My hands shake and twitch and the fingers barely work so I'm not sure how much I'll get to tell you, but I figure if everything had to get shattered like the windows and the Story and the Trip, I might as well tell you about it properly, but I don't have the strength, let alone presence of mind, to really do a damn thing right, but my apologies for the intros and asides and epilogues and prologues. Somewhere it seems like this is how it has to be, like it's the least I can do, and all of that. But above all, I ought to tell you that we seem to be alright, that we are alive, and that we will be fine, and we will soon begin making our way home, which seems a lot further away than it's been this whole time, even though we are now working our way ever closer.
On the Russian side of the border everyone was mean, save one lady, there was a small plot of beet and onion and dill and cucumber growing just a few feet from where they impound cars whose papers aren't in order. Our border guard desperately wanted to send us there, but our papers were in order, and eventually they let us through. Along the way they questioned the validity of everything, including our passports and the new visas we'd acquired from the Buriyat Republic which would allow us to leave Russia once and for all.
They held us up for six hours, letting us through as their last car of the day, and putting us to the Mongolian side just in time for Mongol Customs to close, unable to finish processing us. We were in the country, though, and they suggested we spend the night at a hotel. They were friendly and delightful and uplifting. The hotel worked as the town brothel and bar, too, but a bed was a very nice thing, and we were glad to be in Mongolia.
That was Altanbulag. We made our way to Sukhbaatar, got some cash, got a MobiTel SIM for the phone, and ate a meal of tsuivan and some soup, complete with more mutton and sheep fat than I would have thought was possible for two vegetarians to consome. We made our way out of town and into beautiful hills and decided to make camp early, complete with a fire and elaborate fire-cooked food. Sukhbaatar glowed brilliantly along its hill marking the border between Mongolia and Russia that every Trans-Mongolian Railway passenger passes through, and there was a night sky full of stars visible clearly through the thick orange wall of our tent. We had our plastic hood crow mascot that we acquired in Kyiv keeping watch through the night with a piece of Russian sausage on his nose and awoke surrounded by magpies, a symbol of hope for the journey we'd adopted as far back as Amsterdam.
We came to a small town where we were greeted by dozens of children who we unloaded toys we bought back in the Czech Republic on, and we bought a set of Mongolian reflex bows. We ate in the town guanz some truly wonderful food, the highlight being khuushuur, which are like elephant ears (the fried dough snack) except savoury and thin and filled with minced mutton. I cannot do that stop justice as part of an aside, but would love to say more later. It was a high point of the trip.
We left and made it to Darkhan where we stayed in a small hotel, planning to nap off some tired that was eating our brains, having gotten not the most restful sleep the night before when temperatures plummeted to well below zero. This one, too, seemed to double as a sort of brothel, and I was directed to a giant naked Mongolian woman in one of the rooms who had enough English and hand-gestures to communicate the price of a room for Corvi and I. We took it and ended up sleeping through the night, following our first English-language entertainment in ages, as a Babylon 5 movie played on whatever flavor of Cinemax it was they received.
And things were sort of wrong and off the next day. The road to Darkhan was surrounded by Cannabis sp. and there was a tree with a raven nest made out of cow ribs with blue ribbons tied to it, and we had been sort of happy if feeling not our best. From Darkhan on, though, things were just weird. I was unwell in every sense of the word. Almost to Bayangol, the next city, we were driving between mountains and swerved off the road. Into the ditch that runs along the roads here. Out of it. Flung into a dried up streambed next to it. Over that. The car began to roll, and we slid along upside-down.
I got myself out of the car through the back, which was ripped open, and tried to lift the car up to get Corvi out, who was pinned under the steering-wheel, but my arms were far from working. A passing shared taxi saw us, and people lifted the car enough to get Corvi out. We discussed transport to a hospital with them but nobody would take us anywhere until we'd gotten valuables out of the car - they went on at length about how somebody would steal them.
Eventually we grabbed our backpacks out of the car, enough to convince them we would not lose valuables (not that we cared - Corvi was barely coherent and I felt shredded, but they wouldn't even discuss transport until we'd looted our car before someone else could.) A truck driver would take us back to Darkhan, which was big enough, and to a hospital there. But then he backed out and wanted nothing to do with us. Some other passing car would take us, except he started out the wrong way. For some reason he took us to Bayangol, which barely had a clinic. He informed the police of what had happened, and while Corvi's forehead was swelling and bruising, and Corvi's vision was coming and going, and I was desperately hoping for someone to offer me a bandage at some point so I could stop staring at fat beneath my ripped open arm, the police came to get me. Corvi was being iodined down, and they hadn't gotten to me yet as I was in better shape, but the police insisted I come with them. They said we had to go to the car for their report, but I made it clear we didn't care about a report. They wouldn't listen. I said I needed to be in the clinic, and that we needed to get Corvi and myself to UB for a real hospital experience. They disagreed with me and demanded I come immediately.
We went back to the accident scene and then they made me drive around for miles with them looking for cell phone service near the accident, rather than in the town, because they were sure they needed a report. They were sure I'd been driving, even though Corvi had been, and they were sure that we had both been drunk, despite having last touched alcohol three days ago, and even then only in a flambee context. They made me help move and lift the car with them and didn't care if I was crying in pain and begging to go back to town. At one point I started to just walk off - walking a few km back to town was no big deal and much less painful t han uprighting the car, and I was sick of being badgered and mocked by them.
They insisted I gather more valuables, and that we pull everything out of the car so they could photograph it. Then they made me put everything back in the car alone while they smoked and pissed. All twelve or so of them.
Eventually they took me back to town and let me go to the clinic, where Corvi was asleep but glad to be awoken when I was back. And the police took me to their station again, for two hours of interrogation about the accident for a statement. They wrote nothing down. Someone who spoke some English appeared and translated back and forth for me, but they wrote nothing down and seemed unhappy. They stole passports and other documents from my hand and went back to not believing that Corvi had been driving, and insisting one of us had been drunk. Finally they let me go back to the clinic where they reluctantly treated my wounds. Nobody cared how I felt and there was a general disdain for the idea that I had been hurt.
It was hours since we would have been in UB if we'd just hitched our way there and I began to get sick of it. I called the US embassy, they called the officer who'd been harassing me, and they told him flat out that he had to let us go. He told them he was done with us and would release us gladly. Then he stormed off without handing the phone back to me and didn't reappear for two hours. The embassy said to just wait him out, to give him time to cool off, and to let them know if things didn't get better. They expected we'd be jerked around for another hour or so regardless of what they did, but were getting upset at the police.
When the officer came back he told me I couldn't have my passport back and that he had to get the town English teacher to translate a statement before he could let us go, but that he didn't know when she'd be there, but he thought just a few minutes. The embassy called and I informed them of the situation. They were upset as they'd had a consular translator call him and offer to translate and he refused. Two hours later he wandered off again and I called the embassy in tears. Corvi was out of the clinic and in and out of awareness and I was constantly on the verge of fainting and bleeding everywhere. The embassy were angry and had us move on to talking to another police officer. This one said if we had a letter from the clinic saying we were OK he could let us go to get treated in UB, but that he could not release us to get treated in UB unless the clinic said we were OK. In spite of the absurdity of this request, we went along with it, as he promised us (and our embassy) that it would just be two minutes or so of processing after he had those letters.
This was, of course, not the case. He decided he needed a statement, too, and that he'd just wait for the town English teacher. The embassy told him outright to release us and he said he wanted to but just needed us to answer a few questions.
An hour later, the teacher showed up, and they finally got that Corvi was the driver and insisted on speaking to him, even though he couldn't stay awake at this point, and was unable to understand their complex, poorly-translated questions. The teacher had a basic grasp of English at best, and certainly not enough to take a statement from either of us. They kicked me out of the station but then all of the officers but the one interrogating Corvi went out for a beer or some food or something, so I snuck in and listened from the hallway to what they were asking Corvi, having spent at least an hour or two talking to him. I was offended to hear them asking repeatedly about our plans for returning home, how we were leaving Mongolia, and whether we owned the car. The translator couldn't make sense of Corvi's responses and the officer was never satisfied. The embassy was horribly pissed off at the questioning and demanded to speak to the officer. He wrote down his number for me and the embassy's consular assistant called him. His number didn't work. He gave it several more times, all the same as the first time, and it never worked. The embassy was upset with him and said they would call my phone instead, and to speak to the assistant when she called and then hand off the phone to the officer.
The officer was infuriated. He didn't want me in there, he didn't want the embassy telling him what to do, and he definitely didn't like the idea that the embassy was going to go back and forth between him and me. He stormed off in anger, slamming a door behind him, and the embassy called. I explained the situation, he returned, and he started yelling for me to give him the phone. Once I was done speaking to the consular assistant I gave the phone over to him, and he was lectured at length about the inappropriate treatment of us and the illegality of his refusal to return our passports. The consular assistant briefly spoke to a confused Corvi and decided that it was entirely unacceptable to continue to question him and told the officer such. They brokered a deal whereby they would collect minimal demographic information from me, taking no more than 20 minutes, and then we could go. The officer wasted half of this time asking irrelevant questions and eventually began to ask me a question and not even wait for it to be translated before just copying answers he had written down from Corvi earlier. The consular assistant called when the time was up and was none too pleased that they were continuing to waste time with us. The officer and teacher demanded hand-written letters from Corvi and I saying we had no questions for them, for their files. When that was done, he would let us go. Mine was a little long for spurious reasons, but it began relatively clearly, "I have no questions for the belligerant officer..." He was confused as to why mine wasn't as short as Corvi's and demanded to call the embassy again. He lied to the consular officer a few times who began to lose patience with him, and she and I eventually decided that I would reach across his desk, grab our passports, and leave, since he was claiming (as they had 4 hours previous) that they were ready to let us go, even though they were demanding more. When he began to yell "no!" at me, I handed the phone to him there were more lies from him, claiming neither of us had written a statement. He stole the passports back from me and, realizing there was no further way to stall, let us go.
By which time, a ride I'd arranged to UB had grown sick of waiting. So he took us to his ger and then to a guanz and then into a shared taxi - a normal-sized Japanese sedan with 7 people in it, two of them being Corvi and I. We fell asleep, switched to a taxi staffed by our original ride's girlfriend, and then got dropped off at our hotel. A few hundred dollars later, our car was in UB, in the lock-up. Three days later. I didn't have the strength to carry what little was left in the car last night up to the hotel, so I decided to wait until this morning, when it was off the back of the flat bed that brought it to UB. In the meantime, a thousand or so dollars of camping gear went missing along with most of the souvenirs we collected from this trip, including a bag full of coins from a dozen or so countries and our Ukrainian Monopoly game, along with traditional Ukrainian clothes we'd bought for relatives who they'd suit.
Yesterday we had the help of a Mongolian Kazakh whose dream is to study International Relations or something business-related in the states, who works as a guide in the summer, and has substantially more English than Bayangol's English teacher. We also had the help of a Mongolian who got a master's in Agriculture in Saskatoon. In between I got the hang of the Mongolian word za, and their nearly-as-frequently-uttered "yes"-equivalent. An old man greeted me in Mongolian, in full, as nobody bothers to in cities anymore. I carried what little was left in the van a couple of miles back to the hotel until I couldn't feel my fingers. We still haven't gotten to go see one of the expat doctors we've wanted to - the police delayed us over 8 hours and we began to feel a lot better after a night's sleep. We still aren't well, but while it was urgent once, the post-Soviet police robbed us of our urgency. We relaxed for a day which helped a lot, but every so often someone would show up about the car, ask for a little more money, tell us the police were demanding a "fee" to let our car out of Bayangol or to let it into UB, tell us the police didn't believe that we owned the car, something we had been through days ago almost as many times as we covered the fact that neither of us had been drunk, or whatever. Now that's all sorted, and most of what we had to show for the last two months has been stolen, corrupted or shattered. The car is italic from rolling over the Mongolian hills, and people bothered to steal the strangest things, right down to used ISO 25 film. We're tired, and we are still covered in dirt from the accident, since our boutique hotel can't even get running water right. We'll be home soon, but now it seems like it can't be soon enough, where before there was a joy in the travel laid out before us. But we're alright and we'll pull through, and there is still hope, and there are still magpies everywhere we look when we need them.
Take care, folks. We'll let you know if anything changes.