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Mongolia Part Three

10th September 2014 Drove up to Terelj National park about 50k’s north east of Ulaan Baatar. It could be another country as both the countryside and village houses look very European complete with golf courses. On the way visited the huge Genghis Kahn riding a horse monument which was very impressive and as an added bonus were able to climb to the top of the horses head.

11th September 2014 Headed back up to the village of Terelj to take a different road through the National park. Just as we left the village we encountered our first river crossing and as we were assessing it a couple of villagers asked us if we could help them with their car which was stopped on the other side. This we did by towing it back across the river. Half way across their tow rope broke and their car was stranded mid stream. Plan B, was to use my winch to pull it the rest of the way. The bolt holding my cable to the axle snapped but some good bush mechanics on their part (they had every size bolt in their kit) soon had the winch fixed and them on dry land again.

At times this road was very bad and at one point two town sedans overtook us. We caught up with them at the next river crossing just in time to see the first sedan get stuck in the middle of the flow. It was able to be pushed out but the second car just drove straight in and began to float before going down with all hands. Time for Mr Winch again but with the added hindrance of the drunk driver, trying to help whilst taking a leak every five minutes.

We stopped to talk to a lone and tired looking hiker, a fairly senior Dutchman, wearing no hat, to make sure he was OK. We gave him some water and talking to him found out that he was only able to walk five kilometres per day, as he was not as fit as he used to be. Somehow the conversation got around to the benefits of electronic cigarettes, which he proceeded to demonstrate.

We nearly made it to the monastery at the end of this road but were stopped by some serious looking mud flats. We will camp here tonight and scout around for a bypass tomorrow we won’t push our luck though.

As we unwound some people on horseback, a guide and three tourists, rode past and shortly after a young European girl, possibly German, came over to us suggesting we should give her a lift back to her camp, which she did not know the location of, as she was seriously saddle sore. At this stage we were fully in camp mode and weren’t really prepared to repack and give her a lift unless it was an emergency. Luckily we were able to suggest she walk around the next corner to the Princess Ger Camp. Appropriate?

They had attempted to get to the monastery on horseback but were unable to traverse the last five K’s so I don’t like our chances of getting there in a car.

12th September 2014 Checked at the Princess Ger Camp and were told that the only way to get to the monastery was by ox and cart.

We stopped for lunch on a side road and on resuming noticed a huge rut about a metre wide and a metre deep running right across the road. As I negotiated around to the side of it the road shoulder gave way to thick black mud and the car went in, sitting at, and I’m not exaggerating, a 45-degree angle, almost at tipping point. I could not get out of my door and we only scrambled out of Judy’s door with great difficulty.

I started getting the winch ready but the trees that I was going to use as an anchor were not at a very good angle to the car. Right then three Mongolian men, in a Troopy, arrived and we were able to use their car as the anchor point at the optimal angle. Even so it was a great struggle to extricate the car as it was at such an acute angle. Two of the Mongolians stood on the high side footboard, just like sailing, as we dragged it out of the slime. We could not even get to the camera, so no pictures.

Thank you Three Mongolian Men in a Troopy.

We have decided that we will attack the Gobi desert proper so tomorrow we will fuel and water up, get supplies and head south.

13th September 2014 Covered about 450K’s today on excellent bitumen road and as we head to the desert, it’s getting more and more arid as we drive. We aim to reach Dalanzadgad tomorrow and from here we start our Gobi crossing toward the east to the town of Sainshand with quite possibly no road to follow, a distance of over 500k.

14th September 2014 Temperature was four degrees at 7am but low twenties by mid afternoon.We reached Dalanzadgad by lunchtime but headed northwest (instead of east) for about 60k to see The Flaming Cliffs and some huge sand dunes.

The entire length of road from Ulaan Baatar to Dalanzadgad (some 650K’s) was excellent bitumen with occasional road works. From Dalanzadgad to Flaming cliffs the road was excellent dirt and when we had to improvise and use no road the terrain was excellent and we just navigated by GPS.

We had planned to stay the night at the Three Camels Lodge, thinking it was overlanders friendly but it was too expensive (see Travel Notes).

Now camped at the Flaming Cliffs overlooking what could be a central Australian scene at sunset.

15th September 2014 Sand dunes in the morning and the Gurvan Saikhan National Park in the afternoon where we walked through a narrow chasm. On the way back we drove through a narrow chasm, just wide enough for the car. This drive was hair raising with many steep lateral angles and inclines as well as having to driving along a river, all be it a shallow one. At the end of the road there was no road and rather than return we went forward on no road. This was a little trickier than on the flat plains of the previous few days. We had some really steep inclines, declines and ravines to test us but we got through to the main road heading back to town.

Tomorrow is a big day, Judy’s 60th Birthday.

16th September 2014 Happy Birthday Judy.

Zero over night but a beautiful sunny morning soon heated things up.

I cooked Judy a special breakfast of crumbled eggs with onion, chapatti and lentils on the side, left over from the night before, almost breakfast in bed, but we didn’t get going until about 12 midday. We headed into town and took a room at the Dalanzadgad Hotel as it has the best restaurant in town (We have eaten here before). This is a hotel very much in the African style i.e. a dodgy construction with slow internet and bad plumbing. The meal was a bit average and did not look like the picture in the menu. Judy ordered the Button soup which turned out to be Mutton soup. We continued to the Karaoke/disco room next door where some fairly uninspiring entertainment ensued.

Hey, take a step back. This is in the middle of the Gobi Desert.

Tomorrow we will start our real adventure through the Gobi. Over 500K’s through the desert with some lengthy patches of no track on any map that I can find.

We had a nice Skype connection with our daughters who were having a Birthday dinner, in Judy’s honour, at our house.

Thank you Daughters.

17th September 2014 We are now camped in the real middle of the Gobi desert. We have had a beautiful sunny day 25c and the evening is mild. Getting here was not as bad as we thought as the areas on the map that showed no road did in fact have a track that we could follow. The tracks were not disastrous either, rough but by no means the worst we have been on. Thank God for GPS as there are often numerous tracks to choose from and it is easy to chose a slightly wrong one and before you know it you are headed off in a completely wrong direction.

It is known that if you walk in a desert you will eventually walk in a circle. We did this the other day, driving and not paying attention to the GPS and sure enough we were making a circle before too long.

We are carrying three GPS devices, two that give a different aspect and the third as backup as well as a paper map.

Just had visit from a local couple again with the usual language difficulties although this time a smattering of Russian words but still not enough to make a meaningful conversation.

18th September 2014 Either we have parked in the middle of a local thoroughfare (although there is no way of telling) or we are the latest novelty here. At 2am a couple on a motorcycle stopped behind us for a few minutes before taking off and then at about 8am a family in a truck pulled up next to us looking. I waved and they waved back pointing to our oddly shaped roof in sleep mode. I don’t think a lot happens around here so we are the entertainment. As I write I hear another motorcycle approaching. He is here now and freely admits that he was part of the 2am crew.

Here comes another one.

19th September 2014 Yet another motorcyclist arrived this morning. They all just want to have a bit of a chat and don’t hang around.

Today reached the town of Sainshand, which we thought ended our Gobi adventure, but no. As we headed south in search of monasteries we find ourselves camped again in the Gobi. Days still 25c with night’s cool, perfect weather. All in all we have travelled over 700k’s through the Gobi.

Quite a few times now, when we have been unsure of a particular direction to take, someone has popped up from nowhere to help us. Today we were in such a predicament and asked a villager for directions. He, unbelievably, spoke perfect English and showed us the way.

20th September 2014 Now at the Chinese border at Zamin Uud, we cross on the 24th so a few days to cool our heels, clean up and get ready for the next phase. It will be good to veg out for a while. Pulled up a bit of desert about 20k”s north of town rather than stay at another hotel room.

It was 33c in town today, not bad for a Mongolian autumn and a little bit sad as we say goodbye to this country, certainly a highlight of our trip.

 

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Mongolia Part Two and Lake Baikal, Siberia

2nd September 2014 We were able to get our Chinese visa yesterday (see Travel notes/Border entry) so we are now free to travel up to Lake Baikal in Siberia. We have heard that the road is good by Mongolian standards so we will spend a week or so up there before heading south to the Chinese border. In Ulaan Baatar we are staying at an overlanders checkpoint, The Oasis Guesthouse. It serves western fast food including Crumbled eggs for breakfast, good description I thought.

3rd September 2014 The road from Ulaan Baatar to Kyakhta, the border post, was all tar of varying quality but just so good compared to what we have been used to. Wild camped at a shallow lake with the usual horse, goat and sheep herds strolling past. We thought the isolated border post would be quiet, which it was, however it still took about four hours to get through. Why I don’t know but the delay was all up in the Russian entry control post. The Russians made a very thorough search of every car and were pleasant about it right up until the final official. I had been directed to park in a certain spot and the official, a harassed looking Mongolian female called me to the office. Curtly told me to sign the documents and gave me a pen. I signed. She said why did you use the red pen, I replied you gave it to me, She questioned why did you park there, I replied I was told to. She threw the documents onto the desk, finished? I asked. Humph was the reply. Nice As soon as we entered Russia we noticed the difference in the landscape back to fir and deciduous trees, just like the Russia we had left. We have noticed this about many countries, that is to say, as soon as you enter a new country it has it’s own characteristic almost straight away. The roads on the Russian side are very good and this is now Eastern Siberia so I expected worse. As we were looking for a suitable camp spot for the night we passed by an abandoned industrial complex just out of Ulan-Ude, spooky, so we drove on through the hilly fields to find a small river just out of Ulan-Ude 80 odd K’s from Lake Baikal. This is it for the night.

4th September 2014 Arrived at Lake Baikal and found a campsite by the water, already the climate is colder with a very strong wind blowing. The sea, I mean lake, is pounding, roaring, very loud, you could almost surf it. Lake Baikal looks and behaves like an ocean, it is huge. All night the wind howled with some rain but we were snug in our little penthouse boudoir.

5th September 2014 Slowly cruised along the east coast looking for potential camping spots and stopping for lunch for Salyonka, a savoury soup of carrots, potato’s, sausage and gherkin and then, a second course of palmeni, a meat filled dumpling. Entered Zabankaliski National Park at the northern end of the lake and found a spot right on a beach just as the weather cleared. Good Russian pine has been provided so we are having a fire as the sun sets. It is cool here anyway as it is now autumn but as soon as the sun goes down you feel a definite drop in temperature. This whole lake is has golden sand beaches, probably the best we have seen on the whole trip so far and there is a crescent of blue mountains surrounding us. Lake Baikal holds the largest volume of fresh water in the world. It is a narrow lake, about six hundred kilometres long and is 1.6 kilometres deep.

6th September 2014 Spent the morning exploring the National park including Svyatoy Nos or Holy Nose, a big pelican head shaped peninsula, put out a small grass fire we found along the way and later drove around some of the backcountry of Siberia getting as far north as the village of Bodon. Suddenly it’s autumn as the trees, overnight, have changed colour giving us an idea of what is yet to come. We did about 350k’s today and are again camped on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal looking at a beautiful sunset. (Half an hour later). This sunset is now like a psychedelic poster, an orange sky with magenta clouds, purple mountains on the other side and mauve waves with crimson crests, no I’m not smoking funny stuff. All of this time driving across Russia/Mongolia and we are still only a little over half way across this biggest country on Earth.

 

7th September 2014 Happy Fathers Day! Judy cooked a special breakfast of crumbled eggs with onions and sausage, fantastic. Drove slowly around the shore of Baikal not really wanting to leave, before stopping for lunch at Ulan Ude where we had a Subway (there are three Subway franchises in this town). A beautiful sunny day saw us say goodbye to Russia and hello again Mongolia. This time the border crossing was much quicker than before with forms and fee payments completely different from both previous entries to, and departures from, both countries. I received a salute from one Russian border soldier. I love that kind of treatment. We didn’t find a campsite until about 8.30pm but lucked in again with a spot on a hill in a wooded area looking down on what appears to be an English village, not your usual Gers.

8th September 2014 Back to Ulaan Baatar and booked the car in for a service at Toyota and camped just out of town on a hill overlooking Ulaan Baatar, the giant Budda statue and accompanying monastery.

Had the quickest haircut back at the Oasis Guesthouse $6.

Days are perfect here at the moment with clear blue sky and 25 to 28 degrees. Much warmer than I expected at his time of year.

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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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