As soon as dawn broke, I could hear rustling coming from the other tents scattered around the convoy of rally cars. Bitter cold winds whipping across the open desert prevented me from moving or making any attempt to unzip my sleeping bag, but we needed to get moving in order to cover as much ground as possible.
The night before had been an impromptu birthday celebration for a rallyer named Andrew; now 25 years old. We sat around a campfire, listening to iPod playlists blasting from one car’s deceivingly powerful sound system, sipping on flasks of Russian-made vodka to keep warm. Under the most vivid blanket of stars I’ve seen in my life, I couldn’t help but smile at the fact that I was getting to celebrate a stranger’s birthday with a group of new friends, hours away from any familiar form of civilization.
As we set off, I began to accept and adapt to my new environment for the next week; the ambulance’s olive colored walls, coated with dust that seemed to stream in from all directions, shuddering relentlessly – it was everything I had ever hoped my Mongol Rally experience would be.
Climbing into higher elevation, our convoy’s engines struggled to climb up long sections of mountain switchbacks and cross picturesque streams. Apart from a few lone nomads on horses and the occasional yurt far in the distance, the only evident signs of life were the goats and yaks that grazed the open landscape.
After hours of forward progress, we came upon our first Mongolian prayer flag; a bright blue piece of cloth in the center of a pile of rocks. The Buddhist practice calls upon travelers to circle the rocks three times and add a stone to the pile; ensuring safe travels and good spirits to accompany those who trek that path.
For us, it was a welcome excuse to get out of the car and move before settling in for another hour of being tossed around, so we vowed to stop at every flag we saw – little did we know that their frequency would dramatically increase as we moved closer to Ulaanbaatar.
Riding in the back, staring out the small side window, I suddenly heard a loud gasp from up front. ‘Well look what we found!!” was all I could hear over Olive’s wheels striking rocks and shifting from side to side. Then, out of nowhere – silence. No vibration. Just silky smooth, freshly paved, blacker-than-the-night-sky asphalt (or ashphelt if you’re Australian, apparently).
We couldn’t believe it, but we were too eager to. Driving at an unbelievable speed of 80 km/h, we forged ahead in any direction that the magic strip of tar would take us. That is, until we started realizing that our compass needle wasn’t pointed in exactly the right direction and that there was an alarming amount of construction equipment with Chinese lettering on it.
Stopping to seek advice from several locals that communicated mostly via gestures and pointing to our worn-out map, we confirmed that we were heading toward the Chinese town of Altai rather than our intended destination of Altai in Mongolia. Just a couple of hours and we would have been face to face with some imaginably unimpressed Chinese officials.
Not only would we have to retrace hundreds of miles, but we’d have to abandon the beautiful asphalt road and forge a new, unknown path to try and cut some time off our overzealous mistake.
With no other option, we forged ahead – hoping we’d calculated our direction correctly this time, venturing further into the middle of nowhere.
For more information about the Mongol Rally, including how to sign up for the 2012 rally or tips for entrants outside the EU, visit the Adventurist’s website – or view the Adventurists’ 2011 trailer here!
Transportation was made possible by the scholars & gentlemen at the Adventurists. No editorial content or opinions were guaranteed, and nor was anyone’s safety or hygiene.