My first plan for crossing Mongolia was to take a northern route I had marked on my map. I thought that the cooler temperatures would be good for the Rascal, and there were plenty of gas stations marked on my map. However, after showing my planned route to a person waiting in the customs line, I had second thoughts. She told me that no one takes that route. It is too difficult! The southern route was much better roads, more travelers, and plenty of gasoline. I guess my plans were changing!
Just a few kilometers from the Mongolian border, I came across a pair of Rally teams parked by the side of the road. One of their hoods was up, and they were huddled over the engine. I pulled over and said hello, bracing myself against the stiff wind and stinging rain. One team was from Australia and the other was from Sweden. The Swedes were having troubles with their engine, but nothing too serious. They had the distributor cap off and seemd to be messing around with their points. I knew their pain all too well. Not wanting to stand around in the cold and stare at an engine, I bid them farewell and headed down the road. I assured them that I was moving slow and they would probably catch up with me.
About the time the road ended, the rain ended as well and I was treated to a glorious day in northern Mongolia. There were soaring mountains, great open plains, and herds of horses, goats, and yaks lazily making their way alongside the road, grazing on the plentiful green grass. Mongolia felt like all of the previous Rally countries rolled into one. There were bits that felt familiar (the bad roads and the gorgeous scenery) but plenty of mystery and adventure to be had!
A little after lunch time I was flagged down by a kid holding a golden eagle. He seemed to be asking if I wanted a chance to hold the eagle. Hell yes I wanted a chance to hold an eagle! They put a thick leather glove on me and, being a tourist trap, I also was placed in a traditional outfit. I would have felt silly, but the eagle was just an arm’s length away. I was mesmerized by its long talons and sharp beak. With a little coaxing from the boy, the eagle hopped onto my arm. It was surprisingly heavy, weighing well over five pounds. I stared into its black eyes.
One of the reasons I wanted to tackle the Rally was for the sheer insanity of it all. The distance was one thing, but also the remoteness and quality of the roads. I wanted an adventure. The global economics of international trade coupled with the desire for those all-important tourism dollars means that the world is not only getting smaller, but also easier. From wifi to paved roads, countries are making it easier and more convenient for people to visit.
Mongolia is no different.
As I bumped and bounced up a mountain road I noticed a large number of earth movers and construction equipment. A new road was being built up the mountain. When I crested the peak, the extent of this new construction project became clear. Stretched out before. Me, as far as the eye could see, was a brand new, perfectly graded road, just waiting to be paved. Within a few years, a visitor to Mongolia will be able to transverse the country in comport and ease on a brand new, four lane blacktop. While that may be great for tourism, a little bit of adventure will be lost. I’m glad II had the opportunity to explore this country before all the roads are paved and jammed with Winnebagos.
I caught up to The Mongbrolians on a long downhill stretch. We were driving parallel to the new highway on a dusty gravel road. The Mongbrolians were a pair of Ralliers from the UK. I had not seen them since the kickoff party in England, so I pulled over to catch up. They were busy trying to explain to a hitchhiker that they did not have room in their car. I gestured for the hitchhiker to hop in. The Bro’s just stared at me. I explained that we were all heading the same direction, so what was the harm? They looked stunned as a I drove off with my new friend.
The hitchhiker was a young kid, maybe 18 years old..maybe. He was fascinated by my technology. He pointed to the radio and asked for music. I pulled out my iPhone nad paired it with the Bluetooth speaker. His eyes grew wide. He gestured to see my phone and I agreed, figuring he was just going to have a glance at it and then put it down. I was wrong. Before i knew it, he had found the music app and was busily flipping through the songs. Ten seconds of one song, five of another. So much music on such a small device! Eventually he fond my old-school rap and hip-hop playlist and setteld down.
Next he found the photos on my phone and proceeded to look through each of them, stopping every so often to ask me where a photo was taken. It was fun to look back over my trip and be reminded of the places I had been. Photos of Tajikistan, the Door to Hell, Istanbul, Croatia, England. So many places, so many memories.
From there it was on to my iPad, thumbing through the photos on it, and then my camera. On the one hand I was a little upset abut the invasion of my privacy. On the other hand, we really had no other way to communicate and share stories.
We drove on for a couple of hours, listening to music and looking at photos. Eventually we came to a detour around a bridge that was being constructed for the new highway. I pulled over to stretch my legs. It had been a long drive and my GPS said that I still had a few hours to go. I checked the time and the location of the sun. It was going to be tight making it to the city of Khovd by night fall. I wanted a shower and a bed one more time before heading out into the depths of Mongolia.
We got back in the Rascal and fired it up. Imediately I knew that something was not right. The Rascal ran rough and had very little powers. In fact, it was unable to make it u the small rise to get back on the road. Given that the Rascal had been running a bit hot all day and the lack of powers, I guessed it was the points.
For those who do not know, “points” are a small arm mechanism in the distributor that opens and closes the electrical circuit allowing the spark plugs to fire. When they work, you don’t notice they are there. When they do not work, your engine runs rough, runs hot, and eventually stops running all together. I had them on my Volkswagen and they were a continual thorn in my side. The nail in their coffin was a ruined 4th of July camping trip. I had intended to replace them with an electronic ignition while I was in England, but didn’t get around to it.
I opened up the rear access hatch to the engine and popped off the distributor cap. Sure enough, the points were closed. I got out my screwdriver and set about re-adjusting them, hoping that they were closed because they had rattled loose, not because they were burned out.
While i was fiddling with the, I heard an engine. The Mongbrolians had caught up with me and were getting out to offer some helpful encouragement. Five minutes later another engine. This time it was a pair of Mongolians whe were curious why two cars were stopped in the middle of the detour. I pointed to my points and indicated that they were closed. One of the Mongolians grabbed my screwdriver, nudged me out of the way, and began to adjust the points. The Mongbrolians looked shocked. I was fine with it. I hate points.
Five minutes later the Rascal was running like its old self. I shook hands with the Mongolians, bid farewell to the Mongbrolians, and hit the road. My hitchhiker pointed me down a turnoff a few kilometers down the road. I had expected to just drop him off by the side of the road like all the other hitchhikers I had carried, but it looked like this kid wanted door-to-door service!
We bumped down a rapidly deteriorating road until it was just a pair of wheel tracks in the brush. We crossed a small stream and ended up in front of a yurt. My hitchhiker yelled out the window to some kids who immediately ran over to inspect the Rascal and talk to him. The kids pointed further down the tracks and my hitchhiker indicted we should move on. I was getting a bit worried since this was now definitely off the beaten path, and the sun was setting.
We drove around for another half hour, stopping to talk to people. All of them either shrugged their shoulders or vaguely gestured in the general direction of West. From what I could tell, his family raised horses. Had they moved to greener fields?
Eventually we needed up back at the first yurt. My hitchhiker got out and shook my hand. Apparently he was going to stay there for the night and sort things out.
I found the main road again and continued to Khovd. The quality of the road had deteriorated tremendously and it was now just washboard ruts. I was limited to 20 kmh. At this rate it was going to take another coupe of hours to reach the city! By the time i reached the city center, it was dark and I was forced to grope blindly to find a hotel.
I stumbled onto one (I had been looking for another one on my GPS, but it appeared to be closed) and went through my checklist with the girl who greeted me. Room? Check. Shower? Check. Wifi? Check! Food?? Check!!! This was going to be great! For a little less than $20 I was going to get a room and dinner!
I should have included a few more things on my checklist.