Green, blocky numbers glow faintly from our digital clock above the tape deck; the time reads 11:30 PM. We know better than this, why on Earth are we out here? We are lost in a maze of barely-lit tracks, exhausted, stupidly driving over the already harsh Mongolian terrain in the darkness of night, hoping to find our friends.
Unfortunately, our chances of oh so casually happening upon them in this vast, black labyrinth seem even slimmer than the possibility we're actually headed in the the right direction at all. The only sane thing to do is make camp. And yet, when we see a pair of headlights growing larger and brighter as they come our way, all hope is not lost.
Perhaps this other vehicle, which also happens to be traversing the Mongolian mountains in the dark of night, will be able to help. So, Tyler opens his door and runs towards the road, waving his arms madly as the car approaches. He's managed to stop it, and I can see that it's a 4x4 of several men, a brightly-lit Land Cruiser that looks to be decked out with GPS, satellite, and piles of maps. If anyone can help us, it is these guys.
Tyler runs back to me and hops in the car, slamming the door shut behind him. The 4x4 is heading to Hovd – the correct Hovd – he explains in a hurry, and we're welcome to follow them. He peels out, and soon we're behind the safety of four huge wheels and lights so bright you think you're being abducted.
No terrain is too rough for the Land Cruiser, and soon it is all we can do just to keep pace with them. Forty kilometers an hour, then fifty, and then sixty. When we're reaching speeds reach higher than we'd be comfortable with in the daytime and still the 4x4 barrels onwards ever faster, we inevitably fall behind. Soon our guides are but a pin-prick of light in the inky blackness. Eventually, they disappear altogether.
Back on our own, we are as lost as our hope. Our LRC's dim headlights are no match for the subtle paths that branch off from the main one, curving this way and that. There's simply no way for us to distinguish between a real turn-off, and the wiggling spaghetti tracks that make up a Mongolian "road."
Exhausted and despondent, we're about to give up, surrendering to the reality of our situation: we simply have to stop and camp. It is ridiculous to even consider continuing. And then in the darkness appears a dimly lit ger. Surely they know the way to Hovd.
Nearing the home, we're met with an unwelcoming affront from several gnarly barking dogs. Two men emerge to calm the animals, and to investigate what has caused their ferocious outburst. In the faint yellow glow of our headlights, the men appear drunk and dark and strange.
Now, with the same urgency that drew us to this place, we are compelled to leave. But first, we ask directions. The men respond with a sweeping gesture, pointing vaguely back the way we've come. While normally this bit of unwelcome news would plunge us further into hopelessness, we're already about as low as we can get. Our moods really can't darken any further.
Though we're no better off than we were before, Tyler thanks the men. Then, he quickly rolls his window up – a protective barrier between us and these shifty fellows and their aggressive dogs. Next, he whips the car around in a circle, pointing us the way we've come.
As if to prove that our evening really is capable of becoming more surreal, our headlights suddenly illuminate a woman who has been squatting to pee, holding her thick skirts out of the way. She giggles under our spotlight as the men laugh. And then we are gone, into the night.
Without a plan, we drive for a few minutes back the way we've come. Just as we're about to stop for the night, we see yet another light off in the distance. It's blinking; is it trying to communicate with us? It has to be. There is no one else out here. Desperate and hopeful, willing to give it one last shot, we follow the beacon, curving back towards the main road.
The light isn't moving, which we take as a good sign. Is the 4x4 waiting for us? Sure enough, there's the Land Cruiser, our guide, with its million-watt bulbs piercing holes through the darkness. We pull up behind it, and it starts moving again. This time, though, they drive much more slowly, and we're able to keep up.
Putting absolute trust in this this group of Mongolian men to lead us safely through the steppe, we spend the next half an hour glued to the back of their car. Together, we cross a small river, our LRC splashing over the rocky bottom and rising back up onto land. Twice more we ford streams, and then we traverse a small, shallow pond.
After the water crossings, the road begins to climb steeply upwards. For a terrifying moment, we lose our guides as they disappear over the crest of the hill and once again we are alone. Hopefully they'll remember we go slowly; hopefully they'll be waiting at the top. Seconds feel like ages as the nose of our LRC climbs to the crest of the mountain.
When we reach the apex, we find our guides stopped, headlights blinking madly, huge spotlight pointing out across the land. Craning our necks, we try to see what's going on. What are they pointing at? Now our vision comes into focus and out of the obscurity, we're able to make out shapes. There's a jeep. And a boxy van. And a London taxi. In the middle, there's a fire, and around it, our friends.
How in the hell did we get here!? From the worst, most desperate, most difficult and scary moment of our entire trip, comes one of our best. Now wide awake and full of energy, we leap out of the car, bounding over to shake the hands of the men who saved us.
We reach through their open window to clasp their palms in ours; they are smiling and laughing as much as we are, clearly happy to have helped us out in such an obviously positive way. How is this even possible? we think, as wave a final goodbye, honking their horn as they pull away.
Judging from prior experience and many hard-learned lessons, we should not be here right now. And yet, by some miracle and the kindness of a few Mongolians in a Land Cruiser, we made it. Sitting down in front of the crackling fire, we are overwhelmed with relief, stunned with disbelief, and shaking with joyous laughter.
How is it even possible that in the dark maze of this countryside, we've been delivered here? Over hot bowls of rice and vegetables courtesy of Mette's cooking, we tell our story, everyone shaking their heads in wonder.
Then, we hear the team's much shorter version of the adventure: nervousness when flooded with a sudden barrage of spotlights (oh shit, here come the bandits with Kalashnikovs), and then elated shock upon hearing the telltale rowdy gurgle that could only be the mangled exhaust of our LRC.
Safe, sound, and utterly drained, we collapse into our walkstools and laugh away the the remains of the evening with a pair of beers in the company of our friends. When we can support our eyelids no longer, we crawl into our tent, stopping for a moment to marvel at the inimitable Mongolian sky.