Monday, 23 July 2012

Into Mongolia

We left Barnaul in the pouring rain.  We’d hung back to try and let it pass but it never did. They were having a bike fest in the town that weekend – I hope the weather didn’t dampen their spirit! As we head towards the Mongolian border, the people and the scenery start to change. We are now in the stunning Altai region of Russia. Parts of the journey through reminded me of Scotland and even more so when it began to rain again! At an overnight stop in Aktash, we chat with Russian Valery Aksenov, who is a scientist living in Novosibirsk. He and his granddaughter were heading off in the morning to a canyon about 100km away. He tells us it is a beautiful place which he has visited before. It sounds like it would be a great place to go but unfortunately, due to our unplanned stay in Zlatoust, we don’t have enough time before our Mongolian visa runs out. We meet Ernest from Switzerland on his Suzuki 110 scooter and see him again at the border the next day. We arrive at the border at 7am and there are already a few cars in front waiting for 9am opening. At 10.30am he discover that we needed to go to immigration first, which is 500m back up the road. So while Iain is doing that, all the cars in the queue behind us leap frog us as they knew to go to immigration. Eventually, at about 3pm, we clear the Russian side of the border. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard to leave a country and I think they were lenient with us as they didn’t ask to check any of our luggage, as they were doing with all the cars. This is why it is so time consuming to leave, they only let 4-5 vehicles through at a time and they are all searched. We then ride 20km to the Mongolian border gate, passing through the actual land border about half way. Our first taste of Mongolia was paying to have our wheels disinfected! It doesn’t take too long to get through the border though and thankfully they have an English version of forms to be completed.
We (us and Ernest) travel on into the town of Tsaagaannur and end up at a family’s home where they feed us and let us sleep on their floor. In the morning we get the shock - £20 each – to sleep on the floor!!! £40 for both of us! We’d paid less than that in Russia for a decent motel with en-suite. Here, we had to walk 100 metres to the outside toilet (and when I say toilet, I mean a smelly hole in the ground!!) Lesson learnt – do not be quite so trusting.  We made our way to Olgii where we bumped into Danes Martin and Christina and their 2 sons again. Iain and I met them originally in Barnaul. We get settled in at one of the ger camps and arrange to go to a local Naadam festival the next day.  
Naadam Festival is a national holiday in Mongolia. There are 3 disciplines at the festival – archery, wrestling and horse racing. We arrive just as the archery is finishing but in plenty time to see the wrestling, which is quite a spectacle, not least because you have some very muscley blokes striding around in very small pants. The horse racing was not so thrilling. It promised to be exciting as all the horses and’ jockeys’ arrived. The riders were all young lads. The spectators all then travelled to the finish line, which was up a long steady hill. What we hadn’t realised is that there were different categories and it was not so much of a race as a trot up a hill. In between trots though there were some impressive displays of horsemanship.

As we travel onwards the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. Stoney tracks edged with cliffs and rivers give way to more open spaces but still surrounded by mountains. Huge open spaces. After one wild camp, we were coming towards a town and as we were on a slightly higher ground level we could see the town and the GPS told us it was still 33km away. It’s mind blowing. We come to a river which is about knee deep and moving very fast. If we were on solo bikes, we’d have gone through without too much problem but with the sidecar you have to be careful as the ‘chair’ will float. As the river was flowing left to right and the chair is on the left, we felt it foolish to try and cross. We back tracked a few kilometres and set up camp for the night (where, in the morning, I had a count of over 30 bites!!).  Next morning we tried again, just in case the river level had dropped but it hadn’t. Back in the village we were told of a guy who’d take us across in his truck for a small fee – result! We found him and got loaded up. The truck was very rickety and as we travelled along, when I looked down, between my feet was a hole in the trailer floor where I could see the tyre rumbling round.  About halfway there the truck slowed and stopped – he had a puncture. He had no spare wheel but he did have a spare tube so he and his 2 mates set about changing the tube. They did this without problem but only because a passing jeep had a hand pump because he didn’t have one! The tube he was putting in already had 10 patches on it and the reason the other one deflated in the tyre was that one of the existing patches had started to peel away from the tube. We carried on and were across the river, no problem.  

Although the road are tricky in places, we were making better progress on them than Ernest and had to keep waiting for him so eventually we say goodbye and go our separate ways. We are mostly travelling at over 6000 feet at this point in time (to put that into perspective, Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK, is 4408 feet). The scenery has changed to a more ‘alpine’ feel with tree clad slopes and the aroma in the air has changed as the locals now burn wood rather than dung.  One evening, it’s getting late and the rain is torrential so we stop and knock on the door of a wooden building within a compound and instantly we are ushered in and given chai. In Mongolia, this is a very milky tea, made with sheeps and yaks milk. I like this but Iain doesn’t, so I drink the chai and he drinks the vodka again. They let us pitch our tent in their compound. Their outside loo is the best so far. After a run of wild camping, we need a proper shower.  The next night we book into Fairfield House which is a great guesthouse in Tsetserleg run by a couple from Australia.

We are now in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, staying at the Oasis Guesthouse. This is a great wee site run by a German/Austrian couple. It’s a bit of an overland traveller type place so there is a great mix of vehicles – bikes, jeeps and trucks – all decked out for travelling in very different ways. Iain is doing some work on the bike and then we’ll do some sightseeing before deciding our next move.

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