We're dog-tired and unwashed and sick to death of boil-in-a-bag camp food. And yet, even with a hot shower and a good meal in our immediate future, this final leg of our desert odyssey, trundling over a lumpy thoroughfare toward the airfield in Bayankhongor, is tinged with melancholy. Through the dust of passing semitrucks and modern earthmovers, we're witnessing the irresistible forces of capitalism reshaping rural Mongolia's stoic way of life the way flash floods and the westerly wind have reshaped the natural landscape for eons. The winners in today's election will sleep on a growing pile of money from the mining industry and hold sway over an influx of foreign investors. They'll set policies that will preserve the nomadic lifestyle - or quash it forever.
Back in Ulaanbaatar, the weather has improved, but the city itself has taken a turn for the worse. The peaceful and patriotic voter procession we observed in the hinterlands has devolved here into something less heartwarming. Fast-spreading (albeit unsubstantiated) claims of voter fraud are triggering waves of rioting that, in the end, will leave five people dead, hundreds injured, and hundreds more in police custody. During a quick drive from our hotel to a tony, jazz-themed restaurant across town, we pass the city's central Sükhbaatar Square and the nearby Communist-era headquarters of the ruling Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party. Fire and black smoke are belching from its windows, and over the din of an angry crowd comes the pop-pop-pop of guns firing and tear-gas canisters launching.
In the morning, a smoldering stench hangs in the air as we load our in-town Defender, Range Rover, and Range Rover Sport for one last drive to the airport named for Mongolia's greatest hero. During the night, with the MPRP building in flames, rioters moved on to torch the nearby Cultural Palace and its national art gallery. As a result, President Nambariin Enkhbayar has proclaimed a four-day state of national emergency and authorized government troops to patrol the streets of Ulaanbaatar to enforce martial law.
And as we take off and begin the long, long haul to the other side of the world, and home, we contemplate what the future holds for this farthest of faraway places. There may come a time when superhighways and chain-link fences divide and conquer the great Mongolian frontier, when strip mines hollow out the land and coal-fire smoke fills the sky. And there may come a time when the noble ways of the nomadic people are as romanticized - and irretrievable - as the conquests of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde. For now, however, this magnificent, untamed land and its people endure, in Land Rovers' daydreams - and ours.