Ulan Bator and Other Stories

by achuggabug

Let me first apologize for the time it’s taken me to get around to posting this. It’s well overdue, but there are an amazing amount of things to take care of (and to distract you) once you get to the finish line in Ulan Bator. That said, we are safely in the city, and the Arkansas Chuggabugs have successfully completed the 2012 Mongol Rally.

We set out that morning from Bayankhongor; more precisely, we left what turned out to be the trash dump that we camped on and headed into the city to find the Aussies’ lost teammate and to fit our spare rim with a usable tire. Before we managed to finish packing up camp, Tim, the lost teammate appeared along with a team of Canadians we hadn’t yet met and a lone American girl named Charlie whose team abandoned her and was forced to complete the Rally by herself. As we had our coffee and shared stories of the day before, we noticed the Fire Fairies and Bogdan off in the distance approaching the city.

We drove in, stopping at the gas station (or servo as the Australians taught us to say) to meet up with the Fairies and Bogdan. To our surprise, the older Brits were there as well, and we once again had hopes for a large convoy. Charlie needed to have a flat patched, the Brits needed some work done on their suspension, Bogdan just generally needed repairs, and we needed our tire fitted, so we headed down the street to the garages and prepared our vehicles. While we waited, we shopped a bit at the bazar style market across the street.

I suppose this is as good a time as any to describe the Mongolian style of supermarket or shopping center. Imagine something equivalent to a flea market with individual stalls selling goods of varying similarity to the stalls around them. In some places there is fresh produce next to textiles next to boots, and in other sections you find an entire wall lined with women’s clothing shops, though the styles and prices are nearly identical. It can make finding what you’re looking for a real nightmare, but, like an American flea market, it is a great system for stumbling upon unexpected treasures.

In Bayanhongor I didn’t find any such treasures, but I did enjoy just walking around and looking at the goods. After about two hours, all the cars were fixed, and we headed out of town with our convoy six cars and one motorcycle strong. I didn’t catch/have forgotten too many names and it’s rather embarrassing, but I’ll try my best to list the members of our new group: Charlie, the lone American; our Aussies from the night before, Tim, Scott, and Lucky; the three older Brits whose names I cannot recall; the Canadian team of three, but I can only remember Mark by name; the Fire Fairies, Christiana, Andrea, and Troni; Bogdan, the Road Warrior; and our German hitch-hiker riding with Charlie. We actually left town with three other cars, but they soon fell behind, and I was never properly introduced to them.

As we made our way down the road, it alternated between sections of fresh pavement and the more common potholed dirt tracks. Honestly, the dirt tracks were the most fun that day, as Charlie has a problem with wanting to go too fast, and our car could safely go faster than we should have in it. As a result, the two of us would fly ahead of the pack swapping lead for 30 minutes or an hour at a time and then wait for the rest to catch up. Occasionally the Aussies or Canadians would keep up, but mostly it was just the two of us driving our cars like we though they were four-wheelers. In retrospect, it was a silly thing to do, as we ran a very real risk of injuring our car so close to the finish line, but the Wiz held his ground firm and we didn’t encounter any problems.

The drive to the next town was a short one (I can’t for the life of me remember the name, and the wi-fi is down right now so I can’t look it up), and we noticed on the map a hot spring about 30km north of town. We left around six to try and find it, expecting to camp somewhere out in the country. We made it about 20km to a small settlement where a pipe came out of the ground with water at about 35C; tired of driving for the evening, we convinced ourselves that this was the hot spring we were looking for and made camp in a nearby field. It was a great time with so many at our campsite, and everyone cooked and had a hot dinner. Before we went to sleep, we burned the large bundle of firewood we’d been collecting, and I remembered the comfortable feeling of friends gathered around a fire.

The next day we all woke, and before we left, Charlie and Andrea took a huge convoy picture with everyone and the cars lined up. I hope I’ll be able to get a copy, but if not, I’m sure they’ll have them up on Facebook. That day’s driving, from my perspective, can only be described as long and slow; Chase and Michael played a bit with the Australians, throwing things back and forth as we passed each other, but I mostly slept in the back seat, only concerned with reaching our goal.

Around five that afternoon, we pulled into the outskirts of the city. By that point we’d lost the Brits, Fire Fairies, and Bogdan. We considered waiting for them, but decided that we were all going to be too late to officially finish that night, so we went ahead, knowing we were all heading to the same location and would soon see everyone again. It took us over an hour to get through the traffic in Ulan Bator; it was all the chaos of Tbilisi only slower. We spent as much time stopped as we did moving, and there was never a point where there were as few cars abreast as there were painted lanes on the road. I’m glad that Chase wanted to drive it, because I suspected it would be a nightmare and was not wrong. Finally, after much honking, swearing, praying, and screaming, we made it to the finish line.

I really can’t put into words how satisfying it was to see those signs; I was too caught up to speak or cry or yell with joy. We simply parked the car, got out, and took a long time breathing heavily, shaking a bit, letting the reality of the situation sink in. We three from the humble state of Arkansas had driven 8600 miles across some of the worst terrain in the world, half a planet away from home, to the capital city of the least densely populated country in existence; we were in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, and as conquerors of the Mongol Rally, no longer simply participants.

We immediately headed up to the bar to have a celebratory beer and catch up with whatever teams were already there. Then we decided to stay in the hotel that the Adventurists had rented on the site, at least for a couple of nights until the finish line party was over. After getting settled in, our convoy partners told us they were heading out to grab burgers at a nearby American themed restaurant; we joined and had pizza and burgers in a familiar style for the first time since we left home. On the way back to the hotel, I met a kid from Missouri. He’s in the ROTC and the university and they sent him around the world this summer to get a bit of cultural experience. By the end of the night, I’d had a great taste of home, and, riding high on our success in the Rally, I found it a bit difficult to sleep.

Yesterday, we went through the grueling process of registering and handing over our car to the Adventurists. Even on the small side street, traffic was a nightmare, and it took us 40 minutes to get across it to the lot. Then, we emptied the car of all our keepable belongings and said our goodbyes to it. Much paperwork later and the Arkansas Chuggabugs were short one canary yellow Suzuki Ignis; it was a somber moment as we realize that we’d just lost the one thing that was constant on our whole trip. No matter where we went, that little car was always with us, serving as transport, home base, storage shed, and, in my case, tent. He was an amazing traveling fellow with a personality all his own, and I will forever miss the experience of driving him around like a madman.

We ran into a minor problem with the hotel later in the day; the key to our lock stopped engaging, and we couldn’t open our door to get into our room. The maintenance man came and hammered the lock to bits, and then the hotel tried to charge us for the lock. It took about an hour, but we finally conveyed to them that it was their problem that they gave us a faulty lock, and that we would not be paying for it. Ultimately, we decided to quit the hotel as soon as we could find a room in a hostel (hopefully tonight).

One other team really sticks in my mind as worthy of having their story told. These three young men (all around 21), who arrived late the same night that we did, made up the team of Brits and Scotts we’d camped with outside Hovd. Their car, having already been rolled and nearly destroyed, couldn’t make it in under its own power and was dropped off via truck. Much to our indignant surprise and their dismay, the organizers told them that they should not have brought the car in because it made the Rally look bad, they shouldn’t have been let across the border, and they needed to remove the car at once. Luckily, the border guards had told the Adventurists that they weren’t going to turn down the boys at the border because they’d have nowhere to go, and most of our fellow Ralliers have shown our support to the team, reasoning that they were the heroes of the event, doing absolutely everything they possibly could to get the car to the finish line. In my opinion, they did everything in the true spirit of the rally and got here at all costs.

Last night was the finish line party, and, as I’ve come to learn, these huge nightclub style parties just aren’t really for me. I just can’t get my head around having to scream at the person next to you to carry on a conversation while drinking overpriced beer and listening to crappy music. Maybe I could enjoy the experience once in twenty times, but at that rate, I think I’m better off just making my brief appearance and heading out early, as I did last night. Michael seemed to be having no better a time of it than I was, but he stayed the party much longer; Chase got in very late last night, and, as they haven’t woken up yet, I have no real idea how their nights went.

Today we’re planning to move to a hostel and settle in until our planes leave. I’m not sure what all I’ll find to do in the city for the next week, but I plan to take in as much as possible since I’ll likely never be here again. Thank you so much for all of your support and concern as we’ve made this journey; we couldn’t have made it here without it. For now, know that we are safe, happy, and have succeeded in completing the 2012 Mongol Rally!