Preparation for 2013 Ulaan Bator to Magadan, then London

This week, after some “normal” pitfalls, I obtained the receipt for my Russian Business Visa thanks to help from a number of people.

There may even be time to acquire the Kazakh Double Entry Tourist Visa, too.

The Russian Business Visa allows for up to 180 days in one journey within Russia. The Tourist Visa permits just 30 and that’s not enough for my goals. The penalty for overstaying a Russian Visa is severe – deportation, heavy fine, 5-year ban on any new Visa.

Once in UB (10 July) I’ll rebuild the forks (new seals and bushings), permanently install a new, larger GPS, install the new Tubliss in the front wheel, and change out my riding luggage for some that is completely waterproof and further lighten my load – 20kgs, max. This year means an iPad instead of a MacBook Air, a 9oz vs 28oz bead breaker, a micro 4/3s camera instead of a DSLR and considerably less and lighter tools and leaving some things and parts in UB. My weight is currently 99kg and I expect to see London at closer to 90kg. 🙂

Goals include riding to Magadan via the Western BAM and the infamous Vitim River Bridge and then from Tynda heading up the M56 Federal Highway to Yakutsk. From there I’ll make for Magadan and if water levels permit exit the M56 on the OSR (Old Summer Road) to Susuman and then finish at Magadan.

The plan is to refresh in Magadan briefly and then turnaround and take the Trinksy Trackt back to the OSR. Again, water levels will be monitored as I’ll be alone. Failing that I’ll ride the RoB (Road of Bones back to Yakutsk. From there, it’s on to Mirny on the way to Udachny, the only road above the Arctic Circle in Asia.

Returning to Mirny I’ll make for Lensk and a ferry to Ust Kut. From there it’s back to Ulaan Bator. At this point (about 10000km (6000 miles) I’ll check the bike over and rest a bit. I’ll have gone through at least one front tire.

The plan is then to ride quickly across the steppe to Tsaganuur in western Mongolia and exit where I entered in 2011. More spirited riding, though avoiding main roads unless necessary due to weather or lateness of season back to Kazakhstan.

Entering Kyrgyzstan for some sightseeing (time permitting) and more visas (Uzbek, Tajik and Afghan) and visiting some folks I met in Astrakhan in 2011 who live in Bishkek. Tajikistan will reverse the ride of 2011 and hopefully provide a little more time in the incredible Wakhan Valley. Here, at Ishkashim I’ll enter Afghanistan for a blast to Mazar-i-Sharif where, among other things, sits a hauntingly beautiful mosque. There is an option to enter Afghanistan from Uzbekistan if visa paperwork or other “things” intercede.

Hopefully, I can at least re-visit the Ferghana Valley in UZ. A stop in Tashkent is on the schedule to visit Rustam Muratov who provided TREMENDOUS assistance when my Shorai battery failed in ’11. I have some small gifts for him and the folks at the ‘Biker Bar’ opposite the old Taj hotel.

Then off to the temple cities (Samarkand, Bukhara & Khiva for quick visits and gift deposits and that amazing plov in Bukhara. A small village, Urus Krishlak is on the agenda to see the wonderful Muslim family that provided me with food, shelter and lots of smiles where the nuked Shorai was replaced with a Chinese clone of an ancient Russian battery that would not start the bike but did keep it running. Nukus will mean another visit to the Savitsky Museum which was an unprecedented surprise in ’11. Then toward Beyneu and Lyoka along with the boots I’ll be carrying for him.

From Beyneu it’s up to Russia again and a short visit with some very professional people I’ve enjoying working with remotely for the last 10 months.

Then a very fast descent toward Sochi and exiting Russia into Georgia, into Turkey and . . .

Yes . . . it’s ALOT of kms/miles by someone who really hates the idea of “country counting” and visits which are barely whisks of time. But there’s simply no choice so I’ve embraced the idea of riding this whole thing for what it is and will be – a very long endurance ride across large stretches of relative nothingness at a pace that borders on the imprudent.

The goal is London by 1 October. I’ll need considerably better fortune against interruptions than I had in 2011. But the bike is ready (or nearly so) and so am I.

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It’s ALIVE ! (apologies to Dr. Frankenstein)

A very belated update . . . but if there’s nothing contentful . . . why post. (This ain’t Facebook. 🙂 )

Unable to emancipate myself from some rather lengthy and pressing software development . . . I escaped to Mongolia to inspect the Duckling. After last year’s fever what would be the state of it’s heart ?

My to-do list was almost thirty items long when I arrived with the most salient and critical items being the water in the crankcase oil and the state of cooling system. Not wanting to confront potential utter disaster immediately . . . I saved those items for nearly last. Illogical, irrational and . . . an obvious avoidance of potentially devastating news. Surprised ?

All of these vehicles, from 1969 to 2003 have driven at least 7,000 miles to get here

Weather was good, even warm and this time the Oasis was FULL. That was very different from last year. A large number of vehicles and guests were on-hand in a variety of conveyance. From bicycles to modest motorcycles, camper vans, small SUVs to . . . a vehicle viewable on Google Earth and quite appropriate for laying siege to Poland. And it’s French pilot, “Fred”, seemed entirely capable. Fred was on a 5-year RTW (round the world) with his family.

Invading Poland with a large vehicle and the pretext of "peace" - never been done before !

German was the overwhelming spoken language followed by Dutch and then English and French (a tie !). Just two Americans including me. Billy Romp . . . THIS is the way to travel. Light, in the “old” black, with a Mandolin touching many with his music and stories. He seemed frustrated ONLY with his very American humor not penetrating the German-speaking crowd. When requested Billy seemed unable and perhaps uninterested in playing anything newer than the early 70’s. One night he opened with three tunes from the ‘Wizard of Oz’ and later played an interpretation of Copland’s ‘Appalachian Spring’, as American as anything ever composed. Billy’s ‘Ulaan Bator Blues’ . . . was hilarious and just a teeny bit “blue”. 🙂

61 years young . . . the only traveler I've met with less gear (weight) - and he's got a Mandolin !

There are many reasons to travel and especially to places that are a little exotic. But the Oasis, and it’s amazing owners, Sibylle and Rene, host/shelter/shield-the-public-from a fairly large number of the small crowd of eccentric travelers that think going overland to Mongolia would be “cool”. A variety of “careers”, ages, gender and conveyance are the easy takeaways. On this visit my goals were mundane tasks, time permitting only a potential test ride and a brief visit to the Chingiss Khan statue complex east of UB.

Thanks to one and all at the Intergam Oasis for making my time there so fascinating, funny and enriching. Conversational topics that would implode into ideology remained civil and ENGAGED by the overwhelmingly european guests at the Oasis. The younger visitors were educated, interested, outgoing and aware of their world. Granted, given their european background they were a bit less optimistic than this Yank – but whose not less optimistic than an American born right up until the late 20th century ? For me, the somewhat less than sanguine articulation of the world’s challenges, it’s wonder and dilemmas by young europeans underscores why I think they and (northern) Europe will be relatively fine. You can’t move forward until you have at least some idea of where you are. In short, the clarity and cogency of their, to American ears, pessimism is ironically considerable evidence for being optimistic. I was honored to listen to their views, goals, hopes and descriptions. No doubt Michelanagelo’s father DID have to make his OWN paint brushes . . . but many young europeans are entirely more aware of their world than their north American counterparts. How could that not benefit them and Europe ? It certainly makes conversation far richer.

Sabine, Kaj & Nesto

Not that it was just the “kids” carrying the load. Max and his girlfriend rode R bikes from Austria, even taking a good chunk of the ‘Northern Route’ in Mongolia on them. Another couple from South Africa were on a HUGE ride on two “little” GS BMWs. A Swiss couple had their 3-year old daughter with them. They provided tremendous enjoyment and insights into riding, gear, the world, places to visit . . . living. Thank you.

If anyone feels missed, unmentioned or slighted – please inform me when you visit in Thailand. You’re all welcome, all the time.

So about our “heroine” – now known as ‘Berta’ thanks to Roy, a tall Dutchman who had enough LPG in small cans in his small SUV to flatten all of UB ! Well, it LOOKED pretty bad. Water in the oil, even after last years oil change. But when I pulled off the water pump cover . . . wow. “Well, Dr Frankenstein, it’s heart is beating but the face may need some work . . .”

Yeah, it looks awful. REALLY AWFUL. But the crystals had gathered nicely at the water pump and not clogged the radiator. The consistency was like a fine paste . . . it cleaned up quickly with a bit of white vinegar diluted with water. There were some tense moments like the pump bearings being both frozen AND stuck in the crankcase cover . . . but time heals all (in this case). New parts went in relatively easily and . . . she started IMMEDIATELY on 11-month old fuel.

The ultimate management guru !

So I rode out to the Genghis Khan statue to see a brushed stainless rendering of my ‘management guru’ (really, doesn’t matter what you read on the man or the Mongols, though ‘The Devil’s Horseman’ is a fine start). Berta was wheelie-ing easily and in 150 miles of riding returning over 45 MPG. The first 3km spin was shocking. I almost cried being reminded of how much FUN that bike is to ride. My last fix had been almost a year . . . too long.

But I’ll have to wait another 9 months . . .

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You know, in France . . . until 2012

In honor of . . . names will be withheld to protect ossified minds and outlooks.

There are two kinds of people I seem to encounter regularly, especially once I’ve returned to the western world, and particularly in America. Neither their numbers nor their percentage of the population are large but their POV is curiously similar . . . and lost.

The first yearns to return to some former time – the 50’s, 70’s, etc, “when men were men” or some such drivel.

Change . . . Ulaan Bator city center.

The other experienced a part of the world some time in the past and references that encounter as though not only is change unlikely, it’s impossible. “You know in France (in 1956) . . .” Hilarious and sad at once.

The first case represents, at least, a failure to acknowledge change, as constant an actor in life as there is. The latter represents, it seems, a failure to acknowledge the possibility of change within people, within humanity.

Why do I mention this ? Because both views seem decidedly un-American to me, in historical terms. Not in a moral or ethical sense but from the point of view of what America, and other people/nations/institutions, have also represented before, now and in the future. Not the opportunity but the requirement for change.

I’ve just motorcycled across a fair bit of the globe. In many of those places there was for a very long time a sense of “this is the way it was, the way it is, and the way it shall be”. This point of view allowed ancient and advanced civilizations to wither. And for some upstart, eg America, to go racing past. (Not in all ways, mind you.)

For instance, consider the fact that China represents 5,000 years of civilization and America perhaps 235 years. The Chinese were accounting for every grain of rice 4,000 years ago and invented the compass, silk cultivation, paper and gun powder. From 3,000 years ago until at least 1850 the life that the denizens of earth lived changed very little, rich or poor. A lack of medicine, technology, agricultural methods, transportation, etc improved very slowly. The transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age may look substantial in historical terms and to someone who lived at the threshold but to a kid moving from an iPhone 2 to an iPhone 4, nevermind from pre-Internet to today, it’s insignificant.

Most of the change that’s come to people’s lives, directly or indirectly, since 1850 has originated in North America. So that young “whipper snapper” has somehow, in spite of (or because of . . . ) a lack of cultural inertia, changed fast and changed the world. Gauged along this analysis axis America looks very “old” or significant.

The point is not that America is or isn’t important. The point is that holding out for a return to the past or a world view that’s frozen in time is . . . decidedly un-American. And perhaps even a bit sad. It’s hard to address the issues of today or the future with a perspective that uses the past as the solution-space. And it’s hard to be optimistic if you believe people and larger humanity can’t change. But look around – they have, they do, they will.

Part II will be largely about a ride in Siberia of at least 8,000km/5000miles. Depending upon time, weather, the global economy, etc a re-visit or longer stay in some places encountered in Part I. But there’s no way it’ll be as varied or interesting as Part I. How can it be ? The number of cultures, historical structures, historical paths, etc encountered in Part I, it seems, has no peer. So please lower expectations. It can be difficult making the “frozen tundra” fascinating and certainly if it is, it might be because it was a bit too dramatic for yours truly. (Go ahead, imagine an encounter with a Siberian Tiger or the Siberian cousin of a grizzly – only “small” by grizzly standards and definitely consumers of man-flesh.)

The site will be updated with proposed maps, a bit of riding video and some gear updates. Some things worked out, some . . . didn’t.

Gear Recs:
Canon S90 camera: Amazingly compact, provides full manual control, permits a polarizing filter to be used, and shoots in RAW mode, too. Upgrading to an S100 with the new Canon CMOS sensor.
Exo2: Their heated vest provided great peace of mind and tremendous comfort. I want to add their gloves !
3BR Powersports: The one thing that couldn’t fail other than the KTM was the power to the GPS. It didn’t.
Tubliss: I hate tubes. And the technology is primitive. My Tubliss tires lasted longer than “normal” and ran alot cooler.

Till Summer 2012.

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The end of Part I . . . a dusty, congested chinese hell-hole

Morning came and it was a fact that I’d be able to ride the remainder of the distance, 530km/330miles to Ulaan Bator on tarmac.

It was cold, probably low 20’s (Fahrenheit). The lady of the house looked exhausted from the previous evening’s drunk clearing extravaganza.

She slowly prepared to make breakfast and provided salt tea in the meantime. I packed and prepared to “dine and dash”. When I checked the coolant in the Duckling the radiator cap did not want to come open. Ice. Dang. Or worse. A second day when starting the bike will be a test to see if I’ve destroyed the bike in a minor or major way. What fun.

Breakfast was the most ridiculous pile of fatty sheep meat on noodles EVER. The fat literally shook for seconds after the bowl hit the table. It was kind of ghastly but . . . I was REALLY hungry and ate till my considerably shrunken stomach protested. (This meal would be re-visited in another 15 hours . . . )

So fueled up, both Duckling and weakest link, we prepared to start off. It was 10AM and thick high cloud meant a day without increasing warmth which once underway might provide comfort to the Duckling’s fevers.

But . . . a day without drama would be like a day without a crack headache ! ? !

I hate when this happens . . .

She wouldn’t start. The battery died fairly quickly. I can’t say I was surprised. Something has to spice up the day, right ? If it were just a ride across lots of nothing but beauty and fun motorcycling – how lame would that be. Never waste a (near) crisis, right ? So I scrambled to find someone with a . . . battery. Thankfully, there was a diesel truck being unloaded that DID run (there were several that were in various states of “repair”). The owner was only too willing to give me a jump.

So off came my gear, out came the tools and access to the battery. A small crowd of local yocals gathered offering all sorts of wisdom . . . in Mongolian. A man in a good looking cowboy hat started picking at the Duckling. I smacked his hand to the gasps and laughs of other locals. Apparently he was somebody.

The jumper cables were crude but . . . this isn’t Switzerland . . . precision is for people still riding around in Basel. The Duckling turned over and fired. Bitch. I disconnected the jumpers and tried again demonstrating insouciance for the locals. They reflected it right back in triplicate.

So . . . another 20 minutes getting everything all together and re-suiting up and I was off to . . . oh my God . . . Ulaan Bator, the asymptote.

At Bulgan, about 80km/50miles away I had to change money for fuel. The bank took FOREVER, of course. The GPS wanted to send me into a goat herd amongst wood shacks on a mud road. . . yeah, right.

The woman who shooed away four drunken Mongolian men and her son.

The town of Erdenet was a shock. There were multi-colored roofs on the structures but there were so MANY of them. The Duckling complained not a bit. Relics of Soviet “guidance” appeared – huge, closed ruins of central planning and the socialist way.

The light didn’t encourage photography and neither did the distance I needed to cover, even on tarmac. As the light fell I was still 100km/60 miles from UB and was having a hard time seeing the road. A stop for a final benzine replenishment permitted a chance to upgrade my cold weather gear. The Mongolian attendant seemed to shiver while watching me.

Traffic became positively heavy with lots of vehicles using their brights. I wasn’t blinded. I was blind for the last 30 minutes.

Ulaan Bator has changed alot. It was a bit sleepy with some disturbing sights, like most urban areas in the world, five years ago. Now it’s a chinese hell-hole with inconceivable amounts of traffic, dust thick in the air and the fragrances of diesel exhaust everywhere. Ridiculously pretentious signs offering hair care, karaoke, pubs, international goods, and . . . sushi were everywhere. Mongolia’s population is about 3.5 million. Hardly the warm welcome I’d been figuring on. Oh well.

The Duckling wasn’t impressed either and had a fever fit . . . I had to ride through truly homicidal traffic like Paul Revere on speed to get to the guesthouse, the Oasis. It is, was and will be !

I sent an SMS to Michelle, turned off the SPOT and tried to acknowledge that a trip of 18,000km/11,500miles was not over but . . . part I was.

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Muron to Unit

Another cold nite was somewhat irrelevant to me as I slept warm and so did the Duckling. Breakfast was humorous. The same menu was on offer and the same cream of potato soup was . . . not the same. Other than it was still bland.

I provisioned a few items at a nearby store and set off at about 10AM, a little later than I wanted. The pavement was intoxicating. Easy. Fast. Smooth. And no fever problems from the Duckling. It did not last.

There was just something about this fueling station . . .

The air warmed very quickly. The track became absolutely torturous waffle-board after about 50km/30miles and alternated between that and rock and boulder patches buried in sand washes for another 150km/100miles. Exhausting and confidence and time sapping. Boo hoo. Now REAL trucks began to appear and were terrifying to view. My speed fell to almost single digits.

Imagine a giant Chinese tractor trailer barreling across the dusty steppe. It’s diesel engine whistling. It’s body rolling uncontrollably side to side and up and down with each heave and bounce. It’s wake of dust would have buried small countries. The drivers didn’t look crazed but the vehicles looked more like alien scouts sucking up vegetation on the fly.

Many of the water crossings were frozen solid. The good news is that there were generally bridges, the bad news is that it still required smashing holes to get fresh water for cooling the Duckling’s fever.

It’s really a shame that I can write these reports and it’s really a shame that I had to manage the bike’s fever. Because the riding would have been, in general, fantastic and the scenery was great. Bright sun illuminated golden valleys, black mountains, twisting rivers, grazing horses, bactrian camels and picturesque ger locations.

My target this day was very ambitious, the town of Bulgan, about 450km. This may seem laughable given that my previous best day in the past four days had been about 270km and the average was closer to 200. But my understanding was that the “road” would improve dramatically after the waffle board.

It did not. In fact, it seemed that my progress was painfully slow and that the Duckling’s fever was worse than ever. As I rode late into the afternoon there was spotty evidence of new road construction – not like in the west, but there were graded dirt and piles of rough gravel – and cultivated fields. The villages were positively beautiful. The afternoon light was far north, autumn yellow. In spite of the creeping progress there was so much eye candy I didn’t ignore how much terrain I hoped to cover, but I certainly couldn’t ignore the eye candy.

But . . . I wasn’t making great progress. But I was nearing . . . the final stretch which would be all tarmac. A final turn away from a river meant I had 30-40 miles till the tarmac began. My elevation was still near 4000′ and as the sun failed the temperature collapsed quickly. I stopped for more cooling water and saw an apparent camp of small wooden tepees. I rode up and shouted to hopefully find someone who could let me use one for the nite. No luck. And they were all secured with a large lock. How un-Mongolian !

It's impossible to overstate how important wrestling is to Mongolians.

So I rode on. And, of course, the Duckling had a literal fever fit. The rode became a crazy quilt of construction paths blanketed in darkness. It became very difficult to find the way or even determine if my bearing was correct. The temperature continue to fall. My face shield steamed up and then lightly frosted. The Duckling protested. I protested loudly to the heavens in pitch blackness.

Suddenly a bright light appeared a few kilometers away. Once I got nearer it was clearly a proper benzine station. Tarmac ! Cold. 🙁

The station attendant came out to greet me with a smile and a look of disbelief, I assume due to the cold. Inquiring about a place to stay he pointed across the road. A small place to eat had a single “bed” and the woman said I could have it. Just me. When I asked about food she showed little interest in cooking but would provide some simple ramen and salt tea. Fine.

She gave me a blanket and by 8:30 I was horizontal and in dream land. Hopefully the Duckling’s fever would pass overnite but not TOO much. The KTM lived under a high, cold, clear sky. Did I mention that anti-freeze must be almost entirely diluted by continual water replenishment ?

I fell asleep, in any case, worries/issue be damned. And that was that.

Until 11:30 when I was awakened by someone shaking my shoulder. It was a drunk Mongolian man and his very drunken buddies. They couldn’t believe that I didn’t speak Mongolian or that continual repeating would not “sink in” to my little brain. Of course, being Mongolians they’d left the door open and the room had to be about 30 degrees or colder. My protests regarding the door fell on deaf ears.

Rarely will one encounter a road sign this far AHEAD of the road . . .

One of them seemed borderline concerning. He was clearly a powerful man and when two of his cohorts began punching each other outside he laughed. He probably showed me his considerable fist four or five times. This midnite nightmare went on for a while until the proprietor returned. Somehow she dispensed with the two fools outside and then convinced one of the two entertained by me to leave. But Mr Big Fist was not going easy, yet.

When he did it wasn’t before I prepared to rescue the lady of the house from his leer or worse. The strangest nite of the trip, without any rivals.

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The town of Muron: warm garage & cold shower

Given the overnite cold there was no way I was going anywhere anytime soon. So I packed up and waited for warmth while we went to breakfast at the dormitory school. Breakfast was salt tea and day old bread slathered with butter (butter with flavor . . . why don’t we have that in the US ?) and then sugar was poured across the buttered bread with the runoff falling back into a bowl.

After breakfast, for the second time during this trip, I was reminded of the small-mindedness of my own difficulties. One of the trainer’s parents, her father, had just passed away. The other trainer searched for transportation for her and then went off to finish their work. She packed her bags, weeped, and spoke on the phone with family. When I expressed condolences she stiffened her back, smiled, and said, “Please have a safe trip, and a good one.”

It was very cold on departure, probably no more than 28 degrees with a howling wind. Frankly, I was surprised the Duckling started. And it stayed cold for a long time and then suddenly the wind stopped and it warmed up to at least the lower 40’s.

At one water refilling stop a Mongolian kid asked if he could ride the KTM. And he clearly expected me to say “yes”. When I pointed out that his legs were at least 6″ too short he agreed but was unswayed. Funny.

On this day there were long, rocky, relatively gently sloped climbs to passes with Buddhist cairns and prayer flags. At least three times Mongolian families were performing pujas and eating.

As the ride to Morun was not long, just 200km/125miles I made it in about 45 minutes before sunset. The last hour of the ride the bike behaved “normal” and it was almost relaxing to ride for the first time in many, many days. Fatigue was probably a significant cause but I did feel not just relief, but relaxed. Then I snapped to and remained alert. It’s amazing how one can become accustomed to riding at 50kph/30mph over loose baseball-sized rocks in the middle of nowhere . . . it’s exactly this sort of nonchalance that leads to a bad or worse day.

Morun was CRAZY. There was pavement, my first since Ulaangom, 4 days and 350 miles/550km ago. There were buildings of two stories or more ! As I rode through the bike became a little feverish and when I stopped to ask about a hotel it turned out I was immediately in front of the best choice in town. (Not that many choices . . . but more importantly, the best one was not obviously a lodge/hotel/guesthouse.)

Yeah, it's a one room ger but the lot is nice.

The check-in staff led me to a HEATED (!) garage for the bike. My room was . . . incredible after sleeping on ger floors, in beds whose spring mattresses (uncovered) looked like giant cheese graters, and in rooms that were often just above freezing in the morning. Of course, a shower seemed like a good idea and a desirable one. It had been 11 days. But the water was cold. When I called the front desk I was told – “just one hour”.

So I decided to eat dinner and shower afterwards. The menu was hilariously non-Mongolian and terrifically limited. I had a cream of potato soup that was as bland as could be and then some chili chicken that would have made an Ohioan complain about tastelessness. The two local beers helped.

Sometimes Mongolia can be conventionally picturesque.

Upon returning to the room the shower remained not hot, but it had gotten to nearly lukewarm. I hate cold water but washed in any case. And slept like a dead man.

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Tes to Tseterleg

Another morning breaks clear and believe it or not, my anxiety and concerns regarding the Duckling are like the long-term memory of a dog . . . nyet.

The ride out of Tes was reassuring, even comforting. The daughters of the house I spent the nite in opened up the gate, with one of the daughters using her entire body weight (65 pounds) to slide the logpole off it’s mooring. They waved and laughed as I fired the bike weakly with it’s still cold little battery.

That's a big backyard . . .

A stop at a store for some snacks brought out a crowd to examine the Duckling to it’s normal raves, smiles and incredulity that anyone could actually climb UP on it’s higher than a meter (40″) saddle.

The clouds provided great shadows for viewing and photographing and the day just seemed full of promise as they always do to someone who can’t remember the previous day’s challenges . . .

Stupas and other signs of Buddhism become more common where people live permanently, not just nomadically.

At Bayantes I re-fueled at a “station” that had a hand pump to deliver the benzine. The pumper was one giant grin and exceptionally friendly even by the high levels of Mongolian hospitality. They really remind of the Thais except for the cold and the incredibly bland food. 🙂 The Duckling’s fuel economy remains very high inspite of it’s cooling issues and the fact that 3rd gear is rarely visited and almost never exited up.

Yes, that's a hand crank for the benzine pump. Who needs electricity ?

It was fairly cold but very sunny and that made it seem warm. The scenery was spectacular.

The terrain was largely grasslands and often, finally, provided a relatively smooth track. But the interruptions of some climbs were just incredibly rocky and often with long stretches of goat head rocks. Really, it’s amazing what tires can put up with. Several stops were necessary to fill the radiator and by now the ‘black eye’ was evident to all. I’d removed the right side fairing so that I could add the water easily. So a Duckling looked even more forlorn. (Fear not – my astonishment at the bike’s ability to navigate this terrain has now turned into pure worship. She’s become the “little engine that could”.)

Do you think they TRY to put the gers in scenic places or is it that they have no choice ?

All the similar patterns re-appear. The ambient air temperature climbs and the feverish behavior of the Duckling becomes more volatile and more insistent. The good news is that Tseterleg is ONLY 200km/125 miles away . . .

Ulaan Bator maybe an asymptote but . . . “we shall never surrender”. I’ve confirmed via SMS to Batbayar in UB that Tserterleg and Morun are potential winter “resting places” for the Duckling if necessary. My attachment to achieving a UB landing, however, remains somewhat irrationally strong.

Yes, it is possible to look cool on a 100cc chinese motorbike with three people

Several times while refilling my water containers in rivers and streams Mongolian herdsmen on horses come over to share a greeting and an examination of the Duckling.

This bridge's top planks were unattached . . . when the front tire touched the near end, the far end lifted into the air.

Without too much drama I manage to make it to Tserterleg by 4PM. The only unfortunate facts are that Tserterleg is relatively high (6500’/2000meters) and it’s COLD. Thankfully I can at least shield the Duckling from the wind. Temps overnite fall to the low teens (Fahrenheit) . . .

The guesthouse owner provides me with a thermos of salt tea, some good noodle soup and a HUGE bowl of noodles fortified with fatty sheep meat. My body odor has definitely changed – the sheep fat I figure. I’m really looking forward to a shower and figure even the Mongolians are looking forward to my shower, too . . .

The guesthouse has two additional guests, two Mongolians who are conducting a training for local teachers. This aimag (province) has embarked on a very radical educational program. A large dormitory has been built to house the children of herdsmen during the week. They return to their families on the weekend. An Australian mining company is funding the training whose main goal is to help both the teachers and the parents establish ground rules for communication and mutual responsibilities to keep progress (and options) for the children apace. Both of the trainers seem to be earnest, sincere and very interested in helping their people and their country. It’s heartwarming but also hopeful. They have plans, milestones and . . . unlike what I too often observe – they facilitate conversation by ALL the locals and mostly, they LISTEN to, not TELL the locals what or how something should be done. (I’ve grown a bit weary, in Thailand, of well-educated, but practically-speaking, somewhat crippled westerners whose backgrounds in History or Statistical Analysis instruct locals on how to prioritize their “progress”.)

The next morning the trainers take me to breakfast in the local school for breakfast. The children participate in ALL chores and teamwork and responsibility are shared eagerly by the kids. I felt extremely fortunate to observe all of this. Given the cold and the bikes inability to start it was a fantastic way to begin a day.

During the evening one of the trainers and I chat and he shares with me differences of perspective that Mongolians have regarding many things. Nomads remain extremely proud of their independence and regard the outside world somewhat skeptically. Their way of life has sustained them for millennia and while they sometimes have motorbikes and satellite TV, even a single nite with a Mongolian family reveals exceedingly low levels of “westernization”.

My guesthouse . . . the gers are an upgrade !

But I’m taken (forever) with the Mongolian ideal on being a ‘human’. The three original Mongolian symbols that signify a human are: relationship – a human MUST relate with other humans, one cannot stand alone; service – a human must serve others, this is not an option but a calling (pure Buddhist Dharma but perhaps in Mongolia long before Buddhism became the predominant philosophy), and; respect – one must do all things with respect for the actions taken.

Why travel alone . . . well, it’s easy to be a tourist in a group or alone but it’s nearly imperative of the ‘traveller’.

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Slow but slow, steady we go . . .

With a bit of last nite’s stew and some fresh salt tea in my belly I departed toward Baruunturuun, my “target” of yesterday . . . this was another trend that would hold until UB . . . no matter how seemingly reasonable or close my goal for the day . . . I’d fail to make it and generally the day would close with relief, not disappointment.

With a topped off radiator and cool temps the bike moved along with it’s boingy back end hitch constantly reminding me to be cautious in terrain that would have been fun but was now inducing frequent sphincter pucker.

New poppa on the left, Grandma made a mean camel milk

About 30km/20miles from Baruunturuun I needed to search for more water. This sent me off across unmarked steppe toward a ger with a large collection of bactrian camels nearby, one a radiant white.

Once again I encountered easy, gracious greetings, a bit of curiosity toward my orange bike and a natural and apparent inability to notice my own anxiousness regarding the weather, time or the KTM’s condition. Grandma chatted with her family, they chatted with each other, circled the Duckling and finally, after perhaps five or 10 minutes gently beckoned me toward their ger. Salt tea was immediately offered and carefully handed around the hearth (NEVER above it). It was almost creamy. I watched grandma take a huge ladle and lift the heated camel milk high into the air and then pour it back into the cauldron. Eventually, she had her son lift the cauldron to a resting place away from the fire.

And then she looked at me, then the camels milk, with a look of interest about my interest. “Da !” Amazing. If you’ve never had fresh camel’s milk . . . (yes, that was fun to write) – you’ve no idea what you’ve missed. Whatever it’s nutritional value it’s offer to the palate is pure goodness.

This brief (in Mongolian terms) 45-minute stop for a single liter of water was one of the three punctuations of the day’s travels. Clouds moved low and quickly overhead. The weather forecast was supposedly for clear skies and no precipitation but weather seemed imminent and to a motorcyclist, threatening. And yet, this was a precious moment and even quite calming. I took their photo against the Duckling and offered my best “big thanks” in Russian. For all you Discovery Channel fans . . . you’re getting at least .00000001% of the experience. Wow.

At Baruunturuun I fueled up and noticed that the sky was indeed falling . . . As I departed toward Tes and hopefully Bayantes, a horseman rode out toward me, departing from a goat slaughter. I had no idea what he wanted, if anything but did stop the KTM. He had a few words of English and clearly took himself seriously. At first I thought he wanted me to stop, eat, and drink (vodka). But it became clear he wanted to know if I’d been drinking. Then he demanded to see my Passport. He was a short man, heavily muscled and no doubt was the reincarnation of Chingiss Khan but . . . I found him boring and my American sense of irreverence overwhelmed his sense of authority.

Above ground fuel tanks and a digital display on the pumps, not sure which was weirder in it's context.

In distance neither Tes nor Bayantes were far but the way was not fast. The wind picked up and dust from the dirt flour that comprised the way coated my eyes and sprinkles dotted my windscreen. It was hard to imagine how anyone could walk in mud made of this dirt flour let alone ride a motorbike. In 3 hours I saw four moving vehicles, two of them were farm tractors on . . . a harvested field. Incredible. According to the CIA Factbook less than 1% of Mongolia’s land is arable.

The landscapes were still good but with thick gray clouds, not exactly picturesque. There were two funny sights – both involved Mongolian households on the tops of small hills, one a ger, another a house AND a ger. The households were surrounded by all the respective owner’s toys. Somehow, I doubt these folks were from the countryside. I’ll bet UB carpetbaggers.

A grinding, slow ride thru a valley followed with a grinding slow ride to a 7000’/2300meter plateau. Here the clouds could almost be herded, they were so close. My normal ger inventory was empty – nothing for almost 90 minutes. And then a sudden “clunk” came through the handlebars. I stopped and found the worst – a flat front tire.

There were sprinkles falling on me with the occasional sleet & snowflake making an appearance. Nearby hillsides were obscured by clouds and weather. I was about 15km/10miles from Tes and there was about 2 hours till sundown, though with the cloud cover it would be dark sooner. What to do ?

I could search for a ger by foot . . . if I found one the only problem would be if snow left the bike buried till next Spring. I could try to ride the flat in – if the rocks and goat heads ended that was not unreasonable. My front rim is crazy strong and laced with huge spokes by an excellent wheel builder. And the tire was definitely NOT coming off the rim. I could set camp with my summer bag . . . even with the cloud cover it was clearly going to be a VERY cold nite at 7,000’/2300meters . . . and if sufficient snow fell I’d be somewhat trapped in the morning. I could just fix the flat and ride into Tes. No good choices.

Fifteen seconds of fairly intense anxiety and not a small dollop of simple fear gave way to action. Fix the flat.

When I rolled into Tes it was cold and getting colder by the minute. My intention was to ride in with headlight on in the hopes of securing some attention from a local to help me find a place to sleep. Well, it was so dark I had no option. Two Mongolian men seemingly read my mind and delivered me to a lovely family who spoke exactly one word of English. They gave me a great soup and lots of tea. I parked the KTM as close to their structure as possible to help against the cold. Grandma laughed but sympathetically when I tried to speak hoarsely through a parched throat.

Gray and threatening, with lots of evidence of what the weather will bring.

Once again – for those who are praying for my safety . . . save it for when I return to California’s highways or America’s cities. Send your wishes to someone who needs it. On this trip – there are angels everywhere, Muslims, Atheists, Buddhists.

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It was a Mongolian movie, my part was just to provide an opportunity to demonstrate their helpfulness

Not warmth but not weather !

Morning came and . . . I hadn’t frozen ! 🙂 I was even moderately excited about the day, not anxious. The clouds from the evening had given to a cold, clear sky overnite but the morning sun, which did not hit the tent until after 8AM, was muted by cirrus wisps.

So now we set about the normal part of recent mornings in a pattern that would persist until I changed the oil in Ulaan Bator. Wake up but not get up. Dress in-place to maintain warmth. Have a survey of the bike – chain, fairing bolts, tire pressure, radiator coolant level and radiator cap check (for ice), etc. If possible orient the cover or bike or both to gain maximum benefit of the sun’s warmth for the battery. Start to pack up . . . prepare for departure.

Overnite it had been absolutely silent. In the early evening, just after sunset a few motorbikes had passed and at least one four-wheel vehicle but it seemed that none of them had seen me. The track being what it was and the cold the motorbike riders negotiated certainly didn’t encourage gazing about. There were a few times that dried grass hit the canopy but . . . impossibly silent. No wind. No birds, until morning. Silent.

It was clear that I needed to go over the pass one can see in the image of my campsite. I was worried about overheating but enjoying the fact that the morning’s cold and the dull sunlight would keep ambient air temps low. Good for the bike, less good for me but speeds were not going to lend much of a wind chill factor to my discomfort.

And pleasantly surprising we rode up a steep, off-camber track and found a large cairn at the saddle. On this day I started shutting the engine off and gliding whenever possible. In my final 1500km I’ll bet I glid more than 30km. A Mongolia family came up the track behind me in a huge SUV and stopped to make what seemed a puja at the cairn. I was amazed at the speed with which he drove. It had to be hard on his vehicle but the passengers must have felt they were trapped in a paint shaker.

Several small water crossings were mildly tricky due to the ice and the frozen mud. But the scenery was lovely. Golden yellow grass, contoured hills, huge lakes, black mountains and finally, snow covered Altai in the background with the sky.

Pure Mongolian Gobi Coolant

On this day I could take in and appreciate the wonder of growing up in a place where there are no fences. “Land of the Endless Blue Sky”. Tracks crossed and fanned out. And then, often, funneled back in. Between two spots you often observed the longitude lines on a globe rendered in grass/sand/rock/clay. A mongolian did “follow the proximate path”. He simply set his bearing to the object of interest and, geography excepted, made directly for it. How many places EVER had people who looked at the world like that ? And how long ago was it that europeans had a similar, unconstrained view of “the way” ? When you witness Ulaan Bator traffic, even pedestrian traffic, you understand a bit more why it behaves the way it does.

As was, “is”, and would become the pattern over the last 2 weeks of the trip, yesterday’s anxiety washed away due to the picturesque scenery and the unflappable and patient Mongolians encountered. Yes, I stopped a bit less. But when I stopped I stopped longer. There was no way I was going to “rush” to UB just because my bike was a bit rocking horse with a fever, now. The scenery was still fantastic and fantastically varied. The riding was a dream for an “adventure bike” rider – challenging and endless and fun. The bond with Duckling is certainly stronger but even the Valentino Rossi animist in me knew that whether I arrived in UB in two days or 10 it would make no difference to the health of the bike . . . and realistically, I could only go as fast as “being the path” would allow. Sometimes I caught myself laughing out loud at my predicament and my stubborn refusal to ride like Paul Revere. But no one cared if the British were coming, or in this case, an Orange Duckling. We would get there in good measure, as we could and did.

I have little doubt that it was warmer on the stool next to that cow than in the ger.

I began to see a few, very old, Russian trucks now. The seemed to grind along in creeper gear between ever more bowl-shaped valleys with thin, steep rocky rims. The landscapes became more outlandish, part northern California, part Monument Valley, part Death Valley, part dried up martian river valley. The elevation averaged over 6500’/2000 meters with drops to 4000’/1300meters and summits to nearly 8000’/2700meters.

At a significant pass there were a number of signs in Mongolian, an enormous rock cairn, and a Mongolian who circumambulated the cairn after parking his front-end loader. He asked me, in Russian, where I was from, where I’d come from and where I was going. His face seemed to indicate some concern for me. It had been 5 days since my last shower and the previous nite had been short of rest, food and water. He offered me a drink of water from a new 1 liter water bottle then insisted I take the whole thing.

The ride down from the pass was a plunge into a large salt-marsh plateau. Pine trees appeared on east facing slopes. Many mongolian horses grazed. Suddenly the only folds in the landscape were distant, but large and inundated in year-round snow. And then amazingly, pavement, in pretty good shape, appeared. This lasted for 30km all the way into Ulaangom, where I changed money and had lunch at the Chingiss Khan steak house – where there was no steak on the menu. A warm sun in a cloudless sky baked me at just 3000’/900meters. Dehydrated and drained it felt wonderful. Lunch was a bland local soup with an egg and lots of sheep meat. Some sort of cheese/rice/egg dish went along way to at least addressing the calorie deficit. Three mugs of tea later I still felt like a raisin.

My home for a nite.

On the way out of town I fueled up and met an old local who was dressed traditionally but his orange sash was irresistible. Even the young men encouraged him to be photographed alongside my bike. But his initial disinterest collapsed to outright bravado. In one shot his left arm rests jauntily on the handlebars as though he were the new owner. His sidecar was fantastic.

When the tarmac ended there was a bridge in some state of mis/dis-repair. But a wide, though shallow water crossing proved no problem. In spite of the plateau I traversed, the track dove in and out of the plain like a giant snake had wrested the soil but not actually tunneled. From a distance it looked “fast”. On top of it, it twisted, dove, barrel-rolled ahead, sometimes yielding 50kph/30mph, sometimes barely 10kph/6mph. The warm sun and the irregular speeds caused the cooling system to strain and soon I was looking for water.

So what do you do when the nearest supply of water is 10-30 minutes away and is of VERY high salt content (not great for a cooling system’s resistance to corrosion) and the small quantity you can carry has been exhausted. (To be honest, adding a liter of water on a modern motorbike is ALOT of added water. 200ml would be commentable. 1 liter is irrefutable evidence of a significant problem.

Finally in the distance I saw a vehicle pulled over and stopped alongside it. The mongolian men had no English skills but still asked, in Russian, all the normal questions. My own inquiries about water were met with ‘nyet’. Well, there’s water and then there’s water. And my options were all dried up. So I held the empty water bottle the front-end loader driver had given me earlier in the day to my crotch and said the Mongolian word for water.

Amazing. Suddenly all 6 men had to relieve themselves simultaneously. A few minutes later I had over a liter of pure Mongolian Gobi Coolant aka MGC. I don’t know what I would have done, or they could have done, if all 6 males had been females. 🙂

Another pattern now began to emerge and that was that once the engine had gotten “warm” and the ambient air temperature had risen the bike tended to protest more forcefully and more often.

At 30 minutes to sunset I was still marveling at the scenery but having to stop the bike every 20 minutes or so. The MGC was nearly depleted and my location was still very much salt-marsh, but VERY far from any water supply. I saw a ger in the distance and made straight for it. Here a Mongolian family had water but after giving me fresh water looked at the sky, spoke amongst themselves and “encouraged” me to stay for food and sleep. I never even thought about declining.

The mother just radiated warmth and strength. Her husband was from the original cast of “men of few words”. They had an older son who felt like he was half wild man and a lovely little daughter. She made a stew of a few potatoes and 3 kinds of dried meat and a few noodles. I was amazed when the produced a mobile phone that offered an English speaker who wanted to make sure that I would not be offended or upset with the menu. (People who really cannot even grow vegetables are aware that there are people who ONLY eat vegetables.)

The highlight of the meal, especially according to Mongolian friends, was when she took five dried meats and cooked them and then the bowl was handed about according to standing in the household and age for the holder to knife off the meat(s) of his choice and eat until satisfied. In the end, mom ate more meat than any of the men.

They showed me a bit of TV, using a car battery to power a satellite receiver. One of the shows was a crazy serial about a uber-wealthy Mongolian family that was as dysfunctional as rich.

I slept on a mattress-like pad on the ground with the whole family except for mom and daughter who slept on a bedframe.

In the morning, the rose early and began chores including milking the cows and herding the goats and sheep. Mom made some more of the salt tea from last nite (a common beverage in these parts and throughout Kazakhstan, high Nepal, essentially comprised of cow or yak milk and rancid yak butter). It’s much better than it sounds and those who are raised on it are ALWAYS excited to drink it.

My attempts to leave them money were met with a mystified laughter. And a very firm refusal. After photographing the family they escorted me to the KTM and off we went.

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The Orange Duckling gets a hitch in her get-a-long

The morning in Olgai started fairly well. The stove in my ger made for nice sleeping. The sun was strong and the Orange Duckling spent the nite inside a concrete shed with the cover on. Electricity had been restored for 2 hours about midnite but now was out again so no Internet and no shower.

On this day I saw many times more animals than humans . . .

I reviewed my map, checked the bike, and slowly ate my stale bread with pseudo-Nutella and Nescafe. A quick au revoir to the Swiss and some fueling and then out of town in clear, cold air while lots of Mongolian school children waved. I was feeling quite a bit of relief at this point because both I and the bike were in Mongolia, finally. Sure, it was still 1600km/1000 miles to Ulaan Bator but at least the big mountains were behind me. To be honest, even the sense of relief felt premature. (And it would prove to be so . . .)

As I climbed the road into the hills my goal was to move east and then meander north toward a large lake and then move to the northeast and Ulaangom. My original plan had been to ride a deliberately rugged path but the rebound in the KTM’s shock had been slowly deteriorating since I exited the Wakhan Valley, 3000km/1800miles ago. The KTM’s handling on smooth roads was largely unaffected. But in the wildly undulating, incredibly mixed terrain of Mongolia (grasslands, boulder fields, goat heads, sand washes, etc) it did require additional attention to ride the bike. For one, the undamped “bouncing” contributed to some nervous steering while I was trying to find a smooth path, additional wear on both tires, and it just wasn’t as much fun. 🙁

The clearest thing these signs indicate is that a human was here at some point.

The road summarily deteriorated and speeds moved from the high 40’s to the low 20’s and then the teens (MPH). The scenery was inspiring with big snow-covered peaks peering over the hills, valley’s with river’s lined with golden-leaved trees, and picturesque ger settings. But something was different today. The bike was clearly not getting cooled as well as previously or necessary. At one point I stopped along a river to fill my own water bottle several times with water and replenished missing coolant, sacrificing that bottle for my own use for the rest of the trip. Effectively any riding which loaded the engine, especially long, slow technical climbs caused the bike to run less than great and very suddenly, filled me with high levels of anxiety.

There are no words to describe this encounter but it did kick-off my photographing always willing to help Mongolians.

Consider that seemingly with the really big altitude/weather challenges behind me, I’m now nursing a hot-headed bike across REALLY remote parts of Mongolia. As I rode on the number of water stops and ger sightings continued to decline as the bike’s fever demanded ever more refreshing of it’s coolant reserves. So an ever weakening rear shock’s performance and a compromised cooling system made enjoying the remoteness, the view, and the track’s challenges more difficult to attend and eventually became an enervating trifecta (shock, cooling system, track demands).

A cold campsite in the middle of nowhere at 6500'/2000meters.

My attention would flash from the track to the coolant temperature to the view (including the whereabouts of a ger that might be either a refuge for the nite or a source of coolant water) and then the GPS as the track often devolved into a paths fanned out in front of me. Consider, just briefly, doing this for 8-10 hours a day for almost a week. I still stopped often to take in views, photograph landscapes but not AS often, especially if there had just been a difficult stretch of climbing at slow speed and the engine manifested feverish performance.

The suddenness of the problem also knocked me off-balance a bit. Season that surprise with the clear evidence of a slow track, very few opportunities for seeking help or refuge from ger ensconced Mongolians and anxiety levels were soon at trip highs. The final amusement was that a brief encounter with a Mongolian man where I sought to confirm both my GPS and map orientations resulted in him urging me to go in a direction which my instincts deemed wrong. But I listened to him and overrode the GPS, my map and my intuition and ended up riding a track which optimized slow speed and technical requirements.

Far from nothing, close to nothing.

At 4PM I was not exactly sure where I was (beyond a precise Lat/Lon), how much further any village might be and began to have great concern for the health of the KTM.k This seemed a fantastic place to leave the bike if I never wanted anyone to see it again. After 6 hours of determined riding I’d ridden just 120km/75 miles. I should have been hungry and my mouth was parched. The stale bread and pseudo-nutella breakfast was a cold mirage.

This pass marked the border between the salt-marsh valley and the Altai foothills.

Finally I came upon a settlement with actual houses and . . . a benzine station. When I asked the kid who pumped the fuel if there was a place to sleep in “town” he emphatically indicated “no”. But at least he was able to confirm my position. I had ridden the track originally intended but due to the bike’s shock had decided to forego. The village had several places to buy . . . something but all were closed and no one was interested in opening them or finding someone would be interested.

In the space of two kilometers one summited a pass and then began a 4000'/1300 meter descent

So without water and a decent container for any even to be filtered, and with one decent meal in the last 40 hours I rode on to a campsite I didn’t know the whereabouts. Of course, the terrain quickly climbed through a baby-head sized boulder field and it seemed that carrying on meant even higher (colder) areas so I stopped and set camp. Sure enough, soon after stopping two Mongolians drove up in a Wazzak and deployed themselves for a chat with the guy on the orange bike who strangely was setting camp on the lower reaches of a high pass.

Probably the most beautiful Soviet-era theater of the trip, da ?

Sunlight was falling fast. My gear was not intended for the night surely to come. Without food nor water it would be cold. I tried not to be rude but their english was non-existent and my anxiety easily surpassed my Mongolian vocabulary. I’m sure they did find me a bit un-neighborly and for that I’m still bothered given the amazing patience, hospitality, generosity, assistance and warmth the Mongolians I met outside of Ulaan Bator showered me with.

Once inside my tent I stewed on how to get the bike “onward” and what might be causing the cooling problems. (No water in the crank – oil is still shiny black and relatively clean after more than 16,000km/10,000miles. No obvious leaks in the coolant hoses. No belching into the coolant reservoir.) And I waited for it to get cold. It did get cold. That was the coldest night I’ve even spent camping. By morning I was full fetal deep in side the sleeping bag.

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