Thursday, August 25, 2005

Panda Fatigue

We reached Mongolia on the 19th and the cars had already driven about 7500 miles. Mongolia was a real shock to the system, there really wee no roads to speak off. most of the tracks seemed to be worse than driving on the ground around them. For some reason all the roads seems to be corrugated, so it's like driving over a shock absorber test track. We quickly passed through Tsaganuur and reached Olgii. in Olgii we met a Mongolian woman called Nadia who helped us find a bank and get some provisions. We had met up with a load of other ralliers at the Rusain border so there where about seven teams milling about. We got ourselevs sorted fairly quickly and pressed on, we hoped to reach Altay by the morning.
In reality our progress was quite a bit slower. We reached a wooden bridge on the road to khovd and just before crossing it the blue team started to notice a scraping sound. Once over the bridge they pulled over and had a look under the bonnet only to see the engine about 9 inches lower than it should be. The engine bracket had broken and the scraping noise was the engine dragging along the floor. After an hour or so of head scratching we managed to tie the engine up using ratchets straps and a couple of planks from the bridge. At this point the car was still drivable other than the heat from the engine would have melted the straps in about five minutes. We decided to tow the blue car with the white 4x4 and we limped the last 50km in Khovd. We stopped for the night just outside town. Mark and James from the green team were starting to really worry about catching their flight from Beijing on the 23rd. There was no way we would reach Ulaan Batur on the 22nd as the hoped. They decided to get a flight to UB and give their car to the blue team. The plan was to sell the blue car in Khovd and say godbye to Mark and James.
Within five minutes of arriving in Khovd we had effectively sold the blue car. This guy offeed $450 despite the fact the engine was being held in place with wood and straps. We were nearly engulfed by people wanting to buy the other two cars as well so we had to retreat to a side street to seal the deal. It took a long time to actually get to the money and documents part, but just a we had Mark and James found us. Its the end of the school holidays in Mongolia dn there was no way they could get a flight from here or the next town. There only option was to pay some guy a couple of hundred dollars to race them to UB in their car. It was a real shame to see the guys go, especially as it meant breaking up the team. The four of us that were left set off for Altay making reasonable progress until we got lost and started headinbg south through canyons towards the chinese border. We ended up sleeping up in mountains in the cars and had one of teh coldest nights yet.
Early next morning we set off for Altay again. After a while Rich and I noticed a loud rattling sound. We thought it was just our stuff in the back and tried to repack, but it wouldn't sort the problem. They guys in the car behind spotted the problem. Our rear right shock absorber had ripped away from the chassis. We limped to the next town to find a mechanic. One of the problem we had riving through Mongolia is the maps. For example we were making for a town called Ullan Tolgog o the map, but no one could direct us to it. When we got there we found the town was called Most and the hill in the middle was called Ulaan Tolgog. This explained why yesterday people had pointed us every diretion we asked for Bangerol. We thought it was a town but in reality it was a river than ran for thousands of kilometres so all their directions were correct in a way. Anyway while we got our car fixed a Mongolian family adopted us. We stayed in their gers, politely ate too much goats cheese and drank to much yaks milk. Everything in their diet was milk related and we all ended up feeling like we would never touch another drop of milk.
The next morning we again set of for Altay. We had a big strecth of dessert driving through the gobi whih was pretty tough as the roads were a joke, the cras got bogged down in sand and there were constant reminders that you were along way from water. All around lay the rotted crcasses of camels and horses that hadn't made it to the next watering hole. About 50km outside of Altay the blue team hit a boulder that was submerged in the sand. Before they hit it all they saw was the tip of the iceberg but as they drove into the sand the rock finished of the green car. The sump split in two and caved in back upto the engine. They lost all their engine oil and and at the same time the boulder had stapped the ball joints under the gearbox so the car was stuck in first. We had no option but to dump a lot of everyones kit and all five of us (including Friday who we had met in Most) had to climb into the white car and head to Altay. At this point the white car decided we were obviously taking it for greanted what with all the towing and oveloading. It started to overheat, we basically had to stop every five or six kilometeres to let the gine cool down on the way to Altay. We got there late in the evening and we had all made up our minds that enough was enough. It wasn't going to be safe to drive across 750 miles of desert and rough terrain with only one car, that had a cooling problem. It wasn't a problem we could fix either. Through a combination of racing, towing and a few too many river crossing we had burnt the cylinder rings. This meant the engine was now burning oil, which on the one hand looked impressive as we left clouds of smoke behind us that would impress the Red Arrows, but on the other hand it caused the engine to overheat and low speeds.
In Altay we met four other teams, two of them (both driving pandas) had also deicded to give up as their cars had no more life in them. We'd covered 8300 miles in just over 20 days across the worst roads you can imagine. This was a greater distance thatn any of us had thought the whole trip would be. In the end we'd just asked a bit too much from 15 year old cars, whose owners in the UK worry about wether they'll be able to get to the shops and back without breaking down. That night 12 of us drowned our sorrows in the "Red Rock Dico Karakoke" bar drinking beer and vodka until they turned all the power in the town off, just as I was in the middle of a Neil Diamond track - the ultimate snub.
The next morning we hired a minibus to get us to UB and sold another of the Pandas for $750. We were going to finish the trip even if the car couldn't make it. One of the remaing teams decided to take our white pnada as well as their car. It's got a reasoanble chance of making it in a convoy, especially if they keep an eye on the heat and keep it topped up with coolant. Rich and I knew we wouldn't be able to get to UB in time to get home though.
After 33 hours in a cramped minibus we are now in the capital sorting out our connections home and living it up for a couple of days. The rally has been enourmous fun and an incredible challenge, I can't see more than five of the origional forty cars making though. In the last thousand miles so many faults started happening, one litre cars are just not deisgned to take this kind of punishment.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Road to Ulaan Bataar

Vicky has sent me a text from Ben to say that eight of them have hired a mini bus and are now 700 km from Ulaan Bataar. They should arrive tomorrow so they can start sorting out their connections...I guess the white panda gave up too!

Death of a Panda....or two!

Vicky spoke to Ben yesterday afternoon - it seems two of the three pandas have died, and the white one is developing behavoural problems! The boys are okay if a little tired and demoralised. They had booked into a hotel for a rest and feed and bumped into several other rallyers in the same predicament. They are about 1000km from the finish and not sure if the panda will make it with Rich, Ben and two fellow panda drivers! The plan was to see if they could hire a minibus through the english speaking hotel owner to get everyone to Ulaan Bataar - we will let you know if this is what happens!

Friday, August 19, 2005

They've arrived...in Mongolia!


Thanks once again to Sue for letting me know that they have arrived! She received the following text from Rich:

"We passed into Mongolia yesterday [18/8]. Met five other teams at border. No roads here at all and it's wet!! Driving up, round and over mountains, compass all the way."

And more thanks to Sue for the smiley! She has also found the following: http://www.mongoliatourism.gov.mn/Discover%20Mongolia.pdf

Vicky received the following update from Ben: "Have made it to Mongolia. Mad place. This bit's like Wales with less roads, people and buildings but with much more stone. 1000 miles to go. Ben."

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Thanks once again to Sue for letting me know that Rich had sent the following text on Tuesday night: "The border was the complete opposite of hassle free. I ended up spending 24 Hrs on police custody on my own whilst others waited in vain at the border. Now OK! Fun! "

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Wrong border?

Another snippet via Josie to say they are fine, they got stuck in Kazahkstan for a day at the wrong border & they are going to the next one along...
Thanks to Sue for letting me know that at 8 am yesterday (monday) morning, the boys were "just approaching Russian border via secret unmarked route north of Leningorsk. 6500 miles on the clock."
Hopefully by now they should be fast approaching the mongolian border!

Sunday, August 14, 2005

"Driving up through the Qaraqum desert in central Kazakhstan. We had to stop in the middle to repair the blue car. Chris had snapped one of his rear shocks. Good job between us we have spares for nearly everything. 33 in the shade at the moment so the road is nice and shimmery. We've driven 6333 miles since the start of the rally. Only another 2500 by the looks of it.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Just had a message through Josie to say that they had spent last night in Almaty and just crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Astana

We've been driving through Kazakhstan for the past four days now. This countires huge. As soon as we got over the russian border the road ran out, so we spent the first four hours tearing along rally style dirt tracks. We soon got to Oral and drove preety much straight out again. Everything was going very easily... too easily. There was a sign over the road on the way out of Oral saying good luck in English and Russian. At the time I thought it was jst a nice thing to say. Now I realise they were being sincere. Our plan was to drive on the M32 down to Aktobe, and then straight down to Uzbekistan. The 400 mile trip to Aktobe took us two days. Average speeds were about 20km/h. The roads are awful on this stretch, there are Panda sized potholes round every corner. Our progress was made worse by the fact that the roads emptied by about 6:00pm and anyone you did see after then kept on trying to tell you to get off the roads before dark, and that you should come and stay with them. This got us all a bit suspicious and we ended one night trying to hide three Pandas in the middle of a tiny famring village. We obviously didn't hide them very well as all the locals came out and we had quite a job explaining to them what we were doing. On this road giant eagles sat like mile posts in the middle of the road and whenever you passed one it took off anbd flew alongside the cars until the territory of thge next eagle.
On Sunday we made it to Aktobe, but we were all quite un-nerved by the whole experience and the isolated nature of the roads. Luckily we met a couple of local guys who over a couple of beers set our minds to rest and answered all the questions we had. As a result of our chat we have changed route slightly. We decided not to continue down the M32 as it would have taken us weeks. We are therefore not going to Uzbekistan. Instead we took a non-existant road north to Kostanai. Although the motorway was on the map it was only just being built in reality. After a couple of hours we overtook the machine that was cutting the initial track. We were driving through arable land and desert, skirting the russian border and relying on compasses to keep us going in the right direction. Any vilage we did drive through was like a ghost town with only two or three people wandering about. The nigfht before there had a been a thunder storm so in patches the mud roads got very boggy. We all got stuck at some point or other including the 4x4 Panda, but it did redeem itself by towing one of the other cars out. At one point we were getting stuck every 100 yards which was pretty demoralising. The cars were taking a bit of a beating at this point. Eventually we made it to Kostania and the green car stopped in a garage for some repairs to the sump. Seems like they've made it worse but we'vce learnt a valuable lesson, if something needs fixing do it yourself. The mechanic who showed us to the welders bought us lunch and showed us all round town. We stayed last night in a place called Buraba, which is called little Switzerland. It has little mountains and a ginat lake and was really nice. We camped in the gatekeepers back yard, drank a few beers and got pestered by Russian kids with amazingly good English. This morning Chris' car wouldn't start, but after much head scratching we manageed to get it going by upgrading the entire ignition system with spare kit. This was our second potential show stopper and it felt pretty good to fix it ourslves.
It has been good roads ever since and we are now in Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan. We've got our Visa stamped at the OVIR and we are about to set off for Almaty, the old capital, and then probably dip down into Kyrgyzstan before racing back up for Mongolia. The plan is to get to Mongolia as early as possible and have a bit of camping and driving holiday around the base.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Mid way through Kazakstan

Just got a txt from James. Their having fun, currently in a garage getting the Pandas sump and exhaust welded back together. Apparently the garage has made it worse not better. Still I bet it's better than jimbos welding!! Keep it going lads. Not long now!

Monday, August 08, 2005

Sue has kindly let me know that they are safe and well in Kazakhstan after crossing the border early saturday morning and sleeping in a hedge!
The organisers website has a message from them at 2.14 on sunday saying: 'TMJ racing across kazakhstan after various episodes of clanking, flat tyres and bandit concerns. All good now, BBQ tonight and on the long trip to Almaty.'

Friday, August 05, 2005

Samara

Finally after no news for a couple of days I received the following text from Ben:
All is going well. In Samara in Southern Russia. We had to stay in the Marriott ***** last night as we had to get our visa registered and all other hotels were full. Tough choice: good night's sleep, twenty four hour bar and a pool, or face arrest at the border! We've had lots of trouble with police. Can't wait to get out of Russia. Its about 36 degrees here now and rising as we head south. Next stop Kazakhstan. Big thanks to Alexei for all his help.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Russia

We made it to Moscow last night, where we slept in the car for a few hours. In the city this morning - have visited Red Square, etc. Sun is blazing and we are going to press on for Kazakstan, hopefully arrivng at the border tonight. To be honest, I cant wait to get out of Russia - the police are dreadful and you would not believe how many there are of them. You can guarantee to see a police car every few miles. We got stopped yesterday afternnon for speeding and all 3 cars were fined (even though we were the slowest cars on the road - getting overtaken by lorries). Then we got stopped again last night and had all our paperwork checked again by a police man with a Kalashnikof. He turned out to be quite a nice guy as all the cecking was done at the police station. It is the dodgy bribes that go on at the side of the road we have to be very careful of.
Will hopefully post from Kazakstan - my phone no longer has GPRS so I cant use for e-mails, so will be reliant on internet cafes and text messages.

The Long Arm of Ivan Law

Within five minutes of getting into the drivers seat in Russia we got pulled by some traffic cops. Apparently I was speeding through a town. One of those towns where there are no buildings or people, just trees. Anyway, it cost me and Chris 15 Euros each, and didn't help lift our mood after the border. It's pretty intimidating being bollocked by a guy who you don't understand and who doesn't understand you. What he was doing was entirely illegal, but he had an AK so i wasn't really going to argue.
A few hundred kilometres later we got pulled into a checkpint. This time we got on really well with the cops and they all came out to look at the cars and talk about the rally. It was reassuring to know that some of them are nice people. Still not worth getting on theirt wrong side. All documents have to be carried at all time, failure to do so can result in a 150 dollar fine. I only found this out today in Moscow when we had already left the car. Luckily I've got all the bits I need but some of the guys haven't and it's a long walk back to the car. That's if the car is still there when we get back. There's also a fairly good chance our Russian chums will help us out by reducing the racing weight of the car by taking all the luggage inside but leaving the car. If that happens, it might be a bit of a mixed blessing.

Rally updates - all competitors

Now that we are into Russia, my mobile phone has ceased working as an emailing device - so the updates will probably be shorter from now on. A good way to keep in touch with how everyone is doing (not just us) is to look at the Mongol Rally update site, where people are texting in with progress.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

On the road to Moscow

Latest text from Ben: "We've driven through the night, and have had a lot of fun driving through empty Lithuanian roads whilst the sun came up. All three cars have made it through the Russian border, which was a once in a lifetime experience. It is a real shame we have to do it another three times. Heading towards Moscow now."

Monday, August 01, 2005

1st to Prague!!!! Here comes russia

The lads are doing well. They had arrived in Prague by sunday breakfast (1sy car to arrive they proudly inform me). They should now hopefully be through Poland. Lets hope they haven't met any of the local wild life. Not sure what would come off worse, the animal or the Panda.

The dash to prague

Late yesterday afternoon we arrived in Prague. It was the conclusion of a serious bit of endurance driving - all the way from the ferry in Boulogne, through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany and finally the Czech Republic. So far we've had no real problems with the cars. Highlights included a cracking night drive - even passing the Stella brewery when we took a wrong turn and ended up in Leuven. It was also great fun whizzing along the German autobahn as the sun came up. The only stops we had through the while night and day were for fuel and toilet. By the time we got to Prague we were all absolutely destroyed and so there was no option really but to find a room and stay the night. The first part of the journey was too exciting for us to think about sleeping so we didn't - and it had clearly taken its toll. So last night was spent having a couple of gentle beers, traditional Czech food, and a jolly good sleep. The net result was that we felt really refreshed this morning and much less like zombies. We've decided to make more of an effort to actually sleep whilst not driving - so we won't be totally dead on our feet in 36 hours time - hopefully! This morning we hooked up with the green panda team - who had got an earlier ferry than us originally and then disappeared in a blaze of rubbish car glory, not to be seen again til Prague. Today we set off with Poland in our sights - the first 'new' country for me. As i'm writing this now we've made it into Poland and are dashing to Warsaw. The roads are hilarious. In towns there's bumpy cobble stones and out of town its all rutted single track roads littered with a combination of lorries and really old fiats. Throw in a few trams as well and it makes for good fun. The country is beautiful. Quite flat, very rural, forests and the occasional rolling hill. The border guards were really nice too - only took thirty seconds and they wished us luck. Our under powered convoy isn't exactly scything through the traffic - though we are trying. Consequently we're likely to be driving Poland all day long, though i am hoping we'll creep into Lithuania late tonight. Amazing! The rally has already claimed some early victims. The legendary reliant robin had an alternator failure in Calais, which must have been gutting - but i've no doubt they're using their best French to try and resolve it today. One of the jeeps has bowed out with a clutch failure and the roamer home kissed goodbye to its gearbox. With luck on our side, we trundle on.

Prague

They made the first checkpoint - High Tea in Prague! Ben texted Josie last night to say that were in Prague and that they were very tired and ready for some well earned sleep.
Just had another text; "Just leaving Prague, heading for Warsaw and then Vilnius. Starting to get hot now and very eastern european. Dined on boar and cabbage last night."