Trying to come up with an appropriate title could be the dilemma we faced, but it is not. After reading this, the linguistic purists amongst you may disagree with the title being an accurate reflection of the content, but it will have to do coming from the language philistine that I is, no am!
We had been considering the possible routes from Ulaan Baator westwards: North, Central and South plus the alternative of returning to Russia via the paved highway, longer but easier and after the seeing the mini Naadam we almost felt that we seen the essence of Mongolia and anything else may be anti climactic.
Anne had diligently researched the alternatives, but with so many different opinions, affected by the reporting riders’ expertise and improving road conditions year on year, there is no definitive answer. We have also heard, that a number of experienced riders have had accidents in Mongolia this year.
Anne had excluded the northern route by virtue of the multitude of river crossings, late spring and the general opinion that this is the hardest route, way beyond our meagre off road skills. The central and southern showed more promise, although stories emerging regarding the central route in the last couple of weeks have focused our attention on the southern route.
That was until we read a blog posted a few days ago of a couple, in our age group, who found the Southern route’s reported ‘packed sand’ would not pass the trade descriptions act. After battling for 90 kilometres of the 280 kilometre gap of sand and heat between the tarred sections, they wisely opted to transport their motorcycles by truck between Bayankhongor and Altai. Their description of the sand tracks sounds similar to those in the Marienfluss we drove through in NW Namibia last October in a stable air conditioned 4×4 with all of Anne’s Australian bush driving experience!
Before we read this blog post, both Anne and I have been struggling with the thought of off road riding across Mongolia: we are paved road riders, smooth tar is my favourite, hard packed dirt is fine and gravel in small doses, it brought me undone in Argentina in 2015. Sand is for beaches in my view and has no place on or as part of roads unless mixed with cement. A short roadwork excursion into sand yesterday reconfirmed my inability to cope with the surface without much practice. Anne is also concerned that, in the heat and altitude (2000 metres), she may not have the strength to repeatedly pick up the bikes as we inevitably tumble in those road conditions. The number of recent accidents we have heard of weighs on our minds.
We do not have the experience and confidence in certain forms off-road riding that we would like to have and recognise that perhaps in our younger years, pushing the envelope is a good idea, the middle of Mongolia next week not the place to start. I am sure many fine riders would disagree with me, but its my opinion and I am sticking to it. We are here to enjoy ourselves.
The dilemma we felt was: do we push on and attempt to ride across the unpaved 280km section, remembering our Russian visa time constraint, organise a truck or return to Russia directly from Ulan Bator. Does using a truck lessen the adventure in some way as we would not have ridden all the way? That’s what I was wrestling with.
We return to the fundamentals of this adventure from our perspective:
– Achieve a second RTW trip safely
– Enjoy the journey we are undertaking
– Reconnect with old and new friends around the world
We realised we were actually undertaking risk management analysis as we had done in our working life. Anne has always said from the start of our motorcycle travels in 2014 ‘if it gets too hard, we can put the bikes on a truck’ sentiments that I wholeheartedly agree with after my short off road excursion. We decide to organise a small pick truck to take our steeds across the unpaved sections, much like the manner in which we see the Mongolians transport their horses over greater distances. This was done with the aid of contacts passed to us by previous travellers on this route, for the section from Bayankhongor to Altai. We make an initial call stating our requirement. Recent travellers can be a good source of up to date information. Streak and Storm will now have travelled by Plane, Ship, Train and Truck as well as under their own steam around the world.
The traffic heading west out of UB at 6.30 is light and we are are out of it in no time. It doesn’t take long before we ride through the gentle rolling hills that we have associated Mongolia with. We have no idea how far we will get today – all depends on the road condition, traffic, weather, where we feel like stopping…
The Southern Route so far is pretty good and appears to bave been patched up and repaired at various times: we go from smooth tar, to potholes in line with truck tyres to incredibly deep holes to others in various stages of repair, the trickiest being the ones they have started to repair, cut straight deep edges and left – miss one and you could easily dent your rim or shred your tyre.
On our way today is Khakhorin, the ancient capital of Mongolia. We have heard it is quite touristy and in poor state, run down, with little to actually see but it has been on my list of places to visit, mainly because of a monk friend of mine with whom I did a number of meditation courses in Brisbane and who has spent many years in Mongolia, recommended we stop at Erdene Zuu Monastery there. I feel bad not making the 150km detour to visit Khakhorin and the monastery. As we approach the turn off, and as we have made good progress, we decide to go there after all. Suddenly, the traffic dies down, except for a couple of coaches.
We get to a huge ovoo. One of those road side shrines that we have seen so many of. They start with a branch or a rock and people make offerings, usually rocks or stones and wrap blue ribbons. Over time, they can grow pretty huge. Some are more complex and are used by shamans. We have to stop at this one. We make our offering, walk around it.
The ovoo is in direct line with a small temple at the top of a hill which we spotted before stopping for the ovoo. Anthony suggests we ride up the hill to it. Let’s get those Heidenau tyres working for what they were made for! Engines off. The silence is deafening. The energy is powerful. The view breathtaking, so vast, so raw. It is peaceful. We want to stay a while and soak it all up. Anthony spots a couple of blue silk scarves which have blown away, he collects them and ties them back near one of the stupas. No photo will do this little unnamed spot justice. Maybe my monk friend can tell me more about it. We stay a little longer. I was the one who wanted to go to Khakhorin but I no longer feel the need to. This was too special and I don’t feel like going onto a touristy place. We both agree just to turn back and continue our ride westwards.
All day, we skirted a massive storm and by lunchtime, we were finally well clear of its spreading clouds but by 2.30pm, we are heading straight into a massive black storm. Could we be in luck again and find the road turns away just in time? Then we both see this huge lightening strike ahead of us. We are heading straight for this storm. We have 90 miles/150kms before the next town with nowhere to shelter in between. We decide to turn back and stop at a group of gers by the side of the road and see if we can stay there the night.
A young man comes over to us, speaking a little English. It turns out all the gers are all private homes but we can stay across the road. It is a new, airy, restaurant. When we realise he is offering the young family’s own bedroom, we say we cannot accept. There is a single bed in the corner of the restaurant. If we can stay in that corner and sleep on the floor, we would be very happy. Then the young man comes back and tells us the ger at the back is free and we can sleep there. Once again, it is not free but this older couple is now straightening the beds and taking their shoes out – we would be throwing them out of their home. They are very insistent that we sleep there but we cannot do that. We go back to the restaurant.
We have a few hours before we feel we can put our heads down as local health nurses come around to check the young couple’s 11 month old boy (we learn from the nurses that they are doing a survey on malnutrition), customers come and go, then family relatives from across the road in the gers turn up for a game of volley ball and the young nieces run in and out of the restaurant checking us out and giggling. We turn down the offer of meat but accept a plate of fresh potatoes and carrots. The young family is so attentive and helpful. I find it so frustrating not being able to converse with them…
The storm has passed and we are treated to a magnificient rainbow. We could have riden on but we have enjoyed our time in the restaurant. We are surprised how well we both slept.
We leave the restaurant early the next morning (no photos of our hosts as they didn’t want to be photographed) to bright blue skies. The storm has passed. It is a glorious day for our 300kms ride today to Bayankhongor.
It is not long before we realise the wisdom of our turning back the previous day. We encounter a long stretch of very deep potholes – some you can ride through no problem but others could have done some serious damage. But with rain and water in the potholes, we would have had no idea. We don’t always know why we are driven to make certain decisions sometimes, but we often realise later how perfect our decision was. The gut feeling is still working well.
We decide to stop in Arvaikheer for a late breakfast. So much effort is put in this town to keep it looking beautiful. Pity they didn’t invest in better paint – the toxic smell of paint used to freshen up the metal work around the gardens linger in our nostrils for literally hours later. I pity those poor women painting.
Then what a memorial we stumble across! A horse memorial. It amazed us to see the numbers of Mongolians who came to visit this temple. Not a single tourist, just locals, in the time we were there. Unfortunately, we haven’t managed to find out much about it.
Just a few kilometres short of Bayankhongor, we get a taste of what getting lost feels like – which way now, it seems cars are going in all directions – and what corrugation feels like – ahhh, memories of South America… not our favourite surface…
This is when we are finally convinced our decision to organise a truck for the next infamous 280kms section between Bayankhongor to Altai is the right one for us. As soon as we find a hotel, we make the call to confirm our truck requirement and pick up address.
– the 2slowspeeds