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  • Polaris Overland

After the Floods, A Harsh Lesson in Desert Travel!

The Oasis Guest House and Café in Ulaanbaatar is a Mecca for Overlanders and great place to speak with like-minded travellers and get updates on routes and road conditions. There were big trucks, Unimogs, Land Rovers, Land Cruisers all number of different configurations.

We enjoyed a few beers with many of them whilst we were staying. Some interesting routes and similar stories of breakdowns, getting stuck and meeting the local peoples were discussed and few beers consumed.

Our priority in Ulaanbaatar was to first try and new oil for the gearbox get the Raised Air Intake leak sorted. Being Sunday ARB and Land Rover were closed so first thing Monday morning Dave was away to the Land Rover dealers. They could do the oil change and couple of other things but not before the afternoon so Dave headed to ARB. They did not seem to have any ideas how to repair the split hoses and although helpful to a point by telling me to go to Land Rover they could do no more.

Dave headed back to the Oasis and once again removed the Intake Hoses. The previous hose repair still seemed good. The Air Filter Box was removed as well and all seemed good. The Air Filter Box drain was removed and cleaned out but nothing obvious so the decision was made to get some big tubes of silicon and “gunk” everything up, the hose connections, the drain.

Later that afternoon Wilson was back in Land Rover dealers getting a gear box oil change. A health check of wheel bearings and suspension found the rear Universal Joint on the rear driveshaft was failing. This was the one Dave had changed in Morocco less than a year earlier.

Dave supplied a spare and it was fitted. He also took the opportunity to buy 2 more spare filters as a back up in case our Intake repairs were still not successful.

Throughout the day Angela was having trouble trying to keep our spot at the Oasis. In particular a German couple in a Unimog were being arrogant and rude trying to encroach into our space. In the end 3 vehicles offered to adjust position to let us park up and get our ladder fitted.

We enjoyed a meal and few beers in the relaxed bar with other pleasant Overlanders.

Next day we decided after getting some washing done to head out and do a bit of sightseeing. Shortly after leaving the heavens opened with torrential rain and thunderstorms. Both of us were drenched and the roads turned into rivers. Dave as usual had his boots on and Angela had sandals. Angela spent the day with very wet feet.

In between the downpours we got to visit Sukbaater Square, State Department Store and enjoyed the day despite the weather.

By the end of the day have walked about 12 miles our feet were ready for a rest and we headed back to the Oasis for a beer.

No visit to Ulaanbaatar can be complete without a visit to the Chinngis Khan Statue. The plan was to drive out (about 30 miles from UB) then head south towards the Gobi Desert. On the drive out to the statue hitting a bump in the road resulted in a horrendous “Death Wobble” of the steering.

We made it to the statue which at 40m high is very impressive but so too are the Mongol Horde soldiers on horseback who charge down the side.

After taking the elevator and climbing to the top of the horse’s head we finished off our visit.

The “Death Wobble” was a worry with us heading into the Gobi so we headed instead back to the Land Rover dealer in UB.

A visual inspection on a ramp didn’t really find anything conclusive so we booked in for a tracking check the next morning.

So resigned we headed back to the Oasis Guest House.

Next morning first thing Dave was back at the LR Dealer getting the tracking done. Tracking was adjusted and found also that the steering damper was poor. None available in UB and we didn’t have a spare.

A few calls and e-mails and we found ARB in Almaty has one. So we will need to take things easy and get one there. We also ordered new hoses for the Air Intake that will be delivered to ARB.

Andre and Kathy the Austrian couple we met wild camping in Russia were due at the Oasis so we decided to stay an extra night. They arrived in the afternoon and we all enjoyed catching up, hearing where everyone had been. A Dutch couple also joined in the chat. Inadvertently we had been following their updates on iOverlander known as sixwheelseast as they had a short wheel base Toyota and a motorbike.

Later that night we headed out for an Indian with Andre and Kathy. Hazara turned out to be very good and is thoroughly recommended.

When we came back out the heavens had opened once again and after some difficulty we got a taxi back to the Oasis. The area where the vehicles were parked was pretty flooded so a little bit of adjustment was needed before heading to bed.

Next morning, everything was a little drier and we were heading off to the Gobi. Due to the lost couple of days with the “Death Wobble” we decided to modify our route slightly deciding not to head so far east and instead head southeast to Dalanzadgad and to Yolyn Am Canyon and the Flaming Cliffs.

We wild camped on route and after filling up fuel and supplies in Dalanzadgad we headed to Yolyn Am Canyon. You can drive to the canyon but then have to walk the rest of the way.

On the way to the canyon we bumped into a young German couple that had been at the Oasis the same time as us.

A quick stop, chat and selfie and we were on our way again heading for Yolyn Am Canyon.

At the canyon car park we met up with the 3 Australian Bikers we had met at the Oasis.

We parked up and headed into the canyon. It’s a pleasant walk through green fields with towering cliffs and as you enter the gorge proper it starts to close in. I believe to a point it is 2m wide although we didn’t measure it.

This canyon in the Gobi Desert can hold onto ice till well into the summer and we were lucky enough to find the ice.

After visiting the canyon and after having a spot of lunch we headed for the Flaming Cliffs so called because of the orange glow they take on at sunset. This is also a huge source of dinosaur fossils. The route was cross-country but we weren’t disappointed when we arrived at the cliffs and decided to camp amongst them. We enjoyed a few beers and took in the stunning sunset.

A reasonably lazy start the next morning as we were heading the highest sand dunes in the Gobi Desert Khongoryn Els.

The route there was at best a track and worst almost none existent. It also incorporated some of the worst corrugations we had ever experienced, vigorously rattling Wilson and ourselves for miles. It was almost as though you could feel Wilson slowly dismantling himself. We made it to the dunes and enjoyed some lunch. Whilst the dunes are big they are nothing to what we experienced when we visited Soussvlei / Deadvlei on our Namibia trip in 2016.

Our next point was to be Gurvantes, about as far south and remote a town as we were going to visit. The route there would prove to be very challenging through deep sand of the sand dunes, dried riverbeds in gorges, flood plains with mud or hard baked corrugations and no real discernable route testing our navigation to the limit.

The rattling of the corrugations was also taking its toll. Wilson’s engine cut out and thanks to the nanocom we found we were getting multiple injector failures. We battled on a bit further but finally Dave had to try and sort out the problem. We stopped and spent a bit of time checking the engine back, tightening anything we could get to and securing connectors. Somehow this seemed to do the trick and we were on our way again.

After hours of difficult terrain and with the problems with Wilson we were both realising this was not a route we should be doing alone but by now were committed with no choice but to persevere on.

Hours later and still not at Gurvantes we decided to camp up and give ourselves a rest and regroup for the next day thinking things can only improve. Finding a windless spot in amongst the rock outcrops and gorges was impossible. No matter how we where we parked up the wind seemed to be coming from all directions to the point all four sides of Wilson seemed to be in the wind with no lee side.

We picked as best we could, had a cold beer and something to eat then headed to bed. We were both exhausted.

Dave didn’t sleep well that night. The issues with Wilson and the journey ahead were worrying him. So we were up and organised early and on our way again to Gurvantes. The road did not improve and we are being very generous when we say road. Although it showed as a good white road on the map it was anything but and just more of the same as yesterday. We persevered to Gurvantes and the final kilometre was actually tarmac.

We got supplies, filled up our diesel and water and relaxed a little before starting the route north to cross the Gobi again. The road out of Gurvantes heading north was tarmac! But only for about 2 miles and then we were back to the now standard roads of gravel, sand, corrugations, gorges and it was hot.

We started looking for a camp spot but the open plains offered no escape from the constant wind and driving through the beautiful multi coloured gorges with high sides also gave us issues. We finally found a spot tucked away behind a hill and tried to chill out for the night.

It was still windy in the morning so we just got up packed away and made coffee on the go in our flasks.

Another day of corrugations and difficult route finding was to follow. It was becoming clear that the route we were on had not been travelled for some time and this only increased our concerns. We hadn’t seen any other people or cars since Gurvantes so the isolation added to our worries. Again we talked about how this was a route that should not be done alone. A breakdown or anything else could mean a very long wait or assistance if any was going to come.

The roads continued in a same vane to previous days before changing into green meadow as we reached the northern edge of the Gobi. Then just before Bayankhongor we met the Southern Route and our dreams were answered with Tarmac. Joining the tarmac route heading towards Altay we both breathed a big sigh of relief. We had made it across the Gobi.

Neither of us really had a clue how long the tarmac would last but we were just happy not to be bouncing and shuddering ourselves to pieces.

Soon however the route changed to the gravel and then our first river crossings. In a very small area between 2 Ger Camps are 4 river crossings. When we crossed we were lucky as only 2 of them were flowing with 1 other a mud bath and the other dried up.

The first river crossing we sat and watched the locals to see how they were crossing. 4x4’s and big trucks had no real issues however smaller cars such as the often seen Toyota Prius were towed across the river by tractors, with their air filters all plugged with newspaper and engines not running.

We were concerned, as our latest repairs to the Raised Air Intake had not been tested. So firstly Angela got out to walk the river so Dave could get a good look at depth and a course to follow. With bated breath Dave set off, driving slow but steady trying not to rev the engine too much and increase suction on the airflow and once over the other side we stopped and checked the filter box for water. It was dry!

The next river crossing was more straightforward. We watched a local in a normal car look at options and turn back so once again Angela was out and walking the river before Dave followed up in Wilson.

The mud bath and dried riverbeds were passed without any further incident and we continued towards Altay. Early evening we found a camp spot at an abandoned goat farmer’s coral about 1.5km from the southern route and nestled in a rock outcrop giving great views to the south.

We chilled out with a bbq and a few cold drinks and were the most relaxed we had been in days.

Next morning we continued on the Southern Route to Altay. After about 2 hours of driving the corrugated gravel gave way to Tarmac and this tarmac continued past Altay until just after Khovd. We pushed on to Khovd before the road turned awful again and we began to climb. A new road is being built between Khovd and Olgiy and this caused us real problems finding the route as the new road acts as a barrier and finding a spot to camp. The wind was relentless and as we climbed it was getting colder and colder. At 2600m we were higher than the snow line on surrounding mountains. Then to top everything else that seemed to be going against we got hail and snow. Totally unexpected for Mongolia but there it was making our route more complicated.

Pushing on trying to lose height and chasing to find a camp before dark we found the new road construction and the steep mountainsides giving us no real options to escape the cold, the wind and a flat place to pitch up.

By dusk we were getting a little desperate to find somewhere and having dropped to 1800m we came across the village of Tolbo. With no real options we found a flat spot just out of town and pitched up. It was 10pm and now dark. It was a much colder night than we had been used to so we just climbed up into the tent with sleep calling. It had been a 14-hour day of driving and we had covered a massive 500+ miles.

Next morning we packed up and headed down into Olgiy only 50 miles away. The first few miles were once again terrible with baked mud ruts and corrugations. Thankfully this gave way to tarmac and we rolled into Olgiy around 8am with the locals heading out of town with their cows and we headed in, filled up with fuel and then into the Travellers Ger Camp.

We sorted ourselves out, got showered and relaxed properly for the first time in days. The morning was spent chatting with other Overlanders and in the afternoon we headed into Olgiy for lunch and a walk round. In the evening a load of us all went to the pub for a few beers.

Day 89 and this was going to be a day giving Wilson some well earned TLC and check over. Angela started with the cleaning, a thankless task trying to remove 10 days or so of Gobi sand out of every corner in Wilson.

Dave jacked up each wheel to check wheel bearings and universal joints. The news wasn’t great. One of the rear drive shaft UJ’s the grease nipple was sheared off and the Front Drive Shaft UJ had to play in it. Also there was play in the drivers side front wheel bearing. None of it critical but all of it would need monitoring and replacing. We had spares for the front drive shaft uj and the wheel bearings. We did not have a spare for the rear drive shaft uj as it had already previously been used.

The cleaning and TLC continued throughout the day. The front seats were removed completely and Wilson was unloaded completely to allow access for cleaner. The tyre pressures were set again now we were off the worst of the off road.

Then horror Dave’s heart sank as he noticed a pool of coolant in the engine bay. Initially it looked like a cylinder head gasket leak which would be a catastrophe especially as it had only been changed a year previously in Greece on our Big Trip 2017. There was no way to be sure and nothing we could do about it right now so Dave cleaned it up and we would monitor it when we set off again but it would play on Dave’s mind for the next few days (Overlander’s Paranoia).

The next few days were spent relaxing at the Travellers Ger Camp, chatting with the other Overlanders, discussing routes and enjoying a few beers either at the camp or in the bar in town. It was also a chance to arrange spare parts to be sent out to Almaty. We were sending them to ARB in Almaty as they were waiting for us with the new steering damper we needed to get rid of our death wobble.

Sunday we were ready to move on and say goodbye to Mongolia and head back in to Russia but Sunday the border is closed so again chill out and prepare to get going.

Monday morning arrived and it was time to say goodbye to everyone at the camp. It was bittersweet to be leaving Mongolia. We had thoroughly enjoyed our time there and the challenges it had brought but it was also a car wrecker taking its toll on vehicle and occupants.

We were at the border by 8.30am so 30 minutes before the border opened but it would still be 10 hours before we finally entered into Russia where we would relax and enjoy a few days of low mileage, fishing and taking in the stunning scenery.

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