Well, it looks like we'll be spending the night at the border. Locked in on both sides, with no real identification, now in the dark of night and a swirling blizzard, what else is there to do? Luckily, we're among friends.
As all we pile into Mette's red Doblò, someone shouts "the more the merrier!". Our dirty, snowy shoes are removed and passed along an assembly line until they reach the front of the vehicle where they are chucked into a growing pile on floor in front of the passenger's seat.
We have inflatable sleeping mats beneath us to provide our legs some barrier from the cold, and we've unfurled our collected sleeping bags to blanket the group, trying our best to keep warm, and if possible, comfortable too.
Cold beers appear from every nook and cranny, and soon we are all laughing, scrunched together, warming our toes under one-another's bottoms. Somehow, we've found ourselves safe and sound in yet another predicament!
Now that we have no choice but to make a night of it here, we have time for proper introductions. Over several rounds of beer we tell stories and talk about our respective adventures. Mette says ours "is like the Mongol Rally times ten!" We've been eating-sleeping-and-breathing our adventure for over a year, though, so we are much more interested in listening to everyone else's tales.
We spend a few hours wrapped up in stories of their last few weeks of adventures: getting drunk on black-market vodka in Iran, dealing with government-created petrol shortages in Uzbekistan (which the ralliers knew more about than the citizens, thanks to total media control), using an inflatable globe as a map, and dancing for derisive Kazakh border guards as a last-ditch effort to be released.
Driving from London to Mongolia in just a few weeks has been action-packed! As they talk, they throw around names of places like "Samarkand," "Tashkent," and "Tehran" and I think, maybe someday. We are especially inspired by a story Tim tells us about the "Gates of Hell" in Turkmenistan.
In 1971, a drilling rig looking for oil found natural gas instead. The entire rig, drills, trucks and people suddenly sunk into a giant sink hole. The hole was part of a cavern that was bottomless and filled with gas. To prevent the entire area from destruction, the remaining crew set the pit on fire.
It's been burning for 37 years, adding even more heat to the Turkmenistan desert. In the daytime, it’s a crater in the flat and seamless desert. At night, the fire in the pit can be seen for miles.
Realizing that we barely generate enough heat to remain comfortable, one phrase loops through my mind over and over and over again: I'm so glad we're not on bikes, I'm so glad we're not on bikes, I'm so glad we're not on bikes. That is one level of adventure I have no interest in experiencing.
Tyler is just as relieved as I am that we aren't huddled in our tent tonight for warmth, listening to the howling wind, watching snow accumulate, knowing we'll have to cycle in it in the morning. Instead, we are safe and sound, in a team.
Unfortunately, Tyler has to brave the cold. In a contortionist-ninja move, he escapes through a small window behind his head, That way he doesn't have to climb over everyone, letting in a wave of cold air by opening the big rear door. He is shoeless, despite my protestations. A few minutes later he returns bearing our laptop and satellite internet receiver. The weekend has not yet arrived at home – he must make sure his clients are okay.
Tyler sticks the receiver on the roof, and leaps back in the car. Our laptop is attached to it by a network cable that leaves the window open just a crack. Explaining how he works from the road, we all listen as he aims the receiver. The device emits a series of fluctuating tones, growing louder when it is correctly pointed at the satellites above. Someone jokingly insinuates that we are spies. Pleased, we neither confirm nor deny this claim.
Eventually, Tyler gives up trying to accomplish his task from the the safety of the van, and slinks out of the window again, this time to sit cross-legged on the roof in the middle of the blizzard. About ten minutes later, he returns, beard covered in frost. Everything is now a-ok on the home front, work is completed, and he's left a message on twitter.
Family and friends alerted to our situation, the merriment continues. Eventually, Richie, Charlie, and Freddie leave the Doblò , braving the cold to cook us all dinner inside the London Taxi. It is a rare luxury that on this wintery night, Tyler and I don't have to make supper for ourselves.
An hour later, the guys poke their heads in, grinning, and hand over a huge bowl of steaming hot tomato and bell pepper pasta, complete with slices of rapidly melting cheese. It is among the tastiest and most soul-warming meals I've had on this trip.
We make quick work of the giant pasta bowl, each pecking away the noodles with our sporks. With dinner consumed, we talk about watching a movie on our laptop, but eventually exhaustion wins over. One by one, people decide to make a go of getting comfortable enough for a night's sleep in their own vehicles. Lucky for us, Mette would be far too cold sleeping in the big Fiat by herself. So, Mu and the two of us decide to take refuge with her tonight.
The four of us tuck in like sardines, trying unsuccessfully to cover up the drafty door with a big cushion. Then, we rest our heads on our hands, thankful for new friends with which to brave the storm. It would be a dark night, indeed, without their warming cheer. After several quiet hours, spent listening to the roaring winds and clearing spots on the fogged window to watch the blowing snow, we finally succumb to sleep.