Saturday, 10 September 2016

A little recce trip to Mongolia...

My job has taken me off to Mongolia to recce some venues for a contract next year, so whilst here I thought I'd investigate the off road playing potential as well!

A flower Ger surrounded by skyscrapers!

Two flights and an 8 hour time difference take it's toll when you land, so first thing was to get my head down and sleep a little before meeting with the various people I'm to see whilst I'm here. Next up is a wander around Ulaanbaator.

UB is a place of contrasts, quiet & calm in some places, yet stark contrasts in others!

Old meets new on every corner, with a Ger in one corner and a modern glass skyscraper next door... Sirens and horns with police whistles mixed in form the back drop sounds when you just sit in a cafe on the main road, (Peace Avenue), yet sit in the Chiggis Square, just off Peace Avenue, and somehow all that noise seems to get lost in the silence.

The man himself, Genghis Khan
Chiggis Square

I planned a couple of days in town, then it was out to the wilds to see what the rest of the country had to say for itself!

Gandan Monastery

First trip out was guided site visit to possible projects and activity sites to the east of UB, the second trip was a solo event in a 4x4 heading into the west and the higher mountain ranges. Why a 4x4? Simply because time and distances to be covered dictated this and I didn't bring any bike kit, it is work after all!

I visited the Terelj region which is a stunning valley of granite crags, all unclimbed too, loads of dirt roads snaking off into the hills and forests around here. We visited a cave that is called the cave of the 100 Llama's, as it was a secret gathering place for the Buddhist prayers during the Russian occupation era. I also got to drink kumis, the local horse milk drink, err thanks but not again in a hurry!!

Terelj National Park

Tuul River valley
Once back in UB, I arranged to pick up a Toyota Land Cruiser so I could head out west to see the second region for my visit. WOW! 11 hours of driving on what would be an A road in the UK, but with pot holes galore and some serious areas of subsidence... The views either side were fabulous though, starting with rolling low hills and huge wide valleys moving into sandy areas with bigger hills and finally into the ranges of hills up around the 2000 meter mark as I got to Hatgal, which is about 50 Km south of the Chinese Border and 800km west of UB.

Lunch in a dry riverbed north of Hatgal

My off road bit began here, I had to recce a range of hills in the Horidol Saridag protected area, the towns of Hatgal & Morun and check out a river area to the south of Hatgal, so after shopping and a refuelling, it was off into the hills!

The tarmac or 'pavement' as it's called in Mongolia ended at the lake shore in Hatgal, here on in it's dirt roads only to everywhere...  Having driven in Africa, South America, Asia and the Antarctic I wasn't too fussed about getting lost or stuck even though I was alone, but I did have a couple of moments of 'Bugger, now how do I get out of this one?' during the drive!

Huvsgul Lake

Yak anyone?

I recce's out the horse riding/trekking part of the trip pretty quickly, access was straight forward and the hills pretty easy to follow, the biggest issue would be navigating once in the trees, so now it was onto the river section. I first had to retrace my steps south to a tiny spot called Alag Erdene, which is where the fun started...

The river at Alag Erdene

The 'road' (number 31) crosses the river, the heads clockwise around a range of hills to rejoin the river lower down, all I had to do was to follow the GPS/map and get there.  mmm... Once at the river, a few pics and I was off into the wilderness.. first across a grassy plain, then through a valley alongside another river. I left behind all the Ger camps and farms, passing through deciduous woodland, pine woodland and some really fertile valley areas, no wonder Mongolia is know for it's horses!

The first bits of boggy terrain started to appear, usually near woodland, this was a short test with a little bit of reversing and changing route choice but no hassles, the day was passing pretty good. I rejoined what I thought was my river, took a few more pics and looked at the map. It was here I made my first mistake.

For some reason I decided the route I'd been following on the GPS wasn't correct and where I thought I was on the map was correct, which meant I should cross the river in front of me and climb the hill above. All the while the views were getting better and better, so lulled into a false sense of security I continued on into a patch of woodland that ended my day with the truck stuck in a muddy hole, back wheels bogged down to the shale base and the rear diff buried into the grassy bog to about half it's diameter!

No tools like a winch, shovel or anything of use on the truck, so I resorted to digging the back wheels and diff out using my hands and sticks! Each time I'd try to move, the truck just got worse, so after about 4 hours I was knackered and it was getting dark. Food time, rethink the plan and set up the tent ready for a night out in the woods!

Interesting night, lots of cursing myself for being stupid, then thinking through all the options, then trying to sleep, no much of that happening though!! At some point in the night I decided to look at the GPS again, alongside the map and figure out where I was and how far I had to walk if I couldn't get the truck out in the morning. This was the moment when I realised my navigation error and so spent a bit more time calling myself lots of names before I got together with a plan for the morning, at last I could sleep with some ideas and a bit of comfort!

Next morning was another glorious blue sky day, the tent was covered in frost and it was pretty cold, so I decided to look both ways along the trail to see what was entailed in getting out of there. continuing wasn't an option, more bog, lots of unknown, so back up the hill it would be and back to the river, first though, get the bloody truck out of it's hole...

At this point I heard the put put of the little Chinese 125cc bikes that you see used all over the place here, this turned out to be a lovely old guy heading out to his fresh cut hay to turn it before getting ready to stack it for the winter animal feed that all the locals needed here.

Between us we revisited all the things I'd tried the previous afternoon, then the moment of epiphany, he looked at the front wheels and locked them both out on their diff lock setting, it's a manual thing to do on the front wheels and I'd forgotten all about it!!. I got in, set her into reverse and out she came in a oner, I reversed all across the bog back to solid ground! Thank bloody feck for that!!

The bog after extraction!

We sat and ate cake, tried to talk a bit, I gave him a really good pair of mountain gloves as his were now soaked and the rest of the cakes as a thankyou and off we both went our separate ways... me breathing a great big sigh of relief that I didn't have to call the hire company and say 'err sorry but your truck is in a bog in a forest somewhere!'

Once back at the river I turned back onto the GPS line and head along the river bank, where it was time for me to do the good deed for someone else, their truck had a knackered starter motor and needed a tow to get it started. Once this as done I confirmed Morun was the way I was going with them and set off.

More great scenery and driving followed, me wishing I had a dirt bike instead of the truck, but it was handy having all that storage space and power at hand, even if it did rattle your bones a fair bit and bits kept dropping off the poor old thing!

Following a GPS trail only across the grasslands

Winding river valley

I came to a bit where the river had washed away the trail completely, so after more asking of directions and hand waving/pointing I thought I figured out that a detour took me up the valley above to a right turn... err not exactly... the right turn would have worked if I'd have been on a bike, but was too narrow for the 4x4, so follow my nose time again.

I kept heading up the valley, dropped into another valley, got stuck again in  dry gulch, but that front wheel lock out and some digging got me out sweet as again. I crossed two more passes and finally dropped into a larger open river valley. The GPS said Morun was just over the hill, problem, river was too deep, too fast flowing to cross and track was again for a motorbike or horse only, so reverse and head east, in the opposite direction but on a really good big trail and see where it headed.

Luck took over here as the trail came out onto a main dirt road to a town called Tunel, (I wondered why they had such a big marker for just a tunnel!!), turned out this is one of the bigger towns in the area with two fuel garages and shops, I was now back on a line on the GPS that took me straight into Morun...

Another drab lunch stop view!

Two days of playing in the wilds of Mongolia had taught me a few things, one I like the Toyota's, great trucks, this one rattled like and old thin can but what an engine!! Two, if your in a big truck it needs a winch and a shovel, my hands were now wrecked from digging muddy grassland and rocks out from under wheels!!

Tarmac and another wild camp next to a little river took me back to UB and a hot shower. I returned the truck on Sunday morning, leaving time for some hot food and souvenir shopping...

Abiding memories of this place will be huge landscape, huge blue skies, lovely people and getting stuck!!!

Great place, when can I come back??

Useful Info:

Bike Hire:
I've found four places you can hire bikes from. 3 are guided and supported one has option for both

1. KTM's from; - British couple who come out for the summer
2. Beta's from; - not sure who these are - German site
3, Local bikes from; - They said no to me for self drive...
4. Drive Mongolia - I hired the truck from here, they also have DR 650/400 + some others - self guided possible

Vehicle Hire:
I found a lot of options on the internet but had been warned off about a few by a mate who lives in UB with his Mongolian wife and kids...
Sixt seem to have the best prices, I found $67 per day for a Nissan Navarra  whereas the standard Toyota Land Cruiser comes in at $150 per day. Make sure it has the spares and some tools and for the Navarra, it's not that good for the serious off road stuff so pay the extra for the Toyota.

Maps can be bought from a couple of places, the cheapest and apparently the best is a little known place that actually supplies all the rest of the shops in UB.

Known locally as 'the map shop', it's actually called: Cartography Co Map Shop, it's near the Gandan Monastery on the apex of Ikh Toiruu which is a street just south east of the monastery, look for the BCB electronics shop and it's behind there. It has no website but the phone number is: +976 9115 6023 

The other place is the Seven Summits, a general outdoor gear and map shop, apparently it's really expensive compared to the 'map shop', but has most of the maps for the areas.

Food wise, there are lots of options, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Mongolian, the list goes on and on, it's good and there is plenty. Average price I paid was around £5 for Chinese, including rice and a drink of Fanta,

Accommodation -  I stayed at the Danista Nomads, a small local run hostel, it has an underground garage, wifi and is clean and tidy. The owner is called Jagaa and the staff are pretty friendly. You can also book it through .

Money - Mongolian Togrog is the currency, around 2000 to the £1 -  at the time of my visit, Sterling had a much better rate than US dollars, my usual travel currency. Exchange rate LINK here.