Category Archives: adventure

The Tuva Track


We left Aktash excited at the prospect of tackling the ‘Tuva Track’, and just getting into Tuva.

Tuva is one of those mysterious exotic places that fires the imagination. Tuva IS adventure. Thoughout its history its been part of Mongolia, then China, then independent, and now part of Russia. Taiwan still considers Tuva to be part of China, and doesn’t recognise the independence it gained soon after the last Chinese emperors fell in the early 20th century.

The staging post for our ‘Tuva Track’ was the Altai town of Kosh Agach. The ride to Kosh Agach was typically dramatic thru rugged mountain valleys lined with pine trees, down the Chuisky Trakt, the M52 – main road to Mongolia.  We passed a convoy of French 4wds heading the other way – obviously having recently left Mongolia. After the first 70-80 km the landscape gradually began to change and we morphed over the next 50 km into treeless dusty plains, broken by softer rolling hills.

In Kosh Agach we stopped to fill up tanks and to get some food. I grabbed a couple of extra pirozhki to eat on the road as I had no idea how the going would be on the track.

Very few travelers get to Tuva.  Officially there is really only one way in – Via Krasnoyarsk, and then south thru Abakan. Our plan was to turn left about 7-8 km south east of Kosh Agach, and get to the village of Korkorya. This would the be the last settlement before Mugur Aksy in Tuva, and Mugur Aksy is a place where no-one could tell me whether they had food or fuel or a place to stay. The one report I had heard about Mugur Aksy was that it was full of semi-hostile alcoholics.  Hardly encouraging.

Two years ago, when I first came up with the idea of crossing into Tuva the hard way, an Australian mate, Simon, had been preparing to 4WD across Russia and asked me if I could recommend me some interesting roads. I had sketched a track on a map from Kosh Agach to Mugur Aksy and beyond, and Simon had taken it on. He went a different way to what I had planned, going further south via the Tuvan village of Kyzyl Khaya before skirting the Mongolian border and getting to Mugur Aksy that way. Simon had taken a few wrong turns and ended up getting fined by Russian border police for straying too close to the Mongolian border (or was that illegally entering Mongolia – Simon isnt sure).   Russia operates a different border system to most countries, in that there are many “border zones” that extend up to 50km into Russia, and you cant enter those without a permit – unless you are on a federal highway or railway.

I was unsure of the status of the Tuva Track under this rule. The route I had planned took us north-east from Korkorya, over the Buguzun Pass, past Ak-Khol (white lake) then Khindiktig-Khol, approaching Mugur Aksy from the west. This left plenty of room between us and the border and I hoped this would be OK. I had checked the route on Google Earth thoroughly, and apart from a vague 10 miles of so, looked feasible.

The asphalt, and indeed even graded road ended at Korkorya, and only wheel ruts from 4WDs indicated the track onwards. Within 5km from Korkorya the track became a kind of motorcycling paradise traveling on a smooth ‘path’ though wide grassy valleys. The only cloud on the horizon was dark clouds on the horizon … over the mountains ahead of us were heavy dark clouds and flashes of lightning. That would make the upcoming pass interesting.

We stopped when we reached a section of river that still was covered in ice. It was incredibly beautiful. Soon afterwards we realised the track had faded out. I checked the map, we were due for a river crossing. Sure enough, on the other bank was the continuing track. I found a path to the river and stopped. It was fast flowing but looked only a foot deep. I committed the cardinal sin of not walking thru when unsure of depth and flow.  I didnt waant to walk thru it because of all the ice around – I might get cold and wet – and I paid the price. Where I was crossing was twice as deep as I thought – I was up to my thighs. The flow was intense. The bike went down for the third time in the trip, this time underwater. The flow was so fast the bags were being ripped off the mountings. Tony jumped in to help me right the bike and it was soon on two wheels again. We pushed it to an island in the middle of the stream, from where I restarted the bike (no water ingestion) and rode across the second (shallower) part of the river. It was the first proper river crossing of the trip and I was kicking myself for being lazy and not checking the river by walking it first.

We decided Tony had to find a better route. By now we were both soaking from the crotch down in icy water, so more exposure to it was no problem. We were already cold and wet.  By chance a rare 4wd van coming the other way indicated a shallower route (it was the first vehicle we had seen since leaving Korkorya) and Tony took that, with me walking along side his bike. It was a tough initiation to water crossings for Tony, but he had made it across successfully.

I didnt want to tell Tony there were two more crossings of the same river before we reached the pass. As it happens the two later crossings were easier. Less water, less flow, shallower. It would have been nice to warm up on the easier river crossings first.

As we began to climb, the track deteriorated and became very rocky. A couple of times we had to skirt ice and snow across the track, but by 4:30pm we had made the pass (we left Kosh Agach at 12:30). It was windy and bitterly cold. We stopped to eat some of the pirozhki we had packed. Tony wanted to stop and fix some of his malfunctioning luggage system. It was hardly an ideal place to do repairs and I suggested we bodge it with cable ties until we reach a more suitable location.

Now we were in Tuva. A sign at the pass indicated that we had been but were no longer in a border zone. Oops.

The track on the Tuvan side was a different animal. Boggy. We continued on an successfully found my first Tuvan checkpoint, Ak-Khol. This was a marker on my map to confirm I was on the track I planned to be on.  The track at this point was still ok, but we were approaching the point where even max zoom on Google Earth could not verify the track. We passed a pair of Russian 4wd van / buses and I stopped to ask them where they were from. They did a regular shuttle service daily between Kyzyl Khaya and Kosh Agach but couldnt really tell me where the turnoff was for the direct track to Khindiktig Khol and Mugur Aksy was. They did indicate there was an old bridge somewhere near here. I couldnt see it and continued on. If I couldnt find my track, I would have to continue on this decent track to Kyzyl Khaya and take the graded border road from there to Mugur Aksy.

10 minutes later we passed a couple of Tuvan lads on a Russian Planeta 5 motorcycle. They offered to show me the track to the bridge and we turned around and backtracked most of the way to where we had met the 4wd vans. Then the boys pointed to a vary rarely used track heading east. I was sceptical this was the track i wanted as on my map it was marked as a well used track.  Never-the-less, I took the boys advice and went down the faded track.
Sure enough, 5 mins later we got to the bridge. It was the first piece of ‘infrastructure’ of any kind we had seen since the border zone signs at the pass. But the approach to the bridge was not much more than a bed of boulders. Tony went down just before the bridge. He fell to his left. Had he fallen the other way, he and his bike may have been swimming.

By now it was 7pm. We had only a few hours of daylight left and I now realised we would not make it to Mugur Aksy tonight. I turned round and advised Tony to mentally prepare to be camping rough tonight. The vague trail led to a farm of sorts up on a hill. It looked pretty grim but I thought we might as well confirm directions there. A young rough looking lad was working on his own motorcycle when we arrived. The farm was a dirty collection of yurts for the people and wooden building for the animals in winter. I had harboured thoughts of fishing for accommodation for the night from them but now that was there I soon decided against it. The farm folks confirmed the track we were on as the right one.

Constant cross referencing between my GPS and maps confirmed this. The GPS had no roads or tracks anywhere near here, but it did have the lakes and rivers marked and that made approximating whether or not we were in roughly the right location not too difficult. The track at this point was very faint. We were really just freestyling cross country most of the time, picking up the track every now and again when it was more prominent. We crossed three large extended hills and then as darkness was falling we saw it – the stunning Khindiktig Khol. It was the most beautiful lake I had ever seen. Surrounded by snow capped mountains and covered in ice.

Tony and I found a place to set up tent overlooking the lake and made camp. The ground had been wet and mushy the whole Tuvan side and here was no different. The tent pegs went into the ground with the lightest push. As soon as the tent was up, it began to rain. We were at 2500 metres here and it was not warm. We were both wet from the assorted river crossings. There were no trees in sight and there would be no fire tonight. Apart from the view, we were cold and wet and miserable. At least the Khyam tent was a 20 second job. Just what you want when its cold, dark and wet.

Tony started cooking packet soup on his mini stove as I realised my sleeping bag was soaking wet from my river fall. There was nothing else to do but wring it out and use it. I couldn’t sleep in this cold without a sleeping bag … I would freeze. I wrung it out as best I could and prepared for a night from hell. Tony’s soup cheered me a little and I pointed out on the map how far (or un-far) we had come. The good news was that we only had to go around the lake, maybe 15 km, and we should be on a more major track for the last 40km into Mugur Aksy.

After dinner I gritted my teeth and crawled into my cold wet sleeping bag for the night.

As I lay there trying to go to sleep, I thought of the great Tuvans of history, and how they would have shrugged off the ordeal of sleeping in a cold, wet sleeping bag at 2500 metres, above an icy lake. Tuvans (Also called Uriankhai) were prominent in the army of Genghis Khan and the greatest general the Mongol empire produced (some say the greatest military commander in history – and I struggle to disagree) was a Tuvan. Subeedei (Subotai / Subedei) was the man behind some of the most brilliantly planned and executed military victories in history. Were it not for the unexpected death of Ogedei Khan in 1241, Subeedei (then at the gates of Vienna and having just destroyed the Poles and Germans at Leignitz, and the Hungarians at Mohi) would surely have conquered the whole of Europe.

Unlike other great Generals like Alexander or more more modern equivalents, Subeedei didnt campaign for a 5 year war, or a dozen year period.  He was a general of the Khan from his late teens till he was over 70.  Over 50 years of almost constant warfare, and the guy didnt lose a single campaign.  There is simply no peer, strategically, or in terms of track record.

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I only slept about 3 hours, on and off. I was constantly waking and shivering from the cold. I was amazed that I was managing to slowly dry my sleeping bag with body heat. By the morning it was only 50% as wet as it had been when I first crawled into it.  Looking ahead, my only source of heat this morning would, apart from a cup of soup, come from the heated vest and gloves on the bike, so I was keep to get going so I could plug in and feel warmth. Tony was snug and warm in his bag and it was cold outside so he was the opposite. Eventually we rose, had our soup and got on the move.

The road around the lake can be described in three words. Bog, bog and bog. I reckon that morning we did 10 km around the lake, 80% of it bog. The clutches both got a hell of a workout but eventually we made it to the pass, over which was the valley in which the more major track to Mugur Aksy ran.

From the pass down was much drier (and easier) though the trick would be crossing the river in the valley below. This time I planned and plotted my route across, going upstream from gravel bank to gravel bank. The river bed (like all the others) was just football sized boulders, anything smaller just got swept away in the current. After a good 30 minutes of pondering and manoeuvrings we were both thru and on the track to Mugur Aksy.

It was also two wheel ruts across the ground, but was wll used, and dry.  I was tempted to re-enacted the Long way round scene where the boys kiss the alphalt after riding a while on dirt.  I was tempted to kiss the dirt after riding too long in mud and bog!  I dont even want to think what I would have wanted to do to the road had it been asphalt !

In the next 15 minutes on the more trafficed track, we covered 15 km, the same as we had done in the 4 hours before that.   Around that time we also crossed 90 degrees east – a quarter of the way round the world.

I thought alot on the road today of Chris Colling, back in the north of England. Chris really wanted to join us for the Tuvan section of this trip but had to look after the Adventure Spec motorcycling business. In his younger days Chris had managed a Tuvan folk band and had wanted to visit Tuva ever since. Doing some hard core off road motorcycling in Tuva would take the biscuit. So thinking of you over here in Tuva mate, if you are reading.

By 2:30 in the afternoon we had reached Mugur Aksy. It had taken us about 14 hours of riding from Kosh Agach. Tony needed fuel. his reserve light had been on for the last hour or so. I stopped and asked a few locals where we might find fuel but the answers were all incoherent. This was the alcoholism I had heard about and feared in Mugur Aksy. We continued on thru town eventually spotting a UAZ jeep. They must know. I stopped to ask them and horror of horrors, I had stopped to ask border police. Their opening gambit was ‘documents please’ … I persevered asking for petrol and eventually they led us to the petrol station. Incredibly it was closed. Out of fuel. no idea when the next load comes in.

The border guards by now were taking fotos of us and the bikes and we got a lot of freindly banter going.  They had forgotten about the request for documents.  In the spirit of goodwill (very useful in these situations) I let them sit on my bike. The senior guy went back to his jeep and produced a canister with 20 litres of fuel. Wow !  What a guy !

I cut a funnel from an old water bottle and began to load up Tony’s and my fuel tanks. The guys said we needed to go to the Border Guards office and get a permit if we wanted to continue on the road to Sagli and Solchur. It was 25km out of town, but on the route anyway. Tony paid them 500 rubles for the fuel and we were on the way.  I kicked myself for not filming or photographing it.  All thru Tajikistan and places like Tuva, Fuel was just poured into the tank, yet I had failed to score a single foto or piece of video so far on the trip.

Mugur Aksy had looked grim. I didn’t see any cafe’s or stolovayas or anything. The road out of town (south east) however was a proper graded road, complete with corrugations. In some sections it was 110km/h, while in others the corrugations were all enccompasing any anything over 35km/h was impossible. Sure enough after 25km we reached the border guards complex and hooted and yelled to gain entrance. The commandant there apologised for not being able to give us tea as their power was down, and was unable to give us a written permission to use the road but after some sweet talking banter he gave us verbal permission to use the road. Woo-hoo!! I also noticed we had changed timezones when we entered Tuva and I needed to move all my clocks an hour forward. It was not 5:30pm

We rode off with glee in our hearts at getting this permission, but the glee was short lived. 300 yards from the guards base I realised my rear tyre was flat. A rusty old nail was sticking out of it. Damn. How were we going to make civilisation tonight? it was still 160 km of dirt road away.

I pulled the wheel off, and realised the valve on my spare tube that had been expertly repaired in Ust Kamenogorsk was too large for the hole in the rim. The new puncture was too large to patch. Fortunately Tony had a spare tube. It was for a 17 inch tyre and mine were 18, but that could be made to fit. I changed tubes and we began to pump it up with Tony’s portable compressor but no joy, no pressure. I must have nicked the tube in getting the tyre back on. We went thru the process again. Still no joy. The small tube was sticking very close to the edge that I was levering against and this made it very tough.  I was feeling faint and had to sit down and take a break several times.

We were only 25 km from a town and I suggested to Tony to take my back wheel into town and get a tyre repair place too do it properly. We needed food and water anyway, so kill a few birds with one stone. At 6:45pm Tony headed off with my wheel. The sun was out and a warm dry breeze made my skin feel a bit dry. Ah … perfeect chance to dry out my sleeping bag and anything else that was wet. Over the next few hours I discovered everything had gotten wet. UK passport, drivers licence, passport fotos, insurance docs, carnet … clothes, everything. I dried it all out in the sun and breeze, along with my soaking boots and socks.

Tony returned at about 10pm. It was getting dark. There had been no shino-montazh (tyre repair) place in Mugur Aksy. Very odd as these are in every little village across Russia and the CIS. Tony had found a local mechanic of sorts, drunk of course, and with his sober friend had eventually managed to repair the tube (also after nicking it a few times). There had been no food for sale anywhere in Mugur Aksy but Tony had found a general store and got some pot noodles, water and beer. I refitted the back wheel and was ready to roll.

We set up the tents and boiled up some water where we were, but the roadside, 300 yards from the regional border guards HQ, had our pot noodles and beer. It was a lot better than the previous night. Warmer, drier and our first solid food for 36 hours – if you can call noodles solid food.

– – –


The warm sun woke me at 8am, and we had a lazy morning, not getting underway till 11. We had 160km of dirt roads to cover before we found asphalt, and then we hoped to do 300km more to make it into Kyzyl for the night.

Within 5km, we knew it would be a long day. The dirt road that led from Mugur Aksy to Sagli and on to Solchur, following the border, was a heavily corrugated, rocky road. Yes it was graded gravel, but it was very difficult to travel much above 50km/h. The countryside was remote and stunning. It was all mountains and we spent our time between 1600 and 2500 metres the whole time on the dirt road.

10 km before Sagli and for the third day in a row (I have only ridden with him 3 days) Tony has problem with the Metal Mule mounting system for his F650. To me the system is a flawed, compromised design. The front mounting attachment is way to weak and Tony had lost both by the end of our first day on the rough stuff back in Altai. An hour was lost as we figured out a way to repair it in the Tuvan highlands. Amazingly we worked something out that was superior to the original, but only temporary. Tony will have to get that sorted properly in Krasnoyarsk or Irkutsk – basically get a metal worker to craft a proper mounting system for the front mounts of his rack.

I have never been a fan of hard luggage and the time lost to us on every day we have been riding together has only hardened my opinion. Riding on dirt roads when the occasional fall is inevitable with hard luggage is just asking for bent metal, broken bits and wasted time.

We got underway and despite us both hungry and thirsty, we didn’t stop at Sagli, or Solchur near the end of the dirt road, but instead relished being back on asphalt for the run north to Chadan. We reached Chadan about 5pm and refuelled the bikes then went looking for a cafe or stolovaya. The only one we found was closed so we went to the shop across the road for some energy drinks. The two young Tuvan girls in the shop took and shine to us and one summoned up the courage to ask if I was free that evening. Sorry lady, but I have to be in Kyzyl, 220 km away tonight.

By the time we finished chatting, eating and drinking, Tony and I were well on the way to internally feeling normal again. Tony had mentioned a couple of times of feeling giddy and I had fainted for the first time in my life and fell to the rocky ground while working to fix my punctured tyre yesterday (another reason to get someone else to fix it). We were both dehydrated (despite the weather being cold and us taking 4 litres of water with us onto the track) and lacking food and sleep. On top of that I had the thermally challenging evening in the cold wet sleeping bag behind me. The food and drink break got us feeling a little closer to normal.  A shower and a shave would complete the job.

It was 3 hours ride to Kyzyl and while the scenery was still impressive, the biggest challenge was dodging other cars and cattle on the road. The only stop was to fix Tony’s clutch. He had a new clutch fitted in Moscow and it was down to that he had no adjustment left at the lever end of the cable, so we had to adjust it the hard way, at the clutch housing end.

After almost 60 hours in the wilderness, we found one of the nicer hotels in Kyzyl and splashed out 25 EUR each for a room … first shower in 3 days. Then we went out for beer and shashlik – and got hassled by drunk locals. Ah the joys of life on the road. Its Tony’s better half’s birthday today, so I left him in his room to have the long birthday phone call.