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by Owen Lewis on 06 Sep 2014 at 05:56
After spending so long traversing Kazakhstan we'd almost forgotten about border crossings, but as we pulled up in a long queue of cars at the remote Russian border it soon came flooding back. It took a few hours to get through the Kazakh side, mostly due to the volume of people being processed by the single passport control officer; we used our time in the queue wisely, reading Harry Potter and complaining about the heat. Once through, the Russian side didn't take long and the guards were all very friendly. When they discovered we were English they asked us if we knew James Bond ("no but I used to work with a guy who looked like Blowfelt") and then stamped us through with a strongly accented "welcome to Russia". It was quite late in the evening when we got through and we grabbed a few supplies from a local supermarket before finding a nice field to camp in. Unfortunately our stove malfunctioned the next morning so we had to forgo breakfast.
We'd given ourselves three days to get to the Mongolian border and had about 1000km of smooth asphalt ahead of us. For much of the first full day the landscape was flat and much greener than Kazakhstan. Fields of sunflowers flanked us all morning and at times it felt like we could be driving through Western Europe again, the only difference being the kamikaze driving style of the locals in their battered old Ladas.
By the afternoon we'd managed to get lost twice but somehow found our way again, using inaccurate maps and blind luck. It was uncomfortably hot and everytime we stopped flies seemed to appear from nowhere and fill the van with their incessant buzzing. I was suffering from full blown man-flu that had developed over the past couple of days and made everything several times more unpleasant that it was. If we were all feeling a little frustrated and uncomfortable we soon got over it as we left the city of Barnaul and started heading south again.
The road became more interesting as the surrounding landscape began to rise around us and the endless farmland was replaced by forested hills. Pushing further south through the evening we watched the hills grow from gentle slopes into rocky cliffs, carved out by the wide broiling river that we were following. Spotting many tents on the forested river bank beside us we decided it was a decent place to stop and spent the last two hours of daylight setting up camp, cooking over a fire and watching the river speed by.
The following morning we had a leisurely start, frying eggs for breakfast on the rekindled campfire and watching our neighbour's dogs play around us. There was no way we could safely wash there in the river, so we moved on upstream to a still pool that had been cutoff from the main channel. Knowing it would be cold we tentatively stepped in, immediately cramping up from the ice cold water. It took a few attempts but after we'd manned-up and submerged we were all squeaky clean and had even washed a few clothes. I've not experienced colder water in my life but I felt great satisfaction in the refreshing numbness in my body for the next hour or so (it was also nice that the smell in the van had significantly improved).
The rest of the day only seemed to get better as we approached the Altai mountain range spanning from Russia down into Mongolia. The road became more sinuous as it climbed along the river valley and mountains rose up on either side of us. We caught a bit of rain in the morning and enjoyed the cooler temperatures it brought with it.
This road down to the Mongolian border was one of the highlights of the trip for me; not only was the mountainous scenery spectacular, but the road itself was a lot of fun to drive. Following the river valley up to the Mongolian heights, it rose and fell with the hills, meandering all the while with every type of corner imaginable. Sitting behind the wheel with a perpetual grin, it was easy to forget the border would be closing soon and everything except the blacktop in front of you became unimportant. Who needs a supercar when you can have as much fun in a 23 year old van?
By early evening the valley had flattened out and we were once again driving through plains. The familiar steppe vegetation had returned and the van was filled with an air of excitement. A few more kilometers and we'd be at our final border crossing, beyond that, Mongolia. Russia had been a nice break from the developing countries we'd spent the last month in; certainly the absence of washboard dirt tracks and suspension-destroying potholes was a huge relief, but the pristine wilderness of Mongolia was calling to us and we couldn't wait to get stuck in.
We pulled up at the border knowing it would be closed for the night but we were pleased to find a collection of Mongol Rally teams in the same boat. The Mongol Rally is similar to the Charity Rally but is much more popular and none of the vehicles are bigger than 1000cc. We all camped in a field next to the boarder crossing and swapped stories from the road. It was great to be surrounded by other people again and we had a good laugh around the campfire, chatting into the early hours. It was bitterly cold that night and my man-flu had reached its peak but sleep came easily enough thanks to the vodka that had flowed so freely in the previous hours