Mongolia. Let me enlighten you a little bit as I’m sure you know just about as much as I did when I decided to do the Mongol Rally, barely anything.
It’s a sovereign state in East Asia bordered by China and Russia. It has a population of three million people, 45% of these people live in the capital, Ulaanbaatar and 30% are nomadic or semi-nomadic. Known for its vast, rugged expanses and wild horses, much of the country is covered by grassy steppe with mountains in the North and the Gobi desert in the South. Something else it has become known for is its lack of roads. And boy the tales did not disappoint.
After a very confusing border, that seemed to be the least systematic we had come across, we finally entered Mongolia on Day 31 at 2:30pm. It was Monday the 17th of August by our records.
We were stopped at a hut 10m from the border gate and almost got dubbed into paying for insurance twice by an absolute chancer. God knows how we’d even go about claiming if we decided to go down that route if anything happened (which it most definitely did — pity it didn’t cover river damage). When Nelly had disappeared into the hut some children came almost out of nowhere and surrounded the car, we handed them as many sweets as they could hold and they waved us off excitedly as Nelly returned to the drivers seat.
There was a certain state of euphoria that came over me as I sat in the back of the car, eyes wide at the site of the countryside that many would not see in a lifetime. We caught our first glimpses of yurts (those big white tents), goats being herded by men on horseback and the destruction the roads could cause, it was like a graveyard for tyres. When you weren’t near civilisation it was almost like you had travelled back in time, you may not see anyone for hundreds of miles in-between cities which was slightly daunting but bordering on magical. You were responsible for you, that was the phrase batted into us by the Mongol Rally organisers from the very beginning. But never had it been so evident.
The main roads in Mongolia were the equivalent of the worst roads we had come across in the stans (Turkmeni, Uzbeki, Kyrgy, Kazakh). The ‘good’ roads lasted for about 100km around the capital and other large cities and then there is NOTHING. Here’s some words which sum up the road which lay before us — bumpy, dusty, rocky. And a quote for good measure — “It’s like real life war — it feels like we’re being shot at!” — Feargal. Turns out this type of road was known as a washboard and we can completely relate to that. These roads meant we were back to having no radio but we didn’t mind as we were too busy taking in the breathtakingly beautiful scenes which stretched out for miles ahead of us and marvelling over the fact that we had made it that far without killing each other.
“Washboarding roads are comprised of a series of ripples which occur with the passage of wheels rolling over unpaved roads at speeds sufficient to cause bouncing of the wheel on the initially unrippled surface.”
We knew that ChaCha’s air con system had been non-existent from the moment she was purchased. We made do the rest of the journey by keeping the windows open. Learning from our mistakes from that dreadful day in Kyrgyzstan we opted to keep the windows closed for long periods of time, as much as we could handle. This was in the hope of saving ourselves and our gear from swarms of sand and dust which occupied a vast amount of the landscape. It worked…sort of.
We needed to make tracks and catch up on ourselves for the imminent breakdowns we were to encounter. We had gotten used to losing any ralliers that we met at borders pretty quickly as certain searches lasted longer than others and we had been a lone car for the majority of the trip so this wouldn’t be any different. In the first town we reached we needed to grab food, hopefully connect to wifi to update everyone at home and we even decided that now was the first time we would fill up the jerry can (which we quickly realised would leak…cue the first of many Mongolian MacGyver moments). Naively we had done minimal research on this country, we relied on knowledge from very few english speakers, the odd rallier we met along the way and the infamous Joe, a PhD student from Cambridge we had heard of who was doing research and living with a mechanic in the largest town closest to the border. We had gotten this far, what could possibly go wrong?
We were going to take the southern route as even though it was desert we had heard the northern one had seen some outrageous rain and we didn’t fancy physically pushing our car through Mongolia. Over the first 50km there were lovely roads but we did gather a taste of what we were up against. The roads/ tracks (if there were any) would likely diverge into multiples every once and a while where people had previously tried to avoid certain obstructions. One thing to remember about these roads is that they generally always reconnected, it could be minutes, but it could be miles. So in a split second you had to choose which road to take and hope for the best, sometimes uphill and around bends. In the moment you couldn’t stop to evaluate as the momentum was what kept the wheels turning. This meant that you could be turning 45 degrees onto new roads quite frequently, the adrenaline ran wild. This certainly was a place where you could develop your quick thinking skills to a whole new level.
Coming close to sunset we reached our first river crossing after driving through muddy marsh land at the foot of mountains temporarily. Nelly was our resident water baby and duly noted his time to shine. Looking back on it now the river crossings definitely grew in size exponentially. However each one you got through safely aided confidence. We couldn’t take any chances however so the passenger in the car had to grab all of our documents and electronics each time, just in case. From our first where water was ankle level, to having our wheels completely immersed. Luckily for us in the picture above we happened to stumble across two more rally cars, one from the North and one from England who had already crossed, this was a good sign, they already knew the track to take. We had briefly chatted to them earlier.
After a quick game plan chat as the shadows began to form in the evening sunset we decided we would convoy. We had all heard about the ‘huge’, daunting river crossing we would encounter about 10km before the next town, Kohvd and strength was in numbers. We didn’t know what we were to expect. Would it really be that big? Unfortunately at this stage we knew that there was no way we’d make that before the sun went down completely but we needed to cover some more ground.
‘I feel like I’m in a really fucked up version of the Italian Job!’ — Nelly’s turn to drive in the middle of convoy on Day 1 Mongolia.
As it got darker, colder and further into the night the English team dropped off but our two cars were happy to continue. All of the advice we received about driving in Mongolia generally included a warning to not drive at night, so that advice lasted long. Our lights were basically useless, gravel was loose, navigation was hard enough as it was in the daylight, many Mongols had tendencies to drink and drive and there were no roads, let’s not forget about that. If anything unexpected landed in our tracks it could have been the end of them or us. Feargal was enjoying the rallying too much as we quickly got away from the lads each time we picked up pace. I squirmed warning about potholes anytime we I spotted one and to this day I am still not sure were my eyes appreciated or despised, was it worth the constant swerving? It was fun though. This is obviously a set of skills which were developed in the Kyrgyzstan mountains as we were back to drifting around bends.
Roughly five hours since our social media update to state we had reached Mongolia we hit the river that everyone was talking about. It was a lot deeper and ran a lot faster than we thought it would be. We have since learned that rivers were likely to swell in the moonlight. Well it’s great knowing that now.
Both cars parked up and surveyed the ground, crossing this river would be a mission all on its own. Nelly crossed the 20m wide river to check it out and noted that we would probably be okay to give it a go and our car was the first this time. We got our get out gear ready — disconnected all electronics, pocketed gopros, phones and all documents and passports just incase anything went wrong. Nelly stood the far side and the lads looked on eagerly in anticipation. Just as we went for it a car of locals pulled up and told Nelly that there was a bridge 1km up the road, it was too late to stop at that stage. We had good momentum but then everything grounded to a halt. The car stalled. Feargal tried to start it again but no go.
We were stuck. We were cold. We were wet.
We were in the middle of Mongolia stranded in a river.
That question buzzed around in our minds — Would we finish this thing?