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Motorcycle ride in the Gobi desert | Mongolia

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We wake up at the crack of dawn as we knew that the day that lies ahead of us will be filled with adventures. After we got sidetracked yesterday through the worst road so far, we had to make a change of plan, so today we were going to head towards Gurvantes. It’s just a 246km track, so our hopes were high. The map below is 100% accurate but if you feel like things don’t add up, continue reading below to find out why :)

The first stop of the day - where else than the gas station. We already knew where it was as we passed by it yesterday, so we head out through the “fancy” neighbourhood of Bayandalai.

After arriving at the gas station we find a diesel car filling up. It finishes in no time and it’s our turn. You should already know by now something going to give... Bayalandai wouldn’t let us get away this easily.

We put the pump nozzle in the tank and the gas pump starts making the typical buzz when it is pumping gas. The buzz however did not last for more than 3 seconds after going completely silent. We rerun the whole procedure, put the nozzle back in the pump, take it out again, it starts up again and stops again after a few seconds.

The lady managing the store comes out and does some “Level 1” troubleshooting – she pulls out some sort of recipient to check if the pump is working, all according, I assume, from the well known book “Pumping Gas for Dummies”. After giving up, declaring herself bettered by the pump she decides to “escalate” the case to Level 2 support and calls a mechanic friend.

After troubleshooting with him over the phone, she slams the phone shut angrily. It dawned on us that we won’t be getting out of this situation any time soon – the pump was still not... pumping. The lady kindly invites us to get out of the sun as it was getting hotter and hotter and we were definitely not going to get going soon.

30 minutes later, a pickup truck storms into the gas station – the truck being about the same age as the pumps. The driver hops out, takes out an impressive toolbox which seemed to be dating back to WW2 and does - what seemed to me - the same trubleshooting steps the lady tried before he arrived.

Through sheer magic though, the pump starts humming and continues working through the cheering of the crowd that has gathered around the gas station. By now there were around 10 cars waiting in line. We top up, say our goodbyes to the people around and leave for the other end of the village where the desert, and the road to Gurvantes, began.

For some unknown reason, my brain seems to be associating the word “Gurvantes” to something from the “Three Musketeers” rather than sand and desert – it has this sort of French connotation. Anyway.

The tarmac road exiting the village ends, as always, in a big pile of dirt. This pile marks the end of the civilized world from the infinite yellow desert so, at least for now, goodbye cold beer and WWII gas stations.

Anxious to take on the desert, we start riding on the nearest road around the pile of dirt. The first few hundred meters, the road was brilliant – a combination of compacted clay with a thin cover of sand. Things were to change soon enough though.

As we progressed into the desert, the road became more and more brutal, meaning no more battered clay, only deep sand. At first it wasn’t that bad, the sand patches were only about 15-20m long. But as we went on, the streaks would show up more and more often and they were becoming longer and longer.

After a few of these “stop and go” manoeuvres, I remember Diana and Florin’s trip around the world from 2016-2017 (you can find their story here: http://worldride2016.com/en/uncategorized/mongolia-disperarea-si-teama-te-insotesc-permanent/ ) when, because of the heat and having to start in the sand, their clutch overheated and gave up.

With the image of Florin standing over his dis-assembled BMW firmly imprinted in my mind and remembering a “how-to” video from YouTube about getting out of sand after a full stop, so I slip the clutch as little as possible and throttle my way out.

The techniques from the video became a bit obsolete when our surroundings changed to some resembling waves. These are not dunes we are talking about, nor any major uphill, just these long slightly inclined "hills" which were covered by deep sand. If you stopped for any reason here, tough luck, you would need to go back downhill and try again.

As you can imagine, the road we were taking was nowhere near what the GPS was showing. The GPS now mostly served as a compass to guide us towards the general direction we were heading to, only the terrain would dictate the actual road we were taking.

Just a bit of background, at some point a man explained us the logic behind these “roads” that were basically comprised of 2 or more parallel tracks heading in the same direction: during the rainy season, some of these “tracks” would become innundated. Then, your only choice is to go around the "puddle" and thus create a new track. Your only way to navigate is by focusing on fixed landmarks and getting there, however the terrain around allows you. By landmarks, think about some crest at the horizon, electrical lines – these are what locals use to get around. When two cars share the road, the second one will take one of the parallel tracks, so it wouldn’t drive in the dust the first car leaves behind.

Back to our story: not knowing exactly which track to take, we kept an eye out for car tracks. This seemed to work fine at first, however, at some point it seemed to us that the more popular tracks were on the larger sand areas. The sand is no problems for the local cars – most of them old 4x4-s, it even makes the ride smoother – for us though... with the big motorcycles and extra fully loaded, let's say our hearts stopped a few times, to put it mildly.

Having to zig-zag our way through, thinking about every next steps and swimming through this yellow ocean, it dawned on us that we won’t be able to make it to Gurvantes today.

Therefore, we pull over and called the daily stand-up to order. Our pros and cons list looked something like this:

Cons:

  • It was getting really hot so thermal discomfort was only going to get worse
  • We were going at a really slow speed, so the bikes’ fans were humming continuously, overheating the engines was to be considered
  • There was no shadow as far as the eye could see where we could rest for a while. It wasn’t too much trouble for now but after driving in the heating sun for a few more hours, it would only be getting worse
  • There were around 200km that we needed to cross in the desert. The bikes' tanks would, under normal conditions, handle this really well. Under the current conditions, at the speed we were going we were just going to make it. Not to mention that if any of us, God forbade, dropped his bike, we would spill even more fuel which could potentially make our situation pretty hairy

Pros:

  • We have enough water and food. And not any sort of food, but the food that Gengis Khan would feed his soldiers in battle - the real deal

One of the most important arguments though, was we had no idea what the road to Gurvantes had in store for us. Having plotted this course just a day before we had no time to properly prepare our homework, So, if we were to waste more time in the desert, we risked our Russian visa to expire.

We were cutting it really close with the visa, anticipating leaving Russia one day before it expired. If we were to miss this window, by even a little, things would take the a turn for the worse as Russians have zero tolerance for visa violations. 

After our short ad-hoc meeting, the General Council unanimously voted to turn around, some 30 km and go back to UlaanBaatar and continue on from there to Central Mongolia.

Between where we were at that time and UlaanBaatar there were about 700km but these were 700km that we knew we could finish in what was left of the day versus the 200km to Gurvantes and an extra 300km to central Mongolia that we had no idea about but assumed were just as rough and might cause massive delays in our progress.

Now that I have finished boring you with the logistical details, here we are back on the road to Bayalanday. The unexpected thing is that we, obviously, didn’t go back on the same track. Needless to say that this new track heading into Bayalanday, only a few meters away from the other one way, way better. Fewer patches of sand, more compacted dirt and what looked like - more car tracks.

We later ran into another traveller from France, Leo who he rode a 500cmc Royal Einfield. He told us about his experience crossing the desert. With some help from another French guy in a Jeep, he managed to cross, but through a completely different path than the one we took. His story however, only convinced us that we took the right decision to turn back.

The road back to UlaanBaatar was about as exciting as watching paint dry. We went around the gas station where we previously stopped at – apparently the mechanic did a bangup job as it was still running flawlessly. After exiting Bayalandai to Danzalagdad and further on, to UlaanBaatar, we’ve encountered something that I think you can only ever see into in Mongolia.

Because of the work on the road that went into Bayalandai, the fuel truck went around the “main” road as well as the parallel "maintenance road" because it just couldn’t climb the steep bank that united the main road with the maintenance one. So, the tanker would simply go off-road, through the plains, in a straight line, leaving behind en enormous cloud of dust. Godspeed!. I thought to myself "This is why people don’t buy second hand trucks from Mongolia".

When we reached the second part of the roadwork, we got lucky with of a car driving ahead of us showing a neat trick - it stayed on the road and managed to reach the asphalt by going around the dividing ditch. This is how all 3 of us managed to get on the tarmac and avoided the sandy maintenance road.

Once again, we reached the café where we stopped the first time hungry as lions :) The ladies there didn’t even bother showing us what they had prepared because I - connoisseur by now - already knew what I was going for – oriental salad with a side of rice – DE-LI-CIOUS!

In the evening, after around 8 hours we got to UlaanBaatar and pulled in directly at the Oasis. Total change of atmosphere here … even though there were far less motorcycles than before, the car park was completely full.

What hadn’t changes was the carnival vibe, just like before – felt like the circus was back in town, but specifically contained in this parking lot. All sort of jeeps – bigger or smaller, off-road trucks, utility vehicles that had been modified, all sorts of trailers, each trying to surpass the other in terms of stickers or wrappings. And with the banners and the flags, you can imagine the pleasure or walking around them, learning their stories of where they’ve been, where they were heading to and what their plans were. Not to mention their owners – they were more than happy to walk us through the changes that these vehicles had undergone but also other news of the road that was ahead. The overall atmosphere in there was something that I haven’t experienced before.

We park under the bike shed – where initially we couldn’t find any space left and we are greeted by the astounded host: “Oh – why are you back?”

Adi barely contains himself saying “because we like your schnitzels”, we find a spare room to check in – same room as before, take a shower and go down to grab a beer with the "new” folk. 

Night falls upon us in an already familiar fashion: studying maps and working our way down the kitchen passport.

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