And the Texan team rolls across the border, much less triumphantly than we expected, having already celebrated our arrival into Mongolia without realizing that there are a good 20 kilometers between the borders....
But first, we catch up because while less has transpired than one might expect between the Romanian-Ukrainian and Russian-Mongolian border, our adventurous selves have encountered quite a bit. After waiting in Romania, and waiting, we managed to track down our package (who's ever heard of TNT shipping?) and jumped for joy (literally) when the package was delivered via an orange hatchback VW as promised. We then sped off as quickly as possible, now down to two weeks to arrive at Ulan Bataar, hoping that we could gun it to the border and take 8 days to cross the slowly developing mountains and deserts of Mongolia. We said goodbye to the incredibly helpful Peace Corps Volunteer, Jack, to whom we owe immense gratitude for the help, hospitality and opportunity to shower, and made it to the Ukrainian border by nightfall, stopping to argue only a little about the validity of our note, giving us privelege to drive a car in someone else's name, since it was not in Russian, or English, but rather Spanish. The border guards asked us if we had narcotics, inquired when the last time we were in Paraguay was, chuckled and waved us by, without any need to bribe them, as every local had done, or the need to strip search our car.
Upon crossing the border, we immediately stopped to ask about car taxes or vignettes or whatever they wanted to call them, and the first gas station attendant we found
directed us to a police officer, the last person we wanted to speak with, and his response? No, no need if you'll only be here for two days, but if a cop stops you, and here he pointed directly at his own badge, just pay them off with a little bit of money, he said. Very surprising indeed, but we didn't question his authority, and drove on, reaching the nearest town, an ATM and a gas station for directions and a map. There, already nearing 11 pm, one attendant was drunk and we got along well in Russian, while the other kind woman, a linguist, kept James and Chris conversationally engaged for nearly an hour. We parted ways, having gained one map, three sodas, and directions on our map to the border.
One night's rest later, having slept in our ever comfortable car to avoid dogs and drunks, we began the longest trip of our lives, to continue for nearly 100 hours. We hit the highway to Kiev and spotted the Mongol Rally travellers with drivers on the wrong side of the car and large stickers touting their adventure. We stopped with them for a few minutes, telling our story and hearing about misadventures and plans - pretty exciting for us, who are somewhat of Mongol Rally lackies, never getting into the race but being all about the spirit of it. People planned to stay in Kiev and we planned to drive on through the night into Russian and wherever the highways took us, so we pushed on and said our goodbyes, reaching the border around 12 am, after a stop for dinner and another interactions with more ralliers.
The border went more smoothly than we imagined, with a cute and kind passport inspector laughing at James' moustache and waving us on, but alas we reached the car customs sections where the first response to our Spanish note was "No, back to Ukraine" which we continued to hear for 45 minutes as I stood there and asked every question I could possibly think of to postpone that trip back across the border. Finally, somehow, miraculously, when all the correct stars had aligned, and I looked more pathetic than one of those cats in a jar, the officer more sincerely considered our note, asked me to translate a bit, which was hard with such rusty Russian still spewing out of my mouth. Then, despite all odds and rational thoughts, he says OK, he says we can pass, he says he shall spare us our lives, on the condition that we get a translation in Russia, otherwise the police will arrest us.
We pass, we cross, we cheer, we roar, we are pulled over for speeding. Here-in lies the smooth talking and the swindling they do because it took an hour to agree that 500 dollars was a ridiculous fee and that we should be allowed to go for $50, an ipod nano, and a digital compass. Little did he know, despite his attempts to scare me with the threat of taking my licence, he could easily have arrested me for not having a car in my name, so I personally think we did alright, considering all the factors at play there.
This, however, scared the bejeezuz out of all of us, and inspired the following three day straight drive across Russia. We saw a few cities, but only when we couldn't go around them and got lost inside, almost feinted every time we saw a police officer, and ate whatever junk food the gas stations sold, luckily open 24 hours, so we needn't stop to wait for gas ever.
We got to the border of Mongolia Monday at 6:30, only to discover that the border closed at 6pm and that lines were long and slow. We finally stopped, slowed down, and even ate some food at the local shack/restaurant, hanging out with an incredibly cool Swiss couple who were first in line. Well, to shorten the story for now, we crossed the Russian border at 11am on Tuesday, waited again for four hours at the Mongolian border, and managed to clear customs without a single snag around 5pm, hauling ass towards the nearest town where we could refuel on gas and food. The roads, or not-roads as we might as well call them, proved too much for poor Leo, who had already taken a beating when we sped down bumpy asphault in eastern Russia. Suspension did not make it. I drove the first 50 kilometers, averaging around 12 miles an hour, meanwhile Chris and James climbed on top of the car, finally discovering that our suspension was shot and it would be impressive to make it to Olgii, 100 km past the border, without the back axle falling off. We drove slow, stumbled upon some young men hunting on their day off, and after they somehow borrowed our battery to start their car, we rolled off with them and the possibility to ditch our car with them. Since then we have worked out a deal for a ride to Ulan Bataar on Saturday, and tentatively planned to stick around here til we see the reported solar eclipse that should occur Friday night, something we didn't expect but don't plan on missing - once you pass the mountains east of is, you can't see it, so we don't want to head off to the capital of Mongolia too soon, but still soon enough for Chris and James to catch their flight on Wednesday.
For now, we have been invited into the home of an older brother, who has helped and fed us, Chris is sick, James and I just tried some Mongolian Marmot meat, and everything is new and amazing, at least until I get those stomach pangs myself. Cheers from the over-hospitable world of Mongolia.