Our last night in Mongolia was spent in the town of Olgii. For my last Mongolian meal, I had the traditional dish of horsemeat. As far as I know, it’s the first time that I’ve eaten horse and, I must say, it was rather tasty. No vegetables in sight – just a plate full of shredded horsemeat and some boiled rice on the side.
Note to self – when considering checking into a hotel that has ‘Karaoke Pub’ emblazoned across the front of the building, ask how close to the pub the hotel rooms are. It turns out that the pub was directly below our room and Mongolians love their karaoke (even if they can’t hold a note)! The shouting, wailing and clapping went on until midnight.
We checked out of the hotel about 8.30am for the 98km drive to the Russian border. Whilst most of the route was on smooth tarmac, there was a detour onto dirt road.
When we got to the first Mongolian border check-point, a guy asked me if I wanted to change any money. I had just over 50,000 MNT left over (a little less than $30) that I need to change, so I accompanied him back to his home to do the deal. Once at his house, we had to wait for some other guy to arrive with the Russian Roubles. Whilst we were waiting, I took some photos of the man’s son and he offered me some Mongolian home-made cookies. Then he gave me two big chunks of Mongolian cheese (made from sheep’s milk, I believe). After a while, the other man arrived and we exchanged currencies. I gave all of the smaller currency to the little boy, said my good-byes and left. Amazing that a simple currency exchange could take me into a Mongolian home for an enjoyable encounter with a local family.
With my Mongolian money changed for Russian Roubles, we headed to the rest of the border checkpoints. We were through the Mongolian side in a speedy 30 minutes but then had to get to the Russian side, which was several kilometers along the road.
When we got to the Russian immigration desk, the immigration officer who was checking my passport used a radio to call for another officer to attend. It turns out that she had seen my passport stamp showing that we were recently in Ukraine, and the young male officer who came to speak to us was clearly a uniformed intelligence officer. He politely asked if he could speak with us for 10 minutes, and we were led to an upstairs office where he asked us questions about what we’d seen in Ukraine. By the time this ‘debriefing’ had completed, it was lunch-time (1.00pm), which meant that the entire border post staff closed down for an hour! We were left sitting in the Defender for an hour whilst they had lunch. Good thing we have a fridge onboard with food supplies – so we fixed ourselves lunch also.
Once the staff returned from lunch, we went through the Customs Department process and were finally free to proceed into Russia, by which time it was 2.30pm. Our next destination was the town of Bisyk, which was 575km away, so we figured we’d try to knock off 200km that day, to make the following day’s drive less strenuous.
Once we cleared the stretch after the border post, we entered the Russian segment of the Altai mountain range, and it was beautiful. Lots of snow covered mountains with pine trees lining the sides of the mountains and rivers running alongside the road. This was the most beautiful part of Russia we had seen, and so different from Siberia.
We passed some beautiful locations and the temptation was there to stop and camp, but we needed to cover some more miles, so we continued driving. Along the way, we saw an amazing old wooden bridge across the river and had to stop to investigate. The crooked bridge was just crying out for us to cross it and take some photos, so we did!
After the bridge, we pressed on a bit more until about 6.00pm, with three hours to sunset and about 400km to our destination, we decided to camp for the night. Klaus spotted a track running off the main road down towards the river. After some investigation on foot, we agreed that it was a good spot for some rough camping. We found a nice flat grassy spot close to the river and pitched the tent.
After dinner, Klaus got a fire going in a nicely built stone fireplace that he found by the river. We sat and enjoyed a bottle of Malbec, sitting by the fire with the river running past behind us. Wonderful! But the rain chased us into the tent about 9.00pm.
It rained for most of the night but the temperature was quite mild and it was probably the warmest night for camping that we’ve had so far. For the first time, I could sleep in my sleeping bag without my socks on!
The rain had eased up around 5.00am, so we made an early start and were back on the road by 7.00am, just as the rain was resuming. It had clearly been raining throughout the region all night as the rivers were raging and many had flooded their banks and the surrounding areas. We saw three bridges that had been washed away and several areas where the flooding was eroding the sides of the road.
In addition to the flooding, the rain was also causing some rocks to fall from the cliffs bordering the road. Whilst most were minor, there was one large rock-slide that had almost blocked the road. There was just enough space for cars to squeeze through but trucks couldn’t get through and were parked waiting for the road to be cleared. Later in the morning, the rain turned to snow and we were back to driving through Christmas card-type scenery. At the higher altitudes, the snow was settling on the road.
What a difference a day makes. Yesterday was a clear beautiful day with mild temperatures and one day later there was heavy rain, snow and flooding.
To add to the day’s events, I got covered in diesel when refuelling. The fuel pump didn’t automatically cut off when the tank was full, so diesel came pouring out of the tank all over my leg and my shoe. As you can imagine, I stunk of diesel for the rest of the drive.
Despite the dramatic weather, we made it safely to Bisyk by 3.00pm and checked into a hotel. The first order of business was to get out of the diesel soaked clothing and get some laundry done.
Tomorrow we begin the drive south onwards the Kazakhstan border.