Archives for August 2014

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Mongolia Part One

12th August 2014 As soon as we passed the last boom gate entering Mongolia the road changed from perfect tar to average dirt and we were greeted by numerous marmots, squirrel and longhaired bovines (I don’t really know what they were). Yep Yaks.

Now wild camped in open country within sight of the road but no other car has passed by in over three hours. It is quiet and cold. Do we feel isolated?

Judy, as usual, has cooked up a storm, managing to produce something out of nothing, much like a magician.

13th August 2014 Not one car passed by overnight, the silence was deafening, and we woke to a clear blue sky and a few marmots skulking about here and there. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but you have to be careful to cook marmots thoroughly before eating, and wash hands after handling, as they can carry the Bubonic plague. They apparently gave it to the rats who then spread it to Europe in the 1400’s and there are still sporadic outbreaks even now. So that’s the nature lesson for the day.

Breakfast over we drove 40k’s to Elgii (or Olgii or even more correctly Ulgii) and have organised a guide to take us through some remote parts of western Mongolia, chiefly the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. Should take four days. So here we are, we accessed cash from an ATM of which there were plenty as with petrol stations and camped at the back of the Blue Wolf Hostel with proper toilets, showers, power (with an Australian power point, this is truly bizarre) and WIFI. There is even an Irish pub in town (we saw many Irish pubs throughout Europe) The dirt road at the border only lasted 20k and it’s been good tar ever since.

Is this the last frontier? I’m beginning to think that there’s no such animal.

14th August 2014 We met our guide , Dunno (Name changed to protect the guilty, all will be revealed later) a twenty two year old student of English and Chinese, and left at midday immediately hitting the real Mongolian back roads and they are bad, but not the worst roads I’ve driven on. He took us through spectacularly sparse country. There are often many pathways to choose from but it doesn’t matter which one you take as they all join up again eventually (sounds like a good song lyric). On the road we spoke of many things. Dunno mentioned to me that he had tasted wolf meat and said that it was OK (It’s only a dog after all, even Captain Cook partook of canine) and also that his father eats marmot. I told him that I’d eaten kangaroo and crocodile; he was totally disgusted, not.

We have made camp deep into the national park in between the two lakes Khoton and Khurgan and five Russians have appeared and asked if they could fish near us no problem. I was wondering why they needed to be so close to us when they started hauling in fish by the dozen. I guess they knew what they were doing and it looked like trout that they were catching, but no it was something else lost in the translation.

Weather here is perfect blue sky about 28c in the day 15c at night, snow-capped mountains in the distance.

One really odd thing here, which we also noted in Russia, was what looked like big seagulls. Further research required.

We seem to be in the centre of things here as a passing parade of horses, fishermen, motorbikes and camels (one hump or two?) two, are walking past our campsite.

Judy became camp cook and afterwards Dunno and a local, who he befriended, found some wood (no dried yak dung for these guy’s) and lit a fire. Several others soon joined us so I produced the guitar. Turns out one of them can play guitar so we traded songs Mongolian style. The guitarist was a good picker and sang with a slight Chinese twang, an interesting mix. After some time the evening petered out and all went to bed. Later that night came a knock on the door, can we borrow the guitar and you can come too if you like. Stupidly I lent them the guitar and opted to stay home. I hope I see it again.

15th August 2014 Yep saw it again.

Today we drove on the worst road yet, this includes the whole world. Often having to drive at walking pace with numerous river crossings and bogs trying to get to the Tavan Bogd basecamp. Tavan Bogd or five saints are the five peaks that dominate this region the largest of which is Khuiten Uul, biggest in Mongolia (4374m) with an accompanying glacier, which you can access by foot, horse or camel. Having reached it was worth the effort as these peaks are gargantuan and have a very Himalayan look to them, we are now settled beside a raging torrent with the sun setting on these massifs.

Just behind is China and with the sun down it is cold.

16th August 2014 We set off to walk to the glacier rather than ride, as Judy has trouble with her back on four leg drives, and had walked about a kilometre when our guide informed us that it was 17 K’s away ( originally 10K’s) so we just walked up the valley for a couple of hours and then returned.

17th August 2014 We left camp at 8.30am, for the return journey, using the good road, down the other side of the river, this time. Good in Mongolian means even worse, as the road was no different from the incoming road but with the added degree of difficulty of really deep river crossings. We got lost and ended up at at dead end but luckily found a farmer who was just about to leave his farm and do the deep river crossing, he volunteered to show us the way. His method of locking the farmhouse door was interesting, he used a split log to nail across the front door using a stone. The river depth was well above the wheels and I had to turn on my wipers from the wash. At this point I must add that our guide has been most inadequate, not knowing the roads or crossings. He was constantly asking the locals for directions and did not seem to know anything. We missed the best rock drawings in central Asia, a promised ger stay and Lake Khoton Nuur.

We made it back and troopy did not miss a beat. I must say, though, the local farmers and nomads get about in 4WD petrol Lada’s and vans, which seem to handle the terrain just as well as our thoroughbred Landcruiser.

18th August 2014 A recovery day today saw us walk ten minutes into town to do some browsing and copy some documents related to the China leg of our trip. We saw street vendors selling animal skins with legs and hooves still attached and two women dragging what looked like a horse suit, which is exactly what it was, except real, along the street.

In the afternoon we visited the local museum, which was quite interesting and then went to the movies Mongolian style. What this entails is that you buy a ticket and then choose which movie you want to see. This is easy enough if there are only two of you but you can see that any more and it could become complicated. The theatre seats about thirty people. Luckily we were in first and got to see our choice, a Ben Stiller movie The Secret World of Walter Mittey, quite good and in English.

On coming home we met a Dutch couple Belinda and Markus who, it turns out are part of our China convoy and are camped right next door to us.

19th August 2014 Had to register our visa and get some third party insurance for the car and spent futile hours getting neither as it turns out that both are unnecessary.

Marcus and Belinda have proved to be like-minded with us and we seem to bump into them all over, even in the restaurant toilet in town. We all looked through the markets and bid a fond adieu before we set of toward U.B. (Ulaan Baatar) at 4pm.

The first 60K was perfect tar road, what a disappointment. Then suddenly hit really bad dirt road, what a disappointment! No mostly good dirt with but with some hairy water crossings. This is the main southern route I’m talking about. So maybe it is a frontier after all. Nonetheless we feel safe and are wild camped again somewhere.

20th August 2014   Leaving Ulgii We had to pay a road tax at a police post. Later on I wondered why. This is a 4×4 enthusiast’s paradise.

21st August 2014 Rock & Roll, literally. From the large town of Khovd we had perfect tar for 160k’s and then, bang, really bad dirt. One section, many kilometres long, was so bad that you could not use it at any speed, luckily there was a track next to it which was nearly as bad. In the end the best option was to use no road at all. That’s one good thing in Mongolia, if you get lost or want to use another road (There is usually a choice of six or more) you can just shoot off in a direction until it connects with the road you want. I recommend doing this in conjunction with a GPS device.

The Mongol Rally is in progress at the moment and we have travelled along side many of the entrants, we are almost one of them travelling at times with several cars abreast on different tracks, cars weaving all over the place. One condition is that the cars have to have 1 litre engines or less. This means that they are all small cars and how they manage to survive the bad roads and mud I do not know. Actually quite a few cars don’t make it and there is a collection of abandoned cars at Altai.

From Altai we have opted to go north as this seems to be more interesting and I think we will also miss the crazy rally driving.

22nd August 2014 I think we made the right choice as the road is much better and the scenery is very beautiful with undulating hills to small mountains and rocky outcrops interspersed with Ger villages every now and then. Altitude around the Mt Kosciusko mark. Weather here is beautiful with cool nights. The sky, if you look up, is a blackish blue (close to space) but if you look to the horizon it is a vivid pale blue I haven’t seen before.

Found Uliastai to be an interesting town with quite a history and explored it’s market to find a Ger kit seller and the butcher from where we bought some goat meat. Now just wild camped on the outskirts ready for a day of R&R, exploring and doing some home chores and maintenance.

23rd August 2014 Just a washing day as the weather is perfect and we are close to a river.

In the afternoon a cow arrived, on it’s own and after a while we gave it some left over curry, banana skins and bread. She devoured the goat curry and then, obviously loving it, proceeded to make a real pest of herself by trying to lick everything in sight. She was persistent and would not let up until rounded up for the night by the farmers cattle dogs.

23rd August 2014 In the morning as Judy was preparing breakfast who should we see walking across the fields to us but the cow. Which goes to prove that cows do have memories, and I always thought they were stupid. Doing the wrong thing we fed her again, this time with toad in the hole. We won’t get rid of her now.

My dung fire experiment was a great success, it burns like coal with no wood added.

24th August 2014 Drove on reasonable dirt roads through green valleys surrounded by timbered hills to end up camped by a stream at Tosontsengel.

25th August 2014

The roads today were diabolical, giving us a sample of every kind of bad road there is from huge pot holes to shard surfaces, corrugations, sand and at one point an incline which must have been at a 45 degree tilt. (Had to use low range 1st gear to get down) The road building techniques here are similar to the ones we have seen in Africa, building new roads but also scarring the landscape as they go along, some valleys were just a mess.

With no road signage to tell of diversions and the many options of tracks to take it become a true jigsaw puzzle even with GPS, throw in a deep river crossing and confusion reigned as cars drove all over the place trying to find the right way. We did this too.

Now camped by Terkhin Tsagaan Nuur (Nuur means lake in Mongolian).

26th August 2014 Entered the National park surrounding Terkhin Tsagaan Nuur via the village of Tariat and saw the extinct volcano Khorgo Uul. This is a real tourist trap Mongolian style. That is to say there were some stalls selling soft drinks and what looked like beans in a fluid. Two ladies came to our van selling fish and a type of meat piroshky, delicious. From there we started to circumnavigate the lake and came to a mud crossing in the middle of which was a small sedan belonging to a couple of local lads. I think they could not believe their good luck when they saw my winch, we had them out in five minutes and in gratitude gave us a bag of biscuits which they insisted we take.

We drive over these roads thinking them a challenge but the Mongolians seem to get away with, most of the time, using town sedans although there are plenty of LandCruisers about also.

We are now camped at a very beautiful place overlooking the lake surrounded by wooded rises, on a sandy beach with the sun shining and no one else around.

Mongolia has a population of three million, two million of which live in Ulaan Bataar and it is a big country. Last night we camped just off what we thought was a dirt track with huge ruts and pot holes (ravines and valleys, almost impassable) but in fact it was a main thoroughfare with juggernauts passing all through the night.

Driving here in this remote valley we pass three teenage girls wearing what my daughters would wear, looking as if they are on their way to a club. Globalisation is here too.

At about 8.30pm came a tap on the side of the car and when I opened the door I was greeted by a nomad with his horse. He spoke no English or Russian and I no Mongolian. We made noises and he motioned to his mouth which I thought meant food but then he produced some cigarette papers and baccy. He rolled, I lit, and after a while I mentioned the only universal word marijuana?. I quickly add that I did not partake but gave him some of the biscuits, we had received earlier in the day, which he quickly stashed in his coat, and I watched him finish the smoke, involuntarily inhaling some of the fumes.

27th August 2014 Didn’t get going until about eleven and we stopped at a roadhouse for lunch, which smelled of mutton. The hostess greeted us and came out with an artistically crafted dumpling, shaping it right before our eyes, so we agreed to this for lunch. A thermos was produced and into a bowl was poured the Mongolian, warm, salted milk drink which may well have been mare’s milk, not as bad as it sounds, although Judy could not drink much of it. After a while lunch was served. It was just a kind of raw pasta with mutton, not quite what we expected but it tasted OK doused with soya sauce. On the up side, it only cost five dollars total.

We drove on towards Tsetserleg and blow me down if we didn’t get 80k’s of beautiful tar road which was like a small holiday in itself, after all the bumping around of late.

At Tsetserleg we found Fairfield Guest House, owned by an Aussie couple, Murray and Elizabeth from Hurstville in Sydney, just a few short kilometres from where we live back home. We have booked a room for tomorrow night, as tonight it is booked out, and hope for a night out on the town, as there are a few pubs around. Fairfield offers steak and chips so this will be our start. Looking forward to a shower.

Tonight we are camped by the river, five k’s out of town, another beautiful spot.

Our night at Fairfield didn’t turn out as expected. Judy was up all night vomiting with what we thought may have been food poisoning until the next night when I copied her, must have been a bug. So we just took it easy doing only a few miles per day and sleeping in. All better now.

 

31st August 2014  Arrived at Ulaan Bataar or UB as hip travellers call it. It is a large and fairly modern city on first impressions with a dual carriage/toll way, still with potholes, leading into the city for the approaching 20 k’s. In fact it has been tar a lot of the way from Erdenesant.

 

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Russia Part Two

25th July 2014 Yesterday we wild camped at Chechenino on the Volga river. We had read about this place on another overlanders website which mentioned the locals kindness to them. We found a spot right on the river but the mosquitoes were horrendous so after looking further decided on a more friendly site, still on the river. We had just settled in to our, out of the way spot, when an extended family arrived, at dusk, for a swim. We got to talking to them and sure enough they invited us back to their house for dinner and we would have taken them up on their offer but for our tiredness and that our dinner was ready.

A family that swims together stays together.

Today drove on to the city of Kazan, another beautiful place again with its own ancient Kremlin, churches and Macas. It is the Capital of the Tatarstan Republic which is still a part of Russia and ended up wild camped on the shore of Kuybyshev Reservoir.

We are about a thousand kilometres east of Moscow and Judy has just downloaded a book, isn’t technology wonderful?

I have been wondering whether I’ve been speaking some sort of old style Russian as the Russian that I learnt was sixty years ago (I call it Shakespearian Russian) but no, I have figured it out. Today there was a children’s show, on the radio, complete with The Dog Song. I understood it all. So the form of Russian that I speak is six year old’s.

26th July 2014 Passed the city of Ufa, capital of the republic of Bashkortostan, again a part of Russia, and again a modern and attractive city of one million or so. I wonder where these dirty industrial towns, that they keep talking about, are? Cause I haven’t seen any yet.

We had Maccas for lunch and a haircut costing AUD$4.50 but could have had a budget job for AUD$2.50.

Late this evening, looking for a place to stay we again did battle with a mud road before finding a cosy little truck stop alongside about twenty juggernauts and a junk yard.

28th July 2014 We have found our first two Russian National parks, last night Zyuratkul and tonight at Taganai but it has been raining and cold, 11c as a daily maximum. Bear in mind that this is pretty well mid summer. I have been told that this is freakish weather and that it is usually much warmer and that last winter was unusually warm i.e. snow only a foot deep as opposed to the usual one meter.

Today whilst trying to find Taganai N.P. a man insisted on showing us the way. This only took him about twenty kilometres out of his way along wet, muddy roads in his little two wheel drive car, no worries. Thank you Valdimir!

In general the Russians don’t seem to let anything faze them. In the poor weather conditions people were out and about, picnicking, bush walking and they seem to have not so much of a can do attitude as a will do attitude.

1st August 2014 We spent two days at Taganai the weather slowly getting better, regrouping and organising ourselves. One of the highlights was the Banya. This is the traditional Russian sauna where large rocks are heated by coals for two to three hours and water poured over them to produce the steam and release heat from the rocks, a mild thrashing with birch leaves producing a healthy erythema (pinkness) on the skin is followed by a dip in the very cold water of the lake which is right next to the Banya. (Done three or four times to taste) After the intense heat the cold water of the lake is easy to take though it does take your breath away and you have to be careful not to suck in a mouthful of water, as I did.

Yesterday we drove to the city of Chelybinsk where we had to check the T-belt warning light with the local Toyota dealer. This is a huge and modern dealership and we were quite a novelty to them. The General Manager came down and welcomed us and told us of the cross world sailor that they had just sponsored, followed by an interview and photo shoot with our car and the Toyota staff. They gave us a complementary Toyota Frisbee as a parting gift.

Today we dove about 650K’s with the weather really nice now. Russia is so huge and all of it seems to consist of either forest or fields of wheat. The soil throughout all of Russia is that thick black stuff, great for growing but bad for bogging.

The roadhouses offer generally average food and toilets of varying quality from very good to, literally, the pits. Worse than anything Africa threw at us, I wont go into details here. At some you could even get a good shower for a small price.

We haven’t been stopped by any police as yet, so no document inspections or bribes again as we had heard.

Haven’t seen a drunk yet and the roads are OK and whilst the driving is on the aggressive side the truck driving is very good with all sticking to their speed limits and not to many driving gymnastics.

Some myths may be put to rest.

3rd August 2014 We expected the frontier town of Novosibirsk to be a little rough around the edges, maybe fur traders. Instead we spent three hours in Ikea, identical to the one at Rhodes in Sydney back home and while this was good therapy for Judy I quietly slipped into Retail Trance. This is a condition where one can be led anywhere and made to say Yes to anything. We visited a Bunning’s style hangar, which makes our Bunningses look like corner shops and a supermarket with 76 checkouts.

Oh, we also saw the Opera House, which is meant to be even bigger than the Bolshoi in Moscow.

4th August 2014 Arrived at Tomsk about 250k’s north of Novosibirsk as we had heard it is a lively university town with interesting buildings and street life. Scouted around for a camping area where one was shown on our map. It turned out to be a disused youth camp with a dog-training workshop in progress. The Caretaker/Manager, Lena, told us that it hadn’t been used for eight years but that we were welcome to camp overnight, free of charge. Some interesting Soviet era street furniture and an old Aeroflot plane made the place worth staying at and true to form, about an hour later, Lena arrived with homemade jams and bags of berries for us.

The dog seminar has turned out quite funny as we are now surrounded by them and they all seem to be barking, being walked, panting and all of those other doggy things that they do. A girl came over and showed us all the tricks her dog (a kind of miniature Shitszu) had learnt. It must be a very clever dog as there were many of them and she was so proud. All most unexpected at 9pm.

5TH August 2014 Being tourists today and seeing the sights of Tomsk such as the Oppression Museum which shows, among other things, how many punishment camps (Gulags) there were, many many. Tomsk has a good feel about it with old wooden buildings mixed with golden spired churches, historic buildings and gardens.

On the way into town we stopped at a tyre repair place, flat tyre number eight, and had it repaired. The repairer did not want payment and I had to insist of even a small payment.

Judy noticed that she had run out of her tablets and we thought we would spend all day, chasing around finding, a doctor to write a script and then getting them but first I thought I would just ask at a chemist shop. No worries, no script necessary as they could tell from the old box what was needed, and pick them up next day. No RED tape here.

Returned to our camp late to find the guard dog seminar still in progress with lots of growling and barking and later spoke the the head trainer in his full body padding. This guy had been all around Russia and he really recommended that we visit Lake Baikol, he is about the fourth person to say this, so I think, if we have time, we will.

6th August 2014 Judy made pancakes for breakfast and we just took it easy, used our solar shower and went into town to get the tablets, which were waiting for us. Had a trendy meal, rang the girls did a bit of WIFI. This is our third night here at the camp and Lena has just arrived with some Blinnies, a Russian pancake.

7th August 2014 Just as we left Tomsk I was pulled over by the police for crossing an unbroken road line. At first the officer was a bit stern and did check our documents but as we spoke he warmed up and any misdemeanour was soon forgotten. He did ask if I had any Australian money and I thought it was the start of a bribe, but no, he just wanted some coins for his collection. We parted the best of friends. On we travelled via Kemerovo, the capital of the region to almost Novokuznetsk along first class motorways, through large landscapes of fields and big towns. So much for the wild Siberian frontier.

8th August 2014 Finally found the real Siberia just 400 k’s shy of Mongolia. We are in the Altai region, which is mildly mountainous, very pretty, and with a dirt road, although this only lasted for about 50 K’s. Now wild camped on Biya river by Lake Teletskoye, near the village of Artybash, which is a bit of a tourist trap Siberian style i.e. a few souvenir stalls and people standing on the side of the road advertising that their house is available for rent. There are actually some camping grounds here but the toilets are really bad and no showers so we have preferred to just find a nice spot, easy enough, and go al fresco.

Warm enough but looks like the rain has set in. No mozzies or ticks.

9th August 2014 Gorno-Altaysk is the regional capital of the Altai Republic and we may or may not have some daunting visa/registration type of chores to do here. The blogs we have read give conflicting information and things have changed here in very recent years so armed with the information given to us on entry to Russia we think we may just try to wing it and drive to the Mongolian border. The countryside is getting prettier by the kilometre. Last night we wild camped by a river and same again tonight except that tonight we face a small birch island and a full moon. Could be one of those paintings that are too good to be true.

It gets to -40c here in winter.

11th August 2014 Wild camped again last night alongside a crystal clear stream having driven through some beautiful and spectacular country. At the idyllic campsite some very inquisitive cows welcomed us by generally hanging around and occasionally poking heir heads into the back of the car, and they are here now as I write. We are hoping for bears, as this is bear country or a moose or even a squirrel.

After a couple of hours three young blokes approached us saying that we had to pay a camping fee of three hundred roubles ($9.00). I asked for ID, which they produced but I could not read and so I paid, asking for a receipt, which they produced but I could not read. So I don’t know if I’d been had or not.

(think I did) In any case no trouble.

Didn’t get going till 2pm through a changing landscape from coniferous to semi arid with snow-capped mountains in the close distance, starting to feel like Mongolia now. Pulled in to get some last supplies at the second last outpost but people here would not look out of place on the streets of Moscow, tank tops with board shorts or platinum blondes on high heels. No traditional garb yet.

The driving has been ideal with very good roads, no trucks and light traffic.

Now wild camped at Lake Chenbekkel about 8k north of Aktash.

 

12th August 2014 Driving though drier and drier country as we approach Mongolia but still very spectacular and we have lunched by a raging torrent of snow melted water surrounded by mountains with many recent landslides visible. At the last Russian outpost, Kosh-Agach, a real frontier town, we did our last fuel and veg top up and checked with the local police whether we needed any more approvals or permissions. No was their answer.

The border crossing was more complicated than expected, as we had to go through numerous checkpoints. The last stumbling block presented an unexpected problem. We had been given the wrong information at the Russian entry point. We were told that we only needed to register our visa if we stayed at a location for more than seven days but in fact we had to register it every seven days. Result, a fine of 2000 roubles each was mandatory  (total AUD$120.00), however the nice officer only imposed one fine of $60.00 because of our age. It actually turned out to be cheaper than had we gone through the correct registration process.

 

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