London to Mongolia - we made it! | The South African

Jazza has documented his account of our adventure on TheSouthAfrican.com

Mongolia - we made it!

As we drove through no-man’s land headed for the border proper, we recalled hearing stories about teams that spent upwards of three days at the border waiting for their cars to get stamped in. Thankfully, we would not join that statistic and after paying our $1 disinfection tax, a few other charges and waiting a little over five hours, we were allowed in just before the border closed at 9pm. The convoy had grown to include Team Detour from Sweden together with Chase and Charla (and Bertha, their panda and team mascot) and we enjoyed a great night’s camping albeit in freezing weather.

Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world and the first word I’d chose to describe the country is ‘empty’. While Gers, the traditional Mongolian house, are generally visible at any point on the horizon, towns only exist hundreds of kms apart. It is very easy to drive an entire day without any change in scenery whatsoever while the emptiness seems to exaggerate features. Clouds, for example, look far grander, more beautiful and more intense when there is nothing in their way and they stretch until out of sight.

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Over the course of the week, the terrain varied from largely sparse mountain steppe (mountains and rolling plateaus) to the occasional forest steppe (trees were a rare sight). Heading west to east, we traversed across parts of the Altai Mountains, the country’s highest mountain range. We also headed past a number of beautiful lakes and crossed parts of the Gobi desert, the fifth largest in the world. 

Roads too were very varied and while some half of the distance was paved, the remainder was a mis-match of loose gravel, large holes, flattened and packed dirt, potholes and grassy plains! Where unpaved, there was no single road but a number of tracks available and it was clear that the road was simply a path made over many years of travel. There is only one ‘route’ west to east across the country and it was entertaining seeing half a dozen cars each on their own parallel path. Over the course of the week, we would also cross a number of water ‘hazards’ and on each occasion, driver and car performed admirably!

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Pick a road, any road will do!

Throughout the country, there are very few signs. Having signs though aren’t particularly helpful when there are multiple cities with the same name. Heading for Altai, we slowed to read a sign and after seeing the word ‘Altai’ with a straight arrow, assumed we were on the right road. That assumption would prove to be incorrect when we learnt that there are three Altai’s! As a result, we ended up seeing more of the Gobi than intended as we headed some 400 km off track and skirted the Chinese border.

This detour happened on day three, by which point we’d covered only 300 kms. Between our tyre issues and the Norwegians having engine trouble, our first two days of driving had seen us cover less mileage than we needed to in one day. As we sat at the local petrol station in the wrong Altai, we were really worried that we wouldn’t make our flight let alone the finish line. It was tough and slow going and with our car issues, and now being some 400 km off track, confidence hit an all-time low. We still had over 1,300 km to cover and Ulaanbaatar seemed a long, long way away.

(We subsequently learnt that we were one of a handful of teams that took the scenic Gobi route!).

Thankfully we met a local while filling up who was headed to the capital and was able to lead us to the path of salvation. That path was a 200 km stretch of beautifully paved road built by the Chinese - the road was built to provide access to the mine and some 100 m after the mine, the road completely disintegrated!. We were able to make good distance on this superb road and after driving through the night, we arrived in the correct Altai early the next morning to be back on track. Thankfully both the roads and our sense of navigation improved and we would remain on track and reach the capital in time for the party.

Car wise, Julie was an absolute champion and aside from a broken exhaust for the last few days which meant we sounded like a F1 car as we crossed the finish line, we had no engine issues. Tyres, though, were a different story and we ended up with at least one puncture for every day we were in Mongolia to total 10 by the time we hit the finish line! At each town en route we would stop to repair tyres and while at times frustrating, it gave us the opportunity to interact with the locals and play football with the kids while we waited around.

As I said in one of our earlier blogs, teams could take any route they wanted. A few teams like us crossed the Caspian Sea and headed through the Stans, others kept north through Kazakhstan and Russia and a large number went via Iran. The Swiss team we met on day two in Bulgaria were taking a unique road as they headed through Iran, Pakistan and China. 

Regardless of one’s route, everyone obviously converged in Mongolia and with there being only one ‘road’; we were all ‘channelled’ to the same spots as we headed for the capital. Thus throughout our time in Mongolia, we would bump into teams and in addition to the awesome Norwegians who we convoyed with throughout, we would convoy with a few of these other teams for part of the week We also randomly bumped into the above-mentioned Swiss team and would camp with them and a few other teams in a beautiful national park. 

Meeting up with other teams made the rally in many respects. Although we barely knew each other, the spirit and sense of camaraderie was amazing as we’d all been on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure together. An incredible bond was very quickly formed and we shared many laughs on the road and then enjoyed a super-fun weekend in Ulaanbaatar celebrating.

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Celebrating together at the finish line 

I’ve never had to work so hard on a trip before. Not only was there the six months of planning but the six weeks on the road were both mentally and physically draining. Given how hard we’d had to work, the sense of accomplishment as we crossed the finish line was immense and the elation uncontrollable. With some incredible support from so many people, we’d worked our socks off to make this dream a reality and a real sense of pride enveloped us as we drove across the finish line.  

Notwithstanding our smell after 12 days without a shower, there were bear hugs and high-fives all round. Many pictures were taken and a delicious cold beer was enjoyed whilst chatting to the many teams who had crossed earlier that day. We made it!

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Celebrating with the awesome Norwegians, who we convoyed with for the final two weeks 

Although we’ve been back in London a week now, the trip is still sinking in and thinking back makes me smile. We covered some 10,600 miles (or 17,000 kms) and traveled 1/3rd of the way around the world over some the planet’s toughest terrain. We experienced 50 C heat as well as torrential rain that turned roads into mud baths. We hiked in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, drove along the roof of the world on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, experienced beautiful ancient cities in Uzbekistan and dodged far too many car-swallowing, rally-ending potholes in Turkmenistan. We ate what must have totaled hundreds of somsas, sampled many assorted horse platters in Kazakhstan and drank too much vodka. We avoided arrest in half-a-dozen of countries and spent a good fair number of incredibly uncomfortable nights in the car. We enjoyed a fine cruise across the Caspian Sea and large nights out in Tbilisi, Almaty and Ulaanbaatar … the memories continue.

To end off, I just wanted to say a huge thank-you to everyone out there who supported us in so many ways. Without you, this adventure would never have been possible and we can never thank you enough. We’re busy sorting through all our pictures and we look forward to sharing these over the course of the next few weeks.

Cheers for now,

Jazza

ps - here’s the link to my personal blog if you’d like to check it out - Jazza’s Travel Website

With nearly 3,500 photos and over 600 videos, sorting through our Mongol Rally media hard-drive is taking some time. We can’t wait to share the best of it with you.
To keep you eager with anticipation, here is one of Adam’s favourites, a sunset he shot over Song Kol in Kyrgyzstan.
Stay tuned for Jazza’s blog on our final stage, news on our charities and the results of our photo and video sorting.
Have a great weekend!
- the Bactrians.

With nearly 3,500 photos and over 600 videos, sorting through our Mongol Rally media hard-drive is taking some time. We can’t wait to share the best of it with you.

To keep you eager with anticipation, here is one of Adam’s favourites, a sunset he shot over Song Kol in Kyrgyzstan.

Stay tuned for Jazza’s blog on our final stage, news on our charities and the results of our photo and video sorting.

Have a great weekend!

- the Bactrians.

A shout-out to Endeavour Living
When we first told the boys at Endeavour Living about the Mongol Rally, virtually their first question was, “how do we support you?”. Soon after, they became our vehicle sponsor; financially assisting us in the purchase of the car and earning their place on the vehicle and our team t-shirts. Without them, none of our Mongol Rally wouldn’t have been possible.
And what a car we got! Here’s Julie atop the “roof of the world” in the Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan.
Endeavour Living is a specialist room rental and management company focused on the rapidly-emerging shared accommodation sector in the Northwest London area. If you or anyone you know are in the market for great rental accommodation in Northwest London, get in touch with them!
http://endeavourliving.co.uk/

A shout-out to Endeavour Living

When we first told the boys at Endeavour Living about the Mongol Rally, virtually their first question was, “how do we support you?”. Soon after, they became our vehicle sponsor; financially assisting us in the purchase of the car and earning their place on the vehicle and our team t-shirts. Without them, none of our Mongol Rally wouldn’t have been possible.

And what a car we got! Here’s Julie atop the “roof of the world” in the Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan.

Endeavour Living is a specialist room rental and management company focused on the rapidly-emerging shared accommodation sector in the Northwest London area. If you or anyone you know are in the market for great rental accommodation in Northwest London, get in touch with them!

http://endeavourliving.co.uk/

Through Kazakhstan and Russia

We always knew that Kazakhstan and Russia would be a long, hard slog and that’s exactly how it turned out with some 2,700 km covered in five consecutive days of driving.

Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world and it certainly seems that way with vast and flat expanses of nothing surrounding you as you drive. Towns occasionally dot this landscape but they’re a collection of buildings amongst this sea of nothing. Given the country’s size, there was simply no time to veer off route but thankfully we were able to see a few things that were en route.

Just across the border is the stunning 80km Charyn Canyon, which you’re able to descend into and walk though. We were planning to camp but just as we started ‘setting up shop’, a massive storm erupted and we were treated to a ferocious thunder and lightning display while we sought refuge in the car. Thankfully, the storm cleared as morning broke and we were able to walk through the canyon.

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We’d seen another rally car when we pulled up and would bump into the Norwegian team ‘Geographically Misplaced’ whilst walking. What started as a ‘Shall we convoy together until Almaty’ turned into a convoy that lasted two weeks and saw us cross the finish line together. Magnus, Reuben and Kore – it was an absolute pleasure and a real highlight travelling with you lads. Bringing the golf club was an inspired decision and I look forward to having you boys here in London. And to skiing in Norway!

After a night out in Almaty that included a large number of beers and an assorted horse meat platter or two, we would spend three long days driving north to Russia along some of the words roads we would encounter on the trip. Added to the car-swallowing potholes, the unpaved roads and the crazy drivers was days of torrential rain that turned roads in mud baths. The icy weather was also a complete surprise as we headed north.

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Mud bath in Kazakhstan!

Up until Kazakhstan, we had had one slow puncture in Georgia. Things would change quickly, though, with the number of punctures jumping to four within 24 hours. A double puncture in one stretch would mean we limped 20 km to the nearest town on a barely inflated tyre before we were able to fix for both $2!

We’d also heard that you had to register your visa if  planning to stay longer than 5 days. We thought the drive would take two and thus we would be out no problem but as I said, two became three and we would exit the country with some 15 minutes to spare!

It was much the same as we crossed into Russia and headed for the Mongolian border. Although the roads were VASTLY improved and the scenery far more beautiful as we drove through the mountainous and lush green Siberia, the weather remained the same – icy, cold and wet. Thankfully that would clear and the last two hours of driving along a windy road heading for the border town of Barnaul was fantastic.  

It was whilst driving through Russia that a truck kicked up a stone and shattered our back passenger window. Thankfully there is not much duct tape cannot fix and Mark’s efforts worked a treat as the duct tape held all the way to Ulanbataar. 

As we crossed from the paved no-man’s land on the Russian side into the unpaved no-man’s land on the Mongolian side, excitement was fever pitch. We’d planned for almost six months and had been driving for five weeks and this was the moment – we had reached Mongolia! It was a long 1,600km to the capital but we had seven days to make it and were confident we’d be driving Julie across the finish line. That confidence would be tested at times but I’ll explain more in the next blog.

- Jazza

ps - here’s the link to my personal blog if you’d like to check it out - Jazza’s Travel Website

We’re soon to begin sorting through the thousands of photos we shot on the rally. We can’t wait to share them with you! For now, why don’t you check out the absolutely amazing shots from our convoy-mates and world-class photographers in Team Detour. They snapped this one of Dyl and Jazza killing time with a frisbee after Adam sped-off on the back of a local’s motorbike to fix a busted tyre.

We’re soon to begin sorting through the thousands of photos we shot on the rally. We can’t wait to share them with you! For now, why don’t you check out the absolutely amazing shots from our convoy-mates and world-class photographers in Team Detour. They snapped this one of Dyl and Jazza killing time with a frisbee after Adam sped-off on the back of a local’s motorbike to fix a busted tyre.

After a long haul Beijing-to-London flight with free beers, all-night laughs and chats with more new friends and some lost baggage scares, the boys are safely back in London. Stay tuned for our final blog posts, all of our best rally pics and our final reflections on this crazy adventure.

After a long haul Beijing-to-London flight with free beers, all-night laughs and chats with more new friends and some lost baggage scares, the boys are safely back in London. Stay tuned for our final blog posts, all of our best rally pics and our final reflections on this crazy adventure.

Goodbye Mongolia, it’s been huge.

10,600 miles, over 1000 litres of fuel, 10 flat tires, 7 avoided arrests, 1 attempted robbery, 1 blown ABS, 1 smashed window, 1 bent bash plate and 3 crazy Norwegians to share the last 2 weeks with, we’ve finally made it to Ulaanbaatar! Thank you all for your incredible support, we couldn’t have done it without you. Time for a beer!

An interlude in Karakol

The hike to the waterfall in Arselanbob had really exposed the cracks in my health; weeks of stomach troubles, struggles with the fundamental shift in my diet, rapid changes of climate and countless nights of poor sleep had all caught up with me. I would not be joining the boys on their next big hike near Karakol in Kyrgyzstan, deciding instead to drop them at their designated starting point in the Karakol valley and pick them up three days later in Ak Suu. I would, instead, spend some time in solo travel mode. After all, there’s a lot of fun to be had that way.
I would wave the boys off with all their gear and notes of their plan while some friendly local guys watched on, chiming in at one point with the now familiar “acuda?” (where are you from?). It has never once gotten tiring to see the thumbs up, smiles and enthusiastic “kangaroo!” once my answer has been heard.
One of the guys spoke surprisingly good English, and I found myself chatting to him for some time. His name was Sergey, a Karakol valley local, 28 years old and working in his family trade of semi-nomadic agriculture. As it was the ending of Ramadan, he promptly invited me inside his family home for tea and food with his family members and local children from their neighbourhood. It’s a shame that in the west it seems we’ve long ago left behind the days of such outward gestures of hospitality and generosity to perfect strangers. The tea was lovely and aromatic and, although conscious of eating more than my fill, I enjoyed the various noodles, salads, vegetables and bread as an early lunch. The whole time we were dining and conversing, more than a dozen local children came in and out at Sergey’s sister’s invitation. I got the sense that I was spending time with a fundamentally important family. After our food, Sergey would be kind enough to show me pictures of where the boys were hiking to on his laptop; I could immediately tell they were in for a challenge. I would also learn of the struggling homestay Sergey’s family were trying to set-up around the crippling government regulations, finishing with a tentative arrangement to have me stay in two nights’ time and the exchanging of email addresses in order to confirm.
I headed back into Karakol in our still-damaged car, energised and excited about having some time to do my own thing, and with two missions: get the car’s bash plate repaired and get our laundry done.
Earlier that day we’d met the slightly peculiar Michel, an opinionated and colourful ex-pat Belgian now spending the majority of his time around Karakol conducting bird and wildlife tours. Michel had in-turn introduced us to his friend, Vadim, a quiet and shy man from Kyrgyzstan who could potentially help repair our car. We’d hesitantly made plans to try and get the car to Vadim once I’d dropped the boys off on their trek, but we were suspicious of the flighty Michel and had agreed amongst ourselves to try and find another option.
Arriving back at the hostel, I would soon be bundled-up by the chiding Michel, telling me that Vadim had been waiting and that he was upset with our lateness. Knowing that Ramadan would likely mean most other options were closed, and keen to keep the peace, I followed Michel in our car to Vadim’s humble workshop in the northeast part of town. I would sit there for two and a half hours, watching Vadim at work under our car whilst his four year old played with toy cars nearby, all the while worrying about our end bill that had been impossible to negotiate through the obvious language barrier. All that Vadim would say was “no problem”. At 5pm, with me late for a Skype date with my girlfriend, Vadim appeared from under the car with an “ok”. He’d done a brilliant job, reinforcing the parts of the bash plate that had failed and reattaching it expertly to the car. I nervously gestured the international “how much?” gesture of the thumb rubbed over the fingertips and waited. Refreshingly, this man seemed to not be out to take advantage of tourists, suggesting a very reasonable price for the stellar work he’d accomplished. As I was about to leave, Vadim insisted I come to dinner that night and I hastily agreed without too much thought so as to not extend my tardiness for my Skype session. Vadim suggested he would pick me up from the hostel at nine.
As nine came and went, I settled into the idea that perhaps there was no dinner after all, almost relieved that I would not need to throw myself into a completely unfamiliar and somewhat risky situation with someone I’d only just met. Part of me was also disappointed though, I’d be missing a potentially rich cultural experience and was starving from my day of having no access to funds due to the whole town being closed. I needn’t have worried, Vadim would appear at ten, simply saying “ready?” and before I knew it I was in his 4WD and winding through the pitch-black streets of this ex-Soviet outpost with a stranger making multiple phone calls in Russian and with no idea of where I was going or what I was heading towards. At one point I even became panicked, realising that I’d potentially put myself in a lot of danger and coming very close to mustering-up the courage to ask to be taken back to my hostel. I never got to the point of acting on these fears, and soon we would arrive at the base of some old Soviet apartment buildings. I was led up the completely dark stairwell by Vadim, holding a torchlight behind me. I remember thinking that I’d seen violent movies begin this way, and I felt my heartbeat begin thumping out of my chest. We stopped on the fourth floor outside a door, and I nervously bent down to begin removing my shoes. Vadim began penny the door and I looked up to see the bright, warm apartment filled with women and children and smiling faces. It would seem the ghosts of our Afghan border scare would be taking a while to leave me yet.
I was treated to Vadim’s wife’s lovely home made borsch, accompanied by breads, fruits and sweets. And of course, tea. Michel even arrived to feast with us. My fears and suspicions of these men had been unfounded, and I breathed out with a great sigh of relief. We laughed over my obscure English usage, Australian references and talked four-wheel driving, Kyrgyzstan and wildlife before it was time for Vadim to take me back to the hostel. Whilst bidding me good night, he invited me to join him and two of his friends the next day for a complimentary four-wheel drive trek up to the local hot springs. I eagerly accepted.
Waking early to tick the box on retrieving our much-needed clean clothes from probably the only functioning laundry within 100 miles, I was excited for the day ahead. On form, Vadim arrived in his immense Nissan Patrol an hour after our allotted meeting time, with the simple greeting of “ok?”. I would also meet Ravid and Kula, a couple from Kyrgyzstan and Russia respectfully, friends of Vadim’s who would be joining us on the excursion. I soon learnt that involved conversation would probably not feature too heavily in the day due to my complete lack of Kyrgyz or Russian comprehension. This was going to be an interesting day.
The drive to Altyn Arashan certainly wasn’t an easy, quick blast uphill. The road would reveal all of Vadim’s driving skills and the capabilities of his well-kitted Patrol. As we clambered over rocks, I peered out the window at the awe-inspiring scenery; a free-flowing river cutting a swathe through a valley of grassy, pine-covered slopes with soaring white peaks emerging in the background. We stopped halfway to pick-up some Russian hitch-hikers struggling with the ascent. This small gesture gave me a heart-warming insight into my new friend Vadim, who simply said, “Today, my car, they walk.Tomorrow, maybe their car, me walk. Is mountain tradition.”
We soon arrived at our first hot-spring, a hidden local pool built into a cliffside overhanging the river. We sat in the warm water watching the freezing river speed past. Vadim again had the right words, “I live today; maybe hot springs, maybe billiards, maybe shashlik. Tomorrow? I might be dead.” We embraced Vadim’s sense of carpe diem for the rest of the day, jumping between the steaming springs and the freezing river and feasting on the complimentary borsch served-up by Vadim’s friends in the river-side restaurant. On the way back down, we picked-up a Finnish/German couple who perhaps had the most incredibly interesting professions of any couple I’ve met; she is a cognitive neuro-scientist and he works as an artificial intelligence specialist. Clever kids.
Following my somewhat bittersweet goodbye with Vadim, I joined my new brain scientist friends for some traditional Russian fare and beers. While their company was grand, sadly, the state of all three of our stomachs didn’t allow us much of a long night. I retreated to my hostel through the dark streets of Karakol with an overbearing feeling of satisfaction for my Karakol interlude.
In the morning, our team again reunited and I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the misfortunes of the hapless Mark, Dyl and Jazza whilst they were away trekking. That day’s drive was full of stories adventure and misadventure and a full share of laughs.
And that’s how it should always be.
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