Phew - it’s been almost a week since we’ve been done with our whirlwind tour. We’ve had time to R&R, get back (or try to!) to the old routine, and do some post-event story telling (including one media interview!) Most importantly though, we wanted to give thanks to many people who helped make this trip a successful one. Pardon us if we forget your name in our list - it’s been a long trip and so many people have been instrumental!
First off - thank you to those who supported us through your very generous charitable donations and/or helped spread the word about our trip to spur more donations. We even heard that LBS Dean Sir Andrew Likierman mentioned us during the MBA and MiF Orientations! And remember - we still need to raise funds, so please donate generously to us!
Second, a big thank you to all our followers, blog readers, and Facebook/Twitter fans. Your positive comments encouraged us to continue our journey and blog. There were difficult moments on this trip, but knowing that there are over 300 people behind us was spectacular.
Last but not clearly least - a special thank you to all the people that helped us or tried to help us along the way (we broke down so often we couldn’t be helped sometimes!). These were the people who gave advice in the middle of the night, who sent directions when we were lost, or who helped on the ground during our journey.
Lauren St. James
Lode Van Laere
We’re going to follow up the next week with more post-event info, so stay tuned!
Our last day. Sleep last night was good – it was nice to be near the finish line, knowing that we were only around the corner from our final destination.
Ashok and Nalin worked to secure Chinese visas and flight bookings while Giacomo and Tak scoped the finish line and screwed the ambulance lights back on. Just small admin things here and there.
5 PM rolled around. It was time to go. Time to finish this. Time to say goodbye to the past 27 days, to the memories, to Genghis.
We slowly trotted the 1 km towards the finish line in heavy Ulan Bator traffic. Our sirens were blazing, we pumped Barbara Streisand over the speakers. Locals stopped and stared at us, much to our delight. We were triumphant heroes, worn torn from a 27-day journey through 12 countries friendly and unfriendly, mechanical hardships, and team joys and conflicts. We went from ecstatic highs like starting from Goodwood to extreme lows like our turbocharger going kaput, back to indescribable experiences like swimming in Lake Baikal. We wanted the attention – nay, we needed recognition for our triumph, our sacrifice for charity, and our test of the human spirit.
A slow right, then a left. And then like a mirage, we saw the sign.
Words could not describe our emotion. This truly was it. We were done. We. Were. Done.
And as the old adage says, pictures are worth a thousand words.
7 in the morning. Great sleep, and not so cold as Siberia. The team from MechSpesh woke us up and we headed towards the border, ready for the day, the crossing, and our eventual triumph through so much adversity.
We queued up at the border, waited till 9 AM, and rolled through Russian border-crossing and customs. Relatively painless.
We then went to the Mongolia side, and went through the whole customs process.
1 hour passed by. Darn. They didn’t know what our Vauxhall van was - didn’t recognize the brand. Then another 1.5 hours passed by - the bank was closed so they couldn’t process the “transaction” fee. Nalin, Ashok, and Tak tried to pass the time playing some football, but the female Mongolia customs-officer wasn’t too happy and threatened to take our passports. Yikes!
Finally we got the approval!
We sped through the customs gate towards the promise-land. And we could not be more pleased – the landscapes were incredible, the mountains rolling up and down as far as the eye could see. You could imagine nomads galloping on horses across these untamed lands, unrestrained by modern societal constraints, freedom to be one with the land and nature. It was simply awesome.
We couldn’t help but be delayed going into Ulan Bator because we spent too much time enjoying the scenery. The drive into the city was treacherous to say the least – pitch black night, pot hole-laden construction road, and manic traffic that could only be described as absolute chaos. But we didn’t care – we were so close, we could taste it. We were driving on double shots of adrenaline and hope. And it was yummy.
We rolled into the city and quickly found a place for dinner and rest. We’ll rest up tonight, we said, one more day. One more day.
Route for the day:
Our morning drive was beautiful again since we had to go around Lake Baikal to get to Ulan-Ude, and then to the border town. Pictures of the lake and our exploration of locally-smoked omul.
Our drive was pleasant enough - another great day and semi-decent roads. But Nalin was a man on a mission today - he had tasted the waters of Lake Baikal once yesterday and wanted one more dip before we left. With Lake Baikal right next to highway M53, Nalin’s appetite was satiated but not satisfied - he had to swim. And he was not to be denied.
Driving like a madman, Nalin sped through, zipping in and around the potholes - until the most giant of speed bumps got him. BOOM! Genghis shook, and as Nalin applied more gas, Genghis refused to go, eventually dying on the side of the road. We pulled over. Genghis refused to start - the engine would rumble but wouldn’t turn on.
Let us put this into context. It was now 2:30 PM August 17th - we had to be in Ulan Bator by the morning of the 19th. According to original plans, we still had at least 6 hours of driving for today, border crossing (potentially 4 hours) plus 5 hours of driving into Ulan Bator on the 18th. Even if we had gotten it fixed today, we still had two days of intense driving in order to make our goal. Basically we had no more time.
Far worse - we were 200 km away from Ulan-Ude, the major city with some sort of mechanical help. How the heck were we going to get towed there for help? And the next sizable town from all indications were at least 70 km from where we were. We were pretty freaking stranded.
We hailed down trucks, cars, horse carts - anything and anyone that could provide some help. The police said they’d send a tow truck (which never happened). Two truck drivers came, saw, and left. And an old man with a small truck helped as much as he could, but the language barrier and distance from Ulan-Ude was too great. No help.
It was now 3:30 PM. We were no closer to a solution. Giacomo and Nalin set off and walked towards some random truck parking spot, with the hope that at least someone could help. Ashok and Tak stayed back, flagging help and toying with the ignition.
Owners manual - why don’t we take a look? What makes the engine tick is a combination of fuel and air. And all indications were that air was properly flowing into the engine. But what about fuel line? There was one vague line in the manual briefly alluding to an emergency fuel cutoff valve.
Ashok opened up the hood and played around with the valve. It clicked. the two looked at each other with bated breathe. They turned the ignition switch. See reproduction of emotional response.
Score! Genghis roared back to life straight from the gut, the fuel-air mixture nice and rich. We were back on! We were back!
Picking up Nalin and Giacomo, we headed straight towards Ulan-Ude. Brimming with confidence again, we took a brief detour, celebrating by hitting a local town and ritually cleansing ourselves in the refreshing waters of Lake Baikal. And it was an awesome swim.
We hit the road again, speeding towards Ulan-Ude, and then to Kyakhta. With a close call behind us, we had a brief dinner, camped by a security gate, and rested for the final day to Ulan Bator.
Route for the day:
6 AM rolled around. Last night was tough sleep - it was freezing and noisy. It also turned out that the sleeping bags Nalin and Tak used to sleep outside were the wrong type - the ones used inside the van were better suited for cold temperatures. Drats.
But no time for any bitterness - we were on a mission! Lake Baikal awaited us - a preview of the scenic magic that we will see in Mongolia and a good chance to break the monotony of plain Siberian fields.
We drove into Irkutsk, the major city before and staging ground for visits to Lake Baikal. Driving into Irkutsk was like any major city foray - manic, chaotic, and generally unpleasant. But Irkutsk was different - we got lost twice, and the first time someone drove and led us to the major highway. When we characteristically got lost again, an elderly man we had asked for directions jumped into Genghis, gave us directions as we drove, and jumped off about 2 km from where we had picked him up. Our very first hitchhiker, and very good one at that!
We drove up and down the mountain ranges - with lush evergreen trees on either side, the view was getting spectacular. The road was also very good, making the drive even more enjoyable. We were bouyed by our dream of Lake Baikal - and when we saw the view during our drive, we were incredibly impressed. We could not wait. We stopped by a roadside market to check out some savory local omul.
Rolling into Listvyanka 4 PM, we immediately hit the local restaurant for food. The view again - spectacular. The environment - serene. This, this - was what made the trip all worth it!
The team split up and enjoyed a bit of nature - Giacomo and Nalin jumped into Lake Baikal to swim with the nerpa seals while Ashok watched, and all three interacted with a few locals. Tak went hiking among the mountains and explored the scenery.
We returned back to Irkutsk to prep for the next day - the heavy drive to the border town Kyakhta, where our journey would be almost complete.
Route for the day:
Early morning drive from Krasnoyarsk. We’ve starting to slack a bit and wake up later, but mostly because we’re becoming more comfortable with the roads, skipping lunch, and making time in other ways. This morning we went quickly went on our way, across the river, and started to head towards our destination. Though our original plan was to head to Achinsk that night, we wanted to aim for something further - Tayshet or Tulun. If we hit one of those towns, we would be much closer to our final destination tomorrow - Lake Baikal. And that would mean that we could spend more precious hours in the world’s deepest freshwater lake, with water that is still safe to drink to boot.
We’re also in the heart of true Siberia. Traditionally ruled by Mongol-Turkic tribes led by historic behemoths like Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan united the region and its various Mongol khans in the 13th century. Russians then started fortifying positions in the 17th century in Krasnoyarsk and Ulan-Ude, indenturing the local indigenous populace. Very quickly Siberia started its reputation as a land of banishment - political and criminal prisoners started moving into the region until the 1800s. As the USSR stabilized and Stalin initiated his Gulags, Siberia further solidified its formidable and fearsome reputation.
Our initial drive was pleasant as ever - just plain, flat fields of wheat, grass, and whatever could grow in the environment. Temperatures during the day were hot but not outrageous - somewhere around 28. And the roads were generally quite good.
But we take no prisoners in Siberia!
We crossed Achinsk without problem at around 3 PM; without hesitation we decided to go one further to Tayshet, an approximate 3 hour drive. At around 6 PM we arrived at Tayshet, and we again decided to hit our stretch goal of Tulun, another 3 hour drive. We knew we were pushing it, but aggressive now means more R&R time in Lake Baikal.
Immediately the roads turned to the worse we had ever seen - potholes the size of Mini Coopers and torrential rain that cancelled all visibility. We could barely crawl at 20-30 kph, and even then the ambulance shoke to its very core. Not only were we worried about the road quality, we were concerned about the state of our vehicle and of course - a potential breakdown. Lastly, it was getting late, the sun was setting, and we had no idea how much further we had to go to Tulun.
Along the way we did manage to have some fun…
Finally we passed by one cafe along the highway and asked - how much further to Tulun? Around 10 minutes was the response - much quicker than anticipated! We also called ahead to find out what hotels there were in town. But as we drove towards Tulun, the grim and dilapidated huts indicated how much of a village this was. We didn’t want to stay here - we had nowhere to go, the streets were probably unsafe, and there were no food options. We decided to turn back and try camping at the highway cafe.
Luckily the kind folks at the cafe gave their approval. We tucked in a few pints, dumplings, and borsches, then set up camp. Nalin and Tak took the sleeping mats and bags to the roof of the van to sleep, while Giacomo and Ashok stayed in the car. But the temperature started dropping - it felt like 5 degrees! - the dogs at the cafe started barking, the mechanic near the cafe continued to work throughout the night, and the toilets were merely holes in the ground.
This was Siberia at its absolute finest. And we loved every single minute of it.
Route for the day:
Novosibirsk - what a town. Ashok and Tak had stayed up for a night out and slept at 3 AM, and were in no shape to drive first thing in the morning.
The drive wasn’t so bad and pretty uneventful. We rolled into Krasnoyarsk early at 7 PM, ate a quick dinner, and got some sleep for the next day.
Route for the day:
As devoted readers of our blog, we are now currently offering a CD of the MBAdventurists’ greatest roadtrip hits! This awesome track is not available anywhere and is extremely limited – order it now and experience the same great hits as the team!
This soundtrack covers hits like:
Duck Sauce - Barbra Streisand Fate had this song playing during our starting lap around the race track at Goodwood, England — so this track will surely be our entrance song should we make it to Ulaanbaatar city limits! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu_zwdmz0hE
N.W.A - F*** Da Police Whilst we’ve had nothing but positive experiences with the local gendarmes everywhere, the Austrian street graffiti inspired by this song shows us that maybe Vienna and Compton are not so different after all…
AC/DC - You Shook Me All Night Long Played this song in the Czech Republic, and apparently all that shaking caused our turbo, alternator belt and and one of the belt pulleys to go kaput soon after… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bomv-6CJSfM
Sander Kleinenberg - This is Not Miami No idea where you are on the map? This handy track lets you know which cities you are definitely NOT driving through! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3SULsYeWJI
Don - Aaj Ki Raat One of the more popular tracks of a Hindi movie favorite — that for some reason, was heavy on the rotation in Kiev! The locals did not buy Nalin and Ashok's story about being Bollywood actors on a film shooting, though…
Pitbull - Give Me Everything Pitbull has several songs on the charts right now — so why not an impromptu robot dance session to this song on the road from Ryazan! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPo5wWmKEaI
Timati - Welcome to St Tropez and Timati - Welcome to St Tropez (DJ Antoine Remix) Our first introduction to Russian hip-hop — awesome summer jam whether you’re cruising the Mediterranean, or the riverside in Samara!
Beatles - I Am the Walrus According to Nalin, apparently Tak likes to hog up camping space on the ambulance’s roof, much like a walrus. Bonus points for this track since a Tatar truck driver in Siberia, upon hearing that Giacomo lives in London, kept referring to him as one of the Beatles… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nnpil_pRUiw
Alexandra Stan - Mr. Saxobeat Our knowledge of Russian pop music is admittedly limited, but when this Romanian chart-topper came up during a wedding party at a restaurant in Omsk, we had no choice but to crash the party’s dance circle! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sS76eS34Y0c
Sak Noel - Loca People From Brussels to Chelyabinsk, this song was the ubiquitous favorite of local radio stations all along our route. And the chorus was certainly appropriate for some of our adventures! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-d6b1yn-YhQ
Michael Jackson - any track Four people, four different music preferences — when in doubt, put it on and watch everyone sing along!
Remember to call now and order! For a limited time, we’ll also include a free gift with every order – a 150 GBP offer! Free gifts may include our broken turbo-charger:
Or broken stabilizer bar:
Our shredded alternator belt:
Last by clearly not least, one special winner will take home our unattached ambulance light:
Remember to call now and order today!
We went back to our original 5:30 AM schedule and started driving to Omsk bright and early. We couldn’t have been more impressed
Along the way we met a truck driver named Marat – a Tartar (show link) who loved to joke around and explain (on multiple occasions!) that Japanese cars (specifically Honda, Infiniti, Lexus, and Toyota, in that order) were solidly built for Russian roads and that Mercedes Benz was bad. We had the fortune to meet him twice that day – on the second instance we bought him a coffee and chatted more. Great guy, that Marat is.
Rolling into Omsk, we checked into the hotel and immediately went to dinner. As we were about to start, Ashok dragged into the restaurant some new friends – it was the Cambridge boys from Let’s Get Ready to Mongol, who are currently driving a fire truck. Over a few pints, we shared war stories (including their hilarious nicknames and having to wear raincoats inside the fire truck because it leaks) and bonded over similar career paths – one will be working with Ashok at LEK and the other at McKinsey BTO where many of our LBS friends are headed. A small world this is.
Just adjacent to where we were in the restaurant there was a private dining area, where what seemed like a wedding couple was celebrating their nuptials with a group of friends. Buying and toasting celebratory vodka shots to the couple, the Let’s Get Ready to Mongol and MBAdventurists teams were then invited to join the bustling party.
It all started so innocently – a few conversations here and there about what we were doing, a bit of dancing. But then the lounge singer started singing Mr. Saxobeat. And quickly the party really started.
What happened? Well where do we start? It always starts with a dancing circle – a 6 foot 5, 250 pound Russian doing splits, Ashok doing the robot, and the groom’s friend doing a traditional Russian dance. It quickly became a karaoke session with Sinatra’s New York, New York, high-stepping from the two Mongol Rally teams and the wedding party, and a particular tradition where one of the groom’s friends stripped to his underwear, proceeded to run a few blocks, then somehow found the bride and carried her back to the restaurant. Enticed to partake, we decided not to take part lest we offend the locals because of our perfectly cut Abercrombie and Fitch bodies.
Happily we said our goodbyes and thanks to the wedding couple and our new-found friends, and proceeded home for a good nights’ sleep.
Route for the day: