Friday, August 15, 2008

Arrival and a Week in UB

Sorry for no updates.

With our car on it's way to Ulan Bator, we have managed to spend almost a week in the capital, waiting for our flights. Every day new ralliers came into town, both with and without their cars.

It's interesting to see the same level of attachment towards their vehicles, in other teams. We felt like we had a third teammember the last week of the trip, that of our car, and he never let us down once. Even when the belt slipped, the car was impeccable, and if we could have had our engine lifted, or the radiator removed, we could have gone on with no troubles.

The good news, in that regard, is that the car will net quite a great bit of charity money in sales. It's without question the best car that isn't a commercial vehicle, in the rally (i.e. non-bus, ambulance, truck). That's not my love for Teeg, that's just fact. I will fight you if you disagree.

As far as getting to UB, I'll write about that in length once we get photos, but I can safely say that it was the worst two days of my life. I wouldn't wish that travel experience on anyone, ever. Never. We hitched on a bus and paid a pretty penny to get us to the finish line somehow, in a car, along the route we'd have done in the Micra, and ended up getting more and more Mongolians packed on top of us as the trip went on. We had a driver, who we called Coach...a mom and her two year old, two other ralliers who gave up, with a perfectly working car, a second driver, a kazahk geo-engineer, and a wholesaler guy who wore a towel around his neck, who we called "The Champ."

It was awful. The roads, for lack of a better term, were navigable in the Russian van, but still less than comfortable. We drove basically non-stop for 45 hours in the car to get to the capital as quickly as possible. There are stories that will come from those two days, but I'd rather put some distance between then and now, before writing about it. Unpleasant.

The night before flying, we had the best night possible. Nick, Edward and Mark from Team Do you Do Airports? showed up and we proceeded to share many beers and stories, and in the middle of Dave's Bar we regaled our cars and toasted their maginficence.

Then the entire country exploded with joy as the Mongolian Olympiad, their Judo champ won the gold medal. There were fireworks, ecstatic and joyful celebration in the squares, and thousands of people screaming, cheering, high-fiving and waving flags.

It was a great end-cap to the trip and a wonderful exclamation mark on the rally.

I am sure there will be tons of stories to sort out....but I'll be waiting until I can integrate the photos Steven and I took, and hopefully some of the video taken before Bryan headed home.


(i'm flying now, to Orlando)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

off to UB

We're hitching a ride to the capital, the finish line, determined to finish in some capacity...if not with the car!

We will be dropping our car off with the help of some Mongolians we met near our lake-break-down spot, at Mercy Corps in Khovd....where I'm msging from now.

The ride will take 2-3 days, unfortunately, but it is what it is, and we'll be where we set out to get to. Thanks for the words of encouragement, I can't wait to chronolog this trip.


so.....we're 150 miles into Mongolia, and riding TG up a mountain of rocks, which is not a road, just so we're all on the same page here, but a mountain of rocks, at a huge 50 degree angle, we pushed hard enough to bust our belt.

Steven and I being non-mechanical cracked open the book, and set up camp. we had it all sorted out, when the realization that the crushed radiator would make the replacement impossible, hit us. The belt can't be put on without adjusting the alternator to give it slack, which we can't do since it was wedged against the radiator.

No problem, we'll just get a tow to town, 70 miles southeast and get them to work on it....except we find out he's gone for 5 days. without five days slack in our trip schedule, we're pretty much done.

we're trying to fly into ulan bator, to see the capital, shake some hands, have a beer or two, and make our way back to the states.

I think we did about 7600 and busted through Mongolian ranges.

I'll try to write more if i'm stuck in the capital for any length of time....tons to tell and share, hundreds of stories really.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Mongolia - Today

We're heading to the Russian border, with a half day's drive to the Mongolian border once we're in... so we should be in country before the night is done. That's pretty cool.

Wish us luck.

P.S. Mrs Cloud, your son did not do Karate on any border guards. He uses beard intimidation tactics, instead.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Kazakhstan vs Russia : A Comparative Analysis of Bribe Tactics

During the course of our trip we've been exposed to multiple examples of bribe and police corruption, in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazahkstan, to date.

I feel that Kazahkstan has a long way to go, in terms of tactics and methodology to reach the level of success that Russian police have attained. It's important to note that the Russians have had a stronger infrastructure for much longer and it's really a testament to their engineering efforts to allow their police force to fleece motorists much more efficiently and effectively.

In Russia we were passing a huge monument to Soviet dominance (?) when I drifted into the passing lane to allow for a better shot for Cloud to snap. In their usual manner, the cops had lined both lanes of traffic with wand-wielding officers pulling over potential marks one after another. We almost always got pulled over in Russia when we were spotted, mainly because we look foreign. This time was no different.

The officer quickly pulled me over, waved me out of the car, asked for my papers, my passport, my license, the car insurance, the car this and that, and each request, I would shrug my shoulders as if I didn't understand what he was saying. This is pretty normal. The less you understand, the more frustrated they get, the more time they waste on you the less time they can spend on people who will simply hand over cash.

He took me into the roadside office, and sat me down at his terminal. He asked me if I wanted jail jail jail? I responded with smiles and shoulder pats and showed them my empty wallet. He didn't like that and got a few other guys in the room and they found some wormy little tech to get on the computer.

He smiled smugly and brought up Babelfish, and nodded at me knowingly, pointing at the screen. He typed in 500 euro fine ride center lane no seatbelt bad license.

He pointed and asked me if I understood. I convinced him that I got into the center lane because his partner waved me to the lane. He got instantly frustrated and called that cop in, who from what I could tell, said that it was probably true.

I laughed and said Ok bye? He got pretty upset and sat me back down and took my license and did scissors motion with his hands and put it into a cabinent and locked it. Then he pointed to the screen, as if the 500 euro would make all this go away.

I just shrugged and smiled.

He then got out a pad of tickets and said

"Protocol understand? Protocol!!!"

I said, "Ticket? Ok ticket! protocol! and got my pen out."

He then kept on and got his boss who came in stammering and yelling, I said that I had no money that the 'Soldats at the border took every penny'.

They laughed about that...and showed no sympathy. I then offered cigarettes and american whiskey. They quickly nodded and waved me back to the car, 45 minutes having elapsed.

I grabbed 4 of our bribe packs, Marlboro, American, and a bottle of Hungarian dessert wine, Tokaj. Hardly whiskey and worth 3-4 dollars.

I went back to the station and the chief there invited me for a drink, and I said NO NO expensive, Russian Vodka? They all liked this, and we had a shot each. It was pretty surreal, doing vodka shots with Russian cops in their office mid-day.

I wanted to get out quickly, before they opened teh bottle and realized it wasn't American, wasn't expensive, and certainly wasn't whiskey.

We drove on.

In Kazahstan, police bribery isn't all that common, to be honest...but there are pockets where money has rushed into areas and made corruption a bit more common. The worst area we've found, really the only bad one so far, was in Quislorda (sp?) an oil-rich city in the south central of the country. We got pulled over 5 times total in less than 2 hours on the road.

On our way out, we got pulled over by the two biggest hillbilly cops imaginable. One tall and lanky, with a mouth of gold teeth, the other fat and stout with a toothpick dangling from his mouth and a holster on his side. A careful glance showed it was empty.

Steven and I quickly popped out of the car and shook hands fast, and said hello, and were as friendly as possible. It's the best tactic, and getting into their faces fast usually confuses them and takes away their intimidation edge.

These two were really struggling to find something wrong. They spent a lot of time looking at the class of our licenses and Goldie tried to tell us that Cloud's E license was invalid since in Kazahkstan a B license is required to drive a car. His screwup was that the E class was actually a class that allowed you to drive anything! So even if it didn't match, it still allowed him to drive whatever he wanted on the roads. Nice try Goldie. I showed him mine, and said that my C class was the same as a B and that it was just different. He tried to push on his fat parner to keep that train of thought going but Stout Kazahk was smart enough to know it was a dead end.

They went around and tried to say that our Mongol Rally stickers were peeling and that was a violation. I shrugged and acted ignorant of his pleas, and he got bored.

Stout Kazahk then went into our car and looked around, while Goldie pantomimed me performing sexual acts with Kazahk women in the middle of the road. It was surreal. He wanted to know how many of the local girls I'd had my way with. I kept saying I was married and pointed to my ring. He pointed to his teeth and said "NO marry too baby".

Yeah that's probably why you aren't married, Goldie.

Eventually they had both poked into the car and in our carelessness we'd left in plain sight a pile of money from the last shakedown (we pulled cash to hide it so we could turn our pockets inside out for cops), a bottle of Johnny Walker (bribe whiskey) and a carton of cigarettes...all laying there for the taking.

They talked it over and then Stout Kazahk's cell phone rang and they jabbered a bit and he ran back to the car to answer it. He pointed to us and said GO America! Go bye. We waved and saluted and got ready to get back on the road.

Goldie took one step back, one last ditch effort to get some of our loot, and Cloud stepped between him. He was on a ridge so with his scary beard and a newfound height advantage, it took the wind out of the poor cop's sail.

We honked and said Love Kazahkstan!! and waved to our new friends. They said Love USA!! and waved back and gave us a hearty police siren counter-salute, and drove up the road to set up their next location to stage out of.

We drove on, with mixed emotions. It was nice to walk away unmolested, but we couldn't help but feel a bit bad for the two of them, and their inexperience and ineptitude with fleecing foreign motorists. I think with time they'll get better, if they are given the chance to grow and excel.

Steven and I are off to the Russian border now. Updates will be sparse.

The Road to Almatay is paved with Salutes, Mutton, and Cigarettes

I can't begin to explain what an amazing and complex week this has been.

The Mongol Rally lived up to all my expectations this past week, delivering stress, adventure, challenges, comraderie, and hurdles to overcome.

We left Kiev with a sense of purpose, a vision that we'd be crossing kazahkstan in 2 days, and we accomplished just that. We woke up in a sunflower field three hours from the Russian border, and it was simply amazing. The Ukraine has miles and miles of nothing but sunflower fields. In the morning when the sun rises, and the evening when it sets, it's one of the most beautiful things imaginable.

We hit the Russian border and got shook down for about 500 bucks of Bryan's money, and Cloud stepped up and fought for most of it back with a Russian cop who had the idea he'd ran into a couple of rubes. We did our russian stint in 24 hours, sleeping in our car when we'd ran out of energy after meeting two English chaps, who had (like us) no contact with any ralliers in a day or so.

We encountered corrupt cop after corrupt cop, trying to get to Kazahkstan as quickly as possible, and met a few of the Spanish starting teams along the way. It was brilliant.

Eventually, Kazahkstan....(i'm running out of time and the internet lady is waving a pair of scissors at me, so I must flee).

Tomorrow the Kazahk border and beyond.

- Justin

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Due to time constraints, we had to skip Uzbek and Kyg. We underestimated the distance and road quality. Surprised? We spent two full days driving 15mph on severly rutted dirt roads the locals in Maquat said were "unpassible". Ha! Team Best Intentions and the Micra proved them wrong, but we are very road weary. I've never driven on roads this challenging for so long. Guess that's why I have a few dozen grey hairs in my beard.

Yesterday we drove over 700 miles to make up time and stay on schedule. This doesn't even include all the corrupt police stops in the Ukraine and Russia. I'll have to elaborate on that later, but it's safe to say we've been able to hold our own and give a minimum amount of "presents" to the local police. They do things differenly over this way.

On a sad note, Bryan is leaving the Rally in the morning to fly home. Work duties call him back and we wish him well.

Justin and I press on toward Mongolia in the morning. He'll try to update again in the morning time permitting.

Sorry to keep you all in the dark for the past week, but there's zero internet in the desert. I wish I could write more now, but I need to sleep this afternoon and get ready for tomorrow's drive.

One last note: The Kazakh people are amazing. Friendly, helpful and curious. I've taken lots of pictures, but probably won't upload them until I get back.