Mongol Rally 2007
Mongolia Travel Blog› entry 16 of 16 › view all entries
I have a tendency to go on for ever and ever. The Rally for me has without provided me with most of my life defining moments, and I still haven't finished writing it up in either my road trip diary or on our website. So...I wrote an email to my old school the other day. They had been supportive in my quest for spreading the word about what I planned to do and seemed genuinely interested. I just wanted to write and say thanks and add a summary of what it was like. It turned into this monsterously huge email. It is probably the most concise summary I've managed to come up with so far...so I saved it and I'll paste it in (with a few edits).
The rally itself took Helen and I, 35 days. But we did have about 5 days of delays due to visa issues and couldn't make any progress. So when we were on the move we really pushed ourselves. We drove, if i remember correctly, 10,047 miles. The journey was an absolutely incredible experiance. I have now realised what I am capable of! There were a few times when the going was terribly hard - personally, for me it was in Turkmenistan. We only had 5 day transit visas and we were stuck on a ferry for 3 days (it was supposed to take 12 hours). The customs area took another 5 hours, and when we finally got into the country we had to try and get an extended exit visa - which is 'unheard of'. So we spend all the next day at the British Embassy and they told us we would probably be deported, etc... Anyway - we got our extension and tried to get out the country asap. But we were all sick and we started driving at midday, through the night and the next day just stopped for dinner, for an hours stop before trying to make it to the Uzbek border before 6pm closing. It was so hard - being completely sleep deprived, sick and driving through the hottest part of the desert at 3pm - 55C. I really thought I was going to expire! But, we made it to the border less than 5 minutes before it closed and then drove until 10pm before getting to an Uzbek city we were trying to get to. So that was probably about a 34 hours drive with maybe 2-3 hours of stoppage time. And i suppose I should add that when we got to that Uzbek city we somehow got persuaded to go out to a Disco - which turned out to be an 'Uzbek Disco Brothel' (as we christened it).
There were a few times when we drove hours like that - I don't think Turkmenistan was even the longest one - but it definitely was shatteringly hot (especially with no air con)! But what we did find was that, for such a repressed country and one with such an unfortunate reputation, the people were wonderful! There were lots of police check points as expected but instead of a intimidatingly robust assessment of our papers, etc, we would usually end up trying to find some mutual language and instead speaking in Footballers names and taking mock goals. Along the whole length of the journey we didn't meet one unpleasant member of the public. We had a few run ins with the authorities, but it was the people around us - usually driving alongside us that we found awesome. One car was pulled up beside us in a city in Kazakstan, I was driving and Helen passed me over the water bottle. The next minute the guys in the car next to us were trying to get me to accept about 6 loaves of bread and they were trying to get me to reach out across the lanes before the traffic lights changed. Another man in Kazahstan, was overtaking us on a highway at about 50 miles an hour in a BMW, opened his window and whilst driving handed me a homemade music cd. One car in Turkmenistan driving along side us had about 4 men in it - they tried to encourage us to take up the offer of a ciggerette on the move (on a dual carriageway), a tape, and then finally they started waving a car light out the window! Part of our convoy had just been shown on Turkmen tv and suddenly all Mongol Ralliers were celebrities - the people were lovely anyway but we got used to driving around being tooted, hanging out the window and waving at everyone.
We had a few dodgy moments. Helen got altitude sickness in Tajikistan, and her asthma also then started causing problems. It was just about the worse place imaginable it could have happened. Completely in the middle of knowhere in Tajikistan - as night was closing in and on the most notorious mountain pass in the country. She was in such a mess that we knew unless we could summit almost immediately we could have to backtrack back out the country - as it was the only road from the border. To make it worse the air was so thin that the cars were struggling and a lot of the time I was walking or pushing Daisy to get her moving again. We were convoying with an Ice Cream Van (like you do) that had a bigger engine, so we put her in there and I had to drive Daisy up in the dark, knowing that if she stopped again there wouldn't be anyone to push her. We couldn't get hold of any advice and luckily had some drugs in the car - we just had to work out which ones to give her whilst pelting down a mountain as fast as we dared. There was nowhere to stop until we got to the capital - so that was a hellish 8 hour drive, with Helen seemingly to get sicker and sicker everytime we pulled over.
There were the unusal rally eccentricities - we got to hang out (without realising it) with the kazah mafia for a little while at the Kyrgyz / Kazah border. The guys i was talking to in the car next door, other than telling me they would like to find me a nice husband, said they were off to hunt Marco Polo sheep - which I thought was odd as they were endangered. I told him I thought he shouldn't be hunting them as there weren't many left and he said 'Ah, you are like Greenpeace, Yes?!' I said 'Yeah, Greenpeace is good!' and he expclaimed 'Save the Whales! Yes?' and I said 'Save the Whales!'...and it was all very friendly. And then our fellow convoyers in front came round to tell us they were having a nice chat with the mafia out their window - a man actually got out his car to shake their hand and introduced himself as Mafia, they had even been invited to have a look in the people carrier and had seen that it was stuffed up to the rafters with drugs. These guys had then pointed out numerous cars in the queue - including the ones we had been chatting to and said they were all mafia. When we got to go through the border we saw car doors being taken apart, sniffer dogs, etc...and these guys just breezed through.
The English and Education Centre - Sworde-Teppa, the charity we were raising money for in Tajikistan, turned out to be more than we expected. In fact, the whole Tajikistan experiance was more than we expected and it completely blew us away. Shortly after turning up, we got shown around (in the dark because some legislation means they can only have 2 lightbulbs on at any one time - or something completely ridiculous like that), and then got told that there was a wedding going on and if we wished to go then we could. So, we trundled off to this wedding in a little rural village, complete with cows wandering around and hidden ditches, and we turned out to be guests of honour. We didn't realise that we would be stared at by about 200 people and then be dragged up as some of the first people to dance. The hospitality was amazing - our tables were heaving with food, the music was deafening, and the people once again were not just friendly but facinating. It is the tradition for the man to sit next to his bride at a top table and look as miserable as possible during the whole thing - seriously! I'm not sure whether its because he is supposed to be taking it all seriously, but he isn't allowed to move other than stand up and sit down and look stoney faced. Meanwhile, his new wife stands up everytime there is a new dancer and bows 3 times. It ended all too soon - because there is another new rule saying that public meetings, including weddings can only last a maximum 3 hours.
The next day we unloaded our cars with all the things we had bought for the Centre, and we went off to see what was going on in the classrooms. We interrupted a lesson going on and ended taking part in 'questions and answers' with the kids for about an hour. We saw how it was working and some of the things the children were saying spontaneously caused us to really see the value of the centre. It was their summer holidays for starters and yet they had all come to school. When we asked them 'what they did for fun' they said they went to Sworde-Teppa, they particularly like going there in winter because its very cold in tajikistan and they don't have enough electricity, where as Sworde-Teppa has a generator, which if they have the money, they can run it and the kids get to go somewhere warmer. Talking of which, Paul from T-S sent me an email only yesterday saying its been -25 out there and electricity is rationed by the Gov at 1 hour per day. I find it hard to get my head sometimes around what makes him stick it out there. That might seem a slightly odd thing to say but not only does he struggle to keep the centre running (he himself spends about 75p on food per day), but he gets hounded by the authorities who see his lovely new renovated building, and regardless of the fact they know him and he has probably provided education to their families, or themselves, they are trying to make life difficult for him, in the hope the building will be made vacant. Somethings just don't seem to make any sense. It perhaps isn't suprising to find out that Paul is definitely an eccentric englishman who just so happens to have constant boundless enthusiasm.
Finally, and obviously there is lots more..Helen and I made it to Russia. We planned to go into Mongolia at the western border and off road it to UB - but Helen felt short on time and so did our convoyers and we adopted the northern Russian route, with a striaght southern turn into Mongolia and to UB. Russia didn't turn out easier at all, and certainly was a lot longer. The motorway was the most diabolical thing - it can't be called a road. Unfortunately, it seems like a standard good road for the first day or so and lures a driver into a complete false sense of security. This resulted in me driving up a hill at 60mph and then half the car falling into a pot hole at the top! I thought I'd killed the car in one move. But no, Daisy was amazing. the roads got much much worse and all we ended up with was a sheared off cv joint - which just so happened to give up the ghost in the only russian big city we went through with 24 hr garages.
The day after we got to the Mongol border, had a rubbish 8hr crossing, but that resulted in us turning up in UB at midnight and smack in the middle of the finishing party. So we had a great reception. We were glad to finish - really because Siberia had taken the stuffing out of us - we had decided to drive the whole 1,500km to the big city non stop - and we did - other than for 4 hours (and that because one of the drivers started hullucinating a big airballon in the forest at 3am).
It was a real shame to split up from people at the end. Helen and I had gone through up and downs, but we had become fast friends with our Ice Cream buddies. We arrived at the party, hit a nightclub, crawled into bed in the hotel - still not having had a shower for 2 weeks....and just couldn't quite believe the adventure was over.
Though for me it wasn't quite. I seperated from Helen - she had her family there and i had an invite to go out into the Mongolian outback for 10 days, up to the lakes. So there was a lot more driving, an obscene amount of vodka drinking and a great deal more camping. I got the trans-siberian train to Moscow when i got back to UB, but my visa expired before i could get out the country. I hopped on a train to Latvia, hoping to be over the border in time, but called pulled off by the Russian army men and taken to a police station and being detained for a day and half and missing my flight home. I finally got home 2 weeks late for work (at least when my boss rang us I could tall him I was in a Russian police station), went back to work the very next day and told my boss i was going to leave.
Since then, I'm aiming to make my life more interesting. I'm basically temping till July, and in the meantime, trying to develop a new trial-sized rally, with the support of the Adventurists - going from Lisbon to Tajikistan. The rally is going to be raising money from Sworde-Teppa again and also we are hoping they will get a car or two out of it for themselves. The centre doesn't have any form of transport at the mo, and neither does Paul personally. Paul mentioned that one of the things they would like to be able to do is take the kids out on educational day trips, so myself and my rally partner (who is Ryan Walker from the Ice Cream van team) are aiming to get a bus donated and that we can drive to the centre and deliver to Paul.
P.S One of the Ice Cream Guys - Alex is a budding photographer - his photos were picked up and shown on the BBC homepage. You can see our little car in some of them and (sadly its only the back of) me makes and appearance! The link is here: (a lot of the photos I am putting up here are Alex's - he really is an awesome photographer)http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/7015923.stm
Ryan has just put both of our video footage together and posted up Tajikistan and Sworde-Teppa on utube - links here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvMz0Zpp6fY http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ffa3ykG5ObA&feature=related