Potholes, Mud and new Friends……..Mongolia!

Our border crossing to Mongolia was actually pretty good. They were happy border guards. Actually everyone in Mongolia seemed happy. We changed our Rubles into Mongolian Tugrok at the change bureau right there in the customs building and started out south toward Ulaanbataar on a fairly decent paved road. About ten days earlier we had run into a Korean fellow on a BMW 1150 that told us of nightmares on the road south here. He gave us tales of back hoes, torn up pavement and mud. We went south expecting to run into a minefield of carnage at any point. This never happened. In fact we rode on a lovely 2 lane country road south into rolling hills full of wildflowers and green grass. There were hundreds of different species of butterfly out. It was impossible for me to keep up with all the different colours and sizes as we stopped periodically to take photos. Slowly more yurts were appearing on the hillsides as we lost latitude, distinctive with their round construction and white coverings. It was as if someone had dotted small cakes all over a sea of green fields. The yurts….or gers as they are known here were working homesteads with goats and horses corralled around their perimeter. It was as if time stood still here in this part of the world……until I spotted my first satellite dish protruding from the side of a white homestead. This was my culture shock for the day. I get one almost every day but this hit me pretty hard. The thought of a 15 foot wide tent with a colour tv and a probably a DVD player inside seemed so strange….it still does actually. The more I looked around the more I saw brand new quads and motorcycles for herding cattle, instead of the traditional saddled horses with multi coloured cloth adorning the riding gear. I was tickled to think of Mongolian kids on the side of a hill in their gers with goats bleating outside and “world of warcraft” blasting away on the flat screen from a playstation 2. The world never ceases to amaze me.

The road was getting a bit potholed now but nowhere near like that of a Kazakh road. The day was getting on as we pulled into the town of Dharkhan and located cheap accommodation. The room was rough, had two beds in it and a toilet that wouldn’t flush. The paint was peeling of the walls and the carpet was frayed after many years of wear…..but we slept well that night. The next day saw us thumping our way south toward Ulaanbataar and the road was still there, no earth moving equipment and certainly no carnage. We marveled at the way the light changed on the land as the sun changed angle and clouds cast their shadows on the curved landscape. Light greens became dark greens and seas of wild flowers would be highlighted by a single beam of light through the puffy cloud cover. This truly is a magical part of the world and so vast in its own right. I looked in my mirror to notice that Ulf had stopped a few hundred metres back. He was probably taking more photos. We were doing this a lot so I pulled over and shut the motor down only to be enveloped in a beautiful silence. It was quiet here, so peaceful. Occasionally I would hear the sound of a goat or a horse but that was about it. I noticed that the grass in this area was so short. It was everywhere really. This was due to grazing livestock nipping it down to almost golf green length. It reminded me of some areas of North Wales or even Scotland where sheep grazed. The smell of fresh grass and sheep poo was the same too, again small gers dotted the hillsides some with well established vehicle tracks leading to their front door. Could this be Hobbiton in real life? The noise of Ulf starting his bike down the road snapped me out of my daydream. I watched in the mirror as he rolled up the road toward me…..although as he slowed down to stop he wasn’t rolling very well. His front wheel was wobbling. “I was looking at the GPS when I did not notice this big pothole” Ulf said. Sure enough, as we inspected his front wheel he now had a good 5 inch flat spot in his rim. He was very lucky not to have a flat tire too. We pulled in a few more kilometers down the road into a small gas station to better assess the situation. Ulf could ride the bike ok but front braking was now wobbly and at certain speeds his bike would shake about a bit. We had 90 kms to go and needed to get across the city to the eastern side to the Oasis, a travelers retreat and café situated just on the edge of the city of Ulaanbataar. Ulf’s rim is steel so it might be able to be bent back into shape by a good wheel builder. This would be a challenge for sure. For now, the bike would have to make it to the Oasis as is.

The ride into UB (or vowel city as I like to call it) was a slow one. The road was good but we were nervous about the wheel. Crossing the city was interesting to say the least. It was 17 kilometres of mayhem. The roads started out ok because the city was re furbishing the road that comes in from the north and feeds the city its daily trucked supplies. This didn’t last long though and we soon saw some of ,well, simply the worst inner city road conditions I have ever seen. Cars were veering into oncoming lanes to avoid craters the size of bathtubs. We witnessed 3 accidents within 9 kilometres as we cautiously rolled along with the traffic. There was absolutely no regard for the other motorist as they clashed and fought over a flat piece of tarmac. Motorcycles don’t event factor into this equation here. As far as they are concerned, if you are dumb enough to put yourself on a bike and try and do battle with the traffic then, you’re going to lose eventually!  We finally managed to find another road south and east in the city and things got a little better. We rolled slowly past an open air market that was made up of hundreds of shipping containers in rows that were selling car parts, wheels, tires, shock absorbers or aftermarket bumpers. To add to the traffic carnage, people were crossing the road here and actually working on fitting these newly purchased parts on the very same road that we were on. I was reminded of the Jawas, the scavenging creatures that traded robot parts and existed on the desert planet in Star Wars. Amidst the cacophony of honking horns and shouting pedestrians we weaved slowly east through a tighter, more narrowed stream of tussling cars, buses and trucks and choked on thick black diesel fumes from engines that should have been retired decades ago. Then, suddenly, I saw the sign for the Oasis….we veered off and down a muddy side street that made me wonder where the hell I was going. Steel gates opened and a security guy waved us in. We pulled into a small parking lot alongside a café and noticed about 6 gers occupying the back of the property. There were motorcycles and 4×4’s from many countries parked up here. We had found the right place. We were going to be camping with overlanders for the next few days J

Ulf and I booked a ger to ourselves and rapidly unloaded our bikes into the tent. It was fitted out with four beds around the perimeter and a wood burning stove in the centre…..no satellite dish in here though! The café is a casual affair where you order your food for a specific time and enter it into your “kitchen passport”. The idea is that you pay your food and alcohol bill upon checkout when the time comes. The food there was awesome, I spotted chicken curry on the menu and suddenly felt hungry. I hadn’t had a curry in months.

The next day we set about locating someone that might be able to fix Ulf’s rim. There were many suggestions from locals, a few GPS waypoints and the odd phone number that would be useless to us unless we had an interpreter. The thing is, you need to have a GPS waypoint. Only the downtown core uses street addresses…the further out you get, the more rugged it gets and no one has a street address on any of the alleyways that make up 90% of the suburbs in the north. There was no other way around it, we had to ride the bikes out there and go to war with the traffic again.

The side streets of UB in the north are hideous for their lack of surface and rain rutted dirt cambers. We watched cars bounce and weave up steep hills in order to avoid another trip to the Jawa market. Our destination was marked on a GPS waypoint here somewhere. We rode around what looked like a shanty town for about 20 minutes before we gave up looking. We stopped on a brown patch of dirt close to an old fellow urinating on the road. He didn’t bat an eyelid and just kept about his mission. We checked our GPS points to discover another waypoint marked only about a kilometer away. We soon found this place but they couldn’t help us….but they knew someone who could…and that person knew someone who could….then we were taken to another place where someone could help us out. This turned into an afternoon of being shunted around the north of the city by people who really wanted to help but couldn’t. Finally we were told of a guy near the city centre who had a wheel. Two kids on scooters would guide us there….we were to follow. They tore off on some kind of deathwish race race and we lost them within five minutes. Time to head back to the Oasis and take stock of our situation. We’d had enough for the day and needed a rest.

The following three days comprised of rest, chatting with overlanders about various routes, sightseeing and emails. This is when I got my “can you come home” email. The company I work for wanted me back on two counts. Canmore, my home town in Alberta had just been badly hit by storm flooding and many homes had been severely damaged and Mike, the guy who took over my position in the construction company where I work for five months had just been diagnosed with cancer and needed treatment very soon. This changed my entire trip plans. I now had to get me and the bike back to Canmore as soon as I safely could. I discussed this with Ulf. He is 50 % of this trip so it was important to both of us that we could come up with a plan. Eventually we did and the idea was to head north back into Russia and east over the top of China to Vladivostok as soon as we could. From here we would catch the ferry into Korea and fly our bikes out of Seoul into Vancouver. I would get back to work while Mike had his cancer treatment. Ulf would press on across Canada to Cape Spear Newfoundland to complete his RTW trip. He needed the time to find a new place to live in Switzerland because his relationship had recently ended with his girlfriend. The timing would work in this case for him. As I write this, it’s my hope to resume across Canada to Cape Spear around September 1. There are many people counting on me to complete this trip and thus complete the fundraiser for the Heart and Stroke foundation. I sincerely hope that I can complete this. I also feel for Ulf and his situation too….It must have been hard on him and his girlfriend after 13 years together.

Our last few days at the Oasis were spent sightseeing, resting and preparing for what would be a long ride to Vladivostok. After all, it was 4500 kms away by road. Our journey back through the north of Mongolia was very pleasant. Even though the scenery was the same, we still marveled at the stunning landscapes and big skies that greeted us a week ago. It was time to re-enter Russia for the last time and ride east….to Vladivostok. Would we be in time to catch the newly set up STENA ferry to Korea or would we have to wait another week?

Please, if you have enjoyed reading this blog so far, remember that I am also hoping to raise $20000 for the heart and Stroke Foundation in the process.There is a link on this website that will take you directly to their donation page. You could make a difference to someone’s life. After all, someone did it for me when I had a stroke in 2009. 🙂