Friday, 12 August 2011

Yak to the future!

On Thursday the 11th of August we all handed our ambulances over to the Go Help staff in Ulaan Baatar. I guess this officially ends our Mongolian adventure. After months of planning, weeks of long days driving, short nights and unexpected problems I don’t think that anyone on the teams has realised the full extent of their achievement. Personally, I don’t think it will hit me until I’m back at work in London. One thing is clear though, it has been a fantastic experience!

Sorting out 5 weeks of mess and junk before handing the vehicles over.

Months ago, when we were planning the trip, there were doubts if any of the ambulances would actually get here. There were plenty of people that thought we would never make it to Dover, and we also thought that getting 4 out of the 6 ambulances here would be a good result! To get all 6 here is an amazing result, especially considering some of the border/paperwork problems that we ran into.

The original team Kasotiri in London just before we left. Left to right: Tim (me!), Richard C, Sophie and Katie.
Team Kasotiri as we arrived in Ulaan Baatar. Left to Right: Me, Alice, Sophie and Katie. Richard C really wanted to see Kazakhstan so he swopped places with Alice in team Breakfast.

These ambulances were designed to be used on the good roads of London where the greatest challenge is a speed bump. They have also had a hard life, being driven to the limits of their capabilities saving lives in London for the last 11 years. Although nearly every vehicle had a problem along the way there was nothing that the team members (and local garages!) weren’t able to fix. The reliability of my (team Kasotiri) vehicle did cause me some stress. As we approached Mongolia I simply could not believe that we hadn’t had a serious mechanical failure due to the terrible roads and constant driving. The stress came from expecting one at any minute, luckily for us it never came!

Making a drwing of our exploits for Go Help

The ambulances now belong to charity Go Help who will find new life saving roles for them in Mongolia; I hope they do our exploits justice. After 5 weeks on the road and living largely in the back of the vehicles some team members have built up a bond with their ambulances. I was very sad to say goodbye to the “Mongolian Monster”, or “Mongmo” as she’d become known. On the plus side Go Help’s mechanic seemed very impressed and immediately started taking bits off to see how they worked! I’m really looking forward to an update on how they’re doing in a few months.

Sophie says goodbye to Mongmo

All of the team members are now gradually dispersing, either heading home or on to further travels so we met up for one last evening together. We partied until the early hours at Strings, an American themed nightclub with a Filipino house band that played the Cranberries. Mongolia is a very random place…

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Ice cold in UB!

As I write this, I’m looking out on several yurts, a beautiful garden and the mountain beyond in a lovely hostel just outside Ulaan Baatar. I can hardly believe I’m writing this, but somehow all six ambulances entered the Mongolian capital in convoy yesterday. Given all the drama and hard work we’ve had over the last few months, it all seems a bit surreal.

Early celebrations started in Darkhan, when the end finally seemed in sight. After a few drinks in the hotel bar, most of the group decided to go out and sample the delights of a Mongolian nightclub. The locals seemed bemused and entertained as we all hit the dance floor, partying like it’s 1999 on a Monday night. We were equally bemused and entertained when Griff was chatted up by a rather persistent local man wearing a questionable hat! The club shut at midnight, which at the time seemed disappointing at the time, but at least it enabled some of us to catch up on some much-needed sleep while others continued on to a bizarre late-opening venue, which lacked both music and drinks!

It’s called ‘planking’ – apparently it’s all the rage in Darkhan.

The next morning we took time to explore Darkhan’s Buddhist temple and market before continuing on our way. The scenery surrounding us on the drive towards Ulaan Baatar was nothing short of breathtaking, with green towering mountains and open plains scattered with yurts. Cattle and goats being shepherded by men on horseback flanked the roads and we often had to slow down as they strayed onto the tarmac. Everywhere we go there are children at the roadside waving at us and smiling people asking who we are and where we’ve come from before wishing us well. Mongolia is nothing short of beautiful and its’ people have overwhelmed us with their friendly and welcoming nature.

A shrine to the sky gods over-looking Darkhan

A few mechanical issues prompted the convoy split for much of the journey towards Ulaan Baatar but we reunited around 50km outside the city so that we could all drive in together. There was elation as we all approached the sign welcoming traffic into the city. We could hardly believe that we had made it! After a few pictures, and a confusing conversation with a police officer who spoke no English, we carried on into the city.

Mission accomplished!

At this point the groups split, with teams Mahayana, Temujin and Breakfast choosing to stay in the centre while Kasotiri, Commonwealth and Mutley to Mongolia opted for hostel on the outskirts.

Navigating our way through the city was not easy – Ulaan Baatar makes Russian driving look safe and sensible! It wasn’t helped by the fact that their roundabouts seem to have very different rules, with the vehicle approaching the junction having right of way over the car already on the roundabout. Needless to say there were a few tense moments!

The last of the fuel goes in on the way to the hostel. Now Mongolia rather than lost!

Thankfully we arrived at our beautiful hostel in one piece and finally felt able to relax. We had a few too many ice cold beers and shared stories with some of the other hostel guests - many of them are also on long distance drives from Europe, so we’ve had quite a few common experiences.

It all still seems like a dream and we can hardly believe we’re here. All that’s left now is to hand our vehicles over to Go Help and enjoy the rest of our time in Mongolia!

Katie Norman

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Breakfast in Mongolia!

In the comfort of the MBM hotel in Darkhan I have a little time to reflect on the last few days and try to un-jumble the blur that they have become.

After leaving Ulaan Ude on Sunday morning teams, Temujin, Kasotiri and Commonwealth took a leisurely drive towards the Mongolian border and hopefully the last bit of stress of the trip. By then, the Russian environment had become drastically different to the scenery when we entered more than two weeks ago. The people started to look far more Asian, the vehicles were better (imported from Japan rather than Russian built) and, most noticeably, the landscape had become stunning. The Russian forests and plains had turned into mountain ranges that stretched seemingly unbroken for miles. It looked like the Mongolia that I have seen photographs of!

The landscape changes as we near the border.

We spent the night camping in a forest just off the main road about 15km from the border. Late in the evening a tired but happy team Mahayana joined us after some monstrously long days of driving to catch us all up. We hadn’t seen them for more than a week after they stayed behind at Samara to help team Mutley with their driving. Following an evening of exchanging stories, we were met by team Mutley the next day and with the convoy back up to five vehicles we set off towards Mongolia.

The border proved quite difficult to find, with very few signs and accessed by a dirt track, but before long we found ourselves in the now familiar border queue. Whilst there, our trucks received plenty of interest from the locals. They liked the ambulances’ 3.5 litre V8 engines, but disiked the fact they were petrol and the poor fuel economy. Mobile phone reception was poor, but we had managed to make contact with Richard C and Robin, who had set off for the border the previous day. They warned us of the admin nightmare that lay ahead and said they had finally got through after around 28 hours at the border!

We cleared the Russian side within just a few hours, with the usual glum-faced form-filling, document checking and rubber stamping. I don’t think anyone really appreciated how chaotic the Mongolian side of the border would be until we finally arrived there. Getting the people through was relatively straight forward but the vehicles took hours. There were lots of forms to be filled in while some border staff ran around looking stressed and others fell asleep. Few people spoke much English, and of course we spoke no Mongolian, which only added to the confusion. After several hours of not really understanding what was happening we were told that we could go through. I think one of the main reasons was that the border had closed and the staff were evidently itching to go home!

It might not look like much but this Mongolian sunset has been long awaited for!

Having got through several hours previously, Robin and Richard had gone to the first major town, Darkhan, and were waiting for us to join them at a hotel. With cheers of elation as we finally crossed into Mongolia, we drove into the beautiful sunset to join them. Unfortunately, within just a few kilometres, team Timujin ran into mechanical difficulties and were forced to pull over. It soon became evident that their problem could not be solved quickly, and so with the light rapidly fading, we all decided to sleep in a lay-by.

Breakfast in Mongolia!

The next morning, Griff repaired the vehicle as far as possible but we knew it was a short term fix. Thankfully, after numerous dramas including a broken tow rope, all five vehicles managed to join Richard and Robin in Darkhan. Finally all six ambulances have been reunited and Ulaan Baatar is only 150km away!

Monday, 8 August 2011

Mongolian Madness

Well, after 30 days of driving and 11000+ Kilometres all six vehicles have finally made it to Mongolia! It’s been a very long day filled with language difficulties and paperwork at the Russian/Mongolian border but at about 9pm local time the last ambulance crossed into the final country on our epic journey. I’m writing from the relative comfort of a lay-by after an unscheduled stop due to a few mechanical problems, but in the morning we hope to press on to our final destination, Ulaan Baatar. I will try to write a more detailed description of today and post some photos of this beautiful country in the next couple of days. Whoo hoo!

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Special request

Recently someone commented that they had lost track of who was on what vehicle. This isn’t really surprising as there have been quite a lot of changes to the original teams, so much so that at times we can’t even remember who is where! So here is a correct (for today!) list of the teams, where they are and who they are made up of:

Team Kasotiri (currently in Ulan Ude):
Tim, Katie, Sophie and Alice.

Team Commonwealth (also in Ulan Ude):
Graham, Vicky and Clare.

Team Temujin (Ulan Ude):
Alison, Richie, Emma and Laura.

Team Breakfast in Mongolia (heading to the Mongolian border as I write):
Robin and Richard C.

Team Mutley to Mongolia (Currently heading towards Irkutsk):
Alex and Fed.

Team Mahayana (with team Mutley to Mongolia):
Scott, Jo H and Jo S.

Sadly we have lost two of the team members in our travels. As already mentioned Tracey had to depart early at Omsk on the Trans Siberian Express because her visa was running out. Also, Richard D decided to leave the trip In Kazakhstan for personal reasons.

Baikal bathday

You have never seen anyone so happy to find free WIFI so they can check Facebook!

After the hell of the yellow s**t road teams Kasotiri and Commonwealth made it Irkutsk. After a leisurely lunch at a German Beer Hall, chosen because of it’s free WIFI, we drove another couple of hours down the road to the famous lake Baikal.

We spent two nights camping on the shores of the beautiful and vast lake and took the opportunity to relax, catching up on sleep, vehicle maintenance and washing!

While here we have had time to reflect on our time in Russia - and here is a brief list of some of the many things we have learned in this interesting country:

Some cows know how to use a zebra crossing.

When you think you’ve found the worst toilet ever, another will come along and surpass your expectations.

When you think that no one would ever dare overtake the truck ahead, the six Russians behind you will.

How to order food using chicken impressions.

Playing ‘eye spy’ is difficult in Siberia. Once you’ve done trees, sky, grass and road
there are few other options.

Although they tend to look unfriendly, Russians are usually extremely cheerful and helpful when you get talking to them.

There is a lot to be said for cheap Russian Vodka.

The ability to waft flies away from your backside whilst having a poo.

Bug guts are orange and they really mess up your windscreen.

Sometimes, if your vehicle lights don’t work then all you need to do is kick them.

Don’t sleep somewhere if there are bullet holes in the camp site sign.

Russia takes the word ‘pot hole’ to a new level.

Caviar flavour crisps taste like Russian toilets.

Cheese is rarely found.

Mosquitoes will bite you anywhere.

English language maps of Russia are pointless as all of the road signs are in Cyrillic.

Sleeping on the floor of an ambulance is remarkably comfortable.

The traffic in Irkutsk is worse than London.

Last night while camping on the shore of Lake Baikal, the weather took a turn for the worse so this morning we decided to press on to find somewhere else to stay. With the ambulances loaded with soaking laundy we trudged on through the driving rain until, by coincidence, we met up with teams Breakfast in Mongolia and Temujin at a service station. After a brief exchange of travel tales (Temujin and Breakfast had both gone through Kazakhstan) we set off again. Robin and Richard C decided to go on in the Breakfast ambulance and try to get as close to the Mongolian border as possible. The rest of us took a chilled drive into the city of Ulan Ude where we all treated ourselves to a night in the classiest hotel in town!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The yellow s**t road

We chose the route through Russia because we felt it was the safest, with the best roads and held the best possible chance of getting the ambulances through without damaging them. We had very little prior local information on the state of the roads before we left, but we had heard that Russian roads can be dodgy. Using the maps we had bought for the trip, we chose roads that were marked red, major roads according to the maps. The one exception was a 250 kilometre section between Tayshet and Tulun. Slightly worryingly, these were marked yellow, for minor or ‘B’ roads and there was no way around them. So far teams Kasotiri and Commonwealth had made good progress across Russia on the red roads but concerns were beginning to rise as we approached the yellow road.

The roads started to get bad at Kansk, locally spelt as ‘Kahck’ which seemed appropriate. When we followed the signs for the M53 rather than the directions of our trusty Garmin sat navs, the signs directed us to the Kansk bypass. We can only assume the road had been constructed to avoid spoiling the town’s ‘beauty’. Without a bypass all heavy traffic would only distract from the glorious sights of derelict buildings, stray dogs and the star attraction smog factory. It was by far the worst road that we had come across, with craters rather than pot holes and mad truck drivers swerving wildly to avoid them without slowing down. It only lasted a few kilometres before we rejoined a more civilised road, but it took quite a long time to get through. We didn’t know it at the time but it would prove to be good practice for the next day!

The ritual morning mosquito face slap

After a late night and a welcome supper of Borscht night at an isolated truck stop we made an early start on the yellow peril. At first the road was OK, but steadily deteriorated. We spent what seemed like hours bouncing through rutted and pot holed forest tracks while dodging fast moving impatient lorry drivers. We eventually reached a lovely stretch of tarmac, only for it to last about 2 kilometres before returning to the dusty pot holed mess! The same pattern repeated as the day went on. The scariest part of the route was that Russian drivers didn’t alter their disregard for safety or over taking. On several occasions, as we were lumbering along unable to see ahead for the dust, a car (or even a truck!) would suddenly appear at our side and disappear into the invisibility ahead, often at great speed. The good news is that the Russians are trying to address the problem by building a new, smooth motorway. We drove alongside this tarmac haven for many miles, but were unable to use it. Instead we could only looked on in envy at the bored construction workers stood on it, scratching themselves. The dusty and the constant bumps wore everyone out but spirits remained high and we finally reached Tulun, tired but without incident.

No confidence in my driving!

When the visability is low it's time to go!

After a long day we tried to find a hotel in Tulun. We asked at a petrol station and a local youth on a dirt bike offered to show us the way to the best hotel in town. We followed this little maniac, who had the standard disregard to road laws as we have come to expect in Russia, to this hotel. It was shabby, expensive and had a scared and menacing parking attendant who demanded money for parking even before we had entered the building. We decided to give it a miss and drove on for an evening of wild camping and star gazing.

This morning we made it to Irkustk and after a slightly surreal lunch at a German Bier Hall we will be pressing on to more wild camping on the shores of Lake Baikal.