RUSSIA and MONGOLIA OVERLAND #4

Tashanta 20-July-2004


After driving 5800km through Eastern Siberia we have now travelled another 4100km through Mongolia. Travelling around Mongolia is unlike any other country we have been to. We had four different maps of Mongolia all of which did not correlate. What looked like a main highway on the maps was usually little more than tyre tracks in the dirt, sand or mud. There is hardly a sign post in the whole country. In Mongolia, roads connect nomads, most of whom by their nature keep moving so even the roads are semi-nomadic. While motor vehicles are an intrinsic way of life in the rest of the world, many Mongolians still embrace the horse as the most practical way of transport. Mongolians are very skilled horsemen, a legacy dating back to the glory days of Genghis Khan and the massive empire he established from Europe to the Far East. Due to the popularity of the horse and the lack of road funding there are few established roads except in Ulaanbaatar and a few major towns. The rest of the road infrastructure is predominantly little more than jeep tracks. Remote tracks quickly change into eight-lane dirt highways devoid of any traffic making navigation very difficult. At each town or village there are tracks radiating out in all directions. Knowing which track to take is very difficult and requires collaboration between the GPS,maps and constantly asking the locals which track to take. We soon discovered that if we asked for directions we would often be told how to get there by horse rather than road.  Despite summer being the rainy season we have had very few days of rain. We thought the tracks might be a quagmire but in fact the tracks were not muddy at all, much to our relief.  

We found the GPS to be extremely useful, but often only to validate that we were going in the right direction and confirming the directions the locals had given to us. Even with a GPS one still needs to know which road to take. The Mongolians have their own GPS system (Ger Positioning System) which involves asking directions at every GER and following the vague sweeps of the owners hand until you get to the next GER. Surprisingly enough we were able to find our way around Mongolia without a guide.

Mongolia has few ‘sights’ as such, apart from a couple of monasteries, a couple of lakes and the capital. The country’s real attraction lies in the untouched beauty of the countryside, the sense of space and the rich nomadic culture of the Mongolian people. As always, we camped all through Mongolia and had some wonderful camp sites. We camped in the desert under the stars, on the shores of crystal clear fresh water lakes, alongside streams and rivers and in beautiful grassy valleys cradled by tall mountains.

Mongolia is one of the highest countries in the world with an average elevation of 4500 feet. It is about the same size as Queensland and is know as the land without fences. All land in Mongolia is public land. There are blue skies for 260 days a year. Summer is the rainy season however showers are brief and gentle.

The first few days in Mongolia were spent looking around the capital, Ulaanbaatar. In UB some of the shop signs were in English. We were pleasantly surprised that more Mongolians spoke English than the Russian in Siberia. Kienny particularly enjoyed the much cleaner toilets. We ate at some very good restaurants. Kienny was even able to order a Chinese meal in Mandarin.  Prices in Mongolia are generally very cheap, especially taxis and Internet access. Fuel was a little more expensive than Russia. We typically ate one meal a day at a café or guanz. If you like mutton, Mongolia is the place to be. We have had some very tasty Buuz (steamed mutton dumplings), Kuurshuur (fried pancakes filled with meat), goulash with mashed potato and rice, and fantastic salads! We did eat very well and stayed very healthy.

We had been in touch with Scott via Email and so it was good to catch up with Scott in UB. Scott gave us some great tips about travelling through Mongolia. Seeing it was Friday afternoon Scott invited us to drinks at the British Embassy. Scott told us that the UB newspaper had recently published an article saying that the border post in Western Mongolia has recently been opened to tourists but as far we know nobody has yet passed through this border post. With this in mind we left UB hoping to be the first to use this new tourist border crossing. Scott and some other expatriates had planned on going to a pre-Naadam horse race on the day we were planning to leave UB so we decided to join them. Naadam is the biggest event of the Mongolian year. It is part family reunion, part fair and part Nomad Olympics. The three dominating sports are horse racing, wrestling, and archery. Winning at Naadam carries great prestige and financial reward.

We had a wonderful introduction to the Mongolian way of horse racing. It first started with the young riders, both boys and girls aged from 10 years old, singing the 'horse rider's song'.  Then we started following a small group of riders down a track for about 13km. We were joined by more horse riders the further we went. Eventually the numbers swelled to about 60 horses with 20 vehicles on either side of the horses. The air was filled with a sweet aroma of wild mint and wild lavender. There was much anticipation as the young horse riders manoeuvred themselves into the most advantageous positions. At a point not obvious to us the horses turned around and started galloping. All the vehicles were jostling with each other to do a U-turn and follow alongside the horse race.  It was rather comical as at times it was difficult to know if this was a horse race or a car rally. The young jockeys yelled and whipped their horses while their parents shouted encouragement from open car windows as they raced alongside the horses.  We are still not sure who the winner was but it was all great fun. Later in the day we said goodbye to everyone and headed south to start our adventure through Mongolia.

Our first destination was the Gobi desert. The track south started out a little muddy due to overnight rains but dried out as the day wore on. After all, Mongolia is described as the 'Land of the Blue Sky' - lovely weather in summer but bitterly cold in winter.  We spent the night just south of Mandalgovi. In the morning a Russian Minivan pulled up at our camp site. Two men came over to us talking Mongolian. At first we did not know what they wanted but after they took us to their vehicle and showed us an almost empty bottle connected to their fuel line, we realized that they were almost out of fuel. They were delighted when we gave them enough fuel to get to the next fuel station. While filling their tank the one way mirror windows along the sides of the minivan swung open. The minivan was packed with little children, teenagers, adults and some old grannies. They poked their heads out the windows and gave us their thumbs up. We were quite amazed when the driver offered to pay for the fuel.

We arrived at Dalandzadgad, which is the gateway to the Gobi desert, at lunch time. We were quite amazed that even here, in the heart of the Gobi desert in Southern Mongolia and not far from the Chinese border that there was access to the internet. It is amazing that the Internet has spread far and wide throughout Mongolia, which has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. The Internet café was full of Mongolians accessing hotmail and yahoo. We learnt that the Internet is available at most of the larger post offices throughout Mongolia.

Tom was concerned that unleaded fuel would not be readily available throughout Mongolia but even here in the Gobi desert high octane unleaded fuel, locally named A-93 benzene, was available. In fact we found A-93 in all of the bigger Mongolian towns. Diesel was readily available everywhere although not all fuel stations carry all types of fuel.

After lunch we headed to the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park to see Yolyn Am (which if literally translated means Vulture's Mouth). This gorge, despite being in the middle of the Gobi desert, has an icy glacier almost all year round.  In winter the ice is up to 10 metres high and is over 10km long. It remains frozen for most of the year except during late summer.

From here we headed north on a very deserted track. Two days later we return to civilization at Arvaikheer, having travelled close to 400 kilometers. Our next destination was Shankh Monastery. This is one of the few Monasteries to have survived Soviet domination, despite the monks being shipped off to Siberia. Not far away near Kharkhorin was our next destination, Erdene Zuu Khid Monastery. This is the older Buddhist Monastery in Mongolia and dates back to 1586. During soviet times this monastery survived as a museum and became an active monastery in1990 at the fall of communism. That afternoon we were approached by a young man speaking good English, offering us GER accommodation for US$7 each which we accepted. The camp had about 10 GER’s with hot showers, toilets, linen and restaurant facilities. Our GER had a linoleum floor with a piece of carpet in the centre, two beds, a couch and coffee table and a pot belly stove. We had an excellent meal along with two French tourists, a French agricultural student and their guides. This helped us appreciate how comfortable it can be living in a Mongolian GER.

The next morning we left for Tsetserleg. The main attraction here was to have a meal at the Fairview restaurant. The Lonely Planet Guide has following words of advice – “This restaurant is worth rearranging your whole itinerary around if you are on a long trip”. The well run restaurant serves delicacies such as pizza, lasagne, steak sandwiches and cinnamon buns, all at very reasonable prices. We had one of their specialities, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. It was yummy.

From here we headed west to Tosontsengel. The scenery along the way was stunning. We saw GER’s, horses, yaks, goats and sheep grazing on the rich green pastures with pine forests on either side of the river. There were fields full of wild flowers. Everything was very picturesque. Every turn revealed another photo opportunity. We spent one night on the banks of the Tariat Volcanic Lake but unfortunately it was raining and so we did not have the opportunity to explore. The track in places was very rough, Just before Tosontsengel a leg on the roof-rack cracked. In Tosentsengel we managed to find a welder, if you can call it that. The welder was home made and in very poor condition. We first had to wait until 6pm when power to the town would be turned on. At first the welder did not work so Geoff had to help them isolate the problem. It was all very dangerous as there were live wires dangling all over the ground. Once fixed, the roof-rack was repaired although the welding job was poor at best.

Whilst waiting Tom decided to top up his fuel from a Jerry can sitting in the back of our car. Above it was a plastic container which looked like a water bottle. On the side was a picture of a car battery in red. Tom thought it was water and took a mouthful. The next thing we heard was a loud scream. The bottle contained battery acid. Tom spat the acid out and doused himself with water. His clothes quickly turned to rags. Over the next day both Geoff and Kienny had to also throw their clothes away as there must have been spots of acid amongst the dust on the back of the car. It was an eventful afternoon but we were pleased to be on our way again and we camped not far out of town.

Our next destination was Khovsgol Nuur which is a large alpine lake with water so pure you can drink it. It is nestled by 6000 foot mountains, thick pine forests, and lush meadows with grazing yaks, cows and horses. This lake contains 2% of the worlds fresh water and is a sister lake to Lake Baikal in Russia which is only 195km to the North East. This is Mongolia’s top scenic attraction. Despite this we only saw a handful of overseas tourists. The place however was very busy with local Mongolian tourists. We spent a delightful day camping on the shores of the lake. As we were leaving the Lake at Khatgal and again in Moron we saw the Naadam horse races. In Moron we met Andrew and Leah, who are Australian tourists riding push bikes around Mongolia. At the speed we are able to travel in Troopy on the Mongolian roads, travelling by push bike is not a bad way to go.

From here we continued our journey west. We arrived in Tsagaan Uul just as the Naadam wrestling events were starting. We saw young boys and later the older Mongolian men wrestling. Many of the local people attending the event were dressed in traditional costume. It was a very colourful event and had the atmosphere of an Australian country show day. After more consultation with the locals we found the road heading west out of town to Zungovi, Ulaangom and Tsagaannuur. For three days we travelled and only saw two other vehicles. Both were broken down and desperate for water. All three days were very hot. The second car had caught on fire leaving five people stranded with no shade or water for a day. Everyone was in poor condition and very dehydrated. We took three of them with us to Ulaangom so that they could arrange help. We spent the night camped on the edge of town and in the morning we refuelled, checked our Email at the post office and headed for Tsagaannuur to see if the border post with Russia was indeed open for Tourists. On leaving Ulaangom we were delighted to have driven on the first bitumen road we had seen in weeks and one the few bitumen roads in Mongolia. Unfortunately it only lasted 30km.

From here we travelled over three mountain passes. This road appears to be rarely travelled but was very scenic. The second pass starts at the southern end of Lake Uureg Nuur. We asked a couple on a motorbike for directions but unfortunately after climbing a very rough 8400 foot pass we decided that this was the wrong road. We next took the road that hugged the lake and looked most used. The track following a creek upstream started out quite rough but improved as we climbed higher and higher up the valley. Some of the track was on an unnerving angle to the mountain, especially for Troopy with its well loaded roof-rack. A number of times we had no option but to drive on these steep angles and were worried that we would tip over. Riding fast on a velodrome is one thing but bouncing a heavy vehicle on a steep angle is very scary.  At the top of the pass there was a beautiful high 8000 feet plateau of open grasslands surrounded by snow capped mountain peaks. There were GERs everywhere horsemen, tending their goats, cows and yaks. It was one of the most beautiful areas we have seen in Mongolia. The pass we took was not the main track but according to the GPS we did eventually join it.

The track down the mountain followed a narrow gravel creek bed. This led us to a very desolate area. It was odd to see creeks full of water from the melting snow on the surrounding mountains. We followed the track marked on the GPS but we believe this diverted us from the main road. We ended up in a ghost town named Bohmoron. The town had water flowing down the streets and was amongst a huge flood plain. At the western end of the town was a very picturesque rocky outcrop. We were not sure which track to take out of town. Fortunately we found one family who was still living in the town. The husband offered to show us the way as we had to negotiate many creek crossings to get to the main road. This was difficult enough for us in Troopy but even worse for Tom on his motorbike. There were some really fast flowing wide creek crossings which took both Tom and Geoff’s full strength to get the bike across. As if travelling this 8km stretch was not bad enough, we had to actually do it three times since we needed to return our guide back to his home. By the time we got back it was almost dark. The flies and mosquitoes were incredibly thick and all we could do to escape the onslaught was to hop into bed. The next morning we drove to Tsagaannuur. The road from Ulaangom to Tsagaannuur was one of the highlights of our trip. It was very remote but had spectacular scenery. Once again we did not see a single vehicle. We were very thankful that neither Troopy nor the Motorcycle broke down.

Our intention was to check at the Mongolian border post to see if the border was indeed open for tourists. The only positive news that the border was open was an article that Scott had given to us which was published in the Ulaanbaatar Post. Everyone else we had spoken to, including the Mongolian Consulate in Irkutsk and the Russian Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, had said the border was closed. The border town on the Mongolian side is named Tsagaannuur whilst on the Russian side the town is Tashanta. The two towns are 28km apart.  If it was open then we planned to spend some time looking around the Altai Mountains in Mongolia before crossing into Russia. If the border was closed it would mean doing a 4500km backtrack through Mongolia and Russia. On arriving at the border we came to the realization that the only way that we could determine whether we could get through was to do it. So reluctantly we pressed forward. Unfortunately we arrived just before lunch so we had to wait for 2 hours. After lunch it took another three hours to exit Mongolia. We are not sure why it took so long. The military officer in charge at the border took down our passport details and details of our travels through Russia and Mongolia. He then rang his superior officer to ask permission for us to exit Mongolia. After getting approval we had to clear customs. This took some time as there was only one customs officer and he was busy working on trucks coming in from Russia. After spending six hours at the Mongolian border, two hours of which the border was closed for lunch, we exited Mongolia and headed for Russia.

The actual border post was 5km away. The Russians were expecting us so obviously the Mongolians had spoken to the Russian border post to make sure that we were allowed to cross into Russia.  The main Russian immigration and customs post was another 23km down the road. To our surprise we were ushered through Immigration and Customs proceedings and within an hour and a half we were in Russia.  We felt like Royalty as we were given preferential treatment every step of the way. All officials were very friendly and efficient.  The border post is very modern and everything is computerised. Some of the officials even spoke a little English. We were told that we were the first tourists to cross from Mongolia to Russia as the border crossing was only opened a few months prior. The border post opens between 9am and 7pm and is closed for lunch between 12pm and 2pm.

We were relieved that we did not have to do a 4500km backtrack through Mongolia and Russia however we were also sad to leave Mongolia earlier than anticipated. Mongolia is such a wonderful country with such wonderful people. It is nice to be able to camp anywhere and feel safe. If anyone is looking for 'adventure travel' then Mongolia is the ideal destination. Our costs in Mongolia averaged out at US$12/day per person and if one excludes fuel it is less that US$2/day.

It feels strange to be back in Russia again with sealed roads and even detailed road signs. Despite this, the adventure continues.

You can see pictures for this part of our journey by clicking here. Our WEB site containing our travels in Africa and Russia is http://overland.dreamers1.com.

Best Wishes,
Geoff and Kienny Kingsmill
Email: gkingsmill@yahoo.com
WEB: http://overland.dreamers1.com

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