touring | mongolia - tales of a nomadic motorcycle explorer
am i dreaming? is that a camel in the road.
Sandwiched between China & Russia, this vast nation is known for its nomadic people & the formidable Genghis Khan, who conquered lands from Asia to Europe, later becoming the largest contiguous empire in history.
Flying in on Turkish Airlines (the only European airline with regular flights) over the Gobi desert, I was awe-struck by the incredible views that seemingly filled my window for hours as we crossed the country from west to east.
Mongolia is still developing its tourism industry; therefore, it is not for the faint-hearted, but those willing to embrace the semi-organised chaos are in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will be the main topic of any travel stories with friends for years to come.
not for the faint of heart
Internal flights are near non-existent & the intercity buses only take you to the major destinations along with the train network that only operates along the limited trans-Siberian line.
After extensive research, I decided the best way to explore the country was to do as the nomads do & travel by motorcycle; horseback is, of course, the most famous Mongolian transportation mode. However, a motorcycle makes it east for long distances. The newly constructed highways are a dream to ride along & the dirt roads that head into the mountains & plains offer some great riding opportunities for those willing to ride through shallow rivers & navigate mountain passes.
With only a backpack & some spare parts, I set out with my 150cc Shineray on an epic journey to camel-filled deserts, lush national parks & valleys with vast rock formations, the diversity of flora here is unmatched.
Mongolia is a country unlike any I have been to before. The natural colours of the landscapes, the friendliness of the locals & spiritual elements of this nation make it a truly unique experience that is difficult to find in a globalised world. It is a place to get away from the complexity of modern-day life & truly enjoy the natural landscapes primarily untouched by men.
This nation's capital was originally a nomadic Buddhist centre before it became a permanent site in the 18th century. As a result, the mixture of Buddhist temples & soviet architecture can be seen all over this city, giving it a unique atmosphere compared to its surrounding countries.
While the city is a little ruff around the edges, there are a few attractions that will surprise & delight newcomers. So give yourself a few days to explore the city, grab a coffee at the artisanal coffee shops dotted around the city along with trying some local cuisine at the tourist-friendly modern nomads restaurant where local delicacies such as dumplings & a wide variety of meat are on offer, Mongolians love their meat it makes up a large proportion of their diet & as I am mainly vegetarian it was sometimes tricky to eat meat-free. However, a few dishes can be found in most places, when staying with locals this may not be the case.
City buses are everywhere & for less than $0.30c a ride, it is affordable for anyone to get around. Since I had a motorcycle, I had more freedom to explore on my own terms.
On the southern outskirts of the city, the iconic Zaisan monument towers above the city, remembering soldiers of Mongolia & the USSR lost in WWII. Heading back into the city, my favourite place had to be the Bogd Khaan palace museum, an ornate winter palace of a 1900s Mongolian emperor. The beauty of this palace is unrivalled in the country, It is a great place to appreciate the history of pre soviet Mongolia. The Gandantegchinlen Monastery, a Buddhist monastery complex featuring sacred temples & an 82-ft. gold statue, was also very impressive.
I had been riding for less than an hour through the craziness of UB (Ulaanbaatar) traffic when I arrived at a newly constructed highway & could open up the throttle hitting the top speed of my Shineray. As I sped down the highway, the landscape changed dramatically from urban sprawl to the vast openness of the empty plains of northern Mongolia; this is where greenery starts to take hold from the seemingly endless desolation of the Gobi desert.
Here perspective is illusory, patience a necessity when traversing these wild lands.
Stopping off at one of the largest statues in the world depicting Chinggis Khaan atop of a world-renowned Mongol horse gleams against a backdrop of flora that has spread across the plains from the rain a few days earlier. Head up a tiny claustrophobic elevator to the top of the horse to get some fantastic photos of the man himself.
Jumping back on my bike and kicking it into gear, I headed back west, meandering through the winding roads to the Terelj national park, as i started to hit top speed through the valley, i had to slam on the breaks as a herd of camels (yes camels) came out of nowhere & darted across the road. Although it was a shock to me to see these desert creatures against a vivid green backdrop of the distant mountains, apparently, this is a daily sighting in Mongolia.
I stopped off at the famous turtle rock (a rock formation shaped like a turtle, as the name suggests) to get the obligatory tourist selfie snaps before heading to my final destination, Aryapala Temple Meditation Center deep in the mountains, you will have to climb many stairs to get to the temple but along the way, you can keep yourself busy by reading the mantras that line the pathway. If you're lucky, you will even see some camels & grazing cows on your way up there. Inside, the brightly-colored interior golden buddhas will delight you, as do the spectacular views over the valley & beyond from the entrance of the centre.
Over the past ten years, I have been to some breathtakingly beautiful destinations such as Iceland & Patagonia. However, non have the sense of wonder that may be waiting around every corner quite like Mongolia; the lack of human interference & the sheer amount of distinct landscapes from the perceived desolation of the Gobi desert & steppe in the south that can only be truly appreciated from the air to the plains of the central region and the mountain ranges of the west where snow leopards roam & eagle hunters hone their craft, there is truly no other place like it.
Mongolia is still in its tourism infancy. However, those with an adventurist spirit & a willingness to get out of their comfort zone will love it here. The new super simple online visa for most western nations makes the country much easier to visit as they have limited embassies around the world it was a pain to get in the past but now its far easier (my evisa only took one day).
The country is very safe, people are amazingly friendly, especially the nomads outside the cities & new road infrastructure make it much easier to explore the vast distances.
My primary form of transport in the country was a local Shineray motorcycle. After doing some research & finding out that the public transport system is limited to the main towns and villages, I knew this was the best choice for me as I wanted to explore the vast openness of the country and a motorcycle gives you total freedom on and off-road.
If the idea of a motorcycle trip terrifies you, you are not alone. Other popular options are to rent a 4x4 with a roof tent or go on an organised tour; these can be much more expensive at over $100 per day, the Shineray only costs $12.
I rented my motorcycle from Cheke Tours; you can contact them via Facebook.
how to get there & costs...
I flew with Turkish airlines direct from Istanbul. Ulaanbaatar has limited connections & has very few direct connections to Europe.
Luxury hotels are thin on the ground, but they have excellent 3* & 4* properties. Those who are more adventurous try out a homestay with a nomadic family in a yurt.
Mongolia is one of the cheapest countries in the world; I would budget approximately ($1,000) for a one-week trip for two if staying in a hotel. Those on a budget staying at a homestay can easily travel for ($500) a week.
- If you travel often get yourself a curve card. It's the best travel card around, i have saved thousands of $$$ using it. Get a free card & $/€/£5 in credit here.
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country travel tips
ATM: most banks offer withdrawals for ($15). don't accept conversion, take USD.
SIM CARD: Unitel 10GB ($4) for 30 days. Got an e-sim enabled phone?, try airalo.
TRANSPORT: 4x4, Motocycle or local bus.
TAXI: uber? use promo: carlm5078ue for free ride.
ACCOMMODATION: get ($20) off your first booking.com reservation here