Motorcycling Across Mongolia
Motos, Mongols and mischief. What you need to know about planning a motorcycle adventure in Mongolia.
If it was easy to motorcycle across Mongolia, everyone would be doing it.
But it isn't. And they aren't.

First, getting a bike is a challenge. And getting the bike that Erik Cooper and I had in mind for this adventure - a vintage Russian Ural - well, that was no small feat to pull off. But, if there's one thing you'll learn about Erik and I, it's that we are resilient little bastards who don't take no for an answer.

So, thanks to a friend of a friend, we scored our dream bike. (Cheap Chinese bikes can easily be purchased in Ulaanbaatar just outside of the Black Market for about $1,000 cash, but expect A LOT of trouble with them. They don't hold up on Mongolia's... less than desirable roads very well.

Now, for the route.

The Route

Starting in Ulaanbaatar, we chose to ride the 224 kilometers to Erdenesant in one day, and our first day on the road. It was a brutal 10 hour journey, but getting the longest leg of the trip out of the way immediately was the way to do it. (My calloused hands and sore butt thanking me for the break the next day.)
Moto Mongolia 2019
Now, traveling across Mongolia is both difficult and easy. Mongolian hospitality is some of the best in the world, but coming across a nomadic family to stay with after 10 exhausting hours of riding a motorbike is an added stress that I don't recommend.

Pro Tip: Have your route and stops planned out in advance. Dealing with translation issues and finding a peaceful place to sleep is the last thing you want to do when you're hungry and exhausted. Especially if the weather also decides to take a turn for the worst, which is all too possible.

For Erik and I, that was where our connections came in. Well, actually, Erik's connections. You see, Erik has been living in Mongolia for the last six summers, where he's gotten to know some of the herders in the remotest parts of the steppe. Not only was this our chance to go meet them and go on an epic ride, this was our chance to be herders ourselves for a few days.
This was a trip where we were thrown right in - helping the herders as if the animals were our own. We were right alongside them trimming horse manes to help them stay cool in summer temperatures, and herding in the rest of the horses, goats and cows as part of the daily roundup - all by way or our motorbike.
We ended up spending four nights with our first nomadic family, helping them every way we knew how and traveling with them to visit nearby friends and family.

Learning about Mongolian culture by helping with the chores, eating homecooked meals and visiting other herders in the area, was one of the most rewarding experiences in the world. It was a feeling and set of experiences that felt earned, not entitled. There's no comparing the feeling of being invited in for tsai (salty milk tea) by a new herder friend as a fellow friend, and not just an outside guest.

To show our gratitude for these experiences, and the chance to work alongside them for a few days, we didn't show up empty handed. Thanks to veterinary supplies in support from local non-profit Steppe & Hoof, medical first-aid kits supplied by Adventure Medical Kits, solar powered Luci inflatable lights donated by MPOWERD and Leatherman multi-tools I'd been hoarding throughout the year, we had that many more ways to bond with (and support) our new friends.

We didn't bring these items because these families are in desperate need of basic supplies, we brought them because it was our way of thanking them for their hospitality. These are things they don't necessarily have easy access to, so for us to bring them was not only a gesture of thanks, but a way for us to do what we can to make their lives that much easier. It's all about helping your neighbors out here - you try surviving out here on your own - and that was what that gesture symbolized.

Pro Tip: Gifts that are always appreciated in the Mongolian steppe are the ones that are the most practical. A nice bottle of vodka should certainly be in your bag for your host, but a Leatherman goes a long way and is a tool that is hard to come by. If you want to make a new friend instantly, this is the gift to give.
We exchanged gifts. Shared tsai and vodka. Laughed a little too hard. And made more memories than I'll ever be able to get through in this article. In a few short days, we became family.
But, the time came and it was our cue to leave. It was onto the next carefully planned stop, deeper into the central part of the country, towards Kharkhorin, where the old capital city of Chinggis Khaan's time, Karakorum, is found.

At this point in the article, it's time for me to point out other important things to know before you motorcycle across Mongolia:

Bring a way to purify water. We relied on our Grayl Geopress portable purifiers, as we mostly do on these adventures (read my full review here). Purifying water across the steppe is crucial to survival and I can't recommend another piece of equipment more than this little guy.

Wear your helmet at all times. Trust me on this one. Accidents happen all too easy and there aren't many reliable medical facilities outside of Ulaanbaatar. And it's a long ride back. Our Nexx Helmets saved our necks, quite literally.

Learn the basics of Mongolian culture before you go. Know how to say hello (sain baina uu!), thank you (bayarlalaa), excuse me (uuchlaarai) and the rituals for being in a ger (always enter to the left, don't stand in the doorway, if you hit your head going in or out, don't be embarrassed - it's good luck!).

Never refuse food from your host, but never underestimate the power of a hidden snack. You stomach might take a minute to get used to the food, so bring snacks. Oatmeal, dried fruits, nuts and granola bars are easy to travel with. Start there.

A Garmin inReach Mini could save you A LOT of frustration. Even if you get a local SIM card, service isn't always reliable. Be prepared with maps, satellite GPS trackers and all the supplies you need. This isn't the place to be unprepared.
More crucial things to know...

The most common Mongolian greeting is "Sain baina uu!" Which roughly means "Hi, how are you?"

It's ALWAYS polite to bring gifts to your host family, especially if they have children. Just keep in mind that the family is most likely nomadic, so things like stickers and toys made of small plastic parts aren't ideal (they'll end up as liter out on the steppe). Instead, cooking oil and spices (or jewelry) for mom, solar lights and Leatherman multi-tools for dad, and chocolates or warm clothes for the kids are always much appreciated.

There's no need to buy a SIM card. If you have T-Mobile (or another cell phone provider with international coverage) you'll have cell phone reception in Ulaanbaatar. Once you leave the capital, even if you have a local SIM, you most likely won't have reception, which you won't need - or want - anyway.
The Adventure, Cut Short

It was on the way to our next stop, as snow started to fall during a gloomy late-May day, that things took a turn (literally) for the worse.

With me driving and Erik sitting in the sidecar, I hit a corner too hard, getting stuck in a rut and consequently flipping the bike. I have an out-of-body-memory watching as my body flew over Erik and the bike, landing feet away, my head and right shoulder crashing my fall. I came to within seconds, only to see Erik seemingly lifeless under the bike. Trying to mom-strength the flipped bike off of my adventure partner, Erik letting me know he was okay, it was then I realized something wasn't right. I immediately know I had broken my collarbone.

For me, that meant the adventure was over.

I would continue on the trip for another three days before heading back to Ulaanbaatar and the private hospitals that awaited.

It was certainly not the most ideal - or graceful way - to end such an incredible adventure, but it was what Mother Mongolia had in store for me.

It most certainly won't be the last time you'll find me out on this trip, adventuring by way of vintage Ural back into the remotest parts of the steppe to discover and embed myself deeper into this incredible culture. And I'm inviting you to join me on Moto Mongolia 2020 or Moto Mongolia 2021.
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