Khatgal is my last cycling point in the north of Mongolia. After exploring the forest on the western shore of Khovsgol Nuur, I then cycled back to Khatgal and took a truck back to Moron and left my bicycle there in a guesthouse in Moron. Time is running out for me, visa restriction seems to dictate my path. I only have a few weeks left before I should leave Mongolia and I wanted to spend the last few weeks riding the Gobi Desert, so I decided to take a bus from Moron back to Ulaanbaatar. But I wanted to spend the last few days in the north exploring the forest north of TsagaanNuur before going back to Ulaanbaatar, so I took an old Soviet era van to get to TsagaanNuur… to visit the exotic Tsataans, the reindeer people of the north.
I left my bicycle and my gears in one of the guesthouse in Moron and took a 13 hours very bumpy van ride to TsagaanNuur. Now I had another experience, on how the Mongolians here travel by public transport to get to places. Its not really far, TsagaanNuur is only some 250km from Moron but the journey was a long 13 hours of hell bumpy ride. Only some 30km out of Moron the road was paved, after that it was going through the steppe, sand, mud and river crossings. I felt not so good and really dizzy during the ride and having a drunken old Mongolian man overdosed with alcohol inside the van really helps. It was an old Soviet era type of van that is very small, but there were so many luggage inside it together with 8 people inside it, which made us look like those fishes inside a sardine can.
After the 13 hours journey, I thought it was over… but its not. I then took another 2 hours of even worst bumpy ride from TsagaanNuur to the forest in the north, where the Tsataan people dwell. The van ride is no usual van ride. It was worst than riding a horse. I think its more like sailing on a very small boat in a wild ocean under a big storm heading to the Bermuda Triangle. Its only a few kilometers from TsagaanNuur to get to the forest but the 2 hours ride seems forever. It was a very good experience though. When I finally reach the forest, I felt so happy and wanted to celebrate it, that I went through the worst ride in my life. I felt like I just successfully climbed the Everest with just wearing sandals or cycled through the Antartica with just a Tshirt.
Upon reaching the Tsataan camp in the middle of the forest, everything was exotic to me. The tent here is not like the normal Mongolian ger, but its more like a south American style hut. It’s a shape of a cone and staying inside it making me feel like Im in a forest of Peru more like Mongolia. The Tsataan people are the minority and only living here in the forest. Theyre the people of reindeer. Reindeer is everything for them. Their lives depend on it. The number is about 300-400 people left but I see no more than 30. Maybe because theyre scattered all over the forest looking for a place to settle for the summer which is coming soon. Theyre real nomads, they move a few times a year and they really have to. Staying in the winter camp on summer is dangerous for the reindeer, as they will be vulnerable to insects and parasites.
They depend on their reindeers in almost everything. Reindeers shaped their lifestyle, their clothes, diets and transportation. They get cheese, milk and meat from their reindeers for food. Their clothes were made from the hair of the reindeer and most of their tools came from the horn. They make fire from the reindeer’s dung and also woods from the trees and the grass when its dry. These people are really survivors and theyre strong. I met an old woman who has survived 58 winters in her life, she told me that the winter here is harsh, the temperature can read up to -55 celcius on January/February, turning the Tsataan people to becoming ice cream. She is a very nice woman, serving me some soup and hot reindeer milk tea and telling me besides reindeer, another good friend of them especially during winter is fire. They will keep sitting near the fire when the temperature plummet below -50 celcius in winter time, since they cant afford any Mammut of Northface sleeping bag.
I spent a night sleeping here in the Tsataan camp before taking the same van back to TsagaanNuur. It was really a good experience sleeping in the cone shaped hut, since I’m now so used to sleep inside the traditional Mongolian ger. Almost the same size, but I guess its easier and faster to build, since it looks simpler. The van driver told me it gonna be cold that night, maybe at some -10 celcius but I think its more like only 0 celcius. Having a fire inside the Tsataan hut makes it very comfortable night, I had a good sleep compared to sleeping inside my tent here in Mongolia with totally a wrong choice of sleeping bag.
The next day after saying goodbye to the Reindeer people, I went back to TsagaanNuur, with another 2 hours of bumpy ride, this time the van is packed carrying Tsataan kids out of the forest to TsagaanNuur, since theyre going back to school after a long holiday. 2 hours of extreme bumpy ride is enough to make me melt like a chocolate. Spent another few hours in TsagaanNuur exploring the frozen lake before another 13 hours of bumpy ride back to my bicycle in Moron. At first I was afraid to walk on the frozen lake here, but I changed my mind when I saw people were riding their motorbike over the lake! They were walking over and over again to the middle of the lake to get fresh clean water… since their source of water comes from this lake. Views here are gorgeous, I can imagine how nice this place will be on September, under the colours of Autumn, where the trees give nice yellow and orange colours under the blue sky, and when the rainbow showing off her beauty through raindrops, lit by the sun. This place must be heaven during late summer and autumn season. I will miss it since I’ll be leaving this country soon, but I hope I will get the same view in the mountains of the Kyrgyz by that time.
Khovsgol Nuur… the largest lake by volume and second largest by size in Mongolia (the first is the Uvs Lake near Kazakh border), is sitting in the northern part of Mongolia close to the border of Siberia, also the younger sister of the Baikal Lake, not far from it. The water is fresh for drinking without the need of filtering but too bad its still frozen due to the harsh winter. You can actually walk on the lake now but I dare not to take the risk, I was paranoid since the incident that happened to me in the Arctic in the last two winter where I fell inside a frozen river near Kiruna, Sweden and were fighting for my life back then, swimming on ice. The heat of the fire saved me later that night.
I rode along the western shore of the lake, exploring hills after hills through the forest. There’s no road here after a few kilometers from Khatgal village. So I made my own path, riding through forest… just ride freely and peacefully, no other human in my sight, I was just alone and it was so quiet, just the sound of trees that were blown by the wind, birds chirping and the sound of my tires. I love the feeling… the feeling of freedom, not knowing where I’m going, no future goal, I lost count on the date, the day of the week and the time. I measure time by the distance of the sun from the horizon and direction from the wind. I’m here and doing what I’m doing with only one purpose, to experience… as experience is my greatest master. I’m glad theres still this kind of place left on earth, a wild place without the touch of human, no construction, no development, no pollution, no timber activities… totally untouched.
I rode 2 days in the forest, carrying only 5 days food supply and 3 days water supply. Worst thing happen, I can just break some ice from the lake and melt it into water like how I did in the Arctic in case of emergency if I get lost in the forest. I wanted to rent 2 horses and explore this area with horses, but the owner of the ger that I stayed told me now is impossible, horses are too thin and weak due to the cold harsh winter and windy and dusty spring. Only on June, when the grass grow taller and become delicious to the horses, they start to gain weight and become strong again. So I have no choice but to use bicycle instead. So imagine… doing a downhill mountain biking with a fully loaded bike :)
Camping at night is still very cold and the forest is full of dry wood… easy to make fire. But then I’m afraid to make fire here since the grass here is so dry and can catch fire so easily. With the wind constantly blowing strong, the fire can travel at the speed of sound, causing a forest fire. The ger owner also told me that it happened before, by simply a small mistake done by a local man who threw his leftover cigarette at the grass, burning a big area of the forest, since the fire can travel fast in this area with the dry grass and strong wind. I was feeling a bit afraid when I pitched my tent in the middle of this forest, afraid that what if in the middle of a night I wake up just to realize that I’m in the middle of a sea of fire. But I threw away all the negative feelings deep inside some mysterious tunnels somewhere inside my brain’s cells. Sleeping alone in the dark inside a forest or mountain, far from human is sometimes scary. You are alone… totally alone, no trace, no sound or smell of human, only you and the Mother Nature. But being alone in places like this, I always sense something, something mysterious,something we cannot comprehend, a source… a power that creates all, everything that exist in this world… the prison of space and time…
Tsetserleg was the last point on my ride towards the west fighting the wind. I then turned north… making my way towards Khovsgol, north of Mongolia bordering with Siberia. It was a tough ride through mountains, I climbed a few mountainpasses each day but at least the wind was with me. I passed by a few small villages that I don’t even know the existence of it, nowhere I found it on the map but it can be a bit confusing since some of the places here have exactly the same name. For example, after a few hundreds of kilometers of ride from Tsetserleg, I found another very small village called Tsetserleg also.
Riding north towards Siberia… feels like its already autumn but without the falling leaves. Sometimes I feel that its getting colder each night even though the winter has left this part of the world. This is because I was heading north, towards the coldest place on earth outside the Antartica, Yakutsk of Siberia. The temperature there can plummet to the harsh frostbiting -70 celcius during winter and people still live there…. the toughest people. The day is getting warmer, somewhere between 10-15 celcius which is very comfortable for riding but each night I still turned into a human shaped ice cream wrapped inside a sleeping bag which feels like a plastic bag. And finally, I got sick… just a minor fever. My body is weaken and climbing mountainpasses pulling my heavy loaded bicycle that looks like a street fruitstall feels like forever.
I didn’t stop riding while I was sick, I kept going for another 2 days until I reached a town called Moron! Hehe… what a moron! :) I stayed a day in Moron doing nothing but lying down on a comfortable bed under a roof… taking a good rest. I never take any medicine if I fall sick, I let my body fight it instead. My medicine is only by drinking hot water… and a good day of rest. Moron is considered a midsized town in Mongolia, nothing much here but there are some supermarket and cheap hostels, which is good enough for me. Surrounded by mountains, it feels like an oasis in the middle of a desert here.
After a good day rest and all my energy recharged into a full bar, I pressed another 100km towards Khovsgol Nuur, a beautiful high altitude lake in the north, which is located very close to the infamous Baikal Lake in Siberia. There is a small village here, Khatgal, at the southern part of the lake, which feels more like Russia, compared to Mongolia. Some people even greeted me in Russian. There are forests here, so the houses here are made by wood… which looks like a postcard from Siberia. I found a cheap ger to stay and the owner speaks good English and provided me a lot of useful information to explore the surroundings. So it’s a good opportunity for me and I made this place as my launching pad to explore the wilderness here. Weather is not so good here and the wind is now coming from the Arctic blowing through Russia, carrying very cold air that gets into my bones.
Upon arriving Tsetserleg, I was welcomed with a group of curious young horsemen, probably as young as 10 years old, riding fast from the vast steppe to be near me, to look closely at my fully loaded bicycle. I cycled slowly heading towards the centre of Tsetserleg, tired after being fighting the endless headwind. I came here looking for a nice hostel, to celebrate my arrival in Tsetserleg with a good hot shower and a nice meal. It was a good feeling when I saw the town from afar, after hours of panting fighting the wind on the vast steppe, until I climbed over a false mountainpass when I finally saw the town of Tsetserleg from the high point.
This is the end of the good road for me… and soon I will no more be fighting the wind. I will turn north to get to the Siberian border, to a lake called Khovsgol, very near the Russian border and not far from the infamous Baikal Lake in Siberia. But the problem is, I cant find any way to get to the north. I will stay a while here in Tsetserleg to get some idea on how to get up north. Whatever my decision from here on, I need to complete this part of Mongolia by the 2nd week of April, so that I will have enough time to explore the southern part of Mongolia, crossing the vast Gobi Desert.
It was quite difficult for me to find a cheap place in Tsetserleg. Hotel owners refused to take me even the hotels were empty. And some said that they cant give me a room with bathroom. No shower in Tsetserleg. After almost an hour finding a place, I finally found a cheap hostel with a welcoming staff. And the owner is Australian… so all the staffs speak quite good English. As usual, I did my routine, once I get inside a hostel, I took a good shower, washed all the dirt away from my body to feel fresh and treated my empty stomach with good food. I then walked around the town to explore the everyday life of the people here.
While walking, a guy who looks like in his mid 30s, strong and tough… were looking at me with one kind of look. I can read from his eyes that he was filled with anger and hatred. He then shouted at me and walked fast towards me. I stood still… never moved an inch. He then shook my hand with a different kind of handshake. He shook my hand real hard… he was testing my strength. I tried to challenge his strength with the handshake. He introduced himself, saying that he is the head of the thugs in the town and he owns this town, not the police. He then asked me for money. I said I don’t have anything to give, I have some money but I’m a traveller, its not much and enough only for me to survive while I’m in this land. He pointed his finger to a nearby bank and wanted to drag me there, asking me to draw some money to give to him. I simply apologized, I said you got the wrong person. I’m not a rich tourist, I’m just passing through this land. He was studying my face, trying to find any fear inside me but I managed to kept all my fear away… so he couldn’t find any. After a while, he apologized… and told me to be careful on the road and finally said “Baerte”, which means good bye in Mongolian.
Cycling in Mongolia is easy to do if you start from the west heading all the way to Ulaanbaatar. The wind will push you… making you fly with over 120km a day without a sweat. But not the other way round… It took me 2 days just to cover 120km from Karakorum to Tsetserleg. I started quite late in Karakorum, I started to cycle at around 11.45am… slowed down by the good food in Karakorum.
It was a good ride, not much climbing at about 2000m altitude and the wind was blowing against me as usual, but gentle. Took a quick break in a small village in Khotont before continuing my ride through the vast steppe. The sky was so blue… and under it was an endless grassland, which provide enough grass for the countless livestock that I saw along my way… and some horsemen. I cruised really slowly for some 70km… ended up in some beautiful spot to camp. Here in Mongolia, almost all the land is open free without any fence, which makes it so easy to camp… almost anywhere. I became a bit choosy when it come to find a place to pitch my tent… making sure that I’m a bit far away from livestocks and gers, so that the dogs wont come and disturb me with their barkings at night. But its good sometimes when I see horses or sheep nearby, so I know that I’m safe. I never been in any case of wolf attack… yea wolves don’t attack humans… but who knows if unlucky, when they come in pack and theyre dead hungry. But at least they will surely choose the easier target, those horses or sheep… instead of me.
The difference of the temperature here in Mongolia is so huge now in spring. At daytime it was a nice warm 10 celcius. But when the sun is down, it started to freeze slowly. As usual after pitching my tent, cooked dinner, watched the sunset and do some video editing from my laptop, I went to sleep early at around 9. And there you go, I woke up as early as 3am since it was too cold! The temperature dropped to -8 celcius and my sleeping bag which is as thin as a toilet paper was totally useless. I was freezing like an ice cream especially my feet. I then wrapped my body with whatever clothes that I have but couldn’t sleep still… I was really awake and feeling fresh! I then tried to boil hot water to drink some hot chocolate and oats but… all my water became hard pack ice. Theres nothing I can do but get back inside my useless sleeping bag and tried to sleep… which I finally did only at around 6am. I then continued to sleep until around 9am… waiting for the ice to melt a bit so that I can break it into pieces with my knife and finally can have a good hot chocolate and oats for breakfast.
I then just stayed for a couple of hours enjoying the sun… really really enjoying the heat that the sun gave me… doing some work from my laptop and charging all my electronic stuffs from my solar panel. I then started to cycle at around noon to get to Tsetserleg, a town with big supermarket and cheap hotels!!… which sits only another 50km away. The wind was harsh again once in a while… and I cycled fast whenever there was no wind.. taking advantage before I get slowed down by the wind again.