The day I leave Ulan Bator it is sunny and I decide to take the route north. It’s less traffic. The city seems to crack open and fall apart. Gaps between houses are getting wider. Grass is growing in between. Soon houses are standing alone surrounded by grass plains. Ulan Bator might not be outstandingly beautiful, but it has its very own style. The nomadic past of the Mongol people is still visible everywhere.
I leave the paved road again and head into the mountains. All around me I see big clouds and a lot of rain is falling. However, I’m in a dry spot. Most of the way is just grass land, but I also pass some nice birch tree forests. It’s been a while since I saw so many trees.
After some steep passes on a muddy track I find a spot to pitch the tent in another endless valley with some more yurts than usually. My neighbor comes along on his horse and asks if everything is alright. It has become a normal thing for me that people ride horses and live in yurts. In Germany no-one ever visited me on his horse. Would be great, though.
The next day I decide to take the paved road again, because I almost got stuck on the muddy tracks and it still looks like a lot of rain. Indeed in the afternoon I see big clouds towering in front of me. The sky darkens. Left of me it’s already raining and minutes later hell breaks loose.
Thunderbolt and lightning
Very very frightening me
Galileo Galileo Galileo Galileo Galileo Figaro
Magnifico oh oh oh
It’s again directly above me. Here’s something I don’t always like about Mongolia: You cannot hide. There is just a road through the grass lands and that’s it. The rain is ice cold.
The music playing in my head distracts me from the storm. And the strong wind quickly pushes the clouds away and in the evening I can already pitch the tent on dry ground.
The weather stays good and I continue north. I decide to slow down a bit and only make 70 km every day. That leaves enough time to take long breaks at rivers and to pitch the tent at the best spots.
After 4 days I arrive in Altanbulag. That’s the town directly at the Mongol/Russian border. I move to the border and can look into Russia. It’s clearly recognizable by a typical Russian church.
However, I cannot cross the border. I am so close, but I can’t. So I stay a night in a hotel in Altanbulag. But why did I cycle all the way north in the first place? Time to explain:
You see, there was no chance to get a Russian visa in Ulan Bator. So I went „all in“: Plan B meant spending more money on plan A and risking a bit. The last two weeks – while I was cycling to Lake Khövsgöl – my passport traveled to Seoul. From there to Frankfurt and then to Berlin. In Berlin „Vostok Reisen“, a very reliable agency, got me a Russian visa. The passport then traveled to Hongkong and finally back to Ulan Bator. Every few days I was able to check the parcel tracking status. At Lake Khövsgöl it finally said „delivered and signed“. I immediately wrote to Legend Tour – a Russian travel agency acting as the recipient in Ulan Bator – and told them I will arrive in a few days to pick it up. The next morning I get a reply:
„Nobody has delivered your passport yesterday. No-one in the building knows the person who signed.“
What can I say? It was a Poker and I went „all in“. If the passport was gone, the journey ended here. The parcel has been sent via TNT courier and should be delivered to the recipient personally. I called TNT, nobody answered. I wrote them, but got no response (not even until today). I immediately went to the bus terminal and got a ticket back to Ulan Bator. The bus left at 3pm. Minutes before I entered the bus, I checked my mail again: They found the parcel. It has been delivered to the cleaning staff. Seriously, TNT? There is even a reception in the building and the office door is 20 m from the entrance and open the whole day. And the cleaning lady didn’t even try to forward the parcel. I can only guess why. It was just luck I had an internet connection the day it was delivered. Who knows what the cleaning lady would have done, if nobody asked for the parcel for another few days.
Anyway. I opened the parcel and there was my passport with a Russian visa sticking in it. Отлично!
I cannot cross the border, though, because the Russian visa is date specific and mine is only valid from tomorrow on.
So the next day I want to cross into Russia, but they locked the front door of the guest house and nobody is around. A part of the front door is just a loose piece of wood, so I take it away to get out. However, the bicycle doesn’t fit through. I look around the house if I can find someone. After two hours the guy comes back. Then he tells me I destroyed the door. I put the piece of wood back in place, but he insists I broke it. I definitely didn’t cause the slightest scratch. He pretends to call the police, but they of course never show up. Two old guys in dude uniforms make sure I don’t escape. After another hour I ask if they want money. They say 10.000 Tukrik. That’s around 4 Euros. I have a hard time not to laugh, because I expected a lot more. I pay and leave laughing. They are confused.
I go to the border. Again it’s not allowed to cycle between the borders. So I have to load the bicycle on a car. However, the price is fair and the driver is very considerate. After all he is smuggling Mongol socks into Russia. It’s crazy watching him. I’d give him an Oscar. He is joking with the Russian border guards, while they are searching his car. However, he strapped the 50 pairs of socks around his belly. He also put new tires on the car to sell them in Russia, but the border guards realize that and take pictures. They also take a quick look into my bags. Then we can leave.
I show the passport, get the stamp and – HELL YEAH! – I’m in Russia.
My time in Mongolia is over. I’ve spent as much time here as I did in China. However, I won’t write a separate conclusion, since I think I have said almost everything about it already. After all it is a lot of emptiness. I liked being self-sufficient and completely relying on myself. It is one kind of freedom. But of course like every freedom it also has a downside: A certain isolation. So after four weeks of mostly me, myself and I, seeing some other humans throughout the days is something I am looking forward to. I will miss endless grass lands and the countless horses, cows, sheep and goats. Especially the horses live here completely free and wild and only then seem to unfold their natural behavior, which was interesting to watch. Their different colors, their long hair, but also the way they move and their strong bodies are truly majestic.
Camels, snakes, big bugs, ground squirrels, marmots, desert jerboas and the biggest birds I have ever seen have also crossed my way here in Mongolia. It is a country where humans and animals alike can move freely.
But neither is Mongolia underdeveloped or seems poor, nor has it developed too quickly or is overrun by tourism. It seems to grow slowly but there are of course also big modern buildings in the cities. Just the right amount, though.
I especially liked the colorful roofs and of course the yurts. People often dress traditionally, especially in rural areas. Altogether the Mongol identity is clearly visible everywhere and feels warm and open.
However, I can’t recommend it for holidays unless you are ready to accept the emptiness and let go any schedule. Because filling your days with horse treks, Gobi excursions and camel watching tours is not only insanely expensive it also fills something, which – here in Mongolia – is supposed to be emptied. If you miss that chance, you’ve missed this country.
Good-Bye Mongolia. Your silence was gold.
Russia greets me very stereotypically: An army helicopter is flying meters above me checking the border area. Then an alcoholic is stumbling across the street asking „откуда?“ (where from?). I visit the church and have a talk with Oleg, the priest, who is a cyclist himself. Then I have a borsh and a „kotlet“ (read: frikadeller) with kartoshka in an absolutely soviet style cheap restaurant where most customers are soldiers. The night I spend in a babushka-run guesthouse – on Lenin Street – which is absolutely great, because I am the only guest and she asks and explains a lot, so I learn many new words. The next day I leave and one of the first vehicles I see are ten battle tanks just driving besides the road.
After that the Russian experience slows down quite a bit and I dive into Siberia. The towns have beautifully carved wooden houses, people are incredibly kind and well educated. Even villages usually have a „magazin“ (shop), where you can get tasty sausages, cheese, bread and 1.5 liter beer bottles. Vodka – also 1.5 liter bottle – starts at 2.50 Euro.
People don’t smile. Yeah, it’s true. They don’t smile. They are kind and supportive, but they don’t smile. At least it takes some time. That’s a strange cultural thing and confusing especially after being in so many Asian countries, where smiling is the default setting. On the other hand you feel like the happiest person around.
The Selenga river accompanies me most of the time, which is nice. I like when there is water around.
I arrive in Ulan Ude. Is this Europe? It’s hard to tell. It could as well be an eastern European city. I expected much more local influence in this part of Russia, but most people look European and dress modern. Also the churches, the marketplace with water fountain, the supermarkets, all very European. Bars and restaurants are nice, staff is well trained. McDonalds, Subway….and Lenin.
After Ulan Ude I enter endless birch tree forests. Yellow, orange, red, brown and green leaves make a perfect Siberian autumn. The temperatures are still rather mild, which is unfortunately not only good for me: Mosquitoes. Everywhere! As long as I cycle it’s all good, but in the evening it is all about pitching the tent as fast as possible, jumping in and kill the few mosquitoes that also made it inside.
Soon I reach the east coast of Lake Baikal
People I met usually didn’t tell me how beautiful Lake Baikal is or what they did there, but everybody told me that it is the oldest lake on the planet and also the biggest by volume. It contains 23% of Earth’s freshwater, is crystal clear and 1600 m deep. I bet that’s written in one of those blue info boxes in the Lonely Planet. Look, I also made one.
I cycle a bit around, chat with Kolya, who runs a „Кафе“ in Grenyachinsk, where I spent a good amount of time before I make it up to Goryachinsk. The better part of the population of three villages knows I want to take a boat to Olhon island, but no chance. It’s off-season. No boats are running. So I cycle south along the lake. Rivers, creeks everywhere and of course Lake Baikal. The water is so clear you can just drink it from the lake. Also tab water is safe to drink in this region and there are many wells.
The days are getting colder and the forecast predicts snow. My ears and fingers hurt in the morning and the downhills are freaking cold. I only wear a sweater, though, and the Russians always ask if I’m not cold. Sounds familiar to me. I heard that all my life. But I didn’t expect to hear it in Siberia.
I follow the coastline all the way south of Lake Baikal. For a long time the lake is not visible and I move through endless birch tree forest and swamps. One evening it’s very cold and I see a sign „база отдыха“ (resting base). I don’t know what to expect. A guy comes back from fishing. I get a nice cheap room with a fire place and they heat up the Баня (Russian Sauna) for me. Очень хорошо!
The last days along the coast are especially beautiful. The road is close to the Lake, sometimes a bit elevated. It feels like cycling along an Ocean. After all Lake Baikal is more than 600 km long.
I reach Irkutsk. Andrej and Alexej – the two Russian cyclist I met ten days ago – have a friend here, where I can stay. Артём (Tom) is a great guide, who shows me all the nice places. I still can’t believe I am here. In Irkutsk. In Siberia. In Russia.
The last mosquitoes have all died in one of the past cold nights and leaves in all colors are falling from the trees onto the sidewalks. Winter is approaching quickly and it’s time for me to leave. No, actually I have already left. I’ve set this blog post to be automatically published on 30th September at 6:22 pm (Irkutsk time). That’s when the train left Irkutsk.
I’ve been to China, the biggest nation. I’ve been to Mongolia, the biggest empire in human history. And I made it into Russia, the biggest country. Right now I am traveling on the Transsiberian Railway, the longest in the world and after 5185 km I will arrive in Moscow on October the 4th at 4:11 am.
The last few months felt like sitting around a Poker table with some big guys and I didn’t always let you know which cards I hold. However, I made it to the final round.
Asia folds. Europe raises.