I leave the tent once to take a leak and the moon is so full it’s casting shadows. There are barely any stars out because the sky is so damn bright.
In the morning Kent and I eat tasteless, wheat cereal with our driver, Too-May. We waste no time loading up the Russian UAZ-469 truck, then leave the cool canyon to head deeper into the warming desert. Our first stop is an unnamed ger camp that was visible from an ovoo at last night’s campsite. We spin Buddhist prayer wheels that surround the eroded remains of a mud-brick monastery. I secretly wish to find a dinosaur bone in Bayanzag, site of the Flaming Cliffs.
Back on the road we’re forced to stop a few more times because Too-May’s truck keeps overheating. He insists we pull off in Bayandalai Sum. He parks and disappears. We assume he’s handling our vehicle problems so we run in a market and get a few cans of mystery juice. Too-May returns and fires up the truck. He gives us an “everything’s OK” look and we double back to where we turned off the lonely road.
The hardened washboard and unforgiving shocks keep me from napping, so I hold onto my seat and feel the outdoor temperature quickly rising. Without warning, Too-May stops the vehicle again. He gets out, pops the hood then returns to tell us, “Kaput.” A word needing no explanation. We pry open the side doors and step into the lifeless landscape. Too-May bends down, clears pebbles from the road and writes “30” in the dust with his finger. Then he says, “Minutes.” Not as bad as we thought. Kent and I wander around, looking at rocks.
When Too-May removes and dismantles the radiator I lose faith in his half-hour guess. By pointing at other engine parts, he asks if we have any sealant. Of course we don’t. So he digs around in the trunk and uncovers a caulking gun. He rigs up a makeshift patch over the cracked metal. From where it sits in the dirt, the radiator looks repaired. But I doubt it’ll hold under the heat of the engine and the trauma of countless abysmal potholes. But what do I know?
Two hours later we stop again. This time we say it. “Kaput.” We all get out of the truck and sit in the road on the shady side of the vehicle. Too-May looks to the northern horizon at two white vans appearing through heat ripples in the distance. They stop alongside our steaming engine and the drivers dismount. Then the side doors open and spill out more than a dozen Korean tourists, all wearing medical face masks. In the whispered sound of standard Mongolian, Too-May asks for help. But the faces of the drivers say all – the vans have nothing to offer. As the vans load up again, one a Korean woman gets our attention with a wave and says, “I…hope…you…good…holiday.” Seconds later, we choke on a cloud of dust.