Mongol Shoebox. Driving a Suzuki SJ from the UK to Mongolia and back! From Ocean to Everest in a Auto Rickshaw!

adventure the world

The questions we are asked most

Did you enjoy it?

Yes, yes, yes! What an amazing experience. There were some huge lows and at times it was incredibly difficult but the highs could not be compared. People have asked us to sum the whole thing up in a few sentences but sorry, you just cant; it had a far more profound influence on our lives than that.

What was your favourite country?

Tough one. Uzbekistan was the friendliest country, Kyrgyzstan was the most dramatic but Mongolia was our favourite. It is not a country of must see sites but one you just have to experience, feel, smell and live in, even if just for a few days.

What was the low point of your trip?

In Mongolia our rear wheel bearing was breaking up badly and had got to a critical stage; we thought we had failed. We tried to find a garage and when we did it was a garden shed where the mechanics had to borrow our tools because they did not have any of their own. That and driving through Siberia - it went on for ever, it was cold ,wet and we were sleeping upright in the car.

What was the high point of your trip?

When the garden shed mechanics managed to bodge the wheel bearing; we both nearly shed a tear! That and achieving our main aim of making it from one end of Mongolia to the other.

What where the people like?

It really depended. In Uzbekistan one family nearly drove us off the road just so they could say hi and give us a melon! In general people were cautious of us and therefore appeared unfriendly but once you got to know them they were very friendly. When we stopped at garages, you tended to be there for the day by the end of which you would be forgiven of thinking you were leaving a life long friend. This was especially true of the guys in Barnaul where we stopped both on the way and on the way back. On our return visit, they could not do enough for us. We were given dinner in the home of a Mongolian mechanic, and received presents from the Barnaul mechanics' (a Russian police baton being one such example).

What was one thing you learnt?

It is hard to choose just one. Perhaps one of the biggest one's was about the way life is conducted. We had a number of break downs, hundreds of miles from the next human being; in a situation like this you HAVE to solve the problem. To give an example, in Siberia the water pump pulley snapped half its outer collar off meaning the fan belt would not stay on and therefore we would go bang within miles. After half an hour of experimentation, Nigel managed to fix a jubilee clip onto the pulley and using it as the outer collar, drive the hundred odd miles to the next town. By the time we arrived back in the UK we had a gasket made of sheep's wool, wheel bearings from a truck gearbox, bits stolen from Lada's, the fuse box held together with tape; the list goes on. Mechanics in these countries cant just phone up the local auto parts dealer; they don't exist! So they make do and use inventiveness and the point is that it works and if it doesn't the first time they try again until it does. In the UK, we just call the AA or RAC and don't look at all surprised when we are told it will take days to fix!

How much petrol did you use?

Sorry, lost track after Europe but a lot!

How expensive was petrol?

From Russia to Mongolia the average price was around 20p per litre, in Latvia and Lithuania it was around 40p, and in Poland and the Czech Republic it was about 60p.

Was petrol hard to find?

Not as hard as we thought it would be. There were periods during Mongolia and the old Russia counties were you had to carry jerry cans but as long as you topped up whenever you could, an extra 20-30 litres would cover you. The same goes for the quality of the petrol; at times we had to use 80 grade but most of the time, with a bit of shopping around, you could find 92 grade which was fine (standard UK petrol is 95 grade).

The car had to be under 1 litre, was an SJ the right choice?

Good question! For us it was but for many it would not have been. Its a question of your intended route; those teams that drove through Mongolia in an SJ found the journey challenging but not difficult and were therefore able to enjoy the experience whereas those that drove through Mongolia in a normal car found it challenging (there enjoyment came more from reaching UB). The difference was one of ground clearance.

The same can be said in parts of Kazakhstan etc. There were just times when the SJ's clearance and ability to handle the rough stuff made it the only choice, but (and this is a big BUT) on tarmac an SJ will do 60mph if your lucky whereas that Fiesta will bomb along at 80mph. Now it doesn't sound like a lot of difference but when you are crossing Russia on the route we took back to the UK, we calculated that it took us a day longer than it would take a Fiesta (and we were driving for 16hours a day).

Our point is this. it depends which route you are taking; some of the routes (especially if you are enter Mongolia through its northern border) have very little rough or off road terrain and therefore a 'normal' car is probably the way forwards. If however you want to drive through Mongolia and more, then an SJ is the sensible choice; we certainly took ours to some places that a Micra simply could not have reached!

What did you do for water?

Bottled water was fairly easy to find. Every so often we would buy 20 or so bottles and fill the containers we had and then would then buy extra bottles as and when we found them.

What was the food like?

Sometimes good, sometimes terrible. There is a traditional Russian soup which became a staple food source which we rather liked. In UB, Mongolia we had the best Chinese meal either of us had ever tasted. In Altay, Mongolia we had a meat dish which tasted like, well, dog food that had been sitting out too long. You just never knew what you would get!

There were 140 teams out there, it must of seemed crowded?

Well actually, no it didn't. The night after the launch there was a gathering in Prague but after that, everyone spread out very quickly. For the rest of the journey we saw very few people and the ones we did see tended to be the same teams over and over again. Even at the finish, we saw the same people plus a few others (although as we were leaving UB new teams we had never meet were just arriving). In total we maybe only met 30 other teams maximum.

Did you travel in convoy or by yourselves?

Both. Most of the route we travelled by ourselves but for about one week we travelled in convoy with a team called Bonkers Bovine. Travelling alone does have its advantages but on balance, travelling in convoy was more fun but only as long as both cars travel about the same speed etc. We heard of others trying to move in groups in very different cars i.e. a SJ that is good off road but slow on road and a Micra which is the opposite. The net result is that neither team went anywhere.

How many times did you have problems with the authorities?

As a rule, we had no problems with border guards (one wanted to drive the car which he did badly but overall they were ok). From Russia onwards there were regular police checkpoints which at times could be every 15 minutes or so. If you were stopped (and we generally were) they normally were just interested in what a strange looking vehicle was doing in their neck of the woods. We were stopped 6 times for various traffic offences; some were real, some were not. One involved a police station which Nigel disappeared into for 15 minutes but in the end we only paid one fine. The rest we played dump until they got bored with us.

How many bribes did you have to pay?

Not as many as we were asked for! The traffic offence mentioned above was totally false; Jordy was driving and was stopped for driving on the pavement except there was no actual pavement to drive on. Despite there being no steering wheel in front of Nigel, it was he that was made to go over to the police car with his documents which were then confiscated until he paid the fine. After some bartering and a lot of gun waiving we paid the fine for the sake of progress; it was £2.50! On another occasion, Nigel was taken into a dark room with a low ceiling for some time until we coughed up the US$5. There were other instances where we didn't pay the bribe despite the large machine gun being pointed in our general direction. It was of a question of knowing when to pay and when to fight.

What was the hardest part of the journey?

Russia - it is so gob-smackingly big. Some of the states or counties in Russia are three times the size of France! You buy a Russian map and find that some areas of the country are so insignificant that the scale is so large that it takes 3 days to cross one page of the map. This is not some 4 page map either, it is hundred of pages thick. If that is not bad enough, there are some areas which are not even on the map and this is a Russian map made by Russians!

Anyway, Russia was the hardest part because of the distance. On the route home we were pushed for time and therefore had to drive for 16 hours a day (sleeping in the car) just to cross Russia; and it still took 5 days to do. Europe is but a blip compared to this giant.

Did you learn to speak Russian before you went?

Err, no! We had great intentions of learning some useful phrases such as

"Excuse me ..... do you know where I could purchase a bicycle”

"I cannot pay the fine, however I could offer you my Status Quo tee-shirt instead"

"Unhand my lady sir, and pass me that socket wrench ... "

"We appear to be in a slight spot of bother .... could you assist"

"Excuse me ..... your camel is sitting on my lunch"

but in the end all we managed was "thank you" and "my name is"! Once on the journey we did expand our vocabulary with "How are you" in Mongolian, "Car" in Russian, "Where are you going" in Russian and a few other useful but unrelated words. We became pretty useful at understanding what Police and Border Guards said even if we could not answer them.

In the main, it was a life of sign language, noises, pointing and acting out, especially with the mechanics. Of course this did occasionally bring some quite interesting results most memorable of which was seeing Nigel walking around doing a chicken impression in a Mongolian garage due to a misunderstand over the words "chick" and "check"! Well it seemed normal at the time...

I'm planning on entering the Mongol rally. How did you go about getting sponsorship?

A lot of hard work! We had more sponsors than the majority of other teams in the rally. Unlike some of the other teams, we didn't have the opportunity to get lots of individuals to donate to the charities so made a conscious decision to hit the corporate market. Four of our sponsors were companies that we had previously conducted business with but the others were all found through targeted local mail shots, emails and follow up phone calls. On the whole, we found that the companies that were willing to get involved were the ones where an individual, be it the owner or a high level manager, was actually interested in the event itself. Your success will depend on the effort you put in, if you go to a company with your idea on the back of a fag packet don't expect a good result. You will get knocked back a lot but there is nothing better than the feeling of securing a new sponsor! Finally, don't be fooled into thinking corporate sponsors are the easy route; the smaller companies invariably don't have high resolution logos they can easily provide you, most want to talk to you about your plans and progress before and after the event and all sponsors expect and rightly deserve publicity from their investment. In fact, four months after the rally finished, we are still involved in preparing press releases etc. for one of our sponsors. It is a time consuming element of your rally preparation but it is also a very rewarding one.

What did you have to pay for and what did your sponsors pay for?

We were lucky and had two large sponsors that helped with the charity donation and with our costs. All our other sponsors provided products, services and discounts. In all likelihood, all your sponsors will be in this second category. Because of this, before you go hunting for sponsors, have a good think about what it is you actually want from them and then target your sponsorship hunting accordingly. With our sponsorship information pack we included a detailed list of the items we were looking for and consequently, all our sponsors took a lot of care to ensure we were only given items that we actually needed.

Where did you stay each night and what distance did you do each day?

DayDestinationMileage CommentsSleeping
1East of Brussels, Belgium  Car- Service Station
2Prague, Czech Republic  Hotel
3Poland  Car - Truck Stop
4Poland - 30km from Lithuania  Tent - Truck Stop
5Anglona, Latvia  Tent - Camp Site
6Russia  Tent - Farm Track
7150km south of Moscow, Russia372 Car- Petrol Station
8Russia431 Tent - Ploughed Field
9Russia/Kazakhstan Border437 Car - No Mans Land
10100km SW Atyrau, Kazakhstan251 Tent - Dessert
1140km NW Beyve, Kazakhstan243 Tent - Dessert
12Kazakhstan210 Tent - Dessert
13Uzbekistan363 Tent - Dessert
14Samarqand, Uzbekistan291 Hotel
15Samarqand, Uzbekistan0 Hotel
16Angron, Uzbekistan289 Student Accommodation - horrible!!!
17Osh, Kyrgyzstan235 Hotel
18Alatau Mountains, Kyrgyzstan316 Tent - Mountain Plateau
1950km NE Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan Border147Explored BishkekTent - Off Track
2010km NW Mench, Kazakhstan407 Tent - Off Road
21Kazakhstan181No road all dayTent - Off Road
22Russian/Kazakhstan Border286 Tent - Outside Border Control Area
23Barnaul, Russia251 Hotel
24Barnaul, Russia0At mechanics all dayHotel
25Siberia, Russia391 Car - Truck Stop
26Siberia, Russia464 Car - Truck Stop
27 Siberia, Russia253 Tent - By Lake
28 Siberia, Russia493 Car - Truck Stop
29UB, Mongolia395 Armchair!
30UB, Mongolia0 Hotel
31UB, Mongolia0 Hotel
32UB, Mongolia0 Hotel
33UB, Mongolia0 Hotel
34UB, Mongolia0 Hotel
35160km W of UB, Mongolia113Left UB at 2pmTent - Off Road
36Xpt, Mongolia279 Tent - Off Road
37130km W of Bayanhongor, Mongolia113Broke downTent - River Bank
38Altay, Mongolia168Running repairsHotel - Dump
39Hovd, Mongolia283 Tent - River Bank
40Hovd, Mongolia23At mechanic all dayTent - River Bank
41Olgi, Mongolia166 Ger
42Siberia, Russia266 Tent - River Bank
43Siberia, Russia134Lazy day - stopped at 2pmTent - River Bank
44Barnaul, Russia181Broke downHotel
45Russia336 Car - Truck Stop
46Russia568 Car - Truck Stop
47Russia569 Car - Truck Stop
48Russia564 Tent - Truck Stop
49W of Moscow, Russia442 Car - Truck Stop
50Angola, Latvia277 Tent - Camp Site
51Poland - 30km from Lithuania237 Tent - Truck Stop
52Poland - 100km from Germany433 Car - Petrol Station
53Germany422 Tent - Service Station
54Colchester - UK138 Need you ask!


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