Left Moron, didn’t stop being moronic. Got lost almost immediately, on the “roads” which just split randomly in the middle of plains… no signs to signify which are the “roads” and which are just well-worn tracks to people’s yurts/settlements/favourite-swimming-holes. Eventually back-tracked, got back on the correct track… hoping to put in a solid 200+km day… and then realised my chain was rather loose. I’d never checked this, as the chain is completely enclosed in a cover. I discovered it was loose, by it coming off. So, on the side of the road in the stinkin’ hot sun, on a dusty track, I had a crash course in very basic motorbike maintenance… taking the cover off, getting the chain back on, some panelbeating of the chain cover, and then figuring out how to tighten that chain… as it was very, very loose… dragging along the bottom of the chain cover. With that done, and really really hoping I hadn’t completely botched the job – ended up stopping halfway through the intended day’s travel – at the charming little town of Shine-Ider. Shine-Ider has… not much. Some drunks sitting on the steps of a market trying to engage me, not understanding the concept of a language barrier; and a “Pub” which had one bottle of (warm) beer on stock.
Next day, finished the planned route (chain and rear wheel staying on, thus far) – realising the initial idea of a 1-day 220km ride on that particular road had always been a little unrealistic… spent the afternoon riding along the shores of a couple of lakes, before arriving at Tariat. In Tariat – I’d had a guesthouse recommended by the french couple I’d met many days ago – so turned up there. It was indeed a lovely (albeit basic) guesthouse, with a lovely hostess, and some other travellers to chat with. (This has been remarkably rare).
Today – a short ride along boring-old tarmac (to be fair, a bit of a relief/rest), to Tsetserleg – and encountering more and more foreigners on the way (on the road, at the lunch stop, and then in town itself. It seems I’m approaching the typical tourist trail, although I can see no reason why this would be on the tourist trail yet… I suspect a stopover for those heading to the far West?) And on arrival, promptly checked in to a hotel I’d had recommended by the Argentinian couple I’d met in Tariat… who’d mentioned this very morning the mythical “hot shower”. At first attempt – shower was not hot. But after a wander around town, checking out the local museum (I don’t know what I expected – but it was exactly the same as every other museum I’ve seen in Mongolia thus far… I believe I’ve listed the standard items in a Mongol museum previously… it was exactly the same.) Returned to hotel – had another go at the shower… hot! Very pleased. It descended to luke-warm fairly quickly, but the first hot-water in quite some time was very pleasing.
Khatgal, Khankh, Khatgal, Moron – ~550km (can’t be sure – speedo and odometer stopped working in Khankh)
Moron – Khatgal – just 98km or so of tarmac. Got there early, dithered, and eventually decided to just rent a yurt/ger, and drink a couple of beers in the sun.
Next day – figured I’d ride up the East side of the lake, finding some nice views, and picked an offical Mongolian “Camp” to perhaps stay the night. Started riding, fairly early start. Pretty rough going, but a nice change after the tarmac. (After referring to this wee jaunt as a “road” a few times below – I realise I should explain… this is officially, on the maps, a “road”. It is the equivalent of a farm-track on any NZ farm… just the wheel tracks of an oft-used track. And when things get wet, and there’s room to avoid the ruts which have become muddy – just go around. But imagine such a thing with scores of people doing this each day, often in heavy vehicles. The points where you can’t go around – become massive, deep, mud-pits. The point where you can go around – because you’re in the middle of a massive plain – become hundred-metre wide marshes of tyre-tracks. On a bike, neither of these things is cool.) A couple of water crossings. Then a water crossing I got wrong… chose the wrong route, and stalled with the bike in very deep water about 2/3 of the way across the 2nd stage of a river. But – got out of it easily enough, albeit with soaked boots/jeans. (do have that on video) Later in the day, crossed paths with a couple of other bikes, and a truck. At one point, we all stopped for a breather at the same point, at which point chocolates, raisin-juice (? how does that work?), and home-made vodka were shared around. And then – chose the wrong route again, this time through a fairly large section of mud… getting very stuck. Ended up needing the help of the other two bikes, when they arrived, to help lift the bike out. Oh, and then, another mud section… the only way through it was really to skirt it… and while I was doing so, got to a point where I had about 6 inches of solid ground, a tree to the left, mud to the right, leaning over to the right to get around the tree, and then – can’t remember if I stalled or just came to a halt due to the ground/lack-of-momentum – stopped. With a pit to the right, nowhere to put my foot, and just… toppled. Luckily the mud just there was solid enough to be nothing more than a firm mattress, and nothing messier. Neither the bike nor I got more than a little dirt on the side… and easily picked up. But still… my first (only… touch wood) drop of the trip. Oh… and then… got to the point I’d decided I’d just get to the “campsite”, and spend a reasonably comfortable night, before heading back over what had become a little longer and more brutal ride than expected… to find they had no beds available. Or were closed. Or something. Anyway – no rooms at the inn. By this point, I’d become fairly familiar with one of the local bikes riding the same route – and they insisted on me following them all the way to the next town… where they were going. We’d gone 110km, and it had been hard, hard work. The next (and closest) town – only another 70. But I figured – if they were doing it, so could I. So, I did. And mostly kept up… which I was proud of – considering I had a heap of luggage tied on the back, while the other rider had none. Zero luggage. Just the 2 passengers. (To be fair – my luggage was actually slowing me down a fair bit – as one jury-rigged pannier fell off at one point, leading me to stop, swear a fair bit when I realised it was the one with my laptop in, and then spend quite some time over-engineering a re-roping of it. And – his passengers could/did get off at any difficult mud/water crossing – my extra weight, including luggage, stayed on) At some point, it started getting dark. Then, it finished getting dark. And some time after that – that time including riding at relatively high speeds over very rough terrain – we arrived at the signpost welcoming us to the town of Khankh. The other rider, and passengers, insisted I accompany them to his “house” – for a spot of food, which I couldn’t refuse. So – some more cross-country riding in the dark, some food in this nice chap’s yurt, meeting the extended family – and then off to find me a place to sleep. The local over-priced tourist “camp” for russians had one room available, and some beers, and a hot (warm…-ish) shower. I was happy.
Next day – it seems that this close to the Russki border, I was supposed to register myself with the local authorities, before getting any sort of accommodation. Instead, I found some petrol – and headed back down the road I’d just come in on. (Apparently – there was a road down the other side of the lake, so I could have done a circuit – but this road was much much worse than what I’d just done. I couldn’t imagine such a thing, and at the risk of being called cowardly… I coward-ed out of seeing what that might look like). The “road” back… the very same “road” I’d just done… was worse. Much worse. Maybe it was just being sore from the previous day, but there were extended periods where the constant, brutal, incessant, please-stop-this bumping made me pine for the gently corrugations of the Wukhan Valley. There had been more rain, presumably, as there were points where I had to go much, much wider around the official “road” to feel anywhere near like I was going to make it through. The muddy points I had issues with the previous day – no problem. One other one though… another bad choice of route through it… and, very, very stuck. Had to walk to the nearest yurt, ask to borrow a shovel. Knowing full well a shovel wasn’t going to cut it. Luckily, as I started digging, a van turned up with some locals, and again helped me lift the bike out, put back on a sensible path, and off I go. Later on – I saw them stuck in the middle of the very same water crossing I stalled in the previous day… having taken the same route. I smugly took the route I now knew to be the better one, stopped, and tried to help. But – rather difficult to return the favour, when we’re now dealing with a van wheels deep in the middle of a river. They assured me I should “don’t worry, go on”… so I did. Feeling a little guilty, but also relieved, as it was already looking doubtful I’d get back to town in reasonably daylight. But – I did… only 30 minutes or so after sunset… so no need for the lights to ever be turned on (as I’m rollin’ like Mongolians do). Got back to Khatgal, and stayed the night in another yurt, at the same place as two nights ago. Just happy to be there.
Today – a short and quick ride to just get back to Moron, where I decided I’d splash out for a decent hotel – to get wifi to watch rugby, and hopefully a hot shower. And – spend two nights, as after the brutal road up the side of the lake… I don’t think I could spend another day on the bike. It turns out – the shower is disappointing, the rugby was disappointing, but at least I’ve got a day off, and can finally do some laundry.
From Dashinchilen – a wee short-cut, about 150km of dirt roads, after a night of rain. (Oh – that night in Dashinchilen… I’d mentioned the bugs in the ger/yurt… that got better. After dinner, returning to the ger – it was raining bugs. Inside the ger. It sounded like the approach of a thunderstorm, where there’s a massive raindrop every 2 or 3 seconds. But… this was bugs, dropping from the ceiling to the floor of my accommodation. I spent the night curled up in a sleeping bag liner, attempting to remove any possible crack where a bug might drop in, or crawl in. And then dreamed about bugs. Bloody bugs, I dinnae like’em. In the morning – after thoroughly bashing every bit of clothing, I still discovered a (live) bug in the toe of one sock, a minute after putting it on. Bloody bugs.)
Anyway – the riding – I changed the oil in the bike, and then headed off for 150km of dirt (sometimes mud) roads, and at least one water-crossing, through the middle of nowhere. Really, really hoping that my first ever attempt at any sort of motorcycle maintenance hadn’t been completely botched.
Made it to Bulgan – a really happening town. (this is sarcasm). Wandered around that a bit – discovered everything there was to see. 1 statue of Chinggis, and 1 “National Museum”. Then found the only place in town serving food/beers on a Sunday, and settled in. Ended up drinking with a couple of guys staying in the same hotel as me – in a bizarre evening of food, beer, suddenly-loud-bad-music (and dancing), and Mongolians binge-drinking without the stomach for it.
From Bulgan, about 180km of boring tarmac road… just getting the distance done to get towards Khovsgol. Met a French couple in a spot I stopped at for lunch, recognising the bike and luggage as a very probable fellow client of my bike rental (greeting each other with “Cheke Tours?”) – and swapped plans/experiences. They’d been camping nearly every night, whereas I’m still working up the wherewithal to do that… I’m perfectly happy with the camping bit, it’s just the strongly recommended “rock up to some random family’s ger, ask them if you can put your tent up in their back garden” (as otherwise, apparently thievery and/or drunken local nuisances are likely). Anyway – on this day, I’d decided I finally had all the kit I needed if I was to put up the tent for a night (having finally purchased a frying pan and some tinned food) – but came across a little restaurant/store/hotel in the middle of nowhere, about 25km west of my originally planned Khutag-Undur. So – paid my £8 or so for a bed in a room, and spent the afternoon sitting in the sun, drinking beer, and then being befriended by a 12-year old kid speaking better English than most of the Mongol adults, and his ridiculously cute 3 year old sister. And then, their super-suspicious grand-uncle, thoroughly disapproving of anybody drinking beer, but who came around to my sparkling conversational skills.
In the morning, 4 Shineray 150cc bikes turned up to the restaurant, loaded with suspiciously western-looking luggage… and sure enough, 4 aussie guys who I could also meet with “Cheke Tours?!” They sat down for breakfast, while I loaded up – and headed off.. for another 150km of boring sealed road. The scenery is great, if a little “same-same” after some time, but the riding… just boring. I mixed it up by heading off-road a couple of times for photo-ops. And eventually, got to Moron – where I’ve opted to pay over-the-norm for a “proper hotel” – in order to get the wifi (so that I could post this, and let everybody know I’m still alive), and hopefully – a shower. The shower – yeah, I got one, but the hot water unit doesn’t seem to be attached to the actual plumbing. Other than that – Moron has… about as much as Bulgan.
From here on – internet is going to be a very occasional thing, so… probably more sporadic and overly-long posts to “catch-up” similar to this one, I’m afraid.
Day#1 on my “rebound bike”. And after the Tiger, she just doesn’t compare. But, the best I can do for now.
Late start to the day… sheer laziness on my part, then a delay in getting a taxi, who then got lost – not listening to me telling him exactly where to go, then a distraught lady managing the bike rental place. Had no record of my “booking”, but found all my emails – and evidently decided I’d obviously tried to book, just nothing official. She then gave me a big rant about people hiring the bikes, bringing them back dented/broken… all claiming “nothing’s their fault… they say Mongolia has bad roads, that our suggested itinerary put them on dirt roads, blah blah…”. I think she was a little flustered by the fact she had 2 brand new (0 km on clock) bikes sitting there, and she was going to have to give one to me. I tried to namedrop “London to Beijing”, but couldn’t get a word in edge-wise.
But, eventually, did the paperwork, got my brand spanking new Shineray 150, packed up some dodgy looking cheap panniers bags (all the good ones being out-and-about), and headed off.
National History Museum… interesting, partly in that Chinggis Khan was hardly mentioned. A relatively small place, laid out mostly as a History Museum, so walking through the major periods of Mongolia history. The section involving being a Soviet puppet was odd… some displays not-so-subtly showing that Soviet Russia pretty much tricked them, and then were bastards… alongside displays obviously showing pride in Mongolias achievements during that period.
Central Museum of Dinosaurs… Dinosaurs!
State Shopping Mall… reminded me of a giant “Farmers” from 1980s NewZealand. Bought a gas cooking stove, and some overpriced shorts… preparing for the upcoming 3 weeks.
Mongolia craft beers… haven’t found any that taste good yet. There seems to be a large German influence here, including beers, so “craft breweries” are just making classic bland German varieties. Boo.
Some Temple/Museum – reminding me how nasty/violent the imaginations of Buddhists are. Whoever did the painting of the “8 Hot Hells” (there are also 8 cold ones) – did it after the firearm/rifle was invented. And had a fascination with demons firing rifles at (/into)… the “rear end” of victims on all fours. Nobody had espoused any theories as to any subtle Freudian revelations from such artwork. The throne of the local Lama also had paper-mache bodies of tortured sinners adorning the ceiling, and strung out around the walls.
Every 1st of the month is “dry” in Mongolia. So, I went to the “pub” I’d visited on first night, looking to just eat. They poured me a beer, which was great, until I looked up a few minutes later to see a policeman changing a lightbulb for them right in front of me. Nobody seemed to worry, and nobody was arrested, but the management did suggest I eat my dinner in the “VIP” room if I was to have more beers.
But first – some final token sight-seeing in Beijing… including such wonders as the “Customs Museum”, and the “Ancient Beijing Observatory”. As they were both in easy walking distance from the hotel I booked right next to train station. Customs Museum – mostly boring, but had some interesting insight into the massive feeling of disjustice China had/has over foreigners effectively owning/running their borders for quite some time. And, some amusing exhibits on how hard China is trying to stop counterfeit products. The “Intellectual Property” exhibit, which I was very much intrigued by – was closed. Ancient Beijing Observatory – actually quite cool… if only for some of the very, very old nerd-instruments they’ve still got, intricately carved/decorated with dragons and the such. First official observatory in the world? And again – a little display reminding everybody that the dirty foreigners stole most of this stuff, and didn’t give it back for many years. Ze Germans – were apparently the worst… nicked about 5 of these ancient telescopes (or whatever), and used them as garden ornaments for over 20 years.
And then – the train. Early start, Beijing station (large), got on – realised the vast majority of passengers are laowei/foreigners. I’d booked the cheapest berth available – a bunk in a 4-berth “hard sleeper” – but turned out I had the whole thing to myself. Which kinda made the best part of a train journey a little harder – the making friends and chatting with your random “roomies”. But – made the most of it, by mostly sitting alone and reading. Around 11pm – got into Erlian, the Chinese border town… where we all got off, sat around for an hour – not really sure what’s going on, but assumed at the time they’re changing the train over to the new wheelbase/bogies (China/Mongolia train tracks have different track gauges) – then got back on. Only to sit around for another hour or so – while I think the bogies did finally get changed… not really sure when that happened, but I could see a train/carriage parallel to us being done out my window. Then – onto the Mongolian border town, where we sat around for another hour or so, while they did their paperwork. During this time – I did chat quite a bit with my neighbour, a young chap from Wellington, travelling with his girlfriend to London. I didn’t pull out any anecdotes or statistics of how well that typically goes, sticking to travel stories.
Finally got into UlaanBaatar – in enough time to check in to the hotel, get cleaned up, catch up on other people’s facebook updates and my gmail emails, and have a very cursory stroll around immediate surroundings. (Including, of course, finding a local craft beer brewery/pub… terrible).