I made it… I made it to Mongolia. I knew I wouldn’t make it from Irkutsk to the Altanbulag border in one day so I camped about halfway and decided to enter Mongolia via this northern border rather than at Tashanta in the west. The simple reason for this was because I had to go to Krasnoyarsk to acquire some new inner tubes, having gotten through a set in Omsk. To backtrack to the western border would mean a 1000 mile detour… bugger that.
The border crossing was uneventful and only took me three hours, but when I did get through I was blown away by the outstanding landscape. I was heading for Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, and the Golden Gobi hostel, but as the border crossing took so long I decided to camp on the Mongolian Steppe. Wild camping had evolved from merely a means of saving money to something that I was really beginning to enjoy, even looking forward to. So I drove off road and searched for a suitable place to pitch up. The day had started with a flat battery, caused, most likely, by the sub-zero temperatures, so I was looking for a place out of site of the main road, away from any townships but with enough human presence to get a jump start should I need it in the morning.
I found a beautiful daisy meadow just off a dry track, with a farm about 300m away. As I was taking pictures a vehicle drove by and I gave them a friendly wave, I was glad to get one back. I had dropped the irrational paranoia that all newbie wild campers have, albeit retaining a modicum of sensible caution, because the experience is so much better when you can relax and realise that nobody is going to murder or rob you. It turned out to be another bloody cold night, which caused me to begin to think hard about my plans to ride up to Magadan and deeper exploration of the Mongolian wilderness.
I awoke early, as usual, and set off getting on the road by 0730hrs. I didn’t have very far to go to the capital and would easily be there before lunch, taking into account all the stops that I would likely make to take pictures. I roll up to the Golden Gobi but they are full and they send me to the Sagi Guesthouse just down the road. I ask about parking, planning on doing my usual thing, either bringing it inside the building foyer or locking it against something unmovable and covering it up. But the host was adamant that the bike, parts of the bike or the gear would be stolen. “Welcome to Mongolia”, he tells me. He did suggest a secure parking area 300m away near the Mongolian Circus, but having been on a wild goose chase before I asked if someone could take me. With someone keeping an eye on Hitch, me and this Mongolian lass walked down to the hostel where I promptly set it in my GPS in case I couldn’t find it again, and then we returned to the Gobi. “But what about the car park”, I said to the lass before returning, but she didn’t speak a word of English.
I gathered my things and rode down to the Sagi but the host there gestured for me to leave the bike outside, under the window so I could see it, which I did, locked to a tree and covered up as usual. All night I was worrying about someone stealing it but I got up in the night to check and I could swear I saw a slight covering of snow, I was glad I wasn’t camping. I arose the next day to find everything hunky dory and the bike exactly where I left it, untouched. I decided to stay in UB a few days before heading out into the countryside either by myself or, I had toyed with the idea of a guided group tour in a Uaz. So I asked if I could stay another night but all he had was a double room and I wasn’t prepared to pay the extra. I doubt that he was even being honest with me and I was pleased that he had no room. The previous night he turned away three French girls who said they had made reservations but claimed that their reservations were cancelled and that he was now full. This was complete BS, we had three empty beds in our dorm. NOT COOL, I thought, negative review for you mate. In the end another guest helped the French girls to find beds elsewhere, which was no mean feat as everywhere seemed to be pretty much fully booked.
I asked the Sagi host if the Golden Gobi had space but he didn’t think so. Not really trusting anything this fella told me, I walked over to the Gobi and asked for myself, after a few minutes of working out who was leaving I was told that there was a space. Great, I thought, I had a good feeling about this place, it was much friendlier and welcoming. I went off to get my things from the Sagi and returned to the Golden Gobi with my bike thinking that if it was safe at the Sagi it might also be safe here. I planned to remove the panniers and ride it through the small gate into the tiny courtyard and lock it against the railings. The host, Bob, was okay with this but advised against it, this was a more dodgy area he told me. Only the day before there was a bicycle adventurer, who had been on the road for 3 years, who was robbed of some kit from his bike, and another who also had some things stolen. All right, you’ve convinced me, I’ll go and have a look for the secure car park.
Off I went looking for this illusive secure car park, I managed to find a car market and they did say that I could park there free of charge but I had a funny feeling so I carried on, that can’t be where he meant, I thought to myself. I rode around for the next half hour trying to find anything that resembled a secure car park but nothing. In the end I returned to the Gobi and told them I could only find the car market, he seemed to think that this might be the place. What, you don’t know, though. “Okay, can someone please take me”, I asked. He grabbed one of the lads that worked in the hostel, said something to him in Mongolian, and we proceeded out to the bike, he was evidently going to ride pillion. Bob then offered to put my luggage in secure storage rather than leave it on the bike, so we first unloaded the bike of the panniers and tank bag. With a much lighter bike, I handed ‘kid shades’ my helmet (the young whipper snapper wore Top Gun style aviators) and we headed off to find this secure car park. It turned out to be the car market after all.
The following day I headed off on foot up to the Sukhbaatar Square like a proper stereotypical tourist, camera in hand, ready to take pictures of the square, the parliament building and all the various Genghis Khan statues. I then headed off to the Mongolian National Museum. Would this have any info in English? Or wouldit be another disappointment like the Stalingrad museum? I bought my entrance ticket, student price of course, and went inside. It was lovely and cool inside the museum, quite a contrast from the hot and dry climate outside. To my pleasant surprise the museum exhibits were in English and quite a museum it was too with lots of interesting exhibits with lots of information, in English. As I headed back to the hostel I decided to go into the bikers bar that I had passed earlier, it turned out to be the HQ of the UB MC Club. I stopped for a beer and fag and we chatted for a bit before I made my way back to the Gobi.
Seeking any information and advice I could find about riding in the Mongolian countryside I had contacted a local that I had found via the Horizons Unlimited website and organised to meet up with him at the City Nomads Bar & Grill for a beer and some food. I chose this place because they had traditional Mongolian folk music and throat singing. I got the bus to the bar, clutching my wallet tightly as I had been warned repeatedly about the pickpockets on the buses. I didn’t wait long before Gana rolled up and we got chatting, he’s a lovely fella that had lived in the UK for 4 years so he spoke very good English. The music was great, but it was a real shame about the large group of very rude Spanish tourists that talked loudly over the music, ruining it for everyone including me. But it was soon time to say goodbye, so I grabbed a quick picture and Gana dropped me off outside the hostel.
The following day I was up early again and had a plan to visit a few sites. The first place I went to was the Narantuya market, allegedly the biggest in Asia. When I arrived I rode around for a while trying to find a safe and secure place to leave the bike, this place was heaving with dodgy people. I eventually decided to leave it at the car park attendants office and following my Standard Operating Procedure: locking it to something solid and covering it up, out of site out of mind is my motto. I had taken off all of my luggage except for the tank panniers, so the bike was much lighter, which meant I could ride it as it should be, like I’d stolen it. Off I trot to the market and I’m shocked by the size, it’s truly humungous, and it sells everything you can think of. Rows and rows of sunglasses, belts, shoes… it’s easy to get lost in there and it’s actually pretty difficult to find anything because it’s so big. I left with some toiletries after having walked what felt like a marathon.
Next on my list was the Bogd Khan Winter Palace and I rolled up and parked the bike in the shade against the fence but I was immediately disappointed from what I had seen pulling into the car park. The place was seriously dilapidated. I pay my usual student entrance fee, it was really cheap, if it had been any more I wouldn’t have bothered and go inside. From a distance, or with a serious squint, the building itself looks like a pretty Chinese palace. But when you get a bit closer you can see just how bad a condition it’s in. The paint is peeling and the garden unkempt. The artifacts in the palace are actually quite nice and clearly well looked after, it was a real shame that the building was in such a sorry state.
Underwhelmed by the winter palace I headed east, out of town, to the Genghis Khan Equestrian monument. It’s mostly paved roads all the way but it’s probably the worst bit of paved road I have ridden, even worse than parts of the Russian highway. I had no luggage so I put the suspension through it’s paces, bottoming it a couple of times and taking the bike off road onto the trails when it was really bad. I passed a few other adventure bikers on what looked like KTMs, we gave each other the obligatory wave and I went on to the monument. Then, all of a sudden, this bright silver head appears on the horizon and it slowly reveals itself to be Genghis Khan aloft his horse facing the border with China. Wow, this is pretty impressive. I ride on through the gate and up an access road with a no entry sign… What, do you know who I am? I’m AdvenureVagabond, a sign can’t stop me, LOL. I always ignore stupid signs and I proceed past this nonsensical prohibition to get a spot where I can take a picture of the monument side on, with my bike also in the shot. All of a sudden one of the guys on the KTMs comes rumbling up and tells me I’ve lost something. I look around but nothing is missing, I’ve taken almost everything off the bike, he must be mistaken. He pulls out my Wolfman fender bag with my miscellaneous kit and tells me he found it up near where the road gets really bad.
I’m so grateful that he made the effort to return it, this particular little kit contains stuff that would be a real PITA to replace out here. I admit that I should probably have slowed down over the rough stuff and ask him where he’s staying in UB. Apparently, he’s at the Oasis, which I can only assume is a bit more expensive than my hostel. I make a mental note to head over in the evening to find them and buy them a beer. I later learn that it’s a popular stop-over for moto-adventurers. I take several pictures whilst at the monument and finally park the bike and walk up to the monument itself but I decide not to go in when I discover they are asking for a £5 entrance fee – F@$k that! I bet the locals don’t pay that. I’d heard through the grapevine that this place charges tourists more. I wait five minutes and blag my way in, telling them that I simply want to go upstairs and buy a drink. I do buy a drink and have a crafty look around, it doesn’t seem like there is anything much to see, especially for the extortionate entrance fee. Now, £5 doesn’t sound a lot, but in the Mongolian context it is, especially when you consider that this almost buys me a full tank of petrol.
I head back into town, slower this time, but when I get into the centre of UB the filtering monster comes out and I’m cutting through traffic like a crazed mad man. In the UK I ride much more defensively but if you want to survive in Mongolia and get anywhere in a reasonable time you just have to be aggressive. six or seven rows of cars, trucks and buses squeeze into what would otherwise be a three lane highway, so it’s fair to say that it’s tight. Add to that potholes deep enough to bury a small shire horse, and a heap of dust and grit and it’s no wonder that some total twat ran over my foot trying to squeeze past me. I was wearing trainers that day as the weather was so nice, but luckily it didn’t hurt or do any damage. It takes a Jekyll and Hyde mindset to successfully ride in the UB rush hour.
I get back to the car market, lock and cover the bike and head back to the Gobi. Getting quite peckish I stop off at planet pizza for an early supper. When I get back to the hostel I chill out for the remainder of the evening chatting with other travelers and watching a movie. I drift off to sleep happy and content after having spent a good day exploring some of what Mongolia and UB has to offer, and completely forgetting to mosey on over to the Oasis to catch up with the KTM lads. If you ever read this thank you.
The Altain Orgil Chinggis who performed at the City Nomads Bar & Grill