9th – 20th April
We leave UB, nervous about what we’ve got coming up but in good spirits. The weather is beautiful; a comparatively balmy -6°C, the sun is shining and we’ve only got 110km or so to drive today, mostly on asphalt roads.
Our first night’s destination is Hustai National Park, a 50,000 hectare protected area home to around 270 takhi, or Przewalski’s Horse. One of the world’s last remaining wild horse breeds, the takhi was extinct in Mongolia in the ‘60’s but has been successfully reintroduced in three areas thanks to a Dutch importation and breeding programme – one of the world’s few effective and sustainable reintroductions.
Hustai’s ger camp is open all year round thanks to its proximity to UB but we use it as a dry run for sleeping in the car in more remote climes; here at least if the weather suddenly turns bad we can seek shelter in the warmth of the on-site restaurant, or a tourist ger if needs be.
We arrive at 3pm and find the park entrance easily; the 13km of dirt track from the road is well worn. We need to take a guide into the park with us so after cooking up some lunch we enlist the services of a young, rather glamorous looking female guide with waist length black hair and enourmous Paris Hilton sunglasses.
Testing the diff lock
Aside from the horses it’s a good opportunity to test our new rear diff lock, which engages obediently but then refuses to disengage – so back at the camp Charlie spends an uncomfortable, muddy and chilly half hour under the car, taking it apart and refitting it, which pleasingly does the trick.
The park tracks are atrocious – rutted, ice and slush-filled quagmires – but the scenery is incredible. Wide, rolling snow covered valleys, velvety crumpled mountains and piercing rocky outcrops. The wild horses are everywhere – simple, almost primeval looking beasts with stocky necks and bodies and short legs. Their coats are a sandy colour that gets darker towards their heads and manes, making them immediately recognisable from the frequent herds of domestic horses also inhabiting the park.
Sub zero sleeping
We cook and eat our supper outside but as the sun sets, the temperature plummets and we seek temporary refuge and beer in the warmth of the camp bar. At 11pm, having watched an oddly matched group of local and international scientists get plastered and dance the evening away, we brave the cold and climb into our sleeping bags in the car.
Actually it’s not so bad. Its -12°C overnight but our sleeping bag / duvet combination does the job, despite the discomfort of breathing freezing cold air. There is a layer of ice on the inside of the car in the morning, but amazingly we’re still warm!
The world’s coldest monastery?
After boiled eggs and soldiers we pack up and head west again, still on asphalt, another 200km to Kharkhorin. Half way there the weather suddenly turns and we find ourselves in the midst of a foul blizzard, reducing visibility to zero.
Luckily, the asphalt makes navigation easy and there’s no other traffic to avoid so we make it to Kharkhorin without dramas. Now -13°C with sideways snow; there’s little to do but find a hotel and hunker down for the night – cooking and camping in this weather is definitely not an option.
Things improve slightly by the morning and after a brisk walk around the Erdene Zu monastery (one of the most important, active Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia and surely one of the worlds coldest) we continue onwards to Tsetserleg.
The asphalt from UB finally peters out (there are only 1,600km of tarmac roads in the country!) and the going is slow – the bumpy combination of earth, gravel and icy slush sticks like glue to our wheel arches and makes steering almost impossible. It now becomes a twice daily routine for us to spend half an hour with a hammer and chisel, breaking off the ice and mud to ensure we don’t trash our tyres.
An English outpost
Nestled in a wide, iced up valley, Tsetserleg is an aimag (province) capital and as such is quite a big town by Mongolian standards – around 20,000 people. Away from the tired, Soviet style concrete town centre, local houses radiate up the hillsides in colourful, ordered lines – each house has a red, blue or green roof and is enclosed by its own wooden stockade fence.
Remarkably, we stumble across an English couple who have been living here for the past 18 years. Mark and Gillian Newham have been running the Fairfield café and guesthouse with the philanthropic aim of providing stable, long term employment to as many townsfolk as possible – increasing urban unemployment is a massive problem throughout Mongolia.
The weather is still bitterly cold and camping doesn’t sound so appealing when some British home comforts are on offer. We dine with Mark and Gillian on our first night here and leave their home amazed and humbled by their extraordinary efforts (and modesty) in trying to make a difference in such a remote and inhospitable climate.
We end up staying two nights in Tsetserleg before continuing ever westwards. From here on in the journey gets more challenging – the road is totally snowbound and the towns increasingly basic
Party time – of a sort
We leave Tsetserleg on the 13th, it’s Charlie’s birthday and the girls in the café (on Nina’s instructions!) have baked a delicious chocolate cake – a rarity in these parts! We’re not exactly in party central here, but the cake makes up for it.
Our next destination is Tariat and the Great White Lake where we hope to spend a few days camping. The weather’s improving: bright sunshine again although the midday high still isn’t more than -5°C.
In the summer Tariat is a busy tourist destination with numerous ger camps serving jeep-loads of Westerners. But at this time of year it’s almost deserted, the camps are shut and the lake is still totally frozen over.
We bypass the town itself and start to circumnavigate the lake, looking for a suitable spot to park up for the night. There’s a pretty pine forest on the eastern shore, volcanic lava plains to the north and windswept grasslands to the south – endless possibilities – but then we notice an ominous clattering noise under the car.
Closer inspection reveals that our right hand rear dampener has sheared from its mountings again – the same one that went in Cambodia. Irritatingly, the nut holding the dampener in place is missing and the thread is knackered, meaning we can’t refasten it on the spot.
Relieved the town isn’t far; we limp back over the rocky plains to Tariat and search for anything that may resemble a garage. But rural garages in Mongolia are rare – everyone is a mechanic but only as far as their own car is concerned.
Luck’s on our side though and as we’re rattling through the deserted, earthen ‘streets’ we’re flagged down by two sturdy Mongolians in a minivan – they’ve noticed we’re looking for something and that the car’s making a noise. We show them the problem; they can fix it, they say.
Even more amazingly, the wife of one of them is a local English teacher; he invites us back to his ger and says they’ll fix the car in their yard. Amazed at how these things work out, we follow them to the ger where we are promptly invited in for tea by Tunga, Amara’s wife, whilst he and his mate go off in search of a re-threader.
An hour later, after two cups of salty tea (the Mongolian way) the job is done but Amara’s mate wants an extortionate 50,000 tugrik (£25) for the privilege – aggravating, given we could’ve done it ourselves if we’d had a spare nut and a re-threader. But no matter, by now Tunga’s invited us to stay for the night, Amara is apologetic on behalf of his profiteering mate and supper is on the go – home made fried noodles with beef.
We share the rest of Charlie’s birthday cake with Tunga, Amara and their children and they’re delighted to join our mini-celebrations. However, they must be the only family in Mongolia that doesn’t drink – so for the first time in memory it’s a dry birthday for Charlie!
Life in a ger
We spend two days with Tunga and Amara, living in their ger, sleeping under felt rugs on opposite sides of the ger (as tradition dictates), eating with them, chatting, riding their horses (they have 40) and getting to know a little about ordinary, rural Mongolian life.
It is a simple, contented lifestyle, made harsher by the extreme climate, although gers with their sturdy central wood-burning stoves are actually pretty cosy. In the morning, Tunga is always first up, putting up the chimney, lighting the stove, making salty tea, cooking breakfast and always tidying. During the day, she cooks (she’s amazingly creative given every meal consists of just meat, rice or flour, and salt) and cleans whilst Amara is outside, cutting wood or doing other man jobs.
It’s a great insight into local life and made all the more so by the fact that Tunga speaks fluent English. But after two days it’s time to move on; we’ve a long way to go yet and our bodies our craving plain water – Mongolians in the countryside rarely drink anything apart from salty tea (and alcohol).
The road deteriorates again beyond Tariat. Spring seems to be on its way and over a high pass we meet a vast exodus of nomads, moving their flocks west in search of new pastures. We inch past thousands of sheep, cattle, yaks and horses, all tended by handfuls of nomads on horses, their gers and belongings hauled behind them in ox-carts.
Unfortunately for us, spring means the snow is starting to melt, and the icy yet driveable conditions we’ve encountered previously become the stuff of dreams. Earth roads suddenly become boggy, slushy quagmires whilst enourmous murky rivulets camouflage potholes and rocks.
Worse still, Amara and his mate’s handiwork isn’t that great either. Just 60km from Tariat the same dampener shears again, this time splicing the ABS electric cable for good measure.
There’s little we can do – we’re in the middle of nowhere and once again the thread is smooth and the nut missing. We take the wheel off, remove the dampener so it won’t cause any more damage, and limp on for another two hours, 40km, to the next town in the hope there’s someone with a re-threader.
There isn’t – Ir-Uul makes Tariat look big; the attendant at the only filling station just grunts at us and laughs, eyes glazed over, when we ask it there’s anywhere we can fix it. We call Tunga and explain the problem (mobiles only work in the vicinity of towns), she doesn’t know anyone in this town but Amara offers to come and fix it again for us. It’s a five hour drive and he hasn’t even got a car, plus we’re not convinced he can do it properly anyway, so we decline.
Another phone call to Mark Newham brings much better news – they have ex-pat friends in Totsensengel, the next aimag capital, only 45km further on, who may know someone… This sounds really promising, and we cook up some late lunch whilst we wait for Mark to find their number and call us back.
At 6pm, he calls back with the number; moments later we’re speaking to Tom and Lisa Philips, kindly American missionaries who have been living in Totsensengel for the past 15 years. Our spirits are raised when we discover they’re at home; doubly so when they invite us to stay for the night, despite this being our first ever contact with them.
With renewed vigour and hope we set off from Ir-Uul, relieved that someone is expecting us the other end. The road from Ir-Uul to Totsensengel is the roughest we’ve encountered yet, 45km of hilly mud, slush, potholes and snowdrifts. We take it in turns to drive, such is the concentration required to maintain enough momentum to not get stuck, whilst simultaneously not going too fast so as to damage our currently vulnerable rear spring.
Amazingly, on the way we pass a bus going in the other direction, and a handful of saloon cars (all stuck or broken down) going in our direction. How on earth the locals manage to penetrate these routes in these conditions, in ordinary cars, is beyond us. Evidently, most of the time, they don’t…
Our relief at getting here is compounded by the wonderful, warm welcome we receive from Tom, Lisa and their daughter Ahnya. Fresh carrots, fried potatoes, gingerbread and popcorn await us – unexpected treats – the friendly welcome and comfy bed would have been quite sufficient in our current state.
Two and a half hours later, with darkness falling, we creep into Totsensengel, having first spent an irritating ten minutes at the town’s police checkpoint. Tom walks out on to the main road to welcome us, these towns being address-less and therefore impossible to navigate.
In the morning, Tom takes us to their local garage, a basic affair by any standards, but at least the guy has a re-threader. We re-thread the bolt as best we can, scrabble around for a few nuts that will fit and re-fit the dampener ourselves – here’s hoping our own handiwork is better than the previous local’s effort!
Luckily, it is. Having said our thank yous and goodbyes to the Philips’s, we head south to Uliastay, just over the halfway point on our journey west. The road is no better; the snow is melting fast now.
Stuck on Fish Pass
Our home fixed dampener dutifully holds, though, and we make it to Uliastay with few dramas. Today’s only hairy moment comes 30km from Uliastay on the 2,500m ‘Fish Pass’ when we’re forced to steer off the road to avoid an oncoming minibus with a typically stubborn local driver, only for both right wheels to disappear into three feet of soft snow beside the road. No amount of diff lock will free us – we’re properly stuck, at a 40 degree angle.
The recalcitrant minibus driver at least stops to help us, as does a large truck that’s fortuitously passing at the same time. 20 minutes of digging, shoving and towing later, we’re pulled free and can drive into Uliastay just before nightfall.
For the second night in a row, relief at making our destination is followed by utter exhaustion. Today’s drive was only 180km but it still took eight hours.
We stay at the best hotel in town (hot showers and a decent meal all for £15) and sleep soundly.
In the morning, it’s decision time: do we head south to Altai, supposedly the better marked (and longer) route, but by all accounts currently difficult and treacherous, or do we head directly west, the short-cut to Khovd, where the roads are dry but incredibly remote, unmarked and unmapped?
As we ponder, we chat to a few locals hanging around the hotel. One is an English speaking geologist who informs us there’s a Worldvision (NGO) Land Cruiser heading out west to Khovd this morning; if we like, we can try to follow him?
Racing across the desert
It’s a no-brainer. We meet the driver, enviously admire his immaculately serviced and relatively new white Land Cruiser, and agree to follow him the whole way. Its 470km and he’s a professional local driver. Our experience so far means we know he’ll gun it (he reckons it’ll take eight hours).
Pre-match nerves don’t even come close: even if we can keep up, we have no idea how long our home-fixed dampener will last, and we definitely do not want to be stuck in the middle of the desert with a broken shock…
We set off at 10am, the Worldvision truck carrying the friendly, English speaking Amara, one of their employees, home after a meeting in Uliastay. The road out of town is a decent gravel road and the driver takes full advantage, hitting 100km/h where he can. Predictably, the road soon gives out, but there’s no let up: the driver still manages to average 65km/h on the earth, rock and corrugated sand tracks that follow.
Charlie does the driving, being more confident at handling the car at these speeds on this terrain, whilst Nina does the co-piloting – essential in order to find the smoothest tracks and avoid obliterating our suspension.
We stop three times in eight hours: two loo breaks and 20 minutes for lunch. The scenery is incredible: endless stretches of desert, brown steppe and sinister, pyramidal mountains rising mysteriously out of the mirages created by the sun’s heat on the desert.
We appreciate it, fleetingly, but keep our eyes firmly focused on the road – we cannot afford to loose our lead. Across the central stretch, we don’t see a single sign of human life for over 200km – one of the most remote places we’ve been so far on this trip. Even with GPS, it would have been nigh-on impossible to navigate alone.
For a third successive night relief at making our destination, unscathed, is the order of the day. After sharing our ordeal, Amara kindly invites us to stay at her apartment tonight; we had been thinking of camping outside Khovd but she, affectionately, won’t have it.
We gratefully accept, once again amazed by the perpetual hospitality of this country’s inhabitants. After an excellent meal out in the company of her boss, the charming Destaw who is possibly the only Ethiopian living in Mongolia, we collapse into bed at 10pm, relieved that we should now, finally, be through the worst of the road conditions in this country
If only that were the case.
We leave Amara’s flat at midday the next day after a relaxed morning, knowing we’ve got a relatively gently 200km to get to Olgiy where we’re planning on spending a few nights before heading to Russia.
The worst is still to come
The road out of town is good, but deteriorates as we head north, culminating in a 2,600m pass where the track gives out completely, replaced by a hideous shale-field, totally submerged with sharp rocks the size of footballs.
To compound the road disappearance, it suddenly starts to snow. Within minutes there’s no visibility and the temperature has dropped to -5°C. Almost immediately, all recent tyre tracks are covered and we’re on our own, trying to pick our way across the scree. There is a small river which we know we must cross. One set of historic (but still visible) tyre tracks lead to a possible crossing point, but there are no tracks out the other side; beside, the river here is fast, deep and still mostly ice and slush.
We spend an hour following the river in the hope of finding a suitable crossing point. But with no landmarks or tracks to follow, it’s impossible: we end up heading south-east, precisely the opposite direction from that we want to go. In addition, the recent snow covering means it nearly impossible to differentiate between the old, deep snow drifts and the newer, safer dusting – it all just looks white. All we can do is stick to the rocky bits.
Typically, there’s not another vehicle in sight (not that we can see very far). A lone herder point us back upstream, gesturing that we should cross further north. Eventually, after another 30 minutes of walking, stamping and testing various patches of the iced up river, we choose what we believe to be the most suitable point. There are old tracks beneath the snow, going into and coming out of the river, indicating a crossing of sorts.
Feeling we’ve little other choice, we go for it: Charlie driving and Nina waiting the other side.
That’s where it all goes horribly, horribly wrong. The river’s only 12 foot wide but the car only gets half way across before the breaking ice compacts at the front of the car and forces it to a grinding, stomach-churning, halt.
It’s a horrid, mind-numbing feeling when an error of judgement turns into a huge, potentially perilous mistake. The snow is falling faster now, we’re nowhere near a road, it’s still -5°C, we have three hours of daylight and the car is totally stuck, with ice already forming around the ¾ submerged wheels.
Why didn’t we just play it safe? We could have retraced our steps, gone back down the pass, even gone back to Khovd…
But there’s no time for soul-searching, hindsight or panic. All we can do is try to free the car, before nightfall. Leaving it and searching for help would be futile – the herder we saw could be miles away now, who knows in which direction.
Just keep digging
We get the shovel off the roof and start to dig the ice and slush away from the wheels. Once the front wheels are clear, we prise as many rocks from the frozen earth as we can and throw them under the front wheels, hoping they may give us some purchase. The back wheels are too hard to get too right now.
This tactic works, slowly, and every ten minutes or so we manage to make it another foot further forward, until the front wheels are on the bank. By this time our feet are soaked and frozen, courtesy of the ice giving way on us so many times. Nina has to change her trousers swiftly when it gives way on her and she slips, soaking one side up to her waist. These are not conditions to be wet in, even if we’re currently warm with all the activity.
With the front wheels on dry land, we’ve a little hope, but the angle out of the river is far steeper than we’d anticipated and they just can’t get enough grip to free the constantly frozen over back wheels.
With what little sunlight there is fading behind thicker clouds, we frantically keep digging the ice from the back wheels, tearing more rocks from the frozen earth to stick under the front, starting the engine, spinning, repeating the same process over and over – there’s nothing else we can do.
Finally, an hour and a half later (although it feels far longer), with a sudden, mighty roar, the rear wheels gain enough traction to propel the car fully onto dry land. Relief doesn’t come close as an emotion: more like a pitiful, exhausted elation. We give each other a huge hug, share a celebratory cigarette, and drive carefully north-west with the heating on full, avoiding the snow drifts towards Olgiy.
Incredibly, within two miles we find recent tracks; a mile further on a graded, gravel road begins. It’s amazing how dangerous a sudden loss of visibility can be, especially here, where sudden snowfall removes all evidence of usable routes. There must have been somewhere else to cross the river: we know there was no bridge, but it remains a mystery to us how we should have done it.
At 7.45pm we roll into Olgiy and search out the best hotel in town. All we really want is a hot shower, a beer and bed. As the adrenaline wears off, the precariousness of our recent near-miss sinks in; the ‘what-ifs’ if we hadn’t been able to free ourselves. It’s fair to say we’re both pretty shaken up.
The best hotel in town can’t muster up hot water until the morning, whilst the best restaurant in town is Turkish (and hence Muslim) and doesn’t serve beer… Never mind, we have a warm bed, we’re safe, and the shower can wait.
We end up spending three days in Olgiy; one recovering and one watching the spectacular Kazakh eagle hunters at work training their animals. It’s wonderful not to go anywhere for a few days, and to be near the Russian border: suddenly everyone speaks Russian and it’s so much easier for us to get by.
We’ve had enough adventure in Mongolia for now; it is definitely time to move on.