As is our new habit when we leave a biggish city, we leave Ulan-Ude early. We have read reports of ‘monstrous’ road works on the way to the border, so we have no idea how far we will get today. The lighting at 6.30am is gorgeous and we cannot resist a short detour through Klyuchi to see more colourful Russian houses.
We did encounter the heaviest road works to date in Russia but they were not as bad as we had heard – road works move constantly so every traveller will have a different experience and once again, we were in luck. After an easy, ordered border crossing, total 3 hours for both sides, we are in Mongolia!!!!
I am so excited to finally be here and buoyed by this renewed energy from being in Mongolia, we decide to push onto Darkhan for the night. It was a slow ride, the road being very narrow and streams of cars heading north for the week end. We find a nice looking hotel and after an 11 hour day, and 35 degree heat, we are ready for a cool shower.
We leave Darkhan after a late breakfast – the 35 degree heat at 10pm still and thumping music from a reception downstairs, celebrating the local hospital’s 20 years in operation (we did wonder what happened to the patients that evening?!) meant our night was not so restful. Luckily, being the 1st of the month the next day, alcohol stopped being served at midnight so the party finished not long after. As a drive to curb drinking, the Mongolian government bans the selling of alcohol on the first of the month, and around elections.
Again, the traffic heading north is constant, many slow trucks heading south like us, the road itself rather narrow and quite potholly making our journey pretty slow. As in Russia, it is left to the driver to pay attention and notice the stopped truck, road works etc. There is no warning. The 227kms took us 5 hours to get to our hotel in Ulaanbaatar (UB), by the main square.
Traffic in UB reminded us of Tehran: not aggressive but assertive driving. Hesitate or leave a gap, and you are left behind. You simply have to keep your wits about you.
As luck would have it, a friend I met in Bahrain 10 years ago and spent 5 years in Ulaanbaatar after that, arrived in UB last night is and is going to a mini Naadam organised by some of her friends tomorrow and we are invited to join her. We decide it would be more comfortable for us if we can ride in a car with her as it will be a day long affair and we didn’t want to stay in our riding gear. So she quickly organises a van. This is our first example of how quickly and efficiently things get organised here in Mongolia.
During her time in Mongolia, Robyn and some of friends were actively involved in a number of charities. One in particular was to help the “Children of the Peak” – kids living off the town rubbish dump. The Julie Veloo (her friend) foundation, which built and runs a kindergarten for these kids and a summer camp is running today’s Mini Naadam. A pre-cursor to the Mongolian national Nadaam (festival) which takes place from 11-15 July. I have to mention we have arrived at an interesting time – elections on the 7th July (suddenly brought forward by a day a few days ago) and Naadam.
What a truly magical day and priviledge to be able to attend a mini Naadam. In addition to giving those kids a special day, the aim of today us to raise money for those kids, through raffle tickets, local food and drinks sales and donations. We start the day with horse racing. There will be several winners including the rider picked by the raffle ticket winner. One of the prizes is a young filly which has been donated.
The day continues with archery, musicians and wrestling. It was a day full of culture. The energy throughout the day was electric. We already love the Mongolians. They seem to be full of gentle, quiet, strength and, as one young student whom I chatted with for a while today said, full of pride for their country.
We round off our day with a stop at Chengiss Khan’s massive 40 metre tall statue. Having spent all day out in the middle of nowhere (for us), we didn’t feel the need to climb into the horses’s head to admire the views.
We will have spent 4 nights in UB, done a bit of walking around, exploring, visiting the oldest monastery in UB, the only one that didn’t get destroyed by the Russians, some bike maintenance and cleaning, and met up with a Dutch couple who have just come the way we’re going. They were very helpful to get their insights and experiences and he gave Anthony his GPS tracker route so hopefully we should not get completely lost even if we veer off ‘track’ at times. It is always difficult to get other people’s views on the state and difficulty of a particular route as it depends on their level of experience, skill, attitude, age, weather conditions… The clock is ticking, remember, we need to cross Mongolia, back into Russia and out again by the 18th. We have agonised over the route to take but we decide to minimise the pressure and risk and pick the easiest route, the Southern Route which has the most tar.
Anyway, we set off very early tomorrow!!!!