Sunday, 26 August 2012

Many thanks to Preferred Communications

A big thank you to Carlyn and the team at Preferred Communications. They provided us with a satellite phone for the trip and they were an absolute pleasure to work with. In the end several teams benefitted from our satphone and fortunately it was never needed to call in any emergency services!

"Preferred Communications is a leading provider of global communications since 1994. Our products include:

Satellite Communications (voice, fax, video and data)

GPS Vehicle Tracking Systems

Rugged Mobile Computers

GPS Synchronized Clock Systems

Cisco Small Business Products and Services

We provide equipment, airtime service and installation and are an authorized dealer for many of the world's leading satellite service providers."

Finishing: In which everyone breaks down

In my last post from Oglii, I foolishly uttered the words ‘if we have no major breakdowns’ I should have known better…

Having left Oglii we carried on through Mongolia’s dirt roads to get to the next town Altai there is a mechanics and a drop off centre there where which are listed on the Mongol rally guide. As we passed through we looked on smugly at the other teams having car trouble and our convoy team headed off into the desert.  Some 40km out of town, Red Dog Racing hit a roack which punctured both their sump guard and the sump. If (like me before this trip) you don’t know what a sump is be assured it is a vital piece of car.  With oil spilling onto the desert there was no way Red Dog were going anywhere with out our help. This is how I found myself doing my first ever car tow on a potholed sand track in the desert, while team Infinity scouted the route. Returning to the garage in Altai was pretty depressing however the mechanics there pulled off some mechanical wizardry to fix the sump. After this we noticed the engine mounts on Red Dog’s car had also sheared and more work was required to get them back on the road.

With a schedule to meet, we left Altai with team Infinity hoping Red dog would catch us up in a couple of days. Once we were back in the desert Beverly was motoring along and unfortunately hit a ditch too hard. As we jumped out of the car and saw oil spilling onto the sand we feared for the worse. Being over 100kms from the nearest town it would be a long slow tow if our sump was broken. As it turns out the sump was intact, just the oil filter had broken. This would have been equally catastrophic if it hadn’t been for Ant’s genius buying of a spare oil filter before we left the UK. Ben (from Infinity) and I set about making emergency cups of tea, whilst the other fitted the spare filter. Without losing too much time we were back on the road again.

A few hours later checking our map against our co-ordinates we appeared to be off course, however according to another map we were exactly on course. With the road getting worse there was some debate about which was the best way to go, but eventually decided to stick with the road we were on. Progress was pretty slow due to the condition of the road however noticed that Infinity’s car was moving much slower that us. Having pulled in behind them we noticed that their rear wheels were splayed, we flagged them down jacked them up and checked under the car. The axel support was fractured and their rear wheels were in danger of falling off. This was not something that could be fixed easily, while we were pondering the best course of action, team Red Dog appeared out of the desert. We were so pleased to see them again as well as reuniting our convoy team it meant we could get Matt’s opinion on Infinity’s car. I’ll use this point to add a big thanks to Matt from Red Dog, as a  super trained mechanic he’s been magically fixing up all our cars since our convoy team met back in Astrakan.

Unfortunately this break was not one that could be fixed with cable ties or duct tape, the best course of action was to limp on at 10mph and hope Infinity’s wheels stayed on until we got into the next town. We stuck with them on the road so we could help out in case the car terminally broke down, we decided to ignore the Adventurists advice and drive into the night at 10 mph you can avoid every pothole and bump in the road. We got to a river crossing at 11pm where we camped for the night.

The next day we had to get towed across the river by tractor , fortunately Beverly’s air intake was quite easy to access and raise up, so we didn’t flood the engine.  Some slightly too fast driving from one of the tractors meant that Red Dog’s engine got water in it, and we still had Infinity’s broken car to fix. To cut a long story short Uber Faff ensued, but at the end of the day Infinity’s car was in the garage being welded back together and Red Dog were also still rolling.  To make the most of the fading light we split with the convoy and headed into the final stretch of the Gobi desert.

We awoke at the crack of dawn to get going as swiftly as possible, if all went to plan we could reach UlaanBaatar that evening. A few hours into the drive we heard a bad crunching sound from the back of the car. A speedy jack up revealed that once again we had broken a suspension spring, more cable ties were added we rallied on. The stereo was cranked up to drown out the noises coming from Beverly. Once we got closer to Ulaanbaatar the roads turned to tarmac (with varying amounts of pothole) and our speed dramatically increased. We made it in to the finish line at about 8pm, we were pleased to be there but having received a text from the rest of our convoy we found that they were only 3 hours behind us we only stopped off briefly before getting back on the road to surprise them on the way in so we could all roll in to Ulaanbaatar together in triumphant celebration.

Since arriving we’ve now handed over our car keys so they can be sold for the charities, it’s interesting to hear that the cars are worth more here than we paid for them in the UK in spite of all the damage we done to them over the last 6 weeks.

Over all we’ve had one amazing adventure getting to Ulaanbaatar, no doubt you’ll be fed up with us talking about ‘this one time on the rally’ for many months to come…

A big thanks to Ravi, Harvey and Ben  from ‘To Infinity and Baatar’ and also to Adain, Matt and Rich from Red Dog Racing, we had the best fun convoying with you guys!

I’ll add some more pictures later, when we have better internet, and also some posts on all the things we didn’t say whilst on the road so as not to worry various people.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Hello from Mongolia!

After getting some new suspension springs fitted, Beverley (did I mention we named the car Beverly?) now has a much smoother ride and is ready for the Mongol roads, which is good because that is where I am writing this from!

 After leaving Almaty we rejoined Red Dog Racing, briefly rescuing them from a flat battery situation, and made a large dent in the distance through Kazakhstan. Since we were cutting it close with some peoples Russian visas we opted for the fast road through the country without stopping for much more than fuel. We had intended to camp just short of the border however a friendly policeman found us searching for camp spots and escorted us to the nearest hotel, probably out of concern for our safety. Unfortunately the hotel only had one double room left, so we managed to squeeze all 7 of us into the double room… cosy.

 The next day we successfully re-entered Russia, where we were reunited with ‘To Infinity and Baatar’ after leaving them in Kyrgyzstan. Team convoy reunited, we headed for the Mongolian border arriving at about 6pm. Leaving Russian was reasonably straight forward, my folder of organization paid off when they wanted to see some of our old Kazak documents. The No-mans-land between Mongolia and Russia is quite spectacular with rolling grass hills, since we didn’t expect to make the Mongolia side in time we were looking forward to camping there. However when we reached the Mongolian side we were ushered into a concrete holding pen where we found several other team waiting for the border to re-open in the morning. Sadly we have no photos of this due to border restrictions.

 The main hold up at the Mongolian border is just for the car paperwork, so we were allowed to walk into the border town to buy dumplings and change money etc. After a somewhat chilly night camped on the concrete we got underway with our paperwork and queuing finally being allowed across at 3pm, some 21hours after arriving. We left just as the rain turned into snow, the road conditions where no too bad however and tonight we find ourselves staying in a ger in the town on Olgii. It feels pretty good to have finally made it to Mongolia, we’re not sure how regular the internet will be over the next few day but we’re hoping to make the finish line party on the 24th August if there are no major beakdowns between now and then.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Kyrgyzstan and suspension issues

Since our last post 90% of the convoy have lost partial bowl control, this lead to some speedy emergency stops by the side of the road, such is the nature of foreign travel. Anyhow shortly before we hit the border we sheared our rear left suspension spring such that it was rubbing against a part of the car.  With a little help from Red Dog Racing we fixed the spring back into place using about 20 cable ties. We gingerly carried on, with confidence in our fix growing with each mile. It turns out you can literally fix anything with cable ties.

 Leaving Uzbekistan proved to be a bit more challenging than entering as the border guards did not seem to be in the mood to do any actual work. By contrast the Kyrgyzstan side of the border was super quick and friendly.

The next day we headed over the Kyrgyz mountains towards the capital Bishkek, this turned out to be my favourite drive of the trip so far. The roads were levelled and tarmaced  meaning we could enjoy the mountain landscape passing by.  Inevitably it wasn’t long before I got pulled over for speeding, however in a masterful display of smiling and ignorance we got away without paying any fine.

Our little convoy briefly grew to 5 cars before dropping down to 2 as we parted ways heading for different borders. We’ve also got and extra person in our convoy team as we picked up another rallier who’s car has died.
We intended to drive around the edge of the Issy-Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan and then head up over the border into Kazakhstan.  Unfortunately when we arrived at the border we found the Kazaks had closed the border a couple of years ago - Doh! We turned around and headed back to Bishkek to cross the main border into Kazakhstan.  We are now in Almaty (the old Kazak capital) getting our suspension springs replaced.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Into Uzbekistan

6-7 August

After camping by the gates to hell we headed back through Ashgabat, where we got lost yet again, and then toward the border with Uzbekistan. We knew the border crossing closed at 6pm so it was a bit of a race to get there in time. Fortunately our little convoy were the last cars to be allowed across the border saving us from camping in no-mans land.  Since the guards wanted to go home we had a fairly easy ride getting through the border, apart from a little incident where the border guard wanted to share a cigarette with me (Rach).

The next morning we headed for Bokhara one of the ancient cities in Central Asia. The architecture was amazing with many tiled mosques and old city walls. After some time wandering around the market we headed on to Samarkand where we’re staying tonight. Tomorrow we’re going to look around Registan, before moving ever onwards.

Also as an FYI we’ve decided to have a slight change in our route and head in to Kyrgyzstan, since apparently we don’t need visas to go there any more, also after several day of above 40 degree heat we are excited to be heading into the mountains.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Long time no updates

Hi everyone.  Sorry we haven't been updating the blog so regularly. We've been in the backwaters of Kazakhstan and then in Turkmenistan the internet is severly limited, we've only just found access to Blogger.

We'll put up some photos as soon as we can, but for now we've just put up the text posts.  Please keep scrolling down.

Phone signal is also not happening, hopefully we'll get signal again when we reach Uzbekistan in a day or so.

Also just to let the friends and family of Red Dog Racing and To Infinity And Baatar know that they are convoying with us and are safe and happy!

Special thanks to CPP Ltd

We would like to send our particular thanks to Corrugated Plastic Products Ltd for donating extremely generously to both the Lotus Children's Trust, Mongolia and Mountain Rescue England and Wales!

CPP Ltd handles the design, manufacture, fabrication, assembly and supply of bespoke re-usable product handling systems. Their product range and capability is very diverse; from stackable boxing, to re-usable and collapsible pallet systems, to steel coil packaging.

Proudly displaying the CPP logo, as Matt from Red Dog Racing comes up with a plan to keep our suspension going.
If you know someone that is looking for an environmentally friendly and cost effective product handling system, then please get them in touch with CPP Ltd; they will be very happy to provide a high quality and effective solution using their extensive experience. I cannot recommend them enough!


Gates to Hell

4 August

One of the main reasons for going to Turkmenistan was to visit the Gates to Hell. This is a burning gas crater in the middle of the desert. Some years ago a soviet company were looking for oil when they found a gas pocket. To try and get rid of the gas the threw in a grenade to burn of the gas. 45 years later it is still burning. The first problem we had was trying to leave Ashgabat, there are no road signs and we drove round in circles for a couple of hours trying to leave the city.

The drive up to the crater was relatively smooth. We turned off the main road at dusk where we paid some locals with a 4wheeldrive to take us and our camping gear up to the crater. The gates to hell truly are an impressive sight, as you crest over the rise you see a the glow coming up out of a hole in the desert. Because we are in Turkmenistan not England there are no safety barriers and you can literally walk right up to the edge. Naturally we all did this, and then took a step back as the wave of heat hit us in the face. We spent a lot time mocking up photos in silhouette against the flames before camping nearby. In the morning we were told to use the crater as an incinerator to take care of our rubbish. I guess this at least keeps the camp ground clean! 

The race to Ashgabat

2-3 August

A few days later than expected we arrived at the Turkmenistan border, we knew this had the potential to be a difficult border to cross, but still hadn’t anticipated how difficult Turkmenistan makes things for foreigners. We had to buy our visas at the border and pay in advance to get the car into the country. Not to difficult you might think…. Think again. It’s not possible to get Turkmen Manat outside the country and there are no money changers on the border. So inspite of having a large stack of Kazak Tenge and Euros they wouldn’t accept our money. It turns out they do  take US dollars. But we didn’t have enough.

Luckily for us team ‘to infinity and Baatar’ had a healthy stack of dollar, so we very gratefully borrowed some of their dollar to get over the border. We entered the country at quite a remote border pass, so we had miles to drive oover salt flats and past an abandoned sodium sulfate works at Bekdash..

We pulled into the sea for our last night by the Caspian, in what happened to be a Turkmen holiday resort. We were taken around by the locals who were as friendly as the Kazaks, the beak had some hot springs, the guys were taken off to the mens side where they had an ’interesting time’.  I chatted in broken English to some of the girls on the ladies side. We  re-convened as we’re fed fresh fish and chocolates by a local, before going to a slightly awkward disco.

In the morning we moved on to Turkmenbashi where w hoped to be able to exchange some money to pay back infinity, but no joy. The lonely planet guide told us that there was one bank in the capital Asgabat where you could use foreign cards to get money. So all three teams filled up using ‘Infinity’s money and began the long drive to Asgabat. Fortunately fuel is subsidised in Turkmenistan so it only cost the equavilent of £4 to fill the tank.

The drive into Ashgabatr was not terribly pleasant,having turned inland from the Caspian we there was no cooling breeze. I sunck into Red dog racing’s car to cathch an hours worth of Air-con before taking my turn driving in the heat.  We finally go into Ashgabat at 11pm and spend about 3 hours trying to find a hotel. We eventually succeeded and after long showers went straight to bed.

In the morning we had a bit of a goose chase around town trying to find the bank that would give us. Money, we eventually managed although they only accepted Master card. Relieved to be able to pay back ‘Infinity’ we re-stocked on food and water and headed out of the city.

Ashgabat is acompletely insanse city, the last dictator they had decided everything should be clad in marble, even the drains are marble. Everywher you go there are  golden statues of the great leader and pictures of him hanging up everywhere. We have some pictures of the city but not to many because if the police catch you taking photo they make you delete them.

The road to Shetpe: We did it so you don’t have to…


I wrote the last post in the car very shortly before the tarmac ran out. Between Belaya and Shetpe the road is recommended as 4-wheel drive only by the lonley planet guide, all 3 teams knew this, what we weren’t expecting was just how awful the road actually was. Not only was there no tarmac but there were pot holes the size of cars. Progress slowed to a crawl, we averaged somewhere between 10 and 15 mph, even this was too fast in some parts. The road stretches on for some 200miles, it took us two full days to cover this section.

Halfway through the first day on this forsaken piece of ‘road’ we discovered that you could cover more ground by driving on the dust tracks forged by the lorries by the side of the road. Most of the other vehicles we saw were driving on these. The main problem with this method is the volume of dust kicked up by the cars as we went along. Everything in the car is covered in dust, since we had the windows open to keep cool. During this period we also discovered the joys of riding on the roof rack!

On the second day, we approached a sign saying ‘the dangerous section’ we continued with trepidation. As it turned out this was the easiest part as the road surface was almost levelled and we headed down a 10% slope.

After finally reaching Shetpe we the road surface improved marginally and we carried on to the Turkmenistan border. All three cars in our convoy had taken a battering, we’re all very grateful to Matt from team red dog racing for helping us check out the dings we’d put under the car. We spent another night by Caspian, to wash off and watch a spectacular sunset.

Kazakhstan first impressions


Since our last post we have been convoying with the two team we met in Astrrakan. Teaming up has exponentially increased faff levels, however japery and banter is also on the up.

We crossed fairly quickly into Kazakhstan, the road surface immediately decreased, to about 50% pothole. Ant did an excellent job of weaving through the good bits of road. Just 10 minutes after entering the country the convoy got stopped by the police apparently it was illegal for us to be driving without headlights on (in the glaring sunshine). While the drivers were taken off to pay a $10 fine, the only policeman that spoke any English stayed behind with the passengers to chat. The whole exchange was quite friendly and we were soon back on the road.

As evening fell we turned off the main road on to dirt track into the nearest village after some confused pointing with the local we were directed to the water. We made camp by the edge of the Caspian Sea about an hour before sunset. I tried to go for a swim, however after walking about 100m into the sea it was still only up to my knees and I settled for paddling instead. The Kazak people are some of the friendliest people we have come across, as we set camp some families wandered over to say hello, take our picture, and make conversation in broken English. After watching the sun set behind the Caspian all went to bed.

The morning greeted us with slightly improved road surfaces as we are currently in oil country. After a game of French cricket we continued making our way around the Caspian. The Kazak steppe is both flat and barren, we pitched our camp in a windy spot leading to some dust in our dinner.