Bikepacking the Altai Pt3 (the best part) – Mongolia and Russia

We soon found our legs in Mongolia, they were where they’ve always been but they just got a bit tired with the riding in China. After the town of Burgan and us force feeding cows watermelon, we had full supplies and were cycling north along a very lonely track that meandered beside a river. Some tracks feel lonely but you’re still not too far from civilisation. A quick glimpse on the GPS map revealed that this little strip of gravel was about as far from anywhere that we’ve ever been and blog readers will know we’ve been to some pretty remote places!

We saw literally nothing for the first day of riding. There were no roads off, just our rocky track in an arid landscape – that took the breath away. The river was the key it meant we had water and could relax along the way. We saw a few lone horsemen as we set up camp and surely other eyes had been upon hidden in the hills us as we rode – herders, hunters who knows, but as empty goes this area is the very definition.

The next day we were up early and riding north again, basic mud brick houses started appearing in the valley and we caught glimpses of our first herds of camels. The valley alternated between steep narrow gorge and then winding and wide open. At times the track was cut into the valley walls, sitting precariously above the river.

It was just perfect bikepacking riding, although there was that nagging feeling that the crucial bridge might be broken or there were no shops for days, but whats an adventure without life threatening unknowns! Whatever lay ahead we kept pushing the pedals and straining our necks at the eagles overhead.

We finally met our first occupied house and an odd collection of people at the bridge came out to greet us. Note the stylish velvet waistcoat.

The village of Jargalant was on our GPS as having a shop and it didn’t disappoint. Not an epic selection of food but enough to keep us going. I was in the shop deciding between stale bread and millet seeds while outside Marion and Jack were being harassed by a drunk guy in an overloaded hay truck. I stepped out and Jack was keen we moved on. The guy was demanding a kiss from Marion and was generally being an idiot. We quickly rode on and did a loop up an alleyway to lose him. Drink is something that impacts life in a lot of Mongolia and Central Asia, but the more religious areas tend to be safer where the Muslims don’t drink (as much) like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Sadly in Mongolia it is something that bike travellers will probably encounter. We loaded the bikes and stopped in one more shop for a final few bits. I was trying to find porridge oats but failed, instead we had some weird seed based breakfast that I think none of us want to repeat!

As we left town there was a small ford to cross and as we stopped to assess its depth we saw the same hay truck approach. The same drunk guy was gibbering away at us from the window and opened the door. Finally with a few more stern words and glares they drove off. We gave it a few minutes and got on the bikes. In the distance the truck was driving dust in its wake. Just as we relaxed again we saw they had turned around about 1km up ahead. It was late and the town didn’t feel particularly friendly. We saw a row of 4 gers and rode over and asked to camp beside them. A friendly bunch of people we had finally deterred the truck and we’d got a great place to sleep.

The Gers belonged to one family the grandparents and then each one belonged to a son or daughter and their children. It was one hug family.

They were all amazed by the tents, bikes and then us cooking on the MSR Dragonfly store.
We finished eating and one girl spoke a few words of English and invited us for tea in the Gers. We had chai/tea, fried bread and then about 7 kinds of dried cheese. Each one different in someway but a challenge to eat. One too hard, one too strong, one had hair/fluff in it. Altogether an interesting spread!!

The stars we amazing it’s fair to say.

The next day was another long stretch of 200km+ before Rashaant and we’d camp in the middle of it to break the distance.

We had now left the main river and water was something we certainly kept an eye on as we crossed the vast steppe alone. We’re still in the outer west corner of Mongolia all the time not far from China. The track was sandy in places and heavily corrugated in others, but generally decent for our 700x42mm tyres. Our Tripster AT and ATR really were the perfect bikes for this.

After a long day we camped up in an isolated spot not far from a stream that had a certain blackness to it, but we had no choice but to drink it. We stocked up on water and I climbed up a hill to get perspective of just how remote and lonely we were; 100km on rough tracks to the nearest village. This isn’t the place for anything to go wrong……

As Jack rode over to get more water after dinner, I was sitting by the stove when I heard, then saw a jeep approaching. It was headed straight for us. Is this good or bad? Immediate thought was bad. The occupants pull over and pile out all armed. One with a tripod. Hello I said. One is European, and says hello back in a Spanish accent. They are hunters scouting for long horn sheep. They manage the hunting in this area and are preparing for a visit from rich and probably overweight Americans to come over just to shoot the wild sheep. We’ll all pretty offended by the concept as there’s hardy much food for the locals let alone Americans flying in just to shoot stuff because it has big horns. The guide tries to justify the activity. He manages the area and controls the sheep population, the Americans also pay $100,000 per sheep shot. That goes back into the government to manage the environment. I remain sceptical as to how much of that absurd amount goes to the people who need it. Still we might need them so stay polite. The show us the sheep on the hills through the telescope. You’d never guess they were up there with the human eye. Quietly grazing minding their own business.

We wave good bye, at least glad there are some friendly people in the area.

That night I get sick, by morning we’re both out of the tent more than in it. It’s pretty bad. We’re not in the place to chill out and get better, bar that Jeep we’ve seen nobody. Luckily Jack has stayed healthy, it must have been the last Ger we went into for tea, where Jack had stayed outside looking busy and essentially trying to avoid being offered more rancid cheese products! Either way it was only 2 out of 3 of us.

We have to pack up the tent and try to eat. We have a pass to climb before the 80km beyond that to get to food and shelter. We have enough food for a day and a bit so were OK still at teh moment. We suspect the black water might also be the cause but we have nothing else to drink.
We are reduced to walking up the pass one foot after the other, so painfully slowly.

After what seems a lifetime we reach the top where Jack has been chatting to a man on a moped who kindly left some sweets for us after seeing us struggle.

It’s a long day but now mostly downhill. We see the hunters jeep once again and they give us clean bottles of water to help us out. We pass one other car and even that has a bust alternator and the occupants are stuck. One of them has wandered up the hill with a rifle to shoot some food to eat as they might be stuck for some time. At least we have bikes.

After the toughest day on the bike, the world around us is feeling a brutal place to survive as we reach Rashaant.

We stay with a man and his family and feel anti-social as we just try to sleep! The man’s father is an Eagle hunter, I bump into him as I dash to the outside long drop toilet. I am in thermal merinos and him in a large fur coat and stands over 6ft tall. I shake hands and say hello, it’s clash of styles, looks and cultures. He chats via sign language and shows us photos of him on his horse, eagle on arm it’s all pretty imressive.

As we get back on the bikes and progress north we meet more eagle hunters and see Steppe and Golden eagles near Ulgii.

It’s a beautiful thing to see the close well trained relationship between bird and owner. There’s mutual respect and the eagles are always released back into the wild to breed.

They only hunt in winter when the fur and food is most needed. They can kill rabbits, hares, foxes and two eagles can kill a wolf when working together.

Ulgii the next stop is the only big town we’ll visit in Mongolia. We find a cheap hotel and sleep a lot and we also find a good Turkish restaurant where we mostly eat chips!

The final stretch to Russia we stayed by another Ger to shelter from the constant wind and while we’re tired we savoured the atmosphere of this unique area, riding it by bike makes it an unbelievable experience.

The hills were higher and a light snow started to fall in this part. The Gers have dung smoke bellowing out the chimneys.

The Russian border marks the stat of paved road once again. We ride downhill for miles to the official check point. It’s the easiest border to cross so far, no search just a couple of questions. On the other side is a cafe selling fried pastys and coffee. It’s a welcome stop!

The atmosphere is more like the European alps as we see the full Altai rise up into the sky with many glaciers on this norther aspect. The pine forests and fast flowing rivers complete the scene.

The houses are wooden and look cosy. Each with a Banya or sauna in the garden for winter cosiness and washing too. The road twists and turns, eventually away from the mountains as birch woods start and we descend further.

We end the ride in a town called Gorno Altayysk in the north of the Altay Republic, an autonomous region of Russia within southern Siberia.

Jack had found a bike shop via Instagram and had arranged for 3 cardboard bike boxes. They kindly drop them at the Air B&B where we stay in the city. It’s a depressing place with heavy industry and a mist that hangs in the mornings, but like so much of this trip we meet friendly people.

The end of the trip arrived and we called into the local supermarket, filled our water bottles up with draught beer, grabbed a melon and celebrated! What a ride it’d been!

Any thoughts or questions?

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