As we left Russia and drove through no-man’s land headed for the border proper, we recalled hearing stories about teams that spent upwards of three days at the border waiting for their cars to get stamped in. Thankfully, we would not join that statistic and after paying our $1 disinfection tax, a few other charges and waiting a little over five hours, we were allowed in just before the border closed at 9pm. The convoy had grown to include Team Detour from Sweden together with Chase and Charla (and Bertha, their panda and team mascot) and we enjoyed a great night’s camping albeit in freezing weather.
Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world and the first word I’d chose to describe the country is ’empty’. While Gers, the traditional Mongolian house, are generally visible at any point on the horizon, towns only exist hundreds of kms apart. It is very easy to drive an entire day without any change in scenery whatsoever while the emptiness seems to exaggerate features. Clouds, for example, look far grander, more beautiful and more intense when there is nothing in their way and they stretch until out of sight.
Over the course of the week, the terrain varied from largely sparse mountain steppe (mountains and rolling plateaus) to the occasional forest steppe (trees were a rare sight). Heading west to east, we traversed across parts of the Altai Mountains, the country’s highest mountain range. We also headed past a number of beautiful lakes and crossed parts of the Gobi desert, the fifth largest in the world.
Roads too were very varied and while some half of the distance was paved, the remainder was a mis-match of loose gravel, large holes, flattened and packed dirt, potholes and grassy plains! Where unpaved, there was no single road but a number of tracks available and it was clear that the road was simply a path made over many years of travel. There is only one ‘route’ west to east across the country and it was entertaining seeing half a dozen cars each on their own parallel path. Over the course of the week, we would also cross a number of water ‘hazards’ and on each occasion, driver and car performed admirably!
Throughout the country, there are very few signs. Having signs though aren’t particularly helpful when there are multiple cities with the same name. Heading for Altai, we slowed to read a sign and after seeing the word ‘Altai’ with a straight arrow, assumed we were on the right road. That assumption would prove to be incorrect when we learnt that there are three Altai’s! As a result, we ended up seeing more of the Gobi than intended as we headed some 400 km off track and skirted the Chinese border.
This detour happened on day three, by which point we’d covered only 300 kms. Between our tyre issues and the Norwegians having engine trouble, our first two days of driving had seen us cover less mileage than we needed to in one day. As we sat at the local petrol station in the wrong Altai, we were really worried that we wouldn’t make our flight let alone the finish line. It was tough and slow going and with our car issues, and now being some 400 km off track, confidence hit an all-time low. We still had over 1,300 km to cover and Ulaanbaatar seemed a long, long way away.
(We subsequently learnt that we were one of a handful of teams that took the scenic Gobi route!).
Thankfully we met a local while filling up who was headed to the capital and was able to lead us to the path of salvation. That path was a 200 km stretch of beautifully paved road built by the Chinese – the road was built to provide access to the mine and some 100 m after the mine, the road completely disintegrated!. We were able to make good distance on this superb road and after driving through the night, we arrived in the correct Altai early the next morning to be back on track. Thankfully both the roads and our sense of navigation improved and we would remain on track and reach the capital in time for the party.
Car wise, Julie was an absolute champion and aside from a broken exhaust for the last few days which meant we sounded like a F1 car as we crossed the finish line, we had no engine issues. Tyres, though, were a different story and we ended up with at least one puncture for every day we were in Mongolia to total 10 by the time we hit the finish line! At each town en route we would stop to repair tyres and while at times frustrating, it gave us the opportunity to interact with the locals and play football with the kids while we waited around.
As I said in one of our earlier blogs, teams could take any route they wanted. A few teams like us crossed the Caspian Sea and headed through the Stans, others kept north through Kazakhstan and Russia and a large number went via Iran. The Swiss team we met on day two in Bulgaria were taking a unique road as they headed through Iran, Pakistan and China.
Regardless of one’s route, everyone obviously converged in Mongolia and with there being only one ‘road’; we were all ‘channelled’ to the same spots as we headed for the capital. Thus throughout our time in Mongolia, we would bump into teams and in addition to the awesome Norwegians who we convoyed with throughout, we would convoy with a few of these other teams for part of the week We also randomly bumped into the above-mentioned Swiss team and would camp with them and a few other teams in a beautiful national park.
Meeting up with other teams made the rally in many respects. Although we barely knew each other, the spirit and sense of camaraderie was amazing as we’d all been on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure together. An incredible bond was very quickly formed and we shared many laughs on the road and then enjoyed a super-fun weekend in Ulaanbaatar celebrating.
I’ve never had to work so hard on a trip before. Not only was there the six months of planning but the six weeks on the road were both mentally and physically draining. Given how hard we’d had to work, the sense of accomplishment as we crossed the finish line was immense and the elation uncontrollable. With some incredible support from so many people, we’d worked our socks off to make this dream a reality and a real sense of pride enveloped us as we drove across the finish line.
Notwithstanding our smell after 12 days without a shower, there were bear hugs and high-fives all round. Many pictures were taken and a delicious cold beer was enjoyed whilst chatting to the many teams who had crossed earlier that day. We made it!
Although we’ve been back in London a week now, the trip is still sinking in and thinking back makes me smile. We covered some 10,600 miles (or 17,000 kms) and traveled 1/3rd of the way around the world over some the planet’s toughest terrain. We experienced 50 C heat as well as torrential rain that turned roads into mud baths. We hiked in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, drove along the roof of the world on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, experienced beautiful ancient cities in Uzbekistan and dodged far too many car-swallowing, rally-ending potholes in Turkmenistan. We ate what must have totaled hundreds of somsas, sampled many assorted horse platters in Kazakhstan and drank too much vodka. We avoided arrest in half-a-dozen of countries and spent a good fair number of incredibly uncomfortable nights in the car. We enjoyed a fine cruise across the Caspian Sea and large nights out in Tbilisi, Almaty and Ulaanbaatar … the memories will continue.