We got up early and said our goodbyes to the guest house family and the French family who are completing their year long ride on tandem bikes. (For readers interest their blog can be found at www.radicalaventure.over-blog.com).
We set off early with the intention of making it to Telmen Nuur (277 kms) that evening. Alex was feeling rather average after being awake all night ralphing up the meal we cooked ourselves the previous evening (it wasn't the meal).
The road basically disappeared as soon as we left Tariat, and ascended to over 3000m at the highest pass through the mountains. There was a significant amount of snow but thankfully the road was clear. None of us had expected to see this amount of snow on the trip, or the cold.
At around lunch we arrived at a town called Ih-Uul. As we approached we noticed that the two bridging across the river were closed and traffic was being diverted a distance downstream. The crossing was a wet one (a river), and relatively wide. A pickup truck was stalled mid crossing as we approached. Locals lined each bank encouraging us to cross. As we considered our options a large truck made the crossing and it looked deep. Alex decided to walk the crossing to determine the most shallow route. He found a path - but it was a less direct and curving route. Alex make the crossing first, without incident, to the cheers of the locals. Todd and Zano followed second and third to equally big applause. All the racket had attracted the local cops who asked for our passports - he was amazed at our visas and let us pass with a smile.
When we arrived in Tosontsengel at about 5pm (looking a little disorientated) we got rounded up by an American missionary called Tom who had been living in Tosontsengel for 20 years. The town is the biggest centre in the region, but quite run down. Tom gave us some advice on our route through the western districts, and the we had a feed at the local restaurant. Whilst eating we decided just to sleep there for the night and get an early start in the morning. Alex went to bed and Todd and Zane explored the town - not much to report.
Tosontsengel to Hyargas Nuur;
Departing this morning we really didn't know what distance we'd achieve for the next few days. 30kms, or 300kms?. We set ourselves an aggressive target of Hyargas Nuur (360ks) and away we went.
Riding was tough, but exciting. There was no road whatsoever, just numerous tracks in the earth.
The first leg to Nomrog was cold, and the weather looked very ominous. We passed yesterday's intended destination (Telmen Nuur) at about 9am. At Nomrog we were unsure about which direction to take to Tudevtey - south west via local roads, or north west via "national" roads. We chose the latter, and no road existed, but we could see the town on the GPS so we blazed our own trail. Alex hit a sand trap about 15kms out of town and came off. No harm done, and probably many more to come.
The second leg from Tudevtey to Songion was uneventful - just making our miles. However, we were slowly descending and the scenery began to change from greener plains and gravelly roads to more desert like terrain (including sand!)
When we arrived in Songino it was like pulling into a Hollywood Wild West movie scene. A wide dusty main street with shops lining both sides. Horses pulled up at the pub. A couple of locals sitting back watching the day pass. We got a bite to eat and pressed on to Hyargas Nuur.
The final leg was all desert. A real moonscape. Very little life could be sustained in this region. Long sandy runs separated by corrugated sections continued for about 200kms. Real challenging riding. Bull dust holes started appearing in the last 50ks. You'd be burning along at speed trying to keep planeing above the corrogations and boom! a bull dust hole would sneak up on you. Hitting them at speed worked ok if you were the first rider, but made the it difficult for the riders behind as visability was near zero.
About 10kms from Hyargas Nuur an amazing bitumen road appeared out of nowhere. It was like the Brisbane to Gold Coast Highway in the middle of a desert! We smoked the final miles to the lake and then considered our camping options. We elected to spear off the highway and head straight for the waterfront. The lake was not surrounded by grass or trees but fine loose gravel. All was going well until we stopped. Alex and Zano both got bogged. Zano was a fair distance from Alex and Todd and dug himself out before assistance arrived on foot.
Camping was a little rough on the feet, but the view and the serenity was amazing. The silence was also astounding. All this space and water and not a sound. You'd half expect to look up and see a wake board boat zoom past.
We had a quick feed and hit the sack.
BCF ain't got nothing on this - this is real living!
Hyargas Nuur to Ulaangom;
Real lazy start today. We woke to light rain and wind. We all must have wanted a sleep-in as we all didn't really exit our tents until about 9:30 - 10:00am. Our slowest start yet.
We rejoined the highway and made tracks for Ulaangom. We made good time on the same bitumen road we'd hit yesterday. We arrived at about 2pm making it the earliest finish of the trip.
We found a nice hotel in town (with hot showers), got cleaned up and had lunch in town.
We decided we'd spend a full day tomorrow in Ulaangom to complete various chores. Toddy had to weld up his RHS pannier frame, which was developing a crack, and we also needed to refine our itinerary for the next few weeks. Overall we'd completed Mongolia in good time, taking five days less then planned. In hindsight it would have been good to take it slower in the central district but we never expected that we'd cover the western provinces (desert section) in one day. However, the extra days we gained means a less hectic run through the Altai Region of Russia and a real opportunity to spend some time in the Wakhan Corridor.
Ulaangom to Mongolia / Russian Border;
Rested, washed and reorganised after our day off we departed Ulaangoom. Our aim today was to clear the border and make a few miles into Russia and stop at Kosh-Agash. Things didn't go as quickly as hoped.
The route to the border as the crow flys was directly west of Ulaangoom but we needed to take a longer northerly loop (260ks) to clear a mountain range. We figured we'd make the border by lunch.
The first half of the day was very pleasent - decent tracks and more impressive scenery;
As we descended down the range we found ourselves in a hellish moonscape. Flat as a tack and rocky. Going was slow trying to navigate a smooth path, and avoid big bundies that would deflect the front tyre so much you'd be on your arse. After an hour of this terrain we noticed a tree line in the distance, and we noticed a creek on the GPS. Things were about to get real.
As we approached we noticed water - a lot of water. It's wasn't a creek - it was a full blown river. The river was very wide (800m) but the flow was broken into numerous channels that were all interwoven.
We hopped off the bikes and went to try and determine a way across;
Our 1st attempt (more northern) was unsuccessful. The river was narrower here, and a possible route less confusing, but the channels were too deep. We were waist deep just walking them and the current was strong. Just walking was a challenge. No go.
Our 2nd attempt (more southern) was also unsuccessful. The river was wider here, with more islands separating the channels that we thought could act as stepping stones. We were wrong. We walked this section for an hour. We got lost, we could never recall the way we'd walked - it was a maze. It was also more sandy and boggy. We were close to making an attempt in this area but lucky we didn't. Looking south we could see a few Gurs scattered on the other bank (initially we thought it was a mirage) so we decided to have a look at options further south.
As we headed south we found a more defined track, and we spotted a truck crossing in the distance. We now knew a crossing was possible here we just didn't know how. We followed the track over a few shallow channels trying to catch the truck. He spotted us mid river from the other bank and waved us North. We headed in that direction, forging a few small channels but the track had disappeared again so off we got and started walking. We walked for another 1/2 hour until Todd spotted faint tracks in the rocks heading into a deep channel. The channel was waist deep but the track headed with the current. This was our best bet. We unloaded bags and top bags off the bikes and walked them across. Zane and Todd stood staggered midstream, waiting to assist if required, and Alex had a crack. Deep but no dramas. Zane and Todd followed without an issue. We'd made it.
It was now three PM and we were starving and shaking from adrenalin. We pulled into the first ger we spotted and they welcomed us. We were fed and watered. They offered us some deep fried bread which is very tasty and we consumed more than our share. The 'grandfather' showed us his personal documents (passport and ID) of which he seemed very proud. We shared a few lollies, took a few group photos and said our goodbyes. We wanted to make the border before it closed.
The rocky terrain and corrogations continued all the way to the border. Shaken to bits we pulled up at Tsagaannuur (town on the Mongol side). It was five and we ascertained that the border closed at six. We made a run at the border trying to cover the last 30kms in record time. We arrived to crossed arms.
There was a few scattered buildings on the Mongol side of the border. An off duty customs agent offered us a bed in his wife's one bedroom (12 bed) hotel. We had a feed and hit the beds. Nothing like a spring bed with such a sag that it more resembles a hammock to rest the head. For the first few hours we were continually harassed by the 'wife' who continued to enter / exit our room and switch the light on and off, on and off. To our surprise the husband, wife and baby all entered our room and bunked down on the spare beds. Tomorrow we enter Russia!