DAY 15 / SEVERAL DEPARTURES
13.7.2014 / Omsk – Harlovo Lake / 330 km / 5606 km total.
In the morning the hotel room was hot and reeked of death. I considered not having breakfast due to the late dinner, but Juha talked me into a having a coffee at least. We hit the breakfast buffet and before too long the rider of the 990 showed up. He immediately made us for the rest of the KTM crew in the hotel and introduced himself as Jeff from France. He joined us for breakfast and we chatted the morning away. He had started from Lithuania and made his way to Russia and Kazakhstan. Apparently he had had some trouble with the wrong kind of visa and had essentially been kicked out of Kazakhstan. Now he was stranded in Russia and riding a lot more of tarmac than expected. Sounded kind of familiar. He was so pissed of at the turn of events that he had decided to shut down his travel site. I urged him not to, but we’ll see what happens.
He was a nice enthusiastic guy and we chatted for quite a bit. It also turned out that Jeff and Juha both had a birthday that day. I was aware of neither. After the morning was spent it was time to get we packed up, but I enjoyed the last comforts of civilization in the form of a long shower. I had no idea when the next opportunity would be. It could be weeks.
After everything was packed up, we checked out of the hotel and loaded the bikes. I was expecting Jeff to turn up and see us off, but he was nowhere to be seen. No doubt devising plans for the rest of his adventures. I hope his luck changes and he finds good riding and good company. I left a Hobo sticker on his clocks and hoped he’d find it.
Rolling out, I was pretty tired but it felt great to be back on the road and moving. The bike felt solid with the new tyres, and the adjustments to the fork I had done really smoothed out the ride. I had also rerouted my luggage straps, making the whole setup more rigid. It had had a bit of a swing to it earlier, making the bike feel very unpredictable and twitchy. It was really smooth now. The only issue was that the engine fan was running constantly. It was probably due to all the mud on the radiator. I spotted a car wash and stopped to ask Juha what he thought. He liked to keep his bike clean and was visibly excited about the idea of shedding some of the crud off his bike.
So we rolled into the carwash, to the amazement of the staff. It was a small industrial building, filled with all kinds of washing equipment. A young guy was manning the production side of things while older gentlemen with huge gold teeth looked on a little further. The scene was somewhat amusing and not a little absurd. The guy seemed a little hesitant at first, but after a little convincing, he agreed to wash the bikes. He was very friendly and for the most part just worried about damaging them.
We took off our tank bags and navigators, but left on the Magadan panniers. I gave the guy a short lesson on where not to blast with the pressure washer, before getting out of the way and letting the him do his thing. It was a proper wash with solvent, rinse, soap and rinse. Eventually the guy in charge approached us for a chat. He told me his friend had an Africa Twin and a broken collar bone. He seemed quite convinced that the two went hand in hand. Before too long the friend showed up on the bike and the discussion continued. It was great to find such unity between total strangers with the only thing in common being the bikes. Meanwhile the bikes and luggage had been washed and everything was looking mint. The owner insisted that they wash our boots too, which they did, solvent and all. The whole process was 100 Rubles per bike, but we left a good tip.
After all was said and done we took a few photos before shaking everyone’s hands and wishing them well. It seemed in Russia friends were easily made, only to be left waving in the dust. Breaking out of bottle of vodka from the panniers would have resulted in another outcome entirely. Such is fate of the adventure rider.
The rest of our ride was uneventful. The fact that the Michelin UHD:s didn’t patch up well meant that Juha was low on tubes. I still had my spares, but preferred to have an extra one handy in case of a catastrophic failure. Also, having replaced my spent rear pads, I was fresh out. Our route would take us to Enduro Group in Novosibirsk, before turning south. We were not going to make it there, due to the late checkout. Still, we just pushed on until almost 2000 before finding a campsite. It was very windy and open so for a change the mozzies were giving us a break. Unfortunately I was really tired and crawled into my tent to write my diary. Writing it, I could hear distant thunder rolling and wondered whether it would rain that night.
DAY 16 / TURNING SOUTH
14.7.2014 / Harlovo Lake – Gribnoi / 514 km / 6120 km total.
It rained all night and I kept waking up, and checking out whether the tent had flooded yet. Years ago in northern Norway, during similar conditions, I had woken up in the morning to discover that I was camping in a lake. The tent had held, and it was dry inside but I was surrounded by water on all sides. This time, in Russia, the rain was of epic proportions. It hammered on the tent, making sleep fitful. I had another concern though, as the rains had been carried upon us by a proper storm. The tent was buffeting in the wind and I wondered whether it would hold or not. If tent ripped open, I would have been drenched within seconds. I considered donning the waterproof Klims, but then decided that my trusty tent had survived worse and drifted into a restless sleep.
In the morning all was still. Sublimely quiet. Looking out of the tent I could see the first rays of the sun, peeking through a storm cloud. Amazing timing. The downside of the calm weather were mosquitoes. There was no wind to hold them back and they attacked with gusto. Mosquitoes, and other flying bloodsuckers, are the single most irritating nuisance in Siberia. Breaking camp was swift and we hit the trail at 0740.
Omsk was a big city, but they did not have the spare parts we needed. Novosibirsk, being the third largest city in Russia, had a better selection. Our goal for the day was to stop by in Enduro Group in Novosibirsk to get some more tubes and a set of rear brake pads. I was getting low on stove gas too, so if I wanted coffee in the morning, that would need to be acquired too. I am pretty much an empty shell without my morning coffee, so the gas cartridge for the stove was my top priority.
The 340 km ride on tarmac was uneventful and very cold. By the time we stopped for coffee, I was absolutely freezing and shivering in my gear. We had pulled over to “Na Postu”, a roadside cafe with a truck stop. I loved those places, especially in the morning. Sitting outside enjoying 3-in-1 coffee and fresh pirozhki, watching the truckers and travellers go about their business. Some looking fresh and eager to get back on the road, while some looking haggard and still savouring the sickly kiss of last nights vodka.
The long straight tarmac road was dull. I quickly slipped into the familiar tarmacoma. A state that had become too frequent in my opinion. This was all due to change soon though, as we would be entering Altai in a day or two. The plains would be behind us for a long time. I was not moody, but expectant. It felt like the last cold days of winter before spring. The death throes of misery, stomped out by the inevitable beginning of the adventure.
Enduro Group was by the main road into Novosibirsk and finding it was easy. On the parking lot it was blatantly obvious that we were back into full summer. I was happy to get out of the jacket and body armour. There was the logo of Endur Group on the wall, but the outside looked very much like an office building. I had my doubts whether this was just the administrative office instead of a store. Stomping in, in my MX boots, I was happily surprised to find a fully decked out motorbike store in the street level. This was clearly the place to buy anything for KTM’s in Central Russia
The staff was very helpful, and to my surprise the salesman switched to english. They were well stocked, and before too long I had three 21″ and two 18″ Kenda tubes, a set of rear brake pads and the gas cartridge for the stove. I was really surprised at the price. I had imagined paying a fortune for all the rare imported goods, but it ended up totalling to a lot less than what I would have paid back home. The successful shopping was celebrated with ice creams on the parking lot.
We were good with time and decided to stop for lunch on the way out of Novosibirsk. We pulled over to a cafe where we could keep an eye on our bikes and have lunch. It consisted of soda and fresh baked pirozhki. The cafe was the livelihood of an immigrant family. My guess was that they were from somewhere around the Caucasus. As we were leaving some of the men came out to chat with us. The conversation went around the normal lines of where we were from, where were we going etc. They were very friendly people and I wished I had been more fluent in Russian to get a deeper understanding of their origins. They saw us off and gave us with a bag full of pastry to keep us going on the road. That kind of genuine hospitality and kindness was very rare, and I found it extremely moving.
We rode off east to find smaller roads on the way to the Altai. An hour later we were far from the outskirts of Novosibirsk and turned south and on to small roads. I was extremely stoked to be back on the good stuff. It felt as if we had been on tarmac forever. It was important to be reminded of why we were here. Riding tarmac easily fools you into staying on it due to the easily made progress. The destination can easily become a priority instead of the journey and you lose everything to gain nothing.
Navigating the maze of dirt roads, trails and footpaths was liberating. There were many to choose from and we just needed to keep a generally southern heading. Other than that it was just a question of finding the nicest line. Some of it was pretty sketchy and in the end one of our trails completely vanished. We were riding through a meadow of high vegetation and had to double back. Continuing would have meant possibly hitting a ditch or a bog without knowing it as there was no line of sight to the front tyre. It was completely hidden by the vegetation. We were spat out on to the M52 and decided to start setting up for the night.
We stopped briefly at a shop to buy water and some trail food. While on the parking lot we adjusted chain tension on the bikes, while locals chatted with us. Riding out I suddenly realized that I didn’t remember tightening my rear axle nut and immediately pulled over. I found it to be loose. Well not completely, as I don’t fully loosen it when adjusting the chain, to avoid the rear wheel moving about. I tightened the nut and was reminded of how little a distraction you need to forget about really important things. Losing the nut would have been a problem.
Scouting for a campsite we turned off the M52 to a small road. It ended up being one of the coolest of the day, running over huge fields on very fast hardpack. The again if it rained, it would be a nightmare of a mudfest to get back. We setup camp by the field and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. I did some bolt checks and tightened the nyloc nuts on my side stand foot extender. It had been a day of extremes for sure.
DAY 17 / UPS AND DOWNS
15.7.2014 / Gribnoi – Cheposh / 455 km / 6575 km total.
The alarm went off at 0700 as usual and I lazed in the sleeping bag for a while before kitting up. Like I said earlier, I prefer to put on my knee pads, pants and boots inside, so I don’t have to immediately face the swarms of mosquitoes. The evening had been pretty mellow in that sense but now the flying scum was back. It took us about an hour to get packed up and hit the road. We immediately stopped for breakfast and coffee, but Juha wasn’t feeling like eating. He had a touch of some stomach ailment and had lost his appetite. I was a little concerned as we would be hitting the proper stuff before long.
I turned off the M52 to hook up with a small track I had scouted. The road started off as a large gravel road, leading into a village with an impressive war memorial. It seems that all over Russia, the landscape is decorated with war memorials. The mood was always very triumphant, present and heroic.
We took off to a smaller track and the riding became sublime. Extremely fast and flowing hardpack. There were no obstacles, just pure riding. The tyres and the bike were performing exceedingly well and I was having a flow moment. Unfortunately all good things come to an end and before too long we had to reconnect with the M52. The other option would have been very sketchy with river and railroad crossings. Especially crossing the railroad seemed like a bad idea.
We pushed south and passed Barnaul. Juha was slow so I overtook him to keep up with the traffic. We had set our marching pace at 80 km/h to spare the tyres and fuel. Juha rolled by the book and would not go over 80 km/h. I think that applied to overtaking too. I was a lot more flexible, so 80 for me had an “-ish” to it. I found it easier to do about 80-85, as it kept me in sync in the traffic. And to be honest, I didn’t ride motorcycles to look at the back ends of trucks on tarmac or live by self-inflicted speed limits.
After a road construction site Juha overtook me and immediately pulled over to a gas station. He didn’t ride to the pumps but instead stopped by the entrance. I knew this was going to be round two of whatever started a couple of days back on day 11. Like then, I will not get into details as it would only be my side of the story. Suffice it to say that I made the decision then and there to ride solo if there was any more drama further down the road.
I left the gas station wondering what was bothering Juha and mentally went through the technicalities of continuing solo. I had a feeling we would part ways before too long. I imagined he would have headed back home and I would have pushed on. We would have needed to switch spare keys and split all the cash from our fuel bank. I would also have had to borrow some spares and the sat phone that were in his care. I wasn’t concerned about the spares but without the sat phone I would have been out of touch in Mongolia and couldn’t have sent messages to my wife or updated the site.
It was a shame that we had gotten so far and were at the doorstep of enduro heaven, only to find friction tearing the team apart. Lost in that thought, I was overtaken by two huge BMW’s. GS1200’s I think. They looked like tanks with the three hard cases and huge screens. The also had spare tyres strapped to the front of the bikes. The tread looked like they weren’t planning on seeing much off-road. They must have looked at us and our tiny bikes with pity as they cruised past.
We were getting very close to the Altai Mountains and my heart was racing. This was one of the places that I had most desired to visit. The grandeur of the foothills of the mountains presented itself in brief glimpses through gaps in the roadside forest. The scenery became unbearable and we turned off the main road and headed into the foothills of the Altai. The road ascended gradually and suddenly through the forest, opened sweeping views over rolling hills of farmland. It was incredibly beautiful. We took a dirt road branching off the main road and we were off tarmac. The views were magnificent with a dirt road ahead visible for miles.
The trail was as good as it gets, winding up and down hillsides, coming to an abrupt end on a hilltop. We doubled back a little and found a trail of sorts that took us to the generally correct direction through high grass on a slanted pasture. The sketchy trail connected with a bigger trail on a ridge. We could see some menacing weather closing in on us. Following the crest up the ridge took us to a dirt road, while the weather kept deteriorating.
The skies darkened and lightning struck the hilltops. It was truly humbling and beautiful. I was just hoping to get off the dirt track before the rain. If it got wet, it would probably have been a repetition of the slop before Omsk. The gravel roads would have been okay most likely. This time we were lucky and I just made it back to the edge of a bigger road when the first drops landed. I put on my Traverse and waited for Juha. In the process started pouring and my pants got absolutely drenched.
We rode down the M52 for a while before stopping for fuel and a very late lunch. The great thing about the Dakar ITB pants was that despite them being very wet you just opened up the vents and rode for fifteen minutes and they were dry again.
Juha was clearly in a better mood, cracking jokes of sort. Unfortunately I still had a shadow in my mind and couldn’t get into the frivolities. Instead, I left the lunch spot feeling pretty neutral, despite the fact that we were finally in the Altai mountains. Down the road we stopped for some food and provisions for the night. The road grew considerably wilder and more interesting, being on the eastern bank of the great Katyn river.
The bank of the Katyn was dotted with villages. This was clearly a wealthy area with a bustling tourist industry catering to the outdoor crowds with kayaking, hiking, rafting etc. The villages were dotted with signs offering huts and saunas, and on the the banks of the river people were camping, cooking and drinking. It looked like a generally fun area. Our route took us off the main road and followed the Katyn upstream. Just before a small village be turned onto to a steep dirt track leading into the mountains.
Riding the track into the mountains was a welcome change to the monotony of flat farm ground. It was still wet, and a stream ran down the trail, snaking from side to side. It was good fun riding and we rode up it for several kilometers. We scouted around for a while before setting up camp on a flattish meadow on the hillside.
After a beer and some cognac Juha finally opened up. He said that he had been feeling very homesick and that the day had been a low point for him. Finally it all made sense. I was happy to hear it and it was a huge relief. We chatted a little about the issue without getting too deep. There was no sense in opening up old scars. A few friendly words of encouragement and team spirit was all it took to get the motivation and humour back.
After all was said and done, Juha washed up in the nearby stream while I had a look at my radiator. The engine had been running a little hot again and I gave the rad a few squirts from the ghetto pressure washer. Writing the journal in my tent I realized it had been a pretty epic day in more ways than one.
DAY 18 / PARADISE HOLDS THE WALKING DEAD
16.7.2014 / Cheposh – Bolshoi Yaloman river / 305 km / 6880 km total.
The night was restless. Rain started tapping on my tent as soon as I started working on my journal. I dozed off soon after closing the laptop and kept waking up to the hammering rain. It sounded pretty intimidating, almost like golf balls. I think the thick grass around the tent must have made amplified the noise. It was heavy rain though and I was happy that we had picked a spot that was off the basin of the meadow.
The calm morning was disturbed by my alarm going off at 0730. To my surprise the sky was blue and sunlight was racing down the western slope to meet us. A gentle breeze forced mosquitoes to seek shelter in the grass instead of pestering us. We decided to take it easy instead of rushing off to explore the Altai. Coffee, cheese and cucumber sandwiches and the whole lot served on the seat of the 690 as usual. The morning was perfect and it felt great to be off the great march east. We now had the Altai to enjoy and soon enough, Mongolia. I kept expecting to wake up from a daydream. Everything I had planned and dreamed of in the dark winter months was now reality.
We dropped back down to the Katun river at around 1030, stopping for photos here and there. We decided to ride to the village of Cherga to refuel. We also needed some provisions and of course more coffee. After a visit to the gas station we pulled over to a cafe. Juha was tinkering with his bike and I ordered some coffee and chopped liver pirogi, small pies if you like. Juha checked his airbox as there had been an imperfection in the mould of the Unifilter. He was happy to see his Liquisole fix had held.
We enjoyed the coffee and pies while chatting with some friendly locals. They gave us some advise on the route I had planned out and it looked good. The maps are a little vague at the best of times. Altai seemed to be even more obscure. Trails would disappear or run into different locations. I guess the maps I had weren’t very current. Before rolling out, I popped into a store for provisions and exchanged well wishings and goodbyes with our new friends.
Immediately after leaving the village behind, we were met by rain. My Traverse was keeping me dry up top but the Dakar ITB’s got soaked. The road kept ascending and temperature dropped. I was getting really cold. As I was still wearing my MTB gloves, especially my hands were getting punished. Juha wasn’t doing any better so we stopped to put on the over-pants and Element long gloves. I’m not a fan of riding with several layers but I do love the feeling of being completely sheltered from the elements. A tiny slice of immortality if you will.
The track wasn’t as small as I had hoped. For most of the time we rode on wide gravel roads, with tarmac of various quality here and there. The gravel roads were great, despite the fact that they were covered with potholes every now and then. I didn’t have a problem with those as I had finally manage to dial in the perfect settings for my fork. I could just power through the potholes without getting smacked on the wrists. I loved the fork extension kit especially after the revolve. Juha commented that I had been fast on the dirt which was an appreciated compliment, coming from him.
On the way back towards the M52, we rose up and cleared a pass over the mountains. It was a beautiful spot with sweeping views into the valley below. It had also dried a little, which was a welcome change. We pushed on and dropped down to the valley floor. It seemed like fertile grazing ground for cattle and had some nice dirt tracks next to the road here and there.
I noticed the tarmac road doing a loop, which we could cut across on trails. I would have done pretty much anything to get off tarmac, so I gladly took the trailhead. Checking that Juha was following behind me, I rode into a forest. The trail that should have been there disappeared, but another one appeared. It banked away from our direction, running parallel with the tarmac road, maybe a kilometer apart. We kept climbing up a hill as the trail grew tighter and tighter before disappearing completely. The hill was steepish but it looked rideable, despite the high vegetation. Juha managed to hit a log and take a tumble without incident. I told him I had spotted a line and asked him to follow me. It was steep and I was extremely careful with my clutch, not wanting to toast it again. I kept on first gear and powered up the hill. It was tricky as the front wheel kept trying to get off the steep hillside. Flipping the bike over would have been disastrous. The slope kept climbing steeply and I noticed a bank ahead of me. I took care not to hit it too fast to keep both wheels on the ground. I had no idea what was beyond the bank. I was relieved to find an old forest road instead of an irrigation canal for instance. Following the forest road took us right to where we were going. A nice little adventure.
We would have to connect with the M52 eventually. In the meantime we were still somewhat in the backcountry and stopped at a charming little village. At least the view was charming as there was cattle grazing and a derelict old bridge collapsed into the river. We made some sandwiches and enjoyed the peaceful setting. The sound of water, a derelict bridge and a cow keeping careful watch while grazing close to us.
Unfortunately the pleasant lunch break came to an abrupt end, when two men appeared. It seemed like most of the men that approached us in the Altai region were drunk. The two guys closing in on us from the road looked more like a scene from Night of the Living Dead. Hobbling along jerkily and bumping into each other. Alcoholism is a terrible downward spiral and they were clearly well into it. Coming over the other one started bumming cigarettes from Juha. As the message was not understood, the it was repeated in a louder and louder voice, until Shaun of the Dead was shouting “KURIT?!” repeatedly.
In the meantime the other guy had sat down and was making slurry conversation. He wanted me to give him a ride to his house in the next village. We quickly finished our sandwiches and got on the bikes. The guy needing the ride got up and tried to climb on my bike. I firmly told him not to and he fortunately gave up. We rolled out and left the guys behind us. Even the cow had left.
We connected back with the M52 and refueled in the intersection with the M52, close to Neftebaza. We decided to continue down the M52 for a while before making a decision on what to do next. We could be at the Mongolian border the following day if we wanted to. I had my eye on the Teletskoye lake, but it would be a long detour. Riding back from the lake was also a set of tracks that could perhaps be linked to gain passage further east without touching tarmac. It wouldn’t be easy but might have made it through. I was in no hurry to get out of the Altai, but Juha was more concerned with schedules. He was on a deadline.
Riding down the M52 was a double edged sword. On one hand the scenery was good but on the other hand we were on tarmac. The light was perfect and I kept stopping for photography. I just wished that the photographs weren’t shot on tarmac. Getting increasingly restless, I spotted a trailhead that would connect with the M52 later, via the Katun suspension bridge. I talked Juha into exploring it and we finally got off the M52.
The joy was short lived though as we hit a small rocky track the south bank of the Bolshoi Yaloman river. It was a foot path but still ridable and I decided to scout it on foot for a couple of hundred meters. I also checked my maps and realized that it would soon take a sharp turn left and climb 600 m in a short time. The slope looked steep and there probably would be no way up it. So we turned back.
On the way in Juha had spotted a high plateau he thought would be good for camping. We had been talking about hiring a cabin with a sauna, but I was totally game for camping too. I would have preferred to camp by the river, to get washed up but the plateau would probably have an amazing view and a breeze to keep the mozzies off.
We turned south from the road and went into proper off roading, riding up some footpaths and gaining elevation quickly. We did indeed reach a plateau and after some scouting, found a perfect spot to camp. The views were magnificent and best of all, not a mozzie in sight. Juha usually likes to pitch his tent immediately, where as I like to chill out and maybe have a beer before exploding into action. This time Juha too chilled out, taking in the fantastic view. It was great just to hang out and enjoy the scenery and the peace from the insects. Truly a magnificent spot, tucked high up on the mountainside, away from prying eyes.
Eventually it was time to set up camp and prepare dinner. I had found a can of sauce resembling goulash, that I had high hopes for. We made the usual pot of pasta while i diced some salami and fried them a little to release their fat. Added the goulash sauce to the mix and then over the pasta made for an excellent meal. Apparently the good campsites and good meals go hand in hand. After dinner Juha was beat and crawled into his tent. I sat outside admiring the view and took a small stroll to higher ground before calling it a night. What a perfect ending to the day.
DAY 19 / DIVERSE ENCOUNTERS
17.7.2014 / Bolshoi Yaloman river – Tashanta / 269 km / 7149 km total.
At 0730 my alarm went off. At the same exact moment the first drops of rain fell on my tent, after a dry night. Luckily it was just a few drops and we could prepare coffee and sandwiches without getting drenched. The airforce was nowhere to be seen either, which made the morning all the merrier. After breakfast, kitting up, packing and pre-ride checks, I scouted a steep path down the plateau. We dropped down it and were soon back on the M52.
We were close to the Katun suspension bridge. I had seen photos of it and was dying to see it in the flesh. We soon arrived, only to find it gone. It had apparently been taken by floods, just a couple of months ago. Water was at its normal level and I wondered how loud and terrifying the mass of water must have been, roaring down the valley and consuming everything in its path. Girders had sheared and steel wires thick as my wrist had snapped. The wires had dug deep into the trees on the banks, which had miraculously survived. It must have been a magnificent display of the power of nature. The suspension bridge would probably never be repaired as there was another bridge not too far down the river. It was a shame as it truly looked amazing in the photos. Congratulations to everyone who rode it while it was still there.
We agreed to ride to the Teletskoye lake intersection and make a decision there on what to do next. I was still suffering the tarmac of the M52, but enjoying the unbelievable scenery. Stopping for photography I could see beautiful trails all over the other side of the Katun river. That was where I wanted to be, not on tarmac. I was starting to feel that the route had taken a change to transit instead of exploring and adventure. I talked about this to Juha, but he didn’t really see it as a concern. Instead he reminded me of all the dirt we had ahead of us in Mongolia. Still, I felt that we were rushing it.
Our CamelBaks were completely dry, so we stopped at a small shop on the way east. I popped into the store and immediately felt that the mood was strange. A female clerk was tending to the store while one of the walking dead stood swaying in the middle of the floor. The air was heavy with the smell of alcohol, or rather the sickly sweet echo of days on the bottle. I asked him if he was shopping but he just waved his hand without speaking. I approached the counter and asked for water and chocolate. As the clerk went looking for them, the drunk approached me and started whispering.
Through the slurring I made out the words “buy” and “girl”. I had no idea what he meant, and turned around to pay for my shopping. As I was about to leave, the drunk spoke out loud and repeated what he had whispered earlier. He then stared at me expectantly and the clerk started giggling. There was something strange in the tone of it, and my curiosity awoke. Who knew what went on in these forsaken villages? I thought about it for a second and walked out.
We were filling our CamelBaks in front of the store, when the drunk hobbled outside. He was clearly in a foul mood and told me I had done something evil or that I was a bad person. Apparently I had ruined some kind of surprise. It was getting all too funky for me so we just took off. Skewed realities in the backcountry of the world. Some things are best left unexplored.
Riding was slow as I kept stopping for photos. Eventually we decided to have coffee and apple buns at a road side cafe/hotel. They were delicious and we decided to go for seconds. While enjoying round two, a Tenere pulled up next to our bikes. The rider had noticed our bikes and came to say hi. He was Luca from Switzerland. A really nice guy, who had unfortunately had his KTM 690 Enduro stolen in the UK. I think that happened to Noah too. I’m big on probability theory so I’ll never be taking my 690 to the UK. Anyhow, Luca was great and we chatted for a while before taking off our separate ways. Luca was on his way to Magadan but didn’t have a Mongolian visa so he would have to double back to Biysk. From there he was going to make his way to Irkutsk to meet up with a riding buddy.
We kept pushing east. We refuelled in Chibit and decided to go to the border. Lake Teletskoye would have to wait. I was disappointed about not seeing the trail to the lake as well as the fact that the time in Altai would be cut short. This was one of the highlights of the ride and now we were down to our last day. Such are the decisions of the ride sometimes. We opted to be done with the tarmac sooner and enjoy the endless dirt tracks of Mongolia.
On the way to the border we decided to do a small detour to get some proper riding done for a change. After a bridge I took a small footpath leading up to the hills. It was a steep 200 m climb, but we made it to the top eventually. It was on a chain of hills running parallel to the road. I thought that it would have been possible to link the hills one after another to gain passage to the border. Do doubt there would have been rivers in the larger valleys. If they had proved to be unfordable, one could have popped back to the road and cross via a bridge. Then head back into the hills.
The scenery was beautiful as was the light. I took a couple of pics before we rode on to the next hilltop. Juha stopped and I went forward to scout a location. I found a nice ridge and setup my camera. Looking back I noticed Juha had decided to adjust his chain tension up there in the hills. It was a cloudy day and by the time he was finished, the light was more or less gone. The tarmac, bike maintenance in the hills instead of the road where we had been all day and losing the light, were starting to get to me. I wondered what was the source of my irritation as we dropped back down into the valley. I needed to lose it quickly, as nothing good would come out of it. Fortunately the ride down was exciting as it was via a wide couloir that steepened towards the end. It was kind of tricky going as it required a bit of slalom moves on the steep slope. My foul mood didn’t make it down to the valley. In fact it was probably still looking for its next host. I hope it wasn’t a goat.
Tashanta, the Russian border town, lay 100 km SE of us as the crow flies. That was where we would resupply before crossing to Mongolia. The Russian adventure was coming to an end for now and we decided to stick to tarmac and ride on. On the way there, while on a short break, a guy rolled up to us on a new looking KTM 1190 Adventure. I thought I had seen him parked somewhere earlier. He introduced himself as Tolga, from Turkey. He was also on his way to Mongolia and asked if we knew when the border closed. I had no idea but said that we would ask in Tashanta, which was 50 km from there. He asked if he could ride with us and we of course had no objections.
We stopped to refuel and do some shopping before going to the border. The guy attending the petrol station said the border would close at 2000 so we weren’t on a hurry. We eventually got to the border and they told us it would actually close at 1800. We only had forty minutes. Immigration was quick and easy as was the customs paperwork, thanks to the very helpful officer manning the station. However when we were to ride to the Russian customs, they told us to come back in the morning. With a huge smile I told him we were nice people and super fast. The officer smiled apologetically and told us that we would have to come back in the morning. It was not a problem, and we decided to camp somewhere out of town.
We left the town and headed SW to find some cover. We rode out five kilometres on gently rising ground and dropped down into small valley. It was beautiful with cattle grazing on patches of green grass between streams snaking through the lush grassland. A perfect campsite, without a single mozzie in sight. We chatted and faffed about with our gear and tents. I was putting my phone to charge when I realised I had the left the ignition on and my battery was dead. A really stupid mistake that would have been costly on a solo ride. We tried to charge it first from peg to peg without success. In the end I took out the battery and charged it on Juha’s bike. Luckily it awoke and after installing the battery back to my bike the engine came to life too.
During the battery incident the sun had dipped behind a hill and it got cold quickly. We put on more clothes and made dinner. Pasta, beans, peas, sardines and tomato sauce. Coffee and cake for dessert. Juha went to his tent early while Tolga and I sat out chatting well into the night. We had a lot in common and hit it off immediately. The biggest contributing factors were our professional backgrounds and a retarded sense of humour.
It was getting late. Before calling it a night and heading into my tent, I had to attend to a call of nature. I hiked up the bank and out of our small valley. Up on the plateau the world was very different from our camp in the sheltered valley. The landscape was washed in the pale, cold light of the moon and a wind howled. Temperature was dropping and I got cold very quickly as I hiked back towards the valley. It would have been very uncomfortable to be stranded out here in the night without shelter. I was happy to get back into camp and into my tent.
DAY 20 / HOW CAN I EXPLAIN IT?
18.7.2014 / Tashanta – Ulgii / 259 km / 7408 km total.
The night was very cold and sleep fitful. Drifting in and out of consciousness, I thought I had heard voices outside. It sounded distant and I figured that the wind must have carried it over the valley. I kept listening though in case they were some drunken locals roaming about. If they had spotted us they would most certainly pay us a visit. To my dismay, at 0430 I heard horses’ hooves on rocks pretty close to our camp, and dressed up quickly. By the time I had fully clothed, they were in our camp. I popped my head out of my tent and immediately spotted an AK-47.
The weapon was slung over the shoulder of a large man standing between our tents with two horses. I was relieved to see he was dressed in military equipment and talking to a radio. That must have been the voice I had heard. Fortunately the AK didn’t have a magazine attached. He must have quite correctly assessed that we were harmless or not worth the ammo. I got out of the tent to say hi.
He asked me what we were doing here and I told him we were camping for the night. He then stated that we were in a border zone and that camping was not allowed here. I told him the whole story about the border being closed and he was sympathetic. All in all he was nice and just told me that a truck would be over soon. I was bit baffled what the purpose of the truck was and what would happen when it arrived. I kept a smile on my face and we got into chatting about his horses, life in the border and the weather. Waiting for the truck I realised how cold it really was and he told me that it was +3 degrees Celsius. Down the valley I could hear the roar of a heavy diesel engine. Joining it was a pair of lights, bouncing about in the uneven terrain, making their way towards us. Juha and Tolga stayed in their tents. Asleep most likely.
The truck rolled right in to our camp and out jumped more military personnel. My new friend stopped talking and backed up away from me. An officer, sporting four metal buttons on his shoulders, strode right up to me. A captain most likely and clearly used to being in charge. He wanted to see everyones passports and I woke up the guys to get them. The officer was a little stiff and not at all sympathetic when I told my story. Instead he went into a long monologue about the situation and with my limited Russian I could make out words like Altai, Moscow, border and republic. I was a bit worried about the Moscow part and whether this would have a negative effect on our trip.
The officer paused and expected some kind of answer from me. I told him I was sorry and that I didn’t understand most of what he had said. He repeated what he said a couple of times and seemed to get more and more frustrated with my not understanding. After the final monologue he stared at me expectingly and there was an awkward silence. Two guys staring at each other in silence out in the Russian hinterland. The absurdity of the situation was too much and I burst out laughing. Luckily the officer did the same he and the mood changed immediately.
The officer smiled and told me, in very basic Russian to pack up and get to the border. I told him I had understood and wished him well. He turned on his heels and suddenly the soldiers sprang into action. They boarded the truck, which immediately headed back towards the main road. My new friend with the horses was also making his exit and I quickly asked him whether we had to leave right away. He confirmed that we had to pack up and leave immediately. I thanked him and with a wave of the hand he was off. The sound of the truck faded into the night. I was relieved, and hoped that there would be no problems in the border.
It was 0515 when I told the guys we had to pack up and leave. It was seriously cold and my first priority was to get kitted up to warm up. We packed up quickly and the silence of the valley was pierced with the KTM’s firing up. Tolga’s onboard computer gave an ice warning. I was happy to get moving as we were headed to Mongolia, the end of tarmac.
Climbing out of the valley we rode into a beautiful sunrise. Light was low with the bikes casting long shadows into the empty grasslands of the Altai. An exquisite world of shadow and light. I was trying to line up shots on the way but everyone seemed more interested to get into town than stop for photography. The town was still asleep when we pulled in to join the few 4X4:s and cars queuing at the border. The gate to Mongolia was closed.
The sun was rising, but the cold clutches of the frigid night had not passed yet. I took out the stove and boiled some water for. We enjoyed coffee as the sun climbed higher and its rays started to feel warm. We waited for over two hours for the border to open. The queue grew longer little by little. From the parked cars sleepy people hobbled out and went about their morning routines. They were clearly used to waiting and long rides. Nothing was close in Russia, and I imagined that Mongolia would be no different.
There was a jovial mood in the queue and people were interested in our bikes. Especially Tolga’s huge 1190. The 690’s looked like dirt bikes next to it. An off-road caravan of three 4×4’s was headed for a Mongolian adventure and then a Jeep festival in Krasnoyarsk. They were a fun group and well prepared for their venture. Folding tables, huge stoves, cases of beer and food among other luxuries. They offered us tea and biscuits, while we discussed routes and areas. They were also very knowledgeable in Mongolian vodka, which was clearly one of their staples. They invited us to their camp for a party later but but unfortunately we would be heading further north than them.
Once the border opened, our paperwork was sorted in an hour on the Russian side and they told us to go to Mongolia. We rode through the border zone to a final checkpoint in the Russian Federation. All along the way marmots were running across the road in the sunny morning. The final checkpoint was extremely relaxed. A guy in a uniform just wrote our plates into his hand with a pen and said “welcome to Mongolia”. He then proceeded to open a barbed wire gate and wave us through. The gate marked the end of tarmac. We were now in Mongolia and the dirt road stretched out in front of us. I was more than a little excited and opened up.
We rode on not knowing what to expect next. The road snaked through the hills before dropping into a valley. Ahead I saw the compound with the Mongolian customs and immigration. Before it was a small hut with a woman waving us to stop. Without saying a word she sprayed our tyres with allegedly a disinfectant. I expect it was most likely water, but we had to pay 100 Rb per bike for the service. She also offered to exchange currency to which we declined.
The next stop was immigration and customs. Everyone was extremely friendly and kept welcoming us to Mongolia. It also took about an hour before we were ready for the final inspection at the gate. An attractive Mongolian woman in uniform checked out our papers and proceeded to open up the gate for us. As I approached the gate she did a proper military salute. It was pretty absurd and heart warming at the same time and I waved back to her. The last stop was the mandatory traffic insurance which set us back 300 RUB per bike.
We were now in Mongolia and free to go as we pleased. The traffic insurance booth was at the edge of the border village of Ulaanbaishint. I immediately recognised the strange hotel cafe from all the Mongolian ride reports, and had to get a photo.
The road out of the border town was everything I had dreamed of. Hard packed and dusty. We passed our new off-road friends on the way and pushed on to Tsagaannuur to get lunch, do some shopping and exchange money. To my horror the road turned into brand new tarmac on the way. Tsagaannuur offered no options for lunch so we decided to ride out of town and eat some of trail food and make a plan. I reluctantly rode down the tarmac road, before turning off and up a hill next to road.
Everyone was hungry and we made some sandwiches for lunch. A local guy on a Chinese bike immediately joined us and started talking about coming events. He told us that the road south was tarmac for 120 km. I did not come to Mongolia to ride tarmac so we decided to ride Walter Colebatch’s 2010 route to Ulgii.
We doubled back a little on the tarmac to connect with the beginning of Walter’s trail. It was a dirt road and we were immediately in a different world. Gers, horses, goats and cows in a wide valley with a stream snaking through it. It was beautiful and the riding was great. The trail took us up into the mountains and we rode just over ten kilometres to reach pass at 2600 m elevation. The whole grandeur of the Mongolian emptiness was displayed ahead of us. I felt extreme exhilaration and relief at the same time. We were in business definitely.
The trail followed the wall of a wide canyon, snaking towards a high mountain valley at 2000 m. The scenery kept changing. It was almost too much to take in. One wonder after another. The mountain valley was huge and we were the only ones on the trail going through it. The trail itself was hard, with some loose gravel on top. Very enjoyable riding. We kept a long distance between the bikes to keep the air filters from getting clogged up. I could see the dust plumes of the bikes from kilometres away.
The long straight road through the valley suddenly became more twisty as we reached the edge of the high mountain valley and started our descent towards the Khovd river. We crossed it via the bridge in Biluu and continued SW. Tolga was getting low on fuel so we stopped briefly to refuel in the outskirts of Khushuut. The fuelling was an entertaining experience with the whole family operating the gas station joining the action one way or another. As opposed to Russia, in Mongolia they filled up the tank first and then took payment. Apparently the Mongolians are more trusting, or fuel theft is not very common.
Walter’s route took us south for another fifteen kilometres before turning east. The scenery on the ride was incredible with the snowcapped Mount Tsengelkhairkhan keeping an eye on us. At the turning point was our first river crossing. There was a perfectly good bridge nearby, but everyone was more interested with playing around in the river. On the other bank sat two Mongols, with motorbikes parked nearby. They approached us for a chat. One of the guys must have been as old as the sky and didn’t say much. He just stared at me and gestured slowly. I’m pretty sure be both knew we wouldn’t have understood each other. Instead we shook hands and went our separate ways.
The road east climbed up and the skies darkened. It looked very likely that we would get rained on. Riding up the road to the mountain pass was incredible. It was a fast track with smooth turns and elevation was gained quickly. We popped up to to the top of the pass at over 2600 m. I was feeling that the engine wasn’t as peppy as usually. The thinner air may have started to throw off the ECU.
The road east vanished after the descent from the pass and we rode into the desert. Soon enough we met with the Sagsai river and headed south to find the bridge that would take us across. We crossed without incident and kept pushing east, passing Uujim on the way.
Descending the last canyon to meet again with the river Khovd was yet something completely different from what we had already seen. The road was carved deep into the rocky valley, slithering down towards the river. Elevation dropped quickly while high rocky cliffs stood guard on both sides. The river met us abruptly, with stunning views over the valley.
It was getting a little late as we pulled into Ulgii. The ride had been exquisite and we decided to top the day off with accommodation in town instead of camping. A local gentleman was pestering us about his hostel, which according to him had fast wifi and warm showers. His selling point was that he was Mongolian police. We thanked him, but decided to see if the Blue Wolf Ger Camp would accommodate us.
Tolga and I went to get some cash and do shopping for the evening. Juha stayed with the bike and when we got back he had a small crowd on his hands. The locals were interested in our bikes and had gathered round They seemed extremely curious, got very close and touched everything. I also found out that we did not have a common language.
We rode to check out whether the Blue Wolf ger camp would accommodate us and if not, go camping. After a little misunderstanding they had a big ger at the back of the yard available for us. It was a welcome luxury as were the hot showers. Well, hot for the other guys but icy cold for me. I washed up quickly and laundered my cruddy base layer. With us in our ger was a Japanese biker, Yuichi, on a DRZ400. He had been camping for over a week and also had to enjoy the cold shower. The big BMW:s we had seen a couple of days back in Altai were there too. Clearly the Blue Wolf was the place to be when arriving in Mongolia.
After having some mandatory shots of Tsingis Khan vodka, we headed to the kitchen for supper. It looked a little desperate at first but we got some meat soup before the kitchen closed. It had been a long day and I crashed early.
DAY 21 / ON SANDY TRAILS
19.7.2014 / Ulgii – Uvsiin Khar Us Nuur / 215 km / 7623 km total.
My alarm went off at 0730 and I quickly silenced it. The ger was dark with rays of sunlight peeking through small gaps in the fabric. Everyone else was still asleep as I filled up my trusty steel pot with water and put it on my stove. The PocketRocket wasn’t exactly quiet and Tolga, Juha and Yuichi all eventually woke up. Or maybe it was the prospect of getting a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. The mood was jovial as we sipped the coffee and sorted our gear. I had just dumped mine into a great big pile, as everything was dry, and it needed to be organised.
Breakfast was served in the main building where we met our fellow adventurers. There was a swiss couple who were riding through Mongolia on bicycles. They had an awesome adventure underway and were headed to China. The Romanians with the big BMW’s were there too. Nice guys.
After breakfast I did pre-ride checks and noticed that the top bolts on my luggage rack were loose. I did a full bolt check and noticed that the bottom eyelet on my left hand side luggage rack had broken on both sides. It was still held together by the bolt, but upon loosening it the end fell off. Then top bolts must have loosened up and given enough room for the rack to wiggle, which in turn had fractured the eyelet. Luckily it was an easy fix and I just needed a welder.
I removed the rack and walked over to two guys doing some roof-work on one of the buildings in the compound. We had no common language but I showed them the problem and mimicked welding. They understood and the foreman showed me the universal sign for cash by rubbing a thumb over his index and middle fingers. I gestured for him to write a number on sand, and he wrote 5000. I smiled and said “Deal”. He took off with the pieces and I went back to packing my stuff. He was back in twenty minutes with the eyelet welded back on. I thought it was pretty incredible that in thirty minutes from taking the broken rack off the bike, it was returned to me in one piece. Welded back together for just over two Euros. I filed down the welds a little before mounting the rack back on the bike. It seemed good and we finished packing with the local kids giving us a hand.
Yuichi, the Japanese rider was staying for another day so we wished him luck and rode out to get refuelled and onto the road. The road out was pretty wide in the beginning, but it was still good stuff in nice scenery. I was going first and faster than the others, and stopped every now and then to setup for a photo and shoot when they passed me. I preferred it that way, as it gave me more time to set up my shots and let the dust settle in the comp before the guys passed.
The scenery was just incredible and everything I had dreamed about. Mongolia was paradise for an enduro rider. I was feeling good and the bike felt very confident. The world was giving the best it had and I soaked it up with gratitude. Walter’s route took us into a generally NE direction. The trail climbed up to the hills and reconnected with the river Khovd. Riding on its twisty banks was beautiful.
Eventually we parted ways with the river and made our way over a wide sandy basin. Riding at the front of the pack, I could see a bright single headlight coming towards me on the same track. It couldn’t have been a local bike as they rarely had their lights on during daytime. I stopped to meet and greet the rider.
The rider with the bright headlight turned out to be Paul on an adventurized KTM 625 SXC. He asked about our plans and when he heard that we were on the northern route, he told us that there had been severe flooding on that route a week ago. Apparently people had gotten stuck for days and that there had been nearly a metre of mud at places. Also, according to Paul, many of the gas stations were empty due to problems with supplying fuel in the flooded conditions. Paul was low on fuel and we in turn gave him info on how far it was to the next fuelling point. He wished us luck and took off.
We rode up to a nearby hill, which marked a crossroads of sort. Or rather a dozen trails heading in different directions. It was time to take a small meeting with the guys and decide what to do next. Paul had said there hadn’t been any rain in central Mongolia so it seemed like the better option, instead of the deep mud of the north. I figured, that if we stay up in the hills, we should be okay, no matter what the conditions were in the valleys. Besides, riding higher up was usually better anyway. At least for on the 690’s.
Walter’s route took us towards Lake Achit. The trail was great, with variable terrain. We were mostly on hard dual tracks, moving fast. Clearing a rocky crest before the final descent to the lake gave sweeping views over the valley. It was pure emptiness. I was a little worried about the conditions lower down, as we would have to clear a narrow sandy isthmus to pass the lake. The trail got softer and very sandy the closer we got to the lake. It was easy cruising on the 690’s as long as you kept on the throttle. Tolga had been keeping up with the heavier 1190, but he was clearly taking it easier on the soft stuff.
We arrived at the lake and decided to take a small break. Sitting by the lake we made some coffee and sandwiches. It was a hot day, and I could have chilled out there on the beach forever. We would next be leaving the safety of the mapped trail and turning SE, into the unknown. Well not really unknown, as there was a road headed to Khovd according to the OSM maps.
Leaving the lake was sandy going, but the ground got firmer as we made our way up into the hills. The scenery was beautiful. We rode into Khovd and I noticed a fuel pump by the road. I pulled up to it and waited for the guys. As they pulled over, so did a small 4×4 packed with local. They motioned us to follow them and I just assumed they would take us to a petrol station, which turned out to be correct. Apparently they had called the station attendant and we waited for something to happen. Our new friends checked out the bikes, sat in them and took pictures. A guy clad in a blue cape and wearing a funny hat took out a bottle of vodka and small steel shot-glasses. We toasted for Mongolia and Finland and thus I had my first vodka shot on this trip. They offered a second round but we deemed it prudent to stay sober behind bars.
Just like in Ulgii, the locals were friendly and curious. They got close and asked questions about anything and everything. Juha was approached by a truck driver who offered to load all bikes on to his truck and haul us to Ulan Bataar. It would probably been a week long drive. Sheer hell no doubt, unless you had a case of vodka as carry-on luggage. While Juha was discussing the logistical offer, Tolga and I were caught in a most unusual conversation with a big guy in a white wife-beater. That conversation ended up in a photo session which was the dawn of one of the most repeated one-liners of the trip. It cannot be repeated here to protect the guilty.
After saying goodbye to our friends, we continued east towards Shaazgai Lake with full tanks. On the way to the lake we crossed three rivers. They were mostly easy, but the second one was deeper with a stiff current. Nothing serious though and we cleared them without incident. We were taking pictures of each other, no doubt hoping someone would take a tumble.
The roads got sandier and softer and I noticed Tolga getting slower. It was hard work manoeuvring the heavy 1190 in the soft sand. I don’t think there were many people who could have ridden the 1190 at the same pace as the 690’s on that terrain. In fact, the 1190 would probably have needed more speed than the 690 to keep the front wheel planing. It was just too heavy for that kind of terrain. Having passed over a ridge Juha and I waited for Tolga but he didn’t appear. We doubled back to go looking for him.
I was worried that he’d gotten hurt. It would have been serious business out here. Riding down the hillside back towards the lake, I could see him in the distance. He was on his feet by the road, with his bike upright. At least he was walking so he couldn’t be seriously hurt. I rolled up to him and asked if he was okay. He said he had crashed in the soft sand but everything was okay.
We faffed about for a while and instructed him to ride on the grassy offroad area as it wasn’t as soft. Manoeuvring the bike onto the grass in the deep soft ruts was tough going. He dropped the bike again and we helped him put it upright. How he had gotten it up in the first place by himself was beyond me. Tolga was clearly exhausted, but he was more concerned about slowing us down that anything else. A real trooper. I felt really sorry for him, as he was a good rider but the 1190 was just not the bike for the terrain we were on. I appreciated his company and had no problem with the slower pace. Juha had no problems either and helped tweak the front suspension to make the soft sand a little easier to manage.
We passed over the ridge again and the terrain got a little firmer. We all rode on the grass as the sun got lower. The scenery was magnificent. The OSM map showed where the road was supposed to be but there was nothing. We were way off the main trails and decided to double back to the trail. It would probably end up where we wanted to go. The road was a dream come true. Hard and fast with soft sand here and there. Light was low and bikes cast long shadows while spitting plumes of dust in the air.
We popped into Umnugovi for some shopping and decided to ride out to find a suitable spot for camping. After twenty kilometres we turned off the road and headed into the hills. Unfortunately it became sandy again and we decided to camp in open ground. We found a low bump in the hillside, which would keep us out of sight from the road.
Everyone was pretty tired so we just had some canned food and bread before calling it a night. In my tent I thought about everything that had happened in the last two days. Mongolia truly was a heaven for our kind of riding. It had also dawned on to me that despite Russia feeling a little exotic, we were now seriously in the middle of nowhere. Here waiting for flooding to pass for a week was the norm, as were dry gas stations, half empty shops and the absence of accommodation and road side cafes. I wondered if we would make it. This had now become the adventure I had dreamed of.