The alarm goes off, 5:00 AM glowing on our small cell-phone screen, shrill beeps sound in my ear. I fumble around desperately, barely conscious, mashing the keypad until I press enough buttons to make the godawful noise go away. Darkness surrounds our tent, engulfing Tyler and me in the heavy fog of sleep.
Though the cabbies have planned to leave very early today, I'm not sure anyone (us included) will posses the willpower to make it happen. The phone rings again at seven, and this time, I'm able to force my eyelids open. Ebony skies have lightened to a steely gray, hinting at the coming of the sun.
It's still as cold as ever, though. I am sleepy and shivering, not yet fully functional, as we begin packing up camp for the last time in Mongolia. As I'm fumbling around, getting in the way more than I am helping, Tyler gives me a gift that never fails to make my morning:
He'll put away the tent and all of our belongings, and I can wrap myself in our down sleeping bag to watch the sun rise from the comfort of our LRC! Thank you, Tyler!
It's as if a painter has touched her brush, first swirled with pigments of purple, yellow, and pink, onto a wet sheet of watercolor paper. Before my eyes, the silver dawn explodes into radiant pink skies. Though the night has been bitterly cold, the early sun begins to warm the frost from the stiff, stubbly grasses of the steppe.
Today is the day we'll arrive in Ulaan Baatar. It marks the beginning of the end of this adventure. The next leg, Southeast Asia by bicycle, is our last. The past few weeks have been a dizzying blur of excitement and difficulty. This morning, as if to give me one final image by which to remember this beautiful, intense land, we receive our last Mongolian visitor.
He arrives from the East as a barely distinguishable shape against the horizon, flanked on all sides by moving objects. The dark shapes approach, gaining speed, growing larger, taking the form of a herd of horses. Immediately, I leave the car, trading my sleeping bag for our camera, and run out towards the scene.
I stand in reverence and wonder, feeling the wind and the dust kicked up by the magnificent creatures passing me. I feel like I'm in the eye of a tornado, completely calm as the thundering storm of mighty hooves pound the ground before me. My breath hangs in the chill air as I watch in awe, and suddenly all of the trying times of the past few weeks are tempered with this unforgettable vision:
Behind the stampede, our Mongolian visitor arrives, as quiet and curious as all the others. Observing us for awhile, he looks on the comings and goings of our camp as one might watch ants on an ant-hill. After he has seen enough, he takes his leave, galloping off into the wide open spaces of this land.
Richie and Freddie caught up with us late last night, attracted to our orange glowing fire a few hundred meters from the main road. This morning, unsurprisingly, they are slow to wake up. In fact, everyone is up and ready to go, except for them, still sleeping soundly away in their tent.
First we try making lots of noise, rousing them gently with the buzz of activity. Nothing. After that, we all try singing songs loudly, which also accomplishes nothing. Then shouting "WAKE UP WAKE UP GOOD MOOOORNING!" Nada. Shaking the tent vigorously is equally unsuccessful.
Eventually, Charlie creeps up and dares to open the door of their tent, only to be thrown back by a wave of stench. He then challenges each of us to approach for a whiff of several two month's worth of unwashed clothing, and a night's worth of bad breath.
Tyler suggests dismantling their tent around them, an art he's already perfected on this trip, but Tim and I have other plans. We grab the tail ends of their sleeping bags, trying to drag them outside. This is met with sleepy grumbles of protest, but eventually the two get up and moving.
Richie and Freddie leave with us, but they fall behind, not wanting anything to go wrong during the final three hundred kilometers. Since the cabbies need to get into town as early as possible, we part ways once more; they'll meet us in Ulaan Baatar.
The last stretch passes uneventfully, thanks in no small part to the nicely paved road. We don't make it all the way without some off-roading though. When a section of highway construction gives way to one last dirt track excursion, we don't mind a bit. I think we'll even miss it!
And then, with more of a whimper than a bang, we arrive on the outskirts of Ulaan Baatar. Without much ado, Mongolia as we know it, the land of wide open spaces and friendly, curious nomads is gone. We're in bumper to bumper traffic under a cloud of smog, attempting to stay together as cars zig and zag between us, paying no mind to the lines on the road.
Though we're relieved to have made it, everyone else is considerably more excited than we are. They're at the end of their journey, but we still have a long way to go. Soon we'll have to confront that mountain of logistics we've been putting off. For the moment, we put our concerns aside, and celebrate with our friends as we pass under an arch bearing the words "Ulaan Baatar."
Making plans to meet up later, everyone disperses. Tim and Charlie head to the Russian Embassy to apply for transit visas, while Alex, Tyler, and I make the mistake of driving to the Chinese Embassy instead of walking. After a dizzying maze of jam-packed one-way streets, we finally arrive, only to find the office closed for the day.
As the visa departments of Consulates always seem to have fickle hours (in this case, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9:00AM to 12PM) we have arrived at the wrong time. They won't open again until Monday. Looks like we'll be staying in the city at least until Wednesday.
We're supposed to be having a celebration meal with the team at the "traditional" Mongolian Barbecue restaurant (the concept actually comes from Taiwan… nowhere but in Ulaan Baatar have we seen anything remotely resembling the do-it-yourself buffet), but Tim and Charlie are nowhere to be found, and Richie and Freddie still haven't arrived.
Just as we're about to enter the restaurant with what members of the team we could find, Richie calls. They've arrived in the city! I give them directions, and they drive up, triumphant and trashed. They've already hit the bars, and by the looks of it, they've had a lot to drink.
By now, we've grown numb to the disturbing amount of drunk driving that occurs in Mongolia, both by our friends and the locals, and are simply overjoyed they've made it safely.
Over lunch, everyone makes plans for a huge celebratory party, deciding to get wasted and visit a strip club called Marco Polo. Every bit of this sounds awful. We're more concerned about finding a hotel – if they want to do anything besides boozing, we'll meet up with them later.
PS: Here's a stray dog scarfing down the last of our gross vegan pizza this morning!