I feel like I should post a ton of photos from the last few days, but it’s 3am and there are a couple thousand to go through and edit… at this point it’s looking like you all get more photos when I get home, sleep and recover from jet lag. There are a 232 gigabytes of photos & video from the whole trip with a good chunk of that from just the past few days.
Needless to say, the home stretch here has been quite exciting. Even though we sent our rally car back to UB and were taking it “easy” in the Mercy Corps vehicles, there is just no easy way to get around this country.
We woke from the Ger camp where I posted last and had a leisurely morning, leaving only at 8am and heading down to the bottom of the Flaming Cliffs to hunt for dinosaur fossils. We did find a few, but they were not very big… most of the good stuff having already been picked over by archeologists of course, and sent off to museums. Leaving the fossil site, the Land Cruiser was stopped by a flat tire… even the best suited vehicles are made into putty by the Gobi. The drivers made quick work of the fix and we were all back on the road.
Next stop, sand dunes. Not the giant ones far out west of the cliffs, they were too far away for our itinerary… we settled for the dunes only 20 or 30 meters tall. Climbing these dunes was pretty tricky, but we could scale a few of them. Tom, Kim and I also hopped on a few Bactrian Camels for a ride up to the top of one dune, and off to explore one of the further away dunes. Again… words not sufficient. You get to wait for photos.
It took most of the rest of the day just to reach Arvaikheer in Ovorhangay aimag. Deciding that the Russian jeep should not be punishment for one person, I decided to rotate in and give it another chance. Not sitting in the middle of the back seat helped, not being sick to start with was better… but no doubt about it, anywhere you sit in this thing, on the best day, is a pretty punishing ride on the roads of Mongolia. As I wrote before, it’s a tank, for sure. But the alternator belt started slipping, and we pulled over a couple times to rig a solution. The belt they had in there was the wrong size, which meant the alternator had to be slid up to the smallest position… and the belt kept rotating into the wrong position. We just made it into town where our driver, Buggy, was able to get the ‘right’ belt.
We also actually lost the Land Cruiser for a little while. They were out in front of us, and we turned off a section of road riding straight out into the Gobi… we were actually pushing fresh tracks in the sand. They got so far ahead we couldn’t even see their little sand trail anymore… apparently they couldn’t see ours either, because they stopped to wait for us, and somehow we were just over a ridge of mountains and passed them by. Cell phone reception is not exactly reliable in Mongolia… there are no towers out in the barren desert. You have to be close to a town where there is a tower. We stopped at the next town, called Mercy Corps HQ, and finally we were able to reach the other car as they neared the town we were in. I wasn’t too worried except that Buggy was such an aggressive driver, and he was mostly just following the Land Cruiser, that I thought maybe he was lost. The only word he spoke in English was “good?”, so I took a gamble and tried to speak Russian with him. I say a gamble, because since we’ve been in Mongolia, contrary to what we were told before leaving, NOBODY speaks Russian here, and few more than that speak English. That’s ok, we have gotten by without speaking the language via pantomime, and now we had Zaya with us to translate… but it was too bad that I had spent all that time learning Russian, and here in Mongolia it did me no good (not to say it wasn’t helpful in the former Soviet states though). Well, Buggy was old enough to have lived prior to the revolution here, and he had gone to school during Russian dominated times, so he did in fact speak Russian! It was great, we were able to talk about where the other car was, how far it was to the next town, where we were, etc. I now knew he definitely was not lost, and it was clearer what had happened. The only downside is now he is trying to have full on Russian conversations with me. Woops, ya punyemayu newachin heracho dude. The Land Cruiser caught up, and we made it to the next town pretty late.
This morning had us sleeping in again until 8, but by 9am we were out visiting Mercy Corps projects in Arvaikheer. These projects were not economic development programs that create self sustaining business, but were educational programs that are more reliant on grants since they don’t create recurring revenue. These projects were all really touching though, as these kids really just want to learn. The first school we visited was teaching Mongolian language skills to kids who have health issues that keep them out of regular school. What they were describing sounded like they had seizures of some sort, but the kids mostly appeared healthy and happy this morning, showing us their Cyrillic alphabet lessons on the wall, the plants they are learning to take care of, and some of the handicrafts they learn how to make. The kids were all interested in us, asking if we were “classmates”, and a few took interest in my tattoo, as they recognized some of the Buddhist symbols on my arm.
The next school was for kids learning English. Some of these kids also had hearing difficulties and were learning American sign language. The teacher at this school was so passionate about teaching these kids. She recently lost her husband to a car accident, and her daughter also has learning disabilities, so she seems to have thrown herself into teaching these kids. Her face lit up when she told us how she’d downloaded the sign language symbols and lessons from the internet for the kids, and all the games and computers she was able to purchase for them with Mongol Rally money. She showed us how the kids even made their own games to learn English, which was pretty awesome since they are teaching themselves and learning how to learn at the same time. She also had an extensive library… including Stephen King, which I asked if the kids enjoyed reading! The computers she had in the classroom were not connected to the internet… the fee of 30,000 Tugrik, roughly $25, a month was out of her budget. I want to ask Mercy Corps if there is a way we can help provide that funding in a sustainable way that doesn’t keep them dependent on annual grants that could go away… it seems like such a small amount to connect these kids to even more resources which they would obviously put to good use.
The last school we visited was for the blind, where they were learning Braille Cyrillic and other skills to become more independent and confident. One of the computers they had was purchased by Mongol Rally funds, but unfortunately didn’t have a Braille keyboard, and the accessibility software they had was in English. I don’t know if they even make the software in Mongolian, and it is probably not much more helpful for them to have Russian software… but I’d like to at least see if they can get a Braille keyboard. I’ll be looking for a Braille Cyrillic keyboard on Amazon first thing when I get home.
Most of the rest of our day was driving back to Ulaan Baatar. A few more breakdowns as the new “correct” alternator belt kept slipping and eventually snapped. Buggy wanted to continue on the battery alone, which Tom & I thought foolish… we threatened to pull our spare Fiat belts out of the roof box (oh yeah, it was strapped to the top of the land cruiser after it shook the roof racks loose from the Fiat! hah) and better judgment set in. He decided he had a spare after all, and we barely made it into UB on that belt, with the battery indicator continually dropping below 12 volts.
It took us about 45 minutes to part out all the gear we were donating to Mercy Corps and leave it with Zaya in their office in UB. We took some photos, said goodbye to her and our drivers, and made for the luxury of our final hotel. Tom, Yasmin, Jean & Amy headed back to the LG Guesthouse, while Kim & I are treating ourselves to Ulaan Baatar’s (and Mongolia’s) finest hotel, the Chinggis Khan hotel!
This post comes to you from the comfort of our room, with high speed internet again, and the benefit of a warm shower and toilet. The fingernails are trimmed. All the grease, grit and grime has been scrubbed away. I am ready to cross the finish line with our Fiat Puntos tomorrow and party with our fellow Adventurists at the final finish line party, week 6 of the rally since departing Goodwood. Kim asked me a few days ago if I would feel sad handing over the keys to the Fiat, and I said, truthfully at the time, that I was not that attached to them. But that response came during the arduous drive through the Gobi, when I was actively battling the steering and suspension, and feeling no joy. But when we pulled into the Mercy Corps parking lot today, I was so happy to see #206, with freshly powdered Gobi dust all about its edges, that I did feel a coming sense of loss that I’m sure will be bittersweet tomorrow at the finish line.
Then again, I just want to make sure The Adventurists repay that customs duty so Tom & I can get our $1000 back!
Ok, 4am is knocking at the door. I’ve got to get some sleep before tomorrow’s long day. Our flight home on Sunday is really early and I’m doubting I’ll get much sleep tomorrow night. I tell myself this will help me get back on Seattle time, but I know I’m just going to be exhausted regardless.