We’re stopped at the top of a hill on the outskirts of Karakorum, the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire. Ahead of us is a vast valley framed by impossibly large mountains that stretch into the distance. From our vantage point, we can see the criss-cross pattern of the trails that will take us into this achingly beautiful wilderness. For an incredible 200 miles, we will have the entire landscape to ourselves, free to ride anywhere we want for hour upon glorious hour without a single square inch of tarmac anywhere to be seen. If you like off-road riding, this place is heaven on Earth, and we’re ready to drop the clutch and get riding.
I’d arrived in Mongolia a few days before, touching down at Chinggis Khan International Airport in the city of Ulaanbaatar in the early morning sunshine. With my visa already in hand, I breeze through customs with surprising ease. Once my kit bag rattles off the carousel, I’m relieved to see a driver waiting for me, holding a name card.
Heading to the car, I start getting into what I presume will be the passenger door in a country that nominally drives on the right, only to find it’s a right-hand drive car. The driver explains that a vast number of cars are imported from Japan, meaning that about half of all the drivers on the road sit on the wrong side—a fact that will become particularly evident in the terrifying overtaking maneuvers on the long straight roads outside the capital.
Ulaanbaatar is a strange mix of faceless Soviet-style shops and apartment buildings for mile after mile before we reach the jarringly modern glass-clad skyscrapers that surround the central square in front of City Hall. The building is suitably bedecked with more heroic statues of Genghis Khan, the one Mongolian everyone in the world has heard of! The hotel is alongside the square and, seeing my tired face, the receptionist sends me off for breakfast while she organizes a room.
Hours later, I’m refreshed and rested, and I catch up with Toby from Ride Expeditions who’s just arrived from South Africa via Dubai. I’m here to join him and another British rider, Paul, for a recce trip prior to running full tours in the country next year. Ride Expeditions’ video guy and drone operator Ian is due to join us, too, but as possibly the unluckiest man in the universe, the chances of him arriving on time are remote.