Day 23: We have arrived

Сайн байна у! Hello from Mongolia! After three weeks of solid driving, we have arrived. It’s been one hell of a challenge getting here but we are good and somewhat miraculously, all still alive. Who would’ve known?

We had a lovely evening in the hotel; we left our bags in the room, got some pasta cooking in the kitchen for dinner and sat down for a well earned rest. After dinner, we finally started on the enormous watermelon we’d picked up in Uzbekistan. By the time we ate it, that watermelon was more well-travelled than most adults! Being massive as it was, we shared it round with the others staying in the hotel – many of whom, like ourselves, had got to the border too late and had been turned away – making friends as we went.

We were up bright and early this morning to get in the queue for the border. Despite not opening until 9am, when we joined the queue for the border just before 7:30am, there were already at least 12 cars and 10 lorries in front of us. We got chatting to a French couple who were driving a massive truck (seriously, I’ve never seen anything like it!) all the way across Russia and Mongolia – final destination Australia! A slight miscommunication had us all thinking the 2t truck used just 5L/100km which would be unbelievably good fuel economy – as the Russian guy next to us pointed out, it wasn’t far off what his motorbike manages. Fact checking with his wife a little later resulted in an outburst of laughter “5L? Are you crazy? Of course not, it’s 25L/100km”. Now that sounds a little more like it!

We were rather concerned when the French man told us of his experiences the day before. He’d been let in when the border reopened after lunch at 2pm, they’d questioned him for 4 hours and gone through all of the medicines he’d brought, photographing and demanding an explanation of each one. Just as he thought he was free to go, 6pm came and oh, look at that, it was time to go home so they kicked him out and told him to come back in the morning…! He said in total, they’d processed just 5 vehicles and 1 truck in the space of the day. It was not looking good for us…especially given our place in the queue.

Some of the people we’d befriended in the hotel the night before turned up – driving right to the front of the queue where their friends had been saving a space for them. Out they jumped and upon noticing me asking where our car was. I pointed to the far end of the queue. The lady who spoke good English came over and asked how come we were so far back (well, because no one was saving us a space) and weren’t we in a rush (yes) and didn’t we have that problem with our car (yes). “Hmm, perhaps we should talk to the others”, she said.

Five minutes later, a little space had been made for Kermit among their group of vehicles and we were in. Perhaps we would be getting through after all!

A good three hours after we started queuing, we were in. Again, contrary to the stories we’d been told, the border guards were surprisingly pleasant. The border was a bureaucratic nightmare and woefully inefficient but as with Turkmenistan, the guards themselves were polite and welcoming. The search was probably the most thorough search we’ve faced so far – the car was emptied, personal bags scanned and all other bags and boxes opened. We then drove through the 26km of no man’s land to get to the Mongolian border.

We’d read horror stories online describing the ludicrous amounts of customs tax now levied on cars brought into the country to tackle the issue of cars dumped by Mongol Ralliers at the end of their journey. One website even suggested a deposit of 4500USD + 15% of the value of the car – Kermit isn’t worth much (sorry Kermit!) but even so, ouch! Thankfully, we experienced no such problems. The customs official, who spoke fairly good English, asked us to scan all our personal bags then had a quick look in our car, pointed to a few things and asked what they were before declaring us good to go.

Driving out of the Mongolian border facility, just as we thought we were done, we got chased down by some locals demanding we purchase insurance and pay for some other charge (we later found out this was a “conservation tax”). With just a hundred rubles or so and a measly 600 tugrik left in my wallet, we were a bit stuck. We paid $20 for the insurance (overpaying slightly and of course, they would give no change but at least we had it just in case we got stopped by police) and bought 1 conservation tax pass with our remaining rubles. Initially they insisted we needed one tax pass per person but gave up fairly quickly when we insisted we had no money to pay with.

Extortion attempt survived, we were on the road to Ülgii. The road was rough and I had to drive carefully because we still weren’t sure about the status of poor Kermit’s exhaust, I still managed to make good time – I’m quite convinced that in a past life I was a rally driver because I was loving it. We turned a corner and couldn’t believe our eyes, the sheer beauty that lay before us. No, not the Mongolian countryside but an asphalt road. It was love at first sight…

Driving the final stretch on asphalt we reached the city in no time. We checked in to our hotel, unpacked and went straight down to see the local mechanic – recommended to us by the same friends who had helped us skip the queue! With Kermit up on the lift, we got a good view of what was going on. Most fortunately, there was just a couple of small holes in the exhaust, nothing major so Dad plugged these using exhaust bandages and gum (which completely fascinated the local mechanics) and given the opportunity, also got the mechanic to do an oil change. An hour or so later, Kermit was patched up, good as new. Well not quite, but you get me.

Tomorrow we leave for Ulaan Bataar. It’ll take a few days to get there. We’re still rather tight on time so keeping our fingers crossed that everything goes smoothly but if today’s roads were a taster, we’ve got some pretty challenging driving ahead!

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