Mongol Rally: Getting Lost in Mongolia

Mongol Rally 2013

We finally reached Mongolia!  Yet, we still had a lot to cover.  We still needed to cross the Gobi Desert in order to reach Ulaanbaatar – the finish line of the Mongol Rally.

We didn’t do a lot of progress the first day after crossing the border since we had to go through the bureaucratic process of importing the car and the not so bureaucratic waiting of a few teams to convoy.  Once in, we were in total awe and needed some time to soak the much-anticipated tree-less mountains and golden plains of the Gobi Desert.  This was it, the mother of all adventure terrains.

Mongol Rally 2013
Enjoying the Gobi Desert

It is said that the rally doesn’t really starts until you reach Mongolia.  Now, I know why.  Our second day in Mongolia proved to be one of the biggest, funniest, most challenging, and scariest adventure days of the entire rally.

After packing our camp first thing in the morning, we began our second day in Mongolia by mixing our teams a bit.  Our convoy was composed of The Thunderyaks, The Great Danes, The Expandabubbles, and Team TED.  But now all cars had members of all teams.

From here on, Mongolia dared us to face her with our already shitty cars.

Not even 10 minutes after leaving our campsite, we had our first unscheduled stop to fix Team TED’s flat tire (the first of countless flat tires they had all over Mongolia!).

Mongol Rally 2013

We resumed our drive, but in a matter of a few minutes we lost sight of The Expandabubbles.  Poof… they were just gone.

Roads in Mongolia work like this… you drive on a dirt track for a while and suddenly it splits in two – no signs, nothing.  You choose one path and eventually that one splits in three – one path joins another path, the second follows a similar course, and the third goes to an opposite direction.   Most of Mongolia’s driving is based on choosing the best path by playing “eenie meenie miney mo” or by taking the path that looks the best to drive.   Sometimes, though, paths might run for miles and miles without merging back into the main path and end up in the middle of nowhere at some random ger (a Mongolian nomad dwelling).  And that’s when you realize you’re lost and need to go back.

Mongol Rally 2013
“Roads” in Mongolia.  See what I mean?

Well, that’s sort of how we lost The Expandabubbles and eventually got lost ourselves.

After a pit stop at Tolbo Lake for a quick swim and a lunch stop in the small town of Tolbo, we made our best to get back on the “main road” (a dirt track actually).  We took split after split in hopes of falling on the main road at some point, but the main road never appeared.  We even did some off-roading to cross the dry plains in the direction towards where the main road should have been.  We never found it.  And guess what?  We lost Team TED on the process!  How could we have lost two teams by now!

Oh, and how could I forget the almost too embarrassing moment when we almost tipped over our car off the side of the dirt road and had to get pulled out by a bulldozer?!

Mongol Rally 2013

We decided to continue on one of the most “promising” paths in hopes of finding the main road eventually, but after about 15 minutes of driving it, I told the guys that we should go back because we were driving south when we were supposed to be heading east.  I had my iPhone’s GPS to confirm my concern.  We were actually driving towards China!

One of The Great Danes (the only other car with us by now) decided to ask a local who happened to drive by on his motorcycle.  He spoke no English and barely understood what we wanted; yet he pointed towards Khovd (where we wanted to go) in a general direction.  In my mind, I think he simply pointed the direction in which Khovd is located, but not the road we should have taken to get there.  Still, we drove towards the pointed direction – on a path that clearly looked seldom transited and towards some serious mountainous terrain.

I wanted to turn back and pleaded my case to do so.  I was not listened at all, so I got pissed and decided to not look at the map any longer (obviously, since they were not listening to me). After a few minutes of internal rage, I decided to chill out and enjoy the rest what I knew would be an interesting day.  What I didn’t know though, was that it would be much more interesting than I expected.

Mongol Rally 2013
When I was not navigating, I was drinking… some times!

It was already about 2:00pm and we were clearly lost, yet we were in the middle of some of the most beautiful Mongolian mountains and deserted terrains I’ve ever seen.  It was gorgeous and untouched all 360 degrees.  We were deep in the desert where yaks, horses, goats, and more animals roamed free; and a few gers seldom made their appearance.

Mongol Rally 2013

Mongol Rally 2013

Eventually the terrain got more strenuous to the car.  There were moments (8 total) when we had to get out of the car to push it uphill since it didn’t have enough power to go up.  And as if those hills weren’t bad enough, the farther and deeper we went, the rockier they became.

At that point the guys wanted to turn back but we had no option but to continue.  So now you want to go back? NOW?  We had already driven for a couple hours off road and were too far from everything; plus, we took some steep hills we were sure the car would not make on the way back.

We were beyond the point of no return.

In search of an alternate way, The Great Danes took in one direction while we (mistakenly) took another, hoping to meet back ahead.  Guess what?  We lost The Great Danes!

Again, we had no choice but to continue on our own and hope for the best.

Remember I mentioned how some dirt tracks just end in a ger?  Well, that was the path we chose.  After pushing the car through some horrendous hills and dodging huge boulders downhill, we arrived at the ger to ask for directions.

Mongol Rally 2013
The man who prevented us from really tipping over the side of a mountain.

We asked the man if we could continue forward.  We could only understand his body language, but it clearly told us that if we drove forward, our car would tip over from the side of the mountain.  We had no choice but to return.  But, could our car go up the steep hills with the huge bottom breaking boulders?  We were not sure, but the only way to actually get out of there was by driving up as fast as possible and hope not to hit the boulders.

Pavan –who is an amazing driver, by the way– took this challenge as we all waited outside (to make the car lighter).  He put the car in first gear and sped up as fast as he could, avoiding most boulders except for two at the end.  I saw how the car’s front two tires jumped like kangaroo after hitting those boulders and hit the ground with no mercy, crashing and bending the left side of the bottom of the car with one of the boulders.

Pavan stopped the car immediately.  I was not sure if we still had a functioning car after that.  It didn’t look pretty at all.  The bottom was bent and scratched, and the wheels looked a bit off, but not too bad.  Phew, we didn’t breakdown in the middle of nowhere.

But, that was not the only scary moment.  We also got stuck on another boulder, had a flat tire, and lost our rear bumper on a ditch.  Oh Myyyy!

We then decided to take a path similar to the one chosen by The Great Danes in hopes of finding them ahead.  After about 30 minutes of driving, it also seemed to be a dead end at a ger.  This one was located on a semi flooded plain in the middle of a canyon.  It didn’t look like we could drive any further.  We had mountains all around us.

We reached towards the ger to ask again for directions.  Again, no English and lack of understanding.  Oh, but you know what was funny?  They didn’t understand us, but one of the kids knew how to use an iPhone! He zoomed in and out the map as I showed it to them to try to get directions.  Kids…

Mongol Rally 2013
A nomad kid, though not the iPhone savvy one.

Since it was already late and the sun was setting, the family invited us inside their ger for dinner and a good night sleep.  The little kids followed us constantly making hand gestures of eating while saying “nom, nom”, followed by sleeping gestures.  Even though we wanted to, we decided not to stay since we needed to find the other teams.  Still, we were offered a bit of yak cheese for the road.  It does NOT taste pretty!

In the end, after all our misadventures and frustrations, we decided not to continue driving on our own (especially since it was getting dark).  We asked the man of the house to guide us to the main road by driving his motorcycle in front of our car.

The task was hard to explain, but eventually he got the idea and led us for four miles until we hit the road.  We wouldn’t have figured it on our own since the tracks disappeared a few times and we had a small river crossing on the way.

Once on the road, we paid him $25 and gave his two kids (who came along on the bike) some toys we still had on the van.

Mongol Rally 2013
Happy faces after finding back the road with their help! We were lost for NINE HOURS!

We continued driving towards Khovd without losing the main road, when eventually we saw a pair of emergency lights far in the distance – way far from the main road.  Could it be one of the teams?  After debating it, we stopped and walked towards the lights, which by now were making the international S.O.S. sign after they spotted us heading in their direction.  It was indeed one of our teams.  It was Team TED!  They were lost and their car broke down as they were making their way towards the road.

Mongol Rally 2013
About to tow Team TED.

We managed to slowly tow their car for about 20 km until we suddenly came across several team parked and camped on the side of the road.  The Great Danes, The Expandabubbles, and many other teams we there already.  They all had an awful yet wonderful rally day like ours, but in their own way.  But one thing was for sure; every single car suffered this day – from punctured gas tanks, to flat tires, to busted engines, to whatever you can think of.

In the end, we never made it to Khovd that day, but we surely had the best rally day we could imagine!

Mongol Rally 2013

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12 thoughts on “Mongol Rally: Getting Lost in Mongolia”

  1. I heard so many good things about Mongolia but I am sad that you have to experience this during your adventure in this country. Hope you enjoy the rest of your trip!

    1. Hi Hannah! Oh no, getting lost was actually one of my favorite experiences in Mongolia! It’s actually the most memorable moment I had there. Besides that, I truly did have a great time in the rest of Mongolia, even in Ulaanbaatar.

    1. True… it was not a smooth trip (not even close to that), but those rough moments made it very unique and enjoyable too! We really did enjoy our whole journey.

  2. without a car you can not discover the true Mongolia. This can be a bit pity for a solo traveler and expensive in the same time! Good luck explore it!

    1. Thanks, Sorin! True, Mongolia does require a car to explore it well. Everything is far and terrains are not travel-friendly. But, if you don’t have a car, you can hire a bus/land cruiser (hopefully with friends to make it cheaper), and plan a trips across the country.

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