Driving through Mongolia isn’t getting any easier.
“What’s the odometer read?” Andrew asks. It’s about 1,100 miles from the border to Ulan Bator. Instead of serving as an encouraging record of our progress, the odometer reading’s as depressing as a Cure song.
“About 300 miles,” I say. That means we’re averaging 100 miles a day. At this rate, we’ll be lucky to reach the capital.
After a half day of skull-shaking, body-rattling off-road driving, we reach Bayankhongor. It looks like a burned-out Wild West town. Men in leather and knee-high boots ride motorcycles around, while sun-baked cowboys hitch their horses to poles. The main drag of about 10 shops is dust-pummeled and decrepit, with stucco coming off in great big hunks from the buildings. We are famished, and the next town is not for 120 miles. Who knows how long that will take to reach.
The first restaurant we see has several bloody sheep legs sitting on a shelf visible through the front window. The town’s other restaurant keeps its bloody legs and spine beneath a table. We opt for the more discreet of the two.
“I never thought I’d say this, but I’m desperate enough to eat sheep on the floor,” Andrew says as we settle into the one-room eatery with a wood-beam ceiling, plastic tablecloths, and colorful pictures of unavailable food such as split oranges, fried chicken sandwiches, and baskets of hamburgers.
Our 12-year-old waitress informs us of the only meal option: noodles with meat. We order four plates and try not to gasp when the girl’s mom drags the legs and spine into the kitchen. About 45 minutes later, we receive four platters of greasy noodles studded with potatoes, carrots, onions, and chunks of mutton, as well as medallions of pure fat. It’s nearly identical to our lunch a couple of days ago, yet far less delicious.
“Perhaps it’s knowing the mutton was on the ground, unrefrigerated, but I am starting to really dislike Mongolian cuisine,” Mims says. He leaves most of his noodles on his plate.
When we pile back into the car, we suffer another indignity: Our toy doll, strapped to the radiator as a good-luck charm, has been stolen. As we take to the bumpy roads again, our shocks and springs are unable to withstand the jostling. We’re shaken around all afternoon. By 6 p.m., our heads throb.
“So let’s have happy hour,” I say. We pull the car over and mix our Latvian vodka with the juice from jars of canned peaches and strawberries.