Southeast Splendour

Driving east from Almaty the road traces a line along the northern edge of the Zailiysky Alatau, a spur of the beautiful Tian Shan mountains, which form the border with Kyrgyzstan. This range rises to well over 4000m, but is largely still covered in snow at this time of year so didn’t provide us with the mountain biking playground we were hoping for. Instead we headed to the Kolsai Lakes region and found a quiet riverside camp spot for the night. We were surprised the next morning to find a dozen tents and a whole bunch of mountain bikers camped in the next glade on our way out! They had not been there the night before, but had left Almaty in the early hours and arrived at 6am. They seemed to be a semi-organised tour group, and we felt sad that we couldn’t accept their kind invitation to join them for the day. They did however give us some useful tips, and so after a brief visit to the lowest Kolsai Lake we rode the 10km up a 4wd track to Kaiyndy Lake, formed in the early 20th century by an earthquake and containing a hundred or so drowned spruces, their subsurface branches perfectly preserved by the cold glacial water.

Kaiyndy Lake

Next stop, and campsite for the night, was the 300m deep Charyn Canyon. The main attraction, the Valley of the Castles, contains a series of striking sandstone rock stacks and formations, which glowed red in the evening sun. Whilst debating where to camp for the night we came across a custom-built (actually home built) Iveco truck conversion sitting subtly in the corner of the car park. Volcker and Stephanie, and their 11 and 13 year old boys, are spending six months touring Central Asia from Munich, heading in the opposite direction to us. We got chatting, set up camp, drank some whisky, and exchanged stories and advice for the road ahead. Volcker is a BMW engineer, and we are not, so we’re not sure the exchange of useful information was entirely equal…

This corner of Kazakhstan is a little crazy. The landscape changes from steppe to canyon country, and from desert to mountains in the blink of an eye. It is the most lush and fertile part of the country that we have seen, and the drive to the border passed quickly. For once, so did the border crossing. The officials were friendly and jovial, with jokes about ammunition, narcotics, and not letting my wife leave the country (!). Vehicle checks were minimal, and we were on our way into Kyrgyzstan in 25 minutes, shortly after which it started raining.

With the rain continuing to fall, and the road surface akin to the craters of Kazakhstan, the game of pothole roulette was re-commenced. Giles consistently has the worst hand. Around 100km, some spine jarring thumps, and a little-too-close-for-comfort brush with the off-camber slippy road edge later, we navigated our way through a village of cows (not actually, but it was market day and we’re not sure who was in charge) and headed to a campsite on the edge of 170km long Issyk-Köl (“hot lake”), so called because it never freezes despite lying at 1600m (it is both very deep, and slightly salty). Some of our campsites on this trip have been taken from the iOverlander app (yes, there is even an app for overlanding!), and this was called “best view ever” owing to the Kazakh mountains now to the north, and the central Tian Shan to the south. The rain and clouds had other ideas, but it was still an atmospheric spot, punctuated by plenty of bird life, shepherds on horseback, and the occasional thump of a sub-woofer straining the windows and rear springs of a typically beaten up Lada.

Local fisherman in Issyk-Köl

Thanks to: the most jovial border guards to date.

Almaty

It had been such a good start! The border crossing was comparatively easy, friendly lorry drivers reminded us to put our lights on, the warmest welcome from Edil and family, and almost every car that passed us on the road gave a friendly wave. Well. What followed was 700km of the worst road conditions we have encountered so far. Potholes so big they deserved a name and a postcode, endless unsigned diversions and parallel tracks around roadworks, repairs often just as bad as the potholes they were hiding, and plenty of vehicles all swerving and jostling to avoid the worst of it. The abiding rule of the road is: avoid craters as a priority, even if it means facing down the oncoming traffic. And so even if we happened to have the good side of the road we would still quite often have to scream to a halt to allow a lorry or coach through and past. For 700km. It took 2 camps and 3 more days driving from the farm to reach Almaty, during which time we cracked the windscreen, broke a strut on our awning in a sudden squall, and had to emergency relocate our camp in the middle of the night due to gale force winds. Better yet, on the morning of the third day it rained continuously so that we could no longer tell which potholes to avoid. Mike dubbed this section ‘pothole roulette’. Our relief at reaching fresh tarmac 100km from Almaty was only slightly dampened by the fact that we still couldn’t go much faster due to the sheets of rain pouring down…

Our first stop had to be a garage to fix the windscreen and see about replacing or fudging some kind of repair for the awning. Imagine our amazement when we discovered that Kazakhstan has ARB, and that it is based in Almaty! We were greeted by Dmitriy who spoke excellent English and who, once we’d explained where we’d come from and what we needed, sat us down with a cup of tea. We expected a long wait. Three minutes later he returned holding the part we required for the awning, but apologising that the windscreen repair man they used may take up to two hours to arrive. Less than an hour later we were shaking hands with the team and heading off, Giles all fixed. We are still amazed.

Next stop was to find somewhere to park up for a day so we could explore. As we found in Canada, cities are always a bit of a challenge when it comes to camping, but we had read about a hostel who allowed overlanders to park in their driveway and use the facilities. To the sharp eyed it looked like our track stopped at a fancy hotel but we were just in the tent as usual!

I’ve heard lots of cities referred to as a ‘melting pot’ but you’d be hard pushed to find one more like fondue than Almaty. Understandable, when the tides of tyrants and conquerors have swept back and forth across the land for millennia, and dynasties have been founded and floundered, each contributing a bit of their own culture, identity and genetic material… we spent the entire day just wandering about with a vague list of things to get or do but no real urgency to do any of them. Almaty promotes itself as the ‘city of a thousand colours’ but it could as easily be called the city of a thousand trees or city of a thousand extremely helpful people. One positive legacy of soviet rule is that all the streets are lined with huge trees and almost every other block is given over to park. It’s really lovely, and completely, uniquely Almaty.

The day started with coffee and pastries in a park, then a visit to the state museum (three rooms! Excellent!), followed by a glass of really good wine, a bit more wandering and chance arrival at the Soviet-erected war memorial (harrowing), the cathedral (gorgeous) and eventually the Green market (fabulous chaos). Once we’d stocked up on a range of spices we didn’t know we needed, dried fruit and snacks we definitely didn’t, and camel sausage (which was obviously essential) we headed up Green Hill/Kok Tobe for a beer and a view of the city.

The next morning we had a thorough sort out and check over of the vehicle whilst we waited for our host to get up so we could pay him. Giles was completely filthy – caked in a month’s worth of mud and silt and sand – and part of the front drive shaft had a slightly concerning wobble. After consulting Yoda we decided it would be best to get him checked at a garage, but also stopped for an opportunistic wash on the way (don’t worry, we tipped them well!). Toyota Almaty had Giles up on a lift in no time and the mechanic took even less time to pronounce him ‘like new’. Wanting more reassurance we explained our planned route to the service manager, during which time several other mechanics came over for a good look too. He staked Toyota Almaty’s reputation upon Giles being in perfect condition to continue so, a little later than planned, we departed this fabulous city with a determination to come back one day.

Thanks to: the team at ARB for such good service; Toyota Almaty for your reassurance!

Babushkas are the best!

The drive from the Russian border to Almaty, through 1500km of Kazakh steppe, takes reputedly one of the worst paved roads in Central Asia. But the first section, around the city of Semipalatinsk (Semey), is pretty good. We stopped briefly here, infamous worldwide as the site of covert testing of soviet nuclear weapons until 1989 (many of the unknowing population still suffer from the associated health problems), before heading south and preparing ourselves for the coming pothole onslaught. In miles upon miles of flat steppe there is little shelter for a campsite, so as usual we headed up a random track towards the only significant hill in the area. This is our standard approach to finding a campsite, and it usually works well. On this occasion however, the track stopped at a farm, where the slightly surprised looking farmer was unloading his car. We rapidly established that neither of us had any clue what the other was saying, and miming didn’t seem to be getting us very far. As we were wondering if we should turn back to the road, he gestured for us to follow him and so began one of the most delightful experiences we have had.

Edil runs the farm with his wife (sadly not present) and his 77 year old mother, Mai-Dan. The place is gorgeous, with thick whitewashed stone walls that reminded me of my own grandmothers old croft house house in Scotland. We were ushered into the living room and sat on the sofa from where we could enjoy Kazakh pop idol on the tv. Cas had a brief phone chat with Maidan’s granddaughter (who speaks good English), which required her virtually climbing into the fridge to get any kind of reception, and unfortunately still cut out at the crucial moment. Soon after, Edil disappeared off in the car and Mai-Dan busied herself in the kitchen and we sat in the sofa. Dinner was prepared and produced for us, with frequent rejections of help and shooings back to the sofa. It consisted of a delicious potato and egg hash type of dish, bread with cream, honey and both rhubarb and apple jams, tea with both milk and butter in, biscuit wafers and small compressed yogurt nuggets called Kurut which taste a little like feta and are extraordinarily addictive. Everything was home made and nearly all home grown too.

With little in the way of communication and feeling pretty shattered we, unfortunately, headed to our bed feeling extremely lucky and very very full. I say unfortunately, because unknown to us Edil had gone to fetch Mai-Dan’s granddaughters Guldana and Alua, who were able to translate! Fortunately they were able to stay around the next morning before the whole family were having a get together to celebrate the life of Mai-Dan’s late husband, whose 80th birthday it would have been (and several of who’s birthday treats we had eaten the night before). After a family breakfast of semolina porridge, bread cream and jam and perpetually replenished bowls of tea we visited to the neighbours farm to fill our water. This involved more food and a highly entertaining discussion of the heritage and history of Kazakhstan right through to modern issues: even the Kazakhs think Brexit is a bad idea, and we didn’t bring the subject up! We were invited to stay, Mike was offered a chance to go carp fishing, and our water was filled before we eventually headed back to Edil’s – but not without being given a huge slab of fresh homemade butter and a jar of honey first. Mai-Dan had similar ideas and when we left the farm we had also acquired a bag of Kurut. We continued on our way south, feeling incredibly lucky to have taken that turning off a farm track the previous night.

Thanks to: our fantastic Kazakh hosts…please get in touch with us soon so we have your contact details!

La-da Land

The Altai Republic forms a mountainous little corner of the largest country in the world. It is, like the corresponding areas of Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia, predominantly Kazakh, although my limited Russian remembered from a visit to the northern Caucasus many years ago seemed to be understood (“beer, thank you”). Unlike our alternative route choice to get to Kazakhstan, which was to go through Xinxiang Province in China, the predominantly Muslim population in these parts is not being systematically persecuted in a highly questionably “re-education” project. The Kazakhs here, and in Mongolia, are fantastically friendly, warm and welcoming, and produce some excellent food! After stuffing ourselves at a local restaurant we slept in the car park of the Kosh-Agach Hostel and chatted to some twitchers here on holiday, whilst paying less than a fiver to use the facilities. A hot shower was most welcomed (by us and we suspect the other guests).

Kosh-Agach
Altai, through the filthy windscreen

Unknown to us when planning this route the Chuyskiy Tract, the road connecting the border with the city of Barnaul, forms one of Russia’s most picturesque drives. Winding down through the mountains the steep sides and immense rivers were a marked contrast to the wide open spaces of the Mongolian steppe. Small high mountain villages, constructed from gorgeous dark timber huts and houses with cheerful blue roofs, are interspersed with single room holiday chalets and Russian saunas (banya). Roadside stalls sell local honey and vegetables, and ring-bound bunches of birch cuttings for the customary self-flagellation. The valley has a very alpine atmosphere and is certainly worthy of more exploration than we were able to give. It is also, true to that most Russian of stereotypes, kept alive by a continual stream of Ladas in varying states of rusting decay. Ladas ploughing fields, Ladas towing huge bales of hay, Ladas overtaking us on blind bends and summits, and Ladas sat on bricks awaiting new springs, engines, or possibly even chassis. We don’t think they are ever allowed to die.

Our new favourite car, excluding Giles

Knowing that the landscape outside the Altai Republic changes to flat agricultural plains, we set about searching for a campsite for the night. After one aborted detour into a local rubbish tip we stumbled upon a picnic site by a river which looked promising. Closer inspection found another vehicle already parked up, and even closer scrutiny found it to be another Hilux, fully kitted out for overlanding, from Germany. Steffi and Frank were, we think, as surprised as we were to meet other Europeans in this remote area and immediately invited us to camp next to them and offered to cook us dinner. They have been driving from Germany for two months, taking almost the exact reverse of the route we are planning. We shared stories and beers around our first camp fire of the trip whilst thoroughly scrutinising each other’s rigs (overlanding vehicle setup, before you ask Gill…). Turns out they also have two VW campers, giving us plenty of ideas for Muddle’s (Cas’s T25) future when we get home. We enjoyed a good Scottish breakfast before parting the next morning, though we’re not sure Frank is completely sold on porridge.

Barnaul is a small city in the Altai Territory, north of the Republic. After the limited supply choices up until now, the more western shops and organised streets were welcome relief. Modelled on St Petersburg, Barnaul has a very European feel with wide boulevard streets lined with trees and baroque buildings. For the first time since leaving home we almost cleared the shopping list, finding herbs, actual liquid milk and canisters for the windburner stove which should keep us in ready tea and coffee til the end of the trip, much to Cas’s delight. Mike was just saying it was nearly a clean sweep, but for the lamentable lack of whisky, when we passed Drink King. We didn’t hold out much hope to be honest, but were soon happily wending our way towards the border ‘fully’ resupplied.

Allotment houses leaving Barnaul…
…and approaching the border
Dust storms on the plains

On the way out of the city we passed what looked like huge areas of allotments with elaborate ‘sheds’. In fact, they were homes with intensively cultivated gardens as this is how much of the population lives. The landscape heading south from Barnaul is flat and largely given over to agriculture. Small communities, remnants of the Soviet collectifs, join forces to farm this windswept plain, and we tucked into the fields behind one of these villages to camp for the night. The border crossing, as my school reports used to say, “showed signs of improvement” for us, and we were through in two and a half hours and heading towards Almaty, a mere 1500km away.

Thanks to: our German overlanding friends for a great evening in the Altai!

In search of snow leopards

In case you’re wondering, we didn’t actually go searching for one of the world’s most elusive creatures, though we were now passing through territory in which they are known to live and breed. From Ulaangom we took a pass through the mountains to Üüreg Nuur, a mountain lake sat at 1425m surrounded by 3000m peaks. With the weather deteriorating and snow falling heavily as we crossed the pass we weren’t sure it would be worth the detour. But it surely was, with half the deep blue lake still frozen and golden rays of sunshine picking out the steep valleys and chasms piercing the wall of snow-covered peaks. We found the only Ger camp on the lake was, for once, open and so set ourselves up in their beautiful lodgings whilst the storm clouds bubbled and burst around us, making us slightly nervous about our planned route out the following day.

The next day dawned brighter, so we headed around the lake for a walk into the realm of the snow leopard, or at least to the edge of it. We were rewarded by two large herds of argali sheep with their huge horns, munching their way along below the snow line. The drive out proved as interesting as we expected, over the 2550m Bairam Davaa, which was heavy with fresh snow. After stopping for tea with a couple of local herders (and their hand-reared lamb) Giles made short work of the terrain and we were soon contemplating another large ovoo, complete with the almost obligatory crutch. The descent of the south side was easier going, and we were surprised to spot a lone cyclist picking her way up the road. Delphine is from Belgium and cycling solo from Ölgii to Ulaanbaatar, having just spent several months in South America. She gratefully accepted our offer of hot chocolate and we enjoyed a few minutes chatting before she headed on up the hill, hoping to find a local family with whom to spend the night. We continued downhill on a heavily rutted stoney road, justifying our under vehicle protection upgrade before leaving Australia.

After spending another cold night tucked into a small canyon just off the road we eventually reached Ölgii, the capital of the Bayaan-Ölgii aimag (province). This part of Mongolia is predominantly Kazakh and the place has a very different feel to the rest of the country. Things started well at Coffee & Book, a western style cafe serving good coffee and Kazakh food, whilst allowing us to swap some of our reading material. The local museum contained some interesting insights into the Kazakh culture, along with some truly atrocious taxidermy, and a quick scoot around the town allowed us a quick re-supply, including the mandatory fire extinguisher to be carried in Russia. Ölgii has a very friendly feel, and as with many frontier settlements a certain defiance and Wild West atmosphere. We liked it. It was also recently closed (only 10 days ago) due to an outbreak of bubonic plague. Turns out eating raw marmots, which carry the disease but are traditionally consumed by Mongolians for alleged health benefits, isn’t that healthy after all. However, a trip to a local butcher, and some interesting mime, scored us some tasty looking camel.

The drive to the Russian border is mostly paved and took a little over an hour the next morning. Having taken two days at our last border crossing we were hoping this would be a bit faster. Getting out of Mongolia was pretty simple – pay for road tax (asking for an official receipt almost halving the price…), wait for the customs officials to work out that yes, our visa is still valid, quick check of the vehicle and drive on through to no-mans-land. This consisted of 5km of snow and ice, with several jack-knifed lorries being dug out by their hardy looking Russian drivers. The Russian side was very friendly, even allowing us to light the stove and make coffee whilst awaiting passport inspection, but not fast. The import documents for Giles took an age to process, though the Mongolian drivers weren’t faring any better. Once through, we had to find third party insurance, mandatory in Russia, which was provided by what appeared to be a couple of kids logging on to the State system from a slow internet connection in their front room. After a total of six hours, we were free to drive on into Western Siberia for our quick transit to Kazakhstan.

The Frozen North

We camped in the shelter of a disused quarry. It seems a lot of local roadbuilding consists of digging into the nearest hillside and harvesting rocks and gravel to fill the potholes, so quarries are plentiful, close to the road, level, and often sheltered… if not the most romantic.

Next morning we were up early and heading north to lake Khövsgöl – little sister of Lake Baikal and another place we’d earmarked for mountain biking. The forecast, however, had it earmarked for a snow storm later that day and well into the next. Undeterred, we went for a ride to a pebbly beach with an awesome view up the (frozen) lake before hotfooting it back to the town and the shelter of a much lauded coffee shop. Coffee isn’t much of a thing in China or Mongolia so reading about a place who roasted their own beans and had an Italian coffee machine (and baked cakes daily) was too much to resist. To Mike’s utter dismay the only other customer was eating the last slice of cake. The coffee was still excellent so we made a tactical plan to come back earlier the next day.

Michael has been brewing some kind of bug for a couple of days. We haven’t (knowingly) eaten any marmot, cooked or raw, so it’s probably not bubonic plague, but something almost as debilitating… between that and the weather forecast it seemed sensible to stay put for a while and so we checked in to the only place that was open – a small Ger camp situated on the edge of town a short walk from the lake, the mini market and the coffee shop. It blew an absolutely freezing gale for the next 48 hours so we read books, chatted to the other hotch potch of travellers and I let Michael beat me at Bananagrams.

Restless after two nights in one place we refilled the water tank from the locals’ spot at the edge of the lake and returned to Moron (Mu-roon) for some supplies. This involved a visit to the local black market (which is just the market) – a huge warren of shipping containers, stalls and sheds with very distinct districts for eg car parts, clothes, beauty products, home wares and everything you might need to build your own Ger. Yes, I was sorely tempted… We found the ‘meat’ district and some kind local ladies showed us various unidentifiable carcasses before merrily hacking a section off one once we’d clearly established it was cow.

I called this one ‘Yak-Michael’

From Moron we were taking another long/short cut across country heading west. We were driving along another stunning river valley and heading up to a high pass when, just short of the top we saw cyclists (cyclists!) toiling up the track ahead. Delighted, we stopped to donate sweets and beer and had a great chat – they were Swiss, had been travelling by bike and train for months throughout south east Asia, China, Mongolia, and ultimately were heading homewards like us, though they would arrive about 6 months later. We’d both been tempted to suggest camping together but Mike was coughing like he had the consumption and we desperately didn’t want to pass it on to these guys, so we carried on.

Instead we stopped by a small frozen lake just down from a windy, snowy plateau and cooked some of the meat in our camp pressure cooker (genius addition), and sat down to enjoy a delicious mutton stew…

In our preparation for this trip it would have been easy to get carried away upgrading and modifying every inch of the truck and we had to constantly, sagely, remind ourselves we were going overlanding, not off-roading. Since starting we have driven every kind of surface – from sand dunes to snow drifts, cratered mud trails to immaculate tarmac. We are learning to judge the ruts and differentiate between ‘maintain speed and Mike’s skull will only just graze the headliner’ and ‘bury the wheels, bottom out the suspension and squeak an apology to Giles as we get airborne’… The next morning we faced several hundred more kilometres of cross country tracks. It’s pretty arduous driving so we stop often and change over, replenish tea or make porridge. We were doing just that when a small flat bed lorry complete with a pair of horses in the back pulled up alongside us and stopped. They were out of fuel… could we help? We tried siphoning some diesel from our tank but it turns out it has an anti siphon valve. Hmm. What about towing them to the top of the pass, from whence they could coast down the other side? they asked. well… Ok!

It was 20km to the top so we ate our porridge, put in the towing hitch, strapped Giles to their truck and set off. We stopped at the top by an Ovoo (shamanistic offering consisting of rocks, tree branches, colourful fabric and often, bafflingly, crutches), unhitched, and watched them merrily coast off down the other side. Half an hour later we pulled up next to them at a Guanz (canteen) at the bottom of the valley where Mike order tea and soup like a local. Tea is generally tsutee tsai (salty tea) and soup is generally mutton plus – today’s being mutton plus some kind of noodles.

The Swiss cyclists had been assured that the road from this point on was tarmac so we were dismayed on their behalf to find it isn’t quite finished yet. For the next hundred km we mostly drove alongside what will be the road, sometimes sneaking back on for a section before diving off again at an incomplete bridge or culvert. Eventually we reached pristine, continuous tarmac and it was the quietest road we have been on in the whole of Mongolia.

The next day saw us travelling through some of the most discomfitingly barren, desolate landscape I have ever seen in an area known as the Great Lakes depression. We arrived at Ulaangom which was also a fairly forbidding place and carried straight on through – there was another storm forecast and we were heading into the mountains – for snow leopard country.

The Ider Valley

I love maps. Always have. I love the crisp, organised feeling of a nicely folded new map, and equally the satisfaction of making new folds and creases, organising it to your own plans and purpose. And I love pouring over them, picking out the roads and structures, rivers and contours that allow you to build up that 3D picture of a place, without ever having been there. But there a many things a map cannot show you: the condition of those roads, the colours of the hills, the nature of the people who inhabit that landscape. Planning this trip had given ample opportunity to examine the maps, and scour Google Earth for little snippets of detail that might tell us whether a route was possible. The Ider Valley, where we now found ourselves, was one such place that I have stared at for the past six months, wondering if it would provide us with a route through to the northern province of Khövsgöl.

The Ider Valley
Picturesque Jargalent

The first obstacle seemed to be a bridge, or rather part of a bridge. Examination on the ground confirmed what I had suspected – it was an ex-bridge, with both ends washed away by flood waters. No matter, the river wasn’t deep and the road continued on the other side, so tomorrow we would cross. In the meantime, we had another visitor to the camp, who within two sentences had established I was a fisherman and led me away to show me the local pools. Turns out the Ider river contains taimen, the largest salmonoid species in the world and a prized capture for any angler. Fishing trips organised by western outfitters run into several thousand dollars for a 10 day chance to catch these monsters (which grow up to 1.5m long). Unfortunately it is currently the middle of the spawning season, and all fishing in Mongolia is closed until the middle of June. Next time. We spent an enjoyable half an hour chatting with Chuluumdorj, through a combination of mime, his fledgeling English, and the dry-wipe board Cas had had the foresight to bring with us (though mostly for communicating with children).

I can always find a fellow fisherman!

The next day dawned to the sound of a revving engine and occasional tooting car horn from across the river. I went to investigate and found a couple of nomads had got their van stuck, whilst moving their camp for the summer! We packed up, crossed the river (which had come up a few inches overnight) and towed them out without much difficulty. Cas’s reward? Turns out they had a goat in the footwell too, although he wasn’t really the cuddling type. They had come from Jargalent, where we were heading….if they could get through, we reckoned we could…

Giles to the rescue!
Not much of a cuddler…
Contemplating the weight limit (it held)

The sun shone, the birds sang (and posed for photos) and we slowly but surely made our way along the river valley, enjoying the most beautiful surroundings of the journey so far. Velvety hills of oranges, reds and infinite shades of green rose up from the wide, fast, glistening river below. Dotted with the occasional Ger or log cabin, which seem to be more common in these northern latitudes. The small, pretty town of Jargalent, with its multicoloured rooftops, sits neatly into the hillside, as the road winds its way over the flood plains and around the cliffs which sometimes leave you tiptoeing close to the waters edge. The main road headed north from Jargalent, over the mountains, but we opted to continue in the valley bottom, such was its allure. We passed few folk, save for a wizened old herder on his horse. He stopped for a chat, gave us directions for where we were headed (or directions to somewhere anyhow…), and was delighted when we offered him a swig of vodka for his troubles. The whole bottle was rapidly tucked deep within his tunic and he was mounted and on his way.

Desmoiselle Crane
Bar-headed Geese

Several more hours, with backdrops changing from grassy plains to rocky peaks and back again, we regained the tarmac at the town of Mörön (pronounced Mu-roon). The 200km drive here had taken us 11 hours. Shattered, but delighted our route choice had paid off, we tucked in to the shelter of a hillside half way to Lake Khövsgöl and called it a (really good) day.

Another rickety bridge of the past

Our thanks this week go to Cooper Tyres….

Cold nights and hot springs!

The sun is powerfully hot here and rapidly warms the land enough to give rise to mirages and thermals, but the wind has been penetratingly cold at times and the nights freezing. In spite of sleeping bag liners, double down duvets and an extra wool blanket it’s been cold enough for us to need socks, thermals and woolly hats in bed. Then on blue sky days we have had to regularly apply factor 50 and resist the urge to switch on the air conditioning…

Przewalskis Horse

After just such a night we woke to a beautiful clear day with a biting wind. We headed into Hustai National Park to see what we could see. In what is hailed as one of conservations biggest triumphs the team at Hustai, with only private funding, have successfully reintroduced the previously extinct (in the wild) Takhi, also known as Przewalski’s horse. A great success in its own right, it has had knock on effects on biodiversity in the area and provided new opportunities for the local nomadic families including, to our delight, an artisan cheese making collaborative! We’re not sure it was much like the Gouda it claimed to be, nor could we tell from which of the 5 pictured animals the milk had originated, but it was certainly tasty.

We carried on along the road for a few hours but the pastel colours of the velvety hillsides beckoned and we pulled off to go explore on our mountain bikes, before enjoying another hot pot dinner in the lea of the truck and the late afternoon sun. Whilst most of the places we’d planned to go biking haven’t worked out, the truth is that Mongolia is a huge, wild, unfenced place with a bazillion tracks heading off in each and every direction. And what’s slow and uncomfortable in a car makes complete sense on a mountain bike, even if it’s not quite single track.

The next day we continued west to Harhorin/Kharkhorin, a small town near the site of ancient Karakoram, most of which is in ruin or stages of disrepair – incredible considering it was for a short time the capital of one of the largest empires the world has ever seen. But there’s still the original monastery, a really excellent museum and, perhaps more surprisingly, a huge phallus in the hillside.

Monastery resident warden

We’d been told to stop in at Fairfield guesthouse in Tsetserleg – famous first and foremost for its bakery and second for the owners’ enthusiasm for mountain biking which sounded like a double win . Sadly the bakery is closed on Sundays and the owners away until summer, so we rerouted into the hills where we’d read there were several Ger camps surrounding some thermal springs. Two river crossings and a few mountain passes later we arrived to find steam emerging from the hillside and the camps a hive of activity – just getting ready to open for the season in fact! Unperturbed we asked the workmen if we could jump in for a dip which they had no objections to, before heading into a col to camp for the night.

The next day we were woken by a couple of Shelducks, then a large herd of horses and finally the unmistakable revs of a motorbike. It’s not unusual to get visitors even when you think you’re tucked away in the middle of nowhere, what’s more unusual is to be asked for a drink at 8 in the morning. We tried offering tea but no, that wasn’t what was needed at all. I poured our guest a mug of vodka whereupon he dropped to one knee, took it, gulped it and handed the mug back. He tried with increasing vehemence to communicate something to us which we couldn’t understand – Mike tried drinking some vodka too, again we offered tea and food but eventually we gave up and carried on assembling our mountain bikes whilst he carried on drinking our vodka. That is until my bike was built and he took it for a spin, before waving a cheery farewell and setting off down the hill. It only occurred to us later that perhaps he wanted the bottle of booze to take with him, instead of being made to drink it at such an early hour…

We’d looked at the map and decided there was a reasonable loop around the mountain we were camped on – 15km more or less – for a leg stretch before getting back in the truck. So, unbreakfasted, we set off. 4 hours, over 40km and only 3 mini snickers bars later we coasted back down to camp: it had been a stunning and fun ride, we’d chatted to horses, yaks, sheep and goats along the way and taken in some fabulous views. We devoured everything that didn’t require cooking then packed up.

40km into the 15km ride…

We drove to the Chuluut gorge where we camped before heading on to a town called Tariat near Tsagaan Nuur lake – another popular tourist spot when the weather is friendlier and the lake isn’t frozen. We biked up to the crater of the extinct volcano before carrying on west.

People who know Mike won’t be stunned to hear he spent a lot of time planning, preparing and researching for this trip. What might surprise you is that he scoured the maps and came up with one single 200km section of track along a river valley and through the mountains that he really wanted us to drive. In all of Mongolia. And so it was that late on Wednesday night we turned off the (amazing, smooth and finished!) tarmac road to spend the night by a beautiful river in what was our most gorgeous camp site yet, before really heading into the unknown.