THE BLOG
09/15/2011 03:52 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2011

Mongol Rally: The School Bus Makes It To Kublai's Kingdom

To enter Mongolia from the west is to arrive at the end of the world. From Kazakhstan, we traversed nearly 1000 km of Russian wilderness to reach the Mongolia frontier. Rugged mountains, dense forest and towns straight from Dr. Zhiavago created a backdrop for a truly spectacular drive.

Towns consistently got smaller and smaller as we headed east until we finally reached Tashanta, the final drop of civilization before Mongolia. We queued up with 20 vehicles trying to get into Mongolia and braced ourselves for a long wait (border guards accept two cars at a time and keep the very amenable hours of 9 am - noon and 2 pm - 6 pm).

We struck up a game of croquet on the patch of dirt just beside the border to help pass the time. With no common language, we instructed a more than a dozen curious onlookers how to play then sat back and watched with amusement. By the time the afternoon shift began, we were called in and after an hour of a border guard telling us we were missing documents and had to return to Kazakhstan to pick up a customs form, he acquiesced and we were allowed entry to the country we had so long been driving towards.

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After 20 km of driving through no man's land, we emerged over a barren hill to be greeted by a pair of Russian soldiers. They took a final look at our documents, gave a nod, and opened the last barrier between us and Mongolia. Instantly, the roads changed from the smooth predictability of tarmac to the dirt tracks we would be calling home for the next 1600 km.

At the Mongolian side of the border, another 5km down the road, we came across four other rally teams finishing up their import documents. A customs officer swiftly entered our bus and poked around looking for "nar-koe-tik," "kan-i-bish" and the like. Eventually, he just sat down and put on a fox fur hat. I proceeded to offer him bear hat and put his impossibly large soldier hat on Oscar. I then traded our electric drill for his hat. Let's hope we don't need that drill in the next week.

Darkness fell quickly that first night and we found ourselves having made about 20 km of progress in 90 minutes of driving due to the conditions of the road. Near the village of Tsagannuur, we were approached by two 20-year-olds on a motorbike who insisted we come and spend the night in their home. Was this an annual money making scheme aimed at ralliers? Of course it was, but we didn't have a better option. The younger brother, Djoy, entered our bus to direct us and insisted we play music. In what still sounds as the most surreal ten minutes of the trip, we all danced to the reliably solid grooves of The Mamas and the Papas as our bus bounced across the Mongolian steppe toward destinations unknown.

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We arrived at the boy's ger, where their parents and 16 year old sister were waiting. The ger truly pushed the limits of a nomadic lifestyle. Thick pillows and iron beds sat among radios, a television, and what appeared to be a permanent stove. Tea began flowing and was quickly replaced by vodka as the ten of us (Kishor was still stuck in Kazakhstan) communicated fluently in our limited common vocabulary. Breads, cheese, succulent lamb, sticky rice, and an incredibly rich lamb and noodle soup all appeared to materialize out of thin air, capping off an incredibly first night in Mongolia.

Before bed, we all retreated to a stone building behind the ger which was empty save for a pair of speakers and a washed out poster of a chateau in Provence. With the fumbling of a few wires, the entire room began reverberating with the somewhat contradictory melody of a techno remix of "Mountain Mama". After dancing to that song six times in a row, Pitbull's "Calle Ocho" came one, a daily favorite of team 2BIG2FAIL.

We went to bed not worried about the price tag that would be levied against us in the morning, but satisfied with the knowledge that we had broken through the landlord-tenant relationship that easily could have developed. In the end, we settled for about $20, a few Polaroid portraits of the family and some small gifts from our bus. Djoy directed us back to the main road, where we exchanged final goodbyes and headed out for the remaining 99% of our journey through Mongolia.

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