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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

До свидания Russia, Сайн байна уу Mongolia! (Goodbye Russia, Hello Mongolia!)

The next morning we set off, savouring what we knew would likely be the last really good roads for a while. Our drive wound through the Altai mountains and what appeared to be very popular Russian cottage country. The scenery was beautiful and we got out to stretch our legs at one point. We wandered down to the river and Rhys, Ed and Sebastien began to have the rock throwing/skipping of the world. Clearly it was a sight to be seen with these three muscular men at it. The competition didn’t last long since we are all out of shape from the rally and we needed to keep driving.

Rhys, Ed and Sebastien by the river

We kept driving and drove late into the night until we reached the border crossing. We ran into Team Phoenix in line at the border, which was closed until 9am the next morning. Sebastien and I pitched our tent and enjoyed a decent night’s sleep before the epic border crossing that awaited us.

Driving through the Altai mountains

Dinner stop on the way to the border

By 9am the next morning the Russian side of the border crossing was the place to be! A few other teams had rocked up to try their luck as well. We were directed to a hut for some forms and stamps, back to the fence for other stamps and then to wait in line until the border guards decided to let people through. In the meantime, we played a bit of football, with the locals laughing at us and occasionally participating. Sebastien accidentally threw the football over the fence into a military area and attempted to retrieve it using a rope and a bucket (the Roos have a big black bucket which Rhys insisted on bringing on the trip because it is SO useful and Ben hates it with a vengeance). Seb was convinced the contraption would work but just as he was about to launch the bucket over the barbed wire fence, he was shut down by the border guards. We thought the ball may have been lost forever, but the border guard kindly asked someone with authorization to be on that side of the fence to throw it back over.

Russia-Mongolia border

We only encountered one slight glitch when trying to exit the Russian side of the border – apparently I was supposed to have some paper that I didn’t have. The one woman that could speak English told me that it was not possible to leave Russia without the paper. Sebastien tore apart the car looking for this paper (which I am pretty sure the dude at the first hut took), and found nothing. I just said “please?” and apparently that was enough to get us across the border. Gotta love lenient bureaucracy.

We were a bit confused because usually after you cross one border the no man’s land is only a few hundred meters before the next country’s border post. This time, there was like 15km of driving through some rolling, deserted mountains before we reached a last Russian outpost and crossed into Mongolian border territory. The Russian guards at the outpost took a picture with us and lifted the post so we could proceed onward to Mongolia. The stereotypes were fulfilled. The road immediately turned to crap and it wasn’t long before we saw a yak.

Last Russian border guard

We approached the Mongolian border post and were greeted by a female guard who said “Welcome to Mongolia” and let us in. We had to pay a $1 “quarantine” fee and drive our car through a trough of dirty water, apparently to sanitize our tires. When we arrived at the border post, we saw a parking lot full of about twenty other Mongol Rally teams, some of whom had been there for two days. It was like a refugee camp and the natives were restless. 

The teams seemed to have made the most of it though, and apparently had a good party the night before, complete with disco ball.

We really hoped that we wouldn’t have to wait nearly that long, but were a bit nervous because we had arrived on a Friday and apparently processing was slow over the weekend.

Our fellow ralliers told us how the system worked – you fill in some forms and then you wait for one dude to come out so you can fill in more forms about the car. Then the border guards sit around for a while and eventually will come out for vehicle inspection, you wait a while longer and then tell you that you can leave. The day before there had been almost forty teams waiting and that was part of the reason that the processing took so long. As well, the Adventurists (the group that organizes the Mongol Rally) had to transfer money for the vehicle import fee to the Mongolian authorities and that was not necessarily proceeding as smoothly as it should have for some teams.

There was not much we could do to speed up the process, so we just embraced it, and parked alongside the other teams. Resigned to the fact we would probably have to spend the night there, we set up our chairs and a wind barrier. It was quite cold at the border and very windy. We had known it would be chilly, but it’s amazing how you forget what cold is like when you haven’t been around it. We were lucky because it wasn’t raining, the other teams had been soaked the night before. The temperature got down to around zero that night, and even with leggings, pants, a hoodie, a toque and a jacket I was freezing.

Our contribution to the refugee camp
There was a small village nearby, which we were allowed to go to by foot, though technically we weren’t legally allowed to be in Mongolia. The good thing was that there were dumplings and beer available in that village, so we were all in good spirits. 

The village near the border

Teams kept rolling in and it was like a big reunion. We saw a team of Brits that we had convoyed with for a short period and what was left of their car. Apparently they took a turn in Russia a bit too quickly and flipped the car. They were quite lucky because no one got seriously injured. One team member had a slight concussion, one was fine and one got whiplash and a gash down his back. The car was in shambles, but still running. The windows were replaced by plastic sheeting and the driver’s side door didn’t open. When they re-flipped their car so that they could drive it away, they had to tie the roof to a tree and start driving so it would pop back into shape. It’s amazing how resourceful people can be, I think they paid some Russian dude $200 to pound the car back into as good shape as possible. 

Mark (the guy who got whiplash) plays the bagpipes, and serenaded the border guards when they came out to inspect the car. We also discovered that Brad of Five Crew Canoe also plays the bagpipes. Some people have excellent party tricks!

Mark playing the bagpipes

All the teams that were there when we arrived managed to finally leave the border area by nighttime. Surprisingly, our team, the Roos and Team Phoenix all also got our car paperwork processed the same day we arrived. However, it wasn’t done until about 6pm and we figured it would be better to camp at the border with everyone (had quite a party going) rather than drive an hour and camp in the middle of nowhere.

The teams that had been there the night before told us that they had asked around in the village and gotten someone to slaughter and cook an entire goat to feed the ralliers. It was about $100 for the goat, which boiled down to less than $5 for anyone who wished to partake in the feast. Ed (of the Roos) decided that it would be a fine idea to have a goat feast at the border and set off in search of a villager that could arrange it. He made a deal with a villager and the villager’s friend loaded the goat onto his motorcycle and drove away to butcher it. At least that’s what Ed thought happened! There was some misunderstanding and the villager thought that the dude on the motorcycle was Ed’s friend and Ed thought the dude on the motorcycle was the villager’s friend. Some random stranger drove off with the goat and Ed was out $100 and the villager was out a goat. The  villager then slapped Ed in the face because someone had stolen his goat! Eventually they managed to get things sorted out and told Ed they would deliver the goat later in the evening.

Perhaps in retribution for the confusion that had ensued earlier, when the goat was delivered, we didn’t actually receive all of the goat. It was as if they had slaughtered the goat, kept the best bits for themselves and delivered the rest. There was plenty of liver, organs, fat and bones, but not too much of the good stuff. It was a bit disappointing, but the story was almost better that way.

Eventually we headed to bed and tried not to freeze before morning came and we started our drive into Mongolia - the final frontier!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Semey to Barnaul

We woke up ready to head to the border with Russia, only to be told that we needed to register our Kazakh visas in order to avoid a $100 fine when we tried to cross the border. This registration process would entail finding the migration office, filling out a form, coming back to the hotel to get a stamp and then going back to the police station. This is not something that we were looking forward to, since besides being a bureaucratic nightmare, it would also cut into our driving time. Nonetheless, we dutifully followed the map the heavily made-up receptionist gave to us and proceeded to the migration office. Once there the one officer with a rudimentary grasp of English kindly started to help us fill out the forms and tell us about the procedure (including making like 10 photocopies) that we would need to make in order to complete this process. We were not impressed. However, the bad news soon turned to good when we realized that if we were in Kazakhstan for less than a certain number of days, we didn’t actually NEED to register our visas. We still had a day left to leave the country, so we hightailed it out of there in search of the Russian border.  

We found the border easily and had a pretty decent time getting across. It didn’t take much time at all before we were into Mother Russia. While the border guards weren’t giving out any free smiles, they were efficient at the very least.

Once we were into Russia the roads were great. No Perodua sized potholes were to be found!

Rhys’ GPS had plotted a route on old roads or something which indicated Barnaul was over 700km away, when in fact it was only about 400km away. We were very happy that our drive was nowhere near as long as it was supposed to be. I was struck by how much driving through this area of Russia looked like Alberta. Hay bales, plains and people combining along with listening to some country tunes made me feel like I was at home!

We arrived in Barnaul without any issues, and just had to check two places before finding a hotel. We ran into the other Ottawa team, Five Crew Canoe at our hotel. We hadn’t seen them since Czechout so it was good to know they were making it along alright!

Once we had showered we set out in search of food. Our hotel was right next to a university in Barnaul and the boys had got to talking to a few of the Russians milling around. They were nice and recommended us a nearby sushi restaurant. Sushi in Barnaul involved a copious amount of Philadelphia cream cheese, but was a welcome break from our diet of shashlik and dumplings. We were super impressed by the people we met, they were really nice, spoke great English and gave us some insight into the views of the youth on Russian foreign affairs (Putin=bad!). In a way they were also Mongol Rally groupies, having met and hung out with a number of teams this year and in past years, so it was kind of funny. Ed was the only one who had a really late night that night, heading out to experience some of the local "entertainment", while we had a beer and the boys got Subway on the way back to the hotel. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Kazakhstan Makes Great Benefit

A few hours, a lot of stamps and a rudimentary car check later, we were on our way into the glorious nation of Kazakhstan! We started driving towards Almaty and soon started looking for a good place to set up for the night. There was a small cafe/house on the side of the road, so we asked the family there if we could sleep there for the night. Since we don’t speak Kazakh or much Russian, this most entails saying the Russian word for tent and making sleeping motions. We usually get a positive response, and I let the five ladies choose some earrings for their kindness.   Sebastien and I set up our tent and left the top open. We saw a ton of shooting stars and realized we were camping on the first day of the Perseid meteor showers. Without city lights to bother us and the huge Kazakh sky above us, we had a great show and slept soundly, awakening to the sounds of little puppies sniffing at our tent.  (the Perseides were starting at this point so it was great to tent outside, in the middle of the night, I got up to put the tarp back on because of the temperature variation.  As I opened the tent I found out who the puppies belonged to.  I was greeted by a giant Mastiff.  After a few moments of hesitation, I clicked at him, and he proceeded to sniff me and decided he should roll on his back.  I pet him, put the tarp back on and went back to bed – S)

The drive to Almaty was interesting, Kazakhstan is such a vast nation. The landscape varies between plains, mountains and hills and the roads were surprisingly adequate. We arrived in Almaty and stopped near the centre to find a bank. We crossed the street and were beckoned over by some Kazakh cops. We thought they just wanted to say hi, when to our surprise they started to write us a ticket. We had no idea what it could be for (we had also gotten our car washed so it couldn’t be for that), when through sign language they gestured that it was for jay-walking and we should use the pedestrian crosswalks. Clearly this was ridiculous because during this conversation there were about five other people blatantly jaywalking near them. (I started yelling Touriste!  Extortion!  Having my usual luck with cops it’s a good thing Aruna was there –S) After pointing this out and smiling and laughing a lot, while I grabbed at our passports, we managed to extricate ourselves from the ridiculous situation. As we were driving around looking for a hotel we saw another rally team who told us where they were staying, but also that they were leaving that day with some other teams.

Sebastien and I had to decide what to do at that point. We had heard some Mongol Rally rumours about past teams that had driven in Northern Kazakhstan on their own, broken down for three days and almost run out of food and water before anyone found them. Our options were to leave with the cars we had just met up with, or stay in Almaty and leave the next day, hoping that we could find someone on the way. We decided that our drive around Almaty looking for a hotel was a sufficient sight-seeing tour and decided to leave town that afternoon with the two other teams (Aussies, different Canadians and some Brits).

We soon lost two of the other cars when we stopped for food with the Mongol Rally Roos. It was a Sunday and Kazakh police were out in full force to stop us for whatever transgression imaginable – driving 8 km/h over the speed limit, not using lights (you have to have your light on all the time in Kazakhstan) or just to stay hi. We managed to get out of all of these situations without paying any fines, but the most imaginative negotiation technique was used by the Aussies. They are three guys – Rhys, Ben and Ed. Rhys and Ben were the initial team (Mongol Rally Roos), but they picked up Ed along the way when his sidecar motorbike broke down during the starting lap of the Goodwood Motor Circuit on day one of the Rally. Ed decided his motorbike was not going to make it and decided to hitch his way through the Rally. Ben and Rhys had offered early on to take him, but he had been with a different team until Kyrgyzstan.

Anyway, Rhys (an HR specialist in the real world) had tried all of his tactics to no avail, and was getting pretty annoyed with the cops when they told him that he had to pay a $50 fine. Ed decided to use the Kaptain Koala technique. Ed bounded over to where Rhys was with the cops (Rhys was about to crap himself at this point since the cops were being really serious and he didn’t think it was time for joking around, they were on the point of putting him into the back of the police car) when Ed whipped his hand out with a cheesy Aussie tourist koala on his finger and yells “I’ve got the answer!! KOALA!”. After a brief pause, the cop grabbed the koala and pretended to attack Ed with it, while making a koala noise. He pointed at the radar camera and Rhys said “Ed, he wants you to run and check your speed!” Ed started to run away when the cop called him back, put his arm around Ed and got his fellow officer to take a picture of the two of them with the radar camera. Apparently the koala technique has worked in the past, these guys have yet to pay a ticket!

After these entertaining incidents, we drove on and found a place off the highway near a few yurts to camp. The occupants of the yurt (Ruzel and Viera) let us camp near their sheep and yurt. We gave them a few beers, gave their herder who was on a horse one as well and set up camp. We made dinner and invited Ruzel and Veira to join us. We had a few drinks and chatted (Viera spoke some English). Ruzel played some Kazakh party music and eventually we ended up back at their yurt snacking, dancing a bit and hanging out. They offered to take us around for a bit on their horse, so Sebastien got on and we took a few pictures of him. The flashes frightened the horse a bit and Sebastien got head-butted. Lucky for him, he wasn’t really injured [insert joke about him being hard-headed]  (Once, three horses came for me... – S). I got on the horse and Veira handed me a baby lamb as well. The boys passed me a beer and took some pictures. I felt like I was in the bizarre Kazakh version of an Old Spice commercial, except I wasn’t advertising any product. We all became best friends and Ruzel gave Sebastien a gold chain (jury is out on whether or not it is real) and Veira gave me a cutlery set. We tried to refuse both these gifts but they wouldn’t take no for an answer and were very forceful! Sebastien gave Ruzel his laser pointer and I gave Veira some earrings.

Eventually we went to bed and Ruzel promised Sebastien he could help herd the sheep in the morning at 5 am.  Sebastien woke up all ready to help herd sheep but knocked on the door of the yurt and didn’t get an answer. The sheep were still in the pen, but Ruzel was not waking up. Sebastien stayed awake for an hour in case anyone came along to help him realize him dream of being a sheep herder for a day, but then headed back to bed when no one came by after an hour. He woke up to the sounds of the sheep escaping their pen, but Veira and Ruzel were nowhere to be found. It was very strange! We all got up and the neighbours came over to ask us who we were, and if we knew where the couple was, but we didn’t have any answers either! Ben was standing to one side with a shovel, Sebastien was wearing Ruzel’s chain and I had their cutlery, so it was a potentially suspicious situation. I left Veira a note and we packed up, the mystery of their whereabouts unsolved and us commenting on what a fun (but strange!) night/morning it had been. We definitely won’t be forgetting Kazakhstan!   The neighbours were still looking for them when we left.

As we drove yesterday we ran into a few more teams, one of which is driving a huge ambulance. Those boys are lucky, they have two stretchers in the back they can use as beds – more comfortable than a lot of places we have slept! They are also Aussies and the Mongol Rally Roos gave them the advice about the koala technique, which they used to get out of a ticket that day as well. Yesterday was basically a big driving day, which meant we had ample time to listen to audiobooks! We camped on the side of the road after our first attempt to find a place took us to a small, slightly decrepit Soviet-era village which Ben described as “the kind of place you wake up in with no organs”. It wasn’t quite that bad, the locals gave us directions to where we could get some food and beer, but we still didn’t need to stay there longer than 10 minutes. We enjoyed the last views of the meteor showers, chatted and slept soundly!

Yesterday we drove to Semey on some of the most varied roads ever. Really nice new tarmac mixed with dirt roads and roads that had more potholes than actual roads. Sebastien’s years of video gaming have definitely come in handy as we dodged pothole after pothole. Much like in Uzbekistan, there was a stretch where there was a new road right next to the crappy road. This time, we resisted the temptation to try and take the new, faster road thinking we would probably get stuck anyway and lose any advantage we would have gained. The Aussie ambulance team tried it though, and we pulled over when we saw their beast of an ambulance stuck on a sandy bump. One guy was in good spirits and trying all sorts of maneuvers to get the ambulance out, but his other two team members were sick. One had just puked and the other was evacuating his bowels. The side door on their ambulance also chose that moment to fall off when they tried to open it. The Mongol Rally Roos and our team surveyed the situation to see what could be done. We grabbed our tow rope and Ed flagged down an SUV to come and help the guys out. I supervised (recorded the whole thing on video) while the boys all pushed and the SUV pulled. The ambulance triumphantly broke free of the bump and we were all on our way!

A long pot-hole filled ride later, we arrived in Semey. We found a park with a bunch of WWII tanks and planes and took some glamour shots before we found our hotel.  The first shower in a few days feels good. We also saw the other sights Semey has to offer, a park with a bunch of Lenin statues, another war memoral, and a place that serves beer. 

Today we’re on our way to Russia, heading towards the border with Mongolia to make our final push to Ulaanbaatar! We probably will not have internet access, so stay tuned for updates after we cross the finish line!


We drove to Osh and had some lunch and continued towards Bishkek, since we didn’t really have much interest in spending time in the city. The drive was beautiful, winding through mountains and fields and really gave us a glimpse of the country that strives to be the “Switzerland” of Central Asia. People were amazingly friendly and they wear cute traditional Kyrgyz hats that I wish I had bought! 

The drive was slow going, so we stopped for the night in the small mountain town of Karakol. We had neglected to take out the local currency in Osh and no one took dollars in Karakol. Their ATMs were only accessible during business hours, and we were too late for those. We did find one strange Soviet hotel that said we could avail ourselves of one of their ghetto rooms, but we decided our tent was a better option! We stopped at a gas station/house off of the highway and the friendly lady there let us camp out back. Earrings, postcards and a big thank you went her way!

The next morning we set off again towards Bishkek and arrived in the afternoon.  In Bishkek we decided to trust the Lonely Planet hotel and restaurant recommendations and were disappointed with both. Still, we were happy to have a shower and a bed at the very least.  (We did meet some very interesting people here: One guy from France had been travelling for the last 18 years, he quit an administration job, rented his house and went biking, and never came back.  He was on his way to the Phillipines with plans to retire in Brazil, awesome – S)

We decided to take in one of Kyrgyzstan’s prime attractions the lake Issyk-Kol. It is the second largest alpine lake in the world, second only to Lake Titicaca in South America. The lake is a deep blue and ringed with snow-capped mountains and rolling hills. We drove to an isolated spot and jumped in for a refreshing swim. We were debating staying there for the afternoon, but both of us felt we had a few more hours of driving left in us. We headed towards the border and decided to try and get as close to Almaty as possible that night.

The Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border was definitely not as efficient as it could have been, but it was entertaining. Hordes of people on foot were waiting to cross over and were restrained by a rope that the guards would periodically drop to let in the next tranche of people. They would push forward, jostling each other like they were queuing for position at the running of the bulls. We were waiting in our car to be called forward, and even there an ingenuous local managed to beat the system. There were two lanes held back by a gate. There was a bit of space on the right not constrained by the gate, but it was definitely not a lane. This guy still somehow managed to squeeze his car through, thereby cutting in front of all of us and avoiding having to wait for the guard to lift the gate! We couldn’t even be annoyed because we were so impressed.

The good thing about these countries is that they will often let foreigners cut towards the front of the line. While this is unfair for the people waiting in line, we don’t really have any qualms about it (we’ve heard of some teams who refuse and wait in line with the “real” people). In fact, since most of the people around us were scheming ways to get to the front of the line and cheat the system, I think it actually is more of the authentic experience to do just that! (the locals cheat too, while I was waiting in line 4 guys cut in front of me, little did they know I had already sent Aruna to the front of the line, Bossing it. -  S)

The Road to Kyrgyzstan

The road from Samarkand was fine in most parts, until we took a secondary road to avoid going out of our way to Tashkent before taking the highway leading us towards Osh. We were driving along and Sebastien was doing an excellent job of dodging potholes. 

There were hardly any other cars on the road, which helped because you could always just drive in the lane for oncoming traffic when your lane was really bad. Shortly after I commented on this to Sebastien we hit the mother of all potholes. Even our new fancy off-road tires couldn’t handle that. We saw smoke, heard an enormous pop and pulled over immediately. Both of the tires on the left side and the rims had battled with the pothole and lost badly. Our rims were extremely bent and our tires were flat. We stared at them for a while, then decided to look for our jack. We had one full spare, but weren’t sure what to do with the other tire.   (we also found out that although we had a jack, we were missing  a tire iron, so the jack was quite useless).  Having little knowledge of what to do in these situations, we did the best thing we could have – asked a local to help us! 

There was a little rest stop about 50m from where we got off the road and we found a super friendly man, who laughed at our lack of knowledge and tools, but very helpful.

It was at this point that we realized we didn’t even have a tire iron. There was a jack and a spare, but nothing to loosen the bolts! We flagged over another car and before we knew it there were three dudes just going at it on our tires. In 40 degree afternoon sunlight. They used a sledgehammer with more precision than I could ever manage and pounded our rims back into a mostly circular shape. One rim was beyond their help, so we put the spare on. One of our new friends pumped up our tires and we were more or less back in business. We still needed to get to an actual garage to get the rims sorted out properly (it was a hand pump and I had the joy of pumping the tires – ever pumped off-road tires to 50 psi with a hand pump in 40 degrees while recovering from a fever ?  Quite fun.  I was doing a slow job apparently and the old Uzbek dude took me to school, grabbed the pump from my hand and started bobbing up and down on it at light speed, we were good to go pretty quick – S)

One of the men beckoned for us to follow him, and we followed him about 10km to a small village, located just to the left of the middle of nowhere. He explained what had happened to the guys at the garage (garage is a strong word, it was more of a shack with tire fixing tools), and they set about to fix it. With those roads, we realized this must happen all the time, even to locals!

After about forty minutes of hammering away at the rims (with a giant pipe, I bet these guys don’t have any trouble getting paid –S), and a snack of fresh grapes from the garden behind the auto garage we were ready to rock. We waited hesitantly for the bill, sure that it was going to break the bank but happy to have our car back and be ready to go with only a 2 hour detour. The total was 5,000 Uzbek SOM. That is less than $2! We were so happy we gave them $5.  While we waited another nice local brought us into his garden and gave us fresh grapes and let us hose off at his well.

We continued on our merry way towards Kyrgyzstan and met some other teams at a police checkpoint! So many people are on the same route, but it’s funny because you can go days without seeing people even though they might only be 5km away from you. We met some Canadians (the Mighty Yaks), some Aussies (the Mongol Rally Roos) and a Brit (the Empire Strikes Yak). We drove on, and as night fell decided to stop in Kokand for the night with the Mighty Yaks and head for the border in the morning. We were excited to find a hotel with air conditioning and hot water, but the power went out that night so we didn’t really enjoy either of them! :)  We popped into a cafe and had a delicious meal of soup, fresh vegetables and kebabs, Uzbek food is pretty good.

The next morning we hit the border with the Mighty Yaks and had a really smooth border crossing. We were in and out in an hour and a half! The other team (and teams that arrived right after them) were not so lucky, they ended up spending almost six hours at the same crossing! Guess we must be border guard whisperers.  (Aruna pokes and prods and says “my friend” to them until they relent – S)


On our way out of Bukhara, we ran into the Swedish Ambulance team who recommended a guesthouse in Samarkand, where we were headed. 

Our drive to Samarkand was uneventful, but arriving at the guesthouse involved traveling through a complex labyrinth of small streets and alleys with open ditches on the side and in the middle of the lanes, all of which were one-lane, with two way traffic. In an effort to actually find the guesthouse, we hired a taxi, which ended up causing the same amount of trouble as we would have had otherwise! We turned one corner and almost sacrificed our rear tire to a ditch that came out of nowhere, but luckily we managed to make it to our destination. 

Sebastien had eaten some soft-serve ice cream at the bazaar that day, which was delicious at the time but came back to haunt him. That coupled with a slight case of sunstroke (the driver’s side seems to always be in the sun!) left him drained and bed-ridden in Samarkand. I took a few hours to look around the Registan, a mosaic-tile filled complex of buildings and the tomb of Timur Lane. 

We took it easy and left early the next day trying to get to Kyrgyzstan.

Monday, August 6, 2012

More pictures are up

Check them out on our Facebook page!

Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan

The drive from Darvaza to Konye-Urgench was bumpy. Turkmenistan might have a lot of money from oil and gas exploration, but they really need to start using it to upgrade their infrastructure. We drove for about six hours, stopping at some ruins in Konye-Urgench and at a bazaar in the town to eat lunch. We arrived at the border and reunited with some other teams. The border was closed for lunch, but the guards invited us to come to their canteen (which was air-conditioned) so we all ate a bit more food and sat around until they were ready to work again. This time, the border was much more efficient. In total, we spent about four hours and even snuck in a little nap in our car.  

The Uzbeck guards let us in pretty easily, except that they inspected every single car and bag.  One of the ralliers, Kevin, a doctor that looks like he’s in ZZ top, had to do a lot of explaining about the pills he had.  The guards didn’t understand what the antibiotics were for, so we had to act out infectious diseases, which was quite funny.

We had planned to drive from the border to Khiva, but stopped at a hotel about 30km outside of the city for the night in the town of Urgench. Sebastien and I were both super tired and feeling a bit sick, so we hit the NeoCitran and got a much needed twelve hour sleep.

The next morning we headed into Khiva and spent a few hours wandering the walled city. It is very well-preserved and beautiful. We climbed to the top of the wall and walked around for a bit, enjoying the view and imagining what it must have been like in its heyday.

We then set out on our way to Bukhara, about 450km away. Up until this point, the roads in Uzbekistan had been really good so we foolishly assumed our luck would continue, which was not to be.
They are building a new concrete highway in Uzbekistan, but while that is being finished cars have to drive on the old road which has been scraped. This means extremely bumpy, tons of potholes, going 30km/h and super dusty. It took forever! 

This was interspersed with some sections of decent to good road and the odd stretch of concrete. It was particularly painful because while you are driving along this crappy stretch of road, you can see the finished concrete road on the side. The odd car or two was driving on it, but we decided that wouldn’t be a good idea because while it could be easy to get onto the concrete road, there may be some difficulties getting off. After a lot more bone rattling bumps, we finally gave into temptation. We drove up onto the concrete road and were flying along happily, very pleased with ourselves and the calculated risk we had taken. 

Eventually the concrete road ended and we had to get back to the highway part we were supposed to be on. We looked at the dip between the two highways and were fairly confident we could make it. That confidence was misplaced. Pretty soon our Perodua was firmly stuck in sand and despite my best efforts with my huge muscles to push the car we were going nowhere. Luckily, we had a tow rope and all that was needed was to get a tow. We flagged down a huge truck that was driving by and although he clearly thought we were idiots, he towed us out. We later found out that a few other Rally teams had this exact same experience.

At this point two carloads of Russians had stopped and were chatting with us. We made friends with them and gave them Canada pins and were on our merry way. We ran into the Russians later on in the drive when we all stopped for gas. They helped us out because we had been exchanging our dollars at the “official” exchange rate of $1USD=1900 SOM when in fact the black market rate is $1USD=2800 SOM. 

At this point it was getting a bit dark, so the Russians told us to convoy with them and that we would all hang out in Bukhara. As our Russian is very bad, this is what we think they told us at least! Sebastien and I were happy not to be driving alone at night and we arrived in Bukhara without incident. We bargained a good rate for a hotel room, and the two carloads of our Russian friends ended up staying here too! Sebastien and I went for food and ran into some other ralliers – Mark and Pat and the Hard Yak team. We hung out with them for a bit and came back to our hotel and spent some more time with the Russians. They are very friendly, although we wish we spoke more Russian. They speak some English, so while conversation can take a while we can still make ourselves understood. The vodka might have helped with that. One of the Russian guys, Sergei, owns a hotel somewhere in Russia and he has invited us to come ride quads with him and shoot bears. The boys are very interested in this possibility, while I don't really want to make the detour.

We spent a relaxing day today wandering the streets of Bukhara and admiring the beautiful tiled buildings.  (I spent most of the day nursing my hangover, my Russian friend Lenur and I may have had a few too many vodka shots last night, totally worth it! – S) We ran into the Irish team and had lunch together and traded rally stories. Tomorrow we’re off to Samarkand – ready to complete our tour of Uzbekistan’s big three Silk Road towns. 


Our ordeal to enter Turkmenistan didn’t end there. This time, at least, the customs officers and people in general were much nicer! 

We spent another 9-10 hours at the ferry port sorting out our entry to Turkmenistan. From what we can gather, the customs officials basically didn’t do anything for us for about 7 hours and processed all the paperwork of the other people that were there first. We were all thirsty and hungry by the end. There was a small cafe that we got drinks at for a bit, until they ran out of water and food and then kicked us out of the cafe. We were let into a waiting room that had a TV so we watched some Olympic rowing for a while. Once the Turkmeni visa people decided to start processing our paperwork, there was a flurry of activity. 

It was the most inefficient thing I have ever seen. People write everything by hand into LEDGERS. They don’t even use computers. First, we had to get our passports stamped. Then we had to go to the guy who processes car paperwork. He wrote down all of our passport details and car details by hand. Then we had to go to get a stamp on a form. Next, to the cash desk to pay all sorts of random fees like a fuel surcharge and entry fee (even though we had a visa). Stamping ensued. After that, to the ferry official to get a white slip of paper and then to trade that white slip of paper with someone else for another white slip with a different stamp on it. Then we went to another desk where the guy wrote down all of our details again on one sheet, then again on another using carbon paper. He gave us some stamps too. Then we had to go to one more person who wrote down all of our details again and gave us a stamp. We waited for the person who was going to check our cars, and got that done. We had to give someone else a piece of paper and probably needed a stamp too. We thought we were free, but then we were told we had to pay another fee when we were at the gate in Turkmen manat, which no one had. Foreigners can not take money out of ATMs in Turkmenistan and there was no exchange office at the port, so this was a very strange requirement. I got one of the customs officers to change some money for us and finally we left. By this time it was dark, so we waited for some other teams to convoy together.

Our first taste of Turkmenistan was great. The people are really nice and really friendly (except for the shopkeeper that overcharged us and screwed us on the exchange rate when we were buying groceries). We all stopped for some provisions and met a friendly couple that told us to follow them when we told them we needed a gas station and to find the road to Ashgabat. They went completely out of their way and took us to the gas station and pointed us in the right direction. We started on the road to Ashgabat, looking for a place to camp. We finally found a good area – not too windy, not in scrub that might have snakes and off the main road and a bit quieter. We set up camp and ate delicious food, with plans to get up early the next morning to make it to Ashgabat.

When we woke up the next morning, we realized we had camped near some kind of military base, which is probably why people who were driving on the road near us kept slowing down to see what we were up to!   We used our stove for the first time and it worked great, we cooked a delicious rice veggy and curry.  As we pulled onto the main highway, we ran into a few other teams of ralliers and we all proceeded in the same direction together. The beginning of the road to Ashgabat was great, and then it got ugly pretty fast! There were huge grooves in the road caused by heavy trucks and lot of bumps. It was pretty difficult in our Perodua which has super low clearance. We scraped the bottom a lot and it was slow going. On the bright side, gas in Turkmenistan is extremely subsidized so it was 20 cents a litre. I know full well the evils of fossil fuel subsidies, but after paying $100/tank to fill up in Turkey, we were happy to be in Turkmenistan. We also loved Turkmenistan because the people are so friendly. They loved waving at us as we drove by and giving us friendly honks. As a country that is not quite open to tourism, they are still excited to see people like us enjoying their homeland. And there are a lot of camels on the side of the road.

We all stopped on our way to Asghabat at Kow Ata, an underground lake in the side of a mountain. It was a bit spooky at the start – you descend into a huge cave with rickety, steep steps and guard rails that wouldn’t help you if you stumbled. Birds and bats circle overhead and you can smell the sulphur from the lake the minute you enter the cave. A few long sets of steps later and you come to the lake, which is a balmy 36C. We splashed around and lounged for a bit, our first “shower” since we had gotten on the ferry in Baku days earlier!

We were soon on the road to Ashgabat again, convoying with two other teams who we collectively refer to as “the boys”. Since the Mongol Rally is like 80% dudes this could apply to a lot of people, but in this case it was Alex and Elias (Americans) and Pat and Mark (Aussies). We followed the signs to Ashgabat, but had some trouble finding the centre and the hotel we wanted to go to, so we started talking to some dude who told us to follow him and led us to the downtown area. Ashgabat is a crazy place. It is full of white marble imported from Greece/Cyprus and is the last thing you would expect to see in a country that is 90% desert. When we drove into downtown Ashgabat I was reminded of the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. It is beautiful, but very strange.

We finally found the hotel we were looking for, but it was full. It was university exam week in Ashgabat, so all the cheap hotels were booked. We were standing there looking lost when a Frenchman, Stephan, started speaking with us. He has lived in Ashgabat for four years and has a lovely Turkmeni wife named Jane. We told him we were looking for a hotel, and he said to follow him (we were getting good at this!) and he would take us to the other hotel listed in our guidebook. This was further from downtown, but interesting because it gave us a chance to see even more of Ashgabat and its opulence!

After trying a few other places (thanks so much to Jane and Stephan for the translation and bargaining) we finally found a place with rooms. It took some sneaky bargaining tactics (props to Elias for this) but eventually a price was agreed on and we had rooms. By this time, pretty much everything was closing and we were hungry, so we ran to the hotel restaurant next door and had Chinese food, which was better than I thought it would be.

We were extremely lucky in Ashgabat because my friend Amy Sandhu’s dad works there and had asked his colleague Murad to help us out if we needed anything. What our car needed was off-road tires, which can be difficult to find for 13” wheels! Murad is awesome though, and took me to the best tire place in town – after going to a carwash of course, since it’s illegal to have a dirty car in Turkmenistan. A few hours later, we had pimped our Perodua and upgraded to off-road tires which gave us some much needed grip and a few inches more in height. Murad also took us to the Russian bazaar and walked around the downtown with us, even though it was a vacation day for him. He was so friendly and so interesting that we could have talked with him all day, but we had to meet the boys that afternoon to drive to Darvaza. Armed with some delicious kebabs courtesy of Murad we started our drive to the “Gates of Hell” in Darvaza.

The “Gates of Hell” is basically a flaming crater in the middle of the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan that is a product of gas exploration gone wrong.  It is a very cool sight to see, and something that all of us were very excited for in Turkmenistan. We parked off the highway to camp all together, and a local guide drove us (about 15 ralliers) up to the crater in his Land Cruiser (rally cars wouldn’t make it through all the sand). We were all awestruck and amazed, it is truly a mesmerizing sight. There was a tremendous amount of heat being thrown off by the crater, and when the wind shifted towards you, you could feel a drastic temperature rise immediately.

I was walking around taking pictures, enjoying the view when Sebastien handed the GoPro camera to our friend Rob, told me to put my camera down and pulled me towards the crater.  He told me “I love you, Through hell and fire, I’ll love you forever”, and to my surprise, he got down on one knee and proposed! Of course I said yes, and everyone congratulated us. It is funny because Sebastien had joked that he thought marriage was like hell, so proposing at the Gates of Hell was very appropriate. I told him that I liked hell, it was warm and my best friend was there.

After about an hour at the crater, we had to head back down the dunes to our campsite and went to bed. We were getting up really early the next morning to drive to the Uzbek border since our visas were expiring that day and had a long drive ahead of us. Turkmenistan will always have a special place in our hearts though!

Ferry to Turkmenistan

We met the rest of the ralliers and our “fixer” Ishmael at the ferry and proceeded to play the waiting game yet again. This time however, we were in luck! There was a ferry leaving to Turkmenbashi and we were going to get on it. Teams congregated at the port and we amused ourselves for the eight hours until we got onto the ferry by playing football, chatting, napping and taking glamour shots with our cars. Our fixer made sure that everyone got onto the ferry all for the low, low price of $15 that each of us paid him. Once we saw the receipt for our ticket on the ferry, we also noticed he and his friends took a pretty good cut from that too! Ohhh the Azerbaijanis.

It was a lot more expensive than we thought it would be for the ferry, each person had to pay $100 and then $70 for each metre of their car. Luckily, our car is pretty short but there is a team with a long ambulance who had to pay a hefty price! Pockets empty, we eventually got onto the ferry and were pleasantly surprised with the condition of it.

We got a 2-person cabin with a window which was perfectly adequate. We were told to expect the boat from hell, so we were pleased we got on a newer boat, complete with mattresses with the plastic on them still. The one thing that people were accurate about were the communal toilets, they were disgusting. They basically did not flush and the water level inside the toilet rose continuously so they were pretty much not useable after an hour. There were showers, but due to the condition of the toilet, you can imagine what else took place in there. Some of our fellow ferrymates found creative ways to satisfy their needs, one team in particular devised a method for evacuating their bowels by using the window in their cabin. Desperate times call for desperate measures. By the end of the ferry ride, the one Russian speaker in our group of friends had been told by the cleaning ladies to tell all of the ralliers that we were very dirty and that they wanted to write a letter of complaint to our “company”.

The ferry ride was supposed to be about 14-16 hours, but in the end, it took us about 40 hours! We were stuck in the port for five or so hours after we were all loaded on. We didn’t really mind because the teams had a party on the boat, people were making food, having drinks and some guitars were broken out so we had live entertainment. We slept in late and played cards, read and lazed around the ship the next day. Around the time we were all getting sick of being on the ferry, the craggy hills of Turkmenbashi were in view and we had some hope we would soon dock. That hope was quickly dashed once the anchor started to go down. 

There was no space at the port for our boat to dock, there was a line-up of ships waiting, and not much movement. Hours later, we started to advance towards the dock, only to be turned away when we were almost there because it was too windy. We spent another night on the boat and finally docked the next morning at around 10am.