Altai (Алтай)

Monday, June 2, 2014

The ‘improved’ road away from Uliastai headed up and over a pass and was in poor condition. But the views were wonderful and we took the driving slowly. Altai was 200kms away and we thought the road would take 5 hours to complete. Unfortunately the first 60kms of road was very slow going and meant that we would be arriving later than hoped and closer to 7pm. At some point in the journey we crossed a timezone boundary, and so we gained an hour. 60kms into the journey the road started to improve and we picked up speed and avoided most of the potholes. Bridges were provided for the various river crossings, but not all of the bridges seemed that sound. So we decided to ford the river in some cases.

The area north of Altai is part ‘Khasagt Khairkhan Strictly Protected Area’ and maybe this was why we had not seen livestock and herders for a long time. The area had long grass, lots and lots of eagles, field mice and other small mouse like creatures called pikas. We even saw a scrawny fellow that might have been a hare. The valleys were lush and full of green grass and some of the surrounding hills still had smatterings of snow.

We passed through a little town called Tsagaan Olom which transitioned us back into the real world of people and things. As we were driving around town taking photos, Stephen managed to ‘not see and drive over’ an incredibly large hole. The type of hole that eats cars for lunch. But for some strange reason the front right wheel of Sterin drove over the hole as if it was not even there. We suspected all the weight in the rear meant Sterlin stayed level and balanced on the other three wheels. A quick inspection of the under body showed no damaged. We were very lucky indeed.

40kms later a beautiful sealed road suddenly appeared as we approached the outskirts of Altai. It was good to be on sealed road again. As we had some time we drove around town to select the best hotel we could find. Picking a hotel for the night in Mongolia presents some unique challenges. Often the outside and foyer area of a hotel bears no relationship to the quality of the rooms. So nice looking places can be awful and horrible looking places can be little gems. And this was the case here, the Tulga Altai is located in the back waters of town, in a drab Soviet Era style building with a front door that screams “this is an awful hotel, stay away”. But once inside, the room we got was large, bright, very clean and had its own private hot water tank. That night we showered in comfort. Unfortunately the hotel did not have any Internet. So, Stephen went in search of an Internet Cafe and found one in town.

Dinner was at the ‘Hot Pot Altai Restaurant’, which was yet another little gem in this otherwise bleak town. We also noticed that people are becoming more friendly again, with greetings and smiles as we approach and a willingness to communicate with sign language. Another long day but a good one.

Leaving Uliastai, heading up the pass.
Did I just drive over that?!
Tsagaan Olom.
Beautiful sealed road as we approach Altai.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

We decided to stay another day which turned out to be a good idea. After breakfast we went exploring the quite sizable markets that just happened to be located right next door to our hotel. Most of the shops were located in old shipping containers, but there were also some brick and concrete structures. The “shopping mall” (if you can call it that) had the slightly more upmarket shops. We stocked up on the essentials including bread, milk, apples, washing detergent, toilet paper and snickers bars.

We wandered into town in search of cash and the Mongol Rally Graveyard Museum. We got cash but never found the museum. It turns out our ATM cards do not seem to be working in this part of Mongolia, so instead we are dipping into our small stash of US dollars and converting them at banks. We also stopped at the Internet Cafe to update our blog and check emails. Based on an email we received, it looks like we will have no problems getting our visa for Uzbekistan. That will be the last visa before we transit back through Russia and into visa-free Europe.

We had a nice lunch of mutton soup and fried meat in pancakes.

Once back at the hotel we did a little experiment with Sterlin to try and work out how he managed to drive over that very large hole without damage. The theory that Sterlin can balance on two back and one front wheel is wrong, he can’t. So it is still a mystery what happened. Stephen also did a full visual inspection of the Sterlin to see what bits had managed to rattle loose and checked the front wheel bearings to make sure they were sound. Everything checked out ok. The roads in Mongolia have been punishing, but it appeared that Sterlin has not suffered too badly.

Dinner was in and in the form of pot noodle soup. The evening was spent relaxing, reading and editing photos.