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!

Desert Ice

Our camp site for the night was at the entrance to one of the area’s ice canyons at Dugany Am. Later in the year you can just about drive through this narrow chasm, but for now the ice extends right out to the entrance. The wind died overnight but returned with a vengeance the next morning, resulting in a rapid de-camp with numb fingers and some entertaining 4×4 fun finding our way back to the road. We headed to the better known Yolin Am canyon and chatted to some friendly Russians as we walked in to see the ‘glacier’. It is of course not a true glacier, but a frozen stream which doesn’t thaw until the autumn, although the cracks, depressions and overall setting do make it feel pretty glacial.

Sheltering behind a stupa
Yolin Am

Setting out across the desert once more we drove north to the Flaming Cliffs, a series of sandstone formations so named due to their colour as the sun sets. They were also home to some of Mongolia’s earliest and most important dinosaur fossil finds. We were intending to stay in a tourist Ger camp, but we’re consistently finding that we’re too early and most places haven’t yet opened for the season. The T-Rex statue in front of one of the camps was still firmly under wraps. We found a camp spot at the base of the cliffs and spent a relaxed afternoon reading and hunting for fossils. As the sun set, the cliffs lived up to their name, with reds and oranges reflecting the sunlight between the lengthening shadows, as we made use of the chopsticks bought in Erenhot and enjoyed a Chinese hotpot for dinner (thanks Yingchu!).

Wrapping a T-Rex seems like a bad job…
Indiana Wild! (Doing some litter collection too)

Waking in the morning was pretty special, and well worth the trek to get there. The desert continues to stretch out to the west for many hundreds of kilometres, all begging to be explored. But we’d had enough of having our teeth shaken out by now and felt we should be making progress, so decided to hit the highway north to Ulaanbaatar, around 600km away. Whilst paved the whole way from Dalanzadgad, large sections are pretty ropey and filled with potholes deep enough to swallow a camel. Or a truck tyre, as demonstrated but the regular sight of a goods vehicle stopped by the road. The Gobi is littered with off-cast rubber, with the odd lonely car sat on a jack whilst one wheel is obviously away being repaired somewhere. A reminder of how hard this place can be on vehicles.

Bayanzag (Flaming Cliffs) camp spot

Whilst heading generally north, we did dive back into the sand at one stage to visit a rocky outcrop called Tsagaan Suvraga, the Painted Rocks. This impressive limestone outcrop exhibits a wonderful display of colours within the rock, with reds and purples painting the cliffs and the hillocks around the base. Surprisingly for such a remote spot, another car rolled up whilst we were there, containing a trio of friendly folk from the National University of Mongolia who were taking photos for their new prospectus! We reckon they’re not short of material in this country. Chinzorig, the university public affairs manager, taught us a few more words of Mongolian too, taking our total vocabulary to about five.

Mike wasn’t allowed to go any further out…

A couple more hours of dodging potholes and we literally drove off the road to find a campsite in a flat glade, with small rolling hills surrounding. After being woken the next morning by a heard of goats ambling by (being woken by animals is becoming a theme for this trip) we took the opportunity of a break in the vicious north wind to put the bikes together the next morning and stretch our legs. Following a combination of vehicle and animal tracks around and over the hills and rocky outcrops we eventually found Giles again and continued towards the capital.

Thanks to: our patient Mongolian language teacher, Chinzorig! Good luck with your prospectus.