“Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you get”. We planned a seven-hour drive for today’s 400 kilometers. Due to the excellently developed highway towards Budapest we reached our goal already after half of the estimated time.
The booked hotel was right in the middle of a red-light-district and furthermore the parking possibilities haven’t been suitable. Therefore we started looking for an alternative, followed by a three-hour long odyssey through the city. All hotels were either sold out or did not have any secured parking space for our 3 Jeeps. It was already 2 a.m. when we finally found a convenient hotel.
The night was accordingly short and the following day featured a full agenda: An excellently well-organized press conference in the German Embassy, film and photo shootings in the historic district “Burgviertel” (in English “Castle district”) as well as meetings with journalists let the time fly by. Late in the afternoon we already continued towards Slovakia.
The expedition quintet moved into a small but lovely summer residence at the Spandauer area in Berlin. Since we arrived late there was only one last task, to arrange a “wake up call” from the colleagues in Limburg and to go to bed for a good night’s sleep.
But there were six other Extreme Event employees who did not get any sleep tonight, because they were on their way to Berlin with the Roka-trailers, the emergency float system for the Bering Strait together with additional materials. At 6 a.m. sharp the team got the ordered wake-up-call and got out of bed. This day the Meilenwerk in the heart of Berlin was supposed to welcome the project within its classy ambience. The – in former times – biggest tramline depot has today – as forum for driving culture – more than 450,000 people per year. Our partner Chrysler booked the atrium for us where a real expedition feeling was generated with requisites of the Babelsberger Filmstudios, a bottom plate and objects of our project. A field kitchen offered goulash for everybody.
This afternoon we were accompanied by Dr. Lührs, who especially came from Rügen with his Jeep Grand Cherokee to the “Pariser Platz”, to take photos and film shoots with us. But: We should come back. Just this evening the German Press Agency called to invite us to make some film shoots at the “Brandenburger Tor” which was broadly distributed and published by e.g. the German magazine “Stern”.
The second home of the team became the Chrysler garage in the “Seeburger Straße” where our vehicles got a last check. Cooling fluid for the coldness in Siberia was filled in and break pads exchanged. The most tricky work was it though to optimise the undercarriage. Since it turned out on our way through Europe the shock absorber and spring system - which got mounted instead of the original - were not sufficient. The too weak spring system caused a strong bouncing, even without loading. Already in Bratislava we were, together with Chrysler, looking for a solution while our Team in Limburg organised all the necessary materials. The Rubicon Express undercarriage is now additionally supported by six “Eibach-Springs“ per vehicle to stabilise the vehicle when it is loaded. The worklight in the garage was visible till late at night and the technicians were working till the last drop of sweat dropped – finally it was done. Friday evening, the vehicles were back on the street, together with their trailers.
On Saturday noon we headed from Berlim via Frankfurt/Oder towards Poland, where we once more refuelled bio-ethanol from our partner Alcosuisse. The approximately 2,652 litres were delivered just a few days ago to the company “die Werkstatt” where they unloaded the 16 barrels with manual work. Great thanks for the enthusiasm and helpfulness to the men from “die Werkstatt”. Also waiting for the expedition at “die Werkstatt“: 160 litres of ISO HEET, an additive for the bio-ethanol which extracts water from the bio-ethanol and therefore lowers the freezing point. Fully loaded and full of pioneering spirit we turn towards east and the next station in Warsaw.
November 08-10, 2008: From Berlin to the border of Belarus
On Saturday we totally rearranged the loading of F1 and F2 at our accommodation in Berlin. Berthold Wolf, our partner, whose rooftop boxes were at good services for us while loading the material, was also present. What would Matthias do with all of the equipment if he did not have the roof boxes?! In the end, Berthold also attached a spare-windshield on top of the roof box of the F2 – we will still be able to use the Pacwolf-boxes without restrictions. Awesome!
Our first and at the same time our most important stop on the way to Poland was Frankfurt/Oder. There, we received 3,000 liters of bio-ethanol. The refuelling of the tanks worked out smoothly. This was definitely our last bio-refuelling stop before we reach Alaska! Within three hours all available tanks in the Jeeps and trailers were filled up by using our own hoses and pump. Peter Renè, our camera man, was forced to take an unintentional bio-ethanol shower. He would have had a hard time to explain himself if he had gotten into an alcohol check afterwards – his jacket smelled like alcohol as if he had already celebrated an extensive vodka-party in the early afternoon.
Around midnight we headed on our way towards Warsaw. During a spontaneous break, F1 and F2, along with its sleeping crew, were standing peacefully next to each other in a parking lot of a polish supermarket for two hours – a much needed time-out for everyone. According to plan and after a smooth drive, we reached Warsaw early Monday morning.
First of all: Thanks to the fantastic preparations by the German Embassy in co-operation with Hoch-Tief, our stay in Warsaw turned out to be a thoroughly successful experience! Early, but with a prosperous start: Matthias had an appointment with the Polish breakfast TV, at the Rondo Onz – the building in which the press conference, banner exhibition and the presentation of our vehicles was supposed to happen – that was a perfect fit. It was the best location, great atmosphere and high focus on the project. During the press conference, outside, our vehicles drew the attention of the pedestrians. After our contacts in Warsaw signed the cars, we had made plans for photo- and film-shoots in the city. The once completely destroyed but true-to-original rebuilt, wonderful old town is world cultural heritage for a reason. After visiting the castle courtyard and the old town market, the final view from the cultural center above the city was a highlight. We would like to specifically thank the German Embassy and Hoch-Tief for this exceptionally well prepared day.
On the way to Minsk there was another challenge waiting for us: There should be a trucker-story for the expedition-book at the border to Belarus. “The long wait” is the working title for this chapter. Unfortunately this actually became our motto for the next 24 hours. First, a Polish border official refused to let us continue our journey to Belarus, with the reasoning that our vehicles and its trailers were too big. The second try to pass the border crossing – which was prepared by our team in Limburg – was just as difficult. Suddenly we were told by the Polish border officials that Belarus definitely will not allow us to enter. Pressure and stubbornness of the Polish border officials caused us to find an alternative possibility to cross the border. Thus we decided to try the border crossing for trucks. With this, our Tour de Force just started. With lots of patience and after negotiating for three hours, Matthias succeeded in ensuring our way out of Poland. Despite that the German Embassy and our team in Limburg clarified all formalities beforehand, the A.T.A. Carnets – forms that are supposed to make the customs clearance of our equipment easier and faster – again and again became our crux. The processing of these bulky forms required a lot of time. In this case they were the reason for almost 17 hours of nerve-wracking waiting and back-breaking discussions. Finally, the German Embassy set the process in motion: If it were not standing up for us against the highest level of the Belorussian government agencies, the special authorization for the expedition would have taken even longer. With the best intentions and well-prepared, we reached the Belorussian border – afterwards we drove to Minsk, tired and one day later than planned.
November 11-13, 2008: Minsk - Belarus/Russian border - Moscow
Border crossing asleep
We had a welcoming start on Tuesday: still feeling the long-lasting border crossing Poland/Belarus, we were all happy to stay the night in Minsk directly in the hotel of the IBB where the press conference took place as well. The employees of the German Embassy and the IBB-Team prepared and oversaw the press conference which proceeded with a simultaneous translator in a well stocked conference hall. The interest of the Belarus media and others was huge and the news propagation was accordingly fast: Already on our way to the Russian border we met a gas station attendant who has just seen a report about us on TV and she was very happy to have us as customers on her gas station.
After the press conference, Matthias had a discussion about renewable energies with the deputy minister for the environment and his employees. The Department of the Environment spontaneously invited other press representatives to our visit at the National Library. At this event Matthias was able to exchange experiences with another expedition leader: Vladimir Drabo, an expedition-commander from Minsk, who already tried to cross the Bering Strait for four times. He hurried to the National Library to meet Matthias and Evgeny in person, gave our two drivers each a book about his expedition and spontaneously invited Matthias to accomplish an expedition with him – to cross the South Pole. Was this meeting of the two expedition leaders the beginning of a new big project?
In the afternoon, we had an individual guided tour at the National Library of Belarus, which is a monument of symbolism: The fascinating diamond shaped building is a symbol for the extreme value of knowledge. At the very end of the visitation we found ourself again at the highest point in Belarus, the 74 meters high roof-deck of the impressive library. Enthused by the successful devolution of the day, the interesting conversations and contacts and the wonderful visitation program, we continued our way in the evening towards the Belarus border that we reached at midnight.
After a short sleeping break we learned, that the Carnets ATA can not be executed till the next morning at 9.00 a.m., so we kept sleeping but forgot to put our watches one hour forward to match them with the Russian time change. We eventually woke up thanks to the knocking of a customs officer at the pane of F1. He took our customs forms to work on them - “sometimes customs clearance runs asleep” is what we thought at that time, being surprised in a positive way. Shortly after that, we got escorted to the main customs office in Smolensk which was about 80 kilometres away. We got the instruction to stop our vehicles in a fenced plot in the courtyard, to lock the Jeeps and to leave this area of the customs property promptly. Behind our backs, the door of the big wire fence snapped in. The vehicles have been secured by Russian customs. Now, at the latest, we knew that this border business would not be an easy matter as well.
Matthias’ first negotiation result was not really enjoyable: They denied us to enter the country. With intensive support from the German embassy, intervention on highest level and complaisant customs officers, we were able to turn our bad starting position into a border crossing. Even the waiting time for the team and Matthias’ exhausting negotiations made the last two border crossings a stressful matter. At a glimpse: 80 hours, two borders, 30 hours of waiting time. Luckily the expedition’s time schedule has enough planned time buffer for occasions like this!
“We should not drive a fourth round if we do not want to seem suspicious“, is how we reproved ourself by the third turn around the Kremlin and the Basilica in the center of Moscow. So we exercised ourselves in unsuspicious driving and were enjoying Moscow’s highlights in the sun during our photo shoot. Even the long limousines which were cruising around the Basilica with a –for us Western Europeans – remarkably high density of wedding couples, have not been able to distract the pedestrians from our expedition vehicles and trailers.
The employees of the Department of Trade and Industry, the German Embassy and high ranking representatives of our partners Jeep and Goodyear prepared a really nice residence and a well attended press conference for us. The presentation of the expedition was especially interesting for all automobile journalists and offered a broad variety of information about the importance of the Jeep Rubicon in Russia and plenty other up-to-date news – first publications have already been online on divers Russian homepages. The two nights in the apartments of the embassy area were a special honour for us – a worldwide unique accommodation to stay overnight. I would like to thank all parties again for the great support and helpfulness in Moscow. Thanks.
Apart from that, the two days in the capital city of Russia have been dominated by changes within the team and current weather reports. Lena, our photographer of the first six expedition weeks has been replaced by Joachim Stretz the new photographer on board. Furthermore, Nastja Zilich and Juergen Graf headed home from Moscow on Saturday. Nastja supported the expedition with translations on the track between Warsaw and Moscow especially during the border crossings. Juergen was there to organize the press conference together with Chrysler and additional clarified some administrative stuff. Evgeny used the time off to visit his mom on her ninetieth birthday and to have a good night’s sleep. He came back yesterday - totally rested and fully motivated. Additional we will be accompanied by an intern of the German Embassy till we reach Novosibirsk. He speaks Russian and supports us with the numerous police controls on our way.
A continuous topic was the weather: While we have been told in almost every conversation we had in Moscow that the weather is way to warm for this season and that it is actually supposed to be all white and wintery cold by now, the first snow reports from the Altai Mountains arrived. There was so much snow fall on the Altai Mountains as it has not been for several years. This information – as well as all border and customs experiences - has already direct effect on our further planning: Matthias currently attempts to reschedule the appointment with our guide and to prepare the border crossings. Our goal is a time schedule keeping all general conditions in mind and which is even possible to stick to if we had extreme dense snow fall.
After we stored the luggage of all the old and new team members and the entire equipment, we started from Moscow towards Yekaterinburg on Sunday night. On the way to our first stopover, the ancient city Kazan, we were driving along Europe’s longest river, named Volga, with a length of approximately 3,700 km. The hilly Volga-Delta offered us the following special conclusion: The two trailers are brilliant! With floats and their attachments, respectively 1000 litres of bio ethanol in the tanks and further tightened materials like e.g. spare tires, each trailer weighs 4,5 tons. It is unbelievable how smoothly these trailers are running behind us by the conditions of the streets, which challenged us with extreme bumps, lane grooves, sudden droppings and unsecured roadsides as well as all kinds of roughness and unevenness. Our way from Kazan goes all the way over Perm to Yekaterinburg – I guess the streets will not get better.
November 17-19, 2008: Kazan – Ural
First continental border crossing
Unlike planned, we did not take the route via Perm but instead via the city Ufa to Yekaterinburg. We had to cross 1,200 kilometres in order to arrive in Yekaterinburg on time for the presentation of our project on Thursday morning. The aim was to drive the 1,200 kilometres in one go. Another look at the map and discussions with the journalists that Chrysler Russia had sent to accompany us in a Jeep Commander, made us change our plans for the route. The reason: The streets were supposed to be better than those that we would have taken on the route via Perm.
En-route there was a real highlight of Russia waiting for us: The crossing of the Ural Mountains. Although there were only the southern foothills of these up to 3,000 meters high mountains on our route, they were enough to make us crawling up the hills in second gear like snails. Luckily, the streets were still free of snow and ice and we managed most parts of the Ural Mountains during the night! The usual daily appearance of trucks combined with poor weather conditions, probably would have meant for us to cover the entire 800 kilometres distance of the mountains in first gear, surrounded by clouds of exhaust fumes. Thus, we were at least able to drive faster at the downhill track. In the morning we were rewarded for the slow night drive by a wonderful sunrise behind the mountains. The mountain scenery and the auburn, autumnal tundra offered our photographers good opportunities to take impressive pictures of the landscape.
Let me mention a few words regarding the better streets on the way from Kazan to Yekaterinburg: Luckily we do not know how the worse streets would have been. The street on which we were driving was littered with lane grooves, bumps and partly extreme pot holes. Especially nearby the bridges in the valleys we got shaken due to the roughness and unevenness of the streets. It was even more wondrous that one of us was always able to sleep along the way. Once we hit a giant pot hole with F1, but fortunately without any consequences for the vehicle. As we pulled over to check the situation we saw a Russian standing on the roadside, changing the left rear tire of his vehicle. Obviously he must have driven through this pot hole right before we did.
Actually, the highlight of the expedition is the continental border crossing at the Bering Strait. Currently we already practiced the continental bond right away: In the early morning we crossed the border between Europe and Asia – without ice, without water, without the mounted floats though but safe and riskless over a normal mountain road. A high stony monument with two direction signs “Europe” and “Asia” marked the line where the borderline goes.
After a quick coffee at a gas station during the refuel-action, we decided to keep on driving for a while and to eat breakfast a little bit later. At ten o’clock and after numerous photo shoots we had a good rest. The four drivers – Matthias and Astrid with the F1, and Evgeny and Jockel with the F2 – switched driving and sleeping through the whole night, so that everybody was looking forward to this breakfast. Unfortunately we forgot the time change in our plans. The expedition time plan and my cell phone with an automatic time zone localisation left no doubt: The morning was over - it was already noon. We quickly changed our breakfast plans towards a great lunch with shashlik, salad and borszcz.
We made it to Yekaterinburg, where we will present our expedition at the technical university on Thursday. On Friday morning, we continue our journey to Tyumen. The Jeep Commander and two journalists from Chrysler are accompanying us. Furthermore a new journalist took a place in the F1 at the invitation of our partner Goodyear.
Shortly after our overnight arrival in Yekaterinburg, the first light snow fall started: The next morning when we looked out of the windows, a thin snow layer covered our vehicles. Unfortunately the temperature was not low enough to save the tender skin of snow. Bummer! Within few minutes, Yekaterinburg was covered with a thick brown layer of mud instead. Shortly after that - the few kilometers from the hotel to the Technical University were far enough – F1 and F2 were covered with a thick film of mud. The vehicles looked like they had just returned from their toughest off-road experience.
In Yekaterinburg, the consulate general and the Technical University invited us to present the project. The president of the university welcomed us personally and informed us about the university and its 43,000 students. Next to students and press representatives, numerous TV teams with cameras were attending the presentation which was prepared by the consulate in an excellent way. The success of this presentation was noticeable: We have been the attraction of the 8pm newscast on the second Russian channel. Besides images of the Jeeps and trailers, they showed interviews of Matthias and Evgeny as well. Now we are well-known In Russia.
We covered the 350 kilometers from Yekaterinburg to Tyumen in a relaxing day trip. At the city border we were directly escorted to the biggest Chrysler center in Eurasia. Due to the fact that our vehicles have already been too high for the garage entrance in Yekaterinburg, we should now check our vehicles here in Yekaterinburg. Within seconds everybody’s nerves were frayed. Matthias has not even had time to greet the attending Chrysler representatives. Then a security guard in uniform came running by and heatedly told us to take our trailers and leave. Meanwhile our Russian drivers were already talking to the mechanics and they started working. Evgeny performed a maneuver that made the trailers lurching and towed the Jeep – with a journalist sitting on the engine bonnet – into the workshop. At the same time two Chrysler colleagues began to clean our totally dirty vehicles and we had to unload our luggage for the night. It got hectic and Matthias got loud.
To arrive at this garage showed us once more what it means to be on an expedition: Even though everything is planned and prepared in detail we all have to expect unforeseeable situations that call for ultimate concentration and cooperation. It is more than possible that in situations like that the stress and hectic discharge themselves in loudness. But no storm without the subsequent quietness: The meeting at the Chrysler center with the local press representatives took place in a special friendly atmosphere. The journalists were really interested and the three representatives of automobile magazines, who are attending the expedition at the moment, integrated themselves very well. For the first time Matthias was not the only one who explained the story of the expedition. The three attending Russian press representatives were dynamically supporting him with translations and representation of the expedition.
We left Tyumen early Sunday morning. Our way lead us 650 kilometres towards east – thereby the sun was shining towards Omsk and lead us the way to the next milestone. We gladly followed this bright light.
We were not mistaken when leaving Tyumen: The sun that came shining from Omsk was a good sign. Right in the morning Joachim and the Russian journalists made several stops to take photos. It was not only that the light of the rising sun was illuminating the landscape in an extremely scenic way, but we were also able to drive offroad for the first time. A full closure of the main road made this trip possible and necessary.
Matthias and Evgeny first performed a spectacular transposition manoeuvre with both the vehicles and the trailers on this narrow part of the street and then drove on an earth road through little villages, forest and the brown tundra. We started early in the morning, but due to the beautiful but time-consuming detour we had the suspicion that we would be driving until late at night. According to the wish of our fellow journalists we stopped at a guesthouse for lunch break. This break let our suspicion become certainty. With new power, good humour and with the sun shining bright, we jumped back into the vehicles and created a little wonder. The kilometres to Omsk were melting away. And despite the bad condition of the roads – which were especially bad during the first half of the section – for the first time we managed to arrive in Omsk way faster than the designated time. Drivers, mood and landscape were great so that these 650 kilometres turned out to be one of the most beautiful sections to date.
Thanks to the commitment, spontaneity and the cooperativeness of the vice consul, everything was prepared in Omsk despite our unexpected early arrival. At the city limit we were heartily welcomed and escorted to the hotel. They even thought about our parking situation. Without further negotiations we were able to park the vehicles on a locked and attended parking lot right at the hotel. That was something which we have not yet experienced too often on our way! Less than two hours after crossing the city limit, the team met up for a late but well-earned dinner.
The press conference at Chrysler Omsk was scheduled for 5 p.m. – therefore everybody was able to use the Monday according to their own desire: Astrid and Jockel send pictures and reports home via e-mail, Matthias used the day to get some office work done and Evgeny had a good night’s rest. Some of us accepted the offer by the vice consul for a guided tour through Omsk. The trip to the city was worth it! Omsk is beautiful. In some parts of the city the influences by architects from Petersburg are clearly visible. The cityscape of this 1.2-million-inhabitants-metropole is accordingly scenic. We learned a lot about the “white capital of Siberia” and its history. Highlight of our trip was the visitation of Omsk’s church. Besides the Basilica at the Red Square in Moscow and the Cathedral of Petersburg, the Omsk church is one of the three most beautiful churches in Russia. We returned to the hotel with a lot of photos and new impressions – beginning with Omsk’s first building from prefabricated slabs to the ancient tartar fortress which was also the place of foundation of the city in 1716.
The first camera team was already waiting for us at the hotel parking lot when we were leaving for the project presentation. Accordingly we arrived late at the Jeep-representation due to the interview and the photos that were taken. Nevertheless we were heartily welcomed here as well. The open German-English-Russian-speaking conversation which was led mostly by the fellow journalists, who already proved its value in Tyumen. Therefore Matthias suggested this form of presentation again. It was a relaxing and happy atmosphere. An animated conversation developed between the representatives of the press, the management of the car dealer and the expedition team which was continued during a luxurious buffet. We have hardly ever been welcomed in such a hospitable and heartily way and with such a great interest before.
Omsk was a great milestone! We are glad that we had the opportunity to be here and get to know these people.
Right from the start we scheduled a stop in Novosibirsk for several days. The reason for that: Here, our vehicles and trailers were supposed to be modified for the cold. Spikes have been attached to all tires – on vehicles and trailers as well as the backup tires. Additionally the engines and transmissions will receive a felt insulation as protection against the cold. Basis for this planning was the assumption that we would have to deal with Siberian temperatures by Novosibirsk at the latest. But still the thermometers show temperatures around zero degree. The Chrysler-center in Novosibirsk is the last possibility for the necessary changes before we reach the Altai Mountains where there will definitely be snow. Therefore and despite the extraordinarily high outside temperatures, we are in the middle of the vehicle remodelling. Several Russians told us that nature uses this long period of mild temperatures to prepare itself for an extremely cold winter.
After expecting difficulties in the garage – once again the gateway was too low for our roof construction – now everything works according to plan and to our utmost satisfaction. The garage was rearranged especially for our two vehicles and the entire mechanical team was waiting for us. In a special garage, several men were spiking our tires. The first set is already fitted with spikes and returned to the Chrysler dealer in order to be assembled to the vehicles. Evgeny – who has some vehicles himself – has a lot of experiences when it comes to the protection of engines against the cold. Now he is supporting the mechanical team with the insulation. Matthias was able to take the first vehicle and trailer to the car wash. Finally we will (even by colour) be recognized as expedition team again and stand out among the other car traffic. Despite the cooperativeness and the focussed work, Matthias is afraid that we will have a long night ahead of us in order to get the vehicles completely done.
Besides the necessary modifications against the cold there were other reasons for the long stop in Novosibirsk. Two important aspects were the presentation of our project at the Technical University as well as the personal contact to the German Consulate General. First we were invited to the consulate. There, we met all the people who are responsible for the support of our project. Since that time we are extremely happy to know that this great team of the consulate will back us up all the way to the Bering Strait.
Nobody knew that the press conference at the Technical University the very next day would top the positive impression of the work in the garage and the consulate general! The entire event was characterized by a highly professional, intensive and successful cooperation between the consulate, the university and DAAD. In regards to location, technology and the announcement of the press conference we can assure that they made a good job of it – everything was prepared at best. Therefore the project presentation turned out to be a huge success. After we were welcomed by the principal who also informed us about the university, we had a short conversation concerning the topic “renewable energies”. When entering the ballroom, we were overwhelmed by the big audience and attending TV-teams. The room was packed. Further listeners were standing in the hallways and in front of the rearward wall. Matthias made a very short presentation of the project and relied on the interest and the questions by the audience. An animated conversation about the cars, the expedition and renewable energies – Russia’s future market – developed between the vice principal, the consul general and Matthias on the podium and the journalists and students in the audience. For the first time there was another item on the agenda: An invitation for tea and pastries which we gladly accepted. After the two meetings with the consulate and the university, Matthias said that we could have taken another Jeep with all the interested and cooperative employees from both facilities with us on the road.
Our next goal – the Russian-Mongolian border – is about 900 kilometers away. Whenever possible, Matthias is already sitting in the Chrysler-showroom to prepare our border crossing via telephone with the help of an interpreter.
November 29-December 01, 2008: Altay - Mongolian Border - Olgy
Mountains, snow and another border!
In the afternoon we hit the road from Novosibirsk towards the Mongolian border with the completely re-packed and frost-resistant vehicles and two new expedition participants – in Novosibirsk, the TV-journalist Hendrik Pfefferkorn and cameraman Marco Schwarzer joined the expedition. We had 900 kilometres and the drive through the scenic Russian region Altay ahead of us. This mountain stage presented us three challenges: the first snow, heavy inclines and declines - and all that during night time driving. As long as there was enough light we have been able to take some nice photo and film shoots: flock of sheep, wild horses, cows walking by, green rivers, snow covered hilltops and scenic wooden bridges.
About 50 kilometres before we were supposed to reach the Russian-Mongolian border, we reached our accommodation, the hotel transit in Kosh Agash. The surprise was, that this hotel was the best hotel in the area – the only one with restrooms inside. We thought that the entire second floor was reserved for us but in the evening we saw that a Mongolian was occupying one of the other rooms and at night time another four Mongolian women moved into a room on the second floor. As we woke up in the morning and started to get ready, we noticed how efficiently the premises got used: Besides us, another 10 to 15 Mongolians have been sleeping in these two rooms which were not occupied by us. Luckily, we thought to be alone for the entire evening. Due to the fact that the only restaurant in Kosh Anash was closed that day, we went to the supermarket, bought plenty of food, and improvised the cooking which was not really tasty, but at least we had a cheerful dinner together.
On Monday morning we left towards the Russian – Mongolian border in bright sunshine. First topic in Kosh Anash: we had to be present at the border office, because of our female translator who is supposed to accompany us till the customs clearance at the Russian – Mongolian border. This unexpected extra appointment made Matthias feelings change into apprehensiveness in connection with the upcoming border crossing. From this point our way was snowy, straight and uphill for many miles. We could see the beginning mountains and a vague idea of a right turn at the horizon. Right there we decided to make another stop to take some photo and film shoots. Scenery, Lands-end-atmosphere and the fantastic light had to be captured in photo and film.
Immediately after we left the curve behind us, we reached the border town Tashanta. Right in front of us were the border superstructures of the Russian side, two cows on the street and primarily no traffic at all. Surprisingly the custom clearance at the Russian border was really fast. They knew that we were coming, waited for us and after three hours we were able to cross the border. With its impressive demonstrative bigness, Russia said goodbye for a while: The no man’s land between Russia and Mongolia is an over 20 kilometres long fenced mountain range.
Mongolia welcomed us with a big sensation: Not only that the entire border office was informed that we were coming and all worked overtime, furthermore they did their job in an absolute record time as well. Within 45 minutes the Carnet ATA´s got stamped, the passports have been controlled and the entry approved. Additionally, those friendly officers allowed us to take pictures and film them, which were forbidden on all the other border offices. Icing on the cake of our entry was that our guide Nasaa waited as arranged directly at the frontier. A happy reunion with Matthias made this uncomplicated entry perfect.
After a short stop for tea and noodles, we had to handle the first real off-road passage: With snow flurry and a visibility of down to two meters, Nasaa directed us and we followed an around 55 kilometres long snow covered mountain track. Luckily we had our guide with us, because we would have never believed Matthias that this track was the right way. We were really tired but in this way we reached the hotel in Olgy one day earlier than planned. Now we are ahead of the designated time in our schedule, primarily owed to the successful cooperation at the border crossings. We would like to thank all the Russian, Mongolian and German authorities for this great support. Thank you!
December 02 Olgy - Hovd Tract leg with mountain action
Different strokes for different folks: Our day started with an entirely unlikely breakfast. We ate shish kebab and soup in a Turkish restaurant. - Who knows when we will get such a square meal for the next time? Meanwhile a person with obviously different breakfast habits than our own had breakfast in our hotel room. The evening before, we found a raw piece of meat on bones in the freezer and when we came back from the Turkish restaurant to load our vehicles, we noticed that this “different” meal was gone. Luckily we could abstain this special breakfast choice of the hotel!
Not only regarding the breakfast, but also with our telecommunication we crossed a border yesterday. We lost our service right after we left Novosibirsk and it came back only for the short border crossing from Russia to Mongolia. Luckily, Matthias was able to put or on-board solution with satellite-telephone, -fax and –email into operation after no modern terrestrial communication worked! Nonetheless, on every milestone we are looking for reliable internet connection in order to send pictures and reports in higher quantities. The publishing house Ullmann and several other editorial departments as well as the project-page are constantly waiting for new information. In an exhausting one-hour-long action in a public internet café in Olgy, Hendrik and Astrid have been able to send the latest report from the border crossing from Russia to Mongolia and three pictures to the office in Limburg. It seems like we have to set new standards for this in Mongolia.
According to the upcoming kilometres, the next stage was quite short with just 200 kilometres from Olgy to Hovd. Therefore our photographer and film team spent much time on the street – it was not very far anyway. But, this stage was the first one without a regular street at all. We slowly moved forward on tracks out of sand and stone. Besides that, we had to manage two mountain passes with a over 2.600 metres. Due to the heavy trailers, we had to drive in low gears for many kilometres.
The scenery was breathtaking. Lakes, a 4,000 metres high crest, snow covered mountains and ridges out of sand and snow were on our way. Sometimes in between it felt like we were driving through the desert. As far as we could see – and that was really far – there was no tree, no bush and definitely no other vehicles. On the 200 kilometres long road we crossed only one road sign. More than once we needed our Mongolian guide Nasaa to get us in the right direction.
As the scenery was beautiful then ever – a wide tableland, lakes right and left and a sunset as kitschy as it could be – we were challenged by a real off-road mission. Right in front of us, a truck broke into a frozen lake while trying to cross it. The two drivers had already piled up the freight next to the truck and made themselves a rough-and-ready tent out of a rag. That’s not much in contrast to the -24 °C and a strong wind. They had been waiting for help for two days now. Without further ado, Matthias activated the winch. With full brakes and eight blocking tires, the Jeep and the trailer got pulled closer to the truck by the winch. Even together with the second vehicle with 8,5 tons in total, it was not possible to move the 12 tons truck which has already been frozen into the ice. With all possible effort and both vehicles, we tried for about 1 ½ hours to help the truck drivers, unfortunately without success. We hope that the bulldozer which is on its way to rescue them arrives quickly in order to get these two drivers out of this life-threatening situation.
Nasaa´s family heartily welcomed us in their home when we reached Hovd. We were offered a great dinner and had good night’s sleep in our sleeping bags.
Along the desert towards the hydroelectric power plant
Matthias already awoke with the feeling that the vehicles had to be checked after 200 kilometers of humpy earth road. Intuitional driving: The feeling was correct! Both exhaust systems had to be fastened and numerous screws had to be retightened. At dusk – after the inauguration of F1 and F2 by Nasaa’s mother and after saying good-bye to his very kind family – we set out for the Mongolian city Altay which was 450 kilometers away.
Again, we had to drive on humpy earth roads made of stone and sand. Unfortunately it was dark once again, so that we did not see much – if anything at all – of the mountains and lakes which were located only few kilometers outside of Hovd. This definitely had to change! Today’s section leads us through the Gobi Desert. We all wanted to get the impression of it. Accordingly, we were driving to exhaustion before we stopped for some sleep in the cars. We awoke with the sunrise over the desert. The break was well worth it – the view was breathtaking! Despite minus 27 degrees outside temperature, we all jumped out of the cars with our cameras in our hands. Unfortunately, besides the touristic highlight “Gobi Desert by sunrise”, we also had to refuel the vehicles (including a tank-to-tank fuel transfer). Now even the last member of the team got an idea of the expected temperatures ahead of us.
The landscape of the desert was very impressing – the pictures that our photographer took are self-explanatory. Not only the landscape but also the encounters we had, were very special. A goatherd came up to us – after spending the night outside between his animals – to ask for a drink. A caravan of camels crossed our path. We also met truck drivers at a nomad family who did not have enough fuel to continue their journey. However, our tanks were empty as well – and the bio ethanol which we could have donated to them from our big tank would not have done any good to the Russian truck. After these experiences in the desert we were all very surprised to find the 12,000-inhabitant city Altay only kilometres away. The contrast could not have been any bigger!
The main message of our expedition is the usage of renewable energies. This topic is also of crucial importance in Mongolia. Already, every second Mongolian uses renewable energies for his supply. The country offers all necessary resources for the use of wind, water and sun to generate energy. Starting in Altay, we headed towards Mongolia’s biggest hydroelectric power plant - The power plant Taishir: The dam with a height of 45 meters will restrain 930 million cubic meters of water once it is completely filled in five to eight years. Nature is taken care of, even while restraining the water: Only additional floodwaters of the Zavkhan River are restrained – the other water follows its natural course. An engineer explained the dam’s sphere of action to us and guided us through a tunnel underneath the impressing city wall. With this construction, the Mongolians are on the right track to ecological energy generation.
On our track from Gobi Altay to Bayanhongor we were faced with every imaginable surface like: a hard humpy earth road, difficult-to-drive sand tracks with heavy potholes, snow tracks, up- and downhill on brown grass as well as a nearly endless high plateau with a well drivable road combined with comfortable new and perfectly even asphalt on the last 10 kilometres before we reached our goal. That was not Bayanhongor anymore, but Arvaiheer. The reason for this spontaneous change of our stage goal: All of a sudden the price of the heated garage for the vehicles was 20 times higher than agreed in the beginning.
Due to the fact that we passed the friendly Mongolian border check so quickly and that we came along so well driving a lot at night even though we had to stop twice to work on our trailers, we are ahead of our schedule. We enlarged our lead to the plan with our journey to Arvaiheer. Accordingly we have some more relaxed days as usual before us, which is a good feeling for a change.
Because we altered our stage goal from Bayanhongor to Arvaiheer we had to cross a stream course by night. We were not sure, if it was frozen or not. Right before the river we made a refuelling stop. The routine visual check of Jeeps and trailers was negative: A number of things were loose due to the shaking and a tension belt of one of the pontoons was ripped off. With a storm of sand and snow combined with temperatures of minus 25 degrees Celsius, even simple repairs like those turned into a big action for the entire team. To fasten the belt, we had to remove the fender from the trailer beforehand. Luckily there was a yurt colony at the stream course where we have been able to warm up and eat some fresh made noodles directly after we had our two hours of work. Therefore we were strengthened to drive through the night.
Later at another repair action we had a strange encounter: We passed through a giant valley – 30 kilometres to the left, to the right, behind and ahead of us – just this huge valley but not any single person or boundaries. After a ground hit in a big pot hole, Matthias decided to change the front shock absorber of F1. Right when we jacked up the vehicle on a stone pile, a car rushed by, stopped and parked right next to us. Four Mongolians got out of the car and asked about the expedition and the repairs. We immediately got invited to horsemeat and vodka. They made an improvised picnic with all their supplies and in the end we received another bottle of vodka as a present. As it turned out later, one of them was the owner of a big Mongolian company. Finally it felt stranger than ever, when they gave us a music CD each and Evgeny as well as Matthias two DVDs where the business man acted as Chinggis Khaan.
The next stage after Arvaiheer was Harhorin, where the entire team had to check the jeeps and the trailers again for shaking damages and afterwards could rest in a comfortable hotel. In the old city of Chinggis Khaan which is now an UNESCO cultural heritage, we got an anglophone guided tour through the museum and the buddhistical temples. From this place, an overnight stay in a yurt was supposed to be organized – not an easy task. Matthias already slept in a beautiful camp at the foot of the impressive dune Elsen-Tasarhai during his scout tour through Mongolia. Unfortunately we had no chance as that camp like many others have been closed for the upcoming really cold winter and no more accommodation was possible. Consequently, this stage lead us 250 kilometres further in direction of Ulan Bataar into the yurt-camp of the national park of Hustai.