After the stress of getting out of Russia, entering Mongolia was a breeze, a total of 30 minutes and we were free to ride into the country. This is the way it should be.
For the overview, check out Formalities: Mongolia
Mongolia did not disappoint. We had seen pictures, and they did not compare favorably. The vistas are huge, no roads, no signs, people so friendly it was scary. For example, we stopped a few kilometers inside Mongolia to put our papers away and get a drink, and a local bus (4x4 Russian van) stopped. Everyone got out, everyone shook our hands and welcomed us to Mongolia, thrusting babies in our arms!! The Mongolians like to look at everything with their hands, and this took a while to get used to. Everyone is always alternatively smiling and shaking their heads at these huge bikes and riders. Lovely. Similar episodes would punctuate our whole stay in Mongolia.
I have to say Mongolia is primarily a visual experience. For people used to cities and confined spaces I recommend they stay home. If Mongolia is anything, it is a huge open spaces, punctuated here and there with small villages and occasional GER camps (Ger's are the Mongolian traditional tents, called Yurts in other places). There are no signs, and no real roads anywhere outside the major agglomerations (of which there are only a few). So one basically just strikes out in the particular directions one wishes and if this track eventually goes over a pass it will converge with others as there is often only one that goes over the passes. On the other side, the paths will again diverge as everyone chooses a different way of crossing the wide plains separating the various mountains or hills. This goes on for thousands of kilometers! It took us 8 days to get from the border to Ulaan Bataar the capital. In this time the frame broke on Cecilia's bike twice, along with further breaks to the luggage racks of both bikes. All minor repairs by my standard. In the next settlement we would seek out a welder and he would then repair the broken part, the cost usually around 4-5$, and we would continue on our way.
The route we choose to take to Ulaan Bataar is known as the southern route, and is basically long, flat, and empty. There are no trees only huge valleys, and plains, plenty of sheep, some camels, and horses (by the way we are at around 2000 meters for much of this part of the country). The track is lots of sand, corrugation, dust, and rocks, broken up by a few water crossings, and an occasional low pass or two. Day in day out, alway the same. Sounds boring, but it was really beautiful. One of the things I disliked the most, was that I couldn't spend a lot of time enjoying the scenery while riding, because the road demanded all your concentration.
One of the strangest things we came across was a 100 km or so outside of Ulaan Bataar, as we came over a rise, we were greeted by the sight of hundreds of Gers and tents, usually next to piles of rubble. This across the major "path" which went across the valley. Everyone was digging for gold!! They just set up their Gers and started digging, and this for an area of one square kilometer. Really strange. We had to detour around all the activity and continued on our way.
Ulaan Bataar was a very surreal experience, after all the empty spaces. It is a large city, with the accompanying traffic, noise and people. We had come here because we required a visa to re-enter Kazakhstan on our way south, the visa for Russia was multi-entry so that wasn't a problem, but Kazakhstan multi-entry visa was too costly and difficult to obtain. So we choose to do it this way. We also had a contact for a place to stay in Ulaan Bataar, and we were also expecting a packet sent from Switzerland with spare parts to come to that address. We had a telephone number for our "contact", a certain Sabine, who runs a "biker guesthouse" in the capital. Well, as luck would have it, Cecilia's cell phone couldn't place calls here, so we tried by having a friendly bank teller call the number for us. The result was that the person on the other end said that Sabine was not there and would return in 10 days!! Unfortunately we didn't get to talk to the person on the other end, and the teller only said he didn't speak English anyway. We simply didn't get any further with her so we had to find another way. First we decided to check out some of the other guesthouses, all were full, or we couldn't find them. Then I bought a local SIM card for my mobile and we called the number again. The person really didn't speak very much English, but with a little effort we managed to confirm the address and we then had a taxi driver take us to the address in question.
This is where the fun begins, first near the address, I called again and the
taxi driver spoke directly with the other party to get the correct directions.
The address was quite a ways out of town, and for a while I was wondering what
was going on. In the end we ended up in front of a gate with a little sign which
showed it to be Sabine's guesthouse, and Oneway limited (a company name). So
it seems we where in the right place (by the way the co-ordinates are "N
47° 52' 32.7 E 106° 49' 54.3"). I pay the taxi
driver, he takes off. We honk our horns, knock on the gate, wait. Knock some
more no answer. Eventually a lady comes walking by, opens the gate and lets
us in. I follow her into the house, and there to my great surprise I find a
gentleman passed out drunk on the floor, with a toddler in his arms! The woman,
picks the baby up, kicks the guy a few times, he just turns over and continues
to sleep. I feel like I am in the twilight zone! This can't be the guy I have
been talking to (or trying to). So I call the number, sure enough someone else
answers, and I explain that I am "Here". He says good, he will come
by tomorrow! What? No, come by now, and straighten this mess out. I tried to
explain that there is a drunk on the floor, the lady doesn't speak any English.
So I hand the phone to the lady, she speaks with the guy for a few minutes and
I get the phone back. No problem he says and hangs up. OK. This is getting better
by the minute. Cecilia is still outside the gate waiting to see what is what.
A half hour later a car pulls up and it is the guy on the phone. It turns out that he is a local fireman, and is on duty which is why he couldn't come before. He is a friend of Sabine's and therefore has her mobile phone. He says (it is a lot easier to communicate person to person), that she is gone. He doesn't know anything about the package we had sent here. He has to go back to work so he checks that everything is OK with the Ger and the food and then leaves. In the meanwhile the drunk is on his feet (barely), and speaks a few words of German to us, and disappears again. We have a dinner (some rice with meat and tea), and retire for the night.
The next morning there is no lady, no drunk, the baby is still there, but there are two young women taking care of it. They ask if we want breakfast and are promptly served fresh fried bread and butter, jam, eggs and tea on a nice sun terrace from which we have a nice view over the river which runs in front of Ulaan Bataar and the city in the background. The previous night seemed like a dream.
We end up staying nearly a week here, it is a terrible place to be if you have no transport, as it is around 14 km from the city center. But with the bike it is no problem. We get our visa, do some minor work on the bikes and relax for a few days before heading back toward the border to Russia. It has already been two weeks since we came into the country! While in UB we meet a German couple (Ralf and Marion) who are waiting for parts (we were able to pick ours up at the TNT office in the city, no problem) from Germany. So for a few days we meet them for dinner every evening and swap travel stories.
Ulaan Bataar itself is pretty interesting as it is a mix of old soviet style architecture, some new buildings. Plenty of good restaurants, a permanent circus in the middle of town. Lots of tourists, and a large collection of NGO's and associated personel. Some of which we ran into when dining in the city. I should mention that in the 3 weeks we spent riding around the countryside we never saw any of these nice new Land Cruisers which all the NGO seem to use around town.
When it was finally time to get moving, we decide to take the northern route out of the country. So finally we get on the road and head in that direction. The northern route turned out to be delightful. The tracks are better and there is a lot more scenery. Rivers, lakes, trees as well as the usual plains and plenty of empty spaces of course. As we were not in a hurry we spent a few days at a lake in northern Mongolia called Hovsgul Nuur. Absolutely gorgeous. Very difficult to get to, in particular the western side of the lake, but once there very relaxing and scenic. While camped there we were treated to some great Yak yogurt (add some sugar and jam) by a local from a nearby Ger.
Uureg Nuur another lake in the north western part of the country was also absolutely gorgeous, we almost couldn't tear ourselves away. But as life would have it, it started to get pretty chilly at night and even during the day the wind was blowing pretty cold from the north. It was time to head south. In Olgy we picked up some supplies and did some things on the internet, and also ran into a troupe of Swedes coming from South Korea on their way to Sweden. They were on a Tran-Asia tour and were quite a sight to see. Around 8 bikes and 2 jeeps. We would run into them the following day again at the border, but on this day they were just wandering around Olgy looking for a hot shower. (Which they found in the local bathhouse). We headed toward the border and camped as near as we could, so that we could get an early start the following morning.
This is the same border we crossed previously and so were prepared for the slow pace. Unfortunately, as it was Monday (the border is closed on the weekend), there was more traffic that we anticipated. It took nearly an hour to get into the Mongolian immigration, which as previously was very efficient and quick, once in the immigration compound, it only took 20 minutes before we were on our way to the outer Russian border checkpoint.