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Hoi An Vietnam – French Colonial Paradise


The trip to Hoi An (or actually Danang because the train doesn’t go to Hoi An) is the highlight of the train trip – the Reunification Express. It passes through an area where the mountains meet the sea. White crescent shaped beaches dot the coastline and the train cruises above the beach.

Well that’s what its supposed to be like. However we had rain, a lot of rain and wind, so the brown murky sea crashed onto the brownish sand in huge breakers. In areas the sea smashed against the huge boulders throwing water into the air.

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As for the train I was in coach seats 1st class and the train was awful. The drink tray in front of my seat was busted so was in the down position most of the way. A local guy tried jamming a plastic cup in it to try and keep it up but that only lasted for half an hour or so.

The trip was only a couple hours so the pain was only temporary. I arrived in Da Nang train station and quickly found a taxi that I shared with a couple from Belgium I had met in the train station in Hue. The fare was 500,000 dong to my hotel in Hoi An however the taxi driver was pretty keen to take us to the Marble Mountain for some sightseeing where, I’m sure his metre was have stayed in the “on” position.

Hoi An though was a delight. French colonial building dominate the old town and there is a fantastic ambiance to the place. This is maybe due to the lack of motorbikes and cars cruising around beeping their horns. The quiet without that was great.

Also the food was fantastic. We found a couple favorites that were owned by the same person – The Cargo Cafe’ and Morning Glory Restaurant.

The meals we had at both these places were great – as good or better I can get at home at a fraction of the price.

I also did a cooking school at the Morning Glory restaurant. The first part involved taking a bike ride out to the herb gardens on the edge of the town. You ride past rice paddies and ducks enjoying their day to the small plots the locals work.

You then return to the restaurant and cook a Cabbage Soup with Prawn and Pork Dumpling, then a Rice Paper Rolls, Prawn and Pork Pancake with local herbs, Green Mango Salad and BBQ Chicken Skewers.

Also the area between Danang and Hoi An is being heavily developed with many resorts being built there along the beach. Also golf courses I noticed a Greg Norman course out of the window of the taxi. So this could be a great place to have a quiet vacation in Vietnam.

The privacy and quiet of a resort with beautiful pools and golf courses and on your doorstep a World Heritage Area with wonderful architecture and fantastic food. What more could you want?

The City that lost its Glory – Hue


After leaving Hanoi we had our first experience of the Reunification Express. We were in the Livitrans carriages – the most expensive and the first impression we got – cockroaches and plenty of them! Anyway other than the cockroaches it was an uneventful and uncomfortable trip.

Arriving in Hue was a nice culture shock because the incesant noise of Hanoi was over and Hue is a much smaller and laidback town.

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The majority of hotels, backpackers and bars were in a small 3 or 4 block area and prices are cheap for food especially.

During the day we visited the Citadel which contained the palaces and capital buildings of the Nguyen Dynasty rulers of Vietnam from 1805 to 1945. The citadel has what I would politely call a run down charm to the place. Saying that looked like work was starting to be done and it seems to have survived the last 50 years and everything that went on around it in OK shape.

It is Vietnam’s answer to the Forbidden city.

Also while we were in Hue we took a cruise on the Perfume River, It was a bit of a waste of time and money -although it wasn’t expensive 100,000 dong I think. Our time might have been better spent going to one of the pagodas.

One other thing that was noticeable was there were more cyclo drivers offering prostitutes and marijuana in Hue than other places I’ve been in so far. Haven’t been to Saigon or Vung Tau yet though!

Hue also has a number of pagodas you can visit plus tours to the tunnels in the demilitarised zone. Due to fact that we had been travelling so much the previous days we didn’t do any of this and treated Hue as a bit of a rest and relaxation time.

Trekking in Sapa


Our trip to Sapa began at Hanoi and our train trip to Lao Cai near the Chinese border. We decided to take the Sapaly Express the highest price option.

The train to Lao Cai has a number of different names but are the same train. The train was borderline comfortable, the trains in Vietnam are certainly not up to the standard of Thai first class.

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So after a night on the train we arrived in Lao Cai early morning where we had a car waiting for us, The car cost $30 and was arranged by the hotel.

My first impression of Sapa was a mountain town surrounded by low cloud almost a combination between Asia and Switzerland.

There are not many things to do in Sapa town itself you can graze between French style cafes and restaurants and you can relax at a few Massage joints.

Most of your time however will be spent trying to dissuade the local hawkers trying to sell their wares. Sapa also has a large number of shops selling North Face and Columbia hiking gear. (you can also buy this in Hanoi at pretty much the same price).

The big earner (other than the hotels) are village tours. The tours are run by local guides we had a local Black Hmong villager called Soo whose English was very good. She took us from Sapa up hill down dale through the Sapa countryside. The walk was 13km but felt like more for my bloated, unfit body.

The tours themselves were very enjoyable and if you are lucky and go on a clear and sunny day it would be heaven for people who enjoy photography.

However the downside is the hawkers. You appear to get 2 Black Hmong villagers who walk along with you and over the day you strike a rapport with them but as soon as you get to the village its all bets off and you get a severe hard sell. After buying a couple things from the 2 women who walked with us we were surrounded by about another 20 of them wanting you to buy their stuff.

So in the ended up spending $20 on a couple things I’ll never use plus the $28 for the guide.

Is it worth it, considering it cost $90 round trip on the train plus higher hotel rates – I’m not sure to be totally honest but I think if the weather was better I might not be writing this.

Hanoi – Bustling, Loud and Loving it


After the first evening in Hanoi we were able to start exploring the area. We were staying in the Old Quarter which was a labyrinth of lanes with all types of vehicles using them from coaches to cyclos to pushbikes. The people seemed to have a system based on anarchy when they were driving but there would have to be some level of respect between the drivers. Although traffic was frenetic we only saw 3 minor accidents in the 2 days there so far.
We stayed in a hotel in the Old Quarter called the Hanoi Diamond Holiday Hotel on Nguyen Sieu Street. Although our booking was wrong for the first night the hotel staff were sincerely apologetic and couldn’t help us enough to make our stay comfortable. The hotel is 2 star but have PC’s in the rooms which is a nice addition.

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One thing I would also recommend is to take a Green Tourism electric car around the Old Quarter when you first arrive. This will help you get your bearings and will give you a nice preview into the street life and street food in the area. The cost was 250,000 dong per hour or 150,000 for half an hour. The bus could hold 8 or 9 people for that price.
There is great street food around where we were staying. Pho is eaten mainly as a breakfast dish so you may not be able to get it everywhere in the day. Walking on the streets one dish to look for is Bun Cha Mun which is Vermicelli noodles, lettuce, mint, basil that is dipped in a sauce/soup that comes with Spring rolls.

Another pleasurable way to spend the day is relaxing in the local cafe’s on the side of the street drinking cafe sua da.(Ice coffee with carnation milk). They usually make it with a mocha coffee so it is strong and very sweet.

After a couple days in Hanoi we travelled to Sapa and visited the hill tribe people, the Black Hmong and the Red Zhou but that will be covered in the next article.

After returning to Hanoi I found I was enjoying the city more and more you can spend the day drinking coffee at the roadside shops or as we did one afternoon, join in the drinking on the corner at the Beer Hoi bars with all the Vietnamese workers. The beer is 1 day old and is quite light to drink. The beer came with some beer snacks, peanuts and what we came to find out was shredded frog with a leaf as a wrap and chilli sauce.

The architecture of the city is interesting, in the last 20 years there has been a lot of building in the Old Quarter and a lot of the old facades of the historical buildings have been covered by new building. I think there maybe a chance the Vietnamese government can repair some of the damage that has been done to the historic fabric of the area and return some of the history to the district.

I came across 2 scams to watch out for, the first one the lady who was selling fruit asks me to hold her bamboo pole for carrying the fruit. Then she wants to take a photo of you on her mobile. Next she starts putting fruit in a plastic bag. Here’s the punchline 250,000 dong or about $12 for a small bag of fruit.

The next one is you get approached by a young Vietnamese woman who says “I am a student and I am raising money for Vietnamese Red Cross then she gives you a piece of paper printed in English, no letterhead, no identification and asks for cash.. Scam!

I have to make a special mention to the hotel that we stayed at the Hanoi Diamond Holiday Hotel. Our stay at the hotel was made fantastic by the great front of house staff Cherry, Hung, Jenny and Tracey. It was great to meet you and you made our stay an excellent experience.

Anyone looking for a hotel in Hanoi I would thoroughly recommend staying there.

The flight to Vietnam – Malaysia Airlines


As with most travelling, particularly when you travel by plane the “getting there” is not what you enjoy. Here is a rundown of the last couple days.

I left Adelaide on Saturday 17 March, it was an afternoon flight on Malaysia Airlines to Kuala Lumpur. I watched a couple movies – exciting stuff.

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My overall impression of Malaysia Airlines (this is the first time I’ve flown Malaysia) was overall average/below average. It was evident that the ground crew at Adelaide had been outsourced from a labour hire company. We had issues getting the seats we wanted with the ground crew employee saying that a certain seat had already been requested and we kept saying “that’s right – we requested it” but anyway they put us in different seats and surprise surprise the front row seats that we requested were empty. The flight was about half full at the most – Malaysia Airlines must be doing it tough. But when you start outsourcing staff it’s a slow trip downhill. Also we had issues with the Malaysia Airlines website that didn’t work very well when we requested our seats.

We got to Kuala Lumpur and gave some consideration to taking the train into town, but we were shattered and needed sleep. Had a flight to get on at 9am the next morning. We stayed at the Pan Pacific Hotel at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. I would happily recommend anyone who is transferring flights and needs to stay at the airport to stay at this hotel. Conveniently you can check in at a counter in the airport itself , then get a shuttle across to the hotel and half an hour later you are in bed. Also the counter was right next to where we picked up our luggage. Thank you Pan Pacific Hotel Kuala Lumpur Airport for a nice if short stay.

Next morning, out of bed and in the airport at 7am checking into our next flight to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Shortish flight 90 minutes I think it was. Looked straight ahead no movies, no book, until we arrived at Saigon. Had a couple hours to kill until we got on our next flight to Hanoi.

Went into the domestic terminal to check in and we stopped at a nice looking restaurant on the right hand side of the entrance to the domestic terminal if you had walked from the International terminal. Had a nice lunch of spring rolls, fantastic watermelon juice, coconut juice and a cafe’sua da just beautiful and refreshing respite from the tropical heat.

Next onto our Jetstar flight, I have a conflicting opinion of budget airlines. I am happy they exist because it has forced conventional airlines to stop gouging their customers but I hate them for the appalling service they provide. We were bused out to the plane and in usual Asian fashion boarding degenerated into a stampede. I was getting pushed around by this 80 year old Vietnamese lady. By the way I’m 185cm and well over 100kg.

The plane itself was a Airbus A320 that looked like it was over 20 years old and they may have leased it from an African airline that had gone bust. Although it was clean the Jetstar name looked as though it had been painted on using a roller and was starting to peel. At the beginning of the flight the engine had an unusual pitch to it that had me fearing for my life.

When we got into the air my travelling companion said “It only needs to make one more landing” when I looked at him in horror at what was happening.

So at 2.10pm on the second day of travelling we reached our destination Hanoi.

Had a driver waiting for us and took the 30 minute drive into Hanoi. Incredible amount of industry in this city. In the space of 1km we saw a Canon, Panasonic, Yamaha, Asahi Intec factories that would all be bigger than the largest factory in my home city Adelaide.

My first impression about Hanoi is how much dust there is and how dirty the city is because of this dust. It had only been raining a little while before we arrived and there was still dust and also grime and mud. It’s also quite hazy, not sure if it’s the weather or pollution or a bit of both but its fairly gray.

Arrived at the hotel which is the Hanoi Holiday Diamond Hotel. Problem – they only have 1 room booked for us not the 2 rooms that we booked and paid for through Agoda. Could we sleep together in a double bed. I think the words that came out was “I don’t think so” or “No way” but my mind was saying something less polite.

So we got a twin room for one night and at least now we have 2 rooms. The girls on the desk were very apologetic but it’s not the first time that I have heard of things like this happening when you book through Agoda.

Got settled went for some beers and watched the insane traffic at a roundabout near the lake and ate some beers snacks before crashing into a sound stupor.

Mongolia and the End of the Mongol Rally!


Leaving Russia

The ambulance hadn’t been fairing well over the last few weeks and a few problems had come up at the border. Lucky we had time: apparently only 6 cars would be allowed through each hour, and we were at least 3 hours back in line. The cold woke us all early that morning and through rumours we heard that we had missed a crucial step in the Russia to Mongolia border crossing.

A small shed about 300 meters back held a stamp that we all needed to get through and so we headed down there at about 7 am in the early cold, to get our stamp. We lined up and watched as other teams realized that something was up, so we decided to have some fun. As the first team came up we mentioned another small shack another 300 meters down which had a turquoise roof.

We then explained how an important piece of paperwork, necessary to the border crossing was to be gained there. And off they went. Laughing we stopped them but for the next hour giggled as the same joke was played on each team that next came to us. Good times.

Conner the legend had some work to do: We needed to clean out the fuel filter on the ambo, and we had a water hose that was basically degraded to nothing and needed replacing. While the teams played football and threw Frisbees, I did my best to help Conner get the job done, finding a much needed hose pipe amongst the ralliers and a bit of ingenuity we had the Ambo back on the road and ready for the border. The teams let us get back to our previous spot in the line and we were ready, until a mini bus full of people tried to cut the line. The teams then proceeded to block him in and let absolutely everyone around him! The strong winds pelted us with sand as the skies opened up for our first snow!

The Russian part of the border crossing was simple and we headed off into what we thought was the Mongolian desert, only to come across another small random hut in the middle of nowhere about 10 km down the road. A stop sign and a quick stamp and we were allowed through a gate. Thinking we were again in Mongolia through the easiest border ever, we all congratulated ourselves and shook hands. Off we went again! Over a rise and then… The Mongolian border crossing.

Mongolian Border Crossing

We arrived there about 2pm and the wait started. Other teams and buses started pouring in as well. Stamps and passports, car registrations and payments. My passport had been stuffed up y the organizers of the Mongol Rally and according to my Visa I was almost a week late for it. Joking with the girls checking the passports they stamped it without even noticing the dates, we even managed to get a laugh out of them! But at about 6pm we were informed that we would be staying at the border over night. About 8 teams were stuck and we parked in a small compound for the night. Organised some dinner and chatted about the trip. It was freezing!

But to our rescue came Serge in a tourist bus. His passengers went into Mongolia to stay at a small town just after the border. So he had a huge bus all to himself and his co-driver. He invited us all onto it for a warm night of laughs and way too much Vodka. He even invited us to stay onboard for the night and a few of us did. For his kindness I gave him a Cuban cigar the GM at the Ford dealership had given me and he was very pleased with the gift.

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The next day was much of the same. Cold and no movement with our passports. So we started to play some games. Football and Frisbees again! But then a border official came to spoil our fun. Taking one of the balls he headed for me demanding the other ball.

One hand out, the other holding the confiscated ball behind his back. I adopted a similar pose with the ball I had and stood my ground. “Give me the ball!” he demanded all official like. “No, give us our passports and let us through and I’ll give you the ball!” was my answer. Trying not to crack up he repeated his demands and I repeated mine. Seconds before he broke down with laughter, the smile threatening to break free, he turned on his heal, throwing the ball to someone else and said “No ball games at the border!” Still snickering he headed back to the office building. We all just cracked up.

No photos at the border

Now taking photos at the border is a no-no, they seriously don’t like it. And a very serious soldier came over to us, very angry about the number of cameras about. “No photos!” he exclaimed, grabbing one of the guys cameras! Now this camera is quite valuable and I grabbed the same camera and told him he couldn’t take it. A little tug of war ensued as he demanded the camera so he could examine it and delete the photos, but I wasn’t sure it would be returned and held on.

All of us were asking him to let go by now and after a few minutes his whole demeanor changed. His voice softened and he explained the laws and rules and “we don’t want pictures of the border to get on facebook…” The boys then deleted some of the pics in front of him to keep him happy. Ironic considering that the building had been completely deserted overnight and we could have taken as many photos as we wanted!

Then finally some of us were allowed to leave! 3 teams, then another 3 teams were allowed through into Mongolia! 50 meters and another stop sign, another small shed and another gate. A man walked towards us wearing civilian clothing and an official looking hat and demanded our vehicle papers. I went in with the others and was immediately wary of this bloke, who really looked as though he wasn’t very official. He wanted $11 USD for insurance for non-Mongolia cars.

Trying to explain to him that this was a charity event and officially the cars were now Mongolian fell on deaf ears. I asked him for ID and he got very angry threatening and yelling and tried to throw us out of his little room. We then got the border police to help, the looks on their faces confirming that this wasn’t necessary for us to pay, but the man wouldn’t hear of it. He even tried to rip us off when we did eventually pay. And we were in Mongolia! Finally. After 40 hours!

Travelling into Mongolia

We stopped and waited for the other teams and had some of the local food. Meat dumplings and a spicy chilli sauce. I want some now! We stocked up and headed into the Mongolian desert. Eerily featureless, Mongolia is just breathtaking. I can’t quite explain why it was so amazing, but it was. Open plains, rippling into the distance, large, surprising lakes, scattered around, camels and gers everywhere. The local huts are called yerts in Russia and its neighbours, but gers in Mongolia. Its not like they get upset if you get it wrong, but it’s nice to actually ask and get it right! We played soccer with some local kids and gave them some candy.

Just to let you know too, the paved tarmac stopped at that little gate in the middle of the borders. It was all dirt from here on in. And as for a distinct road? Well, you’re better off with a direction, not a map, as many of the tracks were criss-crossed with other roads as the locals try and make a smoother ride for themselves. Up to 20 dirt roads in any direction, corrugated and filled with rocks and ditches. These roads would have to be taken carefully, safely. Apparently there is some 25000 km of road in Mongolia, 4000 of which was paved. And less than that is actually recognizable as a road!

Just before we left the town, the angry insurance official saw me sitting alone in the Ambulance, and headed over. Resigned to another tongue lashing after our push and shove, I wound the window down. But he was a different man. Through broken English and sign language he apologised for his behaviour and hope I would have a great time in his country. Genuinely stunned I smiled at him and shook his hand telling him there were no hard feeling. We smiled and said our goodbyes.

Olgii – Mongolia

We came across the town of Olgii, a man on a motorbike waiting at its outskirts. The Mongol Rally Charity had helped this town and he was there to help the travellers make their way. After a brief conversation the man set off motioning us to follow him. I joked that he was taking us to his house. And he did! Another brief conversation and we followed him out of town and he sent us on our way.

The roads are the worst you can imagine, heaps of road-works, and sometimes better to just drive through the desert, but we pushed on. There is a picture of a bridge on the MR website and we came across our first river crossing, the bridge dilapidated beyond use, but it wasn’t hard and we headed on into the night before camping. Still up about 2300 meters it was another cold night, but camping in the Mongolian desert buoyed our spirits. It was just cool to be here!

There were cracks showing in the camps the next day when we got up, 40 days of travel and so close to the end were taking its toll. But a few hours’ drive and we made it to Khovd. Here we found a Ger camp especially set up for the ralliers and we stopped and enjoyed the hospitality of Seseer and his lovely wife. For about $4 each we had a great meal, could use the shower and facilities and even use the internet. Like a little oasis we sat around and charged our batteries.

Khovd – Mongolia

From here we went into town to get supplies and parts for the cars. Khovd is mainly mud-brick simple buildings, with the remnants of Russia all about in the Soviet style buildings everywhere. In between you will find gers, in the town, and a great market. Above the city circling like pigeons are massive eagles, tens of them, maybe a hundred. Knowing that food was always where people are they glide across the sky and search. We even met the local representative for the MR here in the middle of town. Very nice lady. A few hours and we were ready to go again.

Along the way we had met a couple of French guys in a 4wd, travelling the rally. They had broken down every single day. How they had gotten so far we didn’t know. And outside of Khovd we found them again. One of them had been travelling with another team and had gone ahead. But this car was done. So we went off to find the other guy for him, we travelled about 50 km’s before we found him and the other teams decided to head back and help out. We found another awesome river crossing and camped on the other side by a crystal stream. The tension around the camp was eased by a massive night of drinking. Glow sticks and vodka were the winners that night. There may have been some nudity. See how rumours start…

The cars were just falling apart now, the long days of bad road taking their toll. And in 3 days we had maybe travelled 300 km. The next morning Bumblebee had to be pull started (thanks to sneaky sneaky our Serbian friend), once going the Ambo was having fuel problems again, and the other Aussie teams problems were just starting. We passed massive 2-humped camels, eagles and lakes until the desert gave way to an amazing scene of a horse race in the desert! The Mongolian Derby was less than a km away and we were able to watch the finish of it!

Darvy – Mongolia

Maybe 30 horses, surrounded by cars, bikes and trucks all driving/ riding flat-out through the desert, a long dust cloud floating behind them as they raced for the finish line in Darvy. We stopped in Darvy for supplies and the Aussie teams car spat out all of its oil, thanks to a sump plug that had worked its way out during the drive. Some steel bonded cement and more oil fixed that and we were once again on our way. This was another 140 miles of bad road, and it took us all day, before camping on the edge of the Gobi desert. We made a stew of pretty much everything we had left and it was one of the best meals we had had!! And thank god it was warming up!

We woke up determined to make some headway the next morning and after the usual troubles starting the cars we were off again. Another long drive in the morning and then something special happened: It rained in the Gobi desert. Dark skies threatened and broke into a light misty rain for a little while, washing our cars and keeping the dust down for us. The dust had been an unwanted passenger for most of our journey. In our car, our clothes, our bags, our food. You couldn’t get away from it, until it rained for us.

Altai – Mongolia

On arriving in Altai we had to leave the Aussies behind as they attempted to get their car fixed. We almost lost the other teams this day as well, as we travelled well ahead of them, before heading back to help. And car problems were plaguing us again. Along the way are shrines, decorated in blue, and we found one high on a hill. We all took photos and headed off again into the desert. The morning sunrises are some of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see until the sunsets come again! This night we decided to risk driving in the night as we desperately wanted to make Ulaanbaatar for the final party. Until we came to the river… 100 feet across and at night we couldn’t tell how deep it was. So we camped again, leaving the river for the morning.

River Crossing in Mongolia

The next morning we woke early to take a good look at the river. We had 750km to go and wanted to make it safely and had all talked about driving safely and making sure we got there that night! We wanted to party!!

Another team had to leave their car and pulled up besides us, driven along by a local who had just bought a new car in Altai. While we were looking for a river crossing they attempted the trip across and got stuck ¾ the way across! As the car filled with water they climbed out and sat on the roof while we got help. A local man on a motorbike said he would help and proceeded to show us the way through the river… ON THE MOTORBIKE!

Josh pulled the much smaller Fiat through the rover and we all sat on the other side as they pulled the poor guys car out with a tractor. We now had 2 more passengers and headed off. After about another hour of Josh at the wheel I finally snapped at his over-enthusiastic driving, as he basically got a 2.5 tonne vehicle off the ground at speed and lost control.

I had had enough and told him he wasn’t driving anymore, genuinely scared for my life, and wanting to make it to Ulaanbaatar in one piece. He refused to leave the driver’s seat and I threw him out. Another brake down for the Serbian team and I, completely embarrassed by my outburst, apologised to Josh and the others in the team.

Leaving the Ambulance

I had also made a decision. I wouldn’t be finishing the trip with Josh and the Ambulance. And the other guys. It was such a hard decision for me and you could see it on the faces of the rest of the boys. But it was obvious that on the last day of the rally, I felt very strongly about my own safety, and if I stayed my safety wasn’t assured, and I couldn’t ask anyone else to put themselves at risk. There is an element of danger to this entire rally, it’s kind of the point, but I didn’t feel it necessary to push it too far. The guy who drowned his car had turned up and I hitched a ride with him to the next town, forgetting my passport I had to wait for the teams to catch up so I could get it.

Bus to Ulaan Baatar from Bayankhongor

Then I looked for the bus. Bayankhongor is not a huge town, but it is thriving, and looks like most of the other towns. A helpful local took me to the bus stop, where I met another team already on the bus. Now these Russian made UAZ 452 buses are everywhere. 4wd and a tank couldn’t stop them. Slightly bigger than a VW combi and absolutely brilliant. Until you try and put 18 people into one. And our luggage. 12 hours in the bus, with my ankles around my ears, and the guys with me were taller! A couple of stops, for food and fuel, and a couple of meetings with other teams (including 5 or 6 sightings of Bumblebee the little fiat on the way), we made it to Ulaanbaatar!

Finished

I had completed my Rally! Highs and lows this was a magnificent trip! The four of us had missed the party and were looking for accommodation at 3:30 am in the morning! A quick cab ride and a little search and we found the finish line, and about 50 people in various states of drunkenness, and a floor to sleep on for the night. I even found Ryan and Craig, and Bumblebee! Early the next morning the three of us headed for a better hotel. Comfortable beds, a truly excellent bathroom and Wi-Fi and we were home for the day. And did nothing… well maybe I had a beer. Just one.

This rally had been such a big part of our lives for 6 weeks. We all found it hard to sleep and relax at first due to the demands our bodies were used to along the way. As a big celebration amongst our Mongvoy (our teams name for our convoy) we had made plans to go to a certain restaurant and then just hit the town. Our team had split up and we weren’t sure where anyone was. But dinner was still on and we caught up again with the Aussies we had left in Altai.

The Farewell Dinner

We made plans to meet them later at the finish line before heading out for our night. We had just gotten our first beers at the bar when a huge commotion arose outside and we went for a look: and around the corner came the Ambulance! One flat tyre and 9 people in it, they had made it, limping to the finish line! We cheered and went down for hugs and hand-shakes! The boys had made it! Very drunk and very dirty they told us that the other car had drowned in a mud puddle and they decided that the Mongvoy dinner was way too important, so they all got in and here they were. Even better the Serbians turned up not much later!

It was a great night of food, stories, too much laughter and great mates! Oh and there may have been a few strippers… it had been a long trip. With men, too many men…

Ulaan Baatar

Ulaanbaatar is a large, modern city. Like all cities you have to be very careful, but our group didn’t have any problems while wandering around. Others had given us warnings of muggers in broad daylight and fights at night, but we really didn’t see any problems. It was a bit sad for some teams though. The cars we drive over were all being sold, locals drifting around the car park looking for good cars. I find it interesting that you would want to buy what was left of a vehicle I had driven 18,000km across truly bad roads, but hey if that’s what you want to do… These cars were a part of our teams. We had spent so long with them, fixed them, mothered them, cursed them, loved them and hated them. For such a long time. And now strangers were just picking them off.

Ulaan Baatar Mongolia

We had our last big night with the group as a whole and said our goodbyes. I would be here til Thursday and had booked an early flight. The city has everything you need and the State Department store has everything you can possibly want. Food is cheap and delicious everywhere and tours are easy to book. I organised some cheap rooms in the same hotel for us and then we went horse riding. $30 USD gets you 7 hours journey.

A private driver out to the beautiful national park, stunning views of turtle rock and the surrounding valleys, an hour and a half ride on a stubborn horse, dinner, trekking in the woods and back again. What a great day. This hidden valley of grassy fields, broken by stone and rocking erupting from the ground, and central to it all the massive turtle rock.

The next day was a long walk out to the Black Market, apparently illegal, tax free markets, in the city. It really wasn’t that cheap. They did have absolutely everything you could imagine there. But just wasn’t that good: a bit like paddy’s markets really. The snow fell while we were there, cooling us off and reminding us that the deserts were so far behind us. That night we decided that sleep wasn’t an option due to our 4 am wakeup call and taxi to the airport. So we drank and chatted and said our goodbyes.

The Flight back to London

Great warrior, crap vodka. And on my 100th day away from Australia, I left Mongolia. If only it was that easy! At the airport the customs officer noticed that my visa had been stamped incorrectly and called a supervisor. Very tired now. He informed me that I had been travelling through Mongolia Illegally on an expired Visa. So very tired. I had been separated from everyone and was in a little room with him.

Making a big show about waking his superior and getting it all done by my flight. Couldn’t keep my eyes open now. He then suggested I buy a new Visa. There it was! The bribe! Yawning I asked how much. The fine was about 120 pounds or 65 USD to get a new visa. Um…new visa. Now all officials I dealt with do this: when you give them money they count it at least three times and then just toss it in a drawer. He stamped my passport… where’s the “new” visa? And my one and only bribe was paid. I made it to my plane and fell asleep before takeoff. A brief stop in Moscow and I was back in London. Interestingly I had met a world champion Mongolian boxer on the flight and we quickly became friends as he chatted about his career. Cho Tseveenpurev, nice guy.

22 countries: UK, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, (Serbia), Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia. 18000 miles. Deserts, temperatures of 55 degrees Celsius and below -6. Awesome people and food, great sights and a life changing journey. And back in 14 hours on 2 flights! What a trip!

I have been in London nearly 2 weeks now and enjoy the absurdity of doing absolutely nothing. Another couple of weeks and my journey starts again. Europe with my beautiful girlfriend and maybe Ireland next week!!