We spent a lot of time mucking about in sand this afternoon. Even if the rest of the drive goes smoothly, making it to Bayankhongor today is going to be difficult. Tara calculates that I have to keep our pace safely between 60 and 80 kilometers per hour for the rest of the drive if we want to get there before the sun sets. We've agreed that there will be no more driving at night.
I'm not sure what is causing it. Maybe the lack of a properly functioning exhaust system, the roads, the awful gas, or my driving (probably all of the above), but our fuel economy has dropped sharply in the last week. We've only gone three hundred kilometers since our last fill-up, and we're already dipping below half a tank.
I'm wondering where we'll get gas next, when the telltale signs of Mongolian civilization appear on the horizon: a long row of power lines in the distance, rickety wooden fences, and a sea of white-topped gers dotting the desert floor. On our way in, we receive the usual waves, stares and broad smiles from the villagers.
In town, I wait by the car while Tara embarks on a mission to find ice cream. We deserve a snack. Annoyingly, frozen treats are proving to be elusive in this small settlement. Even after visiting three shops unsuccessfully (all of them, she thinks), she refuses to give up. Instead she moves on to a shameless round of charades with a curious village girl.
Meanwhile, there is a Mongolian man on the dirt, getting ready to crawl under our car. This might sound awfully bizarre, but I am now completely numb to the fact that this might be considered odd – it happens all the time. He is tapping on the belly pan, now kicking the tires, now pushing on the hood to test the suspension.
I'm standing right here, but he is paying absolutely no mind to me as he wipes away the dust on our hatchback to peer in. We still haven't determined what exactly this is all about – these guys are never obviously mechanics. Equally, they aren't usually drunk, which, sadly, many remote Mongolians are. Our best guess is that they are checking to see if the tourists have any car problems they can help with? Or maybe they're evaluating the quality of the machine, as they might with a horse?
When the man is done giving our car a thorough looking-over, we shake hands, exchange a few words, and he heads back to wherever he came from. A few blocks away, Tara is having her own cultural exchange.
Using the universal licking-an-icecream-cone gesture, she manages to communicate her point. The girl tells Tara to wait while she runs to grab a friend, and then the three of them head into an unmarked building a block away where pre-made goat's milk cones are stacked in a pile in a freezer. Success! Tara treats them each to an ice cream for their help, and they run off giggling.
Back at the car, the two of us eat our icy snacks together in the shade of a temple, where brightly colored flags wave in the wind, and brassy prayer wheels shine in the sun.
Ice cream consumed, we leave to find fuel of another sort. On the outskirts of town, we locate a gas station, really just a single rusty pump manned by a woman who jumps to attention at our arrival. She fills the tank to the brim, and instead of spending a long time trying to remember communicate Mongolian numbers, she writes the price with her finger on the hood of our dirty LRC. We're amassing a nice collection of prices written in various places on our car!
The roads are getting pretty bad. Terrible even? I can't tell any longer. I've lost all sense of what a reasonable driving surface should be like. In fact, I've grown so used to driving off-road that I now have stockholm-syndrome-like levels of distrust for pavement. Smooth asphalt and the lazy speed it affords feels dangerous and wrong.
In any case, the terrain is bad enough that we're noticing how bad it is, and starting to worry about how our teammates will fare. I'm not the least bit concerned about our own car, however, as time and time again, no matter what we put it through, our LRC stalwartly rises to the challenge. Our little Toyota is a tank!
As the hours pass, I am intensely engaged in the most exciting drive of my life. I have become one with our car. Together, we're executing an unending series of carefully calculated maneuvers to smoothly navigate through each precarious obstacle in our path. I am really starting to understand the appeal of rally car racing!
Beside me, Tara sits in silence, observing the passing scenery. Sometimes it looks like the moon out here, while other times, we cross through fields of enormous boulders, strewn around as if they've grown up like trees. The sun is soft and diffuse as it descends, bathing the nothing landscape in shades of gold
The engine rumbles, kilometers pass, and we're eagerly counting them down as we approach our destination. I press the accelerator down a little further, trying to keep the darkness at bay; we're being chased by a fast-approaching sunset.
Dusk is falling, and with it our hopes are too. We were too slow. As we contemplate stopping, looking for a place to set up the tent while we still have some daylight left, we both admit that we want to continue on, ill-advised or no. We're almost there, and it isn't totally dark yet. The promise of a bed and a shower is too great to ignore.
Straining my eyes against the fading daylight, we press on. Just as we're about to give up and surrender, admitting defeat for the night, a few glittering lights appear in the distance, nestled in a valley between two mountains. Soon there is no mistaking it: these are the lights of Bayankhongor! We're going to make it!
When at last we arrive in town, night has officially arrived. Though we've briefly broken our rule about driving in darkness, we have to admit, awash with relief, that it was worth it. We've made it, we're done! Now for a few days of rest!
But, as we drive over a potholed paved road past city-gers and crumbling apartment blocks, we're not so sure all will go according to plan. We're feeling what has become our standard initial reaction when entering a new city in Mongolia: "Hmmm… this doesn't really look promising…"
Thankfully, everything changes for the better when we reach the center of town. At last there are hotels, restaurants, and shops aplenty. We settle on a clean, inexpensive place called Seoul House. Our room is on the second floor, overlooking a bustling main street. I don't think we'll be gazing out of the window much though.
We've got writing to do.