Making it to Mongolia

Mongolia has been a country on our “must visit” list for as long as we can remember. For years we have hankered after views of vast open landscapes, soaring eagles and for a taste of the nomadic way of life. Months of preparation, six weeks of driving and 14,000 kilometres led us to this point. Finally, it was time to enter Mongolia.

Or was it? As we queued up at passport control at the Mongolian border crossing, it seemed there was a problem with our visas. We still aren’t sure exactly what sort of problem, but it had something to do with the dates (which we knew were fine). After a lot of toing and froing (and waiting – mostly waiting), our passports and visas were returned to us… with the date crossed out, and a new date written in its place.

This was a bit weird, but didn’t matter to us. What did matter was the delay this had caused. It was 5pm and the border was closing for the day. We had limited time to get through the customs process if we wanted to avoid a night in the border compound and to try to catch up with our Kiwi friends. Luckily there was no one else around, and the border officials were in just as much of a hurry to get us processed and out of there as we were to get into Mongolia.

Except, at the final hurdle, there was a problem with the computer. We couldn’t be processed. I was told that we would have to come back tomorrow.

“We can’t come back tomorrow”, I replied. It wasn’t a lie. We couldn’t leave and go back to Russia – we had been stamped out. We would have to wait exactly where we were, even if that meant waiting until the following morning. I stood outside the customs office and waited. And waited. And waited. And looked a bit sad.

Eventually, the border officials seemed to a) realise we weren’t going to leave (there was nowhere we could go), and b) feel a bit sorry for us. They started making some phone calls, and actually started to try and get the computers to work. All of a sudden, the computer worked again and the final bit of the bureaucracy jigsaw puzzle could be completed. We were in.

We found the Kiwi team waiting for us just on the other side of the border compound. Thankfully they hadn’t given up hoping that we would make it through before the end of the day, and we all drove together on the first section of bad road from the border crossing to the small town of Tsagaannuur.

As soon as we pulled into town, we met a local man on a motorbike. He wanted us to stay in his hotel for the night, and promised that for just $5 per person we could enjoy a comfortable night’s stay and a delicious yak-based meal. It sounded too good to be true, and in some ways, it was.

The hotel was his family’s house. There was one room where we could all sleep on the floor. The yak meal was… lacking in yak meat. But, before we could eat and rest, the men were needed to help with a little job.

Another Mongol Rally car had got stuck between the town and the border, somewhere off road. Shane, Mike and Nick went off on a local truck to perform a rescue operation. The truck didn’t have enough petrol, so they stopped to get petrol. Then the truck over heated, so they stopped by a lake to put water in it. Then, they were asked to lift the car onto the truck, but even though they are all very, very strong, this was impossible. Instead they found a way of pushing the car onto a bank, and then onto the truck. And then the truck broke down again. By the time they returned it was very dark, very cold and they were glad of the warm stove back at our “hotel”.

Rescuing and fixing the stuck Mongol Rally car


A night of vodka drinking and musical instrument playing ensued, and then we all fell sound asleep.

Music time!

Over the next two days we drove around 700km, sometimes on dirt and gravel tracks, and sometimes on smooth tarmac. We passed through the towns of Olgii, Khovd and Altai, and camped by some yurts and then in the wild Mongolian desert, where we were joined by team Fiat to Believe it and team Mongolia Independent Trading Co.

Crowding around the campfire in the middle of the Mongolian wilderness

The next day was the big day. We knew that from Altai to the next big town of Bayankhongor there were no roads. For 270km we would have to drive Martha off-road. We had heard rumours from other teams that this was the worst stretch of the entire Mongol Rally. It had claimed the lives of many perfectly healthy and happy cars. Martha had been perfect so far, but we knew that she could die at any time. We resolved to stick together as a convoy of four cars, and set off on what we assumed would be the hardest, scariest and most adventurous part of our whole journey.

What we found was altogether quite different. Shane did the majority of the off-road driving, and he loved it. Martha also loved it. Even I loved it. We had been planning to go very slowly, but quickly discovered there was no need. Martha loved driving as fast as she could. We sprinted with the other cars. We (deliberately) slid and skidded around. We reached speeds of 100km per hour on the dusty tracks. This wasn’t the worst road of the rally at all – in fact, it was the best road!

The fun we were having was tempered by our encounters with other teams. We met two teams convoying together who seemed to be having big problems (both car related and team dynamic related). Then we met a team parked in a very small town who’s engine had collapsed and was irreparable. Just like Martha, their car had been perfect every step of the way so far. Just like us, they hadn’t even had a flat tyre. But now, they had hit a bump, and their car was completely dead. They were having to arrange a tow truck to take them to Ulaanbaatar at a cost of $600, and then would need to make other arrangements to get the car out of Mongolia. It was a stark and sad reminder that things could go very badly wrong at anytime.

But Martha continued to drive happily through Mongolia. It felt like she was made for off-road racing. She had reached her goal, and so had we.

As darkness fell, we pulled off the road with the three other teams and camped in the Mongolian desert again. As Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world, we didn’t have to try too hard to find a spare bit of space!

The next morning we had a decision to make: try and get to Ulaanbaatar as quickly as possible, or detour for a bit more off-road fun and some sight seeing. Team Fiat to Believe it had a rapidly expiring visa so had to head straight to Ulaanbaatar, but the rest of us opted for a slower pace and some more exploring.

Our first stop was a very strange horse shrine just off the main road. There were lots of statues of horses and horse skulls, but no explanation. We still have no idea what it was all about, but it made for an interesting stop.

Mystery horse shrine

Next we ventured off-road looking for some hot springs. After taking a few different tracks, stopping to ask for directions at a village (where Shane did a hilarious mime of bathing in a hot spring), and driving back on ourselves again, we found a strange holiday resort with a small pool of hot water. As this was day six without a shower for all of us, it didn’t take much time or much persuading for us to hop out of our dirty clothes and into the warm water.

All was well. Then we noticed that Jamie from the Independent Mongolian Trading Co. had disappeared. When he returned, it was with an interesting story. Some nearby locals had insisted he visit their house to see their dead Marmot, drink their horse’s milk and watch Titanic (unfortunately, not in English). Thankfully, we didn’t miss out, as the same locals followed him back to the pool and insisted we all drink the horse milk and come to visit the dead Marmot when we were finished in the hot spring. It was a fun afternoon.

After a bit more driving, we pulled over near some yurts in search of a place to stay. One woman invited us to stay in her yurt with her and her two daughters for a small fee, and made us a very large meal of goat, noodles and potato. As we ate and warmed ourselves by the fire, she then proceeded to tell us the story (several times) of how her eldest daughter was conceived.

Despite the language barrier, her detailed mimes gave us a good idea of what had happened. Approximately nine years and nine months ago, a man called Michael had come to visit, stayed with her for two nights, got her pregnant, and then flew back to Germany and left her. He may also have visited Paris. We don’t know whether Michael is aware he has a daughter in the middle of Mongolia, but if anyone knows a Michael (probably from Germany), who visited Mongolia nine years and nine months ago, there is an angry woman looking for him.

Bedtime in the yurt


Our room for the night

On our sixth day in Mongolia, we finally made it to the capital – Ulaanbaatar. Driving into a big city after days of empty desert was a surreal experience. Almost half of all the people who live in Mongolia live in Ulaanbaatar, and as the traffic was so bad it took us about half an hour to drive about 500 metres in the city centre, we could tell.

It didn’t take long for us to find the nearest Irish pub where we met with another Mongol Rally team, and some of us indulged in a few celebratory beverages. This quickly descended into chaos, and by the next morning there were three lost phones, a lost passport and a lost wallet. Thankfully, Shane and I managed to keep hold of all of our belongings.

We decided to stay for a few days in Ulaanbaatar. We wanted a rest in a real bed, a hot shower and to see some of the sights.

First on the list was the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs. Mongolia was a hotspot for dinosaurs back in dino-times, and it was great to see the bones of some really weird dinosaurs that we have never seen before.

Next we went to visit a giant statue of Genghis Khan. Despite the fact that he is responsible for an estimated 40 million deaths, Genghis Khan is considered to be a national hero in Mongolia for uniting the Mongolian nomadic tribes and founding the Mongol Empire. It was an interesting but quiet day at the statue: the complex was built with thousands of daily visitors in mind, but we saw only a handful of people.

Giant statue of Genghis Khan

At the Genghis Khan statue we waved goodbye to team Kiwis Crossing. After a week of convoying together through Mongolia, the Kiwis were heading straight up to Ulan Ude to officially complete the rally, while we planned to stay in Ulaanbaatar for a little longer.

As we come towards the end of our time in Mongolia, Shane and I have mixed emotions. We are very relieved that Martha has made it this far and didn’t die in the middle of the Mongolian wilderness. We have had a great experience driving through the country and it has been as impressive and interesting as we could have hoped for. We can’t believe it’s nearly time to say goodbye to Mongolia, goodbye to the Mongol Rally and goodbye to Martha. In just a few more days we will drive back into Russia and, all being well, we will cross the final finish line.


Turkmenistan and the road to hell

Turkmenistan wins the prize for being the strangest country we have ever been to. It is also one of the most secretive countries, and as you may remember from our last post, it isn’t exactly easy to visit.

By the time we had left the boat, collected all the stamps, filled in all the forms and paid all the fees required to enter Turkmenistan, it was 6.30pm. The border guards were adamant that tonight we must drive to Ashgabat (the capital), which was at least seven hours away. This wasn’t ideal - we were worried about driving so late at night, and there were a lot of unknowns. We didn’t know what the condition of the roads would be like, we didn’t want to hit any camels, didn’t know whether it was safe, and there was rumoured to be a curfew in Ashgabat which meant you couldn’t be outside (or driving) after 10 or 11pm in the city.

But it was clear there was no choice. We had to get moving, and we wanted to make the most of the available daylight. Thankfully we were with Charlie, Lucas and Roland – the drivers from the teams that had been split up – and we tackled the roads together in convoy. As we drove off, the border guards cheerfully reminded us not to worry: “You will be very safe here. Immigration know exactly where you will be at all times”. Reassurance came with a side order of threat… we had definitely entered a dictatorship now.

If our first impressions of Turkmenistan were that it is an inflexible maze of bureaucracy, filled with stamps, repetitive notebooks and ridiculous charges, our second impressions were that it was one big desert. On the road to Ashgabat we saw a lot of sand, some camels, a few small settlements, and some more sand. Once the sun went down, we found ourselves in a giant sand cloud, which was less than ideal and meant we had slow down. It didn’t help that despite being on a highway, there seemed to be no rules about which side of the road to drive on. Cars hurtled towards us as breakneck speeds, but also approached us from behind. At one point, Lucas (team Silicon Rally), pulled over. “Are we driving on the right side of the road?”, he asked. It remained unclear.

Lucas from team Silicon Rally storming through the Turkmenistan desert

We finally made it to Ashgabat at 4.00am, after nearly 10 hours of driving. Ashgabat looked like a bright, white city, lit up like a Christmas tree, in the middle of the desert. The Lonely Planet had warned us that there was “no budget accommodation in Ashgabat”, and this seemed to prove true. We had identified one “mid-range” hotel, but it was full. Across the road stood the five star Grand Turkmen Hotel, complete with secure parking, air conditioning, swimming pool, breakfast and wifi (well, “wifi” – it didn’t really work, and all social media is banned in Turkmenistan anyway). They had rooms, and although it wasn’t cheap, the idea of a bed for the night (not to mention a comfy bed with all the available amenities) was appealing enough for us all to blow our accommodation budgets and check in.


A day of sleeping and sight seeing followed. As we wandered around Ashgabat, it seemed no expense had been spared in making the city look fantastic. Every building was massive, grand, white (with a hint of gold), spotlessly clean and accompanied by a varying number of fountains. Huge monuments and gold statues littered the city. There were giant squares and parks everywhere (many of which were called “independence square”, or “independence park”, or another similar variation), filled with symmetrical fountains and plants. There were also a considerable number of gold statues, many of which were of the previous President (apparently he had given in to the “huge pubic demand” for thousands of statues of himself. What a good man he must have been.) A stomach turning amount of water was used to keep the city green and keep the thousands of fountains going in the middle of the desert. The city was also spotlessly clean, and you could be fined for having a dirty car (luckily no one spotted Martha, who wasn’t exactly sparkling after driving through a desert sand storm).

Horse statue (and many fountains) in Ashgabat

Symmetrical fountains, tall white buildings and suspiciously green plants in Ashgabat

Martha visits the Monument of Neutrality, Ashgabat

Ashgabat by night

The weirdest thing about the city was that despite its grandeur and its obvious desire to impress, there was no one there. There was a police officer on every corner, and no shortage of cleaners keeping the place immaculate, but there was no one actually in the parks or looking at the fountains or anywhere at all. We were also told we couldn’t take photos of most things, and as we tried to walk across the city were met by Police telling us we couldn’t go any further. It made us question why the government had spent so much time and money making Ashgabat so impressive. Not to impress tourists or foreigners (after all, there were none apart from us – Turkmenistan isn’t exactly an easy place to visit), not to impress or satisfy its own people (again, there were none), and not to impress anyone far away or make Turkmenistan seem like a great country (we couldn’t even take a photograph). Was this all just one massive ego trip for the previous President? It was very surreal, a little eerie, but undoubtedly extraordinary.


As we only had five days to get through Turkmenistan, we couldn’t hang about in Ashgabat for too long. Next stop on the route was a crater of burning gas in the middle of the desert, otherwise known as the gates of hell.

At this point we said goodbye to the drivers from the split teams – their passengers were now on their way to Ashgabat, and they would all come to the gas crater later in the evening or the following day. We travelled up the road to hell with another team from Sweden, who had two cars with four people in each. They were a very friendly team, and they gave us one of their walkie-talkies so we could communicate on the way.

We arrived at the track to the crater with very few issues, apart from having to stop a few times to avoid camels crossing the road. When we did reach the track, we were faced with an interesting sandy hill, and a number of locals in jeeps – some of whom told us we would never make it to the crater in our rubbish cars, and some of whom said we could get up the hill if we approached it from a long way back and went really, really fast.

Martha and some camels on the way to Darvaza (hell)

More camels in the desert


One of the cars from the Swedish team made a first attempt up the hill, while Shane changed the tyres on Martha (we had brought special mud/sand/snow tyres with us which we thought might give her a bit more grip). The first car made it part-way up the hill, but got stuck in the sand. After a bit of pushing, the car was free. It went back down the hill and did better second time. The second car made it up the hill with no problems, but Martha wasn’t so lucky. Shane had four attempts, and on the fourth, all eight people from the Swedish team ran down to push Martha the last few yards. With their help, she made it up.

But over the hill, more sand was waiting, and every single car (including others that arrived, and, of course, Martha) got stuck in the sand. The locals and their jeeps were back, offering different services for different exhorbitant prices (they could drive our cars to the crater for us, for $150 per car!). While Martha could reverse back out of the sand, it was clear she wasn’t going to make it all the way to the crater (at least not any time soon, or without a lot of pushing). Most of the other cars were so stuck that they couldn’t even get back without a lot of help. We were going to need to do some sort of deal with the locals if we wanted to see the gates of hell.

And so, the negotiations began. It wasn’t easy. With so many teams now completely stuck, we had limited bargaining power. The sun had set, and darkness was creeping in, along with various insects. The desert was home to scorpions and spiders and snakes, and we wanted to get out of it and see the burning hole. Eventually, we agreed on a price of $10 per person plus two packets of cigarettes for transport to and from the crater, and to help get the stuck cars un-stuck in the morning.

A long, bumpy ride followed, but we made it to the gates of hell! The burning gas crater was huge, spectacular and hot, and did look like it could be the entrance to hell as the desert seemed to just fall away around it.

The big fiery hole (gas crater) at Darvaza - the gates of hell

Shane and I at the entrance to hell

We camped right beside Martha that night, and after another negotiation in the morning (the locals wanted more money and more cigarettes for moving the stuck cars, so Shane suggested they provide us with a receipt which we show the military police, and suddenly they were happy enough with what they already had), we were back down and ready to drive the 250km or so to the border and enter Uzbekistan.


We were expecting a three to four hour drive, and to arrive at the Uzbekistan border by around 11am, giving us plenty of time to cross over (and deal with the inevitable border bureaucracy) and a leisurely evening on the other side.

As we drove off, we waved goodbye to our new friends from the Swedish team (they had been given a different prescribed route when they entered Turkmenistan, and had even been given a black box which tracked their every movement), and started on our journey.

This didn’t go exactly as planned. The start of the road was bad – it was bumpy and littered with pot holes. Then it got worse. And worse. Eventually we found ourselves on a gravel track. Shane expertly avoided the bumps, but it was very slow going. We finally reached the border at 4pm, after around 8 hours of driving, and found it strangely empty: it was almost closed.

Struggling to avoid potholes on the road from hell

Luckily we were just in time, and as the border police undoubtedly wanted to get home for the day, the process wasn’t too arduous. We were across by 6pm, and felt a newfound sense of freedom as we entered Uzbekistan: our route was no longer fixed, and our visas were valid for 30 days. While our experience of Turkmenistan had been interesting and unique, it had also felt a touch oppressive and difficult. While the surface of Turkmenistan glittered and sparkled, the emptiness, the crazy bureaucracy and the thousands of police officers and soldiers hinted that something underneath wasn’t right.


Checking out the competition

With Martha ready for adventure, Shane and I thought we would take her out for a drive to make some new friends. The Adventurists were holding a get together at Ashdown Motorcross Circuit in Oxfordshire for people about to set off on the Mongol rally and their “cars”, so we drove down to have a look at the other cars and meet some of our future travel companions.

We made it down the M40 and A34 without any problems, but to get to the Motorcross Circuit we then had to drive for a couple of miles on a rough, uneven dirt track. First we wondered whether we had come the right way. Then we realised this was Martha’s first little test. Thankfully there were no problems – Martha definitely handled the non-road like a little adventure car – and she trundled along much faster than the considerably newer (but unmodified) Nissan Micra which followed us. Martha: 1, other Mongol rally cars: 0.

As we drove into the meet-up area, I noticed with some excitement that there were quite a few other girls there (I had been prepared for a severe lack of women given the number taking part in the Mongol rally in previous years). When I mentioned this to Shane, however, he joked that they were probably only here to accompany their boyfriends and wouldn’t actually be going on the rally. I snapped at him for being so sexist. In total, I met five other women who were taking part in the Mongol rally. In the case of the other women who I saw at the event, sadly Shane’s sexist assumption turned out to be absolutely right… they were there with their boyfriends and would not be driving to Mongolia.

On the plus side, the five women I did meet (and the men) were all pretty cool. Based on our experience of watching previous rally teams on youtube, we were expecting most of the teams to be made up of 18 year old guys on their gap-yahs, but our real life experience was completely different. We met a father and daughter team, two couples, and a number of people who had given up (or were giving up) their jobs to take part in the Mongol rally, and some who were completely changing their lifestyle to work less and travel more. They were also really adventurous and up for some fun, and many spent the afternoon competing in a monkey-bike race to win 100,000 Iranian rials (worth about £2).

Some of our fellow ralliers racing on monkey bikes

We also met some pretty cool cars. There were quite a few Micras, a Yaris or two, and some other slightly more exotic choices, including the Trabant and the beach buggy which are featured in a blog by the Adventurists here. We also heard tales from the Adventurists of someone undertaking this year’s rally in an electric Nissan Leaf. “Wow!”, Shane and I said. “Oh. It won’t make it”, the man from the Adventurists said.

Q: "What colour do you say your car is when filling in visa forms?"    A: "Yellow. Or custom. Yellow / custom. Although the car used to be blue.  Maybe we should put blue."


Q: "What do you do when it rains?" A: "Get wet."


Q: "Are you going to install a roof box?"       A: "We already have one. It's also a canoe."

Despite some of the cars being a little more unusual than Martha, she still stood out. She attracted a lot of attention for her golden colour, her rally-ready appearance and for the fact that she is my actual car. Everyone else we met had bought their car specifically for the rally, while Martha and I have a longer-term bond.  In comparison to some of the other cars we saw, Martha was pretty well kitted out with her tyres, roof rack, extra wheels, sump guard, super-strong lights, big battery… some of the cars had had no improvements whatsoever.

Suddenly we felt a little better. We may be under-prepared, but so is everyone else.