19th - 27th September 2003
We were pretty worried about the border crossing because we'd heard bad things about it and our friend Nathaly had had her GPS confiscated for no good reason there. Also our visa registration was slightly late and we had no deklaratsia from coming into the country. When we got to the border post we found a scrum of cars and trucks vying for position in front of big steel wire gate. While we were waiting the customs lady in charge called a truck though and we watched in awe as it squeezed between the cars. As soon as it had gone the gate slammed shut and the cars revved their engines to jump forwards again into the space it had left.
Luckily we got to go through the next time the gate opened, queue jumping I know but there are some advantages to travelling by bicycle! Being processed took about an hour but all they did was give us a deklaratsia to fill out (in English!) and check our passports. They didn't open a single pannier or ask any questions.
The Mongolian side was even easier, laughing smiling Mongolian officials virtually filled our entry forms in for us, tried to teach us a couple of words and sent us on to the customs office.
Here we met a helpful man who spoke English and helped us fill out the Mongolian deklaratsias. You can tell we are not in Russia anymore because you would never be allowed to photograph a Russian customs post, but this man asked us to photograph him!
There was a bank nearby where we changed our Roubles into a thick wad of Mongolian Togrogs, and then we were off into the small village of Altanbulag and then across some steppe to Sukhbaatar. Here we found a hotel and had a day off to find our feet.
The day we left Sukbaatar it was actually raining slightly. Mid-afternoon the sky turned dark and a strong wind got up. Luckily we were still in an area with a few trees so we camped pronto and were in the tent before the heavy rain started. It didn't last long and by nightfall the sky had cleared. We had a light frost overnight to give us a taste of the weather that is to come! The next day we headed on towards Darkhan across beautiful open steppe with herds of horses, cows, sheep and goats.
That evening we camped on the open steppe. Passing herdsmen stopped by to see who we were and we brewed tea and fried chips for them. In return they gave us horserides!
In the morning we paid them a return visit and were invited into their living/sleeping ger for milky tea. The inside of the ger was furnished with colourful hangings and they showed us things like their wooden saddles, which were beautifully decorated with embossed leather. Then they took us outside to admire their haystack, I think storing hay for the winter is a new concept in parts of Mongolia but increasingly bad winters with heavy snow falls have encouraged it. After that we were taken into their cooking ger and fed diced mutton with rice. Communication was of course difficult but Ju played them some tunes on her flute to make up for the lack of conversation.
We stopped at quite a smart looking Guantz (cafe) by a bus stop and were surprised to find that it had an english menu. Still stranger was the fact the menu listed six different types of soup (broth, noodle, vegetable, dumpling, etc) and none of them contained mutton. How could this be in the land where people eat nothing else? When the soup came we discovered the reason - everything comes with mutton. It is such a universal ingredient that there is no need to mention it on the menu!
We had been wondering how we would cope in the Gobi desert, surely if (as expected) the night-time temperature was -20°C all our water would freeze and making our morning cuppa would be a real problem. The solution presented itself in a shop in the village of Bayangol in the form of a two litre Chinese made flask costing a mere $2.50. Ju was overjoyed - now we need never be without tea!
A few days later we were treated to some fairly spectacular weather. Up until this time we had had sunny days and one wet day. This day the wind blew against us all day and we struggled to cover 50km. We camped after 43km because time was getting on and we saw a big black cloud approaching. As soon as the tent was up we heard the approach of thunder and saw a wall of rain:
We cowered in the tent while the thunder rolled overhead and the rain lashed down. It was all over in about fifteen minutes and replaced by a glorious rainbow:
Our last night before arriving at Ulaan Baatar we camped near the top of a 1500m pass. It was a mostly clear night and not surprisingly very cold, about -5°C with a little snow! This was still September, so just a taste of what is to come. We also had a visitor, a mouse who scurried around the bell end looking for food panniers to chew his way into. We hung the panniers from a tree outside but he still persisted in searching around and we feared he would eat his way into the tent. When he investigated too far into a plastic bag, we seiazed our chance and captured him! He spent the night cozy in a tin can with bedding and plenty of food:
Next day we descended towards Ulaan Baatar which was lying under a cloud of haze. It is quite a strung out city so despite being small for a capital city there was 25km of urban cycling to reach the centre and the sanctuary of the UB Guesthouse. Here we were in for a real culture shock as we met many backpackers for the first time since Pisa in Italy!
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