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.........

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