We awaken with joy this frosty morning, overcome by an intense sensation of relief. We're still incredulous about the bizarre circumstances which reunited us – it will be well into the evening before we're through exchanging wide-eyed looks of disbelief about it. Glancing at the tents around us, we feel deeply grateful for the camaraderie of our team.
As the rising sun illuminates the scene around us, an epic landscape, formerly obscured by the darkness of night, is revealed.
As the early risers in this group, we putter around, heating water, cooking soft-boiled eggs and making cinnamon vanilla oatmeal for our friends. One by one they trickle out of their tents to join us on the chilly steppe. A morning mist has spread across the valley, and the view is positively surreal. While we enjoy our breakfast together, a man on horseback appears in the distance.
He approaches at a steady gait, towering over our convoy in silence when he arrives:
After sizing us up, he dismounts and strides into our camp to say good morning. We all introduce ourselves, shaking his weathered hand with a smile. After we've exchanged our greeting, the man seems to offer his horse to us for a ride. Tara jumps at the opportunity.
I get to have a go as well:
Another rider arrives while I am trying to coax my mount into movement. He seems to be a friend of our current visitor, and soon he his offering his horse as well. Charlie hops on, and we slowly plod in a circle around camp. No amount of heel digging or tongue clicking seems to register with the mares.
Normally, we would say that meeting people on a bicycle is much easier than in a car. Mongolia is a gigantic exception to this rule. Everywhere we go, people come to us! They all seem to be curious about what we are doing, or eager to hunt around for free stuff. Though we know there is usually a ger just around the bend, it is always a bit shocking when someone pops up, seemingly from nowhere.
When the men on horseback are gone, another guy comes puttering over. Instead of a horse, he is riding a bright blue motorcycle with a sidecar. In yet another example of the unabashed curiosity and friendliness we've encountered in Mongolia, the man plants himself in one of our camp chairs to hang for a bit.
Once he is comfortable, Tara offers him a bowl of oatmeal. He eyes the brown mush with a look of tempered disgust, and politely refuses. He won't turn down a handful of raisins, however. As he pops the dry, wrinkly fruits in his mouth, our visitor acquiesces to an investigation of his motorbike by two of our own goofy, inquisitive friends.
Once our morning visitors have gone, we all pack up and head out of camp. Being prudent, going slowly, we're sure we can make it to Hovd tonight. It is almost beyond belief to think that we've spent the last three days, in cars, trying to cover less than 300km.
We've managed to keep up a steady pace for an hour or two when we encounter our first major river crossing of the trip. Arriving at the water's edge, we spend some time scouting a good route for the clearance-challenged members of our team. Charlie puts his wellies on and wades out, while Mette and I convey the findings to the first car to cross: Richie and Freddie in the Jimny.
Off they go, into the water!
When they arrive safely on the other side, it's our turn. Go, LRC, go!
Next, here comes the Taxi. We all cheer at the enormous bow wave the cabbies blast forth…
…and silently pray they'll make it across okay:
They do, of course.
What a beast!
Finally, Mette crosses the river in her big, boxy Doblò.
Elated to have successfully leaped over yet another Mongolian hurdle, Charlie does a little jig.
The next challenge of the day comes in the all too familiar form of the Doblò's fuel pump refusing to send sufficient gas to the engine to keep it running. With exasperated sighs, Mette, Charlie and I approach the nagging problem once more.In Ölgii, we learned that the cause was an incomplete seal between the fuel pump the weird plastic housing it is mounted in. If we had access to Italian car parts, we'd be able to use the Fiat rubber grommets made specifically for this purpose. Unfortunately, they were misplaced by the last set of mechanics who "fixed" the problem.
In what seems to be typical Mongolian fashion, they botched things together just enough to send us down the road. Their solution was to smash the two pieces of plastic together with such force that no fuel could leak out. As usual, the terrible roads out here made quick work of this half-measure.
As we tear apart the assembly for the twentieth time, we discover that the grommets aren't the only thing the mechanics misplaced. They tossed out the fuel filter too! Why would we need that? We're in the desert! Putting our heads together, we come up with a series of fixes to replace the missing parts.
Charlie makes a fuel filter by cutting the nozzle from a water bottle and using a bit of tea filter as a screen. I re-create the missing grommet by salvaging some rubber hose from our water filtration system, and Mette seals up a crack in the plastic housing by using a bit of swiss-flag-colored ribbon (we don't have any tape or glue that will withstand being submerged in fuel).
For an hour or so, it is a regular arts and crafts project in the Fiat. Once we've prepared our various bits and pieces, we re-assemble the increasingly esoteric fuel pump. Lo and behold, it works!
The final obstacle of the day comes in the form of a wooden bridge. A whole bus-load of people have maneuvered around it, choosing instead to brave the impassible-looking river below. It's dangerous, don't cross, they seem to say, pointing at the bridge, making Xs with their arms in a now frequently used gesture we've learned for "NO."
They seem pretty adamant that we shouldn't cross, but most of us are convinced the bridge is sound. Freddie goes to investigate.
He returns shortly, confident we can continue. We all troop over to double check; and sure enough, it feels extremely sound. I have no idea what the driver of that bus was thinking, I'm convinced you could drive a whole tank battalion over that bridge! So, we go first, passing over the water without so much as a single creak. Everyone follows with equal success as the bus passengers look on.
We've almost made it to Hovd!
Four action-packed days after we thought we'd arrive at our first Mongolian checkpoint, we roll into Hovd. The city is blocked by a gate; we must pay a small toll to pass. As soon as the barrier is lifted, signs appear for a ger camp.
Relieved to have made it, we pull off the road to call it a day, parking under an array of flags from around the world. There, we're welcomed by the friendly couple who runs the place together. They bring us a round of free beers, and tell us to relax at the picnic tables under a shaded canopy. We have no trouble doing as we're told.
While everyone else rests, Tyler, Richie and Charlie head to a nearby mechanic to sort out some issues with the Jimny and get the exhaust welded on the LRC. They return a few hours later, ravenously hungry. Team re-united once more, we head into the dining ger for food. Sitting at a round table clothed with crisp white linen, we wait.
Then, from the simple, cramped adjoining ger kitchen, comes a parade of gourmet meals for seven people, cooked by our hostess herself. We each have huge servings of stir fried beef (a welcome change from mutton) and potatoes, served with a mound of jasmine rice. The food is delicious, piping hot, and very satisfying.
As we eat, another pack of Mongol Ralliers arrive. While the others stay up late to party, celebrating with copious amounts of vodka, we head to bed, stopping first to say goodnight to our hosts' young boy.
As we lay in bed, attempting to capture the events of the past days and weeks in the form of extensive notes, we let out a sigh, both of relief and dread. On the one hand, we've finally made it; we're here! On the other, we've traveled only 300 kilometers in four days. We have some two thousand more to go.
We could be in Mongolia for a very long time.