May 29, 2010 GMT
Week 9-12


Our track is not only shown by our maps and GPS, but also by the increase in chocolate consumption. Bob seems to have kick-started the slab chocolate distribution industry single-handedly – almost every bar we’ve bought has been close (or past) its sell-by-date, and we’re currently up to about 3 bars per day. So anyone following us through these countries will at least have ‘fresh’ bars to buy!


May 2nd – got some good local information about Kazakhstan roads. The son of the hotel owner (who also owns a petroleum company) told us we shouldn’t have used the ‘road from hell’ that we used to get to Aktobe. (Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing.) But he also checked out all our expected routes through Kaz, and told us which other roads to avoid, which was a lot more helpful.


May 3rd – another long day – 408 miles. Bob got the first puncture at a particularly bad time, and we ended up not being able to find anywhere to stop. Camped at a picnic spot, and hid in the very sparse woods alongside. Even so, we had a fairly sleepless night - these people don’t seem to sleep, and there were locals coming and going most of the night. The only good point was that we saw our first wild Kaz eagle – a very impressive sight.


May 4th – this country is just so enormous it’s unimaginable. And still so full of nothingness.


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Caption 1: Bus stop in the middle of nothingness.

May 5th – more off-road stuff. They may be designated as major roads on the map but they’re the equivalent of Derbyshire dirt tracks. I tipped off on the rough stuff a couple of times, but slowly so no damage to either me or more importantly the bike. Just a bit of a paddy at the end of some road-works (where they take up all of the surface and leave it in striations). Bob got off his bike to offer some comfort, and the wind promptly pushed his bike into me whilst I was still on mine. So we all fell over which at least made me stop blubbing.


May 6th – into Astana, a very pretty place. Hotel was expensive but managed to sweet-talk them into giving us a discount. Bob was inside negotiating with the Receptionist while Sheila looked after the bikes, and a bloke wandered past with his grandson. I let the bairn sit on the bike, and found out the bloke was the General Manager , so he agreed to “see what he could do” about the price of the room. Once we’d got to our room, they sent up a basket of fruit, which was nice and very welcome. Thanks to Vargis and Erhan for their thoughtfulness.


May 8th – reasonable road to Semey. Pulled over at side of road once in the city to check our bearings, a young lad on a Ural pulled up and offered to take us to the hotel we were looking for. By the time we’d done about 400 metres, we had two more of his mates turn up. He also arranged to take us out of the city the next morning. Turns out they were members of the White Wolf motorbike group.


May 9th – 5 of the White Wolf members turned up to take us out of the city. And since we also needed some chain-lube, they took us to a suitable shop and got some silicone spray (which they use in place of lube). Thanks to Dima, Julia, Slava , Zhenia and mates for their welcome assistance.


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Caption 2: Members of the ever-helpful White Wolf MG.


The Kaz-Russian border was relatively painless if a little time-consuming. Found a wooden chalet-style hunting lodge near Barnaul to stop, and there was a party going on. Us turning up seemed to create a bit of a stir, and we got invited to the party. It was Julia’s 35th birthday, and her cousin Alexander (a psychiatrist) took us under his wing, and was delighted to explain proceedings to us. The Russians love a party – and love to sing traditional folk songs. They also seem to like “compere’s” who control what goes on, and dress up in strange outfits (camels and belly-dancers to name but two). But it was an incredible night, and since Alexander took a shine to Sheila, we also learned how to drink vodka properly (with sparking water, since you ask). A delightfully good-natured night, and made all the more interesting since they asked us to partake of their feast (horse-meat and pike included) even though we’d just paid for a good meal.


May 10th – gathered we’d managed to lose another hour on the clock – we keep doing that without realizing -these countries are just so big. Found a taxi-driver to take us to a back-street guest-house – basic but clean and cheap.


May 11th – almost stopped by snow, but a local ambulance driver shadowed us until the nearest town, to make sure we got somewhere decent. It’s things like that, that make you realize people aren’t all bad. Found a ‘motel’ to stop at after thinking we weren’t going to find anywhere.


May 12th – set off but had to turn back after 25 miles, after the road turned to solid ice. Not good on a bike.


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Caption 3: Ice and motorcycles don’t mix.


May 13th – set off a bit later than normal, and roads were a bit better. Unfortunately that meant we were later getting to the Russia-Mongolia border, and they closed for lunch just as we got there. So it was tea-time just as we got into Mongolia – no-man’s land had to be seen to be believed – two-foot-high ruts of mud and snow. I wondered what the hell I’d got myself into.


May 14th – woke up (in the tent) to a blizzard, so promptly went back to sleep for most of the day. Intermittent snow meant there was little point in trying to move.


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Caption 4: After-effects of a Mongolian blizzard.


May 15th – another snowy night. About 13:30 it seemed to pick up a little bit, so decided to hurriedly pack-up. Got as far as the first village (Tsagaannuur) only to be told in sign language and pidgin-English that the snow stretched as far as Hovd. Asked a local if anyone had a truck that we could put the bikes onto. After much wheeling and dealing, with Sheila getting more and more stressed and nervous of everyone, we found a guy who would take us to Hovd and the edge of the snow and ice. The bikes were manhandled onto an ancient truck along with 2 blokes to watch over them and one to operate the starting-handle every time we stopped, and the driver’s wife in the cab with us, and we eventually set off at 20:00. We got to Olgii at about 23:00 after the most horrendous journey over the mountains. The truck-driver was obviously an excellent driver, but a maniac. The bikes were jumping about in the back of the open truck, and every deep crater and inclin shook everything to buggery. I thought we’d lost all of the luggage at one point. Something strange happened at a “comfort-break”, and the driver stormed out of the truck-stop and set off with just us and one of the lads in the back. He frightened the life out of both of us, careering at speed out of the village, and onto the snow-covered tracks out into the mountains. I’ve never been so frightened for my life.


May 16th – got to Hovd at 06:30. Had to park on a bit of a slope and a bit of sand, so that we could get the bikes out of the back of the lorry. Had managed to damage the panniers on both bikes, along with some other minor bits of damage.


May 17th – road disappeared after about a mile outside of Hovd. Really hard work – loose gravel, loose stones, no hard surface to ride on at all. I fell off a number of times, and was so exhausted I just kept falling over as soon as the bike wiggled. Stopped and put up tent, and immediately attracted 2 bikes, 4 blokes and one horseman – all interested in the bikes, and where we’d come from, and where we were going to. These people have a natural curiosity that is usually quite charming, but we were just both so tired we just wanted to get something to eat and fall into bed. But even though we couldn’t understand each other we had a lovely conversation with Aro (and his horse) and he was intrigued by our quick-pitch tent.


May 18th – woken up by a flock of sheep and goats – we’d obviously pitched our tent in their usual route. Aro also turned up with his wife to help us take down the
tent.


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Caption 5: What a view to look out onto…


May 19th – tracks have got worse – shale, dirt and now sand. I’m really struggling with the off-road stuff, and am hurting myself every time I come off even though it’s just slow-speed get-offs.


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Caption 6: Mongolian version of the M1. No, really. This is their ‘major route’.


But just when you get to your lowest ebb, something happens to pull you out of the abyss you’re in. This time, it was a young lady at the hotel in Altai called Tsega – she spoke no English, but we managed to get a cracking meal made, using our Wordless Travel book and pointing in her kitchen. She was keen to help, and walked us to the local shop, to help us get some supplies (chocolate).


May 20th – Yamaha started to play up – battery not charging. And the headlamp blew on the Beemer.


May 21st – Yam electrics started to close down, and finally died. In the middle of nowhere. With hundreds of tracks all around, but no-one using them. Wasted 2 hours trying to work out what was wrong, then trying to bump the Yam (unsuccessfully), and finally took the battery off the Beemer and connected it the Yam. Only managed about 40 miles today. A very bad day all round. But then stopped at a ger camp – had a cracking meal and pitched our tent out the back. They couldn’t do enough to help, and told us that we couldn’t go any further, since the river was too high to cross with a motorbike.


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Caption 7: Tired and dirty in a ger.


May 22nd – another scary scenario. Had to cross a river that was thigh-high and fairly fast-flowing. The ger owner handily found a pair of waders (who’d have thought) and helped Bob push/pull the bikes across, whilst I followed with the helmets and boots. Could have been another show-stopper, but in the end was OK – and the lorry-drivers that were parked up gave Bob a round of applause. We thought they were stuck as well – turns out they were just waiting to see whether we managed to cross successfully or not.


May 24th – finally managed to hit some tarmac. Bikes are both running badly after over a week of slow stop-start 10mph tracks.


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Caption 8: You wouldn’t believe the relief we felt on finding asphalt.


May 25th – got to Ulaanbataar finally. Found a decent hotel and washed both ourselves and our clothes – everything smells of the road, and we’re both dusty and grubby. Beemer decided to spew its guts all over the road, and flash all its warning lights, just to prove they still worked.


I wrote the following paragraphs at the time rather than afterwards as above: “With the benefit of hindsight, travelling across Mongolia on a motorbike was the most stupid thing I could ever have dreamed of. This is the hardest country we’ve ever visited, and it would have been a whole lot easier if I’d had any previous off-road experience. It was the longest, toughest 1000 miles I have ever done, and made all the more difficult because I kept falling off (albeit at slow speed). And in a country with no roads, there are of course no need for road-signs. So every Mongolian must either navigate by the stars, or by mounds of stones by the track, or by word of mouth passed down from father to son. Whichever way they do it they have definitely got one over on us – we’re permanently searching for the right road. We think we lost the road on day 80, and aren’t quite sure we ever found it again! I really wanted to love Mongolia – its remoteness and desolation – but I just ended up enduring it. But thanks go to Bob for picking me up an average 3 times every day, and for trying to teach me skills in 3 days, and for taking the Beemer further up the track every time I froze.”


May 26th – even though the Chinese Embassy back in the UK assured us we had all the documentation necessary, we still felt compelled to go to the Mongolian office, to double-check. Just as well we did – ‘you want to take motorcycles – no, not possible’. So our plans have been hurriedly (and expensively ) amended. We’re trying to arrange to get the bikes to Vietnam or Thailand, whilst we fly to China. We don’t want to miss out on this part of the trip, but are snookered. So it’s been stress and upset all round. Things still haven’t been sorted and we’ll have been here more than a week by the time we’ve got some (very expensive and constantly changing) quotes. Looks like later plans may have to be curtailed, to cope with the extra unbudgeted expenses.


May 27th – decided to leave our worries behind us for a short while and visit an equestrian statue of Genghis Khan, outside Ulaanbaatar. Very impressive, in a different way to the Volgograd statue. Will be stunning when the development has finished, including the ice-rink of all things.


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Caption 9: Genghis in all his glory.

Posted by Bob Oldfield at May 29, 2010 12:43 AM GMT
 
 

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