Rushia & Mongolia

We went pretty quicky through the rest of Russia in order to have plenty of time in Mongolia. Russia has a lot of empty nothingness, really a lot, and the roads are pretty unpredictable: there are three different kinds of main road surface, the high-quality new surface, the terrible quality old surface, and the 10+ km stretches of roadworks and queues, where you drive on whatever random rubble and rocks was beneath the road, very slowly. We set off early and finished late, which was the only way to ensure we didn’t spend most of the days waiting in 2 hour queues at traffic lights.

Anyway all that seems like a pretty sensible decision now. We crossed the Mongolian border near Tashanta on the 5th of August. Today we reached Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia and the spiritual finish line of the Mongol Rally (although no longer the offial finish line). It turns out that on the 8th of August the rules for the Mongolian border were changed, and since then if your car is over 10 years old, you need to pay a $4000 to $6000 deposit on entering the country. Bad times! Made even better by the fact that you need to pay in Mongolian togrogs ($4000 is around 9,000,000 togrogs) and the nearest ATM to the border in Mongolia is hours away.

So we were pretty lucky to have been able to drive across this country, even though it was by no means easy. I guess at some point I’ll post photos and whatever else but it gives a good idea what we went through just listing how each day ended. There’s a 20km gap between the Russian side of the border and the Mongolian side; 10km in you actually cross the threshold, and the road instantly changes from smooth Russian tarmac to dusty Mongolian gravel / soil / mud. There is more tarmac in Mongolia than we expected, but still a fair amount of dirt, water, mud and rivers that reach over the bonnet of the car. Anyway here’s what happened…

day 1: having crossed the border, we aimed for Olgii but were stopped by a guy on a motorbike who offered us to stay with his family in a ger (yurt) for about $5 each. So the day ended with an infinite variety of dairy products (camel curd, sheep cheese, goat yoghurt, and the famous fermented horse milk alcohol), playing stupid games with children, trying to talk across pretty thick language barriers, and a nice warm ger to sleep in.

day 2: having been lost on a mountain for hours, on hills that were actually too steep for our cars to go up at one point, we then broke one car by trying to change the fuel filter in the dark, and leaving rubber bungs on the end of some of the hoses. (The next day we towed the car until a couple of road workers came and looked at it and spotted the dumb mistake).

day 3: camping in beautiful mountains by a clean river, but on totally the wrong road and headed almost to the border with China

day 4: both cars stuck in mud in the Gobi desert. (A guy in a truck stopped the next morning, and he couldn’t tow us out either but he did manage to convince a nearby digger driver to give us a tow in the end).

day 5: one car stuck firmly in mud on a patch of steppe. This time Tim & Mike managed to dig it out and tow using the other, which was handy because we were a long way from any kind of road or any other people.

day 6: aiming for Ulaanbaatar, but we didn’t quite make it and camped near a road. Two guys on a motorbike showed up just as I was about to go to sleep, and shone their headlight directly into my face. It took a while to work out what they wanted and whether we were breaking some camping law (improbable in Mongolia), but it turned out they mainly wanted to drink vodka with us. Had they arrived a couple of hours earlier than we would have done so but being nearly asleep already we just waited them out and eventually they left.

day 7: here we are in a nice hotel in Ulaanbaatar! Things are not yet in the bag; we still need to make a long winded border crossing back into Russia to get flights & car shipping from Ulan Ude, on a pretty tight deadline to avoid anyone getting fired from their jobs back in England. But anyway we’ve shown that the guy in Volgograd underestimated us!

 

Lots more happened that maybe i’ll post words about perhaps even pictures of, but right now the bizarre city of Ulaanbaatar awaits us!

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Russia part 1

We have been in Russia 2 days now and they have been pretty eventful. Our route involved driving North through the Georgian border into Russia, just east of the breakaway state of South Ossetia, then heading northwest to Volgograd, passing just to the east of the breakaway states of Dagestan and Ingushetiya. It was always going to a bit risky (some might say foolish!) but it was the only way we’d get to see Turkey and Georgia and still have time to make it across to Mongolia before everyone has to go home and back to their stupid jobs. Several people have made it safely through the border in the last few years and lived to write about it. So we made a plan to get up early, get across the border quick, and then make a break to Volgograd.

Reality interfered a bit with the plan of course. It’s about a 3 hour drive from Tbilisi to the border crossing at Verkhiny Lars. Definitely one of the most scenic and fun roads that it’s possible to ever drive on. So we had to stop to take some photos along the way and admire the view. The mountain pass goes high enough to give you altitude sickness. Hopefully i’ll attach some photos to this post at some point to prove it.

We got to the Georgia border exit, which was fairly quick to get through, and then we joined a long queue in a smoky tunnel in no-man’s land and waited to enter Russia. Hopefully. The scenery (after the tunnel) continued to be amazing and very steep. The queuing left something to be desired. The police drive past regularly and tell you to get close to the next car, I guess s so they can fit more people in. Cars drive down the outside of the queue trying to push in when the police aren’t looking. A guy from Azerbaijan pulled along side us while we were making some coffee, chatted a bit in a friendly way and then pushed in front of us when the queue moved before we could stop him. And then got out and thanked us! The police pulled alongside at one point and asked about our trip. He laughed at the concept of tourism in Russia.

We got to customs and went through passports and had a pretty un-thorough search of the car. It seemed to be going well until a guy who seemed to be in charge came over, asked how much money we had, took my passport away and showed me the customs declarations we have to fill out. The form was all in Russian of course and the office to process it had one guy to deal with everyone who had to fill out the form, which appeared to be everyone. In the meantime Tim managed to convince him we didn’t need to do that and got my passport back. Confusion followed but we found each other and then had to leave the border. We bought car insurance and waited for James and Mike in the rain in a car park for 40 minutes. No sign of them, they didn’t answer their phones and text messages didn’t work. We tried to remember if we still saw them in the queue when we were leaving but I was too confused about where Tim had gone at that point. Maybe they had missed the car park and were waiting further up — there was no way back. Since it was getting dark and we had a long drive up to Volgograd, we set off to see if they were further up the road, which they weren’t, and then figured we might as well keep going, which turned out to be a pretty bad idea.

The map we had showed a road we had to follow all the way, but it turned out to go right through a city and we ended up missing a turning. We got confused and doubled back. We got pulled over at a police checkpoint we had already gone through and spent 20 minutes trying unsuccessfully to avoid paying a bribe in US dollars. The argument seemed to be that we weren’t allowed to drive down the road we had driven down, which seemed plausible, but then when we asked for directions to Volgograd we were sent back down the exact same road. Another checkpoint pulled us 5 minutes later, this time with the army there in force but they let us through without too much hassle. Mike & James finally got in touch and it turned out they had taken 3 hours to get through the border, because the queue they were in (which was just 2 cars long) didn’t have anyone processing it. We arranged to meet up in Beslan. We went into the town to try and find somewhere to eat, but didn’t find anywhere (we turned out to be on a road a bit before the town), did a U turn and got pulled over a 3rd time. Each time the police wanted to know where we were going and what we were doing. It definitely didn’t look like the next 7 days were going to be any fun.

Meeting at the hospital didn’t work because there seemed to be more than one hospital but we eventually met up at a petrol station. Phone calls are £2 a minute here so it was probably an expensive reunion but well worth it. While hanging round at the petrol station a guy and his kid started talking to us in Russian, and soon another guy invited us to drink some vodka with them. We still had a long way to go to reach somewhere that isn’t marked “advise against all but essential travel” on the foreign office maps, and I pointed out to the guy that we had to drive and there are lots of police around. The guy laughed and showed me what looked like a police ID. We ended up in a small room with a bunch of loud, drunk Russians who laughed at the disgusting petrol station sandwhiches we had bought and got us some salad, cheese bread & beef. 2 of us drank vodka with them for a while, leaving the other 2 to drive. We got the guitar out and played Katjuscha multiple times. Two of the guys claimed to be Russian mafia. They got someone on the phone who could speak French, and after realising that was no use, got someone else on the phone who told me in English “these are my friends, you can trust them, they just want to eat & drink with you.” It was a pretty fun if strange way to round off the day.

Except the day wasn’t done of course and Tim & Mike still had to drive the 4 or so hours to Pyatigorsk where we got to a cheap hotel at about 2AM, which was thankfully still open.

The next day was a huge improvement. There was still no shortage of police, and at a couple of checkpoints they seemed to wave their batons at us in an indecisive sort of way but didn’t seem to mind when we kept going. The drive to Volgograd took the full day and was basically all on a long main road across steppe. Super easy driving because the road basically just goes in a straight line and there are no major hills, and although there’s only one lane each way you can normally see miles ahead. We stopped in Elista for lunch and made it to Volgograd AKA Stalingrad for about 9PM. It took  a while to find the “Hostel Volgograd”, partly I think because it changed its name to “Friends Hostel”. We went out to eat food drink Russian beer which was very successful and  we found 2 bars both full of friendly people who could also speak some English. One guy spent a while explaining why we were mad to be trying to make it to Mongolia, but I reckon after the last 2 weeks we can make it through anything.

Georgia on my mind

The coast road along the north of Turkey wasn’t the quaint and rustic tour of forgotton seaside villages that we had pictured. It’s actually dual carriageway all the way with modern towns all along the route. People drive pretty fast on there. Actually Turkish main roads are quite avant guard with lots of undertaking, cars sitting in the middle lane, and pedestrian crossings that seem designed to maximise risk to people crossing.

We spent the day looking for an oil filler cap, having noticed that the car had oil everywhere around the engine & bonnet and there wasn’t an oil filler cap any more. We must have stopped at 5 or 6 places from a petrol station, a truck garage, and a Skoda dealer to two industrial estates full of garages, car parts and very helpful and friendly people. Our jerry-rigged oil filler caps became more and more elaborate along the way, until we hit the jackpot and bought something (for 10 Turkish Lira) designed for a Fiat engine that seemed to fit snugly in the hole.

The oil filler cap mission was fun but cost a lot of time, when our goal was to get through the Turkey/Georgia border. As night fell the coast road turned into something out of a computer racing game where you drive around a coastal city really fast with lots of people undertaking and overtaking at random and you occasionally buy petrol. We got to the border at about 11.30pm and discovered a five hour long queue. Having driven past 15 miles of parked-up trucks to get there, it felt like we were really getting off quite lightly. However that kind of border crossing is no fun, even when the queue is right on the coast next to some beautiful mountains, because you basically have to stay awake all night so you can drive your car forward a few metres every 10 or fifteen minutes. There’s no getting out of this because if you snooze, the people behind you honk a few times and then overtake you in the queue.

So we entered Georgia in pretty poor spirits having had about 6 hours sleep between the 4 of us. Tim and James were driving and decided to park up and sleep for a bit in the car, but in the process lost each other around the town of Batumi. Georgia is the sort of place where you really have to think a bit: world satnavs don’t have any maps for it, phone calls cost about 4 pounds a minute, and the paper map we had didn’t mark most of the roads. We did eventually managed to locate each other via text message.

The scenery in Georgia is without question the best I’ve ever seen outside of the Amazon countries. The roads are decent although quite bumpy and in some cases half finished, and for some reason every road seems to double as pasture for a herd of cows, most of whom have developed a fondness for sitting right on the tarmac. The traffic rules are more or less non-existent beyond “try to drive on the right”. The people… are not exactly hostile to us, and in fact often try to make conversation in Georgian or Russian, but it feels like a real achievement if you actually manage to make somebody crack a smile.

One of the nice things about seeing the world by car is that you enter a country through some crappy border outpost, and you generally see the arse end of the place first, before heading eventually towards the capital where everything is better than everywhere else. That’s been the case in Georgia at least. After a day finding ourselves in one-shop towns and Soviet industrial wreckage, the capital Tbilisi totally surpassed our expectations. Plans changed throughout the day (with lots of animosity since we had all been awake for 2 days) from camping in the mountains near the Georgia/Russia border to (since we were still in Tbilisi at 9PM and found ourselves right next to a nice hostel) staying in a hostel in Tbilisi and heading for the Georgia/Russia border first thing in the morning. So that is the next plan! Russia here we come!

Turkey so far

We had heard that the Turkey/Bulgaria border would be busy and take hours, but when we got there there were about 10 officials in different buildings, 2 other cars and a dog. We had to visit different officials various times and pay $110 for a “green card” for insurance. Maybe it was quiet because it was Sunday or maybe because nobody is visiting Turkey after the failed military coup last week. On the Friday before we left we were obviously apprehensive about the news of the military trying to take control from Erdogan. In the long term it might not be great news that they failed as no doubt this gives him a great excuse to give himself more power in the name of democracy. But in the short term it’s great news for us because the borders are open again (we had to ring and check about the Georgia one), in Istanbul the buses and boats are currently free to encourage everyone to get out and about, and certainly on the route we’ve been taking life seems back to normal. No doubt South Turkey is a different story but here there’s no sign of Syrian refugees or oppression against Kurds.

The traffic in Istanbul is reputed to be the worst in the world, and it definitely isn’t but it’s still pretty wild. On the way out we drove past a queue of cars about 15km long trying to get in. Turkish roads have a wide hard shoulder so that when someone attempts really dangerous overtaking everyone can move out of the way safely. We attempted to park in the east of Istanbul after crossing into Asia, then get a boat across back to the main European side to look at mosques and such like. Instead we walked a long way without even all of us having shoes, and eventually caught a boat that went round in a circle and came back again. In Turkey the state looks after the stray dogs & cats which is amazing because instead of them being mangy and desperate, all these happy looking cats and dogs are walking round in the streets. They are even trained to cross roads safely and wait for the green man at traffic lights.

Turkey turned out to be much bigger than we thought. I guess because of the way the world tends to be projected onto maps, plus the haphazard research we did. The scenery is great though, huge mountains with fast roads going through them. Right now we are in a town called Samsun in the northern coast of Turkey. Although it’s on the north coast and has a population of 664,000, it is definitely not a hub for foreign tourism going by the fact that even in the hotels nobody speaks any English. Everyone is friendly though and we have had long conversations where neither of us understood a single word of what the other was saying. We parked in the centre and looked for a restaurant, and we looked in one and then chose a different one. The guy from the 1st restaurant then came over to find out why we didn’t go in his restaurant. It was hard to explain without using language and the only reason was that one had pictures outside anyway.

Now for the North Turkish coast !

Eastern Europe

The opposite corner of Europe from the UK is Romania and Bulgaria. Having never visited Romania before I kind of assumed it was just like Bulgaria but with a different alphabet, but actually it seems more like a kind of Italy of the East (having never been to Italy either). The countryside is amazing in places, there are some huge mountains with winding roads where we got stuck behind many old trucks and managed to get a speeding ticket while trying to overtake one of them. Other than that particular cop everyone has been very friendly.

Both nights in Romania we tried to camp near some lake on the map and both nights we ended up in some woodlands instead. The first time on a gravel track in a passing place, which was nice aside from the nettles and mosquitos. The road also turned out to get quite busy with trucks in the morning, and while we were eating breakfast some giant bulldozer arrived and started pushing over trees and clearing a massive new passing place just next to the one we were camped in. Nobody seemed bothered about us being in the way though. The second night we visited several lakes, all of which turned out to be fairly grim hydroelectric dams instead that weren’t great for camping around. We ended up in some woods again. Having just cooked a stew the police turned up again, but all they actually wanted was for us to not have a fire in the dry woodlands, which seemed quite reasonable (and we had already finished cooking on it).

We had actually planned to go to this Mongol Rally beach party on the Romanian coast, but after getting stopped for speeding and taking a huge detour through one of the most scenic & winding mountain roads in the world we had no chance of getting there before 2AM. I’m pretty sure we made the right call though because the mountain road was crazy. It had crash barriers and 2 lanes so it wasn’t too painful to drive but the climb must have been 2000 metres in about 10 km. From the top you can probably see all the way to Finland on a clear day. There are water points, forests, trees, cyclists, water springs, and also traffic calming in the form of cows walking around in the middle of the road. We were kept going by the thought of swimming in a huge lake that we could see on the map, and we drove round the banks of the lake for a good 50KM, unknowningly missing out all of the beach parts so that when we finally got near it, we were at the huge hydroelectic dam that formed it where it was obviously impossible to actually swim. I’m really confused why the builtup area with lots of shops and parking is next to the huge concrete dam, and not in a different place where you can actually get down to the water. Lakes in Romania turned out to be

We stopped without even reaching Bucharest. The next day we went in (trying to figure out how to pay our parking fines and get back the driving license that’s being held hostage in Deva — no luck so far) then straight on to the Bulgarian border (not much traffic our way; huge queue backed up the other way) to Varna and then onto Burgas, which are on the Black Sea coast and have the kind of warm sea & hot sun that Northern Europe can only dream about. We stayed on a sort of resort campsite with restaurants, shops, showers, sand & obviously more sea, and lots of Bulgarian families making the most of it. We met a couple of other Mongol Rally teams there, one of whom left again at midnight in order to get through the Turkish border in time to reach Iran 2 days later; apparently the border due was to be very busy on Saturday thanks to some conference in Istanbul.

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Budapest
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Romanian mountain road
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Lake near the sea in Burgas, Bulgaria

Gyrru gyrru gyrru

So far we have done quite a lot of driving ! Things have not gone entirely smoothly. After driving round Goodwood Racetrack we drove past lots of bedding in the dual carriageway which turned out to be from our own roofrack that doesn’t actually shut very well. As soon as we got to the continent one car broke down near Bruge, while the other kept driving to the campsite we were aiming for in Rotterdam without realising. The drive back from Rotterdam to Bruge after having already travelled from near Brighton was not much fun. Within 48 hours we went from sitting in Bruge waiting for some new piece of engine to partying in Budapest. Those two places are quite far away from each other. The roads get more fun along the way though, driving in Belgium is tedious as fuck, driving in Germany is a bit better and then driving in south Germany becomes very scenic. James & Mike managed to see Dave Gilmour play in a suburb of Frankfurt but then had to sleep in the train station. We met up and headed to Czech but ended up “wild” camping in the car park of a campsite. We went to Brno for lunch and saw the most amazing huge synthesizer in a shop which was meant to be shut. As well as synths, Czech folk seem to enjoy repairing their terrible concrete roads. when driving on the motorway there you regularly find yourself in a lane barely wider than the car sandwiched between a big concrete wall on one side and a huge truck on the other side but still going very fast. But rather than replacing the shit road with a good one, they just cover up the grass growing between the 2 lanes with a small trip of tarmac. We went off the motorway to avoid Prague and saw some amazing countryside, picked up a hitchhiker (good omen) and found ourselves continually diverted in random directions due to bridge closures and roadworks. The country is pretty though. Now we finally have the opportunity to stop driving and start enjoying BudapestIMG_20160720_071554.jpgIMG_20160720_182051.jpg!

The Mongol Raly

We went to the Mongol Rally launch event. It was pretty good. The Baghdaddies played which was an excellent surprise. There were some amazing cars including 2CV vans, 4 wheel drive Fiat Pandas, and this crazy 3 wheel beast with a top speed of 55 miles an hour and only 3 wheels. Apparently 3 months ago it lived under a tarpaulin in a patch of cabbages. Now it’s crusing down the motorway in Hungary.IMG_20160716_183926.jpg