Mongolia and the End of the Mongol Rally!

iVisa.com

The ambulance hadn’t been fairing well over the last few weeks and a few problems had come up at the border. Lucky we had time: apparently only 6 cars would be allowed through each hour, and we were at least 3 hours back in line. The cold woke us all early that morning and through rumours we heard that we had missed a crucial step in the Russia to Mongolia border crossing.

A small shed about 300 meters back held a stamp that we all needed to get through and so we headed down there at about 7 am in the early cold, to get our stamp. We lined up and watched as other teams realized that something was up, so we decided to have some fun. As the first team came up we mentioned another small shack another 300 meters down which had a turquoise roof.

We then explained how an important piece of paperwork, necessary to the border crossing was to be gained there. And off they went. Laughing we stopped them but for the next hour giggled as the same joke was played on each team that next came to us. Good times.

Conner the legend had some work to do: We needed to clean out the fuel filter on the ambo, and we had a water hose that was basically degraded to nothing and needed replacing. While the teams played football and threw Frisbees, I did my best to help Conner get the job done, finding a much needed hose pipe amongst the ralliers and a bit of ingenuity we had the Ambo back on the road and ready for the border. The teams let us get back to our previous spot in the line and we were ready, until a mini bus full of people tried to cut the line. The teams then proceeded to block him in and let absolutely everyone around him! The strong winds pelted us with sand as the skies opened up for our first snow!

The Russian part of the border crossing was simple and we headed off into what we thought was the Mongolian desert, only to come across another small random hut in the middle of nowhere about 10 km down the road. A stop sign and a quick stamp and we were allowed through a gate. Thinking we were again in Mongolia through the easiest border ever, we all congratulated ourselves and shook hands. Off we went again! Over a rise and then… The Mongolian border crossing.

We arrived there about 2pm and the wait started. Other teams and buses started pouring in as well. Stamps and passports, car registrations and payments. My passport had been stuffed up y the organizers of the Mongol Rally and according to my Visa I was almost a week late for it. Joking with the girls checking the passports they stamped it without even noticing the dates, we even managed to get a laugh out of them! But at about 6pm we were informed that we would be staying at the border over night. About 8 teams were stuck and we parked in a small compound for the night. Organised some dinner and chatted about the trip. It was freezing!

But to our rescue came Serge in a tourist bus. His passengers went into Mongolia to stay at a small town just after the border. So he had a huge bus all to himself and his co-driver. He invited us all onto it for a warm night of laughs and way too much Vodka. He even invited us to stay onboard for the night and a few of us did. For his kindness I gave him a Cuban cigar the GM at the Ford dealership had given me and he was very pleased with the gift.

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The next day was much of the same. Cold and no movement with our passports. So we started to play some games. Football and Frisbees again! But then a border official came to spoil our fun. Taking one of the balls he headed for me demanding the other ball. One hand out, the other holding the confiscated ball behind his back. I adopted a similar pose with the ball I had and stood my ground. “Give me the ball!” he demanded all official like. “No, give us our passports and let us through and I’ll give you the ball!” was my answer. Trying not to crack up he repeated his demands and I repeated mine. Seconds before he broke down with laughter, the smile threatening to break free, he turned on his heal, throwing the ball to someone else and said “No ball games at the border!” Still snickering he headed back to the office building. We all just cracked up.

Now taking photos at the border is a no-no, they seriously don’t like it. And a very serious soldier came over to us, very angry about the number of cameras about. “No photos!” he exclaimed, grabbing one of the guys cameras! Now this camera is quite valuable and I grabbed the same camera and told him he couldn’t take it. A little tug of war ensued as he demanded the camera so he could examine it and delete the photos, but I wasn’t sure it would be returned and held on. All of us were asking him to let go by now and after a few minutes his whole demeanor changed. His voice softened and he explained the laws and rules and “we don’t want pictures of the border to get on facebook…” The boys then deleted some of the pics in front of him to keep him happy. Ironic considering that the building had been completely deserted overnight and we could have taken as many photos as we wanted!

Then finally some of us were allowed to leave! 3 teams, then another 3 teams were allowed through into Mongolia! 50 meters and another stop sign, another small shed and another gate. A man walked towards us wearing civilian clothing and an official looking hat and demanded our vehicle papers. I went in with the others and was immediately wary of this bloke, who really looked as though he wasn’t very official. He wanted $11 USD for insurance for non-Mongolia cars. Trying to explain to him that this was a charity event and officially the cars were now Mongolian fell on deaf ears. I asked him for ID and he got very angry threatening and yelling and tried to throw us out of his little room. We then got the border police to help, the looks on their faces confirming that this wasn’t necessary for us to pay, but the man wouldn’t hear of it. He even tried to rip us off when we did eventually pay. And we were in Mongolia! Finally. After 40 hours!

We stopped and waited for the other teams and had some of the local food. Meat dumplings and a spicy chilli sauce. I want some now! We stocked up and headed into the Mongolian desert. Eerily featureless, Mongolia is just breathtaking. I can’t quite explain why it was so amazing, but it was. Open plains, rippling into the distance, large, surprising lakes, scattered around, camels and gers everywhere. The local huts are called yerts in Russia and its neighbours, but gers in Mongolia. Its not like they get upset if you get it wrong, but it’s nice to actually ask and get it right! We played soccer with some local kids and gave them some candy.

Just to let you know too, the paved tarmac stopped at that little gate in the middle of the borders. It was all dirt from here on in. And as for a distinct road? Well, you’re better off with a direction, not a map, as many of the tracks were criss-crossed with other roads as the locals try and make a smoother ride for themselves. Up to 20 dirt roads in any direction, corrugated and filled with rocks and ditches. These roads would have to be taken carefully, safely. Apparently there is some 25000 km of road in Mongolia, 4000 of which was paved. And less than that is actually recognizable as a road! Just before we left the town, the angry insurance official saw me sitting alone in the Ambulance, and headed over. Resigned to another tongue lashing after our push and shove, I wound the window down. But he was a different man. Through broken English and sign language he apologised for his behaviour and hope I would have a great time in his country. Genuinely stunned I smiled at him and shook his hand telling him there were no hard feeling. We smiled and said our goodbyes.

We came across the town of Olgii, a man on a motorbike waiting at its outskirts. The Mongol Rally Charity had helped this town and he was there to help the travellers make their way. After a brief conversation the man set off motioning us to follow him. I joked that he was taking us to his house. And he did! Another brief conversation and we followed him out of town and he sent us on our way. The roads are the worst you can imagine, heaps of road-works, and sometimes better to just drive through the desert, but we pushed on. There is a picture of a bridge on the MR website and we came across our first river crossing, the bridge dilapidated beyond use, but it wasn’t hard and we headed on into the night before camping. Still up about 2300 meters it was another cold night, but camping in the Mongolian desert buoyed our spirits. It was just cool to be here!

There were cracks showing in the camps the next day when we got up, 40 days of travel and so close to the end were taking its toll. But a few hours’ drive and we made it to Khovd. Here we found a Ger camp especially set up for the ralliers and we stopped and enjoyed the hospitality of Seseer and his lovely wife. For about $4 each we had a great meal, could use the shower and facilities and even use the internet. Like a little oasis we sat around and charged our batteries. From here we went into town to get supplies and parts for the cars. Khovd is mainly mud-brick simple buildings, with the remnants of Russia all about in the soviet style buildings everywhere. In between you will find gers, in the town, and a great market. Above the city circling like pigeons are massive eagles, tens of them, maybe a hundred. Knowing that food was always where people are they glide across the sky and search. We even met the local representative for the MR here in the middle of town. Very nice lady. A few hours and we were ready to go again.

Along the way we had met a couple of French guys in a 4wd, travelling the rally. They had broken down every single day. How they had gotten so far we didn’t know. And outside of Khovd we found them again. One of them had been travelling with another team and had gone ahead. But this car was done. So we went off to find the other guy for him, we travelled about 50 km’s before we found him and the other teams decided to head back and help out. We found another awesome river crossing and camped on the other side by a crystal stream. The tension around the camp was eased by a massive night of drinking. Glow sticks and vodka were the winners that night. There may have been some nudity. See how rumours start…

The cars were just falling apart now, the long days of bad road taking their toll. And in 3 days we had maybe travelled 300 km. The next morning Bumblebee had to be pull started (thanks to sneaky sneaky our Serbian friend), once going the Ambo was having fuel problems again, and the other Aussie teams problems were just starting. We passed massive 2-humped camels, eagles and lakes until the desert gave way to an amazing scene of a horse race in the desert! The Mongolian Darby was less than a km away and we were able to watch the finish of it! Maybe 30 horses, surrounded by cars, bikes and trucks all driving/ riding flat-out through the desert, a long dust cloud floating behind them as they raced for the finish line in Darvy. We stopped in Darvy for supplies and the Aussie teams car spat out all of its oil, thanks to a sump plug that had worked its way out during the drive. Some steel bonded cement and more oil fixed that and we were once again on our way. This was another 140 miles of bad road, and it took us all day, before camping on the edge of the Gobi desert. We made a stew of pretty much everything we had left and it was one of the best meals we had had!! And thank god it was warming up!

We woke up determined to make some headway the next morning and after the usual troubles starting the cars we were off again. Another long drive in the morning and then something special happened: It rained in the Gobi desert. Dark skies threatened and broke into a light misty rain for a little while, washing our cars and keeping the dust down for us. The dust had been an unwanted passenger for most of our journey. In our car, our clothes, our bags, our food. You couldn’t get away from it, until it rained for us.

On arriving in Altai we had to leave the Aussies behind as they attempted to get their car fixed. We almost lost the other teams this day as well, as we travelled well ahead of them, before heading back to help. And car problems were plaguing us again. Along the way are shrines, decorated in blue, and we found one high on a hill. We all took photos and headed off again into the desert. The morning sunrises are some of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see until the sunsets come again! This night we decided to risk driving in the night as we desperately wanted to make Ulaanbaatar for the final party. Until we came to the river… 100 feet across and at night we couldn’t tell how deep it was. So we camped again, leaving the river for the morning.

The next morning we woke early to take a good look at the river. We had 750km to go and wanted to make it safely. We had all talked about driving safely and making sure we get there that night! We wanted to party!! Another team had to leave their car and pulled up besides us, driven along by a local who had just bought a new car in Altai. While we were looking for a river crossing they attempted the trip across and got stuck on ¾ the way across! As the car filled with water they climbed out and sat on the roof while we got help. A local man on a motorbike said he would help and proceeded to show us the way through the river… ON THE MOTORBIKE! Josh pulled the much smaller Fiat through the rover and we all sat on the other side as they pulled the poor guys car out with a tractor. We now had 2 more passengers and headed off. After about another hour of Josh at the wheel I finally snapped at his over-enthusiastic driving, as he basically got a 2.5 tonne vehicle off the ground at speed and lost control. I had had enough and told him he wasn’t driving anymore, genuinely scared for my life, and wanting to make it to Ulaanbaatar in one piece. He refused to leave the driver’s seat and I threw him out. Another brake down for the Serbian team and I, completely embarrassed by my outburst, apologised to Josh and the others in the team.

I had also made a decision. I wouldn’t be finishing the trip with Josh and the Ambulance. And the other guys. It was such a hard decision for me and you could see it on the faces of the rest of the boys. But it was obvious that on the last day of the rally, I felt very strongly about my own safety, and if I stayed my safety wasn’t assured, and I couldn’t ask anyone else to put themselves at risk. There is an element of danger to this entire rally, it’s kind of the point, but I didn’t feel it necessary to push it too far. The guy who drowned his car had turned up and I hitched a ride with him to the next town, forgetting my passport I had to wait for the teams to catch up so I could get it. Then I looked for the bus. Bayankhongor is not a huge town, but it is thriving, and looks like most of the other towns. A helpful local took me to the bus stop, where I met another team already on the bus. Now these Russian made UAZ 452 buses are everywhere. 4wd and a tank couldn’t stop them. Slightly bigger than a VW combi and absolutely brilliant. Until you try and put 18 people into one. And our luggage. 12 hours in the bus, with my ankles around my ears, and the guys with me were taller! A couple of stops, for food and fuel, and a couple of meetings with other teams (including 5 or 6 sightings of Bumblebee the little fiat on the way), we made it to Ulaanbaatar!

I had completed my Rally! Highs and lows this was a magnificent trip! The four of us had missed the party and were looking for accommodation at 3:30 am in the morning! A quick cab ride and a little search and we found the finish line, and about 50 people in various states of drunkenness, and a floor to sleep on for the night. I even found Ryan and Craig, and Bumblebee! Early the next morning the three of us headed for a better hotel. Comfortable beds, a truly excellent bathroom and Wi-Fi and we were home for the day. And did nothing… well maybe I had a beer. Just one.

This rally had been such a big part of our lives for 6 weeks. We all found it hard to sleep and relax at first due to the demands our bodies were used to along the way. As a big celebration amongst our Mongvoy (our teams name for our convoy) we had made plans to go to a certain restaurant and then just hit the town. Our team had split up and we weren’t sure where anyone was. But dinner was still on and we caught up again with the Aussies we had left in Altai. We made plans to meet them later at the finish line before heading out for our night. We had just gotten our first beers at the bar when a huge commotion arose outside and we went for a look: and around the corner came the Ambulance! One flat tyre and 9 people in it, they had made it, limping to the finish line! We cheered and went down for hugs and hand-shakes! The boys had made it! Very drunk and very dirty they told us that the other car had drowned in a mud puddle and they decided that the Mongvoy dinner was way too important, so they all got in and here they were. Even better the Serbians turned up not much later!

It was a great night of food, stories, too much laughter and great mates! Oh and there may have been a few strippers… it had been a long trip. With men, too many men…

Ulaanbaatar is a large, modern city. Like all cities you have to be very careful, but our group didn’t have any problems while wandering around. Others had given us warnings of muggers in broad daylight and fights at night, but we really didn’t see any problems. It was a bit sad for some teams though. The cars we drive over were all being sold, locals drifting around the car park looking for good cars. I find it interesting that you would want to buy what was left of a vehicle I had driven 18000km across truly bad roads, but hey if that’s what you want to do… These cars were a part of our teams. We had spent so long with them, fixed them, mothered them, cursed them, loved them and hated them. For such a long time. And now strangers were just picking them off.

We had our last big night with the group as a whole and said our goodbyes. I would be here til Thursday and had booked an early flight. The city has everything you need and the State Department store has everything you can possibly want. Food is cheap and delicious everywhere and tours are easy to book. I organised some cheap rooms in the same hotel for us and then we went horse riding. $30 USD gets you 7 hours journey. A private driver out to the beautiful national park, stunning views of turtle rock and the surrounding valleys, an hour and a half ride on a stubborn horse, dinner, trekking in the woods and back again. What a great day. This hidden valley of grassy fields, broken by stone and rocking erupting from the ground, and central to it all the massive turtle rock. The next day was a long walk out to the Black Market, apparently illegal, tax free markets, in the city. It really wasn’t that cheap. They did have absolutely everything you could imagine there. But just wasn’t that good: a bit like paddy’s markets really. The snow fell while we were there, cooling us off and reminding us that the deserts were so far behind us. That night we decided that sleep wasn’t an option due to our 4 am wakeup call and taxi to the airport. So we drank and chatted and said our goodbyes.

Great warrior, crap vodka. And on my 100th day away from Australia, I left Mongolia. If only it was that easy! At the airport the customs officer noticed that my visa had been stamped incorrectly and called a supervisor. Very tired now. He informed me that I had been travelling through Mongolia Illegally on an expired Visa. So very tired. I had been separated from everyone and was in a little room with him. Making a big show about waking his superior and getting it all done by my flight. Couldn’t keep my eyes open now. He then suggested I buy a new Visa. There it was! The bribe! Yawning I asked how much. The fine was about 120 pounds or 65 USD to get a new visa. Um…new visa. Now all officials I dealt with do this: when you give them money they count it at least three times and then just toss it in a drawer. He stamped my passport… where’s the “new” visa? And my one and only bribe was paid. I made it to my plane and fell asleep before takeoff. A brief stop in Moscow and I was back in London. Interestingly I had met a world champion Mongolian boxer on the flight and we quickly became friends as he chatted about his career. Cho Tseveenpurev, nice guy.

22 countries: UK, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, (Serbia), Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia. 18000 miles. Deserts, temperatures of 55 degrees Celsius and below -6. Awesome people and food, great sights and a life changing journey. And back in 14 hours on 2 flights! What a trip!

I have been in London nearly 2 weeks now and enjoy the absurdity of doing absolutely nothing. Another couple of weeks and my journey starts again. Europe with my beautiful girlfriend and maybe Ireland next week!!

 

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