Category Archives: Vehicle

Time for a rest

Firstly, Jen and I both hope that all have experienced a wonderfully relaxing Christmas and New Year and we sincerely hope that you are as excited about the year ahead as we are.

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So it’s been a while since we last posted an update but we didn’t want to intrude on our valued friends Christmas and New Year celebrations with incoherent ramblings from the other side of the Globe!

I hear you scoffing at that little white lie! It’s true – I’ve been pretty slack!

Or maybe it was a case of writers block as has been suggested to me in a pleasant email that I just received! Thanks for that Bec… Just the motivation I needed!

It was time to leave Morocco behind and begin the journey toward the UK for a rest and refresh before the next leg!

A quick check of the ferry timetable and the decision was taken to make an early start for the final 100km’s back to Tanger Med Port for the 11am departure! Arriving on time it was nice to hear that the 11am ferry would not be running providing us with plenty of time to relax in the car park before the 2pm ferry –Yaaaayh!

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European Mainland within Sight!

The rock of Gibraltar really is quite striking as you approach from the straights!

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Off the ferry and firmly back on European soil in Algeciras, it was only a short drive around the coast to where our Camper Contact App (best €6 we’ve ever spent!) once again provided us with a great location to park up for the night.

View by Night

View by Night

View at Dawn

View at Dawn

The following day, we found ourselves wandering across a border and airstrip into what really is an unusual little enclave that has remained firmly in the possession of the United Kingdom for decades – Gibraltar. Even someone completely devoid of any knowledge of military tactics would, I’m sure, with one gaze across the narrow straight separating Europe from Africa, realise why being in possession of the Rock of Gibraltar is such an obvious tactical coup.

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The small community south of the Spanish border really does provide the illusion that your back in Britain with numerous little English pubs displaying lunch boards with that ubiquitous English favourite, Fish and Chips!

Gibraltar Main Street

Main Street, Gibraltar

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Moorish Castle

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Wandering amongst heritage buildings bordered by a lovely waterfront that sports apartments, restaurants and hotels all sitting snuggly with the backdrop of the white sandstone rock, the whole area does have a nice vibe about it. Certainly not for the budgeting traveller however, it was easy to see why there is an exodus north into Spain for anything from accommodation to food once you start noticing the prices!

Floating Hotel

Floating Hotel

An example for you! – There was a Burger King sign displaying a special XXL Bacon Cheese burger with fries and a drink for the very XXL tariff of £8 .10 which for those Aussies on the slipping $AUD equates to just under $17! Ouch… The same billboard a couple of hundred metres to the north back in Spain provided the same Burger King meal for €7.15 or $11AUD…..

Beautiful Coastal Vistas

Beautiful Coastal Vistas

Through numerous towns and small roads we wandered north-enjoying Spanish highlights such as Seville, with its lovely historic buildings set amongst swathe’s of lovely parklands. It’s rapidly back to tourist reality however, with strings of huge tour coaches and people moving in every direction like ants! I’d have to admit I wasn’t all that sorry to see it in the rear view mirror!

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We made a detour west in order to have a little taste of Portugal along with the fact that your allowed to free camp alongside reservoirs in Portugal – numerous opportunities were presenting on the map and, along with our handy Camper Contact App, we found ourselves relaxing on the shores of a pretty lake with that lovely feeling of being far away from the pressures of life. Had it not been for the ever-present time limit attached to the Schengen zone we ‘d have stayed a lot longer – Alas…

Nature camping at its best

Nature camping at its best

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Friendly Dutchman Emile and his trusty travelling companion

Friendly Dutchman Emile and his trusty travelling companion

We spent a couple more days wandering north via Portugal before heading back into Spain.

Harvested Cork Tree

Harvested Cork Tree

Small Portuguese villages

Small Portuguese villages

Not the recommended way to level your camper!!!

Not the recommended way to level your camper!!!

Camped beneath the castle walls in Bragança, Portugal

Camped beneath the castle walls in Bragança, Portugal

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We endeavoured to find the largest Carrefour shopping centre that we could in order to load up on drinks priced in Euro’s rather than Pounds for our upcoming stay back in England. We have never seen duty free alcohol limits the likes of the UK!!! (with the caveat of “Personal Use Only”)a pallet load of Alcohol (I’m exaggerating of course) loaded into the Patrol, we boarded the Ferry from Santander late in the afternoon for an overnight sailing to Portsmouth!

Yes - that's Litres!!!!

Yes – that’s Litres!!!!

Departing Santander

Departing Santander

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Sunset on board...

Sunset on board…

The cruise was quite relaxing with a mix of entertainment on board but it did become quite rough during the wee hours to the point where we began to wonder if our vehicle would still be where we left it when we went down to retrieve it at journeys end!

Portsmouth

Portsmouth

Arriving back in Littlehampton was strangely like returning home! Familiar faces and another stint enjoying the fantastic house we’ve been lucky to ride out 2 winters in to date! Jen wandered into a local bookshop that we’d patronized the previous year and was recognized immediately – “you’re the Australian girl staying here in Littlehampton!” Followed by an invite to join them after hours along with some of their other select customers to enjoy some pre-Christmas snacks, drinks and live music! We might even miss Littlehampton…!!

Justin And Gerry

Justin And Gerry

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Another couple of local stalwarts, Gerry and Margaret, kindly offered us a space where we would be able park the Patrol on the hardstand at the rear of there home, which was eagerly accepted!

Parking around the UK is a real nightmare. The moment you drive off, your street parking space is gone and you end up lapping the neighborhood numerous times in the hunt for a new one. So with off street parking sorted, we’ve been able to start preparing the Patrol for it’s next sojourn.

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We have spent quite a few hours high pressure spraying and cleaning the vehicle and camper in preparation for a customs and quarantine inspection upon its arrival into North America. Removing the seats and much of the interior ended up being part of the process. Dead bugs, grass and dirt seems to find its way into every nook and cranny, but we are now confident that we’ve managed to clean it to an acceptable standard.

Another important task on our to do list was to apply for our US Visa’s. As we plan to stay in the US longer than 90 days, we needed to apply for a full B1/B2 non-resident tourist visa instead of the usual electronic authorisation.

Getting Visa Photos

Getting Visa Photos – No Smiling

After filling out the requisite forms with our life and financial history, and of course paying the required fee, we needed to schedule an interview appointment at the nearest US Embassy, which of course was in London! After shipping and flights, visas would have to be one of the most expensive parts of this sort of travel!

It had been 10years since our last visit to London so we were due a visit to refresh our memory. 

After 2 hours inside the US Embassy, (along with hundreds of other hopefuls), we left with the knowledge that our visa’s had been approved and it was on to sightseeing before our return to Littlehampton. Surprisingly, we had better weather this time in winter than we did on our last visit in the middle of summer! Who can pick the British weather…

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A greater armed presence…

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Number 10 Downing Street

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Picadilly Circus

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Big Ben

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Houses of Parliament, Westminster

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Christmas Eve heralded the arrival of some travelling companions that we were keen to catch up with. Land Cruiser packed, Erik and Mieke departed Holland after 1pm with half a days work already behind them and after several hours driving and a ferry ride that, according to Erik, was something akin to a Rollercoaster, they arrived at 10pm to enjoy Christmas with us.

Erik and Justin

Erik and Justin

Mieke and Jen

Mieke and Jen

We weren’t surprised by the description of the ferry crossing as the sea had been a boiling mess of windy white-capped fury all day from our balcony view…

We enjoyed a festive week of drinking, cooking and eating.  Not just simple cooking either – Eric basted and cooked Peking Duck on one occasion and Jen cooked the full Traditional Christmas Dinner – examples of the tuff times that we had to endure over the Christmas period.

Christmas Feast

Christmas Feast

Highlights of our time with them included freezing walks along the coast, a day trip to both Arundel and Brighton and a couple of days rest in the middle (allowing our swollen livers to resume normal function) whilst our guests ventured into London for their own memory refresher.

Brighton Royal Pavillion

Brighton Royal Pavillion – Could be forgiven for thinking you were in India!

Not really the weather for swimming!

Not really the weather for swimming!

Another highlight was our own personal sky-show! Unlike our home island where you have to protect stupid people from themselves, it does seem the Brits are considerably more liberal in this regard.

And I have to say that $60 AUD worth of exploding pyrotechnics that lasted about 2 minutes would have to be some of the best fun I’ve had in a long time.

I will really miss setting off rockets!

In the coming weeks, we will depart Littlehampton heading for Belgium where we will drop off our trusty Patrol for it’s cruise across the Atlantic! We will spend some time back in Holland before departing Europe one last time for Orlando in Florida.

A week later, which will be roughly the end of March, we should be reunited with our vehicle and begin our North American adventures.

Stay with us as we journey across, up and down the Americas and hopefully tick off our own version of the Pan-American drive….

Cheers

Justin

Morocco

Our European counterparts may not have as easy access to unpopulated lands as the Australian local, but WOW! – With Morocco just over that narrow gap of sea between continents, they do have outstanding opportunities to test their cultural comfort zone!

A few hours drive and a car ferry and you could well be on Mars! Such a contrast in lifestyle and culture…

Can’t recall the last time I camped whilst Bedouin nomads lit a fire within metres of our camp and spent the evening observing us like we were an episode of “Neighbours”, before hinting that we could unburden ourselves of anything we didn’t need in their direction, including our dinner! Returning at dawn, they sat amongst the dunes for one final episode and with some fossils and trinkets to sell, they made some cash before the entertainment disappeared through the sand dunes with a puff of black smoke.

Nomad Family watching "Neighbours"

Nomad Family watching “Neighbours”

You can see them sitting just behind the cars

You can see them sitting just behind the cars waiting for us to wake up.

It’s an odd experience! You may well be on Mars, but to these locals you’re the Martian!

So for the European 4×4 enthusiast it’s no surprise that Morocco is their “Mecca” and beckons their return time and time again.

Now for Morocco!

90 minutes on the ferry and Spain slips away! With Gibraltar hazily visible on the horizon, the first challenge is negotiating customs! It was weirdly refreshing to once again dodge scam artists around the port and receive mixed instructions from officials without much in the way of a streamlined process!

Gibraltar across the narrow sea

Gibraltar across the narrow sea

“You don’t have the right signature!” (Well I think that is what he said!) “Go back that way somewhere” is suggested with a wave through 90 degrees of the hand to get the extra signature.  As expected there was no one back in that general direction to provide any form of mark on the confusing piece of paper! No wait – there he is, he wasn’t at his control station because he was hungry/tired/angry just as the ferry arrived!

To be honest though, Morocco was the height of efficiency compared to many of the Central Asian border crossings…

I expected it to take a little time readjusting to life beyond Europe but was comfortably surprised to feel quite at home from the off!

Whilst Morocco has it’s share of modern town infrastructure with golf courses and the like, they are certainly aimed squarely at the tourist and very, very few and far between.

Within metres of leaving these towns, you’ll not see anything remotely touristy, it’s back to mud huts, donkeys for transport, poor quality infrastructure and butchers with the day’s carcass swinging in the breeze on the sidewalk.

Shopping Moroccan Style

Shopping Moroccan Style

The iconic blue buildings of Chefchaouen

The iconic blue buildings of Chefchaouen

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Combined people and animal transport

Combined people and animal transport

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This was one of the better ones!

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Cities such as Fes and Marrakech absolutely ooze Moroccan character with the medinas (old town) and souks (markets) virtually unchanged after hundreds of years (except maybe for the infiltration of Chinese plastic goods!) Particularly so in the case of Fes – the medina and souk there contain the famous tannery that literally oozes not to mention the marvellous miasma of fumes that tends to emanate from such places.  You can actually pass out whilst walking and wake up a few metres further on without breaking step so I discovered!

The Souk in Fes

The Souk in Fes

If you could bottle it, you’d surely outsell pepper spray as a personal deterrent!

Good way of hiding mobile phone infrastructure!

Good way of hiding mobile phone infrastructure!

Following some GPS track files passed on to us by our friends back at Globe Camper in Narbonne, we found our way easily and quickly into areas of Central Morocco that were wonderfully eye catching with friendly people and terrain loaded with perfect camping opportunities. We wasted a few days just wandering the landscape enjoying the sensation of wild camping by ourselves again. One day we only moved 8kms!!

Great camping terrain

Great camping terrain

IMG_4526Low mountains in the mid north of the country are loaded with interesting outcrops of granite interspersed with wonderfully attractive forests of cedar trees. These give way to the Middle then High Atlas Mountains, still with a smattering of snow in Autumn – lovely scenery that reminded me why we love to travel.

Huge Cedar Trees

Huge Cedar Trees

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Diverse terrain

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Interesting Villages

Interesting Villages

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Heading south the mountains began to relinquish their hold as the atrophy of millennia has ground away the geography to create stunning river canyons before dissipating into the stark beauty that is the Sahara Desert.

The entrance to Dades Gorge

The entrance to Dades Gorge

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

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Beautiful date palm valleys

Beautiful date palm valleys

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and special tourists....

and special tourists….

As the track files ran out, we gravitated back to our usual style of route finding. Morocco is loaded with off road tracks so it’s not at all difficult to plan a journey to suit.

Came across a wedding celebration

Came across a wedding celebration

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Not sure why they needed the rifle!!!

Not sure why they needed a  rifle!!!

Travelling through the Atlas however was a little bitter sweet. One of my most memorable interactions with the locals north of the Atlas, was a farmer and his family stopping their tractor in order to welcome us to Morocco and provide us with a swag of delicious fruit they had just harvested. Once in the midst of the Atlas however, I was close to being put off the country completely!

Local Farmer welcoming us to Morocco

Local Farmer welcoming us to Morocco

Of all of the countries, people, customs and practices that we’ve experienced during our travels, this was the first time we’ve had rocks thrown at the Patrol, Jen hissed at by devout women for not being completely covered as we drove by and horses ushered across the road in an attempt to force us to stop. Large rocks rolled in front of us whilst under way, groups of young boys on hilltops with rock laden slingshots aimed at us and being abused as you travel thorough a village slowly so as not to either run over someone or cover them in mud.

I’ve no doubt this behaviour is as a result of well meaning tourists travelling the backcountry in and out of relatively poor villages handing out swathes of first world stuff such as lollies, cheap souvenirs and probably the odd cash/coin hand out as well! Possibly feeling they have descended on the tribe as the missionaries of an era gone by, they broach the differences and befriend the indigenous folk with trinkets from the north, thus providing themselves with a warm glow and tales of the exotic beyond the seas to tell late into the night upon their return.

IMG_4646However, this behaviour only instills in the children that the distinctive foreign vehicle is a source of easy income and goods for a family living off the land and suddenly schooling is abandoned (along with any future that it may provide) in favour of begging and ambushing tourists. So it goes without saying that when you travel through one of these villages without spewing forth such items, you are then the target of their anger and frustration and the aforementioned rock throwing begins!

As it’s becomes worse, no doubt some travellers may fold to the pressure in order to avoid the friction, dents and broken windows that may ensue but ultimately that will encourage the behaviour, as children will pursue what yields results!

The lower agricultural lands have an obviously higher standard of income and far less, if any, begging was experienced. The problems encountered were only in a localized section of the Atlas Mountains and a few hours driving saw us clear to engage and enjoy local hospitality once again!

Buying potatoes from a local farmer whose wife then suggested I should give her my Seiko watch!

Buying potatoes from a local farmer whose wife then suggested I should give her my Seiko watch! The potatoes weren’t that good!!!!

Our nights meal being prepared

Our nights meal being prepared

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Evening entertainment

Evening entertainment

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A bit of dancing!

We did cross this area again on our return northwards with similar behaviour experienced but we were a bit more proactive the second time, thanks to some sound advice from a French overlander. Slamming on the brakes and pulling out the camera in order to mug shot the perpetrators proved remarkably effective in dissuading rock throwing.

Yes, you will be punished if you’re caught on film with such intention and Jen leaping from the car, camera in hand, to leg it after the culprits also proved to be a hilarious deterrent!!

One of the culprits!

One of the culprits!

No doubt, tourism is the big earner for Morocco and stopping for any length of time, and on occasion even when camped in secure compounds, your subjected to the usual barrage!

“You want to see Sahara my friend?”

“You must have me as guide! I can do this for you!”

“What do you mean? “no – you don’t need a guide!””

“You can’t drive the Sahara alone!! You will die without my skills!“

“OK OK! Maybe you want buy genuine Berbere carpet (for a ridiculously exorbitant amount of money!) or jewellery maybe? My uncle he makes himself!”

Yada yada yada…

It’s continual and predictable, but easily overcome!

Another Moroccan oddity is the Bedouin! Nomadic and wandering every nook and cranny all over southern Morocco, it’s almost impossible to expect a night of solitude.

At some point, just as you relax into your calming beverage, the sound of approaching goats lets you know they are on their way. You will be visited and eventually met with a request for food, clothes or other, again most likely driven by their past experiences with tourists doling out their discards. Generally speaking, these people were not necessarily poor by Moroccan standards, more so opportunistic, but in a way that was not confronting or off putting. They would eventually wave and wander off with a smile to relocate their herd of goats!

IMG_5701 IMG_4976 On quite a few occasions, souvenir sellers would suggest whisky or wine as a universal currency able to be traded at substantially more than its face value for nearly anything, which surprised me considerably given the non drinking religious status of the locals!

For a people that don't drink they certainly produce a lot of wine!

For a people that don’t drink they certainly produce a lot of wine!

We felt that the more remote nomads to the southeast had a better handle on the tourist. In the middle of nowhere, rather than beg, on many an occasion they would have a little trestle with some homemade camel souvenirs or maybe a collection of locally found fossils for sale. They were not pushy or aggressive and as a result we purchased quite a few items from such enterprising locals, frequently children. We can only hope these lessons spread further to the north and penetrate the thinking there for I fear it won’t be long before some areas within the Atlas region will find themselves devoid of tourists and the cash injection they bring to the community in general.

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Buying locally made toy camels

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Fossils for sale

Enroute to the Saharan dunes of Erg Chebbi, we met up with a Swedish family travelling solo and, as we were heading in the same direction, ended up spending a week together before parting company! It was nice chatting away into the evening with other independent travellers with there own interesting stories.

Fredrik and Cathrin

Fredrik and Cathrin

Fredrik and Cathrin's GQ Patrol having a swim

Fredrik and Cathrin’s GQ Patrol having a swim

Over extremely harsh, rocky tyre smashing terrain we descended off the plateau and into a more Saharan landscape and discovered our first true Saharan Oasis! The stunning backdrop of shifting dunes overlooking a grove of date palms loaded with yellow fruit and a Bedouin pulling water from a hole was really just as you would expect it look!

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Saharan Oasis

Saharan Oasis Camp

 

The dunes of Erg Chebbi really are stunning and sunset is when the colour palate expands and the red sand becomes a canvas on some huge imaginary easel. The striking scenes change within seconds as darkness descends and the desert night sky reveals its bright pin pricks of light from horizon to horizon. It’s so encompassing that you could be forgiven for ducking your head to avoid colliding with a star!

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View from camp

View from camp

With tyre pressures lowered, we just had to sample the great dunes, however, I’ve no doubt that with an uncontrolled spike in adrenalin you could find yourself quickly on your lid amongst these grand sandy peaks.

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Fredrik got a bit excited!

Fredrik got a bit excited!

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Satellite imagery for navigation around the back of the dunes

Satellite imagery for navigation around the back of the dunes

 

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Across the border into Algeria, the Erg (sand sea) and palm tree spectacle continues for another 1000km or so… However, setting foot into the Algerian Sahara comes with it’s own risks; not returning with your head attached being one of them!

Along Morocco’s southern border with Algeria we travelled in and out of sporadic villages whilst picking up clouds of bull dust (locally called “feche feche”) as heavy as anything I’ve ever encountered in Australia. Hence, we were very happy that dust sealing had been such a high priority in our camper design – without that feature, it would have been the same powder dust experience inside as out without doubt!

With a strong military presence along the border we found ourselves being stopped consistently for passport checks. It’s all a little “Keystone Cops” really as checkpoints are many km’s apart and you can roam in any direction without ever being spotted! It was made all the more humorous when, within site of one outpost, we wandered north into Moroccan territory for a few km’s, very slowly in low range, with the aim of looking around some small valleys that looked rather interesting – something we’d been doing all along this route.

Moroccan Army

Moroccan Army

All the while we were clearly visible to our military protectors until the last 50 or so metres when we parked in a small valley! Ten minutes later and there they were, camouflage uniforms, flip-flop sandals and a custom LandCruiser that rarely touched mother earth, it was going so fast!

Honestly, I think they were just bored and looking for some excitement, as they seemed disappointed when we were just tourists! Radio calls were made to report back the results of their scramble to action and every checkpoint after knew that we were the “Australians” on the radio!!!

Anyway it was nice to have them looking out for us!

We ended up camping just outside a small military compound that night. One of the troops provided us with some vegies for dinner with the obvious ulterior motive of engaging Jen in what bordered on inappropriate conversation! Sick of having goats to keep them warm at night I guess! Nonetheless it was an experience!

Military outpost

Military outpost

Turning northwards, we visited Ait Ben Haddou and its famous Ksar then headed via Tata and Tafraoute where we experienced some of the most stunning drives we encountered in Morocco before we popped out on the Atlantic Coast near Agadir.

The Ksar at Ait Ben Haddou - famous film location

The Ksar at Ait Ben Haddou – a famous film location over the years

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Moroccan Aerospace development

Moroccan Aerospace development

Not really sure how this found its way to Morocco

Not really sure how this found its way to Morocco

Or how I even begin to explain this...

Or how I even begin to explain this…

The beautiful scenery of Tafraoute

The beautiful scenery of Tafraoute

Locals swimming near Agadir

Locals swimming near Agadir

Camels Ploughing Fields

Camel and Donkey ploughing fields

Our beach camp overlooking the Atlantic

Our beach camp overlooking the Atlantic

Making our way north, we visited Essaouira and it’s famous fish market! The town although rather touristy, still managed to charm us with a great vibe, narrow streets and interesting views along with a wind whipped sea crashing into the old town’s sea wall!

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IMG_5961 The fish market was the second time I managed to pass out whilst walking, only this time I think I managed a 100-metre wander before coming to!

Not sure if Justin is conscious...

Not sure if Justin is conscious…

From there it was finally to Marrakech and despite some mixed opinions from other travellers, we really enjoyed the souk experience and wandering around the old medina. We were expecting to be harassed by relentless touts offering to be our guide and stifling crowds, but instead found it to be a much more pleasant experience. I suppose it all depends on your expectations and the extremities of your comfort zone.

Koutoubia Mosque - Marrakech

Koutoubia Mosque – Marrakech

The Souk - Marrakech

The Souk – Marrakech

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A slow doddle north via a mix of geography including another stint in the High Atlas, the Roman archaeological site of Volubilis and a few more days relaxing on the sea, we arrived back where we’d started at the Port of Tanger Med. Nearly 5000km of Morocco behind us we crossed back to Algeciras and straight into a Lidl Supermarket! Ahhhh it’s amazing the things you miss…

Imi-n-Ifri Natural Bridge

Imi-n-Ifri Natural Bridge

Volubilis Roman Ruins

Volubilis Roman Ruins

Intricate Roman Mosaics

Intricate Roman Mosaics

The harbour at Moulay Bousselham

The harbour at Moulay Bousselham

Not so sure about the quality of the electrical supply in the campground but I'm sure there was an RCD somewhere??? We actually used this!

Not so sure about the quality of the electrical supply in the campground but I’m sure there was an RCD somewhere??? We were actually expected to use this!!!

Gibraltar, Spain and the dash across Portugal next time!

Justin.

Onward We Go!

Keeping posts coming with the regularity that you, our valued readers, deserve can be quite difficult at times. In my defense (Rebecca), we’ve been on the road consistently for the last few weeks and have been drinking and relaxing on the Med with friends, which is quite taxing! As such, the rigors of travel haven’t provided me with the space and time needed to dictate my thoughts and hence this post will be a long one to get things up to date! But I have included an intermission!!

Boo Hoo I hear you say!! Swanning around Europe and can’t find the time to keep your extended family of followers in the loop! Fair comment – but Jen takes an awful lot of looking after! So here goes….

We were keen on spending some time travelling west through the Alps but first on the list was a stop at Berchtesgaden – the home of Hitler’s “Eagles Nest” and it afforded us a lovely drive into these incredible mountains.

Hitler’s 50th Birthday present was built in 3 years atop a mountain precipice with jaw dropping views across the Alps and, on a clear day, as far as Salzburg.

Eagles Nest

Eagles Nest

Left untouched by the Allied bombing campaign, the only real damage was inflicted by the troops liberating the country after the fall of the Nazi Regime. Chunks of a red marble fireplace installed in the building as a gift from megalomaniac Mussolini to his megalomaniac associate were popular souvenirs.

Mussolini"s Marble Fireplace

Mussolini”s Marble Fireplace

It’s a rather simple almost unimpressive structure not exuding the level of grandeur you might expect. Certainly an incredible feat of engineering, the building now finds itself purposed as a restaurant and although I’d expected more of a museum experience with the usual dissection of Nazi ideals, the structure has been given a new life beyond it’s dark reasons for existing which in many ways have saved it from being another example of tyranny.

The 80mtr tunnel to the Brass Elevator

The 80mtr tunnel to the Brass Elevator

Hitler"s Brass Elevator

Hitler”s Brass Elevator

Eagles Nest Restaurant

Eagles Nest Restaurant

Making west, it’s easy to find your jaw hurting a little as every road and km really provides splendid jaw dropping scenery.

Lovely Alpine Architecture

Lovely Alpine Architecture

Crossing into Italy, the Dolomites made an appearance on the GPS screen and I expected to see a continuation of the same type of mountain topography as that throughout Austria. Singularly unique, the Dolomites certainly have their very own character – colours, formations and appeal, placing themselves well apart from the Alps in character almost as if they want to be different.

Dolomites Scenery

Dolomites Scenery

Dolomites Driving

Dolomites Driving

Dolomites Pass

Dolomites Pass

This whole region is as visually stunning as anywhere else that I’ve had the fortune to visit. An autumn visit also has it’s positives – great hiking trails and a lack of closed roads along with the missing tourists that would no doubt patronise this area during ski season.

The Stelvio Pass is a mandatory drive with its 48 hairpin turns up and 40 hairpin turns down depending on your direction of travel. You can share the drive with Ferrari’s and Porsche’s and every kind of motorbike sporting want-to-be Casey Stoners perched on them. Some of them may have actually been stoners given their lack of adherence to any form of road rules. They seem to feel a sense of entitlement when on these powerful machines and get angry at the fact they have to share the road! Following a heavy Nissan Patrol wasn’t what they had in mind when they plastered on their saddle cream and strapped on their leathers in anticipation of a record fast ascent to boast about over a pizza and beer later that day.

48 Switchbacks up...

48 Switchbacks up…

And 40 Switchbacks down

And 40 Switchbacks down

Beer and Pizza

Pizza and Beer!

Let’s also not forget the supercars that hammer up the straights only to find they need to take the hairpin corners slower than we do! When the hairpins are close together as with Stelvio, it would seem that “made in Japan” and a top speed of 140km an hour down hill with a tail wind is just as fast on hill climbs as all of those stallions!!

That Patrol is still behind me!!!!

That Patrol is still behind me!!!!

I found it all rather amusing really!

Out of Italy and through Saint Moritz in Switzerland, it was the first time we’d encountered a re-activated border checkpoint within the Eurozone. Later we discovered that most Schengen borders were now, once again, manned in an attempt to stem the Syrian Refugee flow, along with the sudden exodus of people from Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and so on, in search of a slice of Germany’s economic generosity whilst Mrs. Merkel remains at the helm and in charge of the cheque book.

Back into Italy and a look at the famous Lake Como but unfortunately it rained incessantly all day. Views of the lake were still lovely but gloomy and with a distinct lack of visibility and complete loss of vibrancy.

Lake Como

Lake Como

The wet theme continued as we travelled via Lake Lugano, venturing back into Switzerland before once again entering Italy on our way to France. You’ll need a map to follow that lot!

Lugano, Switzerland

Lugano, Switzerland

Trippy Tunnel!!

Trippy Tunnel!!

 

Bormio, Italy

Bormio, Italy

Beautiful Bormio by night

Beautiful Bormio by night

Montiglio Monferrato

Montiglio Monferrato, Italy

San Lorenzo Church dating from the 12 century

San Lorenzo Church dating from the 12 century

Village Scenery enroute

Village Scenery enroute

A night spent in the French town of Sospel deserves a mention – a classic example of a French village, as the pictures will display. Nestled amongst large mountains and sporting beautiful scenery along with character loaded buildings hundreds of years old, it’s affordable and a real taste of village life in France, yet your only 20km from Monaco!

Sospel

Sospel

 

Historic Bridge in Sospel

Historic Bridge in Sospel

More Sospel

More Sospel

We’d had a date booked in for some time to meet up with friends from Perth who were staying near Saint Tropez as guests for a wedding.

So onward through Nice, as we thought it would be good to have a look at the area and see if any memories were jogged as we’d stayed there in 2005. In the end, it was worth the detour but the traffic was diabolical and slowed us down to a snails pace. We managed our rendezvous  though, after submitting to the use of French toll roads in order to pick up the pace.

Friends Mick and Sue met us as we entered the village of Cogolin and Sue’s brother Chris led us out of the town via small roads and tracks to the place he calls home with wife Julie.

One minute you’re in the hustle and bustle that is life on the Med and a mere 10 minutes later, it’s peace and quite amongst vineyards and cork trees interspersed with sporadic dwellings – such a contrast.

St Tropez - Home of the Beautiful People!!

St Tropez – Home of the Plastic People!!

St Tropez

St Tropez

St Tropez Boats v Buildings

St Tropez Boats v Buildings

With such a relaxing, peaceful location away from the hustle and bustle but with such convenient access to the sparkle and glitter of Saint Tropez and the beautiful haven of Port Grimaud, it was easy to see the appeal.

Market Day, Port Grimaud

Market Day, Port Grimaud

Ample supplies of beer and wine left over from Chris and Julie’s daughter’s wedding just days earlier, made our stay even more enjoyable! The stun juice flowed endlessly and it seemed a shame to let it go to waste!

Drinks with old and new friends!

Drinks with old and new friends!

With Chris displaying exemplary skills in both fire making and BBQ techniques combined with Julie’s continuous supply of tasty treats we left indebted to these great people and hope to see them again should our paths cross.

Chris's Swedish Candle?

Chris’s Swedish Candle?

Catching up With Mick and Sue was a great distraction from life on the road. So nice to meet up with friends from home and speak some Australian for a few days.

Intermission – Time to grab a coffee or go back to work!!

Pernes les Fontaines was the town in our sights now after an invitation arrived in our inbox from Philip and Bianca (whom we’d been so fortunate to spend time with in Germany) to join them for dinner. On offer was a restaurant with a highly regarded menu of quality produce, a waiting list for reservations and overnight camper van parking! “Would we be able to join them as a space could be made available for us?”

Well, we like our food and it can be a real challenge finding a venue that will live up to your expectations and budget when you have very limited language skills. Wow! It was worth the effort! Outstanding food along with emotive and full-bodied conversation, we’d had yet another sensational interlude with 2 of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. It was over all too quickly for my liking. The following morning with hopeful plans of future interludes in place, we departed in opposite directions.

Pont du Gard, Avignon, France

Pont du Gard, Avignon, France

Sommieres

Sommieres

Sommieres Architecture

Sommieres Architecture

Sommieres River

Sommieres River

A poignant reminder...

A poignant reminder…

Roman ruins and ancient villages rolling by, we found our way a few days later to Narbonne in the South of France. Back in Turkey, we’d met some avid travellers who had invited us to visit en-route to Morocco along with offering the use of their factory should we need to perform any maintenance. Not just a factory, but a 4×4 specialist camper building facility! Being on the same page as these guys made life very easy for me.

Globe Camper

Globe Camper

Mecca Engineering and Globe Camper combine to build custom camper units along with all of the upgrades to the 4×4 that you could ever require. Skander and Dave have one of those unique working relationships that just works, not to mention Skander’s wife Veronique TIG welding in the background whilst Dave’s wife Monica fits a Webasto heater and plumbs it up. 2 great couples combining to build high quality campers ready for Morocco’s High Atlas or anywhere else you’d like to venture sums these dynamos up.

Skander and Veronique at work

Skander and Veronique at work

From the moment we entered the factory it was like being with family! Nothing was too much trouble and work was instantly put on hold to provide us with what ever we needed.

First on the agenda were replacement tyres! At the end of this post there is a little more about the tyre situation for those who are interested.

With tyres ordered, I now had time to service the Patrol whilst Jen tinted the passenger’s side window! The replacement window that I’d fitted after it was shot with an air rifle in the UK wasn’t tinted and she was complaining of getting burnt – the little petal!

Over the next couple of days we ticked off numerous other little jobs that we hadn’t had the time or a suitable venue to sort out. It was incredibly nice having a fully functioning factory to perform such tasks as opposed to what had become the standard – a paddock or car park! I cannot over-emphasise how grateful we were to have unlimited use of their factory, equipment and knowledge.  Big THANKS guys!!!

Being treated to a lovely Tapas lunch in Narbonne was totally unexpected especially since we knew these guys were under pressure to get a camper delivered in a couple of days but still they made time to ensure our stay was outstanding.

We did eventually leave them to get back on with their lives but not before they’d made sure we had track files for the Pyrenees and Morocco and anything else we required had been taken care of. Cant’ thank them enough! Hopefully we can convince them to join us for a tour of WA sometime in the future.

Our friends at Globe Campers and Mecca Engineering

Our friends at Globe Campers and Mecca Engineering

With days slipping by it was into the Pyrenees via the unusual little country of Andorra with its tax-free cigarettes and alcohol along with much cheaper fuel. It is an odd little place full of fancy ski resorts and not overly appealing other than the standard mountain views that are always welcome. It does however have some great off road trails meandering thorough its countryside.

IMG_4156

Carcassone, France, enroute to Andorra

Andorra

Andorra

We managed to depart Andorra via a well-known trail aptly called the Smuggler’s Route due to the trafficking of tax-free goods over the mountains and into Spain. It must be fact, as after a long low range descent and now finding ourselves within Spain’s’ borders, we were stopped for a cursory check and questioning as to whether we were carrying any of those cheap Andorran products via the local Police! Another visit to the Pyrenees without the time pressure of a dwindling Schengen Visa would be welcome as without doubt these lovely mountains offer some great camping and off road driving.

Smuggler's Route Terrain

Smuggler’s Route Terrain

Great Pyrenees Scenery

Great Pyrenees Scenery

We pretty much hit the highway at this point and put in 1100km over the next 2 days. We did manage a few side detours and interesting visits along the way however, probably one of the most notable being Toledo.

Toledo, Spain

Toledo, Spain

Jen had visited previously and remembered it to be worth the effort! It all went a bit pear shaped as we decided that we would break our own rule and drive near to the centre rather than a long walk, as time was an issue.

Passing the maximum width 2m sign, I already knew I’d made a mistake. I’ve been caught before but it would seem I’m a slow learner. (PS. We are exactly 2 mtrs wide!)

Well about 20 minutes of extremely stressful navigation amongst throngs of goggle eyed tourists along cobbled very narrow lane ways ensued! Wing mirrors grazing buildings as you idle by and tourists gasping as you just miss historic brickwork in order to make ridiculously tight corners is a give away that you shouldn’t be there! I even had to park up for a while after it was all over to settle the nerves! But the town was pretty nice!!!

Anyway it’s all on the car camera so I’ll see how it looks and put it up for all to see and as a warning to others! PARK OUTSIDE the CENTRE and walk in rather than thinking it’ll be OK!

The Spanish countryside along the South East is rather dull and uninteresting with km after km of flat and uninteresting terrain reminiscent of central Queensland I thought. The odd visit to a village made the journey seem less rushed and broke the monotony of the highway.

Castles and windmills in Spain

Castles and windmills in Spain

Gibraltar appeared and we arranged our ferry tickets from an agent in Algeciras recommended by Dave from Globe Camper. Good thing too as it was much cheaper than the internet and others!! A quick stock up with shopping including a reasonable selection of alcoholic beverages and it was onto the ferry. We hit the North African coast at the port of Tanger Med.

Ferry to Morocco

Ferry to Morocco

Stay tuned for the next instalment!

Cheers – Justin.

Tyre Update for those interested.

We’ve had a few problems with the Cooper ST MAXX tyres as some of you may know but were hopeful of continuing on the current set through to the USA as Cooper Australia had indicated to me some time ago that they may be able to sort something out with Cooper Head Office in the USA for our onward journey – an offer of which I am very appreciative.

As such, with intermittent visits to tire shops for rebalancing as best they could and one tyre losing air via splitting around the bead I was left with only 1 reliable spare but I’d still persisted with the vision of stretching their lifespan a little longer.

IMG_4151

It had come to the point however that I felt the possibility of a blowout or other high-speed incident was likely with really bad splits developing around the beads and a lot of delamination between the white lettering and black rubber.

Delamination

Delamination

The prospect of thousands of kms of harsh terrain in Morocco made the decision for me – they had to come off.

I’ve had numerous sets of Cooper STT’s prior to this version and found them to be a thoroughly reliable tyre, albeit with a low km lifespan as expected from a mud profile tyre. The ST MAXX’s have now travelled an admirable 56000km with plenty of tread remaining and if it weren’t for the presence of these faults, would have met the task required of them and fulfilled their life expectancy.

Still plenty of tread

Still plenty of tread

Uneven wear

Uneven wear

Vertical splits on the sidewall and lateral splitting around the bead however, of which there are many reports on the Internet, would seem to be an issue with this version. Maybe they’ve sorted it out with newer models but I can only go on my own experience. With 2 complete failures and all the others indicating similar areas of concern, it was an easy decision.

Vertical Sidewall split replaced in Russia

Vertical Sidewall split replaced in Russia

 

IMG_4137 IMG_4135 IMG_4134

Reluctant to find myself in the same situation again, I replaced them with BFG Ko2’s, which are BFGoodrich’s latest offering and competitor to the Cooper ST MAXX. I’ll see how these go over the next months and hopefully report back with all positives.

New Boots!

New Boots!

Hollands Best Bloemstylist!

Arrival back in Europe

Arrival back in Europe

The overnight ferry slipped in past Hoek van Holland and we were back on European soil! How time flies!  It only seemed like yesterday that we’d departed. Heading north we observed amazing house after amazing house north of Den Haag, no shortage of money in that area. We had settled on Edam as our destination and spent a couple of nights in the area. If cheese is your thing, this part of Holland is the grail. Not to mention a gorgeous town to stroll about!

Cheese Shops

Cheese Shops

Canals

Canals

Clogs

Clogs

The historic fishing village of Volendam is only a few Kms away but 200 tour buses in the car park along with quantities of tourists following little coloured umbrellas around in numbers equaling that of a full blown colony of fire ants, took the edge off the charm a little.  Further along, Marken Island is advertised as where you can observe clogs being made in the traditional method! Hmmm, a fully automated modern CNC wood lathe wasn’t quite what I had in mind! Both places interesting but Edam took the prize! IMG_8610 2 Nonetheless, we enjoyed our visit, although I’d have to say much of it was spent people watching, rather than soaking up the locations! Amsterdam.  Well, if you’ve been then you know what it’s all about. A fascinating mix of old buildings slowly and steadily sinking into the soil, angled windows and twisted facades, it really is a one of a kind. A city criss-crossed with Canals  and of course the coffee shops!

Iconic Amsterdam

Iconic Amsterdam

IMG_8673 2IMG_8681

So many Bicycles!!!

So many Bicycles!!!Clog BikeClog Bike

Smoke bellowing out of any small crack or window in plumes reminiscent of ground zero during the eruption of Mt Vesuvius. Seriously there were a couple of moments when I thought I was in a Cheech and Chong movie – people walking around with their chosen variety of plant rolled into something reminiscent of a cone of kitchen towel!  They were all smiling and the odd one looked rather dazed so maybe they have the right idea, hmmm? IMG_8661 2 IMG_8669 2 IMG_8691 2

What happens when you lose a bet!!

What happens when you lose a bet!!

As the clock ticked into the late afternoon the windows were filled with the ladies of the night, beckoning you forward should you make eye contact with the lure of their scantily clad bodies and no doubt skillful emptying of your wallet! Wandering around this metropolis really is something I suggest you submit yourself too at some stage if you’ve not already.

Ahhh - Tulips!

Ahhh – Tulips!

I can’t think of another country that is so law abiding, clean to the point of being fastidiously so, with lovely little towns filled with neat well kept homes and gardens! And yet has an alter ego that is so polar opposite! That is how Amsterdam feels compared to what we’ve seen of the remainder of the Netherlands! I guess any people with a native tongue that calls a shopping trolley a winklewagen and has a TV show called “Holland’s Best Bloemstylist” sporting very well groomed men competing in the art of flower arranging has to have a sense of humor and a flair for the unusual, that’s the Dutch. Another visit with Jen’s family in Veghel and we managed a full repack of the Patrol and camper. We also picked up our new Froli bed system from Eric at Adventure Trucks and installed it. Basically turns a foam mattress into an innerspring version without the weight – love the Germans for design! And yes it’s sensational – they will be in every camper we either build or own from now on!

Installing the Froli bed system

Installing the Froli bed system

Now that we are back in Europe and I’m eating into my 3 month Schengen visa again, we were keen to hit the road for Norway.  After a lovely few days with Jen’s family, we spent our last night with Eric and Mieke from the above mentioned Adventure Trucks as they’d kindly invited us to dinner.  We were keen to spend some time with them and peruse maps of Norway and other destinations as they’ve travelled extensively and are very much like minded!

Back at Adventure Trucks!

Back at Adventure Trucks!

They shipped an 80 series Land Cruiser from the Netherlands to Oz in 2004 for the big lap over 7 months and having looked at their route and photo’s, there is no doubt they’ve seen more of Oz than a lot of locals! They are also heading toward the land of the Viking in June and we hope to catch up with them again somewhere.  We had a great night and a 3am finish will tip you off to how our evening went! Recycling bins need to be larger in the Netherlands! Hahaha! With a tip from Eric we headed northeast toward Germany and made for a campsite where you could apparently have a campfire and it turned out to be just what the doctor ordered! Camped in a small pocket of forest and indeed with a campfire, we were able to relax back into life on the road.

Forest camp with campfire!!!

Forest camp with campfire!!!

Look closely.....

Look closely…..

Surprise!!

Surprise!!

Into Germany and a night was spent in Bremen.  We were surprised by just how lovely this town is. A majestic central square with magnificent old buildings supporting an old town on the surrounds full of small lanes with cobbled streets. It’s always nice when you’re not expecting to be surprised.

Beautiful Bremen

Beautiful Bremen

Full of surprises!!

Full of surprises!!

Nair does work!!

Nair does work!!Old Town BremenOld Town Bremen

IMG_8777We decided to avoid Hamburg and head north to Bremerhaven, I’d heard the old harbour was worth a visit and we were fairly sure there was a German U boat there. The harbour was definitely worth the visit, sporting many examples of old time sailing vessels along with numerous other maritime marvels. But for me the real attraction was indeed the only surviving U boat of it’s type, a complete vessel unlike one in the UK that has been cut and made into a form of theme park! For us it was an interesting visit, obviously a symbol of tyranny and dark times but also of technological advancement.

Bremerhaven

Bremerhaven

German U Boat

German U Boat

IMG_8797IMG_8801 Onward Ho, another ferry across to Gluckstadt and we made a fairly straight run through Denmark to Hirtshals in order to catch the ferry to Kristiansand, Norway and what we hope will be the jewel in the crown of the Scandanavian countries.

Another Ferry!

Another Ferry!

Not often you see a tank speed limit....

Not often you see a tank speed limit….

Pretty Danish Town

Pretty Danish Town

Lovely Cobbled Streets

Lovely Cobbled Streets

 

Men at Sea Memorial

Men at Sea Memorial – Esbjerg, Denmark

More friendly Dutchies...

More friendly Dutchies…

Tales from the fjords to follow!

You Tube Videos

Hello All!  Just a quick update from the beautiful city of Prague, there is another post on it’s way shortly but in the meantime….

We have loaded a couple more YouTube videos – a quick one of Charyn Canyon in Kazakhstan and the other is of some sections of the Pamir Highway and Wakhan valley in Tajikistan. Most of it is looking into Afghanistan and it has some great scenery. I know it’s of interest to some of our followers so we thought we’d get the links up on the site.

Link to Charyn Canyon video          http://youtu.be/bH3u2oePPCQ

Link to Pamir/Wakhan video          http://youtu.be/T5QrM2tuNI8 

All the best and back soon – Justin and Jen..

ARB Moscow

Like most who love their 4×4, I have always personalised my vehicles to suit my needs and I’m not at all shy in pushing ARB products.  I’ve been using their gear long enough to appreciate that it’s well designed, user friendly and high quality.

By the way, it should be stated that I’m not affiliated with them in any way other than the fact I’m Australian!

So when some months ago we were contacted by ARB Moscow and offered the use of their facilities should we require any assistance whilst on our journey, we responded with a definite “yes thanks” and we would be in touch.

We advised Dmitriy from ARB of our arrival in Moscow and 30 minutes later Dmitriy arrived at the RV Park, ready to escort us into their facilities for a look around! I was keen to use the workshop for a service and was in need of a replacement tyre! One of our Cooper ST Maxx’s had developed a large vertical split in the sidewall of unknown origin that was obviously spreading and fast becoming a candidate for a blow out. This is my third set of Coopers and the first to have any issues but I am aware of other Cooper tyres failing in the same way so I’ll keep an eye on them.

Cooper Tyre Kaput!!

Cooper Tyre Kaput!!

Cooper Tyre Kaput!!

Cooper Tyre Kaput!!

It’s now early Thursday afternoon and hence I was thinking we were to have a look around ARB and meet the staff whilst organizing a time for me to perform a service. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

ARB Moscow

ARB Moscow

Following Dmitriy across the city to ARB made the drive much easier and upon arrival we were greeted by another Dmitriy whom is head of engineering.  The 2 Dmitriy’s had a conversation that eluded me and subsequently I handed over my keys to Dimitri number 2.  For the first time since leaving Australia I wasn’t in control of my Patrol!

It was brought in and placed on a hoist whilst I was being asked what oil I would like and is there anything else that requires attention? Well yes actually! I needed to adjust one of the rear coil spring rubbers and in addition to the aforementioned tyre, needed a rebalance of all the others as we had a consistent run of lost wheel weights.

Patrol being pampered

Patrol being pampered

Slowly the penny dropped! I wasn’t even going to get dirty; these guys were looking after everything. I couldn’t believe it!

ARB Mechanics

ARB Mechanics

Patrol being pampered!

Patrol being pampered!

Leaving the mechanics to it, we wandered upstairs and had a look at all of the products; it was a little like dejavu wandering around the showroom! Photo’s of Australian 4×4’s and the exact feel that an ARB store in Australia has! The obvious change from Latin to Cyrillic the only real give away that we were on the other side of the globe.

ARB Showroom

ARB Showroom

ARB Cafe

ARB Cafe

After a look around we were directed to the in store ARB café overlooking the showroom and would you believe, treated to a 4-course meal prepared by an actual chef! Patrol being serviced we spend our time chatting with Dmitriy and enjoying a range of sensational food, does it get any better? I learnt here that ARB were also doing specific products to suit the Russian market, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised but I hadn’t really thought about it.

Apparently the local market was keen for ARB to produce an air locker to suit their old faithful, the UAZ, and ARB responded by doing just that! I think that’s fantastic, no doubt an expensive exercise for the company but to me that shows commitment to your consumer!

During our time in the café we were fortunate to meet the CEO from ARB Moscow and express our gratitude for all they were doing for us! We really felt like royalty.

ARB Staff and us

ARB Moscow

Dmitriy number 2 arrives at our table; service complete, spring rubber re-seated, wheels balanced and our new tire will arrive tomorrow! Just too efficient!

We truly cannot express our gratitude to ARB Moscow strongly enough. Not only did we have someone to assist us when we were really at the mercy of a language barrier but also an organization that knows what we required and bent over backwards to assist.  But wait, there’s more….

The following morning saw us arrive at the Metro for our first visit to Red Square and the Kremlin, but we weren’t going alone! Dmitriy #1 met us at the Metro and was now our personal Moscow guide.

Moscow Metro

Moscow Metro

Red Square, St Basils Cathedral and the Kremlin were to be our first points of interest. Just sensational to be standing in Red Square in front of such iconic buildings!

St Basil's Cathedral

St Basil’s Cathedral

Us in Red Square!

Us in Red Square!

 

Kremlin Cathedral Spires

Kremlin Cathedral Spires

More Red Square

More Red Square

The whole experience was made even more memorable by the guidance provided by Dmitriy whose knowledge of the city and warm persona were again characteristic of the warm Russian welcome that was again being lavished upon us!

Ugly Wedding Cars in Red Square

Ugly Wedding Cars in Red Square

A visit to the Armoury at the Kremlin was an amazing experience, it’s easy to quickly become museummed out, so to speak, but the collection available here for your perusal is truly phenomenal, if you visit Moscow then include it on your itinerary!

As with any experience revolving around good company, the day was quickly dissipating and as the evening loomed, we met up with Dmitriy’s partner Nadya who was just lovely.  After a fantastic meal in central Moscow we wandered along the Moskva River and looked at too many sights to list.

Nice Shot thanks to Nadya!

Nice Shot thanks to Nadya!

Moskva River

Moskva River

Love Locks!

Love Locks!

Late in the evening, we walked into a little bar and with the easy flow of conversation filling the air, we all managed to slightly over indulge! We all had a wonderful time and that was easily expressed by the fact that we fell into a cab at somewhere between 3 and 4am for the trip back the campground!

Drinking with friends

Drinking with friends

Late Night!

Late Night!

Half a dozen Danish RV’s were now on site but I was a little underwhelmed with the 24 hour security as we crashed our way to the camper in the darkness without challenge! Anyway that’s another story!

Surprisingly fit and able the following day albeit arising quite late(proves practice is important!) we checked out before again being met by Dmitriy and led back to ARB where we picked up our replacement tyre.

From there we headed to the VVC Exhibition Centre and parked the vehicle before heading into the amazing landscaped grounds, which contain a multitude of pavilions from Soviet times.  Each one was used to display the achievements of the soviet states and we wandered amongst the incredible fountains and generally had a lazy day enjoying the sun and fresh air.

Soyuz Rocket Display

Soyuz Rocket Display at VVC Centre

VVC Park Fountains

VVC Park Fountains

VVC Centre Fountains

VVC Centre Fountains

The Russians made some really strange vehicles!!

The Russians made some really strange vehicles!!

We’d been invited to spend the night at Dmitriy #2’s Dacha (weekender), an invitation that had to be accepted!  Again following Dmitriy we headed southeast around the MKAD ring road and about an hour later saw us in lovely forest around a fire with beer in hand. (Dmitriy’s beer! It seems whatever we arrive with we also leave with! Russian hospitality!)

Dmitriy's Dacha

Dmitriy’s Dacha

Our Parking Spot

Our Parking Spot

The cat who came to visit

The cat who came to visit

We met Dmitriy #2’s wife Julia and over the time we spent there found her always smiling face to be intoxicating, she is just one of those lovely people!

Dmitriy and Julia

Dmitriy and Julia

There were 17 people at the house that weekend; apparently that’s a regular occurrence! The previous night with Dmitriy #1 had seen us wind up at around 4am, now I’m in the company of Dmitriy #1 and #2 and it was going take some stamina!

Jen managed to slide off to bed unnoticed and the rest of us must have had some great discussions as it was a 5am finish this time! What’s happening to me??

A sleep in was required and enjoyed, we wasted the day sitting around chatting and drinking coffee before heading off late in the afternoon to take some photo’s of the Patrol for Dmitriy. As a press attaché he will be putting together an article on our travels.

Photo Shoot

Photo ShootPhoto Shoot

We’d originally planned to leave Moscow that afternoon but time had gotten away from us as we’d been enjoying ourselves way too much, I asked Dmitriy #2 if it would be OK to spend another night and leave in the morning? His response was – I have a full fridge! That made me smile.

Most of the 17 weekend inhabitants had, at this point, departed as it was Sunday and work called.  That meant an earlier night of about 1:30am !!!! Oh those Russians!!!!

Busy night for international relations

Busy night for international relations

Again we had trouble saying goodbye in the morning, I’ve had family members do less for me than these people who were mere strangers a few days ago!  Words fail me.

Dmitriy and Julia spend a lot of their time travelling and being like minded, had given us some great advice on travel destinations and varying routes.  It would seem our plans really are fluid as we are being strongly drawn in new directions. You will have to stay tuned and see where we end up!

Russian Driving

Russian Driving

We parked up just outside the MKAD ring road and caught the Metro back into Moscow central.  We just wanted to have another wander around Red Square and soak it up a little more!

The whole area was fenced off as it would seem there had been a parade of some sort over the weekend.  Lucky we’d visited previously as that would have spoilt the experience.

Wandering into the famous and very expensive shopping plaza, GUM, which runs along the side of Red Square, we were intrigued to see a queue of around 40m in length terminating at a small shopping stall in the middle of the Plaza. There were large TV style cameras and people sporting microphones, we thought it was possibly an appearance by some one rather famous or a book signing or the like!

When close enough I was a little lost for words, Putin certainly has strong support here and I was left in no doubt just how popular! The queue of people were attempting to purchase there own T-shirt sporting a characterized Putin in different settings such as wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sporting the caption “greetings from Crimea!” Make your own judgment on that one.

Greetings from Crimea!

Greetings from Crimea!

Putin

Putin

Once we’d had enough we departed toward Volgograd and after around 100km found a camp along a forestry track. Definitely an early night!

The next few days saw us visit towns such as Rostov and Yaroslav before turning West at Volgograd for St Petersburg. It’s always nice to arrive in a city and see the sights but it’s also exhilarating to wander the countryside.  Finding hidden bush camps in such foreign lands is a challenge that I thoroughly enjoy!

Rostov

Rostov

Jen located an RV park to the west of St Petersburg and that suited our needs perfectly.  Sat-Nav loaded we departed the ring road and arrived at the park located on the gulf of Finland! It was the first time we’d seen ocean water in 23000km and the sight and smell was nothing short of tantalizing. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy living by the sea!

Baltic PARKind

Baltic PARKing

Baltic PARKing

Baltic PARKing

The park was a little unusual, basically a car park next to a Government Conference center. Showers and amenities were inside the main building and were absolutely first class, whilst a restaurant occupied the second level. All of the staff were super friendly and more than keen to be of assistance.

It was easy to pick a spot as we were the only residents! Wandering in to the restaurant for dinner was interesting – a flashy affair exuding fine dining and silver service and once again we were the only inhabitants. It was actually quite simple food such as shashlik with ketchup and we couldn’t quite work out the silver service connection to the meal! Anyway it was tasty and I didn’t have to prepare it.

Russian hospitality was again about to burst forth in all its splendor! Ivan and his wife Natalia had contacted us via email after a mutual connection with Vitali and Galena whom had looked after us way back in Khabarovsk! Ivan had offered us an apartment in St Petersburg – can you believe that!! Anyway we’d ended up staying at the campground as it was a little easier with the Patrol and saved any unpacking and finding secure parking.

Now on Ivan’s home turf we were to be treated to a tour of this amazing city once again by strangers soon to become friends.  But first we would meet for dinner the following evening.

Bus and Metro delivered us to down town St Petersburg and we spent the day trying to take it all in, an impossible feat.  It has to be said that St Petersburg’s Metro is an artistic gem with Avtovo station the highlight.  The city itself is magnificent, home to the Hierarchy in times gone and absolutely no expense has been spared in making sure it fulfilled all of their desires. Today it’s a masterpiece of architecture and a plethora of tourists.

Avtovo Metro Station

Avtovo Metro Station

Church of our Savior on Spilt Blood

Church of our Savior on Spilt Blood

IMG_3967

Hermitage

Hermitage

We really have slipped from expedition mode into tourist mode quite suddenly!

Evening approached and we met Ivan and Natalia. Easy conversation ensued and we soon found ourselves submitting to Ivan’s charms as he ordered a host of tasty treats! The restaurant even had a resident piglet that was walked around on a lead!! The evening rapidly slipped away and we found ourselves back in the camper at around 11:30pm totally satisfied and with tentative plans for the next day.

Wasting the morning in the relentless pursuit of chores we eventually made our way back into the city and met Ivan and Natalia.  A boat cruise of the local canal’s and waterways was the plan and we were fortunate again to be in the company of such knowledgeable locals. The tour that Ivan found for us to enjoy was not even worth comparing to the brochures and information we had, it was fantastic and about an hour after setting sail, had an extra 1000 photo’s to sort through!

River Cruise

River Cruise

River Cruise

River Cruise

Beautiful Bridge Support

Beautiful Bridge Support

Dinner at Zoom café, number 1 on Trip Advisor was quirky and really Kruto!!

We’d been treated to another wonderful day and were now being chauffeured back to the camp ground.

Arriving at the campground we were excited to see 2 RV’s parked near us. We had some company!  Those who know us will realise we’d generally avoid crowds for the solitude of the bush but in this case we were hoping for a conversation in English. After months of struggling with language you really do long for an easy chat!

Ivan and Natalia had a look over our little home and after another round of goodbyes they departed, more people that we can’t thank enough for their hospitality! Hope to repay them one day when they visit us in Perth…. Thanks guys!!

Us, Ivan and Natalia

Us, Ivan and Natalia

So 2 RV’s were parked along side us. One with English plates. The closer of the 2 whilst proudly sporting Netherland plates was however occupied by Tom and Pam from Brisbane!

Tom & Pam

Tom & Pam

Tom & Pam's Camper

Tom & Pam’s Camper

What were the odds of that, 4 and a half months on the road from Vladivostok and our neighbour’s in St Petersburg are Aussies! We could once again sport our own version of the Kings English along with all of the slang and sarcasm that we love to use.

Apparently a similar reaction had occurred in their cab as they realized our vehicle was Australian registered!

Purchasing their motorhome in Holland, these intrepid travellers had spent a couple of stints of around 6 months each touring Europe and were on their last leg and heading via Moscow back to Holland were the already sold RV was to meet it’s new owners! These guys had some serious travel destinations ticked off and a long list of locations still to pursue. A couple of nights in their company and we departed St Petersburg, once again with a lot less red wine than we’d arrived with!  Great people to meet and hope to see them again.

An uneventful run to the border and a large queue met our gaze as we approached the crossing into Estonia, Jen tried to obtain compulsory third party European insurance here but was met with cold disdain from the Russian working the insurance booth and so we gave up for the moment.

Border Queue

Border Queue

Fortunately the line was reasonably fast moving and around an hour saw as at the front! It rapidly slowed down for us at that point as all manner of confusion broke out amongst the border control staff as to how to process us. They thought our vehicle registration document was fake and we moved the vehicle off to one side and waited around an hour for them to confirm the validity of our registration. Why they thought we’d drive from Vladivostok via all the other countries and try and cross into Estonia with fake rego is beyond me but whatever!

Finally we were free to go! Yay….  We headed into the Town of Narva as we’d been told where we could buy the compulsory third party insurance for Europe. Fortunately it’s only about 1km from the border, long story short and neither of the 2 companies would sell us insurance! Now we had a problem.

In the end we gave up for the day as it was nearly 8pm and made our way north and found a bush camp a few km’s from the town. We had to get insurance immediately and discussed our options!

Another Cat Visitor

Another Cat Visitor

 

The following morning we headed back into town and found some WiFi.  We emailed the Dutch company, Alessie, whom we knew would provide Green Card insurance and asked for a quote along with also emailing the head office of one of the previously approached insurers in an effort to find out if they could insure us?

Of course this was all going to take time and we would also need to provide digital signatures and the like to the Dutch company before we would have a valid printable policy.

It was all getting really tricky so we parked the Patrol about 500m from the border where we’d previously crossed and went in on foot.  After explaining the situation they were astonished on 2 points! Firstly, we shouldn’t have been let out of border control without the required TPL insurance and secondly that the local companies were refusing to cover us.

Anyway upon realising that we had tried to obtain the TPL insurance on the Russian side without success, because the sales woman couldn’t be bothered dealing with foreigners, and again tried in town before returning to the border they had quickly decided we were doing the right thing and did all they could to assist us.

They couldn’t understand why the local companies were refusing however!

We returned the vehicle to the border control area and they organised a one month policy for us, which they did with great efficiency and we were on our way.

Narva

Narva

Narva Fortress

Narva Fortress

Ivangorod Fortress

Ivangorod Fortress

IMG_4192

A few days later and we had a response from the local companies main management saying there was no problem and they would be more than happy to take our money, just go into a local office! Work that out…. The Dutch company by contrast responded within hours…

Estonia, what a change! How is it possible to cross a river and enter another country and it be so different.  We loved our time in Estonia and especially enjoyed the city of Tallinn. I had no expectations of this country and hence found it all the more enjoyable.

Tallinn

Tallinn

Tallinn

Tallinn

Tallian Bastion Walls

Tallian Bastion Walls

No problem finding free camping, driving through quaint little town after quaint little town filled with the ruins of medieval forts along with lovely café’s amongst forest settings! We really are tourists now…

Padise Klooster

Padise Klooster

After a few days we headed south toward Latvia and our first border crossing that only required us to drive across and keep going, I can’t tell you how nice that was after 10 very and at times invasive crossings that actually totalled 19 border experiences. When you leave one country you have to enter the next so it’s always twice the fun!!

Estonia Latvia Border

Estonia Latvia Border

Latvia proved just as enjoyable to the eye as Estonia. We stayed true to our likes and, where we could, travelled the back roads. Again the smattering of ruined castles persisted and the scenery remained stunning. One night’s camp saw us deep in a National Park where there were a few locals camped.  Upon running into one of the locals whilst walking along a river, he asked how we had found this place? He’d lived in Latvia for 37 years and had only just discovered it! To say he was amazed to see our foreign Patrol would be an understatement.

Cesis Castle

Cesis Castle

South and into Lithuania, not much time spent here as it was continual rain and the terrain had flattened. We ended up crossing this tiny county in something like 4 hours. It was late in the day when we crossed into Poland and it took some effort finding a campsite.  After being told by one obnoxious local that there were no free camps in Poland we managed to find one about 500m from where we’d received that gem of information!

As we’ve travelled south from Estonia there is an obvious regression back to the more Russian style of driving, in Estonia it is very ordered and more like you’d expect in Western Europe! There is a general slide in the quality of infrastructure and the like as well, I don’t want to talk it down it’s just that it’s obvious that there is more money in the north!

We decided not to bother with a visit to Warsaw, instead heading for Krakow. The further south we travel, the previous slide in quality of infrastructure and the like has halted and once again things are on the up! We are now in an RV park in Krakow and again seeing quizzical looks on faces as they see our number plates and try and work our where we are from. We even have people taking photo’s of our vehicle through the nearest fence!

The following should make you laugh!

Our clothes storage area was looking rather spartan when we reached Moscow, every piece of clothing we owned was sporting some sort of erroneous smell generally combined with a stain of some sort.  We had worn everything we had available to the point of it being rather feral! So finally in the campground in Moscow we had an opportunity to wash some clothes and advantage of the washing machine we took!

Now with all our clothing soaking wet as tumble dryers seem to have slipped off the requirement list for RV parks we strung numerous ropes around our camper and hung everything out to dry in the nice sunny conditions!!

We’d been doing the odd hand wash along the way but you never really get that clean feeling do you? As for Laundromats, it would seem they just don’t have them in Russia!

So with everything hanging out to dry we headed off for our initial meeting with ARB in Moscow.  Following was pretty much 3 solid days of rain and our clothes never even came close to drying! So when we left we were back to a few basics that we were able to dry along with what resembled a wet dog in a rubbish bag!

St Petersburg included a nice session of thunderstorms everyday we were there and so didn’t prove to be our clothing savior.  I had actually bought some new clothes at this point! I can’t stand that wet dog smell..

With enough to get us through to our friend Terry’s house in Slovakia in a couple of weeks, we decided that was the easiest option. We would avail him of his washing machine and all would be good!

Arriving in Krakow yesterday we were greeted with warm and sunny blue skies, something we’ve not seen for a while. So sunny in fact that we decided to do all the washing here so as not to bother having to use Terry’s machine.  We hung it out yesterday afternoon whilst wearing shorts and T’s and during the night the clear skies gave way to solid cloud and it’s rained pretty much ever since!

This could be Noah's Ark!!!

This could be Noah’s Ark!!!

There is really something weird going on with the weather and us!!

 

Welcome to Kazakhstan

After our indulgent evening with like-minded cohorts Stephen and Caroline, the morning greeted us a little too early along with the slight reminder of the previous nights drinking habits.

Anyway we packed and headed for a supermarket which proved OK to locate but a real mission to find a way into, however once inside we stocked up and enjoyed lunch before departing!

I was in the camper loading the fridge when I heard a woman outside the car enquire, “Are you Australian?” to which I replied “yes and it sounds like you are too!”

Her reply was – “What the hell are you doing here??!!”

“We are on a leisurely drive around the world!”

Turns out she’s an expat working in Almaty and we had a discussion about Kazakhstan from her point of view! Needless to say, backward was mentioned!

Now there isn’t a car on the road at this point in any direction and it’s dual lanes each way! So we turned left across the non-existent traffic and immediately a Police car sprang from behind a parked bus with lights and batons, dollar signs in their eyes! So we pulled over – what’s the problem? It’s explained to me that you can’t turn left but only to the right! Turns out there’s a little dodgy sign under a tree near the car park with a little white arrow on it! It’s obvious to me at this point that this is their local income subsidy spot!

Give me your car registration, driver’s license and passport (in broken English of-course)

As usual we just play the goat! Anyway the next thing out of his mouth is – “You ring to consulate. You no drive in Kazakhstan!”

I enlighten him to the fact there isn’t an Australian consulate in Kazakhstan but I’m apparently wrong!

Seriously you’d think we’d run over a crosswalk loaded with disabled children in wheel chairs!

At this point a crowd is assembling and a couple of young guys catch Jens eye, she say’s we don’t even know what the problem is and one of them smiles and say’s in his best English – Welcome to Kazakhstan!

Welcome to Kazakhstan!

Welcome to Kazakhstan!

Anyway I point out the fact that the Police harassment of tourists isn’t making his country particularly inviting!

His response is to look at my passport and recite my name in full in an extremely slow version of phonetics whilst looking to the heavens and making a clicking noise with his tongue! I have to say that was becoming quite hilarious after about 10 minutes of repetition.

Anyway all the while he is filling in a piece of paper that I assume will be my fine! It’s not carbon triplicate or the like, only the top slip that looks like he removed it from his pocket and unscrewed it! So one letter at a time whilst clicking his tongue and looking to the heavens it’s obvious this will be a game of endurance!

After about 15 minutes I was starting to wonder whether it was just worth giving him a few dollars to piss off but if you do that the next punter gets hit harder not to mention encouraging the practice.  As we have time on our hands, we decided no money would be changing hands without proper paperwork. At that moment one of the young local guys intervened and asked if we needed any help in perfect English? Absolutely yes please was our response! After a discussion between the two and the slow but steady increase in bystander numbers it all got to hard! My documents were handed back to my new best friend and no eye contact made with me at all! Very professional conduct wouldn’t you say, and the Police car disappeared as fast as it had arrived, no doubt off to the next hot spot.

After all lunch was approaching and someone has to pay for it!

Our Police Intervention Team

Our Police Intervention Team

We thanked our intervening friend and with smiles and nods and made our way out of Almaty!

An English guy by the name of Craig we’d met in a Land Rover and on the web under Bermuda Rover also had the fortunate experience of 4 Police stops whilst here in Kazakhstan. Seems it’s an unavoidable fact of traversing this country. It did slightly taint the experience for me though as you stop enjoying the travelling and have to concentrate on not making the slightest mistake whilst driving, doesn’t matter that you were just passed in a 50km’h zone by a banged up old Mercedes with no number plates and bald tires doing 100km’h, the foreigner will be the target! Unfortunately we still have some considerable km’s to transit through this country once en route to Moscow, hopefully the experience improves!

A quick note though.  The Kazakh people were lovely and we thoroughly enjoyed our time amongst them. It’s important not to tarnish a complete memory with some small aspect!

So onward ho and east we go heading toward Charyn Canyon. We stopped about 20km short as darkness was nearly upon us and found a great campsite up a small valley. The next morning we arrived at the canyon, which is quite impressive. I guess it’s a miniature version of the Grand Canyon. If you have a 4×4 and pay a little extra you are able to drive down into the canyon and along a stretch of lovely scenic cliffs for about 6km’s to a nice flat area with a river running through it. There is a really tight rock arch about 300m from the end and we were unable to get under it by about 2 inches due to the camper body but the drive saved us the walk! I mention the walk because in true Kazakh style, (that is to say no idea!) a coach load of tourists were dropped at the top of the gorge and walked the 6km down and 6km back in above 30 degree heat whilst their tour coach driver slept in the vehicle. I am not exaggerating when I say I’m surprised they all made it back and would not be surprised had some sported extreme sunburn and dehydration from their day out! Unbelievable….

Charyn Canyon

Charyn Canyon

Road at bottom of Canyon

Road at bottom of Canyon

Us

Us

Just a bit too tight

Just a bit too tight

We had considered spending a couple of nights here as we have quite a bit of time on our side before we need to be in Bishkek to apply for our Uzbekistan visa’s. I probably should elaborate a little here…

Our original yet rough plan was to head south from Kyrgyzstan into Tajikistan and drive the Pamir Hwy before heading across Uzbekistan into Kazakhstan.  This route would only require a transit visa for Uzbek! But whilst in Almaty it would seem there has been some inter-clan violence and some shootings in one of the towns along the route, hence the required GBAO permit is currently not available. This happens from time to time in the area; apparently it generally resolves itself within a few weeks. If the visas/permits are not available it really effects the tourism dollar injection into the area of the Pamir.

So we decided that as a backup plan, should the Pamir be off the table, we would apply for 30 day visa’s for Uzbekistan instead, this however requires the all too expensive letter of invitation! Basically a money making scam. So whilst in Almaty we applied for out letters through Stan Tours, it takes a couple of weeks so there in lies the reason that we have some spare time. Once in Bishkek we will try and get the GBAO permit and see how we go. I know other vehicles, motorbikes and bicycles have made the crossing this season so we are still hopeful.

We spent only the one night at Charyn Canyon as although interesting it wasn’t overly exciting. After leaving the Canyon we only traveled 20 km’s before descending into the Charyn river valley, which was quite spectacular and from our vantage point on the highway as we crossed the bridge we spotted a vehicle camped below and decided to investigate. After locating a track down we found a fantastic campsite below a cliff right on the rivers edge and relatively well hidden, that was it for the day and camp was set!

Charyn River Camp

Charyn River Camp

The Kyrgyzstan border came into view the following morning and we were delighted to find it open as it is a seasonal crossing and generally opens around mid May.

This border crossing turned out to be a great and friendly experience, camper roof up and piles of interested officials inspecting our comfortable little home.

They did offer to swap us a UAZ van for the Patrol, an offer we had trouble declining!

Thumbs up and 20m to the Kyrgyz side, the whole experience repeated including the customs official who wanted to know where our visas were! When we said we didn’t need one for Kyrgyzstan! He started laughing and said, “just checking!!”

45 minutes and we were in Kyrgyzstan!  To contrast how border experiences can go. Our drinking buddies from Almaty, Stephen and Caroline, crossed from Almaty to Bishkek and were ushered into a room without cameras whilst being asked indirectly for money! They withstood the game plan and although it cost them some time they eventually made it across in something like 3 hours. The harassment was only on the Kazakh side, the Kyrgyzstan border was, as with our experience, not a problem!

Toward Lake Issyk-Kul and a few km’s down the rough gravel road we came to a Police checkpoint, just recording passport and vehicle details as we are still within the border control zone.

We arrived in the town of Karakol on the eastern end of Lake Issyk-Kul and managed to get some Internet coverage at a tourist bureau!  Stephen and Caroline were also in town so a quick catch up was enjoyed before we did a little shopping and headed off in search of a campsite.

There is some very pretty country around the lake with high mountains ringing it along with lovely valleys heading from the shoreline up into the high mountains with waterfalls and stark rock formations of red’s and greys that provide stunning scenery.  Shorts and T-shirts along the lakeside with warm temperatures and then 20km up these picturesque valleys and it’s thermals and snow! A day trip to the snow followed by a cold beer and a swim in the afternoon, sensational!

We found a beach camp on the lake’s edge and parted with 30 som for the privilege, which is about 70 cents!

Wandering along the lake the following day we headed up another valley to a beautiful waterfall and found locals in mass enjoying the scenery and cooking their various treats. At the site of the waterfall there is a bust of Yuri Gagarin made of concrete.  It has absolutely nothing to do with this location but apparently Yuri had a holiday in the town of Tamga about 20km away after the first manned space flight! What ever gets the punters in I guess?

Yuri Gagarin #1

Yuri Gagarin #1

Yuri Gagarin #2

Yuri Gagarin #2

Up this valley a further 20 or so km’s is the massive Kumtor gold mine run by a Canadian company. The locals seem to have mixed views about it – of course it provides jobs and some wealth for the economy but the 2 tones of cyanide that ended up in the magnificent little stream flowing down the valley after a truck rolled over seems to have taken the shine of the enterprise! Oh by the way it was a local truck driver employed by the mine with a few arkhi’s (vodka) under his belt that lost control! Doesn’t that open a plethora of discussion that could be had regarding how to operate in far away places! Anyway the show must go on!!

Apricot Orchard Camp

Apricot Orchard Camp

Back along the lakeside and we found a great campsite on the edge of an apricot orchard with plenty of locals around who were enjoying the warm afternoon and clear waters. Generally the road along the lake is quite close to the water so it’s not all that easy to find a concealed location. After a couple of hours the farmer that owns the land wandered by in pursuit of one of his cows and we spent some time chatting with him.  Upon his departure, he invited us to his house the following morning. As agreed at 9am he arrived at our camp and we all piled into the Patrol for the short drive to his home. We were greeted by his wife Buroo and their neighbour’s 6 year old daughter Amina! Tulant ushered us inside and a fantastic spread of treats was delivered. We had milk tea and then home made bread with apricot and black berry preserves from their land followed by a form of fermented milk, which took a little getting used too! Just as we thought the meal was over Buroo retrieved what I’ll describe as a batch of freshly baked pasties filled with onion, potato and mutton locally known as hashaan and they were absolutely delicious!

Kyrgyz Feast

Kyrgyz Feast

Kyrgyz Family Visit

Kyrgyz Family Visit

We retired to the garden and relaxed for a while whilst snapping photo’s and chatting as best we were able. A few hours later we said our goodbyes and were promptly given some jars of preserves along with a traditional Kyrgyz felt hat for myself and a lovely headscarf for Jen. Once again it felt like leaving old friends from whom generosity knew no bounds.

With 3 home visits to date we are feeling very fortunate and have enjoyed them all very much! I think the fact we camp in the car and avoid where possible tourist campgrounds enhances our chances of such invites. We are more approachable to the locals in such areas I think.

Sometimes however we are too approachable and you crave a little solitude.

Continuing west along the southern shore of the lake at a slow pace we soaked up the warm weather with frequent stops, some of which included a quick dip in the aqua blue water of the second largest alpine lake in the world. It was bloody freezing although Jen seemed to manage the temperature far more easily than I! After a lazy morning we found another reasonable campsite although once again not far from the passing parade of traffic. Being camped by lunch time turned out to be fortunate for as the day warmed and the allure of the lake was too much it wasn’t long before the locals once again started to show and no doubt we’d not have enjoyed the use of the camp we were in had we arrived much later.

Jen Swimming!

Jen Swimming!

Awesome Camp!

Awesome Camp!

A similar trend the following day with a fantastic diversion along the western end of the lake, the main road diverts further south from the water giving up a nice little gap of around 5km by 30km where there is no infrastructure. We drove through a small village until we found a track out in the direction we wished to travel and it turned out to be a gem! 10km which included 5km’s of stunning driving at the base of a small river canyon. The track continued along the shoreline as we’d hoped and revelled a few locals camped sporadically. We travelled past the last camp which no doubt consisted of some sore necks that evening (the rate at which heads turn when your off the tourist trail is quite astounding) and found a great spot including something we’d been missing lately – isolation! A campfire and apricot chicken hot pot were in order!

Rainbow Colours

Rainbow Colours

River Canyon

River Canyon

Camp Fire

Camp Fire

After leaving the lake, we began the journey south along the highway, a pleasant change except for a really long and very rough section over a high mountain pass, which is under construction. The drive was nice but as usual you have to deal with the locals as they try and become carrion!

Fuelled up in the town of Kochkor and subsequently found the reserve fuel tank electrics had failed.  Anyone with a Patrol will know this is a common complaint. It really makes me wonder why manufacturers do some of the things they do? For me personally, when I look at different vehicles I can usually come up with something I like and something that makes me shake my head. For instance the Toyota sub fuel system is far superior to the Nissan and much simpler, so why go the way Nissan went! But then Cruiser Ute’s are 100mm out of track front to rear – what the? Wouldn’t it be nice if they just got together and got it right!!

Anyway as I was aware of the sub fuel tank issues I was ready for it and so it was only the time required to enjoy one beer at camp that that saw the system sorted. The ute now has 170000 km on the odometer though so I guess it’s taken a while for this fault to appear!

Nissan Repairs

Nissan Repairs

Camp was close to, but hidden from, the road near an abandoned farm house.

 

Farmhouse ruins

Farmhouse ruins

Continuing south and now back on rarely experienced smooth black top and whack! A large black raven like bird sprang up and went between the camper and the cab roof!!!! Jen could see him out the back window between the camper and the cab rail, how the hell are we going to get him out of there? Coming to a stop and luckily the unfortunate creature had somehow extricated itself from it’s enclosure and as I exited the vehicle with euthanasia on my mind, it stood up looking a little dazed before flying away!

We arrived at the location of Tash Rabat, believed to have been accommodation used by wealthy travellers as they made their way along the Silk Road. Thought to have been constructed as early as the tenth century it’s an extremely interesting site set at around 3200m altitude up a lovely valley, only accessible a few months of the year due to snow and descending temperatures.

Tash Rabat

Tash Rabat

 

Tash Rabat

Tash Rabat

We spoke to a tour operator here regarding a track marked due north that would eventually get us to Lake Song Kol.  Whilst he hadn’t personally driven the route he knew of 4×4 tour groups using it and believed it was in good condition. So we headed off and the next couple of days delivered without doubt the best scenery we have had to date! The first section of the road gained in altitude quite quickly, massive grey clouds were assembling as we ascended and looked more than ominous. Sure enough they soon provided lightning and very heavy rainfall, just to add a level of slippery to the clay surface. To sum it up, high mountain passes with switchback after switchback before descents into heavily watered and eroded valleys of stark and stunning scenery. Campsites easily found and hardly anyone to be seen! Apart from the wrong turn that we endured for a few km’s resulting in a rather uncomfortable U turn in a less than optimal location along a steep track, the drive only really required 4×4 due to the rainfall and lack of traction, when dry it wouldn’t be an issue!  Some sections were quite muddy and when your looking out of the window and it’s a few hundred feet down to an uncomfortable ending it’s less than pleasant when traction becomes an issue and Isaac Newton takes over! Just as we approached the high pass of 3400mtr we came across a poor young lad that was having trouble convincing his donkey to move despite the deteriorating weather.  Jen got out and gave him a little gift to try and brighten his day!

Poor Little Fella!

Poor Little Fella!

A couple of days later and we were at the northern most section of this traverse, a long winding switchback descended into the valley bellow! From our vantage point we were again spoilt with post card scenery. From wet and snow spattered mountain passes, we were now looking down on a dry and yet stunning landscape of beautifully coloured and heavily eroded ranges. Reaching the town of Baetov we continued north and onto one of the more well used roads that provide access to Lake Song Kol. We were keen to top up with water and had been on the lookout for a while now.  To date we have obtained almost all of our water from creeks and snowmelt but with the amount of rain over the last few days the creeks had been laden with mud and debris and hence not really suitable. We have 120 liters and another 10-liter container and whilst only around half way through our capacity I like to get water whenever I see it! As luck would have it a crystal clear fast flowing creek appeared and we were able to give the Patrol a well-deserved wash whilst topping up. The location was too good to pass up so camp was promptly set and clothes washed and showers had!

Pamirs Bridge Camp

Pamirs Bridge Camp

The following drive was again stunning as we ascended toward Lake Song Kol which sit’s at around 3000m. The road, which ascends toward the lake, is really spectacular with a long section of switchbacks that provide magnificent views back down the valley. The road is in good condition and is no barrier to normal passenger vehicles hence allowing for a little more traffic.

Switchbacks

Switchbacks

 

Spot the Nissan!

Spot the Nissan!

After around 50km we arrived at the western end of the lake and headed east along the southern shore line passing a smattering of tourist Yurt camps as we went.

Just before arriving I’d been thinking- “it’s lunch time and we are both hungry but we should look for a campsite.  If we can’t find anything soon we’ll stop for a bite and pursue a site after a snack!” The following situation removed lunch from the menu completely!

Hmmm those 2 people on the side of the track look like westerners with back packs! She is flagging us down…. Do you speak English from an obviously distressed tourist – yep what’s up?

Christoff and Stephanie from Germany (who have asked that their photos not be published) were on a 2 week Kyrgyzstan hitch-hiking holiday and had unfortunately found themselves stuck here at Song Kol for the last few days! They needed to be in Osh to catch a flight home the following morning with check in at 4am!!!! There is no regular transport to Song Kol and definitely none to Osh, which lies a couple of hundred km’s away as the crow flies! That crow would need oxygen and jet propulsion to get there however as it’s mountain pass after mountain pass in that direction and would take us the best part of 2 or 3 days consistent driving.

The only possible way they had of making it, as far as we could see, was a long loop that would require some 600km’s of driving.  It was mostly on the highway though and that would be their best shot of getting transport/hitching!

Story cut short, we promptly loaded their gear into the camper and with now 4 people in the cab began the drive north from the lake the 60 or so km’s to the nearest town where we thought they had a chance of hitching a lift!

Their cards and cash had been stolen adding a layer of distress to their situation and with only a few dollars on them, they were really up against it! A few uncomfortable hours later we reached the town of Chaek and dropped them on the outskirts of town where they thought they had the best chance of obtaining a ride. We made them some sandwiches and topped up their water. They had been living on bread the last couple of days and Jen gave them a little cash to hopefully get them through! These guys were really in a bad situation.

Whilst parked with them, the locals seemed to think that we were in some kind of difficulty and one local in particular stopped to see if we were ok….

Do you need help?

Do you need help?

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We agreed to come back to where we’d dropped them off in half an hour in case they were still there!  After leaving them we talked about our options and whether we could get them to a better location, but realistically we couldn’t do a lot more. Osh was a 1000km detour for us and as it was we were 120km off track. They did get a ride out of town however and we didn’t see them again, I hope they made their flight but it was always going to be a struggle to get there.

We stocked up with a few supplies and weren’t really sure about how to proceed, we had only seen Song Kol for about 20 minutes! Jen found a track on the map that would hopefully lead us to the northern shore of the lake and so that became the plan.

Heading east and then finding our way onto the track took some time and when we eventually turned onto the track we were met with a Sangyong 4×4 full of locals stuck on a rock the size of a jerry can! You do have to wonder if they actually look out the windscreen!! Anyway with a shovel we managed to extricate the stricken vehicle and no sooner had the task been completed some horse riding locals appeared and once again the Patrol became the centre of attention. Fortunately however the locals were able to provide us with some directions to the lake and that there was indeed around 10km to go! They didn’t mention it was 10km straight up, I knew we were going to have to gain some altitude really soon as the lake sits at 3000m and the pass is at 3400m whilst we were currently at around 1500m.

First Low Pass

First Low Pass

Sunset Over First Low Pass

Sunset Over First Low Pass

We probably should have camped as twilight was washing down the valley but we really wanted to get back to the lake and spend a few nights relaxing in one location. So onward and most definitely upward, over an hour in first low on a reasonably well maintained track consisting of the now ever familiar switchback after switchback before cresting the pass at 3400m and in semi darkness. It was a little weird having been ascending for the last couple of hours and then only descending a few hundred meters to the lake.

A late camp was had on the lakeshore, but we were happy to have arrived. The following morning we moved a few hundred meters to a more protected location but only a hundred or so meters from a tourist yurt camp.

Tourist Yurt Camp

Tourist Yurt Camp

To put you in the picture, there isn’t really any location around the lake that provides secluded or protected camping as with the altitude comes the treeless scenery.

A few hours after moving camp and we have a consistent stream of locals passing within feet of our campsite and standing on a rock on the lake’s edge!! Would you believe they can apparently get phone coverage from this rock and no where else…. So with a hundred km’s of shoreline we camped next to what turned out to be a well used mobile hotspot!

Local Encounters

Local Encounters

Anyway it worked out OK as we met a lovely family who run the Tourist camp. One of their daughters spoke good English and we gleaned much information from her about their lives.

The only downside from our few days at the lake was that it was once again the beginning of what has since continued – the Kyrgyz men will come up to you and shake your hand whilst the only words leaving their mouths will be in the form of wanting Vodka! When you decline their request they generally about face and disappear.  You really have to wonder how often they get a result; I can’t imagine many tourists handing out vodka and cigarettes when requested. It’s all very low key however and I guess you just have to tolerate this behaviour as a trade-off to such beautiful scenery.

Whilst we were fortunate to experience lovely weather, two of the three nights spent at Song Kol were accompanied by thunderstorms of quite a spectacular nature although the worst of it was fortunately to skirt our location.  Strong wind squalls were accompanied by quite heavy rain at times, but fortunately not for prolonged periods of time. Sitting in bed watching the sky illuminated by such tremendous examples of power is always a reminder of just how insignificant we are.

10pm and that's lightning!

10pm and that’s lightning!

Whilst relaxing and overlooking the vista of the lake we were greeted by the appearance of a GU wagon with a Swiss couple on board. Christina and Giuseppe are in their third month having crossed Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan and Usbek to arrive at Son Kol. A discussion ensued regarding our respective plans; they were heading for Kazakhstan and on to Russia before returning home. Giuseppe had heard of the problems with the Police in Kazakhstan and wasn’t looking forward to the drive ahead and I don’t think I did anything to relieve his skepticism. Diesel had been unavailable across Uzbek and they had to obtain it on the black market, always a challenge! Good advice for us as we will endeavor to have ample on board before entering the country. Goodbyes again and they headed off toward Issy Kol lake.

Swiss Couple

Swiss Couple

Back the hundred or so km’s to Kochkor and finally some Internet access. We hadn’t bothered with a local SIM card in this country and locating Internet cafe’s wasn’t all that easy.

When you do find one it’s either closed or not working.

We stocked up on some supplies and spent some time just absorbing the town atmosphere including watching a Mazda 121 cruise past us and the local Police on 3 tires and very impressive space saver in the form of a rim only!

With emails responded to we decided to head northwest toward Bishkek over a mountain pass that Jen and I spotted on the map! Keeping it short we found ourselves in heavy rain amongst the clouds slipping and sliding up muddy tracks that it appeared hadn’t seen anything other than hooves in recent history and we still had a 1000m of elevation to make the high pass, we had to call it!

Mountain Weather

Mountain Weather

We made our way back down and found a great camp bathed in sunshine and well hidden from view! In a normal days driving here you will go from running the air-con flat out to cranking the heater within minutes and back again.  Takes a little getting used too!

Back in Kochkor and a quick check of the email once again and our Letters of Invitation for Uzbekistan had arrived so we can now make our way toward Bishkek and the ever-enjoyable task of pigeon English and obtaining visas.

Having not been able to make it over the pass toward Bishkek, we followed the blacktop for a couple of hundred km’s back around the mountain ranges that effortlessly block any direct passage. (We later found out that even horses struggle with the pass we were heading toward.  Apparently it was in use during Soviet times and receiving maintenance but has been left to suffer land slides and the like, making it impassable since the demise of the Soviet Union) We decided to make our way up the other side of the pass toward the area that we would have arrived in, had we made it over the mountains, and we found a great little campsite on a grassy ledge above another picturesque mountain stream. It’s a popular area with locals and we certainly didn’t have it to ourselves during our stay but were again left undisturbed.

Kegeti Valley Camp

Kegeti Valley Camp

View from our window!

View from our window!

80 or so km’s and we deviated on the outskirts of Bishkek to the Tajikistan Embassy to hopefully obtain our GBAO permits. YES they are issuing them again and about half an hour later and $150 USD lighter we had our little stamps. A week or so in any direction in this area can define your passage, as it does seem visa suspension can happen at any moment.

We navigated the, as usual, ridiculous traffic and found our way to Nomads Home, a well-known overland hostel. There is only room for one 4×4 with a pop-top and fortunately we now fill that space. The family that run the hostel are more than friendly and have assisted us in making our appointments with the Uzbekistan Embassy which are now set for Wednesday morning in 2 days time.  All going well we hope to be on our way toward the second highest road in the world by Wednesday afternoon.

8th of July tomorrow and that date holds some significance for us as it’s Jen’s Birthday, so Bishkek will play host and I’m sure a great day will ensue!

Next post may be a little late as we aren’t expecting Internet for a few weeks so stay tuned!

Justin.

PS we’ve uploaded 2 short YouTube video’s of a couple of our campsites, you can view them at….

http://youtu.be/wGGAn2vG12o 

http://youtu.be/Thcc6oKMAv0 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neural Activity

We managed to navigate the 2nd ger visit without having to consume any fermented mare’s milk, which I have to say, was a bit of a relief, as all reports suggested that it would go through us quicker than rancid chicken.  We tasted some home-made cottage cheese and the obligatory milk tea before saying our goodbyes and heading for the border.

Our Fuji Instax Mini camera (akin to a polaroid camera) that we brought with us, has been invaluable in Mongolia.  The number of times that we have brought it out and the resulting photograph has been cradled by the recipient as a truly cherishable memory of the moment we shared has been innumerable.  Having an instant photograph of their family or themselves has been something that, although we may take for granted, to them is a luxury afforded only to an elite few!

The town of Olgii proved to be a good choice enroute to the border as we met an overlanding  couple in a Landrover Discovery.  Albeit he was from New Zealand and his partner from Belgium, they now live in the United States and are following a similar journey to ours and we hope to meet up with them again in Kazakhstan if our itineraries collide!

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Anyway, we departed Mongolia within our original visa limit and after an extremely tiring 5 and ¼ hours at border control, we were in Russia yet again.  We were now heading for the Altai Region and enroute met a lovely French family travelling in the opposite direction that in four months of travelling, were yet to meet another foreign vehicle!  We chatted to them for a while and only 1km onwards found a campsite that proved to be the entry to the Altai Mountains Region.

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The Altai Region was lovely and the spectacular scenery was unending!  We were amazed with the influx of Russian vehicles coming towards us and realised that we had entered the region on what was obviously a holiday long weekend.  All possible camping options were full with tents and vehicles and finding a camp proved to be rather difficult but nonetheless achievable given Justin’s talents.

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The following day I spotted a track that proved to be an excellent campsite and although early in the day, we decided not to waste such an opportunity and made camp.  I wish to take cudo’s here as the camp I found was along a section of river dotted with resort facilities and between two towns only 5kms apart so to find a spot unoccupied with Russians was, I thought, pretty good!  We saw much evidence in the northern part of the Altai of the recent flooding with some very sodden ground and road repairs underway but thankfully we had obviously timed it just right and had lovely warm sunny days!

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Anyway, as I haven’t written much to date, I thought that I would summarise the trip so far.

Far Eastern Russia/Siberia was a place that I found very interesting and full of surprises – mostly from the people. Given a culture that feels that smiling at a stranger is a sign of lunacy rather than friendliness, I found that once engaged with the people, their friendliness was overwhelming and on several occasions, we were shown hospitality that I think would be rare in our own community!

Mongolia was a complete contrast to Russia, as the people were more than happy to smile at strangers and engage in whatever way available.  They were fascinated by our camper and I put this down to their nomadic existence and a respect for others living likewise!  However their curiosity was something that needed to be factored in when choosing a campsite, as I suppose when herding goats all day a foreign vehicle is going to prove too much to bare and an inevitable visit is always on the cards – even if it is at 10pm!!  The land itself is a land of such contrast with not only the landscape but the weather changing rapidly.  Mostly devoid of trees, the terrain varies from desert to snow-capped  mountain ranges, from marshy boggy valleys to dust bowls and sand dunes! Pleasant warm weather can overnight turn to snow or torrential rain!

For those of you who know me, I am a black and white person – grey is not something I do well and Mongolia was certainly a challenge!  I like to navigate but when there are no visual cues (such as a street sign!) to confirm that the track chosen is correct, I find myself getting a little stressed!  Mongolia is noticeably devoid of any signage that may indicate that you are on or which is the right track and a personal adjustment was required!   Tracks shown on maps no longer exist in the same place and some that are shown as major roads on all maps don’t go through unless the season is correct! I like to think that I adapted to this and by the end of our time in Mongolia was a far more liberal minded navigator with a heading in the general direction of our destination being enough to placate me into quiet confidence that we would arrive at our destination.

Returning to Russia almost seemed a comfort as it was returning to the familiar – a language and customs (and signage) that we felt we were beginning to feel comfortable with prior to entering Mongolia.  It was only short lived however as we cut across from Biysk to the border, bypassing Barnaul, and were yet again changing countries into Kazakhstan!  1 Hour later and we had navigated yet another border in what seemed like record time!

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Only 3 ½ hours in and we had been stopped 3 times by the police for document checks.  We had heard that Kazakhstan had a reputation for this, but when we were flagged down by a civilian vehicle occupied by uniformed officers we were a little concerned and only pulled over once we found another marked police vehicle to provide us some back-up.  Whether this was a factor or not, the uniformed officers checked all our documents and let us leave but continued to follow us for several more kilometres before turning off.  A good way of deterring travellers from injecting money into the local economy!

One thing that has been a stand out amongst many of the drivers that we have encountered so far is the complete lack of brain function that is present.  It would seem that many are afflicted with random neural activity that fails to form the consecutive thought processes necessary for safe, predictable driving. Overtaking at breakneck speed, when there is not the room to do so, only to pull over within minutes for some obscure reason followed by the repeat process is an all too familiar experience and hurtling their vehicles over turbulent terrain with no apparent vehicular control and certainly no consideration for the durability of the vehicle’s engineering is commonplace! Neurons fire at random – goat, go fast, overtake, stop, horse, go fast, truck coming, turn, cigarette, stop…

Anyway, all this prompted a line of thought on the statistics achieved so far on this journey and as a book-keeper this appealed to my sense of numbers so the following represent some milestones achieved so far:

72 days travelling

11835 kms travelled

8 nights accommodation purchased

6 days Kazakhstan

35 days in Russia

29 days in Mongolia

4869 kms travelled in Mongolia

5841 kms travelled in Russia

1125 kms travelled in Kazakhstan

Unquantifiable kgs Litter observed dumped in Russia

2 Ger visits

35km/hr average speed in Mongolia

24 Mongolian Inspectors of Camper

14 Foreign Travellers met – 2 Brits, 3 Germans, 4 French, 1 Kiwi, 1 Belgian, 3 Swiss

72,475 Goats sighted

7.2km/ltr average fuel economy

-10°C lowest temperature experienced (Russia)

34°C highest temperature experienced (Kazakhstan)

2650mtrs (8700ft) highest altitude driven (Mongolia)

1 Puncture (Mongolia)

6 Major U-Turns (Mongolia)

463kms wasted due U-Turns (Mongolia)

1 Police bribe witnessed (Kazakhstan)

5 times stopped by Police

We arrived in Almaty, a very pretty tree lined city with a great choice of restaurants and a distinctly European feel.

We booked a stay at the Keremet Apartments and a quick check of the internet seemed to suggest that the couple we had met in Olgii, Stephen and Caroline,  had also arrived in Almaty.  Due to a mishap with their border paperwork they had been issued transit visas instead of tourist visas and had to now fast track through Kazakhstan in 5 days as the problem proved too difficult to rectify.  A few quick emails back and forth and we met for dinner which was had at a wonderful and reasonably priced restaurant called Raketa. 

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It is necessary to register your visa within 5 days of arrival when coming through a land border and this unfortunate process means that you have to lose some sightseeing time running back and forth to the migration police.  Despite reviews on the internet that suggested that this process was a manic affair, the only useful bit of information gleaned was that window #3 was the one!

A friendly man advised us that we required copies of our passports and a conveniently located shop outside the building procured these. Back to the man at window #3- he asked the address of our accommodation, filled out the forms for us and told us to return at 5pm.  Sorted!  Maybe we were lucky but the process was nowhere near as daunting as we were expecting.

Another meal was shared last night with our new friends, this time at the Shakespeare Pub before departing in opposite directions today.  We are both heading for Kyrgyzstan but obviously Stephen and Caroline are taking the most direct route as they need to exit Kazakhstan today in order to meet their transit visa timeframe.  We had a great time last night and a more than a few beverages passed our lips and after arriving back to or apartment after 1am, I have to admit, I’m feeling at about 80% this morning but nothing a good nanna nap can’t fix!

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So glad we met Stephen and Caroline and hopefully our paths will cross again in Kyrgyzstan.  Their website is travels.caroline-and-stephen.com and is well worth a look.

See you next time in Kyrgyzstan!

Cheers

Jen

Rice and Milk Tea in the Gobi

This morning we were off to the Mongolian Embassy to lodge our visa applications. We were greeted by light snow on the walk over and I can tell you that was refreshing. We entered a small room and prepared our paperwork with around 10 Chinese hopefuls, I’ll never understand the inability to queue that seems to afflict many other nationalities around the world. Anyway with elbows spread we finally made it the front of the line and our applications were lodged with a solemn faced unhelpful individual. Pickup would be after 5pm!

 

The day was spent sourcing a supermarket for a re-supply. This was followed by a lazy day with coffee’s and lunch. We retrieved the Patrol from the hotel’s secure parking later in the afternoon and headed to the Embassy.  A Lada sedan promptly approached and it’s occupants gestured that they would like to look at the vehicle! So a tour ensued with lots of hand gestures and head nodding.  Upon looking in the cab and noticing the tablet a hand was pointed skyward and “Ahhh Sputnik” was announced – Yep we are using GPS!

 

Visa’s in hand, we headed south for the border along slowly rising topography that ended up just at the base of the snowline. We found a campsite amongst pine trees around 45km from the border and it was freezing.  I had the Webasto heater on before I popped the roof ….

 

We had heard many stories about the border – that we should allow a minimum of 4 hours and be there before opening to secure a spot in the queue. Although prepared for this we really don’t like early starts and decided that as camp the previous night had been a late one we would get to the border when we were ready and whatever would be would be. So at 11:30am we entered the border control area and there was no queue.  We spent some time with very confused officials whilst they made phone calls and tried to work out what to do.  After mirrors under the car, a sniffer dog, opening every compartment and popping the roof up we were cleared for the next stage. Fortunately we found a customs officer whom had a little English and he assisted us with the paperwork. Anyway an hour and a half later we found ourselves in Mongolia with third party car insurance and a new Mongolian SIM card. I don’t know if we were lucky or if arriving after the queue had cleared assisted our passage but it was quite painless.  We will see how this approach works next time.

Sim card

  Welcome to Mongolia

South toward Ulaanbaatar includes quite a few tolls, generally around 500 tŏgrŏgs each! Given 1600 tŏgrŏgs to the Australian dollar, it doesn’t really hurt but it was hard to work out why we were paying a toll for non-existent road maintenance. Apparently however the toll is income for the towns along the road.

 

Lunch was spent on a grassy rise with the pleasant fragrance of thyme.

It seems to be growing wild everywhere at the moment and can be quite intoxicating. Closer to UB and we were getting a little desperate for a campsite as I didn’t think tackling the anticipated heavy traffic at night was an overly bright idea. Fortunately at around 30km out we managed to wander over a small rise and found a spot on a hillside out of view from the highway that would suffice.  Upon parking we noticed quite a few headstones around the area and figured we had inadvertently found the dead centre of the locality! Very cold overnight and quite a dosing of snow meant for a cold start in the morning.

Snow Camp Snow Camp2

 

We were headed for the Oasis Café & Guest House, which has become a favourite amongst overland travellers and motorcyclists alike.

 

GPS position loaded and with no decent city maps we headed into the maelstrom of traffic that is UB! I can’t really describe driving here other than to say that it’s obvious that metal steeds have replaced horses but the ability to control the new mode of transport hasn’t matched the change! It is really just ridiculous and quite stressful but we managed to find the Oasis and that’s what it felt like after the drive…

 

I think you would have to experience driving here to understand how reckless it is!

 

We spent the afternoon cleaning the camper and servicing the Patrol and found ourselves partaking of the drinks fridge more often than I’ll admit if asked directly.

Service Time Tyre Rotation

Next day we braved the local bus and headed the 5kms into UB centre. The bus journey is basically an aerobic workout – stand sideways to the direction of travel is rule number 1. Your driver is an idiot and not at all aware of the fact he has passengers onboard so you will be thrown around as if you are inside a pinball machine.  At one point a tumbling toddler flew past us down the aisle whilst the bus was under maximum braking with horn engaged and steering wheel being yanked side to side.  I must admit I found it rather amusing to watch the local punters just accept it because that’s how it is! 

 

Sukhbaatar Square in the centre of the city is a nice area to relax for a while and people watch. The obligatory photos of the Chinggis Khan Monument in front of Parliament were taken and then it was off to the Museum of Natural History. We wanted to see some of the apparently amazing dinosaur skeletons and the like on display. Alas the building is closed until structural repairs are completed.  Looking at the building we will have a colony on the moon before that happens.

Sukhbaatar Square

Off to the Museum of Mongolian History instead as it holds a great collection of early Mongol armour and the like.  A couple of hours were enough so again coffee and the day disappeared in earnest.

 

We were apparently the first international vehicle of the season to arrive at the guesthouse but only by a day as a Land Rover 110 with English registration was in the parking lot upon our return from the city.  We spent some time perusing maps with Craig and Klaus and discussing route options. If your feeling like an Internet search then you can find them under Bermuda Rover.

 

We checked out and headed off to Mongolian Immigration to extend our visas for by a week. The process completed we headed to the State Department Store in central UB and stocked up before heading east to gaze upon a relatively new shiny monument of Chinggis Khan on his horse pointing toward China that is some 40m high!

Chinngis Chinggis 2

It was worth a look and was a very impressive monument.  It’s fortunate Mongolians have Chinggis Khan as without his legacy there would be a lot more vacant land to fill that is currently occupied with the many and varied monuments immortalizing him.

 

The idea was to continue southeast and then cut southwest through some small villages and intersect the road from UB south to Dalanzadgad. A terrific idea in principle but it totally went to custard when trying to cross the Trans Mongolian Railway line that was preventing our escape. Eventually we asked at a Police checkpoint where we could cross and were given directions – pretty happy with that we headed off!  They didn’t mention there is only one crossing in the area which happens to be an underpass and that a corolla with a roof rack is all that’s going under there!

Too Low

 Anyway, we’d well had enough by now and although we probably could have persisted we made the call to head back the 100kms to UB and pick up the road south from there. Well that wasn’t so easy either as there is a massive amount of road works and infrastructure construction being undertaken around UB and navigating the maze of unsigned dirt roads and diversions whilst trying to avoiding having the Patrol written off by a flying corolla made the task very time consuming.

 

However when in Mongolia enter a GPS waypoint and go that way! It was well and truly dark by the time we were able to confirm we had indeed positioned ourselves where we wanted to be. Having NARVA onboard at this point was something I was very grateful for!

Narva Welding Flash

Being able to light up the terrain and tracks ahead absolutely reduced the tension in the cab.

 

Eventually we darted off the track and over a rise and were ready to enjoy a cold beverage.  I turned off the Patrol and opened the door and there in the distance about 100m away I could just see a ger in the slight moonlight. Probably a good thing that it hadn’t received a burst of our lights as the poor occupants would have had welding flash!

Morning View Night Camp

I now realize some weeks later that ger’s are just about everywhere!

 

Anyway we moved a little further and that was home for the night!

 

Next day we headed across the grassy slopes toward Baga Gazryn Chuluu Reserve and were rewarded with lovely granite outcrops mixed with grassy valleys.

Baga Gazryn Chuluu Park Ranger

After a little exploration we suddenly had a motorbike following us at a safe distance, never really getting too close. Here we go I figured – “you want stay in ger?” or “you want camel ride?” At an opportune moment the bike closed and to our surprise a Park Ranger greeted us.

He took the opportunity to guide us forward in the direction that we’d been travelling and made sure that we saw the 2 main sights in the park.  A small cave was first and then an old Monastery in a lovely gorge that had been destroyed by the Russian Communists in the 1930’s. They were having a little purge of Mongolia’s free thinkers and reduced the population by a few percent just to get everyone on the same page!!

Monastery

We spent the evening watching a pair of massive vultures attend to their nest and woke the following day to heavy and consistent rain.

Vulture

Back to the highway and south to Dalanzadgad. Heading south along the black top is always a test in this country with nice smooth road followed by unmarked holes the size of refrigerators.  Fortunately we only travel at around 80 to 90 km/h and I was thankful for that as I rounded a sharp curve on the highway and was met with a wall of dirt about 5 feet high across the road – the Mongolian way of closing a road! I had to wonder how the Land Cruisers that passed me just moments earlier at well above 140km’s an hour had gotten on. I guess they either know the road or go Dukes of Hazzard Style!  Don’t know if those 200 series cruisers are as tough as the General Lee though!

 

A few hundred kms of corrugated roadwork bypass tracks saw us arrive in Dalanzadgad.

Downtown Dalanzadgad

We didn’t have very high expectations of this southern outpost and were quite surprised to find quite a nice town compared to others we’d seen. After a walk around we topped up with some groceries and a group of locals approached wanting to look at the vehicle. Then we headed to Yolyn Am Ice gorge.

Once again the GPS waypoint was loaded and we headed for the National Park entrance. Another 10km saw us wandering down a valley at some 7500ft along ice flows whilst being in the Gobi Desert!

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There is a section you are able to drive through that I’d seen on YouTube and maybe that was a mistake, as I wasn’t overly taken by this section, however it was nonetheless quite striking.

Dugany Am

Tonight saw us camped at 7800ft, our highest camp to date.

It’s been interesting observing the amount of black smoke from inefficient fuel burn that the Patrol is able to pump out at the higher altitudes.  You can generally avoid it but if you are laboring in the wrong gear it’s like a coal fired power station. I had previously noticed large amounts of smoke choofing from the many landcruisers around the more elevated towns but hadn’t put two and two together until I noticed my own driving technique…

 

Out of the ranges and west across beautiful arid rolling plains and the town of Dalay was approached. I was keen to buy diesel here as although we had only traversed a couple of hundred km’s I’d been told diesel was difficult to obtain in smaller towns and hence wanted to stay full.

 

We have 175litres of fuel with a comfortable range, when anticipating sand and hard driving, of 1000kms. Upon arriving in Dalay, we asked some locals if diesel was available?  Yes was the answer but we had a little trouble locating the bowser.  Quickly the passengers door was opened and Jen pushed up onto the console as a local woman climbed in and gave directions.  Sure enough we came to a small fuel station on the edge of the town with diesel.

Directions

As a point if you drive around the outside of the towns on the open flats you can generally spot the fuel stations.

At the time I’m writing this we are well north of the Gobi and at no time have we travelled more than 300kms without obtaining diesel.  To be fair though, there is a large number of small diesel trucks and 4×4’s here, so I’d surmise that diesel is becoming more available. We will see what the north of the country is like, hopefully similar.

 

Khongoryn Els sand dunes came into view. The country was really starting to dry out now and was becoming very dusty.

 

A lunch stop and drive up a small valley north of the dunes saw us parked right next to another ice flow within a gorge, I would hazard there are many of these ice flows around the area other than the National Park controlled ones.

 

Camp saw us very exposed on a sandy plain alongside the dunes but with a windless evening and beautiful sunset it was a great location.

Khongoryn Els Camp

There is a reasonable sized river running abeam the dunes which makes vehicle access quite difficult however the following day we got a little closer and with a little luck found a bridge that I think has been put in by one of the tourist ger camps to provide easy dune access.

Dune Access

A 500m walk saw us on the dunes and upon our return to the vehicle you could tell there was a change in the weather afoot. No sooner were we on the track than a sand/dust storm began, reducing visibility at times to no more than a few meters. Whilst it lasted the next couple of days fortunately it wasn’t consistent and we had long periods of great visibility.

 

We headed north across the Gobi and some of the best driving so far with tracks winding their way along the tops of the rolling peaks, affording stunning views and opportunities to spy on the lives of the nomads as they go about their business.

 

Next destination was Tsaagan Agui or Crystal Cave, a cave in a small valley that has given up stone tools that have been dated back to 30-40000 years ago.

Tsaagan Agui

It has some crystal formations lining its walls that make it unusual and impressive. GPS loaded and we headed up valleys and through mountain passes sometimes on tracks and lots of the time just heading that way.  You drive for great distances in this country with no sign of infrastructure whilst stopping and camping anywhere you like and yet when you arrive at a well known site you find a gazebo and a segregated parking area – what the??

 

As we drove to the beginning of the gorge we were suddenly met by a group of teenage boys with very sticky fingers, opening the Patrol’s door and suggesting that they show us the cave. It was quite uncomfortable and there is, of course, no one else anywhere! So we explained that as it was late afternoon and we would find a camp and come back tomorrow. We idled away until out of sight and considered our options. There was no way that we could leave the vehicle unattended! Shortly 3 motorbikes with all 9 lads aboard arrived and via hand signals suggested they would like Jen’s hat and some vodka and food along with some other signals I’ll leave out. We fired up the Patrol and headed off, what followed was a silly game of chase the tourist! I have well over 1000km range so wasn’t overly bothered about making it clear of these idiots. Anyway eventually they figured out we weren’t going to stop and decided that if they stopped their bikes across the track in front of us, that would work. As there wasn’t anyone around I was tempted to just run over them, a point they seemed to work out as we didn’t react or slow down. I guess having tyre tread across their forehead didn’t appeal to them! After some 30 minutes they reluctantly retreated and headed back toward the cave.

 

Now we were really annoyed, we’d come a long way to see this cave and missing out because of some testosterone filled clowns didn’t impress.  I don’t really think we were at any real risk as they were just mates egging each other on but you don’t really know.

 

We looked at our options and the map – “hang on – that little gorge goes north to the other side of the range – hmmm”. So after negotiating some steep hills and winding around some creek lines and other small challenges we managed to park the Patrol within 500m of the cave on the other side of the gorge. Torches in hand we headed down the gorge on a stealth mission and entered the cave that we had come to see! It all made for a late camp as upon our departure the wind came up and it was quite a few km’s before we managed to find a nice protected site in a gorge.

 

The next section north toward Bayankhongor would be one that required a lot of luck if rain was about. Very low lying terrain with lakes and marshy areas and no recent tyre tracks ahead made for a very careful approach. The terrain was firm enough with only the odd section requiring 4WD but I do think we were quite lucky as being early in the season it could have easily required a long detour.

Low Lying Don't Rain

A family of camel herders came into view and we managed to pick our way through the scrub around their herd of camels that were all over the track.

From their smiles and waves we thought they had appreciated our efforts so we stopped for a chat.  With hand gestures and maps they cottoned on to what we were up to. The now mandatory look in the vehicle and we were on our way. They seemed to being doing it pretty tough and yet give off the aura of happiness and want for nothing.

Camels Pretty Camel

Late afternoon saw us back on lovely grassy rolling hills and looking for a campsite.  Lovely grassy rolling hills are great but don’t really provide the protection from prying eyes or the elements that one desires so it can be a challenge to find a suitable campsite that isn’t already occupied by a ger!  We found a nice little rocky hill and nuzzled up alongside for some protection.  Beverages prepared we wandered up the rocky outcrop and relaxed atop whilst viewing our surrounds. We could see about 4 ger camps but they were quite distant! If you can see them then they can see you….  Just as we returned to our campsite came the unmistakable noise of a motorbike and over the hill came a family of three.  Yep we ‘d been spotted all right and curiosity had definitely gotten the better of them! A couple of hours later and after numerous discussions and reference’s to our phrase book and the mandatory few arkhi’s (vodka’s) we were invited to join them the following morning for milk tea in their ger!

Visitors

We were quite excited by this prospect as interacting with locals that approach you in the backcountry is the type of experience we are always looking for. It’s so far in front of the organized ger visit.

 

The following day, all packed up, we travelled about 15 km in order to find the ger which was about 1 km from our campsite, we had received Mongolian style directions but hey – we need a GPS Co-ordinate! Haha

 

We arrived to smiles and waves and the lady of the ger ushered us inside.

Ger Living Ger Living 2

I must apologise at this point, the chances of me converting their names into the King’s English is pretty well zero and the fact that I can’t pronounce them doesn’t help!

 

Rice with mutton was served and went down a treat, followed by bowls of milk tea to which we also did justice! A friend of the family promptly arrived and with the family’s son whom we hadn’t met the day before we now had a cosy group of 6. Maps and discussions around goat herding ensued and we marveled at the warmth and strength of the ger, it was seriously windy! The 12volt TV standing there along with a pot belly of design from the day’s of Chinggis Khan all seemed like a contradiction and yet so practical.  Baby Goats were quickly retrieved from outside and just added to the experience as they nervously wandered around the circular ger!

Kids Group Shot

After a couple of hours we headed outside and the Patrol became the focus. Bonnet up and camper roof extended there wasn’t a millimetre that didn’t receive a thorough going over…  Goodbyes and handshakes and we were once more on our way.

Mongolian Inspection Mongolian Inspection 2

This family had been so friendly and welcoming that it was actually quite difficult to move on, I hope others are fortunate enough to experience similar.

To Bayankhongor.  It’s hard to explain but you drive along tracks with random gers and free roaming stock and then you come to a town that consists of timber fences enclosing gers, some government buildings and a fuel depot of some sort.  The really weird part is that many of them have these “theme” parks, which, sometimes, consist of reconstructed dinosaurs, and the like but seem to have been abandoned part way through construction and now just sit derelict! Maybe some road repair before the theme park development – just a thought.

Bayankhongor

We were heading for some hot springs, touted as the highlight of the region, and then onto the town of Uyanga. We left the main road once again and wandered along the myriad of tracks in the general direction of the springs. We arrived at the springs but weren’t really able to access them easily as there was a ger retreat located next to any available point of hot water.  Most of them seemed in total disrepair and the whole area wasn’t overly inviting.

Hot Springs Maintenance

The track deteriorated rapidly but was still showing signs of frequent use so we pushed onward and upward in altitude and past ger after ger! The quantity of traffic using the track was obviously reducing the further we drove and I should have seen the signs earlier! Encouraged by the fact that it was shown on two of our maps we ploughed on. Eventually it was very muddy and rough with tricky sections requiring some low range and definitely choosing the right line but we were still hopeful of making it over the high pass at the end of the valley. Eventually we passed the last ger and the tracks ended abruptly but we continued. Maybe after that next crest there will be another track! Well that never happened and we went well beyond where we should have. I really don’t like off camber hill climbs in snow with one vehicle and no tracks whilst half way around the world! Being early in the season was definitely a factor – I think another month and you could head over these passes’ quite easily. There is a lot of snowmelt in the valleys and particular caution must be used in these areas. Numerous times we sank through the grassy crust but fortunately never stuck!

 

We retreated and headed north up another valley toward Tsetserleg but once again we were really taking a risk, it was obvious that the locals were not yet using these passes and so a U-turn was performed. We camped part way back down the valley, as we were some 60km from our start and now exit point. A cold night followed and we woke to a snow covered freezing Patrol in the morning.  I really don’t like starting the vehicle in these conditions after a freezing night at altitude. Until you get some heat into the engine there really are some undesirable noises. I try and keep the freezing wind out of the engine bay overnight and hope for some sun in the mornings to take the edge off, but it’s not always possible.

Valley Camp Elusive Gobi Bear

The next day we exited the valley and headed a little further east and up another valley that was encompassed by lower mountains and seemed to contain more open contours. It was the complete opposite of the previous valley – fairly dry and hardly the need for 4WD at all. In fact you didn’t need to bother other than the fact some of the tracks were quite steep so why wouldn’t you engage it. We also spotted the extremely rare Gobi Bear! Haha We had a great camp with lovely vistas along the valley. Another very windy morning and after a brisk walk we continued. We arrived at Uyanga via this alternate route and had intended to continue onto the 8 Lakes and Orkhon waterfall, which are supposed to be quite impressive. After a couple of hours hunting for a way of getting further toward our goal without including a stage of the warn winch challenge we realized that we would have to find an alternate approach.  The tracks are sodden and devoid of any local traffic at all. I thought it possible at this point that if we had a second vehicle we could have persisted but as we were solo the answer was obvious.

 

We headed southeast toward Arvayheer and a stint on the black top, we would have one more go at heading into the area of the waterfall – not so much for the waterfall but the fact I didn’t really fancy the 150km blacktop run as opposed to the 50km of tracks that would see us at the same location. We found a camp at sunset and settled in to cook a bolognaise that definitely hit the spot. The morning saw me plugging a rear tyre after removing a 2.5-inch roofing nail (don’t ya hate that). It’s either tech screws or nails! Some things don’t change the world over!!

Ouch

So we picked a valley and followed some tracks toward the town of Khurjit! Now this town is north of us but also has a main road running north from it, hence I didn’t think it would receive as much traffic as the other pass’s we’d attempted and hence was less concerned about fewer tyre imprints. About 15 kms up the track we once again encountered some heavy snowmelt and sloppy but reasonably firm terrain so we pushed on.  Shortly after, we crested a high point on our map and were feeling a little more confident of back-dooring our way north. We began the decent over almost dusty tracks and then were suddenly greeted with a view of the track and valleys ahead.  I could see lots of water and heavy ruts along with a couple of UAZ vans so out with the binoculars for a quick scan. Those UAZ vans might as well be gers, as they weren’t moving anywhere, bogged in the middle of the sloppy valley with Mongolians like ants around them trying to extract them.

 

Any movement in that direction also meant joining the recovery team, an idea I wasn’t totally sold on so yep – U turn.

 

We did have a go at another valley but we were losing interest by now and decided to hit the blacktop – well drive over rough tracks alongside it as it’s usually smoother.

Storm Front Dust Coming

So on to Kharkhorin and the centre of Buddhism in Mongolia.  Lot’s of western tourists, which was a little weird having not seen anyone for so long!

We continued north toward Tsetserleg and found a spot for lunch. The sky looked a little weird and yellowish, half way through our lunch we realised it was a dust storm and within 5 minutes we were in the cab being buffeted by massive winds and subsequent pouring rain. I was really thankful not to have been the recipient of hail as the sky began to take on that ominous deep grey. Anyway the car got a wash, which was nice! The gale force winds continued and we were a little worried about finding a camp that would provide protection, so we drove further than anticipated and found ourselves on the outskirts of Tsetserleg. Saved by the bell however we noticed some gorges to the south of the town and after negotiating the bumper cars we found our way 5km south and are camped on a lovely little stream with a small gorge for protection, which we really need as the wind is howling!  Now I’m going to have a beer as this is the second time I’ve written this complete post after the Muppet I’m travelling with irrevocably deleted it earlier today!!

 

She’s doing the washing to make up for it!!!! hahahaha

 

Back soon – Justin.

 

PS: At the point I was halfway through my quite relaxing beer when a small truck drove past our camp and proceeded to get stuck in the little river that is flowing by! So next thing there is young local guy requesting our assistance, I couldn’t tell him what I was really thinking so proceeded to pack up the camper and retrieve his little truck from the creek! Peaceful now – I think!

Relaxation Recovery

Break Glass in Case of Emergency!

Monday and Yuri is on the phone – the container has arrived! Although we were ultra keen to pick up our Patrol, the week had been filled with sightseeing and relaxation that took the edge off the delay. Another trip over the spectacular Golden Horn and Russky Island bridges with Vladimir’s colleague Stanislav, who showed us around Russky Island, proved to be one of the week’s highlights.

There are a series of gun emplacements dating from WWI through to more recent fortifications peppered around the island and generally they are ripe for a side trip.  No signs restricting access and if you have a good torch there is a myriad of tunnels to be explored.  I have to give it to the Russians – unlike Australia they actually make you take responsibility for your own actions, get lost down there and it’s your fault. Imagine that! If you do something stupid you can’t blame someone else! I think I could run for office on that one alone!

To my surprise, there were multiple locations on Russky Island where camping would not have been a problem and geographically its only about 20km from downtown Vladivostok! If we had a little more time I would definitely have recharged the batteries for a couple of days with views over the ocean!

By now we were chomping at the bit to get moving.  There wasn’t much of Vladivostok we hadn’t seen and I could now say cucumber in Russian with nothing short of a pure Russian accent (Oguriat) Anyway, that’s another story!

Wednesday morning, Yuri picked us up and we headed to the shipping and customs offices to sort out the import paperwork.  En-route, I mentioned that I had seen 6 car accidents since arriving and shortly after this Yuri said make it 7 – yep there was another one!

Shipping sorted and 3 signatures at customs were all that stood between us and the road!  Piece of cake I hear you say. It’s an unusual situation when you find yourself in a government office not knowing what is going on and just nodding and also tricky to remember that Russians don’t smile!! To quote Svetlana, Yuri’s ever-efficient associate – “Only fool smiles without reason”. Hmmm there are a lot of fools in Australia then….

Yuri returns with 2 signatures, one remains to be collected! Tick-tock goes the clock and I’m thinking we are nearly there!

A tall woman (well, when your wearing 4 inch heals attached to leopard print knee high boots and touting a beehive haircut like something from the movie Grease you will look taller than those around you!) came out of an office in tears and walked past us. Yuri promptly appeared from the office and relayed that the lady in the boots was the customs inspection officer and she was having a bad day and would be unable to assist us, we would have to come back tomorrow! After nearly a week of shipping delays I was getting a little frustrated at this point and wasn’t overly enthralled with this further delay.  It was at this point I noticed the little red box on the wall that read, in Russian of course, “break glass in case of emergency” I considered following the instructions if only momentarily just to see what the reaction might be.  Alas, sanity prevailed and with an appropriately stiff Russian face I followed our small party out of the building for another day of sightseeing!

I must give credit where due, Yuri and Svetlana have both been professional and friendly towards us in all our dealings, always well organized and never too busy to assist. If your going to bring your vehicle into or out of Vladivostok then Links Ltd would be an easy recommendation for me to make!

The following day proved fruitful and after another trip to the customs building, the third and final signature was obtained.

The Big Day!
The Big Day!
No Dents!
No Dents!

Friday morning and after 6 weeks in the container we were finally able to cut the locks and open the doors.  I was very relieved to find the Patrol in the same undamaged condition in which we had loaded it.

Vladivostok Driving
Vladivostok Driving

Onto the streets of Vladivostok and I would describe this as fairly intense!! Driving on the opposite side of the road is one thing but when you add some heavy and slightly unpredictable Russian traffic into the mix it makes for a wide-eyed experience. After making it back to Vladimir’s apartment we were feeling a little more relaxed.  The driving style seems erratic initially but once you get more used to it, generally it flows quite well but you still need to be on your guard!

Vladimir's Apartment
Vladimir's Apartment

After parking the Patrol outside the apartment we went from being tourists to celebrities! Seems the vehicle was going to be a magnet for conversation.  Ya ni gavaru parooski! (I don’t speak Russian) was fast becoming my new favourite phrase, however generally when we used the phrase the reaction seemed to be more questions in Russian.  Maybe saying I don’t speak Russian in Russian clearly means you can speak Russian!

Rooftop Drinks
Rooftop Drinks
Rooftop View
Rooftop View
Cheers!
Cheers!

That evening was to be our last in Vladivostok and with a few beers and some snacks in tow, Vladimir took us on a short walk to a favourite spot which provided views over the hustle and bustle of suburban Russia! It was a warm and thoroughly enjoyable evening!  We cannot thank Vladimir and Nina enough for their hospitality towards us – such generous people!

Lighthouse
Lighthouse

Saturday afternoon we headed to the southernmost point of the Vladivostok peninsula in convoy with Vladimir and Nina and after photos, hugs and farewells we set the trip-meter to zero and headed north! About 200km later we found ourselves camped along a power-line and all by ourselves.  A bottle of red was enjoyed and during the next few hours the wind picked up, the rain came down, the lights of a distant town that had been visible early in the evening slowly dissolved into the gloom of the low cloud and I felt very excited about the adventure ahead.

Roadworks
Roadworks

The next couple of days saw long stretches of road-works with what can only be described as chaotic overtaking.  One lane each way of heavily corrugated and undulating gravel road that consisted of intensely impatient drivers risking all for that extra car length! Having said that, although impatient they are a courteous bunch and a flash of the hazard lights after overtaking lets you know that they appreciate you moving over to help them pass.

Our next couple of days saw fairly heavy rain but with nice sunny breaks in-between. 800km from Vladivostok saw us arrive in Khabarovsk, a city of 600,000 people who were all on the road to greet us. That’s what it felt like after a few days of fairly straight forward highway driving and all of sudden it was back to the hectic style of Russian city driving. Khabarovsk at its outskirts seemed a little run down and tired with electric trams that I thought were abandoned relics of a bygone era until I saw passengers in them. Central Khabarovsk however was a different story.  A lovely riverfront promenade with picturesque parklands and a main city square reminiscent of many European cities was a pleasant surprise.  A noticeable lack of litter was also a positive!  Littering it seems is a popular pastime for some Russians and is a source of national embarrassment for the rest.  On our travels north from Vladivostok it seemed that any side road taken for a quick pitstop served as a secluded location ideal for the dumping of bulk rubbish by locals – something that the authorities are trying to combat.

Lunch with Rubbish
Lunch with Rubbish
Khabarovsk Tram
Khabarovsk Tram

We found our way to the Platinum Arena near the city centre and here we were met by Eugeney and Vitali, the latter having just completed a 6 month round the world tour in his Land Cruiser 78 series with family in tow!

Vitali and Family
Vitali and Family

Once again we were about to be soaked in Russian hospitality. We piled into Eugeney’s VW Toureg and were promptly treated to a fantastic meal at what turned out to be his restaurant – Senore Pomidor! A city tour followed and then the offer of a night’s accommodation in Eugeney’s palatial villa! Another fantastic evening had slipped by in record time.

The following morning saw Vitali’s wife Galena pick us up and we headed for the Khabarovsk museum.  I know that doesn’t sound too riveting but it turned out to be absolutely sensational and I felt fortunate not to have missed it! Back to their apartment and we met up with Vitali for a lunch of Borsch (soup) which was delicious! Vitali has a 4×4 shop in Khabarovsk! A discussion about our plans and a look at some exquisite photo’s from there round the world sojourn topped of the day. Their daughter Katia returned home from school around 3pm and we all headed of for some views of the bridge over the Amur River! The supermarket followed and we were pampered by Katia as she helped us to navigate the Cyrillic labels, I’m sure they all had better things to be doing than following us around while we food shopped but the generosity of these people once again amazed us.

Goodbye’s again and we were heading west!

Savannah Camp
Savannah Camp

As we travelled onwards from Khabarovsk towards Chita we began to look for a home for the evening and settled on a site near some marshland a few kms from the road as our night’s camp.  Mosquitoes automatically accompany terrain like this but the sunset was magnificent and you would have been forgiven for thinking that we were camped in an African savannah.

Saw our first Russian wildlife in the form of a small squirrel as we navigated the boggy road back out to the highway.  Later, when the elevation increased, so did the occurrence of ice along many waterways.  As always, you discover the best campsites when you don’t need one and we found a burster alongside a river but later when we needed one it proved quite difficult and we finally settled on a track that looked like it’s most recent use had been the transit of cows.  Settling in, we had dinner and a few drinks when the silence was broken by the sound of a motorcycle approaching.

Now let me clarify that it was a dark night, about 10.30pm and we were on a disused track off a dirt road.  Passing within 6 inches of our car down the track was the first Russian motorcycle ever built complete with sidecar and no lighting whatsoever! No surprise then to discover that the bike and rider had then proceeded to crash into a rut in the track 2 feet deep which brought the screaming jalopy to a halt and silence again returned.  Moments later a young Russian appeared from the darkness at the rear of our camper and despite no common communication territory it was evident he was seeking help.  Justin first disappeared into the darkness with him armed only with a Maglite and then summoned my assistance also.  A few good tugs and the bike was free but it wouldn’t start. Mobile phone coverage in Russia is excellent and no sooner than our Russian had made the call, reinforcements in the ever popular camouflage clothing appeared.  We were a little nervous that the hill folk now knew our location but they seemed harmless enough and in time they disappeared into the night with the motorcycle and peace and tranquillity returned.

One thing that has been a stand out observation as we have been travelling through many small towns is the popular choice of roof and fence colour. It seems as though” Home Hardware” must have over ordered colorbond and paint in their trademark blue and sent the oversupply to Russia!

Camping for the last few nights in altitudes around 2500ft has tested out our setup with the mercury dropping to -10°C overnight.  Water pipes and taps frozen in the morning mean that without forward planning the night before, morning coffee has to be abandoned and this is unthinkable!  We are ever thankful for our wonderfully warm down quilt and find ourselves quite cosy at night despite the below freezing outside temperatures!  However one thing that we weren’t quite prepared for was the adjustment or lack thereof to our internal body clock.  Something tells us that the time zones are not quite right when you are on the same longitude as Perth but are experiencing a springtime sunset of 10pm without daylight saving and total darkness only achieved at about 11pm.  I cannot fathom what time the sun will be setting in the middle of Summer!!  Sunrise also seems to be out of adjustment and is rising much later than one would expect for Spring.  What seems like late afternoon to us is in fact 8pm and we haven’t even camped yet.  Before we know it midnight is upon us and we have only just finished dinner.  Nearly three weeks in Russia and this is still something we cannot quite adjust to! Since when is the sun NOT directly overhead at midday?

Onwards to Chita and there has been much bad publicity about overland travellers being the targets of criminal activity in this area.  Not overly filled with confidence, we opted to get in and get out with only the necessary stop at the supermarket on the agenda.  The entry to town was ramshackle and unattractive to say the least and the drivers seemed a little more erratic. Supermarket found we went inside for what we always find to be an adventure as we decipher the Cyrillic characters on packaging to try and guess what it is we are about to consume.

On departing the supermarket, we found a man nearby the car wanting to ask questions of our vehicle and this time Ya ni gavaru pa rooskie worked and sign language, the names of the Russian Cities we had been through and Australia seemed to provide him with the necessary information.  Aklishna (excellent) was his response and upon turning back to the car, encountered another 2 men wanting to chat.  One obviously understood some English but hadn’t the confidence to try and speak it so resorted to translating my comments about our journey to his friend.  Armed with bottles of Vodka in their pockets and lovely gold teeth they seemed impressed with our setup and were content to be on their way.  These experiences did much to lift our impression of Chita and hope that maybe this is indicative of good things to come for this overland transit point.  We headed for the nights camp 140km west of Chita en-route to Ulan Ude for another sub zero night.

Have plenty more photos but having trouble with wifi so will upload when we can

More soon…

Justin and Jen