Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Mongolian Outback

A few appropriately disorganized thoughts and memories from the 'road' across Western Mongolia:

I am driving across a field in Western Mongolia. The road is right there, a couple of feet to my left, but it's actually smoother here in the grass. This could seem odd, but a week into the drive across desolate Mongolia it's now the norm - the road is less bad out here. I sneak another furtive glance at the temperature gauge - the car's overheating again. It's really not enough, so I'll have to come back in another minute. Taking your eyes off the road for anything more than a fraction of a second, however, is going to result in something horrible materializing in front of the car, so you're limited to the occasional glance, but we go on. My arms are starting to ache from constantly wrestling to keep the car under control across the web of obstacles the roads throw at us: potholes, rocks left in the middle of the road by drivers who'd earlier used them as chalks, river crossings, and my favorite, the roads that have turned into washboard bad enough that it threatens to shake the entire car loose. I can't help but have the perverse desire to drive the rickshaw along these roads just to see how quickly every single bolt and nut on it would disintegrate... Bajaj - inspiring confidence!

The world is suddenly crawling by in slow motion... The car is still certainly moving East, but East is no longer in front of me. In front of me is now the distinctly uninviting side of the road, as the car is sliding sideways having lost traction in all four tires. As I struggle to regain some semblance of control, how did we get here? Well, we are in the second day of the 400km journey from Hovd to Altai. An hour ago we came up on an abandoned Mongol Rally Renault. It's parked at a herder's shed in the middle of nowhere, apparently converted to a meat storage locker by the enterprising Mongolians. It's horribly mangled rims are staring angrily at the world (we wonder how they managed to do this sort of damage to the Renault - I think may be about to find out). The road proceeded to improve just enough to allow you to build up some speed. Clearly not enough to allow you to maintain control at this speed. And so, the greater speed hasn't gone so well. So, we are sliding along, seemingly in slow motion. After avoiding the much rougher looking North side of the road, I manage to slow the car down just a bit before hitting the South bank. It appears that the now seriously warped front license plate has absorbed most of the damage (you deserved that, France!). Further inspection, unfortunately, discovers that the right wheel is now pointing a rather unhealthy 15 degrees out. I figure it could've been worse, so after a few hours of attempted repairs, we go on towards Altai, hoping the car will make it.

From the ridiculous to the sublime.

It is now getting dark and we are still not in Altai. There are now six tires in the car - odd considering that I only started the day with one spare. On the roof are the two flats. The rear right, which was giving us so much trouble, rubbing against the wheel, approaching Mongolia, is in acceptable shape. The rear left has more travel than normal, so it squeaks uncomfortably against the wheel well going over bumps. Cyrus speeds past me, as the heretofore indestructible Panda sprung a leak in the radiator an hour ago, so he's now going in sprints, then stopping to top up the radiator and let the engine cool down. I keep crawling, getting inexorably closer to UlaanBaatar at 20kph. The front wheels hadn't given us much trouble, but now the front left makes an evil-sounding scratch whenever I turn sharply right. The front right went back to pointing 15 degrees to the right less than an hour after we though we'd finished fixing  it... Then I got a flat up there... and then another... Having only one spare for the mini, we went through the exercise of unappealing options and settled on using one of the Panda's spares, which fits less than perfectly on the mini, so we crawl along, hoping the wheel will still be there when we reach Altai.

Now on the 12th day across the Mongolian wilderness, my mind is clearly getting affected by this country. The road has become a video game: I have two controls: throttle and steering. I win if I reach the next town unscathed. I lose if either the engine temperature gets to high (because I wasn't going fast enough), or if my suspension gets destroyed (because I was going too fast to steer around all the rocks/potholes/assorted obstacles). This refreshing outlook keeps my attention for a while as the mini wind up and down hills trying to dodge obstacles at full speed. Theo, Tina, and the motorcycle are somewhere in the trail of dust behind me. I eventually lose the game by the way... on both counts as stopping to let the engine cool down reveals that the big shock absorber has ripped up a new part of the suspension and the car will need more welding when we get to Arvaiheer.

The last stretch to UlaanBaatar feels anti-climactic. I keep thinking of the last, largely ceremonial, leg of the Tour de France as the riders simply cruise down the Champs-Elysées. We are simply cruising down the well paved 400km stretch of road to the finish line. It starts raining and the mini's wind shield wipers apparently don't work. Five minute adjustment and we are back on the road. But this isn't the Tour de France - 100km from the capital, the Mongolian road builders decide to throw one last Fuck You at the highway, when they apparently choose to not finish the 80km stretch of road leading directly into the city... So, we are almost in the capital, and we are right back on the multitude of unpaved tracks across fields all tentatively leading in the direction of the city. The 80km stretch takes us five hours. The rain from earlier has helped turned parts of the unpaved road into unpaved quagmire, so I get the mini stuck in the mud (twice). We manage to flag down a passing truck and the locals are happy to help push the car out of the mud on each occasion. At 4 in the morning we arrive in UlaanBaatar. The next afternoon, we go by the adventurists offices officially completing the Mongol Rally in eight weeks and two days. We are the last team to finish!

Some shots from the road:

Both cars on the road seminal view of the mini in Mongolia: one tire off This bridge is 'under construction'. We have to cross a river Lakes, mountains, Mongolia... Cyrus enters the river with a flourish Across the Gobi
A lot more pictures from the road: Paris to London to Mongolian border And then we got to Mongolia, spent 2 weeks there and took lots of pictures: Mongolia, Part 1 Mongolia, Part 2 Mongolia, Part 3 To the finish line

The UB arrival was on the 15th of September, now fast forwarding to present day, Sep. 25. The 10 days in UB have given me a chance to enjoy such simple pleasures as consistently hot showers in my hotel rooms, excellent Indian and Italian restaurants in the city, a mechanic repairing the mini, and the chance to not be driving anywhere for a while! Now, however, with the car sporting four new tires and a largely revived suspension, it's back to the road again - I'm heading back North into Russia, to Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast, then shipping the car to the United States via Japan. I'll keep using both the blog and [hopefully] the Mongol Rally map ( to keep track of my progress.


dlott said...

Hurrah for continuing! Guess that means I should fix the RSS feed of the location...

Rob said...

I am so happy to read of your arrival in Uulan Batar. I have watched you crossing the treacherous countryside and pitted roads, loving all of the great postings checking the texts from Cy along the way and the photos posted by everyone of such an unforgiving landscape. I have relished every posting and worried many nights when I didn't sleep well because I could not know the daily update of the journey. I knew though that all of you would be just fine and that you were having the time of your lives. Many times I thought your affection for the Mini was misplaced and your determination might misguide you but you proved me wrong. I am so happy for you and admire all of you for your perserverence and and ingenuity in overcoming the obstacles in your path. I think you are all so lucky to have willingly challenged yourselves and finished. I find that we are happiest when we are challenged and face things head on. This you have done. I know you'll carry it with you. Congrats on your determination and your success. Oh and also, nice writing.
Robin (Cy's Mom)