How I wound up Driving to Mongolia in a Micra, with an Irish bloke I met in a ukrainian strip club (it was the hotel bar!)
After the Plymouth - Banjul Challenge at the start of the year, and then the Mille Miglia in May, I really hadn't planned on a third rally in 2007! My friend Dave had entered the Mongol Rally and invited me along to the launch party at the Ace Café, 2 weeks before his departure. It was at the Ace café that I met Simon, he had entered the rally but with 2 weeks to go found himself with no co-driver. "You should come Fee!" Dave suggested. Simon looked at me pleadingly. He had already paid his entrance fee and bought a car but was finding the idea of driving 10,000 miles alone pretty daunting.
I had wanted to visit Mongolia since flying over the country on my way to Australia almost a decade before. Looking down from the planes windows all I could see was a vast wilderness, no cities at all, just green meadows, rocky mountains, snow capped peaks and golden desert. I desperately wanted to go but apart from the expense involved there were the issues of getting time off work and obtaining the necessary visas. "I'm not promising anything" I told Simon "But, and it's a big but; IF I can get the time off work, borrow the money on my credit card and get the visas I need in time, then I'll come."
The Rally criteria stated that all cars must be under 1000cc, Simon had chosen a Suzuki SJ. With 4x4 capability the SJ seemed a good choice for the rough terrain ahead.
Simon's Suzuki SJ
Everything fell into place and my managers agreed to let me have a month off work . I also needed visas for Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia; with only two weeks to go I didn't have time to organise these myself and I couldn't have asked for more time off work when they were already being so understanding. I called the Travcour visa service who assured me if I could drop off my passport to their Battersea office that day and fill in the relevant forms then they could obtain all my visas, ready for me to collect before the deadline. It was cutting it fine but two weeks later when Simon picked me up in the SJ, I was ready to go with my passport all in order.
Simon had spent hours packing his belongings in the back of the convertible Suzuki SJ, everything had it's place, unfortunately he had forgotten that I would also have luggage. He pulled everything out of the car and began packing again. I tried to help but invariably didn't put things where he felt they should go and they were ejected again. His parents were following us to the start line and urged him to hurry or we would miss the other entrants setting off from Battersea Park. At least it was an area of London I knew well, having lived there for over 4 years when I first moved to the city at the age of 20. We made it to the start just as the other entrants were setting off but local knowledge meant we were clear of London and on the road to the Channel Tunnel terminal ahead of most of the other teams.
A few of the other teams
We were cruising along on the motorway, heading for Ashford, when Simon declared there was something wrong with the car. It seemed fine to me but he was driving so I asked what the problem was. "It's making a noise." he declared. I listened but couldn't hear anything abnormal, it sounded exactly as it had since we set off. I asked if it felt any different to drive and Simon said that, no, it didn't. It transpired that Simon had never driven an older car before and had only recently passed his driving test; I probably should have asked these questions before agreeing to drive 10,000 miles with him in an unknown car. We took turns behind the wheel and the SJ was running great, that didn't stop Simon's paranoia at every little noise though. "I promise I'll tell you if I hear anything out of the ordinary." I assured him.
That didn't happen until a few days later when we arrived in Kiev and Simon didn't need me to tell him something was wrong. Quite suddenly a loud grinding noise emanated from the engine compartment. Simon, an Oxford University engineering graduate, pulled over and open the bonnet. He couldn't see anything wrong but closed the bonnet declaring "Well that's the rally over for us then. I thought we would have got further than Ukraine."
I was stunned; Claire and I had a lot of problems with our old Beetle on the way to Gambia but we had never given up. There was obviously something very wrong with the car but we were close to the hotel where other rally entrants were staying. The car park of the hotel was full of rally cars, including two other Suzuki SJ's. The lads spotted that the noise was being caused by the fan rubbing against it's housing they couldn't see why that was happening but loosened the housing to reduce the noise.
The next day as the other rally entrants departed we were stuck in Kiev looking for a garage. The hotel receptionist made some calls and gave me a map. We struggled to find the garage until I suggested we stop by a taxi rank and pay one of the drivers to lead us to the garage.
One of the engine mounts had worked loose, causing it to drop slightly, hence the fan rubbing. The garage jacked the engine up to it's usual height and reattached the mount with fresh bolts. They checked the other mounts too and only asked for 10 Euros for their trouble. Simon was so pleased that his rally wasn't over that he paid them double.
We were back on the road but a long way behind the other teams. After experiencing an actual problem with the car Simon's paranoia had reached new levels; that and his habit of spending hours rearranging the luggage each day were driving me quietly insane. I was determined to catch up with the other teams for some less OCD company. We found the right road out of Kiev, it was a nice, smooth, tarmacked motorway......for about 20 miles, then it degenerated into a rough, potholed country lane. Simon wanted to stop for the night, or go back to Kiev, as there were no hotels. "It's fine." I said, we were already a long way behind the others, "You sleep, I'll drive, I feel fine." In truth I was quite tired but kept myself awake by drinking coke and Berocca; if the sugar and vitamins weren't enough to keep me awake then a full bladder was! It was 5am when we crossed the border into Russia and caught up with 4 other teams we'd been travelling with before our breakdown. We spotted their cars in the car park of the first hotel we saw. Then saw that they were asleep in their cars; apparently the hotel was full! We grabbed a few hours sleep then, when the others woke, continued across Russia together.
The SJ had broken down a few times in Russia but the other teams we travelled with were very helpful and able to fix it at the roadside. After only two nights we arrived at the Kazakh border. Tensions were rising in the car; I hadn't been impressed by Simon patronising me for not understanding the Cyrillic alphabet when we arrived in Russia and I wasn't the only one frustrated by the amount of time he spent rearranging our luggage before we could set off each day. At the last shop before the border I bought a crate of beer for everyone, as a thank you to them for being so patient and for fixing the SJ. I asked Simon if he could buy another 6 litres of water. When we camped in Kazakhstan that night I discovered he had bought no water. The roads were so bad that we had travelled only 20 miles in one day. It was hot and we had seen no towns, some of the others had already run out of water so I shared out the 2 litres we had left. I couldn't exactly leave them without but this started an argument with Simon. "I've had enough." I told Aaron. "Next town we come to I'm jumping on a train." Aaron offered to come with me; he was travelling with his best friend but couldn't drive himself and didn't think his team mate, Maso, would mind. Maso had a better idea, Aaron and Simon were on a tighter schedule than us; if they travelled on together then we could team up and take the more interesting, scenic route across Western Mongolia. It was a great idea and meant we all stayed on friendly terms.
Maso was driving a Nissan Micra sponsored by Feckin Irish Whiskey, hence the team name Feckin Irish Rovers. The car was only slightly modified with a roof rack, made out of 4 shopping trolleys, and a snorkel to the air filter, made out of a drain pipe.
The roads had potholes so big that the Mini in our group could fit in some of them! Often the surface was so bad that we used dirt tracks instead of the main carriageway; sometimes the dirt tracks were the main carriageway. When we did find a tarmac section of road it had melted in the heat so our feet stuck to the surface. Truck tyres constantly driving over the sticky surface caused big ridges to form in the tar which became solid again when the temperature dropped. The ridges scraped the bottom of the car and the potholes jarred. We camped in fields alongside the road as we steered the group towards Russia and the promise of smooth roads.
The roads were smoother in Russia but the journey didn't get any easy. Heavy rain caused flash flooding in the city of Omsk; then Kate and Varnish got into an accident. No one was badly hurt and the damage to their polo was repairable. The police were called but the bus driver was happy to accept a cash payment as compensation. Meanwhile Maso and I were scouring the town to find accommodation. A big conference in the city meant every hotel was full. Asking locals, and following them through some very dodgy areas, led us to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hostel! It was a shabby place, with some tasteful artwork on the walls, frequented mainly by military personnel but it was cheap and comfortable enough for one night. The rest of the group were certainly glad we'd found somewhere after what had turned into on of our tougher days.
In Russia the group split; Simon and Aaron didn't have time to take the long route across Western Mongolia. They and a team in a Bedford Rascal van took a more northerly route through Russia .
Maso and I, in his Micra, and the rest of our little convoy chose the tougher option through the remote wilderness of Western Mongolia. To get there we first had to pass through the beautiful Altai Mountains with chocolate box views at every turn; I kept expecting Julie Andrews to run over a nearby hill!
We all laughed at the basic facilities when we arrived at the Mongolian border; a wooden hut with a hole in the floor, perched over an open pit! In days to come we could only dream of such luxury as we dug our own holes!
Our first night in Mongolia was everything I imagined it would be when flying overhead all those years before. We set up camp with nothing to be seen for miles around; which didn't stop curious local children appearing, followed by their parents who brought vodka! Having tried their Vodka, Maso thought it only polite to return the courtesy and introduce them to some Irish Whiskey. The language barrier was no obstacle where alcohol was concerned and we soon had a party on our hands. As darkness fell we were treated to a sky even more mesmerising than the landscape around us. I never realised the effects of light pollution till that moment; the sky was so full of stars that there was barely any black between them.
The next day we met our first Bactrian camels. In Africa I had seen plenty of single humped Dromedaries but it was the first time I had met any of their twin humped Asian cousins. They were bigger and their coats shaggier than their African counterparts, to protect against the harsh cold of a Mongolian winter; we were discovering summer temperatures weren't too warm either as we shivered in our tents at night!
From the rocky mountains of Mordor the landscape opened up into endless scrubland and sandy plains. The dirt track that passed for a road soon disappeared and we found ourselves following telegraph poles as the most reliable form of navigating from town to town.
Following telegraph poles proved the most reliable means of navigation
The Camomile grass released an intoxicating odour as we drove across the meadows but was soon covered by ice from a freak hailstorm. It was two steps forward and one step back as we struggled half way up the white slopes before sliding back to the bottom in our under-powered cars. Maso and I made it to the crest first and finally, the last of our group, the little Mini joined us too.
The next obstacle thrown in our path was a deep river crossing. We had forded plenty of smaller rivers on our journey but this looked deeper. The lads in the Mini waded into the water to test the depth and confirmed our fears. This was the river which had defeated Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman on their 'Long Way Round' adventure, forcing them to ride south for 2 days to a shallower crossing point. It was looking as if we would have to do the same, until some Mongolian truck drivers arrived and offered to tow us through. With the cars not running there was no danger of sucking water into the air intakes. It seemed like the right decision as water rose up to the level of the Micra's windscreen, thankfully it was watertight and we reached the far side with dry feet. The only car that struggled to start after the drenching was the Mini but with three engineers on board it was soon dried out and on its way again.
We were back on the set of The Hobbit as we drove through the Shire, rolling grassy hills with round, white ger tents dotted haphazardly across the vista. It was a tranquil landscape which could easily lull you in to a false sense of security, even when traversing it in a car more suited to the weekly shopping trip. It's not somewhere you can relax for long though, Maso's Micra had proved the most reliable car in the group but there was nothing we could do about punctures and the sharp rocks pierced another of our tyres. Fortunately Maso had brought plenty of spares. Within a few minutes of stopping to change it, yep, a Mongolian cowboy came riding over. This no longer surprised us but we were shocked when he spoke fluent English and invited us over to his families ger! Dean and Dave accepted the invite while the rest of us fixed our cars or made lunch.
Puncture almost fixed I went in search of Dean and Dave. I approached the door of the ger I'd seen them go into and was immediately invited inside. Dean and Dave sat on wood framed sofas, surrounded by the cowboy and his family. "Please, have a seat.' the cowboy motioned to a space on the bench beside an elderly lady. He handed me a bowl of cloudy liquid, fermented mares milk he said. I took a sip but the old lady indicated that I should drink it down in one go. The cowboy nodded, that was indeed what she meant. I shrugged my shoulders and downed what felt like at least 80% proof alcohol as it burned the back of my throat! I was handed a second bowl, this one was homemade vodka; again the old lady mimed that I should drink it in in one go. It had a delicate flowery taste and went down much easier than the mares milk. The entire family roared with laughter and the old lady applauded me! The cowboy grinned "We believe if someone can drink like that then they are a strong man." He nodded at Dean and Dave "They didn't do it." Maso would have to drive for the rest of the day though; my head was spinning!
We enlisted the help of locals again when two of our four car convoy were struggling in soft sand. The two Micra's ploughed through with relative ease but the Polo lacked the required power and the Mini's low profile was causing them problems. We were learning that no matter how far from civilisation we think we are, if we stop for a few minutes a nomad on horseback will soon appear. This time it was a group of curious children, riding over to see us on their horses. They didn't speak English but instinctively knew what to do; using their horses they towed the two cars to firmer ground. I handed them Chuppa lollies; sweets which would have been a very rare treat for them in the wilderness, and they rode off with smiles on their faces. Minutes later they returned, chasing after us on their horses with a gift......a big bag full of the sour tasting hard cheese which seemed to be the staple diet in these parts.
Maso was not impressed with this trade. We had been offered the foul tasting cheese at every ger we passed, which we politely ate so as not to cause offense, and now we had a big bag of the stuff! I had a plan; we stopped in a small village which had a petrol station. We all needed to refuel but were soon surrounded by friendly locals. Before they could offer us any hospitality I quickly produced our bag of cheese and offered it to them. They seemed confused at this role reversal but graciously shared the cheese around. It worked a treat, by being the first to offer cheese we were spared having to eat any more of it!
Given the propensity for cheese consumption we were overwhelmed when we met a family on the road who gave us biscuits and fresh apples! It was the first fruit we had seen in Mongolia. It's such high altitude that fruit and veg don't grow, nor do trees which made finding wood for a camp fire an impossibility. Nights in Mongolia were cold so we had to improvise to keep warm. We had been burning our rubbish and found if we used that as kindling we could burn the drier pats of yak dung. A little anti-bacterial hand gel with its high alcohol content helped to get the poo burning; I don't think I will ever get the smell out of my clothes though!
The rocky tracks were really taking their toll on the Micra's tyres; we had another puncture but were reluctant to change it for our last good spare before we reached better roads. We couldn't explain this to the cheery pair of Mongol bikers who rode by. They pulled puncture repair kits and tyre irons from their boots and insisted on fixing our puncture. Then they stood up cigarette packets to teach us to shoot with their rifles. They didn't speak English but, when we showed them on the map that we were heading for Ulan Gom, they got us to follow them into town and to their home. It was a small walled compound containing one brick building, a ger and an outhouse. Ordinarily I would greet a tin shack with wooden planks over a cess pit with trepidation but these were the first facilities we'd found since the border that we didn't have to dig ourselves!
Our new friends invited us into the ger for dinner; there was no way we could refuse after hearing the goat slaughtered in our honour, it would have caused huge offense. After dinner Maso popped to the shop across the road and bought ice creams for the whole family. It was a locally made ice cream which tasted very salty. Most of them were later spotted discarded in the cess pit or under cars; it seemed the locals didn't like them either! Ulan Gom was the largest settlement we had come across since entering Mongolia; it had a bank and shops where we could replenish our supplies before our hosts showed us the right road out of town toward our final destination of Ulan Bataar.
Once out of town we were soon in the wilds again, though there had been some attempt to build roads which was still ongoing in places. During one diversion around a long stretch of road building it was our turn to come to the aid of others. A minibus full of Spanish tourists had fallen foul of a deep drainage ditch. We did our best to pull them out, putting stones under their wheels and strips of carpet behind the tyres to give better traction. They tried to reverse out while we tried to drag them out with tow ropes but to no avail. Eventually we were able to flag down a large 4x4 to assist with the towing and they were free. The delay meant we were now tight on time for getting to Ulan Bataar but they did give us a nice bottle of vodka as a thank you for stopping to help.
We arrived in the Mongolian capital at 9pm; I had to be at the airport for my flight home for 7am. We headed straight to the bar which had become the unofficial headquarters of the Mongol Rally. Jack Osborne, son of Ozzy and Sharon Osborne, was there. He'd taken part in the Mongol Rally as part of a TV series he was making called Adrenaline Junkies. He'd come the 'easy' route, rather than across Western Mongolia as we had, but had broken down on the final leg of the journey. He'd left the car at the roadside and travelled the last 50 miles or so in his camera support vehicle. A few hours later some other teams had come across his car, got it started and delivered it to him in Ulan Bataar........this little detail was missing when the documentary was aired and Jack was seen to arrive at the finish victorious!
When the bar closed the party continued in the hotel suite of another team we'd met; they were pleased to have beaten young Mr Osborne to the best suite in the best hotel in town and happy to put up those of us who had been unable to find rooms or who, like me had early morning flights to catch.