When we started thinking about buying a car and driving it across Siberia, we had a rough time getting reliable reports as to the conditions of the roads. It seems silly, but back then we weren't even sure if crossing Russia was possible without a giant 4x4.
One of our first points of contact was the Mongol Rally, as many of their participants cross Russia every year. Over the course of several months and many helpful emails from one of their organizers, Rob, we learned that yes, it really is completely do-able. Now, we know Siberia's dirty secret: it is a friendly piece-o-cake – along the highway in summer, anyway.
Completely by coincidence, we've ventured into Mongolia with the very same Rally, and it just so happens that Rob is currently in the country! Right now, he is picking up the tail end of the event, assessing and dealing with the broken cars at drop-off points along the route from Ölgii to Ulaan Baatar.
A group of us have decided to meet up with him: Tyler and I, to personally thank him for his help, Tim, because he and Rob are old schoolmates, and Matt, because the Swift has died, and he'll be handing over the keys.
It is a typical morning on the Mongolian steppe. Huge blue skies, spectacular mountain views, and the surprise knowledge that we've accidentally made camp right next to a ger. Whoops! As planned, we wake up early and head into town to where Rob is waiting.
We find him at a little cafe with another Brit and a Mongolian man. After handshakes all around, we sit down for coffee, but are instead treated to a large breakfast. Thanks guys!
Over milky cups of joe, cut-up hot dogs and other snacks, we talk to Rob about many things, from life in general, to the Mongol Rally, the fate of the Swift, and our trip and the logistics of getting our car out of the country. Rob's Mongolian friend, Jenya, looks over our LRC and says he knows a couple of guys who might be interested in buying it. Before we leave, he gives us their numbers and tells us to contact them when we reach the capital.
When we ask, Jenya also reads what our customs papers and visa stamps say. We were hoping to hear differently, but he confirms our suspicions: we must leave with the car, and we must do it before October 4th. Even if we "lose" our paperwork, there is a special stamp and marking in our passport indicating that we brought a vehicle into the country.
Leaving Mongolia with our LRC is looking more and more appealing.
Our meeting draws to a close when we look at the time and realize it's almost afternoon. Matt hands over the keys to the Swift, and then we all troop back to the cars. After some quick filming by Rob for the Rally, we head back to camp. Our tardiness doesn't matter; no one is ready to go!
We've only been on the road about fifteen minutes when we encounter our first major obstacle of the day. The track we've been driving on ends suddenly with green grass dipping sharply into a bright blue, snaking river. Rob and his friend warned us about a crossing, didn't they?
We talk with Tim and he remembers it too; they said we'd have to go thirty kilometers out of our way in order to get around it. Then, they laughed and said it was no big deal? This all happened quickly in conversation and neither Tyler nor Tim nor Matt nor I thought to confirm if they were being serious or joking. Hmmmm.
So, the next half an hour is spent scouting around the river, trying to find a bridge, trying to find a way around, and searching in vain for possible crossings. Eventually we think to hell with it, let's just drive right through it here and now.
Tyler plows head-long down the steep bank, into the clear water. We've barely even entered the river when it gushes dangerously high, nearly over our hood. Quickly admitting defeat, he shifts into reverse and backs us out. I guess it couldn't be that easy! While we're trying to decide on the best course of action, Mette suggests we wait until someone else crosses, and then follow suit. Wise words indeed.
Moments later, a blue passenger car pulls up and drives right through, albeit in a roundabout fashion. They clearly knew where the shallow bits were. Sobered by the recent death of the Swift, and the thought of suffering the same fate, we all disconnect our air intakes or snake them as high as we can manage. The last thing we want is for our engines to take in water too.
With typical gusto, our team is ready. Tyler volunteers to go first once more. Down we go, into the water, following the path of the other car. There is a brief moment in the middle of the river when we start to lose power. Tyler has the throttle to the firewall but we're chugging to halt. Oh no!!! Our LRC's engine cuts out, halfway across the river.
With a concerned look, Tyler turns the ignition. And then a split second later, concern turns to relief as the LRC fires right up. Soon we're rolling again, churning through the water, more and more rocks becoming visible in the clear stream as the river's height diminishes towards the edge. We're nearly out! Our wheels spin wildly, spraying water everywhere, and we lurch up over the riverbank, back onto dry ground. Phew.
Safely on the other side, Tyler grabs our camera to capture the next river crossing: a couple on a motorcycle, traveling with a toddler, and a baby wrapped up in swaddling. Without hesitation, the family of four drives right into the cold water, sputters across the rocky bottom, and makes it safely to the other side, none the worse for wear, save for some cold, wet feet.
Before our friends can cross, they have to wait their turn, for our quiet track is now inundated with traffic.
Cars and trucks from both directions are all fording the river. There's even a group of three wasted guys on a motorcycle who teeter across.
The next member of our team to cross is Gem, piloting the Saxo with Alex:
…and then Charlie, maneuvering the huge black beast of a taxi; Tim is perched on top, filming the experience:
Richie and Freddie come next, in their two-wheel-drive Jimny:
…and finally, the Doblò brings up the rear with Tom behind the wheel:
Successfully having surmounted yet another Mongolian obstacle, we leave the scene triumphantly, and continue onwards.
We haven't progressed very far, when the convoy is brought to a halt once more. This time, it is due to the familiar ear-piercing crunch of rock against metal, and the subsequent rumbling and roaring of a cracked exhaust. For once, we are not the ones crawling under our car, trying to fix this particular problem. It's Gem and Alex' turn!
Before even looking at the vehicle, Gem intently rummages around in the Saxo until she finds a bright orange triangle and a neon yellow safety vest. She sets the triangle out with purpose, then slips the vest on with a grin. Then, with fists on her hips, she puffs up her chest and starts talking in the deep voice of a construction worker, sternly declaring the area a Work Zone! Only safety operators are allowed to enter! I crack up laughing when she refuses entry to Tyler until he puts on a vest.
While Alex and Gem tinker away, everyone else pursues their own roadside hobbies. Sometimes it's reading, playing cards, strumming the guitar, or bringing out the backgammon board. Today, the guys play a few rounds of bocce ball in the Mongolian scrub.
Even though we break down about once an hour, and can scarcely make it through a day without dealing with some significant obstacles, we're actually having a lot of fun out here!