No country for old men – Ulan Bator to Khövsgöl

In the early planning phase of this journey our actual goal was Mongolia. We both like nature more than cities and Mongolia somehow has this reputation of being pure green nature and crystal clear lakes. After all it is the least populated country in the world. But we soon realized, that there is actually no west-to-east route that makes this possible without finding yourself in continental winter sooner or later.

Alley in Ulan Bator outside the center
Alley in Ulan Bator outside the center
Temple in Ulan Bator
Temple in Ulan Bator
Chengis Square Ulan Bator
Chengis Square Ulan Bator

Now I am here in the capital Ulan Bator which is a name like Burkina Faso…it sounds exotic and a few years back I didn’t expect to ever visit this city. I like it and spending some days in the apartment was nice. I told you I fixed my insulating mattress. Almost. The next day it turned out I not only had one puncture hole, but a few more. The apartment’s bath tub came in handy.

Apparently I slept on a cactus
Apparently I slept on a cactus – I found even more punctures later

The days in Ulan Bator were cold but sunny. The day I leave it starts to rain in the morning and doesn’t stop. The traffic is busy and I am happy, when I finally leave the city. The rain increases more and more. I hear thunder and dark clouds are approaching. Soon the thunderstorm is directly above me. It is scary, but the cows around keep calm and eat grass so I decide to keep going. I reach a gas station, where I hide from the rain. Where the road has been, there is now a 20 cm deep river that carries sand and rocks.

The road after the storm
The road after the storm

One of the gas station workers invites me into his yurt, which is just on the other side of the road. He has to work a 24 h shift, so I spend the evening with his wife and the four sons. I can dry the clothes at the stove and sleep well on a soft bed.

The whole family
The whole family
Entrance of the yurt
Entrance of the yurt

It’s a traditional yurt, however, it has real electricity, a TV, a fridge, a telephone and I get a delicious dinner, since a Мини Маркет (Mini Market) is just a few hundred meters away.

The next day is cloudy, but the rain has stopped. I continue on the paved road. I hear a loud noise, the tire burst (The tire! Not the tube. But the tube came out and got cut). I didn’t expect that, but I still have a used spare tire. Anyway, that’s my last one.

Around noon I leave the main road. There is a little village – Bayankhangai – where I get 10 liters of water and food supply for the next days, because the map shows the next village 170 km away. In between only hills and dirt road. It’s a bet on the weather I admit. Rain and I am stuck in mud. Head wind and 10 liters of water won’t be sufficient. But there should be some yurts on the way, so I decide to try.

Dirt track in Mongolia
Dirt track in Mongolia

It’s fantastic. The dirt track is hard like a paved road and the landscape is wide and open. I can move rather fast and from time to time see some yurts. The whole afternoon I see two cars. Both stop. I get offered a cup of cold beer and something to eat. You see a certain part of the supply chain is never broken. After hours without seeing any car I pitch the tent in the most remote place on this journey. It is so quiet I can hear the blood flowing through my ears. No wind, no bugs, no horses, no cars. There is only me and a hardly recognizable dirt track a few hundred meters away.


The next morning I am ready to go, when I notice, one of the bolts on my front rack broke. We replaced them in Seoul just a few weeks ago. Com’on! Of course I also lost the little metal tube, that keeps the rack 2 cm from the fork. Now what? I am in the middle of nowhere.

I pull out a chewing gum and wrap it around the other bolt to get a negative form. Then I crush some magnesium tablets. Magnesium burns with around 1400°C, so I can melt some unused aluminium parts and pour the liquid aluminium in the negative form. That way I create a new bolt. Just kidding. I have a spare bolt, but it is a little bit shorter and I am still lacking the metal tube. So I pull out my Swiss army knife that even has a metal saw. I take a segment of the tent pole and cut off 12 mm. Now I have a proper metal tube and can securely fix the rack. Since I am already on it I build a combustion engine out of the air pump and use my tent to create a hang glider. Powered by my camping stove fuel I soar in the air above Mongolia. It’s nice. I consider growing a mullet.

A piece of the tent pole keeps the rack in place - Watching MacGuyver paid off
A piece of the tent pole keeps the rack in place – Watching MacGuyver paid off

The day is beautiful. The sun comes out and without any traffic I cycle through Mongolia. I run out of sausage, so I decide to stop by a yurt, that’s not too far from the dirt track. They tend sheep and cows, so I guess they also have some sausage. The hospitality of these remote shepherds is unusual. They don’t get excited or make a big deal out of it. They move their head a little bit to tell me to come in. Then they offer some sort of a milk tea and a very hard and sour cheese. A bit like Parmesan. The man is just having lunch, but soon pushes over the bowl of sheep organs. I cut off what looks like pieces of meat and they are very delicious. It’s just the way it is presented. In German we say „Das Auge isst mit“ („You eat with your eyes first“). Better close your eyes in Mongolia. I also try some of the organs. One is like a sponge, so I don’t wanna eat that. Some look like testicles. I don’t know….The boy sometimes takes the knife and cuts off some selected pieces, so I decide to follow him, since he probably knows best what’s good.

Yum yum - Mongolia
Yum yum – Mongolia

And mind the blond hair. It’s a bit like in Tajikistan. Maybe another cyclist has been here before. I don’t know.

Beautiful interior
Beautiful ger interior
The rest of the sheep
The rest of the sheep

As you can see, they also have electricity and a TV. But everything runs on solar power. With a monocular they keep track of the sheep. If they move too far away, they get on the motorcycle and make them turn around.

Mongolian gers
Mongolian gers – I didn’t get a sausage, though.

In the evening I want to make it to the Tuul river. On top of a pass I meet a Mongol on his motorcycle. He is drunk and shows me a small gold nugget. Ah, ok. I want to continue, but he doesn’t seem to like that. I leave anyway. He overtakes me and stops me. He asks me to light his cigarette. I do and move on, but he tries to stop me. He moves his fists and shows he wants to fight with me. I tell him, that I am a cyclist and not a wrestler. He gets angry. I tell him, I have to continue. He gets more angry, but I leave. It’s going downhill. He has difficulties to start his motorcycle, but once the engine runs he lets it howl and passes me only by half a meter. Then stops again and wants a fight. For the record: He also has a mower with a big round metal blade on his back. It’s like in a horror movie. I don’t feel comfortable. He has a very violent facial expression and grabs me, when I pass him again. I shout at him and tell him to get lost. The Tuul river is still 6 km away and I expect some yurts there. But I hate this situation. It’s a bit like in the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan. If I cannot find a settlement, this guy can go on forever, because I cannot outrun him. I not only have no idea what kind of a fighting history this guy has, I am also bothered by his dangerous driving maneuvers. After all he is drunk. It’s going uphill and I push the pedals as best as I can. His motorcycle fell over and he tries to start the engine again, but it doesn’t work. Look, if that was a horror movie it would be my engine that fails. But I have none. Yeah!

I gain some distance, but the landscape is too open. He can see me everywhere. Out of nowhere a guy in a 4WD is driving towards me. I tell him that there is this drunk guy, who wants to fight and if he can maybe stop him until I am gone. He agrees. I continue. After a few minutes I hear a howling engine. It’s the drunk guy again. He shouts something at me when he passes me very close, but then takes another track to his yurt and I continue towards the Tuul river. Indeed there is not only a settlement, but a gold mine and some shops. Now I understand why he had a gold nugget and why there was this guy in the 4WD.

I want to wash myself in the river, but there are millions of mosquitoes. I see some guys. They seem sober. I ask if I can pitch my tent next to their wagon. They invite me for dinner and are very funny. I even get a present: A copper arm ring from Asia’s biggest copper mine in Erdenet, just around 100 km away. One of them hands over the phone to me. I talk to his sister, who is taking part in an exchange program and is currently in the rather small town of Reutlingen, close to where I grew up. Crazy world!

They are not working in the gold mine, but are electricians
They are not working in the gold mine, but are electricians

At night the sky is amazingly clear. I think I have never seen so many stars in my life. You can clearly see the galaxy spread across the sky. Stunning. I continue towards Bulgan the next day.

A ger somewhere
pigeons were hiding in a wheat field
Orkhon river – close to Bulgan
Boys eating ice cream in Bulgan

When I arrive in Bulgan I am happy to have a paved road again. I stay in a hotel and eat in a nearby restaurant. The Mongolian dishes can be very good and the meat is usually high quality. It’s hard when you are a vegan, though. But if you are not, you don’t have to have a bad conscious. The Mongolian cows, horses, sheep and goats live a very happy life. If you were wrong about Jesus or Mohammed and instead end up in Nirvana and at a certain point you want to get back on earth one more time, because you can’t stand the smell of teen spirit any more, ask Kurt if you can be a horse in Mongolia. Being a cat in a loft in Manhattan is totally overrated.

Bulgan city sign

After leaving Bulgan I feel tired. It seems like the few days in Ulan Bator were not enough. After all it has been a long year. I leave the paved road, which feels better. It’s more rewarding and less monotone, even though it is a bit more exhausting. It’s cloudy and there is some rain. The temperatures have also dropped. In the evening I get invited into a yurt again. This time there are several yurts standing together. I sleep in one yurt, but dinner is in another yurt, where a women is able to get the most out of the limited resources. First I get some Kumis, a fermented milk drink with alcohol. They also have bread and some sort of butter. The butter is absolutely great. They tell me to put sugar on top. I like it, but sausage would be better. Why don’t they have sausage? I told them I am German.

Yurt for sleeping
Yurt for sleeping
Breakfast yurt
Breakfast yurt

The weather stays cloudy and the nights get increasingly cold. Also the landscape slowly changes. There are more and more trees – at least on the northern side of the hills – and rivers. The valleys are long and only at the end of each valley I have to cross a pass. On top of the pass there is usually a pile of stones or wood, where people put some valuables and colorful, often blue tissue. It looks archaic and old.

The hill on the left might be an old volcano
Rashaant – I like the colorful roofs of the Mongolian towns
Sharga Nuur – A lake close to Rashaant
At a pass
At a pass – In the center are often skulls of cows or sheep
Camping spot

After Rashaant it is only 45 km to the paved road. However, it’s one of the worst tracks I have been on. I am really happy I visited Mongolia at the peak of my physical fitness. It is definitely not a country to start your journey. The bicycle is usually very heavy, because you have to carry food and water for several days. I can make more than 100 km a day even on a dirt track. But if you can’t, 250 km seem endless and of course you have to carry even more supply. There is really not much. The people in the yurts can give you basic things, but it is very remote. One day only three cars passed me altogether. It takes all my skills to cycle on the dirt tracks. Roots going diagonal across the track, big rocks, gravel and sand. If you have ever tried to cycle on sand, you know what I mean. Downhill is especially tricky, since the sand can easily make you fall. Only with the skills, the fitness physically and mentally you can actually enjoy leaving the paved roads without having to worry. I enjoy it a lot, but always have an eye on the supply.

What the hell is water?

Sometimes I take a break to eat something and then walk away from the bicycle into the endless landscape. Something strange happens then: Look, when you see a newspaper, you only see the news, you don’t see the paper any more. Only if someone gives you an empty sheet of paper you actually see the paper itself. And if you have a pen, maybe something inside of you appears and you start to write or draw. This something inside of you is quiet as long as you read a newspaper, because as I said, you don’t see the paper only the news. You don’t see the opportunity, only the offer.

In my opinion something similar happens all the time. We are surrounded by roads, houses, cars, power towers etc. Even in a remote place we see only what stands out: Look, this single house here! Look, this single tree! This road goes through nowhere. It would be just nature, but there are these power lines

We tend to focus on what stands out. A car wreck in the middle of nowhere is rather a car wreck than it is nowhere.

Here it is different. And when I walk around there is nothing to hold on to, no human reference, not even a tree or a rock. And then this strange thing happens: You actually take notice of gravity. You feel like there are only two bodies: You and the planet. I jump, leave the planet for a second and then return. And that’s all possible interaction there is. You really feel like you are walking on the planet. Literally, you feel earthed. The only thing standing out is you. Guess, where your focus is now?

Of course we always walk around on this planet, but we have to cross the road or enter a building. We have to wait at a traffic light or drive a car. So actually you are almost never aware of the emptiness that lies beneath all that: The paper. You. Here you can find it. For me that’s a big part of Mongolia.

This is water – David Foster Wallace

I reach the road again. It’s in the afternoon and still 80 km to Murun. I want to reach Murun, because I slowly run out of water and food. The head wind is too strong. I try to make 40 km at least, so I can reach Murun early the next day. Hungry I pitch the tent. Then the burner fails. Something is stuck in the fuel pipe. I try to clean it, but it is stuck in the only part I cannot access. I eat my last can: Some cold corn. And I keep the cookies for breakfast. Six guys appear at my tent this evening and watch me clean the burner. I ask for water, because I only have half a liter left. Nope. Hmm, and an invitation today would be great. But no.

I make it to Murun the next morning, check in and eat and drink properly. All back to normal again. Due to the fact that the shampoo provided by the hotel is co-created by Yuko Yamashita I additionally smell like a raspberry smoothie.

Wrestling stadium - Murun
Wrestling stadium – Murun


Mongolia is a very manly country. Mongols often remind me of Vikings. The Mongols are tough and strong. They wrestle. They ride horses, they wear big boots and long thick coats and their sacred places are made of stones, tree trunks and skulls. Their women sit in the yurts and make things from milk: Cheese, butter, kumis, milk tea. Or they just breast feed the countless children. And like stereotypical Viking women they have curves to say the least.

You usually don’t see posters of women in bikinis here. You see posters of men riding on a Yak, wearing a dead animal and a fur cap.

Of course as a gender-mainstreamed European you have to question, whether this is really what defines a man and you have to point out, that women can be tough, too.

Mongols don’t do that.

I continue. The road is paved still and I finally arrive in Khatgal at lake Khövsgöl, where I spend a day at the lake and pitch the tent meters from the water. At night I hear big animals walking around my tent. They start licking the dew from the tent. Yaks! In the morning, one Yak looks into my tent. They look so massive. But when it sees my face inside, it jumps back and runs away like a scared little kid.

I would like to stay a bit longer, but the todo list is full and I decide to take a bus back to Ulan Bator.

Lake Khövsgöl
Lake Khövsgöl
The lower side of a mushroom I stumbled upon
CSI Moo-ami – Inpector Yak Nicholson
Still happy – Bus to Ulan Bator

Oh dear, I wasn’t really aware that the bus ride was 15 hours and I arrive at 5 am in Ulan Bator. At 6am I’m at the guesthouse. Nobody opens. It’s 1°C and the cafes are not open yet. At 8:00 I can finally check in. I spend two days getting a new tire, finding a bolt with the right length, fixing my rear pannier, which was torn etc., but I cannot fix the burner.

I also got a parcel. I open it.

Vincent Vega just opened the suitcase - Pulp Fiction
Vincent Vega just opened the suitcase – Pulp Fiction

And with a smile on my face I leave Ulan Bator once again.

No country for old men is not only the title of a Hollywood movie, but also a sad truth. According to the WHO, Mongolian men on average die at age 65. Women at 73.