Moscow was quite a surprising city for us. For a city with 12 million people (and especially considering that London has 8.7 million people), we were expecting it to feel crowded and maybe dirty, but it really surprised us, as it was neither of those things. We certainly knew we were in Russia though; they had a number of trucks whose sole purpose was to wash the roads and pavements, and whilst walking in a park, we came across a display of planes, rockets and helicopters (well what else would you put on display in a park?!) It felt a little bit like we were in Disney Land, rather than just out for a walk in an area that was free to enter! We loved our time there, and we were very grateful to Ludi and Ivan for allowing us to stay with them, and for helping us get the bikes sorted.

After rolling in to the garage and motorcycle club (Red and White Army MC), in Bryansk, in pretty spectacular fashion, with me towing Roger using our extremely short-lengthed motorcycle locks, we met some extraordinarily nice people there. On the first night, we were invited to the birthday party of a couple of the club’s members, and every single day, Anna, the wife of the club’s president, took it upon herself to drive us around in her car, showing us the sights and meeting some great people. We were invited to the workshop of one of the club’s members, Sergey, who is a blacksmith, and makes knives and ornaments from Damask Steel. He is one of only a handful of people in the World who are able to make it, as it uses a little known technique to achieve patterns within the metal, whilst retaining the metal’s strength. He also very kindly gave us a knife and a solid metal egg as presents! One evening, after a particularly nice day spent in the country, talking and BBQing with Anna’s friend Roman, we took a trip to see another friend, who had a van that the Russians affectionately call ‘the breadloaf’. We ended up sitting on the roof of this lovely little van, whilst the driver took us through some off-roading areas. Those vans really can drive over anything!

After finally leaving Bryansk, we wanted to make our way back to Bulgaria as quickly as possible to visit some friends there, and to make it in time for the birthday party of one of them. We made it in four days, traveling through Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, and then into Bulgaria. Each one of these countries was very pleasant, with very friendly and helpful people, although some of the road surfaces were on par with those in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan!

It turned out that our mechanical issues weren’t to end with Stevie’s piston and head gasket, as Oby decided he needed some attention too, so he decided to snap his clutch cable in Romania, just one day from finishing the trip. Unfortunately, Roger had used our spare clutch cable on Stevie, back in Almaty, so we didn’t have a spare. Calling BMW in the town we’d arrived in revealed they didn’t have one in stock but could get it in 2 days. We didn’t want to wait that long if we could help it, so we called BMW in Bucharest, which we’d be passing through anyway, but unfortunately, I’m still waiting to hear back from them, over a week later!!! In the end, we were saved by a chef in the hostel we were staying in, who told us to visit his mechanic less than 1km away as “maybe he can help”. We weren’t convinced, as if BMW couldn’t get the part, then how the hell would someone not in a dealership be able to get it?! We didn’t have much choice, so we turned up to what looked like the guy’s house, and he was quick to sever the few remaining strands of the cable that were intact, and pull the whole cable out of its plastic sheath. His mate then came in with what looked like a universal cable with a toggle on the top, which they fed through the sheath, cut to size, and crimped the end of with a tool, to add the correct toggle onto the bottom. Hey presto! We were done and got on our way in the space of 30 minutes! The comparison between the “computer says no” corporate world of the main dealer and the ingenuity of the everyday mechanic working out of a garage never fails to amaze me, and we must make sure that we never lose these mechanics!

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We made it back to Bulgaria on the 6th September, allowing us to spend time with good friends, and make new ones, at MotoCamp. It was very nice to both finish the travel for this leg of the trip, and be with friends, as for me, this time of the year is not so nice, and so being with friends was important.

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We will stay here for a while before flying home to the UK later this month.

I’d like to say an enormous thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read this blog, and for encouraging me to write it. I hope to continue writing here and there, until the next leg of the trip starts. TTFN and thank you! 🙂 xxx

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List of things I hate:

1.       Sand

2.       Mongolian food

3.       Towing

The English saying of “every cloud has a silver lining” has never been truer than from the time when the bikes arrived in Moscow. Before they arrived, I put a post up on a couple of forums about the problems with the bikes, and asked if there was anyone who knew of a good garage we could go to, to get them sorted. As usual, the adventure biking community came through for us, in the shape of Bruce and Jean, who we’d met on the road and were still in contact with, and through them we were introduced to Ludi and Ivan. Ludi and Ivan live in Moscow, invited us into their home, gave us their bedroom, and told us we could basically stay for as long as we needed so that we could receive the bikes, and sort them out. They did an awful lot of running around for us; sourcing parts, driving us to pick the bikes up, and sorting out a good garage to take the bikes to, and we will forever be grateful. I shall write in more detail about Moscow, and our time there, in the next post.

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Stevie and Oby have arrived in Moscow safe in their little crates 🙂

It turns out that the two problems with Stevie (Roger’s bike) that I outlined in my last post, which were the side stand being broken, and the engine cutting out, were actually related. For the non-bikey people reading this, there is a little switch connected to the side stand, which senses if the side stand is down, and will cut the engine if you put the bike into gear, as if you ride off with the side stand down, it will dig into the ground on the first left-hander, causing a nasty accident. So, this little switch is a very important safety feature. When the weight of Roger’s bike and the angle it was leaning at, broke the weld holding the side-stand to the subframe of the bike, it also broke the side stand switch, just enough so that the bike would still run, but that it wants to cut out intermittently, many times a second, and appears to be running ‘lumpy’ as a result. This was what led us to thinking that the fuel pump needed replacing. However, after Roger replaced both the fuel pump and the fuel filter, with no improvement, the garage that Ludi and Ivan recommended managed to figure this out, and fixed it and the side stand, plus, they reinforced the subframe too, and the bike was running well.

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Bike porn in the garage in Moscow

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More bike porn

For about half a day.

One thing I haven’t mentioned on here is that Roger has had another water pump leak since we were in Mongolia. It is something that is extremely common on these bikes, as the little rubber washers fixed to the impeller are bad quality, and they break down, leading to coolant escaping from the casing on the side of the bike. Roger had the same problem in Portugal, where he got it fixed by a BMW garage (and then we had a bigger problem as they didn’t replace all the necessary gaskets and it developed a massive oil leak as a result, and cost us twice as much to get fixed in Spain). Well, this most recent leak has been going on for a while, with just a few drips of coolant coming out here and there. It was something Roger was going to fix himself once we got back to Bulgaria, no doubt put off from the experience of using the BMW garages in Portugal and Spain.

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An impeller with red and black seals that fail often!

However, about 200km South of Moscow, Stevie decided to dump quite a lot more coolant than he’d done previously, on the floor, whilst we were eating our lunch. In these situations, you always wonder what to do for the best. Although we had a new impeller kit with us, we didn’t necessarily have all the tools necessary to fix it at the side of the road, and if something went wrong then we were not sure whether there would be a garage nearby to help us. We checked the level of coolant and it was fine, so we carried on at a slower speed. Unfortunately, this proved to be the wrong decision in the end, as after a while there was a horrible noise, the bike lost power, and smoke started coming from the side of the combustion chamber. Of course, we stopped immediately, and observed the coating on the outside of the combustion chamber actually melting. This was obviously not what we wanted to see, and there was no way we could run the poor little engine any further, so we used the only things we had, our two wire chains, and padlocked them to both bikes as a tow-rope, and I towed Roger to the next big town of Bryansk, 170km further South. I’ll leave out how much fun I didn’t have whilst doing that. I’m sure you can imagine.

On reaching Bryansk, a google search revealed that there was only one garage that would have any chance of being able to fix it, so that was where we headed. When they saw one motorcycle towing another, the look on their faces suggested they were quite shocked, and I think they realised the severity of the problem as they quickly came out to stop the traffic so that we could safely (and very slowly) turn into their yard! Luckily, we had unknowingly stumbled across another set of lovely and helpful people. The mechanic, Evgeniy, came straight out, and with google translate, a lot of gesticulating and my amazing Russian vocabulary “bolshoy problem!”, we all managed to converse about what needed to be done. There was also a motorcycle club on site; ‘Red and White Army MC’, with a clubhouse and a very nice building with lodgings, and they welcomed us in and gave us coffee and snacks, and told us that of course we must stay in their lodgings. The man that welcomed us, and the club’s vice president, Yura, couldn’t believe his ears when we told him the number of countries we’d visited and how long we’d been on the road for! We were then introduced to the club’s president, Artem, and his wife, a really nice lady called Anna, who is a translator, and fluent in English!

Unfortunately, the news wasn’t so good for Stevie. The water/coolant leak was not the main issue any more, as the head gasket had indeed been compromised with the high temperature of the engine, and after further inspection in the top end of the engine, we were told the piston was damaged and needed replacing too. The head gasket was ordered and would only take a couple of days to arrive, but there were no pistons in stock at any of the BMW dealerships we tried, so one would have to come from Munich, taking approx. 20 days. 20 days that we didn’t have, as we’d already booked our flights from Bulgaria to the UK. A nice man from BMW in Moscow (Vladimir Tchaikovskiy – what a fabulous name!) thought he could get one in about 10 days, if he put in a super-urgent order, but we wouldn’t know for sure until it turned up. A company who we’d used before, Motorworks, in the UK, had a second-hand one in stock, and could DHL it out to us, but we were concerned it could take the same amount of time as it would probably get held up at the Russian customs. We really didn’t know what to do for the best, and we even considered hiring/buying a vehicle to transport both bikes back to Bulgaria. However, after quite a lot of calls, Evgeniy managed to find a second-hand piston and matching cylinder barrel in Moscow, and we had it shipped the next day. What did the very kind owner request as payment for this piston and cylinder barrel? A signed photo of us and the bikes, nothing else!

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Not looking good when the coolant you pour in comes straight out from where it shouldn’t!

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Head gasket compromised here 😦

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Broken piston

As I write this, Evgeniy has spent the last day rebuilding Stevie’s engine, and we are very happy that he is now running well! We plan on leaving Russia tomorrow, and heading into Ukraine. It will be sad to leave Russia, especially in this last town of Bryansk, as we’ve been overwhelmed by the help and friendliness we’ve received here, and we consider we’ve made new friends. I’ll write a separate post with more detail on everyone we’ve met, and what we did, shortly!

 

When we got to the Mongolian border, we were both issued a slip of paper, and they explained to us that we needed to get it stamped three times to be allowed out to the Russian side. This meant that there were an awful lot of people running around like headless chickens, with slips of paper in their hands, and waving it at anyone official-looking, so that they might get it stamped and get out of there, such was the disorganisation of the Mongolian side. We finally made it though, with the help of some kind locals.

After we got to the Russian side, it was immediately more organised, but that meant a long queue, as they did everything meticulously, and allowed no queue jumping. Here, we realised that amazingly, the 10 hours we spent at the Tashanta border when we exited Russia into Mongolia still wasn’t enough for them to do their jobs properly, as our bikes were still registered as being in the Altai on the Russian system! However, the team of ladies at this border post sorted it all out, and were very friendly and interested in our trip.

Our first stop was the city of Ulan-Ude, which we could tell was still near Mongolia, as it was a bit more ramshackle than the other parts of Russia we’d seen, although one thing very different was the presence of trees and other vegetation, where Mongolia had very little. We stayed in a hotel which had its own bathroom with a hot shower, and a restaurant downstairs, which was a real treat, and I’m not ashamed to say that I loved it. We stuffed our faces in that restaurant. We had beer, salads, meaty main courses, and dessert, and it tasted absolutely wonderful! I think they may’ve been slightly disgusted/amazed at the speed in which we ate, but they brought us free beer, so we can’t have offended them too much!

The next stop was around the South of Lake Baikal and up to Irkutsk, which was where we would be sending our bikes off to Moscow via lorry, after the hard work put in by our very kind friend, Mikhail, who we stayed with in Stavropol. He had been running around whilst we were in Mongolia, trying to get the best quotes for us, as we had decided that we didn’t need to ride the very long way to Moscow through Siberia, and more of the steppe, as it wouldn’t be the most interesting of rides, plus it would take a long time, and probably cost more in the long-run. Good job as well, because what I failed to mention in my Mongolian trilogy, was that Stevie, (Roger’s bike) was suffering pretty badly. He had lost his ‘big-foot’ which was supporting his side stand, up in the Northern section of Mongolia, and then a few days later, the bike was on its side stand when it completely snapped from the sub-frame, so he’s only had use of the centre stand since, and needs help every time he gets on or off the bike. The next thing is that his throttle is not nearly as responsive as it should be. He’s tried resetting the throttle positioning system (TPS), which didn’t help, and thinks he may need a new fuel pump, or throttle cable (the cable we carry a spare of). On the day we took the bikes to the transport company; a journey of less than 10km, Stevie kept cutting out every few metres, and we weren’t sure he would even make it that far. He eventually got there, and so he’ll need some work when they arrive in Moscow.

Unfortunately, Oby (my bike) will also need some work, as we had to drain the fuel out of his fuel tank at the shipping company, to prepare him for shipping, and our section of tubing wasn’t working very well, so one of the men there attached a section of pipe to our tubing and tried it. It worked, but unfortunately, when we withdrew the tubing afterwards, the extra bit of pipe didn’t come out of the tank, so it will have to be fished out of the tank in Moscow as well. It was sad leaving the bikes there, like we were abandoning them, and it is strange having an awful lot less luggage! I hope they make it to Moscow ok. And thank you very much to Mikhail; you’re an absolute legend!

Irkutsk to Moscow

Looking at this map, and seeing how the distance from Irkutsk to Moscow is greater than from Moscow to our home in the UK, just astounds me. We also crossed 5 time zones during the flight, and are now only GMT+3. It would have been 10-11 days of riding, 3 days non-stop on the train, or the 5 hours and 20 minutes it took to fly. I am no fan of flying, but this was a no-brainer!

Currently, I am writing this post on the plane from Irkutsk to Moscow, and I am thinking about Mongolia, and trying to articulate how I feel about the place.

The Central Asian part of the trip was always about Mongolia, never Russia or even the ‘Stans that much. I did enjoy parts of Mongolia; the start when we were all a big group and we went on some really good roads and camped together was great. It was challenging from a riding perspective with our setup, but that was what made it more enjoyable for me. The part at the end, where we met other travellers and stayed in places with comfy beds, hot showers and food we could trust, was also great, but our experience in the middle did ruin it for me somewhat, with the sand and the sickness. For me, all that Mongolia has to offer over other places is the challenging terrain to ride on. There are other places that are more beautiful, where there are friendlier people, and certainly where there is better food. I’m still glad I did it, but I’m not interested in going back.

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Bruce and Mathilde at the top of a hill in one of our camping spots in Mongolia.

The biggest surprise of all for me on this trip, has been Russia. Russia was only ever a country we were using to get to Mongolia, a transit route, and a country that I wasn’t particularly interested in. However, I have enjoyed myself so much in Russia; riding on the roads, meeting the people, eating the food, and seeing the gorgeous places. I would definitely come back to Russia. Luckily, we can now have a bit of time here, before heading back into Europe.

But what has happened to everyone else? Well, Mauro, the lovely Italian chap, sold his bike in Ulaanbaatar, as he wanted to carry on to Vladivostok as a backpacker. He travelled extensively before this trip as a backpacker, and only did his bike test just before leaving, as he figured the best method of transport for this trip was a motorcycle. To then buy a Yamaha Tenere, which is similar in size and weight to our bikes, and ride it as a novice, over the Pamir Highway and Mongolia is pretty amazing! Seamus and Rossa are currently on their way to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Express train, along with their bikes, on their homeward journey. They were going to ship their bikes and fly with us to Moscow, but had a nightmare with Russian visas, and only managed to get a 10-day transit visa, so they had to take the train with their bikes, as it takes 3 days as opposed to 10. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see them when they reach Moscow, but they’ll probably be in a bit of a rush to get out of Russia before their visas expire! Edouard and Mathilde are currently with Guðmunder, and will be carrying on to Japan, and then transporting their bikes and themselves home, probably. Bruce and Kyla are currently in Ulan-Ude, resting after Kyla had a pretty nasty accident and got a bit bashed up (she’s recovering ok, thankfully). They, and the amazing Guðmunder will be carrying on around the World by firstly riding to Vladivostok and then shipping to Japan, South Korea, and then the Americas. We wish them all the luck in the World!

 

I was glad to leave the hotel the next day, even though my sickness had only stopped the night before. We had booked in to Fairfield Guest House in Tsetserleg; a place where a lot of travellers stay, which is Westernised in terms of the standard of accommodation and food, and therefore I was confident that I could rest comfortably for a few days there and work on getting my appetite back with their marvellous burgers. Also, we’d been told that the road was tarmac from here on in, so I thought it would be an easy ride.

It wasn’t the easiest of rides in the end because firstly Roger’s battery was misbehaving again, and then the road wasn’t all tarmac after all; there were some really bad washboard sections in places, which further interrupted Roger’s battery, and the bike kept dying all day long. The rain also came, and we were drenched by the time we got to Fairfield. However, the host there very helpfully showed Roger where he could get a new battery for his bike; a Chinese one, which wasn’t the right size or amp-hour (it was 9Ah instead of 12Ah), but it cost about £8, and the bike starts and runs without cutting out! We were extremely grateful for the rest, the comfort, and the food at Fairfield; it was needed by all of us. Unfortunately, I still wasn’t eating much, but I knew that I could trust what little I did eat.

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Roger with his Chinese battery

We then travelled through a town called Kharkhorin, where we visited the Erdene Zuu Buddhist Monastery, the earliest surviving, and still functioning, Buddhist Monastery in Mongolia. It was built in 1585 after a decision that Buddhism would be the state religion of Mongolia. Unfortunately, it was partially destroyed as recently as 1939, by Communists, in a purge which killed tens of thousands of monks over the country. Ironically, it was saved, and ultimately rebuilt as a museum, when Josef Stalin decided that they should have something to show visitors that Communists ‘allowed’ freedom of religion. After Communism fell in Mongolia in 1990, it became a working monastery again. It even has a phallic-shaped rock displayed nearby to restrain the sexual impulses of the Monks!

From here, we said TTFN to Guðmunder, as he wanted to explore more of the area.

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Ciao for now with Guðmunder, at the Ger camp we stayed at in Kharkhorin.

Things looked up for us when we rode on some beautiful tarmac roads to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, and stayed in Oasis Guesthouse, another place where we met some marvellous people, all doing the same as us. Again, we saw Rossa and Mauro (Seamus was off gallavanting with his girlfriend, after she flew to visit him!), and two lovely Australian guys, Jason and Leal, whom we met briefly at the border where we entered Mongolia. We also met a host of other lovely folk, who were travelling on motorcycles or big army-style trucks. One such truck; a gorgeous, brand new example, owned by a lovely German family, had a major problem and was basically stuck there, as it was only running in ‘safe mode’, and after days spent trying to find and fix the problem to no avail, with little help from the manufacturer, engineers Jason and Leal had a eureka moment and found the problem; multiple holes had been worn in something to do with the turbo, by it being mounted too close, and rubbing on other parts whilst going over the many bumps. It was lovely to witness these two chaps, who had bought bikes in England and were riding them home to Australia, firstly help this family and want nothing in return, very humbly explaining that being engineers, they enjoy the challenge and the chance to help. It was also lovely to see the family being helped out of a really difficult situation, and being so extremely grateful to these guys. The overlanding community really is marvellous!

It was also awesome to eat lots of burgers, with lots of chippies. And there was beer 🙂

After briefly seeing Guðmunder again, we left Oasis, heading firstly to the Genghis Khan statue, and then North towards the border, in a day that saw us getting soaked, and Roger leaving food. Yes, you read that right. ROGER LEFT FOOD.

Stupid mistake number 2 was to pull over into a café, that looked fairly ok, and order some hot food, as we were very cold and wet. After choosing something I thought would be fairly harmless; some noodles with vegetables and what the lady assured me was beef, we sat down to enjoy our meal. It did not taste like beef. Unless the beef in question had been marinated in manure, in which case it probably was beef. Neither Roger or I could stomach it, nor understand how frying meat, noodles and vegetables could taste so horrible. It was pretty soul-destroying after we were so hungry, and I had just learned to appreciate food again. However, it did the job, as we weren’t hungry after that! What finished me off for the day was using the shack toilet before we left, and realising that it smelt the same in there as the food I’d just tried to eat.

At this point I just wanted to leave Mongolia asap, so we rode through the rain, and stayed in a small town just before the border, which we crossed the next day! Hurrah!

Wherever we went in the small villages in Mongolia, we attracted plenty of attention, with people coming over to ask us who we were and where we were from. They are particularly interested in the bikes, as in the villages, most of the locals use motorcycles as their main transport, although theirs are cheap Chinese 150cc motorcycles, so we look very posh here, even with our old, tatty BMWs! Unfortunately for us, the people here don’t always respect your personal space, or belongings, and they’ll quite happily touch your stuff without asking. One time I had to tell a man to back away when he lowered himself down to look at Oby’s engine by hanging on to Oby’s handlebars whilst he was on his side-stand. With Oby’s side-stand being a bit of a weak point, it started to make all kinds of noises under the extra weight, and the man had to back off. The people are friendly, and not malicious, and I’ve learnt to live with their lack of respect for personal space.

 

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A cheerful chap in one of the villages we stopped in!

 

At this point, things changed quite dramatically for a number of reasons. Firstly, after leaving the Northern route and finding the tarmac, the group split up a bit when some of them rode over some sandy fields to get to a lake and find a camping spot. For those of you that don’t know, sand is probably the hardest surface to ride through, especially with a heavy bike and not the best confidence in my ability. It’s all to do with the front wheel digging in to the sand. Once that happens, you’re screwed, and you’ll fall off, nine times out of ten, as the back wheel squirms around under the power, but the front remains bogged down in the sand. The front wheel digs in if the weight transfers to the front from the rear i.e. if you apply brakes or even just come off the throttle a bit. If your bike is heavier, then this will happen a lot easier and quicker. The only way to not have this happen is to either be accelerating when you go through the sand (which you can only do if it’s a small section, otherwise on a long stretch you’ll end up at a crazy speed if you keep accelerating!), or to keep the throttle absolutely constant, but either way, you have to be committed to riding with an open throttle, when the bike has no grip and is moving around under you. It completely contradicts your survival instinct, and takes a lot of getting used to! Of course, if you follow these guidelines and still fall off then it will be at higher speed and probably hurt more.

At this point, Guðmunder, on his big and heavy BMW R1200GS had stopped and turned back towards the main road, and I couldn’t face going any further, when I knew I still had to get the bike back out the next morning. I gave the sand a good go, but my front wheel kept digging in and I had to stop the bike from falling a number of times, and then I found I was too tense to ride through the sand at all because I was worried about crashing, plus I was knackered as I was tense! I therefore decided that we should get off the sand and back to the safety of the main road, and then find somewhere else to camp that wasn’t as dicey, so from that point, sadly Roger and I were on our own.

 

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Our camping spot after parting ways with the group.

 

We stuck to the tarmac from then on, until it ended abruptly, as we’d been expecting. Then followed two days of, you guessed it…deep sand! We struggled along for a bit, but then Roger realised that the Mongolians had been building a new road, which wasn’t finished and they clearly didn’t want anyone riding on it…

 

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The new road that the Mongolians haven’t finished yet. We gave it our seal of approval.

 

But we rode on it nevertheless! You might notice from the picture that the mounds of earth have slight ridges in them where it looks like motorbikes may have ridden over the top. We were to find out later that these were courtesy of Seamus, Rossa and Mauro, who were a day ahead of us. We had an awful lot of fun riding over those mounds, as they had!

We were sitting in another one of those tiny villages, in the only shop/restaurant, where the only thing we dared eat was their version of a pot noodle, when a familiar bike turned up next to ours; it was Guðmunder!

The first thing he said to me when he got off the bike was not “hello” or “how are you?”, but in true Guðmunder style, was “do they have ice cream in there?” I love how he has his priorities in order! We were very glad to see him, and he was very glad that the shop did indeed sell ice cream. 

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Our camping spot after Guðmunder joined us again! It was very nice, even though we had to dodge the cow pats.

From then on, we were a three, and the next day was the most difficult, with us finding so much deep sand that it wasn’t just me who struggled. At one point (about midday), I had a meltdown, and Roger made me stop and have some time off the bike. I was alternating between riding very slowly in the sand where I had no confidence, was tense, and kept having to slip the clutch, even though I knew I shouldn’t (it would eventually burn the clutch out), or riding faster along the side of the track which was still made of deep sand, but there was some grass growing sparsely, which stopped the sand from moving around so much, and gave a bit more grip. The only problem was that it was bumpy as hell and sometimes you’d find the odd empty vodka bottle or pothole. Either way I was hurting Oby, and I was sad for him as he was just taking all this punishment like a little star. I was also frustrated at myself for not being a good enough rider to ride in the sand properly. Plus, I was angry at the number of men who’d very ‘helpfully’ mansplained to me that the only way to ride in the sand was to twist the throttle more, which I’m blatantly aware of, but my struggle is with my survival instinct, not my knowledge (this wasn’t any of our group at all, mainly men who we’d met along the way who were travelling on 4 wheels instead of 2, and therefore sand was a walk in the park for them). Just then, in a pure comedy moment, a man in a Land Cruiser pulled up and very kindly gave us some horse cheese. We ate a piece whilst he was there, and pretended to like it just to be polite, and then he gave us as much as we could hold in our hands. Lucky us! We thought we could give it to Guðmunder, who was waiting for us a few hundred metres up the road, but the kind man stopped and gave him a handful too! You’ve gotta laugh.

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Me absolutely filthy after 4 days without washing, plus the dirt and dust from 100% off-road riding. Check out my dust moustache!

Eventually we made it to the small city of Tosontsengel, which is where we were promised that the tarmac would start. We checked in to the first hotel we found that had an inside toilet and a shower, although only one toilet and shower shared between all the guests in the hotel, mind. After four days of wild camping without a wash, and riding in sand and dust, which had gotten just about everywhere (I even had my own dust moustache by the end of the day, in the style of a certain Nazi), I jumped into that shower PDQ! Then I had a nice glass of cold water from the water filter machine, before we all went down to the restaurant, where we bravely tried some Mongolian food. The food was really fatty and had a bit of an aftertaste, but we were all so hungry that we just scoffed it.

For the rest of the night and the following day I was violently ill. It got so bad that at one point Roger had to carry me back to bed from the toilet, as I couldn’t get myself back. I don’t think it was the food, as Roger, Guðmunder and I all ate and drank exactly the same thing, but only I drunk the water from the water filter (one of those things where you put the big bottle of water in upside down on the top, and then use the taps on the machine to dispense either cold or room temp water). The water may have been fine, but I doubt the tubing inside the machine had ever been cleaned, and I should really have known better, but in my defence, I was extremely tired. Whether it was the food or not, that taste of fatty mutton now makes my stomach turn, and I don’t see myself eating lamb or mutton for a very long time! Both Roger and Guðmunder were brilliant though, and really looked after me!

Mongolia has been very eventful for us, and in not wanting to skimp on the details of this interesting place, I have written quite a lot about it, so I’m afraid you’re gonna have to trawl through three posts of my badly-written nonsense, which I’ll post every few days from now on. This is the first of the three:

There are three principal routes through Mongolia that overlanders take; the Northern, Central and Southern routes, with trails connecting the three routes at certain points. The Southern route we were led to believe was mostly tarmac, it traverses the Gobi desert, has the highest temperatures, and is the route that people were pooh-poohing as ‘boring’ or easy to get through. The Northern route has the least tarmac, has a good number of deep river crossings (no bridges, one actually has to ride through the rivers themselves), goes through the mountains and is therefore cooler in temperature. The Central route is a mixture of the two, and the one we decided to take, as we wanted to see a bit of both mountains and desert.

Instantly after being let in to Mongolia, the road changed from asphalt to our good old friend, gravel, again, with some marvellous washboard thrown in for good measure! Upon riding away from the border post (with Eduoard, Mathilde and Guðmunder), we encountered some drunk people who jumped out into the road, forcing us to stop quite quickly (not the best idea on gravel), and who then decided to try and stop Eduoard moving forward again by physically holding on to his bike with their hands/feet, until we paid for something or other. We just shouted at them to get the hell away from us, and I think they got the impression pretty quickly that we would not be paying anything! We were far too tired and grumpy from all of the waiting and bureaucracy of the border crossing to even entertain that sort of rubbish.

 

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The road after the border post in Mongolia

 

Only 50 metres later, with Roger riding up front, someone else came out of a hut and stood in the road so that we stopped, and then he proceeded to shut some gates in front of us, with Roger’s bike still in the way and therefore trapped in the gate. This did not exactly make us any more pleased, and we demanded to know what the hell was going on. A man came over who could speak English, and he explained that it was some kind of environmental charge that everyone pays who drives through the area, and they use it to keep the place in good condition. However, he told the man to open the gates, as he didn’t want our first impression of Mongolia to be tarnished by the drunks and the dubious ‘environmental tax’.

We rode on gravel and then tarmac to the first big town of Olgii, where we stayed in a Ger (the Mongolian word for Yurt) camp with Bruce, Kyla, Seamus and Rossa (whom we met in Almaty), which was a nice end to a really long and irritating day. Here we met another couple, Malte and Vee, who have been travelling for 2 years and are coming to the end of their trip from Australia to England.

The next day we all left together and went up towards the Northern route, where the roads were bumpy and rocky. Oby was bouncing all over the place and really getting a hard time from me, but I really enjoyed myself. It was the sort of road where you get to the end and you’re puffed out as it’s so physical, but what a great road! We all camped up in the mountains together, and then did more of the same roads the next morning, until we came to the end of it, and the tarmac section that connects the Northern route with the Central route through the country. We were so chuffed we’d headed North first, as although it was difficult on us and the bikes, it was great fun. I’ve made a poorly edited video of what it was like here https://youtu.be/0wluGFeyg3U

 

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Vee, Malte, Kyla, Bruce, Mathilde, Eduoard, Guðmunder, Roger and I riding the Northern route

 

 

 

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Time for a break in a ‘built-up’ area!

 

At this point, as you would imagine, Mongolia is at its most desolate. The most built-up areas we passed through at this point can only be classed as small villages, containing one or two tiny shops selling a mishmash of items, so you either had to take what was on offer and make a meal out of it, or come prepared like we did, with packets of soups, noodles and the like. Pretty much everywhere we went sold bottled water, which was the main thing for us. The buildings in these areas were made of scraps of whatever building materials could be found, inside and out, which must make it difficult for them when the weather is cold. They don’t exactly have insulated houses and triple-glazed windows, and their winters are an awful lot more extreme than ours! There is no mains water supply outside of the cities in Mongolia, and no inside toilets, just a poorly constructed shack, offering little privacy, positioned over a hole in the ground, with only a single plank of wood to stand on. This is of course, complete with a very pungent smell, hundreds of flies, and nowhere to wash your hands! We feel very far away from home here!

 

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This little lady seemed to like the camera!

 

 

Leaving Almaty saw us travelling North, through the dry, arid steppe, and into a lush, green landscape, with rolling hills, and quite predictably, rain. We travelled through Semey, and crossed the border back into Russia again, where we got caught in some cracking thunderstorms! However, it was a relief to be back in Russia again, as the condition of the roads are better, and it’s much more enjoyable riding on tarmac with our bikes, where we can relax and enjoy the landscape instead of focusing on the road surface to avoid potholes etc. We were also able to eat and drink without worrying about which species it had originated from (e.g. horse), or if it would give us stomach problems.

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Me and Oby enjoying some tarmac and the scenery. Photo courtesy of Roger.

 

Barnaul was the city that we were to spend a few days resting in, and the last big place to prepare before crossing into Mongolia, so we had a short list of things to do for the bikes. Number one was to find a new battery for Roger’s bike, as the terminals, which had snapped the first time we went through Kazakhstan, were still being held in place with zip-ties, and the bike kept cutting out on the bumpy roads. As some of the roads in Mongolia would be a lot worse than Kazakhstan, and a lot of the time it would be more remote than anywhere we’ve been so far, we wanted to make sure the bike would give Roger no problems. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Roger and a lovely chap called Andrei (or Axe, as he prefers to be called), a local who spent some hours driving Roger around various places to find a battery, they did not manage to locate one.

At no point was buying a new bike on the ‘List of things to do in Barnaul’, but these things happen…

Fred

Fred 🙂

‘Fred’ will be waiting for me when I get home, as my very kind Daddy, and friend, Jake, went to collect him for me, after I bought him on eBay. Fred is a Yamaha WR250R; the same as Bruce and Kyla’s bikes. He is lighter and more nimble for off-roading than Oby is, and I plan on using him for the South American and African legs of the trip, where tarmac roads will be in short supply. I’ll write more about Fred in the Winter, no doubt!

From Barnaul, we all headed into the most beautiful region of Russia we had come across yet; the Altai. The Altai has mountains, warm weather, beautiful scenery, and the most wonderful and smooth, twisty tarmac roads, which were amazing after the straight ones out on the steppe (and of course all of the gravel we had encountered so far). Once again, we were able to relax and enjoy the road, and trust that it would bring us no random potholes or bits of gravel on the apex of the bends. We could have quite easily been in Switzerland, Germany or Austria with how beautiful it was.

However, we still had the reminder of being in Russia, as we had stopped and parked up outside a fairly built-up area, when a man wearing only a pair of shorts, and sporting what looked like a recently waxed chest, came strutting out, peacock-style, and insisted we had to come inside what turned out to be a miniature resort. He led us through a queue of people who were paying to get in (eh?!), and took us to a café, where we ordered some pork shashlik (the first bit of pork for a while!), and then we were taken up into an art gallery, and then downstairs into a garden area where they had a bear in a cage. Yes, an actual bear.

We spent a couple of nights camping by the river, where we also saw Seamus, Rossa and Mauro again, after we parted ways in Almaty, and we rode as a very big group for a while. It was a lovely time, and everyone was in high spirits as we were all having fun on the roads, we were all relieved after the Pamir, and we were embracing the moment of light relief before Mongolia, which we were sure would be difficult again!

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Camping spot all together as a group. It was lovely having a wash in the river the next morning.

We soon came back down to Earth with a bump when we crossed the Russian-Mongolian border at Tashanta-Tsagaannuur. In all, it took us 10 hours, and was easily the longest and most annoying border crossing we had encountered so far. The biggest delay, to our surprise, was getting out of Russia, not into Mongolia, even though we’d done it before with no problems. We had to wait to get into the border compound, then we had to wait to get our details registered, and then we had to wait to get our luggage inspected, at which time the lady border guard decided to help herself to my aspirin supply!

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Roger, Bruce, Kyla, Mathilde and Eduoard waiting/resting at the border, trying desperately to stay out of the sun.

Luckily, the Mongolian side of the border was much easier, although more disorganised, but once we figured out where we were supposed to go and in which order, we were out fairly quickly. All of us except Guðmunder that is, who had a problem with his visa. Luckily, a very kind Russian chap (who was dressed in full camo, forming quite a cliché), who we’d been chatting to throughout the whole process, stayed on for extra time and helped him get through. After that, we were let loose in Mongolia!