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