After the incident with the wheel nuts, our first port of call when we crossed into Mongolia was to find the Land Rover dealership in Ulaanbaatar to buy some new wheel nuts. Crossing the border from Russia was simple enough – the usual paper filling out, car inspection etc., but on the whole not nearly as bad as it could have been. Car insurance purchased, monies changed, and we were on our way to Ulaanbaatar. We headed towards Ulaanbaatar, fuelled by little fish biscuits, enjoying the scenery and working out where we were going to head off-road before reaching Ulaanbaatar. We figured if we had to go there, we might as well make the journey there part of the trip.
We drove as far as the first major town on the blacktop, then turned west and started our first foray off-road in Mongolia. From there on in, we were on dirt tracks. Sometimes very, very bumpy dirt tracks! The roads meander across the plains; it’s easy to see the progression of the road as a particular track gets too muddy, or too rutted. You just choose the direction you want to go in, pull off the track and start a new path. As soon as we got a little way from the nearest town, the view started to open out to the kind of views you see in travel brochures and on TV. Yes, Mongolia really is that green, and vast, with rolling hills, and horsemen herding cattle, sheep, goats, horses, you name it. I don’t think my camera left my hands for the first day that we were driving in Mongolia.
After driving through a small holiday village with little cabins with coloured roofs, and a farming village nearby, we found our first beautiful campsite of the Mongolia section of our trip. We parked up on top of a slight hill, with a panoramic view of everything around us. We were greeted by a local Mongolian on his motorbike, who inspected the vehicle, and then promptly sat down to inspect what Niall was doing with the front wheel off (checking the wheel bearings as it happens). He gave us some yak milk hard curds which tasted like very, very strong parmesan, and then weaved his way back off on his bike, after pointing out which was his yurt, and miming that if we needed anything, to come to his yurt. I think he may have been on the potato wine, but that aside, was very friendly and polite.
Driving on the next day, the views just carried on getting better and better. The weather stayed clear and sunny which always helps, even when driving through the most industrial-looking towns. Aside from Ulaanbaatar, during the portion of the trip I was with Niall, I think we really only drove through one major mining town, although Niall saw more the further west he headed. Back in the open landscape, as far as we were concerned, Mongolia was already living up to expectations. We were using open-source maps to navigate our way around, and pre-loading routes onto the GPS so we had something to follow whilst we were driving. It meant that we weren’t always on the most direct, or quickest routes, but it did mean that we got to see some beautiful parts of the countryside that we might otherwise have missed.
When the skies were clear, and the sun was out, Mongolia was hot. Burning-type hot, but then after a while we did realise that most of Mongolia is actually quite a long way above sea-level (with an average height of around 1500m above sea-level on the plateau). Wikipedia also told us that Mongolia has, on average, over 250 days of sunshine every year, which combined with the height elevation, would explain the tans that we were rapidly developing. At least on the arms that were nearest the windows anyway.
We passed plenty of hilltop shrines, with prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, and statues of Buddha every now and again by the roadside. Getting close to Ulaanbaatar we spotted some good hills off the road and decided to find another campsite with a view. We pulled off the road following a little track that went straight up a rather steep, grassy slope, trundling along in second gear at a fair lick to avoid having to stop and change down into low. We reached the top of the hill, got out and had a bit of a look to work out where we were going to park up, then Niall went back to the car to drive it up the last little slope and into the edge of the woods where we’d identified the two perfect trees to sling the hammock between. When Niall tried to put the car into low range for the last 50m, Henry J decided that it would be the perfect time to refuse to go into low range. Or back into high range. Or in fact, into any gear combination that the car has. Fortunately, having already discombobulated the transfer box before our trip into the Empty Quarter, Niall knew exactly what the problem was (or was 99% sure at any rate), and how to fix it. Which was quite handy really, given that otherwise we were a good few hours drive away from Ulaanbaatar, stuck on top of a hill which we both decided was too steep to safely freewheel down backwards. So I did my usual assistants job of handing him various sized spanners and screwdrivers whilst he had his hands in the transfer box trying to persuade Henry J to move again. Amazing what a simple turn on a screw with an Allen key can do!
Fifteen minutes later, and Henry J was trundling up the slope to our campsite. We pitched up camp, set the hammock up, enjoyed the view and relaxed for a while before dinner. We put some tunes on (oh the luxury!), had some pudding (another rare treat – Custard with Fruits on this occasion!) and watched it raining over Ulaanbaatar in the distance as the sun went down. In an evening of luxuries, Niall even went as far as having a campsite shave by the fire.
It was a rather soggy early morning, with a lot of rain collecting on the porch of the tent….. we’d discovered this was a problem whilst we were camping by Lake Baikal, after a very heavy night of rain. The roof of the porch had obviously stretched a little at that point, and from then on, every time it rained, the water would collect over the porch. Porridge for brekkie, then into Ulaanbaatar to find the Land Rover garage and the Russian embassy, for Niall to put in his application for his next Russian visa after I left. We drove past a load of old locomotives displayed by the side of the road – I wasn’t quick enough to get many in-focus photos unfortunately, but Google tells me it was the open-air railway museum.
After a slightly stressful few hours spent in Ulaanbaatar, we escaped the city with a full complement of wheel nuts (albeit some very nasty shiny Discovery-style modern ones), to find somewhere nearby to camp, as Niall had to return to the Russian Embassy again the following day with extra information to support his visa application. We found some very hairy looking animals that we decided were probably the famous Mongolian yaks, then once again headed up on to the top of a hill to camp. We discovered that although this meant we had fantastic views, and were less likely to be bothered by people, it did leave us exposed to the wind. Mongolia is a very, very windy country. Having a tent that flaps around in the night was beginning to get vaguely annoying, although we did at least know from our experiences in Oman that the tent could survive some pretty stormy conditions.
The three things that generally stood out about our campsites in Mongolia were the amazing views, the aromatic grass (it smelt herby, a little like pizza herbs), and the giant grasshoppers. The grasshoppers were the biggest I have ever seen in my life! They might have been locusts, as apparently Mongolia does get swarms of locusts from time to time, but whatever they were, they were huge, and made one hell of a noise. A windy and sunny campsite is always a good opportunity to dry out the tent and air the mattress and the sleeping bag though, so every cloud has a silver lining as they say. Although something like 11% or 12% of Mongolia is covered by forest, trees appear to only exist in patches of forest and woods, with the hills otherwise barren of trees, and looking like green carpeted mini mountains.
After dropping off all the necessary paperwork at the Russian embassy the next morning, we headed east out of Ulaanbaatar, stocking up with food and water on our way past a supermarket, and trying to get rid of the little troop of 5litre plastic bottles that we’d accumulated. Mum had sent me a message that morning telling us to go and visit the Genghis Khan equestrian statue (apparently she’d just seen watched Joanna Lumley’s programme about Mongolia, and she had visited it). As we were driving directly past it, it seemed silly not to stop and go and have a look around. It really is quite an impressive statue, 40m high and made of stainless steel, Genghis sits atop his horse, which itself sits on top of the visitor centre, with a museum below with exhibitions relating to archaeological finds from the Bronze Age and during the rule of the Mongol Empire. I bought myself a little Mongolian felted yurt from the visitor shop as a memento too (ever since a trip to Belize many years ago, when I didn’t buy a little painted canvas that I loved, I’ve made a point of buying mementos from trips if I see something I particularly like!).
Our routine for the days was pretty straightforward; get up, have breakfast and a tea, pack away the tent, and then hit the road. Drive until lunchtime, stopping at anything that looked particularly interesting, then making cheese, cucumber and tomato sandwiches for lunch. After lunch, repeat driving, pull off the road to find a campsite, set the tent up, cook dinner, and sit by the fire chatting about the day, or reading our books. Generally loving the simplicity of life on the road.
A couple of days later we reached a more low-lying area of the Mongolian plateau, and the going started to get a little muddy, and a little soggy. Soggy enough that Niall thought it might be a good idea to put the wading plug in (despite us not using it for the Baikal road!). Aside from the numbers of cattle, sheep, horses and yurts, something else we saw an awful lot of were birds of prey. We decided to count them all one day, but once we got into the fifties, we decided that it counted as a lot, and stopped counting. Not all of them were huge, but we did see some absolutely enormous eagles, just hanging out by the side of the road, or lazily soaring in the thermals above us. Quite extraordinary really.
Driving on we found ourselves back in a wooded area, crossing streams and driving through meadows full of little wildflowers – very Alpine looking. We were heading towards a lake for our evening campsite and I decided that it was about time I did a little bit of exercise, so I got out and ran the last 5k to the lake. Niall did try to be nice and drove quite a long way ahead of me so as to not gas me with the exhaust farts that Henry J is so keen on doing, but in actual fact all this did was put me in a foul mood as I was then so terrified that a bear was going to come bounding out of the forest and eat me. Not sure I’ve run that quickly in a while….. I also realised as I was running, that it was actually rather difficult, and once I did eventually reach the car, we then looked up the average altitude of Mongolia and discovered that it was quite high, and I’d effectively just done an altitude training session.
The lake that we camped at had the largest mosquitoes that I’ve ever seen, however, they were also the slowest and most stupid mosquitoes that I’ve ever seen, to the point that you could actually pick them out of the air before they even landed on your skin for their dinner. We took the chance to do a bit of housekeeping, and to inspect one of the front wheels again that still had a bit of play in it, and we were joined after a while by a park ranger on his motorbike. He had driven past earlier and said hello – it turned out he’d driven back to his house to pick up some English versions of leaflets about the lake and surrounding area. It transpired that it was an area of protected wildlife / nature sanctuary area, so we were prepared to be told that we couldn’t camp there overnight. Niall sat and chatted to him for a while (through the medium of our Mongolia – English handy phrase book, and after he’d thoroughly inspected our car looking for hunting equipment he was happy for us to camp there, as long as we promised to make sure we put out any fires we lit. Apparently they have a lot of trouble with poachers in the area as there’s so much wildlife on and around the lake.
After yet another gorgeous sunset, we were joined round our little campfire by two more Mongolians on a motorbike, who were presumably the very poachers that the ranger was trying to keep away. We say presumably, because they couldn’t speak English, but did have a rifle and binoculars with them. They were very smiley, and sat with us for a while, prodding the campfire with a stick they’d whittled (apparently no ordinary stick will do for campfire etiquette!) and happily eating the fudge that we kept passing them. After a while they went off for the night, whether at the end of their day or the start of their overnight hunt. Either way, we didn’t see (or hear) anything more from them. The plan for the morning was to drive up over the hills next to the lake and carry on following on the roads on our very vague map to the next little lake.