Thursday, July 31, 2008

This is why you take a mini to Mongolia!

The mini had been running reasonably well on the rally for the first few days - I thought the engine was running a little hotter than I'd prefer, but various mechanics had told me that the mini's can run a little hot, so nothing to worry about. And then we got to Prague, car running just fine, pulled over to ask for directions to our hostel and the car wouldn't start... This was about 5:30 in the evening, the hard working mechanics of Prague stop working at 4, so Jake and I got Cyrus to come by and pick us up and left the car to be dealt with in the morning. In the morning, of course, it just started, so I optimistically assumed that it had just been overheating and off we went towards Slovenia. Then the same thing happened again in Vienna... but the car came back after only 30 minutes this time...

This may me starting to sound like reasons to NOT bring a 27-year old mini to Mongolia, but it does get better. The following day, I spent the morning playing tourist in Ljubljana, then got on the road around 1:30 heading towards Split, Croatia, where Cyrus and Liz by now were. At around 3, pulled over to get gas, shut the car off, and of course, it refused to start. By now, I'd resigned myself to overheating being the main problem, and figured that installing the high performance radiator sitting in the trunk would alleviate the problem, so I was sitting, waiting for the engine to cool down enough, channeling my Buddhist patience from SE Asia... when all of a sudden a guy shows up and starts talking about the mini. Turns out he's Serbian, from Belgrade, owns two classic mini's, and of course, loves them. So, eventually it comes up that mine's not running, so he proceeds to spend about an hour poking around under the hood, until it's determined that the problem is due to my spark plug cables being 27 years old, and in need of replacement. Having installed the new spares I had with me, the car's back to life! So by now, between Zoran in London, and Dulf and Aleks here in Slovenia, citizens of Serbia are largely responsible for the mini running as well as it is!

And then, it gets better... Fast forward a few days to Serres, Greece, where we had come up to visit with friends of Cyrus'. Shortly upon getting into town, we've pulled over to call and try to figure out where to meet them, as we're getting ready to go again, a guy suddenly appears by my window and starts rapidly asking questions about the mini. Initially, I was just surprised that there's somebody in Serres, Greece, that's interested in the mini, and speaks extremely good English. Soon enough we get to the fact that I'd like to find a mechanic here in Serres so I can get the radiator replaced. "I'm a mechanic" in response, and now, I'm intrigued. So, we agree to meet back up in about an hour, at which point we proceed to Jimmy's garage and he spends the next eight hours making the car far more prepared for the trip than it ever was before. In the process, I learn that he's got a mini truck (yes mini made trucks!) and his grandfather has a '77 mini. He's been working on mini's since he was 13 (19 now), and absolutely knows more about the car and any random trivia about the mini brand than anyone alive. I'm actually not sure who's more excited - me, having found somebody that can get the mini sorted out and really knows how the car works, or him, getting the chance to outfit a classic mini for a trip to Mongolia, and beyond. In the end, I have to convince him to let me take him out to dinner as some sort of repayment... He also runs a classic mini fan site in Greece, so I've got stickers for adorning the windows.

I've driven the car a full day from Serres to Istanbul since and it's absolutely running better than it has before. The overheating is gone, and the horrible noises that the loose manifold clamp was causing are gone with the clamp having been refitted. Best quote of the night, upon hearing about my mechanic experience in Paris: "If you gave me 1100 Euro and a week, I'd guarantee you'd make it to Mongolia!" No guarantees here, but between the two chance encounters with mini enthusiasts on the road so far, I feel much better about our chances of making it, and have a new found appreciation for just how much people love these cars, which would suggest that we may just be able to round up help in fixing the car further along the way too. I now have contacts for mini fan clubs virtually all over the world, including pertinent ones along the way in Japan and California.

And for some pictures from along the way...

Repairing an oil spill in Germany... turns out the oil can in the trunk was simply not properly closed and thus leaking oil...

the mini and the Panda in Prague

We made it to Vienna (had wanted to go to Salzburg, but got scared off by the mountains). Vienna seems like a beautiful town, but we only spent about 3 hours there, including 30 minutes get lost, 30 minutes trying to figure out what's wrong with my car, and an hour having some excellent Wienerschnitzel for dinner. And it rained the entire time. So this was the only picture I took - the Rathaus.

Liz getting comfortable with the mini on the way to Slovenia

Ljubljana... is a beautiful little city in Slovenia

Slovenia also has mountains

Ans stairs spiraling, and spiraling in the castle

A bridge in Slovenia... with cows grazing...

the mini entering Croatia and crossing the Balkans

In Split, on the picturesque Adriatic sea front, Cyrus puts us up at the uber-fancy Le Meredien, so the mini's keeping good company with a Ferrari

Heading SouthEast along the Croatian coast

Ancient walled city of Dubrovnik, damaged during the war in the 90's, but thoroughly restored since

My mechanic/mini fan in Serres, Greece. Also a Nirvana fan

The two minis together, as we're finally done making ours fully amazing just before midnight

Monday, July 28, 2008


After waaay too late of a night Saturday (but amazingly fun, happy birthday again Neva and Elin!) I caught an 8am flight for Chicago. Lufthansa was handing out pamphlets warning of a strike, but things seemed to work out ok. The only drawback was I seem to have caught Colin's cold as a going away present. But I was able to spend Sunday night en route to Frankfurt. All in all a much better experience than my last trip through O'Hare. After a couple of hours of duty free browsing and another quick flight I was in Istanbul!

I dodged the touts offering 20-40 YTL shuttles to various hotels and hopped on the subway for 1.4 YTL and transfered to a tram for a grand total of 2.8 YTL and ended up by the Blue Mosque. Thanks for the tip Lonely Planet! I dumped my stuff off at the hostel and reminded myself again why I like to travel light. The extra bag with camping gear and car stuff is generally heavy, but a bit of an annoyance on public transit. Alex should be here in a day or two and I can dump it all in the spacious Mini. I took the afternoon to wander around the Topkapi Palace, admiring all the gems and jewelry the sultans managed to accumulate, and wondering how they know if that withered arm really was Paul's and if those beard hairs came from the Prophet? I had dinner on a roof top restaurant as the sun set, lighting up the Blue Mosque and turning the Bosporus amazing colors. The jet lag is catching up to me, but tomorrow I'm off to find a Turkish Bath!

Friday, July 25, 2008

SMS Update - Ljubljana

For those of you that were following along for the Rickshaw Run, you may remember that the Adventurists' website (the organizers of all this mayhem) has a way for us to send text messages to update a little map with our location and a brief message. This is pretty useful since maps are cool and there are a surprising number of places where there are no internets, but there is SMS service. You can see the map and Slepak's latest post from Ljubljana, Slovenia at

In an ideal world we'd be able to cross post those texts and the map to this blog to give you one less place to check. But I haven't had time to figure out how to scrape the info off their page. I fly to Istanbul on Sunday morning and will hopefully meet up with Slepak on Monday! Off to finish packing and the Capitol Hill Block Party - and maybe some Alaska picture posting if all goes well...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Berlin to Paris to London to Berlin

Winning an auction for a 27 year old mini: 1100 Euro
Last second ticket from Berlin to Paris, where the mini is: 125 Euro
insurance, and registration in France: 281 Euro
car repairs, spare parts and supplies: expensive
A beautiful 27-year old mini to drive from London to Mongolia and beyond: priceless!

And so this is how it all begins - I arrived in Berlin from Moscow on July 2nd, won an eBay auction for the car on the 4th, and on the 5th, I was in Paris to get the first look at our new and not-so-trusty steed:

The next week in Paris was spent doing battle with the French authorities to get the car properly registered in my name, insured, and ready to run (and to also recover from a bit of a diesel misunderstanding. The french word for diesel is 'gazoline'? I mean, gazoline? really?)

And a week later I had my proudest accomplishment:

A french 'Carte grise,' or an official French car registration in my name! And this only took four separate trips to La Prefecture, 131 Euro, a fair amount of stretching of my barely existent French, and just one fake document! Acquiring an insurance policy was trivial in comparison - just visit five different insurance agencies until you find one that'll insure someone without a French driver's license. To celebrate all this, Jake, whom I had previously met in Russia and had by now convinced to do the London to Prague leg of the Mongol Rally with me, set off for a mini test-run to Belgium and Amsterdam.

Ironically enough, the exact same gas station where I had previously filled up with diesel, but this time just petrol!

We don't have a functioning hand brake currently, but there is a really convenient hole in the ground if you want to see what the ground looks like!

Sunset in the French countryside

In Belgium, we stayed with Nathalie, whom we had also met in Siberia, and her family who were amazingly hospitable (and willing to put up with our limited French). Everybody continues to like the car, in spite of the color

On the way back, we finally see another old mini on the highway!

And with the test run successful (the car behaved admirably throughout), registration all sorted out, and even a brand new Uzbekistan visa in my passport, courtesy of the embassy in Paris, it was time to set off for London, as the rally launch was a mere four days away by now.

Over the course of a week in Paris, I did manage to do a bit of sightseeing:

Notre Dame de Paris

Versailles - opulence, French style

Nearby Cathedral of Chartres

Famous for its amazing stained glass windows

And a nightclub in Paris

On the way to London, as on all the highways, the mini was drawing plenty of attention... from the cars flying past it. We are capable of passing trucks, however. The only way to avoid being the biggest spectacle on the road was to be next to an even more obnoxious vehicle, like this 1930's beast that was immediately behind me in the line for the ferry across the English channel:

In London, stayed with Jamie, famous for rolling vehicles in both the 2006 Mongol Rally and the 2008 Rickshaw Run, but seems none the worse off for it. On the very first morning after my arrival, the car wouldn't start, of course... So, we got to meet Zoran, a mechanic in London that Jamie knows, and who was able to turn the mini into the [relatively] well-running beast that it is today (in spite of some severe initial reservations about the worthiness of the vehicle upon first meeting it, hearing where I was planning to take it, and how soon I was leaving...)

Zoran has things well under control... and I've since decided it would be a good idea to bring a voltmeter along to Mongolia

Also in London, was Cyrus, who will be driving our escort vehicle to Mongolia - the comparatively ultra-modern 1992 Fiat Panda... Except that the mini actually has a bigger engine, and Cyrus won't get into Russia due to not having papers for the car in his name, but we have faith that he'll somehow make it all work!

On Saturday, the 19th of July, it was off to the Mongol Rally launch in Hyde Park, London:

The mini, in a line of other crappy cars heading to Mongolia, and with Jake, sprawled out on the hood of it

Another mini in the rally... creatively decorated. Odds of the phone booth making it past Prague? Zero!

A couple of overly well-prepared teams, who forgot to choose a better car than the fairly awful Suzuki SJ!

For some amusement for all of us - a Volvo stretch limo in the rally... I think the long wheel base may be a bit of a problem

And from the hilarious to the sublime: a double decker bus is heading to Mongolia too!

At this point, most teams actually set off on the rally and headed East towards Mongolia... We drove out of the park along with everyone else, then met up with a few friends that we had met in Baku on the last rally and spent the rest of the afternoon in London, eventuall heading west... to Jamie's flat, for a spectacular barbeque. The next afternoon, team Safety Third also finally took off towards Mongolia, with the car properly decorated now, and the beginnins of a roof rack (the cargo capacity in the 'trunk' is laughable):

The beauty has been turned into the Beast!

Off we go - Safety Third!

The route for the first two days has been London - Dover - Calais by ferry - Binche, Belgium, where we stayed with Nathalie one more time - Berlin.

Passing another antique on the road - they seemed just as excited to see us, as we were to see them

And now, we're in Berlin - the Berlin Wall, crossing into Eastern Europe!

The Brandenburger Gate (very big) and the mini (very tiny)

The car is still running as well as I could've hoped for, even though my blinkers have now completely stopped working... Off to Prague from Berlin tomorrow, where Cyrus currently is, then down to Croatia via Slovenia, before making it over to Istanbul before the end of the month, where I'll pick up Lott (and the blog will have a common theme once more... except for Cyrus who may or may not be anywhere near us)

And we are off

Well actually we left 2 days ago.

After an amazing dinner at Jamie and Nico's house we set off for the Dover ferry. Our 1st stop was Brussels and we split up from team Mini since they headed on to Berlin. However we arrived in Brussels in time to join in the national day celebrations.

Since we decided to skip the Berlin leg we headed on to Frankfurt via Brugge and Antwerp which were just slightly out of our way. It's possible we took this detour due to confusing East and West but there is no actual proof that was the reason.

Here we are in Frankfurt right before we took off for Praha. It's nice and cold here right now. Just what you'd expect at the end of July.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Off to Mongolia!

Why Slepak sent me this email instead of posting on the blog I don't know. But we're off! Well Slepak is at least, I'm in Ketchikan, Alaska at the moment. He writes:

We've officially launched! Well, it was actually somewhat anti-climactic as most of the teams there seemed to be much too prepared for the trip, but the cars will fall apart anyway. The fluorescent green mini is ready to set off on its way tomorrow afternoon (I'm delaying my London departure by a day). Theo, by the way, is a bad person for not having provided an emergency contact next of kin... I chose to ignore their warnings, and, of course, nobody even asked about our charity money. Cyrus, btw, is officially on the way too, just not as part of the Mongol Rally, he just happens to be driving a Fire Red Fiat Panda to Mongolia... mostly by himself.. but he'll totally live through it!

Tomorrow I'm at sea and Monday I arrive in Vancouver to do battle with the Chinese Consulate. Head back down to Seattle a day or three later, and winging off to Istanbul on Sunday. Pics from Denali and the rest of AK are on my laptop waiting to be posted!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Warning! Something ahead!

To add to Slepak's wonderful post on various signs I offer the following additions from New Zealand, where they clearly want to warn you about their agriculturally important livestock:



Various flight challenged birds:

Kiwi - the national symbol

Yellow Eyed Penguins

Little Blue Penguins

Mama Duck and her Ducklings (hunting season?)

Some other random bird

And some other random things like:

Suicidal Cyclists


And my personal favorite:


My last batch of New Zealand photos has been uploaded here (finally!)

I'm currently posting this from Anchorage, Alaska as I just returned from Denali. Still captioning those photos, but in the spirit of this post need to include this shot a bit early:

Moose (meese?) are definitely the one I want to avoid the most!

The first batch of Alaska photos is also up on the intertubes.

Headed onto the cruise ship for a week tomorrow...