So we all lapsed back into RWM (Roadside Waite Mode). We dozed, read, listened to music or chatted with fellow travellers, waiting for the border to open at 09.00.
At 08.50 the border personnel started arriving, mostly walking from the barracks a few hundred yards down the road – you must have done something really bad to be posted to this god-forsaken border in the middle of nowhere – but they all seemed relatively happy and we spotted the guy that we had spoken to on Saturday night who had said that Jason and Steph would be OK with their visa.
At 09.00 the gates were opened and the first few people went through. We were next, and proffered our passports to the guard. He looked at them and thumbed through the pages…’Njet’.
We should have gone first to the immigration office; a wooden hut, 500 metres back down the road, with no sign and hidden behind 3 coaches – obvious really! We marched back down to the hut and arrived just as the drivers of the 3 coaches had collected up the passports from all the occupants of their coaches and taken them in to be processed.
Three hours later we emerge with our passports duly processed and head back to the border gate.
12.00 – Lunchtime. The border is now shut for an hour for lunch. Back into RWM. We were now so used to the dealys and hanging around at borders that another hour’s wait only elicited a slight murmur of disapproval.
Finally we’re through. They let us through in small groups of two or three at a time. Between the Russian border and the Mongolian border is around 15km of no-mans land. I had been expecting this section of road that winds through the mountains to be our first taste of real off-road as it seemed unlikely that either side would take responsibility for the maintenance.
However, it turned out to be a superb bit of tarmac – here I was riding on my own, the sun shining, superb mountain views, actually in Mongolia!! It felt fantastic! YEEEEEHAAAAH!!!
Of course I wasn’t actually in Mongolia yet – a few kilometres down the road there was a small checkpoint. I asked the guard to take a picture of me at the barrier holding the ‘good luck’ drawing that had been done for me by my next door neighbours, George and Oliver. He asked me where I was from and when I said ‘Manchester‘ I was expecting him to say he supported Manchester United, but no, he was a Barcelona fan!
As you can see from the picture, this is where the tarmac ran out. The dirt road was in pretty reasonable condition and was dry. I have seen photographs of this crossing when it is wet, and even in the snow, when it has looked absolutely horrendous.
Soon I dropped down to the Mongolian border post. First, there was a small hut with a concrete ramp down to a small puddle – this was the ‘De-contamination bath’ – it took a good aim and a steady hand to manage to get one motorbike tyre slightly damp, so god knows how it was supposed to disinfect coaches. Anyway, for the privilege of getting my wheels slightly damp a small fee was demanded. However the man in the hut also had a little sideline going in currency exchange.
I had left Kazakhstan with around £120 pounds worth of Tenge – which cannot officially be exchanged outside the country. I thought that I would be able to change it at, or near the border when we headed out of Kazakhstan to Barnaul, but there was nowhere at the border and it had proved impossible to find a bank in the first town after the border. The Carwash man happily exchanged my Tenge for a big pile of Mongolian Tugriks (‘happily’, because as I later worked out, the exchange rate was substantially in his favour – I got about £20’s worth of Tugriks – but the Tenge were worth nothing to me, unless I revisited Kazakhstan). Apparently the western end of Mongolia is populated mainly by Kazakh tribes, with many of their relations still in Kazakhstan, hence the large number of coaches ferrying families across the border and providing a lucrative foreign exchange business for our friend at the carwash. The plus side of the deal was that if you changed money with him he waived the carwash fee! Several of the border guards asked us if we needed to change money, but Carwash Man had the prime position.
So far on the trip we hadn’t come across much in the way of corruption or extortion or border guards asking for ‘presents’. Sean had been stopped for speeding in Kazakhstan and they demanded $200, but he had just laughed at them and ended up paying nothing. We queued in the immigation office for some time and received a demand for a fee of some kind or another from one of the officials – it wasn’t a huge amount – but nobody seemed able to tell us what it was for, wouldn’t give us a receipt for it and the cash disappeared into the main man’s pocket -so draw your own conclusions. Anyway after a few hours hanging around we were in!!
We pulled out of the border into the small group of buildings that had grown up around the border – not exactly a village. It was now around 19.00, the light was starting to fade and it was pretty cold. We were greeted in the street by a collection of local urchins.
One small boy insisted on shaking everybody’s hand – ‘Hello, my name is David Beckham’. They were obviously quite used to mad westerners on bikes coming through on a regular basis.
It was a bit like a one-horse town from the wild west – or should that be a one-yak town from the wild east? I moseyed on over to the saloon to get a shot of red-eye and a beer to wash the trail dust from my throat. The rather optimistically named ‘Hotel’ consisted of a small room with about four tables and a kitchen.
You could see straight into the kitchen where there was the whole family wondering what they had done to deserve the sudden influx of weird travellers. Two of the women were in the process of hand-making the traditional Mongolian dish of lamb (more likely mutton) wrapped in pasta – similar to a large tortellini. They looked pretty good, so I ordered a bowl – they were pretty good too.
Eventually, the whole group had made it through the border. We still had around 100km to go to reach Olgiy and it was beginning to go a bit gloomy. We had heard that there was some tarmac on the run into Olgiy, but we didn’t know how far this stretched or what the quality was – so we were keen to get moving before darkness descended.
As it turned out we hit tarmac about 50km out of Olgiy and raced into town. Olgiy was larger than I had expected and although the group met up quite easily in town at the waypoint, it took us ages to find the ger camp we were staying in. We rode around town a couple of times and patience and tempers were becoming slightly frayed when Jeff and Niall finally worked out which side of the river the camp was on and how to get there. Some food was laid on for us and we finally crashed out in our ger at around 01.00, tired but elated that we had actually made it to Mongolia.
Tomorrow was to be a rest day with full-blown tourist excursion to see eagle-hunting, horse-riding and partake in a traditional mongolian meal.