We were in Mongolia and heading south to Ulaan Baatar. The first thing we noticed was the erratic driving on the highway with passing on corners, hills, and blind spots. The scenery started to change to more hills and fewer trees. We also noticed the aftermath of the flooding that had taken place in many villages. We ran in to four riders from Europe going north and heading to Magadan. They were aware of the rains in Siberia and were concerned they would not make it.
As we entered the outskirts of UB we thought it would be clear sailing to our hotel near the central square, but the traffic really got heavy with 8 kms to go. It was gridlock and took us 1 1/2 hours. The bike over heated for the first time ever and we had to pull over within 1 km of the hotel to let it cool down.
The next couple of days were spent looking around the downtown area and finding out about road conditions to the west. The news was not good as the worst floods in forty years had caused major road outages in the northern half of the country and we were looking at sand in the south. A bike ride out to the Genghis Khan statue was taken by Lindsay and Tom, and of course in rain while Marian spent time becoming familiar with route conditions and options.
The very difficult decision was taken that Marian would fly to Holland for about two weeks while Lindsay and Tom would ride across the best route they could find to Russia. Marian flew out of UB one day after we left.
Tom and Lindsay left UB at ten am on Saturday and the traffic was light heading west. The objective was to ride to Tsetserleg where a guesthouse was booked. We were led to believe that this route was the best to give us options for different routes depending on weather and road conditions. The route north of the one chosen was shut down in one area due to hoof and mouth disease and further west the worst flooding in 40 years had washed out many bridges making the route impassable. During the ride we had to stop on an ongoing basis for cattle, sheep and horses on the road. We also saw a herd of wild camels. We started seeing colour in the steppe as the rains had brought out many flowers. As was becoming the norm wherever we stopped, a crowd would gather for photo ops. Overall the road was good and the guesthouse was reached by dinner time. It was very basic and Tom and I found ourselves to be the oldest guests by about thirty years. There was a good restaurant attached and chicken, chips and beer were enjoyed. One concerning issue during the day had been a recurring “general fault” warning being displayed on the bike’s instrument screen, accompanied by erratic fuel level and range readings. Everything else was working properly so no need to panic. Comforting was the fact that we were able to buy 95 and occasionally 98 Octane fuel (equivalent to 92 and 95 in N. America) every time we needed to fill up.
The following day we continued to head west, but immediately, as we left town, we ran in to about 10kms of very rough road. This was a harbinger of conditions to come, although the next few hundred kms were good. We found a beautiful river in a small canyon and stopped for a bite before we were inundated by a huge flock of sheep. A pattern was beginning to develop, as every pass we rode over the road was in real bad condition. We thought we would find accommodation in Tonsontsengel, but it was a dreary town without. We managed to buy some groceries and planned to tent. We rode on and the road conditions worsened and the weather deteriorated. We kept riding as we could see blue sky in the distance where we could set up camp. One of the route options we had considered was to take a turnoff west of Ton which would get us on the north highway running west to Ulaangom. This was supposed to be in good condition and minimally affected by the flooding. As we rode we did not even go by the turn off. We were now on tracks and although the GPS was showing a fork none was visible. Our decision had been made and we decided to head due south to Altai via Uliastay. We set up camp on a slope in a beautiful valley and enjoyed Tom’s package of chicken curry.
We awoke with the sunrise at 5 and made coffee. A guy rode up on a horse, greeted us and sat down. Tom offered him a coffee but he spotted some coke which he asked for. He chugged it, thanked us and rode off. When he had first appeared I felt like going and greeting him with “Howdy pardner”.
We headed south on the main road which was now a track and slow going. We made it to Uliastay by noon where we stopped for a coffee. We met a film crew director who spoke English well and he told us about the road south – not encouraging. We managed to get some 95 octane after waiting half an hour for the tanker truck to fill the holding tank, but all the food outlets were closed so we pressed on knowing that there were two villages on the map in the next 50 kms where we could get water etc. The road was now very rough and slow going and the two villages on the map never showed up. We were a little concerned as we had about 11/2 litres of water and 1/2 liter of Coke. We figured we had enough gas as our jerry cans were full. The track was extremely bad and often, when we came to a fork where two or more tracks diverged there would be a sign in Mongolian with villages on it but without our ultimate destination, Altai, listed. (It became a bit of a joke with all the forks encountered that we would quote Yogi Berra “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”) We resorted to stopping vehicles enroute and asking the drivers if we were on the right road and usually we were. We discovered late in the ride that a line on the GPS was actually a one wire powerline (or was it a telegraph wire??) and we could compare our track’s position with it and stay relatively oriented in the desired direction. The track was extremely hard on the bike as the last 100 ms were severe washboard and you couldn’t get enough speed up to glide over it because of potholes etc. We finally made it to Altai and the hotel on the GPS was a ruin. Luckily a woman stopped and directed us to the “best hotel” in town and it turned to be really good. We immediately headed for a well deserved beer before changing and cleaning up.
The next day was in total contrast to the previous one. The road was paved and the weather dry and hot hitting 33 deg. As we rode looking far ahead we thought we were going to hit dark clouds, but it turned out to be a vicious dust storm which was upon us in minutes and past us as quickly. We were able to have a great lunch in a newly built restaurant. We had met a biker in Altai who had recommended a hotel in Khovd but we could not find it. A guy at the gas station led us to another “best hotel” in town. It was new and after much discussion we were allowed to park the bikes in a private garage under the hotel. As the restaurant was occupied by a wedding party at first we could not get dinner. However the staff arranged for us to have dinner on the top floor outdoor patio. The waitresses could not have been more friendly and helpful. At C$50 for the room, this was more than double what we had become used to.
I chose the accommodation for the stay in Ulgii the next day. This proved to be a bad choice as were to find out. The ride north of Khovd was on good road for about 100 kms and then it deteriorated big time. The frustration was that there was a new road in existence but not yet open so the detour paralleled the new one and frustratingly would cross it every few kilometres. We were able to sneak on to the new one a few times and managed to save maybe 20 kms of rough stuff. We climbed to 8500′ and experienced rain, hail, high winds, 30 deg and 1 deg. all in a few hours. As rain had gone through recently there was a lot of mud and giant puddles. We met a Russian biker heading south who we spoke with briefly and he told us we would have to cross a stream ahead and to stick to the right side to avoid big submerged stones. The stream was fast flowing murky and about 20″ deep and was forded without drama. Following our GPS to the accommodation we were led down a very muddy and flooded road. We had to turn around and discovered that most of the town had been recently flooded. We eventually reached our ger accommodation and it was a gruesome sight. We found an alternative and went out for a great Mongolian dinner which cost C$9 for us both.
We set off for the border early and again the road was rough and went over an 8650′ pass. For the first time on this ride we put on our heated vests. We had a tea break in a ger and were ready to face the border. We were through Mongolian customs very quickly, but then endured four hours clearing Russian immigration and customs. Most of this was our fault. Long story short, we did not realize that we already possessed an export document that would have saved us considerable time. We might still have been there had I not approached a stern customs agent and asked if he liked Alexander Ovechkin. He did not respond favourably but a few minutes later he invited us in to the warm office and helped us fill out the document.
We had booked a guesthouse in Ongunday which turned out to be very basic with the loo 100 m out in a pasture. The ride from the border reminded me very much of BC. Mountains, beautiful rivers and lots of great camping areas, all full with Russian tourists. The ride north to Barnaul was scenic but the hotel we had booked did not have secure parking. A biker recommended the Siberia Hotel which turned out to be great.
On our way to the border town of Robtsosvk, we pulled in to a cafe and met Frank from France traveling on a Royal Enfield! As we were having coffee, four bikes pulled in and to Tom’s and my amazement it was the guys from Alberta we had met in Eagle Plains enroute to Inuvik in 2016! We spent an hour with them trading stories. They had ridden from Germany and were headed to Omsk where they were going to store their bikes until next summer when they were to come back and complete their ride – small world!
The border crossing into Kazakhstan was the quickest we have ever done – 45 minutes. Having the correct Russian documents helped!
We stayed in Semey and then rode north to Pavlodar. The road was ok but with many kms of detour, some through farmers’ fields. The following day also had many kms of detours on the road to Astana. We were riding what is to be a toll highway between Pavlodar and Astana, and the frustration was that we rode parallel to it and crossed it about every ten kms although the last 200 were good. The ride so far in Kazakhstan was very monotonous as the the land is totally flat as far as the eye can see. One pleasant surprise is that supreme gas is widely available and costs C$0.70/litre.
We arrived in the beautiful modern city of Astana to a great welcome by the hotel manager and waited for Marian to arrive. We walked around the center fo the city and enjoyed the architecture based on the designs of Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. City is extraordinarily modern with clean lines, wide boulevards and very upscale coffee houses and restaurants.
On the 5th of August we set off for Almaty, 1200 kms away, intending to stay in Balkash about half way. Started the day with all monetary systems in the hotel down, so Tom and Marian set off to find an atm that would work so we could pay our hotel bill before leaving. Mission accomplished. We set off on an excellent four lane highway for the first couple of hours, taking us to Karaganda….then we hit a rough cross over from the highway to a busy two way road…still in pretty good condition, but very busy with many commercial trucks make progress and passing difficult.
We reached our half way mark and the hotel ‘Millennium” was found with some difficulty, as the gps had located the back of the building tucked into a conglomerate of apartment buildings. We sorted it and checked in. It provided the basics of food and shelter!
The following morning we left in hot conditions. Another long hot ride on our way to Almaty. Road conditions had also continued to deteriorate into wavey potholed road which made our progress a bit precarious.
There was not much to see along the way, although we were treated to herds of camels and horses.
Beautiful horses raised here as livestock.
We discovered that the region had been used by the Soviets for missile testing. Also there had been no shortage of factories along the way.
We were rode beside Lake Balkash along the way. It is a beautiful azure blue with a refreshing breeze blowing off it giving us some relief from the heat .
The road and the scenery remained constant with temperatures in the range of 37 to 39 degrees.
We did not reach Almaty until dark as the GPS led us down a crazy mix of busy streets to our hotel.
Two full days were spent in Almaty. The bike was serviced at Agent Orange and new tires installed. We had a cable car ride to a spot with a great view of the city.
And enjoyed some of the tourist attractions offered.
We found an amazing little Italian Restaurant a couple of blocks from the hotel and a few happy hours and dinners were enjoyed there.
And enjoyed the many green spaces that Kazakhstan has to offer.
Tracy had flown in from London and on August 12 we departed under dark skies for Issy Kul in Kyrgyzstan….
We got a late start out of the city as our main exit had been detoured by police. Lindsay and Marian were detained at a red light, and once on their way again reached a fork in the road with no Tom in sight. So even though both GPS’s had identical map programs, typically they would lead us on slightly different routes to a destination, this happened to be the case this time….not knowing who was where and who was out of the city first. About 150km outside the city Lindsay and Marian stopped to suit up into rain gear, when who should appear! Back on track.
We arrived at the Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan border in the pouring rain. Passport and customs went quickly but the road through no man’s land to Kyrgyzstan was in rough shape.
Our entry into Kyrgyzstan was cold and wet.