Our life has become a Choose Your Own Adventure book. This morning, as we flip to a new chapter, the one where we drive across part of Mongolia alone, a twinge of sadness overcomes me. Waving goodbye to the early risers of the team, I think about the fact that I can't hold this place for later – a finger stuck in the proverbial page where our paths diverge.
There will be no turning back to revisit this moment, no way to see what events would've transpired had we made a different choice. We'll just have to hear about the adventures we missed when we meet the team again. Pulling away, it's just the two of us, zooming through the desert, into the great wide open.
Just a few kilometers from camp, we spy some people in the distance. Shepherds perhaps? They are hunched over, kneeling on the ground, but we don't see any animals for them to be tending. As we approach, I wonder what they are doing out here in the middle of nowhere.
Rapidly drawing closer, their outlines come into clear focus – it isn't people, it is a flock of the biggest birds I've ever seen. I have no idea what they are, until Tara identifies them as buzzards!
As I scramble for our camera, they take off, one after the other, lumbering into the air with great effort, sweeping over the hills just a few feet above the ground. I can hear the beating of their giant wings from hundreds of meters away. Mouths gaping, we take in the sight, awestruck by the sheer size of them.
Back in our Toyota, I stab the accelerator and the throaty roar of our cracked-again exhaust fills the steppe once more.
Mongolian roads are an obstacle course which require unyielding focus. Looking away, even for a split-second, can easily result in a mangled, non-functioning vehicle. At times, crawling forward at a walking pace is the only safe way to make any progress. If history holds, covering three hundred kilometers in one day will be no small feat.
Though reaching Bayankhongor tonight would be nice, getting there at all is the real goal. Breaking down out here could potentially be a nightmare. Our spare tire and jack are buried at the bottom of our tightly packed trunk, and without the team, we have a meager selection of useful tools.
Our assortment is so small, in fact, that I can count our tools on one hand: a vise grips, a crescent wrench, and a screw driver. The rest of our gear is bicycle-specific, and decidedly useless. I doubt a cassette cracker, spare brake pads, or a spoke wrench would help us repair anything out here!
Every ounce of my attention is centered on safely maintaining a pace of 50kph or more. As we drift around corners, speed over hills, and floor it on the straights, all the while swerving regularly to avoid rocks and potholes, I am keenly aware of our newfound lack of support. As I settle into a rhythm, two trains of thought are passing in my mind.
The first is how incredibly fun this is, and the second, just how vulnerable we *CRUNCHH* …are.
Tara lets out a concerned, "Vigilance!" as I pull over. Both of us are cringing at a cacophony of unknown metal dragging in the dirt below us. Coming to a stop, I open the driver's door and peer under our LRC tentatively.
A deceptively large rock has just delivered the final blow to our exhaust. Cracked all the way through just below the headers, the entire assembly is hanging loosely under our car. Two weeks ago this would have left me crestfallen, but today, a wave of relief washes over me instead. There was a clean break near the muffler already, now it should be a simple job to remove the whole blasted thing!
Crawling under the car, I detach the lone bracket which is flimsily holding the useless length of metal in place. It is a liberating experience, watching the burning hot pipes fall unceremoniously from the belly of our beast – it feels as though we've just shed a major weakness. Next, I dissemble the sections and we chuck the whole mess into the back seat. Good riddance!
We've just gained several inches of ground clearance. It doesn't sound like much, but given the fact that we only had a few to begin with, it makes a huge difference. We're no longer constantly on the lookout for anything bigger than a field mouse going under our car.
In spite of our newfound invulnerability, we still wince every time we drive over a sizable rock or shrub. We've developed a strong Pavlovian response to the destruction they should be causing; it will take some time to overcome this initial fearful reaction.
We've been making good speed for over two hours, blasting Dire Straits' self-titled album on repeat, nailing it through the steppe. But suddenly our happy-go-lucky joyriding comes to an abrupt, sinking halt when I drive us directly into a patch of car-eating sand. The stretch of deep, soft powder is about a hundred meters long, and though I've stopped right away, attempting to back out proves to be futile.
It is around this time that we're thinking, it sure would be nice to have a bunch of friends to help us out… We are foolishly under-equipped to deal with this situation. We don't even have a shovel. There is nothing for it, we're just going to have to do it with our hands.
Before starting, we take a minute to check-in. We remind ourselves where we are, what a great time we're having, that we knew Mongolia would be hard, and that there is no use getting upset. It might take ten minutes or it might take three hours, but we're getting out of here. We just have to keep cool.
…and dig some more. With Tara on one side of the car and myself on the other, we start scooping out the impacted plateau of sand below our LRC.
An hour has passed and we've only managed to move the car a meter, at most. This is infuriating; the edge of the sand pit is so close! At this rate it is going to take all day to free ourselves from this mess. We need help. Or, at the very least, a shovel. Even though we are "in the middle of nowhere" and we haven't seen another car drive by all day, there is still hope.
So far, we've only been a few places where a ger can't be found somewhere in the distance. In fact, we've accidentally camped near them more than once. Given Mongolia's vast size and comparatively small population, this has come as quite a surprise, and right now, it is a welcome one. At the moment, there are two in sight.
Tara opts to stay and dig while I make the trek to seek out help.
The ger is farther than it looks. Halfway there, the soles of bare feet are riddled with sharp desert thorns. I'm wishing that my callouses were a bit thicker, or that I wore shoes, when I reach the closer of the two round white homes. It seems to be uninhabited at the moment. When I knock on the door, it swings inward with a creak. It is empty.
Scouting around, I am shocked to discover an old, beat-up shovel behind the ger! The handle is falling off and the metal is mangled, but it will be a heck of a lot more effective than a pair of hands alone. Never in my life have I been so happy to see a crappy bit of wood and metal. Confident no one is around at this mini ghost-town to care, I take it and walk gingerly back to Tara.
I find her happily swirling her toes in the fine, cool sand, digging under the car with our Arnis de Mano baston. Grabbing the handle of our new/old shovel, I get to work, and together we begin to make some progress.
We've been repeatedly digging out the car, moving inches at a time for the last hour. This is the home stretch! We've removed the latest round of sand from underneath the belly pan, and I've dug a path behind the car down to hard packed sand. It leads all the way to where the pit begins.
It is Tara's turn to push; she gets in position and I jump in the drivers seat. I turn the ignition and the engine screams to life, the exhaust-less machine roaring and belching loudly. Parking break down, check. Reverse, check. I slowly let out the clutch and ease on the throttle. The tires are turning slowly, cautiously, and we're moving!
Seconds later, the grip starts to break and our minuscule momentum slows for the umpteenth time. Frustrated, I throw caution to the wind and floor it. Sand is flying everywhere! If this doesn't work, I'll have only made the problem worse, but my patience is waning. I want out. Suddenly, one wheel finds itself on firm ground, and away I go, flying backwards. We've made it!
It felt like we'd never escape! I jump out of the car, we hoot and holler, running to exchange high-fives and kisses. Finally, we can get back on the road. This time, we give the sandy patch a wide berth. The left side looks pretty treacherous, so we've chosen the rocky slope to the right. We should be able to skirt around it without difficulty.
Cheerful, I start up our LRC and we take off. The sandy pit is below us on the left, I'm driving on the sharply banked slope beside it. We pass over the crest of the hill, halfway there! Hmm, it looks a bit sandy ahead. Passable though. I can see the end of the pit below us now. Uh oh, this is not looking good. We're almost there! I don't think I can back my way off this slope, I'd better punch it!
Big mistake. This sand is far deeper than the stuff on the road.