March Mongolian roadtripping might have been stressful and time-consuming, but it had its ups as well as downs. Many of the things that contributed to our ongoing difficulty were also the ones that made it interesting and memorable.
Take Otgoo, for instance. I rode in all three of the Embassy vehicles at least once over the course of the week. Dashaa and the other driver (whose name I never got) were both calm and dependable. They handled their vehicles well, drove at a reasonable pace, and spoke enough English to carry on some semblance of a conversation with us.
And then there was Otgoo.
Otgoo blazed along the non-existent roads as though hoping to flatten a path for us through sheer force and speed. He frequently left the other two cars in the dust as he flew across the steppe – sometimes figuratively, and sometimes, after hitting a large bump, quite literally. I, sitting Indian-style in the front seat, was able to absorb most of the the jolting with my core, a sort of inversion of butt-bouncing on a trampoline (is anyone else familiar with that movement?) But poor Joe, the tallest of us, had the misfortune to be seated in the back seat with the broken seatbelt on several such occasions. He hit the roof more than once before figuring out how to brace himself against my seat.
Thankfully, he sustained no serious head trauma, but even if he had, I think some things would still be burned into his memory. Otgoo’s taste in music, for instance. While the other two cars traveled in silence most of the time, Otgoo had a single CD on repeat the entire trip. Its contents ranged from traditional Mongolian to bhangra, Turkish to Lady Gaga and Brittney Spears. We sang along to “Pokerface” and the “Phantom of the Opera” techno remix and danced our way through many of the numbers in unfamiliar languages. My first stint in this car began shortly after we left Tosontsengel, when Joe tapped out due to musical overload. And so it was that I found myself in Otgoo’s car when we hit our first obstacle of the day.
The road from Tosontsengel to Uliastai, like the one from Tariat to Tosentsengel, took us through mountains and floodplains. We passed hills and valleys and frozen, downward-sloping rivers that bulged oddly, like small glaciers. And then, of course, we reached another stretch of winding, one-lane road blocked by a stuck vehicle.
At least this time the blockage was of a considerably smaller scale. The traffic through this part of the mountains had carved deep ruts into the road, and the pressure of numerous cars had melted the ice within the ruts, while the rest of the road maintained a thick coat of highly compacted ice. The melting snows, meanwhile, had exacerbated the problem; a small river ran across the road, creating deep pools in the trenches before escaping through a tiny breach and continuing its downward journey.
Lodged in the midst of all this was a blue pickup truck, heavily laden with logs. It had followed in the tread of its many predecessors, and now could not escape it: burdened as it was, its tires could no longer reach the bottom of the watery trenches, and it had bottomed out on the icy barrier between them. The truck’s occupants stood on either side of the road, peering at the undercarriage while one man jabbed at the ensnaring ice with a hefty chunk of rebar.
There was no way around these folks, or the car trapped on the other side of them would have taken it. So out of the cars we piled. While two of the drivers searched for a rope with which to drag the truck out of the ditches, Lisa and I fell to my fourth-grade recess standby: waterworks. If we could impede the flow of water into the road and widen its egress, we might be able to give it better traction. We set about damming off the inward flow with rocks and chunks of ice, while the third driver took up the abandoned rebar to chip at the ditch walls.
It was at this point that the week’s first reworded song made its appearance. “If I had a shovel,” someone muttered, to which both Joe and I responded – he with the traditional “I’d shovel in the morning,” I with the equally applicable “I’d dig myself a drainage trench.” Alas, there was no shovel to be had.
We did succeed in lessening the water’s depth somewhat, but not enough to free the trapped vehicle; our attempt to tow it freed it from the ice upon which it was beached, but settled it in waters too deep for the wheels to do more than spin helplessly. And so it was that the truck’s driver finally unbound his cargo, an act he’d clearly hoped to avoid. Logs fell to either side, throwing up great waves of muddy water. When the remaining load was stable, we approached. Several of the men began laying the logs before the tires to create a sort of boardwalk, and some one had had the bright idea to drive them under the tires using the only mallet available – another log. Mongol ingenuity at its finest.
Load lessened and boardwalk in place, with the towing vehicle once more attached, the truck was at last freed from its prison, though not without much spinning of tires and unhappy grinding of gears. It drove onward to the end of the danger zone, a good forty feet beyond the pile of logs left it its wake.
But eight people can move a pile of logs pretty quickly, even if two of them are loading rather than hauling and everyone has to pick their steps with care. My ability to shoulder a spar rather than dragging it behind me was met with a, “Ямар хүчтэй вэ!” (How strong!) from the drivers and the inevitable, “Katelin, please be careful!” from the Embassy workers. Never mind that how much time I’ve spent hauling much larger logs over the past four summers; girls can be strong? Who knew?!
At long last, the logs were loaded and the way was clear. We were Uliastai bound, and not even boulders in the road would keep us from getting there.