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My Mongolia article in the South China Morning Post

Posted by on Nov 3, 2013 in blog | 2 comments

The South China Morning post published my short article on Mongolia with some photos in today’s Sunday magazine! Click here for the  the link!

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To Ulaanbaatar and back: Opel makes it, the book house, a margarita and home

Posted by on Sep 10, 2013 in blog | 8 comments

To Ulaanbaatar and back: Opel makes it, the book house, a margarita and home

Opel made it! Last week, she arrived at the Go Help office in Ulaanbaatar by tow truck. Munhuu, the mechanic who rescued her, says he’ll soon have her back in tip-top shape. I’m thankful she’s no longer stranded in the harsh lands of western Mongolia, locked up in the back of the only shop in Tolbo, population 1,000 (I would have guessed 15). We didn’t make it to Ulaanbaatar much faster. From Tolbo, it took us another hard week. We entered west, where the borders of Russia, China and Kazakhstan converge. It’s majestic here, high and cold, the vast steppe stretching up to the Altai Mountains that rise like jagged shark teeth. Shaggy baby yaks and skittish goats wobble by. Massive Golden Eagles, their wingspans up to 8 feet, perch like sentinels in the road. They hunt wolves. The nomads who have lived here for thousands of years must be supernaturally tough. In central Mongolia, we skirted the northern edge of the barren Gobi Desert. On one particularly monotonous and bone-rattling track, the din too loud to talk, I took to counting discarded goat hooves in the road. I saw 15 in an hour. We were averaging 9 mph so the little furry brown legs weren’t hard to spot, especially when lying next to the full horse skeleton or herd of Bactrian camels with limp, drooping humps. It was an incredible week. We camped in places so beautiful they seemed unreal, got lost once (apparently, there are four town in Mongolia named Altay), nibbled on hard cheese made from drained sour milk, got towed across two rivers and crossed a lot more, patched a hole in the oil pan with superglue, drove through a thunderstorm at night, tried and failed to order vegetarian food in a restaurant, fixed a flat or two and played card games by flashlight in a muttony ger. Driving into Ulaanbaatar was anti-climatic. The city is a dump, smoke stacks graying the sky and drab soviet-era apartment blocks lining the streets. There are piles of dirt everywhere. Nearly half of Mongolia’s population live in the capital and they all seem to have a car. The traffic is horrendous. We asked directions to the center but only one person answered us, in German. Upon further exploration, Ulaanbaatar is an odd but interesting place. Mostly older women stroll by in the deel, the traditional padded Mongolian dress, while young women favor miniskirts and heels. Expensive cars ply streets lined with Irish pubs, European bakeries, pizza joints and a microbrewery. North Korea even has its own restaurant. Mongolians love Genghis Kahn. There are at least four different Genghis vodkas for sale in convenient stores. On the main square, in a small building just next to the statue of Genghis Khan, is a 70-million-year-old dinosaur skeleton, the Asian version of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. An interesting group at the overpriced Grand Kahn Irish pub. The money pouring in is obvious. Mongolia is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, thanks to direct foreign investment in the mining boom, the poverty rate has dropped significantly and life expectancy is up. But the city still feels rough. Neo-Nazism is slightly popular. A large homeless population lives in the sewer tunnels underground, and alcoholism is a real problem. I went out alone late one night, parched and looking for water, and got followed by a large, creepy man. He was so drunk he was easy to out walk. One afternoon, we visited one of Go Help’s charity education projects called the Book House. The one-room building, walls lined with books, is in the...

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Mongolia Day Two: Car Abandonment

Posted by on Aug 28, 2013 in blog | 2 comments

Mongolia Day Two: Car Abandonment

By Robin Ewing Thursday, Aug 15 Mongolia is beautiful: broad, flat ranges of brushed green with pale flowers, white gers dotting the horizon, small horses with colorful bridles stamping past, blue lakes and glacier streams and mountains like crinkled tinfoil. Men in thick Mongolian deels belted at the waist bounce by on motorbikes. The world seems bigger than 360 degrees. The only other time I’ve felt this expansion was scuba diving. But the roads are hard. Sand becomes dirt becomes mud becomes rock. There are multiple tracks that all kind of seem to go in the same direction. There are few signs. We use the compass frequently. The Bandits ahead of us kick up tall clouds of dust that envelop us so we move to a parallel track. It doesn’t matter which side you drive on, they all have holes that materialize from nowhere and the bottom of the car scrapes, the sound of scratching metal making me wince each time. Sometimes, we’ll get a few minutes of asphalt, but it always ends in piles of dirt. On day two in western Mongolia, a few hours outside of Olgii, we bottom out in a crater and the oil light comes on. We crawl under the van to examine the damage, and oil is streaming down into the dirt from a hole in the oil pan. Yoav pushes an old water bottle weighted down with rocks under the hole to catch the oil. Maybe some tape would fix it, one of us says. Tape fixes everything. Owen just shakes his head sadly at us. We’re all staring at the oil leak when a truck pulls up.  We pantomime a hole in the oil pan to the driver, he nods knowingly and then hands us some epoxy through his window. Much better than tape. Owen molds the putty into the hole and we wait for it to harden, like steel the instructions say. It holds. We refill the oil and the light goes off. Disaster averted. Then we try to drive off. We make it a few feet and the car dies.  When we turn it on again, the gas pedal doesn’t respond. On the next try, the car doesn’t start at all. We pop the hood to check things out and the radiator drops a few inches. Opel has given up. And so, once again, the Bandits tow us into town. The closest settlement is Tolbo, a tiny place with a few houses, a brick store and a mosque surrounded by some gers. I’m not at all hopeful. The village comes out to greet us. A bunch of men, yet again, fiddle with the engine to no avail. A woman named Janis comes out of the store to talk. She knows all about the rally, she says in excellent English. Last year the same thing happened. I use Janis’s phone to call the charity rally office in Ulaanbaatar. They can send a mechanic but it will take at least a few days, maybe longer, the manager says. Do I want to wait? I look at a child, face crusted with snot and squatting in the cold dirt, and think about what I would do for a week in Tolbo. I’ll leave the van, I say. As we meet more and more rally teams, my story is not uncommon. The Mongolian roads destroy cars. Every team I met had some sort of problem, many too big to fix on route. The Mongol Rally has mechanics and vehicle drop-off points in most major towns. At the mechanics in Altay was a van that had...

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Entering Mongolia: paperwork, wrestling and a party

Posted by on Aug 26, 2013 in blog | 0 comments

Entering Mongolia: paperwork, wrestling and a party

Wednesday, Aug 14 A small, blond border guard in long braids and a camouflage uniform waves us out of Russia, and the tarmac immediately turns to dirt. A few miles later, we pull up to Mongolia, but the gate is locked. It is lunchtime. The Mongol Rally has caught up with us. The separate, and much bigger, rally of a few hundred teams in tiny cars left London a week after us. Everyone takes different routes, but the Tsagaannuur border crossing into western Mongolia is a bottleneck. Cars start lining up behind us, and suddenly it becomes a social. Out comes the football, the Frisbee, the Nutella and stale bread. An English man shares his power steering fluid with us (we’re leaking again), and I play cards with Narmy on our picnic/mechanic blanket in the road. Waiting for Mongolia to let us in At 2pm, a woman in a shed makes us all buy a $1 disinfectant stamp. No disinfectant appears. Then someone opens the gate to the country, and we all drive into a fenced in parking lot filled with more Mongol Rally teams waiting to be processed. Everyone is lounging, eating, chatting and playing games. It feels like a spring break party. Importing a car to Mongolia takes a lot of paperwork and deposit money. At one point, I saw a man look up the value of my car on Gumtree (a UK site similar to Craigslist). We’d heard rumors that it could take up to four days, which is why we stocked up on vodka. As car owners, Owen and I have to deal with all the vehicle forms and stamps, moving from little room to little room as our papers are passed from desk to desk. We miss out on the parking lot party. The Mongolian border closes at 6pm. At 5:55pm, we press our noses against the office window, watching people fondle our passports and car registration and occasional type something on an old computer while lazily eating cookies they aren’t sharing. We don’t want to sleep in the parking lot so we give them puppy dog eyes while staring longingly at the cookies. Just after 6pm, a man beckons us out to the lot where we give him $10. We can go. We drive off jubilantly. Just outside the gate, a scraggly man in a ragged safety vest waving a dented orange baton aggressively blocks our path and tells us he’s police. He briefly flashes a suspicious looking ID and tries to manhandle Owen into a shed to buy insurance. We drive around him as he belligerently pretends to call the police on a beat up old phone. We drive a little more, past mosquito infested lakes and herds of goats, and make camp. More rally teams pull up, some Mongolians roar over on motorbikes, the vodka comes out and it’s a party. The Mongolians inspect our cars and challenge Owen to a wrestling match. He represents well despite spraining his thumb. There is a little Mongolian dancing. And a guitar. The Bandits make the best lentil curry I’ve had yet. It is a beautiful spot under the Altai mountains, freezing cold, round white gers and blue lakes in the distance. I wrap up in borrowed blankets and fall asleep happily in the van. We made it. England vs Mongolia Our campsite night one Only a thousand miles to go till...

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Crossing Kazakhstan & Russia: the steppes and Siberian Altai Republic

Posted by on Aug 25, 2013 in blog | 0 comments

Crossing Kazakhstan & Russia: the steppes and Siberian Altai Republic

Saturday, Aug 10 From Almaty north to the Russian border is a 23-hour drive, if you include a 15-minute bread and cheese dinner under a gas station lamp, a chocolate stop and a one-hour nap in the front seat pulled over on the side of the road. It also includes a road that rivals Turkmenistan in infrastructure horror. Short on time, we crossed Kazakhstan in yet another cannonball run for the border. There wasn’t much to see: a lake, mountains, a long barren expanse and a few towns. Yoav got pulled over for speeding by a police officer, confused him by asking for directions and then drove off. Ticket “fine” avoided. I was sorry to miss the capital Astana, but it was hundreds of miles out of the way.   600 km out of Almaty on the steppe.   Sandwich lunch Previously called Akmola, meaning “white death,” Astana is where Stalin built his gulags, including the notorious camp for Wives of Traitors. In 1998, the city was renamed Astana, which, creatively, means “capital.” It’s a weird place, I hear, cold and wind blown in the middle of the open steppes and filled with new, futuristic buildings: a huge Norman Foster-designed glass pyramid, a building made to look like the White House and one of the largest concert halls in the world. After creating the city, the Kazakh government forced foreign companies to move their offices there. Joanne said when a friend was preparing to re-locate, a local Kazakh woman heard the news and sadly shaking her head, grabbed a piece of paper and drew a grave with a cross. It was dawning behind the mountains at 4am when we pulled up to Russia on a road with potholes like battle trenches. We breezed through, the Russians taking no notice of the taped up export plates, and onto the best road I’ve seen since Turkey. A few hours later, we were reunited with the Bandits in Barnaul and somehow ended up in the apartment of a Russian woman named Emma with purple hair who gave us all cups of tea, signed my map and gave me a shell to remember her by.   Emma invited us all into her apartment for morning tea We drove across Siberia for three days, camping among the thick pine forests, clear rivers and brown bears. We were towed out of the mud twice. Owen and Yoav replaced the Bandit’s alternator belt on the side of the road, snow-capped mountains in the distance. It was cold at night and I wrapped myself in blankets, sleeping in the van or in the Bandit’s extra tent. We spent our last Rubles on vodka and a bag of potatoes. Tow #1     Tow #2 The Bandits replace the alternator belt Siberian campsite Siberian farm It’s been 14,000 km since we left London. The van is sounding bad, the Kazakh road roughed her up. Opel wasn’t meant to leave the German autobahn. We need to get her to Mongolia before she gives up on us for good. Tomorrow we enter our last...

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Entry to Kazakhstan? Impossible

Posted by on Aug 22, 2013 in blog | 0 comments

Entry to Kazakhstan? Impossible

With no Internet for nearly two weeks,  I’m behind on posts. I’ve made it to Ulaanbaatar but it’s been a very, very long journey. I’m filthy, exhausted and carless. Updating now! Friday night, Aug 9 We limped up to Kazakhstan in a billow of black smoke. The compression on the newly repaired engine was gone (I’m guessing the stoney mechanics duct taped it all back together), cutting off power to the engine, but if we continuously restarted while driving we could get some speed for a few minutes. Uphill was 5 mph and acceleration left a dense cloud of black smoke in our wake. It took hours, but we had to get out of Kyrgyzstan. Almaty felt like the promised land. The remote Karkura border crossing is just a few buildings and a fence dropped in the middle of nowhere. Expansive mountains encircle the green valley crossed by clear rushing streams where groups of horses run wild in the summer (Joanne Renwick says they all get eaten in the winter). A lone horseman gallops by in the distance. There is nothing for miles on either side. It is gorgeous. Leaving Kyrgyzstan was easy. We idled past a few cows and came to Kazakhstan. Our single entry visas were stamped by two young men in a shack, and we were officially in country. Then a tall man in a black T-shirt and sunglasses appeared, walking slowly around our van and eyeing it up. He pointed at the license plate and said, “Problem.” Opel has German export plates. Dean found her on a German auto site but to get permanent registration in Germany, we needed a German address. Export plates, meaning a temporary registration for cars leaving the country, were the answer as they could be registered without a German address in a few hours. Ours were good for two months, the expiry date printed on the plates in bright red like a stoplight. So far, there had been no problems with the export plates, but I’d heard from a man last year that his team was denied entry at the Ukraine border. His Dad had to fly to Germany to get permanent registration. He said getting into Russia was also a problem. No one had said anything about Kazakhstan We waited for the decision. No, our car could not enter, the tall man said. This border crossing didn’t have the correct form for export plates. We would have to drive back through Kyrgyzstan to the other crossing at Cordai near Bishkek, about nine hours in a car that runs, through the dark on jarring roads. They would accept our plates there, he said. But we just wanted to pass through his lovely country for a few days on our way to help poor children in Mongolia. It was a humanitarian mission. Our registration was legal, we argued. Then I offered deposit money. He wasn’t interested. After an hour of pleading he was fed up. “Impossible,” he said sternly, and walked off. We weren’t getting in. We had to go back to Kyrgyzstan. This suddenly became an even bigger problem. Not only was the Kyrgyzstan border now closed, the guards from both sides wandering over to the dormitory shower with towels flung over their shoulders, but we had only one Kazakhstan entry on our visa and it had been used. We wouldn’t be able to enter the country again without applying for a new visa at an embassy, even if Opel could somehow miraculously make it to Bishkek. I wondered what would happen if I abandoned her in a parking lot....

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