I'm not entirely sure where the boundary begins, but I'm pretty sure we're in the Gobi desert. What started as intense mountain scenery has transformed into flat, rocky desert, complete with sharp, pokey shrubs, and numerous full skeletons of the poor creatures who've kicked the bucket out here.
The wildlife is changing too; there are plenty of new living creatures to discover. While Mette makes breakfast this morning, Tom spots one the likes of which none of us has ever seen. He is kneeling in the sand, shouting, "Hey, come look at this!". I can't help but smile nearly every time he talks; his fantastic Cornish accent makes him sound like Samwise Gamgee to me!
Everyone crowds around to have a look at our visitor except Tyler – he is already engrossed photographing some other bug. He is ignorant of the fact that there's a better one creating a fuss at camp, and it happens to be a far superior specimen to the little thing he is chasing.
It's a gigantic insect with a thick, scaly exoskeleton, and a jousting lance for a tail. What in the hell is this thing? I can't take my eyes off the bizarre alien crawling in the sand, and I yell for Tyler to come quickly. Trust me I say, this will be worth your while!
A few seconds later, he disengages from his own bug hunt and runs over. Like everyone else's, his jaw drops in awe. Of course, he immediately picks it up. As it rapidly tries to scurry away, he reports that it is very heavy.
The strange bug in our camp isn't our only visitor as we're starting the day. We've also collected our quota of curious Mongolian guests. Somehow, they always seem to show up juuust in time for morning coffee! I've learned that many of them carry binoculars wrapped up in a handkerchief, so I'm guessing they can see us opening those small packets of instant beverage from a mile away!
We're making good time this morning. Perhaps yesterday's non-start has urged everyone to get a move on? Whatever the reason, we've prepped the cars in a relative hurry today. Here are "Walex" and Tommy Napper packing their home-made roof rack, getting Mongol Betty ready to roll:
…And soon we're flying through the hot, dry desert.
Dust clouds billow up from the road, rushing through our open windows as we drive. Eventually, it gets so bad we have to cover our faces with our Tunisian scarves so as not to inhale the all-pervasive powder. We're also taking extra caution with our camera, hiding it under the ugly grey blanket in our back seat when we're not snapping photos and quickly replacing the lens cap.
About halfway through the day, we get an inspired idea and decide to close the windows. Maybe this will help with our dust problem! Instantly, the car is too hot and too stifling to be bearable. Momentarily forgetting that it doesn't work, Tyler flips on the AC. A plume of orange dust blasts through the vents into our faces, like a scene from some Three Stooges slapstick comedy. Augh! There is no escaping the fine substance.
It's a good thing we've gotten most of our sand-loathing out of the way. Our scarves do a great job of protecting our lungs, but they have one major flaw: they make it really hard to pick our noses! Ever since arriving in Mongolia, whether due to altitude, the lack of humidity, or something else entirely, the whole team has a case of monster-sized boogers.
Tyler and I take turns behind the wheel, alternating between driver and ever-watchful passenger. Whoever is not at the wheel is in charge of shouting out obstacles that come quickly into vision on the road ahead. "BIG ROCK!" is the most oft-used exclamation, followed by "ROCK!", and then "BIG ROCK!… No wait, CAMEL POOP!"
There's no time to say where these obstacles are in relation to our car, so the warnings are probably more or less useless. We have fun with it anyhow. Given our current terrain, we are shouting these warnings pretty much constantly. Everywhere we look, there are rocks, rocks, and more rocks. Where do they all come from?
Another frequent obstacle out here: herds of sheep and goats. As we're waiting for a large group of them to go trotting across the road, we see this guy at the rear end of the herd. His bouffant hairdo makes us chuckle, and I dub him "Chauncey". He looks like a Chauncey. A cane, a top-hat, and a monocle would complete the look he seems to be going for.
We've fallen behind the group with our frequent stops for photos. As we speed through the desert trying to catch up, Tyler spots a huge muffler sitting in the middle of the road. It looks awfully familiar. Just in case it belongs to our team, we pick it up and throw it in the back seat.
When we catch the convoy, Mette's Fiat is distinctly louder. We tailgate her just a little, peering over our dashboard at her van. Yup, the exhaust is gone. The next time we stop, Tyler saunters over to Mette, casually carrying the exhaust. "I think you may have dropped something…" he says with a grin.
Oh the Fiat. It's broken. Again. While Charlie, Tommy, Alex, and Tyler have a look to see what the matter is…
…Mette parks herself in the sun and draws the scene.
She does a stellar job capturing a group effort in locating and repairing a coolant leak. The wimpy radiator mount on the Fiat has broken, allowing it to fall backwards into the engine bay. As a result, the water return hose has been slightly mangled by the alternator belt. The guys have to drain the system to plug the hole.
When it becomes apparent we'll be waiting for quite some time, Tim and Richie start a game of backgammon. Meanwhile, Freddie cranks up the stereo, playing classics like Credence Clearwater Revival, The Eagles, and Johnny Cash through the Jimny's speakers.
As I snap this photo of the backgammon game, "I hear the train a comin', It's rolling round the bend, And I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when…" is blaring out across the Mongolian desert. Sometimes, this trip is so surreal.
Adding to the bizarre scenario, out of the nothingness comes a couple of guys on a motorcycle, kicking up a trail of dust behind them. They stop to say hello, and I wonder if they like Johnny Cash, too.
They hover around the car for awhile, eying the situation quietly. I'm not sure if Alex, Charlie, and Tom are even aware that they are being watched!
One of our visitors carries a rifile, though we're not sure why – what would you hunt out here? Charlie is enthused, and gets especially excited when the man lets him hold it.
Eventually, the Fiat comes to life once more thanks to the creative efforts of Charlie, Alex, Tyler & Tom. Soon, we're off again, barreling through the Mongolian desert with grins plastered on our faces.
The rest of the day passes quickly. We stop for the usual Cab-cooling breaks:
…and continue to marvel at our Mongolian surroundings. Have we landed on the moon?
We've arrived in a small village (literally a one-horse town), and we're making the most of this sliver of civilization by raiding the hole-in-the-wall shops for snacks. It can be tricky locating them; from the outside, they frequently look like a person's home. Sometimes, if we're lucky, they have a small, fading sign above the door.
Inside these shops is a veritable Ali Baba's cave of food. There's always canned meat, tinned fish, and a variety of ramen noodles. Sometimes we'll find chocolate and cookies and chips, and if we're really lucky, maybe some mealy apples. It's almost always a no-go for vegetables and fruit though.
Occasionally, there might be a freezer case, filled not with the usual red hunks of dead sheep and goat, but instead individual cones of goat's milk ice cream. It's sort of sour and the cone is tasteless, but it sure does feel nice to have something cold on a hot day.
The kids in town can usually point out the right shop to patronize if we want ice cream:
When we're done shopping and snacking, it is just about time to camp for the night. It's been a good day, and we've made some progress. Mette's spare tires, however, need some TLC (the Fiat gets at least one flat a day). So, while the rest of us head out of town to make camp, Mette and Tom stay behind to find a mechanic.
Once we've found a suitable spot, Tyler and Charlie spend some time tinkering with the London Taxi:
Tomorrow, we head further into the desert. Next stop: Altai.