Chasing the soviet warrior
If you're a fan of trains, which we are, and you simply enjoy riding them about the place, which we do, then the Transiberian and Transmongolian are right up your alley. You'll enjoy spending over a week bedding down on thin matresses in cramped booths eating shite food and getting excessively drunk on local Russian paint stripper. You probably can't read the label anyway so knock it back and just enjoy the burning sensation. Other than the drinking, socialising, reading and staring out the window there's precious little to be done on the train. I highly recommend sauntering through the carriages every day to find which exterior door the guards forgot to lock. This allows one to generally act like a bellend by hanging themselves from the train at high speed to enjoy the scenery slightly more.
Otherwise we typically passed the time on our particular train by:
- Listening to a french guy and his nine-toed companion play the accordian.
- Talking trash and drinking vodka with a room of british guys.
- Investigating the oddities for sale at the small stations on route. These included dried prehistoric fish looped of string through their eye sockets, AK47 vodka and tasteless russian chips.
- Using the hot water urns to make pot noodle.
- Discussing how we would die in Mongolia and who would receive which cameras.
- Giving vodka to the Chinese carriage wardens who weren't supposed to drink, but all did anyway when nobody was looking. Champs.
Prior to boarding the train in Moscow we made a number of excellent kit purchases, the best being two 10L canvas water sacks. The sacks have loops of cord around the edges for hanging, a baby folding spout for a trickle, a 1cm wide opening for a stream and a 5cm widemouth opening for filling. Our second class berths were devoid of showers and the people in first class definitely weren't sharing. We weren't exactly sweating profusely expending our single joule of energy louging about all day but when boredom strikes and all other options are exhausted a hot shower isn't so bad. Half fill ya sack with hot water from the carriage urn, top 'er up with cold from the toilet, sling it up in the toilet and 'er it rip.
My travel companion qx contracted russian face aids shortly before reaching Irkutsk, our only stop on route. Nothing in our russian medkit offered a cure for face aids however and qx trundled off to see a russian doctor. Our plans to visit Lake Baikal for the day thoroughly nixed we kicked about he almost empty hostel. They were super helpful but but the small sign with the following recommendation "Don't leave hostel after 2330, not safe!", didn't inspire much confidence in the surrounds,
A week after departing Moscow we rolled bright and early into Ulaan Bataar, capital of Mongolia.
Green grass, blue sky, clement weather and pleasant hills rolling off into the distance. Mongolia: home of the windows XP desktop. A scene surely picturesque but one you're not accustomed to finding here at sewerfresh. Where's the sewage, the drains, the metro, the trains?
Distracting though the natural splendour was, we had logistical problems. There was no fucking way this was all going to fit on our shitty rental bikes.
- 24L of water
- one tent
- 2 sleeping bags
- 2 tripods
- 2 x dslrs + lenses, 2 x rangefinders + lenses, 1 x lomo
- spare tyres, spare tubes, misc spares, pump, toolkit
- gps + guide book
- stove + gas + mugs + cutlery
- large russian medical kit uselessly annotated by our Russian friends
- 8 packets of decent "just add boiling water" space food
- soup/noodles/dehydrated russian food
We were 100km south-east of Ulaanbaatar at the drop off point 3.5km from an abandoned soviet military base, beside a piece of road indistinguable from every other piece of road we'd seen since leaving the capital. Our Mongolian guide with his bug eyed soviet buggy was smiling broadly at our misfortune and taking great delight in our attempts to cram, shove, pack, tie, ratchet and strap all the above either into our 30L backpacks or onto the frames of our mountain bikes. Paniers were not something we'd invested in. There was absolutely no way it would all fit. Let me expain a little.
Perhaps it was payback for Gengis Khan's occuption of large chunks of Russia back in the day but Russia built a bunch of military and air bases in Mongolia. For months we'd been spying them on google earth, scouring the internet for information on the how, where, why, who and what. Except for a few low-res photos there was little to go on. Our curiosity well into overdrive we tacked Mongolia onto the tail end of our russian trip, plotted the co-ords of half a dozen of these bases on the GPS and decided fuck it: We'll pack a tent, cram as much food and water as possible in our packs, then ride out into the desert cameras blazing on cheap korean mountain-bikes. Hi ho fucking silver.
That was the plan as we described it to anyone who asked. Plenty did. They also responded with a faint smile, like they were hanging for a punchline or a 'no just kidding'. Neither came and it made people uneasy, like somehow their 'adventure' holiday of taking a yort tour had just been shown up by two dirty australians with backpacks full of cameras and russian food, whose plan was to just ride into the hills and see what happens. Our friends were taking wagers on whether we'd die cuddling for warmth and we'd set each other on fire before giving them that satisfaction.
As is fitting for Monolia you've gotta have a noble steed, ours came in the form of cheap rented mountain bikes. Lonely Planet had directed us to a store called Seven Summits, which turned out to be a cuntish overweight western woman who plonked her arse down in Mongolia and set to wroughting all and sundry who needed some outdoor kit. We reluctantly parted with USD$600 cash for the bike deposits, made up of a mongrel pile of US dollars, Euros, Aussie dollars and local tugriks. Logisitcal hurdles handled we borrowed the rest of our kit from tour guides eMongol (hit 'em up they're great) and gave them the run down: no tour, no guide, no support. Dump us at the side of the road and disappear.
We trimmed down our belongings, crammed everything tighter than tight into the packs and strapped the 10L water sacks into the front triangle of the bike frames with slings, 2mm cord and a handful of biners. They were slung high enough to clear the rotational space of the crankarms but rubbed against one's knees unless one rode like a cowboy. Knee alignment be damned we did begin to regret skimping on paniers. This is as always, professionalism at its finest. Waving goodbye to our guide who still smiled that glorious smile of nervous uncertainty, we set course for a soviet military base positioned a few kilometers over a hill. The GPS listed it as Base 5. Very soviet.
Full to the brim with enthusiasm, life and the fresh air we rode over the rolling hills, boucing over rocks and mounds of earth laughing and shouting with our newly acquired freedom. Totally free for the next 5 days to go where our legs could carried us. No contiki tours, no hostels, no bunk beds stolen from orphanages, no tourists in gaudy tshirts with giant folding maps. Just us, two bikes and a tent in a great expansive land of nomads, villages and abandoned soviet military infrastructure.
Out in the rolling green hills the Mongols live in yorts - a large round semi-permanent type of tent. A few of them were scattered around the remains of Base 5. I say remains because the entire base had been demolished and everything of value was gone. Everything, right down to the services piping. The rest was concrete rubbing. While poking around some of the debris we met a teenager on the world's shittiest chrome dual suspension mountain bike. It made ours look like space technology. Broken brakes, gears, suspension, flat tyres split down the sidewalls, loose handlebars. The works. However the nomads are a confident people and he raced that piece of shit bike right up to us grinning like a madman. We'd been out in the countryside less than an hour and it was time to meet the locals.
Outside the family yort granny mongol sat in the warm sun. Dressed in faded grey she rocked back and forth slowly, smiling all to herself smashing a giant spliff. Between enormous puffs it hung loosely from her fingers trailing wisps of pungent smoke. Behind her hooked up to cables running into the yort was an ancient satellite dish. Probably scavanged from the old soviet base. They may be poor but they're absolutely resourceful. We accepted an invitation into their yort wherein we embarrased ourselves with horrendously spoken mongolian phrases from a guide book. There was lots of pointing a small world map while we sucked down buckets of milky tea and dried cheese curd. We both immediately felt terrible for our misgivings about the locals, they were friendly as could be.
We bade farewell to the nomads and pointed the bikges towards Base 4 along a rutted dirt road. Base 4 turned out to be equally ruined. The tent was pitched amongst some defensive dirt mounds and we settled in for our first night. With the setting sun the temperature plummeted and the stars scattered brilliantly across the sky. In the absolute darkness of rural Mongolia they're incrediable. I shuffed around on top of my backpack until none of the buckles jammed in my back and fell asleep dreaming of the thermarest I'd jettisoned in the soviet buggy. We were pedalling into unknown territory, on the chance we'd discover nothing at all at piles of rubble and so far loving every damn minute.
We awoke early, gulped down cold leftover pasta and rolled out. In perfect sunny weather we covered 15km towards Base 3 down a tidy dirt road which paralleled the train lines. From what we could see hopping freights would be a cinch, though admittedly things would become hairy at the Chinese or Russian borders. The landscape is so vast and empty that we spotted Base 3 from five kilometers out - a large dark mass of hazy shapes amongst the green rolling scenery. Up against the barbed wire fence skirting the base's perimeter we could see our luck was on the up. Base 3 was an airbase and partially intact. Clusters of small aircraft hangers were dotted around the runway. They've long surpassed their usefulness to the military world, unless the Mongolian airforce has bred an aerial cavalry of goats and horses. The hangers, now stables and barns for the local herders, all stank of shit and rotting hay.
We napped in the sun outside a hanger on a belly full of noodles, hoiwin and dehydrated Russian beef. This really is the life. Accosted by a rough looking guy on his motorbike outside the hangers we softened his mood with a cigarette and intrigued him with our guide book. One quickly learns in Mongolia that you'll befriend just about anyone with cigarettes. Cheap and effective buying at softening up the rugged nomads. We got the impression he 'owned' this section and we were infringing on his territory. We gave up arguing and dropping him a last cigarettes and went on our way.
Riding down the giant runway under and broad massive sky we home in on a group of buildings which appeared to include the control tower. The runway seemed in decent condition, possibly it's vaguely maintained to serve emergency landings. Any pilots out there feel free to chime in. At the control tower a group of men, rough as ukranian scrappers, were building the foundations of a wall. Once again cigarettes bought friendship, lots of pointing at a map of Australia bought intrigue and they let us poke around the few remaining buildings. Once again all the easily accessible valuables were scavenged, leaving mere shells of brick and concrete.
That afternoon we put in a lazy 40km passing a couple of little towns/villages where we:
- gave the local kids candy then impressed 'em with our 'deluxe' bikes
- found a store selling mars bars and fanta, inducted as primary energy source
- raced local kids on their shitter bmx bikes
- were dubbed 'badboys' by 4 kids on motorbikes before they then crashed their motorbike with qx aboard
Shortly before camping down the night we found a small food shack selling homemade dumplings and noodles. The dumping were simple: mutton and onion, the noodles thick and irregular. The food was as plain looking as it was deliciously homemade but after a day in the saddle it filled the stomach just right.
As the sun set we pitched up over a small rise west of the road, overlooking the train tracks and cooked up our couscous. The TransMongolian rolled past and we considered how much more rewarding our journey had become since we ditched the train and got our own wheels.
Our final destination, a town called Choir / Choya wasn't that far away. Over the next couple of days we'd easily make the distance. Earlier that day, while at the food shack, we declined the offer of a ride to Choir aboard a bus. At the time this was definitely the right choice. Come morning we felt very differently.
"Is your solution to the rain, going back to sleep?" qx asked.
"Yes." I replied and rolled over. Mother nature had brought the rain and sleet overnight. My brain wasn't ready to process this yet.
By lunchtime, bored of dozing and listening to the tent being battered around by the wind, qx and I considered the best strategy was simply Harden The Fuck Up. Less than 15 minutes later we were soaked to the bone but the road was rolling away below us and Choir was getting closer. Perhaps the gods had cursed us for riding korean mountain bikes instead of wild mongolian stock.
With a hellish crosswind and long rolling hills our spirits took as much a battering as our bodies, day three was quickly dubbed the worst so far. I dropped my head, blasted the fastest punk I could find on the mp3 player, zoned out and cranked on. The previous day's bus ride to Choir offer was starting to sound pretty decent. After an indeterminable amount of time we came upon a small roadside shop selling basic commodities and wares. A weathered Mongol couple took one look at our bikes, us, our bikes, then us again and motioned us into their home. Beside a simple cast iron woodstove we peeled off our layers and draped them to dry. Our extremities roasted and the couple launched into food preparation. They handed us mutton ribs from which we rended every morsel of meat like starving dogs then started on homemade noodles in mutton broth. We felt unfcormrtable taking this niceness from strangers but wet, spent and haggard we couldn't argue.
Their tiny room was sparsely furnished, adorned with old beer posters and images of western swimsuit models. A battery powered television played a black and white vietnamese kungfu movie. Family is important to the Mongolians and the couple proudly offered a collection of family photos to us. Then it was clearly motioned to be our turn. Warm, well fed and with spirits improved we remounted our metal steeds, gave the couple whatever we could to thank them and pedalled into the rain once again. Over food we'd discussed that nothing could be lost by attempting to hitchhike as everyone had been so friendly and welcoming. We hardly expected to end up in the Belanglo. Then again, who does?
We hailed with enthusiasm over the next 5km but two geezers with bikes and backpacks aren't the easiest to accommodate so there was little expectation on our part. Most rolled on by without a pause, others slowed to wave and give the thumbs up. It wasn't a ride but it all helps. We motioned with vigour at an empty pickup truck, our best chance so far, but he to sped away over the the hill. A few minutes later we crested the hill to find the trucker leaned against the side taking a long draw from his cigarette. Instawin. In exchange for a bumpy 20km blast we handed out a full pack of cigarettes, our last Mars bar and half a bag of candy.
Our ride dropped us near a random village he was visiting and since we were now ahead of the clouds we took the chance to reorganise our gear hastily packed back in the storm. Day three was certainly on the up. 15 minutes later the trucker came back, gestured we should reload our bikes. We needed little to no convincing. With difficulty we discerned we'd been invited to his sister's house in the village and she was intent on feeding us dumplings. The Mongolians are feeders, no complaints there. With a few more charades and a lot of diagrams of planes they came to understood we were destined for the soviet airbase at Choir. Like the benevolent hand gestures of a mute god it was told to us that we could hitch the entire way. His last piece of advice was to camp in town and not at the base, which for better or much much worse, we ignored.
Arriving at Choir behind the large cluster of buildings at main base we could see the earth mound hangers like at Base 3. Contrary to what we expected this old soviet airbase was far from abandoned, in fact we could see plenty of people milling around. In rural mongolia these places are valuable permanent dwellings, the 'abandoned' airbase we'd marked from google earth wasn't even remotely so. Since it was late in the day, we decided to camp behind the base then approach in the morning. The locals might tell us to fuck off, but at least in daylight the following day we'd get to see it better. This plan lasted all of five minutes when two men on a motorbike rode out the back gate and directly towards us. Things were about to get interesting.
Both were weathered and surly, the first mid twenties, the second much older wearing the traditional mongolian garb plus a cowboy hat. On closer examination they were both already quite drunk. As always we whipped out the last pack of cigarettes plus a world map and started the charade game. From suspicious to confused to giant smiles it never fails and before we could refuse we took off. I held onto the back of the motorbike for dear life, swerving wildly back and forth into town and the drunker guy pedalled my bike furiously in the lowest gear trying to keep up. They evidently don't seem to get many foreign guests at the abandoned russian military bases in rural Mongolia as the whole town came out to watch and the kids gave chase. I can only conclude the mongolians love guests. Scratch that, they fucking LOVE 'EM. In fact they loved us enough to put qx and I onto the motorbike and go straight to the liquor store. Three up slaloming wildly through the town we crashed the motorbike riding through giant puddles of water. The mongols just jumped up laughing. When the guidebook says Mongols are fearless and crazy you'd do well to heed every word.
When I say liquor store, what I really mean is a convenience store and convenient it surely is... if you happen to be inhabiting an "abandoned" soviet military base in the middle of goddamn Mongolia. Half the store was shelves of liquor. Correction - vodka. Shelves and shelves of vodka. The mongols love their vodka, especially because it became quickly arpparent that WE were buying. I did my best to keep things civilised but the mongols insisted and our hosts gesticulated very clearly only 2 large bottles of CHINGGIS GOLD. In Mongolia the only criteria when selecting vodka is to go for the bottle with the angriest looking beast mode motherfucker. This alone should have been a clue.
Stuffed full of more dumplings, noodles and tea the local men or the town descended upon the yort for what the Mongols consider a party. In Australia people make a pretense of music, conversation and the like... our party was a dozen guys sitting in a circle pounding shot after shot after shot of vodka. Somewhere in the mix a weathered geezer arrived with four liters of beer and it was obvious from here things would not improve.
The mongols take their drinking very seriously. The proper etiquette before taking a shot is to dip your ring finger in then flick three drops to the sky, to the four winds. Somewhere in that hazy period before the vodka ran out but after the beer was started some secret mongol signal was passed unawares to us and they all burst into thunderous song. Fists clenched and heads high their voices rose and the yort trembled under their triumphant forceful voice. With the final note the yort feel into a sudden stillness only broken by the faint ruffling of the wind against the canvas. In the hollow silence they turned to us. Showdown. Two rugged Australians versus 10 vodka-charged Mongol warriors. Like true lil aussie battlers we did what one must in these situations and launched full swing into a glorious ocker rendition of Walzting Matilda.
They stared unimpressed. Banjo Paterson's magic verses, delivered so skillfully, had the heart but not the legs to pull us through. What else could we do, what other australian songs did we know? We'd committed to the challenge and then did what I loathe to publicly admit. That song sung by thousands of primary school kids, drilled into your head every Friday morning. Apologies to the diggers, the battlers, the families, olympians standing upon the podium, everyone. In an all or nothing hail mary we launched into the devastating booming anthem that is Advance Australia Fair. The yort shook under our unyielding vocal assault. The Mongols reared back in shock, the horses outside the yort fled. By the end of the first verse our hosts were awestruck. Utterly defeated. We had earned their respect. They might have outdrank us but we absolutely annihilated them in the vocal round. With those final words still lingering in the air the vodka kicked in and we both passed out.
Our sleep was far from peaceful. We were shaken roughly awake by our hosts and force fed more vodka. Just let us die goddammit. Later that night qx woke to rough grunts and whimpering. The couple beside me were drunkenly making little mongols. Hopefully not in our honour and please god not named after us. Day three proved eventful - rain, hitchhiking, dumplings, mutton ribs, chinngis vodka, soviet airbases, mongolian 7-11s, patriotic verse and some Mongolia teen getting filled in beside us.
I woke to find Chinggis pounding himself into my skull with feverish bloodlust. By the feel of it so was his horse. One eye socket each. qx was returning into the yort and seeing me awake informed me he'd unloaded his entire stomach and probably some bits of digestive tract into the pit toilet. Our hosts arose shortly after and poured themselves a beer. It seemed day four was starting much the way day three ended. qx took but a few mouthfuls of breakfast, solemly grinding the noodles back into the paste from which they came. This ensured they would be less unpleasant if they came up. Which they did, painting the fence outside the yort. As our hosts ventured to the convenience store we made good our momentary escape towards the blocky soviet barracks.
As we'd seen elsewhere the Mongols had stripped the barracks bare to salvage everything for a small section they're 'renovating' into permanent dwellings. At the southern end of the base, supported by globs of concrete and skewered by elevated railway tracks was an old MIG fighter jet. Content with our findings and eager to put the events of the previous night behind us we returned for our bikes.
Farewells were long, involving exchanges of money, dehydrated strawberries and blueberries which were received sourly. This was the first time they'd seen dehydrated fruit, all staring excitedly as the shriveled red and blue globs grew into edible fruit. Unfortunately the taste just didn't live up to the hype. Having wowed the locals with our foreign magic we managed to finally escape. The prospect of spending another night under Chinngis' curled lip malevolent sneer was too terrible to consider and qx's needed to unload a double decker school bus somewhere amongst the barracks. He'd already vomited twice into their toilet pit and wouldn't go anywhere near it.
Assisted by a furious tailwind twenty five kilometers flew below us and the town of Choir, our final destination, rose shortly into view. Just south of the town we saw the remains of the final base. Over the rooves of more soviet barracks against a backdrop of arid dunes rose the final thing we'd come searching for. The motherfucking soviet warrior. With his tower shield held tight, emblazoned with the communist phrase "Everything that was made by the people should be protected by the people", we'd finally made it.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Leaving the warrior behind we rode into town seeking transportation back to the capital. Intrigued by these two dirty foreigners a clearly retarded teenaged boy took a liking to us and tailed us the entire way through Choir. Our options for transport were looking pretty slim. Inside a small store the cutest Mongolian girl yet took a fancy to our mighty metal steeds and rugged foreign looks, soaking her panties at the rumours of two Australians bringing the finest vocal rendition of Waltzing Matilda this side of the Murrumbidgee. She was cute as a button and certainly a prize in the nothingness of Choir but as she gestured the hem of her opaque white shirt lifted a fraction affording but a glimpse of her tanned brown stomach slashed by a horrific surgical scar.
While she provided directions a hulking taxi-driver came towards us, the girl and the spacker kid. A long scar ran down his face, frozen in a constant sneer. Seems we'd got the whole family together. The lumbering rapist who spoke in low guttural grunts, the cute but traumatised mother and the battered retarded offspring, clearly ripped from her womb by fumbling grubby fingers through a bread knife slash. The taxi driver offered to drive us to the captial in his little sedan. Hacked up and eaten by wild dogs, to have their cameras sold for pennies at the local market is hardly how we plan to die so we politely told the guy to stick it, the retarded kick to shove off and thanked the girl for her assistance. All our options sucked: wait 23 hours for the daily bus, wait 12 hours for the train, or die somewhere in rural Mongolia at the hands of a scar faced oaf. The train it would be.
Choir station is the nicest building in town with the small square outside holding a commemorative statue of Jügderdemidiin Gürragchaa - the first Mongolian Cosmonaut. Inside wasn't so grand compared to the what one might find in Kiev or Moscow but the chandeliers were a thoughtful touch. We spent the next 12 hours either:
- Staring at said chandeliers Really, they were nice.
- Corrupting the local kids by teaching them thumb wrestles, slaps, knuckles etc.
- Pissing off their mothers by doing the above
The Mongols are not shy, so when we kicked off our shoes, fired up the campstove and whipped up some spicy noodles with Russian beef and hoiwin the whole station wandered over for a gander. In a country of nomads we figured cooking up a feast where you slept was par for the course. All and sundry seemed to find this the most exciting thing to happen in Choir since the Soviets left their warrior behind.
While waiting for the train we met a Slovenian geezer with a decked out GT Avalanche mountain bike. Panniers on all corners and some serious miles on the clock. Over the past 25 months he'd cycled solo across 53 countries. He enthused over our entry level journey. No matter how much you do there's always someone out there just crushing it. Whether it's the graff writer who's busted the uncrackable metro long before you, Alain Robert who really does climb buildings or the random guy who's cycled across 53 countries when you've just pedaled across a twentieth of one. Inspiring.
We tipped to him our hats, and donated the last of our dehydrated Russian beef, spicy chicken noodles and half a bottle of hoiwin sauce for luck. We drifted into sleep aboard the train dreaming of baguettes, metro tunnels and all things Parisian. After a month on the road through the UK, France, Ukraine, Russia and Mongolia we were starting the long journey home.