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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

До свидания Russia, Сайн байна уу Mongolia! (Goodbye Russia, Hello Mongolia!)

The next morning we set off, savouring what we knew would likely be the last really good roads for a while. Our drive wound through the Altai mountains and what appeared to be very popular Russian cottage country. The scenery was beautiful and we got out to stretch our legs at one point. We wandered down to the river and Rhys, Ed and Sebastien began to have the rock throwing/skipping of the world. Clearly it was a sight to be seen with these three muscular men at it. The competition didn’t last long since we are all out of shape from the rally and we needed to keep driving.

Rhys, Ed and Sebastien by the river

We kept driving and drove late into the night until we reached the border crossing. We ran into Team Phoenix in line at the border, which was closed until 9am the next morning. Sebastien and I pitched our tent and enjoyed a decent night’s sleep before the epic border crossing that awaited us.

Driving through the Altai mountains

Dinner stop on the way to the border

By 9am the next morning the Russian side of the border crossing was the place to be! A few other teams had rocked up to try their luck as well. We were directed to a hut for some forms and stamps, back to the fence for other stamps and then to wait in line until the border guards decided to let people through. In the meantime, we played a bit of football, with the locals laughing at us and occasionally participating. Sebastien accidentally threw the football over the fence into a military area and attempted to retrieve it using a rope and a bucket (the Roos have a big black bucket which Rhys insisted on bringing on the trip because it is SO useful and Ben hates it with a vengeance). Seb was convinced the contraption would work but just as he was about to launch the bucket over the barbed wire fence, he was shut down by the border guards. We thought the ball may have been lost forever, but the border guard kindly asked someone with authorization to be on that side of the fence to throw it back over.

Russia-Mongolia border

We only encountered one slight glitch when trying to exit the Russian side of the border – apparently I was supposed to have some paper that I didn’t have. The one woman that could speak English told me that it was not possible to leave Russia without the paper. Sebastien tore apart the car looking for this paper (which I am pretty sure the dude at the first hut took), and found nothing. I just said “please?” and apparently that was enough to get us across the border. Gotta love lenient bureaucracy.

We were a bit confused because usually after you cross one border the no man’s land is only a few hundred meters before the next country’s border post. This time, there was like 15km of driving through some rolling, deserted mountains before we reached a last Russian outpost and crossed into Mongolian border territory. The Russian guards at the outpost took a picture with us and lifted the post so we could proceed onward to Mongolia. The stereotypes were fulfilled. The road immediately turned to crap and it wasn’t long before we saw a yak.

Last Russian border guard

We approached the Mongolian border post and were greeted by a female guard who said “Welcome to Mongolia” and let us in. We had to pay a $1 “quarantine” fee and drive our car through a trough of dirty water, apparently to sanitize our tires. When we arrived at the border post, we saw a parking lot full of about twenty other Mongol Rally teams, some of whom had been there for two days. It was like a refugee camp and the natives were restless. 

The teams seemed to have made the most of it though, and apparently had a good party the night before, complete with disco ball.

We really hoped that we wouldn’t have to wait nearly that long, but were a bit nervous because we had arrived on a Friday and apparently processing was slow over the weekend.

Our fellow ralliers told us how the system worked – you fill in some forms and then you wait for one dude to come out so you can fill in more forms about the car. Then the border guards sit around for a while and eventually will come out for vehicle inspection, you wait a while longer and then tell you that you can leave. The day before there had been almost forty teams waiting and that was part of the reason that the processing took so long. As well, the Adventurists (the group that organizes the Mongol Rally) had to transfer money for the vehicle import fee to the Mongolian authorities and that was not necessarily proceeding as smoothly as it should have for some teams.

There was not much we could do to speed up the process, so we just embraced it, and parked alongside the other teams. Resigned to the fact we would probably have to spend the night there, we set up our chairs and a wind barrier. It was quite cold at the border and very windy. We had known it would be chilly, but it’s amazing how you forget what cold is like when you haven’t been around it. We were lucky because it wasn’t raining, the other teams had been soaked the night before. The temperature got down to around zero that night, and even with leggings, pants, a hoodie, a toque and a jacket I was freezing.

Our contribution to the refugee camp
There was a small village nearby, which we were allowed to go to by foot, though technically we weren’t legally allowed to be in Mongolia. The good thing was that there were dumplings and beer available in that village, so we were all in good spirits. 

The village near the border

Teams kept rolling in and it was like a big reunion. We saw a team of Brits that we had convoyed with for a short period and what was left of their car. Apparently they took a turn in Russia a bit too quickly and flipped the car. They were quite lucky because no one got seriously injured. One team member had a slight concussion, one was fine and one got whiplash and a gash down his back. The car was in shambles, but still running. The windows were replaced by plastic sheeting and the driver’s side door didn’t open. When they re-flipped their car so that they could drive it away, they had to tie the roof to a tree and start driving so it would pop back into shape. It’s amazing how resourceful people can be, I think they paid some Russian dude $200 to pound the car back into as good shape as possible. 

Mark (the guy who got whiplash) plays the bagpipes, and serenaded the border guards when they came out to inspect the car. We also discovered that Brad of Five Crew Canoe also plays the bagpipes. Some people have excellent party tricks!

Mark playing the bagpipes

All the teams that were there when we arrived managed to finally leave the border area by nighttime. Surprisingly, our team, the Roos and Team Phoenix all also got our car paperwork processed the same day we arrived. However, it wasn’t done until about 6pm and we figured it would be better to camp at the border with everyone (had quite a party going) rather than drive an hour and camp in the middle of nowhere.

The teams that had been there the night before told us that they had asked around in the village and gotten someone to slaughter and cook an entire goat to feed the ralliers. It was about $100 for the goat, which boiled down to less than $5 for anyone who wished to partake in the feast. Ed (of the Roos) decided that it would be a fine idea to have a goat feast at the border and set off in search of a villager that could arrange it. He made a deal with a villager and the villager’s friend loaded the goat onto his motorcycle and drove away to butcher it. At least that’s what Ed thought happened! There was some misunderstanding and the villager thought that the dude on the motorcycle was Ed’s friend and Ed thought the dude on the motorcycle was the villager’s friend. Some random stranger drove off with the goat and Ed was out $100 and the villager was out a goat. The  villager then slapped Ed in the face because someone had stolen his goat! Eventually they managed to get things sorted out and told Ed they would deliver the goat later in the evening.

Perhaps in retribution for the confusion that had ensued earlier, when the goat was delivered, we didn’t actually receive all of the goat. It was as if they had slaughtered the goat, kept the best bits for themselves and delivered the rest. There was plenty of liver, organs, fat and bones, but not too much of the good stuff. It was a bit disappointing, but the story was almost better that way.

Eventually we headed to bed and tried not to freeze before morning came and we started our drive into Mongolia - the final frontier!

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