Sure enough, as the two bikes rolled to the end of the tarmac on the afternoon of Wednesday 6 July, they found they had arrived at the Mongolian border. Ahead of them stretched a dusty track, leading the first few Mongolian kilometres to passport control and customs. After a brief exchange of pleasantries and passport details with the guys manning the gate, they were off onto the dusty track and towards the waiting officials. The officials got to wait in nice clean offices, the travellers got to wait on the dusty track with the other travellers and a swarm of astonishingly aggressive flies, intent on snacking on grubby overlanders.
Once finally allowed into the border control plaza (both the Russian and Mongolian operations seem to operate alternating one-way flow, so you have to wait for everyone to leave before you can enter) the guys were able to complete the Mongolian entry formalities fairly efficiently. One surprise was the customs officer offering to change money for us (it turns out there is a healthy black market in Mongolia so offering a poor rate to travellers at the border can be particularly lucrative) but changing a few bucks here at a slightly worse rate than offered even by the banks at least allowed the guys to buy their Mongolian insurance more cheaply than if they’d had to pay in dollars. The price of the insurance was about $25 US if bought in local Togrug, or $32 in dollars.
Finally escaping the border at 3.30pm, the guys headed down the road (a few miles of which were actually tarmac) to Olgii. Here the original plan had been to obtain some provisions and head out the other side and find somewhere to camp. The plan fell at the first hurdle however, with water being seemingly impossible to find. Tired and hungry, the plan was adapted, and the new plan involved finding somewhere to camp with washing and catering facilities. A ger camp (tourist accomodation in traditional nomad “ger” tents, but transplanted into the city) offered the chance to pitch modern tents at the back where they wouldn’t upset the tourist ger-dwellers and still make use of the hot showers, very reasonably priced cafe and just-about-detectable free WiFi. There were also friendly fellow travellers to talk to, including a Mitsubishi-sponsored Kazakh team on a mission in a large number of Mitsubishi products, intent on giving the vehicles a hard time on the Mongolian roads. There were also French and Swiss couples in 4x4s and there had apparently been a few motorcyclists only a few days before.
Thursday morning saw a slow start, with a sleepy Dan dragging his heels and failing to get up and packed. A more-conscious and conscientious Ed was making use of the intermittent WiFi to buy UK insurance for his bike which was about to lapse. Whilst the insurance was relatively easily sorted, still water was still impossible to find in any of the town’s shops, so the guys settled for a couple of bottles of sparkling and enough food to see them through the day and set off down the track towards the next town.
There is a tradition at an old workplace of Dan’s to return from vehicle climatic testing in far flung places with amusingly named foodstuffs. Winter testing in Scandinavia is generally the most effective hunting ground for such things, a recent trip to Sweden for testing in extreme cold resulting in a department-wide email inviting the other engine geeks to “eat Plopp” (chocolate biscuits) or “suck on Keks” (fruit flavoured sweets, if Dan recalls correctly). Here in Mongolia, whilst not quite in the same league, there was a bizarrely, but appropriately-geekily branded product forming part of the day’s provisions – biscuits presumably made with real Cruise and just a dustin’ of Hoffman…
That morning, the road really wasn’t so bad, but it was quite hard work and both riders needed to concentrate on the varying surface and adapt their riding to suit. It had it all – corrugations, dust, sand, hard packed mud, the odd big muddy puddle.
The morning’s labours were rewarded with a beautiful peaceful lunch spot by a river just a stone’s throw from the road. Whilst the guys were eating their improvised sandwich lunch, a local family in a 4×4 stopped on the road and the father and young daughter wandered over to say hello. There was no language in common as neither Dan nor Ed speak any Mongolian, and the locals spoke no English, Russian, French, German or Esperanto. In fairness neither Ed nor Dan spoke any Esperanto either, but they’d've been willing to give it a shot.
Shortly after lunch, the road and traffic conditions became a little more challenging. Ed had a near miss on a blind bend with a 4×4 travelling faster than anticipated as he took advantage of both sides of the road to negotiate the narrow tracks. The 4×4 ended up parked on top of a bank and the passengers climbed out slighty shaken but otherwise no harm was done. Ed checked with the driver that all was ok, shaking hands, before both parties went their separate ways a little wiser perhaps. Dan had an argument with some deep soft sand over rocks, which dumped the bike on it’s side and broke the temporary repair to the right hand pannier strap done in Kazakhstan. This was actually good news as it showed the repair still allowed the joint to fail, preventing damage to the pannier itself in a spill.
What was less welcome was a break appearing in the fuel tank brace. This is an aluminium part that stops the two sides of the plastic fuel tank flexing around too much by bracing them to each other and the bike’s frame. Where it had been rubbing against the exhaust system it had been weakened and bent in previous drops – it was only a matter of time before it finally gave up and this was the moment. A couple of hose clips and a short length of aluminium tube from Ed’s bodging kit and all was well again – for the moment at least.
It’s often said that Mongolia “has no roads”. This simply isn’t the case. Mongolia has loads of roads. Possibly more roads than anywhere else. It’s just that they all go the same way and they’re all rubbish…
The route from Olgii to Khovd was 218km and arriving in the late afternoon sunshine the guys found plenty of roadworks underway but no hotels or suitable accomodation in the town. A decision was made to pick up provisions instead and head out of town to find a spot to camp (they were in Mongolia after all). The task of restocking was proving extraordinarily hard to carryout, partly because passers-by would ignore any attempt to get their attention and because many of the shops are hidden behind run-down exteriors which, if you’re lucky, have a large, faded sign of unintelligible words with pictures of western-branded bottles and jars around them. Luckily, a workman who had been digging up the road came over and guided Ed behind a door and into a shop that sold bottled still water rather than the fizzy stuff. Shortly afterwards the bikes headed out of town, paid a dubious toll of 500T in order to use the pristine 2 miles of tarmac that pointed the way out of the town, up a hill and then, predictably, reverted to sandy gravel from then on.
The evening began to draw in and the daylight adopted a deepening shade of pink by time the guys parked up 56km later in the middle of a flat, picturesque plain. The site was selected for its views of the mountains, the incredibly flat plain and just enough distance from any of the parallel tracks which comprise the road to disuade passing vehicles from driving over to disturb the tired overlanders. What it wasn’t selected for was the opportunity for the biggest shock for our overlanders so far.
With the tents erected, photos taken and the usual dinner of bread and cheese consumed, the guys retired to their tents to escape the attention of the mosquitos. By 10pm a whistling had developed from the bikes which woke Dan and this was shortly followed by the rustling of the tents as a stiff breeze picked up. Within 15 minutes this breeze had turned into a gale that began to wreak havoc with the tents, the force bending tent structures into unsustainable shapes under the constant howl. For the next 45 minutes, Ed lay there bracing his tent’s airbeam with his hands to stop it being folded flat on top of him with his sleeping bag over his head to keep the blasts of sandy wind out of his eyes and ears. A waterproof bag that had been tucked under the porch of his tent had been carried away and Ed wondered how many kilometres away it now was and where it would end up by morning. It was a huge relief when a lull in the gale allowed Ed to shine his head torch out from his tent and spot the red material of the bag a short distance away. With no time to spare Ed hopped out barefooted in his underpants to grab the escapee and attach it to his tent by its clip before retreating back into his shelter. Meanwhile, in Dan Mansions, Dan himself peered out of a window to check that none of the slates had been dislodged and pottered through to the kitchen in his dressing gown to make a cup of cocoa.
A peaceful Friday morning on 8 July had replaced the frenzy of the previous night as they arose to survey the damage. Amazingly the bikes were upright, both tents had survived intact and even two empty waterbottles remained lying underneath Dan’s bike where he left them the previous evening. Sadly the mosquitos and biting flies were back again but these didn’t stop breakfast and a spot of maintenance that Ed needed to do to his bike. This involved repositioning a hoseclip which was starting to rub against the underside of his fuel tank and could well have been accelerated by the bumps on the rough roads.
The rest of the morning was spent putting down the miles and scanning the road for potholes big enough to swallow a dirtbike front wheel, or other hazards. In the distance a bridge came into view but on closer inspection neither end of it was attached to the land, rendering it useless for the bikes to cross by. Alongside the bridge a gaggle of lorries and cars had assembled next to a ford in preparation to make the crossing. Ed and Dan drove up to the water’s edge and tried to see how deep and fast the water was moving. A local suggested a depth of one metre which was too deep for bikes to traverse but Dan volunteered to wade out in the direction suggested by the locals who had assembled there. With his boots filling up with water he made good progress across and while the current was strong the river was not too deep and well within the capability of the bikes. Dan returned and one by one the guys rode across and up the opposite bank and back to dry land. Dry was sadly not to be for Dan’s feet which were to remain damp inside his saturated motocross boots for days to come. By that evening, despite numerous stops during the day to wring out his socks, Dan’s feet were to look a lot like something from an episode of Silent Witness.
The many Mongolian roads were taking their toll on the friends of the German traveller the guys had met on the Russian side of the border who had given up on Mongolia and headed back. Ed and Dan came across them by late morning when Dan stopped and noticed his chainguide had broken and, beyond repair, was discarded. The other three from that party were on very heavily laden big machines, one on a Guzzi with a sidecar for luggage and a stack of tyres on the pillion seat. Dan and Ed were having it easy on their small lightweight bikes, and couldn’t help but feel that the rest of this German party were probably having a much slower and more tiring experience so far.
The guys rolled into Darvi, refuelled and looked around for somewhere to grab some lunch. A couple of likely buildings turned up a blank but inside one the guys met a french couple and their small child eating plates of mutton or goat and noodles. Ed and Dan pointed at the cauldron of noodles and after muttering the word ”chai” were soon sat eating a meal and drinking a hot watery milk drink that is not quite entirely unlike tea.
Once fed and watered, the guys remounted and headed back out onto the road, and very quickly caught up with the French family in their huge Iveco van – plenty of space to live in (and for all the toys and games demanded by a small child on the road) but not great for making fast progress across Mongolian roads.
By the evening, the guys were approaching Altai City – the approach to the town is across a green plain after crossing through some small mountains, and the guys opted to camp on this relatively lush looking ground, though they had learnt their lesson from the previous night that everything should be thoroughly pegged or weighted down as the weather may not stay calm all night. A peaceful spot presented itself, which whilst almost within sight of the airport (a small grass airfield with no aircraft, but an airport nonetheless) was sufficiently secluded from the roads into town and offered some shelter should the wind pick up again in the night. Once the tents were up but before the bread and cheese dinner had been laid out on the seat of Dan’s DRZ, the thunderstorm that had been gathering arrived. The guys sheltered in their tents for an hour or so until it passed over before enjoying a meal watching the sun go down and then a peaceful night’s sleep.
On arriving in Altai City (a grand name for a place that from a distance looks less permanent than a rally’s overnight bivouac) the guys quickly located the required supplies for the day’s riding, but discovered that they’d lost another hour and were now 8 hours ahead of GMT – so despite the reasonable efficiency of their efforts that morning it was a late start anyway.
On leaving Altai, there was a lot more traffic than expected, some of which was rather unusual – men on horseback wearing traditional robes and hats rather than the usual western style clothing. Following a stream of traffic, believing it would lead them to the main road out of town, the guys instead found themselves corralled in a parking area for a local festival, involving horse racing, archery and various other traditional activities. It seemed like an opportunity not to be missed to pause a while and take a look around, and meanwhile the bikes and riders were causing quite a fuss in the car park – even some of those who should have been taking part in the event instead coming over to have a look at the bikes and/or ask to be allowed to get on one of them.
The good progress across the Mongolian countryside continued, the guys starting to wonder whether the expected difficulties would ever materialise – some of the stories from fellow overlanders over the years had implied immense difficulties in crossing the country, even without trying to take in any less well-used routes to visit out of the way places. A difficulty did then turn up – though not a geographical obstacle, instead a mechanical issue.
Dan’s DRZ, selected for being one of the most reliable small-capacity trail bikes money can buy, had developed a misfire. It was difficult at first to distinguish whether it really was a misfire, or just the rear wheel spinning on the loose surface at high engine speeds, but after a few experiments in a few different gears, Dan was sure his bike had a problem – the question to be mulled in his helmet in between dodging dirt-road hazards and picking which track to take at each of the million forks in the road was what exactly was wrong with it.
Lunch that day was served in a Ger at the side of the road in a small town not even marked on Open Street Map – the usual fare of goat/noodles/carrots/onions all fried up together and served in a bowl with a separate cup of milky tea. This was actually the first time either had set foot inside one of the traditional nomadic tents during their time in central Asia so far. Dan and Ed have been asked by a few excited people whether they’ve stayed in a ger, and the usual response is that it would be broadly equivalent to staying in a traveller’s caravan somewhere in the UK. To some they may be a romantic icon of some idyllic nomadic existance but sure enough they are left behind as the people gain the opportunity to live in brick-built permanent buildings with decent facilities. Westerners may think that a ger is an attractive proposition for a week or so, but after that they’d probably want running water, electricity for a fridge and a telly and somewhere the kids could play without running out into the road. Mongolians are of course no different, and whilst traditional culture and lifestyles are as cherished here as they are anywhere in the world, many modern Mongolians have left those lifestyles behind in favour of city life, with 40% now living in the dirty and crowded capital, Ulaanbaatar.
Shortly after lunch, fate finally offered Dan some relief from his misfire problem. Dan was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to spend an hour or so at the side of the road getting grit-blasted by the force-8 breeze that was gently caressing the Gobi desert as he coaxed his spare tube into the front tyre. Meanwhile the DRZ reclined on a handy road-side car-tyre, steadied by an equally handy roadside Edward. Once Dan’s front tyre had been filled with air and his ears, eyes, nose and wheel bearings had been filled with sand, it was time to refit the front wheel and see what delights the road still had to offer.
The next treat was a water crossing of a fairly large river, encouragingly equipped with locals paddling in parts of it and buzzing backwards and forwards across other bits on little Chinese 125 cc bikes. One offered to show the guys the way across the first section. The route involved riding out to a little gravel island, along the river to another little gravel island before hanging a left and crossing a much deeper section to the bank, crossing that to the next, deeper and faster flowing section of the river, (where Dan thought for a moment that he may have taken the wrong route as the water level was much higher than he had been expecting), then back onto dry land for another few metres before dashing across a short, shallow third section. Dan was resigned to the fact that he’d have damp feet for the remainder of the riding day, but as it was already mid-afternoon, they wouldn’t have to suffer for long.
Unsurprisingly Dan’s misfire had not been cured by bathing the bike in the river, but at least it hadn’t got any worse. It wasn’t cured by adding more fuel to the tank, diluting what was left of the last batch either, but again, at least it wasn’t any worse. By the time the guys were within 50 miles or so of Bayankhongor, it was time to call it a day for the night, and a suitably secluded spot was selected where the guys could set up camp, patch Dan’s front tube and get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the following day. Having tied his tent to the sidestand of his motorcycle, just in case, Ed went exploring, returning shortly after slightly paler than he had left with news of a yellow and black scorpion he had seen. Luckily the grass of the camping area was sparsely populated but it focused the guys’ minds when they swop from motocross boots for trainers at the end of the day’s riding.
The guys were treated to a fairly easy Sunday morning run into Bayankhongor on 10 July, though after leaving the town with the day’s provisions, they found the road deteriorated somewhat. There was however a tarmac road under construction, and where it was possible to get onto the foundation of that, the going was easier than it was on the existing tracks.
The foundations had been provided with some defences however, regular large piles of gravel on the top to hinder progress of marauding motorists, and a deep ditch down each side to protect the unfinished road from rain water run-off and provide further defence against the local drivers. In several places the defences had been conveniently bypassed by the determined locals however, and it was possible to make quite good progress along what was essentially an excellent gravel road surface. One or two of the piles of gravel had been less effectively reduced in size than others and one of these got Dan airborne for the second time of the trip, it being both steeper and higher than it had looked from the seat of a 50 mph motorcycle…
Dan was not alone in getting caught out by the defences, Ed chose to negotiate a tricky path through the defensive ditch onto one stretch, and in his excitement managed to overcook it and drop the bike on his leg. By the time Dan had manoeuvred his bike to a point on the track where he could get his sidestand down however, Ed was already out from under the bike and had it back upright and back on it’s way to the unfinished road.
By the time the bikes were 280 miles from Ulaanbaatar, the road unexpectedly became tarmac. Both riders assumed that this would be another short lived stretch into and out of a small town, but it became apparent that the dirt road section was now over. The opportunity to make better progress however was hampered by Dan’s ongoing misfire issues, which effectively limited the pair to a cruising speed of 50 mph. What the better surface did provide however was the opportunity to investigate the symptoms of the misfire in a bit more detail than is possible whilst dodging puddles, avoiding muddy holes, stuttering through sandy sections or getting airborne over misjudged piles of gravel. The misfire was definitely engine speed related not load related, which implied an ignition fault rather than a fuelling fault. It was also clear that it was related to engine temperature – the engine running perfectly fine when not yet up to normal temperature after a break, but the misfire reappearing as the oil temperature climbed up beyond 65°C. This suggested somewhere sensitive to oil or coolant temperature and made Dan suspect it was likely to be the ignition stator.
Lunch that day came with an unexpected bonus – an impromptu falconry display from the son of the family providing one of the roadside catering options (noodles, goat/mutton, vegetables, this time with added Bisto).
After 140 miles or so on the tarmac, the guys pulled off the road to investigate the possibility of camping in a secluded spot up above the road in the hills. A suitable spot located, the guys set up their tents before Dan dismantled his bike to check the resistance of the ignition stator windings. The windings were very close to being in spec, but one was very slightly high (by 0.1 Ohms). Before fully re-assembling the bike, Dan made an attempt to re-create the misfire whilst stationary, but succeeded only in destroying the peace and quiet of the rural location.
The morning of Monday 11 July saw an easy run along the remainder of the tar road to Ulaanbaatar. In places, the parallel dirt tracks that used to serve this route surrounded the tar road, scars in the landscape that would take some time to heal and would probably be back in use if the tar road were allowed to deteriorate too far into potholedom.
The target was the Oasis Cafe and Guesthouse on the far side of Ulaanbaatar, picked from the guidebook on grounds that it had a yard in which the bikes could be securely parked. Plenty of other motorcycle travellers had already had the same idea – the place was sporting a Kudu Expeditions banner after providing accomodation at the end of an organised and supported trip from the UK to UB. There were independent travellers currently in residence too – American Ben, Dutch Allan, a couple of swiss guys on R1200 GS Adventures, and another couple of swiss guys on 1950s BSAs. In between chatting to the other inmates, Dan took the opportunity to have another look over his bike, discovering a trapped breather hose on the carburettor – it was a long shot, but there was a small chance that this could be the cause of the misfire after all. The rest of the afternoon and the evening was spent chatting to the other travellers, eating and drinking, the test ride could wait for the following day.
Tuesday’s test ride was to immediately and unsurprisingly disprove the carb vent hose theory, and no fault was found by stripping the carburettor, or substituting the spark plug for the new one bought in Istanbul. The search was now on to find a way to get a new stator to meet up with the expedition at some point, either in Russia or here in Ulaanbaatar. Whilst it was good to be reasonably confident in the root cause of the problem (only one fault had been located, the slightly over-spec resistance of the ignition signal coil) getting the part was likely to be time consuming and expensive – the genuine Suzuki part is £330 + 20% VAT in the UK. Pattern parts are available in the UK and the US for less than a third of that cost, and as the genuine part had failed after 3 years and 19000 miles, Dan was quite willing to try a different option.
The WiFi access at Oasis was put to great use exchanging emails with suppliers in the US and UK, during Tuesday evening and the early hours of Wednesday morning. Both Ricky Stator in the US and Electrex World in the UK were willing to accept payment from a UK credit card in Mongolia, and send parts to Ulaanbaatar by courier. Meanwhile, Andrey the tyre agent in Barnaul, was also having a quick look into options to acquire the part in Russia. Research showed that sending a part to Russia would be time consuming due to the excessive time taken to clear Russian customs. Having not heard anything positive from Andrey about availability of new (as opposed to bodge repaired) parts in Russia, the decision was made to order a part in to Ulaanbaatar.
Due to time zone convenience, the offices of UK company Electrex World opened first, so they won the job, and the part was ordered first thing on Wednesday morning, UK time, before Ricky Stator in the US were back in the office. Now it was just a case of sitting back, opening a beer and waiting for DHL to do their thing.