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Two Men, One Van, No Turning Back
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'It was an empty landscape now with huge horizons in every direction, a compressed, steam-rollered desert where man had no place. We lacked the skills to carry out even the most basic fixes. If the van stopped working we were stuck. No one knew where we were and our last mobile signal had been 150 miles ago.' Fifty-something and tired of arguing with John Humphrys over the day’s headlines, BBC journalists Geoff and David found themselves eagerly volunteering for redundancy. But rather than easing into retirement with the odd round of golf, they decided to buy a van and drive off to Mongolia. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time… In an epic journey through Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Siberia and across the Gobi Desert, they discover more about each other in a few weeks than they did sharing an office for years. Lying in wait are crooked cops, bent border guards and terrible roads, but also welcoming and curious locals, eager to help the pair on their mission.
Summersdale Publishers Ltd.; November 2010
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The email from senior management confirmed the rumours. The BBC was to make big job cuts – 3,000 in all. It was hoped these could be achieved through voluntary redundancies, but, if not… well, people would be told their services were no longer needed. Geoff and I were fifty-four and in our prime – prime candidates to take whatever was on offer and go. Younger colleagues with big mortgages and small families eyed us hopefully – a sacrifice was going to have to be made and they hoped we were it. This was not an unreasonable expectation. Both of us had spent almost thirty years working day and night newsroom shifts and they were getting harder to handle. A glance in the mirror at nine in the morning after three twelve-hour nights provided convincing evidence that this was no occupation for old men. Indeed, if we wanted to live to be old men it was probably time to have no occupation. At lunchtime, along with some of the younger members of the team, we headed to the BBC Club on the fourth floor at Television Centre. At the door, the younger ones turned left for the gym while Geoff and I turned right, for the bar. The barman saw us coming and pulled two pints of Young’s. We took our glasses and headed to our usual perch in the corner. ‘Are you going to go for it?’ I asked. There was no need to specify exactly what. Redundancy had been dominating conversation in the newsroom. ‘I suppose so.’ Geoff seemed less than fully committed. ‘I don’t know what I’d do, though.’ We drank in unison. I stayed silent, mainly because I didn’t have any idea of what I’d do either. Escape seemed the first priority; once under the wire it was a case of keep running and hope for the best. Geoff went to the bar for a couple of refills. I picked up a newspaper discarded by an earlier drinker. When he came back, I had our plan. ‘We’re going to Mongolia,’ I said, ignoring his look of exaggerated scorn. ‘A road trip for charity, a group called Go Help. They’re looking for people who’ll buy an old van or pickup, drive to Mongolia any route you feel like, hand it over to the locals on arrival, they auction it to raise some cash to help local children and, hopefully, someone gets a useful vehicle. And we raise more cash for children’s charities before we go.’ I tapped the newspaper. ‘Piece about it in here.’ Geoff glanced at the article. ‘It says they don’t provide any backup.’ ‘That’s true,’ I admitted, relieving him of the paper before he got to the bit about extreme temperatures, bandits and driving across rivers. ‘When did you last look under the bonnet of your car?’ he inquired. This was something of an embarrassment. My car had refused to start a couple of weeks ago, and not only had I failed to find the cause, I had failed even to release the catch which held the bonnet down. The AA man had been polite and hadn’t even smirked. I suppose they go on training courses entitled ‘Staying Impassive When Faced With Almost Total Ignorance’. ‘It’ll be fine. We’ll get it serviced before we go. Anyway, you know about engines and stuff.’ ‘Dave,’ said Geoff, the scornful look returning, ‘I might know more than you, but being able to top up the oil and check the water level in the windscreen washer bottle does not really qualify me for the job of expedition mechanic.’ ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ I said, encouraged by this admission of A-level mechanical skills. ‘How far is it anyway?’ asked Geoff. I consulted the newspaper. ‘Says here, at least eight thousand miles, maybe more depending on which route you choose. You can take as long as you like, though, it’s up to you. Deserts, mountain ranges, off-road driving, sounds brilliant.’ ‘We’d have to get a four-wheel drive van.’ ‘Of course.’ ‘And get it properly prepared by someone who knew what they were doing.’ ‘Naturally.’ ‘And when do you have to set off?’ ‘You can go any time you like. You sign up to the charity, let them know when you’re starting and they arrange the import papers.’ Geoff went silent. I could see a mental struggle going on between the common sense half of his brain and the part which hankered after a bit of adventure. It was a close call. He gulped down another large swig of his beer. ‘Yeah OK.’