Mongolia Part 1

Tashanta, Russia. 25th September 2014.

Mongolia has two claims to fame in the minds of most people. Firstly, it represents a place that is about as far away as it gets, as in ‘It might as well be in Outer Mongolia’. Secondly, the Mighty Mongol Hordes, who swept across Asia and into Eastern Europe, slaughtering or conquering everyone in their path.
Putting perceptions aside for the moment, Mongolia is a remote country and is the second largest landlocked country, after Kazakhstan. It is also the worlds least populated – by humans at least. Thirty percent of the population is still nomadic and there is almost no arable land. It is vast and empty, with a small population and yet in the 13th Century it produced a leader who became synonymous with a huge empire, Chingghis Khan. As well as being a brilliant general, he was also an effective diplomat, and it was this skill as much as any other that enabled him to rule such a large territory. In fact it was his Grandson who ruled over the largest contiguous empire known to the world, having conquered China and formed the Yuan Dynasty. From Ukraine to Korea and Siberia to Vietnam, over 100 million people lived within it.
As with all things, time brings change and eventually the Yuan Dynasty collapsed and Mongolia went back to tribal rule. Inner and Outer Mongolia were absorbed in to the Chinese Qing Dynasty and Buddhism became the national religion. Internal problems in China enabled Outer Mongolia to declare independence in 1911 but it then came under Russian influence during the 1920’s and became a Soviet state in 1924. It finally regained independence in 1990.
Under the Qing Dynasty Chinese were not allowed to settle in the country so it retained the Mongol way of life. Not so under Stalin, who destroyed most of the monasteries and killed over 30,000 monks.
Mongolia has a large mining industry (21% of the economy), with nearly half the population involved in agriculture and herding. Despite its reputation for being vast, empty steppe, over 11% of the country is forested.
One of its less attractive claims to fame is having the world’s coldest capital. Ulaanbataar has an average annual temperature of zero degrees. It is also one of the most polluted.
But despite its recent modernisation as a country, it is still a destination of choice for the adventurous traveller and particularly for the Adventure Traveller. I was thrilled to have arrived there. The accounts of previous motorcycle travellers still spoke of vast steppe, trackless wilderness, Ger living herding families and wild but beautiful countryside.
I headed away from the border on a road that was quite rough but after about twenty kilometres it turned into smooth asphalt , no different to the one on which I’d arrived. Plenty of steppe but nothing trackless about the regular white line down the middle of the road. Apart from an unfinished section as I went up a hill, the road held good until the first town. Just before I entered it a guy standing next to a bike at the side of the road waved me down. I assumed he wanted help, broken down maybe, but he actually wanted to invite me to his house for chai. I had a feeling chai would become lunch and money would have been expected to change hands, so I declined. Olgiiy, the first Mongolian town I have seen, was quite large and had loads of petrol stations. There seemed to be two, or even three, on almost every junction. I filled up and was pleased to have someone do it for me. No messing about with pre-payment as in Russia, just sit back and watch it flow. Then pay, of course, about the same price as in Russia – 65p per litre. This town looked busy and interesting so I was looking forward to a chance to walk around one of them. As I left I had to stop at a barrier for a police check. Name, passport, where are you going etc. I wondered how common this would be and also what the point of it was, given that people could take dozens of different tracks across the steppe and avoid the checks completely if they chose to.
I was aiming for the next town down the line, Khovd, so I didn’t hang about in Olgiiy. I found a really nice place to stop for some lunch. A deep blue lake, which I could ride down to and sit beside. Sit on a rock and watch the herons across the way while I nibbled. A nice, calm, place which was clearly well liked judging by the piles of empty bottles I saw there. Shame.

Lovely lake at lunchtime.

Lovely lake at lunchtime.

After about fifty kilometres the road changed from asphalt to hard packed stone although still up on a raised causeway. Eventually that ran out and I was onto a plain old dirt road. Sometimes loose stones, sometimes hard packed, sometimes sand. The terrain became more hilly and the track twisted up and down to flow around them. Some sections were very stony and tough to ride. Some places were boggy and I had to ford a couple of small rivers. I even had a severe ‘moment’ in some soft sand but managed to hang on and keep moving forward (mostly). I was starting to like this but was glad I’d fitted some decent off road rubber.

Wearing his winter coat.

Wearing his winter coat.

About twenty five kilometres outside Khovd I came across a young Mongolian with a broken down bike. There was no spark and his battery was flat. I linked his up to mine but still no go. He wanted me to help him push the bike about 500 metres across to some Gers, then give him a lift somewhere. I wouldn’t have minded the pushing but wasn’t keen on trying to carry a passenger on my crowded bike. Luckily a car came along just then. I flagged it down and my young friend seemed to know the driver. I happily left them to it.
The only problem now was that it was nearly dark. I wasn’t about to chance such a rough track without the sun to help me so I rode off up the hill beside the road and found a place to pitch my tent. I had thought I was out of sight of the road but just as I was cooking my meal a guy rode up on his bike. I think he was just curious. As far as I know the land is public in Mongolia so he wouldn’t have been the owner. We chatted a bit, as best we could, and eventually he rode off.It was nice to be out in the tent in such a wide open space and the stars overhead looked bigger. I could certainly see more of them and the Milky Way looked magnificent.

The endless steppe I'd come to Mongolia to enjoy.

The endless steppe I’d come to Mongolia to enjoy.

Once in Khovd the next morning I found a nice hotel, with wi-fi, and got a reasonable room for a couple of nights for a reasonable price. There were enough tourist sites in the area to make it worth a stopover. Communication in the hotel was in Russian, which was useful as my Mongolian language skills matched the terrain – very rough with the occasional breakdown. The Mongolian language is written using the Cyrillic alphabet so I could at least pronounce the words if not actually understand them. Listening to people speak, the words seemed to have lots of long vowels and soft consonants. I felt it would be a very hard language to learn.
In the hotel I met a young Californian guy named Matt. He had been travelling for about five years and managed to carry on his work as a Software Engineer while he did so. He used a mobile phone and worked at odd times of the night to match his clients’ needs. He’s used various means of transport, most recently a bicycle, but was planning to take a bus up to Olgiiy to buy a horse and a packhorse. He was then going to ride back to Khovd with them and decide where to go from there. I agreed to meet him later for something to eat and then went for a walk around the town.

Gers are still important even to the town based dweller.

Gers are still important even to the town based dweller.

Plenty of people still live in Gers in the town and will often have quite a large fenced off area, with two or three Gers inside it along with a brick building too. The ubiquitous pick-up truck would be parked in the yard and sometimes a couple of horses. It seemed to be a mix of ancient and modern which clearly worked for them as it was very common.
Mongolians make good use of the cheap Chinese built motorcycles too. Usually 150 or 175cc, they have a rack on the front and rear, crash bars and usually some LED lights as a bit of bling. When I was out walking I saw them at busy places in the town and it became clear that they were often used as cheap taxis. They’d be parked in groups and someone would hop on the back of one of them and the rider would carefully set off to an outlying area of the town.

Handy and tough. Chinese bikes were everywhere.

Handy and tough. Chinese bikes were everywhere.

During my first walk around a Mongolian town I was interested to see the way that businesses of the same type would often be grouped together. One street I walked down seemed to be little other than tyre suppliers (a very essential service on this terrain) but with the occasional car spares shop. Another one was all electrical and electronics suppliers. A third seemed to contain all the town’s banks. This seemed very strange to me but it makes sense really. At least you know where to go for a particular service and could easily compare prices. There was also an area where the street was lined with containers, something I was to discover was a common sight in Mongolian towns. Out of these could be bought large bags of dry goods such as rice, pasta, milk powder etc. The vendor would be sitting on a chair just outside, or just inside if it was wet, and would help the buyer load their purchases onto the back of their pick-up.

Typical market place businesses.

Typical market place businesses.

Typical market place leisure. Mongolians love a game of pool.

Typical market place leisure. Mongolians love a game of pool.

As with Olgiiy, almost every junction seemed to have two or three petrol stations around it, usually with fuel at the same price. Even though it was Sunday, there seemed to be plenty of commercial activity around and about. The junctions often had traffic lights, which seemed a bit incongrious in a town surrounded by vast nothingness.
I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by passers-by, usually teenagers or children. They’d say ‘Hello’ or ‘Hi’ as I walked past, giving me a nice smile at the same time. I discovered that they all start to learn English from the age of seven or eight and clearly like to show it off when they can.

'It's surprising who you meet when you're out for a ride', is probably what these kids thought when I asked them to pose for me. He seemed to like my hat though.

‘It’s surprising who you meet when you’re out for a ride’, is probably what these kids thought when I asked them to pose for me. He seemed to like my hat though.

The town itself has plenty of building work going on, with apartment blocks going up and new pavements and asphalt surfaces being laid. There was one aspect of the town that no amount of improvement work was ever going to change; the fact that whenever I looked down a street that reached the edge of town, not far beyond it was a mountain rising up out of the grassland, usually with a network of grassy tracks running out to it. I was pleased to be reminded that neither politics nor money was ever going to change that.
I met up with Matt later and we went in search of something to eat. It was a round trip because we ended up back in the hotel restaurant where we ate sheep, the staple diet of Mongolia. Matt had heard a rumour of some chicken but the place was closed.
He is an interesting guy, not only in terms of his experience but also in his world view. He believes that taxpayers should have the right to vote directly on what their money is spent on and if they make bad decisions they’d have to live with the consequences. He believes the technology is good enough to do it. I expressed doubts a) that the system would work and b) that the technology really is good enough. He said that a similar system already exists in Switzerland – it doesn’t, at least not in the way he thinks. The Swiss do vote more often and on a wide range of issues but they do it on paper ballots, not electronically. He strongly believes that the current system is coercion tantamount to theft, given how broken the political system is. In America I can see where he’s coming from, given the way politicians are bought by lobbyists and donors but I said that we’re not that bad in the UK yet. I also explained that we have a greater number of political parties so there is greater pluralism. But even so, his theory is an interesting one and would represent true democracy if it could ever be made to work.

Matt has found his 'bus' out of town.

Matt has found his ‘bus’ out of town.

Political discourse over and done with, we chatted about his plans for pony trekking and my plans for circulating Mongolia on my own steed. We were both looking forward to seeing this very different country, meeting its people and, literally, seeing how the land lay. One comment of Matt’s made me think. Like many Americans, he’s not very interested in history, geography is his thing. He said Asians aren’t into history much either, it’s mainly a European interest. That struck a chord and it’s worth considering the reasons behind that. Something to think about during those long road miles.

It's not unusual to see statues in Mongolian towns. This is one of the stranger ones.

It’s not unusual to see statues in Mongolian towns. This is one of the stranger ones.

Next day Matt was due to leave Khovd to pursue his search for horses. The idea had quite and American flavour to it. The pioneer kitting out for the trek west. He had discovered that a minibus was due to leave from the market square at 14.30. I was impressed that he’d discovered this given the language barrier. I was even more impressed when I learnt that he’d done it by showing people drawings of a bus and a clock. Clever lad.
I walked up there with him and once he’d confirmed the arrangements we went for a walk around the market. We called in to a shop for some supplies and I immediately noticed a strong smell, one which I had also noticed on some Mongolians. We pretty soon realised it was from the large blocks of fat that were on sale, presumably to be used for cooking. It was very strong and I wasn’t surprised that it seemed to be so difficult to wash out of their clothes.
We chatted some more while we waited for his bus to leave. Just before he went Matt asked me that crucial question that seems to trouble so many people when they talk about England. ‘Is it true’ he said, ‘that the English drink tea every afternoon at five o’clock?’ ‘Good luck Matt’ I said as I shook him warmly by the throat!
I stayed another day in Khovd, my excuse being ‘research’ but in reality I had a bit of a sniffle and didn’t feel like moving on. I tried to ask the people at the hotel about cave drawings, petroglyphs and so on. But the language barrier was too great. Trying to find GPS coordinates on line didn’t work either. So eventually I went out for a chicken meal, something I did know the location of. The waitress gave me an odd look when I asked for soup as well as the main course and when it arrived I could see why. The bowl was so big that it would have made a meal in itself but I somehow managed to get through it all.
My departure next morning wasn’t especially early but I was in no rush. The road out of town went past a check point, although not a police one. I was asked for TG1,000 and offered a ticket of some kind. I went inside the hut with my map to check directions and what with all the pantomime involved, we were all having quite a laugh.
In the end it was straight on, and I enjoyed a smooth asphalt road for a while. While the riding was easy I was thinking about my first impressions of this very different country. Generally they were good ones. The landscape is bare and wild but the mountains are quite gentle so far. It’s quite green, with plenty of domestic herds – camels, cattle and sheep. Herdsmen ride horses or the small, Chinese motorcycles. The pick up truck reigns supreme although there are some large 4×4’s around too. While some of them are a bit old, none of them are as battered as those I saw in the poorer parts of Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. The hotel was nice enough although the plumbing was a touch 3rd world. Nothing worse than other places I’d been though.

This socket could take at least three types of plug, including a British 13 amp.

This socket could take at least three types of plug, including a British 13 amp.

The towns are thriving places and are being extended and improved. During my walks I saw schools, colleges and theatres. They often have a central square, usually with a statue or two. Not surprisingly the most popular subject is Chinghis Khan, the second most popular is the horse. The school kids look smart and would often say ‘Hello’ or ‘Hi’ as I walked past. Keen to show off their English which they start to learn at about seven or eight years old. The adults seemed pretty much indifferent to Matt and I but would return a greeting. Very little English is spoken.

Horses but where's the box?

Horses but where’s the box?

One thing I was surprised to see, at least the first time, was a pick up truck with about five horses on the bed, standing alongside each other in a head/tail/head type of pattern. They didn’t seem in the least concerned by this but I just had to stop and take a photo. As time went on I saw more of them and when I reached a small town I could see why. There seemed to be some kind of event going on as there was a stage and sound equipment being set up. I reckoned that the two were connected but I had no idea how. Possibly some kind of market or fair.
I camped that night, sheltering among some low mounds about 500 metres from the road. What an experience that was! At 10pm all was calm but by 4am I was in the middle of a howling gale. My attempt at finding shelter was a massive fail! I got up when it became light and managed to win the wind/tent/packing away battle. I’d had plenty of time to lie awake planning a strategy for it, which worked I’m pleased to say.
One of the problems with off road tracks is that they often develop a ‘washboard’ surface. This has the same effect as might riding across a corrugated iron roof and is almost impossible to deal with. The only way is to ride extremely slowly or fast enough to ‘float’ across the corrugations. They really hammer the suspension of the bike as it tries to keep up with the rapid changes in surface – and fails. The reason they develop is the way that the suspension of the heavier vehicles hammers into the soft road surface and builds up small ridges. It is a bone jarring, teeth loosening experience and this is one of the reasons why there’s always several alternative tracks to choose from.

If you want to get across it, you ford it.

If you want to get across it, you ford it.

It was while I was taking one of the alternative tracks that I realised it had drifted away from the main ones and was heading off in the wrong direction. I’d already had an ‘off’ in some soft sand but even so, I decided to head across some open terrain to join back up with the main track. It was fairly hard sand interspersed with small mounds that had plants growing in them. Inevitably I got tangled up in one and fell over again. This time the bike came down on my leg. I was lying half face down with my leg trapped beneath the pannier and my other leg still across the bike. I managed to release the straps that held my large bag on the back and got that out of the way but the bike was still too heavy to lift up sufficiently to pull my leg out. ‘OK’ I thought, ‘let’s summarise’. Here I am in the wilds of Mongolia, not even on a track and too far from the ones I was riding between to be seen from either of them. The bike was lying on my leg and I couldn’t pick it up. On the bright side I wasn’t injured, I had food and water with me and I was very glad I had a soft pannier lying on my leg rather than hard metal one. In the end escape was easy. After more heaving and straining from my position half sitting and half laying across the bike I decided to lift my free leg across the bike and once they were both on the same side I was able to just slide out from underneath it. Talk about making a drama out of a crisis! I picked the bike up, made and drank a coffee and carried on.
Eventually I got to the town of Altai and settled on a hotel after some scouting around. None of them had internet and although there was an internet café it was shut. I’m guessing that was because of the power cut that was in action when I arrived and for the same reason none of the ATM’s worked either. ATM’s are infernally useful and intensely annoying at the same time. They’ve completely replaced travellers’ cheques and money exchange places but they can be very frustrating too. Many of them only give out relatively small amounts of cash so visits sometimes need to be frequent and that can cost dearly if your bank charges for for their use, as mine does. So a certain amount of forward planning is required if I’m going to eat and sleep. Outside of Europe cash is king in most places and credit cards merely bring forth a puzzled look followed by arms crossed in the shape of an X, the universal sign of ‘Sorry sunshine, you’re out of luck’.
One thing I’ve discovered about Mongolia is that they clearly have far more sand than duck down, because that’s what the hotels seem to fill their pillows with. Maybe they’re pandering to the visiting nomad, who’s used to sleeping with his head on a rock, but I know I didn’t like it much.
Next morning brought forth a visit to a greasy spoon café, where the ladies of the family merrily took the mickey out of my request for a knife to eat my breakfast with. Come on ladies, you can’t cut gristly sheep with a spoon. It also brought forth a working ATM which would release a sensible amount of money – TG80,000, which is around £27. It doesn’t seem like much but it goes a fair way in terms of food although not in hotel rooms, last nights being TG45,000. So I hit it three times to make sure I had enough.
Further on along the street I met three elderly ladies all dressed up in their traditional Mongolian outer garment, the Deel. These are a type of warp around coat and can come in summer or winter weights and be made of wool, silk, cotton or brocade. They can even be fur or leather. These ladies were wearing brocade Deels and were clearly on their way to an event of some kind. They were more than happy to pose for a photo for me. My mood was lifting in the chilly morning sunshine.

Three lovely ladies in their Deels.

Three lovely ladies in their Deels.

Then I bumped in to a couple of English girls and guys who were taking part in the Mongol Rally. They were part of a group who had stopped in town to get some essential repairs done before carrying on towards the rally’s finish in the capital, Ulaanbataar. The Mongol Rally can be best explained by quoting Wikipedia:
The Mongol Rally is a car rally that begins in Europe and ends in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. The principal launch is from London, United Kingdom, with subsidiary starting points in the Czech Republic. It is described as the “greatest adventure in the world”. There are three fundamental Rules of the Rally:
1.The car must be small and rubbish
2.Teams are totally unsupported
3.Teams need to raise at least £1000 for charity
The rally is designed to be an adventure for the participants, and not a traditional rally/race. The organisers (“The Adventurists”) are careful to point out that racing on highways is illegal, and that no recognition is given to the first finisher. There are other differences from mainstream rallies, particularly the fact that no support team is provided and no other arrangements are made such as for accommodation. Indeed, the diminutive vehicles are deliberately inappropriate for the task, in the adventurous spirit of the rally.
On average, between 250 and 300 teams enter the rally annually. Most teams have 2-4 people. For the first time ever, a team from Malta took part in the 2014 Mongol Rally.
More details here, if you’re interested. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mongol_Rally
The people I met were waiting while a mechanic reattached the rear subframe of their Fiat Panda back to its chassis. We chatted a while and listening to some of their tales of their journey across Iran and Central Asia, I was starting to feel like a wimp. It was nice to have a chat in English with Charles, Lyle, Helen and Kerri and I wished them well on their journey.

Some of the rally crews.

Some of the rally crews.

All my business done, I got ready and headed off. On the way out of town I passed a garage which had a big ‘Mongol Rally’ banner across the front of it. Gathered outside were a group of about ten rallyists, including those I’d met earlier. Of course, I stopped for another chat. The Fiat had been repaired and they were waiting while the mechanic did a ‘cut and shut’ welding job on some front coil springs which would then replace the broken ones on one of the other cars. A nice bit of ‘make do and mend’ going on there. Amongst the group was a woman from Singapore named Li. She’d decided to undertake the rally on a Honda XBR125, a 125cc road bike. She’d had a tough time riding on the sand – I could really relate to that – and had struggled with the cold too. Much respect to her. Although the rally rules limits two wheelers to 125cc I think I would at least have chosen a trail bike!

Li's Honda XBR125. More suited to the city commute than rally action.

Li’s Honda XBR125. More suited to the city commute than rally action.

Once the asphalt came to an end the road deteriorated into a twisty, rocky, steep, stony, sandy, washboarded mess. I couldn’t believe this was the main road between Altai and the capital. I couldn’t begin to imagine how trucks got along it. Some of the rallyists had left before me and I came across them after a while, stopped at a junction unsure of which way to go. I was happy to stop and enjoy a rest and share my biscuits while we discussed the options but eventually a local came along and we asked him. Problem solved.
They roared off again, clearly enjoying their competence on the rocky, sandy trail, I proceeded with a good degree of ‘falling off will often hurt’ caution.
The road continued to be a challenge, very stony, and progress was slow. There were often huge piles of boulders at the tops of the hills, left there by glaciers I imagine, and worn into interesting shapes by the weather. It was when I stopped to photograph one of them that one of those weird events occurred that makes me wonder what it is that drives the universe.
I put the camera away, put the bike into gear and the clutch cable snapped. Bugger! No problem as I had a spare taped into place alongside the original, ready to deal with exactly this event, as any sensible bike rider does. All I needed was the 12mm spanner from my tool tube which ………. was no longer on the front of the bike where it ought to be. ‘Bugger!’ was not a powerful enough word to respond to this situation so I dug deep and sorted out a few appropriate ones. You’ll have to use your imagination. This was serious. No tools meant being unable to deal with punctures or any other kind of breakdown. Not good in the middle of nowhere.
I managed to change the clutch cable without the spanner as the adjuster nuts weren’t too tight and I could undo them with the pliers on my penknife. I was thinking back while I was doing it and remembered hearing and feeling a particularly hard knock from a rock thrown up by the front wheel. It was only a few kilometres back and I felt certain that was where the tool tube had been damaged and fallen off. Clutch cable now replaced, I went back and within a kilometre I saw the tube lying on the ground, not even as far back as I expected. I reckon the rock had broken one bracket and it had taken a little while for the weight of the tube and movement of the bike to do the rest. The tools had even stayed secure inside the broken tool tube. Was I relieved? You betcha!
I camped nearby and spent the cold evening wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t stopped to take that photo. The cable would still have broken but probably several kilometres further on. It is likely I wouldn’t have had such a clear memory of where the damage had been done and may not have ridden back so far, or had the daylight in which to do it, with disastrous results. It was just coincidence and good luck, nothing else, but there’s nothing wrong with being grateful to whomever, in this case that large rock. So thanks for being there for me rock. You Rock!

My favourite rock.

My favourite rock.

A frosty start saw me continuing along the stony track. The riding was getting very technical and I was enjoying it a lot. It reminded me of some of the trails I’d ridden up in the Yorkshire Dales. For a while I found myself riding along the path of an ancient glacier. There was an area of completely bare, grey, stony dust with no plants of any kind. Up to 100 metres wide in places, running between low hills. It looked more moonscape than landscape and it clearly carried a lot of water at times judging by the water run-offs. The track ran along this for about two kilometres and had some steep, tough climbs to deal with. Mongolia has over two hundred and fifty sunny days per annum and I was enjoying another one of them. The time of year meant that the wind, when I was exposed to it, was quite chilly but working my way over the terrain kept me warm enough. Suffice to say I was really enjoying the riding.

Wide, dry and very stony.

Wide, dry and very stony.

I stopped for fuel in one of the towns I came to then went looking for a café. I saw a huge supermarket and eventually found a café within the complex. I recognised the word for Goulash on the menu and it was really nice and fresh, with, unusually, no gristle in the meat. I was just finishing up when one of the rally guys came in. They had stopped for supplies at the supermarket and had seen the bike. We chatted for a while before they roared off towards the capital, and that was the last I saw of them.

'Rally' cars. Just as unsuitable as the Honda XBR.

‘Rally’ cars. Just as unsuitable as the Honda XBR.

I was heading for Arvayheer, a sizeable looking town where I planned to rest for a couple of days before heading off southwards into wilder country. It ought to be reachable before dark, depending on the road. Even so, I made sure I had plenty of supplies in case I had to camp again. As it was the road out of town was asphalt and stayed that way all the way there. It was getting colder and I was riding along dreaming of a cheap hotel with a hot bath and wi-fi. And all my dreams came true. At the second hotel I tried as soon as I walked in the lobby I saw the sign announcing wi-fi, the room was only TG20,000 (about £7) and was nice and big with ensuite bathroom. I booked in for two nights and began to relax. There was no hot water until 8pm but the bathroom had condoms in it!!
Reflecting on the day had me thinking that although I was very much enjoying the sometimes tough riding I was amazed at the condition of the roads. They must be pretty much impassable in winter, especially the water crossings. That river bed route I came along must be full of water for months. But maybe the dry climate means that it doesn’t snow very much here. I hope not, for their sake.

Taxi motorcycles. I love the crash helmets!

Taxi motorcycles. I love the crash helmets!

Arvayheer is quite a busy town and is getting bigger. It’s another place with plenty of building and infrastructure improvements taking place. On my walk around I counted seven hotels of various standards. There is a busy market place, with a good variety of shops and some small shopping malls – really just large shops with small shops and stalls inside. I was pleased to see that the mobile phone stalls also had plenty of spare parts for sale too. No throwing away of still usable parts. A very good thing to my mind and I imagine it helps to keep less well off Mongolians connected. Everybody seemed to have a mobile phone and they have become almost indispensable in developing countries.

Repair rather than dispose. Mobile phone parts.

Repair rather than dispose. Mobile phone parts.

Many of the goods on sale came from China, which was no surprise given its proximity and their shared history. Close to 30% of Mongolia’s trade is with their large neighbour to the south. I had noticed that most of the goods on sale in the small shops and supermarkets were fairly inconsequential. What I mean by this is that there were lots of sweets, biscuits, soft drinks, some household dry goods, some toiletries but very little by way of basic foodstuffs. There would be small packets of pasta, rice, sugar etc, but that was all. This had seemed strange to me at first but once I’d walked around the market places of a couple of towns it became clear that bulk buying of these items was the way it was done. Most market places had a section with old shipping containers from which would be sold 25kg sacks of rice, flour and all those things that the small shops didn’t sell. The markets would also have butchers’ shops too. There would be some vegetables for sale, often sold from buckets or off the tops of tables and they would mostly be root vegetables. I did see cucumbers and tomatoes as well as apples and other fruit, but experience had shown me that the Mongolian diet wasn’t very varied and mostly seemed to centre around sheep. It’s likely that during the summer a greater variety would be available and it was often easy to get a salad in a restaurant, based around tomatoes, cucumber and onion. The whole situation does make me wonder about the health of the Mongolian diet and its effect of life expectancy.

One of several graves out in the wilderness.

One of several graves out in the wilderness.

On one of my off-track forays across country I’d come to a burial area, containing several graves. Reading the birth/death dates on the headstones suggested that life expectancy isn’t great but in a country as harsh as Mongolia there are likely to be many things other than diet that would affect the situation. They showed ages of 60-70 maximum, usually less. Sadly it seems that the loose ground had allowed animals to get to the corpses as I counted seven human skulls scattered about as well as other bones too. It’s a harsh life in a harsh land and it seems that death doesn’t always bring the peace it ought to either.

I counted seven skulls lying around, plus various other bones.

I counted seven skulls lying around, plus various other bones.

I left Arvayheer having managed to finally get rid of the sore throat that had bugged me for the last few days. On the way in to the town I had passed some kind of shrine so I diverted back to take a look at it. I had assumed it was Buddhist but when I went to look at it I wasn’t too sure. I later learned that it was a memorial site dedicated to Morin Tolgoe or Horse’s Head. Arvagarkheer was the fastest horse in an important race of over 1,000 horses sometime in the late 18th century and the town is named after him. The memorial is also a Buddhist shrine and has 108 animal related Stupas, which surround a statue of the horse. All of this underlines the importance of the horse in the culture of Mongolia.

Memorial to a horse.

Memorial to a horse.

The horse the town is named after.

The horse the town is named after.

I had plans to ride across country to the southern town of Dalandgadzad from where I would venture out into the wilds of the Gobi desert. I planned to follow some roads which were marked in yellow on the map but in dust on the ground. I felt well rested and was up for the challenge, the first one of which was to find the right track! Some of the other roads out of town had signposts and as the one I wanted was a through route I was hoping it would have one too. Fat chance! I took a track that seemed to head where my GPS compass said I needed to go but it soon wandered off course. I stopped at a Ger and asked its occupant which way to go. He directed me back the way I had come then indicated that I should loop around the side of the hill. I had great fun crossing a fast flowing river that was in two parts, presenting me with a nice challenge. I never did find the track I’d planned to take but every time I came to a divergence I just took the track that seemed to head where I needed to go. Sometimes they were obviously well used, mostly they weren’t. Often they’d just go to a herder’s Ger camp so I’d have to turn back. Eventually, after another track petered out just past a camp I decided that I could be zig zagging around all day so I just carried on over and around the hills, following my compass rather than a track. I knew that if I kept going straight I would eventually meet one that would lead me to my destination. Mongolia is like that. And I was right. Seven or eight kilometres later I joined a small track, which then joined a larger one and eventually I arrived at the town I’d been heading for. That interlude was great fun. The riding wasn’t tough but I really enjoyed the feeling of not knowing where I was or whether my judgement was correct.
I stopped for fuel and got a photo of a local who looked like a bit of a ‘character’ with his very decorative Deel, his cowboy hat and his goatee beard that he had grown off centre. But I couldn’t find a café, much to my disappointment. I had been told there was one in the town but it eluded me. I was cheered up by the ‘Hello’s’ and ‘How are you’s’ that some of the local children said to me as I walked past, keen to practice their English.

I just love the individuality of this guy, especially that Goatee.

I just love the individuality of this guy, especially that Goatee.

So I carried on and after a while I saw a good camping spot, not completely out of sight of the road but far enough away. Even so, I had just got the tent up and was starting to cook my meal when a local rode up on his bike and sat down for a chat. I think he may have been suggesting I came to stay with him but I declined as I didn’t want the hassle of packing up my tent and gear. He pulled out a strange looking pipe which I thought at first was some kind of socket spanner. The stem looked to be a steel tube and the bowl looked like a socket. We enjoyed a couple of puffs on it and I offered him my tea to drink. He tried it but clearly didn’t like it. But he did ask me if I had anything to drink. He was chatting away about this and that, with me grinning at him like a fool because I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. After a while he got up to go and I took a few photos before he left. That was an enjoyable little interlude even if we couldn’t actually understand one another.

My campsite visitor.

My campsite visitor.

I finally made it to Dalandgadzad, my target town. I’d really enjoyed the ride down and especially some of the challenging terrain I’d had to tackle. My ability to ride in soft sand was improving – as much out of necessity as anything. I was feeling good about everything and was more than ready to venture off to explore some of the local sights.
There is a technique to riding in soft sand that requires a very counter-intuitive approach. The front wheel tends to get grabbed by the sand and then starts wandering off course. The instinctive thing is to slow down and try to control it. The effect of slowing down transfers the weight of the bike onto the front wheel, which has no grip, so over you go. The technique requires you to stand up on the footpegs, hang your bum back over the rear of the bike and opening the throttle. Although the front wheel will still flap around, because there’s less weight on it the bike will keep going forward, more or less where you want it to, driven by the grip from the rear wheel. It’s very unnerving at first but it’s either that or paddle very slowly through the sand, still with the risk of bike and rider lying down together in a tangled mess.
I stayed in Dalandgadzad four nights, spent in three different hotels. It may seem strange to some of you, but even though I’m out in the wilds I still feel the need to be able to get online whenever I can. It frustrates me when I know there’s wi-fi available but I can’t get access to it. It goes without saying that if I’m in my tent in the desert it doesn’t matter but conversely if it’s there I want it!
So when I arrived in town and found a reasonable hotel I was miffed that they didn’t have wi-fi but cheered up when the woman there offered me a dongle to use instead. Good enough, or so I thought until I found it wouldn’t work. I went to find the woman to let her know. She was in the snooker room, just clearing up after a game some guys had been playing. She was carefully polishing the balls before putting them back in the box. Very impressive. When I explained my predicament one of the snooker players said ‘No problem, we’ll go out to the airport’. Eh, what? So three of us bundled into a BMW and a young guy ‘drove’ us out there. He had clearly never driven a manual car before as he kept trying to pull away in 4th gear and, just for good measure, used the windscreen wipers as indicators. Fortunately it wasn’t far away and when we got there I discovered that one of the snooker players was the airport manager and the one who spoke English had come down from Ulaanbataar to train the airport fire fighters. Mongolia has a network of small airports, all centrally organised from the capital, the only place where international flights land. They use fifty two seater aircraft and there are one or two flights per day out to the local ones.
I was offered the use of the manager’s secretary’s laptop and when the dongle worked OK in it the manager insisted I take it back to the hotel with me and borrow it for the night. What generosity! Back in his office the vodka bottle came out. They insisted I had some because I was ‘their guest’. So I managed to get through a glass and I have to say it was quite nice! I quite enjoyed the buzz it gave me. We all chatted about various things, mostly in English but sometimes using a bit of Russian, before we eventually went back to the hotel. I was to return the laptop and dongle the next morning. That was a great interlude and I really enjoyed the contact with Mongolians, something that had mostly been missing since I entered the country.
So on to hotel number two, where internet was available, if patchy. I spent the day planning a little trip I had in mind. I wanted to go out into the Gobi desert and see the really big dunes, Hongorin Els, which are one of the local tourist attractions. I’d also worked out a cross country route that would loop me around northwards across some open terrain, eventually taking me back to Arvayheer. I reckoned three days riding and two nights in the tent would give me a nice taste of wilderness before heading me back towards the next sightseeing area I wanted to explore.
This hotel proved to be a bit of a disaster as well. The room had three beds, all with sandbags for pillows. There were about eight electrical sockets, only one of which worked. The wi-fi was very poor too but I could have lived with that if it wasn’t for the constant noise. There had been a celebration taking place on the night I arrived and I was woken up early the next morning by what I thought were some noisy teenagers outside my room. It turned out to be noisy adults who’d been partying all night in a room along the corridor. Becuase the corridors were lined with ceramic tiles the noise echoed along them to my room too. And just to cap it all, the internet wasn’t working anymore! Time to get out of there. When I’d booked in I’d asked if they took visa, and got an affirmative answer. When I tried to pay for the room with it I was directed to the ATM that stood in the lobby. Silly me, I should have guessed. I gave the woman some notes and waited while she scurried around looking for change. ‘Change always comes by itself’, I almost told her but eventually she got it organised and I left for hotel number three, glad to be out of there.
Once I was booked in to a nice room at the new hotel I set off on a day trip to Vulture Gorge, one of my three target sites to visit while in and around the Gobi Desert. Tomorrow I was planning to take a ride out to look for the Flaming Cliffs, an area of sandstone cliffs which turned red in the sunset. Apparently it’s still possible to find dinosaur fossils in the area.
Finding the road to the gorge wasn’t as hard as I expected. I had GPS coordinates to head for so I took a nice asphalted road out of town which went roughly in the right direction. There was a signpost along the road but it made no sense to me, being more like a local map than anything else. But I could see that the road curved around to go where I needed it to go so that was good enough for me. The asphalt lasted about 25kms before road works took over and I was diverted on to a track along side it. Pretty soon I saw another track going off to my left in the direction I needed so I followed it. Sure enough, after a couple of kilometres the track came down to a car park and some kind of visitor complex. It was clearly the entrance to the National Park within which lay Vulture Gorge. The track had wandered across some steep hills, with deep valleys in between, whose form made them look as if huge mounds of green, grassy land had been dropped onto the earth from a great height and just left there. They were quite unlike anything I’d come across so far.
Perhaps I should mention here that this gorge did not actually contain any vultures. It used to, many centuries ago, hence the name. These days its claim to fame relates to the fact that there’s a part of the gorge that never sees sunlight and it retains an area of frozen snow all year round. In fact, it doesn’t even do that any more as it has usually melted by September, the result of general warming up. So here I was, going to visit this place in September, just when the ice probably wouldn’t be there.

No shooting. OK by me!

No shooting. OK by me!

And leave the goats alone!

And leave the goats alone!

The track from the car park was surfaced with graded chippings and twisted and wound its way through some low hills. It had some very strange signs along it. No rifles; No shooting deer (it may have been goats); no blowing of horns; no felling of trees (what trees, Mongolia doesn’t have any). There were plenty of long coated cattle up on the rocks above me and signs warning of mountain goats, although I didn’t see any. Eventually I came to a car park, which was as far as I was allowed to ride. I declined the offer of a horse ride, left my crash helmet and jacket with the bike and set off for a walk on a nice, sunny afternoon. There were some signs around, explaining what flora and fauna might be seen, and people selling trinkets. There were hills all around, not especially high but some were quite steep. They had some interesting looking plants up on them too, something not seen very much in Mongolia’s barren wilderness. As I progressed, following a small stream, the hillsides became cliffs and the valley narrowed as the stream got faster. There were little animals running around all over the place, diving into their holes as soon as I approached. I have to confess I’m not sure what they were but they were clearly busy little creatures judging by the way they had worn paths into the grass.

Hundreds of these little furry things running around.

Hundreds of these little furry things running around.

The valley narrowed down, the stream developed some deep pools and eventually I found myself in a place where the sun doesn’t shine. It was very odd. There was, as expected, no ice or snow but I was happy to potter about a bit looking at the minerals in some of the rocks, many of which resembled coal. I had seen a couple of guys as I walked down who both appeared to camp out here. They spend their time carving things from wood, probably to sell to visitors. I also saw a couple of Ovoos, with some prayer flags on them. I added a stone to each as I walked past. The sheltered length of valley had a strange feel to it. No bird song and an air of coolness and timelessness. I imagine it must be quite a spiritual place to some people.

Ovoos like this can be found everywhere.

Ovoos like this can be found everywhere.

After a few hundred metres I came back out into the sunshine at which point I turned back. The path carried on and I expect there was a very nice walk to be had, up among the hills, but not for people wearing heavy motorcycle boots and riding gear. The sun was now quite warm and I was glad to get back to the car park and start the ride back to town. On the way back along the access road I saw about ten 4×4’s coming towards me so it seems the Valley of Vultures is quite popular, with people if not with vultures.
Back at the hotel I went into the restaurant to enquire about food for later. There was an American brother and sister in there and their guide, a Mongolian woman called Zaya. We all got chatting and I asked her if there was anything on the menu (only written in Mongolian) that wasn’t sheep! We all had a laugh about it and she pointed out a couple of dishes that included chicken. She also gave her phone number to the waitress with instructions that she should call her if I had any translation problems.
When I went down there later on Zaya was there again, this time with a European couple who’d been out touring round the the national park to see all the sights that I was trying to get to. They invited me to join them, which I did, having just finished my chicken dinner. Their driver was also there along with a few other Mongolians. We enjoyed a nice chat and one of the women asked me how old I was, mainly because I was reading things without having to put glasses on. I explained to her that I’d had my eyes fixed a few years previously. They were surprised to hear how long I’d been away on my own, a similar reaction to that which I’d had from others on my journey. Once again it was very nice to be chatting with ordinary Mongolian people.
I had one more place to take a trip out to, the Flaming Cliffs. I never did find them. Their location isn’t as easy to pin down as Vulture Gorge was but I tried to find the right road out of the town and failed. By the time I’d tried all the roads my GPS suggested might do the trick I’d got a bit fed up with it, so I went back to my hotel room to finish off my planning for my trip over the next few days. Perhaps I should have asked Zaya for advice the previous night but I didn’t think of it.

Roadside monument to something. I just wish I knew what!

Roadside monument to something. I just wish I knew what!

One thing I knew I’d need would be extra fuel capacity. Fuel consumption across a journey like this tends to be something that’s very hard to predict. Having a relatively small engine, my bike is affected quite badly by head or side winds.It also doesn’t really like long, fast runs. I always get the best consumption when I’m on quiet back roads where even quite steep hill climbing doesn’t seem to have any adverse effect. It’s almost as if it revels in having to work a bit. I had a five litre can as spare but I knew that wouldn’t be enough. I was reluctant to buy another one because it would only get one use. People who’ve written about such trips tend to speak of getting two litre soft drinks bottles filled up with spare fuel and strapping them on to their bike. Mongolians are into recycling in a big way – perhaps there’s money in it – and my bike was parked near to an area where the hotel stored their empty plastic bottles. I had a look through them and found three 2 litre beer bottles, which, with their screw on caps, would do the job nicely. I put them to one side ready to take them with me when I went to fill up next day. Another part of the preparation complete.
Experience had shown me that I’d use at least two litres of water for cooking and drinking so I’d bought enough bottles of water to see me through 2-3 nights in my tent, just to be on the safe side. I had my route all planned out, with some waypoints set into my GPS. I was ready to go and looking forward to my mini adventure in the Gobi.

Mongolia Part 2

Dalandzadgad, Mongolia. 21st September 2014

Desert “A desert is a barren area of land where little precipitation occurs and consequently living conditions are hostile for plant and animal life. The lack of vegetation exposes the unprotected surface of the ground to the processes of denudation. About one third of the land surface of the world is arid or semi-arid. This includes much of the polar regions where little precipitation occurs and which are sometimes called “cold deserts”. Deserts can be classified by the amount of precipitation that falls, by the temperature that prevails, by the causes of desertification or by their geographical location. Deserts generally receive less than 250 mm (10 in) of precipitation each year.”

The Gobi Desert “The Gobi Desert is a large desert region in Asia. It covers parts of northern and northwestern China, and of southern Mongolia. The desert basins of the Gobi are bounded by the Altai Mountains and the grasslands and steppes of Mongolia on the north, by the Taklamakan Desert to the West, by the Hexi Corridor and Tibetan Plateau to the southwest, and by the North China Plain to the southeast. The Gobi is most notable in history as part of the great Mongol Empire, and as the location of several important cities along the Silk Road. The Gobi is made up of several distinct ecological and geographic regions based on variations in climate and topography. One is the Eastern Gobi desert steppe ecoregion, a palearctic ecoregion in the deserts and xeric shrublands biome, home to the Bactrian camel and various other animals. It is a rain shadow desert formed by the Himalaya range blocking rain-carrying clouds from the Indian Ocean from reaching the Gobi territory. Gobi is a cold desert, with frost and occasionally snow occurring on its dunes. Besides being quite far north, it is also located on a plateau roughly 910–1,520 metres (2,990–4,990 ft) above sea level, which contributes to its low temperatures. An average of approximately 194 millimetres (7.6 in) of rain falls annually in the Gobi. Additional moisture reaches parts of the Gobi in winter as snow is blown by the wind from the Siberian Steppes. These winds cause the Gobi to reach extremes of temperature ranging from –40 °C (–40 °F) in winter to +50 °C (122 °F) in summer.The climate of the Gobi is one of great extremes, combined with rapid changes of temperature of as much as 35 °C (63 °F). These can occur not only seasonally but within 24 hours.”

Thanks to Wikipedia for this information.

This was the territory I was planning to head to on my mini desert adventure. My first destination was to be the Hongorin Els, the largest sand dunes in the Gobi. Afterwards I had a route planned that would take me northwards, across country and back to Arvayheer, and then further north towards Khakhorin, where lie the ruins of Mongolia’s ancient capital, Karakorum. When I left the hotel I had three beer bottles hanging off the back of the bike, ready to be filled up with the extra fuel I needed. The plastic caps had small handles on them which I’d passed my luggage straps through. It must have looked really weird but I wanted to fill them before I strapped them on properly. At the garage the woman there looked at the bottles and made a crossed throat gesture, clearly indicating that she wasn’t going to be putting petrol in them any time soon. So what happened to all those tales about intrepid travellers carry their spare fuel in old Coke bottles? Ah, maybe she was teetotal and didn’t like me using beer bottles? Or perhaps the authorities had clamped down on such antics. Either way, I now had no way of carrying the extra fuel. There were three guys at the garage, all laughing like drains at the sight of me – and I have to say I don’t blame them. Eventually one of them calmed down enough to find me an empty four litre oil can, which I got filled, so I had some extra fuel although not quite as much as I had wanted. However they did confirm there was fuel in Bayandalay, the next town down the road.

I never did work out what this signpost meant.

I never did work out what this signpost meant.

Leaving behind some highly amused Mongolians, I took the same road out of town as had taken me to Vulture Gorge except that this time I didn’t turn off. When the asphalt turned to gravel at the roadworks, I followed it. I saw several tankers parked on the top of a hill and had already passed two, and I concluded their role was to supply the roadworks vehicles. At Bayandalay I topped up the tank then took to the track that led to the dunes. As predicted by one of the people at the hotel, the track began to cross plenty of dried up waterways. In fact it was criss crossed with them and my speed dropped right down. Most of the terrain I was to cross fell within the Gobi Desert but as described above, would not necessarily be sandy. But the route out to the dunes definitely was, and became tougher as I got closer. About 72kms out of Bayandalay I came to a clearly defined track that turned off due north, the direction I needed to go next day. It tied in with the information on my map so I way-marked it on my GPS to make sure I could find it again. I was quite confident I would because, unusually for Mongolia, the track to the dunes was quite easy to see on the ground with not too many alternatives. But it was a tough one, with those deep and dry waterways to find a route across and evermore encroaching sand into what had been stone and some grass. I dumped the bike in loose sand three times in quick succession, each time needing to remove my bags from the back of the bike before I could pick it up. One of my mantras when choosing this bike was to only take one that I could pick up by myself. I became very pleased that I had stuck to that.

The first 'off' of my Gobi trip. Sadly, not the only one.

The first ‘off’ of my Gobi trip. Sadly, not the only one.

As I neared the dunes, now getting ever taller, I came to several tourist Ger camps. I stopped at one of them but no one was around. I pushed on past them, dropped the bike for a fourth time and decided I’d had enough for the day. The sand around me was mostly hard packed so I found a fairly stone free area and pitched my tent. The day had been warm but it was colder now and dark by 19.30. I took some photos of the high dunes, not all that far away from me, and settled down for the night.

On each Mongolian camping occasion so far, I’d had some Mongolians come to visit to check me out. This time, despite being quite close to several large camps, I was left alone. Just the scuttling sounds of the desert animals to keep me company. Too many other tourists for me to be an object of curiosity I suppose, but I’m not complaining.

Desert sunset.

Desert sunset.

It was chilly but sunny when I woke up and I still wanted to get right down to the dunes. I loaded up and set off down the track and within 500 metres I was sprawled in the sand once again. Bugger! I tried to pick the bike up without removing the bags off the back and nearly did it. But only nearly. The end result was that in the process I overbalanced and leaned across the front of the bike. My full weight was now on the screen and I snapped it into three pieces. Double Bugger!! The screen was one of the items I’d added to the bike to improve the riding conditions. It kept wind and rain off me to a surprising degree and helped make those long road miles much less tiring. Now, due to my own stupidity (I should have taken the bags off) it was broken. It would have been tempting to hurl the pieces as far away from me as my strength would allow in a moment of anger, but I had enough sense to stow them in my panniers for later assessment.

Disaster in the desert!

Disaster in the desert!

By now my ambition to get to the dunes had somewhat faded. A Mongolian came along, obviously connected to one of the tourist camps as he could speak some English. ‘Where the hell were you when I needed you?” was my immediate thought. But I asked him how far the dunes were and what the track was like. “Ten Kilometres and sandy” is the summary of his reply. Decision made. I turned back and found the track that would take me back to my northward turn off and got stuck in to staying upright. I’d seen the spectacle of the dunes, albeit from a distance. It would have to do.

This was as close as I got to the Hongorin Els, about 10kms away.

This was as close as I got to the Hongorin Els, about 10kms away.

You might wonder how it’s possible to keep coming off under the same circumstances without learning how to avoid it. I know I did. But a new day and some fresh determination got me across the same terrain that I’d ridden yesterday and this time the horizon remained where it was supposed to. I was even able to see some of the marks I’d left in the sand as I fell. I mentally gave them the finger as I rode past. Keeping in line with the direction my GPS was telling me to go, I was nearly at my northwards turn off when I saw several 4×4’s parked at the side of the track. I stopped to say hello to a crowd of tourists. Half a cup of coffee was shoved into my hand, along with a very welcome biscuit. We chatted for a while and I discovered they were all Israelis here on holiday and out in the desert to see the sights. They’d been to the dunes and were now heading for Vulture Gorge. They were keen to hear about my trip, and I theirs. Theirs had been organised by an Israeli who arranges adventure holidays to various places around the world. Most of them were around my age, some younger, and they came across as a nice bunch of people. I thanked them for the snack and carried on, lifted by having met some nice humans out in this wilderness.

Friendly Israelis.

Friendly Israelis.

I soon came to a main track that branched off in the direction I needed and then joined up with the one that I’d way marked. Things were looking up! Things went well for a while until, after about 25-30kms, the track petered out just past a group of Gers. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll just keep following the compass bearing until I get to another track, same as I’d done before.” Oh dear. Just how badly was that about to turn out!

Heading north. Good, fast riding. Just follow the compass.

Heading north. Good, fast riding. Just follow the compass.

Things weren’t too bad at first but the ground soon turned from grass to sand and then to miniature dunes with large clumps of tufted grass on them. Before long the small dunes were joined by larger ones. There was the occasional single wheel track in the sand that I could follow but they never lasted long. I fell off too many times to count – 3 or four at least – and eventually I got Doris stuck by the rear wheel in deep sand at the foot of a steep dune.

Stuck in the sand. Muscle power and sweat required!

Stuck in the sand. Muscle power and sweat required!

The clutch was starting to overheat, even more than I was, so I took the bags off the back and carried them up to the top. Then I hauled the bike out backwards, dragged it around to face the way I needed to go and rode it to the top of the dune. There was a part of me wondering if I’d ever get out of the mess I’d ridden myself in to but there always seems to be a bigger part of me that is confident enough to believe I will. And I did! It was bloody hard work but I just kept working my way across the dunes heading for what looked to be a track in the distance. I tried to be gentle on the clutch as that episode in the sand had heated it up quite a bit and the cable was quite slack. I seem to recall dropping the bike twice more before I finally came to the faint track I’d seen from on top of the dune.

Finally, a track that clearly went somewhere - once I'd managed to stay upright that is!

Finally, a track that clearly went somewhere – once I’d managed to stay upright that is!

The surface was still very soft sand, and I had to work hard to stay upright, but at least it was going somewhere. Eventually it joined up with a proper track and I was away. Was I ever pleased to be out of that! The terrain became more solid and was getting hilly, with the track twisting and winding its way among and across them. It was challenging but enjoyable technical riding and I was having great fun now, my travails among the dunes pretty much forgotten.

Weekend away? They looked to be setting things up for a party.

Weekend away? They looked to be setting things up for a party.

At one point I came the crest of a hill and saw a whole crowd of Mongolians and their vehicles in the valley below me. They were having a meeting of some kind, or so it seemed from their activities but I’ll never really know. Around the side of another hill was a smaller but younger crowd. A weekend out with the boys maybe? They certainly looked all set for having a good time. A couple of young lads came in to view, one on a horse, the other on a bike. I tried to ask them about the route ahead but they didn’t seem to understand. They asked me if I had anything to drink but I had to disappoint them on that score. The lad’s colourful Deel made a good photo at least.

Happy young guy, living his herder life.

Happy young guy, living his herder life.

The terrain became more difficult, with some sandy, dry river crossings to struggle across again. Eventually a herder’s winter shelter came in to view and the track looked to stop there. I was annoyed at this because it was heading where I needed to go but rather than turn back I carried on and was rewarded by finding that it actually carried on past the shelter. Just as well as there wasn’t really another route. I met another herder on a bike and he confirmed I was on the road I needed and that Guichin-Us, my next destination, was about 100kms away. That agreed with what my GPS said so I was very happy to hear that. Pretty soon I found a flat and relatively stone free area in which to camp. I was just brewing up when three herders arrived on two bikes and stopped for a chat. I’m pretty sure they were inviting me to stay with them but I declined as I’d already put my tent up and settled in for the night. It had been a long, tough day, with not as much distance covered as I would have liked. But ultimately I felt I’d achieved quite a lot, having had to wrestle my way out of some tricky situations over the last couple of days, albeit sometimes self inflicted.

The three friendly locals who called in to say 'Hello'.

The three friendly locals who called in to say ‘Hello’.

Three more local residents They didn't bother stopping though.

Three more local residents They didn’t bother stopping though.

I was a bit chilly during the night and had to put on my winter woollies. September in Mongolia definitely presages Autumn although the days were warm enough. I kept on the track from the previous day and eventually came to a T junction. Left or right? I chose right which took me past a Ger. I stopped and the herder seemed pleased to see me. He wanted to ride my bike. “No.” He wanted me to give him the clock off the bike. “No” again. He told me the track went to Guichin-Us although I had my doubts. Pretty soon it ended at a 2ft drop into a river bed with the compass saying it wasn’t where I needed to be. So I turned around and went the other way. This time the track dropped down in to a dried up river bed for a couple of kilometres and eventually disappeared.

Bone shaking riding.

Bone shaking riding.

The compass said it was the right direction so I kept with it. It was stony and dusty but OK until it took a sharp bend around a hill, definitely the wrong way now. So I climbed back up onto open ground and followed the compass heading until I found another track going roughly the right way. This was becoming a familiar story now and I had learnt that Mongolia would let you get to where you wanted to be if you just trusted your instincts and your compass. Oh yes, and kept out of the deep sand!

More river bed riding, but at least it was in the right direction.

More river bed riding, but at least it was in the right direction.

With about 60kms still to go I joined an obviously main track, a motorway in Mongolian terms, and opened the throttle with a feeling of joy at being able to hammer out some distance for a while. At one point the track crossed what seemed to be a dried up lake bed which had a muddy, salty look to it. Mongolia, and particularly the Gobi, has many such places. I often wondered how the herders managed to keep their stock watered but it seems that what little rain or snowfall there is manages to get stored underground and is available if you know where to look. By now I’d put my all extra fuel in the tank so was sweating a bit as whether Guichin-Us would have petrol. I needn’t have worried. Before long I was filled up and sitting in a café enjoying some soup and Goulash. That morning my GPS had told me the town was 100kms away. On the ground I covered 136kms. The GPS distance is pure line of sight so it was interesting to see the difference between theory and reality. The ups and downs, twists and turns, take their toll.

Somewhere in the distance is a bed, hot food and a shower. Somewhere.

Somewhere in the distance is a bed, hot food and a shower. Somewhere.

It was about 100kms to Arvayheer, where I planned to go back to the same hotel I’d stayed in before. The weather was getting colder and the early promise of a warm day had disappeared at the same times as the clouds had rolled in. I confidently took the track out of town that I felt was the one I needed. Not quite the right direction at first, it soon justified my confidence by veering round and speeding up. I gunned the bike up into top gear and was enjoying the ride. That was until I dumped it again. This time I don’t understand how. I came over the crest of a hill and down I went. I’d slowed down, the bend wasn’t too sharp and the surface wasn’t too loose. But I still went down. And there was no soft sand to fall on this time. No damage to the bike and a small graze on my hand didn’t really count as a disaster in my mind, so I carried on. A bit slower now, but still getting up into top gear. Just after 6pm I arrived in Arvayheer. I can safely say I had never been more pleased to see a collection of rooftops.

One of my rewards for making it out.

One of my rewards for making it out.

Back in the same hotel, with the heating on against the chill and warmed up by a nice long shower, I contemplated the last three days. I’d set myself some challenges and felt I had overcome them. I was disappointed at not getting to the big dunes and also at coming off so many times in the sand. It’s just unfortunate that top heavy luggage and loose sand simply don’t go together, at least not at my skill level. But when I did get stuck I managed to get myself out and I really enjoyed some of the challenging riding. Track Trickery was how I thought of some of the terrain I’d crossed, especially the dried up river beds and the technical climbs through the hills. I felt really good at having navigated my way across the area by compass and instinct alone and also enjoyed meeting the herders I came across. What they must have thought of me I have no way of knowing and couldn’t begin to guess. Doris handled it all well for the most part and doesn’t seem to have suffered any adverse effects. The only thing I noticed, as I was unloading the luggage, was that the rack on the back had a crack in one side of it. A small welding job was required, something to try to get done next day. So I deemed my mini adventure to have been a success and felt good about all aspects of it. Mongolia was becoming good fun and we seemed to get on well together.

A day in Arvayheer was spent loafing around, catching up on some writing and some shopping. The weather was wet and cold so I was very pleased not to be riding. I bumped into a Belgian couple who’d flown their bicycles into Ulaanbataar and would be riding some of the same roads I had. They had three month visas for China too, something that I yearned to achieve. One of the advantages of two wheels but no engine. The plan for next day was to head to Khakhorim, the town that was now near the site of Mongolia’s ancient capital of Karakorum. I researched accommodation and found a place called Family Ger Camp, which sounded interesting. My bike had been put in one of the garages around the back and I had a frustrating time trying to get it out when I came to leave. The woman at reception was busy preening herself when I asked her about the key for the garage. I’m not sure what she thought I had asked her but her response was to come out from behind the desk and stand in front of a full length mirror and preen herself even harder! I got there in the end and, once loaded, I set off. I took the main road towards the capital but then turned off across country to wards a town called Khurjirt. The track was easy riding and wound through the hills,eventually bringing me to the top of a hill that overlooked the town.

Drink and snack stop. Can you spot my bag?

Drink and snack stop. Can you spot my bag?

I stopped for a quick drink and a snack before wending my down to Khurjirt, then along the edge of the town to where I picked up a nice asphalt road that took me to Khakhorim. On the edge of town was the Erdene Zuu Monastery so I pulled up outside to have a look. I instantly realised that my rucksack was no longer on my back. I’d put it on the ground when I stopped for a snack at the top of the hill and ridden off without it. I was livid! The bag contained some important items but most valuable and completely irreplaceable was my journal. I got straight back on the bike, stopped for some fuel then hammered poor Doris all the way back to Khujirt as fast as I dared. Once I got back there I did my best to select the right route back out of it. There were several tracks leading back up the hill and I needed to choose the right one. Fortunately there was a rocky outcrop on the top of it and the track I’d come down on wasn’t too hard to spot as it happened to bend around in a recognisable way. It was all very well finding the right route back up there but would my bag still be there, two hours after I’d left it behind? Well I’m delighted to say that it was exactly where I’d put it down. It’s hard to describe my relief and the extra 120kms riding turned out to be well worth it in the end.

Here it is again, exactly where I'd left it. Phew!!

Here it is again, exactly where I’d left it. Phew!!

Back at Khakhorin I went to see the monastery again and enjoyed walking round the grounds and looking at the statues and decorations in the temples. Mongolia is a Buddhist country and, as already mentioned, suffered from the Soviet inspired attempts to eradicate the religion. It is one of Mongolia’s earliest surviving monasteries and was built around 1585 using the stones from the now deserted capital of Karakorum. Although it had a difficult history over the centuries its worst time was when it was ordered to be destroyed by the Communist Regime in 1939 as part of a purge. It was partly destroyed but the ancient walls, and the 108 Stupas that were part of it, remained along with some of the temples inside. Stalin ordered the destruction to stop because he wanted foreign dignitaries to be able to visit it as part of his attempts to convince the world he was tolerant of religions. After the war the buildings became museums.

Lovely pagoda style roof.

Lovely pagoda style roof.

Temple inside the grounds.

Temple inside the grounds.

Post communism, the complex was handed back to the monks and is now a functioning monastery once more. Some of the buildings are beautiful and are fine examples of this kind of architecture. I was fascinated by many of the statues and figures inside them.

Very decorative figures.

Very decorative figures.

Large Buddhist statue but not sure who it is.

Large Buddhist statue but not sure who it is.

I found Family Ger Camp easily enough and was shown to a Ger with four beds and a small stove inside it. I was sharing with a young French guy named Théo. The Ger had electricity in it and there was wi-fi available, albeit intermittent. The owner and his wife, Ganbataar and Suvol, had westernised the facilities as much as they could. There was a flush toilet – very rare in a small town like this – and a shower. They lit the stove in the evening and although it made the Ger warm it also filled it with smoke. A very mixed blessing. The price included breakfast and dinner so at least I didn’t need to worry too much about where to eat. There was an American staying in another Ger, name of Andy, who came from Seattle. He loved Central Asia as a place to visit although it was his first time in Mongolia. He and Théo had decided to hire a car and driver to visit a temple complex that was up in the nearby hills and I decided to join them.

Tovkhon Monastery was built on top of a mountain at 2600 metres in 1648. It was destroyed in a battle forty years later but was rebuilt. It was destroyed again in the Stalinist purges and was finally restored in 1997. It is a working monastery and its attraction for us lay in its location. It was a three hour drive across some fascinating terrain to get there. This was followed by a 45 minute walk up a very steep, wooded slope. This it itself was unusual as I hadn’t seen too many trees since entering the country.

The start of the steep path up to the temple. Woods like these had been very scarce up to now.

The start of the steep path up to the temple. Woods like these had been very scarce up to now.

Most of the buildings were quite small although typically Mongolian Buddhist in their style and decoration. None of them were open so we couldn’t see what was inside them and there was no-one around to show us. What was good though was being able to climb up on the rocky hilltop above the buildings and enjoy the fantastic view over the surrounding countryside. In years gone by some monks had become hermits and lived in caves above the complex. There were also a couple of holy routes up the hillside involving a bit of precarious climbing. We enjoyed the challenge though and had an enjoyable couple of hours up there soaking up the spiritual atmosphere. From my point of view, above all else, it was great to be in the company of intelligent and intelligible people with whom I could enjoy some decent conversation.

Excellent view from the top of the temple hill. The temple buildings are below us.

Excellent view from the top of the temple hill. The temple buildings are below us.

Andy joined us in our Ger for the evening but he was due to take the bus back to the capital next day. Shame. When we got up there was snow on the ground and all the water and sewage pipes had frozen. So much for modernity. We were back to doing it the old fashioned way. It was bitterly cold and I made use of all my warm riding gear to keep warm when we ventured out.

Theo and Andy.

Theo and Andy.

Théo and I saw Andy off and then decided to walk down to the museum which told the story of the area. It covered pre history as well as the Mongol period and gave a fascinating insight how Chinggis Khan rose to power and how his sons and grandsons held his empire and extended it.

A copy of one of the ancient cave drawings.

A copy of one of the ancient cave drawings.

There were examples of ancient standing stones as well as copies of cave paintings that had been discovered in the hills nearby. It was here that I learned about how the Mongol Empire had begun and how it had grown to become the largest land based empire known to the world. There were some informative diagrams and copies of contemporary paintings of the people involved. An excellent museum in fact, and well worth the time spent in there. And it was warm inside!

All about Chinggis Khan, the Main Man.

All about Chinggis Khan, the Main Man.

All about Khubilai Khan, his grandson. The maps show the size of the empire under each leader.

All about Khubilai Khan, his grandson. The maps show the size of the empire under each leader.

Théo wanted to see the monastery so we walked down there but stopped for a coffee in one of the cafés opposite. We bumped into a French couple inside and Théo discovered they were planning a horse trek down to one of the nearby national parks. He was keen to go with them and they agreed to meet the next day to make arrangements. I was pleased for him. He had taken a year off work and was only two weeks into his journey and already it was shaping up into an interesting time for him. Unfortunately the buildings in the monastery complex were closed as it was Sunday but we wandered around the grounds and Théo declared himself satisfied with that. We knew from the museum exhibits that the ancient capital had been sited next to where the monastery now stands so we took a walk around the area, just to get the feel of it. There’s nothing to be seen now but we could at least get some idea of the scale of it. The area it had covered was large and it would have been an impressive place to the many visitors from around the world who came there. There was a model of it in the museum and of particular interest was that there were churches from all the main religions in the city. Chinggis was keen to promote pluralism within his empire.

A model of Karakorum, the ancient Mongolian capital.

A model of Karakorum, the ancient Mongolian capital.

We bumped into a man and woman who we’d seen around the Ger camp. They were David Wilson and his assistant Eva. He is curator of the Museum of Jurassic technology in Culver City, California. He had been studying the monastery as part of one of his projects. He gave me his card and said to make sure I came to visit him when I got to America. It sounds like a very interesting place so I’ll be happy to visit him there when I can.

Back at the camp I asked Ganbataar if he had a drill. I’d decided to tackle the repairing of my screen. Given how cold it was outside I did not fancy riding anywhere else without it. My plan was to superglue it together, support that with gaffer tape and then tie the parts together with small cable ties. For that I needed to be able to make some holes. He came back later with a drill but no bits. In the end we managed to drill the holes with a nail. Technically, a mess. Practically, a perfect result. I set to glueing the pieces together. They didn’t stick too well at first but I left them over night to dry and in the morning they were solid. Whether it was exacerbated by the glue fumes I don’t know, but I suddenly found myself really suffering from the effects of the smoke that tended to escape into the Ger. The fire was essential for warmth but seemed to be slowly killing me! The snow had cleared up although it was still very cold.

I headed up to the container market in town as a I needed a few things. This was one of the biggest and most varied I’d seen on my travels. Pretty much everything was available there and although some of the containers focused on particular types of goods – car and motorcycle parts for example. Many of them sold every type of dry goods you could think of. My luggage rack had now broken on the other side and I planned to get a couple of worm drive clips to put around the cracks in an attempt to strengthen them. I also needed a new mug for when I was camping as my other one had broken. I could still use it but it was difficult. Théo had a metal mug with a lid on it which doubled as a kind of brewpot. It looked like just what I needed.

Anything and everything sold at the container market.

Anything and everything sold at the container market.

A container display of car and bike spares, including worm drive clips.

A container display of car and bike spares, including worm drive clips.

I bumped into Théo, Bori and Anais while they were food shopping for their four day trek. It was costing them EU80 each, which included accommodation but not food. They were also trying to buy a small stove. After a while I’d managed to get all the things I needed, including a smaller version of the metal cup that Théo had, so I went back to the Ger to complete the repairs on my screen. It all went well and I soon had it stitched back together with cable ties and mounted back on the bike. It looked a mess but was going to do its job.

Screen repaired and back on the bike.

Screen repaired and back on the bike.

When we initially arrived at the camp we were being called into the family Ger for our food. Over the last couple of days they’d brought the meals to us in our Ger. Suvol was about five months pregnant and I think she was suffering a bit at that time. They already had three children, a teenage boy and two younger girls. They struck me as being a bit more go ahead than many of the Mongolians I’d observed up to now. They had big plans for their tourist camp, including sports facilities. They certainly had a positive approach to their guests, doing everything possible to make us comfortable and warm, despite the weather.I thought it was a great place to stay although I think I’d only be recommending it as a summer residence!

Ganbataar, Suvol and their youngest daughter. Modern Mongolians.

Ganbataar, Suvol and their youngest daughter. Modern Mongolians.

Leaving for Ulaanbataar I was conscious that it was slightly warmer than it had been the last few days but ‘slightly’ is the key word here. In reality it felt bloody freezing and I was very glad that I’d managed to repair my screen and was very grateful to Ganbataar for his help. The road was reckoned to be good but I had been told there were roadwork related diversions every so often. And there were, some of them over 2kms long. They tended to be rough, usually sandy, but at least the effort required to stay upright kept me warm. When I stopped for a break it took me a while to feel my feet again. I even welcomed the crap 3-1 coffee that I was forced to drink, in the absence of any other kind. At least it was hot.

Ulaanbataar eventually hove into view through a heavy smog. There were some kind of digging or quarrying works taking place just outside the city. Couple the dust from those with the fossil fuel smog that hung over it as well and I knew I was going to be in for some heavy breathing, but none of the pleasure that can sometimes go with it. Part of the problem is that the city sits in a valley and doesn’t have the strong breezes that many other areas do so the smog can’t clear so easily. But on the other hand, 1.1 million people definitely created plenty of pollution. I had some approximate coordinates for Mongolia Vision, the hostel I was heading for, but they weren’t accurate enough to get me right there. My latest navigation method had been to go on Google Maps and Google Earth, locate the place I wanted and then take photos of the computer screen as well as putting the coordinates into my GPS. That gave me an image to look at on my camera, which has a zoom facility when viewing pictures.. Unfortunately I didn’t have an exact idea of where I was because on the ground the street names either couldn’t be seen or couldn’t be understood. The GPS had got me close so operating on the principle that a teenager always has the answer to a technical problem I stopped a young lad who spoke enough English to understand what I wanted. He was able to use his phone to show me where I needed to be. I wasn’t far away and soon found the hostel once I’d recognised some of the landmarks from Google earth. Mongolia Vision Hostel is a nice place, staffed entirely by women. I’ll come back to that later. They also arrange tours out to the various sights and sites, short or long depending on what the tourists concerned wanted. It was located just off Peace Avenue, which is the nicely named main street through the city. As well as the fairly common free tea and coffee, the price also included breakfast. That’s always a nice bonus as it sets the day up right. My room mate is a young South Korean guy who is trying to set himself up in an import/export business. He speaks Mongolian, Chinese and Japanese. Clever lad. It’s good to see people getting out there and using their skills.

There weren’t a huge number of things to see in the city – a large monastery, some statues and buildings and some shops. Outside of the city is a huge statue dedicated to Chinghis Khan. I’d heard about it and definitely wanted to see it. In keeping with Mongolia’s former status as a communist state, the city had a State Department Store. I don’t know how it used to look back then, but it is now a huge, seven floor edifice with everything in it in a classic department store style. I spent quite a while wandering around it and earmarked a couple of things I wanted to buy once I’d had a chance to look around the rest of the city. It fooled me into thinking things were far cheaper than they actually were, but all the labels have a discount price which applies if you buy more than one of the item. I was quite impressed with some of the prices until I realised this. Even so, I bought some things I needed once I’d checked that I couldn’t get them cheaper anywhere else. It was a fascinating experience. They used some o the methods found in Russian shops, where you selected what you wanted, went to a cashier to pay for it, then went back to get your goods.

The State Department Store by day.

The State Department Store by day.

There was a huge supermarket on the ground floor, expensive leather and cashmere clothes on the first floor, washing machines and fridges above that and so on. One thing that I thought was very clever was how the escalators moved very slowly untilstepped on them at which point they sped up. Very efficient. I enjoyed a coffee and a cinnamon cake (delicious!) in the café on the seventh floor and was fascinated by the behaviour of the teenage school kids I saw there. They were all very fashionably dressed, chewing gum, chatting and texting on their mobiles. They were generally behaving just like teenagers anywhere. Why was this so odd? Because it was the only place in Mongolia where I’d seen such behaviour. All the other towns I’d been in had youngsters that looked not much different to the adults and were often working along side them. It just struck me as strange. I was observing a group of girls chatting away and was wondering what the young lad on the horse that I’d spoken to, dressed in his Deel on the fringes of the Gobi Desert, would have found in common with them. Worlds apart I suspected.

And by night.

And by night.

Down one end of Peace Avenue can be found Gandantegchinlen Khiid,a Tibetan style monastery that was opened in 1809. Over the next 100 years a variety of extra temples were added, dedicated to various Buddhist figures. It was almost destroyed under the Communist regime but was allowed to remain, one of the few allowed to do so, as a reminder of the Mongolian culture and religion. It is now a very active place, with over 1500 monks busily doing whatever it is that monks do. One of the temples contains a 26.5-metre-high statue of Migjid Janraisig, a Buddhist bodhisattva. Confined in such a relatively small space, it looks absolutely huge and surrounded by decorative drapes and figures. No photos allowed of that one unfortunately.

Entrance to the monastery.

Entrance to the monastery.

The buildings are very ornate and there are various Buddhists artefacts around the grounds. I was able to take a look inside one of the temples just as a service was finishing. I naughtily sneaked a photo. I was interested to see all the various robes and headdresses that the officials wore. I had always thought of Buddhism as being quite an understated religion, focused on the message rather than the fripperies, but it seems not to be the case. Given the simple messages at the heart of the philosophy I felt rather disappointed to see all the fancy clothes and rigmarole. But I suppose, like most religions, Buddhism has more than one way of skinning its particular cat and I suppose people like to have ownership of it too.

Robes and hats, the paraphernalia of worship.

Robes and hats, the paraphernalia of worship.

Feed the Birds, Tuppence a Bag.

Feed the Birds, Tuppence a Bag.

Talking of cats, any that wandered inside the temple complex would have had a field day. There were pigeons there by the thousand, mobbing anyone brave or foolish enough to feed them. They were like a feathered, moving carpet and I felt they were probably more of a nuisance than a delight to both occupants and visitors. Maybe a few cats were needed to be put among them.

Parliament building with essential statue.

Parliament building with essential statue.

Earlier I’d taken a walk through Sukhbaatar Square which houses the Government Building. There were some nice statues outside with plenty of photographers keen to take a photo of you next to one – for a fee of course. Generally I was impressed with the city. It has plenty of skyscrapers and shopping centres, modern and gleaming, but also has pockets of charm and some nice open spaces. It was nice to see that the close human contact that typified business in the small towns was still operating here. I saw plenty of small street side stalls offering services such as while-you-wait shoe repairs. I had a nice conversation with Davka, the owner of the hostel. I told her how I’d noticed that many of the businesses in the various towns seemed to be run by women. We talked about the education system in Mongolia too. Generally it seems that it’s the girls who are keen to go to university and the boys are happy to be herders, labourers or whatever. In her opinion the men tended to drink too much and had no ambition. Her business employed thirty people and she hadn’t yet married or had kids, at thirty three. I was curious as to whether marriages tended to be arranged but she said people mostly married for love. Generalisations of course, and having observed some of the school boys in the city earlier, I couldn’t visualise any of them as hard drinking labourers, so I feel that things may be changing for the better among the next generation. I learnt that the average monthly income is around EU400 but because families will often work as a group that can be up to EU1,000 per family. Herders tend to be very wealthy. They sell much of their stock around this time of year and do very well out of it. That would explain the new pick up trucks and satellite dishes I’d often see outside the herders’ Gers.

First view of the man on the horse.

First view of the man on the horse.

Next day I rode the 50kms out of the city to visit the giant Chinggis Khan Equestrian statue. This is nothing short of amazing! It is absolutely huge and sits on top of a museum complex, making it look even bigger.

Wiki tells it better than I can: “The Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue, part of the Genghis Khan Statue Complex is a 40 metre (131 ft 3 in) tall statue of Genghis Khan on horseback, on the bank of the Tuul River at Tsonjin Boldog (54 km (33.55 mi) east of the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar), where according to legend, he found a golden whip. The statue is symbolically pointed east towards his birthplace. It is on top of the Genghis Khan Statue Complex, a visitor centre, itself 10 metres (32 ft 10 in) tall, with 36 columns representing the 36 khans from Genghis to Ligdan Khan. It was designed by sculptor D. Erdenebileg and architect J. Enkhjargal and erected in 2008. Visitors walk to the head of the horse through its chest and neck from where they can have a panoramic view. The main statue area will be surrounded by 200 Ger camps, designed and arranged like the pattern of the horse brand marks that were used by the 13th century Mongol tribes. The cost of the complex is reported to be $4.1 million, spent by The Genco Tour Bureau, a Mongolian company. The attached museum has exhibitions relating to the Bronze Age and Xiongnu archaeological cultures in Mongolia, which show everyday utensils, belt buckles, knives, sacred animals, etc. and a second exhibition on the Great Khan period in the 13 and 14th centuries which has ancient tools, goldsmith subjects and some Nestorian crosses and rosaries. Next to the museum there is a tourist and recreation centre, which covers 212 ha (523.86 ac).”

CG's mother is no shrinking violet either!

CG’s mother is no shrinking violet either!

I thought the two museums were very interesting but the best part was getting in the lift and then climbing the rather low roofed stairs up to the observation platform. The view from the top was amazing and when it’s finally finished, the complex will be really stunning. The statue is made from 250 tonnes of stainless steel and glistens and gleams in the sun. It looks stunning! A few hundred metres up the road is a second complex with a big statue of his mother looking towards him, ostensibly welcoming him home. That will be open next year. The circle of Gers hasn’t been completed yet either but the sites have been marked out so I could get a feel for how it would finally look.

Me and my mate Chinggis.

Me and my mate Chinggis.

He doesn't look too friendly does he?

He doesn’t look too friendly does he?

Up on the top of the statue I met a German, about my age. It transpires that he is a judge and was in Ulaanbaater to give advice to the Mongolian Government.It seems that the German judiciary give advice on legal and procedural matters to the government. That’s good to hear. We enjoyed a coffee together and a nice chat. He was due to fly home next day.

Yes, it really is as big as it looks!

Yes, it really is as big as it looks!

On the ride back I particularly noticed the amount of large 4×4’s that were in the city. It’s almost as if the city sits in a vacuum, separated from the rest of the country. About 10kms outside, pick ups reappear as do Chinese motorcycles. But once back in the urban cut and thrust, the large 4×4 is king once more (Ulaan Batterers, as I thought of them) and the pick up and bike disappear. I only saw about a dozen bikes in the city and they were all European or Harleys. The traffic was very heavy as I journeyed back and eventually I realised why. It was school run time and the streets were full of Chelsea Tractors picking up the blessed little ones. Progress for Mongolia?

While in the city I’d managed to completely avoid eating any sheep based dishes, thankfully. Pizza and some Chinese noodles had done the job. But Mongolia raises a lot of beef and I really fancied a steak. Near to the hostel was an Irish Pub ( is there a city in the world that doesn’t have one?) and I’d been told the steaks were good. How wrong my informant was. Having checked that the beef was fresh and Mongolian, I ordered a fillet steak and was served two pieces of the best steak I’d ever eaten. They weren’t good, they were absolutely delicious! I was very pleased to be enjoying such a tasty last meal in Mongolia although it wasn’t cheap by local standards, it certainly was by British ones. What a great meal! Ulaanbataar had been a fascinating place to visit. The name means Red Hero, the word ‘Red’ being used in the same way as the Russians use it, to mean ‘best’. It is certainly big and very busy. And it easily earns its place as the world’s second most polluted city. My lungs certainly thought so. Not surprisingly its more modern approach to life slowly spreads out into the country areas and I had seen the evidence of that in the towns I’d visited. The influence of the tourist industry has spread, causing more hotels to be built, but also, I believe, focussing people’s minds on their own heritage. Along with the post communist awakening, I think many Mongolians have relearned the value of understanding their heritage while also taking advantage of the modern world. In the capital the modern world is everywhere and I didn’t see so much evidence of heritage as people went about their daily business. Even the people looked different, with paler skins and finer features. The results, I’d guess, of a few generations of city living, out of the wind and the weather. There are plenty of Europeans around the city too and also Koreans. That country is one of Mongolia’s main trading partners so it’s no surprise. One thing I did find was common between the city and the country towns was that many of the shops would themselves be full of smaller shops, specialising in various goods and services, and usually run by women. As was the hostel. So I think I know where lies the main modernising force in Mongolia. When I left the city next day I had another cold ride to the border. Getting across was straight forward but took a long time. There were queues of cars and vans, most of them Mongolian. I think there must have been a staff shortage on the Russian side because the main hold up was with them. Getting out of Mongolia was easy enough especially when the border staff kept waving me forward past the queues. I was very amused by the Russians who weighed the bags of clothes that the Mongolians had in their vehicles. I had seen some of them adjusting their dress while I was waiting and it was obvious they were wearing several layers. I’m guessing they were taking clothes across to Russia with the intention of selling them and the weighing of bags was the guards’ way of placing a limit on the amount. Once back into Russia my next destination was Ulan Ude, a city that was close to Lake Baikal. I knew I wouldn’t get there that day but I pressed on, hoping to find somewhere to stay in one of the towns. And that is exactly what happened although most definitely not in the way I’d planned.

Traditional Mongolian boot, made from hundreds of cow hides.

Traditional Mongolian boot, made from hundreds of cow hides.