About 5 years ago, I could spend hours looking at 124s in various colours, trims and shapes. The greatest point of interest was just how different they could be. Beryl Blue S124 badged as a TE? Yum. #249 Malachite Green Saloon? Delicious. Bornite Metallic S124 with Blue Leather and Walnut, as good as it gets. Almost infinite options to geek out over.
Sadly, I fear the good ones are now all sat at Charles Ironside for over £10,000.
BUT - the odd peach still crops up at an attainable price.
512 Almandine Red C124.
You won't get the Ironside treatment, but nor will they charge you the same!
Aaaaand the winners are....
Anyone who thought the quality of the calendar photos might be reduced by the C word, think again! The quality of entries was very high! Some months were very close, and I still can’t quite believe that the Sierra base was pipped for June!
Full disclosure: one month did require a judges decision which is explained below. I shall be PMing the owners of the photos to ask for a higher quality versions if we can as I know the size limits are a concern for some.
February (taken by @garycox)
March (taken by @DodgyBastard)
April (taken by @Spottedlaurel)
May (another from @DodgyBastard)
June (taken by @RobT)
July (taken by @Borsuq)
August was a tie, however as there were two very similar pics of the Lancias and the other had three votes too I made the executive decision to choose the Lancia pic... (taken by @Six-cylinder)
September (taken by @Skizzer)
October (taken by @BorniteIdentity)
November (taken I believe by @Six-cylinder)
December (taken by @Zelandeth)
January 2022 (taken by @brownnova)
Please place orders by the end of the weekend and I’ll be back with final prices etc now we have our winners!
It was also agreed that as a tribute to the late great @Richard this would be the cover photo.
How great does this look? Its not super cheap like but I guess its as good as any you'll find. I love it!!!!
I have just completed the 2018 Mongol Rally and following a brief and poorly maintained preparation/introduction thread here I have written a full narrative of the event. Hopefully the rest of the 10,000 or so adverb-heavy words below will be more intriguing, amusing and maybe even arousing than that very dull opening sentence. That’s a word per mile that we drove so consider it value for money.
Marked on this map are the locations of every of my overnight stays with the exception of that on the Caspian Sea ferry. It took exactly six weeks from departing England to arriving at Ulan-Ude in Siberia.
I took my ‘big camera’ but after a fairly boring first week I only used it for about five photos, so the overwhelming majority of these are just from my phone as we quickly realised that situational photography best captured what we were doing. Other teams came armed with tripods and drones and have produced incredible photo blogs of their travels. We dicked around taking selfies, so a lot of my pictures break the golden rule of bulletin boards. Most of the photos here are mine with the Carphone Warehouse’s cheapest camera phone.
In 2012 I moved to Reading. I live with a flatmate called Lawrence. In 2014 Lawrence moved in with his girlfriend. In 2017 Lawrence became engaged to his girlfriend. A few weeks later Lawrence is no longer engaged to his girlfriend. After being held back from social activities for some time he decided that his adventurous side needed re-kindling and I am bombarded with messages and invites for various escapades. On a train journey back from a bike ride to Margate we decide that we should enter the 2018 Mongol Rally.
In February we bought a car. Following the logic that my one-dead-owner-since-new 1991 Corolla has been absolutely flawless over the past few years, I found a similar 1993 Daihatsu Charade on carandclassic which perfectly fitted the bill. As a 1.3 it had a slightly larger engine than preferred to enter the event, but nonetheless it was in the right spirit. Over the next few months the car is used for many weekends away and commutes and worked fine. Brilliant, we thought, we haven't bought a lemon. Its sole modification prior to the event was a set of new 8-ply tyres to cope with the poorly surfaced roads we have ahead. I also installed a CB radio and removed most of the rear passenger compartment trim to maximise available space.
On July 14 I set off. I had spent the preceding week horrendously ill at home so couldn’t do a formal handover at work, and it was very touch and go whether I would be able to leave at all . With superb timing my lethargy disappeared by the departure date although I was irritatingly slightly skinnier than my usual self after a week of not being able to hold down a meal. I had to drive the first few days on my own as Lawrence luckily got tickets for the Wimbledon men's final which coincided with the launch date. The official launch was actually held just outside Prague, so involved a healthily boring two day motorway slog across Germany to get there. I cleverly also timed my drive down to coincide with what appeared to be the beginning of the German school holidays as I spent most of the journey sat in lengthy autobahn tailbacks behind SUVs and people carriers with bikes on the back. You know the type. Nevertheless I happily arrived in Prague after a tranquil night's camping by the Maas in the Netherlands. A camping experience that it turns out would not be repeated for some time.
My first day on the road. Lots of families with bikes.
The launch event itself was something of an anticlimax. I arrived late and, along with a number of other teams, got the helpful 'it's full m8, you can't come in' so had to park and camp outside the compound. Brilliant. However by the morning this paid dividends as I could be one of the first to leave, which was handy as I had a long drive ahead to meet Lawrence in Budapest.
A number of prizes were handed out at the Launch event. The 'best car' award went to a French team in an immaculately restored Ami8, and the wooden spoon went to a couple of old men in a brand new Qashqai who planned to spend every night in luxury hotels. A number of teams had also raised well into five figures for charity which was admirable, whereas we'd only met the minimum of £1000. The organisers insisted we raise half of our funds for a rather daft and pretentious climate change charity, however many teams plainly ignored this and more wisely raised money for their own charities who they felt a more genuine connection to.
The ‘best car’ was awarded to this French team in their restored Ami8. I later saw it again in Azerbaijan, and on the Salzburg Police Facebook page:
Team ‘No way Jose’ who we camped with in Budapest. They bought their R4 van, requiring very little work, for only €1500 and it was later seen again at the finish line.
The remaining drive across Europe was predictably dull. In Serbia we were challenged for our first bribe after an 'official' caught us having a tinkle by the roadside. Our strategy of talk gibberish until he got bored worked well, and after ten minutes he ushered us on our way. I'd traveled to Serbia before but did not experience such lengthy border crossings - this was our first non-Schengen country and probably took two hours each to enter and exit, and that was just for a passport stamp. Oh, we didn’t know what would come ahead. Staying in Belgrade was an early challenge. Lawrence drove as I navigated and we had an enjoyable* experience dodging trams and one-way systems which were not represented on our map. Worse still was that inn the 'free parking' road outside our hostel I saw a number of cars getting HIABed, but after a terrifying night's sleep we woke to our car remaining where we left it.
When the cockpit was clean. It felt like driving a fighter-bomber. (doing a flip, apparently, as somehow this has ended up being uploaded upside down)
Serbia seemed amusingly blasé about its recent history.
A helpful guard was always at watch to ensure our car didn’t go AWOL in Belgrade.
Next was Plovdiv in Bulgaria where we had our first 'mechanical'. Irritatingly this occurred in the dark as, following a night out in Belgrade, we didn't hit our planned 6am daily waking up regime. Climbing one of the nightmare steep cobbled streets in the town centre a bang was heard from underneath the bonnet followed by a puff of smoke. For whatever reason a spark plug was missing. I couldn't find it under the car but fortunately I had some spares. Terrified that the thread was stripped I was amazed that the spare went in perfectly, and behaved itself for the rest of the trip. In the morning I found the old plug and the thread looked in good condition. There was an impressive dent in the bonnet too from where it jettisoned itself. Very bizarre.
Turkey was next as our first true ‘unfamiliar’ country. Having cycled there before I was well aware of the challenging road behaviours and congestion, but fortunately we had no issues at all. We bought a 'green card' insurance policy prior to the leaving however somewhere along the line we found out that there had been a bit of a balls up as the policy was only valid in the EU, not the extra dozen or so countries that we were hoping for. So there's a whinge to the insurer on the horizon and we were now at the mercy of a lot of quite expensive border insurance brokers. We quickly had issues with Turkey's hideously complex road pricing system but after exchanging 'some money' for what looked like a vignette sticker we felt more confident that we could leave the country without facing any penalty, which we later did. Despite the horror stories that we were told, driving in Istanbul wasn't that bad at all. A less-stressful drive than in London and a free parking space right outside our hostel. Perfect! Leaving was problem free also and as we got further into the country the roads got emptier, but remained of good quality - up until the Georgian border we barely left a dual carriageway. It felt very Interstate 40 - long concrete and tarmac lines drawn across the desert and through mountains. The scenery was stunning. Local made vehicles are popular - Ford Otosan and BMCs are popular trucks, as for some reason is the MB Axor which has a weirdly passionate following. Aesthetic modifications are pretty cool too. The most popular cars were obscure Fiats which were presumably also made locally. The Turkish people were overwhelmingly very friendly and intrigued about what we were doing, and this was to become an enjoyable theme for (most!) of the rest of the trip.
Familiar company in Istanbul.
After being warned about traffic horror stories in Istanbul we enjoyed a pleasantly quiet drive through the brand new Bosporus road tunnel.
The roads in Turkey were quite superb.
This may have explained the illness that was to plague the next few days and weeks.
What we thought at the time was extr3m3 off-roading.
What we thought at the time was extr3m3 elevation. We were very naïve.
Ever seen a non-Latin registration plate before?
As we approached the Georgian border the scenery turned from desert to lush flora as we got higher in the mountains - our highest pass was about 2300 m iirc. Following some questionable food I had a 'trouser accident' in the border no man's land which was slightly embarrassing as a) we were convoying with other teams at this point and no man's land is a very difficult part of the world to be in. As our first non-EU border crossing we quickly learned that smiling and talking about football can get you out of a car search and make life significantly easier. However, that's when the positivity ended. The roads of Georgia quickly deteriorated into a dystopian potholed mess plagued by extremely aggressive driving. This, combined with a grey and rainy sky, made me actually quite scared. We were in the Soviet Union now. Ladas, Kamaz trucks, weird above-ground yellow gas pipelines, endless congestion, ramshackle roadsides businesses, and big black SUVs that you do get out of the way of when they flash their lights. I wanted this to be over, fast. We quickly got to our hostel in Tbilisi and hid in the corner. There are few road rules here we quickly learned. Few cars have intact bumpers, many are right hand drive. Not again on the journey would I see motorists driving vehicles of worse condition. Being a pedestrian is equally terrifying. We had a few days to kill in Tbilisi as I had a bout of D&V and Lawrence had to wait for a lift to take him to Iran for a week - we had to separate at this point as my Iranian visa was declined a few months earlier. At this point we also met a young Frenchman riding his motorcycle to Mongolia; his videos are pretty successful on the old social media (he spent all his free time filming and editing) so if you want some French language action check out his channel. This was also the first country in which we began to see Chinese vehicles on the road - CNHTC construction lorries. They looked smart and rugged, and their numbers would only increase as we got further into Asia. Ex-US 18 wheelers became common too and were popular in many of the ex-Soviet Union states.
We had an interloper in our convoy towards the Georgian border.
Old Izhmash ‘Planeta’ sidecar bike. The company is better known as Kalashnikov for some of the other products which it manufactures.
Average Georgian vehicle. Steering wheel on the incorrect side and no bumpers. The double horn is probably the most important modification.
For those whingeing about the UK 2018 summer heatwave, please spare a moment to remember those like me who spent it in the Caucasus. It was phenomenally hot in the region, and also very humid. Nevertheless I proceeded to Azerbaijan following another border crossing where the guards were more interested in removing the Armenia sticker from our car, writing their names on the bonnet, and getting me to shout funny words through a walkie talkie at their colleagues. Azerbaijan was more impoverished still, albeit in a different way. Here every vehicle was ex-soviet, and the temperature became utterly unbearable in the car. The 200 miles or so of motorway to the coast was a significant challenge as the colour of my urine deteriorated. Drinking my water became like drinking a flavourless cup of tea. The excess wind caused by all the windows being open even caused the headlining to collapse. Continual collapses later in the trip led us to remove it completely. Mercifully it cooled by the Caspian coast, where I was to spend the next few days, as I approached the glitzy capital of Baku. Here it was clear that the country's significant oil money is very concentrated into one location, although it at least felt like a liveable city with a genuine past and purpose. Here the waiting game began for the Caspian Sea Ferry.
Rural Azerbaijan was very impoverished, and extremely hot. However the general theme of locals taking great interest in what we were doing continued. This was in one of many overstaffed attended petrol stations.
I had a choice of waiting at a new port at Alat, some fifty miles south, or at Baku. Information on the ferry services that ply the Caspian Sea is limited. They sort of turn up every so often and leave when they're full and if the weather is good. Hearing that some teams were having bad experiences at Alat (camping in the port, in the middle of nowhere, waiting for a non-existent ferry to collect them) I chose to wait in my hostel in Baku and just monitor the marine traffic website until one looks like it's arriving. Yes, this is the best way of predicting the service. The following morning I saw that one was on its way so wandered down to the port to scout it out. Fortuitously I bumped into another team with similar ambitions, and numerous more at the port, so knew I was at least in the same boat as others. No joke intended. After a successful and friendly English-spoken conversation with 'someone' who worked at the port, $40 changed hands and I and the car were on the next ferry's roster. Bingo! So I had another crap mosquito-ridden night's sleep and my last decent western meal for some time. The following morning our number had grown to 19 cars and the waiting game began. We had to dart around Baku for hours paying numerous fees but fortunately the city had a fleet of purple LTI taxis, in which one could ride anywhere for about $1. Stocked up with non-perishable food and several litres of water, we spent a productive day sat around at the port waiting to be summoned to load. We met a truck driver called Borat. Fortunately we had a football and an air conditioned waiting room. We also snuck about the port under the radar of the security and bumped into a man who alleged to be the ship's captain. He said it would leave at midnight. It did, bang on. We boarded late afternoon after hours of timewasting and watching very skilful truck drivers reverse artics up a ramp onto the boat. We were impressed. A predictably bureaucratic process then unfolded as we spent hours exchanging passports and lots of US dollars to actually make the journey. The ferry was of fairly new build and owned by the Turkmenistan government - a tinpot dictatorship desperate for foreign currency to prop up a dying natural resources economy. Luckily, being one of the first to board, I got a bed in a cabin. The ship was air-conditioned and passenger-focussed, much better than the Soviet era-Alat ferries which we later learned were designed primarily to carry trucks and railway carriages. By around 3pm the following day the ship had docked in Turkmenbashi. By 7pm we alighted, and only following a heated mixed-language shouting affair between the ferry staff and one of us who had turned out to be a stowaway, therefore exceeding the ship's permitted number of passengers. I don't know what happened but eventually they returned his passport and he was allowed to leave. By midnight, and almost two hundred dollars lighter, we were through customs. Everybody seemed very nice and friendly, the process was just pointless and tedious. One of the passport agents spoke good English so he spent some time with me telling him about life in the free world as he made a slanty-eyed gesture to describe Mongolia.
Immaculate Austin Metro driven by two British lawyers working in the Far East. They wanted to drive a British car and they helped me out with Chinese antibiotics when a wound on my foot became infected.
Into the belly of ‘Berkarar’; our ro-ro ferry that took us to Turkmenistan. This vessel was actually made in Croatia and sailed to the Caspian Sea along the Volga-Don ship canal. A car and one passenger cost $330 and only cash wash accepted. Handling wads of high value notes was common wherever we went. ‘Clean’ notes are preferred.
Passing the time for many hours at customs.
The 20 cars from our ferry.
The first of hundreds of follies that we saw in the Las Vegas-like surveillance dystopia that was Turkmenistan.
After a stay in one of Turkmenistan's bizarre five star hotels we were up nice and early to cross the desert to Ashgabat. A fairly well paved road that rapidly deteriorated and involved a lot of camel-dodging. Still on my own, I latched onto another team who had a tourist visa and a guide, so we at least knew a bit more about what to expect in the country. Police checkpoints were frequent, but they had no interest in us. After buying local currency at the black market exchange rate, we were rich. Filling up a tank of petrol cost a couple of pounds. Ashgabat is one of the oddest cities on earth. Impeccably clean and made of white marble and gold, it is the capital of a genuine police state with a uniformed officer on every street corner. Photography is banned. Cars that are not white are allegedly banned. Smoking is banned, cigarettes are pricey on the black market. The country is an autocracy led by personality cult - Putin-esque images of the president look down on you wherever you are. Food is fairly scarce in supermarkets, and fresh produce is of low quality. The country is part North Korea, part Las Vegas, part Venezuela. Needless to say we enjoyed another five star hotel - the only places in which tourists are permitted to stay. With a new guide we then headed to the 'Door to Hell' or Darwaza gas crater. A man made geological oddity that has been burning continuously for several decades. Its scale is phenomenal and it was well worth the detour. Disappointingly however the party-pooper authorities have recently erected a fence around it so it no longer lacks its full pizzazz, and we all wussed out at having a piss into it. It also quickly became apparent why our new guide had an SUV. The roads around the crater were almost impassable. Think those potholes that angry people in local newspapers tend to moan about. Then imagine hundreds of miles of them, and the ruts themselves an order of magnitude larger. We also got a number of cars stuck in the sand at the crater itself. The potholes took their toll. Other teams had a lot of flats and snapped springs. Even doing 20-30 mph for most of the road I managed to lose a shock absorber and snap the exhaust in two. The exhaust could be fixed in the next town by a welder who did an incredible job for the equivalent of £1.50. The shock absorber, being part of a rear strut assembly, was terminal and could not be repaired. We would have to do the rest of the trip with 'interesting' dynamic properties. An oddity I noticed whilst traveling through the desert was how popular train transport is there - freight and passenger. Not something I'd seen since leaving England.
MBA grads on tour.
The caring face of Autocrat Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow smiles down on you wherever you are.
The slightly unusual view from our hotel in a country where fresh produce and cigarettes were difficult to find.
It became quickly apparent that we were off-roading novices.
The ‘Door to Hell’ at Darwaza. This Spanish family wanted their photo taken in front of the car and this stood out as one of the most memorable moments of the whole event.
On-vehicle exhaust repair. Tank full of petrol? Not a problem.
Our final night in Turkmenistan was spent in the city of Dashoguz in another empty five star hotel. Over dinner our guide told us that the majority of the country's vehicles were ex-US; explaining why I'd seen so many Camrys. It's also worth pointing out at this juncture that much of what you read in the media is a myth #fakenews. Ashgabat is not a ghost town, as many travel bloggers say it is, and not all of the cars are white - although our guide did emphasise that this is the law. Unknown to me at the time was that this would be the last country for some time that sold decent petrol. 95 was still available and it was a nice novelty filling a tank for about five dollars. Uzbekistan was next and a country in which propane is the only fuel available - allegedly to limit cross-border transport. Petrol can be bought on the black market and from some filling stations, but I didn't trust it. Fortunately a quick calculation suggested that I could make it through the country on one full tank and a Jerry can.
The Uzbekistan border crossing was relatively easy. Only $20 of wheel greasing and a lot of smiles and we were through. Fortunately I speak enough of the international language of football and can claim I live in 'London' enough of a distraction to make things easier. Both entering and leaving Uzbekistan we also enjoyed a slightly embarrassing amount of 'white privilege'. Recognised as tourists, both the locals and border agents ushered us to the front of the queue - to which I reluctantly obliged. Our cars were also not searched, unlike local traffic which underwent hours of inspections.
Monopolising on the search bay at the border.
The cars of Uzbekistan were very dull. GM-Daewoo has a factory there, so you know what to expect really - especially as importing anything made abroad incurs huge tariffs. Every other vehicle was a Matiz or what appeared to be a badge engineered Suzuki Carry. The road quality was also dire, other than a bizarre 200-odd mile empty section of beautiful western-quality motorway through the desert. I stayed in Bukhara where I was finally reunited with Lawrence, and from here on each day involved numerous pleasant encounters with other teams on the road and in accommodation. The beauty of staying in hostels. Another car repair that evening in a pleasant forty degrees as one of the electric windows seized open. Brilliant Daihatsu engineering meant there was no manual override so my only option was to jam the mechanism to keep it closed. Samarkand was a day's potholed drive away and relatively boring compared to the Aladdin-like architecture of Bukhara. The food also started to return to normal here although that didn’t stop another midnight toilet visit.
200 miles of perfect yet empty road through the Uzbekistan desert.
Electric windows were a thrilling convenience yet we knew this would happen eventually.
All of our spare time was spent absorbing the local culture. Note the retro Morrison’s bag – these appeared all over central Asia and are well documented by travellers.
We felt like we were in Aladdin in Bukhara and Samarkand.
Tajikistan was our next country and another straightforward border crossing. The e-visa amusingly also has an emoji on it and we surprised to have this Wordart-heavy official document checked every fifty miles or so - especially as we approached the heavily militarised border with Afghanistan. The roads immediately improved and we quickly arrived at the Anzob tunnel - the 'Tunnel of Death'. At the top of a mountain pass this is a dimly lit several mile long piece of Iranian construction whose lack of ventilation makes transit a very painful experience. Needless to say, we crossed with a number of other teams who we bumped into on the pass, emerging at the southern portal with our lives considerably shortened. For some reason it also became increasingly apparent that the national car of Tajikistan is the Opel. No idea why, but they all seem to be German or Dutch registered – presumably Tajikistan is where they go to die. By now almost all commercial vehicles were Chinese with huge Shacman branded lorries traversing the country. After a night in Dushanbe enjoying western food from the fake Tesco opposite our hostel we were now committed to the Pamir Highway. Fortunately some intel from a motorcycle tourist traveling in the opposite direction was a big help - over here the shortest route isn't always the quickest. We therefore had a long dogleg albeit on tolerable roads... or so we thought.
We were never short of attention.
We quickly bumped into several other teams in Tajikistan. Practically all overheated in the mountains.
We helpfully crossed the tunnel behind a lorry with no tail lights.
Exiting the ‘Tunnel of Death’ at the Anzob Pass.
The first of many descents of over a kilometre. Most of the trucks would ascend with their bonnets open.
Have you ever seen currency with a ‘3’ on it before?
Our local supermarket looked familiar.
Just south of Qalai-Khum the pain began. The road ended. Literally. We would not see it for a hundred miles. The brief paved sections were heavily potholed and the rest was a mix of rock climbing and what felt like if someone had just dumped a load of coarse aggregate in concrete. Second gear was the order of the day. We stayed our first night in the courtyard of a farm overlooking the Afghan border - fortunately a guest could translate Russian into English and we delighted to also be offered a hot shower and running water. The army prohibit camping within a line of sight of Afghanistan. It was still very hot as we straddled the Indiana-Jones like border so the numerous roadside fountains were a blessing. Dust also became a major issue at this point with the car's interior daily acquiring a thick layer of the stuff. Life was made very difficult and, despite the scenery, this was definitely a 'low point'. Fresh food also became scarce due to the region's remoteness so we were relieved to finally begin climbing out of the border region after a refreshing hostel stay in Khorog. Convoying with two other teams we learned quickly not to fill up with questionable petrol as the car had a very difficult time climbing up to our highest point of 4600 metres. One petrol station dispensed petrol via plastic jug from an open barrel. Nevertheless the roads mercifully began to improve as we reached the spectacular plateau section of the route, but this wasn't without problems. As we approached our (horrendous) hostel in Murghab disaster struck. The base of the strut with the failed shock snapped off. The region was to be fair heavily corroded so I wasn't too surprised. After holding it back together with a strap we nursed the car to the next village where miraculously a welder was found almost immediately. The strut was repaired and reassembled using antiquated Chinese equipment. Judging by the products I saw everywhere China has done a good job at displacing Russia as the dominant influence in the region, with a phut-phut old generator set powering the welder’s equipment in this town of no mains electricity. During the repair however the brake pipe was snapped and could not be fixed. Oh dear. A surprise new problem emerged as we learned the hard way that the third most-spoken English word in the region after ‘hello’ and ‘mister’ was ‘problem’.
Not a bad start to the Pamir Highway.
We were promised a smoother checkpoint if we each performed ten burpees.
Catching our first glimpse of Afghanistan and saying goodbye to good tarmac.
Don’t look down.
We shared the road with Land Cruisers and these Chinese juggernauts.
A hundred miles of the stunning Panj river valley.
Photo of champions. Team Columbus are still on the road in this ex-York City Sightseeing double decker.
‘Can I try on your helmet?’ – we had checkpoints every hundred or so miles from Turkmenistan to Mongolia.
Close to our summit on the Pamirs at ~4600 m.
Friendly local wildlife.
The roads took their toll on our rusty suspension.
Our suspension repair in Murghab – the town without electricity or running water.
Our sole ‘river crossing’ was rather tame.
In the morning we exchanged some cigarettes with a mechanic recommended to us by the hostel owner for him to 'fix' the car by simply crimping the end of the broken pipe, leaving us with only three functioning brakes. The middle pedal felt a bit spongey but we bravely drove on over several more unpaved passes - a good test if not a foolish one. Well, we were stuck in the middle of nowhere and hadn't used our emergency food supplies yet so we didn't really have much choice. After our first ford crossing from a washed out road we exited the country with a bit of excessive graft - hands everywhere alleging to be customs officers. The no-mans land between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan was a rally stage in itself; neither country seems to claim jurisdiction over it so the road surface was probably our worst yet. We even had to jump start a motorcycle tourer stuck in the area who amusingly also needed a start from another team, half an hour ahead of us, who we ended up sharing a hostel with. The Kyrgyz border guards at least had an interlingual sense of humour so we were glad to have a stress and bribe free crossing. At this point the engine's hesitating started to become unbearable. It even stalled a couple of times when changing gear; idle became so unstable. Altitude? That dodgy fill up? After diluting whatever we had filled up with before with some more legitimate looking 95 from Gazprom in Kyrgyzstan our performance returned. Hooray! We had the brakes fixed properly* in ‘Vladimir’s workshop’ in Osh, a garage recommended on numerous overlanding forums (a Slovenian vehicle was on the ramp ahead of us). Getting the correct brake unions was not easy and I have no idea what the mechanics actually did, but we left with working brakes and new fluid – even if we now had to depress the pedal several inches before any resistance was felt.
Duvet cover of champions.
20 miles of no man’s land between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Blunderbird 2 to the rescue.
We suddenly saw green again.
The road surface in Kyrgyzstan was much more pleasant.
Traffic however was difficult at times.
No Mr Bond I want you to die. Our brakes were fixed* at Vladimir’s Workshop.
Fuck knows. But it worked. Ish.
Still, our repair was better than that of another team.
The next day would be probably our worst of the trip. We knew it would be long - we'd been told 11 hours driving and three passes over 3000 m. We took 13 hours. This was the mountainous road from Osh to Bishkek which, whilst stunning, was also incredibly busy. The Georgian chaotic driving style was back, as was the imported US juggernaut and the black SUV. We were back to an array of second hand Japanese and European cars and they all drove insanely. Being overtaken by 18 wheelers on blind corners uphill and down. Overtakers coming the opposite way playing chicken with us. At elevation there was a rainstorm which presumably reduced visibility enough for us to get rear ended at speed by a car from behind, as we cruised at maybe 40-50 mph behind a lorry. He backed off, overtook later, and our bumper was intact on later inspection. Our brakes now worked(ish) and weren't leaking but the long travel of the middle pedal made stopping difficult. Driving around town was hardly an improvement; public transport consists of MB Sprinter ‘Marshrutka’ minibuses that stop suddenly almost anywhere to collect passengers and have a general disregard for other road users. After endless mountain switchbacks, another ‘tunnel of death’ and long tailbacks into Bishkek we retreated into our hostel beds shivering with fear. The country itself did seem odd though. The population appeared ethnically more Chinese than Eurasian, although the country aligns itself more heavily with Russia than any other in the region. In our evening in Bishkek the hostel owner was fascinated by our car and spent far too much time 'instagramming' it with his girlfriend. In the morning we were asked what time we were leaving, however contrary to our suspicion this turned out to be an invite to an interview with a local media company. I am naturally crap at this kind of stuff but it was a fun experience anyway. Fearing that this was some state media outlet we towed the tourist line and just said how amazing everything was - however at the end of the interview we were informed that the outlet was mainly US-funded investigative journalism oriented around highlighting deficiencies within the state. We should probably have mentioned the bribe we had to pay the previous day to evade a speeding ticket after being caught doing almost double the limit by the local corrupt cops. Otherwise Bishkek was utterly dull despite having the highest concentration of ATMs ('Bankomats') I've ever seen.
Boyfriends of Instagram.
We were interviewed for Kyrgyzstan telly.
A pleasant border crossing into Kazakhstan followed. A couple of friendly Russians helped me translate at the border. I was left feeling guilty and embarrassed after the border guards opted to not search our car after they realised my nationality - as I watched them begin an hour long unpack of my new friends’ possessions. This was another country in which insurance must be bought at the border - usually around $20 for a couple of weeks. Probably not worth the paper it's printed on but a useful bargaining chip with the police I was told. Almaty was our first night and the first city in some time that felt modern and liveable, which was refreshing. The cars changed yet again. Everything was much newer all of a sudden and a good proportion of vehicles on the road were the new-build Lada designs, which looked like bad imitations of Dacia's recent successes. I later learned that they _were_ Dacias. Almaty was typical of central Asia to date, congested and heavily polluted. I think the emission standard here is Euro -17.
The next couple of days we were warned about: 'Kazakhstan has the worst roads of the rally'. Leaving Almaty on a beautiful modern six-lane motorway and enjoying 70 mph for the first instance in some time, we thought our remaining 800 miles through the country would be a doddle. Our first surprise was an encounter with the local 5-0. We were religiously keeping to the speed limits following numerous tip offs and the observation that the country is swarming with bored traffic cops. We slowed down for the 80 sign and a few hundred metres ahead the officer's whistle blew and we were summoned to stop. After being lured into a friendly atmosphere of handshakes and 'Welcome to Kazakhstan', 91! ...said the camera. However this time I refused to hand anything over and it wasn't long before the officer just started saying 'money'. After being deliberate obtuse and mute for a few minutes I was greeted with further handshakes and smiles and sent on my way. I think they realised I was winning the battle of minds and they were not going to accomplish their corrupt goals. It all seemed a joke but my wallet remained unharmed, unlike the car's suspension for the next 24 hours. The road quickly became hell. A labyrinth of potholes that would be a lottery win for your local newspaper and ruts that we literally bottomed out on numerous times. First gear was used numerous times and we averaged probably 20-30 mph. Nearing nightfall and not even halfway, and failing to find a decent camping spot, we located a cheap hotel on the iOverlander app. We did not expect that this would be probably the most bizarre evening of our trip. Whilst eating dinner in the hotel restaurant, Lawrence was approached by a local female who appeared to take an interest in him. Having a new partner in England, he quickly ushered her away and returned to our room. Feeling a little unwell, he made his way to our toilet to send Mr Brown and his friends off to the coast. Remember this. At this point I heard a knock on the door. The girl from the restaurant! How did she find our room? Foolishly I let her come in and she didn't look like she was in a mood to leave any time soon. Have I accidentally let in a prostitute? Is this legal? Lawrence overheard our poorly-translated smalltalk and cleverly used the smell from his bathroom activities to try and persuade her to leave. She did not. After her showing us photos of her in military uniform and using the word 'massage' we began to feel a little out of our depth and she was forcibly evicted. We locked the door, propped up a chair behind it, and I then took my turn to use the bathroom. Oh dear, it appears that Lawrence had forgotten that toilet paper on Asia is not designed to be flushed. There was a blockage. Double oh dear, it appears that, due to the unique drainage plumbing of the bathroom, faeces-infested water was emanating from both the shower plug and another drainage plug in the centre of the room. The level was rising. Fuck! After a bit of flushing and toilet brushing the situation failed to rectify itself. Fuck! We decided to close the door and sleep on it. By the morning the level had still not retreated. Fuck! At this point we made an executive decision to pay up and leave as fast as we could. We literally drove for the hills. At 20 mph, avoiding further precipice-like potholes.
Team Astana training ride spotted in Kazakhstan.
The enjoyable motorway didn’t last for long as we entered steppe country.
Read the last paragraph.
The day following poogate wasn't a lot better than that preceding it, probably a bit worse in many ways, but we arrived into Semey where we’d arranged to join two other teams for the remainder of the trip. We enjoyed a surprisingly smooth stretch of highway for a hundred miles or so which brought us fond memories of Europe. We stayed in a hotel for only a couple of thousand Tenge more than the previous night but was more Hilton than Soviet Union. Very strange. This was also conveniently next to a railway line and I slept enjoying the wonderful long-tone horn notes that the locomotives make here, the same as those in North America (Kazakh trains are made by General Electric). We all come back from these trips with pretentious 'we could do things SO much better at home' ideals and the most brilliant observation I have made yet is the number of inspection ramps everywhere. Every single village and highway rest area has one. Admittedly the cars do appear to break down very frequently here, and the locals seem to be more appropriately equipped to fix them, but it just looks like an excellent public amenity. Countdown traffic lights are also at every road junction and make using them far much easier than the spoonfeed safety first traffic lights in the UK.
One of the better roads in Kazakhstan. This was serious podcast territory. The Soviets tested their nuclear weapons not far from here.
A brief interlude to show our engine. Powerful and with a good note, but its physical size in such a small volume made maintenance tricky.
We saw thousands of ancient KAMAZ (factory (Zavod) on the Kama river) trucks so I couldn’t resist snapping one.
Tennis balls were a universal fix for slumping suspension. This was on a Wagon R+.
There was interesting flora in Kazakhstan.
We entered Russia by another joke border and immediately advanced 50 years. This was the Altai Republic and we suspected it would be very different from the metropolitan Russia that we see in the press and on YouTube. The roads were perfect. Infrastructure better than in the UK, although surveillance cameras were frequent. Around town it could be a bit potholey but the intercity highways were phenomenal. We found a significant amount of cannabis growing by the side of the road and were told that it grows naturally everywhere in Kazakhstan. Barnaul was our first night's stop and felt like any Eastern European city. We ate well and even got a couple of locals' numbers. Use of English wasn't too bad, no worse than any country we'd visited so far. The scenery however was relatively dull with flat arable farmland slowly turning into modestly mountainous Taiga forest. Russian branded cars were surprisingly popular and everything was very new. The only real brand was Lada although the painfully named UAZ 'Patriot' SUV was also popular. Other than that the Euro-bangers had disappeared and a mixture of grey-import and new Japanese stuff completed the picture. Gaz ‘Gazelle’ vans remained popular and the trucks were a mixture of Kamaz, new European, old American and a few Japanese thrown in too. The UAZ Bukhanka 469 jeep remained ubiquitous. The roads through Altai were incredible. European paving quality along an incredible forested valley, I think the motorcycling community call these 'twisties'. Annoyingly the Russians' penchant for road maintenance caused us issues as one area of recently laid tarmac was unusually stonechip-heavy, one of these causing a significant crack to appear in our windscreen. This asymptotically grew to about a foot long over the next couple of weeks and to relieve boredom we tracked its progress daily. Personally I saw this as something of a nail in the coffin for the car. Nevertheless we enjoyed stunning roads through Siberia and a very cold night in the tents at a roadside campsite – it transpired this was a popular area with Russian tourists.
He’s a fan.
The initial roads in Russia were perfect if not a little lacking in excitement.
Fortunately things quickly improved.
Not far to the Mongolian border.
Camping in a surprisingly tourist-heavy and unsurprisingly cold Siberia.
As we drove on the forested mountains abruptly gave way to arid steppe as the Mongolian border approached. The border itself was a six hour slog despite us arriving at its morning opening, but fortunately we had a dozen other teams for company. In Mongolia we had an unusual greeting - endless scam merchants trying to persuade us to buy their 'insurance' and 'road tax'. It was a little scary but involved a lot of straight facing and ultimately a 'drive now!' moment when we finally managed to get their make-shift barrier open so that we could proceed. One team unfortunately had rocks thrown at their car by local kids who chased us on a motorbike for a while.
Waiting for hours at the border. No space in the car was wasted.
We travelled with this Swiss team through Mongolia.
…and the Herald. Welcome to the Mongol Rally.
It became quickly apparent that Mongolia was not going to be the quality of life highlight of the trip. The people have a love-hate relationship with the event and the unanimously received greetings we had received in our previous countries ended here. As did the roads. The road to our first night's stop was a rocky path, average speed 15 mph. Fresh food also doesn't really exist here. In the summer it's cold during the day and very windy. This is a very hostile country, despite the blazing sunshine. Road priorities were their most confusing yet (roundabouts were very much ‘war face’) and numerous teams crashed. A road is being constructed between the border and the capital, Ulaanbaatar, but was deliberately laid with obstacles so the completed sections could not be driven on. Our second day, to Khovd, was made easy by the road providing a navigational aid, yet we still could not drive on it. Driving alongside was tedious. Think driving through a construction site for 200 miles. We bottomed out numerous times, used first gear far too often and put an exciting new dent in our sump. There were fun sections such as a few miles of soft sand on the genuine 'roads' that people use here, but most of the day was tedious. We tagged along with two new teams who we met at the border - a Swiss team is a suspiciously good condition Panda and a couple of similarly aged Yorkshiremen driving a Herald which they had been restoring for the rally over a past couple of years. Their journey to date had been a tale of woe but they proved surprisingly reliable when traveling with us. Being towards the back of the 'pack' now due to our Pamir Highway and Iranian diversions, we benefitted from a lot of feedback from other teams who had surveyed the road ahead. The most significant feedback received was that the traditional Mongol Rally route, through the country's north, was impassable due to heavy flooding earlier in the summer. This meant we had to take a more boring central route, albeit one which had more paved roads, which were becoming an increasing relief. Interestingly Mongolia was the first country we had visited where Cyrillic text is used in numberplates. Iran was the only other country we saw whose numberplates used non-roman characters, although their vehicles also wore Latin character export plates when driving abroad. The 150 cc Chinese motorcycle was popular here for practically anything. Other than that, Japanese grey imports (weirdly the Prius was very popular) and Chinese trucks were the only vehicles on the road. 'The' road - there was only really one, connecting the east and west of the country. It was partially completed and partially under construction for our route, with the further uncompleted sections providing our sole off roading for the remainder of the rally.
Drones were banned practically everywhere but that didn’t stop us playing Call of Duty with them.
Mongolia. We chose our convoy partners well.
To great relief, there was occasional perfect paving.
Sporting fantastic travel beards.
Our second night in a hotel resulted in a bit of a stand-off between us and the owners when their 'the hot water will be on in twenty minutes' and 'sorry the breakfast is an hour late' to excuses began to run dry. A couple of the teams I was traveling with at this point were passionate about value for money, so tried to get half our stay's payment back. After about an hour of negotiation and after some 'heavies' appeared outside we decided to give up and leave (it's probably also worth noting at this point that this was one of our most expensive hotels yet at almost a mind blowing £25 for the room). We had an easy yet dull day on a brand new highway to Altai, our next town, where we stocked up on food before camping. We drove as far as we could until dusk then the five teams in our convoy decided to call it quits for the night and make friends with the local mosquitoes whose numbers seemed inversely proportional to Mongolia's low population density. The landscape was stunning - green grass was a refreshing change from the moon-like desolation that we saw when we arrived from Russia. Needless to say it was still freezing cold and the day was made trickier by surprise heavy rain. We knew that the next day was going to be a full off-road slog but fortunately the rain didn't hinder us in any way. It was perhaps 250 km of sand, rock and mud. The 'Mongol Rally' we were promised. Dirt tracks seemed to randomly appear and disappear in the grassland and we were restricted to first-principles navigation techniques such as 'everybody else is driving that way' and 'the sun is over there so we must be going east'. Fortunately these primitive tracks were frequented by enough heavy-duty intercity coaches flying over the bumps that we generally had good confidence that we were going in the right direction. A Russian team in a classic Lada (which they meticulously cleaned every day) got very lost and ended up 50 km south of our target town. Unfortunately the day was very tedious - perhaps 10% of the route could have been considered fun off road driving, the rest was simply a clutch and suspension destroying nightmare. This was followed by a subsequent day of tarmac roads for the remaining 400 miles to the capital. Is this it? Entering Ulaanbaatar at least we finally understood why the Prius is the car of choice in Mongolia. It is the most congested city I have ever been to. Several hours of stationary traffic giving a good test of the Charade’s extremely reliable cooling system. Ulaanbaatar wasn't the dust bowl I imagined - a modern city juxtaposed within the rest of the country. It was also probably the most polluted city I have ever visited, with brown haze obscuring the heavy industry in the suburbs. With another record day of insect bites we were at the spiritual finish line, and it couldn't have been more disappointing.
We had friends who performed the rally the previous year, from whom we inherited our (relatively dull) team name and sponsors. They preferred the more mature ‘Mongol Knights’ to my more accurate idea of ‘Team Weak Bladder’.
Alone in the desert with only mosquitoes for company.
In places it felt like we were driving on the moon.
Signs were not particularly helpful. This was the only one we saw for maybe 200 miles.
Our hotel allowed us to dial a Peugeot.
A futile effort to control the Ulaanbaatar traffic. Not the number of Priuses.
Leaving Ulaanbaatar was slightly less stressful than entering. After a boring tourist stroll in the morning the Kazakhstan-like paving throttled our progress and we failed to reach the border - our target for the day. The countryside turned greener and we began to see trees as we headed further north. As day turned to dusk we began to hunt for a suitable camping spot. We were in luck. At the side of the road we saw what looked like a rally team setting up their tents. On closer inspection it was the Rickman Ranger! Driven by a couple of old boys from Scotland who had been restoring it over a couple of years. With some bizarre company from the locals who appeared to do what looked like a drugs deal when parked next to us, we had a peaceful night's sleep before realising why the area was so green. We awoke to torrential rain which fortunately stopped as soon as I was ready to leave my tent. This did turn the dirt track to our camping spot into something of a quagmire, but this was overcome and we pressed on to our most pointlessly bureaucratic border yet.
We enjoyed our final night in Mongolia camping with the Rickmaneers.
After five hours of wandering around collecting stamps for our border tickets and playing push and shove with the unprecedentedly rude locals we were back in Russia to enjoy their beautiful roads and polite border staff for the final time. The car was 'temporarily imported' one final time for our journey to the real finish line in the city of Ulan Ude.
Mongolian coach drivers had unusual tastes.
We bumped into some friends who we had previously travelled with at the finishing podium so got the typical arrival photos before a storm hit and I waded back to the hostel in six inch standing water on the roads (I previously assumed on the trip we wouldn't see rain after leaving Europe). The following day I spent relaxing at the finish line seeing other teams arrive. Most of which I'd met on the road; the friendly well-spoken couple in the Polo, the Finnish bloke driving to China with his Chinese girlfriend in their Suzuki SJ (which broke down daily), the Triumph Herald guys who we'd been journeying across Mongolia with, the Russians (who we think didn't pay to enter) in their immaculate Zhiguli, the old boys in the Rickman and the surprise addition of an Italian team in a Fiat 128 which had required a full engine rebuild in Turkey and had consumed three camshafts to get here (they’re a consumable, right?). After an invite to an 'afterparty' we decided a more appropriate way to spend our evening would be just dinner and drinks with those who we'd enjoyed our previous weeks. As many were leaving the next day we all said goodbye and I then had 48 hours to kill as the car couldn't be shipped until Monday - a fun element of bureaucracy is that the car must be removed from the country otherwise significant import duties must be paid, so mindful of its condition it is forwarded back to the EU by rail for scrapping. At the end of the day the car is now dangerous. The brakes were the biggest risk - increasingly light and spongey following their most recent repair, we have learnt that getting the proper unions is impossible in the UK, let alone out here. The windscreen crack is still growing and when we emptied the car for shipping it was clear it had been generally destroyed. Full of sand and food and with half of the trim missing. Neither of us had a need for it so we made the decision that it would be only driven home to be scrapped to save a little money on flying home (at about 50p/l petrol is dirt cheap in Russia; only Kazakhstan and Turkmenezuela were cheaper). In the meantime I watched further cars arrive at the finish line and was relieved to have arrived when we did - as Sunday was seemingly the day of the idiot with da yoof who celebrated by smashing up their cars in the city centre, getting broken glass everywhere and generally making a mess. A Bukhanka later arrived that had been driven by a Czech team who were doing a personnel swap at the finish line so that their friends could drive it home. As a 1973 model it had had more than its fair share of breakdowns and the team were running out of leaded petrol additive, something that can't be found anywhere abroad it turns out. The Rickman team had the same issue but just bought 15 bottles of it prior to leaving England. The Bukhanka team were also given a 'handover pack' from the presumably more experienced previous crew which including a seven step guide to how to start the engine.
Our temporary phone finish line photo until we get the better ones from our friend’s camera.
Not the weather I was expecting. I got quite wet feet on my walk home from the shop.
An impressive line-up at the finish line. An Italian team in their Fiat 128 that required a full engine rebuild in Turkey, the Rickman who we spent our final day with, our Triumph friends from Mongolia, and a Russian team in an immaculately restored Lada Zhiguli who we had met numerous times on the road.
Team Lada brought mainly cleaning products with them.
I initially met this team on the ferry. Driven by a Finnish man with his Chinese girlfriend, at the last minute their Chinese tour guide cancelled and they were unable to continue their journey into the country. Their Suzuki broke down almost every day and had to be pushed across the border into Uzbekistan.
Italian Fiat 900.
Italian Renault 11 which presumably anticipated overheating issues.
Belgian Team Mobile School with an unexciting Astra, but did commendably raise a huge amount of money for the charity that they were passionate about and produced superb photography during the trip.
The Czech team in their UAZ 452 (Bukhanka – roughly translated as ‘loaf of bread’).
The next step was to deliver the car to the 'railhead' for disposal. Anybody who wasn't driving their car home would need to have it removed from Russia or pay significant import duties. This was done by delivering it to a railway shipping company who forwards the vehicles to Estonia for collection or scrapping (Estonia being the nearest country within the EU customs union). Unfortunately I have no photos of the cars on a train but on the way back from completing reams of paperwork we did get a ride on one of the 'Marshrutkas' - a fairly efficient and cheap (effectively 20p per ride) network of minibuses that ply the streets and provides the bulk of the public transport in the CIS. This was a lot better than our taxi (again, very cheap) to the 'aeroport' the following day when we got in the wrong car and a squabble ensued between our driver and who later turned out to be our pre-booked taxi. He had a Toyota Probox which a very popular import here. I loved it. After our Russian sleazyjet flight with ‘Pobeda’ (baggage was loaded from a dump truck and everybody applauded when the plane landed) we began our few days in Moscow before heading home. What an incredible city we would enjoy. Gone were the Ladas and Japanese grey imports of the East. Every street felt like Knightsbridge. Congestion is bad, but not as bad as central Asia, and the drivers are better mannered. We all know about the beautiful and ornate underground system, but the service is brilliant too. More spacious and less crowded and polluted than London's system, and unlike NYC it doesn't feel like time travelling to the 70s. A single journey is also only around 50p. Our airport connections were predictably glitzy new trains but the local services weren't too bad looking either, and we saw endless green spaces from the window. Clean and with excellent infrastructure the city gets my seal of approval. Street cleaners were everywhere, and we were told that these low-paid jobs were Russia’s approach to welfare. We also learned that the source of the use of the Cyrillic alphabet is essentially due to it being the translation text from Greek of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Since the World Cup the use of English translation however is everywhere and the locals said the city really was a great place to be at the time. The suburbs though, in Paris 'Banlieue' fashion, did seem a far cry however from the Made in Chelsea centre. Our train to the airport was also considerably shitter than that into the city - possibly because it was made by Russian Transmashholding as opposed to Stadler of Switzerland, however the fancy new Metrowagonmash underground trains were brilliant if not unnecessarily blingy. The fact that one could walk aimlessly and presumably legally anywhere on railway tracks was amusing from the train window. This also seemed in stark contrast to the 'interesting' security situation in Moscow where we walked through metal detectors and were bag searched when entering any metro station or public building. Our flight home was with AirBaltic and, for the planespotters, on a slightly unusual aircraft – a shiny new Bombardier C series, better known now as the Airbus A220. The interior fit out was good, the ride smooth and the aircraft itself smart-looking, but otherwise little different to the regulation-heavy and innovation-devoid civil airliner industry. One final passport check and a bounce home on one of GWR’s soon-to-go Class 165s and the trip was over.
The Charade’s final resting place.
…it had good company.
Moscow certainly wasn’t stuck in the past. Not a bad view either from our hostel.
I spent the remainder of my time in Russia trainspotting. It wasn’t difficult.
In Moscow there was one particularly well documented highlight.
I immediately drove to the supermarket on returning home to re-stock with provisions. The Corolla’s refined ride and working brakes were a world away from the Charade. Did we choose the correct car? Of course. It was utterly shit. Like any period Japanese car it was easy to take apart and put back together again. It was tiny, yet spacious enough for two six footers and all their stuff. The suspension was too complex and the car itself was mainly made of rust at this point in its life. But it looked amazing, and it was hilarious to drive. The 1.3 injected 16V was like a motorcycle engine; unstable at idle but would happily power through the entire rev range. Low gearing was handy. Fuel economy was superb. We probably had the quickest car of the whole event. Our van tyres gave us the dynamic properties of a banana skin and we had 1 cm of ground clearance but none of this mattered when we could drive fast – especially up the endless hills and mountains we encountered. The seats were incredibly comfy. We’d otherwise definitely bought a lemon. It even had daft design flaws like a plastic battery tray that quickly snapped and was replaced with cable ties. Ridiculous things occurred like the dashpot screw working itself free and the dipstick sheath becoming detached from the engine block creating an oil leak, which magically repaired itself when ultimately clogged up with sand. The car was so rusty the rear off side jacking point ultimately became a hole from our daily lifts to lubricate the broken damper.
On a tangent – have you ever wondered how you buy petrol aboard? Well, in Europe it's just how it works in the UK; pay after delivery. In Russia and Kazakhstan it was pre-pay. Initially confusing but we just handed over wads of cash, filled up, then got our change. For all of the other countries petrol stations were attended, and usually by a lot of people. Petrol stations were everywhere and very busy, so the attended service helps to improve throughput. Other than in a handful of difficult-to-find ATMs card isnt really used in Asia so the pump attendants typically held pocketfuls of cash, which was especially amusing in countries such as Uzbekistan where past inflation leads to bricks of notes changing hands. The petrol pumps all had the 'catch’es still present which UK drivers can't be trusted with, and the auto-stop was often faulty or ineffective, leading to a lot of wet shoes. In many countries diesel is hard to find - we met a Land Rover traveler with 'a lot' of jerry cans to sustain his trip. The most commonly used petrol grades are 80 and 91 or 92, 95 became rarer in the poorer countries but only on three instances did we fail to find any. Sometimes it was marketed as 96. LPG and various other gases are also common. With only one dodgy fill up and an intact filter we generally didn't have fuel problems. We took one jerry can but would have been able to do the trip without it - even in petrol-dry Uzbekistan I saw what was apparently 95 sold by the side of the road. One team misfueled with diesel so we were always very careful to ensure the attendant put in what we wanted. You can’t do the trip in a diesel car as there are too many areas where it isn’t sold at all – most ‘serious’ overlanders use the gas-guzzling petrol versions of their 4x4s.
Would I recommend the event? Maybe. Only though if you do what you personally want to do and ignore the organisers’ conditions. The steep entry fee gets you a t-shirt, some stickers, the facility to dispose (at great expense) of your car legally, a Turkmenistan transit visa (at additional cost), but most importantly, hundreds of other ralliers. Remove from that those who are only interested in Instagram and messing around and you’re still left with hundreds more future friends. However the event does get easier every year. More and more of the route becomes paved and technology makes life a breeze. We didn’t buy any local SIM cards but they can be acquired for a few dollars in each country. MAPS.ME was everyone’s best friend and on our communal WhatsApp and Facebook groups 99% of questions were ‘how do I get on the internet in…’ and ‘How do I use a VPN?’. Hotels are cheap at maybe $10 a night in most places, we only camped for cumulative about a week. Yes, even adventures are being gentrified.
Our rally was relatively straightforward. Others were arrested, imprisoned, deported and wrote off cars. Some ran out of cash and required bailing out. Some produced incredible media and slept with locals. Maybe 20% are DNF according to my chat with the organisers. The event is embarrassingly expensive, even accounting for our generous sponsorship funds. But we met memorable people, visited some of the world’s oddest countries, ate (and subsequently regurgitated) strange foods, remained in good spirits and did it in a brilliant car. It was surreal yet absolutely incredible.