In July 2012 we, seven friends from the University of Southampton, will be setting off on an epic journey to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. We are driving two ambulances, which once there, will be donated and used by the charity Go Help! to provide much needed relief to the local emergency services.

You can follow our adventure through the blog shown below, which we will be keeping updated throughout the journey, and also on the Real-time Location page, which shows exactly where we are!

Video Footage

Just over a year since we complete the rally and we (greg) has finally got around to compiling a video from some of the footage we took during the adventure. Enjoy:

Now…what will the next adventure be…

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We made it!

So we made it to Ulaanbaatar! A bit late getting this up, but we’ve all been pretty busy getting jobs and stuck in to Uni. Had a great four days in the capital seeing such exciting as the International Puzzle museum (Way more awesome than it sounds!) and checking out the local Mongol night-life. We hope to have some kind of documentary out soonish – We’ll let you know!


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Day 38 – Mongolia – Fixing the rear suspension!

We awoke with the disheartening knowledge that the next 130km to Altay would be a continuation of the previous nights ordeal and we now know why teams are advised by GoHelp to enter Mongolia through the border north of Ulaanbaatar, in order to minimise driving on Mongolian roads! Progress was slow, with a tentative maximum speed of 15mph, and the requirement to assess every bump and dip in the road bigger than a pea. Despite the dire conditions we soldiered on, with only one or two bumps to the heads of the guys on the back seats.

Endeavour arrived into Altay around 3pm and to our relief we immediately saw a sign pointing to a “Mongol Rally Garage”. Of course we went straight there and were greeted by a few other teams from the Mongol Rally, all of whom were fixing problems that were minor in comparison to our catastrophe. Before we were even out of the ambulance a mechanic already had his head underneath and with a small amount of miming from Ian it was pretty clear that the mechanic knew exactly what we wanted – send the damned air suspension into oblivion and weld on some deliciously cushy springs. Presumably they had seen this exact same problem many times before as they were advancing very swiftly with the removal of the air springs and tank.

Feeling particularly un-needed by the mechanics we set out to look at what Altay had to offer. it is fairly large town by Mongolian standards, housing probably a few thousand at a push. A few small convenience stores provided us with provisions! Meanwhile back at the garage the mechanics were welding custom spring shocks. No measuring device was used and four almost identical shocks were built and fitted to the rear in about four hours. This allowed us to drive out of Altay and find a suitable camping spot.

The 20 minute drive out of Altay was like riding a cloud, compared to the headache inducing bumpiness the morning gave us, all the way to campsite on top of a rather large hill. That night we were provided with our best views of the stars yet which were completely mind blowing.

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Day 37 – Endeavouring through Mongolia

We woke up after a very wet night, put away the tents, re-organised the cramped ambulance with all our stuff and got on our way nice and early. The roads varied from tarmac, to gravel, to dirt, to sand, each with the possibility of being flat, very bumpy or having rivers cross them creating deep trenches. We were making good progress for the first few hours on the very bumpy road, until we stopped to change drivers and a wee-break. The rear suspension was completely down with air hissing out, giving us about 10cm of ground clearance. That definitely explained the very rough last part of the journey. We then stopped for roughly 3 hours trying to fix the problem. We reckon a stone got jammed in 1 of the 4 air suspensions and wore it away until it tore. All the air suspensions are connected, so with air escaping in one meant that all were flat. The designers of ambulances have obviously not heard of Mongolian ‘roads’.

The first fix was using a sleeping Matt repair kit with various types of glue to fix the tear in the air suspension. This worked for a minute before we heard hissing again. Plan B involved disconnecting the broken air suspension to use just one on the left side using a piece of rubber tubing to connect the air tubes using zip ties. This also lasted a few minutes before it burst. Apparently zip ties were not strong enough for the air pressure. The next plan was using the T-junction from the broken suspension with a bolt blocking the extra hole to fill the surviving air suspension with air. This worked for a few minutes and we actually got the wheel back on, until the bolt violently shot out. Undeterred we went to Plan D and put the same bolt back in again, this time with MORE GLUE! This allowed for full suspension on the right side and half suspension on the left, more than enough for endeavor to limp onwards.

A few kilometers later a rather violent bump knocked the air compressor off from the middle of the ambulance, smashing off the air hoses, ruining all of the rear air suspension. With no available tools to fix the problem, we were forced to soldier on at roughly 20 km/h with about 10cm of clearance. This resulted in a slow bumpy ride, with every little bump in the track throwing people in the rear seats into the air. The hard journey was made easier by constantly watching torrential downpours either side of the ambulance as we tried to crawl away from the impending rain. If you can’t remember, by putting the spare tyres on the rood rendered the roof to leak water into the ambulance, making it no longer waterproof inside.

We played cat and mouse with the rain for the rest of the day until half 8 when we stopped for the day to camp. We had been driving away from a massive cloud of rain for the last hour and at our slow pace could not out drive it. Neil instantly bolted to the top of the ambulance as we stopped in order to start waterproofing the roof by using hot glue and a blow-torch, before the rain got over us. Amazingly the rain was not as bad as we thought and the glue worked well. The only issue was the intense wind that constantly threatened to blow away our cinch tents.

After quick tent pegging and food cooking, we sat down in the Gobi Desert to watch the amazing light display of distant lightning storms before going to bed.

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Day 36 – Mongolia

We woke up outside Olgii and all plowed into our one ambulance, looking forward to our first full day with all seven members of the team in one vehicle. Soon after setting out, we found a man sitting by the road with a massive eagle on his arm! A few dollars later and we had all had a go holding the eagle, a massive win for Neil, who had been intent on achieving this since reaching Mongolia.

Further on the road we came upon a bridge in bad repair,  with a large chunk missing, leaving a harrowing view of the river below. A family in a 4×4 had, to their detriment, not noticed the small rusty sign indicating that the bridge was broken, and their car was hanging ominosly of the end of the bridge.With all seven members of the team pushing however we managed to rescue the car. Leaving the happy man and his family to carry on up the road.

Keen to make up for lost time yesterday, we set out early and soon caught up with the St Andrews team, who had lost a steering rod 50km outside of Khovd, after helping them remove the second part of the rod with a blowtorch and a hammer we set up to find the other half of their team, who had hitchhiked their way into Khovd to try and find a replacement. The idea was to provide them with the second part of the rod so they could hopefully get the part repaired. Getting in touch with the team turned out to be difficult however, with Mongolian phone networks proving to be unreliable.  We did eventually we managed to meet up with the St Andrews team and return the part.

In Khovd, we also took the opportunity to restock, buying a wheel spanner that was sorely needed after the demise of our previous one as well as food. We also got our tyre puncture repaired, we are averaging one a day at the moment, so we need to get them repaired as quickly as possible! Greg also had quite the market experience, with a local man deciding to punch Greg hard in the arm, before his girlfriend dragged him away. Confused and amused, we carried on with the shop.

We managed a few more kilometres after Khovd, thanks to some actual tarmac! We found a small stream to camp by, as we were all keen for a wash, but this was quickly abandoned when swarms of mosquitos emerged from the grass around the stream, and setted down further away surrounded by nothing but mossie free sand.

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Day 35 – Adventure in Mongolia

After an interesting nights sleep, punctuated by the occasional cries of the families new-born baby, we were ready to hit the road and get down our first serious miles in Mongolia. A quick check confirmed that we had indeed lost the two sleeping bags, but we put it down to bad luck at the border and tried to get on our way. It was then that the issue of payment was raised. We had obviously assumed that some money would probably change hands for all the food and hospitality, but the price was initially quoted as $250 for the 11 of us. We thought this a bit steep, having heard of prices from $2 up to $10 each, so we tried to take back the guitar. After some haggling, they kept the guitar, and we paid 8000 Tugrugs each (about $6).

A few hours later we refilled on diesel, food and sleeping bags in Olgiy and decided to get some miles behind us. Unfortunately, 20 minutes outside the town we had to pull over, as Adventure had a little problem. Surprise, surprise. This time it seemed like the differential might have gone, making it a little more serious than any of the previous problems, so it was with heavy hearts that we towed it back to a garage. They confirmed our assessment of the problem, but said there were no parts anywhere nearer than UlaanBaatar, and they couldn’t fix it. We were going to have to leave Adventure behind.

We started sorting out what we could fit into one ambulance, bearing in mind that we now needed to get all 7 people in as well, and bought a local SIM card to call ahead and find out the procedure. We were not keen on scrapping the ambulance, and neither were GoHelp, but towing it 1800 km on gravel roads was not an option, and we couldn’t afford the weeks wait it would take to get a new part. The only way around it seemed to be leaving it to be collected later. After some persuasion that we needed an answer today as we needed to be on our way, we were told that they had contact with a man who runs a children’s place in the town. We got a local to give him directions over the phone, and it turned out she was related to him. We ended up leaving Adventure in her yard and heading off for the first time all in one vehicle.

We got a bit further than we had when we broke down, and had to stop for the night as it was getting dark. So far, very little progress through Mongolia, but a lot of drama…

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Day 34 – Welcome to Mongolia!

After a freezing night in the holding pen, with the night silence punctuated with the unmistakable sound of howling wolves, we were very ready for our first day in Mongolia. We did have to wait however, and after much waiting, we were once again on our way! We had decided to convoy with the St Andrews team, a delightful bunch of students from across Europe, and set out on our first taste of Mongolian ‘roads’. The basic definition of a road here is a long, narrow piece of land with less grass than the surrounding area, but can vary from smooth sandy track to incredibly jolting stony road. There are usually several ‘roads’ next to each other where other road users have decided that the grass was a more attractive option than the current road.

30 minutes into our Journey we were stopped by a friendly local on a motorbike, who was brave enough to let Ian have his first ever go on a motorbike! He led us back to his Ger and house and insisted upon us joining him for dinner and even offering us and the St Andrews team a place to sleep. After much tea and a delicious Pasta and Yak meal, we started on the fermented horse milk before heading on to the vodka and beer. They also introduced us to the local custom of not leaving the table unless your drink was finished, leading Matt to quickly down a bowl of vodka before he was allowed to leave!

After many drinks and exchanging local music tastes (we went for Wonderwall, a classic!) we slept pretty well!

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Day 33 – Through Russia to the border

We woke up early in order to achieve the 600km from where we camped to the Russia/Mongolia border. The roads were perfect all the way with us averaging about 65km along the twisting mountain roads. We were treated with lots of spectacular views of vast flat fields, rolling hills and huge snow-capped mountains.

En-route we stopped off at a local garage to get the front left tyres nuts loosened as our Uzbek mechanics tightened them to an extreme extent with a 2 metre long lever. That’s when we realised we were momentarily back in a western-style society, as a 10 minute job to loosen some wheel nuts cost us $20!

From leaving at 6:30am in the morning, we arrived at the border area at roughly 4pm. We jumped out the ambulances at the Russian border expecting there to be at least a few issues, however we were once again pleasantly surprised. The only problem was the fact that the border coming into Russia didn’t give as a customs declaration form, which the leaving border wanted. After a few worried moments we found out that the Kazakhstan customs declaration was just as good. Then a brief search of the ambulances, with a guard telling us which of our Russian vodkas were good/bad, we drove the 20km no-mans land road to the Mongolian border.

We were greeted by some Mongolia Rally teams in the passport control area and we got through quickly, however we soon realised the vehicles will take much longer as we are now importing them into Mongolia. We spent roughly 2 hours at the border trying to do the forms until a guard told us to drive the ambulances to a “holding pen” and wait until tomorrow morning to finish the forms.

As we waited the St. Andrews team arrived and not shortly after the Drift Kings arrived to the team’s amazement, as we feared we would not bump into them again after Turkmenistan. For the first time Mongol Charity team members outnumbered “The Adventurists” (Mongolian Rally) teams. We all then settled down to a night of eating and drinking at the border.

Some of the local children came to say ‘Hi’, casually climbing over the border fence for a game of football. The English toys we gave them seemed to go down a treat! Most of the team stole into Mongolia to the nearby village and found someone’s house that doubled as a shop to get some more supplies and change up some dollars into Mongolian Tugrug. We exchanged $170 for over 200,000 Tugrugs with the majority being 500 Tugrug notes, the wad of cash made us feel rather rich.

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Day 32 – Fixing Adventure in Russia

After a much appreciated lie-in we set off to Novo-Altaysk to fix Adventure’s alternator. The journey to Barnaul was made more interesting by the multimeter now permanently wired to Adventure, giving us live dashboard information on the current state of the battery. Braking, indicating and lights all caused the voltage to drop, so we were careful to use lights sparingly on all three, which sometimes created some interesting city driving!

We managed to find a car parts shop to find a new alternator. Although they didn’t have any spares, the owner spoke pretty good English, and with the help of an iPad, directed us to a street of car mechanics. We arrived at the street to find ourselves spoiled for choice, with around 20 garages all competing for a look in at some of our Rubles. The first garage we tried turned out to be a specialist alternator/starter motor repair centre and quickly had our alternator in bits. 2 hours later with our wallets a little lighter, we were back with two alternators. It was just a shame that the Azerbaijani mechanics neglected to give all the parts back from our starter motor during our abortive attempt to fix it there.

We also met some lovely Russian ladies who took a liking to Berry and Greg who were guarding our ambulances, informing them that they “did not like Russian boys” and provided them with gifts of tea and ice cream. The rest of the team didn’t hear them complaining about the attention!

Bump-starting one ambulance seemed like a holiday in comparison, and we decided to make some headway towards the Mongolian border. After a few hours of driving we came across a secluded spot to camp and, surrounded by forest, we had our first camp fire of the trip. This was very welcome in the colder weather that has greeted us in Russia.

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Day 31 – Kazakhstan – Russia

Today we reached the border from Kazakhstan to Russia. We have heard lots of horror stories about the border, ranging from having to wait over a day to being totally denied access to Russia with the vehicle. Luckily we arrived with typical SDOP enthusiasm and after a bribe to a guard of some English biscuits, we got through both Kazakhstan and Russian borders in under an hour! We are either extremely lucky or border guards just love us.

Upon leaving we saw a building for insurance and thought it would probably be best to get some. After some confusing conversations with men that spoke no English and couldn’t understand why we were doing such a rally, we got insurance for 15 days for both the vehicles for $150 before setting off in Russia at roughly 4pm.

Adventure was up to its old tricks, with the battery not being charged due to the alternator being broken and the passenger side drive shaft vibrating the ambulance whenever there is any acceleration.

After pulling over for the night we switched the ambulances’ batteries around, giving Adventure a fully charged battery that should last a few days. In the mean time Endeavor will spend all of tomorrow charging Adventure’s flat battery. Due to this alternator problem, both ambulances now have to be bump-started whenever the engine is switched off, a source of much amusement to locals after we have just explained that we are traveling to Mongolia.

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