Friday, July 15, 2011

Sorry For The Inconvenience But Our Country Is Closed. Please Try Again Later.

Travelling through Russia was certainly far easier than I had imagined. People were generally polite and helpful, the roads were of good quality all the way to the border, I had no trouble with the police (one did stop by me whilst I was hitching, but more out of curiosity and to have a chat than to try and extort money), and hitching was a breeze.

The gorgeous Altai landscape (even the people and the outdoor toilet can't detract from the beauty).

The Altai corner of Russia is famed for being one of the most picturesque in a country full of natural marvels, and for good reason. Green, forested valleys watered by wide, gushing mountain rivers touched only lightly by human hand (with a population of only 200,000 for a state the siye of Hungary there is plenty of room). It is possible to stop at will pretty much anywhere and find a serene, secluded camping spot amongst some trees and by a clean river to do a spot of fishing or just relax and soak up the fresh air. All that makes the region popular with Russian holidaymakers who treasure the Great Outdoors. Turbazas ("Turist Baza"), resorts and rest-stops abound and cater to the local tourists offering everything from spas to multi-day adventure excursions of rafting, horse-riding and even paragliding. There is so much on offer and a good infrastructure network, yet you will not see any non-Russians due, in no small measure, to the hassles of getting into the country. A shame really as this could easily be one of the adventure sports capitals of the world, but it seems to me that at least part of Russia (namely the part dealing with its relations with foreigners) is stuck in the old KGB past.

That didn't bother me too much as I was quite content with the hitchhiking and free-camping opportunities that made my peregrinations relatively cheap. I was particularly pleased with myself that I had managed to hitch the entire length of the Altai Republic from Gorno Altaisk to the Mongolian border … that is until my very last ride. I had made it to within less than 10km of the border town of Tashanta when I camped for the night. The next morning I quickly packed up my tent (quickly so as to flee the steppe sand-flies for the safety of the tarmac of the road) and managed to flag down a car to take me the last few kilometres. My ride happened to be a border guard.

"You do know that the border is closed?" he said in passing.
"Excuse me?"
"It's not open for another two days. The Mongolians are on holiday."

I knew that it was Naadam, the three-day Mongolian national holiday, where traditional games are staged throughout the country, but I had assumed that the borders, like other essential services such as electricity, police, hospitals, etc., would be open. Obviously not.Neither was I the only one who had failed to read the small print. A group of fishermen from Novokuznetsk, some 1000km away, rolled up in their van only to discover that their holiday was over before it had even begun. I was disappointed because despite being so close I would miss out on witnessing Naadam, but at least it doesn't seriously affect my plans - time is one thing  I have in abundance.

My surroundings after I was forced to stay in Russia for two extra days. I can think of many worse places to spend two days than by a mountain stream in the sun.

I backtracked some 50km to Kosh-Agach, the main regional town, as I had no intention of spending two days in Tashanta with its two shops, two cows and trio of kites hovering overhead scanning the village detritus for scraps of food. Although I knew what I didn't want to do I wasn't sure how to spend my next two days of enforced R&R. I sat down in the shade of the local mosque (most people in this corner of Russia, as well as just across the border in Mongolia, are ethnic Kazakhs and therefore, nominally, Muslim) and wrote drafts for my blog as I pondered my next move. Kosh Agach is a strange town. Dusty roads and wooden houses give it a distinctly Wild West feeling. Things are obviously going well though as there are plenty of new houses and more under construction. It must be due to a booming cross-border trade as there is no industry to speak of and although there is livestock farming, the sparse mountain steppe can only support a limited number of animals (whilst hitching I was picked up by a local farmer who explained how, due to the long and harsh winters where temperatures regularly hit -40 degrees, his cows can only be put out to pasture for five months of the year and must be given fodder for the other seven).

As I headed to the shops to procure lunch I spotted a kitted out Landcruiser and three touring bikes parked together. Obviously they were foreign overlanders almost certainly in the same situation as me. I sidled over to see whether they were amenable to more company. It turned out that they were a group of five Swedes headed for Magadan in the far eastern corner of Siberia. They had left Stockholm some 10 days previously and had covered 6000km since then, but were now as involuntarily immobile as I. Since we were in the same boat we decided to spend the next two days together camping on the bank of the Chuya river in a beautiful valley. Sometimes a bit of relaxation and destressing are necessary, especially as travelling can be a 24-hour job. It also gave me time to wash some of my clothes and I was inordinately proud to come up with a novel way of washing that is both environmentally friendly and requires next to no effort: all you have to do is find a fast-flowing stream and place your clothes in a suitably strong current, weighing them down with some stones, and just let the water dissolve out all the dirt and bad odours.

Anna and Richard relaxing by their Landcruiser before re--embarking on their journey to the edge of Russia.

The two days over, and my mind and body rested, I got my thumb out to hitch the road again. Four rides got me all the way to the border post where I managed to cross despite having overstayed my visa by a day (a crime which usually incurs a penalty fine and often deportation to your home country). I was very lucky to run into Lutz and Jana, a German and his Akita dog, travelling overland in their Pinzgauer, who agreed to give me a lift to Olgii, the main town on the other side of the border. I've been picked up by all manner of vehicles, from flash BMWs to clapped out Ladas, but Lutz's Pinzgauer has to take first place for coolness. And although I'm generally not a fan of 4WD cars (let alone 6WD) Mongolia is one country where they are truly needed.

The Pinzgauer in its element: the wide, wild Mongolian steppe.

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