The Russian/Mongolia border was a hive of early morning activity as ralliers hurriedly scrambled around to decamp and ensure that we left no trace of our temporary inhabitance (with some teams suffering with slightly sorer heads than others, following an impromptu tent party the night before). As it turned out, we needn’t have rushed...
The Mongolian border opened at 09:00 - well, I say opened, more like at 9:00 they let three vehicles through the first barrier and proceeded to keep them there (and the rest of us outside) for another 4 hours. We also learnt that lunch at the border starts at 11:00, takes a couple of hours, involves everyone (necessitating a temporary closure), and includes an inordinate amount of boozing.
When we were finally let onto the main concourse, to a slightly inebriated welcome from our resident customs officials, the process was a lot quicker/entirely cursory. A quick passport check, photo, visa review, and half-hearted look in our glove compartment later, we were on our way into Mongolia. The untouched flats and rolling hills of the steppe awaited, but first we had to incur a random environmental charge (instigated by two men, one make-shift road barrier, a questionable ID badge, and an even more questionable uniform) to give us access to a part of the country we weren’t actually visiting. But that minor frustration really didn’t matter, as now we had finally entered the country that had inspired the rally, a place with a tiny fraction of the population of the UK, but more than 6 times the landmass.
With the open “road” (another generous use of the term in this blog) stretching out into the wilderness, we headed to Ölgii (a small city of some 30,000 people) for some food and a bed for the night. After a bit of searching, we found a small yurt (or “ger”, as they’re referred to in Mongolia) camp and settled in for a beautiful evening under the stars.
The following morning we ran into a team from the Netherlands - Team Premium Panda (https://www.instagram.com/teampremiumpanda) - consisting of the two “Driechs”: Friedrich and Diedrich. Given the remoteness of the planned route; our propensity to break down (we’d already run through 5 tyres and a whole front suspension kit by this point... and don’t get me started on sumpy!); and our general love of other people’s company (I’m sure the team agree that anything that dilutes my own wittering is more than welcome) we decided to form a new convoy. Premium Breakdown? Nervous Panda? You decide!
The drive that day was fairly uneventful (but the scenery was mind-blowing!) - good roads turned to bad paths, other vehicles were fairly prevalent, but aside from the occasional smattering of gers signs of human inhabitants were few and far between. After 8+ hours on the road we came across a large lake, about an hour from the small town of Khvod, set up camp, demolished some pasta and treated ourselves to some Cuppa Soup. We also had time for Rach to demonstrate her horse whispering talents on a wandering harras (thank you Google) and show that these skills extended to other realms of the animal kingdom as well (goats, sheep, cows - you name it). So having made some new friends, we retired early to bed in the knowledge that we had another big day ahead of us tomorrow.
Day 3 saved all of the action for the end of the afternoon, and involved a bit of calculated risk taking on our part that would come back to bite us with some very time-consuming enthusiasm... Having made surprisingly good time we pressed on beyond our original destination (the town of Altai), in favour of shaving off some hours from the following day. A little short drive thereafter, we lost another tyre to the harsh road conditions that had plagued Bluey throughout Central Asia. Swapping in for our spare, we faced the difficult decision of whether to turn back to Altai, and stock up on fresh rubber, or press on whilst placing our confidence in the nearly new set of tyres that adorned our wheel hubs. Ever the optimists, and after a quick inspection, we opted to continue on our path for another 3 hours before setting up camp on the remoteness of the steppe.
The next morning, now fully rested and looking forward to the relatively short day ahead of us (a luxury afforded to us as a result of our driving efforts the previous day), our hearts sank lower than our wheel base upon discovering that, overnight, we’d lost another tyre to a frustratingly small slow puncture. Hours from civilisation, without adequate transport, mobile signal, or time to play with, we resigned ourselves to thumbing a lift back to Altai with both our flats and accompanying rims.
Rach and I would form the Altai expeditionary force, whilst Owen was on Bluey babysitting duty (affording him some quiet time to bash out some blogs and reorganise Bluey’s interior... and conduct his own one-man imaginary Ashes series, which he won as both leading wicket taker and top run scorer - maybe we shouldn’t leave him alone for too long in the future). This was also the end of our convoy, as we encouraged team Premium Panda to go on without us (given that they were running to an equally tight timetable). Begrudgingly, they left, but not without first bestowing some extra supplies and a spare jack, just in case.
Having flagged down a passing by bus, Rach and I were offered stools in the vehicle’s footwell (which were gratefully received) and started back towards where we’d come from the previous afternoon. It was at this point, 10 minutes into the return leg, I recalled that I hadn’t remembered to take adequate note of where we’d actually left Bluey and Owen in the wilderness (small oversight on my part). Hastily sending myself a location pin - on my now low-batteried phone - that was “accurate” to a half mile radius, we continued onwards.
Arriving at Altai a few hours later, we were comforted to discover a host of tyre shops (I suppose just evidence of a reasonably functioning market economy: bad roads = pressing need for plenty of tyres = ample supply thereof). After receiving a warm welcome from the woman who owned the shop, we were soon back to a full complement of functioning wheels and could turn our attention to liberating Owen.
Following a 3 hour wait for a return bus, we set off on the now familiar route. This particular coach has a large collection of locals who were surprisingly well lubricated for a random mid-afternoon weekday but, not ones to judge, we settled in for another bumpy ride.
After plenty of loo stops (not for us, mind), and a small fracas which temporarily bought a halt to all driving proceedings (I have no idea what it was about, but at least 4 people took swings at each other), we approached the pinned location on my almost depleted phone. Mobilising as many people on the bus as possible, we started a 20 minute game of “spot the machina (car)”, with every passing minute beyond my original pin making me visibly more and more anxious. As we approached the point at which I wondered whether we’d ever see Owen or Bluey again (both abandoned to the vagaries of the steppe for all eternity), a shout rose from the middle of the bus, as one of our eagle-eyed compatriots spotted our lonely vehicle on the horizon.
Relieved, we jumped off the bus, thanked our fellow passengers and driver, and congratulated Owen on his ability to stay stationary for a whole day. Wheels back on, we left our camping stop behind us and began the long slog to Bayanknongor.
At a little after 3am, we arrived at our destination (with only a slight additional delay due to my overwhelming desire to help a stranded Mongolian family refit their fuel tank to the underside of their car - all good deeds etc etc). There was nothing of particular note about the hotel we found on the outskirts of town, other than the observation that even the wallpaper looked like it didn’t fancy staying there (as it desperately looked to extricate itself from the walls it had been forcibly attached to for so many decades).
After a few hours sleep, we woke knowing we had both a long day and night ahead of us if we were to make up time and arrive for the finish line party in Ulan Ude, Russia. So, after a quick morale-boosting breakfast of banana, Nutella and stale pastries, we headed for the Mongolian capital (Ulan Bator) - our halfway point on this final leg of the journey.
As we approached the capital, the roads began to markedly improve, as did the availability of petrol, so we took the decision to empty the last of our jerry cans into the fuel tank (no point in keeping it, after all). As we pulled over into a convenient lay-by, we noticed a couple of nomads wandering their camels around the neighbouring greenery. With nothing to lose, we approached them to enquire whether could borrow these three animals for some snaps and a quick ride around the surrounding foothills . Happy to oblige, our newfound hosts led us on a merry wander for 20 minutes, as we collectively giggled like little children atop these doubled humped beasts. Curiosity satisfied, and new experience ticked off the list, we jumped back into Bluey with spirits notably lifted.
The rest of the day went by without a hitch (aside from losing her another tyre!), and we strolled into Ulan Bator at just before midnight. Peckish, we began to toe the city in search for sustenance, but with limited late night options we found ourselves resorting to a 24-hour KFC. I say resorting, but it turned out to be just what we needed: chicken, plenty of carbs, and a milkshake to finish thing off - perfect (if not entirely devoid of any cultural relevance)!
Fed, watered, and vaguely awake, we left for the Russian border, and what would be the final day of our fantastic little road trip.