I'm just about coming to terms with reality having returned home. Back in the office, back to normality, back to the routine... there is definitely something missing.
All this while Jon is off galavanting around China sending back reports of how wonderful it is. Am I jealous? Extremely!
While on the road most of the westerners we had contact with were all taking part in the rally. As time went by, driving to Mongolia in old bangers started to feel like a perfectly normal thing to do...
Back home it is starting to sink in what we achieved. Speaking with friends and telling the stories, it certainly was a great achievement. Every time I sit back and think about the trip, it brings a huge smile to my face.
Anyway, I've been promising to get our pictures up online along with a kind of diary of the event. As you can probably see, neither of these are present as yet, so here come my excuses: I have over 1000 pictures to sort through. Once Jon gets back that will add at least another 500. I do not have enough web space to post them either. Something I am trying to resolve at the moment. On top of this, work and social commitments do not allow the time to do this work, especially with a forthcoming business trip to Krakow, Poland, for two weeks.
Anyway, enough excuses. Check back in about three weeks time. It will be worth the wait.
In the meantime, here is one of the pics that I had developed yesterday:
It may have taken the monumental time of 4 weeks, 4days, 21 hrs and 50mins but the mini finally made it to Ulaan Baatar, capital of Mongolia. Almost 9000 miles, eight time zones and thirteen countries; England, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgzstan (back through Kazakhstan and Russia) before crossing into the ?Land of Blue Sky?, Mongolia. Double landlocked and one of the least populated places on earth. Slightly longer than the anticipated 3 weeks but with the multitude of problems en route (not all ours) and the inclusion of Uzbekistan and Kyrgzstan we?ve done pretty well.
So here we are, Mongolia, the country that prides itself on the one like Chinggis Khan. Just like the queen his ubiquitous face adorns the local currency and postage stamps but with the addition of bottled vodka as well. Even the beer on tap is aptly named Khaan Brau. Not bad at less than a pound a pint, and that?s at the best of places. The whole scenario is fairly amusing when he?s believed to have said the greatest pleasure in his life was to ?cut my enemy to pieces, drive them before me, seize their possession?s, witness the tears of those who are close and dear to them and embrace their wives and daughters?. Quite literally as recent DNA tests prove that more than 16million men across Central Asia share a common ancestor who lived in the 13th century!
Anyway, the Mini limped its way across the finish line and into UB Thursday evening of last week, 19.10 local time, after a cruel and unforgiving 1200 miles and 7 days since crossing the border at Tsagaannuur, Western Mongolia. Numerous vehicle breakdowns, extreme weather and shocking roads each presenting their own challenges en route.
Day one, for this is where the rally really started (day 36 in reality) was relatively incident free. A few problems at the border involving officials doing ?lunch?, then broken photocopiers, meant we were on our way by late afternoon. Within an hour or two I was temporarily jettisoned as the under powered Mini struggled up the first real incline towards the glacier wrapped mountains on the horizon.
Day two. Through valleys dotted with Gers (Yurts/felt tents) passing by small communities of nomadic families enjoying the short lived summer days - even by English standards - July is said to be Spring, August is Summer, September Autumn, with the remaining nine months harsh winter. Over the top of the first pass, through a couple of shallow streams and then our first non mechanical problem. The Mini was drowning, footwells were filling and the front tyres were bogged down. With Black Box to the rescue, and the aid of the land ladders and tow rope we were eventually on the way, leaving the stench of burning clutch hanging in the air. Dropping some altitude the terrain changed somewhat, coloured sands and some hi-speed driving. Black Box got a little carried away and the inevitable happened ? the sump took a Tyson strength hit. Somehow there was no sign of oil yet there problems where only just beginning?
Day three. With the illumination of Sam and Luke?s oil light the previous night it made sense to delay our departure from Khovd until the fault was diagnosed and rectified. No sooner had we started cruising for a suitable garage than a bright yellow Fiat Panda pulled up. Much to our amusement it was ?Paula the Panda? but under new ownership. Complete with Lada Niva springs and an Italian passenger whom Andy had met in Standfords of Longacre! Thankfully we were close to the Auto Bazaar and with the sump off managed to assemble some kind of oil pick up from the scraps available, whilst taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a Mongolian container market. With the damage seemingly repaired we were off to face the swarm?s of mosquito?s that lie in wait for us. On our way the Mini proceeded to lose its exhaust for the umpteenth time so we put it back exactly where it should have been from the start ? on the roof rack.
Day four. There is a terrific bleakness about crossing the Gobi that few places on earth can rival. The cruel landscape of bone dry plains, sandy wastelands and stony plateau plagued us every step of the way. It?s no wonder this remains one of the least populated regions on earth. With the incessant droning of a straight through exhaust (we?d not engineered ear plugs at this stage) and the intakes of carbon monoxide into the car things were starting to get very strange. We?d not seen Black Box for hours, nor had we seen a ger or herder for some time either. Every glimmer of hope materialised to nothing but another mirage. On the verge of despair we eventually came across a Ger and the family invite us in for a spot of lunch. Most reassuring to know we where not in the arse end of nowhere. Eventually find Sam & Luke of Black Box in a village just a few hrs ahead. Turns out the Panda was on its last legs, and oil less after a dodgy gasket seal. With a loan of our plentiful supply (out of necessity) we saved them from attempting a gasket with pieces of paper!?!
Day five. Still some way from the envisioned sand dunes the stoney plateau?s and treeless mountains still persist. Black Box storm ahead to get their sump re-sealed in Altai, the next town, allowing us to cruise at a leisurely pace taking in herds of camels en route. Our search for Sam and Luke is fruitless, but there is evidence of other rallyers at the local service place. Abandoned western items included maps of Iran, Halfords promotional items and some ?sport? flip flops. It had to be Ian and Phil of Team Wrongolia, whom we randomly first met at a Belgian petrol station in the early hours (chocolate waffles?) and, then in the mountain passes of Kyrgzstan (mini broken, tears almost shed). With the locals persistent on telling us something I?m kidnapped and whisked off to a guest house for all to become clear. Their ?Classic Ford? beyond repair, and with the bikes they?d got from Halfords had decided to ride the last 600 miles. With Black Box located and fixed we put in some serious miles to try and recoup some of the time lost over the past two days.
Day Six. Ian and Phil had warned us there where two options to the next town, not so much options but more like turns of fate. One towards a bridge, potentially unfinished, the other a river crossing. Several hours from Altai, not knowing which we had taken we are confronted by a river, looking especially wide. And fast. Stood pondering we watch a truck go through, the next offers us a tow. With Mini through Black Box go it alone, only sustaining a puncture in the act. About to leave we watch a Russian jeep come through, and stop. First one westerner jumps out, then two, three, four. It?s the shaken but not stirred Saints and Scholars, Fintan and John, and Mongolia or Bust, Justin and Steven. Both abandoned their respective Suzuki SJ10 and 2CV just after the Mongolian border. Stories swapped, locals amused (how long does it take 3 Mongolians to fold up a 2 second tent??) we are on our way. Situated on an island we have a small river to cross to get back on track. Luke attempts to take a Mongolian girl back to her Ger 100yds away, doing it in style - hitting the river the Panda stalls and she has to get her feet wet! Many a laugh and we all push it to dry land. It doesn?t sound good. The dipstick reveals a milky coffee colour. The worst is feared; Andy saying top end, a German speaking local saying the crankshaft bearings at the bottom end. Barely drivable the Panda is towed by the jeep for 30km or so, sustaining multiple high impacts blows along the way. With the jeep struggling the Panda is cut loose to manage a respectable 12km. Nothing prepared us for the state of its demise, three wheels and its engine on the floor! Vodka toasts, Panda pillaged and Andy and I were off, once again all alone.
Day Seven. We roll into the next town for the suspension bolt to snap. Thankfully we have a spare and repair that while some goats try and eat the interior. Even fixed the tyre still catches the arch, smoking with every rotation under load. Major mechanics to remove the radius arm and take out a washer, giving an extra 3mm and just enough clearance to remedy the fault. Was also time to improve the ever fading brakes which are a joke. With the rears beyond repair (cylinders gone, brake fluid pipe crimped) we were left with just the fronts. Set off several hours later, even then the fronts were barely there.
Day Eight. With nothing but UB in our sights we head off on the final leg. Rumor had it that the last 400km was paved in gold; in any case the black stuff would have been just as good. With asphalt beneath us we were on our way, using the engine as our brakes. Within 50km our dreams were shattered, potholes appeared and dust trails formed behind us once more. The hours ticked by until rounding a bend, we see the city like skyline appear from nowhere. Probably the only time in my life I?m happy to see smokestacks - we?d made it!
We've made it through Kyrgyzstan and back into Kazakhstan. Border crossing was relativly quick and painless, although there was the usual attempt by the officials to extract dollars from us.
No attempt was as amusing as that of a Kyrg Policeman yesterday. First he claimed that we had no seat belts on, then he tried to fine us for not stopping when the president was being driven down the road the other way with Police escort. How were we supposed to know that a police car followed by a Land Cruiser was a sign to pull over and stop and salute the president? Especially when the local in front didn't stop either. Thankfully the Black Box Rocks boys argued the point (in French) and we walked away without paying.
Kyrgyzstan is amazing. We covered two 3500 meter passes (the Panda assisted up the first giving us a little push). We spent yesterday morning on a beach of Issy Kol lake looking over the snow capped Tian Shan mountains. What was really surprising was the tourism here. Definately a hot spot for the affluent Kyrgs, Russians and Kazakhs.
We didn't get to appreciate all this on our first day as we had some major ingition problems. The car started mis-firing wildly under heavy load once hot. A local traced the problem to the points, but with these replaced and gapped, the problem re-occured about 5km later. Checked HT circuits, played with timing, sometimes getting the car running, only for the problem to re-occur.
The Black Box Rocks Panda towed us some 20km back into town, with us thinking the worst, where a local mechnic found the coil HT lead not making good contact. This got us going again, but the following morning the problem came back...
Thankfully, Jon spotted a loose wire that went into the coil. We reconnected this, and since the car has been running fine. So simple, but such a pain. Especially losing a day to the problem.
This was soon forgotten in the amazing scenery of the Tian Shan mountains with the nomadic locals living in Yurts in full view.
We continue to generate loads of interest with the locals. We get smiles, waves and crowds of people with questions every time we stop. Quite fun, but can be tiring, and extremely annoying if the locals are blind drunk on Vodka. Still, its all part of the experience.
We've now got plod on through the Steppe of Kazakhstan, pass through Russia and then get through Mongolia... Judging by the text updates from those ahead of us, this will not be easy.
Approaching the Russia/Ukraine border, we managed to find a pothole at 40mph accompanied by some worrying noises and the left rear suspension collapsing to the ground.
Further investigation revealed that the adjustable bolt had snapped. Time to don our cowboy hats and bodge a repair.
We managed to fashion a replacement part from some copper tube and a jack handle, while the locals gathered around and tried to offer us assistance.
With no-one speaking a common language, this proved more of a hinderance than a help, but we still appreciated the support.
6 hours later, we were finally on our way again and cruised up to the Ukraine exit border. We were pleasantly surprised to find the guards giving us no grief whatsoever. A few checks under the bonnet and around the car, a quick sit in, some more photos and we were into Russia.
Getting into Russia was a slightly different matter. The guards at the first crossing wanted $10 to fill in some form, but we weren't having any of it.
At the second stop, they wanted more cash claiming that our visas were incorrect. Knowing full well, they are fine, we refused to pay anything and so they are keeping us waiting to see if they can wear us down in a battle of attrition.
Having been up for around 21 hours, we're looking forward to some sleep once we get through this checkpoint.