Lenin our Hair Down

Last week, Yugyeong and I left Ulaanbaator, and struggled to make progress along the dirt tracks of the Mongolian steppe. This week, we cross two national borders, and begin the next chapter of our journey: crossing the ‘Stans’.

Day 22 – Lake Khur-Us Nuur, Mongolia to eighty kilometres North-West of Khovd, Mongolia

After fighting off mosquitos for most of the night, we didn’t sleep as well as we hoped, but the novelty of waking up in a Mongolian ger made-up for it slightly. After saying our goodbyes to our ever-friendly hosts, we made our way to the beautifully-named town of Khovd for lunch, which was excellent. In fact, every meal we have had in Mongolia has been of a good standard, including the horse.

After our gorge, we left the town heading North-West on what would become our last major challenge in Mongolia. Asphalt roads have deserted us yet again and we are re-starting our crawl through the unbounded, weather-beaten steppe. Sometimes even the frightful tracks disappear, forcing us to ford waist-deep rivers (with guidance from locals on the other side). After six hours (and only eighty kilometres), we’d had enough, and decided to camp next to a glacial river somewhere in the mountains on the way to Ulgii. Having not had a shower for a week, the river will have to suffice.

Day 23 – Eighty kilometres North-West of Khovd, Mongolia to Tsagaannuur, Mongolia

As we continued our journey to the border, the mountains became taller, and the glaciers more visible, until we reached a part of Mongolia that looked more like the Canadian Rockies. Yet, its become more and more difficult to appreciate our backdrops given the amount of concentration it takes to drive on their shocking roads, trying to avoid another puncture – or worse. But after finishing our last dirt trail, we could finally grasp the wild magnificence that has surrounded us for eleven days. It is an awfully special country.

On our route across Mongolia, we have been assisted by continual road updates by passing foreign drivers including: a British trio in a Fiesta that gave us hope when we needed it most, two moustachioed Italian men in a 1990’s Fiat Punto, three young Spanish guys in a Mini who filmed us with their drone, Matteo from Italy who has the month off work and decided to ride his motorcycle to Ulaanbaatar, and an almost naked Dutchman cycling the length and breadth of Mongolia on his own because (in your best Dutch accent) “hey, why not?”. What we have gradually come to realise is that, believe it or not, we are the most sensible out of the lot. Twenty kilometres to the border tomorrow.

Day 24 – Tsagaannuur, Mongolia to Onguday, Russia

A border consisting of twenty-six kilometres of no-mans-land and extremely thorough customs officers began our day. Despite the lashing rain, and the chilly mountain air that even had the thickset Russian border guards shivering in their furs, everything (and I mean absolutely everything) had to be removed from Toby and checked three times for hidden quantities of drugs, weapons or humour (which is absolutely prohibited here). I haven’t a clue what contraband I could possibly hide between the pages of my Korean textbooks, but examine them they did regardless.

The Altai Republic, the region of Russia we were now entering, took Mongolia’s rolling hills up a notch and introduced snow-covered mountains and high-passes that we had not been expecting, but adored driving on. The whole area is inundated with hikers, campers, climbers, paragliders, cyclists and white-water-rafters, whilst we had a cup of tea and a bun at a Russian hippie commune. Who would have thought?

With the most spectacular scenery we have seen so far, we are quickly discovering that Russia’s vast expanse encompasses geographical features and remarkable mountainous landscapes that you barely ever hear or read about.  However, it must be noted that getting a visa here, at least for a Brit, requires sending them a faecal sample and couple of toes, but it was well worth it. The country has really grown on me… since we left Chita.

Day 25 – Onguday, Russia to Barnaul, Russia

Last night we stayed in a cheap, run-down guesthouse that had blood on the walls and coffee (I hope) on the sheets, and it was terrific. Our first taste of luxury for ten days; well worth navigating the remote, perforated, dirt track from the main road to get there. After a ‘conversation’ with an old, shuddering, Kyrgyzstani man on how many fingers he had left on his hand, we got back on the road, this time on route to a larger (and more conventional) city: Barnaul.

After leaving the rugged and interesting Altai Republic, we re-joined the uniform and tedium in the adjoining region: Altai Krai. Having had our taste of showers, and beds, and cholera, we booked ourselves into yet another lavish hotel, in order to start preparing for our next border crossing. Having got a touch of the infamous Mongolian belly, it was less time spent visa preparing, and more time bowel evacuating. Enchanting.

Day 26 – Barnaul, Russia

Today could only be described as an extremely slothful day, I believe we are allowed one, I forget sometimes that this is also some sort of sadistic holiday. We rested before doing our usual chores: buying supplies, changing currency, washing the car, and letting the family know I’m still alive (despite the fact my stomach has fallen through me). All within the comforts of the grey, wet, and miserable Barnaul. That is a little unfair, as we haven’t had (and have absolutely no intention to have) a good look around the city.

Finishing off yesterday’s left-over shashlik and borsch, we considered how respectable the Russian food has been so far, albeit a far cry from the Korean culinary experience I was spoilt with. Whilst Korean restaurants ply you with twenty-plus dishes of food you never asked for (and feel appalled in wasting), the Russian-restaurant-system is far more straightforward. You order ‘Sausage’ from the menu, you get one sausage, you order ‘Pasta’, you get a plate of sauce-less pasta. Forget all the extra stuff that turns ingredients into meals, you get exactly what you pay for. As the people of Barnaul may or may not say: “pasta sauce is for the weak and feeble”.

Day 27 – Barnaul, Russia to Kulunda, Russia

Upon leaving the moist, damp clutches of the city, we began to encounter a few issues with Toby. Now, we knew when we bought him that he wasn’t exactly in mint condition (hence the scarcely believable price-tag), but only now are we starting to bear witness to the transmission problems he has. We have been trying to find a garage that is willing to assist us since Mongolia, but all are either too busy, too idle, or (quite understandably) don’t have a bloody clue what we are saying – until, finally, today.

On the road to the Kazakh border, we encountered a co-operative mechanic who explained he could help us “after finishing his current job”. I guess that meant his night-time job at the shashlik restaurant across the street as, after six hours of waiting, he returned stating that he couldn’t do it today. The extreme annoyance of wasting another day instantly prompted me to drive three hundred kilometres to the border through muddy farmland, during another storm, in the dark. We slip and slid our way into Kulunda (the border town) at two in the morning, had a packet of gone-off crab-flavoured crisps, and collapsed into bed. I hope the Kazakh’s have better time-keeping.

Day 28 – Kulunda, Russia to Shiderti, Kazakhstan

Another day, another border. We have already become quite accustomed to intense questioning, mystified looks from the locals, and light mocking of the English language. When asked “what is the purpose of your travel” (or the Russian equivalent), nobody ever believes us when we reply “tourism”. That always brings some form of laughter, but also begs the question: If the idea of visiting this place is so horrifying, why the hell do you live here? It seems that the border posts we select, and struggle for hundreds of kilometres to get to, are the least visited and most parochial we could possibly have chosen.

Kazakhstan. Famous for its steppe, the launching and landing of space rockets, and for being the testing site for the Soviet Union’s bomb collection. Let’s hope that after ten days here we can add something else to that list. First impressions are rather good. We stopped in Pavlodar for lunch, and had delightful fun at an alien-and-space-themed restaurant, before enjoying the joys of a well-tarmacked road on the way to the capital.

So, at the end of week four, we proudly stand in Shiderti: two hundred and seventy kilometres North-East of Astana, in Pavlodar Province. We’re well rested, well ahead of schedule, and well aware of the monumental challenge that still awaits us…

Distance Travelled: 8,426km

J

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