Out of sprawling, characterless cities of deep Siberia, the Altai region bordering Mongolia warmed our impressions of Russia. Endless flatland rose up into winding valleys, detailed by drifting veins carved by rain and snow. An abundance of water fed nourished crops and lush grass coated the hills and mountains that guided the road.

500km divided us and the entrance to once the biggest empire on the planet. A six hour drive no longer phased us and with haste in the bitter coldness of the morning, we set off – to the Mongol border.

“You are in Mongolia, our people will look after you now”, the stamp wielding customs controller breathed. His small PVC hut bellowed with condensation as he coughed a rough sound of approval and patted down his furred Russian style hat. His chest wide with tightly packed layers – he was much warmer than us – with only the tips of his dust-stained fingers looking weathered as he inked in our entry stamp. Finally, we were in Mongolia – the conclusion of the Mongol Rally.

We left the confines of the border through a meshed gate secured with a small catch. It was a ‘let yourself out’ system. Towards us strode a stern looking women, no taller than Lara Croft in Tomb Raider and wearing a similar outfit. Her blue cap had a stitched Warner-Brother like emblem. Luminous yellow gave it little authority and bulging pockets, perhaps filled with tissues, socks, or abandoned passports, only further gave away her ploy.

We’d had a heads up a few days before. A white hut supported a rusting sign. ‘Authroritey, oficial, and urgant’, it repeated along with other equally misspelt phrases. It was, along with Lara Croft herself, just a scam. A fake charge designed to trap travellers – travellers like us who were only too used to ‘Friday fees’ and sixteen stamps before crossing a border. We failed to stop, smiled and waved, watching her stern expression behind us drop into one of anger and disappointment.

After a night out in Uglii’s hottest club we continued on our journey across the central route of Mongolia. We’d met up with Team Zazgar – Tom, Jack, Helana and Frick, a foursome from Brighton we’d drank with in London at an evening of beers back in March. From Uglii we hit the road taking the more easy and time-friendly central route, but no sooner had we left, did the tarmac begin to fade.

Mongolia is notorious for its road quality. Orange paths which, on the map, appear as main connections between towns are in fact little more than a mesh of tracks which weave between rocks and shrubs. Triangular corner warnings, road work signs and speed indicators all appeared beside rubbled tracks, as if as official as on the autobahn we’d travelled a month before.

Altai was the next opportunity to stock up on water, fuel and snickers. No wider that half a kilometre across yet with at least ten petrol stations, its inhabitants were isolated by the Gobi desert 400km on all sides. Stopping at a supermarket we glanced across the road. ‘Mongol Rally’, the sign read above a sheet-metal warehouse slanting heavily at one end.

For over a decade Mongolia had repeatedly taken its toll on ralliers. But, year after year, this one small outfit in the middle of no-where continued to piece them back together. They were rally veterans.

Judith was in fine shape in general. Mongolia had spared her in the most, apart from two tyres which we’d punctured along the 800km covered so far. One we’d repaired in Uglii, the second still needed fixing.

Around 5’4”, perhaps an inch less owed to his slight stoop, our mechanic seemed unfazed by the two inch gash in our tyre. His skin was dark, his face so wrinkled yet youthful in expression that judging his age was impossible. His hands were that of a man twice his size – worn, shaped and hardened by metal and rubber. A gradient of black grease, dust and oil stained from his fingers to elbow, and a smear across his forehead from occasional wipes blended his hairline.

Industrial tyre patches were slapped onto the inside of our tyre, pummelled into the deviations in rubber with the bottom of a hammer. Outside, a drop of super glue healed the crack and, after a test in water, we were set.

A small clearing of ground twenty minutes down the road provided a great spot to camp and cook our tuna mayo pasta – a treat having finally located mayonnaise. The sky turned from a deep blue of the evening to starry. There was no sound at all, that was until a Russian man and his lover turned up entirely intoxicated.

Taller than us all he was slightly intimidating as he stood feet apart in his traditional calf skin boots – heavily double stitched with an assertive curled point. He kneeled beside our group of eight and began to sing, only pausing for the occasional burst of hysterics as he noticed Frick’s trousers; brightly patterned with floral swirls and designed in a slight metro-sexual style.

The chanting went on for perhaps an hour, watered by the beer we’d been saving for Alex’s birthday. Eventually, his girlfriend couldn’t wait any longer. Grabbing his arm she pulled him away and deposited him in the passenger seat before skidding away in the sandy track that encircled us. By now nothing shocked us, we feared relatively little, and enjoyed even the strangest of experiences.

The next day the roads continued in their unruly manor. Judith swayed across divots and potholes with ease. Team Zazgar clung to our tracks until, just as the sun began to fall, they disappeared behind a crest.

Their engine had cut out – just stopped – as if she was out of fuel. For an hour we pondered over the options. Checking the air intake and spark plugs we narrowed the cause down to the fuel. The lines running from the tank to the engine were dry – it was bad news. Irreparable by the road side there was no other option but to tow: 80km to Bayankhongor, the next city ahead and keeping to schedule, or 8km back to a much smaller down which would definitely eat up an extra day.

Judith’s 998cc engine roared into action as the rope tensioned. With surprising ease she rolled forward, tugging with grace the 1.3litre five door car behind! The rest of the group caught up on foot, ready to jump in and carry on on the long journey to Bayankhongor.

‘Petit Voirture’ , we heard from a 4×4 that had slowed down to spectate. Speaking French to his Mongolian wife the driver was saying, in short, ‘look at that shit small car trying to tow the other!’

“Where are you going?”, he asked in perfect English.

“Bayankhongor”, we replied, hoping he would not laugh too much at our colossal challenge – making a ‘shit small car’ tow a big car 80km on sand and dirt.

“My car is bigger. It is made for the job. I’ll take you”.

And that was that. We arrived in Bayankhongor four hours later.

We suffered another flat tyre on the way – leaving us with one bodged spare, and the fate of Team Zazgar was still unknown. We wanted to continue our adventure with them, even if that meant towing them to the finish line.

Little did we know that our last and final week on the Mongol Rally would be the hardest yet, that Judith would truly get a Mongol baptism, and that we’d have to pull out all the stops to make it to the finish!