September 7th, 2011

We are alive ! We made it to the finish line THANK GOD! Safe & sound, dust coated, physically and mentally drained with a semi battered car we covered 13,958 km (8669.7 miles) over 42 days to reach our destination of Ulaanbaatar on Saturday late afternoon. The journey consisted of 34 days of actual driving, an average 9 hours and 10 minutes per day in the car covering an average 255 miles per day thus, an average speed of 27mph for the entire journey. Mind you the average speed in Mongolia was approx 18mph and that was aggressive driving...

We were team # 203 to make it to UB of a total 300 who started the Rally 6 weeks earlier, they anticipate that maybe 10 more teams will folow maximum, the remaining 80 or so will have encountered all sorts of problems pre mongolia and the Mongolia stretch alone had taken out 40+ cars by the middle of August. The starting point and Euro tour seem like an eternity ago given we crossed 13 countries in that timeframe and the experiences from week one and week six are about as close in comparison as chalk & cheese.

That 202 other teams made it all the way is some achievement as you should see what "roads" in Mongolia comprise of....
Amongst the finish line success, a Northern Irish guy who rode a 50CC motor cycle solo who we'd last seen in Kiev 3 weeks ago.We didn't have much faith in his motor bike making it out of Ukraine, not to mind say his mental agility to cover the course on his own and that's before we saw what Mongolia driving can do to your psyche...

Last I checked in we were in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and from there we crossed back into Kazakhstan headed to Almaty, the former capital and a great city to take one last day of rest before the final push to the finish line. Almaty is a good 2 day stop over point if you ever find yourself in Central Asia, it's a buzzing oil town with all modern conveniences & some Western influence. Clear highlight of that stay was a visit to the Russian bathhouse where we witnessed true Russian bathhouse experience - Built in the early 1980's and heralded as the finest bathhouse in Central Asia, the facilites are split between male/female. Each has a main pool, sauna etc but the difference here than say at a Japanese bathhouse is the beating you get! Prior to entering people purchase a bunch of birch and oak leaves which they then use to beat themselves with in the sauna, followed by pouring a bucket of ice cold water over yourself. The brave (or stupid) then willingly sign up for a massage which is performed while you are butt naked on a granite covered bench in the middle of the shower area and conducted by someone who looks like a former KGB enforcer, the final move in the performance can only be described as being put in the heimlick manouver position and then hoisted off the counter top until all the bones in your neck and spine realign themselves and you then slide off the counter top feeling like you just went about 400 rounds w/ Mike Tyson. All in all a very memorable cleansing experience which left the girls bruised for days and us feeling like our knee caps had been rearranged.

Leavign Kazakhstan back into Russia we started to meet a lot more teams on the way up from the Southern route (Turkey Iran etc) also headed to the Western side of Mongolia and our convoy started to add team members from UK and Australia. We noticed as the trip went into week 4-6 that the average age of the ralliers climbed from 26 to maybe 33 which was a good thing as expectations and similarities combined and as we started to meet new teams we learned tales of woe as pertains to the cars and the battles being faced. One team we drove with to the finish line had no clutch for 2500km's, their starter was iffy and another team also had starter issues. Many cars had simply "died" in Kyrgyzstan & Turmekistan.

The border crossing at Semey was feared to be a very long 12+ hour crossing day based on all our readings but crossing later in the evening we found it turned out to be completely painless and in fact our shortest at just 1.5 hours and a return to civilization after the desert of Kazak / Uzbeck, we were back to sealed road surfaces for 2 days and just a general feeling that things would work like they do in the normal world. The 4 day period of Eastern Kazak and Southern Russia to the Mongol border were pretty much dawn to dusk driving, relatively unintereting to write about until we got to south of Barnaul, Russia where the scenery turned spectacular. If you can imagine driving through Yosemite National Park for 100 or so miles then you get the picture, mountain climbs, Alpine ski villages, white water rafting rapids and small countryside villages, it was spectacular and set us up for the next week crossing Mongolia. The temperature during the day had plummeted from the highs of Uzbekistan and we were for once turning on the car heating in the early morning and late evening.

And so to Mongolia - the destination, the whole reason for the trip, the final chapter and an experience like no other starting right at the border crossing. As you have probably gathered from the blogs, border crossings in former USSR countries are still riduclously bureaucratic, last endlessly long and are mind boggling complicated given the language barrier but Mongolia takes the prize. During most of August, the former Soviet controlled countries have been celebrating their 20 years of Independence and rolling up to the Mongol border on Saturday we were made aware that the Mongolia section of the border would actually be closed on Sunday. You have to remeber that leaving Russia is one border proccess, then a journey of 20km's through no mans land to the border line at Mongolia. We rolled in a little after 4pm to find a few teams already ahead of us who had been there since 9am, who had sat through the lunch break closure and only seen 3 teams processed all day. Coming into Mongolia we were also importing the cars formally which added to the arduous paperwork process. Very quickly it emerged as more teams started to pile in that the border was going to close at 7pm on Saturday evening and not open on Sunday due to it being a national holiday, as people our passports were processed immediately but our cars were not going to transact as quickly and with 15 teams now at border & customs control, the story going around was that we were going to be left stranded without our cars and would have to sleep overnight somewhere for Saturday, hang out all day Sunday and re-start the process again on Monday... I might just tell you here that the border crossing as always is in the middle of nowhere, and the Western Mongolia border is about as close to the center of nowhere as you can locate on the planet, the temperatute had plummeted to near freezing by 6pm and a wind that would cut you in 1/2 had picked up. The delay of 1.5 days would also mean getting to the finish line in time for the last finish line party was not going to happen as crossing Mongolia is a 1135 miles /1800km journey. A little background on the Mongolian "roads" before we continue.

Mongolia has a state road network of just over 11,200km of which only about 1500km are paved, 1440km has a gravel surface and 1346km has an improved earth surface. Over 6900km is earth tracks. There are no fields in Mongolia, it is one wide open vast plane of nothingness, forest, mountains and desert. There are approximately 5 road signs between the border and UB, navigating is by map & compass, head East, drive around the mountain, climb over a hill, cross the desert, pick & follow one of a series of tracks, ask a nomadic herder if you are headed in the direction if you are lucky to happen upon a living soul and then hope like hell you happen to land on your feet in the right place. A bit about this state road network and what driving on it is really like. Picture the worst airplane turbulence you have ever experienced and add a roller coaster to the experience. Remember you are in a 1.3L small car for 12 hours a day in Mongolia and you can't drive faster than 18mph because you are dodging potholes that will cause blow outs, avoiding rocks and bricks and boulders, dodging herdes of horses and goats and prayer mounds (piles of rocks with blue ribbon tied around them generously scattered everywhere in the countryside), craters the car would topple over in if you hit and corrugations on the flat surface that sends vibrations through the car enough to break the radio, the dashboard components & smash the suspension. The roof cage we had bult had torn free from it's fixtures and had to be tied down by ratchet straps, the vibrations alone of the cage created stress cracks in the frame of the car while the vibration put bolt holes in the roof oh and the exhaust system had to be removed on the 2nd day. Mind you I am not doing the roads justice here in my description, they are 10 times worse. At the end of each day we would camp or if lucky enough find a Ger camp or hotel in a small town around 9pm, cook a campsite dinner which consisted mostly of canned food and then fall asleep immediately due to exhaustion.

So back to the border. 15 teams, the prospect of being stuck there for 36+ hours, freezing cold temperatures. After much consternation, negotation, threats to call International Embassies and learning that it is illegal for Mongolians to work overtime we came to a mutual agreement that some of the Immigration team would stay late and we would pay them $450 cash as a group to process every team that night. The last of us rolled out at 9pm to drive a few miles in the pitch dark on said roads above where in sub zero conditions and gale force winds we pitched tents, ate dinner while it snowed and afterwards collapsed into our tents only to wake up around 4am blue with the cold. It was a tough night and at sun rise we woke to ice on the tents and got on the road for day 1 of figuring our way to UB. Within an hour our car had shredded it's first tire so much so it looked like it went through a meat grinder, in the second hour we blew another tire and at that point reality set in in just how difficult this trek across Mongolia was really going to be.. By day 2 we had lost our exhaust system, day 3 we rescued the 3 cars in convoy from getting stuck in the desert sands a total of 6 times, one of our rear springs had disintegrated into 4 pieces, next to go was the roof cage, the radio, the glove box fell out and the car had taken on a smell that will out last religion.

Getting repairs is no easy task in these parts of the world, and it's not because of the language barriers, the world we live in where you call Roadside assistance or go down to your local mechanic who has readily available spare parts does not exist. Without Leon's mechanicl skills and help from other teams we wouldn't have been going anywhere after day two. Sourcing a replacement spring at the local market from the back of a shipping container in some small town not on the map is the order of the day, a mix of patch it and hope it lasts is the norm, it was part of the daily and hourly challenge to make sure the car made it the entire distance. And Yes, we did willingly sign up for this adventure....

The country side and night skies in Mongolia though are nothing short of spectacular, Mongolia is a National Park in itself we crossed streams and rivers, traversed the most amazing of landscapes that is dotted with nomadic herders who live in Gers and who move their families and animals with the seasons. As we approached UB we randomly picked one Ger that had a car and drove up to them as they tended to their horses and we surprised them with a present of our King size inflatable couch and then just as quickly drove off leaving them with the inflater and a sense of bewilderment of what had just transpired. All land is owned by the Government so people can settle where they like outside of the cities, we did learn that once they reach a certain age that they are granted a plot of lands in the towns/cities which they can then keep/build on or sell for approx $1300. The education system in place appears to be of very high standards at the elementary level and the people for the most part are very gracious and happy people. Like all places once alcohol is thrown into the mix there is a much rougher element who did cause us no end of annoyance with cars being robbed when parked overnight in hotels, some of our group getting verbal abuse but it didn't stain our experience too much, it's Mongolia, things are different, cultures are different, it happens you deal and move on. After 7 days of driving we finally made it to the UB finish line at 5pm on Saturday, approx 35 other teams pulled in that day for a total of 205 to reach the journey's end. There was a definite sense of achievement that eventually settled in at the finish line party that night, enough vodka was consumed to knock out a herd of cattle and many of the rally participants as well, more than a few and not so surprisinly the younger kids, not the older generation had to be carried out of the place, carnage at the highest level.

Charity funds raised to date $14,809 not including the sale of our car yet which we expect to sell for >$6000 less the $4400 import taxes, so we will top $16k which we are very proud of and I would hesitate to guess in the top 5 fundraisers of the entire Mongol Rally.

If you have enjoyed our blogs, photo and adventure (and I know many of you have given the email feedback requesting this final chapter !!!) and would still like to contribute please visit the site below. We THANK all of you who have generously donated your time and money to help our charities of choice and help us fulfill our dream and succeed in the Mongol Rally, one of the most ridiculous experiences we are likely ever to undertake.

Signing out on a much needed rest in Thailand and until the next adventure for Team MDA,

Ian - Editor in Chief, Mongol Rally Blog
Leon - Head of all things Technical & Mechanical

P.S. - Yes, that is a baby cow in the taxi - Tashkent, Kazakhstan (see 1st picture).

Photo Library

GPS Map - Route

 

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

4 weeks since we left Goodwood, 5700 miles. Last we left off with the blog we had arrived in Astrakhan, Russia a stop off point city that offered a clean hotel room and shower after 3 nights of roadside camping before our next round of road side camping in Kazak and Uzbekistan.. The next morning we crossed into Kazakhstan, a fairly straight forward process (as straight forward goes at crossing borders - keep reading).

Donations raised to date: $12,785 !!!!!! Thank you so much. If you are enjoying our blog and pictures and would like to contribute please click HERE

Currently our donation site for CNCF Mongolia is down but you can PAYPAL to icasey@cvpartnersinc.com and I will take care of.

Kazakhstan could be considered like driving on the moon if there were roads on the moon.
While we covered just a fraction of this country on our first visit which boasts a land mass the size of Western Europe, we found for the most part that the land is devoid of life and people, just endless miles of desert. We were immediately frightened by the prospect of the road surface that possibly now face us for the remainder of the journey. Huge chunks of road surface frequently missing, roads that shake the car so hard we are just waiting for the front dashboard to fall off. We also have to watch out for the deep grooves that have been created by the trucks as hitting these and combined with the potholes violently shakes the car towards tipping over point. These particular stretch of roads often mean a max speed of 20mph thus covering 150 miles in a 12 hour day of driving is regular. The cars are starting to take some knocks now and the girls have spent our last day in Uzbekistan repairing an overheating engine and broken muffler, the engine has been removed, the problem is pretty serious and it looks like a back alley fix is going to have to work or they would
have to wait 7 days for an original part to be shipped here. Many of the teams in smaller cars have buckled the rims on their wheels causing blow outs, one group we convoyed with for a few days have a broken suspension but they motor on regardless. We still randomly run in to other teams along the way who join up & convoy for a day or a few depending on their route. The other things we need to watch out for on the road are herds of camels by the roadside. Average daily temperateres have been a cool 40+ Celsius, we have seen 47 one day, there is a lot of dust and exhaust fumes from the long distance trucks and after a few nights of camping invaribly we are filthy and show up at hotels looking like we are travelling gypsies.

Not a whole lot happened in Kazakhstan as most of the country is empty and we just drove for hours and hours.
Signs were in Cryllic while in Uzbek they are in Roman characters. We did stop in the town of Beyneu before we made our Uzbek border crossing and got to see daily life at this train station town. Because we do stick out like aliens who have landed we attract a lot of attention when we arrive in smaller towns. The majority is very positive, the kids are always curious and we try and explain to the locals that we are driving to Mongolia which generally blows their minds but that one night we also attracted the wrong sort of attention and one drunk local decided he might try load himself up with some of our car gear.

We don't believe the Kazak's and Uzbek's like each other and the chip on the shoulder lies with the Uzbeks. Exiting the Kazak side of the border there is a huge sign that says GOOD LUCK, little did we know what lay ahead of us...

We sat in no mans land for 7 hours in the middle of the day time sun, 45 Celsius / 120 Farrenheit. In no mans
land you are literally nowhere, there are no services available like bathrooms, no food stalls or water, generally it's a 1-2 hour ordeal but 7 hours of no movement was one hell of a long day. Uzbek has been an independent nation for 20 years but it is still ruled by it's original leader who was basically in charge under communist times.

There is a lot of useless bureaucracy at most border crossings but this crossing was just pure riduclous.
You are supposed to declare everything of value that you are bringing with you - money & type, cellphone etc and if they find that you leave with something not declared they can technically fine you. Last night we heard the story of one Spanish Mongol rally team who were bringing Medical supplies to Mongolia. As they had not declared it, (who thinks to declare the likes of Advil or bandages) they were arrested, sent back to capital and held in a hotel for 2 weeks and deported today. Their ambulance was also confiscated and they were fined we believe 1 Million Som (local currency - approx $500). So we'll see what happens tomorrow when we look to cross back into Kazak.

We are currently in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan having coverered 5700 miles. We are approx 3 days ahead of our thought out schedule and today was a much needed day off the road before the final push to Mongolia. We leave for the Kazak border in the Am, a 2 night stop in Almaty and then we will cross Russia before hitting Mongolia. We are looking at approx 13 days of driving we think and in the region of another 2500 or so miles frequently at 20-30mph.

In Kazakhstan there is a gas station perhaps every 2-3 miles along the roadside, what we noticed in Uzbekistan is that a lot of things are very different. We covered 350km on entering Uzbekistan before we even saw one station so we are now relying on filling our jerry cans to avoid problems. When we do find a gas station that sells petrol and not LPG invariably they are closed as they have no fuel. We almost learned this the hard way one morning but it's a rolling problem here in Uzbek and more often than not we now buy fuel on the black market, which has included following one group of guys who were parked at a closed station waiting for people in need, we followed them a few km's to their house where they opened up their garage and sold us some of
their supply. Price wise though it works out around 80 cents/litre legally or black market. The octane level
of the fuel here hovers around 80, compared to 95 which is normal thus the cars sound like they are 70 year
old trucks and performance wise they are not operating at capacity, top speed further reduced to 50mph.

Money is another item. The Som is almost worthless and there are approx 3 ATMS's in any city we visit. None of them actually work or have any money in them. The official bank rate is 1750 to US $1 but the black market will net you 2400, thus a 30% gain and almost any person here will change money for you to get $$$. When you do have local currency you are carrying around a brick of notes in your pocket a few inches thick, and that's just $50 worth. It is just not conceivable that the ATM could work as it would need to be the size of a bank vault and filled hourly ! Things are cheap here, 1.5l of water is approx 75 cents, you can eat lunch for a little over $1, the same price as a beer. We have visited 3 cities of varying sizes and each has a unique feel to it. In Bukhara, a sleepy small city that felt like a historic movie set we encountered our first historic mosques, the people are of Asian descent and super friendly. As we passed to Samarkand, a city dotted with blue top mosques and a lush oasis in the middle of a desert country the people took on a noticeable
Middle Eastern look, almost a cross of Indian / Middle Eastern in their dress and now in Tashkent we are back to predominantly Asian. Uzbekistan is still not on the tourist map which we like but I have a feeling that in 10 years it will be and should be, once you figure out the system and how things work, it is a great country to visit. Food wise the majority of what is available is kebab style and portions are small. Uzbek vodka is cheap, approx $6/bottle.

Some of the sights & experiences we have seen or had on our travels:

We have met approx 18 other Mongol Rally teams randomly in different countries.

2 Mongol Ralliers are doing it on 50CC Honda scooters, they are dressed in Tuxedo's. Top speed 55km per hr (30mph)

1 Mongol Rallier exited Uzbekistan only to learn that he had a single entry visa for Kazakhstan which he had already used. He managed to get back into Uzbekistan but he is stuck here for 4 days and will then fly via Moscow to meet up with his team mates and they will have a 18 hour drive to leave Russia before their visas expire

One team of 3 found out 2 weeks before the rally commenced that their 3rd team mate can't drive and doesn't have a drivers licence, he's not a popular guy...

2 Belgian cyclists we met in Bukhara. It took them 4 months to travel 5000 miles, they are cycling to Calcutta...

A man who is travelling by roller blade with his backpack on the highway..

Pony and carts in Kazakhstan - the carts have vehicle licence plates

Traffic police in Ukraine stop us all the time, in Uzbekistan the Premier warned them to leave people like us alone and we are waved through every check point while the locals are stopped and searched when they pass from region to region.

It is practically impossible to spend $10 on a night out in Uzbekistan, no matter how hard you try. $10 is an inch thick in Som. The average Uzbecky earns $130 / month.

We have slept by the Black Sea, in ditches, the desert, sun flower fields, 3, 4 and 5 star hotels. Price ranging from free (camping) to $100/night in 5 Star.

Our priorities are Fuel and water.

In Germany the fuel stations have self service restaurants and clean bathrooms, in Kazakhstan we no longer are able to wash our windscreen in Uzbekistan there is no fuel.

We are currently carry approx 7 different currencies in our wallet.

To date we have crossed 12 countries. We have driven the distance of San Francisco to Paris or further than Melbourne to Bangkok.

Leon has taken over 1000 photo's.

Each blog takes approx 2 hours to write and edit.

 

Thursday, August 11th, 2011- Outof Ukraine and Back in the USSR

Current location, Astrakhan, (ACTPAXAHb in Cryllic) S.W. Russia by the Kazakhstan border. We have just completed 3.5 days of pretty much non stop driving from Kiev via Odessa and a Russian border crossing to get here. For the first time in my life I looked like I had a healthy sun tan.... in reality though it was just 4 days of dust, sweat and grime.... safe to say today's shower was needed...

For those following our tracks click HERE

Our facebook fan page if you want to "like" us is here and there are also photo's posted on it. HERE

Average daily temperature is now a cool 34 C (100F) from 8AM - 8PM which as you can imagine makes for a very hot & dusty day of driving, we have no AC, so it's windows down or melt. It's day 20 of the adventure and day 13 of driving, we have just passed the 3780 mile marker and are putting in an average of 8.25 hours per day of driving. Average price of fuel has now dropped dramatically from approx $2 a litre in Europe to $1.20 in Ukraine, to $1 in Russia, welcome news indeed. We've filled the tank 16 times plus used a couple of our jerry cans when we've been precariously low and running on fumes... Unlike Natalie & Sheila traveling in the other Jimny though we have yet to run out on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, they are now at 2 count...

We are traveling in convoy and have added a Canadian team of 4 traveling in possibly the worlds smallest Pink car (in aid of Canadian Breast cancer), 3 guys, 1 gal, all University students in Calgary they are driving a whopping 973 CC 4 door Vauxhall Agila - if you thought economy seating was tight, you should come meet these guys and swap stories, they have 3 tents, 4 jerry cans for fuel and water and backpacks all squashed in with themselves to a car barely the size of a King bed.... and don't forget they are driving to Mongolia, not to the local supermarket, 10,000 miles of this... naturally we don't swap seats with them....

But they have been a welcome addition to the mix and will stay with us until we pass into Uzbekistan early next week
and they drive across Kazakhstan (the size of Western Europe with nothing but nothing to see for 97% of the journey) and we will likely run in to them again somewhere in Mongolia. There is a 4th UK team car we spotted randomly
yesterday while we were stopped at a service station near Volgograd, they also are in the same size car but due to the bouncy roads and 2 damaged rims they are forced to drive at a top speed of 50mph. We now see them randomly plodding along the Russian roads but they don't seem to have to time to stop or they might never reach UB.

It's almost 6 years since Leon and I have been back in Russia, the last time being when we took the Trans Mongolian Express from St Petersburg to Beijing and I have noticed a tremendous difference in our encounters with both the police and the general public. All along the route we toot the horn and wave to people as we pass through countries, cities, towns, villages & cross-roads and for now it's the Russians who wave and smile the most when they see our brightly colored convoy. A smile 6 years ago was unheard of, we would literally spend our days trying to get the waitresses to smile, today everyone is super helpful, even the traffic police when they stop us are mildly curious & when they understand that we are driving to Mongolia they let us pass without a ticket. That's not to say there hasn't been a ticket. Sheila is leading the way with 3 speeding offenses, one she just never bothered to stop for, one they tried picking her for 500 Euro (settled for 50) and the most recent guy just let her go with a smile when he realized what our convoy is up to. To date it has been the Ukrainian police that have caused the most angst, on the drive from L'viv to Kiev we were stopped a collective 5 times in just 333 miles, mind you that journey took 10 hours and sometimes they stop us out of sheer curiosity.

My last note had us arriving in L'viv but I did forget to mention our 3 night visit to Krakow, Poland. Having left our beloved Budapest, we headed north through the spectacular countryside of Hungary and Slovakia to arrive to
a rain swept Krakow but that didn't stop the random fun nights we found out at the bars on a few nights. Our last day took us to visit Auschwitz where we visited the Memorial site for a 1/2 day, I have been to Dachau outside Munich, to the killing fields of Cambodia and to the American War museum in Vietnam but nothing can compare to the sheer size of the camps at Auschwitz, they have pretty much been left as is in the same condition as to which they were once the prisoners were liberated, the crematoriums lie in ruin after being bombed, the prisoner buildings now offer a museum like setting complete with possessions of those 1.6 million murdered at the camps during WW II, quite a moving experience to make one reflect on a grey wet day...

Ukraine - we LOVED Ukraine, like my comments on Budapest and I was delighted to see how many of you agree and how many of you are now intrigued to visit we HIGHLY recommend Ukraine. Think a European Russia that operates on Mexico time but no burritos although they do have a "hot dog" which is wrapped in a tortilla and then stuffed with luke warm mashed potato - it tastes worse than it sounds... Events in Ukraine will happen, the bill will arrive, just when is the unknown....

L'viv is a provincial size town which like Poland and the rest of Ukraine is in preparation for the Euro 2012 Football championship next summer and thus there is a lot of infrastructure work in progress. Cobble stone streets that look like an earth quake mangled some of them (in reality the heavy trucks), Orthodox cathedrals by the dozen, friendly people and plenty of cafes and restaurants make this a nice 2 night place to visit but if you are looking for a night out in bars, head somewhere else, there are practically no bars in the whole of Ukraine although there are some good club style places. The roads in the Ukraine are another story though...

Entering the country we were immediately hit by roads with deep tire ruts from all the heavy truck traffic, combine ungodly cold winters with searing hot summers, poor road construction and you are bouncing down the roads and hitting pot-holes that will leave you in need for a hip operation after you hit some of them. Our car is still operating normally, God only knows how.

In Kiev we bumped into an Irish team driving an ambulance, they had been stuck there for 5 days waiting for repair parts, they in turn had rescued a Northern Irish solo motor cyclist who had also broken down and his bike was now in the back of their ambulance.

Luckily for them they happened to break down outside the apartment of Graeme a Kiev based UK diplomat who knew how to pull strings and make things happen in a country that is still rife with corruption... doubly luckily for them Mark his Scottish friend who was back visiting Graeme and Kiev's version of Mother Theresa put them up in his vacation apartment for 3 nights; without this happen of chance luck it would have been game over for these 3 "deer in the headlights" 22 year olds.

Kiev was a fantastic city, having the local connection tripled our enjoyment and we were all looking for the Betty Ford clinic after wards...

From Kiev we trekked to Odessa for a quick overnight stop, Odessa it's name synonymous with glamor and mystique is where Ukrainians (and Russians, Belorussians etc) vacation on the Black Sea What a magnificent place, sadly just a quick overnight but if you want a sun vacation but a tad more exciting than all inclusive Mexico or white trash infested Ibiza, then head to Odessa, it's where it all happens in the Crimea. If you need further conviction on why to visit Ukraine, listen to the lyrics of Back in the USSR or go to Ukrainian Brides and you'll understand why.

The last 3.5 days have been all driving getting on the road as early as 7am to finishing as late as 11pm. Crossing the Russian border was approx a 3 hour event of gross inefficiencies on both sides. you spend an hour departing one country, sit in no mans land for an hour or so in the 100 degree sunshine and then enter another country but the guards were nice, and they all seem amused by what we are up to. An impromptu lunchtime picnic in no mans land, and "camp-side" breakfast & dinners have been the order of the day since Monday, mind you our campsites are at the side of sunflower fields when we just have to give up 200km+ from our destination due to nighttime exhaustion and drive up the side of a field and pitch a tent....

The Ukraine and SW Russia are like an endless sea of sunflower fields that go on for miles and miles and miles, spectacular scenery and we now understand the Ukrainian flag marking the yellow land and blue sky.

Order of magnitude in being lost: # 1 - 300km outside Volgograd we took a turn looking for the main "highway". After driving thru a run down neighborhood (they are all run down looking 70 year old Soviet era apartment blocks) we had to stop and ask an oncoming car for directions as we had come to the end of a dirt road in the middle of farmland. Our savior who had to be clearly perplexed on how we got to this point then drove us through a 1 mile long field to get us on the proper road...

Reading the Cyrillic signposts isn't as difficult as one would think but ordering in restaurants is nothing short of impossible unless someone can translate for us. So far though, no stories that can match the Beijing Soup story from a few years back, no strange food available, except the aforementioned "hot dog", the one time I tried to order Calf Brains somewhere in middle of Ukraine,the kitchen had run out....

Most bizarre bribe - $2k. One of the Canadian guys was leaving a club in Kiev around 4am one morning. Leaving his friends behind to go home early, he got pulled by the police, put in their car and driven to the station where they asked him for $2000... He was wise enough to know there were just trying to shake him down as they put him in the reception area and just made him sit there for 4.5 hours and then promptly just told him to go home.. probably before their boss showed up in the morning and they had to explain who the gringo was and why he was was just sitting there. Same guy has had a few other incidents, in Germany, despite eating Banana's all his life he had an allergic reaction and had to be hospitalized overnight... still he soldiers on, tune in next week for an update on his latest travel adventure.... Oh and have I told you, he has been the navigator all week....

That's it for now, thank you for the tremendous response to Chapter 1 of our adventure, it's great to receive an email while we are on the road and a huge Thank you for the continuing donations we have received recently.

A selection of pictures since day one will follow by separate email but you can also check our facebook page...

Next stop is Kazakhstan for a few days on the way to Uzbekistan and then Mongolia, i have a feeling that tonight's bed is the
last time I will see and bed and proper shower for about 3 weeks. Care to join me on my next journey ?

Leon and Ian,

Signing out for Team MDA!

Tuesday, August 2nd 2011

Current location, L'viv, Ukraine. Our travels to date HERE

Total funds raised to date - $12,050!!!!  magnificent numbers and a huge THANK YOU to all who attended our fund raisers and to corporate and the many many personal donations received.   As you may recall we are doing the Mongol Rally to raise funds for Muscular Dystrophy Australia and The Christina Nobles Children's fund in Mongolia.

If you would like to contribute please click the following links

MDA or CNCF

UKRANIAN BORDER CROSSING. 
11 Days of traveling and we have passed through or stayed overnight in 10 countries so far (UK, France, Belgium,  Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland and are now about to enter # 11, Ukraine.  

We have driven 1946 miles but we have not been on the road every day as there have been short stop offs to visits  to Bratislava, Budapest and Krakow to save our sanity and break up the journey.  We have stopped for petrol 9 times  at an average 50Eu ($80) to fill our tank which gets us approx 220 miles so we're guessing total fuel costs for  the journey should be in the region of $2300Eu ($3k) give or take. Our top speed in this little 1.3L red toy rocket is 70mph or 80mph going down hill but at that speed we are burning through the fuel and as for uphill,  we have about as much torque as a lawnmower so as you can imagine we are not the time trial leaders on the Autobahn.

Surprisingly we have only passed two accidents and minor at that, we've found the drivers through out each country to be very courteous, there are no fast lane hoggers, not too surprising as there are guys coasting past us at  150/160mph all day long..

To date we've received one shake down by a border guard for a bribe.  Entering Hungary we were told we were missing a certain road permit and that there would have to be a fine, a 500Eu max fine or 50Eu min fine, he didn't elaborate on which we qualified for.  After some gesticulating, waiting and generally ignoring him the fine suddenly dropped to 20Eu.  We offered him $5 because he doesn't take Visa card, but he only wanted Euro's cash so we offered him all the small coins in our pocket, approx 2Eu, he told us to leave...

Since leaving the starting line at Goodwood circuit (similar to Sears Point raceway) with approx 200 other teams in Fire trucks (3), Ambulances (15+) and a whole host of other unsuitable little cars we have taken the start of this journey similar to a mini driving vacation through Eastern Europe, we typically spend 1.5 days per city, just enough to get the feel and flair for each and move on again.  Distances covered  on the driving days range 
from 5-12 hours.  There was a second starting party at a castle just south of Prague 48 hours after leaving the UK so it was heads down haul ass to get there in time but we did get the opportunity to  visit the Pilsner Urquell brewery along the way for a quick sampling - did you know they also own the Miller Brewing company, and approx 72 other global beer brands, I didn't.   

From Prague we stopped off in Bratislava, call it a subdued and lot saner Prague, with maybe 30% of the tourist hordes which made for a relaxing quick visit. The same cobble stone windy streets, the castle, the food altogether very enjoyable.  From there we took a miscalculated Autobahn detour via Germany to get to Budapest, passing the outskirts of Vienna at 70mph sadly. Southern Slovakia and Hungary proved to be a driving holiday dream when we took the side roads with fields upon fields and more of sunflowers, breath taking scenery which also helped  give us an insight to rural living in these countries which appears to be very slow and relaxed.

Budapest has hands down been the jewel of our trip to date, a spectacular city that is easy to navigate, incredible architecture, very friendly people & almost all of whom speak English.  If you are considering your European trip to Paris next year I say skip it and you will not look back in regret. Sitting on the banks of the Danube you will love its leafy avenues and cobble stone streets, it's nothing short of jaw dropping Parliament building to the
1913 Neo-Baroque style Szechenyi public baths with its soaring domed ceilings, the largest thermal springs bath in Europe, it has 3 outdoor and 15 indoor pools of varying water temperatures between 22 and 38 Celsius (75F-107F) and saunas topping 80 Celsius.... skipping the hop on, hop off bus tour that day was our best decision to date...

Weather wise it's been a mixed bag with plenty of torrential downpours, temps of approx 22C but we hope as we start to pass in to Eurasia that the sun will shine a lot more as gone are the days of 4 & 5 star hotels and hello come the nights of camping once we reach the Kazak border for 2-3 weeks.

Along the way we have passed 31 other teams on the roads, met 7 at service stations or wandering the streets and we have managed to curtail getting lost to just 5 times so far, most often entering and exiting large cities without maps and lots of one way streets and signposts we don't understand or recognize.  Not speaking the 9 other languages hasn't been much of an issue as English is pretty common, my Germanglish is improving and our proficiency with point and hope has also carried us through getting directions and ordering a beer or Polish vodka.  On the food 
side, nothing too off the wall has yet been available, we've had the Hungarian goulash & stroganoff, Slovakian Pierogi (dumplings) and like all emerging countries there are a thousand pizzerias around serving mediocre food at best.

In terms of driving, you may recall that we are driving a car with the steering wheel on the RHS this hasn't proved to be an obstacle at all and again given we are not exactly moving very fast we have plenty of time to figure out over taking.. Pole position is definitely the drivers seat and we rotate every other fuel tank, it's easier to stay awake when you have to concentrate versus looking out the window and/or listening to books on tape.

Average cost of a beer, approx $1.40-$2 for a 500ml draft, eating out is also cheap by comparison to Ireland/UK or USA and food quality to date
is very good but this will change the further east we head.

That's about it my friends, the border crossing lasted 2.5 hours, as expected not the most pleasant of experiences, 1.5 hour lines to get out of Poland, a 1/2 hour in no mans land and another 1/2 hour of strife trying to get into Ukraine, supposedly missing papers, a thousand other questions about why we are driving to Mongolia but in the end if you keep your wits about you and don't look nervous it all works out.  I am finishing the blog from our hotel room in L'viv, it is Wednesday morning, the sky is blue for the first time in I can't remember how long and we're heading out for a stroll about town... Keep the emails coming, they are great to read on the road.

16th July 2011 - Like Johnny Cash once sang, I'm on the road again... and I am.  I will be writing a travel blog if you want to read and follow my drive to Mongolia...

10,000 miles of desert, mountains, dirt tracks and bandits ….. that's the adventure I will be undertaking along with my friend Leon Struk in July.   The Mongol Rally comprises 200 teams all heading from London to Ulaanbaatar using their own route in a tiny vehicle that is totally unsuitable for the rough terrain ahead. With no backup vehicle, support crew or roadside assist at the end of a phone line, we will have to rely on our own ingenuity to overcome breakdown or mechanical problems we may encounter, not to mind say when we get lost.

If truth be told without Leon who is an Australian aircraft engineer & mechanic then I would probably get stuck in Calais with a flat tire.  However without me, Leon would get lost leaving London!  Quite the team of intrepid travelers you might say…..  Good news is we are not the novices we may appear to be.  In September 2005 we conquered the Trans-Mongolian Express from St Petersburg thru Siberia, Mongolia and into Beijing, the longest train journey in the world.  Between us we have travelled to 50+ countries across all continents.  And now on Saturday July 23rd we will set off to drive 1/3 of the world's surface in a 2002. 1.3L Suziki Jimny! 

All of this is not to prove we are good drivers of a right hand steering little car in mostly left hand driving countries but in a bid to raise much needed funds for Muscular Dystrophy Australia AND The Christina Nobles Children's Foundation in Mongolia.

Our journey will take us through Northern France, Belgium, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and finally across Mongolia to the finish line hopefully all in one piece both physically and mentally…

 

Why?    Well it's probably the only question that really matters.  

1)       Leon's bother Ryan was diagnosed with MD at age 3.  At the time his parents were told it was unlikely he would survive much past the age of 14.  He is now 31 years old!  However, he is confined to an electric wheelchair, is fed through a tube into his stomach, relies on mechanical ventilation to breath and requires round the clock 24 hour care.

Ryan's what you may call one of the "luckier" ones... In the past several years, he has attended the funerals of many of his friends and peers who were all younger than him. He knows what is in store but has accepted his fate and is a remarkably strong individual.

2)       The many abandoned children of Mongolia are no less fortunate.  The CNCF program in Mongolia seeks to protect children at risk of economic and sexual exploitation, while ensuring these and other children in need have access to basic care and educational opportunities. The programs include: emergency and long-term medical care, nutritional rehabilitation, educational and vocational training and job placement.

We have set a fundraising sponsorship target of $25,000.  Of course getting to the final destination in Mongolia is going to be difficult.  And just as difficult will be the task in securing the necessary community and corporate support to help us reach our commitment for MDA & CNCF.  When we reach Ulaanbaatar we will also donate our car which I don't expect to be quite as shiny and clean

 

San Francisco, May 23rd: Organizationally speaking we are starting to make some good headway. Two charity events have been organized, one in SF, one in Melbourne, we have secured our first corporate sponsor - The White Wolf - out of Australia and we received a VERY very generous first donation from a good friend in the USA. We are encouraged to achieve our $10,000 goal but still need a lot of support.

Logistically, we've taken possession of the car which is in the shop being serviced and adjusted with some minor additions, purchased all the supplies after several arguments with the morons in customer service at Amazon.co.Uk, Leon has featured in 2 newspaper articles promoting our trip/charity challenge, passports remain where ever they are getting visas (hopefully) and our IOU list is as long as your arm to say the least.

San Francisco,  May 16th.  Two months from this date we start making our way to London to start this epic adventure. We are still in early planning mode, passports are doing the rounds of foreign embassies getting visas (hopefully), the car is situated somewhere between purchased and getting serviced in the UK, nothing much else has been purchased save for a 6 ft 2" inflatable Leprechaun, a 5ft long inflatable crocodile, an enormous inflatable sofa and a few maps... These will be important items for the kick off parties and well cocktail hour in the desert so we have something to sit on while staring at the camels or to give the camels something to stare at and wonder, who are these two dumb white guys sitting comfortably drinking Manhattans on a hot sunny day and where did they come from .  On a serious note Leon has a few books on tape to save us from going completely insane, we have an online shopping list as long as your arm to send to good ol cousin Aidan in the UK (and thanking Jen for her patience already).

It is time though to start kicking off our fund raising endeavors, we have a lofty goal but no matter how much we raise it will make a difference and we Thank you in advance.  We have 2 Charities, the official Mongol Rally charity - the Christina Nobles Children's Foundation in Mongolia and Muscular Dystrophy.   We are trying to drum up some corporate sponsorship (advertising on our car and regular tweets/photo's in Facebook).  We do hope to visit a Unicef orphanage near Chernobyl along the way and would like to bring the kids some gifts.

Excitement & anticipation factor though VERY high...