Hi all! Cameron here once again, bringing you probably the final post until I’m back home in Perth.
We left Altay on Thursday morning in pretty high spirits, with Ulaanbaatar feeling like it was just a short way off in the distance. The convoy got separated pretty early on, with the Micras and the Terios zooming off into the distance. When we had our second flat tyre of the morning and decided to stop for brunch as we changed it, the bus left us behind too.
After a bit of driving, we reached a small town where the road forked. One fun aspect of Mongolian roads is that they are almost never signposted and the tracks often diverge and rejoin with no rhyme of reason. I picked the wrong fork and after a few minutes the road got narrower, rockier and steeper as it headed through the mountains. No way was this the road to Ulaanbaatar – or if it was, we didn’t want to be on it. So we back-tracked to the down and picked a more major route heading out.
After a few more hours of driving, we saw The Fast and the Curious’s Micra in the distance, heading in the opposite direction to us. It became clear that they were heading off to find For Baatar or Worse, who appeared to be broken down just a little way ahead. The problems with their fuel system that they’d had on Wednesday weren’t completely fixed by the mechanic in Altay, and they could now only travel a few hundred metres at a time before their engine stopped. After making vague offers of help, they said we might as well go on without them, so we did.
We had also realised a little bit previously that the road we were on couldn’t be the main road on our map. There were towns that we should have passed through but didn’t, and a lake which we were much closer to than we were expecting to be. Looking at our map, it was a minor road with rejoined the main road just before the next town we were aiming for, so no harm done.
Not far afterwards, we had to stop ourselves as our roof rack started becoming detached from the car once again. While we were re-applying the fencing wire holding one corner of the roof rack to the car and repacking the roof to place less strain on the rear bar, For Baatar or Worse caught up with us again. It turned out that their “fuel problems” went away once they filled up with fuel. After tipping their jerry cans into their tank, they were on the move again. We said we’d be ready to roll in a few minutes and they might as well go on without us.
At some point after this, we encountered another small village and immediately after it, a river. The river looked wide and deep enough that we weren’t too keen on crossing it, but we saw two Micras parked on the other side – and if they made it through, so could we. Just as we were about to get out and wade across, a couple of young kids on a motorbike gestured for us to follow them over. The crossing turned out to be quite treacherous – there wasn’t just one stream to cross, there were a few. The young Mongolians knew the shallowest routes across all of them, and after a near catastrophic failure, almost stalling in water, we arrived at the other side.
Adon noted that at some point on the way we’d lost our power steering, and sure enough there was green fluid dripping from the car and the power steering fluid reservoir was completely smashed up by a rock. But that didn’t matter, power steering is optional and we’d made it through. After through a small amount of cash to the kids on the bike, we said hello to the Micras – who, it turned out, had asked to be towed across by a tractor rather than attempting the crossing themselves.
From here on, we convoyed once again with the aim of reaching the next major town, Bayankhongor. As the sun went down we were feeling that the town must be very close and we might as well press on until we reached it. But then we spotted a hill with a bus parked on it and a chap walking around in pink shorts. Yep, it was the Canadians and the Terios. They’d taken exactly the same wrong road as us, and decided to set up camp up on the hill at sunset about an hour ago.
It was a fantastic camp site with views for miles in every direction. A few locals from nearby gers had spotted the camp site too, and came to join us – at least until our supplies of vodka ran out. One of them in particular seemed to be completely smashed when he arrived, and continued to drink while he was around us.
When Friday morning came around we were convinced we could make it to Ulaanbaatar that evening. It was about 700km away, most of which was over paved roads. We’d made it so far that nothing could stop us now.
Unfortunately, this sentiment turned out to be a complete lie. About 15km from Bayankhogor we drove up over a hill and immediately on the other side were some large, sharp rocks. I wasn’t travelling at much more than walking pace when the rocks hit, but that was still enough. Our left CV joint was damaged. At first the car still drove okay despite clunking noises, so it seemed like we’d be able to make it into town. But about 8km later, we completely lost any kind of connection between the engine and front wheels. Adon squinted under the car and muttered something about driveshafts. We got the bus to tow us into town and then they left us behind – whatever it was, it was unlikely to be an easy fix.
As we were being towed through town, a ute flagged us down. The driver appeared to be a mechanic and suggested that he tow us to his workshop where he could fix the car. When we got there and the severity of the problem became clear, he gestured indicating that the electricity was out for the entire town, and he’d need power to fix us up. We asked how long and he indicated 20. At first we thought he meant 20 minutes, but then it was clarified to 20:00 i.e. 8pm. At this point we decided to call the rally organisers and arrange to be taken to their mechanic’s workshop rather than some random dude.
The rally “drop off point” turned out to be one bloke driving around town in an ex-Mongol Rally Fiat Panda. He took us to the mechanic organised by the rally, who once again was unable to fix us right now because the town had no power. The rally dude / drop off point manager offered to take us to a restaurant and organise a hotel for us. This seemed like a good idea given the circumstances.
Just after we entered the restaurant, I ran outside to puke. I’d been feeling a bit crook all day, but it was clearly getting worse. I wasn’t really able to touch my food, and once we’d left, it was becoming clear that I’d picked up something very similar to the gastro / food poisoning which Adon had in Russia. At this point we decided it would be sensible to look into alternative forms of transport to UB, just in case our car wasn’t easily fixable.
Making a phone call to my folks in Perth who had electricity and internet, we found out that there was a flight leaving from Bayankhongor to Ulaanbaatar the next day at 5:20pm, which would get us there with plenty of time to catch our flights home on Sunday morning. We decided to book seats on this flight just in case. Unfortunately, thanks to problems with my bank’s Verified By Visa system, the payment was rejected twice. By the time we tried a third time with Patrick’s card, the flight had completely sold out. Whoops.
Once the power was returned, the mechanics started welding bits and pieces together to try to fix out car. By around 11pm they still hadn’t finished and we found a hotel and collapsed in bed.
We returned to the mechanic on Saturday morning to find that the prognosis wasn’t good. The Skoda could not be fixed. Just after we arrived, another rally car was towed in: Team Any Which Way, a couple of Irish chaps in Suzuki Swift. They’d also damaged their car pretty badly through hitting a massive pothole at speed.
After Patrick and Adon were chatting to them for a while and I was feeling unwell and trying to sleep, yet another rally car rocked up. This one we recognised: the three Americans in a Ford Fiesta. Their car had fairly serious suspension problems, but they seemed to think it was fixable.
At this point the three of us and Mark, one of the Irish team, all wanted to get out of here and reach UB as quickly as possible. Adon had somehow managed to get the mobile number of someone who I think was the Australian Ambassador in Mongolia. He was very willing to help us translate talking to the mechanic and Mongol Rally dude. The Mongol Rally dude seemed to think there was no way of obtaining a bus, taxi or other kind of transport to Ulaanbaatar. The mechanic, on the other hand, thought he could swing something. I was a bit zoned out and don’t recall the details, but somehow a couple in a Toyota Landcruiser turned up, looked at us and our luggage, and thought they could drive us to UB. They’d be back in an hour or so, after they’d had some lunch.
Two hours passed and we started to worry about whether the Landcruiser would return. The mechanic reassured us that they would, but the driver was probably a bit overconfident and thought he could make the trip in 9 hours. Eventually, the Landcruiser returned at 4:30, about three and a half hours after their first appearance. The three of us and Mark piled our luggage into the back and squished up together in the back seat. The back seat seemed to have no seat belts at all, and the couple in the front weren’t wearing theirs. Welcome to overland travel, Mongolian style.
The Landcruiser, it must be said, made short work of the rocks and bumps in the road which we had to avoid in the Skoda or risk ruining our car. About 200km down the road, we reached tarmac, and all of us in the back seat cheered. We drove on and on and on through the night. Around midnight they pulled up at a restaurant, which looked like the Mongolian equivalent of a greasy spoon truck stop. I wasn’t feeling particularly up to eating, but drank some water and nibbled a little bit of the rather tasty potato, carrot, cabbage and beef soup I’d ordered. Patrick and Adon’s food also looked pretty good. They finished it and it was time to get moving again.
We eventually made it to the outskirts Ulaanbaatar at 4am, and parked outside the airport half an hour later. Mark was stressing about the time, because he had no flights booked but wanted to make a standby reservation on the 7am flight to Moscow when he arrived at the airport. We, on the other hand, had plenty of time because our flight didn’t leave until 11:50am. But it was nice to finally have a bit of certainty that we’d be able to make it home.
Once again, though, like with all of the other ‘certainties’ in this trip, things started to fall apart. After we’d checked in and cleared customs, I was told that there was a problem with the paperwork for my car – specifically, I didn’t have the paperwork, because it was in the car in Bayankhongor, and more than that, I would also need papers obtained from the rally organisers at the finish line in Ulaanbaatar. So Patrick and Adon went ahead and I caught a taxi to the rally finish line where the organisers were not too happy – apparently the rally guidebook had stated that we needed the papers at the finish line, but we’d lost ours and the drop-off point manager in Bayankhongor thought the process was different anyway.
The rally organisers at the finish line also pointed me at the international medical centre, SOS Medica Ulaanbaatar, where I could get someone to look at my gastro problems and provide a medical report for my travel insurance – which should cover the cost of booking new flights home.
After spending a while hooked up to an IV drip and having been given heaps of different tablets to take in case of different symptoms recurring, I was able to leave. Feeling quite a bit better, now just need to make sure paperwork for leaving the country and sort out flights…