Sunday, 23 August 2009

From the Mongol Rally blog: "Loadsa Miles!"

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

From the Mongol Rally blog: "Drive Me To The Moon And Back"

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

From the Mongol Rally blog: "Lots Of Updates!"

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

From the Mongol Rally blog: "Iran Loves Us!"

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,