After experiencing the Mongolian roads for 2 weeks we had already made the decision not to go north and visit Khovsgol Nuur which is the largest lake in Mongolia. Tigger was suffering from road fatigue and frankly so were we. The bad condition of the roads was relentless, barely getting out of second gear and if we weren't being shaken to bits by washboard roads then we were negotiating "roads" full of rocks and/or potholes, it was exhausting, and frustrating at the end of the day realising we had done only half the amount of kilometres we had planned to do which probably involved getting lost as well!
We are heading south towards the Gobi and decide to visit some hot springs on route, partly for some relaxation but also for a shower - it's been a while! just as well there are only the two of us in the van, I think we did get lost someone could smell us out!
We were pleased to see that the road to the hot springs seemed pretty ok, it wasn't really a road obviously but it was a fairly good track without pot holes or too many bumps until we get around 10km away, where we hit marshy, boggy, muddy land , this is totally Tiggers Nemesis he really isn't a fan of mud , We can see where we need to go but it involves picking our route very carefully - the magic button (Diff lock thingy) is engaged and we go for it . It is much more slippery and wet than anticipated and Tigger is having real trouble not to slip into a rather large ditch full of water - the back wheels for sure want to take us into the ditch for a swim and where we will definitely fall over! The moment is a little tense but we manage to avoid the ditch using the Jeremy Clarkson manoeuvre. POWER! But drive directly into a big muddy hole which although ultimately preferable to the ditch, is still a right royal pain in the rear axle which is now kissing the mud and we are now a hostage of the muddy mire.
So after the application of more power…. We are still stuck. Suzanee returns from the river with a local on horseback and a load of stones from the river which I hope will help if I throw them into the wheel holes. No good. Then tried some bigger rocks and bits of tree. Also no good. Anything to avoid getting the jack and waffle boards out! So. Its waffle board time! Carefully positioning my clean self, I dig out one of the rear wheels. Still clinging on to ‘not being caked in mud’, I jack up the rear using bits of split log to spread the weight of the jack and slip the waffleboard under the wheel. Bingo! Success! We are out and I am still clean. Double bubble!
Obviously I would have helped but one of us had to keep clean!
Getting out of a muddy situation! Video link to watch John get out!
Less than 100 metres away from where we are stuck is a river crossing, I watch a horse and rider come through and see the water is up the horses belly! Not feeling too confident about getting across, however, John walks the river and finds a slightly shallower crossing and Tigger is just about to pick his way around the shallow edge when a local Ger family in an ancient Uaz Jeep speed across the middle of the river and stop! They are totally stuck, water is pouring into their vehicle and the engine has completely packed up! Tigger to the rescue!! We cross the river (at the shallow edge without a problem) and then have to tow the Uaz out, it's hilarious that we are the foreigners towing the locals out! They are extremely grateful and show their appreciation but insisting on giving us some salty hard cheese/yoghurt balls - hmm! Video link to see Tigger the Hero
Post river crossing
We finally manage to get to the hot springs and decide to reward ourselves by staying the night in a " Spa Resort Hotel" The all knowing Lonely Planet cites the Duut Resort as being the most "Luxurious" available so that's the one we opt for obviously! Now you mustn't get Western luxury and Mongolian luxury confused otherwise you may be sorely disappointed but it actually isn't too bad the room has a private Western loo which always makes me happy , there are hot showers and the spa pools have an amazing view over the Mongolian landscape To top it all the food is pretty good and yes they have Western wine - woo hoo!
Luxury Mongolian Style!
Rejuvenated from the spa waters we head off knowing we have a lot of driving ahead to get to the Gobi. On the map it doesn't seem very far but we have learnt our lesson and know that a small stretch of bad road can take hours to cross so we brace ourselves to be shaken by the washboard roads and thrown about by the potholes - but wait this looks like, yes it is TARMAC!!! What deep joy driving on smooth roads and getting into 4th gear!!! We follow the tarmac more or less until it runs out, even though it does slightly deviate from our route - never mind we will find a road that takes us to where we want to go and 3hours of driving on tarmac is equivalent to a whole days drive normally!
Once back on the "normal" Mongolian roads we realise we need to stock up with food and water . Everything we have read about going to the Gobi in your own car makes it very clear that you should have enough water and food to last at least a week, it's pretty remote and can be very hot! As we are trying to find a town big enough which has everything we need we are flagged down by a group of what look like Mongolian tourists, they are beside the road taking photos in their huge Toyota 4x4 (which everyone has here) Now we don't usually stop as hardly anyone speaks English and its hard work to get yourself understood but still in a frivolous mood from the hot springs and tarmac we decide to stop and chat. They love Tigger and want to look inside and nose around and as usual, everyone has to have their photo taken with us and Tigger then they ask how many dollars did it cost to buy - this is a common question which we get asked all the time we have decided that we won't reveal the true cost as partly we are not sure we really know how much it cost after refit and secondly we don't want it to seem an expensive vehicle that might be worth stealing - so $20000 is what we normally say , on this occasion it was a mistake and we probably should have told them something nearer to the true cost as now they want to buy Tigger! We laugh politely and say he isn't for sale - they can't speak much English so telephone their daughter and get her to ask us how much will we sell Tigger for, no he's not for sale.
After the formalities are observed we make a hasty retreat to the town buy our provisions, waving and smiling goodbye. But wait. They are following us. We reach the town and a small group of people gather around to look at Tigger. Our stalkers are still with us and one of them finds someone in the crowd who can speak English so they can continue the negotiations in buying the van with John , in the meantime I have gone into the shop and in hot pursuit is lady stalker running behind me with phone in her hand shouting "Mrs, Mrs" thrusting the phone in my face. It is her daughter on the phone again explaining how they REALLY want to buy Tigger and in the end, I have to be quite rude in telling her "It is our home and is not for sale for any price"
Eventually, we leave behind the disappointed Mongolians and have continually wondered since, actually how much would they have paid for Tigger?
John protecting Tigger from the stalkers!
We camp at a place called Bogd which is the last village before we get to the Gobi, it's exciting and a little scary that we are not sure when we are going to see civilisation again so we make sure we are well stocked with food and water. The weather doesn't seem at all desert like in fact it's raining and rather miserable and we are worried about mud. We head off in the direction we think is right but in retrospect it probably wasn't!
After battling with the terrain for three hours the road appears to come to a dead end - this is really disheartening. Getting anywhere is such an enormous effort the thought of turning around and going back is so defeatist, plus we are not really sure where to go instead. The dead end is, in fact, a dry river bed full of stones and rocks so it can't possibly be a road. John puts on his waterproofs and walks up the riverbed to see if there is a road we can't see on the other side of the river, it's very difficult to see anything with the rain lashing and thick mist he reports back and there is no road on the other side . As we are staring at the riverbed wondering what to do next a moped appears out of the mist. Ok. Let's see if we can ask these people where the road is as they must have come from somewhere - after lots of gesticulation we gather that the river bed IS the road and they assure us it will be fine for Tigger!
So. Peering through the rain and mist it is highly improbable that this is going to end well. You know when you have that feeling that you are just about to do something unwise? Should we turn back? But to what? Ok. Press on it is then. The river bed is actually good to drive on. Like a firm shingle beach. But for how long. We can't even be sure that there isn’t an actual river up ahead in the gloom. It's so irresponsible! What am I doing?! Calm down! Following the intermittent single set of bike tyre tracks we wind our way up the river into the heart of the mountain range for a good hour or more until we find a track leading away from the river. This leads us into another river / gully just wide enough for us and heads down. Luckily this doesn't get any narrower but it is now too steep to get out and getting deeper, no way out now!. Around a bend and out! Hurrah! The rain has stopped and the fog has cleared and now we are out into the plain the other side of the mountains and back on our route.
Finally, after another day of driving we are in the Gobi, we really do feel remote here, I don't think we have seen any other cars or people for a couple of days, although if you look hard enough through the binoculars you can usually spot a Ger somewhere on the horizon. The driving is better, fewer potholes and rocks but the roads are more or less non-existent even for Mongolian standards. You can usually follow a faint track (which is classed as a road!) but here there is nothing. We are confronted by a rocky canyon and have no idea how to navigate through it - no tracks, not on the sat nav or the map - this was one of my "OMG" moments fearing we would never get out and no one would ever find us, wishing we had brought with us that distress flare, although not really sure who would have seen it! After a quite a few "wrong" turns and doubling back on ourselves not to mention a few tense driver/navigator moments we escape to the other side.
Feels pretty Lonely out here!
The road leading to the range disappears once inside! Video of a small bit of the drive
And out the other side
And the rain was good for something we get to see these desert flowers - very rare apparently!
Finally, we spot the dunes in the distance
We have been heading for some of the biggest and most spectacular sand dunes in Mongolia called Khongoryn Els. The largest of the dunes are up to 300mtrs high and are there, of course, to be climbed. (Yep. No other reason. There are a couple of guys with shovels who work tirelessly to replace the sand that tourists displace when they climb up. This is not true.) For anyone who hasn't climbed a sand dune let me tell you its really hard work, for each step forward be prepared to take two backwards as the sand slides away from under you - it's exhausting!!! (as I am in one of my pedantic moods I feel as though I should point out that this last piece of information is also not accurate, otherwise you would actually be walking backwards but I think you know what the author is intimating ) but we did it and the view from the top was worth the effort and nearly as much fun as the yomp down the dunes - an hour to get up and 20mins to get down!
The may look tame from here!
Made it to the top without a cardiac event!
Bit windy at the top!
Nope still can't see anyone!
After what seems like a mammoth journey across Mongolia we are ready for civilization , the lure of a hot shower and a sit down toilet are too much (probably too much information here but at one point we hadn't had our lovely butts on a western loo for over a week!) so after the dunes we head for the capital Ulaanbaatar (which wins first prize in the category of “place that we visited with the most "A"s in its name)
After a few days relaxing and catching up with friends at the Overlanders pit stop, the Oasis hotel, we head off to see the Chenngis Khan Monument just outside UB where legend has it Chenngis found his famous golden whip. The monument is impressive and enormous!
We spend a night wild camping in the national park which is lovely and wooded and reminds us of Europe. The morning surprises us with a hard frost covering tigger and the whole of the valley. This soon burns off whilst we have breakfast and then we head back to UB for a final couple of nights before heading to the Mongolia/China border where we will rendezvous with our fellow travellers with whom we will travel through China.
We also get to see someone taking their camel for a walk - like you do!
By now we were more than ready to leave Mongolia as we were fed up with the roads or lack of them and we were desperate to eat some decent food ie anything other than salty rock hard yoghurt or boiled mutton, however in retrospect if was an amazing adventure and certainly fulfilled all of our (Johns!) dreams in the off-road driving department! If you want seclusion, never-ending landscapes and REALLY getting away from it all then Mongolia is the place for you!
It was indeed very demanding. Especially so when you consider you are trying to preserve your 27-year-old vehicle and that it is you, and only you, who is going to get you out of the s**t when ( not if ) you get in it. And I don’t mean the millions of tons of animal poop! It was a fab driving experience and fulfilled all and so much more of my expectations for off roading and I have to admit I would love to do it again ( a few mods required to Tigger first though)