Anne awakes with a start after midnight on the 9th of July, “We must be out of Mongolia tomorrow” she realises, the five day border closure for the Naadam holiday starting on the 11th runs until the 15th which is a Saturday and the border is always closed on a Sunday. It will not reopen until Monday 17th, one day before our Russian visa expiry. It is highly unlikely that Russian Immigration officials will allow us in with 1200km to cover in just over a day through mountainous terrain. If we cannot leave today we will be stuck in Western Mongolia and need to apply for a new Russian visa back in Ulan Baatar some 1600kms/1000miles away with a likely three week delay in getting the Russian visa issued. Are you awake now, I certainly was.
With the evening’s events still fresh in our minds, we knew that we could do nothing but wait till dawn…
My mind drifted back to the events as they had unfolded over the previous 18 hours. After a good night’s sleep at the Entym Hotel in Altai after the long crossing in the truck, we bid goodbye to Baltar our driver who now started the long return journey home. Anne felt sad we had not been able to communicate as there was much about his world we could have better understood.
We had 450kms/270miles of paved road ahead and being ahead of schedule, with our view of the unpaved roads we had crossed yesterday we felt that we should give the upcoming 180kms/110miles of dirt ahead a go. We could take three days if necessary, time was on our side. “Confidence is high” to use a movie/military quote.
A quick walk around Altai before we leave:
We settle into more undulating vastness, good road and little traffic, in a few short years the missing links will be filled in and a trip on paved road from London to Ulan Baatar will be possible opening up more opportunities for visitors. Many dirt road alternatives will exist, so options for all types of rider. A small wrinkle appears, don’t build your bridges on a sand base is all I can say.
Onward and onward, strange to have 550kms/330 miles of paved road sandwiched between two dirt sections. While on one of our regular breaks, a lone motorcycle appears from the west. We meet out first ever Turkish adventure rider. Discussion as always quickly turns to road conditions. He informs us that the dirt section we have decided to attempt is “Hell”. Humm… not what we wanted to know, our riding barometer for dirt is swinging from fair to rain. Not a confidence booster. A truck is coming back into the equation.
Somewhat unsettled by what we have heard, we travel on, the landscape does vary and as the green is replaced by brown, the number of herds decline, but they still treat the road as part of their domain, goats and sheep the worst for movement, cows just stare and horses ignore you.
Sparsely populated, only two villages en-route to Khovd exist, neither appeals to us and the landscape does not entice us to camp although I know Anne desperately wants too. Khovd appears over a final rise and we roll into town past the old abandoned Soviet era coal fired power station, I cannot imagine this was either efficient or environmentally friendly. We are now seeking hotels, the usual end of day occupation when we meet two riders, Gilles and Lino, French and Italian respectively with the same agenda. I find an english speaking local who will guide us, Gilles and Lino chat to the nearest pretty girl, typical.
As we follow our guide’s car to a couple of hotels, trying to find one with running water, it becomes apparent Lino is in a lot of pain. We learn he crashed four times today on the unpaved section we plan to cross and thinks he has a broken leg, later confirmed at Khovd hospital. What comes after rain on the barometer, stormy?
While Lino is at the hospital, we have dinner with Gilles, visit the local square and hospital to check on Lino. He is discharged with a nice white plaster-cast and back at the hotel they assess the road with terms such “worst road conditions I have ever come across” and “nightmare” – crashing four times may influence one’s view, but you get the general direction. We leave Lino to sleep on the lobby couch while his plaster-cast sets, he has no crutches and declines a group offer to carry him upstairs, probably to avoid the fifth crash of the day.
Anne had earlier in the evening spoken to Tsoogii, the English speaking sister of our hotel finding guide, asking if he could drive Lino to the hospital once he was checked into the hotel, and took the opportunity to ask her if they knew of any truck drivers in town who could take us to Ulgii. She would call us tomorrow morning.
After a fractured night’s sleep we are up early and packed, conscious of the impending holiday and our need to depart today. Tsoogii comes through with a truck, a friend of her husband’s. People are always willing to help, it’s natural and worldwide In a couple of hours, we have said goodbye to Gilles and Lino, Lino will be heading home his trip over, but he was almost to his destination Ulan Baatar having started in Italy. Well done.
Loading is easier, just find a dirt bank to back the truck up to. No ramps with nasty foot traps as in our previous loading excursion.
On board and tied down, we are off, over the river and choose your track. I have realised that the Mongolian dirt roads with multiple choice within multiple choice route selections are a little like the old dungeons and dragons games. Multiple doors and passageways. Some contain fair roads and others sand traps, vicious corrugations or just disappear in totally the wrong direction having started parallel to the correct route. Regular local drivers, such as ours, know which to take to avoid the harshest terrain. We start by staying off the main track for the first 10 kms/6 miles and then went over a different mountain pass to the main mapped route, all good local knowledge.
It was possible we could have ridden a fair part of this route, not in a day, but we would never have selected each junction correctly in the first place. I understand why so many have struggled with this section, given the impossible task of correctly choosing the best path at each junction.
Roadworks paralleled this route for most of the day, I think within two years it will be paved highway. Reminding me of bleached bones in the desert, twisted black tyre strips dot the landscape, a constant reminder of the harsh nature of the terrain we are crossing. We cross paths with a number of horse laden trucks heading for the Ulgii Naadam, our driver looks intently at the horses, possibly competition for his horses? They do love their horses here.
Back on tar after 7 hours to cover the 180kms/110 miles of dirt and we want our driver to return home, it’s a long day’s round trip, so an embankment, truck tyres and the three of us unload Streak and Storm . Back on board our steeds and along side Lake Tolbo then down into Ulgii.
A fortuitous meeting in the centre of town leads us to stay in a gur overnight, something Anne has been looking forward to since we entered Mongolia. We are also able to confirm that the border does close tomorrow, the 10th of July for six days, the manager knows an official at the border she called and checked for us. In Ulgii, Tsoogii who was helping us had looked online and called the immigration info number to confirm the closure dates. Both options said call the border post, which did not answer. In this modern information age we still needed the mobile/cell number of someone working there to confirm the dates!
A couple of hours’ ride on the morning of the 10th brought us to the Mongolian immigration and customs post, (see Visas and Borders for details). Four and a half hours later we are back in Russia, ahead of the six day border closure.
So how does Serendipity fit into all this? If we had not made the decisions we did regarding the truck travel based on others’ assessment of road conditions, we would now be stuck in Mongolia, our plans setback by a minimum of three weeks, assuming all went well in getting a new Russian visa in Ulaan Baatar. We would have to shorten our route to London, probably just back through Russia to Europe, so Serendipity it is.