When you last heard from us (link here), we had just scaled the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan and were motoring on into Kyrgyzstan. With the benefit of hindsight (as we sit up at Newcastle and Northumbria universities respectively), we can indeed confirm that the Mongol Rally is simply one of the greatest motoring events to grace this planet. What signifies this more than anything, was the final two weeks of the rally…
Kyrgyzstan was a maze of poorly documented roads, not too dissimilar from Tajikistan, and our second day in the country turned out to be the day that hosted our biggest (unintentional) detour of the entire rally. It soon became apparent that the mapping application we’d been confiding in failed to take into consideration the condition and terrain of the various Kryg roads we were trundling over. What entailed was a four-hour trip down a terribly bumpy and suspect looking dirt track, which all too soon turned into a stone river bed, and subsequently a number of river crossings, each posing a serious challenge to Martin (the Micra) and our progress. It was of great fortune that our friends over at Team Hot Steppers accompanied us on such a detour, with their 1200cc Fiat Punto saving us from various rivers on several occasions. Ultimately, after covering only 30 miles over the four-hour period, a rock slide on the far side of a river crossing forced us to turn back and find an alternative route north towards Bishkek.
Despite the misery attached to this, we soon re-joined the main roads and headed for the capital. It wasn’t long, in increasingly traditional fashion, before further bad news became apparent. About 250 miles previously, the Hot Steppers had left their oil filler cap on the roof of their car during a fuel stop, and as such, it was long gone. This became a serious problem. In subsequent hours of dirty, dusty and sandy driving their engine had lost a considerable amount of oil, had very low pressure, and had all sorts of physical contaminants circulating it. Although the engine begrudgingly continued for a short period of time, it came to an abrupt halt just as we were approaching the peak of a mountain range in the north of Kyrgyzstan. Martin managed to tug them up the remainder of the hill, but the Hot Steppers’ Fiat was in a bad way by the time we’d reached the bottom of the mountains leaving us no choice but to flag down a local car. Despite the friendly appearance of the 3 locals who agreed to help, against our protests they towed the Hot Steppers (with Ned and I following closely behind) for over four hours until midnight, and demanded we pay them $600. We played the waiting game for an hour and a half, and eventually at 1:30am, they settled for $40 and left us in a lonely layby about 15 miles from the nearest town. Local police appeared quickly advising/demanding we didn’t stay in the layby, since the area was a popular car-jacking and mugging spot… all in all, an interesting night.
After a plethora of mechanics attempted to bodge a new oil filler cap (no chance of a Fiat replacement part in the middle of Kyrgyzstan!!), we were back on our way to Bishkek first, and onwards to Almaty. It was clear that the Hot Steppers’ car had sustained long term damage and it remained very temperamental from there onwards (notably when the engine was hot). This prompted a two-day stay in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s capital, giving the Hot Steppers a chance to see a mechanic, and giving Ned and I a chance to explore the city in all its glory – following incredible food, a zoo, a golden eagle, and even a hill-top rollercoaster, it comes highly recommended!
The vastness of Kazakhstan is quite remarkable. Barren yet glorious landscapes span as far as the eye can see almost all of the time, with only horses and yurts standing between you and the horizon more often than not. In classic style, however, it soon became the scene of a royal mess-up, courtesy of Team Dusty Martini and the Hot Steppers. On our penultimate night travelling across Kazakhstan, we managed to beach both cars in what was originally intended to be our campsite. When I say beached – both cars were sat on their axles, with only the top 1/3 of each tire visible…I can’t reiterate enough that being stuck in the middle of rural nowhere, where no-one speaks English, is absolutely less than preferable! It took $60, five hours, a police car and two policemen, one Lada, six locals and an eight-wheeled military vehicle to eventually free the cars, much to our relief. The rally continued!
We exited Kazakhstan through Semey in the north-east, before heading into Russia and up to Barnaul, before heading back down south-east towards the Mongolian border. This of course was not without issues, largely due to the Hot Steppers’ Fiat which had almost completely packed in and was dependent on tows from us and the other two vehicles now in our convoy (The 3 Amigos of Chalachupa and Team 5 O’clock Somewhere) to make it to the border. We arrived at the Mongolian border at 7:30am, conscious that the crossing procedure was likely to take the whole day. We weren’t wrong. After 10 hours battling the incompetence of the border guards and the completely nonsensical entry procedure, we were in. The sense of achievement was rife across all 4 teams; the finish line beckoned.
The smiles were short-lived. 50 miles in, Martin’s engine started grumbling. We pulled over to check the spark plugs (when wet, we’d previously had an issue with mis-firing in the 4th cylinder) but it quickly became apparent that the issue was more deep-rooted. We checked the oil and the case was immediately closed; the engine was bone dry. Despite no signs of spilt oil or leaks in the engine bay or sump, Martin had been aggressively burning oil over the last 48-72 hours, and our outright complacency and faith in the car had come back to haunt us. The engine had seized, and arrival in the closest town of Ulgii confirmed our fears that Martin wasn’t going to travel another mile… or not under his own steam, anyway!
There was absolutely no chance we were going to give up, however. We’d made it 45 days and several thousand miles with not even a burst tire and only two minor mechanical teething problems. By complete chance, we rolled into a yurt camp in the town, and the owner’s 17-year-old son spoke perfect English. We arranged a flatbed tow truck (which turned out to be a fully-fledged open-top lorry loaded with wool) to take Martin 1700km to the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bataar, for a mere $300, while Ned and I sat in the back of a different team’s car over the four days it took to transit to the capital. Naturally, the four days were filled with fun and excitement as we crossed the magnificent Mongol steppe, which itself has the lowest population density in the world. It made for great viewing, and (sparse) people-watching.
After hours searching for him in the darkness and rain, we picked up Martin from a slightly bizarre compound 20 minutes outside Ulan Bataar. Despite the fact the lorry driver(s) had stolen a hearty amount of the items we’d left in/with the car (including my father’s beloved original 80s Range Rover roof bars), we didn’t really care; we were in touching distance of the finish line.
With a dead battery, no lights, no wipers, no heating, and only one crash, we were towed 363 miles through the night, the Mongolian-Russian border, and the torrential rain by Team 5 O’clock somewhere and their 3-cylinder 980cc Suzuki Swift…all on a £10 Halfords emergency tow rope (which coincidently snapped 3 times). After a stint in the pub, we crossed the finish line in Ulan-Ude at 1:30pm on the 4th September and live to tell every single tale.
Once again, we’d like to thank Hagerty for their incredible support of our venture. It will most certainly be one to remember.