Thursday 17th August - Hunt for the 15,000 Year Old Cave
After stumbling upon a hotel the night before that had a number of ralliers staying in it we were glad to touch base with a lovely Brazilian mongol rally couple. We invited them to join our convoy however they explained that they needed to leg it to the finish line to get a flight home. Of course, despite hoping to make an early start we discovered Slothy had broken roof rack rail. It wasn’t a good morning for Slothy. No stress though, the local Mongolians popped out of nowhere and started working hard to fix her up! We’ve no idea where they came from but one of the men had on a 2017 Mongol Rally t-shirt. He’d obviously helped another group who’d kindly exchanged their shirt with him. In true Mongol Rally style we fixed the roof rack rail with a small block of timber and a ratchet strap. Our Swedish friends were also accepting the assistance of some incredibly nice locals as a woman went about washing their car; they even got a hose down making their trusty steed look shiny and new. Unfortunately Slothy took so long to fix she didn’t get the luxury of a hose down and she looked just as muddy and dirty as ever. The women who was cleaning our Swedish pals car offered to wash ours but we were already running way behind schedule and needed to hit the road if we were going to finish this rally. At the last minute another local offered to drive James up the road to buy some coolant which was a life saver. Finally, at 11am, we squashed into the car and headed to our next destination, Altai.
We’d heard from our rally comrades who were a few days ahead of us that the road from Khovd to Altai is a gloriously paved one. Hallelujah! Imagine our confusion then as we head out of town and see a very long dirt road ahead of us deviously inviting our Slothy to ruin her suspension and tyres. Our convoy pulled over to discuss this disappointing sight. We spotted another rallier who pulled up next to us. It was Brian, an American rallier who we’d seen the day before. He’d also heard the same thing about a paved road. All our maps and GPS’ were directing us to follow this dirt road to the next town so we didn’t have much choice. Onward we went; our convoy growing one car more with Brian agreeing to travel in our group. Brian informed us that his mission today was trying to find a 15,000-year-old cave which had ancient wall paintings. We all agreed this would be amazing to see and so took off following Brian. Ten minutes into our drive we finally discovered the paved road we were so desperate to find. Smooth sailings from here! Thank you Mongolia! Slothy was very pleased to be driving on beautiful asphalt. Brian had a paper map which he was following to take us to the caves. Unfortunately we got a little lost and pulled over to a town to ask some locals for directions, they informed us we’d been going the wrong direction and thankfully pointed us the right way. This ‘right way’ though unfortunately meant we needed to detour from the beautiful paved road and drive off on a dirt road into the desert.
Any other country would have signs all over the place directing you to these magnificent ancient caves; a fantastic display of Mongolian anthropological history. Maybe there’d even be a few tourist shops and cafes along the way making a profit of the people keen enough to venture out to see the ancient wall paintings. Not Mongolia! No sir! We drove for forty minutes into the desert on a vaguely marked road hoping we’d see something soon. We pulled over to look at the paper maps again unsure if we were even heading the right way. Our team took the opportunity to take some photos with our ‘Proudly Supporting Youth Off The Streets’ sign. Things were still looking good so we jumped back into our cars and continued on. We eventually drove over a large hill which really tested the four-wheel-drive capabilities of our non-off-road tin cans. Bad news. We came up to a river crossings that looked quite deep. A small house was in the distance but and the caves were meant to be just beyond that (we hoped). James suggested our Slothy car be the one to brave the river crossing to discover if the caves were indeed up ahead. Slothy did marvellously well. She tackled that river like a pro. Linus jumped in the car with James as he’d become quite familiar with the map of the area. Ten minutes later they returned. “Not going to happen” James informed us. He said we still had a while to go to find the caves but there was another river up ahead that none of our cars would be able to pass. Both James and Linus reported that it would be impossible. That does it then. No caves for us! We were quite disappointed for Brian who was really excited to find the caves. To turn a shitty situation into a good we we decided to have some lunch in this beautiful landscape. Linus and Niclas offered us one of their pre-packaged camping meals which simply needed to sit in some hot water for a few minutes. They had around 40 of the packets in their car (thinking they’d need to eat a lot more of them than they did on the trip). A bunch of kids (barely older than ten) come riding over to us on their horses. Such pros these kids! Mongolia is full of horse-riding children. At one point they were riding two on one horse with a kid barely older than four holding the reins. The house we’d seen in the distance seemed to have a large family inside it as they drove their Holden sedan towards us, first having to cross the river. They gunned it through the water and just as they were about to exit the engine shut down. The men in our convoy assisted them in pushing the car out of the water and the owner managed to get it started again. There must have been about nine people squashed in the car including a mother with a young baby!
After we finished our lunch we headed back toward the highway but first has to scale the large hill we'd previously crossed. We all went and started removing the large rocks sitting on the dirt road; may as well make it as pain free as possible for our rally cars. Our Slothy did fine getting up it but our Swedish pals had a bit of trouble getting their Fiat up there. It got stuck on some rocks. Everyone needed to pitch in and push the car up the hill which eventually got there. We reached the paved road and continued on to a local servo to refuel. A long drop toilet stood on its lonesome behind the servo with an amazing backdrop of Bactrian camels (2 humps) and mountains. After relieving ourselves we thought it would be a good idea to mix things up and swap passengers. There's only so many days you can hear story after story from your teammates, eventually you run out of things to say and long for other peoples company. James jumped in Brian's car, Haylee jumped in the Swedes tiny 1975 Fiat 127 with Niclas and Linus jumped in our Panda to join Natalie & Patrick. As many times as we've all agreed it's insane to drive at night in Mongolia we seem to still end up legging it through the darkness. Fortunately we were on paved roads. At one point though we had to pull over and check Slothy Panda was doing okay; a ridiculous road bridge stood nearby proving that Mongolia doesn't quite care if bridges fall apart and lead nowhere (see below photo). Any driver attempting this bridge would definitely be worse for wear.
We arrived in Altai well into the night, and checked into the first hotel that we found after entering the town. It was quite a nice hotel that most definitely was not a stranger to Mongol Ralliers. In fact, a father and son team from the Netherlands (Collin and Perry) had also checked into the hotel. We joined them in the large dining room that contained a rather drunken group of Mongolian men and women who had pulled in for the night. A Canadian couple just happened to have some instruments with them at their dining table and were playing some music. One of the drunk women walked over to them demanding they “play some Mongolian music!” She was clapping and spinning in circles. James had just come back from the bathroom and was quickly pulled into a waltz by the woman. They enjoyed a sweet little dance while our rally table looked on laughing and enjoying a few shots of Chinggis Khan vodka. It was great to finally rest up after another long day driving through Mongolia; we enjoyed a hearty meal and a few more shots before hitting the hay. Tomorrow would be even harder as we’d heard that the drive from Altai to Bayankhongor is supposedly the hardest stretch of the whole rally. Many a rally car have been destroyed on this stretch and many a team lost amongst the desert. Best of luck to our convoy!