Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Ambulance

How much do you know about ambulances? The past few months have made me first realize how precious little I knew about them, and then (after promising my team mates that I'll get us the ambulance) to learn more about them than I ever thought I'd do …

The first question was: If we want to give an ambulance to a hospital in Mongolia, where do we get it from? It turns out that ambulances really aren't any different from any other light commercial vehicles, and are sold and bought just like for example pickup trucks or vans. So I started browsing second hand vehicle web sites to learn what was available on the market, but the more ambulances for sale I found, the less I knew which one to buy.

The next question then became: When there are so many different kinds of ambulances out there, which kind do we really want? I had no idea. But by pure coincidence, I then got to know that an acquaintance of mine, Peter W√§rnberg, happened to have worked as an ambulance driver for ten years, so I wrote him a long mail explaining what we were trying to do and asking for his help and advice to choose an appropriate vehicle.

Peter was happy to help and answer my questions. As a one time owner of a close-to-indestructible Volvo 740, I had been looking especially at Volvo ambulances and he could confirm this to be a good idea. So last Friday, I finally found an ambulance for sale that was what I now knew to be what we wanted and for which Peter found the listing to look good and believed it to be a vehicle in which we would be able to reach Mongolia.

So we in team Ambulance To Mongolia are now the proud owners of this beauty:

Thomas insists we name her HMS Dreadnought.

The Volvo 965 ambulance is supposedly one of few ambulances on the market that was purpose-built as an ambulance directly at the factory and has a chassis especially constructed for this. (We hope that this makes it sturdier than vehicles that were converted to ambulances, after leaving the factory as normal cars and vans.) It is equipped with the Volvo Modular engine B6304S, which was developed in a cooperation project with Porsche / Weissach and produces 204 hp to make the 5.7 m long and 2,680 kg heavy vehicle move swiftly. The automatic transmission is supposedly also not the same that was used in normal passenger cars but a custom version made for the ambulance, somehow made tougher and more reliable. Our ambulance was built in 1998, making it one of the last cars ever built of the safe and exceptionally reliable and repairable Volvo 900/700 series.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Visa

On the way to Mongolia we will cross a dozen countries, many of which have very strict and sometimes rather complicated regulations that govern how foreigners can enter and move around. Coming with your own car doesn't simplify things either.

Once we leave Europe, every country on our path requires us to have a visa in order to enter. Without the proper visa, we'd simply be turned away at the border in most cases. Most visas have restrictions: they are valid only for a certain amount of days, allow only a limited number of re-entries (usually one), have fixed entry and exit dates (that you sometimes cannot choose freely), or fixed border crossings (never change your plans).

Some visas are valid for as few as 5 days. Combined with fixed entry and exit dates, this requires very accurate trip planning. Some visas are valid for 90 days, but the 90 days start running at the day the visa is issued, requiring very accurate planning when acquiring the visa. Single entry means that once you leave, you're not allowed to re-enter even if you have days left on your visa. I don't think this will be a problem for our trip, as we're visiting every country only once.

In most cases, visas come in the form of stickers and stamps in your passport. To get these, you have to physically mail your passport together with a complicated application form to the embassy, and wait until it comes back, hopefully with the visa. This can take between 5 days and 6 weeks, depending on the country (and your luck), and they can refuse with no explanation. This also means you cannot do the applications in parallel, and you cannot travel while your passport is "traveling". Some visas can be gotten "on the go" (in the embassy of a neighbouring country, for an extra "express" fee) or directly at the border (also for an extra fee, of course).

Some countries require a Letter Of Invitation ("LOI") together with the visa application. This was probably meant to make sure you are hosted by somebody while you are there, but in fact it's just another source of money for local tourist agencies (who will happily write you such a letter for a certain fee, usually also coupled with booking a hotel). Some countries even require your fingerprints, a detailed itinerary, confirmations of booked hotels, a recommendation letter from your employer (!), and a letter explaining the reason for your travel.

They are also costly. While each single visa is not outrageously expensive (on the order of 50-150$ each), it sums up. We will require between 7 and 10 visas (depending on how our plans work out).

Fortunately, my fellow travellers are Norwegian and Swedish, and I am Swiss, and therefore we don't need visas in Europe, and have similar restrictions outside Europe (this makes planning a bit easier).

We will make use of http://www.thevisamachine.com as much as we can, though they cannot get all required visas and permissions we need (and they cannot speed it up, it still takes months). The rest we'll have to get ourselves or with the help of another travel agency.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Staying Connected

This nifty little device (it is surprisingly tiny) will allow us to keep you up to date even when no internet or telephone connection is available:

The SPOT connect periodically sends our current position via a satellite, and draws the track on a map that you can view online. This means you can track our progress towards Mongolia in real time, no matter how far we are away from civilization. Additionally, it allows us to send short text messages which will automatically be posted to twitter and facebook, so we'll even be able to let you know what we are doing. It's main drawback is that it requires (non-rechargable) lithium batteries, so we'll have to bring two dozen batteries to make it last 2 months.

We also have a SPOT messenger:

This is basically the same thing, but lacks the bluetooth functionality (and thus can only send one of 3 predefined status messages, "OK", "Help", and "SOS"). Instead it has much longer battery life and is more robust. The OK button logs the position with status "OK". The Help button is meant to notify people of non-life threatening issues (In my opinion this is a rather useless button. I doubt we'll ever use it). The SOS button on the other hand can be extremely useful. It is connected to the International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC) which will forward the distress call to the appropriate agencies (depending on the location). We plan to save it for real emergencies when we're in serious trouble and we ran out of batteries for the SPOT connect, or when the SPOT connect fails.

Saturday, February 4, 2012