- back to friendly people and decent food again - the perfect antedote to Russia
- grasslands and glowing sunlight
- all the dirt riding you could dream about
- a mixture of medieval and modern
Entry into mongolia
After the fraught exit from Russia, the Mongolian border was easy, and we met up with Simon and Monika just at a cafe in the border town.
And as we rode out of town - bliss - we are instantly met by smiling horsemen riding out from gers (felt tents). So nice to be welcomed again.
The delay at the border meant that the ride to Ulaan Baataar (I'll call it UB from now on!!) would have to wait for the next day. We scrounged some water from a small farmstead and looked for a place to camp.
Mongolia is a land without fences run on nomadic principles. So in theory nobody owns any land and you can drive, camp or graze your animals anywhere you like. Mongolia is one giant campsite!! Excellent. And more importantly for our trip, the grasslands have been pounded flat for centuries by animal hooves, and there is too little rain to allow tussocky grass to grow. The result is grassland that is smooth enough to ride a motorbike on, and is easy to put tent-pegs in!
We were also to discover that our fears about water and petrol shortages were unfounded.
We could always get water from a river or a well, or at a stretch scrounge some from a ger. And the big petrol tank we had fitted was only necessary for peace of mind over a couple of long rides and for supplying fuel for the petrol stove when we camped away from civilisation for a week or so.
Next day was the run-in to UB and we set off happily. We were all enjoying the new road linking Russia to UB and the other Simon was enjoying riding to the top of various hills along the route.
VERY good friends before a bust-up
Then it all went horribly wrong. The other Simon mentioned that he'd really like to ride cross-country to UB and then took off on the dirt, apparently following the road as he had been doing for some time. So Georgie, Monika and I rode on a little way then waited for him to appear while we watched a herd of horses all trying to shelter from the sun under a small bridge. 20 minutes passed with no sign of Simon N. Monika rode back the 5kms to the last point we saw him. He was nowhere to be seen and she was distraught. I left Georgie with Monika and rode back to track him across the fields (surprisingly easy on soft grass). His trails lead further and further from the road, and they took a sharp turn south. I tapped "go to UB" into my GPS (it has the same software as the GPS on Simon N's bike) and it was clear that the silly bugger was really off cross-country to UB.
His trail made it to a dirt track that pointed straight towards UB and it was obvious that I wasn't going to catch up with him given a 40 minutes head start and his faster and less loaded bike.
So I headed back to the girls to propose we all follow him in case he had an accident - not really out of compassion but more because it would require us to ride back 300kms if we were to launch a rescue attempt. But the girls had discussed it and the verdict was "sod him
- we'll wait for him in UB". I was really pissed off with how irresponsible he'd been on a team run. He'd set off with no map (so he didn't know that there was a huge mountain range in his way and he'd not make it to U B off-road), no passport, no contingency plan incase he didn't show up. And poor old Monika was left in an embarrassing position with us. Our plan to travel around Mongolia as a team goes out of the window - it was going to be difficult enough for us to ride the fully loaded bike, without towing along a loose cannon as well.
An hour later we saw 2 touring cyclists coming towards us, and as usual we stopped to tal to them. They told us that Simon N stopped to talk to them too and he planned to wait for us in the main square in UB.
The scene was pretty ugly when we eventually met up and the tension never really subsided after that. But we all ended up in a guesthouse in the centre of UB - 300 metres from the parliament building - and for just $16 a night for 2 people - which other capital in the world could you do that in?
And so the holiday in Mongolia was back firmly in our hands - which was a relief, as it was the country that I really wanted to visit and I wasn't going to compromise on this one!
The next few days were spent enjoying UB, eating good food - it has lots of different international restaurants including superb, cheap chinese cafes. Most things were cheaper than Russia and the people were far, far friendlier. Friends who had previously been to UB told us that there seemed to be "no good people in UB" but we found the complete opposite.
UB and Mongolia have a real sense of their own personality. The whole nation is proud of it's history, and the name and face of Chingis Khan are everywhere. He is a real local hero and appears on macho things like beer and vodka bottles.
The language was a shock - Mongolia uses cyrillic so we thought we'd be OK with our experience of Russian. However, Mongolia uses completely different words to Russia, so we could read all of the signs but we could not understand any of them - bugger!
The roads in UB are full of mad drivers and are particularly dangerous for pedestians - crossing points seem to be simply to tell drivers "you may encounter slow obstacles here".
Mongolia is one of the best places in the world to find dinosaur fossils - it is where "velocoraptors" were first found. So the dinosaur collection in the Natural History Museum should have been a highlight. In fact it is full of good fossils but only if you have some idea of what you're looking at. Putting mammoth bones (10 thousand years old) in the same cabinet as to brontosaurus bones (65 million years old) really doesn't give the public an accurate view of history.
We worked out a plan for a 2 week trip to the west of UB and spent $40 on 6 of the best maps available. But at 1:250,000 they were still 10 times less detailed than those we use for dirt riding at home - interesting times ahead!
Before we left from England, we had contacted the British Embassy in UB about visas regulations and they told us to pop in for Friday night drinks at the Embassy. So hey we went got to go "to the ambassador's reception" - no Ferrero Rocher chocs to eat but there was no need to wear black tie and there were lots of interesting people to talk to. One bloke told us about the environmental problems that have come about since the collapse of the Soviet command economy - a lot of Mongolian lost their jobs in the towns and decided to become nomads again - and the sudden increase in animals grazing the land is really messing up the countryside.
We finally got to fit the spare rear tyre that we had been towing around Central Asia for 3 months - no more tying it to the side of the pannier. Its semi-knobbly tread would give us a load of grip - we just had to hope that the road tyre on the front would give enough grip to steer all the power we'd be putting down.
We only had a vague idea about how bad the roads would be outside of UB, so the plan we sketched out gave a number of options. We would head out west and aim to do a big (3000km) loop. But if the roads were to be too rough, we could cut out large chumks of the trip and either return the way we had come, or maybe cut across country.
West out of UB there is a pretty decent road. About 100kms out the weather turned sour, so we took refuge in the lee of a large, deserted-looking shed while we got into our waterproofs. To our surprise a woman popped out of the shed and insisted that we come inside to get warm. We chatted to her in Russian and sign language and she explained that the rest of the family were away in a ger and she was at home sewing up a new coat whilst brewing vodka from horses milk - would we like some? Out came two teacups full of the homebrew (poured from a fanta bottle). Hmm, tastes of cheese, as might be expected of vodka brewed from milk, and not the nicest drink we've ever had. We took a few sips and then excused ourselves explaining that we needed our balance for the bike!
Our first stop was Kharkorin - the place where Chinggis Khan had his capital and the current home of a Buddhist monestery which is just getting going again after the Russians left. Camping next to the river where "the great man" had once camped was really atmospheric - he had a good eye for a nice spot.
The next day we attended a ceremony at the monestery - it was our introduction to the religion and left us pretty confused. The ceremony took an hour - one monk chanted from a holy book while other monks did their own own thing and the young apprentice monks messed around from their pews (like kids do during any religious ceremony).
But most confusing was the local public who wandered in, chatted, bought incense and generally turned the temple into a public concourse. And the head monk seemed to be part shopkeeper and part cafe owner as he sold stuff to the public and handed out butter tea and pine-nuts to the other monks. There was little reverence and little atmosphere - we didn't really understand it - we have more work to do to get in touch with Buddhism!
Off west again and finally we had run out of road - no more roads for a couple of weeks.
After a night camping high on a hill, where we were visited by a lonely goat-herd (really) we headed towards Tsetserleg - the local regional capital. Crossing a bridge we were confronted by the sight of locals fishing and very successfully too! This was too good an opportunity to miss so we got out the fishing gear (which had previously only caught small 2 fish in the entire trip) and gave them a proper work-out. The river was full of greyling that were "smallish but worth eating" and all seemed to be suicidal. So we caught about 20 and kept the biggest 10. The locals were also pulling them out the silly little fish, but one scruffy looking kid was pulling out whoppers - about 4 kilos each. The first time he pulled one out I redoubled my efforts to attract a big one to the fly lures on my line, but when he pulled out a second - I thought that I ought to investigate the lure he was using. But no lure for him, just a bloody great grappling hook (about 8cms across) made from bent wire! He'd rest the hook on the river bed and wait for a big fish to swim over it and then YANK LIKE MAD to foul-hook the fish clean out of the water. A very effective cheat! I'll have to remember that technique for when I'm really hungry.
Back on the road into Tsetserleg where the first stop was at a cafe that is run by a British couple and serves up the sort of nosh you'd get in a tea-shop in England. Steak sandwich and chips, followed by cinnamon buns, all eaten while reading trainspotting magazines and
Womens Weekly. I have to admit the scenes of trains puffing their way through autumnal British countryside brought a tear to my eye - the first pang of homesickness on the trip. All very bizarre, especially walking out from that little piece of England into the dusty streets lined with tatty wooden shacks.
To the market to stock up on provisions and to investigate the skins being sold by various traders outside the market. And there - just what we were looking for - the skin from a fat marmot, so fresh that the pads on the poor buggers feet were still soft. At $4 the hunter made a good sale and we got a (somewhat smelly) bargain.
The road out of town was under repair so we had to follow a diversion up the side of a steep valley, over a road that had been so boggy at some point that the locals had paved the surface with small logs - good fun on a loaded bike. Later we dropped down to the side of a river and Georgie fried up the suicidal fish to be eaten with boiled potatoes. For the first time we had managed to catch our supper.
Next morning we had a long stretch ahead of us. Well in fact it was only about 140kms, but it took us about 8 hours to ride because of the poor roads. And whoops we fell off (riding through a ditch to get off a seriously bumpy track) and broke the pannier rack again. Luckily we had enough webbing straps to hold the luggage together, but we would need to get the rack welded up pretty soon.
And so to Tsagan Nuur - a beautiful, remote lake at about 1900m above sea-level. The lake was formed when a volcano erupted 300 years ago and a lava flow choked the river. At one end is a poxy little town where the shops sell a few provisions but no eggs ("there are no chickens in Mongolia"). We picked a place to camp up a small side valley overlooking the lake. We shared the valley with a group of gers and their herds of yaks, sheep and horses.
The next 5 days were spent around that camp. We watched yak-trains pulling medieval carts (with massive wooden wheels made with mortice and tenon joints), and the comings and goings of the livestock. The local kids came up to to visit us (at some considerable length!!) and later they brought their parents and older siblings up too.
Sometimes it was really difficult to do private things like having a pee or having a wash because there was always someone hanging around wanting to see what the crazy foreigners were up to. Lots of tea was shared and pictures of home shown.
We discovered that super-dry Mongolian dust really fouls up plastic zips - every day one or two zips would get derailed and me to shout obcenities at them for 10 minutes. I found that the application of vaseline only made things worse - it just cemented the dust into the zips' teeth! Dry graphite from a pencil is better.
One day we arranged for a local to take us out horse riding. The horses were pretty docile compared to the frisky beasts we had ridden in Kyrgyzstan, but that was not too bad a thing as the saddles were the traditional Mongolian jobs, made from wood, with a high front and back - probably one of the least comfortable ways of travelling that has ever been invented. The best part of the horse ride was bumping into one of the gers folk who had visited us a few nights previously. He was cutting and collecting wood using a yak and cart. A little bit of gentle persuasion and a couple of polaroid photos later and we were allowed to ride the yak. It was a fantastic beast - hairy, broad and sweaty.
At the end of the ride we were invited into the family ger, and given tea. Then we got the opportunity to show off a bit - the ger owner offered me snuff from an ornate little bottle. This is a tradition that we had heard of before so we were ready. I pulled out my ornate snuff bottle (bought in UB) and exchanged it with the correct hand-shake. He was astounded that a tourist got the etiquette correct, and even more so when he offered snuff to Georgie and she
replied with snuff from her antique snuff bottle!
One night we decided to ride over to the volcano across the valley. It was a like a geology field-trip. We rode over ropey pahoehoe lavas, past gnarley Ah-Ah flows, through fields strewn with magma bombs and across trails crushed into the pumice. Everything looked very fresh and uneroded, which testifies to the lack of rainfall in
Mongolia. We walked up to the caldera along a path lined with blue
prayer scarves and later shared some "Yak-brand" vodka and tinned fish with some locals who were out honouring the volcano.
The day came when we knew that we had to try to get the pannier rack fixed - we reckoned that the town would have someone with a welding set, as the roads were wrecking local vehicles as well as foreign ones. 2 hours later, having followed up 4 red-hot leads, there was no welding kit to be seen - everybody pointed to a place called Gagnoor, about 55kms away - a serious ride with the rack broken in 3 places. So we decided on another approach - BODGE IT!
Two of our red-hot leads had taken us up to a group of road workers who were building a concrete bridge over a dried up river. There was a load of concrete reinforcing rod hanging around so we went up to scrounge some of the 12mm stuff which I thought would make a really good splint for the inside of the tubular pannier rack. And indeed it did fit nicely. But how to cut it into the right lengths? I had a junior hacksaw in my kit, but that would have been hard work, so I asked the roadcrew to cut us some off - they agreed to and I expected them to get out an angle grinder or a set of bolt-cutters. Nope - out with a big hammer and a piece of flat steel (from a leaf spring).
The rod to be cut was laid across the thin edge of the flat steel - 4 good whacks from a sledgehammer - one neatly cut piece of rod! Great technology! I got them to cut 5 pieces of metal and then headed back up to the campsite.
The next stage was to bend the rod to the correct curve (using a hard rock and a rocky outcrop) and then the splints were glued with epoxy resin inside the broken tubes. Finally the rack was tensioned with bootlaces cut from the 93 metres of bootlace we bought in Istanbul (yes we're still working our way through it). Hey presto - a really strong pannier rack repaired with a mixture of stone-age and space age technology.
We were ready for the next stage of the trip. Packing up we realised how much space we suddenly had, as we'd eaten most of the food that we'd brought along. As we suspected the original route that we'd planned was too ambicious, especially as the tracks were still getting worse as we got even further from UB. So we decided head back a bit and then cut across country to the south towards a place Bayankongor, on the edge of the Gobi desert. It would take us 3 or 4 days to get there, but it would be silly to come to Mongolia and not see and ride the Gobi.
But first back to Tsetserleg, via the famous (but notably "not on the
map") Gagnoor. After 3 hours riding we arrived and found that place was just a couple of shacks, a couple of gers and a road construction yard with a welding kit flaring away. The pannier rack seemed to be holding up very well so we decided not to get the welding done there but instead press onto Tsetserleg after getting some food in one of the gers that had set itself up as a Guanz (cafe). Big plates of noodles and mutton - very tasty, filling and most importantly solid enough to stay in your stomach when you're getting thrown around on the Mongolian roads.
Next day we arrived in Tsetserleg and while Georgie stocked up on food again, I went to get the rack welded. And the place I was directed to was called Gagnoor - a road construction yard at the edge of town! So obviously Gagnoor is the Mongolian name for road depot! No wonder the other Gagnoor was not on the map!
$4.50 and an hour later the pannier rack was strong enough to support a Chieftain tank. Back to the British cafe for beef in beer followed by carrot cake - to hell with the silly notion that you should only eat local food while you're travelling!
Off towards Bayankongor - a 2 day trek over a mountain range that is not described in any of the guide-books. A bit of a gamble as the road might be impassible or the countryside might be ugly, but at least we would have seen parts of Mongolia that most tourists would not have been near.
Instantly the roads were less well sign-posted and we really had to study the maps hard to find our way. All the small tracks looked equally unofficial and the small off-valleys all looked similar. There was no-one around to ask directions so we settled down to using the GPS to find our way.
When we set-up camp that evening I decided to use the GPS to prepare a detailed route so that we could do the next day's trip without constantly refering to the map. I reckon it took an hour to input the route and it saved us about 6 hours over the next 2 days
The next day dawned and we set off up valleys not knowing what to expect. The route that we'd picked from the map seemed to be wandering up and down the side of valleys for no apparent reason, sometimes heading in the general direction of Bayankongor, sometimes going in a completely illogical direction. But the map and GPS bearing always tied up with the map so we pressed on. It was a glorious feeling, like just drifting around with no real aim, and always being lucky enough to find a trail that would take us roughly in the right direction.
The trails became more committing, with serious ascents and descents, and the valleys contained deep gravelly river crossings. Each ford had to be rekkied on foot (wet feet for 2 days) to find a stretch without huge boulders or deep pools. All would have been a blast on a light dirt bike, but a fully loaded big trailie was more serious.
The first crossing was only attempted because a local guy on a horse (herding about 20 other horses across the river) told us that he takes his Eesh motorbike across - so we did it too. The next crossing saw us get the rear wheel bogged down. Lots of wheel spin, Georgie pulling on the front wheel and a bit of swearing got us out.
I suspect that it was that crossing which bent a number of spokes and tore one spoke out of the rear wheel. There were certainly a few rocks jammed in between the spokes when we finished!
The valley rose and we did more river crossings. We passed a few lonely gers and their herds. And then we started slithering up tracks crushed into the gravel of dried out river-beds.
Finally at the head of the valleys we saw a fearsome sight - a line of snow covered mountains that we would have to cross. We were already cold, wet and tired, and it was getting late in the afternoon, so we would have to get over these hills quickly if we were to avoid a really cold and miserable camp. Luckily the Mongolian authorities had spent a large part of their small road maintenance budget on getting the next 3 kilometers of road right. Up to the top without the problems we had feared, to be greeted by the usual ovoo.
In the UK we would call an ovoo "a cairn" - a pile of stones marking a path. In Mongolia these piles are revered in a typically Mongolian way. As travellers pass they often add to the piles. Usually they walk round the ovoo three times and add a rock or two; sometimes they tie on blue prayer scarves and often they add something that has bad luck, so that its replacement will have good luck. One ovoo we saw had a dozen or so walking crutches leaning against it. The ovoo at the top of this pass had a range of truck parts (brakes, axles,
radiators) and a discarded plaster cast from someones leg. The whole thing was topped off with the radiator grill and bonnet from a Russian truck. You wouldn't get away with that in the Lake District!!
In the valley down we saw people preparing for winter. Many were collecting animal dung using a long handled rake/scoop which they used to flip each turd into a basket on their back. They then stacked the poop in giant pillars for use as fuel during winter. It occured to us that these piles were "built like shit briquette houses" - huh huh!
The gradient reduced and we continued down the valley. It became obvious that we were not going to make Bayankongor in the daylight and fording rivers in the dark would be dumb so we set-up camp.
As usual our presence attracted the attention of the local ger owner who walked about a kilometer to see who had moved in for the evening. He was shy at first, but soon settled down to watch as we prepared dinner, put all our bedding into the tent etc. We supplied him with fags, tea and the odd piece of information and he was happy. He even found the translation page at the back of the Lonely Planet and started to ask questions by pointing at the English words!
Wet socks off and so to bed.
Next morning was to be the final push on Bayankongor, but not before eating and entertaining the locals again. No sooner had we got up than the ger owner was plodding over bearing a pop bottle full of milk stuffed up his sleeve. We should mention the Mongol coats - they are made with incredibly long sleeves; about 6 inches (15cms) longer than the tips of the persons fingers. Normally the excess length is turned up as a thick cuff, but often the ends of the sleeves hang low and flat about. This looks bloody stupid until you find yourself out in the wilds when the weather changes and all of a sudden your hands are nice and warm in their long sleeve. In fact we saw plenty of horsemen and motorbike riders using their sleeves as mittens. Similarly the Mongols were all amused by our biking gloves - they'd not seen anything like them before!
By the time ger bloke was with us I was well into making tea and dough for sweet soda bread (to be cooked on the skillet). The milk he brought went into the tea and then he produced a carrier bag full of other goodies from his jacket. Out came a a slab of very immature yaks cheese, a pot of clotted yak cream and a bag of cheesey nuggets. All these where welcome additions to the breakfast menu, with the exception of the nuggets. These are the hard residue from the cheesy vodka brewing process - they are so hard that they are practically inedible - we never saw any of the locals eating them.
While we waited for the bread to bake we drank tea and ger bloke showed us how the locals do things. He cut a thick slice of the yak cheese and then spooned on the clotted cream - like we would prepare a slice of bread and jam. One slice each - it was very good; the cheese was light and not very cheesy and the clotted cream was thick and sweet. As my mum would say "should put hair on your chest"! We repaid the lesson by putting the clotted cream on fresh, sweet bread (well it was pretty much like a scone). He approved and came back for more.
After a few polaroid photos of him on the bike and more cigarettes handed over it was time to pack up, our audience now swollen by 2 horsemen and finally by a little old lady. She seemed quite animated and it turned out that she and her son were on the way to market on their motorbike and they'd got bogged down in the ford that we were about to attempt. We had heard "bike revving furiously in a river" sounds around dawn that morning and it seemed that they'd been stuck there for about 5 hours - just waiting for someone to come along and help. So we all trotted off to rescue the boy and his Eesh. Lot's of ferrying people (including Georgie) across the river on horse-back and then the Eesh got pulled out using a piece of rope and the silk sash belt that was part of the bike rider's traditional Mongol dress. My turn through the river saw our bike bogged down at the same place, but this time Georgie came to the rescue and helped to extract the bike using the 2-wheel drive technique
There were many more fords before we got to Bayankongor. It was market day (Sunday) and the market was full of locals gers people selling their produce and townies drinking vodka and picking school-boy fights.
Georgie had a craving for fruit, so she went into the market while I emptied the water out of my boots and chatted to the locals. One of them spotted a "benzine leak" which turned out to be water leaking out from the paralever (driveshaft housing). Hmm I didn't know I had a water-cooled driveshaft - shit! Investigation showed that a rubber gaiter had been ripped by one of the rocks stuck in the rear wheel spokes, and the paralever had filled up with water as we'd gone through the fords. A quick check of the gearbox and rear bevel drive oils showed that they had were "yoghurty" - water had got in there too. So we bought a 2.8litre bottle (!?) of transmission oil and headed for the gobi desert.
That evening while I changed the oils (difficult to do when Gobi sand and dust are blowing around) Georgie cooked up a cracker - apple and sultana sponge cake, done in a saucepan over the petrol stove. Obviously we had been able to find a supply of eggs (so chickens do live in Mongolia). The pud was eaten overlooking the Gobi desert, golden at sunset.
Next morning we had a visit from a couple of horsemen, bored with herding their sheep and then off towards UB, with the realisation that we had 4 days ride ahead of us - 3 and a half days of these on slow, dusty trails. The feeling of "we're doing something new and exciting" had gone and the ride was difficult and tiring. But we did get to ride through some of the Gobi desert - it was similar to the rest of Mongolia but noticably more sandy (more slippery!!) than other parts we had ridden through.
At this point I should put in a plug for the bike - massively overloaded with a semi-dirt tyre on the rear and a road tyre on the front - and it was so stable that we didn't fall off. OK there was a bit of skill, balance and plain good luck involved, and some of the slipping and sliding we did were outrageous, but overall the bike was so stable that it was (almost) a delight to ride.
The rest of the trip back to UB was pretty uneventful, save for a few silly things like the lemmings that swarmed everywhere and a truck load of locals with their 2 gers on the back who shared a watermelon with us (tasted SO GOOD after eating dust for days).
A section of road that had been a dust bowl 2 weeks previously was now a dust bath, with the wheels sinking in so far that the engines cylinders were ploughing through the dust - and at that point we had a tailwind so we had to either do 20kph to stay ahead of the dust (pretty dangerous) or keep stopping to let the dust swirl away ahead of us.
Our last campsite in the countryside overlooked a piece of new tarmac, hazy in the twilight, like a mirage seeking to fool us into thinking the way ahead would be easy. Infact the road was easy from that point, except for the odd section of dirt just to keep us from getting complacent.
Finally we rode into UB, proud to have survived the Mongolian countryside, and almost as proud of the dirt we had accumulated (we are still scraping dust of the bike in Japan to give to people as a "little bit of Mongolia"). We had done 2000kms out in the sticks, and thank heavens we had decided not to do the full route that I had originally planned - we might be still out there.
By the time we got back it had been about a week since we had washed our bodies and over the 2 week trip we had only washed once - with all that dust and sweat we were pretty ripe. But first things first - off to the Austrian Cafe for a cup of coffee - yes - NO! - the bloody water was off and there was no coffee to be had - shit! Oh well,
we'd better scoff a doughnut or 2.
Back to the guest-house and we find that Simon and Monika have spent the same number of days out in the wilds and done the same distance - obviously a good average! And our choice of the older model BMW rather than the newer one is vindicated when we find out that Simon's bike's rear sub-frame has broken under the load of just one person and baggage! Ho ho, one to the "ride a tatty old bike brigade"!
Luckily they managed to find a little man with a welding machine - unfortunately they didn't disconnect the battery before welding and managed to fry the bike's fuses and battery.
Just a few more days in Mongolia. We finally got clean, ate enough food for a change and caught up on sleep. Exhaustion seems to hit us at different times - which is lucky as we can cover for eachother when we collapse.
More time to do touristy things including a turn round the central market and another monastry with another Buddhist ceremony over-run by people wandering in and out.
Ready for the off we decided to use all of our available visa time in Mongolia, and leave the country on the last day of our visa. It's about 350kms to the Russian border from UB so we set-off the day before crossing the border, planning to camp half way to the border.
Good plan, until the weather changed and a fierce Artic wind blew in from the north, bringing snow to our overnight camp and terrifyingly icey roads for a few hours on our final day's ride. The ill-defined procedures at the Mongolian border posed no problems and the dead marmot and local snuff-bottles didn't get discovered as we left. And whoosh - one of the best parts of our trip was at an end and we were back in jolly old Russia.
After the superb time we had in Mongolia, the prospect of going back to Russia was less than appealing. We would have to get up every morning to go out and fight our way through a bunch of problems. The trip had suddenly turned into an unpleasant job rather than a joyous holiday.
But at least now we had a useful deadline to aim for - my brother
(Pad) was planning to visit us in Japan so we had 20 days to get through a region of impenetrable swamp, ride to Vladivostok, sail to Japan and ride to Kyoto where we were to meet him. This would keep the pressure up and force us to get through this naff stage as fast a possible.
The Russian side of the border was as officious as the previous time, but we managed to get across in a couple of hours. When the other Simon and Monika came through a few weeks later, they got held up for 3 days, as the Russian customs officials demanded a licence for their GPS - only the intervention of the British Embassy in Moscow got them out of that trouble. Our ploy of removing the GPS when going through borders and describing it as an "electronic compass" when questioned by police seemed to be vindicated.
Remembering our previous visit to the border town (a grotty dump existing only to serve the border post and the huge military base) we decided to head out of town and camp rather than using the only hotel in town. Just outside town we met a Czech couple on mountain bikes - they were planning to ride through pretty much every country on earth, which they reckoned would take 4 or 5 years. All powered by their little sun-tanned legs - makes our petrol-powered undertaking look pretty trivial!
Next morning we were back in the land of bewildered looking people, drunks at 10am in the morning and terrible food in the cafes. Our first cafe experience set the scene; we ordered 9 posi (pasta parcels filled with chewy meat) and gave the cafe staff a 100 rouble note (equivalent to $3). They couldn't change it nor could they send out for change - they told us that we could only buy whatever food that we had correct change for. So we changed our order to 7 posi and then suffered 20 minutes of the local drunk who seemed to think we'd like to have our hands kissed repeatedly. Let us out of this horrid country!!
Probably the most upsetting thing for us was the lack of smiles to be seen in Russia. We had mentioned (I had ranted) this to an American we had met in Mongolia. She had worked in St Petersburg for a couple of years and she too had been worn down by the Russians withering looks. If you've not had this, imagine being a normal westerner seeing an unknown person in the street or maybe an assistant in a shop. You flash them a smile to say "I have recognised that you exist, I have no immediate reason to talk to you but I am a friendly person". You usually get a smile or nod back - it's a cave-man thing
- I think the sociologists have a theory about it being necessary part of day-to-day existence of a social animal. But not in Russia. Here the look you get back is a mixture of "piss off and die" and "you're the man who killed my puppy". Really horrible! It all became clear when it was explained by the American girl. It seems that our presumption that "we're all good friends" is completely contrary to the Russian one of "we're not friends unless we really know each other". So our innocent smiles were really offending and worrying the Russians who are thinking "who is this person? how dare they presume that they have a relationship with me? what are they after?" So any softie westerner who wants to survive in Russia should try to have the same attitude as a British football hooligan "oi, what you looking at!?"
Back on the road and on with our plans to jump the Zilov Gap - the area of Siberian marshland that has a mythical status amongst overlanders. As Georgie mentioned in her previous Russian despatch, the well-known fact is that the Trans-Siberian Highway has never actually stretched all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok. The railway goes all of the way, but there is a stretch of about 1000kms which has no road. If you make further enquiries, it turns out that there are dirt tracks right the way across, linking remote villages that otherwise have to rely on the railway to deliver all their needs. More research with the besbook shopsailable in western bookshops confirms that the roads end and the only way across is on the train.
A few hardy souls have ventured through the Zilov Gap on motorcycles, struggling along those dirt tracks, fighting their way through swampland, through metre-deep river crossings and when all else failed along the gravel and sleepers of the Trans-Siberian Railway tracks. All very adventurous - the sort of adventurous riding that I normally delight in.
And then you get to Russia and find that the actual situation is different. The first shock comes when you buy a Russian map book.
These are now widely available in Russia, have normal things like an ISBN number, and are very accurate. More surprisingly they show that there is actually a well established (though poor quality) road all the way across Russia. Rather than taking "shorter, logical" route alongside the Trans-Siberian Railway the road wanders up round the north of Lake Baikal following the BAM railway line. If we'd known that before we set off we might have allowed time for it.
And now there is another alternative - the Russians have decided to actually link up the far east of their country with a road all the way across. And while we were in Mongolia, they finished the gravel bed of a road parallel to the Trans-Siberian railway. We had heard about this road from some Aussi bikers we had met in Ulaan Baataar.
They had followed the new road 6 weeks before and found that all but a 2km stretch was pretty ridable. That 2km stretch was still an uncrossable bog, unless you're an enterprising Russian with a tank.
While the road builders were laying the road foundations other Russians who just happened to have a tank laying around (!) were offering rides across the swamp to anyone who wanted to get a vehicle through. Only in Russia!
By the time we rejoined the Trans-Siberian highway, it was evident that the gravel road had been completshinyhe road that had been full of shiney cars heading west (used cars bought cheap in Japan and destined for markets in various FSU countries) was now full of very dirty cars heading west. Obviously the car importers had changed from using the expensive railway to using the cheap but water-logged gravel road.
We looked at the maps again, considering the new option of riding all the way across the continent. What a terrible prospect: the distances involved were still great and it would take us about 5 or 6 days to get across this dreadful stretch. We would have to fight the transit drivers for road-space all the way and worst of all there would be no real achievement in riding the full distance because "you can do it on a road now"!
So we decided to go on the train - and once that decision was made, we took another step "let's go to Ulan Ude to see if we can get the train there, and cut out the 2 day ride to Chita".
Ulan Ude is less than a day's ride from the Mongolian border so we rolled in there later that afternoon. Straight to the railway station and some really pleasant people. Yes we could catch the train from there, but the bike would have to go on a special baggage train and travel separately from us. This sounded very unofficial and haphazard; putting the bike on a separate train and the expecting to meet up with it 3 days and 2000kms later! More worrying was the fact that the station staff hadn't shipped bikes before and they wanted us to remove all the fuel from the bike before loading. No, it seemed that we'd need to ride to Chita which is the traditional place for loading practisedtrain. At least there they would have well practiced procedures.
Before riding out into the wilderness again we decided to stock up with food intime-warptre of Ulan Ude. The town seemed to be in a timewarp, with a huge bust of Lenin (supposedly inspired by the bust of Karl Marx on his tomb in London) looming over the main square.
Thankfully the next 2 days' rides were on good roads through some twisty, hilly countryside - we actually were enjoying the ride and were making good progress. The first frosts had killed off most of the mosquitoes so we managed to camp in typical birch copses without being eaten alive. The locals had harvested the last of the hay and the countryside was dotted with old-fashioned hay-stacks. We were glad that we hadn't missed this part of the road.
One thing we noticed particularly on this stretch were the rubbish dumps by the side of the road. Georgie wants me to rant on about the locals apparent lack of pride in their environment, just turning any piece of ground a short distance away from their houses into a dump. But insteadserviceablepoint out how amazed I was at the number of perfectly servicable side-car bodies that had been dumped. Over our whole trip in Russia I must have seen about 50 bodies just lying in the open, as though waiting for the return of their owners. The blue or green steel shells were from Urals and the red fibreglass ones were from Jawas and Eeshs. Observing the locals' bikes it was apparent that some of them had been liberated from the burden of towing a sidecar around, but more had been covered to a simple "flat-bed" sidecar, used to transport heavier loads for farmers.
Into Chita - a more modesurprised than Ulan Ude. Straight to the station again where we were surpised to find that we would have to employ the "separate passenger and baggage train" approach that we had rejected at Ulan Ude - bugger, we had ridden 2 days for no reason. In fact the trains bore the same train numbers (Numbers OKand
904) as we'd been offered in Ulan Ude - but hey, the ride was ok and surely the guys here would be all geared up for shipping bikes (can you guess what's going to happen later?).
We found out prices for us and the bike ($45 each and $27
respectively) and that the train departure time was to be 9.30pm the the next day. The baggage (bike) check-in was just down the platform and I confirmed that they could take a bike - the price quoted for the bike was based on it weighing 200kgs (rather than the 300ish it really was) - ho ho. The tickets would have to be bought the next day because there isn't a proper reservation system. With 30 hours to kill we decided to buy some food from a fab deli we'd found and find a campsite somewhere outside of town. Good plan, well executed, nice meal cooked and eaten next to a huge electricity sub-station -hummmmmmmmmmm!
Next day we made a leisurely start and decided to head for the station at about 2pm, so that we'd have plenty of time to buy the tickets and work out where to load up. We arrived, bought our passenger tickets and headed for the baggage office. Then the clear procedure sort of broke down. The ticket office insisted that we go to the porters to get the bike weighed - they asked what the bike weighed - we told them 200kgs (they couldn't actually weigh it with the scales that were half a meter off the ground). They asked us where we were going and I said "Krasnoyarsk" - which confused matters for about 20 minutes until Georgie realised my mistake and told them that we were actually planning to go to "Khabarovsk". Then all hell broke out. Once we managed to get past the language barrier we realised that the baggage train would depart at 3.30pm (even though we had been told that "it follows the passenger train". So everything hwaffling processed immediabenzene
benzene were further confused by some miserable woman woffling on abaggage#34;no benzine, no benzine". Then we discovered that the platform for loading the bagage is 1.5 metres lower than the carriage and they don't have a ramp. So we had to get all the porters together to lift the bike onto one trolley, then onto a taller one and finally into the train. Then things took a really nightmarish tack when the head porter refused our tip of 100 roubles and demanded 400. His demand was equivalent to half the cost of the ticket for the bike, so we ignored him. By 3 pm the bike was loaded up and we were free to wander around town for 6 hours, amazed at our luck in turning up far too early and actually catching the baggage train.
The hours were frittered and the passenger train arrived - painted Russian red, white and blue, each carriage bearing a plaque with the name "Rossiya" - yes it was the real Trans-Siberian train that had come all the way from Moscow rather than one of the more common "local long-distance trains". Two days of train travel lay ahead of us with someone else driving and nothing to do but stare out of the window, eat, drink, sleep and try to write up our journals.
We found our carriage and were greeted by our carriage attendant - a small, energetic woman who would look after us for the next few days. Each carriage is run like its osuper-heatedouse, with a boiler at one end (stoked with coal!) and an electric samovar to supply superheated water for tea and pot-noodles. Each carriage has a dozen or so compartments, each containing 4 people. We shared our compartment with a young Russian couple who were on their way to Vladivostok.
To celebrate our new found easy life we cracked open a bottle of Russian "Champangskoyo" - which didn't taste as bad as I remembered from past bottles - we had asked for the the driest one the deli could find - which was still sweeter than any sparkling wine you'd find in Europe.
And so to bed, with the ghostly shadows of deserted forests and cold railway platforms trundling past outside and the mesmeric clack-clack of the Russian rails lulling us to sleep. The Russian rails make a noise which is noticeably different to the clickety-clack of Britishtrain-spottert be something to do with the wheel spacing or the speed the trains go. I can be a bit of a trainspotter but I don't know about every aspect of Russian railway technology.
There's a funny epilogue to the horror story at Chita station. When the other Simon and Monika came through the same way a couple of weeks later they too put their bikes on the train at Chita. They met the same porters who we had "crossed swords" with. When the porters found out that S&M were English they refused to help them load up the bikes onto the train or even sell them a ticket. S&M had to press gang a load of passers-by to help lift the bikes onto the train. Whoops - it seems that we may have caused problems for other people coming through. Or maybe the porters aren't doing their job, or maybe they need a ramp!! Whatever, any overlanders coming this way, either use the new road right across, or load up in Ulan Ude (best idea), or pretend that you're not British.
Back to the train journey... The Trans-Siberian railway is a a weird thing - one track in each direction - with odd sidings here and there
- but essentially it's a pipeline. So all trains are limited to the speed of the slowest train on the tracks so even the pride of the fleet can only do about 60kph at best, and usually only 40 or 50kph.
Thankfully the train just keeps going (they must have 2 or 3 drivers on board) and so it can cover the distances faster than road vehicles.
Over the next 2 days I reckon we did over 1600kms. That just about equates to the speed of a decent sea ferry. And that was what we were using the train for - to ferry us from one place to another.
Our supplies of food seemed to be a lot posher and more extensive than the other couple in our carriage - rich capitalist pigs that we are!! And we seemed to be continually eating, whereas they seemed to take a day or so before they ate anything. The exertion of riding leaves you hungry for a long time after you stop.
We met a nice girl (Julia) on the train - wearing a one shouldered 'boob-tube' for most of the trip - a bit odd, as though she was just going to a disco. She turned out to be a trainee journalist, and she said she'd like tinteresting interview for us with the local TV station in Khabarovsk. Sounded fun so we agreed.
The first day on the train was interestiing - being able to watch the forests going past, without the fear of falling off the road or hitting a pot-hole. But as we predicted, the novelty soon wore off and we just got bored by the monotony of the countryside. Actually the scenery was worse than we had expected. The hilly twisty sections all seemed to be behind and we were into flat open areas of festering bogs - proper Zilov Gap material which made us even more relieved that we had taken the train rather than riding.
The time rolled past pretty slowly. The provisions we bought got eaten and we started to buy stuff from the platform vendors who appeared at the stations to sell to the train at the longer stopping points. One "dish" which I remember clearly was large potato filled ravioli covered in oil and garlic - weird, cheap and tasty - only in Russia!
On the second evening, the train got delayed - and we woke up the next morning about 3 hours behind schedule. Then the train seemed to run even more slowly than ever, with more stops in the middle of nowhere - obviously we were travelling outside of our time-slot and having to slow down for some local "stopping train" ahead.
Eventually we rolled into Khabarovsk about 5 hours behind schedule. It was dark and raining and we had no bike and no hotel reservation.
All we had to do was to find the baggage train and get the bike down onto the platform which, as ever, was 1.5 metres lower than the train. Then, as the Americans would say, "we lucked out". I was enquiring about the baggage trains arrival in front of a local bloke who wanted the same info. He befriended us and showed us to the platform where the baggage train was just arriving. And joy of joys, he had a lorry around the corner with a crane on it!!!! Now if that's not luck I don't know what is. He was there to pick up 6 pallets of bus windscreens being delivered from Moscow on the baggage train. So I just rode the bike onto the truck and then we craned the bike onto the platform. In return I helped him and his lads to off-load the windscreens. Job jobbed without the intervention of the grasping, miserable local porters - big smiles!
Our new mate even pointed us at the best local hotel, which turned out to be so good and cheap that it was full. So instead we went to the $75 Intourist hotel. As we cruised round in the rain looking for the hotel we got propositioned by a pissed up prostitute - in fact Georgie got propositioned while we sat on the bike at a set of traffic lights - very amusing.
Another disappointingly short stay in a nice, warm hotel and we were off to our first TV interview. Very interesting too. Julia turned up and told us that her boyfriend (an unemployed crab fisherman and another sleeper on the train) had just got his call-up papers. Then the TV crew turned up in a beat up car - straight into the interview. I got all the heavy-weight questions about what we're doing and why and how.... By contrast Georgie was asked about her age, former profession and then a hugely long question that went something like "Russian women would want to do this trip with a man that is strong and decisive - is Simon that sort of tough guy?" We were both dumb-founded and Georgie did her best to give a straight answer. BOK later as she fumed about being asked such a patronising question I told her that if such a question came up again she could answer "yes he's ok at riding a bike, but when we get home I'll trade him in for one that's good in bed!"
The filming was done outside the local sports centre/park. So we were filmed with the local kids getting ready for ice hockey training, and sPolaroide on a 2-stroke race bike who wanted to be filmed wheeling - but he couldn't do wheelies and the film crew told him to bugger off.
Then loads of polaroid photos of the kids and the girls before we shot off into the countryside for 3 days riding towards Vladivostok.
Two and a half hours later we pulled into a cafe for some lunch. And whoo, one of the locals walked up to us and said "aren't you the people who were on the television?". What a slow news-day it must have been in the Russian Far East. The film crew had rushed back to the station, edited the film and put us straight out on the telly - excellent but weird! Perhaps we were the good news story at the end of the bulletin.. "and finally a heart-warming tale of a young woman's blind infatuation with a much older man..."
As we travelled towards Vladivostok the weather warmed up noticeably. More miles, and a night in a field with no mosquitoes.
Next day we tried to go and see the Chinese border acrosweirdiver, but the border guards wouldn't allow us into the village that lies on the banks of the river.
Another day of wandering south - getting warmer and another wierd lunch-stop - this time at a cafe with a hunting/shooting/fishing theme. The cafe had dead stuff all over the walls, and the car park was full of the skulls of bears and wild boar, all sporting jaunty sun-hats. And hell - there's a live bear and a wild boar in cages in the car park - right behind the cage full of cute rabbits. We saved some bread from our lunches and fed the beasts - you don't get to do that at a Happy Eater!
A pleasant night's sleep in another bugless field and then into Vladivostok - a special moment - the end of this land-mass - "the end of the earth" and the smell of the sea again.
As usual our first thought was on our escape - so straight to the port to find out the departure time/date for the ferry. We arrived on a Thursday and the ferry was to leave on Monday. OK, a weekend to kill.
Next get a hotel for the night and then try to find the bike club (the Custom Club) which an internet contact told us about. There was the prospect of a bit of socialising and more importantly some free accommodation at their clubhouse for the rest of our time in Vladivostok.
We checked in the expensive (but pleasantly luxurious) hotel and then out into the Vladivostok night. Fast traffic and too few road markings, but at least we had a map to get to the (unattractively
named) Snegovayetsa street. Then how to find the club-house. Snego was a grotty place - there was a quarry at one end and its gravel and pot-holes seemed to have swept over the whole street. We ploughed through the gravel past various factories and scrap yards but we couldn't find the Custom Club. As is common in Russia, there were no numbers on most of the buildings. So we used our experience to decide that the building must be up and behind one of the un-numbered blocks. Yes there is was, past several buildings and car breakers guarded by barking dogUK- all very scarey in aoily;back end of Salford" sort of way.
The Custom Club turned out to be a motorcycle breakers yard run in an old building. Very similar to breakers in the uk - tatty, bent bikes, oiley floor, various outcasts hanging round, drinking beer and playing with bits of bikes. The shop was owned by Andrei who lived there with his buxom daughter Anya and his young son (the mother was never mentioned). Also living there were several surly cats and "Diesel" the dog, who proudly wore a collar made from duplex drive chain with the boozyd and piston from a 250cc bike hanging from it (which allowed Andrei to grab the dog and manoeuvre him round). The Custom Club was run by another bloke (who's name was always lost in a boozey haze) and was conveniently using the breakers yard as a club-house. It was explained that Vladivostok has 4 bike clubs - the Iron Tigers are the best known and concentrate on choppers and regalia (we met one Tiger - explained that "at weekends we are usually all away"). The custom club seemed to be aimed at souping up bikes to go or stop quickly.
The accommodation available was the mezzanine area with a cooker and TV and a couple of grotty sofa beds. And blow me if Georgie decided that she'd like to spend the next night there - "as it could be an interesting experience and it would be rude to refuse".
So that night we stayed in the hotel and next night we planned to visit the bike club again and stay there.
Next day we also went to the submarine museum - which appeared to be an old submarine, lifted onto the shore, promising to be full of oily, smelly machinery and things to bang your head on. What a disappointment; just the hulattendantsubmarine was left - all the interesting stuff had been removed and the hull was full of photos of submariners - Georgie was horrified when I turned around and demanded my money back and the attendents were so surprised that they actually gave me it!
The evening came and we boupigeonoad of booze, snacks and breakfast for consumption at the Custom Club. The evening was spent looking at bits of scrapped bikes and pre-war Harleys, drinking beer round the bonfire and talking pidgeon English and Russian.
Later we bedded down whilst one of the Custom Club members rebuilt an engine downstairs - music blaring. I managed to sleep through it, but Georgie suffered, not getting any peace until he finished at 4am
After breakfast Georgie decided that another night here would not be a good idea. We made an excuse that we were going to spend a night or 2 out in the forests and then we headed straight back to the hotel.
We planned to go and see the shop owner and his voluptuous daughter race go-karts the next day, but we couldn't find the track. What we did find was a housing estate high up on a cliff where were could look down on a Russian Navy site full of small submarines and beefy looking torpedo launches.
One night was spent down along the promenade with Russians letting their hair down. A few beers and some tasty shashlik made and served by Uzbeks!! There was an aquarium with whales - but we avoided that.
The guide book recommended a visit to the local museum. More stuffed animals! However, I finally got Georgie to realise what a Hoopoo is. For the uninitiated a Hoopoo is a bird, about the size of a large black-bird, mainly brown, but with striking white and black plumage on its wings and a large black and white crest on its head. I'd been pointing them out all the way from Uzbekistan, she's been spotting them flying along with us, and I'd shown her them in at least 2 previous museums - but even in the Vladivostok museum she still professed to never having heard of them!! Now she has seen them, but maybe they're just too boring to remember.
Finally Monday came and we started getting out of Russia - again. A
10am meeting with the customs people - as if by magic Diana the girl from the shipping company turned up to sort out things for us and couple of other people. That will be where the $30 payment we made to her (off the books) went. Then to the port to queue up for boat.
There didn't seem to be (and actually wasn't ) an official way into the port - so we rode the bike in through a foot passenger gate - most odd, with no security - people were just wandering in and out!
So we waited on the quayside and watched the last of the freight coming off the boat - including 7 tigers in cages - part of the Moscow State Circus - not part of a planned release program as we originally thought. All very cute and in various sizes. The performing poodles also came off - yappy and grey coloured.
We got onto the boat and tied the bike down - along with 2 other bikes from Japan. One bloke (Nobuhiro) had done the BAM road up to Yakutsk, and then down the Lena river to Irkutsk (or some other
place) on a cement boat - about $60 for a 6 day slow boat ride. He'd also got mugged by a couple of Russians (just west of Irkutsk) who took his tent before a police car happened by. To add to his misery the bike engine's big-end failed and he had to get another shipped out and fitted which delayed him for 2 weeks - a big adventure on a 250 Djebel. The other guy (Yoshitaka) spent 10 days in Vladivostok and Kamchaka with a Japanese friend - he was on GPZ750.
motor-launchnother 12 hours on the boat before we left - at 3 pm we left the dock and we then sat in the harbour while the ship staff did the immigration and customs stuff. Then we had the Russian Immigration people came to the ferry by motorlaunch to process all the passports. Eventually we got away - at about 10 knots to start with. We were out of Russia - great - let me into a normal country.
Two nights passed and we got into a routine with meals. The rule in the restaurant was "the first table you sit at is the one that you'll sit at for the rest of the voyage". But the first night we managed to sit opposite a really obnoxious, over-friendly, getting drunker by the minute Russian with a nervous cough. At breakfast the next morning I refused to sit at the same table explaining that I was sick of suffering the attentions of drunks. Space was found at another table.
The boat's swimming pool got filled and slopped everywhere - a couple of hardy Russians bravely tried swimming in it and came out a few minutes later looking seasick.
That afternoon we sat in the lounge at the rear of the boat, planning our trip to Japan (nothing like being prepared well in advance!). A slightly drunken Russian came running into the lounge and started shouting something at us in Russian. "I can't understand a word you're saying" - I couldn't be bothered with the Russian version of "I don't understand"pursers face went blank for a second and then he shouted "BEEEGG FEEESH!" and beckoned us outside. We ran out to watch dolphins swimming alongside the boat.
On the boat we met the most normal and pleasant Russian of the whole trip. The ship's pursor had worked on cruise boats around the world and had worked out that smiling, being nice and not treating people like shit was the way forward. She also knew that she was in a good job. Every week she'd sail to Japan and be able to buy small luxuries for herself and her friends. Top of friendly this week were Japanese eggs - she liked them for their bright yellow yolks - and Japanese pet food - "they even have cat-food with squid". She was a breath of fresh air and a good transition between the miserable, ill-mannered Russians and the ultra-freindly, hyper-mannered Japanese.
What a shock were about to face!
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