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Pigeon Ploppers

The Russian visa emergency is hopefully over.  I drove to London at 5am this morning and setup camp outside the Russian visa office, where I was joined by dozens of nervy looking tourists, who were all promptly pooped upon by some friendly pigeons nesting above us.  

After nervously filling out some visa application forms, I was informed that my visa will be approved late tomorrow afternoon, at which point I have to dash back to London to pick up my passport and documents. I should be able to depart on Wednesday morning from Dover to Calais and race to catch-up with the other ralliers. 

That's if nothing goes wrong...and, considering I was the only person not to be pooped upon by our charming little feathered friends, I think I might be in for some trouble...

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My First Major Mistake

It is with one day to go until the rally sets off that I find I have made my first major cockup. 

For the last six weeks I have been busily modifying the car, purchasing and testing equipment, going on survival and mechanics courses, and moving out of London. The one thing that I thought I had absolutely nailed was the Visas.

Yes, for the last few weeks, when it comes to Visas, I have been wagging my tail like a smug sausage dog who has just stolen a six ounce sirloin and gotten away with it. I have been basking in the glow of my own ginger glory in the assumption that I had fought the oldest foe known to the Mongol Rally, and won. 

Silly sausage...

Silly sausage...

Oh woe is me, for mine enemy hath defeated me...

One small little tiny minute email slipped through my defences in April, notifying me that I had to visit the Russian embassy in person to complete my application. 

As I did not do this, I do not have a visa for Russia. I cannot apply for the visa in transit, but have to do so in person in my country of residence. So, I am forced to delay my departure until the Russian embassy can approve my application. 

Fail

Fail

Whilst all the other ralliers will be departing the starting parade this weekend at Goodwood to pursue the freedom of the open road, I will be driving down to London to wait nervously in the Russian Embassy.

My Turkmenistan visa begins on July 27th and ends five days later on the 31st. I had planned 12 days to travel roughly 3,500 miles from London to Baku, in Azerbaijan, to get the ferry across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan before tea time on the 26th of July.  

It would be easier to fly.

It would be easier to fly.

Now, depending on the amount of time it takes to get the visa approved, I may have less than a week to reach Baku.

To make matters worse, the ferry service across the Caspian Sea does not operate on a scheduled timetable. Instead, ferries leave either when they are full, or when the captain of the ship decides his crew have had enough of the delightful pleasures a sea port can provide. Ferries have been known to stay in Baku for up to two weeks before departing across the Caspian Sea.

My likely ferry..

My likely ferry..

So, even if I do manage to consume enough Red Bull and Pro Plus to make it to Baku in time, I could be sitting in Baku twiddling my thumbs whilst my Turkmenistan visa runs out. If that happens, the Mongol Rally is over for me. 

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Objective Travel Safety

This weekend I completed the Mongol Rally survival course run by Charlie McGrath. Charlie helped Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman prepare for their Long Way Round and Long Way Down expeditions.

The course is incredibly comprehensive, preparing ralliers for different scenarios that I had struggled to conceive. It includes a full checklist of essential equipment, useful advice about different regions, proper first aid training and many other essential and uncommon words of wisdom from experts who have taken the roads we are about to travel. 

Upon arrival, Charlie treated me to seven full boxes of ration packs which his son, who was at that time travelling into China after driving a similar route to the Mongol Rally. I now have a fully supplied ration pack to keep me alive in the sparsely populated deserts and mountains I will be travelling through. 

The best part was the mock border crossing. We were asked to drive off a few miles and returned to Charlie's farm, where we were greeted by several threatening men and women dressed in military uniforms, carrying a realistic array of weapons. 

Charlie and his team then proceeded to intimidate each and every rallier, asking us to get out of our vehicles, questioning our purpose for the rally and generally making me want to call my mummy. His team managed to steal our gear without us noticing, take our documents and even pocketed a guys watch, given to him by his grandfather. We drove off with our tails between our legs. 

This was to us all fun and games, but Charlie explained that this was the kind of situation regularly experienced by travellers to remote destinations. 

This is a bloody excellent course if you are travelling of the beaten track. I think it will most likely save my life, if not 

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First Aid Training

I recently attended a course run by the British Red Cross to train me in the fundamentals of first aid. 

Foolishly, I didn't read the course content carefully enough. If I had, I would have realised that this was a course focused on 'First Aid at Work' - not quite adequate preparation for a 20,000 mile journey across sand, desert, mountains and seas in a car made for the scrapheap. 

This only became apparent when the brilliant instructor asked us for our reasons for participating in the course. I'll summarise the top reasons below:

  1. 'I work with old people'
  2. 'I run events and need basic first aid knowledge'
  3. 'My office sent me here'

As you can imagine, when I explained my reasons for joining the course, there was a sustained awkward silence as the instructor grappled with both my stupidity and the lack of adequate training she was about to provide me. 

Certainly, this was my fault, and nothing to do with the ability of the instructor or the content of the course. 

We began by learning the various protocols and procedures of first aid. These revolve around calling the emergency services, identifying major injuries, placing casualties in the recovery position and waiting for help to arrive. 

As you can imagine, the nearest help on the Mongol Rally may be several days away, and I will be unable to perform CPR on myself. So, sadly, this was not quite the right course for me... 

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Adventures in Bristol

Someone had too much coffee in the morning...

Someone had too much coffee in the morning...

The bank holiday weekend began with a 120 mile journey in the JIMNY to visit Tom and Rowan Meacock of Shape Studio in Bristol.

Tom and Rowan getting down to business...

Tom and Rowan getting down to business...

Tom and Rowan are master craftsmen and long-time friends of mine. I even spent a short winter working in their workshop, but we quickly realized that I was a danger to myself and others when in command of power-tools, so I soon returned to safer office environments in London.

The scene of a terrible road accident...

The scene of a terrible road accident...

We spent the weekend modifying the JIMNY to Mongol Rally standards. Gone is most of the interior - replaced by a wooden floor we will use as the foundation for a larger storage unit. 

Tom and Rowan built this without even blinking. I stood to one side, filled with apprehension and terror as they tore apart my beloved (I have become quite attached to this little car). 

Out went all the trim, seat-belts, seats, cup-holders and unnecessary gubbins that your regular road driver needs. In went a new floor (with secret compartments) and a few other little modifications.

Rowan, who wields a welding torch much like Darth Vader wielded a lightsaber, has started work on building a roof-rack from scratch, with a mounting for the Harpoon Gun just in case...

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Visas...

Oh my good lord visas are tricky things.

Who thought it was a good idea to let two morons try and plan a 10,000 mile rally that meanders through 20 different countries?

The Visas hurt our eyes...at night...

The Visas hurt our eyes...at night...

The mind-boggling confusion that we tried, failed, tried and failed again to work against pervaded through all of our Visa decisions.

Speed equals distance over time divided by the number of brain cells in your head...

Speed equals distance over time divided by the number of brain cells in your head...

Multiple spreadsheets were (metaphorically) thrown in the bin, only to be replaced by equally useless spreadsheets. Things only got worse...

Google Maps proved vital in our calculations...

Google Maps proved vital in our calculations...

Two computers are better than one...

Two computers are better than one...

Time to get serious...

Time to get serious...

Real serious...

Real serious...

Really serious...

Really serious...

Preparing for the dehydrating deserts of the Asian Steppe...

Preparing for the dehydrating deserts of the Asian Steppe...

Thankfully, we have had enormous help from the kind and patient people at The Visa Machine. I literally cannot imagine what we would have done without them.

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