Monday, August 17, 2015

Glad to be in Vlad

Well, we’ve done it. We have arrived more-or-less intact at our destination of Vladivostok- 27,000 kilometres and 7 months (and 4300 litres of diesel) after leaving Spain.

I have to admit in the last couple of weeks, it was more about the destination than the journey. We just wanted to get there, dammit.

It was great to see the ocean again – we haven’t seen the Pacific for 4 years.

Since my last post, we been driving, driving, driving. Jeez Russia is big. 17,000,000 square kilometres as opposed to Australia’s 7,000,000 sq km. Siberia seems to go on forever, as does Far East Russia.

It’s all quite lovely with forests and fields and hills, just endless and a bit monotonous.

We spent 2 nights in Blagoveshchensk and got our battery problem sorted. 2 new marine-grade deep cycle batteries at less than the cost of the original, so we now have double the power – yippee, more chilled wine. Still not sure what happened to the other one.

This city is right on the Chinese border, so you can wave to the Chinese but not fraternise. There’s no way across the river unless you swim and probably risk getting shot. The water didn’t look that inviting.


Waving to the Chinese

Next stop Khabarovsk after 3 nights wild camping with the Siberian mosquitos and other large flying critters. We loved this city with San Francisco style streets, great restaurants and lovely river frontage. We got really good coffee – the first in a very long time.

The staff at the hotel were fascinated with Boris and we had to keep giving tours!


Khabarovsk

The next 3 nights were spent wild camping. It’s quite difficult to find good spots. It’s hard to get off the road and because a lot of the Trans-Siberian Highway hugs the Chinese border, there are restrictions as to where you can actually stop. One night we thought we’d hit the jackpot – away from the Trans-Siberian railway (which is really busy) away from the road and away from the border, we thought.

At 2am we had a knock on the door – that gives one a fright! It was the bloody army wanting to know what we were doing there. Smuggling a small Chinese family perhaps?? It was all sorted quickly but not much sleep was had after that.

Our last night camping was also our wedding anniversary. I had visions of a beautiful camping spot and cooking our last tin of Confit de Canard. However as always these things never quite work out. It was pissing rain and our spot was not glamorous. We had some delicious bubbly bought in Georgia and a tin of cassoulet. Oh well.

Instead we had celebratory lunch on Sunday with a glass or two of Prosecco as an aperitivo.

I think we have a lot to celebrate.

Today Boris had to go to the docks in readiness for our ferry to South Korea on Wednesday. 2 days at the docks has something to do with Russian customs paranoia and chance to get more money out of us.

We’re staying at Vlad Motor Inn which is brilliant. Styled on a North American motel, it has a kitchen, laundry, plenty of space and good bar/restaurant. The other night I cooked an awesome speck and red wine risotto. Yum. It's a bit out of town but there's train and taxi is about 600 roubles.
 
Beach (?) at Vladivostok

Vlad main square

Tips for Travellers

As most travellers heading to Vlad will tell you, Yuri and Svetlana at Links Ltd are brilliant. They have organised our ferry to South Korea and this morning Svetlana took us to the ferry terminal to organise our tickets, customs etc. Very efficient, it took about 2 hours.

Be prepared to shell out money left and right
  • 800 USD for the vehicle
  • 600 USD for 2 people in a junior suite (you can go a bit cheaper if you are prepared to share a 4 berth cabin) Must be paid in roubles or by credit card.
  • 2500 roubles for a cargo loading fee. Payable when you deliver the vehicle 48 hours ahead of ferry departure.
  • 560 roubles per person for the privilege of walking on board (on top of ticket prices)
  • South Korean compulsory vehicle insurance and guarantee cost us around 370 US.


They also liaise with Wendy Choi in South Korea regarding shipping and air freighting from there.

If you would like any more info/details on our journey, please feel free to email us at boris@slowcamper.com


Boris in prison at Vlad customs

Monday, August 3, 2015

Sh*t Happens

On leaving Moron, we ran into Bernard. We thought we might, so kept a lookout. We had a chat on the side of the road and went our separate ways.
Meeting Bernard on the road
We headed south towards Kharkhorin with an overnight camping spot in the middle of nowhere. 2 blokes on a motorbike arrived with a mob of horses. The horses went to the small lake for a drink, so we offered the guys some Chacha (Georgian grappa). It’s all we had. “Mongolians will drink anything” said Lawrence. Well, the look on their faces was priceless. Chacha has a very strong taste and of course they are used to vodka. It was quite funny – they declined seconds. It’s really awful stuff, not even Lawrence will drink it very often.
 
Drinking chacha with some locals


Locals arrive to stare at you out of nowhere.
Next day we set off early after a bad night’s sleep and ran into a family having car trouble. They had a broken timing belt, and weren’t going anywhere. To quote Lawrence “the engine’s f*ck*d”.

We decided to be good Samaritans and tow them to the nearest town. Off we went – stop, the tow strap is too short. L gets out one of our brand new winch extension straps and lets them hook it up. It’s raining by now, of course, and getting muddy, so we left them to it. 5 minutes later their front of their car fell off and we then rearranged the towing. 5 minutes later the strap fell off – and so it went stopping every 5 kilometres or so. The road was terrible, mud, sand, bumps, potholes…

Near the end, the GPS took us on a left hand turn, looked dodgy but we could see the town ahead. Road ran out, no way to cross the river, thick mud – yes of course we had Boris washed the day before.
The end of our towing saga

Maps.me to the rescue and we made our way to town. 4 miserable hours to do 50 kms.

Never, ever go anywhere with only one GPS, always have back up! We also have a map but, because of the scale, it was pretty useless.

Anyway, we made our way Erdene Zuu Monastery, the aim of this journey. A wonderful complex but not much else to see in town so we drove east to Ulanbaatar. Bernard told us of a fab travellers hostel, so we headed to that, hoping to meet up with Ken and Carol that we’d met in Ulan Ude (the Aussie bikers).
 
Eedene Zuu Monastery

Monastery Walls

Oasis hostel turned out to be absolutely brilliant and we met up with Ken and Carol. We stayed much longer than planned as we loved the atmosphere, the showers, the café (real food and wine), the people we met. In fact, we stayed so long that Bernard turned up again. We had a great time.

However, we felt that if we didn’t head off on day 5, we might never leave. Off we went, but had noticed that the domestic battery wasn’t holding a charge well. Never mind, she’ll be right.
 
Celebrating Boris's 2nd birthday at Oasis Hostel
We took the paved road east to Undurkhan and then went off-piste, towards Choibalsan with an overnight stop in the wilds. We noticed that there was no traffic on this road and then came the slow realisation that the longer, southern road must be paved. Bugger, too late to turn back. And we were right, after 330 kms of miserable, horrible, hateful roads, we found out that the southern road was definitely paved. Rats!

North from Choibalsan to the border is definitely unpaved. With the wisdom of 20/20 hindsight, we would take a completely different route. 560 kms of misery but a definite sense of accomplishment (says Lawrence – not moi).  Yeah, yeah, one must expect bad roads in this part of the world, but really – enough is enough.

And, you guessed it, the battery gave out completely. Which of course means, no fridge, no water pump (no water), and no lights. As it’s light until 10 pm that was no problem, but of course our toilet needs power.  TMI alert! We can operate the valve manually and use bottled water to flush. However, I didn’t quite close the valve properly (it’s quite hard) and with all the corrugations and bumps the valve opened up a bit more and you can guess the rest. As they say – ‘sh*t happens’.

Not the best part of our journey.

Finally made it the border – it’s a real outpost. We were the only ones there, but it took 2 ½ hours. First up the Mongolians fined us for not having a temporary vehicle import document (their mistake), then they found Lawrence’s UK passport and this caused a ruckus, having 2 passports. Another small ‘fine’ fixed that. Then the bloody Russians wanted to search our outside locker and other bits and pieces.

We were really over it by the time we had our late lunch (no breakfast) and were desperate to find somewhere to park for the night. But of course our GPS led us on a merry goose chase and more bad bloody roads. Finally we found somewhere to camp. Our map is just not detailed enough to help much.

We are now in Chernyshevsk and staying in low-key hotel for 2 nights. We needed a day off from driving. This is the kind of town where you would slit your wrists rather that live here. But it has hot showers and a decent bed. The café of course isn’t open Saturday and Sunday nights and we can’t find another place to eat anywhere. Tonight we are having cheese, toast and wine. Anything but a repeat of the ghastly pizza we had last night.

What a whingey post – sorry! It hasn’t been our best few days…

And the gin supply has run out.

And now we have a flat tyre…


Tips for Travellers

When you enter Mongolia, make sure you get a temporary importation document for your vehicle (we didn’t). You may need to insist, as the process is shambolic.

Oasis hostel in Ulanbaatar is one of those places where any bikers in Mongolia eventually find themselves. It has everything you need.

Hot showers, café with good food, beer and wine. A laundry, a hairdresser(!) and places for 3-4 campers to park (not tents though). It has 6 Gers plus rooms and dorms. We stayed 5 days and ate in the café 3 x per day. The bill came to about 200 USD for all this including beer and wine – amazing.

If you are thinking about taking the border crossing we took – think again. However, if you do it the southern road to Choibalsan via Baran Uurt is paved – take it, trust me. After that is awful. About 18kms before the border town of Ereentsay, you need to cross the railway. Don’t miss this left hand turn (we did). The border crossing is on the western side of the railway. This road is a bit like a goat track. You need to cross the river which has steep sides but not much water when we were there.

Once in town, make your way through the maze of dirt roads to the river. The bridge is buggered so you need to use the ‘causeway’. Just pray is hasn’t been raining too much. The border is about 1 km from there.

If you are heading to Borzya (and you will) the road is awful. If you are heading east from there, consider going the long way through Chita as all the back roads are unpaved, and you may have had a gutful by then! Aah, the wisdom of hindsight.
Oasis hostel



Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Mongolia Or Bust?

Well we finally made it to Mongolia with a few ‘busts’ along the way, but we are in one piece.
 
Buddhist Temple
Today we nearly bust completely. On our way back from Lake Hovsgol our brakes failed. Completely. No brakes. Nada. So glad there wasn’t a herd of yaks in front of us.

Ironically, we were on our way back to the town of Moron to see about getting front brake discs replaced. Lawrence was driving (thankfully) and neither of us noticed a deep dip in the road until too late. He hit the brakes hard and the dip at the same time and then… no brakes.

We limped the 47km in town straight to the garage and it got sorted in no time. A main brake line was worn and the violent application of the brakes was the last straw and, of course, we lost all the brake fluid. As it happens this was a blessing in disguise as it was a disaster waiting to happen – better there than in the Gobi desert or some such.

The next disaster was that we found out that Wednesday is ‘no alcohol day’ in this part of Mongolia. This was worse than the brakes failing! We felt we needed a beer with lunch after our terrible morning. Lawrence used his considerable charm (OK, I exaggerate) and begged the waitress to serve us a beer. She did – afraid he might cry.
 
Camping spot on the way to Hovsgol
Anyhoo, we’ve been in Mongolia for a week now and the weather has been fab. Border crossing was the usual shambles but no real hassle – about an hour and 45 minutes.

We spent 4 days at Lake Hovsgol camped at a Ger camp with hot showers and cold beer. The weather was brilliant - blue skies, warm sunshine and gentle breezes. We did lots of domestic chores (including removing tar from Boris courtesy of Kazakh and Russian roadworks) and lots of lazing about in the sun. Bliss.
 
Yaks taking a bath

Yaks in the camp! Send in the SWAT team

More yaks!!

Lake Hovsgol

Nature's Door Ger Camp

I also spent quite a bit of time photographing yaks! They are hilarious looking creatures but have a speed and agility that belies their awkward, cumbersome looking shape. I find them quite photogenic.

Bird-wise, we’ve seen Demoiselle Cranes (so elegant), Steppe Eagles, Black Vultures, Black Kites and a family of Ruddy Shell Ducks.

The town of Moron (pron: Muroon) is terribly dull but has a great restaurant with a Korean influence. Not often you find food in this part of the world with flavour let alone some spice.

We were hoping to meet up with Bernard the biker from Belgium here but he’s had vehicle troubles as well, not sure where we’ll run into each other now.

With the brake problem fixed so quickly, we’ll leave tomorrow. Nothing to see here.

Tips for Travellers

Nature's Door Ger Camp is a great place to stay. You can camp or stay in a Ger. They were happy for us to stay in our camper and just pay for camping and showers. The manager speaks english. There is a restaurant, which is OK.
N:50.5931
E:100.1817
Take the airport road before getting into Khatgal. The 'new' road is terrible so take the side tracks where possible. The new road bed has been laid but the contractors ran off with the money before finishing it.

We wild camped on the east side for one night, but everywhere is just covered in yak poo. Better to stay in a Ger camp.

In Moron, there is a great restaurant which worth seeking out. AND restaurant serves food with actual flavour and even a bit of spice - a Korean influence. It's on the same road as the well hidden tourist info (where they don't speak english and can only sell you a map and some toiletries). Look for the 50 100 hotel and head up the side street about 100 metres (off the main road). It's worth it! But no alcohol on a Wednesday.