The driving in KZ has been mixed, to say the least. On good highways, we were rattling through countryside which only changes minutely over the course of several hours, morphing from desert to scrub to savannah so slowly that it can feel like driving in an endless loop. These highways, however are often punctuated with roadworks. Forget what you know about roadworks and diversions back home - single lane contraflows bumbling along at slow speeds. These roadworks send us on diversions through dirt tracks churned up by trucks or gravel tracks with massive holes or lunar landscapes with more holes than road. What ensues is a low-speed slalom effort to avoid the biggest pot-holes and trying not to ground out the car. This is on the good highways. On poor stretches the roads can barely be called roads.The driving is slow and exhausting and the Skodalorean has been doing magnificently but has now developed a growl in lower gears through 1000-2500rpm which we think might be exhaust related. This was caused by the detour…
The detour started as an idea to try the most direct route across KZ to Astana, while seeing some less charted bits. The road looked OK on the map but we were fooled. It started so well with 5km of tarmac, followed by 20km of roadworks, a town (Irgiz), then 80km of slowly worsening track. At the start of this it was drivable at 70kmh - there was no truck traffic so the roads were less ruined, but by km50 it was best described as a smear of sand in the scrub. Eventually we reach another town where the way out was only reachable by fording a small river over the half-collapsed bridge and heading on into ever smaller tracks. We grounded the car on a sand verge and lost a couple of hours getting it out, only to find, another 10km or so later that this route came to an abrupt end at another river where there had once been a bridge but there was no way we could get across. Heads bowed and admitting defeat we set off again for the main road, having lost the best part of a days driving and done some damage to the car. We may have taken a wrong turn but it was a fools mission. It has left an unsightly protrusion on our route map…
Good calm sailing, steady 22knots and scheduled to arrive in Aktau some time this evening (between 8-12). When we do we’ll have to stay on board until customs open (9am apparently, but it is a Sunday). Awoken by David who told me I’d been summonsed to the captain’s quarters as there was a problem with our paperwork. Bleary-eyed I headed up to have the Captain tell me our ticket was not present, and handed me a pile of them. Ours was 3rd from the top. He than had us both cross-reference all the tickets against the manifest and put the tickets in order. Then he signed them and had us stamp them. He just wanted a bit of help and it didn’t sound like he was feeling all that well from the noises coming out of his bathroom when we arrived. David and Clayton got Vodka for breakfast - we were picnicking on deck, then a day of sailing onwards to Kazakhstan.
We docked at midnight, being told that we were lucky with the “Bridge” as it was not busy. The other drivers seem to have been aware of this earlier as there was no drinking during dinner (apart from us who offered up some red wine which was roundly rejected) and all the drivers who had last night looked so dishevelled now looked smart and shaved for customs. When we finally realised that we were landing we had been playing cards with Rum forfeits for a couple of hours and it rapidly became clear that we would not be sleeping it off on the boat… All passengers were summonsed to the Galley while customs and military searched the boat with sniffer dogs. Then our passports were returned to us and we were led off the ship to awaiting minibuses to be taken to passport control. This achieved we were sent back to our vehicles to await unloading. First time sleeping in the car (for a couple of hours) until the ramp we were parked on started to move at 4am so we could go and park up at the customs office and wait for them to open at 8.30am.
Text Update 2nd August
Within sight of Aktau, KZ. Not expecting to disembark for another 12hrs however. Sunset pretty awesome. Boat a bit less so.
Text Update 2nd August
Was about to sleep but have docked and now on standby to go to passport control, then back to boat to unload. Could take many hours...
Text Update 3rd August - Aktau
Off the boat at 4am, out of port by 1130am. Slow progress day but on our way to the desert.
At 0830 we started the process of temporarily importing the skodalorean into the country. First to window no.7 with our V5 and bill of lading. We were sent to photocopy Vix’s passport at a xerox machine in a back office, then back for stamps and import duty. This we paid at the Casse window and were then sent to the Customs windows in the next room with our receipt. More self-photocopying at another small machine, forms to fill and more stamps. Then all 4 documents had to be taken to the barrier for their check, then down to the military compound near the ship for more stamps, then back to the barrier to be told we were missing a stamp, so back to the military for another stamp and a search of the car, back again to the barrier for a long wait while the security guard tried to find something wrong with our forms, another search of the car and out!
For Future ralliers: The customs/immigration building is new and apart from the military stamp, eveything can be done here. You'll need to keep the A5 sized document with stamps and signatures which are circled in pen - this is your customs document and you'll need to show it when you leave KZ and when you leave Russia. Russia and KZ have a schengen style arrangement so keep everything you can. The military compound is surrounded by a metal fence, down on the waterfront near the cranes. There are no signs. Bang on the metal door - a helpful soldier with a big gun will be out to help you. You can go inside to the desk, but sometimes the soldier will take them in for you.
We set off into KZ - the aussies had been told by the gate guard that customs were shut for the day (it was sunday) and we had wondered why we hadn't seen them inside, but after a short delay we were all good to go and set off into Aktau to stock up on supplies including a very fetching Kazakh hat. We decided against the tinned horse. No luck buying ice but with our shopping we hit the road. the aussies got stopped by the police and fined KZ10000 (£30) for not having their headlights on, which, while annoying was soon forgotten as we descended from sea level into the low desert - we passed one of the lowest points of land on the planet, 135m below sea level, hot and very very dry. It used to be a lake, but as we were to see, there were very few lakes in this part of the world, just dried up salt beds and sand. Lots and lots of sand. We'd been warned about the road to Bejneu but it seems that much of it has been resurfaced in recent years. Much, not all. Desert Rally driving was what we expected, and it's what we got. A whole new realm of driving experience which claimed its inevitable casualties - 2 roadside running repairs and the Aussies lost their air intake pipe somewhere and were pulling pure dust into the engine. After a bit of a Blue Peter moment with 2 beercans, some Ali tape and a couple of cableties we got that fixed and it was still holding up 3 days later when we parted company.
The sun rose over the mountains bordering the black sea, waking us up a bit too early for the beer consumption last night, but a swim in the sea, cup of tea, bit of breakfast and we were raring to go. Some of us less raring than others, making the driving duties rather one-sided today. And we’ve definitely graduated to the advanced levels of Mario Cart now - Georgian drivers are insane. The Azeris are even worse. We thought it was bad in Turkey, but no. Deep breaths, and as Oma said “let the crazy ones drive”. Single lane, fairly pot-holed, dodging cows, dogs, pedestrians and other vehicles meant progress was painfully slow, so much so that having covered about 150km in 3 hours we realised there was no way we were getting to Baku today. Had we pushed on we might have got there by 4am tomorrow but that would be unnecessary. So, stopped in Tbilisi for the night - heading out to the old town for food and drinks.
Text Update 29th July
abandoned the attempt to hit Baku in one day due to hangover and slow progress. Crazy driving has really gone up a notch.
A very pleasant evening in Tbilisi and our oddball guesthouse (breakfast was potatoes and cheese, cold cauliflower, a blini and fist sized chunks of melon) led to an early start to make shott shrift of the trip to Baku. 580km - no problem. We’d be there by mid afternoon and on a boat quick as you like… Cut to: 3.5 hours waiting at the border crossing into Georgia. Car got sent to the X-ray, started unpacking, customs guys poled around tip they got a bit bored and we’d shown them the inflatable globe. “Do you have any gun?” he asked when faced with the spare parts box. A simple no had us back on track via a military man in a small office who stamped our customs chit and gave us a stamped post-it note instead. Passports, machine pass, insurance, road tax, passports returned and we were on our way - clear roads and on our way to Baku. We’d get there in time for cocktails, no bother! Then we got stopped by the Polis. Twice. In 30 minutes. Both times a clear shakedown. They wanted €200 each for minor made up traffic infractions, each on deserted roads, furtively looking liver their shoulders when anything passed. The first guy was actually quite nice and was clearly interested in the queen’s face on the lonely £10 in my wallet. Add to that $15 and the offer of some shrapnel and we managed to get away. The second guy was pure nasty. Demanded €200, then produced a ticket for 100Manat (£70) and confiscated Vix photo card license, shouted at us to pay at the bank in Baku who would return the license (How exactly?) screamed at us to drive off, then stopped us doing so and asked for the money straight up. We didn’t have it. No local currency and only a sly $20 stashed after the last stop. Actually it was all well hidden around the car but we pleaded poverty and needing the license back. Most undignified but going around and around the argument for half an hour he took our £20, and a football top, and let us go with the license in tact. This left us pretty drained, and with 380km to go to Baku the paranoia levels were sky high and the speed limit was strictly adhered to, which would in itself have been OK but for the 200km of 60kmh limit for roadworks. No-one else paid a blind bit of notice but we were sticking out like a sore thumb and didn’t want to be stopped again.
We finally pitched up in Baku at about 930pm in the dark with a screen grab of some googlemaps and some sketchy directions. We took the wrong turning into the city and aimed for the centre. Should probably have known that Baku is a BIG city - 7million people - and very hard to find our way around. Also, the reviews for our hotel made a point of it being hard to find. No problem. we calle them fopr help but couldn’t tell them where we were. Found a German speaking Iranian tour guide who, after talking at length with our hotel could only proffer that our hotel was close to his but had no idea how to get there. So on we went - If we head for the sea we can work it out from there! Soon most again. Asked a chap at the side of the road in our limited Azeri, he spoke to another guy who called the hotel and then had us follow him in his car. Bless this guy - he didn’t really know where the hotel was either but kept stopping and asking people and after driving around for an hour (and through a football crowd celebrating Azerbaijan’s 2-1 victory over Austria) he actually got us to the hotel. We thanked them with a couple of football shirts and handshakes all round. Another team (Full Metal Yak) at the hotel driving a Volvo 313 troop carrier (Lucien!) retrofitted with a Mercedes diesel engine and a Lada Riva. They’re off to Iran tomorrow. We went to bed…
Text Update 30th July
3.5hrs at Georgia/AZ border inc full search. 2 polis shake-downs in 30 mins in AZ, 350km paranoia drive. Arrived Baku 2300. Over and out.
Reception at the hotel this morning scurried off into the back office and returned with a bottle of JD and a bottle of sparkling wine - a lovely surprise - left for us by Full Metal Yak - probably couldn’t take it into Iran. We started looking into ferry tickets. Called the Fixer, Ishmael (+994 552861200) who called back to say that yes, there was a ferry to Aktau tonight. He could sort tickets for a 30% mark-up or he could send us a guide for $40 to take us to the port and help out while we bought them ourselves. After last nights driving we thought this sounded like an excellent idea. Off we trotted to the ticket office. Ishmael should offer this as a tour - guided rally driving through Baku. Ticket office was closed. The guide scarpered. Waited an hour or so to then be told to go to the other port. Went up there, office closed. Called Vika (+994 552665354) who told us the boat was tomorrow but to wait for an hour and she would come and write up the ticket. All sorted by 530pm. Top marks for Vika. Ishmael must do better. Then, somehow, by a combination of a scrappy map, some directions from Vika, and blind luck, we actually made it back to the hotel!! Swimming Pool. Dinner. Beer. Dour Scottish Ex-pat oil worker for company was how the rest of the evening played out. Nice to have a clean bed for one more night…
For future ralliers: Vika and Ishmael both speak good english. The boat fees were posted on the wall at the new port ticket office and were USD$110 per person plus $110 per metre length of vehicle for the crossing to Aktau, which works out at an eye-watering $660 for a night ride on what is little better than a prison ship) slightly less to Turkmenbashi ($100pp, $90pm I think). You won't need much cash (6 manat per meal per person ish)for the boat and it's really difficult to fine anyone anywhere who'll but your old Manats!, so use them to buy supplies before you board. Seriously, think about going via Iran instead - it'll probably cost you the same in visas and you won't have to deal with the Azeri police... If you still want to go by boat, get yourself to Baku sooner rather than later. The more teams arrive, the longer you'll have to wait for a free space - we got through in 2 days which felt super quick.
Text Update 31st July
Boat ticket to Aktau in KZ has been bought. Departs tomorrow (Friday?) night. One night seeing the sights of Baku. Hotel with pool, don't mind if I do.
Headed to the port at 12 where we met another team - Döner Expedition, 2 aussie guys (David and Clayton) who look set to become our travelling companions for the next few days. Hung around, went through customs, drove to the boat. The Fikra Arimov and waited again. On the dockside we made friends with the truck drivers - Max from Kazakhstan, Ahmed from Turkey, Ludo, Lexi and Pado from Georgia. Pado was hammered, staggering and getting over-affectionate, Ludo, the father figure, was the calming influence but did insist that we drank wine with him and as the hours ticked by we started to wonder how the next 30 hours or so would pan out. Finally on board at about 7pm. Dinner was chicken, chips, veg, vodka, vodka, vodka, wine and backgammon. All the drivers have taken to Vicky, especially when she kept pace with the vodka and beat Ahmed at backgammon. Finally set sail a hair before midnight. Bunking up in a cabin with the Aussies - fairly grubby but could be a lot worse.
Text Update 2nd August
on the boat, have been for 6hrs but still in port. Made friends with the Georgian truck drivers. Food, moonshine, mums wine. All good. 30hrs to KZ.
A beautiful Sunday morning sunrise over the bosphorous and an early start through lovely light traffic as we sped eastward. Then we hit the traffic jam. Apparently this had stretched anywhere from 350km to 1500km on Saturday as everyone headed home to their families for Eid. We got off rather lightly with a 3 hour/50km jam to add to the 700km or so we covered today. As we approached Samsun, on a very circuitous route through tiny villages the front O/S brake started to screech just as we crested a hill with fields either side as far as the eye could see, with the sun rapidly setting. We pulled over, jacked up and investigated but after a bit of jiggery it seemed to be OK. We tested the theory with a bit of pot-hole laden steep downhill driving and all was still well - must have picked up a bit of debris. Better than the alternative that the callipers were shot…
Ended the evening with yoghurty kebabs (but passed on the “Spunk Chips” )and plotted to speed out way to Baku cutting a day off the schedule…
Text Update 27th July
Got stuck in Eid traffic heading to the sea - 3 hour delay but got here in the end. Striking out for Georgia tomorrow!
Great progress this morning. Had the car up on jacks, wheels off to get a better look at the front brakes but all OK. Sped to the border, making such good progress that we stopped in a lovely roadside Mangal place for lunch. Started seeing a few teams on the way up to Georgia. Arrived at the border to be greeted with merry hell. We were sent to the back of a very long queue with our fuel already on red. Nearly 4 hours later, having pushed the car up the Q and having seen 10 or so other teams join after us (the Devonshire Scone boys were ahead) we finally made it through to Georgia as the sun was going down. Having made tentative plans to meet in Batumi we were distracted by a very nice beach with lovely bars about 1k from the border where Timur was willing to let us park up and camp for 2 Georgian wotsits and watch our cars overnight. We flagged down a few more teams, relieved the petrol station of some of their beers, cooked up some pasta, drank and camped out on the beach. Timur was nowhere to be seen.
Text Update 28th July
No mans land. Waited 3.5 hours to cross the border. Passports checked now queuing for customs. Fuel on red for 5hrs.
Launched out of Battersea park, around central London and down to Dover. Raced to try to get the early calais ferry but missed by 5 minutes. Enjoyed a lovely 2 hour dockside wait in the rain. We didn’t pack raincoats. It doesn’t rain in Mongolia, does it? Sure does in Dover and much of Northern France.
The team of Yellow Polo Medics were our first encounter with other teams across the channel - they were broken down on the A26 about 50km outside Calais with an overheated steed. Everyone fine although up to their elbows in thermostat removal. There wasn’t much we could do to help so wished them well and headed onwards. From what little we can make out from French Radio there’s a few broken down cars on the way to Reims - turned out it wasn't any other ralliers.
Landed in Langres a hair before sunset - broke the world record in camp setting up time just before the heavens opened. Retreated to the campsite bar for beers and pizza (which we had to order in a takeaway box, but weren’t allowed to eat in the bar or at our tent or seemingly anywhere else) and snuck off to take cover under the pirate playground like a pair of naughty children. Wine and cards to follow. Went to bed dreaming of an early morning dip in the lake, or swimming pool followed by breakfast, alfresco, croissants, cheese, jam etc
Text Updates 20th July
Dover: made it as far as the ferry, or at least the port. Customs waved us through but not quite quick enough for the early ferry. ETA Dunkirk 1500. It's raining. Forgot to bring a raincoat.
Langres: arrived at campsite, 15 mins before sunset, tent up in 10, started raining, cold beers now in hand, waiting for pizza. 422 miles good driving today. Germany tomorrow.
Awoke to the sound of rain - unbeknownst to us this would become the soundtrack to the next 2 days (and god knows how much longer) - so we wolfed down a croissant in the tent, packed and high-tailed it out of there. Across to Germany, through a very nice, windy hill road and onwards to Friedrichshafen and Bodensee. Bodensee is beautiful. Unfortunately we couldn’t see much of it due to the HEAVY RAIN which accompanied us all the way. So we decided to stop at a local garage and check the vibrations that we were getting from the steering wheel at high speeds. A lovely man called Roberto rebalanced all our tyres and helped secure a loose CV boot gaiter for the princely sum of €28. The Skodelorean is running smooth as you like now. After gawping at a (collective noun unknown) of Oompah bands at Friedrichshafen’s Seehase (sea rabbit!) festival we set off to see my Oma and visit the grave of my Opa. Opa was a man in love with cars, even wanted to be a racing car driver in his youth, and would have loved the rally and offered us sage advice, no doubt. We took Oma out for a slap up schnitzel fest and basked in her wonderful hospitality. Vielen Dank Oma!
Text updates 21st July
Somewhere in the Black Forest: Enjoying tea and a baguette up a hill in a forest. And it's finally stopped raining.
Friedrichshaven: Just seen the biggest oompah band known to humanity at the seehase festival by lake constance. Still raining.
Kisslegg: A relaxed 290 miles to see my Oma for hearty schwäbian dinner. Opa wanted to be a racing driver - he would have loved this.
A long day of Motorway driving today. IN THE RAIN!. Seriously, at times we were down to 25mph and essentially driving in a lake. With lorries. All the time we were praying that the further east we got the skies might clear for a lovely nights lakeside camping in Hungary, but no. So much so that we have detoured to Budapest and I sit her writing this in the Riso Restaurant next to the castle enjoying Goulash soup on a covered terrace watching the heavens fall. You should have seen Vix’s face when we made the decision to sack off Balatonzenes for less tenth solutions. After her 2 hour stint driving in a river it was like a lottery win. Please let the rain stop before we hit Romania tomorrow. This is getting decidedly spirit-sapping. My thoughts are with the team in the canvas roofed Scamp.
Text Updates 22nd July
Austria: UK radio - Yay! Weather forecast: thunderstorms with rain, hail, landslides and flash flooding. All WC breaks cancelled. 5th gear to Hungary.
Austrohungarian border: 1100 miles down and it's still raining. Might have to abandon plans to camp tonight. C'mon Hungary, be sunny!
The sun shone for us this morning for a spot of unplanned sightseeing in Buda Castle and Ham and Eggs for breakfast, then hit the road. A day of road contrasts - arrow-straight-dull-M5, Hungary; narrow single-carriages through villages; lovely winding Romanian mountain roads and the emptiest, newest Romanian Motorways - not on our map and so devoid of traffic we did begin to wonder if we were imagining things, but great for some uninterrupted speedy progress. Not a great deal else to report - at a remote romaninan petrol station met some polish guys whose key remote had died so they should neither lock nor start their car. Also had our first grumpy border check experience - they asked to see our MOT and mumbled something vaguely exasperated about the Mongol Rally before waving us onwards... To the beach tomorrow, then a day off! Total Mileage so far - 1558.
Before getting into todays exploits it’s worth devoting a few lines to the place we stayed last night - the Corachul Arachi in Deva, Transylvania, chosen as a convenient waypoint and a nice place to stay after camping (which we didn’t do…) Straight out of the 80s, seemed torn between wanting to be a boutique hotel and country club. Located in the half developed hills above the very dilapidated Deva, the very (over) friendly staff were all too happy to talk about how annoying booking.com are and in a scene worthy of Fawlty Towers they rearranged everyone eating in the restaurant halfway through their meals to remove tables and make space for an Argentinian dance demonstration hosted by Sybil herself and executed by two mismatched and awkward looking dancers. Uncomfortable viewing indeed.
The driving was top quality today - some fantastic windy mountain roads through the carpatians, and some lovely skiing towns took us at length down to the rigorously researched camp ground on the coast in Mamaia, near to Oha beach, the location of the beach party, so touted as the best and last night out in Europe before heading into Turkey. We BBQ’d and even headed off to see the Oha where we supped on cold beers, lounged on Bean Bags and watched a film on the beach - heaven indeed. Chatted with the bar owners who confirmed the party scheduled for tomorrow night. Bring it on…
Text Update 24th July
lovely mountain roads today. Campsite by the beach, BBQ on, rest day and party tomorrow. Total miles 1976, car in one piece!
A very mixed day today. Some lovely bits including lots of relaxing on the beach, swimming, reading, beer and not being in the car. After 5 days driving it felt like a luxury. The rubbish bit was where Vicky’s phone got lifted - not 100% sure where/how but it’s gone. Deeply annoying but if you need to get hold of Vix then email or FB or via my number. Then the party - we were totally up for fun, especially needed after the phone situation so got down there nice and early for Mojitos, toddled off for some food as it was quite quiet and came back expecting to see other teams and share tales and beers and….. nothing. No other teams. A few locals but no fabled beach do. Something had definitely gone awry. We checked the tracker and saw that there were some other teams in the area so stuck it out to see who would turn up - no-one did. Nearly 2000 miles travelled and it seemed we had ended up at the wrong party! This was confirmed at the Turkish border on Saturday where we met all the teams who’d gone down to Vama Veche, 50km or so down the coast to gather and party. I swear that the last information I got was that the beach party was at Oha, as it had been last year - I must have missed the memo. What a memo to miss.
Leaving the disappointments of last night behind us we headed off into beautiful sunny skies to traverse Bulgaria, crossing 2 borders on our way to Istanbul. Bulgaria is the prettiest country we’ve driven through so far and great roads. Potholed and Mario-Kart in places but great. First confirmed team sightings since northern france, and lots of them as we crossed into Turkey at Malko Tarnavo. About an hours worth of bureaucracy but everyone was very friendly - a small taster of the back-and-forth-one-desk-to-another of things to come.
Eye-wateringly awesome hotel in Istanbul - swimming pool on balcony overlooking bospherous. Car parked precariously on a 1:5 gradient, stripped of un-boltables for the night. Motoring onwards for the next few days - heavy driving ahead - Georgia by Tuesday morning.
So the reality of this jaunt is starting to kick in. What started as a gung-ho I'm-turning-40-and-want-to-do-something-spectacularly-ridiculous-to-celebrate is slowly turning into a looming monster of finance and organisation. The organisation side is fine but the finances need to be brought into check. By taking a Micra rather than a Mini, and re-thinking the route to include driving back we can cut our costs to a point where we hopefully won't be completely ruined by the time we get back. There was a major wobble a little while ago but that's passed and we're going to do this thing, dammnit!
So things move on at Movie Mongols HQ. Cars have been considered and money has been parted with. Sponsorship donations are starting to come in and we've even booked a hotel in Baku!
There has been much consideration of cars. After ditching the idea of taking a mini we looked at the ususal suspects of Polos, Micras and 106s. We even thought long and hard about a Bedford Rascal and headed off to test drive a suitable candidate - a 1994 Polo fox which had a lot going for it - 2 bald tires, polkadots of rust, crunchy breaks, wallowy steering and an ability to induce feelings of nausea within the first 3 minutes of the test drive. Sorry Polo, it was not to be. Then, on the way back, Vix came up with a radical suggestion: why not take a car that we already own - a 12 year old Skoda Fabia with electrical problems, plenty dents and 80k put on it in the last 5 years. Ok, so it's a bit bigger than a 1.0 litre (1.4l) but the idea of continuing the tradition of giving her cars a good send off appealed to Vix (her first car ended up as a beach-buggy racer!). So, Haynes manual ordered for a bit of practicality research, we have a potential steed!
Our visas have been ordered, and with a bit of confusion over the status of a Guernsey passport, but with assurances from the Visa Machine we press ahead and start to tackle the mountain of paperwork ahead of us. As part of our visa application we have to show where we're going to be staying. Apparently "by the side of the road, desert" doesn't count so we've booked a hotel. In Baku, Azerbaijan!
We've chosen Teenage Cancer Trust as our charity of choice, alongside the organisers charity Cool Earth. Thanks loads to those who've already donated - we're nearly 50% of the way to our target already but reserve the right to increase the target at a later date if it helps us get more for these amazing charities.
Not much more to report at this stage, except that I finished reading "How Cars Work" and now feel entirely ready to fix anything.....
We have Visas! well, we have visas for Kazakhstan and Russia so far - Thanks to the Visa machine for all your help. Still need to get Mongolia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan and Turkey e-visa. One half of our team is now working in germany until about a week before the rally starts so I've been left to my own devices. I need to go and retrieve her passport for the last leg of applications, leaving her stranded in a foreign country even before the rally starts....
Car Club part 1 has taken place - some key instruction from a mechanical wizard/eastern europe off-road rally expert, Jez. Total legend. has taken my mechanics knowledge from zero to being able to change a drive belt and troubleshoot an ignition problem in a day. He also put some handy gaffa stickers on important parts of the engine so that I can remember what's what. On top of that he had masses of tips on dangers and survival tactics for the trip. Top Tip: If you get into real trouble, your car can be a beacon - flash the lights and night, burn bits during the day to attract attention - tyres give off a lot of smoke! Next stop - learn how to remove, repair and replace the radiator.
So, armed with a massive shopping list of spare parts and useful items, and a healthy sense of fear I'm ready to tackle the 10-week countdown...
Halfway to our fundraising target! - thank you everyone who's contributed so far.
Progress has definitely been made - I have successfully removed half of the front of the car to remove the radiator, and more surprisingly managed to put it all back together and got the car working again. I didn't even have any screws left over. 3 x steel wheels bought off ebay for Â£10, now just need to put tyres on them. Decals and window tint ordered, just need to be affixed. Mountain grade medical kit bought, just need to brush up on my first aid. Spot tracker sourced, just need to sort out subscription. Shopping done includes cyalumes, spare number plates, jerry cans, copperease, tyre iron, valve cores, marine funnel and firelighting flint. Still need chemical poo, camel dicks, tyre jizz, reaming tool and a camping stove. Got to be careful googling that lot....
Visas nearly all done - have had to send off more info for Azerbaijan so that might be a bit of a squeeze but Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan firmly in the passport, Turkey evisa done and dusted.
We've even planned out the first 10 days or so - Oha beach party here we come!
Thanks to Winston Hanson and his team at Auto Workshop in Ealing for helping us out with a pre-rally service, engine health check, oil change, and replacement CV boot gaiters!
They're a very helpful bunch and can be found at 103, Elers Road, Ealing W13 - use them for your MOT and car repairing needs!
23 Days to Go!
I built a roof rack. It's awesome. We can now securely bolt 4 x spare wheels and 2 jerry cans to the roof.
I found a scrap yard in Hangar Lane that lets you go in and remove any bits of cars you like for spares - I'll be returning there soon - it's like a big oily playground!
We are also kitted out with (amongst other things): 2 rally spot lamps, wilderness first aid kit, decals, inflatable globe, grease, tyre plugs, chemical poo, oil filter funnel, some tools, dashcam, race numbers, vignette stickers and a SPOT3 gps tracker with SAR subscription!
Still need to sort out some spare parts, bash plate, loo seat (!), peli case, fancy dress(?), more decals, and borrow the folding spade that my parents took on their road trip to Afganistan in 1970. It was used to dig them out of the Syrian Desert. It can do the same for us in Kazakhstan.
In 1970, my parents drove their Beetle from Germany to the border of Afganistan/Pakistan and back. Among their kit was a spade. A folding spade. At 40 cm long, with possible scandinavian military heritage, a pick and spade head it helped dig their car out of the Syrian desert (in the middle of now ISIS controlled territory) more than once. Last weekend it was presented to us, gift wrapped and tied in a bow to accompany us on the Mongol Rally 2014. The folding spade will henceforth be Bataar the Future's lucky mascot. Having looked more closely at our route through Kazakhstan it may well come in very handy!
Text Update 19th July
stuck in a massive traffic jam trying to get to launch event. Hope the rest of the rally moves faster than this. Irony not lost on us, however.
Convoy at the finish line: (front L-R): Team Opti, MrCave's Geography Field Trip, Bataar the Future
(rear L-R): Champagne Campaign, Team Brain Box, The Red Dragons
Below The Finish Line and fermented Yak's milk for all!
Clockwise from top left: The end of tarmac; Camels; The Mormons of Mongolia stop for tea; left behind.
Camping upder Snow-capped peaks; The open road; River Driving.
First view of Mongolian Roads. Roadsign - making it all much clearer.
Sangatte Camp, Russian style Queueing for Immigration
Swimming spot on Lake Balkash
Vix with Jens, Matthias, Stefan and the sickly Starlet. Cold Beers at Hotel Edem, Turkestan.
First river crossing. Unsightly protrusion. Digging the car out.
Beer can air inlet fix. Roadside repairs
Sartorial Elegance, Kazakh style. Very definitely not Tuna.
Main Road. The Dangerous Section.
The Gate to Kazakhstan Aktau port map
Clockwise from left: Lexi, Ahmet and Ludo, 3 of our ship-mates; sitting on the dock of the bay; our ship, the Fikret Arimov; Clayton brushes up his Russian; Ludo breaks out the wine and moonshine.
3.5 hr queue for the border.
Old Port Ticket Office for Turkmenbashi. New Port Ticket Office for Aktau.
GPS 40.373341, 49.864932 (Sarder on Maps below) GPS 40.362735, 49.934543 Unnamed Rd on Maps below
Turkey's comedy coaches. Camping Georgian style. Dutch courage with the Desert Kings.
High tech measuring stick. Interesting accompaniment to Upset Kebab.
Mamaia's premier waterslide
With a few weeks hindsight another couple of thoughts come to mind. The rally really is life-changing and will stay with me forever. We've both been dreaming of driving for the past 3 weeks and are only now coming back to something like normal. The driving zone is like nothing I've ever experienced before - waking up and not thinking twice about driving 12-14 hours on horrendous/amazing roads and covering less than 200km, concentrating harder than ever before, and having your brain rewired for the experience. We were talking, as we approached the finish line about whether we could keep going up into Siberia, across the Baring Strait, down through North America and South America. But that adventure might have to be for another day. We still wish we were back in Mongolia and one day we will be.
If I were to offer two pieces of advice to anyone planning this trip it would be to allow yourself as much time as you can to see as much as you can and really take it in, and buy a plug-in coolbox!
Days 27-31, 200km from Altai - the Finish Line, Final Total 9339 miles
So the evening on the steppe turned into an unexpected evening of entertainment. Just as we’d finished preparing our gourmet noodles a large SUV turned up carrying 2 families, Mongolian Mormons no less, who wanted to stop and talk. Well, the 18 yr old daughter with a bit of English wanted to talk and quickly adopted Vicky as her new best friend. We made English Tea (accompanied by Wafers) and all sat around for a jolly old time - we exchanged gifts (Percy Pigs for Watermelon) and discovered that they were driving home to U-B. It seems the thing to do in Mongolia is to drive straight through the night in big 4x4s all the way across the country - 2 days seems to be the average, which considering the roads we’ve seen so far is utter madness. We gave the young boy a football shirt and as they were about to leave, when the Dad of the family (a Policeman) presented me with his well used but very sharp knife. Whilst all of this was going on Christian the French biker rolled up, with no water and a very weary look. We became water-givers again and when all had calmed down made more noodles and drank red wine as the stars came out.
Up with the sun again for scrambled eggs and tea. The Irish Micras passed us as we were packing up, so could only have been camped a few km down the road, and by 730 we were rolling again on the most brutal roads so far. For the first while we were in the sand, low gear, high revs, fingers crossed, which was interspersed with lots of rocks. We caught up with the irish who, in an attempt to go a bit too fast had broken the rear axle on one of the cars. As we pulled up the stricken car was being left behind with 4 of the guys as the other 2 set off to Altai to find a welder. We gave up some water (again) and offered to follow them in in case they had any other problems. They were driving far more gingerly than before but soon we were caught by the Kiwis who stopped for a chat and arranged to meet for lunch in Altai. Off we went in hunt of the Irish, bouncing and sliding all the way, and as we reached them one leaned out of the window frantically gesturing at the back of the car. We stopped to find our bumper hanging on by a single screw, merrily being dragged along the sand. Once that was detached and strapped to the roof we continued. We’d asked the Irish guys if they needed backup but they declined, which was a good thing because we didn’t catch sight of them until just before Altai anyway. Progress was painfully slow as we hit the most hideous corrugated road yet, flanked by multiple alternate paths of sand and rock. The road was just too painful to drive on - bone rattling, and bolt loosening but the side paths were treacherous to say the least. As we approached Altai we saw that the road had claimed one of the Romanian 4x4s and to say we were relieved to hit tarmac at Altai is a massive understatement. We found lunch and internet and were joined by the Kiwis and decided to team up for the rest of the day. The route out of town was about 120km of good tarmac which ended so suddenly, on the ridge of a hill, that the anchors had to be forcibly slammed on to avoid a heavy landing. One car had not been so lucky. Sat in the field all smashed up it seemed to have launched off the end of the tarmac and rolled, probably on a nighttime country-crossing. In Mongolia there aren’t many road signs but they do like to fore-warn of slight bends in the road. They really need to consider a sign highlighting the end of the road. Another 40km or so was all we managed before camping up, punctuated by a proper tyre blow-out, but a very pleasant evening under the stars was had by all. In other news, 2 of the roof-rack fixing points have sheared (now held on by a ratchet strap with bits of the yellow stool for padding, and 2 of our wheels are seriously buckled from the corrugated.
Shortly after setting off in the morning we came across a group of 5 cars breakfasting and getting ready to get on the road. After the previous day’s brutal roads we were keen to gain the safety of numbers and asked to join the convoy. The Kiwis wanted to ride faster, and while happy to convoy just with us were less happy to ride along in a slow convoy. So, after an awkward separation reminiscent of breaking up with a first girl/boyfriend they headed off and we joined the others and convoyed with Brainbox, Mr Caves Geography Field Trip, Champagne Campaign, Team Opti, and the Red Dragon Micra. After so many days of ragging it, mostly solo, this took some getting used to. There were frequent stops for numerous reasons and our progress slowed massively. But a long lunch by a big river for hot food and a swim wash was most welcome. What followed was some really crazy driving. We must have taken a wrong turn somewhere because the main road was sweeping away from us to the south but we were on a direct course for Bayhonnor so decided to press ahead. This involved driving straight along a dried riverbed (more sand) and occasionally trying a bit of the partly washed away road to the side. We beached the skoda on a particularly tricky bit and ended up having to go rogue and create new tracks up the river bed which was fine until we stopped and started to sink. Quick movement, location of a gravel bed, some fish-tailing and a bit of a hard bump up onto the road and we were back on track. A river crossing followed, and more crazy sandy rocky roads on which our brakes started to play up - (sudden loss of pressure in the pedal,) which could be restored by frantic pumping of the braked created a bit of ‘squeaky bum time’ before we found camp in a bug filled area just outside Bayhonnor for the night.
Early up the next morning after a blowy and cold night (we’re at 2500m altitude, apparently…) and straight down to the immigration office [ Note for future ralliers: About 200m before the border gates is a bit Anderson shelter type building. Next to that is a green portacabin. You'll need to stop here first to get a stamped piece of paper to take to the border gates] to Q and make scrambled eggs and tea while waiting. Met Christian, a French guy on a Triumph, rallying solo, and with no english to speak of, to U-B and back. Cracked out the A-level French (!) and shared breakfast - it seemed he’d been communicating solely through the means of iPhone translation apps - must get really tough when you can’t have a conversation with anyone. Anyway, after the obligatory locals who’d jumped the Q with stacks of passports we got in and out in 5 minutes and up to the customs point. We were the only rally team to get let in in the first wave and about an hour later (including extra close scrutiny of my new Swedish passport by the passport control, only because they liked the look of it) we headed off down the 25km or so of No Man’s Land. Half way down, on the border proper a very cheery young Russian Soldier wished us luck and on we went. The Mongolia border was a cheery affair, even though we had to part with 50 rubbles and got shafted on our KZ Tenge exchange rate. The customs official took a while getting to us as he was getting a head massage to deal with his hangover but after 3.5 hours from the Russian Immigration office opening we were through. The Minis were just arriving behind us as we exited, but they were stopping in the first town for some maintenance so we forged on. Hoping to catch up with some of the other teams over the next couple of days but the Russian border check was super slow, so not even sure they all made it through that day…
One small delay to fix a broken headlamp (pointed out to us by a PoPo who didn’t fine us when we showed him the spares kit - very decent of him). This was much more fiddly than it should have been, Skoda. Haynes even said that removal of the bumper was required. We laugh at you Haynes. After a full day of glorious driving we hit the border at 1730, only to be told that the immigration department wouldn’t stamp us through because there wouldn’t be enough time to get through the other side. Come back at 0900 tomorrow he said with a smile, as he locked up and headed home for the night. Home for us was a field next to the barb wire of the border where we were joined by another 10 rally cars - the kiwis, 3 americans, Bassam, Greg and Brooke (who got very excited about there being another girl on the rally when she saw Vix), a team of scottish student doctors, two cars of irish lads, two minis from the isle of man, the rotten eggs (from norwich), a team from a different rally and another car… More teams together that we’d seen since Battersea.
If you miss the end of the tarmac. Yakety Yak.
*For Future Ralliers: Lake Kamilsilibas, a hundred or so Kms north of Aral is a great place to spend the night. Unlike most of the other lakes in KZ this one still has water in it, and it's huge, you can swim in it and there are Gers on the shore which you can rent, or pitch your own tent. The photos below will give you some idea of how to get there...
Coming from the North you'll see this sign:
Take the turn, the road will bring you across the
railway tracks. Kamilsilibas town will be on your left,
keep driving straight and you will start to see the lake
over to your right after a few kms.
You'll reach this junction, turn right - you'll be able to see
lake across the dunes by now.
After a 100m or so you pick a path through the dunes -
these are both driveable but the sand gets deep when
you get to the shore so pick your route with care... (and
watch out for drunken staggering Kazakhs on their way
back from a party...)
...and arrive at the beach. Ask for Janibek - he has 3 Gers,
is handy when it comes to cars and, most importantly,
has a beer shack!
Clockwise from top left: Breakfast of champions; camel ride boys; last night campsite; parked on a hill
Then the wind picked up and rattled us silly overnight. No matter that sleep was hard to come by because we’d been promised tarmac for the rest of the journey. This didn’t quite turn out to be the boon we had hoped for. Inevitably there were about 20km of multi-track detour dirt racing and when we were on the tarmac the pot-holes and bumps were sudden and hard to spot. Not quite the tyre-rutted evil tarmac of Kazakhstan, but with our rear shocks shot to bits we were bouncing around like a boat on stormy seas. We’d started the day with a false sense of security, a feeling like we were nearly there, but the roads made sure there was one last sting in the tail for us. The road was mostly poor and keeping us down to 50kmh or so, but every now and then new tarmac would present itself on wonderful sweeping downhills which would then be brutally cut short by a massive hole in the road, requiring extreme braking and evasive action. One such hole claimed 4 punctures in the convoy (plus a slow puncture which revealed itself later) and the last remaining section of the black Polo’s exhaust. [The black polo first broke it’s exhaust on the starting ramp in battersea and has been slowly disintegrating since then - their’s is a real story of triumph over adversity]. Another pothole left the polo spraying liquid all over the road - frantic horn blowing and light flashing was to no avail (exhaust way too noisy for them to hear) so had to drive hard to catch up and flag down. It looked like the fuel tank had punctured but turned out to be a 50p sized hole in the radiator. A combination of quiksteel, ali-tape, cable ties and radweld got us all back on the road.
An obligatory stop for a camel ride and then hilltop camping - basically driving through a densely grown field (one more puncture) to our last night of camping.
Text Update 11th August
Russia: Border crossing super easy. After a few wrong turns we're parking up. Vix is unpacking the picnic basket for a midnight feast
An early start from Biysk after a great evening of dinner and drinks with Miles and Darren from Southern Raiders (Kiwis) and the wooden hotel. We broke out at 730 with hopes of crossing the border by the end of the day. The border into Mongolia is open from 0900-1300, then 1400-1800. 600km of amazing driving through the Altai region of Russia - windy mountain roads, rivers, lakes and beautiful scenery - the best of the trip so far.
Clockwise from top left: Vodka and Horse for brunch in the wedding suite with Murat and his scary russian bodyguard; Moonscape camping sunset; sunflowers; 100% Cok; Ger and early morning company, Kasilimbas; The wonderful Maxat, who helped sort out our insurance and gave us a good luck Buddha, Baikonnur.
Epic distance driving over the last 4 days, thanks to good roads and a determination to get out of Kazakhstan before being offered honorary citizenship for being there so long. A late start from Turkestan after a much needed lie-in and further investigation of the growl leading to much patching up of the back box of the exhaust with QuikSteel so not on the road until lunchtime but feeling all the fresher for it. Good roads on the whole got us out beyond Merke, near the Krygystan border before wild camping and the decision to strike for Karaganda the next day, some 600 miles away. Ambitious, foolhardy perhaps and totally dependant on the roads, but we smashed it out. We even managed to stop for a swim on the Balkash lake at lunchtime, in a spot recommended to us by Maxat from the car insurance office in Baikonnur. He was probably the nicest person in the whole of KZ - he even gave us a good luck Buddha who now sits velcro-ed to the dashboard and gets his belly rubbed at the start of each driving shift for good luck. The prize at the end of our long day - a nice hotel with crisp white sheets to lay out broken bodies down. Monday we decided to hit the border, drove north to Pavlodar and then risked the small border in the hope it would be quieter and quicker to cross - Success! only 90 minutes to cross into Russia! Bought some insurance from a man in a portacabin about 100m from the gates and set off into the night. Made it about 40km, with at least 5 wrong turns between us before we set up camp for the night. Buoyed by our driving skills we thought we might make the Mongolia Border in a day - only 1200km - what could possibly go wrong. Gave up halfway and checked into a hotel made entirely of wood. There’s no harm in having one more comfy night before the border is there…
Bumper on the roof. Broken rear axel.
The final day (we hoped) started early - I woke up before 6, and with the previous night’s campfire intention to start early I got and was greeted by a chorus of gentle snoring. The sun was about to rise so i quietly unfolded one of the nearly broken camp chairs and set down to watch the sunrise over the hills. Beautiful, and a lovely pre-cursor to our imminent arrival in U-B. We all set off a couple of hours later, only to have to stop before we even left the field for us to repair another puncture. Put on a repaired tyre and hoped it would hold as we convoyed out on the highway. The drive into U-B was pretty straight forward - the roads were good and the city kind of crept up on us so before we knew it we were turning into the Rally Graveyard. Cue photos, cheering, popping of the “Full Metal Yak” donated bottle of sparkling wine (supplemented by the bladder of white wine which has been struggling to keep cool in the cool box since Romania), drinking of ceremonial fermented yak’s milk, and the realisation that we’d actually completed the journey. We emptied the car of all the things we wanted to keep, donated the rest, thanked the Skodelorean and signed over the export and scrapping papers to the shipping company. It’s sad to see it go but the economics of bringing it back to the UK and fixing it up, even to sell it, don’t make sense. Onwards we went, squeezed into a local’s car to the Office Hotel for a couple of days of recovering, drinking, and crashing down to earth with a bump. We now head off to Beijing and Moscow on our way back to the UK.
It’s been an incredible trip. It is going to take a while to sink in what we have achieved. We’ve driven 9339 miles, (some 14,000km), without any major breakdowns, seen incredible landscapes, met fantastic people, eaten a lot of camping noodles and pasta, conquered roads and rivers in a car really not suited to it. Best decision: Fitting a bash plate to the car - we would have been grounded in Kazakhstan without it. Worst decision: Packing too much stuff, making the ride on the car way too low. Only Regret: Not going via Iran - it took us nearly 5 weeks anyway and the prison ship to Kazakhstan was an experience I really don’t need to repeat!
Text Update 3rd August
A Field, 100km from Bejneu. Bone-rattling at times, shiny new blacktop at times. 400km of desert driving pushed up past the 4000mile mark
Text Update 4th August
Sarytoghay. Real desert rally driving, 2 breakdowns, 1 police stop and lots of black-top bring us to a riverside location for tonights camp. 4454miles
Text Update 6th August - Aktobe
tourist registration sorted after meeting CEO of Siemens, KZ at a petrol stop who took us for slap-up horse brunch with vodka.
Text Update 7th August
Irgyz: frustrating detour-bad road ends in missing bridge Forder 1 river, dug car out of sand, retrace steps. Lost a day of progress. Making new plan
Text Update 7th August
Lake Kamisilibas: Surprise end to a tough day. In a Yurt, on a beach. Sunset, beer, noodles. Car stuck in sand again. Will dig it out in the morning.
Text Update 8th August - Baikonnur
"Oh, no - don't go that way. The roads bad and there are wolves." Replanning again.
Text Update 8th August - Turkestan
we made it to the other side of the map. FIrst COLD beer in a week. First proper bed in a week. First shower in a week. Ordering pizza!
Text update 10th August
Two great days driving have put us within striking distance of Russia tomorrow. Treated ourselves to a nice hotel. Total miles 7020ish.
Clockwise from top left: Left or Right?; Convoy river crossing; lunchtime swim break.
Less than 200m after setting off, another river to cross (the song is already going round my head) and another day of wonderful driving, apart from the last bit (50km) on corrugated roads harsh enough to shake every bolt loose from the car. The Irish guys caught up with us for a while before we got to Hovd. We met them as we headed back from the raging torrent of a river, that we would never be able to drive through, in search of a bridge. Bridge found we rallied, with Vix in supreme form, all the way into Hovd, where we lost them as we searched for fuel and supplies. From then on we enjoyed 150km or so of top tarmac before the corrugated horror set in. We eventually pulled off the road at a bit before 6 in the hope that some of the other teams might catch us, but, as I sit in the setting sun, on the Mongolian Steppe, there has been no such luck so far. The Irish guys must be well ahead, maybe the others are still at the border.
Aktobe-Bejneu - A mix of very good Black-top and some horrendous desert track
Bejneu-Aktay - Good roads mostly some roadworks,.
Aktay-Ural-Aktobe - Very good road with some roadworks. NB there is a shorter route on the map but we were warned off this in no uncertain terms by the truck drivers on the boat - “no road! no road!”
Aktobe-Irgiz - Good road
Irgiz-interior - terrible
Irgiz-Aral - Good road
Aral-Kyzlorda - Frustrating roads. A few km of nice followed by several kms of diversion. Repeat ad infinitum. Getting in and out of Kyzlorda more baffling than a Rubik’s Cube.
Kyzlorda-Turkestan - Brand new 4-lane highway.
We’ve camped in fields, by rivers, in the desert and by an amazing lake where we rented a Yurt for the night for £10* and are now in a hotel in Turkestan - Hotel Edem - like a shining oasis in amongst all the dust. We have managed to get our tourist registration stamp (Aktobe) and our car insurance (Baikonnur), both or which we felt glad of when we spotted 3 danish guys broke down on the motorway heading in the opposite direction last night between Kyzlorda and Turkestan. We found a cut-through and turned back to check they were OK. Their Toyota Starlet was overheating, they’d run out of water (we gave them most of what we had and some beer for good measure), they’d had a crash in Shymkent (so their drivers door was welded on with a window made from plexi-glass) which had cost them $500 in compensation to the other driver and 3 days of delay, and they were heading for a route (Kyzlorda-Zagashangan) which we had been warned off as being really bad and populated by desert wolves!! And we thought we’d been having a tough day. Vix’s comment of “It got harder, didn’t it?” was met with glum nods. To cap it all their 5 day transit visa is about to run out and they’re 4 days from the Russian border. We gave them all the tourist registration info we could, stayed till they were up and running and followed them as far as our next turn-around. Good luck to Jens, Matthias and Stefan.
At the Edem we enjoyed our first cold beers for a week. Had we thought about this in detail we would probably have realised how difficult it is to keep anything cold in the desert - really with we had one of those 12v cooler boxes…
Text Update 13th August
Russia Mongolia Border: Top driving today! Mountain roads galore. Border closed-camping next to several other rally teams.
Text Update 15th August
near Khovd: 24 hrs in Mongoila- 4 rivers, one marsh, only 1 bridge. Sand, gravel, rocks, stuck in mud. 240km done, 1600 to go. Car still holding up.
Text Update 16th August
Altai: the driving has got extreme. 350km of choice between bone-rattling corrugated road and sand-sliding dirt tracks. 350km more ahead.
Just a quick one from an internet cafe in Altai. We're fine, the car is just about holding up. The driving/roads have gone from challenging to downright terrible. hundreds of KMs of choice between bone rattling corrugated top, and sand-sliding pot-holed, craziness. Eyes are tired - contra-zooming whenever we stop. Lost the rear bumper today. Another 400km of really bad road, then mostly hard-top, apparently. 4 days to Uluun Baatar. Not driving back - will have run out of time. Don't think we'll make it to Sweden for the 24th either (sorry, Mum and Dad xxx). The next bit is the most nerve-wracking. Teams are dropping like flies - broken axels, suspension etc. Keep everything crossed for us. watch the red dot and we'll be in touch in U-B. xx
Now we can see what the fuss is all about. Driving in Mongolia is like nothing else. There are far fewer cars on the road. Lots more Eagles, Mountains, dirt tracks, rivers, Yaks and even some virgin Tarmac which has made for 2 days of extremely exciting driving. After crossing the border we headed southeast towards Oligy for fuel and a stock up of essentials, via a car insurance hut with comedy old man in a military cap that had seen better days. Oligy provided us with all we needed, and so onwards towards Khovd. At first the tarmac was spectacular, as was the scenery, and while the scenery kept up its part of the bargain the tarmac certainly did not. We forded 2 rivers and got stuck in a swamp, were rescued by a lovely family in a 4x4 who helped push us out and got covered in mud to boot. This was after some incredible driving. Slaloming through dirt/sand tracks in the shadow of snow-capped mountains, past alpine lakes with eagles soaring overhead is quite definitely breathtaking. Camped in the lee of the mountains and made a charcoal fire (no wood in this part of Mongolia) and discovered that the stones around a fire-pit can make very nice hot-water bottle substitutes when the temperature drops. Eat that Bear Grylls!