Mongolia # 2 – Heading west on the Main Highway – October 2014

January 4, 2019

Getting directions out of the sprawling city of Ulaanbaatar was a bit of a challenge at 6:00 AM. We did have a tourist map, but of course, it was not in English. We had no GPS chip for Mongolia, but knowing our destination was west, as long as we had the sun to our backs we couldn’t be too far off. With the exception of a few potholes the paved highway was remarkably good, a relief after the horrendous roads we had driven in Tajikistan. We stopped at dusk near the village of Nariyntell. Finding a good, safe place to camp was a joy! Just a matter of pulling off the blacktop for a hundred yards.

The first morning driving west toward Olgii brought us this spectacular sunrise.

The first morning driving west toward Olgii brought us this spectacular sunrise.

Our Eberspaecher Airtronic air heater kept us warm as temperatures dropped into the low 30°s. Not a single vehicle came by all night. Peeking out the window in the morning, the horizon was on fire. As the first rays of sun

To our surprise, we came upon a yurt camp right next to the "main highway".

To our surprise, we came upon a ger (yurt) camp right next to the “main highway”.

burnt through the low cloud cover, it was a spectacular show. Slowly, as the warmth melted over the distant hills, the entire sky took on a tangerine glow, reflecting off the dusting of snow that had fallen during the night. In the light of dawn, we saw we had neighbors. Cozy gers, (yurts) dotted the hills, portable homes for the nomadic people that follow the grass of summer. (The Mongolian word is “ger”; in English, we adopted the Russian word “yurt”.) In these times, many families have winter quarters in Ulaanbaatar where their children can attend school.

As the light show faded into a shocking blue sky, we came to Bayanhongor, the first town of any size. Here we found fuel and then, by following a horse-drawn water cart, we were able to fill our own tanks with water, one 5-gallon bucket at a time. There were no faucets nor hoses. We had come 350 miles, but it was still roughly 650 miles to go to reach Olgii and the Annual Golden Eagle Festival would start in two or three days.

Yes, one of these two-tracks wandering across the grasslands was the “National Highway”. Often the question was, which one?

Yes, one of these two-tracks wandering across the grasslands was the “National Highway”. Often the question was, which one?

The pavement ended here and the road signs were sketchy or nonexistent. The surface, or should I say the “surfaces”, were mostly dry, but the washboard was 3 to 4 inches deep. Normally we could stay on top of such corrugation at 35 mph, but there were enough “gotcha holes” that any sustained speed over 20 mph was difficult. The game was to find the track out of four or five that had the best surface, and they changed frequently. Checking our map, yes, this was marked as the “National Highway”. There were short sections of pavement that appeared for a mile or two in the middle of nowhere, but they ended very abruptly with an 8-10 inch drop-off back to the dirt.

A loud POP spells trouble

The bolts on the Hellwig air bag bracket on the passenger side were completely gone. Perhaps sheared off by the many potholes and drop-offs. The heavy duty bracket was bent beyond use. It was now pushing on the bottom of the camper box.

The bolts on the Hellwig air bag bracket on the passenger side were completely gone. Perhaps sheared off by the many potholes and drop-offs. The heavy duty bracket was bent beyond use. It was now pushing on the bottom of the camper box.

On one such drop-off I heard a loud pop that told me that something had broken. We stopped to inspect and found that the Grade-8 bolts holding the drop-arm bracket to the frame were gone. Fortunately, I had similar bolts in my emergency-it-will-never-be-needed repair box and we were back on the road. But not so fast. The big bolt on the drop-arm itself was also gone. We fixed that with a replacement almost the right size. Then the other real problem became more obvious. The bolts holding the Hellwig Airbag to the frame on the passenger side had been hidden by the inside fender skirt of the camper box. They were also gone, and the heavy bracket, still attached to the air bag, was now pushing up on the body of the camper, not on the frame. The bracket was badly bent and not useable even if we had replacement bolts. It was not pretty.

Soon, the yurts would be packed up and the owners return to Ulanbaatar for the winter.

Soon, the gers (yurts) would be packed up and the owners return to Ulanbaatar for the winter.

With the cutout I had made on the fender well back in China, we could see the missing bolts that had looked fine then, but had probably been loose for a thousand miles. I never suspected them because the airbag pressure remained a 40psi. With still hundreds of miles to go before any real civilization, we now had to trust our rear spring packs and Rancho shocks to carry the full load. We left the Hellwig bags completely deflated on both sides to stop the passenger side from cutting the bag.

Olec from Moscow showed us on the map where he had come from and warned us about the flooded areas ahead which had been difficult on a motorcycle.

Olec from Moscow showed
us on the map where he had come from and warned us about the flooded areas ahead which had been difficult on a motorcycle.

Just as we were finishing what repairs that were possible, we saw a lone motorcycle headed down the road. Of course he stopped. That’s what you do when you see a fellow overlander. His name was Olec and he was from Moscow. He had traveled across Russia and Kazakhstan and was headed east to Ulaanbaatar. Apparently he did not know about the Golden Eagle Festival in Olgii where he only stopped for fuel, but he did tell us about the road conditions. Rain and snow had left parts of the track under water that had been difficult for him on his loaded bike. It was getting late so we invited him for a “home cooked” meal and enjoyed an evening of conversation in the warmth of our camper. Tomorrow would be another adventure, and the essence of adventure is not knowing how it’s going to come out. The absolute silence in this vast grassland was shockingly peaceful.

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