We wake up earlier than usual. Despite the conditions and the abundance of mosquitos we had a good sleep last night. Thankfully, the Romanian anti-mosquito spray, Autan, did a number on them so they almost left us alone throughout the night. Another big plus about last night was that it was cold, so we could sleep completely covered in our sleeping bags, leaving no skin exposed. Had it been warmer, the story now would have probably been a bit different.
Looking at the GPS track, I notice that this place where we spent the night – the brick factory – was at a respectable 1171m above sea level.
We get out of the room and are greeted by the shiniest sun, no trace of clouds in the sky, but also by none other than “Gav-Gav”, the resident dog. A pretty big puppy, bursting with energy and looking for playmates at every corner. Though initially we weren’t in the mood to play with him, we just couldn’t walk by, so we ended up chasing with him a bit.
After tiring him, we head on and try and get our bikes out from the locked container-garage we left them in. After pulling them out of the place quietly, we gear up, pack our bags and run into the husband who was out with the baby.
We wanted to start the day in style, so we pull up our bikes in front of our bungalow in order to lube the chains. When I bring the bike (we pushed them from the container all across the yard), without even thinking about it or choosing a better place, I place it right next to Adi’s – less that 50cm away. We get them on the centerstand and we start fiddling around the chains under the husband’s approving looks.
Upon finishing, we say goodbye and thank him from the bottom of our hearts for their kindness and hospitability. Adi gets his bike off the centerstands and mounts it while I, in the 50 cm free space between the bikes, try to do the same. But karma or something worse hits me hard – the bike starts leaning slowly but surely towards the right… for the first tenths milliseconds, I was feeling confident that I could keep it straight. But panic slowly started creeping in when I realized I was pressing up against the crashbar and didn’t have any more strength to pull it back, consequently, boom! – bike was laying on the ground. We laugh it out, Adi moves his bike a bit further on, we pick up the KTM with the chain sparking in the sunlight and just get going … really good start, right?
We leave the brick factory behind, heading North-West following our day plan to go about 300km towards Ulgii where we were going to catch the Nadaam festival. From Ulgii to the Russian border there were about 100 more kilometers and we had a lot of days left before our Russian visa expired. We could stop everywhere on our way back and still make it in time. We had a few extra days for the Pamir mountains in case we were going to run into trouble there both mechanical or weather-wise. The general feeling at the time was that we were running so well on time that even the Apollo missions couldn’t compete with our masterful scheduling!
The road to Ulgii was really beautiful – we started on around 30km of paved road, then 200 on off-road and ended up with 60 more on paved before reaching Ulgii.
The first city we reached after leaving was Khovd. It’s a big city, super civilized – asphalt everywhere, traffic lights, bars and night clubs. Unfortunately, at 9 AM when we got there, everything was closed. I can understand why the clubs and bars were closed, but there was absolutely nothing else there that was open, not even the smallest shop where we could get a coffee to drink on the side of the road – absolutely and utterly nothing.
We leave Khovd disappointed and begin the offroad part. Mountains start rising up in the horizon and near us and we ended up climbing 2600m above sea level that day. We followed the successful driving style that we used the previous day – sometimes on the road, sometimes around it. At some point we were so “around” it that we were searching for it by cutting right across the land. At times we had to climb some higher hills to look for the tracks as from the “ground level” we couldn’t see anything.
Don’t get me wrong, it was really nice heading with a general sense of direction, but no constrictions, through the middle of nowhere, but:
At some point I remember us stopping but can’t remember why – either the phone was loose in the holder, either I wanted to let down the windshield as it was getting hot. Misfortune has it that I stopped right on the slightest, tiniest, little incline that was covered by this gravel that wasn’t as well packed as I had initially thought. When I want to get back going, guess what? The TKC-80 was giving its best shot and I move forward for about half a meter after which I hit a loose rock, it gave way and the tire started digging into the soft ground beneath it. Adi about 50 meters in front of me. He sees me just standing there on the bike that seemed fine from that distance and was urging me to get a move on, not realizing that my rear tire was dug in.
He turns around and to his amazement, the bike was sunken in the ground. We try and push it, then we try pulling, we try rocking it back and forth – nothing worked. And to make matters worse we managed to get the rear wheel even more stuck.
We eventually drop the bike on the left side - the only time I did that voluntarily – and shoved some rocks in the hole that the rear wheel had dug itself in. When we pulled the bike up again, the back wheel, was now leveled, supported by the rocks under it.
We manage to get out of this situation, thankfully, and we continue our journey across “mountain roads” towards Lake Tolbo. At some point we were again driving side by side, each to his own path. The road, at this point was really enjoyable, there was almost no washboard and barely any sand. It was exactly the kind of road that invites you to lessen your focus and enjoy the views around it. I don’t think I was doing more than 50-60km/h when, out of nowhere, right in front of me, I see a really well camouflaged ditch. It wasn’t really wide – barely 50cm, but really deep. When I see it, I instinctively hit the brakes, but I realize pretty quickly I wasn’t going to stop in time, nor was I able to go around it. If I were to hit it with the brakes on, I knew it would end badly for both me and the bike’s fork. Out of nowhere, the curb jumping exercises came to mind. I keep the brakes on the front wheel and I shift down. Right before the front end going into the ditch, I release the brake and accelerate a bit. The end result was that the front wheel got up and cleared the ditch, whereas the back wheel took a bit of a kick but didn’t seem too bad.
Adi didn’t see any of this as he was to the right and a bit in front on a different road. After this mishap, I noticed that the bike was steering a bit to the side. It felt very familiar and reminded me how it acted after I crashed in that Mongolian barrier. At that time, the handle bars got a slight misalignment and in order to go straight, I had to slightly steer to the right. This issue is so easily solved that I had absolutely no concerns about it. I was so happy I made the jump that I didn’t even bother to stop and solve the aftermath. I was on a roll, so I continued on without paying too much attention.
A few kilometers later we make the first stop after this incident and I get off. I’m hit with terror as soon as I see the bike. The box on the left side of the bike was completely missing. I immediately figured out why: in the morning, I decided not to close tightly the locks as I thought that, should the bike fall, I want to get them off easier, without having to force the plastic locks and potentially break them.
We head back to where the incident happened. I forgot to mention that when we were riding, there were 2 more cars on the road behind us, heading in the same general direction as us. Now, as we were riding back towards the ditch, we see the cars coming our way, now from the opposite direction, flashing and honking all over the place. Adi heads towards them and believe or not, they found my box and had taken it with them.
All was fine and dandy except that they seemed to have just finished off a blue-labeled vodka and needed some money to get a new one. And if we had no money, at least a souvenir of some sort of present was due. The situation was at risk of escalating as these people have gotten out of the car and the second one just pulled up behind it.
We quickly put the box back in its stand and get going. After a few kilometers they catch up to us and start signaling different messages towards us. We slow down, exit the road, head through the open plain and manage to get rid of them.
Towards the evening, we reach Ulgii, the capital of the Bayan-Ölgii county and we stop directly at Blue Wolf Ger Camp. It was a really nice camping site – at the entrance one would cross a yard that served as a parking lot, after which you would cross to a different yard, which was guarded, and which had around 10 yurts in it. They were nice and clean with 2 beds but, unfortunately, with no electrical sockets inside.
The initial plan was that we would spend a few days in Ulgii, until the tires arrive from UlaanBaatar. Just before we left UlaanBaatar, we spoke to the lady at Oasis to send our street tires, by bus, here – there was no use for us to carry them with us the whole trip. We were so proud of our planning skills. The Russian visa was expiring on the 23rd of July, days away, so we had more than enough time to reach the border between Russia and Kazakhstan and cross. I already told you, I genuinely believe that Apollo’s launch team had nothing on our planning.
For the following day, we had scheduled to go to the local stadium as the Naadam festival – which is Mongolia’s main celebration – was going to start. I read in a guide somewhere, before we left, that ideally, as a tourist, you would want to see the celebrations in the capital of a smaller county, not in UlaanBaatar. They were right – as far as I learnt from the TV, the stadium in UlaanBaatar was huge and the celebration was somewhere in the center of it, really far away from the public. On the stadium in Ulgii, on the other hand, we could be close to the action – the parade, the fighters, the dancers and the part I liked most: the backstage. I’ll tell you all about it in the next episode.
Apart from the festival, in the next episode we’re also going to run into some technical problems. However, you might have figured out by now that things are going to turn for the worse, as I keep mentioning how relaxed we were visa and time-wise. I will tell you just this: a “Kodak” moment will follow shortly – the type of one where you’re left speechless.
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