After my brisk morning shower, I packed my belongings and went out to the Rascal. It was much less cluttered since I had ejected so much stuff at the Russian border. However the bumpy roads still managed to defeat my organizational structures (another box was smashed). I took a few minutes to assess the situation and re-distribute things. When I was done, I was surprised to see a short, thin man looking at me.
He held out his hand and offered me an oil change. Or a tune up. Or wheel rotation. He had a garage in town and probably made good money on Rally cars that were on their last legs. I politely declined, explaining that I was driving the best Rally car in the world and it was running like a champ. I chose to ignore the incident with the points the day before. I got in the Rascal and pulled out the map. I wanted to check out my route for the day. When I looked up, the man was sitting in the seat next to me!
He told me that the route I was planning was a good and that the roads would be “no problem.” I asked what he want and he indicated that they would be paved all the way. I didn't believe him. This was Mongolia! After a few minutes of discussion, I gently nudged him out the door.
On the far side of twon I stopped to fill up my tank. Who should be there but the Swedes and Ausies I had seen the day before! We chatted for a bit. Repairs had taken longer than expected and the going had been slow. They had not made Khovd until almost 1am! I showed them my route for the day and told them I wanted to try to find some 15,000 year old cave paintings that were indicated on my map. They all agreed that this sounded like fun and we formed a convoy out of town, Rascal in the lead.
I’m pretty sure that what happened next would get me arrested in America. Picture me driving down the road, GPS in one hand, map of Mongolia in the other, trying to make the two match up. Distracted driving does not begin to cover it. Luckily there was no other traffic on the road. An hour later I pulled into a gas station. I could not get the map and the GPS to match. The station attendant indicated that the map was right, the GPS was wrong, and I was way off course. Pat, one of the Australians, agreed to hop in the Rascal with me and navigate.
We backtracked a ways and then turned off the main road in a spot we guessed was the road indicated on the map. It was similar to the tracks I followed the day before with my hitchhiker. The track meandered across the Mongolian plain, intersecting and branching off of other tracks before everything coming back together further down. There was no indication whatsoever that we were on the right track. No signs, no billboards, nothing. In America there would have been a historical marker, two billboards, a gas station, a restaurant, and probably a gift shop!
We drove on.
After an hour of driving and a couple of stops for group consultations of the map, we dropped down a rough track on the back side of a hill into another open plain. A large herd of goats was being tended by kids on horseback. Off in the distance, a couple of yurts and a modern-looking house were the only signs of civilization. There was a small stream between us and the yurts. It looked deep enough that there could be problems with at least one of the cars crossing. We decided to stop for lunch and send one car ahead with the map to see f the locals could help us out.
The Swedes broke out their Rocket stove and pre-packaged meals, inviting each of us to sample one. The meals were pre-cooked and you just placed the bag in boiling water to get it hot. I had a couple I had purchased back in England for emergencies, so I tossed one of mine in the pot of boiling water. Just about the time we were ready to tuck in, the other group came back and gave us the scouting report.
“Not going to happen,” was what James, another Australian reported. “The locals just pointed off in that direction. It didn’t seem like they really knew where it was. We drove on a bit and crossed another stream. Then there was a big river. There is no way we are getting any of our cars across it.” We sat around in silence for a moment. Not only were we disappointed, but now we were faced with the prospect of trying to get back up the hill we had just come down. It was steep, rocky, and looked like it was going to be a real challenge to get back up.
About this time a family sedan came thundering up the road form the direction of the yurts. It hit the stream and water flew everywhere. It died just as it made it to our side. A family of eight piled out of the car while the man behind the wheel tried to crank it back to life. James and Linus (one of the Swedes) went over to see if they could help. The engine bay was a mess of mud and dead insects, but it didn't look like there was too much actually wrong with it. We managed to push start the car and all eight people jumped back in. Since they were able to make it up the hill, we decided we would give it a go after lunch.
The vehicles struggled a bit, but only the Swede’s little Fiat 127 needed a push. The mighty Rascal took the hill with about an issue and everyone cheered. Clearly I had chosen the right vehicle.
We made our way back to the main highway and pushed on to Almaty. Along the way we stopped for gasoline and and few minutes with some camels. The camels were heading our way and I wanted to get close to them. These were the Bactrian camels of Asia (i.e. two humps). They let me get pretty close, but veered away from me once I crossed some invisible line. They loped slowly yet determinedly across the sandy ground. We marveled at their humps, wondering why some stood proudly while others flopped to the side. (Note: a little google searching has taught me that it is usually age related. The underlying tissue of the humps weaken as the camel gets older and the humps begin to flop to the side. Also, baby camels do not have humps!).
The remainder of the drive was fairly uneventful. We made it to Altay a little after dark. The Aussies had found a hotel and I joined in with them, splitting a room with James. There was a Dutch team of a father and son who were also at the hotel. They decided to join our merry little caravan and the following day we would be four! We sat around the large table in the hotel bar, drinking beer and vodka shots, eating food, and swapping stories about our Rally. It was nice to be a part of a team again...especially since the following day would be Mongolia’s most challenging.