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Episode 3: D day - buckle up | Mongolia

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The day before the departure to Mongolia, D-1 if you’d like. Everything is packed: the spare tires, the panniers are loaded with everything need to survive for two months. Everything is piled up in the living room. I decide to load up everything on the bike now, I hate having to do this in the morning of the departure. The first ones to be mounted on the motorcycle are the panniers. Next – the tires. The plan is to put both tires on the back, around the topcase, I tested this layout when I bought the tires, both the front and rear tires fit perfectly around the Givi Trekker topcase. Amazingly enough this setup no longer works now that I also have the panniers on… good thing I noticed this now rather than in the morning. Scratched my head for a bit, tried a few different mounting places, each with its advantage and disadvantage. In the end, the solution I settled for was to leave the front tire around the topcase (due to the bigger radius) and tie down the rear tire on the crash bar. Looked like a compromise I could live with.

The departure day – D-day - welcomes us with a gloomy morning... at least it’s not raining, it could have been worse. Marina, my wife, comes downstairs and opens the gate for me. Final hugs... won’t see each other for two months... this will be the longest period we’ll be apart in over 10 years.

With my wife at the gate, I go in the garage to take the motorcycle out... boy, was I glad Marina did not see me struggling to turn around the fully loaded beast. I get on the motorcycle, fold the sidestand and start riding towards the gate. Shock and awe! Because of the lateral tire, the motorcycle now behaves like a drifting ship. I remember thinking: "Oh boy, I won't even make it to the border this way". :)

I was to meet Adi and some of our friends on the other side of Bucharest, in a gas station. The guys wanted to ride with us for the first kilometers, probably to be sure we are really doing this trip. By the time I reached to the gas station I got used to the new balance point of the motorcycle, the only weird thing was when coming to a complete halt. Just before stopping I had to adjust the balance for a bit, but after I sped up and changed into the 2nd gear, I didn’t even notice the tire was there.

The end of the first day was going to find us in Turkey, we were planning on crossing hectic Istanbul and stopping in Bolu, all in all around 1000 kilometers from Bucharest. The road so far was just as expected: super boring. At least we were well rested and knew what to expect – we had reached the Russian – Georgian border last year when we did the "Tour of Georgia".

We were soaking wet when we got to Bolu... it was rainin’ cats and dogs and it did not seem to be stopping any time soon so waiting it out did not make sense. When we got there, we parked the motorcycles and were eager to mark the end of our first vacation day with a cold beer. But surprise... it was Ramadan in Turkey, meaning zero alcohol. We had to settle for some sparkling water from the bar. The cautious Romanians are not left „dry” so easily. Before leaving, I got a plastic gas canister (10L) for days of travelling through the desert. Since the canister was brand new and I was not expecting to need it until Uzbekistan, I decided not to take it empty... 5L of white wine can’t hurt.

We checked in and went to the room, turned on the stove, and hung the equipment wherever we can find a free spot to dry it. Five minutes later we pour the first glasses of wine.

Next day, we start off early as we have to reach Batumi by nightfall, another thousand kilometers away. Somehow, the GPS plotted the route out of Bolu on a weird-looking off-road going through some hills behind the city. As it had been raining for a few days now, we ran into an overflowed river we had to cross... no easy way around it. This was the first river crossing.

A few other boring hours later, we enter Batumi and go straight to the “Old town” – a hostel located behind some blocks of flats that can be reached by going through a weird narrow gang. The hostel is however ideal – we are in the very center of the city, next to the futuristic building that the ex-President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili wanted to turn into a public library. Unfortunately, the building was left unused. Although deserted, at least the outside of the building looks spectacular.

We unpack and start walking through the city. Totally by accident we found our way to a restaurant we had visited last year too, apparently one of the best known in Batumi.

We were supposed to spend the third and fourth day still in Georgia, because the validity of our Russian visa was starting in two days. No need to rush so we decide to leave Batumi and head to Tbilisi the next day. In Tbilisi, again by chance, we find the little plaza where we stopped last year while we were trying to find a motorcycle service to fix Adi’s brakes.

We go in, find a Wi-Fi connection to book an accommodation and drink the most artificial 100% natural lemonade – it was betrayed by the neon green color :)

Half an hour later, we check into the same hostel where we stayed last year – cheap, clean, with a small courtyard to park he motorcycles.

After unpacking we go out to visit the surroundings. No sooner do we turn around the corner than we realize our hotel was right next to a pedestrian area packed with bars and terraces on both sides, a sort of “Old City Center” in Bucharest. We somehow missed it last year:))

After thoroughly investigating all the bars we decide to sit at a terrace selling home-brew beer.

After drinking a few beers we take a cab and head to the city center where we were supposed to a few of Adi’s colleagues who work here, in Tbilisi. They have already booked a terrace located at the top of an ultra-fancy hotel. Adi’s friends were already waiting for us.

Ajung si baietii, incepe distractia, bem un vin absolut genial - Tsinandali 2013 Special Reserve.

It was there we drank an absolutely brilliant white wine – Tsinandali 2013 Special Reserve, Georgians are famous for their wines but this one was absolutely fantastic. A few hours later, people start to leave, we linger for a bit more to get a deeper knowledge into the legendary Georgian wine. After one more we are told we can no longer place orders as the cash register broke or something (the restaurant was still opened). After a short protest we agree to leave, but not empty-handed... we wanted another one of these magical bottles of wine. They accept, the register reopens by magic, they cash in the bottle and we are on our way.

The next day, we head north, towards the Russian border and plan to spend the night in Stepantsminda, a village about 20 kilometers away from the border control point. On the way there, we receive a file of 50 GEL (the equivalent of around $20) for speeding – we were doing 90 in a 70 km/h zone.

We thus arrive to Stepantsminda, we make a stop in the „center” to grab something to eat, and pull up Booking to find a place to stay. We found a cheap guesthouse that also had a yard to park the motorcycles in that was nearby. It’s here where we met two Japanese couples that were in a yearlong around the globe journey. No fixed itinerary, no fixed timelines, they were just deciding where to go and what to visit on the fly.

After a quick chat with our new neighbors we pull out the famous Sibiu palinca (a kind of Romanian vodka) and then the wine. The Japanese have a good laugh at the wine canister being inscribed with all sort of messages, one more ominous than the other: „Warning”, „Danger” and so on. After a glass or two me and Adi decide to head to the center.

On our way, we run into some machines where you can pay taxes, fees, recharge your telephone plan and – what do you know – pay road fines J A good Samaritan helps us navigate through the menu, the entire system seems very well designed: one only has to enter the serial number of the fine, then the name, amount you have to pay and other details pop up on the confirmation screen. You put the money in the slot, get the receipt and that’s it. No useless trips to the Police or City Hall, no wasting time at the counter. WOW.

After a short walk we get to a „tavern” with a few stickers on the door from other travelers. First order of business: we order food and a bottle of Tsinandali 2015 wine. Unfortunately, this one had nothing to do with the wine we drank in Tbilisi. Adi discovers that the place has a terrace in the back so we relocate outside next to three noisy Russian guys. We were going to find out shortly that one of them, Aleksander, was celebrating his birthday.

No more than 10 minutes later our Japanese friends show up. Long story short, half an hour later there was a big party on the terrace... me and Adi, along with the Japanese and the Russians were singing happy birthday to Aleksander, then each one sang in their own language, there was beer and vodka and shots and cha-cha – a Georgian alcoholic beverage. The Japanese guys and girls left pretty early as they were planning to climb up to the Gergeti Trinity Church on foot the next day (best of luck with that guys). Soon enough the Russians go to sleep one by one, seems they had started partying pretty early.

After the Russians went to sleep, we befriended some Georgians guys from a table inside.

Second part of the party starts, but the tavern is about to close. The lady boss decides it’s time to ring the closing bell and she evacuates all of us on the terrace (it was pretty chilly by now). After another 20 minutes, during which they cleaned up inside, she lets us know that the terrace closes too and she invites all of us out.

The Georgians, nice guys, offer to give us a ride “home”. The guesthouse wasn’t that far away but unfortunately we had to go through a pretty steep street so we gladly accept their offer.

About halfway to the guesthouse, two of the Georgians start fighting out of the blue. Things escalate rapidly and one of them hits the other with a bottle in the head, causing a nasty cut on his forehead.

The car stops, we all get out because the two started punching each other in the car. They start throw stones at each ather (luckily target missed), then they get in a brawl. Eventually they bicker for a while more, held in turns by their friend Nika (MMA fighter) who assures us it’s nothing serious, and soon the conflict fades away.

I don’t know what caused the fight, probably an older issue considering how quickly things got out of hand.

Starting with the fourth day, things were going to change. Until Stepantsminda, „we took the beaten path”. We mostly knew how it was, we recognized parts of the route from last year’s “Georgia Tour”. From now on, we were going to enter mother Russia. Party’s over, people are bad there, the drivers are psychopaths (everyone knows the famous Russian accident videos), no to mention policemen.

We wake up early in the morning, on a heavy rain – no wonder… We start riding towards the border defying the 6-7 degrees Celsius. After reaching the border we noticed with surprise the "Vstromania" sticker – our moto group - is still there, on the pole next to the Georgian side of the border.

On the Georgian side, the passport control goes smoothly. Stamp on the passport and „Good bye”. On the Russian side, it all seemed to go well at first J We park the motorcycles next to the first counter. Inside, a blue-eyed blonde lady-officer takes our passports, checks our visa, takes some pictures of us and has us waiting. We wait for about 15 minutes and eventually are taken over by another officer who asks us to move the motorcycles next to the exit of the customs point. Full of hopes that we are almost done, we comply rapidly. We don’t even take the helmets from the motorcycles as we were positive that we are one small step away from entering Russia.

The officer takes us into a building located in the opposite way we parked our motorcycles. After we enter, he tells us to wait in a sort of narrow hallway. When I say hallway, imagine a crowded, narrow corridor with 2 long benches on both sides and 10 persons already waiting. We sit there and after 10-15 seconds a voice can be heard from my pocket „GPS signal lost”. Everyone has a good laugh :)

After the GPS broke the ice, we start talking with a Kazakh guy who spoke English and find out that he had been waiting for 6 hours in that hallway, he was part of an organized tour, travelling with a tourist bus. The bus and all the other passengers on the tour were all waiting for him. Some Armenian people had been waiting for 7 hours. One of them was travelling by taxi to cross the border and was now hoping that the taxi driver is patiently waiting for him to finish the border control.

Quick note - from the moment when you provide the documents to the blue-eyed blonde lady-officer from the first counter, you are never allowed alone around the customs point, you are always accompanied by a soldier or a policeman.

One of the Armenians goes outside our confined space and tries to go outside for a smoke. As there were cameras everywhere, a policeman shows up and asks him on a raised tone to get back in the „cell”.

After another 2 hours of waiting on the hallway, the Armenians had left, a guardian comes in and asks the two of us and the English - speaking Kazakh to follow him upstairs, in another office. There, a policeman was staying in front of the computer - we were in for the interview. Questions about us, family, work, travel, motorcycles, why and where we are going, everything is meticulously noted down. From time to time, the landline phone on the officer’s desk would ring... and our interviewer would answer. Most likely when he ended the conversation and put the receiver down, the last fields of the form he was filling in would be erased - he always started asking the last 2-3 questions all over again.

After a gazillion questions, half of them repeated or asked in a different way, they let us go. I felt as if I had passed an exam. We go to our motorcycles, everything was in its place, headsets, cameras, tank bags, great success!

Thank you for reading up to this point, already bored of the formalities of the Russian customs? Are you ready to start the Russian episode? Hold your horses, you didn’t think that we simply got on our motorcycle and rode in Russia, did you?

Nooo... now we have to go through customs control and fill in the temporary import declaration for the motorcycles. Twice (you have to fill in the same form twice). One stays with them and the other one is stamped with a bar code and you have to keep it safe with the price of your life. You’d better not lose it or you’re in big trouble.

After some more bureaucracy we’re finally done. We „step” into Russia. First stop – an electronic shop to buy a SIM card for the data plan. It’s just that – guess what? – if you don’t have a permanent residence in Russia (ID with Russian address), you are not allowed to buy a SIM card. Luckily, Adi finds a good fella and he buys the SIM on his ID. Now connected to the Internet, real time notifications enabled and – opulence – Google Maps, we head to Elista.

As we enter the city the navigation shows us we still have 15 km until the destination. “Who knows, maybe it’s a large city” I think. After crossing the town we find out we’re staying somewhere in the suburbs. Suburbs as in almost in the other town, 10 km away from Elista’s center.

While crossing the city, we notice something weird about the people here. In Elista 80% of the people look Mongoloid. And most monuments in the city have motifs such as horses, eagles, quite a lot yurts, didn’t know what to make of this but it all definitely looked out of place.

We finally get in front of the guest house on an „off-road” street and we call Constantin, the owner .I start talking with some workers nearby working on a house... they clarify the mystery of the Mongoloids. All of them are Russian citizens, they speak Russian and have been living in Russia for generations. In the 1600s, their ancestors emigrated from Mongolia because of the conflicts there and settled down here, in Elista.

Constantin eventually arrives, shows us around the house, everything is very neat. We take a shower and he drives us to the city. We stop by to an interesting tavern called „Afrika”. We never understood this combination – Afrika in the Mongolian Elista, in Russia :)

A few hours later, we were going to find out how cheap the taxi is in Russia when we paid around $5 for 10 kilometers. Spasiba!

Tomorrow, we are going to leave for Volgograd (or Stalingrad, as it was called in the URSS era).

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