Light is fading fast as we drive off-road, over green fields towards our host's ger. Pulling up next to the round white homes, we are welcomed enthusiastically by a man we've never seen before. Perhaps he is the brother of our host? He has two adorable daughters who come running out of their ger to meet us.
Then, it occurs to me to wonder, are we in the right place? It is hard to tell; the family here seems completely unbothered by our presence, as if we'd made prior arrangements and they were expecting us the whole time. I ask the man, in a mix of Russian and mime: Could we pitch our tents over there by the lake? He man smiles and nods; we are completely welcome at his home.
I'm beginning to think I must've imagined our host looking differently, when he rides over on his motorbike, small child in tow! He smiles and laughs and shakes hands with the man we're apparently visiting, and makes motions for us to follow him. We thank his friend, who was prepared to invite us in, no questions asked, and then we wave goodbye to his girls.
Back in our cars, we drive a few hundred meters further; our host is in front of us pointing towards his ger. As we bump and shake over uneven ground, I think about the many stories I've heard extolling Mongolian hospitality. We're experiencing it right now!
We're told Mongolians can travel light, without the cumbersome burdens of food and bedding. All they need do is show up at any ger, unannounced, and they will be welcomed in, fed, and given a place to sleep!
Though we've only been invited to tea, it is now dark, and the Fiat is broken; we won't be going anywhere anytime soon. So, we ask the man if we can set up our tents near his home. This seems obvious to our host (what else would we do?) and he points out to the land in a grand gesture as if to say "anywhere you like."
As Tyler sets up the tent, I assemble our bed. First, I unfurl our sleeping mats, letting them inflate while I retrieve our sleeping bag. The young boy we met earlier seems to think this is very strange, and his father gets a kick out of resting him on top of it. It must be amusing for a family of nomads to meet foreign ones with unfamiliar gear!
Once our homes are made, I notice our host's wife outside with her toddler, carrying a large bucket of coal, or perhaps dried dung? I run over and ask if I can help. She hands me the bucket and I carry it over to where she's pointing: a small, simple building next to their ger.
The outside of this structure, just some cement blocks hastily mortared together, is a bit deceiving in its rough simplicity. The interior is cozy and colorful, decorated with a painting or two and some brightly colored fabrics. Inside, I set my bucket down, and the woman motions for me to round up everyone else for our promised cups of tea.
I do as I'm told, and soon there's a family of four plus seven of us squeezed around a small table. There aren't enough chairs, so Tyler runs out to grab our walkstools from the tent. Finally settled, we learn the names of our kind new friends. There's Elena, our host Nours' wife, who has a large pot of milk heating on the stove.
We also meet the wee Nazirke, and her older brother, Aidos. Nazirke watches us in awe, and adopts a look of sheer terror any time one of us glances in her direction. We must seem strange and frightening to her, so she toddles over to her father for the safety of his protective arms.
Next, Elena motions me over to another bucket. Unlike the one I carried earlier, this one is full of thick, homemade yogurt. She gives me a stack of bowls and spoons and I do the honors, scooping the viscous substance, passing the dishes around the table until everyone is served. I'm expecting something tangy and earthy, maybe of goat's milk from the bleating herd outside, but the cream is slightly sweet and rich. It is delicious.
While we're eating, Elena brings us platters of fried bread, and trays of chocolates and sweets wrapped in foil. Feeling a bit like we should be bringing them food, Tyler and I run over to our tent to add to the collection. Aidos gets a chocolate bar, and Nazirke, an apple. Her eyes light up and she can barely palm it between her small hands. When they say "rahmet" instead of the "bayahthah" which means "thank you" in Mongolian, we discover that they are Kazakh. Much of this region, apparently, is ethnically Kazakh.
After our yogurt is finished and we've drunk bowls of warm milk, communication slows to a halt, for we can't really talk to our hosts. During the lull, Naurs gets out his cell phone and dials a number. About a half an hour after he snaps the phone shut, the small apartment door opens and a young man ducks inside. He's wearing a baggy leather jacket and a baseball cap twisted on his head at a 45 degree angle. He grins widely and greets us all in English, and then asks "Est-ce que quelqu'un ici parle Francais?" Does anyone here speak French?
Dumbfounded, I speak up, and soon the two of us are chatting in rapidfire French. Mu pipes up; he can speak French as well, and Mette listens intently, able to understand but not communicate. And so we meet Nazir, Naurs' cousin. He happens to study French at the university in Ulan Bataar, eagerly working towards becoming one of the few French teachers in Mongolia! He is studying abroad for a year in Lyon, but has returned home for a short vacation.
Suddenly communication is effortless. Through Nazir, we are able to get the situation with the Fiat sorted. Naurs will tow the Fiat back to Ölgii in the morning, and Nazir will come along. I'll communicate the problems to him in French, and he'll translate to the mechanic (a friend of his), in Kazakh. We agree on a price of sixty liters of fuel there, and seventy back.
Logistics sorted, everyone thanks Elena for the feast. Tyler, Charlie, and Mette leave first, out for a last-ditch effort to fix the Fiat. As the rest of our friends depart, I stay behind, talking with Nazir about France for some time.
It is a bizarre feeling to be in Mongolia, speaking in French and reminiscing about places we've seen and visited. At one point, I ask Nazir a question and his cheeks puff out as he emits the classically French popping noise that translates to "I don't know." I smile and call him on it, and jokingly tell him he's been in France too long. He bursts into laughter, and together we share this understanding, so strange in this frigid Mongolian evening.
Finally we leave the ger and head out to see how the Doblo is coming along. As we watch the guys tinkering with the Fiat, I ask Nazir all kinds of questions I wish I'd been able to ask to our hosts. Through him, I learn that Naurs' name means "March", since he was born in the spring. I learned that the family moves their ger to the mountains in the winter because it is warmer than it is here by the lake. Somehow this seems counterintuitive, but I'm sure they know this land better than anyone.
In the belly of the Fiat, Charlie, Tyler, and Mette have again taken the fuel pump completely apart. Working carefully and intentionally, they slowly piece it back together, fixing some mistakes they had made the first time around. Perfectly re-assembled, this fix should work. Mette turns the key. Still nothing.
If they could only get it going, maybe it would keep running? With this as his hope, Tyler dribbles some gasoline from our MSR fuel bottle into the air intake to see if he can't get the car started. Suddenly, the car backfires out of the air intake, lighting the dribbling gas on fire. Tyler quickly closes the valve, and begins shaking the bottle to blow it out. Realizing he's basically holding a grenade, he tosses it in a frenzy away from him like a hot potato.
In his panic, Tyler has thrown the bottle into the vestibule of Tim and Charlie's tent! Tyler rushes over to grab it, this time more sensibly throwing it away from everyone and everything. Laying on the cold ground, the fire is finally extinguished. Tyler and Charlie dissolve into boyish laughter from the adrenalin rush of explosives.
Looks like we'll be going back to Ölgii in the morning.
I lay in our tent, Tyler is still working on the Fiat. It is freezing cold, and I'm shivering, unable to generate body heat fast enough for my frosty surroundings. I can't wait for him to get back and warm me up. In the meantime, I madly scrawl extensive notes for the day, trying to capture the range of emotions I feel. I am exhausted and drained, elated and nervous, chewed up, and spit out.
This isn't the adventure we were expecting. It isn't anything we could ever have planned on. But it's okay. We're along for the ride. It's amazing to think about what might have happened had we spent just one extra day anywhere throughout our journey. Life on the road really is one long, real-life choose-your-own-adventure.
If we were a single day later at the border, would we be here, sleeping next to Naurs and Elena's warm ger? What course of events would have unfolded had we changed any one day of our journey? As it is, this adventure has led us here, with the Mongol Ralliers, camped by a lake in the Kazakh part of Mongolia.
We've only had one real, full day of driving in this country, and during that time we've covered just sixty kilometers. This day, an intense, epically long one, has put me through the wringer, my emotions vacillating wildly from intense loathing and desperation to profound gratitude and happiness. The sheer awesomeness of everything juxtaposed with the sheer difficulty of everything is overwhelming.
We have to relinquish control, and settle for being at the whim of Mongolia. We don't know how long we'll be here, or what will happen along the way. We're giving up any route plans or desires to see certain sites or monasteries or monuments while we're in this country. If anything, our goal is simply to make it to Ulaan Baatar, where we'll collapse in a heap and try desperately to catch up.
Tyler has joined me in the tent, exhausted, dirty. As we lay together, talking about the day, we realize we aren't having an adventure anymore. This adventure is having us.