Ulaan Bataar – Mongolia’s capital. On to Russia, westwards to Lake Baikal and Irkutsk, Siberia’s very own Venice.
Ulaan Bataar, 20th July
We’re in Ulaan Bataar, the proud capital of Mongolia. The place where 2/3 of the Mongies live – not considering expatriated ones. E. g those living in Elista, Russia or Trimmis, Swizzystan.
We’re happy – the great Mongolian Nadaam madness is over. Even if a lot of offices and shops remain closed due to a certain spillover of Nadaam, we’re happy to be out of the circuit. Now we can try to get back to boring normal life. What a shame.
1st of all of course Monika discovers the place to get the 1st acceptable meal since she left Swizzyland some 2 month ago.
Then we can have a more serious look at this town, discover all its normal and rather abstruse corners.
To start with, the very center of the city. An estimated 400x200m. Absolutely dominated by the famous Chinggis Khan square and the heroic statue.
And to make it more impressive in the south a cluster of rather high rising buildings – just remains the question why an empty country needs to construct buildings rising up in the sky.
Whatever. Not only did they build these impressive buildings, they also considered ordinary needs of odd people. This particularly in a nearby pub with a draught especially dedicated to their great hero.
Back to the square dedicated to the great Chinggis. A monstrous sin of pure soviet-style People’s Own architecture. In the middle the parliament resembling a tent of a circus. In front of it the famous statue of Sukhbaatar, the heroe of the revolution, in the middle of a huge, absolutely empty square. Not really a place with a lot of life. Despite these cruel aspects there are on both sides a few historic buildings; e.g. the opera or the Mongolian stock exchange. And that’s the town center.
Of course not to forget – a real old Tibetan monastery converted into a museum in the middle of the skyscrapers. A place for tourists to pay quite a hefty entrance fee (10x more if you want to take a pic) and then to be rather disappointed by the sight.
More interesting a walk along the Peace Avenue. The center part is also called Pickpocket Street. Because many goodies of poor tourists suddenly change hands. However we survive our stroll without any incidents. Have a look at the famous State Department Store – in communist times the only place to buy not-People’s-Own-goods; provided you had hard currency in your pockets. Nowadays an ordinary small mall selling some international brands.
A quick look at the so-called Beatles Square – what the hell did these 4 guys think making some musing between these rotten apartment blocks. Maybe they looked a little better 40 years ago.
Finally to the Gandan Monastry. Fortunately not a museum. So 1 of the few pretty lively religious places in Mongolia.
The next day enough of the capital. Thus a short drive to the Gorkhi Terelj National Park some 50km away. This place a typical holiday area for stressed Ulaanbataaries. Despite the rather nice landscape the whole valley of the NP is full of ger camps, non-inspiring hotels and ugly construction sites.
A short visit to the valley and then we spend the day in a ger camp. Pouring rain avoids all outdoor activities. At least Martin found some comfort in the dinner’s desert. Looks interesting – isn’t it.
Next day the sun is back. And so the opportunity for some further explorations.
Somewhen we have a look at Prado’s tyres. It’s more by chance. And we discover completely worn front tyres. What the hell. Something must be wrong. No idea what it could be. The tie rods have been changed some 2 months ago in Laos. Therefore, another problem must be the cause. Carefully we drive back to Ulaan Bataar. Search for a workshop. By chance we find a pretty good looking 1, they even speak some English. Should your car have similar ideas of getting sick, simply check Auto Sky Service, Ulaan Bataar.
Quickly the guys find the problem. The tie rods. The joints are completely worn out. And this after 10 000km only – Chinese quality doesn’t pay. What to do – they have to be changed. So we get them replaced by some new 1s. Also made in China. Unfortunately no original parts seem to be available in Mongolia. Well, probably we’re saved for the next 10 000km. Then we take the chance to give Prado the necessary rejuvenation – replacing what has to be changed after Mongolia’s tracks.We discuss with a guy of the Mongolian Prado Club. Then we and Prado get filmed for their next meeting. Finally Prado gets a nice sticker and somehow becomes a honorary member. Well, 3h later the maintenance has finished. We pay the 180$ for work and parts and off we are.
There’s still some welding left. The protection of the fuel tank urgently cries for a repair. We leave it for the next opportunity.
Ulan Ude, Russia, 22nd July
Now we’re ready to go to Russia. Some 350km to the small town of Sukbataar at the border. Half a day’s drive on a good road.
Sukbataar – definitely a no-frills town. So we restrict our activities to a look at a few historic buildings (maybe not really old, just decaying) and the station with the famous train from Moscow to Beijing.
Then a spa for Prado, laundry and an al-fresco beer with a rather mediocre dinner – somehow characteristic for Mongolian food quality.
Early next morning we’re on the way to Russia. Some 20km to the border. Just 15 cars are waiting in front of us. Wowww – we’re lucky. We wait 1 hour for the border gate to open. The 1st 4 cars are allowed to enter. 1h later the next 4. No problem. 5h later we really are in Russia. Nowhere problems, just the usual bureaucrazy. We’re allowed to stay in Russia for 1 month, Prado for 1 year.
We leave Mongolia with rather mixed impressions. The landscape, the huge skies, the loneliness – all these expectations raised by other blogs, travellers or web sites can only be partly confirmed. Maybe we spent too much time in Africa with similar attributes. Adding to this many Mongies are of course pretty friendly and supportive. Nevertheless, we still have the impression of a rather rough society, often behaving pretty thuggish. Maybe an impression intensified if you arrive from China where most people behave quite differently – at least within their country.
We drive on to Ulan Ude, the 1st town on the way. The road not as good as expected; rather bumpy and some parts under construction. Some fake police cars on the way – but 1 with a real nasty speed trap. Shame on you. Luckily we discover it on time.
We arrive in the evening.
Just in time for a city tour – limited to the main square with the biggest Lenin sculpture in the world – we think somehow the poor guy slightly looks decapitated – and a singing fountain.
And then a real Russian Shashlik – at Shashlikoff’s.
Irkutsk, 26th July
Of course we can always drive the straight way to reach Punta Arenas, Argentina. But this would unquestionably be a too short journey, we would miss the top sights of the world and ignore most of the dangers we could live on the trip.
If in Eastern Siberia, we have to see Lake Baikal. And of course Irkutsk, the Venice of the east, the pearl of Russia, the last considerable town before reaching Vladivostok. Considering all these arguments, what matters a detour of 1000km.
So we drive westwards on the trans-Siberian highway. Along the southern shore of Lake Baikal.
The water of the lake is pretty clear; but not really too warm. Imagine, just a month ago it still has been frozen.
On the way we search for a place to stay. Not an easy task. Astonishingly very few accommodation available and lonely campsites not easy to find. But definitely signs of the great holiday period in Russia. For boys at least not as boring as Mongolia’s Nadaam with all these wrestlers. For girls an incredible opportunity to accept how useless it is to be jealous.
Whatever, a nice sunset at the beach near the village of Baikalsk.
The next day – just raining. The whole day. We drive the remaining few km to Irkutsk – and wait for the rain to take an end.
Bad weather still continues. An opportunity to finalize Prado’s repair work – definitely in the meantime something makes the hell a lot of noise when driving. We head for Safari 4×4 – the expert for this kind of cars. What a surprize 1 of the guys even speaks English. So we make a test drive to identify why the hell Prado makes this noise. We still suspect the broken protection of the fuel tank only. Of course the specialist of the workshop considers much more. So it’s time for an in-depth diagnostic. The wheels are turned, the propeller shafts, the shock absorbers, the suspension. No clear sign. Again the same exercise. By now with a stethoscope. All wheel bearings, the differentials, the transmission – no suspect noises. At least we’re definitely sure we may not expect any problems in near future. They discover that the joints of 1 propeller shaft are slightly loose. Ok, let’s change them. Then they put some pieces of polystyrene under the fuel tank’s protection. Another test drive – no more noise. Some welding, we pay a few $ for the whole thing and it’s finished.
Weather improves; time to visit the Venice of the east. Irkutsk definitely stands this comparison with its Italian counterpart:
As Venice also Irkutsk is full Chinese tourists all buying gelati.
As in Venice true tourists don’t go for any pizza. No, they order pizza with real ruccola and smoked ham.
And finally as in Venice Berlusconi and Ruby are never seen drinking Cappuccino in a roadside café.
So far the similarities. There are also some minor differences. They are sometimes visible on our sightseeing tour.
A number of impressive Tsarist buildings along the main road …
… of course also a few remains of recent history …
… and some modern buildings.
You still travel in tramways personally engineered in the early 30th of the last century in a People’s-Own factory.
As in Venice there are some beautiful churches, …
… churches full of Chinese tourists.
Very different to Venice in Irkutsk we still discover some places strongly reminding us to the good old Soviet times. And sometimes rather strange situations like imprisoned sculptures – maybe to remember some nearby gulag.
Finally, we even discover some places in the town center resembling Russian villages.
And that’s it. Tomorrow we’ll drive eastwards. Some 3700km to Vladivostok.