Mongolia – When the Camel got the Hump, and other stories.

Day 386 – Thursday, May 15th 2014

Finally we’d arrived in the country whose very name means ‘out there’, a whole lot of our trip had been leading up to this moment – come to think of it, our choice of vehicle, route, and timing had all been influenced it – there’s no getting around it; Mongolia has a punishing reputation, but also an incomparable draw.

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On entry, the border formalities followed the same slightly chaotic fashion that they had everywhere else – Basically there are three groups of people at each crossing – one cares about the people you have with you and stamps the passports, one checks the vehicle papers, and normally likes to stamp something, and the third cares about the stuff you have with you. The level to which they do their job depends on the country.

With that behind us we stopped in the Mongol border town of Zamiin-Uud for some supplies and bode a temporary farewell to our China travelling buddies – we’d be catching up with them all in Ulaanbaatar anyhow, so no need to get too emotional.

On leaving the town the road immediately deteriorated into a tracked out sandy mess, and the prospects for covering ground at any rate disappeared along with the tarmac.

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Thankfully, this only lasted a few kilometres

Not for long though, those handy Chinese road builders have been at it again. Mongolia has things they would love to get their hands – so hey presto, a brand new road running all of the way to the capital. The next 700 kilometres would not be so bad after all.

The emptiness of the country was obvious, even in contrast to the Inner Mongolia province of China – which is still one of their least populated. We were definitely approaching the desert region, we started seeing herds of camels, and the terrain flattened out so that even from the crest of a slight rise you could see a flat horizon for 360 degrees in some places.

We covered about half of the distance, before veering off the road to find ourselves a back country spot to settle down for the evening.

Day 387 – Friday, May 16th 2014

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Awoken early with the sun, we were on the road by 7 and made good progress to UB (the local name for Ulaanbaatar, and a fair bit easier to type without having to remember where all of the ‘a’s go).

Just a little off track was a Chingis Khan statue that we’d noticed in the guide book – towering at 40 meters high, Mr Khan mounted on his steed certainly stands out in the natural landscape. It was impressive enough that we decided to return with the friends that were set to fly in on Sunday.

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We found the overlanders guesthouse AKA Oasis, and parked up. We spent the rest of the day planning the remainder of our trip, blogging, sorting out our collection of Mongolian navigation aids (Russian army maps and such), and catching up with our China travellers as they arrived a little later.

Day 388 – Saturday, May 17th 2014

A getting stuff done day before our friends arrived the next day – some rubber mounts to be changed for Ivor’s back body, the water tanks needed filling, the blog was still hanging back a little, and we had to sort out a car and route for the next couple of weeks while the other guys were out here.

We were up and at it pretty early, and got almost everything sorted – the ‘hire car’ people agreed to our planned route and it seemed like all was in hand.

There was a guy from South Korea staying at the same guesthouse, who had a friend also staying in town. They had separately been riding through from Vladivostock in Russia, and although there was a significant language barrier between us, they were still insistent on cooking up some Korean noodles for us for dinner.

Day 389 – Sunday, May 18th 2014

Time to introduce our travelling companions: Andrew (commonly known as Bones, Stoney, and a number of other nicknames that will be dispensed with now – since Andy is the shortest by a couple of characters, it’s what we’ll stick with), who’d travelled in from the UK. Also there is Merryn; a friend of Kim’s since university who has most recently been working in Milan.

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They flew in this morning, and meeting up with them outside the arrivals lounge of UB international was hassle free from our point of view. We took them back to the guesthouse and had a breakfast while they tried to fight off their jet lag, and the lack of sleep that comes from travelling overnight. It wasn’t long before their eyelids were drooping, and they took powernaps to try and get their heads back on schedule.

It took a bit of messing around with the car rental company, since some of their conditions had changed since the previous day – basically they didn’t trust us with the car, and made it financially irresistible to take a driver – i.e. without one, the deposit had leapt up from 600 USD to 2500. With that settled, we decided to leave town early the next morning.

We took a quick trip into town to try and hunt out some camping supplies for Andy and Merryn and, for the authentic Mongolian experience, dined at an Irish pub. We picked up supplies from a supermarket in town, and found it to be embarrassingly well stocked – after difficulties finding western food throughout SE Asia and China we’d advised our friends to bring out a load of goods, which were all to be found in that very supermarket, and in some cases the prices were lower than they had been back home – ohps!

Day 390 – Monday, May 19th 2014

An early start and a big metal horse; what’s not to love? On this trip to the Chingis statue we paid to go inside, to climb the stairs within the horse’s tail, and venture out along its mane, and out to the platform on its head. It’s not as strange as it sounds, and offers a stunning view of the surrounding landscape – which had shirked its veil of cloud only moments previously.

Having enjoyed the museum, and dressed up like idiots in Mongolian period dress we made our way back through the capital and started heading out west towards the steppe.

We made it to the Khustan National park; home of the endangered, and recently re-introduced Przewalski wild horse.  With an English speaking guide we joined the others for a tour around the park in their car, and were shown big herds of deer, groups of the famous horses, and a lot of marmots – many of whom were busy fighting each other in a comedic boxing style, stood up on their hind legs.

With two sights already seen, we carried on a little further west and camped out for the night just a short drive off the road.

We were joined for a little while by a vodka-hunting local, who judging by their wobbly appearance had already found plenty. It didn’t stop him riding off on his motorcycle though.

Day 391 – Tuesday, May 20th 2014

Our companions hadn’t slept well in the cold, so we decided to try and find a guesthouse for them this evening – it was bitter outside when the wind picked up, which was nearly all of the time. We huddled around cups of coffee and defrosted ourselves the best we could before getting on the road again.

Just off the road we saw a big group of vultures, at least 10 of them, that were in the process of disposing of some unfortunate creature. We couldn’t get too close without disturbing them, but got a few pics all the same.

And some more snaps from the road:

First stop today was a set of sand dunes, which seem to have been deposited by a southerly wind. There was a chance here to ride some camels – and the lady, who attempted to control these beasts, first invited us into her ger (yurt, in other languages) to sample some yoghurt made from goat’s milk.

One of the camels immediately took a shine to Andy, and expressed it’s love in the form of sneezing / spitting straight into his face. The pungent aroma was so strong that poor old Andy was left retching from the experience. For us, Denza the driver, and the Camel owner, this was hilarious – but on smelling the foul stench of their breath later we had a little more sympathy – each of us dreading that we’d be subjected to the same in the near future.

We rode over to the dunes in camel-train formation, and dismounted when we were there, walking up ourselves to have a look around. We tried to find out why we couldn’t ride the humped beasts up onto the sand, and the woman motioned as if they would slip and fall over. We thought camels were famous for being able to manage this sort of environment – perhaps it was just that our animal handling skills were so poor that we’d have put them in danger.

Having survived the beasts of the desert, we were free to progress towards Chingis Khan’s old capital city of Kharkhorin, where the comparatively tranquil activity of a monastery visit awaited us.

First some more snaps from the road though, for a country without a lot happening, there is a surprising amount to photograph:

And now, since you’ve been waiting patiently, the monastery:

After the tour was finished Ivor had a little surprise for us – in the form of a puddle of oil just beneath the transfer case (the bit that delivers drive towards the front wheels).

The others went into town to find a guesthouse, and we asked the driver to see if he could find a mechanic.

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We did have a spare seal with us, and all the parts came off easily. Without having been able to track down a mechanic, we even surprised ourselves by having it all fixed up and ready to go in a couple of hours.

Day 392 – Wednesday, May 21st 2014

Destination for the day was some hot springs just a little south of the main route crossing east-west, and we switched up the cars so Andy was with V in Ivor, and K with Merryn in the other car. There was a lot of off road driving which wasn’t too tricky for the most part. Denza, our driver of the other car surprised us all by driving straight into a boggy wheel-sized hole in a marshy area.

Ivor towed them out,  but Vaughan, in an effort to avoid the same fate tried a different section, and soon found that the road tyres coupled with Ivor’s weight issues (please don’t mention it to him, he’s quite sensitive about it) mean that he sunk in, and before long all 4 wheels were spinning, digging neat semicircular holes for each of them.

It took a bit of digging, careful placement of the sand ladders, and a tow from the other car to set him free. Taking the time to look at the bog, there were a couple of routes through that looked less problematic, and although it was still a tricky drive slip sliding around a little, we got through in the end.

The next issue was a river, and just while we were scoping out a route (see, we learned from the earlier experience), some horsemen came in the other direction – using their horses as a gauge we could tell that the water was at least ‘quite’ deep, but perhaps even ‘very’ deep.

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Denza asked the riders, just to check that it was the best place to cross, and after checking our snorkel was water tight, followed Denza across. There was a tricky exit up the river bank, calling for an enthusiastic acceleration, but we both made it through.

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The springs were not inspiring enough for us to take a dip, but it was pleasant enough to take a walk around and a good place for some lunch.

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The route back north didn’t require the same river crossing, but still took in some steep loose tracks, and led us through some boggy ground that needed sand ladders, digging, and a tow to persuade Ivor across it.

Compared to the earlier sections, the remainder of the road (/ track) to Tsetserleg was hassle free – they’d even taken the time to put bridges over some of the rivers, which we thought was a nice touch. We found a nice guesthouse for the others, and the boys took to the hills for a megarun®™ before coming back to town where we all headed out for Chinese food.

Note; megarunning is like normal running, but it happens in more ‘mega’ locations and shuns traditional navigation techniques – because of this, the length of a megarun®™is largely down to how easily you find your way back once you’re sufficiently exhausted – you can take breaks to enjoy the scenery whenever required, and stopping for cakes is advised when available.

Day 393 – Thursday, May 22nd 2014

Stopping for supplies as we left Tsetserleg, we drove towards the mountains, and the Khorgo-Terkhin Lake / Volcano area.

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This gorge was on route

Up until lunch we were treated to tarmac, and after that the journey was all on dirt.

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Multi-lane Mongolian Highway

We got there early enough to climb the volcano and make a walking tour of the crater at the top. While walking we got to see an eagle bringing sticks back to make a nest on one of the crater walls.

Descending to the lake, we chose a ger camp where the guys would be warmer than in the normal tents, and cooked up some Mongolian dumplings for dinner.

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The was an American guy and English girl staying at the same camp (within reach from UB, it’s one of ‘the’ areas to go for most foreign tourists), and that night we shared a few more glasses of vodka with them than was strictly necessary – in fact there were a few bottles to try, so we had a kind of tasting session – the cheapest one, that we bought to the table of course, turned out to be the victor.

Day 394 – Friday, May 23rd 2014

The girl at the hire car agency had some contacts in the area, so managed to arrange a horse riding session for us. The ponies that arrived barely came up to our armpits, so despite the combo of our jaded state and a total a lack of experience, we still felt safe enough – not like on those ridiculous camels. And even though the motion of a trotting horse could have been designed for inducing hangovers, the fresh air was somehow keeping the worst of it at bay.

Andy’s relationship with the animal kingdom was in for another test, as the reluctant mule assigned to him was impervious to command of any sort – but again, this served to keep the rest of us amused. We toured around, visiting the lake, a cave, and through the hills a little.

We spent the afternoon back at the camp, relaxing a little, and then changing Ivor’s rear tyres to the more aggressive spares that we had with us – we were keen to avoid any more digging if it could be avoided.

Happy Mechanics

Happy Mechanics

As the afternoon wore on we hacked up the lump of yak meat we’d bought back in Tsetserleg, and stewed it up with some veg for some winter warmer comfort food. It took about 3 hours, but finally we got the meat tender and dined in the yurt with a wood stove to keep us warm.

Day 395 – Saturday, May 24th 2014

We received news from a driver coming in the opposite direction that the mountain passes to the north were very difficult – slippery with mud, and ice. And worse still; over last night it had snowed even more. With this in mind, we altered our plans – we had intended to go north towards Lake Khovsgol, and then leave the other guys to return to UB from Moron (yes, a real place) while we headed west. Now we would go east until back out of the mountains, and then skirt around the southern edge to make our journey homeward, and the others turning back towards the capital at some point as their return flights demanded.

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Since we knew a good guesthouse in Tsetserleg we headed back there, and what do we see in the parking lot – Sterlin, the Landrover that had accompanied us across China. We joined Stephen and Caroline for lunch, and then went for walk with Stephen up to the Monastery that overlooks the town.

Andy and Vaughan went for another megarun®™before dinner while the girls went off for a walk in the hills. In the evening we went to the same Chinese restaurant, and despite placing a different order were served pretty much the same dishes as before – it wasn’t so much a mistake, as much as a limitation of the ingredients available to them at the end of a Mongolian winter.

Day 396 – Sunday, May 25th 2014

We stuffed ourselves silly at the guesthouse cafe for breakfast, filled up Ivor’s water tanks, said goodbye again to Stephen and Caroline, and set out for Arvaikheer. The drive to Kharkorin passed without event, but shortly after Merryn and Kim, in the rental car, heard a loud bang as they went over a small humpback on a bridge – and once they’d come to a stop it was obvious that the front left corner of the car had dropped onto its bump stops; something in the suspension had collapsed.

It didn’t take long for Denza to track down someone with a welder at a village that was really close by. A bit of spanner work was needed to get the offending component out from the car, but the welder was pretty competent so the part was repaired quickly and we were able to get on our way again after only a few hours.

There was a fair amount of off road driving as we headed south towards Arvaikheer, at least 100 kilometres. Denza showed off his ‘drive into a hole’ trick again, and Ivor again towed him out.

We came across a river crossing shortly followed by a marshy area, and by walking the whole section, including the refreshingly cold river, we managed to spot a route that looked just about firm enough to get Ivor across without any further spadework. It worked, but only just, with both differentials locked we managed to crawl our way through. We can only assume that heavily deflated mud tyres helped us through this time, since it looked no better than a section that had claimed us before.

We were all tired by the time we got to Arvaikheer, and we pulled into the first hotel we could find – we would sleep in the parking lot while the other guys took rooms.

Day 397 – Monday, May 26th 2014

Boggie, the girl back at hire car HQ proved handy again, since she found us a ger camp where we could go and reside for a couple of days – it was just 30km outside Arvaikheer, and situated in an isolated valley – perhaps THE ideal destination for those seeking to ‘get away from it all’ – seriously, we could only see about 3 other gers from the site, and that was only when we walked up a nearby hill.

We spent the rest of day doing pretty much nothing more than enjoying the scenery, and taking a bit of a walk in the afternoon.

That night, we cooked a yak stew again, and hung out in the ger and taste testing a few local beers.

Day 398 – Tuesday, May 27th 2014

The girls were up early for a sightseeing day – taking Denza for a trip back to Arvaikheer for a couple of museums (which were closed for renovations, doh), and then a temple devoted to horses, and finally a journey south to take a look at the Gobi.

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The boys, up slightly later, fettled with Ivor in the morning – making the 4×4 selection work better, and then took on another megarun®™ around the local hills.

Once all were back at camp we cooked up a pasta dinner, had a few drinks, and V did his best to capture the night sky in photos – which was truly looking its best with so little light pollution.

Day 399 – Wednesday, May 28th 2014

Boo hoo, it was time to part company with our friends. They made their way back to UB while we headed west, taking the southern route across the country, and aiming to exit into Russia at the Mongolia’s far western point, just past the town of Olgii.

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We stopped in at the horse temple again, since V had missed it yesterday, and it was strange enough that Kim was happy to take a second look.

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We were treated to good quality a good quality paved road for the whole morning, and then after Bayankhongor it changed to dirt and we were given our first taste of ‘winging it’ for navigation just following vague tracks across the plains that went roughly the in the direction that we wanted – i.e. west.

Parking in a particularly empty section of plain, a few hundred meters south from the main track headed towards Buutsagaan, we settled down for the night – having surprised ourselves by covering over 400km in one day despite the dirt roads, that’s twice what we’d commonly managed in India even on supposed ‘national highways’.

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Day 400 – Thursday, May 29th 2014

The going was slow – picking our way along tracks of dirt and rock. Where the dirt was soft enough, corrugations had formed that shook the whole truck terribly. There were two approaches to getting through them as pain free as possible – either going slow enough that the wheels rode up and descended each ridge – somewhere around the 15kph mark, or going fast enough that the tyres just skipped along the top of the ridges, which started above 50kph – needless to say, aiming for the latter involve a horrible teeth chattering transition as Ivor gathered enough pace to make the going smooth again.

We were blessed with a brand new surfaced section of highway for the last stretch up to Altai, and when we filled up with Diesel Vaughan spotted some red liquid coming from Ivor’s underbelly. Nothing was bleeding under there, so it was either from the transfer case or the power steering, the only other possible sources of red.

We feared a power steering pump, but it was just a rigid hose connection that had fractured inside – and the Mongol Rally mechanic in town made relatively short work of fixing it up.

Another concern of ours was that one of our front shocks was seeping fluid – the mechanic laughed off our concerns after squidging the shock a few times saying all was fine – and sure enough, it’s been okay since and we can now say it took us all the way home, and even got through the MOT (UK safety test) on arrival.

It's these suckers that cause all the problems

It’s these suckers that cause all the problems

The steering issue had cost us some time, but we were still able to get 100km or so outside Altai before pulling up for the night. We’d been crossing desert for the last couple of days really, and we’d found ourselves in a particularly featureless patch – crossing a flat area that would take some 14 hours to traverse in total.

Day 401 – Friday, May 30th 2014

Another campsite without disturbances (or anything else)

Another campsite without disturbances (or anything else for many kilometers)

We were up and on the road good and early today, aided by a change in time zone. The snowy peaks in the far west eventually grew, and after 6 hours or so were dwarfing us – the 4000+ meter peaks tower straight up out of the desert giving them over 2000 meters height advantage over the surrounding plateau, so that they can dominate the skyline for hundreds of kilometres.

The majority of the drive was through slow, rocky, difficult terrain in the desert. It’s funny the things that reminded us of the journey ahead, but for us, every time we saw a herd of camels wandering across the horizon it just served to reinforce the fact that there was still a BIG distance between us and mainland Europe.

As time went by the arid landscape slowly supported more fauna, and following that the livestock changed to goats and finally yaks and cows that could survive off the land – though it was far from rich pasture, we we’re at last leaving the Gobi behind us.

It's always

It’s always comforting to realise that no matter how adventurous you think you are, there’s always someone waiting to trump you. Ash Dykes (www.ashdykes.com) is aiming to set the record for crossing Mongilia unsupported on foot, we saw him on the road and when we last checked (11th July 2014) he was alsmost directly south of Ulaanbaatar

 

Trails turned to tracks, which in turn developed into roads, and we entered the town of Khovd at around 8pm.

The descent into Khovd

The descent into Khovd

We stopped for supplies, and decided to try a Mongolian restaurant for dinner. The menu was all in the Cyrillic alphabet, but fortunately the words ‘Schnitzel’ and ‘Goulash’ transcend a number of languages. We’d entered a Muslim area, so there was no beer to be served on Fridays – we’d embarrassingly lost track of days, and asked for some without thinking – the waitresses awkward response of “pivo; niet” was enough to give our minds the jolt they needed, and we changed the order to tea.

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Our camping spot gave us a stunning sunset, so we perched on Ivor’s roof with a couple of cold beers to celebrate getting through the Gobi.

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With the light fading we headed just outside of town and parked Ivor behind a small hill for some undisturbed camping.

Day 402 – Saturday, May 31tst 2014

Vaughan started the day with a little roll around underneath Ivor greasing the various parts that would have suffered during the various river crossings of our Mongolian adventure. We then plodded on towards Oglii. It was almost all dirt track, and in some cases even that was missing – replaced instead with sections of marsh and river.

We got through okay though, and reached the stretch of new tarmac leading to town, starting at Lake Tolbo, early in the afternoon.

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The last few days of travelling had worn us down, so we had a lazy afternoon – picking up a few more supplies, sorting out a trip for the next day, and eating out at a Turkish restaurant before getting an early night.

Day 403 – Sunday, June 1st 2014

We were going to visit an eagle hunter today, an ancient tradition almost unique to this area of the Altai mountains which uses trained eagles to hunt foxes and mountain hares during the winter months when the snow fall makes it too hard to spot the animals using normal hunting techniques. The guy at the guesthouse where we’d parked up drove us out towards a tiny dwelling in the middle of nowhere.

We were asked inside the family home where we joined them for tea, and then some more tea. And then, “alright, just one more, but five cups really is my limit’. They have some kind of fried dough pieces, and they’re eaten by biting off one end and dunking them in.

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The man of the house put on a traditional outfit, clearly reserved for when they get a visit from tourists and disappeared into an outhouse, returning with an enormous eagle on a leather gloved hand. He showed us his control of the bird, and then we took turns in holding her for ourselves. Not being the bird’s master, it had to keep its hood on, covering its eyes while we picked her up. It was heavy, but easy enough to control.

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We were due to have a demonstration of it hunting, but apparently she had been fed recently, and they do not hunt on a full stomach. Oh well, it was still good to have been so close to such an impressive beast, and nice to have met the family.

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Early in the afternoon we were back in Oglii, and spent the time getting ourselves organised and ready to move into Russia.

The guest house had a number of gers on their property, and we’d not yet slept in one – thinking that we couldn’t rightly leave Mongolia without giving it a go, we moved our bedding inside one and curled up for the night trying to stay as warm as we could.

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Day 404 – Monday, June 2nd 2014

Our last day in Mongolia, and the 100km up to the border was a mix of dirt and asphalt so took a good couple of hours. Exiting was pretty much a formality, we were missing some stamped piece of paper we were supposed to have taken from our entry to the country, but the guy in the customs office didn’t seem that bothered by it.

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The border checkpoint

And the gateway into Russia

And the gateway into Russia

Feeling like we’d successfully made it through one of the last major challenges of the trip, we knew that the roads would improve as we entered Russia, and from now it was just a matter of covering distance before we would be home – after all, we were now on Europe’s doorstep. Mongolia had been amazing, so different from anywhere else on our travels, and definitely somewhere that we would love to return – the magic of the mountains and the steppe is something that will stay with us for a long time to come.

 

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One thought on “Mongolia – When the Camel got the Hump, and other stories.

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