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Report - Mongolia Day 1/4, hunting for soviet military bases

Discussion in 'European and International Sites' started by dsankt, Mar 3, 2009.

  1. dsankt

    dsankt si ce que tu dis est vrai
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    Disclaimer: This is not urban and contains more than we-did-then-we-did-then-we-did... If the quantity of words causes distress let the pretty pictures soothe your troubles.


    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'ren't accustomed to finding in my posts. Where's the sewage, the drains, the metro, the trains?

    Distracting though the natural splendor was, we had logistical problems. There was no fucking way this was all going to fit.
    • 24L of water
    • one tent
    • sleeping bags
    • 2 tripods
    • 2 x dslrs + lenses, 2 x rangefinders + lenses, 1 x lomo
    • spare tyres, spare tubes, misc spares, pump, toolkit
    • clothes
    • gps + guide book
    • stove + gas + mugs + cutlery
    • large medical kit
    • 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 indistinguishable from every other piece of road we seen since leaving UlaanBataar. Our Mongolian guide with his soviet looking buggy mobile 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. There was absolutely no way it would all fit. Let me expain a little.

    Perhaps it was payback for Gengis Khan's occupation 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, some clearly shot with a tele from the window of the passing Trans-sib, 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 Geeps 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.

    [​IMG]

    That, in a nutshell, was the plan as we described it to anyone who asked. Plenty asked and almost all 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 desert and see what happens. Even seasoned adventurer Siologen thought we were going to die cuddling for warmth in the desert and we'd eat and burn our own flesh before giving him the satisfaction of being right. The idea seemed pretty sound to us, one definitely worth pursuing.

    The first hour post arrival was a whirlwind where we dumped a few things at the hostel, met with the guide company (eMongol) then went out to find some mountain bikes. Lonely Planet directed us to a store called Seven Summits, which turned out to be just another foreigner exploiting the local market. We reluctantly parted with USD$600 equiv in CASH as the bike deposit. Fucks me how many backpackers carry around that much in cash... it took a couple of ATM trips to scrounge up the combined Euros, Tugricks and USD. Regardless we had bikes, a tent from eMongol, water and food. eMongol were directed that all we required of them was drop us off south: no tour, no driver, no support, just drop us off and leave. The plan was set, the wheels in motion. We boarded the buggy mobile and hit the road, right back to where this post started.

    [​IMG]

    We pared 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. It certainly wasn't the best for ol' knee alignment. We started to regret skimping on panniers. 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 GeePS listed it as Base 5.

    Full to the brim with enthusiasm, life and the fresh air we rode over the rolling hills, bouncing over rocks and mounds of earth laughing and shouting with our newly acquired freedom. Totally free for the next 5 days to go where ever our legs so carried us. This was real travel. No contiki tours, no hostels, no bunk beds stolen from orphanages, no tourist 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. We were nomads to.

    In raw monetary terms the nomads are a poor people. They live in Yorts, a large round semi-permanent type of tent. A few of these yorts were scattered around the remains of Base 5. I say as such because the entire base has been demolished. Everything of value is gone. Even the pipes, which carried services between buildings now smashed into piles of concrete and brick, have been scavenged for whatever value they might have. While poking around some of the debris we met a teenager on the shittest chrome dual suspension mtb I've ever seen. Non-functioning brakes, gears, suspension, almost deflated tyres split down the sidewalls, handlebars which moved. The nomads are a confident people, not scared of strangers at all. He rode right up to us grinning and beckoned us back towards his yort. We'd been out in the country less than an hour, it was time to meet the locals.

    [​IMG]

    Outside the yort in the warm sun sat granny mongol. Dressed in faded grey she rocked back and forth slowly, smiling all to herself. Hanging loosely from her hands was a giant spliff trailing away wisps of pungent smoke. Behind her, hooked up to cables running into the yort was an ancient satellite dish. We guessed it was part of the soviet base. They may be poor but they're absolutely resourceful. We accepted an invitation into their yort, where we embarrassed ourselves with horrendously spoken phrases from a guide book. There was lots of pointing a small world map, while they gave us milky tea and dried cheese curd. We both immediately felt terrible for our misgivings about the locals, they were friendly as could be. We couldn't communicate well enough to ask if they themselves had demolishing the buildings or the Russians flattened them prior to their departure.

    We bade farewell to the nomads and rode towards Base 4 along a rutted dirt road. Similarly to Base 5, Base 4 was all demolished but for a few walls. The tent was pitched amongst some defensive dirt mounds and we settled in for our first night. As the sun set the temperature plummeted and the stars scattered across the sky brighter than I've seen anywhere. In rural Mongolia there is no ambient light. I can recommend the dehydrated spaghetti bolognase. I can't really recommend using your backpack as a sleeping mat, though it's better than nothing when there just wasn't space for a thermarest.

    [​IMG]

    I fell asleep considering the possibility that all the soviet bases would be demolished, that our first exploration into mongolia would turn up nothing but rubble. That this trip would simply become a relaxing cycle tour into the Gobi desert. The lack of EPIC$, the legislated UE (uuurgh) currency, didn't worry us. Exploration is about discovery and sometimes one discovers nothing but the existence of nothing itself. Our little list of potential sites wasn't compiled from a forum or from things one can browse on flickr. This wasn't the place to go for those merely hoping to stack up their EPIC$ account. We were pedaling into unknown territory, on the chance we'd discover nothing at all, and so far loving every damn minute.

    [​IMG]
     

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