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