An Unforgettable Day, For All the Wrong Reasons!
Trip Start May 02, 2007
71Trip End Ongoing
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We knew we were in a world of trouble when Moshi, our hired Mongolian driver, explained to us that two of the girls (who shall remain nameless) had just peed too close to a Buddha worshipping shrine. We were only two hours into our scheduled eight hour drive when Moshi stopped for a toilet break. He walked a few paces away from an unassuming large pile of rocks to do his business, and the girls followed suit, using the same pile for some privacy. When we all got back in the van he wore a shocked look on his face and told them what they had done. None of us had any idea that this pile of rocks (which had empty bottles and other debris on it - offerings?) was sacred to the locals. We would never have guessed at the string of events that were to follow this on this day.
A couple of hours earlier, we - along with our newfound Aussie friends Mark, Natalie, Carl and Emma - readied ourselves for a five night, six day off-road excursion to White Lake - about 650 km west of the Mongolian capital. Our driver, Moshi, loaded our gear into the back of his Russian-made 4x4 van and we were off. We were supposed to leave at nine that morning, but due to train ticket complications, we weren't able to leave until eleven. The UB Guesthouse staff assured us that it was alright to depart this late in the day. How wrong they would turn out to be. Shortly after the Buddha rock incident we had our first taste of bad luck. We were forced to stop before a small bridge that was blocked by a herd of sheep. Mongolian herders were doing their best to clear them out of the way, but it was obvious the sheep weren't in any hurry. At this time, Moshi noticed that the van was leaking oil, so while he disappeared underneath the van to work on it, we all got out to snap some shots of the scene ahead of us. The Mongolians didn't seem to mind and actually took some interest in us, smiling and laughing as we showed them the results on the cameras' LCD screens.
Thirty minutes later we were back on track and bouncing our way down the pot-hole riddled dirt track that would be our road for the next few days. There is an amazing network of these "roads" in the back country - network in the sense that if you don't like where it is taking you, you simply veer off and make your own tracks. Paved streets are rare, and when you do come across them, you have a sudden, deep appreciation for asphalt. We aren't sure how many kilometers were behind us when Moshi started complaining of power loss. Once again we found ourselves pulled over in the middle of a vast expanse of frozen, grassy steppe. This time he had the driver's seat out to access the engine, and was soon mucking around with what we were pretty sure was the distributor cap (I became the resident car expert after explaining that I had read a few chapters of "Auto Repair for Dummies" before driving around Europe). Soon, we were again leading a trail of dust, driving straight through a flat plain surrounded by a low, long range of mountains. After a while, the scene changed a little and a few distant trees added themselves to the landscape.
We were probably on the road for seven hours or so, with the sun starting to fade away, when Moshi suddenly opened his door and had a look toward the rear of the van. He pulled over right away and we all vacated to check out what he had seen. It was a blown left rear tire. The chill of the air was now biting so we bundled up a little more and stood outside as Moshi jacked up one side and started to work. Before this day, I had never known that inner tubes were used on some vehicles, so it was an educational experience as well. We had with us a spare, inflated tire under the van, but the wheel it was on was broken and could not be used. Moshi had to deflate the good inner tube, take it out from under the tire, and replace the broken one. It was a pleasure to watch the diminutive Mongolian at work; he was expertly efficient and we joked that Formula One should have a race where no electric tools were allowed to be used in the pits, and that he should lead a pit team. We all took turns with a bicycle pump inflating the newly repaired tire (another learning experience since none of us thought a pump like this could do the job - it can!). Just to make life a little more difficult, a couple of the lug nuts were slightly stripped so Moshi had to borrow one or two from the other wheels.
Still in high spirits, we mounted our steed and were again kicking up dust heading toward our destination. Or so we thought. After some heavy bouncing around as Moshi tried to make up lost time, we came across a bogged van in a small body of water. It looked like they had tried to cross it and got stuck. Mark, being the resident "man" (a term used very loosely with us city slickers) of the group went with Moshi to investigate. From inside our van we could see burning embers being tossed from their vehicle. Mark returned and reported they had built a fire inside - presumably to keep themselves warm as they worked their way out of their sticky situation. As they dug themselves out (with the help of a headlamp we lent them), Moshi conversed with one of them. Once they were out and across the water, we retrieved our headlamp and Moshi filled us in with the news that we were lost! In the darkness we had taken a wrong turn somewhere in the void and were miles off track in the wrong direction. Earlier on, Yvonne thought aloud that we were probably lost because there was no way to know which direction we were headed, but the rest of us shrugged her off and maintained our faith in our professional driver. I hate it when she's right! Moshi did manage to learn where we were and was pointed in the direction of a small village with a hotel. Having the day we were having we were fully expecting another break-down before we reached the village. We were not to be disappointed. As we sped toward the comforts of the hotel - and with the twinkling lights of the village visible in the distance - a loud clang broke our silence and once again we found ourselves on the side of the track. It was now completely dark and the temperature continued to drop. Moshi tried a few times to start the van but it only produced this same clanging sound. We found ourselves outside again watching Moshi fiddle beneath the beast. We had a big shock when he threw out a long metal rod from under the van; we quickly recognized it as the drive-shaft (or, at least - in our extremely limited knowledge of mechanics - we thought it was). We were sure that that was the last straw and we would have to hoof it in from here. We were surprised when he told us to get back in. We made the rest of the drive using front-wheel drive only, and crawled into the yard of the hotel. Before you start thinking we were about to check into the Sheraton, let me assure you this was almost as primitive as it gets. We had two rooms to share which were heated by a single wood-burning stove. The ceilings were covered in wallpaper that depicted Snoopy in a scene of a tropical paradise, as if this should be enough to make you forget where you were. There were three beds in each room so we split up into boys and girls and had separate slumber parties. When Moshi told us he was going to sleep in the van we insisted he take a space on the floor in the "men's" (once again, used loosely) room. We were fed a hot meal by a young boy - presumably the son of the owner - and one beer later, we were fast asleep, trying to leave the events of the day far behind us.