Monday, September 17, 2012

Part IX : Fixing Seymour, muddy bogs, and lightning storms

The washboard road went on for miles and miles, we stopped only to repair a flat tire on the Getz and to have lunch. We got as far as possible before setting up camp in a desert valley. That night, Byron detailed the Mongolian locals' stories about the Gobi Death Worm, which is said to shoot acid from its mouth, be able to electrocute you from its tail, and if seen should be ran away from at the highest possible speed in the hope that it can't catch up (it can). After enjoying the lightning storm on the distance, the plainly visible Milky Way, and keeping a constant watch for 5 foot long red worms, we went to bed.

Unsuspecting victims enjoying the scenery just before the Gobi Death Worm attacks
We made great time the next day, getting to Altai at around 11 AM. The main stop in Altai is the Mongol Rally Auto Service, which consists of about half a dozen mechanics and a small garage. We fixed all of our broken tires, and found just before we were about to leave that the rear left suspension on the Perodua had snapped near the lower mount and by sheer luck was still suspending the frame above the axle! We quickly found replacements, and with a log and some brute force, we were able to mount new springs. They were about an inch longer though, and much stiffer, so when we were done the car sat about two inches higher in the rear. With the mud and the lift, Seymour was looking like a real rally car!

All was not perfect however, since because of the fact that the dampers weren't changed, the car without any weight in the rear was hitting the upper limit of the damper's length, and over bumps would impact that limit repeatedly, likely ending in a total failure. We loaded up the back of the Perodua as much as we could with fuel, water, and all of our other heavy supplies in the hope that this would reduce the possibility of breaking the dampers.

While getting the suspension fixed, we also discovered that the exhaust was broken just aft of the muffler, and the tube itself was covered in rust holes. One of the mechanics fixed the holes by adding a thick wire to reinforce the location, strapped to the exhaust with some smaller bailing wire, smeared the whole thing with JB weld, and at our suggestion the whole thing was wrapped in Aluminum tape. This section was then welded to the muffler, the bolts being too rusted to be used again. The exhaust was also shortened slightly to keep it from interfering with the muffler. Hopefully this will last us to Ulaanbaatar!

While waiting for everything to get fixed, we also had an opportunity to talk to some of the other teams. We had it relatively lucky, with some teams having broken oil sumps, holes in their transmission housing, broken front suspension, malfunctioning radiators, and every other type of problem you might run into along the rally. Just before leaving, the four car convoy pulled into the Auto Service! More surprising was that the Citroen suspension was fixed in Khovd and had been working fine since! We had exactly 43 dumplings at a nearby restaurant while exchanging some stories with the Brits and Tony from Colorado. After having everyone sign the Perodua, we left for Bayankhongor, the next major city along our route to Ulaanbaatar.

We made good time, but it had rained heavily the previous night. We worked our way through most of the mud, but eventually got stuck in a silty bog. It was easy to walk through, but Seymour sank in with all of the weight he was carrying.

As much as we tried we couldn't get the car out of the silt. While we were trying to force the car out, two Lexus SUVs drove by. One started backing into the bog to try to help us out, but sank in as well! The other SUV almost got stuck trying to help the first out of the muck, but the first SUV kept digging deeper and deeper into the silt. We did our best to help them out, but it was so deep that it was an almost pointless effort.

We set up a tent for one of the mothers and her kid so that they would be shielded from the wind while trying to figure out a way to get their SUV out of the bog. Eventually, a large semi truck passed by, and it happened to have a large steel cable. There was some sketchy failures, the weak link being the figure-8 knot they used to tie the cable to the truck. Eventually, the truck was able to pull out the SUV, and the Perodua, and we managed to get the Getz through the bog unscathed. The owner of the SUVs wouldn't take our offers to pay him for his help; instead he gave us his number and invited us to his home in Ulaanbaatar, an offer we will undoubtedly be accepting when we arrive.

Although we did our best to direct some of the locals towards the best route through the bogh, while setting up camp, a van full of kids and older women got stuck in the same place we did! We gave them water, some food, about a dozen light sticks, as well as all of the tools they might be able to use, but we knew that without a large truck and the cable that we used to get out, they might be stuck overnight. Eventually a large SUV came by and using our ratcheting tie down straps and some luck, they were able to get out of the swamp.

We camped there for the night, sleeping until a ferocious lightning storm passed over our campsite. It didn't help that we were likely still in the floodplain of the bog, so we retreated to the relative safety of our cars until the storm passed.

The next day we moved as intelligently as possible, walking through every bog and swamp, and carefully planning our routes through. We got to Bayankhongor without getting stuck once, and after restocking on food, immediately left for Arvaikeer, where (if the legends hold true) pavement runs between it and Ulaanbaatar!

After getting around 75 miles in towards Arvaikeer, we set up camp early, fearing some intimidating storm clouds. A passing storm made heating water for dinner difficult, but eventually the storm passed, and we had a good meal before heading to bed early.

A view over the steppe after the storm had passed
We were woken by an angry local claiming the land we were camping on was his, so we packed up quickly and gave him a pair of the weird sunglasses we found in Vienna. The thought of some local riding his motorcycle around Mongolia wearing those silly sunglasses overrode any sentimental attachment we had to them.

Along the way, we took a wrong turn and ended up on the wrong side of a valley, with a river running between us and the other side. We took the road until we found a river crossing too deep for our cars, before turning around and trying to meet up again with the main road. We ran into an ambulance driven by some British ralliers on the way back and warned them of the river ahead, so they followed us back the opposite direction.

The main road turned out to cross the river at a fairly deep spot, and as we were getting out to check the depth, the Brits run straight through the river! They managed to get through, but judging by the amount of water that flowed out of their car when they opened their drivers side door, it was definitely too deep for our small cars at the location they took it, giving us the impression we'd likely need to be towed across. However, after some searching, we managed to find a route through, and got both cars safely across.

A few miles later, the pavement began! This meant we had successfully navigated the most difficult sections of Mongolia, the rest was (hopefully) smooth pavement! We stopped for some lunch and to celebrate, and while we were stopped we were overtaken by two more teams from the UK! One impressively traveled the entire distance from Altai to Arvaikeer without a clutch, and 5 people weighing their Renault down. They push started the car the entire way, and rev matched to change gears. The other car had no front dampers, so they've been having a bumpy ride on the rocky Mongol roads.

We decided to stop at a hotel in Arvaikeer, get some good food, a good night sleep in a real bed, and our first showers since leaving Astana, Kazakhstan (we definitely needed them). The food turned out to be great, we even had the same thing for breakfast.

There's still plenty of adventuring to be done, but we're allowing ourselves the hope that the worst is behind us.

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