Is it better to travel than arrive…?

OK, so we had arrived at our destination – Ulaanbaatar – exotic city of eastern mystery, fabled centre of Gengis Khan’s legendary empire, magical destination on the Silk Road. Well actually it wasn’t founded until around 1639 (well after Genghis’s time), it’s never been on the Silk Road (that runs much further south of the Gobi desert) and, to be honest, it doesn’t really fit the bill as an ‘exotic city of eastern mystery

Staue of Damdin Sükhbaatar in the square named after him

In fact, Ulaanbaatar only became known as Ulaanbaatar in 1924 following occupation by a Communist Russo-Mongolian army. Ulaanbaatar means ‘Red Hero‘ a reference to the leader of that army, Damdin Sükhbaatar (the main square is named after him as well).

So Ulaanbaatar is a relatively modern city. From Wikipedia:

In the socialist period, and especially following the Second World War, most of the old yurt quarters were replaced by Soviet-style blocks of flats, often financed by the Soviet Union. Urban planning began in the 1950s, and most of the city today is the result of construction from 1960 to 1985.[14] The Transmongolian Railway, connecting Ulan Bator with Moscow and Beijing, was completed in 1956, and cinemas, theatres, museums etc. were erected. On the other hand, many of the temples and monasteries of pre-socialist Khüree were destroyed following the anti-religious purges of the late 1930s.

UB certainly looked like a city that had been in the middle of a ‘tug of love‘ between Russia and China – much of the city had obviously been constructed during the Soviet era and there were many buildings that were partially completed, but abandoned (maybe around independence in 1990?) and many newer buildings now being constructed. My guess is that it is now Chinese money that is pouring in to Mongolia and I am sure it won’t be too long before the fight for Mongolia’s mineral resources begins in earnest. Basically UB is a bit of a mess – and I suspect it will probably get worse over the next few years – hopefully new found wealth will not spoil the country,but judging by experience throughout the rest of the world, that may be a forlorn hope.

Yurt encampment in the back garden of The Oasis

Yurt, sweet yurt

Anyway The Oasis lived up to its name and provided a haven of calm amidst the crazy traffic, dust and fumes of downtown UB. It felt strange to actually be here. There had been times when I thought I might not make it; deep, dark times back in Kazakhstan when I almost quit, but there had also been tremendous highs riding through Mongolia – spectacular scenery and amazing riding. But, above all it had been a pleasure to share it with such a fantastic group of people.

Maybe the tough times we had endured and the friction with the tour leader had pulled us together. If Jeff had been straight with me at the beginning and told me that 18 riders were going on the trip, I would have had serious misgivings. As it turned out many of the problems we had were down to the size of the group – but it was just the numbers – nothing to do with personalities. I would like to think that I could turn up at the door of anyone on the trip and be welcomed as a friend.

The general air of bonhomie and self-congratulation did not extend to Jeff – several members of the group were very angry about the way they had been treated and the way some aspects of the trip had been organised. However, it has to be said that we were here in Ulaanbaatar and had arrived on schedule – virtually intact!

It turned out that Sam (he, of broken ribs), who we had left back in Olgiy had now been flown to UB and was in a five star hotel in town awaiting a flight back to Canada. A few of us jumped in a taxi and set off to see him.

Nearly 50% of Mongolias population live in UB and most of them seem to spend all their time driving around UB. The roads are chaos. If you want to get anywhere, the best system is to either get a bus or just stand at the side of the road with your hand out. Someone will stop – these are not official taxis, just ordinary people trying to make a quick tugrik. It is very unlikely the driver will speak any English, so it is often a bit of a challenge trying to explain where you want to go and then trying to agree a price – especially when you have no idea how far it is!

Anyway, we made it to the hotel where Sam was staying in the lap of luxury and it was good to see him looking rested and fit enough to fly home – even if we had to be careful not to make him laugh too much as we recounted our tales of the journey after we parted.

Jason, Warwick and I wandered off for a couple of beers in the town – we could have been pretty much anywhere in the world – there was nothing particularly distinctive about UB. After a short while we decided to head back to the Oasis as there had been rumours of some kind of final evening event (the last supper!??).

As it turned out, there was no final meal together. Most of us hung around the Oasis and had a few beers and something to eat. Some party animals set out to find excitement in UB (and some found it…but it’s not my place to tell the full tale – suffice it to say that there are good times and distractions aplenty in UB after dark for those seeking them ;-)). Some were leaving very early the following morning to catch flights home.

Jason and Steph were in the first wave of people who left at 05.00 to catch their flight. I think I got up to see them off…but I may have dreamed that  – it was very, very early. It was hard saying goodbye to people that you had spent nearly all your waking hours with for the past four weeks, but it probably wasn’t until later in the day that it really hit home – the big yurt felt really empty with just Warwick and me in it.

Maybe it was better to just arrive and then fly out almost immediately – there was now no focus to my life – it was great to be able to chill out and have a hot shower and a beer and nice food, but this was not a couple of rest days – this was the end. No more hard riding, no more pressing ever onward, no more waiting at the side of the road for trucks to arrive! Life felt a little empty.

It had been an intense, fantastic (at times almost surreal!) experience and it would obviously take time to adjust to the fact that it had ended. I soon began to look forward to flying home and being with Helen, but there was a part of me (after a couple of good nights sleep) that would have gladly carried on.

In fact, 3 of the group were carrying on with Kudu (and a couple of others that were flying in to join them) to travel the ‘Road of Bones’ to Magadan in the far East of Russia, a further 3 weeks or so of battling with dirt roads, broken bridges, dust, swamps, forests and mosquitoes – fantastic! Indeed it turned out to be a full-on adventure for them in many ways – I would have loved to have been a ‘fly on the wall’, but I am probaby quite glad, with hindsight, that I wasn’t tempted by Jeff’s offer to carry on.

I spent the days before my flight doing the touristy stuff around UB. The Black Market is definitely worth a visit – just lose yourself in the place and wander around the acres of stalls selling everything from car parts to Mongol warrior hats,  riding boots to 52″ Plasma TV’s; but don’t expect incredible bargains – the obligatory Mongol hat and leather boots are pretty expensive – practice you’re bartering skills – you’ll need ’em.

Sükhbaatar Square - ceremony to mark the beginning of the Nadaam festival

Ready for crating

Ian, Mark and Dave had come on ther own bikes and it was now time to crate them up for the journey home. It was all pretty straightforward – apparently the Oasis cafe can organise it for you – and the shipping company sends a couple of carpenters out to build the crate round the bike. All you need to do is to drain the tank of fuel, drop the screen, fill in a couple of forms and wave goodbye to your bike for a month or so.

It was also a chance to survey the damage I had inflicted on my trusty steed and assess how well it had stood up to the rigours of the trip. Mechanically, it hadn’t missed a beat – despite having little more maintenance than the odd top up of oil and some fairly infrequent applications of chain-lube. It had been thrashed at high revs for long periods across European motorways, and abused through the heat, dust and roadworks of Kazakhstan and battered and bounced through Mongolia.

Not looking too bad....considering

Physically it had taken a few knocks, both from the punishment it received from the terrain and the few minor spills I had. Barkbusters handguards (recommended) had saved the levers from any problem (except a stationary drop in Samara, when I ended up with a banana brake lever – bent back fine though). I generally favoured the right hand side when dropping it – so the rear brake tended to get pushed in and needed bending back on a few occasions. The main casualties, on several bikes, were front mudguards. The front suspension is a little soft and even with pre-load fully wound on, the front mudguard tended to smash into the cross piece of the aftermarket engine bars – I stitched my smashed mudguard together with zip-ties in Kazakhstan, several others cracked and Jake lost his altogether after pulling a stoppie trying to avoid a car in Moscow! Many of us also lost rear number plates for similar reasons.

Bit dusty and could do with some chain lube, but the TKC tyre had lasted pretty well - from Almaty to UB - about 4500km

Rear wheel a bit bent after losing out in confrontation with Kazakh pothole

Even the graphics had been re-arranged by the pounding on Mongolian roads...

All in all, the bike had done what it was designed to do – cope with tarmac and off-road – and had done it more than capably – (I was certainly glad that I hadn’t come on my GS1200, I know I would have found it a bit of a handful through Mongolia.) – but I hadn’t fallen in love with the Tenere – it somehow lacked ‘character’ or ‘soul’ . I wouldn’t be rushing home and trading in my GS – except maybe for an 800GS – Dave seemed to have a great time on his.

All too soon it was time to head for the airport and the flight home via Moscow and Copenhagen. Final ‘Goodbyes’ were said to the remaining few and heartfelt wishes of ‘Good Luck (…you’re going to need it!!) bestowed on the intrepid Team Magadan boys.

All that remains for me to say is a huge ‘Thank You’ to everyone. Thanks to all us riders – what a fantastic group of people, what a fantastic time we had – I hope to be able to ride with many of you in the future. Thanks to Tony for keeping us rolling, thanks to Niall for his leadership, patience, tact and diplomacy, thanks to Mad Mike (‘Team America – fuck yeah!!’) and………despite everything……thanks to Jeff and Kudu (‘cos without him we wouldn’t have met and we wouldn’t have been in Mongolia)

Many months have passed since the end of the trip (it has taken far longer to write it up than ride it!). My wanderlust has not been cured – the list of countries to visit just seems to grow day by day – I spend much of my time at work planning/researching possible routes and have already had offers to go to Australia, Southern Africa, the Scottish Isles – I will certainly have no trouble knowing what to do when I win the lottery.

So the answer to your question: ‘Would I do it again?’

‘ABSO-BLOODY-LUTELY!‘ – but not with a large organised group – find a few friends, advertise on travellers/bikers forums or go on your own – but whatever you do – JUST DO IT!

Portrait of the artist as an old dog

portrait of the artist as a helmet troll

Portrait of the artist as a sausage, egg and tomato