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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

NEVER A DULL MOMENT IN MONGOLIA


It took us about 4 hours to get through the Mongolian border. There was a queue of over 60 cars when we arrived and they were trickling them through one or two at a time. Very, very slowly. Fortunately, this border actually closes at night so they had to get us through before they could go home, so the queue coming from Mongolia was stopped & they double processed us through! It was after 9pm when we were finished with, but at least we hadn’t arrived at 9am on the Russian side like the Austrians 40 cars in front of us had.

 We are in & simply drive down the road and pull over for the night. And so, we start our Mongolian journey. And amazingly it is on a brand new tarseal road most the way to the town of Olgii. We explore town, stopping at all the ATM’s until we find one that will spit out cash. It is such a lovely sound the brrr of money being counted out. Then we head out through magic scenery. Huge wide skies with everchanging clouds, dry desert, yurts or gers as they call them here and animals – lots of them, especially horses, camels & even hairy yaks. As we get nearer to the town of Khovd there are 100’s of gers. More than we have seen anywhere. We find a spot near them for the night.

There is a huge storm in the night so our road has turned to slush & the town of Khovh is practically floating in water. We can’t find the museum, but we do find the monastery, before we head on for our next day of driving. We are on a bit of a schedule – we want to get to Ulaanbaatar in time for the huge Naadam Festival. In fact, this is my entire reason for visiting Mongolia. John may fancy driving in the Gobi Desert, but I want to see Naadam. When we reach the town of Altai we stop to fill up with diesel & John asks a truck driver about the road coming up. He advises us to avoid the road on our map as it is all under construction (here when they are building a new road they don’t worry about the traffic- it can go anywhere as long as it isn’t on the road itself, making for some very rough driving. And of course, all the dump trucks etc use the same tracks, so think bone jarring corrugations) He says we will have 120km more of good seal, then 260 km of crazy desert stuff. And he is right. Before the seal has finished we see a sandy track heading off to nowhere. It is beside a roadside restaurant. We stop to check it out. Amazingly John chats to 2 people who speak English well (a bit of a rarity here) and both confirm that this indeed is the track but warn us the river is high after all the rain. Off we head in to the Gobi. The track spreads in every direction….. eni mini moni mo, take your pick which way you go! In the end it doesn’t really matter as they all merge at the rivers.  When it gets late we pull over and stop for the night – well off the tracks as the traffic keeps going all night.

Another day of driving.  The surface varies from sand to mud and to gravel, and amazingly we see quite a bit of wildlife. Wild camels, wild horses, foxes & even a few elusive gazelle. Sadly, too windy to put up the drone. Then there is the excitement of the rivers. There is a ger village on either side of the main 2 rivers, each with a tractor to tow cars or trucks. The cars drive through here too – and many are not 4x4. Prius is the favourite car and it goes anywhere! The cars simply cover their exhaust & get towed through by the tractors. We see one truck stuck but GR2 sails through.

Finally, we reach the roadworks & eventually the town of Bayankhonger. Out of town there is a toll gate! A good sign as patchy tarseal follows. Finally pull over on to lovely grassy paddocks for the night.  We carry on, again more tolls & more seal all the way to Karakorum. This is where our friends saw a local Naadam a few years ago, so we are hoping too as well. As we arrive we can see Erdene Zuu Khiid monastery with a long wall around it. We also see a row of motorhomes – our first for ages. Stop and explore, but apparently there is no Naadam here this year. No one seems to know anything. We head out of town, spy a lovely river & stop there for the night. During the night I have a brainwave (they don’t happen often!) – we should ask at the fancy hotel we saw in town about Naadam in other towns. So, we do, & success! The guy at the desk looks it up online & locates a local village with a festival on today & tomorrow & tells us about a track/road to get there. One that is not on our map. We head to the village of Olziit for about 150km on a very pretty drive through green paddocks, passing Gers & lots of other traffic, finally reaching our town. Yes, a local Naadam is in full swing. I think the biggest part of the action is GR2. She is a real magnet whenever the action on field slows down.  We watch the wrestling matches – hilarious! And are amazed at the crowd who sit & watch with no clapping or noise. Then finally the horse race comes in – these are littles 4-6yrs old who have just ridden 8km. At least they are wearing helmets! We head out into the paddocks for the night, well away from night time partying.

The next day supposedly starts at 9am. We arrive later, but not much is happening. They say 10, then 11….. In the end we head off. In the distance we can see horses racing. It will be a while before they reach the finish line. Time to get to Ulaanbaatar for the big Naadam. Lots of driving, stopping at the sand dunes on the way. Here we meet some Hungarian cyclists & a whole busload of Aussies who can’t believe we drove here. We are surprised at the amount of traffic, especially leaving the city – must be getting away for the holiday. We pass 3 other Naadams on the way in, & then major traffic congestion in the city, even though it is after 7pm. An hour & a half later we roll into the Oasis Guesthouse where overland vehicles stay. Thank goodness they have room for GR2.

We wake to grey skies and wait for the arrival of the reception lady (who speaks English). The Wifi is so slow we can’t get online to get tickets for the Opening Ceremony tomorrow. When she finally arrives, she can’t get tickets either & suggests the Black Market. By now it is raining in earnest. We head out to catch the bus but give up & walk. The streets are flooded & passing cars send out huge sprays of water. We are indeed not very happy vegemite’s after tramping around a very wet sloshy market to find a big fat nothing.  Even a late lunch in a cafĂ© doesn’t cheer me up – how can chewy grizzly bits of meat in rice splashed with tomato sauce do that. We decide to walk in to the city centre about 8km away– why not, we couldn’t get wetter – even our boots are full of water as the puddles are so big. The rain stops and the centre is lovely. It is getting set up for Naadam – there is a big screen & the ceremony will be shown here. Looks as if that will be it for us. Then a visit to the impressive Museum before catching a bus back to GR2 – an experience all of its own – how many people can squeeze in to one bus.

Back at GR2 our German neighbour helps to get us some seriously overpriced tickets for tomorrow – I am so excited!!! We head in early with our new friends. Buses are minimal, so we catch a ride in a Prius (of course). All 6 of us squeeze in, and finally we are there, hours & hours too early. By 10am we are in our seats waiting – thankfully under cover (as later it rains). All the locals arrive after starting time and what craziness. Either each seat has been sold twice, or they don’t worry about seat numbers & just keep coming. Every millimetre of space is full! The ceremony is amazing: full of colour & action – just look at a few of our photos. Most people leave then and more pile in for the wrestling. We watch for a while – they are seriously big boys, but it was more fun close up at our local Naadam. Finally, we head out in to the masses. It is party time here despite the mud & puddles. By the time we reach the road we are incredibly lucky to score a taxi home. There are very few here – usually you have to pick up a ride from someone who wants extra cash.

On our way in to the city John has noticed that we have cracked another leaf spring, so before we head in to the middle of nowhere, we need to get it sorted. To our dismay we realise that everything is closed for the Naadam holiday & nothing will open until next week. After a whole morning of chores, we head out to look at the Winter Palace. It includes a monastery area & then a museum full of fabulous clothing & furniture. Dinner in the Oasis restaurant with fellow overland travellers rounds out our day. But we are getting twitchy, so we head out early Friday morning for the weekend. We don’t plan to go too far, simply follow the road directly south & then turn off on a “choose your own track” road to Baga Gazarin Chuluu – a rocky National Park. Here we stay for 2 nights: walk, sit, read. We meet an amazing Mongolian family who take us exploring with them. Bonus: all of them have excellent English making it a really fun day.

Finally, Sunday afternoon we head back to town. Monday morning is tagged to get a new leaf spring. It should be an easy task with all the trucks & bumpy roads, but no it proves a challenge. Finally, John & a whole gang of guys have it sorted. It is rush hour by the time we finish, so a slow crawl across town to the Oasis. They are packed full of Overlanders, but we squeeze in to the driveway for the night.

Tuesday sees us heading out of town on our final trek across eastern Mongolia to the border. Our first stop is at Gorkhi-Terekj National Park, & it is truly lovely. We can see why Mongolians come here for holidays. We climb Turtle Rock before the rain starts, then head to the far end of the park. By the time we retrace our steps, the storm has hit in earnest. Rain lashes down & thunder booms. Water is rushing everywhere – quite a sight with Prius’ still dashing along the flooded roads.

It is nearly all over by the time we pull in to gawk at the massive Chinggis Khan statue.  Naturally we head up to the horse’s head & then down below to the museum. Then it is on to the countryside. By evening we simply pull over and camp in the middle of a paddock: no fences here.  Then its onto Ondorkhaany. There’s not a lot to explore – a rather dilapidated monastery – the original was destroyed in the Soviet purges, as many here were, a museum that is closed & a scattering of sad statues. So we head out of town, following our paper map, our GPS & Pocket Earth. Our good road has vanished & again we have multiple tracks. The signs don’t even say the name of the town we want. We ask a local farmer in a truck – yes, yes carry on!   Moral of the story is get a second opinion. Miles of disgusting track before we check again. “Cross the river”. We do – and follow the sign on more track until we see a brand-new road almost parallel to us. Bummer – there was a good road! Too late now, Finally, pull over beside an Ovoo, a Buddhist Shrine thing, for the night.

Great road continues all the way to Choibalsan where we stop at the great local museum. Amazingly some of the signs are in English. We are just finishing off in the last section when we meet a lovely local family. They invite us to a restaurant, so we head off for coffee with them. In the end they drive us to the markets to explore. What lovely people. But time to head out on our last leg in Mongolia – directly north to a little used border at Chuluukhoroot, Again the road turns to track – and steadily it gets worse. Hard to imagine anyone even uses this route! At least we only have 230kms to go. As we near the lake at Mongolia’s lowest point all the tracks get incredibly slushy – chose which slush to drive through. At dusk we pull off the road only by a metre – surely no one will drive in the dark – but yes, they do!!!  The next morning, we reach the crossing bright & early. Only 1 car before us & he is already in the process. YAY! We wait and wait and wait. Mongolian cars come and are given preference. Finally, in. Then wait for it:  International Incident in Mongolia. Australians held hostage until they give the Quarantine man their Moose Antlers. As soon as he sees them perched on GR2’s roof he covets them. It is standoff between him & John. He insists they are Mongolian & the moose must have been illegally shot here! He would not look at our proof that we got them in Canada. Either take them off or go back in to Mongolia (Haha we can’t do that as our passports are already stamped out) so in the end John angrily unties them & throws them down braking them apart. Wow – the Quarantine guy is really angry. He has John in his office writing a report for nearly an hour. What an ugly way to leave a beautiful country. Only bonus is that when we arrive at the Russian side the cars before us are still being searched, so we have lost no time……. Russia coming soon.














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