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Episode 9: The first steps offroad | Mongolia

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In the last episode, we told you how we spent our “leisure” day in the capital of Mongolia – UlaanBaatar, which was also our first day when we took a break sincewe entered Mongolia. So here we are, in a new dawn, awake and feeling fresh as morning dew, ready to take on the mighty Gob deset.

Below you’ll find the journey for two days – in blue the first day and the second one in green.

With our bikes fully serviced – oil and sparks for Adi’s and myself bursting out of my skin with happiness because of the 2 tires that were not losing air anymore and with the kickstand a little bent away from the motorcycle, thanks to the mechanic near Oasis, I was ready to start a more "stable" relationship with the KTM 1190.

Before riding out towards the Gobi desert, we took a quick 50 km detour towards the “Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue” – a sort of complex which is surveyed by a 40m high statue of the Khan chieftain.

From afar, you can’t help but fall in awe of it – it’s impressive, silvery and quite imposing. And the entry gate is also lavish – sort of reminded me of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

Once inside, as soon as we stepped in the complex, the vibe changed to one similar to the county fair that my grandparents used to take me to in Rosiori de Vede: There was a ‘stand’ where you could take pictures with a bleak eagle, there were some merchants selling small trinkets, another stand for archery and a big speaker that would entertain the stand workers.

After only 10 minutes we were ready to get going back through the fancy main gate, to UlaanBaatar and then Gobi, when a group of tourists from Korea came out of nowhere. Sort of insistent, but very friendly they took pictures with us – a combination of each member of the group with both of us, from several camera devices – because they wanted to remember this moment from absolutely every angle.

After what seemed like several long-lasting minutes and all the possible combinations were exhausted, they carried on to the joyless eagle to also capture him and immortalize him in eternity…

Long story short – finally, we’re heading towards the desert. Slowly, but surely, the environment around us changes shapes and colours. We see more and more sand along with what we believed to be wild camels – as there were no villages around. This suddenly dawns on me – villages are getting rarer and rarer on our road and further along from one another – what if something would happen to the bikes? What if we get a flat? What if we get ourselves in a crash? So many what ifs….

At one point, we see a coffee shop down the road and decided to stop. Mind you, that coffee shop is a bit of an over statement – it was basically a house with a sign that said “Kafe” and a long yurt. While stepping in, a strong food smell hits us. We grab 2 coffees, some water and ask around for what they were serving. The lady of the house, instead of showing us a menu or talking us through their specials, opens the fridge and shows us the only type of food they served – something resembling an oriental salad with rice. We sigh in relief seeing the “special course” – absolutely traditional Mongolian food. As a side note – this is our first interaction with Mongolian traditional food as Oasis would serve European food like omelettes, schnitzels, and other western things.

After barely going 50m from the coffee shop we reach the well-known by now, roadwork. Yes, as you already know by now, the normal paved road would end abruptly in a big pile of dirt and you would need to take a secondary “route”, which goes along the main road. Seeing how we’re in the desert, obviously, the secondary road was covered with sand. We ride on through it, along the main one for a few kilometres. What baffled us was that, even though the main road looked like it was being actively worked on, there was no one there and the asphalt was freshly installed and looking really good.

At a certain point, it looks to me like Adi, probably out of boredom, has swerved right, towards the main road. At the last minute he abandons the idea and returns on the dirt track. Upon getting closer, I notice that there’s a ditch between this track and the main asphaly road. “Fuck it” I think to myself while I gain some speed and clear the ditch in a bunny-hop jump.  Being back on fresh tarmac, with Adi still on the dirt road, we continue driving. I am 10-20 meters ahead trying to find a way for him to pass the ditch.

After a few more kilometres, the side road would join the main road and we continue together towards Dalanzadgad, on tarmac, reaching it by the time the sun set. The city itself left absolutely no impression on us, so we simply cross it and head towards the yurt camping site, around 20 kilometres towards a canyon we wanted to visit the next day.

We reach the yurt camping and we congratulate ourselves for a job well done when picking the place. It looks extremely good – it had a big yurt in the centre, much bigger than what locals had, surrounded by smaller yurts, for overnight stay. In the big one, you could find a pool table and a ping-pong table. But something felt like it was missing – there was no one there except for a few guards and a couple of dogs – absolutely nobody in sight.

No cold beers, no wifi, no food, no showers and no toilet so we thought to ourselves “Pass!” and headed back to town where we found a hotel. Now, we could enjoy amenities such as wifi, good beer, functional toilets and hot water. Happy with the choice we made, we drive our bikes in the underground parking lot – of course – and park them next to Santa’s sleigh – he might be working on his lists in Gobi this time of the year.

Keeping to our custom, we look at our next day plan while enjoying a cold beer: in the morning, we would ride towards Yolin Am canyon, also known as the “Vulture Canyon” because it was at a pretty high altitude; afterwards, we would head towards a camping spot in the desert, hoping to cross the desert towards North, to Bogd, and then move on towards Central Mongolia.

With this layout set up, we move on to our next day. We say goodbye to Santa, still sitting at the lower level of the parking lot and we leave towards the canyon. The road would take us back to the yurts camp site we had hoped to stay at the other day, but it was exactly the same – deserted. After another 30 kilometres or so we reach the main road that would take us through a plain towards the climbing roads to the canyon.

At some point during the climb, the tracks left behind by the cars were filled with loose gravel. On a first glance, the road seemed to be on the same level, thus while leaning on the left side, I didn’t notice there were holes filled with this sort of gravel and hit one. The bike started moving its tail gracefully and slid to the side in a grand-finale sort of gesture. To worsen the whole situation, now the wheels were pointing uphill making the bike harder to pick up...

Right before this, Adi lost his gear pedal. What a “fortunate” coincidence. As a small step-back into the story: right before we left for this journey, using some pliers, he managed to bend the safety washer that kept the lever in place. Coming back to the story, we manage to find the lever back on the road, but there was no sign of the safety washer. He “manually” puts it in second gear, we put the lever back in the backpacks and carry on towards the canyon's entrance.

We reach the top and park our bikes at a bike-renting booth. We left assured by the people there that they will watch over our bikes and headed towards the canyon's entrance. Little did we know, that right behind the small hill we climbed, was a horse stall for tourists to rent.

Seeing how we were wearing our entire motorcycling gear and the idea of hiking a few kilometres in full gear was not an appealing one, we rented 2 horsies and rode away into the sunset.

Please don’t let your imagination get the better of you. We definitely didn’t start our way in the canyon in a full gallop like the cowboys in the Marlboro commercials with the sun setting upon us. The lady that was renting the horses, completely not taken aback by our gear, and being more on the cautious side, sends us off with some “trainers” alongside us: a 6-year old boy and a 12-year old girl. Now, that your imagination has been reigned in (no pun intended), this is how we rode towards the canyon entrance.

The canyon itself was beautiful but it was not something I’ve never seen before. At some point in the hike the children let us know that we need to mount off and walk from there – the place had become really narrow and the horses couldn't advance. We continue like this for around one more kilometer. The temperature had dropped considerably in this area and you could also see patches of snow that had not yet melted away.

With our adventurer spirits running low, we turn back, get the horses, the children and ride towards the bikes.

As soon as we reach the bikes, the rental people jump to our aid – using some pliers and some bent wire, we manage to improvise a safety that would keep the lever in place until we reach Dalanzadgad, where we knew there was a service shop. We were hoping to find an actual safety to hold the lever there.

We give the children some candy to repay them for their hospitality and we thank the rental people for their kindness in helping us “repair” Adi’s bike and we head out. When we planned the trip, we thought about absolutely everything… except some wire. No biggie, the guys from the horse rental place gave us some spare wire so we were in good shape.

We didn’t even make it halfway towards the main road, from the canyon, when we had to stop again. Black clouds made their way in front of us, the wind suddenly started howling and we did a sprint race on who could get their rain suit on fastest. We won. As soon as we zipped up, the first drops of rain started falling so we mount back up and get going towards the main road. The plain that was levelled out, sort of, on our way in, now had the car tracks filled with water. It felt like we were driving in a rice paddy. I didn’t have a problem with the fact that the tracks were now filled with water, they were slippery, that’s true but the tricky part was the wind, that was now blowing at “full force” as there was nothing around to shield us from it, which made keeping the line almost impossible.

Fast-forward a little bit and we reach the repair shop. The weather changes abruptly to nice and sunny, but you could still see, in the distance, the black clouds under which we were a few hours ago.

The mechanic greets us and we manage to explain, using our very fluently spoken language made up from Romanian, English and gestures, what our problem was. The man figures it out instantly the moment when he sees the lever. He tries a few safety washers he had at hand, but none would fit – some were too small, others were too big… Cinderella’s story. He then takes us to this grenade military case that was filled with bolts, screws, nuts and others of the sort. Despite the thousands of possibilities in that box, our search for the perfect one was futile.

Had we been back in Europe, this would have been the moment when he would say something like “I’ll order it from the manufacturer and get it for you in a few days”. Fortunately, he was not that kind of a mechanic. Seeing how he didn’t have what we needed, he started making one from scratch. In less than 5 minutes, Adi’s gear level was held in place by a collar that had been cut and shrunk to fit the axle exactly.

With the lever in place and our pockets containing a few more spare collars, we head back towards the canyon hoping to reach that camping site with the yurts, in the desert.
At some point, the GPS suggests that we take a right. Adi notices that the GPS hadn’t really made up its mind entirely about where it needs us to go so we decide to stop and ask a second opinion on the route.

“What a stroke of luck!” we think as we see an 18-wheeler stopped on the right side of the road. We ask the driver, who was doing some engine work, what he thought about our GPS’s uncertainty and he sort of agrees with it, except that he suggests we go back around 3 kilometres and take a left. We decide to follow his advice and turn back.

Biggest. Mistake. Ever.

After going back and taking that left, we find ourselves on a dirt road covered with sand that, despite the fact that it was going away from the main road, it was going in the right direction. This road, though, was quite different from the one we were on previously, towards the canyon. On a first glance it seemed to be straight and really long but looking at it more carefully, you get to realize that you don’t have the luxury of just driving it freely as here and there some former river beds would cross it, and they were really deep – 1-1.5 meters- with steep sides, which meant there was no way to cross them.

So, we were stuck going where nature had made a way around, not really following the GPS anymore. After some time going in “approximately” a possibly right direction, looking for places to cross the riverbeds that would pop up every now and then, we see again, just like in a flashback, a long gravel strip. Adi’s bike, in front of me, had already started doing the cha-cha. When I see this, I decide that I will not fall a second time today and gave it a little gas. And I really mean a little bit – I subtle twist in the throttle, enough to discharge the front wheel. My mental quantum physics calculations didn’t really map out to reality. Adi’s dance parade ended up on the side of the road with his Suzuki graciously resting on the left side. I, however, since I had more momentum, after losing the bike on its side, continue, through sheer inertia, with a somersault over the windshield and the handle bar.  If, by now, you still don’t believe in the saying “seeing stars”, let me assure you that it’s very accurate. While falling, I hit the ground really hard with the helmet, both the visor and the camera flew off.

First thing’s first: get the bikes standing. The tanks were filled with gas and were starting to drip out. After picking them up, we try and figure out what the damage was… The Suzuki was fine except for your normal scratches – everything was where it belonged. On my bike, just a small plastic fixture was broken in the hand guard – nothing tragically wrong here and the baggage frame were bended. On the helmet, though, the plastic screw that kept the visor in place was broken. Fortunately, the side clips that hold the visor were just hanging loose but were not broken.

My left side of the chest was hurting and my ribs that took the fall were crying out in misery whenever I would inhale more deeply – it was a really spectacular fall. After pondering over a cigarette, we put the case back, get the visor as secured as possible and ride on.

It was definitely clear at this point that the driver had sent us way off route. And it was a definite fact that, at this pace we would never make the camping from the desert in daylight. After visiting the canyon and stopping by the repair shop, it was now well after noon.  And it was definitely out of the question to try and cross the desert in the dark – with its all sorts of snares from old river beds, to sharp rock and loose sand.

We ultimately decide to head towards the main road that we strayed from earlier today. We knew, from the GPS, where we should be meeting it, but our way there was zig-zagged through the various terrain. Soon after that, we see some cars in the distance – that meant that tarmac was there as well. We stumbled around for a bit longer aiming at the cars in the distance when we find a new dirt road. It was unpaved, but it was SO SO SO much better than the one we took when leaving the main road, the first time. And cherry on top, this road seemed to go straight towards the main one.

Upon reaching the main road and seeing the sign that was posted where the two roads met, “Bloody Buggering Hell!” was the only thing crossing through my mind. This was actually the road that we should have taken for the camping site that we’ve been trying to get to. The truck driver had sent us on a fool’s errand.

My spirits raised back up as this road was actually a highway compared to the other one. And in my mind, I was already picturing having to cross thousands of kilometres, through Mongolia, through roads as harsh as the one we came in through.

Since it was getting pretty late, we change the plan: we decide not to go towards Bogd anymore, but instead head towards Bayandalai, after which we’d go west, towards Gurvantes.

After all is said and done, the road to Bayandalai is a gentle drive on the road. Up to a point, where, unsurprisingly by now, we were greeted by some more roadworks. We take the sideroad, which was mostly offroad where we see the biggest washboard I’ve ever seen before in my life. After about an hour of continuous vibrating, we reach Bayandalai where we find, at the city entrance, some sort of iron “statue” which seemed to consecrate bikers.

Along the way, we find the general store. Another tip I would like to share: in the Mongolian villages, the general store is your first go-to place. You can find out here a lot of useful things like where to sleep, where to eat, where to get gas etc.

Adi goes inside and asks about the local attractions while I wait outside by the bikes. By now, the adrenaline rush I felt before had died down so the ribs on the left side – the landing strip, if you will – were now hurting a lot. Subsequently, I would need to breath shorter and shallower.

Adi returns triumphantly. He found food and a sleeping place right here at the store and the thing he was holding in his hand sent me over the moon with happiness. THEY HAVE COLD BEER!!

The lady of the house escorts us to the yard where we can leave the bikes – we need to go the long way around the village and enter through a gate. After they open the massive iron gate, we are speechless.

It resembles more a factory’s yard – in a corner there were some metallic barrels piled up, further on there was a disassembled truck, here and there you could spot some rusty old rims. And if you think this is bad, you haven’t seen the rooms. Seems like we are the first ones here in a reaaaally long time… turns out that Bayandalai is not that touristy as we thought. It didn’t even matter at this point – I would have gladly slept in the sleeping bag on top of those barrels for all I cared.

In the meantime, the lady from the store sent for the cook. After around an hour we are cordially invited to join them in the “festivity hall”. I think this is where they used to hold local events as there were a lot of signs to point towards this: a big table, a big TV with a HiFi system – the pride of the 90s. We grab some food and then take our beers outside, under a breath-taking starry sky.

In the end, we slip into our sleeping bags, I manage to find a sleeping position on the right side that would cause the least harm to my hurting ribs. I slept like a rock.

This concludes the first off-road day in Mongolia. It wasn't that bad afterall...

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