Wednesday 16th August - Mongolian Insurance Scams
Waking up in the yurt Haylee and Patrick most likely needed a chiropractor. Cultural experiences such as this fantastic one come at a cost. Us Aussies, our Swedish friends and UK friends all walked back to our cars that we needed to get processed so we could enter the country. Twenty minutes later we were all officially stamped and driving into Mongolia! The road just before the border gate is horrendous! The cement is all cracked and broken; an ominous sign of the roads to come. A woman in an official looking uniform stopped us and wouldn't let us drive past unless we bought insurance. We'd heard from other ralliers of some sort of scam regarding insurance. They advised us to just drive past and ignore them (actually, they advised us to run over these scammers and drive on). This woman though wasn't letting us drive past and literally stood in front of our car, we weren't feeling too violent and opted not to run her over. We were really confused because she had an official jumper that looked like it had been issued from customs or something. Our English friends having also been stopped pulled their van in next to us. They told the lady they weren't going to buy the insurance because she looked dodgy but she directed them to the small demountable with her colleague inside guy inside. It was $25 USD for the insurance. We all discussed whether it was worth getting even if it was a scam. In the end we all purchased this 'insurance'. Better to have it in case we ran up the back of someone.
(the road leading to the gate for Mongolia) We stopped at a nearby outhouse to relieve ourselves before hitting the road, some local kids ran over to look at our car. They were incredibly cute and curious for some food. Haylee had some little toys she handed out including some balloons. One of the little girls jumped in our car and had a go steering the wheel. Our newest team member! She was extremely photogenic and had a beautiful smile for every picture. We assume they're quite used to Rally cars coming through and giving them things, hence why they waited around so long. Finally we hit the road; it had unfortunately started raining by now, quite heavily too. Not long after we left the town we drove past a police man randomly standing on the side of the road, we gave him a wave and kept driving. Next thing we know a local man is chasing us down on his motorbike waving for us and the Swedes to stop. This man pulls up next to the Swedes and tells them they need to turn around and return to the policeman. He asks us to follow too. Here we go, what sort of a scam have we got ourselves involved in this time? We approached the police man who through a bit of sign language informed us that he had blown his whistle and we didn't stop. He wasn't even in a proper cop car? It was just a normal car with no print on it. We'd never heard his whistle, it was pouring rain, how were we supposed to hear it? And why have a whistle? Such an ancient system of stopping cars. The policeman then asked for our insurance papers, lucky we purchased it! Even if it was a scam; if we hadn't bought that paper we're sure a hefty fine was coming our way. He explained we needed to follow him to the cop shop so we drove through the tiny dirt town to an official looking building. As Pat and Linus were the ones driving they went inside while the rest of us sat in the cars.
(Following the 'police' car)
Ten minutes later they fortunately came out. The cop had pulled down the only random book he had on his self to show Pat and Linus the rules about stopping if a policeman blows a whistle at you. Turns out we hadn't been speeding, there was nothing wrong with our car, the only thing they could pin on us was not stopping on a police whistle (that and they probably hadn't expected us to have bought the insurance papers). We have a feeling the two towns might communicate and pin down all the cars that don't buy the insurance scam then bribe them for money. The policeman asked Pat and Linus for some money as we didn't stop for him, he was happy with accepting $10 USD each. Linus was then brave enough to ask for a selfie. "No! No!" He waved his arms about shaking his head, the policeman had made it very clear no selfies were allowed. We finally got out of this scam artist town and continued on. Mongolia wasn't making the best impression so far! It wasn't long before we pulled over after seeing our UK friends enjoying some tea by the side of the road, how English! We checked they were okay then kept driving. Mongolia has turned out to be our coldest country yet, if you'd have told us two weeks ago we'd be cranking the heater in our little Panda we wouldn't have believed you. Cranking it we were! We couldn't get enough of our little car heater.
We stopped in a large town called Ulgii for lunch. In a very weird coincidence we ate at a restaurant called Pamukkale; only a few weeks ago we were at the real Pamukkale in Turkey! It's as if Melbourne had a chat to the weather in Ulgii because suddenly it was sunny, no more pouring rain. Pat, Natalie and Haylee went and sourced some Mongolian sim cards. We'd initially thought that coming into Mongolia we wouldn't have any internet. When you picture Mongolia you don't think of a very developed place with Wifi everywhere, but here we were with a sim card that had unlimited data on it for 15 days! All for $5AUD! We quickly let our family and friends back at home know that no, we wouldn't be completely off the grid for the next week. They would at least hear from us if we made it to a town each night weren't trapped in some Mongolian river.
(The main street of Ulgii)
Continuing on to Khovd we started to encounter some dodgy roads. Mongolia wasn’t going to make it easy for us. To make matters worse our Slothy car decided to start throwing tantrums and overheat. The warning light had come on scaring us into thinking we couldn’t even make it to some sort of bed for the night. The scenery started to change after two hours of driving; we’d entered a barren desert-like region. Time to roll up the windows and close the vents; we were truly driving on ‘roads’ that would leave us bogged for hours. The Swedes went in front which provided a lot of entertainment as we couldn’t even make out their car among the dust cloud that had encompassed them. Our poor car, as dirty as she was from our Russian ‘mud-road-of-death’ expedition had now also become a dust-bomb. We could see no buildings or signs of civilisation in front; so we simply had to follow the road we were on and hope it was heading the right direction. Eventually, Miss Sloth decided to throw another tantrum and overheat. We had to stop every ten minutes or so to let her cool down then continue on, of course this meant we were well behind schedule and it was likely we’d have to drive a night (a big no no for Mongolia).
We started to drive through a large valley (still on a dirt road) and came around a corner to see a local man holding a huge eagle. An item on our bucket list was to hold one and get the all-important quintessential Mongolian photo with a vast, barren landscape and a beady eyed Golden Eagle perched up on your arm. The local man saw us pull over and invited us to walk over. He gestured for Niclas to step forward and encouraged the eagle to step forward and rest on his arm. The local man the cheerfully grabbed Niclas’ arm and started moving it up and down so the eagle would feel unsteady and flap its wings. Ahhh, so that’s how they get that beautiful, incredibly long wingspan captured on film. One by one we all stepped forward and held this magnificent creature on our arm. A large glove prevented the eagle's claws from scratching us to death. The weight of this Golden Eagle was impressive! He must have weighed around 5-6kg’s! James wasn’t too sure about the creature; it eyed him off giving wondering what Aussie flesh tasted like. Fortunately none of us were left with Golden Eagle souvenir scars. Instead we managed to get some incredible photos that will head straight to the pool room!
Driving onwards we soon found that the roads were getting considerably worse. Eventually we came across multiple forks in the road and figured we'd have to just pick the one that felt like it was the right direction. We chose one road that looked like it was relatively okay, in fact it seemed some roadworks were being conducted to fix this particular road up and possibly prepare it for asphalt. We took it crossing our fingers and toes. It wasn't meant to be. We discovered a small hill covered in large rocks that would really challenge our tiny rally cars. We went to work clearing the way for our cars. Whether we would actually make it up this little hill or whether our cars would be forever damaged was up to the gods of luck. Our little Sloth went first; she zoomed up to the crest and tackled it like a Landrover, then all of a sudden her wheels started spinning and she appeared well and truly stuck. We jumped behind her and gave her a shove, that seemed to do the trick because she nudged forward and took off again. The Swedes made our Panda look like a pansy, they smashed the small hill in under twenty seconds. No worries at all for their 1975 Fiat 127. Who would have thought such a tiny, old car would tackle Mongolia's 'roads' with such ease.
We came across a small creek crossing and tested Slothys water capabilities. She did fine and continued on with no trouble, that was, until, she had yet another tantrum and overheated! Nay, not just overheated, she decided to boil over! Smoke was coming out of the bonnet so we pulled over, atop this large mountain and inspected the damage. James, Patrick and Linus went to work trying to release the pressure. The temperature outside was absolutely freezing, we hoped we wouldn't need to stay outside for too long but this was Slothys worst tantrum yet. We had to wait quite a while until she cooled down. A few locals slowed down as they drove by, curious as to what was going on.
Finally we set off, feeling quite confident that Slothy would make it to our final destination for the night. Of course, driving at night in Mongolia is a dangerous thing, mostly because you cannot see the terrain you are driving on and also because there are so many forks in the dirt road you can easily get lost. This is what semi-happened to us. As we were trying to choose the best roads for our little cars to drive on we eventually started to feel like we were getting off track. We felt like we were heading the right way but there were no landmarks, clues, or signs to even tell us where we were or of the city was close by. There were a few tracks that really threatened to bog us, the Swedes were having a lot of difficulty with this. A few times we were driving on a road then had to turn around and find another because they were just so terrible. Not even a damn Landrover would choose some of these roads we ended up on. After a while stumbled upon a local who was driving a truck that had a bunch of goats in the back. Hallelujah! He was more than happy to let us follow him and rescue us from out disorientating mess. A few times he took us on secluded dirt roads that were a nightmare for our cars. Having all the knowledge of a truck-driving local he then motioned for us to turn around and follow him to another road he knew of which saved our cars. Without him that night may have turned into an absolute disaster, we could have become well lost for the remainder of that night, the roads were literally all over the place and apart from our local friend we hadn't seen any cars for a long time. Eventually, over the crest of a hill we finally saw the lights of Khovd. Civilisation! Our local friend had us follow him down a large hill where we finally came to a paved road! We stopped just outside the city to pay a tax which allowed us to enter the region. We gave our local friend some cigarettes and an alcohol bottle to say thanks. He was pointed to an area just down the hill where a yurt stood, right next to the yurt was the rally car we'd seen way back at the starting line which was covered in fur and dressed as a Scottish highland cow. What a strange coincidence. It looked like that team was spending the night in the yurt. Our local friend was so proud to have spotted another rally car and present it to us. We thanked him again and continued on our way to enter the town. It was now 1am, we were all well and truly buggered and keen for a bed and some rest. The first hotel we entered informed us they were already full, another was down the road and actually had some mongol rally cars parked out front. Fortunately they had beds free. A very eventful day deserve a very restful sleep!