Mongolia is one of the countries of this trip that I was most looking forward to. The Mongolian Steppe, huge open spaces, expansive freshwater lakes surrounded by mountains, untouched nature, Mongolian Buddhism, and a place very different from where I’m from all interested me greatly.
On July 20th at 2:00 p.m. we arrive at the end of the road that climbed its way out of the Altai Republic in Russia and delivered us to the Russian border post, 20 km before the actual Russia-Mongolia border. Apparently Russia likes to have a wide buffer zone. Are they expecting the return of Ghinggis Khan? There is a line of about 10 vehicles waiting at the gate, waiting to get into the actual Russian border post area.
It takes us 4 hours to get through the Russian post, mostly because we have to wait to be let into the border post area. Waiting with us are a German couple on motorcycles, a 3-car caravan of Austrians and Germans in raised and modified Land Cruisers (they plan to cross the Gobi Desert), several Russian-made cars and vans of Mongolians, and two groups of German hitchhikers looking for someone to take them across the border because there is a rule that everyone must cross the border in a car. The first group finds a willing car in front of us but the second would like to go with us. We don’t like the idea but feel sorry for them and agree to take them just across the border. Just in case they have something they shouldn’t in their backpacks we tell every official that we do not know them and that we are just taking them across the border. It turns out they are a couple of real clowns (yes, they even have juggling pins), and have mooched and juggled their way from Berlin all the way to here. They have almost no money so people have bought them train tickets, gave them food and money, and brought them all the way to here. To us this seems like they are taking advantage of peoples’ good will a little too much.
We are very lucky to have arrived at the border when we do because the border closes at 6:00 and we later hear (not sure if this is true or not) that the border would not re-open for the next 5 days because of the Naadam Festival in Mongolia (more on this later) and then the weekend.
We drive 20 km to the real border where there is one last Russian check, then after 5 km we come to the Mongolian border post. The post closes at 6:00 but they stay open longer to see us though, which only takes 40 minutes. As we stop at the Welcome to Mongolia sign (we think this is what it says) a boy races over to us on his bike to join me in the picture. It’s really cute and the first sign of Mongolian easy-going friendliness.
We drive to the first village, Tsagaanuur, where we realize how difficult it will be to navigate our way through Mongolia. In most of Western Mongolia there are no road signs and often no roads – just 4WD tracks that have been created by people going in a particular direction. And these tracks change when they get badly eroded, engulfed in a river, or people move their yurts and flocks.
There should be two highways leading out of Tsagaanuur. One highway should lead south to Olgii and another east to Ulaangom. But we can’t find either of the two “highways” leading out of this village! We drive round and round at the edge of town and can’t figure out where to go. There are dirt tracks going in various directions, but two small lakes, one large lake, a huge fenced-in area (maybe some sort of military landing strip?), some nearby hills and some farther-away mountains make picking the right direction and series of turns nearly impossible. All of the roads are just dirt tracks that have been driven into the steppe. To find our way we ask some guys hanging out and picnicking by their van, then a shepherd, and then a family at a ger (yurt) how can we get to Ulaangom. Each of them is happy to help but all we hear are a series of guttural grunts and an arm waved in a general direction. This place is really different from any other place I’ve ever visited!
It is getting dark so we better find a place to camp. The German clowns want to camp near the “highway intersection” to find someone to take them south toward Olgii the next day while we want to go east across the top of Mongolia towards Ulaangom. We say our good-byes and I use the directions given to us by the locals and do my best to choose the most likely eastward route, also using whatever information I can get from my two Mongolia maps and GPS. I drive about 5 miles and we set up camp for the night. Thankfully many of the tracks going in this direction converge as the valley we are in narrows a bit and we think we are going the right way.
Our camp is beautiful. We are all alone next to a beautiful lake (there is one ger on the opposite side of the lake) with smooth, beautifully illuminated mountains across the lake and higher mountains behind us. We’ve arrived in Mongolia!
Today, July 21st, would start out wonderfully but get harder and harder as some of the realities of Mongolia make themselves clear to us. The sun’s rays are quite intense here at 7500 feet and they quickly heat up the inside of the tent after sunrise so we get up early. We have some Russian corn flakes for breakfast and continue east on our gravel track. Soon it becomes clear that we’ve taken the right way as there is only one track going up the pass to the east. It’s a gentle pass taking us to about 8000 feet, then down through a beautiful valley. The weather is perfect, there are mountains on both sides of us, and a nice stream in the center of the valley with lush grass around it. We pass a few beautiful settlements of 3-7 gers where little kids run out to wave at us and animals graze. We see horses, yaks, goats, sheep, and some sheep with brown shaggy fur. The road is decent (we can comfortably go 15-25 mph) and gently descends to a dead-level plain surrounded by mountains at about 5000 feet. The photos below show a view of the valley and an example of a Mongolian ger. A whole family lives in this one-room house and they move it up to twice a year (e.g., spring/fall) when they move their flocks. Kirstin comes up with a possible slogan for Mongolia: Mongolia, camping all the time! It’s what we are doing and so are the locals.
When we first reach the dead-level plain we like being able to see mountains all around us and that the track allows us to exceed 30 mph in places (photo below). But we quickly change our minds and by the time we leave this plain 24 hours later we’ve nicknamed it the Valley of Death.
The first difficulty we encounter is that our track becomes increasingly rocky and our speed slows to about 10 mph. At the same time our track bifurcates into smaller tracks going in all different directions. Some directions are clearly not where we want to go but others do go in our general direction. It’s impossible to determine which one is right.
After a while we arrive in a large deserted town that is not on any of our maps. Later we figure that everyone leaves here in the summer because there is no vegetation in this plain and the mosquitoes are as bad any anywhere I’ve ever been (including Alaska, Northern Canada and Finland). The roads in the town are terrible and mostly filled with huge, deep, muddy puddles. There’s nobody to ask which way to Ulaangom and we worry we will get stuck in the muddy streets. The houses are so closely spaced that you can’t avoid driving through the puddles. After a while we see a boy outside a building and we try to ask him which way to go. He runs inside and returns with a man that has obviously been working on a messy plumbing job. We don’t share a common language but I show him on the map where we want to go. Unlike the people we asked in the last village, he hesitates and carefully looks at our car before answering. This registers in my mind but I can’t ask him to elaborate. I’m sure he had a good idea of what we would encounter. With his directions we find our way out of the eerie town and head north through the dead-flat plain.
As we travel north our road goes from bad to worse. The “road’ is now completely under brown water (maybe a foot in most places, significantly more in spots). We would be stuck in the greasy mud under the water in no time so we need to drive next to the road. But next to the road are mounds of hard grass with deep water-filled holes between them. We also notice the car is being followed by dozens of huge flies with big eyes and a spot of green on them. I can see them trying to sting the car with their sharp piercing mouthparts.
We get out of the car several times trying to find a way around the mounds but soon we go over two large tufts and the front wheels fall into deep holes. The skid plate under the engine is firmly resting on top of dirt and tough grass. The center of the car is also resting on a tuft of dirt and grass. Despite having 11” of ground clearance we’ve perched our 4Runner. Thankfully the rear wheels are on nearly dry mud and I can lock the transfer case so the rear wheels should be able to pull the car free. I put the car in reverse but the car is too firmly perched and all four wheels spin together, whether in drive or in reverse. The rear wheels don’t have enough weight on them to pull out the front of the car.
I have two tow straps but we haven’t seen another car since entering this plain. All we can do is try to dig ourselves out. I find a sturdy stick and along with a large Philips screwdriver we start digging. The huge flies buzz around us but are strangely more interested in biting the car than us. When they do occasionally bite us it is a very painful bite. More and more mosquitoes also arrive on the scene and go to work on us. For the next 3 ½ hours we dig and dig.
We clear the dirt and grass behind the right rear wheel, then the mounds supporting the front end of the car, I lower tire pressures to 7 psi in the rear and 15 psi in the front (more traction, but you risk pulling the tires off the rims), and I jump on the rear bumper while Kirstin tries to drive the car out. The car pivots into a different position but won’t come free. The left rear tire is so flat that the outside of the rim rests on the tire’s tread and the tire tread is pulled about 6” out to one side. But still the wheels spin. We need a huge truck to pull us out of this. We continue to dig, clearing more dirt in front of the car and around the right front wheel. Now we can move forth and back a few inches. In a new attempt with me jumping on the rear bumper we finally get ourselves out. We and the car are filthy and we are exhausted. It takes us an hour to clean up, put everything away and put air back in the tires with my small 12V pump.
This is just the beginning of what the Valley of Death would throw our way. We head further north and soon can start driving on our track again. But there is still nothing around us, just the occasional sheep skeleton or goat’s leg lying about. Our map shows that we must cross about 4 rivers in this plain. The first was in the area that we got stuck in. As we arrive at the second we see that this is a real river and wonder where the bridge is. There are side tracks from our road leading north and south along the river so we try these. The one to south leads to a crossing that is much worse with water absolutely everywhere and deeper crossings. There are also animal bones and goat legs all around. The one to the north has much deeper water and vertical side banks so we go back to our first crossing spot. After several walks through the river with a vicious swarm of mosquitoes buzzing around me I muster the courage to drive through and we make it across. The river’s toughest parts are two sections of 10” deep water, flowing rapidly, with firm, stony bottoms. Normally I’d be braver but with the nearest help (the deserted town) a day’s walk away, I don’t want to get the car stuck in a river.
In the next 4 miles there are about 5 water crossings and I get out of the car and into the mosquito swarm each time to scope out the crossing. Each time after re-entering the car Kirstin and I have to kill about a dozen mosquitoes that follow me into the car.
Then we arrive at the third river. It is clear that there is no way our car or any 4WD car could make it through here. I walk around for about 30 minutes hoping a way across can be found but it is clear there is no way across. The crux of this crossing would be two sections, each 10 meters wide, where the water is about 3 feet deep with very fast moving water. I don’t think one could even walk across without being swept away and having to swim.
I’m pretty bummed. This is the route I chose to cross Mongolia and it isn’t going to be possible. Yet this is the northern highway across Mongolia!! What the heck? We have heard that there was more rain than normal this summer and I suppose in years like this one of the only two east-west highways in western Mongolia can’t be crossed by car. I’m disappointed but there is clearly no option other than to turn back. We have three options: 1) go back and continue our trip through Russia, 2) go back and take the southern highway through Mongolia, or 3) go back to the border town, south to Olgii and Khovd, and then north along a secondary road to Ulaangom. In any case we need to turn back.
We go back through the 5 small water crossings and through the 10” deep river, getting out into the mosquito swarms to scope each crossing. It starts getting dark so we end up having to camp in this Valley of Death. We have peanut butter and jelly on some leftover bread and rice cakes while walking swiftly to stay away from the swarms of mosquitoes, then dive into our tent. The buggers coat the top of the tent and buzz around it. To our surprise a small bus pulls up along the tent and about 10 Mongolians pile out, each one taking their turn to look into out tent. I think they were just as surprised as we were to see other people here.
The mosquitoes are still there the next morning (July 22) so we pack up the tent and hit the road without breakfast. We make it through the spot where we got stuck, back to the deserted town and back up the valley. We have breakfast along the stream on some plush green grass. Near where we camped our first night we meet an Italian on a mountain bike that wants to ride across Mongolia. We tell him about the mosquitoes and the rivers and sincerely wish him good luck. Maybe with a bike he can make it across the big river. He would be the only tourist with their own transportation that we would see for the next 10 days.
Back at the border village we buy 20 liters of 76 pump-octane gasoline (our car requires at least 87) because this is all that is available in most towns in Western Mongolia and head south on the other “highway” towards Olgii. The car seems to deal with the low octane fuel ok (it makes up about 1/3 of the tank). I’m going to try heading south to Olgii, Khovd, then take a secondary road up to Ulaangom. I haven’t given up on my northern route through the mountains and lakes region of Mongolia. But what will this highway and then the secondary road look like? After we find the highway to Olgii I’m happy that it is reasonably good to drive on (20-30 mph). A couple of Russian-made jeeps pass me and I’m able to stay with one of them. It’s great following in the tracks of a local, experienced driver (my speed increases by about 50%).
The road becomes extremely steep as we cross an 8500 foot pass and I get to use the low range on the 4Runner (1st gear in the normal range is too tall), but the surface is reasonable and we get over it fine. A little before Olgii we are treated to our first stretch of pavement in Mongolia. It feels wonderful.
As soon as we enter Olgii it is clear that something really, really big is going on. It’s the Naadam Festival, an annual festival of the traditional Mongolian sports: wrestling, archery and horse racing. And here in the far western side of Mongolia, where most people are ethnic Kazakhs, Naadam is a huge celebration of Kazakh culture as well. There are Mongolians from all over western Mongolia here and quite a few tourists as well. We meet a French couple, a German couple and a young Danish girl that has been traveling mostly on her own since December. They have been using local transportation or hitchhiking to get around. We also meet a friendly local guy that helps us find a hotel and helps us buy tickets for the Kazakh Naadam concert tonight, which is a really big deal.
The concert is really, really cool. The concert hall is beautiful and the seats are great. We see three performers (see photos below). The first two perform a mix of traditional and modern Kazakh music and the third is a cheesy but still fun-to-watch pop singer. The second singer, Makpal, is a REAL performer and we hear she is the biggest Kazakh star anywhere. I can’t believe we were digging our car out of the mud yesterday, woke up to mosquitoes in the Valley of Death, and now are sitting here in a Mongolian concert hall!
After the concert we have dinner with the French, German and Danish tourists and exchange stories into the night. For dinner Kirstin and I share a chicken leg, rice, carrot bits, and a few fries. What a couple of days it’s been!
We hear that the next day (July 23rd) is the horse racing competition outside of town but we need to catch up with some things (money, laundry, gas, groceries, journals, etc.), so we stay in town in the morning. On the way out of town we buy gas (photo below), and then see a line of cars and trucks about 10 km long, returning from the horse race. Every vehicle is packed with people. Luckily we are going the opposite way so all we have to deal with is a lot of dust. We pass the place where the horse race was and there are tons and tons of spectators there. It’s really a huge event. After this we have the road to ourselves as we head south towards Khovd.