Mongol Rally 2004 & 2005 Blogs & Photos

We made it!!

We are in Ulaan Baatar!!!!!  We actually made it, although surprise surprise not without a little incident, which is kind of the point anyway.

I think we were in Almaty at last point of communication, it does seem a jolly long way away, had fun there although it did not appear to be a city full of 'sights' as such, and was deeply necessary to pause for a couple of days recharging batteries.  We again left in convoy and had been going for a couple of hours when we were stopped at the customary police check point, problem was it happened to be manned by the most efficient man in Kazakhstan, he alone of all the police men we encountered knew about tourist registration, you are meant to register within 5 days, we tried in several places along the way and nobody seemed to know what we were on about.  This man did.  He gave us the choice of paying an on the spot fine, into his pocket of course, and continuing, or going back to Almaty with him the next day to register. Problem was we could not rule out the possibility that the second most efficient man in Kazakhstan might be just up the road with another fine.  So yet again we let the others go on and had to retrace out steps.  Slept in the car, of course, and appeared back at his post early the next day.  He then set off in the car with art and I stayed behind, as far as we were aware to spend the next 6 hours at a police check point.  I decided that as we were stopped by one of the few hills encountered since Russia I would climb it.  Thankfully I had stopped to look at the view as got a call from art about 40 minutes later to say he was back at the check point, where on earth was I?  Turns out they had only gone to the nearest town.  Eventually had to clear space in the car for all of us to fit, its a bit of a squash with two, went back to Almaty at great speed, got registered and had the pleasure of each paying a 60 quid fine into his pocket.  Knew his job this one.  


We then set off for the border again, progressed happily until the delightful town of Tandy-Korgan where we discovered that the hole in our gearbox, which we had got patched up in the desert, was leaking again.  We eventually found a very out of the way little garage with a mechanic who immediately took a liking to us, insisted that we were not allowed to pay for the repairs and took us back to his house where his daughter spoke good English, gave us both showers and fed us.  It is still hard to comprehend the kindness of some of the Kazakh people.  We then drove through the night and caught up with the others just as they were pulling away from where they had stopped the previous evening.  We then managed to get out of Kazakhstan and back into Russia with amazingly little difficulty, although the Russians being as they are it still took up most of the day.  


The road next took us to Novosibirsk where we began our intimate research into what to do if there are no road signs, do you continue along the same road until it gets somewhere, almost invariably where you want to be, or do you turn off in search of signs, get spectacularly lost and spend the next hour and a half trying to find your way back to where you had started. This would be fun if the cities we were driving around were full of interesting sights and sounds; unfortunately they seem in general to be drab and dull.  This pattern continued right the way across Siberia, be it Kemerovo, Irkutsk or Barnaul where we could not work out why there were a lot of cars driving down our side of the road, swerving and honking their horns at us.  Nothing to do with one-way streets of course.  Siberia consists mostly of trees, with the very occasional hill, covered in trees, and if you were very lucky a clearing in the trees, through which you could see...trees!  They were nice trees though.  The roads were also extremely variable, ranging from some genuinely flat tarmac, the likes of which we had not seen since leaving Latvia, to yet more dirt tracks and potholes, but somehow less fun to drive through. There was one particular muddy hill, with huge tractors going up and down either side, where we managed to knock our ever reliable exhaust off twice.  All in all it was probably the least exciting stretch of the journey, although also the point at which people stopped saying "you are going to Mongolia??" in an incredulous voice and started to say "you have driven from London" in exactly the same tone.  Most of the police seemed to flag us down out of pure curiosity rather than any form of malice.


Things improved when we got to lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world, and surrounded by large (tree covered!) mountains on every side.  Unfortunately the weather was cloudy for the first time for what seemed like weeks and we couldn’t really see anything.  We were well ahead of the fiat and fiesta by this stage, so decided to stop on the shore for the night in the hope that the view would be better in the morning.  Thus we turned off the main road, found a nice little village on the shore, parked on the beach, cooked supper and chilled out, while watching the thunderstorms on the opposite side.  Woke up early the next morning with the expectation that we could be in Mongolia by the next morning.  Hmphh, the car refused to start.  Spent quite some time cleaning distributor caps, checking for sparks and the like, I had never even heard of a distributor cap before we left, let alone cleaned one.  Sadly to no avail.  Then the Russians began to turn up, firstly a couple of workmen from the nearby monastery that they were restoring, they tried all the same things we had, and had no more success.  Next was a crazy local who towed us around the car park in his extremely battered Lada a couple of times while grinning manically and telling us how much better Russian cars were than ours and revving his engine, then a guy who spoke English and his family, who knew nothing about cars but took us into their home and fed us breakfast while the other guy went to find his friends who knew about cars.  We never saw him again.  The English speaker, who was 18 and a classical guitarist (and knew who Sigur Ros were!) then took us round the monastery, fed us lunch and found some more passing Russians who thought they new about cars, most of whom were pissed and none of whom made any difference.  By this stage we heard that the panda had reached the border and the others were well on their way, and we were beginning to fear the rally might have spluttered to a rather damp stop.  Eventually the only sober mechanic (man?) in the village turned up, took apart various other bits of our engine, poured some fuel into a hole and it started! We were just a little happy, although the closest we could get to discovering the problem was a vague reference to bad roads.  Said our good buys, only narrowly avoided being fed our third meal in about 6 hours by the family and set off again.


We made a brief pause in Ulan Ude to see the biggest Lenin head in the world, which is very big, and slightly cross-eyed which was amusing.  Of course we couldn’t leave without getting lost yet again, just to make sure that ours was the car that had the biggest mileage by the end of the rally, nothing to do with useless maps and no road signs at all.  Then on to the border!  I got a little overexcited at this stage and decided that all potholes must be negotiated at 40 rather than 15, much more fun just swerving around them and not braking at all, particularly as it was just beginning to get dark.  Art was not quite so amused.  I blame it all on the primal scream we were playing.  Anyway we made it safely, only to discover that the border was closed for the night, although on the plus side we did find the fiat and fiesta waiting there, the panda was stuck in no mans land, where they had been all afternoon, for the night, having discovered that customs had never heard of the Mongol rally and were trying to charge them 1000 pound import tax.  Woke up the next morning fully expecting to be in Ulaan Baatar by that night, got into the system within about an hour and a half, having beaten off all the locals trying to get us to drive them through, or drivers trying to queue barge us in a stationary line of cars.  It was all going swimmingly until they looked at our insurance form and discovered that the two bureaucratic experts of the Mongol rally had failed to renew it when we came back into Russia.  Art was then dragged off into an office, with tom as a translator, for the next 7 hours, while I waited in the car.  On the plus side we did get to eat lunch in the staff canteen.  It is enlightening to know that Russian border guards get fed the same canteen food as anywhere else in the world.  Finally they had filled in enough forms, and to top it all paid a 6 pound fine!  I love red tape.


We were then allowed to go through to meet the Mongolian guards, who were very friendly and let us through easily, at which point we crossed the border and were met within seconds by one of the most spectacular storms I have ever encountered, torrential rain and sheet lightening flashing on either side of the road.  It was also thankfully a brief greeting and over within about 20 minutes.  The others had met the wife of the head Mongolian border guard, he was also slightly bizarrely an Olympic bronze medal winning boxer, while waiting for us in no mans land, and she insisted on feeding us, but as there was a power cut we had to go to a local cafe instead, where she paid for all our meals.  I don’t think we could of asked for a better welcome to Mongolia.  Then parked up for the night in readiness for the last 300km to Ulaan Baatar the next day.

The day began fine; we all ambled along quite happily in convoy, on good roads too, before a quick pause by the side of the road.  Unfortunately the poor little Micra decided that it did not want to start at this point, and we saw the others disappear over the horizon, it was 36 hours until we saw them again.  Despite our burgeoning mechanical knowledge neither of us made any impression on our previously reliable little car, we had to give up and flag someone down, who gave us a tow to a garage in Darkhan, which is the second largest city in Mongolia but a fraction of the size of the capital, and was only about 10 minutes away.  There they poked around for a bit before discovering we had a snapped timing belt, this is one of the worse things an engine can be made to endure, and tends to make a mess of the rest of the engine too.  not good.  We then drove around Darkhan for a bit trying to find a spare, no luck.  Luckily one of the mechanics spoke a bit of English, strictly pidgin of course, and he explained that we had to go to Ulaan Baatar to get a new one, and they would take us in their car.  So it was that we had the strange experience of getting to the finish line before we actually finished the rally, a little depressing to say the least.  We then had to make the 3 hour journey back again, still at this stage expecting to get to Ulaan Baatar that evening.  No such luck, we sat around till midnight before they announced that there was a bent cylinder or something, and we would have to come back the next day, so we were packed off to a hotel by our Mongolian friend.  His grasp of English was interesting, but reasonably effective, every sentence contained at least 3 yesses and a no, or occasionally the other way around, and he was also convinced that every meal was known as breakfast.  Thus the average sentence was something like "yes, yes Mongolian breakfast, yes, no, we go yes?" while asking us if we wanted to go for lunch.  As far as the car was concerned he would point at different bits and either say "yes. yes this good yes" or "yes yes this bad, no, yes" before spitting, another regular Mongolian custom.  


Anyway they finally managed to patch the engine up, having taken the whole thing apart and put it back together several times, by about 6.00 that evening, and we set off, albeit at a much slower and noisier pace then normal with several new rattles to add to our already generous selection.  Being a faithful little Micra it got us there eventually, and we rolled into Ulaan Baatar, in 4th place, and immediately became Mongol rally veterans.  We have now been holed up in a reasonable hotel for the last couple of nights, while trying to negotiate a way home. We leave here on the 1st of September for Beijing, before flying back to London on the 2nd, hopefully we will see lots of you at Caroline’s for a good catch up, its been nice to get the various messages of support and disbelief at our general hapless stupidity.  We are now off towards the Gobi for a couple of days for a final fling in a crap car before returning to the extremely dull joy of driving around on British roads and sleeping in beds, not to mention washing, shaving, changing clothes more than once a week and talking to people who can understand what you are saying.  On reflection then nothing much is going to change.  There are few regrets, it was sad not to see Moscow, but you never know Tobie, you may yet have to suffer my company there, and it was a pity not to see the boats in the middle of nowhere by the Aral sea.  Otherwise it has in many ways been much easier we feared, in other ways I guess much harder-I never really believed that bureaucracy could be quite so spectacular.  I think the thing I most underestimated was quite how tiring constant driving can be, as a certain bear with a tambourine running across a Latvian road lays testimony to. My heartfelt thanks go out to the manufacturers of proplus, without which we might still be somewhere in Kazakhstan.  I think the final mileage was something like 8500m, in just under a month, although several hundred of that was spent retracing our steps several times along the way.

cheers (wearily)

The 2004 Escapades Part 3