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 just made the Kazakhstan/Russia border by night fall. It was a little windy and some of the coldest weather we've experienced since Europe. The Kazakh guards were all very friendly, and unusually thorough. Our car got its first semi-decent search, they got us to take everything out of the boot and even had a look at the spare, though not really checking the rest of the car. As ever they asked beforehand if we were carrying any heroin. We proceeded to passport control where my two passports were given even more attention than normal. Slowly more and more senior officials were called, until a small huddle formed, all looking at my passports in puzzled silence, as if they were trying to crack a particularly hard maths problem or crossword clue. The trouble is, once they've decided there's a problem they can't really just let you through without loosing face, you have to come up with some new piece of evidence for them to go "Aaaah, that's ok then." Eventually I pointed out, for the second time, that upon entering the country I'd had both my visa (in my old passport) stamped and my new passport stamped, and we were on our way.
Russia is a serious country and I was expecting a serious border, but it was actually one of the easiest entries we've had. The easiest I would say, very quick and straight forward.
By this time it was 9pm and very dark. We'd always planned to camp the other side of the border as Novosibirsk was quite a drive away, and we'd had to leave Kazakhstan as you have to register after five days and we were on our fifth day. So we drove a little way into Russia, turned into a side road, drove enough of a distance to be hidden from the road (so we thought) setup camp and had noodles with egg for dinner. Again.
We were awoken by the sound of a vehicle. It was definitely coming towards us. I knew it was going to stop at our tent. It stopped at our tent. There was a shout. Probably in Russian. I reluctantly unzipped the door. There were three Russian soldiers with guns standing around their Lada 4x4. Kai got up and I started to pack away our things. We didn't share much in the way of language, but once they'd seen our passports they left. We weren't sure if they wanted us to leave or not, but three guys with guns worked pretty well as an alarm clock and it was past 7am so we decided to leave, without even the cup of tea we'd offered the soldiers.
So after our early start we headed for Novosibirsk and the road was fine.
We made a wrong turning getting into Lenina, the place to hang about and ended up having to cross the river Ob (strangely the same name as "water" in Persian) again and I was furious. Traffic was pretty awful.
Anyway, after that navigation blunder (google maps routing does not work here) we did find parking and we nervously checked into Centralnaya Hotel. Centralnaya looked like a typical Soviet hotel and it is. However it's the best run hotel of its kind. Its a little dear, but those of us who have had nightmares staying in similar looking hotels should try this. Everything works. Including Internet. And it has a fantastic central location.
We then had a leisurely lunch at "Pechki Lavochki", an excellent Russian restaurant a few doors up. The food was great and it was just so awesome not to be in some shithole for lunch or eating Ramen (again) on the road.
In 2004 I took this photo of Novosibirsk's theatre
Again in 2011, the roads are better and the roof is looking good. Otherwise, nothing has changed drastically like Kazakhstan, which personally I find comforting.
He asked us lots of questions about the Mongol Rally, and like my other journalist friend in Kazakhstan, seemed to have little idea that 300 or so teams are gallivanting across their backyard!
Later his colleague met with us from their Novosibirsk news site, asking us about our impressions of the town, since not many tourists come here. Tbh I think Novosibirsk has a lot going for it:
- It's on the trans-siberian railroad
- It's not an overbearing city like Moscow or St. Petersburg
- Great Russian food can be found here
- Best Jazz club in the world here, Tuba
- Providing you have a host or contact, they treat you like gold
- Lots of students and there is some nearby science town
After a lot of good conversation with Kas, his wife & colleague, Jamie and I wound up in the said Novosibirsk Jazz institution to see some remarkable impromptu performances by locals. Fantastic stuff.
The next morning we are taking it easy since from this point on, it's camping. I've now booked my flight out for the 12th to see my sister and girlfriend. Jamie is off on the 10th. So we have 9 days to reach Ulan Bator, else Jamie misses his flight back home to dreary London. Wish us luck!
However we can't figure out if the Russia / Azerbaijan border crossing is possible.
- A friend in Georgia, says her Azeri friend says it's open
- I called the Azeri embassy in London, he says it's open