Saturday, August 26, 2006

Out of Mongolia

After our trip in Gobi, we reached a flat land, a steppe that we crossed in 3 days of riding on long, pretty boring roads (lots of washboard..). We quickly stopped over at Altai (no hot shower in the hotel) and dashed through Khovd to end up in Olgii, to the extreme west of the country.

The last camp was nice, next to a stream with 2 neighbour gers so of course we had some visit. The woman was washing the clothes in the river while I was pumping some water, and when she saw me she went and came back with a bowl of fresh yak milk. All without a word. Do you think this would happen anywhere in Europe? We used it to improve the mashed potatoes (tastes like fresh cow milk to me). Some guys joined us after they had rounded up the goats so we shared a cup of tea and a few cookies.

In Khovd we met a group of Swedish bikers going from Korea to Sweden across Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. They were pretty heavily loaded (a couple BMW 1200, KTM LC8 but also a more reasonable Dominator and F650) and they were also followed by a 4x4. They passed us when we stopped for the night, but then we overtook them the next day while they were crawling on the washboard (once you manage to get over 70 km/h then it becomes much more bearable; but it does take balls to do it on sand and holes and big rocks..).

The weather was really cold (crossing a pass at 2600m), with a few drops of rain, so it was a bit painful in our worn-out summer gloves.. Arriving in Olgii it turns out the (best) hotel has no hot water, so we dash to the public bathhouse and get a long and much necessary shower after 1 week without.

Anders wanted to take a break to do some various repairs (12-V power supply, etc..) and some shopping in the market, and sort out the pictures on the computer, so we'll stay 2 nights here. Today the weather is improving, hopefully tomorrow we'll cross the broder and enter Russia without freezing our ass in the Altai mountains. But the rumor goes that the border is closed on Sunday.. we'll see, but I hope we won't have to spend a day camping at the border (not sure we can even have a cheese fondue over there..?)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

In the dunes of Gobi

We finally leave Ulaanbataar (with our extra generator just in case..), and ride 2 days straight south to Gobi National Park, with a few drops of rain to welcome us in the desert (!), and we start by visiting the famous "ice gorge" at Yolym Am, riding in very pretty small roads up valleys in these 2000-m high mountains. We find a very nice spot up a steep valley to pitch our tent so we stop there and made a horse-shit campfire, to show it really burns well (and besides, there is no tree anywhere around, so no wood).

The first "electronic" casualty in this trip is my bullet cam, it just stopped working. So I somewhat fitted my HD cam on my helmet and kept filming like this. A bit heavy, and not very discreet, but then the quality should be much better.

The next day we exit the mountains through a very pretty (and narrow) gorge partly in a river bed, and head west for the big sand dunes of Khongorin Els. The road starts to be more and more sandy, so that's where the fun starts.. we each have our first crash as we learn the hard way how to fight the sand..!

We end up riding along the big sand dunes, on more or less hard dirt tracks, and when we arrived near the highest ones (Kongorin Els), we wee not one but at least 5 ger camps 15km around, and each with probably 30-50 gers.. so that's some touristic place! We try to bargain a place in a camp, but they didn't drop the price enough (I think it was around 18$), so we end up pitching our tent a few hundred meters away, next to a ger.

Of course the ger owner somes to look what's going on, and he's very firendly. He invites us for a drink, so we go there and try camel airaag, a bit thick but not bad. He has a wife and 3 kids, and he owns about 40 horses and 30 camels. That's about as many animals as you need to live with your family in Mongolia.

We decide to take a day off, so the next morning we leave with light bikes (no baggage) for a ride in the nearby dunes, that's a must of course! A bit difficult at first, but we quickly find the trick to ride in soft sand. You just have to believe in it, it's all on the mind.. Then I started a little contest, who would make it higher on that dune. My first attempt was a bit lame..

Then it was Anders turn. So he kick starts his bike.. and kicks, and kicks, and kicks.. (all this in the sun of midday). Eventually he stops sweating his jacket, there must be something wrong with the engine. Can't be the generator of course, we just changed mine.. but still.. we left without any tools of course (first time: we had to have a break down!) so I turn into the assistance vehicle, go back to our camp, pick up the tools and spare parts and come back, looking as the messiah to Anders stuck in his dune.

It took no more than 10 seconds to measure up the coil..: dead! yes, we better believe it, the part that may "very rarely" break in the Tenere just went down twice in a couple weeks. So now we're really happy to have gone through all this hassle to order a second spare part, and have the first one brought over from Russia to Ulaanbataar. Otherwise, that would have been quite a longer ride for me to go back to Ulaanbataar to order a new part, wait for it and ride back here!

So Anders gets his hands dirty again and changes the generator (3rd time? 4th time? he's OK with the procedure by now..). All this in this patch of grass in the middle of the dunes, couldn't be any better for an improvised workshop!

Of course it runs all right after that, so the next day we're OK to ride out of Gobi toward the western border. But to get there, the road crosses the sand dunes in a "pass", where they are shallow and only 1 km long. Yeah, but 1 km in soft sand on a fully loaded bike, that takes some time.. for the interest and amusement of a busload of tourists waiting at the pass exit.

But that was just the begining, we had a long day of sandy tracks in front of us, to arrive in a lost, depressed small town. Anders is always into camping, but I insist to sleep there as the wind is pretty strong and blowing sand. So we end up in.. the police station! The 2-3 policemen there (what could they spend their day on?) probably don't have use for all the communist-era building, so a woman set-up a room with a few beds, and another one with tables and chair for eating. How easy. We have a pretty good night sheltered from the sand storm.

The next day is a very nice day (it seems that we alternate good and bad days, so the morale keeps good), we just miss the main track and end up instead crossing some shallow round hills on very small tracks, where we have a blast! Very cool ride that nicely breaks up the tiresome, flat sandy tracks.

We cross a few towns, all pretty dull, dark and miserable, with abandoned buildings. We just hit for food (whatever they have, usually some water, pasta, cookies and instant noodle packages) and fuel, usually 80-octane on a run-down crank-operated russian pump. Once we could only get 76-octane, and the engine complained about it by refusing to rev up past 3'500 rpm. But it still runs, that's all we ask it for.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Back in business!

Yesterday we received the DHL package, as promissed when I showed up at the agency the day before. Anders does a great job of mounting the new ignition anf fixing the bike, and now it runs like a charm!

We also change our tyres and put the knobby ones we've been carrying all the way from Finland, so we're all set for Gobi and the crossing of Mongolia. It took us the best part of the afternoon (not too hot fortunately) in front of 2-3 guys from the guest house who just sat there and made fun of those crazy guys pumping up their tyres.

Only that I would like to get the other package, that actually made its way to Ulan-Ude, picked up by Zena and given to a bus driver that was coming to UB. So I went there and waited but saw no bus coming. Tried to cakk the guy on his cellular but he was only speaking Russian, so I asked a lady who was spoeaking English, but she didm't know Russian either. So she asked an old Mongolian who knew Russian, talked to the guy on the phone, tranlated in Mongolian and she then translated it back in English. At the end of the day I couldn't really make sense of what was going on..

So today I'll try again to call the guy and get our package. Even though I don't need it it's good to have a spare and it'd be too bad to waste that expensive part of course.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Life in UB

In a nutshell: Hang out in UB, waiting for the parts that should come tomorrow, nice temperature, a little rain during the night. Very enjoyable, although we're looking forward to the countryside (and leave the pollution behind).

It's been 5 days that we're in UB and we're getting the hang of it. Not much excitation, so I'll fill up with impression about UB (Google Earth .kmz here).

Gana's guest house is very enjoyable, on a small hill overlooking the city. We meet several groups of travelers, at the start or the end of their trip, sometimes in the middle. Most are looking for a guide and a vehicle for 1-2 weeks in the country side. Some come back with horror stories, this summer being so wet most roads are very bad.

And some are just staying here. There is this Dutch guy building yurts in Holland and here to study the history of ger design ("ger" is the Mongolian name for yurt; "yurt" is a Russian word encompassing all Mongolians, kazakh and kyrgyz designs), and exchanging tricks with the locals. Anders went with him in a workshop, but they wouldn't let him take pictures! He's been in Mongolia quite a few times so he knows a lot and like to share it with us.

There's also this English medicine student coming in UB for a few weeks to work on infectious diseases in the hospital. And this obnoxious German running a business of selling Chinese motorcycles, and always criticizing the work of the Mongolians.

Fortunately the life in Mongolia is much cheaper than in Russia:

  • 1 night in a ger at the guest house: 5$
  • Lunch for 2 (2 meals + 2 cokes): 2.50$
  • 1 mirror for my motorbike: 1.25$ (although I had to bargain to get the right rice ;-)
  • 1 pair of sunglasses: 1.25$
  • 1 horse: 150$
We even found a cafe with espresso AND free wifi! Now that's Mongolia in the 21th century. Of course, imported goods are not any cheaper, like gasoline for example: 0.80$.

Looking at all these new Japanese of Korean 4x4, I keep wondering where all this money comes from, probably foreign aid because Mongolia is not exporting anything, except copper, gold and some Cashmere, but that doesn't go far. Of course tourism brings in some cash, but that's only during the 2 months of summer..

We were looking for a shop to photocopy our passports, etc.. and we figured that in Mongolia, if you want to xerox something (as known in the US) you need to look for a Canon..

Oh yeah: the good news is that both packages are making their way to here. The first one finally arrived in Ulan-Ude, after 2 weeks, so Zena is going to give it to a bus driver coming here tomorrow. The second one is (according to DHL) in Korea, so it should also arrive tomorrow here.. half joking we always said we would probably get the 2 packages at the same time, but we didn't have another option really.

We also did a little servicing on the bikes (valve clearance, carb), can't hurt after 6K.

I'm a little tired of sitting here waiting for the part, to say the least, I'm really looking forward to get the hello outta here. We planned to leave for a short trip around, but then I have to catch the bus driver when he arrives, and got to the DHL office to let them know that we're waiting for the package and make sure they're not delaying it any further. There's not a lot to do here once you've seen the monasteries and Shukbataar square (and we missed the Scorpions playing live there on July 31st..).

Monday, August 07, 2006

On the way to UB

We leave the monastery and instead of the paved road we take a long detour on dirt tracks as Anders wants to visit the huge copper mine at Erdenet after reading about it in the LP. But we’re turned down at the gate by the security. So instead of going back the same way on the paved road, we keep going and take the long way on the dirt road. Soon after Bulgan we’re hit by a huge storm with heavy winds that makes any driving impossible, so we pull over in a field, cuddle up next to our bike and wait until it stop to pitch our tent. It doesn't last very long, so we start to cook something, and enjoy an incredible sunset (right before the mosquitos launch their usual dawn attack and force us to retreat into our tent). Next morning the sun is back and the temperature is excellent, 25-30 degrees, so we leave for a long ride (300km/8h) on not too bad dirt tracks until UB.

Arriving near UB we first notice (and smell) the clouds of pollution surrounding the city. We manage to find our guest house (Gana’s), a fine place on a little hill overlooking the city where we meet quite a few other backpackers (or other kind, such as this Dutch guy studying yurts here, and building them in Holland, or this German importing and mounting Chinese motorbikes).

I have a check on the web, hoping the new package is well on its way to UB.. no such luck: Philip let pass 2 days of holidays and.. didn’t even send it! He says UPS needs a private address, fair enough, so he could have selected any hotel out there where we could checked in meanwhile, but nope.. so back to square 1 after 2 weeks. I'm a bit disappointed after all the promises he made before leaving, about not taking too many spares and being able to ship them anywhere in the world. But then we're not on such a tight schedule that it ruins our day.

So now he says 8 days minimum to send it (how come the UPS office says 3 days ? and how come the German guys last week got a part sent in from Germany in 4 days ?). Within this time the first package might actually make its way to Russia, so we'd have a spare for the other bike..

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The land without fences

Today we show up at the border around 10h30. Quite a few vehicles are already there lining up, but we just ride in front of the queue and go talk to the border guard ushering vehicles one after another. He’s pretty friendly and he even speaks a few words of English. Our status of bikers seems to work in our favor so he let us in before all the others. The other custom officers are also very kind (not at all like the Swiss customs), and always very interested in the bike (well the guys in any case). How much does it cost is the first questions, then how many cubic centimeters and how many cylinders, etc.. But after paying our Mongolian insurance and a 1 $ (!) entry fee of some sort, we’re in Mongolia, “only” 2 ½ hours later.

As my engine is running OK we decide to make a little detour to the monastery of Amrbayasgalant. The road to Ulaanbataar is excellent, better than most Russian roads, and it’s all straight and the temperature in the high 30’s, so I almost fall asleep, just missing a slow truck crawling up a hill. Fortunately we have 35 km of dirt track to reach the monastery.. it’s despised by most tourists doing it on a Russian jeep, but for us it’s fun and after all that’s what we’ve been looking for. The track is excellent and the landscape fabulous, just a couple river crossings to wet our socks and we reach the monastery. Anders wants to pitch the tents nearby, but I anyway go ask the price at the nearby ger camp, and at 6$ the night for a nice yurt with 2 beds I convince him. Good pick because it rains the whole night and most of the next day.

When the sun is back the ground dries up pretty quickly so we leave with the bikes empty and have a blast riding up the hills around. A wet dream for off-road bikers!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Heading to Mongolia

We're back at the store, and as decided we mount the stator: it starts (with a good leg), “Russian mechanic good” as would say our friend Alexei. I go for a trial run to heat up the engine and check if the coil is resisting. The engine runs poorly, we’d have to retune the engine but then as I would drive slowly anyway it should be OK until we mount the new part, hopefully in Ulaanbaatar. Morale is up so we stop to say good-bye to Zene and bugger off to the border. Too late to cross it today so we pitch our tent a few kilometers before on a nice hill.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Trying the fixed coil

Today we need to do something about these bikes, so we go to the store. Anders needs to fix a broken spoke on his rear wheel (taking the tire off by hand of course) and change oil. The guys there catch us and insist on us trying the newly fixed part. We're a little reluctant as the first try just blew up after 5 minutes, but they argue that the first repair was quick-and-dirty, but the new one is much better. Anders is a little bit afraid to see the spool break off in pieces and wreak havoc in the engine, possibly destroying it entirely. But then the fix does look better, so I decide we give it a try. Meanwhile I called Philip and have it send a new spare to Ulaanbaatar, as I would like anyway to have a robust one for the next days out in the wild in Mongolia.

We then go ask Zene out for dinner, and we have a nice chat with her and her friend on a terrasse, the weather is just fine.