Two fools and a Freelander

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01 December 2018
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Freelander 1 overlanding in Mongolia : credit: © Scarlett Mansfield
Knowing nothing about mechanics or off-roading didn’t put off Scarlett Mansfield from overlanding to Mongolia with her boyfriend

Stop! Brake!” I scream. 

“I’m trying, the brakes aren’t working,” retorts Harley, my boyfriend. 

Before we can even think of grabbing the handbrake, our Freelander has shot back and hit a small brick wall. We narrowly escape plunging off the bridge and into the shallow water below. Assessing the damage, we discover we have shattered the back window and lost the door handle. 

In this moment, stuck in the middle of the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, we realise we know very little about Land Rovers and off-roading in general. Later, reading our handbook, we learn that while reversing up a ravine we should have used minimal throttle. As soon as our tyres hit the tarmac, our harsh acceleration caught up with us – the wheels kept spinning and the brakes failed to slow the car.

On the bright side, this misfortune led us to purchase a second-hand mismatched dark green door from a local rural family. Unbeknown to us at the time, this acquisition led to an invite to spend the night at their house. We spent hours enjoying homemade wine and whisky with a police chief and his family who did not seem to understand the word ‘no’ as he poured shot after shot into our glass.

Scarlett Mansfield taking it all in her stride atop her beloved Freelander

Scarlett’s boyfriend Harley, who agreed to accompany her from the UK to Mongolia 

A short while ago, in the middle of my round-the-world travels, I asked Harley if he wanted to drive with me from the UK to Mongolia and back during his summer break from university. “Sure. Why not?” he responded. And so it was set in stone. With less than a month at home to prepare, we needed to get visas and my 2002 Td4 Freelander adequately prepared after six months of neglect. 

I have owned a Freelander for two years now and never really appreciated it properly. Growing up, my life consisted of nothing but Land Rovers. Before I was born, my father, Duncan Mansfield, reached the finals in 1989 and 1990 to represent the UK at the Camel Trophy competition. Flipping a Mini Moke in Lanzarote, however, meant Bob Ives led the British team to victory instead. Soon after, my dad set up his first Land Rover parts company, known today as Britcar UK, which also caters for Jaguar, too. Now you know why I have a wheel cover bearing its logo. 

Though you think this would be a great help while touring the world, it turns out they cannot magically send us parts we need in record time or fix our problems over the phone. Alas, in their absence we turn to our trusty Haynes manual, YouTube tutorials, and local Land Rover community pages on Facebook – in fact, the latter is how we found that second-hand door. 

“You’re going to drive to Mongolia in that?” asked my dad.

“Sure, why not? You’re always preaching about Land Rovers to me and constantly took me off-roading with my three sisters as a child” I replied.

 

Self-built bed and storage and thermally-insulated windows

At the time, the challenge of a 16,500-mile trip in a 16-year-old right-hand-drive manual car, with 160,000 miles on the clock, didn’t even strike me as anything to worry about. We had one spare tyre, a can of tyre weld, four 5-litre jerrycans, cable ties, a spare fan belt, a hammer, and a pair of pliers. “What else could we possibly need?” I would often question as we passed Land Rovers equipped with the entire kitchen sink on their roof rack. 

I will admit, we later bought a £8 screwdriver and socket set from a Bulgarian supermarket after realising we had forgotten to bring even the most basic tools. This purchase only came when we attempted to fix our windscreen wipers. Though, as previously mentioned, we knew nothing about Land Rovers so failed to even fix this simple problem. 

“What are you still doing here?” a Turkish man ends up asking us, noticing we have been stuck in the petrol station for three hours. 

“We are waiting for the rain to stop,” we dumbly respond, pointing to our broken wipers. 

“One second” he replies (or at least we think he says this, he only speaks Turkish). Sure enough, a second later his friend arrives and within two minutes he has fixed our problem. We thank him greatly and finally set off on our way once more, cursing our stupidity and questioning if it is too late to turn around.

A camel briefly blocks progress in western Kazakhstan

Our next challenge comes after crossing the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan. Thanks to a typing error, we import our ‘Land Lover’ and enter a different world. The sheep, cows and stray dogs that once darted in front of us while winding through the stunning Transfagarasan Highway in Romania seem a distant memory as a stubborn camel steps out in front of our car, forcing us to grind to a halt. We put on the hazard lights to warn our new British friends behind us. Travelling in a beaten-up Nissan Micra, these two lads have picked up a couple of hitchhikers and have asked to convoy with us, worried they may need to be towed as their engine struggles to reach above 60 mph. 

Moments later, we start to notice a pull on the wheel and swiftly pull over. On closer inspection we find a small stone has pierced a hole in our tyre and we can audibly hear the air escaping from it. Despite insisting that this is something we could actually deal with ourselves, Max, our new buddy, with a few months at Halfords under his belt, expertly changes the tyre in a time that would make a Formula One pit crew blush. Before we know it, we are on the road again.

The Freelander conquers all – rain, snow, sleet, sand... and towing a Micra

Reaching the town of Beyneu, the road suddenly disappears. In its place, a sandy dirt track littered with sizeable rocks confronts us. For the next 200 km, our Freelander tears over potholes and battles banks of sand designed to stop cars using the half-finished perfect tarmac road that follows alongside this abysmal track. For the first 100 kilometres, the Micra puts up a devastatingly good fight, but eventually meets its match. 

At this point, I come to realise why Land Rovers are revered by so many. Though a Micra can hardly be compared to our beast, I was still amazed at how effortlessly the Freelander towed it to safety and how well it handled any obstacle thrown at us. Come rain, snow, sleet and sand, our Freelander kept surprising us. 

The historic walled city of Khiva in Uzbekistan

After conquering this track, we reach the border to Uzbekistan and encounter our first problem with our diesel engine. There’s no diesel. A lot of the cars in Uzbekistan have been converted to natural gas. Every internet forum you search will tell you the same thing – bring as much diesel as you can. Eventually we’re able to find places with very dodgy-quality diesel in dubious-looking containers. The Freelander, thankfully, keeps plodding along, albeit with some new noises to match – nothing that couldn’t be drowned out by turning up the radio, though. 

In Uzbekistan we find our secondhand window to be a problem too. Unfortunately, there was a tiny gap left at the top of the window and vast volumes of dust have seeped in as we battled the desert tracks. At this point, we are forced to wrap jumpers around our heads to help us breathe better... at least we can laugh at our idiocy.

Of course, with this level of dust, we worry about the condition of our air filter. At our next hostel, it takes four British guys a solid 30 minutes to work out how to get the filter out. Once removed, we blow out all the dust, use some diesel injector cleaner and set off again through the historic cities of Khiva and Bukhara. 

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The start of the main trail in Barskoon valley, Kyrgyzstan

Reaching Kyrgyzstan, we don’t know what to expect. With no money for a Tajikistan visa, and limited time on our Russian visa, we sadly skip the Pamir Highway. Instead, we opt for the Seok pass: a 4028-metre climb through the Terskey Alatau mountain range. My god is it worth it!

Arriving late afternoon, we camp at the start of the main trail in Barskoon. Surrounded by gorgeous mountains, luscious green fields, nomadic yurts and muddy fun-filled roads, we cook pasta and wash up using the fast flowing river by our sides. Nearby are two waterfalls and a very odd boulder, painted and carved into the shape of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s head – just one of the many oddities in the former Soviet Union.

A monument to Yuri Gagarin

In the morning, waking early, we drive to the entrance. Upon arrival you have to give your details to the man that guards the gate in case you do not return – this helps them to know what car to look for. Ominous, I know, but weather conditions can make the track very dangerous. Fortunately, the weather holds up for us as we cautiously snake round the so-called serpentine road (owing to its 18 bends) and proceed through valley after valley, taking in the breathtaking views and isolated location of this scenic pass.

A spectacularly vast desert in Kazakhstan

Next, we venture into Kazakhstan, but not for long. For the first time on our entire trip, we are pulled over by the police. “Give me your passport and follow me,” the officer demands. He then gets back in his police car and drives off. After a short while, he pulls up behind another police car and tells Harley to get into his car. “$100 fine for speeding” he demands. 

“But we were not speeding,” Harley replies, having read online that they try to catch tourists out all the time. 

“Well, who is this on our video going 106 km in a 60 km zone?” he asks. Crap. The speed limit in Kazakhstan randomly drops for no apparent reason before returning to its original speed. We were caught. After negotiating it to £20, we drive off again, more careful than ever before. 

By the time we reach Russia, we notice the engine is really losing power and there is a whirring noise that even music cannot drown out. Popping open the bonnet, we see oil all over the engine. Acknowledging this is probably not good, and that there are practically no Land Rovers in Siberian Russia, we decide to visit an official Land Rover dealership. £10 later and we are shown a sizeable hole in the intercooler to manifold hose. “Moscow is a long way,” the manager tells us, “it will take four days for the parts to get here.”

I stare at Harley: “I have always wanted to see Mongolia,” I tell him. 

“He told us the car will set on fire if we drive it! This does not sound safe,” he responds. 

After consulting Facebook, I persuade Harley to let me superglue the hole and patch it up with duct tape. Before we are allowed to leave the dealership, I am asked to sign a waiver to free them of any liability in case the worst happens. Agreeing, we leave the garage and continue on to Ulan Ude. Four hours and $70 later, we have our visa to Mongolia. Wasting no time, we set off once more and finally reach the Mongolian border. 

Mongolia at last: You’ll never find a more spectacular place to go skateboarding

When Patrick, editor of LRM, asked us what we were doing when we reached Mongolia, it felt anticlimactic to merely respond “well, turning around and driving back.” Alas, spluttering into the Gobi desert, looking at our patched-up spare tyre with nothing but barren land ahead, we realised the adventure was far from over. The Freelander, much like the camel earlier, may not be the most beautiful creature in the desert, but its presence is striking as it stubbornly continues striding along regardless.

More photos can be found on Instagram, just look for @DigitalScarlett on Instagram. To donate to Personal Voices, a charity set up by Scarlett to digitalise the voices of those with Parkinsons and Motor Neurone Disease, please visit: gofundme.com/drivetomongolia

Visas

• No visas are required until you reach Turkey. Visas for Turkey ($20), Azerbaijan ($20), and Uzbekistan ($20) can be purchased online. I recommend visiting the UK government’s FCO travel advice website and follow the links from each page to the embassy websites to purchase these visas as Google can lead you to fake websites. 

• As a British Citizen, you do not need visas for Georgia, Kazakhstan, or Kyrgyzstan. 

• For Russia and Mongolia, as a British Citizen, you will need to apply in person at the corresponding embassies. Our double-entry Russian visa from their London embassy took 20 working days and cost £113, plus £38.40 service charge, £9.80 passport postage return fee and a £15 Letter of Invitation from russiable.co.uk. We applied for our Mongolian visa in Ulan-Ude in Russia; this cost $70 for eight-hour processing or $30 for three-day processing. You can also apply in person in London – it takes up to five days, and costs £40.

Fuel

• Prices en route vary hugely. Naturally, Europe has the most expensive fuel by far but as soon as you get out of Europe, prices plummet. At 20 pence a litre of diesel, Azerbaijan was the cheapest country we visited.

• Overall, to get to Mongolia and back it cost us £1272 in diesel. 

Where we stayed

• We built a bed into the back of our Freelander and often slept on it. Overall, it cost us around £150 to build the bed. Costs include: £45 on wood, £25 on fixings, £55 on a memory foam mattress and yoga mats, £15 storage and £10 for thermal insulation foil roll used to fashion covers for the windows.

• Unfortunately, due to a broken sunroof and lack of air conditioning, we did not really use the bed in Europe as it was too hot during the month of July. When we did use it, we woke up very early owing to the heat. For the rest of the time, we slept in hotels and motels. 

• In Mongolia and Russia, we slept in the car most of the time. We used the app iOverlander to find other places overlanders have scouted out and marked as convenient to sleep, or sometimes veered off-track to easily find our own little spots. 

Travel Tips

• Whatever you do, do not forget your V5C certificate. Ensure that it is up-to-date and in your name.

• Harness the power of technology for the latest advice. Facebook groups such as Overlanding Asia provide a wealth of information in this respect. The website caravanistan.com is also very useful for central Asia, as are the apps iOverlander and Park4Night. 

• When it comes to GPS navigation, do not rely on Google Maps. Unfortunately, we found it took us to very random locations nowhere near where we wanted; the timing is also wildly inaccurate. We used the app Maps.me. While it gets you everywhere excellently, it also vastly underestimates the time needed to reach your destination. When you are planning your route, do allow for extra time as a result. 

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