5 cars. 12 Yale grads. 10,000 miles to Ulaanbaatar.

Mike Norton

Mike Norton

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.

4 comments

  • karl schrom
    karl schrom, 12:16pm November 03 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I was as absorbed in this account of the long trip as I was as a child when I would read such accounts in the National Geographic. If I were young enough (i.e., half my age) I'd jump at a chance to do this. As it is, I gratefully read about it rather than actually suffer. I'd love to read the book, or see the film, or take the virtual reality tour.

  • Eric A.  Seiff
    Eric A. Seiff, 12:22pm November 03 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    How inspiring, and reminiscent. In l961-2, my wife and I drove from Paris to Katmandu, in a two cylinder Citroen 2CV. Along the way we met a Turkish executive who had driven from Istanbul to Shiraz in a Model T in 1927. Unlike you, it took us 14 months of meandering, and an altered life Only this past summer did I finally visit Ulaan Baatar. Eric

  • Bill lee
    Bill lee, 2:46pm November 06 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Written for Yalies by Yalies.

    Boy will you be embarrassed when you re-read this in ten years time.

    Even now you can feel differences from one or two years of graduating from New Haven.

  • Shlomo Karni
    Shlomo Karni, 12:28pm November 20 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    As a proud Eli (ME '57), I have been reading the Magazine for years - always with great pleasure. This lead article, so promising on the cover, was rather disappointing in its lack of any meaningful, descriptive contents. Never mind Europe - what about the cultures, people, locales of the countries east of Turkey that you crossed?

    As an English Comp. article, I'd give it a C-.

Post a comment