‘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:

http://www.artificialowl.net/2009/04/disasters-of-aral-sea-part-1-shipwrecks.html

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 🙂

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