I knew the roads in Mongolia would be bad. I've seen pictures. I've heard first-hand accounts. I've even watched documentaries about people traveling over them! I was prepared for river crossings, giant potholes, deep ruts, car-eating sand, huge rocks and more. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is this undefined "more" which has been the most difficult of all (thus far).
My foreknowledge of Mongolia's roadworks was lacking in one important detail: washboarding. These tiny unassuming ripples in the road are a nightmare to traverse. Driving over them seems to be tantamount to systematically destroying our car, and everything in it.
We've devised a few ways to avoid death-by-shaking out here. One of them is to go really fast. The other: driving anywhere but on the roads themselves. Both of these solutions come with their own set of problems. Unannounced, suspension annihilating dips, massive oncoming lorries, and giant rocks in the middle of the road (seeming to have been placed there intentionally), to name a few.
This morning, Tara is driving. She is employing our "go really fast" method when a cringe-inducing metal crunch reverberates beneath us. The floorboard of our LRC shakes violently and wince in unison, exchanging a brief look of horror. Worried, she hits the brakes so we can stop to investigate.
Hopping out, we see a menacing rock in the middle of the road. Formerly buried in a sandy berm, it has been torn loose from the ground where it lay. It must've caught our belly pan, ramming into the underside of our car. There is now a sickeningly large hole in the dirt track we've been driving. Resting nearby is a matching chunk of jagged stone. Shaking my head, I heave it off the roadway and return to survey the damage.
A reluctant glance under our car reveals exactly what I feared: a severe crack in the exhaust. The break is just behind the catalytic converter. Tara feels awful, thinking she has somehow jeopardized the trip and broken our car. I am bummed, but tell her everything is fine. With such low ground clearance, this was bound to happen eventually. In any case, we can have it welded in the next town.
At Tara's request, I take the wheel. As we bounce along the Mongolian steppe with newfound caution, our quiet Toyota is slowly transforming into a roaring beast. Up ahead, the Taxi has stopped to cool down. When we reach them, I lean out the driver's door and gaze under our car. The rear half of our exhaust is now hanging precariously close to the ground. If we continue, a bump of any size could easily shear the entire thing from our car.
Not quite sure what to do, I drive our car halfway up a berm so I can get underneath it to see things more clearly. Further investigation reveals the problem (apart from being torn in half): one of the rubber mounts holding the rear exhaust section to the car has popped off. Unfortunately, the pipe is still really hot, and it won't seem to budge.
At this moment, I feel incredibly grateful to be on a team. I know exactly what tool I need to repair this problem: a scissor jack. Ours is buried in our trunk with the spare tire, resting under two painstakingly packed touring bicycles. Mette kindly loans me hers. It is a quick and easy fix, using the jack to push the exhaust back into the channel where it belongs. Rubber mount re-attached, we're ready to roll.
We're making slow progress today, and I don't see how we'll make it to Hovd before nightfall. In fact, the way things are going, I'm not convinced we'll even make it half-way. The convoy pushes on slowly, and though the weather is bitingly cold, the taxi continues to overheat. Our next stop is at the top of a snow-dusted mountain.
While we wait for the taxi to stop steaming, I check under the car again. This time around, the catalytic converter is hanging an inch or two from the ground. Short of wrapping a rope around our entire car, I can't see any way to tie it up. I keep coming back to a silent wish for some heavy-duty aluminum tape as I mentally tick off every item in our car, trying to think of something that could be used to fix it. Then, like a flash, an idea comes to me!
I stride over to the taxi with purpose, hoping against hope that they'll have some hose clamps. Sure enough, they do, and the lads are more than willing to lend them to me. Back to the car, I rummage through our cooking pannier until I find the bag for our MSR cookstove. Out comes the windscreen, up goes the scissor jack, and under the car I go.
An icy wind is blowing as I work, gathering sand and small pebbles along with it. Laying in the dirt under our car, I can hardly see through the dust cloud. As I size up the situation, a chill wind is quickly transforming my fingers to fumbling icicles.
The screen makes three or four sturdy wraps around the exhaust before I affix the hose clamps. Tara relieves me from duty when I take a break to rest my wrists. Years spent behind a keyboard engrossed ten and twenty hour long programming binges have left them easily susceptible to RSI pains.
By the time we're through, the taxi is ready to roll. One by one, we file back towards the road. It is only a kilometer or two later when we stop again, this time for the scenery. A cold blue lake appears, pooled between Mongolian mountains. Soon everyone is running around taking pictures, staring in awe at the landscape before us.
While Tara captures the scene, I duck beneath the car again to check on the exhaust. The windscreen is slipping off because I've clamped it too far away from the crack. Telling everyone else to carry on without us, I jump under the car to re-affix it in a more sturdy location. Everyone pulls away, and it is Tara and I, alone in Mongolia.
I am livid. I think Tyler just wants to tighten the hose clamps, but now he tells me he wants to re-do the whole damned thing. Last time it took an hour! Time is ticking away; there is no way we can catch up to everyone. I want to go; Charlie and Tim say the exhaust isn't really dire, so why are we doing this now, in the bitter cold?
Why are we letting everyone else drive on, leaving us out here alone? They are most likely stopped further ahead, waiting and waiting and waiting for us. We're holding everyone up! Why can't we just fix it when we get to camp!?
Furious that Tyler's OCD at fixing things in the moment (there is only now) is cropping up at such an inopportune time, I feel like a caged animal. I am pacing around the steppe like a crazy person, kicking rocks and screaming, let's go, let's fucking go. Why are you doing this now!?
Tyler locks his eyes on mine and calmly explains that he needs to do this so our exhaust isn't ripped entirely off the car. It hardly registers. I want to be anywhere but here. Normally when I freak out, I get quiet and broody; this type of explosive behavior is Tyler's style, not mine. But at the moment I have no control over myself or my emotions. We're alone, behind, away from the others in this godforsaken place and I can't stand it.
Pacing and fuming like a bull, one phrase loops through my head: I fucking hate this I fucking hate this I fucking hate this I fucking hate this. I seriously hate this; why are we even here?
As last Tyler is finished with the god forsaken exhaust that I broke, so I get into the passenger's seat and stare straight ahead, empty and fuming. I don't want to talk; I don't want to be here; I want to discorporate and float away with the sand in a thousand tiny pieces. I am tired, so tired. I am tense and shaken up. We are at the mercy of Mongolia.
I drive like a man possessed, barreling across the steppe, trying to reach our team. Though I'm not worried about catching up, I just want to find them again so Tara will relax. Amidst feeble, frightened calls for vigilance from the passenger's seat, I speed inadvisedly over bumps and rocks towards our convoy.
In the distance, a man on horseback passes. The scene is too incredible not to stop. I quickly grab our camera and fire away with our telephoto. Holy crap! Could Mongolia be any more epic?
A few nerve-wracking minutes later, we see our team, three silly-looking cars on the horizon. As we approach, we notice that they are involved in a breakdown of their own. Car doors open, then slam shut; we walk over to investigate. Mette's van, the big boxy Fiat Doblò, won't start.