Category Archives: Mongolia

Neural Activity

We managed to navigate the 2nd ger visit without having to consume any fermented mare’s milk, which I have to say, was a bit of a relief, as all reports suggested that it would go through us quicker than rancid chicken.  We tasted some home-made cottage cheese and the obligatory milk tea before saying our goodbyes and heading for the border.

Our Fuji Instax Mini camera (akin to a polaroid camera) that we brought with us, has been invaluable in Mongolia.  The number of times that we have brought it out and the resulting photograph has been cradled by the recipient as a truly cherishable memory of the moment we shared has been innumerable.  Having an instant photograph of their family or themselves has been something that, although we may take for granted, to them is a luxury afforded only to an elite few!

The town of Olgii proved to be a good choice enroute to the border as we met an overlanding  couple in a Landrover Discovery.  Albeit he was from New Zealand and his partner from Belgium, they now live in the United States and are following a similar journey to ours and we hope to meet up with them again in Kazakhstan if our itineraries collide!

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Anyway, we departed Mongolia within our original visa limit and after an extremely tiring 5 and ¼ hours at border control, we were in Russia yet again.  We were now heading for the Altai Region and enroute met a lovely French family travelling in the opposite direction that in four months of travelling, were yet to meet another foreign vehicle!  We chatted to them for a while and only 1km onwards found a campsite that proved to be the entry to the Altai Mountains Region.

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The Altai Region was lovely and the spectacular scenery was unending!  We were amazed with the influx of Russian vehicles coming towards us and realised that we had entered the region on what was obviously a holiday long weekend.  All possible camping options were full with tents and vehicles and finding a camp proved to be rather difficult but nonetheless achievable given Justin’s talents.

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The following day I spotted a track that proved to be an excellent campsite and although early in the day, we decided not to waste such an opportunity and made camp.  I wish to take cudo’s here as the camp I found was along a section of river dotted with resort facilities and between two towns only 5kms apart so to find a spot unoccupied with Russians was, I thought, pretty good!  We saw much evidence in the northern part of the Altai of the recent flooding with some very sodden ground and road repairs underway but thankfully we had obviously timed it just right and had lovely warm sunny days!

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Anyway, as I haven’t written much to date, I thought that I would summarise the trip so far.

Far Eastern Russia/Siberia was a place that I found very interesting and full of surprises – mostly from the people. Given a culture that feels that smiling at a stranger is a sign of lunacy rather than friendliness, I found that once engaged with the people, their friendliness was overwhelming and on several occasions, we were shown hospitality that I think would be rare in our own community!

Mongolia was a complete contrast to Russia, as the people were more than happy to smile at strangers and engage in whatever way available.  They were fascinated by our camper and I put this down to their nomadic existence and a respect for others living likewise!  However their curiosity was something that needed to be factored in when choosing a campsite, as I suppose when herding goats all day a foreign vehicle is going to prove too much to bare and an inevitable visit is always on the cards – even if it is at 10pm!!  The land itself is a land of such contrast with not only the landscape but the weather changing rapidly.  Mostly devoid of trees, the terrain varies from desert to snow-capped  mountain ranges, from marshy boggy valleys to dust bowls and sand dunes! Pleasant warm weather can overnight turn to snow or torrential rain!

For those of you who know me, I am a black and white person – grey is not something I do well and Mongolia was certainly a challenge!  I like to navigate but when there are no visual cues (such as a street sign!) to confirm that the track chosen is correct, I find myself getting a little stressed!  Mongolia is noticeably devoid of any signage that may indicate that you are on or which is the right track and a personal adjustment was required!   Tracks shown on maps no longer exist in the same place and some that are shown as major roads on all maps don’t go through unless the season is correct! I like to think that I adapted to this and by the end of our time in Mongolia was a far more liberal minded navigator with a heading in the general direction of our destination being enough to placate me into quiet confidence that we would arrive at our destination.

Returning to Russia almost seemed a comfort as it was returning to the familiar – a language and customs (and signage) that we felt we were beginning to feel comfortable with prior to entering Mongolia.  It was only short lived however as we cut across from Biysk to the border, bypassing Barnaul, and were yet again changing countries into Kazakhstan!  1 Hour later and we had navigated yet another border in what seemed like record time!

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Only 3 ½ hours in and we had been stopped 3 times by the police for document checks.  We had heard that Kazakhstan had a reputation for this, but when we were flagged down by a civilian vehicle occupied by uniformed officers we were a little concerned and only pulled over once we found another marked police vehicle to provide us some back-up.  Whether this was a factor or not, the uniformed officers checked all our documents and let us leave but continued to follow us for several more kilometres before turning off.  A good way of deterring travellers from injecting money into the local economy!

One thing that has been a stand out amongst many of the drivers that we have encountered so far is the complete lack of brain function that is present.  It would seem that many are afflicted with random neural activity that fails to form the consecutive thought processes necessary for safe, predictable driving. Overtaking at breakneck speed, when there is not the room to do so, only to pull over within minutes for some obscure reason followed by the repeat process is an all too familiar experience and hurtling their vehicles over turbulent terrain with no apparent vehicular control and certainly no consideration for the durability of the vehicle’s engineering is commonplace! Neurons fire at random – goat, go fast, overtake, stop, horse, go fast, truck coming, turn, cigarette, stop…

Anyway, all this prompted a line of thought on the statistics achieved so far on this journey and as a book-keeper this appealed to my sense of numbers so the following represent some milestones achieved so far:

72 days travelling

11835 kms travelled

8 nights accommodation purchased

6 days Kazakhstan

35 days in Russia

29 days in Mongolia

4869 kms travelled in Mongolia

5841 kms travelled in Russia

1125 kms travelled in Kazakhstan

Unquantifiable kgs Litter observed dumped in Russia

2 Ger visits

35km/hr average speed in Mongolia

24 Mongolian Inspectors of Camper

14 Foreign Travellers met – 2 Brits, 3 Germans, 4 French, 1 Kiwi, 1 Belgian, 3 Swiss

72,475 Goats sighted

7.2km/ltr average fuel economy

-10°C lowest temperature experienced (Russia)

34°C highest temperature experienced (Kazakhstan)

2650mtrs (8700ft) highest altitude driven (Mongolia)

1 Puncture (Mongolia)

6 Major U-Turns (Mongolia)

463kms wasted due U-Turns (Mongolia)

1 Police bribe witnessed (Kazakhstan)

5 times stopped by Police

We arrived in Almaty, a very pretty tree lined city with a great choice of restaurants and a distinctly European feel.

We booked a stay at the Keremet Apartments and a quick check of the internet seemed to suggest that the couple we had met in Olgii, Stephen and Caroline,  had also arrived in Almaty.  Due to a mishap with their border paperwork they had been issued transit visas instead of tourist visas and had to now fast track through Kazakhstan in 5 days as the problem proved too difficult to rectify.  A few quick emails back and forth and we met for dinner which was had at a wonderful and reasonably priced restaurant called Raketa. 

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It is necessary to register your visa within 5 days of arrival when coming through a land border and this unfortunate process means that you have to lose some sightseeing time running back and forth to the migration police.  Despite reviews on the internet that suggested that this process was a manic affair, the only useful bit of information gleaned was that window #3 was the one!

A friendly man advised us that we required copies of our passports and a conveniently located shop outside the building procured these. Back to the man at window #3- he asked the address of our accommodation, filled out the forms for us and told us to return at 5pm.  Sorted!  Maybe we were lucky but the process was nowhere near as daunting as we were expecting.

Another meal was shared last night with our new friends, this time at the Shakespeare Pub before departing in opposite directions today.  We are both heading for Kyrgyzstan but obviously Stephen and Caroline are taking the most direct route as they need to exit Kazakhstan today in order to meet their transit visa timeframe.  We had a great time last night and a more than a few beverages passed our lips and after arriving back to or apartment after 1am, I have to admit, I’m feeling at about 80% this morning but nothing a good nanna nap can’t fix!

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So glad we met Stephen and Caroline and hopefully our paths will cross again in Kyrgyzstan.  Their website is travels.caroline-and-stephen.com and is well worth a look.

See you next time in Kyrgyzstan!

Cheers

Jen

Wrestling on the Steppe!

We really needed the day off.  It’s quite draining being on the move consistently. After our short but relaxing hibernation the time came and we headed off into Tsetserleg, found an internet café and caught up on the mundane tasks that life in the western world requires – paying bills and responding to the plethora of correspondence that doesn’t just stop because you’ve temporarily stepped out!

Lunch was enjoyed at a local café called the Cactus Bar where I’m sure the tourist priced menu was brought out and hit the spot temporarily. However, a session of harmonic burping in the vehicle once we’d departed suggested we’d either over indulged or that something was amiss!! Anyway the reflux subsided with no further symptoms (we’ll put it down to the food being a bit too oily?) and we found ourselves leaving town through a very scenic pass quite late at around 4pm so finding a campsite was next on the agenda. The road proved excellent for a while and allowed us to get a some movement toward our next destination, which was the town of Tariat. As usual the sealed road ended abruptly, fortunately however the end coincided with ChuulutGorge which Jen had been reading about. It was so picturesque and peaceful that we spent a little time just watching and enjoying the ambience before moving on.

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It was getting late and a campsite was now a priority but we were unable to find a suitable location along the gorge as it was all flat grassy table land with the gorge simply cutting a swathe through it and hence not lending itself to camping with that little bit of solitude. We ended up meandering along the track towards our destination and not 5 km from Tariat, managed to find a home for the night that again proved peaceful!

Into Tariat and straight out again, it gets a little like that! Unless we need fuel or provisions we find ourselves generally transiting the towns enroute as they are all very similar.

Just north of Tariat is the Khorgo Volcano, well worth a visit and we found it very interesting and enjoyable. The area has obviously suffered the effects of flowing lava and although it was no doubt millennia ago, the rock formations are obvious.  Large tracts of very distinct rock that was no doubt at one time glowing orange and steaming has spilled out all over the landscape in downhill directions from the crater of the Volcano and was very impressive. Whilst here we met a few other travellers, a couple backpacking with the usual garb of equipment that is associated with hard travel and a group of 4 Californians seeing the sights and being transported around the Mongolian steppe in a UAZ van!

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We headed off slowly in the direction of the Great White Lake which is only a few km’s from the volcano.  A detour ensued, as we wanted to take in a couple of caves in the area! Yellow Dog Hell Cave along with Ice Cave. We idled around and found the usual Mongolian parking area with some signs and a walking track leading from the parking area up a slope. Off we headed up and over a small rise and into a basin all the while following previous traveller’s paths! After wandering around for some time with a mag lite and looking everywhere that was even half obvious we couldn’t locate anything remotely like a cave and began heading back to the Patrol.  From a vantage point above the parking area, we noticed some sink holes in the opposite direction to both the signs and the walking trail that we had been on and thought –“couldn’t be – could it?” Yep it’s Mongolia, the caves proved to be in completely the opposite direction to the signs. I have to admit that at this point I wasn’t really surprised! Mongolians don’t necessarily operate on the same wavelength that we find ourselves on!

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After wandering around for a while we set off toward the Lake where we intended camping. Whilst lovely and picturesque the lake wasn’t really a great location for us to camp, lots of tourist Gers and no trees for km after km pretty well sums it up. We stopped for a late lunch and put the billy on.  Just as it boiled a Toyota Kluger came into view and proceeded to park right next to us. We were met with the statement – “We are International Sports People!”, to which we replied “We are Australians!!” Turned out that the car was full of Mongolian Olympic Wrestlers!

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A little English from one of the team helped proceedings and we had another great interaction with the locals. The vehicle tour once again followed and we were rewarded with the gift of some smoked Omulfish, which was fantastic as we had as yet not seen any for sale! The Wrestlers were on a 9-day holiday from Ulaanbaatar and were spending their time seeing the sites of Mongolia also! No sooner had they departed than another local upon his horse arrived and settled in to watch the aliens and see what was to see.  We spoilt him with Polaroid photo’s of both he and his horse and another Mongolian departed all smiles. We are getting good at this!!!!

Jen took the helm and we headed north in the general direction of the town of Mörön and the gateway to Khovsgol Lake. The track proved to be one of the most scenic and enjoyable to date consisting of valleys that provided us with vista’s that drew your eye and delighted it with fantastic rolling hills intertwined with mountainous peaks with flecks of snow remaining from the winter. Low range was engaged for quite some time along this section with very steep passes and off camber descents with large and nasty ruts.  The highlight in a couple of instances was transiting still frozen tracts of river with not a lot of indication of what may be below the ice should we break the crust! As usual the Patrol tends to come into its element in this type of situation and Jen handled it with a maestro’s touch!

We meandered north along the valley for many kms, passing ger after ger, a site we are now familiar with. Eventually we found a lovely campsite along the stream that sits at the lowest ebb of this valley and settled in for a relaxing evening. We were only about 50m from the track and quite easily spotted by the locals but as we hadn’t seen a lot of activity we were comfortable with our choice. A couple of tasty beverages in hand and Jen armed with her bottle of Arkhi (Mongolian vodka), we wandered over to the creek and contemplated the plans ahead. Part way into our tasty treats and yep – a motorcycle and passenger arrived and we had the discussion in pidgeon Mongolian that we are now getting used too.  The only tricky moment was when Jen needed to retreat to the Patrol to the retrieve the camera and our small globe of the world,(a departing gift from our Russian friends Vladimir and Nina), which has become integral in all conversations regarding our travels! She had a her litre bottle of vodka under her legs whilst seated and off course should it’s presence be revealed we would be obliged to enlist the locals help in relieving it of it’s contents. Don’t get me wrong – we don’t mind sharing but a litre of vodka isn’t going to end well! Anyway with moves akin to that of Houdini, I managed to slide the bottle into a new home beneath me whilst seated and no one was the wiser!

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Onward toward Moron and the topography kept up it’s performance as the valley we were travelling in remained lush and inviting. Late afternoon andwe began looking for a campsite.  The previous nights home had been obvious but as is often the case when you need a camp it can be difficult. Cresting a small rise along the floor of the valley and a couple of tents came into view! Definitely not Mongolians and as we closed it became obvious we were about to encounter some tourists. 2 men and a woman from Switzerland push biking Mongolia! They were travelling in the same direction as us and after a quick chat we made off as camp was calling and the sun was licking the highest peaks, reminding us that it would soon be sunset!

It was a few km’s before we found a lovely site amongst pine trees with the benefit of almost total seclusion.

The following morning the track became quite corrugated rough gravel and Moron came into sight, giving off the same glow as nearly every Mongolian town. We just fuelled up and stocked up then made for Khovsgol Lake, 100km to the north. Sealed road all the way and upon arriving at the town that occupies the southern shore of Khovsgol we again had the early in the season feeling. Businesses are just beginning to ramp up, repairing and painting whilst erecting gers for the expected swarm of tourists over summer. Remembering at this point that Mongolia is completely land locked so if water sports enter your psyche then a lake experience is what it will be!

We made our way north along the western side of the lake over quite a high pass that provided good views of the completely frozen lake as we crested.  We began our descent, surprised to see it completely frozen and were soon reminded that these massive fresh water lakes can determine their own weather – gloomy and very cold with a consistent icy breeze.  Around 40km up the lake along a gravelly but unmaintained track with puddles of water and the like but no real obstacles, we noticed a vehicle way in the distance along the lake side that looked out of place. Out with the binoculars and yep a Mongolian in what looked to be a Mitsubishi Challenger in all sorts of bother. We milled it over and thought we should offer some assistance, hence we meandered a few more km’s and came to a log cabin with a local requesting vehicle details to continue.

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You can head west from the lake into an area known as the Darkhad Depression, famous for containing lakes and local tribes that live with reindeer herds, using teepees instead of gers. The difficulty in reaching the area has kept them a little isolated and they have apparently managed to remain living in a reasonably traditional way despite interactions with some evangelicals whom have attempted to steer them in the direction they think we all need to move!!

We had already decided that we wouldn’t travel via this area due to the amount of water around early in the season and the difficulty in locating these tribes as they move regularly. Just shy of the log cabin was the track the Mitsubishi had taken in an attempt to follow the lakeshore rather than take the western and more inland track.  One look at the track and I decided that I didn’t really have an appetite for helping with a recovery – if your dumb enough to proceed on the track they were attempting without a well setup vehicle then maybe a nice cold night in the car will make you think twice next time! We meandered back south a few km’s and found a reasonable camp amongst the pine but visible from the track.  There are a lot of tourist ger camps along the track and it was difficult to find anything inspiring. All set up and drinks in hand we wandered along the lovely but cold shoreline and made new plans, we’d intended to spend a few days here but both decided that moving on tomorrow would be a better use of our time. We had really enjoyed Lake Baikal in Russia and Khovsgol wasn’t quite meeting our expectations. Remembering however that the lake is 150km long and I have no doubt that there are magnificent locations along its shores if you were to persevere. Once the blue sky arrives and the locals are in their ski boats it’ll be paradise!!

IMG_1546 Back in the camper and the temperature dropping with the sun, a motorbike spots us and picks it’s way through the scrub to our locale – a quick lap of our vehicle and he pulls up at the back door and starts beeping his horn, of course we already know he is probably looking for someone to recover the Mitsubishi.

Door open and Hello! He promptly points to the Patrol and then the wheels and with hand signals demonstrates spinning tyres and being bogged! Obviously an attempt to procure our assistance!  Jen points to our tyres and communicateswith the assistance of a thumbs up that we are fine, not bogged or remotely stuck but thanks for you concern!! Eventually he gives up and with a big smile rides off. A couple of hours later and about 6 motorbikes head past us toward the bogged vehicle along with a UAZ 4×4 sometime later!

Pleased to be left to our own devices we relaxed and wasted the evening. The following morning and the Mitsubishi, UAZ and motorbikes had not yet returned. I was feeling quite happy to have dodged that situation. A few km’s after our departure a Patrol with a winch came the other way – hmmm wonder where he is going!!

We returned to Moron and then 20km’s west to the site of some deer stones. Large carved stones around 3500 to 4000 years old placed as burial markers. It was really interesting and worth the detour but soured a little when 2 Mongolian family’s arrived and spent a couple of hours climbing on them and generally showing no respect at all for their own heritage. There is a ranger station there but as we’ve learnt in Mongolia, until the crowds are large enough during the on season and they can pocket enough money they don’t bother manning or in this case protecting the sites.

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We made off before we’d really spent enough time there but couldn’t stand the lack of respect any longer and found an awesome campsite high up a valley a few km farther west, an early camp enjoying a spectacular vista was the order.

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We continued west the next day hoping to cross a rather large river paralleling the track as we really needed to be on a track further south in order to see the sites we had marked. I had reservations about being able to cross the river so we pushed on to around 40km where a town was marked south of the river and maybe a bridge. Alas there was no bridge and the river remained its 50m wide quite deep and fast flowing obstacle. We could continue west but decided to head back to Moron and pick up the track we wanted to be on.  This also allowed us a second visit to the deer stones without the vandals along with a small resupply in town and top up with diesel.

Continuing west on the opposite side of the river and with some good fortune,we managed to find a great campsite along the river completely out of sight of the track. We also had firewood within reach (rare in Mongolia) and had our first campfire for the journey! It was more than well received, the flames invited the camp oven and so a stew was promptly prepared. Enough coals procured and lovely meal presented itself a couple of hours later.

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Back behind the wheel the following day and the usual 20 to 40km/h stretch of highway (track) as we continued toward our inevitable exit from Mongolia. Whilst you probably can smash along at 60km/h like the Mongolians do, we find we are limited to the slower speeds as we have a concept of what is happening under the vehicle and how important it is to us to maintain it’s integrity.Not to mention that every time you get a head of steam up and take your eyes off the track for a second you collide with some form of bone jarring obstacle.

So often we are passed by motorcycles that will make a few km’s on us and then stop, sit in our massive ploom of dust as we pass only to – yep you guessed it, pass us again and again and again! This practice is certainly not limited to motorcycles but seems to be a favorite amongst most forms of transport.

At one stage we’d been passed a couple of times by a tired Hyundai sedan of some sort and as he was approaching for his next overtaking maneuver, we had a UAZ van coming towards us.  Now there are 10 tracks all in parallel and it’s dead flat with nothing to impede your view. Yet the UAZ was, as is also generally the case, barreling along the same track that we were and on and to our right of the myriad of options. Technically he should move over to his right but they do resist this action at every opportunity. As has become practice for us we just pulled off the track and stopped hence allowing the oncoming vehicle to pass unhindered. With the Hyundai and UAZ now head to head on the same track they all but had a head-oncollision, albeit at probably 40km/h as neither would give for the other – Mongolia!!

Continuing west through the odd ramshackle town site, we found we were slowly drifting south away from the most northern track shown on our maps, a course correction would be required at some stage. We were ultimately heading for the town of Ulaangom and needed to get to the northern side of a large mountain range in order to access the town without more than the usual Mongolian detour.

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Just before the town of Zuunhangay we came across some Turkic burial stones, similar to the deer stones but much younger at around 1500 years. These stones are very nicely carved with great representations of warriors including belts and knives along with bow’s and arrows! It was fortunate that we’d been more south than our planned route or we’d have missed these historical relics. Once arriving in Zuunhangay, a track north came into view and that is the way we went! A reasonable camp was found amongst some pine trees and we again relaxed the evening away.

Back on the track and I asked Jen – “how close are we to the Russian border?”

Answer – 20km’s.

My response – “isn’t there a security zone for 30km either side?”

“This town looks weird maybe it’s an outpost of some kind! Hmmm those are military personnel with automatic rifles, I think they want us to stop!”

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I think we will stop!!

Anyway they were very friendly and after a brief discussion and finger pointing on the map we were allowed to continue north and pick up our desired path west. According to the map the Russian border swings north so we are only close to it for a few kms, but we really don’t know the rules as the language barrier is ever constant.

Now on the northern most route across this great country we found ourselves having dejavu as the terrain north of the range was dead flat and quite monotonous. The wind was howling and the terrain was a dust bowl and with our slow speed our own dust was overtaking us! This went on hour after hour! We arrived in the town of Baruunturuun and decided to take on some fuel and alongside the bowser and a crowd appeared. The tour of the Patrol and camper began and once again, out came the polaroid camera.  Photo’s taken and dispersed amongst the crowd, we left to waves and smiles!

IMG_1658 IMG_1656 A campsite solution was becoming an issue and we really wanted some shelter from the winds, but it wasn’t until around 9pm that an option presented, a few km’s off the track we managed to huddle amongst some sand dunes which was more than welcome compared with the flat inhospitable plains.  The clouds slid overhead as the sun departed and would you believe the rain began around 3am and didn’t stop!

150km of muddy track now became the norm, dust bowl one day – sloppy the next. Fortunately, although the rain was reasonably heavy and unrelenting the track was generally only wet to a depth of a few inches and looked worse than it was. So we arrived in Ulaangom without incident but with a very dirty and filthy Patrol! The town is bordered to the west by some large mountains, which we’d been able to see for most of the previous dusty driving day, and they were now covered in snow! We had been lucky and missed the worst of the weather!

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An unispiring town saw us struggle to find some provisions, task completed and tanks topped up we headed for UuregNuur Lake which would require us to head over the UlaanDavaa pass, although quite low at 1975m and only 500m above the town it was straight up into the snowline. After the initial pass we realised just how much snow had fallen, a good 200 to 300mm and what looked to be a much heavier dump on the peaks. We enjoyed some fantastic scenery whilst transiting now snow covered valleys and passes.  I’ve not had much experience with driving in snow but the next few km’s relieved me of that! On our final descent toward the lake and just below the snowline we came head to head with an M-A-N 4×4 truck with a camper conversion! We piled out, excited to meet some like-minded people and the bonus was that we finally had an opportunity to speak our native tongue! It had been a while since having a fluent conversation other than with each other….

IMG_1705 IMG_1707 IMG_1693 IMG_1703 IMG_1695 IMG_1706 Sleet, hail and snow had been the introduction to Mongolia for these travellers whom had been amongst the weather we’d been fortunate to avoid. They had crossed from Russia the day before.

Into the motorhome and the kettle was on, Paula from England (schooled in Melbourne!) and Guido from Germany, married and living in the west of France are on there way to China, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia before parking up and flying to Melbourne in order for Paula to enjoy a school reunion! Pointers and campsites discussed in both directions and nearly 3 hours had passed since our impromptu meeting. Goodbye’s said and we departed in opposite directions, if it works we’ll meet them in France as they may be home around November!

We descended for another 20minutes and the lake came into view, dusk was taking hold as we came within reach of the lake. A beautiful basin of water surrounded by a 360 degree rim of snow covered peaks. With another dose of luck, we managed to pick a location that looked as if a camp may present itself and found ourselves in probably the best campsite around the lake!

IMG_1740 IMG_1734 IMG_1764 I began dinner as darkness descended (10pm)and yep a motorcycle promptly parked next to us and we had our first visitor. We really weren’t in the mood but what can you do! Jen took the lead and began entertaining our visitor whilst I continued cooking, the only mistake she made was opening the camper door! He shot up the steps and parked himself on one of our seats like a ferret up a drain pipe! Those traditional Mongolian full length colourful jackets they love to get around in might look cool but they STINK, I’m trying to cook and hide the vodka whilst Jen is trying to coax him from his now cosy perch. “Get him out, Get him out, Get him out” was all I could say at this point!! We managed to extricate him and after a short time and he departed all smiles, visiting us again the following day with the usual request for a cigarette??

Some washing and relaxation was in order – now settling in for our third night in this stunning location as I smash away at the keyboard and yet another visitor began beeping his horn.  I found him rather comical, the local gentleman suggested that we should pick up our rubbish and not spread it around! Our reaction was “excuse me!!!!” We showed him our bin bag below the camper and suggested that the Mongolian pigs that can’t take their rubbish with them might be better fodder for that suggestion!

Of course he understood as far as the bin bag but no further. Still with a sour face he was then indicating that we couldn’t camp here and needed a permit – yadayadayada! So I showed him the Patrol instead and after looking over it his face morphed into sweetness from sour and now we’re been invited to his ger tomorrow for Airag (fermented mares milk). We’ll see how that goes! The trick is to just play the goat even if you know what they are on about, eventually they just give up, it’s all too hard! Worked every time so far…

 

Crossing back into Russia in the next couple of days for Russia Part 2…

 

Cheers

 

Justin

 

 

Rice and Milk Tea in the Gobi

This morning we were off to the Mongolian Embassy to lodge our visa applications. We were greeted by light snow on the walk over and I can tell you that was refreshing. We entered a small room and prepared our paperwork with around 10 Chinese hopefuls, I’ll never understand the inability to queue that seems to afflict many other nationalities around the world. Anyway with elbows spread we finally made it the front of the line and our applications were lodged with a solemn faced unhelpful individual. Pickup would be after 5pm!

 

The day was spent sourcing a supermarket for a re-supply. This was followed by a lazy day with coffee’s and lunch. We retrieved the Patrol from the hotel’s secure parking later in the afternoon and headed to the Embassy.  A Lada sedan promptly approached and it’s occupants gestured that they would like to look at the vehicle! So a tour ensued with lots of hand gestures and head nodding.  Upon looking in the cab and noticing the tablet a hand was pointed skyward and “Ahhh Sputnik” was announced – Yep we are using GPS!

 

Visa’s in hand, we headed south for the border along slowly rising topography that ended up just at the base of the snowline. We found a campsite amongst pine trees around 45km from the border and it was freezing.  I had the Webasto heater on before I popped the roof ….

 

We had heard many stories about the border – that we should allow a minimum of 4 hours and be there before opening to secure a spot in the queue. Although prepared for this we really don’t like early starts and decided that as camp the previous night had been a late one we would get to the border when we were ready and whatever would be would be. So at 11:30am we entered the border control area and there was no queue.  We spent some time with very confused officials whilst they made phone calls and tried to work out what to do.  After mirrors under the car, a sniffer dog, opening every compartment and popping the roof up we were cleared for the next stage. Fortunately we found a customs officer whom had a little English and he assisted us with the paperwork. Anyway an hour and a half later we found ourselves in Mongolia with third party car insurance and a new Mongolian SIM card. I don’t know if we were lucky or if arriving after the queue had cleared assisted our passage but it was quite painless.  We will see how this approach works next time.

Sim card

  Welcome to Mongolia

South toward Ulaanbaatar includes quite a few tolls, generally around 500 tŏgrŏgs each! Given 1600 tŏgrŏgs to the Australian dollar, it doesn’t really hurt but it was hard to work out why we were paying a toll for non-existent road maintenance. Apparently however the toll is income for the towns along the road.

 

Lunch was spent on a grassy rise with the pleasant fragrance of thyme.

It seems to be growing wild everywhere at the moment and can be quite intoxicating. Closer to UB and we were getting a little desperate for a campsite as I didn’t think tackling the anticipated heavy traffic at night was an overly bright idea. Fortunately at around 30km out we managed to wander over a small rise and found a spot on a hillside out of view from the highway that would suffice.  Upon parking we noticed quite a few headstones around the area and figured we had inadvertently found the dead centre of the locality! Very cold overnight and quite a dosing of snow meant for a cold start in the morning.

Snow Camp Snow Camp2

 

We were headed for the Oasis Café & Guest House, which has become a favourite amongst overland travellers and motorcyclists alike.

 

GPS position loaded and with no decent city maps we headed into the maelstrom of traffic that is UB! I can’t really describe driving here other than to say that it’s obvious that metal steeds have replaced horses but the ability to control the new mode of transport hasn’t matched the change! It is really just ridiculous and quite stressful but we managed to find the Oasis and that’s what it felt like after the drive…

 

I think you would have to experience driving here to understand how reckless it is!

 

We spent the afternoon cleaning the camper and servicing the Patrol and found ourselves partaking of the drinks fridge more often than I’ll admit if asked directly.

Service Time Tyre Rotation

Next day we braved the local bus and headed the 5kms into UB centre. The bus journey is basically an aerobic workout – stand sideways to the direction of travel is rule number 1. Your driver is an idiot and not at all aware of the fact he has passengers onboard so you will be thrown around as if you are inside a pinball machine.  At one point a tumbling toddler flew past us down the aisle whilst the bus was under maximum braking with horn engaged and steering wheel being yanked side to side.  I must admit I found it rather amusing to watch the local punters just accept it because that’s how it is! 

 

Sukhbaatar Square in the centre of the city is a nice area to relax for a while and people watch. The obligatory photos of the Chinggis Khan Monument in front of Parliament were taken and then it was off to the Museum of Natural History. We wanted to see some of the apparently amazing dinosaur skeletons and the like on display. Alas the building is closed until structural repairs are completed.  Looking at the building we will have a colony on the moon before that happens.

Sukhbaatar Square

Off to the Museum of Mongolian History instead as it holds a great collection of early Mongol armour and the like.  A couple of hours were enough so again coffee and the day disappeared in earnest.

 

We were apparently the first international vehicle of the season to arrive at the guesthouse but only by a day as a Land Rover 110 with English registration was in the parking lot upon our return from the city.  We spent some time perusing maps with Craig and Klaus and discussing route options. If your feeling like an Internet search then you can find them under Bermuda Rover.

 

We checked out and headed off to Mongolian Immigration to extend our visas for by a week. The process completed we headed to the State Department Store in central UB and stocked up before heading east to gaze upon a relatively new shiny monument of Chinggis Khan on his horse pointing toward China that is some 40m high!

Chinngis Chinggis 2

It was worth a look and was a very impressive monument.  It’s fortunate Mongolians have Chinggis Khan as without his legacy there would be a lot more vacant land to fill that is currently occupied with the many and varied monuments immortalizing him.

 

The idea was to continue southeast and then cut southwest through some small villages and intersect the road from UB south to Dalanzadgad. A terrific idea in principle but it totally went to custard when trying to cross the Trans Mongolian Railway line that was preventing our escape. Eventually we asked at a Police checkpoint where we could cross and were given directions – pretty happy with that we headed off!  They didn’t mention there is only one crossing in the area which happens to be an underpass and that a corolla with a roof rack is all that’s going under there!

Too Low

 Anyway, we’d well had enough by now and although we probably could have persisted we made the call to head back the 100kms to UB and pick up the road south from there. Well that wasn’t so easy either as there is a massive amount of road works and infrastructure construction being undertaken around UB and navigating the maze of unsigned dirt roads and diversions whilst trying to avoiding having the Patrol written off by a flying corolla made the task very time consuming.

 

However when in Mongolia enter a GPS waypoint and go that way! It was well and truly dark by the time we were able to confirm we had indeed positioned ourselves where we wanted to be. Having NARVA onboard at this point was something I was very grateful for!

Narva Welding Flash

Being able to light up the terrain and tracks ahead absolutely reduced the tension in the cab.

 

Eventually we darted off the track and over a rise and were ready to enjoy a cold beverage.  I turned off the Patrol and opened the door and there in the distance about 100m away I could just see a ger in the slight moonlight. Probably a good thing that it hadn’t received a burst of our lights as the poor occupants would have had welding flash!

Morning View Night Camp

I now realize some weeks later that ger’s are just about everywhere!

 

Anyway we moved a little further and that was home for the night!

 

Next day we headed across the grassy slopes toward Baga Gazryn Chuluu Reserve and were rewarded with lovely granite outcrops mixed with grassy valleys.

Baga Gazryn Chuluu Park Ranger

After a little exploration we suddenly had a motorbike following us at a safe distance, never really getting too close. Here we go I figured – “you want stay in ger?” or “you want camel ride?” At an opportune moment the bike closed and to our surprise a Park Ranger greeted us.

He took the opportunity to guide us forward in the direction that we’d been travelling and made sure that we saw the 2 main sights in the park.  A small cave was first and then an old Monastery in a lovely gorge that had been destroyed by the Russian Communists in the 1930’s. They were having a little purge of Mongolia’s free thinkers and reduced the population by a few percent just to get everyone on the same page!!

Monastery

We spent the evening watching a pair of massive vultures attend to their nest and woke the following day to heavy and consistent rain.

Vulture

Back to the highway and south to Dalanzadgad. Heading south along the black top is always a test in this country with nice smooth road followed by unmarked holes the size of refrigerators.  Fortunately we only travel at around 80 to 90 km/h and I was thankful for that as I rounded a sharp curve on the highway and was met with a wall of dirt about 5 feet high across the road – the Mongolian way of closing a road! I had to wonder how the Land Cruisers that passed me just moments earlier at well above 140km’s an hour had gotten on. I guess they either know the road or go Dukes of Hazzard Style!  Don’t know if those 200 series cruisers are as tough as the General Lee though!

 

A few hundred kms of corrugated roadwork bypass tracks saw us arrive in Dalanzadgad.

Downtown Dalanzadgad

We didn’t have very high expectations of this southern outpost and were quite surprised to find quite a nice town compared to others we’d seen. After a walk around we topped up with some groceries and a group of locals approached wanting to look at the vehicle. Then we headed to Yolyn Am Ice gorge.

Once again the GPS waypoint was loaded and we headed for the National Park entrance. Another 10km saw us wandering down a valley at some 7500ft along ice flows whilst being in the Gobi Desert!

Yolyn Am Yolyn Am 2

There is a section you are able to drive through that I’d seen on YouTube and maybe that was a mistake, as I wasn’t overly taken by this section, however it was nonetheless quite striking.

Dugany Am

Tonight saw us camped at 7800ft, our highest camp to date.

It’s been interesting observing the amount of black smoke from inefficient fuel burn that the Patrol is able to pump out at the higher altitudes.  You can generally avoid it but if you are laboring in the wrong gear it’s like a coal fired power station. I had previously noticed large amounts of smoke choofing from the many landcruisers around the more elevated towns but hadn’t put two and two together until I noticed my own driving technique…

 

Out of the ranges and west across beautiful arid rolling plains and the town of Dalay was approached. I was keen to buy diesel here as although we had only traversed a couple of hundred km’s I’d been told diesel was difficult to obtain in smaller towns and hence wanted to stay full.

 

We have 175litres of fuel with a comfortable range, when anticipating sand and hard driving, of 1000kms. Upon arriving in Dalay, we asked some locals if diesel was available?  Yes was the answer but we had a little trouble locating the bowser.  Quickly the passengers door was opened and Jen pushed up onto the console as a local woman climbed in and gave directions.  Sure enough we came to a small fuel station on the edge of the town with diesel.

Directions

As a point if you drive around the outside of the towns on the open flats you can generally spot the fuel stations.

At the time I’m writing this we are well north of the Gobi and at no time have we travelled more than 300kms without obtaining diesel.  To be fair though, there is a large number of small diesel trucks and 4×4’s here, so I’d surmise that diesel is becoming more available. We will see what the north of the country is like, hopefully similar.

 

Khongoryn Els sand dunes came into view. The country was really starting to dry out now and was becoming very dusty.

 

A lunch stop and drive up a small valley north of the dunes saw us parked right next to another ice flow within a gorge, I would hazard there are many of these ice flows around the area other than the National Park controlled ones.

 

Camp saw us very exposed on a sandy plain alongside the dunes but with a windless evening and beautiful sunset it was a great location.

Khongoryn Els Camp

There is a reasonable sized river running abeam the dunes which makes vehicle access quite difficult however the following day we got a little closer and with a little luck found a bridge that I think has been put in by one of the tourist ger camps to provide easy dune access.

Dune Access

A 500m walk saw us on the dunes and upon our return to the vehicle you could tell there was a change in the weather afoot. No sooner were we on the track than a sand/dust storm began, reducing visibility at times to no more than a few meters. Whilst it lasted the next couple of days fortunately it wasn’t consistent and we had long periods of great visibility.

 

We headed north across the Gobi and some of the best driving so far with tracks winding their way along the tops of the rolling peaks, affording stunning views and opportunities to spy on the lives of the nomads as they go about their business.

 

Next destination was Tsaagan Agui or Crystal Cave, a cave in a small valley that has given up stone tools that have been dated back to 30-40000 years ago.

Tsaagan Agui

It has some crystal formations lining its walls that make it unusual and impressive. GPS loaded and we headed up valleys and through mountain passes sometimes on tracks and lots of the time just heading that way.  You drive for great distances in this country with no sign of infrastructure whilst stopping and camping anywhere you like and yet when you arrive at a well known site you find a gazebo and a segregated parking area – what the??

 

As we drove to the beginning of the gorge we were suddenly met by a group of teenage boys with very sticky fingers, opening the Patrol’s door and suggesting that they show us the cave. It was quite uncomfortable and there is, of course, no one else anywhere! So we explained that as it was late afternoon and we would find a camp and come back tomorrow. We idled away until out of sight and considered our options. There was no way that we could leave the vehicle unattended! Shortly 3 motorbikes with all 9 lads aboard arrived and via hand signals suggested they would like Jen’s hat and some vodka and food along with some other signals I’ll leave out. We fired up the Patrol and headed off, what followed was a silly game of chase the tourist! I have well over 1000km range so wasn’t overly bothered about making it clear of these idiots. Anyway eventually they figured out we weren’t going to stop and decided that if they stopped their bikes across the track in front of us, that would work. As there wasn’t anyone around I was tempted to just run over them, a point they seemed to work out as we didn’t react or slow down. I guess having tyre tread across their forehead didn’t appeal to them! After some 30 minutes they reluctantly retreated and headed back toward the cave.

 

Now we were really annoyed, we’d come a long way to see this cave and missing out because of some testosterone filled clowns didn’t impress.  I don’t really think we were at any real risk as they were just mates egging each other on but you don’t really know.

 

We looked at our options and the map – “hang on – that little gorge goes north to the other side of the range – hmmm”. So after negotiating some steep hills and winding around some creek lines and other small challenges we managed to park the Patrol within 500m of the cave on the other side of the gorge. Torches in hand we headed down the gorge on a stealth mission and entered the cave that we had come to see! It all made for a late camp as upon our departure the wind came up and it was quite a few km’s before we managed to find a nice protected site in a gorge.

 

The next section north toward Bayankhongor would be one that required a lot of luck if rain was about. Very low lying terrain with lakes and marshy areas and no recent tyre tracks ahead made for a very careful approach. The terrain was firm enough with only the odd section requiring 4WD but I do think we were quite lucky as being early in the season it could have easily required a long detour.

Low Lying Don't Rain

A family of camel herders came into view and we managed to pick our way through the scrub around their herd of camels that were all over the track.

From their smiles and waves we thought they had appreciated our efforts so we stopped for a chat.  With hand gestures and maps they cottoned on to what we were up to. The now mandatory look in the vehicle and we were on our way. They seemed to being doing it pretty tough and yet give off the aura of happiness and want for nothing.

Camels Pretty Camel

Late afternoon saw us back on lovely grassy rolling hills and looking for a campsite.  Lovely grassy rolling hills are great but don’t really provide the protection from prying eyes or the elements that one desires so it can be a challenge to find a suitable campsite that isn’t already occupied by a ger!  We found a nice little rocky hill and nuzzled up alongside for some protection.  Beverages prepared we wandered up the rocky outcrop and relaxed atop whilst viewing our surrounds. We could see about 4 ger camps but they were quite distant! If you can see them then they can see you….  Just as we returned to our campsite came the unmistakable noise of a motorbike and over the hill came a family of three.  Yep we ‘d been spotted all right and curiosity had definitely gotten the better of them! A couple of hours later and after numerous discussions and reference’s to our phrase book and the mandatory few arkhi’s (vodka’s) we were invited to join them the following morning for milk tea in their ger!

Visitors

We were quite excited by this prospect as interacting with locals that approach you in the backcountry is the type of experience we are always looking for. It’s so far in front of the organized ger visit.

 

The following day, all packed up, we travelled about 15 km in order to find the ger which was about 1 km from our campsite, we had received Mongolian style directions but hey – we need a GPS Co-ordinate! Haha

 

We arrived to smiles and waves and the lady of the ger ushered us inside.

Ger Living Ger Living 2

I must apologise at this point, the chances of me converting their names into the King’s English is pretty well zero and the fact that I can’t pronounce them doesn’t help!

 

Rice with mutton was served and went down a treat, followed by bowls of milk tea to which we also did justice! A friend of the family promptly arrived and with the family’s son whom we hadn’t met the day before we now had a cosy group of 6. Maps and discussions around goat herding ensued and we marveled at the warmth and strength of the ger, it was seriously windy! The 12volt TV standing there along with a pot belly of design from the day’s of Chinggis Khan all seemed like a contradiction and yet so practical.  Baby Goats were quickly retrieved from outside and just added to the experience as they nervously wandered around the circular ger!

Kids Group Shot

After a couple of hours we headed outside and the Patrol became the focus. Bonnet up and camper roof extended there wasn’t a millimetre that didn’t receive a thorough going over…  Goodbyes and handshakes and we were once more on our way.

Mongolian Inspection Mongolian Inspection 2

This family had been so friendly and welcoming that it was actually quite difficult to move on, I hope others are fortunate enough to experience similar.

To Bayankhongor.  It’s hard to explain but you drive along tracks with random gers and free roaming stock and then you come to a town that consists of timber fences enclosing gers, some government buildings and a fuel depot of some sort.  The really weird part is that many of them have these “theme” parks, which, sometimes, consist of reconstructed dinosaurs, and the like but seem to have been abandoned part way through construction and now just sit derelict! Maybe some road repair before the theme park development – just a thought.

Bayankhongor

We were heading for some hot springs, touted as the highlight of the region, and then onto the town of Uyanga. We left the main road once again and wandered along the myriad of tracks in the general direction of the springs. We arrived at the springs but weren’t really able to access them easily as there was a ger retreat located next to any available point of hot water.  Most of them seemed in total disrepair and the whole area wasn’t overly inviting.

Hot Springs Maintenance

The track deteriorated rapidly but was still showing signs of frequent use so we pushed onward and upward in altitude and past ger after ger! The quantity of traffic using the track was obviously reducing the further we drove and I should have seen the signs earlier! Encouraged by the fact that it was shown on two of our maps we ploughed on. Eventually it was very muddy and rough with tricky sections requiring some low range and definitely choosing the right line but we were still hopeful of making it over the high pass at the end of the valley. Eventually we passed the last ger and the tracks ended abruptly but we continued. Maybe after that next crest there will be another track! Well that never happened and we went well beyond where we should have. I really don’t like off camber hill climbs in snow with one vehicle and no tracks whilst half way around the world! Being early in the season was definitely a factor – I think another month and you could head over these passes’ quite easily. There is a lot of snowmelt in the valleys and particular caution must be used in these areas. Numerous times we sank through the grassy crust but fortunately never stuck!

 

We retreated and headed north up another valley toward Tsetserleg but once again we were really taking a risk, it was obvious that the locals were not yet using these passes and so a U-turn was performed. We camped part way back down the valley, as we were some 60km from our start and now exit point. A cold night followed and we woke to a snow covered freezing Patrol in the morning.  I really don’t like starting the vehicle in these conditions after a freezing night at altitude. Until you get some heat into the engine there really are some undesirable noises. I try and keep the freezing wind out of the engine bay overnight and hope for some sun in the mornings to take the edge off, but it’s not always possible.

Valley Camp Elusive Gobi Bear

The next day we exited the valley and headed a little further east and up another valley that was encompassed by lower mountains and seemed to contain more open contours. It was the complete opposite of the previous valley – fairly dry and hardly the need for 4WD at all. In fact you didn’t need to bother other than the fact some of the tracks were quite steep so why wouldn’t you engage it. We also spotted the extremely rare Gobi Bear! Haha We had a great camp with lovely vistas along the valley. Another very windy morning and after a brisk walk we continued. We arrived at Uyanga via this alternate route and had intended to continue onto the 8 Lakes and Orkhon waterfall, which are supposed to be quite impressive. After a couple of hours hunting for a way of getting further toward our goal without including a stage of the warn winch challenge we realized that we would have to find an alternate approach.  The tracks are sodden and devoid of any local traffic at all. I thought it possible at this point that if we had a second vehicle we could have persisted but as we were solo the answer was obvious.

 

We headed southeast toward Arvayheer and a stint on the black top, we would have one more go at heading into the area of the waterfall – not so much for the waterfall but the fact I didn’t really fancy the 150km blacktop run as opposed to the 50km of tracks that would see us at the same location. We found a camp at sunset and settled in to cook a bolognaise that definitely hit the spot. The morning saw me plugging a rear tyre after removing a 2.5-inch roofing nail (don’t ya hate that). It’s either tech screws or nails! Some things don’t change the world over!!

Ouch

So we picked a valley and followed some tracks toward the town of Khurjit! Now this town is north of us but also has a main road running north from it, hence I didn’t think it would receive as much traffic as the other pass’s we’d attempted and hence was less concerned about fewer tyre imprints. About 15 kms up the track we once again encountered some heavy snowmelt and sloppy but reasonably firm terrain so we pushed on.  Shortly after, we crested a high point on our map and were feeling a little more confident of back-dooring our way north. We began the decent over almost dusty tracks and then were suddenly greeted with a view of the track and valleys ahead.  I could see lots of water and heavy ruts along with a couple of UAZ vans so out with the binoculars for a quick scan. Those UAZ vans might as well be gers, as they weren’t moving anywhere, bogged in the middle of the sloppy valley with Mongolians like ants around them trying to extract them.

 

Any movement in that direction also meant joining the recovery team, an idea I wasn’t totally sold on so yep – U turn.

 

We did have a go at another valley but we were losing interest by now and decided to hit the blacktop – well drive over rough tracks alongside it as it’s usually smoother.

Storm Front Dust Coming

So on to Kharkhorin and the centre of Buddhism in Mongolia.  Lot’s of western tourists, which was a little weird having not seen anyone for so long!

We continued north toward Tsetserleg and found a spot for lunch. The sky looked a little weird and yellowish, half way through our lunch we realised it was a dust storm and within 5 minutes we were in the cab being buffeted by massive winds and subsequent pouring rain. I was really thankful not to have been the recipient of hail as the sky began to take on that ominous deep grey. Anyway the car got a wash, which was nice! The gale force winds continued and we were a little worried about finding a camp that would provide protection, so we drove further than anticipated and found ourselves on the outskirts of Tsetserleg. Saved by the bell however we noticed some gorges to the south of the town and after negotiating the bumper cars we found our way 5km south and are camped on a lovely little stream with a small gorge for protection, which we really need as the wind is howling!  Now I’m going to have a beer as this is the second time I’ve written this complete post after the Muppet I’m travelling with irrevocably deleted it earlier today!!

 

She’s doing the washing to make up for it!!!! hahahaha

 

Back soon – Justin.

 

PS: At the point I was halfway through my quite relaxing beer when a small truck drove past our camp and proceeded to get stuck in the little river that is flowing by! So next thing there is young local guy requesting our assistance, I couldn’t tell him what I was really thinking so proceeded to pack up the camper and retrieve his little truck from the creek! Peaceful now – I think!

Relaxation Recovery