch.

On this occasion, still relatively early in the afternoon, what soon emerged was an invitation from a nomad family in the adjacent valley. We were welcomed into their family ger (yurt) with their freshly produced Yak yogurt followed by a long discussion about their lifestyle.

That was after a climb to the rocky peaks surrounding the camp. Another exhausting but satisfying day!

The next day started with a ride across the now familiar semi-desert steppe past grazing Bactrian camels and a lone herder with his goats until we reached the “highway” south. More multi intersecting sandy tracks were to be the order of the day.

Nomad family we visited


We camped 30km short of the provincial capital of Khovd where we refuelled the bikes and vans. After a visit to the local market in Khovd, we set up lunch within the remnants of the Manchurian garrison dating back to days when the Chinese Empire regained lost “possessions” from the Mongols and exerted control over much of the Mongolian Steppes. There’s not much left of it today.

From Khovd we headed further west into Mongolia’s highest mountain range: the Altai Mountains. Despite being assured that the sand had ended, we found that the foothill ridges and plateaus had lots of sandy sections in the early parts. By the time we reached a river flat to camp the night – just short of the climb into the main mountain range – the road had become mostly gravel and firmly packed soil. I remember thinking: mercifully it will stay that way.

Flip a coin?


It was now time to head into the Altai Mountains proper. I had been expecting something akin to crossing the Himalayas but without the same altitude. The twisting gravely road was similar but the pass we crossed was barely discernible. What made it distinctive was the vista of distant snow covered peaks, the valley plateauing out in front and the road snaking its way across it. That was a unique spectacle for our tour so far.

A couple of decent-sized water crossings added some additional excitement to the day. While sand was minimal, the gravel road base was loose, constantly shifting and heavily corrugated – interspersed with deeply trenched and sharply undulating hard packed clay or dirt. The two prominent characteristics of the ride were the need for vigilant concentration and unforgiving shuddering. I found the day pretty tough. In contrast to the first half or more of the trip when at the end of every day I was fresh and chirpy, over these later days I was finding that I was absolutely dead-beat. So, it was a great relief to get to the camp site, which a few of us, having lost sight of the main group at some stage, eventually “found” tucked away behind a promontory into Lake Tolbo. Once again we had a spectacular camp location.


Finally, the last ride day dawned. I’d have to confess that I felt somewhat relieved; but careful not to be overconfident until I saw the sun set in this provincial capital of Olgii – our final destination. One of the ‘payments’ for our spectacular camp sites was the sometimes devious and arduous access.

The previous night’s site was right up there with side-sloping, river-stoned wheel tracks round a promontory jutting to the lake’s edge. Having retraced that part next morning, it was then a run across the open steppe to the main road, which had turned to bitumen a few kilometres before we turned off to camp the night before.

It was an easy 50km run into Olgii on a bitumen road. Of course, there was the inevitable “access to camp site” challenge to end the ride. This time our site was just beyond the town by the fast-fl owing Khovd River.

I was pleased to have rested the bike at our final camp site feeling that I had accomplished the goal of riding across the wilds of Western Mongolia. But the day was still young. A plan quickly developed to visit some eagle hunters in the neighbouring countryside. That would be an 80-100km round trip. That was a very welcome proposal but as far as I was concerned, my bike wasn’t moving – at least with me on it. So I opted to make the trip with Bagi, one of our drivers, in his van that constantly blared his Barbie Girl music. Good call on my part: the roads out and back were as bad as we had encountered on the tour.

Fly, no, no, don’t eat me, fly!


The eagle hunters’ family we met was still in its winter home – a solid wood construction. They would soon move to their summer ger higher in the hills.

Their hospitality was overwhelming.

First, a table of mixed goodies, followed by a meal of their cooked-up dried mutton. They dry their meat and keep it for several weeks before cooking it as needed.

Far western Mongolia – essentially the province of Bayan-Olgii where we ended our tour – is populated predominantly by Kazakh people who have their own (Kazakh) language and culture. They are Muslims who practise their religion in their own private and unostentatious way. While today’s international borders separate them from Kazakhstan by a thin sliver of Russia, there would have been a time before super power (in this case Russia and China) interests drew borders with scant consideration of ethnic affiliations. One of the lasting Kazakh traditions in western Mongolia – now lost even in Kazakhstan – is eagle hunting (the eagles being the hunters NOT the hunted).

It was a very pleasant surprise to discover we were visiting the very family that had featured in recent international coverage of this tradition. The head of the family is Aisholpan who is a renowned eagle hunter with national and international prizes in the skill as well as in falconry. His then 13 year old daughter had featured in a large media spread about the Kazakh eagle hunters of western Mongolia.

The day ended at our camp site with a father and daughter recital of local and some western music. A final farewell to the bikes preceded a flight back to Ulaanbaatar.

This tour was undertaken with Extreme Bike Tours:

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