Posting Sept. 4, 2017—On July 25, Dave and I along with the Latvians entered into Mongolia. This was a significant day as it was the last new country of our trip. We would return once again to Russia after Mongolia but we’d already travelled across its borders.
Dave and I were looking forward to Mongolia. It seemed like a beautiful country from photos we’d seen. Maybe we’d stay in some yurts, which Mongolians call gers. I wanted to photograph a horseman in the vast Mongolian landscape. Maybe, if I was lucky, I’d get that photo with a camel or swooping super-sized eagle in the background.
When we arrived back in line after camping in the desert the night before, there were about 20 cars ahead of us. Sandijs got off his bike and went to talk to the Russian border guards. The process is always to exit one country then ride for a little through no-man’s land until you arrive at the entry for the next country, unlike at home crossing the Canada/U.S. border, for example, where there is only an entry process.
Sandijs came back and said let’s go, mounting his bike and riding to the front of the line. Dave and I have done this before at other borders and no one has complained. In fact, people have even told us to go to the front of the line.
Today, however, there was a bit of a stir. A group of Mongolians returning to their country in an over-stuffed mini-van started to circle around us slowly like gangs on T.V., minus tire irons slapping palms of hands. They started to talk loudly to us in their language, which we couldn’t understand. The five of us put neutral expressions on our faces and went about our business, avoiding eye-contact. The crowd started to get a little louder and larger.
Just when I started to wonder if Oskars’ height of double the size of these smaller men might be an asset if we needed it, a Russian border guard yelled at the crowd. They argued and the guard yelled something louder causing the crowd to saunter off reluctantly back to their vehicles.
As the Latvians could speak Russian, they told us the guard had yelled, get the fuck back in your cars and when they protested, but the motorcycles! the guard said, the motorcycles are a different story!
We were certainly happy to be at the front of the line but I wondered what might have brewed had the guard been absent or not choosing sides.
Once inside the customs offices for Russia, the crowd gathering in the line behind us became pushy. One guy walked in front of us all before we could do anything. Another guy tried but Sandijs put up his hand and the guy backed away. It took a long time to exit from the Russian side and then we rode 20 km (12 mi) to begin the process of entering Mongolia. Here a lady with a spray wand and no protection for her eyes or mouth lathered our bikes down with insecticide or some chemical before we could move on. We were first in line for Mongolian immigration as it was about 9:00 a.m. and they’d just opened.
The Latvians went ahead then it was Dave’s turn to the window. In Africa, Dave’s passport was damaged by water when his pocket leaked on a rainy day. We had since travelled through almost a dozen border crossings without it being an issue, however, today, it was. The female immigration officer called a supervisor into her booth. He looked at the passport then looked at Dave and shook his head no. I was still in line behind Dave and the line behind me was forming, getting longer and more irritated. I stepped up to the window and showed the supervisor my passport, saying we were together and both Canadians. This was a mistake because the supervisor kept pointing out the difference between my non-damaged photo and Dave’s faded one. The crowd was now muttering loudly. An idea ran through my head for Dave to give the supervisor one of the photocopies we carried of our passports. I told Dave, who pulled out the copy and handed it over. The supervisor took it and Dave’s passport to a back room, telling Dave to wait where he was. In the meantime, I was allowed to pass through into customs, which was just another window in the same room. Dave was contending with the travelling locals, who were now weaving their arms around him in and out of the window he stood in front of, bumping and pushing Dave and each other with no concept of personal space.
In the meantime, the Latvians were in customs with mine and Dave’s documents for importing the bikes, getting the ball rolling despite Dave still being held back at immigration. Sometime later, Sandijs goes outside to get something. When he comes back he has all the Latvians’ keys saying a man had been turning the keys in their ignitions.
Dave had now luckily been allowed to pass through customs and is behind me. He goes outside to get our keys. A man moves right into his place all but pressed up against me. When Dave comes back, he taps the Mongolian man on the shoulder, who moves aside to let Dave in behind me. I went out to my bike to make sure I hadn’t left anything open as it seemed there were some pretty curious folks outside. When I returned the same man was now pressed up against Dave’s back, attached like Velcro, trying to push his documents past Dave under the window. Dave’s expression was of utter exasperation.
Okay Mongolia, I thought, we’re off to a bad start.
After four hours between the two border crossings, we were finally ready to ride off now onto Mongolian soil. The ride along the open, peaceful landscape was a great escape from the chaos behind us. We stopped on the side of the road to regroup and a local family of three rode by on a little 125cc bike. They stopped just ahead of us for no apparent reason than just to be part of the bikes parked alongside the road. The husband got off and wandered into the field while the wife stayed back with their infant son. I was able to get a photo of the two of them. I thanked the woman and child for the photo by giving them some candy. Normally I prefer to offer something more nutritious like a banana or bread but I had neither and wanted to give them something.
Later on, we found camels wandering along the desert. This was so cool, we had to stop and get photos.
The Latvian’s kept going. They’d spent a lot of time in the south of Kazakhstan, so another camel wasn’t so thrilling for them. We had all planned to meet up in the next town, Khovd, but as the day went on the riding became more challenging, with over 200 km (120 mi) of loose sand, washboard ruts and incredible bike-launching bumps and dips in the ‘roads’, which went off in many different directions. Drivers of all vehicles liked to blaze a new trail and stay out of the deeper sandy bits, which left strangers to the area wondering which road led where. There was also a lot of construction of a new actual road, one with tarmac. The adventure rider never wants to see too much tarmac, but in places like this, the landscape is destroyed with erosion by people choosing different lines. A well-built road would be a more practical option. Occasionally, the sandy trails would bump up onto the road and we’d have to maneuver around flagger-less obstacles such as bulldozers and a giant pile of dirt dropped onto the road waiting to be dispersed. It made for very slow going but it sure was beautiful.
When we stopped for a snack of sunflower seeds and crackers, an SUV soon pulled in right behind us, blowing dust over our food. We looked at each other. Out of the whole desert, these guys have to park right behind us. A guy got out instantly talking a mile a minute coming over to us. It never failed to amuse us during parts of our trip that we were obviously from far away but locals would always come over and talk a long, fast sentence before we could say we only speak English. Sometimes they’d nod and walk off. Other times, they’d nod and just talk faster and louder, thinking that would help.
In this case, the guy who’d stopped walked back over to his car, still talking excitedly, then pulled something out coming over to us. He offered us a leg of lamb. Hoof and all! We thanked him profusely, touched by the gesture but wondering if the blue veins were cooked the whole way through. When he drove off, we ventured a taste and found it quite good!
After our little feast, we continued on, spending many kilometers wondering which dusty track to take. Dave’s GPS was doing a good job of keeping us in the general direction we needed to go. One section of the new road they were working on was thankfully short but deeply rutted mud that had hardened into little dirt stalactites and stalagmites. At no other point did the road do this so I’m not sure how this was accomplished except that maybe the road crew was out working this area on a wet day, then only got so far before agreeing it was futile. There was, of course, nothing done about making it easy for drivers afterward and it was particularly difficult to ride a motorcycle over. Fend for yourself!
We got into Khvod around 7:00 p.m. desperate for a shower and food. Dave looked on his phone for a message from the Latvians. We’d had high hopes they’d found a hotel we could also get a room in, but there was no message and no one picked up when we called. Maybe we were getting the brush off!
We found a hotel and after a considerable lengthy conversation, were able to convince the front desk girl to let us roll our bikes into the lobby. Mongolia was proving to be a very touchy-feely place and at gas stations, etc., the bikes were often approached and fondled in ways we wanted to protect them from. Outside the hotel was a plaza and we didn’t feel comfortable leaving them in the ungated parking lot. It wasn’t so much we thought they’d be stolen or tampered with; we also had to think about people climbing on them and falling off or tipping the bikes over.
We found a delicious Chinese restaurant that night, which was a huge surprise as we’d been eating pretty disgusting meals lately—language barriers and all. We ate a whole lot of food here, stocking up.
Before we left the next morning, July 26, we’d gotten a message from the Latvians. When they’d arrived into Khvod the evening before, they’d decided to keep riding another 100 km (60 mi) to find camping. They’d had no cell service for the night, which was why we couldn’t contact each other. We told them we’d cried ourselves to sleep but that all was right again in the world now we’d heard from them.
Next post: isn’t Siberia supposed to be cold?
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