We got up really early because it was fucking cold. Top 3 coldest nights personally, and I stayed in the car curled up. I was worried whether the Birch’s car Gladys was going to start or not. She was acting up when we got stuck the night before, and the freezing temperatures at night weren’t going to do the old girl any favors. I don’t remember if we had recommended tweaking the carburetor or not to readjust the air/fuel ratio, but whatever the case she started up so we hit the road.
Chris was the only one who was getting some form of GPS positioning (not maps mind you, phones don’t work here) so we let the Birch’s set the pace. It feels like it took forever to find the right pathway through the small mountain pass. The road system doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. One road can split off to 3 and then to 8, and they might all end up back at the same spot – or not! The best example of this was this huge valley we were driving through. We were making good time, about 50km out from Khovd by 8am. Were making good time. The car just cut out again and died. God damnit.
I know what you could be thinking – fuel pump! The roads had been a mix of smooth and really shaky, and nothing had really happened before it cut out. If it was the fuel pump it would have been the third time in a week that it had gone out. It couldn’t really be could it? The pace setting Birch’s were long gone as they couldn’t see behind them very well with the kicked up dust, but we figured they’d be back eventually. In the mean time we got back to trying to diagnose the problem. We obviously went to the fuel pump first, but the line was pressurized and we could get fuel to leave the pump when we disconnected the line into the fuel rail. At this point we all felt a little lost and kicked in the nuts. We were less than a week from the finish line, less than 1000 miles of our 11,000 and this just keeps happening. It was dejecting.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say the idea was floated out there that this could be the nail in the coffin for the Doblo. We assumed with a working fuel pump and a car that would technically run when we poured gasoline directly into the manifold that 1 of 2 things was wrong. 1) The diesel fuel that we were sold in Tajikistan has gunked up one or more fuel injectors and caused the system to fail, or 2) the constant barrage of bumps had broken the CPU. Problem number 1 was fixable, problem 2 was game over. The Birch’s had found their way back to us and we explained our situation to them. We would need to figure out how to get towed into Khovd, find a mechanic, and pray that the car was fixable. We had no expectation for them to wait around in misery with us as we sorted this shit out, but those Birch’s are some stand up dudes and stuck with us. We were all having fun as a group, and they weren’t in a hurry to get to the end or break up our convoy. So cheers boys.
Thus began the hours long process of flagging down someone to tow us. Remember that valley I said we were in? We were driving on a path that was hugging the road being built going east, which was about 1/4 mile away on our right hand side. On the left side of the vehicle, there were probably – going to throw out a number – 10 or so alternate paths, the closest being maybe 1/8 of a mile away and the furthest several miles. Shockingly we would discover that the locals use different paths for different functions. Some are used primarily by giant vehicles and transport trucks, while others could be normal cars. No way to know for sure. We soon found that the path we were on – or were closest to – was being used for huge trucks hauling rocks and such for the road being built. Every 15 minutes or so a truck would drive by kind of close, so we would wave and hold our tow strap up in the air as a signal. Truck after truck passes. Eventually one did stop on the path slightly to the north of us, so we started walking towards him until we noticed that he had gotten out and walked around back so that….he could squat in the shade and take a crap. So that one was a no go.
Eventually a nice Landcruiser truck drove by and it turned out to be one of the managers for the road construction. He told us he might be able to get us some help in a few hours, but he was busy so couldn’t tow us right away. A little while later we finally managed to flag down one of the passing dump trucks. It was a little difficult trying to explain that we needed to be towed to Khovd, primarily because they don’t spell it like that or pronounce. Anyway he gave us a thumbs up, hopped in his truck and they drove away. Wtf. We then flagged down another one of the trucks and this time we were able to work out that he would tow us 10km to his job site, which is on the way to Khovd. After he dropped off his load he would then tow us the rest of the way. Awesome!
The towing process was a little scary because our tow rope wasn’t super long, and his truck kicked up so much dirt it was almost impossible to see his brakes lights so if he stopped suddenly, we might smash right into the back of his rig. Oh yeah, believe it or not this stupid 14 year old Italian car isn’t very air tight. Even with the windows rolled up and vents turned off the dirt managed to find it every single crack it could to get into. Everything was covered in dirt. Fun.
He dropped us off next to the highway that was being built and drove farther up to do his thing. We had no idea how long his job would take or if he would remember to come back, so we started asking other drivers if they could tow us. One guy said he would do it, so we managed to get him to commit for a little less than $100. Sounds like a lot, but we were basically bribing him to use company property to make side money and he would have to pay for the gas to do it. Then another driver stopped by and they tried to undercut each other. At this point the project manager in the Landcruiser pulled up (in another car?) and yelled at everyone to get back to work and that they couldn’t tow us. Thanks dude.
So we were back to waiting on the first guy who was almost finished, but then he had to go from truck to truck to siphon some gas for the trip. Apparently the project guys only fill the tanks as much as they need to as to prevent…joyriding in the middle of nowhere at 25 miles an hour?
On the road being built next to us there were a ton of people, including a surprising amount of women. The Mongolians were using Chinese people to build their road network, and it’s either customary to bring them or it happened to be bring your spouse to the road day. Anyway they were just kinda sitting around until one of them got a little curious and came over to see what was wrong. He ended up being a car doctor, so Mitch walked him through what we had already done (to no avail) and explain what we thought was wrong. Next thing you know dude sets off to start taking our fuel pump out with a few of his friends. I’m not kidding at one point there might have been 6 or 7 people in our car.
We had already crapped on the idea of it being the fuel pump but we let him do his thing. The thing happens to be insanely difficult to take out because of this big cap that gets screwed on very tightly and in an awkward position that’s super difficult to get any drip on. THANKS FIAT!
They eventually managed to get the thing out after definitely breaking the super important cap, but that was a later problem. Our car doctor it turns out had most likely diagnosed our current problem, in that this time the fuel pump had been rattled around so much that it literally came apart into most of it’s individual pieces which were hanging around in the gas tank. Some of the little clips built into the casing that are designed to keep the thing in one piece had broken, so the whole thing just broke apart.
It took a little bit but with Mitch’s help they managed to get it back together, and thanks to the Birch’s handy tool shed in the back of Gladys we tightened some bailing wire around the entire assembly, hoping that the extra support would keep this from happening again. As far as the cap went, we used some gasket sealer to glue it back together, which was unfortunate because it meant that if we had this problem again (spoiler alert…) it would be even harder to get off. We gave the car doctor a little cash along with the original driver who was gonna tow us, and gave the rest of the group a bottle of liquor to split. Once again the kindness of strangers has come to our rescue.
Back on the road! Mostly. The car was running very poorly and very loud. We hoped and hoped that perhaps the car doctor had forgotten to fully clip one of the fuel injector connects back into place. We probably made it about 30 minutes or so before we ran into another rally team in a little trouble. It was our Belgian friends who had somehow come across our accidental campsite late the night before. Their car had inexplicably broken down, and while they were trying to get it going again they had killed the battery. They were completely prepared to bail on the trip and had all their essentials pulled out and ready to hitch a ride. The car appeared to be just dead and they needed to be back in Belgium in a couple days. They hung out with us at Russia Mongolia border and we knew then that the Dusty Lunatics were not going to make it out of Mongolia that fast.
Their car was similar to ours but it was a French version. We immediately assumed their car was as crappily made as ours (almost identically, all of their suspension had failed, possibly worse) and suggested it might be the fuel pump. At this point we’re basically experts so we helped them take the thing out, which ended up being as equally awkward as ours to remove. Sure enough, fuel pump. While we were charging the battery we noticed a new problem with our car – we were leaking coolant like a mother f***** and couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Seriously, if you manage to get your car to Mongolia this country will try and beat it to death. Birch tool shed to the rescue again, they had a bottle of thick stop leak stuff that we dumped in. 20 minutes later the leak was gone. I thought I had prepared for most of the problems we would run into, but Rich had clearly gone the extra mile with all sorts of stuff we just forgot or couldn’t find. We might have ended up using more of their random knick-knacks than ours. Cheers guys!
We finally made it into Khovd and found a Korean restaurant with wifi, so we sat down for a well deserved lunch and a beer. Gotta say, fantasic Korean food. Oddly enough there was another rally team there. There really aren’t a whole bunch of different ways to get to where we were all trying to go, but it’s still pretty crazy to run into one of the other 300 cars halfway around the world. During lunch we were trying to figure out our plan for the day. Starsky and Dutch had made it to the next checkpoint 6 hours away. With the brutal night before and beating we had taken that morning we were seriously considering staying the night.
Mitch and Rich took our cars to find a mechanic while the rest of us just chilled and tried to nap. About an hour into that I had a sobering realization. As tired as we all were, we couldn’t afford to stay for the night. We were supposed to have gotten to Khovd the night before, which means we would have lost an entire day that we couldn’t necessarily afford. The journey ahead also presented some timing problems as far as road conditions. Khvod to Altai would be 5-6 hours away, but the entire way was paved which means we could actually drive at night. The leg from Altai to Bayankhongor would be brutal. It’s 390 km, and we had been told that 2/3 of it was very very bad roads. It would realistically take 12 hours to make it across assuming there weren’t any major problems, and not navigable at night. From Bayankhongor it would take an entire day to make it to the capital of Ulaanbataar. Ulaanbataar to the Russian border + crossing time would take an entire day, and assuming we didn’t drive through the night the border to the finish line would be half a day. It was Friday August 25th, and we needed to be at the finish line the following Thursday, so that our car to be on a train by Friday Sept 1. The rail yard only accepts 20 cars a day, so a buffer day or 2 would be preferable. We were cutting it very close, and our car was slowly dying.
So, 1) leave that night on drivable roads even though we don’t want to so that we can get back on schedule, or 2) Not do that and be forced to camp the following night, and then try and make up the day we were behind.
It wasn’t an easy conversation to have when Mitch and Rich got back. The last idea we had discussed as a possibility – while not set in stone – was to recuperate and start again in the morning. Springing the sobering reality idea of pushing on, only to get up early the next day for another 12 hour drive wasn’t well received, understandably so. The Birch’s didn’t need to push on as fast as us, and we wouldn’t blame them if they didn’t want to push on. Once again though they stuck with us, and with 5 people we put it to a vote. I laid all this out, and was really adamant that it was the uncomfortable but right thing to do. The decision to push on was 3-2, so at 6pm we reluctantly set out to drive another 6 hours. A few hours later Mitch and I would have a pretty big argument about the whole situation. Admittedly I pushed really hard for the 3rd vote, which I think was still the right decision but could have been handled a little better.
We got to hotel Entum in Altai a little after 1 am. It was shockingly swanky for the middle of nowhere in Mongolia, and only cost $40. Starsky and Dutch were there too, so early in the morning we would all set out again for the last crappy stretch of road.