Tuesday 15th August - No Man's Land & Yurts
We packed up our tents as quick as we could. The aim for today was to reach the Mongolian border before it closed. We'd heard that teams had spent 7 hours trying to get through the day before. Fingers crossed we wouldn't need to spend that long there. Our tents were soaked. The area we'd camped in was great but there was so much moisture in the air, it was as if we'd thrown our tents in a pool. We had no choice but to pack them away all wet. Sorry tents! The Swedish team were quite quick packing up; despite all us Aussies coming from camping backgrounds we were unfortunately much slower and took a while. Must be our laid-back Aussie attitude, or the fact we had two extra people they didn't have. We'd aimed to leave at 7am but ended up hitting the road at 8am.
The Altai mountains are incredible. We highly recommend everyone visits here. Eagles fly overhead as you drive through the valley and beautiful green mountains are everywhere. Horses, cows and goats roam all over the place including the road. We passed through a number of towns with small cabins for summer holiday makers. President Putin was apparently here just the week before for a working vacation, he'd been spotted fishing in the lake. Every time we stopped at a servo random cows would waltz all over the place searching for the tastiest grass.
We stopped at a cafe for lunch; ordering the fish ended up meaning you literally get a whole little fish. Perhaps Putin had caught these little fellas just a week earlier. Our Swedish pals were feeling adventurous and rinsed off in the nearby stream for a quick bath. The water was very, very fresh, as if from the Titanic so us Aussies skipped out on joining them. We gave our Swedish friends a small kangaroo figurine we'd brought from Australia. They promptly produced some super-glue and stuck him to the front bonnet of their car. Farewell Skippy! May you see many wonderful things from the best view in the house.
Another hour of driving and we made another quick stop to admire a huge snow capped mountain in the distance. Definitely not a sight we see in Australia, after a lot of 'oos' and 'aahs' we continued on to a town to buy some supplies. We were unsure how long the border crossing into Mongolia would take or if we'd even make it into Mongolia tonight. Other ralliers ahead of us had warned that the border has strict closing times and if we didn't make it we'd be camping, or worse, we'd get stuck in the no mans land between Russia and Mongolia.
We finally reached the border and saw a line of cars waiting to get through. Another rally team was spotted and we had a quick chat to them. Things were looking good; they'd at least moved a bit in the last half an hour. We met another group of young English guys who weren't officially doing the Mongol Rally but something similar. They were in a large black van that they'd altered for a big Europe/Asia trip. The van looked like a luxury mansion compared to our tiny car, they even had beds inside the van and a shelf with spices! What we would do to have shelves in our tiny lego block of a car! We didn't think the toilets could get any worse at these border crossings but oh were we wrong. This toilet had Haylee gagging without even having opened the door, the smell was terrible. Opening the door we found a random tyre on the floor, was it for sitting on? Everyone had missed the hole in the tyre and excrement and urine was all over the place. Obviously people at border crossings get a bit too excited about leaving the country and forget to aim. We managed to have our car documents stamped within thirty minutes and were quickly getting our passports stamped. Things were looking good! We might actually make it into Mongolia tonight! Next up was the car check; we still can't work out why we need to have everything checked by the guards of the country we're leaving. Doesn't make sense to us. Nonetheless the Russians went through our car and checked all our car pockets. They came to Haylee's car pocket which had a vortex in it we'd bought in England and used at the Baku ferry port to beat boredom. The guard held it up and asked Natalie "bomb?" Natalie quickly said "no! it's a toy." We've no idea why he thought it was a bomb, and if it was why he was picking it up and waving it around. Haylee explained to him it's basically a football. He believed us and put it back in the car pocket.
(the beautiful spacious van our UK friends had at the border)
Finally after having our passports stamped by the Russians so we could actually leave the country and drove on through to the next checkpoint. We approached a fence and boom gate and had another Russian guard check our passports. He waved us on and told us to leg it to the Mongolian border because this was the part where we had to drive through no mans land. It was now 6:45pm and the border closes at 7pm. If we didn't get there in the next fifteen minutes we'd be camping in 'no country'. James floored it and we were off. Of course, Murphys law, our Slothy car decided to overheat. She wasn't happy with us flooring it and threw a tantrum (that and she had so much mud caked all over her radiator). We had to quickly pull over and let her calm down. Fortunately she was feeling okay again so we floored it. We managed to reach the border entry just in time, phew!
We parked the car and went to get our passports and car documents stamped. For some annoying reason though they wouldn't process our car; basically we were allowed in the country but not our Slothy car. She would have to stay locked up overnight until the morning. The make matters worse our Swedish pals were in no mans land and hadn't made it to the border. We could actually see them stuck behind the fence unsure what to do. They would need to camp in their car until the border opened in the morning to enter Mongolia. A few of the guards walked past us so we asked them to please open the gate for our friends so they could join us. Our prayers were answered and they let them in! As we were allowed in the country but our cars weren't we suddenly had a bit of a dilemma. The guards assured us there was a hotel in the small village next to the border. The annoying thing was we weren't allowed to take all our bags with us. Every time we tried to take a big bag with us through the gates the guards would say "no, no!" Their reasoning was that our bags hadn't been checked. In the end we had to settle for taking our small day packs filled with essentials. We all assumed we'd end up in this mysterious hotel we'd been told about so didn't take any sleeping bags or pillows.
Walking through the village it was clear that this wasn't a place where a random Marriott had set up. There was literally animals bones all over the ground and outdoor toilets with doors flung open. We even walked past a random yak skull resting against a fence. A local man came up to our group which now included the young four U.K. guys in the black van we'd met at the Russian border. The local man told us he could show us to his yurt where we could stay the night. Great! We followed him looking nervously at all the bones we were stepping on. Children as young as three were wandering around by themselves and the air was bitterly cold. Our teeth were chattering away from how freezing the temperature had turned. Finally we came to his large white yurt, we walked inside and awkwardly looked around. Yurts are very, very basic places. They have literally a floor, some blankets near the back wall and maybe a table and chair. Hmm, we all looked around; of course we didn't expect much but the main thoughts in our head was that we hadn't brought any sleeping bags with us and we were simply being presented a hard floor. Our host offered some blankets which looked like they hadn't been washed in fifteen years. The four English guys and our Swedish pals were all too keen to stay in a yurt for the night so dropped their things and started getting comfy. Us four Aussies were thinking we'd walk around the tiny village and search for this so called hotel.
We first tried the largest building in the village - it makes sense right? So imagine our surprise when the door was answered by the border guard who had processed our passports moments earlier. When we asked if this was a hotel, he shouted back into the house but then turned to us and said "Sorry, no hotel." Perhaps he did want to host us but his wife probably had other ideas. But he did point us to another building that looked more western in design than the other buildings and said "Cafe". At this building we hesitantly knocked on the door. A middle aged woman opened the door and we tried our best pantomime to ask if it was a hotel. She gestured us in but the first thing we noticed was an array of shoes and slippers - most of us realised that it was a shoes off policy in this house. James however trudged in with his tradie boots but the lady didn't bat an eye. What we saw inside was a room with 4 beds! It was a hotel! She then proceeded to tell us that there was also dinner on offer - all for a reasonable price. Having heard the rumours we asked what dinner was.
We just looked even more puzzled - was it goat? Was it yak? Or that horse milk that we had been dreading. Her daughter comes in with a little white object in her hand - dumplings! She than told us it was sheep meat. Oh well, perhaps we would have horse another time. We were then led to the cafe area which consisted of a single long table and a counter which was covered in hand drawn logos of various Mongol Rally teams from previous years. We were obviously in the right place.
Dinner was then served - we had ordered 10 dumplings...each. They were quite tasty and freshly made. Some of us even managed to finish all 10. But after dinner, Haylee and Patrick realised that the modern(ish) building with its beds and cafe weren't what we were imagining when originally decided on the Mongol Rally. So we went back to the yurt. James and Natalie stayed at the hotel and enjoyed a night chatting with the owner, her husband and daughter. Turns out her daughter attends school in Ulaanbaatar over 500kms away! James enjoyed a few beers that actually had a little emblem on it; the beers had won some Australian awards!
(above is a Ukranian guy we met at the border who also stayed at the hotel)
(James with the Mongolian beer that had won Aussie awards)
In the cold and quickly fading sunlight, Haylee and Patrick walked through the village noticing the hand constructed buildings, piles of dried manure patties, remains of animals and a number of outdoor dunnies throughout the village. Haylee discovered that one of these was somewhat new and surprisingly clean! We needed to remember the exact location of this facility.
Upon entering the yurt and advising the host that we required accommodation (but not food) for the night, he demanded $25USD when the others had paid $10 each, which included their dinner. After a quick haggle, he accepted $20 for the two of us. The original stench of the yurt had been replaced by the smell of food and the aroma of wood burning in the central stove. The others tried to encourage us to try the food but were not giving us any hints of what was on offer. The first dish was quite innocent - fried bread with goat 'fat' (possibly their version of butter). The other dishes were quite fragrant - goat cheese, dried goat cheese and fried goat cheese. Yes, they like their goats - in fact, our fellow guests told us that our host had brought in his goat. A video recording showed our host leading a Goat around the yurt and proudly showing off the goat's 'manliness' - right up until it decided that the yurt was a portaloo, at which point he host was busy trying to catch the fertiliser. The host provided a bottle of Chinggis vodka which turned out to be surprisingly good. Who knew the Mongolians could make such smooth vodka! We were soon out of vodka and asked the host for another two bottles. He quickly explained that the shop in the town was closed. After looking quite disappointed our host said he could probably find the two bottles somewhere else. He left the yurt for ten minutes and returned with two bottles. We've no idea where he located these bottles; perhaps he went around knocking on all his neighbours doors? Our hosts teenage brother later came in with fox pelts and hats which we tried on, he then explained he would sell them to us and showed a National geographic video of how their trained eagles locate and catch the foxes. Eventually after finding the vodka bottles we decided it was time to (somehow) make a decent bed and sleep. Our host had provided some blankets and pillows which we rearranged in the floor. It was eight guys and one girl, so Haylee was placed alongside the wall and the guys next to each other. There was a serious lack of space so the guys were in an uncomfortable proximity and of course making every joke possible about this. "Who's leg is touching mine?" "Is that you Robin?" "Can you move over a bit more?" For a good forty minutes we tried to get used to our sleeping arrangements. It was surprisingly warm in the yurt despite the freezing temperatures outside. We definitely got the full experience of sleeping in a smelly but traditional Mongolian yurt!