Mongolia. We made it. Yet this by no means meant we’d arrived at the finish line. On the contrary, the weeklong battle that ensued with this ferocious final battleground provided a test of our wills and to our hopes of making it to the red tape on the other side. You see, the distance from the Russian border to the finish line in Ulaanbaatar is roughly that of New York to St. Louis, with only a fraction of the asphalt roads. Despite some brief patches of pleasantly paved roadways, Mongolia predominantly consists of dirt paths. These paths would put a Jeep 4×4 through the ringer, so picture our beaten up old baby bumbling up and down breathtaking Mongolian mountains and across the dusty, smoky, deserted steppe. Each bounce, each clunking sound, each slip through quicksand-like bunkers potentially posed as the ultimate breathe of our dying, war-torn vehicle. With that frame of reference to contextualize the last leg of the Goulet adventure, we begin…
Just before sundown, the Goulets approached the ragtag border crossing in Tsagaannuur on the Northwest edge of Mongolia(yes, it has that many vowels). At a fairly lofty altitude amidst the Altai Mountains, the brisk dusk reminded us that we were in for another chilly night. After a lone woman charged us a few bucks to “disinfect” the outside of our car, we went into the seemingly-unofficial, yet official border office to register our arrival, where Alex befriended one of the guards on Facebook. They don’t call it the “World Wide Web” for nothin! After Brian quickly exchanged a few bucks for Mongolian currency, he and Eric met Alex outside at the gate, where they were finally ready to hit Mongolian soil and embrace the unknown journey ahead. After paying a $25 scam insurance fee, we got double-duped when a motorcyclist invited us to stay with him and his family. He went by the name “Joy,” which is ironic because our experience with this character was anything but. He seemed overly enthusiastic, disingenuously so, sporting a slick black leather jacket and way-too-nice Ray Bans- The Fonz, Mongolia style. “Should we follow this guy? Is it safe? …It is cold out, and getting colder, so camping might be a little rough. Screw it, let’s just do it. What’s the worst that could happen?” We should have been tipped off at his excessively inviting, sketchy nature and by the fact that he picked us up at the border (a sign he’s done this sort of thing before), or that he refused to let us film inside his yurt, or even when we saw tons of “gifts” from other Mongol Rally teams all around us once inside. But we remained steadfast in our blindingly trusting ways. After all, it had worked for us up to this point.
Inside the tent we met Joy’s whole family: his brother and sister-in-law, his mother and father (the ancient Omarkhan was Eric’s personal favorite of the bunch), and his brother’s nasty little children. The brother’s wife served us up some of that classic Mongolian milk tea, with which we’d soon become incredibly familiar, nice chocolate wafers and your standard stale bread and oddly hard, chalky cheese. At first we thought it was a coincidence when Joy, in his struggling English, told us that Ida the Australian (from Team Breaking Khan) had stayed there a couple of nights earlier. Even more incredible was how the Irish Bikers stopped by for a night as well. Slowly though, the clues added up that we were not guests to your typical Mongolian hospitality, but rather potential victims of some con artist thieves. The awesome yak wool hat Brian had purchased earlier in the day was now atop Joy’s head, not a gift but more of a “let me see that” without a sense that it might be returned. Joy’s brother tried to snag Eric’s, but by then we were keen on what they were trying to do and he demanded it back. Later, Joy’s brother tried to steal our broken headlights and a swarm of Joy’s friends ran over like band groupies when the doors of the AG opened for a minute. NYC pencils and bracelets, intended as gifts for children, were suddenly in the possession of these grabby goons.
The night was filled with a grab bag of oddities. Early on, Joy inexplicably took Alex 10 minutes down the road to meet with some Polish archaeologists. “I don’t know why he took me here,” Alex admitted to the Polish peeps. Later, in the black of night, Brian rode the back of Joy’s motorcycle deep into the cold darkness to help a group of local men rake and bundle hay onto the back of a truck, insufficiently illuminated by small flashlights. “Why don’t you guys do this during the day?” he asked, but got no sensible reply. Meanwhile, back inside the yurt, the 3-year old demon child, Joy’s niece, made her presence felt. Act one, she crawled all over Alex and then spat on him for no apparent reason; when she wasn’t screaming, shouting or causing chaos she was breast feeding in front of their eyes. For her second act, the little devil yanked at Eric’s beard, causing an abrupt “aaargghh!!!” from a surprised and now in-pain Eric. Mom responded by bursting out laughing instead of reprimanding her hostile child. “Problem, she is a problem,” Joy’s brother later admitted about his sadistic kid, after she creepily sucked from the intestines of a sheep the family was eating for dinner. Before bed, Brian took a ride into town with Joy to the nearest market, a never-ending maze of overgrown grassy paths away, to get some beers, keeping one eye on the ever-grabby Joy. After some brief imbibing and chatting with Joy, we went to sleep in the house next to the yurt – passports and wallets clutched deeply to our bodies.
In the morning, as we loaded up the Auto Goulet, the family again swarmed our perimeter. Touching, touching, always touching. The brother couldn’t keep his hands off our delicate car window, which collapsed inside the door’s frame (remember when this happened to the other window back in Azerbaijan?). Even after Brian’s warning of “let’s get the hell out of here as soon as possible,” we were now at the mercy of Joy’s brother, a supposed auto mechanic, to fix the problem he just created. Meanwhile, Joy’s wife tried to sneakily snag our plastic dish set until Alex hunted her down and insisted, “you can’t have that, we need that.” After 20 minutes, Joy’s brother got the car window back in place, albeit in far worse shape than it had been before. As a “payment” for “fixing” our broken car window, he wanted us to give his wife the dish set; at this point we were out of patience with these clowns and lashed back, “No way, man! You broke it in the first place!”
We paid Joy’s utter rip off “hotel” fee of $15 each, to get out of there. As we finally hopped back in the car to set sail, Joy asked for one more gift, gesturing at the charger input of the Galaxy smart phone his sister-in-law had been playing with. “Sorry,” Eric said, “my phone has a different charger.”
Finally we were gone, freed from the thralls of Joy and his clan. A few miles down the road we decided to fuel up from our jerry cans and map out our course across the country. But, where is our funnel? Oops, it turned out our trusty orange funnel, which we desperately depended on to fuel up our tank, had fallen off somewhere between Russia and here (or, come to think of it, Joy very well may have jacked that). So, we got creative. We cut up an old water bottle and supplemented it with the metal car jack to act as a sort of makeshift funnel. Voila! It worked even better than the real thing. The gasoline quickly flowed into the car, as we chalked up another victory for Team Global Goulets. After pointing out Hovd on the map as the next “city” through which we’d need to travel, we hopped back in the car and were on our way.
A few hours into our ride through Mongolia, we spotted some epic kites flying high in the sky in the distance. As we approached, however, we realized these were no ordinary kites – they were kite buggies. What’s a kite buggy, you ask? So did we, so we asked what the hell the guys riding them were doing. Apparently, they explained, you sit in this one-person, three-wheeled cart, and tie a massive kite to the back. From there, you just sit back, relax, and let the kite do the work; all you need to do is steer. “What happens if there’s no wind?” we asked. “Well, then you’re sh*t out of luck,” these surly South Africans admitted. While we thought we were badass for driving through Mongolia, these next-level adventurers aimed to break the world record for the longest distance traveled via kite buggy.
We told our kite buggy buddies about Joy and the fiasco we fought through as his guests. Well, guess what – these guys got shaken even harder by Joy. Apparently, the day before, the kite buggyers were invited by Joy to have a little midday tea when they crossed the border in the afternoon. About 2 hours down the road, one of them noticed his Galaxy smartphone was missing. Covering ground on a kite buggy was such an arduous process, though, that they had to chalk it up as a loss and keep moving. “Wait a second!” it clicked, “that’s got to be the phone Joy’s sister-in-law was playing with!” Alex declared. “Jeez!” Eric added, “no wonder he asked me if I had a charger for it, he obviously needed one to go with the stolen phone!” One last thing really irked Eric though, when he realized his iPhone 4 charger was nowhere to be found. “That jerk Joy had the balls to ask me for a phone charger after he realized the one he’d already stolen from me wouldn’t work with the Galaxy. Then he took it anyway! What a f%&@er!!!!!”
Despite the lasting frustration of Joy, we had to continue our trip, while remaining trusting of the Mongolian people. We figured this guy was just one bad apple and that, for the most part, locals would be far more genuine, without an ulterior motive. Later that day, we’d learn just how helpful Mongolians on the countryside could be…
We drove east on the rocky dirt paths. Every fork in the road, and there were many, came without road signs, so all we could do was take whichever path took us the most east. Eventually, we realized we’d chosen the wrong path at some point. Our compass was straight up pointing west in the direction we were heading and we had to quickly change course. So, we made a U-turn and confirmed with some yurt-dwelling locals that Hovd is “that way” (we could only communicate by pointing our fingers and saying the name of the city we wanted). The “roads” were becoming increasingly bumpy and now we were faced with the presence of sharp rocks scattered throughout the “roads.” It was around 5pm that day when we got our first Mongolian flat tire. With a bevvy of spares on the roof rack and in the trunk, we didn’t think much of it, as we jumped out of the car, jacked it up, and popped in a fresh one. We only drove another mile or so until we faced our first water crossing. “Cool!” was our initial reaction. We’d been told to expect several of these, shallow-ish rivers blocking the only passage we could take. Upon checking the water level in the middle of the river with our wiffle ball bat (it looked to be about a foot deep), we determined the car could make it across, no problem. So, Eric and Alex whipped out the cameras, hopped across the river, and braced for some award-winning footage. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into…
Here we go! Brian pumped the gas and plunged the car headfirst into the fresh flowing tributary, as Alex and Eric stood ground on the other side. Vrrrmmmm, vrrmmmmm!! Stuck. Right in the middle of the passage, further pedal to the metal caused only further audible output without vehicular movement. Hmmm, that’s okay, it’s just good footage, we optimistically surmised. While Alex de-shoed, Eric remained true to the filming. So, Eric filmed Alex’s first failed attempt to push the car from its fixed position in the river’s depths. Quickly, we learned this would be no easy escape. Eric settled the camera still on some rocks and, with the GoPro on the windshield to provide a second angle, joined the effort to free the car. Now two Goulets had their feet fearlessly freezing under the water’s blistering rush, as Brian tried to accelerate the car in reverse. On 3! 1…2… 3!
With all our might we pushed, resulting only in a deeper submersion of the car in the sinking sand of the river’s floor. And, just when we thought our car couldn’t be in more dire straits… Pop! Pshhhhhh. Air began to spew helplessly from the front left tire.
It was time to come to terms with the fact that we would not get out of this quagmire on our own. Still hundreds of miles from the nearest town (and in which direction, we had no idea), with our car only sinking further into a rumbling, rushing river, and another flat tire to boot, this was about as treacherous of a position we’d been in since our inverter combusted in Istanbul. It was time for plan B. We huddled up and comprised a plan of action: Brian, you stay here with the car and make sure nothing gets worse. Eric and Alex, you set out to find someone, anyone within walking distance who might be able to haul our Auto Goulet from its stubborn motionless position in the river’s clenched clutches.
We trekked a solid mile or two until our first sighting of human life. A group of giggling children responded with only shrugs when we tried gesturing our need for a truck to help tow us out of the river. “Poppa? Is Poppa here?” we asked. The only understandable reply we received from the Mongolian youth was that Poppa was somewhere out herding the family livestock. On to the next one…
As we hustled on to the next closest yurt, our hopes of finding a man with a truck were dwindling. We remembered seeing another yurt nearby, but after this one… we didn’t want to think about what would happen if we came back to Brian empty handed. We continued on foot for a few fearful minutes until, as if sent by the Mongolian god of the steppe, a man in a manure-carrying truck appeared before our eyes.
Desperately we pleaded to the man behind the steering wheel, “machina… river… vrrrmmmm… problem!” We pointed towards where the car was and with a smile, the man seemed to understand perfectly. He waved for us to jump aboard, sending his children out of the passenger seat to ride with the doo-doo in the truck’s carriage. Alex and Eric hopped aboard and grinned easily with a huge sigh of relief, knowing that this clunky Soviet truck should have what it takes to rescue the Auto Goulet.
We hopped out of the truck, feeling like true heroes and expecting a much-appreciated welcome from Brian. “Thank you, thank you!” Eric and Alex applauded themselves once they made it back to the scene of the disaster. “Crisis averted, we did it! Now all we have to do is drag this piece of crap out of the river and it’s like nothing happened.”
“Not exactly,” Brian admitted, with expectations tempered. “The car kind of flooded. Everything that was on the floor of the car is soaked… I tried to salvage what I could.”
“Haha, very funny,” Eric retorted, laughing off what he thought was just a bad joke; nothing more than a taste of his own sense of humor tossed back in his face.
Long story made long, the truck did indeed successfully rescue our Auto Goulet, although the man in the truck gave us this look, as if to say, “Why the hell didn’t you just around the other way?” Our only real answer to that very legitimate question was that we thought it’d make for great footage (which it did).
Dawn was quickly approaching and we made our first savvy decision in a long while to just call it a day – we’d make camp right next to the river, which would give us some excellent fresh water for cooking and cleaning. Above all, our car and our bodies were in ugly shape. As our feet began to thaw (from 15-minute long submersion in ice water during our unsuccessful attempt to dislodge the car from the river), we assessed the damage: 2 flat tires, drenched and now unshareable gifts for people we’d meet on the road ahead and back at home, nearly destroyed appearance release forms, now water-logged walkie talkies and a completely unrelated but insanely frustrating jammed glove compartment. Nothing irreplaceable destroyed, nothing critical to our mission broken. Could’ve been worse, we agreed. That night, once the tent was set up, we did what we Goulets do best – got wicked drunk from some authentic Chinggis Gold premium vodka. Nothing lightens the mood like a comical and drunken reexamination of our present condition; indeed, where we were at that moment in time was nothing we could’ve imagined in our wildest dreams way back when we all first met in those infant days of college.
Read on for the thrilling final chapter of our epic adventure!