Mongolia is incredible. The vistas are huge, the land is empty and goes on forever. The road is a gravel and sand track, and it’s easier to ride on the smaller parallel tracks or just to straight line across virgin ground. Dave’s bike breaks again, and is now a long way past just being annoying. A couple of German 4×4 motorhomes appear and we have a quick chat. Later a solo German cyclist goes by towards Russia. He’s been cycling since April and has done 12000km. I don’t really understand why we see so many German overlanders. German and British, seems to be the majority. A herd of camels crossing the "road" heralds a photo opportunity. The bike is running perfectly, and taking the roads in its stride. All the hard work and expense of preparation has paid off. I enjoy blasting across the plain between the mountains with the most amazing views and total wilderness on all sides. It’s fantastic to be here and we’re only a fraction of the way across.
Another cold, early start, but with great anticipation. In a few hours we’ll be in Mongolia! Some apprehension, too. No idea how hard it will be to ride across wilderness, how hard it will be to find petrol, water. Will Dave’s bike make it through? But lots of excitement too. This is the big one, the ultimate test. Dave drops the bike first thing, which doesn’t inspire confidence, but then we’re on our way. Fill up with petrol and stock up with supplies at the last town in Russia, and then we’re at the border. Exit Russia first. A little faster than entry, but still slow. Whole flocks of falcons circling about overhead. Eventually we’re through and on the pristine tarmac leading from the border post to the actual border about 5 miles away. Another quick passport check and then we leave the smooth tarmac of Russia for the badly corrugated and rutted gravel of Mongolia. Round the corner, the Mongolian border post. It’s remarkably busy, suprisingly modern and high tech. Apart from the disinfectant puddle we have to ride through, paying 15 rubles (about 20p) for the privilege. Formalities are incredibly brief, simple, efficient, and carried out in a very friendly manner, complete with a cheery "welcome to Mongolia!". It costs us another 60p in rubles for some unspecified processing fee, and then the lights are extinguished, the staff all disappear, and we are told we can go. Looks like we arrived just in time before lunch break, and now they’re off to spend our rubles at the local cafe. We head off down the gravel track, and at the first town, struggling to find the main track across the northern route, we are told by locals that it is in a very bad way after rain and we should not go that way, so we head south instead. The weather is grim. Cold, windy, threatening rain. The scenery is spectacular. The riding is incredible. There is a fairly obvious main track, mostly, but it’s been turned into a rough corrugated nightmare by trucks, so people have made numerous other tracks roughly alongside, and after a while we switch to those. Then i realise it’s even better to make your own tracks, and soon we’re cruising across the Mongolian steppe, riding on grassy, sandy, rocky ground that has never seen a wheel over that exact spot, and that is quite an incredible feeling. The vistas are huge, and though there are telegraph poles and the occasional Russian truck or jeep, it is empty wilderness to the horizon, and big sky. It feels amazing to finally be in Mongolia, and putting aside worries about Dave’s bike ruining my trip, it is hugely satisfying to have come this far and still be going. Now on 10,000 miles in 62 days, with another 28 days to get to (and out of) Vlad before our Russian visas expire.
Cold start. Good roads. Dave’s bike breaks again, exhaust falls off. See the best camping spots i’ve ever seen and hope i can find one later on when it’s time to camp. Uneventful ride but nice to be back in scenic landscapes. Later, find perfect camping spot, someone’s even left a load of firewood. Cook odd sausages on the fire, drink vodka, relax and wonder what tomorrow will be like, crossing the border into Mongolia.
No sleep in the hot, wierd, noisy hotel with its peculiar communal bathroom and space age, ridiculously complex communal shower. Breakfast is also wierd, exactly like a buffet but you may only choose up to 120 Rubles worth from a menu, which is then brought to you in random order at random intervals. But then we get back on the road, and it is stunning. Beautiful scenery getting ever more picturesque as we head closer to the Altai. There seems to be a lot of tourists here, probably all Russian. It’s a rafting / horse riding / outdoor pursuits type holiday resort, probably entirely unknown outside Russia. Early evening we find the perfect camping spot. Away from the road, a well worn track giving us access, right next to a fast flowing, clear, cold river, flat ground, surrounded by trees and mountains. We set up camp, start a fire, and spend the evening cooking cheese, sausages and pork steaks over the fire, drinking half-decent Spanish wine and cheap as chips Russian vodka. Brilliant.
A late start by recent standards then a long ride to Barnaul, on superb tarmac through incredibly vast wheat fields, cutting it fine for petrol as we have no Rubles yet. New Dave has arranged to meet someone, who shows us the way across the city to a hotel but filters with ease through the traffic without regard for our extra width, making it hard to keep up. The hotel is cheap but wierd. The city is also wierd, that strange mixture of Soviet austerity and extravagant western modernity. New BMWs next to old Ladas, new tower blocks next to old log cabins, relatively safe modern looking main streets next to "don’t go there" dingy housing blocks. Stunning stylishly dressed girls that wouldn’t look out of place in Paris next to drunken tramps fighting in the street. Standard for the stans, but not quite what i expected here, though my only experience of Russia was St Petersburg, and I suppose that’s a very long way away. Then it starts raining and we get soaked looking for somewhere to eat so retreat to the hotel restaurant instead. A pretty dismal day but we’re only here to get onto the road through the Altai mountains to Mongolia, and there are probably very few western tourists who will ever have reason to visit Barnaul.