Seriously Stuck – Mongolia from East to West (English)

July 26 – August 15Ulan Bator – Harhorim – Tsetserleg – Arvayheer – Bayaanhongor – Altai – HovdFinally together again – Serious bike maintanance – Off-road 2-up challenges – Cloud 9: a business idea – Jesus loves Mongolia – The English Patient – What’s next?

We are now in Hovd, in far Western Mongolia, close to Russia. After three challenging weeks we can say that this have been the most difficult circumstances we have ever been in, for both of us, ever. However, we are still going strong together. The bike is in lesser shape. This is our story.

There she was! I had waited so long, almost 3 months. I picked Evelien up from the airport, was amazed to see her again, and prepared for real love and some girlfriend maintenance. Coming in UB cold from Europe is a shock for anyone, I can imagine. For Evelien, carrying two Continental tyres amongst other spare parts, next to her own luggage, it was definetely a surprise. UB is not a nice city by European standards, or other standards for that matter, and the appartment I rented certainly didn’t make up for that. More cash for cashmere was my feeble excuse. The next four days we spent just hanging around, enjoying eachothers company. Also, questions from Evelien arose about the rest of the country. I tried to answer, but in hindsight I think I have been too positive about the level of comfort while travelling Mongolia. Also, I had to make up for Eveliens startingpoint on this trip: she dislikes bikes and she is not into camping. Ai. And my beard (I am so proud of it) did not make her melt, to the contrary. I thought visits to cashmere factory outlets would do the trick, but she had seen that one coming.

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Yes! There she is!

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It’s for you! Mongolia’s idea of public phones

I wish I had been able to spend all of my time with Evelien in UB, but I had to do some serious bike repairs as well. After fixing the aluminum boxes, the battery was next. I had been having problems, and I did not fully trust it anymore. However, the only alternatives were Chinese batteries, smaller than mine, and with different specs. And the general rule over here is that anything that comes from China is crap. I replaced the battery anyway (It still works up to this day). Also, tyres had to be changed, a piece of cake, and a frontfork seal replaced, a pain in the ass. I had to go over the entire city to find proper (standard) tools to do it, and it did not go as smooth as in the folder. A continuous problem here is the lack of ‘nice’ garages to do your repairs. It is all roadside improvisations. Anyway, in the end I felt comfortable enough with the bike to go again. I also had purchased an old Mongolian sadlebag for extra water and food, and had it ‘renovated’ by an acclaimed leather-artist in UB. The bike being packed high, Evelien on the back, the bike now was a serious circus act. Over 450 kg. I had no idea how it would handle off-road.

We had over 2000 km of road ahead of us, 90% of the time being off-road. The first part was good to get used to the riding, so I thought. Hell broke loose when we left UB: the weather was terrible. Spectacular, but totally ruining a smooth first day. Rain and flooded roads. To add to that the suspension was not as I hoped it would have been. I had to ride very cautiously to avoid meeting the end of my suspension all the time – which created serious lack of comfort, especially for Evelien. The fact that a lack of good suspension had more consequences I found out much later. After a few hours we came to a Ger tourist camp where we spent the night in a bed in a ger, in the company of a zillion crickets. Evelien now openly doubted the validity of our trip. This was not her idea of a good trip. It wasn’t mine either, but I had other goals, and had gradually become used to basic comfort and ‘boring’ surroundings. We decided to try to match both are goals as much as possible, this being for me easier than for her.

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Miss outdoor

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Mongolian meet-up

The first destination was a very beautiful monastry in Harhorim. This was one of the last places where we would see tourists, it being close to UB, and on the standard route. It was also the place for our first camping experience. Evelien managed to find some of the last wood in Mongolia and started a campfire. Vodka, pickles and cookies completed the feast. A great night. To meet both our wishes, we had decided to go to the nicest places in Mongolia before heading out in the desert and consequently Tsetserleg (or as one Australian guy jokingly called it; ‘Tits and legs’), also a well-known stop in tours, was our next goal. Off-road started out of Harhorim and to be honest, I was suprised how I could handle the bike. That said, riding is only part of getting there in Mongolia, navigation being the other part. I was hoping that at the tourist route roads were still easy to find. I was wrong. We headed into a valley, completely off the main route, but unaware of it. The valley was beautiful, as Mongolia looks on photos, but full of suprises, good and bad. When night came we were lucky to find a ger camp with a sauna, a true delight! A ger is a great experience anyway. The shape is super, the stove works really well (on wood or dung) and the whole atmosphere is just great. The only thing to watch out for is the cold nights which hit you once the fire dies out. The next day we actually found out that we were far off the main route, and planned a shortcut to our goal, with the crucial gps. This shortcut became a nightmare. It was the worst road I had had during my entire journey: a flooded valley with mud and huge holes. Since we had had our first bike drop together the day before, Evelien sat pretty uncomfortable at the back. At times we could ride together, and often she had to walk. Completely exhausted we entered Tsetserleg, found a place ran by an English couple (roast beef, latte and chocolate cake!), and crashed for 2 days. We needed the rest and again had to think it all over. A depression was looming. Luckily a break came from a completely unexpected direction. In Tsetserleg there was a little felt shop ran by one of the many NGOs active in Mongolia. We had the idea to make an iPod cover made out of felt. Crazy enough the prototype that was ready the next day which was fabulous. A business was born, as well as a name: Cloud 9, after a popular Mongolian choco candybar. Felt covers do exist already, but they are not nearly as nice a ours..

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The Harhorim monastery, the soldiers’ uniforms straight out of ‘Empire of the Sun’

After the first days of experience on- and off-road we decided to take the easiest road possible, which was down South. The rain season had started and Northern Mongolia was to be avoided. Going back South after Tsetserleg was at first a blast on asphalt, and we enjoyed it while it lasted. On that same road we found out that Evelien’s diet definitely does not include sheep – THE dish in Mongolia. When I had some sheep & noodles at a roadside Guanz, she almost vomited, but she managed at the same time to make an award winning photo, of which I am proud. My diarea the week after that gave me the excuse to ban sheep from the menu as well. I must note that when one decides not to eat in Guanzes, there is hardly anything to eat left. All small shops carry very little food, but always pickles, dried noodle packs, a lot of candybars and ketchup. That’s it, basically. Usually we tried to stack some stuff if there was a village before finding a place to camp. After the asphalt, a very bad road started, worse than I had imagined. We had to drive on small bendy roads over hills, with a surface of either rocks, sand or mud. Average speeds varied from 10 to 40 km. per hour. The rain certainly didn’t help.

IMG_0064Mongolian food. A challenge.

After two nights camping in a row and only off-road riding we were heading for a place with no less than 300 hot water springs. We had to leave the main road, and came upon a river. I had not crossed a big stretch of water before, and was terribly afraid to do so. Getting wet was not the issue, but ruining the engine was, since sucking up loads of water in the air intake would result in doom scenarios I do not even want to dwell on. After careful explorations we picked a spot to cross the 8 meter river, kneedeep at places, filled with rocks, some small and some huge. Gas, prayers, and off I went. I didn’t make it, the other side was too steep. I dropped the bike luckily halfway up the shore, only the back part of the bike being in the water. Evelien then made the legendary comment: “Should I help, or continue filming?”. Women. Some Mongols there were quick to help us. Upon entering the Shargaljuut springs, it immediately struck us that it was not as developed as we had hoped for. We had dreamt of large pools of water, immaculate service and Russian saunas. None of that. We had to cross some smaller rivers, made it this time, and ended up in a very basic ger camp. The hot springs are symbolic for the Mongol approach. Leaking tubes, old wooden gers, rundown buildings, unclear directions and too many people just hanging about. A hot spring was nothing more than a standard bath in a ger, to be filled with water. However, it must be said the water was fantastic and we felt like new.

IMG_0074Endless Mongolian landscape

The hot springs was no place to hang around longer and after a – this time – succesful big river crossing we got to a big town, Bayaanhongor, before heading deep into the Gobi. We met some very friendly foreigners, John and Adam, from NGOs like the Peacecorps who invited us for curry! We even got invited to church the next day, Sunday, and had a 2 hour session. A warm feeling came over us, especially when we were welcomed by the entire community. ‘Jesus Loves Mongolia’ we read on one guy’s t-shirt, to which Evelien found her reply a few days later: ‘only God knows why’. After friendly prayers for the road ahead we took off, not knowing that more prayers would have been welcome. The road continued to be bad, at parts awful. We still managed to ride some 8 hours per day. Mid-Gobi we found a great spot for camping, in the hills, facing a small rock formation and drank vodka-Diet Coke to our future Cloud 9 successes. It was one of the best nights I had in my trip.

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Evelien on a fag break

The next day when waking up we could not have imagined what would happen that day. It started with continuous rain. Our gear worked well, but the roads became hell. Pink mud, slippery like ice, sucking like nothing else. We fell four times in as many hours. Evelien was a tough girl all the time, but the idea of riding these roads hundreds of kilometers seriously depressed us. When we exited a hilly area on to a plane we thought that better times would come. Not true. Since the road continued to be pink mud, I decided to try riding next to it. Before we knew it, we were stuck. We managed to push and pull 5 more meters, but that was it. The BMW was standing in kneedeep mud, upright without any support. We had no options left and after ample discussions – it was early evening – I decided to take off and find help. Nobody was to be seen, and our road seemed to be out of use. After 5 minutes I felt very bad leaving Evelien. It was a very bad decision. After half and hour ploughing through mud I saw gers and felt relieved. After one hour they still seemed to be in the same place. I lit a flare: red fire and smoke for one minute. Nothing. 20 minutes more walking. Nobody had seen me. I turned around, I walked and ran towards Evelien, helped by the GPS, worried to death. I was 5 km. away. I yelled at 3 km. 2.5, 2, 1.5, 1. At 500 meters she yelled back. I was so happy to see her again. Man, was I stupid leaving her behind. Never again. We slept in the mud in the tent in the mud in the sleeping bag, in the mud…

IMG_0117Happy campers

The next day we spent 15 minutes trying again. I was really afraid that my bike and especially the battery would be damaged. None of that, but nothing moved. We made the hardest decision to leave everything behind and walk to help. The bike and all our stuff we left on that spot, only money and passports we took. I cried hard, not knowing whether I was just ending my trip. After 2,5 hours we reached the same gers and houses I had seen the night before. Exhausted, with our last drop of water drunk, we made it, the sun high at the sky. When we told a man in a shop our story and asked for help he laughed hard and said no problem. One hour later we were racing in a Russian 4×4, with 7 Mongols, everybody including ourselves laughing really hard and long. Everything was still there. In 10 minutes the bike was pulled out (with the car, not even a group of Mongols could pull it out) and we were up and running again. The damage: the bike’s clutch was slippery and our morale was prety low. Still, we decided to continue straight away and made it the same night to Altai, on surprising good paths. The next three days were spent washing, reading, showering at the bathhouse (no warm water in the hotel), eating noodlesoups, going to the market and thinking about what just happened.

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Oops. Bike got stuck
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S.O.S. patrol on a mission. We should have taken a Toyota Landcruiser in the first place…

IMG_0138Tired, but we made it out of the desert

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Incredible local kids

Again, we made up our minds and skipped all other options like putting the bike on a truck, flying from Altai, etc: we would ride further. 11 AM, clean, fresh and happy we were, ready to go, when at a routine inspection I found the frame was broken. What do you do? I went to the building site next to our hotel, had a guy weld the frame with a technology so outdated I did not it still existed and packed the bike again. One becomes opportunistic. The next two days were rough but good riding. One also becomes less picky. The second day during that stretch we woke up with a flat tyre, still in the Gobi.. We drove back to a village, got helped by everybody around, and were up and running again. Mongols are just great, absolutely. Now we are in Hovd and – again – ready for the next leg, only 200 km left to Olgiy, where Evelien will leave me. We did the market and bathhouse routine in Hovd, fed ourselves and spirits are high.

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Meeting the Mongolians

 

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Cruising

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Camping

Only one question remains: “What’s next?”

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11 thoughts on “Seriously Stuck – Mongolia from East to West (English)

  1. Ik dacht dat wij het zwaar hadden met de kleine babybelle….wat een trip! Hou vol, de thuisblijvers smullen van dit soort verhalen!
    kus van Caro en Kid en Belletje

  2. very sweet, the photo’s, en het verhaal van de tocht om hulp te zoeken en de angst om je vriendin achter te laten. Mooi dat je het ons laat meebeleven. Een aanrader is de film : “the story of the weeping camel”speelt zich af in de Gobiwoestijn over het leven van een herdersfamilie.Je bent bijna tegast bij die familie en ik zie dan Martijn en Evelien aan komen scheuren op de motor door die woestenij. Heel bijzonder. Wij leven mee. kus mam

  3. Mijn God!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    En Jezus Christus………………
    And holy mother of god….
    Wat een verhalen, wat een avontuur, wat een spirit. Ik ben onder de indruk van wat jullie allemaal trotseren. Maar zoals we al zeiden, met recht een ervaring om nooit te vergeten. Kan niet wachten tot ik jullie allebei weer spreek. Heel veel liefs evelien xx

  4. He Martijn en Evelien, ik ben sprakeloos!
    Wat een superfoto’s en verhalen, de site leest als een trein! Jammer dat je zoveel technische problemen hebt gehad, maar ja je bent inmiddels wel volwaardig mechanicien!
    Vanuit Amsterdam is weinig te melden. Behalve dat het meestal kut weer is en dat Sail is begonnen en iedereen speculeert over terroristische aanslagen.
    Heel veel plezier nog samen..en sterkte met alle ontberingen.
    Liefs Harro
    ps I like the beard!

  5. Hi Martijn, je schrijft met veel gevoel, leef helemaal met je mee en moet aan diverse boeken en films denken als ik je verhaal lees en de fotoos zie. Je ziet er fantastisch uit en ik ben enorm benieuwd hoe het je verder vergaat! Groet van Jorden Leontine Evy en …

  6. jongens, wat een verhalen. ik was even niet geweest hier, maar ondanks alle moeilijke momenten, een heerlijk verhaal! om te lezen sowieso. haha…
    hier alles goed, eindelijk lekker weer na een dramatische zomer… en het blijft zelfs 3 dagen goed!! LOL.
    verder lekker op kantoor hier. dus enjoy guys!! hoe moeilijk ook…, altijd beter dan thuis zitten! 🙂
    veel succes en vooral plezier!!
    Koen

  7. Evelien en Martijn,

    Ik smul van jullie verhaal en van de foto’s. Vooral niet opgeven. Ikzelf ga over een paar dagen mijn tocht beginnen van uit Dubai via Iran naar Nederland. Ik zal jullie web-log adres op mijn web-log pagina zetten (www.gradtintheworld.web-log.nl) en jullie zeker blijven volgen. Pas op je zelf en geniet maar nooit met mate.

    Geluk,

    Gradt

  8. lieve mensen, ik heb je verhaal een tijdje niet gelezen, had wel gehoord van els en martien. Heftig gebeuren, maar wel fantastisch. je bent allang weer verder. hou vol en geniet. liefs, joke

  9. hallo Martijn, bedankt voor je antwoord via mail ivm auswitsch,
    die foto van Evelien toen ze vertrok (en je ze pas ging weerzien in oktober) sprak boekdelen, leuke meid, goed vasthouden deze vrouw 😉
    ja man wat een prachtige belevenis je daar hebt, prachtige fotos enz,
    goe bezig man, hou het veilig,
    support from Antwerp Belgium
    bye Ronny

  10. Hoi Martijn,

    Geheel toevallig kwam ik bij je indrukwekkende reisverslag terecht. Leuk om te lezen, ook omdat ik vroeger nog bij je in de klas heb gezeten. Iets meer baard, maar verder haalde ik je er nog wel uit.
    Al plannen voor een volgende trip?

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