Monday, 23 July 2012

Mongolian Mayhem

A few days after we arrived in UB, Belle and Nadine arrived back from the jaunt down into the Gobi Desert. Belle and Nads had also been part of the Scooters in the Sahara trip down to the Gambia that we did in March and it was great to catch up with them. The last time we saw them was in Istanbul and a lot has happened for all of us in that time so it was non-stop chatter!
We arranged to go the Chinngis Khan Statue and what a delight that was. Below the statue is a complex housing a cafe, a Bronze Age museum and the largest boot in the world!

You can go up inside the horse and come out on the view platform, which is in the horse’s mane. You get a lovely view from here.
On the way back, we stop to have a look at and to hold some eagles and vultures.

Iain has been working on the bike a lot and helping other folks out so last night we ventured into the centre of UB with Belle and Nads for a bite to eat. The ride there was exciting enough but the ride back in the dark even more so! Belle and Nads went on their only surviving scooter and Iain and I went on Belles new Chinese 150cc bike, bought in UB. It’s the same kind of bike the locals use and it was good fun zipping about in and out of the traffic but I don’t think we’d like to do it every day! We went to a restaurant where you choose all the veg, meat and sauces you want and then give them to the chef and he cooks them in front of you. The chef is also very skilled and throws the food around and puts on a bit of a show for the customers.

Into Mongolia

We left Barnaul in the pouring rain.  We’d hung back to try and let it pass but it never did. They were having a bike fest in the town that weekend – I hope the weather didn’t dampen their spirit! As we head towards the Mongolian border, the people and the scenery start to change. We are now in the stunning Altai region of Russia. Parts of the journey through reminded me of Scotland and even more so when it began to rain again! At an overnight stop in Aktash, we chat with Russian Valery Aksenov, who is a scientist living in Novosibirsk. He and his granddaughter were heading off in the morning to a canyon about 100km away. He tells us it is a beautiful place which he has visited before. It sounds like it would be a great place to go but unfortunately, due to our unplanned stay in Zlatoust, we don’t have enough time before our Mongolian visa runs out. We meet Ernest from Switzerland on his Suzuki 110 scooter and see him again at the border the next day. We arrive at the border at 7am and there are already a few cars in front waiting for 9am opening. At 10.30am he discover that we needed to go to immigration first, which is 500m back up the road. So while Iain is doing that, all the cars in the queue behind us leap frog us as they knew to go to immigration. Eventually, at about 3pm, we clear the Russian side of the border. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard to leave a country and I think they were lenient with us as they didn’t ask to check any of our luggage, as they were doing with all the cars. This is why it is so time consuming to leave, they only let 4-5 vehicles through at a time and they are all searched. We then ride 20km to the Mongolian border gate, passing through the actual land border about half way. Our first taste of Mongolia was paying to have our wheels disinfected! It doesn’t take too long to get through the border though and thankfully they have an English version of forms to be completed.
We (us and Ernest) travel on into the town of Tsaagaannur and end up at a family’s home where they feed us and let us sleep on their floor. In the morning we get the shock - £20 each – to sleep on the floor!!! £40 for both of us! We’d paid less than that in Russia for a decent motel with en-suite. Here, we had to walk 100 metres to the outside toilet (and when I say toilet, I mean a smelly hole in the ground!!) Lesson learnt – do not be quite so trusting.  We made our way to Olgii where we bumped into Danes Martin and Christina and their 2 sons again. Iain and I met them originally in Barnaul. We get settled in at one of the ger camps and arrange to go to a local Naadam festival the next day.  
Naadam Festival is a national holiday in Mongolia. There are 3 disciplines at the festival – archery, wrestling and horse racing. We arrive just as the archery is finishing but in plenty time to see the wrestling, which is quite a spectacle, not least because you have some very muscley blokes striding around in very small pants. The horse racing was not so thrilling. It promised to be exciting as all the horses and’ jockeys’ arrived. The riders were all young lads. The spectators all then travelled to the finish line, which was up a long steady hill. What we hadn’t realised is that there were different categories and it was not so much of a race as a trot up a hill. In between trots though there were some impressive displays of horsemanship.

As we travel onwards the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. Stoney tracks edged with cliffs and rivers give way to more open spaces but still surrounded by mountains. Huge open spaces. After one wild camp, we were coming towards a town and as we were on a slightly higher ground level we could see the town and the GPS told us it was still 33km away. It’s mind blowing. We come to a river which is about knee deep and moving very fast. If we were on solo bikes, we’d have gone through without too much problem but with the sidecar you have to be careful as the ‘chair’ will float. As the river was flowing left to right and the chair is on the left, we felt it foolish to try and cross. We back tracked a few kilometres and set up camp for the night (where, in the morning, I had a count of over 30 bites!!).  Next morning we tried again, just in case the river level had dropped but it hadn’t. Back in the village we were told of a guy who’d take us across in his truck for a small fee – result! We found him and got loaded up. The truck was very rickety and as we travelled along, when I looked down, between my feet was a hole in the trailer floor where I could see the tyre rumbling round.  About halfway there the truck slowed and stopped – he had a puncture. He had no spare wheel but he did have a spare tube so he and his 2 mates set about changing the tube. They did this without problem but only because a passing jeep had a hand pump because he didn’t have one! The tube he was putting in already had 10 patches on it and the reason the other one deflated in the tyre was that one of the existing patches had started to peel away from the tube. We carried on and were across the river, no problem.  

Although the road are tricky in places, we were making better progress on them than Ernest and had to keep waiting for him so eventually we say goodbye and go our separate ways. We are mostly travelling at over 6000 feet at this point in time (to put that into perspective, Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK, is 4408 feet). The scenery has changed to a more ‘alpine’ feel with tree clad slopes and the aroma in the air has changed as the locals now burn wood rather than dung.  One evening, it’s getting late and the rain is torrential so we stop and knock on the door of a wooden building within a compound and instantly we are ushered in and given chai. In Mongolia, this is a very milky tea, made with sheeps and yaks milk. I like this but Iain doesn’t, so I drink the chai and he drinks the vodka again. They let us pitch our tent in their compound. Their outside loo is the best so far. After a run of wild camping, we need a proper shower.  The next night we book into Fairfield House which is a great guesthouse in Tsetserleg run by a couple from Australia.

We are now in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, staying at the Oasis Guesthouse. This is a great wee site run by a German/Austrian couple. It’s a bit of an overland traveller type place so there is a great mix of vehicles – bikes, jeeps and trucks – all decked out for travelling in very different ways. Iain is doing some work on the bike and then we’ll do some sightseeing before deciding our next move.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

On the road again - at last!

Iain happy to see the 'you're leaving Zlatoust' sign
Hurrah!! We’ve left Zlatoust at last. The last day there had its moments – Iain was away fixing the bike and I was dossing around in the room when I heard a siren. It was in the distance so I didn’t take much notice and then suddenly one went off very close to the hotel. It was an air raid siren!!  My initial thoughts, as I jumped up out the chair, were ‘bloody hell – what do I do? I’m not going to see Iain or my family and friends again!’ Then I thought ‘hold on, there’s no reason for an air raid siren to be sounding’. I looked out the window and folks were just going about their everyday business. The siren stopped so that was ok. Then it started again. This time I got Google Translate out and went down to reception to ask what the siren was for and she just waved her hand in front of her face as if to say ‘it’s nothing, don’t worry about it’. So I didn’t, but it gave me a fright – daft or what? I guess that particular siren is not associated with air raids in Russia.  On our last night there, Denis and Nadia came round and it was sad saying goodbye to them as they are a lovely couple and gave us help when needed.
 The next morning was exciting because we were off again into the unknown. The early morning was very hot but that was not to be the case for the remainder of the day. Gradually we put more clothes on to keep warm and then the waterproofs. The temperature was down to about 13C which coming from the UK is not that cold but when you’ve been used to high 20’s and low 30’s, it was cold. By the time we arrived at that nights stop, the rain had stopped but my teeth were chattering!
The next morning the rain was on us again. Darren had given us the heads us about our overnight stop and had said that the next bit of road was bad – and he wasn’t wrong! With the rain falling, it was like riding through a mud bath. At one point Iain rode through a puddle and the mud come flying up from the wheel and covered me – I was glad that my visor was only slightly open! We stopped to try and get some of the mud off the bike and Iain took a mozzie off my eyebrow and squashed it – death is too good for these little blighters

 The next morning, I awoke to find my right eye swollen – this is the result of the previous days mozzie bite.       It was an early start as our overnight stop had allowed us to pay for only 12 hours in the room (you could also rent the rooms by the hour.........). As we departed the bike started to shake uncontrollably, the steering dampener had snapped again! Instead of heading out onto the open road it was head into the city and find a welder! Typically, as we were having an early morning – nothing was open so we hung around until a motorist discount shop opened and he showed Iain a garage that could possible sort it but it didn’t open until 9am. We went round to the garage but no luck, although they suggested another place which turned out to be unable to do it either. Luckily though, the owner of this garage was there and he took Iain away in his car to a local Lada dealership, who welded it up for free. He then took Iain to his home, to show him all his motorbike pictures.    

We had been in contact with Craig and Sharon from Australia through Horizons Unlimited and had arranged to meet them in Barnaul. They are heading to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia as well so we would travel with them for a bit. On the way back from having tea, we met a couple of lads, Kanat and Jacob, who had heard us speak English and stopped for a chat. Kanat is from Kazakhstan and Jacob from Barnaul and they are both 4 years into a 6 year course, studying to become doctors. The next day Iain met Andre and Alex, a German couple travelling on motorbikes. They have been on the road for over 2 years and it was great to listen to their stories. We arranged to meet them in the local ‘bikers bar’. What a place! It’s great. Everything is made out of bits of bikes and bike related stuff. We all enjoyed a great evening and Iain and Andre ended up drinking vodka and playing pool with some locals. Barnaul is a lovely city and the locals we have met have all been very friendly and although initially most of them tell you they can’t speak any English, some of them can. Once they hear us making a fool of ourselves trying to speak Russian, they are more at ease and more willing to try their English out.
Our visa for Mongolia requires us to enter before 12 July and with a couple of days riding to get there we’ll be on the road again soon!