Bureaucracy. Doesn’t matter how remote and far flung you go. It’s as much a fact of life as death is. Trying to get into Mongolia: not an exception to this rule. ‘Go to the counter upstairs, hand in some paperwork.’ Fill in more paperwork, take to the counter downstairs. ‘No’, they say, ‘you take this paperwork upstairs, and then bring THIS paperwork back down. Now just go sit outside for a bit, look confused and frustrated for an hour. Then repeat the previous hours antics.’ ‘OK’, they say, ‘we’ll let you in, but not until tomorrow because we’re all going to go home now.’ It goes on.
After the backwards and forwards, and more backwards of the Mongolian border control, we ended up with Sam and I actually in the country, while Alex, Alex, Heather and Justin all still in the holding area, left to sleep in their cars for the night. Hmmm, we thought, better find somewhere good to camp, and wait for the others. No good camping areas immediately forthcoming we drove on, the dirt track stretching out in front of us.
Night started to fall, and still nowhere obvious to hole up for the evening. We made the call to just camp up by the ‘road’, as no one was around, and supposedly no one coming through the border until the morning. As we pulled over and began to survey the immediate surroundings, something silhouetted on the nearby ridge caught our attention. ‘Was that a wolf?’ ‘Kind of looked like a wolf…’ ‘Do you get wolves in Mongolia?’ ‘Don’t know…’ ‘Is the tent wolf proof?’ ‘Fucked if I know, and fucked if I’m going to find out.’ So seats pushed back and reclined as far as possible, we settled into our sleeping bags in the near vertical position that is the Matiz hatchbacks best seat reclining.
Cold night… We awoke to a layer of ice cladding the insides of every window and windscreen, the result of our breaths condensation and the outside temperature. Bloody cold. Maybe we should have taken our chances with the wolves. Maybe, I should have brought a paid of trousers and a jacket. My packing logic had got as far as ‘sand = hot = shorts + no need for warm clothing’. This logic = idiot.
Ice scraped and wolf clearance procedures complete, we breakfasted up, then drove up to some high ground, to we could keep a good lookout for the rest of our convoy when they approached.
And waited. And waited. And waited. Did we miss them? Did they forgo the track for straight across country? Or are they still waiting at the border, not yet allowed through. A world without mobile phones. Much hypothesising, assumption, and ultimately anxious waiting. The hours went by, lunch happened, and no sign. We must have missed them. We assembled our bits, and prepared to go. Engine started, warming the engine up, we thought, one last look, just in case.
Held up at the border all morning, they had arrived just in time. The convoy was complete again. Spirits running high, all loving the dirt track driving, good miles East were made, and the discovery of an intermittent bitumen road, we believe the work of the Chinese who were apparently heavily investing in Mongolian infrastructure in anticipation of an future extensive mining industry, expedited our progress.
We arrived in our first Mongolia town later that day, Khovd. Lightweight, single-story dwellings create sprawling outskirts,while the centre of town had larger concrete structures, mainly housing municipal facilities. We pulled over to go the ATM, a luxury not experienced in a while, and I waited in the car. The door opened, and suddenly I was presented with three eager faces, belaying only a hint of harmless mischief behind the curiosity.
As every nook and crammy of the car within reach began to be explored, I thought it might be better to continue the interaction outside, before the car got lighter. Introductions were made, and their BMX proudly shown off. They were keen to take pictures themselves, so I ended up with some photos of myself, that so rarely grace (or is it burden?) my camera.
Some British currency dispensed much to their amazement and delight, we continued on. Driving though a diverse landscape of lakes and mountain ranges, the sun grew low, and we were once again looking for a good campsite.