Days 25 – 27 – Ulaanbataar, Mongolia to Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

We spent Day 25 sorting out all our gear, turning the Trackers over to the charitable organization, and touring around the city of Ulaanbataar, which is a surprisingly modern city especially when compared to the rest of the country.  The people in the city weren’t quite like the friendly and warm nomadic people in the lesser-populated parts of the country, perhaps giving credence to the phrase, “Familiarity breeds contempt,” and foreshadowing what may easily come to the rest of Mongolia as it is swept into modernity.  It was somewhat sad to say goodbye to the Trackers.  Besides each of the other guys to an extent, they had really come to be the only source of constancy on the journey.   For lunch today, we ate at a place called City Burger and I had the chicken sandwich and an ice cream cone.  Yeah, yeah, I had a lapse in judgment and forgot that ice cream was…yup, goat.  But more fascinating than my forgetfulness, was this — did you ever wonder how Wendy’s and McDonald’s and all can only offer white meat chicken products?  What happens to all that dark meat?  Well, I just found the answer.  It ends up at City Burger in Mongolia.  And let me say, the dark meat chicken sandwich may not catch on any time soon in the states.  Today really was a good day and really gave us time to reflect together on the experience.

We flew out the morning of Day 26.  Ken took a different flight from the rest of us so the team was officially disbanded in Ulaanbataar.  For not knowing each other very well prior to this, we got along surprisingly well.  As could be expected of grown, opinionated men, there were a few flare ups, but nothing terribly damaging.  I think that having two vehicles, separate tents, and switching up hotel room arrangements helped to avoid overexposure that would have otherwise caused some bigger issues.

The remaining four of us flew to Beijing, where we had a long layover and where we soon found out our flight to LAX was delayed by two hours due to the typhoons that have been pounding China.  Obama, Hungarian parking cops, Russian mafia, flat tires, typhoons…meh, whatever.  True to the adventurists we’ve become, in hopes of finding a nice place to relax we took an elevator up to what turned out to be the First Class Lounge.  When the elevator opened, there was a velvet rope across the entrance and none of us moved, we just stood there and stared at it, dumbfounded, probably because we were all so tired.  But this played well to our advantage as it must have made us appear snooty enough to be First Class.  One of the staff said, “Oh, you need help?” and, doing her job to make the First Class Elite feel elite, moved the rope and let us in.  We obliged and found a quiet corner and spent the afternoon sleeping and enjoying the complimentary beverage and ice cream bar.

The delayed flight from China ended up causing us to miss our connecting flight in L.A. despite our sprinting from terminal to terminal again.  Frustrated, we grabbed some In-n-Out Burger and stayed in the fine LAX La Quinta on Air China’s dime.  We picked up the next flight that left early in the morning of Day 27.

I’m an absolute daydreamer.  And I’ve been daydreaming about meeting my wife and family at the airport for about 25 days now.  It was not a disappointing experience.  I know that my absence was self-inflicted, but that didn’t make the reunion any less sweet.  I am, unfortunately, someone that often needs to be reminded of good things by being removed from them.  I missed my family intensely during this entire trip and now realize a little bit more deeply how fortunate I am to have what I have.

Besides the value of my family, I learned a lot as a result of this trip.  How could I not?  It is unfortunately rare that during the normal course of life I wake up in the morning and think to myself, “Today, you will see, learn or do something that could change your perpsective on life, and may very well change your life, forever.”  I had that thought every single day of the Mongol Rally.

Maybe I’ll write another, reflective and unabashedly cheesy post at some point after I’ve had more time to think, but the one lesson I learned that I would share with you here and now is that if there’s something you really want to do, do it.

There were so many excuses (masquerading as reasons) not to do the Mongol Rally — time away from work, shirking family “responsibilities,” cost, danger, etc.  But as I made the Rally a desire and conveyed that to the people around me, things fell into place that allowed it to happen.  I’ve mentioned the noble response of my wife.  And my desire was received in true adventurist spirit by my boss when he said, “We’ll make this happen.  You have to do this.”  The man has this amazing understanding of life, and I am extremely grateful to work with him.  And the other issues worked out as well.  It may not have been as clean as I’d hoped, meaning, things may not have worked out the exact way I envisioned, but things worked out and the end result was that I was able to have an experience that I will likely think about every day for a long time.

Finally, thanks for sharing this unbelieveable experience with me.  I appreciate all of the emails and comments, even if they were completely inappropriate and missed their intended comedic target as they always do (Dan L.).  I have now, literally, travelled around the world and I can say without hesitation that I am surrounded by some of the best people on this earth, and for that, thank you. 

Now, let’s go rally.

Day 24 – Byangkhongor, Mongolia to Ulanbataar, Mongolia

It was a beautifully satisfying feeling to see the city lights of Ulanbataar as we crested this small hill tonight.  I think we are just now starting to realize the magnitude of the journey we just made.  We ended up travelling 7,400 miles across two continents and 16 countries through multiple mountain ranges, the Gobi Desert, Siberian plains and a bunch of places in between.  We had one minor breakdown and burned through 8 flat tires.  It’s been a wild journey, but I’m extremely happy that I’ll be with my family again soon.

We had a couple of hours of sleep in the Trackers this morning before Ken and I got up and hit the Byangkhongor tire shop.  These young kids running the place were able to patch up two of the flats and sell us one tire that was slightly small, but would do the trick if we needed it.  With three spares, we thought we could make it to Ulanbataar.  So, off we went.

I drove Centrum Silver for much of the day.  She’s hurting.  Her radio’s been out for about 5 days, her dash lights are out, we had to wire her grill and her radiator fan on since we shook out all the screws, and she’s developed an exhaust leak somewhere so she sounds like a go-cart.  But really, both Trackers have been awesome.  We’ve been relatively comfortable in them and they’ve performed really well, never getting stuck or failing to start or anything terribly huge.  (You should all feel free to laugh out loud at any time I try to talk about something mechanical in any way).

We hit pavement at some point in the afternoon around a city called Arvaikheer and were certain our rough roads were done for.  We had cruised probably a hundred and fifty miles on sweet, sweet asphalt when all of a sudden, while I’m pleasantly writing in my journal with my head down, Geoff says, “What the hell?”

I look up just in time to see us dropping off the paved road about a foot down onto a pothole and washboard riddled dirt road.  Boom!  Our rear end flew into the air and just like that, we were back to the Mongolian roads we knew so well.  I was pissed actually.  Not because the road was bad, but because I couldn’t understand the logic of the situation.  We had just travelled on 150 miles of excellent road, were 80 miles from the crown-jewel capital city of the entire country, and all of a sudden you’re going to stop paving it?  I mean, pave in one continuous line, right?  It was nuts.  And what was more nuts was that we would travel along the dirt road for a while, come to about a three mile section of pavement and then that section would end and we’d be back on dirt again.  One continuous line, that’s all I want.

Mongolia has apparently had more rain this season than they have in a long time and it was certainly shown as we cruised around this section of unimprovement.  The puddles, small ponds and mounds of mud were getting people stuck all over the place.  Even in four-wheel drive, the Trackers nearly got stuck a couple of times.  We pulled out a guy in a passenger car but soon stopped that, realizing that if we pulled anyone else out they were just going to get stuck 100 yards up the road.  We finally picked up a paved road that took us the rest of the way, about 40 miles, into our final destination — the Chingiss Kahn Hotel, Ulanbataar, Mongolia.

Because it was late at night everything was closed, so we celebrated with some room service — some fish and chips, which we thought would make a nice bookend with the fish and chips we so enjoyed in Dover on the first actual day of the Rally.  We were quickly reminded that Mongolia is landlocked as the fish and chips were amongst the worst meals we had the entire trip.  No matter, spirits were high and we were all excited to get some rest, spend the day in the city, and then get home.

Day 23 – Darvi, Mongolia to Byangkhongor, Mongolia

We woke up in the middle of the Gobi Deset with one tire completely flat and one in need of an additional patch.  Sean generously broke out a watermelon that he bought somehwere in Russia and I must say, if nuclear fallout tastes like that watermelon did, then sign me up because it was gorgeous.

With our lack of spares we had to take it easy and extra cautiously for the fifty miles to the city of Altai.  We checked tire pressures every hour and often found significant fluctuations even in that short amount of time, so we felt extremely lucky to make it to a tire shop.  We were able to replace the two tires we’d shredded the previous day and get some better patches on the slow-leaker and some reinforcement on the bubbled-sidewall.  With four spares we were ready to roll…

…and four flat tires later, we were in the same situation as the night before.  It’s amazing that we can burn through them the way we do.  It really is a combination of terrible roads, substandard tire quality, and probably trying to drive too fast (sorry Mom).  This time, rather than camp, we decided to press our luck until we either blew another or reached the city of Byangkhongor.

The drive itself is on the verge of indescribable.  I’d rather have a root canal than cross over another one-mile washboard, but to be able to see the countryside of Mongolia is an absolute privilege.  I mean, we chased herds of flipping two-humped camels today. Two-humped camels!  They’re everywhere and they’re fantastic.  We also crossed a river today where the water nearly reached our hood.  It was funny, actually.  Bryan was driving the Prune and Geoff was driving Centrum Silver as we approached this massive-looking, moving body of water.  There were other vehicles there waiting to cross so Bryan got out and played charades with them a bit.  Although he had been leading to that point, he walked over to Geoff and innocently said, “That guy says this spot’s good…so…why don’t you go ahead, I guess?”

Geoff hammered it out beautifully.  We also stop frequently to help broken-down motorists or give gifts to the nomadic kids.  This part of the Rally is the real Rally to me and it’s been phenomenal.  It’s much more challenging and stressful but also much more rewarding.

Our push ahead panned out well.  We went more than 50 miles without a tire problem and arrived in Byangkhongor at about 5 a.m. after logging a total of 370 miles for the day.  We believe we have about 330 miles to Ulanbataar and expect some of that to be paved, so there’s a chance we could make it tomorrow and have one day to spend in the city before we fly.

The drive today was fantastic.

Day 22 – Olgiy, Mongolia to Darvi, Mongolia

We logged a few miles to a city called Kohvd.  There was an open air market that we really wanted to walk through.  So we did.  I got myself an ice cream cone but only after I consummated the purchase did I realize that it was going to be made of goat’s milk.  I reluctantly tasted it.  Yup, goat.  I ate as much of it as I could before it slipped out of my hand into a garbage.

These roads are unbelievable.  I mean, I’ve seen some pretty bad roads that compare with these for short stretches but this is a rocky, washboard, hard and rutted road that apparently goes for the next 1,000 miles.  That’s no exaggeration by the way.  1,000 miles to Ulaanbataar.

We got started as early as we have yet and managed to punch out 300 miles.  It came at the expense of three tires though.  And when we get a flat, if we don’t catch it right away, the tire gets ripped to bits.  Two of our tires today were total losses, one of which was the most destroyed tire I’ve ever seen.  I’ll try to get a picture of it up here.

We also had a slow leak in one tire and a bubble on the sidewall of another.  We carry two spares per Tracker, so we were down to the end. 

We decided we were having tire pressure problems due to changes in elevation and temperature.  It took us a while to get things regulated, but we think we have things under control after today’s expensive lessons – slower speeds and check air pressure as frequently as we change drivers. 

As amazingly harsh as the driving is, the scenery here is as amazingly pleasant.  It’s as free range as you could imagine.  There really are no trees, but there are flats, hills and some mountains and it seems like they all grow green grass.  The herders push their herds of goats, horses, camels, yaks and cattle around the area all day long and the animals just graze like they don’t have a care.  The countryside is, for lack of a better word, big.  The sky is big, the grasslands are big, the hills are big and they all just seem to go on and on.  The distance between fuel stops is also big, so we have to carry some extra jerry cans full of fuel in our vehicles and we have to have a supply of water and food in case we have a problem.

Time is getting tight for us.  In order to make our flight we really can’t afford to have problems like this, but problems like this are almost a certainty for us.  It was a wild day and we have to make it about 50 miles tomorrow to the next city with no problems where we’ll get our spares fixed up.  Ken finished our day off strong by building a fire for us.

Day 21 – Mongolian Border to Olgiy, Mongolia

So it wasn’t exactly confinement.  We could cross the border, but our vehicles couldn’t.  There was a really small village with a tiny store and café just across the fence.  For dinner last night I had two dumpling things and I have no idea what kind of meat they had in them.  It was probably goat, but I guess it could have been yak or something.  Needless to say, I couldn’t wrap my mind around what I was eating, so it wasn’t very good.

For the most part, however, we felt extremely confined and helpless just sitting there waiting for someone else to handle the situation.  Also, all of the information I related yesterday really didn’t come to light until late on Day 21, so we sat in confusion most of the time as to why we weren’t allowed to leave.  We kept getting very limited information and what we had was conflicting between the Mongolian border officials and the  Rally organizers.  At some point in the afternoon we got word that the Rally organizers had wired more money to cover a few cars today and ours were on the list.

e felt fortunate, but were certainly upset that we had to kill so much time doing nothing.  If we get held up a border because of independent government action, then that seems like part of the Rally adventure.  But to be held up as a result of the Rally organizers themselves was pretty ridiculous. 

So, after 30 hours, we took off and drove for as long as we had daylight, making it to the small town of Olgiy about 50 miles from the border.  Mongolia is a beautiful country and the people are humble and friendly.  The countryside is dotted with these gers, or yurts, that the herder/nomadic people use as homes.  They will often come out as you drive by and wave and smile.  They will apparently take you in and host you too, without much of a question, if you feel so inclined and approach them.  This type of hospitality is really refreshing after the general reception we got in Europe and Russia. 

We’re excited to hit the most challenging parts of the Rally, crossing the Mongolian steppes.  That all gets underway tomorrow.

Day 20 – Mongolian Border

So this is what prison feels like?  I think I toured through my hometown jail once for scouts or something but I’ve never actually felt like a prisoner…until now.

We woke up early and got through the Russian side of the border with no real problems, other than the problem I have with it taking 2 hours for someone to compare my face to the face in my passport.  Interestingly, between the Russian and Mongolian sides there are 20 kilometers of no man’s land.  We were tempted to stake it as Team FNV Land, but upon realizing we’d have Russia as a neighbor, we thought better of it.

We hit the Mongolian side sometime around 1:00 p.m. local time.  They processed our passports and customs stuff, but they wouldn’t pass the Trackers through customs.  They gave us no information, but told us to move them to the impound lot.  As we complied with their requirements we were surprised to see about 15 other Mongol Rally vehicles in the impound lot and a small, tent city not far away.  This was not good.

We immediately got the story from some of the other teams.  Some of them had been there as long as 5 days.  They couldn’t get their cars through because of some administrative issue with the Mongolian government, or at least that’s what the Rally organizers told them in the beginning.  As we spent our time there and talked to the border officials and also to the Rally organizers, who were very unreliable and shifty in their responses, a clearer picture surfaced.

Every vehicle that enters Mongolia for purposes of being sold for profit or donated to charity must be assessed a tariff.  In years past the Rally organizers had successfully persuaded the Mongolian government to waive the tariff.  But the Mongols, apparently sick of receiving old, beat up cars every year and sick of cleaning up the ditched Rally vehicles wouldn’t waive the tariff this year.  By proceeding without the tariff-waiver the Rally organizers were in a serious pickle, and the participants, us, were paying the price in terms of time wasted at the border. 

The Mongolian border officials and government were simply not going to budge – they needed a tariff on each vehicle and the Rally organizers were on the hook.  During our first night at the border the organizers began wiring money to release vehicles.  Our team, unfortunately, didn’t make the first round.  So we stayed the night in tent city and now face a long day in confinement tomorrow.

Day 19 – Novosibirsk, Russia to 100 Miles from Mongolian Border

I got a great night’s sleep in a nice bed whose sheets I actually trusted.  It was a bit sad to leave, but really, I love that we’re putting on the miles right now.  This adventure is awesome and I don’t intend to take it for granted, but it really is too long.  I’m excited to get on with it every morning and get that much closer to seeing my family.  I’m even a little bit excited to get back to work.

Today was all about miles, so nothing terribly extraordinary happened.  We did get pulled over by the cops in a small town called Biysk running our total to eight times in Russia.  These guys were after a healthy bribe and Bryan played them really well.  They wanted $200 USD so Bryan just stalled as long as he could, then came over to us and asked us to produce a little cash.  We all pitched in and he took it back over to their car and tried to hand it to them in the open, a masterful move, because they immediately said, “No money.  You go.”

Also of minimal interest was our meal.  We stopped at a café in Byisk and I again asked the server what meal she preferred.  She pointed to two things and I picked one.  It turned out to be the exact same thing I had two nights ago on the recommendation of that other server.  So this means one of two things:  (1) That dish is the best thing available in Russia; or (2) It is the most expensive thing on the menu and I’m a sucker in a baseball cap.

We made to within 100 miles of the Mongolian border and camped in this pretty little valley in some mountain chain that I can’t pronounce.