The Mongol Rally Finish Line
Driving into Ulaanbaatar was not the climactic finale I had expected.
After five days of making our way through a stunning countryside where we encountered far more livestock than humans, the sudden congestion of Mongolia’s capital city was a bit of a shock.
We crawled into the urban sprawl and felt the smog settle on our skin and in our eyes. The filthy air was far worse than the clouds of sand we’d grown used to breathing.
But we were almost at the finish line! Despite the shock of Ulaanbaatar’s crowded, beeping, and screeching welcome, we fought traffic with the tenacity of rally drivers — because dammit, we were.
An hour later, after readjusting to the defensive driving skills we left somewhere along the deserted highways, we crawled up the driveway to the Chinggis Khan Hotel — its sparkling interior visible through giant rotating doors manned by suited bellhops.
We had made it.
But the exhaustion of the road seemed to come crashing down as we entered the lobby. There was no jumping up and down. There were no joyful tears or hugs. We marched up to the desk and requested rooms, as I called my parents on Skype, knowing they’d be worried after five days at the border had delayed our arrival.
Minutes later I was in my room, afraid to sit on the fluffy white bed with my sand-caked clothing. I stood there for a minute, shocked that it was over and all I had to show for it was this fancy hotel room that I really shouldn’t have splurged on — its room service menu and fully stocked mini bar seeming to mock the filthy, exhausting challenge of the last few weeks.
So I grabbed three, cold beers from my fridge and marched over to Brent and Hilton’s room. Brent opened the door, surprised to see me so soon as we were supposed to be showering and meeting for dinner.
“We’re not doing this right!” I demanded, shoving beers at each of them.
“Give me a hug and drink these!”
And we did. We hugged and drank and laughed at the absurdity of the whole thing — how after a year of planning and 31 days of driving had ultimately led to a a finale so drained of the adventurous spirit that got us there that we nearly forgot to celebrate. But over three cold beers, we realized what we had really accomplished — 10,000 miles of foreign roads, countless of them spent lost and confused. We had watched the world change with the winding route — made all the more winding by our pitiful senses of direction — and we had ultimately made it across one third of the Earth’s surface and completed what we had feared failing for so long.
We finished the Mongol Rally, and now we had earned the right to lay our dirty butts down on those pretty beds and soak in all the finish line glory.
“THIS is what we drove 10,000 miles for?”
Andy, half of our honorary British convoy team, was the first to voice this sentiment outloud, regarding the capital of Ulaanbaatar which haphazardly houses half of the country’s population — but we all felt it. The city feels like a pig-pile of half-hearted construction zones and drab buildings, pressed up against the stuttering traffic.
But after a couple nights of burgers and beers and early to beds, and one raging finish line party, we were ready to see what the city had to offer.
First, a trip to the Naran Tuul Market — commonly referred to as “The Black Market.” Don’t be fooled. The majority of sales and purchases at The Black Market are entirely legal, although I’m sure there’s a bit of the alternative. You can get anything you’re looking for here, from camping gear to clothing to the highly prized, decorative bottles used to hold snuff — the powdered form of tobacco sniffed regularly by much of the population. It’s a great place for quirky souvenirs, like the unusual wooden whistle that won’t make noise that I’ve gotten it home — but the true value of the market is just in watching the people.
We arrived on a rainy day and everyone there, besides us, knew to wear heavy boots for their shopping excursions. The outdoor aisles dipped into ponds of dirty rainwater and with the constant momentum of traffic pushing you forward, puddle hopping wasn’t much of an option.
The vendors lucky enough to be covered by tarps, could only be accessed by ducking down low — hilariously low for my very tall teammates — as they sagged with the rain. I watched a short old lady prod at her bulging tarp with a broomstick until a deluge of dirty water splashed onto nearby shoppers, who barely reacted with irritated glances.
A little boy was thrilled to practice his English and sales tactics as we negotiated over some pins that caught my eye. I watched his mother watch him, in between making her own sales, as he punched numbers into his little calculator and double checked his math with her each time.
The market was a lively, albeit overwhelming, example of the intimacy of urban life in such a crowded city. I loved it, but after a few hours, was ready for a beer.
We checked out a dive bar on our way home, sporting the go-to “Chinggis Bar” title. (Did you know that Genghis Khan is actually spelt Chinggis? Yeah, neither did I.) The walls were adorned with dark, shimmering wallpaper and maroon, leather seating. Patrons sipped vodka, while we opted for the go to Chinggis Beer. (They really love that guy here.)
That night we opted for dinner at an Indian spot, Hazara, which was recently touted by the New York Times. The spices were everything I’d ever dreamed of since living off of the blander, local options and camping food, and the ambiance felt more like a trendy New York City spot than a restaurant only accessible by weaving through construction tape.
Our foray into the city streets of Ulaanbaatar was well-worth it, but our escape was even better.
The End of a Journey
The Mongolian countryside is what people come for — generally using Ulaanbaatar as merely their planes entry point before hopping in a car to experience the nomadic way of life.
Of course, the nomadic way of life doesn’t typically involve cars, but once our driver dropped us off at a homestay — horses would be the more traditional option.
A quick search on Hostelbookers.com reveals the popularity of homestays in Mongolia. You’ll see some options for traditional hostels, but the more popular choice, and also accessible through reservations on the booking site, is to stay in a yurt.
Now, we had already seen the Mongolian countryside. The steppe had rolled past our windows for five long days of difficult driving. But getting out of the car and experiencing the nomadic lifestyle with a family was an entirely unique experience.
We were served a traditional Mongolian meal, complete with mutton (lamb), rice, and salad. Next to our plates, sat warm cups of Mongolian tea,which for me, remained full. The milky, salty concoction was likely squeezed straight out of one of their animals, but with the language barrier, we weren’t sure which one. (Maybe for the better.)
Then came the experience I’d been looking forward to since the first herd of wild Mongolian horses had appeared on our path. They’re shorter and stockier than the horses we’re used to seeing, and their long, thick manes hang far past their healthy bellies. The ones caught by nomadic herdsmen have their manes trimmed into adorable crewcuts and are used only as long as they’re needed, then let free again.
Our “half-wild” ponies seemed pretty tame, or at least tired, but obligingly let us ride them around our homestay’s sprawling property with the help of a guide. Watching Brent and Hilton ride ponies was almost more fun than riding one myself. I mean, just look at these guys…
Despite the forlorn faces, horseback riding was great. (There’s obviously a reason that most Mongolian men are shorter — to fit comfortably on these little horses!) I had the pleasure of experiencing the wild side of pony riding with my guy who preferred busting through the brambly trees over following the designated track. Eventually, our guide had to tie us up to his own horse, so that I wouldn’t be carried off into the endless steppe. Regardless, I dug my pony’s spirit — the path less taken or bust!
Our day ended with a little hike to a Buddhist temple on top of a hill.
Our legs hadn’t seen much activity lately, what with sitting in a car for five weeks, but the huffing and puffing that was necessary to reach the top was worthwhile when we saw the unique fortune telling contraption, halfway up.
A carnival game-like wheel sat in a colorful gazebo, nestled into the rocky hillside. Our host instructed us to spin the wheel and remember the number, which would correspond to one of the many signs that lined the walk. The signs each displayed some words of wisdom, and worshippers to the temple believe that the wheel reveals a message, meant specifically for you.
I might not be Buddhist, but my message was so fitting for the end of our journey, that I could easily buy into the power of the tradition…
“The person who desires a great treasure must have a ship captain to cross the mighty ocean. The person who wants the highest Dharma needs a teacher nearby.”
I’m not so sure about Dharma, but I think my passion for adventure is pretty comparable to a religious belief and I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to learn from my teammates, and our fellow Mongol Ralliers as we all crossed this “mighty ocean” together, to complete the most epic adventure of my life so far.
The highs and the lows, the unexpected thrills, the disheartening struggles, and the bizarre progression of what will likely serve as the longest, most challenging road trip of our lives, culminated in a story that’s far too long for a climactic finale like the one I had hoped for.
Which actually made Ulaanbaatar — a strange, growing city of contrasts, the perfect place to end our journey. It’s been weird and it’s been wonderful and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to appropriately explain it all to anyone, but I’m glad I did it — and I’m glad I saw this finish line country in all its chaotic grandeur.
There will be more mighty oceans and more great treasures for all of us, but I’m thrilled to have finished this one in Mongolia, as part of team “Yes We Khan!”