Mongolia I

[I realise this blog hasn’t been updated for a solid year now; I’m currently alive and in London but very bad at writing blogs. Don’t hate me]

Before I’d left Irkutsk to retrieve my bike from the horrors of Olkhon Island, I promised – possibly under the influence of cheap Russian alcohol – to do some traditional Australian cooking for the hostel on my return. I know, haha, “Australian cooking”. In any case, I arrived back on a working (!) motorbike after a day of dodging Russian drivers to an expectant staff and a hostel kitchen.

For those not up on the facilities of a Russian hostel kitchen in 2014, here’s what you get:

  • Four mismatched mugs, one cracked
  • Two forks
  • Six teaspoons
  • An indescribable utensil, presumably used in soviet times to do indecent things to potatoes
  • A frypan
  • A gas cooktop. Two of the three burners are broken.

I had volunteered to cook a Pavlova. Because of the Russian connection, obviously, and also how it’s one of the few unique New Zealand^W^WAustralian foods.

Before leaving a couple of days prior I had made the staff promise that they would supplement the available facilities with such innovations as an electric mixer. These were not immediately apparent, so I enquired. “Oh, I couldn’t find one at home. Can you not just use a fork?”

I looked at the forks. One was bent, like a spoon bender with poor eyesight had been using it for practice. I carefully explained that I would prefer not to whip enough eggwhites for a large meringue in this manner; after some negotiation the hostel manager said she would investigate other options at the cafe next door.

[incidentally – if you’re reading this blog for motorcycle adventuring stories, or stories at least tangentially involving motorbikes, you may want to hit the pagedown key several times because I’m about to write enthusiastically about baking]

Five minutes later she returned, battling through the door under the weight of a KitchenAid mixer. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The KitchenAid is the ultimate in cooking appliances: it makes cooking (even more!?) fun, because you can pretend you’re one of those TV chefs as you throw things into the bowl then walk away casually while it does all the hard work. It’s also made entirely from steel and chrome. Just like motorbikes.

So, several litres of cream, two dozen eggs and a couple of hours later we had a passable Pavlova (todo: work out how to not make it fall in the middle) and – for some reason – a large amount of very unAustralian eggnog, which someone improved with most of a bottle of whiskey. This was an excellent party.

A fairly late and blurry start the next morning and I was finally on the road back to Ulan-Ude with Mongolia in my sights. My faint hopes that the traffic would ease up and the weather would be fine – the road, circling Lake Baikal, is spectacular in fine weather – were dashed when it started bucketing down. I spent the day sitting behind trucks trying to both keep warm and avoid the Audis doing ridiculous overtakes into oncoming traffic.

Trucks on the Mongolian side of the border. Plenty o' rain in them clouds...

Trucks on the Mongolian side of the border. Plenty o’ rain in them clouds…

Back at the wonderfully dry hostel in Ulan-Ude, I was again the only person in the place and threw together a leisurely dinner involving eggs, beer and Pushkin (no KitchenAid this time, gutted); then it was back on the road heading for the Mongolian border: despite the clutch fiasco, only a few days behind schedule. As usual at the border crossing I was the lone crazy foreigner, and as usual I broke the well-oiled bureaucratic machine (“machine”) that is the Russian side. They made me walk back and forward between buildings collecting stamps from officials in the sudden torrential rain. It was some consolation when the lovely lady in the Quarantine office took pity on me and let me stand inside and drip water all over her carpet.

In-Mongolia-at-last-selfie. Got a bit of a haircut in Irkutsk

In-Mongolia-at-last-selfie. Got a bit of a haircut in Irkutsk, possibly under the influnce of cheap Russian alcohol

And then the rain stopped as suddenly as it started, and I was in Mongolia. It was weird: with my pidgin Russian I’d grown accustomed to having a rough idea of what shops sold, and being able to ask for what I wanted in cafes, but all of a sudden I was once again in a foreign culture unable to communicate outside of gestures.

The culture around the bike changed, too. The Russians were always pretty polite and/or shy – they would bombard you with questions but wouldn’t touch the bike. In Mongolia it was a different story: every time I stopped I would be surrounded by a crowd of guys who immediately started feeling the tyres, poking the engine, wiggling the numberplate. Once on that first day I emerged from a cafe to find someone sitting on the bike, while his friend took a photo. I started parking closer to cafe windows (and away from expensive cars) so I could watch and intervene if it looked like someone was going to knock my heavily-laden bike off the sidestand.

The other thing that changed was the driving. There is a perception that Russian drivers are somehow bad, which is absolutely not the case. Russian drivers are highly skilled, because driving on Russian roads is a terribly Darwinian process: the slow and weak are forced aside/killed in the great mission to get to Where You Need To Be As Fast As Possible. The principal rule is to overtake continuously and without regard for other (read: inferior) vehicles; if you’re driving an Audi, this means you should sit on 150km/h and overtake directly into oncoming traffic, the Audi and the oncoming car/horse/motorcycle staring each other down in some sort of lethal yet utterly commonplace game of chicken. Forget Russian Roulette, this is the real thing: the skill seems to be knowing when to dodge over to the soft shoulder to go for a three-way overtake and avoid a 250km/hour crash, without ever giving the impression that you’re going to blink first.

As a motorbike, I’m small and vulnerable and so immediately bottom of the ladder in the great Overtaking Game. What I had to do was find a powerful protector: a bright orange tanker filled with 40,000 litres of inflammable petrol works well. The tanker drivers, confident in their ability to crush oncoming Audis without even feeling the bump do not slow down for anything, so it’s really comfortable to sit just behind in the bubble of moving air and watch terrified drivers shoot back to their side of the road right at the last minute, when they realise that playing chicken with a fuel tanker is going to end in fiery death.

In contrast, the roads of Mongolia are a gentle maelstrom of cars, people, motorbikes and bicycles mixing together in a friendly but slightly terrifying vortex of inefficient transportation. The gridlock is legendary; I took two hours to travel a kilometre through the centre of the capital, Ulaanbaator, on a motorbike – whereas in Russia this kind of inefficiency would have people taking to the footpath and/or firearms.

In any case, I entered Mongolia and spent the next hour wondering why no-one was overtaking me anymore. It took a while to realise that it was no longer necessary to drive … quite so aggressively. My adrenalin levels dropped, slightly, along with those of the people around me.

I’d also forgotten about the scenery… Mongolia is a pretty freaking beautiful place:

View from my campsite on the first night out of Ulaanbaator

This is a photo I took in Mongolia back in 2011, but things haven’t changed too much: sandy tracks branching to the horizon across the rolling steppe

My guidebook for Mongolia, an ageing copy of Lonely Planet, recommended the Amarbayasgalant Monastery as something absolutely worth visiting, so seeing as it was getting late I figured I’d stop in a hotel in Dharkan – the nearest large city – and hit up the monastery first thing in the morning. The road towards Dharkan is dead-straight and, being Mongolia, visibility is about 50km in every direction across the steppe. You get plenty of time to contemplate the storm cells drifting across the plain, and wondering whether your trajectory will mean getting wet.

The rain is cominggggggg!

The rain is cominggggggg! I tested it and it turns out motorbikes go faster than storm cells

I arrived in Dharkan about four hours before dark, paid some sort of mysterious and seemingly arbitrary road tax at a tollbooth, picked up a bloody fantastic meal for $3 then found a very classy hotel. It was empty, so I ruthlessly bargained with the slightly desperate manager to get my bike a free garage for the night. It spent the evening warm, cosy and secure next to some … ferret skins that someone was drying. Mongolia, I guess.

Here's a food photo

Here’s a food photo. Man-sized portions, none of this dainty Russian-cafe business

The enormous but eerily empty supermarket down the road sold beer and icecream, so that was dessert. A productive day.

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4 thoughts on “Mongolia I

  1. That latest blog is really interesting. Put it all together with photos to make a travel book

  2. Sure you can’t do just one last final post, with a collection of the photos, and a rough route that you took? I know it’s hard to simplify when you’re used to writing entertaining prose.

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