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The night in the cheap hotel in Tosontsengel had been a cold one and I had gone down to the bike to get my sleeping bag to help get through the night. There was no heating, no shower and the toilet was the outside squat. Not surprisingly, when the morning came, I just wanted to hit the road. I would find a shower tonight I guess. It was still below zero when I left the hotel soon after 9am, but the weather was in good form – there was not a cloud in sight.
I switched on my heated jacket and gloves and headed off through Zavhan. I was hoping to get to Uliastay by lunch and Altai by the end of the day – just under 400km. I knew I would be stopping often for photographs as the region had that rare combination of good light, good air, and appealing geography. I seem to have found a way to get vaguely acceptable shots from my non-focussing camera so the amazing opportunities are not completely wasted. But oh how I wish it was fully functional.
I was unlikely to meet any other motorcycle travellers today, unlike the previous 2 days, as I was effectively crossing from the northern to the southern route across Mongolia. I had tried to put together a track that took in the best of each route and left out the boring bits.
The track to Uliastay was not particularly exciting, but it was fast. I was over 100km/h on many sections and made it to Uliastay at midday. I stopped for fuel and a look around the market before hitting the road about 1pm. If I kept up the good pace, I should make Altai about 4pm. I started thinking about doing more miles after Altai and camping in the desert, but the need of a shower tempered that thought. Altai was the capital of its province so would have hotels with showers … and internet.
The part of Zavhan south of Uliastay was indeed the foto paradise I was looking for. The pics seemed not too bad, even if the focus is not 100% there.
The landscape was all set at around 1700-1800 metres with regular passes taking the track up thhrough 2500 metres. At that altitude, temperatures are a good 15-17 degrees colder than sea level. As had been the norm in Mongolia, it was cold in the morning, warmed up about 1-2pm and became cold again after 5-6pm.
It was 200km from Uliastay to Altai and I needed to make it with my 10 litre fuel tank. My super additional 12 litre tank has been un-serviceable since near Krasnoyarsk, through no fault of its own. It needs an airtight main fuel tank to work, as it draws fuel on the basis of the air pressure differential between the tanks. I have an airleak in the main fuel tank and so my reserve fuel does not get drawn through. I blew fuel through for the first few tanks, but it takes a half hour of blowing, and very sore cheeks to empty the reserve tank. I tried sealing it up with silicone, but also to no long lasting result. So instead I bought a spare 10 litre plastic canister on the outskirts of UB for 50p, and I have put 3 litres in that. So far I havent had to use it. So … can I get across Mongolia using just my 10 litre tank? Stay tuned!
Altai city came into view about 4:15 and I headed for the main post office, also home to the towns main internet service. I had planned to google hotels, and see what was popular with foreigners. There were a few that I passed on the way into town. As a general rule, I dont do guidebooks, as they tend to make people lazy and turn travel into a package tour, but I did regret having no information on Mongolian hotels. Fortunately I met a Canadian woman and her guide at the internet centre and she recommended the place she was staying at. Her guide gave me directions and 3 minutes later I had a home for the night.
– – –
I am getting into a routine … wake at 8, pack and try and be on the bike by 9. Add on refuelling and getting some food / water, and that translates to being on the road by about 9:30. And so I left Altai city at 9:30, right on schedule. I wanted to get to Hovd, 430 km away. It would probably be a long boring day. The interesting part of this route would come after Hovd – between Hovd and Olgiy – the Altai mountains, populated largely by Kazakhs. In between the town of Altai and the Altai Mountains near Hovd was the western end of the Gobi desert.
I was still determined to test the accuracy of my Mongolian road map and head off across the desert with just my 10 litres in the tank and a 3 litre reserve.
The road varied from nice graded gravel to miserable corrugations, but I found if you ride the corrugations at 90-100 km/h you seem to skim over the top of them. Ride at 60-70 km/h and the bike threatens to shake to pieces.
Soon after leaving Altai, the road dropped in altitude over 500 meters. I had been riding at 1700-2000 metres for most of the last 2 days, with runs up to 2500 metres for the passes. But as we entered the desert, the road dropped to 1300 metres, and the air became warm. So warm infact that by 10:15 I had switched off the heated vest and gloves. That had been something that had not been happening until about 1-2 pm the previous days.
I made it 215km to the halfway point, Darvi and refuelled (it was the first fuel available since leaving Altai). My fuel consumption was good. 4l/100km. So I would get 250 km out of a 10 litre tank. Hovd was 215 km further. I should make it. I pressed on.
The bottle of water I purchased had fallen off the bike somewhere and when I stopped for drink because my mouth was dry, there was no fluid to be found. I would have to go thirsty until Hovd. Better not break down then I guess.
I began thinking that since I was making such good pace, why not press on to Olgiy. There was supposed to be the annual Kazakh eagle festival there ending today. I might catch some leftovers if I am lucky. Olgiy was another 230 km beyond Hovd, over mountains the whole way. Darkness should come about 7pm … so it all depends on when I get to Hovd.
Hovd came into view as I crossed a pass about 3pm. It looked bigger than all the other regional centres in Mongolia. I was so early that not only could I press onto Olgiy, but I stopped to have some lunch … and a lot to drink.
I left Hovd at 4:15. I had less than 3 hours to do 230km, over rough Mongolian dirt roads and mountains. It was going to be tight. In times like these I treated the bike like a red-headed step-son – I cane the crap out of it. The track was sometimes smooth as silk and sometimes very rough gravel or just plain rocky. The bike took a hell of a beating but as usual, came out grinning. To make matters worse in terms of time, I kept stopping for photos. Along with Zavhan, this Altai mountain region was the other area I particularly wanted to see and photograph in Mongolia.
The town of Tolbo appeared 5-6 km away on the left just over half way to Olgiy. It had fuel. I decided to chance it and ignore Tolbo. I didnt want to commit the time to do an extra 12km and the bike should be fine on this stretch of 230 km. With just 30 km to go to Olgiy the sun dipped below the mountains. I had 30 mins of twilight left so would make it to Olgiy easily. But I couldnt ignore the light. The light was fantastic now that the sun was gone and the scenery worked really well with it. I made countless photos and each time went to all sorts of trouble to create tripods from rocks. I kept stopping all the way to Olgiy, the result being I still had about 12 km to go when I realised it was now totally dark. Well at least there would be no more photos.
With my twin HID50s illuminating the way, I flew across the grasslands at 70 km/h in the dark and as seemed to be the norm with Mongolian towns, you cross a small pass and then the town is lying in the valley floor below you. Olgiy was well lit up, probably for the eagle hunting festival thing.
I found a hotel in town and was about to settle in for the night when I heard english language voices down the corridor. It was a room full of Americans. I asked how was the Eagle festival, and they said it had been postponed a couple of days and started tomorrow. Cool! I am not really a festival guy, so I dont plan on hanging around Olgiy, but I might catch some characters around tomorrow morning as I leave town.
– – –
It was only 105km from Olgiy to the Russian border and I left as usual at 9:30. There was very little stirring in the streets as I rode around looking for action. I guess people wake later in Olgiy. The just on the outskirts of town I saw one. A proud Kazakh on his horse, his right arm weighed down with a massive hunting eagle. In a second I had killed my noisy bike engine and was pulling the Nikon from my tankbag. I rattled off a series of shots hoping there would be something useable in there. Sadly the background was pure “suburban Olgiy” and with the camera only operating on certain settings, the results were less than ideal. But better than nothing I guess.
I headed out across the Altai mountains towards the Russian border and the Altai republic. There are a whole bunch of Altais … the whole Altai region is spread across 4 countries, centred roughly where Kazakhstan, Russia, China and Mongolia meet in a near X shaped corner. I was in the Mongol Altai, heading for the Kazakh Altai, via the Russian Altai. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the Altai region is believed to be the original home of the Turkic peoples, so its not surprising that here in western Mongolia many of the people are not Mongol, but Kazakh and Tuvan, two Turkic nationalities.
I stopped on the outskirts of Olgiy to photograph a yurt suburb (yurt is the turkic word for what mongolic people call a ger – since I am now in Olgiy, where turkic is the predominant language group, I feel obliged to call the round white tent thing a ‘yurt’. As I was photographing the yurts, an old guy approached me with a smile and a ‘salaam aleikum’.
‘Aleikum asalaam’ I replied as it was brought home to me that I am (in theory) not really in Mongolia anymore, but the undefined land of ‘Altai’. I hit the road knowing that in 100km I would not even be in Mongolia – in fact.
At exactly 11am I rolled up to the Mongol border post. It was 4 days to the minute that I had left UB. I had rolled out of UB at 11am on Tuesday and now it was 11am on Saturday. It was time to do the border paperwork shuffle. As I waited there at this crossing between Altais, it occurred to me all 4 Altais have different times. Its 11am in the Mongolian Altai, 10am in the Russian Altai, 9am in the Kazakh Altai and midday in the Chinese Altai.
By 1pm Russian Altai time (2pm Mongolian time) I was through. It had been a 3 hour border crossing. About the longest of the trip to date. I didnt know where I was heading, but was just going to head as far up the M52 as I could get to before dark – about 6:30pm.
I stopped for fuel in Kosh Agach, having picked up the route Tony and I had ridden 4 months earlier. I had looked over to my right on the road into town and seen Korkorya and the valley that leads up to the Buguzin pass and Tuva way in the distance. It brought back a lot of memories – tough gritty memories.
180 km from the border and I stopped again in Aktash. I needed food, money and the bike needed a rinse after 2000 Mongolian kilometres since UB. Aktash was ideal. Tony and I had been marooned here for 36 hours waiting out rain and bad weather 4 months ago so we knew the town well. I knew where the ATM was, the best cafe in town and the only guy in town with a jet wash. I stocked up on cash, grabbed a couple of piroshki and headed over to ‘the presidents’ place, where Dima Medvedev recognised me immediately and shuffled me into his jet wash bay.
As he washed he was full of questions about where we had been the last 4 months. He was aghast at the answers. He looked at the bike and shook his head … “Its a very good motorcycle – a really really good motorcycle” he said in Russian.
I hadnt really thought about it, but since I last saw Dima, the bike had been across the highlands and swamps of Tuva, had gone from Irkutsk north to Udachny, across the Vilyuisky Trakt to Yakutsk, the Road of Bones to Magadan, the 4000 km BAM ‘track’, a second run north to Udachny and now across Mongolia …. 4 months and not a lot of asphalt to show for it. All of the above are dirt roads and tracks. 4 months of dirt roads, back to back, day in, day out. And dont nurse it one bit. I guess Dima was right … the bike had done a remarkable job.
I rode away from Aktash feeling prouder of my bike than I ever have been. Fuck yeah … its done a hell of a job. It was a big call taking a bike that had no pedigree in terms of long distance touring. But I wanted something different. I wanted something light. I wanted something powerful. I was back on asphalt now and apart from small stretches, would probably be on asphalt all the way back to London. The hard yards were done.
This little bike is a solid unit. I have done nothing to the engine but change the oil every 10,000km (full synthetic only for me), the filter every 20,000km, and changed the plugs once. I had the valves checked in Krasnoyarsk 5,000km ago for the first time since picking up the bike (when it had just 600km on the clock) and all the clearances were still within tolerances. Solid ! It doesnt get any lower maintenance than that.
Incredibly I had some sceptics question the engine prior to the trip as it is now made in Taiwan. Probably the same people who sniggered at Japanese engines in the 1980s, just as Honda were putting out the incredibly reliable Africa Twin and TransAlp engines.
My initial concern about front brake pads have disappeared. The first set had worn away in Eastern Europe after less than 7000km. So I stocked up and prepared to go thru dozens. I still have 3 full sets with me. I havent changed them in 3 months. That first set must have just been a dodgy batch.
The torque of the engine and the sandy riding have meant I am on my 4th front sprocket and chain, but then again I am up to 42,000km now on the trip. Incredibly, I am still on the original rear sprocket, and have long since thrown away the spare. Next trip I will try these lifetime guarantee Sidewinder titanium sprockets. I like the idea of a long trip without having to carry spare sprockets, apart from a change of size for the front.
Perhaps the biggest unsung hero on the bike for me, is the seat. I go for weeks on end without thinking about it and then suddenly realise the fact I havent thought about means its perfect. Quite literally perfect. When I get back to Holland I will get Ray to make a plaster mould of this seat because what he has done to this seat is utter perfection. Everyone with an X-Challenge NEEDS to have this seat – exactly like mine – because its absolutely perfect for every kind of riding.
I was on a high filled with this burst of pride in my machine, and the miles rolled by quickly. The scenery was very different from 4 months ago. Then it was green and lush, now without the colour, it seemed more stark. Looking from the opposite direction is always a different view too.
By 6pm the border was almost 500km behind me. I was not far from Gorno Altaisk, where I could probably find a hotel, but there were loads of low key places to stay by the roadside, backing onto the Katun river. I checked out a couple and found one to call home for the night. A family on vacation having a barbeque at the same place insisted on feeding me. Barbequed chicken wings and pork shops done to perfection. After 10 days in Mongolia it was a heavenly change.
– – –
I woke up prepared for a big push on to the Kazakh border. The second border crossing in 2 days. But something stuck in my head. Everyone last night from my fellow guests to the owners of the hotel were telling me I had to see Lake Teletskoye. Its 150 km east of Gorno Altaisk and apparently a real highlight of the region. Bearing in mind how scenic the Altai Republic is in general, a place thats a real highlight here must be really quite nice. I decided to ride up Gorno Altaisk, and see how the weather was holding out. If it was OK, I would go to Lake Teletskoye, but if rain was possible, then I just make a B-line for the KZ border.
I got to Gorno Altaisk and the weather looked ok … So Teletskoye it was. The road left Gorno Altaisk and weaved its asphalted way though dense forests and hills. I can imagine in summer, when the trees are green and have leaves, that this must be a spectacularly beautiful road. It took over 2 hours to do the 150km, but it was pleasant all the way. I got to the village of Artibash on the shores of the lake and after some inital difficulties, found a hotel room for the night. It was a good chance to catch up on writing and sorting fotos, with the pretty lake right outside the window.
– – –
I had to get an early start as I now had to backtrack 2½ hours just to get back to Gorno Altaisk. From there it was 500km and about 6 hours on back roads through the Altai Krai to get to the border near Zmeinogorsk. Sadly, my hopes for an early start didnt plan out well as I discovered I had a flat battery. So, after digging out my jumper leads and flagging down a friendly local, I was underway. I refuelled at Artibash and hit the road about 9am. So far my little 10 litre tank was doing the job. It had got me across Mongolia. Stopping to refuel every 2 hours or so was a pain. The bike and I both were used to riding all day without refuelling. Each fuel stop just chewed up time and miles out of the day.
The route I was taking back was deliberately different to the route I took coming out. The back roads of the Altai are definately worth exploring and there is more than one interesting route. I crossed the Katun river about 10km south of Gorno Altaisk (after refuelling again), at the village of Aya (over a very cool suspension bridge), and headed west.
Once crossing the river I was in the Altai Krai, which in reality is very Russian. On the way out Tony and I had taken back roads through the Altai Republic, through villages that were completely Altai. The roads through the Krai were almost all asphalted, whereas the backroads we had taken through the Republic were largely dirt. The next stop was the town of Petropavlovskoye, where I had met Tony 4 months ago. I refuelled again and continued, now following the route I had taken earlier.
I was making excellent time and was looking like I would hit the border about 5:15pm when a jerk on the motorcycle and a change in the wind noise indicated we had a problem. I looked around and saw one of my Ortlieb side paniers rolling down the road beside me. It had snapped clean off. My first thoughts on seeing the bag bouncing down the asphalt at 80km/h were ‘oh fuck, whats going to be broken in there?’ Calm returned when I realised it was just spare sparts and camping mattress.
I pulled over, retrieved the bag and began my investigation. It appears that a loose strap from the bag had fallen down and got wrapped around the rear axle at 100km/h, resulting in the bag ripping off. Loose straps are a nightmare. That was the second time onthe trip sommething like that had happened. I must learn to cut them rather than try to secure the full length. This strap had been tied in a knot around the luggage rack but I guess given enough time and enough vibrations and …. whats that old maxim of evolutionary science?? … “Its irrelevant how improbable an event is – given enough time, it becomes inevitable.”
So 40 minutes later I was back on the road. My side bags now strapped firm to my luggage rack, rather than resting over it. The only damage to my contents was the breaking off of the nozzle of the chain lube can, and some ‘discharge’ from same in my pannier bag. I could live with that.
I headed off towards Zmeinogorsk at great haste, trying to make up time. It would be dark by 7pm Russian time and I would now only get to the border about 6pm. Then of course there was the border crossing itself. That too would take some hours. On the other side, I would try and get to Ridder (Leninogorsk) where I had some friends from the way out.
I refuelled for the last time in Russia and while zipping through traffic in Zmeinogorsk focussed solely on that border 40km away I was caught out. Overtaking in towns is a big no-no in Russia … especially around pedestrian crossings, and especially overa solid white line in the middle. The GAI (traffic police) pulled me over and this time I had no complaints. I was guilty.
I played my only card … the dumb foreigner look, feigning poor russian. I was pulled into the back of the jeep and told they can take away my licence for 6 months. As it happens, I know they cant to this with foreign licences. Only the British government can cancel a British Driving Licence. So I just kept apologising and otherwise playing dumb. I think in the end the idea of processing the paperwork for a foreigner put them off and I got off with a very stern talking to. As a parting thought, once the stern faces were done with, they smiled and asked if I could offer them any souvenirs by way of apology. As it happens I could. I had some union jack badges in my tankbag and happily fished out three for the good officers of the Zmeinogorsk GAI.
After that let off, I pulled away gingerly and cruised gently through town. They could have detained me for hours, or at the minimum extracted a thousand rubles (or a lot more) out of me, but I had been lucky. Guilty as sin, and just a stern talking to and a 15 minute delay.
I finally made the border at 6:15. The Russians were super friendly and confirmed this is THE spot to cross the Russia – Kazakh border. Literally 10 minutes and I was through the Russian side. No exaggeration … TEN minutes. It was a 5 minute ride across no-mans-land to the Kazakh post and I arrived there at 6:30 – or rather 5:30 Kazakh time. The sun was now setting. I would be riding the 170km to Ridder in the dark.
The Kazakhs were also pretty laid back, but entering a country requires more paperwork than leaving, and one customs guy decided he needed to inspect 3 of my 4 bags. That was a waste of 20 minutes. Still, I was through the Kazakh post in 45 minutes. The whole border done in an hour. Thats a record for me … a proper border crossing down in an hour.
I headed off for Shemonaikha at 6:15 KZ time with headlights blazing. With the sun down it was now cooling rapidly. I pulled in to refuel and dug out some Kazakh Tenge I had stashed away in reserve when I last left the country from the same border point 4 months ago.
By 8:45 I had made it to Ridder, and pulled out my phone to call Sasha and Zhenya, but the phone battery was dead. Damn. I was cold. I pulled into a nearby hotel, plugged the phone into a wall socket and called. Damn again … they were away for a day or two in Oskemen (Ust-Kamenogorsk). So I just unloaded my gear into the hotel and called it a night. I had ridden over 800km today, the biggest day of the trip so far … and that included a border crossing.
It was a tiring way to finish the Altais … Mongolian Altai to Russian Altai and on to the Kazakh Altai. It got me thinking, one of these days I need to ride the Chinese Altai and finish the 4 Altais.
… maybe a project for next year …
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.
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.
– – –
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.
Tony and I woke in Petropavlovskoe pretty late as we had wandered off from our hotel the last night after showering to go in search of food and drink. It having been midnight, our choices were limited. We found a general store and grabbed a cold pizza and a beer each, had the pizza microwaved and went outside to the bench in front of the store and ate our pizza and drank our beer in the darkness, reveling in the sense of being in the middle of nowhere.
The morning sun was warm and I had dressed accordingly – Summer gloves and only the vest under the riding jacket. I led the way south, and as soon as we left Petropavlovskoe, the dirt began.
This was the first time I had ridden with Tony and I didn’t really know what to expect. He is a seasoned Russia rider but I didn’t know how comfortable he was on non-asphalt surfaces or what general speed he liked to ride at, but judging from first impressions he was more than happy riding at similar speeds to me. That would definitely make things easier in the weeks and months ahead.
We rode over endless green rolling hills that could have been England, only without farmhouses and villages.
60km south of Petropavlovskoye was Soloneshnoye. I needed some fuel as I hadn’t filled up since just after entering Russia yesterday. Soloneshnoye was the last chance for fuel before Ust Kan, almost 2 hours down the road. Looking south-east from sunny Soloneshnoye was like looking from the land of the Hobbits into the darkest depths of Mawdor. It was dark, very dark. Lightning flashed over mountains in the direction we were headed. There was no avoiding it, we had to continue that way and face the music. Perhaps it would be better when we got there.
It seemed at first we had been lucky as we missed the bulk of the storm, only catching the end of it. But the storm had made the dirt road a bit of a slippery mud bath, and that reduced our speed significantly. We seemed to be endlessly chasing pockets of sunlight. The sky was very uneven. Ahead of us was sunlight so when the going was miserable we looked at that and thought just 5 more minutes and the conditions will be better. Not sure we ever made it to that promised sunlight or whether it was just an illusion designed to sucker us on into the drizzle and increasing mud.
By the time we reached the village of Chyornoye Anui, I could no longer see Tony’s headlight. The front mudguard on the G650 Dakar he was riding was not large enough to stop mud from his front wheel flying up over his headlight, windscreen and indeed face. Chyornoye Anui was the first village inside the Altai Republic and the people here were clearly Altai. The Altai are the local Turko-Mongolic inhabitants, and are similar to the Kirgiz and the Tuvans.
I stopped half a mile past the end of town to wait for Tony. But no-one was coming. He was just behind me a when we entered town. I waited for a minute or two in case he had stopped for a photo and then I noticed a couple of kids I had seen a the edge of town milling around the middle of the road a few hundred yards back. I turned around and headed back. Tony’s bike was down in some very slippery mud and Tony was picking bits and pieces from his luggage up from the mud. One of his side boxes had opened and documents and stuff was all thru the sticky mud.
By the time all was cleaned and dried, the drizzle had stopped, the sun was back out, and the picture looked better. I led the way back across the grass paddock to the road but in the process we discovered Tony’s metal mule luggage rack had come off its front mountings. Must have happened during the fall.
After considerable faffing about we realised we were not going to be able to fix it, and Tony decided to ride on without the front attachments. By now it was drizzling again and we headed on with the roads slippery again and increasingly muddy. Our perseverence did pay off and just before reaching Ust Kan, the sun returned, and so too did the asphalt.
The scenery had been fantastic, and had it not been raining most of the time, I would have taken a hundred photos. But cameras and rain don’t mix well. In fact, despite the rain I will put it down on the recommended roads list, because in good weather it would have been a highlight of any trip.
Just before entering Ust Kan I saw a sign saying to go beyond there was to enter a restricted border zone, permits needed! This now corresponded with yesterdays problems at Ridder (Leninogorsk). The crossing from Ridder came out not far from ust Kan, and the border zone there too had been a permit only restricted zone. I had hoped to ride further south to Ust Koksa, but the weather and the restricted zone put an end to that. Tony and I refueled and headed east towards the M52 – the Chuisky Trakt.
What started off as a promising asphalt road from Ust Kan deteriorated as both the asphalt ended and a severe storm came out of nowhere drenching us. But yet again persevere we did, and we made it to the M52 at Tuekta, and turned south. I had been told there was a decent sized town at Ongudai, 25km south of the road junction and decided we should head there for a late lunch and to dry out.
As fate would have it, the rain stopped and we pulled into Ongudai in bright sunshine. This day was all about on-again / off-again weather. We feasted on pretty mean rations (the Cafe’s here don’t seem to have awe-inspiring menus) and as it was now after 7pm, we headed on. There was a decent sized town called Aktash, 150 km down the road, and we should find a hotel there.
This was my first taste of the Chuisky Trakt, Tony having had experienced it downstream while waiting for me at Gorno-Altaisk. Its a lovely road. Good asphalt surface, dramatic scenery thru rugged rocky mountains, and yet very very green. Perhaps that was the recent rain?
We reached Aktash 15 minutes after darkness and found a hotel. This time we were not so lucky re wandering off to the centre of town for some food and beer. The hotel was not in the centre and the town looked very very sleepy. We showered and went to bed.
– – –
Rain stopped play. For the first time in the trip, I canceled biking due to the weather. Tony was happy with that too and we headed off to Aktash’s mechanical guru, who happens to have the same name as the President, Dmitri Medvedev. Looks like him too! ‘The President’ washed and fixed a number of niggly things on the bikes, a rivet here, some soldering there, and manufacturing some new parts for Tony’s luggage system.
We took advantage of the halt in travel to wash a few loads of clothes. Not sure how they will dry in this weather – maybe flying off the back of the bikes tomorrow.
Brunch and dinner was a similar meal (again very limited menu) in the towns one cafe. For the benefit of those who understand russian menus, it was kotlet c makaronom, i pirozhki. For the others, I wont bother translating, but will try and score a foto tomorrow to explain.
Its been at least the third day in a row of rain. I saw rain the day I arrived ino Russia in the distant Altai Republic, then Tony and I hit it yesterday, and now again today. This has me worried for the days ahead, specifically the crossing into Tuva. 150 km of dirt tracks plus about 80 km of almost no tracks.
The day was rounded out with a couple of local beers, both at the cafe and then in the hotel room.