Today’s the day today’s the day today’s the day. After 6+ years of wishful thinking and a year of planning, we’re about to enter Mongolia. I can’t quite describe the feeling of all that time and work culminating in us crossing the border. It really was a dream come true. I think this journey proves that if there’s something you really want to accomplish, you have to commit to it and figure out how to make it happen. I bought my entry ticket into the event in September 2016 for the ’17 rally without knowing if anyone would go along for the ride. I am incredibly lucky that two of my best friends ended up being as dumb as me to decide to do this. Given the fact that I was a waterworks show the morning the rally started, I’m shocked I didn’t at least tear up. In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t for this reason: Mongolia kind of sucks.
First thing’s first, the border. We didn’t realize it but our hotel was less than a 1/4 mile from the Russia border. The border officially opens at 9, so someone from each of our teams got up early enough to go put the cars at the front of the line. This ended up being a really good idea because the entire process was incredibly slow, especially the Russia side. We saw a few of our Russian guard friends on duty and they looked rough. I think that’s probably par for the course for them though. There’s literally nothing else to do in Siberia other than to get hammered. The process was so slow our convoy got separated. Starsky and Dutch made it through first, with us not too far behind them and the Birch’s unfortunately several cars behind.
After we crossed through we had 12 miles to drive in between the countries until we got to the border on the other side. The flat landscape of the Russian side slowly transformed into rolling green hills. When we got to the Mongolian border area the first thing we had to do was pay what seemed to be some random girl $1 for our car to roll through some dirty water. After that we had to wait around while another female guard cross checked our license plates with a big list that the Adventurists had provided. This allowed us to enter the country with our cars without having to give the Mongolian government the import tax for our car. Back in the day when the original finish line was still in Mongolia many rallyers would just leave their car there. At this point almost every car is beat to hell and borderline functional. Even though that describes most things in Mongolia they decided they didn’t want people leaving their cars around anymore, so they actually changed their own laws to account for rally drivers in 2015 or 2016 and increased the fine for leaving a car there. Oddly enough, even though they did that the Adventurists were able to work out a deal with them. That doesn’t make any sense, but whatever.
The Mongolian border process was ridiculous, but mostly because of the guards. There was a lot of waiting around, and while we were waiting we noticed that the people we were waiting on over the course of an hour and a half were doing the following: Playing on facebook. Playing that old Mahjong Tiles game from windows 95. Playing solitaire. The funniest fucking off at work that we saw was one of the manager guards looking up iPhone 8 rumor websites – that were in English. So basically just looking at iPhone pictures. Granted, this was no Turkmenistan border but still what the hell do these people really do other than randomly stamp stuff.
We told Dave and Hendrick to start on without us and head towards the first big checkpoint town. By the time we finally cleared customs the Birch’s were still nowhere to be seen, and we were getting hungry. And thus begins the most infuriating hour of my life, which Mitch and Ryan found to be really funny. I’m going to try and be fair in my recounting of what happened, it’s a doozy…
I’ll remind you this border is pretty fucking spare and has the most inept workers I’ve encountered thus far, so I suggested we pull forward a little and to the side and cook some noodles while we waited for the other two. For reference, check out all this empty space.
This is where accounts of the story vary a bit. Ryan especially didn’t want to park there and Mitch agreed. I protested leaving the border because we’d lose the Birch’s and no one was going to say anything about us hanging around for a little bit. They insisted that we couldn’t eat there, and this went back and forth for a minute. I attributed this ridiculous irrationality for being hangry, which has caused several small arguments up to this point. I was getting really annoyed, especially since I was outnumbered and we had a democracy rule. So I angrily and begrudgingly pulled forward without leaving the border. More arguing about not being able to eat here. Hey look, here’s a picture of tons of Mongol Rally teams hanging out and they don’t care because there’s no way to know who has cleared customs and who hasn’t.
So I pulled up to the woman far away at the gate who is playing on her phone, and against my wishes we left the border. I pulled over immediately after leaving the gate and said let’s eat here. Knowing that I’m getting more and more pissed, they insist that we can’t hang out there either. I really didn’t want to pull forward any further as we’d be in a village and we didn’t know how big it was. Not to mention, we have to meet up with our convoy mates. You aren’t supposed to drive through Mongolia by yourself. Against my wishes again because sometimes democracy fails us all, I pull forward (read: peel the fuck out and start driving slightly erratically) and next thing you know we’re pointed to pull over by the fake road authority people. Now I’ve read about this plenty of times in the past, the little outpost right past the border that will try and tell you that you need to buy insurance to drive in Mongolia. You don’t. It’s all for show. But now we’re here and the car is being surrounded by kids, so I angrily get out of the car with my passport and car registration.
This was a mistake, I knew better, but I was fuming. I also assumed that I’d have to sit through some bullshit for a few minutes before saying no thanks and leaving. When I started following this fake road lady to her little hut she took my stuff. This is exactly the scenario that we have copies of everything for. Never ever hand your real documents to anyone if you can avoid it. But again, I wasn’t thinking clearly. Lesson learned. The next 15 minutes or so added jet fuel to the burning embers of anger at this situation. Had to use someone else’s picture of the lady in charge of this scheme, but here’s what she looks like. Pretty damn funny that this is even google-able. So here she is. She sucks, fuck her, I wish a lot of ill will on her.
So the scam works like this. You get pulled into a little office filled with a lovely cast of characters with wardrobe for the parts and all. First of all there is the ringleader wearing a very official looking uniform adorned with MTA logos all over it. I’m assuming that stands for Mongolian Transit Authority, which is ridiculous because that’s an English acronym. Next to her at her desk sits an older man in a dingy yellow short sleeve dress shirt and ugly tie. This is her manager. I know this because he’s wearing a name tag that says Insurance Manager. Mind you, not his name, his name is Insurance Manager. Last but not least on the crappy wooden bench next to me is a police officer. Sorry, fake police officer. He pretty much just sits there silently the entire time spinning an orange cone baton thing in his hand, because I’m sure that even in Mongolia fully impersonated a cop is against the law.
So they have my stuff and start filling out some bullshit forms with car info and such. Then she tells me (her English is actually pretty decent) that I will have to pay $28. I said no, she says I have to have it, I say no I don’t, she says yes it’s the law look there’s a police officer. I look at him and he just sits there. Cool. Anyway I insist that I’m not paying so they drop it to $26. What a deal!! I still say no, so I get up and ask for my stuff back. The lady is getting annoyed at this point and getting more and more adamant amount it being the law. I demand my passport back, and that’s when she leaned back and the silent treatment starts. I sat back down and just start repeating give me my stuff back over and over. At this point I know what’s happening so I just have to find a moment to grab it myself. I do manage to swipe it out of her hands which pisses her off and she looks at the cop as if I did something wrong. Cop still just sits there. Now I just need my registration which is nowhere to be found. Where’s my car passport I ask? More silent treatment. I’m fuming at this point so I just start picking stuff up off the desk and dropping it back down. She’s getting more and more mad and tells me to stop and there’s a cop in there. OH REALLY?? So I start screaming that he’s not really a cop, where the fuck is my stuff. At this point enough of a racket had been made to where several of the village people start piling into the room, including another woman who speaks even better English. She sits down next to the MTA lady and starts asking why I’m not paying the fee. She’s not even in costume, so I literally ask her who the fuck she is and tell her to mind her business. Back to looking for my shit. More people come in room. So I sit down exasperated in this room full of people. I’m being very animated and a couple of them start pantomiming my expressions. We’ve now reach nuclear level of mad so I tell them all to go fuck off and die. That obviously didn’t help, so then I just sat back and decided to play the waiting game. This is when I realized I was really screwed because they all sat there silently too but after a minute or so all decide they are going to go to lunch. Now at this point I’m willing to fight every single one of them but I can’t risk my registration disappearing, so I cave. I yell at them that I’ll be right the fuck back.
I walked out to the car, Mitch and Goodman ask what’s up. I laid into them about why we should have never left the damn border and how we’re having to pay this $26 extortion fee. So I go back inside with the money and tell them that I’ll put the money on the table when I see my car passport. Reluctantly Mr Insurance Manager pulls it out from under the desk, which in retrospect was so obvious. Throughout this entire process he hadn’t moved a muscle. Oh well. I figured I might still be able to snag the paper without paying but couldn’t. So I gave them them the money, and then for some reason they still wanted to perform the finale – which was to sign their fake insurance paperwork. I signed it fuck you, took all the copies and walked back to the car to yell at Mitch and Ryan again. The villagers wander out and kind of near our car to look around a bit, and that’s when Mr Officer wanders over and starts showing off his badge and saying that he’s a cop. Ryan was completely disinterested and we knew we had to get the fuck out of there, so I told him that I know you’re not a cop because I could never tell a cop the following: GO FUCK YOURSELF. I can’t describe how angry it made me to look at a group of people right in the eye as they basically said they’re stealing from me. Even scarier was the fact that for a few minutes they had all of my important documents. It was very, very stupid to have let her take it from me. At least it only cost $26.
I’m obviously still fuming so peel out again and try to drive to the outskirts of the village and stop, but of course some other kids saw us and ran up to the car while it was parked and start asking for stuff. Not the right time kids. I gave one a little American flag and tried shooing them away without yelling, which they eventually did with one of them starting to cry. Sorry kid, but enjoy your little cloth piece of freedom. I pulled forward another quarter of a mile or so and then got out of the car to vent. Read: unabashedly throw a massive adult tantrum. It took a little bit to cool down, and to our surprise after a few minutes the Birch’s pulled up in their car. It was awesome that they were able to get through everything so fast, and avoided the scam insurance people by saying they only had Kazakh bucks.
So onward through Mongolia. Look, some roadside yaks!
The first hour or so was fine. The roads were gravel, and would occasionally split into multiple roads for no apparent reason. It was still quite bumpy, but nothing compared to Tajikistan. Speaking of, after about an hour the car just stopped working again. Are you kidding…
We didn’t think it could possibly be the fuel pump again, but after testing random things for a bit we decided we needed to pull it out again, which meant taking all the stuff out again. Mitch started doing the mechanic thing, I did my best to help, and Ryan and the Birch’s started making us all some noodles. In the distance a herd of goats started making their way toward us, and they did make it there before we were done. One of them even came right up to our stuff because he smelled food I’m assuming.
Some guy from the next village down had seen us in the distance so he pulled up on his motorcycle and started chatting everyone up. He had a hotel and a mechanic shop in town, so he was pretty much just waiting for us to give up and need a tow into town. The problem did end up being the damn fuel pump again, and after an hour or two we got back on the road.
We really hoped we’d be able to stay on schedule and make it the 300ish kilometers to Khovd, which is where we’d meet back up with Starsky and Dutch. For a lot of reasons this didn’t end up happening. Driving up some of the hills was quite challenging especially for the Birch’s Fiat Gladys. There were a few points where we helped tow them, and on one particularly steep hill the passengers in our car got out to lighten the load up some.
The next biggest problem was that we didn’t exactly know where we were going. Signs aren’t really a thing and our GPS location was freezing up so to a certain extent all we could do was try to head the right direction on what we thought was a road. Easier said than done. We probably lost an hour or so driving in what was technically the right direction but just not the way to take. We ended up running into a guy on a motorcycle and he helped us double back and find the barely visible path that would take us to Khovd. Mongolia is actually trying to pave a decent amount of the country so there are sections of actual highway that are either cleared for pavement or are kind of paved. Sometimes they just…end though. Which means doubling back and figuring out how to get on to the dirt frontage road. It was starting to get dark and after one particularly annoying dead end we doubled back but couldn’t find the path. We ended up in a field that had massive trenches running through it that were all filled with giant volcanic looking rock. We thought we could still navigate around them, but we ended up getting stuck in a big pile of them that we could not get out of. We were able to wave to some locals in the distance who came over and helped pull us out.
By this point it was pitch black and I think Gladys was having trouble running also, so we decided to stay there for the night and get up early. I gotta say, it was fucking cold. Painfully cold. This part of Mongolia didn’t really have any trees or real vegetation other than grass and we had nothing really to burn for warmth, so we tried collecting as much dried cow poop we could and burning that along with some gasoline. At one point the radio manual for our Fiat was used as kindling but we just couldn’t get it big enough so we all turned in around 9. What a damn day…