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Our Final Meal

Ulan Bator, Mongolia

After 33 days on the road, covering more than 8,500 miles, numerous countries, four flat tires, several bouts of food poisoning, and more greasy mutton than a man should devour within his lifetime, we reach the lovely, sprawling Shangri-la that is Ulan Bator.

Our van arrives a few hours before Andrew and the Justy. There’s enough juice left in the car to drive it to the impound lot, where we donate it to charity. We bid our trusty chariot goodbye and get down to the serious business at hand: celebrating!

“To be perfectly honest,” Andrew says, “I never thought we’d make it this far. I was expecting our car to gloriously fall apart, leaving us stranded and prime picking for vultures.”

“Let’s not celebrate with Mongolian food,” Mims says. “I can’t eat any more mutton.”

He doesn’t need to. Ulan Bator, which holds the honor of being the coldest capital city in the world, is quite the cosmopolitan metropolis. Italian restaurants, burger joints, Mongolian barbecue hangouts, and even bars called Atlanta and Detroit abound. After six beers, you too can feel like a laid-off autoworker.

Team Dinosaur skips the Motor City and instead travels to Korea House, which specializes in Seoul food.

“Oh, God, please don’t let this be a Mongolian interpretation of Korean food,” Andrew moans.

Korea House is a one-level restaurant, with multiple rooms and vents to suck up the do-it-yourself barbecue smoke. We’re seated at an eight-person table in the main dining room and immediately order soju.

“To not dying,” I say, toasting the team. We drink up and dig in. Korea House’s menu is an all-star list of my favorite treats. We order haejangguk (hearty beef soup made with coagulated ox blood), gimbap (a sushi variant made with ham), bibimbap (hot pot of rice, veggies, and egg), naengmyeon (cold, spicy buckwheat noodles), and several cows’ worth of braised short ribs.

“I think I’m going to cry with happiness,” Mims says as our prim, bespectacled waitress delivers our armada of food, including a dozen bowls of banchan—the small side dishes of kimchee, pickled cucumber, and radish that accompany each meal.

Those are the last words Mims says for the next 15 minutes, as his chopsticks attack each dish in succession. We devour a dozen round slices of warm gimbap, finding it innocuously flavored and heavy on the rice. The short ribs are as soft as tofu, with a rich, meaty broth. I gnaw the bones with all the grace of a caveman. The haejangguk’s a touch too extravagantly flavored for my palate.

“Blood sausage? Why did we order something filled with blood sausage?” I plead. “Haven’t we had our fill of meats of dubious distinction?”

All is redeemed by the naengmyeon’s slick buckwheat noodles. They’re chilled with ice, their supreme spiciness preventing us from slurping up more than a slim bunch at a time. We bicker over the last strand, then distend our stomachs with the bibimbap. The bowl is burn-your-fingers hot; the rice at the bottom pleasingly crunchy. The egg is gooey, sunny-side-up goodness, while the greens are actually, well, green.

“This is one of the top three Korean meals I’ve ever eaten,” Mims says, searching for more short rib shards.

Like the trip itself, this meal is an unlikely delight. Who knew superlative Korean grub existed in Ulan Bator? But though this meal is unlikely, it’s not unexpected. On this trip, food pleasures have revealed themselves everywhere from Kazakhstan gas stations serving fresh-fried mutton buns to Russian roadside smoked-eel stands to nomadic tents high in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan offering dried cheese curds. The key to travel-eating is keeping an open mind (and stomach), asking the locals a few questions—and having plenty of Imodium on standby.

Gravy Makes a World of Difference

Mongolia

In the morning, Mims and I bid the Justy and Andrew adieu. We climb into the van and finally understand what it feels like to be a canned sardine. We are packed cheek to jowl, five to a seat. This means Mims is squishing my thighs and arms, and I’m becoming intimately acquainted with his musky odor.

“Deodorant, man,” I say, as he braces his hand against the ceiling when the van hits a hellacious bump.

I comfort myself with the thought that at least I’ll be eating food from the locals’ perspective. However, that assumes that the locals eat food. For the first 12 hours of the journey (which includes a stunning shot of a rainbow), my fellow passengers sustain themselves on sips of water and dry cookies.

“Why isn’t anyone eating?” I ask Mims, whose belly has started grumbling. We have only a few shrunken apples to tide us over until midnight, when we finally stop at a row of roadside restaurants. It’s rainy and dark. The passengers splinter off into various eateries. Mims and I follow a few travelers into a well-lit spot.

I try to order khuushuur or maybe a restorative bowl of soup. A young girl of about 12 (why is she up so late?) informs us that the only edible available is gulyash.

“Well, two gulyash,” I say, wondering if this is goulash’s cousin.

Our steaming plates arrive with three humps of rice, sticky mashed potatoes, pickled cabbage and carrots, and gravy-slathered mutton. Goulash this ain’t. Then again, this isn’t wholly horrible, a compliment given our growing dissatisfaction with Mongolian food’s bland uniformity.

“Gravy makes a world of difference,” Mims says, spearing some cubed mutton. We clean our plates of every scrap, even the mashed potatoes that have the consistency of spackling paste.

“It sticks to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter,” I tell Mims.

Eating everything is a wise decision: This is the last meal we’ll have on this van journey.

Our Car Receives a Mortal Blow

Altai, Mongolia

Our car is broken, but not our will to reach Ulan Bator.

In the morning, we awake at sunrise and realize that our right front tire is flat. We don’t have another spare, just a can of flat-tire fix. We use this dubious concoction and set out for Altai, 90 miles away.

“We’re getting to this town if we have to drive on our rims,” Andrew says, pushing the Justy into fourth gear. We rattle over the bumpy roads at 45 miles per hour, gritting our teeth as we pray to reach Altai before our car gives up the ghost and strands us in the Gobi Desert, suffering the same fate as those yak skeletons we see alongside the road.

We reach town by 10 a.m. and head to the bazaar. Amidst the morass of chintzy plastic toys, greasy auto parts, and blackened carrots, we discover a row of restaurants. We examine their signs for clues. One appears to offer a full English breakfast. Peering inside, we see that there are, indeed, eggs on a table.

“I’m dying for eggs,” Andrew says.

We ask the middle-aged chef if she can whip us up scrambled eggs along with the sliced sausage sitting on the table. Her eyebrows arch skeptically.

“Eggs. Scrambled eggs,” Andrew says. Utilizing his excellent charades skills, he mimics cracking eggs, whipping them up, putting them in a pan, and tossing in the sausage. The chef looks at us like, “Are you serious?

Nonetheless, she fries up heaping portions of sausage and eggs for Mims and Andrew. It’s an all-American stomach-stuffer, but I opt for the full English breakfast pictured on the awning. What is an English breakfast interpreted by a Mongolian chef?

My plate comes out with big lumps of white rice topped with a fried egg. This is joined by stewed, lean mutton cubes, sticky mashed potatoes, pickled carrots, and browned potato chunks. There’s not a single stewed tomato or mushy bean to be found, much less sausage. I consider this a significant improvement on an actual English breakfast.

But I’m still hungry. At neighboring tables, men are digging into piles of thin, half-moon pancakes: khuushuur, yet another mutton-stuffed delicacy. Our table orders half a dozen as dessert, and we’re not disappointed.

“It’s like a scallion pancake,” Mims says, “but without the scallion, of course.”

The mutton is more seasoning agent than overriding flavor, and with a dash of hot sauce the khuushuur are soon ancient history. Now I’m sated.

And totally worried.

When you pilot a crap car more than 8,000 miles from London to Mongolia, you expect a few things to break. Perhaps a flat tire here, a broken fan belt there. However, you don’t expect everything to simultaneously go kaput.

“Guys,” Andrew says, “I think we’ve dealt the Justy a mortal blow.”

The two front tires are flat. Our suspension springs are shattered. The radiator is falling off. Heck, even the rear stabilizer bar is missing, taking with it the ability to do whatever that part does. Plus, the car screeches like fingernails across a chalkboard whenever we make a left turn. There’s a high probability of us making additional left turns. In the Gobi Desert.

Team Dinosaur makes the executive decision to place the Justy on the back of a truck. We make arrangements with a local truck driver, then pilot the car onto the truck bed. There’s only enough space in the truck for two people, so Mims and I volunteer to take a bus—which is really a van—to Ulan Bator.

“It’ll give us a chance to meet the locals and eat some new food,” Mims says optimistically.

Desperate Enough to Eat Sheep Off the Floor

Bayankhongor, Mongolia

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.

At Least the Goatherd Liked It

Mongolia

The road to Ulan Bator is long and torturous. We’re averaging only about 12 miles per hour. There’s not a single restaurant, just miles of the interminably brown and brittle Gobi Desert. Today we dip into our meager provisions. We make do with sandwiches made from crusty bread, pickles, overripe peppers, and tiny canned fish.

“The fish add just the right amount of flavor,” Andrew says optimistically. This is sustenance in its barest form, but at least one member of our dining party is thrilled: At one of our stops, a goatherd shoos his flock away and breaks bread with us. He smiles appreciatively after he chomps every greasy fish. Because there are no trash bins, the empty fish tin stinks up our battered, dusty car for the remainder of the day.

That Guy Killed Our Dinner!

Mongolia

This morning, for once, we’re not covered in grime and mosquito bites. We slept in a low-budget hotel. The bathroom lacked a light, but at least the shower water was hot.

For lunch, we head to the local bazaar. It’s a dust-covered quagmire. Signs are scarce, and wandering in circles is inevitable. This leads to serendipitous discoveries.

“It’s an outdoor pool hall!” Andrew says, motioning to a few dozen shaded pool tables. They’re covered in a fine patina of dust, but the players don’t mind: Most are wearing medical masks. We ask one guy about our best lunch option. He ushers us into a tiny joint outfitted with wooden tables, pink walls, and a picture of cartoon horses. Day laborers are devouring buuz (dumplings), tsuivan (fried noodles with mutton), and shuulte khool (soup with noodles and mutton), and that’s our order too.

The steamed, mutton-stuffed buuz are a departure from Uzbekistan’s dumplings. They’re more compact, like purses, and biting into them releases an ooze of oil.

“They’re like soup dumplings,” Mims says. This makes sense; after all, we’re moving in the direction of China.

The soup is thin, with oil circles floating on top. It contains tender potatoes, fatty mutton, and thin, chewy noodles. It’s decent, but nothing to dream about. Today’s winning dish is the noodly, greasy tsuivan. It’s interspersed with carrots, mutton, onions, and potatoes. The concoction’s pure starchy heaven, like a rustic lo mein. We splash in chile sauce.

“Noodles are the perfect food,” Mims says.

Even better? The eats cost us only $2.

That night we camp near a river. After we set up camp, we trundle a mile down the road to a restaurant.

“I can’t believe it!” Mims says as we enter the dim eatery, where beds serve as seating: A group of Koreans we met at the Mongolian border are sitting at the main table. We join them.

“Vodka!” says their leader, a man wearing an Adidas shirt.

A bottle of room-temperature Mongolian booze is delivered. We take turns drinking the gut-warming spirit from a blue cup. This increases our moods and appetites. Soup and buuz—the restaurant’s two dishes—are ordered with our waitress’s aid. The rosy-cheeked owners’ daughter is 15 and speaks semifluent English.

“Tea, too?” she asks.

It sounds divine, and soon we are slurping bowls of sour, salty, milky tea—delicious, actually. I drink two servings in rapid succession. In the kitchen, with its ceiling covered in Cheez-It boxes, our waitress’s mom whips up our victuals. The soup is immensely satisfying: Crowded with homemade noodles, carrots, pickles, and an unidentifiable meat, it’s a perfect restorative following a long day’s trek.

Before we leave, the owner and his friends come inside. They’re excited to see us, and express this by challenging us to arm-wrestle. Mims loses to a guy smoking a cigarette. Through a series of elaborate pantomimes, we determine that he’s a hunter for the restaurant. What he kills, the restaurant serves. He grabs my arm and brings us next door. He retreats to the backyard, then returns shouting. “Ahhhh!” he says, shaking what appears to be a groundhog or a marmot at our heads. Was that the meat we ate for dinner? The language barrier is a blessing.

Nomad Hospitality

Mongolia

After leaving Russia, we contend with Mongolia’s vexing bureaucracy.

“If I never have to fill out another customs form, I’ll be a happy man,” Andrew says.

It’s late afternoon when we finally enter the country. We’re tired and thirsty, and suddenly there’s a random stranger waving us down. We stop our car; he hops on his motorbike and drives to meet us.

“Come, come,” says the young man, who has straight brown hair and a red vest. He gestures to his circular yurt. He makes a drinking motion. “Why not,” we think, following him. Inside, the yurt looks like a relic from the psychedelic ’60s: Vibrant, geometric wall hangings adorn the room. A wood-burning stove sits in the middle, a teakettle warming on top.

Our host lays out a spread of dry bread, dry cookies, sour cheese, and bowls filled with milky, salty tea. He gestures for us to dig in, and we do so, ravenously. The tea is warm and comforting, a kissing cousin of English breakfast tea. The sour cheese and dry bread leave a thick, unwelcome paste on my tongue; when you’re in the lip-chapping desert, you don’t need more bone-dry food. The cookies, though, are perfect for dunking in the tea. I feel like a kid again, submerging Oreos in cold milk.

Team Dinosaur knows few words of Mongolian, and our host knows few words of English. Hence, teatime is mostly silent. Our host shows us pictures of his family, including a brother who’s a general in the Mongolian army. Then he makes Mims try on a ceremonial green jacket and cap.

We exchange our goodbyes, piling back into the car. Then our host rushes forward. He pulls Mims’s arm. “Two dollars each,” he says, in his best English of the afternoon.

We part with a dollar apiece and a larger chunk of our goodwill.

My MacGyver Moment

Russia

At sunrise, we hurriedly pack our car and make a beeline for the border, hoping to cross early. Upon arrival at 8 a.m., we find out that the border doesn’t open until 9 a.m. We are stuck in no man’s land. A cold rain drizzles. I’m desperate to feed my addiction.

“Isn’t there a cup of coffee anywhere in this darn countryside?” I moan.

About 15 minutes later, a trucker parked in front of us emerges from his cab carrying a steaming kettle of water. He motions at us. I think fast, passing him my clear Nalgene water bottle. He fills it, and I grab our bag of dark, preground Gimme! Coffee. We bought a pound in Brooklyn before leaving, but we’ve been unable to make coffee: We forgot a stove.

I heap grounds into my water bottle and shake it. The water turns the color of well-polished dress shoes. The aroma is intoxicating. But the grounds are vexing and gritty. Then a stroke of MacGyver genius strikes. Mims rips up a scrap of his floral-printed underwear, which he’s been using as a rag, and passes me a rubber band.

“It’s freshly washed,” he says, assuring me of the fabric’s hygiene.

I wrap the fabric and rubber band around the mouth of the bottle, and voilà! Filtered underwear coffee. Here’s our video of the event:

Horse Jerky, the Perfect Drunken Food

Russia

After another night in a field, we awake ravenous.

“Warm. Anything warm,” Andrew says.

Towns and restaurants are sparse. Food options are limited to gas stations outfitted with cafés. We stop at a tire shop and ask the grease monkeys which restaurant’s best. They point us toward a circular eatery that looks like a disco.

The ceiling is mirrored. Blue-and-white curtains sweep across the windows. And the waitress is wearing a low-cut cocktail dress and flip-flops.

The menu features pictures, saving us from the chore of translating. Nonetheless, this doesn’t make ordering easier. Most dishes contain mysterious meats cut into matchstick form, as well as pickled vegetables and sprinklings of dill. We desire eggs, but “nyet,” the waitress says.

What’s the ideal Russian breakfast replacement? We let the waitress choose. In a few minutes we receive several browned blini, topped with a dollop of sour cream.

“At least they’re not burned,” is the best compliment Mims can offer.

A plate full of soft potatoes arrives topped with pickles, radishes, cheese, and round slices of gray tongue. It’s sloppy and bland, and we shove the tongue nibs to the plate’s distant corner. The meal’s standout is the rolled blini. They contain an unlikely mélange of mayonnaise, salami, cheese, and radishes, with dill showering everything. It’s eastern Russia’s answer to a loaded omelet, and it leaves my belly warm and stuffed. In the increasingly chilly Siberian countryside, this is a blessing.

Post-breakfast, we run into a fellow Mongol Rally team.

“You need to go fast. The Mongolian border shuts at 6 p.m.,” says a member of the Italian, Fiat-driving Team Orca.

We are about 300 miles from the border. It’s noon. We zoom forward at an accelerated pace, unable to stop for lunch. Luckily, we have dried provisions that have been waiting for us since Kazakhstan.

“Pass me the horse jerky,” I tell Mims, who hands me a package depicting a Genghis Khan–like figure riding a horse. Elegance is written across its bottom, as well as the words fat free. Prominent chile pepper graphics signify spiciness.

I insert an exploratory strip into my mouth. It’s tough as leather, chewy as taffy, salty as an ocean, and pleasantly spicy. But with each chunk, I envision a montage of famous horses past and present: Mister Ed, Barbaro, Flicka, the Lone Ranger’s heroic Silver.

“Now I know why they don’t have this in America,” Mims says, putting his half-eaten pieces back into the bag. “That’s enough horse for me for one day.”

We miss the border crossing and are forced to camp. We light a bonfire and, later that night, under the influence of alcohol, horse jerky becomes the perfect drunken snack. Not a single scrap is left.

Kebab-Flavored Snack Food

Rubtsovsk, Russia

“We’re going to be angry anyway, so we might as well be angry and tired,” I reason, as we attempt to cross the Russian border at 2 a.m.

True to form, the border is an exercise in paperwork tedium. We don’t enter Russia until 5 a.m., whereupon we drive to a field and pass out. We awake a few hours later, groggy and famished, and head into the medium-size town of Rubtsovsk to eat. Policemen point us toward the local market.

Where Uzbekistan bazaars are big, boisterous affairs, Rubtsovsk’s is small and sedate. Vendors quietly sell bottles of homemade kumis, still-flopping fish, and dull scissors. There’s zero va va va voom. And none of the food looks enticing. Particularly in the meat aisle.

“There are bees buzzing on that pile of livers,” Mims says.

A few steps later …

“Now we know what our samsas are made of,” Mims says.

I’m a firm believer in remembering that our meat comes from animals, not wrapped in plastic. However, the display of viscera is too visceral. My stomach flip-flops like a disoriented gymnast. Call me a wussy, but I decide to go vegetarian for the rest of the day.

I eat yet another luscious watermelon, bought from the market (and sliced on top of the car, which serves as our cutting board), as well as several packs of curious potatolike wafers. They come in such delicious flavors as mushroom and sour cream, as well as kebab—Russia’s answer to hickory barbecue.

“It’s oddly … meaty,” Andrew says, refusing seconds.