Monday morning brought plenty of rain. We woke in the mist of Bayankhongur, eager to test the bus after the mechanic job we performed the night before and excited by the fact that we had just 600 km to UB.
We passed the dinosaur park on the way out of town. A life-size Tyrannosaurus Rex stood placidly in the morning mist against the backdrop of a grey soviet apartment block. To the left, a raptor was frozen in mortal combat with another dinosaur, the breed of which was indiscernible to this correspondent. We headed east away from the city and into the hills, burning off the morning rain as we continued. We stopped around ten to get out and check the wheels. This bus seemed to be running smoothly.
"We might actually make it," I remember thinking to myself. After hours of trail driving, the road gave way to a vast expanse of flattened dirt. This seemed like the ideal location to try something I had wanted to do since we bought the bus.
I put on my cycle goggles, lowered the handicapped ramp, and told Robin to speed head, utilizing the handicapped ramp as a sidecar. I was absolutely euphoric as we sped along, wind blowing from all directions, knowing that each meter brought me closer and closer to our destination. Kate kindly passed me a cocktail, which I gratefully sipped as I watched the road pass beneath me.
Casey picked up driving, the bus taking more and more bumps as we lumbered over streams and around mountains, never following much more than the sun. All of the sudden, and without much fanfare, ten or so dirt paths merged together and simply ended. Ahead of us sat a perfectly civilized road sign, completely out of place, which indicated that we should turn to the right. It was laughable that after 1200 km of complete anarchy, we should be expected to follow such a command. Alas, we dutifully followed suit and accelerated up a dirt embankment. To our surprise, we were greeted by a freshly paved road. In the rearview mirror, we could see teams paving in the opposite direction, slowly but surely making their way westwards in an attempt to, among other things, render the Mongol Rally obsolete.
After one final river in which we managed to rip off our rear bumper and further destroy our rear suspension (I had noticed cracks in our leaf springs the night before), we cautiously accelerated, still feeling that we were in a dream. We passed 60, 70 and 80 kilometers an hour. The tarmac was smooth and predictable. The countryside blurred past us as we reached speeds we hadn't touched in weeks. At this rate, UB was mere hours away. We stopped for a quick lunch, and celebrated 180 m later when we passed the halfway point between the final checkpoint and UB, meaning that even if we broken down we would be towed to the finish line, rather than backwards into the Mongolian abyss.
We planned on camping one more evening and stopped casually as the sun started to sink into the horizon. We lit a campfire with all the wood in our bus and sat around a fire late into the evening in a field that was fragrant of juniper. Storms moved quickly over the mountains, drenching us in rain (I had decided to sleep outside) on our final evening.
We got off to an early start Tuesday. The clouds hung low in the air, and we could trace nearly every shade of the rainbow from the lime green grass lining the highway up to the deep purple peaks of the mountains drenched in fog. It was an odd way to end the rally. After 6 weeks of driving through some of the most dynamic places on earth, our final four hours could truly have been anywhere. Norway, Scotland, Kazakhstan, Vermont. We were on a highway driving through the mountains and there was not much more to it. Around 11 in the morning, we rounded a final hill and were greeted by the vast, if also a bit drab, cityscape of Ulaanbaatar.
Within ten minutes, we had seen more trees and more cars than we had in the past week. Weekday traffic came as an abrupt surprise: We sat idling between Hummers and Ladas. Without great fanfare, we navigated through the city until we made one final right turn and were greeted by a large orange sign claiming that we had finished the Mongol Rally. The finish line itself seemed rather irrelevant. The "trip", as it were, never seemed to be about reaching any sort of destination. Just because the bus was gone did not mean that the adventure was over by any stretch of the imagination.
We exchanged smiles and opened a bottle of champagne. I sat in the silence of an UB parking lot thinking to myself: "What's next?"
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