Russia/Mongolia Border to Choibalsan
I’ve commented on this remote border crossing in previous posts; specifically that we were aware there would be no road on the Mongolian side for the first 234 kilometres. Consequently, we anticipated this would be a tiny border checkpoint with little traffic, as compared to the popular border situated below Lake Baikal. As it turned out this border crossing was even smaller than expected; so small that we were the only vehicle passing through the tiny Russian and Mongolian checkpoints each side of the border (each of which looks able to accommodate only one vehicle at a time).
Though very little English was spoken (especially on the Russian side), the various immigration, customs and other staff were all pleasant – it helps travelling with some cute kids! The toughest part of the process was the Customs inspection of the vehicle. Every single item had to be removed from the Pajero and unpacked. We spent two and a half hours just on the Russian side of the border. There was a mechanic’s type pit in the ground to allow the Customs officer to inspect beneath the vehicle for any tucked away parcels. The space at the front of the engine was inspected, the snorkel had a ‘tap down’ to ensure it sounded hollow all the way and much more like this. No space on the vehicle was missed. I saw a couple of soldiers trying to figure out what my home made tent heater actually was - built into a standard toolbox it looks ordinary enough from the front, though the exhaust pipe and air intake coming out the rear indicate it's not for storing tools!
This was a grueling process that I envisage having to repeat at other borders across Central Asia. The only items found that were deemed somewhat contentious was a pair of handheld 2-way radios and my GPS satellite tracking/communication device. Had they confiscated the radios I could have lived with it, but I would have seriously defended the GPS device. It's our lifeline in the remote places we go! I can communicate through it from anywhere in the world via satellite, plus I've subscribed to a global search and rescue policy linked to the device. We would feel exposed in the remote places we venture alone without this device on-board.
I have increased trust in the Russians through this trip. They didn’t attempt to inspect any part of the vehicle when I wasn’t watching - my research leads me to believe it won't be this way in some Central Asian countries and the motivations won't always be honest.
A word of warning for anyone contemplating a trip like this – don’t take any medication containing codeine. We weren’t, because my research had alerted me to the fact that in many of these countries codeine is considered a serious illegal drug and you can be landed in big trouble if found with it. The Russians were certainly looking for it in our vehicle and especially scrutinised our first-aid containers.
On the Mongolian side of the border the vehicle related searches were very modest compared to what we had on the Russian side, which was a relief, as it would have extended our border crossing to more than half a day. Then we'd have come up against lunchtime, when the border closes. A border crossing of less than three hours is extremely quick in this part of the world, even with no queue ahead of us. It felt long, but later on our trip we’ll be wishing all the borders could be this quick.
We were thrilled as the final gate into Mongolia was opened. We had a quick look around Ereentsav, a village just over the Mongolian side of the border, where it would be possible to get some foods and/or fuel, but of course we were fully stocked with both at this point. We wasted little time in getting on the road… road being just a dirt track headed into vast grassy planes. We rolled over this terrain for a few hours before stopping for a late lunch. On our way we passed through a peculiar little village, seemingly now mostly inhabited by wild horses! We couldn't tell if the derelict apartment buildings pictured below were previously inhabited, or if they were never completed before being left to fall into ruin. We saw much of the same in our final stretches through Russia. The photos below show that horses now roam around the village, and indeed seem quite at home roaming inside the derelict apartments.
As we went through this village an old man and old woman flagged us down. You don't really need to speak the language sometimes to work out what someone wants. The old woman wanted a ride to Choibalsan, some 200 kilometres away. We pointed to the children in the back and all the gear packed into the car, but we're quickly learning that to a Mongolian that's no excuse not to fit another passenger in. It was clear the old woman would happily sit on one of the kids, so sadly we had to be firm, as we've had three such instances now. I say 'sadly' because she might have to wait a while for the next car coming this way. I should clarify that her home was in the village - we weren't leaving her stranded - she just hoped to hitch a ride.
This next set of photos shows our late lunch stop, where about the only other vehicle to pass us by in the few hours we were stopped was a slow but colourful old train. After a long break we pressed on for a few more hours before finally setting up camp on dusk. The final photo in this set was taken the following morning.
The Mongolian landscapes are vast and you can make camp just about anywhere you please - there's no shortage of a piece of flat ground for a tent. I'm genuinely enjoying the Batwing awning courtesy of Rhino-Rack and we've been using it to make some really comfy camps in the middle of nowhere, sheltered from sun, wind and/or rain.
A word on the terrain
As expected, there are no roads, just dirt tracks. That said, the tracks are not difficult. Locals mostly drive them in regular 2wd cars, with the Toyota Prius surprisingly the most commonly observed local car. Where a track gets too rough for a normal car it is clear that a new track is just started next to it, and in places there are a number of parallel tracks. The only exception would be rain. Presumably the locals only drive their cars out here in dry conditions. I noticed that some of the otherwise normal cars have suspension lifts, such as you would normally do to a 4wd. This highlights that in the dry traction is no issue, but some extra ground clearance helps. What I've described here only applies to our route between the border and the first major town and I don't presume that tracks into more remote parts of the country will be so easy.
The following short video should help to demonstrate.
Far from being just another dusty remote town to replenish fuel and supplies at, Choibalsan proved an interesting place worthy of some mention. We spent three nights camped nearby the town, visiting each day. The experience here that most stands out is of a central park area where locals gathered in considerable numbers each evening. A bouncy castle is erected each evening for the kids, loads of BBQ's are set up and colourful lights are switched on. The atmosphere created is wonderfully festive.
This is a remote town with limited wealth/resources, so what I found wonderful is how they've gone about creating this truly festive atmosphere with a restricted budget. The delicious and generously proportioned skewers of meat pictured (about NZ$3) were cooked on BBQ's constructed from roughly welded together scrap steel. The lighting looks great and did the job perfectly, but on closer inspection its just put together from cheap reels of LED light strip. The same can be said of the lit up hotel across the street. These festive evening gatherings seemed to be a regular occurrence, bearing in mind that winters are very harsh here - evidently locals make the most of the warmer summer months.
We didn't see a single other person our entire time in Choibalsan that I could describe as a tourist or westerner. We really stood out like a sore thumb here and as usual our little blond girls caused something of a spectacle. The few locals we encountered with some spoken English were very welcoming and helpful. Here are a few further photos around Choibalsan.
Some readers won't find the photos of the local meat market particularly appealing, as meat is not refrigerated. We've seen this before in less developed areas in the south of Morocco, though still we're somewhat uneasy about it. We selected some quite fresh looking lamb - sold as a chunk - and quickly put it in our frig. Notice the 'Ikea' store in the final photo above. Choibalsan also proclaims to have 'Zara' and 'Mango' stores. It goes without saying that these are not genuine branches!
Where are we now?
Although a road begins from Choibalsan, we're not taking it. Instead we're heading into the remote north east corner of Mongolia to explore off the beaten path places, even by Mongolia's standards. This route will feature in a later blog, but suffice to say planning it has not been entirely straight-forward. I use two different topo mapping softwares, both of which struggled here. Ultimately I've had to resort to working with satellite imagery, manually plotting over a hundred waypoints so far. That will get us into the region we're heading for, though the route out is not yet determined. We have to get across a big river; I have plotted coordinates for where a bridge is known to exist and also for where a tiny barge big enough to take a single 4wd is supposed to operate. I am uncertain whether to expect the river to be able to be forwarded in 4wd presently, but we won't be attempting anything that looks to risky on our own.
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