14 January 2019 18:28
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The blows of a hammer and the buzzing of an impact wrench provide the soundtrack for this report. This can mean only one thing: we're making a pit stop – in a workshop in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. We've spent the past few months almost entirely on rough tracks. In Mongolia, even the main roads are more or less off-road tracks. And that takes its toll.
But – and it's a big but – driving off-road where there is nothing so much as slightly reminiscent of Europe's tarmac-clad roads remains a spanner in the works for us. That said, our Axor overcomes these trials well. It tends to be small things that we have to repair. For example the brackets for the stowage boxes have had to be re-welded. The continual jolting caused them to break off, one after another.
Since our last on-the-road story, we have covered around 1000 kilometres through Kazakhstan, then across Russian territory from where we entered Mongolia. In Kazakhstan we visited two breathtakingly beautiful places: the Charyn and the Altyn Emel national parks. Both Mike and I – Andrea – as well as Aimée enjoyed wandering around, discovering nature.
As I write, the temperatures here are just under freezing point. This is icy cold in comparison to Turkey or Iran, but nothing in comparison to the Russian Altai mountains: we experienced temperatures down as low as minus 20 degrees there. It was a true taste of what's to come in the “real” Russian winter!
However, the landscape recompensed us for the cold. Once, we spent the night on an old mountain pass with a staggering view. During the day, it wasn't the state of the road that slowed us down but more me asking to stop for photos. On a magnificently sunny day in the Altai mountains we stopped for a break to reduce our pile of dirty washing. For the first time, we had to hack through a layer of ice to reach fresh water.
Crossing the border into Mongolia was a very special experience. Before doing that, we wanted to replenish our provisions as the supermarkets in Russia have everything you could wish for. At the top of our list: frozen vegetables. We read in travelogues that in the rural areas of Mongolia it is difficult to get a hold of vegetables. And we also wanted to stock up on diesel. But then all of a sudden we came across the border checkpoint – 50 kilometres before the actual border.
There we were sent from one border officer to the next. And we also wanted to take out accident insurance. Up to now, that worked well at every border crossing outside Europe where our Swiss insurance doesn't cover us. Usually the insurance offices are in containers – a bit spartan but everything had run smoothly until now.
That wasn't the case here: first the woman behind the counter wanted double the price we had researched online and then she filled out the form with some illegible scribble. To finish, a man standing close-by wanted to sell us all sorts of things and we gave up. Luckily, we were able to take out insurance two days later in a village.
So that was a somewhat strange first impression of Mongolia, but thankfully it wasn't the case everywhere in the country! On the contrary: progress was still difficult, but the landscape was overwhelming. Mongolia is the most thinly populated state in the world; almost half of the three million inhabitants – in a country which is four times larger than Germany – live in the capital city. The result: you are surrounded by a vast expanse of land. There are almost no cars on the road, there are almost no fences, people park wherever they like – and apart from herds of goats and camels, you hardly see a soul.
The travel guides we'd read weren't wrong either: when we stocked up on provisions, all we could find were potatoes, onions and some shrivelled carrots. Accordingly, our meals were mostly broth with those three ingredients in it – and that for almost an entire month. Although to be fair, this is more or less the typical menu of the few people who live in this barren landscape.
And we even got to know a few of them on our way to the Gobi Desert. We had to get hold of some water and met a family of nomads who let us pump water out of their well. We'd barely put the parking brake on when four lads arrived with their horses. Naturally, conversation was limited to merely a few words. But we did understand that they wanted to take photos with us. One of the boys rode off to the nearby yurt – and came back with an iPhone. And now we're friends on Facebook!
Across dried out riverbeds through the mountains.
The Gobi Desert stretches across large parts of southern Mongolia and isn't at all just sand dunes, as you might imagine. For the most part it is stony and sprinkled with shrubs. Mountain ranges that seemed to be insurmountable appeared but were easy to cross after all: on tracks along the dried-up riverbeds. We only came across signposts every now and again. However you would manage to get through this desert even without signs and GPS: thanks to the innumerable tracks. As long as you stay on the most visible ones, you will get to the next village at some point.
But there was not a soul to be seen the next time we got stuck. This happens a lot here in the summer – you can tell by the deep ruts in the track. We drove around them, one after another and around the water holes where camels were drinking. And then all of a sudden the truck dug itself into the ground on the right-hand side.
Without any help whatsoever, we had to rely on our traction plates that we pushed under the wheels. And sure enough: a bit of digging, some hard acceleration and we had firm grip under the wheels. But then the next step was relocating the plates. Two of them had been drilled down into the mud as we drove over them and were nowhere to be seen. We had to dig for two whole hours, before we finally found them.
Just before Ulaanbaatar we had a day which reflected the fascination of Mongolia perfectly: in the morning we drove over sand dunes which was very pleasant after all of the gravel tracks previously. Then, in the afternoon we drove across a snow-covered plateau and finally down onto a dry steppe. Now we're in the capital for our pit stop – and are looking forward to being ready to set off again in a few days.
Part 8 of the RoadStars series will be published on 17 December. Stay tuned!
4-Xtremes – the tour of superlatives.