Mongolia is done and dusted, but not before we had a couple of side trips to really get our fill. After saying goodbye to the crew and other team members, it was time to be real tourists. As you all know from last week, the journey across the rocky, muddy and sandy landscape had been arduous and left little time for taking in the breath-taking scenery. With almost 2,000km’s across this beautiful country, both Ian and I had gotten to the end of the trip and felt like we hadn’t ‘seen’ Mongolia.
With that in mind, we jumped on Yogi, taking to the smooth tarmac out of Ulgi to visit Tolbo Lake. Only a 50km ride but with time to look around and take it in as we went, it was as though we were really breathing in Mongolia for the first time. Whilst it is a barren land, it by no means leaves you wanting for a change of scenery, the colours are subtle yet so varied. From velvet green steeps, to the pastel palette of wild flowers and the ever-changing rock faced mountains. It would an artists dream destination, it really does feel like one of the last untouched places on earth.
Riding in the sun, a slight chill in the air, it was a short but spectacular trip. Arriving at the lake, it was time to test Yogi off road two-up. Of course, he performed without missing a beat, gently navigating his way across the field towards the shore to deliver us to even more stunning natural beauty. Having been to quite a few of the lakes on the trip across, this one didn’t disappoint. The water is so clear you could see the stones lining the bottom and watch the tiny fish darting around chasing the infinite supply of mosquitoes dancing on the surface. It was completely silent, not another soul in sight. This is what I came to Mongolia for. We headed back to the road and continued on, stopping every few kilometres to take photos and soak it all in and have a roadside banana. As is so often the case, it is the simple times that are usually the best.
After our successful day trip, we decided to ensure we got the most out of the remaining time in Mongolia and organised with the hotel to take one of my beloved Russian bukhunka’s to the Altai national park. Gathering camping gear, food and as many warm clothes as we could find and it was time to hit the ‘road’. Although we had already traversed many of the rocky unpaved roads across the country, the next 180km put a new meaning to the definition of a track.
Taking almost 7 hours, it was slow going, the bukhunka clawing it’s way up to almost 2,000m. Finally stopping after I am sure everyone one of my teeth was about to rattle lose from my jaw, it was a welcome relief to step outside into the very brisk air. Now early afternoon, the fog had descended, and the mountain was no longer visible. Grabbing the tent, that was the moment it started to rain. My camping practise in Europe paid off and I had that tent up in a matter of minutes, quite impressed if I do say so myself.
Defrosting our frozen fingers on a warm cup of camp tea before we took to the surrounding hills to explore and meet our new neighbours. Our first friend, Scruffy, followed quietly behind me everywhere I went. He was one of the most gorgeous dogs I have seen here and had such a gentle nature. With Scruffy in tow, we headed across to see the valley as the sun sunk further behind the low-lying clouds.
It is hard to believe people can survive in such a remote and harsh environment, and this is summer! It is inconceivable to me to think about spending a winter here that is for sure.
Fun with the locals had only just begun, retreating to the warmth of my little green tent, I set out to cook up a mountain top pasta with all the canned vegetables I could find in the local market. Having eaten mutton for two weeks straight, it was time for some veggies.
In such a pristine environment there are no facilities to speak of, including garbage bins. Being responsible campers, we placed all our scraps and rubbish into a plastic bag just outside the tent, this was to be the catalyst for our next set of visitors. Hearing the rustling of plastic and the munching of who I believed to be my new friend Scruffy, I opened the tent to see a hoof.
Last I remember dogs don’t have hooves, it was a goat. Not just one goat, more like 100 of his closet friends who had all come to join in on our vegetarian feast. Chomping their way through the left overs, it was time to see if the phone we were using to take photos was edible! With no care whatsoever about our hysterical laughter, they pushed and jostled each other to be the star of the shot, all the while coming further inside the tent. Their Sheppard saw the commotion and came over to shoo them away, I was sad to see them go 🙂
Stomachs sore from laughing, we settled in for a very cold night high in the Mongolian mountains. Thankfully the rain had subsided but the damp ground and ever-present mist in the air made for a chilly sleep.
Waking to yet another grey and cold morning we decided there was no point in heading further up. Packing up, one of the guides came to tell us that the weather was moving in and it was not going to be a good day. Happy with our decision to head back to Ulgi, we got everything back in the van just as the first flakes of snow fell. Warm inside the bukhunka it was a beautiful scene, a snow shower in the middle of summer high in the Altai mountains.
We got the feeling our driver was very pleased to be moving out and drove as though he was in a qualifying round for the FIA world rally championship. Hanging on for dear life we were given a few minutes to rest out bruised bones in one of the many tiny villages on the way back.
Looking out of the window I could see a little girl in a bright red jacket playing with her teapot in the dirt. Grabbing a couple of milk lollies, I jumped out of the van and quietly approached her. Holding out my hand she put down her bar of soap and cautiously scooped up the sweets. I smiled and took a couple of photos of her gorgeous face before I waved goodbye.
As I walked back to the van I realised she may not understand what I had given her, so I returned and bent down to talk to her. Unwrapping the lolly, I made hand motions to encourage her to eat it. Popping it into her mouth, I watched as the biggest smile came across her face. She was absolutely delighted by the treat and I kneeled there and shared the moment with her, phone in my pocket where it belonged.
Turning away for the second time she waved as I walked back to the van. No sooner had I gotten back inside I saw that she had a brother, who she was adamant would not be taking one of her new treasures! I couldn’t be the cause of sibling arguments, so I once again went back, this time their mother and maybe an older sister were there and incredibly happy to ‘speak’ with us and encourage the shy boy to come out and say hi. Giving him a chocolate, he very proudly stood next to his sister for a photo. Sitting in the van on the way back I found myself smiling at the interaction, it really was beautiful.
Continuing on our world record attempt from Altai to Ulgi, we finally arrived, bruised and battered, early afternoon. With a day left to give Yogi a wash, repack bags and get organised, it had been a great end to our time in Mongolia.
A very early goodbye as Ian had a morning flight back to Ulaanbataar, I waited for the sun to come up before setting off for the border crossing back into Russia. Heading north out of Ulgi, I felt as though I was totally alone in the world, not a single car or person passed me the entire 130km ride. It is a very isolated and uninhabited part of the country and I realised why as I sped along to the border. It was absolutely freezing. I realise Mongolia can be cold at any time of the year but this was something else. Stopping no less than four times to add more layers there seemed to be nothing I could do to keep warm. I even resorted to stopping every 10kms and thawing my burning fingers on the heat of the radiator pipes.
Frost forming in my helmet it was all I could do to keep going, I was cold to my bones. With the final 30kms of road to the border unsealed, I climbed a steep gravel hill to see the source of my pain, a blindingly white snow-covered mountain.
Having experienced the chaos of the eastern border on my way in, I didn’t hold out much hope of doing any more than spending the day waiting. Thankfully that wasn’t to be the case. Riding my way past the line of waiting cars, I stopped at the gate just as they were opening it to let the next wave in to be processed. Hopping off the bike, the guards were very inquisitive about me and the bike, quickly waving me inside to be stamped out. In less than 10 minutes we were done, I couldn’t believe my luck.
Leaving the gates of the Mongolian border, you ride 25kms of no mans land before coming to the Russian border post. Riding up just as the guard was closing the gate, he saw me coming and motioned for me to hurry through. It looked as though my good fortunes were continuing. With the usual pushing and shoving from Mongolians to get ahead of the line, a lady guard took me inside the warm office and helped me to fill in the forms. Seeing I was returning to Russia, she said ‘Welcome back to Russia’, I couldn’t have been happier to be back. After a total of two hours for both borders I was on my way, it was a great start to being back on the road solo.
Unsure how long it was going to take to cross I had made no plan for where I would stop, this turned out to be an excellent choice. Stopping for fuel just inside Russia I started to feel the sun’s warmth slowly coming through my many layers, it was time to really hit the road. This route would take me from far west Mongolia north towards the city of Novosibirsk, all the way through the Russian side of the Altai mountain range.
Almost immediately, the brand-new road gave us plenty to smile about. Endless curves, perfect corners and jaw dropping scenery all snaking their way alongside a river. A snow-capped mountain range to our left and the river on our right, it felt like we were in Switzerland, Austria and the Rocky Mountains of the USA all at once. After so many kms on this trip, I can confidently say this was without doubt, one of the most memorable rides so far.
With no plan, I stopped as often as I wanted and relished the freedom being alone affords, I enjoyed every single minute. I know I am having a great ride when I catch myself smiling in my helmet without even realising I am doing it. Stopping to take a photo alongside a river, a group of hearing impaired Italian women had done the same and using sign language we chatted. They were blown away by my being out there on my own.
Sometimes it takes for total strangers for me to remember that it is a remarkable thing I have set out to do, I have been so accustomed to it being my life right now it is easy to forget. That brief interaction once again had me smiling as I rode on. Everyone’s journey is different, I can absolutely say for me, it is those moments I have with complete strangers that make it all worthwhile.
A warm welcome at a rural village hotel after a long day’s ride, I felt like I was home being back in Russia. The roads can be frustrating with so much construction, the traffic terrible in the cities and the lack of food on the road enough to make you lose your mind but the kindness, generosity and sincerity with which they receive travellers more than makes up for those inconveniences.
Arriving into Novosibirsk in the afternoon, a town which we have been to before, I parked Yogi next to 3 big bikes. Two were from GB and one from Australia! This seems to be the place for bikers to stop as it is the same hotel where I met my Russian gang on the way through last time. I met the riders at breakfast the following morning. The two Brits on their way to attempt the BAM road and the Aussies on their way to Vladivostok to ship their BMW to Japan.
As they headed east, I took Yogi to see his friends at Honda for a well-deserved service and check-up. Alex and Ivan had been a huge help last time we were here, getting Yogi back to health after all of the sub-par fuel across Russia and they were thrilled to see us today, returning safe and sound from Mongolia.
The next couple of weeks will be spent traversing Russia, this time east to west to arrive back in Europe by the end of the month. Although it will once again be long days on the road, I am looking forward to relaxing a bit with the challenge of Mongolia now behind us.
Kylie and Yogi x
Bridge and Craig – I hope that was up to your expectations for the week 😊 xx