Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mt. Baker

My friends Robert and Kyle are grad students by day and crazed ski junkies pretty much the rest of the time.  They're going for Turns All Year - skiing at least once in every month this year.  There's a bunch of people in the Pacific Northwest with similar aims and they have a website where you can get trip reports and the latest chatter about where you might find some pow.  My last time on skis had been in June with these two and I'd had a great time.  So when Robert said he'd read that there might be some powder on Mt. Baker I was definitely up for a one day summit attempt. 

On Saturday night we stopped by the Wallingford Taco Truck to fuel up and crammed four guys worth of skis and gear into Robert's car and headed for the trailhead.  By 11 we were in our sleeping bags dreaming of turns and hoping that all the cars in the parking lot didn't have similar plans.

5am came waaay too soon.  So we napped a bit more, puttered around, and hit the trail by 6:45.  The first bit was in the forest.  But once you broke the tree line, the views were spectacular.


We crossed some crevasses

A snow bridge

And admired weird formations in the snow

With the late start.  Kyle and I decided to not push for the summit (10,778 ft) and instead waited at 9,200 ft for Robert and Clement to top out.  They had made the wise move to conserve energy and climb faster with skis whereas we had boot packed the whole way.  It was a gorgeous day and napping in the sun helped the wait pass quickly.

Then we got to carve!

Back down the pesky snow bridge

And remember to stay between the lines crevasses

By the end of the day we were exhausted, but all smiles

And the mountain was absolutely stunning

Check out the full set of pictures here.

Update: Wanted to add a link to Clement's photos of the trip.  He's also put up a trip report that my French is not quite up to the task of reading. The auto translated version is pretty entertaining though!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Chita vs the Mongol Rally map

Just a quick update - I arrived in Chita last night, making the almost 700km of decently paved roads from Ulan Ude in a fairly easy 10 hours. It was rather gloomy and defnitely rainy when I arrived, but on the bright side, that probably helped keep the cops off the roads too as I didn't get pulled over once the whole way from Ulan Ude...

The important bit of information here is that I just added an SMS update to the Mongol Rally map using GPS coordinates and it worked surprisingly well, so keep checking http;//tinyurl.com/safety3rdSMS to see where the mini and I end up. You'll have to scroll the map over to the left a bit as the default view only goes as far as UlaanBaatar and I'm now some 600+km east of it.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Beyond the Mongol Rally

While Lott is living vicariously by doing an excellent job of recounting some of our earlier adventures, it's time to start moving forward, so...

Tina, Theo and I arrived in Ulaan Baatar to complete the Mongol Rally some time in the pre-dawn hours of September 15th, and, at that point, my priorities included shaving, relaxing, and definitely not driving anywhere! A little bit of sight seeing around Ulaan Baatar could be nice as well... So we did just that for about a week:

The big square in UB is presided over by this imposing looking building. Parliament, I think?

Hey look, I got a hair cut and a shave! Looking almost human... oh, and we found a Predator statue in Ulaan Baatar. Not sure why...

The International Intellectual museum is also in UB. It's a fascinating place - more so because we got a tour by the guy who has actually designed all the puzzles there and is an absolutely, brilliantly fascinating guy! He greeted us by challenging us to place 12 nails on top of one... We failed - here's how you do it though.

Theo and Tina were actually on the way to Seattle by the time we went, so this is me, Dom and Laura (a couple driving around the world in a perfectly sensible Toyota Hilux), Hamish and Sara (fellow ralliers, who'd been hanging around UB for a while after finishing), and the guy who designed the whole place. I really need to find his name again, but the museum doesn't have much of a website, it seems...

Also, before Theo and Tina had left, we decided to immerse ourselves in a bit of true Mongolian culture, so off we were about 60km outside of UB (this time in a proper Russian UAZ, not some mini!) to sleep in a yurt (or a ger as all the English speaking tour guides in Mongolia call them... Odd because, the actuall Mongolians all call them yurts...) with a native, nomadic family and do some horse back riding.

The UAZ is a much more appropriate (but probably less challenging) way to cross Mongolian roads

The kids wanted piggy-back rides. We obliged. Tina learned Mongolian words for left, right, and straight... we think

Us, the family, and the yurt.

The horses in front of a rock formation that looks an awful lot like a turtle.

And then Saturday morning arrived and Theo and Tina left for Seattle at 4:30 in the morning... and then came back at 8:00AM. I'll let one of them explain the intricacies of Mongolian ticketing technicalities, but suffice to say that most of Saturday was spent at various ticketing office in UB (or on the phone to the US) and Monday morning they finally took off for the airport again, and this time did not come back a few hours later! In fact, I hear they even made it to Seattle...

Bye Theo, bye Tina

By now, I'd had about a week to decompress and regain some degree of sanity. The car had also been at a mechanic in town for the past four days, and he still hadn't found any serious issues he couldn't fix, so I finally decided that it made sense to keep driving to Vladivostok. Leaving UB took a few more days (maybe I was just reluctant to leave this oasis of civilization, what with my hotel with free internet and hot showers, as well as good Indian and Italian restaurants in town!), but by late Thursday night, I was on the road again!

One last little bit of welding before leaving UB... Erka (seond from the left) was in charge of the mini repairs, and he's a good man. And extremely thorough! The mechanics did all thoroughly enjoy driving the mini around the parking lot.

The roads north of UB may be paved, by they still have plenty of sheep, goats, horses, camels, etc. on them

The town of Darkhan greets you with this odd statue. I'm not sure what it is... The local high school's mascot perhaps?

Buddhism is also making a strong resurgence in Mongolia since the retreat of communism. An interesting Buddha statue in Darkhan. There's also a Texas-themed restaurant in town...

And I just can't leave Mongolia without posting this picture: mini vs. Mongolia. Advantage: Mongolia. Winner: mini by TKO for entering and leaving Mongolia, all under its own power!

And all of a sudden, I was at the border, about to go back into Russia! Leaving Mongolia was a surprisingly drawn out, bureacratic process (entry was quite straighforward, I thought). The Russian side was downright efficient and professional, on the other hand. At the border, I found some 25 stranded Mongol Rally (and Charity Rally) cars - apparently the Charity Rally organizers, who were running ahead of us, didn't quite have everything arranged with the Mongolian authorties, so the authorities got pissed off and just decided to detain all rally cars in no man's land between Russia and Mongolia.

At the border, I met another mini that had done the rally. But, somehow, they chose to avoid Western Mongolia - clearly lacking in masochistic adventure interests!

And a bunch of other rally cars stranded at the border. I also lost a bit of respect for the Chairty rally people - their cars included the much too sensible Jeep Cherokee seen above, and a much too comfortable Mercedes elsewhere in the lot...

Welcome to Russia! The blurry picture was taken through my windshield - paved roads allow you to go faster, which is apparently lethal for the bugs on the road!

And now, I'm spending a day relaxing in Ulan Ude, Russia, taking care of little errands like replacing the mini's battery and getting some warm clothing for myself. Also, there's a rather eery statue of a floating Lenin head in the center of the city...

And tomorrow morning, it's off to Chita - 660km of mostly well paved roads, I hear. Past Chita, the roads become a little less consistent shall we say... I've also heard the cops around Chita are somewhat unpleasant, so that's something to look forward to as well. So far, I've passed two police stations on the way to Ulan Ude - the first one was too busy with someone else to pull me over (but he did seem very curious as he followed me with his flashlight), the other guy did pull me over, but was quite nice - after hearing I was going from London to Vladivostok, he wished me luck and sent me on my way. All the cops in Ulan Ude so far, have shown bemused curiosity staring at the car, but not one of them has bothered to pull me over. I guess they might actually be a little busy here in the city.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


Turkmenistan is a very interesting country to visit.  Like many of the former Soviet republics, they like to maintain their feeling of power by making tourists' lives as difficult as possible.  This was the cause of the 9 day Baku debacle from the Rally two years ago - no one had/could get visas to Turkmenistan (the daily ferry across the Caspian) so they had to wait around for the ferry to Kazakhstan (the whenever we damn well please ferry).

This time, we wanted to take the fast ferry so Slepak and I each spent $110 to get letters of invitation to the country.  Slepak also spent a mandatory $40 on airport transfers (we weren't flying in) and $60 on a guide (there's only one road, how lost can we get?)  $320 for the both of us, just to be "invited".  Ridiculous, but in line with the other 'stans.  Then war broke out in Georgia, which meant we couldn't drive to Baku to get onto the ferries, so we decided to drive around the Caspian Sea instead.

Crossing the border was another example of maintaining a feeling of power by making tourists' lives as difficult as possible.  We spent 3 hours going from hut to hut to hut filling out paperwork at the border - and this was with no waiting as we were the only people in any of them.  At the end of it, we'd paid $55 each to process the letters of invitation into actual visas, $10 each entry tax, and $160 of vehicle import tax, fees, and mileage allowances.  So another $300, bringing the total to set foot on Turkmen soil to $620.

At least we got to feel like high rollers when we converted our remaining rubles to manat.


Yes, those are 10,000 manat notes.  2.2 million manat total.  Gas was only 2900 manat per litre, which makes you feel even richer!


With 14,250 manat per dollar, the fat stack checks in at $160, so not too ridiculous.  Though gas at $0.77 a gallon was the best deal of the trip by far! Obviously the government was subsidizing the gas just a bit.  It often seemed they had a finger in the satellite TV market, as dishes seemed to sprout from every apartment building like the state flower.


Our guide had his own car - and was incredulous that our car had made it this far - so he couldn't tell us interesting stories about the country or otherwise add value for his $60.  Most of the time we were with him looked like this - barren desert with him leading the way.


And if you can't quite read it, that silver thing on the dash is a clock/thermometer which reads 110°.  That was a pretty typical temperature - we topped out at 116°!  We did confuse the guide a bit when we slammed on the brakes, hopped out of the car and sprinted backwards to take a photo of this sign.


When we got to Ashgabat, the capital, we then had a very uncomfortable exchange with the bosses at the tour agency.  They claimed that the $60 was just a deposit and we owed them $650 more for all their guiding - the first $320 had went to them as well.  They agreed that the grammar in their initial letter was incorrect about the cost of the guiding, but we'd better pay or we'd get in trouble leaving the country.  Apparently you're supposed to have a guide with you at all times outside Ashgabat and they have some magic paperwork that lets you leave.  After much stonewalling we settled on paying them $300, not having a guide for the rest of the trip, and a getting a copy of the magic paperwork.  So visiting Turkmenistan only cost $920 for the two of us. 

I'd recommend *not* getting a Tourist Visa if you ever want to drive through.  Apparently with a bunch of paperwork from the Adventurists, the Mongol Rally organizers, we might have been able to get a Transit Visa - which doesn't require a guide and the associated fees.  Sounds better but later in the trip we met a couple that did take the fast ferry with a Transit Visa and the ferry was stuck in port and not allowed to unload for 3 days.  Which didn't leave enough time on a 5 day transit visa to drive several thousand kilometers across the country.  Skipping the country entirely seems like the best plan but would deprive you of observing the weirdness of it all.


For a relatively poor country in the desert, they have a gleaming marble capital city full of fancy fountains.


The sheer audacity of it is absurd, but the most ridiculous part of it all is that they don't let anyone appreciate it.  Note the big pedestrian mall in the photo above with only 10 people on it.  And if you do dare to stop and read one of the signs - they're in English, they've got to be for tourists - the cops yell at you to move along.  And god forbid you try to take a photo.  Especially of the Presidential Palace - though with the cascading waterfalls and golden dome, it does look quite impressive.


The dancing fountains are pretty cool too.


As we were (finally) leaving the country, we discovered one final FU from the Turkmen desert.  Apparently all that driving had taken a toll on our shocks and the right rear tire was contacting the fender on bumps and slowly being shaved off!  They didn't have tires small enough for the Mini so we just started rotating the bad tires around the car as we took off on our speed run to Mongolia.


I know this post sounds pretty negative about Turkmenistan.  It just seems the bureaucracy was out to get us.  The people of Turkmenistan are wonderful!  From the guy who towed us out of the sand, to the girl flirting with us at the border, to the guy who invited us to his house for dinner and passed around some local moonshine, we felt welcomed.  Just try to avoid the government...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Mongolian Outback

A few appropriately disorganized thoughts and memories from the 'road' across Western Mongolia:

I am driving across a field in Western Mongolia. The road is right there, a couple of feet to my left, but it's actually smoother here in the grass. This could seem odd, but a week into the drive across desolate Mongolia it's now the norm - the road is less bad out here. I sneak another furtive glance at the temperature gauge - the car's overheating again. It's really not enough, so I'll have to come back in another minute. Taking your eyes off the road for anything more than a fraction of a second, however, is going to result in something horrible materializing in front of the car, so you're limited to the occasional glance, but we go on. My arms are starting to ache from constantly wrestling to keep the car under control across the web of obstacles the roads throw at us: potholes, rocks left in the middle of the road by drivers who'd earlier used them as chalks, river crossings, and my favorite, the roads that have turned into washboard bad enough that it threatens to shake the entire car loose. I can't help but have the perverse desire to drive the rickshaw along these roads just to see how quickly every single bolt and nut on it would disintegrate... Bajaj - inspiring confidence!

The world is suddenly crawling by in slow motion... The car is still certainly moving East, but East is no longer in front of me. In front of me is now the distinctly uninviting side of the road, as the car is sliding sideways having lost traction in all four tires. As I struggle to regain some semblance of control, how did we get here? Well, we are in the second day of the 400km journey from Hovd to Altai. An hour ago we came up on an abandoned Mongol Rally Renault. It's parked at a herder's shed in the middle of nowhere, apparently converted to a meat storage locker by the enterprising Mongolians. It's horribly mangled rims are staring angrily at the world (we wonder how they managed to do this sort of damage to the Renault - I think may be about to find out). The road proceeded to improve just enough to allow you to build up some speed. Clearly not enough to allow you to maintain control at this speed. And so, the greater speed hasn't gone so well. So, we are sliding along, seemingly in slow motion. After avoiding the much rougher looking North side of the road, I manage to slow the car down just a bit before hitting the South bank. It appears that the now seriously warped front license plate has absorbed most of the damage (you deserved that, France!). Further inspection, unfortunately, discovers that the right wheel is now pointing a rather unhealthy 15 degrees out. I figure it could've been worse, so after a few hours of attempted repairs, we go on towards Altai, hoping the car will make it.

From the ridiculous to the sublime.

It is now getting dark and we are still not in Altai. There are now six tires in the car - odd considering that I only started the day with one spare. On the roof are the two flats. The rear right, which was giving us so much trouble, rubbing against the wheel, approaching Mongolia, is in acceptable shape. The rear left has more travel than normal, so it squeaks uncomfortably against the wheel well going over bumps. Cyrus speeds past me, as the heretofore indestructible Panda sprung a leak in the radiator an hour ago, so he's now going in sprints, then stopping to top up the radiator and let the engine cool down. I keep crawling, getting inexorably closer to UlaanBaatar at 20kph. The front wheels hadn't given us much trouble, but now the front left makes an evil-sounding scratch whenever I turn sharply right. The front right went back to pointing 15 degrees to the right less than an hour after we though we'd finished fixing  it... Then I got a flat up there... and then another... Having only one spare for the mini, we went through the exercise of unappealing options and settled on using one of the Panda's spares, which fits less than perfectly on the mini, so we crawl along, hoping the wheel will still be there when we reach Altai.

Now on the 12th day across the Mongolian wilderness, my mind is clearly getting affected by this country. The road has become a video game: I have two controls: throttle and steering. I win if I reach the next town unscathed. I lose if either the engine temperature gets to high (because I wasn't going fast enough), or if my suspension gets destroyed (because I was going too fast to steer around all the rocks/potholes/assorted obstacles). This refreshing outlook keeps my attention for a while as the mini wind up and down hills trying to dodge obstacles at full speed. Theo, Tina, and the motorcycle are somewhere in the trail of dust behind me. I eventually lose the game by the way... on both counts as stopping to let the engine cool down reveals that the big shock absorber has ripped up a new part of the suspension and the car will need more welding when we get to Arvaiheer.

The last stretch to UlaanBaatar feels anti-climactic. I keep thinking of the last, largely ceremonial, leg of the Tour de France as the riders simply cruise down the Champs-Elysées. We are simply cruising down the well paved 400km stretch of road to the finish line. It starts raining and the mini's wind shield wipers apparently don't work. Five minute adjustment and we are back on the road. But this isn't the Tour de France - 100km from the capital, the Mongolian road builders decide to throw one last Fuck You at the highway, when they apparently choose to not finish the 80km stretch of road leading directly into the city... So, we are almost in the capital, and we are right back on the multitude of unpaved tracks across fields all tentatively leading in the direction of the city. The 80km stretch takes us five hours. The rain from earlier has helped turned parts of the unpaved road into unpaved quagmire, so I get the mini stuck in the mud (twice). We manage to flag down a passing truck and the locals are happy to help push the car out of the mud on each occasion. At 4 in the morning we arrive in UlaanBaatar. The next afternoon, we go by the adventurists offices officially completing the Mongol Rally in eight weeks and two days. We are the last team to finish!

Some shots from the road:

Both cars on the road seminal view of the mini in Mongolia: one tire off This bridge is 'under construction'. We have to cross a river Lakes, mountains, Mongolia... Cyrus enters the river with a flourish Across the Gobi
A lot more pictures from the road: Paris to London to Mongolian border And then we got to Mongolia, spent 2 weeks there and took lots of pictures: Mongolia, Part 1 Mongolia, Part 2 Mongolia, Part 3 To the finish line

The UB arrival was on the 15th of September, now fast forwarding to present day, Sep. 25. The 10 days in UB have given me a chance to enjoy such simple pleasures as consistently hot showers in my hotel rooms, excellent Indian and Italian restaurants in the city, a mechanic repairing the mini, and the chance to not be driving anywhere for a while! Now, however, with the car sporting four new tires and a largely revived suspension, it's back to the road again - I'm heading back North into Russia, to Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast, then shipping the car to the United States via Japan. I'll keep using both the blog and [hopefully] the Mongol Rally map (http://tinyurl.com/safety3rdsms) to keep track of my progress.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

We interrupt your regular programming...

For a bit of a hotel review. You see, after having spent nearly two weeks in the wilderness that is Western Mongolia, I was quite inclined to stay at a nice hotel when finally arriving in UlaanBaatar. We settled on the Chinggis Khan hotel, a 4 star affair near the center of the city. And now I'm here to report that anyone - future ralliers or just the occasional traveler having taken the wrong turn in Beijing, should avoid the Chinggis Khan if ever looking for accomodation in UlaanBaatar.

It's not that the hotel is bad, it's just that they charge for their rooms like they actually are a 4 star hotel, but being Mongolian, they have not at all figured out that 4 star really refers to service, and they surely don't provide much service. In fact, the only thing they are quite good at is responding with a 'No' to most of your requests. I'd been collecting the list of my issues as the four nights we spent there went on. By the end, I had the following list:

- the first night, we arrived at 4am, but were still charged a full day's rate for the eight hours we were there.
- hotel has a pool... so says the ticker in the lobby (among other things). The pool is closed
- the air conditioning does not work
- the restaurant wouldn't let us come in for a drink at 9:45 even though they close at 10... supposedly
- the bar, open till midnight, was closed altogether, in preparation for a wedding that was to take place the next day
- internet access stopped working on the last day
- TV reception was crap.

My first clue that the service wasn't quite up to the par I may have expected was when I started getting excuses, instead of a simple 'I'm sorry' in response to my issues. The second clue was the excuses themsleves:
- air conditioning: we've turned the A/C system off because it is not hot in UlaanBaatar anymore
- wedding: September is wedding season in Mongolia
- pool: we should probably remove the signs in the lobby that advertise the pool...
- internet: it's totally not our fault! It's all the city's fault, in fact the internet is out all over the city (it isn't). Or you can use our business center. Will the hotel pay for me to use the business center? No.

After all that, I finally suggested that I felt I needed the room rate to be reduced. I figured I was certainly annoyed by what happened, but a discount of some 15-20% would make me feel better. Instead, the hotel offers and insists upon a discount of all of 5%. I'm not sure what actually annoyed me more - the fact that they bothered to offer me a useless discount of a meaningless five percent, or the fact that they wouldn't budge from it when I pointed out that I found this so-called discount to be insulting and would not be satisfied by it... The end result, however, is simple - until this so-called 4-star hotel can figure out how to provide anything resembling 4-star sevice, I would strongly urge anyone coming to UlaanBaatar to stay away from the place.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Trials and Tribulations of the mini in Mongolia

We entered Mongolia late on the 1st of September, just in time to get out of Russia before Lott's visa expired. We were entering via Tsnaganuur, taking the more adventurous route through Western Mongolia, so ahead of us lay roughly 1600km of unpaved roads, which we knew very little about, but figure we could make in about a week to ten days. Upon arrival in Mongolia, the mini only had two mechanical problems that I was aware of:
- the rear suspension was riding too low, with the right rear tire rubbing against the frame on bumps
- there was a loose wire somewhere on the starter engine, so we were getting better at push-starting the mini (fortunately, as Theo had put, the car was light enough that 'a chipmunk could push start it')


Over the next two weeks, we'd struggle to make it over the ridiculously bad roads (more on those in a later post) from town to town, then scramble to find a mechanic, who could undo most of the damage the previous couple of days of driving had done to the mini. Fortunately, I found the mechanics to both be friendly, most of them speaking some Russian (very, very occasionally a bit of English, and not a bit daunted by fixing this car that they knew nothing about, or had any spare parts for).

The first town was Olgi. It was a mere 70km away, so we actually thought we could make it the same night we'd crossed. We were wrong - it is not possible to navigate in Mongolia after dark. So we camped, and finally reached town the next afternoon. Along the way, Mongolia had a couple of surprises for us:


First, in the middle of a perfectly nice and sunny afternoon, we suddenly got hit by a hailstorm, which just about blanketed the countryside in a white mixture of snow and hail. This made a subsequent climb up a steep hill on the now slippery roads a more challenging experience


Then, 30km from Olgi, we found beautiful asphalt! Everyone was quite excited. In retrospect, it's quite a terrible thing to do on the part of the Mongolians, giving us false hope like that, as the next stretch of asphalt of any appreciable length would arrive 11 days later...

Back to the point: trials and tribulations of the mini, meaning repairs.

September 3rd, Olgi: find a decent mechanic in town, have them raise the rear suspension. No lift kit required, in spite of what the European mechanics might think. Attempted to lift the front too, but the system deemed too complicated, what with the steering and the front wheel drive all there.

Note the seriously jacked up rear suspension! I only wish it had stayed that high...

September 4th, Olgi: back to our mechanic in the morning: one of the tires they had taken off the rim, then put back on was losing air, so fix that.

September 6th, Khovd: Xaan mechanic had been recommended to us. Nice guy running the place, spoke good Russian, complained a bit about the Rally organizers not being very organized. I had two flat tires by now, second one, fortunately having gone flat as the car was sitting in front of our hotel overnight, as the mini is still only carrying one spare... Both tires were deemed 'kaput' upon first inspection, then the tubeless tires had tubes inserted and were good as new.

The mini was feeling a bit wounded, having been left back at the hotel, on just three wheels.

September 7th, on the road: the mini starts to seriously overheat. Flushing the radiator in the morning seems to make it happier. As does driving fast in low gear as the fan speed is directly tied to the RPM's...

September 8th: the Panda is not entirely immune to the conditions either, as its muffler comes off and is now being stored in the mini's back seat (still there now)

September 9th, Altai:
mechanic #1:
  - mini Weld #1: re-weld the front right tie-rod attachment to the frame, which I'd bent upon hitting the embankment the day before. Weld in an additional support strut to try and prevent further bending.
  - while we wait, fix the wire that had been causing the starter problems. It became easy to identify which one had been loose, when it went from being loose to completely torn off.
  - replace a missing bolt on the roofrack

The mini apparatus next to the Altai welding apparatus

mechanic #2:
  - fix the two flat tires. Since the mini has but one spare, and the second flat wasn't considerate enough to occur after getting into town this time, had to limp in the last few hours to town, using a Panda spare, which wasn't quite an ideal fit...
  - discover that the gas tank has once again sprung a leak, just as we are about to leave town. Same place that had previously been fixed in Bucharest, probably leaking because the mechanics in Olgi had to remove the gas tank to get to the left rear suspension, and weren't all that careful in putting in back in.

September 10th, still Altai (decided to stay another night for a few more repairs)
- the sump guard is now right up against the engine, and thus not doing a whole lot of good anymore. Bend in back into proper alignment and add some washers to keep it better in place
- one of the bearings in the front left suspension is busted, manufacture an approximate replacement.
- front left shock absorber is dead, replace with a slightly bigger one

The lady running the repair shop in Altai was quite helpful... and even fed us soup!

September 12, Bayanhogor
- The new bigger shock absorber may be too big for the mini... Along the way, the bottom attachment point had come undone, which caused the actual suspension strut to snap. Put the shock absorber back in place (add some big washers to keep it there), limp into town. Find a mechanic in town, who does not speak a word of English or Russian, but is perfectly willing to weld everything back together. mini Weld #2.

The shock absorber's big, but it's not attached

I'm starting to feel that a portable welder may be required equipment for travel in Western Mongolia...

September 12, 40km east of Bayanhogor
- stopping to examine a new squeak in the suspension, I discover that the shock absorber has now completely ripped through the top attachment point to the body of the car. It's a somewhat disturbing site... Fortunately, a couple of truck drivers stop by [to stare and] help, and direct us to a construction site 5km away that has a welder. The welder there (donated by the people of Japan) is used in short order to weld the car back together. mini Weld #3...

Afterwards, I try to offer a payment, it is summarily refused, instead we are invited to have dinner, and have lots of pictures taken with the guys at the construction site.

My beard's coming in nicely, not having shaved in almost two weeks now...

September 13, Arvaiheer:
- we almost complete the 150 remaining kilometers to Arvaiheer before discovering that the big shock absorber has once again ripped up a bunch of the car frame... Limp into a third straight town at 20kph and head straight for a mechanic. Not sure if it has anything to do with it being 5 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, but the welding shop has a dozen guys doing various things there, all in some stage of drunkenness. They remain sober enough to re-weld the suspension once again (mini Weld #4) and put the older, smaller shock absorber back in.

September 14. And on the 13th day, they reached asphalt! The drive along the asphalt road was downright anti-climactic. We had to stop once to re-attach the chicken wire that's now acting as the mini grille and to fix the wind shield wiper engine, but that took a total of five minutes. Beyond that, the mini seemed happy with its surroundings. And then around 9 o'clock... we got to within 100km of UlaanBaatar, and the paved road inexplicably ended! Navigating unpaved MOngolian roads in the dark is bad enough, add a bit of rain earlier that day turning the tracks to mud, and the 80km until asphalt resumed took us five hours. And we had to get help from passer-by vehicles to push the mini out after I'd gotten it stuck in the mid twice:


And finally, on the 15th Septmeber, more than 8 weeks after the launch in London, and a full three days later than Lott and Cyrus in the Panda, the mini reached the rally finish line at Dave's Pub in UlaanBaatar:


The next day, we watched Dave take down the Finish Line sign... we are officially the last team to complete the Mongol Rally 2008. Now, on to Vladivostok (hopefully)! The car's currently in the hands of a hopefully capable Hyundai repair center here in UB, who's in charge of undoing as much of the damage the Mongolian roads have done to the mini as he can. Fortunately, the road north to Russia is paved as is most of the stretch across Russia to Vladivostok, so it should be doable, but we'll have to see what he says.