MONGOLIA
The Tuvian Reindeer Herders
(Tsaatan or Dukha people)
Mountain-bike September 2016
 
Photo Gallery Map
Photo de Franco Scotti, Ruggero Vaia, Paolo Vitali
English translation by Steve Wall.

Le tour de Mongolie en quatre voyages

Versione  Italiana
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Mongolia.... Again?!
When we told friends that this year we were going back in Mongolia for our vacation, the most common reaction was amazement. "Mongolia... Again?! But there are plenty of other beautiful places to see!". Given the commonly held belief that Mongolia is a barrenm empty and monotonous land, it may seem strange that we keep returning there, but this impression of Mongolia could not be further from the truth. The Mongolian landscape is incredibly varied, it has peaks of over 4000m, alpine lakes, the Siberian taiga, boundless prairies, and both sandy and rocky deserts. Mongolia is so immense that although the landscape can sometimes seem repetitive when viewed from a car or bus, travelling by bicycle means you get to appreciate the subtle variations and facets of the Mongolian countryside which you might otherwise miss. On two wheels is the ideal way to experience and appreciate the warmth, strength, and kindness of people who live in simple tents, isolated from the world, even in winter, when the temperature drops below -40 C!
There is just so much space!  For as far as the eye can see, nothing but space and what nature has to offer. No roads, no houses, nothing. The people who live here lead a simple life, with no obligation other than survival. Free to roam this boundless wilderness wherever there imagination takes them, in a land where there are no facilities and the nearest help is days away, they fend for themselves in endlessly creative ways. Such places no longer exist in Europe. So, yes, Mongolia again, and what’s more, we hope it will not be too long before we return there ...
In the far north of Mongolia, between lake Hovsgol and the Darhad depression is an area which fascinated us on our previous trips, and one which we had promised to ourselves that we would revisit. In particular we were fascinated by the idea of being able to reach the camp of the Tuvian tribe, the famous Reindeer People. This ethnic group has now been reduced to just over 300 people, divided into two main groups of about forty families each. They live all year in the taiga, on the border with Russian Siberia, moving their camp about six times a year, in search of pasture for their reindeer. They live in tents similar to the American Indian tepee, with a single outer layer, a rudimentary wood stove in the center, wooden bunks and nothing else. There are no access roads, no telephone connections, no doctors (other than the shaman), no television, no internet. As if this was not extreme enough, in the winter, temperatures fall to -55 C. Yet they are still there, and for the moment at least, they resist. It is not clear how long this way of life will continue, because the younger generations now attend schools in the neighbouring countryside in the winter, and may choose not to pursue such a hard existence. These people, the beautiful lakes of Tsagaannuur, and the plains around Tsagaan Uul are the unforgettable highlights of this, our most recent ride in Mongolia.
To be continued .... Paolo & Sonja


Our circumnavigation of Mongolia in four stages
Early in the summer of 2006, we were climbing with some fellow climber/travellers, in the area of Lecco. In the shade of an overhanging cliff, we stopped to consider what would be the perfect place for an unusual, fascinating mountain biking trip, far from the usual destinations, with wide open spaces and no roads. At some point, someone suggested Mongolia. Who could have imagined that this was the beginning of a beautiful adventure that would take us on four trips to Mongolia, each trip lasting for three weeks, pedalling among the Mongolian highlands?

"The cousin of the wife of a friend of mine knows a Mongolian who can help you" ... thus began the search for information to be able to organize a future trip. The initial idea was to travel independently by bike, bags and tents on the bike, along with food and water. However we found an account of a voyage by a pair of lone travellers, saying that after several months of exhausting effort, they only managed to cover a relatively small distance. We decided that in just three weeks of vacation we would see too little of Mongolia. The ideal solution proved to be to cycle, but with a support vehicle, which would transport all the material, and set up the tents or prepare the ger camp each night. We contacted an agency in Ulaanbaatar which would be able to organize the logistics, and with their help, we organized our first trip
 from Lake Hovsgol to the capital. There was a wonderful togetherness amongst our small, quickly assembled, group of intrepid cyclists (Sonja and I, Amos, Sergio Barbalama and Elide). We will never forget the electrifying experience of riding our (dilapidated rented) bikes through a beautiful golden autumn landscape. 

Back in Italy, my senses overwhelmed as I looked back on the photos of our trip. I found it hard to imagine another place which would be so perfect for this kind of travel. So it was, that in September of 2007, the same group, with the addition of colleague and friend Raffaele, returned to Ulaanbaatar. This time, again supported by the UAZ agency, we set off directly from Ulanbaatar on our (hired and once again not so good) bikes, heading 
east and on to Dalanzadgad in the heart of the Gobi desert. For Raffaele, this, his first such adventure, was a pleasant surprise. For the rest of us, it was confirmation of the beauty of these wild places and the extraordinary people who live there in extreme conditions for most of the year.

So it was that we cycled halfway around Mongolia. We began to think about how we might complete our circumnavigation of Mongolia. Unfortunately, a serious accident to Sonja, meant that the journey
 from the Hovsgol to west planned for 2008 had to be postponed. In 2011, we assembled another group of intrepid cyclists to accompany us on this trip; no Amos or Raffaele this time, but we were joined by Mario, Franz, Silvana, and our Swiss friends, Carlo and Lorenza. After some some serious searching, we managed to track down some decent bicycles to rent for this trip. September 14 found us on the shore of Lake Hovsgol in the middle of a snowstorm and for the first two nights, temperatures of -18°C! Fortunately, the ger camp where we were staying was well organized, and there was plenty of firewood. After that chilly start, the blue skies which are more typical of September in Mongolia, returned. From Hovsgol lake we moved on to the breathtakingly beautiful Tsagaannuur lakes area. Then we headed west to Ölgii, crossing mountains and valleys. Of all our trips, this was the most beautiful and varied from the point of view of stunning landscapes! The icing on the cake was that we arrived (not by chance) in Ölgii on the first day of the famous Eagle festival – that experience alone was well worth the discomfort of our first couple of days in the cold.

With only the section
 from Ölgiy to Dalanzadgadleft to do to complete our perfect circle, we were having trouble getting together a group for this trip. Purely by coincidence, four cyclists from Tuscany contacted us for information about cycling in Mongolia; they were more than happy to join our group, which was then finally joined by the "old hands" of previous trips who could not resist the opportunity to return to Mongolia. By the time we set out, there were fourteen of us in the group which tackled this final leg. Apart from the first few days in the mountains of the Altai, this fourth trip probably had the most repetitive views, as we spent most of the time travelling through the Gobi region. But even here, from the hills to the steppes to the dunes, every day held a surprise, and the nights were illuminated by showers of shooting stars, the like of which are a distant memory in Europe. Each day, the planned itinerary had to be adapted to allow for the weather and for conditions, but the harmony in the group was excellent and there were no complaints from anyone – which is not always the case in such a large group of people, most of whom had never met before embarking on this trip.

The circle is now complete, but I have yet to find a place which is as magical for an adventure on a mountain bike. I think I will do as I have done in previous years, alternating between Mongolia and other places – Africa perhaps, because the lure of Mongolia is still there!
Paolo Vitali

To the Tuvian Reindeer Herders, day by day
Click on the dates for the Photo-Gallery of the days
Monday 29 aout
Mosca-Ulaanbaatar-Bulgan-Uran Togoo
We arrived in Ulaambaatar early on a grey, drizzly morning. Because, for economic reasons, there are now fewer flights between Ulaambaatar and Mörön, we would be setting off to cross most of Mongolia by minibus in order to reach the start of our cycling adventure. First change of plan! Instead of shaking off the jetlag with a day getting to know Ulaambaatar, after a few hours spent waiting for our two minibuses to arrive with our hired bikes (Mongolian time – these things take as long as they take), we climbed into the minbuses to start the 24 hour journey to where we would start pedalling. For the members of the group who were visiting Mongolia for the first time, the long day spent in the bus, getting a first taste of the beauty of the Mongolian landscape (whilst the minibus driver played Italian seventies pop music on the stereo) would be the first of many unforgettable experiences. We passed through Bulgan, and as night fell, arrived at the Uran Togoo ger camp. Sleeping in a ger, under a sky overflowing with bright stars, is always a fascinating experience, one of which I never tire. 
Tuesday 30 August
Uran Togoo-Mörön-Uushigiin Uver-Hargant 
We awoke in Uran Togoo under Mongolia’s traditional blue September skies. After a hearty breakfast (bacon and eggs!), we climbed back into the minibuses to continue our journey. We finally arrived at the start of our bike ride, a few kilometers before reaching Mörön. After the first of many memorable meals enjoyed al fresco, in stunning locations, we set off on our (excellent quality) hired bikes. On what was to be almost our only experience of cycling on a tarmac road in two weeks of cycling, we headed for Mörön. Once in the city, the tarmac ended, and we were cycling on the dirt roads of the city of Mörön. We crossed the city, passing its small airport, and finally reached the beautiful dirt road that was to lead us into the wilderness, to the heart of our adventure. After an hour or so, we reached the archaeological site of Uushigiin Uver, a site with many reindeer stones - megaliths bearing beautiful bronze Age engravings. A brief stop to admire the reindeer stones, and then we continued our ride to Hargant. The ger camp which had hosted the group in 2006 was being renovated, so this was our first night in our two-person tents, camped beside a bend in the river Delger Mörön. Before retiring to our tents we enjoyed the spectacle of the Milky Way looking like a carpet of Christmas lights! 


Mercredi 31 August
Hargant-Hatgal-Lake Hovsgol 
I had already travelled this stretch in 2006, but was happy to be once again surrounded by the beautiful landscapes of these endless Mongolian hills. As our band of contented cyclists passed by a wooden shack situated in the middle of nowhere, with typical Mongolian hospitality a family invited us in, and from the little they had, offered us something to eat to help us on our way. I saw in the eyes of my friends, the same wonder that I had experienced 10 years ago on my first trip to Mongolia. After spending some time with the family, and admiring the horsemanship of the young son, we continued with our ride. The day ended with a spectacular descent to the shores of Lake Hovsgol, and a wonderful day was completed with the spectacle of the lake laid out before us. The braver ones amongst us (the temperature of the water must have been around 14 degrees) opted to go for a swim in the lake. 
Thursday 1 September
Lake Hovsgol

This is area is one of Mongolia’s most popular tourist centres, and for good reason. However by September, almost all of the tourists are gone.  We had this beautiful place almost completely to ourselves for this, a rest day, staying in a luxurious ger camp. Some of us fished, some of us swam, some explored on their bikes, and some went on a horse ride led by by Baatar (Mongolian for hero), the charismatic son of a famous shaman (himself a shaman), to a nearby peak with stunning views over the lake and beyond. Some just sat by the lake, soaking up the peace and the tranquillity of the setting.


Friday 2 September

Lake Hovsgol-Har Us-Ulhonii Davaa (2298 m)- Arisa river
The plan for today was to cross the Horidol Saridag chain of mountains, but we woke up to grey skies and drizzle. Baatar urged us to move quickly, because if the rain continued, we would be unable to ford the rivers to reach the planned campsite for the evening. We reach the Ulhonii Pass by bike, with some wading across marshy hillsides (nothing compared to what lay ahead). The marshy ground proved to be too much even for our rugged Russian-built minibuses – one of them got bogged down. Four hours later after a lot of digging and pushing and pulling, just as dusk was starting to fall, we finally managed to free the minibus and so avoid having to camp on the marshy ground. The minibus now freed, we spent the last hour of daylight cycling over some rough terrain, and fording numerous rivers, to arrive, cold and damp, at the campsite on firmer ground on the banks of the river Arisa.  We wanted an adventure holiday in Mongolia, and we were certainly getting one!  
Saturday 3 September
Arisa river-Horidoliin Davaa (2238 m)-Renchinlhumbe
The expected rain, which had largely stayed away the previous day, arrived today. The terrain for the next stage was very stony, so the decision was taken to travel in the minibuses for the next stage. The decision proved to be a wise one: the fords that we had to cross to get to the Darhad depression were swollen by the recent rain, and the minibuses only just managed to make the crossing. Thank goodness we listened to Baatar - a day later and we would never have got across those fords. The only regret is that the conditions meant that we did not get to fully appreciate the spectacular mountain range that we were crossing. A family in Renchinlhumbe kindly offered us a large room in their home (the only room in their home in fact!) where we would spend a dry and warm night in our sleeping bags. 

Sunday 4 September
Renchinlhumbe- Darhad Depression -Targan-Hogorgin Gol
This was one of the most beautiful days cycling of the whole trip. The Darhad Depression is an immense prairie dotted with countless sapphire blue lakes, many of them populated by beautiful white swans. Cycling under a cloudless sky on good tracks left by cars, we were so enraptured by the scenery that the kilometres flew by without us noticing. We camped near a settlement on the banks of a river, and watched as the sun set over the distant hills. Local shepherds and horseman came to join us, sitting around the camp fire.

Monday 5 September

Hogorgin Gol- Tuvian Reindeer Herders camp 
This was by far the most demanding day of the trip.  We left Hogorgon Gol, to cycle to the autumn camp of the reindeer people. The first two hours were tiring, first we were faced with a a steep slope, and then we were trying to cycle through really marshy taiga. It had been a wet summer, and it proved impossible for us to cross the taiga on our bikes. We eventually abandoned our bikes under some trees, and walked/waded through the taiga for four hours in order to reach the camp. We are probably the first people to ever reach the camp without the use of horses or reindeer!  The Tuvian people’s camp is in a beautiful setting, and as we sat around the fire drying our shoes and socks, we enjoyed a magnificent sunset, with the glorious spectacle of the Milky Way as an encore. 
Tuesday 6 September
Around the Tuvian Reindeer Herders camp
We emerged from our cosy tents to a cold, beautiful, clear frosty morning.  Most of the group had spent the cold night pleasantly cocooned in their warm sleeping bags, but for a couple of the group, whose sleeping bags were not quite up to the job, the night had been a bit on the chilly side! We were to spend the next two days sharing this beautiful place with the reindeer people, and seeing how they live. We found it difficult to imagine how they can spend a lifetime surviving in these conditions all year round.  The reindeer people spent the afternoon preparing for the move to their winter camp with calm, almost military precision. Everyone knew their job, and silently went about their tasks to perfection. Within a few hours, everything was disassembled and the caravans of reindeer departed with their loads of people and possessions: kettles, clothes, toys, bikes, stoves - everything they owned. Their efficiency was fascinating. The Tuvian people are one of very few ethnic groups like this that still survive on the planet, so it was a great privilege for us to meet these truly special people.
Wednesday 7 September
Tuvian Reindeer Herders camp –Tsagaannuur
When we awoke on the morning of our second day at the camp, only a few of the reindeer people’s tents remained. The village had already been almost completely moved to the winter camp. If we had been a day later, we would have missed them completely. When we heard that Erke, our charming logistics manager, had managed to arrange for horses to carry us back to our bikes, everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that another four hour trek through the marshy taiga had been avoided! Instead, we enjoyed a pleasant horseride through the taiga (although for some of us the two hours on horseback involved more discomfort than the entire two weeks spent on their bikes!). Once back on our bikes, two hours hard pedalling through the muddy taiga, brought us the welcome relief of a nice dry dirt track which took us to the village of Tsagaannur. The ger camp where we were to sleep was closed due to an accident involving the owner (the nearest hospital is in Mörön at least a days drive away), but thanks to Erke, we were lucky enough to be invited to stay at the nearby military camp. No bathrooms and no showers, but at least a warm room with camp beds and mattresses to sleep on. After a good evening meal, as we shared a good bottle of Chinggis vodka, the officer in charge of the camp told us how his 24 men had to patrol 300km of border with Russia on horseback, and the tale of a gruesome encounter between his soldiers and the Tsaatan. 
Thursday 8 September
Tsagaannuur
Another idyllic setting. We spent the day on our bikes, exploring the countryside around Tsagaannuur. The vibrant colours of the landscape, the blues of the sky and the lakes, the greens of the meadows, in the clear unpolluted air make this place a paradise for photographers.
Because the next few nights were to be spent camping, we were keen to make the most of being in town, especially the ability to take a shower. However one of the two public showers was closed, and the other was rudimentary; the water was heated by a stove on the ground floor, and the lady running the public showers carried buckets of hot water up a narrow rickety staircase to be poured into a tank on the first floor. The water then flowed through a series of badly joined pipes before dribbling out of the shower head. With eleven dirty cyclists needing a shower, the poor lady was kept busy for a quite a while!


Friday 9 September

Tsagaannuur-Ulaan Uul
Another long but memorable day on the bikes. We left the lakes and meadows of Tsagannuur behind us, to climb up onto grassy plains, crossing many rivers as we went. There were snow-capped mountains in the distance, yaks and camels grazing on the plains, and the noise of the hooves of the herds of wilds horses running alongside us was a never to be forgotten sound. A family invited us into their ger, and served us tea and delicious freshly made cottage cheese sweetened with sugar. Finally, tired but happy, after a beautiful day, we arrived at Ulaan Uul, where a family had invited us to put us up for the night in their small house.
Saturday 10 September 
Ulaan Uul-Bayanzurkh-Boshloi/Hadat
The plan was for us to cross the next mountain pass by bike, but the weather took a turn for the worst, starting to rain, so we loaded the bikes onto the minibuses and climbed in. Once again, the muddy ground caused big problems, and the one of the minbuses got stuck; it required much discussion and a couple of hours of serious digging to free it. A small 4x4 jeep carrying a family of eight (yes eight!) also got stuck a few yards away from the minibus, so we helped to free them. There are no tow trucks and very few passing cars, so goodness knows how long they would have been stuck there had we not been there too!  By late afternoon, the weather improved, so we took to our bikes for the last couple of hours. We stopped for the night to camp at a beautiful spot in the loop of a river, surrounded by cliffs of all different colours.
Dimanche 11 September
Boshloi/Hadat-Tsagaan Uul
We had already ridden this stretch in 2011, but were keen to share this enchanting stretch with this year’s group. It was hard work though! We cycled up a steep slope to reach a plateau overlooking Siberian woodland. A hair-rasing descent followed, to emerge onto endless grasslands, dotted here and there with gers. Curious shepherds would emerge out of nowhere as we passed, curious to see this strange band of travellers. When we stopped for lunch on the banks of a stream, the family from a nearby ger came to visit us – the young daughter wearing her very best boots for this special occasion. Arriving in Tsagaan Uul in the early evening, we had to make an unscheduled stop because of a mechanical problem with one of the minibuses. Amazingly, by the next morning, the local mechanic had fixed it – if you turned up at a garage in Europe at six o’clock on a Sunday evening with a serious mechanical problem, it is pretty unlikely that it would be ready for you to continue your journey first thing the next morning! We spent the night at a guest house in the village – the owners surprised but pleased to to see the unexpected sight of eleven weary cyclists and their Mongolian support team!

August 12 September

Tsagaan Uul-Burentogtokh
Setting off on our bikes in the morning, the terrain was flatter and less spectacular at first, but we descended into a pleasant river valley, and found a nice spot by the river for our last night under canvas. The afternoon was spent sunbathing, reading, fishing, sleeping, and we gathered around the camp fire in the evening to share our last evening in the wilderness under the sparkling Milky Way!

Tuesday 13 September

Burentogtokh-Mörön
Last day on the bikes for this year. Not so many kilometers, but closer to Mörön. It was like cycling on a corrugated iron roof!  The surface of the dirt roads was hard and bumpy, corrugated by the many heavy vehicles using them. If all of our cycling tour had been on roads like this, most of the group would have spent the entire trip in the minibus!

Wednesday 14 September

Mörön-Ulaanbaatar 
It’s all over for this year! we flew back to UB in a Fokker twin propeller plane, to spend half a day as tourists, shopping, enjoying a show featuring Mongolian traditional music and dance, and eating out. After that, it was time for the flight back to Italy, with us already thinking about when we might return.  PV

General information 
 
The group
of this trip was composed of
Sonja Brambati, Giulio Ceppi, Eric Chabert, Camillo Gerosa, Cesare Mauri, Franco Scotti, Alessandro Pozzi, Pascal Tillard, Ruggero Vaia, Paolo Vitali, Steven Wall
We were accompanied by our Mongolian friends: Erke, Damia, Baatar, Andra, Bogii, Bihaa e Gandaa.

 
I nostri amici mongoli: Erke, Damia, Andrea, Bugi, Baatar, Behee and Ganbaa
 
Support:
cycling with no support vehicle, with bags, water, and without knowing which tracks to take is very difficult, and would definitely take at least twice as long. You would also be dependent on the hospitality of nomadic families and some refuelling.
 
 
Best period:
September might be the best time because of more stable weather. Do not underestimate the ford streams in case of rain!
 
 
Quote:
We travelled on average between 1500 and 2100 meters above sea level. Some stages were a little higher, max 2315m.
 
 
Temperature:
at night and early morning, in the taiga where the reindeer people live, September already falls below zero, during the day the sun warms nicely and you can reach 20 degrees in the warmest areas.
 

Visa:
you need the tourist visa for 30 days, and the entry must occur within three months of issue. From the Embassy of Mongolia website you can download the form to fill out and send with a photo and proof of payment of a fee.
 
 
Flight:
The Aeroflot flights via Moscow are typically the most comfortable, or with Air China via Beijing, sometimes cheaper but a little longer.
 

Currency exchange:
In September 2016 one Euro corresponded 2500 Mongols Tughrik. The cost of living is much lower than in Europe, but agencies now ask tourists for much higher figures in Euros or Dollars.
 
 
Bike:
The pass between Hovsgol lake and Renchinlhumbe is hard going, with several fords and a very stony final stretch. The rest of the cycling is mostly on good dirt tracks or roads. To reach the reindeer people encampments you should go on horseback; we tried by bike, but after two hours we had to abandon our bikes in the taiga and walk for another 4 hours through marshland.
   

 
Bring your own or rent:
On the international flight to bring your bike you pay an addition lump-sum which depends on the airlines company. In domestic flights, the weight limit is 15 kg, including hand baggage, but the fee for overweight is quite low. Some agencies have bikes to rent, but check the quality!
 
 
Gear:
Although backed by an agency always bring some tool for basic repairs to bicycles. 
 

Punctures: very rare, the worst danger is the glass from broken bottles of vodka, but better to have robust tires, self-repairing inner tubes and bands between inner tube and tire. On this trip, with eleven cyclists, there were only two or three punctures and a couple of damaged tires.
 
  
Cartography:
There is a Russian cartography to 500,000, maybe available on some website; on the place (Large State Stores) you can find some tourist maps to very vague 2,000,000, and the 1,000,000 ATLAS ROAD which is definitely the best thing.
   

Where to sleep:
The best accommodation is in fixed ger camps, which are used by tourists and travelers. They are similar to our camping, with common bathrooms and showers, and usually a bigger ger that serves as a restaurant. The ger where you sleep has a diameter of about five meters, and contains two or three beds, a rudimentary wood-burning stove and a cabinet; they are very welcoming and pleasant, and can be quite luxurious. Unfortunately on this route there are only two ger camps, one on Hovsgol Lake and one in Tsagaannuur (we found it closed!). The rest of the time, we slept in tents, with the exception of two nights spent with families in the villages of Renchinlhumbe and Ulaan Uul. At Tsagaan Uul there is a "Hotel" (rudimentary rooms without bathroom).
 

Electricity: 220V as in Europe. The sockets are like our old two-pole with no earth. Only the biggest ger camps and close to the city are connected to the 220V network; most use solar panels or generators. The cigarette lighters sockets in the minibuses and cars are useful for recharging telephones, cameras and GPS devices. 

Telephone: outside the capital there’s network within a few tens of kilometers from the main towns, but the network in recent years is spreading. No cover in the taiga.

Clothesi: normal bicycle clothing, with the addition of a sweatshirt and warm jacket for cloudy days, a light waterproof jacket, warm clothes for morning and evening, warm sleeping bag for the night. Tents and cooking equipment are generally provided by the agency if you use one -  otherwise equip yourself!

Food: unless you are a vegetarian, there is no problem for the food, which is varied, but predominantly meat-oriented (beef, sheep, mutton, horse, yak). Some vegetables, some pasta, chocolate, milk, yogurt, bread. The cook supplied by the agency, who travelled with us for the whole of the trip, produced some amazing meals with these basic ingredients! 

 
GPS: on the web you can find free maps with sufficient definition for traveling. One of these is the OSM (Open Street Map), also available for cycling.
 
 
Have a nice trip! PV
 

Map of the trip 2016

   
Map of the round trip of Mongolia in 4 laps
Descrizione

 Text, maps and pictures  Copyright  ©  2016-2017 Paolo Vitali – www.paolo-sonja.net