How I Drove from UK to Mongolia in a Shitty Car
"Sure I'm a British citizen!" I exclaimed.
I never thought having to lie to a British insurance agent about my nationality was going to be a part of the plan. But then again, my plan was kind of ridiculous. I was going to drive from London to Mongolia as part of the Mongol Rally - a 10,000 mile charity road trip that hundreds of cars participate in every year.
Tim and I on Los Angeles FOX news segment, right before the trip
So I had always heard that getting auto insurance in Europe as an American was a daunting task. But why the hell did we need insurance anyway? The .899 liter engine FIAT SEICENTO I had purchased for 900 bucks was pretty much death on wheels. Hitting a German shepherd in the middle of a street would pretty much guarantee your paralysis.
But the rule for the rally was simple and rigid: your steed had to be a small, piece of crap vehicle; a Range Rover would just be yawn-filled, right? And other loonies from around the world were going to join you. 400 teams, one crazy adventure.
"Thanks for signing up with Privilege insurance! I'm going to debit 800 dollars from your credit card now", the nice lady said with her nice British accent.
The last logistical hurdle before our departure had passed. Little did Privilege Auto Insurance know that I was going to be all over their refundable cancellation policy like a Mongolian mouth on Yak milk.
I quit my job 3 months before this rally. Doing this road trip had a lot to do with the timing of my departure. My new full time job was planning this behemoth of an adventure. I spent my days getting visas, planning routes, and making itineraries while I spent my nights battling time zone differences to communicate with consulates across the world. But the timing was right. Might as well do a trip like this now during whatever youth-filled time I have.
Our car in England
We boarded our trans-atlantic flight in early July. My teammate was going to stay in England for a week while I traveled Italy for 6 days. We had arrived in Europe to see that Los Angeles FOX news had aired their segment on Team Rubik Crew. It was a loony 3 minute spot that highlighted us as insane, bored, risk takers. An accurate diagnosis!
Team Rubik Crew? Oh yeah, we loved solving Rubik's Cubes so we planned to paint our car like one as we drove across the continents.
We eventually got to Stevenage, England. A guy I met through the Mongol Rally forum had been able to purchase our car for us. As expected, the car was waiting patiently in the driveway. I had just 48 hours to paint it like a Rubik’s Cube and to learn how to drive it. Europeans have a hard time understanding how 90% of Americans are not familiar with manual transmission. I had to learn quickly. On top of that, I had to learn how to drive on the left side of the road. Whenever I got to a rotary, my head would spin, and I’d willingly stall the car in the center of the road, as angry cars would whiz by my state of confusion.
On July 18th, Team Rubik Crew had made it down to Goodwood Speedway. This is kind of like the Daytona of America. There were hundreds of other delusional, hysterically minded 20 somethings in the most breathtaking testament to quarter life crises I've ever witnessed. Folks, comprising some 95% testosterone-filled men, laughing in the face of their imminent spiraling destruction. We were all driving the worst, smallest cars ever created, and we were all going to make it to Mongolia. I left Goodwood with Rubik's Cubes, cautiously high hopes, and a bottle of champagne to celebrate our first break down.
Europe flashed by in a blur - our Seicento chugged along, offering us incredible, hilly views. Memorable moments include: getting lost in France at 2am with ounces of gasoline left, knowing which building my friend in Brussels lived in – but without any phone number or flat number – standing outside his door for hours only to give up and sleep at a gas station, and taking a detour into gorgeous Luxembourg to eat the most delicious omelettes ever tasted.
By the second day, we were already in Germany, making it to Munich. We spent time in the only tourist area to be discovered: the main drag with strip clubs and porn shops. Everyone rides bicycles in that city, by the way.
By the third day, we made it to Czech Republic and spent the day in Prague. I was able to see a friend of mine who coordinated my study abroad program there 4 years prior. That evening was the acclaimed “Czech Out Party” and it was a good 150 miles away from Prague in the rolling hills of Bohemia.
|Location of the Party|
We ventured out, eventually finding this giant, pristine, bonafide castle from the 12th century – totally reserved for a giant Mongol Rally party. Old rock-laced rooms, via tiny small stone staircases – each space having it’s own DJ and turntables or live band act. 90% guys everywhere, completely drunk. I looked in the corner to see a 12th century headless statue; a British drunkard thought its noggin would make a great trophy for his bedroom wall.
A raucous time in the most pristine, impressive party ever witnessed. While, back to the castle's parking lot, trying to sleep, we found the drunken revelry too much for our ears. So we went to some field with bugs everywhere and passed out.
On day 4, we woke up bright and early to drive over 1,000 miles straight to Istanbul. We bolted out of Czech Republic and into Slovakia (had lunch, spotting the most beautiful women in the world), into Hungary (failed to see the Franz Liszt Museum and the village home of the actual creator of the Rubik's Cube) and crashed into Serbia (shithole) by midnight.
Getting through Serbia would take 7 hours, all through the middle of the night. To get into the country, we had to pay 110 euros for “insurance”. The policy I had fraudulently purchased in England didn’t cover non-EU countries…. And judging by how shitty Serbia looked, I recognized immediately its non-EU status.
So the morning of Day 5, we made it into Bulgaria, got lucky for not being flagged down by one of their 5,000 cops carrying batons, and got to the Turkish Border.
Something really hilarious happened here. To get into Turkey, you have to leave the Bulgarian border. At the guard's booth, the man inside screamed at us: “Green Card! Green Card!!” I had no idea what this dude was talking about. He held up a sample document, through the window, to show us what we needed to reveal.
Apparently, green cards are given with your insurance, to signify your proper EU coverage (Yes, Bulgaria is in the EU). Since ours was fraudulent, I didn’t exactly have this card he needed. So, quickly, I looked in the glove compartment, grabbed a document that had some green on it, and gave it to him.
He looked at the document, stamped it, and let us go. The document I gave him was my car’s emissions inspection certificate. It had green and a lot of English on it that he didn’t understand.
We had 4 hours to get to Istanbul from the western border of turkey. This small stretch of land to get to Istanbul was Turkey’s only extension into continental Europe. Once we’d get to Istanbul, the Bosphorus strait would separate the city, and partition the country into the Middle East.
Traffic totally sucked once we were in Istanbul. Insane drivers, everywhere, fueling their appetite for recklessness with the idiocy of slower, more incompetent drivers around them. Donned in Rubik’s Cube colored paint, they despised us with all of Allah’s power.
A major highlight of driving Turkish highways was our complete disregard for paying the toll booths. We’d just rip through the “E-Z Pass” style lane, and triggered alarms would blare loudly as inept, fat cops outside their vehicles just sat there. We were driving through – why should we pay!!!!!!!
Made it to Istanbul, saw my college roommate Ryan. His Turkish girlfriend hinted the best spots for us to check out, so we dined at the top of a building overlooking the city’s night lights. Very cool scene. Drank... then took our 30-hour plus driving tiredness to our hostel’s crappy beds at 1am. “Chill Out Hostel” never failed us (nor did it 3 years prior when Ryan and I were there the first time)
Next morning, we parted ways, and because of a completely failed and rebellious stomach, I didn’t say goodbye to Ryan as he boarded his flight. Tim and I got in our car, and kept driving through Turkey.
Turkey, above everything, is home to some of the friendliest people in the world. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with waves of the hand and smiles. Invitation after invitation was extended for us to come inside their abodes and drink tea with them. Stickers were given. Maps were given. They were just so excited for us. There was one creepy experience where friendly Turkish guys treated us to tea in their living room, as they insisted on us watching home made video clips of their dogs murdering other dogs in brutal fights. We just smiled and politely laughed, as if viewing this was a staple American pasttime.
Turkey was a pretty long way to go, but we did it in two full days. Hours before heading into Georgia, we stopped in a city called Trabzon, which offered quick access to the roadside Black Sea. We dipped in the water only to leave in our car having dropped my teammate's sunglasses from the roof. They flew into the busy main road. As he gets out, he dodges one car... dodges a second… makes his “Frogger” attempt to go into traffic for the sunglasses…. Aaaaannd… an angry, Irate, probably racist Turkish driver swerves OUT OF HIS WAY to crush them under his tires. I laughed wholeheartedly.
Meet George from Georgia
It was a Friday night, and we were to spend the weekend there, with my good friend George. (Yup, George from Georgia). I had traveled there three years ago with Ryan and my friend Chase, and ended up staying an extra 3 weeks that same summer. The Georgian culture, for me, is one that I hold very special – friendly people, amazing cuisine, diverse landscapes, and totally insane times.
After escaping a fraudulent scheme in the no-man's land between Turkey and Georgia, the insanity began in quick fashion. First, George tells me he’s going to get married. Then he tells me his fiancée, Sophie, is pregnant. After reuniting with George, we immediately ate dinner, got drunk off vodka, and an hour later I found myself, in my underwear, on the windshield of George’s black SUV, holding onto my life as he drove 40mph, swerving in the pouring rain. George, his friend and I ended our night in refreshing fashion by stripping down and jumped in the black sea at 3am.
Swedish Dude with Penis Smiley Face Tattoo
The next day we drove to Tbilisi, the capital, where all my friends live. On the way there we see three Swedish guys on the highway. We invite them to follow us, and we convene at a grocery store. George invited the Swedish guys to crash on his living room floor. The first night we were there, we just chilled out a bit. The Swedish guys were nuts… total party animals. One of them had a smiley face tattoo on his penis that he insisted on showing everyone in the kitchen.
We ended up staying an extra night there, pushing the schedule back a day (which wasn’t a problem). The next day I went with George and Sophie to the municipal office so they could get legally married. We celebrated by trekking out into the woods to see his family at his summer house. We shot shotguns while screaming our chauvinistic disdain for aggressor Russia. We then got back to Tbilisi at night and checked out a steak house we’ve invested in. Delicious steak.
Valuable Lessons Learned
It was time to go. But before we left, George was able to connect me with the name of the Georgian officer in charge at the border to Azerbaijan, to make sure we don't have much problems. The guy's name was "Dito Sakhvadze", and he ran the operation.
3 hours later, we pulled up to exit of the Georgian border, I got out and yelled "WHERE'S DITO SAKHVADZE!". A stocky man in his forties wearing a uniform comes out, sees our car, laughs, and looks at my passport. He then begins a 10 minute Q&A about bison - having seen the pastoral images in my passport. He asked me if I’ve seen one, owned one, petted one. This dude loved bison. He let us pass through.
We were now heading to the Azeri border from the Georgian exit - not before witnessing one of the most oddly situated, ironically portentous road signs hanging above us reading nothing but: GOOD LUCK.
Azerbaijan was a total shit hole. Such a drive-through country.
Five minutes in and I see 18 year olds donning machine guns bigger than their torsos, guarding the gate of entry into quite possibly the most vile country officially recognized by the United Nations. Our first taste of silly bureaucracy trickled in as bribe after bribe was paid to officer after officer, each filling out and stamping mysterious documents that apparently ensured our proper transit through the country. At one point, I found myself at station #3, in the middle of a room of 10 uniformed agents, behind computers screaming at each other, and passing the same pile of documents back and forth in a flurry of stampings and signings. I had no idea what they were doing, but it looked like a promiscuous orgy of inefficiency.
Rubik's Cube solving in Azeri tire market
Scene from the Azeri Border
4 hours later the worst corruption witnessed transmogrified itself into the worst roads ever witnessed. 200 miles of sharp, gravelly rocks and deep potholes - all one giant highway festooned with cranes and under construction (putting that oil-money infused GDP to work!). On a side note, I made my first logical deduction about the beauty of women and the quality of roads. As we moved farther and farther East, the worsening of the roads was directly proportional to the plummeting quality a woman's aesthetic beauty. And that seems shallow, sorry.
To preclude our first flat was a stark injection of joy - a delicious restaurant dinner prepared through the use of animal sounds, explaining to the chef our menu choices. And then we got coerced to dance with 9 Azeri men to their silly, corrupt Azeri dances.
Our goal was to go from Baku - Azerbaijan's capital - to Aktau, Kazakhstan. This would be a 500 mile, 24 hour voyage across the Caspian Sea. I had done ample research to know that this ferry departed once every 3-5 days, costing 40 bucks per car. Basically, the ferry was a giant cargo ship, primarily for the transportation of oil resources. Our cars were a peripheral importance, as we were expected to be relegated to whatever space the oil tanks didn't occupy. Oh, and the same ferry line sank three years ago, taking the lives of 100 people. Great.
The ferry port in Baku revealed a denizen of ralliers, all either waiting to go to Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan. The Turkmenistan ferry apparently left once a day. As for us and our passports devoid of Turkmenistan visas, we would have to wait for however long this Kazakhstan ferry would arrive for us. We joined 3 teams waiting for the same ferry. It eventually grew to 4, 5, 6. Then 7, 8. Eventually, 12 teams would reside in a small parking lot, where we sat 200 yards from a port that would be our destined egress.
Border parking lot FROM HELLLLL
The parking lot was a veritable prison, with sneering, asshole Azeri port officers as its supply of dickhead wardens. They messed with us, never smiled, nor ever cared about our suck-filled position. Even worse was the port ticketing office that decided to, in an exceptional capitalist exploitation of this year's mongol rally, jack up ticket prices 12x higher than what they were for us "rich" westerners to cough up dough. A $40 ticket was now $500. Teams were absolutely irate by this. We pretty much lost all of our bargaining position due to 2 cranky teams who were willing to pay whatever to get out. In general, Azerbaijan was a weird place. Policy wise, its police officers apparently have to pay $10,000 to buy their jobs, and then pay $500 a month to keep them. That's basically all bribe money that keeps them "employed". The streets of Baku were littered with police officers pulling over cars, demanding money for inconsequential offenses. The cops looked like rotund, fickle children, stamping their feet in tantrums while standing outside each pulled over luxury car. Above them, and throughout the country, were billboards donning Heydar, their supreme 1990’s president.
The nightlife, however, proved to be more fun, as the new rally friendships we made were forged over drunken nights at ex-pat bars. One highlight was going out to a bar and seeing an Azeri guy my age wearing a shirt I really wanted reading, "I'M FROM AZERBAIJAN". Ignoring the irony of an Azeri wearing a shirt like this, I asked him if I could have it. Without one second of hesitation he shrugs "Sure!" and we go in an alley, get shirtless, and switch shirts. I walked away with the shirt I wanted, and he was able to enjoy my red shirt displaying the entire Periodic Table.
Bored in Baku
Me and Andrew taunting an Azeri border cop
Day after day we waited.
What began as an innocent:
"Hey! Waiting for this ferry is all part sorting through the trials of the rally!"
...turned into a bitter:
"Where in God's F***ing name IS THIS F***ING BOAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
We eventually became Tom Hanks' character in the movie Cast Away, carving marks into the parking lot pavement, denoting how many days trapped on this steamrolled island of despair.
After 6 days of waiting, the boat finally arrived. We had to pay 5 more bribes (at this point we just accepted our fate and paid them dutifully). While stamping out of the country, a team we had become friends with had run out of time on their transit visas. The officer said, “Big problem!” (all officials loved saying that to us). All it took was “one phone call to the minister of the interior” and a 40 dollar fee was levied. One last kick-in-the-balls bribe they had to pay.
We drove our cars onto this massive boat called the Mercurie II. After hours and hours the boat finally set sail. We watched with eager - yet cautious - anticipation as we waved Azerbai-bai-bai to one of the most inhospitable, hostile territories on Earth.
So long, shithole!!!
About 15 different teams were on the boat with us. We had all become very close at this point, having been marooned together. The boat was actually quite enjoyable. Cabins with the quintessential circle window that latched open and closed, as the freshest sea-breeze rushed in, petting us to sleep.
While on the boat, we befriended two very interesting individuals. One of the guys, Noel, was from Wisconsin and he was riding a bicycle from Spain to Singapore. And another guy was from Holland, HITCHHIKING his way to China. Both of them were equally crazy, and they happened to meet each other with all us ralliers on the boat.
After 18 hours, the boat arrived in the port of Aktau, Kazakhstan. We were 3 miles from the shore, and they dropped the anchor. After sitting in port for 12 hours (efficiency breaks down, if you haven’t noticed that already), we were finally let off of the boat on Monday early evening.
All of the drivers were separated from the passengers, as we began the border process. We waited in a dingy room for hours, until one by one, we passed through the border agents. After getting the passport stamped, I moved to another room with two agents wearing swine flu masks. Weird. They looked specifically for any literature. Not contaminants, or glowing pieces of plutonium… but all books and documents. Hilariously, the man, in a thick accent goes:
“I mean… Tourist?”
We both shared a laugh as I didn’t answer him and walked away.
The boat’s crew had finally moved the train cargo out of the boat, so we could now go under and drive our cars out. But the ineptitude of the crew didn’t let us down. They started moving in all this NEW train cargo that needed to be sent to Baku. After ten minutes, they realized 18 cars were waiting to get out, and they had to move the train cargo in the opposite direction.
The entire city smelled like nauseating gas. This was Kazakhstan’s chief export. Nauseating gas. As we drove our cars into the border parking lot, they closed the fence on us, separating all drivers from passengers who were still in the border office. They wouldn’t let either party cross into the other party’s territory. One of the dumbest and funniest images to memory is tossing all of our passengers’ sleeping bags over a ten foot fence, so the passengers could properly go to sleep on the floor of that shitty office.
As for us drivers? We had the luxury of sleeping in our cars.
The next morning began what would be another 15 hours trapped in this ridiculous border. Basically, all the guards hated us with the passion of Joseph Stalin sitting through a performance of the Vagina Monologues. It was a labyrinth of bureaucracy again. Had to buy 1 dollar car insurance, convert currency, make 5 copies of the proof of insurance which needed to be sent to 5 different offices in a radius of 1 mile, and had to wait 3 hours for a casual lunch break from the office that stamped our cars out. In this office, they disparaged us, screamed at us, snapped their fingers at us, and treated us like Uzbeks or something. When I got my paperwork from this pair of assholes, I said casually and openly, “Thanks idiots, I hope you rot in hell!” as I smiled brightly, making them think I said something cordial and nice.
8 cars, about 20 of us, finally got out of that detention experience from hell. Noel, the biker, carried on. Hitchhiking guy from Holland hitchhiked with us, naturally.
After Azerbaijan, the boat, and Kazakh border, we all felt we could use some delicious justice. Just 2 miles in, we see like an oasis an expat bar called “GUNS AND ROSES”. We all flocked there, kicked down the doors, and ordered the most delicious beers and cheeseburgers. It was our escape from misery and a reunion with revelry. We deserved it.
After we ate, our 8 cars followed each other to a gas station, filled up, found a local our age who studied in Oklahoma for a bit. We asked him, “Where’s the road to Beyneu?” He responded, “What road?”. Apparently, the worst road on the Mongol Rally was coming up, and we needed to get through 120 miles of it. Our new friend showed us the direction to the “road” and set us on our way.
Our first trek into Kazakhstan - The convoy
It was pure exhilaration to be driving… well the first 30 miles were great at least. Our first desert landscape, just in time for a brilliantly purplish sun to set on our backsides. We acted like complete maniacs. Drunk off our newfound freedom, we were riding on the top of ours, swerving in front of each other, screaming at the top of our lungs, and taking spontaneous photo shoots. We were able to get this good stretch in before night, as we found a camping ground, pitched tents, and went to sleep. We didn’t really know what we’d get ourselves into the next day.
Wednesday August 5th. Day 18. We had woken up at sunrise. We continued on the road, and BAM 3 miles away, the fabled horror began to reveal itself under our tires.
It was like driving on Mars… with roads. One of the cars, the Batlimo – which was a black stretch limousine Volvo as an identical replica of the Bat Mobile – suffered a flat tire. They soon discovered one of their spares had a rim that was slightly larger than the hub. So they continued to drive, as the rim slowly grinded into the hub, potentially ruining the car's mobility.
This road truly was a desolate, horrible monster. We only saw cars drive by once every half hour (they were sports utility vehicles by the way). If you were careless for one fraction of a second, you could find your car's bumper hitting the rim of a pothole. As Andrew from Flatlanders and I nursed the Batlimo at 13 mph, we came across a very hilarious situation. We flagged down a tractor trailer, with an empty trailer, to see if they could help. Communicating through drawing pictures in my notebook of the batlimo driving up wooden planks into the back of their trailer, they immediately knew what we wanted to do...... but had no wooden planks. So these creative Kazakhs ushered us to multiple roadsides, as they descended below the road, backed up, and tried to use the height in between as a roll-on point for the Batlimo. We came unimaginably close to committing sending the Batlimo onto the back. As much as I urged everyone to try it just for the sake of the story, I'm kinda glad it never was attempted.
At this point, all the other cars drove off, and the Batlimo (two guys from Denmark) and Team Flatlanders (Two guys from Kansas) remained. It was at this point we would not see any other cars, and we three teams would continue on together. We did 100 miles that day, from 7am to 10pm.
Batlimo driving on these worst roads ever
Singing James Blunt at sunrise
Were we seriously going to attempt this?
An ailing Batlimo trying to get on the back of a tractor trailer via roadside ditch
How we communicated with Kazakhs
For the next two weeks, Batlimo, Flatlanders, and Rubik Crew would be inseparable. We had one extra special guest - that guy who was hitchhiking to China. Well, he basically hitchhiked with us through Kazakhstan. He was an erudite fellow, a couple years our junior, from the Netherlands, and had a name so unpronounceable, I just gave him the nickname "Galaxy" (in reference to "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"). It stuck. Galaxy was one of us now.
It was Day 20 now, and we had departed from the town we had spent so long to get to - Beyneu, Kazakhstan. That night, my teammate had walked out of a restaurant to where our three cars were in the parking lot and noticed a mob of kids trying to break into the Flatlander's car. He scared them off. Checking the crime scene, we noticed they tried to pry the door open with a screwdriver. So - take note - people in Kazakhstan use screwdrivers to break into cars.
Team Rubik Crew had arranged for visas to bring us from Beyneu to Uzbekistan, to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and back through the East side of Kazakhstan. We had already ruled out Tajikistan - it's 16,000 foot elevation and rumorous stories of terror wars in the mountains - had made us decide not to attempt it. But after becoming friends with Batlimo and Flatlanders, I made the decision to stay with them through Kazakhstan and into russia and forego our previously determined route.
This first day leaving Beyneu, we had to travel about 250 miles to the next city - Atyrau. With the whole day defined by the usual ennui - ya know, drinking vodka in cars, dancing in the street, driving like idiots - I decided to play a little game called "How Close Can Joe Throw a Rock Towards the Flatlanders' Car Without Breaking the Back Windshield". I played... and lost. I smashed the entire back window.
A deep sense of "Christ, why did I do that?" set over me, as thousands of tiny shards of glass littered the back of their car. So much glass that it jammed the back hatch from opening. So we duct-taped a giant piece of tarp over the back of the car, and crossed our fingers no one would steal anything. Thankfully, Andrew and Mike were awesome guys, and it didn't get in the way of our mission.
I felt pretty shitty.
A tweet from Team Flatlander's Twitter page
Now the roads at this point were no way as bad as the 100 miles to Beyneu - but that didn't mean they didn't suck! From now on, the one, main road to each city would be nice and paved, until numerous construction points would divert traffic to a parallel, shitty, road running alongside. These construction detours would typically be anywhere from 1 to 10 miles in length. They totally sucked, but would become a staple of the next 3000 miles through Kazakhstan.
Trying to get out of the ditch
Ditch from hell
Driving onto the detour road at one point, would prove very difficult for us. There was a ditch so massive that, in attempting to traverse it, I got the Rubik Cube stuck smack in the middle. The Batlimo, witnessing our misfortune, turned around 100 yards (only to see the ditch had extended that far back also), and got stuck also. Team Flatlanders drove like miles back to see if a crossing was better.
Folks, there is NOTHING around us. Which made it that much stranger when my teammate, in frustration, tried to fist fight me for thinking I had sex with George from Georgia. (Jumping in the black sea naked with your best friend makes you gay) This event was a major milestone, as it put me in an awkward and unfortunate position of truly not liking my teammate for the rest of the trip and almost making me regret the desperate choice of taking a stranger as my teammate. On the bright side though, I was fortunate enough to have the constant company of new friends in this convoy.
Escaping crazy teammate guy, I rushed to the batlimo where we dug it out, and then the rest of the guys came to the rescue of our car - not by digging it - but by LIFTING the car out of the ditch. Yes, the car was that small.
We continued on, drove to Atyrau, then camped on a compost pile.
When I wasn't spanking camels...
I started a really fun game along the way. Because when you're driving everyday for 12 hours in a desert, you need to cut loose and have a little fun. In knowing there were roadside cows everywhere at all times, I started leaning out the window as we drove by, and SLAPPED them in the ass. Drive by ass-slappings. It slowly turned into a competition. Flatlanders got a few as did batlimo. At the end of the trip, I tallied:
Cow Ass Slappings........9
Camel Ass Slappings.....2And I fed a camel too.
After driving all the way from Oral, we were now heading east, in northern Kazakhstan, towards the Russian border. We stopped now in the town of Kostanay. We stopped for some groceries, alcohol, and gasoline. While filling up, these overly friendly Russians (many ethnic Russians live along the Kazakh border) refused to let us proceed without them paying for our gas. We happily obliged.
a 5 year old drives my car
Russian smoking weed out of light bulb
Then we found ourselves in a parking lot, smoking weed out of one of their improvised-as-a-bowl lightbulbs. The head honcho there insisted on his wife - the only female present - to go fetch horse meat. It was like midnight on a Saturday night, and his wife dutifully took the 4x4 car they owned to go to a grocery store for horse meat. When she came back, the man went into the trunk, took out a small folding poker table, and plopped it down in front of us as he brandished 2 handles of shitty vodka. We had to drink all of it.
A smaller guy, who was younger, had a picture of the Virgin Mary in his pocket. He gave it to me as a gift. In return, I gave him my mom's cell phone number with which he texted the following message:
Здравствуйте! мать Джо. Я Владимир. Очень приятно познакомиться.
(translation: Hello mother of Joe. I am Vladimir. Very nice to meet you!)
After leaving the Russians, we drove drunk to some random farm, sang Michael Jackson with Kim from Denmark, did donuts in a hay field, then passed out.
After continuous highway detours and horrible potholes, speed racing through giant mudpits, and an incident where I befriended a Turkish big rig driver, drove his big rig, left my camera in his big rig as I chased him down 5 miles in the opposite direction after discovering this, we finally made it to the capital - Astana. Astana is basically a mediocre place that was arbitrarily declared a capital at the president's behest 15 years ago. Almaty is supposed to be da bomb dot com, but we didn't go there. We were 2,000 miles away in the opposite direction.
Driving a big rig
Mud Pit racing
Soren puking his brains out!!!!!!!!!!
Highlights of Astana include befriending Kazakhs who were VERY insistent on giving us a 5 hour, 6 mile walking tour at night, going to a hoity toity hooker bar where I spent 17 dollars on a shot of Jameson's, and flagging down some local guy to give us a ride back to the hotel.
Bulldozer CREATES A RAMP for us
Yes, we stayed at a hotel. We took showers for the first time since the ferry. Because it was a Monday and nothing was happening in Astana (and probably the entire country) we just got wasted in the hotel room as we teased/poked/combed the eyebrows of Galaxy. A couple of the guys befriended the hotel receptionist and got her to show them her Kazakh boobs. Soren puked.
We woke up to find the Flatlander's got robbed. Remember the tarp-window they installed in the back of their car after I smashed their back windshield? Thieves knifed a hole in it and snatched Mike's and Andrew's sleeping bag and tent. For the rest of the trip, they'd freeze in their car without shelter. If you ever want to know what it feels like to feel horrible, just throw a rock at someone's back windshield. I guarantee you you'll feel horrible.
We packed up and went to an internet cafe. There was a most hilarious encounter with a cop who wanted to write us a ticket because our cars were too dirty. "Clean cars in street! Only clean cars!"
It was time to drive a silly amount of miles to Kokshetaw. (see map)
I don't remember what happened at Kokshetaw. But after driving 40 miles in the wrong direction, we finally made it to Petropavlsk. We had some interesting experiences here.
We stopped for more chicken shashlik, and met some real class act Russians. This one guy who ran the restaurant was Comrade Baller himself. He had a fancy three-piece suit, and kept flashing rolls of hundred dollar bills. His son spoke perfect English to us, and his daughter - a waitress - was really hot. And 16. But it was Kazakhstan, so any guilt associated with knowing she was 16 was for the most part very mild.
Chugging Mare's Milk - Soren vomiting again
They invited us inside where they insisted we drink their fermented mare's milk. We had to chug it in front of them. Andrew and I chugged that sour, horrid beverage down. Soren, our batlimo-driving Danish friend, RAN to the bathroom and vomited everywhere.
Sufficiently soused, we made our way to the Russian border just 40 miles north. It was the drunkest border entry I ever dared making. It was nighttime now and we were at the head of a line that stretched back 50 people.
We left our cars in the queue and we walked through the building for passport patrol. Behind the glass window was a fairly attractive Russian woman donning a swine flu mask. She dutifully and seriously took our passports for review.
For some reason or another, I could not stop singing Lady Gaga to our uniformed-reviewer. Screaming it at this point. I was a one man show and 50 Russians plus this border patrol lady were my Russian audience. I got everyone to chant "OMSK. OMSK. OMSK." (our next city on the itinerary) as I stared at the borderguard and yelled "SHOW ME THAT SMILE.. AGAIIIIIN".
By belting this theme to "Growing Pains" I actually got this woman to coyfully remove her mask, bat her eyelashes with the speed of a hummingbird's wings, and smile. I said "I love you" in Russian and walked away. I was king of that border entry.
Welcome to Russia. We called it a night and slept in a farm.
First off, roads were GREAT. Paved, beautiful. Gorgeous. Delicious. So were these potatoes we cooked inside the engine block!
We spent the morning arriving in Omsk. We did some grocery shopping, and I saw a man passed out inside of a bush in broad daylight. It was kind of impressive. It reminded me of the glitch in Mario Brothers where Mario passes right through the wall at certain spots.
SPONTANEOUS MJ DANCING in middle of highway
Mike finding "herbs"
Motivational speech for the Flatlanders
Leaving Omsk, Team Flatlanders broke down for the 5th time. It totally sucked. This time it was 4-searz. Their CV joint was so maladjusted the car couldn't be driven any farther. Our next city was Novosibirsk, Russia's 3rd largest city. We were a good 100 miles away. I finagled the Batlimo's satellite phone and called George from Georgia. At 4am in the morning Georgian time, George looked online for a tow truck in Novosibirsk, spoke Russian, and actually got them to set a truck out to find us 100 miles away.
4 hours later, this plan worked. The tow truck showed up, threw the Flatlanders' car on its backside, and we all drove to Novosibirsk. George completely saved the day. I later found out George said he intentionally spoke with a Russian accent to mask his being Georgian. Given the animosity many Russians have towards Georgians, I thought this was pretty funny.
They really TOWED us so....
Novosibirsk was by far the most industrialized city we had been in since Istanbul. Sprawls of tall buildings and modern looking folks adorned the streets. Spectacular fireworks shows, accommodating newly established friends, and a pretty awesome hotel made our 2-night stay there highly enjoyable.
We met some crazy people. There was a crew of about a dozen Russians who became quick friends with us. On the normal side of the spectrum were Olga and Tanya, two awesome girls Andrew and I ended up dancing to Michael Jackson with in the middle of a freeway at 3am. In the middle portion of the spectrum were these two 18 year old girls that Mike and Tim took a liking to. And at the bottom rung of the spectrum was this one Russian guy who for God knows what reason drank an entire handle of vodka in front of us and slept on the sidewalk. It was strangely beautiful!
Every journey has its pitfalls. The point where a wall is it so hard, you have to reach deep down inside to stay positive and keep going. Now that I have that fantastically generic motivational insight out of the way, I'll tell you what happened.
By far, the most bizarre moment in this entire trip was when the woman at the Peugeot dealership said the following regarding the status of the Flatlanders' car:
"We have good news and bad news, and then good news."
We were confused.
"The good news is that we found the part that can fix your car."
We were elated.
"The bad news is that the only part in this entire country is in Moscow, 3,000 miles away."
We were destroyed.
"The good news, however, is that the owner of this dealership is flying to Moscow tonight and coming back tomorrow. He can get the part for you."
We were in disbelief. Are you kidding? How ridiculous was that?
Plan worked. Guy flew to Moscow for some meeting, grabbed the part in some random ass market, then flew back. Installed within 30 minutes. Car was good to go.
Bad news was that the Batlimo couldn't go on. With less than 72 hours left on their visa, they needed to get to the UKRAINIAN border before expiration. Yes, thats what this drive looks like:
It was incredibly sad to see our friends go. We had declared we would all finish together. But this didn't happen. What was supposed to be a deep-felt goodbye was dashed by a frenzy of hurriedness. They got in their cars and drove the 3,000 miles to Ukraine. On the way, they would get pulled over 28 times, and eventually heed the support of a kind officer who wrote a formal letter explaining to all cops their dire situation. The rest of the race wasn't the same without these guys!
But we needed to move on. After being interviewed on national Russian television - and just a day later being recognized on the street - we left Novosibirsk and headed towards the Mongolian border.
Russian TV interview
From Novosibirsk, we had to get through Barnaul, and then climb really high mountains to Tsanganuur, Mongolia.
For lunch on one of the days, we stopped to get chicken shashlik (staple diet for us) and befriended a group of 20 Russians. One of these dudes must have been 6'9". He would NOT stop saying in broken English,
"Come to my house. Nice Russian bath. I am 2 and a half meters tall!".
"Come to my house. Nice Russian bath. I am 2 and a half meters tall!".
His whole group of men (every country east Czech Republic was pretty much defined by groups of men in public doing pretty much nothing but eating and drinking while women were for the most part absconded from view) sat there and were friendly to us. After 2 hours of cheerful times and autographing our names on dollar bills for them, one of the guys comes up, makes a forced frown-face, and says "So poor. Please buy us food".
It was kind of heart breaking. It definitely made us question the friendliness of people we met. Was it because they are genuinely nice? Or because they genuinely wanted something from us? We chose the former, but times like this proved the latter.
But leaving Russia did have its lighter moments. A funny anecdote: Driving on this singular Russian road brought us to inevitable police checkpoints every 20 miles. We had such confidence in our ability to elude police forces (acting like stupid foreigners to Russian cops is hysterically frustrating for them), that we began to act a little... crazy. At one checkpoint, following an immediate and intentional blowing through a red light, the cop reprimanded me with the word "KRASNA". This means "Red" in Russian.
Our dialogue was something like this:
Cop: Krasna! Krasna!
Cop: Krasna! (points to traffic light) Krasna!
Cop: (huge sigh of frustration) Krasna........... Krasna.......
Me: SHOW ME THAT SMILE AGAIIIIIIINNNN.........
Cop: Duvai!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Duvai!!!!!!!! (leave! leave!)
Ten minutes later at a NEW checkpoint with an OBESE cop...
Cop: (incomprehensible Russian)
Cop: (incomprehensible Russian. Points to car.) Pakostna! (dirty)
Me: (I reach out of the car and start rubbing his belly)
Cop: Ha... hahaha.... hahaha (giggling like a baby)
Me: Privvvvvvvvvyyet!!!!!!!! Privvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvyet! (Still rubbing...)
Cop: Duvai!!!!!!! Duvaiiiii!!!!!!!!!
We drove off pissing our pants in laughter.
Slept in a farm where we mistook the rustling of a cow for an angry wolf. Slept scared.
Another flat tire
Gorgeous view of mountainous Russia
We arrived to the end of the Russian border around 4:30 in the afternoon. Just in time for them to diligently close up shop for us to sleep outside. We were in the mountains now. And it was freezing. Not since the Azeri parking lot were we joined by so many other ralliers waiting for entry into Mongolia.
One very important thing to note is how much the rally's existence helped boom local economies. Small general stores that would otherwise see 5 people a day, were getting 6,000% surges in traffic. They could essentially take an 11 month vacation and for one month make a very comfortable living off ralliers.
While waiting, we saw an ambulance race through the border and return with who was purportedly a Mongol rallier. We learned that 50 kilometers of no-man's land separated the borders. Apparently this rallier and his partner flipped their jeep and the dude broke his collarbone from hot dogging on the outside of the car. It would be a loooooooooooong 10 hour drive back to Barnaul where the closest hospital was. And if that wasn't bad enough, we heard a flow of stories how it was snowing in Mongolia's worst blizzard in years. That meant floods coming down the mountain. We were doomed.
The next day we were eventually granted exit, where we drove through the 50k of no-mans land only to get stuck in a reservoir of ralliers at the Mongolia border... in a parking lot. Like a Vietnam vet, I had violent flashbacks.
We were at the pinnacle of isolation. The terrain turned into large, sloping mounds of dirt and rock. At the trough of these flowing waving mounds was the village of Tsanganuur: a yurt village of Mongolians with 60 cars carrying 120 idiots from the Western Hemisphere.
Much like waiting for our boat, everyday was a constant struggle to receive information. A microcosm of a prison, information was vital and crucial. It turned out that The Adventurists, who needed to pay a buttload of a deposit to the government of Mongolia to let our importable cars enter, needed to make ANOTHER deposit for this current round of ralliers. As The Adventurists back in the UK scrambled to wire the thousands of dollars of a deposit to Mongolia, we were trapped.
Looks like we'd have to spend the night at the border. But instead of the angry confines of a car, we received shelter from the community. For 5 dollars we had a delicious dumpling dinner in the coziness of a yurt. In the yurt was this loose, 65 year old grandma - a clone of Samuel L. Jackson - who groped all the ralliers in between shots of vodka. We later found out some rallier took Samuel L. Granny out back and fingered her. That's probably the grossest thing you've ever heard.
When bed time arrived, ralliers had already taken all the reserved spots for sleeping. One woman insisted we stay in her personal space. She gave us a room where three of us slept in. We awoke to a child murmuring. It was then we realized this we had displaced her child from her child's room, relegating the kid to the living room between a hard floor and cheap blanket. That wasn't sad or anything.
We spent the day carousing our playground of desolation. We climbed the monstrous mountains around us and acted like children conquering treeforts. Eventually, there was commotion. All the ralliers assembled inside the border office.
Turmoil ensued. After being cordial for two hours, we all learned we'd be trapped there much longer than expected. And with a 5pm border shut down looming, we refused to take no for an answer. Hilariously, there was a moment where we all latched on to each other's arms, forming a chain on the floor of this office. We refused to leave. Officers confiscated cameras. Armed guards with machine guns grabbed ralliers by the collar as they dragged them out of the office. Our obstinance paid off. the office finally allowed us to go through their border.... of course for 70 dollars per car. One last bribe to call it even.
Crowded at the border
The irony is that with all this commotion at the border, the Mongolians didn't pay much attention to the specs of our cars. This goes without saying that if the Batlimo ignored the advice from The Adventurists, they probably could have gotten through. That suuuuuuuuucked!
Do not be deceived: These kids stole our shit
They opened the gates AND WE WERE OFF!
Mongolia was such a weird experience.
Here's a quick run down of information:
We were finally adjusting to inclement Mongolia. The dust, the sand, the nothingness. Flatlanders car was pretty much broken, and it would be in Olgii, the first town to pass through in Mongolia, where they just needed to get to to tune up their car.
The cube was doing just fine, per usual. The caravan at this point was Rubik Crew, Flatlanders, and another dude from Seattle driving by himself. He was kind of a douchington that none of us liked, but we had to tolerate him because he was amenable to easing the load of our luggage.
Just hours after stopping by a house on some farming land 60 miles into Mongolia (where we met a Mongolian couple in their early 80's who just celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary), we decided to drive a bit into the night with some new escorts. We found a jeep who was willing to drive us to Olgii. We were only about 50 miles out, so we happy obliged.
Driving in complete blackness, at a crawl to prevent a boisterous rock from ripping apart our underbellies, we started elevating slowly. It started getting steeper and steeper. It got to a grade a bit too intolerable for our .9 liter engines. Our cars eventually inched.... and...... started rolling back. We braked, got out of our cars and scratched our heads vociferously.
Towed up the demonic night mountain
We GUESSED we must have been very, very high. It was a new moon, so the heavens didn't provide for much light. Just swaths of starriness. Lucky for us there was a jeep escorting us. They got some rope, and pulled us up the hill. First the Flatlanders, then they came back to fetch team Rubik Crew.
At the mountain's apex (Christ, this was a steep monstrous mountain) we saw the first of what would be many memorials to the Chinggis, or Genghis Khan. They were usually littered at the tops of mountains. LITERALLY littered. It was basically a spot where people tossed their garbage and vodka bottles. Nonetheless, we celebrated by drinking shots of vodka at the top of the mountain. We were on our way to Olgii, which was actually 40 miles of paved road. Cool, right?!
We were invited to stay at the house of the guys in the jeep. Once we arrived, my teammate realized his backpack was missing. The same backpack in which he had his guh zillion dollar camera, passport, and hundreds of dollars in cash. Shit. The Mongolian guys (keep in mind no Mongolians spoke English) conceded to bringing us back to Mt. Treachery. Me and Mike joined my teammate and hopped in the back of their jeep. 90 minutes later we arrived.
Midnight now. The chances of us finding a backpack with a couple of flash lights in this one mile mountain area were slim. If anyone else drove by in the previous 3 hours and saw a backpack in the view of their headlights, they would just take it. We aimlessly and hopelessly searched with two Mongolians who were DETERMINED to help us. They were more than obsequious to our will. It was beyond flattering.
We remembered one thing. There was another jeep who had briefly helped tow us up the mountain. This was a group of three men unfamiliar to the friendly jeep guys we had met. They mysteriously vanished after taking the Chinggis vodka shots. We assumed that while taking the shots, they went into our car and grabbed my teammate's backpack. Our evidence? At the spot of the shot-taking was a sole, stranded bandana from my teammate's backpack.
holding an eagle... or falcon... all i know is that it weighed 15 pounds
Our friendly jeep peeled out into the darkness. Off the beaten path. 60 minutes of what seemed to be traversing the mountain tops. We had no idea what they were doing, but they sure as hell looked determined. A ger was in the distance. The two guys ran out, spoke some crazy Mongolian, then leapt back into the jeep. We kept driving. Bumpy. Rocky. My teammate was in tears. I suddenly figured out that our amicable escorts were hunting down those guys from the other jeep.
Finally, we came across the last ger. We crept up on it as they turned off the jeep's headlights. They looked at us and more or less said, "Stay here. We're going in".
We watched from the jeep as they KICKED down the ger's door. Moments later we saw eight men being pulled out by our two Mongolian bloodhounds. In a flurry of arguments in a language we did not understand, we came to realize these men did not have the backpack. Probably because they hid it. After all, we had no idea what the hell was going on. 30 minutes of no hope. 4am now. Time to call it a night.
Our jeep friends motioned that it was a bit too late to drive back to Olgii. We were going to have to spend the night in this ger.
In the most monumental examples of irony, the last conscious memories I had before my slumber for the day was being tucked into giant woollen blankets by the very men who robbed us.
Woke up to the loudest most cacaphonous orchestra of cows, goats, and chickens I've ever heard in my entire life. 6am. Got out of bed, made awkward eye contact with thieves, got in jeep, and went back to Olgii.
Mechanics: This is NOT Zoolander opening a computer.
Flatlanders at this point had a disabled car. Completely busted. Their oil pan was all messed up and things weren't looking good. We spent the entire day by their side as if Olgii were a hospice. When the mechanics were done with their car, all it took was 27 seconds of driving the vehicle to cause the wheel hub to shatter. Game over. Andrew and Mike would eventually donate their car to Mongolia from this town (each town acted as a drop off point) and hop in the car of the dude from Seattle. They would spend the rest of the trip in his car, because it had a 3 liter engine. The thing was huge.
Tried investigating how to file a police report for my teammate's stolen backpack. Went to the "police station". Just 9 guys in an office, staring at us and playing solitaire on their computers. Can you guess what happened? Nothing! Absolutely nothing. They just laughed us out of the office as a result of a beautiful concoction of incomprehension, insolence and utter stupidity.
The convoy at this point was Team Rubik Crew, dude from Seattle, Mike, and Andrew, and two new cars with Spaniards and German/Czech guys. We all sat on the outskirts of Olgii, looking off into the horizon. It would be another 160 miles until the next town. These Mongolian towns were islands, separated by vast stretches of ocean - all it took was one contingency and our vessels would drown. That is the last thing anyone wanted.
Praise my usage of suspense. I'm trying to make this blog reading exciting for you.
One of the most bizarre stories from the 2009 Mongol Rally came from an American girl who was driving to Mongolia by herself. She was sponsored by Genghis Grill in Texas, so everything was pretty much covered for just as long as she blogged, vlogged, and gave updates to her corporate sugardaddy at home. Why was she alone? Her teammate at the crazy Czech Castle Party banged 5 Mongol Ralliers and totally ditched her. This poor girl was left on her own, feigning her friend's accompaniment in every blog she wrote back home.
Oh swedish penis tattoo guy, you're sooo incorrigible
As if things couldn't be worse, someone lost her car keys during a crazy night of revelry at Olgii. Guess who! Remember crazy Tattooed-penis Swedish guy? Dude got so drunk he lost her keys and she was completely stuck in Olgii. Car wouldn't work. In the mean time, she's getting offers to buy the car for thousands of dollars, leading her to theorize locals stole her car just to force her to sell it to them.
Swedish Penis guy tried hotwiring her car, which was insane, considering the car was just new enough to have a computerized ignition with one true microchopped-key to start the car. In these circumstances, you'd need to go to a dealership to get a new programmed key. But this was the opposite end of the Earth anf that wasn't exactly a plan. Girl had to fly to the capital to pick up her delivered keys from Europe, only to fly back to Olgii and drive the car to the capital. Swedish Penis guy felt pretty horrible..... considering that he found out the key was in his car the entire time.
We headed off to Khovd. A memorable moment for us was driving up to one of the sporadic yurts in the countryside. Per usual, we drove up, walked in and received amazing hospitality. We walked in the sheepskin-covered abode to warm soup and dumplings from two caring parents and a surfeit of progeny. And there was grandpa. The same guy who offered me the ritualistic snuff to ingest through my nostrils. I wasn't privy to being rude, so up my nose it went! I sneezed a thousand times, causing everyone to laugh at me. I salved my nasal cavities with some deliciously gross yak milk and tea.
Rolling up to the ger where I tried snuff
We met some french people inside the ger.
Kept on driving. River crossings. Tortous descents down mountains. Every single moment was a Bob Ross painting.
Woke up in gorgeous, idyllic campspot at the embankment of a pristine river, bridge, and grassy knoll. I rode a Mongolian boy's horse. This trip was suddenly Club Med.
Kept driving and eventually made it to Khovd. Went to market, got supplies. Met a very distraught rallier who with his teammate suffered a horrific car accident. His friend, the passenger, broke his back and had to be flown immediately to South Korea (closest, most trusted surgery facilities). His face was etched with raw sadness and guilt.
We got more petrol. Because of the ridiculous and arbitrary power outages in every town in the country, I was stuck getting the much famed and feared 80 grade gasoline from some dude who had a mechanical pump that was three times older than me. 80 grade gasoline apparently kills cars. But I LOVE RISKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
One of many rivers forded
60 miles into the nothingness, my teammate hit a giant rock in the middle of the road and the car just stopped. The engine wouldn't turn, leading us to believe the 80 grade gasoline destroyed the engine. For 6 hours, in the midday sun, we tried to replace the demonic 80 grade by adding the 93 grade gasoline from our jerry cans. Didn't work. Andrew drove 60 miles back into town to get octane booster. Came back, put it in. Didn't work. Changed spark plugs. No dice. Drained the fuel line. Nothing.
In the middle of the fiasco, a truck full of completely wasted Mongolians stops and checks out our scene. They get out, get in our way, and one of the men would NOT stop tickling the Czech guy who was at this time under the hood of our car. They eventually got bored with us, got in their truck, but the truck wouldn't start. I was caught in a situation where my car wouldn't start, and a truckload of bombed Mongolians are trapped alongside us, as we're all completely blocking the road. All of us got behind the Mongolian truck and pushed it until it kicked into second gear.
Our situation was becoming more and more dire with my non-functioning Rubik's Cube of a car. It eventually got to the point where we were moments away from siphoning out the entire gas tank. Until... Juan, my Spanish savior from the team of Spaniards, provided a stroke of genius. He reached far deep into the chasm of our FIAT Seicento, underneath the radio.
GET OUT OF THE WAY!
Turns out, cars in the EU have an emergency gas line disruptor, where if the car gets into an accident, the flow of gas is disrupted, thus preventing this from happening. My teammate hit the rock so hard the car thought it got itself into an accident. Thank God for Juan because that could have been a horrible situation. And if there is a God, thank him/her for absolving me from feeling so guilty for purchasing 80 grade gasoline.
Drove. Found "camp spot" (sand without rocks). And we had no spare tires.
It was at this moment Team Rubik Crew parted ways with the rest of the convoy. The plan was to leave early so we could find someone who could fix our tires. Our tires were so busted from the terrain that the metal rims had become dented and caused holes that let the air out. This equaled flat tires. We needed a quick fix.
We eventually came across a sole house on the side of the road that had a tire outside of it. This was apparently the international language for "Hey a guy who can fix your tires lives here with his family! Stop by!"
This is where I realized Mongolians are very handy individuals. This man - mind you, distracted by the bustling of 9 children running around him - took our tires and flattened out the hub rim. Instead of using a machine to inflate the tires, he did what any handy, machine-less Mongolian would do: pour gasoline all inside the flat tire, light a match, step back and VROOOOOOOOOOMP watch as the pressure differential inflated the tire within a tenth of a second. Just like this.
On a side note, one of the kids was a bit boisterous, so to my astonishment, the Father all non-chalantly picked the kid up by the neck for 5 seconds. It looked exactly like this.
We were now with our usual 3 spares. We waited for the convoy who was back at the camp spot, but eventually gave up after an hour and decided to soldier on alone. We needed to get to Altai. On the way was this tiny, tiny village called Darvi where Mongolians were having horse racing events and wrestling matches. It was pretty cool. After just meeting some Irish ralliers, a Mongolian woman came up and asked, in English, if we believed in Jesus. Afraid to offend her, but also afraid to lie, we sheepishly groaned out, "Um.. not really...." as we shamefully looked to the ground. She screamed at us and stormed off.
We continued with the Irish guys on our trek to Altai. Exhilarating, fun windy roads came our way. It were as if certain parts of Mongolia were constructed as ATV racing courses. It didn't make any sense.
5 miles away from Altai, our one spare that went 6,000 miles without being changed exploded. Made it into town. Met Scottish guys who had a hotel room. We bought them dinner in return for their floor to sleep on.
On the road at 6am. We knew we wanted to be in the next town, Bayonkhongor, by night. This was 300 miles away. Oh, we weren't fucking around.
This was the most barren stretch on our entire trip. We were in the Northern Gobi at this point. Stretches of sand, flat horizons and a lot of animal bone carcases.
footage of Andrew in northern gobi on hood of car
We got majorly lost at this time. Had NO clue what direction we should have been going in. Our map sucked and lied to us. We had a lying map.
We encountered a Turkish guy on a Motorcycle who was riding all the way from Los Angeles (yeah, figure that one out). We rode together a bit, and we noticed something on our map. There was a long blue line scrawled on the map, bisecting the road we were on. It was a river. A river with no bridge. It was coming up, and I was a bit frightened about this. I asked a woman who was tending the most barren gas station in the universe, and through the body language of her pointing to her ankles, realized the river was only a foot high. Cool.
20 minutes later we were at the river. It was 6 god damn feet deep. It was a mini Hurricane Katrina inside this river. A bunch of curious villagers ran out and laughed at us. One very helpful and accommodating (and enterprising?) Mongolian showed us .5 kilometers down the river to a very shallow section that could see us over. It worked. As a token of thanks, we gave him 2 dollars and a pig-shaped, pink airplane neck pillow.
dude who helped us ford the river
We kept driving and made it to Bayonkhongor (a town whose name directly translates to "Unpronounceable Mongolian Town") at around 7pm. Ate at an ironic Korean restaurant, and decided to drive just a bit outside the city to sleep in the car. Dusk was on our heels. It was getting harder to see. Found ourselves off the main path and in high grass with sneaky, malicious boulders embedded into the soil.
THWOMP. Our car SLAMMED into a 2 feet-in-diameter rock. This was nasty. Car didnt start. Learned our magic from Juan, pressed the fuel-line switch under the radio, and we were back in business. Fell asleep only to drive again at 6am.
The last day saved all of its surprises for us. Having rejoiced with overcoming the previous night's frustrations, we started the morning bright and early, knocking out 3 hours of solid driving.
But then, just 20 miles before the last major city before Ulaan Baatar, our gearbox (transmission) seemingly became malfunctional. First and second gear didn't work, and neither did third and fourth. Seemed strange. All of this was happening out of no where. So, after successfully driving 3 miles in reverse on Worst Roads Ever, white smoke eventually erupted from under our hood, as a hissing sound and steam exploded from the coolant tank. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
Car. Completely destroyed.
First van that towed us
Rendering our car as kaput, I took out our celebratory bottle of champagne, shook it, and popped the cork under the hood as champagne poured all over the engine. It sizzled like a frying pan. We were in the middle of a desert, and my car was mocking my state of near starvation with the sound of delicious frying eggs.
Fast forward 20 minutes later, and we found ourselves towed to the back of a minibus carrying a cramped 23 people. For 25 bucks, the bus dropped us off in the city. While there, we witnessed a half dozen teams in what looked to be their last throes of survival. One team's alternator belt tore apart, another team had no brakes, while another had no tire tubes. And just as we were dropped off, we realized we had a flat.
All we had were 250 miles to get to Ulaan Baatar.
The irony was that the rest of the trip was entirely asphalt. Beautiful, paved asphalt.
In desperation, we tried working the car again while stuck in the city, ignoring the fact that there was so much white smoke coming out of the engine 3 hours earlier that I thought the car had elected a new Pope. And.... it actually worked. Turns out that the teeth in the clutch weren't meeting properly with the gears. By easing it in, we could get it to fit and we could go. But it only worked in fifth gear. So we had to start the car in fifth gear, crank it until it met its proper speed, and we were good.
We knocked out 60 miles. 190 remained to the finish line.
But then we met a hill so steep the car basically said, "Screw you guys" and the gearbox wasn't exactly acting clutch. We flagged down one trucker who, using our ropes improperly, snapped them at its first tug. I waved goodbye as the truck left us in its dust. Another Mongolian stopped and successfully got us up the hill. Gliding down the mountain, our 5th gear worked... for another 20 miles.
170 miles remained.
At this point, you might as well have added a dramatic hollywood score, because lightning was rolling in on the horizon. Now in the distance was a mountain 3 times bigger than the hill we had just overcame 20 miles previously. At the base of it, we flagged down random vehicles to help us climb it. One guy with a flatbed truck- who was driving in the opposite direction of Ulaan Baatar - took out a measuring string and showed how we were 6 inches too long to fit on the back. With his wife and 5 year old kid in the car, as rain gushed down on everyone, he was determined to go home, drop off his family, come back, and just tow us 170 miles to the capital for 150 bucks.
"30 minutes!" he basically said in Mongolian. "I'll return!"
It was until an hour, stranded, with thunder booming above us, where I realized Family Man wasn't coming back to save us. I got back out in the Tsunami and leapt in front of cars, hoping one would get us over this goddamn mountain. Eventually, a minibus (this one carrying 27 people) tugged us up the mountain 2 kilometers to a dry, warm roadside restaurant.
6pm now. Ate really shitty mutton soup a drunk man dunked his face in.
Car effectively destroyed. Got back out to find something to take us all the way to the capital.
Eventually met a guy who was driving a different minibus this time carrying 30 people. More passengers, more danger risked. So with the same mangy, disgusting, now 7-times-severed piece of rope, this driver was going to drag our car 5 feet ahead, with 30 lives crammed in his bus, as the slick, wet roads acted as metaphorically salivating our inevitable caroming off of a cliff.
2 miles in, rope snapped. I wanted to cry.
7pm now, 165 miles from the finish line.
And there was no rope - anywhere - better than this one which worked more appropriately as a kitten leash than our ticket to salvation.
We perfunctorily retied the thing, and tried again. Things worked out. We were on our way. I lost sight of everything around me as my concentration was focused on 5 feet of frayed twine, bridging our broken car to this minibus. If the rope showed slack, I gently braked to restore a taut connection. For if I didn't, a nailbiting, slack-filled tug from the bus would be enough to make it's jerry-rigged tying destroy the insides of this very Rubik's Cube it was connected to.
As if having bleary eyes and thunderous headaches couldn't be worse, we hit a patch of terrain so ridiculously difficult I thought we were finished. There were 3 miles of complete and astonishing mud pits and mud trails - a result of recent flooding near the capital. It was one last F-U to us. The car took hairpin turns in a seemingly figure-8 pattern that wasn't going anywhere. Around us were dozens of cars stuck in the mud. Cars were flying around in all directions. Mud everywhere.
Tied to a rope the width of a thong at this point, we eventually made it through. Calmness set in. A bed of lights in a valley met us. This was Ulan Bataar and our finish line was somewhere within eyeshot.
Midnight now and we got dropped off at a gas station 5 miles outside the downtown area.
We slept in the car, and woke up at 7 to make one last ditch effort to get pulled in. This time for good... using the same horrible rope.
Got out of the car. Stretched. Brushed my teeth. Oops! We had another flat tire.
Fixed it, then hit the main road for someone to pull us into downtown. We held up the shit-rope, and flagged down everyone. Still raining. 4243234 cars ignored us (city locals weren't as helpful as countryside buses). Eventually found a truck with a mother, father, and two young boys. Although they couldn't speak English, you could tell his kind spirit and friendly demeanor showed he was just a really good human being. He linked us up to the back of his truck and we headed downtown.
But before, we stopped at some mini-mart. He got out of the car, opened up the back of his truck revealing a bunch of giant milk bins. He was a milkman! And he had to drop milk off on his route before he could bring us to the finish line. So we carried these 100 pound milk bins to local Mongolian babushkas for a good hour.
When it was all said and done, we averted the red lights, traffic and horridly confused stares from locals at the sight of a milk truck towing in a beat up Rubik's cube, and saw the finish line. A parking lot at a movie theater. The Adventurists had set up welcoming banners and stages and we were instantly awaited by dozens and dozens of shitbox cars of ralliers who all made it too. 75% of ralliers would make it to then end. We placed 248 out of 350 cars.
I helped myself to a delicious English breakfast and countless stories from other ralliers who shared the same euphoria.
And one last note of irony. Remember my teammate having his bag stolen? Our bloodhound duo of loyal Mongolians found it after we left. They put it on a plane to Ulan Bataar. Everything present and intact. Amazing.
We stayed in Ulan Bataar a couple of nights. Eventually Flatlanders showed up, which was great. And seeing certain friends who we haven't seen since Azerbaijan felt like seeing long lost soldiers years after a war.
We all finally had one amazing accomplishment under our belts that we would share forever. And boy did it feel great.
And yes, I kept the rope that pulled us in as the souvenir of a lifetime.
For my final rumination? I can sum it up by saying that the world is a safe and interesting place. A place full of friendly, curious, and warm people. People who, for the most part, want to interrupt their personal lives to help you, for absolutely nothing in return.
It's a weird feeling knowing I'll never see these people again. But everything in life should be seen as a story. And as I type these stories to you, I find peace of mind knowing that Kazakhs and Mongolians a half a world away are sharing their own versions of these completely hilarious stories over shots of vodka, views of camels, and sand under their feet.
How much weight did you lose, Joe?!
THANKS FOR READING!
Last shot of our car