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21 August 2008

Did you know – Mongolia is the second largest landlocked country of the world, after Kazakhstan.  Mongolia is also the sixth largest country in Asia, and the eighteenth largest country in the world.

Our entry into Mongolia was very easy.  We got to the Russian/Mongolian border crossing just before 12 noon (I think they close between 12 and 2pm for lunch, so we were quite lucky).  Leaving Russia was very easy.  It took about 20 minutes and a little bit of paper work, through passport control, and onto the Mongolian side.

The Mongolian side was also very easy.  They all seem to be able to speak a little bit of English, which makes everything a bit easier.  We had one important piece of paper, which had to get a total of 5 stamps.  As soon as you have those stamps, you ready to go.  The customs inspection was also no problem.  The inspection took only a few minutes.  All in all, not a bad experience.  I’m sure we will have a few more hassles in Central Asia though.

There are only a few bitumen roads in Mongolia and the rest are mainly tracks.  Don’t be fooled by any map.  We found this out on our way to the Amarbayasgalant Khiid monastery.  The monastery is only about a 200km detour.  In the end, we spent about 3 days getting there and then back to the main roads to Ulaan Bataar.  The first day was a bit tricky.  Thank goodness we had our GPS though.  The GPS maps we’re using is fairly accurate, but there were definitely times where it is the luck of the draw when it comes to deciding if you should take the left or right track.  We already had ‘a little episode’ where we had to ‘explore’ and make our own tracks.  It was a little more difficult as well in the north, because the terrain is more mountainous and the vegetation is not like the grassy steppes.  I somehow even managed to bring Mandy to tears with my driving skills.  I was later assured that it wasn’t my driving skills, but just the sudden surprise of the terrain we were going through.  It was almost like a hop, skip and a giant leap.  It’s a good thing we had that rear diff lock installed.

About 5km into the journey the next morning, and we realized that we’re not to sure which way to go…again.  Luckily, some locals wanted to pass us, and we flagged them down.  Out comes the map and with a very poor pronunciation of the Amarbayasgalant Khiid monastery we managed to get across that we want to go there.  “Follow us”, he gestured, and about 20 km later we stopped.  Here we got instruction to follow this track, around the mountain and 60km later we’ll be there.  After a bit of sign language, we discovered that they are on their way to go and fish at some good spots.  Not being a keen fisherman, but having a hand line I got from Bob (a very keen fisherman who we met in our Russian class), I thought it is a golden opportunity to try it out.  After some bumpy roads, lots of dust (about 10 times worse than the fine bull dust you get in Australia) and some mud, we got to a very pleasant spot.  Just as I got the hang of the hand line, one of our new friends gave me a spare rod to use.  (There were 3 Mongolians, 2 brothers and one’s wife – I never got their names.  I asked him to repeat it so many times that it became a bit embarrassing.)   Eventually, the big one took the bait, and I managed to catch a nice size ‘lanok’ fish (have a look at the photos).  I think we caught about 25 fish that day (they did use a net as well…).  We decided to camp there with them for the night and we had some fish soup that night.  They also cleaned and prepared the fish to be smoked the following day.

We ended up leaving them around lunchtime the following day with 3 massive smoked fish in the fridge.  I must admit it is very tasty.  We’re not really big fish eaters, but the smoked variety is nice.  They wanted us to come with them to the next fishing spot with promises of even bigger fish.  We unfortunately had to turn the offer down because of our 30-day time constraint.

We did eventually make it to the monastery after some more bad roads and with the help of the GPS.  The monastery was a little bit disappointing after all the effort.  Still, I’m glad we made the effort to go there.

We are now in Ulaan Bataar.  It is our second night here, and we’re camping next to the river.  It’s not a bad city.  You can see that it’s not a rich country, but there a re a lot of cars around, and a lot of flashy 4wd as well.  The traffic is however a bit manic here.  Especially after not even driving on proper roads for a few days and the only other traffic you see is the herders on their horses. 

We hope to apply for our visa for Kazakhstan tomorrow.  I think we should get this by Monday.  There is also a Genghis Khan festival on just south of Ulaan Bataar, which we hope to go to over the weekend and then once we get our visa sorted, it’s time to head south to the Gobi desert.  We’re hoping to spend about a week there, but will have to see what happens.
 

27 August 2008

Did you know – The ‘Gobi’ literally means desert.  Dunes only cover 3% of the landscape.  Most of the desert is mainly stony plains, rugged treeless mountains and scrubland.  It is still one of the least populated regions on the planet.  One of the biggest sand dunes in the Gobi is approximately 300 meters high, 12 km wide and about 100 km long.

Don’t say a word…just keep real quiet.  Can you hear that??  Probably not, because there is absolute nothing to hear.  We are now in southern Mongolia, in the Gobi.  There is absolute nothing around us, and a perfect night.  No wind, clear skies and surely about a million stars in the sky.  It is so peaceful, very difficult to explain to someone.

We are probably lucky tonight with the weather.  I’m sure the wind must blow just about every day.  We had some really dreadful weather on the way down from Ulaan Bataar.  Our first night coming down south was not pleasant at all.  All I can say is that I was so glad we didn’t spend the night in a tent.  The wind was howling, it was raining, there was thunder and lighting and to top it off, also some hail.  We left Ulaan Bataar just after 5pm on Monday, after picking up our visas for Kazakhstan.  We thought we would get a few hours under the belt, seeing that we ‘wasted’ a few days in UB waiting for our visa.  We found a place to camp just before sunset, but I wasn’t too happy being exposed to the hail and lighting in the middle of an open plain.  After a bit of discussion, we decided to push on to the next town to see if we can get some shelter.  About 3 hours later, at 11pm (and once again breaking our rule of not driving at night) we came across a little village and found a proper building, i.e. not a ger, to shelter us from the wind and weather.  It almost felt like we were on a ship because the wind was blowing so hard.  We managed to sleep ok that night, which was a bonus.

Back in UB, we managed to go and see the Chinggis Khan cavalry show just south of Ulaan Bataar.  We went on the Saturday, and to be honest, thought it might be a bit of a disaster, because we were the only people there when we got there.  I think there must’ve been about 30-40 people there in the end.  Not too bad for a show in the middle of nowhere which was running everyday for 6 or 7 weeks.  The show was good.  We saw some good wrestling matches, and they also showed of their horsemanship skills.  Turned out to be a good day.  I’m glad we made the effort to go.

We should hopefully make it to the big sand dunes tomorrow to go and have a little play.  It should be good fun to go down the dunes on something.  That’s if we make it to the top of the 300-meter dunes.  Not sure of we will be staying in the sandy part of the desert.  We only have 20 days left on our visa and still have such a long way to go in Mongolia.  It takes a whole day to cover about 300km.  (I’m sure we can do better though if we get our backsides out of bed a bit earlier because we only get up around 8:30 in the morning…we are on holiday I suppose…)

03 September 2008

Did you know – One of the traditional dishes the Mongolians eat is called ‘Makh’, which literally means meat in Mongolia. It is a type of broth or if you want to call it soup, made from boiled fat, bones, organs and the skull of the animal – we’ve not tried this yet and have absolutely no intention on trying it either. Airag is also a traditional drink loved in Mongolia. It is fermented mare’s milk, with an alcohol level of about 3% - which leads us to the following little extract from one of our days.

We thought we would try and do a few good deeds every now and then. It did not take us long to get an opportunity to do this. We came across a broken down 4wd about 400km west of Ulaan Bataar. This poor guy completely lost his left front wheel from the bad roads and it was lying by the side of the road. After closer inspection, I saw that he already tried to somehow fix it, but the poor guy only had 3 spanners with him, and he already broke 2 of the 3 spanners. I lent him some of ours, and try to help him out as much as possible to try and fix it. After about 30 minutes, he thanked us, a little bit better off than earlier, and gave us a big 2 liter bottle of Airag, the fermented mare’s milk. Just the previous day, I said to Mandy that we should maybe try some of it, and here was our chance. We decided to drive on for a couple of kms, just out of sight before we stopped to try it out. Just in case it was so bad that we had to spit it out. I think the easiest way to try and explain what it tastes like is to imagine you are in some horse stables, which haven’t been cleaned for a while. There is a nice aroma of horseshit hanging in the air. Not that either one of us has ever tasted horsecrap, however, we can both say with certainty that the fermented milk tasted like the horsecarp smells…bloody awful. If I had to close my eyes and drink it, not knowing what it is, I would definitely be able to tell where it comes from. You can taste the freaking horse…

Going back a few days, we made it back to UB from the Gobi. We again had some bad weather coming back and we also had a little incident with our one indicator. After some bad roads the one morning, the left indicator decided it was time to let go. The screws fell out from the corrugation and it was hanging from the wires, and to top it off, it was raining. We stopped at a little ger café for something to eat, and had to tape it back up with some gaffa tape. Once back in, I tested it out, and it wasn’t working (the reason for not noticing earlier that the indicators weren’t working is because there is no reason to indicate when you drive. You only see a car every half and hour or hour, and you drive on tracks). It was time for another oil change, so I thought I would get them to check it out as well. It turned out to be the indicator relay. I didn’t bring any spare relays, but we managed to find one in a ‘motor market’. Great we thought, as easy as that. A few minutes later, the relay was in, and I was checking that it works ok. About 10 seconds later, the new relay melted as well. Not good I thought, obviously something more serious with the electrics. This was Saturday morning, and we didn’t know if there is a Toyota workshop in UB. We saw a Nissan dealer and thought we would try them. They pointed us to the Toyota shop, but they were unfortunately closed for the weekend. This meant that we had to hang around UB for an extra couple of days. We thought it would be better if we rather try and sort out the problem before we leave the big smoke.

We got there on Monday and managed to be the first car in for the day. It is a first come first serve basis. The only reason why we got in first was because we decided to sleep there the night. After about 2 hours, they found the problem, the indicator control box. The other good thing is that there are 78 series Troopies here as well. The only problem is that they are left hand drive, which means that the controls are on the opposite side to ours. This meant that they couldn’t put a new one in. After a bit of negotiation, I managed to convince the guy to try and fix the faulty one. It is safe to say that the indicators work now, but the horn doesn’t work, and a horn is a valuable thing in UB. I will try and sort it out back in Russia. The relays are sooooo expensive here. It cost us US$ 55 for the relay. On a more positive note though, the labour was only US$24 for the 2 or 3 hours work.

The scenery and landscape we travel through is absolutely stunning. It varies from day to day. Coming back from the Gobi, we went through some very flat and open plains. You can’t see anything for absolute miles, right to the horizon. You really feel the enormity of the land and I’m sure it can be a very lonely place during the cold winter months. The Mongolians must be really tough people to be able to live like this. Nothing in sight, just you and your ger, ready to be battered by the strong, cold winter winds. They don’t even have shelter for the animals, and I don’t know where they get their water from sometimes, because the closest river could be 10-20 km away. The landscape also changes very quickly from the flat endless plains to the rolling steppes and all of a sudden the big mountains. The goat, sheep and yak graze right at the top of some of the mountains, with the herder following close behind on his horse. What a different life, being a nomad and a herder.

It has happened fairly often where we had to stop and ask for directions. Every time this happens, I try to ask someone who is on horseback, because this gives me an opportunity to try and improve my horse riding skills. Not that I have any riding skills though. I even managed a very short trot today on one of the horses. I could very quickly feel it in my backside though. We would really like to spend a couple of days exploring the areas on horseback. I’m not sure if we’ll have enough time here in Mongolia to do it. If not, we might try and do it somewhere else in Central Asia.

That’s all for now folks…time to ride of in the sunset (I wish…).

10 September 2008

Did you know:  Special Edition – It is Pam’s (Mandy’s sister) 30th birthday today.  HAPPY BIRTHDAY Pam!!  Have a wonderful day; we wish we could’ve been there with you to celebrate this BBIIIGGGGG milestone.  Miss you lots sis.

It’s been a tough (but very enjoyable) 3 days.  We’ve encountered some really bad roads here in the west of Mongolia.  We are now in a town called Olgii in the west, and went further west to Tavan Bogd national park and some surrounding lakes.  It is about 180km west of Olgii, but it took us about 7 or 8 hours to get there.

But first, lets go back a few days, en-route to Olgii.  We did the last 300km or so to Olgii in about a day.  I think the route we took was probably the best out of all the options we had.  Reports by 2 Germans on motorbikes suggested that the southern route through Altai and Khovd is absolute rubbish.  Corrugated potholes, or potholed corrugation.  Whichever way you look at it, it sounded bad.  The northern route didn’t sound much better.  More reports suggested that there is a lot of soft deep sand.  Not sure if this is only hearsay, but we weren’t prepared to test it out.  So we decided to keep going through the center.

On the last morning before we reached Olgii, we came across a truck (think it was probably about 7.5 tons), truly stuck in some deep sand.  Trying to keep with our new tradition of doing good deeds, we decided that we should stop and see if we can help them.  After initial inspections, it looked like we will be able to get them out of the sand.  They’ve been digging for a while and the track out of there looked ok.  Great I thought, lets help these poor buggers out.  I hooked the recovery gear up and tried to explain (with elaborate hand gestures) to them how the recovery will work.  Oops, one small problem though…they can’t start the truck, something wrong with the batteries.  Oh crap…not too worry though.  A bit more digging was done and I a quick look around the truck to see that everything was good to go.  As I walked past the back, I noticed that the back was covered up.  Interesting, I thought.  A quick peek under the cover and there I saw a full load of, would you believe it, sand!!  All of a sudden, it became a 10 ton truck.  Oh crap quickly became oh shit.  Well, I thought, at least I have an 8-ton bow shackle and heavy-duty recovery gear.  Again a bit of explaining was done for the new procedures, and all 5 guys will be pushing like they’ve never pushed before.

Everything was set, hubs locked, and 4wd low range selected.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to do a full snatch recovery; it will be more like a snatch and tow.  The first attempt wasn’t successful at all.  Just made 4 nice little holes in the sand.  Luckily there was a small grassy patch I could reach, because the straps were long enough.  Second attempt was a bit better.  I think it moved about half a meter.  A bit more digging and try again.  The third attempt moved it about 1 meter.  It looked promising, some more digging was done and a final attempt.  With all 6 cylinders working it’s butt off and all the horses pulling under the bonnet, using every cubic inch of the 4.2 liters, we managed to free this little sucker.  I even managed to keep going to jump-start the truck.  Nothing quite like a Landcruiser, is there?  Everyone was happy and relieved, a job well done.

We met a few travelers here in Olgii.  3 People from Spain, 1 of them traveling on a bicycle.  We also met a couple from France in a campervan and then an American couple who are also traveling on bicycles.  They’ve been on the road for a couple of months, and I think they will be traveling for another 12 months or so, hoping to go through China.  We also met an Italian couple today, who are also traveling in a Landcruiser, similar to ours.  We spent the evening with them, exchanging some info etc.  They are from northern Italy, and we will hopefully spend a few days in their area when we are in Northern Italy.

We also met one other couple at the lakes.  It’s a Dutch guy and Italian girl.  They are here for work and holiday.  The Italian girl records and describes endangered languages.  She is also fluent in Mongolian.  To be continued…

12 September 2008

Did you know:  The lack of nappies for babies (specifically nomadic Mongolians) in Mongolia has led to some very innovative inventions.  Some cots have a little hole with a glass jar below it.  The baby gets ‘lined up’ over the hole and then a type of homemade funnel goes between their legs and it all gets wrapped up very tightly so that it stays in place and so that they can’t wriggle too much.  Whenever nature calls, they can go their hardest, and it will all go into the little jar, ready to be emptied.   

…Continuation from 10 September.

Where was I, oh yes, the Dutch guy and the Italian girl who speaks fluent Mongolian.  We met them at the western lakes of Mongolia, close to the Chinese border.  They hired a jeep and driver for a few days to see the lakes and the surrounding areas.  After talking for a while, we decided to camp together for the night.  There is a local Kazak family with a little café.  We ate some local Kazak food and spent the night talking to them (with the help of our new translator).  The roads to the western lakes are not good at all.  There were loads of sharp rocks on the road, with corrugation.  It was really slow going, first and second gear stuff.  It lasted for about 50km, but the closer we got to the lakes, the bigger the rocks became.  There were a few instances where we couldn’t avoid bumping the axles and diffs.  We have a lot of clearance, but obviously not enough that day.

We decided to go back to Olgii the following day, and spent most of the day on the road with the Italian and Dutch.  We even managed to give a lift to a local who needed to get to one of the towns we were going to.  When we got back in town, to our surprise, we bumped into the American couple again who are traveling on bicycles.  We thought they would’ve left already, but they decided to stay on for a bit of shopping.  We spent the evening with them and another guy from the American Peace Corps who is stationed in Mongolia for 2 years.  He lives on his own, but has an ‘adopted family’ there.

After a bit of shopping at the markets in Olgii for some supplies, we decided it was time to leave, and head to the western border of Mongolia and Russia.  It is definitely an experience to go to the meat markets.  Western standards on food hygiene definitely goes out the window.  There must have been about 15 rooms selling fresh meat.  Some of them are really a sight.  We managed to find one which looked the cleanest out of all of them and bought a piece of beef from them.  Not bad value though, at approximately AU$1 per kg (we haven’t tried it yet though).  They sell all sorts, from stomach, to ribs to intestines.  The intestines looks like a massive 1 meter, badly made, sausage.  Not sure what was in it, and we didn’t really want to ask either.  Just incase they wanted to sell it to us.

The road to the border was surprisingly good.  There was about 50km of tarmac, and the rest normal Mongolian roads.  We had the odd patch of bad corrugation and dust, but nothing like some of the other roads we experienced.  We got to the Mongolian border around 1pm, and leaving Mongolia was extremely easy.  We paid a ‘road tax’ of 10,000 Togrog when we left (lets hope it does actually go to the roads), and went to passport control where they sent us on our way.  From the Mongolian border (GPS waypoint is as follows:  N49 36.462 E89 28.071), it is about 22km in no-mans land until you get to Tashente, the Russian border town.  We got there while they were still closed for lunch, which is between 12:30 and 14:00.  (For your information, there was a sign up on the Russian side saying that the office was closed on Sundays – I’m not sure if this is only for September though).

The procedures for the Russian side were surprisingly easy.  We were expecting to spend the rest of the day there.  It took us about 1½ hours from the time they opened up.  This included waiting in line for about 30 minutes at passport control for a busload of Mongolians who were traveling to Russia.  Once we went through passport control, it was straightforward.  They tell you exactly where to go and what to do.  One thing to keep in mind for overland travelers – nobody asked us if we had insurance for our car, and no one offered us insurance either.  Insurance is compulsory in Russia (from my understanding).  We did however buy 6 months insurance when we first entered Russia in Zarubino, so that is still valid.

We then spent our first day-and-half back in Russia driving through the beautiful Altai region.  It is also getting a little bit cooler now.  We’ve already had some cold weather in Mongolia at 2000m above sea level, with snow on some of the mountain peaks.  We are currently at 800m above sea level now though, and it is a little bit warmer.  Probably around 15 degrees.  The evenings and early mornings are a bit cooler.  I think our coldest we’ve had in the car so far has been 9.5 degrees.

We are hoping to spend about 10 days here in the Altai region before we head to Kazakhstan.  You always have a deadline in Central Asia with visas, which is not so nice.  You have to be specific with your dates you want to enter and exit the relevant countries.  This makes planning a bit more difficult, but definitely not impossible.

We thought that it might be interesting to list a few likes and dislikes of the country. 

Mongolian likes and dislikes.

- We liked the friendly people, vast open spaces and being the only people for miles on end.

- We disliked the traffic chaos in Ulaan Bataar together with no road sign, the strong, sometimes icy wind – not sure if this is only at this time of the year though.

- We liked the fried meat pancakes, buuz (a type of meat dumpling) and fried dough with meat.

- We disliked the salty tea in the Gobi, and Airag (fermented mare’s milk)

That’s it for now – I’m sure this is enough for one day.