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.
It is said that the rally doesn’t really start 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!).
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.
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?!
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 out 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. They paid no attention to me, 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.
It was already about 2:00 pm 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.
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 of 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.
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 a 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…
Since it was already late and the sun was setting, the family invited us inside their ger for dinner and a good night’s 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.
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.
We managed to slowly tow their car for about 20 km until we suddenly came across several teams 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!
The Last Stretch Before the Finish Line in Ulaanbaatar
We had been in Mongolia for eight days already and we had missed our self-appointed finish line deadline – the last Finish Line Party, which had already happened three days before.
We were tired and frustrated with Mongolia’s roads. Day after day we saw how our plan to get to Ulaanbaatar in just five days got delayed again and again.
First, we got lost in the Gobi Desert for nine hours, then people felt sick in Altai, we got lost again, we had several mechanical problems, and whatnot. It seemed like no matter how hard we tried to get to the finish line on time, Mongolia threw a curb ball at us each time while yelling, “haha, idiots… I win again!”
But now, we were finally close to the end and we were starting to see some signs of civilization – like, sporadic sections of paved roads!
During the past week, we debated whether it was better to drive on dirt paths with its horrible “washboards” (the little sand dunes that make your car vibrate worst than a washer machine spinning uncontrollably) or on paved roads in an awful state of disrepair and full of car smashing potholes.
From experience, none were desirable. We smashed our suspension by driving too fast for hours on dirt washboards in order to take one of our teammates to the hospital in Altai.
No worries, she was fine in the end, and it was just an allergic reaction. But at the moment, it was a bit scary and it is not cool when stuff like that happens in the middle of the desert!
In addition, we also scored a few flat tires by hitting some potholes on this “precious” (unrepaired) pavement we so much looked forward to driving on after days of riding dirt tracks.
It was the morning of August 26th, and we were just past Bayankhongor – the second to last major town before Ulaanbaatar. There were only 375 miles between us and the finish line, and according to word-of-mouth news, the last 300 miles (or kilometers, since no one was sure) were fresh tarmac. Great news! Mmmm, nothing like smooth roads!
Google maps said we were only about 9 hours away from Ulaanbaatar. We knew it would take at least 15 hours since we never met Google’s timeframes –especially in Mongolia– but this was it, the last day of the rally!
I woke up that morning with a lot of energy and enthusiasm – almost too much energy for my own good. In the process of packing our camp for the last time, I managed to annoy a few of the guys with my overjoyed silly pranks.
My increasingly annoying presence prompted them to throw cold water at me. Thank you, Alex and Mads! Anyways, it was all good and we were all really excited to finish the rally.
Spirits were high and the day was fun-filled. As we drove, we raced against each other on dirt tracks, and when we had some tarmac (not the fresh one but the wrecked one) we even compared who drove faster – the cars avoiding the lethal potholes on the tarmac or the cars riding the wavy dirt tracks with awful washboards and random pits.
Not surprisingly, the dirt tracks seemed to be faster (sometimes).
It was a really good day filled with fun emotions, but at about 6 pm, the fun was abruptly cut short. We were about 100 miles from Ulaanbaatar when The Great Danes car hit a pothole that broke the front right wheel.
I don’t know anything about mechanics, but all I can say is that it was bad – really bad. The wheel was completely loose and had no steering. Something broke and we didn’t have the means to fix it on the road, and of course, we were far from any mechanic.
The Great Danes car was crippled. We couldn’t even tow it since the flat tire and loose wheel would just get pinned under the fender as soon as the car was pushed forward.
We didn’t have a way to contact a tow truck since there was no phone signal where we were.
We knew we would have to wait there for a good while and that there was the possibility we would have to camp for the night. Sigh… so much for finishing today.
After failing to stop a few trucks that passed along, one small truck stopped and asked if we needed help (in Mongolian). We definitely needed it. The truck driver had a flatbed, which was great to just tow the car to the finish line.
One problem though… How do we lift the car onto the flatbed? There’s no crane, nothing! Just us, the car, and the truck.
Not knowing what to do, a few of the guys decided to walk to a house not too far behind us to see if they had a phone we could use to call for a tow truck we could actually use.
I’m not sure what happened during that call, but I can say that not much came out of it. Our only option at the moment was the truck we had on-site.
While at the house, some of the guys saw a few wood and steel planks and some rocks that could help us to create a ramp for the car and to jack it higher. Great plan! Or so we thought.
A few hours had passed already and things were starting to progress. The truck driver got his truck off the road and parked it perpendicular to the road to lower the flatbed in relation to the higher road. This allowed us to have a better slope on our plank-ramp.
Now, we had to turn the car perpendicular to the road too in order to push it into the truck; but since the car could not steer, we had to rotate it by shaking it side by side.
A few guys stepped on each side of the car and started pushing it back and forth as if they were bullying the car. With the sum of each tiny rear wheels jumps, the car was rotated 90 degrees and was now facing the truck.
Uff, good thing the rally is done with small cars!
But still, we had to figure out how to push it forward without pinning or rotating the front right wheel.
After some thought, the most ingenious idea flourished!
“Let’s use the shovel we have on the back of one of the cars!”, said one of the guys.
We placed the shovel under the tire so it would not have any contact with the ground, and as we pushed the car, we would push the shovel with it. Smart, eh?
The plan worked. After a great deal of struggling and pushing, we were able to push the car into the truck; and that’s when we noticed the next big problem.
The car was bigger than the flatbed. The car was fully in, yet the two rear tires were still outside of the flatbed. Sigh…
Again, we were not sure what to do. It was around 11:00 pm and we were all tired and cold.
Then, another great idea came after a team brainstorm. We would jack the car, take off the rear tires and place them (along with extra spare tires from the other teams) under the car by the end of the flatbed. They would serve as jacks and support for the car, so the rear axis can float outside the flatbed.
We struggled a lot to make it happen, but again, the genius plan worked!
It was midnight already, the car was up and the truck was ready to go. We still had 100 miles to go. The truck driver was not sure if we could drive at night since it had rained a bit earlier in the night and he didn’t want to drive under the rain.
But then, after some debating (and after setting a price with The Great Danes), he decided we could drive during the night.
Those last 100 miles were supposed to take not more than 2 hours under normal conditions, but they took us almost 6 hours to complete! We drove slowly, very slowly.
We feared the towed car, which was secured on the flatbed with shady ropes and held in position by spare tires and rocks, would just fall on the road or tip over from the truck after hitting a pothole. Luckily, it didn’t happen.
At about 5:30 am of August 27th, The Thunderyaks, The Great Danes, and Team TED entered the capital of Mongolia and crossed the finish line together in a convoy!
It was a really odd and anticlimactic moment – certainly not the over the top celebration I had played over and over in my head. We were excited to finally have reached the finish line in Ulaanbaatar, yet we were all exhausted and all we wanted was to eat and sleep.
We gave each other hugs of joy and a few congratulations with our long, tired faces and red eyes.
Since I was the navigator, every now and then on the road I would say how many miles away we were from our next target (i.e. 253 miles to Altai!). We had reached the finish line, so I had to finish it with a high note by saying, “zero miles, bitches!”
We were supposed to take the group picture in front of the finish line at that moment, but our exhaustion was so big that we decided to do it the next day. And look how pretty, refreshed, and excited we look in it!
We did it!! The Drama of Llama officially crossed the finish line as team #178 (even without a car, but thanks to the help of The Thunderyaks, The Great Danes, and Team TED).
After 46 days, 17 countries, 11,457 miles, 40 tanks of petrol, 4 flat tires, 3 tows, 1 lost bumper and broken suspension, and 1 car crash; I can proudly say that I’VE DONE THE MONGOL RALLY! An epic journey from London to Ulaanbaatar I’ll never forget!
LET ME HELP YOU TRAVEL MORE BY GETTING ADDITIONAL TIPS AND INSPIRATION VIA THE MONTHLY NEWSLETTER.
Plus, receive a short e-book with 15 Beginner Tips and Tricks to Start Travel Hacking!