Friday, August 3, 2012

Rally back to Khovd

The Rally

After accidentally crashing a Kazakh wedding while visiting Olgii's mosque:

coincidentally, the best man was the clerk at the internet cafe from which I wrote my last post

and helping Alec the Russian construction worker celebrate his birthday:

From left to right: Alec (Russian), Delicious bbq meat (Russian), Melanie (German/Canadian), Diman (Russian) and Adi (Israeli)
I decided it was time to head to Khovd.

I had taken a minibus from Khovd to Olgii, and planned to take the same, or a jeep, back. Melanie, pictured above, also was headed to Khovd, so we went down to the market to book ourselves a ride for later that day. Easy enough. We got there, found a jeep, found a good price, he said he was leaving at 1pm and would pick us up at our guest house, gave us his phone number, no problem

At 1pm we were ready at the guesthouse. I wasn't expecting a prompt arrival, it being Mongolia and all, so I was pretty relaxed. At about 1:15 Melanie (being German) began to worry. I reminded her that my 2pm minibus from Khovd didn't actually pick me up until 2:55, then we picked up three other people and didn't leave the city until 3:30, so we didn't need to worry until much later. Might as well enjoy the Olympic archery in the cafe (Mongolia beat the US, it was quite fun to watch, actually).

At 2:15, Melanie's patience was reaching an end. We tried calling our driver constantly, but no answer. Finally, we get through, only to remember that he doesn't speak English and we don't speak Mongolian. All we could make out was a repeated "Auto ochho! Auto ochho!" before he hung up on us. When we asked the owner what this meant, she said, "oh, he says he is coming!" Very nice, we'd be gone in minutes.

At 2:45 we called again. This time, our Mongolian host took the phone. "He says he will be here in 20 minutes". Ok, not bad.

At 3:15 he wasn't there

At 3:45 we started scheming about other options

At 4:00 we realized that the fact that his phone wasn't ringing probably meant that he had either turned it off, or had already left Olgii and was out of service. Bummer.

Then, we saw these outside:

Notice the Yak skull

And most of the scottish flag
 Many of you may have heard me talk about the Mongol Rally ( When I was in college, a few friends of mine were seriously considering entering, but nothing ever came of it. I had forgotten about it until now, when we suddenly had two tiny Renault Clios with British plates sitting in front of our guesthouse. A man who looked rather like Indiana Jones with thigh shorts came out of one of the cars to the guesthouse. 

They were six Scottish soldiers (three Scots and three Englishmen, really) and had driven from Goodwood, England to Khovd over the past two weeks and were now looking for a mechanic who could install some metal plates on the underbelly of their cars to protect them from the Mongolian roads. I had been wandering town the day before and happened to walk through the mechanics' district, so I told them where I figured they could get some help. During our conversation, we told him about our Jeep predicament and found out that they, too, were headed to Khovd.


After some shuffling around to the market and haggling with mechanics, they scrapped their mechanic idea, threw our backpacks on the roof, scooched over in the back seat and crammed another two people, some extra food and a flat of beer into the tiny cars. We were off!

Then we weren't

You can still see the pavement in the distance
Still within sight of Olgii, the rear vehicle (Elvis, was its name) had earned a flat tire. The first of their entire trip, it turns out. No worries. British Army efficiency (and plenty of whinging and inter-car piss-taking) hopped to and the new wheel was on in no time. We left Olgii in the dust and headed south.

Now, if you have ever been to Mongolia, or read my bus entry, you have an idea of what these roads are like. Now take a look at the vehicles in these pictures. They each have about 4in of clearance, 2 wheel drive, and not much more than a 1L engine. Completely not suited for this journey. But that's the point, isn't it?

Our maximum speed was about half that of the jeeps and buses and trucks, so the trip was going to take considerably longer than the 7hr jeep ride. As such, we camped partway at a beautiful, seemingly untouched lake.

They were in love with my bivy sac. OR and Seattle's economy can thank me for the advertisement.
After a night of Scotch whiskey, Mongolian beer, Lake swimming, Apache dancing and Scottish-American translation via the English, we were up at dawn to start another full day of driving.

Well, some of us were up at dawn

Ken (with Grace the monkey) and Spud (with the eye mask) were inseparable

We were off for the adventure that is the Mongol Rally. We inched along and bumped and scraped and crossed rivers

This wasn't even the deepest one

And stopped for beautiful mountain photo shoots

We found out later that this exact shot (with different cars) was in the Mongol Rally handbook. We were within 20ft of the same spot on the road. Picturesque spot, I guess.

From left: Archie, me, Andy (on the hood), Nick, Jamie, Spud and Ken. Elvis (front car) and Jezebel (back car) also pictured.
And then Jamie got Jezebel stuck

high-centered on the mud and grass tuft
 So we got out the shovels and started to dig

This was half an hour after we had washed up in the river
and we pushed. And we dug, and we tried lifting, and we were firmly stuck. Luckily, a truck was passing by and agreed to pull us out. Not before it got itself stuck, though

He actually asked us to drive forwards (into what we had been stuck in) so he could maneuver
But in no time, we were out and back on the highway. Or road. Or track, or whatever you want to call it

The truck waited until we got out of the mud, then took off at top speed

By the evening we rolled into Khovd, about 24 hrs after we had left Olgii. 3 or 4 times as long as the jeep would have taken, but as I told these boys: you don't write home about a jeep trip.

Off to UB. Good luck, gents
Even in Khovd, we actually camped with these guys one last night to save money (and because they were just fun to be around), helped them get to the mechanic in the morning, they got us to a hotel, and we parted ways.

On a side note: most of these guys will be headed to Alberta for tank exercises in a couple of weeks. Spud has two weeks off sometime in September or October and may come visit Seattle. If any of you would like to play host to a Scottish tank soldier, let me know. Be warned, you may need a translator. Or watch the movie "Trainspotting" a few times before he shows up.

Khovd and beyond

Now I'm in Khovd. I had hoped to see some Khoomei singing here (also known as throat singing, it's traditional around here in in the Tuvan region in Russia), but it turns out it's actually not easy to organize unless there's a competition (which I missed by a week), a concert (the theater takes vacation in August), or you want to pay a singer $100+ for an hour.

Despite a bit of disappointment there, I did connect with an American named Bob and his british wife, Hazel, who have been living here for 10 years teaching English. They had some fascinating insight and peculiar perspective into the Mongolian culture and educational system. I won't go into detail on that here, but it's much more cynical, or maybe realistic, than the guidebooks make it out. They also know everyone. Melanie wanted to set up a homestay similar to mine and ended up in a car with a Mongolian family headed to the countryside on a week vacation within 2hrs. She's also paying a fraction of what I did. Not bad.

I think I'll head to Bulgan tomorrow to get ready to cross the border to China on Monday (it's closed for the weekend). Bob and Hazel have an Australian friend who lives there who will help me figure out the crossing. I'm not sure if there is internet in Bulgan, and once I'm back in China I'll be behind the great firewall again. This means my updates for the next several weeks in Xinjiang will be via email (unless someone can tell me a relatively easy way to get an internet cafe computer to open google's blogger). If you received an email about this post, you'll get those emails. If you didn't and want to keep updated, let me know and I'll add you in.

Since the internet here isn't bad, here's a couple quick videos to give you a feel for the ride. It's hard to get a sense of the road from the first one, unfortunately:


  1. that is the kind of adventure i like!
    so glad you got to participate in the rally.

    happy border crossing(s)----can't wait to hear how they go.
    especially in the next stop, the only -stan with one vowel to its name!

  2. It's those "unplanned" happenings that produce the best memories (and stories to tell). Lots of fun reading about it.

    Later........ Tom