Despite the Tsagaannuur border crossing from Russia to Mongolia having been open for quite a few years now, there is still some confusion online about what paperwork is required to cross it and, crucially, if crossing by bicycle is actually allowed. Only a few days before we planned to cross the border we met cyclists who had heard you could cycle across with no problems both ways, or at least it was OK from the Mongolian side…maybe.
Based on other cyclists’ experiences and to avoid getting stuck at the border we decided to employ a taxi driver to take us all the way from Kosh Agach, Russia to Olgii, Mongolia, a total distance of around 170km. Drivers said the trip would take four or five hours to complete.
Until now all border crossings we have made have been either so relaxed we must ask for a passport stamp (most of Western Europe) or so rigorous we fear actually being allowed into the country (Russia). As we settled into our ger in Olgii, we reflected that surely this will be our most exciting border crossing ever, featuring both heated arguments and races against the clock.
Below is a timeline of the day of our border crossing:
05:30 – Justin wakes up in tent 22 km south of Kosh Agach. Alarm is going off. Its raining. Emma doesn’t stir.
07:30 – Emma wakes up, realises has missed the alarm. Its still raining. Justin is sound asleep.
08:30 – Rain has abated and tent is packed up. We leave the campsite, fuelled only by a few last biscuits and bananas.
09:30 – A storm chases us onto the plateau towards Kosh Agach. Justin queries what time we’re aiming to get to the town by. Emma admits she doesn’t think we’ll get a taxi by the time we get to Kosh Agach. Justin says we should have stayed in bed where it was dry.
10:00 – We reach Kosh Agach and head for the central market where taxi drivers hang out.
10:05 – Have found a taxi driver willing to take us across. Both bicycles are on top of the van before we have time to help. Justin jumps up to tie them down after the driver comes close to mangling the derailleurs. The driver jumps down leaving Justin to it.
10:10 – Emma goes to find breakfast foods in nearest cafe. Waits in line for 20 minutes for two pastries and four cheese filled pancakes.
10:30 – With a gnashing of gears and puff of smoke we are off and headed for the border!
11:30 – Our driver picks up three more Kazakhstan passengers and we get dropped off to wait in line at immigration control. Our driver and van disappear. Justin worries. Emma decides there’s not much point worrying.
12:50 – Checked out of Russia. Rejoin van and queue for customs. Told that Customs is breaking for lunch. We chat with just a few of the 50 or so travellers waiting to cross the border, an interesting mix of motorcyclists and off roaders, all of them are equally amazed we are travelling by bicycle.
14:00 – The customs officers are spotted walking back down the road from lunch. Everybody jumps in or on transport and begins to gun engines.
14:30 – Customs officers let a couple of cars through leaving all the remaining traffic to inch forward a few feet and turn engines off.
15:30 – Customs officer approaches gate. Waiting people jump in cars, engines gunned. Gates opened and two cars let through. Remaining cars inch forward and engines turned off. Locals relax by side of road, foreigners fume at incompetence and queuing, we laugh at craziness of it all.
16:30 – A repeat performance of 15:30 but this time a few cars try to change the structure of a single queue to a three queue system by pulling up either side of us. Our driver grips wheel, narrows eyes and guns engine like a formula one driver on the starting grid. We make it to within one car of the gate although the traffic queue has morphed into a traffic scrum.
17:00 – Tempers begin to flare as people realise with the border shutting at 18:00 they only have one more chance today to make it across the border. We don’t really know why but one guy takes offence at our vehicle and indicates he plans to stand in front of it when the gate opens to stop us crossing while letting the cars either side drive through.
17:15 – The gate is opened and one car to the left of us drives through but true to his plan our van is blocked by the angry guy. Some confusion ensues when the car to our right blocks the gate resulting in much shouting and the border guard locking the gate and storming off. Our driver looks at us and shrugs signalling maybe we sleep here for the night.
17:30 – With the border guard back in his office but the gate still firmly locked a couple of more senior border guys are trying to maintain order amongst the waiting people. We have no idea what happens but suddenly the gates open and we are waved through with a couple of other cars. Much to our amusement we notice the guy who blocked our way standing open mouthed beside the gate.
17:35 – Our driver and fellow passengers hustle us and our masses of baggage from the van, through the security scanners, across to passport control and back into the van in a blur of Russian bureaucracy.
17:45 – Our driver is doing a fairly good impression of Stirling Moss as we careen along the no mans land between the Russian and Mongolian borders. Our fellow passengers point out the local wildlife between cigarettes and thumbs up signals to us. We look at each other with huge smiles feeling like we are in a car chase movie.
17:55 – As the dust clears we reach the first part of the Mongolian border where a slow moving guard checks our passports. Doesn’t he know the border shuts in 5 MINUTES!
18:00 – We arrive at the final Mongolian border gate where we need to complete immigration. If we pass the gate then we make it to Mongolia today. The driver runs inside and returns with the all important queue number meaning we can cross the border. He turns the key to start the van…Nothing…He tries again…Nothing. He looks at us and shrugs apologetically then jumps out and grabs what looks like the starting crank for a 747 to crank the van back to life. As the Mongolian border guard swings the gate closed behind us, the van lurch’s forward into the Immigration area.
18:30 – We are sitting in a tiny cafe eating our first buuz (Mongolian dumplings) and drinking calming cay with our driver and fellow passengers. To them its a fairly standard border crossing, but we feel like we just escaped from Alcatraz and won the Gumball Rally all in one.
As our van bounces along the terrible Mongolian roads towards Olgii, one of our fellow Kazakh passenger reads English words from our phrasebook. “Horse” he proudly says pointing out the window at a herd of wild horses running across an open plain dotted with pure white ger’s, surrounded by high jagged mountains and lit softly by the setting sun. “Horse” we repeat back to him with ear to ear smiles.