Uliastai (Улиастай)

Saturday, May 31, 2014

We sure must have slept well as we woke up to find it was past 8am! Not bad! Specially with the sun coming up around 5:15am. We enjoyed breakfast on this windless, warm morning, after which Stephen swapped the tires back to avoid driving on tries with uneven tread.

The night before we discussed our route and destination for this day: either turn off to Tosontsengel and stay there the night, or, keep going straight towards Uliastai and camp 3-4 hours short of the town. When we started off in the morning we were still undecided about what to do, but were leaning towards the ‘go straight’ option. The road to the turn off was mostly smooth grassland track, with rocky patches. We stopped for lunch, and at 2:40pm we reached the turn-off, and, hence decision point. We decided to give Tosontsengel a miss and to keep going towards Uliastai. The turn-off marked the start of an immense valley (80kms it would turn out) with a mix of grassland track, ‘improved track’ with the usual corrugations, some very sandy patches, in short nothing we hadn’t had before.

Around 4pm we started looking for a place to camp. As the wind in the valley was very strong, we veered off the main road towards the relative shelter of some hills. At 4:20pm we found a spot and set up the tent with the annex. To stop the pegs from being pulled out of the ground by the force of the wind we collected rocks that we put on all of them and then some on top of those. By then the wind had become even stronger; so strong in fact that we were afraid the annex would be blown to shreds, so we decided to fold both annex and tent away and sleep in the car. Cooking was out of the question in those conditions so dinner consisted of bread and jam, cheese and salami. So there we were, sitting in the car, with winds that made even a stroll very unpleasant and with 3-4 hours of daylight left. At 6:30pm we decided to hit the valley track again and head in the direction of Uliastai, hoping for a less windy spot. Dust clouds were overtaking us as we drove around 35kph.

Just when we got to the main road again Stephen pointed at some standing stones, and as luck would have it, we’d found some more Deer Stones. Nice bonus!

From then on the track improved considerably; the road was corrugated but there were no potholes and we were making speeds of 60/70kph at times. Then, after 80kms, we reached a bridge and the end of the valley. We had different road conditions from then on: at one stage a road was being built (which always means rough conditions). We crossed a pass with a heavily potholed road so it was slow going, but we could smell the town and kept going. Then the road improved and at 9:30pm we had reached the town limits.

The search for a hotel could begin. With the Lonely Planet in hand we went to the ‘Uliastai Hotel’ (bermudarover.com had also stayed there) but we must have hit them on an ‘off’ night, or make that ‘off’ weekend. First of all the room was dire to say the least: small… ok, but dirty (I even scrubbed the sink before using it) and everything was falling to pieces. Hot showers? We were lucky to have a trickle of cold water coming out of the tap – most of the time. Wifi? What?. And very unfriendly and unwelcoming staff. At least the bed linens were clean. Another group was checking-in at the same time and judging by the look on their faces they weren’t too impressed either; even their Mongolian guide was pissed. But, this was still the ‘best’ choice in town (we did go for a quick drive around town to see what other choices we had… none it turned out), so with no other options available to us we checked in. And hit the bar for a couple of well deserved drinks.

Swapping tires, again!
No, we didn’t miss the bridge. Filling up the water tank.
Decision time!
Found some Deer Stones.
Horses everywhere.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Breakfast in ‘the best hotel in town’ was 2 slices of stale bread with fried egg.

We then walked around town in search for an ATM (that would take our card), a bank that would change money and an internet cafe. We were unsuccessful on all counts.

We had decided to stay another day – we were used to the room by now, and, a camp shower can come in handy when the hotel one isn’t working. Later that afternoon, when Stephen went out yet again in search of cash, he met Mike (a local who had lived in San Francisco for 3 years). Somehow we’d lost track of which day it was and, as Mike pointed out, being Sunday, most businesses were closed – obviously. It was also ‘Children’s Day’, a nationwide celebration, so lots of dressed up young ones abound. Mike had met Camilla (Italian) and ‘Slunz’ (Czech) who are over landing in their monster MAN truck. We all started chatting and before long we were 1) invited to a bbq later that evening at friends of Mike’s and 2) having drinks in the truck. The whole day I’d been checking on the hot water situation in the hotel (we figured out they had an issue with the boiler) and as at about 8:30pm I felt warm water, so into the shower I jumped. After three minutes the hot water was finished, but as I suspected that might happen, I’d moved fast and was done, including washing my hair, before the hot water ran out.

Mike picked us all up around 9pm, in his friend’s Hummer, and we enjoyed skewers of marinated meat and good company. After the Mongolian bbq, we all (Camilla, Slunz, Mike, his friend and us) went to our hotel’s restaurant (and when that closed we moved to the truck) to finish the evening with beer and 2 bottles of very nice Vodka.

With all that we actually enjoyed our stay in Uliastai – despite the state of the hotel. PS: after the staff noticed that we knew some well-to-do- locals their attitude towards us changed for the better: we actually got some smiles – nice.

I wish I were a camel.
Looking for cash.
Our ride to the Mongolian BBQ.
Mongolian BBQ.
Vodka Anyone?
Yes Please! Slunz, Stephen, Camilla, Mike, Caroline.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Breakfast in our hotel… this time: two slices of stale bread with a dollop of jam. Yum. Camilla and I went for a look to the local markets, but since things don’t really get started until 11am we didn’t see much. Stephen again went in search for cash, and, it being Monday, was successful, and then picked us up at the markets around noon. We said our goodbyes to Camilla and Slunz and at 12pm set off towards Altai.