Again, the border formalities between Kazakhstan and Russia take a lot of time on both sides. This time, after 5 long hours, I can finally set foot on Russian soil. Just over the border I still have to arrange my car insurance. Two small offices on opposite sides of the road, manned by two competing ladies, offer me the opportunity to do so. One lady is trying to make contact with me by stepping outside. The other one already has a customer, but deserts him for a moment to come out and take my arm to try and pull me inside. Of course I choose the first one and that is highly appreciated. Would I like a cup of tea? My answer is negative, because I have already spent too much time at this border and would like to be on my way at last. With one finger the form filled in on the laptop. After many typing errors and recovery actions, it is finally ready after 20 minutes and can be printed. I do not blame the lady, she is not that young any more (my age I think) and very friendly. With hands and feet we manage to communicate and after a short while, when everything is arranged and has been paid for, she accompanies me to the truck, waving enthusiastically as I pull away.
Novosibirsk is the capital of Siberia. This second largest city in Russia (after Moscow and St. Petersburg) has 1.5 million inhabitants. Apart from some historic wooden houses from the Tsarist era, there is little to see. Opposite the station, an important stop on the Trans-Siberian Express, there is a hotel, a block of concrete in Soviet style on the outside, but with surprisingly attractive rooms inside. I will occasionally have to visit a hotel in Russia to get myself registered. As a foreigner, one has to be able to show where one has been. Officially, these forms must be presented again when one leaves the country. The last time no one was interested, but I do not dare to take the risk of not going to a hotel sometimes and thus not being able to show the papers.
From Novosibirsk a 1000 km. long route leads to the Mongolian border, the M52 or Chuysky Trakt. The road is now mostly surfaced and runs through Altai Territory and Altai Republic. Towards Mongolia, the green and often wooded mountains are getting higher, with a few snowy four-thousanders on the Kazakh and Chinese side. But about 100 km. before the border the environment changes abruptly into a lunar landscape: the dry steppe area that continues in West Mongolia.
Both the Russian and Mongolian border formalities take a long time. Cars are meticulously examined, after which follows a trek along all kinds of counters and stamping posts. Nobody asks for the registration forms from the hotels.
This time I can set the record at a time of 6 hours!
And then ………. then I am finally driving in Mongolia. A long-cherished wish has come true! This country has been on my wish list for years.
I quickly forget the 6-hour border misery. After an hour of driving through a bare, yellow, but very impressive landscape, I find a place far away from the main road to stop and let the absolute silence overwhelm me. Although, absolute silence is not quite right, because after half an hour I hear a motorcycle stopping next to the truck. It is a shepherd who has had to drive a long way to track down a stray goat, which is now tied to the side of the motorcycle with its four legs up in the air. The animal, released and allowed to recover from this ordeal, immediately begins its daily routine: grazing. In the meantime, the man shows me with a wide arm gesture that the animal was miles away from the herd. Very, very far away. After a cigarette for the shepherd the couple leaves again with the goat now tied on the buddyseat. Not much later a huge herd of goats and sheep comes by with 2 shepherds on horseback. What a nice introduction to Mongolia!
There are a lot of Kazakhs living in West Mongolia and they have retained their old traditions there. This in contrast to the situation in Kazakhstan itself, where the nomadic existence and traditions have virtually disappeared. One of those traditions is hunting with eagles by so-called eagle hunters. Every year around September / October there is a big tournament where hunters and eagles can show their qualities. The jury judges the performance of the eagles, but also the traditional costumes of the hunters.
It is a big wish of mine to photograph such an eagle hunter. The owner of the ger (yurt) camp in Olgii where I stay writes a note in the Mongolian language for me saying that I would like to get in touch with an eagle hunter and asking the question if one knows one. On her advice I follow the route south along the Chinese border, a beautiful area with snowy peaks on the right.
I am getting familiar with the concept of “road” here in Mongolia. They are traces straight through the landscape, first starting with a cart track and then, when they become too worn out, acquiring a washboard structure. To avoid this, a new track is built and so on and so on.
Sometimes it is difficult to choose the right track. I am amazed at the number of passenger cars driving around here. One encounters countless Toyota’s Prius on the steppe. Most cars have right-hand drive, imported from Japan, here people drive on the right-hand side. In a village I actually find an eagle hunter with the aid of the note. With a landcruiser I am driven by someone in Paris-Dakar style over the steppe to an unknown place, where we arrive three quarters of an hour later. Only then it becomes clear to me that the driver of the landcruiser is the eagle hunter himself. He invites me into his small house and his wife gives me a hearty bowl of warm milk as he takes out his traditional costume and puts it on. The eagle is brought out from a shed behind the house and I can start the photo shoot, my heart pounding with excitement. Another one of my wishes fulfilled! For a small fee I can put on the costume and take the eagle on my own arm so that he can photograph me in full regalia. Afterwards I am treated to a table full of sweet treats and a cup of tea.
As it is growing dark I am taken back to Piggy, just in time to find a nice camping spot somewhere outside the village. PS: A beautiful film has been made about a girl who becomes an eagle hunter: THE EAGLE HUNTRESS. You can view the tracker here
You may be able to stream the entire movie somewhere.
The next day I loose track a bit of the normal route to the south and have to return to the right path by crossing a few rivers. Piggy will be getting wet feet for the first time. Fortunately, the water is no more than one meter deep. Later on I see a bridge. “Much more convenient”, I think. But before the bridge I can see a sign with a red circle and the text: 5 tons. Piggy weighs 12 tons and with full diesel and water tank 13 tons.
The bridge does not look too strong. Shall I take the risk or maybe not?
There is a landcruiser approaching and the driver advises me not to. Two boys fishing nearby say that the river next to the bridge is at least 2 meters deep. Technically Piggy can handle this, but all the electrical facilities on board do not like water and I also want to keep my own feet dry. The only good decision is to return. It takes a full day to get back on the main route.
Via Khovd and Ulaangom I follow the northern route to Moron. I want to attend the national Naadam Festival on July 11 and 12 in Khatgal, 100 km. north of Moron. I think that here it will be more interesting than the big spectacle in Ulaanbaatar. On the way I come into contact with even more shepherds and their huge herds. The further to the east I get, the more yaks I see. The people are relocating their settlements to the summer pastures, the gers and all their belongings tied high onto the loading platform of their truck. Sometimes a bit of help is needed. From the corner of my eye I see somebody standing next to a fully loaded truck waving at me. It turns out that the battery has too little voltage, but with a cable and Piggy’s pulling power I can get the vehicle back on track. After many thanks the old truck can continue rumbling to the summer residence.
I find beautiful camping spots next to lakes and rivers, often in the vicinity of a gerkamp, from which people usually come to visit. It has rained a lot in the last few days. The tracks have become mud paths and Piggy is slipping from left to right. Once I get stuck in the mud. With the help of stones, wooden poles and a shovel I can create a bit of solid ground under the wheels so that I can get out of this predicament after half an hour. What a lot of new experiences! But in the meantime a leaf spring has broken, the rubber bellows of the air filter have been torn and the chassis of the cab has cracked.
Those things are less fun. Hopefully everything can be repaired in Ulaanbaator. If not, then I have to wait until I am in Russia. Irkutsk is a big city and the Russians know how to handle heavy equipment.
The plan for the coming month:
- Arrange a visa for Russia.
- Apply for a visa-extension for Mongolia.
- Get the truck repaired.
- Go to the Gobi.
- Return to Ulaanbaator if possible via the east Mongolia and then continue direction Baikal lake and Irkutsk.
- Cross the border with Kazakhstan and descend via the Altai to Almaty and surrounding countrysides.
TAKE LOOK AT THE IMAGERY AND FOOTAGE OF RUSSIA AND KAZAKHSTAN
TAKE LOOK AT THE IMAGERY AND FOOTAGE OF MONGOLIA