Close Competition in Wide Open Spaces

Story by Lawrence Hacking// Photos by SSER
May 1 2015

Long-lasting friendships, long days in the saddle and relatively easy riding — at least for this Paris to Dakar veteran — make Rally Mongolia an experience not soon forgotten

I was faced with four more long days in the saddle of my Honda CRF450X rally bike. It was the halfway point of the 20th edition of the Rally Mongolia and I was already knackered. The 12-hour time difference and respective jet lag were taking their toll. The first four days of the eight-day rally were 550 km each day that took nine hours or more to complete and I was surviving on bowls of rice and energy bars that I had brought from home. Understandably, under these conditions one begins to question why one chooses to put oneself in such circumstances. In this case, the upside far outweighed the hardship: I was treated to spectacular vistas, incredible sensations while riding, great fellowship among the competitors and a cultural exchange that was unparalleled.

Rally MongoliaMongolia is changing fast. Vast natural resources have brought new wealth to the landlocked country of 2.9 million. Wedged between China and Russia, the country had existed in the shadows on the world stage. But Mongolia is currently enjoying one of the world’s fastest-growing economies; mining and foreign investment, including a strong Canadian involvement, have many rural dwellers moving to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar for jobs and a more modern way of life. Construction cranes dominate the skyline of Ulaan, luxury hotels are springing up and, surprisingly, the first Porsche dealership is being built.

The 20th anniversary of the Japanese-organized Rally Mongolia was sure to be a special event. This trip was the third time I’d made the trip to the other side of the world to ride in the wide open spaces of the Mongolian steppe country, and each time has been a memorable experience.

An Exhausting Rally

Flat TireThe 2014 rally covered 3800 km in eight days. Usually a rest day is included, but not this time. By the fourth day I was joking with my friend Kunio Iwasaki, suggesting he petition the organizer, Yamada-san, to have a rest day. Kunio laughed and pointed to me, saying, “You team leader.” This was the fifth event Kunio and I had ridden together. Some days we rode side by side for hundreds of kilometres. He’s a solid rider who took home the 250 cc class win this rally.

Ultimately, the second half of the rally became easier. The days were still long, but the higher elevations toward the north meant cooler temperatures and a greener landscape. Day six, at more than 10 hours, was the longest I spent on the bike, and we rolled into the bivouac just as darkness fell.

Fortunately day seven was a short 400 km and the most picturesque of the rally, as we rode up and over mountain passes and through lush valleys. A 200 km transfer section on busier roads led us past the historic site of Kharkhorin, which was once the capital city of the Mongolian empire. Now all that remains is a walled temple and a gathering of tourist shops out front. Mongolia has recently become a tourist attraction of some importance. People from all over the world are taking tours, riding camels and populating the pristine landscape.

Wide Open Spaces

The rally itself is a great way to visit the remote hinterland and see areas where no tourists have been. The event promoter, Japan-based SSER Organisation, does a great job of putting together a challenging route that is fairly well supported. In an off-road rally, generally speaking, you can ride a faster, lighter bike at a good clip and have fuel, food and emergency support more or less at the ready if needed. In this rally, the mandatory one-hour lunch stop is also a chance to tank up before heading out on the tracks for the second half of the day.

Some days it seemed that once I put the Honda into fifth gear, it stayed there until I had to stop for the checkpoints, and only then did I touch the brakes. I am quite sure I took my feet off the foot pegs fewer than a dozen times during the entire ride; the tracks were easy and fun to ride and the smooth surfaces were easy going. The challenge to decipher the vagaries of the roadbook was the rub. Yamada-san purposely left some detail out of the drawings to separate the good navigators from the rest. The Mongolian competitors seemed to have an advantage: after all, it is their backyard, and they apparently had an uncanny sense for where they were in the middle of seemingly nowhere.

Easy to Get Lost

Each evening, except one, the SSER team announced the GPS waypoints for the next day. At that time most everyone input those points into their GPS, which served as an indicator as to which direction to go. One day, however, was a non-GPS waypoint day, which increased the navigational difficulties. Because Internet connections are available in most villages in Mongolia, some competitors entered our start and finish locations into Google Earth to try to find shortcuts. Intrigued by this and through sheer fluke, that GPS-free day I followed fellow competitors in a Mongolian buggy across hill and dale as they tried to slice a good measure of distance off the course. The entire exercise was comical and quite an adventure as we wound our way around the hills and tracks. Ultimately we intersected the racecourse, having lost about 45 minutes and adding about 30 km of distance. So much for their short cut, I thought. The upside was the scenery was beautiful and the insight into nomadic life fascinating as we passed remote herdsmen, their families and their homesteads far off the beaten path.

Just Being Discovered

The rally is not the only reason to visit Mongolia. Tourist visits have spiked in recent years, likely because Mongolia is one of the remaining untouched landscapes and still offers some remarkable and genuine experiences.

After the rally, me and couple of other competitors took a day to visit the countryside at a slower pace. Herds of yaks, horses, goats and sheep are common to see, and the entire country is free range. We stopped by a remote family right at milking time; they were about to milk their mares one of the five times per day. The family invited us in to their ger, or yurt, to visit, sample fermented mare’s milk (a very sour but healthy detox brew), and taste yak butter and goat cheese. Each ger has a solar panel to generate electricity, a couple of car batteries and either a television or a computer. Contrary to what one may think, the simple ger life is not far removed from the modern world. They may have no washroom, but they are watching their favourite TV shows every evening.

When all was said and done, I was left with the feeling that Mongolia should be on everyone’s list of places to visit. I came away with a deep sense of appreciation for the easygoing, respectfully proud people of Mongolia, and an admiration for their lifestyle and incredibly magnificent country.

Built for Endurance

I rode a Honda CRF450X that I had modified into a rally bike with some aftermarket and custom-made components. It was a great choice, as it’s fast, comfortable and most of all fun to ride. We built and installed a navigation tower to hold the ICO odometer, Touratech roadbook holder and GPS. I added a set of Fasst Company’s Flexx bars, a steering damper, Giant Loop saddlebags and Noguchi seat. All these changes made life on the trail easier. After 58 hours of riding, once cleaned up the Honda looked new. I rode the entire rally on the same set of Heidenau tires. Going easy on the throttle saved them, but they were definitely exhausted by the last day. I had used heavy-duty inner tubes to good success in the past, and in this case they served me well: I had no flats or falls the entire distance.


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