More Adventures in China and Mongolia

The starter motor arrived on time and was installed. I was hoping the truck would start perfectly and we’d be on our way. It wasn’t to be though. They mechanics worked for a few more hours and got the truck going but it was in no way fixed.  It was misfiring and the engine was limited to 2000RPM. I decided that we would try to get to Kunming. We thanked our generous mechanic friends, (the owner liked my project and only charged for the tow truck and starter motor) and we left at around 4.30pm, hoping that the truck would get us to Kunming.

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I drove through the night and we arrived in Kunming at 4am. We found an area full of mechanics and parked there. We were up again at 8am and looking for a mechanic. It was a very strange place with many garages all together. The place was dusty and covered in oil and the mechanics lived in their garages. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live there. We visited numerous mechanics, but none were able to help. It was very disheartening.
My guide was changed to another one, as I was going to overstay my original timetable in China. My old guide, Cui Wen, was from Kunming, so it was convenient for him to be changed there. We said our goodbyes and my new guide, (Joy) and I headed for Xian to the Mercedes dealer, (almost 1200kms away).

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The road is good and I was amazed at the Chinese road engineering. The number of tunnels and bridges through the many mountains is incredible. All but about 150kms of the road is expressway, and those 150kms are quite treacherous. The road is single lane each way and winds its way through the mountains. The road condition is good, but there is so much traffic and a large number of crazy drivers. The road is one of the most dangerous in the country and I can see why. There must be hundreds of crashes a year. We also weren’t helped by it being the National Day Golden Week holiday, which is one of only two weeks a year that the whole country is on holiday.
Along our way, we came across a truck which had crashed just a few minutes before us and blocked the whole road. I took a quick look at the map and saw that the exit to the original road was just behind us and we could rejoin the main road about 6kms ahead. We turned around and headed for it. The road, (more like a track) was muddy, potholed and affected by big slips, which were being repaired.  It was quite an adventure and interesting to see how all the roads would’ve used to look like in that area. It must’ve been a shock for the locals when huge highways suddenly appeared.

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Joy mentioned that his Family’s home is along the way and he hadn’t been there for 14 months. I thought it was a good opportunity for him to see them, so we turned off the main road and travelled for around 15kms to their house. His family had cooked us a great dinner, which was waiting when we arrived at around 8pm.
After dinner I went to move my truck to another place, but it didn’t start. It had to be push started and I parked it on a hill so I could roll start it the next day. Joy’s Brother-in-law was a mechanic and took a quick look at it. He thought it was a fuel injector problem. A friend of his worked on fuel injectors and arranged for us to meet the next morning. I turned in early to bed and Joy caught up with his Family.

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I got up at 6.15am and went to the friend’s workshop. There we decided the engine problem could be complicated and decided to head to Xian, around 800kms away. The going was good, which I was quite happy about given that it was the holiday. The roads are usually tolled, but for that week there are no tolls for cars. Everyone is on the road taking advantage of it. Joy managed to convince the toll guards that we were a car, (according to the truck’s paperwork it was a car as there is no category for motorhomes) therefore I didn’t have to pay anything. This saved a few hundred dollars which was a nice bonus given all the unexpected costs recently.

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We only got caught in one traffic jam, which lasted for around 1.5hrs. That’s not bad as some people can be stuck in traffic jams for hours, and in one case last year close to Beijing, days.

The driving became easier as we moved out of the mountains and into rolling countryside. The truck got along at 85km/h and it was nice that we were covering some decent kilometres. We stopped in the city of Suining to pick up the balloon. I had left it there the week before to save taking it 1000kms to Ninger and back again, especially as there were so many mountains to get over.
I was happy to see it was still there. After all, we had just found a place and asked if it could be kept there. It was inside a compound and next to a 24hr guard post, so I wasn’t too worried.
Joy and I managed to load it up ourselves and we were on our way again. We made it to Xian at around 3.30am and found the Mercedes garage.

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We were up at 8am and pushed the truck around the corner to the workshop, as it couldn’t start by itself. Around seven mechanics looked at it, most apprentices. The injectors were changed, and as I suspected, the new starter motor I had got from Thailand was 24V, not 12V and that is why it couldn’t be started easily. This was quite a blow as it meant another one would have to be ordered. We went to a car part market to try to find another, but we couldn’t.
Even after the fuel injectors were changed, the engine was still misfiring. To make matters worse, we couldn’t start the truck at all, even after pushing it. The head mechanic told me we would have to wait for the new starter motor to start it. I was in despair at this stage, but wasn’t taking no for an answer. I pushed them as I was sure it could be started again. Luckily for me the big boss turned up and said the same. After pushing it a few times, we managed to start it. I was very relieved as I couldn’t imagine staying there for up to a week to wait for a starter motor, not to mention the huge cost it would be as it costs between $100 and $500 a day just to stay in China, and on that day I was all ready supposed to be at the border according to the original plan.

I asked what the cost of the work would be, and the boss said it was free. I was shocked as they had worked on it all day. It was a very nice gesture. He said he liked what I was doing and was happy to help out. We left with a good feeling late in the afternoon.

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I once again drove through the night and made it to Taiyuan at 5am. It was an easy 625km drive, but I was really pushing myself to stay awake, so much so I was starting to hallucinate. I knew it wasn’t a very clever thing to do. We parked up just before Taiyuan and slept at a truck stop.

We got up at 9am and with the help of literally a bus load of people, the truck was push started and we headed for Taiyuan. We picked up a good friend of mine there who was going to join us until the Chinese/Mongolian border at Erenhot. We travelled the final 740kms to the border town of Erenhot. The land gets more and more sparse and the mountains around Ulanqab mark a clear border into Inner Mongolia. You can also see the remnants of the Great Wall of China close to there and many old smoke signal posts.

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It was the last day of the Chinese Holiday and it was a bonus to travel nearly the whole of China without paying any tolls.
Erenhot is famous for dinosaur fossils and there are a large number of dinosaur sculptures just before the city. It looked quite eerie as we were arriving at around 10pm and saw all the dinosaur sculptures at the side of the road. There are two big dinosaurs which you pass under at the entry to the city.
I was feeling sick and threw up from exhaustion after arriving. After all, I had only been having on average 4hrs sleep a night for one week, plus driving 6500kms in 8 days, plus a lot of driving through nights and all the stress from the truck problems. Luckily my friend who we had picked up does natural Chinese medicine. One of the things he does is scraping. He scraped my head and back with what looks like a big comb. It is supposed to open the passageways for energy to flow. He also gave me a drink of ginger and brown sugar. It worked very well and I had a great sleep and still felt good the next morning.

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We had a typical Mongolian breakfast the next morning while Joy went to sort out the paperwork for leaving China. When he came back, we went to a market to buy blankets, tools and other bits and pieces. I also re-fuelled before going to the Chinese border. The border formalities were straightforward. We said our goodbyes and I was finally out of China. It was quite a relief, China was a mammoth effort.

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I crossed to the Mongolian side, where there was immediate chaos. A lot of old Russian Uaz 4WD cars were lined up waiting to go back into Mongolia. They buy cheap goods in China, then race back to Mongolia and sell them. They were all trying to get re-importation papers for their cars at a small booth. There was no order at all. I asked one of the guards if I needed to get one, but he said no in his limited English. I still had to wait for the other drivers to move as it was a line of cars and they couldn’t move until they got their bit of paper.

After a 20 minute wait, I was on my way. I got my passport stamped and found the Customs office. Luckily for me, one of the officers spoke perfect English. He had lived in London for 5 years. He asked me if I had the paper that everyone was trying to get at the small booth. I said I hadn’t, but he didn’t seem to worry. He came to look at my truck and I told him I had a carnet for it. He took me to the head Custom’s officer to get it stamped.  It was all straightforward and I was on my way.
Soon after Customs, the road seemed to stop and turn into a dirt track. After a bit of driving around, I found the sealed road to Ulaanbaatar. I wasn’t sure if the road was sealed the whole way or not. Luckily I had met a tourist driver in Erenhot that morning and he told me that it was sealed.  The road was built by the Chinese a few years ago.

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I travelled 200kms to the town of Sainshand, thoroughly enjoying the open spaces and wild camels, horses, cows, goats and sheep which roam the plains of Mongolia, looked after by herdsmen. I love the open nothingness; it is my favourite kind of place. I had a good meal that evening and had a very good night’s sleep.

I opened the door of the camper the next morning and saw a man walking by just a few metres away. I was surprised as I was camping in a very open area on the outskirts of the town. He greeted me warmly and shook my hand. It was a good start to the day. I had parked on a hill the night before so I could roll start the truck. It started without a problem. The plan was to take it to a recommended mechanic in Ulaanbaatar to get it fixed.
The drop in temperature was very noticeable after China. It felt like I had entered China in Summer and left in Winter.

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I enjoyed the drive towards Ulaanbaatar, 450kms away. For the first time I was feeling things were back on track and felt more relaxed. It is great to drive along and experience the nothingness of Mongolia all around. There is the odd Ger, animal, train and car, but you can look for hundreds of kilometres in each direction and not see much at all.

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My relaxed state was short lived. Around 120kms from Ulaanbaatar, the engine temperature suddenly rose dramatically. I guessed the radiator had once again developed a crack. I stopped the truck and had a look: I was right and couldn’t believe it. I limped the truck to a small village about 10kms up the road and asked if there was a mechanic. The owner said her husband was, (I called UNICEF Mongolia to translate for me) but he wouldn’t be back until that night. I decided to limp the truck about 40kms down the road to the next biggest town. I was travelling at just 20km/h, so it took a long time. I drove into the town, (Bagakhangai) and searched for a mechanic. I saw a couple of guys and asked them if they knew of anyone. I speak a bit of Russian, and it comes in handy in Mongolia as the older generation all speak Russian and a lot of the road signs are in Cyrillic.
They said they were mechanics, though found it hard to believe. I didn’t have many options and had all ready helped to take out the radiator two times before, so was confident about what had to be done. We got it out and put the original one back in, except the original didn’t fit anymore. They must’ve cut off some pieces in Laos, which was pretty annoying. We managed to get the original back in and tie it in with wire in true bush mechanic style. My visit attracted some interest of the locals and the police. They were surprised to see four of us working on a foreign truck.

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We got the truck going again and our repairs got me to Ulaanbaatar. The traffic was horrible going into Ulaanbaatar and I got caught in a sizable jam. I made it to the mechanic at around 9pm.
I showed the mechanics the truck the next morning. They said they wouldn’t be able to work on it until Tuesday as they were so busy, (it was Thursday). It wasn’t really what I wanted to hear as I knew there was a lot of work to be done.
I was picked up by UNICEF Mongolia and we spent a good part of the day at the Mongolian Civil Aviation Authority to sort out the permission to inflate the balloon. I met most of the top officials there and it was interesting to find out about the aviation industry in Mongolia.
Once that was sorted, I went to meet with UNICEF to discuss the inflation of the balloon, which was planned for that Sunday afternoon. I also met Des, a friend from New Zealand. He will be travelling with me for the next few months to give me a hand.

That night was very cold, -11degC. The heating for the truck was being worked on, so I didn’t have a very good sleep.

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Saturday was spent planning for the inflation and catching up on numerous things, including ordering a new starter motor from the USA. One couldn’t be found in Ulaanbaatar.

A small rental truck came at midday on Sunday and we transferred the balloon onto it. We went to Chingghis Khaan Square, the most important square in Mongolia, and set up for the event. Our focus was childrens’ right to education, especially those with disabilities.
Quite a number of excited children arrived and the event started at 3pm, including quite a number with disabilities.  Speeches were made, children gave performances and we exchanged postcards. I inflated the balloon for a very short time as it was quite windy. Everyone was happy that it was inflated though as a lot of the people had never seen a balloon before. All in all, it was a very successful event.

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It was an early start the next morning. We took the balloon to Nalaikh, a town about 30kms from Ulaanbaatar. We planned an event to inflate it in the middle of the town. The police had blocked off the road and we set the balloon up. Around 400 children came from the local school and quite a crowd of locals gathered to watch the balloon inflate. The weather was perfect and I kept the balloon up for the duration of the event, around 45mins. Children gave performances, speeches were made, photos taken and we exchanged more postcards. Everything went perfectly and we headed happily back to Ulaanbaatar.

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The manager of the hotel where Des was staying liked my project and said I could stay there free for two nights and at a very reduced cost for the other nights. It was a very nice gesture and much appreciated as it was nice to be able to spread out a bit while my truck was being worked on at the workshop. I can highly recommend the Best Western Gobi Kelso Hotel in Ulaanbaatar for both comfort and service.

We have been in Ulaanbaatar for more than a week now. The starter motor for the truck should arrive sometime during the next couple of days. We still have engine issues to sort out. Once everything is fixed, we’ll be heading 1800kms across Mongolia and into Russia.

About the author: Andrew Parker

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