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.


shoe said...

Woot! Congrats guys!

Jimi said...

Dudeee you made it..basically i'm speechless for all the work the Mini needed at least mechanically you didnt have any problems thank god f.e how would it sound a blown head gasket in the middle of the desert xixi. To see some real difference with the suspension you have to change the rubber cones immediately. No washers and bolts will do the job.Anyway glad you made it :)



Alex said...

I think the Mongolian mechanics would take offense at your suggestion that their washers and bolts cannot be a permanent solution! Or at least some extra welding... I am looking to get large chunks of the suspension fully replaced in Japan or California though.

Jimi said...

We usually fit washers to the back suspension trumpet when no adjustable knuckles are fitted. Its the easier way to balance the hight in the back because rubber cones sit in place unequally through the years. I agree that are many ways to rise the rear suspension a friend of mine in Rhodes had a hydrolastic subframe on his Mini and due to the lack of parts they welded the dry cone on the trumpet along with a huge spacer to lift the car.. but now the Mini feels like a bulldozer when driving.. Anyway enough with technical info.. have fun through the rest of the journey be safe..:)