2017-09-26 – 2017-09-28
In the 4 days I stayed in Ulaanbaatar, I didn’t see much. A restaurant, Toyota garage and right before leaving, the dinosaur museum and some of the center. Blog writing, socializing and beer drinking in the hostel was relaxing and resetting. The city itself is not really that interesting. Just big, quite modern and shitloads of traffic. On the way to Ulaanbaatar, Brutus’ rear shock absorbers started rattling so it was time to go get new ones. At the Toyota garage they also found out that there was play in the main front ball joints. They couldn’t get original ones, so I had 555’s installed. Also, they were not able to find shock absorbers so I made an appointment at the ARB shop, where they fit a pair of Old Man Emu shocks in about 20 minutes. And finally I installed original front stabilizer bushings, at which point I found out that the left and right brackets were switched. That’s why Brutus kept eating them up on the road.
Time to leave the city. First goal was the massive statue of Chingis Kahn. Many times I read that it is “in the middle of nowhere”, but it really isn’t too far from Ulaanbaatar. Also there is a lot of stuff built around it and the road leading there is tarmac. Sorry to shatter that image :P. Otherwise however, it is really impressive. It’s possible to climb on top of the horses head by stairs. You exit the status at Chingis’ crotch from where you can walk up to face him. There were some other (Spanish) overlanders there, doing a photoshoot of their car and the other statues around the site. Around this time, the bulk of tourists are pretty much gone, although there were still a few small groups around. I had some app contact with the British, but soon found out that they took another road than I had planned. So, really on my own again. My camp spot was about 80km south of Ulaanbaatar.
In the morning I was awoken by 2 guys on a motorcycle. They tapped on the window and waved. When I had my sweater on, they decided to leave. It was a bit early, but too late to fall asleep again. So I started the morning ritual. That day was a big driving day, but with mainly tarmac. On the way I saw a huge statue near a village. Children were having some sort of sports day there. I got a really nice Mongolian road souvenir after that. From a truck. On my window. When I arrived in Sainshand, I got some diesel and food, and continued to Zuunbayan, where a monastery is situated. When I arrived, it was very dark already, so I parked in the parking lot of one of the monastery complexes.
When I woke up, there were a bunch of cars and buses with visitors there. In the area are a couple of complexes and sights. Where I was parked, there was a square surrounded by white shrines and a couple of other statues and buildings of which I don’t know the purpose. Close to the parking there were also some caves. A famous monk (Noyon Khutagt Danzanravjaa) had been meditating there for a while. There was rice, incense, candles and little money offerings everywhere. The atmosphere was calm. Further down the road was the main temple complex. It was still being built and restored. Inside the main temple were a lot of beautiful murals with explanations in several languages. In another temple, a monk was reciting a bunch of texts to a family. Until his Nokia rang loudly that was. He picked up and started an animated phone conversation with the family waiting for him to continue. After that I didn’t really know where to go. But I found a meteor impact crater (Tabun-Khara-Obo) on the map and decided to drive there. It was about 70 kilometers southwest on horrible corrugated paths. There is no road leading to the actual crater so it was time for some proper off roading, and a half an hour climb. It was a beautiful place though. Sand, bushes, rocks, flint stone and I even saw some gazelles fleeing. The meteor crated was formed about 150 million years ago but still distinguishable when looking from the edge into the depression. From there I drove northeast, past Sainshand into the desert. and had a good night sleep in the car again.
I wish I had brought a trailer to collect all the bones that were scattered around the place. It really adds to the feeling of rawness and the unforgiving vastness of Mongolian nature. But it’s not only bones. There are also fresh corpses everywhere, with vultures and foxes feeding on them. This day of driving was all over sand tracks. It took 7 hours to do 260 kilometers. A distance over which the landscape slowly and slightly changed from sandy hills into more dry grassy plains. On the way there were maybe two or three villages, or hamlets. But, however small and insignificant a village is, there is always a gas station and small shop around. Even in these area’s you don’t really have to worry too much about running out of gas. The largest distance between gas stations I did was about 500 km, which is pushing it on a single tank. Glad I have some extra with me.
Today I drove about 200 km on nothing but sand tracks, through some villages and one small city. Behind one of the villages was a big stone hill that sticks out in the middle of a light sloping landscape. On the top there is a big radio mast and some small Buddhist monuments, and it is possible to see the wide surroundings. There are some salt lakes around. A nice place to chill out for a while. As usual, I just stopped the car on the plains and watched the sun go down while setting up the car to sleep in.
2017-10-04 The border incident
The next day, I made a bit of a mistake. I drove through the oil and gas fields towards the east of Mongolia. There were herds of gazelle and a lot of horses on the way. On a map in the Lonely Planet I noticed a “Strictly prohibited Area” for which you officially need a permit (or two). But I also read that if you run into a ranger, you could just pay him a small fee. So I kind of just drove north. It was beautiful there. There were more herds of gazelle running about and the wind was blowing fiercely causing loads and loads of tumbleweeds past. The atmosphere was special on these plains. I continued towards the south, to a more mountainous area. When it got dark, I was still driving, hoping to find a path back to the north. But I kind of sort of stumbled upon an army outpost, where a soldier stopped me and asked for my passport.
Sorry. From here on no pictures, just text
Laughingly I gave him my passport to check, not knowing I would only get it back 2 days later. Apparently I was not allowed so close to the Chinese border. No one spoke English but they made that clear. My car and camera was checked in detail once, and then again by another guy of higher rank. I was told to go to a building where I got some soup. There, one of the (quite annoying) soldiers went through the images on my phone. Even though I answered a bunch of questions on the phone, they told me that I had to wait for the major, who would drive to us from 200 km away. When they told me to go to bed I knew that it wasn’t going to be that day. The next day I waited and waited. It was really quite boring so I decided to clean my car a bit. But after I came back from the car they told me I wasn’t allowed there anymore. I really started to be annoyed at this point. The major finally arrived at around 5, with a subordinate and a translator. They sat with me and asked me the same questions as on the phone. They also counted all the money in my wallet and wrote down all the serial numbers of the notes. After about an hour they left to “discuss” the situation. I was to relax in the room. For 2 or 3 hours. When they finally came back from their meeting, the major and his subordinate were drunk our of their mind. We were to drive to town that evening and the major was driving with me. “Go go go” he said constantly, while stumbling and laughing and falling asleep repeatedly, in the meantime asking me for the beer in my cooler. I didn’t give it to him. When we arrived at another outpost, the major decided we were going to spend the night there and continue at 5 in the morning. I had to turn in my car keys and tablet, and was dumped in a bunk bed with a bunch of soldiers who were sleeping. I was really quite pissed off and didn’t want to go to bed. But after half an hour I settled down and went to bed. The next morning I woke up when the soldiers woke up as well. They were a bunch of young guys, doing a 1-year service at this station. One of them spoke a little English which was somewhat comforting. Finally at around 11 o clock I saw the major groggily walking around on the premises. I got a nice brunch before leaving for town (Erdenetsagaan). There, I had to wait 10 minutes for a final meeting of the major and his superior, and the official business was done. We drove to a point where I payed them a (part of the) fine after which they released me back into the wild with a few complementary cigarettes and a shot of vodka (because it is tradition ), and was offered to marry the translator. I got the hell out of there and drove a 275 km distance and celebrated my freedom in the middle of nowhere. The annoying thing is, I think I could have just backed up right before the army outpost. It was totally dark and their vehicles were totally crappy 50’s Russian jeeps. Ah well, maybe next time I’ll think faster :P. In the end, I was treated and fed well, the people were mostly very nice to me and the experience will be never forgotten.
The next day I drove to Choibalsan, checked into a cheap hotel and went out to dinner. I was helped to a good restaurant by some friendly locals. Good food indeed. Choibalsan itself is not so interesting. The following morning everything was covered in a thin layer of snow. My visa had only 2 days left which I used to get to the northeastern border with Russia.
Close to the border I met 2 Canadian cyclists who had come from Magadan. It was lunchtime for the Mongolian part of the border so the waiting time was one hour. Leaving Mongolia was easy. A stamp, a 30 second car control and bye bye! The Russian part was a bit more tedious. The “detained” me to take finger prints and asked a few questions. Perhaps because I entered the country a second time. The paperwork took about an hour which made the whole border crossing about a 4 hour process. About average I would say.