Kyrgyzstan – Bishkek to Osh

Border Excitement

I was up early, eager to get into yet another brand new country I’d previously only vaguely heard of in fairytales and implicated in the Borat bridal kidnapping scene: Kyrgyzstan.

However, it would be slightly more difficult than I imagined to enter…

I arrived at the border with only one car in front of me, whizzed through customs and was soon standing in front of the nice Kazakh Immigration Officer/ Arsenal fan at the immigration counter.

“Uh oh!  We have a problem….” he said.

“Sorry?”  I quizzed, trying to sound as innocent as possible.  You see, I knew what the problem was, and thought it was going to cause me some problems; I hadn’t bothered to register in Almaty, as is required of all tourists within 5 days.

The nice Officer called the Immigration Police in Kegen for me on his mobile, and then told me I had to go back and register with them.  Oh well, it was only 30 minutes away, so I jumped on my bike and whizzed back down the long, straight road to get this minor problem sorted.

When I arrived back in Kegen, it seemed no-one knew where the Immigration Police lived, and I ended up bouncing around back and forth as people sent me in different directions.  I even once ended up at the local prison, where I hoped I wouldn’t be staying.

Eventually I ended up where I had started and found the Immigration Police sitting at a counter processing lots of immigrants in a Town Hall type building.

Our meeting didn’t go too well, as after a quick conflab between themselves, the ‘boss’ told me I must ride all the way back to Almaty to register, 3 hours away!

I tried to protest, in the nicest possible way, and ask if ‘anything else could be done?’, but they gave me a stiff ignoring.

Uh-oh indeed, I thought, and cursed myself for not paying more attention to visa requirements.  I’d only discovered a couple of days before that I needed to register, and by then I was outside the 5 day time limit, and I knew the fine was 100 US dollars.  I thought I might be able to blag it at the border, but obviously not.  Oh well – another lesson learned!

I hung around for a while and refused to give up.  Then I typed out the following phrase on my iPhone ‘Google Translate’ App, as the police couldn’t speak or understand much English:

“I cannot go back to Almaty because my motorcycle has broken” (kind of the truth, clutch-wise).  “Can I pay you some money instead as a fine?”

The Immigration Officer in charge looked at it carefully and laughed.  Yes, he’d seen the flaw in my statement – how was I expecting to ride into the middle of nowhere (Kyrgyzstan) if I couldn’t ride 3 hours back to Almaty?  I laughed back, and then he laughed again.  Then we both laughed.

“100 US dollars” he said.

“Great” I said, and 10 minutes later the 100 US dollars was in his pocket, and I put it down to experience.  I haven’t paid many ‘bribes’ over the past 22 months, and to me paying 100 US dollars (60 quid) was worth not losing a whole day and 6 hours traveling over (plus fuel, food and accommodation for the extra day), and I probably would have had to pay 100 US dollars fine anyway in Almaty.

Back at the border I think the Immigration Officer was a little surprised to see me.

“Did you have any problems?” he asked.

“No problems!” I said.

Kyrgyzstan

Once I had escaped Kazakhstan, it was a breeze entering Kyrgyzstan.  Many nationalities don’t need a visa to enter Kyrgyzstan, including British, and there is absolutely no paperwork to complete for the motorbike.

This far eastern border crossing led through the picturesque Karkara valley and then to the tourist town of Karakol at the eastern end of Kyrgystan’s large, popular tourist lake Issyk Kul (Kul meaning lake).

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Peaceful Issyk Kul (Lake) before the rain

Karakol is popular amongst hikers as a base for setting off on numerous trails leading to pretty lakes in the surrounding mountains, and also amongst skiers and snowboarders from the former USSR for its ski resort in the winter.

When I arrived late morning in July, it was very busy with Tourists and I got harassed by a drunken Russian who couldn’t understand that I couldn’t understand him!  He did the usual thing and started again saying the same things, just louder and slower.  I quickly got fed up with him and left him in a cloud of wheel-spin dust.  Why do most drunks always seem to pick on me to ask for booze?  Do I look like one?

For a small town the traffic was bad, and I squeezed myself into a parking space when I saw a row of chickens turning slowly on a roasting spit.  I bought a whole one and whisked it away a few miles down the road for a romantic lunch on the lake shore; little did it know, it was the lunch!

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Lunch by Issyk Kul, and the approaching storm clouds

Issyk Kul used to be used by the Soviet military as a testing site for torpedo propulsion and guidance systems, but now it serves as a place for people to come to swim, play watersports, and drink vodka; lots of vodka.  It is the second largest saline lake in the world (182 km long, 60 km wide and 668 m deep) after the Caspian Sea, and never freezes despite being at an altitude of 1,607 metres (5,272 ft), hence its local name ‘hot lake’.

Then it started to piss down.

The skies were black as far as the eye could see, and it didn’t look to be getting any better.  After a couple of hours riding along the less touristy southern route of the lake in non-stop rain, I decided to can my idea of camping along the lake shore and head to the capital, Bishkek, instead.  This would also mean I could apply for my Azerbaijan visa before the weekend as it was Friday the next day.

Despite the rubbish weather, there were still some nice views of the lake against the backdrop of the rugged Tian Shan mountains.

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It was going to get wetter…

At the western end of the lake, the road twisted over a mountain pass with lots of road-works and traffic queues (which I flew past) and continued black skies with lots of rain.  As I emerged from the other side, it was like I’d passed into another world – a world of sunny skies and no rain.  I liked this new world a lot better.

It was a long ride and as I eventually approached Bishkek’s outer limits, I saw more and more police speed-traps hiding in the bushes.  I did my usual and ‘shadowed’ the fastest local drivers so I couldn’t be caught by a speed gun.

Bishkek

Bishkek seemed a big city when I arrived and I didn’t have a clue where I was staying, because I didn’t have any internet connection.  I looked in the ‘Kyrgyzstan’ section of the Central Asia Lonely Planet guide book I’d downloaded onto my Kindle (which is a right PITA to navigate through – a paper book is much more user friendly, although much heavier) but there wasn’t anything in there that looked easy to find.

In the end I headed for a hostel showing on my ‘Maps with Me’ app. When I arrived it was on the outskirts of town in a dodgy looking area that looked like it had just been bombed, so I just inconspicuously rode on through.

Bishkek is like Almaty in that many city streets have signs up forbidding motorcycles.  But as in Almaty, I have them all a stiff ignoring, rather than fight my way through the maze of traffic logged back streets and get lost.

A very noticeable difference here was that all traffic jumped red lights, and sped off on the red pre-empting the green light. They also drove like complete nutters on speed.

After driving around in circles for a while, I managed to find free wifi outside a shopping centre and found a cheap hostel on ‘Booking.com’.  However, when I arrived it wasn’t where it should have been, and nobody had ever heard of it. By now it was 9pm and I was getting fed up, but luckily the second choice hostel I’d saved on ‘Booking’ turned out to be in the right place, and was I relieved to find it so!

I soon found myself in a dormitory with 7 other beds (my favourite), but I didn’t really care – I was just glad to have found somewhere to crash.  I met the owner/managers and it was obvious it was run by 3 lads as the single toilet/shower room was absolutely disgusting (and that’s saying something for a bloke to say!)

The people in the hostel at least where friendly and helpful and showed me where the Azerbaijan Embassy was on the map, ready for my morning’s visit.

Azerbaijan Visa & Free Vodka

I rolled up outside the Azerbaijan Embassy on my bike at 10am on the dot, as soon as it opened.  There was just one other guy there who happened to be a Polish guy I’d met on Anak Ranch in North Mongolia.  He told me he’d been waiting 10 days for his visa – not good.

The Consul soon appeared – a smart, middle-aged man in a suit and tie – and invited me inside.  I felt a bit underdressed in my shorts and flip-flops.  I handed him the application form I had completed at the hostel and he told me I also had to write a covering letter.

“No problem!”  I said, and rode back to the hostel to type one up.

The hostel was only a 10 minute ride away, but during the ride my clutch degraded surprisingly rapidly, and as I arrived it was slipping to the point of becoming unridable.

After typing the covering letter I took a chance (as the Embassy closed at 12 and time was getting thin) and rode the bike there again; the clutch was slipping horrendously now.  The hostel’s printer hadn’t worked, but the nice Consul man printed my letter off for me and told me my visa would be ready in 5 to 10 days.  With no way to ‘expedite’ the visa, he gave me his phone number and told me to call him in 5 days to see if it had arrived.

Getting my bike back to the hostel took a while, and I had to ride very slowly next to the curb to let cars pass me as I crawled along.  There was no doubt about it – I needed a new clutch ASAP.

My first thought was to call Anton again – my friend in Almaty who had helped me so much with the other parts I’d needed – so I did.  Ten minutes later Anton was on the case and soon called me back with an original one he’d found in the USA, which would be the quickest way of getting one to me.  It would take around 5 days, which was fine, as I had to wait at least that long for my Azerbaijan Visa anyway.

That night I found myself in the city’s expat bar – The Metro – having steak and chips; lovely jubley!  I got chatting to the friendly Irish Manager whilst sitting at the bar, who introduced me to a group of regular expats.  Soon I found myself in the middle of a free vodka tasting session, generously handed out by the manager, round after round.  It didn’t seem long before either the bar was empty, or I went blind, and the expats all started staggering home.  It was a bit of a mission finding my way back to the hostel in the dark, as someone had moved all the streets around.

The next afternoon, when I woke up with the world’s worst headache and time on my hands, the first thing I did was move into another hostel with more than 1 loo.

Sakura

If you ever find yourself in Bishkek on a budget, Sakura Guesthouse is the perfect solution.  Run by a Japanese man called Yoshi, it is spotlessly clean and only 4.50 pound a night in a dorm.  I thought I’d splash out and treat myself to a single aircon room for a tenner, as it was really hot and sticky during the day.

For the next week I stayed at Yoshi’s hostel and had one of the most social times of my trip.  Many of the guests loved it there so much, stays of a week or more were common.  One guy, Brit cyclist Joe from Blackpool, had the record of 3 weeks, closely followed by another Brit cyclist, Will (who I guess was well over 6 feet 4 on the biggest bike I have ever seen).  We used to call it the ‘Hotel California’ (you can check out but you can never leave…).  Because of this, and a social courtyard where everyone gathered, everyone soon got to know everyone else, and it was almost like being part of one big family.

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The ‘Hotel California’ crew

Many a night was spent playing cards (poker or ‘shithead’) around the garden table eating pizza and drinking cheap Kyrgyz beer (which wasn’t too bad surprisingly).  We also ventured down to the city’s numerous bars and clubs when the occasion took us.  There was one fantastic bar nearby called ‘148’ where all the staff put on spontaneous group dances for the clientele in a ‘Crazy Signs’ Club Med manner.  It wasn’t long before the clientele were also dancing along with the staff, trying to copy their well-practiced routines, or making it up (like me).  The trick is always to down a few vodka shots first so you don’t care what you look like (although I did look particularly great anyway).

On completion of the Crazy Signs, there is a large selection of night clubs to keep one entertained in Bishkek, such as ‘Retro Metro’ and ‘Bar Suk’, which don’t sound the most appealing, but always provided a good laugh.

One interesting feature of Bishkek nightlife is the presence of ‘Face Control’ bouncers on the door.  This sounds a joke, but was in fact true.  We all had a good laugh when Blackpool Joe didn’t make the grade one night and failed the ‘Face Control’, but it was nothing a small bribe couldn’t fix.

Bishkek Sights

During my week at Sakura I thought I’d try and regain some of my lost fitness and started running every other day.  It didn’t work, but it was a valiant effort.  It did, however, allow me to see many of the leafy city’s sights, which include lots of fountains, monuments, parks and a hot air balloon.

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Bishkek’s Ala-Too Square

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Panfilov Park, where a dodgy looking fairground operates

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Lots of parks and flowers

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… and momuments

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… and a hot air balloon!

At the end of our road were two large lakes used as open-air swimming pools by the locals.  I used to jog around them on my route and loved the gorgeous backdrop of the snow-capped Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountain range, rising up to 4,855 metres (15,928 ft).

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My jogging route took me right past this lake used for swimming

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How can you miss Western Food when you have KFC? (Kyrgyz Fried Chicken?)

Happy Christmas!  A new clutch arrives in Santa’s Sack

On the 6th day at Yoshi’s my clutch arrived together with my Azerbaijan Visa, and I was a very happy bunny.

Anton was planning to ride down to Bishkek from Almaty for a weekend, but unfortunately fell ill with a cold.  Instead, he gave it to his mate, Zhenya, who was traveling to Issyk Kul for a camping trip.  I jumped in a taxi and met her at the Kyrgyz/Kazakh border at 3 am (only 30 mins/30km away from Bishkek) as she was backpacking on a bus.

Later that day, in Yoshi’s garage, I set about installing the new clutch.  Being my third one of the trip, I am getting quite good at fitting them.  On removing the clutch cover it was easy to see that the existing friction plates had completely worn away.

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This is what a burnt clutch looks like

A few days earlier I had also changed the coolant (again) after I had had to top it up with drinking water post overheating at Kaindy Lake.  A quick Google search convinced me that I had a faulty radiator cap (what would we do without the internet nowadays?).  Not relishing the idea of waiting another week in Bishkek for a new Triumph radiator cap, I took the old one down to the local car market to try and match it up, a huge container camp in the west of the city.  It turns out it is the same size as the radiator cap from a Subaru (and the same pressure rating of 1.1 bar) which saved me 1 week and only cost me 2 quid.

Both the new clutch and the new radiator cap worked like a dream, and The Tiger was ready to say farewell to Bishkek and continue south on towards Tajikistan and the infamous Pamir Highway.

Ala Archa National Park

But first there were a couple more sights to see in Kyrgyzstan.

Just 30 minutes ride south of Bishkek lies Ala-Archa National Park, which would be a nice, gentle test for my newly reconditioned motorcycle.

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The road to Ala-Archa National Park

Filled with alpine valleys, forested mountains and gushing rivers, the scenery here feels a million miles away from Bishkek.  Snow leopards live in the mountains above 2,500m, but few people are lucky enough to see these rare (and still hunted) animals.

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Only 30 minutes from Bishkek, but a world away in all other respects

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Ala-Archa National Park

In Kyrgyz, the ‘Archa’ is a bright colored juniper plant which the Kyrgyz people hold in high esteem, using smoke from its burning wood to chase away evil spirits.  I think it smells so bad it would chase away anything, but what do I know?

The only trouble with this park is, there’s one road in and one road out, which meant I had to ride back into and through Bishkek traffic in order to escape the city for real.

Speeding

The road from Bishkek to Osh (an old Silk-Road market town in southern Kyrgyzstan) is famously picturesque, but before I joined it, I fancied a little detour to an alpine lake called Song-Kul, nestling at over 3,016m in mid Kyrgyzstan.  In actual fact, the little detour is not little by any means, and it took the rest of the afternoon and evening to get there.  But it was worth it.

To get to Song-Kul I had to travel east from Bishkek back to Balykchy on the west coast of Issyk-Kul (where I’d come from a week before) and then head southwest to a town called Kochkor.

Just outside Bishkek I got stopped by the police for speeding.  I was doing my usual, shadowing the fastest car to evade the frequent police speed traps hiding in the bushes, but just as I got slack looking at the scenery, I rode right into one without any top-cover.

Once again (this is getting all too familiar), the policeman showed me a lovely picture of me riding at 68 km/h in a 40 km/h limit and took my driving license.  There wasn’t much I could do to contest it, so I put my hands up and asked “How much?”

The reply was written down on a scrap piece of paper – ‘3,000 som’ (about 35 quid), which instantly led me to believe he was telling porkies.

“No” I said, matter of fact.

The policeman then crossed out 3,000 and wrote ‘1,500’.

“No” I repeated, shaking my head.

The policeman offered me the pen to write down my own fine; an amiable way of doing business, but I’m not quite sure if it’s the right way to go about this kind of business.

As this business had been going on, I had been trying (very subtly) to remove all the 1,000 som notes from my wallet (which was inside my pocket) to leave only a few low value notes inside.  This I achieved, albeit less subtly than I would have hoped, and then showed the policeman my wallet contents with 300 som inside.

“You can have this” I said.

The policeman did not look impressed, and pointed to the inside of my pocket, which actually had a bunch of 1,000 som notes sticking out of it.  Darn!

“No!  I said sharply, “I need that”.

By this time, the policeman had a queue of other unlucky speeders to extort money from, and so he took the 300 som (3.50 pounds), gave me my driving license back, and said “Goodbye!” with a wide grin.

Song-Kul (Lake)

The road south of Kochkor was beautiful, lined with red rock mountains burning like fire in the afternoon sun.

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The road to Song-Kul (lake) south of Kochkor

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Pretty red hills

I stopped for a picnic lunch by a river and 2 local men wondered up with their kids to chin wag.  I’m very used to this by now – I can’t get away with stopping anywhere without some interested locals coming up to look at the bike and ask where I’m from.  At least they’re all very friendly, but it’s no good if you’re after some privacy.

Further on, I swung off the road to investigate a large salt lake.  The water was very low, and I rode down onto its dry, white, salt-layered bed.

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Investigating a large salt lake I found. I called it Lake Bowen II

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The water level was pretty low

In places it was muddy and I sensibly turned around before I hit a patch that swallowed me.

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Watch out for the mud-hole!

I bypassed Kochkor to the south and took the first branch-off to the west, just south of an ‘end of the world’ village called Sary Bulak, where I bought a delicious fried flat fish on the side of road for a few pence (I assumed caught from either Song-Kul or Issyk-Kul).

The road had now turned to gravel and twisted through the mountains up towards to the lake.  It was another glorious day and the views on this eastern pass were fantastic in the afternoon sun.

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Views do not get much better than this

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Climbing high to Lake Song-Kul

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Just look at that perfect road along the pass

There wasn’t much traffic on this road, so I was surprised when I past a car with a tall, blonde Englishman hanging out the window shouting “Hey Chris!”

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Will, ‘Face-Control’ Joe and the Bishkek Gang

It was Will, Joe and the gang from Yoshi’s guesthouse in Bishkek.  The 4 of them had left a couple of days before me to backpack/hitchhike around the lake.  We took a couple of snaps, I listened to their lake tips, and soon they continued on their way back to Bishkek, to the Hotel California.

Towards the top of the pass the road got pretty steep, but then plateaued out as I started descending slowly towards the lake.

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At the top of the pass, heading down towards the lake

There are two tracks around the lake – a northern and a southern track.  The lads had told me the northern track was lovely, and hugged the lake shore, so I took a further westerly track off the main track and rode directly for the lake’s northern route.  The first thing I came to was a small stream crossing, and after that the track continued down a grassy/compacted sandy track towards the lake.  The whole place reminded me very much of western Mongolia.

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Stream crossing – was I back in Mongolia?

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Flat, grassy/sandy track and Song-Kul (lake) on the horizon

There were plenty of yurts advertising ‘homestays’, but I had my own food and wanted to camp next to the shore.

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Many ‘homestay’ yurts on the eastern edge

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I preferred the more open landscape

Enjoying a leisurely ride along the lake, I stopped by an old fort and two local horsemen rode up to me for a chat.

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The Tiger has 94 of these ‘horse-powers’

I thought I might be able to ride all the way around the lake and join up with the southern road, and ultimately join the main road to Osh via a town called Kazarman.  However, soon it was obvious this wouldn’t be possible on my bike, as towards the northeast corner endless, muddy streams ran into the lake and my heavy bike began to get bogged down in marshland.

By now I had half a tank of fuel left and wondered if it was enough to take the long track back the way I’d come, and round to the south to civilisation. The road to the south was a little used ‘summer only’ road for 4WD vehicles, and I wondered what the conditions would be like, and where the nearest fuel station actually was.  The safest way would be to go all the way back to Kochkor and fuel up there before heading to Osh.  However, this was also the unadventurous, boring option, so I decided to find another way.

But first I was getting tired, so I found a secluded camping spot on the edge of the lake; at least it was quieter on this northern side.

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Time for dinner and bed!

The Road to Osh

In the morning I had a little dip in the lake and packed up the tent before it started raining; I could see some dark clouds rolling in.

I’d found a tiny track showing on my map leading from the centre north of the lake to a tiny village called Djanaryk, and then west onto Chayek and ultimately joining the main road to Osh northeast of Toktogul.  That looked like the best option to me, so I took it.

The track was pretty good up to the edge of the lake basin, but then plunged steeply down a loose, rocky horse track.  I turned my ABS off and pretty much stood on the back brake, sliding most of the way down.  I was glad I wasn’t going up-hill because I didn’t fancy waiting for clutch number 4.

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On the way back down the ‘other side’ (on a not-so-steep bit)

As I slid down, I saw a large boulder sticking out the cliff edge and didn’t think much of it until I heard a loud ‘Crack!’

I thought I’d sailed past it, and I had, but my left pannier had not.  Now one half of it was laying in pieces on the cliff edge.  It seems I’d forgotten the panniers were a now a bit wider ever since being welded onto their new frame in Almaty.

So, out came Mr Gaffa Tape, and soon we were back on our merry way, more-or-less in one piece.

For most of this long, downhill section, I switched the engine off to save fuel and coasted down in neutral.  It was nice to feel the wind in my hair (both of them), and enjoy the sound of raindrops as they started falling on my head (there’s a song there, somewhere…)

Eventually the track reached some kind of civilization at Djanaryk, although it looked like a very old civilization roughly 1,000 years old.  There was certainly no fuel, so I carried on west in search of the elusive benzene gold.

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Something told me the village of Djanaryk was old; very old…

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At least the road was better

At least the track had improved slightly since Djanaryk, and soon it was twisting its way alongside a raging river and up another steep mountain pass.   It was really beautiful, and I imagined similar to the Pamir Highway in places.  It looked as though the road was being prepared for surfacing, and the only problem was frequent large trucks spitting dust and gravel in my face until I could overtake them.

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On the way west to rejoin the main Bishkek-Osh highway

After what seemed like forever, the track finally led onto the main Bishkek to Osh surfaced road.  I reached the first fuel station just as I was running out of fuel, so that was well-planned (not lucky at all!)

At the fuel station I briefly chatted to another Brit biker on a Suzuki DR650 who was heading the other way to Mongolia.  He told me to put on my raincoat.

With a full tank if fuel, I was saved, and with a sealed road all the way to Osh I felt as though I was almost cheating.  Then the prophecy came true and it started belting down as the road twisted up into cold, snow-capped mountains, so I stopped to put on my Gortex jacket.  It was the first time I’d been cold for a long time.

Over the other side of the mountain pass, the weather got warmer and the rain eventually stopped.  I stopped too, for afternoon tea at a small wooden roadside cafe down by a river, and asked for hot tea (to warm me up) and any food they had fresh.  I got a pot of lovely, hot tea, honey, fresh bread and a delicious, baked fresh trout – just what the doctor ordered!  The only good thing about getting soaking wet and freezing cold is warming up again over a lovely, hot cup of tea.

On a sports bike, this new road to Osh really is a pleasure to ride.  Skirting the long way around Toktogol Reservoir, the road is immaculate and twists and turns alongside a river from Kara-Kul to Tash-Komur with incredible views.

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This road is one of the highlights of Kyrgyzstan

In the end it turned out to be a long day, and by the time I reached the outskirts of Osh, the sun was setting.  I stopped to take a photo as it set over a field of sunflowers.

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Now isn’t that lovely?! :)

Luckily, this time I was prepared with a pre-booked guesthouse, as after 12 hours in the saddle I was in no mood to ride round in circles for another hour.  But that was OK – I found the guesthouse quickly and settled down for a couple of beers with a group of travellers who were already there for story-swapping into the small hours.  It’s a hard life!  :)

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Charyn Canyon, Kolsai Lakes and SE Kazakhstan

Charyn Canyon (Valley of Castles)

 

Next morning I armed myself with a nutritious bag of kebabs and set off on the ride to Charyn Canyon, 200km (3 hours) east of Almaty on a good road.  The last 10km were down a rough track and it was a good test for my now rock-solid panniers.

 

A mini Grand Canyon, the Charyn Canyon is 154km (96 miles) of dramatic 300m (1,000 ft) cliffs of volcanic rock and red banded sediment beds carved out by the Charyn River over 12 million years.

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Riding along the top of Charyn Canyon (wait for it…)

 

I rode along the top of the canyon first and took a few snaps of the impressive rock formations below.  It was really windy and at I kept my distance from the unguarded edge, considering my previous record with cliffs and high dives.

 

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The mini-Grand Canyon, but it was big enough. It was windy, so I kept away from the edge (considering past experience)

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Charyn Canyon – 12 million years old, and getting older…

 

 

While parked up admiring the view, a familiar face walked up from behind me and said ‘Hi Chris!’  It was Andrey from Silk off Road Tours; he had a tour on and was showing a Dutch guy around the sights.  He showed me the steep, loose rubble track that led down to the bottom of the canyon, and I took a look.  It was pretty steep – going down wouldn’t be a problem, but it looked pretty slippery coming back up.  It reminded me of the loose, rocky track I burnt my first clutch out in East Timor.

 

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See the road winding along the bottom? I wanted to go down there…

 

However, I wasn’t about to wimp out now, especially with a crowd, so I let my tyres down to 20 psi and stood on the back brake as I slid down into the canyon several hundred meters below.

 

It was worth it – the track at the bottom was amazing – awesome even.  I was alone and riding through a prehistoric canyon, red sandstone cliffs towering above me either side.

 

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… so I did :)

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Not bad for a hard afternoon’s work!

 

At one point the track led to a hole in the rock just large enough for a car (or motorcycle) to pass through.

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The Charyn Hole

 

Several miles into the canyon the track finished at a river and a small tourist camp.  I cooled off for a while and then made my way back to the entrance, slightly worried about the steep ride back up (worried for my clutch, that is!)

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End of the Canyon Road and Tourist Camp

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And the river flowing through the bottom

 

 

I took a run up to build some speed, and all was going well until three quarters of the way up the back wheel spun in some loose gravel and I lost momentum.  I put my feet down to steady the bike as she ground to a halt.  This wasn’t good because it happened to be a particularly steep bit!  There was nothing I could do to stop the bike sliding backwards except fight to try and keep it upright.  Eventually we stopped sliding backwards and there I sat for a while, contemplating our predicament.  Foolishly, I should have contemplated a bit longer, because instead of unloading the bike to make it lighter, I started the bike and tried to get a grip on the loose surface.  All that achieved was lots of rear wheel spinning and eventually I’d managed to dig a hole for myself in the loose rubble – in more ways than one.  Then I smelt the all too familiar smell of a burning clutch and cursed myself for being so stupid.

 

Then I did what I should have done first off – got off the bike, unloaded all the heavy luggage and pushed her out of the hole as I walked alongside, revving her up carefully in first gear (it was too steep for second gear).  Luckily, it worked, and I managed to jump back on and snake my way back to the top at full speed, amongst lots of slipping and sliding.  But it was obvious my clutch was in serious trouble.

 

Conveniently a Land Cruiser then turned up with 5 strong lads inside, and they kindly helped me carry all my luggage back up to the top, saving me lots of sweaty work in the baking heat.
Returning to my bike I inspected the clutch.  It was almost gone.  I adjusted it to the maximum cable length, and it bit.  I thought I might just get away with it, if I was careful, although I knew I was on borrowed time.

 

Kolsai Lakes

 

From Charyn Canyon I rode another couple of hours to reach the first of the 3 Kolsai Lakes – imaginatively named Kolsai No.1.  I bet you can’t guess what the other 2 are called?

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The road to the Kolsai Lakes

 

 

On the way I passed through the small town of Saty where the entrance to the Kolsai National Park is.

 

As I rode over the crest of the hill into Saty, it was one of those ‘Wow!’ moments – the view of the village next to the river flowing through the broad, fertile valley was amazing.

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Beautiful Saty Valley

 

Unfortunately, Saty is a small, farty village with a brand new fuel station with no fuel.  This was a real bugger because I had ridden past a fuel station 30 minutes earlier thinking I would hang on until Saty to fill up (as there was a fuel station showing on my map).  This taught me a lesson not to rely on fuel stations in Kazakhstan having fuel.
I paid the National Park entrance fee to an old lady who took 10 minutes to work out the price on a calculator, and then rode up the gravel track to the first lake.  By now it was late afternoon and the sun had disappeared behind clouds.  The road leading down to the lake was barred with a ‘no entry’ sign, but as nobody was there, and the barrier was open, I rode down anyway.

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Kolsai Lake No.1

 

The lake is pretty nestled 1,700m up in the alpine mountains.  To get to the second two lakes required a day’s hike, but I didn’t feel like leaving my luggage in an un-manned tent for a whole day.  I also wanted to crack on towards Kyrgyzstan.

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The lake sides were too steep for camping

 

First, I needed to find somewhere to camp for the night.  As the lake was in a steep sided valley, there was nowhere flat enough to camp next to it, so I rode back down towards the park entrance and found a nice spot by a stream.

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Nice little camp spot by the river

Starving, and too impatient to wait to cook something, I ate the last of my kebab stash I had wrapped away in my pannier.  In the morning, I learned the hard way not to eat one day old kebabs.  Luckily I must have had a premonition because I’d only just bought a pack of Imodium 2 days earlier in Almaty.

 

Kaindy Lake – Sunken Forest

 

In the morning I was glad to see the sun was out, so I ride back up to Kolsai Lake No.1 to take a better photo.  This time the barrier blocking the path down to the lake was manned, so I had to bribe the guy a couple of quid to let me ride down.

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Kolsai Lake No.1 again – things always look better in the sun

 

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Tent all packed up

With no fuel in Saty I had no choice but to ride 30 minutes back over 2 mountain passes to the small village I’d seen a fuel station at earlier, before riding all the way back again to take the long track down to Kaindy Lake.

 

On the way to the fuel station I was getting close to running out, so I switched off the engine on every downhill section to coast down and save fuel.  Fortunately, I made it just in time.

 

The track was full of potholes and sharp stones, but the Heidenau tyres were loving it.  On the way back I took a little detour across a mountain for some great alpine views.

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Great alpine views on a little detour I found

 

I wanted to see Kaindy Lake because it contained the remains of a sunken forest.  In 1911, an earthquake triggered a large landslide which formed a natural dam on the slopes of the Kungey Alatau mountain range, flooding the spruce trees that were previously growing on the valley slopes.

 

The only problem for me was the track to Lake Kaindy was a bit a nightmare with a rapidly fading clutch.  The guide book I had said the track was very bad, and it was.  It was steep – very steep in places – and loaded with loose gravel, large rocks, mud and river crossings.  With a well clutch it would have been fun, but it turned out to be anything but.

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The track to Kaindy Lake. It started off OK, but rapidly became a nightmare for my slipping clutch

 

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Small stream crossing

After an age I reached a closed barrier & gatehouse blocking the road.  The trouble was, no-one was in the gatehouse, or the house nearby.  I waited around for a bit, hoping someone would show, but as I’d not seen anyone for the past hour, I thought it was a safe bet no-one was around.  Fortunately I was on a motorbike and managed to squeeze through the pedestrian gap by the side of the barrier and continue on my merry way.

 

After a small stream crossing, the track lowered onto a dry river bed full of undulating, thick gravel.  When I went the wrong way and had to turn around in the stuff, my clutch finally gave way again and the bike wouldn’t move.  Great – stuck in the middle of nowhere down a dead-end (closed) track with not another soul seen in the past hour.

 

Luckily, the little trick I’d employed in this situation in Indonesia worked again, and got me out of trouble.  Basically, I removed the inner adjusting nut on the clutch cable to give me a couple more millimeters cable length, and this was just enough to allow the remaining clutch friction discs to grip again (for a little while).

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Removing the inner clutch adjusting bolt gave me a few mm of extra life, and got me out of a hole

 

Having gone this far I was determined to see the lake, and so I rode on, hoping the road would be kind to the last of my clutch.

 

Turned out it wasn’t, and another minor disaster struck; my bike overheated.  I could smell and hear the water boiling in the reservoir, although strangely the temperature gauge wasn’t showing a problem.  I pulled over again to inspect the scene.

I couldn’t see anything obviously wrong – the fan still worked and the hoses & radiator weren’t leaking – but this was the second time it had happened, so something must be up.

 

With much of the coolant having boiled over, I had no choice but to top it up with drinking water again and carry on, trying to take it easy as I’d done in the Altai Mountains.
Despite these minor incidents trying to sway me from my path, I stuck to my guns and eventually made it to the lake’s car park, after riding though a muddy lake that had decided to cover the lower part of the track, and up another very steep hill.

 

From the car park, another pedestrian track led down a very steep path to the lake.  I parked up, put on my tank bag (by attaching rucksack straps) and started the long hike down.

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The steep track to Kaindy Lake led down the side of this valley

 

Then the eerie sunken forest appeared out of the mist…. Well, it wasn’t misty, but it would have done, had it have been.

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Dead Spruce Trees emerge from the eerie Kaindy Lake after flooding caused by a landslide

 

Like wrecked masts from long lost ships, the dead trees poked through the water’s surface casting ghostly reflections across the water.  I wanted to go for a swim and film the trees underwater, but I was disappointed to discover I’d left my GoPro attached to my helmet in the car park.

 

The sky had rapidly clouded over and I could hear a distant storm approaching.  When it started to rain I made haste back up the steep path to the car park because I remembered I’d left my motorcycle boots upright, and I hate riding in wet boots (I had put on my hiking flip flops).

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There were more beautiful lakes near the car park at Kaindy Lake

 

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When I got back to the car park, the sun came back out and some campers turned up to keep me company

Back at the bike I suddenly released it was 3pm – how did it get so late?  I’d heard the Kyrgyzstan border closed at 5pm, and so it would be very tight to make it.  Actually, it soon became apparent it would be impossible to make it, as the road turned from bad to worse to nothing (mainly because I went to wrong way again).

 

Once I’d found the correct track, the road then decided to twist down various very steep mountain ranges, in what must surely be Kazakhstan’s answer to the Pamir Highway.  It was a beautiful ride.

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Great views along the track from Saty to Kegen, via Zhalanash

 

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Kazakhstan’s Pamir Highway?

Despite being very steep and rocky in places, my clutch adjustment held and the Heidenau tyres did a great job gripping the loose gravel.  I thought the steep slopes and slow speeds in low gears would cause the bike to overheat again, and I was surprised when it didn’t.  The air was noticeably cooler up in the mountains, and so I guess that had something to do with it.
I would fully recommend taking this remote back-route (from Saty to Zhalanash to Kegen), as the scenery was really spectacular – some of the best I’ve seen in Central Asia so far.

 

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Not bad, not bad

 

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Karkara valley

At Kegen, I rejoined the main, surfaced road and sped quickly along the long straight stretch to Kumtekey near the border.

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The long, straight road from Kegen to Kumtekey and the Kyrgyzstan border

It was now past 6pm so I found a nice, quiet spot to camp by a river ready for an early morning border crossing – I was going to Kyrgyzstan!

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Time to find somewhere to camp

 

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Venturing off-track to look for a suitable camping spot

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This will do nicely :)

 

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Kazakhstan – Almaty

Border and Song

I broke my own rule and got to the Russian/Kazakhstan border check point late; 10 am.  I’d woken up early enough, but somehow got distracted doing another task on the laptop (after a big breakfast), and before I knew it, it was gone 9; you know how it is.

Because I was late there was already a queue of around 20 cars.  Several times before at other border crossings I have ignored the cars and trucks and ridden to the front of the queue, but here the process looked orderly and I got the feeling I should wait in line.  At least the process was as orderly as it looked and they were letting 5 vehicles through at a time for processing.  It took 2 hours to get through the Russian side and an hour to get into Kazakhstan, so not too bad after all.  The entry process was faster into Kazakhstan because they accept and use the same motorcycle temporary import paper as the one I received entering Russia.

The first thing I noticed in Kazakhstan was that the weather was rainy, dark and miserable, but I’m not sure that was all Kazakhstan’s fault.  I covered my leaky dry-bags with garbage bags as it poured down, relentlessly.

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A dark rain shadow was creeping up behind me

Then I got pulled over by the police in the first village I passed.

Great!

I was about to employ my flawless tactic of pretending to not understand anything the police said at all, when I heard the well-spoken English accent of a police sergeant sitting in the cop car a few meters away calling me over.

Bugger!

Nice Mr Policeman was, in fact, very nice indeed, and politely explained to me that I had been photographed speeding at 102km/h in a 60km/h zone.  This was hard for me to dispute as he showed me the nice photo taken by the hidden camera.  I smiled lots and politely explained that I had no idea I was in a 60km/h zone as there were no speed limit signs, and indeed, few signs of a village, like houses.

This didn’t work at all, and I was shown a pile of driving licenses he was holding until the hapless drivers returned with the fine payment in cash (there had been a queue of several other drivers waiting to be fined when I was pulled over).  I could have been cynical and thought this was all just an underhand money-making scheme, but decided not to.

Just when I thought all was lost and prepared myself to pay a fine, the policeman started asking about my trip and seemed very interested.  I stressed the fact, several times, that I was riding for WaterAid Charity, providing life-saving fresh water to poor villages throughout the world, and luckily I was even wearing my ‘WaterAid’ T-Shirt at the time.

Then he asked me if I could dance, or sing.

“Excuse me?” I asked

“Can you dance for me, or sing me a song?”

Granted, I hadn’t been in Kazakhstan long, but I was pretty sure this wasn’t the usual line of questioning employed by the Kazakh Police Force.  Or maybe it was.

“Well, I can’t dance very well…” (without alcohol…); “what kind of song would you like?  Do you know The Beatles?”

“Sing me your National Anthem” he said.

“OK” I shrugged, stood to attention, and belted out a loud and proud rendition of ‘God Save The Queen’ on the side of the road, together with a customary Naval salute at the end.

The police sergeant and his mate both stared for a while, stern faced.  Then he handed me back my passport and license.

“Have a good trip, and welcome to Kazakhstan!” he said joyfully.

Despite the dark clouds and the rain, that’s when I knew I was going to like it there.

Semey

After an hour or so I reached the first city, Semey, on a good road.  Between 1949 and 1989 the Soviet military exploded some 460 nuclear bombs in the expansive steppe just west of the city, and radiation has taken a severe toll on the health of thousands of people in the area over the years.

I pulled off the main highway running through the city to search for an ATM to get some local money.  Once again the amazing ‘Maps with Me’ App led me straight to one.  Of my 5 credit cards, one of them thankfully worked (never leave home without them!)

I’d discovered 2 days before that Barclaycard had cancelled my MasterCard without notifying me due to a mistake they’d made.  I called them later on ‘Viber’ (super cheap international calls) and eventually got through to the right person (after the usual ‘ping-pong’ session) who arranged to send me out another card by emergency post.  I gave them the address of the hotel I planned to stay in in Almaty and hoped for the best.

On the way out of town I stopped for lunch at a great little grocery that sold delicious radioactive hamburgers and pizzas, so I got a stack for dinner as well – it was Saturday night, after all.

Mud and Guts

A large section of the road to Ayagoz via Georiyevka was being resurfaced and all traffic was diverted onto a muddy track running alongside.  The rain was not helping things, and the track had turned into a deep, horrible, muddy quagmire.  In one particularly horrendous patch one lorry had become stuck, sunk deep in mud down to the axels.  Behind it was a backlog of at least a dozen more trucks/lorries, and it didn’t look like they were moving anywhere soon.  I took a wide berth though the muddy road works and managed to pass them, but I almost slipped over several times in the process.  My new Heidenau rear tyre continued slipping and sliding through the mud for another couple of miles until the road slowly began to improve.  It wasn’t fun, and afterwards the bike looked like it had been dunked into a huge chocolate fondue.

Pannier Road Skating

On top of battling through the mud, I was wondering if I’d been wise to ride my now ridiculously loose chain another 1,600km.  I had adjusted it to almost the very end of the adjustment scale and still it was so loose it was almost falling off in places.  However, a tight spot stopped me from adjusting it further.  I wasn’t sure if the chain was a faulty one, or if it was usual for this to happen on a very worn chain.  It had done around 30,000km and so it hadn’t done too badly, but my original Triumph chain had managed over 36,000km and had little signs of wear and no tight spot.

Thankfully, in the afternoon, the surfaced road returned.  However, it was proving not to be the Tiger’s day…

I was riding around 100km/h, enjoying the solid road, when I heard a horrible, loud scraping sound behind me.  This turned out to be my left pannier enjoying a spot of road-skating.  Yes, it had fallen off and was now dragging along the road behind me, miraculously caught by a single stand of my (now very stretched) bungee cargo net.

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My left pannier got tired and wanted to lay down. In the rain.

It turned out another bolt had sheared off the pannier bracket (the second one to have broken) and the cable ties in place of the other bracket had snapped under the weight.  The Triumph pannier system was not really holding up too well on this world tour, but to be fair to them I had dropped the bike on them several times each side over the past 22 months.

I replaced the broken bolt with yet another 3M cable tie (the same as I’d done to the right pannier, which was still holding) and used more cable ties to secure the pannier back on the bike.  Sorted!

A couple of miles down the road I saw my left pannier overtake me in one of those comedy moments, although it wasn’t very funny at the time.  It slid across the road and down a steep embankment, finally coming to rest in a field.  A startled truck driver coming the other way managed to slow down in time to miss it.  It appeared things were not quite as ‘sorted’ as I thought.

Several more cable ties later the pannier was back on, and this time I emptied most of the weight from the pannier and placed it in one of my dry bags.  I was down to my last 3 cable ties, and so I thought I’d better slow down a lot if I wanted them to get to Almaty in one piece.

Kazakhstan is a big, empty country to ride slowly, and I was chomping at the bit to speed up whenever a piece of smooth, flat road appeared.  However, there weren’t many of them, and instead I cringed at every lump and bump I hit.  It’s amazing how much you notice every single bump in the road when your pannier is being held on by 3 cable ties.  Normally, of course, the Tiger would be in her element, sailing over the potholes at speed, as though they weren’t even there.

So with my chain about to fall off and my pannier hanging on by a thread, I tried to get as far as I could towards the sanctuary of Almaty before sunset.  At least the sun started to make a late appearance in the afternoon, which put a brighter tint on things; just.

I suddenly realized I hadn’t taken many photos, mainly because I didn’t feel like stopping in the rain and the mud, so I stopped to take a photo of one of the many conspicuous Kazakh cemeteries I’d been passing.  It seems they are all located on hill tops, I assume to cut down on travel time (or increase it, if they were going the other way).

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One of many regular Muslim cemeteries you will see in Kazakhstan

In the end I got about 50km past Ayagoz and found a nice place to camp out of sight of the road behind a hill.  I watched the full moon rise as I ate delicious, cold pizza.  It could have been romantic but the grasshoppers were playing hard to get, except for the one that jumped into my sleeping bag.

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Time to find somewhere to camp

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I was waiting for the werewolves to attack

Up at the crack of dawn, I started early and took it easy, considering my bike’s delicate condition.

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Morning! It was going to be a beautiful day!

At that point, my good friend, Mr Sod, and his fine Law interjected once again and laid before me the road to Armageddon.   OK, so the road wasn’t quite that bad, but it only took about an hour for it to be one bump too many, and the left pannier smashed onto the road for a third and final time.

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Oops – Third time down, and out for the count! Quite fittingly it died near another cemetery

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Luckily, I had room on the back

The 3M cable ties had been great, but I suppose they’re not really designed to hold heavy panniers to a motorbike over very bumpy Kazakh roads.

Now out of cable ties, the only choice I had left was to secure the pannier to the pillion seat, which my amazing ‘Master Lock’ adjustable bungee cords sorted out in no time.

It was certainly secure, but it didn’t leave much room for my butt, and my Albert Halls’ quite often received a battering against the tank, which wasn’t fun (or healthy).

Having been working on my bike by the side of the road several times during the past 2 days (re-attaching panniers and adjusting chains), one obvious difference I noticed between Kazakhstan and Mongolia was that nobody stopped to help/chat/nose in Kazakhstan, whereas EVERYBODY did so in Mongolia.  Is this what happens as a country becomes more ‘developed’?  Instead, many of the Kazakh drivers who passed me let out long blasts on their horns.  I wasn’t sure if they were honking in commiseration, saying ‘hello’, or trying to usefully tell me ‘don’t break down by the side of the road!’  Either way, it was annoying at the time, although I tried hard to not let it be.

At least the sun was out and the day was much nicer than the previous day.  At last the landscape started showing its beauty; parched, open steppe running off into the horizon on the left, and low rolling hills on the right.

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The expansive Kazakh steppe

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… and low rolling hills

I stopped for lunch at a Russian café by a monument of a (I supposed) Kazakh warrior on a horse, and shortly after got pulled over by the police for the second time in 2 days.  Admittedly it was my fault, as I had (unwittingly) taken a short cut across a huge, unmarked roundabout.  This time my tactic of ‘pretending not to understand a word the policeman was saying’ worked, and his attempts to extort some money from me (in broken English/Kazakh) failed.  Eventually he got bored and wondered off for lunch with his mate.

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Lunch stop, just before being pulled over for the second time in 2 days

The last part of the journey to Almaty dragged a lot as I passed Kapchagay Reservoir.  Again there were major road works jamming the roads with single file traffic in both directions.  It had been a long day and I had run out of patience, so I took no prisoners as I sped along in between the slow moving lines, up banks and verges and past police checkpoints.  One advantage of having my left pannier on the back seat was I was now much thinner and able to squeeze through smaller gaps I would otherwise been stuck in.

Almaty

Eventually I entered Almaty late afternoon, a large city of 1.5 million people and previous country capital.  I had booked a cheap hotel in the centre of town and after riding around in circles for a while, eventually found it with the help of passersby.

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At last! Found my hotel (the Turkestan) in the centre of Almaty

I planned to stay in Almaty a week or so to: 1) fix my bike up and 2) apply for my Tajikistan and Uzbekistan Visas, so I was lucky it turned out to be such a great city with great, friendly people.

From the minute I met Anton he was nothing short of very friendly, generous & hospitable (and he told me to say handsome ;) ).  I spent most of the time there wondering how I could ever pay him back.  Not only had he already ordered me a new chain and sprockets (which would be delivered in the next day or two) and given me his spare front and rear brake pads, but he also offered me a room to stay in his house, which turned out to be his lounge.

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Anton and his (almost as good-looking as mine) Tiger 800XC

Anton’s a big guy and, owning the only other Triumph Tiger in Central Asia, he had jacked up the suspension and raised the handlebars.  My Tiger looked like a baby Tiger cub next to his.

While I was waiting for my chain to be delivered, Anton showed me around his city and introduced me to more great, friendly bikers, including Turgan and Klik (sorry or the spelling!).  Almaty certainly has a welcoming and social biker’s scene!

Turgan owned a double garage where Anton stored his bike, and he let me keep mine in there too.  It’s one of the coolest garages I’ve ever seen, with a basement turned into a chill-out lounge with fully stocked beer fridge – exactly the kind of garage I like.  And he was generous with the beers too, and one could very easily turn up and forget to leave for several hours (or even days).  I’m sure next time I visit it will be the centre of Almaty’s biking community – ‘Turgan’s Angels’.

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Anton, Turgan and Klik outside Turgan’s fantastic garage

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The only 2 Tigers in Central Asia (to our knowledge) outside Turgan’s famous garage – not much to look at from the outside, but inside was a gold mine

Almaty is a lovely, clean, modern city, full of posh bars, shops and restaurants, and lots to see and do.  Over the next week I was taken to several great restaurants and bars to sample delicious traditional dishes and the odd beer or two.  I must admit I loved the food, and I will never get sick of eating juicy, succulent kebabs, fresh salad, spicy soup and mouth-watering cheesy-potato bread.

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One of the many fun times sampling genuine Kazakh hospitality and great food (and beer)

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And the hospitality continued long into the night…

Visa Hell

If you could ever have two extremes regarding country visa applications, the Tajikistan and Uzbekistan embassies are it.  I arrived at the Tajikistan Embassy at 9am on a Tuesday to find the office virtually empty and nobody else in line.  I walked straight up to the counter, handed over my application, and the nice Consul asked me to come back the next day to collect it.

Later, at 2pm, when the Uzbekistan Embassy opened for applications, I was confronted with a surging, desperate crowd of dozens of people trying to gain entry into the Embassy, held back by 2 armed policemen and an iron gate.  I tried to make some sense of it all, and most of the crowd appeared to be Uzbeks – perhaps trying to hand in some kind of work permit application?

I managed to get near the front and ask a policeman when they opened for visas, and he said “3 o’clock”.

I waited for an hour and 40 minutes before the Consul finally made an appearance at the gate, collected all the visa applications, and told me to come back in one week.  He actually said it may be ready on Friday (4 days) if I selected the ‘expedited’ option (for more money), so I did.

On the way back to Anton’s I wondered through Panfilov Park – a nice, big, green park in the middle of the city, housing the Ascension Cathedral (Zenkov Cathedral), a Russian Orthodox cathedral completed in 1907 and second tallest wooden building in the world.

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Ascension Cathedral (Zenkov Cathedral) – the second tallest wooden building in the world (1907).

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Panfilov Park

It also houses another impressive old wooden building – The Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments, but it was closed when I arrived, to my disappointment.

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The Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments

Panfilov Park also looks after the ‘eternal flame’ memorial for fallen soldiers of WWII and other wars, and various pieces of old artillery which the kids love clambering over.

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WWII Memorial

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The kid’s playground

It seems every street you turn down in Almaty is lined with green trees under the backdrop of snow-capped mountains, and sprinkled with fountains and monuments of some kind, and I even found a mini-Eiffel Tower for any homesick French.

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Almaty’s mini-Eiffel Tower

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Leafy Almaty streets

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Almaty is not short of a fountain or two

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And there are plenty of monuments to keep one busy

Back on the tour of Almaty’s fine-dining establishments, Anton and Turgan took me to a traditional Uighur restaurant with delicious soup and noodles.  I found it interesting when Turgan explained the background of how his ethnic Uighurs are presently involved in a battle for equal rights (and some for an independent state) in China’s ‘autonomous’ Xinjiang region just over the border, which has resulted in many of them being labeled ‘terrorists’ by the Chinese.

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Traditional Uighur food

The Tiger Gets a Make-over

After a couple of days my chain and sprockets arrived – phew! – and I spent the next 2 days fitting them and servicing the Tiger with the help of Andrey and (another) Anton at ‘Silk Off Road Tours’, who owned a friendly and helpful workshop next to the Almaty’s Central Stadium.  It was long overdue!

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The Tiger in Silk Off Road Tours’ Operating Theatre

Complete list of works included:

  • New chain and sprockets
  • New front and rear brake pads
  • Oil change
  • Coolant change (after I had had to top it up with drinking water)
  • New spark plugs
  • Clean and re-oil air-filter
  • Repair broken fairing
  • Design and fix new pannier rack

Hardly surprising, but after the work was done she rode like a brand new bike!  Smooth as a whistle – it was a great relief to have her back in business to full capacity.

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Silk Off Road Tours’ great mechanics (and great people) – Andrey and (the other) Anton, showing off my new pannier rack

It turned out the tachometer ‘surging’ was a mixture of damaged ceramic on a spark plug and the alternating loose/tight spot chain.

To celebrate my new bike, Anton took me for a spin up to ‘Big Almaty Lake’ just south of the city, with its fun, twisty mountain roads and idyllic setting against snow-capped peaks.

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Big Almaty Lake, 30 minutes south of Almaty up a great, twisty road

 

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What’s more beautiful, the lake or 2 Tigers?

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The fun, zig-zag road up to Big Almaty Lake

Issyk Lake

 

One day when Anton had some work to do, Turgan, Klik and another friend of theirs called Alec, took me for a drive up to another beautiful lake 50km east of Almaty in the large Central Asian Tian-Shan Mountain Range.

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The drive to Issyk Lake in the beautiful Tian-Shan Mountains

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.. and some incredibly handsome men, sponsored by Heineken

On the way we stopped off at Issyk Village to see the famous Golden Man exhibition at the local museum (and to get some beer).  I was lucky enough to have my own ‘English-speaking’ guide who took great delight in showing me around the small museum (we were the only ones there).

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The famous Issyk Golden Man, and my top-guide

The ‘Golden Man’ was an 18-year-old Saka (Scythian) prince (or princess, as the skeleton sex is uncertain) recently found buried in an ancient ‘kurgan’ (burial mound) over 2,200 years old.  The grave contained a skeleton, warrior’s equipment, and 4,000 gold ornaments, and the reconstructed golden suit has now been adopted as one of the symbols of modern Kazakhstan.

The area is famous for its kurgans, and back in the car I could see the tell-tale hills alongside the road as we passed.

Issyk Lake was formed around 10,000 years ago by a landslide which created a natural dam, capturing the water from the Issyk river.  Unfortunately in the 1960’s another landslide destroyed the dam and a large tourist resort that had built around it, emptying most of the lake.  Many died in the tragedy and the lake, not surprisingly, lost its popularity.  Unfortunately for the people still living there, the whole area is on the massive Tian Shan – Baikal Fault system, and large earthquakes are bound to occur in the future creating more havoc (as they have in the recent Geological past).

The day we visited, the lake thankfully sat peacefully amongst some of most beautiful surroundings I have ever seen.

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Issyk lake – one of the most beautiful I’ve seen

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Wandering down for a swim

It was a hot day, so I wasted little time stripping off and jumping in for a cooling swim – and it was pretty cool; almost freezing, in fact, with the water fresh from the glaciers in the mountains above.

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It was hot – very hot – so time for a swim!

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10/10

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The donkey wanted more, I’m sure

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Farewell view

The whole day was fantastic, and to top it off the lads took me to a trout farm where I could show off my expert fishing skills, single-handedly landing 2 beautiful specimens after long, hard-fought battles of several seconds.

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It’s a hard skill to master, but luckily I’ve mastered it ;)

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2 seconds later – voila! The first one I caught was 5 times the size; but it got away…

No sooner had we caught our dinner (we caught 6 in all), they were fried up and brought to our picnic in the farm grounds, complete with chips, salad, fresh bread and beer, of course.  Needless to say, it was delicious!

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10 minutes later the fish were on the table

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The perfect picnic

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Yep, a pretty perfect day all round

Booze

As much as I didn’t want to leave Almaty after receiving such a warm and friendly reception from Anton, Turgan and friends, I was conscious time was running on and started to make plans to move.  However, it was the World Cup Final Weekend, and so I had to stay on another few days and force myself to sample more generous hospitality at its best.  This included visits to more fine, local drinking establishments such as ‘Gunz and Roses Pub’, ‘Soho Pub’ and ‘Shakespeare’s Pub’.

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It was run to ride around with others, for a change

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Almaty Viewpoint

I’d met a guy called Johnny, an Indian expat, a few days earlier at Silk Off Road’s workshop, and turned out he not only rode a Royal Enfield, but was also the lead singer & guitarist of a local Rock’n’Roll band that played at ‘Gunz and Roses’ – a man after my own heart!  I had a great night there listening to great music with Turgan, and was more than happy when Johnny belted out a superb performance of AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ for me.

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Johnny and his Royal Enfield

After a boozy weekend I was almost glad of a rest when Monday came, and I revisited the Uzbekistan Embassy on the off-chance my visa would be ready (I’d been again Friday just to hear it wasn’t ready, after a 2 hour wait!).  As luck would have it, it was, and after the added palaver of having to go to the bank to pay the visa fee and fight my way back through the surging crowds and wait around for a 4th time, I was finally handed my 30 day visa with a friendly ‘have a nice stay!’

This meant I was free to continue on my peace crusade and made plans for extraction the next day.  I also took a spin on the Tiger up to the highest Ice Skating Rink in the world at 1,691m – Almaty’s Medeu.  Sadly, after the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, the upkeep costs to maintain its world-class standing were too high for a newly independent Kazakhstan.  However, the future may be bright if Almaty wins its bid for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.

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The Medeu – the highest Ice Skating Rink in the world at 1,691m

The view from above the Medeu was well worth the ride, especially when the sun started setting – despite being an overcast day.

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Great views from above the Medeu

Further on up the road past the Medeu is a winter ski resort, supplied by cable-cars from the Medeu.  Here the road quickly turned to rocks and suddenly became very steep, so I thought it best to turn back as light was fading quickly.

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The steep, rocky road past the ski resort

That night I took Anton out for another meal in an attempt to repay some of his generosity, but somehow we both felt we’d see each other again at some point, so I’m sure I’ll have other opportunities.

Note to bikers:  Anton said he was happy for me to post his email address on this blog in case any of you are in need of help or cold beer in Almaty: bigmankz@gmail.com

Categories: Kazakhstan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Russian Altai Republic

Entering the Russian Altai Republic

The Altai Mountains are situated in central Asia where Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China all converge for the occasional Kumis Conference.  It is a land of high, white-capped mountains, traditional nomadic homes (gers or yurts), eagle hunters, Russian tourist camps, deep gorges, fast flowing rivers and lots of flies.

I had heard much about the spectacular scenery from travellers I’d met, and my anticipation was riding high.

Setting off to leave my home for the past few days in Oglii, Mongolia, I left for the border well rested and my chain half hanging off.  The chain was certainly past its best before date, and was now stretching at an alarming rate.  In fact the bike wasn’t very well at all; she’d occasionally cut out on the go (blocked fuel breather?), felt like she was running on two cylinders, all the brake pads were nearing the bone, the sprockets looked like tiger shark teeth, the panniers were half falling off, 2 indicators were missing and the rear tyre was approaching baldness; yes, Mongolia had certainly taken a toll!  Apart from all that, she was wonderful.

My family at home had new a new chain, sprockets and brake pads for me and were just waiting for me to send them an address so they could DHL them out to me.  I thought it best to ride to the next large (modern) city in Russia, Barnaul – nearly 900km away, to get this done.

I’d been told the 100km road from Oglii to the Mongolia/Russian border was surfaced all the way, so I pumped my tyres back up to 36 psi.  Had I have known it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have bothered!  Instead much of the ‘road’ was either being built or resurfaced and I found myself skidding over large sections of muddy ‘diversion’ tracks like a beginner on ice skates.  It didn’t help that it was raining, and the tracks were becoming boggy.  I should have stopped to reduce the tyre pressures again, but I kept hoping any minute the surfaced road would re-appear.

It didn’t, for what seemed like a long time.

When the tracks eventually led back onto the completed road, I came across two Germans on Yamaha XT660 Ténéré motorbikes and stopped to give them my Mongolian map.

The border opened at 9am and I was there just before, behind about 5 cars.  It took an hour to get through the Mongolian side and one and a half to get through the Russian side; not bad at all.

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Entering the Russian Altai Republic

I must admit I was somewhat relieved to be back on good tarmac.  On the smooth road the injuries to my Tiger seemed more pronounced as rode along in a surging motion, the tachometer undulating rapidly.  I guessed it was a combination of the worn chain (with one very tight spot and the rest almost falling off) and a damaged spark plug; at least that’s what I hoped it all was, and nothing more serious.  I wished I’d carried more spare spark plugs.  In any case, she was still moving and it didn’t appear to be anything too serious that would indicate an impending explosion.

There is only really one main road through the Altai Republic, the ‘Chuysky Trakt’, which affords beautiful views of forested, snow-capped mountains, rivers and narrow gorges as it snakes alongside the Altai Mountains.

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Views of the Altai Mountains

The first town I came across of any size was Kosh-Agach, which is famed for being the driest inhabited place in Russia.  Well, it must have been my lucky day, as it was pouring down with rain when I was there.

As I rode on towards the next small town of Aktash the scenery gradually became more dramatic, helped by the sun’s appearance as it started peeking out from behind the clouds.

The weather eventually changed from rain to boiling sunshine, at which point I wished it was raining again.  I stopped by a nice stream for lunch but was immediately assaulted by millions of biting flies and Mosquitos.  I tried to suffer it for a while, eating my lunch through my visor, but it didn’t really work and I shot off to find somewhere else.

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Good lunch spot, but ruined by millions of midges!

Riding through Aktash I saw an interesting looking side-road branching off over a river and toward the mountains.  On my iPhone App (Maps with Me) the tracks led alongside a river and toward a couple of campsites, so I thought I’d try and find them.  Soon the side-road had somehow changed into a narrow, rocky track and I found myself weaved my way up a very large, steep mountain.  To the right the track dropped down a near vertical cliff to a fast flowing river in the canyon below.  I definitely didn’t want to fall down that one!

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I took a detour up a steep, rocky track with beautiful views

The views were spectacular, but the Tiger was having difficulty at times hopping over the rocky, steep incline loaded up with all the luggage.  I had to be in first gear for most of the climb, and soon I had a bit of a problem – the bike overheated.

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It was great until the poor old Tiger overheated

I pulled over on the side of the track to investigate and let her cool down.  The coolant in the expansion reservoir was boiling rapidly.  I checked the fan, and it was working, so I guessed it must have just been a combination of a really hot day and the prolonged, steep, awkward climb in mostly 1st and 2nd gear.

Once she had cooled down, I had no choice but to replace the lost coolant (which had boiled over) with drinking water (should have been distilled water to avoid corrosion, but I didn’t have any).  I planned to do a coolant change in Almaty anyway.

At this stage, considering the track didn’t appear to be getting any better, I thought it prudent to turn the bike around and coast back downhill to the main road.

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A fairly level section of the track (it got much steeper and rockier!)

She made it back to the road with no problems and as I rode on northwest the temperature gauge seemed to remain fine.  The road closed into a pretty valley with a fast river flowing through it, and I came across a weird monument of a pick-up truck.

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Now where did I park my truck?

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Every turn had a great view

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It was getting late so I started looking for somewhere to camp

By now it was getting late and when I saw a few tents camped along the banks of a nice looking river, I decided to join them a bit further along.

I had been slowly roasting in my bikers clothing all afternoon, and so before I pitched the tent I took a dive into the river and lay in ecstasy in the cold, mountain water.

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Great place for a swim and a tent :)

Luckily there were hardly any biting insects around, so I sat outside the tent, cooked up a great dinner and had an early night.

In the morning I was awoken by a herd of cows tying to mate with my tent.  One of them stuck around for a while to try and eat my breakfast.

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My breakfast date

It was going to be another really hot day, so I took my time to pack away and enjoyed another swim.

A couple of hours up the road I passed through Manzherok.  I’d read there was a nice lake there so I took the short detour to go and see it.  It was a nice lake indeed, but it was packed with tourists – more people in one place than I’d seen in quite some time.  I didn’t like it; was I becoming antisocial in my old age?  I don’t  think so – it was just too busy and I couldn’t find a free spot to park and swim.  Instead I rode back into town and did some shopping in a great fresh food market I found.  I was excited to see whole chickens roasting on rotating spits, so I bought one immediately – yum!

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Manzherok Lake – nice, but too busy with tourists for my liking

A couple of miles further on, I took a track leading through some woodland and found a nice shady spot by the river to devoir my chicken, all on my own.  That was more like it!

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I took a little detour through the woods to find somewhere quieter

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It was another roasting hot day so the shade from the trees was perfect

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That’s more like it!

I wanted to camp at a lake called Lake Teletskoye (‘Golden Lake’), which was 3 hours off the main road to the east via a city called Gorno-Altaysk.  The road was good and the journey actually only took me a couple of hours.  When I arrived, the journey had been well worth it – the lake was beautiful.

78km long, 5km wide and 330m deep, Lake Teletskoye is the biggest lake in Russian Altai Republic, and of course I jumped right in for a swim to cool off after my sweltering journey.

The tourist town at the western head of the lake is called Artybash, full of speed boat touts offering trips up and down the lake, so I passed through and found a great campsite in a large field with a shop, bar, restaurant and toilets for a couple of quid.  The field actually sloped down directly into the lake and I picked a great spot right on the lake edge, hoping it wouldn’t rain and flood me out (it wasn’t forecast to).

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What do you think of this camping spot? Lake Teletskoye

As I was setting up camp, a Russian guy & his girlfriend stopped by to chat and very kindly invited me over to their tent for dinner.  They had a BBQ and put on a delicious spread, and I ended up making several trips to the bar for take-away beers to compliment the evening.   Yet again it was a night sponsored by Google Translate, but that didn’t matter.

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My very kind and hospitable camp neighbours who invited me over for a great BBQ dinner :)

In the morning I woke to a wonderful view of a perfectly peaceful lake through my tent.

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Morning views don’t get much better than this

A few minutes later an eerie mist covered the lake until the rising sun eventually burnt it off.

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Morning mist on the lake

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It was gonna be another scorcher!

To get to the next city of Biysk there were two routes; one went back west the way I had come via Gorno-Altysk, and the other (recommended by Google Maps) went north and then west.  I thought I’d take Google Maps’ recommendation and set off on a good road running north.  However, I soon realised this was a mistake as the road rapidly turned into a nightmare track of loose, large stones.  Then it started to rain and part of the road turned to slippery mud.  It was horrible, but I’d come so far I didn’t want to turn around, and of course I kept thinking the tarmac road would suddenly reappear.  It’s funny, because I was under the impression all the difficult off-road riding had been done in Mongolia, but I suppose you can get a difficult track anywhere in the world.

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Yucky track in the rain to Biysk

Eventually I arrived in Biysk and the road surfaced again after what seemed like forever.  Then it was plain sailing all the way to Barnaul on a fast multi-lane new road.  On the way I pulled off onto a rough track for lunch and was instantly covered by millions of annoying midges, so much so that I couldn’t stay and had to ride off to find somewhere else.

Barnaul

Who would have ever thought I’d need a room with air-conditioning in Barnaul, at the foot of the Altai Mountains?  The small, cheap ‘broom-cupboard’ room I’d booked in the centre of town was like a sauna.  Instead reception gave me a tiny fan which was much better than nothing.  I could tell I was back in Russia as the bed sheets were too small for the bed.  Why, oh why??

I called a guy called Andrey Aksenov who had been keeping a brand new Heidenau rear tyre for me that I’d ordered several weeks before from Denis Panferov in Moscow.

Denis Panferov, Email: buy@motorezina.ru  Tel:+7-495-507-9530 / Cell:+7-925-507-9530

http://www.motorezina.ru

Andrey turned out to be a top guy, met me at my hotel with the tyre, and took me to a nearby garage that could fit it for me for a couple of dollars (saving me the hassle of doing it myself).

At the garage there was already another (Russian) rider on a KTM having his front wheel changed, so I waited and chatted to him for a bit.  When his wheel appeared, the mechanic had put his tyre on the wrong way round (they have a direction of travel), so off it came again!  At this point it was obvious the mechanic was used to changing car tyres but had little experience of changing motorcycle tyres.

When the wheel came back for the second time, the mechanic couldn’t put it back on the bike as the callipers were seized, so the KTM rider had to sort it out himself.  By now I could see the mechanic had had enough, and the result was he refused to change my tyre.  So, out came Google Translate and I managed to persuade him to change the tyre only, and I would remove and replace the back wheel myself.  He agreed, and in a jiffy I had a brand new rear tyre – happy!

After speaking to a couple of people and reading some internet posts, it became apparent that having spare parts posted to Barnaul could be expensive, take several weeks and involve problems with customs.  Not wanting to hang around for that long in one place, I started looking at other options.  I found one in a fellow Triumph Tiger rider called Anton Larin living in Almaty, Kazakhstan, which was my next port of call (thanks to another Tiger rider, Dave Shucksmith, putting me in touch with him).

Anton had the only Triumph Tiger in all of Central Asia (to our knowledge) and had imported it from the US.  After making contact with him via the Tiger 800 website forum, I was amazed at his hospitality and willingness to help me on my travels.  After a couple of exchanges he ended up very kindly ordering me a new chain and sprockets which would be delivered in Almaty in around 5 days.  This worked out well, because my Kazakhstan Visa didn’t start for another 5 days, and it would take me 2-3 days to ride the 1600km.

I used this time to rest in Barnaul, look around the city and finish my Mongolia blog, but soon I had itchy feet and moved down to Rubtsovsk on the Russian/Kazakhstan border, to bide my time.

On the way down to Rubtsovsk the flat, expansive green fields almost reminded of Norfolk back home in the UK.

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Fresh, green fields south of Barnaul heading towards the Kazakhstan border

As there was even less to do in Rubtsovsk than Barnaul, the time dragged a bit and I couldn’t wait to get going into Kazakhstan.  That taught me a lesson on being a bit more flexible when applying for visas and their start dates, although this is a difficult thing to try and do in Central Asia – the land of the forever changing and PITA visa application procedures.

Eventually though, the day came, as it always does, and I was off!

Categories: Russian Altai Republic | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Northern Route #2

Uvs Nuur (Uvs Lake)

It had rained during the night and my tent was soaked, although the 36 dollar Japanese marvel had still kept me warm and dry inside.  I needed to find somewhere hot and sunny to camp that night to dry it out; Western Australia, maybe?

From Tes further west the going got easier and the track firmed up a little.  However, it was still desert conditions, and I even bumped into some Bactrian camels – apparently the most northerly ones in the world; perhaps they were on holiday as well.

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These camels were either lost, or I was somehow back in the desert…

The northern route certainly takes you through some extremely remote areas, and that’s saying something for Mongolia.  I travelled all morning without seeing anyone except for a couple of herders on horseback.

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The mountains had been eaten up by some gigantic mountain-eating monster

It took me 7 hours to travel the 265km from Tes to Uvls Nuur (Uvs Lake), which isn’t bad considering the state of the (off) road.

The impassable rivers I had been worried about thankfully never materialised, and the few rivers I did have to cross were either completely dry or just small streams.  I could easily see this being a completely different story during the wet season next month and August.  Perhaps I had just been lucky with my timing.

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One of the small river crossings

I rode through two small towns, Baruunturuun and Zuungovi, stopping at the latter to get some fuel and supplies.

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Zuungovi supermarket – worth the 650 km detour

Soon after Zuungovi I caught a glimpse of the huge Uvs Nuur (Uvs Lake) on the horizon; it looked like a beautiful, dark blue, shimmering ocean, pouring out over the horizon.

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Uvs Nuur shimmered like a shimmering thing, although not in this photo

I’d read the lake was ‘tourist unfriendly’ (according to Lonely Planet Guidebook) due to being surrounded in marshland and infested with Mosquitos, but even so I wanted to take a closer look.

I turned off the track and headed north straight across the desert scrub directly towards the lake. It was around 10 km or so through deep sand, and I had to stop to let my tyres down further (to 20 psi) when I got stuck.

It worked like a dream and soon I was flying over the dunes like I was on a magic carpet.  It was good fun.

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Uvs Lake – one of my favourite places in Mongolia

I hadn’t ridden on sand at all before this world trip, and my experience in the Gobi especially has made a world of difference.  Now I don’t think twice about whizzing over sand dunes, whereas before it worried me a lot, and I got tired of picking up the bike.

In fact, I’ve learnt a lot about motorcycling on this trip, and each time I fall off I learn another thing (so that’s 3 other things I’ve learnt in Mongolia so far!).  During the past few days there have been times when I’ve felt ‘at one’ with the bike and have been almost in a trance, calving up the sandy tracks & berms like they weren’t there.  It has been lots of fun.

As soon as I saw the lake I knew I was going to camp there, even though it was still early, just past lunch.  It was breathtaking.  Who said Mongolia didn’t have an ocean?  It was huge; so huge I couldn’t see the other side.

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Who said Mongolia didn’t have an Ocean?

Uvs Nuur is actually Mongolia’s biggest lake by surface area and is supposedly 5 times saltier than the sea, although it didn’t feel or taste like it.

I rode up to the water’s edge to take a photo and was instantly covered by a swarm of flying insects that looked and sounded like Mosquitos.  My first instinct was to hightail it out of there, but I had to take at least one photo now I was there.  I got off my bike and saw the insects didn’t follow me – they were much more interested in the bike, for some reason.  I moved closer to investigate and offered them my arm; they did not bite.  I looked them up later and found out they were actually Chironomidae – in the same family as mosquitos, but not nearly as nasty.  You can easily tell them apart because 1) they don’t bite you, and 2) the males have large feathery antennae and no mouth spears.

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I think I was the only person on the whole shore

I found out the reason the males were swarming over my bike was they were looking to attract mates.  They do this over any visual marker, such as an isolated rock, plant, tree branch, or your parked car/motorbike.  This makes sense, as at least the females know where to go for the party.  Sadly, once the lucky male mates with an approaching female, he dies, so if I were a Chironomidae I’d have to think twice about that one, or at least have a lot to drink.  I wonder if they’ve worked that out yet?

Uvs Lake is a bird watchers paradise with over 200 bird species.  I saw beautiful terns, seagulls, cranes, geese, eagles and even swans; my mate Mick would have loved it, being one of those twitcher types.

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Lined by distant mountains, the backdrop could not have been better

The first thing I did was strip off and go for a swim to cool down – it was a roasting hot day.  The water was fairly warm, as the average depth of the lake is only 12m, and gets plenty of solar heating from the sun.

The second thing I did was pitch the tent in a perfect spot. In fact any spot on the shore would have been perfect, as it was all the same – perfect.

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Left a bit, right a bit – right there!

During pitching, another corner peg-tag ripped off my tent so I had to make another hole in the ground sheet to secure it (that’s two down…); it’s doing alright for a cheapy I guess.  Even though some of the rods have started to split down the middle, the gaffa tape is holding so I think it will last a while longer.  It occasionally buckles in strong wind, but I shouldn’t be doing too much more extreme camping from now on.

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Time for another swim!

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Have I got time for a little snooze before dinner?

I was excited because I could see loads of driftwood lying on the shore and I knew I was going to have my first camp fire since arriving in Mongolia.  Usually people don’t have fires in Mongolia because 1) There are no trees, and 2) The few trees that are there, they worship.

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My first Mongolian camp fire

It was the best fire in Mongolia, and probably the only one.

I was starving after my lunch had flown off the back of my bike earlier that day (another lesson learned – never trust a plastic bag will be strong enough to hold your lunch on Mongolia’s bumpy roads).  I’d been saving the tin of ham I had for a special occasion, and this was it.  Minutes later I was sitting eating the most delicious pot of spaghetti ham bolognaise I’d ever eaten.  It’s amazing what you can cook up in one pot (or is it just me?).

I made loads so I could reheat the rest for breakfast; a trick I employed often.  It also saved one lot of washing up (which I hate).

It was strange sitting next to the fire eating dinner on the lake shore surrounded by seagulls and mountains, and not another soul around.  For a moment I forgot I was in Mongolia; it felt like I was on another planet.

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The Planet Uvs

I kept the fire going until sunset and then retired inside the tent.  Soon after I heard a swarm of Mosquitos arrive; it was like the movie ‘Pitch Black’.  I hoped I wouldn’t need to venture outside during the night.

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Sunset over the lake

I did, actually, and it turned out they were more of our nectar-eating friends, Chironomidae.  Chironomidae, I love you!

Uureg Nuur (Uureg Lake)

I arrived in Ulaangom in style around 11am – on a brand new road that started 10 km or so outside the city.  It was the first surfaced road I’d seen since Moron, and was a nice surprise, while it lasted (not long).

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What’s that long, black, snaky thing?

Ulaangom is a pretty small town with not much about it, but it did have a small government information office.  After filling up with fuel I went there to ask about the best route to the next city I wanted to visit before the border, Olgii.

The lady in the office told me to pass south of Achit Nuur, a large lake in the mountains, as to the north of it there was a river too deep to cross.  This sounded sensible, and so the route was planned in a jiffy.

Before I set off I bought some stuff for dinner, including some eggs for breakfast in the morning.  I’ve learnt to always buy 2 more eggs than I need because I always end up breaking at least 1.  And yes, I did break another one.

Soon after leaving Ulaangom the sky turned black and the heavens opened; not good timing because I had to ride up the side of a steep mountain, sliding about in mud and dodging flooded potholes (yes, the surfaced road ended just as quickly as it had begun).

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Something tells me I’m gonna get wet…

The bike did marvellously though and soon I reached the summit and started riding across the mountain plateau.

Uureg Nuur is 1425m above sea level and surrounded by snow-capped mountains over 3,000m high (10,000 ft).  I saw it from the top of a mountain pass and decided to venture down to the shore to take a peek, as I like lakes (if you hadn’t realised).

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The second Lake in a day – the beautiful Uureg Nuur

It was different from Uvs Nuur in several ways; firstly, it looked like an alpine lake, not an ocean, and secondly it was crystal clear fresh water, not the salty sea-like water of Uvs Nuur.

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I rode down across the shingle banks to take a closer look. Yes – it was definitely a lake

I rode along the bank for a little and then spotted my perfect camping spot; out into the lake on a spit of shingle.  My tyres were still deflated from dune riding around Uvs Nuur, so I raced out onto it without hesitation.  It was deep, loose shingle and the bike weaved about all over the place, but she kept on ploughing through until I found the spot.

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I’m getting good at finding those perfect camping spots!

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Further…

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and further…

The rain cloud had passed and it was boiling hot again, so I didn’t waste any time diving in for a swim.  It was lovely and cool, but not too cold considering its altitude and the hugely varying mountain weather conditions.

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Second swim of the day!

There were a few flying insects around, but like at Uvs Nuur they weren’t biting ones, and flocked around the bike instead.  Poor old Tiger!

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The Tiger was happy too :)

It was only 2pm and for the second day in a row I had set up camp just after lunch; a far cry from my long days in Japan where on several occasions I set up camp well into the night.  I’d only gone 160 km, but this spot was too good to pass up.

I must admit I liked this modern routine better, and after my swim I sunbathed on the spit and ended up falling asleep for an hour (I must be getting old…)

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Nap time

I was awoken by a family of 8 from the nearest Ger (a couple of miles away) that had driven to the end of the spit and then walked the rest of the way out to see who I was.  I told them I was an alien from Uranus, but they didn’t understand.  They were friendly but, as usual, our communication was limited to sign language, strange noises and pointing at bits on the bike.  They didn’t stay long and when they went I gave their 2 young lads a small kid’s colour notebook and pencil each.  I had a few small such gifts to hand out along my Mongolian travels as I’d read it is the custom (usually when invited into someone’s Ger for food or drink).

When they’d gone, I took a walk further out along the spit and saw a large dead fish an eagle had been pecking.  I wished I had some fishing equipment, although even if I did I’m such a bad fisherman I probably wouldn’t have caught anything.

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The lake was like glass

After another swim I pitched he tent and got dinner on.  As it was cooking I had another visit from another local family member who’d bought another kid hoping for a notebook.  I tried to explain I didn’t have any more, but they seemed happy with 2 eggs and the rest of my tinned ham instead.  The parent, however, hated my spaghetti – ha!  If it isn’t meat, Mongolians probably won’t like it.

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More guests! Who’d have thought, in the middle of nowhere?? Good job I still had some ham left

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The evening was perfectly still

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A rainbow appeared over the mountains

When the sun went down, as usual it was windy.  This time it was pretty strong and half of the tent caved in under the force.  I hoped it wouldn’t get any windier as the fly sheet might rip leaving me exposed to any rain.  Luckily it did eventually calm down, or I fell asleep and didn’t notice.

Olgii

The road went southwest from Uureg Lake through a valley and up a steep, rocky track to snow-capped mountains before heading down to Khotgor.  It quickly got cold as I ascended and near the top it got pretty muddy when a small river decided to run down the track; hasn’t it got enough space!?

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A small river decided to run down the track for some exercise

I stopped and had a little snow-bath near the top.  The views fanned across the surrounding mountains for miles.

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I knew I should have brought my skiis

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You get a nice view from 3,000 m (10,000 ft)

The other side of the mountains was like another world – a world of pink sand and flat Martian rocky terrain.

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I crossed into several new worlds; Pink Sand Land

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..and Martian Moonrock

The track was hard and fast, and I felt like I was flying (luckily I didn’t fly off).

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Like a gravel drag-racing track

Eventually it rose over a small mountain range and then looked down upon the emerald blue Achit Nuur (Achit Lake).

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Another lake, for a change – Achit Nuur

The area around Achit Nuur is desolate.  And by that I mean a desert with absolutely nobody or nothing around for as far as the eye can see, and maybe much further.  I loved it.

I rode up a hill to get a higher viewpoint; it really was awesome.  I doubt it has changed much for millions of years, and I could just imagine the scene populated with Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus, and all the other dinosaurs. I really hope they don’t build a road through the area, as that really would spoil it.

I rode down to the lake edge along a sandy beach.  There were the usual swarming flies, but this time they followed me and bit me, giving the Tiger a rest, so I didn’t hang around for long.

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Achit Nuur – lovely, but millions of biting flies

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I’d made the right choice camping at the other 2 lakes

From Achit Nuur the road continued to the southwest and changed again as it crossed over another mountain range.  This time the mountains were very steep, grey and rocky, with huge scree slopes cascading down into the valleys.

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The scenery changed yet again, into huge, grey cliffs with near vertical scree slopes

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Now where did I leave my bike?

It met the fast-flowing and sediment laden Khovd River, allowing trees and green oasis’ to spring up along its banks, producing some wonderful colours.

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This is how I imagine Kazakhstan to look like

The final stretch to Olgii was long, flat and rocky, and you could really get some speed up if you wanted to (yes, I did!)

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The final stretch…

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Nearly there…

When the sizeable city of Olgii came into sight, I must admit I gave the old Tiger a bit of a hug and cuddle – it had carried us across Mongolia, and we were almost still in one piece!

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Olgii – we’ve made it!!!!!! :) :) :D

From Olgii, the western border into the Russian Altai is only around 100 km away (mostly paved), and so this felt like the end of my Mongolian adventure.

Being a hub for travellers either entering or leaving Mongolia, there are several OK guesthouses to choose from.  Mine cost only 12,000 Tughrik, about 4 quid, and I had a whole Ger to myself, and a hot shower.  After not having posted a blog post for 1 month I thought it would be a good place to stay for a couple of days and catch up until my visa expired, so I did.

The best thing about Olgii is the Turkish restaurant there called Pamukkale.  After eating mostly pasta for a good few weeks it was heaven to find some fresh veg and delicious slow cooked lamb.  All travellers eventually found their way there for meals, so it was also a great place to socialise (except it didn’t sell beer).  At dinner the first night I met an American father and son on by bicycles, a Dutch couple in a Land Cruiser (with a cool pop-up roof) and an Israeli backpacker.  At least the hotel next door served beer, so that was often the après-dinner RV.  All in all it was a pleasant end to a great month in Mongolia.

Of all the places I have been on my trip so far, Mongolia has certainly been a highlight, and I was almost certainly return one day (although maybe in a Land Cruiser with a pop-up roof).

Categories: The Northern Route #2 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Northern Route #1

Khatgal

After a great night and relaxing morning camping on the deserted eastern bank of Khovsgol Nuur (Khovsgol Lake) I packed up and rode back round the way I’d come the night before to Khatgal, the little village on the south coast.

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Another beautiful day in paradise!

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The road was much prettier in the daylight (than the pitch blackness the night before)

The road was much nicer and quicker in the daylight, hardly surprisingly, and I saw the dodgy looking bridge I’d ridden across in the dark.

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The bridge maybe needed a little work?

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The bridge leading to the east bank of Khovsgol Nuur

I rode further round to the west bank, where all the tourist camps are, did a spot of yak spotting, and then rode back to Khatgal to do a bit of shopping at the local grocers.  I was looking forward to dinner because I’d found a tin of ham in the shop – the first in I don’t know how long!

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Mr Yak

The bike had still been playing up a little and cutting out occasionally as I as riding, and I thought maybe I hadn’t re-connected the wires to the bypassed side-stand safety cut-off switch well enough.  On inspection the wires were still covered in mud, mud seeping out of the insulation, so I made another join higher up on the bike well out of the way.

After lunch down by the lake, and another swim (the lake had warmed up a lot by midday), I started my journey to the west.

The forecast was right and around lunchtime the black clouds started rolling in from the south.  I passed right underneath them and only got rained on for a few minutes before I escaped into blue skies the other side.

I thought I would try the Northern Route across western Mongolia to Ulaangom.  Everyone else I had met (on bikes and cars) had taken the Southern Route because the Northern Route was supposed to be wetter, sandier and generally more difficult.  I tried to research some information but could find very little on the state of the Northern Route, except that there may be some major river crossings with no bridges that might make it impassable.  Worst case, I thought, I could always turn back.

Khovsgol Nuur to Tsagaan-Uul

I got back to Moron quickly on the new, paved road, and then turned west towards Tsagaan-Uul.  There was still a road, and bridges, but it was a rough, stony road waiting to be surfaced.  I imagine the whole Western Route (and Southern Route) will be surfaced at some point in the future, so now’s the time to come (if you like that kind of thing!)

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The start of the unsurfaced road heading west from Moron

The ride was stunning as the road stretched out for miles across the vast, green Mongolian steppe and then twisted up and around various mountain ranges.

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The road passing through alternating open steppe and rocky mountains

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I think the Northern Route was the right choice, in terms of beauty

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Mongolian Steppe

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Great views from the mountain passes

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The going was pretty easy

As I’d made a late start (enjoying the morning and lunch at the lake) I only went 80 km or so down the road before I decided to camp at a beautiful river the road had met and followed for a while.  It had been a hot, dusty ride and I was ready for another swim.

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When the road met this beautiful river, I thought it was time for another swim

It was a great camping spot and I was glad I’d decided to stick with the Northern Route, as the Southern Route was supposed to be fairly uniform scenery, and dry and dusty sand.

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Come on in!

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Another great camping spot! Well done Mr Bowen :)

Tsagaan-Uul to Tes

 

The next morning started out beautifully (a dry tent in the morning is always a delight to pack away, compared to a wet one) and there was hardly a cloud in the sky.  The forecast announced I was heading into rain and thunderstorms, but that seemed hard to believe.

Soon after I set off the road left the river and turned from an un-surfaced road to a sandy, stony track.  It was still good and solid, and easy to ride on.

I stopped for some fuel in Tsaagun-Uul and then I met Tim and Nick, father and son, driving the other way in their 1980’s classic Land Cruiser.  They had come up from the south on the ‘Middle Route’ and were now heading back to the capital to await some parts they needed.

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Tim and Nick in their old 1980’s Land Cruiser heading the other way

The track continued on, good and solid, up and down beautiful scenery that rivaled some of the best I’d seen in Mongolia.

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The scenery continued to be blinding

The next town was another Tsetserleg (the third one I’d seen – had the Mongols run out of names?).  However, having plenty of fuel, water and food, I followed another good quality track that bypassed the town to the south, and also avoided the need to ride through the same river twice.

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The Tsetserleg (#3) bypass, and lunch-stop

Then I came across the first motorcyclists I’d met on the Northern Route – two guys from Norway and one from Germany on three BMW 800 GS’.

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The BMW gang. They told me it was gonna get pretty sandy…

We did the usual thing and swapped information on the roads ahead, and they looked very relieved when I told them it was generally plain sailing from here on to the east.  Conversely, they told me I was about to enter some very deep sandy areas, and it had been a very difficult 4 days for them to get this far from the western border.

Riding on with apprehension, parts of the track soon did become a bit sandier, but was nothing high revs and quick blasts of the throttle couldn’t sail over (I think my TKC 80 rear wheel was a good (lucky) choice).  I had gone from beautiful mountain passes to expansive desert scrub in just a few minutes.

Further on, in some parts, the sand got much deeper, and I found it much quicker to jump up onto the grass verge (where it was possible) and ride along on firmer ground than to battle through the sand.  However, this wasn’t without its dangers, and several times I almost fell into hidden wash-outs, large potholes and crashed into hidden boulders.  Eventually I took a glancing blow from a large rock, having just managing to avoid a head-on crash at the last nano-second.  The blow snapped the retaining spring off my side-stand, and now the side-stand wouldn’t stay up.  Having your side-stand always flopping down is obviously not ideal, so I secured it up to the frame with a cable-tie and carried on, aiming to get it repaired at the next town.  From then on I mostly stayed on the track, as they were intended.

Then the sky turned black and the heavens opened; rain, thunder and lightning.  On the plus side, the rain matted down the soft sand, making it easier to ride on.  I placed my rain mac over my leaky camping dry bag as I thought it was more important to have a dry sleeping bag than a dry Bowen.

I got into a good rhythm and was enjoying skidding around the sandy berms, when I came up on another biker paddling along slowly with his feet.  I pulled to say “Hi!”

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‘Krazy Korean’ on his Honda CBR 250 and road tires wearing sand make-up. Good luck fella! :)

It was a Korean biker on his Honda CBR 250, on road tyres.  I did feel sorry for him, as he and the bike were covered in sand, obviously having been down several times.  However, he was still smiling (just), so good for him!  It must have been a nightmare on his road tyres in the sand, but you can do almost anything on anything, as long as you have the determination, and the time.  I recommended to him riding on the firmer verges when the sand got too deep, but to make sure he kept a good look-out for big rocks if he did!

I made the next town, Bayantes, soon after and asked at the fuel station if there was a mechanic in town who could fix my broken side-stand.  The young girl at the pump didn’t know, but luckily a man rode up in a jeep and told me to follow him.

The guy parked outside a beat-up old house.  It was now 6pm and still raining, but an old guy limped out on a crutch with another guy, and they both sat down and started working on the stand right away.

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The Bayantes ‘Kwik Fit’ lads

I’ve fortunately never had any trouble finding someone abroad help me with the bike whenever I needed something fixing; try finding a mechanic in the ‘western world’ who’ll come out in the rain at 6 pm without notice!

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Job done!

In no time they had found another spring and drilled a new hole in my side-stand to attach it.  I was so happy I gave them 20 quid and they were also well happy- thanks guys!

Although it was getting late, I decided to ride on the short 45 km distance to the next town called Tes, as that was the target I had set for myself earlier that morning.

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45 km across the valley to the next city Tes – easy!

It was a tough hour’s ride through more deep sand, and at one point I found myself riding into a mini Grand Canyon, steep and full of deep sand.  I didn’t like the look of it, so I branched off and rode over the adjacent mountain instead, making my own brand new track for someone else to follow (hopefully the Korean biker!).

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No-one told me they had sand dunes in the north as well!

It was still raining and back on the plains the tracks had mostly turned into rivers, so again it was much easier riding on the verges dodging the hazards.

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It was a bit wet. I’m sure I saw people fishing on the track

I rode into Tes thinking I deserved a nice, warm hotel after such a wet and miserable afternoon, but anyone who’s ever been to Tes will know there’s about as much chance of that as finding gold under a rainbow.  I did meet one random guy who promised me a nice room, and then took me to a yak shed – Hmm, let me think about this for a while…

I rode on and out of Tes, despite the rain, and set up camp by a river a few kilometres away.  The forecast said it was going to clear up, and as if by magic, the sun suddenly popped out to say ‘good evening’.

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Life after the thunderstorm

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The river near my camp (too boggy to ride to)

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Camping just outside Tes – it turned out alright after all!

It turned out to be a pleasant night after all!

Categories: The Northern Route #1 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Karakorum to Lake Khovsgol

Karakorum

 

The old city of Karakorum was the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century but it now lies in ruins near the present day town of Kharkhorin and adjacent to the Erdene Zuu monastery in central Mongolia, almost 400 km (of mostly paved road) west of Ulaanbaatar.  It was eventually destroyed during the Chinese during their occupation.

It seemed like something I should see, although when I arrived in the late afternoon, there wasn’t actually much to see at all, except for a few ruins and the grandiose, long wall of Erdene Zuu monastery, built from stones scavenged from the fallen ancient city.

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The walls of Erdene Zuu monastery, built from the stones of the ruined ancient Mongol capital, Karakorum

On the plus side, the bike was running well after its little dunk in the river, and my leg was much better.

I had given away my 20 litre fuel can in UB as it saved a lot of weight and I really didn’t think I needed it.  I had been surprised to see an abundance of brand new fuel stations all over Mongolia, even in the smallest of villages run by a couple of goats.  I had also ruthlessly purged a few more unused items, and the bike was feeling much better for it.

It had turned cloudy and then started to rain, so I started looking for somewhere nearby to camp.

I thought I might have a ride down the Orkhon Valley the next day (a UNESCO World Heritage site) to try and get to a waterfall I’d heard was nice, so I rode down the road towards Khujirt and found somewhere off-road to camp.  It wasn’t the nicest spot I’d ever found, but it was OK, and nobody was around.

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Not the best spot in the world, but somewhere

Well, I thought nobody was around, but as always when you think you’ve found the most secret camping spot in the whole world, you hear the distant sound of a Chinese moped slowly getting louder and louder, until it stops outside your tent and an interested local stands there staring at you.

“Sain baina uu!” (“hello”) I shouted, as I crawled out of the tent.

Of course the Tiger then had the usual touchy-feely ordeal as the interested herdsman examined it in minute detail.  Smiling and polite, as always, I offered him some of my dinner, and he tried a little, and then went off on his merry way.

In the morning the weather was still overcast with occasional showers, and as I’d heard Orkhon Valley could get pretty muddy, I didn’t really fancy riding down it in the rain.  So I packed up and started heading west to a town called Tsetserleg.

I hadn’t gone far when something made me hesitate, stop the bike and pull over.  Was I really going to let a bit of rain stop me seeing a potentially very beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site river valley and a waterfall?

Yes.

I mean ‘No’.

I turned the bike around and headed back to Karakorum to pick up the track following the Orkhon River down the valley.  As soon as I did, the sun came out, so I took that to be a good omen.

The track was sandy, but after my dune riding in the Gobi I didn’t mind a bit of sand every now and then.

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The sandy track down into the Orkhon Valley – a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The track passed some interesting rock formations as it twisted down the valley alongside the river.  I had made the right choice after all, because the views across the flood plain were stunning.

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Interesting rock formations, particularly if you like rocks

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Great views over the flood plain

I’d been riding for a couple of hours when I reached the entrance to the ‘Orkhon River Valley National Park’ and paid a couple of dollars entrance fee.

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The entrance to the ‘Orkhon River Valley National Park’ (Beware! The distances on the sign are a lie!)

Just around the corner there was the most beautiful view of the river as it hair-pinned around a sharp bend it had carved into the hillside.

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Beautiful hairpin river bend

There were a couple of my favourite river crossings…

The sign at the park entrance said there was only 27 km to go to the waterfall, so I ‘put my foot down’.  However, the weather had made a turn again and it started to get very dark and overcast.  The rain from yesterday and the morning had left large, muddy puddles all along the track, and sometimes the track seemed to have more water in it then the river.

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I couldn’t tell which was the river, and which was the deep, muddy puddle

Added to this, I was now riding right next to the river, and the ground was pretty wet and boggy in places anyway.

It wasn’t fun riding, as there’s not much you can do in slippery mud, and I wished I was back in the dry Gobi.

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This view just filled my heart with joy :'(

I rode on for another 2 hours in these conditions covering 50 km, so obviously the sign at the National Park office was wrong.  It was so much further than I thought, I wondered if I’d have enough fuel to make it back out of the valley; typically, just when I’d dumped my extra 20 litres!

I reached a particularly nasty muddy mess and helped push a local truck driver out of the quagmire he was stuck in.  Then my bike refused to start!  Well, it started OK, but as soon as I put it into gear it cut out.  It had been playing up shortly before, cutting on me every now and again.  I guessed this was likely a faulty side-stand safety cut-off switch (designed to stop you riding away with the side stand still down) – the same thing that had happened to Geoff’s Kawasaki bike before Khabarovsk, Eastern Siberia.  I tried to clean it with water, but it was so muddy, it was pretty useless.  In the end I just cut the wires to the switch and reconnected them, bypassing the switch altogether.  I crossed my fingers and, it worked!

It was getting late when I eventually ended up on the high banks of the river at the end of the valley where the waterfall was.  The only problem was, I was on the wrong side of the river and couldn’t see the waterfall!

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Ever get that feeling you’re on the wrong side of the river?

The river was far too deep to cross, so I just gave up and rode up a nice hill next to the tree-line to pitch the tent.  It couldn’t have been that nice anyway…

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I took solace in a nice camping spot instead

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… and some flowers

In the morning things were completely different and the sun was out in full force!  I do love it when the sun shines – it somehow makes riding seem so much easier and more enjoyable.

I flew over the mud much quicker on the way back, mainly because it was much drier.  I was right about the low fuel situation – I ran out about 10 km before Khujirt.  Luckily I have 2 small emergency 1 litre fuel containers (I used to use them for my old optimus camp stove), and one was enough to get me to the fuel station.  Just after lunch I was back on the original (surfaced) road to Tsetserleg.

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The next day was much better – sunshine!

The ride was wonderful and I made a couple of short diversions into some beautiful woodland and down a nice river bank for lunch.

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What’s better than lunch by the river?

Tsetserleg is a small city 600 km west of UB and the capital of the local aimag (province).  Nestled in a valley on the slopes of the Khangai Mountains, it is often quoted as the most beautiful aimag capital in Mongolia.  I would agree, but I haven’t seen all the others yet, so I won’t comment.

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Tsetserleg – the nicest aimag (province) capital in Mongolia. Apparently

I found my digs for the night at the immaculate, extremely comfortable and great value Fairfield Guest House, run by Aussie Murray Benn and his wife Elizabeth.

I had a great afternoon & evening relaxing at their guesthouse, and did I mention they do a great English fried breakfast in the morning?  It was almost worth coming just for that!  Yes, I do miss a proper fry-up.  I considered staying a day longer, but the weather forecast for Lake Khovsgol to the north, where I wanted to visit next, was rain and thunderstorms in 2 days, so I had to get my skates on if I wanted to see the lake in its full glory.

I met Murray just as I was preparing to leave, and I’m glad I got the chance to, as he’s a top bloke (except for riding a BMW, ha ha).  He and his wife also do a lot of great things for the local community, such as trying to educate herdsmen on sustainable farming, and trying to limit & repair the damage widespread alcohol abuse is having on a large number of local families.

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Murray outside his fantastic guesthouse, and his BMW 650

We sat down and Murray took the time to talk me through the best route from Tsetserleg up north to the lake.  He even gave me the route that he had driven before as a gpx.file and showed me a great iPhone App to run it on (MotionX GPS).

Murray’s route was 500 km in total, 400 km of it off-road, and I had my work cut out to get there in one day, especially as it was 1 pm by the time the route had uploaded to my iPhone & I left.

I waved goodbye, sad to be leaving so early, and set off on a rough track winding northwest through lovely forested mountains.

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Great track leading out of Tsetserleg

After a couple of hours I stopped for a late lunch around Tsagaan Davaa to look at some Deer Stones Murray had told me about.  These ancient 3,000 year old Bronze Age stones stood over 2 m tall depicting images of ancient deer-bird spirits that were once worshipped by Mongol ancestors.

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Ancient 3,000 year old Bronze Age deer stones

Occasionally along the route there was a river to cross.

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My favourite!

And occasionally someone had been kind enough to put a wonky-looking bridge there.

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But I much prefer these!

Ever since my recent ‘river mishap’, my new river-crossing technique involves walking across the river first, in my flip flops, to find the best route, and then riding across in my flips flops so as not to get my boots wet (I hate having wet boots!).  It works pretty well.  If I ever come up against deep water again, I’ll not be too proud to get off my bike and push it through either, rather than risk another soaking.

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Great views from the mountain passes

I was then in for a lovely surprise as the track rose over several mountain passes with stunning views of the surrounding area, and then swept through a beautiful forested flower garden full of orange and yellow wild flowers.  And, being a ‘new man’, I do love a good meadow full of flowers.

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I could hardly drag The Tiger away from the beautiful flowers

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I started to feel sleepy…

The track then worked its way down again onto the expansive steppe and I increased the revs to make up some time on the solid ground.

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Back on solid track – yippee! Time to get moving

As I cleared the brow of a hill I was surprised to find a large river blocking my path directly in front of me.  Luckily this was the river Murray had told me about, and also right in front of me was a guy waving me onto a wooden platform precariously balanced on top of two old, rusty, (just) floating hulks.

I loved it!

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Room for one more?

I rode on, parked up and enjoyed the crossing as the floating platform made its way over to the other side attached to a steel cable, using the flow of the river to drift across.

Not long after I found myself approaching the city of Moron, 100 km south of Lake Khovsgol, and brand-new tarmacked all the way.  It was approaching 9 pm and I had ridden 350 km off-road in 8 hours – not bad.  But I still had some way to go to get to a gorgeous camping spot Murray had recommended on the east side of the lake.

It didn’t get dark until about 10 pm, and by then I had covered the 100 km from Moron to the lake, and decided to go for the remaining 50 km to Murray’s camping position.  After all, it was only 50 km, and I had already come 450 km.

After an hour I was beginning to regret the decision, as it was now pitch black and the road was a nightmare of potholes and large rocks on sandy tracks.  I could hardly see any distance in front of me with the standard Tiger headlamps, and had to ride pretty slowly.

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I was starting to regret riding 500 km (mostly off-road) in 11 hours …

Then I came to a river crossing.

By now I was pretty wacked, but still got off and did the (now) mandatory walk-through.  Luckily it wasn’t deep, and I sailed through and continued following the track on my GPS.  I once went the wrong way and almost rode over cliff (bad idea), but managed to turn the bike around on the narrow track to go back and find the correct route.

After what seemed like forever, I finally reached the camping spot just before midnight – 11 hours after I left Tsetserleg.  Funny, but when I arrived I didn’t feel too tired, and I could tell it would all be well worth it in the morning, as I could already see the beautiful lake shimmering in the starlight in front of me.

I pitched the tent right on the bank overlooking the lake, had a quick snack for dinner (which I’d forgotten about) and slept like a baby.

In the morning, I was right – it was worth it.  The lake was the perfect picture of peace and tranquillity.  I had a swim (freezing!) and relaxed in the sunshine all morning.

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But in the morning it was all worth it! – The beautiful Khovsgol Lake

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The water was freezing though!

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This was probably the best camping spot so far

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It was a gorgeous day and I was in no hurry to leave

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The water is so fresh here, you can drink it straight out of the lake

 

 

 

Categories: Karakorum to Lake Khovsgol | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bayanzag – ‘The Flaming cliffs’, and a little accident

Bayanzag – The Flaming cliffs

From the huge sand dunes at Khongoryn Els I wanted to head to a place called Bayanzag around 130 km to the northeast.  The place was said to be a Martian-like landscape with flaming red sandstone cliffs (at sunset) cascading down onto a lower plain.  In these cliffs many dinosaur bones have been discovered, including among the first dinosaur eggs, which are now displayed all over the world.  Interesting, many of the dinosaur bones found here were illegally exported to the US by private collectors, and many are now being sent back after court hearings.  I wonder how you smuggle a 3m (10 foot) Brontosaurus hip bone back home in your suitcase?

Although not a huge distance, the ride took most of the day as the road was pretty rough.  Part of it went along a dry river bed full of deep, loose gravel.  I tried to power through best I could, but learnt the hard way that slow and steady was the best way through this stuff.

The hard way involved rounding a bend too fast and hitting a large, deep patch of gravel before I could see it.  There wasn’t much I could do as I lost steerage and skidded uncontrollably straight ahead (instead of round the bend).  I fought to keep the bike upright, but Sod’s law placed a large, steep sided mound directly in my path; I knew I was going to hit it hard, and there was nothing I could do but brace.

Thud!

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Oops! Fall number 2 in 3 days… I hate deep gravel!

I went airborne for a second and landed in a heap.  Luckily I was OK, except for squashed balls, and got up, not looking forward to seeing what damage had occurred to the bike.

Damage list

Ripped off left fairing
Ripped off left pannier
Completely destroyed iPhone USB cable (it was plugged into the charger on the side of my bike – the same cable I’d managed to repair after mashing it up in my rear wheel at Terelj)

Luckily mechanically she was OK; I was worried the front forks may have been damaged.

I wasn’t worried about the cosmetic damage to the fairing, but the pannier locking mechanism had completely broken off leaving nothing to attach it to the bike.  Thank goodness for my leatherman knife which I used to cut a slot through the top of the pannier just big enough to fit two cable ties through.  They were strengthened 3M cable ties and I hoped they would be strong enough to hold it in place on the bumpy roads.

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Cable ties and a sharp knife – never leave home without them!

The biggest problem was the broken iPhone USB cable, because it now meant I couldn’t recharge my only navigating system once the battery went flat.

During the hour of so it took me to fix up the bike, it was nice that 3 lots of locals in Russian vans stopped to see if they could help.  One of them was local tour-guide Sockna and her driver with a group of 3 German tourists in the back, and her driver gave me a screw to try and fix my fairing back on; it didn’t work, but it was a nice gesture.

Once I was back on 2 wheels, I took it much easier until eventually the track led out of the gravel valley and onto something a little more stable.  I thought 2 proper crashes in 3 days was enough.

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Thankfully the track eventually led out of the gravel river bed

I switched my iPhone off to save battery because the route to Bayanzag was easy to follow, sandwiched in between 2 mountains ranges.

As I approached the cliffs I saw a few tourist camps start to pop up, and I hit upon a brilliant idea to solve my ‘no showers while camping’ problem.  I popped into one Tourist Ger Camp and just asked them if I could pay to use their shower.  They not only agreed (for a fee of one pound, or 2 USD), but afterwards the manager invited me into their kitchen ger for a free lunch!

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The friendly tourist camp staff who let me have a shower, and then gave me free lunch – love them! :)

The Flaming Cliffs were not as big as I imagined them to be, but they were still pretty nice.

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Bayanzag – ‘The Flaming Cliffs’

Along the cliff top I again saw Sockna and her driver and had a good chat.  They invited me down onto the plain to have lunch with them and the local family they were staying with.  Even though I’d just had a free lunch, I didn’t like to refuse (and I can always eat more food), so down we went.

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Sockna and her friendly driver

The local family were great hosts and really looked after me (and would accept no money).  The father loved the Tiger, and could just about get his leg over.

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A tight fit!

The mother was inside cooking up a delicious meal of super-tender, freshly killed goat.  Of course nothing goes to waste in Mongolia, and I was proudly offered the best bit of the whole feast – a delicious goat’s head!

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Goat’s head anyone?

Yum Yum!  Luckily Sochna could see I was trying hard to hide my un-enthusiasm, and made my excuses for me, handing me a plate of delicious ribs and steak instead.

In fact Sockna was a great girl, and in the end saved my life by giving me her iPhone cable, saying she’d soon be back in UB to buy another one.  Wow!  I was pleased serendipity had made our paths cross, even if it was after making me fall off first.

After dinner the family offered me a camp pitch near their ger, but we had lost sight of the cliffs and I wanted to try and camp nearer to them to see the famed red colours at sunset.  So off I shot, saying I’d pop by again in the morning.

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A nearby Turtle Ger

I rode right up to the base of the cliffs and then found a bit of shelter and privacy (from surrounding gers) behind a mound.  Unfortunately sunset was a little cloudy, but although I didn’t see any ‘Flaming Cliffs’, they did glimmer a little.

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The Flaming Cliffs didn’t catch on fire for me, but they were still pretty nice

Watching the sun set I pondered how each new day I’ve had in Mongolia I’ve thought to myself ‘this is the best day yet'; it just seems to keep on getting better and better (or my memory is fading rather rapidly).

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The Flaming Campsite

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Just before the wind started. No more baked beans for me

Once again it got a little windy during the night, but in the morning it was dead calm and silent again.  While I was packing up the tent I learnt another new lesson:  When parked on sand, make sure you check the stone under your side stand is big enough to hold the weight of the bike as you load it up!  Yes, down she went again as the extra weight of my luggage forced the side stand to sink into the sand.

After unloading, picking up the bike, placing a huge rock underneath the side stand and loading it up again, I rode back down to the family ger to meet Sockna and say hello and goodbye.  I should have known I wouldn’t be able to say bye without breakfast, and as soon as I arrived I was handed a big plate of delicious lamb, bread and potatoes.

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Back for breakfast

I was heading north, out of the great Gobi, to Central Mongolia and the ancient capital of Karakorum.  To get there I had several hundred km to ride.  The road to Mandal-Ovoo was pretty good, although I did have another couple of close calls with deep gravel and sand.  I let my tyres down a little more than normal to 25 psi, which helped, and risked the fact it made me more susceptible to punctures.

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The road to Mandal-Ovoo

I sped up as the road hardened and soon forget about my ‘slow and steady wins the race’ lesson I’d learnt yesterday; that may be sensible, but it’s not nearly so much fun.

Sockna had told me about a wonderful place called Ongiin Khiid which had old temple ruins and a river.  I was glad I made the short detour, because I found the most gorgeous valley with a beautiful river flowing through it.  I decided to stop and camp immediately, even though it was only 2pm, stripped off and jumped into the river; it was lovely and cool and felt like heaven in the roasting sun.

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Ongiin Gol (River)

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Lovely! The current was strong…

I set up at an ideal camping spot right on the river bank, after asking permission from the nearby tourist camp first.  Camping near rivers is great because it gives you water for swimming, cooking, washing up and even drinking (if you boil and filter it).  I didn’t need to boil and filter any water though as I had my handy spare 5 litre container on my bike.

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This camp owner let me camp near his place, right on the river

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Perfect!

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Nearby Ongiin Khiid temple ruins – not much to look at, but it was a long time ago…

I went for another swim and let the fast flowing water take me several hundred meters downstream.  There I met local tour-guide Orang and her American customer, Brent from Hawaii, also having a cool-down in the river.  Later Orang kindly invited me to have dinner with them, where she cooked up a tasty spaghetti bolognaise, of all things.  In return I bought them both beers from the local camp and we have a good, relaxing evening enjoying the fresh air and river view.

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Local guide Orang invited me to dinner, with her driver and customer Brent

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Nobody told this ibex not to look at Medusa

The next morning I packed up and thought I should easily make it the 360 km to Karakorum up in the central plains.  However, it turned out that I didn’t, and instead had the worst day by far of my whole trip (excluding the cliff dive session in Tennessee, which is in a league of its own).

It started great, and should have carried on like that, but fate had something else in store.  I woke up with an early swim in Ongiin Gol (river) and cooked up a tasty, filling breakfast of noodles.

I was on the road by 9 and riding without a care in the world.  The road was sandy gravel, nothing more than I was used to, but suddenly I found myself in the middle of a deep patch and the bike was weaving all over the place.  I fought to keep control but it was no use; I knew I was going down – again!

My third spill of the trip (and third in 5 days) was different to the other 2 because this time my right leg got trapped under the bike as it went down and I could feel my tendons in my foot being torn.  Then the full weight of the bike via the right pannier landed on the back of my right knee.

At first I thought my leg was broken and it was so painful I almost threw up.  I managed to push the bike off my leg with my other foot and lay writhing in pain for a good few minutes.  Then I pulled myself together and tried to wiggle my toes, feeling down my leg for signs of any serious damage.  Good news – my toes were wiggling and nothing appeared to be broken.  It looked like it was only pulled tendons and bruising.

I couldn’t put any weight on my right leg and knew there was no way I could lift my bike up with one good leg, so I just lay there for a good while, contemplating my situation.  One reoccurring thought I had was how quickly things can change; one minute you can be in paradise, the next in hell…

After 30 minutes or so I was just about to try and lift the bike with one leg, when a jeep came past and stopped.  The nice local guy inside wanted to take me to a nearby tourist ger, but I didn’t fancy leaving my bike alone in the middle of the track, and I knew there was nothing they could really do for me.  Instead he helped me lift the bike up (after I had unhooked all the luggage to make it lighter) and I convinced him I was OK.  After he had gone I manhandled my still useless right leg over the seat and onto the footpeg, and fired the bike up.  I thought I could make it to the nearest large-ish city called Arvaikheer 130 km away where I could take a closer look at my leg and rest it for a day or two.

It was easily the worst ride I have ever done in my life.

The tracks went all over the place and I ended up going the wrong way, making the journey nearer 150 km.  And it was 150 km of sand and gravel, made pure hell by my condition.  I couldn’t stand on my bad leg and so had to do the full distance sitting down, which raised my centre of gravity making it more likely I was going to fall again.  Furthermore, I couldn’t use my rear brake as my right leg was dead, making the journey even more hazardous (using the front brake in loose material can lock the front wheel easily, causing you to skid and fall down).  I almost dropped the bike again several times over the next agonising 5 hours, and a couple of times I had to put my right foot down to steady the bike, causing me to shout out in a combination of pain and anger.  I knew if I dropped the bike I probably wouldn’t be able to pick it up again, so it wasn’t fun, that’s for sure!

Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, I reached Arvaikheer.  The only trouble was the river Ongiin was in between us and there was no bridge!

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The three rivers to cross before I could get to Arvaikheer. God I hate them!

I looked at the river and it was flowing fast; I knew just how fast from my swim in it earlier that morning. It had also divided into 3 parallel rivers at this point, which meant there were effectively 3 rivers to cross.

I’d crossed a few rivers in Australia and usually walked through them first to gauge depth, find the best route across and locate any obstacles.  However, with my injured leg I would have trouble getting off the bike, let alone walking across a fast-flowing river, so I decided to gun it across.

I made the first one pretty easily and it was only about a foot deep. This have me a confidence boost and I increased revs for the second one.  It was deeper and faster, and halfway across the worst thing that could ever possibly have happened, happened; the front wheel hit something and fell to the side.

With the weight of the bike, luggage, and the force of the fast flowing water, it had past the point of no return and I couldn’t hold it up, even with my good leg.  Disaster!

And there she lay in the middle of the river.

I switched the engine off as quickly as I could by hitting the ‘kill switch’ on the handlebar before she went under, as a running engine can suck in water and destroy it in seconds.

With no one else around I would have to sort this one out myself, bad leg or not.

The first thing I had to do was un-clip all the luggage and carry it to the other side, which I did with a pronounced limp, as there was no way I was going to be able to lift a fully loaded bike.  It took 4 trips.

Then I limped back and, powered by adrenaline and an over-riding fury, lifted the bike up in one go, hopped back on, and rode it out.

Phew!

It really is amazing what your body can do when it has to, despite injury.  I had a feeling my leg would really hurt in the morning though.

I loaded back up and crossed the third river without any problems – I was so angry, there was no way I was going in again, and almost revved the guts out of the poor Tiger.

Arvaikheer

I walked into the first decent looking hotel I found in Arvaikheer looking like a drowned rat, leaving a trail of water behind me, as I hadn’t even stopped to empty the water out of my full boots.  I didn’t care how much a room cost – I just wanted to lie down and rest my leg.

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My Arvaikheer Hotel

It turned out the room was pretty cheap, and pretty decent, so I was happy.  In addition, round the back there was a garage where I could lock up my bike.  The nice guys in there helped me dry the inside of my left pannier (which somehow had developed a large hole in the bottom), as everything was soaked, including my laptop.  I then gave them some money to clean the bike for me, as it was filthy.

I soaked in the shower for a while, washed all my wet clothes, and then collapsed on the bed in relief.  I’d made it!

Mongolia had taught me another couple of valuable lessons:  Never lose concentration on the track ahead, and never, ever gun it across rivers without walking across them first (which is funny, because I actually knew both of those lessons before!).

The next day my leg and ankle had swollen and were very stiff, but I could still use them to limp along slowly.

I was worried about my laptop and had left it all night to dry out before trying to switch it on.  I tried it – it didn’t work.  Darn!

This was a major problem, because it meant I could no longer copy photos from my camera and back them up on my external hard-drive.

I limped down the road to find a computer repair shop, but the only two I found couldn’t do anything.  As UB was only 430 km away I decided to ride back there to buy a new laptop when my leg felt up to it.

The hotel actually had a decent restaurant and bar, so it was an easy place to relax and rest for a couple of days.  In the evening I played snooker with a local guy – yes, amazingly they had a full size snooker table there with championship felt from England.  Even more amazingly, I won!

I met another interesting guest who worked for the UN, trying to persuade young Mongolians that it was cooler too stay in the harsh, remote countryside than to flock to the city looking for their fortune, fast cars and Facebook.  He has his work cut out, and the traditional way of life in Mongolia faces a tough battle to survive.

After 2 nights I woke up and my leg had started to show some signs of improvement, so I packed up and rode to UB.

Luckily the road from Arvaikheer to UB is mostly all paved, so it was pretty easy.  Unluckily, there was something wrong with my bike.  She was fine for the first hour, but then she kept cutting out whenever I slowed down.  It was different to the Idle Stepper Motor problem I’d had before, and it felt like it was getting starved of either fuel or air.  I posted a ‘request for help’ on the very useful ‘Tiger 800’ forum, and the general consensus was to check my air filter, which made sense.

Despite the bike’s problem, she managed to limp back to the Oasis Guesthouse where I took the fuel tank off to look at the air filter.  It was filthy, and I could see where a little water had run into the airbox intake (which lies on the left side, under the seat) when she had taken a rest in the river.

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Water marks in the airbox

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And a filthy air filter – that would so it!

Luckily there didn’t seem to be any further damage, and after also changing the spark plugs (which were also filthy) she fired up and test-rode OK.  However, the ECU (computer) light had come on, indicating some kind of problem, but the guys on the forum said this should reset after a few problem-free run cycles.

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Now nice and clean, and test-ridden OK – phew!

While I was in UB, Kogge, the Japanese mechanic next door (who let me work on the bike in his garage) did a great job repairing my broken pannier cases by riveting on new sheet-steel panels.  The left one almost looked better than new!

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Super Japanese mechanic Kogge

I went down town and picked up a great little 10 inch notebook for just over 140 pounds.  It was much better than my old laptop and now I could upload & back-up photos again – I was happy.

It was actually good to be back at the Oasis for a couple of days, and it also gave my leg a chance to get much better.  There were plenty of ‘overlanders’ passing through and all the people I met were fun and interesting, with some meetings extending to the local Irish Bar.

Very sadly, when I arrived I met a group of bikers who had just finished an organised tour across Mongolia, and one of their members had tragically died after surgery after hitting a pot-hole.  Then I met another group who told me one of their group had been medevac’d home after breaking his pelvis; two more reminders that Mongolia really isn’t an easy option for beginners, or even experienced riders.

On day 3 I was rested and ready to hit the road again.  Karakorum and the west, here I come!

Categories: Bayanzag 'Flaming Cliffs' | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Khongoryn Els – The ‘Singing Dunes’

 

Although the Gobi is mostly rock, it does have some sand, and the largest accumulation is at Khongoryn Els, or ‘The Singing Dunes’, which sing away as the wind blows over them.  They certainly couldn’t be any worse than the acts I’d seen on ‘Mongolia’s Got Talent’.

The dunes lay a couple of hundred kilometres to the west of Dalanzadgad and to get there from Yolyn Am took most of the day, mainly because the track was pretty rough.

I packed up the tent early and adjusted the chain another half notch again.  It was wearing extremely fast for some reason.

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Another hard day at work in the office :)

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Adjusting my chain in my field garage

I past more Ovoos and played ‘guess the track’ when they did their usual thing and split into several dozen leading off in different directions.

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Ovoos (Shamanic Offerings) are everywhere in Mongolia

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The usual Mongolian track system – if you don’t like one track, make another one!

Then I bumped into German couple Danny and Heinei in their Landcruiser on their Asian Tour.  I hadn’t really met many other ‘overland travellers’ at all so far on my whole trip.  They were heading back to UB and told me the sand dunes were wonderful, if a little sandy.

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I’ll upgrade to one of these when I can no longer get my leg over (next year?)

It was a great ride across a variety of tracks from desert scrub, jagged rocks, soft sand and the occasional mud patch.  One such mud patch had cleverly disguised itself underneath a thin layer of dry clay; I thought it was hard clay, like the other 99.9% of clay in the Gobi Desert, so trust me to find the only bit covering a foot or so of soft, squidgy mud.  I hit it too fast and the bike squirmed and slid as I tried to keep it upright, but it was too late.  Down I went, on the first proper fall of the whole trip (not counting silly slow speed manoeuvring mistakes and one cliff dive).

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Fall number 1. Damage – broken pannier case and one indicator down

The fall didn’t hurt at least, but broke the casing of my already battered right pannier (previously hit by a cart in Java), and smashed one indicator (who needs these in Mongolia anyway?)

Then, somewhere along the track, my spare set of shades just snapped in half. The Gobi Desert probably isn’t the best place in the world to ride without sunglasses.  Oh well, I hadn’t noticed any nomads wearing any.  Having said that, I hadn’t noticed any nomads at all lately…

I kept my fingers crossed a 3rd bad thing wouldn’t happen.

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At one point it felt like I was riding on the moon

In the afternoon I caught my first glimpse of Khongoryn Els dunes, and they really were a beautiful sight, glimmering gold in the sun.

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Khongoryn Els – glistening like gold (and blocked by a picket line of goats)

The dunes are about 150km long and 12km wide, and get bigger and better as you ride northwest.  I rode along their base for a couple of hours looking for a Tourist Ger Camp I’d read about in the Lonely Planet guidebook; the temptation of a comfortable bed, shower, food and a cold beer was too much for me to resist after several days rough camping.

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Getting closer!

I do love rough camping, and my air mat is comfortable, but my main gripe with it is living without a shower, especially after a hard day’s ride and thorough coating of dust from head to toe; there’s only so clean you can get with a baby wet wipe bath.

Eventually the ‘Discover Gobi’ camp appeared like a mirage on the horizon; a couple of dozen typical white Gers in the middle of nowhere.

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A little piece of luxury in the desert

I was warmly greeted on arrival by a somewhat perplexed looking manager, probably because I was their only guest, and not many guests just rock up on a motorbike.  When I was shown inside my Ger I knew I’d made the right decision – it was amazing!  After a hot shower I felt like a new man; Lawrence of Arabia in his royal tent.

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My Ger looked pretty standard from the outside…

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… but on the inside it was fit for a prince!

I still had a couple of hours before dinner, so I slipped into my running gear and headed for the dunes. They were so big they looked a lot closer than they really were, and I ended up running for over an hour in total to get there and back.  It was worth it though, and I ran up the highest dune I could see to get great views of the surrounding desert and mountains.

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I went for a run across the dunes; they were further away than I thought

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It isn’t easy running on sand you know

 

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I had the strange feeling I wasn’t alone…

 

 

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The colours were wonderful!

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And it was hot

Later on a couple more pre-booked guests turned up, but for a large resort Discover Gobi was almost empty as Tourist season was only just starting.  There were only 2 other tables of guests at dinner and I was kindly invited to join Jack and Edward, grandfather and grandson, originally from South Carolina.

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Jack, Edward and their local guide/driver/friend Inkbolt

Jack had lived in Mongolia, on and off, for 15 or so years, and was in love with the friendly people, amazing scenery and freedom (REAL freedom).  He was showing his grandson, Edward, the delights of the country on a long tour, and Edward (16) was loving his first real adventure outside the US. Great for them!  They were a great couple to meet and I found Jack’s knowledge of the country, people and their history especially fascinating (he’d been researching it for years).

With a full belly, a few beers and good company, it was time for an early night, so I retired to my luxury tent and was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

In the morning we all enjoyed a good breakfast together and then I said farewell to Jack and Edward as they continued on their journey.  I had booked in for another night, so nice that it was, and planned to spend the day riding the dunes.

Before I went off riding I got my washing done and did a bit of bike maintenance, including a gaffa-tape repair to my right pannier.

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Good as new! Amazing what a gaffa-tape band-aid can do

Close to the camp a sandstone cliff denied me access to the dunes on the bike, so I rode about 12 km further northwest until I found a great access point.

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Dunes blocked by a sandstone cliff near the camp

On the way I passed a real oasis where a few sheep and cattle were grazing – so they really do exist!

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A real Oasis

Then I took to the dunes.

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I found the perfect access point

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Tyres down, and you’re away!

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Fun is not the word… I do wish I had a slightly lighter bike though

Before I started this word tour I hadn’t really ridden in deep sand before, but after a little experience in Australia and a few other places I was starting to get the hang of it.  It’s true what people will tell you – the only way to get better at riding in sand, is to ride in sand.  The good thing is you probably won’t hurt yourself if (when) you fall off.  Another good thing is, it’s a huge amount of fun, and once you get the hang of it, it isn’t all that difficult – just use lots of throttle, lean back and don’t fight the front (I still need a bit more practice though!)

When I’d finished making a mess off the sand, a group of Spanish tourists turned up on camels.

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No matter how good looking they are, I think I’ll stick with my Tiger

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The camels all gathered round to look at the bike

That was when I learned that the huge sand dune I’d stopped at was in fact the highest sand dune of them all, and the Spaniards had stopped to try and climb it.

Great!  I parked up and shot off to do the same.  The dune was 300m high and steep – very steep.  It was one foot forward, slide one foot back for most of the way, and reminded me of climbing Mt Rinjani volcano in Lombok.

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Climbing the highest 300m dune

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One step up, one slide down

Eventually I made it up and found a group of Brits already there with their tour guide waiting for the sunset.  The view from the top was eerily peaceful and somewhat surreal.

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Made it!

 

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Group of Brits already up there romantically waiting for the sunset

 

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eerie, surreal view

Categories: Khongoryn Els | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yolyn Am – ‘The Valley of the Eagles’ – Ice Canyon

Dalanzadgad

For a town with such a grand welcome sign, Dalanzadgad is just another small, dusty town of around 14,000 people in the middle of the Gobi.

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Welcome to Dalanzadgad City! Twinned with Dodge and Village of The Damned…

After a few days camping I needed a shower, and who would have thought Mongolia has such things as ‘Shower Houses’?  – Brilliant idea!  Basically, you just turn up and pay for a shower; it was great.

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This was one of the signs I remembered, as it meant bath time!

I fuelled up, re-stocked camping supplies and headed straight off to find Yolyn Am ‘Ice Canyon’ which was supposed to be around 40km to the west.

Yolyn Am

 

Leaving Dalanzadgad and heading west, I was surprised to find a random piece of new road in the middle of nowhere.  It even had the first traffic sign I’d seen outside UB, although I didn’t have a clue what it said.  It seemed to be more like a map than a simple sign-post.

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Cryptic road sign, and a real road to nowhere

Don’t worry, the road didn’t last for long, and soon I was using my iPhone App to weave my way across a firm set of tracks that drifted in the right general over the barren landscape, I hoped.

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This is more like it! Which way was it again?

The reason Mongolia hardly has any surfaced roads and few cities, is the Mongol’s nomadic way of life does not require cities or infrastructure; just a few rough tracks are formed by seasonal movements.  The reason roads and cities are now suddenly appearing, is the traditional way of life is under pressure from Mongolia’s recent catapult into the world economy and the desire of many to accumulate capital (lots of money).  Thus it has become a battleground between environmentalists and herdsmen wanting to keep this untouched land pristine, and the commercial industry who want to rip it up and make loads of money logging the forests and mining for scarce resources.  It will be very difficult to balance these two conflicting desires, especially when Mongolia’s GDP growth is presently the fastest growing in the world (18% in 2013).

The good news is that Mongolia is still the World’s least densely populated (independent) country with only 3 million people, and so there’s still plenty of untouched land left for ‘normal people’ to escape the rest of the world and explore to their heart’s content.

I often find it amazing how Genghis Khan (known in Mongolia as Chinggis Khaan) managed to band together a relatively small bunch of nomadic herdsmen (some sources quote only initially 10,000 horsemen) to eventually conquer the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever seen from 1206-1368 (31 countries from Eastern Europe to Korea, Russia to Vietnam, and China to India).  Incidentally, the Mongols were renowned for their ruthlessness, and there were up to 80 million casualties in their invasion of the Indian subcontinent alone.

Had enough factoids and ramblings yet?

After stopping at one Ger to ask for directions (and almost being eaten by their huge dog), I was pointed the point way in the usual vague sweeping motion and eventually made it to the gated entrance of the canyon in the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains.  At the information centre they were setting a new Ger, which was an interesting process to watch; just like setting up my tent, but a bit bigger and doesn’t threaten to blow away in the wind.

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I wasn’t sure if I could fit my new tent on the back of the Tiger…

From there I rode on up into the canyon, with the valley sides getting steeper and narrower the further I went.  After 10 km or so the track ended at a car park where you could walk the remaining 2 km to the ice flow.

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Entering Yolyn Am canyon

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It got steeper and more scenic the further in I went

Well, being on a motorbike, getting late, and being in Mongolia, I thought I’d have a go at riding the final 2 km and squeezed my way through the barriers.

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I squeezed through the barriers and ventured along the footpath looking for the ice

The track followed a small stream and then got a bit rocky before eventually reaching the ice.  There can’t be many deserts in the world with ice in them – it was pretty cool (in more ways than one).

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Yep – I’d found the ice!

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There can’t be many deserts with ice in

In the winter the ice can reach several meters thick and several km long.  I climbed along the ice flow for a while and explored some of the tunnels underneath.  I thought about riding along it for a bit, but in places it had collapsed, and so I thought this was probably another stupid idea.

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I thought this was probably as far as I should go

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Cool ice tunnels

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There were some strange, wild animals lurking about – well camouflaged

I stayed a while and watched the sun shadow climbing up the mountain.  There were a variety of birds, eagles and vultures flying overhead, and I wished I knew what they were.

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Getting late – I should probably find somewhere to camp

On the way back I passed several groups of hikers who looked a bit surprised to see me on a Tiger heading towards them on the footpath.  They scattered pretty quickly as I waved.

After 5 km or so I branched off on a small track that led up a mountain into another valley. I considered camping there but it was really windy due to the wind funnelling through the valley, so I thought it was probably best to get out onto the plains and try and find a bit of shelter the other side of the mountains.

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I rode into the next valley looking for a pitch, but it was a bit too windy

Outside the canyon I didn’t have to ride far to find a good camping spot, which was good because the sun was just about to set behind the mountains.  The bike and I were covered head to toe in desert dust; it really does get everywhere (I hope my stepper motor remains unclogged).

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Not really short of space to put up a tent, although it was a bit windy

For the second night it was really windy after the sun went down, but then thankfully calmed down just as the tent was reaching its critical blowing away point.

The wind woke me up around 2am, but thankfully it calmed down again.  It woke me up again at 7am and I noticed the poles were starting to bend allowing the tent to cave in.  Hmm; perhaps a 36 dollar Japanese special isn’t the most suitable tent for the Gobi.  It was character building packing the tent up while trying to stop everything blowing away.

I had a long day’s ride ahead of me to reach the mythical ‘Singing Dunes’ at Khongoryn Els.  I was looking forward to practicing my ‘riding on sand dunes’ technique.

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