In a bit less than 7 weeks I’ll be flying to Russia to take part in one of the most amazing (crazy) races ever, The Ice Run.
(I recommend watching the video)
For about 10 days 8 teams will ride totally unsuitable motorbikes (as the below) over Lake Baikal in Siberia, at -30/-40° C, for a good cause.
As with the Mongol Rally two years ago, the purpose of this race is twofold:
- to raise money for charity, in my case the Great Ormond Street Hospital for children and Cool Earth, who help preserve endangered rainforest around the world, and
- to provide you with plenty of anecdotes to laugh at/with me and doubt my sound-judgement
Please check my team’s website (www.hemendikhorra.com), follow me in Twitter (@cabaoth) or through my team’s web (RSS service in the top right hand corner), and donate as much as possible to these two great causes:
Many thanks in advance and I’ll keep you posted!!!
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!
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:
- You get to enjoy the day more (important since I wanted to get to the border on the day)
- You get the road pretty much for yourself for a good 3-4 hours
- Pictures look great (sunrise and sunset are called the golden hours in photography for a reason)
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!.
… 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.
… 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.
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!
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!.
(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.
… 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!!!
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
- What is next?
Tough one!. Maybe the Motortaxi Junket? (http://www.theadventurists.com/the-adventures/mototaxi-junket)
- 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!!!
Samara – Chelyabinsk – Astana (24-27/07/13):
On Wednesday I resumed my journey through mother Russia (who as you know I met the day before in Mamayev Kurgan), and today I finally made it to Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, from where I’ll attempt my Mongolian conquer. These last few days have been full of new experiences that I’ll treasure for a long time
- The joy of being back in the race and happiness of being able to see new places and find myself in odd and colourful situations (if you liked my encounters with 112 or the border controls you would have loved my attempts to communicate with Russian and Kazakh speaking only hotel and roadside restaurant staff)
- The beauty of nature that some times offers formidable landscapes and sunsets, and others shows its anger and fierce (on Thursday it rained and hailed so hard that traffic fully stopped in the middle of the highway and cars drove to the sides and sought cover under bus stops and trees)
- The kindness of people I’ve met (from my good friend Nicolas who texts me daily to see if the car is working fine, to a guy drove 5km with me to show me the way to the highway) and broad sense of safety. Despite all the warnings and tales of horror I have not yet been stopped once by the police or had a bad experience in the borders, should I ask for my money back?
- The thrill of overtaking with the steering wheel on the wrong side (a true Russian roulette) and driving “off road” in the roads that lead to Astana. Did I say Moldovan roads were bad?, nothing compared with kilometres and kilometres of roads under construction full of potholes, bumps, stones, sharp twists… all of course in pitch black conditions and, as the song would sing, “dust in the wind”
- Rediscovering the pleasure of a warm coffee or comfortable bed after a long, long, long journey (yesterday I drove 16h+)
Thank you very much to family and friends for the daily messages of support and love, it’s good to be able to share this adventure with you all.
And now off to Russia (again) and then Mongolia where I’ll most likely not have any internet connection until I make it to Ulaanbaatar. All the best for the week and see you soon!
From Volgograd to … Volgograd! (21/07/13):
Despite the long trip from London and treacherous roads of the previous few days the car was holding up quite nicely (or so I thought). This was about to change…
One and a half hours and about 97km from Volgograd the car suddenly gave up. No smoke, no strange noises, the engine was still working, but the damn thing refused to move. Sunday afternoon, in the middle of nowhere, a Spaniard incapable of speaking any Russian other than “da”, “nyet” or “spasiba”… this could be the script for Almodovar’s next movie!
So what do I do now?, for starters not to panic. You know when you embark into this challenge that this or worse is meant to happen, so this is a mere box ticking exercise.
1. – Attempting a MacGyver:
After opening the car bonnet and concluding that everything looked as it should (a different way of saying “I haven’t got a clue of what I’m supposed to see”), I decided to keep my chewing gum and paper clips for when really needed and call for professional help instead
2.- Trying the international emergency number (112):
<<Hello, you’ve called the emergency service, for fire related issues press 1, for police press 2, for gas services press 3, and for B-line related issues call ****>>
Ok let’s try 3… oh no the guy only speaks Russian!
Option 2… parusky, parusky (in an angry voice)
B-line number not working
3.- Aha, claiming on the Russian insurance bought at the border the day before!:
Good try, it’s Sunday afternoon 🙂
4.- What about the fellows at RAC in England?, they surely must have a contact:
Ehhhhh, no they don’t and they couldn’t find it in Google either…
5.- Let’s call a local:
Nicolas, local entrepreneur and owner of Hotel Lukomorye where I spent the previous night, promptly offered to tow me back to Volgograd <<please wait in the car, I’ll be there in 1.5 hours>>. Good!, I had food, drinks, and a very good book to finish reading, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do it
The only issue is that despite my directions Nicolas drove 1.5 hours west rather than north and we only figured it out when I noticed he was not coming… To cut the long story short, a Russian couple stopped to help (first in over 2 hours) and after his own MacGyver attempt the guy called some friends and arranged a truck to pick me up and take me back to Volgograd.
News this morning were mixed… While the only part broken is the clutch and it should be inexpensive to fix, the official Fiat Service in Volgograd informed that they don’t have any spare clutches for a 1.2 litre Punto and that one would need to be shipped from Moscow delaying the car’s repair until Wednesday. As a consequence of this, and although I had already built in a safety buffer in my travel schedule, I’ve now decided to move part of the Kazakh route to Russia in order to regain some of the time lost.
In the meantime I’ll be enjoying the company of my new friend Nicolas, visit Mamayev Kurgan tomorrow, and try some more local delicatessen.
PS. Donations to the GOSH and Cool Earth keep coming, thanks a lot for your continued support!
The last four day’s driving has been “intense” to say the least. Demanding roads, long (really long) hours, my first encounter with border controls and checkpoints… But I’ve made it to Volgograd according to schedule (I’m sure Isabel will be thinking “yeah, right!”) and so far the car is behaving nicely.
Off to Romania – Transition Day (17/07/2013):
The initial plan was to dash by Hungary into Romania where I had booked a bunk bed in a cosy youth hostel in Bucharest; a mere 1,066km according to Google Maps or “the RedBull day” as I called it. But what was originally intended as a pit stop in Budapest turned into a 6h stay at a local mall to get my TomTom sorted (I’d been travelling without maps for 2 days) and replace my only sweater, lost in Frankfurt. Tip for travellers, Starbucks provides more than coffee and sandwiches ;-).
Since making it to Bucharest was no longer an option, I used some of my spare time to research a new destination and settled for Sibiu, a small town in southern Transylvania, not far from the Transfagarasan (road DN7C) Top Gear’s 2009 Best Road in the World.
It was already past 10pm when I made it to the border and met some of the other teams that were deciding where to camp for the night. Among them was chicken man, now in a more suitable attire, telling the story about how he was almost run over by a truck who had apparently not seen him… “mate, that’s because you are travelling with no lights!” one of the other guys said.
It was 4:30am when I made it to Sibiu (clock had moved forward 1h) and rang the youth hostel’s door bell with no luck. I tried a second time and… no luck, “mmm I thought the web where I read about this place said 24h reception…”. I tried a third and last time and a few minutes later a grumpy Dutch opened a window and after a few words agreed to open for me. The morning after he was super nice but mysteriously the web no longer says 24h reception 🙂
Three mini-rallies in a day (18/07/2013):
After five hours of sleep and two coffees I packed everything into the car and got on the road again. For those of you who don’t know Romania it has some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen and very friendly locals. As for the Tranfagarasan…
Liked it?, be my guest while I drive up and down the mountain (achtung, the clip is 29min long!!!)
This “spaghetti” road ranks high up there with Trollstigen (Norway) and the Stelvio and Gavia passes (Switzerland / Italy), the later two Top Gear’s Best Road in the World before Clarkson and friends found this gem in the heart of Romania. I’m sure my friends Daniel and Torsten would have enjoyed it more than kids like candy.
The rest of the day was pretty uneventful until I made it to the border with Moldova, and then the fun began:
1.- The intelligence test: Romanian custom officers were quite nice but warned Moldovans wouldn’t let me in without a green card, which of course I didn’t have, and therefore were reluctant to let me through. “What about if I buy a green card/insurance for Moldova?”, that did the trick. Moldovan custom officers didn’t seem to care much to be honest
2.- The courage test: quoting a fellow rider about Moldovan roads “These roads don’t have potholes, they are trenches!!”. Don’t believe us?, judge for yourself:
(These are not in Moldova but Ukraine, but helps seeing them in daylight. More than a road with potholes, south of Moldova is all a big pothole with bits of tarmac here and there)
3.- Advanced negotiation skills: one piece of advice I had received was to watch out for border control officers and policemen in general, as they’ll normally request some sort of gift (cash, tobacco or others) or make your life more difficult. With this in mind I had bought and selectively placed two packets of cigarettes in the car and approached the Ukrainian border with confidence.
- Officer: purpose of your visit and anything to declare?
- Me: planning to drive this car to Mongolia (the officer’s eyes roll up) and nothing to declare
- Officer: are you driving on your own?, mmm, crazy, crazy
- Me: (big smile)
- Officer: alcohol or tobacco?
- Me: just a packet of cigarettes, let me show you, here, do you want any?
- Officer: no, no, no narcotics (just became a big fan of this guy)
- Officer: that flag is from Bilbao, Athletic!, I’m a fan of Spanish football
- Me: aha (don’t like where this is going…)
- Officer: souvenir for me?
- Me: sorry I don’t understand
- Officer: the flag, is it a present for me?
- Me: (sure!, as if I wanted to have the two Isabels as enemies going forward) sorry I only have one and is for Mongolia, for when I get there
- Officer: so no flag?, OK (sad face), give me your documents (opps)
… 2 minutes later
- Officer: here you have, OK for you to go. Listen my friend (taking me to a side), the flag, souvenir?
- Me: (with a very very very sad face) sorry, only one and is for Mongolia, I need it there
- Officer: and do you have a smaller one or a poster?
- Me: (me thinking that I’ve met a true fan) no, so sorry, maybe next time
4.- The endurance test: after clearing the border I had another 3-4 hours of joyful ride to Odessa where I didn’t make it until 5am (had to move the clock forward again). My initial intention was to make it 3-4 hours earlier, but borders, checkpoints (of which I had a few), a pitch black night and zigzagging thought trucks and road bumps/potholes didn’t help.This hostel did indeed have 24h reception service (a huge bald guy you don’t want to argue with) so I jumped straight into bed and didn’t worry about the rules until the day after
Taking it easy to Mariupol (Ukraine) and Volgograd (Russia) (19-20/07/2013):
Woke up 4 hours later with the intention to walk around the city a bit, relax, and slowly make my way to Mariupol with plenty pit stops along the way.
And hey, it was only 11:30pm when I got to the hotel!
After a hearty breakfast I stopped by a local supermarket to buy some groceries (including coffee, soups, rice noodles, nuts and cured meats for my days of camping solo in Mongolia) and plenty of water, programmed the route in my TomTom (good to have you back!), choose one of Ross and Annie’s CDs, and set off towards my next border experience.
Only thing worth mentioning about the border control is that the lowest ranking soldier on the Ukrainian side tried getting his daily souvenir from me but encountered some passive resistance (“sorry, me no entender”) and gave up. On the Russian side however, they were just unbelievably helpful and friendly:
- one soldier seeing that I was a foreigner travelling alone took me to a special window where I was dealt with straight away
- the customs officer and I exchanged some jokes about the craziness of the race (“why would you do this… alone?, why not Antarctica?”, “good idea, I’ll tell my mum!” :-)), the crappy Ukrainian and Moldovan roads (“roads, what roads?”), his English/my Russian (his a bit better I’d say)…
- and I was finally greeted with a Welcome to Russia, dasvidaniya, and good luck!
which means that my mum may have been right all along and smiling and being nice to others does indeed open you doors (in a quite strict sense here!). Eskerrik asko ama 😎
By the time I got to Klenová the party had already started so I put up my tent quickly and run uphill to grab some dinner. I shared table with two fun Norwegians who are doing a similar route to mine and shared some important need to knows about life and Scandi women (don’t worry I’ll keep your secret!). One of them has postponed his wedding in order to be able to complete the rally, how cool is that? 🙂
The Czech-Out Party (15/07/13):
Imagine a medieval castle dressed for the occasion…
… in one of the castle chambers a “tea house” …
… and in another a rave party!!! (Parras you would have loved it)
There were also some jugglers who left us open-mouthed with their spectacular fire show, but unfortunately my camera’s battery had drained by then. I’m sure their mum was always telling them off for playing with fire; guys it was worth it!
The party in the castle ended around 12am and continued in the campsite until 6:30am or so. I didn’t stay up until very late as I had some proper driving to do the day after, but managed to meet the team from La Rioja who shared a “bota de vino” by their bonfire, and namesake José from Cáceres who already tried to make it to Mongolia a couple of years ago but got arrested in Kazakhstan because his visa expired while waiting for a friend, had to spend the night in prison and has been forbidden entry for 5 years (no kidding). Thanks for your tips on how to deal with police, have a safe trip through Russia and see you in Ulaanbataar!
Czech Out – Off to Bratislava (16/07/13):
As my father often reminded us “noches alegres, mañanas tristes”
After a hearty breakfast and learning some cool places I would visit today, I brushed my teeth (remember, it’s important to do it at least 3 times a day, and I can tell some of you don’t!), prepared the car, and went to see the European award ceremony… but got bored after a while and decided to leave with most of the teams who had met in Bodiam Castle.
On my way to Bratislava I did a small detour to visit Kostnice in Kutná Hora, a truly impressive and equally creepy church a fellow racer recommended in the morning. I’ll let the pictures do all the talking…
Getting lost one more time (I need my TomTom back and I need it quick!!!) I finally made it to Bratislava shortly after 19:30, where the always kind and loving Felix and Mali received me with open arms and took me to an amazing restaurant for dinner. Unfortunately I didn’t take the camera with me, but you can check out the place here: http://www.u-f-o.sk/ (under “UFO”)
And after a short touristic walk through Bratislava’s old quarter and its many churches (all very beautiful indeed), it was time to call it a day. Bea we need to plan a proper visit soon, this was certainly not enough 🙂
That’s all for now folks!
Live from Budapest!!!
Apologies for the long silence but I’ve been having major technology issues. I should be able to post daily updates from now on and at least until I arrive in Kazakhstan, and just in case I don’t below you have a map that might help map my location:
The below is a post I wrote 2 days ago and updated yesterday morning. Enjoy the read and hope to write a new update tonight.
Oh yeah, the Rally is on and what an exciting start!: a birthday/farewell BBQ, last-minute shopping, a medieval party with fortune tellers, dancing to Eastern music until the wee hours, saying goodbye in style and my first ever accident! (nothing serious mum 🙂 )
Launch Date -1 (12/07/13):
After a crazy week in the office what best than enjoying one of those rare British summer days celebrating one’s birthday with friends? doing all that + celebrating my very good friend Bea’s too!
We had fun, we had beer, we had sun and even a deer!
Ok, ok! we didn’t have a deer but the food was great and loved you could all make it. A 10 to Bea for the fantastic organisation and a big round of applause to our friends for sharing this day with us, their continuous support and the amazing presents.
Launch Date (13/07/13):
As someone said the night before “Joseba is very well organised and always plans ahead” right?, well not quite…
Today is launch date and there’s still some “small” stuff in my TO DO list:
1- Buy currency, as her Majesty’s will probably not take you that far
2- Exchange extra survival kit (1 probably enough) for other goodies
3- Update TomTom as Switzerland and Kazakhstan are not quite the same (or are they?)
4- Record some music for the trip (a big thanks to Wassim, Annie, Ross, Silvia, Max, Daniel and Laia for their contributions here. Laia/Daniel, loved the book, it’s almost as good as watching the movie (and certainly not any slower!))
5- Buy some food and pack
and if that was not enough let’s add a hair cut and couple of conference calls to the cocktail, who said my life is not exciting? 🙂
3h after the planned departure we are finally ready to go, Mongol Rally 2013 here I come
Two hours and a few miles later, afraid of having missed the registration, I manage to make it to Bodiam Castle where The Adventurists (www.theadventurists.com) have prepared a magnificent medieval party, followed by dinner and a folk band playing Easter European tunes until the early morning. What a great start!
Yes, that’s right, meeting Wally (or a bunch of), a “tit reading” fortune-teller and chicken man laying an egg in front of the orchestra were just a few of the surreal moments of the day…
Launch Day + 1, the UK start (14/07/13):
The day starts early (7:30am) and it’s time to pack the tent, prep the car and have breakfast before the award ceremony and official UK start to the rally.
I leave you a couple of links describing the events but just as a remark, there’s a team that has managed to raise £13k for charity (well done Old Blues Brothers) and one that is taking 7 spare wheels and 2-3 jerry cans with them!!!
And so the adventure starts… Thanks a lot to Borja, Isabel, Casilda, Alfonso, Carlos, Helena, Lucas, Samuel and Edith for coming to wave goodbye, you are the best
But wait, what about the accident?, oh yes, I almost forgot!. Half way to Nuremberg (where I never made it as it was too late and Frankfurt seemed like a more sensible option) I had to put my Punto’s breaks to test as the traffic suddenly stopped exiting a turn. Thankfully we were all going quite slow and it all resulted in a small scratch to the other car’s rear bumper (driver was a Spaniard living a Belgium, what a coincidence!) and a bump to my car’s bonnet.
Off to Czech Republic (15/07/13):
Late wake up call after a long day of driving, today it’s a short trip and I plan to take it fairly easy. I start writing this post while having breakfast and when I’m about to press send… oh, oh, where did my email go? (sh*t!)
My good friend Aitor and girlfriend Veronica live in Brno, Czech Rep., and we had discussed meeting in Prague as an excuse to see each other and visit the city, or so I thought. German autobahns are a great invention (hardly any speed limit) until you hit a traffic jam or a lorry decides to overtake another, and then the world seems to slow down a lot (no, seriously, a lot!!!). So after a few of these and agreeing on a new meeting point I finally made it to Karlstejn; beautiful place and roads that lead there, but not the easiest place to get to 🙂
Next stop Klenová Castle, where another party full of surprises awaits. Check this space regularly as I’ll soon tell you all about the Czech Out, its fire jugglers, how to rave in a cave, and some safety tips by Mongol Rally veteran José on how to avoid ending in prison in Kazakhstan.
Time flies and it’s now only 4 days to go, are you nervous?, have you got everything ready?, will you keep us updated?, and more importantly, will Chupi join you this time?
Over the last few days some of you have asked a number of very interesting questions that I’m sure have also crossed other people’s minds. Here is my Top-5 in no specific order (please click “Read More…” to see all the questions and answers):
Thank you very much for your generous donations, you are fantastic!
In just one day we are already above target for the Great Ormond Street Hospital and at 32% of the set target for Cool Earth, where will we be tomorrow?. The sky is the limit, please keep it coming!!!