(note from Seb: Although what Kim writes in this update is funny, please forgive her for being a bit harsh. She’s tired and it has been a hard week and she doesn’t like Mongolia as you will read…)
The longer we stay in Mongolia, the more mixed feelings we have. I don’t know how to explain this country, but I will try.
One of the contradictions there are in Mongolia are in the scenery. There have been parts that we would drive the whole day and see the same scenery all day…flat sandy plains with mountains in the distance (a bit boring). But on the other hand, there were days that the scenery changed so abruptly every few kilometres that you could only be amazed at it’s beauty. On moments like these we appreciated every minute we were there.
Roads, or the lack of them are also very different. I can assure you that we have had tarmac in Mongolia (go figure) even if they all say there is none. On the other hand, we have also had the worst tracks in history here and these have the overhand big time! On the more than 1600 km’s we have already driven here, we have had 60 of them on paved roads, 300 on technical but nice track and the rest of them on shit “roads”! They just throw a lot of very sharp stones on their existing sand track and think that this will improve the grip you have on the road…not! We are super glad that we didn’t have a puncture yet because the number of times that we heard a loud banging noise on the wheel is spectacular. It is also amazing to see that they have what they call the ‘main road’ (a dirt track with a lot of gravel and a wash board effect) and next to it they will have at least 4 other tracks because even the locals won’t risk driving their car over the ‘main road’! Sometimes it is cool to see that the track starts as one and all of a sudden divides into 5 or 6 different tracks, going in all sorts of directions but eventually coming back to one track again!
The driving skills of the Mongolian people are another contradiction. Some of the drivers are very skilful and know the exact balance between speed and navigation to manoeuvre their car over the worst terrain ever. Others on the other hand suck at driving a car and shouldn’t even be allowed to ride a horse! You will be driving in one of the many different tracks when you see a car coming your way, driving in a different track. Ok, so far so good. What do some of them do when their track crosses with your track, they come and drive on your track full speed ahead and they expect you to get out of their way! They even start to flash their lights at you. The first times we were nice tourists and did what was expected of us, so we almost lost control trying to get out of the track into another one, just to get out of their way… Well, this was not what Seb had in mind the last time it happened! We were driving on the main track but on the right side of the road, where we are supposed to be, and where the track was the least shit. In the distance we could see a car coming towards us at incredible Mongol speed and he started flashing his lights at Seb since he was driving on our piece of the track coming straight towards us because that was the best part there was. Well, normally we would make ourselves scarce and try to find a different bit of track, but not this time. Seb decided to play chicken with the guy because he was fed up with it and didn’t want to budge this time! Luckily the Mongol people are not so good at playing chicken, so the guy with the car swerved out of ‘our’ track and looked very pissed at this stupid tourist that wouldn’t get out of his way!
Another thing we have noticed about the drivers is that they stop the car regularly by the side of the track to have a break, have a pee in plain sight next to the track (or even a crap!), stretch a bit and drive off again. But it has happened a lot that we see a car standing by the side of the track and we see that the people start looking at us from the distance and then something weird happens…I believe this is a question they get when passing their drivers exam (if there even is such a thing here!) : “what do you do when you see some stupid tourists (preferably bikers) coming your way : you
a) wait by your car and wave
b) get in your car, wait for them to pass and drive off
c) get as fast in your car as you can, speed up like a lunatic and try to run them of the track!!
Well yes, you can guess that most of them answer C to this question! WTF is it with these people! You can actually see them running to their car to try and get in and speed off toward you just to make you swerve out of the track and into the sand or grass or whatever!
Food, need I say more? We have found some real good food actually, but it is scarce and we now know that we have to enjoy it while we have it! We have gotten undefined dough flaps with something that might have resembled meat in a former life (before it had been chewed on and was spat out again) and with it they serve…nothing! They also always have tea, so that is a good thing, right?! No way! You know what to expect when you ask for a tea in Europe. It can be strong or weak, you can add sugar or milk but in the end it still is tea. Here it is always with milk and it has this grey/dirty white colour. We were taught not to judge a book/tea by it’s cover/colour so we tasted it! It is good that we had such a great upbringing, because otherwise we would have both spat out the tea simultaneously! In stead of a softly bitter or sweet sensation, you get a salty one! In the beginning we thought it was a fluke, but after a few days we stopped ordering tea altogether!
Since we are talking about food, let’s talk about table manners. They seem to have none over here! I have heard about cultures where it is polite to slurp your soup or your drink, but here it is over the top! When we ate together with Murat the first day, he was constantly chewing with his mouth wide open and he gave a new definition to slurping your tea! We first said that it was maybe just him, that had no table manners, but we soon found out, it is the whole country that eats like this. When you get goose bumps hearing all these noises at home in a ‘civilised’ tone, try to imagine what you get here… a lack of appetite!
Going from eating the food, to selling it! Since we don’t know how to read the signs, we look at the pictures (and thank god for that!). We’ve stopped a lot of times in a small town to see that there was what looked like a shop or restaurant judging by the pictures of food on the board hanging above the door. When we finally got off the bike, took off our helmets and walked in, we would be in someone’s living room or kitchen. When we would ask them if they sold food they could all say : “no food!” I think that the government just made a bunch of these boards with pictures of food on them and handed them to some locals to decorate their houses with!
When we did eventually find a shop, it was always a sport to try and locate something else than chocolate, biscuits or huge bags of rice. I can tell you that we have been living on chocolate for breakfast and biscuits for dinner for a long time. This is not even the worst part of it all… We now know where the spoiled food goes when it leaves Europe…Mongolia! Everything we buy in the shops has an expiration date that has been expired at least 2 months! I don’t even look to see if there is something green and fluffy on top of my food, I just open my mouth, chew and swallow, hoping all the while that my stomach will take whatever I give it!
Prices and getting ripped off is also an item on the Mongolian list. At least in the shops you are sure to pay the amount that is marked on the product and you will not be ripped off! All the other times you have to pay, be sure that they will try their hardest to rip you off. We were once in an establishment that served something that resembled food (no I can not call it a restaurant!) when we took a look at the menu and where they just covered the prices with their hand, so that we could not see how much the normal price was. They try to give you less money back than they have to, they try to make you pay if you want to take a picture somewhere, they want you to pay for WIFI that is not working and the list goes on and on!
I think they should invent a star rating of below 0 for hotels from now on. If they want to call their building ‘hotel’ in Mongolia, they should also get a rating. But because there is no sub zero rating, that will be a problem here! We have stayed in a lot of ramshackle places all over the world and we definitely do not need luxury when travelling by bike, but this is the worst accommodation we have ever had where we had to pay these ridiculous prices! We have slept in a hotel where the mildew was all over the ceiling, the window would not fit the hole in the wall, the shower had only a dribble coming out and it was not even warm, the bed consisted of a wooden mattress with a filthy blanket, the floor had big holes in it, the door would not lock, the water in the toilet had a brownish colour all the time and for this they made us pay 22 Euros! In the end it is not a lot of money but when you know you can get better for less in other countries, you start to compare even if you don’t want to!
The lack of interest in their buildings is also spectacular. You see a lot of yurts and they are easy to build, brake back down and build up again. Next to the yurts you see a lot of wooden buildings but all of them look dilapidated and not looked after at all. When they build them they give them bright colours and funny coloured rooftops, but after they have been there for a couple of years without them doing anything to look after them, they look crappy and ugly. Nowadays they start building brick buildings, what an improvement you might think… Not here, no! I don’t know how they manage it, but they manage to build everything crooked and not proportional! Nothing fits, the windows will not open properly (even in brand new buildings), the roofs leak and half the building seems to get eaten by the ground by the time it is over 5 years old!
There is also a contradiction between the friendliness and rudeness of the people. Some people see us as a local attraction (and that we can understand). They want to take pictures of the bikes, of us with the bikes and of themselves as they are on the bikes. We always allow people to sit on the bike if they ask us, but at one point there was this guy who just hopped on my bike and started showing off like he was king of the world! He must be glad that he didn’t understand a word of Dutch because I was cursing at him and throwing profanities in his direction! There was also this time that we had just gotten to an establishment that had food-like things and we were seated at the table. Seb got up to wash his hands while I was looking at the map to see where we were going. By the time Seb had finished, I was on my way to wash my hands and these two young guys walked in. They saw our map on the table, next to our other stuff and they stood in front of the map, showing each other god knows what. Seb wanted to sit down again, but one of them started pushing him away because then he couldn’t see the map anymore! Seb had a rough day that day, yanked the map out from under their noses, sat down and looked at them as if to say : “and now what are you going to do?!”
This all together has made my decision easy to say that we will drive towards Ulaanbaatar and drive upwards in the direction of Irkutsk to go back through Siberia instead of Mongolia.
On the other hand, we did have some nice experiences, but they were few in comparison to all the hassle we have had. There were a few people who spoke either German or English and who were genuinely helpful.
I had found a cows head by the side of the road and after the usual funny pics, we decided to put it on Seb’s front mudguard. It took us a while to notice that it was damaging the bags and by then we realised that we probably would not be allowed to get with the head across the border, so we dumped it. It did make for some cool pictures though!
We did have some real cool scenic drives with a few river crossings.
One of them was super wide and deep and there was already one truck that was stuck halfway, but Seb still wanted to try to get to the other side… His bike had a gulp of water halfway down the river and we had to push it back and take a detour to get to a decent bridge to cross the river. (note from Seb: I still don’t know why the bike stalled, as it wasn’t even that deep and the air intake is much higher… so it frustrates me that we had to go round as the current was to strong to push the bike over)
When we came to the bridge, we looked at each other and hoped it was a joke. The bridge looked like it had been designed by a drunk guy and near the end, it just stopped which made that there was a gap of 5 meters to the other side where there was nothing! We found out that they had built a new bridge a few kilometres further down the track that did reach the other side without any problem…
We camped at an idyllic spot by the side of the river where we had our best bath since we arrived in Mongolia (even our best since we started) although in the beginning the water of the river was freezing cold! After we had washed ourselves, there were two young guys on horses that drove past. After a few gestures we let them sit on our bikes and they let Seb sit on the horse…Imagine him doing this trip like that!
Today we found out that there were still some places where they were having small Naadam festivals and this time we were just in time to see the finish of the horse race. Seb could even ride alongside the riders with his motorcycle and try to film something of it. Because both our Contours (helmet camera) have broken down however, there was no footage left!