July 06, 2008 GMT
Rain, mud and Mongolian Biffo

29 June to 4 July 08

Closing up on the Mongolian frontier the day before we crossed allowed us to be second in line when the gates opened. We were feeling confident that we would be through and on our way to Ulaanbaatar in an hour at the most.

Five hours later, with both of us feeling dehydrated in the summer heat, the last gate was opened and a bored guard wished us welcome to Mongolia. If our two and a half hour effort to get into Russia was a black comedy, our exit had all of the style of a Greek tragedy including a chorus of Russian border clerks.

The “problem” was that the entry document for Elephant was only issued for a period of two weeks and we been in the country for a month. Since it was written in Russian we had no way of knowing that it was different from our three-month visas and three-month bike insurance! Our failure to pick up this clerical error was, of course, a heinous crime for which we had to pay. There was nothing else for it but to buy a table for 10 at the Policeman's Ball.

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As soon as we were clear of the dusty border village, we needed a quick “pit” stop but where are the trees?

An easy run down to the capital Ulaanbaatar gave us a chance to cool down as we climbed up to 1500 metres. We had done no preparation for our visit to Mongolia but had no trouble changing some money, finding a good, reasonably priced hotel, and getting ourselves well fed. Fortunately, there was no cabbage soup on the menu!

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This huge statue of Genghis Khan adorns the front of the Parliament building.

Mongolia is a vast country (about one sixth the size of Australia) but with only 2 million people. More than one million of these live in Ulaanbaatar leaving the remainder of the country short of urban centres. UB is a dusty (or muddy) crush of humanity that is full of energy and a little shambolic. Long term readers of this blog would conclude that it is our type of town!

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There is a good level of development underway in Ulaanbaatar but the city still needs considerable investment.

Walking back to our hotel after dinner one evening we noticed a sign for the Mongolian Harley Club Bar and Grill. When we spotted a couple of bikes we went to investigate. We found one guy who spoke some English, and another who spoke German, and explained why we were in UB. Within a minute we were inside the bar drinking beer with a bunch of Mongolian bikers and swapping our stories.

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I am sure they paid a licence fee to use this design!

One fellow turned out to be a superintendent of traffic police who gave us his mobile number as a get-out -of-gaol card. Another ran emergency coordination at the airport, played nice guitar and sang sad Mongolian songs.

The policeman had spent three years studying in East Germany, an experience he hated. He had been beaten by Neo-Nazi skin heads and been at the back end of some pretty bad discrimination.

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Mongolian skin-heads are not noted for their violence.

The following day we took the bike out to ride around the sights and ran into Emil and Wolfgang, the two German BMW riders we had met in Irkutsk. They were on their way to the Russian Embassy to try to sort some visa problem. Later we walked past the Russian compound and found a group of Polish guys on a range of bikes who were trying to sort out their Russian visa problems. A pattern was starting to emerge!

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Peter the Pole gave Mike some good information on the condition of some key roads. These guys had found the going tough.

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We decided not to complain about how the Elephant looks fully loaded after seeing these set-ups.

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Peter and Robert exchange information with Mike.

On the afternoon of 1 July, we were walking back from the central market when we saw a large demonstration underway in the central city area. Having always taken the view that there is nothing as pathetic as an innocent bystander, we passed by on the other side of the road and didn't stop to investigate. The cause of the demonstration was dissatisfaction with the results of a recent general election.

An hour later, while we were having dinner, the demonstration turned ugly and then degenerated into a riot. The authorities were caught flat footed and by the time police reinforcements were on the scene the headquarters of the ruling party was on fire along with the Modern Art Gallery.

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The burnt-out headquarters of the ruling political party the morning after the riot.

In the end, five people were killed and about 300 injured. The government declared a four day state of emergency including a 2200 hr curfew and put troops on the streets. It was all a day late and a dollar short and, to make matters worse, a ban on the sale of alcohol was included for good measure.

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Unfortunately, the Modern Art Gallery was also damaged in the riot and some valuable manuscripts were lost.

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The city was locked down at the start of the four day State of Emergency. There were lots of soldiers, but they looked as though they weren't sure what they were supposed to be doing.

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The western media turned a few burnt out cars into “streets lined with burnt out cars”!

We kept ourselves safe and out of harm's way throughout all of this, but one bright spot was a phone call we received from the Australian Consulate in Beijing. They just rang to check we were OK. We thought it was a good service and well worth the effort of filling in the on-line registration form to let them know our rough itinerary.

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We were not sure what the locals made of these dramatic events but there did not seem to be the level of discussion and self examination that accompanied, for example, the Cronulla Riots in Sydney two years ago. Considering five people died, we were surprised that the events were off the TV and out of the papers after 24 hours.

Throughout this time we got some reasonable intelligence on the road conditions for bikes in the areas in which we were interested and confirmed that the route we planned was possible two up on our heavy bike. What we couldn't confirm was that the Russians would let us back in through the remote border post we were considering. This posed a significant problem as we would not have the time to retrace our route if we were unable to get through.

After the bad experiences we have had at every turn with Russian bureaucracy, we reasoned it might be better to reenter Russia through the main crossing. This would short-change our Mongolian side-trip, but getting Elephant stuck in Mongolia didn't seem like a good idea either. While all of this was going on, the skies opened and we had two days of torrential rain turning the city to mud.

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Even within the city, many people live in a Ger. With a stove in the middle and well insulated with thick felt, they allow the seasonally nomadic herdsmen to follow the grass. I loved this one because of the satellite disc outside.

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Horses grazing on the steppe is a classic Mongolian image. With a large percentage of the population still engaged in nomadic grazing, horses are still central to Mongolian life.

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Mongolian cowboys. Heavy grazing during the short growing season ensures that the landscape remains barren and trees in short supply.

In the end, it was the state of emergency that did for Mongolia. Two more days without a cold beer was just out of the question. Elephant was packed and pointed back up the road towards Russia. By mid-afternoon we were though the frontier and enjoying a late lunch of cabbage soup. Yum! You don't know how lucky you are boys. Back in the....

Posted by Mike Hannan at 04:41 AM GMT

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