Altai to Ulaan Baatar

Well the big news here is that we made it! As tweeted, we arrived in Ulaan Bataar on Thursday August 27th in the evening and made it to the finish line downtown at about 8pm.

The last couple hundred kilometers in to UB is newly paved and feels so smooth and amazing after 10 days of driving on the worst surfaces imaginable. You come in to the city through a pass over low mountains. Coming over the pass and around a bend, we were suddenly presented with the entirety of the city below us at sunset. When we (the Flatlanders and I) saw it like that, after spending so long to get there, we were elated.

With the party tunes cranked up we rolled in to the city and were quickly given the driving equivalent of an ice-water bath: the worst traffic ever. There are no rules when driving in UB, except possibly that pedestrians must always yield.

But let’s go back to Altai. The convoy was feeling a little bit sore that day about Joe and Tim of Rubikcrew taking off without us. In addition to feeling under-appreciated for help rendered two days before when Rubikcrew’s Fiat broke down for several hours, members of the convoy had also loaned several important items to Rubikcrew that we were now unlikely to see again. Bembeltoads lost their air compressor (for inflating tires), I lost my map of Mongolia, and Flatlanders lost most of their food. That said, it was understandable why someone with a tight schedule would take off– we were very slow.

Although that was the mood, the time in Altai went pretty well. We (my car) got there a couple hours earlier than the rest and had some time to visit the internet cafe and get some buuz (pronounced more like boodz, potsticker-like dumplings full of gamey mutton, the national fast food of Mongolia). The other two cars managed to get their tires/wheels repaired and we got back on the road– briefly.

Driving through the countryside, it was normal for the three/four cars to space out a fair bit for various reasons. We’d choose different routes through the terrain, some cars would handle certain conditions better than others, and also just to get out of each others’ dust wake. But even given this we still tried to maintain visual contact (should have been easy this day because the terrain was flat and open for miles).

Maybe 50km outside the city I stopped the Skoda since we noticed we hadn’t seen the other cars behind us for a number of minutes. We waited another 15 or 20 minutes before another passing rally car told us that the two other cars were stopped 13km back.  Somewhere in here the Flatlanders drank an entire 750ml bottle of vodka. Since it was starting to get late in the afternoon, we turned back to meet up with them before dark. We found them near dusk and heard the story: the Bembeltoads had hit a bump and their entire roof rack had come flying off, flinging its contents over several meters in front of the car. At first the rack looked like a goner, but with some intrepid hammering was made to fit again.

Karsten, Juan, and Robert inspect the damage after the Bembeltoads' roof rack goes flying off

Karsten, Juan, and Robert inspect the damage after the Bembeltoads' roof rack goes flying off

Unfortunately by this time it was dark, so we made camp right there where we were, although maybe 1km off the main tracks. The drunken Flatlanders passed out immediately once the tent was set up, and missed dinner.

From that point on the driving was largely uneventful. The landscape continued to be spectacular, and the road continued to be terrible, but the occasional flat tire was as bad as it got for us. We spent a night in Bayankhongor and a night in Arvaikheer, then rolled in to UB the next day.

I feel like I’m not really doing justice to how bad the roads were. It seemed that every other car not in our convoy had broken something major. Suspension problems were the most common. Dave and Alex broke their rear shocks, had some new ones (that didn’t quite fit) welded in, broke the weld, and drove without them (but with springs) for the last few days– it was hilarious to see their car bouncing wildly over the bumps. Dan and Stuart broke their leaf springs a couple times and drove at a snails pace to avoid jarring all the teeth out of their heads.  The garage in Altai was full (literally) with rally cars in various states of wreckage. Probably 20 cars  were inside and around the garage when we were there. Some other Spaniards, friends of Juan and Nuria, broke their timing belt and had to leave the car where it was. Another Skoda team broke their serpentine belt with a similar outcome.

Another common problem was fuel-pump shut-offs triggered by big bumps. Modern cars have an inertial switch that will shut off the fuel pump in the event of an accident in order to prevent fuel leaks, fires, and explosions. The problem was that some of the bumps on the road were so big (or people hit them so hard), that the sensor would think there had been an accident and shut off the fuel pump while the car was still driving. It’s not hard to reset the switch, but for most of us it was the first time encountering this problem and it was unexpected. Surprisingly, I didn’t hear about anyone setting off their airbags this way (the Skoda didn’t have airbags, but I’m sure many of the cars did).

I’m going to credit our success car-wise mainly to careful driving. Slow and steady definitely wins the race here. For instance, if you don’t hit bumps at 50 km/h, you’re not going to trigger the inertial sensor or dent your wheels. Other than that I should give credit to the Uniroyal tires we bought in Austria. I only had 2 flats across the whole of Mongolia, and the first one was more than 1000 km in. For comparison, the other members of our convoy had 4 or 5 each, and other teams had 30 or more (I’m telling you, these rocks are sharp).

That’s all for now. More photo posts to follow as I process the back-log of pictures! See the rest of my Mongolia Pictures here and the rest of Bembeltoads’ here.

4 Comments

  1. Ron Cole says:

    Great photo Andrew. Congratulations on reaching the UB.

  2. Rachel says:

    Congratulations! It’s been fun following you along this incredible adventure.

  3. Michelle says:

    You made it! It’s been such fun following your adventures. All of Las Vegaans have been rooting for you.

  4. Sam Cullen says:

    Hey Andrew. Fantastic effort. Well done on arriving in one piece. Trust you’ve enjoyed the amazing journey, has been great following along.