Geoff Hill, The Telegraph, September 30, 2019
I was riding a Royal Enfield and sidecar across a frozen lake in Mongolia, it was -40C and I was wearing a pair of sparkly tights. I was sure there was a rational explanation for all this, but at that moment I couldn’t think what it was. At least I could explain the sparkly tights. I once wore them for a fancy dress party, and when I mentioned the trip to a friend, he said that he always wore tights on trips to the Arctic for warmth.
As we landed at Ulaanbaatar, the pilot welcomed us in Mongolian, before we emerged to meet François from Vintage Rides. Sadly, I didn’t meet my bag, which was to spend the week in Moscow Airport. You know, the bag with all my cold weather gear and four-season sleeping bag. Biker camaraderie being what it is, the other riders lent what they could, and we climbed into a minibus for 14 painful hours on the potholed road to Moron, through a bleak, rolling landscape.
By the time we finally got there late that night, I hadn’t slept for 32 hours. Next day, at the annual Khovsgol Lake Ice Festival, hundreds of locals tucked into barbecues, skated to and fro, took horse-drawn sleigh rides or practised sliding their Toyota Prius Japanese imports, the apparent vehicle of choice for those not on horseback.
We slept on the floor of a log cabin around a stove. A wolf howled outside once, and the local dogs answered it with a cacophony of barking, safe behind their stockade walls. In the morning, we took to the ice on the bikes at last, and what a hoot that was. Before long, we were all laughing our heads off doing power slides and doughnuts.
Looking down through the ice, meanwhile, was magical: the deep blue of the water below, interwoven with a delicate tracery of white cobwebs, like the vapour trails of a Battle of Britain dogfight frozen in time. The island we’d planned to camp on for the night was inaccessible, the ice around it churned up like a storm-tossed sea, so we decamped to a collection of lakeside gers [Mongolian tents] normally used by a gold and copper mining company as a summer holiday camp for its workers.
Dinner was chewy mutton dumplings in soup, followed by chewy beef with potatoes and carrots. I began to fear that the chances of Mongolia winning a Michelin star were about the same as Elvis being discovered on the moon. In the morning, it was so cold we had to use a blowtorch on the bike crankcases to thaw the oil enough to start them.
We rode north to the former Soviet holiday camp at Hanh, only 12 miles (19km) from the Siberian border, with a faded red CCCP sign still beside the gate. Astonishingly, dinner was trout and chips. All over Mongolia, sheep breathed a sigh of relief, said their prayers and went to bed.
Alarmingly, the next morning, we heard that three cars had fallen through the ice on the west of the lake and their occupants drowned. We stuck carefully to the east, visiting a family of seven living in a ger that they moved from pasture to pasture several times a year with their 500 cattle.
On the wall hung the traditional Mongolian HD TV, powered by a solar panel outside and offering a window on the world that allowed the family to ask the key questions of the day, like how we saw Europe’s relationship with Russia developing and the price of a litre of milk.
As we rode off, I looked back at them waving happily and thought how little we appreciate the luxuries of our relatively pampered lives. Luxuries such as the hot shower and change of clothes I had back at the hotel in Ulaanbaatar when I was reunited with my bag. Bliss.
Need to know
The 10-day Frozen Ride tour runs twice a year, next in February and March 2020, with six days of riding covering 360 miles (579km) over ice and snow. You don’t need a bike licence if you just want to enjoy the view from the sidecar. Prices start at €4,850 (£4,304), not including flights ( vintagerides.travel ).