Monday, 30 November 2009
Aged 18, after a spell in my mother's white Micra 1.0 - which made me look like Noddy - I splashed out £200 on my first car, a Rover 214 SLi. I loved it dearly: it stalled at every junction, ate front tyres, and failed its MOT spectacularly after three months, needing a lamda sensor, full new exhaust, and some welding.
I sold it to the boy Hugh for £50, who, armed with an MOT by return of post, cruised around in it for about a month before seizing the engine on the Longbridge roundabout. Somehow, by the time he came to collect it the next day, it had disappeared altogether. Ghost car or practical thief?
Mindful of my overindulgence, I went for solid and Germanic a year later, splashing £650 on a VW Polo Saloon 1.6 with a rusty rear arch. This was, at least, reliable: but it had as much poise as a St Bernard on a greased linoleum. Also, the windscreen wiper sheared clean off in monsoon conditions at 80 on the M6: possibly in a sort of windscreen wiper version of a midlife crisis, being desperate to find more new and exciting activities than being attached to one of the ugliest cars ever made.
This one was sold for £590 with very little clutch left, so at least it wasn't a commercial disaster.
Then we entered the banger rally phase, where I owned, in succession: a third of a chavved-up BMW 320i which made it 2000 miles before seizing its diff; the whole of a grey Rover 820i with an engine condition that can only be described as "vindictive asthma" that made it 1000 miles before utterly lunching its rear brake calipers; and an Audi 100E which, although making a rather lovely 5-pot burble, had a fuel cut-off at 5000rpm, which was somewhat terrifying when you tried to overtake for the first time. Change down, pull out, floor the gas, appreciate the burble, SHITSHITSHIT, change undergarments.
We left that one at an Italian scrapyard.
Over the Christmas period of that year, I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a couple of loan cars: a Range Rover Vogue V8 - terrible in every single respect, from the square wheels to the broken heater to the inability to top 70 - and, fatefully, a Rover 216gti that I enjoyed very much despite its slipping clutch, clonking brakes and knackered suspension bushes. Only having it for a day, I suppose, may well have helped my spectacles to remain rosy.
My next port of call was Japan for a loan spell in a very swift Civic VTI, owned by the boy Hugh. It announced its displeasure at finding its name on such an undistinguished list by conking out on the way home from the pub two days after taking delivery, leaving me waiting for the RAC in what turned out to be a rather popular dogging spot. Every cloud has a silver lining, I suppose. After a 70 mile tow home, Hugh gave it a good seeing to and it gave faultless service for another month, when a bolt fell off its gear linkage in Asda carpark. It was, I suppose, not really crap as such, but it was wholly impractical - it had two seats, one functioning window, no interior and a storm drain instead of an exhaust, which endeared me to my neighbours to such an extent that one of them decided to express their opinion through the artistic medium of a key and my paintjob. Thanks.
After the Civic rumbled back to Hugh's grasping mitts (where it swiftly put his license in severe jeopardy), I decided to spend the £500 I had available to me on a small, sensible, easy to insure diesel hatchback. That an E30 318i touring resulted from this shopping trip says much about my attitude to car purchase, especially as said E30 had 189,000 miles, no radiator worth speaking of, a whining diff, groaning PAS and a 30mpg thirst. Still, I enjoyed two whole months of enjoying my reflection in shop windows - she really was pretty - before someone erroneously decided she'd make a good getaway car and nicked her on Christmas day - the story of which can be found elsewhere on this blog.
Since then, I've had a Mondeo - worthy but boring, and the air conditioning smelt of mouldy drains - a Suzuki Alto with a knocking CV joint and a pink stripe on it, a Peugeot 106 diesel with a knackered exhaust and a leaking sunroof, a 1986 Reliant Rialto and a Suzuki Jimny. The latter was clean, tidy, reliable and respectable: so obviously we ripped it to bits and painted it yellow.
Where does all this leave me? Well, if I had any sense, it'd leave me with a severe distaste for cars in general.
Sadly, however, I a) have no sense, and b) am a member of www.aronline.co.uk. So this Saturday I found myself on a train to Swansea, unsightly wonga-shaped bulge blighting my pocket. My target - a Rover 216 which had had all sorts of modifications to make it faster and more comfortable.
When I got there, the car wasn't how it had looked in the pictures... it was multicoloured, like Elmer the Elephant. Some parts of it were grey, some were silver, and some were just crap. The car, which had covered 190k, had 135k on the clocks, and the owner wanted over the odds for it. Obviously, I did the sensible thing and handed over £360 for it.
The drive home was enough to illustrate that the twin cam Honda engine was willing but gruffer than similar units in CRXs. Worse, it used £20 of fuel in 120 miles, but I wasn't going to be disheartened - he'd said it ran rich, after all.
Rich is not a word which would adequately describe me at the moment, as she's used the next £20 of fuel in 70 miles. She smells like the Jahre Viking running aground on Hemel Hempstead, and idles wherever she bloody well wants to - sometimes at 800, sometimes 400, sometimes 1500.
Elmer is now parked outside, where she will stay until a mechanic can look at her on Thursday. I've paid £360 for two days' nervous motoring in a patchwork car.
If and when she gets fixed, you can expect to read about my ownership experience, attempts to justfiy her foibles, and - inevitably - her eventual demise, be it through cold economics, hot-blooded windscreen-tree interface, theft, or (surprisingly likely at the moment) spontaneous combustion. But that's the weird thing. The only cars that have been vaguely sensible and reliable in that list - Polo, Mondeo - have merited but a marginal note at best, whereas the ones which have riled me and got my blood boiling have, at least, made a good anecdote.
So perhaps it's not so surprising that, as a car nut, my car copybook is far from un-blotted. Perhaps, in a strange sort of way, the two are linked.
Tuesday, 29 September 2009
Sadly, dear reader, the motoring observations don't stop with the end of the rally. Indeed, after 32 hours on the slow train from UB down to Beijing, I was desperate for any fix of car geekery. Thankfully (for me at least - I can't say the same for my travelling companions) China provided a surfeit of same. In both of my guises - to whit, a British car nerd and an experienced navigator of the Central Asian vehicular peculiarities - China was an odd one. Not necessarily worse or indeed better; but odd.
The first thing to mention is the road quality, which was superb, even by European standards. Granted, my visit encompassed just two wealthy cities, but I daresay investment there will eventually be matched in all the big cities. Mongolian, Kazakh or (particularly) Tajik drivers would have thought they’d landed on Planet Smooth, had they swallowed the (ruinous) import taxes and put-putted their motorbikes eastward. Yet it seems that this is a relatively recent development, as the vast majority of the traffic bounces around on comedy 70-section balloon tyres; a surefire sign of a populace weary of losing rim after rim to man-eating potholes. A certain city beginning with U and rhyming with Goolan Hataar comes to mind.
Speaking of traffic, it falls into two main categories – those with four wheels, and those with more, or less. The cars, which mostly fall into the former category, were on the whole pretty well behaved, but we quickly learned to treat the cyclists and moped-ists as big, unwieldy pedestrians. Not only were they to the traffic as a toddler’s fingers are to the sweety jar (i.e. everywhere, all at once) but they were also seemingly ungoverned by either traffic laws or common sense. No alleyway was too small, no pavement too congested, and no shrubbery too dense for these two-stroke death-traps: perhaps they didn’t quite rival Iranian motorcyclists for sheer lunacy, but they ran them close.
The reason for this dichotomy can, I feel, be found in the prestige attached to the motor car out there, even when the car in question was a vaguely-facelifted version of the 1980s Audi 100 – a Daudi, if you will. Allow me to put it this way: traffic outside our hostel was still gridlocked at 2am, at which point your average mopedist would have been at home for six hours. The fact that an increasing number of Shanghainese choose to pay through the nose for a car just to sit in such jams, rather than spend just 2000RMB (about £200) on an infinitely more convenient scoot, demonstrates that the Chinese are coming more and more to see the car as a status symbol, rather than a tool to enhance mobility. Reminds me of some other countries that I can’t quite put my finger on...
Anyway, this being the case, and given the well-documented taste the Chinese have for aping Western products, you’d expect Roewe (née Rover) and MG products to be selling like hot steamed buns. The old Rover 75 was about as British as a mid-range saloon gets – surely a Sino-spec example would be as appealing to local tastes as an English slogan t-shirt? Well, SAIC shifted about 13,000 750s in 2008, according to official figures, which is about 185,000 fewer sales than VW enjoyed with its ancient Santana, so you’d hardly call it a runaway sales success...*
The simple fact of the matter is this: in Beijing I saw just one MG – one of the Streetwise things – and a smattering of 550s, which look like up-spec Corollas and come on little piddly biscuit wheels. In Shanghai – the home of SAIC, remember – I counted five Roewe 750s, but as three were black and I can’t decode Chinese number plates, they may well have been the same car. It’s a shame, because the mildly facelifted Longbridge relic looked rather good among the restaurants and posh shops of the French Concession. But it seems these cars are being bought for their exclusivity rather than on merit, and in a marketplace dominated by the mid-size saloon this is both puzzling and troubling. True, a big posh bruiser like the 750 will never compete with the sales of, say, the Santana: but to be out-sold three to one by the more expensive Mondeo is a serious cockup. And if they can’t even establish a presence on their home turf – where, by the way, I failed to spot a dealership despite a brief sally into the relevant district – then where can they do so?
I’ve been to China for only a short period of time, and I’m not pretending to be an expert on the industry: for that, you need to head to China Car Times. But my suggestion for SAIC and NAC would be as follows: take Peugeots lead from the Champs Elysees and establish a ‘lifestyle’ showroom on the Nanjing road, between the Rolex shop and... erm... the other Rolex shop. Play on being a lifestyle Western brand until the story becomes so paper thin that you can see through it with a torch; and then play on it some more. Only by gaining a foothold in the ‘aspirational brand’ section of the Chinese motoring conscience are you going to make inroads into a market dominated by a mixture of cheap cars and desirable cars, when you are currently peddling neither of the above. Perhaps the launch of the upcoming MG6, based on the 550, might help.
If, however, SAIC/NAC do not gain a foothold in a market expanding faster than Kevin Howe’s waistline, then a) they’re just not trying hard enough and b) they would have to rely more on export. Which means they’d need MG’s UK arm to build up the brand, and the benevolence of the press corps to reinforce it. In other words, they’d be dead in the water.
* I couldn’t find figures on the sales of the MG7. I’m not actually convinced it even exists outside the pages of car magazines and mg-rover.org.
Rule 1: Be in a lorry. If you cannot be in a lorry, be in a blue pickup. If you are in either of these vehicles, not only are you impervious to all Earthly laws, but more complex ones like physics and relativity as well. Be advised that colour selection will not be a problem as all Iranian pickups are blue, for reasons that are probably significant but not immediately apparent.
Rule 2: If you cannot be in a lorry or blue pickup, ensure you are in either a Peugeot 405, a Kia Pride or a Paykan, which is sort of like a stretch Lada, with similar build quality. Disregard for these two simple rules will see you riding a Honda 250 motorbike, which is an unattractive prospect (see below).
Rule 3: Ensure that a novelty horn is fitted. The standard horn on your vehicle, even if it is a sodding great truck, simply will not do. Length of tone and volume are the key factors to bear in mind here. Standard badging, too, should be removed wherever possible, and replaced with items which indicate that, against all empirical evidence, your Kia Pride is actually an Audi A6 with FEUL INJECTION and a TURBO.
Rule 4: If you are in a lorry or a blue pickup, fill your vehicle with as many goods as is physically impossible. Extra points are gained for sheer improbable height of your stacked goods. If you are in a car, replace 'goods' with 'people', but keep the bit about improbable height. Seven passengers should be considered an absolute, baseline minimum for passage on the Iranian road.
Rule 5: Having chosen and correctly populated your vehicle, it is time to venture out onto the road. To do this, you must first pick a piece of road on which to drive. Don't worry if somebody else has already chosen this piece of road - they will vacate it, somehow, or you can share. Ensure you change both road positioning and speed at least every five seconds to ensure maximum disruption to the free flow of traffic. For tips on successful road positioning, visit your local funfair and spend an evening studying the way dodgems 'interact'.
Rule 6: Right of way: there is no such thing. Priority, therefore, goes to the pushiest bastard, or certainly to whoever is in the largest, most solid looking vehicle (see Rule 1). If you find yourself in a vehicle which is somewhat lower down the food chain, you can temporarily elevate yourself by making liberal use of your novelty horn (see Rule 3).
Rule 7: Generally speaking, you should at least attempt to drive in the same direction as other traffic on your side of the road. Exceptions are made for Honda 250 motorcycles, lorries and blue pickups (see Rule 1) and those prepared to make liberal use of their novelty horn (see Rules 3 and 6).
Rule 8: Speed limits. These are generally as fast as your vehicle can travel, even if in so doing your lorry or blue pickup belches out enough carcinogenic fog to suffocate the whole of Rasht, and granny has to cling on to the haystack that you have balanced on the load bay (see Rule 4). However, these speeds must only be maintained for short periods of time, and should be followed by sudden, unexpected and violent bouts of deceleration. Swerving should accompany these wherever possible. This is to ensure that the driver of the Paykan next to you is awake, and will give the seventeen people on the rear bench something to point at.
Rule 9: If you do see a police radar trap, don't worry: although these are numerous, your speed, road position and general sanity are of no concern to the Iranian constabulary. These checkpoints are for the bored policeman occasionally to practice his English by admonishing foreigners for driving slightly over what could, in theory, be the speed limit.
Rule 10: Don't queue for anything.
Friday, 11 September 2009
Our Mongol Rally 2009 is officially over.
We crossed the finish line about 5pm this evening, and received our certificates, so I suppose that means we've completely done what we set out to do. We're 1500 miles over our scheduled mileage, we've had a hatful of experiences, one sensor failure, two spring failures, three tyre failures, and crucially, the best set of story-topping anecdotes a pub-goer could wish for.
Thanks to everyone who sponsored us - we visited Eamon at Christina Noble today and emptied our cars out, and it really does seem like they're doing an incredibly good job. They're having a "sponsor a child" day tomorrow, where the local urchins come in to collect their allowance - for every $30 given to the foundation, $25 goes directly to the kids. We'd love to visit their Ger village (which acts as a kind of mixed orphanage/school arrangement) but we're leaving for China at 8am tomorrow morning, so it's not going to be possible. Hopefully I'll be back and will be able to help out in a more practical sense.
In fact, I'm running out of different ways to be nice about human nature in general, which could be due to the fact that I'm sat in the bar having been on the receiving end of a surprising amount of Chinggis beer. Our landlady for the past three nights has taken "motherly" to new levels - her brother is giving us a free taxi to the station at 7am, and has charged us $8 each per night for a whole apartment with kitchen. The Adventurists have been amazing, despite being hit with an unexpected $400,000 customs bill. Pebley Beach Cirencester deserve a special mention for being for being on our side throughout and shipping our sensor flawlessly to Samarkand, the story of which is well documented earlier in this blog. Even the cops are on our side; we got stopped for an illegal U-turn 100 yards from the finish line, but they got bored after 15 minutes and let us go without a fine.
We've bloody done it. Unusually for me, I'm a bit lost for words. What now?!
Tuesday, 1 September 2009
The new suspension worked!!!
Well, sort of. The car still sits right on its arse, but the transformation over the bumpy roads has been incredible. Who would have known that a tiny garage in a two-thirds-of-a-horse town like Ayakoz would keep, as its only spare part, a pair of springs that only needed a bit of hacksaw-based adjustment to be a perfect fit on our car? And who could have predicted that they'd relieve us of just $25 for the privilege?
So with our new Audi-based suspension system, we have been transformed (as Pepe put it) from the QE2 to a Q7. We glide over the "undulations" in Kazakh roads (some of which are up to 6 foot deep, you could lose Tom in them easily) with the greatest of ease, and consequently have been making swift progress since Almaty.
Kazakhstan is notable for a select group of things. Firstly, the women are almost all drop-dead gorgeous, knocking the female population of Hungary into a distant second place (although obviously neither Usget nor Pepe noticed this themselves, it had to be pointed out to them). Secondly, there's often more than 100 miles between villages, which can become boring. Thirdly, as previously mentioned, some of their roads are utterly, utterly appalling. And finally, the population of Semey were some of the friendliest people we've met since leaving Iran - parking our cars up in front of the park led to an all-out assault by balloon sellers, ice cream vendors and passers-by, all wanting to try out their English, have photos taken with the cars, and give us gifts. Two hours later we finally managed to drag ourselves away, not wanting to see candy-floss again as long as we all lived.
Incidentally, Pepe and Tom claimed that wolves came around our tents that evening. James and Usget heard nothing, and don't believe them.
From Semey we headed over the Russian border, where we met a couple of Romanian bikers who were quality, and which was, in border terms, painless (and free!) Russia itself has so far proved to be quite a lot like England - bloody cold, rainy (we're at 53 degrees North, our most Northerly point on the trip), and difficult to get things done. Barnaul, though, has been a bit of an improvement: it's a sprawling great university city with a young population and plenty of shops, bars, and indeed a solitary Net cafe (from whence we write). We'll not be spending much time here, though, because it's a bloody long way to the Mongolian border and The Adventurists website is already expressing incredulity that anyone should still be on the road...
8 days to go, and this may be the last full blog until UB. Wish us luck everybody.
Sunday, 23 August 2009
Just a quick update because it's only 2 days since the last one. But it's worth noting that we managed to cover 400 miles in a single day! Our biggest day since Munich, way back in mid-July.
Kyrgyzs roads (the ones that they've finished) are brilliant, alternating between arrow-straight stretches of fast, wide blacktop and sinewy passes that wind their way through the (copious) hills. Even better, we managed to find some 95RON fuel in Osh, so we did the whole thing without Jenny rattling complaints at us with every dab of the accelerator.
On the road, we finally run out of luck with the tactic which has seen us avoid police bribery-points since Iran; ie, pretend to pull over, make sure they don't have guns, then drive off. On the whole, this has been remarkably successful, with nothing more than a succession of confused-looking coppers to our name, and only a handful of bribery attempts (in Tajikistan, where they had barriers across the road). The Kyrgyzs 5-0, however, are far more prevalent and have radar guns, so Pepe and Usget got one tug each. Usget got out of his ticket by pleading ignorance of the 60kph limit - this wasn't hard, since there were no signs whatsoever - and Pepe's "fine" started at 300 Som ($7.50), came down to 200 Som ($5), then a spare wheel, then a tyre... then a cigarrette (of which we've kept a stash in the glovebox for just such an occasion). When he offered to pay the fine in Bishkek (ie through the official channels, rather than into the top pocket) the policeman gave up and sent us packing... a bit more warily than before.
Bishkek is a bit of a hidden gem: the guide book isn't wholly complimentary about it but we've found it to be leafy and pleasant, a bit like Cheltenham. But then all of these former Soviet capitals are leafy and pleasant and a bit like Cheltenham. For the people who supposedly have the lowest average wage of all the Cental Asian countries, the Kyrgyzs dress incredibly stylishly, and Pepe (with his beard now at hobo-rivalling standard) and Usget (with his two-weeks-and-counting shorts and gay cowboy hat) have been on the receiving end of some incredulous, disparaging looks. Also, Bishkek's residents all drive either big 1990s German saloons (we went in a BMW 525i taxi last night, after evicting a prostitute from same) or right-hand-drive Japanese imports. It's probably the most Western-feeling city we've been to since Budapest, in fact.
We are now working out what to do with our three spare days before meeting HTMT in Almaty, just 200km away. The favourite option seems to be white-water rafting, but Usget's belly currently feels like he is white water rafting whilst sat in an Internet Cafe, so this might not be the safest of options.
1500 miles until Mongolia and 2500 until Ulaan Bataar (so long as the bits which sound like they're about to fail - rear springs, brakes, catylitic converter - don't.)
Friday, 21 August 2009
We're finally back in civilisation after a week in Tajikistan. In brief, a creepy German doctor in Dushanbe cured Usget but appeared to want to take over ze vorld. Once that important aspect was sorted, we headed out into Tajikistan itself, which is an utter moonscape. Sometimes there are 100km between villages, and most of the plateau is above 4000m - no wonder Soviet Cosmonauts used to use it to train for their space missions.
A lot of our journey was undertaken following the Afghan border, which was beautiful, if deserted. A fantastic side-effect of this was that we got to meet the lads at FSD, a Franco-German mission to clear Russian mines from the Tajik-Afghan border using Tajik troops. When we rocked up in Thunderbird Four, they bloody loved it, giving us Plov, Choy (complete with the biggest sugar lumps in the world - Pepe now has a habit and needs a trip to the Priory) and even gave up their tent so that we could have a place to sleep! In one of the strangest nights of the trip, we were first given a showing of the worst German porn in the world, and then woken at 4am as they'd realised they'd given us their prayer tent to sleep in! Weird, but they're doing a damn good job - the sooner Tajikistan is rid of these hideously archaic weapons, the better.
Other adventures from Tajikistan are few and far between - the country has mindblowing views, but little else! The boneshaking roads have killed an indicator and our driver's window, and on one particularly well-hidden pothole Pepe managed to launch the whole car off the ground and snap a spring (it's probably only fair to point out that Usget did pretty much the same thing 4 hours later, so the spring would have gone at some time!) Despite these issues, and our tortured brakes, and the 80-RON fuel (for the uneducated, you'd run a tractor or possibly a lawnmower on 80-RON fuel) Jenny managed to climb the highest pass you can take an English registered car on - the 4655m Ak Baital. We're proud of her.
(Note to Suzuki, though: 4wd vacuum hubs don't work at over 4000m altitude, which is a bit tricky when you've built a campsite on a sandy bit and can't get out again in the morning. Bastard thing.)
We're currently running two days ahead of schedule, so before we meet up with Tom and James in Almaty we're planning to do a couple of car modifications in Bishkek. We're hoping to remove the catylitic converter, so that Jenny accepts the shitty fuel a bit more readily; and we need to find some brake pads which will fit, as ours currently sound like a tribe of banshees on a rusty railway engine and won't last much longer. If we accomplish all that easily enough, we might have a crack at white-water rafting in one of Kyrgyzstan's many excellent rivers.
Kyrgyzstan is beautiful, we've had a good meal and a good explore of Osh, we're loaded up to the gunwales with 95-RON fuel, Jenny's running well, and we're just days away from reunification with Team HTMT. TYO are flying along!
P.S. The finish line party in Ulaan Baatar was today. We're still about 3000 miles away. Whoops!
Wednesday, 12 August 2009
We are now in Samarkand, quite a way into Uzbekistan. But since Mashad there are a hell of a lot of blanks to fill in, and that's without going into details on the gay Iranian drinking beach club I alluded to in my previous blog...
So in brief:
Thursday 6th - went from Mashad to try and cross the border. Nearly got killed by a bonkers Iranian reversing up the middle lane of the motorway - closest we've come to a major accident so far. Dilly dallied getting our cars jetwashed (with the loss of half of our black paint) and ended up on the border just as the Iranian guard decided he'd had enough for the day and fancied knocking off an hour early. Hung around for long enough to see a motorcyclist clothesline himself on the barrier, then dust himself off and hurl abuse at the border guard for having the barrier down. Camped in a nearby quarry amid breathtaking scenery, probably the prettiest campsite so far and had a stonking great fire.
Friday 7th - Managed to cross the border after about five hours of waiting around. Turkmenistan wanted $610 for 4 people and 2 cars to cross the border - bastards. Descended 1500m into Ashgabat, which is across between the Nazi vision of Berlin and Alice in Wonderland. The only real way to explain matters is to say that their cuckoo President Niazov (the man who renamed a day after himself and bread after his mother) decided that, as a great nation, they should have a stonking great marble capital city, and to hell with the cost. The resultant monstrosity is a bit like what you'd build if you'd seen Las Vegas, but only in a comic book. They have absolutely enormous white marble monolithic buildings, an Olympic Stadium (have you ever heard of the Turkmen Olympics?!?!) a University with no students (he just felt it should have a university) and about a million palaces, all of which have been built since the late 90s. They also have a whacking great gold statue of him on something that looks exactly like something from the next Austin Powers movie,which rotates to face the sun, and another statue of his book.
(If you read The Book 101 times you go to Heaven, and if you want to pass your driving test, knowledge of it is essential)
The city would be incredibly impressive were it not for the lack of anything useful! There are numerous impressive but empty public buildings, a strip of skyscraper hotels with about 5 of their 1000 windows lit, and one coffee shop, which was closed. And there's no point to any of it, because they discourage tourism at all costs, and won't even let you photograph any of the pretty buildings (we did anyway, obviously - we're Team Young Offenders).
The upshot of all this is that, after our dry week in Iran, we couldn't have the beer we were gasping for.
Saturday 8th - went to the biggest bazaar in Central Asia. Absolutely sodding huge - it sold all sorts, a kind of Central Asian version of a Wall Mart. All but Usget got dodgy kebabs from a vendor, and later regretted it. Then we headed out into the desert for the first time in the direction of Mary, but Usget, busy searching for a spot to erect the patented "poo chair", missed a signpost, and 120km later we were back on the Iran border again - ironically pretty close to Mashad! This was not Usget's finest hour. Camped in the world's dustiest layby. Still no beer.
Sunday 9th - We were joined in the morning by a brace of Sith Ifricins, Jean and Adina, who had made exactly the same mistake that we had, which made us feel a bit better. 120km later we were back on the right road again, but still managed to miss the ancient ruins at Merv due to the Turkmen inability to signpost ANYTHING AT ALL. The roads had by this time deteriorated into cart tracks and the petrol to 92RON, which, however, Jenny seemed to run OK on. Late in the day we came across a direct consequence of the shitty roads; a Mongol Rally Terios that had been rolled and ended up in a field.
Carmelle, the driver, had concussion, but other than that they'd had a very lucky escape. It was a crap thing to happen to two such nice people, and we wish them well; but they headed off into a world of trouble, as the Terios looked beyond repair and their visa expired that day. If you're reading this, chaps, let us know how you got on!
Camped in the Karakum desert under a tarp - far too hot for tents (so much for desert nights being colder!) Saw the whole of the Milky Way spread out overhead. This is the sort of thing the rally is all about.
The other thing the rally is all about (lager beer) was still conspicuous by its absence. Perhaps The Book forbids it.
Monday 10th - TYO and HTMT finally found the Uzbek border despite a complete lack of signage. After asking for directions several times, we came to the conclusion that Turkmen people have never seen maps before, as none of them can read them! The difference in education between Turkmenistan and Iran is striking.
Border crossing was relatively painless in a bureaucratic sense but painful in other senses, as Pepe had heat exhaustion and Usget had Us-gutrot. This paled into insignificance, however, once we reached the Uzbek side and found Jean and Adina literally stuck in No Mans Land. The Adventurists had cocked up their Uzbek visa, with the result that it wasn't valid until October 4th; and despite the Turkmen officials assuring them that it would be fine, the Uzbek lot were failing to see the funny side, and told them they'd best get used to their new home. They had camped the previous night and blagged food and water from the mile-long truck tailback, but the reality of their predicament was sinking in, and spirits were ebbing.
Uzbekistan, however, had reckoned without Charlie from Team Rasta Mouse, who went and made an utter nuisance of herself in the Uzbek customs until one of them agreed to try and help the South Africans out. Just as we left, with Rasta Mouse in tow, wheels started turning; and we ran into a grateful Jean and Adina in Bukhara that very evening.
Being a civilised country, Uzbekistan sold beer. Usget savoured his.
Tuesday 11th - Had a look around Bukhara in the daytime. Really enjoyed the city - it has no real sense of occasion, but it feels like a nice place to be. Tree-lined avenues lead to 16th Century fortresses and mosques which have, admittedly, been preserved; but which feel almost incidental, in somewhat the same way that Rome's ancient monuments do. It was a complete contrast to the stiff formality of Ashgabat, and Usget enjoyed it greatly.
We've also finally got into bartering country. The price they quote you for pretty much anything - from museums, through meals, to the slightly Mamas and the Papas-esque shirt that James bought - is up for negotiation, so we all bought some quality souvenirs from the fortress.
Once it got a bit cooler, we headed off to Samarkand, already loving the Uzbek way of doing things, a state of affairs which was not changed by the sight of a donkey pulling a cart with a cow in it on their equivalent of the M25! They aren't nearly in the same league as the Iranians for mentalist driving - they even give way at roundabouts! - but the sheer variety of vehicles on the road, only about 25% of which are cars, makes any long journey an interesting experience. What would be the fast lane of a motorway is fair game for cyclists, donkey carts, motorbikes, and the occasional bus, sometimes with, sometimes against, and sometimes through the flow of traffic.
Arrived at Samarkand expecting our sensor to have been delivered... only to find that it hadn't. But we got to camp on a roof terrace overlooking a courtyard of fig and apple trees in the charming Hotel Antica, which made up for it to a certain extent. They even let us park in the courtyard, much to the delight of the local kids, who spent most of the evening working out which of our panel gaps were large enough to insert their digits into.
Today! - Christ, we're finally up to date. Damn the Turkmens and their lack of internet, or this blog would not have been so longwinded! However, this is a short entry, as all we have really done today is chase our sensor. Pepe has spent most of the day on Skype to Suzuki UK, and after basically putting the entire staff of three companies on the case, we think we've tracked it down to a truck somewhere in Uzbekistan. At least it's in country!
By the time I click "publish" and leave the net cafe, there's a chance it might have been dropped off at Hotel Antica. If you have any charms, anything crossable or any other lucky item, please rub/cross/caress it as appropriate. One stupid piece of plastic and wiring could be the fulcrum on which the rest of our rally will pivot. Let's hope it tips in the right direction.
Is anyone still reading this!?
Wednesday, 5 August 2009
What can I say about Iran apart from "wow". This is an amazing place, not a pretty place or a modern place, but so overwhelmingly friendly that it blows your mind. We have camped on two beaches (behind one of which lay a story which I will post at a later date), been brought cakes by farmers, invited into the home of a fine gentleman called Mustafa for dinner, bed and breakfast, and smiled and waved at everywhere we've been as if we are some kind of celebrities.
The message the people have mostly had is this: do not confuse the Iranian government with the Iranian people. I feel that I owe it to Iran to repeat that message to everyone I meet. What you see on News 24 isn't the whole story, it isn't even 10% of the story. The vast majority of Iranians are polite, friendly, servile, and incredibly well educated. We could learn a lot from them. In short, Iranians all act as if they are ambassadors for their country - if I had a pound for every time I have been told "Welcome to Iran" in the past week, I would be a rich man.
I feel like I am a rich man anyway - a tank of fuel is setting us back 100,000 Iranian Rials, which equates to just over $10. My supposedly stealthy shoulder-wallet has looked like some kind of breast under my tshirt for the past week. We've still got most of the damn stuff left, too: I reckon a week in Iran has cost me and Pepe no more than $50 each.
Iranian drivers are worthy of a blog all to themselves, so I'll save that rant for another time. Suffice to say, the first two paragraphs go flying out of the window the minute you put an Iranian behind the wheel of a car. I have never experienced such collective lunacy: they absolutely positively cannot queue for anything, and there is no priority at either junction or roundabout, save for the basic "survival of the loudest horn". Here at Team Young Offenders, though, we are all for adopting local customs, and have been leaving towns dazed and confused with liberal use of our rooster/police siren PA system.
Turkmenistan tomorrow with our legendary convoyers Tom and James. They're with us all the way to Samarkand and are subbing us for our Turkmen visas as neither Pepe nor I realised you couldn't withdraw cash in Iran with your Visa card. Note to self: buy Lonely Planet next time.
This is the last update until Uzbekistan as Turkmenistan isn't too hot on the old Net Cafe scene.Hopefully the next blog should be something along the lines of "Woohoo!!! We've got our sensor and can now do the Pamir Highway!"
Kind regards from Mashad,
Tuesday, 13 January 2009
I found out today on the growing Mongol Rally Forum about the rather terrifying Mongolian Death Worm, reported to live in the Gobi Desert. At 1.5m long and possessing a ready supply of sulphuric acid to burn its victims before it drinks their blood, it doesn’t look nearly so cuddly as, say, Paddington.
However, I find myself wondering, how deadly really is this beastie? To find out, let’s have a bit of a comparison, between the aforementioned Mongolian Death Worm and the most fearsome creature mainland Britain can offer up – the Greater Spotted Midlands Chav.
The worm could be considered impervious to attack, being both strong and fast. It has also been suggested that it can electrocute its victims to death as a nice change from burning them. However, what it gains in viciousness it loses in enthusiasm: not a single injury has been chalked up to the Death Worm for years, whereas go out in Coventry late at night with your mobile on display and you’re in line for a shoeing. What the chavs lack in sulphuric acid and supercapacitors, they make up for in belligerence, mindless aggression and sheer numbers.
There is no empirical evidence to suggest the presence of any chinks in the Death Worm’s armoury. Try and run it over and it will melt your tyres, and subsequently your face, with acid; try and spray it with bug spray and it is likely as not to take it off you and shove it where, even in the Gobi Desert, the sun is unlikely to shine. Both of these defences are effective against the Greater Spotted Midlands Chav – however, a far more apparent weakness lies in cheap, fluorescent alcoholic beverages. Whilst a steady flow of these will actually increase the danger for the reasons mentioned above, before long the attack will be nixed by means of the perpetrator passing out in a bus shelter.
This is the category where the Greater Spotted Midlands Chav takes a strong lead, being almost omnipresent in the provincial towns of the Midlands. Meanwhile, whilst the existence of the Mongolian Death Worm has never actually been disproven, nobody’s actually managed to take a photograph either*. Perhaps they were too busy being killed to death, or perhaps he’s shy. In any case, there’s between none and one of the blighters, meaning that the prize for terror in this category must go to the home team.
*Hence the somewhat terrifying but definitely blurry image above: I suppose it must be hard to do accurate brush-strokes when you're being electrified, dissolved and eaten all at the same time.
Likelihood to vandalise your Reliant Rialto:
This final category could be the clincher. As the Rialto has a fibreglass body, it is likely* to be quite resistant to the sulphuric acid which would quickly take the lustre off a metallic paintjob. For the same reason, the Worm’s electrocution attack will be blunted, and with a 2200mm wheelbase, the Reliant could be a smidgen long for the Worm to swallow whole. The chavs, meanwhile, will use their only major advantage over the worm – opposable thumbs – to bring every implement they can lay their hands on to bear against the defenceless Tamworth tricycle. This is especially worrying if, like us, you’re going to be transporting your Rialto to Coventry this weekend; and more worrying still if that Rialto has no side window and only a rudimentary ignition barrel.
*based on no knowledge whatsoever.
Whilst the Mongolian Death Worm may be fearsome, it will be a breath of fresh air (laced with H2SO4) compared to the Greater Spotted Midlands Chav. Let’s just hope that we can fend off the menace of the latter before we head for the relative safety of the Gobi Desert in July!
Saturday, 3 January 2009
“It’ll be fine.” Possibly the three most dangerous words in the English language. You use them when you’re busy ignoring everything that your intuition is screaming at you and, whilst nine times out of ten, ‘it’ really WILL be fine, that tenth time can often prove to be expensive.
Low on fuel and have to make a short motorway hop? “It’ll be fine…” Car tax expired two days ago and need to run the kids to school? “It’ll be fine…” You get the picture.
My “It’ll be fine” comeuppance was delivered on Christmas Day when I left the fascia attached to the rather nice Pioneer stereo in my newly acquired BMW E30. Realising that this left the car as a somewhat tempting target for vandals, I thought long and hard about venturing out into the cold to remove the fascia. Then I had another beer.
By Boxing Day morning, the car was gone.
They found it not twenty-four hours later, minus stereo, on a garage forecourt, with two lads trying industriously to steal more cars. Presumably, it had taken about that long to discover that a 1.8 8v, 189,000 miles and a heavy Touring bodyshell don’t make for the ideal getaway car… but I digress.
The car was recovered by Mansfield Group, a vehicle recovery sub-contractor tasked by the North Staffordshire police with securing any stolen or burned-out cars in the region. “Great!” I thought, when I was told the news, “I’ll simply pop in, collect my car, and see about repairing the damage.” Oh no I wouldn’t – not without paying the £150 recovery charge first. Oh, and the Scene of Crime Officer had to examine the car - he’d not be available until Monday - and there was a £12 per day “storage fee”.
Now, I appreciate that the recovery of vehicles is not a cheap operation. I further recognise that police budgets are stretched. But since when has policing been “pay-as-you-play”? And why, if we’re going down that route, doesn’t someone OTHER THAN THE VICTIM have to pay for it? “Well, it’s policy”, was the best response I could ascertain from North Staffs Police but it is a policy that seems utterly, utterly unfair.
It is also, arguably, unlawful. After all, they are providing a service which I could have procured by myself, either cheaply or (via the RAC) free. They have provided this service without my knowledge or agreement and then sent me the bill. Come on, at £150 for a tow of just under ten miles, I could probably have procured Elton John to drive the tow-truck.
Angry with the police, I set about claiming on my insurance, which was a TPFT policy with the people who wish to “Quote You Happy.” It transpired, though, that making a claim would double my resultant premiums and I’d also have to pay a £250 excess. This meant that a settlement figure on my car would have to be more than £850 for me not to make a loss, let alone get any money towards repairing my car. How likely was this, I asked? “We can’t say without sending an assessor, sir,” they responded. And you can’t have an assessor sent out without making a claim. My future finances thus depended on a gamble and, having tried my luck once this holiday and lost, big time, I was reluctant to take a second chance.
At this stage, I doubt they would be quoting me anywhere for fear of breaching OFCOM rules on offensive language.
My options, then, were threefold. Choice one: claim on the insurance, pay out £850, and hope the car was valued at more than £850, then spend the difference on the repairs (bearing in mind market value for my car was £750, and I’d paid just £550 for it). Choice two: pay for the repairs myself and stump up for the police fee myself too (which, by this time, had reached £210). Choice 3: Mansfield offered to waive the recovery charge if they were allowed to “dispose of” the vehicle themselves - after careful consideration, this turned out to be the simplest and least expensive option.
So a mint condition (well, it was before it was stolen) rare, very late BMW E30 is going to the crusher because of a combination of an unfair police policy and an even more unfair insurance policy. Of course, it is sour grapes to cry foul now, and I accept at least partial blame for leaving valuables on display. However, the feeling of helplessness, of having nowhere to turn, has been one of the least pleasant experiences of my life and one which I can’t help feeling that I don’t quite deserve.
So here’s a tip. Check your car security, check it again… and then check it a third time. Remove your SatNav holder before you leave the car and make sure you wipe off the tell-tale mark it leaves on the windscreen too. Buy a Crook-Lock. And for God’s sake make sure your No Claims Bonus is protected. In other words, do all the things you’ve always considered doing, but have dismissed as too much hassle. “It’ll be fine…” you’ll have thought.
It won’t be fine. It’ll be expensive.