Mongol Rally 2004 & 2005 Blogs & Photos
Part 4 - Wrestling Mongolians (Mongolia!)
MONGOLIA!  At last....!
We began with team Wrongolia, but such was our excitement at getting the car to some roads to which it was actually suited, nearly 8000 miles down the line, and such was the non existence of the ground clearance in their Ford Fiesta that we soon parted ways, with a slightly wistful “we’ll catch you up” in what we assumed was something of a Captain Oates style.  We didn’t see them again, indeed the last we heard before leaving Mongolia was that they had ditched the car and were continuing on their bikes (which they had with them).
The scenery was spectacular, with snow on the tops of the hills all around us, and it really did feel like this was the climax to the rally, and the reason we had come all this way was just so we could drive into this extraordinary country.  The roads were mostly fairly abysmal, and we quickly got used to asking everyone we met the way to the next place.  This generally elucidated a general wave in the right direction, although I could never quite shake off the suspicion that they were just responding to our cries of Khovd, along with vague gestures, by just repeating what we had just said and looking slightly quizzically at us.  We also got used to fact that the only way to work out the way was to rely on a general sense of the right direction, and just guessing when the road forked at random, with no indication of which path went where.  Often it didn’t matter at all, as they joined up again just over the horizon.  Often they didn’t, and it was not a rare occurrence to have to turn around and retrace our steps.  The first night we had to stop because we came to a large puddle/pond, we weren’t sure if it was the right way, and we couldn’t see how deep it was and thus if we could get across.  We were quite glad we did, it was the way but the section we were looking at crossing might well have spelled the end of the rally.  It was all great fun, and actually not nearly as difficult to drive, as we had feared it might be.  The other advantage was that because we were going much slower our reduced power was only a problem going up hill, and we struggled up those quite happily, if slowly.
Mongolian towns are few and far between: we came upon about 1 a day and the smaller settlements were generally just a small collection of buildings.  The rest of the population still live a nomadic life in their semi permanent tents, known as Gers.  These are white and circular and are dotted around the landscape wherever their owners feel like setting up home.  Nothing is fenced, and it is often difficult to tell what is wild and what has just been left to roam, particularly with the packs of horses.  Seemingly everyone we passed waved hello, and many of those stopped us for a chat.  Indeed we were often flagged down by passing cars for the same reasons.  I guess it pays to say hello in such a sparsely populated country, we found ourselves developing something of a royal wave after a while, as a lazier form of greeting.
The next time we stopped we had failed to find any petrol in Altai (the town not the mountain range) at about 4am, perhaps unsurprisingly.  Then the car just conked out just as we were pulling out of another closed petrol station.  Of all the places this could have happened we were remarkably fortunate to brake down in the middle of a town, so we just pushed the car to the side of the road and waited for first light.  The great thing about opening your bonnet and then standing looking confused is that it immediately attracts a curious crowd of onlookers, particularly when your car is small, foreign and toothpaste green.  As ever I could not fix it, but t friendly local appeared, had a look, fed us breakfast and called a mechanic.  After the mechanic was also fed breakfast we were towed to the garage.  There was one wonderfully surreal moment on the way we were flagged down by another rally car, a red Fiat Panda.  Instead of being full of ralliers, however, it was packed full of Mongolians.  It turns out one of them had been sold the car by the passing team, and then just patched it up.  They were having a wonderful time just buzzing around town with all their mates, showing off.  He immediately offered to buy ours too.  It was the first of many offers, there is obviously a Mongolia-wide shortage of crap cars as they were seemingly keen to buy just about anything, and pay well for it too.
It eventually turned out that the problem with the car was a loose wire, but the mechanic had a fiddle with our distributor too, and with seemingly great ease had the car running close to its sweetest again.  It was a huge relief, particularly as the roads after Altai showed a general marked improvement and we were able to take advantage of it, our imposing top speed of 55 briefly coming into play at times before our exuberance was curtailed by another round of potholes.  Potholes were taken to a new extreme just after Bayankhongor, which we passed through at sunset, it was once again dark and our previous bugbear of drivers not dipping their lights at night once again leapt up to bite us.  We were driving along a semi-built new road, which was raised up from the ground by about 4 feet.  As our friendly roadside neighbour approached I was completely blinded, and at the same moment a huge black hole directly in front of us, extending almost into the middle of the road.  The whole side of the road had been cut away, leaving a hole about 4 feet deep.  I managed to get the front wheels across it, unfortunately our back right wheel was not so lucky, and was left dangling over the abyss, leaving us teetering with 1 front wheel in mid air and the back one hanging over the drop. We escaped as quickly as we could, Harry was able to leap out onto dry land, I on the other hand had to rather gingerly climb out of the window to avoid landing right underneath our precariously balanced machine.  We were literally inches from the end of our rally.  Luckily the kind man who had virtually driven us off the road stopped and pulled us out, and the car seemingly escaped any damage at all.  The strange thing was that my immediate instinct on escaping the car was not to pull it out, or to get angry with our saviour/destroyer but to try and take photos of the car.  I guess by this stage we were so used to these unfortunate incidents that we didn’t even wait until after the event to start laughing about them.
We had given up trying to make the finishing party by this stage, our breakdown having put paid to any chance of it.  Still we thought it would be fun get there in good time, and catch up with whichever stragglers were still hanging around.  The only instructions we had to get there told us to take the road from Kharakhorin (Chinggis Khan’s old palace) to Ulaan Baatar, and then go to the first tourist camp on the left after some sandunes.  Having got to Kharakhorin in good time on the 25th we firstly took the wrong road out of town, realised our mistake about 30 miles later, and then managed to run out of petrol once we got back into town.  This was semi deliberate, we wanted to see what happened, and we had a perfectly good Jerry can full of fuel with us, which we could have used at any point.  Unfortunately once we had created this wonderful experience for ourselves, then filled the car up, it refused to start again.  We enlisted a friendly local (who turned out to be an off-duty traffic policeman), tried to bump start it, failed, then found ourselves surrounded by a large contingent of his family.  They fiddled with our distributor, got it going and then insisted that, instead of driving off while the going was good, we go back to their house.  It was hard to refuse.  After much jollity, photos, Airag (the local delicacy – fermented mare’s milk) and some rather good food we set off again.  Trouble was it was now dark, and if there were any sandunes we certainly weren’t going to see them.  We spent the next 3 hours driving up and down the road out of town looking for the finish point.  We pitched up in several Tourist camps, all of which looked completely blank when we mentioned the Mongol Rally but tried to make us stay all the same.  Eventually we just gave up and spent what was to prove our last night in the car.
The next day we set off and eventually came upon the place about 80km down the road, considerably further than I had been lead to believe.  Unfortunately there was nobody there.  We got a very enthusiastic greeting and the news that “Mr Tom” the rally organiser had left the previous day.  This news was then considerably sweetened by the news that the party had not yet taken place, because not enough people were there at the time.  We then set off for Ulaan Baatar and our first bed, and shower, since we left Samarkand.  It seemed so easy - tarmaced road and only 4 hours drive before we were completely finished.  Fat chance, about 1/2 way there we stopped to fill up with petrol and the pump attendant managed to break our petrol cap, so that the inside section fell into the fuel tank.  Almost as soon as we pulled away it was clear something was wrong.  We could only drive in 1st and 2nd with the choke pulled fully out, whilst pumping the accelerator.  We could get to about 45, providing we continued to pump judiciously, but the whole thing just sounded mortally ill.  If this had happened at any other stage we would have headed straight for the first mechanic, but with 2 hours to go, and no need ever to drive the car again after this, we just pushed on to the end, squeezing what felt like the last of the life out of our gallant vessel.  This was fine on the open road, but an absolute nightmare once we got to the city.  The traffic was terrible, and as wild as we had come to expect when it was actually moving.  We stalled just about every time we stopped, which we did constantly, and then had to belch out an extraordinary quantity of smoke in order to get started again.  Unfortunately this also continued when we were moving, we had passers by covering their faces, and a constant stream of unimpressed glares from our fellow jam ingredients.  We compared extremely unfavourably with the local power station, indeed without us the local residents might well have been able to see the sun that day.  It was at this point that we were accosted by a traffic policeman, perhaps unsurprisingly on foot, and received our first fine of the journey.  We thought it a little unfair to be fined for polluting the city considering the layer of smog over it that day, but it might well have been the result of a following wind.  We were also delighted to be given a receipt, it was official!  We still hadn’t paid a bribe!  And it only cost us 2 pounds.  Luckily we also managed to dissuade him from arresting the car, which might in some way have left us equal (with Harry having been locked up in Azerbaijan, and I rather less seriously having been accosted in Turkmenistan, it would have been fun for the car to have a go too) but also with a final pain in the arse (more like the lungs) we could have done without.
A hotel room was eventually procured, although they did not look impressed with the fact we had not showered since leaving Samarkand – can’t imagine why.  And the great luxury of a bath laid into.  Despite having a pre-bath shower I still managed to turn the bath water so black that I couldn’t see from my knuckles through it to my fingernails.  Nothing like sparing you the gory details .  Cold beer and a flat bed then ensued, they have never been nicer.  The next morning Tom, the creator of the rally, appeared to give me a lift to his other creation, the elusive finishing party.  Harry sadly had to stay behind to organise his travel, and so missed out on the final excitements.  These were all happening in the camp we had left the day before, so off we set with a handful of other ralliers, and much to our mutual delight discovered a couple more teams had arrived by the time we got there.  We had a day of relaxing before the festivities began.  The afternoon of the party began with a ride on some Mongolian horses, which were small and hardy, and spent most of their time sneezing.  This little jaunt, until then mostly characterised by the attempts of a couple of first-time riders to make their horses go at all, let alone in the right direction, was jazzed up a little when after about 2 strides of cantering my horse tripped and fell, with me on top.  Luckily the horse was fine, and I basically landed on my feet as the poor beast fell to its knees.
This was nothing compared to the beating we took from the next bit of entertainment that had been laid on.  A group of Mongolian wrestlers had been rounded up, and proceeded to give us a highly energetic competition, over several rounds, before a winner eventually emerged.  Then the fun really began, as we were dragged up and paired off with a wrestler each.  To make matters worse instead of giving us an easy ride we were paired up with the winners, as if we were some strange part of their prize.  I got the runner up, who was considerably smaller than me but considerably more cunning.  Each time we grappled, I advanced and then found myself spinning round at an unsettling rate, each time faster than the previous fling.  3 times I was thrown to the floor, each thump harder than the last.  It was as if my only hope was to knock him off balance with the continuing reverberations from my previous pummelling.  It didn’t work, it only hurt.  Tom found more success in one of his attempts, getting his opponent in a headlock and then throwing him to the ground.  This gained a rousing cheer, which was only partly stifled by the revelation that he had just pulled off a massively illegal move.  It was actually great fun, if a little damaging to the old male pride.
Then the party properly began, not a moment too soon as I was in need of a stiff drink by this stage having been beaten up by a man half my size.  We had also all changed in to black tie by this stage, indeed I had donned my kilt, but we were massively upstaged by Doug of Team Jaws.  He could only ever be described as weedy n appearance, but having failed to bring his dinner jacket he had been required to think on his feet a bit.  The perfect solution had been discovered on the wall of the bar, the equivalent of a suit of armour, a proper Chinggis Khan style warriors outfit.  It made for a fantastic sight as he clambered up the sand dunes as the sun set behind us.  We then had a traditional Mongolian feast, Horhog I think it was called, which is a whole sheep cooked from the inside with hot coals, cut up and then crisped up over the fire.  Mongolia is not renowned for the quality of its cuisine, and rightly so, but this was excellent, rather like a hog roast except with mutton.  While we ate a Mongolian throat singer played some of the most incredible music I have ever heard.  They are capable of singing two tones at once, and some of the noises that came out of him were quite extraordinary, and completely inhuman.  At times he sounded like a giant wide-mouthed frog, albeit a tuneful one, and at others we began to wonder if he was in fact electric as there was no other way he could of sounded like that.  Some of the tunes were quite nice too.  As if we weren’t incredulous enough by this stage a 10 year old contortionist then appeared, and folded herself into some positions that would have been rejected from the exorcist for being too unlikely.  She really did look as if her body was back to front, and then with complete ease she did it while balanced on one hand just to top the whole thing off.  All in all it was quite a surreal night, and what a way to top off a slightly surreal trip.
After this it was back to Ulaan Baatar, a couple of hectic days trying to rescue my disintegrating travel plans, a day in Beijing and then home, although we did manage to squeeze a trip to one of Save the children’s projects, to whom a proportion of the money we have raised will be going, while we were there.  They appeared to be doing very good work with some fairly limited resources, we saw a community centre that apparently only cost £7000 a year to run and gave a huge number of extra resources to children in the local area, from somewhere to do their homework and to play to many educational courses that they run.  They also told us about their work with the street children that have been a terrible problem there, often living in the sewers, and it was great to hear somebody say yes, they thought things were getting better.
In the final reckoning of the rally we were something like the 23rd team to cross the border into Mongolia, but the 8th car to finish.  By the time I left most teams had been accounted for, and only 13 cars had made it to the end.  There is a wonderful trail of broken Fiat Pandas strewn across the country.  We were lucky, our car mostly remained in good nick, and was well suited to the roads in a way the majority really weren’t.  There were some wonderful improvisations that had made it to the end, one team had a homemade fuel tank positioned on their roof, whilst another made do with a jerry can on the passenger’s knee, with a line going straight from it to the engine.  Other cars finished with no brakes, or no starter motor, having to push start every time, but this was nothing too some of the bus journeys enjoyed by those less lucky with their vehicles, one chap had spent 5 days on a bus by the time we rescued him, on our way back from the party, crammed into a minibus with something like 17 other people, most of whom appeared to have been sick on his lap.  It’s something I guess you put down to a great cultural experience and try to avoid ever doing again.
Final distance - 9000 miles
Time taken - 27 days
Times stopped by police – innumerable, we were stopped over 30 times just in Turkmenistan
Countries negotiated - 17
Engine oil used – approximately 40 litres
Breakdowns – didn’t count, probably 5 serious and a few more less so.
Things lost along the way
1 Haynes Manual
1 Shovel
1 Penknife
1 Petrol cap
1 Lonely Planet for Mongolia (at the Mongolian border)
1 Pair sunglasses (stolen)
1 Discman (stolen)
1 A/C inverter (stolen)
1 bit to hold the bonnet up
1 windscreen
1 Roof
Several marbles
Things gained from unknown sources
1 melon (we found it in the back of our car, neither of us put it there...)
1 Turkish cat
1 Cow
Bribes paid - 0!!
Money raised for the charities – now about £5000
Goodbye, and thankyou
The 2005 Mongol Rally - The Escapades