28 Oct 2011

And so to Turkey

After a couple of attempts and with the help of a waitress we have managed to ascertain that the next boat to Turkey is on Monday 31st at 18.00 and I believe we and the car are booked on.

Trying to make the call from the Hotel was hopeless so I came back to the restaurant to check the number, in doing so I happened to point the cursor at a little green phone which said 'calling via skype!. I had forgotton that I had put £10 on skype in Mongolia to try to call the Kazakh embassy in Omsk, that failed and I forgot all about it.

The number rang but they only spoke Russian. I then converted the info on the ferry web site back to Russian, plus a little drawing of a car on a ship going across the water and called the waitress for help. She then had a long conversation with the booking office and job done.

It is 11.00 now and only just above zero, with ice on the car park and on the car, but Sochi is 16 today and Antalya is 25 so I might get the shorts and sandels back on yet.

27 Oct 2011

Sausage Mash Peas and Gravy

Boiled Guts and butter tea!

Now in Elista in Russia, half way between Kazakhstan and The Black Sea. Amazingly the population here is mostly Mongolian, still here from Genghis Khans days! Fortunately we have found a cheap Hotel, with the fastest wifi we have had since we started and serves proper russian food, apparantly it is the only place in town.

What a week, 1250 miles travelled from summer (35 degrees) to winter (5 degrees) on really rough roads.

The day after the last update the skies were blue (but the wind kept the temperature down to about 15) so I belted round Khiva for a few more photos before breakfast. Then up to Nukus to an art gallery of works rescued from the Russians and on up to Moynaq where there is an Aral Sea memorial with a number of rusting ships sitting on what was the sea bed, under the cliffs that once overlooked the sea - which is now over 100 miles away. Moynaq was once a thriving fishing village, with cannaries that employed 100's of people, all now closed down. I knew the Aral Sea was shrinking but it is now only 10% of what it was in the 60's (hopefully you will be able to read the photo of the plaque below.

Then to the border - Ye Gods!!! (it was going to be a lot stronger but Chris wouldn't let me). Lonely Planet says there is little traffic on this road - probably because they are all still sitting at the border. The Uzbec side wasn't too bad, 12 cars in front of us, but nothing moved for an hour. When they eventually opened the gates 3 cars went through but the driver of the 4th was missing and the rest were so close they couldn't get round - except me - so - nobody else wants to go? I will - and in we sailed. An hour later we were in no mans land, headed for the gate to Kazakhstan, but was waved to the back of a huge pack of 50 cars in no particular order. I walked to the gate, spoke to the guard and said 'Anglia, Tourist, can I come through?' With a shake of the head he disappeard. I hung around for 10 minutes and amazingly he returned and waved me through! Only to be put in another pack of 15 cars. Another hour went by (with none of the 15 moving) and we were then beckoned through with the two that had arrived in front of us (a Russian and a kazhak that appeared to be together. All in all it took 5 hours. Amazingly it cost nothing, after all the tales this is one area they could make money as I would have gladly greased a few palms to get thorough that lot.

Now dark we decided to push on to Beneu about 40 miles up the road (I use the term loosley as it was almost non existent) but it actually worked well in the dark as there was little traffic and the spots picked out the potholes better than the day time. Little traffic except the accident we came across, where 5 cars had managed to crash into each other! I think we only saw another 5 in the 40 miles and the 'road' was about 8 cars wide!. After Benau the road was so smooth it could have been a GP track and a couple of miles up the road we came across a cafe, that had rooms so there we stayed.

300 miles later we arrived in Atayrau and went round in circles trying to find the centre (Lonely Plane has a map of the centre with various Hotels but we couldn't get on the map). Finally we found a restaurant so I set off on foot to get bearings. When I go back an English guy (Shaun) had spotted the reg and was talking to Chris. He jumped aboard and took us to two Hotels but were both full, then he offered us his annexe and took us to his house. After moving the Hummer out of the way we parked in his yard, next to his MGB and outside his garage with his 1200cc BMW Enduro (which could clearly tell a few tales) and the Hovercraft he is building (the boats were garaged elsewhere). The incredible thing is that he left at 4am the next morning for the UK and left us with the run of the house!

Evan more incredible is that we asked if there was a Toyata Centre in Atayrau and turned out not only is the manager one of his best friends but was due round a couple of hours later to collect his gun, so the service was arranged for the following day.

After ordering in Pizza's he realised that the lady that looks after him when his wife is away had cooked two plates of sausage, mash, peas and gravy (real sausages from England!) and offered these to us on the basis that he would be in England the following day, Chris was reluctant at first but I had no such inhibitions and tucked in - bloody marvelous!

In order to avoid missing his flight (which apparantly he does on a regular basis) we all stayed up till 4am and after a number of beers we downed a half bottle of rum!!! (makes a change from Vodka) and played numerous board games.

It was just as well there was a Toyota Centre as we had had a little trouble starting for a couple of days (after always starting straightaway) but when they came to move it into the service area it wouldn't start and they had to jump start it.

As we had decided to stay another day we left it overnight and collected it in the morning, they had changed the oil and filter, fuel filter, changed the front pads (with a set I was carrying), checked the whole thing over and sorted out the starting problem and would accept nothing for it. Incredible!

Crossing from Kazakhstan into Russia was a civilised 1.5 hours and back on Tom Toms radar finding Hotels is no problem (when they have rooms). The skies are blue and the sun shining, but max temperature is 5 degrees with a bitter cold wind so we are not braving the roof tent for the moment.

We have visited the Kremlin in Astrakhan and a huge Mongolian Budhist Temple here in Elista (certainly much bigger than anything in Mongolia - makes us wonder why we went there at all) will be pushing on towards the Black sea, and hopefully warmer weather tomorrow.

Khiva in the early morning sunshine.

The Tower of Silence. Dating back to 3000AD and where Fire Worshippers used to lay their dead for the sun to bleach their bones.

Jan, a French guy we met in Bukhara and gave a lift to Moynaq, coming down from the Tower of Silence

The ships graveyard at Moynaq

A City? No a graveyard, in the middle of the dessert! Shame they don't spend as much time on the houses they live in!

Another graveyard

Ships of the dessert

The Kremlin in Astrakhan

The Buddhist Temple in Elista

20 Oct 2011

Forever Autumn

After 2 months Autumn has finally caught up with us in Khiva. We had the first signs of Autumn in Omsk (Russia) at the end of August but then escaped back into summer in Khazakhstan. Although the leaves have been turning brown ever since the temperatures have staid high. The last few days in Samarqand and Bukhara have been in the mid 30's with no wind and blue skies, but the drive across the desert to Khiva was very windy and today the skies are grey and much cooler.

At the last update we were in Dushanbe applying for our second Kazahk visa, we were told it would be ready on Monday and so we stayed over the weekend in a 'homestay', i.e a private home. Firts thing Monday morning the visa had not been approved so we returned at 11.00, still not approved (but they close at 12.30 and are not open again till Wednesday) so we sat and waited. 11.30 our visa is approved, but we now have to find the right bank to pay the fee. We find the square but are stopped by the police, we ask them for directions to the bank, they forget why they stopped us and give us directions. Still can't find the bank and are stopped by the police agian - same process ask for directions and they don't ask us for papers - good scheme. Eventually find a place to park and after more directions find the bank. and pay the fee.

Almost back to the truck and realise we don't have the passports, dash back to the bank and they are still sitting on the desk! We make the Embassy by 12.10 and have our visas 10 minutes later - phew! Two more days would have severley restricted our time in Uzbekistan.

One more night in the roof tent in a valley just before the border and then another 3 hour crossing, where at one stage they told us to take all our 'luggage' into the custome hall. After some discussion, which required the world map to show them our route they forgot about that and after another cursory look we were on our way.

Since then we have stayed in Hotels in Termez (£9.50 per night for a comfortable bed with en suite and best value Hotel we have staid in), Samarquand, Nukus (£10.00 per night, but by far the worst Hotel we have staid in), Bukhara (our new favourite City) and Khiva.

Tomorrow we head for Nukus and an art gallery of paintings rescued from the Russians which we are advised is quite special, and then Moynaq. Moynaq used to be a port on the Aral sea until the Russians diverted the water and it is now about 100 miles south of the shore, with dozens of boats left abandoned.

After that we had possibly the worst road we have travelled, across Kazakhastan back to Russia for a much needed service for the cruiser and to see whether we can get a boat to Turkey from Sochi before the 6th November (when our Russian visa runs out).

A typical fruit and veg market in Uzbekistan (a world away from Mongolia)

Coloured fountains in Dushanbe


Millionaires at last! 1,200,000 Som, £300.00. Bizarly the largest note in Uzbekistan is 1,000 som which is 25p!

The remains of a Fortess of Alfred the Graet above Nukus



Still Smiling after aal these miles

7 Oct 2011

Terrified for 18 minutes and 40 seconds

Day 155 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, still warm but very murky, not sure whether from dust or smog, but has covered the last 100 miles or so below 200 meters.

After leaving Fergana we spent another night in Uzbekistan (Kojand) as it was getting late and crossed to Tajikistan the next daay. A very relaxed affair with only a few other people crossing on foot, a young femail Uzbek customs officer filled our forms. We probably spent half the time showing them all our route on the world map. rms out for us and made another cursory search and on the Tajik side it was so relaxed the police at the exit gate had to send me back to fill out another form (whilst Chris sat drinking tea with 2 police men nursing Kalahnikovs).

That night we camped on the 'beach' of a reservoir, visited by a number of goat and cow herders and the world map had to coem out again. The following night we were in a mountainous area, getting dark, with no possibility of getting off the road and ended asking if we could camp at a fuel station. They were delighted, invited us in for tea and insisted on finding an English channel on their black and white TV (connected to a satelite dish).

Following day we drove down a valley towards the fan mountains, through thick smog . First driving up to Artush at 2450m, (where we met a group of 6 French walkers, supported by 6 Tajik men and 6 donkeys, on a 6 day walking holiday that sounded fantastic - note for the future). We then dropped back down to the valley and up to Half kul, the Seven Lakes and this was absolutely the highlight of the trip so far, about 30 miles up to the 7th Lake of the most challenging and scenic road we have undertaken so far. The Lonely Planet says you can 0nly drive up to lake 6, but we lost count and made it right up to Lake 7, where we found a helicopter landing pad. Apparantly the President visited a few weeks ago and they slightly improved the track for the visit (but was still a question of once started you had to continue as there was no-where to turn round.

After 2 nights at the 7 lakes we moved round to Iskander Kul (Lake), where we stayed in a former Soviet holiday camp (along with a dutch couple with their Tajik driver), somewhat basic, but the beds were the most comfortable we have slept in on the whole trip!

Once back on the main road we thought it would be an easy couple of hours to do the 65 miles to Dushanbe - wrong! The map says the road goes over 3,300m pass, but after 2 short (400 to 500m) tunnels we launched into a 3rd (at 2,700m) that went on forever. Pitch black and much of the road under water with HUGE craters in the road that you could drive in and out of. We first came across a truck with no rear lights, following 2 cars going at less than walking pace (and with Chris telling me we shouldn't overtake in a tunnel) we lumbered past, and the same with the next 3 cars we came across.

Then we came across 2 cars side by side, with a huge digger diagonally across the tunnel, with other vehicles flashing and honking on the other side. I positioned the cruser in the middle of the road (so no other twit could try to come past) a few car lengths back, as it was clear that both cars in front would have to reverse in order for the digger to move out of the way. After a couple of minutes (that felt like hours, considering all the exhaust fumes) the digger moved and the second of the 2 cars in front managed to edge out the first, but moved to the centre of the road (possibly to avoid a crater) with the second right up its exhaust pipe and got stuck! We just trundled round them and continued banging, clanking and splashing through the tunnel, at times 100+ metres totally under water and it was quite some time before we saw any headlights behind us.

When we eventually emerged there was a line of trucks and cars changing tyres or looking underneath to see what they had damaged - how any car made it through is quite amazing.

For the next 40 miles the road was perfect and after trying an ex soviet budget Hotel we plumped for the Asia Grand, our most expensive yet at $150 per night, but we managed a 10% discount for one night, which we increased to 20% when we negotiated a second night.

We applied for our last (Kazahk) visa this morning, which we had hoped we would get today, but it won't be ready till Monday, so we have arranged a Homestay (room in a private home) for $30 a night (for Saturday and Sunday) all I need to do now is find somewhere to watch the Grand Prix on Sunday.

Assuming we do get the visa on Monday we will spend one more night in the roof tent before entering Uzbekistan where we will spend the next 12 nights or so in Hotels (due to registration requirements) visiting famous places such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, after the most southerly point of the trip at Tremiz, across a river from Afganistan.

Overnight at a fuel station in the mountains.

Commuting - Tajik style

At 2,450m at Aktush

Camping by Lake 3 (one of the 7 lakes)

Driving past one of the lakes.

Main means of transport in the mountains

View from the path round Lake 7

Reminiscent of a rock I once saw in The Himalayas many years ago. I had hitched a lift with a logging truck, stood on sections of tree trunk in the back of the truck, trying to keep my feet and rucksak from getting jammed as everything bounced up and down. The truck accelerated as a rock like this slid gradually down the slope and sliced straight through the road and carried on down about 10 seconds behind us.

Isikander Kol, unfortunately, due to smog/dust and position of the sun this photo does not really do it justice.

A rather rickety platform above a waterfall.