"We suffer so you don't have too" was deemed one afternoon, over a respectable quantity of refreshments, to be the motto of the LabRats. Truth be told, spirits of the 'Rats were high as a kite that day as we bathed 'neath the sun at our lakeside rest-day campsite, high as the collective spirits were all of the time - perhaps excepting the time of the incident of the mosquito swamp, less said about that the better though. High spirits are, after all, an essential quality when exploring a remote wilderness by bicycle.
There were 14 of us, including Echo and me. That is to say 14 PaintedRoads LabRat cyclists, plus our Mongolian cycling guides Batbayar and Tool, along with four ever-cheerful local truck drivers, and our passionate chef and his bright and enthusiastic assistant.
As far as we are aware - and Batbayar is aware of just about everything cycling related in Mongolia, we were the first group of cyclists to ever follow such a route through Mongolia's far western Altai region. The route we followed was a combination of trekking trails and horse riding routes, picked and pieced together using Batbayar's extensive knowledge of the region, and now being tested as a cycling adventure tour by The LabRats.
The LabRat tradition has quickly grown from a hazy notion for testing a new tour, to a much-loved institution. LabRats are chosen for the attributes necessary for a first tour, easy-going, laid-back, good-humoured, tolerant, understanding, and fun. Being a good cyclist helps tremendously, and a passion for post-ride beers is seen as a positive boon.
That is not to say that a LabRat Run is a total unknown, quite the contrary, either I or my in-country partner will know the route, and one of us will have inspected it in general, if not always in intricate detail. This may mean one of us has cycled the route, or driven it, ridden it on a motorcycle, or in the case of the Altai, on a horse.
The Mongolia Altai ride was a truly wonderful adventure. A pure wilderness with little sign of electricity or motorcars, leave alone such modern wonders as the internet. The route was for the most part on unsealed roads, rideable on a gravel bike but on many occasions preferable on a mountain-bike. River crossings were a frequent occurrence, and soon hopping off the bike and getting we feet became second nature. Some of the climbs were stiff, to say the least, and saw most everyone off their machines huffing and puffing as they pushed to the summit. Overall though the riding was wonderful, car-free, carefree, fun gravel through a stunning wilderness of fresh air, eagles, yaks, nomads and the huge blue sky that Mongolia is renowned for.
The Altai region is too remote and far from Ulaanbaatar to become a regular annual PaintedRoads tour. Our existing Mongolia Kanghai tour ticks all the boxes for a beautiful wilderness ride, but is logistically far more accessible as well as being at a more favourable price point. However, maybe from time to time, we will throw the Altai into the mix.
And the LabRats - well, that not one person, at any time, for any reason, showed anything other than good nature, good humour, and humility says a huge amount for the spirit in which this adventure was approached, executed, and appreciated. The crew were all equally wonderful. To Mongolians, it seems that nothing is really an issue, and life is but a bundle of fun.
Many Thanks to all who took part, and here's to the next LabRat Run - 'not so much a holiday as an experiment!' Cheers 'Rats!
One of the most beautiful valleys I have yet to encounter
Even super-fit folk were at times left gasping, such were the Alti Mountain gradients
Life's realities are never far away in Mongolia - certainly never wrapped in plastic and stacked high on the supermarket shelves
Grassy meadows, rocky summits, barren valleys, desert where camels roam - the Altai can provide it all in just one day.
Our rest-day location
Bleak Skies never lasted long
At just 75 years old there's simply no reason to slow down yet
The view from our tents for our rest-day
Our camp chef was nothing less than a culinary genius
Russian built UAZ busses, like a VW Camper on steroids our support vehicles can go anywhere and everywhere...
however, they do insist on more than a little loving attention from their drivers, ace driver Gambol had a busy rest day...
as did the rest of the driver's, who's social life would seem to revolve around truck maintenance.
This morning was one of seemingly endless smooth gravel descent
Nigel - a senior LabRat
Echo crosses the aptly names White River
Phil take his rehydration very seriously
Our aptly named mechanic Mr Tool
Paul tackles one of many river crossings
Hum - at the highest point on the tour Echo and Phil manage to procure some traditional dress
The Tavan Bogd massif bordering Russia, China, and Mongolia
All goods in the Altai Tavan Bogd are carried by horse and camel - the bicycle is as mechanical as transport gets in this area
Inspect ancient petroglyphs
The ever jolly and jovial Munkhe
It's just not a LabRat Run without at least one photo of a knackered looking Keith
One of the few small 'settlements' we passed. The few simple houses were far outnumbered by piles of dry yak dung that serves as fuel for cooking and heating
Another river crossing
Lunch breaks are always a civilised affair with a cooked meal
PaintedRoads mascot Frodo send his emissary along for this trip
The LabRats regroup on a high pass
Ain't no mountain steep enough, ain't no river deep enough - quiet and never too far away, there was seemingly nowhere that Tool could not ride a bike
Claire & Emma "where's lunch"
First pass conquered
Like riding through the set of a wild west movie a herd of stallions thunders alongside us as our tyres drum the hollow sounding hard packed single track leading us on a rollercoaster ride across the Kanghi Mountains. For riding through Mongolia is an experience unlike any other PaintedRoads Tour to date. Far more than a simple cycling tour, a fortnight on the Steppe is all-encompassing, a veritable collage of sensations both physical and emotional, with sights, sounds, smells, and riding experiences morphing as we go.
Although predominantly dry the weather is not shy to change, with brief rain showers, more often than not soon giving way to warming sunshine as the clouds break and the sun bathes the land in a soft glow.
The route begins with some short sharp climbs and gravel trails through an almost treeless landscape. Once across the watershed, the trails give way to more flowing hard packed double track and the hillsides become thicker with vegetation and evergreen forests.
Mongolia’s sparse population is predominantly nomadic and, as is so often the case with people who are not strangers to a harsh existence, these yurt dwelling herders are friendly and generous, often visiting our camp to exchange wares with our crew, and offering as much hospitality as they are able when we visit their homes.
I have heard it sung that a picture paints a thousand words, so, rather than prattle on further, I shall leave it to my Olympus to lend a sense of this year’s pair of tours in the beautiful land of Mongolia.
Next year’s Mongolia Tour will run from June 29 until July 11 and bookings are already coming in. For more details please click here.
Mongolia, what a beautiful country but I think the whole tour group would agree with me in saying that the jovial and convivial presence David exuded over the tour was what made this tour really special. I would thoroughly recommend this tour on David's tour leader skills alone but the support crew and food also proved to be fabulous
Jonny Harding UK.
An amazing place to ride a bicycle. Lots of ‘WOW’ factor – especially on day 3. The only downside to all of the great scenery is that you keep stopping to take more photos! David and the local Mongolian crew have done an excellent job of putting together an off-road adventure designed for those of us cyclists who are primarily road bikers – enough challenge to push us, but not so technical that we were scared.
Pete Fotheringham the USA
Once again Sprog and I have had another wonderful trip with Painted Roads. This was my third trip with you and it was as well organized and enjoyable as the rest. Having the back-up of the truck when the going got tough was a comfort. How your helpful crew managed to produce such a variety of good food every day was a mystery. We were very appreciative of the way you personally scrutinized our bikes before every departure from camp. I would have no hesitation in recommending Painted Roads to any would-be adventurous cyclist. We had a lot of fun.
Ollie Hughes NZ
Our Mongolia cycling experience was mountain biking through an immense wilderness, wide open valleys, steep climbs, river crossings, yaks, horses, sheep, goats, and scattered nomad gers (yurts). It’s another world. Think “Wild West” on steroids, missing only the trees and snow-capped peaks. Painted Roads’ drivers, guides and cooks were exceptional.
Carol York USA
A cynic would argue with gloomy enthusiasm that high hopes and fine expectations are a sure-fire recipe for disappointment, as, I suspect, would many a realist. And so it was that I headed for Mongolia earlier this month with both high hopes, and a niggling foreboding of doom.
It is for some years now that I have been eager to host a Mongolia tour, and so the surprise meeting early this year with an agent in Ulaanbaatar who asked to cooperate on a camping tour in the Kangi Mountains gave me cause for much excitement and the anticipation of a super adventure to come.
As I discussed the details of the tour and my requirements with the agent I felt more and more that I was dealing with a trustworthy fellow who valued the need for quality highly and believed in a fair and honest working relationship. And so it was that for the first time ever rather the venture alone or with a chum to inspect and explore a route I contacted a small group of PaintedRoads valued regulars and invited them to join me on a Mongolia expedition. Unsurprisingly most eagerly jumped at the chance of adventure in an unknown land and quickly became known collectively as, the LabRats.
And so it was that Dianne, Nigel, Marko, Phil, Keith, Echo, and I all met early in July in Ulaanbaatar’s Grand Khan Irish Pub, eager for a few pints of Gobi Gold and two weeks of Mongolian cycling adventure.
Rather than describe the two weeks in detail here and now I will let a few of my photos from the trip give you a little flavour of this wonderful land, and over the next week or so as I go through the pics I will post a few more prior to adding the tour to PaintedRoads' collection.
It is early days at the moment, we have just returned to our respective homes, but soon I will add the thoughts, comments, and opinions of the LabRats along with further images.
The bottom line, for now, is that I had no concern whatsoever to lumber my journey to Ulaanbaatar with nagging doubts. The Mongolia LabRat Run was absolutely superb in all respects. The crew were excellent, the food, produced in a kitchen tent was exceptional, the tents and the camping were great, and the overall organisation was splendid.
For anyone wishing to exchange the Westernised life of the 21st century for two weeks of wilderness, where neither car nor wifi nor crowds of people roam, then this tour is just the tonic. It’s a wilderness of trails, through desert and meadows and forests and pastures, across hills and valleys and rivers. It’s a land of nomadic herders who live a tough but pure life and understand the value of kindness, sharing, and friendliness, far above and beyond greed and materialism - am I smitten with Mongolia? Yes, I most certainly am, and I cannot wait to return.
Full details of the new Mongolia tour will follow soon.
Finally on a personal note, many thanks LabRats, it was, and you were, brilliant!
Our support vehicles were the rather wonderful Russian made UAZ - think of it as a VW camper on steroids.
A wilderness tour for sure, Mongolia offered a wonderful variety of terrain and riding from smooth tracks and grassy hills...
to river crossings
Camping was a civilised affair with a kitchen/dining tent, shower tent, loo tent, and a four made dome tent between one or two depending on booking
The camp chefs turned out an amazing selection of quality cuisine
The Orkhon valley, quite lovely
Cycling guide, mechanic, camp guard, and instant PaintedRoads legend - Toro
Riding across the pastures
From time to time we would overnight in a ger camp, an agreeable and comfortable experience
Another wonderful meal. The food far exceeded expectations
Wide open spaces
One of the many nomads we met along the way
More friendly nomads
Meeting yaks, a regular occurrence
Cheers all, a typical tea break