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