25 August 2013

Mongolia--August 2013

At last I was ready to do my long-awaited trip to Mongolia.  I've heard many interesting stories about the place, and had read quite a few trip reports on various motorcycling fora, so I was pretty excited to go.  Unfortunately because of work I didn't have enough time to go from end-to-end as I had hoped, but still I figured I had enough time to see some interesting stuff.

I had hoped not to go to Mongolia by myself, but ultimately (and not very surprisingly) couldn't find any of my friends who wanted to go, so decided to go by myself.  That said, I did quite a bit of preparation, including prep work on the bike and research, so I figured I'd be OK.

Of course I had no time (or desire) to ride all the way from Moscow to Mongolia, so I arranged to ship my bike via truck from Moscow to Ulan Ude, in Russia, and then ride almost due south to Ulan Baator in Mongolia.  Before shipping the bike, I had to figure out what to do with my tools and other heavy stuff that I would need on the trip.  I decided to use a steel mesh to attach the stuff to the bike, and just ship it along.  Here is how it looked:

I took an overnight flight from Moscow on August 8 and arrived on the morning of August 9; I went straight from the airport to the shipping company's office to pick up the bike.  Things went fairly smoothly, and soon the bike was ready to be loaded up.  Here it is in front of the shipping company's office:
I had reserved a room at the Baikal Plaza Hotel again, so once the bike was loaded up and I headed over there to spend the night.

AUGUST 10, 2013
The next day I got up pretty early, because I wanted to make it all the way to Ulan Baator that day; while it is only about 600 kilometers, there is also a border crossing, so it looked to be a long day...

The ride to the Mongolian border was pretty easy, although not particularly pleasant; it was cloudy and started raining about 80 km from the border.  Once I got to the border, it took about two hours to get through.  The Mongolian border was pretty confusing, lots of back and forth for one piece of paper or another.

Past the border, it kept raining for awhile, was sunny for about an hour, and then thunderstorms started all around (but not exactly where I was).  About 80 km from Ulan Baator, traffic got really heavy, with lots of trucks and almost impossible to pass.  Once I got into Ulan Baator, the traffic got even worse...I even dropped the bike as I was trying to go over a curb to go around a rail crossing.  Very embarrassing, but I picked it up and kept going.

Finally I got to the Oasis Hostel (or whatever it is) in Ulan Baator.  It is a kind of weird hippy overland-traveller type place, everyone was very friendly.  No sooner had I walked in than the zipper on my jacket broke, which was not good--I would have to fix it, because I couldn't be riding around in the wet cool weather with a jacket that wouldn't close...

Here is a picture of my bike parked in front of my yurt at Oasis:
AUGUST 11, 2013
Today I decided to run take care of some business--mainly fixing my zipper and doing a bit of work on the bike--and to go see the giant Genghis statue outside of Ulan Baator.  Getting out of Ulan Baator again involved fighting lots of traffic, but finally I was out in the countryside:
The statue itself is pretty cool, here are a few pix:

A tailor across the street from Oasis was able to fix up my jacket with a zipper he picked up at the Black Market.  Very difficult to communicate with him, since he didn't speak English or Russian, but we figured it out, and it only costs a couple of dollars.  I was very relieved to get that fixed!

AUGUST 12, 2013
I had originally planned to leave Ulan Baator this morning, but I was feeling kind of lazy and still wanted to get a few things done in Ulan Baator, such as getting a SIM card for my phone and going to the Black Market.

The SIM card was easy enough, and then it was off to the Black Market.  What a disappointment that was!  Nothing particularly exotic, certainly not like Morocco; instead just a huge collection of crappy little booths selling crappy Chinese-made stuff.  Didn't see anything interesting to buy, so after wandering around a bit turned around and walked back to Oasis.  Here are some motorcycles for sale outside the Black Market:

Here are a few pictures of Ulan Baator; in general it is an ugly, dirty, unpleasant place, but hey, maybe that's just me:

AUGUST 13, 2013
I'd stayed in Ulan Baator for three nights, and it was time to hit the road.  I planned to make it to Tsenkhr Hot Springs, a few hundred kilometers to the west of Ulan Baator.  On the way, I wanted to stop at Eredene Zuu Monastery, the earliest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, and also the nearby scant remnants of the ancient city of Karakorum, Genghis Khan's capital, founded about 1220.

I should mention that almost the whole way to Tsetserleg (the next day's destination) was paved, other than a few stretches here and there and the road (about 25 km) from the main road to the hot springs.

Here is some typical scenery on the way to the monastery, pretty dull:
 Here is the monastery:
 These two pillars are all that remain of Karakorum:
 Caught this double-rainbow on the way from Karakorum to the hot springs:
 At the hot springs there is a pretty fancy resort, where I got a yurt and then went and sat in the hot springs for awhile.

 In the evening it started raining pretty hard...

AUGUST 14, 2013
I woke up early, with the plan to stop in Tsetserleg for lunch at the Fairfield in, and then continue on to Tsagaan Nuur, a lake northwest of Tsetserleg.  The weather was not great, cool and cloudy, with the roads pretty muddy from last night's rain.

As I got closer to the "main road", I caught up with several vans of tourists leaving the hot springs and was able to cut loose cross country to pass the vans insteaad of riding along the muddy road...that was fun.

In Tsetserleg I stopped at Fairfield and had some coffee and a cinnamon bun, and then went to the gas station to fill up.  It was there that I realized that somehow my gas cap was missing!!
Not sure how that happened--the last time I filled up was just before the monastery, and the fuel cap was still on there (see picture above)!  Someone must have stolen it while I stayed at the hot springs.  I later found out that someone had also stolen the batteries out of my flashlight while I was there (not the flashlight, just the batteries!).  In any event, this was not good, and I had to get it fixed before I went any further.

While I was standing there at the gas station trying to figure out what to do, a Mongolian guy rode up on a motorcycle and apparently offered to help fix it--I say apparently because it was impossible to communicate with him, because of language incompatibilities...  Anyway, about three hours (!!) later, we were able to find another gas cap that would work and create a rubber gasket to keep it from leaking.  I offered to give him some money, but instead he took me out back and showed me a salvaged BMW motorcycle that he had picked up somewhere; it looked like he needed some parts for it and wanted me to get them for him.  That looked to be an expensive and time-consuming proposition, but I was willing to help him out so gave him my e-mail address so that we could send me the pictures of the bike and of what he needed.  For better or for worse, I never heard from him again...

By now it was too late in the day to ride to Tsagann Nuur, so instead I decided to spend the night at Fairfield.  While there I met with Heidi and Alex, American and German women bicycling through Mongolia.  I had dinner with them at Fairfield then we went next door to a weird Mongolian bar for some beers.  Here they are:
It was fun hanging out with them.  They wanted to head down to the Gobi, but unfortunately I didn't have time, I had to move north, not south!

AUGUST 15, 2013

The next morning was foggy and cold, and I wasn't looking forward to the day's ride to Tsagaan Nuur, a lake; here's a pic of me just before I left:

I didn't leave until about 10:30.  The weather got improved slightly, sorta/kinda sunny, once I was over the mountains just outside of Tsetserleg, but it then proceeded to rain most of the day, although it only rained hard for 20 minutes or so.  Even outside of Tsetserleg, the road was graded gravel or paved, very easy going.  Finally about 60 km from Tsagaan Nuur it turned to dirt, and then when I got to the lake, to mud--the last 10-15 km to the ger camp was very muddy, with huge puddles.  Here are some pix of the scenery, including a stupa (I think that's what it is called!) that I came across:

I stayed at a ger camp in the middle of the north side of Tsagaan Nuur, on a kind of peninsula.  Like I said, it was a pretty rough road to get there, very muddy.  I got my ger and wondered around, but it was rather cold and very windy, but at least it wasn't raining.  There was really nothing to do there... Here are some pix:

AUGUST 16, 2013
It was raining again when I woke up.  I decided to stay one more day at the ger camp to do a little work on the bike and to rest up.  I was able to move to another, better ger, which was warmer and closer to the other gers.  The next stretch of road was unpaved and I wasn't looking forward to doing it in the mud.  Later, the day cleared up a bit, but it remained cold.  Here are more pix of the ger camp and the lake:

AUGUST 17, 2013
The next morning I got up early to leave for the north.  I wasn't sure where I'd end up staying, probably either Khatgal (a town on Lake Hovsgol, Moron (a town before Khatgal) or Zuun Noor, another lake before Moron.  It really depended on how much progress I made...

Before I left, a couple of the people from the camp came over for pix on my bike:

Just after taking these pics, I waved to these girls and a couple of German tourists staying there, and rode up the path leading out of the camp.  I gave it a little gas to get through some loose dirt and immediately ended up on the ground, another embarrassing moment.  I actually turned my ankle a little bit, but got the bike up and moved on to the east along the northern shore of the lake.

The road from the ger camp was very muddy, with lots of little streams to cross.  `This was probably the roughest road of the trip, although even it was not that bad.  Here are some pics:

 This guy had his whole family loaded on his little Chinese bike and nonetheless was able to outpace me, although I guess it helped that he knew the road.  We ended up following each other for a long way.  It was kinda funny, when he reached his turn off he stopped to say goodbye.  I gave his kid a Snickers and one of my stickers and took this pic:

 Another stupa in the middle of nowhere:

 If you look closely you'll see some kind of burial stones in this pic:

 In the distance was my destination:  Zuun Noor.
On the shore of this lake was another ger camp.  I pulled up and it was completely deserted, but I was able to find some of the people running the place (they were out back slaughtering a sheep!) and they gave me a ger.  Here is the place:

This lake is a salt lake, and there are no fish in it; actually it was really weird because I didn't see any animals of any kind around this lake--no birds or anything--it was a total dead zone.

Kind of a funny story about today:  One of the reasons I stopped was because I thought it was already rather late, and I didn't want to be riding after dark.  When I got to Jargalant (a town along the route) I looked at my watch and was surprised by how late it was--already something like 1600.  I decided to ride a couple more hours.  Up by the stupa, I checked my watch again, and it was about 1700--already almost time to find a place to stay!  I rode for another couple of hours, and by then it was getting cloudy and a bit dark (I thought), so I decided to stay at Zuun Noor, the closest of the three potential destinations.

I finally got there, found the people running the place, got a ger, unpacked my bike, started cooking some noodles, and looked at my watch again...only then did I realize that my (fancy digital) watch had been set to altitude, rather than time, and in fact it was only 15:24!  I could have ridden for several more hours!  I was pretty mad at myself, but couldn't be bothered to pack everything up again and ride on, so I just stayed there.  In any event, it had taken me almost seven hours to ride 150 km, which is not a very good pace!!

The weather was coldish again, and I was cold from the ride, but for awhile in the afternoon it was kinda sunny, and as long as I stayed in the sun it was almost warm.  Later of course it started raining again.  Around sunset another bunch of German tourists pulled up in Land Cruisers--the Germans were everywhere in Mongolia--but I succeeded in ignoring them until the communal dinner (mutton, surprise!), although even then I mostly spoke with their Mongolian guides, who spoke some Russian...

AUGUST 18, 2013
The next day I was once again eager to get on the road up to Lake Hovsgol, which is supposedly the Mongolian equivalent to Lake Baikal.  The town of Khatgal, on the southern side of the lake, is apparently kind of the tourist hub for the area, so I thought I'd go there.

I left the ger camp on Zuun Nuur about 8:00, but the road from Zuun Noor was kind of brutal--muddy with lots of rocks, which is not a good combination for a moto--and by 0930 I'd only covered 35 km!  Here is a pic from the top of a small ridge:
Once again the weather was cloudy and very cool.  Most of the day was spent in  a couple of river valleys working my way north towards Moron, and then to Khatgal.  Here are a few pix of the scenery along the way:

 Mongolia is full of these goofy cows; they are very shaggy and have a very weird way of locomotion, like a bucking bronco...I tried several times to get shots of one in mid-romp but they were always too quick for me, so this is the best I could do:
 The road gradually got better, like this:

 Some camels!
Finally I got to Moron about 13:00 and filled up the tank before heading on.

Between Moron and Khatgal I came across a little Chinese bike on the side of the road with a Mongolian couple standing near it.  I stopped to see if I could help, and it became clear that they had run out of gas.  I gave them a little bit of spare gas I had in a bottle strapped to my bike, hopefully it was enough to get them to a gas station to fill up.  The couple was a little creepy--their faces were marked by open sores and their clothes were splotched with bloodstains--presumably (hopefully?) they'd been slaughtering a sheep or something.  Anyway, I turned down the money they offered for the gas and continued on my way to Khatgal.

Finally I reached Khatgal.  It is located not on the lake itself, but rather an inlet to the lake.  I'd read about a few different hotels/ger camps in Khatgal, but either I couldn't find them or I found them and was very unimpressed.  The roads here were very muddy, especially when I went to check out a hotel outside of town overlooking the lake (the hotel was apparently deserted).  Khatgal was a major disappointment...

Finally I settled on a ger camp on the right side of the road on the north side of the town, and got a little cabin (instead of a ger).  No sooner than I had stopped than a cold steady rain began to fall...once again I was freezing cold and I cranked up the heat in the cabin.  I had a fairly miserable dinner in the camp's crappy lodge, and then went back to the cabin.  It rained all night, often very hard, pounding on the cabin's tin roof.  I lay awake most of the night worrying that I wouldn't be able to escape from Khatgal the next day, because the road to/from Khatgal led through some low ground and I was convinced that it would be flooded and impassable.

AUGUST 19, 2013

I woke up early and waited about an hour for breakfast to be served before giving up, having a Snickers bar instead, and heading south.  I wasn't really sure where I was going, all I knew was that I wanted to get the hell out of Khatgal.  It turns out that the road south to Moron was open, although the weather was again cold and cloudy.  It was only about 110 kilometers from Khatgal to Moron, but by the time I got to Moron I was freezing cold and I was very light-headed...  From Moron I needed to head east, back toward Bulgan and Darkhan, and the road in that direction was about 250 km of dirt road (to Bulgan), further than I'd ridden on any day on dirt on the trip.  Moreover, all of the recent rain would make the roads very muddy and make river-crossings potentially uncrossable, or at least more dangerous.  Finally, until Bulgan there were basically no towns (!), so no where to stay other than the tent I'd brought (and thus far not used).  Feeling as bad as I did, I didn't want to ride off into the wilderness, so I decided to stay in Moron for the night, even though I'd only ridden 110 km.  So I got a room at  the 50-100 Hotel in Moron and stayed in bed most of the day to rest up for the next day's ride.

AUGUST 20, 2013

For the reasons explained above, I was a bit nervous about the ride to Bulgan, but I set out in the morning figuring that I would deal with it as I went.  To make a long story short, the road was muddy, but not too bad, and most if not all of the rivers were bridged, so I didn't have to worry about many river crossings.  It was kind of a long day, but by early evening I'd reached Bulgan and started looking for a couple of the hotels I'd read about in Lonely Planet.  Once again, Lonely Planet let me down, and I could not find any of the hotels described there.  In fact, I could not find any hotels at all!  I circled the town a couple of times before reluctantly giving up and deciding to ride to Erdenet, another 100-150 km up the road.  After Bulgan the road was paved at least, although by now it was starting to get dark and once again it started to rain (did I mention that the weather was terrible in Mongolia?!).

I reached Erdenet as it was getting dark and stopped in the first hotel I saw, which was a fairly big, modern place (by Mongolian standards).  They had a room, so I parked the bike in their garage and ordered dinner, only to find that they could not serve beer because of some Mongolian holiday.  Ah, the joys of travel!

AUGUST 21-23:
The next day (August 21) the plan was to ride all the way back to Ulan Ude in Russia.  I was getting back to Ulan Ude a day or two early, but I had a business class plane ticket back to Moscow so figured I'd be able to exchange it and had back to Moscow a day or two early.   The ride back was pretty uneventful--the road was paved all the way from Erdenet--and I was very happy to get back to Russia.  Never had Ulan Ude looked more like Paris than after spending time in Mongolia!

Once in Ulan Ude I checked back in to the Baikal Plaza.  I got an e-mail from Walter Colebatch saying that another American motorcyclist (Kurt) was arriving in Ulan Ude that night from the east, so I waited up for him to arrive.  He didn't get in until about 23:00 or so, he'd ridden for quite a way in the dark, and we had a quick bite and a couple of beers.

The next day (August 22) I took my bike back to the shipping company for transport back to Moscow.  I also contacted the airline (S7) about changing my ticket and was shocked to find out that for changing a business class ticket they wanted something like $2000!?!  I passed on that option and decided to just wait in Ulan Ude.

My last day in Ulan Ude (August 23) was Kurt's birthday, so we went out on the town and had a pretty good time.  There is a pretty good restaurant in Ulan Ude called Bochka (Barrel), so we went there and then after dinner went to the adjacent night club, where they had a kind of show with various dancing and singing...it was OK.  Here is a picture of Kurt:

AUGUST 24, 2013
Finally, back to Moscow!

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