We’ve definitely had to get up earlier to start a long day, but this is only the second time we’ve driven until 1-2 in the morning and then gotten back up around 7 to do it all over again. Today was going to be challenging. The goal was to get to Bayankhongor, which was only 390 km away. We had been told the first 120ish were nice paved roads, but the following 260 would be absolute hell and we should expect a 12 hour day. The silver lining is that today was allegedly the last bad stretch of road we would deal with until the finish line. There was a surprisingly nice grocery store across the street from our hotel, so we all stocked up on random snacks and such for the drive. It might have honestly been the first one I would compare to a western grocery store since western Europe. They even took credit cards! We grabbed some gas at the nearest station run by a herd of goats and headed out.
Sure enough the first 120 or so kilometers were easy breezy. That part of the countryside was pretty darn flat so I don’t really have much to say about it. And then the road ended. It happened so abruptly that we actually got separated for a time from Starsky and Dutch across this weird ravene.
The next 10 hours was a mix of fun barreling through this rocky desert and borderline madness trying to find a path that didn’t feel as if we were inside paint mixer. The “network” of paths once again could go from 1 to 30, and many times you didn’t even have to stick to one of those if the road looked clear enough of large rocks. Once again we just tried to head in a general direction, hoping that these random paths would actually take us the right way. It’s also pretty damn desolate, so it’s really weird when you run into someone else. Especially another rally team. Like the Belgians…again. Their (un)trusty French steed appeared haunted by the same gremlin that was trying to kill our car. The fuel pump kept getting rattled apart. We stopped of course to help out and get them moving again. There has been a time or two when another rally car has blown by us when we’re clearly broken down, which is suffice to say quite a dick move. At the very least a courtesy is to say hello and offer to find someone to help out in the next town. It could be hours before someone else drives by, so if someone needs help don’t be a dick.
The drive was going surprisingly well. At one point we did have to stop to swap out a wheel, but other than that it was uneventful up until right before dusk. We were attempting to never let anything go between the wheels. An unassuming looking rock, pile of dirt, whatever. The suspension is so gone that we’re basically just dragging the back half of the car, and our fuel tank is one solid bump away from potentially busting our fuel pump again.
About 15 minutes after a driver swap there was a really strong smell of gas in the car. We stopped to check and see if one of our fuel cans had come loose and was leaking, but we couldn’t find the smell. A few minutes after getting going the smell was coming back and while it crossed our minds that a car in front of us was leaking gas, it was really clear that it was coming from our car. The car was still running so we knew that the fuel pump wasn’t broken, but we assumed it was somehow still the issue. Sure enough, after pulling out all our stuff and lifting the seat the smell got a lot stronger. Probably because there was gas everywhere… After the driver swap we bottomed out on something, and the force of the impact was enough to shoot the fuel pump up and crack the top of the housing. Subsequently jostling the car around splashes gas through the big cracks, and voila. I swear that fucking fuel pump… It took about 30 minutes to put enough glue on all the cracks and cross our fingers it would hold for the time being. We only had about 60km left of the drive but the sun was going down fast. We thought we’d be able to just follow their tail lights of our convoy mates, but we wouldn’t be able to go as fast because of the risk of hitting something too hard. When dusk turned into the black of night we got separated completely. I want to say the next 40 km took over 2 hours to drive at an obvioulsy painful pace. Any semblance of road or dirt track disappeared and we had to just creep around in the darkness, hoping that we were going the right way and not just driving in a field – which is basically the same thing really. Sometimes a real road would appear, but we learned the hard way a few times that those roads weren’t completed and would dead end abruptly into a giant ditch, so we’d have to double back and find another way. It was an interesting sight looking into the distance. Occasionally you could see a pair of head or taillights, or maybe a few work trucks in a row. They were so far away though and with no sense of scale it felt like you were looking at some kind of miniature. Or like shining a flashlight into the woods and seeing the light glint off spider eyes. Kinda creepy.
The road got worse, like worst case scenario worse in the dark. The last couple kilometers we were navigating trenches at a speed that barely registers on the car, clenching our teeth at every semblance of something that might touch the gas tank. It was maddening being that close to the town and going so slow, but that’s Mongolia. Weirdly enough at the very end of what was the last stretch of truly bad road on this journey our convoy friends caught up with us when we stepped out to pee. Our team had been debating whether or not they would have doubled back to try to find us in the dark, which would have been nearly impossible. It turns out that somehow we had actually passed them, which just goes to show how vast and deserted this place is, and how many paths there are to get to the end. We limped into this small town and found the first thing that looked like a hotel. The process of getting the rooms was once again a shit show. A few other rally teams showed up as well, and eventually the woman running the place was just handing out keys to the maybe 10 rooms she had, even if it wasn’t your room. There was a (closed) restaurant attached to the hotel, so we raided the fridge and celebrated with a few rounds of beer. This hotel by the way would be the only place we stayed on the trip where none of us took a shower because of how unsettling the “shower” was. Picture a comically short dirty old garden hose running out of the tank at the top of a toilet, and then trying to wash yourself in a small enclosure less than 3×3 feet that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since before it was bought second hand off another hotel that was shut down because of health violations. Really colorful blankets though!
One of the hotel staff pointed us in the direction of food, but once we got there it wasn’t open. A random and very jovial guy walking by on the street told us to follow him to some restaurants so we did. It was a solid 15 minute walk to the point where it didn’t feel like we were in town. Definitely started questioning if he was instead taking us all to Stabville, population all of us, but to his credit on the outskirts of town – for a reason I can’t imagine because property value can’t be that high – were 3 little places that happened to sell some kind of food. Unfortunately none sold beer. I’m so glad I remembered that tidbit, because we did get beer. The Birches had gone in search for it, and eventually found some people who would go get it for us. That ended up being upstairs of the restaurant we were eating at where these people lived. I really really wish I had been there for that because it sounded pretty crazy. They came back downstairs with a couple 2 liter bottles of beer, so we were set. Unfortunately the food they made us was borderline inedible, but they did sell little packets of ramen in this weird little corner store of the place. You could also buy condoms.
The following day we had 640km to go to get to the capital of Ulaanbaatar, the original finish line of the rally. Since the highways were brand new we figured we could actually make pretty good time. Most importantly we were on a safe schedule, and the finish line of this insane journey was in sight.