The diaries - 8   

29 May

Ulaan Bataar - Mongolia


Saturday 21 May We are packing the bikes up outside the guest house ready to go south to the Chinese border when disaster strikes. My helmet, which is on the floor by the bike, while I am fastening on my tank bag, is stolen! A man saunters past, picks it up and runs, one Shoei helmet a pair of BMW gloves disappear into the city. I admit to being gutted, tears of frustration are not far away, because in a country where helmets are not usually worn, replacing this is going to be a problem.

Toro, the guest house owner, runs all over the district, putting th e word out about what has happened, we offer a reward for the return of the helmet, but of course no success. I spend an hour on the main street in U.B. with a cardboard plaque asking for information, the building site with its busy Chinese workers has me imagining a Bob the Builder yellow industrial hat sitting on my head, and that doesn't amuse me!

I spot an oncoming motorcyclist - and yes - he is wearing a helmet! I flag him down, explain what has happened and he says we may be able to buy a second-hand helmet at a bike mart some 10kms away. He offers to take us, I expect to find my own helmet has made it there before me, but no, though I end up with a helmet a little large, but nothing that 3 balaclavas won't cure! I leave Ulaan Bataar a little despondent to say the least.

It is 2pm before we get out of the city and head south, and for the first 90 miles the road is paved and in good condition, this soon deteriorates into the usual Mongolian highway - but more sand - as we are heading into the Gobi Desert.

The night is spent at the station hotel in Choir, where the station staff have us taking the bikes into the offices for safekeeping and the next morning we leave, on roads that are not too bad, considering. The good sandy surface doesn't last though, and it is not long before I have my first fall of the day! My off-road skills see me always in the wrong rut, or the front and rear wheels wanting to going their separate ways, I always struggle in deep sand or the grey gravel that is the Gobi. I know the theory: stand up on the pegs, squirt the power on and ride over the sand dunes. I tried that way back in Hovd city and ended up being carted off to hospital with a suspected broken ankle. I prefer to take it gently, at my own pace. I usually get there, with a little help from a friend!

The next day takes us 10 hours to do a measly 99 miles and we end up up camping in the desert. We have seen a few gazelle, camels and horses, people have been non-existent, we could be on the moon. We make camp and prepare a meal, rice and tinned mackerel. A lorry driver
comes along, gets out of his cab and comes to look us over. He squats down and accepts a third of our dinner, eats up and departs. No conversation as such, just a companiable interlude with a stranger.

We are up and away early the next morning and arrive in Sainshand, by early afternoon. We book into a hotel and have the luxury of a hot shower. Little did we know that this would be the last running water that we would see for the next 6 days! Water in the Gobi is more precious than gold or oil. The hotels have toilets and taps, but no running water, washing is a thing that is not considered important, bottled water is available though.... at a price.. Vodka is cheaper!

We leave on our journey south the next morning a little late, waiting for the bank to open. The hardest thing about setting off is actually getting out of the town! Tracks are everywhere, and we usually try several that go in the right direction, but end up either at the dump site or in the cemetery.

Within 2 miles of leaving Saynshand I was throwing a "wobbly". More sand, deep sand, "Sue gets stuck sand!" I was riding along in front - as I have done for the last 5 weeks - (this is so that Mick can see me fall off and pick me up without having to come back!) and I wanted to cry. I just wanted to be a woman and bawl my eyes out. I have no wish to apologise for this amongst you hardened bikers, we women do things differently.

So I had a cry, and felt heaps better for it, I got on with the job in fact and we did 90 miles in the worst conditions I have ever experienced. Sand storms raged, we had to shelter behind the bikes, open-faced helmet is absolutely no use whatsoever in these conditions either. It was 9pm when
we called a halt to the day, and had to put up the bivvi, the stove wouldn't work in the high winds so it was no food either. Both Mick and I had noticed that the laughter we had started the trip with was now non-existent, it was more a case of survival.

We were well-prepared for this trip into the desert, having sufficient water, food and fuel, but the grim reality of just having to survive had started to affect us, we were both introspective. Although we were on well-used tracks we had seen hardly anybody, what if?.......

It was an uncomfortable night, though the sand storm abated. It was a bright moonlight night but oh so cold. We set off early again our goal of Zamyn-Uud attainable.

The next three days are ones that will be etched into my mind for ever. One of those experiences I can take out and bore people with in my old age!

Trying to get into China, getting oh so near. I actually made it further than Mick when the customs officials took me for a ride into the city (under escort of course) to get some yen, when it looked as though we had been successful. One customs official was particularly helpful, he even thought I was "sweet" - and that was before I burst into well-timed tears, this time crocodile style (well, every little helps) and they rushed off for the tissues, tea and sympathy. I hope Mick has told you the story in detail, because we are now back in Ulaan Bataar, and we now have to resort to Plan B, which means a run-in with the notoriously difficult Russian embassy to get another visa to cross by the northern route into Kazakhstan.

The main thing is we are still on with the adventure and, after leaving the Gobi, the laughter is back, along with the beer and food!

Saturday 21st. May


We were ready for leaving Ulaan Bataar, spirits were high, the 'bikes as ready as ever, and then some b*^4#d went and stole Sue's helmet from the side of her 'bike as we were strapping the luggage on. Three feet away and we never saw it... that's how good these thieving buggers are. Sue was in tears, Toro from the Khongor was almost in tears at the sight of Sue in tears. Sue will tell her story. Suffice to say that within a couple of hours we were on the road, Sue wearing a second-hand open-face helmet with bubble visor. Looked the part too if I might say! So a late start to the day, as we set off to ride south through the Gobi Desert and to the Chinese border at Zamyn-Uud some 500 plus miles away.

The first sixty or so miles were on good tarmac but then, due to road works, we had to take to the side tracks and rough yet again. We called in at Lunbag for lunch, the site of the abandoned (1992) Russian Air Force base. What a waste... large disused buildings, an airstrip second to none... in the middle of nowhere! We rode into Choir, found a hotel close to the railway station, and rode the 'bikes up four steps into the railway station offices for secure overnight parking. 150 miles today... great going, considering the late start.

The next morning I rode the 'bikes down the steps to the amusement of all the railway staff, and then we hit the rough and sandy - deep at times - road towards Sainshand... we're now well into the Gobi Desert for real! 107 miles of sweat, sand and desert later we called it a day at 9pm, just some 35 miles from Sainshand, but enough was enough. We made camp before darkness fell, and mused on the thought that Sue had got into the routine of taking a SST (Soft Sand Tumble) while in Mongolia, just about every second day....

That night there was a full moon and stars like you can never see in England... so quiet, just the desert... all the sweat and tears now making this moment worthwhile.

Into Sainshand by 1.30pm... four hours to cover 35 miles, a hotel with water, and a bier or two. A run-down town, sand blown, windswept and in the middle of nowhere.

Tuesday 24th.

Took a couple of hours to find our way out of Sainshand... that's just how it is with these towns! Tracks going in every direction, you have to be on one half an hour before you can 'get the feel' if it's the right one. The GPS helps without doubt, and the new Navigator II was a revelation, but you still need to have a 'feel' for this land to navigate!

We headed for Erdene where we knew there was petrol, but today the sun wasn't shining, it was overcast and windy. We were 'overtaken' by three sand storms: could see them coming up behind us, and like an Exocet missile... couldn't do a damned thing about them! Spin the 'bikes round at the last moment, face them into the wind, onto the side stands, and dive behind them for cover. The wind and sand rattled the visors, we were in a huge sandblasting machine with visibility down to a few feet. Move in the slightest and sand would shoot up your sleeves, down

As one sand storm cleared a herdsman came to see us on his horse, I offered him my last sweet which he was reluctant to take, but 'asked' if he could have the round airtight tin... he was like a kid when I gave it to him, the smile as wide as his face. That night, not being able to find Erdene, we made camp in another sand storm using a 'Tarp' supplied by Arnold of Trapper Equipment, Netherlands. The wind was too strong even to attempt to put the tent up, but the Tarp, a kind of bivouac one-sided thing was great.

Making a wind-break with the 'bikes, the Tarp kept the wind and sand from us... just taking a gamble that it wouldn't rain, for our sleeping bags from the knees down were outside! I woke early hours to see the moon shining brightly, the sandstorm over. I opened one eye to see a beetle of some sort, clearly visible in the moonlight,'looking' at me! I bid him 'goodnight' and winked at him, and I'm sure he winked back...

Up at 6.30am and 85 miles to Zamyn-Uud... the border town... our objective! Good roads but laced with stretches of deeeeeep sand which brought our average speed well down. Sometimes the sand would be up to the rear wheel spindle... clutch fully home, rev the bugger and paddle out of it with feet going like bees' wings!

Zamyn-Uud... we'd ridden south through the Gobi Desert.... for real, for fact... fffantastic!

Thursday 26th.

China today? To the Mongolian border control where we learned that we needed a special form issued by the army to enable us to exit the country. Three hours of running around and we ended up being 'escorted' through the border control by a high-ranking army officer, to whom everyone, but everyone saluted. They even saluted us as we rode under the quickly raised barriers. To the Chinese border control where we were just 'put on hold' for four hours with no checking of documents whatsoever. We were told to "Wait there"... so we did. Eventually some officials from the Chinese border control came to see us, just told us that we didn't have the 'necessary papers' (How did they know what we had?) and we were to return to Mongolia. It became clear that we needed a Mongolian company with a Chinese subsidary, to 'underwrite' us before we could take the 'bikes into China!

Help and assistance was saught, and given, back at the Mongolian border control, with a meeting with a top rank official, in his office, with interpreter, and his deputies. We were asked to return at 10am the next morning where it would all be sorted. China? Not today!

Back at the Mongolian border control the next morning we were told that we could - they had checked with the Chinese side - quite properly load the motorcycles on to a truck, go through the border control and into China and unload t'other side.

Now we know of motorcyclists that have done this and ridden through China, and now we're told that this is how we should go about it ourselves... so we went for it. Chinese guy in a Chinese-registered van was more than willing, for a few dollars, to take the 'bikes through in the back of his van. The Mongolian border officials even helped us load them...

Through the Chinese border control no problems, into the office and had our passports/visas stamped... we were in. Easy eh! I suspected somehow a sting in the tail... it couldn't be this easy... could it! Then the customs official asked us to go to Room 204 where a high-ranking guy, as nice as he was, as helpful as he was, told us that we couldn't take our 'bikes into China without this special form! He'd no right to help us, or be as nice as he was, for we had implied 'guilty knowledge' by putting our 'bikes into the back of a truck! But he telephoned round, made enquiries on our behalf, let us use his phone, his e-mail and internet... but to cut a long story short... WE could go into China, but not OUR 'bikes! It would take a month to get the necessary paperwork sorted!

We made the decision, as much to help him as ourselves but we really didn't have any alternative , to go back into Mongolia and put 'Plan B' into operation... back to Ulaan Bataar, obtain another Russian visa, head north to Lake Baikal, into Kazakhstan,Uzbekistan etc. then pick up our route for The Long Way Home. All stops were pulled out for us, for it was now 5.30pm and the borders closed at 6pm.

We were rushed through, slipstreamed through the system... but as we neared the final Chinese exit control the barriers were down. This control is manned by a couple of young officers and when we roared up on the 'bikes demanding the gates be opened they didn't know what to do. When Sue's foot slipped and she dropped the 'bike they were totally in a quandary... they helped pick the 'bike up, and then answering their radio they rushed to the barriers and opened our way back into Mongolia... 90 mph through 'no man's land' and into the Mongolian side just in time... The barrier fell behind us.

God knows what the Mongolian border officials will make of our visas when we eventually leave to the north... for we only have a single entry visa into Mongolia... but we've entered it three times, left twice... and have a 'cancelled' Chinese visa!!!
!So it's back to Ulaan Bataar for us... but how? We don't have the time to ride back up through the Gobi Desert... or the inclination if we're honest.

Friday 27th. and 9.30am sees us at the railway station at Zamyn-Uud. Weight limit for goods on the train, in the baggage car, is 130kg, but we are given the nod that this could be extended to 200kgs 'in the right circumstances'! Sue's bike on first, all panniers etc. removed. It is the lightest, and I tell them my 'bike weighs the same... 209kgs. Much shaking of heads, conferring, and we're OK. Didn't expect them to weigh mine too though... 220kgs... shit!

A little 'baksheesh' and we're OK... now Sue has to rush off and see if she can get tickets for us to travel on the same train, the 6.10pm to Ulaan Bataar! Our luck's in once again, and it costs about fifty quid for our 'bikes, baggage and us, for the 500 plus miles back to UB... a bargain we say!

I supervise the loading of our 'bikes, we go for a meal... and wait. The train is comfortable, the seats fold out into bunks, and we share the cabin with a young man and his older work colleague. He speaks excellent English, works in the tax department, and we spend a pleasant evening improving his English and our knowledge of Mongolia.

I daydream as I look out of the window and the Gobi desert unfolds in a different light. Sue said it was like saying 'goodbye' to the Gobi as we headed north back through it.. it was. Mile after mile of endless sand, wild horses, camels, and in the middle of nowhere, someone would be walking... alone... to somewhere. I shall never forget the Gobi. To cross it has been without doubt one of the hardest things I have ever done, but an experience I would not swop for anything... ever!

Sunday morning, 11am, and I'm 'supervising' the unloading of the 'bikes. All is well for they have
packed in tight with large soft bails of something or other. As ever people are curious about them, prodding and poking, pulling, touching and kicking tyres. Without asking they will cock a leg over them while you're trying to load them up, stamping on the brake and gear levers, twisting the throttle, flicking switches etc. But they mean well and are ever helpful to give assistance... even when not required.

Lunchtime and we're back in the Khongor Guest House with a warm welcome from Degi and Toro. Bike's locked up and secure, coffee, and best of all... a hot shower. Down to 'Dave's Place' for a full 'all day' English breakfast, a bier... and all is well.

Russian visas to be obtained and 'The Long Way Home' continues....


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