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Cycling in Mongolia: tracks, missing manhole covers, dogs, etc...
The road from Altanbulag at the border to Ulan-Bataar is extremely pleasant and paved the whole way. The landscape is absolutely beautiful, the road is gently undulating (until you get closer to Ulan-Bataar when it starts climbing more) and much better surfaced than on the Russian side. Drivers are also very considerate, maybe because they are used to waiting for herds of sheep and horses to cross the main road, and they are very friendly too. we have been constantly beepped and waved all the way. Going away from the main road was not an option in this part of Mongolia as we only saw dusty sand tracks, which would be a pain to tackle with our loaded bikes.
(left) The main A3 to Ulan Bataar, showing good Soviet tendencies
(right) A 20km gentle uphill but the road surfaces were excellent
We have also done one weeks cycling around Ulan-Bataar on the smaller roads (to Zuunmod and Terelj). We found that they were tarmac or gravel, and once again, very pleasant to cycle. Ulan-Bataar is the one noticeable exception. We cycled once through the whole city and we made sure it was on a Sunday (we noticed that there is much less traffic). Otherwise the city is choked with cars and smoke from the power stations. Not a nice ride at all!
Dogs were one of Isa's main worries. The lonely planet guide was not very encouraging, telling us about drewling dogs chasing cars for miles on end... But we had no problem at all. The packs of dogs in town do not seem tobother anybody and the barking dogs by the gers stick to a certain territory around the ger.
A last peculiarity of the Mongolian cities of Dachan and Ulan-Bataar - watch out for the missing manhole covers. We had a really spooky downhill experience in Dachan, where the main tarmac road was full of deep black holes in the middle and on the side of it. Thankfully we manage to avoid them all!
There are no good detailed maps of Mongolia. We have tried the National Department Store and a specialised map shop in Ulan-Bataar, without success. The map shop because it is closed on Saturday and Sunday. For directions to the shop you will need to ask at the Tourist information centre in the central post office.
We have used our map of China, which also covers Mongolia, South and North Korea, Japan, and part of South-East Asia (perfect for planning your trip around these parts). It is a 1 to 4,000,000 map from Travelmag and we bought it in Tallinn (impressive advance planning). It was enough to reach Ulan-Bataar as we followed the main A3. For our travel on smaller tracks around the capital, we borrowed our landladies road map of Mongolia, which is sometimes grossly wrong when giving distances and does not tell you what type of tracks or road you are likely to encounter very accurately.
We did notice a road atlas of Mongolia (just before we left the country. This was 1:1,000,000 but magically included contours and accurately marked road passes. It should be noted that the more remote an area becomes the less accurate the maps become. The tracks wind, split, fork, disappear, bifurcate and multiply in all directions when the map will show a single highway.
Flora and Fauna
Get your binoculars out and at the ready! Mongolia is fantastic when it comes to wild life. In addition to the pictures like horsemen riding with herds of yaks, sheep and horses (and sometimes camels!), there are so many birds and animals you can see while cycling away. On our first day in Mongolia, we have spotted a white naped cranes, some falcons and some funny looking geese. Then we have encountered some steppe eagles, golden eagles, bearded vulture and the massive black vulture, but thanksfully none of the more scary bears, wolves or lynxes. The contrast is amazing with Russia, where we have hardly seen anything else other than magpies and jackdaws. We cannot comprehend why.
At the time we cycled through the country (end of summer), the steppe grass had been thouroughly eaten by all type of herds and some of the landscape was rather barren, but in a beautiful kind of way. Trees don't stand a chance in Mongolia.
There may be no trees but the views and camping spots are stunning.
The only wooded areas are the numerous natural parks and protected areas, where grazing is controlled and the cutting and collecting of wood is forbidden. But even the protected forests close to Ulan-Bataar are dwindling because some people are too poor to buy coal for the winter. There are many birch and larch trees in the forests, which take glorious autumnal colors. This was a real treat to see.
Autumnal colours make for wonderful mountain landsapes.
Food and Drink
The diet of Mongolians is built on M&Ms, otherwise known as Mutton and Milk. The food is good, but whatever you order, be it a soup, a booz (similar to the russian Pozi) or even tea, expect it to come with mutton or at least a taste of mutton. Chicken is a rarity here and we can only assume that cows and horses are too precious to be eaten. This is because of the second "M", the milk. Cow and ewe milk is used to create many types of butter, cream, yogurt, and all types of funny shaped cheeses.
I might as well do our cheese report now: we have finally sourced some good cheese here! But there are also some very strange cheeses: some are slightly sweet and curly, some others are so hard that our landlady broke her teeth while trying to bite it like the Mongolians do. The secret is too melt this cheese in your cup of Mongolian tea (the salty type!).
A selection of typical Mongolian products all ready for our train journey. Included are butter, yoghurt , dried sweet cheese curls, dried fresh cheese, State Department Store cheese (miam), fried biscuits and Isa's favourite behind - the 3 litre thermos flask.
Most of the good food, especially yogurt and milk products, can only be found in markets. Markets are definitely worth a look, especially the meat section, but it is not for the faint-hearted. At the last market we went, there was a parked open backed truck carrying loose heads of 30 horses and yaks!
In the countryside, there are many "Delguur" or shops which attempt to sell food. There are sometimes many Delguurs grouped together, selling all the same things. The selection is always disapointing. It is easy to find staple food like bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and even onions, but rarely anything worth making a sandwitch with. The quality of the tinned food is appalling and more than once had to force down our throats the content of mushy sardines tin. We ended up having rice sandwiches from the evening meal left-overs. The other things sold by the shops are many, many sweets, biscuits, and all sort of unhealthy and cheap snacks like chocolate bars with 4% cacao and 96% vegetable fat or the shocking Choco-pie cakes, which we have found in every small shops since Russia, with only 2% cocoa. The West has not added any quality to the Mongolian diet!
Drink report: here again, Mongolia has been an eye-opener. We have stopped once for a cup of tea in a "tchainaya gazar" or tea place. Needless to say our surprise when the tea turned out to be mainly milk (goat milk), with a pinch of salt added to it! Definitely an acquired taste. We have also tasted airag, which is fermented mares (ie Horse) milk. This one takes you by surprise: you think you like it until a funny moldy beer taste sneeks behind the first milky impression. We were not too sure about this one either... Otherwise plenty of vodka and plenty of Korea beer can be found here. Terry was highly amused by the caption in English on the Korean cans of beer: "KAS is the sound of vitality".
But let's talk about the essentials: Water. In many of the small shops or "Delguur" you can find some bottled water. But a water filter is necessary here and we filtered on average 6 liters of water a day. Streams and rivers have been easy to find on the way we followed (A3 and around Ulan-Bataar).
Water filtering at 1 litre a minute (not including the faff to get it all working, falling in the river and spilling the filtered water on the ground). An essential bit of kit for travelling through Mongolia
Many Mongolians still live in th typical round tent called a Ger. This has a central stove and a tiny kitchen area - normally nothing more than a low table. All the food is prepared from scratch and cooked over the stove. Water never appears to be drunk as is, it is always boiled, turned into some form of tea and normally kept warm in huge thermos flasks.
(left)A typical Ger of a nomadic family in Mongolia, portable and remarkably warm.
(right)The simple but effective kitchen area inside a Ger. The big wok is used for cooking instead of a lid on the central wood and dung burning stove
Language and Customs
Mongolian is by far the most difficult langage we have come across so far. We are lucky that following Russia we are able to read the cyrillic alphabet. The original Turkic script of Mongolia was replaced with Cyrillic by the Russians in 1944 (thus leading with Soviet education methods to 96% literacy). But pronouncing it is simply impossible to both of us, though maybe Isa is better at pronouncing certain types of "Rs". The fact is that after three weeks spent in Mongolia, we still make people laugh when trying to say "thank you". Our guidebook gave a few indications for pronounciation, but they are not correct.
It struck us that there is no word in Mongolian for "please" and all conversations seem rather direct and to the point. We know there is a word for "Sorry" but we have never heard it, even though we have seen people ploughing through crowds, elbowing grannies and stepping on children. So maybe it is okay to do so. But if you touch somebody's hat, you will be in deep trouble because head and shoulders are holy parts of the body!
We have also came across some funny examples of Mongol-english from the extremely helpful Tourist Information centre and their "Recommendations for The Security:
Post and communications
Sending an international parcel is relatively hassle-free, but you must have the content inspected and stamped at the customs before having it weiged and sent. Obviously there is a fee for this custom stamp. In Ulan-Bataar general post-office, all the staff speak good English.
Terry purchased a local SIM card and some international phone cards for France and England at the General post office. We were not convinced at all this was going to work, but it did and we could call home despite a not so good line. The costs were 28,000 togrog (15,000 togrog for the SIM card, 8800 fo UK 40 minute card). This is cheaper than trying to call from one of the international telephone booths. We were quoted a cost of just below 1000 togrog per minute in the telephone booths. The telephone booth is an operator connected call, and your allocated telephone has no bittons or dials - not much good when you are connected to a automated system "Press 1 for customer service, 2 for complaints etc"
Trains To China
We took the train from Ulan-Bataar to Beijing, preferring a week cycling around Ulan-Bataar countryside to a week or more crossing the Gobi in the cold. In addition it is not possible to cycle across the Mongolian / Chinese border. Booking was hassle-free too: there is a VIP room especially for foreigners in the international booking office, which strangely is not located at the train station. We took the train no.24 departing on Thursdays and Saturdays at 08.05 from Ulan-Bataar and arriving at 14.31 a day later in Beijing. At the time of writing, the costs were: 66,000 togrog for a Kupe (second class or hard seat) and 101,000 togrog for a liux (first class) carriage with only 2 berths. We treated ourselves to a liux carriage.
The next challenge was to put the bikes on the train. We were told to bring them to the train station at the Luggage office one day before departure at 10.00am. We than spent the next four hours going between various offices, queuing for nothing and going back and forth to the Luggage office. The whole process was an interesting blend of Russian beaurocracy and Mongolian easiness in action. We paid 500 togrog upfront for our demand to be considered, then 17,400 togrog and then a surprise tax of 9350 togrog that has been "forgotten". So, a total of 27,250 togrog ($22.5 ) for our two bikes, which is not too bad for the distance covered. If you are to take your bikes on the train, write off the good part of one day to do so. We tried to leave some panniers on the bikes, but this was met by a categorical "Niet"! It really felt like being back to Russia.
When on the train do not forget to keep some togrog - the no 24 train charges for hot water. A good supply of food is also recommended as the onboard restaraunt is quite expensive (this is the opposite of the Russian trains - free water and reasonable restaurant). For part 2 please see China Train
Cycling Nomad Diaries
22nd September 2005 - Kalinisha (Russia) to Altanbulag (Mongolia) - 67 km
The land without a fence started with two enormous fences. These marked the border between Russia and Mongolia and stretch from miles both sides of Altanbulag. But past this fence, the landscape is immediately very different from the Russian side. The forests has totally disappeared, and the steppe has begun. We could see a few gers (the Mongolian white felt-tent) and a few loose herds of yaks already. We set camp on top of a hill and were treated to our first beautiful Mongolian sunset. Truly awesome!
Our first big sunset on our first night in Mongolia.
23rd September 2005 - Altanbulag to Rhapar-Daba pass - 74 km
Another beautiful sunny day. The temperature reached 23dC in the afternoon. With the beautiful landscapes and the good road, it made really pleasant cycling. Our first stop was at Sukbataar, town named after the national hero who helped to free Mongolia from the Chinese domination in 1911. The town is rather ugly, with the usual soviet blocks and factories with tall chemineys. But the atmosphere is really relaxed. Around the central square, many people gathered around us to look at our map and they taught us our first faltering Mongolian words. Changing money at the bank was hassle-free: the studied in Manchester. As we left the town, we were waved by many school children of all ages shouting "hello, hi, Goodbye". Some had rap gestures like Eminem. It was rather funny.
(left) Terry was pleased as punch at how well he had put the tent up
(right) An Ovoo, a mound of stones found atop hills and road passes all over Mongolia. Typically the driver will stop to make an offering before walking around it 3 times clockwise to ensure good luck.
On the road, we were continuously beepped and waved by the cars and lorries. There were some enormous 6 wheel-drive lorries pulling along up to two trailers and some smaller lorries loaded with high stacks of hay. Most of the time, we meet them again after they took us over, smoking and puffing on top of each hill waiting for their engines to cool down.
We saw our first "ovoo" today. It is hard to understand what it is for, but easy to describe. It is a pile of offerings to the gods (Mongolians are still influenced by shamanisms), usually found on top of passes, mountains or hills. When you come across one, you are supposed to make an offering and walk around the ovoo three times clock-wise while making three wishes. To us, it satisfied two other functions: it is a good break for car drivers and a convenient way to dispose of your rubbish. Some people put bottles of vodka or fanta (empty), coins, plastic bags, steering wheel covers and even crutches!
(left)An impressive Ovoo near Ulan Bataar, this one included a little altar with money offerings
24th September 2005 - Rhapar-Daba pass to Baruun-Haraa - 95 km
We reached the town of Dachan for lunch time. This town was only built in 1961 to relieve Ulan-Bataar, but it is amusing to see that it has already an old and a new centre. We went to the market for a bit of shopping. The market is rather colourful, there are scores of people with horses and carts waiting at the entrance and many people dressed in del, the traditional dress. Everything can be found here, there are also some fruits and vegs, which are otherwise difficult to find in the small "delguur" or shops. The meat stall is a sight to be seen, but not for the faint-hearted!
Isa spotted some yogurt and had a whole tupperware filled with it. After the Russian thin watery yogurt, we were quite excited to find proper thick yogurt. However, this was a mistake, Isa has just purchased thick fresh cream. Needless to say our lunch was rather heavy and we did not need any snacks during the 40km we cycled in the afternoon.
(left) The giant buddha in Dachan (right) Another great campsite.
After the market, we decided to have a look on a big Buddha statues on top of the local hill. We were soon surrounded by twenty school children all saying "Hi, my name is..." one after the other. To our shame, we were incapable to pronounce any of their names and when we tried, we were greeted by huge roars of laughter. After this the conversation was rather limited and their teacher told us they only knew how to count up to ten. But they were not shy anyway and we had a job to keep them from jumping onto the bikes and cycling away. As another wave of schoolchildren was approching (we had said hello forty times by then), we decided that it was time to get on with our lunch. We found a quiet spot a bit further. But as we just sat down, a man came along and asked us about our trip. He spoke Russian so a bit of conversation was possible. He simply sat down with us while we were eating and politely left when his cigarette was finished. Another man then came along, asking us the usual question. And as we were to leave, we had a third visitor, this time a nineteen years-old on an old Bianchi racing bike. He asked us if he could follow us while we were cycling away. So we had an escort for the next 15 kilometres. This chap was so interested in our bikes that we thought he was going to burn his eyes by looking too hard at them. We exchanged our bikes for a while, but we don't think he was too impressed by the slowness and heaviness of our touring bikes and he seemed quite happy to get back to Dachan with his racy lightweight bike.
(left) Lake on the way to Dachan (right) The subburbs of Dachan, with people still utilising their Gers.
This was not the last of the day encounters though. We then met two hunters coming back from the mountains in their van. One spoke excellent English and was keen for a chat so he stopped his car and showed us the two marmots they had killed. Marmot is a very appreciated meat in Mongolia. It is eaten roasted from the inside, by putting hot stones in its body. But we later learnt that marmot hunting (and eating) is so popular in Mongolia that hunting is now strictly forbidden in some area where marmots have nearly totally disappeared. Marmots from the Park du Mercantour (where Isa goes every year), beware!!!!
25th September 2005 - Baruun-Haraa to somewhere south of Baruun-Haraa - 50 km
The day started badly. I guess it has to happen from time to time. Sheer bad luck. We found out that the porridge we bought before leaving Russia was full of maggots, which sparked Terry to winge all day about russian thieves and vagabonds. This also explained the acrid taste we commented on during the last two breakfasts. Beurk! And then, Isa dropped the drinking water dromadery bag top in a mouse hole. This is a small but essential item and we spent the next 20 minutes digging the holes with our hands and a spoon.
(left) Ryan, an American on a motorbike undertaking his first trip on his new motorbike
with his philipines purchased bike licence. His rucsac was secured to the motorbike with the use of an old
(right) These huge all wheel drive tank carriers were spotted in a small village, a chat with the Ukrainian driver revealed that he was driving to Kiev - at 18km/hr it would take 2 months - and he was carrying nothing!.
We stopped for lunch after shopping in Baruum-Haraa. Shopping in a Delguur involves visiting all the Delguurs in the village. The selection is poor, but if you try them all, you may find something for a good sandwitch - if you are very lucky. We then went for a picnic by the river and we met a smashing little lad of about 5 years old, who was really interested in us and our bikes. We showed him how to do skimmies with the stones and the conversation then turned onto making animal noises. This is the best we could manage after three days in Mongolia! Our little friend was very very sad when we left him, but he still helped Isa to push her bike back up the steep bank and waved us goodbye. For our camping spot in the evening, we chose the top of yet another hill so we could enjoy the beautiful sunset and also the sunrise (most of our friends will not believe this bit about the sunrise, but we do see it when cycling!). After 30 minutes of pushing the bikes uphill - it was a steep hill - we reached the top and were face to face with a haymaking tractor. They harvest the top of the hills in Mongolia! But it had been too much effort to go back down, so we simply carried up to the next hilltop and collapsed with tiredness!
(left) A small friend we made over lunch, very helpful and a natural at skimmies
(right) It was a hard push up the 200m to our hilltop campsite.
26th September 2005 - South of Baruun-Haraa to Ih-Suuz - 44 km
The wind was blowing straight in our faces and we made extremely slow progress.
Stat of the day: 10 km/hr pushing hard on a 5% downhill slope!
We stopped after 20 kilometers in a small place that looked like a restaurant. But they refused to serve us any meal, so Isa pointed at three men eating something at a table and the woman said "Tchai", tea. So we settled for tea and some biscuits she sold. However, we were quite surprised by our first gulp of very milky tea: it was salted! We managed to drink quite a few cups, trying to put off the moment to get back on our bikes and cycle into the ferocious headwind again. Before we went, everybody in the Tchainaya Gazar wanted to have a go on our bikes, but they were quite happy to leave us to it: the wind was far too strong to pedal straight. 15 kilometers further on, we found a bigger canteen. We could not decipher the handwritten menu (apart from the word "menu"), so we settled upon good old fashion plate-pointing, which was really embarassing because everybody was looking at us while we were pointing at their meal. Still, we got what we wanted: delicious mutton and noodles and delicious mutton with rice and puree. When we got back on the road, the wind was still terrible so we stopped as soon as we found a nice spot, about 10 km further on.
As soon as the tent was up the headwind died away.
Well, it did look like a nice quiet spot with a nice quiet stream. As we were getting ready for a bit of wash in the river "au naturel", a horseman and his two dogs appeared from behind the hills and crossed the valley to come back later with a herd of horses. Then it was two youngsters on a motorbike and a girl washing something in the stream too. We gathered that on top of our quiet little hide-away valley, there must be a few famillies living in gers that we have not spotted!
27th Septembre 2005 - Ih-Suuz to Ulan-Bataar - 81 km
We have never seen such a fickle wind as that in Mongolia: today it was behind us all along. After a very light breakfast (no jam and no porridge left!), we started climbing up to the highest point of the trip so far. Terry is very proud of this "stat of the day", so I made a careful note of it: we reached an altitude of 1593 m with our bikes! We stocked up in a not-so friendly town (we put that down to getting closer to the capital). We think it was Ih-Suuz, but we could not tell for our map is so inaccurate.
We were looking forward to a good lunch after so much climbing and so little eating. Unfortunately, the bread we brought was stale and the butter turned out to be cheap margarine. The sardine tin we had, still in date, was a unappetiziing mush of grey matter and fish eggs. We thought the chocolate and biscuits would cheer us up, but the choccie was mainly margarine and only 4% cocoa! Never mind, we still had our biscuits. Terry was surprised to find some raisins in our plain biscuits: it turned out to be a baked fly! Still quite hungry, we jumped back on our bikes and crossed the high bare plateaux preceding Ulan-Bataar rather fast. We reached Ulan-Bataar suburbs in good time and waited for Sabina, the landlady of our Email One-Way Ger Hotel to pick us up. We waited in front of the first well-stocked shop we have seen in days and Terry went in for a binge shopping on tuna, biscuits without flies, jam and olive oil.
28th to 2nd October 2005 - Trying to chill out and feeling sick in Ulan-Bataar
As we often do, we spent our first day in the coldest capital of the world (another fact of the day: The yearly average is -5 degrees C here) walking around and taking in the ambience. Well, what an ambience... We were struck by the smokey atmosphere above the city after having spent a few days under a pure blue sky. You can actually smell the coal and other nasty fumes in the air you breathe. Many inhabitants are now wearing a full dust mask and some even cover their ears with a scarve, which makes them look a bit alien. There are four power stations fuelled by coal and all the gers in the subburb also use coal or wood to cook and keep warm in winter.
Ulan Bataar also has a serious traffic problem - the circulation is horrendous: old dodgy vans and spanking new 4x4 with tinted windows fight for every inch of the road. There is little room for pedestrians and cyclists, though we managed to cross the city on bike on a Sunday when it is a bit quieter.
(left) Watch out for your valuables in Ulan Bataar, theives are everywhere, in this case with razor blades
(right) Coal fired power station in the centre of town - this is just one out of the four in Ulan Bataar.
We don't want to get on too much about the bad sides of Ulan-Bataar. For instance, many pavements have huge black holes in (the manhole cover get stolen or there is some work going on), this keeps you fit and alert when walking around town, especially at night. There are many beggars (sadly many of them are children), who will be more than happy to test your endurance by asking constantly the same question or chasing you down the street. Even more challenging are the thieves. Terry's trousers were slashed, but thanks to Terry's wrestling skills, the theives did not have time to reach the obvious bulge (in his pocket). (theft wad a common problem amongst all but one of the other foreign tourists we met). Many of the problems stem from the unbridled capitalism that has been released into a country since 1991 on a country that was essentially nomadic before enduring 6o years of communism under Russian control - it's bound to take a long time to try and fins the right balance.
(left) Arrival in Ulan Bataar
(right) Apparently the worlds largest Bronze cooking pot, suitable for any recipe incorporating 10 sheep and 2 yaks. In the past it had been used to feed 1000 people associated with the Manzhir Kiid Monastary .
But it is not all bad really. We were entertained by the "living phone boxes" of the capital streets. Some people carry a normal home telephone with them and many people stop and call from them for 100T a minute, as you would do for a phone box. Many older people still wear the dell (traditional dress) and they add a bit of colour to the crowds. We got a chance to hear the mysterious sound of the steppe otherwise called throat singing in a performance subtly named "Best of Mongol Art for Tourists". Three chaps came on stage and produced sounds from out of space. We have never heard anything so strange. They used their stomach and throat to sing harmonious melodies, but it was a bit like listening to E.T.. Extremely strange. And despite one day of both feeling very sick and sorry for ourselves (dodgy food), we managed to see the impressive dinousaur skeletons in the Natural History Museum and the huge 26.5 m high Buddha statue at the Gandan Monastery. The Buddha is made of 20t of copper, is covered with gold and precious stones and contains 27 tonnes of medicinal herbs and at the base a whole ger (traditional house) + furniture!
3rd October 2005 - Ulan Bataar to Manzshir Khiid - 44 km
As the weather was getting colder, we decided against crossing the Gobi desert and instead we went on exploring the surrounding countryside and national parks around Ulan-Bataar. As soon as we were away from the city, we found the landscapes and blue sky that we enjoyed so much on our first few days in Mongolia. We camped in the protected park of Manzshir Khiid, so quiet and beautiful. The entrance fee was 5,000 togrog per person.
Remains of Manzhir Kidd monastary, destroyed in the Stalinist purges of the 1930's. The complex had been home to over 1000 people, subsequently all rehoused and forced to work in other parts of Mongolia.
(left) A mongolian buddhist flute or Ganlin horn - made from human thigh bone
(right) Buddhism and it's deities is quite confusing. The red colour and wild spinning eyes of this tsam mask signify a bad deity - I think we need to go back to Buddhist text books
4th and 5th October 2005 - Manszhir Khiid monastery and natural park
We spent two days visiting the beautiful monastery (now a museum) and climbing one of the four holy peaks of Ulan-Bataar, Tsetseegun. The monastery site is impressive: it used to be the home of 1000 families and monks and has been reduced to rubble during the Stalinist purges of the 1930's, which were also carried out by the Mongolian communist government. Only one rebuilt building now stands. The mountain setting, with yellow larches and huge granite rocks and cliffs, is stunning.
(left) Relaxing with a nice cuppa - no salt just good honest Earl Grey
(right) Buddhist prayer flags on top of Tsetseegun Uul, with great views of the sprawling Ulan Bataar
The weather had taken a distinct turn for the colder. Typically -4 Degrees C at 8 am.
6th October 2005 - Manszhir Khiid monastery to Terelj natural park entrance - 55 km
We started the day very slowly: Isa's tummy was still playing tricks on her. We started stocking up for food in Zuunmod, where we found bread, but nothing to make sandwiches with and no bin (we were carrying three days worth of rubbish with us by then). Strangely, the lack of bins does not seem to bother anybody in town and the striking feature of the surrounding steppe was hundreds of plastic bags flying in the wind. There seem to be a lack of working toilets too as we saw an old woman coming out of some soviet-style buildings and crouching in a nearby ditch to relieve her colon. Mongolia has still some way to go when it comes to sanitation in the towns...
Still, it was not all bad again: Isa had a proposal to become a Mongolian wife and Terry was invited to drink vodka. But we both thought that we would be better off cycling, so we said our goodbyes and went onto the rough road that links Zuunmod to Nalayh. This is a quiet road, with only a few gers but some of the biggest animal herds we had seen. The landscape is definitely overgrazed, but beautiful in a bleak kind of way.
We reached the main tarmac road that leads to the border with China after 25 km (despite all the maps and signs indicated that the road was 34 km) and then onto the Terelj park entrance. If you want to cycle to Terelj from Ulan-Bataar, there are no signs, but you will have to take the first tarmac road that branches left off the main tarmac road and bypasses the centre of Nalayh to the East. If you miss it, you can also take the second road to your left, which has a big metal structure.
(left) Roof support structure of a Ger
(right) Mongolians eat mutton all the time, the evidence is normaly easy to find around any spot where a Ger has been set up.
7th October 2005 - Terelj natural park entrance to Terelj village - 33 km
This day needs a special mention. We camped on a hill and the temperature became extremely cold overnight. With the moisture from the river below, we woke up to a totally frosty tent and bikes, but what Isa really disliked was the totally frozen wolly hat that she was worn during the night. All the ice fell down her neck, not a pleasant way to wake up! At 8 o'clock, it was still -4dC. It took many cups of tea to warm the fingers up.
(left)The coldest night so far, water frozen, Isa slept with her hat on - and woke up
to find it covered in ice.
(right)The river and Yaks at the entrance to the Terelj national park.
After paying the 3,000 togrog entrance fee each, we started on the tarmac road to Terelj and finally warmed up under the sun. The road and landscape were beautiful, but spoilt slightly by a multitude of ger camps, which look a bit like military camps with their strict and bleak configuration. Some camps have gone over the top and had full scale dinausors at the entrance.
The village of Terelj was a real disapointement. The valley suddenly opened up and was not as attractive as it was all the way. There is little else that can be done but horse riding (we were hoping for some hiking, but there is no map or no marked paths in the area). With the tourist season ending, we were easy prey for the horse guides, who were all parading their horses in front of us and making offers. We decided to go back from where we came and camp by the river. We dropped down from the main road and found ourselves surrounded by gers we could not see from above.
(left)Autumnal colours in the Terelj and huge granite outcrops
(right)All the locals wait for a lift to get across the river. Normally this takes the form of a horse, in this case a motorbike and two women made use of the 6 wheel drive Russian forestry lorry.
As we were looking sadly at river crossing far too deep for the bikes, a man named Chuck came telling us not too cross it because there were many other streams after this. He invited us to put our tent by his ger, how could we refuse? And then we were invited for tea (salty tea, hum...), and then for a meal as he was going to cook for all his family anyway, and then we could stay in his ger. Lambs to the slaughter... this is how we felt. Clearly all this was going to cost us and it did: the next morning $15 were requested for the shelter and food.
8th October 2005 - Terelj village back to Terelj natural park entrance - 22 km
We had also arrange for a two-hours horse ride with him ($30 with a guide), which seemed to be the only way to explore the area further. Our guide did not speak English at all, so the conversation was limited to "hey, hey" to get our attention and "Tchou, tchou" to get the horses moving. But this did not work for us as the two slow buggers we were riding clearly had a mind of their own, stopping, walking or trotting whenever it pleased them. After two hours, we were done with the horse riding. Too much chaffing on our old bums! We blame the Mongolian saddle for this. No confortable leather or padding: the saddle consists of a piece of carved wood (but thanks god we had thin cushions on ours!). We did not know until that day that Mongolian horse riders had masochist tendencies or maybe asses made of wood too.
During our ride, we witnessed a strange scene. The ride basically consisted of going up a mountain to pick up one of the guide's friends and his sheep (whom we called Chris the sheep, maybe some of the fans of father Ted will understand the naming) - it is great to feel like a valued tourist, herded around! Anyway, the friend put the sheep across the wooden saddle and attempted to climb on his horse and sit behind the saddle. The horse had none of this and sent both the friend and the sheep over board. Unfortunately, the friend's foot was trapped in the stirrup and both man and sheep were under the horse, which fell down on them. The three of them were kicking and struggling until the friend managed to free himself. What struck us was that this possibly dangerous scene went on without a swear word or a shout. The parents of the friends were around, but nobody stirred or express fear. Our guide simply gave his friend his horse, which was quite happy carrying both man and sheep. And off we went. Mongolians are hard!
Isa's Fashion Tips
(left) Black and red are the season colors
(right) Isa's fashion and function all rolled in together. An old towel tied tightly around the belly to reduce the chances of vomiting where horseriding with a dodgy stomach is unavoidable.
We decided to leave after the horse riding. As it happened, Chuck our cheeky host who has been so nice the day before was now plainly drunk and quite annoying in the usual over-friendly way. We were happy to meet Ahn, a kind Korean tourist who seemed a bit like us the day before: lost and wondering what there is to do in Terelj exactly. We must have broken his anguish for he took plenty of pictures of us and even gave us a can of Fanta for the way back!
9th October 2005 - Terelj park back to Ulan-Bataar - 57 km
For our last day cycling in Mongolia, we were treated to a great scene. In the morning, a shepherd came to see us and invited us for tea and then a woman passed along our camping spot. She was leading two camels who were carrying a whole ger and all its furnishings on their humps. A very impressive sight!
The ride back to Ulan-Bataar was easy on the main tarmac road. We crossed the town without too much difficulties either (it was Sunday) and decided to stop and visit the Bodd Kahn winter palace. This turned out to be one of our favourite attractions in Ulan-Bataar. There are lots of beautiful wood carvings, silk painting and beautiful royal del, even an elephant costume including hat and del (although the elephants hat was still a tad on the small side for Terry)!
The statue of Sukhbataar (brave hero), who led the Communists to power in 1921 against Chinese aggression, positioned in Sukhbataar Square in Ulan Bataar.
10th to 14th October 2005 - Waiting to take the train for Beijing
Our landlady Sabina helped us to book the train tickets and we then had to wait for a few days because the train we wanted was fully booked. For more details on all the fun we had to put the bikes on the train, see the train section at the start of this page. We spent our last few days mainly in the internet cafes trying to make temporary updates on our website. Is that dedication or what?
15th October 2005 - In the train crossing the Gobi desert
We left Ulan-Bataar at 7h30 and we had the whole day to enjoy the Gobi landscape. Well, it is beautiful, bare and deserty (what a surprise!). A full day to look at it is more than enough as what you see through the window varies very little: gravel and sand all the way, a few herds of camels, horses or cows, a few russian looking towns along the railway, looking totally lifeless. We think we spotted the road, running along the railway track. Though we were told 400km of it were now tarmaced, it looks mainly sandy or gravelly and the absence of traffic is striking. There were no regrets about not cycling this section.
Views from the train of the Gobi Desert, it didn't really change for 10 hours!
The journey was livened up by a couple from Germany who were also cycle touring and were travelling from Ulan Bataar to Beijing. It was good to compare notes and swap stories with these seasoned travellers - they have been on the road for 18 months, travelled 20,000 kms - and all this with their 3 year old son in a kids trailer! Full respect given. So all you parents sat out there complaining about a reduced social life, holidays, which car will the kids and all their stuff fit into - stop complaining and Get on your bikes!
For the excitement related to retrieving our bikes please see China Train
For details of our next destination please follow the link China
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