The next day we woke up at 9. The others were already up and running: they had gotten up earlier, the girls had picked some flowers, eaten, in a word they were fine-fresh :) So, we ate something too, took a group photo and headed out.
After litterally shoving our heads into the motorcycle helmets, we headed towards Ulan-Ude and then continued to the Mongolian border. This was the long-awaited day we were going to “step” on Mongolian soil. I’ve been thinking about this day ever since 2013 when I read the book “Vand kilometri” - I had had plenty of time to envision what the crossing to Mongolia and reaching UlanBaatar would be like.
Of course, in reality it was nothing like I had imagined it.
The road to the border was very beautiful, over the last couple of days curvy roads started to reappear, something we hadn’t seen before Irkutsk. The traffic was light, there were no more roadworks and the asphalt was in very good shape. The landscape was beautiful as well, the temperature ranging between 20-25 degrees Celsius, clear skies, no more rains, all in al - ideal riding conditions.
About 15 kilometres before the border, we get pulled-over at a checkpoint. Happy not having to deal with the traffic police (the checkpoint teram was mixed: army solidersand policemen), we show the solider our passports, he checks everything is in order and sends us on our way.
Finally, the border appeared in sight. Ahead of us, 7 or 8 cars already queued up at the barrier. "No worries", we thought, "we're going to cross the border in no time".
After a few minutes, however, we noticed nobody’s moving and on a closer look - surprise – the border gate was closed and locked. So I went up to the front of the queue to figure out what was going on. The first person I asked for details calmly told me in Russian something along the lines of “The gate will open when the sun sets” – to make sure I get the point he made an ample movement with his arm pointing towards the sun as if he was saying the sun will be down behind the hills at the horizon in just a little bit.
At first, I thought I didn’t understand well Tolstoy’s language. I didn't take very seriously his theatrical arm gesture, so I headed further along the queue. I finally ran into an English speaking Mongolian guy and guess what he said? He confirmed that the customs office were closed and will open in a couple of hours, at 9:00 PM.
Uncomplainingly, we sat on the kerb and out of boredom and hunger we opened up some Baikal canned fish we had in our bags…. mmmmm
In the meantime, our bikes were attracting quite some attention – people were taking pictures, others were just checking them over. We finish our “dinner” when we finally notice the border agents heading towards the border's closed gates.
Tenths of minutes later, “the Gates of Heaven” open, followed by the passport control on the Russian side – visa check, the luggage customs control and the infamus declaration of imported goods which now needed an “Exit” checkmark. We had to fill it in and submit it in - how many copies? No more and no less than exactly two copies.
While we were waiting “on the sidelines”, we looked over at the buses stopped at a different queue. Absolutely every single soul on those busses would get off with at least two sacks, boxes, bags or other packages containing anything from electronics to plates and other miscellaneous items bought from Russia.
We were cleared out of the Russian customs rather quickly as we hadn’t done any “shopping”. So there we were, entering the “no man’s land” and turning right towards the Mongolian side of the border. At the first booth we had to ride through a disinfection pool, then we had to fill out some paperwork at the first booth.
After passing the first “checkpoint”, we entered the actual customs. Total chaos ruled here… inside there were two booths: one for the locals and the other for foreigners. However, the locals were crossing the border any way they could, passing in front of others with the most casual attitude. They simply ignored everyone and entered the line between any two persons. Unbelievable. When there was only one person standing in front of me, I heard a lady approaching me from behind. Guessing what she intended to do, I took a step left and leaned strategically against a pole effectively blocking her way. The lady tried to pass by me on the other side, so I started protesting in Romanian. She stopped, confused, and stood beside me (not behind).
When our turn came, we handed our passports. The customs officer took a look at our handwritten visa and sent us to another office. There, some kind of boss was carefully pouring some drops from a small bottle onto our visa – probably to make sure it wasn’t forged.
After being suspicious of our passports for around 15 minutes, he returns them to us and tells us we have to pay a tax. We ransacked our pockets only to find a few rubles and a few tughras left as we didn’t stop by any ATMs recently. Between us two, we made the hat round and shared our treasure with the ladies there that weren’t in the bit bothered by the fact that we were short and let us pass.
“What else could go wrong?” we thought… definitely not the fact that the actual adventure at the Mongolian border was just beginning. Meanwhile, it got pitch black outside and a strong wind had started. At the horizon, over on the Russian side, we could see streaks of lightning that didn’t bother us in the slightest as we were sure that soon enough we would be riding in the other direction.
Anyway, we go out of the building we’ve been in handling the whole tax-debacle and a military lady instructed us to move the bikes in front of her office for customs control. After moving motorcycles, Adi goes back inside having seen an ATM – good idea to get some local currency. Somewhat at peace with the high chance of getting ripped on the exchange course, but we needed some more tughras for gas or to get things from local shops that certainly didn't take cards. Inspired by his stroke of genius, once Adi returns, I too take to the ATM.
Long story short: I put the card in, start pressing buttons to select the language, select to retrieve money and then the unexpected hit again – a power failure in the entire Mongolian border. That meant that everything shut down – computers, lights and especially the ATM that still had my card in. While everybody around me cried out a single, drawn-out “Aaaaaaaaaaaawwww”, I get creative and swear for 20 seconds straight, without ever repeating myself.
I take out the phone and turn on the flashlight. Luckily for me, the ATM spit out my card just before powering off :)
I took it out, say a swift “Holy Father in heavens”, knocked on wood and would have gladly gotten myself a rabbit’s foot had I had the chance. I go outside, where, in the meantime, a full-on storm, thunder and lightning included had started. The rain was falling heavily, and the wind was howling like crazy.
To make matters worse, the lady from customs kindly lets us know that there is nothing we can do. We have to wait for the power to come back on for them to finish processing our paperwork.
30 minutes or so later, the power comes back on. All computers flash their screens, the ATM woke up as well which overall fueled our chances of possibly getting out of there soon – absolute joy and happiness. For 2 whole minutes until the power went out yet again.
After about one more hour, the power comes back on and we charge in the lady’s office asking to process our paperwork now, while the power was holding. In the meantime, as a side note, we spent the dead time speaking to this lady as there was nothing else to do around there. We found out that her college roommate was a girl from Romania, thing which bonded us even more.
We finish with the custom control and got the rest of the stamps we needed to collect from all sorts of booths, including that first one that was next to the disinfecting pool. Finally, the paperwork was done! Even the rain sort of stopped – it was barely dripping now, and the wind tamed a bit. Awesome!
I put the papers back in the top-case with absolute certainty that the next time I’ll be seeing them would be when we get out of Mongolia, put on the rain suit with the rain gloves and everything else needed. I was water-proofed from head to toes.
Barely 30 meters away from the customs office, a new barrier greets us with a new checkpoint. "Dokomient". By this time, my nerves are stretched thin. With utter exasperation, I park the bike, flipped down the kickstand, take off the gloves, take out the keys and go around to the back of the bike to open the top-case. Before even touching the case, the bike started falling slowly, but surely to the right side.
Why, you ask?
Because the infamous KTM kickstand was keeping the bike almost upright, it fell on the right side. We pick up the mammoth, I move it more to the side and hand out the papers while praising he general bureaucracy and the KTM engineering team that designed this marvelous kickstand. I think, this time, I might have repeated myself going through my list of usable swears. Fortunately, the bike was fine – on the right side I had the spare tire tied in place which acted as the world’s best motorcycle airbag.
Finally, we finish with this bureaucratic circus and cross the border…It was barely drizzling outside by now, the road seemed to be quite good ahead – there were no markings on it, but it was this great black blanket that had absolutely no ridges.
Unfortunately, and I really mean unfortunately, there was barely any traffic. I would have rather had a lot of cars in front, going the same way as us, which we could follow. Just like the drivers in Georgia, the ones in Mongolia knew only 2 settings for the car lights: off or full beam. Bonus points for the ones that had fog lights.
We drive full steam ahead through pitch black for a while and then, out of nowhere, some workers on the road improvised this “barrier” streching right across the middle of the road. Being first and having quite some speed, I saw the barrier at the last possible moment. I slam on the brakes instantly, but it was too late. I ram into the barrier shattering it to bits.
The bike falls on the right side (fortunately, as I had the spare tire on the right) and slithers through the dirt on the road.
I get up, we get the bike upright as well, I send my “kind” regards to the brilliant barrier designing engineers and we check the damage on the motorcycle. Except for a small bruise on my elbow both me and the motorcycle were in top shape. The rain suit was a bit ripped around the elbow and knee areas but apart from that it was in a good shape. The bike had taken the fall surprisingly well. Having fallen off the right side – the part where the spare tire was tied up tightly to the crash bar – the damages were trifling: a small scratch on the crash bar and a slightly bent headlight protector as it was the first to get in contact with the dazzling barrier. A few of the aluminum legs had bent - a 30-seconds repair.
When looking at the front tire – jaw drop! Completely flat. Upon a closer inspection we found a gash across it, which rendered the tire repair kit completely useless.
It wasn’t that big of a deal to be honest. The tires were on their last miles and I was planning to change them soon anyway, in UlaanBaatar. I light up a cigarette contemplating stroke of luck, put some bandage on my elbow and prepare to change the front tire.
It was a test from hell. Imagine this: pitch black, on the side of the road, neither of us having done this before using a tubeless tire – supposedly harder to take off and put back on than a regular one, a true nightmare.
Some time later we sort of have the tubeless tire mounted on the rim (sort of) and the best part about this whole operation was about to start - popping the bead.
We weren’t that worried at this stage as we knew we had with us some of those CO2 air capsules. We thought we use just use one and then, like magic, hear the typical “bang! bang!” sound and the tire would be firmly mounted on the ruim.
Nothing further from the truth. We went through 3 or 4 of those capsules before realizing that they didn’t have enough air to actually inflate the tire enough for the bead to pop (d’oh!).
While we were undergoing these tedious tasks, the workers – were sitting around. The brilliant minds behind the barrier had the common curtesy to turn on the headlights of their truck on the onncoming traffic to make the roadworks a tad more visible.
Probably growing bored or probably just because of sheer pity, one of them has a stroke of genius and tells us that they have this bigger compressor in their truck. “well thank you, dearest man, for letting us exercise in futility for this whole time” – let’s go to the truck! We get air flowing in the tire and it’s inflated in less than 10 seconds, followed by the glorious “bang! bang!”, just like in the tire shop. We check the pressure using our own compressor (theirs didn't have a pressure gauge), pick up our tools and go on our way.
Back on the road, the newly poured asphalt road was interrupted by around 5 to 10 km of sandy offroad running parallel to the main road these guys were fixing.
This secondary road had a thick layer of very fine dusty sand. It definitely didn’t bother the car drivers, it must have been really comfortable for them as they were rolling through there at around 50-60 km/h – there were no holes in the ground, the track was completely straight, basically nothing could go wrong. Obviously, they left behind them absolute chaos in the form of dust clouds, but that was someone else's problem. Ours!
Eventually, after going a few kilometers on this road, we come back to the main one. We barely touch the tarmac when "luck" strikes again. At about 60-70 km/h the front begins to wobble like crazy. One really intricate emergency brake later, I manage to get the bike to stop on the side of the road. Unsurprisingly, the front tire (the one that we barely got sitting on the rim) had decided it needed a break from it and completely detached. Thanks to our extensive previous experience with the CO2 capsules, we already knew this was not a job that we could get done ourselves, so we thought about stopping trucks or 18-wheelers for help.
The first ever Mongolian sunrise was looking down on us on the side of the road, looking in the distance for something that would remotely look like a truck. Eventually, one made its way past us, sees us and stops. They help us get the tire inflated and back on the rim, we put around 4-5 PSI in it, wait for a few minutes and then calibrate it to 2.4 PSI - I thank them from the bottom of my hearts for stopping. Happy to have done a good deed for the day, they leave, not realizing that they left behind their tire wrench – it had probably fallen out while inflating the tire. Adi picks up the wrench and storms after them while I stay put to see whether the newly repaired tire holds pressure.
Planets seem to finally be aligning. The tire was not losing any pressure, Adi came back victorious and we’re ready to leave for UlaanBaatar.
We ride for some more time and, like a thunderbolt, the front tire starts losing pressure again. Just a tiny 0.1, 0.2 per minute – been there, done that. We are forced to stop every 15-20 minutes so that I can add some more pressure. After an hour of riding, stopping and topping up air I was pretty damn sure that things can't get any worse. Well, guess what?
The back tire decides to start losing air as well.
And here we are, dearest readers, caught in the morning rush hour of UlaanBaatar, with both tires losing air, having to stop every 15-20 minutes to get them pressured up again. Donkey work!
Rolling with this amazing rhythm, we got to Oasis – a guesthouse where all travelers that pass UlaanBaatar stop by. The parking lot felt like a circus – all sort of bikes, trucks that were modified to fit camping requirements and all sort of jeeps.
We park the bikes and let the hostess there show us to our rom. The room was a shared room with 6 beds. Our other roommates were all sleeping so we left our stuff there and silently went down to grab a beer as the kitchen was not yet opened.
Just a side note: I just wanted to emphasize how cool the system at Oasis was: there were 2 -3 fully stocked fridges with beer, water and juices. When you checked in they would give you a “kitchen passport” – which was basically a piece of paper with your name and room number on it that would be pinned near the fridges. After grabbing a drink from the fridge, you would ust write on your paper what you took. Only at checkout you would have to pay what was on your kitschen passport. I was really impressed – nobody would supervise the fridges, nobody would check what you wrote on that paper – complete trust.
Slowly but surely, the other riders there – the early birds, would get up. I believe it was around 7 or 8 am by now. They were all barely awake, while pouring themselves some coffee or tea. Meanwhile, to their amazement, we sat at a table on the terrace already having 7-8 empty beer bottles stacked up before us.
From here, the plan was to stay one more day in UlaanBaatar, ideally, to change our tires, and do some other mechanical work on the bikes - Adi wanted to change his oil, spark plugs and filters..
This brings us to the end of the first day in Mongolia, this unpredictable land, always ready to knock some sense into the unsuspecting traveller.
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