There is a Maori proverb that goes like this: He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

The remainder of our time in Mongolia was spent either on perfect tarmac or, like the 250km stretch of nothingness leading into Bayankhongar, absolutely no sign of a road whatsoever. It was fantastic.

We had been extremely concerned about Mongolia, having heard about the recent flooding, and whether or not it was a sensible move to try and cross the majority of the country in our little car. In reality however, we were almost a little disappointed at how easy it transpired to be. No river crossings were required (though Daniel did drive through the world’s largest puddle – a great idea since a recent impact with a rock had been forceful enough to punch a hole through the floor of the car), and we only got stuck in sand once.

The day of our arrival in Ulaanbaatar saw us set off early from our cheap hotel in Bayankhongar, and make the most of the semi-decent roads as we headed east with the intention of covering the 400+ miles to the Mongolian capital in one go.

Though the day didn’t get off to the best start – a road closure and diversion leading us on a wild goose chase until we launched the drone to try and find the road we should have ended up on – we made good time. That was right up until we had our second blowout of the trip, that is. Though we still had two remaining spare tyres, it was here that we discovered a faulty valve on one, leaving us with only one remaining.

It was growing dark by the time we made the capital; extremely tired, but thrilled nonetheless. Wandering out into the town for a quick explore, still accompanied with David and Alex from 10k Miles for Smiles, we met up with Lawrence from The Mongol Knights for dinner.

The following day marked our first sort of rest day since…well, maybe the start of the rally? — though in many ways it became quite the opposite, as you’ll soon see. We got up early, much to Jen’s displeasure, and headed out into the city to visit the main square and several souvenir shops. Afterwards, and having collected our cars, we headed over to the Bogd Khaan Palace Museum, and then south to the Zaisan Monument – a monument to fallen Mongolian and USSR WWII soldiers, which also features an incredible view over the whole city.

Battling the horrific traffic of Ulaanbaatar (it’s truly terrible), we headed east out of the inner city toward the famous Ghengis Khan Equestrian Statue (FYI, it’s Chinggis Khaan in Mongolia). This massive stainless steel statue stands proudly facing east, supposedly toward Chinggis Khaan’s birthplace, and on the site where it is said he once discovered a golden whip (information obtained partially from Wikipedia so please add your own pinch of salt). Having climbed up through the statue to stand on Chinggis Khaan’s horse’s head to admire the view over the surrounding countryside, we relocated to an adjacent field to take some photographs of the statue with our cars. Certain parties (Jen) would like it noted here that, from below, the horse appears to be grinning broadly down at you, and – in its surely northern accent – saying, ‘hiiiiiiya!’.

Here, having taken our photos, we think it’s only fair to say that our little rest day ended.

With recent Facebook posts warning us of the time it was taking other teams to traverse the Mongolian/Russian border, we had decided to attempt the border crossing in the middle of the night – when surely activity there would be at a minimum. Thus, and leaving giant Chinggis Khaan behind, we headed back west and through the city (annoyingly, as the traffic was still abysmal) and then up toward the Russian border.

With our LED light bar no longer with us, the going was tough as we followed Buzzy Ka of 10k for Smiles on the randomly pot-holed but otherwise smooth road north. With almost new tarmac fading to motorbike sized potholes in the space of mere metres, the drive consisted of near-motorway speeds mixed with emergency stops and swerving as we – along with all the Mongolian cars around us – tried our best to avoid the sporadic and almost impossible to spot craters. With oncoming cars driving with their full beams on all the time, and only our puny little headlights to counter, we were forced to take a slow and steady approach in order to avoid losing another wheel – or indeed a whole axle.

As the night closed in the traffic grew lighter and roads slightly better, much to Daniel’s relief; everyone else in the car snoring quietly away to the sound of Counting Crows.

Having left the Khaan statue at 19:00, we arrived at the border crossing at 04:00; the sky slowly growing light. Incredibly, even in the middle of the night, there was a queue, and we had to wait several hours before we even allowed into the Mongolian border compound. Unfortunately for us, the officials there continued in the same vein, and it took us several hours to clear customs and reach no-mans land. It’s worth noting that nothing actually happened during this time – they just made us wait for no reason.

On the Russian side of the border however, the going was far more efficient. Daniel was able to sort the paperwork for the car relatively quickly, though, for the first time on the whole rally, we were subjected to a full customs inspection that more or less required us to almost entirely empty the car. Unlike their Mongolian counterparts, the Russian officers were friendly and curious, talking to us and asking us questions about the rally despite the language barrier. Thankfully, with our excellent car packing system still in place (patent pending), we were able to unpack and repack the car in minutes. And then it was back into Russia for the second time.

Pulling over beside a garage on the other side of the border we somehow provoked the ire of a petrol station attendant as we topped up our tanks from our jerrycans – despite not actually being on the forecourt, and having also spent plenty of money in the garage itself anyway. We also survived a sudden flanking manoeuvre by several clearly high-ranking Russian military officials who came over with a photographer to ask us about the rally under the guise of checking our visas. It was here that Daniel excelled in his diplomatic abilities by using the only Russian phrase he knows: “Do you speak Russian?”, to which he received a response along the lines of, “Yes, but you clearly don’t.” and a lot of laughter.

The journey north from the border featured considerably nicer roads through dense, atmospheric pine forest (Daniel and Maddy saw a bear), and we made good time toward Ulan-Ude. Because of the exorbitant amount of time we had spent at the Mongolian border however, it was rapidly closing in on the daily finish line opening time of 14:00, so our plan to sleep for a few hours before making our way to the finish line had well and truly gone out of the window. Instead, we were very much racing against the clock to be the first of the day to reach the podium (not that it really mattered!), and secure our car a slot at the rail yard for Monday.

And then, before we knew it, we were there. Not only in Ulan-Ude, but at the finish line. Located just off the main square in Ulan-Ude (the square with the massive Lenin head sculpture (no, Jen, not John)), the podium sat almost innocuously to one side, almost in danger of being overshadowed by the wedding crowd assembling on the other side of the street. Pulling up beside it, alongside 10k Miles for Smiles, we extricated ourselves from our packed car for what would be the last time, and wandered over to meet the Adventurists rep.

I think it’s fair to say that we’re all in agreement when it comes to our lack of a perceived, clearly defined beginning or end to this trip. Setting off from the UK, and simply heading slowly but steadily eastward, there’s not really been one, singular defining moment when we’ve all felt that, now, the trip is truly underway. Even during and after the official launch in Prague. That’s not a bad thing or a criticism, it’s just an observation that, unlike your traditional holiday for example, we’ve not boarded a plane and arrived several hours later in a strange and hugely different part of the world. It’s instead been a gradual change that, unless we’ve stopped to think about it for a moment, easily passes by unnoticed. In a similar way, our arrival at the finish line had a slightly underwhelming sense to it, along with the feeling that this small podium in this large Russian city was an ever so slightly arbitrary point at which to end such an amazing journey. The impending reality of returning to work also mixed strangely with our euphoria of finishing, to the point that, as pleased as we were to have successfully finished the rally, none of us really knew what to think or feel. At a slight loss for words then, smiling yet awash with conflicting feelings, we settled for a group hug before driving our beloved Wilson up onto his podium to be photographed and celebrated for the incredible machine he is.

Once again I feel it is fair enough to say that we do not feel as though the rally has been as trying as we had expected. In part this is down to our choice of route – our time pressure preventing us from taking a few of the more challenging route choices – yet our wonderful Agila has excelled throughout, despite spending six weeks in a permanently overloaded state, in temperatures and altitudes approaching and probably even exceeding his design limits. The small array of issues and failures we have experienced have all been as a result of external influences – none of which posing a significant hindrance, and none of which reflecting at all badly on Wilson. There has been an absolutely fabulous array of cars on the rally this year, many which come from a far more noble rally pedigree than he, yet none of us, for a second, would trade Wilson for another. He has served us loyally and we can only hope he has enjoyed his adventure as much as we have.

As part of filming, Daniel has spent the past weeks asking other ralliers what the trip means to them; what they perceive to be the essence of the Mongol Rally. He’s had a vast arrays of answers in response, all delightfully different, all wonderfully entertaining, some which he couldn’t possibly share here. He’s spent a long time trying to think of something to write – to say – to summarise it all; a long time trying and failing to find the words to adequately put it all into words. This morning marked his and Jen’s departure from Ulan-Ude – a surreal experience which, he supposes, might possibly be the definitive end point that, so far, seemed so elusive. With Rob and Maddy having already left, in order to return to work, he found himself contemplating how best to describe Tyre Straits’ conclusion to the Mongol Rally. In the departure lounge at Moscow Domodedovo however, having made the 7-ish hour flight from Ulan-Ude, he received a message out the blue from a fellow rallier – a young man alongside which he has just crossed half the earth, and who has, in the space of only a few weeks, gone from stranger to the closest of friends. His words are perfect, and I hope he will not mind them being shared below.

“Describing the Mongol Rally to someone who hasn’t done it, nor intends to do it, is one of the most flippant sentences you’ll ever create. You’ll mention adventure, you’ll mention some sort of hardship and probably something to do with breaking down or border guards. To someone who understands what it means to travel however, they’ll already know more of what it means to pack a bag and travel thousands of miles without the need for in-depth explanation or convincing. As you’ll well know, as a traveller, there is a constant pull to the unknown, it’s engrained in you to search out new places, new people and new experiences.

“For me, a trip is nothing without people. This particular trip has been packed full of real humans, people willing to drop everything and help us. It seemed every time we pulled over, there was someone waiting to help us. Every time we checked into a hotel, there was someone wanting to chat with us, to learn about our adventure and to ask what we thought of the country they called home. We’ve been bought beers, had stunning buffets laid out for us, been offered tools, tea and directions.

“Alongside us for the most challenging part of our trip has been a whole team of these people. People we could always rely on. Rely on for a laugh, rely on for direction and rely on to be there for us when we really needed help. Yourself, Robert, Jen and Maddie added so much to our rally experience that it’s hard to gather an appropriate collection of words to convey what you’ve come to mean to both David and I.

“When you get home to England, pour yourself an ice cold coke, get Jen to fry you some tasty eggs and spend a few moments reflecting on what you personally, as well as what your team has accomplished.

“In New Zealand, there is a Maori proverb that goes like this:

‘He aha te mea nui o te ao?

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.’

“It translates to:

‘What is the most important thing in the world?

It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.’”

We made it!

Mongolia Part I: The Good, The Bad and the Ulgii.

We’ve stayed in a yurt, chased a cow, and tried to feed Cheerios to camels (they weren’t interested). We’ve now reached Ulan-Ude, as you’ve probably seen, so let us catch you up on how we did it – all without you worrying that the next sentence will describe how we snapped our axle and flipped our car into a Russian oil field.

Our crossing into Mongolia took a while. The Russian side of the border kept us waiting for quite some time, and indeed even when we were finally allowed into the compound, we still had to wait an hour or so until we were processed. Eventually it was done – in quite a friendly manner despite the wasted time – and we were allowed to enter the 20 plus kilometres of no-mans land between the two countries.

The entrance into Mongolia was far simpler and speedier, despite a small queue. We had to pay $1 for a guy to disinfect our car (he used the most feeble hose ever to vaguely wash our wheels – ignoring the solid layer of dust totally obscuring the rear of the car), but when we had cleared passport control, we were free to go – we didn’t even have a customs check of the car. We did thereafter however have to buy insurance, which was a slightly more stressful and confusing experience, before then all being scammed out of $5 each for a non-existent tourist/road tax which we knew about, but were unable to find a way to escape from.

But we were in Mongolia!

For the first few miles the tarmac was fantastic, just like the scenery. People waved and smiled and the road stretched out in front of us with rolling hills on each side and mountains in the distance. It was awesome.

And then the road stopped.

Just like that. Smooth tarmac ended and the dodgy, rutted gravel/mud track began. Of course it didn’t spoil the fun – this was, in part, what we had been waiting for! But it was challenging, and required a lot of concentration. Within half an hour, David and Alex from 10k Miles for Smiles had battered their wheel into a square state of pressurelessness (technical phrase).

All in all it took a lot longer to get from the border to Ulgii than Google Maps promised it would. There, and with the others, we found a small and cheap hotel in which to stay. FYI, if you happen to visit Ulgii, Mongolia, don’t stay in the Duman Hotel – and yes, we’re aware that it’s the only hotel in the town. Daniel was extremely disappointed to learn – after his initial excitement that the hotel was rated at 4.8 stars – that the scale was out of 10…

The following day we set off in loose convoy (unable, once again, to shake 10k for Smiles – by now they’ve become honorary members of Tyre Straits), and aimed for Khovd. We had been warned that the good tarmac stretching out of the city only lasted only a hundred kilometres or so, so for a hundred or kilometres or so the going was good. So good in fact that we did it twice – though also because Daniel realised half an hour in that he’d left some of his camera gear back in the hotel room (it was safely retrieved). An hour later however, and as promised, the road ended, and our Mongolian driving adventure began.

The Mongolians are building a road across the entire country; from Ulaanbaatar in the East-ish, westward across the middle of the country toward Khovd and up toward the border with Russia. Some sections – like the bit we experienced that morning – are finished and are glorious. For the rest of our day however, and the day after the next, there’s almost nothing. I say almost nothing because there are in fact semi-finished sections of road running across a lot of the country already – all in various states of near completion. However, to prevent anyone driving on them before they’re quite ready, enormous earth road blocks have been placed across the road in regular intervals. Even if you do manage to get up the embankment and up and onto the road, these would force you back down to simply make your own way through the scrubland beside the road.

Here there are no handy diversion signs onto slightly smaller “A” or “B” roads – no, you literally just drive beside the road. The upside of everyone – cars and trucks alike – being forced to do this, is that tracks have clearly emerged which reassuringly keep you pointing roughly in the right direction. The downside however is that they are used by everyone, and, as a result, are rutted and pitted by the enormous HGVs that barrel through them without a care in the world. At times we felt as though our heads would vibrate off our shoulders, and whilst nothing actually fell off the car (we can’t quite believe it), our roof rack (bolted on, screwed on, ratchet-strapped on, and superglued on) vibrated forward and to the right over the course of the day to a new resting position about 15cm distant to where it started. Which, unfortunately, was enough to pull the wiring out of our beloved LED light bar, effectively resulting in its untimely demise. It will be sorely missed, and remembered by many 2018 rally participants with great affection.

The only other victim of the day, at the hands of Daniel’s slightly more exuberant off-road driving and an unfortunately placed rock, was the loss of our exhaust. It had been coming loose for a while – especially since it’s momentary detachment during our convoy with the Swiftys in Tajikistan – and one of the mounting points was sagging, making it the lowest point on the car. Low enough, unfortunately, to catch on a rather Matterhorn-esque rock that Daniel McRae couldn’t quite avoid during one of our more off-road stages, ripping the exhaust clean off from the front axle rearward. Which, since it had suddenly made Wilson sound like a WRX Suburu, Daniel McRae was quite pleased with. With the remnants collected and strapped neatly to 10k’s roof, we continued on in new and great acoustic style.

Despite the roads and our unfortunate return to Ulgii that morning, we made good time toward Khovd. We had been reliably informed that the next section toward Bayankhongor was a completed section of the highway and would present little challenge. Given though that there were no hotels on this section and that it was Daniel and Jen’s anniversary, we decided to stay the night in a nice hotel in Khovd – on the basis that we would rise early the following morning and make good progress along the smooth tarmac heading east.

Everybody yurts

Tonight we’re staying in an actual, real life yurt in the Altai region of Russia on the Mongolian border!

On approach to Mongolia!

We’re getting there! We can’t quite believe it, but we are!

The downside is, we won’t have any mobile signal when we get there, and there won’t be much WiFi either.

So keep an eye on our Spot tracker, and we’ll post updates as and when we can!

We’re travelling in convoy with some great guys, looking out for each other, eating loads of really strangely flavoured crisps, and having an incredible time!

From Russia With Love

We collected the girls from Almaty airport the following morning. They were very impressed with the amount of space available in Wilson…..!

With our patch to our sump holding, we met up with David and Alex from 10k for Smiles, and headed northeast towards Taldykorgan where we were to stay for the night at the slightly strange and definitely USSR-esque Royal Petrol Hotel.

The following morning we set off for Ayagoz. The roads the previous day had started to deteriorate, and today they became even worse. The roads were all covered with 8t max weight limit signs, yet we all saw plenty of HGVs – all of which were chewing up the soft tarmac into enormous ruts and grooves upon which we continued to bottom out.

Our rear left suspension continues to grind a little, and we continue to insert tennis balls into the suspension spring to help try and damp out the movement a little more.

One particular impact to the right rear gave us an enormous dent to the wheel, which resulted in our first, completely flat tyre. That night, and though we tried to hammer it out, it continued to leak air, resulting in a flat tyre again the following morning. There were also a couple of deformities to the tyre itself which, that morning, 15 minutes into Jen’s first stint at driving, resulted in an enormous blowout on the way to Semey.

Having met up with the Mongol Knights (remember Lawrence from Iran, and his team-mate Chris (whose Iranian visa was denied)), we continued our 3 car convoy north toward Russia, meeting up with Mike and David in their Triumph Herald as we approached the Russian border.

This border, such an important and significant border on our trip, was dealt with quickly and easily – the passport officers and customs officer friendly and amused to see us.

And suddenly, we were in Russia!

Staying in Barnaul, we set off this morning for Inya (roughly) on the road to Mongolia. We’re travelling with The Mongol Knights, 10k Miles for Smiles, and Triumph and Tribulations are around somewhere. We’re approaching 10 000 miles and we can’t quite believe we’re this close to Mongolia!

Above: We stopped to take this picture on the way north toward Russia, when the border with China gets quite close to Kazakhstan. Those mountains in the background, yeah, that’s China!

Tyre Straits Assemble

Intended post date: 12 August

The border of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan was friendly and efficient, and, having crossed over nice and early on the morning of the 12th, we made good time as we headed north, then east, towards Almaty. We had found a cheap hotel to stay at whilst we made the final rearrangements to Wilson for the arrival of the girls the following morning.

Everything was going well, everyone was being friendly, and then, at a petrol station an hour or so west of Almaty, we spotted the oil slick. Our car was leaking, badly. The sump guard obscured the carnage, but it seemed pretty obvious: we’d cracked our sump open. With few options, and suddenly feeling the time pressure of the girls’ arrival, we topped up the oil and continued, carefully, into Almaty.

It took us a few tries to find our hotel, but, finally, and thankfully, we found it, and hastily enquired as to whether the young man who appeared to own the converted house (we think it was his family home which he had split into a guesthouse), could recommend us a mechanic.

The following six hours were an incredible mix of google translated stress and confusion. Following our new friend – Almaz – around, initially on foot, we waited patiently whilst he asked several garages whether they worked on Opels (as Vauxhalls are known everywhere else in the world), the answer to which was always ‘no’. Very kindly, Almaz rang some places on our behalf, but the combination of the weekend and the getting-later hour yielded little results. It was becoming increasingly clear that we would not locate a new sump in Almaty, and should turn our attention instead onto a repair.

Squeezing Almaz into the car, we went to find a garage that might be able to assist us with some sort patch. Having initially been recommended an argon weld we, very quickly, tried a huge bazaar, famous for being full of car parts and mechanics, in one last ditch attempt to find a new sump. In the end though, we settled on the argon fix, only to find that – despite advertising it as their main point of existence – no-one had any. In the end we returned to one of the earlier mechanics who seemed to use general purpose superglue…..

Utterly exhausted, but extremely excited in the knowledge that the girls had boarded their flight out to join us (after an exhaustive search of their own to potentially find and being a sump out for us), we made it make to the hotel where we collapsed into bed.

Above: “it’s only a little bit of oil”

Above: man lifts Vauxhall Agila with only his right arm

A little photo of our hotel in Toktogul, Kyrgyzstan

…and yes, if you look hard, you can spot both us and Wilson!


Intended post date: 11 August

Kyrgyzstan, we feel slightly guilty admitting, was far more beautiful than we expected. Beautiful, and full of incredibly friendly people.

Having slept in the car at the foot of the Pamir mountains at the end of a road blocked by a river, we woke to a brisk temperature of 2 degrees. Daniel couldn’t find his coat.

In the (very) cold light of day, the river crossing before us looked both easier and harder than it had done the night before. Though it wasn’t particularly wide, it had a small, main channel that looked quite deep, the ground around it was soft sand and mud, and the embankments on both sides were far too steep for Wilson to comfortably manage.

Forcing ourselves into action, aided enormously by David and Alex from 10k for Smiles, we set off with our shovels to flatten the embankments and place some rocks as strategically as we could on the soft ground on the run up to the water’s edge. Eventually however, and all out of breath as we were still high in the mountains, we decided there was little more we could do.

Adopting a Jeremy Clarkson approach, Daniel and Wilson powered across the river and out the other side with minimal fuss. Only to get stuck on the slope up and away from the embankment. Unfortunately our low slung sump guard had wedged itself up against a rather large rock. Unaware of this at first however, we attempted to drive free – enlisting the help of our a friendly local in a Hilux. Two snapped tow ropes later however and it became clear that we would have to clear the obstruction before we could move the car further. Back to digging, and, half an hour later – and with only our willpower and a good push – we managed to extricate Wilson for the gravel trap.

10k for Smiles, in their lightweight and agile Ka didn’t get stuck, and, on the other side of the river, we headed north and toward the Tajik/Kyrgyz border. Which, it soon transpired, was the dodgiest and least official looking border we’d seen so far. Whilst the Kyrgyz side wasn’t too bad, the Tajik side was just a collection of huts and slightly nonplussed officials – one of which fleeced us for some cash because we didn’t have a (entirely non-existent) sanitation certificate for the car.

The other mildly interesting point of note about the border crossing was the stretch of no man’s land between the two borders. It took us about half an hour to traverse, the roads steep and mountainous and largely without any real sort of surface to drive on. At one point we came across a soldier escorting two people on foot (one of whom seemed to be carrying his rifle for him – until he saw us coming, that is), who politely stopped us to enquire whether we had space to carry his two charges. Unfortunately however, as we had yet to re-pack for the girl’s arrivals, we didn’t even have room for his rifle.

Across the border we saw our first Kyrgyz car – an Agila – and with that we knew we would enjoy the country.

Stopping briefly in Sary-Tash for water and a Kit Kat, we headed off along a wonderfully tarmaced mountain pass with incredible views and people who abruptly pulled over near us to welcome us to their country.

Sadly though, our time in Kyrgyzstan was spent mostly driving, and we made good time that first day to Osh.

The following day we said tearful goodbyes to the Aussies, ahem, Kiwis, sorry, and headed north toward Toktogul without them as they had new and pressing suspension issues they needed to resolve.

The drive that day was extremely enjoyable with amazing scenery and tarmac throughout. Our very cheap hotel that evening was a wonderfully bizarre setup where we imagine a large home had been converted into a guesthouse, with a little hall and restaurant added at a later date. Together, the small cluster of quaint buildings lay beside a river (which we had to cross using an ever-so-slightly-dubious metal bridge), at the bottom of a very steeply-sided valley. Eating at the restaurant that evening, we found ourselves in the brilliant situation of a non-English speaking waitress, entirely written Cyrillic menus, and no internet with which to translate. Using nothing but hand gestures, we managed to get the waitress to order us some of her favourites – or some recommendations at least – and we were very pleased with the result.

The following day we drove to Bishkek; another long day of scenic driving on nice roads. There, we settled in at the TourAsia hotel near the city centre, and spent several fun hours re-packing the car in preparation for the arrival of the girls. Though it was regrettable that we had to throw a lot away, just as we were beginning to worry about how we were actually going to dispose of it all, a random man (possibly homeless) turned up with an impressive collection of old plastic bottles and showed a great deal of interest in our rubbish. Slightly dubiously we offered him our stuff, and were utterly amazed when he delightedly took it all! He also signed our car and shook our hands enthusiastically. So, whilst we do feel slightly bad about throwing away perfectly useful items from our car, we feel fairly confident that they are now either being treasured by, or have been put to good use by, a random Kyrgyz man in Bishkek.

Car ready, we wandered briefly into town for a dinner and a little sightseeing, before heading back to bed – Almaty looming the following day!

Above: One of the many statues standing tall and proud at the side of the road we have past in many of the countries we have recently travelled through.

Above: The river and footbridge at our hotel near Toktogul. We think we came very close to gate-crashing someone’s 56th birthday party.

Above: Re-packing Wilson in Bishkek

The stunning beauty of the Pamir Highway

Sunset as we pass over the Ak Baital pass. A truly incredible, somewhat surreal experience, underscored by our slight lack of oxygen.

Alex and David from 10k Miles for Smiles power through a small river in their mighty Ka. Out of shot to the right is the collapsed bridged that forced us to make this impromptu river crossing