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Episode 11: Fairytale Mongolia | Mongolia

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After our failed attempt to cross the desert in the last episode, a new morning finds us at Oasis in UlaanBaatar, enjoying out regular omelette and a quick coffee.

Today’s plan would take us to Central Mongolia in the hopes of not having to turn back again to UlaanBaatar. Spoiler alert – in a few days’ time, the idea of coming back to UlaanBaatar for another omelette will be a serious item on our daily council’s meeting.

Long story short, we take to road heading towards Central Mongolia, to Kharkhorin – the old capital of what was once Mongolian Empire.

In the interview below, I was explaining how there are roads being built extensively across Mongolia. This part of the road is one of those recently built. There were asphalt patches along with off-road bits, filled with washboard and dust.

The strategy is simple… you need to think a bit about those off-road bits as you could see them from afar. The clouds of dust that would rise in them could be seen from hundreds of meters away. Ideally, you wouldn’t want to get caught behind someone, in the dust they leave behind. When you see that the off-road part is approaching, you have to make a decision: either you overtake the trucks or cars at full speed, or you take it slower so that you leave enough distance between you and the vehicle in front. Then, after several hundred meters, you would get back on tarmac, you get to breath clean air again and can return to your normal pace.

Once we get to the edge of Kharkhorin, Adi finds on our GPS a monument that was up on a hill. The monument of the… there’s no other way to put it … penis. It seemed interesting enough, so we head towards it, take a left, climb the hill and we come across an area surrounded by a fence.

The only person there was a 12-year old boy who was watching over several tables filled with trinkets and souvenirs, knives, things made out of bone, all the sorts.

We go in and take a walk around the monument where superstitious people, that had difficulties in getting pregnant would come and visit, after which we proceed to the boy’s stand. He was more than keen to show us his every item and what was its purpose, in English – from dice, to small boxes for tobacco, he proceeds and evangelizes each product.

We leave and within minutes we reach the Erdene Zuu monastery. The legend says that a Khan was so impressed by his meeting with the Dalai Lama of the time, that he declared Buddhism as the official religion of Mongolia and began constructing this monastery. And I’m using monastery here in a loose meaning. It was a huge complex. There’s that saying somewhat applicable “spare no expense”. The legend also says that for building it, pieces of stone from the old capital Kharkhorin were used. It sorts of makes a lot of sense – if you already have all this prime material technically in your back yard, what’s the purpose of bringing in new material from hundreds of kilometres away?

Coming back to the story, we arrive at the front of the monastery and park our bikes. This was a full-on fair – though, technically it was a parking lot, all the parking spaces were filled with different sorts of stands selling all these trinkets, which sort of reminded me the of the ones on DN1, around Valea Prahovei.

We go in and purchase a ticket after which we stroll our way through the different buildings that were part of the inside wall of the monastery. To be honest, I only lasted for 10 minutes after which I stepped outside and left Adi alone to do the rest of the tour.

While outside, I had some spare time to look at what the stands in the parking lot were selling. They had all this stuff there, from clothes, furs, souvenirs, all sort of decor, traditional armours, masks, you name it. But in the end, it seems to be an ideal place as on the side of the parking lot were countless parked buses. And, let’s not forget, like in any other successful Mongolian fair, you would find the bleak eagle, up on a wooden post, with a chain tied to its leg… seemed to have been saying “Say cheese! We’re having so much fun taking pictures!”

Adi steps out of the building shortly after and we continue our road on the “Central line”.

Short background on these alternatives: As Thomas, another fellow traveller we met at Oasis a day before, informed us, there are 3 main options to cross Mongolia. Well, there are actually hundreds of options, but they are grouped in 3 main ones. The “Southern” one – which is most modern as the roads are almost 100% paved; the “Central” one, that we followed from UlaanBaatar to Kharkhorin and the “Northern” one, the most beautiful of the 3 but since it rained so much lately, it was pretty tough to cross through there at this time.

We continue our road West. We felt like we were going back home already, which technically was what we were doing as Bucharest was West from here.

The road to the next camping spot was mostly paved – we were doing either 80-100km/h to 40-50km/h in those rougher patches. The landscape was very interesting, possibly quite unique. This was the only day in our Mongolian trip where we saw trees. And I’m not talking about a mere 4-5 trees scattered here and there but the densest pine forest – we were definitely in the mountains now.

Fun fact: Mongolia is situated at quite a high altitude. Even while we were crossing the desert we were still at around 800-1000m altitude. If you just look around you’d only see plains and maybe a small hilltop here and there but if you were to look down at your GPS, you would be astounded to see that you are at an altitude of 1500-1700m high.

With night almost upon us, we stop at an accommodation by the side of the road. It was a low-maintenance one – the beer was there but it was room temperature to warm. The food was ok though. As there was nothing to do and the vibe here was on the down-low we called it an early night and moved on.

We wake up really early in the morning and continue on our road towards Bucharest. We exit the mountain area and we are surrounded, yet again, by the well-familiar Mongolian landscape – Hills, plains and the unmistakable washboard. We didn’t set ourselves a clear plan for this day, we would just ride West and find a place to sleep later. The road from the accommodation was paved with asphalt for a little while and then turned into this superb off-road.

The hills in the horizon would switch between low tops and even lower tops, all around we were surrounded by this lush green plain, the weather was gorgeous – sunny with some friendly clouds – it was a marvellous day.

Towards the evening, we reach Songino and yet again, I find myself associating this name with something French.  As soon as we enter the village we take a wrong turn and find ourselves on a side street. We take a left, then a right, then a left again, we basically did the “official Sangino tour”. When we reach the centre of the village we bump into 3 odd riders – 2 men and a woman, all around 50 years old. Why did I find them a bit odd? Well, they were in full offroad gear – from head to toes -, on these small bikes with absolutely no luggage, in the middle of Frenchy nowhere. They really stood out.

We make acquaintance and quickly learn their story. These people were part of an organized tour. The whole group consisted of around 15 people and they were to meet here for lodging – they were arriving to Songino from the opposite direction from us.  Seems like things didn’t go as planned for them as 5 kilometres back, one of the members of the group fell from his bike and broke his leg. He then told us that the medic in the group stopped there in order to attend to the broken leg and they came ahead looking for lodging. “It’s a really fortunate situation to have a doctor with you” I thought to myself. We talk for a few more minutes and decide that Adi would go with one of them to the village’s “hotel” researching prices, amenities etc.

After they haggled a bit with the owner, they come back with good news and also a bit of bad news: the hotel itself was in a good condition with fair prices, but the 3 bikers that we met would have to return back to their group as the doctor had forbade the injured companion to move from there, so they would camp out overnight with him.

We say our farewells, wish the injured fellow all the best and head towards the accommodation. We get there, unpack and in less than 3 minutes you would find us packing back up again and leaving. What happened? To put it simply: bad business…

Initially, Adi and the other biker had talked with the owner and decided on a fair price for a room that would fit 15-20 people – the group and us. Seeing how they were forced to stay there the requirement was now for only 2 people in this room.  The owner was ready to bite our heads off when she found out that it was just the two of us and insisted that we pay for the other people as well despite the fact that there was nobody else in Songino looking for accommodation at the time. We were the only 2. She kept on insisting on a raging tone, so we pick up our things and head back out to our bikes.

She follows us out but with a major change in her behaviour. She lowered her voice, she was being kinder and ready to make us an offer we couldn’t refuse. We get on our bikes and left her in the dust, heading towards the shops in the city village. We visit them all and come out victorious carrying lots and lots of beers (just to make it clear, 1 beer from the first store, another 3 from the second and so on – that is because the refrigerators were full soft drinks but only 1-2 beers) and we head towards where the 3 members of the group told us they would be making camp.

After around 3 or 4 kilometres from the village, we see them. Parked bikes, people frenzying around, 3 Jeeps, complete and utter chaos… Adi stops by one of the bikers, talks to him a bit and then veers right across the field, riding away from the group. At this point, I have no idea what was happening. I thought our plan was to set out camp on the left side of the road, where everyone was already working on getting setup.

After riding through the field for around 100m, we see a van in front, stopped, where a man and a woman were unloading a gas cannister. Yes, you read it right the first time, a gas cannister, in the middle of nowhere, in Monglia.

Let me tell you what this group’s deal was: All the bikers were Swiss, that had registered for this guided tour created by a company in Tadjikistan. The registration fee was around 6000 euros and did not include the plane ride from where they were coming to Tadjikistan. What was included, on the other hand, will blow your hats off:

  • Bikes and gas
  • Spare parts for the bikes, wheels (including rims) and extra gas
  • That van was carrying a gas stove, a freezer, food, 2 cooks, and lodging for when they couldn’t find an accommodation
  • A doctor with his toolkit – the one the other travellers described was actually part of the staff and he had everything with him - cast, medicine etc.
  • A mechanic that would handle all issues that arose – flat tires, engine breaks etc
  • A guide who spoke both Mongolian and German
  • An extra car that would carry all the things I mentioned as well as all their luggage. The participants would then enjoy riding their light bikes and making the most out of their adventure.

While we set up our tents, the guys in the van had already setup their cooking stove, had started cooking and had laid down the tables and chair and most surprisingly, a pavilion. We were really treating ourselves tonight.

In the meantime, the cars that were hauling their luggage had arrived and were unloading everything. They setup their tents and invite us to dinner. We drink beer, we tell tales of our trip and in no time the food was ready.

We offered what we brought with us – the beer and some food preserves, but they politely decline, and I shortly understand why. The food was ready and, on the menu, we had some sort of fish file with sauce, some fancy vegetables, basically high-end restaurant food served on plates with metal cutlery. And all of this was happening under a rising full moon.

The night goes on, as you can imagine, in tales, songs with a dash of red wine and later on, vodka. Anyway… amazing!

In our next episode we will reach Bayankoshuu. Or, to be more specific, just outside of Bayankoshuu, where I first got the vibe that something is wrong. In the outskirts of the town, at an abandoned factory, these masked policemen greeted us, in full camouflage clothing, asking us to leave our bikes here as this would be where we would be staying:

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