Border Crossing day started early with a ride in the rain.
By the time we reached the Mongolian border, the sun had returned and it was 30 degrees. We began the long tedious process of getting through Russian border control and customs, before we could repeat on the Mongolian side.
The Russians went through our gear thoroughly, looking for drugs. I don’t get it. We are leaving Russia, and they’re searching us for drugs. Do they want to keep all the drugs in Russia or something?
On the Mongolian side, no drug search.
When we are waiting to be processed, the locals have a very annoying habit of trying to jump the queue, and then when we make it to the counter and are being processed, they will pass their papers over our shoulders or slide them past our elbows, attempting to get the officer to deal to them first.
They are very persistent, and calmly asking them to desist, in a language they don’t understand, had little effect. So I resorted to a couple of words that seem to be understood universally, and told them to Fuck Off, in a load voice. Bingo, that seemed to do the trick...
Once through the border we began the laborious ride to the capital, Ulaanbaatar. We had been warned the road was bad, but nothing really prepared us for what awaited us.
Apparently, China has promised to build a new road for the Mongolians, from the border to Ulaanbaatar. It would appear that since that promise, made about 10 years ago, the Mongolians have decided it’s not worth doing any maintenance on the old road, and it has literally fallen to pieces.
The potholes are huge, and we share the road with lumbering trucks, grinding along in first gear and trying not to lose their load, Mongolian herders in small Japanese trucks loaded with livestock (often 6 or so ponies that appear to be just attached with a piece of string), businessmen in modern 4x4 Landcruisers and Lexus, who seem to think the best way to avoid the pot holes is to travel at 160 kph, thus just skipping across the top of them, and locals who feel it better just to get off the road altogether, and drive in the sandy fields beside the road, creating a blinding dust storm for anyone actually using the road.
It is total mayhem, and of course accidents are inevitable. We came across a very bad one, where the whole road was shut down and all the traffic was now driving out in the sandy field.
Later that day, we learn that Dick and Dianne Hubbard, of Hubbard Breakfast Cereals fame, were riding along the same road and hit a pothole, wrecking both wheels on their bike. There are no dealers or spares in Mongolia so not sure how they’ll sort that out.
Ulaanbaatar is a city of 1.5 million. A mixture of small houses, traditional Gers, and ghastly apartment buildings built by the Soviets, when they ruled the roost here in the 60’s.
It easy to understand the appeal of apartment living in this part of the world, when we realise how difficult it must be, dealing with 40 below winters. A nice warm, central furnace heated apartment, and a neighborhood community, must have some appeal. Take the lift down to the shops on the lower level, have a chat with the grocer and pick up the mail from your post box.
It must beat shoveling snow all winter, and splitting firewood all summer..
But the pollution... As we ride down into the city, we can’t see the hills on the other side, just a grey-brown fog fills the whole valley.
Electricity is generated from cheap brown coal, and apparently the pollution in winter is much much worse, leading to a lot of respiratory illnesses.
Part of the problem is the traditional Gers, or Yurts, as we know them, are heated with a central coal burning fire. It’s a problem that won’t be going away any time soon.
We head into town and battle through the crazy traffic. We are headed to the Oasis Guesthouse. It’s a well known refuge for overlanders, and is located not far from the centre of the city. As we arrive, just off a main arterial route and down a small dusty alley, a large sliding gate draws back for us and once inside, we realise it really is an Oasis.
The noise, traffic and dusty chaos of the city is replaced by trees, green grass with water sprinklers, and relative silence.
There are overland Landcruisers and campers, and many traveler’s motorcycles, just like ours. And a workshop area, where guys are helping each other with repairs.
We look around to see an accommodation block, traditional Gers, and a cafe and bar where people are chatting and drinking cold beer.
Super friendly local staff and great WiFi. Truly an Oasis.
We decide to stay a couple of days.
After a shower and a few cold beers, we push Ingo’s bike into the workshop and with the discovery of the blocked air filter, hope we have found the solution to his problems.
The following day we ride into the countryside and start exploring. Mongolia is nothing like I’ve ever encountered. Winters here are brutal, but when spring and summer arrive, the local herders are moving their animals to fresh pasture. Horses, goats, sheep and cattle, often grazing together, always under the watchful eye of the herder often on horseback.
Today as the temperature rises, we realise we have not solved Ingo’s bike problem as we had hoped, and his stalling issue has returned.
We persevere and visit the Ghengis Khan monument.
It’s very impressive. There are stairs inside the tail of the horse, and Ingo climbs up inside to take some pics of the surrounding countryside, from on top of the horse's head.
Of course at such an attraction someone always sees an opportunity to make a dollar or two, and in the field beside the monument were pony and camel rides, or you could have your photo taken with an eagle on your arm. Tacky. Very tacky.
The next day we have Ingo’s bike back in the workshop, as we scratch our heads as to what the problem could be.
He has had similar symptoms with this bike in South America, and had replaced the fuel pump and rectified the problem. It is a known issue with this model BMW, and knowing this, Ingo had again wisely replaced the pump before embarking on this journey. Fortunately, he’d bought that pump with him as a spare. We delved into the bowels of the motorcycle, and lacking the recommended factory tools, used some kiwi ingenuity and No.8 fencing wire technology to gain access to, and change out the pump.
The next morning we needed to make a decision about Mongolia. Where we went and how long we spent here.
Ingo’s bike had become an issue for us. He no longer had the faith to go exploring, as had been our plan, and the thought of towing his dead bike from remote areas had little appeal. The decision was made to work our way back to Russia, nurse his bike to Vladivostok and once we’d shipped it across the Pacific, get it to a dealer in Vancouver where they could do some diagnostic work on it, and hopefully fix the issue for good.
So, what are my thoughts on Mongolia?
Well, it’s a bit of a shit hole.
I wouldn’t like to be an animal in Mongolia. If you were fortunate enough to survive the bitter and freezing winters (which are so bad it’s not uncommon for the herders to abandon their animals to their own resources, and head with their family to the warmth of the city), then you face a hot dry summer with often not enough pasture to go round.
From what I saw, there were more animals than could be sustained, and little, if any, excess pasture available to be stored for winter feed.
The animals all appeared skinny, and looked as if they were infected with worms and other parasites. Many were limping, some with badly healed and misaligned broken bones. The poor ponies the herders were riding were thin, and seemed to be constantly whipped by their riders. I’m sure animal welfare advocates would have a field day in Mongolia.
As motorcycle travelers we tend not to travel the ‘tourist route’, i.e. using a guide and being fed the romantic, sanitised version of Mongolia. My memories are of the horrific car accident, the pollution, the rubbish everywhere. The lack of sanitation. The outside dunny, that’s just a tin shack with a hole in the ground so full of other people's shit, I struggle not to throw up.
And a lasting memory of Mongolia is something that I have taken with me. It’s inside of me as I write this, back on the Trans Siberia, headed for Vladivostok. It’s in my gut. A nasty little bug I picked up eating breakfast at a crappy Mongolian hotel, and now, anytime I eat anything, I am reminded of Mongolia, as I rush to the nearest toilet, or pull off the roadside and scarper, girding my loins, into the bushes, toilet paper in hand. Thank you Mongolia.
And yet, I must return. Despite all this, there’s something about Mongolia that is irresistible.
It’s the people. It’s the smiles. It’s the genuine warmth and the laughter. It’s the willingness to share with you, when they have fuck all. It’s being accosted, everywhere we stop by smiling joyful young men, who are excited by our strange, huge foreign bikes, who want to know “where you from?” and “where you go?” then pull an iPhone from their back pocket for a selfie with us.
It’s the kids on the side of the road who jump up and down, waving and hoping you’ll wave back, as we ride by.
It’s people like the girl at the Oasis, who checked us in. We could see she was run off her feet, trying to be everything to everybody, and it was well after the time she was due to finish her shift, but she took the time to settle us in, show us around, find us cold beer and tell the kitchen not to close because we needed feeding.
It’s being at the supermarket in the checkout line with a few items and struggling, wallet open, with their daft currency, when the pretty Mongolian girl behind me taps me on the shoulder with a smile, and gently reaches into my wallet and plucks out the correct notes and gives them to the checkout girl.
That’s why I need to return to Mongolia.