Monday, August 24, 2009

August 19

August 19, home at last.

Monday morning Dr Luvandash, the director of the EMSC and one of their friends picked us up at the hotel at 5:30 to take us to the airport for our 7:30 flight. We thanked them said goodbye and headed into the airport only to find out that the flight was several hours behind schedule. After confirming with Aeroflot that we were indeed booked on the flight we got in line and waited for check in. Once we were allowed to check in we found out that our bags were over weight by 9 kilos and we would have to pay $27.00 in excess baggage charges. When we went into the office to pay we found out it was $27.00 per kilo but when they calculated it out they charged us 4 X $27 for a total of $108 USD. We asked them to give us our bags back so we could lighten the load but they said it was too late and the bags had already been loaded so we had to pay up. About an hour later a woman from the customs office asked us to come with her and she took us downstairs to the customs area. Apparently an x-ray of our luggage had revealed something that they didn’t like. Calen had been filling up coke bottles with the soil of every country that we passed through as a souvenir to add to his collection of all of the other countries that he has visited. Unfortunately the Mongolian customs officials wouldn’t let him leave with his collection and they made him remove every bottle that they could find. Once this was finished we went back upstairs and had a bowl of noodles. As we were eating it occurred to me that our bags were now considerably lighter and we would no longer be overweight. I pointed this out to the customs lady and she got hold of the Aeroflot representative. Amazingly they agreed and refunded the $108 excess baggage charge. By noon we were in the air and headed for Moscow. When we arrived we were faced with a huge line-up at the Transit desk as they tried to fit everyone from our flight who had missed their connection due to the delay onto the next flight to London. Fortunately we were already booked on the later flight so we were issued boarding cards and proceed on to London.

We arrived in London around 10:00 pm but with the changes in time zones it was more like 4 in the morning for us. After searching for a short while around the Kings Cross area were able to locate a hotel with a vacancy, check in and hit the hay. We awoke around 5:30 Tuesday morning and wandered down Euston Street where we had an excellent English breakfast of eggs, sausage, bacon and baked beans. Afterwards we jumped back on the tube and headed downtown for some sightseeing. We started at the Tower of London with really isn’t a tower at all but a walled fortress with lots of old restored buildings including the one that houses the Crown jewels. We spent a couple of hours exploring the sight which was the beginning of London about 2000 years ago. From there we crossed the Tower Bridge, the most iconic of London’s bridges over the Thames and then walked westward on the south side of the river. First we stopped at the HMS Belfast a decommissioned WWII era Warship and toured it for an hour and a half then went on past London Bridge to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre before stopping for fish and chips at a pub along side of the river. After lunch we visited the Tate Modern Gallery and took in the art exhibits before continuing on to the London Eye. Next we crossed back over the Thames to Westminster past Big Ben and the Parliament buildings to Westminster Abbey. By then the Abbey was closed for the day but we did manage to find a side door into the courtyard and were able to explore the inner courtyard and gardens which housed the crypts of many notable people going back hundreds of years. By now it was after 6:00 pm and we had been walking for 12 hours. My feet were killing me so I suggested we take a double decker bus to Buckingham Palace. Riding through the city were able to see incredible and historic buildings everywhere we looked. London is a really beautiful city with a huge variety of impressive sights. After walking around in front of Buckingham Palace with lots of other tourists we jumped on another bus past Kensington Palace, the Marble Arch in Hyde Park and Piccadilly Circus and ended up at Trafalgar Square one of the hubs of the city. By now it was after 9:00 so we had supper in a local pub and headed back to our hotel having just concluded a 15 hour walking tour of the city.

Wednesday morning after breakfast at the hotel we jumped on the tube and headed for Covent Garden where we intended to tour the market but it was too early and the vendors had yet to show up. We started walking once again and passed 10 Downing Street and Churchill’s bunker and war room before heading across Green Park and back to Buckingham Palace. It is amazing how so many historic buildings are found in such a relatively small and accessible area. Around 9:30 we went back to the hotel to check out and head to the airport in time for our flight home. We thought the tube ride from Kings Cross to Heathrow would take about half an hour but it ended up taking us about 45 minutes and it is a long walk from the station to the check in counter so we made it to check in with only 1 minute to spare. Check in closes 60 minutes before flight departure and we were checked in 61 minutes before our flight. Wouldn’t you know it, the flight was overbooked. At first we were pretty disappointed but then we found out that under European regulations Air Canada was bound to offer us compensation because we checked in before the deadline and they didn’t have a seat for us. The compensation was an Air Canada credit of $1400 and not only that but when we checked in on the next flight we were upgraded to 1st class for our flight across the Atlantic. Calen and I couldn’t believe it when we were shown to our seats. 1st class is laid out in individual pods with reclining seats that resembled a lazy boy recliner that converts into a bed when you want to sleep. The service was also 1st class with a choice of wines and appetizers and meals served on china with actual silverware. I tell you 1st class is the way to go, especially on a long flight across the ocean. The flight was routed through Ottawa where we breezed through Canadian customs, our easiest border crossing on our whole trip. When we arrived in Toronto we were greeted at the terminal by Rosie, Mike and Maureen. A couple of hours later when we arrived home we were greeted by many of our friends who had been so supportive of us over the past year. We partied on into the night recounting our adventure until we just couldn’t keep our eyes open. We had covered 12 time zones over the last few days and jet lag was taking its toll.

It is now Friday morning as I write this last entry into our blog. We will have lots of time in the future to reflect on all that we have seen and experienced. This truly was a trip of a lifetime and without the help of family and friends it would never have been possible. I would especially like to thank Rosie for the incredible amount of work that she put in over the past 12 months making sure that all of the thousands of details were attended to. Without her hard work and considerable expertise and skills this trip would never have been possible. I would also like to thank everyone who contributed time and money to help us reach our goals. The love and encouragement that everyone provided was beyond anything that I could ever have imagined so thank you to each and every one of you who helped make this incredible journey a reality.
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Sunday, August 16, 2009

August 15

August 15 Ulaanbaatar

Friday morning we woke up and checked email on my blackberry. There was a note from Rosie saying that Paul had arrived the previous day and was staying at the Chinggas Khan Hotel, the nicest and most expensive hotel in Ulaanbaatar. We jumped in the car and headed over to his hotel. It was great to see him, the first familiar face we saw in the past month. Later in the day we had a meeting at the hotel with the educational TV station producer and a couple of other people from the station. They asked us to come down to the station and to do an interview about our Mongol Rally adventure. The station was having a staff retreat at a ger camp south of the city the very next day and they asked us to join them. On Saturday morning the communications director and a camera girl accompanied us and gave us directions to the ger camp. We stopped along the way at a giant statue of Chinggas Khan. This statue is about 12 stories high, the largest horse statue in the world. You can ascend the inside of it on an elevator and walk around on the horse’s back. The view of the surrounding country side was spectacular. We did an interview there and then carried on to the ger camp. There we were treated to lunch and Paul did a demonstration of the MediCruiser equipment. The station’s producer is very interested in creating some programming about MediCruiser to help get it launched in Mongolia. He could clearly see the potential for delivering modern health care in Mongolia. They also produced more footage of the vehicle and then we headed off back towards UB. On the way back we stopped to have a ride on a camel as well as a hainhe which is a cross between a yak and a cow and looks like something out of star wars.

When we got back to UB we went to the finish line party for the Mongol rally and what a party it was. The adventurists had hired a number of bands and entertainers and even had fireworks. We got to meet up with lots of people that we had met along the way and lots of others that had just arrived. There was a great deal of camaraderie as we exchanged stories of our adventures over the past month.

The teams that had entered Mongolia from the far western side had it a lot tougher than teams like us who had travelled through Sibera and entered Mongolia from the north and the condition of their cars proved it. We wanted to make sure that the MeidiCruiser arrived in good condition so we took the route with the better roads. From western Mongolia to UB the roads are more like tracks through the countryside with lots of potholes and rocks and rivers to ford. One team I heard about hit a rock and knocked the plug out of their oil pan. Luckily another team following them noticed a trail of oil and managed to alert them before they lost all of their oil and ruined their engine. The guys followed the oil trail back down the dirt road and by a stroke of luck stepped on the plug. They dusted it off put it back in, filled up with fresh oil and continued on their way. Ross and Ian who we had met up with a couple of times told us how there are only 3 big towns along the way and they were towed in to 2 of them. In one instance they put a couple of holes in their transmission and lost most of the transmission fluid. When they were towed into town they found out that because the transmission is aluminum no one could weld it. They guy at the garage ended up smashing bits and pieces off of an old transmission he had laying around and then proceeded to glue in the broken pieces, repairing it like a jigsaw puzzel. Another team told of breaking their rear axel and using a couple of pieces of wood and a lot of wire to make a splint strong enough to get them to the next town so it could be welded. It sounds like we missed lots of fun.
The party went on late into the evening. I managed to get back to the hotel by 2:00 and Calen followed several hours later.

This morning we walked to the “Black Market” one of Asia’s largest markets which attracts about 60,000 people per day. This was a fantastic market teaming with people where you could buy anything you could imagine. It is also a hotbed of pickpockets and indeed we were targeted. A couple of guys jostled me in between stalls and I immediately felt my pocket for my camera and sure enough it was gone. I told Calen and Paul that the camera was gone and we turned right around and confronted the thieves. Once they were cornered they turned over the camera and we were on our way. So not only was I pick pocketed but we were able to get the camera back as well.

When we got back to the hotel we met with Dr Luvandash from Emergency Medical Services who took us for lunch and then to the Gobi Cashmere factory store to buy a couple of cashmere sweaters and then to the national theatre for a concert of traditional Mongolian folk music and dance. We are now packing and preparing for our early morning flight back to England. We depart Mongolia at 7:30 to Moscow and then on to Heathrow in the evening.
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Thursday, August 13, 2009

August 12

August 12, Ulaanbaatar, final destination

We made it. We just arrived at a hotel in Ulaanbaatar. 16 countries and over 10,000 miles of road are now behind us. After driving into the night on Wednesday we pitched the tent alongside a dirt road just off of the highway. When we woke up in the morning a convoy of military vehicles was rumbling by and as we crawled out of the tent we saw that we were right next to the gates and barbed wire of a military installation. There was a large sign in Cyrillic that looked like a warning sign so we packed up in a hurry and went looking for the border. It turned out we were only about a kilometre from the border so we were in the lineup within minutes. Once we joined the line of cars that had been waiting there all night I fired up the camp stove and started cooking up some roisti and boiled water for coffee, Just like everywhere else we go we started attracting curious onlookers so I started offering roisti and coffee to anyone that came close. After an hour and a half we had served breakfast to about a dozen people and it was time to go through the Russian exit process. This process which included a vehicle search and plenty of stamps in the passport and on various other documents that border guards are so fond of took just about 2 hours and off we went to the Mongolian side.

Soon after we started the entry procedure on the Mongolian side we were told that the Adventurists had not paid the necessary duty to allow our vehicle to enter and besides there are problems with the description of the vehicle so we would not be allowed to enter Mongolia. It turned out that the vehicle make and model number, the licence number, and the chassis number were all correct but the vehicle was listed as being red when it was very obviously blue. A red car is not a blue car so this might not be the same car that was on the list. Hour after hour dragged on until it looked like this would be the end of the road for us. We decided that we would have to unload everything that we needed to take with us, leave the car at the border and let the Adventurists figure it out.

I gave one of the customs ladies the name and phone number of our contact at Emergency Medical Services of Mongolia, the organization that we want to donate the vehicle to and she called him to explain our situation. They agreed to send a car to pick us up and drive us to Ulaanbaatar. While we were waiting I struck up a conversation with one of the border guys who spoke English. He said he would like to visit Canada and I told him he would be welcome to come and stay at our house in London. He and his friend are avid fishermen and like camping and they asked if we had a tent that we could give them. Calen gave them the tent, camp stove and dishes. I figured we wouldn’t be needing them anymore considering we were about to abandon the car. A couple more hours went by and I asked Otgo, our new border control friend if I could use his cell phone to call London, England and see if I could get some help from the Adventurists. When I called them I was given a local number for the people helping out in Mongolia. I explained the situation to them and they said they would make some calls and try to get the situation resolved. Shortly after this Dr Luvandash showed up from Emergency Medical Services and agreed to take us to a local hotel for the night. It was 7:30 when we left, we had been at the border for 12 hours and we were exhausted. After a 20 minute drive we were at a hotel, had a delicious Mongolian dinned of mutton and rice and headed up to our room.

In the morning I took a walk around the town and climbed a small mountain peak to get a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside. Mongolia is a beautiful country of rolling green hills and valleys with small settlements scattered about and lots and lots of horses, cows, sheep and goats.

Dr Luvandash picked us up around 9:30 the next morning and we went back to the border to try to get customs clearance once again. By now the customs duties had been paid and we began the clearance process. With Dr Luvandash translating on our behalf the whole process went much smoother and we cleared customs in about 4 hours. By 2:00 we were on our way. The first order of business was to stop at a tire repair place to have the right front rim straightened. Somewhere in Russia we must have hit a monster pothole on that side hard enough to bend the rim. We got this taken care of and continued on towards UB. Along the way we detoured off of the main road to visit a bow and arrow maker in a small town 6 km off of the main road. This secondary road was another example of what happens to roads that are never looked after or repaired. The whole 6 km was a series of potholes and washouts some the size of the car. It was very slow going and the car started to overheat to the point of steam escaping from under the hood. I had a look and discovered that the fan is not working so at slow speed the heat builds up with no fan to cool the radiator.

We did make it to the shop of the bow maker and we were very glad that we did. The shop looks like it has been in use for hundreds of years and the bow making technology is probably even older. They build the bows out of the tendons from a horse. The process must use the fibrous tendons combined with glue to make what almost appears to be a fibreglass material. The bows are then covered in birch bark to give them a nice look and feel and then are ready for use. He strung one of the bows and let us get the feel of them. Very impressive but also very expensive. He wanted $300 for the bow with 3 arrows and if we had the money I would have liked to purchase one. The craftsmanship and history that goes with these bows would be well worth the money. After all this was the weapon that allowed Genghis Kahn and the Mongols to conquer most of the known world 800 years ago. We did however purchase one of their arrows as a memento.

Our overheating troubles continued as we headed back towards the main road and we had to stop 5 or 6 times to allow the engine to cool off. Once we got back to the main road though the highway speed seemed to be enough to keep the engine cool as we headed to Ulaanbaatar. We arrived around 10:30 found a hotel and settled in for the night.

And we have finallly been able to add some more pictures:


We arrived in Rubtosvk after dark and tried to find a hotel. No luck. I didn't want to keep driving around and looking so I asked a taxi driver (by sign language) if he could show us the way and we would follow him. He agreed to do it for 100 roubles or about $3.00. After following him through town he pulled over in front of a hotel but just then another car pulled over with us and a guy said come with me and I will take you to your friends. I had no idea which friends he had in mind and this sounded vaguely like a acam I had heard about but he had his child with him in the car and he looked honest enough so we decided that we would follow him and see what happened. Before we left as I was about to pay the taxi driver the 100 roubles this guy takes my money and goes over to talk to the driver. Apparently the taxi driver was charging too much so the guy talked him down to 50 roubles and gave me the change. So far so good. We followed the guy to the central square and sure enough we ran into an English team that we had met a few other times along the way. Ross and Ian were parked in the square and when we relayed our story about this guy brining us together they said they had never even seen him before. Apparently the guy just saw another rally car so thought that we must be frriends and got us back together. This worked out really well for Ross and Ian as they had no idea they were sitting in front of a hotel and they didn't have any roubles to be able to get a hotel even if they could find one. I lent them enough roubles for a room and we went in to have a look. They ended up with this massive suite with a foyer a large dining room, bedroom and bath. We took a small room accross the hall.

Being Friday night in Russia the square was pretty full of people drinking, singing, hooting and/or hollering an interesting place to say the least. When then went out to get our bags, a rather large Russian guy was looking at the cars with a few of his friends and looked up at us and said hello. It turns out this imposing man was named Mike and he was doing his Masters in philosophy, worked as a radio DJ and spoke fluent English. It was around 10:00 at night and we were famished so Mike insisted on taking us to a restaurant which was wonderful. The place had a traditional Russian décor, meaning that everything was big and built to withstand the Russian people. He ordered us food and drinks, saving us from the cyrillic alphabet menu and as the food came so did another guy from across the room. If Mike was big, this guy was huge! He sat down and started drinking and talking in Russian and Mike was able to translate that he was offering us drugs, booze, girls, he was a professional race car driver and, after the Russian left, that he was very, very dangerous He was a Russian mafia guy, xenophobic, and said that he was much better than us. It turns out that Rubtosvk is surrounded by four different prisons and as a result attracted the likes of the Russian mafia race car driver. But all was good and we returned to the hotel for a great sleep.

The next morning we awoke to a blistering hot day and a long drive to Irkutsk. So we drove all day, then we set up the bed in the car and drove all night, then we went to a café to have a few eggs, then drove all day, then made up the bed and drove all night and meeting a couple of English bobby’s who’s third team member had been trapped in between Russia and Kazakhstan for 6 days because of a visa glitch, not in his passport but in the computer. After 2000 km and 40 hours of solid driving, we made it to Irkutsk, and an hour later to Lake Baikal. Surprisingly, the drive wasn’t too bad, except for some roads in truly terrible condition that brought us to a crawl, and the scenery, which was nice at first but resembled northern Ontario, without the Canadian Shield and for 2000 km.

Lake Biakal is very nice though. kind of chilly and stony but a nice spot none-the-less. We then had most of the day to relax and walk around the beach town, see some of the lake and eat some delicious fish. We then returned to our quaint guest house nestled into a valley to get a good night sleep.

Today we double back to Irkutsk so that we can follow the road around the lake and get close to the Mongolia border so that we can cross it in the morning. It’s reputed to take 6-8 hours, just on the Mongolian side.

Tomorrow, Mongolia! …maybe.
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Thursday, August 6, 2009

August 7

Not too much happened yesterday. A lot of driving. We made it around 500 miles all through Kazakhstan. I haven't been to the Prairies yet but I think that the landscape is very similar. Where you can watch your dog run away all day long. The only difference is that these Kazakh roads are absolutely atrocious. We met a German couple who had been travelling since March, driving from Germany, and were shocked to hear we were doing the same thing in a few weeks. We also ran into another team and convoyed with them until it got dark and we pulled over while they deceided to push on through the dark. We pulled over to the side of the road and up a hill until the vehicle was out of site of the road where we pitched the tent and admired the vastness of the country.

We woke up at 5:30 this morning to make it to Semey, passing through a town along the way, looking for breakfast, we only saw a huge military base, hammers and sickles on the sides of buildings but not a restaurant to be found.

Finally we got to Semey, just a few hundred kilometers east of one of the main nuclear testing ranges for the soviets. In 40 years they detonated an estimated 450 nuclear bombs and there is still radiation in unmarked and unsupervised areas. But we are skirting that to go for the safety and security of Russia, just a few hundred kilometers north. Hopefully within a few hours we'll be through the border and out of the vastness of Kazakhstan, into the vastness of Siberia. For now we're sitting in an internet cafe beside a daycare centre as shown by two very helpful law students from Semey. This is the first internet we've had in a week but the pictures are screwing up a bit, so sorry, will have to wait a little while for those.

August 5

We woke up at around 6:30 and headed out of Biskek, towards the border which we reached by 8:00. For Kyrgystan they just had one guy in a little office who looked at our passports, smiled, and opened the gate. Then through the no-mans land towards the Kazakhstan side where we were told to park the car down the hill, walk up get the stamps in the passports, walk back down, show those guys the stamps, walk back up to that same office, ask for another stamp, get denied, walk back down and tell them, get shown to another building where everyone is being processed out of Kazakhstan, get to the front of the line, get turned around to a little office, get told that it’s 8:15 and they don’t do the customs check until 9:00, go back to another office, try to sit down, get told to move along, move along, try and sit down on a window sill, have the cleaning lady tell us to stand up, twiddle our thumbs for 45 minutes and go back to the office to have them puzzled over the Carnet de Passage for the car, saying they don’t really need it anyways, but decide to stamp it after half an hour, get sent back down and tell the guys that we did it, they barely check the forms and tell us to move along, and then we got into Kazakhstan. Easy peasy lemon squeezy…
We weren’t 50 km into the country when dad got pulled over for passing on a solid line. The cop took our papers, looked at them, tried to tell dad what he was doing wrong (in Russian) get fed up that we couldn’t communicate and finally told us to move along. 50 km later, a police checkpoint. Again they stopped us, we were doing 25 in a 20 zone or something like that, and they insisted on giving us a ticket. Then they saw that a form in our passports wasn’t filled out right and oh-man did they like that. They separated dad and I, brought him to an office and me to a tiny little room with a burly Kazakh border guard who was nice enough but had all the signs of a shake down. They finally brought the two of us together, gave us a phone with a translator on the other end who tried to tell us what was wrong and we tried to tell her that we didn’t even fill out the form in the first place so they should be fining the border guard. Then they take us out of the room, walk around say ticket ticket ticket, bring us back to the room, back out, back in, ticket ticket ticket. And we tell them to write it down, and they say ticket and we say that we don’t understand. They have us sit, someone else comes up and asks if everything OK? We say no, Straffe niet OK (ticket not ok) they laugh and move on and finally they realize that we must be border-line retarded because we don’t understand anything and wave us on our way, past some big guys with some big guns and onto the road for Almaty. Less than an hour in Kazakhstan and we’ve been stopped twice, not a good sign.

August 4

We awoke to a group of cattle herders trying to drive their cows through our campsite. So off we went from our campsite by the river by 6:30. Around 8:00 we were able to drop by a little town for some breakfast, plov again. Don’t get me wrong, the rice and meat is a nice way to start the morning, it’s just that the oil is a little taxing. Trying to get the meal was another challenge. We started out trying to get eggs, playing the same little game of charades that generally accompanies most meals. However, this time, halfway through ordering a woman at a table behind us came to our aide with a little book for drawing, a little English and a lot of Russian. It turns out that the woman, Tonya, was travelling through Kyrgyzstan and had missed her bus. She was in her late forty’s and had a pet dog and needed a lift to Biskek, so we figured, sure why not have a hitchhiker tag along. After a lot of re-arranging of the gear, we weren’t able to lift the backseat up but could at least make a level area for her to sit.
So the three of us headed off into the Tian Shen mountain range. This is a beautifully picturesque range that started with dry, scrubby desert-like mountains and levelled at a plateau that could have been in the steppes of Mongolia, complete with yurts and mare’s milk (which we were only too happy to try- verdict: ehh…it was nice to try it). Then it was a few more hundred metres up until we reached the peak, lush and green, and cloudy with spots of snow and a mountain spring rushing down beside the road. Absolutely beautiful!
Then the mountain range ended and we began to see the signs of Biskek. It turns out that Tonya lived here for a few years and was able to direct us to a nice little hotel where we can sleep indoors for the first time since Turkmenistan. Then it was off to see the sights of Biskek- one of which is a statue of Lenin that used to be at the centre of the largest square in town but has since been moved to a slightly smaller square behind a museum. The town’s alright. Sure it’s a post-soviet state, complete with drab buildings and poor construction but being the capital means that it has some very nice large marble buildings that are the equivalent to the White House and houses of parliament. We had a chance to take a mini-bus as well, which was a unique experience in itself.
Tonight we rest in our hotel, tomorrow the Kazakh border. So far we haven’t had any real trouble with borders, the Uzbek/Kyrg border was super lax coming in, and we’ve heard good things about the Kazakh border so we’re optimistic.