99 bottles of beer on the wall (ik heb een potje met vet…)
There’s no denying it, we’ve got to drive a lot of kilometers before we can join our families for a merry Christmas dinner in a few months. In fact, when we finally turned west in earnest at Ulaanbaatar to head to the Mongolian – Russian border, we were driving towards our end goal for the first time in our trip. So far we had mainly been driving north, and even a little further east. Six days after turning west we realised we still had to cover a distance of 99 degrees to get to our destination. That’s more than a quarter of our beautiful globe!
Although we try to minimise the days and hours spent behind the wheel, we do need to cover that distance somehow. From Ulaanbaatar to the border was about 3000 km (our route) or 17 degrees and only the first 800 km or so were on tarmac (asfalt).
As we were following the A16, the northern route, we had to cross one major river just to the north of Achit Nuur (a large, mozzie and march fly infested lake). For several weeks now we had heard it was impassable, but as we were getting closer we started hearing of travelers that had heard of people crossing. Never a first-hand experience though, they had always heard of someone who had done it, but hadn’t crossed it themselves.
We spent a day at a lovely, mozzie-free lake (Uureg Nuur) and to our surprise Guy & Cheryl and Miles & Marine turned up. We decided to all try to cross the river together. It would give us some security to know the big trucks could pull us out if needed. Reports were the water would be over the bonnet. It turned out not be that high at all and we crossed with ease, feeling a bit silly with the tarp across the front…
The A16 is a big sounding name for a small track, mostly sandy or rocky, occasionally muddy. It is slow going and when you’re able to do 40km an hour it feels like you are flying! Most of the time we drove between 20-30 km / hr. Jon doesn’t care much for the slow-going, bumpy tracks, I think he is more of a speed-devil than he realises, I loved them. We both hated the corrugated bits though. Some describe it as driving across a washboard, we just felt horrible as it feels like Lara is shaken to bits. Luckily we didn’t have many corrugations on the northern route, although the rocks sometimes were pretty rough too.
The dust is pretty intense here as well. Especially evident when the wind is in our back and we hit the brakes for a huge pothole – the whole car would then be enveloped in a massive cloud of dust. And all of it is always trying to get into everything we have. Our clothes pods are (luckily) pretty dust free, although Jude has to plug one area to stop most of it coming in. But our home-made clothes-pods provide an excellent dust barrier. Our hair, our skin, the food boxes, the little mascots, everything is covered at the end of the day. Every night we still spend some time clearing the dust out of the car to make sure it doesn’t build up too much.
Usually the passenger is kept quite busy during our long drives. On the bumpy roads however it is a lot harder to do many of the usual things, so we have started singing and playing games like ‘I have never’ and ‘bingo’ 🙂 (amazing that after 13 years together we have still found out new things about each other with the ‘I have never’ game!) Jon has also been our Russian teacher, using the book and cd we bought months ago in Singapore. We have only got to chapter 4 so far, but the first 3 chapters were mainly to learn the Cyrillic alphabet…! So another of our games now is to try to read place names and all sorts of signs along the road and in towns. Great fun when we read something and we know what it means, even though we are reading at the speed of a 5-year old.
Now we’ve reached the border with Russia and are driving into Russia we have seen quite a few other overlanders, as this seems part of a very popular route. Hardly anybody takes the northern route in Mongolia to UB though as you need a proper 4WD for it, not in the least for the river crossing, so we didn’t see many other overlanders there. The Mongol Rally has also reached Russia and Mongolia so we see quite a few of them too, including a big group that was stuck at the border into Mongolia. The organisers have failed to sort out their import papers (tax) so they can’t get into the country. Some of them were ready to just turn around and head back the way they came, not caring about donating their cars any longer. We hope they get through quickly.
We drive a lot of hours each day now we have so many kilometers to cover and as it is light till late here this means we are making long days (we want lots of sympathy for our long days please!). Our Taj Mahal (roof top tent) still feels like a palace each night (or maybe that’s because we are tired?) so we can definitely recommend one for all your driving adventures!