Since you’ve last heard from us, we’ve traversed the Russian Altai Mountains, arrived in Mongolia, and skirted the Gobi desert for 1,600 kilometres to get to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. As you may well guess, we have some adventures to report.
The Altai Mountains are spread over Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, and Russia, making them an interesting cultural destination to say the least. Much of the mountains are only open to tourists who have a special border permit from the country of their choice. However, we avoided the necessity for a permit by staying on the Chusky Trakt, the famous road meandering south through the mountains from Barnaul, Russia, to Mongolia. This road was mostly exciting due to there being actual, real, mountains, a thrilling novelty after the Kazakh steppe. We free-camped and enjoyed stopping at roadside shops to select yak-wool products and sample fast food. We now know that whenever we see Uzbeki dumplings advertised, we should eat ‘em. More stories about the Altai Mountains later.
Getting through the Mongolian border did not take 8 hours as we had feared. It did, however, include about 20 kilometres of moon-like no-man’s-land between Russia and Mongolia, with not even an animal in sight. (You realise how odd this is if you know that Mongolia has only 3 million people but 65 million heads of livestock.) It tops our list for the eeriest place to stop and pee.
Once in Mongolia, we arrived in the border city of Ulgii and checked in at a guest ger complex. This is totally a thing in Mongolia. A ger is a yurt, by the way, but Mongolian language has to make everything sound scarier and harsher than it actually is. There are gers everywhere – nomadic Mongolian people live in them, and people in the city often do too. Anyway, Ulgii, along with a few hostels in Ulaanbaatar, is a gathering place for travellers in Mongolia. There are many more than you would think – Mongolia is great for trekking and adventure travel. The travellers – and I’m totally including myself here – are all the “too-cool-for-school” types who aren’t content with merely travelling to Paris. We need to brave wolves, freezing temperatures, and bizarre food for an “unique” experience. Despite my cynical description, I actually really enjoy this subculture of travellers. So much so, that we picked up a couple of them and took them with us.
We met Matan and Iftach at the breakfast table at the ger camp in Ulgii – there weren’t enough tables, so we shared. They are a couple of Israeli brothers in their 20’s who are doing a month-long tour of Mongolia, and maybe Russia. I knew from before that I love Israeli people – straightforward, polite, disciplined, prone to real conversations and deep thoughts. Matan and Iftach are certainly, as Anne of Greene Gables would say, “kindred spirits”. A few hours after breakfast, Luke and I (with the help of the guys and the ancient caretaker of the ger camp) had converted our car back into a four-seater. The four of us were on the road for the 5 day trip to Ulaanbaatar.
They were excellent travel companions, cheerily agreeing to any plan we came up with and laughing away the freezing temperatures and dust storms. We free-camped two nights – the guys had a whole camp set on their backs – and stayed in slightly sketchy hotels for two nights. (Matan and I did check them out in advance of paying to see if they had “murdery” vibes.) They cooked Israeli food for us and thoroughly answered all of our invasive questions about their home country. They even volunteered a few historical and cultural lessons for us. They made what would have been a long and boring 5 days into a very interesting and fun chunk of time. And for all we’ve learned about Israel, I feel like we’ve added another country to the list of those we’ve visited on this trip. An unexpected bonus of a trip to Mongolia.
We were also happy to have Matan and Iftach with us for the feeling of camaraderie and security. As you may know, all Israeli people must serve in the military. These guys had gone above and beyond by extending their service by a couple of years and by volunteering for combat units, which you would never guess by their calm, warm demeanours. This was comforting to Luke and I, owing to an experience from our first night in Mongolia.
I wasn’t totally forthcoming when I said that Luke and I checked into a ger camp when we got to Mongolia. We did, but not until 2am. Our first attempt of a sleeping place was at the house of a fellow who we met in an insurance office at the border – a cheery guy named Joy, who invited us to stay at his home. We had heard that this is common in Mongolia – you give someone $15 or $20 to stay in their house for the night and eat dinner and breakfast. Joy had stickers all over his motorcycle that had been given to him by travellers – an Australian flag, a Mongol Rally sticker from last year, a British car parts company.
In his cosy house on the edge of Tsaaggannuur, we met his charming elderly mother, his sister, and her adorable toddler daughter. We had a few gallons of tea and some food. All was well, and we felt comfortable. Luke skooted off to bed early, owing to his flu, but I felt safe because there were no doors and I could still see him. I stayed up for a while, playing with the baby. Some of Joy’s friends came round and had a couple of jovial beers. Joy bragged that one of the fellows was a champion wrestler, and I jokingly asked for a demonstration.
This is a video! Press to play. The Grandma and I played this game of “Where’s Koala?” with the little girl for about an hour.
I didn’t notice anything amiss – I was showing the little girl videos of Rory and James in the ocean – until Joy grabbed his wrestler friend by the scruff of the neck and dragged him outside. I heard shouting, and figured they had had a bit too much to drink and decided to get dramatic. No big. I hung out with the baby. Luke heard the shouting and got up, and then mom and grandma went outside, leaving us with baby. It was midnight. The shouting escalated, and mom and grandma came inside, sitting on the bed next to Luke, baby, and I. It started to sound scary out there – there was no laughter in those shouts. Luke and I clearly weren’t involved in their fight in any way, but we were worried that someone would remember we were around and get us involved. We decided to leave. Grandma protested at first, but finally, when the group of men outside quieted and seemed to have left, she seemed to give us her blessing to go. She walked us to our car, kissed our foreheads, and waved as we drove off into the bright night.
We drove for an hour to get to Ulgii. We rolled up to the ger camp at 2am, and called the office phone number. They blearily admitted us and showed us to some comfy beds. In the morning, we apologised, paid for the room, and took a nice steamy bath in the aromatic wooden Russian bathhouse. (Basically a private sauna where you sit on a wooden bench and pour buckets of hot water all over yourself – magic.)
So, you can see why we would feel better having a couple of trustworthy, entertaining, military officers with us after that.
Perhaps feeling risk-averse, we decided to take the southern route from Ulgii to Ulaanbaatar. This meant avoiding the deep river crossings and mud of the northern route, but missing the mountain charm. Instead, we drove next to the Gobi desert, in a bizarre and maybe gorgeous lunar landscape. The road, blessedly, was paved half of the time. The other half, Luke enjoyed testing out our new tires on some excellent off-road terrain.
We only had two small river crossings and never enough sand to get stuck in. We did enjoy choosing our tracks – there were usually 6 or 7 running roughly parallel through the grass. And it was fun to navigate by saying things like “We need to drive to the right of that rocky hill” or “We’re heading too far north, bend south at the next available track” or “Stay with the main track – there’s a river crossing in a kilometre”. From a navigator’s perspective, this really beats “Turn left in 300 metres onto Union Street.”
We had a couple of interesting “city” moments along the way. In one town, we stopped for lunch. We usually made our own lunch out of stores in our “cupboards”, and we wanted to add some cheese to the mix. So we stopped at a small store – no cheese, but there were instant cup-o-noodles which were perfect for cold bones on a rainy day. We went outside to make our food by the car (with interested locals looking on), until Matan called, “Hey guys, um, I think she wants us to eat in here.” So we cooked our instant noodles on the shopkeeper’s living room/bedroom/kitchen floor, and shared our Israeli coffee with her and another fellow who showed up for the action. We gave her an Australia-themed tea towel before heading back out into the rain.
In another town, we were quite happy to find a hotel for the night – it was a tiny place. Seemingly every window on the building was broken, but inside, the place was quite charming. We paid for our rooms, and then, as an afterthought, asked where the toilets were. They were a pit out the back of the building – so Mongolia. And the shower, boy, that was an adventure. The shower was a 5 minute walk away, to the other side of town, past cattle and goats being herded down the dusty main “street”, through the gates of the boarding school, into a small building with 3 shower stalls and a student collecting money. We paid for our showers and, on the way back, waved at all the students calling to us from their dorm windows.
The camping was no less interesting. Our first night, we camped in a vast, empty plain. It was still as a crypt, until 4am, when the quiet plain became a whirlwind, threatening to carry us and our little dog Toto far into the Gobi desert. It was unsettling. Luke and I got up at about 6:30, packed our tent away, and rested in the front seats of the car.
The next time we camped, we found a pit. Like, an actual rock quarry that had been dug by excavators. Luke and the guys used our collapsible shovel to dig us a way through the dirt barrier, also created by excavators, and we drove right down into our cosy, windless, campsite. This is the sort of thing that happens when Luke gets all excitable about an idea and won’t give up.
And finally, we make it to Ulaanbaatar
Ulaanbaatar is the type of city where meandering livestock slow traffic on multi-lane roads, but there is also a Pizza Hut. Sadly, we’ve seen very little of the town as I’ve got an awful flu, and Luke is just getting over one. Add to that my body’s decision to have my first, ahem, digestion, issue of the trip while waiting in line at the Mongolian immigration department to extend our visa. Blessedly, there was a toilet. However, the stall door was 6 inches from the end of the toilet, so I had to sit sideways. The bonus was that this made it really convenient for leaning my sweating forehead against the nice cold tile wall. If you are disturbed by this picture, I will remind you again that you exercised your free will in reading a blog post about budget travel in Central Asia. You have only yourself to blame.
So, we’ve been spending most of our time here in UB (as the cool travellers call it) holed up in the the most cozy hostel. Our room opens onto a friendly kitchen, dining room, and living room with big fluffy couches. Travellers, mostly Israeli, hang around at meal times, when we chat about where we’ve been and where we’re going, and swap advice about visas, roads, tour companies, food. It feels a bit like the Peace Corps houses, where volunteers get together to feel a slice of home. It’s quite comfy.
In addition, Israelis seem to have an instinctual understanding of not bringing up a country’s embarrassing politics if not first invited. As a person who currently is enjoying hiding under a rock regarding American politics, I appreciate this camaraderie.
Your friends, the dummies
We’ve found that stupidity is an excellent tool while travelling. Our favourite example (so far) is when we were stopped by some Russian cops in the Altai mountains. There are lots of routine checkpoints set up on Russian roads; a cop just waves you over and looks at your paperwork. We passed one, and the cop waved, but we were pretty sure it was for the person in front of us, who stopped.
However, the next cop, 200 metres down, definitely waved for us. It turns out, through the cop’s very limited English, we were supposed to stop before, AND we were speeding. It was pretty clear. But, you see, getting a ticket in Russia is a pain in the butt. You have to drive to the station and pay your ticket, and you have to go during office hours. So, Luke and I snapped straight into our super-friendly touristy stupid mode. This is unnervingly easy for us.
We smiled a lot, and happily exclaimed “Australia!! Tourist!!” a lot while pointing to ourselves. We heartily agreed with the cop when he said the word “stop”, pointing to ourselves and him and agreeing that we stopped when he told us to. “Da! Stop! Us!” He was pretty good natured about it, but clearly thought we were the biggest, happiest, idiots he had ever met in his life. He started doing charades for writing us a ticket, probably to tell us he could if he wanted to. I said, “Pen?? You need pen??” and cheerily went into the car to get one. When he saw me emerge with it, his eyes got wide with realization and his shoulders slumped, and he said, with all the exasperation you can imagine, “Oh. Pen.” He then shook his head and walked away. We, the cheerful idiots, were free to go.
The next time we employed our stupidity enjoyed less success. As you probably know, land borders require you to both leave your current country (Russia, in this case), and enter the new one (Mongolia). Leaving Russia, we got our most thorough car search yet. Usually we see local cars getting searched, but we just open our doors, smile, show them our bed, and get waved ahead.
This time, we had four Russian police search every item. This was ok until one, the mean one who never smiled, said “Medical. Doctor.” We couldn’t play stupid for too long on this one; he wanted to see our medical kit. This was not that fun – we have all completely legal drugs, but we have a lot. Cold and flu drugs, regular medications, pain meds, antibiotics, our prescription meds, everything for any type of stomach bug you can imagine. And all of this in large quantities for a year of travel.
The officers were not amused by our stores. That is, they weren’t until they asked what one particular bag of drugs was, and Luke launched into charades for diarrhoea and vomiting. This elicited smiles and giggles from most of them. The charades took a sour turn with Luke’s vitamins, however, which we described by flexing our biceps. The officer looked shocked and said “Anabolic???”, which we quickly denied (they really are just magnesium tablets). I laughed and looked appalled at the suggestion, which actually wasn’t feigned stupidity – it really would be incredibly dumb to try to smuggle big bottles of anabolic steroids across the Russian border.
Interactions with the locals
We have mentioned previously that people in Russia are not particularly ebullient. This does not extend to the Altai region, where people are super nice.
For example, we stopped at a little stall along a shady wooded section of the Chusky Trakt to get some lunch. A fellow was barbecuing some pork, which turned out to be delicious, by the way. He told us to sit on a little picnic bench while he got our food together, and, once it was done, he came and sat with us. We had a pleasant chat without any English. Turns out the tea we were drinking was made of 7 herbs, harvested by hand by this fellow, from the forest we were sitting in. He was very interested in us, and how we came to do our trip. He asked (by miming “fat pockets”) if we were rich, which is a pretty amusing and common response when we tell people what we’re doing. It’s hard to know what to say. We usually just laugh.
Another time, at the Mongolian border, I was reminded of what it feels like to be a spectacle in a place where one is very, very different. My blue hair probably doesn’t help that much. Luke was with the car, and I was waiting for him to pull around to pick me up. There was a group of about 30 people waiting, looked like they had all been riding in the same bus. One of them said something friendly to me, and the whole group stopped talking and turned to look. I smiled that I didn’t know what she was saying. They all laughed. Someone said “Kyrgyzstan!!” and pointed to the whole group. Someone else walked up to me and handed me two pears, and they all watched while I ate one. It was all very good natured, and made me want to go to Kyrgyzstan.
Less good-natured were the stares we received when we walked into the breakfast lounge of a truck stop hotel in Russia. We accidentally decided to have breakfast at the same time as a Russian football team who were staying at the truck stop too. They were not hostile, but they were certainly unamused by us.
Till next time
We look forward to several more days relaxing here in Ulaanbaatar, until Luke’s sister Jo joins us next week. She’s made the brave decision to join us on our drive through China – a whole month of Felice and Luke, lucky her? We’ll keep you posted!