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.
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.
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.
I rode through two small towns, Baruunturuun and Zuungovi, stopping at the latter to get some fuel and supplies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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!?
I stopped and had a little snow-bath near the top. The views fanned across the surrounding mountains for miles.
The other side of the mountains was like another world – a world of pink sand and flat Martian rocky terrain.
The track was hard and fast, and I felt like I was flying (luckily I didn’t fly off).
Eventually it rose over a small mountain range and then looked down upon the emerald blue Achit Nuur (Achit Lake).
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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!
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).