After a series of bad decisions, my brother and I had ended up stranded with our friends at the bottom of an incredibly steep and rocky hill in a really remote part of Mongolia. We’d sent a text by satellite to the American embassy in Mongolia’s capital who dispatched a rescue team, and when that team couldn’t find us, they sent a second team. Help finally arrived after dark, but this would be no simple rescue.
Mongolia is a place with notoriously bad roads, where the main east-west routes are often little more than tracks through the dirt. Maps and satellite GPS are of little navigational help, and signs are few and far between. Throw in some river crossings for added entertainment, and traversing the country can be quite an adventure!
When my brother and I told friends we'd be driving across Kazakhstan, we got plenty of jokes referencing the cartoonishly backwards image they had of the country after watching Sacha Baron Cohen's 2006 mockumentary Borat. But we were about to find out that the real-life nation of Kazakhstan was almost nothing like what was portrayed on the screen!
We'd just received more bad news about our car. Ever since we replaced its faulty head gasket back in Uzbekistan, it had been acting a bit funny, and although we survived our latest breakdown, the mechanic was now telling us we'd probably only be able to make it another hundred miles. Our options were limited, so after mulling it over, we decided that the best we could do was to keep going for as long as our engine would last.
The mountainous Pamir Highway was precisely the type of terrain that our 1-liter Nissan Micra hatchback was not suited to handle. One of our friends had described it as a car "that you would expect a 60-year-old woman to drive to the supermarket twice a week," and now we were pushing it to ever-greater extremes, keeping our fingers crossed that it would somehow persevere. So we weren't totally surprised when our luck eventually ran out.
Our car was running once again, but now we faced a handful of new mechanical issues, just as we were about to embark on the roughest part of our journey yet: a 600 mile stretch of mostly unpaved and mountainous road along the Tajik-Afghan border that's considered one of the most spectacular and potentially dangerous routes in the world.
We'd been on the road for three weeks and had driven more than 5000 miles across all of Europe and the western half of Asia. While the journey so far had been enjoyable and we'd gotten to see a lot, it was also incredibly tiring. So when we learned we'd be stuck in Bukhara, Uzbekistan for a week, waiting for our car to get repaired, we were actually thrilled at the opportunity to finally relax and get some much-needed rest. But things didn't go according to plan.
In the three weeks since we started our journey, we'd broken down about four times, been to half a dozen mechanics, and tried all sorts of stop-gap measures to solve our car issues, but there was still some sort of big, underlying problem whose name we didn't yet know. Finally we were about to find out.