(Dave Stevenson)

Mongolian Heights

New-school nomads pedal the singletrack of the ancients on the first mountain-biking trip to northern Mongolia


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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.


Khan Air
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 and 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; ).

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; 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.

Exploring—or Through-Paddling—the Riverine AT

Canoeing pioneers unveil the new 700-plus-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail

ONE WARM MORNING EARLY LAST JUNE, we carried our canoes at the shore of Brighton Pond, deep in Vermont’s boreal Northeast Kingdom, and carried them over the narrow divide separating the Nulhegan and Clyde River watersheds. It was a fairly short portage, a nearly level stroll on a well-beaten path under tall white pines. Not five minutes later, we came upon the tracks of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad and followed them 200 yards to a tea-colored tamarack bog—perhaps the shortcut we were seeking to the Nulhegan. We put in and drifted toward a narrow blue horizon throughaisles of balsam and spruce.

It was National Trails Day, and my wife and I had joined six members of Native Trails Inc., a nonprofit outfit dedicated to identifying and preserving precolonial and preindustrial travel routes, on a scouting detail. With us was one of its founders, Ron Canter, a cartographer at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as Maryland-based computer expert and waterman Randy Mardres, and Mike Krepner, a Maine guide.

Our goal that day was to check out the portage route and then run the Nulhegan 15 miles to the Connecticut River. It was the latest in a decade of outings Native Trails has led as the group has pieced together the 700-plus-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail. The NFCT, a (mostly) fluvial Appalachian Trail, includesthe storied and popular canoe waters of the Adirondacks and Maine at either end, but its interior connections, such as the Nulhegan, have attracted little use since the days of log drives in the late 1800s. We wanted to make sure nothing besides a few short portages and beaver dams blocked the way.

As you might expect, creating the NFCT has been a long haul, but the vision Native Trails outlined ten years ago, based on colonial records and maps, is nearing reality. To promote and maintain the trail, a separate nonprofit named the North Forest Canoe Trail was formed in 1999. The organization is run by Kay Henry and Rob Center, former executives of Waitsfield, Vermont-based Mad River Canoe who view the trail as an opportunity for increased economic vitality and historical awareness. The seasoned managers have already won corporate and foundation grants, and have organized a network of volunteers to maintain waterways, campsites, and information centers.

While every mile of the NFCT follows colonial routes, its final shape has been updated to accommodate changes in the watercourses. The trail begins at Old Forge, in New York’s Adirondack Park, and roars down the Saranac, with its sections of Class II and III whitewater, to Lake Champlain. From there, it enters the Mississquoi River and, after a good deal of upstream paddling and poling, lets you out at the Clyde-Nulhegan watershed, where we started out that morning. Reaching the Connecticut River, the NFCT next hooks up with the Ammonoosuc River, cuts across New Hampshire’s northern neck, and wends up the steep, spectacular Rapid River to Maine’s Rangeley Lakes at Fort Kent. It ends at the Canadian border.

There are still some kinks to sort out. Snags and downed trees from spring runoffs have yet to be cleared. Short sections of portage trail, like the one connecting the Clyde to the Nulhegan, need brushing out and marking, and information isn’t complete for every segment of the route. Leaving Brighton Pond that day, we had little idea what to expect.

We paddled the Nulhegan’s twisty headwaters, cutting away blowdown, and on through the middle reaches of deep current to the swift lower miles. Toward day’s end we came to the head of a lovely Class II rapid with a narrow line of waves cushioning the rocks. We ran it, Ron Canter poling his canoe from a standing position. Eventually we rounded a bend and confronted a maze of boulders blocking the widening stream. While the rest of us watched, one of the men soloed his boat down the rock garden, only to run aground.

A party of long-haulers might have chosen to camp there and reach the Connecticut in the morning. But we called it a day and hiked back to the highway. On a low rise above the railroad bridge, we looked back up the valley, a scene on par with anything depicted by 19th-century painters. The view reminded me of what I love most about the NFCT: its natural beauty and timelessness.


New England: The Final Frontier
Prepping for a Four-State First Traverse

Like a golf course that requires every club in the bag, the northern Forest Canoe Trail demands a full range of skills, including experience negotiating short stretches of Class III whitewater. Through-paddlers should know how to pole and should allot at least eight weeks to complete the trail, something that hasn’t been done yet.
When To Go: May/June or September/October are the best months, as campsites are more readily available and the water is higher.

Getting Primed: Build up to the long haul by paddling short sections first. For information on trail conditions, call the NFCT at 802-496-2285, or check out:
Also, I highly recommend Adirondack Canoe Waters: The North Flow, by Paul Jamieson (available through the Adirondack Mountain Club, 800-395-8080;

Staying There: The NFCT passes directly through several towns, so there’s easy access to inexpensive motels and cozy B&Bs. For base camps, however, try The Wawbeek, on Upper Saranac Lake, New York (518-359-2656), Northbrook Lodge, in Paul Smiths, New York (518-327-3379), and The Birches, in Rockwood, Maine (207-534-7305).

Outfitters: You’ll find a dozen or more supply-rental outfits and other services along the way, among them Mac’s Canoe Livery, Route 30, Lake Clear, NY (518-891-1176) and Nulhegan Guiding, 1506 Route 114, Island Pond, VT (802-895-4328). Mac’s Canoe Livery’s rates are typical: $25 a day for Royal X canoes, $40 a day for Kevlar, and $50 a day for graphite.

Red, Hot, and Blue

The buzz on the adventure circuit

OPEN SEASON: One hundred ninety-six previously restricted Himalayan peaks—including 20 that have yet to be officially summited—are now accessible thanks to recent changes in India’s bureaucracy. Obtaining military clearance, a process that used to take over six months, is no longer necessary, and permits can be issued in a matter of weeks. They’re not cheap, however—$1,500 to $5,000 per trip—and there’s no Kathmandu-like hub for launching expeditions. “But sometimes that’s even better,” says Gordon Janow, director of programs for Seattle-based outfitter Alpine Ascents. When getting there requires ingenuity, only true adventurers go to the trouble. Janow, who returns to the Himalayas in October, can’t wait: “It’s like a whole new world has opened up for climbers.” For more info, contact the Indian Mountaineering Federation (011-91-92-688-3412).

FIRE ISLANDS: Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills flexed their pyroclastic muscle again in March—sorry news for beachcombers, but great news for lovers of lava flows and eerie postapocalyptic landscapes. There are three hotels within the island’s “safe zone,” but you can also arrange to stay in a private residence through the Montserrat Tourist Bureau (011-663-691-2230). Also recommended for volcanic views: Réunion Island, located 500 miles east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Réunion’s Piton de la Fournaise last erupted in 1998, but glowing lava showers are visible day and night, and camping is permitted at the volcano’s rim. Réunion tourism contacts are available online at

MO’ BETTER MOAB: Fat-tire guide Lee Bridgers, aka The Sandman, gave his adopted hometown a little too much tough love in Moab, the latest in the Mountain Bike America series from Globe Pequot Press. Shortly after the guidebook was published in April, Bridgers found himself trashed (by a rival guide) in the local paper, eighty-sixed from a local cantina, and called a “hillbilly creep” via e-mail. What’d he write? He criticized the Moab Fat Tire Festival for not being more protective of the desert floor, and he offered cautionary notes about local restaurants. (Sample entry: “Watch out. Montezuma’s revenge happens here.”) Mostly, Bridgers praises Moab, and he’s set down some great dope on more than 40 major trails. He’s shy about talking up his own favorite route, Behind the Rocks. But he’s not bashful about where cyclists go for a bit of sex in the afternoon (Hurrah Pass), his favorite post-ride victuals (Center Café), and the best place to stay if you really must sleep with your bike (The Hotel Off Center, 435-259-4244).



Good Morning, Vietnam
If you’re planning to travel to Vietnam, be sure to bookmark The site, operated by the Boulder, Colorado–based outfitter of the same name, offers discounts on lodging (40 percent off rooms at Hanoi’s De Syloia Hotel) and directions to lesser-known attractions like Cat Tien National Park in southern Vietnam (where you can track the Javan rhinoceros beneath a 120-foot jungle canopy) and the 3,000 limestone and dolomite islands in the northeastern port of Halong Bay. Halong is ripe for paddling, and Hanoi-based Buffalo Tours (011-84-4-8828-0702; leads a five-day sea-kayaking trip there for only $290. This summer, World Adventures will expand its listings to include other Southeast Asian countries.

Knobby Dude Ranch
Stay at 800-acre La Garita Creek Ranch, tucked beside Rio Grande National Forest in southern Colorado, for about $500 less than at most Colorado ranches. Fly-fish for trout, mountain-bike aspen-lined singletrack, or rock climb the pocketed volcanic tuff of Penitente Canyon. By night, two-step under the stars and fill up on BBQ ribs. Six nights at La Garita (719-754-2533; run $894.