Photo book has arrived

Perth to Yurt has arrived!

The first copy of our Mongol Rally photo book arrived yesterday, hot off the printing press. I was a bit nervous about how it would turn out, considering that I’d never designed a photo book before, and never seen a book printed by Blurb before so didn’t really know what to expect. But I’m pretty happy with the result.

If I was doing it again, I’d allow a bit more room in the inner page margins – you can’t open a book completely flat and the margin guides in Blurb’s templates are a bit too minimal. The pictures were nowhere near as detailed as you’d get from a similar sized photo print, but that’s to be expected from a book. Colour reproduction was decent. I opted for the “premium matte” paper, which feels quite nice – probably about the minimum I’d want for a photo book.

After correcting a few typos, we should be ready to order a larger batch for friends and family.

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Photo book (draft)

In our spare moments over the last few months we’ve managed to put together a photobook from this blog and Patrick’s pictures.

You can check it out here (15mb PDF file).

We’ll be getting it printed by as a hardcover book. I’ve ordered a proof copy, which should be here by the end of next week. If it looks okay, we’ll order a bunch more copies for friends and family.


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Home at last

The whole team is now safely back home in Perth. But don’t stop reading just yet: I’m hoping to get one more post up on this blog before calling it quits, some kind of retrospective on our experiences and what we’ve learned from doing the rally. We’re also hoping to get my posts and Patrick’s photos combined into some kind of actual physical photo book that will be a handy keepsake for us all.


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Cameron here once again! I’ve spent the last couple of days in UB, now feeling quite a bit better after taking antibiotics and anti-nausea tablets. The paperwork to let me leave the country is now supposedly in my hands – that is, I have some bits of paper, and the rally organisers assure me that that’s all the airport will want. I have flights from UB to Perth leaving Thursday morning, arriving back home Friday morning.

In other news, I’ve had a pretty fantastic last couple of days here hanging out with other rally teams, mostly those we convoyed with through Mongolia.

In other other news, I’ll be really really glad to be back home!

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Mongolia, part three

Hi all! Cameron here once again, bringing you probably the final post until I’m back home in Perth.

We left Altay on Thursday morning in pretty high spirits, with Ulaanbaatar feeling like it was just a short way off in the distance. The convoy got separated pretty early on, with the Micras and the Terios zooming off into the distance. When we had our second flat tyre of the morning and decided to stop for brunch as we changed it, the bus left us behind too.

After a bit of driving, we reached a small town where the road forked. One fun aspect of Mongolian roads is that they are almost never signposted and the tracks often diverge and rejoin with no rhyme of reason. I picked the wrong fork and after a few minutes the road got narrower, rockier and steeper as it headed through the mountains. No way was this the road to Ulaanbaatar – or if it was, we didn’t want to be on it. So we back-tracked to the down and picked a more major route heading out.

After a few more hours of driving, we saw The Fast and the Curious’s Micra in the distance, heading in the opposite direction to us. It became clear that they were heading off to find For Baatar or Worse, who appeared to be broken down just a little way ahead. The problems with their fuel system that they’d had on Wednesday weren’t completely fixed by the mechanic in Altay, and they could now only travel a few hundred metres at a time before their engine stopped. After making vague offers of help, they said we might as well go on without them, so we did.

We had also realised a little bit previously that the road we were on couldn’t be the main road on our map. There were towns that we should have passed through but didn’t, and a lake which we were much closer to than we were expecting to be. Looking at our map, it was a minor road with rejoined the main road just before the next town we were aiming for, so no harm done.

Not far afterwards, we had to stop ourselves as our roof rack started becoming detached from the car once again. While we were re-applying the fencing wire holding one corner of the roof rack to the car and repacking the roof to place less strain on the rear bar, For Baatar or Worse caught up with us again. It turned out that their “fuel problems” went away once they filled up with fuel. After tipping their jerry cans into their tank, they were on the move again. We said we’d be ready to roll in a few minutes and they might as well go on without us.

At some point after this, we encountered another small village and immediately after it, a river. The river looked wide and deep enough that we weren’t too keen on crossing it, but we saw two Micras parked on the other side – and if they made it through, so could we. Just as we were about to get out and wade across, a couple of young kids on a motorbike gestured for us to follow them over. The crossing turned out to be quite treacherous – there wasn’t just one stream to cross, there were a few. The young Mongolians knew the shallowest routes across all of them, and after a near catastrophic failure, almost stalling in water, we arrived at the other side.

Adon noted that at some point on the way we’d lost our power steering, and sure enough there was green fluid dripping from the car and the power steering fluid reservoir was completely smashed up by a rock. But that didn’t matter, power steering is optional and we’d made it through. After through a small amount of cash to the kids on the bike, we said hello to the Micras – who, it turned out, had asked to be towed across by a tractor rather than attempting the crossing themselves.

From here on, we convoyed once again with the aim of reaching the next major town, Bayankhongor. As the sun went down we were feeling that the town must be very close and we might as well press on until we reached it. But then we spotted a hill with a bus parked on it and a chap walking around in pink shorts. Yep, it was the Canadians and the Terios. They’d taken exactly the same wrong road as us, and decided to set up camp up on the hill at sunset about an hour ago.

It was a fantastic camp site with views for miles in every direction. A few locals from nearby gers had spotted the camp site too, and came to join us – at least until our supplies of vodka ran out. One of them in particular seemed to be completely smashed when he arrived, and continued to drink while he was around us.

When Friday morning came around we were convinced we could make it to Ulaanbaatar that evening. It was about 700km away, most of which was over paved roads. We’d made it so far that nothing could stop us now.

Unfortunately, this sentiment turned out to be a complete lie. About 15km from Bayankhogor we drove up over a hill and immediately on the other side were some large, sharp rocks. I wasn’t travelling at much more than walking pace when the rocks hit, but that was still enough. Our left CV joint was damaged. At first the car still drove okay despite clunking noises, so it seemed like we’d be able to make it into town. But about 8km later, we completely lost any kind of connection between the engine and front wheels. Adon squinted under the car and muttered something about driveshafts. We got the bus to tow us into town and then they left us behind – whatever it was, it was unlikely to be an easy fix.

As we were being towed through town, a ute flagged us down. The driver appeared to be a mechanic and suggested that he tow us to his workshop where he could fix the car. When we got there and the severity of the problem became clear, he gestured indicating that the electricity was out for the entire town, and he’d need power to fix us up. We asked how long and he indicated 20. At first we thought he meant 20 minutes, but then it was clarified to 20:00 i.e. 8pm. At this point we decided to call the rally organisers and arrange to be taken to their mechanic’s workshop rather than some random dude.

The rally “drop off point” turned out to be one bloke driving around town in an ex-Mongol Rally Fiat Panda. He took us to the mechanic organised by the rally, who once again was unable to fix us right now because the town had no power. The rally dude / drop off point manager offered to take us to a restaurant and organise a hotel for us. This seemed like a good idea given the circumstances.

Just after we entered the restaurant, I ran outside to puke. I’d been feeling a bit crook all day, but it was clearly getting worse. I wasn’t really able to touch my food, and once we’d left, it was becoming clear that I’d picked up something very similar to the gastro / food poisoning which Adon had in Russia. At this point we decided it would be sensible to look into alternative forms of transport to UB, just in case our car wasn’t easily fixable.

Making a phone call to my folks in Perth who had electricity and internet, we found out that there was a flight leaving from Bayankhongor to Ulaanbaatar the next day at 5:20pm, which would get us there with plenty of time to catch our flights home on Sunday morning. We decided to book seats on this flight just in case. Unfortunately, thanks to problems with my bank’s Verified By Visa system, the payment was rejected twice. By the time we tried a third time with Patrick’s card, the flight had completely sold out. Whoops.

Once the power was returned, the mechanics started welding bits and pieces together to try to fix out car. By around 11pm they still hadn’t finished and we found a hotel and collapsed in bed.

We returned to the mechanic on Saturday morning to find that the prognosis wasn’t good. The Skoda could not be fixed. Just after we arrived, another rally car was towed in: Team Any Which Way, a couple of Irish chaps in Suzuki Swift. They’d also damaged their car pretty badly through hitting a massive pothole at speed.

After Patrick and Adon were chatting to them for a while and I was feeling unwell and trying to sleep, yet another rally car rocked up. This one we recognised: the three Americans in a Ford Fiesta. Their car had fairly serious suspension problems, but they seemed to think it was fixable.

At this point the three of us and Mark, one of the Irish team, all wanted to get out of here and reach UB as quickly as possible. Adon had somehow managed to get the mobile number of someone who I think was the Australian Ambassador in Mongolia. He was very willing to help us translate talking to the mechanic and Mongol Rally dude. The Mongol Rally dude seemed to think there was no way of obtaining a bus, taxi or other kind of transport to Ulaanbaatar. The mechanic, on the other hand, thought he could swing something. I was a bit zoned out and don’t recall the details, but somehow a couple in a Toyota Landcruiser turned up, looked at us and our luggage, and thought they could drive us to UB. They’d be back in an hour or so, after they’d had some lunch.

Two hours passed and we started to worry about whether the Landcruiser would return. The mechanic reassured us that they would, but the driver was probably a bit overconfident and thought he could make the trip in 9 hours. Eventually, the Landcruiser returned at 4:30, about three and a half hours after their first appearance. The three of us and Mark piled our luggage into the back and squished up together in the back seat. The back seat seemed to have no seat belts at all, and the couple in the front weren’t wearing theirs. Welcome to overland travel, Mongolian style.

The Landcruiser, it must be said, made short work of the rocks and bumps in the road which we had to avoid in the Skoda or risk ruining our car. About 200km down the road, we reached tarmac, and all of us in the back seat cheered. We drove on and on and on through the night. Around midnight they pulled up at a restaurant, which looked like the Mongolian equivalent of a greasy spoon truck stop. I wasn’t feeling particularly up to eating, but drank some water and nibbled a little bit of the rather tasty potato, carrot, cabbage and beef soup I’d ordered. Patrick and Adon’s food also looked pretty good. They finished it and it was time to get moving again.

We eventually made it to the outskirts Ulaanbaatar at 4am, and parked outside the airport half an hour later. Mark was stressing about the time, because he had no flights booked but wanted to make a standby reservation on the 7am flight to Moscow when he arrived at the airport. We, on the other hand, had plenty of time because our flight didn’t leave until 11:50am. But it was nice to finally have a bit of certainty that we’d be able to make it home.

Once again, though, like with all of the other ‘certainties’ in this trip, things started to fall apart. After we’d checked in and cleared customs, I was told that there was a problem with the paperwork for my car – specifically, I didn’t have the paperwork, because it was in the car in Bayankhongor, and more than that, I would also need papers obtained from the rally organisers at the finish line in Ulaanbaatar. So Patrick and Adon went ahead and I caught a taxi to the rally finish line where the organisers were not too happy – apparently the rally guidebook had stated that we needed the papers at the finish line, but we’d lost ours and the drop-off point manager in Bayankhongor thought the process was different anyway.

The rally organisers at the finish line also pointed me at the international medical centre, SOS Medica Ulaanbaatar, where I could get someone to look at my gastro problems and provide a medical report for my travel insurance – which should cover the cost of booking new flights home.

After spending a while hooked up to an IV drip and having been given heaps of different tablets to take in case of different symptoms recurring, I was able to leave. Feeling quite a bit better, now just need to make sure paperwork for leaving the country and sort out flights…

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More photos

Hey everyone,

Just a quick post to say that there’s a heap more photos up on my Flickr photostream – I’ve been uploading whenever I have access to Internet, but often don’t get time to post here as well. Click here to check it it out.

Now that the rally’s more or less over (not going to release any spoilers here, I’ll leave that for Cameron!), I’ll try and get everything online as soon as I can get through the photos.

Anyway, here’s some of my favorites so far:



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Mongolia, part two

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,


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Russia and First Day in Mongolia

Hello, dear readers. It’s Cameron here once again, bringing you more tales from the road to Ulaanbaatar.

I’ve just added a page documenting our breakdowns and other car failures. It will no doubt have grown amusingly by the time we reach our destination.

As you may recall, our last post concluded with us arriving in Russia on Thursday afternoon. At the first town after the border, we stopped for lunch. Adon was feeling unwell, so the plan was to stop at a supermarket and buy some supplies that Patrick and I could eat in the car. We didn’t have any Russian Roubles on us, but the supermarket looked major enough that we figured they’d take credit cards. Taking out basket loaded up with nuts, dried fruit, water, juice, cheese, chocolate and some kind of mysterious Russian meat from the deli, we discovered… the supermarket didn’t take cards. They didn’t want our American Dollars or Kazakh Tenge either. Fortunately another customer directed us to a nearby ATM, after which we were able to return to the supermarket and complete the transaction.

We made fairly slow progress for the rest of the day, partly because of Adon continuing to not feel well, but mainly because the roads shown as “minor sealed roads” on our map varied from nice smooth highways that we could easily cruise at 110 km/h along to corrugated gravel roads with frequent potholes. Eventually we made it to the town of Belokurikha and decided to call it a night, with the aim of getting up early and covering the rest of the distance to the border on Friday. Belokurikha was a bit of a tourist trap – unfortunately designed for Russian tourists who spoke Russian, and everybody seemed a bit confused by the foreign tourists they found in their midst. When we first turned up, we found a five star hotel in the centre of town and gestured for a room. Where in every other country we’d been through, our hand gestures and foreign gabbling had been intelligible enough for the hotel staff to make a guess at what we wanted, here both Russian receptionists were completely flummoxed. One of them showed a little initiative and phoned a friend who spoke English, and so we were able to carry on a slightly roundabout conversation. Unfortunately a room for the three of us would cost over 8000 roubles, or nearly $300 for the night. Fortunately they were able to direct us to a hotel over the road which provided a room for 2100 roubles ($70). It had no hot water, but did have wireless internet.

The scenery through this part of Russia has been nothing short of spectacular. The middle of Kazakhstan had been a bit like central Australia, but as we got close to the northern side of the country it started to get a bit more lush. By the time we were in Russia, it was beautifully green everywhere, reminiscent of western Europe but still retaining that less-populated feeling we’d felt in Kazakhstan. Driving further beyond the Russian border took us through mountain ranges, small rural villages and farmland.

Rather than driving the main highways and a couple of larger towns, we chose a route taking us through rural back roads and smaller towns. The roads varied a lot, ranging from nice smooth tarmac where we could cruise at 110 km/h to unsealed dirt roads, usually in good condition but every now and again with surprise giant potholes. After a while we made it to the semi-autonomous Republic of Altai, where we were forbidden from leaving the main road. We kind of didn’t strictly achieve this, as we crossed into Altai on a dirt road about 7km before the main road, but I feel that in spirit we obeyed the law.

Altai was, if anything, even more beautiful than the part of Russia we’d just been through before. It seemed like quite a popular holiday destination for Russians, with people kayaking on the rivers / streams. Many of the rivers we saw were an amazing pale turquoise colour, which reminded me of New Zealand and Adon of Humpty Doo.

Somewhere along the route we stopped at a roadside cafe, where we had what we think was goat goulash, along with our first cup of coffee in days. Patrick reckons it was really good coffee. I enjoyed it too, but I’m fairly sure it was instant and it was only because it had lots of sugar and I hadn’t had coffee for so long that I didn’t mind. Whatever. We also loaded up on snacks and consumed tasty icecream.

By around 8pm on Friday night we made it to the Mongolian border. The border had closed but we saw a minibus parked outside. This turned out to be a group of Canadians / English, team “Gone To Mongolia“, a.k.a. Jilla, Sean, Doug and Rowen. They were taking part in the Mongolia Charity Rally, which is not to be confused with the Mongol Rally – same idea, different event organisers. This should probably make them our sworn enemiess, except that they actually turned out to be pretty cool people. There were four of them, an extended family of sorts, in a small bus. The bus seemed kind of like cheating to us, but the practicality advantages were undeniable, and it did seem to have provided at least as much hilarity to them as the Skoda had to us. We’d actually overtaken them on the way to the Russian border, but they’d beaten us to this border by about an hour or two by taking the longer but better quality roads on the main highway. They had also been in a real hurry thanks to an incident of paperwork when obtaining their visas meaning that they were only allowed to stay in Russia for two days; whereas we’d been taking it slow.

We stayed a while chatting with the Canadians. As we were about to set up our camp stove and make dinner, they offered us their leftover salmon and vegetable pasta. We felt terribly guilty about accepting but after some hesitation, did so nevertheless. We shared our teabags and Laphroaig with them in return.

Around this time we also met a Russian chap by the name of Cherga and his friend whose name escapes me. Cherga had studied English for a couple of years and so could make somewhat passable conversation. He offered us a bottle of vodka – which I had assumed at first was for us to have a drink out of, but soon it became clear that the entire bottle was a gift! The Canadians gave him a small bottle of whisky in return.

Cherga’s friend, meanwhile, pulled out a knife and said “man!”. This unnerved us a little. To try to clarify his meaning, he thrust his pelvic region a bit and gestured with his hands and knife emanating from his manly parts, then said “man!!” once more. Apparently having a large knife is what makes you a man. After some more confused conversation, it seems like he was once in the special forces. Adon pulled out his pocket knife and the Russian laughed, making gestured which I suspect meant something like “small man”. He had two knives intended as presents, one for me and one for one of the Canadians.

Then we helped Cherga push-start his car (“Russia car! Need help to go!”) and they departed.

This whole episode left me feeling very confused and lacking in generosity.

After that, we stayed chatting with the Canadians for a while, agreed to convoy through Mongolia for a bit. I think we were all very happy to have people who we could speak to easily in English, and who had also been through quite similar experiences in the last few weeks.

Saturday morning we got up early, drank the Canadians’ delicious filter coffee and provided them with some of our muesli which they had run out of. Then we got to the border just as it opened. The Russian side at tashenka was fairly straightforward, although I was required to fill out the departure form three times before I got it right. Apparently declaring that we have foreign currency just wastes everybody’s time, and we were exporting our car rather than using it to transit through Russia. They also required our Kazakhstan customs declaration, which fortunately we had kept. Paperwork mountain complete, we moved on to the Mongolian side of the border.

At the Russian border we also met a trio of Italians in a Fiat Panda: Marco, Paolo and Luigi. Most Italian names ever.

After driving a few kilometres on a fairly good road, we came to the first Mongolian checkpoint. Having verified that we all had passports with Mongolian visas, they let us through. The roads instantly turned to crap, a bumpy dirt road full of potholes. After another few kilometres, we reached the Mongolian border complex.

We went first through the Mongolian customs process. It was fairly straightforward but involved lots of photocopying of documents, lots of information being entered into computers and lots of print-outs being signed, stamped, photocopied, stamped, and signed again. They also took a quick squiz at the insides of our car, presumably to satisfy the customs regulaions and verify that we aren’t openly smuggling drugs or terrorists or whatever. Then they took a photo of our car with a bright pink digital camera. It was unclear to what extend this final bit was part of the official customs process and to what extent it was for their own amusement. Eventually, we were in posession of a piece of paper entitling us to import our car permanently into Mongolia, and our English car registration document had lots of stamps on it saying that the poor Skoda had left England for good.

While I (Cameron) had been attending the customs side of things, Patrick and Adon had been investigating the source of a squishy noise from our suspension. It turns out that our rear right-hand spring had snapped in two, and had then rotated so it wasn’t properly supporting the car. With the aid of axle stands borrowed from our fellow travellers, they managed to remove the broken part of the spring and reattach the larger part, about 80% of the original length. Heaps better than nothing, or what we had before. Obtaining stiffer springs before we left England would have been a good idea in retrospect.

After we’d cleared the Mongolian customs process, the border guards stopped for lunch. The Italians and the Canadians were told to wait until after lunch, and we decided to wait with them because we’d rather have company through Mongolia. Some more cars arrived at the border. More waiting. Eventually the border officials returned from lunch. We waited some more.

We stayeed chatting with the other teams while the officials did whatever it is they needed to do with all of the paperwork. At some point we realised it was after 5pm, and thought it might be an idea to get a move on. We agreed we’d drive to the first town, Tsagaannuur, and wait for the others there.

With Patrick at the wheel, we cleared the final border gate and drove off into the Mongolian wilderness. The road was mostly good but corrugated, with a few sections that we quite rocky. The scnery was still spectacular, yet quite different from the Russian side. This time we were in rugged, mountainous terrain, heading towards the Gobi desert.

Tsagaannuur turned out to be a town so small that we drove past it without realising until afterwards. Shortly after that, Patrick noticed that the brakes weren’t working particularly well. He pulled over and noticed that there was some kind of fluid dripping on the ground. Adon and I were pretty sure it wasn’t anything important but Patrick prodded the brakes and more fluid spurted out. So maybe it was important after all. As we sat around discussing what to do about the ruptured brake line, the others who we’d left behind at the border crossing arrived.

Luckily, one of the others (driving a Daihatsu Terios, unsure of team name) came up with a cunning solution and even had the required bits to implement it: snip the brake line, put a screw in it to plug the leak and then secure it with putty and various other things. So he and Patrick fixed the brakes while everybody else stood around gawking. Efficient!

Then we were back on the road again, this time in a convoy of five teams. Together we drove to the town of Ulgiy. The roads were pretty good, culminating in a nice strip of bitumen for 10 km or so which let us zoom into our first Mongolian town, feeling like heroes. The Mongolians seemed really excited to see our convoy arrive, too, with people on the streets waving at us as we drove past. One of the other teams we were travelling with reckoned we’d be able to find a ger or yurt to stay in. After asking for directions several times and being pointed in a number of contradictory directions, we ended up at Blue Wolf Ger Camp. The sign outside advertised free internet and hot shower. We were hooked on the concept right away.

For $10 each we got to stay in a really quite comfortable yurt, with a nice bed, shower, electricity and wireless internet. There was also a restaurant next door, where we stayed eating and talking until well after midnight.

And that’s where our story ends for the moment. We have about 1700 km remaining until we reach Ulaanbaatar, or about 240 km per day on average if we’re going to make it there in time to catch our flight home. So there’s no rush – we can take it easy on the rubbish roads, enjoy the scenery and towns we pass through, and chill out with the others doing the rally.

Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back before breakfast!

– Cameron


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[This post continues directly from our previous post on Uzbekistan.]

Monday involved a whole lot of driving. Our original plan was to reach Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, but somewhere along the way we decided we’d rather camp somewhere out bush now that we’ve finally reached the more sparsely populated portion of our trek.

The scenery through Kazakhstan so far has varied quite a bit. Leaving Shymkent, we started out driving through a valley between distant snow-capped mountains. After we left the mountains behind, we were passing through vast, flat plains of scrub. This felt strangely like being back home – the kind of sparsely populated countryside that I’ve become very familiar with seeing all over Australia.

Unlike Australia, in Kazakhstan you’ll regularly find sheep, horses, donkeys and cows just straying over the unfenced road. Sure, that’s something you sometimes see in Australia, but we’ve been seeing it in Kazakhstan on a main road joining two cities. There’s also plenty of animals wandering around the small towns we’ve passed through. Once again, like Australia, the distance between towns has started to get quite large, and the actual towns have started to get a lot smaller than previously. Unlike Australia, we’ve started to see people living in large canvas tents – yurts. So we’ve kind of achieved our “Perth to Yurt” goal. Of course, we’ve still a long way to go before we get to Mongolia, and a long way to travel within Mongolia to reach Ulanbator from the Russian border.

In general, Kazakhstan has been completely unlike what I was expecting. The terrain has been similar, but this first section to Almaty at least has been more populated and had much better roads and facilities than I was worrying about. People here have seemed a bit less friendly enthusiastic about the foreigners in their midst, too. The crazy waves from other cars, petrol station and restaurant staff excited to talk to us even though we don’t have any language in common and people in villages gawking at us have all stopped. Perhaps so many Mongol Ralliers have passed this way that we’re no longer a novelty? Maybe the Kazakh national attitude is more like the Scottish and they don’t trust strangers? Who knows.

There’s also been a bit of a change in attitude with the police we’ve encountered. In Romania we were being pulled over to make sure we weren’t lost (often we were lost). Starting in Iran we found the roads had regular police checkpoints; but mainly we were being pulled over because the police were curious and wanted to chat with us despite lack of a common language. In Turkmenistan we were pulled over because the cops wanted to give us grief for whatever ridiculous reason they could come up with (usually speeding while being foreign). In Uzbekistan we were asked if we were okay and if we needed directions. In Kazakhstan they’ve so far just wanted to see our documents and wave us on.

Kazakhstan is also the first time we’ve seen petrol station attendants with guns. Not a particularly encouraging sight.

On Monday we were a bit concerned that the main road to Almaty might pass through Kyrgyzstan because, well, both of our maps show that it does. (Presumably the road was built back in the USSR days where there was no border to cross.) There were a couple of possible minor roads that allowed us to zig zag along the border, but it was hard to tell if one or the other might result in us travelling hundreds of kilometres over dirt tracks – our maps don’t indicate sealed vs unsealed roads. Fortunately, just following the signs to “Almaty” ended up taking us over one of these roads, which was a bit bumpy but that didn’t stop us from doing 110 km/h trying to keep up with the crazy German team (Splendid Spendobels) in front of us. When we stopped for fuel the German driver, Wolfgang, said to me something like “ah, that felt like proper rally driving!” At some point on this route we also lost all of our hub caps.

The temperature has also cooled down a bit, which has been a very welcome relief. It now feels like a Perth spring day and the sky is a beautiful blue with occasional clouds – not quite as nice as the vivid blue you see in outback Australia but much nicer than anything we’ve seen in Western Europe. Couldn’t possibly ask for better weather. The drop in temperature has also allowed my bow tie to make a come-back, for the first time since eastern Turkey.

Monday night we set up camp around sunset in the Kazakh bush, a way off the main road. This also provided an opportunity to survey our food supplies and try to cook something for dinner. Patrick discovered some tinned meat we bought in Hungary. The tin looked like a cat food tin, the picture of the meat inside looked like cat food, and when opened the meat inside smelled like cat food. Patrick was adamant, however, that it wasn’t cat food. Cat food was much more expensive than this Hungarian delicacy. To go with the Hungarian mystery meat we had some pasta, pasta sauce and onion. I suggested it might be an opportunity to make a vegetarian meal, but Patrick was having none of it. To be fair, once fried and smothered in pasta sauce, the mystery meat was quite edible. Tasted a bit like sausages. Personally, I’ll be glad to be back home and able to be vegetarian once more.

After a nice sleep in and spot of brekkie (for me: a cup of instant coffee made with Tesco-brand guaranteed super-British UHT milk; for the others, muesli and Tesco milk), we hit the road once more. In the passenger seat I had the opportunity to squint at maps, plot our course through Kazakhstan and Russia to the Mongolia border and verify our distance calculations. It turns out that when preparing our itinerary we’d underestimated the distance we’d have to travel through Kazakhstan by about 1000 km, but since the roads on our North-South route were decent quality tarmac instead of the horrible dirt tracks we’d been warned about by people who’d crossed Kazakhstan from West to East, we were ahead of schedule.

On top of this, we had about 2000 km less to travel through Russia than our original calculations suggested. Just as well because our itinerary had us travelling something like 900 km per day through Russia, which would be somewhat more than we’d been able to achieve so far. So according to our new calculations we’ll be hitting the Mongolian border two or three days earlier than originally expected. This is good, because our vague guess of being able to make it from the border to Ulaanbaatar in five days would place us, according to the guide provided by the rally organisers, up there with the fastest to ever to make the journey.

Tuesday saw us drive straight through the city of Almaty and out the other side again. A little while after leaving the city, I was pulled over again by the cops. This time they attempted to explain that I’d been doing 60 km/h through a 50 zone, and had my headlights off which is apparently illegal in Kazakhstan. As a result, they wanted 100 of the United States’ finest dollars from me. I showed them my international driving permit, my passport, all the forms I’d obtained at the Kazakh border, and feigned incomprehension at “one hundred dollars”, instead explaining to them loudly in English (which the didn’t really understand) that we were Australians driving from London to Mongolia, with lots of gesturing. After a couple of minutes they told me to go away.

We stopped for dinner at a pub in the town of Taldyqorghan. While we were looking at the menu in blank incomprehension and trying to guess what the different items might be, someone at a neighbouring table came over to assist. His name was Erlan and he spoke quite a few words of English – more than the waitstaff – and better yet, had a translation app on his phone. The items we’d been guessing where main meat dishes turned out to have been salads. The main meals were what we suspected might have been deserts. Whoops! Thanks to this assistance, I ordered some lamb, Patrick got some chicken and Adon chose shishkebabs. After we ordered we stayed chatting to him, attempting to explain our crazy journey and the route we were taking. Erlan’s son Dulat also joined our table briefly. Dulat spoke good English and was, if I recall correctly, studying international trade at university.

After dinner it was time to drive some more. The plan was to drive a couple of hours down the road towards Semey, the town nearest the Russian border. An hour into the drive we got an SMS from the Splendid Spendobels who we’d been convoying with on Monday, asking where we were. Apparently they were sipping drinks in a bar in Usharal, which was a bit further than we had originally intended to travel travel. After a brief team meeting – Adon and I saying “let’s do it” and Patrick saying “not another late night!” – we decided to ignore Patrick and keep on driving through the night.

At about 1:30am we reached the point which I’d thought was the right town, but it turned out my navigation was off and we still had another 50 km to do. We reached the town the Germans were staying in a bit after 2am, only to find that the hotel – the only hotel in town – was completely chockers. Tired and dispirited, we left and drove for a bit longer until we found a dirt track through some scrub. where we set up camp.

No rest for the wicked, so on Wednesday at 9:30am we woke up and by 10:30am we were moving again. We stopped at the first service station along the road in the hope of picking up some water. Unfortunately, petrol stations through the Stans haven’t been as well stocked as Australian roadhouses. Most had no credit card facilities, and many – including this one – sold nothing but fuel. The attendant expained in Russian or Kazakh that the next available water was 90km along the road.

After driving for a couple more hours, we passed the Splendid Spendobels, stopped by the side of the road having a polite chat with some nice policemen. We tooted and drove past them, then pulled over to wait for them at the next convenient spot. This brief section of road was so badly potholed that even Wolfgang was forced to drive slowly. When the Germans arrived a few minutes later, we had a chat about our proposed route through Russia to the Mongolian border.

The route that I’d picked out on Tuesday was through main roads, but not particularly direct. The Germans had found that there was a minor road through some mountains, present on only one of our two maps of the area, which allowed us to shave off 600-800km from the journey. This seemed like a good plan to us; even if we had to drive slowly we’d end up ahead, and minor roads were likely to be more interesting than major highways. With that decided, we set off in convoy with the Spleandid Spendobels, aiming for the Russian border and beyond.

At the town of Oskemen, not far from the border, both the Germans and ourselves managed to independently get lost. When the Germans eventually un-lost themselves, they had some bad news: the border crossing we intended to us was closed. Our revised plan was to take the crossing near Shemonaikha, half-way between the one we’d originally planned to use at Semey and the one which was closed.

Because it was now getting quite late, we decided to stay the night in Shemonaikha and asked some local chavvy-looking youths for directions to a hotel. They took us to a place which was unlit from the outside and we would have guessed to be an apartment block rather than a hotel, where $40 purchased us one night in a room for three people. Not bad!

Thursday morning, we crossed into Russia in convoy with the Spendobels. The Kazakh side of the border was amazingly efficient and took about 15 minutes to get through. The Russian side, on the other hand, took a few hours. But we made it, and by precisely lunch time-ish, we were in Russia.

Yours until we meet again, dear Internet,


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G’day folks! We’ve done a lot of driving since our last update in Turkmenistan. This post is coming to you as a delayed live broadcast written on the road but posted from Russia, taking advantage an unsecured wireless access point in Belokurikha.

Our last entry ended on Friday night as we were in the outskirts of Turkmenabat. We found a hotel to stay there that night – what seemed like the biggest and presumably most expensive hotel in the city, and we got the fanciest room they had for $120 per night. It was perhaps quite typical of Turkmenistan: overblown and grandiose, with neon everywhere on the outside, pictures of the Turkmen President in the entrance, and yet understaffed and falling apart.

Turkmenistan, for whatever reason, seemed to be pretty much the country of massive buildings and neon lights (everywhere! even on the university!), obstructionate officials, creepy photogrpahs of the President everywhere and amazingly poor conditions for ordinary people. Driving through residential areas was a huge contrast to the money poured into the grandiose public buildings in infrastructure: just densely packed slums. There were obviously some who had money though – there were a fair few big BMWs and Mercedeses on the roads which I suspect would cost well over $100,000 in Australia. Adon also picked out a few Japanese sports sedans which were apparently twin-turbo V6s that he’d wished he could have got his hands on in Australia. But there were also plenty of people driving Soviet-era Ladas and older Toyotas in varying states of serious disrepair.

Turkmenabat is quite close to Uzbek border. We got a little bit lost trying to find the border crossing; it was actually this getting lost that let us see a bit of how the poorer folks in Turkemnistan lived. Fortunately, after a lot of confused gesturing trying to draw a map in the air, one of the locals suggested that we follow him out to the main road. So we did, and offered him a jar of vegemite for his troubles. Poor dude.

Arriving at the border crossing around 1pm, we discovered that it was closed. Because it was lunch time. There were a few other ralliers waiting at the border, who had heard that from 2pm until 5pm the border would be open again. So we sat around chatting and waited for the crossing to reopen. We also took the opportunity to get our Turkmen Menat changed into Uzbek Sum by a roadside moneychange dude. Unlike the previous couple of border crossings, the exchange rate offered was exactly what the handy reference page thing that I’d compiled before we left said it should be, and he didn’t try to pull a fast one with his arithmetic. Phew! At 2pm we once again went through the process of filling out forms (some labelled in Cyrillic, though English translations were on display) and waving lots of bits of paper under lots of people’s noses. The whole process took something like 3-4 hours and then we were in Uzbekistan.

The weather was still super-hot and after spending hours standing around as the wheels of bureaucracy turned we were rather dehydrated. At the town on the Uzbek side of the border we immediately bought some tasty snacks and something like 15 litres of water, 5 litres of fruit juice and a few glasses of chilled juice for immediate consumption. The shopkeepers were quite amused at the whole process, smiling and laughing between themselves at the strange foreigners who’d descended on their town.

Immediate thirst quenched, we pressed on to the small city of Bukhara, where we stopped for dinner. We stopped at a cafe, a bit uncertain as to whether it was open or serving food because it was empty. But we wandered in, indicated that we wanted a table for three and tried to ask for a menu. Which, like most of the small cafes we’ve stopped at, they didn’t have. But they did have a young boy named Sanja who was the cafe owner’s neighbour, and who spoke excellent English. So he managed to explain to what food was on offer, and soon we were feasting on fish, shishkebabs and a massive quantity of chicken. Way more than we could eat.

Sanja asked if he could join us while we ate, and we ended up having an interesting discussion about Australia (which he was interested in) and Uzbekistan (which we were interested in) and our crazy journey to Mongolia. It was interesting to discover that Uzbekistan seemed to be putting a pretty heavy emphasis on education; Sanja was in his final year of high school and was hoping to go to university next year. Our experience was that the younger Uzbeks we encountered spoke pretty good English – very different from Turkmenistan where we had to rely on gestures and a handful of Russian words.

In fact, the general impression we got of Uzbekistan was that it was quite progressive compared to Turkmenistan. We didn’t see any over-the-top public buildings, but nor did we see quite the same indications of poverty. Looking on Wikipedia later confirmed that Uzbekistan had been doing a pretty good job of economic reform in post-Soviet times, and that its GDP was expected to grow massively in the next few years. The story on the political side didn’t sound so great though – apparently a quite oppressive regime and a bad record of human rights abuses, which I was completely unaware of and wouldn’t have guessed at all from what we saw of the country.

After dinner, we pressed onwards and Saturday night we stayed in Samarqand. The roads in Uzbekistan were generally much better than Turkmenistan, with a dual carriageway connecting more or less one end of the country to the other. Country driving in the -stans was about as chaotic as city driving in Turkey and Iran, though. At night you needed to be very alert. There was too much traffic to be able to have our headlights on full beam very much, but the road was full of exciting obstacles. To start with there were no cat’s eyes or other reflectors on the road, so you could only see a short distance ahead where the road was. There wasn’t much room for error, though: on one side there was a concrete barrier, and on the other side usually a ditch. Lane markings were near-invisible if they were present at all, but that wasn’t an issue because nobody took any notice of them at all.

Other hazards on the road included homicidal trucks with broken lights or lights switched off. Broken taillights was a very common situation, broken taillights and only one working headlight was also something we saw quite a few times. Quite a contrast from the Australian “fairy land on wheels” road trains. We also encountered a large tractor doing about 20 km/h with no lights on. There were also a lot of suicidal cyclists with no lights, no reflectors anywhere and no helmets. These could be travelling in the same direction as you, in the opposite direction to you (i.e. wrong side of the road) or attempting to cross the road. Sometimes we also found cars travelling on the wrong side of the road, because, well, why not really? We also had a near miss with a Lada with broken brake lights that decided to drop from 100+ km/h to a complete standstill in the fast lane.

On top of all of this, the normally-smooth road surface occasionally turned to good-but-lumpy tarmac, or sometimes to a horrible mess of potholes and corrugations. Whatever. We were just happy to not be in Turkmenistan.

Every now and again, during the day, there’d be sections of road under repair. We’ve had an opportunity now to see how several different countries deal with roadwork zones. In Australia, of course, there’d usually be a speed limit sign well in advance dropping the road to 40 km/h while the workers stand around having a smoke and the machinery sits idle. In England it was similar: they’d block off maybe 30 miles of motorway at a time, drop the speed limit from 70 mph to 50 mph, install a lot of average speed check cameras, park heavy machinery by the side of the road and then … there would be nobody in sight working on the road. In Germany, the lanes on the Autobahn would narrow to maybe a few centimetres wider than the average car and everybody would continue driving at stupendous speeds while roadwork took place on the other side of the barrier. In Uzbekistan there’d be a sign warning you of roadworks maybe 20 metres in advance of the lane that you were in suddenly turning into hot, wet tyre-destroying asphalt with a steamroller driving over it.

Despite all of this, our most common speed was 100-120 km/h, even at night. Somehow, nobody died. At the time, it didn’t even seem that crazy – I think we’ve all got accustomed to expecting everybody on the road to act in ways that would seem completely mad in Australia or Europe, and just not worrying about it.

We spend Saturday night in Samarqand at a hotel recommended by a taxi driver we stopped to ask directions from. The hotel didn’t have any rooms with three beds, and was completely unwilling to let three blokes stay in a room with a double bed and a single bed – and looked incredibly uncomfortable at even contemplating this possibility. However, they gave us a very good price for two separate rooms.

One oddity of Uzbekistan was the petrol was quite hard to find. It took a while to find an open service station on Sunday morning, and we ended up waiting half an hour in a queue while cars filled up from the single petrol bowser.

Having fuelled up, it was time once again to hit the road, and forwards progress as quickly as possible to Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. We arrived there by about 4pm. Our maps showed that the main road from Uzbekistan through to Kazakhstan headed north-east from the Tashkent ring road. We found a road that looked plausible – signed to “Almaty”, a major city in Kazakhstan – and drove across it. After a few minutes’ drive, we hit the border town and discovered that the border wasn’t open. Not now, not ever, unless we were locals. The gestures we received suggested we should go back to ring road, turn right and try the next border crossing. At which we discovered much the same thing. This time we got the name of the town where supposedly we could cross, about 90km away back towards Samarqand. We stopped for some dinner and set off back down the highway.

Once again the border crossing was straightforward but slow. The Uzbek side was highly bureaucratic as we’d come to expect – we needed to dig out the entry forms we’d filled out at the previous crossing, as well as put exactly the same information on brand new exit forms. On top of the usual documentation for the car, our passports, our customs papers for temporarily importing the car, etc. The Kazakh side was a bit more laid back. One visitor form to fill out which I don’t think wanted to know much more than our name and passport number, then waiting for the official to take down our car details and give us a customs declaration for the car. While one border dude was filling out this form, another was swatting mosquitos by hand. Patrick and Adon couldn’t help laughing, while I was trying very hard not to laugh while providing answers to the questions I was being asked about the car. When one of the mosquitos landed on me, the mosquito-swatting dude raised his hand in my general direction, looked as if he was about to bring it down on the mosquito (and me), then hesitated, looked a bit confused, and decided to not bother.

Incidentally, kudos to Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat for getting the Kazakh accent down pretty well.

The Kazakhs also managed to have the worst possible system for recording number plates of cars entering and exiting border control. The simple approach would have been to have the guards with walkie-talkies just read out the plate to whoever was manning the gate. The high-tech approach would have been to have a narrow lane with a camera that automatically recognised the plate, recorded it and opened the gate. The Kazakh system involved a guard instructing us to park in a very specific but hard to get right location on a wide expanse of tarmac so that the automated system could record our number plate. Then he’d get on his walkie-talkie, ask the dude in the control room if it was working yet and if not we’d have to move the car a few centimetres in the hope that the situation would improve.

Eventually through the border, we convoyed with a couple of Germans we met at the crossing – Roland and Wolfgang of the Splendid Spendobels – to Shymkent, the first major town on our route through Kazakhstan. Irritatingly, Shymkent was about 20km from the first border crossing we’d attempted but closer to 200km from the one that was actually open. We finally got there by about 2am, having lost an hour to daylight saving.

The roads through Kazakhstan to Shymkent were pretty good, though. I was expecting to hit dirt tracks pretty much immediately, but at least half of the distance was dual carriageway. The road surface wasn’t great, but better than the first half of our route through Turkmenistan.

After finding a bed to collapse in in Shymkent, we’re now hoping to reach Almaty by Monday night – a distance of 700km. So far the roads are still all paved and reasonable quality, so that seems pretty plausible.

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