It is true, the rally really starts in Mongolia. But saying that everything up until now does not count would be unfair. We got used to drive for 8 hours a day in Europe, the Fellowship met in Turkmenistan, our driving skills improved in Kyrgyzstan and our cars got prepared in Russia. Now it is time to face the real challenge and we are ready (one can only hope).
The Altai Mountains
Vladimir, the owner of a little garage in Barnaul, must have thought it was his lucky day when he saw 4 cars driving to his doorstep. Two ambulances needing a sump guard and two little Polos, one with a very noisy exhaust and the other with a broken suspension. Nothing Vladimir and his crew could not solve though, and in less than a day all four cars were ready to go.
For two days the convoy drove through the Altai region, from Barnaul to the Mongolian border. Well paved roads, midst and stunning mountains covered in pine trees contributed to one of the most scenic and enjoyable rides of the whole trip.
It was 18.30h by the time the convoy arrived at the border and we were second in the queue for next day. That night our camping spot was different: in the middle of the road, surrounded by barb wired fences and under heavy rain. And always in good company.
The last border
Funnily enough, the checks to leave Russia were way more exhaustive than those we experienced when entering the country but all cars went through within one hour. Then we got to drive on the most beautiful no mans land of the entire rally, only interrupted when one of the cars had a small issue. How many people can say they have had a breakdown in between two borders?
Reports from other teams warned us of the longest border crossing of them all. And the Mongolian bureaucracy did not disappoint. But first, we said farewell to Team Tuk Tales once again as their planned route through Mongolia was different from ours.
Understandably, the whole process includes a few more steps, as this time the vehicles are to be imported into the country. The two hour lunch break does not help either. Things got interesting when a big fat driverless truck stormed through the compound, miraculously avoiding all our vehicles and finally crashing into the main building.
At 19.30h local time, when all our hopes of crossing the border were lost, something changed. The last step of the process was apparently done we got told we were almost good to go. Afraid to see the guards going home, we run around the building making sure all our papers were stamped. Finally, 9 hours after entering the Russian border, we crossed into Mongolia, the last border of our trip.
Following a few kilometres of washboards and rocks, a brand new road appeared before us and fearless we put the foot down and enjoyed a smooth, beautiful ride towards the sunset. Not far before the town of Olgii the convoy pulled over for our first night in Mongolia. After a long and stressful day, spirits were high, the camping spot was perfect and The Fellowship, despite losing a team, was full of enthusiasm.
A taste of Mongolia
We woke up bright and… late, possibly due to the two hour difference with Russia. It did not matter though, we were in Mongolia! Following Charlie and Nicky’s recommendation, we went in search of the so called middle route. In their own words: “with the adventure of the North route but the ease of the South route”. Count me in please!
Once again, the journey lived up to the expectations. Our first day was such a huge roller coaster of different landscapes and road conditions that it is hard to put into words. It was rainy at first through narrow dirt tracks, followed by blue skies and arid roads full of volcanic rocks. All three vehicles then got stuck in the sand and crossed three rivers in the space of half an hour, always in the watchful eyes of the locals.
The day could not be over without a very tricky mountain pass that proved what a great addition the sump guard was to Lola. The steep hills and sharp rocks came with a reward, Shaadzgay Nuur. A stunning lake stuck in between rocky mountains whose reflection was clearly seen in the pristine waters. Without a doubt one of the best views of the trip, perhaps even better than Song Kol.
Shaadzgay Nuur would have been the perfect spot for our second night in Mongolia, but we decided to carry on for a couple of hours. The end of this journey is within our grasp and after 49 days on the road, arriving in Ulaanbaatar is now more than ever our top priority.
Challenging roads, great weather and with a bit of luck, the finish line. Our trip is coming to end and I am sure Mongolia has a grand finale waiting for us.