The day I rode to Mongolia (the long way round)
Adventurer, climber and photographer Paul Cottee recounts his adventure crossing continents on a 125cc motorcycle racing in the Mongol Rally
What?! why?” That was the knee-jerk response when we told people we were going to ride to Mongolia and back on a couple of Sinnis Terrain 125cc bikes as part of the Mongol Rally.
The questions that followed were more varied but were all on the theme of, “What will you do if X, Y or Z happens?” (along with “What’s a Sinnis?”).
The idea of riding a motorcycle to Mongolia (and beyond) was something that had first formed in my mind many years ago when I was first introduced to Long Way Round in 2009. Whichever side of the fence you sit on regarding Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s 2004 adventure, it’s hard to deny its impact on the motorcycle adventure community and, as in my case, the realisation it prompted that it’s possible to travel to remote parts of the world on two wheels.
Until then, I had been fully into sports bikes. But as soon as I had binge-watched Long Way Round, I was well and truly sold. I immediately bought a BMW F650 GS to take on the world. Which naturally never happened.
Oh, there were trips over the following years: the Isle of Man TT, Europe a couple of times, Alaska and even South East Asia in true backpacking style, cruising around in a world of scandalously cheap food and drunk teenagers in hostels. But those trips still felt less adventurous than what I had seen others do.
Enter the Mongol Rally, which I had discovered back in 2015 when I’d been looking at ways to recreate Long Way Round in a shorter time frame. Back then, I was still working a job where taking anything longer than three weeks’ leave was a straight-up no, so the idea got filed away at the back of my mind.
Fast forward nearly four years and life had changed: a different job, a different lifestyle and different possibilities. I’d met my other half, Holly, and we’d been together nearly a year when I introduced her to the Mongol Rally while brainstorming ideas for trips we could do the following year.
Now that I was working in the indoor rock-climbing industry, the attitude towards taking longer annual leave was vastly different. After I’d checked whether taking a few months off would be viable, it looked as though the idea might finally get off the ground. Holly signed herself up immediately and – despite the initial shock – I followed suit.
From this point forward, all our spare time was dedicated to the trip: planning routes, arranging visas, getting vaccinations, looking for sponsors and raising money for charity. We were 100% obsessed with the Rally. But there was one more, small hurdle to jump; Holly had to get her motorcycle licence. Yep, she had signed up to ride halfway across the world on a motorcycle with only her Compulsory Basic Training. After several emotional and unsuccessful attempts, Holly pulled it off with only two minor faults just three weeks before we were due to set off.
With so much to plan, there was no time to stop and take in the fact that we were about to ride more than 15,000 miles across the planet and back, across questionable and unknown terrain on untested bikes. On the start line, we discovered that of the 800 participants in the Rally that year, only four had chosen to do so on motorcycles. We knew we were in for a rough ride, but now the adventure had officially begun.
Over the course of just ten weeks, our journey was a spectacular snapshot of the world, with highlights including the unexpectedly beautiful but deadly mountain regions of Turkey from Cappadocia to the coast, the astonishing Pamir Highway through Central Asia, and the wilds of northern Mongolia.
Our reaction to Mongolia, a sparsely populated country of predominantly nomadic people, was shock – namely at just how far modernity has spread. We encountered perfectly tarmacked roads, new bridges, smartphones and even fuel stations with contactless payment.
Unfortunately, that didn’t always mean we were in for plain sailing. At one stage, a light-fingered patron in a café took off with my phone while our backs were turned. We were also threatened with violence by three random guys looking for a quick and easy handout while we were packing up our camp site one morning. Thankfully, we managed to stand our ground by brandishing a camping mallet.
These experiences aside, when you turn off the main roads and rely on the local routes, Mongolia reveals its rich nomadic culture. With vast landscapes that never end, the world feels larger and your vision seems wider as you gaze out over the wild canvas of rugged tundra, mountains and valleys.
In an effort to leave our comfort zone behind, we also took ourselves off the central route towards the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and headed north towards Mörön instead. The days that followed were some of the most challenging rides, as we crossed sand, gravel and rutted mud with only the locals’ tracks to follow. We barely saw anyone.
As the journey progressed, one thing became abundantly clear: that the bikes were the right tools for the job. The Sinnis Terrains lacked power but made up for it in ruggedness, and the pair never gave us cause for concern (despite all the abuse we had thrown at them along the way).
Any journey on this scale will inevitably have negatives that balance out the huge positives. We were robbed while we slept in Ulan-Ude, got stuck on a ferry for four days crossing the Caspian Sea, spent 12 hours at the border with Turkmenistan, and I had half my ear torn off in an accident on the way to the Gates of Hell.
The excitement of getting through our final border crossing from Mongolia into Russia was palpable. We watched the miles tick away as we headed for the finish line, the main square in Ulan-Ude, where, under the watchful gaze of Vladimir Lenin, I achieved my decade long dream of following in Ewan and Charley’s footsteps. It was a journey that left us with an incredible feeling of accomplishment but a longing for more.