He stood about five feet, seven inches and was dressed as expected for an auto mechanic. Blue shirt, blue pants, sturdy shoes and a baseball hat. In broken English, he told us he was the mechanic we'd been waiting for in our hotel car park. Since we were broken down in Khovd, Mongolia, and had no other options, we were more than willing to believe him. After shaking hands and learning that his name was all but unpronounceable, he told us to call him Tybo and to follow his right-hand-drive Mitsubishi Pajero across town to his workshop. Rich and I piled into our wounded 1929 Chrysler Model 75 Roadster and followed slowly over the bumpy streets.
We arrived at Tybo's compound, next to a traditional Mongolian yurt. There was a paved slab and Rich maneuvered the big Chrysler onto it. This was the first garage we had seen in Mongolia that actually had a paved working surface-everywhere else we had been, the mechanics worked lying in the dirt. We did a quick check of the Chrysler's maladies. It wasn't pretty.
The right rear leaf spring, which had broken on our second day's drive in southern Mongolia, was now broken again; the repair hadn't held. We had a broken left rear shock absorber, a badly mangled skidplate and most of the exhaust system past the midpoint of the car was flattened. The exhaust header was loose, the hood straps were history (replaced with bright blue bungee cords), the brass radiator was leaking where it had cracked across the top, and just about every bolt in the chassis and body was loose.
We all agreed on what work had to be done. Surprisingly, Tybo went to his truck and pulled out an old toolbox. He was the first Mongolian mechanic we had ever met who had his own tools and who didn't ask to use ours. He set about disassembling the rear suspension to get at the spring while Rich and I tightened bolts and felt morose-we knew our comrades in the 2007 Peking to Paris Motor Challenge were already in Siberia, and each hour put them further away.
As we worked, I asked Tybo about his English. "I taught myself," he said. It seems Mongolia has become a destination for Americans and Brits who like to hunt Altai ibex deer. This is a species that exists only in the western mountains of Mongolia and is known for its curving antlers. Americans will pay more than $20,000 for a week-long hunting trip in Mongolia, hoping for the chance to kill an inoffensive ibex. Tybo figured if he knew English, he could get a job as a guide. He explained that guiding fly-fishing and trekking trips in the north central part of Mongolia was profitable. I began to look at my mechanic with a newfound respect.
Tybo finished removing the broken spring and carried it off to another shop where it could be repaired. He returned and set to work on the Chrysler's mangled exhaust.
Around lunchtime I suggested we all go back to the hotel for a bite. It was the only place in town that I knew (and the town's only hotel). Tybo frowned and suggested somewhere better. We piled into his Mitsubishi and headed across the dusty streets of Khovd to a restaurant near the town's center.
The place was moderately crowded with a combination of what must have been Mongolian blue- and white-collar workers. I was worried about getting a table, but noticed that Tybo was being treated with great deference by the staff and the locals. We were soon ushered to a quiet table in a semi-private room. Clearly, these people saw him as more than 'just' a mechanic. As Tybo was the only other person who spoke English, he helped us order. We shared a heaping mound of braised lamb (the best I've ever tasted) along with rice and some other delicious Mongolian cuisine I couldn't quite identify.
During the meal, I asked Tybo what he enjoyed doing in his free time. He said had a ranch outside of town where he raised horses. "How many?" I asked. "Oh, twenty-five or thirty," he replied. In a place where owning a horse made you a man of means, I began to understand why the locals were treating him with such respect. I discovered that many were racehorses; he raised them to run in the legendary Naadam race. Held each year in July, the course covers 20 to 25 kilometers across the rugged Mongolian Steppes and has been held more or less continuously since the days of Genghis Khan, who was also from these parts. The riders are all children, the youngest are two, the oldest no more than twelve. In Mongolia, to win the Naadam is an honor equivalent to winning the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Stanley Cup combined. Tybo's horses had won it twice.
By mid-afternoon it was hot back at Tybo's cement pad and we were all working hard to get the car finished. It was clear we wouldn't be leaving before tomorrow and if we subjected the old Chrysler to the same pounding on the barely passable Mongolian roads on our way to the Siberian border, we would have to repair it again by the time we got there. The solution was to truck the car to the border. Tybo knew a guy. We climbed into his Mitsubishi again and went to a neighborhood where large trucks were parked haphazardly on the streets. Tybo found his man and, after long negotiations, told us it would be $400. This was less than half the amount other rally teams had had to pay, so we agreed immediately.
That night, we invited Tybo to dinner with us at our hotel. After a few beers, I asked him about his family. He told me he was living alone right now because his wife and daughter were in London, so his daughter could get a better education. "Some day she will come back and help run Mongolia," he told me with all seriousness, and I believed him.
Early the next morning, Tybo took us to his apartment for breakfast. It was a modest place. We ate yogurt and had toasted bread. Rich and I wanted to pay Tybo for his work and for all his help. He refused. He told us he enjoyed helping and wanted us to remember Mongolia. How do you thank a man like that? Finally, I rolled a $50 bill discreetly into a stack of Mongolian currency and held it out to him. "This is not for you," I said, "but to help with your daughter's education." He sat for a moment, then nodded slowly and smiled as he took the money.
Driving old cars to remote parts of the world has taught me lessons in how to be self-reliant and humble, and to never give up-no matter how bad things seem. Meeting Tybo reinforced another lesson: people are almost always more than they seem from when you first meet them.