Friday, October 12, 2007

The Mongol Rally 2006

The Mongol Rally is a mad dash a quarter of the way around the northern hemisphere from London, England to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The only rule is that the engine capacity of the car must be no greater than 1000cc. It is a charitable event, with money raised going to both Send-a-cow in Africa and to charities with projects in Mongolia. At the end of the rally the cars are donated to charity and auctioned off.

We first heard about the Mongol Rally in 2004, its first year. The idea immediately appealed to us, not least because we had already been to Mongolia once (where we met) and were keen to go back at some stage. The timing wasn’t so good for us, however, due to our wedding planned for around the same time. We didn’t think our families would be too impressed if we failed to make it back in time for the ceremony…

The 2005 rally was again not possible for us due to other commitments, but after a lot of consideration we eventually decided to give it a go in 2006. We managed to get our entry confirmed early in the year and then set about finding a car suitable for the event.

My friend Rhys had also entered the rally, and had bought a Suzuki SJ410 on ebay for the event. He had had a bit of trouble with it though, and, after lots of repairs, when the engine starting making loud knocking noises, finally decided to get rid of it. Knowing that we were looking, he very kindly offered it to us for free. After towing it across London early one Saturday morning, we confirmed that the engine either needed to be reconditioned or replaced, and after a quick search on ebay, found a cheap second-hand engine for sale. By this time it was mid-April, and the Rally was due to start on July 22nd. We collected the engine from a Suzuki enthusiast in Leicester, and over the course of a long weekend, removed the old engine and installed the new. Luckily everything went as planned and the new engine ran like a dream.

There was still a noise that sounded suspiciously like a worn bearing coming from the gearbox, so we kept an eye out on ebay for a replacement box. Sure enough one came up, and my bid of £10.50 was successful. The new gearbox made exactly the same noise though! To play it safe, we decided to take the old gearbox with us to Mongolia, just in case one failed. Always good to be prepared.

By the time we got the car running again the MOT had expired. We had a number of items fail the first inspection, then a few more fail the second inspection, but finally on the third attempt it passed. I don’t think our friendly MOT man believed it was worth fixing initially, and I’m sure he was quite surprised when we kept bringing it back. In the meantime, I had became closely acquainted with the electrical system in order to get the high and low beam working properly, and at one point had a mass of wiring where the dashboard was supposed to be. Ebay again came to the fore when sourcing parts.

Once back on the road and legal, we took the vehicle for a good test run out to Brentwood and back, and all went well. Following this, we went on a slightly more adventurous test run up to the Peak District for the weekend. It was a long drive at 45mph, but once again there were no problems. Our free car was looking like a winner.

During this period we had been applying for the necessary visas for Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, as well as for Ukraine for me. We only just got our passports back a few days before departure, after riding into London to collect them. We had also been asking our friends and relatives for sponsorship to help raise the £1000 minimum for charity that was required to participate in the event. We were humbled by the generosity of those who donated, and easily raised the target amount.

Departure day was drawing very near. We had a car that ran, food for a good part of the journey (including veges out of the garden), jerry cans, spare tyres, a roofrack, cameras, sounds, a tent and sleeping bags, and we were all ready to go.

The launch day at Hyde Park was fun, although we weren’t able to have much of a look at other cars because we were busy making sue all our admin was completed with the organisers so we could leave. The day had started out fine, but buy the time we did our lap of the park trying to get out, it was raining.

We finally made it out of London, and passed our first broken down rally cars on the M20 to Dover! We made our ferry with plenty of time – even long enough to eat fish’n’chips on the cliff.

The main objective at the beginning was to get to Prague for the party the following night, and it was really just a gruelling slog across Belgium and Germany. We were both tired from the preparations to leave, and had to stop in a motorway layby during the night to sleep for an hour or two. We finally did get to Prague at about 10:30pm on the second night. The party venue and music were both great, although it was quite difficult to talk and get to know any if the other ralliers very well. We had some trouble finding the campsite that night, but eventually did and slept well.

We spent a few hours the next morning in Prague, having two slow leaks fixed in our tyres and doing a small spot of sightseeing. Prague was beautiful, but absolutely packed with tourists! It would be nice to go back at some stage to visit properly.

From there we headed east on our intended route through the Czech Republic and Slovakia towards the Ukraine. After the first night, formal campsites ceased to exist, so quiet paddocks became our favourite places to rest at the end of a long day driving. Due to the distance we had to cover and the short time frame we had allowed ourselves (4 weeks to be back in London), we very quickly fell into a routine of getting up before sunrise, breaking camp and then getting on the road just as the sun was rising. We would drive for one to two hours, then stop for an hour for breakfast and to check the car over properly. After this we would carry on until the middle of the day, when we would stop for another hour for lunch. We took it in turns to drive, and would swap at lunch each day. Each of us would drive for an afternoon and then the following morning, which was far less tiring than driving for a whole day at a time. After lunch we would go until just before sunset, which was around 8:30 to 9:00pm, when we would stop, set up camp and have a good dinner.

The rally organisers had given some “checkpoints” to call into along the way. The first of these along our route was in Kiev. We finally found it, thanks mostly to a local called Andre who knew of the rally and abandoned what he was doing to show us the way (and find us a parking spot). There were no other rallyers there, the staff knew nothing about it, and there were no obvious signs of anywhere to check in, but it was a cool place. We didn’t stay for long.

On eastward to the Russian border. We didn’t know quite what to expect here, but in the end it went smoothly and we were through both border posts in about two hours. Our stay in Russia was very short but quite interesting. We headed to Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, and then followed the Volga river southeast toward the Kazakhstan border. On our way there we were overtaken by our first rallyers, Mongolian Taxi Service and Team Snailracer. These were the first we had seen since Prague, and we had been sure that we had been well and truly dropped by the bunch. Whilst in Volgograd we visited a massive monument on the top of a hill which could be seen more miles around. It was pretty impressive by its sheer size. On the way out of town we met up with more rally people, and then more! After a week seeing nobody, everyone turns up on the same day.

Into Kazakhstan the next day, and the roads start to deteriorate. Then they get quite bad. Then they get really bad. Then they get even worse… The trouble was were there had been a road, but it had never been maintained, and you are left with some hard pavement and numerous massive potholes. Very slow driving. It got better in parts were there had been no road at all!.

On the day we made it to Aral, we spent about five hours crawling along at 20km/h. Then when the road did get a bit better there was a sandstorm. That afternoon we came across Chris and Dave, who had blown a head gasket and had been unsuccessfully trying to wave down locals for half an hour. We towed them to Aral (about 1 ½ hours away) and nearly overheated ourselves. They were very grateful.

The further east we went, and the closer to Almaty, the better the roads became. Conversely, the traffic got heavier and the driving got worse. Almaty was very nice, and we spent a bit of time trying to find the next checkpoint. We couldn’t, however, and we abandoned our plans to stay in a hotel and got out of town. From here it was north to the Russian border.

We decided to try a small border post marked on our map which would considerably cut down our distance to the Mongolian border. After finally finding the right road and travelling 40km down it, we found out that the road was closed for massive reconstruction works. Back we go, and along to the next border post, our shortcut adding about 200km extra to our day. By this time we had been in Kazakhstan for ten days, and although we had enjoyed it, we were ready to leave. We arrived back in Russia at the dead of night, after much thumbing through of passports and checking of documents by bored Border Guards very unused to vehicles from Great Britain.

We were now in the Altai region, Russia's alpine playground with lots of mountains and rivers. We had been looking forward to travelling through this part, even if we would not be able to stop long enough to enjoy it fully. The way it turned out, it was raining very heavily for the two days we were there, and with the footwells filling with water, took the shortest route to the Mongolian border, stopping only for fuel and to withdraw cash from the lesser spotted ATM. It was still pretty spectacular though.

We had heard that the Mongolian border post was only open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. We arrived at the Russian post late on a Thursday afternoon, hoping that we would have time to get through that day. We noticed people rushing to get into a vehicle in front of us as it was departing - obviously trying to make the Mongolian side in time. Our passage through Russian Customs and Immigration was pretty quick, but we still had a short but very rough drive through No Man's Land. We had noted that these sometimes not-so-short stretches of road had been some of the worst tracks we had been on. Neither side is interested in maintaining the surface. At the actual land border between the two countries there was a small shack, in which sat one man and a huge dog. It was snowing and he looked cold. After a final check of passports and documents heopened the gate and sent us on our way. We were finally in Mongolia.
Of course we still had to get to the border post and go through the processes of Customs and Immigration. We arrived at the Mongolian border post to find a shut gate and nobody in sight. It looked like we were too late after all. Soon though, a soldier came out to see us, told us to park by the main building, made some large sweeping gestures and wandered off with our passports. Sweet, we thought, they are going to process us tonight! Nothing much seemed to be happening though, and after more gesturing and no common language everyone wandered off towards the nearby town. We noticed they kept looking back to see what we were doing, but knowing no better we stayed in the car. Catkin cooked dinner and we and settled in for a cold night in the tent. We think now though that what they telling us was to go into the town to stay for the night and come back in the morning!
We were expecting that this Customs check would be a little more rigourous than usual, because we were importing the vehicle into the country permanently. The Customs officials had been advised of the rally, and we had an official letter from Mongol Rally HQ explaining everything. In addition, we had other documents we needed to ease this process, including a receipt for the vehicle from 'Motspur Park Vehicle Sales' printed out at home the night before we left London (Motspur Park is the home of the Old Blues Rugby Football Club), and papers showing that the engine number matched that on the handmade plate glued to the engine block after we realised that the real numbers did not match and that we had no time to change the paperwork. In actual fact, the engine number was so difficult to get to that the Customs Officer, in her skirt and high heels, was not too bother to have a look at it. She did ensure, however, that the Policeman who was trying to exchange our US dollars for Mongolian tugrigs gave us a fair exchange rate, bless her.