Russia and First Day in Mongolia

Hello, dear readers. It’s Cameron here once again, bringing you more tales from the road to Ulaanbaatar.

I’ve just added a page documenting our breakdowns and other car failures. It will no doubt have grown amusingly by the time we reach our destination.

As you may recall, our last post concluded with us arriving in Russia on Thursday afternoon. At the first town after the border, we stopped for lunch. Adon was feeling unwell, so the plan was to stop at a supermarket and buy some supplies that Patrick and I could eat in the car. We didn’t have any Russian Roubles on us, but the supermarket looked major enough that we figured they’d take credit cards. Taking out basket loaded up with nuts, dried fruit, water, juice, cheese, chocolate and some kind of mysterious Russian meat from the deli, we discovered… the supermarket didn’t take cards. They didn’t want our American Dollars or Kazakh Tenge either. Fortunately another customer directed us to a nearby ATM, after which we were able to return to the supermarket and complete the transaction.

We made fairly slow progress for the rest of the day, partly because of Adon continuing to not feel well, but mainly because the roads shown as “minor sealed roads” on our map varied from nice smooth highways that we could easily cruise at 110 km/h along to corrugated gravel roads with frequent potholes. Eventually we made it to the town of Belokurikha and decided to call it a night, with the aim of getting up early and covering the rest of the distance to the border on Friday. Belokurikha was a bit of a tourist trap – unfortunately designed for Russian tourists who spoke Russian, and everybody seemed a bit confused by the foreign tourists they found in their midst. When we first turned up, we found a five star hotel in the centre of town and gestured for a room. Where in every other country we’d been through, our hand gestures and foreign gabbling had been intelligible enough for the hotel staff to make a guess at what we wanted, here both Russian receptionists were completely flummoxed. One of them showed a little initiative and phoned a friend who spoke English, and so we were able to carry on a slightly roundabout conversation. Unfortunately a room for the three of us would cost over 8000 roubles, or nearly $300 for the night. Fortunately they were able to direct us to a hotel over the road which provided a room for 2100 roubles ($70). It had no hot water, but did have wireless internet.

The scenery through this part of Russia has been nothing short of spectacular. The middle of Kazakhstan had been a bit like central Australia, but as we got close to the northern side of the country it started to get a bit more lush. By the time we were in Russia, it was beautifully green everywhere, reminiscent of western Europe but still retaining that less-populated feeling we’d felt in Kazakhstan. Driving further beyond the Russian border took us through mountain ranges, small rural villages and farmland.

Rather than driving the main highways and a couple of larger towns, we chose a route taking us through rural back roads and smaller towns. The roads varied a lot, ranging from nice smooth tarmac where we could cruise at 110 km/h to unsealed dirt roads, usually in good condition but every now and again with surprise giant potholes. After a while we made it to the semi-autonomous Republic of Altai, where we were forbidden from leaving the main road. We kind of didn’t strictly achieve this, as we crossed into Altai on a dirt road about 7km before the main road, but I feel that in spirit we obeyed the law.

Altai was, if anything, even more beautiful than the part of Russia we’d just been through before. It seemed like quite a popular holiday destination for Russians, with people kayaking on the rivers / streams. Many of the rivers we saw were an amazing pale turquoise colour, which reminded me of New Zealand and Adon of Humpty Doo.

Somewhere along the route we stopped at a roadside cafe, where we had what we think was goat goulash, along with our first cup of coffee in days. Patrick reckons it was really good coffee. I enjoyed it too, but I’m fairly sure it was instant and it was only because it had lots of sugar and I hadn’t had coffee for so long that I didn’t mind. Whatever. We also loaded up on snacks and consumed tasty icecream.

By around 8pm on Friday night we made it to the Mongolian border. The border had closed but we saw a minibus parked outside. This turned out to be a group of Canadians / English, team “Gone To Mongolia“, a.k.a. Jilla, Sean, Doug and Rowen. They were taking part in the Mongolia Charity Rally, which is not to be confused with the Mongol Rally – same idea, different event organisers. This should probably make them our sworn enemiess, except that they actually turned out to be pretty cool people. There were four of them, an extended family of sorts, in a small bus. The bus seemed kind of like cheating to us, but the practicality advantages were undeniable, and it did seem to have provided at least as much hilarity to them as the Skoda had to us. We’d actually overtaken them on the way to the Russian border, but they’d beaten us to this border by about an hour or two by taking the longer but better quality roads on the main highway. They had also been in a real hurry thanks to an incident of paperwork when obtaining their visas meaning that they were only allowed to stay in Russia for two days; whereas we’d been taking it slow.

We stayed a while chatting with the Canadians. As we were about to set up our camp stove and make dinner, they offered us their leftover salmon and vegetable pasta. We felt terribly guilty about accepting but after some hesitation, did so nevertheless. We shared our teabags and Laphroaig with them in return.

Around this time we also met a Russian chap by the name of Cherga and his friend whose name escapes me. Cherga had studied English for a couple of years and so could make somewhat passable conversation. He offered us a bottle of vodka – which I had assumed at first was for us to have a drink out of, but soon it became clear that the entire bottle was a gift! The Canadians gave him a small bottle of whisky in return.

Cherga’s friend, meanwhile, pulled out a knife and said “man!”. This unnerved us a little. To try to clarify his meaning, he thrust his pelvic region a bit and gestured with his hands and knife emanating from his manly parts, then said “man!!” once more. Apparently having a large knife is what makes you a man. After some more confused conversation, it seems like he was once in the special forces. Adon pulled out his pocket knife and the Russian laughed, making gestured which I suspect meant something like “small man”. He had two knives intended as presents, one for me and one for one of the Canadians.

Then we helped Cherga push-start his car (“Russia car! Need help to go!”) and they departed.

This whole episode left me feeling very confused and lacking in generosity.

After that, we stayed chatting with the Canadians for a while, agreed to convoy through Mongolia for a bit. I think we were all very happy to have people who we could speak to easily in English, and who had also been through quite similar experiences in the last few weeks.

Saturday morning we got up early, drank the Canadians’ delicious filter coffee and provided them with some of our muesli which they had run out of. Then we got to the border just as it opened. The Russian side at tashenka was fairly straightforward, although I was required to fill out the departure form three times before I got it right. Apparently declaring that we have foreign currency just wastes everybody’s time, and we were exporting our car rather than using it to transit through Russia. They also required our Kazakhstan customs declaration, which fortunately we had kept. Paperwork mountain complete, we moved on to the Mongolian side of the border.

At the Russian border we also met a trio of Italians in a Fiat Panda: Marco, Paolo and Luigi. Most Italian names ever.

After driving a few kilometres on a fairly good road, we came to the first Mongolian checkpoint. Having verified that we all had passports with Mongolian visas, they let us through. The roads instantly turned to crap, a bumpy dirt road full of potholes. After another few kilometres, we reached the Mongolian border complex.

We went first through the Mongolian customs process. It was fairly straightforward but involved lots of photocopying of documents, lots of information being entered into computers and lots of print-outs being signed, stamped, photocopied, stamped, and signed again. They also took a quick squiz at the insides of our car, presumably to satisfy the customs regulaions and verify that we aren’t openly smuggling drugs or terrorists or whatever. Then they took a photo of our car with a bright pink digital camera. It was unclear to what extend this final bit was part of the official customs process and to what extent it was for their own amusement. Eventually, we were in posession of a piece of paper entitling us to import our car permanently into Mongolia, and our English car registration document had lots of stamps on it saying that the poor Skoda had left England for good.

While I (Cameron) had been attending the customs side of things, Patrick and Adon had been investigating the source of a squishy noise from our suspension. It turns out that our rear right-hand spring had snapped in two, and had then rotated so it wasn’t properly supporting the car. With the aid of axle stands borrowed from our fellow travellers, they managed to remove the broken part of the spring and reattach the larger part, about 80% of the original length. Heaps better than nothing, or what we had before. Obtaining stiffer springs before we left England would have been a good idea in retrospect.

After we’d cleared the Mongolian customs process, the border guards stopped for lunch. The Italians and the Canadians were told to wait until after lunch, and we decided to wait with them because we’d rather have company through Mongolia. Some more cars arrived at the border. More waiting. Eventually the border officials returned from lunch. We waited some more.

We stayeed chatting with the other teams while the officials did whatever it is they needed to do with all of the paperwork. At some point we realised it was after 5pm, and thought it might be an idea to get a move on. We agreed we’d drive to the first town, Tsagaannuur, and wait for the others there.

With Patrick at the wheel, we cleared the final border gate and drove off into the Mongolian wilderness. The road was mostly good but corrugated, with a few sections that we quite rocky. The scnery was still spectacular, yet quite different from the Russian side. This time we were in rugged, mountainous terrain, heading towards the Gobi desert.

Tsagaannuur turned out to be a town so small that we drove past it without realising until afterwards. Shortly after that, Patrick noticed that the brakes weren’t working particularly well. He pulled over and noticed that there was some kind of fluid dripping on the ground. Adon and I were pretty sure it wasn’t anything important but Patrick prodded the brakes and more fluid spurted out. So maybe it was important after all. As we sat around discussing what to do about the ruptured brake line, the others who we’d left behind at the border crossing arrived.

Luckily, one of the others (driving a Daihatsu Terios, unsure of team name) came up with a cunning solution and even had the required bits to implement it: snip the brake line, put a screw in it to plug the leak and then secure it with putty and various other things. So he and Patrick fixed the brakes while everybody else stood around gawking. Efficient!

Then we were back on the road again, this time in a convoy of five teams. Together we drove to the town of Ulgiy. The roads were pretty good, culminating in a nice strip of bitumen for 10 km or so which let us zoom into our first Mongolian town, feeling like heroes. The Mongolians seemed really excited to see our convoy arrive, too, with people on the streets waving at us as we drove past. One of the other teams we were travelling with reckoned we’d be able to find a ger or yurt to stay in. After asking for directions several times and being pointed in a number of contradictory directions, we ended up at Blue Wolf Ger Camp. The sign outside advertised free internet and hot shower. We were hooked on the concept right away.

For $10 each we got to stay in a really quite comfortable yurt, with a nice bed, shower, electricity and wireless internet. There was also a restaurant next door, where we stayed eating and talking until well after midnight.

And that’s where our story ends for the moment. We have about 1700 km remaining until we reach Ulaanbaatar, or about 240 km per day on average if we’re going to make it there in time to catch our flight home. So there’s no rush – we can take it easy on the rubbish roads, enjoy the scenery and towns we pass through, and chill out with the others doing the rally.

Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back before breakfast!

– Cameron

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Kazakhstan

[This post continues directly from our previous post on Uzbekistan.]

Monday involved a whole lot of driving. Our original plan was to reach Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, but somewhere along the way we decided we’d rather camp somewhere out bush now that we’ve finally reached the more sparsely populated portion of our trek.

The scenery through Kazakhstan so far has varied quite a bit. Leaving Shymkent, we started out driving through a valley between distant snow-capped mountains. After we left the mountains behind, we were passing through vast, flat plains of scrub. This felt strangely like being back home – the kind of sparsely populated countryside that I’ve become very familiar with seeing all over Australia.

Unlike Australia, in Kazakhstan you’ll regularly find sheep, horses, donkeys and cows just straying over the unfenced road. Sure, that’s something you sometimes see in Australia, but we’ve been seeing it in Kazakhstan on a main road joining two cities. There’s also plenty of animals wandering around the small towns we’ve passed through. Once again, like Australia, the distance between towns has started to get quite large, and the actual towns have started to get a lot smaller than previously. Unlike Australia, we’ve started to see people living in large canvas tents – yurts. So we’ve kind of achieved our “Perth to Yurt” goal. Of course, we’ve still a long way to go before we get to Mongolia, and a long way to travel within Mongolia to reach Ulanbator from the Russian border.

In general, Kazakhstan has been completely unlike what I was expecting. The terrain has been similar, but this first section to Almaty at least has been more populated and had much better roads and facilities than I was worrying about. People here have seemed a bit less friendly enthusiastic about the foreigners in their midst, too. The crazy waves from other cars, petrol station and restaurant staff excited to talk to us even though we don’t have any language in common and people in villages gawking at us have all stopped. Perhaps so many Mongol Ralliers have passed this way that we’re no longer a novelty? Maybe the Kazakh national attitude is more like the Scottish and they don’t trust strangers? Who knows.

There’s also been a bit of a change in attitude with the police we’ve encountered. In Romania we were being pulled over to make sure we weren’t lost (often we were lost). Starting in Iran we found the roads had regular police checkpoints; but mainly we were being pulled over because the police were curious and wanted to chat with us despite lack of a common language. In Turkmenistan we were pulled over because the cops wanted to give us grief for whatever ridiculous reason they could come up with (usually speeding while being foreign). In Uzbekistan we were asked if we were okay and if we needed directions. In Kazakhstan they’ve so far just wanted to see our documents and wave us on.

Kazakhstan is also the first time we’ve seen petrol station attendants with guns. Not a particularly encouraging sight.

On Monday we were a bit concerned that the main road to Almaty might pass through Kyrgyzstan because, well, both of our maps show that it does. (Presumably the road was built back in the USSR days where there was no border to cross.) There were a couple of possible minor roads that allowed us to zig zag along the border, but it was hard to tell if one or the other might result in us travelling hundreds of kilometres over dirt tracks – our maps don’t indicate sealed vs unsealed roads. Fortunately, just following the signs to “Almaty” ended up taking us over one of these roads, which was a bit bumpy but that didn’t stop us from doing 110 km/h trying to keep up with the crazy German team (Splendid Spendobels) in front of us. When we stopped for fuel the German driver, Wolfgang, said to me something like “ah, that felt like proper rally driving!” At some point on this route we also lost all of our hub caps.

The temperature has also cooled down a bit, which has been a very welcome relief. It now feels like a Perth spring day and the sky is a beautiful blue with occasional clouds – not quite as nice as the vivid blue you see in outback Australia but much nicer than anything we’ve seen in Western Europe. Couldn’t possibly ask for better weather. The drop in temperature has also allowed my bow tie to make a come-back, for the first time since eastern Turkey.

Monday night we set up camp around sunset in the Kazakh bush, a way off the main road. This also provided an opportunity to survey our food supplies and try to cook something for dinner. Patrick discovered some tinned meat we bought in Hungary. The tin looked like a cat food tin, the picture of the meat inside looked like cat food, and when opened the meat inside smelled like cat food. Patrick was adamant, however, that it wasn’t cat food. Cat food was much more expensive than this Hungarian delicacy. To go with the Hungarian mystery meat we had some pasta, pasta sauce and onion. I suggested it might be an opportunity to make a vegetarian meal, but Patrick was having none of it. To be fair, once fried and smothered in pasta sauce, the mystery meat was quite edible. Tasted a bit like sausages. Personally, I’ll be glad to be back home and able to be vegetarian once more.

After a nice sleep in and spot of brekkie (for me: a cup of instant coffee made with Tesco-brand guaranteed super-British UHT milk; for the others, muesli and Tesco milk), we hit the road once more. In the passenger seat I had the opportunity to squint at maps, plot our course through Kazakhstan and Russia to the Mongolia border and verify our distance calculations. It turns out that when preparing our itinerary we’d underestimated the distance we’d have to travel through Kazakhstan by about 1000 km, but since the roads on our North-South route were decent quality tarmac instead of the horrible dirt tracks we’d been warned about by people who’d crossed Kazakhstan from West to East, we were ahead of schedule.

On top of this, we had about 2000 km less to travel through Russia than our original calculations suggested. Just as well because our itinerary had us travelling something like 900 km per day through Russia, which would be somewhat more than we’d been able to achieve so far. So according to our new calculations we’ll be hitting the Mongolian border two or three days earlier than originally expected. This is good, because our vague guess of being able to make it from the border to Ulaanbaatar in five days would place us, according to the guide provided by the rally organisers, up there with the fastest to ever to make the journey.

Tuesday saw us drive straight through the city of Almaty and out the other side again. A little while after leaving the city, I was pulled over again by the cops. This time they attempted to explain that I’d been doing 60 km/h through a 50 zone, and had my headlights off which is apparently illegal in Kazakhstan. As a result, they wanted 100 of the United States’ finest dollars from me. I showed them my international driving permit, my passport, all the forms I’d obtained at the Kazakh border, and feigned incomprehension at “one hundred dollars”, instead explaining to them loudly in English (which the didn’t really understand) that we were Australians driving from London to Mongolia, with lots of gesturing. After a couple of minutes they told me to go away.

We stopped for dinner at a pub in the town of Taldyqorghan. While we were looking at the menu in blank incomprehension and trying to guess what the different items might be, someone at a neighbouring table came over to assist. His name was Erlan and he spoke quite a few words of English – more than the waitstaff – and better yet, had a translation app on his phone. The items we’d been guessing where main meat dishes turned out to have been salads. The main meals were what we suspected might have been deserts. Whoops! Thanks to this assistance, I ordered some lamb, Patrick got some chicken and Adon chose shishkebabs. After we ordered we stayed chatting to him, attempting to explain our crazy journey and the route we were taking. Erlan’s son Dulat also joined our table briefly. Dulat spoke good English and was, if I recall correctly, studying international trade at university.

After dinner it was time to drive some more. The plan was to drive a couple of hours down the road towards Semey, the town nearest the Russian border. An hour into the drive we got an SMS from the Splendid Spendobels who we’d been convoying with on Monday, asking where we were. Apparently they were sipping drinks in a bar in Usharal, which was a bit further than we had originally intended to travel travel. After a brief team meeting – Adon and I saying “let’s do it” and Patrick saying “not another late night!” – we decided to ignore Patrick and keep on driving through the night.

At about 1:30am we reached the point which I’d thought was the right town, but it turned out my navigation was off and we still had another 50 km to do. We reached the town the Germans were staying in a bit after 2am, only to find that the hotel – the only hotel in town – was completely chockers. Tired and dispirited, we left and drove for a bit longer until we found a dirt track through some scrub. where we set up camp.

No rest for the wicked, so on Wednesday at 9:30am we woke up and by 10:30am we were moving again. We stopped at the first service station along the road in the hope of picking up some water. Unfortunately, petrol stations through the Stans haven’t been as well stocked as Australian roadhouses. Most had no credit card facilities, and many – including this one – sold nothing but fuel. The attendant expained in Russian or Kazakh that the next available water was 90km along the road.

After driving for a couple more hours, we passed the Splendid Spendobels, stopped by the side of the road having a polite chat with some nice policemen. We tooted and drove past them, then pulled over to wait for them at the next convenient spot. This brief section of road was so badly potholed that even Wolfgang was forced to drive slowly. When the Germans arrived a few minutes later, we had a chat about our proposed route through Russia to the Mongolian border.

The route that I’d picked out on Tuesday was through main roads, but not particularly direct. The Germans had found that there was a minor road through some mountains, present on only one of our two maps of the area, which allowed us to shave off 600-800km from the journey. This seemed like a good plan to us; even if we had to drive slowly we’d end up ahead, and minor roads were likely to be more interesting than major highways. With that decided, we set off in convoy with the Spleandid Spendobels, aiming for the Russian border and beyond.

At the town of Oskemen, not far from the border, both the Germans and ourselves managed to independently get lost. When the Germans eventually un-lost themselves, they had some bad news: the border crossing we intended to us was closed. Our revised plan was to take the crossing near Shemonaikha, half-way between the one we’d originally planned to use at Semey and the one which was closed.

Because it was now getting quite late, we decided to stay the night in Shemonaikha and asked some local chavvy-looking youths for directions to a hotel. They took us to a place which was unlit from the outside and we would have guessed to be an apartment block rather than a hotel, where $40 purchased us one night in a room for three people. Not bad!

Thursday morning, we crossed into Russia in convoy with the Spendobels. The Kazakh side of the border was amazingly efficient and took about 15 minutes to get through. The Russian side, on the other hand, took a few hours. But we made it, and by precisely lunch time-ish, we were in Russia.

Yours until we meet again, dear Internet,

Cameron.

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Uzbekistan

G’day folks! We’ve done a lot of driving since our last update in Turkmenistan. This post is coming to you as a delayed live broadcast written on the road but posted from Russia, taking advantage an unsecured wireless access point in Belokurikha.

Our last entry ended on Friday night as we were in the outskirts of Turkmenabat. We found a hotel to stay there that night – what seemed like the biggest and presumably most expensive hotel in the city, and we got the fanciest room they had for $120 per night. It was perhaps quite typical of Turkmenistan: overblown and grandiose, with neon everywhere on the outside, pictures of the Turkmen President in the entrance, and yet understaffed and falling apart.

Turkmenistan, for whatever reason, seemed to be pretty much the country of massive buildings and neon lights (everywhere! even on the university!), obstructionate officials, creepy photogrpahs of the President everywhere and amazingly poor conditions for ordinary people. Driving through residential areas was a huge contrast to the money poured into the grandiose public buildings in infrastructure: just densely packed slums. There were obviously some who had money though – there were a fair few big BMWs and Mercedeses on the roads which I suspect would cost well over $100,000 in Australia. Adon also picked out a few Japanese sports sedans which were apparently twin-turbo V6s that he’d wished he could have got his hands on in Australia. But there were also plenty of people driving Soviet-era Ladas and older Toyotas in varying states of serious disrepair.

Turkmenabat is quite close to Uzbek border. We got a little bit lost trying to find the border crossing; it was actually this getting lost that let us see a bit of how the poorer folks in Turkemnistan lived. Fortunately, after a lot of confused gesturing trying to draw a map in the air, one of the locals suggested that we follow him out to the main road. So we did, and offered him a jar of vegemite for his troubles. Poor dude.

Arriving at the border crossing around 1pm, we discovered that it was closed. Because it was lunch time. There were a few other ralliers waiting at the border, who had heard that from 2pm until 5pm the border would be open again. So we sat around chatting and waited for the crossing to reopen. We also took the opportunity to get our Turkmen Menat changed into Uzbek Sum by a roadside moneychange dude. Unlike the previous couple of border crossings, the exchange rate offered was exactly what the handy reference page thing that I’d compiled before we left said it should be, and he didn’t try to pull a fast one with his arithmetic. Phew! At 2pm we once again went through the process of filling out forms (some labelled in Cyrillic, though English translations were on display) and waving lots of bits of paper under lots of people’s noses. The whole process took something like 3-4 hours and then we were in Uzbekistan.

The weather was still super-hot and after spending hours standing around as the wheels of bureaucracy turned we were rather dehydrated. At the town on the Uzbek side of the border we immediately bought some tasty snacks and something like 15 litres of water, 5 litres of fruit juice and a few glasses of chilled juice for immediate consumption. The shopkeepers were quite amused at the whole process, smiling and laughing between themselves at the strange foreigners who’d descended on their town.

Immediate thirst quenched, we pressed on to the small city of Bukhara, where we stopped for dinner. We stopped at a cafe, a bit uncertain as to whether it was open or serving food because it was empty. But we wandered in, indicated that we wanted a table for three and tried to ask for a menu. Which, like most of the small cafes we’ve stopped at, they didn’t have. But they did have a young boy named Sanja who was the cafe owner’s neighbour, and who spoke excellent English. So he managed to explain to what food was on offer, and soon we were feasting on fish, shishkebabs and a massive quantity of chicken. Way more than we could eat.

Sanja asked if he could join us while we ate, and we ended up having an interesting discussion about Australia (which he was interested in) and Uzbekistan (which we were interested in) and our crazy journey to Mongolia. It was interesting to discover that Uzbekistan seemed to be putting a pretty heavy emphasis on education; Sanja was in his final year of high school and was hoping to go to university next year. Our experience was that the younger Uzbeks we encountered spoke pretty good English – very different from Turkmenistan where we had to rely on gestures and a handful of Russian words.

In fact, the general impression we got of Uzbekistan was that it was quite progressive compared to Turkmenistan. We didn’t see any over-the-top public buildings, but nor did we see quite the same indications of poverty. Looking on Wikipedia later confirmed that Uzbekistan had been doing a pretty good job of economic reform in post-Soviet times, and that its GDP was expected to grow massively in the next few years. The story on the political side didn’t sound so great though – apparently a quite oppressive regime and a bad record of human rights abuses, which I was completely unaware of and wouldn’t have guessed at all from what we saw of the country.

After dinner, we pressed onwards and Saturday night we stayed in Samarqand. The roads in Uzbekistan were generally much better than Turkmenistan, with a dual carriageway connecting more or less one end of the country to the other. Country driving in the -stans was about as chaotic as city driving in Turkey and Iran, though. At night you needed to be very alert. There was too much traffic to be able to have our headlights on full beam very much, but the road was full of exciting obstacles. To start with there were no cat’s eyes or other reflectors on the road, so you could only see a short distance ahead where the road was. There wasn’t much room for error, though: on one side there was a concrete barrier, and on the other side usually a ditch. Lane markings were near-invisible if they were present at all, but that wasn’t an issue because nobody took any notice of them at all.

Other hazards on the road included homicidal trucks with broken lights or lights switched off. Broken taillights was a very common situation, broken taillights and only one working headlight was also something we saw quite a few times. Quite a contrast from the Australian “fairy land on wheels” road trains. We also encountered a large tractor doing about 20 km/h with no lights on. There were also a lot of suicidal cyclists with no lights, no reflectors anywhere and no helmets. These could be travelling in the same direction as you, in the opposite direction to you (i.e. wrong side of the road) or attempting to cross the road. Sometimes we also found cars travelling on the wrong side of the road, because, well, why not really? We also had a near miss with a Lada with broken brake lights that decided to drop from 100+ km/h to a complete standstill in the fast lane.

On top of all of this, the normally-smooth road surface occasionally turned to good-but-lumpy tarmac, or sometimes to a horrible mess of potholes and corrugations. Whatever. We were just happy to not be in Turkmenistan.

Every now and again, during the day, there’d be sections of road under repair. We’ve had an opportunity now to see how several different countries deal with roadwork zones. In Australia, of course, there’d usually be a speed limit sign well in advance dropping the road to 40 km/h while the workers stand around having a smoke and the machinery sits idle. In England it was similar: they’d block off maybe 30 miles of motorway at a time, drop the speed limit from 70 mph to 50 mph, install a lot of average speed check cameras, park heavy machinery by the side of the road and then … there would be nobody in sight working on the road. In Germany, the lanes on the Autobahn would narrow to maybe a few centimetres wider than the average car and everybody would continue driving at stupendous speeds while roadwork took place on the other side of the barrier. In Uzbekistan there’d be a sign warning you of roadworks maybe 20 metres in advance of the lane that you were in suddenly turning into hot, wet tyre-destroying asphalt with a steamroller driving over it.

Despite all of this, our most common speed was 100-120 km/h, even at night. Somehow, nobody died. At the time, it didn’t even seem that crazy – I think we’ve all got accustomed to expecting everybody on the road to act in ways that would seem completely mad in Australia or Europe, and just not worrying about it.

We spend Saturday night in Samarqand at a hotel recommended by a taxi driver we stopped to ask directions from. The hotel didn’t have any rooms with three beds, and was completely unwilling to let three blokes stay in a room with a double bed and a single bed – and looked incredibly uncomfortable at even contemplating this possibility. However, they gave us a very good price for two separate rooms.

One oddity of Uzbekistan was the petrol was quite hard to find. It took a while to find an open service station on Sunday morning, and we ended up waiting half an hour in a queue while cars filled up from the single petrol bowser.

Having fuelled up, it was time once again to hit the road, and forwards progress as quickly as possible to Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. We arrived there by about 4pm. Our maps showed that the main road from Uzbekistan through to Kazakhstan headed north-east from the Tashkent ring road. We found a road that looked plausible – signed to “Almaty”, a major city in Kazakhstan – and drove across it. After a few minutes’ drive, we hit the border town and discovered that the border wasn’t open. Not now, not ever, unless we were locals. The gestures we received suggested we should go back to ring road, turn right and try the next border crossing. At which we discovered much the same thing. This time we got the name of the town where supposedly we could cross, about 90km away back towards Samarqand. We stopped for some dinner and set off back down the highway.

Once again the border crossing was straightforward but slow. The Uzbek side was highly bureaucratic as we’d come to expect – we needed to dig out the entry forms we’d filled out at the previous crossing, as well as put exactly the same information on brand new exit forms. On top of the usual documentation for the car, our passports, our customs papers for temporarily importing the car, etc. The Kazakh side was a bit more laid back. One visitor form to fill out which I don’t think wanted to know much more than our name and passport number, then waiting for the official to take down our car details and give us a customs declaration for the car. While one border dude was filling out this form, another was swatting mosquitos by hand. Patrick and Adon couldn’t help laughing, while I was trying very hard not to laugh while providing answers to the questions I was being asked about the car. When one of the mosquitos landed on me, the mosquito-swatting dude raised his hand in my general direction, looked as if he was about to bring it down on the mosquito (and me), then hesitated, looked a bit confused, and decided to not bother.

Incidentally, kudos to Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat for getting the Kazakh accent down pretty well.

The Kazakhs also managed to have the worst possible system for recording number plates of cars entering and exiting border control. The simple approach would have been to have the guards with walkie-talkies just read out the plate to whoever was manning the gate. The high-tech approach would have been to have a narrow lane with a camera that automatically recognised the plate, recorded it and opened the gate. The Kazakh system involved a guard instructing us to park in a very specific but hard to get right location on a wide expanse of tarmac so that the automated system could record our number plate. Then he’d get on his walkie-talkie, ask the dude in the control room if it was working yet and if not we’d have to move the car a few centimetres in the hope that the situation would improve.

Eventually through the border, we convoyed with a couple of Germans we met at the crossing – Roland and Wolfgang of the Splendid Spendobels – to Shymkent, the first major town on our route through Kazakhstan. Irritatingly, Shymkent was about 20km from the first border crossing we’d attempted but closer to 200km from the one that was actually open. We finally got there by about 2am, having lost an hour to daylight saving.

The roads through Kazakhstan to Shymkent were pretty good, though. I was expecting to hit dirt tracks pretty much immediately, but at least half of the distance was dual carriageway. The road surface wasn’t great, but better than the first half of our route through Turkmenistan.

After finding a bed to collapse in in Shymkent, we’re now hoping to reach Almaty by Monday night – a distance of 700km. So far the roads are still all paved and reasonable quality, so that seems pretty plausible.

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Turkmenistan

Hi all! Cameron here again, this time writing while bouncing up and down the, er, quality roads of Turkmenistan. [But posted a day and a half later from an internet cafe in Uzbekistan, which seems to be a much nicer place – shame it’s just a drive-through country for us on account of our time limit and it having a relatively good dual carriageway connecting one end of the country to the other.]

Our last update had us waking up in Tehran on Wednesday 3rd. Our plan was to spend the morning exploring the city, but after sleeping in, a late brunch in the hotel, cursing the heat and generally spending too long getting our act together, the only sightseeing we ended up doing was wandering through Tehran Bazaar. Nowhere near as impressive as the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Tehran as a city seemed interesting through – very sprawly and a bit pedestrian-unfriendly but also a fascinating mix of old and new, and some very impressive “squares” and amazing colourful lights at night.

But we were keen to press on, so after posting some postcards and changing some US dollars into local Iranian rials, we once again pointed the car east. The route out of Tehran took us up and down a mountain range – absolutely spectacular but making for slow progress. As we heading further north-east into the Iranian desert, the rich-poor divide in Iran began to make itself clear: outside of the big cities, Iran felt a lot like it was stuck in a time warp. Dinner was at a kebab joint in a large town in north-east Iran. But what we got wasn’t just any old shishkebab: we were invited to select some cuts of meat – we got a mix of liver and heart as the dude seemed to be recommending – and it was cooked as we waited, then chopped up and served on skewers. Tasty but very much not vegetarian.

As we got further out, we got pulled over by police a few times. Every time, all they seemed to want was to satisfy their curiosity – who are these crazy-looking foreigners, why are they driving through Iran, how did they get here and where are they going. In one case we got done for speeding, but there was no attempt to fine us or extort money, just a polite “slow down a bit please”.

We were originally hoping to get close to the Turkmen border – about 900 km from Tehran – that evening, but between the late start and slow progress through mountains, we didn’t get anywhere near it. We set up camp around midnight in Golestan National Park. Just as we were about the leave on Thursday morning, a couple of carloads of curious Iranians stopped by our campsite to have to chat. As usual we tried to explain with a mix of gesturing, speaking words in a language that the other party didn’t speak and pointing at the list of countries on the car.

We finally reached the border crossing at Bajgiran around 3pm. We were informed when we got there that the border closed by 5pm so we’d better get a wriggle on. The process of crossing into Turkmenistan was fairly long and bureaucratic but fortunately quite straightforward – nobody wanted a bribe and nobody tried to stop us crossing, but a lot of forms had to be filled in, signed, stamped, signed and stamped by somebody else, carried around to another building, etc. As Patrick described it, it’s “Legend of Zelda, Customs Edition”: to pass through the gate you must collect a set of stamps, each of which seemed to require a minor sub-quest to obtain.

We were a bit nervous about this crossing because we didn’t actually have Turkmen visas. The rally organisers were trying to get us Letters of Invitation which allow us to purchase transit visas at the border, but this process wasn’t completed until the day we reached Iran. We had no physical documentation saying that we had an invite, just an email saying that all Turkmen border crossings had been issued with a list of Ralliers and that no physical invites or visas would be required, and a reference number to give to the officials. The general tone of the letter was quite pessimistic and contained phrases like “if there is a problem with your invitation, which there probably will be”. However, after we said “Mongol Rally” and “invitation” to enough people, eventually one of them found the list, ascertained that we were on the list, and told us that we could buy our three visas for 150 US dollars.

The border crossing was finally completed by about 6pm. Upon arrival into Turkmenistan, the scenery was absolutely stunning – the crossing is high up in the mountains, which we ascended in Iran and began to descend upon entry to Turkmenistan. It was also amazingly quiet and the air was clean, for the first time since before Romania. We stopped by the side of the road to make some dinner and attempt to fix the front passenger power window, which had decided to becvome permanently stuck in the “down” position shortly after the border crossing.

In the midst of this, a car carrying a couple of border guards gestured at us, told us we couldn’t stop here and that we had to leave within five minutes. We assured them that we would, and then proceeded to ignore them and continue making dinner. Five minutes later, a minibus full of border guards turned up and told us we had to leave right now, stopping was not allowed until a bit closer to Asgabat. So we packed up hastily, with me carrying a boiling hot pot of pasta wrapped in a towel on my lap and Adon holding the doro trim and winding/locking mechanism together with his hands as Patrick drove.

A few kilometres down the road, we came to the Turkmenistan passport control office. Whoops. Now it became a bit more clear to us why the guards hadn’t been keen on us parking by the side of the road, and why it had been so quiet where we’d stopped before. We went through the final border formalities and stopped at a petrol station on the outskirts of Asgabat to complete the repairs (i.e. bodging the window so it was permanently closed instead of permanently open) and consumption of dinner and cups of tea and Scotch whisky.

This incident also brings our count of car breakage to two: the first being a crack in the window that happened on our way out of Istanbul.

Asgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan and nicknamed by us “Aztkaban” (thank you Harry Potter) was a bit like Iranian cities – lots of very modern and very impressive buildings, modern-seeming infrastructure and people everywhere. Unlike Iran, the dress code was a bit more relaxed, and the driving a bit less crazy. It also seemed a little bit less sprawled, with a clearly observable centre and skyscrapers. Once again, people seemed crazily enthusiastic to see us weird foreigners on their roads. We received waves, honks, lights flashed. There was one car carrying a family that we kept overtaking and they kept overtaking us, where every time they passed us waving crazily and the probably-teenaged daughter blowing us kisses.

In short, we’ve become quite accustomed to the looks from everybody around us that mean: “look at those crazy foreigners! they’re being crazy! and foreign!”

We followed the signs out of Asgabat and towards Turkmenbasy. But after following this road fro a while, we were a bit confused: we wanted to be heading east or north-east, but the compass showed we’d been heading west for quite a while, and we passed through a town which our map showed being on a very different road from what we were hoping to be on. So we did a U-turn, returned to the outskirts of Asgabat and confirmed that the sign pointing on the road we’d gone out on did indeed lead to Turkmenbasy.

Unfortunately, a closer inspection of our map showed that the city we were aiming for was Turkmenabat, and Turkmenbasy was far from an alternative spelling for the same place, it was a completely different city on the opposite side of the country. Whoops!

We drove east for a bit and found signs pointing to Turkmenabat. Problem solvered! But just a few kilometres out of Asgabat the road turned to poo. It was still bitumen, but heavily pot-holed and corrugated. Our maximum speed was about 50-70 km/h: slow going when we had 600km to cross and had originally been expecting to do it in a single day. Around midnight our driving willpower turned into a pumpkin once again and we camped on a track a short way off the main road.

Friday morning we set off again after chowing down some muesli and Tesco-brand UHT milk. We were on the road a bit before 9am is something of a record for us on this trip. In the light of day we were able to observe that, perhaps even more so than Iran, Turkmenistan was amazingly poor and desolate outside the capital city. This morning also got us the first speeding fine of the trip: Adon was doing 70 km/h on the highway which we had no idea what the speed limit was. Apparently the limit was 50 km/h. After some hesitation we handed the policeman a mixed wad of Turkmen Menat and American Dollars which he didn’t even bother counting. We’re reasonably certain that this was an “unofficial” speeding fine that didn’t go anywhere beyond the cop’s own wallet.

No more than five minutes after paying the speeding fine, adventure struck again, this time in the form of a flat tyre. Fortunately we have lots of spares, and at the next town we arrived at we replaced the broken tyre and also got the dude to repair a puncture in one of the spare tyres we had in the roof that had been there since we bought it (second-hand). We also stopped for lunch, some tasty spiced chicken and what we think was a tonic water spider.

After passing the town of Mary, about half-way to Turkmenabat, the road improved dramatically and we were finally able to travel at 100 km/h most of the way to Turkmenabat, give or take the odd pot-holed section. On this nice smooth road we had our second tyre blow-out – another back tyre gone. It was changed as quickly as we could manage as the gritty, blinding dust of the Turkmen desert is not a pleasant place to be.

The heat and dust of the desert, combined with consecutive nights of camping with no shower, has been turning us slowly mad. Er, rapidly madder. We’ve been trying to come up with ways to keep ourselves cool in the un-airconditioned car. The temperature of the air coming out of the vents has been consistently warmer than outside, something which was never an issue in Europe but is quite unwelcome when the ambient temperature is 40+ degrees Celsius. Even late at night the outside air must be close to 30C. Our water bottles left in the hot car rapidly get warm enough to brew coffee with. Patrick has had his window down as much as possible despite the dust. I’ve taken the reverse approach, blocking up the windows with towels and pillows to reflect the sun. Adon has been experimenting with evaporative cooling. None of these approaches have been particularly successful.

The other thing that we’ve been unable to get since Turkey is coffee! Right now, I am seriously craving a nice cool Coffee Chill. There seems to be nobody in Turkmenistan selling bags of ice like every service station in Australia does, and in fact the petrol stations here sell nothing but petrol (in your choice of 80, 92 or 95 octane) and diesel.

And that’s pretty much where the story ends for now. It’s Friday night (5th August), we’re getting quite close to Turkmenabat and the first of the -stans is now almost crossed. Roll on Uzbekistan!

Peace,

Cameron

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I Ran

G’day all!

It’s Cameron here again, writing this from the comfort of my hotel room here on Tuesday night in Tehran. The Iranian border crossing was, er, interesting – but best to ask us about it in person when we get back home. Short version: Adon finally managed to achieve a story of motoring hilarity that trumps driving into a daycare centre, and Cameron got ripped off by roadside money changers.

After we left Istanbul on Saturday, we high-tailed it towards the city of Samsun on the coast of the Black Sea. At a petrol station along the way, we ended up explaining to the people there that we were Australians on a long drive. This got a response along the lines of “Australia? Ahhh, Gallipoli!” We all looked very embarassed and apologetic about this, but the Turkish dude said “no no, it’s fine, we win!”

Eventually we got to Samsun, found a parking spot by the rocky “beach” and were ready to go for a swim. Just before we found somewhere secluded to change, a couple of employees of the nearby restaurant were curious about the odd foreigners who’d parked in their carpark and came out to chat. Soon there were maybe half a dozen people from the restaurant talking to us – us speaking English, them speaking Turkish (which we didn’t understand) and fractured English – and bringing us tea, water and delicious pide.

After they left, a few locals also wanted to chat with us and invited us to swim with them. They spoke almost no English, we spoke no Turkish, but we all laughed and splashed around and threw an AFL ball together. Adon taught the Turks the words “wanking” and “wanker”, which they found most amusing.

But after the fun times were had, it was time to press on once again. Destination: Iranian border. We drove and drove and stopped for dinner of delicious pide in a small town around the Black Sea coast and drove and drove some more. Eventually we arrived at the Iranian border on Monday afternoon. After some wrangling, we made it through, drove a few hundred kilometres to the nearest city – Tibriz – and went looking for a hotel. Iranian cities seem to be incredibly low density and a little bit tricky to find the “centre” of if it’s 2am and you don’t read Farsi. Eventually we stopped at a service station and asked/gestured at a couple of guys filling up their motorcycle. They gestured for us to follow them and we did. The bikers were wearing no leathers or helmets, riding at insane speeds along city streets, and had their lights switched off. But sure enough, they took us to a hotel a few minutes drive away. Relying on the kindness of random strangers seems to work pretty well here.

Exhausted, we collapsed into our hotel beds and slept until about 1pm. Today (Tuesday) has been pretty much all driving to reach Tehran. Driving in Iran has been interesting. The main highway to Tehran has toll booths along it, where we were charged random amounts from zero (“From Australia? No problem, go on through!”), 5000 reals (about 50 cents) through to 15000 reals (about $1.50). There are also service stations along the highway. Some of them feel a lot like Australian roadhouses. But one which we stopped at just had a fuel tanker parked by the side of the road and a guy filling up people’s tanks and taking cash off them. Next to the tanker was a shack selling refreshments, where we purchased 18x 1.5L bottles of water, 3x delicious pineapple juice and cans of Coke for about $6 Aussie dollars.

Driving through Iranian cities has also been interesting. The road rules in practice appear to be: 1. Drive approximately on the right, where possible. 2. The road is just a large expanse of tarmac which you can drive on. Markings (e.g. lanes and often traffic lights) are completely irrelevant. The only rule is to make forwards progress as rapidly as possible, while avoiding being cut off by other people attempting to achieve the same.

We encountered a minor traffic jam in the way into Tehran as we drove past Azadi Stadium, where we assume there was a football (soccer) game on. As we were stopped, the cars on either side of us attempted to engage us in conversation, while we wildly gestured and yelled things like “Salaam! Australian!” back at them.

The hotel we’re staying at right now we found by accident after following a taxi doing a left turn … the wrong way down a one-way street. Um, whoops. But it’s worked out well in the end, we have internet and a place to sleep.

Tomorrow: looking around Tehran, then onwards to Turkmenistan! Which is about 900km away, so we probably won’t get there until Thursday.

But first, time to get off the internet and sleep.

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New photos!

Hey ppl,

Just a quick post to let you know that there are new photos up on my flickr page – head over there and check them out.

I’ve almost caught up with the photos, which has been a marathon effort. Here’s roughly how it happens:

  • I’ll take a lot of photos each day – for example, yesterday in Istanbul I took ~650 (2x 8GB memory cards).
  • After I suck them all into Lightroom, I’ll do a rapid first pass, spending perhaps 0.5-1 second on each one and flagging the ones that look decent.
  • Filtering on the ones I flag, I then go through and work with each one – adjusting contrast, colour calibration, cropping and removing dust specks (I have a heap of dirt on my sensor, which is really annoying. Not game enough to try and clean it myself). Each photo gets a rating out of five.
  • I then go through and apply keywords, titles and descriptions to the photos rated five (now about 5-10% of the whole). I’ll then export these to a folder as smaller JPEGs and dump them to Flickr when I get an Internet connection.
This misses a lot of photos that are probably worth publishing, but it lets me get the best ones up quickly; I’ll probably go through the whole trip again once I get home and upload some more. It’s a time consuming process, which is why you don’t have any photos of Turkey yet 🙂 Hang in there, and I’ll try to get them sorted today.
In the meantime, here’s a few of my favorites so far:
More chillin'
Kit, who joined us in convoy in France
Laters,
Patrick

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Timelapse update

Adon has been uploading more videos to the timelapse playlist on Youtube.

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