I've read that there is a market in Altai, right next to our hotel. As a visitor, I can't see how you'd ever discover this without being told. The only telltale sign is an incomprehensible voice yelling over a distant loudspeaker outside the lobby. Even though I know I am nearby, it takes some hunting to find the entrance.
The market is cleverly disguised as a storage area for big red and blue shipping containers. People are trickling in and out of a very small opening in a wall that surrounds them. Into the maze I go, passing men on motorcycles, people selling sheepskins, and women hawking kitchen supplies. It has a medina-like quality; a sea of buying and selling inside an unassuming exterior.
My mission: find a screwdriver small enough to disassemble our 50mm lens so Tyler can clean the fine dust that has invaded it and is preventing the auto-focus from working properly. I cruise around, looking for the tools area.
Soon, I've located a "neighborhood" of sellers with all manner of implements: screwdrivers, hammers, nuts, bolts and just about anything else you might need to take something apart. I find a tiny screwdriver for the equivalent of thirty cents. It has been less than five minutes, and I've already accomplished my task.
My next errand can't be done in the market. Finding an exit proves to be nearly as difficult as finding the entrance! Once I've escaped, I head to the nearest MobiCom shop, passing many Mongolian stores and statues on the way. So far, I have been pleasantly surprised by how decorative the major towns in Mongolia are.
At the Mobicom store, I buy a 3gig pay-as-you-go internet SIM for about 20 dollars. I'm still amazed by how easy getting connected in Mongolia has been. Errands complete, I head back to the hotel to meet up with Tyler who is still hard at work in our room.
This afternoon, we meet another pair of Mongol Ralliers: Jake, from Wales, and his Canadian friend D'Arcy. They are checking into our hotel after a harrowing night of lurching through the desert in their own Suzuki Jimny, this one with broken shock absorbers. Note to self: never buy a Suzuki Jimny for off-road driving!
We're about to make a trek to the garage with all of our luggage in tow when we find the two of them in the parking lot, lightening their load by throwing away all sorts of extra gear. Most notably among the trash is a beautifully thick World Atlas and Encyclopedia. We quickly snatch it up, eager to pore over the maps and beautiful photos. Unfortunately, we'll likely pass it on after we get to Ulaan Baatar instead of stowing the heavy thing in our panniers.
It turns out that Jake and D'Arcy are headed to the garage as well, so we ask to hitch a ride. Like all the ralliers we've met so far, they are more than happy to lend a hand. Even though we're not a part of the actual event, all of the participants we've encountered have been incredibly welcoming and friendly!
Once the guys are ready to go, we pile into the back, excited to see what a Jimny with broken shock dampeners feels like. As we bounce, up and down, up and down, on a flat road, Jake and D'Arcy describe the drive here.
They were travelling in a convoy with some younger ralliers who motored ahead, leaving them alone in the desert at night with no food or water while the rear end of their Jimny literally jumped off the bumpy dirt tracks and swung the vehicle in circles if they went faster than a few kph.
Arriving at the garage, we find that our car is still not ready. So, we join some of the team, waiting in the garage's attached restaurant. Over bowls of dumpling soup we get to know Jake, D'Arcy, and his Belgian wife, Erika. More members of our convoy filter in as they wait for their own cars to get minor repairs. The taxi needs some bodywork welded, the Fiat's spare tires need to be repaired, and more. It occurs to me that driving in Mongolia feels a bit like playing Oregon Trail!
While we eat, we all begin to discuss routing options. Most of our team wants to take the "main" road, and we can't blame them. Getting to UB in once piece is proving to be quite a challenge. There is a different route that Jake, D'arcy, and Erika are planning to take, though: a rougher but reportedly beautiful route that would take us into the mountains and away from the blasted desert.
We're excited about the possibility of heading to the mountains again, and Tommy seems eager and willing to take the scenic route, as well. After much discussion, though, our convoy decides to stick together and stay on the main road. We're not having any lack of adventure so far!
Wandering around the garage yard, tinkering with the cars, we're creating quite a stir as usual. A gang of kids comes to say hello, and we're visited by their parents as well.
I'm cleaning up our car a little, when Erika tells us to come with her, she wants to introduce us to a couple of cycle tourists! Apparently she picked them up near Ölgii, when they were trying to climb a steep mountain pass into a killer headwind. Thus, another unlikely couple became honorary Mongol Ralliers.
Neisha (from Australia) and Rob (from the UK) are cycling, taking trains, and hitching rides over the course of four months as they travel from Lithuania to Hong Kong! There, they'll fly to Australia and start a new life after having lived eight years in England. Now, they are setting off on their own again after hanging out with the ralliers for a few days.
It is so much fun to meet other cycle tourists, and immediately we have a lot to talk about! Based on our senses of humor and quick comparisons of how many kilometers we ride in a day and what time we usually leave camp, we deem one another compatible. Should we ever decide to tour together, I think we would get along really well.
We make plans to meet up in Ulaan Baatar, and send them on their way, asking them first if they need anything—tools, tubes, patches, etc. Lastly, we unearth our bike helmets for a silly photo with them. Everyone is very interested in our antics and suddenly we're getting offers to buy our car, our bikes, and our helmets. We tell everyone we need our stuff, but they're welcome to try our helmets on for size.
After our exhaust is finally welded, we have a look at it, only to find that the repair is riddled with holes. The welder refuses to do it properly, promising to fix us up with some sort of metal putty. Tyler has already done half the work, the job isn't finished, and they still want the same price. As we marvel at this fact, we notice a man nearby building a wall.
He, too, seems uninterested in a job well done. We watch with Richie, who runs a construction company back home, as the man works his way up, stacking crooked bricks. When he can't reach any further, he begins chucking mortar at the wall like some kind of modern art project. Though we know nothing about masonry, we shake our heads in wonder right along with Richie.
Hours later, once all of our cars are finally repaired and filled with gas, communal groceries purchased and menus planned, we head out of town, back into the desert. We won't make it far; we just need to clear the city and find a place to camp before the sun sets.
As we drive around in circles, everyone laughing and goofing around, we realize once more that we've made the right decision by sticking together. Though we left at nearly 5:00 PM, again, we're so happy to be among friends.
There's Matt and Gem with their deep, throaty belly laughs, and his-and-hers matching clothes:
There's Alex and his exciting stories, his colorful passport sporting visas for Zimbabwe, the Congo, and Uzbekistan among many other countries, and, my favorite, the way he tells his stories with hilarious and exaggerated gesturing.
There's the beauty of this Mongolian landscape, and the feeling of freedom that comes from simply being here:
And, of course, there's something about a fire that makes camping a zillion times better.
Unfortunately the strong Mongolian wind means that an unlucky few are always blown with smoke and ash. Normally Freddie seems to pick these spots, but tonight Mette and Charlie are in the hot seat. They don't seem too bothered by it, though!
Though we're gathered 'round the fire, we still must bundle up in our hats and coats, for it is freezing cold tonight. As well, it is a tricky business getting evenly warmed by the fire – either your front is hot and your back is cold or vise versa. We need a rotisserie!
Some of us have developed a trick for keeping toes warm: insert feet into fire, until shoes just begin to smoke and melt. Remove them quickly, and feel the heat spread to your toes. When your toes get cold again, place feet back into fire.
Over rounds of beer, we tell stories and then we tell more stories, laughing late into the night.
When the stories are through, Freddie takes his guitar out once more, and we sing along to tunes we all now know and love. This one in particular, Freddie wrote with a friend, and he calls it "Ticket Tout."
Hours later, we head to bed, while nearly everyone else is still singing songs and cracking open beers. Lying in our sleeping bag, snuggling for warmth, we smile thinking about our group of friends having so much fun outside. They're currently performing a rousing rendition of "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain" but seem to have forgotten some verses. So, we pipe up, shouting loudly from our tent, reminding them of things like chicken and dumplings and six white horses. And then, we drift off to sleep at last.