There is a Maori proverb that goes like this: He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.
The remainder of our time in Mongolia was spent either on perfect tarmac or, like the 250km stretch of nothingness leading into Bayankhongar, absolutely no sign of a road whatsoever. It was fantastic.
We had been extremely concerned about Mongolia, having heard about the recent flooding, and whether or not it was a sensible move to try and cross the majority of the country in our little car. In reality however, we were almost a little disappointed at how easy it transpired to be. No river crossings were required (though Daniel did drive through the world’s largest puddle – a great idea since a recent impact with a rock had been forceful enough to punch a hole through the floor of the car), and we only got stuck in sand once.
The day of our arrival in Ulaanbaatar saw us set off early from our cheap hotel in Bayankhongar, and make the most of the semi-decent roads as we headed east with the intention of covering the 400+ miles to the Mongolian capital in one go.
Though the day didn’t get off to the best start – a road closure and diversion leading us on a wild goose chase until we launched the drone to try and find the road we should have ended up on – we made good time. That was right up until we had our second blowout of the trip, that is. Though we still had two remaining spare tyres, it was here that we discovered a faulty valve on one, leaving us with only one remaining.
It was growing dark by the time we made the capital; extremely tired, but thrilled nonetheless. Wandering out into the town for a quick explore, still accompanied with David and Alex from 10k Miles for Smiles, we met up with Lawrence from The Mongol Knights for dinner.
The following day marked our first sort of rest day since…well, maybe the start of the rally? — though in many ways it became quite the opposite, as you’ll soon see. We got up early, much to Jen’s displeasure, and headed out into the city to visit the main square and several souvenir shops. Afterwards, and having collected our cars, we headed over to the Bogd Khaan Palace Museum, and then south to the Zaisan Monument – a monument to fallen Mongolian and USSR WWII soldiers, which also features an incredible view over the whole city.
Battling the horrific traffic of Ulaanbaatar (it’s truly terrible), we headed east out of the inner city toward the famous Ghengis Khan Equestrian Statue (FYI, it’s Chinggis Khaan in Mongolia). This massive stainless steel statue stands proudly facing east, supposedly toward Chinggis Khaan’s birthplace, and on the site where it is said he once discovered a golden whip (information obtained partially from Wikipedia so please add your own pinch of salt). Having climbed up through the statue to stand on Chinggis Khaan’s horse’s head to admire the view over the surrounding countryside, we relocated to an adjacent field to take some photographs of the statue with our cars. Certain parties (Jen) would like it noted here that, from below, the horse appears to be grinning broadly down at you, and – in its surely northern accent – saying, ‘hiiiiiiya!’.
Here, having taken our photos, we think it’s only fair to say that our little rest day ended.
With recent Facebook posts warning us of the time it was taking other teams to traverse the Mongolian/Russian border, we had decided to attempt the border crossing in the middle of the night – when surely activity there would be at a minimum. Thus, and leaving giant Chinggis Khaan behind, we headed back west and through the city (annoyingly, as the traffic was still abysmal) and then up toward the Russian border.
With our LED light bar no longer with us, the going was tough as we followed Buzzy Ka of 10k for Smiles on the randomly pot-holed but otherwise smooth road north. With almost new tarmac fading to motorbike sized potholes in the space of mere metres, the drive consisted of near-motorway speeds mixed with emergency stops and swerving as we – along with all the Mongolian cars around us – tried our best to avoid the sporadic and almost impossible to spot craters. With oncoming cars driving with their full beams on all the time, and only our puny little headlights to counter, we were forced to take a slow and steady approach in order to avoid losing another wheel – or indeed a whole axle.
As the night closed in the traffic grew lighter and roads slightly better, much to Daniel’s relief; everyone else in the car snoring quietly away to the sound of Counting Crows.
Having left the Khaan statue at 19:00, we arrived at the border crossing at 04:00; the sky slowly growing light. Incredibly, even in the middle of the night, there was a queue, and we had to wait several hours before we even allowed into the Mongolian border compound. Unfortunately for us, the officials there continued in the same vein, and it took us several hours to clear customs and reach no-mans land. It’s worth noting that nothing actually happened during this time – they just made us wait for no reason.
On the Russian side of the border however, the going was far more efficient. Daniel was able to sort the paperwork for the car relatively quickly, though, for the first time on the whole rally, we were subjected to a full customs inspection that more or less required us to almost entirely empty the car. Unlike their Mongolian counterparts, the Russian officers were friendly and curious, talking to us and asking us questions about the rally despite the language barrier. Thankfully, with our excellent car packing system still in place (patent pending), we were able to unpack and repack the car in minutes. And then it was back into Russia for the second time.
Pulling over beside a garage on the other side of the border we somehow provoked the ire of a petrol station attendant as we topped up our tanks from our jerrycans – despite not actually being on the forecourt, and having also spent plenty of money in the garage itself anyway. We also survived a sudden flanking manoeuvre by several clearly high-ranking Russian military officials who came over with a photographer to ask us about the rally under the guise of checking our visas. It was here that Daniel excelled in his diplomatic abilities by using the only Russian phrase he knows: “Do you speak Russian?”, to which he received a response along the lines of, “Yes, but you clearly don’t.” and a lot of laughter.
The journey north from the border featured considerably nicer roads through dense, atmospheric pine forest (Daniel and Maddy saw a bear), and we made good time toward Ulan-Ude. Because of the exorbitant amount of time we had spent at the Mongolian border however, it was rapidly closing in on the daily finish line opening time of 14:00, so our plan to sleep for a few hours before making our way to the finish line had well and truly gone out of the window. Instead, we were very much racing against the clock to be the first of the day to reach the podium (not that it really mattered!), and secure our car a slot at the rail yard for Monday.
And then, before we knew it, we were there. Not only in Ulan-Ude, but at the finish line. Located just off the main square in Ulan-Ude (the square with the massive Lenin head sculpture (no, Jen, not John)), the podium sat almost innocuously to one side, almost in danger of being overshadowed by the wedding crowd assembling on the other side of the street. Pulling up beside it, alongside 10k Miles for Smiles, we extricated ourselves from our packed car for what would be the last time, and wandered over to meet the Adventurists rep.
I think it’s fair to say that we’re all in agreement when it comes to our lack of a perceived, clearly defined beginning or end to this trip. Setting off from the UK, and simply heading slowly but steadily eastward, there’s not really been one, singular defining moment when we’ve all felt that, now, the trip is truly underway. Even during and after the official launch in Prague. That’s not a bad thing or a criticism, it’s just an observation that, unlike your traditional holiday for example, we’ve not boarded a plane and arrived several hours later in a strange and hugely different part of the world. It’s instead been a gradual change that, unless we’ve stopped to think about it for a moment, easily passes by unnoticed. In a similar way, our arrival at the finish line had a slightly underwhelming sense to it, along with the feeling that this small podium in this large Russian city was an ever so slightly arbitrary point at which to end such an amazing journey. The impending reality of returning to work also mixed strangely with our euphoria of finishing, to the point that, as pleased as we were to have successfully finished the rally, none of us really knew what to think or feel. At a slight loss for words then, smiling yet awash with conflicting feelings, we settled for a group hug before driving our beloved Wilson up onto his podium to be photographed and celebrated for the incredible machine he is.
Once again I feel it is fair enough to say that we do not feel as though the rally has been as trying as we had expected. In part this is down to our choice of route – our time pressure preventing us from taking a few of the more challenging route choices – yet our wonderful Agila has excelled throughout, despite spending six weeks in a permanently overloaded state, in temperatures and altitudes approaching and probably even exceeding his design limits. The small array of issues and failures we have experienced have all been as a result of external influences – none of which posing a significant hindrance, and none of which reflecting at all badly on Wilson. There has been an absolutely fabulous array of cars on the rally this year, many which come from a far more noble rally pedigree than he, yet none of us, for a second, would trade Wilson for another. He has served us loyally and we can only hope he has enjoyed his adventure as much as we have.
As part of filming, Daniel has spent the past weeks asking other ralliers what the trip means to them; what they perceive to be the essence of the Mongol Rally. He’s had a vast arrays of answers in response, all delightfully different, all wonderfully entertaining, some which he couldn’t possibly share here. He’s spent a long time trying to think of something to write – to say – to summarise it all; a long time trying and failing to find the words to adequately put it all into words. This morning marked his and Jen’s departure from Ulan-Ude – a surreal experience which, he supposes, might possibly be the definitive end point that, so far, seemed so elusive. With Rob and Maddy having already left, in order to return to work, he found himself contemplating how best to describe Tyre Straits’ conclusion to the Mongol Rally. In the departure lounge at Moscow Domodedovo however, having made the 7-ish hour flight from Ulan-Ude, he received a message out the blue from a fellow rallier – a young man alongside which he has just crossed half the earth, and who has, in the space of only a few weeks, gone from stranger to the closest of friends. His words are perfect, and I hope he will not mind them being shared below.
“Describing the Mongol Rally to someone who hasn’t done it, nor intends to do it, is one of the most flippant sentences you’ll ever create. You’ll mention adventure, you’ll mention some sort of hardship and probably something to do with breaking down or border guards. To someone who understands what it means to travel however, they’ll already know more of what it means to pack a bag and travel thousands of miles without the need for in-depth explanation or convincing. As you’ll well know, as a traveller, there is a constant pull to the unknown, it’s engrained in you to search out new places, new people and new experiences.
“For me, a trip is nothing without people. This particular trip has been packed full of real humans, people willing to drop everything and help us. It seemed every time we pulled over, there was someone waiting to help us. Every time we checked into a hotel, there was someone wanting to chat with us, to learn about our adventure and to ask what we thought of the country they called home. We’ve been bought beers, had stunning buffets laid out for us, been offered tools, tea and directions.
“Alongside us for the most challenging part of our trip has been a whole team of these people. People we could always rely on. Rely on for a laugh, rely on for direction and rely on to be there for us when we really needed help. Yourself, Robert, Jen and Maddie added so much to our rally experience that it’s hard to gather an appropriate collection of words to convey what you’ve come to mean to both David and I.
“When you get home to England, pour yourself an ice cold coke, get Jen to fry you some tasty eggs and spend a few moments reflecting on what you personally, as well as what your team has accomplished.
“In New Zealand, there is a Maori proverb that goes like this:
‘He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.’
“It translates to:
‘What is the most important thing in the world?
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.’”