With the Saxo's exhaust repaired, we're back on the road. Before us, a spaghetti-like sprawl of dirt tracks stretch out as far as the eye can see. Behind us, a billowing cloud of dust obscures the air. Each member of the convoy has arbitrarily picked a lane – we're all bouncing through the scrubby plains of Mongolia, thrilled to be driving towards our next break-down.
The beginnings of an actual road-in-the-making appear on the horizon, rising up a few feet in the air, unnecessarily barricaded by big orange cones. The perfectly graded surface is impossible to reach due to its height and deep ditch running along it on either side. Our dirt track has veered to the left of the construction, the rest of the team is now on right side of this insurmountable blockade.
As Tyler drives, I keep an eye on the team's progress several hundred meters away, and I think about the roads here in Mongolia. When will this future highway be paved? It looks to have a very long way to go before its completion. The weather today is perfect, but one seems to be working on it. Has the project been abandoned?
While scanning for a way to reach the other side of the highway, I imagine how different our Mongolian adventure would be right now if there were paved surfaces to navigate throughout the country. It is a strange thought, the idea of passing through this wild land with ease. It takes more than an hour before we find a way to rejoin our friends.
Back with the convoy, the highway-in-progress turns from our path, leaving us alone in the steppe again. We drive onwards, into the golden hour.
The Jimny is going very, very slowly. Every so often, we all stop to wait for them, slightly worried something has happened, imagining the troubles they might be having with their botched rear axle or their mangled suspension. It will be a miracle if they can limp that poor Suzuki to Ulan Baatar. We're in the middle of a three-point U-turn, off to find them, when headlights appear in the distance.
Richie and Freddie roll up, assuring us with a smile that everything is fine. They just have to go slowly, that's all. While we're waiting for our friends, we are intently observed by the local Mongolians we encounter. A weathered looking man with a jaunty beige hat takes a break from collecting dried dung (used as firewood) to watch us cautiously.
Now taking advantage of the Jimny's slowness to do some lollygagging of our own, we stop often to admire the scenery. I've taken the wheel, and everyone else has driven ahead while we stop to take photos. We're second-to-last in the convoy with Richie and Freddie bringing up the rear.
As Tyler and I sit in the car, enjoying the peace and quiet before we turn the ignition on our LRC, we watch the orange sun sink, and a bright, round moon rise. Five minutes pass. Ten minutes pass. Twenty minutes pass, and there's still no sign of the Jimny.
As slow as we are moving (and staying still!), how could they possibly be nearly half an hour behind us? With a sinking feeling, imagining the worst, I turn around, heading back the way we came. Once again, Richie and Freddie's headlights appear just as I do so. We wait for them to pull up beside us, then roll down our windows to greet them. Once again, they give us the thumb's up. Everything is just fine.
Satisfied our friends are safe, I drive on, the Jimny's lights shining in our rear-view mirror. Not far ahead of us, just a few kilometers around a bend, the rest of the convoy is stopped, cooling off the Taxi's radiator while waiting for the final two cars to show up.
I expect to find our team eager to hit the road or find a campsite, but what we stumble upon instead is a veritable party in the darkening Mongolian countryside. Dance music fills the dusk skies. Beers in hand, Tim and Tom are having an impromptu dance party in the Doblò, hopping and flailing around, eyes wide, fists punching.
Adding to the desert carnival is a colossally drunk Mongolian man who has driven his motorcycle over from a nearby ger to offer a very slurred "Sain bainu!" We're so used to our vehicles being under constant scrutiny, that Charlie and Mette decide to turn the tables on him. When he stumbles over for a chat, they hop right on his motorcycle and begin poking around with the unfamiliar levers and buttons.
A quick round of gesturing conveys: you don't mind if we take this for a spin, do you? Our inebriated guest enthusiastically agrees, laughing as he gives them the go-ahead. Little does he know that neither Charlie nor Mette have ever been on a motorcycle!
Tom quickly gives Charlie the basics, his advice consisting solely of pointing at a right-side lever and telling him, "this is the clutch." Shaking his head with a laugh, Tyler joins in on the lesson. Pointing out the gearshift by Charlie's left foot, he says, "Press down for first gear, lift up for the rest! Neutral is halfway between first and second."
Mongolian motorcycle safety training complete, Charlie drops the clutch, and kills the engine.
Tom and Tyler quickly point out that he needs to give it more gas. The second attempt is a success, and away they go!
Out of sight of the Mongolian man, Charlie and Mette crash and burn (at slow speed), tipping over in the sand. When they heave the bike back up, they can't get it started, so Tyler jogs over to help. Charlie exclaims, "How the heck do you get out of first gear?"
Tyler laughs and says, "Let's get it started first, you probably flooded it when you tipped over!" A few seconds of fiddling and the bike chugs to life. Off they ride, herkily-jerkily making it safely to the group.
Hopping off, Charlie shouts, "I have got to get one of these!" Moments later, at Charlie's request, Tyler takes him for a spin. He is practically glowing as he hops on and grips the handlebars. It will be so nice to get back home and go riding again. I can't wait to take my own (real, official) motorcycle training course!
Without much ado, Tyler fires up the engine and tears off into the darkness with Charlie in tow, showing him how to get out of first gear.
When they return a few minutes later, both of them are grinning like schoolboys.
Next up is Tommy, who comes back from his ride enthused, recounting tales of his travels in Indonesia on a rented motorbike.
We're having a lot of fun out here at night in Mongolia, and our guest seems to be enjoying himself as well. He's necked two of Tim's beers, and gotten a spare crank flashlight out of him as well. But, there is still one very worrisome thing on our minds: the Jimny still hasn't shown up.