To Ulaanbaatar and back: Opel makes it, the book house, a margarita and home

Posted by on Sep 10, 2013 in blog | 8 comments

To Ulaanbaatar and back: Opel makes it, the book house, a margarita and home

Opel made it! Last week, she arrived at the Go Help office in Ulaanbaatar by tow truck. Munhuu, the mechanic who rescued her, says he’ll soon have her back in tip-top shape. I’m thankful she’s no longer stranded in the harsh lands of western Mongolia, locked up in the back of the only shop in Tolbo, population 1,000 (I would have guessed 15).

We didn’t make it to Ulaanbaatar much faster. From Tolbo, it took us another hard week. We entered west, where the borders of Russia, China and Kazakhstan converge. It’s majestic here, high and cold, the vast steppe stretching up to the Altai Mountains that rise like jagged shark teeth. Shaggy baby yaks and skittish goats wobble by. Massive Golden Eagles, their wingspans up to 8 feet, perch like sentinels in the road. They hunt wolves. The nomads who have lived here for thousands of years must be supernaturally tough.


In central Mongolia, we skirted the northern edge of the barren Gobi Desert. On one particularly monotonous and bone-rattling track, the din too loud to talk, I took to counting discarded goat hooves in the road. I saw 15 in an hour. We were averaging 9 mph so the little furry brown legs weren’t hard to spot, especially when lying next to the full horse skeleton or herd of Bactrian camels with limp, drooping humps.

It was an incredible week. We camped in places so beautiful they seemed unreal, got lost once (apparently, there are four town in Mongolia named Altay), nibbled on hard cheese made from drained sour milk, got towed across two rivers and crossed a lot more, patched a hole in the oil pan with superglue, drove through a thunderstorm at night, tried and failed to order vegetarian food in a restaurant, fixed a flat or two and played card games by flashlight in a muttony ger.


Driving into Ulaanbaatar was anti-climatic. The city is a dump, smoke stacks graying the sky and drab soviet-era apartment blocks lining the streets. There are piles of dirt everywhere. Nearly half of Mongolia’s population live in the capital and they all seem to have a car. The traffic is horrendous. We asked directions to the center but only one person answered us, in German.


Upon further exploration, Ulaanbaatar is an odd but interesting place. Mostly older women stroll by in the deel, the traditional padded Mongolian dress, while young women favor miniskirts and heels. Expensive cars ply streets lined with Irish pubs, European bakeries, pizza joints and a microbrewery. North Korea even has its own restaurant.


Mongolians love Genghis Kahn. There are at least four different Genghis vodkas for sale in convenient stores. On the main square, in a small building just next to the statue of Genghis Khan, is a 70-million-year-old dinosaur skeleton, the Asian version of the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

An interesting group at the overpriced Grand Kahn Irish pub.

The money pouring in is obvious. Mongolia is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, thanks to direct foreign investment in the mining boom, the poverty rate has dropped significantly and life expectancy is up.

But the city still feels rough. Neo-Nazism is slightly popular. A large homeless population lives in the sewer tunnels underground, and alcoholism is a real problem. I went out alone late one night, parched and looking for water, and got followed by a large, creepy man. He was so drunk he was easy to out walk.

One afternoon, we visited one of Go Help’s charity education projects called the Book House. The one-room building, walls lined with books, is in the fringes of the city, down an alley in one of the sprawling ger districts. Extreme winters have killed livestock and forced thousands of destitute nomads to pitch their gers here in small fenced-in yards.

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On the day we visited, the book house was closed. The librarian, whose ger is next door, opened just for us. A few kids hung out watching YouTube videos about dogs on the only laptop and playing made-up ninja games. One confident little girl took Owen’s photo on her sister’s phone and then got Alex and Yoav to teach her guitar. On other days of the week, we were told, about 20 children come daily for English lessons and various activities. It’s a much needed operation, a safe, welcoming place for the community to hang out, interact, read and learn. One boy gave me a handmade felt ger as I left.

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Go Help is a small operation. The charity is run by a handful of volunteers and a few staff members out of a donated office space in UB. There is also a volunteer in London and a five-member board of trustees. Its primary income is from its rallies. In the last five years, ralliers have donated 270 vehicles and raised $600,000. Most of the money raised goes straight into health and education charity projects.

We took the bus back to the city. Owen had dropped the van off at the car wash and they had called to say it wasn’t starting. We pushed it down the street back to Go Help.  The day before, as we walked up to the building, another team was being towed in. Munhuu has a lot of work ahead of him.

No van meant we walked or took taxis.  In Ulaanbaatar, everyone is a taxi. Just wave your hand and within a few seconds, someone pulls over. Anywhere costs a few dollars. It’s a great system.

On Sunday, the Bandits left for England and Yoav and I went for margaritas. I was sad it was all over. If someone had given me a car to drive back, I would have gladly done it. The next day, 51 days after leaving London, we flew one of Hunnu Air’s two international planes direct to Hong Kong. It took less than five hours to get home. Driving is a lot more fun.


Thank you to everyone for all the support, emotional and financial, from start to finish. It was an incredible trip, full of meaning and adventure. It’s still hard to believe anyone is actually reading this blog. If you are, a special thanks to you! More photos to come soon, especially for our sponsors whom without, we couldn’t have done this trip. A large portion of your money went to Go Help, which I believe is a valuable and sincere operation doing good things for the people of Mongolia. And I still have a few stories left. They might come out yet. -Robin


  1. Thanks for all the updates! Some days I felt like I was there because of your vivid descriptions. So many of my friends have been following the blog as well and have commented what a great writer you are. I can’t wait for you to write a book about this adventure. You already have a fan base to buy it! Love you and glad you made it home safe.

    • Kim, next time you should be there! Thanks!! You’re also hired as my PR manager. Can I pay you in books?

  2. Robin – welcome home! What a grand adventure. Thanks so much for sharing it all. You are an AMAZING writer, and I would love to read all you care to share in any format. This has been a grand summer getting to vicariously tag along on a trip I’d never have the courage or time to participate in. If you’re in the hole, I’m sure I won’t be alon in offering to ante up. Time to start saving for the next adventure, right?

    Warmest and best regards, Ginger… a BIG fan in NOLA

  3. Robin, I have been fascinated by your accounts. Your writing is wonderful. What an adventure! Thank you for sharing it with us.

  4. Robin, You are an amazing adventurous,fearless young women with a lot of spunk. Thanks for sharing. Your writing made me feel as though I was along for the adventure. I definetly look forward to reading anything you may publish.

  5. Garrison Keller on Praire Home Companion (a radio show for us liberals)has a great story of two Minnesota young ladies that took a trip to the back woods of Alaska after graduating from college. It was the summer before they started their jobs teaching and wanted to visit the Inuit schools and see the “real” Alaska.To save space, I will just say it was a great adventure. Garrison called it a “Macaroni and Cheese Moment”. It is for the time when you’re 90+ years old setting in the rest home gumming macaroni and cheese and a big smile runs through your body thinking back on this most incredible wonderful trip.

    Our very best to all – Thanks for allowing us to join you through your blog – Jim and Sandy

  6. Robin- I am glad you are safely home. Your father was one of my dearest friends and became one of Allen’ s too. He would be so very proud of you, as we are sure your mother is. She is truly a special lady and I don’t envy her for the worry she must have had. DO write that book. Your words and your photos have taken us on a more exotic trip than most of us will ever experience.

    With great admiration,
    DeeDee Roussel

  7. We’re still reading Robin. “Driving is a lot more fun.”
    Maybe that’s too long for a movie title, but your writing has never been ceased to entertain and transport. Can’t wait for the next adventure series.

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