The black market was packed with people buying and selling things you didn’t even know existed. On one dusty walkway one could find car bumpers while the next stall consisted of only old, rusty shovels. Papa Mongolia feverishly bargained with the unshaven Mongolian on our behalf and we were able to secure a deal for roughly $US900 for each motorcycle. Papa Mongolia was even able to somehow get the man to draw up a contract that stated we could sell the bikes back to him after the trip if they weren’t in pieces and we weren’t dead.
The men went into their shack-office a few feet away and returned minutes later holding a wrinkled piece of white paper with barely legible blue ink all over it. Papa Mongolia roughly translated the contract and expressed with great excitement that we would indeed get at least $600 back per bike if they were “rideable.” If you had asked us what was the least likely thing to happen at the black market, “drawing up a contract in a shack for a piece of shit bike” would have been near the top.
Contract signed and we were ready to set off, at least back to the hostel to gear up and ride for a few days before leaving civilization. Then the minor problem of us not knowing how to ride resurfaced after we picked out our helmets and keys were divyed out. We were both very confident that if forced to ride these newly acquired bikes we’d have the most embarrassing story that certainly would involve crashing our 10 minute old motorcycles on the ride back to the hostel. We weren’t ready for that…yet.
Papa Mongolia casually asked for a truck to take the bikes back to his house for us as we followed in a an old Chinese made taxi. Upon arrival, Papa Mongolia directed the unloading of the motorcycles into his patio area. The time had come when Dave and I needed to just get on the damn bike and see what happens. Well, what happened was a lot of stalling, and then more stalling.
We already didn’t know what we were doing but the main hinderance seemed to be that we had based our knowledge of all motorcycles by googling “how to ride a motorcycle” and the advice memorized had been strictly for Western motorcycles. Naturally, the transmissions of motorcycles made in China or the Far East are completely different than those of their Western counterparts and the results were complete buffoonery.
For the next 90 minutes, we each “circled” a cul-de-sac divided by a small park where locals had gathered and sat on benches enjoying the cool day. What they witnessed was two grown men riding a motorcycle about 5-8 feet before stalling, jerking forward and coming to a stop, then glancing around to see who noticed (usually everyone). After figuring out that the gears we had learned in our head weren’t corresponding to the gears we were attempting to shift into, it started to roll more smoothly. I knew we’d be OK when I made one entire lap of the cul-de-sac and passed Dave. Minutes later Dave returned the favor with a few choice words the Queen would not be proud of. The Mongolians found this the greatest form of Sunday entertainment.
The original plan was to leave the following morning but seeing as how we still sucked at riding motorcycles and were going on a motorcycle trip, we realized that wasn’t realistic and pushed back the departure date one day. The next day we ventured back to the giant black market which had an accompanying bazaare of sorts behind it. They sold every type of clothing. Dave and I both picked up some cow hyde jackets that were the closest things to “motorcycle gear” as we could find. For good measure, I bought two camel-hair sweaters, a knife and some rope.
While that night before our departure was restless for Dave and I, it must have been fits for Papa Mongolia. The man didn’t leave our side from the moment we bought those motorcycles, our last night would change nothing in that regard. All dinner conversations circled back to Papa Mongolia politely questioning if we really wanted to go through with this and double checking to make sure we had everything we needed when we insisted we were leaving. The next morning he had breakfast prepared (a loaf of bread and some nutella) and looked like he had been up for hours. He looked sharp, his hair was slicked to the side and he was wearing a polo shirt, treating this moment as if it was the last time we’d ever see him.
We attached all of our gear (tents, sleeping bags, clothes, etc) onto our motorcycles with bungy cords in a way that any true motorcycle enthusiast would laugh at. Hell, we laughed at it but we didn’t have any other options. We rolled the bikes out of Papa Mongolia’s walled patio area and parked them in the dirt alley. Papa Mongolia took a photo of us (Men’s Journal would later select that photo with our write-up) and he pulled us both close for hugs. I don’t usually latch on to the care of random strangers in faraway places but knowing Papa Mongolia cared about us meant a lot in those early days of the trip. Having not seen any of my family members in over 11 months—in that moment, on that dirt alley, he earned the nickname Papa. He helped two wannabe adventurers make a dream, 8 months ago thought up over beers in a South Korean apartment in between FIFA games, into a reality. We were riding motorcycles in Mongolia, all thanks to Papa Mongolia. Long Live Papa Mongolia.
The jerkyness of motorcycle was probably drawing attention as we meticulously made our way out of the sprawling dusty capital. Little does the rest of the world know but years before your local suburban town was putting in those traffic circles where people yield instead of stopping, Mongolia had those things. Who knew? Surprisingly Dave and I stayed upright through the circles and were a 2 kilometer stretch of pavement away from the outskirts of Ulan Baatar. Though we were tense from the city riding in a developing country with lax traffic enforcement, everything was going according to plan. The bikes were working, our gear hadn’t fallen off in the first 5 kilometers and then we rounded a bend and saw what every driver worldwide desperately doesn’t want to see: a police checkpoint.
The checkpoint was set up on the right shoulder, about 1 kilometer from where we currently cruising at 50km/h. The good news was that they weren’t stopping every vehicle, only those they deemed worthy. We naively latched onto the hope that we’d cruise through unmolested. That false hope disappeared quite quickly as the young Mongolian police officer eyed me, smiled slightly and gave me the look of “Come on, man, really? I mean, you really thought your foreign looking ass with bungy cords holding up a mountain of random gear on an old Chinese motorcycle and his cargo shorts-wearing English friend were just going to cruise through our checkpoint?” He stepped in front of our motorcycle and pointed to the side of the road.
The officers were all quite young and asked for our passports as we sat on the bikes. They started to ask us questions in Mongolian to which we shrugged and said the few phrases we knew regarding introductions. At this point the police officers talked amongst one another—I don’t think Dave and I are nervous at this point because the bikes were legally bought and we had international driver’s licenses, it was more of annoyance of being so close to the ultimate goal of that countryside just behind the checkpoint. After further (very) small talk, we got the feeling they weren’t looking for bribes (our initial worry). We realized it to be they saw foreigners riding motorcycles and wanted to talk with them, harmless and it made us feel as if for some reason we’d be ok once we hit the countryside. Our first conversation on the road was with your friendly local Mongolian police officer and our conversations over the next few weeks would be similarly friendly ordinary Mongolians who in the end, just wanted to say hello.
After clearing the checkpoint, in the span of 1 kilometer we went from dusty urban streets packed with decades old Mercedes spewing exhaust and soot to this…
The grass was extremely green on the rolling hills that stretched for miles and there wasn’t a building in sight. We both tested our motorcycles a bit as we cruised down an empty road. Not a soul passed us for miles, it was as though the previous week in the capital of 1.3 million people was something out of science fiction novel, a futuristic, forgotten city in the middle of this beautiful land that we had stumbled upon. How could we have only been riding 15 minutes and be in such rugged beauty after having been in the Detroit of Central Asia minutes earlier? When you travel, or life in general for that matter, the experiences come often and only the select few get remembered with the exact emotion matching that specific experience. I can remember exactly how happy I felt in those first two hours of riding my motorcycle in Mongolia. I remember the taste of the bugs I swallowed because I was smiling at 90km/hr heading towards Khovsgul Noor. Though the smile would fade in the coming days of hard riding, that emotion was so strong that we could have ended the trip right then and there and I would have said it was worth it. Fortunately for us, and maybe for you, the adventure had just begun and it was about to paint a very different picture of the Mongolia we thought we knew.