Welcome to the Mongol Rally Diaries series by Benny D. These blog posts showcase Benny D’s journey from London to Mongolia as part of the legendary Mongol Rally.
The port of Alat in Azerbaijan is relatively new and is used primarily to export oil and trucks laden with cargo from Turkey. It’s basically a massive car park with a couple of small offices and some old containers converted into a shop and some squat toilets.
The area where your vehicle passes through customs has a large structure built overhead that casts enough shade for a bunch of misfit adventurers to try to hide from the relentless sun. This is where we find ourselves camped on the gravel beside the car park along with a bunch of other teams who have decided to try to take an irregular ferry from here to Kazakhstan because for one reason or another it was too difficult to get a visa for Turkmenistan.
This is the case for Ian, a young English guy whose team have gone on ahead of him with their visas on a time limit. There is also Jan, the Czech doctor travelling alone and not in the rally, just driving his very well equipped Land Rover from Switzerland across Central Asia.
There are the theatrical Italians driving a 30 yr old Fiat and the Spanish who are sponsored by Joses cured meats company and have with them a whole leg of pork with its own stand- when a guard enquires about this huge slab of meat that the boys are dissecting on their picnic table they tell him its “moo”.
The predominately Muslim Azerbaijan guards constantly pester us in the evening if we stand around with a beer or a glass of wine, as they do not want us to be drinking at all.
Overall though they are quite amicable and I imagine it’s the most fun they have all year as we try to entertain ourselves with instruments and rugby balls and high jinx. Otherwise it would be just watching big fat Turkish truck drivers sit around smoking and drinking tea.
Our group includes English, Scottish, Kiwis, Aussies and my favourite of all –Welsh Claire who is riding her bicycle across on her own and has just spent three months riding across Turkey and working with Syrian refugees.
Every morning, everyone lines up at the ticket office in the order that they arrived in. On the second night Claire snags a berth, mainly due to the fact that she has officially been deported from the country for not registering with the authorities within 10 days of arrival.
The next day we get tickets also. On the third night at around midnight, as everyone has pretty much retired for the evening, the call comes for us to line up for the ship. Slowly each car is processed through the checkpoint and sent onboard. Everyone except the Kiwis whose visa for Kazakhstan isn’t due to begin for three days so they are held back.
Ian the lone Englishman jumps in with us and 12 hours later the ship sets sail. The four berth rooms are as hot as a sauna and everyone sleeps on deck. Until the sun comes up that is. Then everyone moves their camp mattress from one point of shade to another as the sun passes overhead. Meals of chicken with rice or noodles are served in the hothouse dining room and the bread gets progressively less stale as the day goes on. They must have had a lot left over from the last trip.
We assume there are 70 berths on the boat but there only seems to be one working toilet with all the others backed up and with no windows in the room we just hang out on deck watching hundreds of oil platforms pass us by in the Caspian sea. After 21 hrs sailing the ship drops anchor off Aktau.
During the sailing I have discussions with Jan, our Czech Land Rover doctor about his plans. Ms. Pennie, my travelling companion is determined to convoy with the Italians, as it seems safer in numbers. But these guys are talking about heading 800kms almost directly east from Aktau through the Kazakh desert as opposed to 2000kms of what we hear are very poor roads to the north of Aktau through Atyrau and Aktobe.
Our car has no off road capabilities at all but the adventure of crossing the desert is alluring, especially with a guy who has a very capable vehicle .We agree that this is the route we will probably take once we have Mary Lou running on all cylinders again.
Now for the fun part – all the cars in this part of the world are either Russian Ladas or UAZ. The rest are Japanese models like Nissan, Mitsubishi or Toyota. I can tell you that there is not a lot of joy in trying to get work done on your vehicle or finding parts for it in searing 38 degree heat where no-one can speak a word of English and even when you do figure out what is wrong, it seems that no one carries spare parts for a Ford.
To demonstrate how kind the Kazakh people are, anyone who could speak English would go well out of their way to help us, including one gentleman who drove us around for 2 hrs to find a distributor cap for Mary Lou. Once fitted she is purring like a cat again and ready to hit the highway. We convene at our makeshift camp on the beach where it seems all of Aktau has also gathered to cool off in the Caspian.
The Italians have decided to get their laundry done though and we must wait till noon the next day for them to pick it up. After lunch on our third day in Aktau we fuel up (35 cents US/per litre) stock up on extra water and drive towards Bayneu 400kms away.
The evening is spent drinking vodka with some very hospitable Uzbek truck drivers and word comes through that the Kiwis have landed and will also arrive in Bayneu this night to join our convoy across the desert.
Naturally I am a bit apprehensive, but vow to take a look at the conditions and make an informed decision when we get in. My main concern is sand and whether we will be digging our cars out more than driving them. But we have the Land Rover equipped with a winch and 120lt water tank, the Kiwis have a small 4WD Suzuki and the Italians have the enthusiasm and passion of uninhibited youth.
Enjoying the story? Stay tuned for Benny’s adventures in the fourth week of the Mongol Rally as he travels with Penny from Bayneu to Aralsk