Hello, dear readers. It’s Cameron here once again, bringing you more tales from the road to Ulaanbaatar.
I’ve just added a page documenting our breakdowns and other car failures. It will no doubt have grown amusingly by the time we reach our destination.
As you may recall, our last post concluded with us arriving in Russia on Thursday afternoon. At the first town after the border, we stopped for lunch. Adon was feeling unwell, so the plan was to stop at a supermarket and buy some supplies that Patrick and I could eat in the car. We didn’t have any Russian Roubles on us, but the supermarket looked major enough that we figured they’d take credit cards. Taking out basket loaded up with nuts, dried fruit, water, juice, cheese, chocolate and some kind of mysterious Russian meat from the deli, we discovered… the supermarket didn’t take cards. They didn’t want our American Dollars or Kazakh Tenge either. Fortunately another customer directed us to a nearby ATM, after which we were able to return to the supermarket and complete the transaction.
We made fairly slow progress for the rest of the day, partly because of Adon continuing to not feel well, but mainly because the roads shown as “minor sealed roads” on our map varied from nice smooth highways that we could easily cruise at 110 km/h along to corrugated gravel roads with frequent potholes. Eventually we made it to the town of Belokurikha and decided to call it a night, with the aim of getting up early and covering the rest of the distance to the border on Friday. Belokurikha was a bit of a tourist trap – unfortunately designed for Russian tourists who spoke Russian, and everybody seemed a bit confused by the foreign tourists they found in their midst. When we first turned up, we found a five star hotel in the centre of town and gestured for a room. Where in every other country we’d been through, our hand gestures and foreign gabbling had been intelligible enough for the hotel staff to make a guess at what we wanted, here both Russian receptionists were completely flummoxed. One of them showed a little initiative and phoned a friend who spoke English, and so we were able to carry on a slightly roundabout conversation. Unfortunately a room for the three of us would cost over 8000 roubles, or nearly $300 for the night. Fortunately they were able to direct us to a hotel over the road which provided a room for 2100 roubles ($70). It had no hot water, but did have wireless internet.
The scenery through this part of Russia has been nothing short of spectacular. The middle of Kazakhstan had been a bit like central Australia, but as we got close to the northern side of the country it started to get a bit more lush. By the time we were in Russia, it was beautifully green everywhere, reminiscent of western Europe but still retaining that less-populated feeling we’d felt in Kazakhstan. Driving further beyond the Russian border took us through mountain ranges, small rural villages and farmland.
Rather than driving the main highways and a couple of larger towns, we chose a route taking us through rural back roads and smaller towns. The roads varied a lot, ranging from nice smooth tarmac where we could cruise at 110 km/h to unsealed dirt roads, usually in good condition but every now and again with surprise giant potholes. After a while we made it to the semi-autonomous Republic of Altai, where we were forbidden from leaving the main road. We kind of didn’t strictly achieve this, as we crossed into Altai on a dirt road about 7km before the main road, but I feel that in spirit we obeyed the law.
Altai was, if anything, even more beautiful than the part of Russia we’d just been through before. It seemed like quite a popular holiday destination for Russians, with people kayaking on the rivers / streams. Many of the rivers we saw were an amazing pale turquoise colour, which reminded me of New Zealand and Adon of Humpty Doo.
Somewhere along the route we stopped at a roadside cafe, where we had what we think was goat goulash, along with our first cup of coffee in days. Patrick reckons it was really good coffee. I enjoyed it too, but I’m fairly sure it was instant and it was only because it had lots of sugar and I hadn’t had coffee for so long that I didn’t mind. Whatever. We also loaded up on snacks and consumed tasty icecream.
By around 8pm on Friday night we made it to the Mongolian border. The border had closed but we saw a minibus parked outside. This turned out to be a group of Canadians / English, team “Gone To Mongolia“, a.k.a. Jilla, Sean, Doug and Rowen. They were taking part in the Mongolia Charity Rally, which is not to be confused with the Mongol Rally – same idea, different event organisers. This should probably make them our sworn enemiess, except that they actually turned out to be pretty cool people. There were four of them, an extended family of sorts, in a small bus. The bus seemed kind of like cheating to us, but the practicality advantages were undeniable, and it did seem to have provided at least as much hilarity to them as the Skoda had to us. We’d actually overtaken them on the way to the Russian border, but they’d beaten us to this border by about an hour or two by taking the longer but better quality roads on the main highway. They had also been in a real hurry thanks to an incident of paperwork when obtaining their visas meaning that they were only allowed to stay in Russia for two days; whereas we’d been taking it slow.
We stayed a while chatting with the Canadians. As we were about to set up our camp stove and make dinner, they offered us their leftover salmon and vegetable pasta. We felt terribly guilty about accepting but after some hesitation, did so nevertheless. We shared our teabags and Laphroaig with them in return.
Around this time we also met a Russian chap by the name of Cherga and his friend whose name escapes me. Cherga had studied English for a couple of years and so could make somewhat passable conversation. He offered us a bottle of vodka – which I had assumed at first was for us to have a drink out of, but soon it became clear that the entire bottle was a gift! The Canadians gave him a small bottle of whisky in return.
Cherga’s friend, meanwhile, pulled out a knife and said “man!”. This unnerved us a little. To try to clarify his meaning, he thrust his pelvic region a bit and gestured with his hands and knife emanating from his manly parts, then said “man!!” once more. Apparently having a large knife is what makes you a man. After some more confused conversation, it seems like he was once in the special forces. Adon pulled out his pocket knife and the Russian laughed, making gestured which I suspect meant something like “small man”. He had two knives intended as presents, one for me and one for one of the Canadians.
Then we helped Cherga push-start his car (“Russia car! Need help to go!”) and they departed.
This whole episode left me feeling very confused and lacking in generosity.
After that, we stayed chatting with the Canadians for a while, agreed to convoy through Mongolia for a bit. I think we were all very happy to have people who we could speak to easily in English, and who had also been through quite similar experiences in the last few weeks.
Saturday morning we got up early, drank the Canadians’ delicious filter coffee and provided them with some of our muesli which they had run out of. Then we got to the border just as it opened. The Russian side at tashenka was fairly straightforward, although I was required to fill out the departure form three times before I got it right. Apparently declaring that we have foreign currency just wastes everybody’s time, and we were exporting our car rather than using it to transit through Russia. They also required our Kazakhstan customs declaration, which fortunately we had kept. Paperwork mountain complete, we moved on to the Mongolian side of the border.
At the Russian border we also met a trio of Italians in a Fiat Panda: Marco, Paolo and Luigi. Most Italian names ever.
After driving a few kilometres on a fairly good road, we came to the first Mongolian checkpoint. Having verified that we all had passports with Mongolian visas, they let us through. The roads instantly turned to crap, a bumpy dirt road full of potholes. After another few kilometres, we reached the Mongolian border complex.
We went first through the Mongolian customs process. It was fairly straightforward but involved lots of photocopying of documents, lots of information being entered into computers and lots of print-outs being signed, stamped, photocopied, stamped, and signed again. They also took a quick squiz at the insides of our car, presumably to satisfy the customs regulaions and verify that we aren’t openly smuggling drugs or terrorists or whatever. Then they took a photo of our car with a bright pink digital camera. It was unclear to what extend this final bit was part of the official customs process and to what extent it was for their own amusement. Eventually, we were in posession of a piece of paper entitling us to import our car permanently into Mongolia, and our English car registration document had lots of stamps on it saying that the poor Skoda had left England for good.
While I (Cameron) had been attending the customs side of things, Patrick and Adon had been investigating the source of a squishy noise from our suspension. It turns out that our rear right-hand spring had snapped in two, and had then rotated so it wasn’t properly supporting the car. With the aid of axle stands borrowed from our fellow travellers, they managed to remove the broken part of the spring and reattach the larger part, about 80% of the original length. Heaps better than nothing, or what we had before. Obtaining stiffer springs before we left England would have been a good idea in retrospect.
After we’d cleared the Mongolian customs process, the border guards stopped for lunch. The Italians and the Canadians were told to wait until after lunch, and we decided to wait with them because we’d rather have company through Mongolia. Some more cars arrived at the border. More waiting. Eventually the border officials returned from lunch. We waited some more.
We stayeed chatting with the other teams while the officials did whatever it is they needed to do with all of the paperwork. At some point we realised it was after 5pm, and thought it might be an idea to get a move on. We agreed we’d drive to the first town, Tsagaannuur, and wait for the others there.
With Patrick at the wheel, we cleared the final border gate and drove off into the Mongolian wilderness. The road was mostly good but corrugated, with a few sections that we quite rocky. The scnery was still spectacular, yet quite different from the Russian side. This time we were in rugged, mountainous terrain, heading towards the Gobi desert.
Tsagaannuur turned out to be a town so small that we drove past it without realising until afterwards. Shortly after that, Patrick noticed that the brakes weren’t working particularly well. He pulled over and noticed that there was some kind of fluid dripping on the ground. Adon and I were pretty sure it wasn’t anything important but Patrick prodded the brakes and more fluid spurted out. So maybe it was important after all. As we sat around discussing what to do about the ruptured brake line, the others who we’d left behind at the border crossing arrived.
Luckily, one of the others (driving a Daihatsu Terios, unsure of team name) came up with a cunning solution and even had the required bits to implement it: snip the brake line, put a screw in it to plug the leak and then secure it with putty and various other things. So he and Patrick fixed the brakes while everybody else stood around gawking. Efficient!
Then we were back on the road again, this time in a convoy of five teams. Together we drove to the town of Ulgiy. The roads were pretty good, culminating in a nice strip of bitumen for 10 km or so which let us zoom into our first Mongolian town, feeling like heroes. The Mongolians seemed really excited to see our convoy arrive, too, with people on the streets waving at us as we drove past. One of the other teams we were travelling with reckoned we’d be able to find a ger or yurt to stay in. After asking for directions several times and being pointed in a number of contradictory directions, we ended up at Blue Wolf Ger Camp. The sign outside advertised free internet and hot shower. We were hooked on the concept right away.
For $10 each we got to stay in a really quite comfortable yurt, with a nice bed, shower, electricity and wireless internet. There was also a restaurant next door, where we stayed eating and talking until well after midnight.
And that’s where our story ends for the moment. We have about 1700 km remaining until we reach Ulaanbaatar, or about 240 km per day on average if we’re going to make it there in time to catch our flight home. So there’s no rush – we can take it easy on the rubbish roads, enjoy the scenery and towns we pass through, and chill out with the others doing the rally.
Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back before breakfast!