They say patience is a virtue. I’ve learned to develop my patience through traveling, but the border crossings on the Mongol Rally kick it up to a whole new level of patience that is required. For our last border crossing, “Wait” is the word of the day…and night.
This was it, our last border crossing to tackle and according to Mongol Rally history, it would be our hardest and longest border crossing yet; Russia to Mongolia. I had heard horror stories of teams being kept days at this border in western Mongolia thanks to paperwork; a slow bureaucratic process of importing a vehicle into Mongolia. Plus, as usual, it could also be bereft of border guards who simply didn’t want to deal with rowdy ralliers or simply wanted bribes.
After a fun evening in Barnaul (western Siberia) eating steak and bonding with team Mongolian Madness (3 seemingly insane Irish guys also driving a Nissan Almera), we got our final car supplies (tow ropes, ratchet straps, & extra Gerry can) and took off late in the afternoon to push as far as we could to the border. We camped overnight and got up before the sun to take off and finish our drive through the stunning landscapes and mountains of western Siberia.
We pulled up to the Russian border crossing at 11 AM and parked in a line of 12 other Mongol Rally vehicles; the waiting began. It was sort of like a reunion, yet none of us had met before. Instead, we could bond on similar experiences up to this point.
Teams drank beer, smoked hookah pipes, played cricket, and socialized swapping unbelievable stories of bribery, robbery, losing their way, the kindness of strangers, and mechanical difficulties. At 3 PM things started to move. Everyone threw their chairs and food into cars and quickly inched up in the line assuring no space was left for locals to try to sneak into the queue. There really are no such things as queues in Mongolia. Strangely in a country with the most open space on this globe, people don’t like to give you any space when you are in a line.
The Russian process was actually pretty simple once they let us in; after all, we were border-crossing veterans by now! Walk over to this window wait, walk to a different window wait, fill out a form for the car wait, go stand in the corner wait, fill out an immigration form wait, walk to another window wait, open your car for inspection wait, and answer no when they ask you if you are carrying firearms or drugs wait. After this waiting process, we were unleashed into no man’s land; the 6 km of territory between the Russian and Mongolian border.
We rejoiced with a team yelp of happiness, took pictures, stopped to pee because my bladder could wait no longer, and then we came across the real obstacle – the entrance to Mongolia. A big red livestock gate graced the road next to a little white hut. This was the handoff point between countries. On the other side of the gate, the tarmac disappeared into a bumpy dirt road.
This really was the ‘end of the road’.
They let us through and we bounced through the bumps to the official Mongolia border crossing where a lovely-looking Mongolian woman wearing quite fashionable black boots with heels gave a reserved but heartfelt smile at Dave and said “Welcome to Mongolia.” My stomach flipped a bit when I heard this greeting not only because we had made it this far, but because it was said with a warmth and sincerity that Russia and Central Asia lacked in the world of border guards.
We pulled into the border at 4 PM and followed all of the instructions of paperwork and waiting – the usual border ‘dance’ we were all used to by now. We still didn’t have our proper original paperwork on the car, but we were hoping our copy of our V5 would continue to hold up to this final border test.
As the Mongolians worked through paperwork with Ulaanbaatar and London regarding the car import process, we were told to move our car into a holding pen – and wait. More and more teams were sent to the pen to join us as the weather turned dark and the wind picked up as if it were queued perfectly for the climactic scene from a Hollywood movie. Two Mongolian guards dressed in formal military attire walked over to the pen as we all eagerly waited for them to get closer and hear them mutter the words of freedom, but our luck had run out. Instead, they informed us they were closing for the night and we would have to stay here overnight – and wait.
The wind whipped up even more as we all looked around at our stark, cement surroundings and all collectively thought…where the hell do we set up camp here?! Everyone ran for cover as the storm blew through with a furry. The temperature dropped suddenly forcing me to dig out my long thermal underwear and puffy coat. I looked around wondering where in the world I could put the thermals on amidst all of these people.
Then I saw toilets and ran through the pelting rain to the row of wooden outhouses. The typical two planks of filthy wood above a hole of shit and flies awaited me – not the easiest place to change into thermal underwear – but it had to be done. I held my breath as I balanced on one foot taking on and off my sandals and pants one leg at a time; one false move and my sandal would be dropping into the pit of shit.
The rain ceased as quickly as it arrived and teams started jockeying for camping positions within the fenced-in area. It was so cold and wet that I had decided to sleep in the car that night and instead focused on something more important than setting up a tent – Deb and I went for a beer run. If we had to wait overnight, then beer would be necessary.
The strange thing about being held at the border is that it was really our cars that were being held, however, we were free to come and go. Groups of ralliers walked into the little dusty town and cleared them out of beer, vodka, and potato chips. As we were walking back with 12 beers in hand we were graced with a double rainbow after the storm. It was Mother Nature’s way of welcoming us to Mongolia and saying – if you have to wait, you might as well enjoy the view. Of course, I missed the great rainbow photo op since my hands were full of beer and chips and I hadn’t brought my camera into town. Luckily Dave was able to capture it for us!
Surely this would be a good sign of the times to come! However, before we could get too excited about crossing into Mongolia and driving towards Ulaanbaatar to the finish line…we had some more waiting to do.