Dave’s Mongol Rally Review

Mongol Rally 3

We hoped to be able to keep everyone up to date during out journey however, it seems our problems were not restricted to the road and there were all sorts of hitches updating the website remotely. Now back in the UK with access to more reliable technology we’d love to take a little time to fill you all in on what we got up to.

There is no doubt the rally began long before our departure from Hyde Park with Jacky clocking up almost a thousand miles zigzagging across the country as we prepared her for her voyage. On top of Jacky’s modest moderations we worked feverishly sorting visas, collecting bits and pieces together and with Chris’s expertise preparing the website. By the time the 22nd came along we were both pretty shattered, not aided by a later than planned farewell drink the night before. From here our journey can be broken up into 4 roughly distinguishable sections.

London to Astrakhan (just shy of the Kazak border)

The journey began with what proved to be our longest non-stop drive as we drove the 800 mile stretch to make the party the following evening in Prague. While Jacky tested our mechanical knowledge early on with us failing to suss out the Fiat’s jack in order to replace our first flat tyre, she went beautifully throughout the night and we made the Czech Republic the following day. We soon found ourselves behind two more Pandas as we tried to negotiate Prague’s insane one-way systems and tunnels playing chicken with trams and rapidly discovering driving foreign cities on no sleep is tantamount to suicidal. A fine evening in the Czech capitol ensued with almost all of the teams making it in time for a much needed pint of the countries famous ale and some fine music from Czech’s foremost salsa band.

After some welcome hours sleep on what proved to be our most valuable possession – two blue sun loungers belonging to Chris’ mum – we got going and decided to head for Poland. A series of shattering days and nights followed as we went from one beautiful city to another meeting up with both ralliers and locals and each morning regretting a little more driving slap bang into vodka country. Our nights out in Krakow, Kiev and Volgograd were buffered only by endless hours of driving, uncomfortable nights in lay-bys and the discovery of the joy of border crossings. These cities should really be given much more space as they each surprised us both with their grandeur, friendliness and the phenomenal beauty of their women. At one stage in a club in Volgograd we discovered why the evening was called “Fruit Night” as we noticed strings of bananas hanging from the ceiling and Chris found himself eating grapes off a naked women covered in cream (that’s the women covered in cream, not Chris).

I should reiterate the days of driving going on here as we were passing though some truly astounding scenery on roads in hindsight we should have appreciated far more. There was a stark contrast to be seen by crossing so rapidly from west to east in all that was passing us by. With the horse the clear centre of Ukrainian farming the countless laden carts brought to life an image I had had of the vast country with its fields of maize and sunflowers which stretch into the horizon. We were heading towards Kazakhstan at a fantastic pace, well max was around 60mph but this was made up for by the hours being put in.

Few of our border crossings were straight forward but the first had to be the most nerve wracking. After waiting in the wrong queue for half an hour the car in front was kind enough to point us towards the correct one which to our delight was empty. I then promptly drove straight through a cunningly disguised check point, reversed back and began the lengthy process of getting ourselves and our car into the Ukraine. It was actually all going fairly well until the ever conscientious passport checker noticed a water smudge on a key page of Chris’ passport and declared it a fake. We then sat as it was passed from one guard to another in a spiral of ever increasing hat size until an hour later Chris was marched off to the interrogation room. He found himself in front of the Big Cheese with three burly guards with guns standing behind him. I was left with no idea where he had been taken to until he tipped up with a more friendly English speaking guard saying “that all got a little James Bond in there” and having to collect various other bits of ID to placate the boss. Ninety minutes later we were on our way relieved to have our first crossing behind us and praying every other country doesn’t have passport checkers of such commendable diligence. After camping not far over the Ukraine border we were on the road early the following day. Not one hour had passed when we found ourselves naively driving straight through our second checkpoint. Unaware anything was wrong we rapidly realised the policeman wasn’t simply waving when flashing lights and blaring siren interrupted our progress. Back at the checkpoint the cop was none too happy and demanded $100 for our error to which we claimed we simply didn’t understand and after some very serious faces and phone calls on their part and some very bemused faces on ours the second cop took pity on us and waved us on our way. It was only later that we were informed the police are allowed to open fire on anyone not stopping on demand. “Roz stops” became one of the favourite parts of our journey due to the bonkers conversations and insane demands they would come out with. One team was even fined $60 after an emissions test which if you’d seen the Ladas we followed, burning up the cheapest fuel imaginable, is laughable.

With nine countries, eight days of driving, four very heavy nights out, countless police stops, zero fines paid, one puncture and all the above and more behind us we reached Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan

Just prior to leaving Russia we stopped at a lake and met an English speaking Polish chap who was driving to the south of Kazakhstan. He was kind enough to inform us that no one enters the country from this point as the roads are very bad and we should really have entered from the north. It was with some trepidation that we then drove to the border though we ultimately relished the thought of beginning the more testing part of the journey.

One of our first sights upon entering Kazakhstan after the lengthy crossing we’d come to expect was a BMW Z3, needless to say this raised our hopes about getting through the country in one piece. It was rapidly fairly evident that that car never drove more than in Russia and along the hundred mile stretch between Atyrau and the border. After our first night in Kazakhstan we embarked on what I have no doubt is the most abominable stretch of road in the world, I could write pages and you still wouldn’t quite understand how bad they are. The first fifty miles was a patchwork of perfect new asphalt going into dirt track and back into asphalt in ten mile stretches, after one of the small towns along the way we realised we were not going to see good roads for a very long time. On the other side of this town there were about twenty tracks that stretched off in different directions, choosing one of the more major ones we found ourselves at a vast Kazoil distillery and were directed back thirty minutes the way we’d come. From then on our only point of reference was the railway which helpfully seemed to be going everywhere we were.

Mongol Rally 2

When we did eventually meet back up with the road we found no one used it any more and simply made their own tracks along side. These were fantastic fun and we enjoyed many miles rolling up and down the banks avoiding bumps which appeared out of nowhere and occasionally popping up to check out the road or cross a bridge only to head back to the tracks. Upon reaching Aktobe we then headed south directed the long way round with the promise of good roads which degenerated within a matter of miles. It was on this drive south that Jacky who had been astounding us with the way she’d been dealing with our appalling treatment of her starting getting worryingly warm and we found our radiator mysteriously emptying itself of coolant.

Unable to go on we donned our high-viz vests and before too long a fellow rallier appeared, (the first seen for 5 days), and offered to tow us to the next town of Aral’sk 60km away. This rather grim place was in the middle of a sandstorm but we tracked down a garage who offered to sort us out confirming it was the head gasket which had blown and delighted to see we’d brought one along. I was packed off to buy the necessary oil, coolant and gasket maker with a rather nasty fellow not unfairly liken to Jabba the Hut and we were both very relieved that our rally may not be over after all.

An extraordinary night ensued beginning with a delightful tea with Kazakhstan’s national food of “Ball Sacs”, (rather tasty donut like things), and the excellent tea replenishment abilities of our hosts wife. The mechanics then demanded beer and got to work while we were ushered through to another room and invited to sleep though not before a wash was forced upon us. On the face of it you might think this was a rather fantastic set-up however now with a taste for beer we were woken every two hours by the mechanics and more was demanded. Shortly after being woken for our second meal I started to feel rather ill and dashed out of bed conscious that in any country it has to be bad form to throw up in your host’s home. More bad news was to come as when they finally got to the old gasket it slowly dawned on me that it looked nothing like our spare. It transpired that the Polish Fiat Dealer we’d purchased our gasket from had supplied the one for the older engine and not the FIRE ours was fitted with. More discussion commenced and it was agreed that for $200 they would fix the old gasket and get Jacky on the road. By 6am our by now drunken but loyal mechanics had Jacky running and having paid up we were all ready to get on the road when one of our hosts sons decided to demand $20 from Chris as he had tripped over the old oil and got it all over his trousers. When Chris said no a knife dramatically appeared and luckily people pounced on the fellow though not before Chris hurriedly handed over the mans recompense.

Mongol Rally

From here we headed south with the roads finally improving south of Kyzylorda and onwards to Kyrgyzstan. Another dubious choice for a border crossing this had to be the most corrupt place we’d found but we got through though with no stamp on the visa and one stolen MP3 player. Kyrgyzstan turned out to be truly astounding with over 80% of the country being mountainous; although we spent little over 24 hours there it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. The roads were even fairly good and we made good time even with Jacky struggling on the sections over 4000 metres and going little over 20 on the up. Our only minor dispute ensued with me wanting to go to Bishkek and Chris feeling it rather unnecessary – we went and it really wasn’t up to much. Heading out of Kyrgyzstan we went through at a fantastic pace this could have been because when Chris was asked if we were diplomats he replied “…well sort of”.

We went from here to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s old capital and had a gentle night there too shattered to really explore. Heading to Russia we made fantastic time as at last we found a semi decent Kazak road making the boarder in just over two days. This was not before we had the pleasure of being waved over by some crazy Kazaks and invited to try irani – the national drink of fermented cow’s milk.

We were in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan for a mighty 11 days each taking their toll on poor Jacky. In total we visited three mechanics – replaced rear shocks and added Audi springs (raising Jacky a further 4 inches), re-replaced shock after hitting massive rock in road, had three punctures, lost exhaust countless times finally reattached by mechanic after our efforts failed, reattached handbrake cable and had massive engine re-build sorting head gasket. The old girl was never the same again.

Back in Russia up to Mongol Border

Back in Russia we had strong hopes of making up lost time pushing all the way up to Novosibirsk on our first day back arriving late at night and sniffing out the centre with accomplished aplomb. Having previously enjoyed our nights out in Russia and aware that this could be our last we threw ourselves into the evening even though we soon discovered we’d passed through yet another time zone and it was in fact 11.30pm. Alex was our host initially taking us on a drive round the city in search of a bar and ending up 30 seconds from where we’d parked. He was kind enough to order us 200ml of vodka and a couple of beers as well as a plate of meat, red bull and cigarettes for himself, these beverages down us he invited us to pick up the tab and we got on our way. Back in the car park attendants booth we were offered more beer, (on Alex this time) and decided to try out a local club. We were greeted be a very friendly bouncer who cheerily announced for one night only the club was hosting male strippers on the face of it not a great thing but it did mean the place was teeming with women. It seems both of us over did things a little as we were both woken by bouncers where Chris promptly threw up and we were asked to leave as everyone else had some time earlier. It seems I’d fallen asleep before Chris who’d continued to be plied with drinks and upon waking in the morning was entirely incapacitated – a wreck. We finally got on the road after a long search for my camera which we concluded had been stolen by friendly Alex as he’d been around all evening near the car and the driver’s door no longer locked.

For the next three days we drove all the hours of daylight we could on roads that would go from perfect to muddy pot-holed tracks with no warning often in the pouring rain. We eventually reached the stunning Lake Baikal and the next day with great excitement we were able to push on to the Mongolian border.

Aside from the loss of a camera our only other problem in this stage was the loss of any ability to stop partially rectified by a mechanic who shut off the brake cable running to the off rear wheel. We then visited a further 5 mechanics none of which seemed to understand that the brakes only responding in the last centimetre of peddle compression was a problem and with no Russian expression for “bleed the brakes” we carried on regardless.

Mongolia

Imagine our disappointment on arrival at our final border crossing only to be told they closed 3 minutes ago. At the front of the queue we had another evening of lengthy explanations about what we were up to and perhaps left people more confused than before we’d started. Some fine bolognaise with noodles sitting in our bellies we had a fine nights sleep in Jacky and woke to gates opening and after a fairly painless crossing at last we were in Mongolia after a gruelling 24 days and 7500 miles of driving. We decided to celebrate with a little Mongolian breakfast of beef noodle soup following which the lady decided we had ordered beef steak as well. None of these dished were good and the Mongol tea we were given was still less so. Feeling somewhat unsatisfied we hit the road again something that seemed so natural now – to do whatever you had to do and get straight back in the car. We had decided we would drive all the way to Ulaan Bataar that day as we’d been told it was only 250 miles on good roads.

Mongol Rally 4

With only a couple of stops, the first to chat to some policemen at a checkpoint where we were delighted to be given the chance to model their police baton and official looking cap and the second to carry out a bit of a photo shoot with our Jacky. We had discovered a letter in our paperwork written in Mongolian which, when handed to anyone official resulted in a prompt salute and a wave on our way so any other stop took a matter on minutes. The photo shoot took place up a long track which ended up too steep for the much diminished Jacky to handle however we were able to get some great shots in the magnificent Mongolian mountains. We arrived in UB not long after and were directed to a spot where another rally was meeting. Lots of fun was had with the vice-president of the Mongolian Rally Organisation, nothing to do with the Mongol Rally), who promptly asked us to move on though not before more photos with Jacky parked alongside various Porsche Cayenne’s and Land Cruisers doing a rally from Germany to Siberia.

Dave’s Bar, Sukhbataar Square, 4:30pm local time and we’d completed the

Mongol Rally and even come an impressive 17th place.

Rather tired we left almost immediately having been informed we’d have to give a £1500 deposit if we wanted to leave UB again. We spent the evening in a non-rally hostel, booked our flights home and the following day drove 80km out of the city and spent the next 36 hours camped by a river enjoying what felt like a well earned rest. The next day we drove to a Buddhist Monastery and then went horse riding making the mistake of not insisting on Russian saddles as the Mongols dedication to Chinggis Kahn means they still use the wooden saddles he designed to stop his soldiers falling asleep on the move. The ride was finished with us being invited into our guide’s home or ger and being offered fresh horse’s milk and vodka (not at once). Back in UB we checked into the Ralliers chosen hostel, Nassans, and headed to Dave’s for a pint.

The day of the big end of rally party we spent a sad 3 hours delivering our faithful little Fiat Panda to a homeless children’s charity where it will be auctioned off and headed back to make ourselves vaguely presentable for what we were informed was a black tie event. The first few hours of the evening were excellent and I am told the rest too though in what is worryingly becoming something of a habit I fell asleep waking occasionally for a bit of a dance.

This has had to be a vastly cut down account of some of the exploits of Chris and Dave’s 2006 Mongol Rally, it is still longer than planned.

Our flight home was very early in the morning two days after the party. We touched down in style at Heathrow in Aeroflot’s surprisingly sybaritic business class. We are yet to confirm our fundraising total as people are still kindly making donations but we are indebted to all those who have helped us in our journey be it through sponsorship, mechanical aid or the much needed moral support.

David Mortimer and Christopher Allen