THE ULTIMATE CHARITY
It's strange being back in the UK. The feeling that so much has happened in your own life in the last 3 months and yet not much seems to have changed back here. The last few days of our trip were an almost perfect ending to what has been the adventure of a lifetime. The reason why it was 'almost' perfect was the weather in Huangshan, home of the 'Yellow Mountains'. We had flown from Xi'an to Huangshan in order to see the fabled mountain range; a range known for its 'sea of cloud' with the mountain tops poking through. Unfortunately for us, there was rather too much cloud. Setting off for the mountains, the weather forecast wasn't particularly optimistic but we weren't quite expecting visibility of only about 5 meters. Anyway, we put it behind us and jumped onto the bullet train to Shanghai. Going on the bullet train made me realise two things about the rain system in the UK. Firstly, British trains are not the quickest. Secondly, I don't feel great paying £30 to take a London Midland train to Euston when I can travel double the distance in half the time for the same price in China. On arriving, it soon became apparent that Shanghai is a very cool place. I know that China is technically a communist country but one questions their ideological steadfastness when you see the incredible number of skyscrapers and buildings with 'HSBC' down the side. A trip to the highest observation tower in the world gave us an amazing view of the sky line and reflecting on that has made me appreciate the diversity of this trip. Places like the Pamir Highway are the complete antithesis of Shanghai and so to see it all on one trip has been truly incredible. Now on about the 2nd day in Shanghai, I didn't feel so great. Myself, like my two travelling companions, thought this was just a chronic hangover. This slightly marred the experience of taking the Maglev train (fastest train in the world) but did provide some amusement for the others who quite rightly didn't take that much pity on me. Testing back in the UK showed that this wasn't just the worlds worst hangover but that ecoli producing bacteria had squeezed their way into my stomach - even now I am quite literally still carrying the trip around with me! Finally, I would like to say a huge thank you to all of you who have been reading this blog; I hope that I didn't bore on too long and that you enjoyed coming from London to Beijing (Shanghai) with us! KBO.
Its been a while since my last blog post and for that I apologise. However, we have been rather busy in China and so that's my excuse. The train from Ulaanbaatar was a long one (28 hours) and fairly uneventful. The only thing of note was that the Chinese had to change the wheels on the carriages and so in true Chinese style did it by lifting up the whole carriage whilst we were on it. Pretty cool. Beijing is an awesome city. As someone once told me, it wonderfully displays 'Chinese superiority'. Everything 'just works'. The tube equivalent makes the London Underground seem ancient and doesn't seem crowded despite Beijing being the capital of a country with over 1 billion people. Now that we have left Serena behind we are in full tourist mode. As such, during our three days in Beijing we saw everything that there was to see - the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the Summer Palace. Of these, the Great Wall has to take the biscuit. Photos of it look cool but its only once you're up there that you can fully appreciate what they achieved in building it. Also the photos dont quite do the steepness of the wall justice. To get away from everyone else we set off to run part of the wall; given that the wall goes beyond 45 degrees in places, we came back looking like we'd just had a go at a marathon. Evidentially, three months sitting in a car doesn't do your cardiovascular ability much good. Having done the wall, we had heard that the Summer Palace was the place to go. We had seen on a map signs to the 'old summer palace' and so merely assumed that the gentlemen who had designed the map were helpfully pointing out the fact that the summer palace was indeed 'old'. When we got there we were shocked by the lack of crowds and also by the lack of palace. Turns out that the summer palace and the old summer palace are not one and the same and so it was back on the blissfully air-conditioned underground to the actual summer palace which was unsurprisingly quite a lot more touristy. That night was our first Chinese train journey; a 12 hour long overnight train from Beijing to Xi'an. The train was definitely an experience and it is credit to the Chinese that they managed to systematically fit so many people into one carriage. Xi'an is also one really cool city. Famous for the terracotta soldiers but it also has an amazing city wall that you can hire bikes to go around. The terracotta soldiers were cool; it might just be me but I was a little underwhelmed. They are unquestionably one of the greatest finds of all time but they seem to be 'bigged' up so much that reality can't quite meet expectations. As such, the city walls were the unexpected highlight of an incredible city. We now only have a week to go and so its down to Huangshan before spending our final nights of the trip in Shanghai.
Once we made it to Ulaanbaatar, a key part of the trip was to visit the Lotus Children's Centre which we had been fundraising for before we set off. However, before we could pay them a visit, we had to do a bit of sorting out the car. Sadly the car can't come with us into China because of a whole host of customs issues and so is having to return to Europe without us. Another slight catch is that we are only allowed to put a very limited number of items in the car when we ship it back and so we set about selling some of the kit we had brought on the trip. Turns out that prices in Ulaanbaatar are only a fraction of those back in the UK and so some of the stuff was proving a little hard to shift. Anyway, a little time later we had managed to sell most of the stuff at a fairly disgusting loss and so set off for the Lotus Children's Centre. I think that often when we are asked to give to a cause we wonder whether our donations are really going to make a direct impact. Well having spent four days at the Lotus Children’s Centre, I can happily say that any donation makes a huge direct impact on the lives of the children. The centre is incredible; it cares for over 50 children and not only helps out in the here and now but also aims to give direction to their futures as well. To say that we were given a warm welcome is an understatement. They were fascinated with the trip and the younger boys then proceeded to ask whether they could wash the car for us! The centre has a basketball court and so it became fairly apparent that pasty white men can’t ‘jump’. We spent hours on the court being humiliated by the skills of boys as young as 10 as they effortlessly made us look like complete amateurs on the court. Ice cream seems to be the currency of the centre and so we decided (along with a few of the other volunteers) to wager our volleyball skills against some of the children with ice creams being bought by the losers. Now it got quite competitive and we ended up winning but definitely didn’t expect an ice cream in reward. As such, it was to our absolute surprise that as we were about to leave we were present with an ice-cream each bought by the children out of their pocket money: I don’t know about you but at the age of 9 I wasn’t going out of my way to pay up my ice cream debts! At the weekends there is no cook and so we had stocked up on pot noodle and so once again we were shocked to find that the children had gone out of their way to cook for us! A big thank you for everyone who donated to the centre (it makes a world of a difference) and for those wanting to donate you can do so through http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=london2beijing/. So now we have dropped the car off and are about to set off on our train down to Beijing. ‘Serena the Subaru’ has been a complete babe on our trip and so it was a heartfelt moment saying goodbye to her in a slightly run-down warehouse on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. It has truly been an amazing experience visiting Mongolia as a whole but it’s equally exciting to think that the next blog post will be coming from our last country China!
We have made it. We've driven over 13,000 miles across Europe and Asia to finally arrive in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The Russia we experienced wasn't the Russia we imagined. First of all, the tarmac was amazing. None of the pothole rubbish that we had in Kazakhstan but rather kilometre after kilometre of wonderfully smooth tarmac. I get that part of the trip was about driving on awful roads but after the Pamirs and Kazakhstan, none of us were complaining. Say what you want about Putin but he certainly knows how to build a road. Secondly, the scenery in Russia blew us away. The Altai region was up there with the Pamir Highway for the most incredible views of our trip. It echoes the Alps in many regards yet the beer is reasonably priced and petrol is dirt cheap. The campsites were amazing and it was only the alarmingly high horsefly population that did Russia a discredit. Given that Russian tarmac was amazing, the car now only had to do 1600km on bad roads through Mongolia and so with this mission in mind we approached the Russian/Mongolian border. We weren't expecting this border to be too much of a hardship and it went fairly well for about the first 3 minutes as they let us into the border zone. From then on in, the Russian side at least was a bit of a struggle. They asked us for our Russian customs form which stumped us a bit because we weren't given a Russian customs form; we thought that the whole system was electronic. At this point I showed him all the forms I had and for some reason it was only when he saw the Kyrgyzstan customs form that he was satisfied. Not sure what that was all about. They then let us through the gates into the 28km of no-mans land between the two countries. At 14km you leave the Russian side and so also leave the gloriously smooth tarmac. The Mongolian's appear not to have bothered to tarmac a bit of land that they don't actually own - fair enough. Mongolian customs was fairly easy once we had paid our $1 disinfectant fee and so we set off into the middle of nowhere on characteristically bad Mongolian roads, or so we thought. After about 30km the corrugation ended and there lay the most amazingly smooth road that had 'made in China' all over it. Given that it was Mongolia there was no one on it and so slightly surprisingly our recorded top speed (which I won't disclose for fear of a bollocking from my parents) was recorded in Mongolia. However, sadly the roads didn't last and for much of the next 5 days we were driving alongside the half built road, not on it. Mongolia is a seriously cool place. I don't fancy that there are many other places in the world that give off such a atmosphere of nothingness. You can drive for hours along what is the main road in Mongolia and yet only see a couple of yurts and a few packs of wild horses. The people are unbelievably hospitable as well and we managed to get ourselves invited into a traditional Mongolian wedding. It was quite clear that at such an occasion there were clearly do's and don'ts and we definitely made a few balls ups. The biggest was properly when we downed our shots of Mongolian vodka only to see to our horror that the chap next to us took a gentle sip. Not good. However, their hospitality continued and whenever we pitched camp, someone would come out of nowhere to greet us and welcome us to their country. The roads got steadily worse to the point where it was no more than farmers tracks with the result that about 7 tracks to chose from, each as bad as the next. The Subaru didn't particularly appreciate this but 6 days later she pulled into the parking spot outside Burger King in Ulaanbaatar. It still is hard for us to believe that we have driven all this way and we will be certainly sad to see the Subaru shipped home. Its now a week working with the Lotus Children's Centre here before we take the train down into Beijing!
Kazakhstan, the home of Borat and our last ‘stan’ on the way to Russia. From the border, we immediately hit Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan. The western influence was immediate; shopping centres, good roads and most importantly, a McDonalds. We spent a couple of days there during which the car went to get a clean bill of health whilst we hit the ring of fast-food chains at the local shopping centre. Then it was the mammoth drive across Kazakhstan. It didn’t start particularly well; after about an hour we got pulled over by the notoriously corrupt Kazakhstan police. Understandably he asked me for my driving license and insurance. Then he tried to explain that without a translation in Russian on my driving license I was breaking the law. By this stage it was quite clear that he was after a little bribe. However, I had my international driving licence which has a translation into Russia so no go for him there. With this, the policeman tries a different tact – did you have a beer in Almaty? Oh so now he was going for the ‘drink driving tact.’ I had but I wasn’t going to tell him this – ‘no’ I reply. ‘How about two days ago?’ By this point I wasn’t going to admit to having drunk a beer all year. ‘No’ was the answer yet again. He then tried for 3 days but got the same answer. Finally he gave up his attempts at earning a little extra cash and waved us on. For the next 3 days we ate up the miles through Kazakhstan, paying particular attention to the speed limits lest the police would have an excuse to slap another ‘fine’ on us. On our second night we camped at a lake and the track around the lake provided an opportunity for a little bit of light exercise in the form of a run. I don’t know about the other two but my body told me within about 30 seconds that sitting in a car for two months have done no wonders for my cardiovascular ability. The lake was absolutely stunning and a bit of wind meant no mosquitoes – a welcome break from the DEET. Whilst Kazakhstan has been interesting, we are all very much looking forward to Russia and Mongolia, even if the car isn’t given the state of Mongolian roads. I’m not sure when the next blog post will be given the state of communication in Russia and Mongolia but its amazing to think the next post might come from Ulaanbaatar! KBO.
Despite being right next to each other, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are vastly different countries. They are both mountainous but whereas Tajikistan is relatively barren, Kyrgyzstan is lush and green. Therefore, we set off from Osh intent on taking our time through Kyrgyzstan and enjoying the scenery before we hit the deserts of Kazakhstan. The drive was absolutely stunning and the road construction was infinitely better than Tajikistan. For the first time in a fortnight, the Subaru once again became a long distance cruiser as the potholes of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were left behind. Night one was spent by a lake; it was amazing to be in the middle of nowhere with only a farmer and his sheep for company, with the added bonus of there being no mosquitoes for some reason. We therefore also planned to spend the next two nights at another lake, Lake Issyk-Kul. On route we managed to rack up our first speeding fine as Charlie got done for doing 110 km/h in a 90 km/h. Sadly no amount of rubbish about being told false speed limits by the border guards would sway the policeman and so we were forced to pay our $7 fine, in cash of course. The Lake was amazing; Lake Issyk-Kul literally translates as the warm lake but as we soon found out that this was because it doesn't freeze in winter and not an illusion to the temperature of the water. However, with water inevitably comes mosquitoes and so as soon as it was dark it became a race to soak yourself with DEET in an effort to keep them at bay - the less glamorous side of camping (if in fact there is a glamorous side). We spent an amazing two nights by the lake before setting off to Kazakhstan. It was on this journey that we had our second piece of contact with the Kyrgyz police. We had stopped to look at the GPS when a policeman beckoned me over to his car. He then proceeded to explain that unless I gave him 1000 som he would arrest me. As I didn't have 1000 som I asked him for his dollar rate which turned out to be $20. This wasn't a great exchange rate and so I kindly pointed this out to him - the rate is more like 75 som to the dollar. Sadly he didn't want to budge and so I was forced to hand over the cash as I had no wish to visit the local police station. Definitely not value for money. Oh well - its now five days in Kazakhstan before we head off to Russia! KBO.
So we have finished the Pamir Highway. We have crossed the length of Tajikistan, risen to altitudes of over 4,600m and have made it to Osh. Luckily the road going out of Khorog was better than the road going in and so we managed to make some good miles. Whilst the road was hardly the M1, it did have some stretches 'sans-pothole' and so we were able to climb 2000 meters in just three hours. Now at this height altitude sickness can become a problem but it seemed more of an issue for the car than us. Whilst the Subaru was understandably low on power, it's quite difficult to feel out of breath when sitting in a car - the joys of the internal combustion engine. The scenery at this height was amazing. Endlessly straight roads ringed by mountains made the miles fly by as we headed towards Murgab, a small town near the Chinese border. Its difficult to gauge how big towns like these are going to be. Murgab according to the map had an airport and so we made the reasonable assumption that such a town was likely to have some sort of shop in which we could buy something for supper. Well having been to Murgab, I can assure you that they haven't had any jumbo-jets coming in for land recently. There was no such shop and so we looked to be in for another night of ration packs. However, such a fate was avoided when in return for helping a local car out of a ditch, we were invited in for tea. Despite the locals having very little, we were shown incredible hospitality and given a meal of bread, lentils and some sort of yogurt. At least I think it was Yogurt; it was slightly smile and force it down you. Having camped the night at around 3,700 m, we headed for the border with Kyrgyzstan. We crawled over a pass of 4,655m and soon arrived at the Tajik side of the border. This was all very pleasant and the only thing of note was the customs official telling Charlie that Subaru's were rubbish and that we should have a Toyota Landcrusier. Then it was over into no-man's land. At most borders this stretch typically lasts for about 10m, perhaps even less. Well due to a bit of a balls up from the Russians, the stretch of no-man's land between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is 17km. Given that no-body owns this road, there's very little incentive for either of the two governments to maintain it; this results in 17km of the worst road conditions that we have had so far this trip. Almost an hour later we arrived at the Kyrgyz side of the border. We were met by a customs official who asked us whether we had any drugs. Obviously we replied no; this was met by the reply 'why not, everyone has drugs here.' There followed an amazingly surreal 30 mins as the border official joked about all the kilos of heroine that we could have stashed in our car and the sacks of cocaine we could have put in our sleeping bags. After a two hour wait due to the immigration system being down, we left the border and headed to Osh. Here ended the M41 and so the Pamir Highway. Its now a few days in Kyrgyzstan and then to Kazakhstan. KBO.
Over the years the Pamir Highway has developed a bit of a reputation as an amazing road that has a tendency to ruin cars. The road climbs to over 4600m (making it the second highest in the world), follows the Afghan border and is notorious for rockslides that can block the road for days. With this in mind, we set about transforming our low riding Subaru into a machine that could tackle the struggles ahead. Given the size of the potholes, our primary objective was to increase the ground clearance at the rear. This was achieved by putting springs from a Toyota Land Crusier onto the car thus thereby massively increasing ground clearance. So far, so good. We were then left with two options - do we take the car crushing 'northern' route or the slightly better 'southern' road for the first part of the highway. We opted for the latter. I know what some of you will be thinking reading this back in the UK - 'what a bunch of wimps.' However, given the state of the road later on, I think this was a justified decision. The only slight downside was that this route was longer and putting the springs on the car had delayed us by some four hours. With this we set off on what promised to be the toughest challenge for the car so far. The first part of the road was good; pristine tarmac built by the Chinese and so early progress was promising. However, the southern route has the downside of following the slightly dodgy Afghan border for an extra 200km. It was now 6pm and starting to get dark. For obvious reasons we wanted to stop before it got dark and yet could find no decent camping spots in the deep valley and so had to keep on pushing further towards the Afghan border in hope of one. Finally, just before it got dark we found an amazing campsite by the banks of a river; a river that just happens to mark the boundary between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. I'm fairly certain that our mothers, following the tracker on our website, were not best pleased with our choice of location. Anyway, the next day we set off following the river as it snakes along the border. This is where the car got its first real punishing. The road, given its history of landslides was in a shocking condition. The Subaru voiced its disgust almost immediately. The suspension started to rattle - the force of the bumps meant that part of the housing for the spring had sheered off. One of the tyres also joined in the revolt along with a whole host of other rattles and squeaks. Crawling along at 25 km/h, progress was not fast and so it took us two days to do a distance of only 250km; the landscape more than made up for this however, along with the knowledge that we were only 20m from Afghanistan. Finally arriving at Khorog, we have hopefully managed to sort the suspension and the tyre but as the title of the post suggests, that was only part 1 of the adventure. KBO.
The Uzbeks are definitely on a very different wavelength to those in Turkmenistan. As such, it was a bit of a culture shock as we head into Bukhara for a few days after the stresses of Turkmenistan. Hotels were once again normal prices, there were no weird photos of the Turkmen President and we could have our first proper shower in four days. Bukhara is a seriously cool city. Once we got past the rather grey soviet city suburbs, the madrassas of the silk road revealed themselves. Whilst I'm certain that the Lonely Planet Guide did some serious editing on the cover of their 'Central Asia guide' (which is set in Bukhara), it is none the less a very photogenic city and well worth a visit if you're looking for a destination that is a little more off the beaten track. Perhaps the best find of our stay was the local Uzbek beer. It must be said that it tastes a little funny but when you consider that its 12% AVB its easy to see why. After 3 days of soaking up all the air-conditioning we could, it was off to Samarkand. Harry B had been back in the UK for a funeral so it was there that we were going to reconvene the trio. What we thought would be a relatively easy 6 hour drive threw up some issues. Firstly, the roads were awful. Secondly, petrol is apparently a very rare commodity in Uzbekistan. We must have driven past a 100 closed petrol stations and it was only as we arrived into Samarkand that we found a working pump. With the ginger back in the team, we roared around the sites of Samarkand and then sort to find some petrol for the journey to the Tajikistan border. Apparently the only petrol in the city itself was to be found on the black market and so we had to settle for some stuff that smelt like petrol but had a slightly yellow tinge that BP pumps in the UK definitely don't produce. The following day we set off for the border and the six hour drive was regularly broken up by police checkpoints. It has to be said that I struggled to see the point of such checks. All the information was written down in a notepad and even then they didn't really know what they were looking for. The British passports seemed to confuse the hell out of them to the extent that Charlie's surname was recorded as 'British Citizen' at one stop. Eventually we reached the border. The Uzbek side was relatively straightforward - we had the routine car search but the customs official was apparently more interested in the car itself than what was in it. This carried on to the extent that he wanted to see what this 'Subaru' (not a household name in Uzbekistan) could do and so drove it around the customs area with his mate in the passenger seat. The Tajik side started well; we got our passports stamped and them were pointed to the 'car guy'. Then he dropped the bombshell. 'You are not allowed to bring right hand drive cars into Tajikistan.' This obviously created a bit of an issue considering that our car is very much right hand drive. After a not inconsiderable amount of pleading he decided to ring his boss who then luckily let us off the hook. Phew. Its off to the Pamir's tomorrow. KBO.
It's been a while since I last put on a blog post and that's because we've been in the 'North Korea' of Central Asia - Turkmenistan. As such, I have deliberately waited until Uzbekistan to post this given the levels of security there. To put it into perspective, Lonely Planet won't publish the name of their author there for fear of retribution. It was a huge cultural shock going from Iran into Turkmenistan. The Russian aspect immediately hit us. For the next two hours we were marched around the border paying various fees and signing forms - by the time we left they had taken $140 from us including a $1 'disinfecting fee'. From the border we headed straight to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. The best description I have heard of Ashgabat is that it is a cross between Las Vegas and Pyongyang. Everything, and I mean everything is made from white marble. The hospital is white marble, the stadiums are white marble and even the bus stops are made out of white marble. It was in our very grotty hotel (built by the USSR) that Charlie and I made the decision to go to the Darvaza gas crater. This was extremely risky since we were on a transit visa and deviation from a set route incurred a $1000 if caught; unfortunately the Devaza gas crater is about 240 km off route. I think Charlie will agree that they were some of the most stressful kms of our lives as we went through five police checkpoints praying that they wouldn't look too hard at our documents. After about 4 hours we finally arrived at the crater. It's an amazing site and if it were in a normal country I'm sure it would be packed with tourists but it was deserted as we drove up. As we were unpacking our stuff another car drove up, a family from the American Embassy. At first we were a little annoyed about this but being polite and British we offered to help put up their tent. They turned out to be the most wonderfully generous people and so shared their BBQ with us which was lovely as all we had was ration packs. The next day we somehow made it back to Ashgabat without being stopped and so set off towards the Uzbek border. Two days later we arrived; it hadn't been the most interesting two days as Turkmen landscape has a strong resemblance with the Martian surface. We knew the border was going to be tricky - our Turkmen visa ran out on the 16th but our Uzbek visa didn't start until 17th. We explained this to the border guards and we were told to wait until 22:00; this was at 13:00. Eventually we were called through and that's when the fun began. Having had our passports stamped, Charlie and I were separated. Being the driver of the car, they wanted to see my customs forms. I gave them all my forms but they couldn't find one. At this point they started shouting at me in Russian, I think accusing me of being a smuggler. Luckily they soon found the paper they were looking for and then started a full car search. This is fairly rare as the effort required is fairly substantial. They searched everywhere including inside our fold-up chairs. Once they had done this we were free to leave Turkmenistan but not enter Uzbekistan. As such we spent 2 bizarre hours in no man's land as the Turkmen border guards used our car as a smoking hideout away from their officers much like the far astro operates at Radley. At 00:01 we were allowed into Uzbekistan and once we finally cleared customs at 02:00 we were absolutely shattered. Anyway through Uzbekistan and then it's the Pamirs! KBO