5 cars. 12 Yale grads. 10,000 miles to Ulaanbaatar.
The Big Almaty Lake, in southeastern Kazakhstan. Here the Bad Latitudes were detained by a Kazakh policeman. View full image
Fixing sump guards became a daily exercise in Mongolia. View full image
The team prepares for a grocery run into Khovd, in western Mongolia. Often, the Bad Latitudes were the only cars on the road. View full image
We finally settle into a rhythm at week three. We talk about moral philosophy, politics, and failed relationships. We sing along to the Hamilton soundtrack, develop our own bizarre radio show through the walkie-talkie transmitters, and listen to a lifetime’s worth of dive bar music. We zone out to podcasts and radio music in languages we don’t understand. We listen to “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” by the Proclaimers, on repeat—not by choice, but because our car won’t give us back the CD. We perfect the art of dancing while wearing seatbelts. We learn to nap in Uzbekistan despite what we call the “massages,” constant bumping that is a product of streets that are more potholes than road.
Uzbekistan, like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan before it, has bizarrely low-denomination cash. The local currency seems to have only 1,000-som bills, which are worth about 15 cents. Nobody accepts credit or debit cards, so we walk around with stacks of som, gauging expenses by volume: entrance to a few museums costs about a brick; a moderately priced group lunch will be one full backpack’s worth. As we navigate the cities in our awkward caravan, David, a history major who seems to have memorized our Lonely Planet guide, spouts information. We buy ice cream cones (6,000 som) and sit in the shade while he shares facts, now rehashing the water wars among central Asia’s five former Soviet Republics. Just as I’m tuning him out, he stops talking and starts sketching. We’re 25 days in, and we all find each other just a little bit annoying.
Some of our campsites are better than others. Ile-Alatau National Park is easily the nicest place we’ve camped, an upgrade from deserts infested with scorpions and huge spiders. On our drive up we stop by the Big Almaty Lake, which lies at the base of the Tian Shan mountain ranges. What was supposed to be a pleasant photo break turns into our first real bribe experience. Throughout the trip, we’ve been purchasing cheap vodka and giving it to border guards. We’ve feigned incomprehension when local police attempted to exploit us, with Teddy sometimes leafing slowly through a two-inch-thick folder of fake but official-looking documents in order to exhaust anyone in a uniform asking us for money.
At the Almaty Lake, however, five of our members gullibly hand over their passports when a cop stops them from “illegally” approaching the water and demands their papers. He detains us for an hour, refusing to return the passports. Some of the guys—riled by the espresso they bought from the back of a Kazakh’s truck—argue about physically overcoming our plump adversary. Mark, the Russian speaker, negotiates with him instead. They settle on 13,600 tenge, or $40. We drive away as the five guilty parties try to make light of the incident.
In Kazakhstan, shivering under a starry, meteor-streaked sky, we build a fire and cluster around it for dinner.* The guys joke about forming an a cappella group and performing in Mongolia—Yale habits die hard. Between fits of laughter, I take a video on my phone as they sing Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time.” Matt awards Rallier of the Day. For weeks in a row it had been Mark, whose Russian had saved us over and over again. Tonight it’s Bay, who had carried a crate of beer during a hike. Matt, looking ridiculous in multiple layers of clothes, then asks us to look around at those of us who are left, and to say goodbye to those about to leave.
I am the only remaining female. Maddy left us to begin medical school, Lauren needed to officiate at a friend’s wedding. Several of the guys returned to jobs or school. By the time we leave Almaty, the last major city before Ulaanbaatar, we are down to 12 people. James and Sid, denied visas to Russia, promise to rejoin us in Mongolia.
* This sentence has been corrected. The original erroneously placed the group in Kyrgyzstan.