I Meant To Do That
We made it! Thanks for your support.
Here's a picture of 3/4 of the team at the finish line. (Tom had to leave early.)
If you're contemplating this rally, go for it! Feel free to contact us if you have any questions.
We're friends from the San Francisco Bay Area. We've been going on group trips for the last couple of years. We've seen Morocco and Greece together and dozens of countries separately. We normally travel during Christine's winter break (she's a schoolteacher), but this time around we're taking advantage of her school's summer vacation for a trip should break all of our personal records....
We're driving from London, England to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The trip will cover about 10,000 miles.
We've purchased a car in England (a used Subaru Legacy Outback AWD), and will drive across Europe and a big chunk of Asia to reach Mongolia, where the car will be donated to charity. In addition to donating the car itself, we're also raising money as part of our entry fee.
We have reached our goal of raising £1000 ($1500) for Go Help!
We're very grateful to all of you who've contributed! Thank you all!
We're continuing to raise funds to offset the cost of the car (which will be donated to Go Help at the end of the Rally). You can donate either by sending us a check directly, or through PayPal:
Go Help is contributing to the following charities:
Ulaanbataar Child Care Centre-"The project seeks to establish a new child centre in central location of Ulaanbaatar City to function as a drop-in and support service centre for street children. The project proposes to relocate the child centre to more centrally located place in the city where street children are. This will allow more street children to benefit from family reunification activities, developmental activities, referral services, individual and group counselling services, and other essential services planned for street children through the newly established child centre."
Riding Helmets for Child Jockeys-"Jockeys are traditionally children, aged between 4-10 years old, and in a country where there are 100,000 races a year there many are injuries and fatalities. In recent years there have been around 15 deaths each year, which could easily be avoided if children wore helmets. This project aims to distribute riding helmets to children taking part in the horse racing events in the traditional Naadam festival in Mongolia."
Rehabilitation and Education Centre for Children with Disabilities-"Recently a Rehabilitation and Education Centre for Children with Disabilities has been constructed by Save the Children, however it now needs some additional work before it can become fully operational. The outside area of the building needs to be refurbished and additional tools designed for children with disabilities, detection signalization and a wooden floor in the physical therapy room need to be installed."
Technical Support for National Minority Kazakh Children-They will improve quality of education for national minority Kazakh children by establishing a computer laboratory under the operation of a unit in charge of bilingual education at the Education and Culture Department in Bayan-Ulgii province through a supply of 20 computers (Dell Gx240 1.7 GHz machines with 256 MB RAM and 20 GB hard drive) to be donated by Oracle.
Just when you think you're done...
A word to the wise: If you bring a car into a country, have documentation about that when you leave the country, even (especially!) if the car isn't leaving the country with you. This was something I was wondering about a bit when I turned over all of the car-related paperwork to Go Help. I should have wondered a bit more and at least gotten copies of everything, just to be sure.
The train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing stops at a little town called Zamyn Uud just before crossing the border. A border patrol agent comes along the train and picks up everyone's passports, and a customs agent comes along and picks up everyone's customs declarations.
That may have been the snag. Faithful readers will recall that when I entered Mongolia, I didn't have a car with me. At the very start of the process, I'd filled out a customs declaration saying that I was bringing in a car. However, the car had to be left inside the border post because of the VIN problem and I was told that, to enter Mongolia, I needed to fill out a new customs declaration as if I were a passenger, rather than a driver/owner. So I entered with a customs declaration (duly stamped) that said that I had nothing to declare. I had to go back into the border post to retrieve the car the next day when customs finished processing it. I got a bunch of paperwork about the car at that point, but my original declaration mentioning the car wasn't in that bunch. I didn't think much of it, since I had the paperwork that Go Help said I needed.
So when the customs agent came along the train, I gave her the only customs declaration I had, the one that said "nothing to declare". In retrospect, this might have seemed like I was trying to hide the fact that I'd brought in a car and raised suspicions when their computer systems told them I'd imported a car.
After half an hour or so, a customs agent came to my cabin and told me to come with him. He took me to a customs area and proceeded to ask me about the car. Where was it? Had I sold it? I told him that I'd donated it, and talked a bit about the programs that Go Help sponsors to explain what had been done with it. Our interaction was hampered by the usual language problems, and I tried to give him the Go Help phone numbers to talk to them about the car. He shrugged and told me to go back to the train. In retrospect, I realize that admitting that I'd given the car away without any proof that there'd been a legal transfer could easily have been construed as saying I'd abandoned it, particular with the language barrier. I'd clearly said I hadn't sold it, so what does that leave?
After another fifteen minutes, another customs agent came by and told me to come with her, and to bring my luggage. I scrambled to get everything that I'd unpacked over the course of the train ride (12 hours of the projected 30 had elapsed) back into my bag. I was hoping that if the process went quickly enough, I'd be able to be back on the train in a few minutes. I got all of the really important stuff.
The customs agent asked me more questions about the car. She spoke even less English than the last agent I'd talked to, but eventually called the Go Help number that I'd been asking her to call. It turned out that they wanted a copy of the car import document, which I didn't have with me. It, along with all of the car paperwork, was in the Go Help office. At about this point, the train left for China.
After a number of phone calls and text messages with the Go Help folks, the customs agent took me over to the building between the customs office and the train station. She told something to the woman at the desk there, and handed over my passport. She told me to pay 30,000 MNT. I asked what the money was for. A helpful bilingual person who happened to be sitting in the lobby explained to me that it was for my hotel room for the night. Ah. Clearly I'm not getting into China until the morning. 30,000 MNT, hm? I check my wallet. 31,100 MNT. Ah. Clearly I'm not getting dinner either, with less than a dollar's worth of local currency to my name.
On the plus side, it was the nicest hotel room I had during my stay in Mongolia, and also the cheapest.
The next morning I went back over to the customs office. I'd been told that they opened at 8, but nobody familiar with my situation showed up until 9. They stuck me in an office and told me to wait. By 10 I saw that they'd received the fax of the car import document from Go Help. Things moved pretty quickly after that. A nice customs agent had offered me a cup of tea, but, before it was cool enough to drink, the agent handling my case came in and told me it was time to leave. I asked about the refund I'd been told I could get for the portion of my train ticket that hadn't been used, but nobody seemed to understand or care.
After a quick stop to have the exit stamp on my passport canceled, I was taken to the other side of the train station building, where a number of jeeps were hanging around. I was told to pay 50 CNY to the driver of one. When I said I had none, I was escorted to a moneychanger, who changed some of my dollars. I sat in the jeep for about half an hour before a group of people came up and got in. Full up, the jeep made its way the kilometer or so to the border.
It was fortuitous that I had that group of people with me, since they knew what they were doing and had an incentive to get me through the border as quickly as possible so the jeep could continue on its way. They guided me to the passport line with the minibus icon, instead of the one with the jeep icon (I pointed out that we were in a jeep, but they insisted that the minubus line was the right one). There was a delay when the passport agent had to talk to his superior about what to do with someone who already had a canceled exit stamp (answer: give them a new exit stamp). Nobody asked me for a customs declaration. Phew.
On the Chinese side, my fellow passengers helped me finish off my dried, sweetened cranberries (bought in UB, but packed in Petaluma, CA, about an hour away from my house) to avoid the Chinese ban on bringing in plant material. Then they helped me realize that I needed to pay a 5 CNY fee for some sort of inspection and guided me to the Chinese Nationals line, rather than the Foreigners line (reserved for Mongolians?). After much inspection of my visa (they even searched around for a working UV light to examine it under), I was welcomed to China.
The jeep dropped me off at the Erlianhot bus station, where the driver suggested I might find a way to Beijing. Therein lies another story that may be continued in my non-rally travelogue.
Thanks again to the folks at Go Help who talked to the customs officials for me, and to the readers who helped me with communications when SMS to this blog was my only means of contact.