The Mongolia Charity Rally, organised by the UK-based Go Help charity, provides support for the Children Protection and Development Fund, working with kids in Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital.
The event is part endurance challenge/part overland adventure – and there’s an element of charity sale, too. At the end of several weeks’ exciting overland adventure, participants donate their vehicles to the charity. Most are auctioned to raise cash but some prized machines, such as Land Rovers, are kept and used.
‘Land Rovers are at the top of the charity’s wishlist,’ explains Mike Griffin, from Stanhope in Northumberland. He’s the de facto expedition leader, probably because it was he who managed to persuade Northumbrian Water to donate a Td5 Defender 110 for the event. Angus Myers at Durham Four Wheel Drive then prepared the old workhorse for a new life in Mongolia, fitting a 2.5-inch suspension lift, cutting windows into the side panels, and fitting underbody protection and forward-facing rear seats. It was also given a thorough service.
None of our heroes has a huge amount of mechanical expertise – or Land Rover driving experience, come to that. They had time only for a crash course in the rudiments of traversing various off-road obstacles at Weardale 4x4, before the marathon overland adventure began four days later.
After months of planning and feverish activity, the big day finally dawned and they were off, down the road to Mongolia. Here’s part one (of two) of their story, written by Mike Griffin,which takes us to Baku, Azerbaijan.
After a traditional Mongolian Nadaam celebration at Highbury Fields, Islington, we set off with 70 other vehicles to catch the tunnel to France. We spent the first few days on good European tarmac, all of us getting used to driving a top-heavy vehicle at motorway speeds.
Day three started just west of Munich, with Ollie waking to a German lorry driver urinating outside his tent. In a bizarre kind of way, this ‘letting loose’ of fluid actually set the tone for the day as we ploughed through thunderstorm, into fog and back into thunderstorm, all the way down through Germany, into Austria and Slovenia.
We discovered during this journey that the term ‘seal’ doesn’t apply to the rubberised material surrounding the Defender’s doors. However, the day ended well with some local beers and a swim (well, we all had the urge to experience even more water) before settling down for the night by a deep blue lake at Bled.
Next, we moved south along Croatia’s stunningly beautiful coastline before cutting back east and into Bosnia. Here, other drivers seemed to think they were invincible. We saw two-lane highways turn into four as we, as well as the oncoming car, were being overtaken.
Bosnia itself was incredible, though. We stopped at Mostar to swim in the ice-cold river and stayed the night in Sarajevo. Matching the images that
I remember from news coverage of the horrible Balkan war in the ’90s with the reality of the place today is a hard comparison to make – thank heavens.
From Bosnia we drove towards Montenegro. The road to the border is marked as an A-road; the reality was a single track that wound its way precariously up through the mountains. Over the border, the road wound down towards the coast, cut into the rock-side with blue lakes on one side and sheer cliffs on the other. From the coastal town of Bar we headed towards Albania.
Driving in Albania is a nightmare. There are no discernible road rules and the drivers – the worst you could possibly imagine – career around everywhere at high speed in ancient Ladas. The large police presence had little effect: we saw several of them fast asleep by the roadside, speed guns resting in their laps.
Into Macedonia. We stayed at a basic hostel in Ohrid, before setting off early the next day into Greece and then back into Macedonia, when I discovered I had left my camera behind. The 500-mile detour that followed meant we approached the Turkish border shattered, after driving through the night to make up time. We were desperate to reach our hostel in Istanbul.
Istanbul should have taken us two or three hours from the Turkish border… it took 11. The queues for Istanbul started 30 miles from the city limits. As well as the horrendous traffic, it was dark and we didn’t have a proper map. We finally made it to our hostel some time after 2am. After a journey like that, our opinion of Istanbul was clouded somewhat but, as Gemma described in her diary, arriving at our hostel was like ‘arriving into a fairytale heaven! Cobbled streets, lined with fairy lights, in which the rabid, stray dogs were replaced by kittens.’
We got a fair picture of Istanbul that night – a city of tremendous wealth and beauty, yet at the same time filled with poverty and the filth that it breeds.
On our ‘rest day’ in Istanbul, we received news that two teams had been turned back from the border into Azerbaijan for having a right-hand-drive car. It could have been a trip-ending problem for us.
A call to the Azeri embassy in London eased our fears slightly. The embassy official laughed and implied that the stricken teams should have tried a bit harder – in other words, offered them a few dollars more.
We resolved to try and cross at the northern, less popular border and
relaxed for the few hours we had left of the day. It had taken us eight days to get to the cusp of Asia. After another night in Istanbul we left early and ploughed on east, and then north-east up to the Black Sea coast.
The next day, and by complete chance, we bumped into another Mongolia Charity Rally team of three from Scotland just before the Georgian border. We hooked up with them and their Mitsubishi Delica and travelled in convoy.
The Turkey-Georgia border was absolute chaos, with a mile-long queue of trucks stretching away from it. We were then faced with a scrum of people, all competing frantically for the attentions of one (increasingly irate) border official.
It took most of the afternoon and evening to get through and, by the time we drove into Georgia, it was getting dark and we could see no obvious safe places to camp.
We stopped and asked a couple of young Georgians outside a bar if there was anywhere safe to pitch our tents. They invited us to stay with them and we followed them home… nervously. The place turned out to be fantastic – we had the entire top floor of a slightly run-down, but very homely, mansion surrounded by vineyards and an orchard.
Our new Georgian friend, Shotan, took us to a bar where he proceeded to buy us all drinks and food, and we toasted to new friendships for several hours, during which none of us was allowed to pay for anything.
When we returned to the house, the owner had laid on a selection of Georgian food to sample and a lot of wine made from the grapes in his vineyard. Tremendous hospitality.
The next day we said our goodbyes and picked up the main route through the centre of the country, into Gori and on towards Tblisi.
Even the policemen were friendly in Georgia. When they stopped us, it was just to ask if we were enjoying our stay and to suggest places to eat.
After camping in the mountains north-east of Tblisi we headed to the Azerbaijan border early the next morning, anticipating that it could take some time.
In the end, the border was pretty much deserted and we were through in about an hour. The guard who was supposed to search the vehicle sipped vodka from a metal cup and spent a couple of minutes admiring our suspension before volunteering: ‘Defender… Good car!’
Two weeks after we left, the Russians arrived in tanks.
Azerbaijan started well. But as we approached the capital and main port, Baku, the roads deteriorated into potholed gravel tracks. We arrived at 2am and settled down in the car park of a big, stern-looking Communist-era hotel next to the port.
It had taken us two weeks to get to Baku, about half-distance. We were looking forward to catching the morning ferry to Turkmenistan and getting a bit of a rest.
In the end, it wasn’t quite that simple. Baku bit back big-time; and the drama of the coming days created problems that we spent the rest of the trip trying to shake. But in the car park that night we slept like babies, blissfully unaware of the events that were about to unfold.
We’ll reveal all the grisly details in the next issue.
The full story can be found in the April 2009 issue of LRO. Download a digital issue, or order a back issue by calling 01858 438884.