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arrived in Russia the mount had completely sheered off but luckily the pot-holed corrugated dust roads of Mongolia had been replaced by relatively smooth Russian tarmac.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.
It was the first time I had ever planned a route taking into account the curvature of the earth; an epic drive home as directly and quickly as possible to reunite with family. Fortunately our Russian visas allowed us a window of 21 days in which to back-track across this colossal country. It had taken us 43 days to cross on our journey east. Heading west we had given ourselves 9.
Tranquil campsites were replaced with grimy truck-stop parking lots and ropey motels, sedate home-cooked meals swapped for dreary cafes and lorry driver’s canteens. Eyes on the perpetual horizon and always ready to embrace new travel experiences, we embarked on our gargantuan drive enjoying an intriguing insight into the wearisome world of Russian truckers.
For as little as £1 you can get a prime space in a ramshackle truck stop car park; a man with several scabby dogs acts as ‘security’ (we spent more feeding the ravenous canine crews). Toilet use involves minimal contact with as fewer surfaces as possible and frequently there is the optional extra of a makeshift wooden sauna (which we politely declined each time). For an accommodation upgrade (and potentially a shower) a motel is braved. Entertainment choices may include a crackly TV showing a few channels with a disproportionate number of violent police action dramas. No TV and you are resorted to playing ‘count the stain’, ‘crack a smile out of the owner’ or ‘avoid being electrocuted by the water tank plugged into a socket in the wet bathroom’.
The adjoining cafe may boast several items on a menu but eventually you reside yourself to the fact that if it’s not Borsch (Beetroot soup), Pelmeni (Siberian pasta dumplings) or Cutlet (unidentified fried meat shape) then the response will be a stern “NIET” from the waitress. After a long days drive, nothing says ‘appetizing’ like a bowl of doughy meat parcels bobbing about in tepid, greasy grey water with a blob of mayonnaise floating on the surface. Borsch looked more appealing (at least it had colour) with the added lottery-like anticipation that there might even be a piece of meat swimming at the bottom. Baltika beer was our saviour; what the Russians lack in culinary skills they make up for in brewing.
It was a poignant moment as we crossed from Russia into Ukraine and a gradual return to the familiar and straightforward; relieved that we had made it but sad to leave what has been an incredible and unforgettable country.
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.