DAY 22 / UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN
20.7.2014 / Uvsiin Khar Us Nuur – Turuun / 273 km / 7896 km total.
I woke up in a sweat. The sun had heated my tent despite it being only 0730. A lovely morning. We decided to skip coffee to save our dwindling supply of precious drinking water. Instead we just had some snacks and packed up. Our camp was located a couple of kilometres from the road and the ride back would be all on soft sand. I was sure sure Tolga wasn’t looking forward to it. I decided to stay back a good distance to take the pressure off him. It is bad enough wrestling an 1190 in soft sand, especially if you have someone tailgating you. He made it through nicely, but cruising around, I managed to hit a big grassy bump and take a fall in the soft sand. No harm done, I just picked up my bike and caught up with the guys on the road.
We decided to ride to the nearby town of Ulgii, not to be confused with the large town of Ulgii further west. We needed to get fuel, water and breakfast. On the ride in Tolga was pretty slow and we waited for him outside the village. He must have still been worn out from the hard work in the soft sand the previous day and this morning. Once the trio was back together, we rode into the town spotting a petrol station on the right side of the road. It was manned by a cheeky little boy who spoke english, mostly “Money!”. He was very jovial and entrepreneurial, trying to charge me for putting some rubbish into their bin. As he had failed to give me change from the fuel, I told him that we were probably even and he agreed.
We had been conserving the higher octane fuel we had in our front tanks to do custom mixes of sort, but now we were dry and would be on 80 octane fuel. Neither Juha or I remembered the setting for “Bad Fuel” map, and I had to take out my laptop to check it. I felt pretty ridiculous, sifting through the PDF user manual in the middle of the petrol station. My young entrepreneurial friend was keeping close watch.
Breakfast was not to be, as we didn’t find a cafe. Apparently they were not a big thing in Mongolia. Water was not available in abundance either. I ended up buying every single bottle from a shop. All in half litre bottles of course. Luckily they also had some potato chips, chocolate and some wrapped cake that had to do as breakfast.
Tolga was still considering finding bigger roads. When I asked if he didn’t want to ride through the hills, he replied that of course he did but didn’t want to slow us down. Juha and I both agreed that the pace was not an issue. Anyway, with a little luck, the soft sand would be over in the hills and he would be riding in his normal pace. I was happy that he decided to tag along with us. He was nice to be around and there was good vibe in the trio. He also said that he was being overly careful after the fall. I agreed, as riding is mostly mental and confidence builds up gradually. Taking a fall was like a slap in the face. All the confidence that was built suddenly crumbled. To what extent, and how quickly one recovered, was a matter of experience and skill. Tolga just needed some positive experiences to get back on the horse.
We took the road east, towards Lake Khyargas, and made our way through the hills. The trio was moving at an even pace and I was glad that Tolga had gotten his mojo back. Everything was back to normal as we rode towards Naranbulag. The riding had mostly been on even, hard terrain, but just before reaching the town, we stumbled upon something different. There was a small and smelly clay based river crossing, which gave us no trouble. It must have been used as a drinking hole for cattle. The road was also clay and had clearly seen water as it was churned out with deep ruts that had now dried up. It was still good riding though and we made it into Naranbulag.
We rode around the town, looking for a cafe without success. Instead, we would need to sort out lunch from a shop. They all pretty much had the same selection. Our lunch consisted of chocolate bars, cake and some bread. Consumed with curious locals crowding the bikes. We took off after refuelling with more 80 octane, and found out that the way we were going was actually tarmac. I was surprised as it looked brand new. We rode it for almost 15 km before turning to a dirt road that would take us into the hills. We had spotted a route going right through the hills and mountains, south of the northern route.
The road was nice and hard, but once it started to rise up to hills, it crisscrossed a tricky river bed. It was extremely soft sand and I could see Tolga suffering, wrestling the heavy bike in the sand. I stopped and waited for him periodically and finally turned around when he didn’t appear. He was a few hundred meters behind and off his bike. I had the feeling that he was done with the soft stuff. Riding up to him I could see he was exhausted. He probably hadn’t recovered from the efforts of the previous day and was now utterly spent. He told me that he would turn back from here and find a place to stay for the night and rest.
Juha had been leading and had doubled back to where Tolga and I were. Tolga broke the news to him and we exchanged contact details and some photos before saying goodbye for now. Hopefully we would meet him somewhere down the trail as we were going in the same direction albeit on different routes. Either way, I was sad to se him go. He had livened up the days with his humour and stories. I hoped I would see him again. He said he’d stay for a while in the riverbed and rest before going back to the tarmac, so Juha and I made our exit.
The trail continued soft here and there up the hill but became hard again once we were on the high plateau. We were fast and only stopped briefly while Juha adjusted his chain tension. The track was magnificent, getting more technical as it climbed up into the hills. The landscape was sporadically dotted with gers and cattle. It felt like the backcountry of Mongolia, truly far from anything.
The track turned north and we started to descend. I was sure we had made a wrong tun somewhere and were going into the valley where the northern route ran. We had a break and talked about our options. Neither of us were too keen on doubling back so w decided to continue to Khyargas and from there to Baruunturuun. If it became muddy we would double back. The scenery was still wonderful, with the telltale signs of civilisation creeping up the valley to meet us.
We stopped to refuel in Khyargas and proceeded to look for the trails to Baruunturuun. There was a bigger road running in the north, but we wanted to ride the smaller direct trail. It ended up being very enjoyable with some minor obstacles, good light and good terrain. It had been a long day though and arriving in Baruunturuun, we were both tired.
It was also getting late in the day. We quickly bought some water and food, before heading for the hills to find a campsite. The sun was low and the scenery became a labyrinth of light and shadow. Tired as I was, I just couldn’t let this opportunity to pass. I just had to take out the camera and get some shots. If I hadn’t I would have regretted it for the rest of the ride. After the shooting was done, we started looking for a campsite. We found an awesome spot, just east of the road. Our campsite was high up, behind a bump and we were completely invisible to anyone on the road. The sun cast its last rays on us as we had our mandatory post ride vodka shots.
It had truly been a magnificent day of riding. I still felt somewhat empty. I wasn’t homesick but I really missed my wife. I ended up calling here on the sat phone and talking with her for fifteen minutes. During the conversation she asked me where I was and what it looked like. I was really struggling, trying to explain it. Words did not do justice to what I was seeing. It was bliss to hear her voice and after the conversation I felt much better. I was happy to hear about her day. It was comforting to know that the world I had left, to see this one, still existed.
DAY 23 / THE SHORTCUT
21.7.2014 / Turuun – Numrug / 308 km / 8205 km total.
Another beautiful morning. Waking up in a warm tent and days of endless sunshine had become the norm. The wet and miserable camping in Russia was but a faded memory. The morning was lazy and we took time to make coffee and relax. I also made a new route on my laptop and transferred it to both navigators. The wireless sharing in the Garmin Montana was pretty handy. I’m not big on reading user manuals, and it was actually Tolga who had pointed out the feature to me.
Doing pre-ride checks I refilled my OSCO and noted that my front sprocket was starting to get a bit of hooking on it. I had noticed it to rattle the chain on hard acceleration and over uneven ground. I hoped the chain and sprockets would make it to Ulan Ude. We dropped back to the dirt road from our high camp and headed south, into the hills. We were pretty quick on the trail and before too long made it into the village of Tsagaankharkhain.
We had planned to top up our fuel tanks as we would be off the beaten track. We pulled up to an empty petrol station and before too long a local guy came over and started the pumps. He made some comments about us being Russians, to which we replied that we were Finns, not Russians. I asked if Juha could sort out the fuelling while I did some shopping across the street for water. The shop turned out to be closed and as I turned around to head back to the petrol station, I was surprised to see it had filled up with a crowd of locals on motorbikes. It had been completely empty before and now it was packed.
I was expecting Juha to be done with the fuelling, but instead the attendant let everyone else cut the line and fuel their bikes. He also kept making some more comments about Russians and the crowd was laughing. It was absurd. We had been at an deserted station and now the whole village had turned up to fill their bikes. Juha thought we should split and I didn’t like being the butt of some strange local prank so we took off. I felt pretty pissed off about the rude attendant and made a spirited exit.
Leaving the village in our dust, we made for the hills. The memory of the bizarre incident in the filling station quickly dissipated as we rode into a beautiful valley, with steep walls rising on both sides. What made it special was that it seemed lush and fertile. Filled with trees and grass, with a river snaking down to meet us. Cows grazed lazily and the valley had a very serene atmosphere to it. Riding up the valley, the trail became more technical. Fantastic riding though with no real difficulties but enough to keep it interesting.
Looking at my navigator however, I noticed that were were off route. There should have been a turn off to another valley a kilometre back. The trail we were on was headed in a generally correct direction so we decided to stay on it to see where it went. All the trails in Mongolia seemed to end up in a village so we were confident this would be no exception.
The trail began to rise sharply and eventually started veering towards the south, which was not our heading. Checking the map, I found the trail that we were supposed to be on, just a few kilometres north. I was excited about the idea of going completely off-road and suggested we would make a jump to the trail. Turning off the trail, our line went up a mellow incline, topping out in beautiful scenery. Rolling hills and forests as far as the eye could see. Somewhere there was the road. To reach it we had to cross at least two valleys with rivers in the bottom.
The slope steepened and dropped us into the bottom of the first valley. The riverbed was dry and after an easy crossing we rode up the opposite slope. The crest was lower than the one we had been on and visual navigation became harder. Juha dropped in first while I was shooting. We were pretty close to a ger with an experienced shepherd keeping close watch on us. He was friendly and we exchanged brief greetings, before I picked my line and dropped in.
After the second valley we were back on a crest. We were now far away from everything and I was really happy with being completely off-road. Dropping into the next valley, the terrain got sketchier. We needed to cross another riverbed and the road should beyond the next crest. Juha said that if the road was not there we should turn back. In his view we were too far from everything, in case there was a problem. I was surprised to hear this but didn’t say anything. Silently, I thought that this was Mongolia, which defines being far from everything.
We went up to the crest and there was no sign of the road. Juha was clearly agitated and worried about the remoteness of our location. I suggested we should keep on the navigation track and we would hit the road eventually. Juha was completely against that plan and I could sense him getting worked up. I was really irritated about this turn of events as the terrain was easy and we should find the trail at some point. The maps were vague and the roads weren’t always where they were supposed to be, but they were there. I wasn’t in the mood for an argument so I just agreed with Juha to go higher up to see if we could spot the road.
We rolled up the hill and had a look around. There was no sign of the road. Instead of doubling back from where we had come we decided to drop into a nearby valley that had a marked trail, that should take us to the valley we had ridden up earlier. We would then continue up the trail we had originally gone off-road from. It was a steep and grassy descent into the valley. Locking the back wheel didn’t slow the bike down so it was a careful manoeuvre of applying both brakes and taking care not to lock up the front. The steep descent spat us onto another riverbed with a little stream in the middle of the rocks.
There was a track of sorts and made our way down it. It got very rocky and technical very quickly. We were riding between high grass, boulders and ditches. It was pretty tough going and we had to cross the rocky riverbed several times. It was exhausting work in the heat and beyond every corner I was hoping the trail to ease off. Instead, we were being locked in between the steep walls of the valley.
The trail finally left the riverbed and became a small footpath on the bank. It was a short lived joy as just around the bend it dipped into the riverbed again, and got increasingly technical with bigger rocks. It was a hot day so it was hard work. It looked easier ahead, as the valley widened and trees appeared on the slopes. Unfortunately many of them had fallen with age, with some blocking our way. Luckily there were only three tree trunks we couldn’t get around, but had to ride over. I was still feeling pretty confident and managed to power over the first two, but stalled my bike on third. I was left dangling on the trunk, supported by my engine guard, I managed to get over it by rocking the bike and hitting the throttle. Juha followed me and easily went over the first two. On the third he lost the front and went down. Luckily there was no damage to the bike or the rider.
The trail eased off a little, only to arrive at the biggest obstacle yet. The trail ended in a dip into the river and I could see a large tree trunk across the river ahead. The walls of the valley closed in and there was no clear way through. There had clearly never been a road here. A footpath at most. There was still a kilometre of the valley before it connected with the trail and we were pretty high up. I remembered the walls of the valley being steep, so the gully we were in could end up in very steep unrideable stuff and we would have to double back. Doubling back, upwards on very technical stuff is rough at the best of times. We were exhausted and decided to take a break.
Sitting on the bank of the stream was bittersweet. On one hand we were really off the beaten track, laying down our own trail. Even though it was pretty much unrideable we were doing exactly what I was here to do. Then on the other hand we were in a bit of a sticky situation. I knew we could double back and out the valley and find another way. Maybe even going all the way back to from where we had left the road. Doubling back felt like defeat and failure to keep moving forward. Choosing the easy way out over the hard but rewarding way. I did not want to double back, but instead wanted to find another way.
I had seen a steep slope just behind where we were and thought we could probably ride up it. The main thing was to get out of the gully and to higher ground where we could find another route. I suggested this to Juha and he agreed. We turned the bikes around one at a time. It was hard work in the technical terrain and I was feeling pretty spent. We needed to get out of the riverbed and onto the bank to gain access to the slope. The bank was pretty low but steep, and needed a pretty confident plan of attack. Juha cleared it nicely but I got stuck on the top with my front tyre on the bank and my rear tyre dangling on the steep wall. Luckily I didn’t fall and managed to get the bike onto the bank. It was a relief to be out of the riverbed and attack the slope. It was rocky and steepish, but it was rideable in first gear and we made it up without incident.
From the ridge there was no clear line down to the valley we were trying to get to. I didn’t want to get back into another tangle on a steep slope ending in sheer walls. Instead we decided to double back on higher ground. We rode up on the crest and ended up pretty close to where we had been searching for the road. There was forest in between and it didn’t seem like a good idea to ride through it as there would most definitely be trunks and roots to navigate. Instead I rode north to go around and bumped into the road we had been looking for. I was really pleased as we wouldn’t have to double back, which I hated.
Juha’s luggage rack had twisted in his fall and was making contact with his swing arm. We took a small break and he went to work. The rack was soon back in shape, and he also straightened his forks which had got a little crooked in the heat of battle. Just as we were finishing up, a motorcycle arrived carrying a local couple. I did a little hand signing with them and came to the conclusion that there was a village at the end of the road.
The mood was good and we took onto the track. In the end it did connect with my original track, not 500 m from where we had stood looking for it. I resisted the urge to say “I told you so.” The trail was beautiful, but I could feel the exertion of the business in the gully slowing me down. Also, we hadn’t eaten anything all day so energy levels were getting low. We went over grassland where cattle was grazing, before hitting a rocky gully descent into lower ground, All along the track were cows, horses, goats and sheep. It was summer, so all the animals had young. I felt touched by the care and affection cows were showing their calves, walking side by side and nursing them. A beautiful scene.
We made it to the town of Enderkhangai, where top priority was to get food. We stocked up with every imaginable candy and snacks and ate them, sitting on a bench outside the store. Locals gathered around, but let us eat in peace, which I appreciated. We refuelled and took off. It was late in the day and we hadn’t made much progress. Luckily the last section into the village had been fast and so was the next section. We were making good progress. The road linked with the eastbound road from Naranbulag, which was more or less a Mongolian super highway. Twenty lanes on sand. It was smooth going and before too long we passed Songino and continued towards Numrug. Having had the food and water made all the difference and I had recovered. The riding was epic.
We rolled into Numrug to refuel and buy more water. I also bought two beers to toast for our adventure in the morning. It was getting close to sunset when we rode out of the village and turned into the hills six kilometres later. Juha spotted a good camp site. It was probably the best one thus far. A flat spot perched high on a pass between two hills. It had sweeping views to the mountains and a lake far below us. A perfect place to have a beer and let it sink in. After a dinner consisting of pot noodles and sardines, Juha crept into his tent. I staid out for a while, sitting in the darkness.
The sky looked incredible with The Milky Way clearly visible. It was completely quiet and a perfect moment of peace and solitude. The adventures of the day had calmed the baying of the hounds of restlessness. Instead, only the white noise of the ride was left humming in my head. The absolute stillness of the calm sky was interrupted only by a lonely passing satellite. I wondered what adventures the trails beyond this planet hold for future generations, when we are long gone.
DAY 24 / THE SCAR AND THE RACE
22.7.2014 / Numrug – Meren / 392 km / 8597 km total.
Our beautiful campsite was no less impressive in the morning. We enjoyed the views over coffee and some light breakfast. After packing up and going through pre-ride checks we dropped back down to the trail and headed east. It was smooth going and we were making good progress. The technical stuff of the mountains was behind us and we were rolling through the Mongolian super highway at cruising speed.
The road was nice though. It kept twisting, turning and throwing random obstacles at us in the form if ditches, soft sand and bumps. The road connected with a larger road but it was still fast going. We turned north to the A1102 as it would be a shorter ride to Meren. I was a little worried that the route would take us to potentially flooded areas. Already, the telltale signs of water had started to emerge. Some soft stuff here and there, as well as puddles. Riding down that road, I grew increasingly worried as there was zero traffic on it. After all, this was the shortest way to Meren and nobody was taking it. After almost twenty kilometres I voiced my doubts to Juha and we decided not to risk it. With our track record on shortcuts we would probably end up battling through knee deep mud for hours or days. Instead we doubled back to the intersection and took the A603 east.
We made it into the village of Tosontsengel and refuelled. We were getting low on water so I popped into a shop, but it didn’t work out. There were several customers inside and aside from lazy chit chat, nothing seemed to be happening. We tried again at another shop but they didn’t have water. I told Juha it was time to bail and we’d get water later.
Just outside of Tosontsengel, heading east, the magic of Mongolia was broken. A Chinese road construction underway and they were working where the original road had been. Instead, we rode on makeshift roads, churned into bumpy sloppy trails by heavy vehicles. The trail kept zig-zagging over the road construction several times. Getting a rhythm was very hard and I got frustrated of the slow progress. During the ride I kept thinking about the inevitable development of Mongolia and what it would mean to the country.
All cities will eventually be connected to one another with tarmac roads. The tourism industry will be quick to adapt and exploit. This will inevitably introduce the less pleasant byproducts of mass tourism. Irish bars, fast food chains, prostitution and drugs. Anything to keep the scantily clad red faced tourists preoccupied, while they’re “doing Mongolia” on a bus tour of Central Asia. It will ruin everything for us, the adventure riders! The last true explorers, venturing boldly into the dark corners of the Earth.
Then again, given the option, I think most Mongolians would prefer to have decent roads through their huge country. I don’t think it’s in the common desire of any nation to remain the laggards of the world. I heartily welcome any progress that the people of Mongolia deem fit for themselves. I can only hope that it comes in the form of a greater good for the majority, and not to satisfy the insatiable greed of a minority.
Mongolia is huge and I’m sure there will be lots to explore even if the main roads will be paved. Just riding over the mountains a couple days back was a reminder. It will also push us to explore new areas and find new trails. After all, where is the adventure in riding a trail that has been ridden a million times before?
Luckily the road construction ended and the road opened up. There was heavy traffic though and we would need to cautiously overtake trucks in near zero visibility dust here and there. It was nerve-racking progress and I was relieved to get off the big road twenty kilometres after Ikh-Uul. The A0603 turned south and we followed the Ider River east. We were immediately met by a rotten bridge and rode over the river. It was shallow and easy, with a beautiful view. Dark clouds were gathering in the south and a group of horses taking shelter under the old bridge.
It seemed like a storm was brewing in the south. Wind picked up, tearing loose dirt off the trail in miniature sand storms. The riding was incredible though and the scenery equally stunning. We were riding on the southern bank of the Ider River. I knew there would be another river crossing ahead so we were racing the rainclouds, before they unloaded onto the hills, eventually feeding the streams into raging torrents. Arriving at the ford, I was happy to see it was still shallow. We made it over the river in a stiff wind and I breathed a sigh of relief.
We stopped at the village of Jargalant to buy water but ended up with two coke bottle instead. The village was a pesky cattle town, with the wind sweeping through it in dusty gusts. We still had a 160 km ride north to the city of Meren. We would need to stock up our cash and there should be an ATM there along with hotels, cooked meals, hot showers and laundry services. We were committed to making it there before sunset. There was no time to linger and we quickly left the dusty town behind us.
I was happy to see we were not going to be riding on another Mongolian super highway. Instead, we were on a small dirt road, twisting into the hills. The ground had seen rain earlier, and due to the lack of dust visibility was good. The road was very nice, climbing and descending steeply over rocky hills and swerving though small villages. The scenery was good but we were in marching mode and I didn’t take any pictures.
The last leg of the track was incredibly dusty with very bad visibility. Cars were doing their best to negate any attempts of overtaking them. They were mostly humorous and pitiful attempts as nothing was faster than enduro bikes on that road. Least of all a pimped out KingWangBong, bouncing around and sprinkling chrome flakes in its wake.
Meren ended up being a nice big town. We checked out three hotels before settling with the 50/100. It was 50 USD per night for a twin room and they had a garage and a restaurant. The bikes would be perfectly safe and the riders would get a much needed wash. I don’t think there’s many things better in life than getting out of the gear you’ve been wearing for a week and taking a shower.
Refreshed, we had some beers from the minibar before venturing into the restaurant for dinner. The staff spoke little English but were very friendly. We hadn’t had a proper meal in days so we of course went totally overboard with the ordering. I ended up having a starter and two main courses over a beer or two and a glass of vodka. I’m not an of vodka, but it’s a good idea to have some strong alcohol every now and then with meals. It’ll keep the odds of catching some nasty stomach ailment a lot lower and keep your digestive system working as it’s supposed to. Especially when you eat like a horse.
After dinner we headed back up into the room and I got busy doing backups, post-production and correspondence. I was happy to receive an e-mail from Tolga, who was also in Meren. I sent him an e-mail and we agreed to hook up the next morning. It was a nice surprise as I liked his company and was interested to hear what adventures he had been in to get to Meren.
DAY 25 / REUNITED
23.7.2014 / Meren / 0 km / 8597 km total.
I woke up early and immediately got back to working on my images. Tolga rang at around 0830 and told me he was in the lobby of our hotel. It was great to see him again, and we quickly made our way to the hotel restaurant to exchange war stories over breakfast. He had had a bit of an epic after dropping his bike on a rutted section. His bike had been almost upside down and despite taking all the luggage off it, he hadn’t been able to get the bike back on its feet. I can only guess how helpless he must have felt alone in the middle of nowhere. He had waited for six hours, before a local rolled along and gave him a hand. Needless to say he had been pretty exhausted last night and crashed early.
After a nice breakfast, we made plans for the day. We all had things to do so we agreed to hook up again with Tolga later. Staying in hotels included the luxury of laundry services, so I dropped our stuff into the reception before getting back to working on my photography. I was hoping to have a proper look at the imagery from the last days, but it ended up taking a lot of time. I had shot over 3000 frames in the last three and a half weeks. QC tagging them one by one was time-consuming work, and I barely scratched the surface before we needed to work on the bikes.
We had replaced our Unifilters in Omsk, and ridden in extremely dusty conditions throughout Mongolia. The Unifilters needed to be checked at a minimum, but we decided to give them a wash and a fresh coat of oil. We had two Unifilters each, with all four of them dirty. Checking the airboxes, Juha’s Unifilter had minimal breakthrough but mine had held. It was probably due to the fact that I had ran a bead of grease on the sealing lip of the Unifilter and Juha hadn’t. The 690 was notorious for inhaling between the filter and the airbox as was the 1190.
It was sloppy work as the Unifilters first needed to be degreased with gasoline. It was a hot day and the gasoline fumes in the garage were quickly making me nauseous. The old grease came off nicely though and we soon had four Unifilters drying off the gasoline in the sun. Once they had dried off I washed mine with water and dish washing liquid and Juha followed suit. I was pretty sure the hotel staff would not have appreciated the state of our bathroom had they walked in. Soap, water and blue oil residue everywhere. Luckily it all cleaned up nicely and we ended up with four squeaky clean Unifilters drying on our window sill.
Feeling very masculine about the incredible feat of engineering and wit we had just pulled off, we strolled down to the hotel bar for a beer. Tolga had apparently been equally successful in his endeavours as he showed up a minute or two after us. It was a welcome break and we chatted away over lunch. After eating mostly preserved foods and chocolate, even french fries seemed like an exciting and luxurious delicacy. Unfortunately I still had a lot to do on my photos, so we agreed to meet later for dinner. Otherwise the afternoon would have without a doubt turned into a refreshingly decadent bacchanal of beer and fries. Someone once said that everyone’s hobby is in fact drinking. Only the hobby, around which the drinking takes place, varies with each person.
The afternoon passed quickly while I busied myself with the imagery. Before too long we were all back in the restaurant. The food was as good as on the previous night and the table was soon full of empty plates and sleepy faces. We had ridden for many days and there was more of it ahead. We agreed to meet in our hotel in the morning, ready to ride at 1000. The black and orange trio would continue east.
DAY 26 / IN THE DUST WE roam BLIND
24.7.2014 / Meren – Teshig / 249 km / 8846 km total.
I woke up very early as usual, and continued working on my images. I was reporting the progress of our adventure via Twitter, but it was not working on my laptop. Luckily it worked fine on my android phone, so I first sent everything from my laptop to the phone over Bluetooth. Uploading them from the phone was painstakingly slow but I managed to get everything I needed online over breakfast. First world problems…
Sleeping in hotels was always a welcome luxury, but it came with a drawback. The checkout morning cut away a third of the day as we never left before noon. From camp we were riding out as early as 0800 on some days, Then again this was not a military expedition so we could do as we pleased. The journey was the key factor, not the execution.
The Unifilters had dried up nicely, but still needed oiling. Juha oiled his in the bathroom of the hotel room, and then spent the next half hour cleaning up the sticky blue mess of the filter oil. I decided to oil mine in the garage which made it a lot easier. Tolga was an hour and a half ahead of schedule when he rolled in at 0930. We ended up riding out of town at around 1200 after refuelling and getting resupplied.
The first 80 km were on fresh tarmac and I was getting the feeling that the Mongolian adventure was almost over. The western end of Mongolia had felt considerably more remote. We were now riding on a well traveled road, and I could feel my mind drifing, losing interest.
After 40 km I noticed that Tolga wasn’t following me and immediately doubled back. He was at he side of the road with a flat front tyre. We patched it up without taking the tyre off. After 80 km of riding we were back on dirt. It was a nice, fast, twisty and bumpy road. The bike felt fantastic as we had filled up with 95 octane fuel and the fresh filter reduced air flow resistance significantly. The bike felt snappy and I enjoyed the section immensely.
Taking a short break we noticed that Tolga’s front tyre was deflated to under 1 bar. The patch had not been holding, which was typical for the Michelin heavy duty tubes. Apparently the material wasn’t as rubbery as it used to be and the patches did not vulcanise to the tube. We replaced the tube and continued down the road.
The trails were nice, but all the breaks had made the ride feel a little intermittent. I opened up and found myself slipping into a nice flow. The bike became an extension of me and the trail was compliant. It was fantastic, fast riding. Getting a little too far ahead of the boys, I pulled over to the side of the track. The rest of the gang soon followed and we took a small break. As we were resting by our bikes, a BMW GS650 rode in from the east. Riding it was Alek, a Russian. He was equipped with plenty of fishing gear in a addition to the usual stuff. He was longing for food and I told him about the menu of the 50/100 hotel in Meren. He was not interested in pasta or dumplings, but fresh vegetables, smetana and shashlik among other Russian delicacies. We chatted for a while before going our separate ways.
The road became rutted and extremely dusty with traffic. Juha and I were at the front and pulling over to a petrol station we noticed that Tolga wasn’t following. We rode back to where we had last seen him but there was no sign of him. We were on an extremely wide section of the road. The maze of crisscrossing tracks was hundreds of meters wide, and visibility was very poor with trucks kicking up dust in the low light of the setting sun. Tolga must have drifted off to the far edge of the maze and missed the petrol station. There was nothing we could do, as he was already almost an hour ahead of us. He must have probably thought that we were riding faster than him and would stop and wait somewhere down the road. Juha sent him and SMS about the situation but got no answer.
It was getting late and we rode out of town with the intent of finding a spot to camp. Our blunder irritated me, and we should have been more careful. I had been looking forward to camping with the trio, but now we were split again. We rode up a crest and found a place to camp, out of sight. We sent our co-ordinates to Tolga but he was probably far ahead of us. Hopefully we’d meet him somewhere the next day.
DAY 27 / THE BLACK SNAKE
25.7.2014 / Teshig – Altanbulag / 479 km / 9326 km total.
Our camp was perched up high on a ridge and I was surprised not to wake up in a warm tent at 0630. The sun should have been up by then. Instead the sky was overcast with rain clouds slowly rolling in from the west. It didn’t look like they would hit us so we took our time drinking coffee and packing up. My engine needed an oil top up. It seemed to be steadily consuming 10 cc every 1000 km. Some of it must have gone up in smoke but the drive axle gasket was leaking a little too. Nothing to be worried about though.
Juha’s bike was missing the bolt and spacer on the left hand side bottom eyelet of his luggage rack. The same exact location where the eyelet on my rack had snapped. Juha had some spare bolts and put in a new one. The spacer was also gone, so he used a stack of nyloc nuts instead. That actually worked even better than the spacer, as now the bolt could never fall off. In the mean time I went through my bolt checks and put Loctite on the rack bolts. The side stand bolts were also very loose, but luckily I hadn’t lost a single bolt yet.
Before rolling out, we sent Tolga a message concerning our timeframe and location. If he received them he would have been able to choose where to meet us. There was no answer though and I remembered him saying something about not being able to send SMS’ from his Russian SIM card. I was optimistic though that we would meet him in Ulan Ude latest.
We dropped back down to the valley from our high camp. There was a lot of road construction going on as progress steadily crept west through Mongolia. Arriving at the river we had to pay a road toll before gaining passage to the other side. We rode maybe 30 km on gravel, before it turned into tarmac. I had been feeling a little deflated in the morning so I didn’t protest. In the end we ended up riding all the way to 20 km from the Russian border. It was tarmac all the way so not much to tell about the 450 km. We did pass through some potentially interesting locations on the way, such as the mining town of Erdenet. The ride went by pretty quickly, as I had a lot on my mind.
The beginning of tarmac marked the end of the Mongolian adventure for me. I was fully cloaked in melancholy as the endless black ribbon passed under my wheels. The undulating hum of MX tyres on tarmac lulled me into a retrospective, oblivious of my surroundings. Mongolia had been good to us. We had seen only a few drops of rain here and there and I had been in my MX jersey the whole time. The trails had been excellent and the scenery fantastic, especially in the western parts. Still, I had a nagging feeling about whether we had been rushing. Had I done everything I set out to do in Mongolia or not? Should we have spent another two days on dirt instead of pushing our way back to Russia? I didn’t know. Only future would tell. What I did know though was that a shadow had been growing in my mind. The BAM road. I wondered what obstacles it would throw in our path and whether we would make it through. It would be almost a week before we would be in Tynda. The start of the last great adventure of Eastern Dirt 14.
We set up camp just before the border, away from the road and up in the hills. I didn’t see any markings indicating that we were in a border zone, and was hoping that we wouldn’t end up in an another confrontation with the military. The night was lazy and I was lost in thought. I had scored some tuna from a supermarket, so we had a huge pasta dinner. Pasta pescatore Mongolian style.
DAY 28 / HEADS AND PEDESTALS
26.7.2014 / Altanbulag – Ulan Ude / 252 km / 9578 km total.
It was a windy night. Rain and wind usually made me sleep better than in calm weather. The noise of rough weather drowned nightly noises and the mind had nothing to anchor to. No creaks or rustles for imagination to exploit and deprive sleep.
Despite us being only two or three kilometres from the border there were no patrols on the Mongolian side. I woke up before the alarm, feeling fresh, and boiled water in the vestibule of my tent. Juha crawled out of his tent when coffee was ready. After the morning rituals, we packed up the bikes as the first drops of rain fell.
Dropping down from our high camp, our route took us through small gullies and flat farmland before connecting with the road. I knew those few kilometres were the last Mongolian off-road I would see in a very long time. It did not bother me though, as I had come to terms with the fact that the Mongolian adventure was over. In my mind I was already out of Mongolia and was looking forward to the service break in Ulan Ude. Hopefully also regrouping with Tolga and having a night out with the trio.
The border crossing was only twenty kilometres away so we were in no rush. The ride was uneventful and we soon arrived at the first queue. Like civilised Nordic people we pulled up to the end of the queue, behind a Land Cruiser 80 in Belgian plates. While we were eyeing the situation, the driver of the Land Cruiser noticed us and came over for a chat.
As we were trading war stories, a Mongolian officer walked up to us and told us on the bikes to get to the front of the line. Happily surprised, we quickly put on our gear and rode up to the gate. They let us through immediately and after getting our very official photocopied handling cards we first went through customs, and then immigration. They weren’t interested in our luggage and just waved us to the exit gate on the Mongolian side. The mood was jovial and the friendly officer at the gate asked us about our trip. I told the highlights and thanked him for Mongolian hospitality. He was shocked and asked me why I had been in a hospital. The comical misunderstanding was quickly clarified and he made us promise to come back with friends and family. We thanked the officer and rode out of Mongolia and into the Russian Federation.
A friendly female officer checked our passports and gave us our immigration slips to fill in. She waved us to the compound, with a queue of maybe half a dozen cars. Upon seeing us ride in, the last car immediately changed position to block the way past the queue. We stayed at the end of the queue, filling our immigration cards. When we were done, I walked over to the booth to see if I could have our passports stamped before customs. A soldier figured I was on a bike, and motioned for us to get to the front of the queue.
We couldn’t get past the van blocking the road so we just hopped onto the curb between the outgoing and incoming traffic and rode past the queue. I couldn’t believe our luck. Our passports were duly stamped and we walked into customs. Two female officers were in charge the station. As I walked in, the ranking officer pulled up chairs for us and politely bid us to sit down. They both then proceeded to help us with the declaration documents and the luggage check. They just wanted to see the luggage opened and that was it. After a final checkpoint at the last gate of the compound we were in Russia. We cleared the border in just over an hour, which was incredible.
I had fallen head over heels in love with Mongolia, but it was great to be back in Russia. Petrol stations with 95 and 98 octane fuel, supermarkets, shops, cafes and a language I understood. Juha joked about setting our watches forward by 300 years, before we rode north.
The whole way to Ulan Ude was tarmac, with rain on the first half. We stopped at a small cafe on the way, enjoying coffee and pirogi. Other than that we just rode fast to Ulan Ude. I was amazed how much the scenery had changed at the border. The arid desert was naturally long gone, but even the lush rolling hills were replaced by sandy pine forests. Almost like Finland, except for the high hills in the landscape.
We triumphantly rode into Ulan Ude, thus completing the second leg of Eastern Dirt 14. Riding around town for a while, we settled on making Hotel Baikal Plaza our home. The beautiful receptionist spoke good english. She was curious about my dirty gear and asked about our route. I booked a twin room for three nights and we then proceeded to haul our luggage into our room.
The main attraction of the hotel room was the shower, but after that the usual gypsy camp of drying gear, tents, sleeping bags etc. erupted. The staff kindly brought us a few beers, which we sipped in the chaos, while making plans for the night.
I had scouted some restaurants and we decided to check out Bochka, lured by the promise of delicious shashlik. Not before checking out the main attraction of the city. The world’s largest statue of the head of Vladimir Lenin, in the central square. It was pretty impressive, towering almost eight metres over the main plaza, basking in the evening sun.
Bochka was a lively restaurant with a robust and rustic air to it. As we were ordering, the Belgians we had met in the border turned up. We asked the m to join us and continued the chat that had been cut short in the border. They had had some epic adventures in Mongolia.
Just like with our first service break in Omsk, we had a local contact. I only had a name, a telephone number and a firm belief that he would have all our tyres and engine and fork oils. We had been exchanging messages all day, and agreed to meet in the restaurant. Sergei showed up promptly with his wife and son. After warm introductions, they joined our merry bunch. Sergei told me he had two bikes but was more into 4x4s. He also told me he had all our stuff and that we could work in his garage the next day. Discussion revolved around the city’s history and off-road adventures. I told Sergei about my plans to tackle the western BAM from Tynda and also asked about the 110. He knew both trails and said that water in the Barguzin, which blocked access to the 110, was low at the moment. That got my attention.
Sergei took us for a spin around the city in his car to check out the sites. Ulan Ude seemed like a vibrant city with people enjoying the warm Saturday night outside. Sergei dropped us off at our hotel and we agreed to meet outside the hotel at 1100 the following morning.
After parting ways with Sergei and his family we decided to have a nightcap in the hotel bar. It turned out that the lovely receptionist, that had checked us in, was having a night off with her friend, Anastacia. She asked if we wanted to join them for a night out. Juha was a little reluctant, but agreed to go when I informed him of the odds of having another night out in Siberia. Yulia was fluent in english, and I was really happy to have a local to talk to. We finished our drinks and hopped into a taxi.
We ended up at a rowdy karaoke club, with drunken locals doing extremely passionate interpretations of Russian songs. It was pretty entertaining and I was looking forward to seeing how the Russians partied. Thus far I had only heard the stories.
We were sitting at a small table, talking in english. Actually, shouting was more accurate as the PA was cranked up to eleven. A Russian guy walked up to me and asked me whether I was an American. I told him in Russian that I was a Finn. He replied that that was okay, but that he didn’t like Americans. I doubt there would have been any trouble either way, but I was happy being a Finn that time. Hardly anyone ever had problems with Finland, and outside of Europe the majority had never even heard of the country.
I didn’t want to get too messy with the night as we had the bike service scheduled for the next morning. We called it a night and decided to walk back to the hotel. The girls didn’t want to stay longer either and walked back with us. On the way back, I was chatting with Anastacia, while Juha was keeping Yulia company. Anastacia was a weight lifter, and she was big. She was pretty drunk when we walked back and kept making conversation.
I was pretty tired and with my limited Russian the conversation was irregular and illogical at best. She was halfway into a story about her weightlifting days, when she decided to demonstrate. Without warning she bent down, put her arms around my thighs and picked me up like a twig. There I was, a grown man propped up in the air by a woman twice my size. It was utterly ridiculous, especially as she held me up there, continuing the story. I was propped up on my human pedestal like a third world dictator, and there was nothing I could do to break from her grip. Anastacia eventually put me back on the ground and we made it to the hotel. It was around three or four when I finally made it to the room, and crashed instantly.
Helsinki-Kirov. From endless rain, a border crossing and shattered dreams to sunshine and rekindled faith.
Kirov-Omsk. Pushing further east. First mechanical problems and some seriously beautiful riding.
Uvsin Khar - Ulan Ude. Taking a break and finishing the Mongolian leg. New trails and unexpected difficulties.