Friday 18th August - Rolling On The River
Our third day in Mongolia proved to be an interested and hair-raising one. The stretch from Altai to Bayankhongor is notorious for being the hardest and most rally-car-destroying of all the roads. Just our luck we woke up to pouring rain. Today was definitely going to be a difficult one.
We decided to drive to the nearby shops in Altai to pick up last minute supplies including snacks and water. Everyone in our convoy was still keen to camp at least one night in Mongolia, especially to experience the amazing starry skies of the Mongolian desert. Tonight was the night we were hoping to do just that but of course it all depended on this ridiculous rain that was hell bent on destroying our plans. We gained another team in our Swedish-American-Australian convoy. Collin and Perry, the Dutch father and son team we’d met the night before decided to join us in our journey to the finish line. They were in a Suzuki Samurai which is a 1.3L, but we’ll forgive them for breaking the 1.2L rule as they’re pretty awesome people.
The rain wasn’t giving up which was very annoying, we just had to push through it. Colin and Perry ended up doing most of the navigating for the day as they had a good GPS set up in their car. Within 40kms the road had run out and we were driving on sand and dirt. We decided to make a turn at some yurts to jump on a more southern route. Majority of teams take a more central/northern route, however, we thought we’d take a chance and try a route which Collin and Perry suggested would be easier. Famous last words! In all honesty though, it was quite a good decision. The road was very flat and easy to navigate, only trouble was (as with most Mongolian dirt roads) it was very easy to veer off course as there are forks in the road EVERYWHERE. Lucky we’d all filled up our jerrycans that morning because there was no gas station anywhere in sight and the possibility of getting lost was incredibly high. Slothy was getting a really good go at her four-wheel-drive capabilities. She was handling it very well. Camels were running alongside our convoy and you couldn’t see civilisation for miles and miles. This was the type of Mongol Rally we’d all signed up for! Each of us were hanging out the sides of our cars taking footage of the convoy speeding along, we weaved and zig-zagged across one another doing a mini drag race. The rain had ceased a little bit but was threatening to return any minute. If you want to see thousands of horses, come to Mongolia! On top of the countless groups of camels walking/running alongside our cars there was just as many horses cantering about. It’s a sight you’d never encounter anywhere else and something that makes the mongol rally such a unique experience. Something else you definitely don’t see anywhere else in the world is the vast amount of locals driving past you in Toyota Prius’. Thats right folks, the most popular car in Mongolia is the trusty little Prius! You’d think the locals would have huge four-wheel-drives considering they have to tackle these insane roads every day just to go from town to town. No sir. They all have Toyota Prius and they tackle these bouncy dirt roads in them no worries. Toyota should come to Mongolia to film a tv ad of all their cars killing these roads with eight family members squashed inside. Here we were worried about our 1.2L cars trudging along across the country when all the locals are cruising past us in their hybrids.
We continued driving along following Collin and Perry who were mostly just using a compass and a GPS that played up every few minutes. Occasionally stopping to relieve ourselves on the side of the road. Natalie and Haylee being the only two girls in the convoy had a hard time spotting a decent sized tree, mound or rock to jump behind and use as a toilet. The Mongolian landscape we were driving through was so flat and barren barely anything was in sight. We came across a small village which had a drop-toilet in it. After inspecting the cleanliness of it Natalie decided a natural toilet in the landscape would be less vomit inducing. Finally a decent sized mound was found and the girls had a chance to relieve their bladders.
Approximately 20 minutes later the heavens opened and the rain started bucketing down. We had to take it easy driving our tiny cars on the dirt roads as they were getting slippery. Niclas and Linus pulled over as they were having some troubles with their car. Linus to the rescue; he discovered their front wheel was the problem and got all his tools out. Twenty minutes later and it was all fixed and ready to go. We gave our Sloth some driving juice and jumped back in to continue on. James was riding with Brian in his Bedford Rascal chatting his ear off about American culture. Brian’s Bedford Rascal had always seemed like the rally vehicle that would be the first to conk out and call a quits, however, it’s been incredibly reliable and pulling it’s weight everywhere we’ve gone. Such a trooper.
We’d known for a while that today would be a river crossing day. Of course, when it’s pouring and you know at least three river crossings are coming up your heart begins to beat a little faster and your palms get sweaty. We came across our first river crossing and thought ‘well that doesn’t look too bad at all’. The Swedes were the first to attempt the river; just as they were about to cross a local pulled up in a tractor offering us all a tow. Full of confidence in our tin can vehicles we declined and all made it across safely. Ten minutes later we came up to a second river crossing thinking this would be the final one for the day. Once again, the local was on standby with his tractor. The water in this river was faster and deeper but we all thought we’d give it a go without any need for towing. The Swedes car miraculously made it through fine, our Panda got through with no issues, the father and son Dutch team got through, however, poor Brian’s car decided to conk out two thirds of the way through. The tractor was making a move to go and rescue Brian (who also had our teammate James with him). At the last minute though his engine kicked in again and the Rascal found a new lease on life. It got across with all of us cheering him on. A few hundred metres on and we saw a bunch of tractors. A third and final river had appeared and boy was this one big. The water was very fast flowing and we couldn’t tell how deep it was. The time had come to finally accept the locals help and get towed across. We were all rugged up and jackets as it was freezing and raining outside, but there were little kids running around with t-shirts and no shoes on! The tractor operators started hooking up each of our cars. Just our luck we couldn’t find our damn tow hook! This meant we’d need to be towed in reverse across the river. That’s the Mongol Rally for you! With Patrick, Natalie and Haylee sitting anxiously inside the car we were towed across praying no water would come inside. We made it to the other side and thanked our local tractor driving friend. Brian’s car was so lucky in staying dry and got some river water inside.
The tiny village next to the river must just make money out of drivers needing a tow. There was barely 6 yurts there with kids running around in the rain. Haylee gave the children a few little gifts then had trouble getting rid of all the kids running up to our car window tapping and waiting for more toys. The Dutch team had a bout of bad luck with the Suzuki Samurai refusing to get going. After ten minutes of trying to find the mysterious reason the Samurai wouldn’t switch on Collin and Perry got it going again. Time to keep heading north east and hope we reach somewhere by nightfall! Now was the big test. We knew north east was the correct way to go but the rough roads we were following were saying otherwise. The roads were taking us northwest which would get us lost in the middle of nowhere. We were all getting flashbacks of the story we’d heard of another team who got incredibly lost a few days before us. They ended up going 300 km’s off course and had to get the military to come and find them. We’re sure the Mongolian know all these roads like the back of their hand, but for us we were finally realising why it’s so easy to get lost in the Mongolian desert. Everything in every direction looks exactly the same with no distinct features to tell you which way to head. We pulled over and had a look at a few gps apps on our phones and some paper maps. In the end we decided to just keep heading as north east as we could to try and find a proper road; a bit of a gamble but there wasn’t much other option.
After an hour of driving we finally found what looked like a proper (but still dirt) road. We followed this road until (at 10pm) we finally came to our destination for the night. Hellloooo Bayankhongor! This little city seemed to only have one main road running through it; and of course only 4 hotels to try and find some accommodation.
Now the challenge of finding a hotel that had 9 beds available. The rain hadn’t eased up at all, it was still pouring. Our plan to camp that evening had definitely been put to rest. Bayankhongor was looking like the lost city of Atlantis; it was a town under water. The roads were flooding. We pulled into the first hotel we could find and unfortunately told it was full. Another hotel was around the corner but we got the same story. We then pulled into a hotel that looked like it was straight out of Wolf Creek so we didn’t even bother to go inside. Best not go home in a coffin. We were starting to picture how uncomfortable it would be to sleep in the car. Only one more hotel was available to ask. Fortunately the lady at the front desk had beds available for us all, praise the baby Jesus! We weren’t going to have to sleep in the tiny car after all. After dumping our stuff in the room we ventured out to find some dinner. We ended up back at the first hotel we’d tried because a Korean restaurant was attached to it. Thus our third dinner in Mongolia was a Korean one! We all reminisced how crazy the day had been and the river crossings that could have been our undoing. Finally retiring to bed we all discovered that the ‘beds’ we’d paid $10 each for were in fact literally a plank of wood with a few sheets on top. Nothing like roughing it to appreciate what you have at home. Regardless though we were all so tired our wooden planks were a welcome piece of furniture to lay our bodies.