As we start to plan the next phase of our adventure and sort through some unseen footage from our travels to date we’ve had plenty of time for reflection. Here are 3 of our favourite countries to overland in.
Mongolia is one of the ultimate destinations for overland travel. In 2012 when we visited it was impossible to drive across the country from border to border on anything that resembled a “normal” road. It is big and empty and so driving here can be very remote.
The beauty of Mongolia lies in the steppe. Hospitality is a keystone of the nomadic lifestyle, and if you travel in Mongolia, it won’t be long before you’re invited into a Ger (refusing would be unthinkably rude) to be offered steaming yak’s milk, goat’s cheese biscuits, marmot Boodog, salty tea and ‘Airag’ – fermented mare’s milk, which at 5% proof wasn’t quite strong enough to stop us thinking a little too much about how exactly you milk a horse.
The driving can be challenging, we encountered some real challenges in the Khan Khentii Protected Area in the north of the country. Trudging about in the pouring rain trying to find a route through a forested quagmire was about as much fun as it sounds. With 21 river crossings under our belt by the time we left Mongolia, we wouldn’t have been without Bee-bee’s snorkel, suspension lift and four-wheel drive.
Despite incidents like this, or perhaps because of them, we would argue that Mongolia is one of the ultimate destinations for overland travel.
The main reason Tajikistan is on this list is down to the infamous Pamir Highway. The M41 is the world’s second highest international highway. I’m using the term ‘highway’ loosely as the surface, when it exists, is mostly unpaved. The ‘road’ in its entirety traverses the Pamir Mountains and travels through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan reaching an altitude of 4,655 metres. The area is notorious for landslides, rock-falls, earthquakes, floods, high winds and frequent political unrest. Part of the highway requires a special permit as it passes through the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan. All these factors rate it quite highly on the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Roads’ list; for us, it was the Holy Grail of overlanding and sounded like a fun adventure!
With most great overland destinations come challenges and the Pamir Highway is no exception. Diesel is scarce, we had to carry an extra 80-litres due to the lack of availability en-route. The altitude and lack of oxygen can also be demanding on both you and your vehicle. We suffered from some pretty atrocious headaches and dizziness, luckily this passed fairly quickly as we acclimatised to the height. The lack of oxygen also affected our vehicle, as we climbed our diesel engine began to kick out an increasingly large amount of black smoke and at times lacked power.
Stunning switchbacks, lunar landscapes, high altitude lakes and challenging driving are one reason to visit this part of Central Asia. What really sets the Pamir’s apart from other popular overland destinations is the stark reality of how powerful nature can be and our relative insignificance in the larger scheme.
We went looking for an unforgettable adventure and we found it - AK-47 gun-toting friendly young soldiers, mudslides, earthquakes, flooding, barrier free gravel roads that cling to cliff edges, gravity defying overhangs, collapsed bridges, impassable rivers, rock falls and then there’s the notorious ‘Tunnel of Death’.
Morocco is the closest country to Europe that offers the biggest contrast in culture and geography. We visited Morocco in 2013 and were limited by a closed border to Algeria in the east and an increasingly dangerous border to Mauritania in the south we would be land-locked by civil unrest and political restrictions. However, with around 280,000 miles² we had plenty to explore with the Sahara desert, Atlas Mountains and wild Atlantic coastline.
The transition from the familiarity of Europe to the unfamiliar of Africa is only a 90-minute sail across the Straits of Gibraltar. As with the arrival to any foreign country for the first time, there is always slight trepidation of the unknown.
The driving can be as challenging as you make it, you can head to the High Atlas Mountains for challenging, scarcely driven routes, complete with hair-raising cliff drops and rock crawling or you can head out into the desert for some fun dune driving. We even encountered a few river crossings.
Morocco is the perfect destination for ‘Newbie’ overlanders, but be warned off-road driving in the Western Sahara should be avoided due to the area being heavily land-mined. A fact that became glaringly obvious when a local Saharawi took me for a disheartening 1-mile walk into the desert to a site where the previous year a Landrover was annihilated killing the driver.
After spending 3 months in Morocco it was obvious why we met so many other overlanders. Morocco is essentially an off-road playground for Europeans and it is often used as a testing ground before embarking on longer trips. It offers all kinds of challenging terrain for every kind of overlander from Motorcyclists to the largest of off-road trucks. The people are friendly, the visa is easy and the fuel is cheap; it is essentially overland heaven, especially if you can speak French.
Prior to our Truckin’ hell we’d made the decision to head straight back home; unfortunately we were 8000 miles away in Mongolia. In hindsight our departure from Mongolia was probably a little too hasty; a bit more Dakar Rally than Mongol Rally.
Bad roads coupled with some wannabe Sébastien Loeb-esq driving damaged Bee-Bee’s rear axle.
Luckily my daily under-car crawl exposed the hairline crack in the right-hand side upper trailing arm mount early on. The part that had cracked is essentially one of four main connections holding the entire rear axle in place. The discovery was an unnecessary blow – talk about kicking a man when he’s down!
Due to the remoteness of our location we had no choice but to lash up the mount with a heavy-duty ratcheting cargo strap and hope for the best. I kept a close eye on it over the following 300 miles of bad road. It gradually got worse, by the time we arrived in Russia the mount had completely sheered off but luckily the pot-holed corrugated dust roads of Mongolia had been replaced by relatively smooth Russian tarmac. The ratchet strap was now holding everything tight in place.
A weld job would mean we’d lose a valuable day’s driving and a complete axle replacement would mean we’d lose a good week. Given the situation and the need to be with my parents we re-evaluated our options and decided the temporary fix was secure enough to last the journey home; it did. Macgyver would be proud!
On our return to the UK we started the process of getting Bee-Bee back into ‘adventure’ shape. A new axle was sourced from Jap 4x4 Parts and a visit to the Hilux Surf Forum secured a date with Tony the Hilux Surf oracle. Whilst the axle was off it made sense to replace anything that might have already taken a battering. A visit to Rough Trax secured a Super Pro polyurethane rear panhard rod & trailing arm bush kit, some new bump-stops, anti-roll bar bushes and a couple of front anti-roll bar link rods which had also taken a battering.
The axle swap was fairly straightforward, especially with Tony’s knowledge. One area that could have been problematic was swapping the trailing arm bushes. Luckily Tony has access to a 25 tonne press and a lathe. The press ram was a little too large for the bushes so Tony hit the lathe and knocked up a couple of male and female adapters to fit either side of the bushes. With the press the old bushes popped out pretty easily and the new ones straight in. We had trouble undoing a couple of bolts, reminding me of the importance of Copaslip, nothing the reciprocating saw couldn’t deal with though.
When replacing axles on 4x4 vehicles it is important to check the diff ratios are the same, if not you’ll have back wheels that’ll want to turn at a different speed to the front wheels making for a very interesting ride. On a Toyota this information can be found on the VIN plate in the engine bay. The axle code is four digits, ours is G294, this translates to a differential size of 8.0", final ratio of 4.1, and a 4 pinion set up. This website was very useful for translating the code. You can also double-check the ratio as Toyota colour code the end of the diff, double check the two axles are the same and you should be right!
When fully loaded Bee-Bee has always had a bit of a saggy back end. Whilst we had the springs out we fitted a pair of spring assisters to help firm up the already upgraded springs.
A couple of days in the workshop gave us a great opportunity to not only replace the axle but complete a few other jobs refining Bee-Bee’s status as number one adventure mobile.
One modification we carried out was to remove the air-con unit and air-con radiator. This would improve access to the alternator and improve airflow through the main radiator as well as removing one of the three fan belts (less to go wrong and less to carry). The left over air-con electric radiator cooling fan is now acting as an emergency, manually operated cooling fan aimed at the main radiator.
Whilst the main radiator and fan were all out we topped up the oil in the viscous fan. This modification is a very simple but effective one. The fan on these vehicles is of the viscous type. This means that is has an oil operated clutch in it. When the engine heats up, the oil changes consistency and the fan starts to grip more and turn faster. The oil in the fan can be replaced with a different consistency making it kick in slightly earlier, cooling the engine more effectively.
The mods to the cooling system now make a noticeable difference to Bee-Bee’s running temperature and we have the option of turning on the electric auxiliary fan when the temperature starts to rise too.
If you want to read more about some of the other cooling mods we’ve made to deal with the extra weight, click here.
Mongolia is a unique country in every aspect; a country often associated with isolation and remoteness, a country with a very extraordinary inimitable stark landscape.
It is not all nomads and yak though; due to the recent discovery of copper and gold deposits it is developing at an extremely fast rate. The country that Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman visited on their ‘Long Way Round’ overland trip, with just 80km of paved road, has been superseded. Over the last 3 years an infrastructure has started to develope in the form of roads to make the movement of minerals easier.
Not to panic though, it is still impossible to drive across the country border to border on anything that resembles what we’d consider a decent road. In that regard I would argue that Mongolia is still one of the ultimate destinations for overland travel.
Due to the large distances and small nomadic population, much of the driving is still fairly remote. What look like main roads on our map are often no more than tyre tracks in the dirt. These tracks often divide into multiple lanes that cut through the least obstacle-strewn route in the landscape only to reunite again a couple of miles down the line. The transient nature of the ‘roads’ coupled with the virtual lack of road signs can make navigation challenging. One saving grace that can help direction is that the main routes will often follow telephone lines between larger villages.
Some careful route planning is recommended, as some smaller towns still don’t have fuel stops and ATMs. In stark contrast, any town of significant size will have at least 10 brand new fuel stations all strategically placed on the same stretch of road. Despite displaying credit card logos and having brand new credit card machines none of these fuel stops have phone connections and the attendants have no clue how to use the machines; so hard cash is recommended.
Travelling around the country, traffic typically consisted of small minivans used by locals as buses between towns. On the steppe, cheap Chinese 125cc motorbikes are the vehicle of choice; it is not unusual to witness 4 family members and a sheep riding on one. The motorcycles are a perfect option for this terrain and can be used to easily navigate the potholes and puddles as well as herd sheep and goats across the grassland. Motorcycles are also much more economical in a country where fuel is fairly expensive (expect UK prices). Helmets are not used out on the steppe but in the larger towns road safety is of higher importance and so the rider will wear a building-site hard-hat whilst the passengers (often including children as young as 2 years old) still ride without one.
The nomadic way of life means that fences are non-existent and you can drive virtually anywhere you like. River crossings are commonplace, occasionally you’ll find a bridge, but be warned, driving through the river is often safer. The driving is generally tough on the vehicle and driver and you are going to encounter some mechanical problems. When you do encounter difficulties the locals are generally resourceful and can often resolve most hitches without having to call out the AA. Like in Russia, everyone has extensive mechanical knowledge and so it is no surprise to see people fixing cars at the side of the ‘road’. The country is full of Landcruisers, Pajeros and UAZ 4x4 vans, mainly used by the rich and tour companies; due to the financial divide most Mongolians drive battered old Japanese hatchbacks.
The locals take the demanding landscape in their stride with a unique ‘gung-ho’ attitude born out of necessity; this coupled with extensive driving skills enables them to manage just fine. Embarrassingly, standing thigh deep in a river checking for large stones, a Honda Civic with 6 people in happily drove through windscreen deep with absolutely no trouble at all. Having said this, with 21 river crossings under our belt (some bonnet deep), the suspension lift and 4x4 on Bee-Bee was invaluable.
Mud is a big problem in Mongolia as we discovered in a small village in the Khan Khentii Protected Area. After driving for two days on what should have been a scenic round-trip we stumbled upon a small village nestled in a valley alongside a beautiful winding river. Every track into the village was a 1½ metre deep worn channel in the landscape, resembling a muddy canal. Each trench was filled with about a metres depth of brown muddy water and with no way of telling what was underneath, a long muddy stick was found to feel how solid the bottom was. Trudging about in the pouring rain trying to find a route through this forested quagmire was about as much fun as it sounds. After an hour we had travelled about 500 metres and arrived at the other side of the village.
Little did we know that the only route out of the village on the other side was through a river! The heavy rains had turned what was typically a straight forward 40m long 1m deep river crossing into a raging impassable torrent. We questioned a few locals about our options and were met by a friendly Ox cart driver who told us to wait whilst he fetched his son who would help us out the village.
We sat for about 20 minutes and weighed up the situation then the Ox cart driver returned with his son. We followed them about 40m further up the riverbank until we came across a path that entered the river. Through some serious gesticulating we came to the conclusion that the plan was that Emma would travel across on the back of the Ox cart and the cart drivers son would drive Bee-Bee behind. We looked at the river, looked at each other and independently decided that under no circumstances we were going to let this Mongolian drive our beloved Bee-Bee into the river. We communicated with the Ox cart driver that we didn’t really think the plan was feasible and were met with a tirade of abuse (we think). In an attempt to prove us wrong he furiously whipped his Ox and attempted to cross the river. As soon as the Ox realised the depth of the water was well over head height it promptly turned around and exited the water much to our amusement.
We then spent an hour driving out of “Mudville” the way we entered it and the next day retracing our route.
Up until now, only facebook users have been fortunate (?) enough to view our ongoing Video Diaries or “Vlogs” (as modern technology terminology now calls them). Some of our experiences are simply not justified through still photos and writing. Take for example Andy’s depth-checking wade across a Mongolian river in his pants, off-road mud sliding or bone-shaking driving across corrugated Siberian roads.
From the rooftop of St Sofia’s Cathedral and the depths of ice caves to the glaciers of Norway and shore of Lake Baikal, hopefully these will reveal personal snapshots of our journey and allow another dimension into our adventure records.
You can view all our ‘Vlogs’ on our very own 800days YouTube channel here;
With a perfectly-pitched camp on the banks of the Zavkhan River overlooked by the holy Otgontenger mountain, dinner was underway (tinned sardines despite two hours spent fishing for Taimen giant trout in the river) when we spotted a small army of Mongolians approaching from the South. Sardines off and tea on, the mother and children gathered on a blanket, entertained by our phrase book and photo album while the father meticulously independently surveyed at, in and under our car and rooftent. The family comprised of parents, four daughters aged 15, 12, 12 (twins, bizarrely with the same name), 10 and a son of 4 years. They were staying at their grandparents nearby Ger and had been dispatched on a mission to locate the occupying foreigners and instigate a peaceful surrender, detainment and imperative retreat to their circular abode.
A stoop of the head through a painted, decorative doorway transports you into the rotund hive of all Mongolian nomadic activity. The Ger, a felt-lined wooden-framed tent-like structure is still home to just under half of the population of Mongolia. Even amongst families which have now settled in urban areas, a third of these still live in Gers rather than houses (something we witnessed in ‘Subgerbia’ areas on the outskirts of towns). This spherical, transportable, dwelling was crammed around the edges with the couples entire possessions, both decorative and practical. Kitchen equipment, pots, pans and stashes of food provisions sit snugly next to beds, boxes, blankets and a modest Buddhist shrine. On the walls are photos of family members and a treasured collection of the grandfather’s horse riding medals alongside framed pictures of Buddhist deities and famous Mongolian folk wrestlers.
At the base of the central yellow wooden support pole was a metal stove burning away, on top of which a large, shallow silver bowl of yaks milk steamed as the grandmother stirred it dutifully. Two tin cups were produced and dipped into the rich milk for both Andy and myself. This was followed by a ‘slice’ of Yak clotted cream skimmed from the boiled milk’s surface, and a warm, salty, weak milk tea decanted from a flowery, fluorescent cork-bunged thermos flask. To accompany the tea, a bag of biscuits were produced; at first glance a sweet treat but on closer inspection a greying delicacy with blue mould spots on one side. The first bite revealed the pungent flavour of musty, fetid goat’s cheese. The second bite was only marginally better due to the lack of expectancy of shortbread rather than the reality of rancid, crumbly goat product.
But this array of calorie-crammed, creamy dairy delights was, unbeknown to us, just the starter. A grubby, battered metal dish was extracted from under one of the wrought iron beds that formed the periphery of the Ger. The bowls contents were the result of a recent rodent genocide; those cute, curious marmots we had witnessed regularly skipping across the path ahead of us or popping up like a periscope from their burrows had been reduced to a greasy, gruesome goulash of flesh and fat. Would we like to try some? Of course we would! Sensing our trepidation with consuming something that looked more pet than picnic, our host pot-rummaged and produced the full boiled head complete with greasy flared nostrils and perfectly intact, protruding buck teeth. He waved it in the air like a ceremonial severed snack much to the raucous amusement of the rest of the family. After rancid cheese biscuits this cold, slimy flesh was actually quite palatable. Andy went back for seconds.
A plastic bottle not too dissimilar to the ones that white spirit is sold in was produced from another corner of the Ger with the father proudly announcing “vodka” before filling a tin mug full of the colourless liquid for Andy. This was ‘Airag’, fermented mares milk, fortunately only around 5% proof but unfortunately also allowing for clear enough thought as to how exactly you milk a horse. The atmosphere in the Ger became animated as the women imitated a drunken Andy trying to climb up the ladder into the rooftent following consumption of this equine homebrew. By this point grandfather had retired noiselessly into his bed but his family continued to chatter enthusiastically. Communication is beautifully basic; an antiquated English grammar schoolbook, a hesitant jumble of gesticulations and actions, illegible sketches and simply smiles. The warm generosity and hospitality of these complete strangers and the genuine welcome into their home was extremely humbling; an experience which we will forever cherish in our memories (and one which took our stomachs a few days to forget).
Our arrival into the Mongolian capital was of stark contrast to our drive from the border with its rolling green hills, peaceful Gers and scenic steppe dotted with grazing animals. The suburban sprawl of the city creeps up the surrounding mountainsides as we approach to see the haphazard concrete urban jungle before us. We were able to get an extremely close look at the city centre as it took us two hours to cross it; gridlocked, noisy traffic, dust, fumes, aggressive driving and people attempting to dodge the bumper to bumper vehicles… on the main street ironically named ‘Peace Avenue’.
Staying slightly out of the centre we decided to attack the city in a full-on tourist onslaught in one day and set off early to Gandan Khidd, our timely arrival rewarded with the morning ceremonial chantings. Monks gathered within one of the few remaining temples, almost all of the original 100 temples were destroyed in the Stalinist purges of 1937. Sitting amongst the hypnotic chants amidst brightly painted thangka paintings and hundreds of ornate statues it is hard to believe that Buddhism was only openly practised here again since 1990. A magnificent 26m high copper and gold statue of the Buddha of compassion stands majestically in the main temple; the original statue was melted down and rumoured to be made into bullets for the Russian army. A huge pair of golden feet stand defiantly amidst hundreds of spinning prayer wheels.
Despite several spins, the weather had now taken a turn for the worse and grey clouds gathered over the city, producing a relentless drizzle. We braved the backstreets, dodging muddy puddles, motorbikes and disgruntled dogs until we reached the Natural History Museum, an impressive building with a maze of exhibition halls containing everything from giant stuffed bears, reptiles in formaldehyde, glassed dioramas of various Mongolian habitats, numerous impressive dinosaur skeletons from the Gobi Desert and a marine display of over 40 inflated puffer fish complete with stick-on googly eyes. One room was a proud display of Mongolian human achievements, including the spacesuit and personal effects of Mongolia’s first man in space, first to summit Mount Everest and first to the South Pole.
Balancing precariously along kerb edges and flooding streets we navigated a main road (being splashed by less than considerate drivers) until we reached the main Sukhbaatar square, flanked by impressive government buildings, stock exchange and ballet and opera theatre. The square was the location of the violent protests in 1990 which eventually led to the fall of communism, but today presents a peaceful scene with a scattering of waterproof-clad tourists and groups of locals in traditional, brightly embellished, Del dress, all overlooked by (a rather obese-looking) Genghis Khaan statue. We sidestepped into the cultural palace and stopped for a much-needed lunch at a North Korean restaurant (a culinary first for both of us). A slight over-ordering brought a delicious array of spicy noodle soup, stir-fried chicken and beef, marinated potatoes and aromatic salads- a welcome change from greasy mutton and heavy dumplings.
Re-fuelled, we hit the Mongolian National Art gallery, a beautiful fusion of traditional and contemporary art, both clearly influenced by cultural heritage of traditional nomadic ways of life. Braving a heaving mass of traffic, with seemingly no rules, we crossed Peace Avenue and in true British style stopped for tea and cake at the Grand Khan Irish pub, conveniently located next to the National Academic Drama Theatre. We bought two tickets for the evenings ‘Mongolian Culture’ performance and, after a slight seating confusion, found ourselves centre stage in the front row. The show exceeded all expectations; an entire dance troupe in the most amazing colourful costumes, folk singers accompanied by strange, traditional flute, harp and Surnai and a contortionist who could literally wrap her legs around her head whilst spinning round on one hand. No Mongolian performance would be complete without the deep, haunting, reverberating throat singing, which was followed by a Tsam dance of monks and huge mask-clad depictions of Buddhist protectors. The Mongolian State Orchestra produced an awesome finale, a powerful, moving ensemble of only Mongolian instruments.
Time for a quick nip back into the Grand Khan pub for a couple of opportune pints of Chinggis Beer and then a late stop to the Mongolian Barbeque (sightseeing is hungry work). An entire sheep’s head (complete with teeth and all skull contents) and an assortment of customary meat/flour combos, washed down with Mongol Ale rounded the day off perfectly. All the stray dogs, beeping horns and clattering trucks in the entire city could not have woken us from our rooftent slumber that night.