The only time we've had the shower gel out in the last 8 days is to lubricate the tyres for a set change or puncture repair. I've never felt as filthy as I did on that last night before we made it to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Everything was covered in sand and mud from numerous falls and my hair was nearly long enough for the comb over so many of you requested I grow before I left the UK. Ladies, please steady yourselves. I've shaved it now. Everything was showing signs of wear and arriving in Ulaanbaatar with half of my ass exposed proved an interesting experience.
Mongolia provided an intense 7 day off-road experience which pushed us and the bikes to the extreme. A number of visa problems when leaving Russia cost us an additional day at Tsagaannuur, a dusty border town with little more on offer than the home brew beer available from what they call a supermarket. 'Tinned Fish Store' seemed a more appropriate name. Apparently we didn't fill out the correct visa registration form upon arrival at the first hotel in Russia over a month ago so the officials had us over a barrel. After plucking the final price from the air, once they were satisfied they had treated themselves to the remainder of our Russian Rubles, we successfully crossed the border into Mongolia. At this stage we were still on the Bridgestone road tyres which had made it all the way from the UK. The plan was to stick with the original tyres for as long as possible to ensure that the dirt tyres we had strapped to the back of the bikes made it back up to Russia and be in relatively good shape for the BAM road.
Well... that plan quickly turned to shit. As did the road. The tarmac turns in to a dusty trail immediately after crossing the border which then continues to climb to an altitude of around 2500 meters. The landscape was immediately different to the Altai mountain range we had just left in Russia and completely different to anything I'd ever seen before. It felt like we had just been dropped on the moon. It was late afternoon by the time we had covered the first 30 or so Mongolian miles after the border issues and some seriously heavy black clouds opened up above us. The road turned to a massive mud bath and we were stuck on the top of a mountain pass with no shelter from the elements and absolutely no grip from the tyres. It was our first real 'We're really in trouble here' moment and we'd been in Mongolia for less than an hour.
We struggled as far down the pass as we could to a group of rocks which not only offered some shelter from the wind but later, once the storm had passed, acted as the perfect bike stand to change the tyres. The following day the bikes were re-born and ready for whatever off-road action Mongolia had in store for them.
On the advice of two Russian bikers we met coming in the opposite direction at the border, we opted for what turned out to be a desert route through the southern region of Mongolia. Our lack of exposure to riding in sand meant we had a lot to learn in a very short space of time. Short of a few low-speed crashes and some clumsy drops, we made it through the entire Mongolia experience with little more than a few bruises and a couple of scratches on the bikes.
All land in Mongolia is public land which means that we could camp wherever we saw fit. There are very few roads on in the Western side and it's nothing more than dirt trails connecting very small villages. Riding through it you encounter all sorts of surfaces and terrains. It's an off-road enthusiasts dream and would make the perfect setting for the Dakar race. There are simply no road rules. Of a morning we'd set the GPS compass to the direction of Ulaanbaatar, start riding and just see what river crossings and other obstacles are thrown up at you. If there is no trail then you have to make your own. It wasn't uncommon for us not to encounter any other vehicles for an entire day unless we ventured towards one of the villages in search of supplies.
Every night in Mongolia was spent camping quite literally in the middle of nowhere. The night prior to reaching Ulaanbaatar, we were both sat in the entrances to each of our tents facing each other, cooking up the daily default dish of noodles. Seen as we had made it that far we decided to really push the boat out and opted for the chicken flavour. I saw Jon looking behind me when he announced that there is a cowboy next to my tent. It was following the exact script of the Long Way Round. An absolutely text-book Mongolia experience. I jumped up to greet him and noticed he was dressed in full Mongolian attire and stepped down from his well-groomed horse. We shook hands. I looked at him, he looked at me. I don't know who was more surprised and fascinated but either way we just continued to stare at each other. We both made an effort to communicate but it seemed it was only a funny sheep noise he would respond to. We think we established that his herd of sheep was just over the next valley.
The altitude of Mongolia means some really cold nights camping. the big de-bulk session we had all the way back in Slovakia meant we are ill-equipped for such camping. Both of us struggled to sleep properly but for different reasons. Brookbanks' primary concern is the wildlife roaming the area. We are all too aware that wolves, scorpions and other nasty creatures have a big presence around here and any rustle of a plastic bag we leave outside the tents is sufficient to have Jon up, head torch on and conducting a thorough search of a 50 meter radius.It tickles me every time.
For me however, all to often a good nights sleep is disturbed by the thought of one of us having a serious fall when we are hours from help. As I mentioned, depending on the route you take through Mongolia, it really is possible to have no human contact for days on end. Often we had no idea what was ahead of us. The thought of Jon having a serious fall, which given the terrains we are riding is really quite possible, having to make the decision of whether to turn back and ride for hours or push forward, not knowing what lies ahead, in the hope that I can raise the alarm for help scares me a lot. I tell myself night after night, "Look after the bikes and look after the tyres. You really can't afford to have a bad fall out here."At that point I promise myself that tomorrow will be different and we will stop taking so many unnecessary risks during the days ride.
It's amazing how a nice sunrise can change your mentality. When the sun comes up in the morning, it takes no more than 5 minutes of being back on the bike before I find myself lighting the back tyre up and doing everything I said I wouldn't whilst laying in my tent the previous night. It's a strange cycle of emotion that by now seems unlikely to change. It's only when we manage to source a night-cap that we both mange to sleep a little more comfortably.
One day outside of Ulaanbaatar we stumbled across the first other adventure rider that we have met on this trip. Enrico was a classic Italian equally as inspired by Austin Vince's Mondo Enduro and I was. His bike was a 650 Suzuki DR which from the stickers on his panniers had obviously seen a bit. The guy was a true legend. He lost his side stand some time back so he was only able to stop where he could rest his bike up against something and he didn't go anywhere without a massive Italian flag waiving from the back of his bike. We later spent some decent time with Enrico when we arrived in a hostel in Ulaanbaatar which turned out to be an adventure biker hub for this region of the world. Kicking his bike over always had him struggling in the mornings but he would never let spirits drop and would start singing the them tune to Mondo Enduro whenever anything went wrong. A very inspirational character who I really hope to meet again.
Besides a set of turntables in a mates basement in London, the bike is one of my only possessions in life right now. I guess it's a unique position for someone of my age to be in. The bike means everything to me and I'm permanently aware that its smooth running is paramount to me completing this mission. It's a great conversation starter with the locals and attracts a lot of attention which is really great. Typically within 5 minutes of arriving in a Mongolian village, the bikes are swarming with guys wanting to have a sit on. The Mongolians are a very hands on bunch and really are not afraid to touch things which sometimes makes me a little nervous. I don't want the fact that I value the bike so much to prevent me from having a good chat with the guys who show interest but the Mongolians tend to be quite small and as with most dirt bikes, the bike sits really very high. With the weight of the luggage on the back it's easy to lose balance and drop it especially for those guys as they can't touch the floor. I don't want to have to stop them. I know it can't be often they see a bike of this style but the fear of them knocking it over and damaging something makes me feel uncomfortable. Leaving the bike unattended is always a concern which is a shame.
I've learnt a lot about my riding ability and handling the DRz off-road. I feel like the recent exposure to should now hopefully put me in a good position to tackle the next major off-road challenge, the BAM road. After the off-road experience we had in Mongolia, the sensible thing to do is probably head for Vladivostok, hang up the off-road boots for a while and arrange the flights over to Alaska to begin leg two of the mission but I'm in awe of the achievements of Tony P and his 3 man team who completed the entire length of the BAM road. I have to at least attempt it now we have come all this way. In the words of Walter Colbatch, one of Tony's riding companions on that BAM expedition, it's a real test of man and machine. Apprehension is equally as high as it has ever been but the bike has now proved itself as a solid workhorse capable of handling days upon days of off-road riding. Let's just hope the rider is in an equally strong position.
Home is now on the BAM road. We'll be off the radar for however long it's going to take us. Wish us luck.