August 8, 2013

The last chapter

I wrote my last post from the Oasis Inn in Astana, a small hostel where I had spent my only night (night = 4 hours) in Kazakhstan. Life was good, I hadn’t had any major issues so far, and I was really looking forward to next few days of adventure. Little did I know what was ahead.

Back to Russia (27/07/13):

I started my journey with a short visit to the city before heading east for a new border crossing to Russia. The roads were OK, the views quite formidable, and I even got to see a Kazakh wedding celebration!

Astana
Astana
Astana
Astana
As far as eyesight can reach
I also saw cowboys!
Kazakh wedding celebration…
… with maids of honor warming up

Kazakhstan is a country where land and sky seem to be pretty close to each other (maybe because it’s quite flat and undeveloped and one can see far in the distance), which partly explains why storms look so spectacular here. Today I managed to see another one and the lightnings were just breathtaking (even horizontal!).

The border crossing was once again quick and uneventful. One custom officer in Russia recognised the Athletic flag and used it as a joke to see if I was carrying any illegal substances:

  • Officer: Athletic of Bilbao!, Spain, show me the drugs and weapons
  • Me: Sorry?
  • Officer: Yes, people carry to Spanish games, “I’ve read it in a book”
  • Me: Ha, ha, ha… go on then and search the car

We both laughed and he let me go.

After crossing the border I stopped at a road cafe (КАФЕ) where a very nice local helped me choose dinner, and he, his friends and I talked about the rally. Too tired to find a hotel and too dark to pitch the tent outside, I drove into a nearby field and slept inside the car. Quite an experience, but not necessarily one to repeat. :-)

Final days before Mongolia (28-29/07/13):

Waking up with the sunrise has three main advantages:

  1. You get to enjoy the day more (important since I wanted to get to the border on the day)
  2. You get the road pretty much for yourself for a good 3-4 hours
  3. Pictures look great (sunrise and sunset are called the golden hours in photography for a reason)
Beautiful sunrise
Look at the shape of the houses
Pixar…
…or Hitchcock?
Russia was full of sunflowers

Tsagaannuur is Mongolia’s Western border with Russia and is located in the Altai mountains. By pure luck I took a secondary road to get there (from Aleysk to Kosh Agach – http://goo.gl/maps/rrrUX) which allowed me to enjoy some of the most amazing places I’ve seen so far and doing some hardcore rallying too!

Animals crossing the road was quite frequent
Would you live here?
Maybe I would…
Loving it!

I made it to Kosh Agach by 21:30-22:00 (at a decent time for once) and managed to find a small hotel which looked OK. Due to some odd local rule the front desk person could not register me past noon and asked me to leave before 8:00 and not tell anyone that I had slept over. “If you offer me a bed and a shower it works for me!”.

As promised I left the hotel quite early, went for some groceries, and got to the Russian border by 9:30 (opening, in principle, at 9:00).

In the border I met fellow ralliers Krzys, Michal and Kuba (The Mongolian Job team – www.facebook.com/TheMongolianJobTeam), Ralf a Spanish speaking German who was driving an all terrain van to Mongolia, and Adrien and Pollina, a couple travelling from Berlin to the Sakhalin island by train, bus and hitch hiking!

image

Because we were importing our cars into Mongolia we were expecting this border crossing to be more difficult / take longer than others, but I must say it exceeded our wildest expectations by far:

  • It took us almost 3 hours to get our immigration stamp out of Russia (locals would just keep jumping the queue with 15 passports at a time)
  • We arrived in the Mongolian border just before their 1 hour lunch break
  • The Mongolian Job team and I waited for 3 hours until the customs officer in charge of arranging the car import papers started working on ours. In the meantime other officers offered to exchange money for us, we went outside for a walk, tried (and failed) to accelerate the process offering a smoke, went out for another walk, and another walk…

The border in Tsagaannuur closes at 18:00 and we were told just 10 minutes before that the money to pay the cars’ import taxes had not arrived yet and we would need to wait until the following day before leaving. Needless to say we tried to complain/negotiate but there was nothing we could offer to get through. The tax for each car is USD 2,000, more than what I paid for my Punto!!!

Al mal tiempo buena cara” as my father normally says, this gives you yet another unforgettable experience (sleeping at a border… check!). We made some new friends, arranged the tents to protect each other from the cold and wind, prepared some dinner, laughed, and went to sleep early.

Tsagaannuur border
Setting up tents and preparing dinner
The Mongolian Job Team and two German campers we spent the night with

And finally, at 12:00 on the day after, and having paid a USD 10 “customs process fee” twice (paid for some reason to the officials directly, who would not accept Mongolian Tögrögs), we got the car import papers and green light to go.

image

Mongolia here we come!!!

The “Grand Finale” (30/07 – 03/08/13):

Happy to be set free The Mongolian Job team and I crossed the border quickly before custom officers could change their minds and ask us for a new “customs process fee”, only to be stopped 100m later for more bureaucracy (road tax and insurance this time, MON 50,000 or USD 35).

Feeling a bit “milked” but hoping it’d be over now, we finally set way to the unknown…

Problems finally start…

The joy was soon over as my car’s engine began to overheat and we had to stop to check it:

  • 1st Stop – “Fix it yourself”: steam was coming out of the radiator and water leaking under it so identifying the root of the problem was not an issue. After letting the engine cool we attempted to change the radiator (“don’t worry I brought a spare one” I proudly said) but miserably failed, and changed the air filter “just in case” (clearly unnecessary but needed to feel some sort of accomplishment). Unanimous decision was taken to refill the radiator with water and “see how it goes”.In the meantime we had been approached by a couple of Mongolian kids in a horse curious to see how my machine, with supposedly more horse power than theirs, had already given up. One of them got a pair of sunglasses as a gift from my Polish friends, and the other asked for Chupi as souvenir but left empty handed. Sorry kid, Chupi needs to make it to the end
  • 2nd Stop – “Let’s be practical”: I noticed that heat only went up when I was driving slow (1st or 2nd gear) which, road permitting, had an easy fix. However the road was only one lane and as soon as we got stuck behind a truck I had to stop for a second time. We also noticed that the radiator’s fan was not working (thus the overheating and why a higher speed helped). Unanimous decision was taken to let the radiator cool, refill it with water and “see how it goes”.
  • 3rd Stop – “Almost there, one last effort”: the third and last stop was reaching the summit of a small mountain. As we were close to Olgii, the next “big town”, unanimous decision was taken to let the radiator cool, refill it with water and try to find some professional help in Olgii.

The road to Olgii was well paved allowing us to achieve a decent speed which, together with the fact that it started raining, helped keep the engine temperature down until we found a garage. The mechanics confirmed our expectations, the radiator’s fan engine was broken (and no, I didn’t have a spare one of this) and needed to be replaced. While a replacement was being looked for they ripped the old one apart and tried to fix it (ie. no way back).

When informed about my car’s problem Jenya, from the Mongol Rally headquarters in Ulaanbaatar, offered to help and sent a local representative to discuss the matter with the mechanics and see if we could find a spare part to get me going asap. We tried two shops and two garages but unfortunately this was not the case, “in Mongolia only Russian and Japanese cars, look, look!” informed me Agvaandazan, Mongol Rally representative and my new host in Olgii, before taking me for dinner and inviting me to his house for the night: “hotel no, expensive, my home, my home”.

The Mongolian Job team had resumed their way a couple of hours earlier after strong insistence from me.

Guys thanks a lot for all your help today and not wanting to leave me alone. I wish you a fantastic rest of the trip and hopefully see you in Ulaanbaatar!

Trying to fix the car
Car parked in front of the family yurta
My accommodation for the night

And now what?…

Olgii is fortunately one of the three “drop off points” before the finish line so worst case scenario I could always wave goodbye to my friend the Punto and take an internal flight to Ulaanbaatar. However this had to be the last resort, I hadn’t come this far to let go, so as the Mongol Rally handbook says: when things go wrong “Keep Buggering Off”.

In the morning I was invited to my host’s yurta for breakfast. A yurta is the traditional house Mongolian nomads used to build in the summer when moving the flocks around, nowadays is also built in the backyard of many houses in towns and cities as their summer accommodation. Inside the yurta family always sits on the right hand side, and guests (in this case my hosts’ father, brother, sister and I) on the left hand side.

We started breakfast with Mongolian tea (yak’s milk) and bread with a couple of Russian jams, followed by some vodka served in a silver bowl and offered from eldest to youngest. After this they brought a round silver dish with a big piece of meat and some vegetables for each of us to help ourselves using our hands and the two big knives provided. And with every piece of meat another sip of vodka, simply delicious!

After breakfast we tried a new garage, a big and modern one with free WIFI. Their assessment of the damage was devastating:

  • Them: This car will never make it to Ulaanbaatar it’s kaput (or something like that in Mongolian)
  • Me: But, but, but, it doesn’t need to be perfect, can you find a temporary solution to get me going?
  • Them: No

I asked Agvaandazan if we could try another garage/seek a second opinion, and he took me to the one of the day before only to find a similar answer. With morale hitting new lows I implored him to try one last time “and if it doesn’t work I’ll drop off the car”. He spoke to his headquarters in Ulaanbaatar who recommended a temporary fix virtuoso and… jackpot!

In the outskirts of Olgii,
in a semi-abandoned placed,
we found Jenka the tool master!
Waving goodbye to Agvaandazan and family

The rest of the day combined beautiful scenery with high dosses of concentration to try to catch up as many kilometres as possible without smashing the car in a bump, hitting a rock or getting stuck in the mud, not an easy task!.

Off-road driving…
… requires a lot of attention…
… and choosing the right road!
Camping after sunset
The white dots are mosquitoes banqueting on me

… and keep coming…

Determined to recover some of the time lost I woke up with sunrise (5:30), had a quick breakfast, packed, put my sunglasses and seatbelt on, and turned on the radio for a fantastic day ahead. But, what do you do when the road disappears at a river crossing?… I know, I’ve heard about this, you find a shallow place to cross or a bigger car to tow you (else water may get inside the engine and that’s the end of the story) and voilá!.

Since the later was not an option at 6:00, I carefully studied the different alternatives and decided which was “the good crossing point”. Unfortunately I was not counting on getting stuck in a sand bank for 3 hours and having to use my hands, feet, rocks… to dig the car out until someone came to help push the car out. For some reason I remembered playing with sand as more fun.

It’s fun when the main road is suddenly blocked…
… and you need to cross a river to continue
Where I got stranded for 3h, and had to dig my way out
The guys who helped push me out
400m away there was a proper bridge!
Arriving in Khovd
Mongolians love it by the river
Kids always friendy
Another piece of art
Would you cross the bridge or the river?

… and coming…

As the end of the day was approaching and I was looking for a place to camp I hit a rock (one of many to be honest) or went over a bump quicker than I should and heard a “clonk!” followed by a “wreeeeee…shhhh…wreeeeee…shhhh…”. What was that?, the exhaust had broken and the pipe that comes out of the engine had separated from the muffler. To make things worse the pipe was hanging down and touching the ground, so any attempts to continue would only damage it more.

What would MacGyver do now?. I had tape, I had a piece of string, I had chewing gum, and I had my multipurpose knife.

P1020522

Smart as it was, this temporary solution would only last for 15-20 minutes until the exhaust’s heat burned the string and melted the tape. So I drove for another hour (with 3-4 interim stops to redo the above) and camped for the night with the intention of looking for a garage the following morning. By the way, I was in the middle of nowhere between Khovd and Altai, at least 100km away from the closest town…

I woke up early again with the idea of arriving in Altai by 9:00 (when I expected garages to open), but was not expecting such poor road conditions and having to fix the exhaust even more often. I was now running out of tape, string and patience!.

Thankfully I met some lorry drivers who, for a small fee and after having a laugh at all the tape and string they saw, not only agreed to help, fixed the exhaust and realigned the engine (a bit loose as a consequence of the bumpy roads), but also invited me to share breakfast with them once the job was done. They offered me tea, bread and canned sardines, and I shared with them some Russian mortadella and Spanish olives bought in Ukraine. It hit me that maybe “disasters need to happen” for me to enjoy these kind of experiences (like in Volgograd or Olgii), if so please keep them coming!

Magnificent sunrise
Help along the way
Making sure it lasts long
They saved my day!
Here rests one who was not helped… (it’s a joke!)
Long way ahead…
… and not the best conditions

I continued my journey with high morale and confidence on the Punto’s “good shape”… until I crashed the car into a hidden bump in the early afternoon. Thankfully I was only doing 15-20 km/hour at the time. Damage assessment:

  • Front bumper slightly bent in the corners (near the wheels) and in the bottom
  • Engine very close to radiator fan but all seemed to be working fine
  • Both front wheels trapped by the bent bumper, now semi-incrusted in them (oops!)

What would MacGyver do now?. I unscrewed the two front wheels (one at a time!), removed the “mud-guards” (plastic pieces that go around the wheel to protect the car, its engine… from any mud and rocks that may be propelled by the wheels), used the multipurpose knife to cut out the mud-guard bit in contact with the tyres, and used the multipurpose knife and tent hammer to remove the bumper pieces that were obstructing the wheels’ free spin. After one and a half hours I proudly observed the results, it worked beautifully!.

P1020562

(in the picture you can see the state of the front bumper after the crash)

As the night was approaching I found myself with a camper van at a river crossing. This river looked deeper than any of us could take and currents were quite strong; I was certainly not willing to test my luck a third time… But wait, we had stopped just a few meters away from two yurtas and the men were using their truck to tow a car from the other side of the river, we were saved!. I bargained a “river crossing fee” reduction (“MON 20,000 (EUR 10) wow!, can you do MON 10,000? I need money for benzine” (which was true and worked)) and went on one of the coolest experiences so far: engine off, handbreak released, gear in neutral and steering wheel unlocked, and handing over all control to a complete stranger while water covered the car almost to window level… a two minute adrenaline rush!

The camper van was heading in the same direction as me and we agreed that I’d follow them. It was pitch black by then and I could not see a thing but I wanted to get as close as possible to Bayankhongor (closest town) to increase chances of making it to the finish line the day after. So I followed them for an hour or so when, feeling tired and afraid of damaging the car (the road was very bumpy), I decided to stop for the night and sleep under the most amazing sky I’ve ever seen. You could see every single star, distinguish the Milky Way, and I even got to see two shooting stars (sorry I can not tell you my wish or it won’t happen ;-))

The alarm clock woke me up at 5:30 for my final day of driving (or so I hoped). I packed everything I needed into a couple of bags (Alvaro’s huge Kilimanjaro backpack and another one), well differentiated from those items that would stay in the car (spare battery, oil, jerry can, spare tyres, puncture kits…). I refilled the windscreen wiper liquid, used a bottle of water and some tape to improvise a funnel that would facilitate refuelling, and around 6:00 I hit the road.

P1020551

… and yet again!!!

“What’s that noise???”, oh dear, the exhaust had broken again!, driving at night was not a good idea after all… Thankfully my friends the lorry drivers had not only reassembled the exhaust pipe and muffler but also planned ahead and used some wire to temporarily fix the pipe to the car chassis, which allowed me to continue driving even if it was noisy. At least until I could find a garage in Bayankhongor.

Seeing the road in daylight reaffirmed how good a decision was to stop for some sleep and better visibility, what a nightmare of road!!!. And just to make things worse, it rained during the night and some parts were extremely muddy :-(

Taking it easy to avoid making things worse, I arrived in Bayankhongor around 9:00 and asked a local where I could find a garage to fix the exhaust. “No garage, come with me, I’ll fix it”. A bit unsure about letting an unqualified person mess around with my already beaten down car, I decided to go along and follow him to his friend’s house and “see what happens”. How wrong was I to doubt the guy, him and his friend clearly knew what they were doing and even used a soldering iron to permanently fix the exhaust pipe to the chassis and fix other minor stuff. They did not use however the soldering iron to permanently fix the exhaust pipe and muffler, but I didn’t dare to ask. Wrong!, three hours later and a few bumps and rocks along the way, same old same old… I could drive like this to Ulaanbaatar but decided to sort the problem once and for all and visited a new garage to solder everything this time.

The finish line

Except for a few kilometres of off-road and some with big potholes in the main road, the road from Bayankhongor to Ulaanbaatar is properly built and asphalted which makes the ride much more enjoyable. As the finish line got closer and closer I could not to help but smile and remember all the high and lows of the trip; I would not go as far as calling it a life changing experience, but certainly one I will fondly remember.

I entered Ulaanbaatar at around 19:20 and it took me a good 40 minutes to cross the city to Hotel Chinggis Khan where the finish line was. Traffic after sunset is pretty bad in Ramada and locals drive like mad! (I almost got hit twice).

After handing over the car, getting the Mongol Rally completion certificate and writing my team’s name in the finish line board, I quickly went to the youth hostel to take a shower (first in 5 days!) and met some friends for a drink. Who?, The Mongolian Job team who had arrived in Ulaanbaatar the night before and also had gone through some pretty interesting and rough situations. Well done guys, you are true champions!!!

Main road + all alternative side roads
Hotel Chinggis Khan – The Finish Line
I made it on 6th place, but it’s not a race!
The Athletic flag made it all the way!
Celebrating and sharing interesting stories
With Krzys, Kuba and Michal, great guys!

And now that the race is over is time to reflect…

  • Was it worth it?
    YES!. I’ve been wanting to take part in the Mongol Rally for 8 years and I’ve loved every single bit of doing it, the highs and the lows, all is part of the experience. I strongly believe that unless you test yourself you’ll never know what are you capable of or how will you react in a moment of weakness
  • Would you do it again?
    YES!. Maybe a different route and ideally longer time (6-8 weeks) and with friends, but we need to be quick or they’ll build roads!!!
  • How was driving in Mongolia?
    Be my guest (and this is actually one of the easy roads…)

 

  • What have you used the most and what should you have taken with you?
    Essential tools in the kit were,

    • the multipurpose knife, a good present from my friends Carlos and Helena a few years ago
    • the baby wipes, a good present from my friends Borja and Isabel and a good alternative when a shower is not available
    • a 15 litre drinking water tank and a 750ml Camelbak water flask (these I bought)
    • a good paper map + Good Maps (an app that allows you to store sections of Google Maps for offline use and pinpoints your position in the map quasi-real time)

Things that would have become handy,

    • a toolbox, a multipurpose knife is not enough!
    • a shovel and some rails to get out of mud/sand
    • metallic wire or a stronger rope (one that won’t burn)
    • a metal plaque to protect the bottom of the car
    • stronger lights for driving off road in poor light conditions
  • Anything else?
    YES!. I would like to truly thank all of you (family, friends, colleagues…) for all your love, help, support and inspiration without which this experience would not have been possible. I feel very fortunate to have you around, THANK YOU!!!

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