We set off for the Altai Mountains from Novosibirsk by keeping to the rather good M52 road. We knew we were in the Altai when we started seeing these quite beautiful mountains and accompanying rivers. There were many guest houses and some camp spots on the way, though none seemed suitable to us. Too close to a house. Too close to a road.
As dusk fell we found ourselves in a very wet misty area of the Altai where the road struck off from the main river. After some abortive searching we found a suitable place, though the road was too muddy to take our Micra to our camp site. We ended up parking the car by the road and carrying our stuff to the sodden camping ground near a worryingly high stream. We setup just before a downpour. In the rain we cooked Ramen and we ate it in the tent. Thunder and lightning made it a bit of a dreary/exciting night, nonetheless I am kind of glad to have the experience.
The next day we were back on the M52 heading for Tashanta. After a couple of hours the damp mist lifted and a warming sun came out. We stopped and made eggs with smoked wieners on the bank of a scenic [apart from all the rubish :(] river where we found out that we had been featured in an online Nsk newspaper, being the most popular article (15,000 hits!) and even acquired a female fan! We laid out all our wet camping gear, which dried very quickly in the morning sun. The news, the drying and the breakfast all lifted our previously damp [haha] spirits and we hit the road, very keen to get into Mongolia.
Somewhat surprisingly the landscape very quickly changed from green mountainsides to light brown sandy slopes. It looked like Mongolia all of a sudden. Usual border crossing shenanigans entailed, including our first really thorough search upon leaving Russia, though I felt like a veteran at this stage and I was almost sad that it was our last one!
It was off that the Russian immigration officer wanted 100 rubles in some registration fee. What cheek. It was worse on the Mongolian side. A 5USD disinfectant fee? Passport control offering to change money? Various fees from 7 to 10 dollars for god knows what. Anyhoo, we got through.
There was a list of all the Mongol ralliers and it was interesting to see that yes, indeed, we were one of the very last to cross.
We met 2 Norwegians in a fire truck which was good. Then on the road we met the four motorcyclists/mopedists we'd met in Turkey, who'd already stopped to camp. They were in good spirits and I must say they must have had quite a strenuous rally! From the insurance office on the border we'd picked up a female hitch hiker, who later sang in our car, which provided us some entertainment on the way to Olgii.
We were keen to get to Olgii as Team America had been in touch with us, they must have realised we were only a day behind and were looking for someone to travel with to UB. We were too tbh, so I was glad to see their invite. We are about to breakfast with them and they are keen to go off the beaten track and take the more challenging "Northern route". As opposed to the "Southern route" which the Mongol Rally handbook seems to only mention. Tbh I am keen to do the track other ralliers do, but then again I am brimming with confidence.
As the handbook says, fast speeds and big rocks end badly. It also mentions if everything goes well, you should make UB in 5 days. Jamie now has 6.5 days until his flight, so this going to be tight.
We travelled for most of the day in convoy with the five other teams, having fun with the driving, sliding around and racing each other. Micras are definitely well suited to Mongolian roads, Mud Lab's 1.6L Peugeot 306 the only one able to keep up with the two Micras.
After lunch Kai and I and Mud Lab broke away from the four other teams and made it into Altay, Mud Lab running low on both fuel and money. We milled around in the town for a bit, picking up some supplies & money, Mud Lab making some more repairs. This time, worryingly, to their brakes, having already had to fix a fuel leak on the way.
I decided I was tired of noodles and fancied eating in a restaurant. A helpful gentleman said, through a translator on the phone, that he would show us a place. He got in our car and we literally drove around the block. He showed us a restaurant. The guy on the phone then said we should give him 15,000 of the local currency. Reluctantly I did. He refused asking for 20,000. By this time Kai was still sitting in the drivers seat, but I was out of the car and the guy was blocking my way. Eventually Kai started to drive off, I jumped in the front seat and we sped off back to Mud Lab. Considering that it was just around the corner we were concerned that we might have an angry Mongolian or two on our tail and were rather put off Altay.
Kai and I decided to go ahead and scout out potential camp sites, but when we found how cold and windy it was went back into town to have a look at hotels. We weren't impressed and together with Mud Lab and their newly working brakes headed out. We aimed for what we thought could be a natural wind break over a hill, but managed to end up in a natural wind tunnel. It started to rain.
The next day was slow going, partially due to the bad roads, but mostly due to Mud Lab's bad luck. (Or perhaps poor planing in choosing a Peugeot ;).) After a couple of hours driving they sailed over a ridge and hit the other side, blew both airbags, dislodging their front grill and fan. As they couldn't reattach the fan their car started to overheat at regular intervals and they would have to stop and point their car straight into the wind for a while. Moments after one of these stops they discovered one of their tyres had split.
Towards evening the wind was really getting up, causing something like a dust storm, as we approached a gher camp and large river. Looking at our maps it seemed that the road was on the other side of the river. Several locals pointed us in the direction of the river and one offered to tow us across in his tractor for $30 each. We were dubious and waited. After a while a mini bus approached and we followed it, watching as it crossed the river, from one island to another. We followed in its footsteps. It was pretty nerve racking to be honest, especially as there were about four crossings in total, two of which we hadn't seen the mini bus cross, but we made it. I really regret not taking a picture of what greeted us, a desolate, apocalyptic even, vision of dust caught by the sun blowing across several ghers and virtually nothing else for as far as the eye could see.
By this time there was only an hour or two of sunlight left, and we'd only done about 250km of 400km, but we decided to press on. The roads got even worse and our speed slowed and slowed as night drew in, and the wind got colder. About 40km from Bayankhongor the road started to get quite wet and muddy. About 10km from town Mud Lab looked like they got stuck in mud. Their car sounded like it wasn't quite in gear. Ale reckons they might have a broken Axel. We managed to tow them out of the worst of the mud they were in, but didn't think we'd make it the 10km due to the mud, we were having difficulty getting just ourselves out of some of it. So we left them there and went to get help. Practically over the next hill we were able to see the lights of the town and had mobile signal and were able to call the Adventurists hot line, but by the time we got back to Mud Lab to give them the good news they'd already managed to get a tow from a Mongolian mining magnate.
Kai and I visited several hotels before picking one we liked and were just checking in when who should turn up but Mud Lab!
That was last night. We woke this morning, opened the curtains and thanked our lucky stars.
We towed the Peugeot 306 to the drop off point in Bayanhongor and said goodbye to the Icelanders. They were going to catch a bus and meet us in UB (Ulaanbaatar).
Altai to Bayanhongor definitely seemed like the hardest stretch and we saw 5 or 6 cars at the drop off point that also didn't finish. We ate our last packet of Nong Shim Ramen from the 20 pack box I bought back in New Malden and we got underway by 2pm. I was quite worried we might be pushing our luck as we had been told that it would take 4-5hrs to get to Arvaikheer. Thankfully the weather was fine, most of the snow seemed to disappear and we made it in 4.5hrs. This was our last piece of dirt road, since we knew the next leg was all sealed. How I am going to miss those Mongolian roads, they were really good fun. Intense concentration was required.
So we arrived in Arvaikheer with an hour of sunlight left, so we thought we had plenty of time to evaluate its hotels. The first one was a building site outside, but was warm and an OK standard, but a bit dear at ~40USD. The next place didn't have its heating on and it had a policemen's party on the floor below. You could clearly hear the excruciating Karaoke from below. The next places were shitholes and we were directed by a Mongolian guide to a couple of other hotels, but we frustratingly couldn't find them. After an hour I thought we should go for the very first hotel, only to find the room was now unavailable. Tired, cold, hungry and frustrated. Not a good combination. So we settled on the place with the Karaoke and we told it would finish by 11pm. Which it did actually, thankfully.
Next we tried to find food and we did find a place with a waitress who was about 16 but amazingly could speak English. We ate dinner and breakfast there. Breakfast is a nerve racking affair in Mongolia. I am in wonder how they will screw up the eggs. Broken? Stone cold? Anything is possible.
I almost forgot to mention we went next door to a night club called "New Leader" in Arvaikheer. It was cold, the sound system sounded like the speakers were all blown. The music was a bit hardcore and there tables of mostly hard looking men ordering a beer for each and a large bottle of vodka for the table. No doubt people were going to get seriously drunk!
Anyway Arvaikheer was our last night on the road and I was miserable, I hope you can tell by reading this.
Driving in Mongolia is a lot of fun. The roads tend to be very wide, usually gravelly, or if you're really lucky very sandy and often splitting off into 2, 3 or even six different paths. There are often obstacles, some of them moving, including camels, stones and various types of holes, dips and ridges.
We spent our second night in Mongolia in a gher camp setup by one of the Mongolians actually doing the rally in Khovd. It was to be the last night of his camp and he had already taken down most of the ghers.
The next day we started the long drive to Altay, apparently the worst bit of the Southern route across Mongolia. I may be tempting fate here, but it really hasn't been that bad so far, more of the above. The worst is the small, regular ridges, possibly caused by tracked vehicles in the winter. The cars vibrate painfully, until you reach the Sweet Spot. Usually at about 90kph.
To our great pleasure We'd met the Icelandic team, Mud Lab, yet again, in Khovd and left with them in the morning, east. In the evening we came across two other teams, Modern Nomads (Kit from Norway) and Hit the Road Yak (George and Matt) and then another two teams that they'd been in convoy with, Fear and Alexes in Mongolia (Alex, whose team mate had had to fly to Ulan bater to get a rabies jab after being bitten by a dog in Khovd) and Banana Hammock (Heather and Justin), which made six teams in total, the largest convoy we've travelled with.
(I would like to to treat the next bit like an episode of Casualty, what could possibly go wrong in the following situation?)
The four teams we'd met had this game they played, called rocky rock, where
they would all throw stones at a specific rock, trying to hit it. A little
while after starting this game,
someone, George I think, Alex aimed a small rock at
Kit's car, hitting the back window and shattering it. Like all good geeks, he
fixed it with duct tape. Taping up the whole window.
We moved on. We were one of the last cars. Just after a particular sandy
section of road we found Kit and his car, pointing in the wrong direction. He'd
spun and both left tyres had deflated, he decided due to the seal being broken
rather than punctures. Luckily he had two spares, changed them with us watching
and we were on our way. The other teams had stopped up ahead to camp and we
formed a bit of a circle with our wagons. Kit was determined to make a fire and
started chopping up a bit of wood he had with an axe. We joked that with the
luck he'd had he shouldn't be wielding an axe. Kit gathered some dung and
asked for some petrol. Being as my mum has always drummed into me not to use
petrol on fires I didn't volunteer our petrol and hoped he could find something
a little less flammable. The next thing we knew he was opening a very large
jerry can in the middle of the circle. For some reason the can was pressurised
and very full and sprayed petrol as it was opened. Unfortunately one team had
already started cooking and in the moment that we all stood, staring in
disbelief the petrol ignited. Now Hollywood (and Casualty) may have lead you to
believe that the petrol on the ground will burn in a nice line until it reaches
the full can at which point the can will explode and everyone dies. Let me tell
you from experience that this is not what happens. The spilt petrol all
ignited simultaneously, everyone ran for their lives and then there was a calm
moment as everything just burned. Luckily none of the petrol had reached the
car. Unfortunately Kit had been sprayed and was now on fire.
Someone, George I
believe Alex, redeeming himself from breaking Kit's back windscreen managed to put
Kit out and the rest of us stood in shock. Kai was the first to remember that
we actually had a fire extinguisher and handed it to me, later saying that he
didn't want to be the one caught in any explosion. Kit's burns didn't seem too
bad, though obviously relatively serious and apparently very painful. Kit
happened to have set his video camera up on a tripod and filmed the whole
thing. Several of us wondered if he'd done the whole thing on purpose
The tarmacked road from Arvaikheer was pretty uneventful. There were some bad patches with huge potholes that would probably shock most European drivers, but by this time Jamie and I have seen (and possibly hit) every state of road detriment possible.
We ate some dry food packs from the Icelanders and I must say they were awful compared to Nong Shim with an egg. I am going to miss our little camp lunches on our butane powered Korean stove.
As we entered Ulaanbaatar we had to navigate bad roads and a ton of traffic. Painfully but surely we found the Adventurist Mongol Rally finish line. Of course it was a little anti-climatic. There was no one there to greet us. Though a fellow rallier who finished a week before, Kathleen from https://teamrecklessabandon.org/ was passing and congratulated us and gave us some advice where to stay and eat etc, which was helpful.
We settled on Seoul Hotel, checked in and then went for a Korean meal. Other teams like Team Bear joined us and surprisingly the restaurant served items from North Korea. Joviality ensued and I thought it was quite a good celebratory dinner.
Later we went to an Irish bar and drank some more. Delightfully I received a call over Skype from the Icelanders. They had been in town since the morning! They had taken an overnight bus from Bayankhongor and actually beat us to UB by several hours. However they recalled the 15 person minibus carrying 21 people and a lot of luggage, how cold it was and their "brace ball" position they adopted for the 13hr journey. So we met at the State department store which is by far the easiest landmark in UB and went back to Irish bar... to drink some more.
I became pretty drunk and ended up in some over-forties live music joint a taxi ride away with Thor & Egill. We suitably partied the night away and entertained quite a hangover the next day.
So I'm alone now, no Icelanders or Jamie to entertain myself.
Yesterday I was aiming to watch the Rugby world cup, though whilst trying to find the recommended expat bar Casablanca at Hotel Bayangor in Ulaanbaatar, I was invited to ride on a bus with the Uzbekistan national Judo team to the Judo World Cup. I accepted the offer and it made my day. Took me some time to understand how the points were scored, the most important one is when you manage to fling your opponent on their back.
The opening ceremony was weird at first with a Ghinggis Kahn brigade on horses crapping everywhere. The second phase was a parade of participating countries, however none of the participating countries athletes actually paraded. Only Mongolians holding the flags of the countries, which I thought was a bit odd. The final part of the opening ceremony was the best. It had some Mongolians dancing and I took a video, which I'll share here later TODO.
I left after 3 hours of entertainment to try catch the second half of the England/Argentina rugby game. This was a mistake and I was stuck in traffic for an hour since a vehicle hit a passing train. UB's traffic problems are frankly bonkers, when trains intersect key roads (like the one from the airport), you just have to wonder what idiot came up with this.
I did catch the last minutes of the rugby game to see England scrape through. I then wondered around town like an alien and settled on a huge UB burger for dinner. I then tried to play Counter Strike with the locals but there were frustrating problems with joining the server, so I spend the rest of the evening reading Wikipedia about Mongolian history, dress and combat strategies.
Random thoughts about Mongolia
This probably applies to any country that uses the Cyrillic alphabet, though I find it extremely annoying how the latin / english versions of place names vary in spelling. You might have noticed some inconsistencies in our posts. This makes it really hard to search for things at times. I probably need to read https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanization_of_Russian and weep.
Still something like Ulaanba(a)tar or "Ghinggis Kahn" could be consistently spelled could it not? Variations for example could be Genghis Khan, or Khaan. Nightmare!
What's the deal with the random swastika symbols in UB?
Why can't these people negotiate like other Asian countries?
Why have Mongolian people on two occassions just given me money?