A temporary place to chronicle my experience on the Mongol Rally

Mongol Rally 2012 Photobucket Album

Mongol Rally 2012 Photobucket Album

At long last, and with my most sincere apologies for the delay, I have my pictures uploaded.  For some reason, Photobucket ordered them in reverse order and won’t let me switch them around, but they are up there.  You may notice that some numbers are missing from the group, but those are just duplicates or bad photos that had windshield glare or something like that.  I regret that I didn’t do a better job capturing this trip on camera, but I hope I did a good enough one to give you an idea of the adventure.  Also, be sure to read about the Chuggabugs in the Arkansas Times.


Getting Back in the Game

I cannot report that I am as well as I’d like to be, but I am at least partially recovered and have used the improvement to see at least some of this amazing city in which I find myself. Two days ago I, again, did little; I had made plans with Stefen, our German hitchhiker, to see the Gandan Monastery, but I got tied up in the State Department Store and missed our meeting (I assume. I haven’t seen him since, so I don’t know if he went or got caught up as well). Yesterday, however I managed to get out to the Narantuul Market, informally known as the Black Market.

Before you start worrying that I ran the risk of finding myself on the wrong side of the law, let me explain the market in the most relatable terms I can. It is the largest flea market in the world (according to the guidebook); for anyone who remembers the Memphis Flea Market, the Narantuul is easily five times as large, but it’s hard to gauge the full size of the thing from within it. I expect an aerial shot of the grounds would do a much better job expressing the sheer magnitude of this open air bazar. Unlike the State Department Store near central Ulan Bator, the market is filled with individual stalls selling Chinese knockoff (and rarely authentic) goods of all sorts. If you need a new pair of jeans, there’s a row of booths for that: if you need enough Turkish style carpet to cover a cornfield, there’s enough to do the job ten times over: fake sunglasses, purses, shoes, etc… not a problem.

We arrived by bus around 10:30 yesterday morning to the concrete and grit and dust of the market. Crossing the line of a fence made entirely of scrap metal, we payed our 50MNT (about 35 cents) to enter and immediately thought we’d made a huge mistake; we’d been warned to avoid the weekend crowds as they are havens for pickpockets, but, on this Wednesday morning, we were worried that there wouldn’t be any vendors. Most of the stands stood abandoned, with the few there only just beginning to open. The four of us (we were joined by one of the Scots from the rolled car) decided on a meeting time and place in case we got separated, and we immediately proceeded to get separated.

I and the Scot wandered aimlessly; he needed a pair of riding boots, and I was looking for a hat so we had a bit of direction, but no more than the average browser. It took us about 45 minutes to make our first circle of the place, only because most of the shops were still closed and there was still room to move. We spotted a few booths in the distance that we knew we’d like to visit, but, once the vendors had set up in force we were thrown into a completely new and foreign world; there was nothing to be seen but the merchandise directly in front of you, and the raucous din had risen to a fevered pitch. It truly felt as though it was an old world market place as wagons of food and drinks were pushed down the aisles and goods and money changed hands everywhere. It was an amazing experience, and I’m so glad we made it out there before having to leave the city. In the end, I bought a felt hat, Chase and Michael bought duffel bags, and the Scot cam away empty-handed.

Chase was feeling a bit sickly as well by the afternoon, so we convalesced at the finish line bar before heading back to the hostel. I finished my ninth book of the trip, The Mysterious Island by Verne, but otherwise, not much was accomplished yesterday afternoon. I’m hoping to get to the Lotus Children’s Center today, but, as I’ve neglected to put my name on the list, I’m afraid I may not have a seat on the bus. If I miss the trip, I think I’ll try to see the National History Museum and maybe the General Intelligence Museum since they’re so close together. I suppose I’ll spend much of the day coughing up flegm, but it’s a sign that the end of my illness is near; I only hope it comes before I leave.

A Bit Under the Weather

Well, I’d love to be able to tell you all that I’ve done so many wonderful and amazing things since getting to Ulan Bator, but the truth is, I’ve gotten a bit sick and had to stay relatively close in.

Two days ago, we moved from the finish line hotel into Gana’s Guesthouse; they specialize in Ger bunkhouses. For anyone who doesn’t know, a ger is the traditional round tent used by the Mongolian nomads for centuries. There are a lot of videos of them being assembled on YouTube, and it’s a pretty interesting thing to see. At our hostel, they’ve got about eight on top of the building, some dorms with five beds and some private ones with a double bed. Right now we’re sharing ours with two Russian travelers, but I think they’re moving out tonight. It really is a unique experience, and I think I could get used to sleeping in one full time if it were an option in the States; also, the fact that I’m sleeping in a bed instead of a sleeping bag makes it a nice improvement from camping.

That day we took it pretty easy, and that night we went out with the Canadians from Five Crew Canoe to a Korean restaurant. The company was good and the food was as well, but it somehow seems a bit of a shame to be in Mongolia and not be eating Mongolian cuisine. There’s a restaurant about a mile away that’s recommended by Lonely Planet that I’d like to try, and hopefully tomorrow I’ll be able to report back that it’s amazing.

Yesterday we’d made plans to meet up with the Canoe kids again and see a couple of museums. Unfortunately, in the night, I woke up with a terribly sore throat, and it only got worse as we got further into the day. About two in the afternoon, I finally called it quits and headed back to the hostel to see if sleep would make me feel any better. About seven last evening, I woke up with a fever (I assume. Nobody checked me, but my sheets reflected so much body heat and I was so cold without them that I can only blame it on a fever. A night of fitful sleep has found me feeling better, though certainly not up to par. My fever’s gone for the time being, and my throat is no longer sore. I do still have a lot of sinus pressure, but I stopped at a pharmacy where I picked up what I hope is the Mongolian equivalent of Theraflu. I’ll know shortly when they bring me my hot water.

Again, I’m sorry I don’t have any great stories from the city yet, but circumstance seems to be working against me. I’m expecting this to blow over in a day or so, though, and then I’ll be able to get back to my adventures.

Ulan Bator and Other Stories

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!

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.

Olgiy to Hovd

20 August, 2012; 07:31

If every day in Mongolia continues along this line, I may find it quite hard to leave this place in another two weeks. Yesterday I held an Eagle, we met up with a convoy, forded streams, pushed cars out of the mud, and gave candy to children. It’s almost as if everything up to this point was just practice for the incredible time we’re going to have in Mongolia.

Two nights ago, I had a miserable sleep. Since we were still at a pretty high elevation, I slept in the tent with Michael and Chase, but, as our tent is now only the two person one that Alyx left, there wasn’t a great deal of room; also, my crappy Wal-Mart sleeping bag just can’t handle these temperatures, even in between two other people. I toss and turn a lot in my sleep, and with no room, I just couldn’t get to sleep for more than 30 minutes at a time. Eventually, just before sunrise, I crawled back into the car with my bag and turned the heater on for a bit. I couldn’t fall asleep, so I sat and read until Chase woke up.

After that, the day was absolutely wonderful. We continued on the road South toward Hovd, forgetting about the oil change we had planned. Honestly, we’re only about 6500 miles in, and I think we can probably do without it. If someone else remembers, we’ll change it. We stopped at one point to climb a hill. I’ve got to get in shape when I get home, because I had to stop about a third of the way up (we are a a pretty high elevation, though, so nobody had an easy time of it). While Chase and Michael continued on to the top, I waited overlooking our little car. I saw a motorcycle pull up next to it, and I began ambling down to see what they were up to.

As it turns out, they were a pair of brothers who were out hawking, or maybe eagleing since they had an eagle with them. The older brother let me take his picture and then insisted that I hold the eagle so they could get a picture of me with it. I later found out this was so they could try to charge for that privilege, but it was worth the $1.50 I gave them. As I was there carrying on a half conversation with the two, three other teams pulled up, though not ones we’d driven with the day before. Excited by the eagle, they all got out and took pictures. The brothers offered to let us go hunting with them for an hour and see the bird at work, but we couldn’t afford the $15 or the hour out of our driving.

The other teams were an interesting mix. One pair of Canadians, a trio of Aussies, and three well aged Brits made up our new convoy. I have to say, these old guys amaze me. One is probably only in his fifties, but the other two are comfortably on the other side of sixty; most amazing, they are as game as anybody we’ve met on the Rally. It was a bit comical when, at one point we stopped for lunch, two of them started getting out their supplies and the third, in his own words, worked on “sorting out all these pills.”

When we started again after the eagle, it was apparent that these guys were having a much rougher time of it than us. The Canadians had a Perodua Kenari that is big and roomy, but has tiny tiny tires. The other two were in Hyundai coupes, and the rear ends of their cars were all but riding in direct contact with their tires. They set a much slower pace than that to which we’ve become accustomed, and we, with our big tires (never thought I’d call them that) and ample ground clearance, became the lead car, blazing our paths through creeks and over gullies.

When the Aussies stopped for a bathroom break, we moved on ahead until we came to a particularly dicey creek crossing. We and the Canadians made it without much trouble, but the Brits got stuck in the mud; a quick push later and they were dislodged, and we all decided to make lunch and wait for the Aussies to catch up so we could show them the sweet spot to cross.

They eventually caught us up, and, as we all ate, we were joined by several other teams. At one point, I counted 11 teams stopped with us. It was during lunc that I got my war wound for the trip; when I tried to stretch a bungie farther than it wanted to go, it popped loose and came flying at my face. Being atop the car when this happened, my first concern was not falling off. Once I’d accomplished that, I moved my attention to the windshield, to make sure in my stumbling that I hadn’t cracked it. Only then did I remember my brow, and when I reached my hand up, it came back covered in blood. The older Brits, who’d just come off an emergency medical training course in Wales, offered to stitch it up for me, but I declined, figuring a band-aid would probably serve just as well.

We left lunch and situated ourselves within a different convoy, this one moving much closer to our preferred pace. This time, we were with a trio of Brits who’d rolled their car earlier in the race but were still pressing on with plexiglass windows, a vanload of Aussies (though these were only an incidental part of the convoy), three Romanian ladies, and a lone Romanian motorcyclist, affectionately dubbed the Road Warrior. With our new companions we covered ground swiftly, and only when the Road Warrior’s clutch cable snapped did we have to stop. After a quick fix we were back on the road, but we were again stopped by the problem 2km outside of Hovd. The ultimate fix this time was to push start him and have him just jam it into gear until he got into town and found a mechanic.

In Hovd we shopped around a bit and found some more dumplings. It was quite a city by Mongolian standards, but everything is just so far behind over here that it’s easy to forget you’re in one of the big cities by the look of everything around you. We got some more water and gas and headed out, leaving town about 30 minutes behind our convoy and planning to catch them up. Evidently, the Romanians had sped off, because right around dark we met up with the Brits who were elated to see another Rally team, and we stayed with them for the night. This morning promises to be a good day, with warmer temperatures and good driving company. We hope to make Altay, and possibly farther.

The Chuggabugs Have Reached Mongolia

18 August, 2012; 20:46

Today was easily the best day of the Rally, though I realize I’ve said that before. We made it into Mongolia convoyed for a while, and now we’re camping on the steppes.

It was about one in the afternoon when we made it out of the border. By that point, the other teams we’d planned to drive with had all but left. Needing food, we decided to wait and eat at the little cafe and then catch them up later on the road. The fare was dumplings, I’m pretty sure the only thing they serve, and tea with goat’s milk. I’d eaten earlier while trying to coordinate with the other teams, but Michael and Chase were famished. Unfortunately, due to complication ordering, their food took more than an hour to get. By that point the other teams were long gone, and we decided to take the dumplings on the road to make up time.

We headed out of the village and came to the small town of Tsaanganuur. A man on a motorcycle flagged us down and told us the road was bad ahead and we should follow him. Having read the warnings about this very man, we politely thanked him and kept true to our path. A short while later another man waved us down and offered us a place to eat and sleep for the night, but, since we had ground to cover and had just eaten, we declined this offer as well.

Sure enough, the road got very bad at one point. Mostly it was okay, but the main road was under construction, and again, paths along the side provided us with our means of passage. Eventually, we came to a tall hill where, on some of the paths (muddy from the rain) we saw our friends from earlier, aparently looking for a path to the top. Since our car has the biggest wheels and highest ground clearance, we plowed on up only to be embarassed at our inability to take the steepest path. After a short walk around, we found a path that was mostly level and wound well around the hillside. While the other teams gingerly worked their way across the grass, we found a shorter path up and gave it the gas. I had to brag, but I think maybe the fact that I was driving and have spent so much time playing on fourwheelers in mud greatly contributed to our success.

This side road was still very muddy, and we climbed the hill at about 25mph so as not to get stuck. I think I gave Michael and Chase a bit of a scare at a couple points, but I was confident in my ability and we made it through the worst bit. Then we walked back down to offer advice and support to the other three teams. They made it up, and, not wanting to stop and lose traction, they sped past our parked car to the top of the pass. We, riding an emotional high from our complete success were only more greatly enthused when we reached what was the best view of the trip. From the top of the pass you could see a distance of probably 50 miles or more through the peaks of the Altais. The sun, filtering in through the clouds made for an excellent sight, and I think, for once, I might have done a decent job of catching it on camera.

After standing as long as we could atop the pass (it was snowing and we weren’t entirely ready for that kind of cold), we headed down and got back on the main road. In a short time it turned to pavement, and, against all odds, we set our top speed of the trip while in Mongolia at 95mph. Having been able to practically fly over the trails and rocky part of the road, we managed to leave the other teams behind as we reached Ogliy.

We stopped for gas, and another man offered us a bed in his guest house, dinner, breakfast, and a hot shower included in the price. Tempted to take him up on the offer, we decided, instead to just camp later on the road to Hovd. This decision was made mostly because it’s about time to change our oil, and the other teams were planning to stop in Ogliy tonight; we figured getting in another hour or so of driving would give us time in the morning to take care of maintaining our car while they catch up to us.

We are finally in Mongolia, and I cannot express the excitement it brings me. Seven months ago, when I first heard about Chase doing this, I never really believed he or I would ever be here like this, but here we are, well on our way to the finish line in Ulan Bator. Looking forward to another day like this, and then another and more, we might have trouble getting to sleep, but somehow, I think we’ll be just fine.

Out of Russia and Into Nowhere

18 August, 2012; 10:32

Today, we are waiting in no-man’s land on the Mongolian side, waiting alongside several other teams for the opportunity to enter the country. Yesterday’s drive through southern Russia was one of the most unexpected treats of the journey. We went through the Altai mountains, which were absolutely gorgeous. Then, we barely skated through the Russian exit border before it closed, and, we can finally see Mongolia. Hopefully we’ll be in later today, but more likely it will be tomorrow. There is a slim chance it will be Monday.

The Altai mountains were something I should have expected to be wonderful, but for some reason, I just never considered it. Fortunately, they didn’t need my consideration to stand in their magnificence as we drove (probably a little to quickly) down the winding M52. They started out much like the Ozarks, large chunks of rock covered with trees; admittedly, these were all pine trees and the mountains were actually mountains instead of pretty hills. Looking out over the scenery, I tried unsuccessfully to capture the beauty of the mountainsides carved neatly by the runnoff of ages of water. I did get pictures, I just don’t think they do justice to what I was seeing.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside picnic area; it was the single most magical place we’ve been. Old trees covered in moss stood with little underbrush between them, giant roots rising gently out of the soil like a scene out of Tolkein. A herd of cattle and a few wild horses roamed through the trees around us as we wantdered. We found a creek to eat beside, and our meal was the only thing unsatisfying about the stop; mystery meat jelly and kidney beans, no spices, no heat. Once we finished with the canned “food” we explored a bit, playing near the creek throwing sticks at each other. Once again, I feel like my lack of photography skills hampered me in trying to capture the absolute perfection of the spot, but we’ll see when I get the pictures printed.

One thing I found interesting about this leg of the trip was the number of public use structures alongside the roads. I don’t know if this is a leftover effect of the Socialist mindset or what, but all over the place there are these outhouses and gazebos built for whoever going by has need of them. In our little park, there were several, but even in the middle of nowhere, just on the side of the road, they were still present. It was just one more pleasantly surprising aspect of our drive out of Russia.

From there we drove on, and got to deeper into the mountains. The rocks became mingled with huge sandy hills covered in grass separated by vast plateaus. Eventually, in the distance to the East, we could see snow caps on the high peaks. We reached the Russian border shortly before five, and a good thing we did, as that side closes an hour before the Mongolian side. We only just snuck in. We had a bit of a panic when we realized that the Kazaki customs document they wanted had been thrown away in a trash purge. Luckily, it was only to confrim what we were putting on our Russian exit paperwork, an we managed to find a different document that served just as well. Then, a 30 minute drive through a 20km no-man’s land, and we reached the Mongolian border, long closed, and prepared to camp with the other teams waiting to get through.

There was a little shop in the village down the road, and the border officials allowed us to go to change currency and buy food and drink. We had beers with our compatriots and swapped stories of our various adventures. Then, out of nowhere, one of the ralliers shows up with a roasted goat he’d bought, and we feasted, though it wasn’t the tastiest meal we’ve had. I ate liver, heart, and cheek. I think the problem with it was that it was quick roasted and still a little undercooked, but it was meat.

Last night was the kind of cold that begs proper gear, and, as I was told numerous times before we left, I didn’t have it. Sleeping in the car again helped since I could turn the heater on every so often, but even then, I had to wrap up in my sleeping bag. I wore both pairs of my pants, one short sleeved shirt, two long sleeved shirts, and my sweater. I’ve lost all of my warm socks, so I had to do with bare feet inside the sleeping bag, but, overall it wasn’t the worst night (that would be Goodwood). It rained in the night, but I woke to it and managed to get the few things we had out under cover so we stayed mostly dry. I am going to have to start staying in the front seat when I sleep though, because curled up in the back my knees ache and there’s no room left to stretch them.

This morning the rain persists as we wait permission to leave. Chase somehow managed to haggle with the officials, and we traded our bigger 4 person tent for free car insurance and a spot at the front of the line. Hopefully we’ll get out of here sooner than we expected and get down out of the mountains into warmer air. We’re hoping to caravan with two other teams, one from Canada and the other from New York, but we’ll have to see how that works out. The Canadians have already made it out, and the New Yorkers are waiting like we are. My hopes are high, and I expect that very soon we will be in Mongolia and on the last leg of our grand adventure.

Barnaul Cont.

17 August, 2012; 08:04

So, the next morning…

We went toward the Russian border as night fell, and, since it was a 24 hour border and we didn’t want to have the crossing delay us by several hours the next day, we plowed on. We’d heard nothing but horror stories about how difficult and strenuous the border into Russia would be, we were expecting the worst. Much to our surprise, it was a breeze. The guards recognized us as a rally team, and, having probably dealt with plenty of foreigners with no clue what to do at a border crossing, they pointed us well and waved us through. The customs guard, when searching our car, did little more than open each door and shine his light in. Then, after a hearty, “Welcome to Russia!” we were in.

We drove another hour to find a spot by the road to camp. Unfortunately, at this point it was 4am, and, as we harbored hopes of reaching the border the next day, we would be leaving at 7 and working on minimal sleep. It got very cold in the night, and, as I slept in the car, I searched for my sleeping bag; I discovered it wrapped around Chase, and was forced to sleep under my spare clothing.

Chase and Michael have a tendency, upon being woken, to be in a horrible mood, so I’ve adopted a passive aggressive method of just walking circles around their tent after I’ve gotten them up. It takes a little while, but it’s easier than having to scream at them.

We made the road around 8, and were off on our way to Barnaul, where we planned to grab some food, currency, and stretch our legs. Along the way, we found an abandoned child’s playhouse, or what we assume was one. It was a massive structure made from steel that looked like a carnival funhouse. Naturally, as when we see any derelict structure, we wanted to go inside. We found a hole in the fence and entered through a door into the upstairs portion. The interior shocked us as we stepped cautiously into the wooden panneled interior. It look like a Sunday School room, specifically reminiscent of the one I remember at Little Creek. We explored around a bit and then loaded back up into the car.

We entered Barnaul in a miserable state; tired and hungry, Chase and Michael resorted to short tempers, while I, in typical fashion, simply followed along silently behind them. We found an exchange for our Kazakhi currency, but they refused to change it, as they only dealt in Rubles, Euros, and Dollars. The first ATM we tried was only in Russian, and I managed to somehow lock my card on it (no worries, yet; I called BoA and they told me it should reset itself at noon today, my time). Chase and Michael found one in English and got some cash.

Our first stop was a small cafe, hoping they’d have some Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, they had no internet, and we did a poor job communicating that we’d be happy with whatever our waitress brought us. In the end we settled on tea and resolved to go back to the BBQ place we’d seen on the way in. When we got there, we realized that they had internet, and we set about making a game plan. I called BoA, but they didn’t open until 7pm local time, so we’d have to stay in town for another 7 hours. We looked up the address of the hostel we’d originally intended to use, deciding that, at that point, we might as well get a good night’s sleep, all chances of reaching the border already gone.

Once again, we ordered by chance, pointing at our menus and hoping we got something tasty; honestly, we figured, “BBQ, this can’t go wrong.” It didn’t, but not because we ended up with any sweet savory BBQ dishes. Michael was able to discern the word pasta, and Chase and I let fortune guide our meal. Mikey’s pasta came bathed in a cream sauce, and, much to our surprise, both of our meals did as well. Evidently, BBQ doesn’t mean the same thing in Russia as it does in America. Still, my chicken, Chase’s beef, and Michael’s pasta were all very tasty, especially since we’d had no breakfast.

Since the map showed hostel to be a short distance’s walk from our restaurant, we made the executive decision to hoof it, expecting finding it to be easier on foot. In one parking lot near where the map showed our hostel, we saw a couple of Rally cars and hoped we’d found the spot. Unfortunately, it was just another hotel, the nightly rate double that of the hostel. We ate again, mostly looking for Wi-Fi, and corrected our map. Pro Tip: when looking for things in other countries on Google Maps, the best way is to find where they’ve mapped it on their website compare that to GM; simply searching for it or entering the address almost always fails.

When we found it, the girl at the desk informed us that there were no beds left in the hostel, not surprising since the last big wave of ralliers was pushin through the city. With the time near 7 already and circumstance guiding our hand, we decided to go back and use the Wi-Fi and then head out of town and camp somehere along the way to the border.

Last night we stopped early, shortly after midnight, in a construction site on the side of the road. We woke at 7:30, the others in slightly better spirits (though not significantly) that yesterday morning, and now we have, once again, set our sights on the Russian-Mongolian border. There have been reports from teams waiting in excess of 20 hours to get across the border (some kind of problems with importing cars), so we’ve stocked up on food and water and are expecting to have plenty of time to sit and jaw with other teams who also find themselve in the queue. With a little luck, we’ll be in Mongolia tomorrow, or the next day.


17 August, 2012; 00:01

My advance apologies for the quality of this post, but I am running on only a couple hours sleep in the past 36 and have worked up quite the nasty headache; however, I feel as though I’m likely to miss more details of our trip by waiting to record them than by recording them in my less than ideal condition.

I missed one crucial instance on my last entry from our drive to Astana. As we left Qostinay, we had been passing back and forth with a grey VW van. At one point, while we were passing, we noticed him waving his arms with a downward motion, and we thought he was warning us off a known checkpoint and telling us to slow down. A short bit later, he pulled up beside us, and it was instantly obvious that he wanted us to stop. Not seeing any anger in his expression, we complied. He got out of his van and pointed to our rear bumper, sagging periously low off the back of our beleagured Wiz. We mimed our nonchalance about the situation, and, in response, he mimed a screwdriver motion and pointed to the bumper. We shrugged as he went around to the back of his van and returned with tools. Fifteen minutes later, he’d punched a hole in the metal plate behind the bumper and zipped two screws into it. Scratch our bumper off the list of things wrong with our car.

I believe I last left off as we followed team Hard Yak toward Pavlodar. Not much after we found them, we lost them when we stopped in the city for dinner, but, they didn’t make for the best company, so we weren’t too disappointed at the loss. After eating, we moved on toward the border, though we got lost once. Finally, after asking directions at a gas station (a thing we’re getting progressively better at), we made our way to the border.

Unfortunately, my weariness is overcoming my will to continue tonight, so I think I’ll give it a fresh effort tomorrow. We’ve heard stories of 20 or more hours at the Mongolian border, so I expect I’ll have plenty of time.