A few weeks ago, there were some problems at the Mongolian border. Because a lot of teams from the previous years have left their broken cars somewhere in Mongolia, all the Mongol Rally teams now had to pay a $6000 deposit upon entering Mongolia. This deposit was for the Mongol Rally teams only. The authorities managed to suspend this rule just a week before we entered, but the organization warned us that we needed to be very friendly and patient because they would otherwise reintroduce the rule.
WE’VE MADE IT!
We arrived at the Tashanta border, on the Russian side at midnight. The border would open the next day at 9 am so we had to sleep in the car that night. After a cold night, we woke up at 7 am and saw that we weren’t alone as we thought. There were seven teams before us in line to enter Mongolia. The Russian border guards weren’t so friendly actually. We didn’t have a Customs Declaration paper from entering Russia, and we needed this to get out of the country. Luckily we could use our Customs Declaration of Kazakhstan. After stamping our passports, the entire car got searched, so we had to take almost everything out of the trunk. The whole process on this side of the border took us 1,5 hours.
There was a stretch of 26km no man’s land between the two borders. At the Mongolian border, they sprayed our tires with some liquid. They said it was for disinfecting the car, but it was probably just water. We had to pay $5 for this. After this, we were allowed to get into the checkpoint area. It appears that the locals get priority because they went all the time to the front of the queue. Because we had to keep calm and friendly, we couldn’t say much against them. To get the car into the country, we had to go from window 3 to window 1 and then to window 2. But it was easy and straightforward. We were through the border in 1,5 hours.
After the border, a guy stopped us and told us that we had to buy insurance for the car. We had to go into a small office with just one table and a bench. Thomas was buying the insurance, while Myrthe was dealing with three drunk Mongolians that wanted to marry her, again. We paid $30, which was obviously way too much. When we came outside, a lot of local kids were swarming around us and the car, and they were pointing into the car while saying “Mine, mine, mine”. We gave them a couple of stickers, Myrthe got a wet kiss on the cheek by one of the drunk guys, and we left.
Now we were finally, officially, on Mongolian roads. We made it to our final destination! We’ve crossed 17 countries to get here, and it was all worth it. We were super excited! Driving in Mongolia is just amazing. Almost all of the roads are unpaved. You start driving on one road, and after just a couple of minutes, this road splits into five different roads. Sometimes these trails lead to the same destination, at times not. You never know sure where you end up. A GPS doesn’t always help in this country.
BEWARE OF THE SCAMMERS
Our first destination was Ölgii. Somewhere in the middle of the route, we passed Tsagaannuur, the first town after the border where the road splits into the northern and central route. A guy on a red motorcycle stopped us and invited us into his yurt to have chai, the traditional Mongolian milk tea. He had a sticker of the Mongol Rally on his bike and we just saw another team leave his place. So we thought “Why Not?”. He introduced us to his wife, mother and his two little kids that were running around and wrestled with each other. Probably because of the sugar cubes they were eating. We had some lovely chai. The grandmother kept filling our cups, at least four times. There were many biscuits and all sorts of cheese on the table. They asked us if we wanted to stay for the night and have dinner, but we refused because it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The guy was interested and friendly in the beginning until one point where he just went outside and a friend of him came in. This friend wanted to offer us a tour in the Altai Mountains for a couple of days. We had to leave the car at the yurt and immediately go with him to his house. Even after saying no for ten times, he kept insisting. After that, he wanted to buy our car and told us to arrange everything with the border guards, so we wouldn’t have problems with importing it. His sister works at the border apparently. Yeah right… He became really annoying, so it was time to leave. Of course, we wanted to give something to the host for the hospitality. But before we even had the time to take our wallet, he blocked the door, and he and the mother already did the sign that we had to pay them. It was stupid of Thomas to ask how much they wanted. He said that he wanted $20; we didn’t know what to do. Suddenly, three men were standing in the yurt, and maybe five other outside. They didn’t actually threaten us, but we felt a little bit intimidated, so we just gave him 20 dollars and wanted to leave as quickly as possible. Outside, they asked for some free ‘gifts’ for the kids, as well for the kids of the other guys outside of the yurt. We just gave them a couple of air fresheners and stickers and stepped in the car. We didn’t say goodbye or anything because we were pissed off about the situation and mad at ourselves that we didn’t haggle about the price. Later, we saw on Facebook and different web forums that this guy is notorious and does this with everyone he can. So this is clearly a scam. We read that they even steal things from bikes of cyclists and bikers. So if you plan to go to Mongolia, do not stop in Tsagaannuur, especially not if they try to stop you on the road.
So our first hours in Mongolia weren’t very welcoming. One group of kids that were running towards our car, while we were driving, smashed something very hard on our window because we didn’t want to stop. Once in Ölgii, we just went to the Duman Hotel, the first hotel that we found on our GPS. It was $20/night. So we didn’t expect much of it. It had sloping walls, we couldn’t lock the doors, stains everywhere, a hard cigarette smell and there were open electrical wires hanging out of the wall in the shower. We heard that there’s a yurt camping in Ölgii for less than $20 with good WiFi, so we recommend that instead. There aren’t a lot of options either to eat in this small city, so we went to Pamukkale, which was recommended by Lonely Planet. The food was good and cheap, but they didn’t have 2/3 of the menu available.
MONGOLIA, BEST ADVENTURE TRAVEL DESTINATION
The next day, we met three other Mongol Rally teams at the gas station and we agreed to meet each other somewhere just outside of Khovd to camp that night. On our way, we stopped when we saw a local with a big eagle on his arm at the side of the road. We first thought it was just coïncidence, but it became quickly apparent that he stood there because he knew that a lot of ralliers pass by this road. We all could take the eagle on our arm. It was pretty cool because the bird is huge when he spreads his wings. After some talking and joking, he asked for 20 000 MNT. That’s obviously too much for holding an eagle for a minute on your arm. We learned from our other experience and started haggling. We gave him 5000 MNT. That’s maybe also too much but good enough for him, and good for us. We all started driving again, but we quickly lost everyone because of the different road tracks. The part between Ölgii and Khovd was in some places very dusty and had parts with deep sand where you can get stuck in. All the sand and dust came in the car through the tiniest open spots. Our car was just full of sand.
At the first river crossing, we met two German teams. We already met one of them on the Pamir Highway. They were driving together with a Russian on a motorbike, but he wasn’t doing the Mongol Rally. We drove together on the endless dirt roads for almost 2 or 3 hours. We had to go through a couple of rivers. In Mongolia, they don’t build a bridge when it is possible to go over the river with a 4WD. But of course, it get’s a little bit difficult for our small cars. Every river crossing is a bit of a challenge because you don’t truly now what the surface in the middle of the river is like, or how deep it exactly is. At our 3rd crossing, we were a bit skeptic if we could cross it without the help of a tractor to pull us across the river. We first drove a little bit further to see if there wasn’t a better part or even a bridge. Without luck. It became clear that we had to do the crossing. We all pumped each other up, checked the river multiple times for the perfect path and went for it! The car almost got stuck and gave up in the deepest part, but luckily we made it without getting too much water in the engine.
CHEERS TO THE GOUVERNEUR
The Russian guy however, lost a bolt of his exhaust during the river crossing. We helped him by using multiple plastic straps to hold the exhaust in his place. But after 5mins of driving, they already broke off. We tried this three times but without luck. Eventually, we tried to keep it in its place with elastic straps. Now we had more success! We lost the Germans and Russian guy after a while, but it worked until the last time we saw them. We drove further to the place where we arranged to meet the other teams. The spot was 20 minutes from the main road on a dirt track that went towards a big lake. When we arrived at the destination, it seemed that we were there first. After driving around a bit on the open steppe, we saw a couple of cars and tents a little bit further. When we came closer, we noticed that they were other Mongol Rally teams (two Swiss team and one American team) who were waving their flag to get our attention. They weren’t the guys that we’ve met at the gas station earlier, but we were happy to spend the night with other ralliers. It was clear that the other teams didn’t make it up here before dark. We cooked together and played a drinking game, ‘Cheers To The Gouverneur’. It was a fun game, but we can’t remember the rules anymore. The only thing that we still remember is that we screwed up a lot of times because we were a little bit too drunk, oops! It was a fun night but unfortunately one of our last in Mongolia. Because of problems on the way with the ferry crossing from Baku to Turkmenistan and in the Pamirs, we lost a lot of time, and our Russian visa was going to end in 11 days. So we couldn’t drive all the way up to the capital of Mongolia, Ulan Bator. Otherwise, we won’t make it on time out of Russia. We’ve chosen to return the car back home and not to let it turn into scrap. Myrthe is going to use the vehicle back home when we come back from traveling, so it’s a win-win situation.
The next day, we had to say goodbye and turn around to do the same road again, but now from the other side. The rivers were much deeper now than last time. We were already curious what will happen when we pass by that one yurt of the scammer in Tsagannuur again. Last time, we promised that we would stop and overnight at their place before going to the border. So there was a chance that he would drive after us, if he’d see us passing by. We drove close to the old VAZ jeep in front of us when we neared the village. By doing this, he wouldn’t maybe spot our red color from a distance. When we passed by, he just came outside and tried to wave us down. We just ignored the guy and drove further, constantly looking in the rear mirror. Luckily, he didn’t follow us on his bike! Once at the border, the same guy that said that we had to buy insurance, now stated that we had to pay him a road tax of $5. We refused to pay because it was clearly a scam. Immediately, he saw that we wouldn’t pay him, so he laughed and said it was a joke. The kids came swarming around the car again, putting their nose against the window and saying ‘Mine, mine, mine’ while pointing to things in the car.
THE END OF OUR MONGOL RALLY ADVENTURE
We now finished the Mongol Rally 2016. It was a short but intense encounter with Mongolia. We are surprised that the car kept going that good for the whole journey. Driving for almost two months to get to Mongolia, seeing all these countries, meeting all these people, is definitely one of the best experiences of our life. We had our ups and downs, laughed many times but also had our frustrations now and then.
We had car problems on one of the highest places in the world, got bribed, got stuck for a week just to get on a ferry and drove 15.000 km in 45 days. But it was all worth it! Mongolia is a country like no other with its vast stretches of grassland in the west, sand dunes of the Gobi Desert in the south, trees and lakes in the north and its remoteness in the east. We saw wild yaks, camels, eagles, vultures, sheep, cows, horses and much more! Now is the moment to visit Mongolia because every year, more and more nomadic inhabitants leave their yurts to go live in the capital city. We are happy that we’ve done this adventure together. Mongolia is on our top list to visit again. So we’ll definitely come back to explore the rest of the country with a lot more time!