The weak Mongolian sunshine had been trickling through the window for half a day before it coaxed me from an empty sleep. Consciousness came slowly, my heavy inertia gradually giving way to a rasping thirst. I rubbed my eyes, sat up and glanced around. Yet another dingy hotel room swam into focus, and I remembered little of it from our arrival the night before - two sagging beds, a worn carpet, beige walls and some throwaway wooden furniture. The usual fare. I noticed some money resting on the television; a few dollars and a couple of thousand Togrog which Anthony must have left when he hurried to catch his flight at five that morning. I quietly thanked him, imagining how tough it must have been to embark on the long journey back to Britain after only three hours sleep; especially after what we’d just been through.
My battered old rucksack was resting in the corner of the room. It had been thrown down in many such corners over the previous month. I retrieved a toothbrush and set about removing the coarse, unpleasant taste of dehydration from my mouth, then washed my face for the first time in five days. The cold water cut through my mind’s sluggishness as the sink ran black with oil, petrol, sweat and grease.
It was over.
I’d actually done it.
A smile crept across my unkempt face, as pangs of disbelief ricocheted through my mind.
'Have I really just driven half way around the world, from England to Mongolia, in that pensionable little Mini?'
Of course I had. The previous four weeks and ten thousand miles had been no dream. Despite this, I indulgently let the disbelieving questions continue to race through my mind. They generated a warm sense of pride, and increased the heady sense of achievement.
'Did we really just drive for forty hours non-stop across Siberia, with almost no headlights, to get Brummy to his flight?'
Memories of the journey started surging through my mind, vivid snapshots of places and people, laden with emotions. They revitalised me like smelling salts. The smile on my face grew as our accomplishment slowly sank in. I continued to wash. The cold water, white porcelain and clinical lighting seemed luxurious after what felt like a grimy lifetime on the road.
Once clean, I fumbled together a coffee and turned on the television. An old British film flickered onto the screen. It was 1940 and the brave few were flying their Spitfires over the home counties, chattering away enthusiastically in Chinese as they did so. On the surface, I chuckled at the primitive dubbing but inside me a wave of homesickness was triggered. Brummy would be at Moscow Airport by now, already halfway back to England. I envied him.
After finishing the coffee, I wandered outside. Daisy, my cute white Mini, sat patiently in front of the hotel. She looked battered, yet ever defiant and ready for more. Her electrics had failed two thousand miles ago and her suspension had collapsed in the Kazakh wilderness; but she had done it. Over the previous month she had fought across fourteen countries, through deserts and steppes, over mountains and rivers. She had been our home, our team-mate and our friend. She had spoken to us and we’d responded. We had learned to tell when she was fine and when she was struggling. We felt bad when we treated her roughly, and pride when she performed well. I was sure that back home, nobody would understand this bond - with a car? But I didn’t care. It had been real. I knew then that I would miss her.
After stealing a last glance at Daisy, I drifted off into town. I didn’t want to linger. Maybe a part of me felt guilty for what I’d put her through. Maybe I knew that without the electrics being fixed her engine wouldn’t start and it saddened me. I left her to rest, to have a day off. She had earned it.
As I neared the city centre, Ulaanbataar bustled exotically around me to a gradually increasing tempo. Introverted by my fatigue, I was sadly numb to its charms. Another Soviet influenced city, a vision of decaying communist ideals stamped upon an unenthused, individualistic society. We had passed through many such places during our journey, and here at the finish, tiredness and the heady feeling of accomplishment outweighed any pleasures to be had from exploring. I felt strangely detached from my surroundings, as if experiencing them from within a vacuum.
Among the unloved buildings, a broad mix of people went about their day. Monks in flowing saffron robes chatted eagerly in small, busy groups. Self-conscious businessmen hurried about, their clothing and mannerisms pandering to the Western professional. Crumbling taxis and primitive busses jostled all around, pumping fumes into the laden air, which mixed with the dust to soften the sun’s focus. Floating on the temporary feeling of invincibility that comes from achieving a difficult, long cherished dream, I drifted on through the city’s turbulent heart.
As I wandered, I sought out a bank that would accept my cash card. It was futile. Through the tiredness, it dawned on me that I was stuck thousands of miles from home, with almost no money and no easy means to get any. I wasn’t worried though. I’d overcome worse problems in the previous four weeks. I’d be able to sort it out. It would be fine.
Confidently, I dropped into a particularly homely looking Irish bar, spent the last of my cash on an ice cold beer and relaxed. Everything in Mongolia seemed to carry the ‘Genghis’ moniker, but his beer at least was unexpectedly good. I sat contentedly, watching the world go by as the previous month continued to race through my mind.
* * *
We had just completed the 2006 Mongol Rally, an anarchic yearly event in which entrants attempt to drive from Europe to Mongolia in the most inappropriate vehicle possible.
I had heard about the rally a year previously and thought it looked like a tremendous challenge. Fortuitously, I’d mentioned it in passing to a friend named Lee over a beer. Two days later I glanced out of my flat window, only to see him parking a quirky red Mini outside, with a huge grin on his face.
‘Looks like we’re going to Mongolia then,’ I said excitedly in greeting.
‘Marvellous!’ he replied, still bearing his trademark grin.
I soon splashed out the grand total of four hundred pounds on a white Mini and talked my friend Tiffany into co-driving with me. Meanwhile, Brummy had joined forces with Lee in his little car.
The following summer, armed with little more than our two ancient Minis, an intimidating pile of maps and several rolls of gaffa tape, we set off into the unknown.
Despite the maps, within minutes of crossing the start line in London a wrong turn led to us getting thoroughly lost and we were an hour late for our ferry to France - a fairly inauspicious start by anyone’s standards. Undeterred, we were soon surging off the ferry onto the continent, full of the unshakable confidence of the naive. Striking out east, Western Europe was crossed rapidly, as we savoured the smooth tarmac and reached Prague within twenty four hours of our departure.
From Prague, we nursed hangovers north into Poland, then curved through the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia to the Russian border, where a curtain of indecipherable bureaucracy hung in our path. For hours, we tried to force a way through the seemingly impenetrable red tape of immigration and customs. The paperwork was all penned in Cyrillic script and the language barrier often seemed like a brick wall. Then, worryingly, a tear was found on the photo page of my passport and I was led away by a gun toting ‘Babushka’ to explain myself.
‘If you hear a gunshot, run,’ Tiffany suggested to the others as I disappeared for my interrogation. Fortunately there was an English speaking guard at the border and I was able to talk myself out of the predicament, with a vague promise to go to the British Embassy in Moscow to resolve the issue.
Eventually, we were allowed through the austere barriers into Russia, the setting sun casting our Minis’ shadows far into the surrounding plain. A bossy policeman pulled us over as the sky darkened, and insisted we follow him to a certain hotel. My paranoid mind swam heavy with outdated thoughts of bugged rooms and informers.
Heading up to St Petersburg, we marvelled at the beautiful neo-classical architecture as we gradually adjusted to the change in culture. A terrifying night drive then took us along the fractured tarmac to Moscow, dodging blinding trucks and aggressive locals all the way. We recovered from the ordeal by wandering around Red Square for a day, a surreal experience given the mutual suspicions which had distanced this nation from the West for most of the previous century. Back on the road, the unfamiliar landscape phased through dense forests and relaxing farmlands, before morphing into a featureless steppe at the Kazakh border. Northern Kazakhstan passed in a blur of road works and semi-desert, and before we knew it we were arcing south towards the Aral Sea, on one of the more notorious roads this planet has to offer.
For two hundred miles, the rough tarmac had fractured in a manner one would think to be achievable only through bombardment. It seemed impossible that our little Minis could meet the challenge, but nonetheless, we pushed on blindly through the forty degree heat. The few locals seemed to have the right idea, driving on the open desert to either side of the tortured road. Joining them, we surfed our little Minis through the sand, savouring the adventure. Both of our cars lost their exhausts in the empty desert but we simply tied them back on using speaker cable and carried on. We camped out in the sands that night, with only stars and camels for company, and reached the town of Aralsk the following day.
Once a busy fishing port on the shores of the Aral Sea, the town’s fortunes had faded since the 1970s, when overbearing Soviet planners had diverted the sea’s inlets in an attempt to irrigate cotton fields to the southeast. The scheme failed and the sea began to dry up, shrinking so much that the port of Aralsk was soon twenty miles from its shores. It made for a sad sight. The carcasses of abandoned fishing boats lay decomposing in the sand, while a mosaic of dead marine life crunched beneath our feet as we walked, a poignant reminder of the futility of man’s attempts to dominate the natural world.
Morosely, we left the bleak dustbowl and continued to Shymkent, where one of the red Mini’s wheel bearings chose to go no further. With little common language, broken down in a world where Minis don’t exist, we found ourselves staring failure in the face. Nothing we tried seemed to work, until eventually, Lee found a solution. We got hold of the equivalent part from an old Russian Lada, which wouldn’t quite fit, and jammed into position using bits of a drinks can as crude spacers, enabling us hit the road again.
That evening we crossed out of Kazakhstan but the Uzbek border had already closed for the day, leaving us trapped between the two countries. Nervously, we slept in no man’s land, cooped up in the locked cars, while shifty soldiers with machine guns wandered around us, and took a worryingly deep interest in my blonde co-driver.
Once we finally made it into Uzbekistan, the glorious town of Samarqand inspired us all. Well, all except Brummy that is, whose delicate insides were too busy being ‘Uzbek’ed’, preventing him from going more than ten feet from the sanctuary of a bathroom. The red Mini’s brakes had packed up the previous day, so Lee worked on them while Tiffany and I took in the sights. The Registan, a complex of Madrasahs completed in the sixteenth century, stood bold against the steel blue sky, the intricacy of its details lending it a gravitas unmatched by more modern structures. We visited Tamerlane’s grandiose Bibi-khanym Mosque and marvelled at the iridescent skyline of blue domes floating above the city. It felt good to take a break from the endless cycle of roads, repairs, stress and sleep. We were able to turn off our minds and drift through our time there. For the first time on the trip, we relaxed.
The look on the hostel owner’s face said it all. When he apologetically held up the remains of my passport I understood immediately.
'How could I be so stupid as to have left it in my trouser pocket and then put the damn trousers through the washing machine?'
I felt sick. I could tell Tiffany was angry. Lee couldn’t stop giggling like a schoolgirl and as for Brummy, well, fortunately Brummy was still far too ill to even consider bringing his razor sharp wit to bear. We picked through the remains. Evidently passports aren’t machine washable. My visas were tattered, but at least vaguely legible, however the car ownership documents were also in my pocket. Gone.
The next morning we sheepishly headed up to the British Embassy in Tashkent, convinced our journey was over. Our visas expired that day, so we needed to find a solution fast as the corrupt police state of Uzbekistan is not a place to be on the wrong side of the authorities. Through the bulletproof glass and heavy security, I nervously explained the problem. The embassy staff could do nothing about the tattered visas, but were at least able to provide me with a temporary passport. As for the car’s ownership documents, a computer printout, taken from a scan we had, would have to suffice. I doubted this would get us to Mongolia, but had no choice but to try.
Lee and Brummy had already gone on ahead, through the Fergana Valley to Kyrgyzstan. It was too late to follow them, so instead we rushed north, back to Kazakhstan, where we were nervously able to explain our way across the border in the nick of time, only a few hours before our Uzbek visas expired.
A week later, the two Minis were reunited in a peaceful meadow just inside Russia. Daisy’s rear suspension had collapsed but a temporary repair, using a climbing sling and some ratchet straps, had kept us moving. However Babs, as the red Mini was affectionately known, was suffering much more. Its brakes remained untrustworthy and a section of one of its axles had sheared, requiring the whole assembly to be drilled and then pinned together with a piece of car jack. Finally, the engine was sounding very ill and burning oil as though it were going out of fashion. It was still soldiering on though, so we limped across Siberia together, losing time every few hundred miles when yet another repair would inevitably be required. And so it was that Brummy found himself with fifty hours in which to get across the Mongolian border and catch his flight home. We still had almost two thousand miles to go. Action was needed, so Brummy joined me in ‘reliable’ Daisy, and Tiffany reluctantly swapped over to join Lee in the seemingly terminal red Mini. Goodbyes were said and off we raced towards the Mongolian border.
Siberia is a vast, ominous place. We inched through its foreboding nothingness for two days straight; day and night, non-stop. Unfriendly skies taunted us with squally showers, while the isolating blackness of each night seemed to last a lifetime. The failing electrics on the car meant our lights were dim as glow-worms, our wipers sluggish beyond belief. We couldn’t stop the engine as not enough charge was being accumulated to power the starter motor.
Inexorably, we crawled onwards through the grimy industrial towns dotting Russia’s great wilderness of forest and taiga. Krasnayorask, Irktusk, and Ulan Ude crept bleakly past our windows before, exhausted, we reached the Mongolian border in the nick of time - only two hours before it closed for the weekend. We made it across with minutes to spare and were soon trying to navigate into Ulaanbaatar with what was left of our feeble headlights. Our ten thousand mile journey was over with only five hours in hand before Brummy’s flight left. Somehow, we had done it.
* * *
My beer was empty but it was time. I phoned the bank in England to get some money wired to Mongolia and continued to watch Ulaanbaatar thrum by. I didn’t expect the red Mini to arrive for another few days and was settling in for a relaxing wait. Already, life was different from a month before. The fatigue hadn’t yet lifted but my thoughts were already racing away into the future. I had just completed the most audacious achievement of my life, but knew with absolute certainty that I would surpass it in the future. I had no idea how, only that I would.
My mind fizzed with excitement at the prospect.
* * *
This description of our drive to Mongolia is taken from the Preface of 'Survival of the Quickest' - My book describing the African Porsche Expedition, available on Amazon...