Mongolia, Mongolia. Where to begin?
We’ve decided to split this country into two party-sized posts (as opposed to one king-sized post), since our traversal of Mongolia was really the culminating stage of our journey. This is Part I; Part II will be posted tomorrow. We’re just trying to keep you entertained.
Anyway, we (Nick and Cooper) will pick up where we left off: in Barnaul, Russia.
After stocking up on supplies (read: an assortment of commie-brand instant noodle packets and cans of something that turned to be anything BUT tuna), we hit the good Russian motorway and made for the Altai Mountains. The smooth, winding mountain roads gave us little trouble – in fact, they were some of the nicest roads we’d encountered in weeks, and they offered incredible alpine views, to boot. So, we turned up the volume on Cooper’s Tuvan throat singing collection and tumbled along at a heady 80km/h. It was almost as though we’d suddenly returned to Europe (and, depending on how you define Russia geographically, perhaps we did).
After a day and a half on the road, the mountains abruptly crumbled back into the endless steppe, and before long, we reached the border – well, the Russian exit border, that is. Before actually entering Mongolia, we had to pass through 20km of no-man’s land, occupied solely by some goats of ambiguous nationality, some blubbery beaver-like marmots skittering about (they’ll make a return appearance), and a man bizarrely mowing a small patch of grass next to the road. Also in no-man’s land, Keshav “the KP Cruiser” Pothole’s odometer hit 100,000km, and the road turned from asphalt to dirt.
What began as a relatively routine border crossing (“passport, mister!” “driver here, passenger there, mister!”) took a turn for the Mongolian when a border agent asked us to sell him some petrol from our jerry can. Since he still had Nick’s passport and unstamped documents in hand, we were in no position to refuse. He proceeded to explain to us, while carelessly smoking a cigarette inches from the fuel, that he needed the petrol to go hunting after work. We asked if we could come along. And so began one of the strangest side-trips of our adventure.
The border official told us to wait for him in a small restaurant down the road, and 40 minutes later, while were feasting on buuz (delicious Mongolian dumplings), our friend rolled up in a souped-up Prius, accompanied by another border guard and a .22 rifle. We piled into the back seat and sped off, abandoning the dirt path (or “highway,” as our maps labeled it) to careen up a grass hill in search of the large Tarbagan marmots that burrow in the hillsides. Spotting one particularly plump beast scuttling around in the rocks, our hosts chased it into its hole, pulled up nearby – utilizing the lethal silence of our hybrid cruiser – and trained the rifle out the passenger window. Thirty seconds later, the marmot peeped his little head up for a looksie, and was immediately nailed between the eyes. While the shooter whooped and hollered, his friend leapt out of the car, ran over to the hole, and reaching down, grabbed the twitching marmot by its tail and flung it a full 10 feet into the air. Once the poor beast was sufficiently dead, our hosts bagged it up, and stuck it in the trunk.
Ten minutes and one marmot later, and we were speeding back across the hills and toward our car, while our new friends regaled us with glorious tales of wolf-hunts with AK-47s and marksmanship competitions with the Russian guards. By all accounts, it had been a successful outing: our friends had procured their dinner for the night, and we had the somewhat reassuring knowledge that the Toyota Prius was considered a suitable off-roading vehicle.
As the sun began to set, we serendipitously ran into the English and Northern Irish guys with whom we had caravanned through Kyrgyzstan, as well as a Danish and an Israeli team. After driving about 20km from the border, we set up camp in the center of a massive valley with nothing but nothing in every direction. The stars were stunning.
We celebrated our entrance into Mongolia with champagne (sabred with a poop trowel) and an encounter with a local guy on a motorcycle who insisted on drinking all of our alcohol, wrestling Jon, one of the Danes (who sadly lost), and singing (err, shouting) traditional folk songs. Oddly, our nameless Mongolian friend insisted on wearing his motorcycle helmet the entire time he was with us.
The next day delivered our first taste of Mongolian off-roading. While the dirt roads, river crossings, and the Danes’ 1984 Fiat 127 hindered our progress, we had a blast tearing across the rugged steppe, dangling out the car windows with wanton disregard for our personal safety, and hooting and hollering like we were young again. Sometimes, the dirt paths would diverge, and our entire convoy would barrel ahead five cars abreast. Though our speed rarely exceeded 40km/h, it felt like we were flying over the dirt. This is what Mongolia was all about. This is what we’d traveled all this way to experience.
At one point, a particularly muddy mud pit rendered the Israelis immobile. Fortunately, a local jeep, commandeered by a man who was almost certainly drunk, arrived on the spot, and offered to tow them out from behind. The driver got a bit overzealous, and yanked the Israeli’s Renault Kangoo across the mud like a water skier, while Stav, the driver, helplessly jamming on the brakes and handbrake and bellowing “stop!”, before the tow hook mercifully snapped. We all had a good laugh. The jeep driver offered to tow the rest of us, and we quickly declined. Onward we trekked, our clothes a little mudder and our cars a little creakier. As the sun began to set, we pitched camp at the foot of a steep slope, the hillside offering solid protection from the wind.
We got an early start the next morning, hoping to recoup some of the mileage (kilometerage?) that we’d lost the previous day. For hours, we sped through the hills and mountains on interwoven dirt paths. The driving experience itself was akin to backcountry skiing: we carefully picked our lines to avoid bumpy roads and loose boulders, weaving left and right around tightly banked turns, power sliding over loose sand, and literally flying over small crests in the road. It was wild fun, unlike any driving we’d encountered previously. Frankly, we were ‘shocked’ (foreshadowing) that our little Alto could handle the abuse.
Unfortunately, however, our roof box (which, you may recall, began to disintegrate in Turkmenistan) had plans of its own. Somewhere near Khovd, a nasty, well-concealed bump sent us completely airborne, and the rough landing launched the roof box forward, so that it dangled precariously over the windshield. We happily poured the rest of our jerry can into the tank, strapped Cooper’s bag to the roof, and stuffed what we could into the trunk. To the rest, we said good riddance and gave it a new home in the middle of the steppe.
By late afternoon, our convoy arrived in Khovd. We were dirty, exhausted, and still slightly buzzing from the adrenaline high. While we refueled and restocked, we shared stories about our favorite sections of road, craziest maneuvers, and preferred driving playlists. We pressed on, and were treated to 200km of brand new tarmac leaving town. (Mongolia is in the midst of an extensive project to pave the entire east-west highway. While the project is supposed to be complete by 2020, the only proof of progress is this stretch leading out of Khovd, and a similar stretch leading out of Altai, which we’d hit a few days later.) Our suspensions and constitutions were immensely grateful for the reprieve.
The tarmac eventually ended, however, and was sadly replaced by the horrible washboard gravel of an under-construction motorway. We shaked and rattled over the gruesome bumps for several kilometers before we noticed a series of trails winding about on either side. When Mongolians don’t like a road, they create their own. So, we departed from the main road, made for the the side paths, and zigzagged through an immense valley plain until a setting sun induced us to camp. Everyone slept well that night.
And so concludes Part I. In Part II, you’ll hear about our next five days in Mongolia, including our final push to the finish line (spoiler alert: we finished).
We want to extend our enormous gratitude for the ridiculous amount of support we’ve received over the past seven weeks and the year of preparation before. The Mongol Rally has been a huge part of our lives since we started scheming last August, and it literally has been our lives since we touched down in London a month and a half ago. We’re amazed how an adventure that took us one third of the way around the world and thousands of miles from home could bring us so much closer with so many of the people we love and care about. We’ve reconnected with the countless friends and family members who have reached out with their enthusiastic support (and obscure restaurant recommendations in Olgii – the chicken was delicious, by the way). We can’t wait to see you all and finally catch up face to face.
While the Rally has made all three of us acutely aware of just how vast the world actually is, it has also reminded us that our network of loved ones is equally immense. And that’s something we’ll remember long after we fly home.
Our final border crossing
Hunting marmots out the window of a Prius
Curious Mongolian children near the border
The long and not-so-winding road to Ulaanbaatar (extremely limited edition tarmac variant)
The endless Mongolian steppe
Our campsite on the first night
Milky Way x Comfort Cathedral collaboration
A young horseman who paid our camp a visit
The English, Danish, and Northern Irish teams bounce along through the desert
Celebrating our first day of off-road driving
Cooper points at the local fauna (part 1)
Cooper points at the local fauna (part 2)
KP takes on a mountain stream
Benjie and Nick ponder the long road ahead
Rob climbs the window out for a better view
The Israelis’ Kangoo, stuck in the mud
KP, after a good wallow
Cooper’s fashionable attempt to overcome the dust
Nick “inspects” a post-roofbox KP
Our Danish friends, just hanging out
A gang of Bactrian camels in the shadow of the mountains
The full convoy, just outside Khovd
KP, dwarfed by the massive scale of the Mongolian steppe