Reaching the Peak

Location:  47° 54′ 41″ N, 106° 58′ 53″ E, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Distance from Sydney:  10,126km

So we’ve crossed Mongolia.  Like a mountain climber reaching the peak, Mongolia was our half way mark, timewise for me (3 months of a 6 month journey), and also the greatest challenge in terms of remoteness, roads and logistics.  Appropriately, like the top of a mountain, the rewards were also greatest, and without doubt western Mongolia has been one of the most spectacular parts of the trip.

For this update, we’ve decided to let the pictures lead the story, rather than the story lead the pictures.  As I said in the last post, we struggle to capture Mongolia in photos, it’s big, wide, and impressive.

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Arrival:  After clearing Russian immigration and customs we followed the smooth Russian tarmac to a dusty gate.  The tarmac ended, a Russian guard opened the swing gate, and a bumpy dirt road bounced off into the distance.  We followed it for several kilometers and it wound down to one of the largest border posts we’ve seen.  After Magda’s wheels were sprayed against nasty Russian things, we were waved onto the main concourse, where we were the only car there.  No doubt compensating for lack of activity, no less than three separate officers insisted on inspecting Magda, glovebox, boot, roof tent, helping themselves to chewing gum on the way.  “You try to sell car in Mongolia?” the guard asked me, narrowed eyes watching me carefully.  “Nah” I replied, “I wouldn’t get a decent price”.

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Day 1:  Roads snake off into the distance, criss-crossing the valley below.  We catch up with a four wheel sand buggy blowing oily blue smoke out the back, and pull up alongside to see if they are ok.  Part of the Mongol Rally from London to Ulaanbaatar, they tell us they going to retire at Olgii, the same town we are heading for.  We offer oil for their engine, but they are stocked up, and we wish them luck and push on.  A few hours later we arrive in Olgii and in a burst of enthusiasm stay at a Ger camp for about $6 each.  It’s chilly and a barking dog orchestra across the town goes most of the night.  Gers might be more appropriate for the wilds rather than the towns…

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First Camp:  Mongolia is like a giant four wheel drive park.  We set 4:30pm (ish) as our ‘time-to-find-a-camp’, and looking up the sides of the valley we were travelling through, we spied a level spot, turned away from the dirt road, and climbed.  Snow capped mountains either side of the valley, a beautiful lake, a few tiny white Gers in the distance, and the rest of the valley was ours.  We cooked up rice and canned beef (the only meat that had been available in the towns), and sat down to the best view of the trip so far.

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Day 2:  Heading for Hovd we were vaguely surprised to pass a bright yellow 1972 Citroen 2CV.  We were even more surprised to see it sticking like glue behind us.  How humiliating to have a 40 year old 600cc air cooled car keeping up with Magda across Mongolia.  If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and we loved meeting father and son Huub and Milan from Holland.  Later the same day we arrived at the bridge to Hovd, but in Mongolian style the bridge had just closed, and no one seemed to know when it would reopen.  Following the locals to the side of the fast flowing river it became clear that the locals had no idea how to cross it either.  In the absence of other options we decided to try a 24km detour north of the town across the river itself.  One section of the river was deep enough that Magda towed the 2CV as a precautionary measure (dignity restored ;).  After an hour of following the GPS and consulting the Mongolian herders we made it across the other side, and finally to Hovd.   Just another day on the road in Mongolia.

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Goats, as far as the eye can see

No through road

No through road:  Yaks, Goats, Cows, Camels, Sheep, Horses, gazelles, prarie dogs, eagles, vultures, dogs…. Where ever we were there was some type of animal crossing the road in their own time, at their own pace.  Tragically, all animals in Mongolia are deaf, and are completely oblivious to horns, yelling, or any other type of encouragement to move.  Relax, it’s Mongolia.

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Camels:  Andres loves camels.  Every sighting of camels would require a stop, photos, and Andres attempting to hug a camel where possible.  What I love about the pictures above is the chaos and terror that Andres has created in the camel population, as they flee in the background.  He just wants to hug them!

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Camping spots

Camp fire

more camping spots

Camping Spots:  Over the next two weeks we would camp where ever we pleased.  Few fences and few people meant much choice.  Our preference was for views, and we would often point Magda’s nose uphill and climb until we had the perfect view.  After setting up Magda we would often go for an evening hike to the top of the nearest hill, and ‘earn our spritz’ (as Rob and Deb would say).  Fires where there was wood, which wasn’t all that often.

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Um, who's helping?

1 mechanic, three reviewers ;)

The national passtime:  Changing tyres.  A regular occurrence on the road would be cars, trucks, buses replacing tyres.  We survived about 4 days before our first occurred, travelling at 90km/hr trying to skim across the top of the corrugations.  We managed to do enough damage to the tubeless tyre that a tube needed to be fitted.  Luckily we were approaching the ‘Mongol Rally Workshop’ at Altai where the rally cars would regularly be patched mid way across Mongolia.  Much spitting and swearing later the tyre was back on the carrier.  We thought we were safe when we hit the tarmac nearing Ulaanbaatar a week later, but we were wrong, and an evening was spent with the tube repair kit and the compressor playing tyre mechanic.

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Never a more rough looking bunch of trees have you seen.  We thought they were beautiful

grass tracks

Magda vs Mountains

Sunset bushes

Grass, bushes, mountains:  That was most of western Mongolia.  So when, after a weeks worth of driving we came upon the roughest bunch of ragtag trees you have ever seen, we were snapping away like a bunch of tourists at Disneyland.  You don’t realise how much you appreciate something until you don’t have it.

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Cartwheels

Sometimes it’s hard to keep yourself amused in the evenings…

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Off to see the Bhuds

This is the lane to be in apparently!

The Bhud's house

First of the Bhuds!

Western Mongolia is mainly Kazakh, and therefore Islam prevails.  But as we travel east Bhuddism takes over, and temples begin to appear on hilltops, mountain tops, in fact anywhere high.  The temple above was at Tsetserleg, central Mongolia, and what I loved most about this one was the “Devine Enlightenment Achievement Lane”, which was awesome because there was only one lane to choose from, so everyone was a winner!  Bhuddism is so lovely.

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Therkiin Tsagaan Lake, aka White Lake

Canyon near White Lake

Tserkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (or just ‘White Lake’ if you prefer) is located about 80 kilometres west of Testserleg, central Mongolia, at the base of Khorgo Volcano.  Our Lonely Planet book enthused that the Lake could be a ‘bit chilly’ in the morning, but it would warm up during the day.  For a penguin…It had been 1 degree overnight, and when we arrived it was a balmy 5 degrees.  For us, the Lake was also where Mongolia started to get a little boring.  After the mountains and wilds of Western Mongolia, the tarmac started about 20 kilometres past White Lake, and everything changed.  More tourists coming west from Ulaanbaatar, more traffic, and less spectacular terrain.

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Erdene Zuu Monastery is the oldest surviving Monastery in Mongolia.  It’s located near the ruins of the ancient capital of Karakorum, which was capital of the Mongol Empire in the 13th Century.  It was one of the few monasteries to survive Communist Party purges, and only became a functioning monastery again after the communist party was overthrown in the 1990s.

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Not sure how I got roped into this

Meanwhile Andres had finally caught his camel.  Or rather the camel caught him.  As we headed west we came across a range of sand dunes, with some Camel herders selling rides, so we started to pull up for Andres to get some camel love.  Before Magda had even stopped moving though we were surrounded by camels, with the various owners competing for our attention (and money).  Andres selected his camel and with a hug of the hump off he went across the sands.  Quite how I got roped into the whole ridiculous thing I’m not sure.

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These guys used to be BFFs.

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Andres about to get it from Ghengis

Ghengis, Magda and us

We continue our fascination with gigantic statues, with this one of Ghengis Khan, outside Ulaanbaatar.  You can ride a lift up the horse’s tail, and walk out onto his head!  Ace.  Also noticeable in these pics is the fact that by this stage of the trip the photos are getting a little silly.  Andres about to get it from Ghengis in photo 2, and Ghengis fixed to the top of Magda in photo 3.  You gotto keep yourself amused however you can right?

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Final campsite before Ulaanbaatar

Our final campsite before Ulaanbaatar, in a beautiful national park north east of the city.  Autumn has reached Mongolia, and for once we are surrounded by trees.  We find a deserted spot on the side of the river, and kick back in the sun.

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Magda and friends, overlanders at Oasis, Ulaanbaatar

Finally we headed to the capital.  Another city, another collection of crazy traffic, horns, and cars everywhere.  We headed for a guesthouse popular with overlanders, and found ourselves in the company of English, Germans, Austrians, all heading east, west, south.  After several weeks in the tent we arrived ahead of schedule, with some days up our sleeve for rest, relaxation, hot showers, haircuts, and some catching up on the internet.  Our Chinese paperwork is ready, and our guide will be ready on the China border for us on the morning of the 27th.  We still have a few days to get to the border, across part of the Gobi desert, but what’s a desert huh?  Apart from an almost permanent coating of dust and dirt, Magda hasn’t missed a beat, and is ready for the next phase.  Bring on China!

4 responses to “Reaching the Peak

  1. Hi Guys. Great photos to go with a great journey. Friends and I are planning similar trip Australia to Turkey for 2013. Have you had any problems with diesel fuel quality?

    • Hey Guy thanks for the comments!
      Diesel has been ok, and the car hasn’t complained about anything. Fuel filter was changed at end of Russia prior to entering Kazakhstan, and I’m carrying a couple of spares just in case.

      Suspect high sulphur content in Mongolia, the exhaust is burning white/green with a little build up. That said normal petrol in Mongolia has at times only been octane of 80, so I think diesel is definitely the pick!

  2. friggin ossim! diggin your posts. It really puts things in perspective…… South Africans in general always think that they/we’re worse off than the rest of the world, but our lives are pretty peachy and rosy compared to those Soviet countries…. From these photos one can see that Mongolian landscape can only inspire a higher sense of spirituality… looking forward to the next post! Drive Safe!

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