Monday, September 17, 2012

Part VIII : Mountain passes, getting lost, icy rivers, and getting lost

We happily found that Eastern Russia’s police were far more agreeable that those near Sochi, and as a result we made good time driving through the night to Barnaul after leaving Kazakhstan behind us. After restocking on food and fuel in Barnaul, and then continued on towards to Mongol border.

We had heard that the drive after Barnaul would be beautiful, and we were pleasantly surprised that the rumors were true. The mountains were well worn, with plenty of open fields, curving roads, and churning rivers. About 200 miles from the border, we ran into four Mongol Rally teams on the road! They were from Scotland, the US, and the majority from England. Tony, one of the guys from the US, was attending a school only about 15 minutes from CU! He also knew a bunch of our friends that were attending the same school.

Some of the incredible scenery in this area of Russia...
...and Michael and Thomas' reactions to it
We camped with them for the night, but decided to leave super early the next morning. We had heard horror stories about the bureaucracy at the Mongolian border so we wanted to give ourselves as much time as we could. The Russian side turned out to be fairly easy, but the Mongol side would prove to be a little bit more difficult. We ran into some teams at the border that had been there overnight, waiting for the right combination of stamps and signatures that would grant them and their vehicle access to the country.

We used some of their advice to get Seymour accross the border before lunch (despite the best efforts of some intoxicated bureaucrats), but the Getz was stuck waiting on having the border guards finish their rather generous lunch. The Getz got through at around 3 PM, and we considered ourselves lucky to get through as quickly as we did. We were genuinely worried about the four teams we camped with the previous night, and thought that it would be difficult for them to get their cars through the border that day.

The Mongolian landscape was gorgeous, with dramatic rolling hills, and intimidating mountains. The nomadic gers and their livestock dotted the landscape. Our first obstacle would be an enormous mountain pass, which seemed to have a large road being constructed through it, but ended in a slope too steep for the Getz to climb. We turned around and took a side road, which finally got us to the summit of the pass, where a large Ovoo was waiting for us. An Ovoo is a shamanistic collection of stones, and there's a local tradition of throwing on a rock and walking around three times clockwise, which we enthusiastically did in the wrong direction by accident.

We spent the rest of our first day driving to Olgi, where we stocked up on fuel and got some local money. On the way out, it was getting dark, and if you've never seen Mongol roads, take a look. They tend to diverge in random directions, street signs are nonexistent, and many side roads end unexpectedly when you anticipated them to meet up with a main road. We ended up getting stuck on a bad road as it was getting late, and had to find and pitch our tents in the dark.

The following morning we were surprised to discover that our campsite was placed almost directly on a route used by some construction workers, and construction trucks were driving directly next to our campsite! We quickly packed up before they could kick us out, and started driving towards Khovd, the next major city.

Along the way, we were overtaken by the four cars we had met before the border! They managed to somehow get through the border into Mongolia the same day we did, and had been catching up since. They were moving at a much faster pace, but we decided to keep up with them for the day in case we needed each other’s help.

Seymour convoying with the Brits we encountered in Russa
We moved through some more mountain passes, with more than a few hills that made both cars struggle to maintain momentum. If there was one theme for the day, it would be the rivers. There were at least half a dozen that required careful planning to get our econoboxes across without flooding the cylinders with water or drenching the electronics. With some careful planning, and some reckless driving, we managed to get every car across each obstacle unscathed (mostly).

On one mountain pass, we encountered a man who was showing off his eagle to passing cars. Seeing one of these animals up close gives a better understanding of how effectively they've adapted to the harsh Mongol environment. They're claws seemed perfectly capable of tearing through the thick leather glove the handler used to hold the bird. We were even given an opportunity to hold him! The handler stated that he was 5 years old. Eagle hunting is still an active part of Mongol culture, there are even competitions where eagles catch a fox fur being pulled behind a horse.

Alex hiding his fear of the highly evolved hunter
After getting through most of the mountains, we inadvertently took a shortcut which bypassed a bridge over a major river. After some speculation as to how to cross it, we found that keeping the car on the left side, flooring the accelerator, and praying fiercely got every car across fine. We still had plenty of altitude to lose before Khovd, and between it and us was what felt to us like an automotive bobsled run, complete with banked turns and hidden rocks ready to destroy your car if you failed to see them hidden beneath the sand.

Unfortunately, one of the teams we were convoying with didn't see a hidden rock and broke their suspension. After some speculation as to how the quirky Citroen's suspension operated, we found that it was missing two bolts that mounted the rear axle to the frame, and in all likelyhood would fail within a couple miles. The team seemed distraught, and we thought it might not make it to Khovd, but because the sun was getting low on the horizon we were forced to press on.

Amazingly, the little Saxo got to Khovd perfectly fine, and because we had some bad experiences getting out of Olgii at dusk, we decided to let the four car convoy go ahead, and camped a few miles before reaching the city with some more teams we encountered while spending time inspecting the Saxo.

We left just after dawn the next morning to start our long journey to Altai, more than 400 km away from where we were. The dirt roads were covered in sand, and keeping up your speed was hugely important so that the car wouldn't get bogged down.

Along the way, there was a road on the map heading directly South, but we knew we had to head Southeast through a large valley in between two large mountains (they were labeled on the map as two mountains, but what we didn't know is that there were dozens of mountains next to the labeled peaks, and they just hadn't bothered to label the “lesser” summits). To make matters more confusing, our GPS unit indicated that there was a road heading Southeast about 5 miles back, but we didn't see a major road heading that direction.

Fearing we were heading on the road South towards China, we decided to drive off the road we were traveling and intersect the road we saw on our GPS. After driving for a few miles off road (through a harsh and unpopulated desert) in an attempt to find the main route, we found what appeared to be a vague set of tracks heading the right direction. It led us to an antenna tower, and we were encouraged that it was heading the right direction.

However, we eventually were stopped by a giant bog, and decided to turn around to go towards what looked like relative civilization and find our way to the main road. Some locals working on an isolated home in the middle of the valley gave us directions to the main road, some 10 km South. These directions were reinforced by another local near the antenna tower, so we set off hoping we'd see the major highway.

As it turned out, the major road turned out to be paved at the location we intersected it! If we had kept driving South, we would have intersected it fine. Driving on a paved road after so many miles of bumps and rocks is a strange sensation, sort of seemed like cheating, disconcerting at a minimum. We wouldn't have to worry for long, because the pavement quickly ended, and we were forced onto another sandy, rocky road.

No comments:

Post a Comment