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There was no point staying in Baruunturuun after I had woken up. No shower, no café, no internet … so I said farewell to my roommate – a 18 year old student from UB, paid my bill and headed for the towns petrol station. This town had 92 octane, which was great news. A couple of times yesterday I had to put 80 into the tanks … but when I did I only put 5 litres in at a time, and it would have mixed with the 92 that was already in there. While Baruunturuun had 92, the pumping was by hand. I held the nozzle and the fuel man pumped. It was 9:15 when I hit the road and saw Baruunturuun fading away in my mirrors.
I didn’t get too far before I hit my first proper water crossing in Mongolia. The weather ahead had looked dark and ominous since waking up, in contrast with the clear blue skies I had experienced in Mongolia to date and I figured it had rained recently here in the west of the country. The crossing was not too deep – only about a foot and a half, but the current was ferocious. It meant I couldn’t see the bottom. I had little choice but to get my feet wet. Damn! Now I would have wet feet all day.
It was relatively flat terrain all the way to Ulaangom, but as I neared Ulaangom, approaching midday, the mountains loomed up in the distance. I fuelled up in Ulaangom and checked my maps. Plenty of peaks above 3000m (10,000 feet) here. I needed to think of what I wanted to do. My initial plan had been to head for the border, perhaps 4 hours ride away. That would have meant riding from UB to the border in less than 3 days, via the Northern route. But having made such good time in Mongolia so far, I had earned a day up my sleeve. I decided to do the border tomorrow. I would spend the rest of today in the mountains. I grabbed some food and drink before leaving Ulaangom and left town about 12:30.
I continued along the ‘Northern Route’ for another 90 minutes (the track took in some lovely mountain passes and wild tracks), and just before 2pm, beside Lake Uurug (Uurug Nuur) I turned left and headed way up into the mountains along a shortcut to Olgiy I will call the “Khotgor Track” for want of a better name. Wow … what a track! Extreme rocky hilly riding for the first hour.It took me about an hour just to cover the first 35km to Khotgor, a dusty coal mining village. Then the track eased up and continued past another beautiful lake called Achit Nuur. At the bottom of Achit Nuur the track joined a more used road coming from the east and from here the drive to Olgiy was through a fantastic gorge. It was one of the finest afternoons riding I can remember anywhere. Unbeatable scenery, challenging riding. Ulaangom to Olgiy, via Khotgor – it rocks !
I arrived at Olgiy at 5:30pm. There was still a couple of hours of daylight left. I refuelled and headed into town to take stock. I pulled up at the local “Irish Bar” or at least that’s what they called it, but they were having a private party and would open to the public only at 6:30. I chatted to a group of Kazakhs visiting from Almaty and they too were waiting for some dinner. About 6pm I suddenly got tired of waiting. I had pulled into Olgiy quite exhausted and drained after riding the Khotgor Track, and figured I would chill, have a nice shower, then have a long dinner over a large number of beers at the Irish Bar. But my energy and enthusiasm for the bike were back after my half an hours break, and I decided to head further west into the Altai mountains – to a village called Tsengel.
In an ideal world, I would have headed deeper into the mountains and got as close to the Chinese border as possible … Joe Pichler had given me some nice waypoints of cool things to photograph. One of these days I need to come to Mongolia with loads of time up my sleeve. It seems everytime I am here I am pressed for time … last year it was because I was 3 weeks later in the year and the warmth was almost totally gone for the year. This year I NEED to get to Novosibirsk by the 15th September. My son has a birthday party back in Holland and I am flying back for a couple of days to be there … and I booked my flight from Novosibirsk!
I got to Tsengel about 7:30 pm after stopping endlessly for fotos. The track here took me over a pass at 2650 metres (9000 feet) … the wind was howling … it was freezing cold. Mountains around here are about 4000 m (13000 feet) high. My plan had been to camp at or near Tsengel, but it was too cold for that. I could see myself needing to take a slash in the middle of the night and muttering to myself “I’m just going outside, and me be some time”, never to be seen or heard of again. So I immediately asked around for a hotel. I didn’t expect one. If there wasn’t one, I would have ridden back to Olgiy via a different route, but to my surprise, the locals pointed to a building in the centre of the town and said “Hotel”.
The hotel turned out to be way more expensive than anything else in Mongolia so far – but the alternatives were freeze in a tent, or ride 90 minutes in the dark back to Olgiy. If everything had been still on the bike, I would have rode, but I had unloaded all of it to squeeze thru the hotel door and into the lobby. So I said I will take the 50,000 togrog ($40) room. There were no shower facilities and the toilet was outside.
The manager brought me a kettle, and a bowl and cup from the kitchen, as the kitchen was closed, and I made myself up some coffee and instant noodles for dinner. I raided my bags and found chocolates, biscuits etc that I had stashed away in case of dire need. I decided to use them up. I wont really need them now that I am almost out of Mongolia.
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I stayed in bed for a while … I figured I was leaving Mongolia today and had two days to get to Novosibirsk 1100 km away, and still would have a day to spare. It gave me a chance to catch up with some foto editing and blog writing. I noticed while editing the last few days fotos, that the fender extender from the front low fender was gone. I noticed it in the fotos. I went back a few days through the fotos, and it seems it had not been there for a while. Funny how I noticed that via foto editing rather than by seeing it missing from the bike.
About 9:30am I packed up, found the lady manager of the hotel, who scrawled 15,000 on a piece of paper. Hmmm I could have sworn she tried to say 50,000 last night. So the hotel was only about $11. That’s more like it, and fair value for Mongolian hotels. Tsengel is high up, about 1900 metres (6500 feet) and it was well cold when I stepped outside to find some chaps to help me get the bike out of the hotel lobby. While carrying my bags down to the bike, the lady manager invited me for breakfast. Apparently it was included. This is becoming better value all the time.
It was 10:30 when I left Tsengel, and about 105 km to the border with Russia. I decided not to go back via Olgiy, but to take a short cut direct to the border. It would be my last 105 km on dirt tracks for a while and set out to enjoy it. I was riding well. Yesterday, after the steep rocky track past Khotgor, I had been too tight on the bike. I wasn’t moving well and the bike felt heavy. Today I was back in the groove. I floated on the bike and the bike floated over the landscape.
I reached the border in just an hour and 10 minutes. Just 30 minutes later I was through the Mongolian post and rode the considerable distance to the Russian post (over 20 km).
I left Nassan’s early, about 7:30 … but it was still after 8pm by the time I had left UB. Traffic again was bad. Had I been an hour later it might have taken me 3 times as long to get out of town. Now out on the clear road, I refuelled and stocked up on water and bounty bars. I notice the damn rear tyre I was carrying was a massive pain the nuts. I had it heavily over to one side. I didn’t want any chance of it being damaged by the exhaust gases. But on the high speed rough roads I had been riding yesterday, the tyre had broken off my right rear indicator light. Cest la vie … who needs indicators in Mongolia anyway. But the bigger problem was somehow that damn tyre had knocked off, or unscrewed or broken my X-tank fuel tank lid. It was gone … I just had a gaping filler neck – now full with fuel. I had to figure a way to deal with it. I grabbed a scrap piece of plastic by the fuel station and an elastic band and wrapped the plastic over the open neck, before punching a breathing hole in it. I rode off.
As is often the case with me, I spotted locations I had seen before … on earlier trips … and took pictures of the same scene again … here is a comparison of a 2010 foto with a picture from the Tokyo to London Project, 1994.
60 km out of UB, I stopped in a roadside village. I saw a tyre changing guy. I took my bags off, ripped the back wheel out and handed it to him with my spare tyre to swap over. While he did the tyres, I changed by wheel bearing seals. I also noticed my elastic and plastic over the fuel tank didn’t work. They were gone. I was back to a gaping filler neck. I took another piece of plastic another rubber band – this time tying it tighter.
By 10:30am I was back on the road. The bike felt much better now that I was no longer carrying a spare tyre. Now it was all business. I refuelled and turned off the main northern highway just before Darkhan, at midday. Again I just had a gaping filler neck at the back. I needed a better solution than elastic bands. I opened a pannier and took out a spare Touratech strap (that had been used for the tyre holding duties but was now unemployed) and found some plastic by the roadside. I strapped it tightly and firmly down over the filler neck. This cant come off now.
I was on asphalt all day so far, and cruised into the big mining city of Erdenet about 2pm. I refuelled and headed into the centre of town for lunch. I was making good time. I didn’t have the details with me but reckoned I had 200 km to go to my target for the day, Moron. I found a pizza joint and grabbed my maps and went inside. While I waited for my pepperoni pizza, I consulted my maps and realised I had badly miscalculated. Moron was still 420 km away. I had less than 100 km of asphalt left. Damn … that’s at least 6 hours of riding … assuming it was all daylight. I didn’t have 6 hours of daylight left. So it will be more than 6 hours. I kicked myself for taking it too easy that morning. I had been cruising along, stopping to take loads of pictures. Stopping at several shops for refreshments, taking my time with the tyre change … even coming into town for a pizza. If only I had known!
I was tempted to wolf down the pizza when it came, run to the bike and charge off. But the pizza looked good. Surprisingly good for Mongolia. I decided to savour the pizza. I would get to Moron when I got there. I wouldn’t get pizza like this there, that’s for sure.
It was 3pm when I left Erdenet. First stop was 200 km down the road at Khutag Ondor … I decided I would grab some fuel there. Then press on. When the asphalt ran out I was disappointed. The earthen roads were not like in most parts of Mongolia, large open fast sections where 100 km/h and more is possible. They were twisty turny churned up sections, where it was difficult to do more than 70 km/h. It was rugged county here and I stopped often for photographs. I wasn’t planning to stop for any pics when I left Erdenet … but the scenery compelled me to stop every now and again and shoot it.
I refuelled at Khutag Ondor and pulled out of town at 5:30 pm. It was still 225km from here to Moron. At 60 km/h that would be nearly 4 hours. Darkness will come about 8:30 … actually maybe 15 – 30 mins later now that I am a fair was West of UB. I would have at least half an hour in darkness … maybe more.
The scenery was spectacular, but I had a new problem. The sun was setting in my face. Dead ahead. I was squinting severely for over 2 hours. By the end of it, I could barely hold my eyelids open. The eyelid muscles were all crapped out. Its dangerous riding into the sun when you are riding against the clock. There is no detail. No contrast, no colour. Many times I whacked into large rocks, or sudden dips that I hadn’t seen till the last minute. I was grateful for the A60 rim. If the rim survives today, its an amazing piece of hardware.
The sun dipped behind the mountains about 8:15pm … I still had 80km to go, and only about 30 minutes left of daylight. With about 40 km to go, it was dark. I switch my second headlight on and stared ahead into the wide pool of light, with terrain rushing past me at 60 km/h. 10 minutes later I realised I was off track. 3km off track. I had been staring into the pool of light too intensely and not checking my GPS. Damn. It was time for an adventure. Between me and the correct track 3km away was a small mountain range. I decided to go direct over it … in the dark. The things you do for kicks in Mongolia. It took me a good 10 -15 minutes to get back to the road, and I have to say it was probably not the smartest decision I ever made, going cross country over the mountains, 40 km from the nearest town, in the dark.
I cruised into Moron at 9:30pm, the last 6-7km were even asphalt … woo hoo!. It had been a huge day. Just under 800 km (500 miles). In the very centre of town I found a hotel … called the 50 – 100. Moron is about 50 degrees North and 100 degrees East. I grabbed a room, had a shower, then took my laptop into the restaurant for beef and beer … it had been yet another day where the last few hours all I had been thinking was … “mate, you have earned the beers that will come at the end of today!”
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After the huge day on the bike yesterday, I decided I deserved a sleep in. I didn’t get out of bed till 9am … then sauntered into the breakfast room. I came back to the room and blogged a bit. By the time I had eaten, packed up, gone to the bank, loaded up the bike and then refuelled it was 11:30am. I didn’t have too much in the way of targets today. After yesterday, I was going to take it easy for a day.
The first 50 km seemed like hard work. I thought at this rate I will struggle to do 250 km today, but as my brain slowly started to wake up, the speed picked up and so did the aggression in the riding. I stopped for lunch at 2:30, having done a little over 200km at a place called Tsetserleg. I had stayed the night at a different Tsetserleg last year. There are a lot of Tsetserlegs in Mongolia. Names tend to be reused a lot. Decent octane fuel was proving hard to come by. I threw 5 litres of 80 octane in the tank at Tsetserleg and I would have to put more 80 in a bit further into the day too.
Over lunch I took a look at my maps … Baruunturuun seemed like an optimistic target. It was still 300 kilometres away though. As a back up I though Tes or even Bayantes would do if progress was slow.
Again it was a day of great scenery. This northern route across Mongolia weaves its way in and out of mountain ranges and while it’s a lot harder going than the simpler southern route, the scenery is worth the speed tradeoff.
I managed to get off track again today. Despite having the best possible map of Mongolia in paper form, and probably the best GPS maps of Mongolia, they are still only partially accurate. If they are both inaccurate in the same place, then there is nothing accurate to go by. There is one rod marked on both the atlas and my GPS that I swear doesn’t exist at all. So I couldn’t take it then, could I. I did so freelance navigation for about 60 km … just following tracks that went roughly where I wanted them to go, till I reached a town. From the town I was on a known route and normal service resumed.
Despite the one getting lost incident, progress was generally good, and I managed to average about 70 km/h … which on some of the roads today was very good progress. The sun went down soon after 8pm, and I was only 30 km from Baruunturuun . I made it into town in the twilight. By the time I went searching for a hotel it was dark. I found a guesthouse of sorts, for 5 quid a night, had a meal cooked up for me and sat back with a couple of Jalan Khar beers.
I woke early and relaxed at about 7:30 and began working on the blog and fotos. The border post was just 500 yards away and I would be ready to roll and on the bike in 15-20 minutes. I figured I would work for 2 hours and then get ready for the border. At 8:40 I got up to take a slash and realised, while all the clocks in the house were completely out of sync, there was enough to make me think my watch might not be telling me the right time. I found Misha, my skinny host, and asked him what time zone we were in. He confirmed we were an hour ahead of Irkutsk time here. That meant it was now 9:45. I didn’t want to waste time so needed to be at the border at 10:00 … damn … time to wake up properly, fly into action, and get the bike all packed up and down to the border.
I was the first and only vehicle at the Russian checkpoint. A different bunch of guys came out to talk to me, but they knew I was the English motorcyclist. Word travels fast in a village of 300 people. A senior chap came out and asked for my passport. He explained there was a quarantine problem on the Mongolian side of this border and they might not let any foreigners in. He took my passport away and said he will go and talk to the Mongolians and see what they say. Until then I must continue to wait outside the border area.
It was after 11am when he returned. I was expecting the worst. I was expecting him to say “nope – they aren’t playing ball today” … but he just gave my passport back to me, and yelled at the gate people to let me in to the processing area. It took and hour on each side to get through, and the hour I spent with the Russians was taken up with lots of chit chat. I asked a lot about the border traffic. I asked about foreigners using it. He said they get up to half dozen or so a year. Almost all cyclists and 4WD guys. I asked about motorcycles … he said a Russian from Vladivostok came thru this post come time ago, arriving from Mongolia. I asked about foreigners on motorbikes … he stopped and thought, then yelled over to check with a colleague … “nope, no other foreigners on bikes – just you.”
I was a little surprised, but not completely. So many foreigners come to Mongolia each year on bikes, but basically only use 2 of the border crossings – Tsagaannuur in the far west and Altanbulag in the north. Why no-one ventures out this way is a bit unknown. I had never heard of anyone going to north eastern Mongolia on a bike, nor seen any pictures, so I had wondered if anyone had used that border crossing before with a bike. Now I knew.
Once I was thru on the Mongolian side, it was 1pm. I headed into the border village of Ereentsav (Chuluunkhoroot) to refuel and stock up on water. The Mongolian border village was larger and livelier than the Russian one. I made my way south along double track ruts but my progress was halted 20 km out of town by a roadblock. How can you have a roadblock in Mongolia you ask? Well it’s not easy … but they had picked the spot well. A railway crossing. The only place where the various tracks converge. They asked for my passport and I handed it over. I was quite angry when they kept it.
None of the group of 6-7 people there spoke even the faintest Russian or English – I was totally in the dark as to what was going on, but they weren’t going to let me continue on. Eventually I understood it was something to do with the quarantine zone. Despite a very poor mobile signal here, a call had been made and jeep full of cops were on their way out. Eventually the cops arrived and told me I had to go back to Chuluunhoroot / Ereentsav. I tried to ask what will happen then, will I be given a new route. But the answer was vague. The cops took my passport off the roadblock guys and I mounted the bike and headed back to Ereentsav with the cops in the jeep following behind.
Back at the police station at Ereentsav, they brought in a Russian speaker who explained the situation – that for normal traffic the road of temporarily closed as part of the quarantine programme. I asked where I can go … how do I move forward. The cops had a long discussion and then said they will allow me to go down the road to Choibalsan, but the bike, my clothes and I must undergo the full disinfection programme back at the roadblock. That will take about an hour. I agreed, and they wrote me out my permission slip and sent me on my way.
Back at the roadblock, the guys were waiting for me, all suited up in chemical suits and boots. They told me where to park the bike then I had to strip down to my boxer shorts and t-shirt. All the clothes and boots went into some fumigation tent, I was given some penicillin mouthwash and had to wash my hands in alcohol. The bike was sprayed all over with whatever it is they spray. Then I had to wait. 40 minutes.
By the time it was all done, it was almost 4pm, and I was still only 20km from the border. The next main town (pretty much the next town full stop) was Choibalsan, 200 km away, across narrow, grassy double track. The sun would be gone by 7:30. I would make it, but my plans of making it to Ondoorhaan (my plan when I woke up in the morning) would be out of the question. It was 320 km further on from Choibalsan. So I decided to take it easy and just cruise into Choibalsan for the evening.
Twice more I passed these quarantine checkpoints. I showed them my new letter from the police at Ereentsav and was let though with a quick disinfection of the bikes tyres.
I got into Choibalsan early than I expected – soon after 6pm. I briefly considered continuing on and consulted my maps. But there was nowhere to stay between here and Ondoorhaan and in anycase, it would be pointless. I wanted to get to Ulaanbaatar (UB) tomorrow, and it was 700km from here – a nice days ride. I refuelled, and in the centre of town found a hotel. It had a shower, garage, breakfast and free internet for the princely sum of 12 pounds a night. I grabbed it, showered and headed across the main square to the “Stream Pub” a smart looking establishment that was bound to have beer and food. It was a nice new place with fun staff.
I slowly filled myself up with Mongolian beer “Jalan Khar” and blogged the evening away. Mongolian beer can be quite punchy – Jalan Khar was tasty but at 5.8%, a couple of half litre bottles at the end of a hot day does the job!
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I left Choibalsan in no hurry. Of the 700 km to UB, 320km (to Ondoorhaan) was earth … but as a ‘road’ between cities, this one should be wider, faster and have much more traffic than the tiny track to the border village of Ereentsav yesterday. After Ondoorhaan it should be asphalt for the last 370km to UB. After 125 km I was stopped … another quarantine checkpoint. I pulled out my papers and they asked for my documents. I handed over my International Driving Permit. That seemed to satiate them. Then they said I can not go further. What??
Another car came along with a passenger who spoke some English. While they were having their car disinfected, the passenger translated for me – apparently my letter only mentioned I had permission to transit the quarantine zone as far as Choibalsan. The cops who wrote it hadn’t written UB on it, and so the bureaycrats were now insisting I go back to Choibalsan to get a new piece of paper.
I exploded. When I calmed down I suggested they just call the officials in Choibalsan, and get them to grant me permission over the phone to continue on. They grabbed a mobile phone and made some calls. I couldn’t understand what was happening. But they assured me it would not take long, so I waited. And waited ,,, and waited … Every half an hour they would make another call have an animated discussion in Mongolian. Everytime a passer by who spoke English passed thru the checkpoint (also about every half an hour) I asked for an update … it was always, “we are just waiting for the call and the permission.” Should be soon, but they don’t know exactly when.
After 3 hours of wasting prime riding daylight, a jeep with two British tourists pulled up, with a guide who spoke perfect English. The Brits said what I had been thinking for over 2 hours now. That I feign to ride back to Choibalsan, then 10km down the road just make a detour around the checkpoint. The guide convinced the authorities to give me back my papers and I headed back in the direction of Choibalsan. I was over a ridge and out of sight after about 7km. I stopped and thought. It will take me 3 hours to go back to Choibalsan and return to this point. I will be given permission to continue. It was just a bureaucratic exercise to cover everyone’s arse. As if a piece of paper issued in Choibalsan reduces the risk of spreading foot and mouth disease more than a phone call and approval over the phone. On the other hand, the quarantine zone is jointly manned and controlled by the police. If I was going to make a detour around, it had to be far enough away that the policeman at the checkpoint did not see me. The last thing I needed was to be on the run from the Mongolian police.
I decided to risk it, and headed north, into the hills. I was not going back to Choibalsan. I still had over 550 km to cover and it was now 2pm. There would be checkpoints ahead too. I had to think where they might be and avoid them. The information I had gleaned is that there were no more checkpoints after Ondoorhaan. That was outside the quarantine zone.
I made Ondoorhaan by 5pm, having skirted what I suspect was only one further checkpoint. I refuelled in Ondoorhaan and hit the asphalt road to UB, arriving in UB at 8:30pm just as the daylight had passed into darkness.
My first stop in UB was Steppenfuchs (Fox of the Steppes). Mr Steppenfuchs (aka Vait Scholz) is a German guy who runs motorbike tours out of UB. He also sells tyres – he is he Mefo distributor in Mongolia … though he is his own main customer. I had left Irkutsk 4 days earlier carrying Sherri Jo’s old front and rear tyres. My plan had been to use my Desert / T63 tyres as far as the Mongolian border – using them up on the Russian asphalt – then switch to SJs old Desert and T63 for the run across Mongolia. That plan was changed 2 hours into the ride when on a snack stop in a village on the south side of Lake Baikal I noticed the front tyre had strayed too close to my exhaust and now had a damaged spot in the sidewall. I don’t like using damaged tyres … if I don’t have full confidence in the tyre its very hard to ride aggressively – I would be riding nervously waiting for something bad to happen. And if something bad happened, then I would have no back up. So I ditched the damaged T63 in the village and continued on with just the Desert rear. I knew I could get Mefo knobbly tyres in UB and as far as I was concerned, the main tyre I specifically wanted was the Michelin Desert rear anyway. I can’t say enough positive things about them. This is THE Mongolia tyre. Sherri Jo told me early in our time together she was glad I had suggested Desert rear tyres … as she had just been reading Chris Scott’s Adventure Motorcycling handbook, and Chris raves about them too – the Michelin Desert is (and I quote) “the real deal”.
So I pulled up at the garage that houses Steppenfuchs bikes and spoke to one of his Mongolian mechanics working on a car in the yard. They said Vait isn’t around now and wouldn’t be in till midday tomorrow. Damn … I took a look at my front tyre … the T63 was amazingly in pretty good shape. It had done over 7000 km since being fitted in London on the way to the shippers. There was certainly enough tread depth to handle the light sand on these Mongolian tracks. My rear needed replacing – but I had the spare for that and could fit it tomorrow morning. I decided to go away and think about it.
I popped round the corner to the Oasis Guest House. I have never stayed there but I know a lot of bikers do. The owners are missionaries – a bit too much religion for my liking. There were no bikes in the parking lot. So I decided to move on. No point staying here … its out on the edge of UB and you need a cab to get anywhere. I know a good place right in the centre of town where everything, bars, restaurants, internet etc is all within 100 – 200 yards. I stayed there with Tiffany Coates last year. After battling through UB traffic, I made it to Nassan’s guest house, and remembered the other reason I like this place … it cost me the princely sum of 6 quid for the night including secure parking.
I jumped straight into the shower. I do most of my thinking in the shower. I pondered the tyre dilemma. I decided my T63 front was good enough. I will change my rear tyre for the Desert I was carrying on the road tomorrow. I must leave UB early enough to avoid the worst of the traffic. UB traffic is a nightmare these days and worse every year. With the key decisions made, I grabbed the laptop and headed down to Broadway Pizza, just around the corner. They have good food and wi-fi connection.
I had a steak, washed down with loads of Jalan Khar and Borgio … another Mongolian beer. After today I deserved those beers. Come to think of it, every day since leaving Irkutsk I have really earned the beers.
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 …