It’s 8:30 at night, the sun has already gone down, and I’m chasing a Russian jeep through the Gobi desert with rally fog lights and high beams lighting a path over rocks and sand berms just begging to take me out for good. I find myself asking again, as I did at the top of that Russian ski resort… “how did I get here?” Only this time I am in the rally milieu, this is exactly where we planned to be. Well, “planned” is a strong word.
Our original route had us blazing through well paved Russian roads for the Altanbulag border in the North of Mongolia, and then heading west before ever entering Ulaan Baatar so we could visit Chinggis Khan’s old capitol at Karakorum and do a loop south to the Gobi desert, riding triumphantly into UB across the finish line.
You all know at this point how amazingly well the blazing through Russian roads and crossing at Altanbulag went. And of course now we were already in UB reuniting with Kim and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of our week before this is all over. I am wondering if we are the first Mongol Rally team to drive into UB, *NOT* cross the finish line, and leave before returning successfully. I can’t say for sure, but I do know one first we accomplished. According to Mercy Corps Mongolia, we are the first Mongol Rally team to ever visit their office in UB in person!
Not knowing exactly how we would head out of UB, but knowing only that we wanted to go to the Gobi and that we wanted to visit some Mercy Corps project sites, we contacted Mercy Corps to see what projects we could see on that route. Not only did they have a list of sites we could go to, they generously offered to send one of their staff and a driver along with us in their Toyota Land Cruiser to personally guide us around their projects. How sweet is that? Bonus: we are following somebody who knows where they are going, they also offered to show us to some sites we wanted to see (the Flaming Cliffs and some famous sand dunes), and we would have instant help in the event of the inevitable mechanical mishap. Given that #201 was really struggling with a torn off muffler (did I forget to mention that it basically just fell off on the way to Irkustk?) and some very sketchy steering shake at around 40mph, we decided to leave her parked at Mercy Corps. On the other hand, #206 had new life breathed into her in Krasnoyarsk. With a rebuilt front right strut, exhaust, and radiator fan, she was driving smooth as ever and ready to take on the Gobi.
And she was freshly cleaned! Surprise of the day was Monday morning when we walked out of our guesthouse to see UB, and we noticed our windshield wipers were flipped up. After hearing about all the theft in UB, we were worried about a break in, and had cleared the car of all valuables the night before… but with the wipers flipped up we assumed somebody had broken in anyway. To our great enjoyment, not only were the cars not broken into, they were spotless. We had acquired a new paint job of mud and smog after the rainy drive to Irkutsk, but that was now gone. The cars shone again, cleaner than they were when we left Goodwood (Tom and I did a good job of dirtying them up during the prep week). Certainly we couldn’t cross the finish line like this. We would have to remedy this right away.
Tuesday morning, we drove both cars over to Mercy Corps’ office on Peace Ave, and stripped everything out of #201 we thought we would need for the journey. Most of it went into/onto the Land Cruiser, and the rest we piled into #206. Our new friend, Zaya, a project manager for Mercy Corps, would accompany us from their office to project sites, educate us about their projects, and translate for us along the way. Another bonus for us: she’s a part time tour guide and her family is from the area of the Gobi we are visiting! The drive south out of UB was fairly uneventful for the first 100k, with only slightly degraded pavement we passed the airport, a new stadium being built, and some herds of sheep and camels.
Then, the road just… ended.
No fanfare, it just turned into dirt. We bounced along for a few hours, trying to keep up with the effortless pace of the Land Cruiser. Taking our fair share of scrapes we would stop every once in a while to look for leaks, but the new shocks and sump guard seemed to be doing their jobs. Kim expressed some concern… but I assured her this was all “normal” and that the car could handle it. Then, as if to spite me, the road turned absolutely evil. Now, I can only assume that the roads from the West are just as bad, but if that’s really true I have a hard time understanding how any of these Mongol Rally cars can make it. Maybe it was just the pace of trying to keep up with the Land Cruiser, but our newly rebuilt car was taking an complete thrashing. The words “pot holes” do not do these exploded mine fields justice. And when the road was “flat”, it was covered in cat tracks left by Russian construction vehicle treads, the spacing and depth of which are perfectly designed to shake a Fiat Punto with 14″ tires, and it contents, completely apart. “Don’t worry, we’ll be ok” I confidently reassured Kim as we scraped against every rock, bush and cow skull on the road.
And it was ok. Until the muffler came off. This wasn’t so bad actually, it came apart right at a U-bolt and we were able to reattach it somewhat, but during our exhaust reconstructive surgery we noticed something else… something bad. Oil was flowing pretty steadily out down over the sump guard. Crap. We were done for. The car would not hold oil long enough for us to get to the next town, let alone the South Gobi and back to UB. Thankfully we handily had a Toyota Land Cruiser with an experienced Mongolian driver ready to tow us. I attached the tow hook to the front of the Fiat and before you could say Chinggis Khan we were being dragged through the sand 10 feet behind a screaming dust machine. A thick layer of sand and dust was making quick work of the car wash we’d never asked for in UB.
When we arrived at the next town, Tom and I quickly went to work pulling the sump guard off so we could see what had happened to the oil pan. The town mayor or governor came out and offered his help. Zaya called the Mercy Corps office in the next town to start arranging for a backup plan. After we got the sump guard off, we could clearly see where one of our brutal pounding scraps had pushed the guard up against the oil pan creating an indentation which was weak enough to leak oil through a small hole. This is a risk with every rally car, but we knew from the start that this one was susceptible since we’d seen an oil leak there in London. We had driven out to the Fiat dealer in Slough and briefly purchased a new sump, but when we tried to get a local mechanic to replace it (a long job) he insisted he could patch our leak cheaper. He slathered epoxy resin all over the sump, gave us a batch of quick steel, and sent us on our way to return the new part and protect the whole bit with the custom made sump guards Tony made for us in North London. Well this new hole was just below where the resin patch was, and it was time for the quick steel to do its job. Tom cut off a bit of metal from the exhuast foil repair kit so I could push it up against the hole and create a flat dry surface for the quick steel. We pasted over the whole business with the quick steel and in 5 minutes my work of art was complete. We poured in 3 liters of oil, started her up, and low and behold… NO LEAK!
While we were pretty impressed with our amazing mechanical skills, we were also certain that our little Punto couldn’t take 3 more days of this abuse, and leak repair aside, she was starting and running pretty rough. The kind of vibration we were taking can’t be sustained for long, at least not by this fine example of Italian engineering. So when the Russian jeep arrived, we followed as far as Mercy Corps’ office in Dundgobi where we left #206 to catch a ride back to UB on the back of some monster trailer. Zaya said Mercy Corps could arrange to return the car to their office while we continued on our route with the Land Cruiser and the Russian jeep! We’d have to pay for fuel (which we would have anyway), and to send the Fiat back to UB. Other than that our rally dreams continue!
Tomorrow, on to Dalanzadgad!