Wildlife can be a fascinating portal to a country’s culture, and the unique environment in which it’s residents inhabit. Mongolia has two big players in it’s notable animal population. First up are eagles. Incredible birds, with immense power, poise, and grace. At the border crossing with Russia they swooped low across our camp, and I was lucky enough to get a few shots.
A few days into Mongolia, we drove past a hunter with an eagle, who was kind enough to let us have a hold of him. I think all the pictures below show how close up you really are holding onto to one of these, and none of them convey how heavy they are, or how intimidating it actually feels.
Show-boating with eagles over, we trucked on East, the usual routine of tarmac-dirt-tarmac-dirt-mud-dirt-etc continuing. Paper maps were the order of the day, as they showed the most used routes and trails, even if in reality they were nothing more that tyre tracks in one direction. More than once did we found ourselves with the map spread out over the bonnet, compass in hand, working out which set of identical, unmarked tyre prints led the way. It was important to get this correct, as we later discovered with one such situation, had we taken the right hand set of tracks (as was our first assumption due to their usage and the fact they followed power lines), we would have in fact found ourselves inadvertently in China!
On one particular stretch of track, we became aware that we were being chased. A young boy riding a horse with no saddle or reigns was galloping alongside the road, excitedly pacing the cars. The boy, and horse, had some serious speed, and were keeping up at 30mph. Impressive stuff, so we pulled over to say hi. Greetings were exchanged, our cars were enthusiastically investigated, and I in return got to have a go on the horse. The kid made it look easy, and I can only imagine how uncomfortable it must be for those not accustomed to ride all day with no saddle. A great little interaction though, and one of the small encounters that made Mongolia so memorable for me.
Sprawling mountains, complete with snowy tops, gradually gave way to flatter conditions, grey dust and rocks strewn in every direction making for bumpy driving. This was particularly hard on our tyres, and many a puncture was had. At one point we punctured in quick succession both our spares, and one of the runners on the car, rendering us unable to go anywhere without some replacement inner-tubes. The rest of our convoy agreed to head on to the next town with three of our wheels, and promised to come back with them repaired later in the day. A long and open-ended wait took up most of the afternoon, with no form of communication, and dwindling supplies of gas and water (at this point we still had enough rice to feed most of Mongolia so food was no issue, just the means to cook it) meant we were completely at the mercy of Alex and Justin returning with some wheels.
Luckily for us, return they did, with freshly repaired tyres. Complete with four intact wheels we set off, only to puncture the fuel tank for a second time 10 minutes later. Never ending…
Sam and I were on a bit of schedule, with flights booked for the following weekend, and as the rest of our convoy had more time to spare, we had to splinter off and make our own way. The drama that followed…
Our puncture troubles continued, with our fresh spares quickly turning into shredded spares again. One of our runners then gained a slow puncture, and we were unable to get the tyre off the rim to repair it. A comical few hours followed with Sam driving back to the nearest town, and myself jumping out every 500m or so with a bicycle pump to reinflate it to a usable level.
Upon reaching a small hamlet, we knocked on a few doors, did the usual gestures and smiling, and were pointed in the direction of a house, the implication being that there was someone within with the wherewithal to assist. The door was knocked on, and the lady who answered gestured that we should wait there. Over an hour of waiting later, one might be tempted to get a bit impatient and go elsewhere. However, when you’re in the middle of the effective desert and there’s no where else to go, time is much less of a commodity.
Suddenly, action. A large sledge hammer and small offcut of metal appeared, obviously retained for the sole purpose of smashing tyres off a wheel rim, and in no time the two were separated. A quick ride round the corner on the Mongolia chaps motorbike, a large air compressor was strapped to a parcel trolley, tied to the motorbike, and ridden back like a trailer. The tyre was done, and payment was a mix of local currency and our broken electric air compressor.
Three hours later, it turned out it just wasn’t our day. Nonchalantly driving along, on a surprisingly reasonable bit of road, the wheels stopped turning. Car still in gear, revs still up, just slowly rolling to a standstill. Something transmission/linkage probably. Not good… Out we got, and I rolled under the car to have a look. The drive shaft was rather obviously no longer connected to the differential. We settled in for a long wait to try and hitch a tow off some passing traffic, our only company a lone horseman in the distance, observing us with slow and casual intrigue.
Surprisingly, this opportunity came around in a matter of minutes, a Mongolia driving back to Ulaanbatoor in a Honda Ascent saloon. We tied on our length of old climbing rope, kindly provided by Alex at Cold Mountain Kit, kept aside for a variety of circumstances. This would have worked fine if the Mongolia hadn’t been intent on driving as fast as possible, regardless of the fact we were attached behind him. A highly stressful hour of being towed at high speed ensued, which resulted in an ever decreasing length of tow rope as it was doubled up again and again to reduce the chances of it breaking, and probably giving me a high blood pressure for the next month in the process. We eventually arrived at a mechanics workshop, but the rough and fast tow had ended up smashing a hole in our diff. Miss Matiz’s run was over. She had done thousands of kilometres to get here, with barely a glitch. However, with the clock against us, our time together was at an end.
The next few days were fairly chaotic. We began the rest of our journey in the Honda Ascent that we had so stressfully been towed behind, but when our driver attempted a river crossing far too serious for a saloon car, that quickly came to an end. The car ended up semi-submerged in a reasonably fast flowing river, all of us climbing out of the windows, Sam swimming to shore with our belongings, while I sat on the roof eating baked beans out of a tin waiting for a tractor to turn up and drag us out.
We then hitched a lift in an Ambulance, but when that also broke down we became part of another convoy, including a second ambulance. To cut a long story short, this also ran into some trouble, and we finally arrived in Ulaanbatoor after 42 days on the road in the back of an ambulance with 8 other people in it, and flat tyre.
A great trip transversing some fascinating countries and cultures. None of us would hesitate to go back, and one day I don’t doubt some of us will.