Summer in Siberia

Alone again, we had to kick our heels for a day or two waiting for the rest of our team to catch up. Entering Siberia at a bit before night fall, we were keen to get camped up quick while we still had the light.

The woodland around a picturesque lake slightly off a minor road looked like a good spot, and I suggested we head for it. Off the road, and driving through the grassy plain, progress began to get a tad slippy. Then very slippy. Then very stuck. It turned out that much of the land surrounding the lake was fairly saturated, and not very drivable. Not to worry, there’s lots of useful tools and tricks for getting out of these situations. To name a few:

  • Dig yourself a good channel out of the mud.
  • Lay down some waffle boards and drive out.
  • Get another vehicle to tow you out.
  • Use your winch and a conveniently placed tree or cunningly packed ground anchor.
  • Lower the tyre pressures in your carefully selected all terrain/mud terrain tyres, and drive out.
  • Set up a some lifting strops and a couple of spreader bars, and use a crane or helicopter to lift you out. Whichever is most convenient.

However, all of these useful and effective techniques require the following:

  • A shovel.
  • Waffle boards.
  • Another vehicle.
  • A winch.
  • Offroad tyres.
  • A crane or helicopter.

Number of these we had in our possession? Zero. We’d based all our equipment lists on one very key goal. Don’t get stuck. I fucked that up.

Plan B. Tyre pressures down, and provide them with some artificial tread; something that would bite a bit more. One of my mates from back home had suggested I take a couple of old motorbike chains along with the ride for situations just like this. He also suggested I take everything else on the list. However, motorbike chains were as far as my packing went, and West London’s best motorbike mechanic, Max of Bill Bunns Motorcycles in West Ealing kindly provided these. The chains were laid out, and laboriously wrapped around the front wheels. Nowhere near as effective as any of the conventional methods, but enough to get us out of the really muddy stuff and onto firmer ground. The sun setting fast, we pitched camp to a gorgeous orange streaked horizon.

The next day we reconvened with our group, but unfortunately down one Micra with a blinding paint job. Dave and JP had managed to mislay their vehicle registration documents, and the border crossing wasn’t accepting a copy. They had returned to the city to await a the re-issue and dispatch of these, so were to be delayed for some time.

Still reeling from the loss of a quarter of our convoy, we set about exploring Siberia the six of us. Forests, rivers, and offensively beautiful mountain views were in abundance, and provided a wonderful playground for adventure and camping. Freezing cold river’s were swam in, forests driven through, trees climbed, and camp fires made. Who were Dave and JP again?

The journey through Siberia continued with little civilisation come across. The occasional truck punctuated the day, and a small smattering of grown men jetting around on skis with wheels.

Finally, the Mongolian border neared. The snowy topped mountains gave way to more bare and and barren hills, no less stunning, but intimidating in a different way. The snow covered ranges give a sense of familiarity, not unlike the European Alpine ranges with which we were familiar. The stone strewn and shallow grey slopes of the Mongolian terrain were equal in their grandeur, but a more alien environment, heralding the beginning of lands even more displaced and remote from the places we all called home.

The border crossing out of Russia and into the much anticipated North Western Mongolia began with a large queue. A queue that Brits would have been proud of.

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Cars and trucks were lined up for hundreds of metres, in front a of a set of firmly shut gates. There were several other Mongol Rally vehicles in the line who had been there for over a day already. It quickly became apparent that the officials and soldiers staffing the border post had taken an impromptu holiday. When would it end? Whenever they felt like it. The rules of standard working hours, employee reward schemes, and the other foundations of modern day employment obviously did not apply here. We set up camp alongside the road with the growing group of other travellers. Young children roamed the line, looking for entertainment and money. Unused and now pointless currency was happily handed over to the delight of those in receipt.

The obligatory campfire was set in a shallow pit, and dozens of us sat around, everyone trading tales of the journeys that had brought them to this point. Two main routes emerged; The Northern route that we had taken, through Ukraine, Russia, and Northern Kazakhstan, or a Southern route through Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and then up through Kazakhstan. Both sounded like they had good points and bad, and as is often the case with these things, it rarely comes down to anything but chance whether or not the experience was overwhelmingly positive or negative.

One of my biggest fears when travelling is, without doubt, the moment that you lose the ability to control your situation and affect what its outcome might be, and that can be a deeply uncomfortable position to be in. We felt lucky that a combination of the people we had met along the way, and the absence of any major hassle or aggression had given us a fairly easy run. Not without its moments in any terms, but we were never faced with a situation that was truly out of our control.

A sociable night behind us, the waiting continued long into the next day. We entertained ourselves by exploring the adjacent hills, and appreciated the views they gave us into the foreboding rocky desert ahead. Large eagles roamed the skies, attracted most likely by the discarded food left by the constant traffic awaiting the border transit. They were incredible to watch; masters of the air in which they flew, commanding precise changes in speed or direction with the slightest movement of a wing.

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Suddenly, late in the afternoon, the border crossing sprung into life, cars moving through, and we all scrambled to ensure we didn’t lose our place in the line. Paperwork exchanged and approved, we were through. Allowed out of Siberia, but not yet allowed into Mongolia. We drove through the short ‘no mans land’, and began preparing ourselves for the bureaucracy that’s reputation had proceeded itself, of the entry into Mongolia.

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