Hovd to Altay to Bayankhongor
22 August, 2012; 06:24
There are many words I could use to descibe the past two days of Mongolian driving: frustrating, scary, exciting, confusing; however, I think trying is the best descriptor. We’ve helped fix other teams’ problems, had some of our own, lost convoys, found new ones, and been more lost than I care to think about. Still, we are on track to make Ulan Bator at the end of driving tomorrow, in time for the last finish line party, leaving me a little more than a week to stay in the city.
Two days ago, we left with our British pals from outside Hovd heading toward Altay. Maybe an hour in, we realized they weren’t behind us, and we retured down our path to see what had happened. As it turned out, a rock had bounced up and clipped off a part of their gas filter. They’d pulled over when they noticed the loss of power, and by the time we got there, a local trucker had stopped to help. He was trying to convince them to roll the car over on its side in order to work on it; the Brits were adamant that it would destroy the car. In the end, when they refused enough times, the trucker threw up his hands and left. We lifted the side of the car up so that we could put a large 6×6 under the back wheel, chocked the front wheels, and provided moral support as they replaced the filter.
Back on the road, we realized that it would be a rough day. The roads, especially in the central part of the country, are so washboarded that it almost begs a different, more apropriate description; the Aussies we’re with at present call it corogated. To realy get the picture, try to imagine if an average American speed bump was placed as one in a series, each about as far from the ones on either side as it is wide. It sounds like an exaggeration, but I promise you it’s not. The other problem with them, is that the only way to make them bearable is to go so fast that they level out; this however, will shake loose teeth and eyes and a great number of important things on the car. I thought they were a problem at home, but I will never complain about them again.
Eventually, we stopped for gas in a little town called Darvi, and we noticed that there was a big event going on across the street. Not wanting to miss the excitement, we moseyed on over to discover a horse race in progress and wrestling to come later. We watched the horses finish on what appeared to be quite a long race, as they were spread over a couple of miles. Noticing the size of the jockeys, I realized, it was a children’s race. After the horses came in, we walked over to the wrestling arena and bought some food. At one spot, the gambling tables had been set up, and dice and spinner games were going on as the locals took their chances. Again, even the children were involved; the last table was a child shaking a box of something as other children threw down their bets and collected their winnings. It was a very bizzare scene.
We got some goat and noodles and decided, since we couldn’t get across that we wanted to know when wrestling would start, we should probably head out. We took the road out of town, which seemed considerably smaller than the road into town. A short distance later we were presented with a fork and chose the right side. After winding down a little path for about two miles, we ended up driving down a river bed before finally deciding to go back to town and ask directions. On our way out, we were met by the convoy of the older guys, the Canadians, and the Aussies. The old Brits were convinced that they were on the right path because of their SatNav, even in the face of our first-hand evidence to the contrary. We finally convinced them, and a passing local told us to take the left instead of the right at the fork, though I still believe there might have been a more direct route out of the town.
Now, with our convoy five cars strong, we plowed down the paths and trails, kicking up spectacular clouds of dust in our wake, hopping from path to path in search of the smoothest road. At this point, the washboards had smoothed, and we were plaing a game of “dodge the potholes” as much as anything else. We eventually stopped for a pee break, and I’m not sure why, but the Aussies and the Canadians took off from the group at a considerable pace. The two teams of Brits, one car having been rolled and the other with only a theoritical amount of clearance, couldn’t keep up, and we decided to join the two front runners since the Brits had each other in case of an emergency.
We made good time, and, when we eventually met the big road, we were at plenty of speed to smooth out the washboards. Chase and Michael don’t believe this to have bee the main road, but I’m almost certain it was. Highways aren’t very common over here, and, when we finally found it again later it was the same road. That said, at some point, following the wisdom of the Aussies, we lost the main road. We drove for probably two hours before they pulled over, showed us their SatNav, and said we were some miles from our intended course. This fact we had long suspected, as the path we were on was a little one lane affair with no side tracks that weaved through washouts and creeks. We knew the rough direction we should be travelling, and in Mongolia, that’s mostly all you need. We pressed on, confident that we were getting ever closer to Altay.
We came back to the main road and stopped again to discuss our options. Since the other teams may or may not have gotten off the big road, we decided to press on. Our logic being that it was getting close to dark, and if they were on the main road the whole time, they were probably already in town; if they’d gotten off, they’d probably be forced to camp for the night before reaching Altay. We drove in, the last part of the drive at night (despite the warnings, it wasn’t awful, but we were on a decent road), got gas, and there, we met the all women team from Romania called the Fire Faries. The Road Warrior was not with them, as he was at the mechanic getting his bike fixed.
The girl suggested checking the price on the hotel across the street (Altay is pretty high up and it was already quite cold), but the accomodations were not quite up to our high standards of excellence (showers in a different building, no mattresses, exposed wiring), so we all decided to camp a little way outside town. First, we needed to pop into the market down the street for supplies. As we glanced at the products on the shelves, a heard the distinct slow dipthong of a man from Mississippi. Sure enough, when I found him in the doorway, Chase had already started a conversation. As it turned out, he and his friend were in the Altai Mountains with a guide hunting Ibac, a sort of long-horned mountain goat. They’d both been successful and were then heading back to Beijing before returning to the States.
We got our groceries and followed the Faries to the shop where Bogdan, the Road Warrior, was waiting. We headed about 2km out of town and made camp. They warned us of an early morning, but waking at six, I didn’t see another soul until a quarter to seven. Our little party did eventually get up, and we set off. We leapfrogged a bit until we got off the pavement and back onto the washboards. There, we met the older Brits and the Aussies from the day before, and they assured us that everyone else had made it into town with the exception of the Canadians, whose eyes didn’t allow them to drive at night. When we started back up, the girls wouldn’t go fast enough to negate the shaking, so I took off from them, planning to wait on them to catch up. We made a decent distance and came to a large bridge where we decided to await their arrival.
After twenty minutes of waiting, we finally saw them, but, to our dismay, they took off toward the right following a couple of other teams down a side path. Assuming that the two roads would meet, and since ours was clearly the larger road, we hopped back into the car and sped off. Well, we sped off for about two hundred meters until we bogged down in what appeared to be firm ground but was actually just soft sand. Fortunately, a local bogged down just after us coming from the other direction. He said it was bad for a long way, so we pushed both vehicles clear in the direction from which we’d just come, and took a different path down the side of the road (the main road was under construction at this part).
We finally got back on the main road, but before too long, it petered out into another trail. Still confident I’d picked the right road, and with the others absorbed in their music and book, I pressed on. After about an hour and a half, I had lost my confidence and began to question our winding little route. It felt very much like we’d been heading North for some time, but in reality we’d been going Southeast, which was the appropriate direction. We stopped at another fork in the road and decided to eat lunch while we debated which fork to take. Fortunately, a team of Aussies came up behind us, different from any of the teams we’d met so far, and they stopped to discuss. The convoy they’d been with had left them behind, but their third teammate as in the car with another team, and the Aussies, in turn, were carrying a large amount of the group’s food. They, like us, had been growing suspicious of our route, but we were both reassured by the pressence of at least one other team. We told them that another two teams had passed us at the bridge going this way, and we convinced ourselves that we were still going true (even though it meant that most of the ralliers weren’t).
We drove on and had lunch in a little village along the way, situated exactly where it should have been according to the map. More confident, though still not entirely sure, we headed on toward Altay, but we didn’t get far before we heard the tell-tale pshhh of a flat tire. We’d clipped a rock and blown out the sidewall of our back right tire. It was an easy fix, but it left us without a useable spare until we made Altay. Further on we saw more evidence of the severity of the road, as it had taken its toll on two local, and much more appropriate for the task, Land Cruisers. The first, which we stopped to try and help, had broken his axle cleanly next to the front left wheel. He gave us some dried horse milk (not the tastiest thing you’ll ever eat) for stopping, but realized there was nothing we could do for him. A bit later, we saw a devestating accident which left the car overturned and crushed; it appeared to have hit a dip and ramp too hard and gone end over end. The police were already there, so we carried on, a bit more cautiously for the sobering sights we’d just seen.
Luck was with us, and, just before dark last night, we made it into town. Our travelling companions called their teammate and found out he was at least an hour outside of town on a different route; evidently, our road had been the right one all along, and the bulk of the Mongol Rally took another, more circuitous route to the South. We had some dinner at a hotel, decided the rates were too high, and moved out to camp again, planning to wait for the Aussies’ teammate and see a mechanic and have a fresh spare put on our rim for the drive today.