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..

‘You could just fly there…?’ our choice on routes for Mission Mongolia

It takes as much effort as you can probably guess to form a route from the UK to Mongolia, especially when you consider my flippant decision to take on the ‘China Detour’ too.

Whenever you choose a road trip route, you always have multiple agendas whether you admit them or not. My agendas are culture, unusual sights and I want to experience every country in the world before my time is up (I know, I know, I am being ambitious)! I will happily admit these agendas as I think it shows who I am and why travelling gives me such a buzz.

I still have that adolescent thrill of doing what I am told cannot be done and I hope I never loose this trait (although it has landed me in hot water a few times!) I think the Mongolia drive shows some of this and especially the China section. If you are interested and want to find out more on the technical aspects of visas e.t.c. then see my Official Mission Mongolia post here:  http://www.avtrade.com/mission-mongolia/blog/06-03-2017/are-you-sure-you-want-to-do-this—our-experience-of-the-worlds-visas-and-permits/

Obviously, you can do a Google Maps search from London to Ulaanbaatar and it will show you a direct and, no-doubt, an awesome route – but this isn’t enough. If you are doing this, it should be done properly. I wanted to choose every road by hand!

Mission Mongolia Route
According to Google, this is the best route… But what does Google know?

I underestimated how particular the Chinese agents and authorities would be on driving times and rest periods. Although I expected around 10 day transit time in China, the least this could be negotiated to was 16 days. This didn’t leave much time to get ourselves across central Asia.

I would loved to have done this over six-weeks and visited Daraza Gas Crater in Turkmenistan as well as the ancient city of Merv and Mary. I wanted to see Baku in the flesh and get a Caspian Ferry. I would loved to have had a night out in Dushanbe as well as swam in the Kayrakkum Reservoir but all of that would have to wait for another day (or risk Kerrie changing the locks and bidding me adieu!)

Mission Mongolia
Darvaza Gas Crater, Turkmenistan (Image by Tormod Sandtorv http://bit.ly/2sMYRRW)

For this adventure, I would have to be a little more conservative in my plans (hahaha!) and stick with crossing the entire Eurasian landmass and driving the entire length of China twice!

There is, however, some room for maneuver. Having never experienced any of ‘The Stans’ and being fascinated by them to no end,  I hadn’t given up!

Europe is fairly simple, the roads are clear and wanting to make best use of our time in Central Asia, we chose the quickest route…sort of.

Desperate to see Belarus and experience Minsk, we chose to travel via Belarus into Russia. We booked our accommodation (a visa requirement) and got our visas. It wasn’t until after this, we were told in passing that crossing from Belarus into Russia is no longer legal, so we had to re-think.

We would rather sacrifice a few hours than miss Belarus so we will visit Minsk, drive to Vilnius and enter Russia through Latvia. For anyone wanting to do this, I have been told that the main border can be slow and have many delays, however, there is a smaller, less-known border which I am told can be much quicker. Check back to find out how it goes!

Mission Mongolia Route, Including Belarus Detour...
Mission Mongolia Route, Including Belarus Detour…

Once in Russia, we head for Moscow to stay and recover from the European stretch. From here, we head south to Volgograd (ex. Leningrad/Stalingrad), then down to Astrakhan and into Kazakhstan.

I wanted us to visit the Aral Sea. If you don’t know of the Aral Sea disaster, leave now and read about it, you won’t regret it. The Aral Sea is real evidence of how human-kind can alter the planet and make unforeseeable changes to the lives and land of so many people; it is a remarkable area and it cannot be missed! I was looking for us to go via Aralsk, an old fishing town decimated by the disaster and it looked a sobering experience however, a dam system has been built and the sea seems to be returning at a real rate of knots!

Uzbekistan lies to the south and hosts the similar town on Muynak, not so lucky. The dam system seems to be causing the southern side of the sea to be receding at an increased rate with hope for its return diminishing fast too.

See the amazing images from ArtificalOwl here:


Uzbekistan shares a small border post in the south, quiet and out of the way, it might be a good option to cross. From here we can continue southeast towards Tashkent and cross back up into Kazakhstan (busy section of the ancient silk road).

If you are planning to visit any of ‘The Stans’ of Central Asia by Overland, Caravanistan are the very last word in up-to-date information on borders e.t.c  http://caravanistan.com/border-crossings/

From here, I was torn between Almaty which looks simply incredible or Bishkek and the idyllic Issyk Kul Lake. Wanting to experience Kyrgyzstan and making a note to add Almaty to my list for the future, we are taking advantage of the current visa-free regime and chose Kyrgyz.

From here, we were tied to Zharkent/Horgos border for our China entry so that was fairly straight forward.

Once in China, the itinerary wasn’t my choice alone. Along with our agent, more on that in my next post, I was able to give a rough route and suggest landmarks that I thought were crucial. She would then choose any we might have overlooked and we would end up with a draft itinerary which would have to be checked and approved by the authorities. As I write this, I have 11 days to go and I am on the verge of approving itinerary version 14!

The entry process to China will take two-days at best (5 at worst due to an inconsiderately placed weekend!) to be complete. After this, we will arrive in Urumqi – a beautiful but manic city which was the historical terminal for the silk road.  A melting pot of culture and religion and the supposed western end of The Great Wall – situated in the sensitive autonomous region of Xinjiang.

The road to Urumqi passes through dramatic mountains and some of the most breathtaking scenery on the planet. Sayram lake is the highest and largest lake in Xinjiang and from there, we are planning to visit Turpan which is the third lowest place on the planet and has an incredible hand-dug well and irrigation system called Karez.

From Urumqi, we set off to Mingsha Mountain and the Crescent Moon Spring. This was a non-negotiable suggestion from me for which our guide had to do some in-depth itinerary route re-panning to accommodate. Just take a look to see why we had to stop here!

Mission Mongolia
Dunhuang Crescent Moon Spring Lake CC BY-SA 2.0 (小福, 2010)

From here, we head straight for Xi’an. Xi’an was a secondary trading city from the silk road into China. Since then, it has grown into a massive industrial powerhouse by Central China standards. Although Xi’an gets some bad press from the smog issues it has faced in recent years, there is one ‘Wonder of the World’ in my opinion that cannot be missed – The Terracotta Warriors. Built in Qin Dynasty, the first dynasty of China, it is a collection of around 8000 warrior statues who’s history is still uncertain. In Xi’an there is so much more to see as well, such as the Ancient City Wall and The Great Mosque and Gardens.

From here we drive down to Guangzhou via Guilin. At Guangzhou, we have a two day stop, this is where we will visit our China office and hopefully, get a day to see Macau?

From there, we head to Beijing to spend a couple days seeing the Forbidden City, The Great Wall and the Summer Palace.

After this, it is the home run to Ulaanbaatar – the end of this adventure and where the benefits and donations from our adventure will improve the lives of others and we will leave with a sense of awe from what we have just achieved…

If you want to track our trip, be sure to visit https://www.avtrade.com/mission-mongolia

Mission Mongolia Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/avtrademongolia

Dan 🙂