Monday, September 5, 2011

Hitch-Hiking the Mongol Rally

Hitch Hiking the Mongol Rally
Sitting on top of a hill next to a small mountain Ovoo, gazing at the expansive and dusty Gobi-Altai, I was contemplating my escape route.  I wasn't really doing anything, mulling around Altay City, a soum with a population of about 16,000.  I was feeling a little dejected at the thought of having to make the 30+ hour bus ride back to Ulaanbaatar, nor was I quite ready to go back, but quickly wearing out my welcome at a friend's tiny, one room, soviet square cinder block of an apartment.  I had seen the slightly askew, hand written sign for the Mongol Rally Auto Shop in the center of town, and as I had never heard of the Mongol Rally before my friend explained. 
The Mongol Rally is a charity event that starts with teams purchasing impossibly small and or ridiculous vehicles to cross over 10,000 miles and two continents from Goodwood England to Ulaanbaatar Mongolia.  If the vehicles make it through the impossible Mongolian terrain, they are then auctioned off and the money is then distributed to the Christina Noble Foundation, an organization that cares for children who are at risk, whether on the streets or in their own households.
So, at the suggestion of my friend, I decided that I was up for one more Mongolian adventure and I would ask the cars passing through town for a lift out.  The first stream of cars had just started to make an appearance, often stopping at the Post Office for internet checks, or for quick lunch breaks before hitting the dusty road again.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, there was also a second, smaller charity drive happening, so the first batch of cars I asked a ride from were actually from that faction.  The response was curt at best.  While two cars did not have room, the third one clearly did but they had “hell no” written all over their faces as they not so politely told me they couldn't oblige me.
Feeling a little dejected on day one, and no sign of cars on day two, I decided to try again on day three before sucking it up and buying a bus ticket.  I spotted two cars parked in a lot with no drivers to be found nearby.  Dusty, rattled looking little tin cans packed to the brim. As I crossed the street I can make out a couple of guys, obviously foreigners, hanging outside the Post Office. Perfect. Even on the Mongol Rally, people want to check their Facebook or blog about their adventures for friends and family back home.  I approach the small cluster and introduce myself. I take a minute to inquire about their route, any mishaps along the way, and how they are enjoying the glorious “roads” that are mere pathways crisscrossing the open fields.  They were nice English chaps that I made easy conversation with so I made my pitch to them about getting a lift.  Unfortunately they just didn't have the space.  Little did any of us know that, as I walked away from those nice lads, that it would not be the last time I would see them.
    This was the moment that I had originally decided to go buy a bus ticket, but maybe it was the Universe speaking to me, or my stomach, but I decided to return to the apartment for a quick lunch before heading to the bus stop.  It's safe to say that had I not made that decision I never would have ended up on the craziest 4 day ride across Mongolia.  As I re emerged from the apartment I spotted a Land Cruiser with AMBULANCE written on the side, drive by. Score.  The vehicle was heading in the direction of the Auto shop.  Figuring I'd give it one more go, I headed in the same direction.  The Auto Shop had suddenly turned into a Mongol Rally parking lot. Three cars and several people were milling about and there definitely was a caged wolf pup in the back.   A young man was leaning into the window of the Land Cruiser Ambulance.  I approached him and struck up a conversation similar to that I had with the two previous cars from earlier in the day.  Two Brits Two Blondes were four in a small silver two door Ford KA .  One Brit skips up behind me and enthusiastically points out that I am already equipped with a Leatherman on my belt and a Fanny Pack. 
“I'm always come prepared” I exclaim. 
One of the Blondes, a fellow American girl, points to a Blue Peugeot in the back, hood up and one wheel already off. 
“These guys are broken down but they might have room....if they can get their vehicle fixed....”

A tall lanky fellow saunters over.  He is the driver for 206 A Race Odyssey.  Keith, a Northern Irishman, explains that he just drove 80 km with no breaks and the tire blew out and the rim was crushed.  The other members of the car are Josie from New Zealand and Sayan, a Buryat Russian both who reside in Germany.  A truly international group of people who just tossed an American into their mix.
I ask what the likelihood of a car revival would be and the status at the time seemed to be a toss up.  But the good news was that if the car was fixed, then I would have a ride as their 4th team member had visa issues and had to cut the trip short.  We waved goodbye to Two Brits Two Blondes and the Land Cruiser as they continued their journey with plenty of daylight left for driving.  I make myself comfortable in the the Auto Shop parking lot, taking note that some issues with the wheel had seemed to be getting resolved.  After about an hour, it's determined that the car would in fact be drivable and I hurry back to the apartment to grab my gear that I would be practically hugging for the next several days in the jam packed Peugeot named Lionel.  With spirits high we cram in and take off.  I was finally getting out of this boring little soum and I was ready for whatever obstacle would get tossed our way.  About twenty minutes into the drive as we pass under the Archway on the outskirts of the town and into nothing but a thousand kilometers of grass, rock, and camels, Keith exclaims in his charming  Irish lilt,
“um, hey guys, we still don't have breaks. We have to go back.”
Josie groans, “are you sure you can't drive a thousand kilometers with no breaks?”.
I think at the time we were all almost inclined to say fuck it, who needs breaks, but as Keith was the actual driver he made the decision that breaks were indeed useful and we did need to return to the mechanics.  As we turned around and once again passed under that Altay City archway, Keith looks over his shoulder at me and asks how my first day with the Mongol Rally was.
I shrugged a reply, “As I expected”    Back at the mechanic it's clear that we would be staying the night.  Assured that we would have breaks, we woke at first light only to discover that we did not in fact, have breaks. But within two hours the issue is resolved and this time I pass under that archway for the last time.  With Bayanhonger being our goal for the day we speed along the dirt road choosing the least offensive route that's cut into the pastureland.  The weather is poor, the cold incessant drizzle that lasts the entire day and seeps into your bones.  The dirt roads split in several directions, one going over a small ridge, while the other goes around.  We exit the car to get a better view and in the distance we spot two cars at the base of the ridge line.  We decide that before cresting the hill we would ask the cars which direction we needed to go in, although  when asking locals the answer was usually given in a brisk hand gesture towards a horizon line.  As we roll up to the two parked cars I immediately recognize red Hyundai and silver Punto as the vehicles owned by the group I had talked to outside the Post Office.  The Shantastics and Mathematicians Not Mechanics had not been aware of the time change and were casually drinking coffee and rolling out of their tents even though it was pushing near 10 am.  After a brief chat we leave them to pack up their car and continue onward, making note that they would probably catch up with us since we were driving pretty slowly.  The other teams weren't without their problems either. The  Shantastics needed a jump start every morning so they had ended up convoying with  Mathematicians Not Mechanics and the Mathematicians had no shocks and had been driving with almost no breaks since Hovd, just minimal back breaks and a hand break which later that day or the next ended up becoming completely useless while trying to avoid smashing into the other car during a short stop.

Between the dirt, the sand and the patter of rain, we carved out some mileage before spinning out and giving ourselves a good scare.  Seconds later the other two cars careen over the hillside.  They had narrowly missed a scene were we potentially could have ended up on our backside.  At that point onward we became a convoy. 

Our first hurdle of the day was a large river crossing.  I had crossed it once before in the van I hitched the opposite way with.  But now there was rain in the mix and much tinier, crappier cars involved.  We approached the small cluster of Ger's at the rivers edge.  Several children come running towards us, excited by the foreigners and probably being fairly familiar with the annual flux of weird cars and weird people needing a tow over the river.  We step out and contemplate our options.  It was possible and actually probably that one or none of the cars would make it.  The Mathematicians had already narrowly escaped a river fiasco when they straight up sank in the middle of a previous one.  As the children mill around us and the local Mongolian men prepare their tractors to tow us, we all shuffle our feet and procrastinate.  Nobody wants to be the first sucker to try it out.  One by one we all get ferried across, water trickling in under the doors we all expect the worst and hope for the best.  Safely across and engines running (after another jump start for the Shantastics) we are surprised by another smaller river.  Why hadn't they taken us across this one as well?  It certainly didn't look that bad.  But with the rain, it definitely had some current to it.  The two other cars charge through it first.  Then Keith revs the engine and makes a run for it. Kaput. We are stalled out and engine flooded. FUCK.  Without so much as a second glance the other team members jump in shoes and all to push us out of the middle of the river.  I don't know much about cars but the situation seemed pretty dire.  Someone mentioned maybe having to bust out the tow line.  But we were on the wrong side of the river so the only option was forward not backwards.  In fact it was Josie who mentioned after the tractors took us over that “there was no going back to Altay now”.  As we are weighing our options a car with a family of Mongolians drive up and stop.  A girl jumps out.  “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”  A Mongolian who speaks German.  Yet no Germans to be had.  Yet.  The girl's father comes over and takes a look under the hood.  Using my Leatherman, he unscrews some tie on the engine and takes hold of a tube and pours out several ounces of water and then miraculously chokes the engine back to life. WIN.

Never assume you are in the clear.  Careening our way into the homestretch, leaving half of Mongolia at our backs, Bayanhonger never seemed so reachable. Then came the massive CLUNK.  With dismay in our eyes we knew that sound could not have been good. And seconds later, the overwhelming petrol fumes confirms what we already knew.  We hit large rock and cut a huge hole into our fuel tank as well as our fuel pipes.  This really was the end of the road for poor Lionel, as we toss a plastic container under the car to catch the fuel pouring out.  Our convoy stops to asses the situation.  We are 70km from Bayanhonger.  Someone pulls out some product that is specifically meant for patching the fuel tank but we also had punctured the fuel pipes which was a bigger issue that would have to be resolved at the mechanics.  The Shantastics cheerily exclaim that they have a tow line and would tow us to Bayanhonger.  As there seemed to be little other option, we hesitantly look at their wheel with an obvious slow leak, shrug our shoulders and decide to give it a go. And three hours and a broken tow line later, that sturdy little Hyundai Accent, pulls us into the Auto Shop.  We had our hopes high that we would be able to get the issues resolved and be able to camp out with our friends outside of town.  We had already spent the previous night at the mechanics and we were not enthusiastic about another, however, upon my return from dinner, hot soup in hand for my team mates who had not eaten since I met them, it was announced that the car would be worked on in the morning.  Defeated, we waved good bye to the other cars as they pull out to find a camping spot.  They promised to return after breakfast to see how our progress was. 

I awoke with a start.  Josie is in the doorway, stamping and fuming. 
“Keith!, He's drilling holes into our fuel tank!
After some more expletive remarks about the mechanic not fixing the car, and in fact maybe damaging it more by drilling 9 extra holes into the tank, we evaluate the situation again.  Do we take the car somewhere else?  Obviously the language barrier had made the process of fixing the car a little more exasperating.  Sayan was Russian which helped immensely, and to be honest, I'm not sure how the other teams were able to manage without even that.  By about 10am, however, with Keith being under the car more then the mechanic, the holes managed to be patched somehow.  It had been a harrowing 24 hours but we were ready to continue. 

Throughout the journey I had been told snippet tales about The Germans.  Another rally car that I had just missed at the mechanics in Altay.  Keith described the team like the story of the Turtle and the Hare.  Slow and Steady wins the race.  The joke was that the Germans drove so carefully and so slowly and drove long hours with little to no stops, that they efficiently crossed the 10,000 km with no mechanical problems.  But every day while the other cars would stop due to malfunctions, there were the Germans to wave to them as they slowly cruised by.  How....German.  As Lionel chugged and rattled across the open fields, we crested a hill and who do we drive up alongside?  But ze German's of course. 
The whole care erupts, “Ze German's!!!

And now our convoy was four.

The goal for that day was to drive carefully and to reach Aveikheer. The next soum a few hundred Kilometers away.  We were excited for the prospect of a big camp out and several bottles of Vodka, with all four teams.   The day was fairly uneventful and the landscape rarely changed.  A couple suspicious looking bridges were tackled, some of us going around and into the streams, while others took the chance at the decaying planks of wood. The Mathematicians not Mechanics car was an entertaining view as their car would bounce high in the air for several minutes with every little bump.  And since there were many little bumps, that tiny Fiat bounced it's way across the Mongolian countryside.  Finally, with Avaikheer in the distance, we hit beautiful sweet sweet TARMAC.  The remainder of the drive to UB would be an actual road and actually paved.  Of course luck was not on our side.  The patches the previous mechanic had placed on our fuel pipes were leaking again.  It was late afternoon and the leak was slow, so we discussed whether or not we should just take the chance and continue onward, and try and reach Ulaanbaatar as quickly as possible.  But there was a lot of  open landscape ahead of us yet, so once again, feeling defeated, we turned into Avaikheer to make our daily stop at the next checkpoint mechanic.  This time we were absolutely not going to spend the night at the auto shop again.  We were in Mongolia goddammit and wanted to sleep under the open Mongolian sky.  With the help of the other teams, we were loaded into the other cars and carted to the camping spot.  Even if the car didn't get fixed, we at least could enjoy a nice night with friends and vodka. 

The following morning, with Lionel patched up again, but clearly needing a cylinder replaced, it was decided that our convoy would split up.  Lionel was going to make a beeline for Ulaanbaatar, while The Germans (named Team Dzambala), the Shantastics, and Mathematicians Not Mechanics were going to spend one more night camping out.  Nobody had any flights out till after the After Party on Saturday so there was no real rush to get to the Capital where money would be spent on hotels and restaurants.  I had no particular schedule as my own flight out of Mongolia was not for another week and a half.  At that point I decided to switch teams and stay behind.  It was a little emotional, putting my pack into the Mathematicians Not Mechanics car.  I had been through a lot in my two and a half days with  206 A Race Odyssey.  But it wasn't over yet, I would see them all again at the Finish Line.

As the remainder of our convoy trudged onward, we had decided to find a nice spot in the afternoon to set up camp, and maybe do a little hike.  Half way between Avaikheer and UB there was a tourist stop on the map where there were Gobi like sand dunes and Camels to ride, but as we passed by the  bus loads of tourists getting their Camel photo op, we decided to move pass it.  The countryside was turning a little busier, with more small towns and gas stations lined up along side the road.   All of a sudden, the convoy careens into a gas station.  There was another Mongol Rally car that had appeared to have a flat.  As I jumped out of the car I immediately recognized the the small cluster of blond hair.  It was Two Brits Two Blondes who I had met at the mechanics in Altay City.  They had taken a detour to visit a monastery for a day and had blown out two tires.  How they managed to do that while on the paved road is a mystery and just the type of ridiculousness that is common on the Mongol Rally.  The mini reunion involves the Germans handing over their spare tires they had tucked in the back and a quick comment about how they had wondered if I ever made it out of the parking lot in Altay City.

And so I had.   Two Brits Two Blondes  had UB as their destination for that day so we waved good bye and went in search for our final camping spot.  Because we missed the off roading so much the past day and a half, we needed a little reminder of what we would be missing in Mongolia so we turned off the road towards the mountain range.  Parked at the base of the enormous cliffs, we set up our tents for the last time.  It was a much needed relaxing afternoon that brings me to our final day on the Mongol Rally.  Not in any rush to reintroduce ourselves to the daily hustle of city life, we moseyed our way to UB.  A fun new game of switching team cars to the homestretch developed and finally there was the Ulaanbaatar archway.  Of course I had seen it all before, but I still fed off the excitement of the others.  Posing for pictures, I could already taste that cold draft beer, waiting at the Finish Line.  Which made the next hour and a half the most treacherous and aggravating stretch yet.  With the road construction, loud traffic, great plumes of dust and pollution, it seemed like a life time before we finally turned the corner and saw the Finish Line Banner.  Our convoy passed beneath the banner and I looked up to see my former team and new friends, 206 A Race Odyssey and Two Brits Two Blondes jumping up and down, cheering,  with beers in their hands.  I had only been on this journey for four days but the camaraderie and friendships made, put a whole new spin to my time in Mongolia.  They had made it.   We had made it.
Photo By Josie McVitty

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Man, that is a truly epic journey you had there. I'm so jealous!

A few weeks ago I decided to dedicate myself to pursuing a career and travel writing and photography, and as soon as I can get the money for it, I hope to be having some serious adventures like this!

Anyways, yeah, probably one of the most exciting travel stories I've read in a while.