I’m in the middle of Mongolia on a dirt road and I’ve just fallen off my 49cc motorcycle for the… fourth time? Sixth time? I’m not really sure. It’s day two of The Adventurists’ Monkey Run and this fall hurts. I’ve actually ended up on the ground in front of the bike, hitting my head so hard as to shatter my helmet-mounted GoPro camera and doing something to my right hand to cause it to swell up like a Kardashian’s rear end.
“I’m down,” I call in my headset to my pal Rebecca who is leading me and two other riders through the uncharted back roads of this beautiful country. I lay back in the dirt, look up at the bright blue sky and think, “How the fuck am I going to do nine more days of this?”
I’ve wanted to go on an Adventurists-sponsored event since 2004, when they debuted the Mogol Rally, challenging teams to drive a shitbox car of 1.0-liter displacement or less from London to Ulaanbaatar. The company’s stated goal is to “make the world less boring,” and it’s since branched out to adventures that incorporate everything from rickshaws to horses to fishing boats. Heck, it even convinced a few brave souls to strap themselves into a lawn chair equipped with a fan and a parachute for a paramotoring event.
The Monkey Run was first held in 2016 in Morocco, Romania and Peru. We’ll even get an American Monkey Run in Spring of 2023. Our group of 59 idiots is the first to tackle Mongolia, so we get the lofty title of “Pioneers.” Yes, nearly 60 grown-ass adults paid about $1,800 to take a motorcycle meant for children from Ulaanbaatar to… somewhere… with no support whatsoever.
The Adventurists are all about self-sufficiency. Monkey Run riders carry all their gear with them — it’s recommended we bring just 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of stuff — and are forbidden from calling the organizers in all but the most dire circumstances. Don’t have the tools to fix a blown shock? Better find someone who does. It’s raining and your tent has a hole? Too bad, so sad, deal with it. And don’t even think about calling for a flat tire. You’ll be ridiculed in the group WhatsApp chat and flogged at the finish-line party.
Furthermore, there is no set route. In fact, we don’t even know where the finish line is until a few days before we set off. When we leave the 130-foot-tall stainless steel statue of Genghis Khan, my fellow Monkeys scatter to the wind. Some take off solo, others are in groups of 10 or more. The only rule is that we have 11 days to reach Lake Khuvsgul, about 800 km (500 miles) to the northwest of us.
Our first day is on pavement just trying to get out of Ulaanbaatar. We inadvertently get on a toll road with no exits that takes us straight into the messy downtown UB traffic. This is the first time a Monkey Bike has been imported into Mongolia and we cause quite a stir. Windows open, phones come out and I’m sure we are on myriad Mongolian Instagram accounts with the caption, “Look at these idiots!”
Our top speed is 40 km/h (25 mph), though we can go faster on a downhill with the wind at our backs. These bikes are Chinese knockoffs of the super-cool 125cc Honda Monkey Bike. Made by a company called SkyTeam, they are pretty much shit. Power sits at 2.8 ponies and the torque seems almost non-existent. My electric starter gives up the ghost early in the trip and three out of four people in my group develop a leaky front shock. The good news is the 8.5-liter fuel tank lasts for 250 to 300 kilometers, and gas stations are plentiful and fairly cheap.
The killer, for me anyway, is soft sand. I’ll admit I’ve spent about five hours total on a motorcycle, never in the dirt, so I’m not sure what I expected. I find the monkey bikes are easy to ride on the pavement and I am surprised that I can handle hard-packed dirt and washboard — they are uncomfortable but not difficult. Any kind of soft sand, though, and I’m a goner. These bikes are squirrelly as hell in soft sand and the tiny eight-inch wheels don’t help.
I stop counting my falls at eight in one day. My legs are almost entirely black and blue, my hand is swollen but somehow still functioning, my ass is killing me, and is that some kind of arthritis in my elbow? Because it hurts like a mofo.
After a few days of dirt riding and camping we switch to pavement, much to the disappointment of Rebecca, an adventurous and accomplished rider and longtime compatriot who no doubt expected more out of me. However, the country is so vast that the view in front of me hardly changes. Whether we’re on tarmac or dirt, we see broad, rolling hills, devoid of trees or shrubbery. Every few kilometers we come across a herd of animals, be it goats, yaks, sheep or cows. The countryside is dotted with gers, round tents where the herd owners live.
Though the population is sparse, cell phone service is pretty good and all the gers have at least one solar panel set up, facing south. Herders use either horses or 150cc motorcycles to keep their flocks together, and many families have a utility van of some sort as well. Every ger has a wood burning stove for cooking but no running water. The outhouse is a three-sided shelter and a plank floor with one plank missing. Easier to aim for sure, but I’m always afraid I’m going to lose my footing and fall and Rebecca will find me half naked with one leg in the pit, screaming, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”
One night at dusk we ride to a ger and find an older gentleman with the most resplendent eyebrows sitting outside. I find that Mongolians aren’t really the “smile and wave” type of folks, but he looks kind. Through Google translate we say, “We are traveling. May we sleep here tonight?”
And that’s how we end up sleeping on the floor of a ger with a Mongolian family. They give us warm milk tea to drink and we fix some of our camping food for them (Mountain House Chili Mac). Our Mongolian mom makes a call and soon we are hanging out with the whole family, giving gifts and going through photos. The younger son swaps his motorbike for a monkey and rounds up the goats for the evening, giggling like a kid the entire time.
Of course, the “choose your own adventure” aspect of the Monkey Run means some people make it really far into the wilds. Alvaro Baleato Varela from Spain and his British pal Julian Peppit rode 1,600 kilometers (only 80 of which were on tarmac) and went the furthest north of all Monkeys. The pair ended up camping in the snow and hail, taking refuge in a few animal shelters. One was full of sheep droppings, the other covered in bird crap.
The duo also came across many waist-deep rivers that necessitated stripping down and carrying the 140-pound bikes over their heads. They encountered hundreds of kilometers of bone-jarring washboard and the dreaded Rs: rocks, roots and ruts. It was so bad that any medication they had packed shook itself into a fine powder and Alvaro questioned whether or not he had broken a rib — just from riding, not from falling. At one point, Julian hit a sheep. Thankfully, the bikes are so slow that no damage was done — but any adventure that includes hitting livestock has one-up on my piddly little experience.
Shanaz Ahmad of the UK set off by herself because she wanted to get out of her comfort zone.
“Being as remote as we were, this was probably the most stupid place to do it,” she says. “And I did suffer quite a bit.”
How so? Well, she got lost — a lot. She ran out of gas. She broke the clutch handle on her bike and was stuck in 4th gear for a few days. Luckily she’s a petite woman and although the bike was sluggish, it could still take off. She was once saved by a Mongolian family who drove 150 km to get her a new puncture repair kit when she got a flat and realized her kit was garbage. At one point, she got three flats in one day. Still, through it all, she persevered and solved all the problems Mongolia — and a crap monkey bike — threw at her.
It’s the final day of the Monkey Run and all we have to do is ride 30 km from the little tourist town of Hatgal on the south end of Lake Khuvsgul to our final camp. The dirt road is fine at first, rocky and full of potholes but easily traversed. However, after 20 km or so we get to a water crossing.
Not wanting to get our boots wet or possibly flood the carburetors, we take off our footwear, carry our gear to the other side and then push the bikes across the cold riverbed. Just then, a large group of Monkeys arrives, and they just ride through it like it ain’t no thang. We took an hour to scout, plan and execute…and these yahoos just went for it.
The next river crossing I’ve learned my lesson and I punch it. Of course I stall and with my starter broken, I have to get off and push the bike, but I feel better. More bold. Almost proud of myself. The next few water crossings I get across like a pro and it’s not until the last few kilometers traversing a sucking swamp bog that I make my final glorious fall into the mud. At least this time the landing is softer and after 1,084 kilometers there is a cold beer waiting for me at the finish line.
I’ve been home for a while and have had some time to reflect. If I were to do another Monkey Run, I would get some off-road riding instruction instead of just saying, “It’s a Monkey Bike. How hard can it be?” I would also do more research regarding the vagaries of Mongolian weather and invest in a better sleeping bag. True confession: The one I brought was garbage, and my cold sensitivity meant I wasn’t willing to camp once we made it to the northern part of Mongolia. A better bag, and I’d have taken more risks.
Then again, what’s one or two nights spent in the cold? Julian and Alvaro did it while sleeping amongst sheep crap. Shanaz spent cold nights out in the wilds all alone. And I fell off the bike a lot. So what? I did much better on my third day and didn’t fall at all. Why didn’t I push myself to do more dirt? With my off-road racing experience and six Rebelle Rallies under my belt, I thought I was tough. Now, I’m not so sure.
I better book another Monkey Run and find out.