The wind. The wind blows and blows in the steppe. We now understand why some people came to adulate this element! From the end of April to mid-June, the wind blows East. This is a factor that cannot be ignored while choosing an itinerary. From mid-June to the end of August, it is the rainy season in Mongolia. It seems that the rain is limited to a few storms, once or twice a day, which can sometimes be quite violent. From time to time, we had to stop and take shelter or we simply continued our way in the rain. Apparently, the weather can be very cold in September and the roads dangerous because of the snow.
In most of the villages, you will be able to buy dry biscuits, ramen (little bags of dry noodles), Mongol wafers (for breakfast), and sometimes, if you're lucky, chocolate. Indeed, this is not a large variety of food and you need to plan reserves for a few days at a time, some villages don’t have any food supplies. Fruit and vegetables are rare.
It is also possible to eat in a "guanz", which are in most of the cases, yurts transformed into little restaurants. You would eat Mongolian traditional dishes (noodles and mutton, rice and mutton, mutton and mutton… basically, mutton!) and of course, a bowl of Mongolian tea. The hardships in food supplying will depend upon the itinerary you choose. It is vital not to underestimate this difficulty
Often, we ate with locals, who had the kindness to invite us in their homes. It is definitely the best way to discover Mongolia, and also a wonderful experience. Nobody we met seemed to want money for inviting us, hospitality being a true tradition for Mongols. Hence, we have respected this reality. When we lived with a family for a few days, we bought some food to contribute to the family's meals.
Concerning water, it all depends on the chosen itinerary. The road we took was in the desert and not very busy; we carried, with us, 22L of water and would get more every time we could. Despite the amount of water we had, we were often thirsty. On the other hand, it is different in the center and in the North of Mongolia. We always filtered the water we consumed.General costs (in 2005):
Nothing is easier in Mongolia then finding a camping site! Often, Mongols will invite you to put your tent next to their yurt and share a meal with them. If not, you just need to find a spot protected from the wind and from curious eyes if you want some quiet time.
Left, right, straight ahead? Even drivers get lost in Mongolia. Some regions are better than others, but in the steppe, as soon as a path starts to be bad, they create another one; which makes it easier to get lost in this country. First piece of advice: always ask your way to more than one person. We have often overestimated our understanding of the local language and of the body language. It is vital to make sure the road you are going to take still exists and that it is more than a path for horses.
In 2005, it was possible to get a "road atlas" in Ulaan Baatar, notably at the information center. Make sure you have the names of the towns in English as well as in Mongol. A detailed topographic map is essential for those traveling off the main roads. Often, we biked for more than 300 kilometers without seeing any sight of human life. For this reason, you need to be able to find your way on your own. This also changes depending on the itinerary you choose. We did not have a GPS with us.
Sain Bainuu! Of course, you want to say more than the usual salutations. To know more than a few words in this language will allow you to not only buy your food and ask your way, but also to share for an instant your interest for the Mongol culture and for the people that welcome you in their yurts.
We regret that we didn't spend more time prior our departure to learn the local language. Hence, we strongly recommend you to do so! We had with us the Lonely Planet Phrasebook, in which we could find useful sentences to communicate. We also had an English-Mongol pocket dictionary that we bought in Ulaan Baatar. This was an essential complement to the Phrasebook. Finally, we had gotten the main ideas of our project translated in all of the languages from the countries we were passing through. This enabled us to be better understood and helped us invoke people's interest.
Ulaan Baatar is definitely the place where you can get money, Visa and MasterCard are accepted. After that, the only towns where you will be able to get funds are the capitals of the aimags (Mongol provinces), but even there, power cuts and other technical difficulties occur often, so it is always safer to have money with you. Personally, we never had any problems withdrawing money with our Visa card. In the summer of 2005, there were no ATMs in Mongolia.
Alcohol can be a major problem in Mongolia. More than once, we were harassed, even abused by men under the influence of alcohol. Every time, we were in villages, mostly capitals of aimags. We felt that alcohol brought out bad memories towards foreigners (from the Russian communist era), and that our presence was not always appreciated. These situations never occurred in the steppe, but towns are definitely places to avoid (except to get food supplies), especially at night.
Bring everything you need to changes your bike parts including the screws. It is difficult to find what you need outside of the capital. However, the Mongols are very creative.
Leaving out the 300 km we rode on paved roads near the capital city in 2005, we rode on dirt, gravel and sandy roads, crossed rivers and torrents, passed over 4000-meter cols, etc. A real expedition! We chose to ride a basic mountain bike without any sort of shocks in order to limit possible mechanical failures. We never once regretted our choice. The roads were very harsh; our bag racks broke on many occasions; we suggest you choose them carefully.
With time, we soon understood that the best way to discover a country is to do it with as few illusions as possible. This is what we hope for you. So far, Mongolia has not yet experienced "tourism pollution" and it's everyone's duty to make sure it stays like this...
We entered the province at the end of July, in the summertime. Hence, the weather was extremely hot, especially in the Taklamakan desert where the weather could reach 45%deg; C. This is why it is important to travel very early in the morning and late in the afternoon, and to ask where the wells are located along the road. Violent sandstorms can also occur in this region, with very strong winds.
The north of Xinjiang and the road to Kashgar seem to be easier ways. Winters are not as harsh depending on the regions and snow accumulation varies from north to south, being not as important in the desert. It may be possible to bike during winter, as well as for the spring and the fall. One thing is for sure; cycling in Xinjiang can become quite an adventure, depending on the chosen itinerary.
The Xinjiang province offers a variety of fruit and vegetables, ice cream, juices, breads and spices. Everywhere, you will find banmian, a typical Uyghur dish made of pasta, sautéed vegetables and hot peppers. Water is abundant in certain regions and some villages even have it cold! Therefore, food and water is not a real problem in Xinjiang, except in the desert, where it is important to get the proper information about existing villages and where water is located. We still carried 22 liters of water with us and sometimes we would have wanted more. With the proper information, you can bike through the Xinjiang province without any worries.Cost in 2005
We believe it's essential to ask for the price of things before buying. People there have been merchants for centuries so they know how to do business! Some of them may try to trick you because you are a foreigner. Try to leave them with another impression than the one of a rich tourist who can be easily tricked!
To sleep, you will easily find a camping spot, because Xinjiang is composed of many deserted lands. It may be harder to camp close to large cities where you may need to find a hotel room. Rooms may cost between 45 and 200 Yuan (Urumqui, Kashgar, and Turpan being the most expensive cities).Ürümqi
Gambuch Hotel, in the heart of the Uyghur neighborhood, has rooms for 100 Yuan. It is noisy and hot, but there is definitely atmosphere! It is the cheapest in town (not to be confused with the luxurious hotel next door, in front of which a luminous fluorescent tower lights up at night).Turpan
There are many interesting sites around the city, notably the grape valley and the ancient city of Jiaohe, but it is the Uyghur suburb that is the most charming. Rooms are more expensive there; the cheapest we found was 140 Yuan.
Elsewhere, it was possible to find rooms costing between 45 and 70 Yuan, by negotiating. Hospitality is also a tradition, so do not hesitate to take every opportunity that comes your way.
We bought our map of Xinjiang before leaving, which was very useful for us. It is probably possible to buy maps in Urumqui (and also in other cities like Turpan, Korla, or Kashgar). The maps authorized by the Chinese authorities sometimes omit to mention the Uyghur villages... and sometimes they mention Chinese villages in the desert that have been abandoned for many years. It was the case on the road between Korla and Ruoqiang. It is necessary to ask locals for information before starting your journey into the desert. Some regions in the Xinjiang province require special visas. Tourism agencies can inform you on this matter. However, the road system is well developed.
China "freed" Xinjiang in 1950 and never left the territory since that time. The Uyghurs, who were the main population in this region for a long time, are today a minority due to the large migration of Hans from oriental China. Uyghurs today represent 40% of the total population of Xinjiang (they represented 70% not even 20 years ago). Hence, a small Phrasebook could be more than useful to share time with the Uyghur population. A Mandarin Phrasebook will be necessary as well, since Chinese represent 40% of the total population. Up north, you will also meet Kazakhs, who are also very welcoming.
Money and cycling matters are not an issue in this part of the world, where people have been doing business for years. For us, this region was definitely one of our favorites. The Uyghur culture is wonderful and the local atmosphere gives us an idea of what could have been the Silk Road not that long ago. Here, we have again learned how generosity can change a moment into a magical experience.
We entered Tibet via Kermo (Golmud in Chinese) since we came from the Taklamakan desert (the Xinjiang province). The access roads from Kashgar, Xining, or Chengdu seem more interesting because they are not as used and more diversified, although we don’t have precise information on these ways.
The Kermo/Lhasa road is completely paved and used by many (trucks, jeeps, police cars, army vehicles). This road takes you to 5700 meters of altitude and offers a panorama that we truly enjoyed. There are many Tibetan villages along the way, starting at approximately 600 to 700 meters from Kermo.
2005 - The first checkpoint is five kilometers from downtown Kermo, immediately after the Petro-China plant. It is obvious because all cars have to stop there. We went around it on its right side, getting as far as we could away from the road. The landscape is rough and sandy.
The second checkpoint is 40-45 kilometers from Kermo and very hard to go around cycling in daytime. We did it at night, following the wall on the right side of the checkpoint (which is about 150 meters from the officers) to then pass alongside the gas stations located after the checkpoint. It is impossible to go further right, since a hydroelectric dam blocks the way.
On the road, tons of police cars passed by us without stopping. We had food supplies for many days and went by the cities without stopping for too long. We always found a hidden camping spot to spend the night.
Contrary to what we heard, there was no checkpoint 450-500 kilometers from Kermo (close to Marchudram Babsuk or Tuotuohe), but there was one in Amdo, which was only a weight control station for trucks, cars could simply pass by on the left (also easy to do for bikers). The checkpoint at Lhasa was closed when we passed by because of the weather, but other travelers told us they also went by easily.
Hence, we reached Lhasa quite easily. Water is abundant on the way and you can get quick noodles in villages (be discreet, of course). The new railway can be used to protect yourself from bad weather (snow, rainstorms, and strong winds) and also from curious eyes at night. Rain is common on the Tibetan plateau in September.
Lhasa is easy to travel for bikers. Nobody asks for permits and you are free to go anywhere without worrying. The road to Nepal is supposed to be opened to foreigners and does not require a permit, as long as you stay on the main road. However, we went off the main road passing by Gyantse and we visited some villages that didn't cause us any problems. This is a gorgeous road, with turquoise lakes, glaciers and 7000 meters high peaks.
When we crossed Tibet from Lhasa to the border of Nepal, important road work was taking place on the main road, also called the "Friendship Highway". Hence, everything was very dusty, muddy, and not really nice to travel. It is quite easy to find water on the plateau and to get supplies for many days. So, it is not a major issue.
Mass tourism had a negative effect on the road between Lhasa and Nepal. This is why we decided to go off the main road. On many occasions, we witnessed buses stopped on the side of the fields, allowing their hurried passengers to photograph the working Tibetians, and this even without asking their permission, then hopping straight back on the bus after getting their cliché picture. It is useless for me to comment... Simply, we think it is important for each and every one of us to know the impact we have as tourists, whether it is with the people we meet or on the ground we walk on.
We crossed the Nepal border at the end of the day (mornings being particularly busy) and the Chinese officer asked us if we had an Alien Travel Permit. Since it wasn't the case, he asked us how much time we spent between Lhasa and the Nepal border. We answered together "10 days", in a much synchronized way! Smiling, he stamped our passports and it was a done deal! Apparently, the correct answer for people not having the proper permit is less than two weeks.
Now, for the great descent to Nepal, be ready to live emotions of a lifetime!!!