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Mongolia – Where the rally really began

Russia was a surprising blend of pristine tarmac, rolling woodland and men in tiny shorts. It provided some great camping spots including one right next to a beautiful river, but Mongolia is where the rally really began in earnest.

Russia

Russia

When crossing the border from Russia to Mongolia we found ourselves in a 20km no man’s land. Finally leaving the Russian controlled territory it became pretty apparent what Mongolian roads were like as we hit a massive gravel track. Seriously, the lovely tarmac runs right up to the border fence and then just stops.

Mongolia has two roads, the Northern Route and the Southern Route, no prizes for guessing what separates the two. We opted for South as it’s a bit longer but we’d also heard rumours that the road was slightly better.

Mongolian town/province enterance

Mongolian town/province entrance – note the tarmac roads!

Sure enough the first 100km of the Southern Route was in fact brand new tarmac, but not before long we on the potholed dirt tracks. 

Mongolian contrasting landscape

Mongolian contrasting landscape

The Road Gods

Throughout Mongolia we kept coming across these shrines, which we deemed as offerings to the Mongolian Road gods, we kept meaning to leave something at one of these shrines, but somehow managed to forget every single time. Probably why further down the line in Mongolia we had car troubles. (These are more likely to be also town or provincial boarders, but shrines to road gods made much more sense after facing them).

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Living on the road

Since Mongolia is such a vast country when we passed through little towns we would stock up on supplies, the essentials water, bread and food for dinner.We camped under the stars for the first 5 nights in from Russia to Mongolia. After 6 days of no washing, and unexpected visitors in the night to our tents (horses, mice) we managed to find a hotel that offered a cold shower, giving some comfort. No matter how much we washed, more and more dust seemed to run off in that shower. The great thing we found was that we could drive and drive and when we felt like stopping and setting up camp we could. The camping also meant we could attend to our male egos and build a camp  fire, Russia was much easier as there was an abundance of wood to burn, Mongolia however was a challenge, as the majority of was endless desert.

Russia - Camping by a river

Russia – Camping by a river

Will make Fire

Will make Fire

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Mongolia Camp

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What else to is there to do in the pitch black than play with the camera and a laser pen

What else to is there to do in the pitch black than play with the camera and a laser pen

While the days were baking, the nights started calm and fairly warm, but as the night went on the wind always seemed to pick up, causing the tent to flap in the wind. But it did mean the skies were clear from clouds allowing us to be able to see an array of things in the sky, including shooting stars, pulsars, satellites, Mars and the Milky Way as well as point numerous constellations

Night Sky

Night Sky

Lexi – Challenges on the road

Mongolia threw us lots of ups and downs, as you read on you will understand exactly what we mean by ups and downs! The roads would rarely be like the smooth tarmac we felt when entering the country, more often than not Lexi was put through the punishment of half foot deep potholes, rumble strip like roads (miles and miles of endless shuddering and shaking), dusty off-road and uneven tracks, sand traps, wet mud and off-road terrains.

Before leaving Russia, we visited a garage to help us bend our right steering wheel ‘wishbone’ back to the correct shape (no idea what the piece is actually called, if you can tell from the picture feel free to tell us). The Russian mechanics basically used brute force and heat to bend it back to a shape. Lexi was certainly not safe to drive with this bent, the tracking was way off and she would randomly pull side to side while driving, it was a nerve racking at times.

The Left Wheel 'Wishbone', connected to the wheel

The Left Wheel ‘Wishbone’, connected to the wheel

There was lots of hammering!

There was lots of hammering!

Our terrain troubles began with a simple case of being stuck in the mud, after a short period of digging Lexi out and pushing, we wised up and put mats under each of the tyres for traction, letting us drive straight out. Something from all those survival television shows proved useful, thanks Ray Mears!

Stuck in the mud

Stuck in the mud

The next obstacle was a river crossing, when we saw the river, we paced up and down it bare foot to gauge the depth, it was rather deep in certain parts, which lead us to search for shallower water both up and down river. But with no success on finding a better point cross, and having watched and talked to the locals, it seemed like the only advice they would give us was to go quickly. After putting it off, it came to the point where we just had to go for it as at the time there were no other options.

Carefully planning a route, we drove fairly quickly into the crossing, trying to keep the revs going to prevent much water from going into the exhaust. Lexi just didn’t have the power and the engine cutout halfway through. It was then down to us to push her out, but not before water had flooded into the car, as well as partially filling the exhaust with water. Lexi was on dry ground again, after a pull up the bank from a lorry that turned up. But when we tried to start her back up, the car wouldn’t tick over… after a little panic and the help of a local with more hands on knowledge of cars, we drained the exhaust, and dried all the HT leads, etc and hay presto, she lives to battle another day.

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Lexi is definitely not built for driving through rivers

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This boy and his horse helped us push the car out of the river

Soon after we had crossed the river and got Lexi running again after a mild fright, a convoy of other ralliers showed up at the crossing. They listened to our warning about the depth of the water and the lack of power our cars have to push through the water, we arranged for a 4×4 to tow them all across for a small fee, which made their crossing virtually risk free. Unfortunately for us the 4×4 wasn’t there when we tried to cross and only turned up hours later!

The other Ralliers pondering what to do

The other Ralliers pondering what to do

Another day and another problem, the exhaust had fallen off, the temporary fix was cable ties and thick wire. The same day part of the radiator broke, meaning the hose that connects the coolant tank to the radiator would not stay attached due to a broken lip. Not ideal for being in a desert, with a car that overheats easily. So a few modifications using super glue, multiple jubilee clips and and duck-tape we managed to reattach the pipe and keep the coolant flowing. A secondary measure, we decided to bypass the temperature sensor, so that the fan constantly runs.  

Joined by other rally teams, while we fix the radiator

Joined by other rally teams, while we fix the radiator

We had also been having some difficulties starting the car, when turning the key the starter motor wouldn’t engage, we were lucky that a mechanic and rallier from the Isle of Man driving a Mini had joined us in convoy, he told us that the starter motor sticking was a common problem with the Favorits and the top tip to get her up and running was to turn the key and hit the starter motor with a hammer. We thought it was slight absurd to start with, but it was something that kept us moving when the car wouldn’t start eighty percent of the time.

Another added challenge was that our front right and rear left shock absorbers had now gone, which meant when the car would go over a bump, it would bounce and rock back and forth and side to side. Something that we just get used to, as we agreed it wasn’t worth replacing as they would just break again, so we relied on the springs.

Front Right shock abosrber is broken and our Iranian sump guard is about to fall off

Front Right shock abosrber is broken and our Iranian sump guard is about to fall off

Our Iranian sump guard had served its purpose, but it was time to upgrade to a ‘super sump guard’, something that became a bit of a battering ram, and sounded like it. Our fear wasn’t the sump guard would give it was more likely that the chassis would break before the new super sump guard would! The ground clearance on the new sump was much lower, which meant people could hear us coming from a mile off and give us some funny looks whenever we would pull up. 

The sump looking a bit worse for wear

The sump looking a bit worse for wear

Bernie the mechanic, he has worked on Mongol Rally cars for the last 10 years

Bernie the mechanic, he has worked on Mongol Rally cars for the last 10 years

Welding our snapped in half exhaust back together

Welding our snapped in half exhaust back together

Mongolians playing 'Big 2' a game Henry and Will have spent most of their youth playing, they call it arvan (thirteen in Mongolian) here

Mongolians playing ‘Big 2’ a game Henry and Will have spent most of their youth playing, they call it arvan (thirteen in Mongolian) here

We were taking no chances with the next set of river crossings, after crossing one river successfully, we realised that both rear brake cables were hanging off the underside of the car and, on inspection, it also turned out there were a number of other problems. Three of our fuel lines were leaking petrol and the bracket holding the front wheel axle was completely rusted/broken off (explaining some of our tracking issues while driving). This was when a man on a tractor appeared, and before we knew it another tractor arrived and a group of Mongolians insisted they would help us. After some hammering, a new makeshift bracket using a questionable piece of metal, some superglue, quick cement, electrical tape all our problems were sorted for the time being. The tractor driver then towed us across a very deep river, water was coming up to the windscreen, thankfully no water came in the car this time! We were then led into a nearby yurt on the other side of the river from some food, spiced noodles, potatoes and Will’s favourite meat, lamb.

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While the dads fixed the bracket and fuel lines with us the children played, and Henry donated his cricket bat and some tennis balls.

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We were approaching the final 150km mark to Ulaanbaatar and Will in the excitement, hit a pot hole rather hard, should be noted that these pot holes were everywhere and almost impossible to avoid them all! So as Will hit this pot hole, the car made a loud banging sound, the shock absorbers were swaying the car back and forth, the right wheel had gone and we came to a skidding halt. As you can see from the photo, the rim had completely gone. Once we replaced the tyre, we slowly trotted a long at a safe speed, as lexi had a mind of her own now. She would pull in all directions when making any adjustments. We just had to drive on slowly and patiently trying to protect the Lexi frail joints as she felt like should could give in in numerous ways if we hit another pot hole at the wrong angle.

A destroyed wheel rim

A destroyed wheel rim

The rusted through original bracket and a questionable Mongolian bracket on top holding the steering 'wishbone'  in placce

The rusted through original bracket and a questionable Mongolian bracket on top holding the steering ‘wishbone’ in place

Will disappointed with the damage so close to the end

Will disappointed with the damage so close to the end

Who we shared the road with

Camels of course

Camels of course

Lots of them

Lots of them

Yaks

Yaks

Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey

Such beautiful birds

Such beautiful birds

Transformation over 5 weeks

Wherever we went in Mongolia there was always a fascination with our beards, so much so they would laugh and say ‘Sakhal’ – beard in Mongolian. We just went along with it..

The transformation over 5 weeks

The transformation over 5 weeks

The Finish – WE MADE IT!!

Mongolia had certainly destroyed Lexi, there was a sadness on the last day, as we knew that it would be the last time we would drive her. Even though her joints creaked, sounded like a truck and with a lot of key parts broken and being held together with duck-tape and cable ties, she was our home for the last 5 weeks.

As we entered the finish line, the teams there heard us coming, giving expressions of “oh dear”, she’s definitely going to be on the scrap pile. 

A drink of Chengis Vodka to celebrate

A drink of Chinggis Khan Vodka to celebrate

Thank you to everyone who has supported us on this rally, whether that is with donation, time or advice, it has been great adventure! Thank you to those who helped us prepare before we left by servicing the car, providing invaluable spare parts and tools, or giving us encouragement and a send off. While we were on the Rally it was great reading the comments from people and knowing that you were following our travels. It was when things were going wrong and the Rally was punishing us the hardest that your support was most strongly felt. We know the blog posts weren’t as regular as you would have liked but consistent and reliable internet access is one of the many things we take for granted back home. There are many things we have learnt during the past 5 weeks and this is certainly one of them! 

One of the special things about the Mongol Rally is the people you meet along the way, either fellow Ralliers or locals, and we cant name all of them individually or this blog would never end but it truly was a privilege to share the road with you!

Finally and most importantly thank you to all of you have donated to Chance UK, they are such a great local charity we and over the course of the rally they have been tweeting about us and spreading the word, thanks guys! We hope that this will inspire others to go on an inspiring journey like ours.

We hope that you enjoyed following our progress and once we’ve properly washed and shaved we’ll do some serious photo and video editing and share some more of the best bits with you all.

Chance UK

Chance UK

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A Change in Des’Stan’ation

Before we set off from Bukhara towards Dushanbe, Tajikistan we carried out our usual checks (oil, coolant, screen wash etc.) and noticed that the sump guard had taken such a battering on the Uzbek and Turkmen roads it was basically hanging on by only one bolt. Fearing that if it came off it may rip most of the underside of the car with it we gingerly crawled to a local mechanic to get it re-bolted on. We thought we may as well mention the strange creaking that came from the front suspension when we went over any bump. This noise first started outside Cologne and had got gradually worse during the drive. When we demonstrated the creak to the mechanic a horrified look came across his face and he said (via a translator) that the suspension was completely broken, although we did sort of know this but were half-pretended it wasn’t, and there was zero chance we’d make it to Mongolia unless we fixed it. ‘Fair enough’ we thought and asked him to make it so. Unfortunately, like petrol and good roads Uzbekistan lacked most car parts and we would have to drive to the capital Tashkent, some 575km away.

Re-planning with the mechanics in Bukhara – In Mongol Rally fashion, original plans never work out

Re-planning with the mechanics in Bukhara – In Mongol Rally fashion, original plans never work out

This presented a few issues as Tashkent is north-east of Bukhara and Dushanbe south-east. Due to time and visa restraints this would mean that we would have to completely miss out Tajikistan and the Pamir Highway and head straight from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan. That’s just how dedicated we are to our jobs that we would cut out a country and a Mongol Rally highlight to make sure we were back in our offices on time. Hopefully this level of commitment won’t go unnoticed…

It would however cut out several days worth of driving and perhaps give us some rest days something that might be sorely needed after nearly 20 consecutive days doing 10 or so hours driving.

In Tashkent we spent a night at a charming hostel before heading out to find a mechanic to fix our suspension. We did find a ‘master’ mechanic who spoke pretty good English and who promised would be able to repair Lexi. Seemingly like all mechanics they worked using a ‘mechanics committee’ style and we had about 7 guys tinkering around while another 10 stood by watching. A short spot of haggling ensued and we settled on an agreeable price, they would also mend our axle brackets which apparently was on the verge of disintegrating. All fixed and ready to go!

The two ‘master’ mechanics (they are 20 years old) on either side of Ash and their apprentices

The two ‘master’ mechanics (they are 20 years old) on either side of Ash and their apprentices

Lexi undergoing a suspension transplant

Lexi undergoing a suspension transplant

 

Night under the watchful eye of a guard with an AK-47

On a dark, dark night there was a dark, dark hill. On the dark, dark hill there was a dark, dark town. In the dark, dark town there was lots of dark, dark streets. On the dark, dark streets there was dark, dark…literally nothing. Out of the dark, dark literally nothing some border guards…er…guarded! There was friendly guard with a big AK-47, customs officer guard proud to be a customs officer and quiet military man who mainly just sat watching TV.

It was with these border guards that the three of us ended our time in Uzbekistan. After a long drive over steep mountains and standardly poor and bumpy Uzbek roads we had reached the border town of Uchkurgan. Although we were almost certain this rural border crossing would be closed by this late hour we thought it best to at least have a look and if need be camp close by.

Here we stumbled across a military checkpoint and in horrible English and mimes we were told that the border crossing was about a mile back down the road but were welcome to sleep under their watchful, and armed, guard for the night. Just as we settled down to sleep the shift changed and the friendly guard left us and the new guard told us to move our camp to the border gate itself. Quickly throwing the sleeping bags and roll mats in the back of the car we drove to the gate and went to sleep on the road under the stars. When daylight broke we woke to a further friendly guard standing over us… it seemed they really had been guarding us all night.

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Our friendly Uzbek armed guard at 11pm

The benefit of having a watchful eye on you all night is that by the time you enter customs everybody already knows you by your first name! So when you misplace your customs declaration they’re willing to let you dig through the car to find it.

Kyrgyzstan was a stark change to Uzbekistan having said hello and goodbye to the Kyrg border guard we immediately pulled onto a blissfully smooth highway. It’s the little things on the Mongol Rally that make you smile sometimes.

Whilst Uzbekistan is largely flat farmland, it looks a bit like Norfolk… no really, Kyrgyzstan is a truly beautiful country. We planned to drive most of the way across the country to the capital Bishkek. The first half of this drive was rocky and hot, so much so that we took a quick stop at a huge crystal blue lake in the mountains.

Washed and refreshed (we actually took a bar of soap in) we continued our drive

Washed and refreshed (we actually took a bar of soap in) we continued our drive

After another few hours driving we found ourselves in an entirely different landscape. Lexi heroically climbed up two 3500m peaks where we found ourselves amongst rolling green hills, yurts and wild (debatably) horses.

Horses roaming the pastures

Horses roaming the pastures

Local nomadic herders

Local nomadic herders

Manas a legendary Kyrgyzstani hero

Manas a legendary Kyrgyzstani hero

Yurts at 3500m

Yurts at 3500m

Whilst driving through the hills we were mysteriously pulled over by the police and sternly told off for not having our headlights on. They wanted to ‘fine’ us $50, after quite a bit of patience we managed to persuade them down to 50p. Based on the fact that the Queen is really, really important. They seemed happy anyway.

The Kyrgyzstani police officer 50p richer – Ash definitely feels happier than losing $50

The Kyrgyzstani police officer 50p richer – Ash definitely feels happier than losing $50

On our way down the mountain we stopped to take in some local delicacies… see below

Whilst their cheese balls are not to our taste, the people were lovely. The young chap suited Ash’s sunglasses better than him

Whilst their cheese balls are not to our taste, the people were lovely. The young chap suited Ash’s sunglasses better than him

Arriving in Bishkek at dark we hunted around for somewhere to stay finding ourselves at the delightful Ultimate Adventure B&B we mentioned in a previous post.

Happy Days.

Ash, Henry and Will

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Time to give Lexi (and us) a break in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

We’re in Bishkek today the capital of Kyrgyzstan and our plan is to have a full day without driving Lexi, we think she deserves a break after bringing us 6294 miles already.

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Heading to a Mountain Pass in Kyrgyzstan, 3500m 

 

We can unanimously say we prefer Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan after only being here one day, notably the road surface quality is much smoother, but we’ll come to comparing the -stan’s after we’ve been to Kazakhstan, it’s only fair. 

We’re staying at a French run B&B, very random we know for the middle of Central Asia, but it is lovely. We woke actually feeling refreshed and rested having not properly slept the last few nights. More to come on this in a later post today, but last night we slept at the border crossing at the side of the road, just in sleeping bags with mosquitoes buzzing around us and an Uzbek soldier with his AK-47 towering over us, quite surprising being the first thing you see when you open your eyes in the morning.

So far today, we’ve managed to sort ourselves out a little, hand-washed most of our clothes which was long overdue, we are sure they smelt, but we had become accustomed to it so our criteria was whether it looked dirty or not. 

Will and Ash had a morning yoga practice on the grass, to try and actually have a little stretch and bend, sitting in a car for so many hours on end doesn’t do your back and muscles much good. 

 

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French run B&B

 

Next job to do was to do our temporary fix on the clutch, something we have found we must do every few days otherwise the clutch seizes up (note, we did take it to a mechanics, but they only made it worse), it becomes stiff and grinds, making us unable to get into gear, sometimes causing Lexi to get stuck in gear…quite a challenge for city driving as we have discovered.

Now we’re off to explore the delights of Bishkek, we’ll update you tonight of our car challenges up till now, our plans and how we’ve had to change the route.

 

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A very windy mountain pass in Kyrgyzstan 3500m

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It’s getting HOTTER, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan– Borders, whiplash, the Door to Hell and searching for fuel in an entire country…

Thanks Cyrus for letting us stay in your family home and not mind us waking you up at 5am

Thanks Cyrus for letting us stay in your family home and not mind us waking you up at 5am

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Heading to the border over a mountain pass at dawn

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Look what we found as we drove past a clearing at the side of the road a km from the border. (Micro Management, Lion Rampant and Rust & Dust having a road side nap – We had a much comfier night’s sleep)

 

Yet another border crossing and more searches as we went into Turkmenistan from Iran. This crossing was slightly different to others previously crossed, as we had been warned by our Iranian guide that there would be a vigorous search, and to be wary of corrupt officials. This meant we went through passport control, the personal and car searches which also involved mimes asking whether we were carrying guns, narcotics or bombs, etc.  with concealed dollars and currency in our crotch’s. Thankfully the searches were not that in depth. We got through with no problems, albeit a few hundred dollars poorer for additional visa costs and taxes.

Post border we just had a short 40km drive to Ashgabat and immediately we felt a surge in temperature, everything was just HOT, the air, the beaming sun all the surfaces including the steering wheel. We knew then, the challenges were only beginning.

We entered Ashgabat expecting a Soviet desolate city similar to the kind of thing we had seen in Iran. We were wrong! Ashgabat is an oasis in the desert immaculately cleaned, perfect tarmac and pristine white buildings everywhere. There’s also a huge amount of green foliage and gold statutes of ‘famous’ Turkmen.

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 The divide in wealth of a nation – The contrast of lifestyle from Iran, to the city of Ashgabat (left)in Turkmenistan and the rest of Turkmenistan (right) was unexpected

Having eventually found a hotel (we treated ourselves to a bit of luxury in Ashgabat) we headed out to find some other teams and have some refreshing 50p beers. This inevitably ended up in a bizarre club in the basement of our hotel. Will made friends with some locals who were asking some very pressing questions, he’s pretty sure they were secret police as the basically locked him in a bar while they spoke to him, other ralliers had similar stories from around the city that day, it felt like a very ‘controlled’ city which could explain the lack of actual people we saw in the city itself. Eventually from our various locations we all made it to bed in the right room in the right hotel.

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We had a 10 hour drive and covered only 120 miles one day and all we have for now is a very shaken Lexi, whiplash and dread about the underlying damage to the car. Two other Ralliers have been victim to this road, that we know of, one the axel had been knocked off and a wheel fallen off (Micro Management, pictured below), luckily they weren’t driving too fast! An others teams shock absorbers were leaking fluids (complicated modern card for yous (Team Unlikely, two Aussies). Our sump guard most definitely has paid for itself, above the picture of the damage.

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Micro Management with some car trouble – they were later towed

Happiest border guards at the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan crossing, maybe because we turned up at the end of the day and they all wanted to go home. They kept on saying names of Bollywood actors to Ash like Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabatchin, which was followed up by something said about Ash’s beard and the guards taking photos with them. Obviously we weren’t also allowed to take photos as it was considered illegal…

 

The burning pit that is the Door to Hell

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The Door to Hell, was an accidental creation in the 1970’s, the Soviets were drilling for natural gases near the Derweze village in the middle of the Karakum Desert. Following an incident when the ground collapsed beneath the drilling area and large quantities of methane gas being released, that could possibly endanger the lives of the local villages.  They thought it would be safer to light it on fire expecting it to burn out in a few weeks, but 40 years later it is still burning.

Will being a magician at the entrance to hell (he bought sparklers with him, we smuggled them unknowingly across 17 border crossings, oops)

Will being a magician at the entrance to hell (he bought sparklers with him, we smuggled them unknowingly across 17 border crossings, oops)

Henry in the light of the burning pit of fire

Henry in the light of the burning pit of fire

The burning pit that is the Door to Hell at dawn

The burning pit that is the Door to Hell at dawn

We parked the cars around 5km from the crater as we didn’t want to get the car stuck in the sand dunes, but in our infinite wisdom we forgot the Chance UK banner, so we decided to be a little creative with a camera.

We parked the car around 5km from the crater as we didn’t want to get stuck in the sand dunes, but in our infinite wisdom we forgot the Chance UK banner, so decided to be a little creative with a camera

We parked the cars around 5km from the crater as we didn’t want to get the car stuck in the sand dunes, but in our infinite wisdom we forgot the Chance UK banner, so we decided to be a little creative with a camera.

The glow of the Fire Crater behind a big hill we camped behind

The glow of the Fire Crater behind a big hill we camped behind

 

Petrol, Unleaded, benzine, A1-95 it has many names, but where to find it in Uzbekistan? 

Black Market petrol (from a some back alley shed)

Black Market petrol (from a some back alley shed)

For our inconvenience the Uzbekistan government decided that they didn’t want to sell petrol at petrol stations…make sense right? It’s been a hard to come by when on the road in their country. Since the country produce gas (methane) that is the common fuel for the cars and is what the gvernement wants everyone to use. Which didn’t bode well for us. We had visited over half a dozen petrol stations that said benzine or 95 on the signs, but these were either closed or were dry. This led to some black market dealings and following a random man down a few back alleys to a shed. he asked us how much we wanted and then went to a little shed and filled a couple of empty 10 litre water bottles with petrol for us. Enough to take us another 600 km through nothingness.

The next day we found another dealer to restock us

The next day we found another dealer to restock us

The petrol dealer counting his 1000s of Som, still only about £10 worth

The petrol dealer looking happy counting his 1000s of Som, about £10 worth

 

A few more picture snippets and stories

Joining a convey of ralliers on the road in the middle of the desert road

Joining a convey of ralliers on the road in the middle of the desert road

Team Unlikely and their Mini Cooper, Florence

Team Unlikely and their Mini Cooper, Florence

We were in a road side shop buying some bread and nibbles for lunch, when we were invited back to a local village hall where a spot of lunch was rustled up for us. Everyone is so kind!

We were in a road side shop buying some bread and nibbles for lunch, when we were invited back to a local village hall where a spot of lunch was rustled up for us. Everyone is so kind!

Dinner with the Hearty Boys (Mark and Matt)  and Team Unlikely (Tim and Leanne) - lots of fish!

Dinner with the Hearty Boys (Mark & Matt – http://heartyboys2014.wordpress.com/the-team/) and Team Unlikely (Tim and Leanne) – lots of fish!

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The exhaust tip was lost at the Uzbekistan border crossing and a rally light was smashed somewhere along the way – thanks Oli and the Kia Loughborough mechanics for adding the additions, she looked good for a two full weeks with the cosmetic touches are coming off bit by bit to show our girls true beauty…. As you can tell we are spending a lot of time with her and talk to her a lot at the moment, the heat is obviously making us delusional a little.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Covered Market – Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Will trying to find the way

Will trying to find the way in the desert heat

Will exhausted at the end of a day, fully clothed and phone in hand

The exploration got the better of Will – exhausted and asleep, fully clothed with phone in hand

 

Camel!

What better way to end a post than with a Camel!

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Thank you all for your donations

Thank you to all those who have donated so far to our charities, you’ve help us raise a huge amount of money, in total £3283.47

Cool Earth – Virgin Money – £438.75

Chance UK – Justgiving and other donations including gift aid (Yogahaven and cake sales) is £2844.72

Can we get the Chance UK figure over £3000? …Spread the word

Thank you all again 🙂

Ash, Henry & Will

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Beep Beep Welcome to Iran, Hello Hello!

We made it! After over 10 hours of waiting we were all finally allowed into Iran. There were surprisingly few questions or searches, the guard was mainly interested in the fold out picnic table.

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Our western view of Iran couldn’t be more wrong (mainly due to how the media portrays this part of the world in such a negative light). The people, cities and landscapes here were simply amazing, something the three of us can all agree on, as you will start to see in this post.

Our first experience in the country minutes after entering was when we got swamped by taxi drivers and one tried to ‘steal’ Ash’s sunglasses, not too sure why, as they weren’t designer or anything, but just some cheap ones. Like all the other people we’ve meet, they were very intrigued and wanted to hear about the rally, it was nice how genuinely friendly they were. Little did we know that this was just the start of the Iranians and their friendly ways!

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But eventually we did make it on the road (again) and were headed to Tabriz. The convoy we spoke of instantly broke up as some teams were still faffing around after being let through but as were all heading to the same campsite it didn’t really matter. Due to the massive amount of time spent at the border we had to have a night drive to Tabriz which was ‘fun’ in the crazy traffic. There was a slight “uh oh” moment when we missed a storm drain and there was an almighty crash. Thankfully the only damage was a dent to the oil sump which further confirmed that we need a sump guard.

The campsite we had been directed to turned out to be a big central park in the city where hundreds, if not thousands, of locals were staying overnight in tents celebrating Eid. But this was pretty cool as there were food stalls and loads of activity, i.e. lots of “Welcome to Iran, where are you from?” from strangers including a pair of military fellows. Realising that there was very little chance of finding the other teams in the park we set up camp with high winds blowing then popped up to the 5* hotel to see if we could grab some Wi-Fi (they had no rooms as it was Eid). Coincidently most of the other teams in the convoy had just arrived at the hotel so we told them about the mini-festival in the park and where we’d set up camp.

Running into Sholeh at a street vendor on the side of road, fresh plums

Running into Sholeh at a street vendor on the side of road, fresh plums

Sholeh, our guide, told us the mountain route to the Caspian Sea would take 12hours and motorway would be 6hours. Not wanting to push Lexi too hard we chose motorway but soon got bored with this and made a snap decision to take an alternative mountain route which would re-join the main road and cut out about 200km. The mountains proved to be absolutely beautiful and had a great view of the valleys and peaks. When we stopped at the topmost peak to get a few photos and take a breather a car pulled up and a family of 4 got out and started chatting to us. After a few minutes they left and got back in their car. Suddenly 6 other car loads of Iranians, all related to the first people, swung into the car park and in seconds we were swamped by dozens of people all welcoming us to Iran and generally just being the usual extremely friendly and happy Iranians.

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Will even got asked to break out some Enrique Iglesias

Will even got asked to break out some Enrique Iglesias

Down the mountain the brakes got a little bit hot and melted the hub cap off…oops…but gave us the opportunity to have lunch with a view and enjoy some melon given to us by some Iranians who also had to let their brakes cool down. Pamir highway here we come!

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Traffic jams in Iran were always a lot of laughs – seemingly every car wanted to wave at us and say “Welcome, where are you from? My friend!” We also saw ‘Iranian Tom Seppings’ which was most amusing (a friend of Henry’s and Will from school). We were probably quite delirious from the heat and were thankful when we made it to the campsite and nearby restaurant with fish fresh from the Caspian Sea.

When we woke up we discovered that all the other teams had arrived in the night, ranging between 1am and 5am, and decided that this would be a good time to get a sump guard fitted as Sholeh would be able to help translate and we’d also seen about 100 mechanics on the way into town.

Lexi in a hole in the wall mechanics – Thanks Mosul

Lexi in a hole in the wall mechanics – Thanks Mosul

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Spent the morning having a seriously great time with the mechanic and his friends, none of whom spoke more than about 20 words of English. Not that that stopped the fun though. One of the younger mechanics, must have been 15 years old even carried out Sapand for us, which is a burning of dried herbs and creating this scented smoke to kill viruses.

After a few hours we caught up with 2 other teams (Team Doris and Micro Management) – they’d spent a leisurely lunch on the beach while we were in the mechanics – and we had a tremendous time weaving in and out of traffic driving the ‘Iranian way’ with them, basically like a lunatic, swerving from lane to lane with no indication and creating multiple new lanes in between lanes. We were even passing the GoPro between cars getting some great footage (video to come don’t worry!)

The people here were so fascinated by us, one family even forced us off the road to stop under a bridge on the motorway to have a photo taken with them.

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We decided to stop in the last beach town on the Caspian coastline (using walkie talkies from Doris) and make camp there.

We had a fun evening with them and a group of Iranian youth’s (who gave us bread, chicken and whiskey – who would have thought that the first alcoholic drink on the Rally would be had in Iran!?!)

Awkward photo of Henry as two Iranian girls want a picture of him

Awkward photo of Henry as two Iranian girls want a picture of him

We took a morning swim with Team Doris and Micra Management in the Caspian. The sea was incredibly calm and almost the same colour as the sky making it all a bit disorientating. Women and men swim in different sections and you walk down a long pier to get to the swimming section. They also had a pontoon to jump off of and Will was ‘gracefully’ doing front flips, sadly no pictures as the camera memory card was full, rooky mistake.

Team Doris and their taxi

Team Doris and their taxi

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After leaving the Caspian see and the arid landscapes, we soon got distracted by a sign for a waterfall, before we knew it were driving in the hills and under a very green canopy of trees.

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Our last night in Iran, was anything but uneventful, the clutch over the course of the day had been getting stiffer and stiffer. As we entered the boarder town of Quichen, the clutch was at the point where we were unable to change gears easily and the clutch wouldn’t disengaged, it made driving and weaving challenging as you can imagine, there were a lot of car horns beeping at us.

The night was drawing in and there were no hotels in the city, the hotel we did fins, was closed and as we later found out has been under construction for the last 19 years.  We parked up and wondered the streets, we were very lucky as an English speaking Iranian student, Sirus found us and welcomed us into his family home.

He was great, we parked the car in the courtyard and Will using the Hayes manual for some guidance tightened some bolts and temporarily got the clutch working again. We will be trying to find another garage once crossing the border.

The next morning we woke up early in preparation to spend another day trying to cross a border.

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Reuniting with Will in Turkey and the nightmare that is Istanbul traffic

Back in Greece and the EU for an afternoon and Henry thought it would be fine to drive straight through an open barrier…which is usually ok, but not when it’s a border crossing that we hadn’t been waved through (although we had had our passports checked so it should have been fine!)… we suddenly came to a halt when being shouted and waved down by a policeman. That wasn’t our only encounter with the police in Greece, Henry was flagged down by 3 police officers seemingly for speeding slightly but turned out it was just a random breathalyser test (which he passed with flying colours!).

We had lovely Greek salad for lunch in a cafe in a small town then after a wrong turn to an animal testing facility we were on to Thessaloniki and Turkey, we were given strange looks so backed out slowly. A bit of poor navigation from Henry caused a half hour delay but did mean we could fill up on oil and petrol which was fortunate as there were no petrol stations for about 200 miles! Making good time we hoped to make Istanbul by nightfall ready to pick Will up from the airport and start the Rally for proper. However, the Greek border guards had different plans. We arrived at a shift change (or that was the official line anyway) and sat in a queue for about 2 hours, although probably not the longest border delay we’ll encounter.

Then there was a wait on the Turkish side, first on a bridge with armed guards, then a check point and finally another checkpoint while we bought car insurance all the while being eaten alive by the millions of mosquitos that wait to prey on unsuspecting travellers. Because of this delay we realised we weren’t going to make it to Istanbul as it was already gone 11pm so we stopped at a roadside hotel where no one spoke a word of English but it was surprisingly nice. Lexi attracted a crowd of interested people but that’s becoming fairly standard now.

Friday meant just one thing and that was the arrival of Will! The first 200km took about 2 hours but when we hit Istanbul suburbs then the next 50km or so another 2 hours, our first taste of the infamous Istanbul traffic, driving in this city is not recommended! But we made it in time to meet Will off the plane, there are no photos of our reuniting as the police had the watchful eyes on us again, we must just look suspicious. The traffic hadn’t finished with us though and it took about 4 hours to just get out of the city, which wasn’t very comfortable in the heat, maybe with hindsight we should have made Will use the public transport to meet us out of the city centre.

This guy was a hero and although the bread was a little dry it was a God send in the never ending traffic jam

This guy was a hero and although the bread was a little dry it was a God send in the never ending traffic jam

The bridge is in sight leading out of Istanbul city centre, but the traffic stretches away into the distance

The bridge is in sight leading out of Istanbul city centre, but the traffic stretches away into the distance

The above 30 degree heat and constant stop starting, with heater turned on full to stop the overheating, made for sweaty work so much so Henry’s back had completely soaked the seat. A little present for Will who took the wheel for the first time of the Rally. We decided that Ankara would probably have traffic as bad as Istanbul so the northern route seemed like a better idea.

Our hotel manager called ‘Big Crazy’, Wills first night in Turkey

Our hotel manager called ‘Big Crazy’, Wills first night in Turkey

As most of our time is spent on the road, you must wonder how we spend our time, while we are close to exhausting our music collection we have quite a collection of audio books. But our ongoing game since entering Turkey is spot the mosque, it is surprising how something so small call lead to ours of fun.

Driving from Erzincan to Erzurum that we’d been previously told was slow going, but with barely another car in sight and on smooth new roads we were making great time. That was until we heard a terrible noise. A puncture. Rear drivers side was completely flat so we suspected a nail or similar. Pulled over on the hard shoulder on a hill we were forced to completely empty the boot to get to the jack, tyre iron and spare wheel. It turned out the valve on the tyre was bust and so on with spare!

Officially the first breakdown, even though being a minor one! At mile 3169, so expect a treat if you guessed the mileage, but as you read the next blog you will see that this was not the only breakdown we had.

Will wondering if he could push Lexi the 60km to the next town

Will wondering if he could push Lexi the 60km to the next town

Although we had tyre repair kits and inflators (thanks John we’re sure that we’ll be using them soon!) we knew there were plenty of mechanics on the road so thought we’d try there first. This turned out to be a great idea because after a bit of sign language and within about 5 minutes they had repaired it completely and for only 10 lira (about £3). ‘On the road again’ and on for a nice leisurely lunch in Erzurum, the highest major settlement in Turkey at about 2,000 metres above sea level. Turns out that during Ramadan all restaurants are shut (after 3 days in Turkey we really should have figured this out!) so we instead had a stroll around town then popped into a shop to get bread and cheese for a picnic out of town. And you laughed at our table and chairs!!

A spot of lunch!

A spot of lunch!

Owing to Iranian entry requirements we had arranged to meet a group of 10 other teams in Doğubayazit, the last Turkish settlement before Iran, which was in the shadow of Mount Ararat, supposedly the mountain where Noah’s Arc landed.

Mount Ararat

Mount Ararat

On the way to the campsite we passed another Rally team, a pair of Norwegian fellows in a Beatle, and we stopped for a bit and exchanged stories from the first week. Seems that they had encountered the same Turkish traffic as we had, as did many of the other teams we later ran into. Doğubayazit was more than a little interesting with cars, people and kids pushing large carts loaded with fruit weaving about the road. The roads themselves took a turn for the worse and potholes and bumps testing Lexi’s already creaking suspension. She held up well though and only bottomed out once but no damage was done! When we got to the campsite we met up with the other teams that would become part of the Iran convoy and the night was mainly spent getting to know each other.

Onto Iran! We woke up nice and early (5am) in order to make it to the border by 8am Iran time (they are 1.5 hours ahead of Turkey, 3.5 hours in front of UK) and convoyed out of town. After passing by a 10km long queue of trucks (no exaggeration!) we knew that this wasn’t going to be a speedy crossing.

After about 2 hours we were let out of Turkey and entered the entry border for Iran. Henry and Lexi got separated from Ash and Will as he is the registered owner and was made to wait with 5 other cars in a fenced in enclosure for over an hour while the border guards seemed to just sit and watch. But finally they were let through and reunited with the Ash, Will and the other teams, about 20 in all.

It was now about midday and we had to sit in a car park in the blistering sun for hours while our paperwork was checked and checked and checked again. To pass the time Will went to haggle with the black-market traders to get the best deal for our USD ($450 = 11,000,000 Rials). We did pretty well out of it! There were no cafes or restaurants at the border so ate a lot of pistachios, sunflower seeds, crisps and biscuits from the small shop there. The owner of the shop seemed to like Henry and filled a bag full of snacks then refused to accept more than about 20,000 Rials (about 50p).

Our guide Sholeh, which translates as Flame – cool name! –  (we needed a guide due to more Iranian bureaucracy), had arrived and it was really interesting hear her talk about how Iran has changed over the last 50 or so years. We remained in this purgatory for hours, we were so thankful to get out the sun with a breeze running through the car when they finally let us into their mysterious country.

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A short video of the first 2000 miles…The real adventure starts now we’ve left Europe

A short video  from a few days ago of a few snippets up till Greece covering just over 2000 miles. We’ve been told by past ralliers that Europe is the boring part, so who knows what is going to happen over the next 8000 miles

 

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From the madness & mayhem of an Albanian City to the ‘steep’ mountains of Macedonia (Ash’s night drive)

Like other countries I have visited namely India, Bangladesh and China, official road etiquette doesn’t exist, Tirana in Albania was no different. I just had to watch how road users navigate the streets and it made me nervous. The smell of burning rubber was disconcerting too, thankfully it wasn’t Lexi (well we don’t think), but just one of the hundreds of smells of the city. For foreigners like  myself it appears to be a constant game of dodging, weaving and guesses work on where to go. Not sure they know what sign posts are here, since quite a few street/A-roads we went down just came to sudden dead-ends as they were incomplete…which was always was followed by a puzzled look to one another.  Driving at night was just an extra challenge, we all love one of those, no matter it was good practice as I am sure we may have to do it again..

IMG_0946.Entering Albania

I knew that there was some natural sense of order to driving in a city like Tirana. As we entered in darkness, I immediately had thoughts back of watching tuk-tuk drivers dart around the streets in and out of cars, cows and people. It was very much the same here. The streets were also littered with large potholes that would appear without warning, which I am sure are slowly taking a toll on poor Lexi. As she would creak and thud as we fell into the ones I couldn’t swerve around.

 As I started out I realised I was a little nervous, my hands clenched around the steering wheel in and before I realised it my neck was quite tense, since I was on alert trying to process all the car headlights coming from various directions. After about 10 minutes I relaxed and eased into it and I had become accustomed to how the roads work… i.e. just go if you see a gap in the road ahead. While it felt like dodgems at a fairground (without all the collisions), there was always a small fear of being rammed into, but I started to enjoy the thrill. I knew all those of hours of playing Need for Speed with my brother would pay off. I am sure Henry thinks it’s just my boy racing side wanting to come out, which is probably true, but just to let you all know (mainly for the parents reading this) I was fairly sensible and in control. 

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The blur of the Albanian city of Tirana

On leaving Tirana, we entered a maze of hair pin bends heading up and down mountain sides to the Macedonian border, the steep gradients, high revs and close to 360 degree bends in darkness really made Lexi work. It’s a shame the rev counter doesn’t always work, but you could feel Lexi was chugging away and trying her best.

The morning after while doing our daily checks on the car, we had a slight worry as Henry pulled out the oil dip-stick it was bone dry… which really showed us the effort and the intensity of the high revs on the Albanian mountain roads. Good thing we have plenty of spare oil!

It may sound like we are putting Lexi through her paces, but we are looking after her and testing that she is ready for what is to come, remembering that Europe is this easy part!

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A Memorable Birthday for Ash

Apologies for the lack of posting, finding snippets of wifi has been quite a challenge.

Tuesday night found us in Split, Croatia staying in a nice apartment owned by a friendly Bosnian family who lived beneath us. Not that it was easy to find mind you. We spent a good 20 minutes driving around the backstreets before Senada, our hostess, came and found us. In the morning Senada made special birthday Turkish coffee and cake and gave Ash a fig cake. Her parents, Mustafa and Sutka (sorry about the spelling!) joined us and we chatted in a mix of very broken English, German and Bosnian (obviously we were sticking mainly to English with a few words of German thrown in). They told us how they left Bosnia during the civil war and it was interesting hearing about the hardship and changes it brought about. There’s still quite a bit on tension remaining and a lot of families have still not returned. It was soon time to hit the road again and they wished us well and gave us a sprig of rosemary to freshen up the car…maybe a subtle hint!

 

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Leaving Croatia we had our first collision! Ash must have left his spatial awareness back in Split and he ploughed straight into a toll booth. Well ok that may be a slight “Henry exaggeration” as he only scraped the hub cap against the booth but still the first ding of the Rally.

We weren’t long into Bosnia & Herzegovina when we ran into our next mini-adventure which took the form of a speeding ticket. Ash the birthday boy was the culprit (naturally!) going 86kmph in a 50, the video footage was damming evidence. We spent about 15 minutes as Ash tried to convince the police that the road was actually an A-road and so should be 100kmph (to be fair by all definitions it was an A-road). Surprisingly they wouldn’t budge and Ash was made to pay the monstrous fine of €26 and we were told that the speed limit in the whole of B&H was 50kmph (30mph). We thought they must be joking but after driving on perfectly good roads for a few hours and only travelling about 100 miles we realised they were not. Hopefully Montenegro would be quicker.

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After a particularly hot and sweaty lunch we carried on making slow progress only briefly stopping as Henry threw up by the side of the road. We’ll save you from a picture from what that looked that. His tea withdrawal is taking its toll! But like the proper soldier he simply rinsed with mouthwash and jumped back in the driving seat and set off again. We soon drove into the mother of all thunderstorms and with lightening striking the ground very near us (it was just a shame the camera wasn’t on at that moment) we pulled into a petrol station for a bit. A group of curious police officers came wandering over and were fascinated to hear of our plans for Mongolia. A much better experience than our last encounter with the Bosnian police! But these guys proceeded to tell us how crazy the police were in these parts with quite a psychotic grin, he must have been smoking something.

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Montenegro was less eventful than B&H although our hopes for the road were unfounded and the limit stayed mostly at 50kmph. The scenery was beautiful though so it wasn’t too bad but means we’ll be reaching our destination in the dark like every other night.

 

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Chance UK flying high over a Montenegro landscape as we pick up some honey marinated fruit

 

There was one close encounter with the police when an officer waved us down and as Ash was driving we feared another speeding fine. Thankfully he was just telling us to turn our lights on and to laugh at our plans to go through Kazakhstan. Why does everyone seem to laugh at us?

 

Our route to date can be seen at the following link: http://bit.ly/MR14tracking and as always please donate to ChanceUK here: www.justgiving.com/5camels1chameleon 

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