First of all thank you very much for your sponsorship, it was much appreciated by Kai and I as it allowed us to get off on our little jaunt, and I'm sure it will be appreciated almost as much by our two charities, Amnesty International and the Christina Noble Children's Foundation in Mongolia. The current total is £1570, though since we've finished we've had a small flurry of donations.
Now on to what you have all been waiting for, the results! We arrived at the finish line at approximately 4:57pm Mongolia time on Thursday 8th September, which I make 6 weeks, 4 days, 18 hours and 57 minutes, having done 12,566 miles, or 20,223 km.
In the distance guess Rachel gets a special mention, as the only person to overestimate, however we didn't quite hit the 30,000 mile mark I'm afraid Rachel. Claudio's guess of 8425 miles was just pipped by Sara and Rob's guess of 8454.4 miles. As Claudio said, we certainly did more miles than planned.
In the time guess Larry and Gez both predicted 4th September, just four days off, but my sister Maddy (Sara and Rob's niece, keeping it in the family) managed a guess just 16 hours out!
Prizes will be distributed to those two lucky, or skilled, winners, but if the rest of you would like to send me your address I will post you a (very small) token of our appreciation.
The rally itself went pretty well for us, if you haven't been keeping up our blog is at https://geekout.org.uk/ and a map of our trip is here: https://geekout.org.uk/map/
Back to work for me tomorrow.
Thanks again, Jamie
We travelled for most of the day in convoy with the five other teams, having fun with the driving, sliding around and racing each other. Micras are definitely well suited to Mongolian roads, Mud Lab's 1.6L Peugeot 306 the only one able to keep up with the two Micras.
After lunch Kai and I and Mud Lab broke away from the four other teams and made it into Altay, Mud Lab running low on both fuel and money. We milled around in the town for a bit, picking up some supplies & money, Mud Lab making some more repairs. This time, worryingly, to their brakes, having already had to fix a fuel leak on the way.
I decided I was tired of noodles and fancied eating in a restaurant. A helpful gentleman said, through a translator on the phone, that he would show us a place. He got in our car and we literally drove around the block. He showed us a restaurant. The guy on the phone then said we should give him 15,000 of the local currency. Reluctantly I did. He refused asking for 20,000. By this time Kai was still sitting in the drivers seat, but I was out of the car and the guy was blocking my way. Eventually Kai started to drive off, I jumped in the front seat and we sped off back to Mud Lab. Considering that it was just around the corner we were concerned that we might have an angry Mongolian or two on our tail and were rather put off Altay.
Kai and I decided to go ahead and scout out potential camp sites, but when we found how cold and windy it was went back into town to have a look at hotels. We weren't impressed and together with Mud Lab and their newly working brakes headed out. We aimed for what we thought could be a natural wind break over a hill, but managed to end up in a natural wind tunnel. It started to rain.
The next day was slow going, partially due to the bad roads, but mostly due to Mud Lab's bad luck. (Or perhaps poor planing in choosing a Peugeot ;).) After a couple of hours driving they sailed over a ridge and hit the other side, blew both airbags, dislodging their front grill and fan. As they couldn't reattach the fan their car started to overheat at regular intervals and they would have to stop and point their car straight into the wind for a while. Moments after one of these stops they discovered one of their tyres had split.
Towards evening the wind was really getting up, causing something like a dust storm, as we approached a gher camp and large river. Looking at our maps it seemed that the road was on the other side of the river. Several locals pointed us in the direction of the river and one offered to tow us across in his tractor for $30 each. We were dubious and waited. After a while a mini bus approached and we followed it, watching as it crossed the river, from one island to another. We followed in its footsteps. It was pretty nerve racking to be honest, especially as there were about four crossings in total, two of which we hadn't seen the mini bus cross, but we made it. I really regret not taking a picture of what greeted us, a desolate, apocalyptic even, vision of dust caught by the sun blowing across several ghers and virtually nothing else for as far as the eye could see.
By this time there was only an hour or two of sunlight left, and we'd only done about 250km of 400km, but we decided to press on. The roads got even worse and our speed slowed and slowed as night drew in, and the wind got colder. About 40km from Bayankhongor the road started to get quite wet and muddy. About 10km from town Mud Lab looked like they got stuck in mud. Their car sounded like it wasn't quite in gear. Ale reckons they might have a broken Axel. We managed to tow them out of the worst of the mud they were in, but didn't think we'd make it the 10km due to the mud, we were having difficulty getting just ourselves out of some of it. So we left them there and went to get help. Practically over the next hill we were able to see the lights of the town and had mobile signal and were able to call the Adventurists hot line, but by the time we got back to Mud Lab to give them the good news they'd already managed to get a tow from a Mongolian mining magnate.
Kai and I visited several hotels before picking one we liked and were just checking in when who should turn up but Mud Lab!
That was last night. We woke this morning, opened the curtains and thanked our lucky stars.
The drive to Astana was very long but fairly uneventful. If you have a look at the map you can see we drove around a very large lake in the south of the country, which was an absolutely beautiful perfect turquoise colour, not unlike the Kazakh flag, maybe that's where it comes from.
Darkness fell between 7 and 8 when we still had a considerable distance to go. By that point we'd driven for about 12 hours and covered about 3/4 of the 1100km (passing our 10,000th mile on the way). Passing through Karagandy there were a couple of signed detours along surprisingly bad roads, considering that we were travelling from Kazakhstan's biggest city to its capital. At one point I was following a couple of cars along a flyover when they drove around a small road block. I followed, not thinking much of it. Then we came to another road block and both cars turned off the road. I followed. The road got smaller and smaller until it was barely a dusty track. We crossed several railway tracks. Kai started to freak out. Just as I was beginning to wonder if we should turn around we found tarmac again, and eventually met the main road again.
Reaching Astana at midnight we managed to find a hotel very quickly, and went straight to bed. We'd been driving for 16 hours.
The stories of Astana we'd heard in Almaty led me to imagine something along the lines of Ashgabat, lots of new but empty and useless/already fading buildings. But actually it was pretty normal as things go. Kai and I went to see the Norman Foster "tent" this morning. It looked disappointedly small from the outside, but it does manage to contain a six story shopping mall. As a measure of how bright it is here, I took a picture inside the shopping mall at ISO 100.
We're now rushin' to Russia. We'll probably camp tonight, hopefully inside Russia, and make Novosibirsk tomorrow.
Campbell Irvine is the de facto travel insurance firm for the Mongol Rally. When I contacted them I was quoted £117 for 45 days or £142 for 62 days. Kai then got wind of an annual (maximum 70 day) policy for £99. Having enquired there apparently is nothing extra included in the more expensive, shorter periods of insurance, so I requested, and received, a refund. It's a bit of a con if you ask me.
About 40 years ago, 300 odd kilometers north of Ashgabat in Turkmenistan some noxtious gases were seeping out of the ground at a drilling site. It was decided to burn off the gases and so they were lit. The ground collapsed, the rig fell into the hole, and the fire has been burning ever since. It's quite a sight, and tourists have been going to have a look ever since. Now apparently the Turkmen authorities don't like tourists, and I imagine the whole episode was a bit of an embarrassment, so they took the logical step and raised the local village, Darvaza, to the ground (leaving the bread oven standing due to religious reverance) to desaude visitors. It is against this backdrop that Kai and I left Ashgabat yesterday afternoon and headed north.
Driving 300km through desert is a thirsty business and by the time we got to what I assume had once been Darvaza, complete with lone bread oven and a handy wall to hide the car behind, we'd already drunk about half of the water we had with us. We also hadn't seen a petrol station since just outside Ashgabat.
Just before Darvaza, suspiciously close infact, had been a police check point. This panicked us a bit, hence the hiding of the car, and we decided to wait until dark and then walk the last three miles through the desert to the "hell mouth". Not quite as crazy as it sounds as Kai had already put the coordinates into his GPS device.
Walking through the desert was a little spooky. Kai claims he saw a snake, but it could have just been a moving stick Gradually in the distance we started to see a slight glow on the horizon, and after climbing yet anouther ridge we saw... the moon. But all was not lost, there was definitely something else glowing out there. After a total of about an hour and a half we did eventually reach the great fire pit. It was nice, very peaceful and we scaled an overlooking hill and sat for a while.
While it was nice to see, and walking through the desert was an experience, I'm not sure I'd recommend it, or at least not the way that we did it. There is apparently a track that leads to it if you can find it, or you can try to find a guide, and you can camp nearby. As we returned and were getting close to the car we heard a motorbike behind us, which by the time we got to the car had caught up with is, and at just the same, as if on schedule, two other motorbikes drew up, from opposite directions. The riders seemed to want to take us on a tour of the flame pit. We tried to explain that we'd already been. They stayed and chatted and gave us some chewing tobbacco, which was a bit strong, and asked for gifts. Luckily we had some cigarettes and a pen and they left eventually.
We just made the Kazakhstan/Russia border by night fall. It was a little windy and some of the coldest weather we've experienced since Europe. The Kazakh guards were all very friendly, and unusually thorough. Our car got its first semi-decent search, they got us to take everything out of the boot and even had a look at the spare, though not really checking the rest of the car. As ever they asked beforehand if we were carrying any heroin. We proceeded to passport control where my two passports were given even more attention than normal. Slowly more and more senior officials were called, until a small huddle formed, all looking at my passports in puzzled silence, as if they were trying to crack a particularly hard maths problem or crossword clue. The trouble is, once they've decided there's a problem they can't really just let you through without loosing face, you have to come up with some new piece of evidence for them to go "Aaaah, that's ok then." Eventually I pointed out, for the second time, that upon entering the country I'd had both my visa (in my old passport) stamped and my new passport stamped, and we were on our way.
Russia is a serious country and I was expecting a serious border, but it was actually one of the easiest entries we've had. The easiest I would say, very quick and straight forward.
By this time it was 9pm and very dark. We'd always planned to camp the other side of the border as Novosibirsk was quite a drive away, and we'd had to leave Kazakhstan as you have to register after five days and we were on our fifth day. So we drove a little way into Russia, turned into a side road, drove enough of a distance to be hidden from the road (so we thought) setup camp and had noodles with egg for dinner. Again.
We were awoken by the sound of a vehicle. It was definitely coming towards us. I knew it was going to stop at our tent. It stopped at our tent. There was a shout. Probably in Russian. I reluctantly unzipped the door. There were three Russian soldiers with guns standing around their Lada 4x4. Kai got up and I started to pack away our things. We didn't share much in the way of language, but once they'd seen our passports they left. We weren't sure if they wanted us to leave or not, but three guys with guns worked pretty well as an alarm clock and it was past 7am so we decided to leave, without even the cup of tea we'd offered the soldiers.
Driving in Mongolia is a lot of fun. The roads tend to be very wide, usually gravelly, or if you're really lucky very sandy and often splitting off into 2, 3 or even six different paths. There are often obstacles, some of them moving, including camels, stones and various types of holes, dips and ridges.
We spent our second night in Mongolia in a gher camp setup by one of the Mongolians actually doing the rally in Khovd. It was to be the last night of his camp and he had already taken down most of the ghers.
The next day we started the long drive to Altay, apparently the worst bit of the Southern route across Mongolia. I may be tempting fate here, but it really hasn't been that bad so far, more of the above. The worst is the small, regular ridges, possibly caused by tracked vehicles in the winter. The cars vibrate painfully, until you reach the Sweet Spot. Usually at about 90kph.
To our great pleasure We'd met the Icelandic team, Mud Lab, yet again, in Khovd and left with them in the morning, east. In the evening we came across two other teams, Modern Nomads (Kit from Norway) and Hit the Road Yak (George and Matt) and then another two teams that they'd been in convoy with, Fear and Alexes in Mongolia (Alex, whose team mate had had to fly to Ulan bater to get a rabies jab after being bitten by a dog in Khovd) and Banana Hammock (Heather and Justin), which made six teams in total, the largest convoy we've travelled with.
(I would like to to treat the next bit like an episode of Casualty, what could possibly go wrong in the following situation?)
The four teams we'd met had this game they played, called rocky rock, where
they would all throw stones at a specific rock, trying to hit it. A little
while after starting this game,
someone, George I think, Alex aimed a small rock at
Kit's car, hitting the back window and shattering it. Like all good geeks, he
fixed it with duct tape. Taping up the whole window.
We moved on. We were one of the last cars. Just after a particular sandy
section of road we found Kit and his car, pointing in the wrong direction. He'd
spun and both left tyres had deflated, he decided due to the seal being broken
rather than punctures. Luckily he had two spares, changed them with us watching
and we were on our way. The other teams had stopped up ahead to camp and we
formed a bit of a circle with our wagons. Kit was determined to make a fire and
started chopping up a bit of wood he had with an axe. We joked that with the
luck he'd had he shouldn't be wielding an axe. Kit gathered some dung and
asked for some petrol. Being as my mum has always drummed into me not to use
petrol on fires I didn't volunteer our petrol and hoped he could find something
a little less flammable. The next thing we knew he was opening a very large
jerry can in the middle of the circle. For some reason the can was pressurised
and very full and sprayed petrol as it was opened. Unfortunately one team had
already started cooking and in the moment that we all stood, staring in
disbelief the petrol ignited. Now Hollywood (and Casualty) may have lead you to
believe that the petrol on the ground will burn in a nice line until it reaches
the full can at which point the can will explode and everyone dies. Let me tell
you from experience that this is not what happens. The spilt petrol all
ignited simultaneously, everyone ran for their lives and then there was a calm
moment as everything just burned. Luckily none of the petrol had reached the
car. Unfortunately Kit had been sprayed and was now on fire.
Someone, George I
believe Alex, redeeming himself from breaking Kit's back windscreen managed to put
Kit out and the rest of us stood in shock. Kai was the first to remember that
we actually had a fire extinguisher and handed it to me, later saying that he
didn't want to be the one caught in any explosion. Kit's burns didn't seem too
bad, though obviously relatively serious and apparently very painful. Kit
happened to have set his video camera up on a tripod and filmed the whole
thing. Several of us wondered if he'd done the whole thing on purpose
So after waking up in the yurt after an uncomfortable night's sleep we packed up early for a dash to Murghab where we should have been that morning and onto the border. We met An American Team Bruce Almaty and a South African solo team named Guy there, which was nice. We also took on an Israeli hitchhiker called Dal who was desperate to get to Bishkek by the 26th for a flight to India, which was the matched our itinerary.
We were a bit nervous as we heard a couple of reports of challenging roads once we set off. We went through one after another fearing that was worse to come, and we were all surprised when we unexpectedly hit the border. The border was just a shack where it looked like a checkpoint that we've seen time and time again.
We struggled to pay the least possible bribe and eventually settled on $10 for both teams.
At this point we had a flat and another tyre had a bulge in the side the size of a golf ball, so we did the Pamirs with some scars to prove it. As usual we completed a major leg of the journey and it was an anti-climax. It is difficult to celebrate when you're exhausted and there is no champagne.
We pushed onto Osh and after some insane night driving where there was far too many animals and other dangers on the road. We checked into a LP recommendation Hotel Altai and it was absolutely abysmal. Nothing worked, not even in the taps in the room.
The next day we wanted to deal with the two tyres before setting off on the 10hr drive to Bishkek. We found the "Car (Machina) Bizaare" with the help of Team Bruce Almaty and we hoped we could get everything sorted in a bit more than an hour, in order to leave by midday.
Two hours later, blood, sweat, tears and ~30USD lighter we managed to get both done. What was silly was that the power for the block was out, so I to search out a place with a generator. It also didn't help the first second hand tyre we were sold had a massive hole in it. The next one was the wrong size, slightly bigger. We didn't notice until we drove off with it. So now when we hit a bump on the back right side, we can hear it hitting the wheel arch!
Nonetheless we moved on with Dal still in the back. It soon transpired we could not close on Bishkek, though we managed to find a pleasant hotel in Totagul on the way. Early next morning we aimed for Almaty.
After spending most of the night weeing out of my bottom in the absolutely disgusting, but thankfully en suite and functional (unlike the "shower" or basin) toilet of our room at Hotel Altai (I must appologise to the four other people sharing the room) I wasn't exactly feeling great. As I didn't think stopping every five mintutes for a toilet break was really an option I decided to take something to stop the diarrhea, and then we went out for a hearty breakfast, one of the heariest breakfasts we've had. Taking Imodium and then eating a large meal is not something that I recommend. As we looked around the tyre market in the heat and checked out a few prospective tyres I felt sicker and sicker. Really like the food in my stomach had nowhere to go. I just prayed that it wouldn't go upwards. Kai took the bulging tyre off to be changed and left me with the car. I got the punctured spare out and started the process of fixing it using the Crafty Plugger kit I'd brought from London, battling with a kid from one of the tyre places who thought, wrongly, that he knew how to use it better than I did. The sun beat down. I got a bowl out of the car and prepared for the worse.
Two days later and I have finally recovered. I swear I will never drink that fizzy yak's milk again. Though having said that no one else was fool enough to drink it, and they all came down with the same symptoms, at some point.
Yesterday was not the best day of my life. My Iranian visa appointment (to pay and have finger prints taken, it's already been approved) was supposed to be last week, but was cancelled. There was another opportunity to go last Sunday at 9am, but I decided that during the week would probably be quieter and less hangover-y. I doubt they're that keen on hangovers in the Iranian Consulate. So I went yesterday at midday. Three other ralliers were there, and a representative from the Adventurists. We waited patiently. And waited, and waited and waited. It was hot, at least as hot as Iran. The Adventurist always seemed to be next in line, but never quite got to the front of the queue. After a couple of hours one of our number got seen, and was dealt with in about ten minutes and left. The rest of us waited some more. A child screamed on and off. At about 3:00 two woman arrived, loudly saying they had appointments for 3 o'clock. At about 3:30 a very arsey English guy arrived, waving his number in the air and asking if everyone else had a number too. At about 4:00 our rep finally got to the front of the queue. A short discussion ensued, and we were told that we wouldn't be seen. It turned out that we didn't actually have an appointment, but had been promised one, unofficially, from the Sunday 9am session. I made my way back to work, arriving five hours after I had left.
Half an hour after sitting back down at my desk, back wet with sweat, I received an email from the Adventurists with the subject line "Visas". But no, it was not in regards to the Iranian visa, this was an email letting me know that the Russian Embassy had returned my passport, sans visa, because there were not enough blank pages in it. The email went on to say that I would have to get a new passport in order to get my Russian and Iranian visas. Now the rally starts in three weeks, can you guess what passport renewal turnaround is? Yes, three weeks. A fast-tracked passport costs £130, almost double the normal price. I don't know why the visa service that the Adventurists offer, The Visa Machine, doesn't check how many spare pages you have as the first thing they do. I know I had at least one spare page available per visa we were applying for, I didn't know how many I would need in total. The Visa Machine website states
You MUST have 1 blank page free per visa (2 for some). A blank page must be completely free of all stamps.
The Adventurist I was emailing now told me:
The requirement of every embassy is to have 2 spare pages at the time of application.
I suggested they amend their website.
So, assuming everything goes ok from now on, I will have two passports, half of my visas in one, and half in the other. I can see this going down really well with customs officials.
UPDATE: We have since been informed that the finger print machine is broken and we will be able to get a visa without going back to the Consulate. Result.
We've been getting lots of (well, two) scary emails from the Adventurists regarding all the official, bureaucratic stuff that we need to get done before the start of the Rally, exactly 29 days away now, especially the Carnet de Passage. The Carnet is basically a passport for the car, which we need in order to get through Iran, and to be able to leave the Micra in Mongolia. I sent the form off a couple of days ago along with a colour copy of the details pages of my passport and the V5. Yesterday I realised that I had not ticketed one of the boxes, and after all the dire warnings from the Adventurists and the RAC (for example, if the colour of the upholstery changes, or the make of the radio, you have to get a new Carnet) and the cost of the damn thing I rang the RAC in a panic expecting some boring official to tell me in a nasal voice that I would have to do the whole thing again. But no, to my surprise a very nice, helpful and relaxed guy answered and told me they'd received my application that morning and not to worry, everything was fine.
In other news the Iranian embassy cancelled my first visa appointment. We have used the Adventurists' visa service (the "Visa Machine") to get our visas, which seems to be going well, despite initial hiccups with the website (it kept forgetting our dates) and confusion over what we actually had to do (I assumed, wrongly, that they would even fill in the forms for us, it didn't seem that clear what we had to do once we'd finished the website bit). My rearranged appointment is now on Wednesday, which will apparently be quicker than the more popular Sunday at 9am slot, which I didn't fancy much anyway. I think the reason we need to be there is to get our finger prints taken, something the Adventurists really couldn't have done for us.