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!

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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.

Categories: Yolyn Am | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gobi Desert

I saw my first Mongolian camels on the ride down to the Gobi, and thought I must be getting near the desert.

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Camels – I had a feeling I was getting closer to the desert

I stopped to take a photo and left my shades on the pannier as I rode off.  I remembered 30m down the road when I was blinded by the sun, and turned around to look for them.  I hadn’t seen another vehicle for about an hour, and Sod’s Law decided an 18 wheel juggernaut would suddenly appear and run over them as I watched.  Fabulous.  Ever since losing my camera a similar way in Australia, I’m usually pretty good at remembering to check the bike before I ride off, but not this time.  Luckily I had a spare pair from the 1950s, but they were better than nothing.

Bactrian camels are native to this area and most of them are domesticated and farmed by local herdsmen.  They’re pretty handy creatures – they can go without water for a week, without food for a month, and provide plenty of wool, milk, meat and dung for fire; what else could you ever need (apart from sunglasses)?

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Bactrian camels can provide wool, milk, meat and dung for fire, but I’m told they won’t let you kiss them on the lips

From Ghorki-Terelj National Park I managed to find a rough track that bypassed UB to the south (thank goodness) and eventually joined a brand new surfaced road leading almost all the way to Mandalgovi, 300 km to the south.

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The last bit of green stuff before the Gobi. Local herdsmen were always interested in the Tiger’s rear end

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I shared my lunch with the Mongolian James Dean (as my mate Bert called him)

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The road to Mandalgovi – which track?

As I rode into a small village for fuel and water I was pulled over by the Police for a routine check; at least I assume it was a routine check – nothing happened anyway, and they were nice enough.

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The road started out perfect and brand new

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It was a beautiful day. At least it was unlikely to rain here, in one of the driest places on the planet

I found a local grocery to buy some supplies.  Whenever I stop I am usually surrounded by interested locals swarming all over the bike, wanting to touch everything.  I no longer leave the keys in the ignition, as people are not afraid to turn it on and rev the guts out of the engine.  Strange this behaviour, but in Mongolia nothing on your motorcycle seems to be sacred.

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Small village grocery for camping supplies

By the side of the road, as I passed, I would often see the magnificent Golden Eagle feeding on some kill, but they always flew away before I could get my camera out.  One of them took off as I passed and flew alongside the bike for a few awesome seconds – I wished I’d had my GoPro camera on!

Mandalgovi is just a small dusty town on the edge of the Gobi, but it does have a ferris wheel, in case you ever fancy a ride while you’re in the desert.  Good thing was there was no queue.

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The famous Mandalgovi Ferris Wheel – draws in 20% more tourists each year (nil last year)

It was a perfect sunny day with hardly a cloud in the sky, and although the new road was a pleasant ride I fancied getting off it and into the desert, so I did.

The Gobi is big – almost 1.3 million square km, bigger than the whole of South Africa.  Not a traditional desert in terms of lots of sand dunes, the Gobi is mostly exposed bare rock covered in sand and stones making it easy to ride on.  It is a ‘rain shadow desert’ on the wrong side of the Himalayas; it’s funny a mountain range can cause a monsoon on one side and a desert on the other.

It wasn’t long before I came across the skeleton of a horse (I think) – a stark reminder of the extreme environment I was entering.

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I was so hungry, I could have eaten a horse, but someone got there before me

Further on, there was nothing.

And I mean nothing.

For miles, and miles, and miles, and miles.

“What a perfect place to camp!” I thought, and immediately put up the tent.

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… and to the left we have, nothing, and to the right we have, nothing …

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I was well prepared in case the temperature plummeted

Well in fact anywhere would have been the perfect place to camp, because it was all the same – flat and Gobi-ish.

There was complete peace and quiet – not a sound.  The only signs of life I saw were a few beetles and a Gobi gecko.  I sat on a small cactus and my bum still hurts.

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My camping buddy

While unpacking I noticed the fuel cap on my jerry can was leaking a little.  I took the O-ring off, cleaned it and greased it with silicone, which seemed to do the trick.

I relaxed for a few hours and even had a little Gobi nap.

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Time for my Gobi nap

I woke up as the sun was sinking.

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It was hot

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… so hot I evaporated

I cooked up a great dinner and enjoyed the cool breeze that rushed in after sunset.  It turned into quite a strong squall and I thought the tent was going to blow away for a minute, but then thankfully it went quiet again.  I’d noticed a couple of the tent poles were splitting down the middle so I wasn’t sure how much longer it would last; I hoped at least until I got back into Russia where I could probably buy a new one if needed.

The air was ridiculously dry, as you might expect, which was great because the washing up dried in almost an instant.

The sunset was spectacular.

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The Gobi Sunset

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An arty-farty attempt

And then the stars came out.

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Stars

With no light pollution for miles, it was one of the clearest nights I’ve ever seen.

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I was wondering if I’d left the kettle on at home 1 year 9 months ago…

I hoped my sleeping bag would be warm enough for the well-known rapid temperature changes that can occur in the Gobi – as much as 35 degrees C (63 F) within 24 hours, from –40 degrees C (–40 F) in winter to +50 C (122 F) in summer.  It was – plenty – but it didn’t really get that cold.

In the morning I woke up and thought I was in an oven.  It was roasting, but still perfectly silent and still.  I felt as if I was the only one around for hundreds of miles; maybe I was.

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Morning! Time to roast!

It was going to be a scorcher with not a cloud in the sky.  I cooked some breakfast before packing up.

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Breakfast is up!

On the next 300 km to Dalanzadgad the new road had disappeared (but will probably be built soon) and I was back on rough track.

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New road under construction (slowly) on the way to Dalanzadgad

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… and later rougher tracks

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… and later – nothing. I had the feeling there wasn’t much water around here

The track was good quality most of the time, and I had some fun on the bike.  I was heading to Yolyn Am, ‘The Valley of the Eagles’ – a canyon I had read about filled with ice in the desert.

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Ulaanbaatar and Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

Ulaanbaatar (UB)  

 

On the way to UB the weather was beautiful, hot and sunny, as it had been the previous 2 days.

I passed a couple of Buddhist temples (the largest religion in Mongolia) and so thought I’d better take a few snaps.

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Buddhist temple under construction – I saw a fair few of these

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The Buddha and The Tiger

The green, grassy steppe continued to stretch out before me…

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The ride down to Ulaanbaatar had plenty of green space for an occasional diversion

I saw newly ploughed fields with top soil blowing across them into oblivion.  This happened in Britain in the middle ages when farmers thought they could grow more crops if they dug up all the hedgerows to create more space; this then caused all the good soil to blow away as nothing was protecting it from the wind (the situation was resolved during the 18th century when someone decided all the hedgerows should be planted back again under various Enclosure Acts).  Since Mongolia is windy and doesn’t really have any hedgerows (and the climate’s probably too dry to support them in many places), this maybe a bit of a problem, and probably one of the reasons they all just eat meat (and therefore don’t live as long as most other people).

The road was paved all the way to Ulaanbaatar (UB to its friends) and was generally pretty good, except for the odd pothole to dodge (or just accelerate over if not too big).  Before I knew it I was there, and the traffic volume quickly increased from nil to nightmare.

UB is a long narrow city running east-west, squashed in a valley between two mountain ranges.  I had booked a room at the famous Oasis Guesthouse, a well-known meeting point for overland travellers, which happened to be at the far east of the city, and the road from the north arrived at the far west of the city.  As there’s really only one main road that traverses the city east to west, I had to use it with the rest of the 1.5 million population.

I hated UB at first; supposedly the coldest capital in the world but it was so hot I was melting, drenched in sweat in some of the worst traffic I have ever come across, with no room to filter.  To make matters worse the Tiger kept cutting out whenever I slowed down at the most inconvenient of times (with a bus up my behind) and had trouble restarting.  Once it wouldn’t start up at all and I had to pull over for a while and let it cool down (I guessed it must have had something to do with the heat).  However, as always, eventually we both survived and made it through OK.

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Ulaanbaatar – not a great city to ride an overheating bike through

The Oasis Guesthouse is an amazing place, and the local manager called Urnaa is a real diamond!  I’d been in contact with her via email for a couple of weeks looking out for a new front tire for me.  She not only found one, but bought it for me and kept it safe until my arrival (a brand new Heidenau K60 – just the one I asked for).  When I arrived I almost kissed her, as my existing front was getting rather ragged.

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Not sure if this is the original or not?

Very conveniently next door to The Oasis is a garage where Japanese mechanic Kogge (sorry about the spelling if you’re reading!) set his own business up after marrying a local girl.  He’s also a real diamond and ended putting on the new tyre for me and changing the rear brake pads for around 8 pounds (12 USD).  I could have done them myself if I had to, but for 8 pounds I almost jumped for joy being able to pay a professional do it in half the time with no mess.

I also needed new front brake pads as they were getting mighty thin, but I’d used my spare set 20,000 km ago in Malaysia and had forgotten to get some more in Japan.  Oh well, I guessed I’d sort something out eventually.  At least most of my Mongolian adventure would be off-road, which meant I would only really be using the back brake anyway (using the front brake in loose material is not a good idea, as the wheel will likely lock, skid and you’ll fall off).

While in the garage I also let a little oil out of the sump as it had been above the maximum level from the oil change I had done back in Irkutsk. I wasn’t sure if this high oil pressure would have had anything to do with the bike cutting out recently whenever I slowed down, and I thought it was more likely the stepper motor bunged up with dirt again, as it was in Australia.  This time I tried to clean it without the hassle of taking the tank and air box off using WD40 and a long straw to target the stepper motor.  It worked anyway, and the Tiger ran well on the test-ride.

Finally, I tightened the chain another half notch as it had become very loose again.  I’d been doing that every 500 km or so and it seemed to be wearing at an alarming rate.  I’d ordered a new chain and sprockets and they were sitting with my brother in the UK waiting for me to send him an address to get them to me.  The only problem was I’d read it took forever to get spares delivered to central Asia, if customs released them at all.  I decided to leave it for a while and see what developed.

I stayed at Oasis for a couple of days in order to do some shopping and have a look around.  I needed a good Mongolian road map and a local SIM card and popped down the city late afternoon to try my luck.  I found them both in The State Department Store on Peace Avenue mainstreet.  Then I fortuitously came across the Grand Khan Irish Bar and fell out a few hours later – it was a Saturday after all.

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Sukhbaatar Square, UB city centre, at night

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Sukhbaatar Square

Up until now I hadn’t completely decided on a route back to Europe.  Half of me thought I should go up through Russia – Moscow and St Petersburg – and the other half thought I should go through ‘The Stans’ and Turkey.  In the end I thought I could fly to Moscow anytime (I’d already been to St Petersburg), and the journey through Russia couldn’t be a whole lot different than the 3 weeks I’d already done through Siberia (endless forest-lined, straight roads).  Maybe I was wrong about that, but anyway I thought ‘The Stans’ would provide a much more varied and adventurous path.

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National Museum of Mongolia. No dinosaur bones

In that case I thought I’d better set about getting the visas, as the only one I didn’t need (as a Brit) was the one for Kyrgyzstan.  The only ‘Stan’ embassy in UB was the Kazakhstan Embassy, and first thing on Monday morning I was there with the completed application form Urnaa had printed off the internet for me.  I was actually 40 minutes early, but the nice lady in the visa office let me in early and took my application.  I was surprised I was the only person there.  She told me to come back the next day at 4 pm with the bank payment slip, and it was all that easy.  Wow!

For the rest of the day I looked round the city.  A short walk up from the Kazak Embassy is the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan (the last Mongolian Emperor and living Buddha), which I thought would be worth a look.

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Part of the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan (the last Mongolian Emperor and living Buddha)

Although most monasteries and temples were destroyed by the Russians during the Stalin’s religious purges, some of them survived, including this one (for some unknown reason).  It is pretty special as it contains no less than 6 Buddhist temples, although each one looked remarkably similar.

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Two of the Winter Palace’s six Buddhist temples

After the Mongolian Revolution in 1921 the Emperor was allowed to stay on the throne in a limited monarchy until his death in 1924.  Interestingly, after his death the Mongolian Revolutionary government (heavily influenced by the Russian Communists) declared that “no more reincarnations were to be found” and established the Mongolian People’s Republic.

The city is centred around the giant open space of Sukhbaatar Square where you can find Parliament House, the Opera, numerous statues of the great Genghis Khan, and a couple of bars and restaurants.  I walked up to the Natural History Museum to see some dinosaur bones (discovered in the Gobi desert), but the building had been condemned and it was closed until further notice (apparently this is due to some kind of on-going political/commercial squabble).  Instead I visited the National Museum of Mongolia which had no dinosaur bones, but did have a couple of old suits of Mongol armour.

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An oasis of space in a mental city – Sukhbaatar Square and Parliament House,

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And again

I jumped on the bus back for a few pence and almost enjoyed the journey through the traffic without doing the fighting myself.

Over half of all Mongolia’s 3 million population live in UB.  Many nomads, especially the younger generation, are giving up herding and moving to the city looking to find their fortune and a taste of the ‘western way of life’.  This has created a problem with overpopulation for the number of jobs available and many of them end up homeless on the streets, although several NGOs are helping to reduce the number by providing shelters.  Many of the homeless only survive the freezing winters by moving underground into the sewers, where they face other battles such as malnutrition, syphilis, scabies and body lice; not a nice way to live.

Random observation:  Although Mongolians drive on the right-hand side of the road I’ve noticed most of the cars are right-hand drive, which makes it more difficult for them to overtake safely.  This is because most people drive imported second-hand cars from Japan (who drive on the left) as they’re much better or cheaper than other cars available to them, such as the infamous Lada or European imports.

 

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Random photo to break up a long length of drivel

 

The next day I set about customising my bike for my planned excursion into The Gobi Desert.  I still had my 20 litre metal fuel can from Russia, so all I needed was extra water.  In the end I filled a red 5 litre fuel container with water (as couldn’t find a strong water container) and fixed it to the rear frame with a cargo net twisted together to make a bungee rope; it sat steady on the pillion foot rest perfectly!

At 4 pm I was back at the Kazak Embassy where the lovely lady I had met the day before handed over my passport with my double entry 30 day visa (for 60 USD).  Again I was the only person there; it had certainly been the easiest visa I’d obtained to date.  I hoped the rest of ‘The Stans’ were just as easy, although somehow I doubted it.

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

It was raining when I left UB for Gorkhi-Terelj National Park; wet, cold, windy and miserable – a perfect day to set off!  The park is only an hour’s drive east of the city and I thought it would be worth seeing before heading south to The Gobi.  It wasn’t all bad though, as the forecast said it was going to clear up later on and then be sunny for a few days – and we all know forecasts are always right!

When I arrived at the park the rain had pretty much stopped, and despite the clouds I was still presented with a nice view of the road descending down in between the green, forested mountains.

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Even though the weather was horrible, Gorkhi-Terelj National Park still had some nice views

I stopped by an interesting rock feature called ‘Turtle Rock’, shaped like a guess-what.  That was when I first met The Mad Russian, Sergei, on a Yamaha ATV.  He was actually a lovely guy, but I thought it would be an interesting encounter when he bought us 4 beers for lunch.

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The Mad Russian, Sergei, and his ATV

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And lunch

There didn’t seem to be many places open for a solid lunch, but we eventually found a kind local artist and his family who invited us in for the infamous Mongolian ‘Grey Soup’ and dumplings – a pretty standard Mongolian affair, but filling (when you’re starving).

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A friendly local artist who fed us

I thought I’d camp in the park for one night and see if the sun came out like it was supposed to, and Sergei kindly offered to take me to the perfect camping spot he’d found.

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Sergei had found the perfect camping spot

Perfect it was, surrounded by beautiful hills, and I wasted no time unloading the bike and riding up to the top of the highest one.  As I rode around the hill tops I thought how wonderful Mongolia was, that you could just ride anywhere you wanted.  It may not be the most environmentally friendly way of seeing the country, but it sure was a lot of fun!  I thought I’d better make the most of it before it was outlawed.  The views were incredible.

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Riding up the highest hill I could see – the views were incredible

When I got back to the camp, Sergei had been busy preparing for our next round of alcohol, which included more beers and a bottle of Genghi Khan Vodka with pickled gherkins.  Anyone who knows how to drink Russian vodka properly will tell you that the gherkins are a vital component, and the rest is all down to the breathing.  I’ll show you when I see you, if you like.  It’s fun, until you try to stand up.

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This photo pretty much sums up why I called him The Mad Russian

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Here we go!

By late-afternoon the vodka was gone, and I can only vaguely remember thinking it was a good idea to go for another bike ride into the hills (which of course is a stupid and irresponsible thing to do after drinking, and I do not condone it in any way).  However, the sun had finally come out and I wanted to take a few more snaps.  I made it up to the top and, enjoying the stillness, fell asleep for a while.

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Wow! So much more beautiful when the sun’s out

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It was so peaceful and still, I might have dozed off for a while

When I got back down a couple of hours later Sergei was fast asleep in his tent.  I was just about to crawl into mine when I realised, with increasing panic, that I’d left my iPhone on the back seat of the bike to charge, and now it was gone!  All that remained of the charging cable was a mess of broken, muddy wires where it had obviously been around the rear wheel a few times.  My one remaining working navigational aid; gone.  SHIT! (Excuse the language).

I spent the next 2 hours riding back up and down where I thought I had ridden looking for my iPhone until the light faded.  Then I searched for another hour with my headlights.  At least it was in a tough, indestructible case (someone who knows me better than I know myself bought me), so I hoped it would still be working.

And did I find it?

I went to bed cursing my stupidity and hoped I would have better luck in the morning.

In the morning I didn’t have better luck, and it was blooming cold (I had to remove ice from my seat).  I tried ringing it on Sergei’s phone (when he got up), but it didn’t ring.

After another hour of searching Sergei asked me if I’d checked my pockets.  Did he think I was really stupid?  Actually I was, because I hadn’t, and guess what was inside my biker’s jacket pocket?

Yes, my iPhone.

So with yet another good reason not to drink and ride, we celebrated with another beer and got some noodles on for breakfast.

By lunchtime the day had transformed itself and the sun was out in full shine.

I took one last ride up into the hills (making sure I checked nothing was on the back seat) and sat for a while enjoying the perfect silence and fresh air.

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The next day was the polar opposite – not a cloud in the sky

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So I took another ride into the hills

Then I said my fairwells to The Mad Russian (cheers Sergei!) and started my journey south to The Great Gobi Desert.

On the way I stopped off to take a couple more photos of Turtle Rock and some dinosaurs in the sun, as photos always look much nicer in the sun.

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Turtle Rock – can you see it?

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I thought these guys were extinct

Just outside the park is the world’s largest Genghis Khan statue – a giant 24m high stainless steel, horse-mounted Khan, built at the location he found his ‘Golden Whip’.  I looked around for another one, but he must have got the only one.  Some people have all the luck!

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The biggest Genghis Khan statue in the world

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Genghis Bowen

 

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Mongolia is not short of Genghis Khan statues. It is short of vegetables

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

Northern Mongolia

 

 

I crossed the border into Mongolia from Kyakhta (Russia) into Altanbulag (Mongolia) with no problems whatsoever.  I’d found a cheap hotel in Kyakhta the night before so I could be at the border at 8 am sharp.  When I arrived there was already a line of lorries in the lorry lane but the car lane was empty, so I went right to the front.

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Taiga pine forest on the way to the border

A friendly Russian came up to chat (he was waiting for his business partner to arrive from Mongolia) and sweet talked the lead lorry driver and border guard to let me through first, which saved me a lot of time.  He too was in construction, like the last Russians I’d met at Lake Baikal, and it seems to be a good business to be in.

The gate actually opened at 9 am and I was quickly & efficiently stamped out of Russia.

Riding across no-man’s land into Mongolia I was greeted with the usual disarray I find in many countries when I appeared to be the first motorcyclist to ever cross the border.  The lady at the initial customs kiosk didn’t have a clue how to fill in the form on her computer and kept phoning someone to ask for help.  In the end she gave up and waved me through without completing it.

 

The rest of the procedure went fairly well as I bounced from one counter to the next collecting the series of four stamps required on what I assumed to be my ‘temporary import paper’ to enter the country.  I was just glad I was first in the queue as I could see chaos developing behind me.

 

As I passed the final gate (after a glancing bike inspection) I got the familiar rush of excitement as I entered a new country on my bike – a whole month ahead of me to explore!

The Russian/Mongolian border area is beautiful highland taiga pine forest with stunning views as far as the eye can see.  Elk, reindeer and bear roam wild in these parts, and to the west there are even local reindeer herders (although I didn’t see any).

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Highland taiga pine forest housing elk, reindeer and bear

As I rode south along the paved road the trees quickly disappeared and soon I was into the Mongolian steppe basin lined with green, rolling hills, which was more like the Mongolia I was expecting.

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The endless Mongolian Steppe

The road is one of the few surfaced roads in Mongolia, paved for 350 km all the way from the Russian border to the capital Ulaanbaatar (UB).  But before I went to UB I wanted to stop off and do a bit of exploring first.

Almost immediately after entering Mongolia my Garmin Satnav decided to quit on me, which was not the most convenient of times or places – probably something to do with all the dust that covered it on Olkhon Island after I’d broken & lost the protecting top cover.  I pulled over at a monument to a famous horse (I guessed) to try and fix it (unsuccessfully) and then I discovered the back-up Satnav I’d bought in Russia (in Russian) was also broken as somehow the screen had cracked (great build quality!) (although it probably wasn’t meant for off-road bike travel).

Together with the loss of my handheld Garmin somewhere in Thailand I would have been well and truly up the junction had it not been for my trusty iPhone (phew!).  Soon it was mounted to the Garmin holder with gaffa tape (you can fix anything with gaffa tape) and, pre-loaded with the ‘maps with me’ App, I discovered it was a fantastic navigational aid with almost all the off-road tracks in Mongolia.  It would at least do until I got to the capital and bought a decent road map (if one existed).

While I was pulled over a local pulled up alongside me to see who I was and what I was doing.  As my Mongolian consisted of ‘Genghis Khan’ and ‘vodka’ we didn’t get far on the intellectual conversation front, but he did provide questionably useful moral support as he stood and stared at me.  I was rather surprised to see him wearing a helmet (he was sensible at least), and he was probably the last one I saw wearing one.

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Mongol Rider – the only one the world wearing a helmet

Then a local guy called Bebe turned up in a Russian van and called out “Alright mate!  What are you up to?”

This threw me somewhat, but I soon found out he’d studied in London for 3 years, hence the Cockney/Mongol accent.

Setting off again I saw the App showing a ‘point of interest’ off along a rough sandy track, so I wasted no time darting off to investigate.

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Heading off down a sandy track to see the Ovoo

It led to a sandy clearing with a pile of rocks and tree-trucks arranged into a pyramid structure covered with coloured ribbons.  It was an Ovoo and there are millions of them all over Mongolia (and elsewhere where Mongolic tribes live, such as the ones I saw around Lake Baikal) – a Shamanic offering to the gods.  Several locals were there praying and lighting candles.

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Ovoo offerings – A Shamanic place of worship to the Gods

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Ribbons are tied around trees as offerings to the Gods

Shamanism is making a comeback in Mongolia after many years of harassment, pressure to convert and Stalin’s religious repression (when many of them were shipped off to Siberia to die in the Gulag camps).

On the way back to the main road I had some fun riding around a network of sandy tracks which crisscrossed at random across the plains.

Of all the countries I’ve visited so far, Mongolia is very much unique in that you can ride your motorcycle vitally anywhere.  All the land (with a few exceptions) is owned by the State which allows the nomadic herdsmen to move freely anywhere to find the best grazing ground.  It is often coined ‘the last unfenced wilderness on Earth’, and it probably is.  Because of this though, you have to be careful you are fully prepared and self-sufficient, or you could end up stranded and in trouble.

Once I had skidded out from the sandy track back onto the main road, I went in search of a traditional bow and arrow workshop I’d read about (one of only three in Mongolia according to the ‘Lonely Planet’ guidebook).

While riding I was surprised to see people waving at me as I passed, and cars beeping and flashing headlights in a friendly manner.  People were actually smiling!  Having been in Russia for 3 weeks I’d forgotten that other people actually do this to strangers :)

I eventually found the bow and arrow workshop in a small shed in a small village called Dulaankhaan after stopping to ask a local where it was (in well known ‘sporting a bow and arrow’ sign language).  It just happened to right where I’d stopped to ask, and I was immediately ushered inside for a personal tour.

A couple of old men sat around on stools making composite bows from bamboo and goat horn, and a couple of old women sat around binding sinew and animal glue to hold it all together.

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Making Mongolian composite bows from goat horn, bamboo, sinew and animal glue

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Goat sinew

I was invited to boast my technique, but obviously have some work to do.  Historical records talk of Genghis Khan’s cavalry units firing arrows in excess of 500m, and hitting something.

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Genghis Bowen and his magical bow

Back on the main road to UB I was heading to a horse ranch called Anak Ranch few miles further south in the beautiful Orkhon Valley as I fancied trying a bit of horseriding (anakranch.com).

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The beautiful Orkhon Valley

Having received ‘loose’ directions from interesting Cossack/Czech ranch owner Martin (who owns & runs it with his Mongolian wife, Minjees), I was searching for a while in circles around the small town of Orkhon when I pulled up at a local farmhouse to ask directions.  No sooner had I waved to attract their attention from afar, I was ushered inside and sat down in front of a steaming bowl of mutton stew and rice.  Wow!  I’d heard Mongolian hospitality is second to none, but I hadn’t expected to experience it on my first day.  I asked the mother why she wasn’t eating, and then realised they only had 4 bowls, and she had given me hers.  Then I felt really bad, but she grabbed a plate and loaded it up with rice instead.

In (what I’d heard to be) typical Mongolian fashion, the family put on their stern ‘photo faces’ for the photo I took of them, and the mother made a quick dash away to hide.

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My first Mongolian kind hosts

After lunch, which was pretty tasty (and I was pleased I hadn’t been presented with any goat eyeballs or innards), we were joined by more extended family members who took great interest in the Tiger.

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They all loved The Tiger

Then, without hesitation, they despatched a young lad on a bicycle to lead me to Anak Ranch.  How about that for hospitality!

The young lad was fast on his beat-up bicycle, and biked for a couple of miles to lead me to the ranch gates on the outskirts of town.  I thanked him and handed him a little something for his trouble, and ventured inside.

As soon as I arrived ranch owner Martin made me feel right at home and it felt like I had instantly joined their large family.  As well as children and ranch-hands, there were five young ‘western’ volunteers who had been working on the ranch for a few weeks in return for free food and board through websites called ‘wwoof’ and ‘workaway’.

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Arriving at Anak Ranch

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Me in my totally unsuitable farming attire

After afternoon tea I thought I’d take the Tiger out for spin down the valley and try to reach the river for swim (there were no showers on the farm – just a well for fresh drinking water).  It was great riding wherever I pleased, over the alternating grassland and sandy soil, surrounded by picturesque rolling hills.

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Outside the ranch exploring the Orkhon Valley

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The ground varied from grass to sand

Riding without a care in the world, as I approached the river I suddenly found myself boot-deep in a bog.  I tried to power through, but it was no good – I just kept sinking deeper and deeper into the mud as the back wheel span.  Darn!  Eventually it as so deep in mud the bike stood up on its own without the side stand.  That’s never good.

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Uh oh….

This was the first of several lessons I learnt the hard way in Mongolia:

1. Always look well ahead when riding off-track and ride with caution, expecting the unexpected.

Lesson learned, it was time to rescue myself as I was miles from anywhere and no-one was going to pass by to help me out.  I also still had my panniers attached (as one was tie-wrapped on where the locking mechanism had broken), so I had to cut the tie-wraps and tramp out of the swamp with them to make the bike lighter.

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I had to cut the tie-wraps off holding my broken pannier on to make the bike lighter

The bike wasn’t moving ahead, so it had to go back.  Lacking a reverse gear, as you do on most motorcycles, my only option was to pull the bike over onto its side, drag it round and out of the hole, and stand it back up again.  Dragging the bike round out of the hole and standing it back up again in deep mud was much easier said than done, as I kept slipping and sliding around with not much purchase to move it.

By the time I eventually got the bike out of the bog, it and I looked like we’d gone several rounds at world championship mud wrestling.  I found a water puddle and washed myself down best I could so I wouldn’t look like a total wally when I got back to the farm.  My river bath would have to wait, and I’d have to use a bucket like everyone else until then.

On the ranch they keep 100 head of cattle, 30 horses and numerous goats, sheep, dogs, cats and ‘an occasional wolf’ (as they quote).  I arrived back late afternoon just as the cows arrived for their second milking of the day, and it was very interesting to watch as the young calves were held back in a pen and released one at a time to start suckling, and then removed so the ranch-hands to collect a litre or so of milk.

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Calves impatiently waiting for their mothers to arrive for feeding

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This lucky one’s next!

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The look on the cow’s face as she started feeding her calf was one of pure relief

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Baby beefburgers

During milking I learned why you never see farmers wearing flip flips, as it really hurts when a young bull steps on your toe.  I decided to call this day a ‘Learning Day’.

After milking, we all had a game of basketball on a homemade ring.  The ball kept rolling in cow pies and after an initial couple of attempts to clean the ball, I gave up trying not to get covered in mud and cow poo; everyone else was!

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Post-milking basketball

During the game a young volunteer managed to dislocate his thumb by inadvertently running into me (it was promptly pulled back into place the ‘Mongolian way’ by a ranch-hand).

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Little Mongolian Tinkers

Since the luggage was now off the Tiger I thought I’d take it for another ride across the valley; it’s always a lot more fun without the luggage bouncing around.

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An evening ride across the valley

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Always a lot more fun without the luggage :) :D

At dinner we all sat around a large, square, wooden table, all chatting merrily away over a nice meal of rice, carrot, cabbage and mutton. It reminded of a scene from ‘The Waltons’.

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Dinner!

Martin is a lively, entertaining fellow who has also lived in Germany and then Australia where he owned a mine and then started his own business as a lawyer. He isn’t short of a story or two, or a quick remark to lighten the mood, and soon I found myself on the Tiger heading to the local supermarket to buy a batch of beer to accompany the evening’s entertainment.

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Beer time! The infamous Martin on the left

It was a good night, and somehow we managed to convince a volunteer called Norman (from Austria) that he’d look cool shaving his goatee into a Hitler moustache.  Scary thing was he liked it!  He was picking up a new female volunteer in the morning (also from Austria) and so we all had bets on how long she would take to run away.

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Very cool, Norman

I was staying in a private Ger on the ranch grounds, which is a round traditional tent lived in by nomads made of wooden ribs covered in sheep’s wool felt.  Inside was clean with a bed, which was all I needed.

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My Ger

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And inside

Just before I turned in, I was invited by Minjees and her two friends to sample her homemade Kumis (fermented milk from a mare or cow), which basically tasted as horrible as it sounds – watery, sour milk.  They then told me, with amusement, it was Mongolian custom to down three glasses of it the first time you try it.  Great.  I held my breath and gulped down the second, and the third followed shortly after and just about stayed down.  Although it’s not very strong in alcohol content (similar to weak beer), I think three glasses of the stuff is enough for anyone.  I was then treated to an impromptu chorus of the 3 ladies singing a melodic traditional wedding song under the starlight.  Were they trying to tell me something?

I felt like I’d lived a month in one day, and couldn’t help thinking how lucky I was to have experienced all that (apart from the mud and the cow toe).  I loved it and couldn’t wait to see what the next 29 days held in store for me.

Next morning I was saddled up by a big friendly Mongolian ranch-hand nicknamed ‘Santa Claus’ (due to his big, hearty ‘ho, ho, ho’ laugh) and he led me out on an amazing horse ride through the Orkhon river valley.

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I was ready, but the horse wanted a drink

I’ve only ridden a horse once before in Ecuador and it took me a while to make the horse to understand my poor attempts at Mongolian commands, but eventually we got there and I started cantering along quite nicely.

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The horse was a bit slower than the Tiger, but didn’t get stuck in mud

We rode all morning and rounded up a stray horse along the way (well, Santa Claus did).  The views from the top of the surrounding hilltops were great.

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Orkhon River

Back in the valley we stopped by to see a mate of Santa’s and we sat and ate a selection of curdled milk products, cheese and drank tea.

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We stopped off at Santa’s mate’s Ger for some curdled milk

Outside the guys were making horse bridle from goat horn fibres, and were stretching and softening the bridle by repeatedly twisting and untwisting it on a wooden frame using the weight of a heavy iron girder.

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Making horse bridle from goat horns

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Lengths of horn are worked together to make long lines of bridle

I was surprised to see many Gers with Satellite TV and solar panels – this one was no exception.

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Fancy the football tonight?

One of the highlights of the ride was stopping off the river on the way back for a swim – yes, I finally made it to the river!

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Finally it was time for my bath!

Back at the farm I went to get some more beer for my last night, but before we drank it Martin and Minjees took us all in their truck to see Minjees’ uncle down the valley.  When we arrived, out came the vodka and diary product snacks, and we all took turns to down shots until the bottle was dry, as is the custom.

The uncle’s wife then produced a guitar and treated us to some tuneful traditional songs, similar to the Cossack music I’d heard in Russia.  Then she started on the accordion and invited me to play the guitar along with her.  I was a bit rusty on the traditional Mongolian music front, as she was on the Beatles front, but we did manage to cobble something together that sounded a bit like Mary Hopkin’s ‘Those Were The Days’, albeit with different words (and different tune).  Anyway, the vodka certainly helped forget it sounded terrible.

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The next ‘Mongolia’s Got Talent’!

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Minjees’ uncles’s Ger

In the morning, after a couple of days at the ranch, I really didn’t want to leave, but I was conscious I only had a 30 day visa and Mongolia was so big I would need it all to explore.  Martin too didn’t seem keen on me going, and even offered me a couple of extra days free of charge, which really made me feel part of a new family.  I’d like to go back one of these days.

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Anak Ranch House

Before I left one of the local ranch-hand girls noticed the gaping hole in my biking trousers’ crotch and made me take them off right there so she could sow them up for me.  She did a much better job than my attempt to re-seal them with super-glue (which failed miserably and just made a mess), and they looked like a new pair of trousers once she’d finished.

The family, ranch-hands and volunteers all came out to see me off, and off I bounced down the track to rejoin the short remaining 225 km of paved-road to the capital UB.

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The Anak Ranch Gang – Thanks Guys! :)

 

 

Categories: Northern Mongolia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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