Mission Mongolia is underway!

Let Mission Mongolia Begin!

See previous Mission Mongolia posts here and here 🙂

So the day had finally come. A year of blood, sweat and tears had been spent getting the paperwork, crew and vehicle together for this day.

It was going to be a tough launch. We had to get the final kit on board, get our personal bags in, sponsor merchandise and fill our fresh water tank. We had also invited all our families friends and sponsors to wave us off.

For a trip like this, there were so many moving parts. Currency, visas, borders, crew, kit, accidents and the vehicle (which had plagued our last year with issues), there was so much that could go wrong. I was trying my best to be positive but to drive to Mongolia is such a massive feat… considering the China detour I had planned, was this even possible? As the person who thought up this trip, chose the crew, chose the vehicle, prepared the vehicle and completed all the permits and visas – the success of this trip was ultimately on me.

After a year of obsession with success, I was now at the ‘reasoning’ stage where I compromised that if we made it out of Europe, I would be happy (we’ll see how that works out!).

Under the bright blue sky, Scott, Luca and Me started work on the vehicle whilst our partners sat watching in a subdued mood. Talking about their worry for us taking on this epic adventure.

We worked to load the vehicle and we were very short on space. We had loaded up the roof rack and under the beds. We started to ditch our ‘last minute’ comforts and started to prep the living area and cab. We now had an audience which was growing by the minute…

As we finished, we started to say our farewells to the fifty people who were there to wish us luck. It was difficult to say goodbye when I realised it was my idea to put them through this with my daft adventure but it was a little late to pull out now!

We had our final photos as we started the engine and we were off! We drove down the road and just out of sight of our families. An absolute ecstasy came over all of us. With no pre-warning we all just started cheering and laughing for no reason other than this was it. No more practices. No more training. Mission Mongolia was underway.

Mission Mongolia
We’re Off!


Kylie started the driving and I was navigating. I wanted to keep an eye on a few issues that had persisted for the last few weeks.

As we went down the country lane towards the motorway, I noticed the extreme roll that came over the vehicle. I knew the weight on the roof was at the limit but the rolling was  really off-putting. Over each bump, the van would launch left and then back to the right. I would need to keep a close eye on that!

We hit the motorway on the way to the port and the handling returned to normal. We turned up the music, the day was beautiful and sunny and it was a high I haven’t felt before – a true sense of the brutally hard work, starting to pay off.

We set off at 5pm which left plenty of time for traffic, minor issues and a bit of dinner before the ferry. On the way, I ran through all the details in my mind. I checked the map and memorised our European route and timings. I checked the tracker was working that our families could check. I checked the kit we had and made sure I was confident and knew all the details off by heart.

As it turned out, someone was looking after us as we arrived at Dover just before 7pm – an hour earlier than planned.  As we drove up to check-in, Kylie asked whether we were sailing with P&O or DFDS. . . Whoops, OK, maybe I didn’t memorise all the details!

Under pressure, whilst I frantically searched for my folder with the booking it, I confidently told Kylie we were definitely with P&O…as she spoke to the man in the check in hut, we weren’t.

After some truly skillful reversing, avoiding the HGVs piling up to check-in, we got the right company.

The guy on the check-in desk who had clearly just watched our expert maneuver, opened his window and asked if we were in a rush to get the earlier boat leaving at 7.30, we honestly weren’t but as he had mentioned it, we weren’t letting a two-hour head-start pass by.

He explained that check-in had closed for that sailing but without letting him finish, I started to tell him about our Mission. He thought it was hilarious and Kylie, without missing a beat, had got a handful of sponsor sunglasses from the back and passed a couple over. He loved them and booked us onto the 7.30 sailing.

We flew around the port roads and boarded the ship straight away. We walked up and out onto deck… we were on an absolute high. We were leaving the UK and entering our second country.

We had some time to ourselves and it felt strange. It would be five weeks until I was back in the UK, at my house or in my bed… not any old five weeks, five weeks of the unknown…

Our schedule was very ambitious, we had to compromise on time to get sponsor buy-in, China was a reasonable detour when we signed up for it but as soon as we started planning, its significance became clear. We agreed that this was a mission, it was not a holiday, we had some great charities and causes that we believed in wholeheartedly and we were doing this for them.

In order to keep to our schedule, we had to drive 24-hours a day. We were fully kitted for a driving and sleeping crew. We would do 4 hours driving, 4 hours navigating and 8 hours rest. We would operate in pairs and swap driving partners every 72 hours.

Kylie had taken first driving shift and I had taken second, Scott and Luca had first rest period. Although it seemed fair, how could Scott and Luca sleep with all the starting excitement? They did their best to try to rest as we drove off the ferry and hit the A16 towards Belgium – country three.

The A16 runs across the northern coast of France, it is mostly a great road for driving trips. It it not often congested and the road surface is like glass. WIth 130 km/h limit, it is a great road to make up time on. Although we were ahead of schedule, Kylie didn’t hang around.

As we drove through Belgium, there was a really strange smell that started off faint but was becoming more obvious. I had noticed this smell on our last training trip to Scotland. We had an oil leak from the turbo then and I thought it was to do with that but the leak had been fixed.

I wondered whether it was left over oil from the leak, warming up and causing a false-issue. I plugged in the diagnostic machine to check ‘the vitals’ (fluid pressures, temperatures and other engine measurements). All seemed normal, good, actually.  I started to worry. We were an hour onto the continent and we had signs of trouble.

I assured Kylie all looked good and I expected it to clear. Meanwhile, my brain was ticking through all the things it could be. We carried on chatting and the smell got worse. I turned on the map light as it was now completely dark outside and I wanted to check some more possibilities. The second I turned on the light I saw it. Billowing from under the driver’s seat and rising slowly, around Kylie I saw smoke.

Suddenly I knew we had to act fast, we were responsible for each other, the vehicle, but most importantly, the sleeping crew in the back.

‘Kylie, can you pull over please’ I said calmly.

‘Yeah, there is some services in a few kilometers, everything OK?’ Kylie suggested.

I asked her, more directly to take the exit immediately to our right. She pulled off the road and went up the slip road. At the junction at the end, Kylie took the right turn and pulled off onto the hard shoulder of a minor road, under a street light.

I jumped out and opened the side door ‘ can you get out the van for a minute gents, we have smoke.

‘Smoke?’ Kylie asked, ‘What do you mean, Smoke?’

I assured them it was nothing but asked them, to get out. I immediately felt under the seat (this is where the Batteries are fixed in a Ford Transit) – BOILING HOT!

I went onto the roof rack and got all the tools I needed and whipped out the front seat. The battery had been seriously overheating and was virtually dry. I made a rig out of a small funnel, a small straw and some fuel hose to refill the sealed battery through the vent hole. It took more than 3 litres to refill. This wasn’t good – the battery was probably dead.

I checked all the battery wiring and it seemed fine. I went underneath and started stripping the conduit off of the alternator wiring. As I did so, the cable came off in my hand. My heart sank, the signal wires had corroded all the way through.

This was one of the most awkward bits of wiring to get to in the whole engine bay. It would be a really difficult fix but without it, we would be stuck here.

If if got the fix wrong, we would fry the second battery and we would have a serious delay.

Scott and Luca offered to help but I knew this was an easier job to finish alone, I repaired the cables, and wondered how I would get the batteries to work.

I put the van back together and luckily the Ford Transit is a twin battery system so I used a jump cable to swap the primary and secondary battery. Luck seemed to again be in our favour as it started and drove great! All the readings were right on the multimeter and we were ready to leave again.

Without anyone seeming to notice, Kylie had curled up on the side of the road and fallen asleep. She was not bothered by the cold road in the middle of the night with cars and lorries driving past. Kylie got up, happy the van was fixed and we were ready to set off again. I took over the driving shift as Scott and Luca tried to get some rest again. I was uneasy that we had an issue this early on – just get out of Europe, I thought.

We drove on and into The Netherlands and then into Germany, it was time to swap. It was the first time to practice our crew changeover from sleeping to driving crew and vice versa. (remarkably complex but very effective to keep morale up!).

We changed over and although the beds were very bouncy, the road was smooth and I slipped into a very deep sleep, still worried about the van.

Scott and Luca drove the entire length of Germany in their shift, they navigated well and when we woke up, they had hit every checkpoint on-time and the vehicle had performed well. I was elated at this, the UK was fast vanishing behind us and daylight had brought a new wave of optimism over me…for now.

I checked our route in detail and ran through all our timings carefully as Kylie began driving into Poland; we were doing really well. Europe was, however, more of a checkbox. We knew the roads and how it works, we had completed a 2500 mile European training trip so this was more a run-in of vehicle and crew shifts. Once we got out of Europe, the adventure would really begin. Even with that considered, we were doing well.

We stopped at a services in Swiebodzin, Poland. As we got out, three women walked over to us and started hassling us to buy sunglasses and perfume. We fuelled and I changed some of our Euros for Złoty.

Money was another issue that had to be worked out. British Visa and Mastercards were pointless in China and Cards were generally useless in The Stans as they are cash-based countries. We couldn’t take too much cash with us through borders as they can be subject to customs controls. In addition to this, some of the closed currencies we were buying weren’t meant to be taken out of the country either. Having a lot of cash, even when legal, could attract unwelcome attention from Border Guards and Police too. Sterling was also not very useful in comparison to US Dollars and Euros were even more useless that the rest (controversial subject, enough said). So we had to take US Dollars for most of the countries. Buying the currencies that we needed in advance was fairly difficult to as most were ‘closed’ and the others were so obscure that no one stocked them.

As our vehicle was a mobility van for the disabled, a ‘Flexi-Trans’ floor was fitted. This was a box section floor to hold wheelchair anchors and movable seatbelts. The bonus was that a cover at the rear could be removed to access the box section channels and in there, I bagged up $500 dollar bundles in cash and stuffed them far back with  a broom handle and attached wires to the bundles to I could retrieve them before each border. Not legal or easy to explain if caught,  but it might just work…

For now, the Euro’s I had brought with us, worked fine and we swapped what was left for złoty and kept a few hundred back for the Lithuania and Latvia section.

As we came back out to the van, the sunglasses and perfumes were being sold in a more direct way, Kylie was being told she NEEDED some perfume which I thought was hilarious. Kylie, on form, grabbed a couple of pairs of sponsor sunglasses and gave the ladies one each. They seemed ecstatic and walked off comparing sunglasses with each other.

We all got together and talked over a coffee before we set off again for the next leg of the journey.

Mission Mongolia
Me and Scott, making the most of a short break!

From there, we headed along the A2 towards Łódź and Warsaw. On the A2, we got to see first-hand what Polish driving was all about – it was bloody awful!

On the A2, drivers seem intent on not dropping below 160km/h and they were not even that good at driving fast! No exaggeration, in our 7 hours of driving, we saw 11 accidents that looked fatal. There were cars in ditches, lorries with no cabs left, cars on one end balancing against the central reservation – Kylie and I were genuinely shocked. Having heard about Russia, this really brought home our mortality and I though this may be the calm before the storm…

On the note of storms, there was one brewing…

Mission Mongolia
A storm is coming..

Lake Bled, Slovenia


I must have looked at over twenty destinations in my search for our perfect February break.

We had four days ideally, had to be a reasonable cost, had to be within a few hours flight and I wanted to fly from Gatwick – an easy criteria for Europe in February.

I searched for ways to convince Kerrie of each place I found and she was indifferent to my excited pitch about what there was to do in each place until I showed her a picture of Lake Bled.

When she said ‘We have to go there!’, I immediately booked flights before she could change her mind!

Castle on Lake Bled, Slovenia
My own, unedited photo…

Lake Bled is in Northern Slovenia, not far from the Austrian border. It is a beautiful lake in the Julian Alps with a small island in the middle. It is a big tourist attraction in the summer but winter seems to be their low season.

Bled town is primarily to the East of the lake and has plenty of hotels and restaurants to cater for the busy season. It also has a big Medieval Castle on a hill towering over the town which is lit up at night.

In winter, the lake freezes over to such a thickness that you can walk over the surface, all the way to the island in the middle – when we got there, a warm spell had hit and the ice wasn’t thick enough to safely walk on!

I booked flights with Easyjet from Gatwick to the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana ( pronounced Lyub-liy-ana).  Ljubljana is just over a 2 hour flight from London and return fare for us was less than £100 each. The only problem with flights to Ljubljana is that Easyjet fly out Friday evening and back on Monday midday with no flights on Tuesdays (in early Feb) so our 4 day getaway was off the cards.  We flew out on the Friday evening and decided to fly back on the Wednesday. This would give us 4 full days in Slovenia with two days to fly.

Bled is about 20 miles from Ljubljana Airport and is essentially, one motorway until the road into Bled. There are plenty of transfer options, as well as train and bus links. For around 15 euros a day, we hired a car from InterRent at the airport.

If you are going to use InterRent I can save you an hour of aimless walking – their office is not in the well-sign posted Car Rental facility, as you might expect! As you exit the arrivals building, turn immediately right, walk down to the departures building, go in the first set of doors and turn immediately left. There will be a dimly lit corridor that their office is on…it took me about an hour to find and no airport staff know where it is either!

We then drove north to Bled and arrived at our hotel in about 30 minutes which had free parking.

We normally choose a cheap hotel when we go on short breaks as we spend so little time in the room but this time, with my adventure plans for this year, we decided to splash out on a five-star hotel – Grand Hotel Toplice.  The hotel is in the south of Bled, right on the edge of the lake. I wasn’t convinced by the elegance of the hotel from the promotional pictures but nevertheless for less than £100 a night on Booking.com, it should still be great value.

We had few plans when we arrived, I just had my normal book full of scribbles from my research of things to see and do. When we checked in, there was a brilliant concierge who was incredibly welcoming and knew everything about Slovenia and Bled. He gave us more maps than we would ever need and suggestions on enough attractions to fill a few weeks at least!

We spent the Saturday exploring, we drove around the lake (15mins) about three times and explored Bled making a plan of attack for the trip.

Typically, I cannot resist a ‘Road Trip’ and I managed to convince Kerrie that we should do one on the Sunday:

From Bled to Wörthersee in Austria, across into Italy down to Trieste and back…

With an early start, you can get to the stunning Wörthersee Lake for breakfast, head across into Italy, down through the Easternmost point of the Dolomites, down to Trieste for lunch and back to Bled in time for dinner.

The scenery is breathtaking, although we had fog through a lot of the Italian Alps, the picturesque valleys and towering mountains were definitely worth seeing.

Trieste is a nightmare to drive around! We spent about 2 hours trying to find somewhere to eat as well as somewhere to park. At one point, I got us pretty lost and we were on a 30% incline in the wrong part of the city, with wet tarmac, watching a car slide down the incredibly narrow street towards us as he tried to get some grip!

The driving in this part of the world (ignoring Trieste) is easy! The roads are perfect and quiet, everything is well sign-posted and the other drivers are surprisingly courteous.  The only thing to bare in mind is that in Austria, you need a vignette to drive (like a toll sticker). They only cost around 9 euros for a 10-day vignette (the minimum) but hefty fines are handed out to anyone travelling without one. All the service stations and significant road borders sell them anyway so it isn’t much of an issue.

Next, we wanted to go Skiing. Slovenia is a hidden skiing destination in Europe. It has the world-championship Maribor resort but other than that, they are pretty unknown.

There are a few ski centres around Bled but very few write ups that I could find.

Straža – pretty much opposite our hotel, Straža is basically a hill that, when snow covered, can be a good starter or children’s slope to learn on. They also offer snow tubing when the weather is right! Straža does open for evening skiing when there is snow so it can be good, as it is in Bled, for an aprés-ski-ski.

Vogel – we decided to head for Vogel. It is the next valley over, in the Bohinj area (beautiful even if you are not skiing!) and it is about a 30 minute drive. This is a great resort for intermediate skiiers offering pistes of all different shapes and sizes. Ski hire is available at the top where the gondola arrives and is very competitive – all day hire of Skis, poles and boots is 30 euros!

Kerrie and I taking a traditional snow selfie at Vogel!

Lift pass is 30 euros for all day and also gets you a ride there and back from Bled on the Ski Bus. On top of that, it allows you to ski the other local resorts of  Kobla, Kranjska Gora, Krvavec, Soriska Planina, Stari Vrh and Straža.  That’s a good deal!

Vogel Ski Resort, Slovenia
Vogel Ski Resort, Slovenia

On the way to or from Vogel, or just in Bohinj, you shouldn’t miss a gem of a restaurant – Foksner. They have some incredible food in a quaint little timber cottage with really friendly staff. On top of that, it is probably one of the nicest burgers I have ever had in my life!

Bohinj is another beautiful mountain lake surrounded with small villages which host some great bars and restaurants too!

Bohinj Lake, Slovenia
Bohinj Lake, Slovenia

Tuesday we decided to go and have a proper look at Ljubljana. We left early and headed for the castle. The castle hill is a great vantage point to see the whole of the city. You can see from up there how it isn’t so much a city, more of a town.

Ljubljana has an arty, indie feel to it. The locals are really friendly and seem to want to help you with anything you need. We didn’t feel there was that much to see but it would be a great place to spend some relaxing days in the cozy bars and pubs.

We then headed across the border into Croatia. We have done Croatia before but only in the South, I have always wanted to see Zagreb and we decided now was the time to do it!

Zagreb is a great city, there is plenty to do and plenty to see. We came across an area by St. Mark’s Church (upper town) and walked down to the bottom of the hill where there is a nice baroque district with a market in the square on Sundays.

St. Mark's Church, Zagreb
St. Mark’s Church, Zagreb

Being science geeks, we really wanted to see the Nikola Tesla Technical Museum but it was closed when we went. Looks to be well worth a visit next time!

Another quirky museum that is much talked about in Zagreb is the Museum of Broken Relationships – it seems we missed a quirky experience there but next time, we will do it!

On our final day, we spent more time in Bled experiencing the Slovenian hospitality and as we had heavy snowfall the night before, decided to drive into the dramatic Triglav national park. This is a mountainous area to the immediate north of Bled which is at a higher altitude and we found a good loop to do (only if the road is safe, of course!)

Drive in a small circle out into Triglav and back down to Bled

Grand Hotel Toplice Review

After my initial scepticism from looking at their Booking.com profile, I have to admit I was wrong. The photos, in my opinion, make the hotel look dated and tired but this just isn’t the case.

Not to be too strong but this is probably one of the best hotels, from a guest experience point of view, I have stayed in when travelling Europe.

We arrived when it was dark and found the hotel reserved parking (of which there was plenty), that faced Lake Bled. We parked up and carried our luggage towards reception to check in. Their concierge came straight out and insisted he took our cases into the reception.

As you walk into reception, you can appreciate the elegance and class of the hotel. It is clean, light and polished, with a simple but classy decor.

The smiley concierge checked us in effortlessly and started asking us about what we had planned. I explained what we would like to see and immediately he started handing us out maps and tips for every place we wanted to see. He knew all the local attractions and advised us on best times to go. He knew his stuff!

We then went up to our room insisting, in true British style, to take our own cases. We went into the room and found it to be immaculate and well presented. The room had two double french doors onto the full-width stone balcony with charming wooden blind inner doors. The bed was huge and very comfortable.

The breakfast offered was in a huge variety and there was an additional menu of items the kitchen would make for you fresh. The breakfast is served in the restaurant with full width windows facing the lake.

There is a pool on there which is in a roman-column style surround and although it is not heated and only at room temperature, guests have complimentary access to Hotel Golf (virtually next door) which has a fully heated pool.

I can tell why world leaders choose to stay here as the hotel is exquisite, it even offers a stunning guest (and presidential 😉 ) lounge overlooking the lake from the first floor.

Having worked at a hotel, I am rarely such an easy critic to win but I would genuinely recommend this hotel to anyone going to Bled who can spend a little more money for a luxury hotel (at less than £100 a night, it is great value).

Overall, Slovenia was faultless as a short break destination. It is easily one of Europe’s top-10 destinations in my opinion and we will definitely be back!

Dan 🙂