RUSSIA and MONGOLIA OVERLAND #3

Ulaan Baatar 2-July-2004


After driving through a 2000km road construction zone through the heart of Siberia it was a most welcome and pleasant change to be on good bitumen road going between Chita and Ulan Ude. Before Chita we were driving through Taiga country but now the countryside had totally changed. We were now driving through beautiful farming land fringed by pine forested mountains. Once again we were never far from the trans-siberian railway. Even though at times we could not see the rail line we could certainly hear the trains. The train line is amazingly busy with one train after the next. The whole line is electrified. Most trains have two engines and carry all sorts of goods ranging from timber and fuel to passengers.  On the busier sections of the line there is a train every two minutes, certainly different from the trains in Australia.

Heating the towns and cities is very interesting. Hot water is piped from a central furnace or power station to each home. There are massive insulated pipes running through town. Some are a rusty metal colour whilst others are painted in bright colours. We have been drinking the local tap water wherever we go. In many towns there is a communal tap or water pump where water can be obtained. At other times we have filled up with spring water gushing out from pipes straight from mountain streams.

We read that food in Russia is pretty bland consisting of mostly cabbage and potato. What a myth this is. We have had great food and have been eating very well. Normally we would do our own cooking but we have found it is much easier and convenient to eat at the road side cafes. We typically stop at road side cafes that have lots of cars and trucks parked outside which is a good indication that the food must be good. We particularly like borsch (vegetable and meat soup), pazhardka (roast meat with ‘smashed’ potato) and poszi (steamed Buryat meat dumplings). We have been surprised at how health conscious everyone is. Every café has a wash basin where people wash their hands before eating. Whilst the cafes are very plain they are kept very clean. The same cannot be said for the outside toilets. These are mostly to be avoided at all costs - far better to go behind a tree along the road side.

At Ulan Ude we read our Email, had a late lunch and then headed for Lake Baikal. The road followed the Selenga river north through a beautiful valley,  before heading west and then followed the Lake Baikal shore line to Irkutsk. The view of the lake from the road, which was often high up in the mountains, was spectacular. We stopped along the road side to buy smoked Omul fish, a specialty of the Lake Baikal area. Lake Baikal has 20% of the world’s fresh water and is over a mile deep. It is also known as the "Pearl of Siberia" and is one of the sixth largest lakes in the world. In winter the lake is iced up but in summer you can take boats and ferries up and down the lake. In summer, the Russian people love to go camping, fishing and swimming.

Irkutsk is a large city. With the aid of our detailed Irkutsk GPS city map finding our way into the city was quite straight forward. There are many beautiful old buildings in Irkutsk. Some have been freshly restored whilst others are looking very sad. Amongst the old stone and concrete buildings there are lovely old timber buildings. Once again some were restored and well maintained whilst others were in need of some tender loving care. Our main task in Irkutsk was to obtain our Mongolian visa. The people at the embassy were all very friendly and our visa was processed overnight. Whilst waiting for our visa we drove to Litsvianka, which is 60km to the east of Irkutsk and is a very touristy town on the western shores of Lake Baikal. We found a beautiful spot to camp amongst the pine trees and stayed two nights. Litsvianka is small but there are many expensive homes being built and would look right at home in Australia or in Europe. This is the first place we have seen western tourists. We met people from Germany, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Korea and New Zealand. Again, we had some great meals. The menus were even in English which made ordering much easier.

Money has been easy to obtain. There are ATM machines in all big towns and cities. Most of the bigger supermarkets take VISA or MASTERCARD. We have even seen a few fuel stations that take VISA card. Most medium to bigger hotels also take VISA card.

From Irkutsk we backtracked to Ulan Ude on our way to Mongolia. To date the weather in Siberia has been fantastic. However one hour out of Irkutsk, it started to rain. The mountain roads were very misty and Lake Baikal was barely visible. Fortunately we had good views of the Lake on our way to Irkutsk. The weather did not clear up so we continued to drive later than normal in the hope that the rain would subside. This did not happen so we broke our golden rule and stopped on the side of the road next to a bus shelter. Tom put up his tent in the bus shelter and we slept in the car. We designed Troopy so that the cargo barrier folded down to form a six foot long bed above the shelving system so sleeping in our car rather than in the rooftop tent is a good alternative in bad weather. In the middle of the night we were awoken by three drunks who harassed us. After fifteen minutes they left, but feeling vulnerable, we moved on a couple of kilometres and found a more sheltered spot off the road.

The rain continued the next day as we drove to Ulan Ude and then onto the Mongolia border at Kyakhta. The next 24 hours proved to be a interesting comedy of events. On the way we were passed by two Russian diplomatic vehicles. Up the road we saw one vehicle had broken down and decided to stop and see if we could help. The Russian made vehicle was boiling profusely. We helped them change the fan belt using our tools and filled up their radiator with water from our supplies.  Luba is an economist working for the Russian government in Mongolia. Her driver Bold is Mongolian and has a very jovial personality. Luba befriended us and said that she would help us through the Russian and Mongolian border using her diplomatic status. Communication was difficult but with Luba’s basic English and Kienny’s basic Russian we were able to have a simple conversation.  At first it was unclear as to why we stopped at a small village very close to the Russian/Mongolian border town of Kyakhta. Later we learnt that Luba originally lived in this town where her former husband was the director general of this district. We had a great time visiting with her friends. They were VERY hospitable and we spent a lovely couple of hours looking around their house and gardens. They served us a meal of raw salted fish, salami, fatty bacon, cheese, fried eggs along with a plentiful supply of Vodka. Our host Nick is a professor of Biology and is a very funny man.

After our culinary detour it was a rush to get to the Russian border before it closed. The border post is all very new and there were dozens of cars and trucks waiting to cross. With Luba’s diplomatic status we jumped to the head of the queue. Other cars were made to reverse to make room for us. Once inside the Russian compound we had to wait in line for customs clearance. After a couple of hours Luba got impatient and once again we jumped queue and cleared customs and were out of Russia in 45 minutes. The Mongolia side was very efficient and easy going and even spoke English.  Within half an hour, we were on our way to the capital Ulaanbaatar. Along the way we helped to fix the windscreen wipers on the Russian car.  At around midnight we stopped to have dinner at a Café in Darkhan, Mongolia's second largest city. We were treated to a lovely meal of salads and buuz (Mongolian meat dumpling). We again broke our other golden rule about not driving at night however we had no choice as we were travelling in convoy with Luba. On the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, at around 4am, the Russian car had a flat tyre and once again we helped the driver Bold replace the tyre. After a high speed drive through the city centre we arrived at the Russian compound where Luba lives. Bold woke up the house keeper and found us an unused flat where we could stay. The flat is very central and within walking distance to the city centre.

In Mongolia there are only a couple of ATM machines. Unfortunately these machines only dispense money from a VISA card, which in essence is a cash advance, not a direct bank withdrawal. So this is the first time we have exchanged money using the US$ cash that we brought with us. There are foreign exchange facilities in the hotels and in the main tourist areas of Ulaanbaatar.

After being on the road for almost 24 hours we slept till lunch time and then went to explore the city centre. Fortunately it was a nice sunny day and we had a good time looking around. We also met with Scott who has been working in Mongolia for two years. Scott owns a BMW 100GS and has travelled extensively in Mongolia. Scott gave us some good advice on where to go and what to see in Mongolia. It was recently announced that the western Mongolian/Russia border post has been opened to tourists. We have not heard of any tourists who have used this crossing yet so we hope that we don’t have any problems otherwise it will be a long detour to have to come back to the capital and exit via the same crossing we used to enter Mongolia.

Tomorrow we plan to go with Scott and his family to a Mongolian horse race on the outskirts of the city. From there we will head south to the Gobi desert on the border with China.We are not sure when we will next have access to the internet. Unless we come back to Ulaanbaatar we may not have internet access until we get to Novosibirsk in Russia.

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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