My nose feels like an ice-cube this morning. The rest of my cramped body is, thankfully, much more inhabitable – safely wrapped in numerous layers of clothing and sleeping bags. It was a group effort last night, staying warm and comfortable. If any of us needed to shift positions, everyone would sleepily rotate in unison, like hot dogs rolling on a grill at a gas station café.
The day has dawned, clear and sunny. The blizzard is over and the howling winds have ceased to roar, but it is still freezing outside. One by one, we rouse ourselves from our slumber and groggily gaze through the fogged windows of our shelter, noticing the border staff filing to work in hearty winter coats, hands clasped over their mouths, giggling at the sight of the strange foreigners locked in their border.
There's no need to dress for the day, we're already wearing every article of clothing we own. Breakfast is uninspiring – Tara and I set slices of bread for everyone on top of our car. The meal dries quickly in the wind, leaving us with a cold, brittle and comfort-less sustenance to dip into our huge jar of homemade Siberian jam.
Steeling ourselves for a long, drawn out affair, we trudge over to the offices, rubbing our hands together for warmth, silently praying we'll find our passports inside. When we arrive, a woman directs us to a waiting room. As we try to ask her about our precious, missing documentation, she nods knowingly and assures us in broken English that everything will be OK.
Mette and I are not convinced. If they have them, why don't they just give them to us? We persist, asking calmly and repeatedly for our papers, but we are either misunderstood or ignored. The woman we're questioning eventually points to three chairs by a drafty window. We sit down and do as we're told.
Nearly an hour passes. We're still waiting. Another round of inquiries leads us to an adjacent room that appears to be border control for people on foot. There, a woman behind a window asks us about our cars, and has us fill out a few forms. She charges us two dollars per passenger, and makes some entries in a very large ledger-type book.
As we're filling out the papers, we realize that we cannot complete them – we need our passport numbers. We all try to explain that they have our passports, but nobody seems interested in doing anything about it. Mette is particularly persistent. Eventually the woman she is interrogating passes her off to another border guard who is busy with a long line of people entering Mongolia on foot.
Upon hearing this, I skip to the front and politely ask for our passports. My efforts are in vain. Instead of handing over our documents, she points to another set of chairs, instructing us to wait. The inefficiency is driving me crazy, but I've mentally prepared for a difficult process. Even so, I'm not willing to sit and wait. I join the queue with a few others, determined to stand our ground when we reach the head of the line.
An hour later, we approach the pulpit-like desk once more. To our great relief (and chagrin) the woman unceremoniously slides open a drawer and hands me all eight missing passports! I thank her, slightly incredulous about the reality that we've wasted two hours accomplishing this simple task.
As I distribute the passports amongst our new friends, Mette wonders aloud what would have happened if we'd patiently waited in those chairs all day.
Our Mongol Rally friends all have the proper documentation for the border crossing: official-looking carnets, matching titles, insurance papers, etc. Our situation is quite a bit different, we're a pair of Americans in a German car with export plates. We're not sure if we'll be able to get into Mongolia at all. Finding border crossing reports for anything even remotely resembling this situation has proven to be completely impossible.
We've heard that we may be able to get a transit visa, good for seven days, but we're unsure what the repercussions of overstaying it would be. We've also heard we might have to pay a hefty import fee (to the tune of thousands) just to bring our vehicle into the country!
It is with trepidation that we hand over our forms, hoping for the best. The woman behind the window hardly skips a beat when she sees them, simply asking, "How long will you be in our country?" I hesitatingly respond: Two weeks? No, wait, thirty days! A few seconds later, without fees, and without a carnet, we have a month's entry for Mongolia. SUCCESS!
Our entry turns out to be easier than that of the Mongol Ralliers, who must each fill out a lengthy form registering their vehicles over a slow, spotty dial-up connection. The link fails repeatedly, losing their data as soon as they submit it. They are forced to fill in the same information over and over and over again until it goes through.
Though our Russian inspection was quick and easy, the Mongolians seems to take their job more seriously. We're not sure what they are looking for, but a man pages through each of our books, takes out each item from our glove-box, and rifles lazily through our trunk. We're glad he gave up after removing just one or two items – it is one massive pain to pack.
When he stumbles upon our iPods, he looks them over curiously. "For music", I say. "Yes", says the man. "How many geega?" Tara stifles a giggle at the absurdity of the situation. I tell him "eight", and he immediately asks, "How much?" I tell him what we paid in the US, and he says "ahhh, expensive." I nod, and he moves on to searching other things.
When he's all done, we smile and say thank you, and he shakes our hand, saying "Welcome to Mongolia."
Later, we see him wide-eyed, poring over a copy of The Sun (a British tabloid) which he has found in the London Taxi.
The London Taxi has having a hard time starting after our bitterly cold night. When Charlie turns the beast over, its big diesel engine briefly comes to life, belts howling and screaming with displeasure.
Back outside, looking under the hood, Charlie tells me about the taxi's radiator issues. Repeated leaks, lack of service stations, and overheating have forced them to fill it with water. Though they've managed to repair most of the pin-holes with egg whites, water is no substitute for antifreeze. Our frigid evening in the mountains has turned their radiator into a block of ice.
I offer our trusty WhisperLite stove as a solution. Though it works well for the bulk of the radiator, we soon discover it can't be used at the bottom, where most of the ice has settled – the housing is plastic.
So begins the task of pouring hot water into the radiator and it's hoses.
While they work, Tara waits in our LRC with the heat on high, offering a warm seat and a bite to eat for anyone who is hungry, cold, or both. A few hours and many boiled pots later, the taxi comes to life! Just long enough to shred a brittle fan belt. Unfettered, the cabbies install one of their spares with haste and all is well.
At long last, we're ready to drive into Mongolia!