Cycling in Mongolia and Russia - Border crossing - Tsaganuur toTashanta - Cycling guide

To get from Olgii in Western Mongolia into Russia is relatively easy although the Russian border guards won't let anyone on bicycles actually cycle on the border road - you will need transport for the 25km of downhill gorgeous tar from the actual border to the customs and immigration buildings in Tashanta. HEre's a guide to the route that should get you to the first town where you can actually register - an absolutely essential thing to do. I will post a photo of the registration document on this site when I get a chance:


Russian Hotels - what a joy

Russian hotels from our experience, are on the whole awful places although I am sure there must be exceptions.

The plumbing is constantly a triumph of idiocy over intelligence and I've mended virtually every toilet cistern that we have encountered to stop them flushing constantly or draining all night, hardly a difficult job! Hot water is rarely available although always advertised and in Biysk at the Hotel Centrale they had 200 newly refurbished rooms with ensuite modern bathrooms, two lifts, a restaurant, a glittering reception, advertised Wi-Fi but no hot water. When we hassled the reception we were eventually shown into a dingy room in the basement where two 'Staff showers' could be found...at least they were clean?!?

The beds are at best like hammocks, curving inwards with a foam mattress but much more likely to be a wooden board covered in a sheet. They are rarely over 6 feet long (are Russians really so small) and contain an enormous pillow that once in the bed prevents anybody actually lying down anyway unless they are 5 feet tall with a right angled neck and a fat back.

We have yet to find a hotel with curtains even half as wide as the windows, despite them often being very fancy and decorative.. and the bed sheets are only wide enough if rotated like beach towels. Any external toilet or bathroom is often locked at random times as well.

At the pinnacle of all this, is the all powerful floor lady, an ex-soviet invention who is meant to look after the guests on her floor, but generally has nothing to do but smoke and watch TV in her little office. As there are no restaurants for people who don't want to spend US$50 on a meal we spend every night eating bread, cheese and sausages in our room praying that the floor lady doesn't find out and tell us off for making crumbs. We often end up camping because we can get a more comfortable night's sleep or we can get cleaner in the river?

It's ALL WRONG!!!!


Nyet, Nyet, Nyet, Nyet, Nyet - the friendly people of Russia

We have finally left Russia and despite the few super friendly people we actually did meet, our main feeling has been one of why are the rest of the people so rude and unfriendly? It's a though we have defiled somebody's grave wherever we go, a smile is returned with a glare or grimace, a wave with a flick of the wrist that suggests we should go elsewhere and if we are to ever (god forbid) try and spend our money somewhere, we're growled out or shouted at for not understanding Russian or the particular system in place at that establishment, whether it be one for queueing, paying or ordering. In most places in the world these people would be sacked in half a second, but we are always greeted with a cold stare and 'Nyet, Nyet, Nyet, Nyet!!!!'. The best of the unfriendly people are the ones that completely ignore us as their complete lack of interest makes us feel almost welcome in comparison and their ability to ignore our smiles and waves feels almost friendly...like we belong!

Towards the end I gave up even acknowledging people as it was so disheartening being looked at rudely or so coldly. Occasionally we would let slip a wave or a smile and then find ourselves disappointed again by our invisibility. We did at one stage reckon that the cows were more likely to wave at us than the locals. Sometimes however, we are woken from our puzzled state by the only people who can be guaranteed to show an interest....the seriously innebriated! There are many of these all over Russia and the early morning vodka brigade are outrageously friendly in comparison, although hardly ever able to stand, let alone talk coherently. They do sometimes offer to let us buy them more alcohol or demand that we celebrate our meeting with another bottle, but for some reason we suddenly seem to find oursleves moving on, especially when they demand that we let them ride our bikes.

This is the state of Russia....at least the parts we have seen.
However there is HOPE!!!
A few times this trip while being rudely ignored or abused by a drunk or a shopkeeper, a small beacon of hope has appeared just as we thought it could get no worse. Near the border south of Biysk, as a drunk man shouted at us in the pouring rain, a wonderful family came out and gave us tomatoes, cucumbers, bread and some meat for our journey.....I nearly cried.
The following day as a hotel administrator told us 'Nyet, Nyet, Nyet' and made throat cutting gestures with her hand while refusing to let us stay there, despite the many empty rooms and the late hour, another fantastc woman appeared who rang every small ad in the newspaper until she found us a whole flat to stay in at a cheaper rate!! She then proceeded to walk us there and help carry our bags up to the 5th floor. WOW!

And in the Altai a whole car of Russians on holiday stopped and gave us tomatoes just as a guest house owner was telling us we couldn't stay because our registration was wrong (completely untrue!) They even saw us the following day and repeated the gesture. Wonderful people.
 BUT....apart from our cyclist friends, a shopkeeper in Korya, the school director and one Russian border guard (who smiled) these are the only friendly faces we have seen. As we have got closer to Kazakhstan the faces have got less threatening and angry and it puzzles us. Russia seems like an angry teenager or a toddler having a tantrum. The people can't all be bad, but there is a definite feeling of 'Go away', 'Why are you here?' It's as though people aren't interested in new things, maybe it was bad to notice things in the past? We just don't know. We both hope it changes because it's so bad it's actually bordering on funny!!



Our Russian cyclist friends

We have been travelling for the last 3 days with a fantastic group of Russian cyclists. They've been doing a superb 800km circular route from Biysk around the Altai Republica region, cycling deep into the back country, getting a boat down a lake and then pushing and cycling across to our road (the main M52) where we luckily met them. We will post their route on this site sometime....

Vladimir was the first one we met, who to us after our lazy days in Russia, seemed like a super-human crazy man - all smiles and enthusiasm and then off down the road at 25km/h - we thought that was that - "Wow - we've met another cyclist!!" and went back to our lazy meandering day-dreaming and talking nonsense. He'd seemed to suggest that he had a friend who spoke English but we weren't really sure whether he was trying to tell us that he'd met other English people, 'Angliski, angliski' and pointing down the road. Later we caught up with Vladimir again and this time he was with 'The Professor' who did speak some English - last practised 30 years previously, he explained that they were a group of 10 cyclists (3 women, 6 men and a 13yr old girl) - they invited/insisted that we camped with them that night.

We'd cycled a little further than them and when the day reached 135km we were really too tired to go on, somehow the group got separated and 8 of us ended up camping in a beautiful spot by a river and had a great night. We spent the night with Yura, his daughter Masha, Rita, Dmitriy - the amazing translator, Vladimir and finally Victor - the doppelganger of my friend Phil in Manchester (or Mr Fire as we started calling him). They held us down and at gun point forced us to drink Vodka that Dmitriy and Vladimir had hunted down in a small village on the way, and we all spent a great evening talking/eating/drinking and nagging Dmitri to eat and stop trying to translate everything - he was brilliant and we always felt involved and never left out. They were very interested in us, our bikes, what we thought of Altai, Russia and them. We also wanted to know all about them and their journey.

The following day, Isa, Masha and I cycled off earliest (we're so organised and quick) and waited 50km later for everyone else at a small cafe. Again we couldn't find the other 4 members of their group, we'd seen them, waved and the others had missed them completely, so the group was still small. That afternoon it rained constantly and by 95km we were drenched, cold and a little miserable. To our absolute amazement Youri and Vladimir went a little ahead of us and managed to persuade the Director of a village school to give us the keys and let us sleep there. When we got out of the rain we ran around excitedly like small children, exploring the 8 classrooms, the gym with crashmats to sleep on, the kitchen, the cloakrooms for drying clothes, the warm showers and even watched the Olympics on TV in the staffroom (Russia beat Bulgaria at volleyball). Incredibly, as the remaining 4 members of the group cycled through the village, even more drenched a couple of hours later, the people in the village spotted them and sent them to the school as well, so we were all reunited again. This would never have happened in England.....allowing 12 strangers to have the keys for a school.

We again had a great meal of soup, sausages, salad, rice, beer, vodka, and mead and were joined by the Director of the school and her husband, and from our group Alla and Vladimir led the enthusiastic singing of Russian songs inbetween loads of toasts made in that fantastic communal Russian way, before finally crashing out on the crash mats all over the school, some on the stage, some in the science lab and the rest in the gym.

The following morning the Principal arrived again and we were interviewed in a classroom on video for the rest of the school and the local Altai teachers. We answered questions about Russia, Altai, the school, our journey etc and then later they filmed us and our bikes and asked us about them in great detail. We then shook lots of hands, took several pictures and headed off towards Biysk.

That night after a typical Simon and Isa lazy day, visiting a local writers house (Shooshkin!), time in cafes and sitting around on hills, we arrived in Biysk and camped incredibly, in the centre of town on the banks of the river - something I wouldn't recommend in Manchester.....we learned more about crazy Victor and Youra who had both done ultramarathon's in the past, Vladimir and his aquarium business (who also knows more songs than Bob Dylan), Vitor's Estonian passport that had allowed him to travel a bit in Central Asia..... Isa got on really well with Rita who gradually started to remember all her high school English (last spoken 25 years previously) and we also learned that Masha goes to a Russian sports-school.

Everyone was so friendly, kind and generous and refused to let us pay for anything however hard we tried. We had a brilliant 3 days with some like-minded people (cycling is a great people filter) and the following morning we woke up early and wished them luck on their two day train journey back to their town - the home of Lada. It was sad to say goodbye and hopefully we'll see some of them again someday.

Here are some pictures of our experience:

Russian rivers in the Altai region

After the dry cycle ride through Mongolia it has been a pleasure to find rivers everywhere in the Altai. Some of them our absolutely majestic:


Shukshin - Russian Writer / Actor / Film-Maker

On the way to Biysk we went to visit Shukshin's house - a celebrated Soviet writer/actor/film maker, and also visited his statue on a hill where he used to sit and wonder before he headed off to Moscow for fame and fortune:


Dostoyevsky's 'The Idiot'

Desperate for words in English I swapped the Mongolian Lonely Planet book for Dostoyevsky's 'The Idiot'.

A great book.... and as I travel more and more in Russia, I realise that the world it describes is not that different to the Russia we are in today. There is such a huge gap between the wealth of people here, you go into a supermarket and there is no real choice unless you want Vodka or Beer and if you go to a cafe a meal can cost 20US and there are only rich wives eating there. Loved the book and when we get to Semey in Kazakhstan we will definitely visit his museum there - he was exiled to Semey and is celebrated there.



Some interesting Russian houses




We've been slowing down in Russia, trying not to do too many km because our Kazakhstan visa doesn't start until the 28th of August. This has left us cycling for about 3 hours a day, swimming in rivers, washing regularly and eating quite well.

One day we found a brilliant track down to the river and camped really early and just lay around sunbathing and reading..real deCadence:


Russian War Memorials and statues

There are some amazing war memorials and statues about the place here in the Altai. Here's just a few of the more impressive ones:
And Lenin can often be found watching over the world from some great vantage point:


Even more amazing light



Amazing high mountains in the Russian Altai

As we entered Russia we realised that there were some seriously big mountains around us:

We got some great views of them and managed to camp right in front of one of the tallest.


Entering Russian towns

Russian towns have fantastic signs outside them announcing the town. They also do it with nearly every bridge.


Entering Russia - Stuck in No-Mans Land

We had some fun getting into Russia...they wouldn't let us in!!
We got through Mongolian customs OK and got our passports stamped out of the country and then cycled 5km up into the hills. Eventually as we descended a pass we could see brand new tar road ahead of us and a gate with some guards. We started getting excited about the prospects of Tar roads......

The only problem was that they just wouldn't let us through, because only things with engines can travel through their border areas...NO BICYCLES. This was our worst nightmare as we couldn't go back to Mongolia and get a vehicle.....and couldn't go forward.

We brewed a coffee, got our chairs out and just sat there wondering what we could do, luckily it was sunny. We tried bribing them...they wouldn't let us (RUSSIA?????)

After 6 hours and no vehicles coming though, and just as we were about to put our tent up, a Mongolian man came through the border from Russia really easily (No hassle) so we decided to ask him if he could help. It turned out that he had a border permit and after a little bit of haggling he drove us the 20km to the Russian customs (on the most perfect downhill black tar). He even got us through Russian customs really quickly. We loved him.

Even as we left the country the Mongolians were still helping us out!! What a place!!

We later heard about the French couple who were stuck in No-Mans land for 4 days in the same position earlier in the year. It turned out we were lucky.

Yaks at the border

Near the border we saw lots of Yaks and finally remembered to take pictures of them:

Mongolian border town




The Mongol rally arrives in Olgii

Today lots of cars from the Mongol rally arrived in Olgii - they crossed the border from Russia last night and we managed to get hold of a Russian map which was a result. They also got loads of route info from us. They were all in small engined cars and about to try and cross the dirt roads of Mongolia. They should have fun.

Anybody can enter providing they pay a small sum of money and they can really only use a 1 litre engined car.
Most people know nothing about cars but some are more organised. Most people travel in teams of similar cars in case they get stuck.

One of them even took a photo of the two of us. So we took a photo of it as well:


Road Map of Russian Altai Region

Here's a road map of the Altai Region:



We've finally completed the Trans-Mongolia cycle route

After 21 and a bit days of cycling, and 4 rest days we have finally reached Olgii in the far west of Mongolia after starting in Ulaan Baatar nearly a month ago.

We cycled a total of 1723km of which about 1600km was on dirt roads. We are completely knackered and for some reason every meal I eat now, seems to be equal to about 3. I also sleep easily for 11 hours or more.

We nearly managed to get to Olgii on the 21st day but the roads were so bad they defeated us and despite having no food left we had to camp 20km before Olgii. We just couldn't face the 16km up hill with nowhere to camp.

We starved in a beautiful campsite by a river - milk powder as our only food source:

 The following morning we rode up a terrible track and eventually after a boring dreary climb we got our first view of Olgii:

After 15 minutes of descent we were eating huge plates of food.
After a few days rest we will head off to the corner of China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia and then to the Russian border.

Cycling in Mongolia - Trans-Mongolia Route - Ulaan Baatar to Olgii - information for those thinking of attempting this ride.

Here's the necessary guides: (scroll down for more info)

If you want to do this cycle ride you will need to think about the following things:

This will need to be really strong with good strong rims and spokes, big tyres (Schwalbe Marathon XR or similar) and a sprung saddle (Brooks make excellent ones). We met people with suspension seat posts who said they were pretty useless on these roads. You will need spare bolts and nuts and spare chain links and spokes. If you don't clean your chain every few days you will not make it so take oil and cleaning stuff. We always carried washing powder and a foldable bucket to clean the chain. Your racks need to be really strong too.

We would recommend Koga-Miyata, Thorn or Surly.

Everywhere it is difficult to get water and you will need to carry a fair bit - up to 8 litres. Maps do not have reliable sources of water marked. Our road guides are clear about where the water is. You will need a water filter West of Ulaangom and will need to clear it regularly. East of Ulaangom you can often get away with purification tablets but a filter is advised. Lever action ones are easier rather than the pumps

Not too difficult although between Ulaangom and Olgii you will need to carry a few days of food. We always carry a couple of spare days food. BuckWheat is a great emergency food available in several places - can be made sweet or added to soups. There are very few vegetables available on the route. Why they don't get scurvy I've no idea.

The roads are hard, change all the time and directions are almost impossible to get off people. They just give general directions. There are three bad bits:
  1. Between Ih-Uul and Tosontsengel the road is terrible
  2. Anywhere within 150km East of Ulaangom
  3. The jeep track over Bairam Davaa and most of the rest of the route to Olgii

If it rains you can, as a rule of thumb, double the days needed. If it rains badly then you are stuck and will be able to go nowhere until the roads dry.

We averaged our odometers for our distances and they nearly always matched the markings (if there were any) on the road posts. They don't match the maps.

We used a road atlas (with all irrelevant pages ripped out) available from Seven Summits in UB and a Mongolian Phrase book along with the Lonely Planet Mongolia book for the major towns. There is no good small book for this route. Some maps have roads missing!!

Campsites - some of the best on earth

Some of these campsites are because we're knackered and can't go any further, others because it looks too beautiful to go any further. Mongolia's landscape is incredible.



As we've been cycling along we've actually seen several people using camels to transport stuff. Apparently they can carry up to 250kg and don't need much water which comes in handy. As we left Achit Nuur near Olgii we came across a herd of them just wandering around in the mountains. We also saw some more down by a salt lake called Ureg Nuur. Here's the better photos:

Even more amazing sunsets



Amazing evening light in Mongolia

The scale and the pain of the place

Between Ulaangom and Olgii we took a short cut through the mountains and past two amazing lakes. It was only a short cut in distance not time. The track is known as the jeep track and in parts is incredibly steep (unrideable), incredibly rocky (unrideable) and incredibly sandy (unrideable).

After one 20km section riding downhill into the wind we reached a wide valley that was just made of stones. You can see my bike at the bottom left and Isabelle in the middle at the top in the distance.
This is what she looked like through my 400mm zoom lens:
This was the hardest day of the trip. 
Mongolia + English

Keeping clean

We tend to get a bit dirty as we're cycling along - sweaty and covered in dust. You should see our clothes when we wash them - it takes hours to get out the mud colour from the water.
The other day we cycled past an open cast mine high in the hills and it was a windy day:

To solve these kinds of problems and to keep reasonably hygenic we jump in any water that we can find:

Ti train va loin!

Ben oui! Nous sommes finalement arrives a Olgii, C'est la ville la plus a Ouest de la Mongolie et aussi la derniere sur notre passage dans le pays. Il ne nous reste que 67 km a parcourir pour se rendre a la frontiere Mongole/Russe. Donc on peut presque dire que nous avons traverse la Mongolie, 1723 Km de route de gravier en 21 jours, pas ci mal non! Les deux dernieres semaines on ete asser difficiles, plus on s'avancait vers l'Ouest plus les routes devenaient hardues. La distance entre les petits villages (et l'eau) s'agrandissait et il y avait de moins en moins de gers ou s'arreter pour un petit the de passage. Comment la piste etait mauvaise, trop de sables ou de pierres, nous avons du pousser nos velos sur plusieurs kilometres et les progres etaient beaucoup plus lents. Par contre, nous avons roule sur des paysages fantastiques. La steppe a donne sa place aux hautes montagnes aux sommets enneiges. Nous avons passe la nuit sur le bord de deux lacs magnifiques, Uureg Nuur et Achit Nuur.Les deux dernier jours ont ete les plus intenses, nous nous sommes reveilles le matin avec des vents d'environ 30-40 km/heures qui soufflaient contre nous. Comme nous etions dans une immense vallee aride donc ces vents soufflaient des minis tempetes de sable, Le pire est que dans cette vallee il n'y avait rien, pas meme un petit rocher pour se mettre a l'abri du vent et prendre un peu de repit. A cause de ce vent nous avons ete retarder dans notre itineraire et nous ne sommes pas arriver a Olgii le jour prevu. Nous avons du passer la nuit a 20 km de la ville avec un paquet de nouilles a cuisson rapide, une boite de thon et quelques biscuits a partager pour le repas et rien pour le ledemain. Nous nous sommes leves le ventre vide et nous avons parcouru les 20 derniers kilometres jusqu'a Olgi ou nous avons copieusement mange.

Nous sommes maintenant dans une region ou le groupe ethnique principal est Kazakh, les gens on change et ici on ne parle plus le Mongol mais plutot le Kazakh et ici les temples bouddhistes se sont transformes en mosquees. C'est bizare, on pourrait penser etre dans un autre pays. Grace aux montagnes qui l'entourent(le plus haut sommet du pays est ici), Olgii est une ville asser touristique. Depuis que nous avons quitter Testerleg, nous avons renconte seulement 2 autres touristes. J'adore passer du temps avec Simon mais ca fait du bien de voir d'autres gens. Hier, plusieurs participants du rally-mongolie sont arrives en ville. C'est un rally qui debute a Londres et fini a Ulaambatar, les voitures doivent avoir un moteur de moins de 1.0 litre et les participants peuvent choisir l'itineraire qui leurs convienne le mieux. Ce n'est pas une course le but est de terminer avec une voiture en un morceau. une belle aventure!Plusieurs d'en eux sont passer par la Russie et ils avaient de multiples conseil et information sur notre route a venir.

De notre cote nos machines de guerre n'ont pas encore eu aucun probleme. Rien, meme pas une crevaison, il faut dire que nous avons des bons pneues. Je crois que le secret est dans l'entretien regulier et comme dirait mon pere," va pas trop vite menage ton char" ce qui est tres vrai, nous avons fait bien attention de ne pas rouler trop vite pour s'assurer que nos rayons et nos jantes tiennent la route pour longtemps.

Maintenant, beaucoup de repos et de bonne bouffes. On devrait repartir en direction Russie dans environ 5 jours. Ici nous allons profiter des montages pour faire un petit trek. A plus



Sand everywhere..... the dunes seem like they're encroaching

We've learned to hate the sand - it just makes cycling impossible.
It looks beautiful.....but!!!!!!