5 cars. 12 Yale grads. 10,000 miles to Ulaanbaatar.
East of Bayankhongor, Mongolia. This car, the first to break down when its engine stalled in Germany, made it to Ulaanbaatar, 9,500 miles later. View full image
That is, if we make it to Mongolia. Toward the end of Kazakhstan, one of our cars breaks down every few hours. We can’t find the right kind of fuel, and most gas stations are abandoned. The car rides are an exercise in holding on for dear life. After a seemingly endless day of driving through steppes, we roll by a postapocalyptic strip of casinos—Brutalist-style buildings all boarded up. We pass a tank; it’s following something that looks like a rocket launcher. Back in the USSR? We feel foreign and unconnected, and by now we’ve lost our Russian speaker.
At night, we camp somewhere off a Kazakh highway, still 500 miles away from Mongolia. I fall asleep to distant honking and familiar snoring. Then, around 2:00 a.m., I’m jolted awake by the burning itch of hives. Though I’d never had allergies prior to the rally, this is the second occurrence. The first time, I’d been lucky enough to be in Tashkent, home of central Asia’s only international health clinic, where I’d been given the supply of intramuscular Benadryl shots I’m still hoarding. I wake up Brandon, the sociology graduate student who became our resident medical practitioner after Maddy left. With his headlamp shining on my forearm, he gives me a shot. I make a joke about his medical training. He looks just as tired as I feel as he recaps the syringe.
The allergies had been affecting my health, and the recurrence was a bad sign. After my experiences with Uzbek and Kazakh health services, I knew it was time for me to go.
I was sad not to make it to the end, but it is as true as it is clichéd to say that the rally was about more than just the destination. Fittingly, “500 Miles” was playing as we sped across pockmarked roads to Ust-Kamenogorsk’s airport in order to get me to my hurriedly booked flight. Predictably, a tire popped. Now pros at changing tires, we were on the road again in four minutes.
The Bad Latitudes, or what was left of them, arrived in Mongolia on August 17. The unrelenting terrain from the border to the capital destroyed the cars, which only made it to the end thanks to increasingly sketchy roadside fixes. Aerial footage shows pieces of metal—sump guards, meant to protect our engines—hopelessly rolling off. The footage also shows my nearly unrecognizable teammates, all beards and un-shampooed hair.
True to his word, James managed to reunite with the team, and the Bad Latitudes made it to Ulaanbaatar a dozen strong. On August 23, the six remaining Yalies met with Tuyen Nguyen ’83, the only Yale College alum in the country. He called it the largest reunion of Yale alumni in Mongolian history.