Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mongolia Part 2 – More Tough Roads (July 23-29)

On July 23rd we head south to Khovd, the next aimag (provincial) capital. The road is pretty good and we make good time until we cross Buraatyn Davaa (pass) and descent to a low plain surrounded by mountains. Remember what happened in our last low plain, the Valley of Death? Well as soon as we reach this plain our nice, prominent track splits repeatedly into a number of smaller tracks that go in every direction. I follow the track that looks like it has been used the most but this leads us in a direction different from what my Mongolia map and GPS map indicate is the way out of the valley. After a while the track goes through an area of standing water and this is where I turn around and head back up the pass to look for a track that we might have missed.

Near the top of the pass a couple with an overloaded small truck motions us to stop and ask if we have a hand pump because their truck has a flat front tire. I offer them my 12V pump and they are happy I’m there. I know that everyone used to change tires, even truck tires, by hand but I’ve never seen this done so it’s fun for to watch and help the couple take the tire off the rim, remove the tube, insert a new tube and put the tire back on the rim. It’s like changing a tire on a bicycle but much bigger and more work.

We learn that the couple’s names are Duanbek and Farida and they are from Olgii. They just completed a long trip to China where they bought as many household appliances and furniture as they could load onto their truck and are now bringing everything back to sell in Olgii. Their truck is a 1990 Mitsubishi Canter with 231,000 miles. It has no front brakes, the main gas tank has a leak, and all the tires are cracked and are even missing pieces of them. But the couple is able to cross the mountains into China in this overloaded and underpowered 2WD truck. Amazing!

Unfortunately the tire won’t hold air. We must have pinched the tube while mounting the tire. We take everything apart again, fix the tube and remount the tire. Now when we inflate the tire the tire valve jumps into the rim and can’t be reached to finish inflating the tire. The tube must have been twisted and the pressure pulled the valve into the rim. It’s dark now so Kirstin sets up our tent about 50 m from the road and we park our car next to it. We can see a couple of gers about a half mile away but otherwise there is nobody here. In a short while Duanbek and Farida join us in their tent, a camouflaged pop-up tent that says “US Army” on it with a “made in China” label. I’m reminded of Kirstin’s slogan…Mongolia, it’s camping all the time.

The next morning (July 24th) we remove the tire a third time, untwist the tube and remount the tire again. But once again the valve jumps into the rim! But Duanbek is able to fish it out with an ingenious tool he makes with some wire and a screwdriver. This time he uses two old washers and some epoxy glue to keep the valve from slipping into the tube and the tire can be inflated. I have to say I really admire Duanbek and Farida. They are hard working, clever and self reliant. There’s never any thought of giving up or calling for help. There’s a problem and they just keep working on it.

Before we leave we ask Duanbek how we can get out of the valley ahead and reach Khovd. He draws us a detailed 3-part map and we are on our way.

We drive back into the plain and try to follow Duanbek’s map as best we can. When a local on a motorcycle passes us going the other way we ask him to confirm that we are heading in the right direction (toward Khovd) and he says no, it is in the opposite direction through the plain. Maybe we aren’t interpreting Duanbek’s map correctly? So we go the opposite way but the track becomes really small and we can’t imagine this is the right way. A few hours later we’ve tried every road and each one either leads in the wrong direction or becomes a really, really tiny road that just about disappears. We ask a shepherd and then at a ger and everyone tells us to go in the opposite direction from what our map and GPS tell us.

Kirstin starts to get really scarred as it appears we are not going to find our way out of this plain. I’m worried about the ugly sound that our car’s drivetrain made several times in this plain – an intermittent sound like a CV joint or wheel bearing going bad. Plus it is very difficult communicating with locals. We come from two completely different worlds and speak two totally different languages. There is really nothing in common between Mongolian and English. Our only choice now is to go in the “wrong” direction and hope that the car continues to drive. Thankfully after a few miles the track becomes more prominent and is clearly the “highway” we want, even thought it goes in the wrong direction. The car noise also goes away. Maybe a stone had worked its way into the brakes and now freed itself again.

So the track I took last night was actually correct and this is also the direction that all three people we asked indicated. Duanbek’s map was also correct but we interpreted how the first and second parts fit together incorrectly. What confused us was both our Mongolia maps show the road going out of the valley in the opposite direction and directionally (from my GPS) the road goes the wrong way for a about an hour’s drive before turning and heading for Khovd. It’s taken us 18 hours to go 5 miles. Crossing Mongolia is not easy!

But now the road is relatively good and we make our way to Khovd. Our guidebook says there is a tourist ger camp just north of town and even gives GPS coordinates. But even this proves difficult – we have the coordinates and know which direction to go but can’t get there! There is a river, a fence, some bushes and industrial buildings in the way. After an hour we give up and look for a hotel in town. Here we get an entire apartment for $27 that is really nice. We buy some groceries and enjoy a pasta dinner in our room.

The next day on July 25th we head north toward Ulaangom. At first the road is great, then good, then an ok dirt track that keeps splitting but the options rejoin after a little while so we are able to stay on track. We are joined by the nicest family as we eat our picnic lunch. We share some food with them and their kids are so grateful, we show some pictures from home and enjoy each other’s company.

After a full day of driving we are nearly in Ulaangom and I pull off the road and behind a knoll where we enjoy an absolutely idyllic camping spot. There is steppe all around us, we can see for miles and miles, the temperature is perfect, there are a few clouds and sunshine, we are near the road but out of sight. It’s incredible being here.
On July 26th we get back on the road believing that in 45 minutes we will be in Ulaangom. But it wouldn’t be so easy. It rained at night and the road is wet. First there are a few small streams to cross but then about 10 miles from Ulaangom we come to a really big river. There is a truck parked on the other side, wanting to come my way and the driver points to where he thinks the best crossing is. I assume he is waiting for the river to subside. I walk through the river many times, finally agreeing with the driver that where he pointed is indeed the best place to cross. This is a serious river crossing. The water is 2 feet deep, the riverbed is made of 10” boulders, and the water is rushing so fast that it runs up my leg to about 3 feet and it is very difficult to stay upright. I think this is about the limit of what our car can do and after several hours I’m ready to try the crossing when a Russian-made 4WD van and a truck carrying Mongolians arrive on my side of the river. They are skeptical that my line across the river is best so we investigate two possible lines together . I do most of the crossing while they do most of watching (photo below).

The Mongolians don’t like either of the crossings and when a local comes by he tells the two vehicles about a 20-mile detour to another river that has a bridge! So I follow the van and truck through the detour, which I would never, ever have found myself. The photo below shows the truck and its “cargo” driving in front of me. The whole bed sways back and forth as the truck goes around turns and the entire truck looks like it is going to tip over.

We make it to Ulaangom, stock up at the grocery store, buy gas and check internet, then start our long drive to Moron, the next aimag capitol. This drive is the longest section between two aimag capitals and would take us the next four days (July 26-29). The roads are generally pretty bad and a full day’s drive equals 100-150 miles.

At Uvs Nuur, a huge shallow salty lake, the road splits several times and each time the two options are only a few of degrees apart, yet they gradually diverge. There is no way to know which track to take. But luckily we have the GPS track of some Australians that drove from Ulaangom to Moron (and they made it) in 2004 so we can pick one track, drive a little, then check our GPS if we are on the Australians’ track that leads to Moron. These four days we have our invisible Australian friends guiding us to Moron. I can’t imagine how long this would take us without their track.

Along the way, we see many eagles, horses and camels. At one point we come up to a large brown object that we wonder what it is. As we get closer we see it is a pack of camels all bunched so close together that it looked like one large brown object. Our quote of the day, spoken in a tone that says it’s totally obvious, is “It’s a camel pack.”

One of the villages we pass is Dzuungovi, a very nice little Buddhist village. It is clean, people are working together, there is a nice temple in the center, and more people ride horses than drive cars. It’s really cool. We get some 80 RON gas from an unmarked pump after a long discussion of whether it is gasoline or diesel and continue on our way.

At one of the places we camp we see a jumping rodent with a pom-pom like fluffy thing at the end of its tail. It jumps upright on its hind legs like a kangaroo, is nearly as big as an American squirrel, and is really fast. It runs right to our camp and Kirstin has to shoo it away. That night, just before we get into our tent, 4 horses arrive and stand close by. It is unnerving but we think they either somehow feel secure by us or they are curious. Below is a photo of our surreal camping spot where we are visited by “the hopper” and the horses.

At the village of Tes the gas station is out of gas but we need to fill up. We ask a guy in town if there is anywhere else to buy gas and he kindly get on his motorcycle and drives us to an unmarked hand-crank pump at the edge of town. He gets a woman from a nearly house and we fill up with 80 RON gas (I think). This is our second fill-up with really low octane fuel. The photos below show the man that brought us to the pump and me “pumping” gas.

We camp in the steppe and the next day we drive 10 hours and get 130 miles closer to Moron. It is a rough road and very slow going.

On the third day of our journey from Ulaangom to Moron there are lots and lots of muddy sections. A 4WD with good ground clearance and off-road tires is absolutely necessary today. During the first six hours of driving we don’t see a single vehicle. Where are all the tourists, we keep saying. But then we come to a village and just outside that village at a small stream with muddy banks we encounter a small truck stuck in the mud. I’m able to get through the mud and then pull the truck out. I’m in 4WD low range and on dry dirt and just as all four wheels start to spin the truck comes free.

The driver and his 7 passengers are elated and immediately bring out some vodka. In traditional Mongolian fashion, the first cup gets thrown to the wind to honor the sky gods. This is a mostly Buddhist area but Shamanistic customs remain. After many thanks and a few pictures we are all on the road again, all heading toward Moron.

After a long day of driving (160 miles in 12 hours) we pull off near the top of a pass near 6200 feet to camp. We notice there is Edelweiss growing around us, as well as lots of other small flowers. It is a beautiful spot. It’s a chilly night, and when I check the temperature in the morning it is only 42F.

On day four we finally arrive in Moron where we have lunch in a hotel restaurant, stock up on food from a grocery store and buy 92 RON gas from a real gas station. Then we drive north to Khatgal on Khövsgöl Nuur, an absolutely beautiful freshwater lake surrounded by mountains. The road to the lake is pretty bad. But we are super happy when we arrive because we’ve made it this far, about half the distance we need to cover in Mongolia, and because we plan to spend the next couple of days relaxing and doing activities that don’t involve our car or roads.

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