Leaving Tashanta, we soon confirmed all the warnings we had heard about driving in Mongolia. Trust a compass more than your maps. Don't expect to see any signs of humanity for hours at a time. Roads are not as much roads as a series of indiscernible paths which may or may not lead to your destination.
Be prepared to cross rivers. Lots of rivers.
We drove into Olgi, the first of five checkpoints along the way to Ulaanbaatar, before noon on Thursday and came across four rally teams we had crossed the border with. Pulling into the gas station, we realized we had a flat tire. Down to one spare. Jamie hopped into the cab to pull the bus forward but the ignition wouldn't turn over. The six of us stood in confusion as our bus sat idly, not responding to its most basic task. In a matter of seconds, our world-bus-view shifted dramatically and our ability to reach UB was called into question. Luckily, we diagnosed the problem as battery related and we were able to get the bus running after cleaning up the battery terminals from 25 countries worth of dust and grime.
As a town, Olgi was truly out of the wild west. Main roads quickly disintegrated into dust paths and emptiness a mile in any direction from the city center. After teaming back up with Kishor and stocking up on supplies, we were quick to get back on the road. At this point, we had drive about 100km in a total of six hours. As that rate, we would arrive in UB three days after half of our team was planning on leaving, so we needed to keep pushing on.
Outside of Olgi, the mountains and sky opened up to a scale I had never before witnessed. Mountain passes provided unspoiled vistas that went on for eternity. On such a grand scale, 4000 meter peaks fit snuggly beside endless plains and vast lakes. Gers occasionally dotted the landscape as we navigated the roads from the sun and our proximity to mountains and lakes. How rewarding it was to drive for hours based on a hunch and then come around a bend and find the town you were hoping to see.
At least three teams we know of ended up within 100 km of China -- quite the detour!
We camped along a riverbed with a group of teams just past the first river crossing. We had a late night of drinking and dancing and woke up to the sounds of yak wading through the river. Steam rose from their noses as they snorted towards us, yards of wet fur dripping into the chilly river beneath them. We hit the road very early, and got another flat tire within 20 km. We were not setting good precedent here. Within an hour, we snapped off our exhaust pipe at another river crossing and needed to rotate the tires to balance wait. We were still about 150 km from the next checkpoint and getting a bit nervous about the state of affairs. Through continuously stunning landscape, we carried on at slower speeds and were thrilled when a few hours later the city of Khovd emerged in the valley below us.
Straight to the mechanic we went, banging out rims, haggling over tire prices, and checking and rechecking the bus for other issues. We wandered around for a bit after lunch, and in the middle of the bazaar I stumbled across an open air plaza with about 100 pool tables, all of them being used by 2-6 men. This is in a city with a population of 30,000. We chatted with a few rally teams that had broken down permanently, and got back on the road for the longest stretch of driving between checkpoints (about 450 km). We took out our inflatable alligator for the next river crossing and made it across in the late afternoon, squeezing in another two hours of driving before finding a field to camp in.
The following two days were marked by more tire trouble, more breath-taking scenery, and very difficult driving. We came across a team of South African girls who had gone through their last spare tire 150 km from anywhere and offered one of them a lift to the mechanic in Altai. We drove alongside yak, camels, horses, goats, dogs, and sheep, and carried on through the oppressive heat of midday and the far chillier early mornings. By Sunday, we had made our way to Bayankhongor, just 600 km from UB.
We had been hearing very bad sounds from the rear wheels all day so Robin and I headed to the shop that evening. Nobody seemed to be able to help us so we took it upon ourselves to see what the problem was. We raised the bus, removed the wheels and brake drum to find shattered bolts, springs, and brake pads dripping with brake fluid and grease. Annoyed at the shotty job our mechanics in Bukhara did, we spent a few hours removing all the bits and reassembling the wheels. Pleased with our ability to fix the problem, we headed to the hotel for a beer.