Editor’s note: Read Part 1 of John’s epic ride from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to his home in California, USA here. Part 2 can be read here.

There aren’t any pictures from the Mongolia/Russia border because customs officials generally don’t approve of people snapping photos. I spent 16 hours getting from Darkhan Mongolia to Ulan-Ude Russia. Ten of those hours were exiting Mongolia and entering Russia. It went by ten minutes at a time as you get passed off from one officer to the next – filled with hope only to crash into another confused process step.

Procedurally there is a lot going on when you cross international borders with your bike.  Import into Mongolia has a one year limit after which import tax (a significant percentage of the machines value) is collected.  In my case the freight forwarder, MONEX, was on record as importing the machine and in fact, the import tax had been paid by MONEX to the Mongolian  Customs Control & Clearance Department.  Still, I was the person dealing with paper on this cold Friday morning in northern Mongolia.  English speakers were scarce so I was staring down the barrel of a very long day and the drive to Ulan-Ude was an additional 240km.  My goal was to ride in daylight – especially on this my first ride in Russia.  The issue that took hours to resolve on the Mongolian side was how to handle the return of the import tax money.  Making matters worse my personal contact at MONEX was vacationing in the USA (16 hours behind in time)!  After several phone calls and e-mails between MONEX and the Mongolian customs officials I was told through hand signals and pointing at watches that my case should be resolved by 5pm!  I still had to go through Russian customs followed by a 3+ hour drive in Siberia to Ulan-Ude.  The good news, the sun would not set until 9pm – the advantage of being at 52 degrees north latitude in late May!

I made a critical mistake leaving California.  I left behind the original title for the motorcycle.  This document is equal in importance to your passport when traveling with a machine from another country. I had a printed copy of the title and iPhone images but customs officials want the real thing.  No choice but to soldier on.

Shortly before 5pm I was cleared to exit Mongolia.  I rode the several hundred meters through no man’s land of intentionally twisted narrow roadway with shoulders of concertina wire and cement barriers. With dark humor, I imagined that if the Russians turned me back, having just exported the bike from Mongolia – this wasteland would be my home for the foreseeable future. I was shaken from this grim reflection by a growling German Shepard held by an AK47 carrying Russian border guard.  He waved me right – I complied.

The Border – Nomansland


Ushered into a three square meter office I was presented with import forms – all in Russian.  Fortunately, I was given an example to follow, for a Cadillac Escalade.  All was going well until I was asked to surrender the “Vehicle Passport”.  My assigned officer was a striking individual with much more Mongolian in her heritage than “White Russian”.  She spoke English slowly and precisely to me for which I was grateful.  When I provided only a photocopy of the certificate of title her face turned to stone, “Where is the original?”, “In California” I replied.  This began the first of two long pauses I endured with this officer.  After what had to be a 30 seconds of locked eyes she simply said, “Are you lying to me”, “No” I replied.  Her stare never wavered, nor did mine.  The next thing she did made sense.  She gathered all my documents, got up and walked outside to the main office building.

She was gone roughly 10 minutes, during which time a male customs officer, white Russian for sure,  came in with a small Beagle like dog and sat with me. Through hand signals, I asked if he was here to detect drugs.  His answer, verbally, was one I was going to have to get used to in the coming weeks, “NYET”, then he tapped his rifle butt twice on the wood floor and palmed the banana clip.   “Munitions”, I said. Even in English that word is somewhat universal, “Da” was his answer.  I didn’t detect any indication from the dog nor the guard that I’d failed the test.

Soon my original interrogator returned.  Without being too obvious I was looking for some tell on my fate.  She sat, and actually smiled at me and said, “You must fill out this declaration form and keep it with you while in Russia. If you are stopped, present this form.” I could not contain my relief.  I suspect she had made a judgment call after basically staring into my soul.  She went to consult superiors but before doing so she formed her opinion.  I was grateful.

I had one last hurdle, vehicle search.  A group of 3 Russian Customs Officers performed this step. Two male officers holding AK47s and a female armed with an open holstered handgun.  The woman instructed me to open the large duffel and both panniers. She then asked a question I misinterpreted.  I thought she said the word, “Drugs”, to which I replied, “No Drugs”.  Immediately she came back more forcefully and clearly saying, “NYET, Drone”.  This was the first but definitely not the last time I’d be asked this question during my travels – get used to it.  Corrected, I answered, “Nyet”.  Then came drug questioning using very specific names all ending in “al”.  Later I was told by locals that Russians don’t want foreigners coming into Russia to commit suicide on Barbiturates – too much paperwork.   True or not?  I have no idea.  I just provided the requisite “Nyet”.  It was after 6pm.  Her eye settled on my handlebar mounted GoPro which, due to the extra battery pack I had fitted at home, was still powered.  She gestured to hand it over.  I protested, asked if I could just surrender the SIM card. NYET.  I was getting used to the word.  I had a long drive ahead and I had a second GoPro.  I didn’t want this fight.  I handed the thing over – it had served our family well capturing Vietnam, Thailand, several Pacific Coast sailing adventures, and 2018 Mongolia.  Now I suspect it sits buried in some Russian confiscated materials room in Siberia.

I rolled through the last couple of checkpoints and presented the requisite forms without incident.  I had over 2 hours of daylight.  Time to float the valves on the Steel Mule.

The road was smooth concrete with gravel shoulders and clear prominent markings (albeit in Russian).  This was a marked contrast with Mongolia where “off road” is generally “all roads”.  I had no problem holding 110km/h.  The few buildings along the road were solid, modern looking structures.  This in sharp contrast to Mongolia where all forms or ramshackle dwellings and businesses line the thoroughfares.

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