OUR CAMELBAKS BULGING, WE PEDALED OUT ONTO the Mongolian steppe, each of us choosing one of a dozen dirt tracks threading through the long, waving grass. Five hundred and sixty miles northwest of the markets of Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital, we had entered the Asian outback from the town of Mörön, the nine of us feeling like the luckiest mountain bikers alive. The steppe extends from central Mongolia all the way west to the borders of Kazakhstan and China, and while it's interrupted in places by drier terrain, boreal forest, and mountains, from here it seemed an infinite plain.
For centuries the steppe has been crisscrossed by Mongols, descendants of the wandering tribes who were first united under Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Of the country's two and a half million people, nearly half remain nomadic livestock herders. Cycling their ancient paths, we were continuing a tradition even as we set a precedent: This was the first day of the first-ever organized biking trip up the northern finger of Mongolia, and we were the first party of helmeted travelers to shift gears up its passes and seek singletrack kicks on its goat paths. Riding this wild expanse was like exploring the American West 300 years ago, albeit on wheels.
On our topo maps we had etched an ambitious, 225-mile loop that took us far north of the ongoing drought in central and southern Mongolia. (Officials are calling it the nation's worst natural disaster in 30 years; travelers heading there should check with the Mongolian embassy.) First we planned to pedal out from Mörön toward mythic, glimmering Lake Khovsgal, some 90 miles away.This would take us almost due north through the relatively flat valley of the Egiyn River. Once at Lake Khovsgal, we would ride along a portion of its western shore and then climb west up a rugged frontier road and over the snow-tipped Saridag Mountains via 10,000-foot Jigleg Pass. Out the other side of Jigleg, we'd drop into the Darhat Valley, turn south, and head back to Mörön. It was a journey that outfitters call an "exploratory": a test run of a new itinerary with guides and, in this case, paying customers. As scouts for Boojum Expeditions, a Bozeman, Montana–based outfitter, we were to plan a route for future biking trips (one of which will be offered in August), and to report on a variety of terrain.
IF WE HAD ONE PERSON TO THANK FOR GETTING US here—and to blame when the weather turned—it was Montana road-bike racer M.C. Jenni, Boojum's office manager. She had fantasized about mountain-biking across a Montana without roads, and encouraged her boss to try out such a trip in Mongolia. No one doubted her abilities. After all, she'd completed the Hewlett-Packard LaserJet Women's Challenge—a 12-day, 750-mile stage race in southern Idaho. But she'd never guided before, so Boojum paired her up with the ever-ready Peter Weinig.
Four years ago, Weinig, a native of Germany, had ventured solo out of Ulan Bator on a horse loaned to him by the Mongolian Boy Scouts; except for winter getaways, he hasn't shaken Mongolia yet. He's been leading Boojum's equestrian trips in Mongolia for three years, but bike saddles suit him just as well. "I've got a bike in Delhi, a bike in Berlin, one in Singapore, and one here in Mongolia," he boasted as we unloaded our gear from the plane in Mörön. But, he added, "This is the place with the real choice riding."
Rounding out the expedition were six American clients and six Mongolians, the latter of whom we addressed by their first names. (Mongolian surnames tend to be too difficult to pronounce.) Among them were Bold, a young translator who'd learned English from a drifting Oregonian Rasta; Maagi, the patient and quiet cook; and Mishig, Boojum's Mongolian business partner. Mishig holds a 20 percent stake in the Boojum-owned Khovsgal Lodge Company; he also serves as in-country ambassador and auto mechanic. On this trip, he drove an army surplus Russian GAZ 31 truck, a four-wheel-drive support vehicle. When Mishig wasn't driving, he fished from the riverbanks without a rod, spinning the line overhead like a lasso before sending the glittering lure out across the current.
We strung out in Technicolor shapes on the gray and brown hills and spent the first four days in sunny, clear weather. Then, on the afternoon of our fifth day, we left the rolling grasslands and felt the chill of the Saridag Mountains ahead. Melted snow and frost turned our ascent into a slushy mess, and snowflakes soon blanketed our helmets. Passing one of our riders toppled in a puddle, Jenni shouted, "Spring skiing!"
And yet our arrival at Lake Khovsgal that evening was so dramatic it overshadowed the storm. The 600-foot-deep lake was stunningly clear. Its water is rumored to be so clean that—all my outdoor training notwithstanding—I drank straight from a water bottle filled at its edge.
WE STAYED AT THE LAKE FOR TWO DAYS, waiting out the weather, but eventually abandoned our plan to bike over Jigleg Pass—it was sure to be snowbound—and headed for a more remote drainage, the Harhuth Valley, due southeast of the lake. (To avoid such icy surprises, this year's trip will depart a month earlier than ours did.)
On the morning we broke camp, the weather also broke, and a warm, summery breeze blew. Our caravan trailed across lush meadows and along pebble-strewn beaches, through larch stands where brown snowshoe hares leapt away in the spattered light, and then out along packed, unobstructed lakeshore tracks that stretched out of sight. That afternoon we detoured along a little-used horse-and-goat trail. Peter called it a "shortcut" to the town of Hatgal—with 300 residents, the biggest village on the lake.
Some shortcut. The trail cut across soggy wetlands and then rose sharply to a dramatic ledge, with singletrack lacing sheer 100-yard drops to shallow, rocky, windswept lagoons. At one turn I snagged my pedal on a stump and flew forward, far out over my handlebars, catching air—big air. My bike and I plunged through tangled brush and down a slope that led to a cliff. Fortunately, I came to a stop well before the edge, and suffering nothing worse than a chainring track snaking down the back of my thigh.
A few miles later, we crossed the Egiyn River on a weathered bridge. On the other side, smoke rose through a tattered tepee where a woman was brewing "brick" tea, which is dried in the shape of a brick and then broken off and ground before it's steeped and diluted with reindeer milk. She served it with a plate of hard biscuits and even harder cubes of reindeer cheese. She was a Tsaatan, one of the "reindeer people," the most restless of the nomadic herders (they move at least ten times per year), whose dwindling 17 families live mainly in the border area between Siberia and Mongolia, west of Lake Khovsgal. This ruddy-faced, expressive woman, her watchful, silent husband, and their children have learned to track the tourists who visit the region. They'd gotten word of our trek and had traveled southeast to intercept us by camping on our probable route. Courtesy dictates that you stop and pay a visit.
We were happy to. They presented a perfected routine—a visiting session in the tent, rides on a few listless reindeer, and as many photographs as we could want, all for about 4,000 tugrog, or $4, for our whole group. As we departed, the family's teenage son rode up on a reindeer, its fuzzy rack of antlers almost bigger than he. Spying our bikes, he jumped off his mount and enthusiastically accepted Bold's offer of a teetering spin on a bike.
We spent four more days roaming the Harhuth Valley, looking for golden eagles and listening to wolves that howled in the night. But that perfect day—when we visited the Tsaatan, then took off through mud to Hatgal, and arrived exhausted to find the ever-reliable Maagi whipping up plates of mutton and fried rice—must've been the clincher in convincing Boojum to do it all again next month.
The 411 on the Far-Flung
Credit the ratio of livestock to humans—more than ten to one—for the creation of thousands of miles of singletrack trails across the Mongolian steppe. The Mongols on our trip rode their bicycles with the vigor of horsemen: They stormed up steep passes on one-speeds—no dismounts. Westerners, however, are advised to use bikes with suspension up front, and should have plenty of intermediate riding experience.
When To Go: To avoid the harsh winter, go from June to September, when temperatures run in the seventies by day and forties at night.
Getting Primed: You will need a Mongolian visa ($50), available at the airport in Ulan Bator or from the Mongolian embassy in Washington, D.C. (202-333-7117). For planning information, visit www.travelmongolia.com and www.freeyellow.com/members4/baatar. If you don't bring your own bike, the only place to rent one is in U.B. from Karakorum Expeditions ($25 per day for an eighties-era bike; 212-658-9938; www.gomongolia.com ).
Getting There: Getting to Mongolia is no small feat. The best route is Los Angeles to Seoul via Korean Air, Northwest, or United. (You can go through Beijing or Osaka, but in Seoul you won't have to obtain a Chinese visa, stay overnight, or recheck your bike.) From Seoul, continue to Ulan Bator on MIAT, the Mongolian international airline. The total round-trip costs about $1,700.
Outfitters: Boojum Expeditions (800-287-0125; www.boojum.com) and Karakorum Expeditions both lead backcountry treks in Mongolia. Boojum's August Lake Khovsgal trip costs $2,200; the outfitter also leads custom expeditions for $200 per day. U.B.-based Karakorum leads a variety of trips, including a 14-day organized bike tour of Arhangay, a region southwest of U.B., for $1,820.