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Episode 8: Strolling through UlaanBaatar | Mongolia

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Today’s article finds us in our first morning in Mongolia. We had gotten to Oasis after a rough overnight trip, which I wrote about in the past article, and we were enjoying some well-deserved beers waiting for the kitchen to open – we were famished.

Eventually, the lady of the house opened the kitchen, we order an omelette, spend some time story telling with the other barely-awake travellers. Funny thing is while they were grabbing their morning coffee we were enjoying one last beer before bed. If you haven’t read what happened the day before, you can find it here :) .

We hit the bed hard and manage to get up somewhere in the afternoon. We head downstairs and find ourselves in the company of other, more seasoned travellers. Some of them were coming back to Mongolia for the 4th time, others keep their bikes here for around 250 euros per year and come every year for a few weeks for new journeys to adventure on. Basically, we were complete “noobs” amongst these people who have been doing these sorts of journeys for a while now.

We learn news about the journey that lies ahead – which paths were OK to take, and which should be avoided. In order to better visualize ideas, maps of all sorts are unfolded on the table and people provide their input on roads, rivers, where the earth had recently slipped away and so on.

This sort of place is vital for travellers. This is where you get your best information about the roads ahead, what floods are happening and where, paths that were recently beaten and so on. You wouldn’t find this sort of information on TV or using the “official” communication channels as the roads we take are usually secondary ones, off the beaten path that hold no major importance in the daily routes for the locals. Talking about locals, they are also not the most reliable source of information as they rarely take on long distance journeys, they usually keep close to home, which means it is very unlikely they know the state of roads afar.

Back to the story, since it was a Sunday, the service shop near Oasis was closed, but we are assured that “the Japanese mechanic” would open it tomorrow at 8am sharp.

While we were sitting at the table, enjoying some beers and recounting yesterday’s adventures, a man storms to our table, looking really worried. With a serious tone he asks who is the owner of the KTM in the parking lot. A few moments of complete silence follow during which I raise my hand. He asks:” Mate, do you know that you have two flat tires?”. We know mate, barely got here :) We all take a deep breath realizing that the urgency was old news to us – in my head, I imagined that the bike tumbled to the side, taking the others down with it in a domino effect – like you see in those videos with the choppers in front of some bar. He then joins us at the table and we continue in our merry way.

As the beer is flowing, we reach the bottom of the kitschen passport. No panic though, we continue writing on the on the other side. This joyful sort of celebration sends us into the night and soon enough, Monday morning is upon us.

After catching a few hours of sleep, we wake up at several minutes after 8AM to get going to the service. I put some air in the tires that should be enough for the 50 meters journey and here we are, lined up at the Oasis’s gat. All in all, about 5 or 6 motorcycles, ready to get going to the service for different issues, some needed a little maintenance while others had more serious problems.

We wait for the Japanese mechanic for around 40 minutes while making all sort of jokes about how this was so un-Japanese of him - being late or work, especially on a Monday morning. After waiting for a little longer, he arrives, apologizes for the delay and opens up the shop. To tell you the truth, it was a pretty well-equipped shop, with all sorts of tools, a small equipment shop, oil, a few spare tires and other stuff. What I particularly liked about him was that as soon as he opened the shop, the first thing he did was come by all the bikes and patiently listened to every rider’s needs and when they need the bike back serviced and fully working. After that, he prioritized each bike and got to work.

With our bikes were in good hands, we headed towards city centre. We had a lot of things on our TO-DO list: first order of business: get a new Internet SIM card – the one in Russia was brilliant. After that, we needed to find Adi a new pair of sneakers since he had forgotten his in Baikal. Told you it was going to be a long day :)

Thankfully, the lady from the Oasis helps us get going by ordering us a cab that would come pick us up from the gas station close by. We waited for 10-15 minutes and then, we see it. Let me tell you that it’s something unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The rabid pink, velvet interior was wonderfully complemented by the 90’s best hits that were blasting from the speakers.

And the driver? A lady around 40 years old who would aggressively cut through traffic. Joke’s aside, she was a really good driver with an aggressive driving style that at no time felt dangerous. When she would change lane, she would do it without hesitance and gracefully walked the fine line between pushing it and waiting for a few more seconds. Anyway, after listening to summer hits like “Cocojambo”,” Sexy eyes” and others, we quickly reach the city centre.

We start walking through the Chinggis Square taking pictures left and right of everything that moved or didn’t - we were up there with the Chinese on the “tourist” scale. 

We also decided to start looking for an ATM and we found a big one in a store. Without having a second doubt, I slide the card in. What else could happen? The whole of UlaanBaatar experience a major power outage? Well no, but it might have been a better alternative. The machine wasn’t exactly a cash withdrawal ATM. Panic mode, engaged! The first screen wasn’t your normal “Select Language” with helpful flag images that you would find in your every-day ATM. And I had absolutely no internet to reach my trusty friend “Google Translate” so I decide to try the lady that was eating at a table near-by.

I explain to her the problem I was facing, and she explains to me why the machine wasn’t supposed to work in English (everything on screen was in Mongol): it was a terminal for paying taxes… facepalm

At this point I’m thinking to myself, “Alright – but my bank card fitted the only slot on the machine perfectly. What was it then, if not for credit cards?” well, the answer to that questions would be that it was for the Mongolian ID card. Believe it or not, their IDs are the same size as your regular credit card and have a chip. Technology nowadays…

Eventually, the nice woman calls the technical support phone number on the “ATM”, somebody answers on the other line and in less than 10 seconds she brings him up to date on my confused mishap. Few seconds later, the screen showed a TeamViewer popup in the corner (this is a remote-control software), he does his magic from his end and my card pops up in the slot. Brilliant!! In less than 2 minutes, my card where back where it belongs – in my wallet :)

After I manage to withdraw some money from an actual ATM, we try and find a place where we could get ourselves a SIM card. We enter the first shop which had a MobiCom sticker on the window. The guys at the Oasis recommended MobiCom as the telecommunication network with the best coverage across Mongolia. We find out, once going in, that they could only help with topping up the prepaid card, but they did not have any new SIM cards. At least, that was the message we got so we went on towards the Postal office, where we thought we could get a new sim card with a new phone number.

We didn’t find the Pos officet, but we did find another shop from a different provider, G-Mobile, where we were convinved by a nice lady into buying their services. We leave the shop as SIM cards owners and continue our journey through the city centre.

Next on our To-Do list was finding a sneaker store as Adi forgot his sneakers in Baikal, so he was in desperate need to get a new pair.

Several disappointments later – we couldn’t find the right combination between size and looks – we are guided towards a shop a few kilometres away. We’re thinking that it’s going to be a piece of cake – we’ll grab a cab that will take us to the door. We couldn’t have beenfurther from the truth.

We lost over 30 minutes waiting for a taxi to drive by… the few that drove bywere already taken. We decide to walk towards a busier crossroad and Adi would wait on one side and I would wait diagonally for him to increase our chances of finding a cab.

On our way there (about 100m away), we stumble upon a sport store, which we gladly enter.  The sneakers here were displayed on shelves (like you would expect) while there weren’t too many options, he found one which he liked and they had it in his size (Hallelujah!!!). When Adi asked for the right one to try both of them on, the seller opened the makeshift “table” on which he was enjoying his lunch and then, inside it, was like a pirate’s hidden treasure – around 30 sneakers, unpaired were scattered in that box.

We find the match, pay the man and ask him to call us a taxi as we were unable to stop one on in the street. Fully confident, the man closes the “treasure box”, leaves the store open and comes outside on the street with us. “Follow me and I’ll find you a taxi” he said with no trace of doubt. I’m laughing to myself thinking “Man, you don’t have the slightest idea how much we tried flagging one down before getting here…”

Well, from this man, we learnt the most important tip that we would end up using until Baku, in all places ending in “-stan”: if you want a taxi, you either need to order one (but it’s more expensive and you need to speak Mongolian – vital detail) or you stand by the road, with your thumb up and hope to hitch a ride. Everybody does this and it’s the most common way to move around town (except for the public transport of course).

A car picks us up, we decide on a price fare to Oasis and we get going. The first thing we need to do when we get there is check in with our Japanese mechanic.

To our horror, we find the bikes in the exact same place we left them. As they were, my bike, because of the infamous kickstand and because it was on flats on both tires now, had fallen to the side and was resting against the service’s gate – thankfully – both wheels still on the ground.

We hang there for a little while longer and then my bike was next in line to be looked after. First thing’s first – change the back tire and find out why it’s losing air. Would love to say to my amazement, but it really wasn’t the case – the tire was losing air because of the rubber band that was on the inside of the rim that was supposed to “isolate” the head of the spokes and hold the air inside.

As far as we can tell, this band got punctured somewhere on both tires amazingly enough. The only way forward is to install the tube that I had with me for rainy days in the not-so tubeless rims.

Next thing was to do something about that kickstand…  the mechanic improvised a sort of a solution. We set the bike on the central kickstand and using a car jack, we tried to pry the sidestand one away from the bike and make it a bit more stable. It’s not massive improvement but the bike is deffunitely more stable than before.

This concluded his work on my bike, so he moved on to Adi’s which needed a full maintenance – change of filters, oil, plugs, basically everything.

As we weren’t the only ones there and the service man was split between several bikes he needed to take care of and knowing that we want to get going the next day, Adi decides to take off the odywork himself, take down the fuel tank, change the air filters and the sparks – well, he mostly did the whole thing by himself with me fumbling around him.

During a break, we step out to smoke a cigarette and while we were enjoying a beer there, we spot a young policeman dressed in his parade uniform walking by. He had those ornate laces, the police cap and was definitely dressed to impress. Between some of his buttons was, what he later explained to be a metallic ornament that was similar to an arrowhead. The funny thing was that when he would walk this ornament would bump into the belt buckle causing a funny sound.

We stop him and talk to him a little to find out that he was coming back from the rehearsals for the Naadam Parade.

As a side note, Naadam is a really big national holiday in Mongolia, where you would see parades, both military ones but others as well, the schools would be closed and – we would find this later on – the border would be closed as well.

Anyway, we add him on Facebook and to our surprise, the man pulls out an old phone – the kind with buttons, goes on Facebook and looks us up. We ask him to join us for a beer and after talking for a while longer, I go back to our room, grab the extra Samsung S4 Active and give it to him as a gift after which he goes his own way and we go back to work as we had lots more to do and it was getting dark.

Around 11pm or maybe even midnight, the Japanese mechanic finishes the bikes left in the garage. Perfect timing, as we also finish Adi’s bike, pay up and leave.

We grab a few more beers to celebrate our “new’ bikes. I gladly, downgraded the compressor relocating it from the tank bag (where I kept the things I needed more often) to the bottom of the tool box where I carefully arranged them in the order I thought I might use them: the pump and oil filters, the tyre lever, compressor, flat tire repair kit, etc.

Follow us in the next article as we tackle the Gobi desert. All jokes aside, the real off-road is just about to start.

PS: not to be of any surprise, but a quick spoiler: it really didn’t go as we planned either.

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