Emir B&B in Samarkand ticked all the boxes for us with a great location that provided us easy access to the City’s treats. Meeting other travellers here was a real bonus for us as we generally only have each other to converse with. The opportunity to chat to others about their travels has become an experience that we relish when it presents!
We crossed paths here with an American family on an Uzbekistan holiday and we couldn’t help but laugh when they recalled the reactions they had received from friends at home upon telling them their intended travel destination. – One comment was “why do you want to go to a country you can’t pronounce the name of and is at war?”….
We shared dinner with the Americans at a local outdoor restaurant and, due to being sold out of most other things, an Uzbek Super Dog was the favoured meal choice. Whilst looking for all intents and purposes like a true American hot dog in the pictures, it actually consisted of a pita bread pocket filled with carrot, egg, and a frankfurt along with a litre of ketchup! More ketchup was brought to the table just in case we didn’t have enough and it was an interesting take on the classic.
Obtaining a tasty alcoholic beverage, however, proved challenging as Ramadan was still in progress, but Jen came into her own and obtained the required beverages on the sly from a restaurant! For a minute it looked like a dry night and we couldn’t have that, could we??!!
It was fantastic to meet such well-travelled people with the most amazing stories that pretty much covered the globe – Africa to China and everything in between!
On the road and we eventually reached Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital. A bit of a nightmare navigating our way in as none of the major roads are marked with any sort of street names and incorrect information from the local police didn’t help, but eventually we found Hotel Safar and, with pop star parking, we settled in. We had dinner across the road from the hotel at El Cascada, which was expensive by Uzbek standards but seemed an easy option! A late start the next day as we enjoyed chatting with the consistent stream of locals peering inside the camper as we prepared to leave! We were in a really nice part of the city and surrounded by some lovely homes. Uzbekistan to my eye appears to be quite affluent as compared to other “stans” – the usual mixture of mud brick homes in the country areas but the cities are very modern!
I can’t really describe the driving skills here – chaotic and idiotic might be a start but we are becoming more than used to the style now and that makes it a lot easier!
We departed for the border crossing at Chernyaevka and after an hour we arrived only to find we couldn’t cross at the location shown on all the maps and many websites as it was for foot traffic only! (or so we were told by locals) A little confused we were directed by locals to a vehicle border crossing and with a friendly local leading the way we soon arrived at the border.
However, we couldn’t cross here either, as this one was only for locals and would have to travel back 60km south of Tashkent to make the crossing! Somewhat confused and frustrated at this point, and feeling like idiots as we pride ourselves on preparedness, we checked our information and according to our info the first crossing we were trying to use had been open for 3 years and was currently active! Anyway it’s hard to argue with border control so south we headed. It was all a little stressful as diesel is very difficult to obtain in Uzbekistan and, as such, I had planned our route taking this into account. Due to this border fiasco, we ended up over running our expected driving distance by 200km!
Eventually the Yallama border crossing appeared and proved reasonably efficient – the usual non-existent instructions or signage but plenty of helpful people who assisted us through. 4 hours evaporated by the time we found ourselves back in Kazakhstan!
We took on diesel only 10km from the border along with all of the trucks departing Uzbekistan and to say I was relieved to fuel up would be a real understatement! North to a dodgy campsite on someone’s paddock and then on to Shymkent we headed. A resupply and we settled in for a couple of thousand km driving that was really to be only a transit for us.
Story cd’s playing, we continued north but you have to register your visa within 5 days of crossing the border so the pressure was on for us to make it to Russia!
We briefly stopped in Turkistan for a look at the Yasaui Mausoleum, which despite being unfinished due to Timur’s untimely death back in 1405, was quite spectacular with a 2000kg cauldron for holy water as the centerpiece.
Clocking up the hours driving with the associated km’s meant that meeting 2 Italian overland vehicles on their way south provide a nice break from the road! On a whirlwind trip from Italy, they were heading to Uzbekistan and then home so with maps spread we swapped stories and contact details before once again hitting the road. We hope to enjoy the offer of delicious spaghetti with them once we make it to Italy!
Baikonur Cosmodrome came into view and we idled along the road for a while with binoculars and zoom lenses trying to see what we could see! You can only gain access to the site via a few select tour agencies, only if there is a launch and only after parting with a large quantity of cash and even then it seems somewhat difficult to organize! Apparently there is an amazing museum of space travel and Yuri Gagarin paraphernalia on site but access is prohibited. Quite sad really! The Italians had sent letters 8 months in advance to the Russian Government to try to arrange access to the museum only, but to no avail!
The Kennedy Space Centre in the US has tours and the like and really gets you involved and wanting to buy souvenirs and spend your money whilst here our only interaction with anything to do with the cosmos was the Police questioning us whilst we parked outside the main gate for a photo opportunity, very welcoming! They certainly do things differently here!
No point hanging around and so it was on to the next destination, Aralsk – the site of the once blue and fish stocked waters of the Aral sea before the rivers and source of it’s life blood were diverted to grow thirsty cotton in the incredibly arid Uzbek landscape. Clever move that one! Anyway, if your interested just Google it and have a read, what a disaster! We eventually found the site where some fishing boats have been put on display giving a glimpse into a life that seems could never have existed when you look around this desolate and somewhat depressing place! Fortunately for us however we were able to locate an immigration police office and an hour or so of waiting patiently saw our visas registered and with that the pressure to make the border was removed! A good thing too as it was looking like an all night drive to make it and I really wasn’t looking forward to that even with our sensational lighting.
2 more days slid by as we traversed more and more modern large towns with obvious Russian influence. We did pass a convoy of around 12 motorhomes with European plates heading the other way and couldn’t get a wave out of any of them! I think they were too fixated on sticking with the group to look sideways!
We finally arrived at the border and said our goodbyes to Kazakhstan, we’d only been stopped twice more by the police and then only one suggested we were speeding, so all in all it had been a smooth transit. One and half hours and we were back on Russian soil and heading for a rendezvous with some local Russians who were friends of friends back in Perth! Little did we know that we were once again about to be soaked in Russian hospitality and would look back on the next few days with amazement and fantastic memories whilst adding another group of Russians to our list of best friends that we sincerely hope to see again!
Maxim, Olga, Sasha and Sasha (long story) along with their friend Sasha, his son Vladimir and father Peter along with a few more extended family members made us feel like royalty.
The American icon of McDonalds also made more than a few appearances as we reached the larger Russian towns although it looked a little different!!
Just outside of Tolyatti city, Maxim and family met us on the side of the road and guided us into the city and to their friend Peter’s fantastic house that was to be our home for the next couple of nights. Russians seem to do hospitality at a level that leaves most other nationalities well and truly in their wake! Chai (Tea) served on arrival and then a fantastic summer soup of fresh seasonal greens mixed with Kvass (a local drink) and sour cream, which might all sound unusual but was very refreshing.
Peter has a Russian Banya (like a sauna) in his back yard and an invite to a traditional Russian bath wasn’t going to be passed up! We’d been in the car pretty solid the last few days and Maxim had played it perfectly in suggesting the experience! A serious amount of body cleansing was in order and it was provided!
An exercise in male bonding including being smacked with birch leaves was a truly relaxing experience and one I feel fortunate to have enjoyed. I was able to enjoy this Russian tradition in a private banya in a Russian home whilst being made so welcome that I’ll never forget it.
Jen had her banya experience after the male bonding session and together we emerged freshly birch leafed and refreshed!
Wandering into the backyard and Peter’s son Sasha was hard at work preparing shashlik and trout for dinner – this was just too good!
Later in the evening whilst the throng of people were trying to sort Jen’s Internet connection out, Peter grabbed me and suggested we head to the neighbour’s for a little drink! This particular day is a celebration here in Russia – I’ll call it Para-trooper day. You see flags being carried all over the place along with beret wearing locals sporting very red faces after having consumed more than a couple of drinks. Arriving at the neighbour’s, I was greeted by a two Russian navy lads, one the size of a battleship on his own, who were refining their shooting skills by lining up apples and shooting them with an air rifle on the picket fence! Clad in blue and white striped shirts and berets, they certainly looked the part!
So here I am in backyard Russia eating shashlik and toasting with the locals whilst communicating in a language none of us understand and all the while having a truly fantastic experience!
Maxim and family took on the role of tour guides the following day and from mid morning until well after dark we were treated to a tour of there locality, from restaurants and museums to walking in the forest before meeting some of their friends and whiling away the evening in great company.
A wonderful day and the bar was again set higher. Maxim’s son Sasha who said he couldn’t speak English earlier in the day through shyness, was actually quite adept and treated us to some lessons in Russian over the course of the afternoon! I came away with my new favourite word – kruto, which means “cool” in English!
The morning arrived and with it Maxim and family. We needed to arrange a new Russian third party insurance policy for the Patrol and looking back on the experience, without Maxim, I think it may have been almost impossible.
Goodbyes were said and with a truly heavy heart we departed Peter’s house, it had been a true respite from the rigors of travel and we could have easily stayed! A supermarket restock and lunch with Maxim, Olga and sons and we were on our way to Moscow!
A couple of hours on the road and we found a great campsite on the Volga river. It took a little snooping but it was definitely worth it. We could easily have spent a couple of nights here but the capital was calling and beyond it we hope to make Slovakia to meet a friend, which requires us to get a move on! So on we travel whilst trying not to become a hood ornament for a road train. You can count the legs on the dead insects on the grills of the trucks that tailgate you! How close must that make them?
Another nights camp on a relatively disused track some 4km off the highway and we are 460km from Moscow! The next day was a long one and the traffic on the M5 got heavier and heavier. We arrived at the newly located Sokolniki campground, which is just north east of central Moscow at around 7:30pm, and were greeted by a very confused security guard. After a phone call to the park manager he finally let us in. It was great to be parked and out of the peak hour rush and we celebrated arriving in this great city with nibbles and drinks. As the only residents of the recently re-opened camp ground we enjoyed a quiet night of relaxation.