Friday, May 27, 2011

Stuck On The Mongolian Steppe. OR.. Getting More Adventure Than You Bargained For!

You know how sometimes when you have an experience that just goes wrong from beginning to end you can look back and spot the moment where the wheels fell off?  Well, on our trek last week, it turns out that that spot was about 2 hours after we left our friend's ger camp, just as we were about to enter Baganuur - the only decent sized town on our itinerary. So, you ask,  what happened that makes this spot the point at which you could say it was the beginning of the end? Well, like I told you, that's where the wheel fell off.  No seriously, look! The wheel  actually fell off!

Fortunately we were close to both a bathroom ( well, an outhouse really...but we are in Mongolia!) and a construction site where we were able to get some metal to help hold up the car because the driver, welll....

....his original system had the jack balancing on a wrench that was balancing on a hammer...not exactly up to safety standards...but then, we would be seeing a lot of that on this trip! Although, as a disclaimer, let me just say that this guy was amazing!  Almost everything untoward that happened on this trip was no his fault and he did a tremendous job (working long and very strenuous hours!) of getting us through it all and back home again - not without adventures though!
Also, you do have to commend him on stopping the car at exactly the point where the wheel was in the gravel (so we could dig out underneath it to get the new tire on) and the body of the car was still on the pavement so it was possible to pull of the balancing act with the jack!
And as he's working on it we were all thinking the same thing....what is that liquid all over the wheel mechanism?  Is that brake fluid?
It took about an hour but the wheel was back on ...sort of.  We only had 3 bolts left - the other ones having sheered off - so it was limping into town for us to go shopping for parts. Not a whole new assemblage..noo, just the one part that had broken. hmmmn. We went to every Dogui Zacbar...tire shop... in town. Well, technically we only went to five or six before we decided that not only us, but the driver as well would be better served if we were not there to watch him not be able to find the part we needed..less stress all around if we just went and had a drink.

So, just for the record, if anyone is looking for a nice (smoke free!!) restaurant in Baganuur I can tell you where to find one!
...and then afterwards, wandering around and killing time, it was pretty surreal to see some Mormon missionaries out here kind of in the middle of nowhere on their bikes out spreading the word...We were told by our guide that the Mongolian people "don't like this religion."  Again..hmmmn.
We also saw a group of girls playing "store" outside a women's hospital.  I remember playing the same thing when I was a kid and playing it with my kids as well.  Of course, we didn't play it with empty vodka and beer bottles that we picked up from the street!
...and who doesn't love a good game of marbles...Mongolian style. These two were extraordinarily cute and shortly thereafter, having spent 4 hours or so getting the tire repaired we headed off to go find our Ger camp.  Which we did.  At 9:00 at night just as night was falling...turned out we didn't have a reservation, the tour company hadn't been able to let them know we were coming and the camp was not only not open, but the caretakers didn't have a key.  Which is how you end up kicking people out of their ger and moving in for the night... not really cool.  But that is, in fact, part of a whole 'nother blog.  Let's just stick to the car trouble for the moment.
Day two.  Lots and lots and lots of boggy terrain!  It was time to lock the hubs and put it in full time four wheel drive to get through.
A sample of one of the very small rivers / streams / bogs that the Russian jeep got us through!
And here's the one it didn't get us through!
Two hours or so of all hands on deck...well technically all hands in  deck seeing as the deck was a series of small rivers as well as a couple of muddy, swampy areas - all of which simply had to be stepped into in order to implement the fast and furious engineering that was taking place to get us out of the mud! I can tell you though, we were really well and truly STUCK.

Casualties of the day... we all had some..well, except Chelvan who somehow, miraculously, almost managed to keep his feet dry!
Here's hoping the log doesn't slip!  Quite a lot of force on it as we pry up the van!  But look at the progress we have made already - the back wheel is sitting on rocks and logs and whatever bits of solid earth we could find to put under it so that we might have a chance of backing out. And of course, the water level is quite a lot lower thanks to some ingenious damming.

Victory is ours!
And it turns out Jacob and I are fine dam builders!  (which is not the same as damn fine builders)! 
Pushing the van out certainly left a mark....those are Jacob's hand prints after he had been playing in the mud building that excellent dam!
So, we are all tired, dirty and exhausted, but happy.  I mean, really, we have survived both the wheel falling off and the stuck in the mud adventures...what else could go wrong?  Turns out that was a stupid question.

We had quite a few river crossings on this trek...

But only one where the water splashed up high over the engine and killed us.  Dead. In the water. Terrifying and very unsettling feeling  sitting there in the absolute silence of the far away countryside with water seeping into the van while you listen to the lick and splash of of it eddying around the outside . Particularly daunting since we had just spent the afternoon digging ourselves out of the mud and we were all just done in.  In this picture you can see the last bit of the fog on the window.. I was a little slow getting the camera out.  I can tell you from unfortunate experience now that when your  Russian van's engine gets doused with water in, the inside of the van instantly becomes the hottest, foggiest sauna you have ever seen.  Fortunately for us, after the engine died, we had just enough momentum to get slightly onto the uphill side of the bank and ended up  with the engine above the water line.  Soo...after about 5 minutes of waiting  ( in absolute silence I might add.  Nobody said one word) we were able to fire it up again and inch our way out of the river.  Way too much excitement for me!
After that close call, I prayed for no more water careful what you ask for !!!  This was the most secure bridge we came across for the rest of the day. Only slightly lacking in safety rails, but it looked mostly secure.  The next two were so scary I couldn't even take pictures (for those of you who don't know how many pictures I take..that is really saying something!) was a rickety old unpainted  wooden job that looked like it had been built in  1945.  Falling apart. Huge gaps where the odd  2 x 6 was gone and the rest curled up at each end so it looked like a series of small boats nailed to a frame.

  The next one was merely two sets of 3 logs jammed together into the side of the banks of a small ( but very deep!) crevasse.  Nothing connecting them.  Two strips about a foot wide each.  and we went over that.!!! heart pretty much literally stopped as we did..but we made it.  But then, it got dark and we couldn't find the ger camp.  We  were wandering, lost, around the Mongolian steppe and we were all tired, hungry and just a little wee bit over-adventured for the day when we came to our final bridge / river crossing challenge for the day.
The driver actually wanted to go across this one.  Yes, that is a HOLE you see there...some car had already (who knows when!) gone through this bridge and he thought it would be fine to press on.  Not only was our answer was a resounding Hell No!!  He didn't much like the call,and there was a lot of discussion back and forth,  but we weren't budging. Eventually he turned around and  we headed up the river( to be clear...on the steppe beside the river!)  until he found a place with cell service so we could call the ger camp we were looking for.  Very graciously, they fired up their big truck and came to find us ... which they did about half an hour later ( ten thirty or so...)
But there was a beautiful big moon...and a chance to try some hand held shots...
and, for a change, we weren't in imminent danger of death, so it was all O.K. Of course, it did end up meaning that we had to do another water crossing, in the dark...but we had their truck leading us.  If you had asked me 3 hours earlier if I would be THRILLED to be driving through another Mongolian river that day I would have given you a definite and categorical NO.  However, sometimes life does alter your outlook doesn't it?
We came back this way the next day and got the driver to stop so I could get some better pictures of what the bridge had looked like... don't you love the early warning system that there is a HOLE in the bridge?  A pile of rocks... and in the other lane too...crazy!

And this is the exact spot where, the previous evening, the driver jumped up and down repeatedly to 'prove' to us that the bridge was structurally sound enough to carry his fully loaded one ton (?) van.  No really, I mean it, he wanted us to believe it was still structurally sound...which maybe it was ( I mean, he is still with us...) but we weren't taking that chance.  I am pretty sure that watching the driver die (or suffer horrible mutilating injuries?) would have been a really nasty end to the day.  As it turned out, the remainder of the trip was  automobile-ishly uneventful. Thank God.
 Which is not to say that nothing happened...just that nothing else involving the car happened.   As  for the rest of the adventures from the trek....well, as usual, that is another post.


  1. Wow....never a dull moment in the second half...xoxo

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