As I’ve mentioned many times, my initial desire to visit Mongolia was kindled by a childhood friend of mine moving here for several years. Several years ago, that desire was further fueled after I watched the awesome miniseries ‘Long Way Round‘ starring Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman. The two actors, also close friends, embarked on a 31,000 km journey around the world on a pair of BMW R1150GS Adventure motorcycles. During the course of that trip, they rode through some of Mongolia and lit the spark of an idea in my mind. While my own motorcycle trip from Tsetserleg to Tariat was nothing close to theirs in scope (320 km round trip on an old Mustang 150 cc motorcycle), it was still one of the highlights of my trip!
The idea to ride to Tariat wasn’t even mine. I’d wanted to go there to check out Terkhiin Tsaagan Nuur National Park for some awesome hiking and camping. To get there, I would have to find some locals going both there and back. I would also have to figure out how to get into the park itself, so Sarah (at the Fairfield) was a little unsure about me trying it by myself. Then, she had an idea and asked me if I knew how to ride a motorcycle.
I’ve never ridden a motorcycle before. I’ve ridden plenty of scooters, but they’re entirely different machines. So it might’ve been a little bit of a stretch when I said, “Yeah, I think I could do that.”
She got in touch with a guy who agreed to rent me his bike for a pittance. I made it clear (now that everything was set to go) that this was a ‘different’ kind of motorcycle than I was used to, so I had the guy show me how to do everything, no matter how basic. I think he grew more and more nervous the more stupid questions I asked. Eventually, I started practicing getting the bike started and shifting between the gears. It seemed way too difficult and I thought I was just a horrible rider. After I voiced my frustration, he took a look and decided the shifter needed to be replaced. After he did this, I picked it up really quick.
After a quick ride around the block and a stop for gas, I felt ready (ha!). I hefted my bag, strapped on the ridiculous construction helmet the guy passed me, and headed west.
Within minutes, I knew I was going to love the trip. As I carefully cruised down a gravel road on the hill just out of town, I saw a brilliant blue sky stretched before me and the rugged, wild terrain of Mongolia. YES!
Luckily the road changed to a paved one after only a few kilometers. I was still getting used to the bike, so I really appreciated the surprisingly smooth and yawningly straight stretches of road. I pressed on at a relaxed pace, stopping every once in a while to take a swig of water, stretch my legs, and take in the amazing views that were ubiquitous for the entirety of the trip.
As I rode, I passed quite a few truckers and other riders like me… all locals. I got a lot of bemused and befuddled glances as I cruised by with my white face and goofy hat. Once, when I was relaxing by the side of the road eating lunch, a pair of Mongolians pulled up on a motorcycle of their own. We exchanged pleasantries, then the older man opened his duffel bag and pulled out a fifth of vodka. I stared at him for a moment as he offered it to me. It’s very rude in Mongolia to turn down an offered drink (it’s actually an insult) so I touched it to my lips and handed it back. I was still getting used to the motorcycle, no way I was going to start slugging from a bottle of vodka with this dude! He offered me a cigarette next, but I politely waved it off. After a few minutes, they got back on the motorcycle and headed out… the old guy, thankfully, was not driving. Ahhh Mongolia.
The weather, for the most part, was fantastic. Though, about halfway through, I saw some crazy looking clouds on the horizon, rolling ever so steadily on an intercept with the road. I opened up the throttle and managed to beat the worst of it, I only had to endure a minute or so of insane gusts of wind and stinging drops of icy rain. I also lost my helmet when a gust of wind knocked it off, so I had to stop and retrieve it quick. Yeah, yeah, I know… quality helmet.
Some time later, the paved road ended and changed to a dirt road packed with rock. It was rough riding, so I had to go much slower and take more breaks. Along the way, I came across an eerily quiet grove of trees draped with silk prayer scarves and protected by fences. Apparently, these trees are believed to have roots that connect with all other spiritual trees, forming a ‘world tree’ of sorts.
Little did I know, but the dirt road carried on for about 40 km to the town of Tariat. After a while, I was sick and tired of constantly being jostled around by the rocks and having to weave my way through them. Then, I noticed a car making impressive time by driving way off in the distance… on the grassy surface of the plains. I figured, “Heck, why not” and veered off the road to follow a tiny dirt track into the grass.
SO. MUCH. BETTER. It really says something about the quality of the dirt road that it’s much easier, faster, and more comfortable to not even use it. That last stretch was certainly one of the most liberating, invigorating stretches of riding I’ve ever done. Cruising over the plains, weaving between hills, dodging piles of horse crap and rocks, keeping the distant line of the road in view… it was awesome.
I actually thought I’d missed Tariat at one point, but when I stopped and asked someone for directions they just motioned the way I had been going. Turns out, I was about 10 minutes away from Tariat. So close!
When I arrived in Tariat, I first noticed just how small the town was. Tiny. I made a loop in less than 5 minutes, looking for the entrance to the national park. I saw a sign for a ger camp and, following a hunch, headed in the direction indicated. I crossed a rickety bridge and found myself winding down a treacherous path of crushed volcanic rock. Since there is an old volcano in the national park, I figured I was on the right track. I pushed on and followed the road between two mountains. From there, a huge valley opened up below me. I knew immediately I’d found my destination.
I thought about looking for a place to camp, but was freezing and exhausted and, at that point, just wanted to lay in a warm bed and rest. Giving in to my body’s cries for comfort, I forded a stream on the motorcycle and headed to the distant Khorgo Ger Camp and waited for the owner to come out.
The first thing he said? “Why are you here?” in a tone that communicated how baffled he was that I would even consider coming to Tariat in April. Mr. Bald explained to me his camp didn’t open until June, but if I didn’t mind not having a hot shower and meals I could stay in one of his winter gers for a discounted price. I hadn’t planned on bathing anyways (stinky boy!) and had brought a week’s worth of oatmeal with me, so I was fine with that. He showed me to my ger and invited me to dinner with his family later. I knew I’d made a good choice in stopping by and accepted the invitation.
After a delicious dinner and an enjoyable night with my host and his awesome family, I headed back to my home for the weekend and watched the sun set over a serene setting of mountains, streams, a vast field, and a volcano. My motorcycle lounged motionless in front of my ger, taking a much deserved break. The ride from Tsetserleg to Tariat had been stunning, and I’d managed pretty well despite my lack of experience. I’d made it.