The morning of the 15th dawns on us, finding us with our energy resources at max, and looking forward to getting back on the move after bing stuck for a few days. We are finally to leave the Blue Wolf Ger Camp and start heading towards the border Mongolian – Russian border. We still had 2 more days before the border would open but we were afraid that having been closed for too long, we would find a massive queue and we really didn’t want to take that chance.
So, we bring along Leo, the Frenchman riding his classy Royal Einfield and head out towards the border-village Ulaanbaishint. Most of the road there was paved, with only about 25kms of offroad. On our way there, Leo has a flat, so we stop by the side of the road to fix it. Let me just tell you that taking the rear wheel off a Royal Einfield literally requires one to dismantle half a bike.. Anyway, later rather than sooner, we manage change the tube, put everything back together and get going.
Further along our road, in a village, we are flagged down by another fellow rider. He tells us that he has vacancy at his lodging in the village and invites us to sleep over. According to him, there is nothing we need to worry about at the border crossing and we could leisurely spend our time with him until the morning of the 17th.
The way he approached us and the way he insisted seemed a bit fishy to us so we politely declined and moved on towards the border.
Just a few kilometers away, we find the border and the village, and we intersect with the main road somewhere behind the barrier. Looked like we went off the road at some point and we circled all the way around the village. We get back on this main road and pop just between the barrier and the actual border. Surprise, surprise! Seems we’re in luck, there was no queue, we were here first.
We start looking for a place to stay close by and are greeted by a lady who spoke the best English I have heard in Mongolia. Her name was Didi, she finished her studies at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology and was working for a company in UlaanBaatar. At that time, she was here visiting family who lived a stone throw away from the border. We were more than happy to sleep in a guest yurt in their backyard. The place itself couldn’t have a better position as I said, it was under 50m from the barrier. After grabbing our stuff from the bikes, we settle in, Didi, who turned out to be the daughter of the lady who owned the lodging, shows us the garage where we could leave our bikes. Her husband opens the garage door and, surprisingly enough, looks like we’re not the first ones at the border, after all. Inside, a GS1200 would be keeping our bikes company for the night.
Small side note: Adi read in a book that if you want to find the best-preserved cultural habits from the Kazakhs’, you would find it in the region where we were in – Western Mongolia. Because of the Russian influence, many of the customs in Kazakhstan have been lost. For example, the yurt we spend the night in was a Kazakh traditional yurt, not Mongolian. Despite being pretty similar to the Mongolian yurts there were a few differences, the Kazakh yurt was slightly bigger and had the “walls” covered in colorful mats. In the middle of our temporary home there was a small metallic fireplace which also served as a stove. If you are wondering what people would use to fuel the fire within, I’ll just let you guess. Just know that there were no trees around and the fuel burned our pretty inefficiently, so we had to top up quite often to make it through the night.
Later that day, we made acquittance with the owners of the GS in the garage – a Polish couple, super nice, who were making their way through Ukraine and Moldova. They were also put behind schedule by the border being closed for so long. To make matters even worse, they had only 3 more days on the validity of their Russian visa so getting from where we were to the border with Ukraine was impossible in this timespan. Their backup plan was to go into Russia and head towards the first territorial office to get the visa extended, otherwise it would be hell on earth trying to make that crossing.
After talking with the “neighbors” a bit and having completed settled in, we have taken to the streets – the main road was the street that ended at the closed barrier. On one side you’d find shops and “restaurants” with houses built in the backyard, on the other side was this villa where the border patrols were accommodated. On the bright side, we had cold beer and plenty of food, on the not-so-bright side, the GSM signal was weak to nonexistent, and electricity was scarce. Anyway, if there’s no internet we had little use for our mobile devices, except for a few pictures.-atat.
Towards the evening, a lady dressed in military uniform comes into our lodging yard and says hi to everyone – turns out she was Didi’s sister and that she was working at the border. Imagine the luck that had befallen us. We made sure she knew we were first at the border and she assured us we were to cross on the 17th when the borders open.
The two days we spent there had gone by quite slowly. There was barely anything to do around the village. We spent our time talking to Didi’s husband who was Mongolia’s boxing champion in I-can’t-remember-which division, we adjusted and tested the brakes on a brand new Chinese motorcycle, basically we bored ourselves out of our minds.
In a moment of inspiration, I decided to take a picture of the cars that had started to queue up at the border. By then there were no more than 3 or 4 cars and a few 18 wheelers. This picture will turn out to be very useful…
Adi later wanted to hike to hill nearby while Leo and myself enjoyed our “extra-drinkable” beer.
And here we are! On our big day! According to Didi’s sister, by 8.30am we should be already lined up in front of the barrier. Us, being on the more cautious side, woke up even earlier and joined the queue, passing all the cars already queued up. Because our motorcycles had been in the garage all along you can imagine the stir our maneuvers caused.
Along the car line were many locals that had no other purpose than to just kill some time. After a little while, a soldier comes out with a small paper in his hand. To avoid any quarrels between drivers as most people tried to cut in the queue, the soldiers had made a list the night before, listing all the license plates of the cars that were in line at that time. As soon as the list came out, all hell broke loose: everyone was screaming at everyone else, the guardian was screaming at all waving his little piece of paper around, people from the back of the line were coming towards the front and the stand-byers were just inciting left and right. At some point, one of the locals that was just standing there and wasting time starts arguing with the guarding while pointing at us, probably saying that we cut in line too. As I said before, this guy was a local, he had no intention of crossing the border, he must have been only bored to death.
The guard barely manages around the multiple people talking to him and doesn’t even look us over when we were trying to explain, mostly using gestures, that we’ve been here first, and we’ve been at the lodging over there. He got 0% of that message.
The first 10-15 cars pass while we are waved to wait on the side. In the meantime, a younger soldier joins the circus, doing his best to keep the “peace”. They let another batch of cars drive through, including the 18 wheelers from the picture I took the other day at the end of the line. He keeps us stopped on the side.
I’ve already “escalated” the situation to the older solider twice and hit face first in his refusal to cooperate so I get off my bike again, pull the younger guard to the side and shove my phone in his face showing him the picture I took of the queue the day before. The younger one, being a bit more collaborative, sees the pictures, zooms in on it and recognizes the 18 wheelers that had just passed by. He goes to the older guard and tells him something after which he gives us a look of “why didn’t you say so already?”
Anyway, we cross the barrier and go into the actual customs area, park the bikes and enter the building. Here, we spot Didi’s sister who was now not wearing her uniform, but casual dressing. She signs us to wait… guess what? as already a regular habit in Mongolian borders, the system was down. The Russians and the Mongolians were not impacted by this and could cross easily, only the ones with visas had to wait for the system to come back up. After waiting for around an hour, we hand out our paperwork to some office manager, he writes all the information on a piece of paper and lets us pass. We could see in an office, and on a big screen the “ping -t” command was continuously running. By the time we went through, the Internet connection was still not up.
We exit the Mongolian border and take on the road to the Russian part of the border, which was around 20km further. Upon just arriving, a guard signs us to come to the front. We gladly comply, go around the lines of cars and stop right at the gate. People didn’t seem to mind this unlike on the Mongolian side, they even pulled to the side so we could lane split easier.
Here, near the gate, we meet Asmir, a Bosnian guy living in Germany, former K1 champion. He was such a character. He was loud, temperamental and quite impatient. He didn’t get why we had to wait. We fill in some paperwork and finally, the gate opens and a soldier signs us in and tells us to park on the side. And so, the bureaucratic paperwork adventure is on its way: import papers, visa verification, declarations and what not. At this point, Asmir was already ticked off.
Finally, they move on to checking our bags. For myself, Adi and Leo the process was pretty fast as we had aluminum panniers. They would open them, look inside for a bit and that was it. We were smiling, neither the soldiers nor the Customs lady were in a bad mood. I did mention we were smiling, right? Well, here come’s Asmir’s turn. By the time they got to him, his blood was boiling.
And his textile bags, though easier ride with offroad because they’re a lot lighter, didn’t help that much when it came to the customers check. The guard tells him what to open and the man stubbornly complies. The mood sort of changed as both the guard and the Customs lady began to search his things way more thoroughly. They ravage his belongings, making him unpack every single bag including the roll-bag on the top. When he thought he managed to pull it through, the soldier sees the toolbox bolted on his Africa Twin’s bashplate. That type of toolbox takes a lot of effort to open: Asmir needed to get a certain wrench (which was obviously, in the panniers the guard had just checked and that were now repacked), unscrew some screws and then he could open it. “What is this? Open?” the guard said. Asmir turns red.
I’ll just do a quick parenthesis here: being Bosnian, Asmir understand Russian really well and could also talk it a bit. Secondly, the Customs lady was a bit on the larger side.
Back to the tale: he unpacks one of the panniers, takes out the wrench, unscrews the toolbox and opens it. Just as he was done with it he ironically asks the soldier: “are you having fun?”. The soldier turns to the customs lady and tells her in Russian that Asmir called her an elephant. Asmir flared up understanding what the soldier had just said.
Anyway, we leave the border safe and sound as soon as we finished the paperwork and regroup 1 km down the road, near a local store. We decide there to separate from Leo. It was already the middle of the day by now and our plan was to head towards Altai Motor house, a guest house for bikers, around 550km away. Leo couldn’t do this road in 1 run as his cruising speed was somewhere around 80km/h.
After all the roads we’ve seen in Mongolia, the 500km from the border through the Altai mountains was magnificent. Absolutely magnificent. Instead of long planes and washboard, we were traveling through windy and impeccable roads, forests, mountains, rivers – absolutely astounding. As we would get nearer to villages we could smell the smoke coming out of the chimneys. Again, this part was absolutely beautiful.
Despite having just said that the road was twisty and impeccable, I enjoyed only half of it. The right curves were OK, but ton he left hand twists I was barely leaning the motorcycle… my mind was only on the blown fork the oil that was making its way down my fork tube and down on my boot.
On our way towards the border we also ran into Mihai, Oana and Vladimir, they were heading towards the Mongolian border. We talk for a little while about our adventures hug and say goodbye, each going separate ways. Unluckily enough, we later learnt they would have to spend 20hours or so at the Russia-Mongolia border they were heading to.
Towards the evening, we reach Altai motor house and park in the yard next to 2 choppers that were sporting Russian license plates. We meet Anna, Yuria and the owner, Vladimir. They had a really interesting setup here. Vladimir is the owner of the house, technically we were crashing at his home. He was a motocross instructor with around 15 bikes for trainings and renting, some snowmobiles and surprisingly enough, a snowbike. Honestly, it was the first snowbike I ever laid eyes on, but I think it must be really fun to ride in the winter.
He takes us on a short tour of the property, a garage with all sorts of tools, parked bikes, everything in top shape. Anna shows us where we would sleep and then we head to dinner. I can’t remember what we ate but one thing I can tell you: it was amazing. While we were all hanging out enjoying a beer that we bought from a vending machine, guess who comes through the front door? Asmir, the German we met at the border. He stopped for some gas but then the POS wouldn’t work, and he had no cash. So, he had to drive to a different place to get money and come back to the gas station and pay, which made him lose tenths of kilometers, causing him to come in later than us.
We all settle in for the night, in storytelling and overall joyfulness.
The second day was going to be busy. Adi had to change the Michelin Wild tires with the street ones a pair of Metzeler Tourance. Fortunately, as soon as we start, Vladimir asks us if they are tubeless. Thankfully he asked right before we took them off as they had no air compressors in the shop. Before leaving with 5 “students” on a bike training ride, he calls a local shop and orders a brand new compressor. Twenty minutes after hanging up, a pickup drives in with a brand-new air compressor. AMAZING!
We start with the front tire. Easy breezy. The back tire, on the other hand, not that easy. We struggle for around 30 minutes to put on the street tire on and ended up putting a small dent in the rim in the process (!!!).
I forgot to mention that visiting Vladimir were 2 friends of his, and luckily enough, one of them had owned a repair shop for some 20 years. But as Murphy’s law dictates, he was not around when we were struggling to fit the tire to the rim. He only walked by once we manage to bend the rim and were just sitting around looking at it.
After a short laugh, he helps us fit the tire, we pump it up and notice air was coming out around the dented rim. Our only options at this point were either to try and straighten it out with tools we could find lying around or put in a tube and leave the dent as is. Personally, I was leaning to go for the tube option, however, Vladimir’s friend was confident he could fix the rim. A few skillful hammer swings later the rim’s edge was as good as new.
When it came to putting the tire back on he showed us where we screwed up when mounting it in the first place. Thank you for the advice and beer’s on us.
In the meantime, while we were fiddling around the bikes, Leo messages us saying that he was leaving where he slept over night and was heading our way We talk to Anna and quickly decide to spend another day here as it was already past noon and we wouldn’t get far anyway. Big happiness all around, the Mongolia crew would get another get-together.
Shortly after, Vladimir and the trainees came back, and he tumbles upon my bike’s blown out fork seal. I explain to him what happened, what I’ve done, how many kilometers the bike has to which the man calmly replies: ”yeah, I get that all the time on my bikes. It’s because of the dirt.”
He calmly grabs a plastic bottle, cuts it into a particular shape and puts it gently between the fork seal and the telescope, gently prying it all around. It took longer to cut the plastic in that shape than the actual job of cleaning the fork seal. After he was finished, I had to was replace the fork oil that was lost. He had some Motul fork oil laying around, so he told me to help myself and went inside.
I took off the front tire and drew the remaining oil. In the meantime, I also gave Ovidiu – from the KTM dealership in Bucharest – a call and found out ho many milliliters of oil need to go in.
Filled with a sense of accomplishment, I unscrew the lower part of the fork, drain out all the oil and then I see Vladimir who was just about to exit through the front gate. “Wait! Where are you going?” I ask him. “Well I’m heading out. I have stuff to do”.
For Heaven’s sake! Vladimir had to leave right when my fork was in pieces, with all the oil gone. He gives me some little guidance that I need to put the plug screw back, take out the telescope and refill it with fresh oil.
With Yuria, Adi, Asmir, Leo and YouTube on my side, here we are opening up the upper side of the fork’s tube. There were no instructions on how to do so in the user’s manual I downloaded on my phone, probably KTM didn’t expect customers to do this type of maintenance by themselves...
We later found out that we needed a special tool that needed to get right into the holes at the top of the fork tube. After some more struggling, seeing how we couldn’t figure out how to open the top cover, we disassemble the tube completely from the motorcycle, turn it upside down and pour oil through the draining orifice.
Sounds like a plan! After a little while, the fork tube is out but things take a turn for the worse when we realize that we didn’t have anything like a small hose or a small syringe to get the oil inside the tube.
Fortunately, Vladimir who forgot something had come back home. He sees how little progress we’ve made in his absence, so he hands us a weird looking pinch we use to open up the upper cap of the tube – which is the proper way to pour oil in. Anyway, we add just enough oil, mount the fork back on the bike, clean up the brake discs, redo the settings on the fork and go out for a test drive.
After a few laps on the front street and after a few hops over speed bumps we conclude that the fork is as good as new and there were no more leaks. Classically, we celebrate a job well done with some beer.
In our next episode, we will leave Russia and enter Khazahkstan. In Semey, the city where they used to test Soviet atomic bombs, we’ll spend a romantic candle-lit night.
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