Ja mach nur einen Plan …

Resting, re-grouping, reconsidering plans in Novosibirsk

 

Ja mach nur einen Plan …

sei ein grosses Licht

mach dann noch einen zweiten Plan

gehn tun sie beide nicht.

 

… that’s what Berthold Brecht put in his ballade “VON DER UNZULÄNGLICHKEIT MENSCHLICHEN PLANENS” loosely translated: about the insufficiency of human planning.

I had this poem on my desk when working in Germany in the 1980-ties. I always felt it confirmed my suspicion about spending too much time in making plans. My good wife Louise says it is plain laziness on my end …  Well, it made me into a non-planner, or plan-avoider.  I confess to the probability that Louise is indeed right: it is the lazy option.
Nevertheless, I stick to my belief that almost all plans change regardless how well they had been conceived and considered. In my world, the word ‘Plan’ has inherently the word ‘Change’ in it! Therefore is it really worthwhile to invest too much into planning….?

I know, I know … I hear you say ”What is too much???”

Well, I dunno. Guess this is a rather personal measurement.

As you are about to see, dear reader, I shall be fishing for your confirmation.

Cognitive Dissonance is a term introduced to me when studying The Art of Marketing. It kind-of says that whenever we make a decision, important to us, then we seek – consciously and more often subconsciously – confirmation that we’ve made the right decision.

For example imagine you just bought a new car. All of the sudden, you will spot this same model car much more often on the road!? You are a little surprised to see so many, but more importantly, you feel a little pleased and confirmed about your buying decision.

 

So, what am I trying to say?

I have changed my plan! … and I am seeking confirmation. Naaah, really trying to clear my head of options, changed routes, dropped-off countries and new places to be seen (well, ALL are new to my eyes anyway).

I decided on a different, new route going west!
Here is my own Cognitive Dissonance, dragged to the light of consciousness:

But first let me put on the record that a lot of consideration, percolation and hard ‘uhm-ing’ and even harder ‘ahh-ing’ has gone into this. It was by no means an easy decision. I looked into my current situation, weighting up all known facts and sprinkled it with a good dose of ‘sound assumptions’. All this shaped the new, revised route.

But before, let me explain the cause for this need to re-visit, re-plan and/or re-route?

The technical problem with my fork seals in Mongolia were the biggest contributor. This mishap took almost two weeks from my schedule. The annoying bit is that:

a) I actually had thought about replacing them – just in case – prior to leaving Australia. But, alas I didn’t.

b) I hadn’t taken any spare fork seals with me. The old adage came true stating that whatever breaks on the bike is a spare part that you won’t have aboard. So I ordered from the UK right upon arrival in Ulaanbaatar, but even Fed.Express takes more days than I wished.

Another major contributor was the slower-than-planned progress over Mongolian roads. All up I had planned just about 16 days max. in Mongolia. Indeed, with all of the above I just made it out of the country with one single day to spare on my 30-day visa.

A final contributor was trouble with obtaining visas. My faith in my visa agent in Melbourne rapidly descended, as I learnt about limitations that the agent was unable to get ALL the required visas. Perhaps this was communicated at the start of our business-relationship, however I always had operated from the belief that this would be exactly his purpose: organise all aspects to obtain all the required visas. Spilled milk now, so I move on.

Another important consideration was that I always dearly wanted to avoid ‘chasing a schedule’.  This was my single most common observation when reading the accounts of other travellers. They wrote about needing to catch a pre-booked ferry, or make it at a certain – pre-determined – date for a border crossing, or ensuring to be at a certain spot at a certain date. All these pressures I wanted to avoid. Hence the title of this blog, to set the ‘right’ tone.
Now I was at risk to give into these unpleasant considerations and, as a result, rush through the remainder of the ‘plan’. Surely that would lead to me enjoying almost nothing.
To avoid this, the plan had to change! Such a change had mainly to do with changing my original route: leave out certain countries; rather circumnavigate them through other countries.

I could see visa-difficulties for Tajikistan. My visa agent told me that they “don’t do” them!?? So I would need to arrive in a large city in the previous country, find the Tajikistan embassy and apply there. This costs more time.
Additional visa trouble for Turkmenistan was on the horizon. This appears to be a country which does not to want tourists. Any other than a 5-day transit visa requires shelling out for a tour guide, driver and car hire every day, therefore making this an expensive country.
The neighbouring Iran requires some documentation I do not have, neither want to pay for: a Carnet de Passage. Google it. I believe this is an outmoded and money-making way for agencies to ensure that you don’t sell your vehicle in the country you are traveling through?! Most countries have gotten rid of it, don’t require one, but Iran still insists! I had carefully studied the official documentation and could not find any reference to a motorcycle. Nevertheless a big amount of money (>600Euro) is required just for the privilege of travelling through Iran. This does not sit well with me. Even the fact re-told by travellers that Iranians show absolutely great hospitality and are friendly wherever you turn, will not outweigh the principle and the cost factor. Risking entry without may have meant being stuck in no-mans land between Iran and Turkmenistan, what a pleasant thought …
Add to the above Khazastan. First-hand reports from fellow-motorcycle travellers are almost all negative: boring scenery and corrupt police everywhere, creating traffic offences for non-existing violations to gain some Schmiergeld. (I do like this word, so much more befitting the act than ‘bribe’.) However, this was a more minor consideration.

How to build-in these constraints into my getting onwards?

Well, I could truncate the trip. This would mean I still travel through Kazakstan (no visa required). Kazakstan must be traversed in order to reach Uzbekistan (visa required and indeed lined-up by my agent, thank you) and riding on to Kyrgyzstan (no visa required). Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Iran would ‘fall off the plate’.
Then I could return to Kazakstan and turn west crossing the Caspian Sea into Azerbaijan (visa required). This new country is a must in this option, as I by then I would have used-up my two entries into Russia. It is way-too-hard to obtain a new Russia visa on the road. From Azerbaijan I would be able to turn into Georgia (no visa needed) and from there entering the north-east of Turkey (volatile situation with ample of travel warnings). Once in Turkey I could pick up my original route through Greece, the Mediterranean coast, then north and into Germany etc etc.

Choosing this way would mean that I was still doing the – perhaps unpleasant – Kazak route, but at least I would experience some part of the Silk-road, but missing out on the Pamir and other sights.
The risk with this approach was potential visa delays for Uzbekistan and/or Azerbaijan. I so, they would bite even more into my time and risking making the remainder of my trip rushed.

So I decided not to do this route. I’d rather see the Silk Road towns ‘complete’. The thought is to return to this part of the world solely for exploring it, ideally with four or six wheels and being with my much better half.

My revised plan therefore looks like this:

  • upon return from Mongolia into Russia I will have used-up my Russia entries, subsequently I will need to stay in Russia
  • I will ride/drive/move west towards Moscow
    Time permitting I might see St. Petersburg, but will turn south right down towards Sochi
  • About there I shall cross the border to Georgia (no visa required) and join back into the original route by riding into Turkey’s north-east.

Dropping out Inner-Asia (Silk Road) buys back some time I had ‘lost’ in Mongolia. It reduces any potential rushing risk, rather let’s me meander again.

Alea jacta est!

 

 

Descent into Russia

Olgiy (Mongolia) – Novosibirsk (Russia) 3 day ride 1091 kms – Total 9967 km

Entering back into Russia was always to be a little gamble. The gamble with Customs Officers on either side.
I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories, recent ones from travellers coming form the other (western) direction into Mongolia. Some were caught in no-mans land, a 15 km wide zone separating both countries. Others told stories about discrimination, such as the border guards clearly dealing with their own folks before turning any attention to these foreign motorcycle travellers. Some spend an entire day to make this crossing – the anticipation was … hmmmh … ‘mixed’.

However, before all that Mongolia threw the final surprise at me: despite the marking on an apparently up-to-date map, and some – now obviously – non-specific reports, the final 38 kms to the border were dirt again. Corrugations were so bad, that I searched for tracks beside the ‘main-road’. However, all was bearable, as I told myself these are the final Mongolian dirt roads (in my life). A pacifying and calming thought.

Arriving at the Mongolian border a long line of cars awaited us. A woman in uniform started to walk towards me with a little black book in her hands. Funnily enough “Lovely Rita, meter-maid” an old Beatles song came to mind. Albeit, it wasn’t lovely Rita.
Now one’s diplomatic nouse comes to play: should I ignore her and promptly ride to the front, parking right at the lowered barrier or should I play it differently? Travellers’ tales often claim the former option is the way to go.
I hesitated and decided to stop, mustered my biggest smile and making gestures to say that the road was hard and I am happy to be here. Not quite sure how my limited Mongolia language skills (by now I knew about 14 words – max!) made this clear to the approaching official. “Road tax!” was her operative word and I dared to question “why now?”, as I was leaving the country? “Road tax!” was the repeated response. Not a good time to start any argument, so I paid, still with a big smile. I also asked for a receipt, which was indeed forthcoming.
I then ask if we (Neil & I) should drive to the front of the line. Almost any response I was prepared to claim as a “Yes!”… and since no negative murmur came from this official, I took it as a “Yes!”, prepping my mind to point back to her if I would be queried by the next border controller.

And so we did: drove right to the front, possibly shaving 3 hours from the expected time to cross.
The other ‘liner-upperers’ didn’t seem to mind, or better: I did my best not to read anything negative into anything which was said. Didn’t understand a word anyway and just wanted to get out!
As per usual, we attracted the attention by everybody around.  Not for long though, as we are waved through the barrier and now the formalities for the ‘bike passport’ a.k.a. motorcycle registration papers begun.
To our wonderment and against all odds, we are over-and-done with within 45 minutes – a new personal best!

A short ride through the no-man’s-land towards the Russian side of the border repeats this process: I stay in the line, again take helmet & gloves off, have a drink of water and screen-out the negative tales from fellow travellers. I imagine a “half-full” glass, after all!

I walk towards the gate and try to catch the eye of the uniformed guard, showing off my white beard to gain instant respect …. well, at least some.
I ask, in my best – non-existing – Russian, if I need to fill in any form or so. Promptly the guard acknowledges me and passes me a form through the wire-fence. I also ask him if I should ride the bike to the front but get an unmistakable ‘Niet!’.

Having returned to the queue, it soon begins to move forward, as the Schlagbaum opens and several cars are let through for processing. At this rate we might be through in two more takes. But luck is again on our side, the guard waves us to the front.

The next experience is about the Mongolian way of queuing up. I should have taken a photo but needed all my physical presence to claim my space.
Imagine any Zombie movie, where a bunch of them is trying to get through a small window – all at once of course. Basically a “cluster of Zombies” jostling for being first through the window!
Well, I have to confess I became one of them. …. and so this part at the Russian side took almost 4 hours. At the window for the  Customs Clearance Officer, I woukld spent the next three hours

mongolia queue

Mongolian queue

for my Zombie-turn almost for 3 hours, he re-wrote my form (Have I got bad hand writing??), moreover used an English form, which I hadn’t known existed. His handwriting is miles better than mine and finally we were allowed to move on. The luggage inspection was painless and over in 20 seconds – I just do look trustworthy (and old-er).

One more gate to clear, out with the Passport and papers again, two more windows and finally we were in Russia proper!

Instantly the roads improved! Almost new tar, little traffic and several bike groups coming from the opposite direction. I didn’t stop, they were just too many. I would have been an unhelpful source of information anyhow, jaded from a too drawn-out border process and still hurting from too many Mongolia dirt roads.

IMG_4374

that’s where we will end up

To reach the ‘destination’ for this day, a ride to Kosh-Agach was in front of me. Still plenty of time and pleased that the worst was over. And, let’s be reasonable, all in kind-of ok time.

IMG_4369

descending the Altay

 

My descend from the Altay had begun. This Siberian mountain range reaches peaks up to 3700 meters. The actual road was about 2500 above sea level. The road was smooth and pleasantly curvy.

Kosh-Agach presented like a typical Wild-West border town, despite being ~ 80kms after the border crossing. An o/night stay in a clean – hot showers – hotel and the decent continued very early next morning – I had ‘won’ two hours by crossing one/several?? time zones.

IMG_4364

The quiet side of Kosh-Agach

Still, a great ride was in front of me/us. To my right the Altay range of Kuraysk and to my left the Severo-Chuyskiy Mountains. All bare, no trees, bushes, just shining black and dominant in the morning sunlight.
As I rode towards the large plain – we are talking a 500 km + ride the landscape changed. I could see trees, bushes, sheep and goats.
Now, even forests emerged and a green cover, cows in good fettle grazing beside the road, not giving a hoot (or should it be ‘a hoof’?) about passing traffic, albeit it was light. To my left a strong-flowing stream of the Chuya river and proof that the Russian holiday time had begun in earnest: tents and campsites at the river, people, families in bathers. What a great spot, so I figure the river must be freezing and appeared to be too fast flowing for a safe dip.

At our O/night stay we were offered a secure parking spot in an automotive repair shop by Sergje. Here Neil found engineering know-how to apply another fix on his sidestand. I reckon now a Mammoth could sit on it, but I think for Neil there is still a little niggle of a worry.

This ride, albeit long, was almost a ‘reward’ for the previous days: great road surface, little traffic, sunshine, great scenery, and lovely gentle curves – good progress.
Novosibirsk was the next major destination and a few days rest for R&R were awaiting.

 

Farewell Mongolia

Ulaangom – Oeglij over 2 days 411 kms travelled – total 8876 kms

The last two days again have been challenging in the extreme. It seemed to me, plotting gingerly along the Piste, that Mongolia tried to prevent me leaving. I know, a strange thought, but I am lost for words to describe the riding conditions. I had the now usual obstacles, however still impossible for me to feel comfortable, presented on the  on road.  NO! … wait a minute … “Piste” … Sand, bulldust, gravel in all sizes, rocks, sharp ones indeed, mud, hard-packed river beds … you imagine the worst roads you’ve been on in Australia, double this!

 

IMG_4359

an attempt to show how sharp the stones are. A credit to Heidenau tyres!! – no flat

Moreover, Neil and I faced extremely strong winds, rain – albeit still somewhat lucky to skirt past on the fringe, clouds you came down on me so fast you could not not notice it!

IMG_4346

looking for the ‘right’ way

Almost any obstacle was thrown into the path. On top of all this we got lost ‘just only’ three times. My compass and a papermap came in handy (thanks Eric S!). The Piste presents with no pattern, no logic to it. Sometimes four or eight tracks are in front  of me and I need to pick one, hoping it is a ‘good’ one. Ideally you have a camera-drone ahead of you, displaying all options of Piste on a screen (here’s a market-niche for adventurer touring), if you are not being a local who presumably know each track like the back of their hands
The second best thing, since I haven’t a drone) is to steer towards a Ger on the distance, asking for help in finding the right track. Twice we did so and each time the locals are happy to assist. Two of them hop on their 125ccm Chinese, double rear-shock sprung motorcycles and ride ahead. I can tell you that they are faster riders than me.

The final day brought two more obstacles for my riding mate Neil: a flat front right at the start.IMG_4317  Fortunately we were still in the City of Ulaangom. One of the many local bystanders/curious onlookers offered to drive Neil and his front wheel to a repair place. It probably saved us two hours.
The next one was that Neil’s side-stand failed. Already it had been a ‘special’ sidestand made by the same motorcycle mechanic in Ulaanbaatar who fitted my new tyres. However “schwer mit den Schaetzen des Orients beladen” the bike’s weight claimed its toll and the special sidestand bent. A roadside repair, ~40kms before our destination – Oeglij, the most north-western town in Mongolia – was necessary. We clamped it together with a tyre-leaver and managed to continue.

IMG_4349

the side-stand road-side fix

Then we run out of water, despite having carried almost 5 litres each. Fortunately I had my Lifestraw bottle (Thank you Rudi F.!) with me and at the next river it got it’s debut. Worked well, as the next day my stomach was still fine J.

Late afternoon, after already a long and hard day of riding we both were stuck in the middle of nowhere.  We tracked back to a valley, which was wind-protected and had some Gers as well. The camping gear came out and by 21.00 we could have a meal. These freeze-dried meals are delicious, especially if you had nothing all day!

IMG_4332

camping in the middle of nowhere

The next day I arrived in Oeglij almost at the same time, after navigating to another lot of pistes. I finally found a hotel and crashed. The day after was declared a rest-day. Getting my head together, washing out the dust from every conceivable surface and crack, me included!

Tomorrow I am are off to the Russian border. This should be an ‘asphalted’ ride of about 100 kms. I rather slalom around potholes than going back to these treacherous roads Pistes! As it turned out, it wasn’t. Despite being marked as asphalt on two different maps, the final 40 kms were again piste. This indeed tested my resolve, I felt as if any expectation, regardless how little or low it was, still was being under-delivered by the circumstances.

Somebody, whose name I won’t mention, Les, … said that “riding sand is character-building.” Well after almost 3500kms on these roads my character should be as strong and big as the Rialto building in Melbourne’s CBD! I can tell you now – it ain’t! I also can assure you that – in my world – riding on sand is just shit! – and to be avoided for the future of my riding career.
I just had the wrong expectation of  Mongolian roads despite a lot of research and reading reports from previous travellers. I knew they were dirt roads, what I didn’t considered was the extra-bad state they are in and the adding complexity of orientation and conditions.

One last whinge: I carry two navigation systems: a Garmin Zumo and Maps.me (on my phone). Both showed a major road, the one we had planned to travel on, but the road did just not exist!! We drove around to find a clue (tyre marks in the dirt), but Nada! Nix! Naturally we got lost. Moreover the alternate road we choose ended abruptly at a swollen river. No bridge in sight, nor even a shallow for crossing. The water was fast-flowing and hip-height! I checked it myself (my boots are not waterproof).

A final lesson learnt was the issue of riding in Mongolia alone, or as a pair, or in a small supported group. Pick one of the latter two! This is definitely my advice for anybody planning a motorcycle ride through Mongolia. However the first and also the second option offer a huge amount of dealing with uncertainty. I rode careful, as I didn’t want to end up with a broken collar-bone and/or damaged-beyond-repair bike or both. I knew that there was no back-up other than my riding partner. I DO carry a Spot and have the emergency-deal, but even in case of a serious mishap it would have taken days for any help to arrive. This was front of mind whilst navigating the tracks and adds another – perhaps unhelpful – dimension to such a ride.
Ultimately the joy of riding was bit-by-bit disappearing for me, replaced by a constant focus on the surface ahead. To take-in any of the amazing sights I had to stop – needed it anyway – and take a photo. Despite all the care, I had three offs. Bulldust, a heap of dirt and a stony goat-track whizzed away my front wheel and I bite the dust. Luckily besides pride and a few bruises nothing more serious happened. I am glad this capital is over. My riding-mojo has a large dent.

Would I do this ride again – well, you surely can guess the answer: a nicely equipped 4-wheel drive shall be my choice. Even one of the old UAS Russian vans would be a good option.

As I am writing this, I realise this may sound ungrateful, perhaps negative or even adventurous. No, not really to me. It is just an honest reflection of how I am feeling about the last week’s riding here. It certainly has taken the Mickey out of me. In a few months time, looking back, I am certain these sentiments will be less raw and I shall be able to better appreciate my entire time in Mongolia.

 

Following some photos, some I took, others by another Mongolian traveller. They have in common that they are all sights I have experienced in the past 30 days.

IMG_4322

mongolia6-143

IMG_4360

meeting at the roadside

mongolia5-22

mongolia 10-150

mongolia5-10

mongolia1-15