Sunday, 24 August 2008

We're only here for the beards

Following the many responses to previous entries, this post has been given a guidance rating; it contains direct references to ridiculous ginger neck-beard that most people should find disturbing.

The Japanese leg of the expedition has always had a strange status in our plans, since it`s the only country we are visiting solely for logistical reasons. As the expedition has gone on though, its status has risen as we`ve dreamed of the food, the unique culture, and crucially because of the silly agreement we made in Kazakhstan not to shave until we reached Japanese soil.

Well, we made it, and the clippers were unpacked very swiftly, but in what future historians will call the great shaving disaster of 2008, they didn`t work on Japanese voltage. Hair levels in northern Japan remained dangerously elevated.

This additional trauma may have helped focus our minds on our goal though - we needed to get to Nagoya in four days, the main highways are expensive toll roads and Japan is a deceptively long country. So we drove. It`s a testament to just how much amazing stuff we`ve seen that on a drive through half of Japan we didn`t get particularly excited by much of the scenery. There are beautiful forested mountains running all the way down the spine of the islands, but there is so much human impact: concrete retainers to stop landslides, concrete barriers off the coast, and of course towns clinging to every inhabitable spot. It`s a product of necessity, with such a high-density population living on islands at such risk from typhoons and earthquakes, but the impression is of a country fighting nature rather than living with it.

We found a good beach to camp on one night and spent a few hours playing in the sea, but apart from that and a little bit of car maintenance (we’ve worn down the rear brake pads and made a bit of a mess of one of the discs) we didn’t pause for long anywhere. It would have been nice to explore a bit, but it rained for most of the journey so we didn’t mind being in the car!

We arrived in Nagoya on schedule, and with the timing we seem to be blessed with were whisked straight to Obon celebrations (one of the main Japanese festivals). We chatted to our host Steve and his family, then delighted the locals with our attempts at traditional dance!

The next day we finally fulfilled our dreams and proudly rejoined the civilised world of beardlessness. Pete seemed to lose half his head! We`re currently being put up by Steve and enjoying his amazing hospitality while we arrange the shipping and make plans for Canada, as well as addressing the sorry state of our budget! It seems a very different expedition to much of what went before, and we`re facing new challenges; it`s exciting!

- David

Playing on the iPod: `Don’t let the Man Get You Down’ by Fatboy Slim

Photos to follow shortly...

Monday, 18 August 2008

Into the Land of the Rising Sun

We had some warning before we left home that in order to get into Japan our vehicle would need to be clean. I guess if you`ve seen any of our recent posts you`ll realise that we haven`t exactly been keeping Roxy sparkling. We found the ferry company easily, and apart from the price being somewhat higher than our expectations (this seems to be a recurring theme!) everything went smoothly, so we set off to get clean.

The outside was easy; we opted for a car wash to let their pressure hose do the work. The inside was always going to be a mission though, so we parked by a river, emptied everything out and scrubbed until the sun set on us.

The ferry left early in the morning, and showing great faith in our abilities the friendly chap from the ferry company met us to guide us through the registration and boarding process. It`s a good job he did - the Russian bureaucracy really excelled itself, and I`m not sure our level of Russian would have understood that an entire form was voided by a tick in a cross box. We all got aboard though, with grand ideas of catching up on sleep, only to be told immediately by the Japanese staff that our vehicle wouldn`t have a hope of passing the inspection. They would let us use their pressure hoses, but they envisaged a big job, so we had to start as soon as we left port - so much for that sleep.

In the end we got her clean enough with a good few hours remaining, so got to enjoy the japanese style ferry where instead of seats you get floor space and blankets. The staff set about the process of registering the vehicle whilst still on the ferry, and when we docked everything moved with an efficiency we hadn`t seen for a while, but we still expected to be in for the long haul since we`d rejected the recommended Carnet de Passage (a document allowing temporary import of vehicles) as too expensive.

We underestimated the officials though, the message had clearly gone out from the ferry that we weren`t carrying a Carnet, and so the temporary importation documents were ready for us to fill out. Within half an hour we were out with the vehicle getting the customs inspection and everything was going spectacularly well. Then they asked where our Japanese licence plates were. We stared blankly back.

It appears that you need temporary Japanese plates in order to drive in Japan, but somehow I`d failed to pick up on this vital piece of information during our preparations. The helpful port officials started making phone calls to see if we could still get them, while I called Steve at Japan Car Exports to ask him if we could get around it. Within an alarmingly short space of time both parties were looking into prices for loading us onto a train to Nagoya, it seemed there wasn`t a work-around. We haven`t got this far relying solely on our good looks though, so we worked on persuading the port officials that we didn`t need the plates. Some clearly wanted to help, others were more sceptical, but when we mentioned an email exchange with people in Tokyo giving us the green light everything changed.

Tokyo? Well if Tokyo says it`s ok… A few more phone calls and we were cleared to go. The whole process had still been quicker than all our border crossings since the EU.

- David

Playing on the iPod: `The Hurricane’ by Bob Dylan

Photos to follow shortly...

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Pacific Ocean

We headed north along the coast with the Tata Strait on our left and the mountains of Sakhalin rising high above our road to the right. The scenery was stunning and we stopped to have a swim in sea. As night fell we headed to the beach once more to find a camp. Instead, after driving Roxy along the foreshore for a few kilometres I found some really soft sand which stopped her in her tracks, leaning considerably to seaward, with the tide rising.

There was a big rock not far away and it should’ve been a fairly straight forward winching exercise. However sometime between Mongolia and Sakhalin our Landy appears to have rewired herself. The winch switch now controls the spotlights on the roof rack and nothing seemed to switch on the winch. Our expert electrician, Pete, figured out a work around which involved him holding the winch wires directly onto the battery whilst they sparked slightly. We pulled her out before the tide got to her and headed to a mosquito-infested forest instead for a camp.

Sakhalin is a beautiful island, largely untouched by humans. However it is clearly Russia. The towns are mostly wooden shacks, surrounded by large piles of concrete and massive rusting industrial machines. In ones of these towns the next day we asked for directions across the island. The Russian, in army fatigues of course, shouted directions back but warned us that the track was tough with “high water levels” and that up in the mountains there was no rule of law. No challenge for Roxy and us. We enjoyed a terrific drive up winding bumpy tracks covering Roxy in a thick layer of mud.

At the town in the middle of the island we stopped for cash and fuel. However the bank connection was broken we had to wait in the bank car park for some time. We did what I think any good British expedition would do and cracked out the stove and got a brew going. The cashier looked entirely un-bemused when we turned up at her window with mugs of tea when the connection was finally re-established.

We then set off to find the exact point the 50th Parallel hit the Pacific Ocean, having been warned that the bridges were down and the going would be tough with the recent rainfall. We headed eastwards and the going was fairly similar to the Land Rover Experience in the Malvern Hills – twisty hilly tracks with plenty of mud and water. After several river crossing and not a single wrong turn we found ourselves on a misty, windswept beach approaching the line. As we pulled into camp we saw a small bear running off the beach into the woods! It was the first time any of us had seen a bear in the wild and we were pretty chuffed, especially as it was right on the 50th.

I had a quick swim in the Pacific despite the inclement weather and then we set up camp. To celebrate reaching the Pacific we cracked open a bottle of Champagne we bought in the Champagne region when we passed through it 3 months ago. After all that time in the back of a very bumpy Land Rover it was pretty eager to get out of the bottle but we managed to enjoy a mugful each (champagne flutes definitely wouldn’t have survived the journey) without spilling a drop. We had a great night with a few bottles of beer and talked about all the incidents that had occurred as we’d crossed both the European and Asian continents.

The next day I awoke first and headed down to the river that flowed into the Pacific exactly on the 50th. It turned out that it was absolutely chock full of salmon heading upriver to spawn. We rapidly fashioned fishing spears out of drift wood and stood in the freezing river trying to catch a big salmon. It wasn’t hard – there were so many of them they kept hitting into your legs – and if you couldn’t be bothered to catch one you could simply pick one up that had been recently washed up on the beach.

Whilst I filleted the 7 big salmon, up to 2 foot long each, Pete got a fire going with the damp driftwood using his excellent bush skills. And about a litre of petrol. We cooked them in a variety of methods but grilled slowly on a forked stick was my favourite.

The others went off for a drive around the muddy tracks but it took them two hours and two winchings to get off the beach. Pete managed to find a big log hidden in the grass as he did so, and added to the dents and scratches he`d put on the driver`s side in the Gobi! That night we had spiced Salmon and chaptis. MMMmmmmm!

We got up early the next day to see the sunrise over the Pacific. The colours were absolutely stunning and it was well worth pulling ourselves out of warm sleeping bags. We packed up and got off the beach, significantly quicker this time, and headed back through the mountains, with a few terrific river crossings on the way which Roxy ate up with ease.

We drove down to the south of Sakhalin to find a ferry to Japan. The drive took all day and the scenery was out of this world the whole way. Sakhalin is very much like Jurassic Park with lush mountains and bizarrely outsized vegetation, but we haven`t spotted a T-Rex yet. We camped up just outside the port of Korsakov ready to find a boat the next day.

- Spike

Playing on the iPod: “Road to Nowhere” by Talking Heads

Escape to the Island

Sorry for the slight absence but we have run out of satellites to talk to out here.

After an uneventful night outside Khabarovsk we headed in to town early to try and find some nice cowboys to mend our roofrack.


Starry night

Quite quickly we found a guy who knew a guy and followed him to a car wash. It turned out that they had a welder but then everyone out here seems to be packing some kind of heavy duty metal mangeling equipment. None the less we found our welder and after three hours fighting to get the thing on and off the roof we finaly left with a sixty pound bill and a roof rack that had twice as much metal on it than it had that morning. After a quick resupply we headed out of the city, taking bets on whether the welding would hold beyond dinner.


Cowboy welding!

After a quick nights sleep under some amazing stars we headed off towards Vanino, a port that, according to our map was only served by a railway. As it turned out the map makers had missed a major road, and we had covered the 600km by 18.00.


One of the sturdy wooden bridges

Now for the interesting part, we had to get on to a ferry to somewhere that most people we had spoken to have told us we cant go. Somehow in a petrol station we met a guy who also happened to be leaving on the morning ferry and we happy to take us to the ticket office and help us get sorted. So, as they seem to, things worked out and we where on the ferry at 08.00 the next morning (despite being told the 04.00 boarding time, i have had better nights sleep).


“Sakhalin 8″

From the car we took a few things to pass the 5 hour voyage and headed to our cabin. As it turns out Sakhalin is quite a long way from the main land and the crossing was 18 hours. I spent the whole time concentrating on not being sick while Spike managed to get us invited to someones house for some beers when we landed. For the last half an hour of the crossing I managed to muster a bit of man-up and we all watched the beautiful out line of the island materialise. When we landed our passports where taken off us and returned after about an hour with no explaination, but all seemed good so we headed off for beer.


The port of Kholmsk, Sakhalin


Gazing at the Sakhalin skyline

Alexander is the first mate on an Ice breaker and has all summer off so we enjoyed a great night learning russian and then crashed on his floor saving us one night of camping. The next morning, with Spike and I feeling a little delicate and Dave dead in the back we headed off up the coast to find the 50th again. We are all really looking forward to this part of the trip. Sakhalin is mostly an untouched wilderness, and there are very few roads and certainly none out to the Pacific coast near the 50th, but hey that is what Roxy is for. Now over to Spike for the next few days, stay tuned.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Jack'll Fix It

There’s a Chinese curse that says ‘may you live in interesting times’; we’d written off this section of our journey through Siberia as likely to be uneventful, but as we skirted round the top of China it appeared we’ve been cursed.

The road around the northern bump of China is very much a work in progress, with sections of fantastic new tarmac interspersed with long stretches of bone-shaking gravel. This doesn’t seem to stop huge numbers of Japanese cars being driven back from Japan along this route to be sold on in Moscow or wherever, they must lose so much value on the way. We were on one of these bumpy parts when the problems with Roxy’s turbo surfaced again and we lost all power. This time however, a wire needed to be resoldered, and since our soldering iron works off the mains, we got a fire going. Whilst we were doing this a motorbike pulled over beside us, we mustered our best ‘dobriy dyen’ and were a little surprised when a broad Yorkshire accent replied “Just stopped for a brew then?”. Simon was on his way home (the scenic way) after teaching English in Japan, we obliged and brewed up some tea (Earl Grey courtesy of G4 - fantastic!) and had a chat while somehow we managed to solder our wire back in place. This done, we bade farewell and continued making miles through the endless forested hills.

Field Workshop

I imagine that, like me, most of your ideas of Siberia begin and end with ‘cold’. We’re seeing it at the height of summer though, and despite having some of our worst weather yet we’re still having glorious warm sunny spells. The colours when the sun comes out are almost too green, almost too blue, and look like they should belong on a Windows start-up screen. Sadly the clouds came in force around the time of the solar eclipse, so we don’t even know if we would have been able to see anything!

Shortly after the eclipse time our next incident occurred; we were heading into some woods to camp when Roxy came to a crunching halt. The tree stump had been well concealed beneath deep undergrowth, but it was a vicious one and Roxy came to rest with all her weight on the steering rod, bending it dramatically and leaving the front wheels pointing in quite different directions. We eventually freed her from the stump’s evil clutches around midnight and set alarms for an early start to try and straighten it out and be able to drive again.

trying to free roxy

Trying to Free Roxy

Still Trying to Free Roxy

First up stepped the lump hammer, but despite being wielded with great enthusiasm it couldn’t touch the dent. While we came up with other ideas we did a rough and ready mend of the coolant pipe, which had sprung a leak - we do like to collect our problems, the roof rack’s broken again too. But back to the steering rod, we passed our Bush Mechanics 101 by jacking the vehicle up on the rod and letting gravity do the rest - it’s pretty near straight again now.

Jacking the Steering Straight

Apart from the roof rack, which we’re discussing around the fire now, and the relentless attention of mosquitoes, that’s all for problems at the minute! To finish I’ll mention a nice little meeting this afternoon; we’ve noticed people tend to be friendlier at this end of Russia, and this was a good example. We’d pulled over for a photo, and a huge lorry travelling the other way stopped, a man and his son came over to see who we were (we get lots of looks, I don’t think many British cars come out here!). After a stilted chat they got a photo of us, then when we thought they’d gone the boy came running back over and gave us a little fluffy toy monkey which is now hanging proudly in our window.

We’ve stopped tonight in the Jewish Autonomous Region, which I don’t know much about, but sounds like it’s had quite an interesting history. Tomorrow we’ll stop in Khabarovsk for supplies and maybe see to the roof rack before pushing on towards Sakhalin and the Pacific.

Police stop count: 26 (one very jolly and one very grumpy today!)

Playing on the iPod: ‘Me and My Monkey’ by Robbie Williams

Starry Siberian Nights

Friday, 1 August 2008

Blogging from Siberia

After making it through our final night in Mongolia with the tents intact, we headed for the border. This border crossing is known as a smuggling route into Russia so we expected a hard time, b ut two hours later we were on our way. Our tactics of having things falling out the boot to deter any eager inspectors seem to have been finely honed. Although it was going to be a long day at the wheel we decided to head up to Lake Baikal for our camp that evening. As it turned out the road was quite good and we would have made it for sunset had it not taken three hours to get out of Ulan-Ude. But we made it in the end and had a good night’s sleep.

Beautiful Baikal

Waking up to the sound of waves crashing on the beach was really nice, and we had a great morning doing nothing chilling on the beach. If we got thirsty at all during the day all you had to do was dip your cup in the lake and have a drink. It is strange to be able to drink straight from a body of water that looks like an ocean. Somewhat reluctantly we paked up and left early afternoon to make camp to the east of Ulan-Ude. Since then we have spent two days driving and have made 700 miles east. This is our first serious driving session for a long time and it feels quite good. The only slight problem is the continued loss of turbo pressure, but it comes and goes and so we can easily live with it.

Siberian Camping

Now we are back in Russia we have talked a lot about what we thought of Mongolia. As a comparison Siberia is lovely, there are huge rolling valleys full of trees and rivers, but Mongolia is just cleaner somehow. It was just a stunning pristine country with amazing people and an interesting culture.

We would all love to go back (and hopefully will G4 willing). A little note on something that we found funny - in several places in UB the history books had been rewritten and the Irish had discovered the orient, commemorated by places bearing the name Marc O’Polo.

Well next stop is Sakhalin and the Pacific, let’s hope Roxy and her turbo will get us there.

- Pete

Playing on the iPod: ‘A Thousand Trees’ by The Stereophonics

Attractive Petrol Stations

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Back to the USSR

We’ve now left Ulaanbaatar and are Russia-bound. The border is just over the hill.

We enjoyed our time in UB immensely. A few nights we headed out of town with Pete, who runs the excellent CafĂ© Amsterdam, and his girlfriend, Sarah, a VSO volunteer. We’d find a river and have a swim and a BBQ. During one such excursion to the Terej National Park we had to cross a large river, which was flowing in several channels.

On the way in we scouted it carefully and checked there were no deep sections. Beside one section there was a Land Cruiser parked up and all the cars contents drying on branches. They’d obviously got stuck in the middle somehow. On our return Peter (Lovell) took a slightly different route.
Half way across the car took a nose dive into a big hole in the river bed.
Water surged over the bonnet and half way up the windscreen. Pete floored it and Roxy somehow powered through without stopping. Amazing, especially as we’d been told whatever you do, don’t get the water over the bonnet!

Whilst Pete was recovering from his tonsillitis Dave and I headed out of town with Dochka, our translator, to do a case study. We rocked up at nomadic family and were invited into their ger.

Inside the Ger

The subject of the case study, a 64-year-old mother of ten had been forced to move from the far west of Mongolia by the changing climate. The case study is probably our best yet, especially as climate change has such potential to heavily impact the traditional nomadic lifestyle here.

We got the problems we’d had with the Landy in the Gobi fixed, at least enough to get us to Japan (fingers crossed) and Pete over his tonsillitis we finally escaped UB yesterday. Obviously, we struggled to find the correct road out of the city and took a very scenic but not particularly speedy route out of the city.

We camped up high on a col with a terrific view. As darkness set in we were treated to a full 360 degree display of lightning storms, whilst the sky above was cloud free.

We’d just called it a night and we about to drift off to sleep when the wind started to pick up and the mother of all storms hit our camp. Our tents collapsed under the Gale Force winds and Pete in particular was beaten down inside his tent by the poles. Efforts to shore up the guylines were fairly futile and one by one we retreated to the Land Rover. As I got out of my tent the pegs gave up their tentative grip on the rocky ground and the tent wrapped itself around me. After a few minutes wrestling it I managed to pin it down with the table and some rocks as the rain poured down on me.

We sat in the Landy and had a game of cards until the storm abated and we ventured outside to re-erect our sopping tents and attempt to get some sleep, praying another storm wouldn’t hit.

Morning Camp Visitor
Today we drove to within spitting distance of the border, stopping at a bow and arrow factory to see the traditional method of making the beautiful Mongolian bows. Next time you hear from us we should’ve reached Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world (hopefully Pete won’t try to ford it!).

Many thanks to everyone in UB who made our stay so much fun. If you have a copy of the UB Post or the Mongol Messenger newspapers to hand you can read all about it.

- Spike

Playing on the iPod: “Shelter from the Storm” by Bob Dylan

Police Stop Count: 24 (including two within 30 minutes when Pete decided to break some Mongolian traffic laws)

Sunday, 20 July 2008

UB or Bust!

The morning after the birthday beers we were rudely awakened by the sun slowly cooking us in the tents and so made an early start. 6 hours driving through some amazing canyons and rocky plains we managed to find the Gobi’s largest sand dunes.

In our usual fashion we decided to head through the dunes to the base of the largest one and then climb it, so with Spike at the wheel we set off. Unfortunately it turns out sand is a little softer than rock and in the first valley we got stuck. Although we could move we could not get up enough speed to get up the sides. This prompted us to us the sand ladders for what they where designed for and we made slow progress up the sides. This was very tedious and then, like all great ideas, inspiration came from Mr Clarkson and the Top Gear guys. We let all the air out of the tires (like they did crossing the snow in the Arctic) and low and behold we positively flew up the side and we were out.

This then prompted an afternoon of driving around the dunes having a huge amount of fun. two of us would run ahead and plot the route, whilst doing front flips and superman dives off the steep, soft dunes at the same time.

We finally made it up the highest dune and back out to the edge of the sand by about 10.00 at night. The big drops off each dune started to be hard to spot so we called it a night and planned a quick dinner and then bed. Unfortunately we had to finish off the lamb stew, now five days old. I have never finished a plate of food and been physically shaking, it was the worst thing we have eaten so far. With the consistency of canned tuna and a smell of dog food, the experience on the tongue made you wretch every mouthful. But we all kept it down and hit the sack with the prospect of a long days driving back to UB the next day.

Now things start to get interesting, we could not have made this next bit up. It started with Dave getting up when his alarm went off for the first time on the expedition. Normally we get up about an hour after we wanted to but this time we where packed up and moving by 8.30. I was at the wheel and having a lot of fun on the sand tracks when we took a turn to cross the dunes. Around the next corner we nearly drove in to three bright orange Land Rovers. The guys from the G4 Challenge were there doing press shoots (G4 is the premier off road adventure challenge run by Land Rover). They where very happy to see us and invited us back to the their camp of a cup of tea, so off we went. It was about a 5 minute drive and in those five minutes Roxy lost all power. The engine was coughing and kept wanting to stall, and in this state we limped in to the Camp.

Land Rover Camp

Let me just set the scene properly. We were in the least populated part of the world least populated country, we came across a Land Rover team and where driving in to their camp (hidden from the road so we would have driven straight past) and we had our first mechanical problem in 11500 miles of off road driving. As we where driving in one of the G4 staff apparently said “I recognise that car, I built it”! So not only did we have a fully trained Land Rover mechanic on hand, he already knew the vehicle. Out came the laptop and the fault was quickly diagnosed. It turned out that if we had carried on driving the engine would have cut out and not started again, the mechanic said we have less than ten miles before we broke down and would not be able to move again. He also said the fault was a broken wire and would be nearly impossible to find, but he would have a go, the first cut through the insulation and he found the break. After a little bit of soldering all was good and we were ready to move.

With some boil in the bag meals and other goodies we set off with a working Land Rover. Some people said that we where really luck to win this bursary, and we always maintained it was through hard work, but after that little event may be that luck is traveling with us. Unfortunately after about an hours driving we started getting mild power loss again. At this point we had left the G4 team well behind and we still in the middle of the desert, if we broke down here it would be a 5 day wait for the G4 guys to come back past and even then they might not have had the part required, so we had a choice. Should we push on through the night to UB nursing the car and try and get it to a garage before the weekend, or do we take it slow and stop to let the engine cool every time the symptoms of the problem started (it was to do with a valve sticking when the turbo got hot)? We decided to drive to UB through the night trying to use the turbo as little as possible. This sounds easy, but Mongolian tracks are no place for an under-powered car.

With a final diesel stop we headed off in to the darkness with our spotlights showing the way, things where not to bad as the cool night air kept the engine from getting too hot. The only problem was when she cut out and we had to turn the ignition off and on again. With switching off the ignition the lights go off too, so do the brakes and so does the power stierring, driving becomes interesting with no lights. But despite this we managed to push on through the night stopping for some very welcome instant meals courtesy of the G4 guys and to watch a stunning sun rise.

Amazingly the car carried on going and as we got more used to driving, feathering the throttle and using the clutch to coast we nearly stopped noticing the problem. As we approached UB with Dave passed out in the back, Spike and I noticed a strange sound coming for the back left wheel. On closer inspection we found that somehow we had broken the brake disc guard. This involved a quick wheel off, guard off, wheel on again and finally we made it in to the town at about 3 in the afternoon. We had managed to drive a very sick vehicle 800km on terrible tracks in 30 hours, tired but happy we could now start to sort things out.

The main north-south road in Mongolia

We are meeting the G4 fixers tonight and should be able to get things fixed at the beginning of next week. If not then we could be in for a long wait while some new parts are sent out. Roxy is an amazing car, we take her all sorts of places and probably drive her very badly (i.e. my meeting with a certain tree) but she just keeps going, however Mongolia is no easy place to live for a car and the list of faults is as follows.

  • Broken roof rack (every stanchion is cracked and it is being held on by paint)
  • The rear diff is leaking oil
  • The turbo can not maintain pressure
  • Spare tire is flat
  • Wing mirror is broken
  • The ABS has stopped working
  • The brake light keeps coming on while we are driving (not sure why so ideas are welcome)

Despite all this we have managed to keep going and should be able to get all the medicine to cure our baby in the city, I might even have managed to fix the turbo problem today. We are off to meet the G4 people now, but want to thank Asif (the mechanic) and all the G4 guys, you really saved us on thursday morning, enjoy the desert and I hope we will catch up with you all again soon.

- Pete

Playing on the iPod: “The Luckiest” by Ben Folds

Thursday, 17 July 2008


Too cool to miss
After we finally dragged ourselves from UB we started on the long road south to the Gobi desert. Now I know that some of you will have looked at maps and noticed that the Gobi is not necessarily very prevalent at fifty degrees north, but don’t worry we’d also noticed this. The fiftieth guides our route, and provides the locations for our case studies but there’s certainly a fair bit of freedom in our route otherwise - and the Gobi’s just too cool to miss!

So anyway, we eventually found the ‘road’ - we’ve had problems navigating out of towns ever since we hit Kazakhstan; regardless how small the town might be they always manage to conceal the exits, so we usually just drive by GPS and fumble around in no-mans land for a bit til we find a track.
This time no-mans land was occupied by lots of rubbish dumps which stunk to high heaven, but that’s by the by, we found the track and it was a pretty good one.

We decided to make a call on some locals
As the sun began to get tired we decided to make a call on some locals, so pulled over to a likely looking ger and said ‘hello, do you mind if we camp here?’ then flushed with the success of our opening gambit we said ‘can we buy a sheep?’. Yes, that’s right, we bought a sheep. But not just any sheep, oh no, we got to choose our sheep from their increasingly worried flock. This involved encircling said beasts alongside the majority of the family (who seemed as equally amused by the situation as us!) until one of them (or on one occasion Spike) made a frantic grabbing foray. This highly sophisticated method led us to our brief association with Paul the sheep.
Sadly Paul wasn’t much of a conversationalist, so after money had been transferred one of our newfound human friends slit his chest open and pulled out his heart.

A bonnet full of lamb
The meat extraction took place with impressive efficiency and soon we had a bonnet completely covered with joints of lamb (after politely declining the head, entrails and skin). Team Latitude is fond of its food, but even we realised this might be a tricky prospect when we were heading for a few days in desert heat, so in the morning we stewed as much as we could and left a few more titbits with our hosts.

We printed some photos
We arrived in the Gobi accompanied by rain (shurely shome mishtake?) and saw lots of river beds - if someone could check the desert status of the Gobi that would be great! The scenery was stunning though, with stony plains surrounded by jutting peaks and rolling red mounds.

A Memorable Birthday: lamb, with beer

That night we grilled up some ribs of (yes you’ve guessed it) lamb over the fire which we’d surrounded by volcanic rocks with a tendency to explode slightly! But we survived to drive another day, which also happened to be Spike’s birthday, and I think it may have been a memorable one.

After a day of fantastically fun driving with a few dunes and an incident leaving the wing mirror in a tree (ask Pete) we set up camp in a vast plain, coincidentally in the same place as I got a puncture… We had gin and tonics while the sun set and followed it with a curry (well, curried lamb stew!) and some chocolate hobnobs - perfect!

- David

I think we’re alone now
Playing on the iPod: ‘I think we’re alone now’ by Tiffany

Birthday Addendum

Quite a few people probably have a curry and a couple of beers with some mates on their birthday. But I doubt many do it in the least populated part of the least populated country on the planet. I also doubt I’ll have a more memorable birthday any time soon. Driving through the sand dunes and enjoying complete freedom are two of the best birthday presents. Many thanks to all my family and friends who sent me messages yesterday. It was hugely appreciated.

- Spike

Saturday, 12 July 2008


We drove in to Ulaanbaatar (or just UB) and the rain just kept on coming. The traffic, something we hadn’t seen for a long time, was terrible and every other junction had a small car crash on it. UB is nothing like the rest of Mongolia - there’s cars, high buildings, traffic lights and even people! Common sense was in short supply amongst the Mongolia drivers and the whole city centre was gridlocked. After driving around in circles very slowly for several hours we eventually happened upon a lovely hostel. We dined out on Korean food that night and had a few beers, culminating in hunting for an open Karaoke bar at 2am.

The next day we visited the embassy and met with Peter, the Deputy Head of Mission there, who gave us a few tips about the city. We then hit the Black Market where you can buy pretty much anything, but we all decided that we didn’t really want anything that they had, least of all a tshirt with a terribly translated English saying on it. We nearly got pick-pocketed about 10 times with groups of men barging into you and heavily thrusting their hand into your pocket. However they were all terrible at it and we repeatedly thwarted their attempts.

That night we took part in the pub quiz at a traveller’s haunt and were taken out on the town by another Pete, who’s just set up a cracking cafe here called Cafe Amsterdam. If any of you are passing through UB anytime soon we can recommend their coffee and sandwiches.

On Friday it was the first day of Nadaam, a big festival which is the highlight of the Mongolia sporting calendar. The three sports played are wrestling, archery and horse racing. We loved watching the archers, who were exceptionally accurate at knocking down a pile of little wicker baskets 75m away. Alarmingly a group of people stood around each pile of baskets to put them up again, but once in a while a stray arrow took one of them out. Luckily the arrows had rubber tips but it still seemed to hurt.

We managed to get into the stadium for free and watched some wrestling. It was the preliminary rounds and with no weight categories to speak of it seemed to be big, fat wrestlers consistently beating wirey, lanky ones! That evening we dusted our suits off and headed along for drinks at the embassy. We had a pint with George who runs a big catering firm and has very kindly offered to give us with a cool box full of gourmet delights such as English sausages and marinated steaks! I’m salivating at the thought of it, many thanks George.

Umbrella seller at the Nadaam festival

Umbrella seller at the Nadaam Festival

We were planning to head out of UB today, but it’ll probably be tomorrow now. We’re off to the Gobi to explore the desert and drive up some sand dunes.

- Spike

Of Flies and Men

Having left Moron we decided to spend a few days driving along the line, slowly making our way towards UlaanBaatar. Northern Mongolia is stunningly beautiful, but not what we had expected at all. It is like driving through Switzerland, with the addition of an unbelievable number of flies. Whilst driving through this sort of scenary is nice, the flies made stopping pretty unpleasant and the forest made the driving pretty much impossible. So at the end of the first day we decided that we would make our way back to the road and drive straight to the capital for the Nadaam festival. We could have continued along the line, but all the sawing and moving of logs sounded like to much hard work and would have taken too long. We did give three random kids a lift from their ger down to the river, after finding a good fording point we drove across the river and left the kids there. We were slightly worried how they were going to make it back home 10km away, but they seemed fairly unfussed about the whole thing.

That night we stopped at the top of one of the hills to camp and had the most amazing view over the valley below.

As night came the flies went to bed and suddenly the magic of Mongolia was back, we enjoyed a curry and chapatis over an open fire with the mist filled valleys glowing silver in the moon light. This nearly made us change our minds about going straight to UB but in the morning the flies where back and we jumped in the car to start the two day drive to civilization.

The driving that day was pretty easy and uneventful and we got back to the road and made some good miles. A quick lunch stop at a cafe involved 12 deep fried pasty things, it would have been nice to have something else but that was all the cafe served. After the danger (unidentified meat) pastys we appreciated Dave’s cooking even more and had a nice dinner with a view of more stunning valleys.

The next day things got a bit more interesting. We were back in the barren empty Mongolia everyone imagines and enjoyed some more breathtaking scenery.

Driving along quite happily we suddenly came across a police check point, very unusual in Mongolia and we then picked up two more police stops. We later found out we had driven through a gold mine and a highly restricted area, but fortunately the police just found us funny and pointed the way to UB. It started to rain in the afternoon and it would appear dirt tracks turn in to ice rinks when it rains and i had a 4 hour driving stint doing some of the most difficult but fun driving so far. There was a lot of sideways action and every few seconds a water splash would completely blind me for a while.

These where interesting and it was always a bit of a gamble to see if you emerged still facing the way you where moving. That night somehow we found a gap in the clouds and managed to set up camp in the dry and got a good nights sleep, just around the corner from an eagle’s nest (of the non-Nazi type), complete with a very ugly eagle chick.

The last 100km to UB should have been easy as the track took on some semblance of a road, but as with most of the roads we have found it was better to drive on the track off to the side, so Dave had a whole morning of controlled sliding. At one point we where fully sideways and all producing brown adrenalin, but the rest of the time it was actually general pretty controlled. Then something happened to make us all very happy. We came across a Land Cruiser stuck in the mud. People have always asked us if we would prefer a Land Cruise as they are more comfortable etc, but they are rubbish off road and it was a lot of fun towing this one out. It was made even better when we snapped the Toyota issue tow cable and had to use our own.

We spent the morning stopping to help people out of the mud and even tried to help a ten tonne truck that drove into exactly the same pot hole we had just pulled the Land Cruiser out of. I have to say i would never drive through this country in anything but a Land Rover everything else seemed to get stuck and we (except for the sideways incident) had no problems at all.

So we arrived in UB at about lunchtime and then drove round the city for 3 hours trying to blag our way in to all the nice hotels. This did not go so well and we ended up in a really cool guest house to chill out and take in the sights of Mongolia’s only city.

- Pete

Playing on the iPod: Anything by Wet Wet Wet

Police Stop Count: 22