Tyler and I have talked many times about how this trip has been one gigantic exercise in personal growth. All of our silly idiosyncrasies, the many niggling things we do to get in our own way, and a multitude of habits which we could improve upon… all are revealed in their basest glory out here. Tyler sometimes refers to it as being put through a wood chipper.
I think a rock tumbler is a more apt description. We don't come out in pieces on the other side, but rather emerge each time with a few less craggy uneven bits, smoother and shinier with every harsh sanding. If our whole trip has been a rock polisher, Mongolia is one on turbo.
All vestiges of OCD are obliterated with one trip into the Mongolian landscape. Dust flying everywhere, washboard roads that jangle me to my very core… it's like being on a plane in bad turbulence with a sandblaster in your face. Our car is a junk yard in a tornado.
For us, Mongolia is a land of extremes. Our trip has a tendency to be very polar as it is, but the frequency and intensity of these conflicting experiences is much higher here. One example: in the last few days we've gone from being positively frigid in a mountain blizzard, to sweltering and sweaty in a parched desert.
The emotions generated by all of this flip-flopping are also paired opposites. This adventure is an engaging thrill ride, but at the same time, exhausting and taxing. We've barely been here a week and Mongolia is already starting to wear some of us down.
I fasten my seatbelt, and crank up the stereo, techno music blaring. Suddenly, I feel like I am in a dimly-lit arcade, slipping coins into a driving game. Better still, I imagine I am in my dad's favorite scene from the movie Gone in Sixty Seconds. I can't help but laugh with glee as I tap my foot on the gas pedal, VROOM VROOM VRRROOOMing our LRC.
Enough playing around; I slam my foot down, and we go roaring into the desert. Now that I've gotten the hang of driving off-road, no longer afraid to throw our car around corners or swerve wildly to avoid obstacles, I have to admit that is really, really fun.
Like some Mongolian version of a Jason Bourne movie, I am flooring it through the desert. My heart is racing as adrenalin courses through my veins. Avoiding potholes and big rocks, I feel momentarily weightless, our car jumps into the air. Butterflies fill my stomach. I've accidentally flown over a Mongolian Surpriiise (Gem's name for any giant obstacle that appears out of nowhere, usually a car-destroying dip in the road)! We touch down a split second later, intact, and go racing onwards.
Normally, Tyler is the experience/adrenalin junkie, but today is my day, and oh man is it a good time. After I've stopped the car, I let out a little squeal, finally understanding the appeal of racing, feeling like the kid at the end of The Incredibles.
Driving isn't the only appeal to this new adventure though; we're also hanging out with awesome people, working together, and coming up with clever ways to fix the convoy's ever-breaking cars. Except ours, of course! LRC is a beast, and besides our exhaust incident, the twenty year old machine is perfectly sound.
When tales of the day are retold over the fire at night, everyone talks about how our car, from the outside, seems to glide smoothly over the awful Mongolian terrain. We feel like proud parents when Richie jokes about how "the Toyota" is invincible. We drive faster than everyone, and we haven't even had a flat tire!
Though our lives are more focused on surviving and fixing cars than they ever have been (and hopefully ever will be), we're not ignoring the awe-inspiring nature around us. We are still taking the time to appreciate things like herds of horses racing across the horizon, flocks of birds gliding effortlessly overhead, floating in the wind like a mobile, and camels. Lots of camels.
They smell. A lot.
I am not a fan.
After a full, productive day of driving, we're that much closer to Ulaan Baatar. We all stop for a round of cheering and photo-taking when we see an actual road sign with our final destination on it! Only 1255 kilometers to go, if the sign can be trusted (which it probably cannot due to the ever-changing nature of Mongolian dirt tracks).
We're all holding out hope for the rumor we've heard: the tracks are supposed to turn into a paved road beginning four hundred kilometers from UB. It is almost unfathomable how far we could go on strip of tarmac in one day. Who knew we'd come to appreciate asphalt so much?
Soon it is time to camp, and we fall into what is becoming a daily ritual we all enjoy: we find a place to cal home for the night, we drive around in circles until someone can direct the group into creating some sort of wind-break, and then someone (usually Richie or Freddie), puts on their iPod, and we all listen to music as we begin unpacking our things.
Then, someone cooks, while another person volunteers to clean yesterday's dishes. The rest of us have a little bit of quiet time to relax or journal as nighttime approaches.