Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Sunday in the park, part three
After having said our goodbyes to Bolor’s family at the ger and posing for some group shots in the yellowing afternoon sun, we piled back into the cars and, in our caravan of two, we began to retrace the journey home. The clouds that had brought winter to this valley had long since given way to a bright blue sky and a warm sun had melted the snow from the track. I had almost forgotten the river crossings that lay ahead until our van waded into the hub-high water and promptly stopped. No matter how hard Batdorj, our driver, tried to rock the van, the rear wheels just spun uselessly behind us.
We signaled to the Isuzu up ahead and Gantulga pulled a U-turn and brought his car back to face ours. I began to roll up my pants but everyone in the van, most of all Batdorj, shrieked in horror at the prospect of their guest getting his feet wet. I grudgingly complied.
The tow strap worked like a charm and we were once again on our way. But with much of the snow melted, the it became difficult to choose which of the numerous tracks across the flats to take. Which way did we come? It all looked very different but, then again, the trail often looks different from the other direction. I hung my camera out the window and took video out the window. Lost? I didn’t care. It was beautiful. What an adventure.
We crossed several more times. Little ones. Shallow. The van bumped along without too much trouble and each time we waded in, we climbed up the opposite bank. It was getting easier and the cars continued through the watery maze like a kiddie ride at the fair.
But then it stopped. One of the main channels of the river lay ahead, dark and wide. It was deep, too, as Gantulga eased the Isuzu into the black water. Deeper and deeper. First the hubs went under, then the tops of the front tires…
And then all forward progress stopped as the hood disappeared under the swirling surface and a menacing wave surged halfway up the windshield.
Helpless to do anything but watch, everyone in our van was silent as the green Isuzu rolled, like a swamped canoe, leveled itself, and drifted downstream a little before settling with the water lapping the door handles.
Nara’s head appeared at the rear window. She was smiling in spite of the water steadily climbing up her legs inside the car.
There was a lot of yelling in Mongolian.
A little laughter but the tenor of the conversation was decidedly urgent. Batdorj uncoiled the tow strap from the brush guard while Gantulga opened the driver’s side door and waded to shore.
Gantulga, his arms submerged up to his shoulders and his head turned sideways to breathe somehow managed to attach the tow strap to a hook somewhere under the bumper. This accomplishment was met with a small cheerand there was a small but any optimism quickly faded as the shortcomings of the van’s inoperable four-wheel drive were suddenly on spectacular display.
Given the function of a rear differential, only one wheel spun uselessly at the rear of the van carving a neat little groove in the loose gravel and having no perceivable effect on the swamped Isuzu.
There was nothing to do but roll the van to the water’s edge to gain as much momentum as possible to try and jerk the Isuzu free. But each time we did this, the tow strap snapped taught with a dangerously violent “crack” that sent spray in every direction. But it was working. Each time, the Isuzu would lurch toward the bank and then slowly slide back into the deep water. But each time there was progress. It was small but it was progress.
Little by little, the Isuzu complied an inch or two with each jerk of the van and a little more of the swamped car rose out of the depths and crept toward land.
So when the tow strap finally snapped like a rubber band, too much progress had been made for anyone’s spirits to be dampened. I think most of us expected it to happen anyway. Batdorj had lots of straps. Lots of straps. Soon, he was back in the driver’s seat again repeating the cycle; roll to the water’s edge, gun the engine, engage the wheels and try to gain as much speed as possible to pull the Isuzu, an inch this time, half a foot that time, toward the shore.
Without warning, the car just rolled free of the water. We opened doors and the water rushed out in a moment of pure comedy. All that was missing was a fish or two flapping on the bank.
But optimism was again crushed as the Isuzu refused to make more than a feint clicking when Gantulga turned the key. Nothing at all. No sign of life.
We gathered wood and whatever flammable garbage we could find. We would need a fire with the sun sinking behind the mountains. It would get cold soon and we had three little kids and Ayunga, a pregnant woman, in our party. People dialed phones pacing as they talked. Calls were returned and made again. I had no idea what was going on. I gathered sticks, too, and dragged back a few nice logs even though it was clearly women’s work to gather wood.
But the women were having trouble lighting the fire and I could stand by and watch no more. I planted my face next to the pathetically smoldering pile of tissue paper and candy wrappers and tried my best to coax the flames higher. Instead, I blew it out. More matches.
Until the vodka.
Yes, just add vodka and problems, some anyway, disappear.
No, we didn’t drink it this time. Gantulga poured a little on the fire and flames leapt to life with a vigor previously unseen.
There were protests that the vodka had been wasted.
No, no! It was OK. Turns out the vodka had been found. It was someone else’s.