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Published: September 5th 2013
Back in Irkutsk we collect our visas from the Mongolian Embassy and set off on the 700km ride to the border. We wind our way through heavily wooded hillsides heading towards the south-western tip of Lake Baikal. There are very occasional glimpses of the lake but mostly its views of taiga covered hills disappearing off into the distance. There are more birch trees, with their gleaming white bark, than we have seen before. And quite a few “drunken trees” too – where the top of the tree is arched over gracefully and is almost touching the ground. They occur when the permafrost melts/shifts so we are going to see far more of them when we eventually head north towards Magadan.
Eventually we leave the hills behind and drop down to the lake shore at Kultuk. For the next 200km we are skirting the edge of Lake Baikal with the Trans-Siberian Railway as our constant companion. We cross many of the 300+ streams flowing into Lake Baikal and you always know they are approaching as you can see the box-girder bridge carrying the railway off in the distance – it reminds me of 2 years ago when we were crossing the
its all taiga forest as far as the eye can see
with the Trans-Siberian train snaking its way through it.
bridges, from the opposite direction, on the train. There's lots of villages with the usual gingerbread cottages but now they all seem to have front gardens full of potato plants – well it gets chilly here in the winter and yo need a good supply of vodka!!.There's no shortage of Omel fish either – a fish unique to Lake Baikal, every village has a stall selling it.
Just beyond Mysovaya (where the Angara ferry sailed too) we leave the lake shore and continue eastwards skirting the edge of the very atmospheric (i.e. shrouded in rain cloud) Khamar-Daban Mts and drop down into the Selenga Valley where the scenery is totally different. Its a wide open grassland with vast patches of purple & yellow flowers - it doesn’t look or feel like Russia, it feels like we are already in Mongolia. The wide and gently flowing Selenga river runs through it on its way from Mongolia to Lake Baikal. Adding to the Mongolian feel are the Buddhist temples, roadside stupas and chants/sacred symbols painted on the hillsides. This is because we are travelling through the Republic of Buryatia and the Buryats are descended from Siberian & Mongolian peoples.
usual we are ahead of the group so we nip into Ulan Ude to get a photo of the bike in front of the biggest Lenin head in the world. Built in 1970 for the centennial of Lenin's birth, it 7.7 meters high and weighs 42 tons.. Edwin just rides his bike straight through the bollards and into the centre of the pedestrianised main square, nobody seems to mind. Riding through Ulan Ude you notice the Buddhist/Chinese influences: the leaping deer on the bridge, apartment blocks with pagoda style roofs or chinese dragons painted on their sides. It was once a major trade centre between Russia, Mongolia & China.
At Ulan Ude we leave the Trans-Siberian Highway and head south towards Mongolia. The valley gets even wider and the grass gets greener. And the houses are different, they're not gingerbread cottages any more, they're square wooden houses surrounded by fences. 100km down the road we set up camp above Gusinoye Lake. Its one of the most scenic camp-sites so far with the obvious lake views but also the entire ground is covered in alpine plants its like a giant rockery (without the rocks!). There are so many of them
we're starting to see 'drunken trees' too
they occur when the permafrost melts or shifts
that you cant help but crush them when you walk around and you have no option but to pitch your tent on them.
From our camp its another 100km of rolling green grassland & hills to Kyakhta and the Mongolian border. Kyakhta was once the primary border point for trade between Russia & China (as agreed in the 1727 Treaty of Kyakhta), now it has a fascinating feel of decaying grandeur. Two centuries ago it was full of tea trade millionaires with 5,000 cases of Chinese tea passing across the border every day. This all ended abruptly with the completion of the Suez Canal & Trans-Siberian Railway and the town slowly started to decay. Today there's a dusty main street lined by once grand 2 storey wooden mansions, the ruins of grand factories & markets sporting paintings of comrades with a forlorn Lenin looking on and the ruins of the cathedral that allegedly had solid silver doors embedded with diamonds. Its very atmospheric, as the guide book says its “wonderfully preserved by 70 years of communist neglect”. I could spend ages here wandering round but instead we spend ages at the border post.
Getting out of Russia takes
a great road sign
I made Edwin go round the roundabout several times so I coud get the photo
90mins but is quite straight forward. Then we try to get into Mongolia. As you enter the compound you are given a slip of paper and the aim of the game appears to be to collect a complete set of slips with the correct stamps on them e.g. fumigation, currency declaration, immigration, bike clearance, customs for people, customs for bike etc etc. Sounds easy – its not. Each section is very efficient but they are very random about telling you where to go next. Sometimes you get given 2 slips and you have to find the correct person to stamp them then go back to the first person who keeps one and counter-stamps the other. At one point I'm sent off in a different direction to Edwin – he has to register the bike but I'm not allowed in the vehicle section as I don’t have a vehicle. So off I go to immigration as instructed but I'm turned back by a very disgruntled man who wont let me into Mongolia and I have to go in with the bike which is being imported with 3 pieces of luggage and 1 passenger!!
After 3 hours we think we are
done and try to leave the compound but the man at the gate turns us back as we haven't got the final stamp from the man that checks you've got all the stamps! Finally, we are allowed through the gate into what we think is Mongolia but 50 meters down the road there's another gate where we have to buy insurance. Finally, after a total of 5hrs we really do get to leave Russia and ride out into Mongolia.
(PS there will be another break in transmissins now as I'm out of internet contact for 4 weeks)
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