Hello again everybody! Apologies for the length of this post, it’s been a few days since we’ve had an internet connection and a lot has happened these past few days.
Our second day of driving through Mongolia started out as a lazy, relaxing Sunday. We all slept in, had a cooked breakfast at the restaurant next to the ger camp and spend a while faffing around on the internet and buying supplies from the local supermarket. Then the convoy set off again, with first stops being an ATM for the teams that lacked local cash and fuel for everyone. By around 2pm we were finally rolling on the lovely Mongolian dirt highways again.
The Mongolian landscape was much like Australia, only completly different. The climate felt quite familiar from inland areas of Western Australia, and the vast plains of scrub were also pretty familiar. The actual vegetation was a bit different, but the local desert grass was a lot like a less-spikey spinifex. Unlike similar areas of Australia, our route Mongolia had mountains on either side of us, some of them snow-capped. The mountains looked more imposing than pretty much anything in Western Australia, and on top of that, our altitude (according to the GPS) never dropped below 2000 metres in the whole day of driving. Our map showed the mountain peaks as around 4000m high.
Just off the road on either side, we passed by villages of gers, large tents very similar to the ones we’d slept in on Saturday night. We also saw lots of yaks, mountain goats, horses, cows and sheep by the side of the road.
Our planned destination for Sunday was Khovd, which according to some people we spoke to was about a 7 hour drive from Ugliy. We were in a convoy of five vehicles:
- Perth to Yurt was us: the Aussies, Patrick, Cameron and Adon in a Skoda Fabia
- Gone to Mongolia was the Canadians in a bus: Jilla, Sean, Doug and Rowen
- Evil Car-Nievel: Wes (singlet and slicked back hair), Aimee (Aussie girl), Hayden and Phil (pink shorts and pony tail)
- For Baatar or Worse: a recently-married couple in a Micra – Ed and Louise
- The Fast and the Curious: a Micra wih floppy mohawk guy (Dave?) and Irish guy (Ed?) living in Edinburgh
At some point either late Saturday or early Sunday, the exhaust connection between the engine and the catalytic converter came off completely. Our Skoda now has a “sports exhaust”, i.e. sounds like a riced-up Honda Civic. Adon reckoned he could fix it with a hammer, but one of the other guys said he liked the sound and suggested we might even have gained a few horsepower.
After driving for an hour or two, we hit a big bump and heard a metallic “sproing” noies from the car somewhere. I got out to check that nothing important-looking had fallen off, and Patrick checked under the car to make sure that everything underneath looked okay and we still had our suspension springs. With everything apparently intact, we continued driving.
About half an hour later, we reached Tolbo Nuur, a huge but shallow lake. Eveeryone except for Adon went for a quick swim. The water was chilly but not unpleasantly so. Highly refreshing!
When we returned from the lake, I discovered what the metallic noise we’d heard earlier was: one side of one of our roof racks had come disconnected from the car. This turned out to be because the other side of the roof rack had lost one of the bolts holding the bar to the car, and so the bar had been able to slide around. We tightened all of the screws and Adon replaced the missing bolt with some fencing wire. Good as new!
The Canadian bus also had a minor mishap as one of their jerry cans full of diesel sprung a leak. They decanted the fuel into an empty jerry can that For Baatar or Worse were carrying – empty because it also leaked, but only frmo the lid seal, so should be okay if kept upright and not completely full. Then Sean attempted to clean up as much spilled diesel as possible and we were ready to roll again.
It was a good day for mechanical failure. A couple of hours later, one of the Micras (I think The Fast and the Curious) had a puncture.
By the side of the road somewhere we encountered a Mongolian chap holding a tame eagle on a glove. And by “tame” I mean tied to a post on a bit of rope. Ignoring any concerns about the well-being of the eagle, it was a pretty impressive sight. He offered to let us hold it, so a few of us did and lots of photos were taken.
Not long after that we started coming across river crossings. The first one was easy, not much more than a puddle crossing. The second was okay, but coming out the other side there was a fairly steep slope. The Skoda swayed treacherously and I almost got us stuck, but we made it through in the end.
The third river crossing looked a bit more challenging. There were a couple of possible routes: through the deeper part of the stream, or through a shallower section with a steep incline. Some of the others went and waded through, and determined that through the shallower part of the deeper section was about half a wheel deep. The Terios and the bus made it through there no worries. The two Micras took the shallower section. I decided to go through the deeper section, and didn’t bother taking the careful, shallower route because even the deepest was less than knee height.
Patrick prepared us for the deeper crossing by spraying WD40 onto the electrical bits in the engine bay. I drove through, gaining momentum with a little bit of a run up and maintaining momentum by flooring the accelerator. We emerged victorious on the other side of the river, and Sean from the Canadian bus took a fantastic video which I hope will end up on You Tube so I can link to it.
The smugness of victory must have taken its toll on our karma, though, and a little while later we had a flat on one of our rear wheels after Patrick drove over a large rock. It took us a while to notice, unfortunately, and by that time the wheel rim was damaged beyond repair, even repair using a big hammer. At the suggestion of one of the Terios crew, we took the tyre off the rim because it looked undamaged and kept it to put on our spare wheel with the flat tyre. Doug dug a pit by the side of the road where we buried our damaged rim and the Canadians’ cursed jerry can.
It was becoming cleaer aa we drove on and the sun sank into the sky that we wouldn’t made it to Khovd by nightfall. Our GPS indicated that sunset was 9:15pm, perhaps a few minutes later beacuse of our high altitude. At one of the stops late in the day we were caught up by another Nissan Micra, “Ice Cold in Ulaanbaatar”, and they joined our convoy.
By around 9pm we were driving alongside a stream near some flattish ground, which looked like a convenient and incredibly picturesque camp site. The bus and the Terios drove down to the camp site, no worries at all. We attempted to follow them and got slightly stuck on a ridge. And by “slightly stuck” I mean the front wheels were happily rotating with nothing beneath them. After trying and failing to push the car out of this situation, the Terios towed us out. Very embarrassing! The three Micras decided to play it safe after this experience and parked by the side of the road with us.
We also noticed that one of our front tyres was flat but not punctured. The wheel rim was a little bit bent, so we repaired it with our hammer and reinflated the tyre.
We set up camp, and then spent way too long faffing around trying to get our stove to work. During this time, the Canadians managed to cook up vast quantities of a delicious-smelling bean-tomato-chilli soup – one of the advantages of being in a bus is that they have a mini kitchen instantly accessible. They offered some of their left overs to us while we were still trying to get our stove to light. More embarrassment! Eventually we slopped together some dinner out of the remainder of the food we had left: a tin of baked beans, a tin of “chilli beans” (which appeared to have no chilli in), some more Hungarian mysery meat (“hamburger” flavoured), some Heinz “hot chilli sauce” (which appeared to have no chilli in it) and a lot of pepper to make up for the lack of chilli elsewhere. Surprisingly tasty, or perhaps we were just really hungry.
Some time after dinner another team turned up: Texas 2 Steppe, a Ford Fiesta with a couple of Americans in it. They joined our camp. Close to midnight, everyone present agreed that an early start would be a good idea, so we planned to get up at 6:00 and be on the road by 7:00. Sleepy time!
Monday morning, my alarm went of at 6am Ulaanbaatar time. It was dark and cold outside so I slept for a bit. At 8am Adon woke me up. It was still cold outside but at least it was light. We quickly gobbled down some muesli, packed up the swags and were almost ready to leave. The Fast and the Curious had already left, aiming to get to Khovd early, find a tyre shop and then we’d catch them up. Texas 2 Steppe and Ice Cold in Ulaanbaatar also left without us.
We wanted to rearrange the roof racks so the weight was at the front instead of the back before we got on the road. For Baatar and Worse left without us too, saying they were going slower than rest on Sunday so we’d probably catch up to them sooner or later. Ten minutes later we were finally moving, our convoy reduced to three: us, the Terios and the bus.
A little way down the road we came to another stream crossing. We had the choice of a rickety wooden bridge or driving through directly. The Terios showed off by driving over the bridge, then back and forth over the river. They were in their element – they had a four wheel drive with decent ground clearance and their suspension coped easily with the weight of four people, a full boot and loaded roof racks. The bus went over the bridge and we followed, but not until after a Mongolian goatherd led his flock across.
Around this time we also noticed that the front wheel rim had been dented again. More hitting with hammer and reinflation was in order. Unfortunately, it continued to leak, so we swapped it with our one remaining spare. This spare was the one we obtained in Turkmenistan to replace our first flat rally tyre, and was slightly too large for the car so could be used only on the front. But apart from that it seemed to be okay.
So onwards we rolled, until we reached the town of Khovd at 11:30. The rally organisers had arranged for tents serving morning tea and providing mechaincal assistance. There are few things as sweet to hear as “Who has the broken car? We can fix it!” After we helped ourselves to morning tea (alas not free, but at $2 per person we’re not complaining) the mechanic had a look at the poor Skoda. The most important concern for us was the suspension; if we continued to scrape the bottom of the car on the rough terrain, we’d just destroy moer and more vital car bits until eventually we’d fail to make forwards progress.
Fortunately, the mechanic was able to fit improved springs and shock absorbers on the rear of our car. It took a while, because he had to not only obtain the new parts, but also additional tools to fit them. In the end, though, the car was sitting noticeably higher than it had been since, well, Haethrow. We also got our two good tyres fitted to our two good wheels by a nearby tyre shop, and stocked up on supplies at the supermarket.
Patrick and Adon also took the opportunity to repack the car. With our two spare wheels on the roof, other infrequently used items could be stored where the spare wheel normally lives. The jack and other tools moved further up for ready access, along with our suitcases and food containers. Overall, we were in high spirits, confident that we would no longer be the team holding everybody else up, or the laughing stock of the convoy.
A few of the other teams also needed supplies from the town, and fortunately they were willing to wait for us before leaving – we were in town for four hours, and probably a good hour longer than anybody else needed to be. Once again we continued in convoy until about an hour after leaving town, we saw the cars in front of us stopped. Once the dust cleared, the situation was worse than we imagined: The Fast and the Curious were by the side of the road, upside down.
Fortunately, both of them were okay. They were feeling pretty gloomy about their chances of continuing the rally, but after a concerted group effort we managed to remove everything from their car, turn it the right way up and assess the damage. Their jerry cans of fuel and water were leaking, and their front windscreen and two side windows were completely smashed, but apart from that, the car appeared to be intact. Our initially efforts at restarting the engine failed, but after allowing the oil to settle down a bit, it started fine – albeit a bit smokey as it burned up the oil that had got into places that oil shouldn’t get into. So after removing the broken chunks of window, bashing the bent roof back into shape and forming makeshift windows out of bin liners, glad wrap and duct tape, the poor Micra was ready to head onwards to Ulaanbaatar.
This mishap demonstrated to us once again that the most useful tools we had with us were a big hammer and duct tape.
While we were stopped by the side of the road, Texas 2 Steppe caught us up, and after the Micra was re-packed, we were ready to move on. As we progressed, it got increasingly difficult to tell the main road from the side roads and the general flat wilderness. Our altitude had dropped substantially – Khovd was at 1400 metres and after the town the mountains in the distance had become far more distant and the expansive plains far more, er, expansive. At some points the road was wide enough for six of us to drive abreast, which made for some amusing driving and in-car photography.
There was another river crossing, which was quite uneventful. We were getting used to this malarkey by now.
Later in the evening, while bush-bashing through some scrub, our rear bumper fell off. We’d kind of been expecting this to happen for a while, because it kept rubbing on stuff on steep slopes. Overall, it’s an improvement: more ground clearance at the very least.
Eventually we camped just outside the town of Manhan, alongside a stream and some cows. I was feeling tired and sick, so collapsed into bed pretty much immediately out of dinner and slept in again on Tuesday morning. By mid-morning we were moving again, heading south out of town. After driving for a couple of hours, it was beginning to look like we may have been coming in the wrong direction – there was a mountain range near us which our maps suggested we should be on the other side of. (Incidentally: the ITM map of Mongolia was fairly useless, despite the rally organisers suggesting it. The Gizi map has been much better so far, with more of the minor towns marked and the distances between them.)
So we all turned around, headed back to the town and this time took the road heading east, to the other side of the mountain range. Somewhere along this time we started to get annoyed at the ABS interfering whenever we tried to brake hard, which it had been ever since we had to disconnect our rear left brake. I finally caved and removed the ABS fuse, which I’d been wanting to do for days but Patrick thought that ABS was somehow a safety feature, even on dirt roads and when it wasn’t working properly. But when we needed to swerve at the last minute to avoid hitting The Fast and the Curious due to our brakes not working, it felt more like an anti-safety feature.
Unfortunately, it turned out that the ABS was wired quite deeply into the heart of the car. As expected, the dash lit up like a Christmas tree, with lights for the engine computer, ABS, brakes and power steering; and when the engine was first turned on these lights all blinked and the car beeped several times to make sure we noticed. But we kept driving. The speedo also stopped working – according to our Haynes manual, the sensors used to determine the car’s speed are part of the ABS system since the ABS needs to know the speed of each wheel’s rotation anyway. Similarly the odometer reading stopped increasing. But most worryingly, the power steering stopped working. At this point, we decided we should probably not torment the poor car. The fuse was returned to its rightful position, all of the lights on the dash went out and the car returned to its old crappily-braking self.
As we continued, there were a few minor water crossings to navigate through, and then eventually we reached a wider and rapidly flowing river. There were trucks nearby offering to tow us through for $10 per car, which I thought was quite reasonable and was ready to take the offer up. As we waited, we saw big trucks make it through easily, as well as a lighter pick-up truck and a Toyota Land Cruiser which both seemed to have no difficulty at all. Based on this we guessed that the bus and Terios would probably be able to make it through.
The Terios went first and made it through easily. Based on this data point, we decided that our Skoda would make it through too, purely as a matter of pride. Sure enough, it did. The bus, the Nissan Micra with windscreen and the Americans in the Fiesta all made it through too. The Micra with the broken windscreen requested a tow, and with a tarp covering where their windscreen should be, made it through without getting the cabin wet. Success all around!
We drove on in convoy for a bit further down the road, and then noticed that the Fiesta was no longer behind us. For Baatar or Worse decided to go back and look for them. We waited for quite a while, and there was no sign of them. So we (the three Aussies in the Skoda) went back to look for them. After a few minutes of driving, we came across the Micra and the Fiesta driving very slowly towards us. Apparently the Fiesta had sprung an oil leak, caused by the sump guard they had installed. The term they used to describe it was “pissing out”. Shortly afterwards, the team in the Terios arrived on the scene too. We all had a look and decided there was nothing we could do to repair the Fiesta’s sump, and their best hope was to hope for a tow.
At this point, The Fast and the Curious decided they’d rather push on and see if they could find someone to fix their windscreen in the next town.
The team in the Fiesta had prominent stickers with the name of a sat phone shop on one side, so we assumed they’d be able to call for help. Unfortunately the sat phone they had didn’t work. Fortunately, our sat phone did work, so we lent it to them and tried to call the rally organisers in Ulaanbaatar to see if there was anything they could do to arrange a tow. They seemed not amazingly confident they could help, but took a description of our location and the GPS coordinates and said they’d try to call someone in Khovd. The plan was to wait for either official help or some passerby who could tow them, whatever happened first.
Being Australians, we asked the stranded Texans whether they had enough water on them. We were reassured by the answer of “yes, we have lots”. Unfortunately, “lots” was clarified to “six litres between three people”, which woud be about enough for them to survive half a day. So we gave them 12 litres, which was about a third of what we had with us. Just as this was happening, a bus heading in the general direction of Khovd passed us by. They agreed to tow Texas 2 Steppe’s Fiesta to the nearest town (Manhan) for $50. With everything sorted, we left them and moved onwards.
Not too far beyond here, our poor Skoda had another light shop up on the dash: “EPC”. Along with the light, we almos completely lost engine power. We stopped, as did the bus and For Baatar Or Worse. The team in the Terios were a fair way ahead, and to be honest, we couldn’t blame them for not stopping once again after just spending a couple of hours helping the Americans. After consulting our manuals, EPC turned out to be Electronic Power Control, the bit of the engine computer that translated the position of the accelerator pedal into signals for the servo motor controlling the engine throttle. There seemed to be no way to fix this other than “take it to a dealer, hook it up to their computer and replace the parts the computer tells them to”. At this point we all started cursing modern high-tech cars.
Being computer experts, our first step was to try turning it off and then on again. We disconnected the battery, we disconnected all of the wires going to the engine control unit, we plugged everything back in again, and the light was still showing on the dash. The accelerator pedal seemed to be completely disconnected from the engine, with the revs blipping between idle and 2000 rpm even with nobody touching the pedal.
One hypothesis we had was that the exhaust coming detached from the engine had confused some kind of sensor in the engine computer into thinking there was a major engine fault. For Baatar or Worse had some cunning pipe-joining thingy, so Adon fitted it to our car. This involved hitting things with a hammer lots, as well as the more finessed approach of using a wheel nut spanner as a crowbar. But with the exhaust quietened down the EPC light was still showing.
By this point, we were all reduced to standing around gawking and muttering about how terrible modern high-tech engines were out here in the bush. The actual engine was covered in a plastic covering. We removed it to show the other teams that there really was an engine under there, all three cylinders and 1.2 litres of it. Doug from the Canadian team was curious about how the electronic throttle worked, so Adon pointed it out to him and fiddled the servo motor back in forth. It was oddly stiff. Further investigation revealed that there was a rock stuck in it. The rock was removed and the car was happy once more.
So it turned out that the light on the dash had pinpointed exactly where the problem was, i.e. the link between the electronics and the throttle. We’re all very sorry, Skoda! We’ll never doubt your dashboard lights again!
Once again we continued motoring down the terrible Mongolian roads in convoy, hoping to reach the next town before nightfall, and hopefully catch up with the other teams who had left us behind earlier. Unfortunately, our high spirits were short lived, as the engine temperature gauge shot into the red zone, a little flashing picture of a radiator appeared on the dash and the car started beeping at us. We quickly pulled over. The other teams confirmed that they’d seem fluid leaking from our car for the last little while. Opening the bonnet and investigating, it looked like there were a couple of holes in the radiator. We had recently driven through a steep dip in the road quite quickly, and that had probably bodged up the radiator.
I was feeling pretty miserable at this point, because it didn’t look like it would be easily fixable. For Baatar or Worse hung around for a few minutes in the hope that we’d magically be able to think of a way to fix it, but then wished us luck and continued on their way, saying that they’d wait around in the morning for us at the next town just in case we managed to get back on the road.
While I was wallowing in my self-pity and lack of mechanical ability, Adon, Patrick and Sean from the Canadian team set to work removing the radiator and looking at just how bad the damage was. Patrick’s first look suggested it might just be a hose leaking, but Adon prodded things for a bit and demonstrated that it was definitely a leak in the radiator itself. Somehow, while I wasn’t looking, they managed to come up with a solution involving glue, cable ties, bits of foam and some other things.
The glue would take several hours to cure so we’d need to wait overnight before we could tell whether or not the repair worked. So we moved the car just off the road and set up camp. Conversation over dinner was a bit melancholic, but at least neither us nor the Canadians particularly wanted to travel alone, and we discussed our possible options in several different scenarios. I called home and asked Dad to call our travel agent and see what our options were for changing our bookings for our flights from Ulaanbaatar, in case it took longer than expected.
Just after we’d finished dinner, the Texans caught us up. They’d managed to get their oil sump repaired at the tiny village we’d just passed through and were still in the running to make it to Ulaanbaatar. The sump repair consisted of superglue and grit mixed together to form a paste, plugging the leak.
After much talk, we all agreed on an early start the next morning and prepared for sleep.
We all got up at sunrise on Wednesday morning. I made porridge and drank coffee while Adon, Patrick and Sean reattached the radiator. We poured in coolant and then it was time for the moment of truth: switching on the engine and waiting for it to get up to temperature and seeing if the radiator would leak once coolant started circulating through it.
Alas, it still leaked. However, the bush mechanic repair to the Texans’ oil sump inspired Adon to try the same thing on our radiator. With a lot of messy fiddling around and superglue borrowed from the other team, the leak was reduced to a drop every few seconds. We could live with that, so we set off towards the next town, Darvi, where the teams we’d previously been convoying said they were planning to camp the previous night and would hang around until late morning in case we caught up.
We got about half way to Darvi when Texas 2 Steppe, who had been leading the way, suddenly stopped. I pulled up behind them and saw a trail of liquid from behind their car. From the smell, it was clear that they were leaking fuel. They investigated and found that they’d got a hole in their fuel lines, somewhere near the fuel filter. Worse, after we’d poked our heads under the Americans’ car we did the same to our own, and noticed coolant gushing out from the radiator. One of the superglue-and-grit plugs had come loose.
After a lot of time messing around, Adon, Patrick and Sean came up with a stronger yet even more bizarre way to stop our leak. Meanwhile, I made cups of tea and lunch, satisfied that my meagre mechanical aptitude would not be of much use here. Our radiator was soon held together with Tesco-brand glad wrap, some towels, a spanner and lots and lots of cable ties. It was even attached to the car using cable ties. As ghetto as it sounds, this time the leak seemed to stop completely. As we were repacking the car, the Americans announced that they’d managed to solve their fuel leak using some adhesive sealant tape. The Canadians set off in their bus and told us to catch up to them once we’d started moving.
The Americans’ joy was short lived – their car only ran for about a minute. It turned out that the sealant tape they were using dissolved in petrol. Adon helped them come up with a better solution. It involved attaching a new fuel filter and using some clamps – I can’t recall the details. With that sorted, we were on the road and made the remaining 30km to Darvi in about 45 minutes. There were stopped to fill up with fuel. As we were filling up, the Americans noticed that they’d sprung a fuel leak again.
We left Texas 2 Steppe with some locals looking at their car, while we went to buy water and snacks and then hit the road. A few minutes down the road we overtook the Texans. Apparently their fuel leak was easily solved by the locals in town but they were taking things slow because lots of things on the underside of their car were beginning to fall off. We left them in our dust, aiming to make the 220 km to Altay by nightfall to catch up with the bus and hopefully the rest of the convoy.
The road out of town started out reasonably bad: bumpy and corrugated. I managed about 35 km in the first hour of driving, and I wasn’t exactly driving cautiously. The car was bumped around so badly that things kept falling off our roof racks. We had to stop three times to re-pack the roof. After a while, the road started to get better. We were managing 50-60 km/h, thinking things were going well when the only things we had to worry about were the corrugations and camels. Then, about 80 km out of Altay, the road changed. It got smoother and wider, and suddenly we were able to do 80-90 km/h.
It’s occurred to us that the quality of Mongolian roads – or lack thereof – has been somewhat exaggerated. So far we haven’t encountered anything worse than I’ve seen in outback Australia, and driven on with no problems in my old Nissan Pulsar. There have been towns quite regularly, although usually very small ones. While we were warned that the only fuel available might be 80 octane and fuel was only available infrequently, but we’ve found 91 octane or above frequently, never more than a few hundred kilometres between fuel stops.
Almost all of the problems we’ve encountered and others have encountered have been either flat tyres, or due to hitting rocks at high speed. Our initial suspension problems caused us to bottom out and scrape the ground quite a bit. The resultant brake damage has made it quite hard for us to slow down, e.g. avoid hitting the rocks that damaged the radiator. But fundamentally, our highly unsuitable car has coped amazingly well with these conditions.
Mongolia has definitely provided challenges, though. Travelling 20 km on roads like this in Australia is very different from travelling 2000 km, because the small possibility of something bad happening turns into a reasonably large chance as the distance increases. While there are regular settlements along the way, most of them are not as well supplied as Australian towns of a similar size would me. The dust everywhere grinds you down a bit, too; it’s like the red dirt in northern Western Australia in that it gets everywhere and you just stop even trying to escape it.
With Patrick at the wheel, we arrived triumphantly into the outskirts of Altay a bit before 9pm. As soon as we got phone reception I SMSed the Canadians and the group in the Terios to see if they were anywhere nearby. A couple of minutes later my phone with inundated with incoming text messages. Everybody else we’d been convoying with was in town, eating in a Korean restaurant together, and staying in the same hotel. We joined them just before food was being served. The others assured us they weren’t surprised that we made it here, but the expressions on their faces suggested otherwise.
So here we all are, staying at a very cheap hotel with running (but not hot) water. Making it to Ulaanbaatar by Saturday is still possible, so long as nothing serious goes wrong with the car. The rumour mill assures us that the roads are relatively good from here on, but the rocks on the road only need to hit us once to defeat our poor Skoda, whereas we have be lucky all the time. But with any luck, our next update will be from Ulaanbaatar!
Until next time,