Mad Hatters at the Mongol Rally – Part 1

Day one to Eastern Turkey

The atmosphere at the start of the rally was awesome. So many cars, so many people. Everyone was keen to set off. Ahead of us was the mighty Mongol rally. A 16,000km drive in a car no bigger then 1.2 liters. The goal to get from England to Mongolia using any route possible. We had chosen a Fiat Punto car and one of the longest routes, known as the southern route. Also known as the dangerous southern route. We set off with a huge crowd cheering, it had begun.

We quickly left England, and drove to Amsterdam for the first night. It was a long drive and a bit of a shock. Just what had we gotten ourselves into? The first few days went without a hitch. Crossing from Amsterdam to Germany, then Germany to the Czech Republic. It was going well. We were starting to meet teams along the route, one in particular, the Kahngaroos (an Aussie team) we spent almost the entire rally with.

We continued to shock our system with extremely long driving days, crossing multiple countries in a day. By the time we got to Romania we were just realising how chaotic this could get. The roads were dangerous. After nearly being wiped out by a large truck, we decided it was time to start driving a little defensively. Around here people pass on blind corners and trucks try to drive you off the road. It was a great experience.

We made it to the Romanian border crossing without damage. Driving south from Romania we crossed Bulgaria into Turkey. It was a welcome relief. Turkey was a much nicer country than I had envisioned. Friendly people and nice roads made the country a pleasure to drive across. We bunkered down in Istanbul for the first night, after a 14 hour drive from southern Romania.

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The next day we set out on what would be the first of our very rare tourist activities during the rally. A visit to ANZAC cove. It was a moving experience, and a somber one. We paid out respects to the graves of all who lost their life there, before heading back to Istanbul.

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It took days to cross Turkey, it’s no small country! The border crossing into Georgia was our first really interesting border encounter. With so many cars trying to get through, it was a challenge, especially in the mid day heat! But we finally made it through after many hours waiting.

Georgia was a great contrast to Turkey. With a lot of poverty, and dangerous roads similar to Romania, we slowly made our way to the capital Tbilisi. Another long drive saw us there at around 2am. We camped up for a couple of hours and set off early for the Armenian border. I had enjoyed the rally so far, but knew it was only just beginning. From here the roads deteriorate, corrupt Police emerge. It was going to get interesting.

Armenia to Iran

From the Armenian mountains to the mighty Iranian desert.

Armenia was quite the drive. We suffered a major overheating problem in the near 50 degree heat, while trying to cross a mountain range, but finally managed to get into southern Armenia without any further problems, that’s if you don’t count the bribes police make you pay a problem!

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Armenia was one of the more difficult countries. It changed dramatically from one end to another, and took two full days of driving to cross. For us a 16 hour driving day was becoming pretty standard now, setting up camp at 3am was also pretty standard! But we had timings to make, and were restricted by our visas, so there was not much we could do about it.

Crossing into Iran was the first time I had really felt nervous, the border police and customs sure know how to alienate you. We finally passed through, and after a bit of friendly interrogation, the situation changed dramatically! The Iranians are the friendliest bunch of people I have ever met. I was shocked to see just how hospitable everyone is. The country is difficult to traverse, especially during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, it was hard to find any food anywhere.

The heat approached extremes, with the daytime temperature hitting the 50′s in some parts. We had one mishap there where a speed bump was placed at the end of a large motorway. Dave, who was driving at the time, did not see it and locked the brakes at the last minute, causing the roof rack to tear off and come crashing down smashing the front windscreen. The police drove past and did not seem to mind amazingly! Only a few minutes later we watched a truck do the same thing and it went careening into the concrete barrier. Luckily truck driver, our car and us were without injury. Two crashes, and we hadn’t even been in Iran for 24 hours!

Later that day as we approached Tehran, we were passed by motor cyclist with passenger both of which were trying hard to read all the writing on the front of our car, neither were paying attention to the road in front of them. We watched as this motorcycle slammed into the back of another motorcyclist. This time we did not stick around, Iran is known for it’s lack of human rights, and they could take any possible chance to blame this on a foreigner.

After the day of crashes things went back to normal, and the Iranian people were as hospitable as ever. We crossed out of the Iranian border without a hitch, and prepared ourselves for what is one of two Stalinist countries left in the world. Turkmenistan. (The other being North Korea).

Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan
 - The lands of deserts and camels

Turkmenistan lived up to its reputation of being a tough country to get into. After hours at the border, and 500 USD paid for some unknown “fees” we got in…. well at least two of us did. The other, Dave, was denied his Visa, and forced to fly over the country.

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Ashgabat was nothing like I ever expected. The entire city is built of marble from oil money. The streetlights are silver. There are water fountains running down the center of every street, and almost every bare piece of metal is gold plated. A true wonder of the desert! Unfortunately half of the buildings are unoccupied, perhaps caused by the extreme difficulties anyone faces to try and get into the country? Regardless of the unoccupied building the place is still kept in pristine condition.

After leaving the capital the country sure did take a turn for the worse. I would describe it as turning from a first world country into a third world country in a matter of kilometers. Roads quickly deteriorated, no more marble in sight, and stray camels roam the roadside.

The biggest challenge of Turkmenistan was crossing the Krakum desert. It covers around 80% of Turkmenistan and lives up to its name. It was hot – blistering hot. A single road crosses it from one side on Turkmenistan to the other. After hours of driving in the blistering heat we finally made it to the Gas Creators. These are completely un-signposted, as the government does not want them to be a tourist attraction. We had to employ a local to show us where they are and take us there in his four-wheel drive. A two-wheel drive Punto is just not up to the task of driving across the desert sand.

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We got to the creators around 11pm, and it was truly a sight to behold. A giant hole, maybe 70 meters across and 30 meters deep. It radiated light from the huge inferno that raging on below. Lit 40 years ago when Turkmenistan was still under soviet control, the fire pits still burn to this day. Giving them the name “Gates of Hell”. We had to stay downwind of the hole. Our guide explained if you were caught upwind the immense heat would quickly burn you and you had to lie down on the ground to escape the heat. We stayed there for around an hour admiring the wonder that had been burning for so long, careful not to get to close as falling in would quickly kill anyone. We left the fire pits amazed, Turkmenistan had so far provided some truly remarkable sights!

We stayed at a small road side camp for the night, a few locals hanging around us, perhaps with curiosity, perhaps looking to take something when we weren’t looking. Either way, they never did bother us. In the morning we set out to make the Uzbekistan border, which was certainly another difficult drive. The roads deteriorated even further, and the convoy slowed to a crawl. It was 4pm before we made the Uzbek border. We encountered a few police stops on the way and got off a “fine” by giving the officer a few packs of cigarettes.

A quicker crossing then usual saw us into Uzbek with our cars by 7pm. Eagerly we set off for the nearest town, which happened to be a few hours drive and managed to bunk down for the night by 1am.

Bright and early we set off for the Uzbek capital 1000km’s away as we needed to pick up our lost team mate Dave who was waiting there after his flight in. We set off at 8am, after a warning from a local that the roads are very, very bad for the first half. He was not lying.

The first 100km’s took almost 4 hours to cross, at this rate we would never get there. Shattered asphalt is a pain to drive on. It’s not like dirt roads where the pot holes are relatively smooth and you can navigate them easily. The broken concrete had sharp corners, there were huge pieces of tarmac scattered across the roads and almost meter deep holes. We steadily pushed across the terrain, marking the kilometers as we went. After 11 hours we had covered 600km’s, which we were all too happy with. Only 400km’s to go. At this point the road turned to brand new tarmac and the average speed shot up to near 100km per hour. We made it to the capital in 18 hours arriving around 2am to meet Dave and head out for a well-earned beer, before hitting the sack for the night.

The driving was not yet over. The next morning we took a good look over our car to make sure nothing was damaged. We had snapped the front stabilizer bar, damaged the exhaust badly, and the aluminum skidpan was in tatters. Finding it hard to get Uzbeks to work on our car, we only managed to get the exhaust fixed, which they took off and away to get welded. The stabilizer bar and skidpan would have to wait. It was at this point that a shifty local managed to steal a very good quality headlamp out of our car.

Uzbekistan was done, it had damaged the car, taken items from us, and left us waiting to leave. But I enjoyed my time there. The people were friendly and curious and we had people coming to look at our car every time we stopped. The next morning we were heading for the Kazakhstan border, and one of the biggest country crossings to date.

Kazakhstan and Russia - Kazakhstan, mighty Kazakhstan

The country HUGE. I was daunted by the amount of driving it was going to take us to cross it. I had heard horror stories from past rally teams of hijackings, armed robbers, and theft.

The border crossing was a breeze, Kazakhstan customs were happy to have us enter, with one border guard picking up every item we owned asking “souvenir?” Jokingly of course, but they are happy if you give them anything. The roads were good, which was a welcome relief. We headed for the first city but decided not to enter it. Instead we took the ring road around it and camped up on the outskirts of town. This relatively smooth ride saw us with our camp set up by nightfall. Accompanied by 4 other rally teams, we all shared stories and chatted about the adventures so far.

The early night was great and the next day we were well slept and ready for a full days driving. We headed for the capital Ashgabat making it after a long days drive, without any major breakdowns or delays. We entered the city in a convoy of five, meeting a number of other teams there already. We quickly found some firm accommodation, and a very welcome hot shower then joined the other teams for a night out, to see the sights of Ashgabat.

The next day we had some major work to do on our car. The first priority was to replace the broken aluminum skidpan with a steel one. We found a backyard mechanic who quickly whipped one up for us. Having the skidpan replaced was relief in our eyes – the sump had a few to many dents in it, and the car would not hold up under any more major damage.

We set out for the immense drive across the Kazak country side. The place is flat. Very flat. And very barren. Seeing only the occasional man on horseback and a few houses dotted along the route, the drive was long. A few days long. Large power pylons would run in straight lines for hundreds of kilometers, train tracks as far as the eye can see. devoid of any large wildlife, just the occasional bird or bat. We had to hold camp along the route a few times, trying our best to avoid areas where mosquitoes were in the thousands.

We crossed Kazak and got to the Russian border late at night which we managed to cross after a good 4 hours wait, and we made for the first Russian village on the map. The roads were fantastic in Russia. We made it to the town, and stopped up for the night. The next morning our convoy, now of 6 set out for the city of Barnaul.

At the first petrol station the Kahngaroos filled their Suzuki carry van with diesel instead of petrol, leaving them stranded at the petrol station. The convoy carried on, while I stayed behind to drain the tank, bleed the engine and get it working again. Only two members of the convoy had mechanical knowledge – myself and an Australian Navy chap. I figured it was a cultural difference. Kiwis often grow up doing back yard mechanics, Aussies the same. The rest of the convoy had never touched a spark plug in their life, so they weren’t much help if you broke down. We had the Suzuki back up in running in an hour, and got on the road.

Not 1 hour into the drive trouble struck again. With Dave driving, he informed us in the car would not go into gear. We pulled over so I could have a look and try to fix it. Not a chance. I had experienced this problem before back at home, and knew straight away the center of the clutch had torn away, preventing the gearbox from spinning. Luckily the Kahngaroos were still with us. We hooked up the tow rope and proceeded to get a 150km tow to the Russian city. We carried a spare clutch with us and got the car straight to the Fiat mechanics. They changed the clutch in a few hours and took off the broken sway bar. The car was fit to fly again and we were ready to head to the final destination – Mongolia.

Wanting more? Check out Part Two here >>

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Maurice W Like Report

Absolutely great. Would love to do that. Was planning to do the Peking to Paris many moons ago but it never happened.

Ian C Like Report

What a trip!!!,I was starting to think the kiwi joker was a dying breed,cafe dwelling and all of that,and all in a Bambina. Looking forward to the rest of the yarn!

Murray J Like Report

Excitement and new things to do are still out there!
Bring on the next part.