“You appear to be moving very slowly into the Gobi Desert. Are you sure you want to do this?” – Things Google Maps isn’t designed to say.
After almost two weeks running from Police in China, using various mapping resources that run acceptably well through the Great Firewall, I completely missed how close I’d be coming to one part of the Gobi Desert. I guess by some definition, you could say that my route, unbeknownst to me at the time, had me crossing it. I’m not sure where the precise borders of the Gobi are, or if there even are precise borders of such a monstrous geographical feature. Regardless, Google gave me no warnings when I crossed into the region about how absolutely desolate the area would be. When I finally zoomed out a few days into Mongolia, I discovered just how close my route had gone to the ‘Great Gobi B’ on Google Maps, it in all honesty came as a surprise. I had planned this leg thinking it was just another barren steppe, one of many I’d crossed since leaving Kyrgyzstan about a month ago.
So that’s how I ended up cycling across the Gobi Desert (by some definitions) without realizing it. Blame it on Google.
I had no trouble crossing the border from China. Horror stories from others seemed to be unfounded in my case, leaving me to wonder why I come across as so trustworthy. I think it might be the 10-year Chinese visa I have. It’s a new-ish visa policy, and the presence of such a visa had greeted with some genuine surprise at police checks along the way. If you take the rarity of the American passport in Northwestern Xinjiang and then add the new-ness of a 10-year visa, maybe that’s the reason I never had a police stop last more than an hour. Terrorists don’t tend to travel on a 10-year visa, I guess. I was in and out of the border (I should note that this is still easy by Xinjiang standards, my phone was still checked, e-reader scrolled through, bags checked, camera scrutinized, etc.) in about an hour and a half.
Mongol customs went smoothly as well. Back to standard Central Asian border checks. Disorganization, bored border agents, office workers checking Facebook, etc. I left my bike outside, and I don’t think they realized I had a bunch of bags on it that they should probably check. They just never looked. OK, maybe that was partly my own doing. I noticed that the parking lot outside was empty, so I put the bike over in a corner way out of the way, somewhat hidden, and never indicated just how much luggage I had with me. 30 minutes and I was out of the border post and into what I later realized was the Gobi Desert.
I was loaded with water. Upwards of 8-9L, because despite not realizing that I was technically entering one of the largest deserts on Earth, I was acutely aware of the lengthy distances between towns and water sources in Mongolia. I finally had a few touring blogs to go off for information, and the consensus is that from the border to Altai about 450-500km away, there is not much of anything. It’s probably a good thing I’m so damn wiry right now after more than four months on the road because four or five days of food doesn’t seem to take up as much space as it did at the start of the trip.
Your first few stops between the border and Altai along the route I took are at 50km (Bulgan, medium sized with supermarkets and two banks), 100km (Khukh-Uzuur on Google), 200km (Small yurt and gas station. Water with some juice available.). This road is paved, with a few shallow climbs in the desert heat. The small yurt conveniently comes right before the road ascends slowly for 50km up to a pass at 2800m.
Towns here, when they exist, are incredibly basic. To give an illustration of this, one night I camped at elevation above a town (Tonkhil) about 10km away. I planned to stop the next morning and maybe scrounge around for some water and some carbohydrates. The town looked tiny from far away, a smudge on the horizon, with no visible electrical lines. This made me a little worried that what I might struggle to find even those simple things. It was about 220km to Altai, the next town of any size after Tonkhil, so it was imperative that I find water. I had about 4L left, and there were plenty of cars on the gravel road I was on (about one an hour, so… rush hour by Mongolian standards), but I didn’t want to have to rely on a passing car in case I ran out. I was running low on snacks, too. Cheap calories, cookies and such, that keep me going during the day. The last time I had restocked was Beitun, hundreds of kilometers earlier. The sun set, and suddenly I saw lights go on in the town. Solar power. My mind was put at ease. If there was solar, there would be water, and maybe a basic shop.
Tonkhil is about 300km from the border, but at 250km, the pavement ran out. The road from that point to the border serves the Khushuut Mine, and is used by Chinese trucks, and is well-paved. I had planned to take a more direct route, however, so I turned off that road and launched into the interior of the country. Pavement is rare in Mongolia, and at the turnoff I got my first experience with a ‘Mongolian Highway’. A Mongolian Highway is a collection of parallel gravel roads that go… somewhere. Most likely the next town. The steppe on its own, without a track, is very driveable. So the people here have basically just over time worn large paths around the country to get where they need to go. When one path gets too rutted, people start to drive next to it and thus a new road is created. These paths are visually quite stunning. On busy routes, there may be as many as 10-15 parallel paths all going one direction running through the steppe.
This all serves to make maps of Mongolia very inaccurate. Google Maps has a few of the main paths marked, as do most other mapping services. But there are really paths that go everywhere. Some cyclists who are braver and more competent at this sort of navigation than I am have gotten to Mongolia and made it through the country on dead reckoning. I guess if you just keep going East, all roads eventually lead to Ulanbataar. It sounded crazy to me before I got here. Aren’t there mountains and hills in the way? No. A large part of this country is basically one large lawn.
And now the tough-to-swallow part.
Where the Gobi Desert was a breeze, the Sharga Desert leading to Altai was not. The road was in awful condition, and it started to really put a strain on me and the bike. I hit long stretches of washboard roads, and sand too deep to ride. The already light traffic dropped to one car/day. The track I was on was often so light that I started to wonder if I was even going the right way. It took three and a half days of brutally tough riding to get to Altai through the desert, seeing basically nothing but a few camels. One night I examined my rear tire in dismay. I had told myself that I would ride until the tire burst, and I could see that the bad road was about to turn that possibility into reality. The sidewalls were starting to very clearly fray in exactly the same way that the other Schwalbe tire had done before. She was about to blow. It had maybe 200km left, not the 1200km that I needed from it. I’ve had many bad days before, but running into this desert I finally had a day that had me conceding that the trip would have to come to an early end.
My determination to reach Ulaanbataar gave out almost exactly when my bike did. I was feeling physically pretty great, but mentally, I was drained. I’ve never felt more fit than I do now, and I was smashing mileage goals I had set for myself. I had budgeted six months, until late August, for this trip. But here I was in late June, just two weeks from the finish. At the beginning of the trip, I wondered if I could ever manage 2,000km in a month. In June, leading up to my early end, I did a hair under 2,500. In Patagonia, I had done 3,000km in just about three months. Just over four here in Central Asia, I was over 7,500km. But my mind wasn’t having it anymore. My internal monologue had been stuck for a few days on ‘yeah Mongolia’s really pretty, but you know what’s going to be better than Mongolia? A daily routine with proper nutrition and a safe place to sleep at night.’
In light of the bike issues, I think I’m ready to make a stunning (in my mind) admission about the choice of bike for this trip. As much as I love my Pugsley, it was the wrong bike for this trip. The tire issues I’ve encountered on this trip are not really tire issues at all, they are rim issues. With the tires stretched over the rim as they are, the pressure is all in the wrong places (basically, pushing horizontal against the sidewall of the tire rather than vertical against the tread). This would be fine if there weren’t so much weight, but the full load ended up bouncing straight up and down on top of the tires, constantly straining the poor sidewalls.
And a little more on tire pressure, which is basically the reason people buy fat bikes. The purpose of the fat tires is basically to replace shocks with the comfort of low air pressure in the tires. The full fat tires can handle as low as 5-10psi for rough stuff, and that makes it easy to roll over pretty much any terrain. However, tire pressures for fat bikes rarely go above 65psi, and as I’ve already mentioned, on the smaller 2.3-2.4in tires I was on, the higher the tire pressure, the more pressure is put in the wrong places. So tire pressure came down a delicate balance. Too high, and I’d risk wearing out the sidewalls of my tires and lose ride comfort. But go too low and the bike would drag even more ass on pavement and, with the huge amount of weight bouncing around, put me at severe risk of pinch flats. In fact, anything less than about 60psi would have the rim bottoming out constantly. In the end, there were just so many tire-related issues (and many more I haven’t gone into) that the whole thing just started to drive me crazy.
When I took this bike to Morocco, I loved it because of the ruggedness, but I also wasn’t carrying as much weight. For a bikepacking setup, this bike worked incredibly well. However, for a full touring setup, it just wasn’t great. I constantly had weight distribution issues, with a lot of headset shimmy if I had too much weight on the front fork. This shouldn’t be an issue on a touring bike. The tires also just really drag. That extra rolling friction from the tires didn’t feel like much most of the time, but I could really feel it at the end of long days. A constant ‘shhhhhh’ of friction was always there to remind me just how much energy I was losing.
I don’t want to say I hated the bike. I just rode it 7,500km across Asia, after all. But it was absolutely the bane of my existence at times. I’m just disappointed with how it performed, especially after how much thought I’d put into setting it up in the first place.
So I’m going to leave it here. I took a very bumpy 20-hour bus ride from Altai to Ulanbataar and then a flight home the next day. There is a big Trek dealer in Ulanbataar, and they have bike boxes for free if you’re nice.
As for the future, I think I’m going to take my homemade bike and a backpack for some shorter, lightweight exploration in the Pacific Northwest when I return, and those might warrant a blog post. I will also have to get to UCLA somehow in September. When I get there, I have a framebuilding-related project I’ve been planning that I’ll probably write about as well. My two posts about the homemade carbon frame have drawn way more traffic to this site than any of the touring bits. Thanks for following along!