This is our last blog before the finish line – crazy isn’t it? Tonight we are Ulan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, and tomorrow we set out for Ulan Ude, Siberia, Russia, to the finish line.
We hope to reach Ulan Ude by the 9th, with the official last day for finishing being the 11th. But as you will read, not all things go according to plan, so we’ve given ourselves a couple of extra days to play with.
You may be wondering why, if it’s called the Mongol Rally the finish line is in Russia, and if the finish line is in Russia, haven’t we just left there? Yes, and yes. A quick explanation. The Rally has been going for many years, and traditionally finished in Ulan Baatar, Mongolia. That is why most ralliers will detour into UB even though it’s out of the way – it’s the spiritual ‘home’ of the Rally. In recent years, the organizers moved the finish to UU, for reasons relating to the ease of exporting the Rally cars back to their respective homes. It’s apparently a lot cheaper and easier from Russia than Mongolia.
And yes, we have just left Russia, but there are several route options and ours takes us from Kazakhstan-Russia-Mongolia-Russia. The other options are to either avoid Mongolia and go all the way from Kazak to UU through Russia, or to go Kazak-China-Mongolia. There is no direct route from Kazak to Mongolia. We would have loved to do China, but arriving on a 747 as opposed to two postie bikes means it’s not as easy. We would have needed to pay a guide and do an enormous amount of paperwork, as well as commit to actual dates (which Aquarians are loath to do). So a double entry into Russia it was. But back to Mongolia.
We spent our last night in Russia in a hostel of sorts. We had decided to push on at the previous ‘big’ town and try to get as close to the border as possible before dark, but after 20 minutes the heavens opened and we were drenched. So we pulled into a little village and found a bed (albeit a hard one).
The next morning, the skies were grey and wet. And the temperature freezing. We rugged up and set out for the border. When we arrived, we didn’t look very different from Dumb and Dumber.
We were frozen solid. As we warmed our hands on our engine blocks, while the guards looked on and laughed from inside their toasty, super insulated puffer jackets, we slowly regained feeling in our hands so that we could find, then hand over our passports. Russia cleared, we drove the ‘non’ road to the Mongolian gates.
It was a good 30km away over barely passable terrain, but we made it. Again, after defrosting our hands and returning life to our circulatory system, we began the process of entering Mongolia.
We were fooled into a sense of complacency when we realized they had a list of all ralliers, and thought how organized they were. Alas, it was not to be. I think we had the trainee doing our paperwork, because when – finally – he completed it, he had made so many errors he had to start again. The immigration hall is not heated, by the way. Eventually we set off, prepared for the roads (or lack thereof) we had been warned about. Immediately we were hit with gravel, and we set off for Ulgii which was our goal for that night.
The next morning we were off. As we understood it, we had 100km of sealed road (sealed in some places), followed by 300km of gravel after ‘the road ends’. And it does, literally, just end. From there on there are a myriad of gravel goat-tracks to choose from, none of which are on the map. So using the shadow cast by the sun, we headed East, to our next destination.
Now if you’ve been following this blog, you will know that gravel is not my friend. We are not on speaking terms. Every spill I’ve had, has involved gravel. It may have something to do with Peter putting the fear of God into me about the dangers of riding on gravel when I was learning to ride, but gravel is my Achilles heel. And as such, I tend to proceed cautiously, and by cautiously I mean slowly. Very slowly. This wouldn’t be a problem if Peter didn’t have 40 years riding experience on my 8 months, (or was happy frostbitten and starving to death from days of exposure) and wanted to go whizzing over the hills at a faster speed, leaving me in his dust!
When I expressed, very calmly and maturely, that I was not really enjoying the ride (don’t be taken in by Peter’s version of events, which may suggest I spat the dummy and threw a tanty), Peter’s response was ” I’m am enjoying this but we need to move faster (as we had only so much sun remaining)!” before whizzing off into the horizon. After yet another fall in soft sand (sorry Steve, bruised leg, and $100 for Cool Earth), we became somewhat frustrated with each other. He was going too fast – I was going too slow.
We arrived at Kovb and over dinner agreed that our strategy for the next day, and next 200km of dirt would be:
- I would try my best to go faster; and
- Peter would stop and wait for me when he got too far ahead,
Agreed on our strategy not to kill each other, we set off! However, our deal didn’t last long and soon we were bickering like two fish wives about who was going too fast or too slow. After another fall, a bad one where I buckled my front wheel rim (and yes, sorry Steve, scraped my elbow and bruised my hip), we stopped talking altogether. (Peter says: this crash was suicidal and had nothing to do with experience, rather failure to identify road hazards). We arrived in Bumbugur and found a hostel (which was really a room, no bathroom) and the hardest beds I’ve ever encountered. They were literally ply wood covered in fabric. We agreed we hadn’t been a good team that day, and vowed to do better. We munched our instant noodles and got an early night.
The next morning, Peter got up early in search of a hammer to straighten my bent rim. He borrowed one from the family living in the Yurt behind the hostel, and bounced in telling me about the fantastic ‘Yurt breakfast’ he’d been invited to share with the family: rice cooked in sheep milk, goat bones, tinned fish, and something that looks like fudge, but is not. In fact, he hid the fudge in his hanky and brought it for me, telling me he thought it was the same sour horse milk balls we’d tried in Kyrgyzstan. I politely declined his offering and decided I could do without breakfast.
We had 120km of gravel left, and if I say so myself we did well. I managed to double my speed from 20km/h to about 40km/h and Peter bit his tongue when I fell behind, restricting his comments to how much he’d enjoyed his Yurt breakfast. The roads were just awful, washboard gravel most of the way, ditches, rivers to cross (no bridges). And this is a main thoroughfare! In fairness, they are in the process of building a new road, and it was agony to watch the brand new, freshly laid tarmac from a distance as we limped by. At one point, one of our bags wiggled free from its bungee straps, and we realized we’d lost our spare tubes. Peter went back about 15km to look, but the bag was nowhere to be found.
Given we hadn’t had a flat in 18,000km and the worst of the roads were almost behind us, we decided to forego the bag, and push on. Sealed roads awaited us! Besides, we still had our puncture repair kit. Of course, the very next day, I got a flat, that no repair kit was capable of fixing.
However, before that debacle, that night, having reached the end of the gravel and a comfy hotel, the Yurt breakfast made a reappearance when Peter’s body rejected it. Violently rejected it. It was akin to an exorcism with sound effects to match. The next morning, I was seriously considering calling a doctor (he was running a fever too), when a series of final vomits emptied his stomach and digestive system of its entire contents (and perhaps even his small intestine- still to be determined). All of a sudden, he was feeling much better, the fever abated and he was ready to set off. I suggested staying another day, and eventually persuaded him to wait at least another hour before whizzing off. We agreed we’d aim for the next town, 200km away, and decide then whether to stay or push on for UB, depending on how he was feeling.
100km down the road, Peter’s stomach cooperating and UB in our sights, I ran over a nail which ripped my inner tube. We tried with the help of a local goat/shepherd to repair the tears with our puncture kit, but it only lasted about 10km.
We (and I mean Peter) tried several times to repair the holes, even resorting to duct tape at one point, but it was to no avail. The tube was cactus, and we didn’t have a spare.
I suggested Peter ride to the next town, about 50km away, to see if he could find any inner tubes for sale. He refused to leave me stranded on the side of the road (we were in the middle of nowhere) with the now peg-legged bike. Instead, we started waving down trucks to see if someone could give me and Ed a lift to town. Eventually at about 5pm (as I was envisioning a blistering night in our tiny tent on the side of the road, our frozen corpses to be discovered he next morning), our super-heroes arrived.
With no English and the use of pictures from my Point It! app to explain:
they quickly loaded poor crippled Ed up and strapped her in. I was to ride in the cabin with the men, while Peter followed.
They drove us 46km (they initially told us they were going 30km) to a town which sold tubes, walked us into the shop to explain in Mongolian what we needed, and wouldn’t accept a cent in return for their help! The drive was quite interesting too. I haven’t been in a car since our taxi ride in Iran, and I’d forgotten how comfortable and warm a car can be! Also, we couldn’t really communicate but we established that we were from Australia and had ridden from London (that got a thumbs up) and I politely declined the offer of horse meat, not because its horse, I’d really like to try it, but because I wasn’t sure how long the plastic takeaway container had been sitting on his dash board, and the results of the Yurt breakfast were still fresh in my mind.
Peter replaced the tube (they only had 18″, not 17″ as we need, but it will do) and we marveled at the dumb luck of getting a puncture the day after losing our spare. We rode on to the next town, and found a motel. (No showers, toilets are the public block up the road.). There was no electricity in town (a common phenomenon we have discovered), so by candlelight we shuffled into our room. I couldn’t stop laughing when I sat on the bed to take off my shoes, here is a video we made the next morning.
Once the laughing had subsided, we had some tea and went to bed (and slept like the dead, despite the bed!).
The next day we repacked our bikes and set off – Ulan Baatar was going to be ours! Again it was bitterly cold and despite wearing every item of clothing I’d packed, we were freezing. Eventually we arrived and headed straight for Sukhbaatar square and the beautiful bronze statues, but not before passing logos we haven’t seen for some time – KFC, Pizza Hut, Hard Rock Cafe, Burger King – we had arrived!
We found a hotel and connected to wifi – one of the other teams had found our lost bag, and we will see them later and recover it. Once again we marveled at the chances of losing the bag one day, getting a puncture the next, and finding the bag the next! What are the odds?
Anyway, now we are off to do some sightseeing, perhaps meet up with some of the other teams in town for a beer, before getting an early night. We aim for the Russian border tomorrow, the finish line the next.
In the absence of any further calamities, we hope that our next installment will be us from the finish line, on the 9th.
PS Steve – Cool Earth thanks you, don’t be surprised if you’re approached about a Board position given your philanthropy and dedication to the cause 😉