‘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 🙂

Mission Mongolia finding a vehicle…

So Mission Mongolia had been born but now to find a vehicle to complete this adventure…

GoHelp operate a number of projects in Mongolia. They have run ambulance schemes to provide emergency medical transport across the capital, they have run mobile libraries to deliver reading material to remote families and some other great projects too.

Mission Mongolia
Go Help Using a donated vehicle as a mobile library

To turn ideas they have into actual functioning projects, useful vehicle donations are crucial. Anyone can drive a modified rally 4×4 across the desert to Mongolia but what use is that to the charity?

A useful vehicle is less than nine years old, left-hand drive, either a minibus, fire engine, land rover or an ambulance. Additionally there are many import vehicle rules (as the vehicle is imported before donation) to keep an eye on.

The vehicle should be hard-wearing, good quality, looked after and parts should be available globally too.

If you can only find a vehicle that is no use to the charity, they will still gratefully receive it and auction to keep the profits for their work, but for us, we wanted to find something that fit the bill…quite a tall order in the UK!

As we were covering so much more distance than many other teams, and had a tight schedule due to our China detour, we needed something where we can rotate driving crews to drive 24 hours if required.

Mission Mongolia Route Map
Mission Mongolia Route Map

I got to work immediately on scouring the web, searching all the UK websites and magazines in one afternoon, concluding that there wasn’t even one vehicle of use in good old blighty.

I then had to try to search the european listing sites, this took a couple weeks and everything was either UK export right-hand drive, too old or out of our budget.. I had nearly given up and resorted to a right-hand drive model when something turned up… 3pm on a Friday afternoon!

Mission Mongolia
This could be the one…

Our ford transit rollstuhlwagen… the ad was written in German – all 10 words of it!
I don’t speak German, and after a brief exchange of emails, it was clear the seller didn’t speak English either…

Luckily, I found a colleague, Lawrence, who was a German speaker. After a lot of backwards and forwards, we established that the vehicle was indeed a Ford Transit Minibus, a Rollstuhlwagen turned out to mean the Minibus has been modified for disabled passengers and it was manufactured in 2009… and even better, it was in budget!

I made the phone call to approve the vehicle and that was it – We had a vehicle!

Easy…except the one small issue was that it was located in Bad Driburg in Germany…

Mission Mongolia
Only a short hop to buy a minibus…

I spent all afternoon trying to convince Lawrence to come to Germany with me on the bank holiday Monday (this was on the Friday afternoon!) to be my trusty linguist, he finally said yes and I booked our flights immediately. We spoke to the seller and he confirmed the vehicle was all ready to go and we agreed to meet at 3am on the Monday morning.

We flew out of Stansted with Ryanair, nearly missing our departure due to  currency and cash issues – another post entirely! We took off destined for Düsseldorf.

We arrived in Germany and walked out of the arrivals hall to look for the station. From my research, I knew it was only a 2.5 hour train ride to Bad Driburg if we caught the next train.

There were no signs for a station and we walked around for a while looking. Eventually, we asked at the info desk and they said there was no train station here. We disagreed showing her our phone maps and she lost her mind laughing… ‘You are not in Düsseldorf, you are in Weeze’ she managed to exclaim before laughing some more.

‘We booked tickets to Düsseldorf and the pilot seemed to know what he was doing!’ I returned sarcastically.

‘They call it Düsseldorf Weeze, but it’s nowhere near Düsseldorf!’ She laughed a lot more.

It hit me that in the rush to book tickets, I hadn’t done my research. Airports always pick a random large city name and claim to be there, regardless of actual location i.e LONDON Stanstead?! 

Lawrence and I jumped into a cab and headed for the nearest station.  Weeze airport is at most 100m from the Dutch border… we were nowhere near Düsseldorf!

After about 10 minutes, we arrived at the station and tried to work out how far from Düsseldorf we really were – an additional 2 hour train ride away it seemed.

Mission Mongolia
Weeze isn’t Dusseldorf…!

It was already 10am in Germany and we now had 5 hours of train riding ahead to get to Bad Driburg. We then had to make the deal, insure it and drive it back to the UK via our 9pm ferry from Calais…what could go wrong, eh?

We finally arrived in Bad Driburg at 2:30pm and called our friend, and to my surprise, he was still open and offered to collect us. I told Lawrence to turn down the offer, as there was a taxi in front of us, but the seller refused and insited he would pick us up.

He arrived 10 minutes later in a Smartcar! … a bloody Smartcar! ‘Ask him how he plans to get two of us, our stuff and him in a bloody Smartcar Lawrence!’ I laughed.

He whisked Lawrence away and promised to be back for me…

True to his word, he came back and we spent 10 minutes in an awkward silence on the way to the sales forecourt. I then regretted not spending the last 5 hours on the train learning basic German niceties from Lawrence.

We arrived at the forecourt and I saw three men gathered around our Transit with the bonnet up… this was just perfect. Lawrence walked over to me and explained that the vehicle wouldn’t start but he reassured me it had just been sitting a long time (I have used the excuse myself in the past!).

The men jump started it from an indestructible 90’s Isuzu and it spluttered into life. It ran poorly and was slow to pick up revs. I was starting to worry as we had no way home and a vehicle that didn’t look like it would pull out of the car lot!

The men disappeared content with their handiwork and I had chance to look around the vehicle myself. It was straight and clean. It had a rear hydraulic tail lift. It had fully customisable rear seating and air-ride suspension all round. It was a little tatty on the inside and had clearly seen better days but that would all clean up. The engine was fairly clean and it had some service history with it too.  For the price we had agreed by email, we had plenty of room in the budget to do some work – so it wasn’t a dead end.

After a more thorough inspection with my phone torch, I was happy to go ahead and buy this vehicle which should be easy as we were to exchange at the agreed price.

Lawrence started the conversation and it seemed to get a bit heated. Lawrence turned to me and asked whether we brought our reg plates with us. I said no and he looked unhappy with that.

After about half an hour of discussions, it seemed that to allow me to take the vehicle, I would have to go to the post office and buy a registration (now closed until tomorrow). I explained to him that we bought it with the Belgian plates it currently had. He explained this was not acceptable and offered us two British plates from something or another and I explained to him that it didn’t work that way in the UK.

We reasserted that we had told him we were coming and he confirmed that the vehicle was all ready to drive away.

He had offered to take us back to the airport or even drive the vehicle to Calais for us if we were willing to pay ‘Taxi Rates’. We explained that this didn’t work for us.

The discussions continued and there were a number of issues and the only one that didn’t seem resolvable was the fact that it was missing the rear number plate.

Getting close to loosing the plot, which is surprisingly unusual for me, I grabbed a piece of cardboard and a pen and wrote on the reg number and stuck it on the back of our van.

He was very unhappy with this and insisted that he drove it to Calais for us. Instead, we left the cash on his desk and left with the signed registration document.

We left with one Belgian plate on the front and a cardboard plate on the back and phoned a UK import insurance company. They agreed, for a large premium to insure it for 24 hours on the VIN number – that would do!

It was now 5pm and we had to get some miles under this van to make our 9pm ferry (physically impossible at this point!) but we started out of Bad Driburg.
Heading west, you leave the town via a winding hill road – this is where things got worse again. As we went us the hill, the dashboard lit up like a christmas tree! We slowed to about 10km/h and stalled. I restarted the engine and a couple of the lights went out so I carried on up the hill to the melody of beeping car horns and angry Germans shouting…

Mission Mongolia
First of many Warning Lights…

On the downward slope, the sky turned from blue to black as the soot bellowed out of our exhaust, the performance improved gradually as groggy daylight returned to the sky behind us.

We stopped for fuel a little while after and the German police pulled in behind us… I was convinced that this was it – 4 miles and our trip was over.

I casually filled up with fuel and Lawrence said hello to them, we exchanged smiles and our tank was full. I went in and paid and as we drove out of the petrol station, they waved us off! I am still unsure why they didn’t stop us but I am always grateful for small mercies.

We carried on into the Netherlands and night set in. We made good mileage and the dashboard lights were blinking off one-by-one.

We got into Belgium and a police car pulled out behind us. Lawrence was half asleep at this point and didn’t notice; I didn’t plan on worrying him either. It followed us religiously for a number of miles. At the next slip road, two more police cars pulled out. One came in front of us and once pulled up beside us. Lawrence notice now and asked if they were boxing us in, I agreed that was what it looked like and I indicated to pull onto the hard shoulder to avoid any further maneuvers. As I pulled over, the one at the rear overtook me and all three drove off.

Oh the joy! Another small mercy and I was definitely grateful!

We arrived at the French border by 10.30pm – an hour and a half after our ferry left port and only 20 hours since I left home that morning!

There was a lot of traffic on the A16 in France and we were at a standstill. As we finally made our way through the queue, it turned out that the French police were pulling and questioning all the Brits for some reason. 

As he leaned into the window he said ‘Bonsoir’. 

‘Bonsoir’ I replied.

 ‘Allez’ he said and without hesitation, I went.

We decided to go for the Channel Tunnel on the way back as we had missed our ferry and The Tunnel is much quicker. At the entrance gate, I explained to the lady that we had missed our ferry and wanted a ticket. She helpfully agreed to put us on the next train and took my card. I asked when it was and she said the next available train was at 7.30am!!! We quickly left and headed for the ferry terminal to see if they could do better!

From Dieppe there is a midnight ferry which arrives in Newhaven about 4am – that could be our last resort if needed as it always had space!

We got back to the Calais ferry terminal and the man at the kiosk handed us our rearview mirror hanger and wished us a pleasant crossing. ‘Excuse me’ I said, ‘We missed our ferry – it was at 9pm’.

 ‘You bought a flexi ticket, you can still sail on that ship but be quick, they are waiting for you before they leave!’

 I could have jumped out and hugged him, we were so happy to be going home!
We arrived back at 3am and I headed home for a couple hours sleep before I was due back at work.

I couldn’t have done that trip without Lawrence and his German, but if this was an omen for how Mission Mongolia would go, I might have bitten off more than I could chew….


Dan 🙂