Mongolia - Day 3...the River Crossing
I woke up the morning of the third day to a strange sound...rain. The previous two days had been (other than the border crossing) clear and bright. But the rain had settled in over central Mongolia and a fierce wind was whipping up as well. This did not bode well for what had been described by some as the worst day of driving on the entire Rally.
We hit the road early, our convoy having grown to four vehicles. Within 40 km the road ran out and we were on sand and dirt tracks. The going wasn't too bad. The roads were mostly smooth and the rain was keeping the dust to a minimum. If these were the worst roads ofthe trip, then I must have been doing something wrong for the first 9,000 miles!
Sometimes we're were forced to drive single file, but much of the time the tracks split and rejoined over and over again. We weaved and zigzagged across each other, tako]ing photos and videos of the other cars. At times we were four abreast with room for another four vehicles. We were truly in the middle of nowhere and enjoying every minute of it.
We could see for miles in every direction. Mountains were on either side of us, but there were no signs of civilization. In fact, there was not much of anything. Most ofthe scrub brush and grass had disappeared. There was only sand, dirt, and rocks. Population could be registered in single digits per square mile out here. We were all glad to have filled our Jerrycans in Altay because there was no gas for hundreds of miles!
In the early afternoon we came to a small collection of yurts. We could not tell what they were doing there. There was no farm land. No greenery for livestock. There was not even a gas station. Two hundred meters later, we realized why they were there. It was our first major river crossing.
We got out and scouted the river. It did not appear too deep, and the water was moving fairly slowly. The Swedes were the first to attempt it. As they were getting ready to cross, a large tractor rumbled past and offered a tow. The locals had set up a business towing cars across the rivers!
The Swedes declined and sent their little Fiat across the water. It made it without a problem. Since they were the lowest and least reliable of the vehicles, we were all emboldened to go for it. Next went the Ausie’s Fiat (much newer and sporting four-wheel drive), followed by th Rascal and the Dutch Suzuki Samurai (also with four-wheel drive...wasn’t there a rule against that???). We made it and cheered. 200 meters later there was another crossing. This one was deeper and the water was moving faster. The tractor waited on the other side…
We went in the same order, the first two cars making it across just fine. However, the Rascal decided it had enough of this business. It was a city vehicle and, despite the fact that it had born me through countless situations that were, in my opinion, much worse than this, two thirds of the way across the river the engine died.
The tractor operator started to maneuver into position. My starter motor had been giving me problems all day, and I did not fancy having to deal with it in the cold and wet. James, the Aussie who was traveling with me, said, “Punch it and see what happens.” I stomped on the gas, hit the starter button and the Rascal roared back to life! Maybe it was having second thoughts about being stuck in the cold and wet. We climbed the far bank and waited for the Dutch. Once we were all together we turned around and saw a whole line of tractors. Something big was ahead.
The third river crossing made the other two look like kiddie pools. This one was three teamed as wide as the others had been, and judging from how high the water came on the tractor ire she, it was almost twice as deep. There was no way we were getting across without some assistance.
We got out of the cars and began taping off our air-intake ports. The last thing we wanted was to get water in our engines and be stuck on the far side. The wind whipped all around us and the rain felt like ice pellets as the drops stung our skin. The small children who had been riding in the tractors, huddled in the shelter of or vhecles as the tractor operators hooked up each one.
Jamie and I rode in silence as the tractor drug us into the gray water. Part way across water started to come up through the floor and around the door jams. I had stacked my clothes and electronics high up on the spare parts before we crossed, hoping to spare them. Luckily the river did not get much deeper. It was an agonizing five minutes, not knowing if the vehicles would start on the other side. But, sure enough, once we were safely ashore and everything was unwrapped, the Rascal fired right back up! The Samurai, on the other hand, was not so lucky.
I sat in the relative warmth of the Rascal (somehow when the engine was replaced, the heating duct work was not!) while the Dutch, the Swedes, and James tried to get the Samurai going again. It did not appear to be an issue with water in the engine, it was a mystery ailment that just happened to occur at that moment. They fiddled with it for a while and it finally started again. We were going to. Have to do our best not to stop (or at least turn off our engines) until we reached Bayankhongor.
We followed a set of tire tracks away from the river crossing but soon realized we wereheading off track. The only problem was that there were no other tracks for us to follow! These seemd to be leading us northwest while we wanted to go northeast. A quick decision was made and we all agreed to just drive overland into the general direction we wanted until we could find another set of tracks. We had heard a story about someone getting hopelessly turned around and ending up 300km off track. They were gone for days and ended up having to be rescued by the miltary. When we heard that, we all just laughed and thought it was a silly story. But now, in the middle of nowhere, with the could and rain obscuring all natural features, it was easy to see how it could happen. It was sobering.
About an hour later we found a track that appeared to go where we wanted, and we settled into its worn ruts. We had not passed another car and, aside form the river crossings, had not seen another soul for hours. It began to sink in just how far out we really were. I was grateful to be part of the convoy.
We made it to Bayankhongor about 10pm. This was the fist gas or city we had seen since just outside Altay. Anyone wanting to make the rip between those two cites wold have to be completely self-sufficient and prepared for anything! And this was the “good” route! I couldn’t imagine what the Northern route must have been like!
The rain was still falling, but the wind had died down. I followed the Ausies to a hotel but we were told it was full. The person at the countersugggested a different hotel to the Ausies. I said I wold follow. Then they ditched me! By the time i was out of the parking lot, they were gone! James and I looked at each other. Ummmmmm…?
We drove in the general direction they had gone until we ran out of city. We turned around and went back to the first hotel, asking the woman behind the desk where she had sent our friends. She pointed to a hotel on the GPS and we headed there. No luck. The hotel was full. About that time, James’ phone connected to the hotel wifi and he got a message from the team. They had found a hotel at the opposite end of town and were waiting for us. We jumped back in the Rascal and sped down the flooded streets.
I did not have time for my checklist as the room was already booked for us. Four of us in the room, a little under $10 per person. A new item was added to my checklist: mattress. Our beds were approximately 6’2” long (I am 6’4” and the Swedes were each at least as tall as me) and the bed was just a thin pad over wooden slats. I could feel that slats as I lay down.
We trudged through ankle deep water to the Korean restaurant down the street. Despite the weather and total lack of amenities, we had made it! The day had been a true Mongol Rally experience! We drank beer and tried to diagnose the problem with the Dutch Samurai. It has continued to lose power and stall out during the drive. Other things had worked intermittently. Other than my small mishap in the river, the Rascal was running great. Several people commented that they had had their doubts, but now were converts. The Rascal was a true Rally vehicle! The finish line was just a couple of days away and I was confident I was going to make it.