Sunday, 21 September 2014

time and space

yummmm, semolina
It is snowing.  We wait for the snow to stop and the cloud to finally lift.  The afternoon takes us along great firm tracks into a pretty valley.  We see trees again - the first for a while - and finally camp on the edge of woods.  The day has remained cold and at sunset Gabor registers 2 degrees on his clock.  Gayle wears her down jacket in bed.  I wear two hats.  Gabor has on his snug down suit and an extra sleeping bag. Water bottles freeze.  We survive.  The next few days the weather is gloriously sunny and the nights are freezing.  We adapt.  We wonder about the route ahead and if we can get to UB before bad weather stops us in our tracks. What's plan B?  It's the end of September.  The landscape has changed subtly.  There's more grass, more trees.  The woods hug the upper slopes of the hills.  The tree line might be rescinding faster than my hair line.  When we camp in any forest we can see that all the big trees have mostly been chopped down and all that's left are the younger thin ones.

The landscape in Mongolia is, of course, big.  There's no other word for it.  And there's something weird about how the scale affects us.  You can cycle along half a day and the view might not change that much - we are minute creatures in this vastness.  We wonder what it's like for families in their gers living here.  The isolation must be terrible.  Sometimes we come across gers in a huddle of three or four together, but more often they stand alone, presumably because their animals need space to graze the land.  How does anyone meet anyone else to marry?

Gabor is always a happy camper when there's a seat

Our riding days have settled into a regular pattern - we always set off before Gabor, get to a village or town, stock up on food and water, stop somewhere for lunch.  By this point Gabor usually has caught us up and we ride together until we find somewhere to camp.  After the first two days when we find few fresh water sources, we start to load up with water at each village.  It takes a while sometimes to find the pump house and in some villages the water has to be switched on by a key-holder.  Invariably we turn up when the pump house is locked up and we have to ask around to find someone with a key.  I guess restricted times means that everyone is not wasteful with the water.  It's a mighty effort just to get water to your home - most people have trolleys to carry the plastic barrels they fill up.  We often see motorcyclists, coming or going to gers in the middle of nowhere, with water barrels strapped to their bikes.

it's a treat to find a river to camp beside

still at the beach

as useful as a bucket with a hole in it

the oh so stupid phone thief
One morning we are setting off before Gabor, as usual, when a horseman appears to check out Gabor's campsite.  The local doesn't say much but his eyes watch everything.  The Big G has almost finished packing up his bike so we head off. After we've gone the local fella tries listening to Gabor's mp3 player.  Finally he rides off and then Gabor discovers that his smart phone has gone.  He checks around and wonders about the horseman.  He knows Gayle took a photo of him.  He hurries after us and catches us up in the next village.  Someone takes him to the police station where he shows the policeman the photo.  A woman is fetched to help translate and finally the policeman takes Gabor off to arrest the horseman.  They go back to the camping spot.  But the horseman lives in a ger on the other side of the river. Never mind, the cop commandeers a horse from a herder and rides across.  This is Mongolia, right?  He returns with the horseman and after a lot of talk, the phone is handed back.  Gabor is asked if he wishes to press charges.  He declines.  He is asked to provide 'petrol money' for which he is all too happy to do and then the policeman invites him to stay the night in the police station.  It's all a bit different from the reality cop shows on TV.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

big country

we're easily distracted
Descending from a steep climb over a pass at the end of the day we come across some camels.  The three of them run off awkwardly.  Within minutes they are almost out of sight.  I'm not sure about the track we are on and ask Gayle and Gabor if they noticed that fork back there, just before we came down this slope? No, they didn't.  We hum and haw.  We haven't seen a vehicle since we crossed the pass and were so enthralled with the view on our descent that none of us thought much about the route.  After all, there were about eight parallel tracks going in our direction.  Now there's only our track.  Happily a man turns up on his Mustang motorbike.  We ask if the track is heading to Naranbulag.  He frowns. No.  He points across the wide hillside to a distant white dot - a ger.  We think he's telling us we will find a track over there.  He looks worried.  Have we got water?  We head off cross-country, pushing and riding as the sunlight softens in the late afternoon.  Gabor has a big grin on his face as we ride across the valley.  Where else but Mongolia would you just head off into oblivion like this??  Gayle is humming the theme tune from the Magnificent Seven again.

the right track........or is it?
Finally we get close enough to the ger to realise that there is no obvious track here.  But we have crossed one along the way - heading towards other gers in a different direction.  This track is our only hope.  Gabor's GPS indicates a 'road' about 15 km further east - that would be too far cross-country.  The light is fading.  We hurry back to the only track there is.  Gayle is trailing when a well-dressed couple ride up on horses out of nowhere to see if she's okay.  It's rare to see a woman riding here.  Happily, they confirm we're on the right track.
We are tired and mentally weary after a week. Our average is 45 km a day and we've reached the large Kargus salt lake which sits in a huge depression.  It's a bleak grey day.  Ahead there's a long waterless stretch of over 150km and we are wondering how to approach it.  In Naranbulag we ask about getting a ride.  A man is fetching water in a small Hilux minivan.  He looks interested.  We discuss price.  He gives us a number.  We look horrified - not just acting, but truly horrified at the asking price.  We must look as desperate as we feel.  He laughs dismissively at our counter offer.  We finally agree.  We are on the verge of offering anything to get out of here and away from all this sand.  We set off on our 300km journey with the bikes and panniers stuffed in the back.  Riding out of the village on a rough track we are suddenly shocked to see a brand new highway crossing behind the village.  We climb onto super smooth tarmac and begin cruising past the salt lake.  We are stunned into silence.  This new road was not known to us.  Why have we paid a small fortune to take a ride when suddenly the road is perfect? Nnnnnh!
Dismay kills conversation.  But suddenly, after about 100km the asphalt suddenly ends and we start lurching about in our seats as the van hits sandy washboard tracks. "Good" Gabor says quietly.  His relief is shared.  Now we'll get our money's worth.  Along the way the driver repeatedly stops to ask directions and certainly goes the wrong way at one point, although it doesn't really matter.  It's quite reassuring to know that it's not just us that struggles to navigate the myriad tracks. The 300km ride takes eight hours.  It has saved us six days' cycling and possible death from dehydration.........(okay, okay, just trying to make it sound worthwhile).
Gabor communes with nature

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

vamos a la playa

As we ride into Olgii a van veers wildly across the road towards us and the three men in the cab all start laughing uproariously.  What larks!  So much fun, they turn around, ride up behind me and one of them slaps me hard on the back before the van overtakes us and cuts across Gayle at the next turning.  Welcome to Mongolia - land of the drunk driver.  I make a note of their number just in case I get the opportunity to have the last laugh (I was thinking of a brick through the windscreen).  
old friends
Alas, or perhaps thankfully, we never see them again.  In the late afternoon sunshine Olgii looks quite the provincial capital it is.  A sprawling town full of houses with bright coloured roofs - new corrugated plastic roofs that look like they'll last forever.  Each house is set in a small fenced yard.  A ger sometimes stands next to the house.  In the town centre it all looks much more Soviet - ugly grey concrete buildings of unspecified purpose.  Is it a hotel? A shop? A block of flats?  The container market is just like the ones in Central Asia - and result: I find a pair of shoes that fit. The bike container turns up nothing more useful than a spare tube - well, you never know. 

would you go down there?
We stay at a 'ger camp' in the town.  A tour agency has set up a clutch of gers in a small yard next to their cafe.  It's simple and fine and gives us an inkling of the kind of tourism that Mongolia is set up for - tours booked from Ulaanbaatar that take groups of tourists aroud the country in private transport.  Most of the tourism must be July and August because we only meet three Americans who have breakfast with us on the day we are departing.  When we explain our plan to cycle to UB they laughingly explain that they've just arrived by plane on a 3 hour flight from UB and on the way they looked down and remarked how hard it must be to drive all this way.  And we're thinking of cycling it.  We surely are crazy.  Their Mongolian guide tells us it's all downhill from here to UB.  And then adds with a smile "except for the passes".

this girl and her dad were collecting plastic bottles on the outskirts of town - rich pickings round here

The weather is warm and sunny as we plod out of town on a dirt road that climbs over a small pass and drops down to a lovely river surrounded by autumnal trees.  Looking back over towards Olgii we can see the snow-capped peaks of Mongolia's highest mountains.  Down by the riverside are dotted gers and the occasional regular tent.  The traffic on the road is light - a few trucks and some cars.  It looks like the motorcycle is the vehicle of choice for a lot of ger dwellers.  It's replaced the horse for most, but not all, herders. 

The dirt road is alright most of the day and we all enjoy the ride along the river and through a gorge before finally climbing up and out onto a plateau where the road just deteriorates into two rutted sand pits separated by a narrow strip of earth.  Away off to our right trucks and cars pass - somewhere back there the tracks have split and we must have chosen the wrong one.  Gayle disabuses me of this impression. "There is no right track or wrong track.  There's just tracks." before falling off her bike.  Bruised and scraped but nothing serious, it's a reminder that you have to watch the track all the time.  One minute everything's fine and you're flying along, the next minute you've hit soft sand, the front wheel turns abruptly sideways, or the backwheel skids to and fro.  We have to learn how to ride on these tracks very quickly because the second day the road gets much worse.  It's hard going mentally when you know the track is reasonably flat, the climbs are usually long and slow and you'd normally have no trouble just rolling along but with washboard and gravel and sand you're constantly adjusting, slowing, crossing to firmer ground.  Or falling off.

Mongolian beach
We pass by a large lake, collect water for the evening camp and then start the slowest climb ever up to a pass.  The land is dry and looks barren at a distance.  Up close there is dry yellow grass but it's clumpy and sparse.  We've seen camels each day - they just stand around looking a bit stupid.  They probably look at us cycling past them in the sand thinking the same of us.  Camping out here is no problem - lots of space, places to hide away from the road.  It's so dry there aren't many gers about.  The best thing is that since we left Olgii the days have been warm and the nights are comfortable again.  We cook under the stars.

Gabor fills up

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

border crossing

still here
It turns out that Kosh Agach, although a bit rough around the edges, isn't such an awful place after all and we end up staying three nights while we prepare ourselves mentally for the Next Bit.  In other words Mongolia.  As we'll only have thirty days to cross to Ulaanbaatar on mostly dirt roads we might as well take our time before we cross the border.  Around us the mountains seem to attract dark grey clouds but the skies stay clear enough by the time we set out.  A tailwind drives us towards the last village and on the road we are stopped by a policeman in an unmarked car who has a look at our passports before waving us on.  He comes and finds us later on when we have pitched our tents away off the road about 10km before the border post.  This time he is with two others, but they only look again at our passports before driving off.  This is the only time the police in Russia have shown any interest in us whatsoever.

nowhere to hide
From the Russian border post we have a twenty kilometer ride up through a valley to the actual border.  We aren't certain that we will be allowed to cycle this stretch but we are happily waved through by the uniforms. On an empty road we come across an eagle fighting with an animal on the road ahead.  The bird is trying to pull away with its talons holding what?  We can't identify the animal as it runs away before we get too close.  It is the colour of a marmot but looks bigger - a fox maybe?  It feels like we have just stumbled onto one of those precious natural history scenes from a BBC Nature programme - but without the hushed commentary from David Attenborough to explain fully what we are witnessing.  At the top of the climb, where the tarmac ends, a single Russian guard has to open the gate in the fence for us.  He wants to chat - his English is good.  He tells us he's from a big city in the west, but we've never heard of it.  Then he begins to list all the big Russian cities starting with Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sebastopol......... Mr. Putin you should give this man a promotion.   We haven't watched any Russian news programmes but someone had asked us about Crimea and I asked whether there was any fighting in the Ukraine.  Oh no, came the reply, all is peaceful. If only.........

Dirt road down to the Mongolian border where we are waved through a pool of muddy water by a woman who then expects us to buy a ticket for the "disinfecting" of our bicycles.  We laugh at her.  The wind is howling around the border post and there's no sign of anyone outside.  Inside we are led around to fill out the usual bits of paper before being stamped in - a 30 day visa on arrival.  As soon as we get out beyond the gates we shelter behind a wall to eat some lunch.  Here we meet Joy, a local young Kazakh on a motorbike who speaks a little English, enough to explain that he has a place to stay in the next village, which is 30km away but not enough to understand our questions about the Mongolian language.  He tells us that he speaks four languages: Kazakh, Russian, Mongolian and English.  He's probably fluent in three so it seems a bit mean to carp about the fourth.  To our shame we have not learnt any Mongolian and to be truthful, we are hoping we can wing it with the few words of Russian we have learnt.  After all, Mongolia was a Russian client state for seventy years.

looking for asphalt

Gabor, as usual, has been slower than us setting off and doing last minute shopping, and as it's freezing here, we head off down the dirt road without him.  I think he's used to us by now.  The road has been 'made' so it is full of gravel and rocks and stones.  Running in parallel on either side are smoother tracks in the dirt - the more comfortable option.  And then, as if by magic, although Joy had told us, the road becomes asphalted.  Joy told us the asphalt runs all the way to Olgii, so that relaxes us a little, knowing that at least tomorrow won't be such a hard ride to the town.  

We are all together again when the sun disappears behind the mountains.  It is cold and the landscape is bleak and barren.  We have descended from the border a little, but end up camping at around 2000m in a spot that gives us some protection from the wind.  Still, it is cold.  There's sign of gers having been here - but it must be too cold or too devoid of grass now for them.  Just a few circles in the dirt and a large number of broken bottles dotted everywhere.  There is one ger on the other side of the road - we come across it while looking for that lovely sheltered spot - they have clearly got the best camp in the neighbourhood.  Along the road is a rabble of sheep slowly grazing their way homewards for the night.   We graze on instant noodles before quickly huddling up in bed.  Meanwhile Gabor has put on his full down suit to cook his tea.  This cold feels serious.  In the night there are snow flurries.  At this rate I'm going to have to buy some shoes.........

Sunday, 7 September 2014

the chuysky tract

the Big City
Descending down the road to Aktash we suddenly understand how high we've been for the last few days - the road is steep and seemingly endless.  Aktash is the Big City.  There's a bancomat (ATM).  There are shops.  There's a petrol station.  And, wait for it, there's a hotel.  We consider the hotel when the rain starts.  We haven't restocked our panniers when the black clouds down the valley move swiftly over us and the rain falls.  We check out the hotel but they want 25 quid for a dull room and no wifi. Fergeddit.  

can you get a pulse?
The skies clear and we optimistically do our shopping, refill fuel bottles and find a tap at a water pump on the street to fill our water carriers.  So, roubles? Check. Food? Check. Water? Check.  Petrol? Check. Gabor? Gabor? Gabor is cleaning his bike.  As we set off up the main road eastwards we are chased by more filthy black clouds.  Within twenty minutes we have the tent up in a copse of fir trees just off the road as the storm passes over.  Gabor is evidently not so keen on the pitch for his tent, but sod it, here comes the rain again.

The Chuysky Tract is the main road that runs through the Altai Region. Coming southwards from Biysk it bends eastwards through narrow valleys, over passes before opening out east of Aktash.  As we cycle along, mouths gaping wide with smiles, mouths gaping wide for oxygen, there's a rush of joy and bliss at being surrounded by big mountains, big country and big sky.  The sun is out again and we're in Siberia. Fantastic.

We roll into a village for food and water and meet the local drunks, who are always hanging around the shop when we turn up.  How to play it?  Most of them are harmless, shake hands, basic chit-chat, and then buddy, can you spare a dime? Ya nye panlimayu, I say with a shrug.  I don't understand, smiling.  I do understand that some of these men are too young to be alcoholics.  I do understand that the Altai has one of Russia's worst crime rates, the lowest wages, the most poor.  It's on the edge of the country, it's a long way from Moscow, and there aren't many ethnic Russians living here.  The women look like they bear the burden in these parts.

We are a bit careful when looking for the next camp spot - who wants a miserable drunk finding us?  But we also want a river, to wash.  And we also want The View.  The View consists of a range of mountains with snow on the ridges.  Glaciers.  Ice cream cornices.  We score 2 and a half out of three - the river runs around the back of the woods. Gabor is moved to rise with the sun to photograph The View, it's that good.

Gabor considering the view

Riding east the land is gradually opening out.  The mountains move further away.  We are climbing ever so gradually.  The road is quiet.  The scenery is loud.  The trees are on fire with vivid autumnal shades.  The hillsides are now barren.  Only the land around the river is fertile.  Copses.  Boggy grasses.  Pine forest is starting to thin out.  We pass one last village before camping down by the riverside behind thickets of what looks like hazel, but isn't.  A warm evening is followed by a frosty morning. 

Kosh Agach.  "Edge of the world shanty town."  Snow-capped mountains to the south.  Big wide expanse of barren land all around.  Rivers meandering across the high plain.  It's the Altiplano of Chile/Bolivia.  It's the desert mountain scenery of Tibetan Sichuan.  It's the Altai.  

Our hotel is homely.  Well, homely in the sense that you have to make up your own bed.  Otherwise it just feels like a woodshack motel, especially on the Saturday night when the hotel is full of who?  Who comes here, apart from crazy tourists on bicycles?  Well, Altais, Russians and Kazakhs, judging by the look of 'em.  It's carnage.  On Sunday morning drunks weave to their cars.  A man throws up in the shared bathroom to great audio effect.  Smokers in the showers - how does that work?  The skyline is low, the mountains hidden in grey cloud, the streets are empty.  It's Sunday morning and everyone has a hangover.  A day to spend warm in bed.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

from the woods to the hills

After a couple of days riding washboard dirt roads the appearance of tarmac comes as a pleasant surprise.  The river we are riding beside has become swift as the road climbs.  There's little farmland now - mostly forest and sometimes swamp.  The little villages we pass through have new houses or restored old ones - the lovely old wooden cabins might be holiday homes for city folk.  But there are clearly still a lot of locals living here too.  Some of the old houses lean.  Some of the locals do too.  Alcoholism must be a serious problem here.

the archetypal village house
camping bliss
After one last camp in the forest we turn up at Lake Teleskoye looking for Gabor, who we hope is still here.  There are a few souvenir shops, cafes and guesthouses with cabins. It's surprisingly low-key despite the good weather.  End of summer.  Where to begin looking for Gabor?  We opt to look for the internet first and end up asking the owner of a hotel who asks with a smile "do you only want the internet?".  We take a room.  Gabor is still here but it takes us a while to realise we can track him on the internet as he uses a tracking device.  Sure enough - he's down by the bridge at the head of the lake.  We quickly catch up and make plans.  After a couple of nights we will take a boat to the southern end of the lake.  The trouble is there aren't many tourists around to share the cost of the boat.  In fact it's looking decidedly quiet, especially after a day of rain.  We learn from the hotel owner that the tick season is over and there is a noticeable lack of mosquitoes around, so there are some advantages of being late in the season, although we shouldn't drop our guard.

the onset of Japanese Encephalitis can be swift and alarming

It's about 65km across the lake.  We ride in a small, fast boat that has cost us about 20 quid each.  The lake is wonderful - narrow with steep forrested slopes and big waves when we turn the corner to cruise the length of it.  The bumpy crossing brings us to a much quieter part of the Altai region - the Chulyshman valley has a dirt road connecting small villages of Altai people with the main road over two mountain ranges.  For the first time in Siberia Russian Slavs are in the minority - the Altai people look more Mongolian/Kyrgyz.  We have plenty of days to ride to the Mongolian border from here so our pace is easy-going.  And why not?  The road is rough in places but most of all the landscape is worth casting a second or third look.  In fact, why not sit down here and drink it all in for a while.  

What follows are several short days of cycling and some great wild camping places.  They have to be worked for - a big push up away from the road or over a dry river bed and through sand.  Whatever.  It's so much nicer camping away from the road - especially at the weekend when Russians turn up in their 4WDs and camouflage gear to go fishing or just camp in the last days of summer.  Our way back to the main road takes us out of the valley and over a pass to Balyktuyul.  The road climbs into the sky at a precipitous angle.  There are switchbacks.  We love switchbacks.  After all, switchbacks make climbing mountains easier.  But not these.  These have been cut out of the valley side in haste.  We push almost the whole way.  It's so steep we take it in turns to push one bike together.  Gabor is a slow starter so we miss the look on his face ( the "oh shit" moment) when he turns the corner and sees the track disappearing vertically.  It's a tough climb and he arrives at the top of the switchbacks two hours after we do.

from the bottom ... the top
rolling down from another great camp spot

sleepy Balyktuyul
The mountains in the distance are snow-capped.  Do we cross that range?  The land is lived in but empty.  The track climbs, winds, drops, twists, straightens out and climbs again to Balyktuyul where we hit tarmac.  Hooray.  There have been an endless number of short sharp climbs in sand and gravel that have required pushing and pulling, but now we're on tarmac.   Until we leave Balyktuyul and return to the dirt. Aha!  We have one of those "bad puncture" days when Gayle gets a flat, we go through all our spare inner tubes one after the other and either the patches fail or the rim tape on the wheel causes another puncture.  Finally, the rim is taped up and a new tube of patch glue is opened.  Gabor waits patiently throughout each pitstop, eating milk biscuits with jam.

We meet only two Aussies, Carl and Mel, on motorbikes.  No other foreign tourists.  It seems incredibly off the beaten track considering the beauty of the landscape.  We continue southwards towards the main road, passing lakes and swathes of autumnal forest.  It's hot in the sun during the day but the mornings and evenings are very chilly. End of summer for sure.

oh look, another lake