Crossing the Rubikhan

Mongolia, Part II

Posted on 31 Aug 2014 in Uncategorized | 2 comments

Benjie here, resuming our Mongolian narrative from the middle of the interminably long valley between Khovd and Altai that essentialized our fourth day in the country. This may have been the most frustrating stretch of our drive through Mongolia: the landscape was flat and repetitive, offering no distraction from the torturous, obscenity-inducing washboard road we were forced to drive on. Roads like these wreak havoc on cars’ suspension systems, and while ours remained intact (for the moment) our Danish friends had frequent problems including one harrowing moment when their left rear suspension spring cracked entirely and busted through the frame of their car, allowing the person in the back seat to see straight through to the road below.

After ten hours and several stops for MacGyver-esque repairs to the Danes’ Fiat, we emerged from the Valley of Death and climbed over some small mountains onto a beautiful green plateau that puts the ubiquitous Windows desktop picture to shame. We careened along, thrilled to be back on pleasant dirt roads. The skiing metaphor mentioned in our last post is entirely apt: some lines are better than others, and I would alternately cackle as we flew by other cars or mutter oaths after making a bad choice. Our English friends, Rob and Jack, were a little over-zealous and gunned it over the plateau too fast to notice a massive pothole in front of them that stopped their car dead in its tracks and caused their roof rack to fly a good ten feet further. Two days, two roof racks gone—but hey, it’s Mongolia, that’s what’s supposed to happen.

Eventually we reached the edge of the plateau where the little town of Altai unfolded below us, its bright multicolored roofs contrasting sharply with the endless brown, green, and blue of the steppe. The paved roads were mediocre by American standards, but to us they felt like silk. Our English and Northern Irish friends were on a tighter schedule and decided to press on that night, while we stayed in Altai with our Danish and Israeli friends to wait on repairs for the Fiat and treat ourselves to a hot meal, cold beer, bed, and toilet.

The next morning we all met up back at the repair place, where an apparently drunk mechanic, cigarette in mouth and no eye protection, was busily welding various pieces of metal onto the Danes’ car in an attempt to restore their suspension to a semi-intact state. Around noon, we rolled out of town and spent about 100km on a nice paved road which ended with absolutely no warning just over the crest of a small hill. I wasn’t disappointed, though: save for the washboard stuff, off-roading in Mongolia was the most fun I’ve ever had behind the wheel. With dark clouds building and the wind picking up, Keshav Pothole got its first flat tire of the trip; fortunately, changing a tire is within our extremely limited realm of auto-expertise. Soon after, the storm began in earnest—and with the rain being blown in sheets across the unprotected steppe, the Danes lost their roof rack to an unexpected ridge. The poor guys could not get a break. Three days, three roof racks.

We made it across hills and valleys covered in bizarre rock formations to a little town where we came upon a Scottish team and a French team who were getting repairs. They joined us at our campsite just past the town, where we had an excellent bonfire with the remains of Rob and Jack’s roof rack, drank brandy, and had a lovely conversation that took full advantage of the myriad nationalities and languages represented by our convoy. Being in convoy with other teams was a crucial part of crossing Mongolia: it’s safer and a hell of a lot more fun. Anybody crazy enough to do the Rally is likely someone you would be happy to spend time with.
The next morning we negotiated a small stream and then made decent time over the endless steppe with only animals for company: confused sheep, curious goats, arrogant camels. The Danes didn’t have to stop for repairs until mid-afternoon, easily a record, and at this point we found ourselves next to a few yurts, one of which had a food sign on it. We walked inside expecting a restaurant of sorts, but it turned out it was just a family’s home: two beds, some chairs, and a central stove that burned cakes of dung. We asked if they could cook us food; they nodded and began showing us different ingredients: carrots, turnips, noodles, a large piece of an unidentified animal. Everything was cut up and thrown into a massive metal bowl on top of the stove with a healthy amount of salt. We drank hot horse milk while waiting, and eventually were treated to a hearty—if rather bland—meal.

We continued our journey. Mongolia is indeed one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but it’s huge and the landscape, though stunning, becomes repetitive. Still, every once in a while we were treated to moments of the sublime, like when we crested a hill with the golden evening light behind us, dark storm clouds in the distance, and a perfect 180-degree rainbow dead ahead.

That evening, about 20km from Bayankhongor, KP sustained its first relatively serious injury when our rear left suspension spring snapped. We were initially worried, but fortunately our friends reassured us that we would still be able to drive and for the moment it was mainly an issue of comfort. So we said the hell with it and pressed on—the Danes, after all, had been driving without a fully-functioning suspension for days. We camped a few kilometers after Bayankhongor; it was the first campsite in Mongolia from which we could see any signs of habitation. But the stars were still incredible.

We were told that “the fun is over after Bayankhongor,” meaning that from there to Ulaanbaatar the roads are all paved. Turns out this is not entirely the case: there are still stretches of unfinished highway, and the paved roads are mediocre at best (since the roads out of the capital were the first to be built, they’re the oldest in the country). Nevertheless we made good progress and ended our day about 180km from the finish line in UB. Our final night camping was bittersweet: though we looked forward to beds and toilets and real food, we had come to really enjoy sitting around and cooking pasta together under the stars, bundling up against the cold, and crawling in to our sleeping bags at the end of a long day.

That being said, we were close enough that we could taste the finish, and the next day we constantly monitored the odometer as the kilometers ticked slowly by. The roads improved, the land became more developed, and eventually we hit a toll booth. Just after was a most welcome sign: Ulaanbaatar. We made our way to the “graveyard,” from where the cars will be shipped back to Europe, and blasted music while we drove up onto the finish line platform and climbed out of the car for some celebratory photos, followed by the Israelis and, incredibly, the Danes in their embattled Fiat.

We were ecstatic, but it felt surreal at the same time: we had been planning this trip for over a year, and we’d been on the road for nearly six weeks through an extraordinary succession of different places and cultures. Remarkably, our little car had taken us all this way with hardly any problems. And here we were, suddenly finished, packing up our gear and driving away in a taxi, never to see our beloved KP again. Hopefully, of course, we will eventually see the real Keshav Poddar again once he has finished saving India from various diseases, pollution, corruption, and heat, but his close relative Keshav Pothole is destined for Lithuania, where it will be sold for charity.

Our taxi took us to the Office Hotel in central Ulaanbaatar. Its slogan: “Help Your Business.” Well, the Rally was certainly helping its business, as the Adventurists have turned it into the finish line headquarters. Most of the finishing Ralliers stay here, and there is a big lobby full of velvet chairs where you can eat and drink beer and trade stories from the road. Teams can write their names on a huge board in the order that they finished (in case you’re curious, we filled the esteemed #154 spot) so throughout the day you can have a look to see who else has come in. We’ve gotten to reconnect with the majority of teams we spent time with on the road, which has been wonderful. And the city itself—despite being the coldest and most polluted national capital in the world—has been very enjoyable. Decent Western food abounds, and I have spent my days eating eggs and bacon, drinking coffee, eating more bacon, reading and writing. Cooper ate steak for three consecutive meals. And Nick, before flying off this morning, reveled in the abundant free wifi. It’s a very cheap city too: I got an hour-long massage the other day for $19. Cooper followed suit this afternoon. All in all, UB has provided excellent closure to an incredible experience.

The Mongol Rally truly is an amazing thing to do, and I’ll admit to being a little surprised—as I’m sure some of you probably are—that we managed to complete it. While on the road I had always been a bit anxious in the back of my mind and therefore expected to be thrilled when it was over, which I was. But there was also a twinge of sadness and already part of me feels nostalgic for the open road. When you fly, you’re sort of like a gopher: popping up in a new place with no sense of what lies in between. Traveling by car may not be the most efficient method, but it allows you to see everything along the way, which we often found to be more interesting and rewarding than the destination itself. We hope you’ve enjoyed the blog, and that it’s helped to give you a sense of the Great In-Between. Thanks again for all of your support—we truly couldn’t have done this without you.

Cheers,
The Rubikhans

IMG_1192-2Tumbling across the steppe

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARacing a herd of wild horses (they won)

IMG_1215-2Benjie enjoys some fresh air

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Danes’ Fiat, under the torch in Altai

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Rubikhans pause for a quick team photo

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANick changes our one and only puncture (while Benjie and Cooper look on and drink beer)

DCIM101GOPROOur convoy, viewed from above. (Photo courtesy of Benjie’s drone/GoPro setup!)

DCIM101GOPROKP passes a yurt (another drone shot)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADark storm clouds loom overhead…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAProducing this marvellous light display

DSC_0085And this rainbow

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of many livestock crossings

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKP flies by with Benjie at the helm

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Enjoying” warm horse milk in a yurt

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur new roofbox, replete with one of our super handy Goal Zero solar panels (and our power pack inside Cooper’s bag)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABenjie and Adi (one of the Israelis) show off a last-minute cosmetic addition to the car

IMG_1321-2We made it!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinal country beers! It’s been a wild ride.

2 comments

  1. Patty / August 31st, 2014 6:55

    Congratulations, guys! Your blog has been a joy to read.

    Reply

  2. Howard Baetjer / August 31st, 2014 18:30

    Dear Rubikhans, Benjie’s Uncle Hojay here. I belatedly discovered yesterday that I can respond to you. Shoot, I would have been commenting quickly to thank you for the indescribably marvelous photos and the delightful account of your journey. Better late than never, though, THANK YOU for the wonderful account, which I have been following with great pleasure. And CONGRATULATIONS on making the whole journey, and on carrying it off with such elan. Please keep the site up so we can all enjoy it for many years to come. Best wishes for safe journeys home, or to Uzbekistan, or wherever you are headed. Well done, guys.
    Hojay

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *