WordPress was bbombarding me with updates and I checked on our old website, and I just realized our video never actually made it onto the webpage! Here it is, for those of you who haven’t seen it!
So if you’ve been following our blogs you’ll know by now that we actually made it to Ulan Bataar, so first up a huge apology for the big delay in getting out this blog, and I’ll try explain why in a few moments, but secondly, and more importantly, I’d like to take this opportunity, before we get to the fantastic story of crossing Russia and Mongolia, to thank everyone for their support and donations. There’s a lot of people we would like to thank, and we’re going to try and do it by name, and if we left you out, our sincerest apologies, but here goes:
Firstly, a big thanks to the original team for supporting the idea, and your time and input spent in planning. Gerard, Chris, Alun, Hanno and even Muggles. Sorry that you guys couldn’t join us, we missed you on the ride! Hopefully next time!
The next big thanks goes out to JP’s awesome sisters who helped so much; Susanne, Sophia and Vivienne Hunt. You guys were amazing! Vivienne, thanks so much for your donations, support and hospitality in London and encouragement along the way, your tireless posting on Facebook and encouragement to get everyone to support and really getting the ball rolling! You do amazing work with Gumboots, keep it up!
The Montjoie Family: Jeff, Cheryl, Greg, Lauren, Jarred, Connor, Milo, Roxy and Mica. Thanks for all your support and your various donations, and your belief in us. Further thanks goes out to the Hunt Family in general, for your support and donations!
Specific thanks to Kerrin, Hein Boucher, Lenja, Honza, Paul Buchanan, Sandra, Roberta, Shelley, Angela and Mike Dyer, Alicja, Craig and HT, Carola, Simon and Karin Ward all the way out of Canadia, Till and Tanja, Sascha, Vlad Dracula the Third J, Jasmin, Susan Hunt, Anna, Stefan (no, we didn’t ever manage to return the equipment!), Margz Green, a massive thanks especially to Kivala-HR (check them out on http://www.kivala-hr.com/) – The Consultancy Choice for SAP customers around the world! (unashamedly a quick PR punt for them; check out their website!); The Wickströms in Sweden who followed the adventure from their sun chairs; Jake Longridge in the UK, Juna und ihre Eltern; Alexandra; Eva Lotta; The New World Warriors; Ian, Shauna and Ila McCutcheon (congrats on the new family!); Queen Adriane of Atlantis; Graham Allibone; Steffi and Ari; Twyla, Wayne Reeve; Marcia Nicolau; Joanne Perold; TTYL in Basel; SpongeRob Rob Armstrong (why weren’t you on the trip with us?); Karen Beard; Lily-Anna and Joshua; The Pegler Clan – what an amazing blast from the past – so good to hear from you guys!; KHS 11D; Manon – always so cool!; Melanie; Jeanette Arpagau; Gunter from Basel; Andy and last but not least, Franci – your Facebook comments were always great!
On the GoFundMe website, a huge thanks goes out to Vivienne Hunt (again!); Anne Belanger; Susan Hunt (again!); Jacob Jake Longridge (again!); Obi James; Mephistopheles PITT; Pim van Geffen (we only needed a few band-aids!); John Cowx; Danielle Giovenazzo; Emily Halle; Kerrin Sander (thanks for all your help with the Wikipedia articles!); Mariela Pata; Kathleen Body and the rest of the Body’s; Samantha Reid; Anne Belanger; Candace Jackson; Kathleen Hansmann (thanks Kathstiens! We missed you!); Ilke Roelofse; Dr Cyko (we actually did need that ride to Ulan Bataar!); Emili Losier; Piker Canadia Ward (again! Shot bro!); Colleen Garrigus; Lopec Auto Spares (Rich’s leave form is on the way!) – another shameless PR punt; check out Lopec’s website, www.lopec.co.za; @mo$phi$o Siwela; Aileen Reeve (good going Gran! Glad you got onto the internet!); Ian McCutcheon (again! – you must have been missing us!); Gareth Trueman (shot bro; next time you’re there with us!) and Darren Lang Landsberg – we’ve got a t-shirt for you…
Thanks to Quinton De Beer at Clarity Print (http://www.clarityprint.co.za/) – if you need signwriting and printing done in South Africa, get hold of Quinton!
Further thanks to Kevin “Breaky” Culligan for doing the artwork and the South Afristans logo. Good work Breaky! The logo was a winner! And great to see you in London. Check out Kevin’s amazing portfolio at http://artriot.agency/. All the way in Baku, thanks to Bob Spencer for bringing over the stuff we left behind and the bottle of wine – it went down well on the ferry; and the Lonely Planet was invaluable!
A massive thanks goes out to the team; JP for pushing us along the entire way and getting everyone motivated and making sure things happen, and all your Wikipedia articles.
Susanne for bringing along Stan and organizing us, making sure we always had navigation, fuel (both for Stan and human fuel, oil, and efficiently packed! We all miss Stan and we’re sorry that he couldn’t continue on the journey with you; we have no doubt he misses you and the love and care that you dished out to him.
Jess for making sure we always had food and accommodation, and keeping us entertained with your kindle stories. You made police checkpoints easy!
Rich for signing us up to the adventure and managing to lose Mr Grumbles…
So hopefully you’ve read through all of that, and found your name. If your name is not there, then you must have made an anonymous donation or we have somehow dropped you off of the list. Send a rude email to Rich and he’ll fix it ASAP. If you would like your name to appear in all its glory, it’s not too late to make a donation: https://www.justgiving.com/TheSouthAfristans/
Mongolia update to follow shortly!
Bishkek Kyrgyzstan to Toldy Gorden, Kazakhstan and onwards to the Russia border!
12th – 15th August 2014
After entering Kazakhstan, our first stop was Almaty, which was strikingly western and functional, and somewhat tranquil; its tree-lined streets are watched over by some glacier-covered peaks in the distance. A quick lunch stop in Almaty was in order, where we abused the coffee shop’s toilets and made the most of the wifi and western menu, dining on pizza and cakes, not necessarily in that order.
After enjoying the western food, we continued to Taldykorgen, and we stayed at what was, in Rich’s estimation, the most amazing hotel in the world; the Royal Petrol Hotel, which was a neat little hotel located above and adjacent to the, yip, you guessed it, Royal Petrol Garage! We had an amazing view of the forecourt from our room. And to add the coolness of the place, Egveney, the friendly receptionist who only spoke Russian, gave us an amazing half day rate which didn’t include breakfast and caused much confusion the next morning when we understood it did include breakfast. Thank goodness for Google Translate! Egveney was so excited to have us, he dropped the phone on his computer, packed out laughing and proceeded to look us up on Facebook and order a T-shirt. What a guy!
We were now feeling the pressure to get onwards to Mongolia to ensure that Jess makes her flight back to Johannesburg, and every effort was made to put foot! The roads seemed to be improving somewhat, and what mountains are to Kyrgyzstan, plains are to Kazakhstan. It was a long ride to Oskemen, arriving at about 11 pm, at a neat hotel which the Lonely Planet said had rooms that looked nice in brown. Admittedly, they were rather pleasant, but obviously not remarkable enough for us to take a picture.
We decided to take a few hours break and enjoy some of the sights and sounds of Oskemen, which is located at the confluence of the Irtysh and Ulba Rivers (which of course you know about!). We were clearly much closer to the heart of Soviet Russia and out of the old outskirts such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; statues of Lenin adorned most parks and squares, and we paid a visit to the Russian World War II memorial, as well as a rather unimpressive Afghanistan War Memorial.
We searched for the park that JP recalled Lonely Planet saying contained an assortment of old Lenin statues, but only came across a neatly park opposite the town square that contained a motley collection of bizarre bronze creatures overlooked by a large statue of Lenin with his signature stern gaze.
We left Oskemen refreshed and set out across the Kazakh steppes for Semey, a sad town which Moscow selected for the site of nuclear testing towards the end of the Cold War. A total of 490 nukes were detonated about 100 km away, until the current Kazakhstan president asked Moscow nicely to please stop. Not sure what to expect as we squealed into town, as we rode over a set of railway tracks, Stan suddenly developed a nasty clunking sound and his rear was hanging distinctly lower…
We soon found the nearest Lada “aftomechanic” and the diagnosis from our sourly Russian mechanic was not good; his old tired rear shocks had had enough and he had finally given out with a broken spring. And there were no spares in sight. But “neet” problem, some Opel Astra springs (and here a quick note and product placement from our Lopec Auto Spares, one of our sponsors: “Lopec: For all your quality used Opel, Vauxhall and Chev parts!” and shocks from, wait for it… our favourite car!!! A UAZ-452 (pronounced Waz), practically nicknamed nicknamed Буханка (Bukhanka or Bread loaf), Таблетка (Tabletka or Pill) or Golovastik (Tadpole). But more about Favourite Car in a future blog!
A friendly local who was getting his car rebuilt, Dima, gave us a lift to the local hotel where, lo and behold, two other rally teams were entrenched, the awesome Brit lads from Steppe Response and Team Meouw Meouw (I actually have no idea how you spell it and in all honestly though that Harry and Craig’s team name was in fact Harry’s Race Team. The “c” in Race soon got changed to a “p”). Look out for more pics of these crazy guys in the Mongolia blog.
We got even more excited when we discovered that the park with the motley collection of Lenin statues, was, in fact, right behind the hotel and we could see it from our hotel window! While Craig and Harry carried on hammering their rims back into shape, we hurried down to the park to get a ridiculous amount of photos with the various Lenin statues, and afterwards headed out for some pizza and then the obligatory karaoke, were we shocked the locals with our poor singing skills as we blared out covers of Boney M, Creed and Billy Joel. Kazakhstan; please accept our formal apology.
Stan was finally good to go with his hybrid Opel/UAZ springs, but had somehow retained his nasty clunk. The mechanic would hear nothing of it except that the car was good to go, and confident with the knowledge that he would never see us stupid westerners again, charged us $150 and sent us on our way. With Stan all loaded and good to go, we made sure we had a full tank of gas, a full sump of oil and a full reservoir of water (he was, by this stage, leaking most types of fluids) and we clunked and squealed our way north to mother Russia, only slightly behind schedule! Somewhere along the line, we got stopped for speeding, which, admittedly, we were guilty as charged. The problem was, that with the intention of leaving the country, we had no local currency and couldn’t begin to pay the fine. With the nearest “bankomat” (ATM) over 100 km’s behind us, getting more cash was not a real option. JP was sent to negotiate, and, after spending about 30 minutes inside the police car where he helped the police to enjoy the air conditioning, hip music and catch other cars speeding, JP agreed that we would be free to go in exchange for some “souvenirs”. There was nothing else for it then; we would supply the three rather large (and naturally well padded) cops with three medium-sized Afristan t-shirts! Hope they fit!
Uchkurgan, Kyrgyzstan to Bishkek Kyrgyzstan
11th – 12th August 2014
The short 500 m dash across no-mans landed us at the make-shift border post in Kyrgyzstan consisting of just a container and a fridge and two friendly guards who weren’t quite sure who needed visas and who didn’t. A small booklet was consulted.
Even though the six of us (we were now travelling with the UK team Justdoinit) were the only people at the border, processing us still took about an hour, but once we were through we immediately noticed the improved road, banking and fuel situation. Back on the road by 11 am as per usual ..oh wait, we lost another hour.
After some Kyrgyz dumplings (/manty) and kebabs (/shlashlik) we were soon into mountain country, and started seeing more and more geology, spectacular scenery and glaciers perched off in the distance on the highest peaks; the scenery was spectacular, and JP and Rich kept on insisting on geology stops to admire the folded rocks and exposed stratigraphy.
We climbed higher into the mountains, tracking the course of the impressive milky-blue Naryn River in the direction of Bishkek. At one of the frequent geology stops, Rich couldn’t help himself and ran down the embankment to the river below for a swim to throw himself into the glacial melt waters. In spite of the cold everyone went in to refresh from the heat and to wash off the previous night’s sleep outside the Uzbek border post.
More spectacular views around Toktogul resvoir demanded more stops and more photos, but our border delays, the lost hour, and the mandatory geology stops we were pushing dark and we had only summited the first of two passes (3,200 m and 3,500 m respectively). We passed though a non-ventilated 2.5 km long tunnel where a few people died a couple of years ago when they got stuck in a traffic jam in the tunnel and no one thought to turn the trucks off!
High on the small plateau or perched plain between the passes there were entire communities of nomadic herders tending their cattle, sheep and horses. It is possible to arrange homestays with some of the families and sleep in their yurts and eat their traditional foods.We’ll keep that in our back pocket until the next time we do the Rally and plan things appropriately.
Jessica had a craving for fresh raspberries being sold on the side of the road. Eveyone was selling 5 litre pails of berries but we only wanted a small handful, but none of the vendors could get their heads around the commerce that instead of 5 litres for 100 CYM we wanted 200 g for 20 CYM. Nope, all or nothing. We got nothing <Sigh…>.
Disappointingly we had to do the second pass in the dark and could only imagine its grandeur and spectacle from the number of switchbacks required as we watched the GPS rack up the meters in altitude. There was a full moon so all the time we had the silhouette of the craggy mountain tops to accompany our passage. The driving was a little demanding with the standard Soviet levels of crazy overtaking but at least the roads were pretty decent for the first time in weeks. The influence of Chingis Khan was very apparent with numerous Mongol statues popping up all over the place.
We arrived in Bishkek near midnight and began a search for accommodation. We opted for an alpine-styled lodge, located around the corner from a sauna. The chap at the sauna tried hard to get us to come inside and have a few shots of vodka with him. We politely declined and went to check into the hotel. After checking in, the receptionist pointed us in the direction of a German pub, which sounded amazing. We snuck out past the overzealous vodka drinking chap lurking in the entrance of the sauna to the German pub. Alas, it was closed! Damn, too late again! This meant a return to our staple diet of imported Chinese one-minute noodles (yes, they take a minute less than the two minute noodles we are accustomed to back in South Africa. The wonders of Chinese technology!).
The crossing of the two 3,000 m plus passes on the previous day had catapulted us into a different world, we got the distinct impression we were no longer in Central Asia but rather a more Russian culture. This was evident by the architecture, culture and most of all, the distinct Caucasian appearance of the people. The border crossing that day went smoothly; the border police seemed more interested in sleeping than actually checking the car, and while Susanne did battle with customs getting Stan into Kazakhstan, JP, Rich and Jess joined the masses of pedestrians passing through immigration and jostled for a decent position in the long queue and tried hard to refrain from making any Borat jokes. Kazakhstan was going to be fun!
Nukus, Uzbekistan, Bukhara and Samarqand, Uzbekistan
8th – 10th August 2014
We have now decided to partake in Vogan Poetry and JP and Rich wrote a poem about Tashkent:
In the Ancient City of Tashkent
It’s illegal to sleep in a tent
The cops go out of their way
To stop you ten times a day
And that’s exactly how it went
With four rally teams staying in the classy $12 per person per night Nukus Hotel, we had a chance to connect with our brothers and sisters in cars. We first wandered the streets in search of cash, and then in search of food. We passed a wedding function and were aided by an English-speaking businessman (an HR manager for Samsung) who left the wedding to walk us around town looking for a place that would serve us a meal. He helped us order food and chatted with us whilst we ate local fare. We closed off the evening with beers on the steps of the hotel with the other teams.
Packing the cars the next morning was a jovial affair with much discussion on the various levels of success that was had with showering – 4 minutes hot water, 4 minutes no water. Rich, Carl and JP were blissfully unaware that there had been problems – not because they hadn’t showered, but their shower was apparently the sole operational shower in this Soviet-era hotel.
Donkey carts were common on the roads and everyone was super stoked to see us and always quick with a smile and a wave and we had oodles of fun driving along soliciting smiles and waves. Yeah, but we’re always doing that!
Now our account in Uzbekistan would not be complete if we didn’t mention the police. In fact, our account would be quite thin as our interactions with the police probably made up a significant portion of our passage. But this is not to slate them, it is something of an inspiration to see people so passionate and dedicated to their charge. They’re so vigilant that, in fact, when they are away they put up cardboard effigies of their cars (which we’ve dubbed Scare Cops, you know, like scarecrows) to promote safe and civil behavior. It worked on us too …for a while. To paraphrase a Bush-ism – “Scare cop me once, shame on you. Scare cop me twice …well, you just can’t fool me twice.” Sometimes the cutouts included a cutout policeman standing by his car, but it must’ve been a bank holiday, because we only ever saw one (and DIDN’T get a pic L)
But there is much to be admired about their magic light wands, beeeg hats, and beeg epaulettes! In truth, the cops were always friendly, they enjoyed our buffalo. Only one policeman made us take the buffalo down – which we remounted 2 km down the road (it is covered in bugs! There’s no way Jessica was going to tolerate that on her lap for the next 4,000 km.
SOUTH AFRISTANS GUIDE TO NAVIGATING POLICE CHECKPOINTS
The routine with the police checkpoints went nearly to script every time;
1) Approach town and go through a police check point; as sure as camels stink, a magic light wand will indicate we are to pull over. (It’s like a tractor beam – you must obey. It IS magic after all!)
2) We are asked for our passports – two South African, one German and one American.
3) Passports are inspected thoroughly, Richard attempts to explain in Russian, Farsi, English or an unintelligible combination of the three depending on which he is feeling most courageous in, why he, being from Africa, isn’t black!
4) The girls asked if they are married and why not?
5) We are asked for “masheen passport”. Susanne to explain in Russian, Farsi, English or an unintelligible combination of the three depending on which he is feeling most courageous in, why the car was Swiss and she was German. ….AND why she isn’t married.
6) Policeman ignores entire discourse and inspects tin African Buffalo hood ornament/figurehead on the front of the car instead of listening to Susanne’s fascinating story. Susanne continues story.
7) Other policemen will now be called over to also inspect the buffalo, chatter a bit, sometimes take a photo, give the horn or ear a squeeze.
8) JP to explain in fluent Russian how the buffalo came to be. The policemen asks about the unicorn shlashlik…. JP ay have exaggerated his ability to speak Russian.
9) Bemused or befuddled, realizing that we were having more fun than the cops at the checkpoint, the Afristans are waved through, having distracted the police from apprehending the true offenders such as purveyors of fireworks and the cotton smugglers.
10) Peel off with fan belt squealing and hope that the police do not notice our rear indicator was not working. …or our reverse lights.
11) Repeat entire at the checkpoint on the other side of the town!
The one time the police did actually ask for money, we simply played dumb and pretended not to understand. When he made the universal money sign of rubbing his forefinger and thumb together, Rich eagerly offered him a crisp South African 20 Rand, and pointed out the picture of Nelson Mandela on the note. When the cop realized that it was not 20 Euro, Rich took the note back, offended at his lack of respect for our currency. We won’t share our money to those that revere it in the same way we do. And it’s worth mentioning that at this stage the police had already given us our documents back he had lost his leverage, so we felt no obligation whatsoever to hand over one red cent. Or a CYM as the case may be. Amateurs!
Stan looked remarkably similar to the locally produced “Damas” car, and the locals were fascinated by Stan. The conversation typically proceed as follows:
Us: “Nyet. Subaru!”
Local: “Ooooh, you Subaru!”
Us: “Da! Da! You Damas!” Which sounded dangerously close to “you dumbass!” but in all honesty we couldn’t help ourselves…
Getting hold of petrol in Uzbekistan also seemed to be problematic. Reminding us of the Zimbabwean fuel shortages of the noughties. Garages were everywhere, there were no shortages of those and there are separate garages for Benzine, Methane and Propane. We queued about 30 minutes for some “METAN” then realized our faux-pas. It was certainly good training for the zombie apocalypse running from abandoned to derelict garages across the country. The only stations with fuel had long queues just to get gas but we had no time for that. We quickly figured out that petrol was sold on the black market in containers, and could be purchased at certain spots on the side of the road. Once refueled we chugged and sputtered of with a smokey trail of black then white then blue then green. It reminded me of an airshow I had been to as a child…
At this stage we parted ways with our good travel comrades in Four Swedes One Horsepower; they were off to Tajikistan to do the Pamir highway; our time constraints would not allow us to include this amazing stretch of road in our adventure. Guess there’s always next time!
Uzbekistan is host to three of Central Asia’s Silk Road gems; Bukhara, Samarqand and Tashkent (…and Khiva …but we can’t count so good). And we were not disappointed at all when we finally found our accommodation in Old-Town Bukhara. All the hotels in the area were competitively priced, well located and fitted in perfectly with the feel of Bukhara; think of the scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indie shoots the blade wielding baddie whilst the girl is carted away in the basket. That’s Bukhara! But no, neither Jessica nor Susanne were kidnap-married in this way. And no, we didn’t shoot anybody. And that movie was set in the Holy Land. So in fact, it was NOTHING like Raiders of the Lost Ark…
Bukhara is central Asia’s holiest city, and is described by Lonely Planet as a thoroughly lived-in old centre that probably hasn’t changed much in two centuries. Noted as one of the best places in Central Asia for a glimpse of pre-Russian Turkestan; we certainly got this impression and felt like we were thoroughly on the Silk Road!
We also managed to find an ATM that dispensed nice crisp new US dollar bills and we stocked up on these. Probably a bad idea before we went curio shopping in one of the city’s vibrant market streets! JP and Rich stocked up on practical “fox” (dog) skin winter hats for the journey ahead, whilst the girls busied themselves with browsing the various paintings, scissors, silks and other Middle Eastern crafts. Next stop: Samarqand, jewel number II of Uzbekistan! And then we got stopped by the police.
As we approached Samarqand central (after getting stopped by the police), we were immediately struck the by the awesome appearance of the towering blue domes and minarets, and some pictures with Stan were in order! The Registon is the centerpiece of the city, and rightfully so! We fumbled our way to a backpackers located close by, and was clear that this was a place favoured by past ralliers, as evidenced by the host of Mongol Rally stickers plastered all over the entrance.
Staying the backpackers was Jeroen, from The Netherlands, who was partaking in the Mongol Charity rally, an alternative to The Adventurists’ Mongol Rally, which had less restrictions on car or bike size, and they still donate their cars at the end of their rally. Jeroen was doing the rally on a 650 cc bike, which looked suitably equipped for the task, as opposed to the chaps doing the rally on the little 125 cc bikes; which we have not seen or heard from since Istanbul. Finishing the rally on a 125 cc is an impressive feat, given how tough it’s been in a car!
Jess’s Uzbek visa expiring on the third day (due to a visa application error), so the race was on to make it to the border to cross into Kyrgyzstan, about 600 km away. All we had to do was make the border before midnight, and we had 14 hours to do it in; simple right? Leaving Samarqand, disappointed that we could not spend more time walking around and absorbing the sights and sounds of the city, we headed northeast towards Kyrgyzstan (after getting stopped by the police) and would have to skip Tashkent.
Bumping and squealing along, we made good-ish time in Stan-style, but the frequent police checkpoints were slowing us down. We figured out that we had to register when crossing provinces; Stalin had demarcated areas back in the fifties based on Moscow’s understanding of ethnic boundaries and not with the intention of these boundaries becoming international borders after the break-up of the USSR in 1991, so it’s all rather messy.
Only 250 km away with 5 hours to spare, we were confident that we would make the border. Rich managed to get pulled over for driving suspiciously when he saw a police car approaching and stopping about 30 m in front of a red traffic light primarily as a result of the rest of the car yelling “Stop! Stop! Stop!”
As 12 am loomed we realized that we were not 100% certain where the border actually was, and we arrived at a rather closed border crossing a little after 12. After explaining the situation to a friendly border guard, he assured that us that the now expired visa would be “neh problem” and we were to camp right outside the gates until the border opened again at 9 am.
Sure enough, after a decent night’s sleep, and a nice cup of tea with some local Uzbek bread for breakfast, the guard strolled over just before 9 to collect our passports and we duly carried on packing up, until we were instructed to enter the compound to clear customs and immigration. Much to our disappointment, we did not find out if it was quicker for Jessica to get deported rather than leave the country, and we were all allowed to leave after the by now customary search of our pharmaceuticals (top tip: don’t smuggle drugs into or out of a country in your toiletry bags!) and we squealed off across no man’s land towards Kyrgyzstan.
Turkmenbashi, Ashgabat, Darvaz Gas Crater and Konye-Urgench, Turkmenistan
4th – 7th August 2014
We finally made landfall around 14:00 on the 4th, now 14 hours into our visas which expire on the 8th. Stan wasn’t really loving the heat, and it was only going to get worse as we had to traverse Asia’s hottest desert, the mighty Karakum desert on our trip northwards into Uzbekistan. The nature of our visa meant that we had to get a guide, Rastam, who met us at customs at the ferry terminal. We would like to say that stepping off the ferry was like stepping into a blast furnace, but we already knew this from sitting topsides in the scarce shade!
After waiting for about an hour on the ferry until we were allowed to disembark, it took a further two hours at least to get through customs and immigration. Susanne, being the registered owner of Stan, literally visited at least 10 (and we are seriously not exaggerating here) different windows. After finally registering with the police, a thorough customs search was next. All three teams were made to bare their various pharmaceuticals and each and every packet was examined for the presence of codeine and any tramadol – there were so many beautiful photo opportunities but alas, no cameras out at the terminal! This was living up to its name of being the North Korea of Central Asia.
Finally with all of our documents, travel passes and passports in hand, we squealed out of the ferry terminal parking lot (Stan had now developed a serious squeal on his fan belt which could not be tensioned further – watch this space!) with the Swedes following behind and headed off to our hotel.
On the way to the hotel we stopped at a budget shop to pick up some supplies for the various trips across the desert – the following day we would be making the 630 km trip down to Ashgabat, the capital, and then from there north to the gas crater at Darvaza and then onwards to Uzebekistan. It was going to be hot. Very hot. In fact, very, very, very hot!
In almost complete contrast to the ferry, the hotel accommodation was awesome! It had semi functioning air conditioning and a swimming pool. But certainly not WiFi, any ATMs or internet.
Rastum met us in time for a 9 am departure, and it was already cooking! We squeaked and squealed out of Turkmenbashi, and wound our way away from the cooling effect of the Caspian Sea and into the desert, heading towards Ashgabad. We were blown away by the impressive landscape – think camels, scorched black rocks outcropping from sparsely vegetated sand and sand dunes, and then on top of it all, add in major roadworks and bad roads.
Stan was not loving the heat at all and was suffering from a serious lack of power, and when we stopped at the ancient Murch Ruins.
Rich changed one of the spark plugs he thought may be faulty, based on what the mechanic in Turkey had muttered. Bare in mind that just examining the engine requires the entire car to be unpacked; not just the trunk, but also the back seat so it can be folded forward…
Stan now sounded like an old VW Beetle, but was still moving forward at least. Rich’s spark plug change had done little to help. We still had several hundred km’s to go to Ashgabat; and with the words of the Rally organisers ringing in our heads; “Do not, and we repeat, do not, under any circumstances, leave your car in Iran or Turkmenistan! Get it towed, carted or carry it across the border, but if you leave your car in Turkmenistan or Iran, you will unleash an unholy storm of poo upon yourself!”, we grimly plodded on towards Ashgabat. Dusk finally arrived and provided a welcome respite from the heat, and we squealed and putted our way into Ashgabat on two cylinders. At least we had the Swedes who would have given us a tow should we have required it.
Now would be a good time to pause and discuss the insanity that is the former Turkmenistan leader (and perhaps the current one as well!).
After independence from the USSR in 1991, this nice fellow called Saparmurat Niyazo declared himself, in true good dictator style, pretty much President for Life.
He went on to write a book, insisted that his preachings be inscribed next to the Prophet Mohammed in every Mosque, even going so far to sentence the head Mullah to 22 years of jail time for refusing to accept his teachings as a “Message from God”.
Niyazov ordered the construction of a 250-foot tall “Neutrality Arch”, a towering marble structure topped by a $12 million gold statue of himself mounted on a mechanical axis that rotates 360-degress every day so he’s always facing the sun, What a guy! He renamed the months and the days of the week after himself, his book, members of his family. He changed the word for bread to the name of his mother. He named several schools, two airports, a city, some theaters, a brand of vodka, two kinds of cologne, a kind of tea, and a meteorite after himself. So we were bound to see some crazy stuff!
We finally spluttered into Ashgabat, at around 22:00. For Rastum, who regularly makes the drive between Ashgabat and Turkmenbashi, this was the longest trip ever. We had somehow managed to turn what is normally a 6 hour drive into a 12 hour epic! And poor Rastum had to spend it upfront catching the sun in our non-air conditioned car with the heater on.
We were “treated” to a sterile marble wonderland with bizarre architecture and clear illusions of grandeur. Massive ministry buildings where built in the shape of the function they performed; for example the Ministry of Communications was built in the shape of an old-style telephone receiver at the top; the Ministry of Education was built in the shape of a book, the national Oil and Gas company building looked exactly like a cigarette lighter and so it carried on! Other bizarre creations included the world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel (not sure how many others there are); the world’s largest 8 sided star (?!!!), the world’s second largest flag pole, various rocket shaped monuments, and, of course, golden statues of Turkmenbashi adorning most government buildings. Photography of government buildings, is, of course, strictly prohibited. And to top it all off, we had to enter Ashgabat via the back roads because our car was dirty… Yes, dear reader, dirty cars are not allowed in Ashgabat!
Our hotel was the most sterile place in the world, and we somehow managed to convince the friendly chap at the front desk (who appeared to work 24 hour shifts) to order the 8 of us delivery pizza. An hour and a half later (now 01:00), our pizza finally arrived which we guzzled down and then hit the sack. We had a busy day ahead of us – we had a few key tasks which needed to be accomplished before we set off for Darveza, site of the famous Door to Hell.
The next morning was spent replacing spark plugs, topping up oil and water levels, spark plug lead and oil shopping, finding the only working ATM in town (possibly the country) and, of course, washing the cars.
Once these tasks had been completed and the cars packed, we set off at 15:00, only two hours behind schedule, for Darveza, about 300 km, in the heart of the Karakum Desert. Did we mention that this is the hottest desert in Asia?
Despite Rastum having adjusted our schedule to compensate for our slow pace and us leaving late, it appeared that a new set of plugs did the trick and Stan purred (and squealed) along, and we somehow managed to arrive at what remains of Darveza just before sunset. Ok, it did take us 5 hours to drive the 300-odd km! And none too soon for Susanne and Jess. Rich and JP were by now on their 17th rendition of “Alice the Camel” who by now had at least 37 humps and was quite far off from being a horse.
The power of social networking and Facebook meant that, having the latest up-to-date information from teams that already had passed through the Doors to Hell, we could thwart our tours attempt to charge us a hefty $220 per four people for the 4 km off road ride to the crater, and knew that we could get locals to take us there for $10 per person. It took all of two minutes to locate the appropriate SUV and we were off to visit one of the most anticipated stops on the rally.
As far as we can understand, the crater is one of three natural gas craters in area; the other two just bubble up through a mud pit, but the main attraction is the main crater which was set alight by either a Russian scientist or soldier in the 1950’s, and has been burning ever since.
The crater is about 80 m in diameter, maybe 30 m deep and is, well, simply burning! The heat is incredible, as well as the fact how uncontrolled everything is. It is quite simply a massive hole in the middle of the desert that is on fire with no access control, fences or infrastructure whatsoever! We pondered what would happen if you fell in – would it be an agonizing death by heat, or would you simply asphyxiate? JP kindly offered to take part in the experiment, but only as a control; he would stand by outside to test what would happen if one wasn’t thrown into the crater.
That night we camped in the desert and with Carl once again on guitar and Rich on vocals, the duet wowed Rastum and the two teams with our by now perfect renditions of various Tenacious D and Bloodhound Gang songs which we had so thoroughly practiced on the Ferry.
Rastum had an 8 pm flight to catch the following evening from close to the Uzbekistan border, only about 300 km away, so he wisely insisted that we leave at 6 am so we would not be late for his flight. We tried hard not to be offended by his opinion of our ability (or lack thereof) to travel quickly.
The ride progressed quite smoothly, apart from Rich getting the convoy stopped for driving on the wrong side of a highway and incurring a $10 fine for both cars (no receipt), until we hit 70 km of road that we think was exported straight out of immediate post-war Mozambique. It was bad. The road frequently diverted off of the tar, or rather what remained of it, onto the flat hard packed desert next to it, which was fine to drive along, until we slowed down, got overtaken by our own cloud of dust, and nearly chocked to death!
After negotiating the atrocious road, we made it to Kanye-Urgench, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for good reason. The ancient city told a tale dating back to the Mongols, Timur and is the ancient religious capital of Central Asia.
Rastum then patiently hurried us along to the Uzbek border and saw us safely through immigration – he may make his flight after all! We left Turkmenistan with a certain amount of relief; the temperature was dropping as we headed further north, and Uzbekistan promised to be slightly cooler, and hopefully with better roads and some ATMs – we had zero cash! And we were off to our classy hotel in Nukus, Uzbekistan. This was going to be good – below was all we could afford, but we were staying with a few other rally teams.
More details to follow in our next post…
Tbilisi, Georgia to Baku, Azerbaijan and onwards to Turkmenistan
2nd – 3rd August 2014
The drive from Tbilisi to the Azerbaijani border was relatively quick, and we weren’t 100% sure what to read into the “Good Luck” sign as we approached the border – would we be needing this? Probably, we thought!
Border crossings seemed to act as a kind of filter for Rally team and we bumped into the young due team French Khan Khan in their tried and tested rally Renault 4 which we quickly dubbed Bumblebee, and Sebastian and Pierre were dubbed Miles II and James II – these guys would serve as the doubles of the original Miles and James from The Lion Rampant. To make the transition complete we supplied them with a lion of their own and fitted it to their roof for them using cable ties.
The aforementioned mentioned Renault 4 of Team French Khan Khan was actually a twice veteran of other rallies, complete with bucket racing seats, rally steering wheel, and lots of extra dials, gauges and switches, most of which didn’t work. It was interesting to us that several teams we had met along the way so far were carrying legacy items from previous teams, or like these guys, the entire car. The question now is what “torch” can South Afristans pass to future teams? Some manky onesies and a pith helmet perhaps? Or maybe a water buffalo head made from tin cans?
After a few pleasant albeit scorching hours in the sun, we were across the border minus and en-route to Baku, the large oil port on the Caspian Sea.
It was now scorching hot, and the respite from both the Georgian heat and bad drivers would not let up – in fact, it was worse! In contrast to the predominantly Christian Georgia, we were now most definitely in the vicinity of the Middle East; this much was evident by the architecture, the eastern style toilets and the increasingly drier terrain – we were now really getting into arid country!
Susanne somehow forgot that she was not in fact in Germany on the Autobahn and both teams got pulled over for speeding; doing a hefty 70-something in a 50 km/h zone. When we eventually convinced Susanne to actually stop (the cop was now bearing down on us in his BMW), it was clear that he meant business. For some reason, Rich and Pierre were summonsed into the police car and driven off, without their wallets and cellphones, to the scene of the infringement (crime seems a bit of a strong word here…). With all of this happening without a word of English being spoken, the policeman drove back to the camera the wrong way up the dual carriageway, where it appeared that the original recording had been deleted. Without skipping a beat, much to Rich and Pierre’s concern, the policeman continued to speed away in the opposite direction in which we were headed. Our relief was palpable when he then turned around, to point out in no uncertain terms, the 70 km/h speed sign and then the 50 km/h speed sign. Once back at Stan and Bumblebee, the negotiations commenced. The fine was to be US$50 per car, but Rich managed to convince the policeman that $25 would be more appropriate. He managed to pay in Georgian Lari, which we no longer needed anyway (colourful, animal and Madiba riddled South African money was snubbed).
The delay in the border crossing meant that we had a long late push to Baku, our planned stop for the night. After the sun went down at around 21:00, we quickly realized that driving on the incredibly busy roads with massive amounts of construction was a bad idea, and we elected to camp in a remote spot in the desert. James II and Miles II did a sterling job using their spotlights to find a dirt track that led off a few hundred meters into the desert. It was great camping under the spectacular stars, but we did find out that James II was probably the worst boy scout ever. He had sat on his own knife, dropped an entire pot of freshly cooked pasta into our garbage box (fortunately the box was empty so we dished up out of the garbage!) and then spilt water all over his own bed. Did we mention that he dropped our entire pasta dinner for 6 in the trash!!
Our decision to stop the previous night was validated by the long drive to Baku the next day – what we thought was going to be a quick one and a half hour drive turned into a 3 hour trek – this seems to be a recurring theme for this trip – all journeys seem to be taking longer than expected.
Baku was impressive – there clearly is oil money here! Baku serves as the major oil and gas port for the oil-rich Caspian Sea, and we passed several on-shore and off-shore wells and drill rigs as we drove into Baku. Finding the ferry terminal proved to be challenging, and after several trips up the marine boulevard, with no place to turn around if you missed the turning, a friendly policeman who was clearly anxious to get out of his stuffy office took it upon himself to escort us to the ferry terminal. Problem was that he also didn’t know the way. After the 7th trip up the boulevard and seeing the same sights again and again, we were reminded of the scene from the old National Lampoons European Vacation movie, where Chevy Chase gets stuck in a French traffic circle with his family: “Look kids, the Eiffel Tower… Look kids, the Eiffel Tower…” he repeats again and again!
Eventually we made it to the ferry and the complex procedure of purchasing a ticket began. How this actually happens and how the price is calculated is a dark art to which only those in the ticket office know… and the fixers that lurk near ports, embassies and kebab shops to assist Mongol Rally’ers in their most basic needs and hugely inflated prices. US$800 later and the four of us, along with Stan, had secured our spot on the ferry, which was due to sail in a few hours. The timing was perfect – JP and Rich’s Turkmenistan visas were only valid from the 4th to the 8th of July, so any delays would jeopardize the Turkemistan portion of the trip. Amazingly we would make Turkmenistan on the afternoon of the fourth!
We also managed to rendezvous with Bob, who had just returned from South Africa to Baku, where he works, who kindly brought us the stickers that JP had left behind, the Central Asia Lonely Planet which Rich had left behind, and as an added bonus, some South African red wine. A big thanks to Bob for hauling this to Azerbaijan for us, and for the bottle of wine!
The ferry left on time, and we settled down topsides in the limited shade along with two other Swedish Mongol Rally teams, Four Swedes One Horsepower and Team Adventure. We also said our goodbyes to James II and Miles II (Pierre and Sebastian of French Khan Khan) as they needed to sort out their Turkmenistan Visa in Baku and would be catching the next available ferry over to Turkmenbashi.
Four Swedes and One Horsepower and the South Afristans instantly hit it off with their shared love for beer, singing and rude songs in their own languages, and a good evening was spent topsides drinking warm beer, vodka out of gifted melons and just generally annoying the ferry staff, as the ferry steadily chugged along towards the mysterious Turkmenistan; dubbed the North Korea of Central Asia. We really got the sense that the Adventure was only just beginning!
Batumi, Georgia to Tblisi, Georgia
31 July & 1 August 2014
Trabzon, Turkey to Tbilisi, Georgia
The relatively short drive out from Trabzon to the Georgian Border was spectacular with the sun setting over the Black Sea to our left. What was meant to be a quick stop for a swim at one of the pebbly beaches turned into an invitation for a hearty meal with a large Turkish Family with no fewer than 13 children (although the actual relationships are not 100% clear with no Turkish spoken by any of us and only German spoken by one of theirs and one of our own). They insisted we sit down and share their meal and enjoy the sunset! Such awesome hospitality and people are genuinely happy to share!
A big thanks goes out to Frasier from Team Brainbox (web url here) who posted instructions on how to efficiently manage the border crossing, we made it through the chaos fairly quickly. By chance more teams were around such as our crazy Romanian/Moldovan friends and a Danish team called Lotte Tarp. The Georgians were fascinated by the Rally cars and insisted on having their picture taken with the cars!
With all teams convoying to a camping place near Batumi, we are surprised how modern the city and country is. There are great new buildings and tons of people celebrating in the streets – the campsite was about 35 km out of Batumi along the Black Sea coast and appeared to be a 35 km party strip.
Arriving at the camping place, we used the partying crowd as an example and started another unofficial Mongol Rally party – which continued the next morning with exchanging costumes, hats and more singing. Everyone would have loved to stay, but we have still had quite a few kilometers to go. So with all teams good to go, a quick last swim in the Black sea and we were off to Tblisi.
Our old GPS navigator was now retired due to the lack of maps for Georgia, Azerbajian and the Stans. This meant that we were back on the road navigating old school which works fine. The heat was now getting more intense, (37 degrees and the inside heating on full to keep the car cool!) and to keep things interesting, the peculiar driving style of the Georgians. The Georgians drive like a bat out of hell and it is not clear yet if they have the plan to kill themselves, or us or everyone on the road. Maybe there are just adrenalin junkies. Fact is, they over take whenever they want and do not care if a truck is facing them. The oncoming traffic typically backs down at the last minute and everyone carries on quite happily. JP was on driving duty and was white-knuckled and haggered by the end of it. Surprisingly we did not see any accidents and managed to arrive in Tbilisi safe and sound. We were passed by the same car 8 times, however, he would pass and immediately slow down forcing us to re-pass. It was a game that we weren’t too clear on the rules…
Tbilisi itself (except the traffic and driving) is amazing. The whole city is well maintained, both the old and new buildings are illuminated at night and everything is very lively. After another great dinner and a sip of Georgian wine and beer we called it a day. Short nights and hours of driving are starting to take there toll! We opted for taxis thinking that driving at night may be too hazardous. It didn’t matter, our taxi driver drove at 100-120 km/hr in downtown traffic and would accelerate into vehicles, brake hard so that the tires would screech and then flash lights. JP was in the front seat and was silent for the duration of the ordeal whilst the girls could only laugh about it in the backseat, particularly as there were no seat belts.
Top marks to Jessica who managed to organize a hotel with very comfortable rooms and great shower, and her passport with all her outstanding visas had finally arrived! We were now free to head off to Azerbaijan!
Istanbul, Turkey – Samsun, Turkey – Trabzon, Turkey
29 & 30 July 2014
The unofficial rally team meet in Istanbul did result in the South Afristans getting away slightly later than usual, added to the fact that Rich took the opportunity to replace the lousy speakers in Stan with a set that turned out to be even worse. But we now had upgraded the one working and one broken lousy speakers with two speakers that ticked at a volume lower than the previous one had. Oh well. I’m sure we’ll come across a better pair later on, but we are honestly concerned about over capitalizing on Stan! He already has a nice shiny new radio – when will it end?
The drive to Samsun on the Black Sea coast was fairly uneventful, and we managed to rack up some miles on the Etolls; which Rich couldn’t help but take pictures of (he must be missing the but we were pretty stoked to see the sea (does that make it the Black Seen now?). We struggled to find petrol, and we assume it was because of Eid that all the garages were either closed or had no petrol, even our favourite; the Fire Breathing Dog garage.
We finally found a semi-decent spot to take a photo of Stan against the Black Sea – the problem was that we were stuck on the land side of a massive dual carriageway all the way up the coast in mostly insane traffic.
We’re getting the impression that us westerners are becoming more and more of a novelty as we head further East- many Iraqis come on holiday to Turkey, and we had our pictures taken with three separate groups of Iraqis!
After some sightseeing in Samsun, (like Samsung, but different), we hit the road for Trabzon, about 350 km further up the coast. We actually passed straight Trabzon, and headed onwards to the Sumela Monastery. Completed in 386 AD, this Greek Orthodox Monastery hugs the cliffs within the Pontic Mountains at an altitude of about 1,200 m.
So it turns out that the Sumela Monastery is a major tourist attraction with facilities not designed to cope with the hoards of tourists that appear to flock to it. Located in a very mountainous place, the Turks has managed to construct a road slightly wider than a single lane which wound up the mountain to within about 300 m of the Monastery itself, which could probably cope with about 3% of the actual number of vehicles that attempted to reach the parking lot at the base of the Monastery.
Needless to say we ground to a halt on a 15° slope in a gridlocked traffic jam. Stan, as usual, turned out to be quite a hit and I think was almost as popular as the Monastery itself. People flocked to take pictures of Stan, and in one case, literally handed over their baby for JP to hold while they posed!
Unfortunately the Monastery closed at 7 pm and we finally made it there with 10 minutes to spare – at least we missed the crowds! A few selfies later and we were on the road back to Trabzon. A Hostel.co scam meant that we shacked up in the same hotel as the Australian team, Two In Tents. These guys had known that their gearbox was on the way out and had carried one with them on their roof all the way from London. The gearbox had been changed in Trabzon in about 3 hours.
With a long drive into Georgia scheduled for the next day, the team was up and ready for an early start. Only to be thwarted again! Stan was sounding decidedly unhealthy and running ridiculously hot – anyone sitting in the cave was slow roasted to medium-rare. A stop outside the tea-house to inspect the engine instantly led to constant stream of tea being served (on the house, of course!) while we discussed the issue at hand with the locals. Of course, no one spoke English and all we could say in Turkish was thank you and good bye. A shop owner next door to the tea house found the address of a Subaru mechanic and directed us to the garage – three cups of tea later and we were on our way to the garage. The garage turned out to be located on the local everything-auto strip, where we were confident that we could get Stan repaired, it was just a question of how long it would take.
Time, however, was not a problem. Our gracious mechanic host ensured that we were comfortably set up in the shade adjacent to the river across the road, and quite literally kept up a constant flow of tea for us, and then threw in a healthy lunch spread!
Our patient mechanic, who again did not speak a word of English, spent the rest of the day working on Stan, replacing a section of water pipe, and the spark plugs, one of which was horribly gummed up with oil resulting in Stan only firing on two of his three cylinders. We figure the previous day’s traffic jam had caused him to overheat (the gauges don’t work) and with dodgy rings, super hot and now super thin oil got into the cylinder and gummed up the spark plug. The gaskets appear to be all intact and Stan ran well once the new plugs were fitted.
Turkish flag was hung in our rear window by a local shopkeeper, and we were finally off to Georgia at 5 pm, around 8 hours behind schedule… Stuck in bad traffic in ridiculous heat, Stan again seemed to getting crazy hot! Solution: put the heater on to draw some heat off of the engine. Is this going to be the trend for crossing the desert???
Next stop – Batumi, Georgia!