After bombing my way across Kazakhstan’s terrible roads and wide open sky (and having my fair share of run ins with the police) I made it to the Russian border. It was a surprisingly small outpost. I had expected long lines and interminable waits, but it actually moved pretty quickly...until I got inside the perimeter.
As soon as I got into the passport control things came to a screeching halt. The agent couldn’t make heads or tails of my car documents. Traveling with a vehicle with a funny name like “Bedford” does not make for an easy time in countries where Suzuki is an exotic make. After ten minutes with the border agent I was called into a private room for an “interview”.
Trying to explain the Mongol Rally to a border agent without it sounding like pure insanity was a feat in itself. In the end, he decided that I was probably not a spy and sent me out for customs inspection. Most often the customs agents take a look in the van, poke a few things, and then send me on my way. Not this time.
EVERYTHING had to come out of the van. I was asked several times if I had guns, drugs, or was a CIA agent. Several conversations were held in front of me in Russian. Every so often one agent would turn to me and see if I understood what was being said (I had told them I do not speak Russian, so I think they were trying to trip me up). It was not quite a Cold War experience (there were many more smiles than 1980’s Russia), but it was not the warm reception I have received elsewhere.
Eventually I was sent on my way and I was in Russia. Just two more border crossings to go!!!
I drove late into the night before finally finding a wide spot in the road for a rest. As much as I wanted to see some of Russia, I was more excited about having as much time in Mongolia as possible. So I decided to just get through Russia and take it slow on the other side.
The next morning I drove through the Altai region of Russia, a lovely valley with blue rivers, green hills, and plenty of small vacation communities. The roads were good and I made great time. It felt a lot like being home. I wound through small towns, with chainsaw wood carvings of bears, shops to buy t-shirts, and people taking pictures of themselves in front of various attractions. It was like being on the road to Mt. Hood!
I arrived at the Russian border with Mongolia about 7pm. There were five semis in front of me and not a soul to be seen. I poked around and eventually found a guard who indicated that the border would open at 9. Great! I’d have a little dinner, clean the van, and be ready to go when everyone got back from their break.
The border was pretty desolate. There was a barracks where the soldiers and border agents lived and some run down buildings that I could not tell if they were a hotel, a bar, or a junkyard. No store or clearly marked restaurants were to be found. I had enough food to make it through the night without starving. I figured I would make some rice, dump in the curry, and wait.
A man in a blue jumpsuit staggered out from behind one of the buildings. It took me a moment to register that I was not about to be the victim of a zombie attack. He was lurching, stumbling, and mumbling incoherently. It took him three attempts to make it through an opening in the fence to go to another building. I hoped he was not a truck driver. There was no way he was going to sober up in two hours!!!
As I was cleaning the van someone poked their head in. It is pretty common to have complete strangers literally insert themselves into your life. They come read your map with you, look in your vehicle, and generally just want to hang out. At first I was really defensive about it (in the States this is just not done!) but I have gotten used to it. We “chatted” for a few minutes. He looked around and then lifted his shirt. A bottle of vodka was poking out of his pants. “Is that a bottle of vodka in your pants or are you just excited to see me?” The joke did not register. But, before i knew it I was invited back to the man’s truck to help him drink the bottle!
I climbed into the cab and immediately surrounded in luxury! Two comfortable chairs were separated by a large console. The console slid out to reveal a cooler full of breads, meats, cheese, and vegetables. There was a full sized bed behind the chairs, and another bunk up above. Now THIS was how one should travel the roads of Mongolia!
The man’s driving partner welcomed me to the cab and the vodka was uncorked. We all did a shot and then the food was brought out. We snacked on the bread, meat and cheese. Tomatoes from the driver’s garden were eaten with a pinch of salt. Much better than jarred curry! I offered my last bottle of German beer as a token of thanks.
Neither of them spoke a word of English and I spoke next to no Russian, but we got along well, letting the vodka do the translating. We shared photos of family and travels. They showed me YouTube videos, but the humor didn’t quite translate. No matter, there was an easy camaraderie of travelers on the road.
The next morning, promptly at 9, the gates were opened and we were allowed to enter the border compound. At the first window, things went south, The woman asked for my documents. I handed over my passport and car ownership papers. She then demanded another document. I didn’t have anything else! She said there was a document I received at either the Kazakh or maybe even the Kyrgh border and I needed it to exit Russia. What???? Why did I need an entry document (not exit) from one or two countries ago???
I told her I did not have it and was there any way she could type me up a new one. She just shook her head. Her demeanor told me that I was in big trouble. THebottom of my stomach dropped out. There was no way I was going to be able to backtrack across a couple of countries just to get a piece of paper.
EarlierI had met a Brazilian team who had run into problems in Turkmenistan. The woman on the team had pleaded with an official to help them, to no avail. Eventually she broke down in tears from frustration and exhaustion. A guard had come over to comfort her. When she finally was able to get out the details of her situation, he snapped into action and tried to make things happen. Within three hours they had all their documents and were on their way. I wondered if I could whip up some convincing tears.
After thirty minutes of the passport control agent and I staring at each other (I did not break into tears), she let out an exasperated sigh no bean typing. Five minutes later she handed me back my passport and said, “Never lose your papers again.” I assured her I would not and scurried across to customs. Back outside there were more questions about my CIA affiliations, drug smuggling, and propensity for human trafficking. After assurances from a small beagle that nothing in the van was contraband, I was allowed out of Russia and into the wilds of Mongolia.
As the rain began to steadily fall, I bumped down my first Mongolian dirt road. This was it! The Rascal and I had made it to Mongolia! There would be yaks and camels and the land of Khan. One month ago this all seemed so distant. There were more pressing matters to address: visas, ferries, engine repairs. But now? Now it all comes down to just driving across Mongolia. I have plenty of time, the Rascal is running well, and I am ready for one more adventure.