A month into the Mongol Rally had taught me one thing — to let go of all expectations and let the path play out as it will.
If you’re planning on participating in the Mongol Rally, people will tell you all sorts of things.
“You’re going to have at least thirteen flat tires.”
“You’ll be pulled over twenty to forty times… in Russia.”
“You’ll spend hundreds of dollars on bribes and you’ll need cases of American cigarettes to offer officials when you run out of money.”
And so on and so forth…
By the time we had reached the border between Russia and Mongolia, our four original tires were still intact. We had driven through a dozen checkpoints in Russia and not been pulled over once.
We hadn’t spent a dime on bribes and Hilton had smoked about half of our bribery Marlboros.
We had also been warned in the Mongol Rally Field Guide handbook that the border to Mongolia could be a tricky one and had taken teams up to three days in past years. The Adventurists have a flair for outlandish language, so I pushed the thought aside and assumed our border luck would get us across in a few hours, max.
I could not have been more wrong.
We arrived at the Russian border around 5pm, knowing we wouldn’t make it through before six when the Mongolian side would close. So it didn’t come as a surprise when we were ushered into a parking lot after completing the Russian exit procedures. What did surprise us was the collection of about fifteen other cars in the parking lot, and the exuberant but worrying line of clapping ralliers that greeted us as we rolled through the fenced area.
They hooted and hollered and cheered our welcome, but as we got out of the car and approached them, it was clear that the celebratory procession was masking a tense atmosphere — teetering on hysteria.
“We’ve been here for four days. Make yourself comfortable!” said a red-haired boy with wide, tired eyes. He may have twitched a little when he said “four days” and his head darted from side to side as he spoke to us… looking for something.
People had pitched tarps across cars, unpacked their cooking supplies, and made makeshift homes on the concrete and against the fences.
Hilton, Brent and I looked at each other with disbelieving smiles.
We felt the shift in climate as soon as we parked our car, and as we all layered our limited options of warm clothing over the dusty shorts and tank tops that got us through the last warm miles, we reassured each other that it couldn’t take that long for us. There had probably been some issues to work out with this first group of ralliers coming through and the importation of the cars, but once things had been figured out, we’d get through with them and all would be good.
“But man… they do look rough don’t they??” confided Brent.
“We won’t get there. Don’t worry,” I assured.
After a frigid, sleepless night in the car, we woke with the early sun, baking our faces through the windshield. It was 7am.
Despite the lack of sleep, the first day felt novel and we hid our concerns amidst the thrill of the unknown.
I had purchased chalk along the way as a gift for kids we met, so we used it to make a silly schedule of activities on our little compounds square of black asphalt. The schedule included everything from cleaning our car to arts and crafts. Obviously, we didn’t stick to it, but we did enjoy the random change of pace as we hadn’t experience a drive-free day in weeks.
The slightly crazed group of detainees — the ones that had been there for four days — were released that afternoon. We waved them off with smiles but our hope for better luck was already waning.
That afternoon, we ventured into town, if you can call it a town.
Its actually just a few ramshackle buildings, housing the families of the border officials. But most of the homes do offer your basic essentials… money exchange, canned goods, bottled water, and one very special house that made heaps of dumplings for starving border refugees…
The dumplings were the specialty of the old lady in the shower cap, as we came to fondly call her. That shower cap never left her head, in the five days we ate dumplings in her dining room. Neither did the giant, stylin’ sunglasses, or the hot pink lipstick that leaks past her lips in both directions and stains her big smile.
Her granddaughter became our little ray of sunshine amidst a very cloudy experience.
That evening we warmed up pasta and huddled under the sagging tarp as it rained. We retired to our car seats early, burrowing into layers of clothing and sleeping bags while the rain fell harder and harder as the night wore on. When we woke up to a cold, damp sky at 8am, spirits had diminished completely.
Today was the day when things took a turn for ugly. Officials marched by the marking lot regularly, eyeing us like prisoners and occasionally asking for cigarettes but never speaking to us otherwise. We tried to ask questions. What was the hold up? How long would we be there? Was there anything we could do (give them) to speed things up? But unless they wanted something from us, they never spoke English and continued to watch us with a glimmer of what appeared to be amusement as our patience declined.
At around 5pm, I dumped some whiskey into my plastic cup that was still crusty with the mornings coffee.
Screw it, I thought. If they’re going to make us live here forever, I’m going to make myself at home.
I sat in the car, drinking my whiskey and warming up to the liquid as it slid down my throat and calmed my nerves. The rest of the car park had the same idea and groups of people started missioning to the little shop that hid beer beneath the counter.
We weren’t supposed to drink at the border, but the family’s of the border officials who “enforced” that rule certainly didn’t seem to mind as they collected our cash for giant plastic bottles of beer.
Everything was under control when I went to bed around midnight, but at some point in the blur of half sleep, I woke up to a chorus of shouting and cursing and the very close sound of someone retching and gagging all over the pavement.
When I emerged from my tent the next morning, having opted for the asphalt surface so that I could at least stretch my legs out for a night, something bad had obviously happened.
A group of older ralliers huddled near the entrance to the offices.
Apparently, officials had shown up, late at night. They caught one guy puking, and another one pissing on the fence and they had taken pictures of the drinking and smoking going on within our compound. They were not happy, and were threatening to black stamp our passports, effectively deporting us from Mongolia.
Since we had already used our double entry Russian visas, returning to Russia was not an option.
Panicked whispers were discussing the possibility of selling the cars and trying to get through as “in transit” but the conversations floated over me as I felt panic setting in. I wasn’t panicked that we were getting in trouble though. I was panicking because I needed to get away from that ugly parking lot as fast as possible. I couldn’t stand it anymore.
I felt my eyes start twitching and my head darting back and forth, looking for someone to tell us something — anything!!!
We had officially reached our breaking point.
It didn’t help matters that our once unified camp was now divided between those who went to bed early, and those who continued the party for most of the night. Our group was determined to separate ourselves from whatever went down after we had retired, and we paced at the border, ready to state our case while border officials arrived — each one of them hurrying into a back door while averting their eyes.
Brent decided to approach one of them with a fellow rallier — an English gentleman with a soft voice and a mild manner. He and his wife had been calm and collected thus far, and he seemed the perfect candidate for approaching an official.
According to Brent — via what would become one of my favorite stories along our route — the previously polite English man opened the conversation with…
“Hey! When are we going to LEAVE?!” in a not so polite voice voice, which was followed quickly by…
“I know you speak English you f****** c***!”
Brent was horrified and hurried back without contributing anything to the one-sided conversation.
“Well, that didn’t help matters.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon watching the party side of teams called into the office one by one. They were presented with pictures of themselves smoking and/or drinking, and forced to pay fines for breaking the rules.
No one was deported, but we still weren’t free.
To our relief, by midday, all fines had been paid and we were told that we’d all get through that night. Everyone was allowed to drive their car up to the exit gate as we waited for the officials to come around with the last of the paperwork and inspect our cars.
One by one, the few remaining cars that had arrived before us were ushered through.
Then, one by one, those who arrived after us were ushered through.
We tried to remain calm, the three of us pacing back and forth, chewing nails, smoking, and snacking obsessively (OK, that was just me) but still, cars continued and we stayed put. We knew our paperwork had been processed and all they needed to do was give Hilton back his passport and look at our car once more.
At 6pm, a skinny man with beady eyes stood at a balcony overlooking the now very short line of cars.
I looked up at him with genuine furry.
“6pm! We’re closed! Come back tomorrow!”
Our mouths dropped.
“No no no!!!” we cried, but before we could drop to our knees and beg for release, the official retreated through a door to a heated room and slammed it shut behind him.
The next morning, we didn’t wait for an invitation. With anger pumping through our stiff limbs, we parked our car directly in front of the Exit gate and glared at the offices, daring them to drag this out longer.
By midday, we were finally set free and drove through the exit gate to find a group of ralliers that had stopped to await our departure at the dumpling house. Those who had arrived after us and left before us had felt terrible about it and we were promised truckloads of beers upon arrival to Ulaanbaatar to ease the pain of the setting the record for time spent at the Mongolian border.
Our five days at the border were a dreadful experience, but as we waved goodbye to the little girl at the dumpling house and drove off into the hills of Mongolia, we left the anger and frustration of the experience fade behind us.
We were finally in Mongolia — the magical land of rolling sand dunes and snow-capped mountains, wild horses, and nomadic families. Despite an unfortunate entrance to the finish line country, we were thrilled to be there.
So on we drove…