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This Did Not Start Well

We entered Mongolia at the town of Zamiin-Uud just across the border from Erenhot China. Our Mongolian guides were not where they were supposed to be, so we just kept moving through the checkpoint until we finally met with some resistance and were stopped at the physical gate that enters Mongolia.


The guys at the booth didn't speak any English and were confused about what to do with us because we had bypassed all the control points and had not properly gone through customs and security. So instead of making us go back through the proper process they just threw up their hands, opened the gate, and let us through. We looked at each other and shrugged and drove through and parked at a small parking lot just on the other side of the border and called our guide on the cell phone.


Little did we know at the time that this would be a much bigger problem when it came time for us to leave Mongolia.


We met up with our guides Ching and Aldar and took off to provision up in the town center. After lunch and a quick stop to tank up and load up with additional fuel, we took an abrupt left turn off the one main paved road that leads to Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, and started our adventure off-road across the Gobi Desert.


Immediately we knew we were in over our heads. All the off-road prep in Mexico did not prepare us for the level of difficulty we encountered in just the first dozen kilometers of off-road in the Gobi. We were following vehicle tracks of various depths from hard-pack to deep sand with very deceiving transitions between the two. We each went down within the first 30 minutes. We learned later by watching whole Mongolian families with livestock on motorcycles zoom past us to avoid the tracks and just ride in the open steppe.


Mike and Nick both popped up and were able to get right back on and go, but I went down hard on my left side and my left leg got trapped under the bike. The momentum from the fall carried my body sideways and I could feel my knee and ankle separate with a pronounced tearing sound. I screamed in agony into my headset and the guys stopped and came back and helped lift the bike off my damaged leg. Because adrenaline had kicked in, I got right back on the bike, and we continued riding.


Mike got a flat tire and Nick broke out the tire tools and did a repair. We made way less progress than we wanted for the first day and we were exhausted, so we called it quits early and set up camp. Our new shell-shocked friends Ching and Aldar broke out a bottle of Chinggis Khan vodka and we toasted repeatedly with way too many shots before passing out.


The vodka was an adequate painkiller that night and it wasn't until morning that I realized I couldn't walk on my injured leg. Overnight both my ankle and knee had swollen to twice their normal size and were starting to look black and blue. I yelled out for the guys to help me get out of my tent. I knew that I had to try to get on the bike and ride or we were going to have a difficult and undesirable decision to make.


We were in the middle of nowhere and a day's ride from any type of medical facility. We were also on a tight schedule because of a very restrictive border crossing date in Uzbekistan in three weeks. We didn't have a day to spare, and we were already off schedule because of the lack of progress from the previous day's falls and flat-tire repair.


I hobbled to the bike and Nick and Mike held it up. I gingerly threw a leg over the seat and tentatively stood up on the pegs and gave it a good jump up and down to see if my knee and ankle could handle the compression. To my amazement, I felt no pain! It had hurt way more to walk from my tent to the bike than it did to jump up and down on the bike. I started it up and took a brief lap around the campsite, making sure to challenge myself over some ruts and gullies, and returned and threw my hands in the air triumphantly and yelled, "Let's hit the trail!"


This was just the first day of what would turn out to be the most challenging two weeks in all of our riding lives. My knee and ankle healed slowly along the way. Mongolian terrain is unforgiving and seriously no joke. The Gobi is vast and littered with animal bones and it's easy to see how a miscalculation such as not carrying enough fuel or food, or misreading the terrain, could lead to serious injury or death.


The route we took was new to Ching and Aldar, who had never traveled with adventure motorcyclists, so most of the time they were just as lost as us and frightened by our frequent accidents. There were no route signs or even roads so most of the time we were navigating by Waypoint GPS or just Mongolian style – by the location of the sun.


A combination of those techniques and following vehicle tracks led us ultimately to where we needed to be each evening, which was either camping in the wild or staying in Ger (Mongolian for Yurt) camps which are the Mongolian equivalent of a Motel 6. Most Ger camps land somewhere on the spectrum between straight-up camping and a no-frills, primitive hotel. Four Seasons they are not.


Falling off the bikes became routine and almost a daily experience, and luckily for the most part injury-free, except for one terrifying accident Mike had while off-trail traversing the open Mongolian steppe.

Mike was leading the way that day. We alternated the lead position because as a leader it was your responsibility to call out over the headset's terrain changes to give the others a chance to react. Mike called out to Nick, who was trailing me, to come forward and listen to a funny sound coming from his engine. We were moving along the flat open grassland at a considerable pace, and all looked clear ahead when Nick passed me and pulled up alongside Mike. All of a sudden Mike yelled out, "Shit!!" He disappeared over the lip of a hidden 8-foot-wide wash and slammed to an abrupt halt against the far wall.


Nick low-sided his bike just before going into the wash and we both ran towards Mike who was on his back motionless, half on his bike and half against the far wall. We lifted his visor and saw blood streaming down his face, and we checked to see that he was breathing.


Fortunately for all of us, he was just knocked out. Ching and Aldar were out of the truck with concerned looks, on cell phones, checking if they had a signal in case we needed to get Mike out in a hurry if that was even possible due to our remote location.

Nick and I were standing over an unconscious Mike not knowing what to do when we saw Mike's hand start to clench and un-clench and then start to rotate. Then we saw his feet start to rotate, his legs started to slowly move, and little by little he came back to life until at the very last his eyes opened, and he slowly stood up.


He took off his helmet and surveyed the superficial damage to his face and then walked a bit. He determined that there was an injury to his thigh, but his leg was not broken. We gave him more than a few minutes to shake off the cobwebs; then he declared that he was ready to ride.


Nick checked out his bike. Despite a bent handlebar, there was no real damage, so we hopped on our bikes and continued to our destination for the night.

When we got to camp Mike took off his pants and saw that he had a huge hematoma on his thigh, most likely from the handlebars. This kept us on edge for the rest of the Mongolian journey. Mike was on blood thinners for a preexisting clotting issue and an injury like that could become life-threatening if not monitored closely. As soon as we got to civilization Mike had a blood test to make sure his levels were still good. They were a little out of whack but fortunately, not critically so. He also called home to have new meds sent because his pills had been vibrated to dust because of the harsh terrain. It had been impossible for him to dose himself correctly.

The funny thing is that Mike never heard that sound again coming from the bike.

Mongolia is an amazing place. With hardly three million people one can go days without human interaction. Most of the population is concentrated in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, with the rest spread out over a territory the size of Alaska. We never set foot near Ulaanbaatar, so we saw Mongolia from the perspective of the nomad. Traveling from small village to small village, stopping mostly for provisions, and then heading back into the wilds.

Every day the trip was unique. We had no idea what we were going to encounter, from deep sand and mud to technical rocky terrain to water crossings, and most of the time all the above. Due to the shared adventure, we became brothers with our Mongolian guides, a bond that's still strong to this day. Without a doubt, Mongolia was the most challenging and unforgettable part of the trip for each of us and a place that we all would love to explore in more detail. We vowed to come back.

Oh yeah: That little bit of confusion at the border, in the beginning, came back and bit us in the ass when it was time to leave Mongolia and enter Russia. Seems that the Mongolians at the northern border had no record of us ever having entered Mongolia at the southern border. They had no clue what to do with us. Technically we had traveled completely across Mongolia as illegal aliens. We had to hang out with the staff while they called the southern border and tried to work out the paperwork that would make us legal. Five hours later after some pleasant conversations in broken English and lunch with the staff in the cafeteria they threw up their hands in defeat and wished us a safe journey in Siberia. Got to love the freedom of Mongolia!


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