This blog is the tale of 3 cars and 7 people’s attempt to drive from England to Mongolia. We are the Khan Teams, and we set out to complete the Mongol Rally.
Our route was to take us 10,000 miles and through 18 countries: UK, France, Belgium, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia. We did so for the experience, adventure and to raise money for the Cool Earth charity.
Team member Noble:Joined the adventure late, and is trying to make up for doing so by writing this blog.
Team member Riggs T:Student bum and as the youngest member of the team he is the winner of the coveted backseat position.
Team Member Flewsey:Expat and life of leisure aficionado.
Team Member Hastings:Expat, professes to be Scottish despite being born in England and having a French passport.
May 1st 2013 – Here We Go
Sooo here we go!
…actually, we are a long way off from going anywhere. Swamped by visa applications and passport photos, while various digital communication devices alert us to the things matters we have forgotten, it is currently difficult to imagine we will be going anywhere.
But it’s all right. We have well over two months to deal with all these details, and for now we can put the kettle on, our feet up and imagine that it will all work itself out.
May 7th 2013 – All Torque
Having just come off the phone from team member Hart it appears that he has very kindly – and without telling any of us — attempted to test I Know I Khan (the red car) on a family weekend break to Devon.
Unfortunately it seems it was more than just his family that fancied a break. I Know I Khan’s prop shaft also appeared to fancy a break. Several consultations with the RAC convinced team member Hart that he could fix that broken prop shaft, or at least put a workaround fix in place.
Several hours later, he took the option all real men resort to when in dire straits. Luckily his mum had to drive only from Dorset to tow him and the stricken I Know I Khan back to her house.
The result of this escapade is that I Know I Khan, which was originally a four-wheel drive, is now very firmly in the two-wheel-drive camp. Unless one of Joss’s many dubious Steptoe and Son connections comes through with the goods that is the way it will remain. We spent extra money on four-wheel-drives, so this is disappointing but in the grand scheme of things only a minor setback
May 23rd 2013 – Leader Of The Pack
It is sunny and I am in my garden having an all-important screen break and looking at my toes in the grass when my phone rings. It’s Julia, from the Visa Machine, the company organising our visas.
“Can I talk to you about something?” she says.
Julia sounds happy enough, but something is already telling me that this call isn’t going to make things easier.
As all seasoned travellers know, the best time to travel through any country is when an election is being held. Elections purvey the population with a sense of somnambulant calm that will ensure all travellers smooth passage!
Iran wants to charge us extra for this experience — $150 a day to be precise. For this sum we will be provided with a man. This man, is according to the Iranian authorities, a leader. Or, as they put it, “A.Leader.” His mission is to accompany us during our transit through Iran. On the plus side, his presence isn’t optional, so that streamlines the decision-making process.
On a slightly less positive note, even with A.Leader it is not a certainty we will be granted a visa. Our only other option would be quite a substantial re route to Azerbaijan. To Azerbaijan or not to Azerbaijan? That is the question.
May 30th 2013 – Edited Out
Unfortunately we have lost a team member due to financial restrictions, the bane of all our lives. Ed is out, forced into an early resignation.
With his departure we have decided to rescale our attempt to two cars. We will sell the poorly I Know I Khan and journey with our knees around our ears in the remaining two cars.
May 31st 2013 – Iran or Bust
A decision has been reached and it is Iran or bust. Welllll, possibly bust. If the Iranian visas aren’t issued, it will mean an enforced reroute from Turkey, which will involve driving to Georgia and waiting there for three days whilst the Azerbaijan embassy decides whether to grant us a visa.
I have informed Visa Machine and ordered the Khan teams A.Leader. A.Leader requires arrival and departure dates and places– meaning he/she is already proving demanding. After a brief consultation with team member Hart — which enlightened us to the fact that neither of us knew the towns we were entering or leaving Iran from, and ended with this: “let’s just say the 23rd, shall we?” — I confirmed the specifics with the Visa Machine. I just hope A.Leader has a good book and a flask of tea because he/she might be waiting some time… and if he isn’t head-to-foot glam rock we will be demanding a full refund.
June 24th 2013 – Turkmenis Can’t
Turkmenistan borders Iran and is very definitely on our route. For a number of months I have been trying to acquire a transit visa to allow me to accompany the rest of our team through its mysterious interior. My troubles were initiated when I joined the Rally too late for the Visa Machine to obtain me a visa. I have tried various other companies in the last couple of months but always hit a wall somewhere in the process. One of the main problems is Turkmenistan’s lack of enthusiasm for tourists. I could of course try to re route and drive round Turkmenistan. This would involve driving through Afghanistan and I don’t really fancy this option. My visa frustrations drive me to a visit the Turkmenistan embassy in London.
I am sure the street numbering of Holland Park Avenue is completely clear to those of a far higher intellect than me. I, however, am standing in the middle of the pavement staring at maps on my phone as if I have uncovered an ancient incomprehensible scripture. Possibly if I rotate the phone and then myself through 360 degrees all will become clear. Feeling none the wiser but slightly dizzier, I make a decision and head off in exactly the wrong direction.
Some 30 minutes later I stand in front of a small black gate that is denoted as the entrance to the Turkmenistan embassy. I press the button and inform the voice that emanates from the gatepost my reasons for disturbing its day. I am allowed through and walk to a very large door at the bottom of what is undoubtedly a fabulously expensive white Georgian house. It is necessary to pass one more test to gain entry to the building. I press the button and a few seconds later a noise indicates that the door is now ready to be opened. In my experience doors are mainly either push or pull devices. I try both but the door remains solid. The same voice emanates from the speaker. “Push,” it says rather wearily, obviously now aware that it is dealing with someone who finds doors a major quandary.
I stand in the entrance hall. There is a very large reception room to my right, a flight of stares in front of me and no lights on anywhere in the building. I can see no reception desk and am about to start further investigation when a small man, dressed in what appears to be a chauffeur’s (without the hat) suit appears from my left and asks me to take a seat in the large room to my right. He flicks the lights into action, turns on his heels and disappears into the hallway. I assume he has gone to find the consul. I gaze round the very large reception room. It is empty other than the desk that I am sitting at. Austere portraits adorn the walls. Below them chairs hug the perimeter of the room. The small man reappears from the hallway gloom and hovers behind me before neatly rounding the desk and seating himself opposite me. We are staring at each other. There is a second’s silence whilst we both contemplate my realisation that this man is in fact the consul or at least he is the man I will be talking to.
What ensues is a polite conversation. We play our roles well. I spread my papers out over the desk and explain that I would like to start my application for a Turkmenistan transit visa without my Iranian visa. He says “no.” I reassert my desire to do so, and he says “no.” And so on. As I am about to leave, the man noticeably cheers. He informs me that I would be welcome to apply for a tourist visa and I would not need an Iranian visa to do so. He hands me a list of tourist agencies and watches as I attempt to reopen the door.
June 25th 2013 – Hello Darling
Thanks to Akhaltravel-Turkmenistan for settling the age old question of the best way to start a formal letter:
Yes madam we do that kind of service.”
For the record they don’t offer the service I required.
July 4th 2013 – Turkmenis..Can..Possibly
After what feels like years but has in fact only been months, I think I have finally resolved the problem of my Turkmenistan visa. I have hopefully resolved the issue in the manner all great problems are solved: through a Dutch lady called Christina. Along with the visa I have had to book all our teams’ accommodation and an escort. I am assured that an ‘escort’ is a man in a car who will drive ahead of us, following the planned itinerary that Christina has set out for us.
Obtaining a Turkmenistan visa couldn’t have been easier!
July 12th 2013- Changes
The start is insight and a flurry of activity and communication has occurred. The result of this is the reinstatement of I Know I Khan. The red broken prop shafted car has had a last minute reprieve and is now destined for Mongolia with the rest of us. It is to be driven there by Thomas and myself.
This decision has mainly been taken due to some team members concerns regarding space and comfort. It is, however, not free from problems as we only have the correct paperwork for two cars. Despite our best efforts we have been unable to obtain I Know I Khan a carnet de passage for Iran. We have heard rumours that these can be purchased at the Iranian border but there is definitely an element of winging it with this decision.
Day 1 – Chunks
July 14th 2013 – Bodiam
My eyes seem to be having some issues with opening, and I am fairly sure it is customary for my mouth to contain some moisture. There is a litre bottle of water unopened propped on top of a pile of my discarded clothes. I am pretty positive I bought that with the specific intention of drinking it before going to bed. I think my reasoning was to stave off a hangover. I raise my head. This action immediately alerts me to the fact that my brain has swollen overnight and is now pushing against the backs of my eyes. I collapse back down on my pillow but I know I must move very soon, as my tent holds aspirations to be a sauna. A fellow camper’s voice with a heavy Australian accent breaches the thin layers of my tent, “I can only see one or two chunks in the tent”. I close my eyes. How did I get into this state? Dim recollections are invading my semi consciousness. There was a castle, mead, a lot of cars, sunshine, wenches, knights, stickers and men in Speedos! The Mongol Rally launch party 2013 at Bodiam Castle was beautiful and great fun. What a location and what weather. Finally the Khan We Make It teams and cars were all together in one place.
The civilised part of the evening. Bodiam castle
Day 1- Ramping Up
In front of our cars is a small wooden ramp no more than a couple of meters high. At the top is a man with a microphone and a woman dressed as a medieval wench waving a chequered flag. Well, why wouldn’t there be? It is a small ramp. It will take no more then four or five seconds for us to mount and drive down the other side.
The trouble is what lies beyond it isn’t very small. It is a very very long road, with a whole bunch of unknown and hopefully a very very cold beer in Ulaanbaatar.
Me in I Know I Khan, wench, random photographer
Joss and Ant in I Think I Khan
Day 1 – Off
July 14th 2013 – Vianden
We are winding our way down a snaking mountain road. Forest trees lean in from either side of the road. The occasional breaks in their canopy reveal silently glimmering stars whose light momentarily turns the tarmac to silver. Joss and Ant lead the way in I Think We Khan (the blue car), followed by Julie and Dave in I Am Sure We Khan (the silver car) and lastly Thomas and me in I Know I Khan (the red car). We round yet another S bend and the trees drop away to our right, exposing a fantastical fairy-tale castle perched neatly on a hilltop, the village of Vianden nestling quietly below. The road turns into cobbles and our sat navs inform us our destination is close. After 265 miles and eight hours we can finally say we survived day 1.
Things we have learnt:
- There is no discernable form of life between Belgium and Luxembourg.
- We can’t operate Belgium petrol pumps.
- Ant doesn’t have a PIN number for his credit card.
- Luxembourg is very beautiful, the very little we saw of it.
- Ferry food has improved significantly since 1988.
- I can confirm the bronze Daewoo bought by 2 Americans on eBay in the U.K. that barely made it off the launch ramp – losing its tailpipe in the process – made it to France.
- Staying in convoy isn’t easy.
Day 2 – Jam
July 15th 2013 – Prague
I can see Ant in the distance. He is talking to a stranger. He appears slightly excited.
This surprises me as we have been gridlocked in the middle of Germany for well over an hour. I have been walking for five minutes, weaving between three lanes of stationary traffic while trying to locate I Think I Khan. It is boiling and the traffic jam populace are leaning against their cars, reading, smoking, chatting and generally trying to avoid the suffocating heat of their vehicles.
As I near I Think I Khan it becomes apparent that Joss has a plan and one he quite obviously believes to be cunning. I arrive at the scene to find Ant surveying and pointing at the motorway verge. Ant and I turn our attention from the verge to Joss. It is an unusual experience to watch one’s friend explaining to a whole line of gridlocked traffic, using a language mainly comprised of hand gestures, that he would like them to move. Oddly his excitement seems infectious and they acquiesce to his plan. Moments later Joss is facing the wrong way on the hard shoulder of the autobahn in I Think It Khan.
The traffic in the jam cleared very quickly after Joss had pulled off this manoeuvre and, not for the first time, our little convoy had separated. The drive to Prague is a long one and the heat increases the duress. Dave decides that he and I Am Sure I Khan will retarget for a location on the outside of Nuremberg. Joss and Ant resolve to continue to Prague and I will drive alone in I Know I Khan attempting to regroup with them.
At a fuel stop just over the Czech border I encounter another Rally team, Paint It Yak, who have broken down. This becomes a fortuitous event for me. My communications with Paint It Yak delay me just long enough to coincide with Joss and Ant as they pull into the other end of the services. The remainder of the drive was uneventful but beautiful. The evening light swept over the rolling countryside and the colours of the golden fields of corn battled the sunset for supremacy as the sun sank over the horizon.
Ant’s connection, Jan, is waiting for us on the outskirts of Prague in the most traditional of meeting places, a McDonald’s car park. Jan stands beside his car as we chat. He is tall, young and speaks great English. He guides us in convoy through the winding and cobbled streets of Prague until we eventually come to a halt on a narrow backstreet, which is very definitely in the right part of town. As we enter the Hideaways flat that is tonight’s accommodation I see very very clearly why we drove for so long to get here. This is a five star accommodation and no mistake…Mongol Rally style!!
Moments away from violent road rage!! Germany somewhere.
Day 3 – Cow Tipping
July 16th 2013 – Bojnice
The massive double beds and wet rooms are too much of a draw and we spend a lazy morning in a beautifully sunny Prague before lunching in a café near the castle with two of Joss’s friends. We eventually muster ourselves into leaving at around 2 p.m. We head for Bojnice in Slovakia whilst the Rigg’s team, who have already been on the road for some time, are heading for Budapest.
Ant had said Bojnice would be an impressive location, and he was right. The massive castle is set back from the village and surrounded by a moat. Behind it a grassy bank turns quickly to forest. The castle is softly lit, but as the summer evening gently turns to dusk the castle gains stature. I spend the last hour of light and the dusk rushing round in the semidarkness desperately trying to take night shots of the castle.
Joss’s face is doing something unusual. This is the second time today it has formed this expression. The first time was in the bar shortly after Ant had goaded him into drinking a shot of a local spirit. A drink whose name we struggled to decipher but we believe to be called 52 degrees.
The second is now. This time it is because he has realized that a nearby lifesize statue of a cow, which he believed it would be good idea to take a run at in an attempt to leap on top of, is in fact not as heavy as he had believed. Nor is it attached to the ground, as he had also believed. On Joss’s impact the cow lurches sideways, its rapid descent halted only by Joss’s flailing arms as he tries to allay the inevitable. The cow is now lying on its side with a bespoke bathroom designer from Chew Magna collapsed on its flank.
Fairytale innit. Bojnice Castle
Day 4 – Vignette
July 17th 2013 – Kiskunsag
The sun streams through the trees as we awake in our tents. To use Ant’s term of last night the Bojnice campsite is a little ‘pikee,’ but it has proved to be very hospitable. The free drinks bestowed on Ant and Joss last night at the campsite bar undoubtedly helped them sleep. As I arise I note that Ant has at some point during the night opened his tent, which he is too short for, in doing so he has considerably extended his legroom, his sleeping-bag-clad feet extending a foot onto the forest floor.
Our mission today is to drive to a Nature Reserve in Hungary, where we will meet up with I Am Sure I Khan. We do so, yet again, under an unbroken crystal-blue sky. The drive takes us through an undulating landscape until the road leads into a beautiful forest where sunlight softly dapples the road. At midday we reach the multi castled UNESCO heritage village of Banska Stiavnica where we take lunch.
None of us know what a vignette is, but we know need one — because a text from Dave has just informed us he has been fined 120 euros for not having one. Police activity considerably increases at the Hungarian border, but we are pre warned. A brief transaction through a metal-grated window with a pretty, blonde ponytailed and heavily tattooed lady and we have two vignettes… whatever they may be!
I can feel the joy emanating from Joss and Ant, ahead of me, as the road at Kiskunsag National Park turns into a sand track. No sooner have the front wheels of I Think I Khan touched the track then its four-by-four capabilities are put to the test. I am left spluttering in a ball of dust and wondering why electric windows have only one speed.
Things we have learnt:
- No one in our group, possibly anyone ever, enjoys tuna as a pizza topping.
- Hungarian schnapps is drunk from a test tube.
- A vignette (?) is required for entry into Hungary.
Joss and Ant, I Think I Khan, I know I Khan and Bojnice castle.
July 18th 2013 – Pirot
It is always nice to start the day with an argument, and that is what we are doing today. We have just discovered that the lodge on the Kiskunsag National Park, in which we spent last night, is at last three times as expensive as we had expected. The low, white-thatched buildings of Somodi Tanya set amongst the dry, flat summer scrublands of the Park had provided excellent accommodation. The water ran a bit brown, much to Ant’s disgust, but we had been served a delicious German cuisine and sat up late drinking schnapps as the moon rose over the stables. Breakfast was also most enjoyable.
The bill rather took the shine off things. Our price expectations had been fuelled by Lonely Planet, a book that the Hungarian owner — via the translation skills of a Swiss lady who is also a guest — is now claiming to never have heard of. Fifty-five euros isn’t a lot unless you’re on a budget. Driving to Mongolia, we are — and were under the impression we would be paying little over 20 euros. We leave disgruntled and immediately manage to lose Ant and Joss.
By mid-morning we have left the ranch well behind and have entered Slovakia. By midday we have reunited with Ant and Joss in Belgrade, where we take lunch. Sitting under the shade of the restaurant’s umbrella, the long, tree-lined avenues of Belgrade and the Belgradians (I am sure that is what they are called) make for most pleasant lunchtime viewing.
As we drive further south the land becomes flat and dotted with poorly constructed red roofed buildings. Plumes of smoke from unknown fires can be seen rising in the distance. Horse and carts carrying hay now occupy the roads as well as cars. Leather-skinned men in 1980s shell suits riding blackened, dusty bicycles frequent the verges, often stopping to pick at a bush for berries unseen by us.
Ant and Joss have taken a turning, which follows a wine route. We did not. We are now in a lay-by with maps spread across the bonnet of I Am Sure I Khan. A small Serbian man who owns the adjacent restaurant and accompanying accommodation stands behind us performing his entry for sales pitch of the year. The slightly dishevelled dusty roadside building he is standing in front of is, apparently, some form of modern-day Eden.
We decide to push on to camp by a lake on the other side of a town called Pirot, another 30 minutes’ drive. Two hours later we arrive at the lake. We have driven through Pirot — a town that could be best described as a town — and taken a gently climbing road. The evening air is scented and fresh and cools as our altitude increases. Foliage clears at the summit to reveal a spectacular view, misted blue mountain slopes layering off into the distance under the last vestiges of sunset.
The small patch of flat lakeside land on which we pitch our tents is also occupied by Serbian fishermen and myriad cacophonous frogs. Fortunately we arrive at the lake with just enough light remaining to realise the answer to one of the great unanswered questions: ‘What do you do if you’re having a shit behind a bush wearing only a T-shirt and have no toilet paper when a load of foreigners in unusual cars arrives?’ You simply pull the T-shirt down and duck walk past foreign onlookers until waste-deep in the lake, where you vigorously rub the crack of your arse. Easy.
Things we have learnt:
• Not to trust the Lonely Planet book 100%
• I Know I Khan isn’t so good on sand
Day 6 – Turkeys
July 19th 2013 – Istanbul
Dave pulls alongside us and winds down his window.
“Is that the Turkish flag? It says Greece over there.”
“I think it must be the Turkish flag, or is it the Bulgarian?” I say. “We are leaving Bulgaria.”
Having reached a reasonable explanation, I start Thomas and me in I Know I Khan confidently toward the border. Dave and Julie follow in I Am Sure I Khan. Leaving Bulgaria behind we push on for a minute or so until we see the Turkish border. The most surprising thing about the Turkish border is the border guards’ greeting:
“Hello, welcome to Greece.”
Thomas and I act blasé. Of course this is Greece, exactly where it should be and exactly where we want to be. The squat, partially bald but friendly faced customs official regards us and then our passports.
“Where are you going?”
“Turkey is that way.”
“Yes, but we want to take this road to Edirne.”
He thinks about this and decides it to be a plausible idea, and in perfect English gives us directions before waving us through.
The road is completely devoid of traffic. The tarmac appears bleached and mirrors the fluffy white clouds that are floating in an unrealistically blue sky. We reach the Turkish border in what seem minutes. Even the hostile fences and armed guards can’t malign the beauty of the day. Being denied passage by the Turkish guards could, spending hours at the border could.
We leave our cars and take our place in a small queue outside a white, single-level building that houses the border controllers. It is at this point it becomes clear I Know I Khan’s documents hold Joss’s name and therefore we cannot obtain the insurance that we need to take the vehicles into Turkey without Joss. Joss is currently several hundred kilometres in front of us bent over the steering wheel, his eyes searching the horizon for signs of minarets or mosques, Ant beside him fully reclined in the passenger seat, one foot on the dashboard, as they bear down on Istanbul at a rapid rate of knots.
The broken English of the border control officials is difficult to understand, particularly through a window slot, which has been helpfully placed about two feet from floor level. We are eventually ushered into what I imagined was a high security building but in fact is completely open to anyone who fancied having a bit of a wander about. A solution is reached: We need Joss to fax through confirmation that I Know I Khan now belongs to me, and we will then be allowed to leave. We phone Joss, who is slightly disgruntled that his pursuit of Istanbul must be interrupted, but nonetheless agrees.
Only one thing to do now and we do it: get the gas stove out and have a cup of tea in no man’s land. Two hours later we push our little vehicles through the border and onto the uneven streets of Edrine.
Edrine is immediately appealing. Two stone bridges span an expansive river, their stone worn shiny, presumably from hundreds of years of footfall. The rich evening light coats the huge mosque that stands proudly at the town centre, and the gardens at its base are alive with groups of people who sit and chat in the shade of trees. It is Ramadan and there is an atmosphere of excited expectation that pervades the evening air, as do the aromatic spices of countless kebab stalls that are busy preparing for sunset.
A few hours later our explorations of Edrine are complete and our bellies full, so we start our journey again. The road to Istanbul is clear and we drive late into the night, eventually reaching the city just before midnight. We navigate a confusing maze of cobbled narrow streets competing for right of way with partying pedestrians who seem oblivious to the idea of traffic. The Hideaways flat that is our accommodation for two days is beyond all expectations. The view from the terrace seemingly encompasses the whole of Istanbul. The city slopes down before us before rising again from the Sea of Marmara. Beautifully lit mosques stand proud amongst the myriad of streetlights. As good a time as any to have another argument and that is what we do.
Things we have learnt:
- Team Helvetistan are excellent no man’s land companions and carry good supplies of watermelon.
- Ant and Dave can, at certain times, be known as Rant and Rave.
The view from our Hideaways flat. Ok I suppose!!
July 20th 2013 – Istanbul
I am a little bit in love with Istanbul. From the gold-rimmed tea glasses to the dark-haired girls in flowing dresses I like pretty much everything I see in Istanbul… except the beer prices. They need to rethink that.
The luxurious apartment and the Hamam massage that our sponsors Hideaways Club and Jatomi lavished on us may have tainted my view of Istanbul. We can’t thank these guys enough for their sponsorship.
Ready for our Hammam massage courtesy of Jatomi.
TV’s Joss Hart, star of The Salon, working up a froth.
Day 8 – Issues
July 21st 2013 – Salar Koyu
Roof boxes are terribly good storage devices. However, their storage functionality is considerably marginalised if you leave them open. In fact, they make virtually no effort to remain storage devices. Instead they offer up their contents to the road gods as quickly as they possibly can.
Should you happen to leave a roof box open, I would advise against doing so in Turkey, on a motorway, and particularly one without a hard shoulder. If you do, you may find yourself stationary on the inside lane gazing at the reflection of a huge juggernaut in the rear view mirror as it looms ever closer. I found myself contemplating the effectiveness of hazard lights as a defence mechanism.
This scenario arose because we have an issue. The car Thomas and I are driving, I Know I Khan, does not have a carnet de passage to enter Iran. We have to be at the Iranian border on the 23rd (2 days’ time) to liaise with the guide whose services we have been compelled to engage. We had intended to leave I Know I Khan in England due to the broken prop shaft, but at the last moment I Know I Khan was reinstated. The expectation that the paperwork would be easy to attain proved false and all of Ant’s subsequent efforts have been fruitless.
I am bound to I Know I Khan via my entry visa to Turkey. I cannot leave without the little red car.
In a service station somewhere near Bolu we had agreed to divide our convoy so Joss and Ant in I Think I Khan and I in I Know I Khan can rush to the border to attempt to remedy this issue. Thomas was to take up position in the back seat of I Am Sure I Khan with Dave and Julie. On hearing my concerns regarding the amount of driving this left me and the safety of this arrangement Thomas and all his camping gear swapped back to I Know I Khan to share the driving with me and we all head to the border together.
Except we are not heading to the border. Instead we are stationary in the slow lane of the motorway with a juggernaut desperately battling to change lane to avoid us.
Another thing we noticed at the service station was that Turkey is very, very big indeed. We have an awful lot of driving to do. Having all survived the roof box incident — bar Thomas’s tent, which is missing in action, and my tent, which is wounded — we set off. From the moment we left the Turkish landscape seemed bent on repaying our efforts. Golden fields stretch into the distance on either side of the road. Olive trees stand amongst the gold, the green of their leaves flashing to silver as the faintest of summer breezes ruffles them. A shepherd and his son emerge from the shadow of a tree carrying long sticks and guide their herd of goats toward new pasture. We drive through mile after mile of idyllic pastoral landscape until rounding a corner to find a monstrous corrugated abortion of a factory cut into a hillside, a manmade wormery of rusty pipes and steaming chimneys, so ugly it is somehow beautiful. Deep into the night we drive before making camp at Salar Koyu. The full moon illuminates the columns of an ancient monument that stands guard on the hillside above us.
Things we have learnt:
- It’s best to close the roof box.
- Petrol stations in Turkey provide you with free tea
- Joss and Thomas make excellent tent companions
Safranbolu offered tea and a brief respite from the road.
Columns of the ancient rock tomb at Salar Koyu
Day 9 – Onwards
July 22nd 2013 – Turkey – somewhere
These are the attributes required to be a shepherd: A stick, whippy or firm; a leathery face; an unerring confidence that you and your herd/flock are invincible to oncoming traffic; and an ability to sit on the roadside with your back to the traffic and stare into mid distance like you don’t have a care in the world. For a shepherdess, it is important to be old and have a headscarf. If you’re an upper level shepherdess, then it’s a headscarf and a sunshade.
A donkey picks at a tuft of grass in the centre of the road. Obviously this is a special sort of foliage that is distinctly preferable to the endless fields of seemingly lush vegetation either side of the road. A tortoise ambling across the road feels the vibrations from our car and retracts its head and legs just in time for us to pass safely over it. Stray dogs wait until we are bearing down on them before deciding it is the perfect time to saunter into the road. Groups of children pause from their play to wave at our cars and other motorists, with increasing frequency, beep their salutations.
We head to Samsun, which is a sprawling shithole of a seaside resort. The first rain of the trip blusters down on us before we turn from the sea to a craggy mountain pass. Huge rock faces plunge into cold-looking lakes, and hard-faced men with cigarettes hanging from their mouths inhabit dirty construction machines. Tall trees with silver trunks hug every river and ravine, creating green, verdant roads amongst the mountain grey.
Again we drive into the night, at sunset, the light already off the land. We pass through a high plateau and then one more climb before we snake down through the night towards Erzurum.
What I am trying to say, in a convoluted fashion, is Turkey is very very beautiful, and as a photographer every sinew of my body itched to get out the car and attempt to capture just a little of its essence. Unfortunately our time constraints made this impossible, and from the last two days I have not one picture to show. For now I will just have to settle with the pleasure of being able to witness a few of Turkey’s treasures and make my plans to return.
Day 10 – Irangate
July 23rd 2013 – Bazargan
Ant, sporting linen trousers and shirt, and I are at the breakfast table. Ant points out that I have done nothing but complain for the last five minutes, and then beckons the waiter over to send his omelette back. Joss joins us plate in hand. From the large buffet of cheeses, meats and other Turkish breakfast items he has chosen a roll and some honey, which is still in honeycomb form. A surprising choice given that he then announces he is unsure if honey in this form is edible. I think we may all be a little tired and anxious. We are all aware that today’s appointment at the Iranian border could have a great influence on our adventure.
The morning drive through the remainder of Turkey sees the landscape become drier and drier. Cattle stand statuesque in the last oxbow remnants of rivers, and small domes of homemade bricks dry in the sun between tiny groups of ramshackle houses. As the foliage dies away the land takes on an increasingly lunar appearance. Red and green mineral deposit smear the soil of the rolling landscape. We pass through the border town of Dogubayazit at lunchtime. It’s bustling and intimidating and far poorer than everywhere we have been thus far. Small children whose faces are etched with far more experience than their years approach the car at every available opportunity, their hands outstretched.
“Does that look like a line of traffic to you?” Thomas says as we approach the 10-kilometers-to-the-border sign. It becomes apparent he is right. It is a long line of lorries, but we are able turn into the oncoming lane and push cautiously on to the border.
Mehmet is a small stocky man who has exceptionally even but heavily stained teeth. He doesn’t work for the border control authorities, but each day he makes the four-kilometre journey from his house to the border, where his sole purpose is to help people through the administrative process to exit Turkey. It is into his hands that we now fall.
He rounds us up and takes our passports to a small glass booth that contains two men who need to put the first of many stamps in our passport. As I peer through the small window the two blue-shirted customs controllers look at my passport and then at me. They are taking this very seriously and stare at me for some time until the standing official says:
“You know Frank Lampard?”
Not what I was expecting, but I affirm that I have heard of him.
“I like him very much.” the standing official enthusiastically informs me
”Who you support?” the seated official enquires in curt English
They look at each other. “Why you support West Ham?” one finally asks. A question I have asked myself many times.
Before I can answer, the door at the back of the tiny booth opens and a third blue-shirted official squeezes into the booth. The two resident officials stare at him and then all three hold me in their gaze:
“You know Turkish teams?” They are unflinching in their gaze.
“Errrm, not really. I… I …” I turn momentarily into Hugh Grant. “Only Galatasaray.”
This response has quite an unexpected effect. The two standing officials throw arms over each other’s shoulders and all three do their best to bounce up and down in the tiny booth whilst singing.
“Can…can I have my passport back, please?”
All three are now grinning and laughing at each other. The seated official quite distractedly stamps my passport and hands it back to me. Mehmet grabs my arm and leads me to the next window. Slightly confused, I am standing in what could be loosely described as a queue with Joss. We are trying to discern through Mehmet’s broken English why we are queuing here. Our conversation is interrupted.
“Mr Laurence! Mr Laurence!”
I look up to find that two of the previous officials have vacated their booth. “Come over here,” one says.
I’d rather not, but given they are border control officials I acquiesce to their request. On reaching them the taller and slightly younger of the two looks me in the eye, leans forward and says:
“We like you.”
The six of us are directed towards yet another small booth — but this time on the Iranian side of the border. The passport official who frequents this particular booth has been studying our passports for around half an hour. Two things have become apparent: he has a very slow computer system, and the dates on English passports confuse him. What is particularly perplexing is his insistence on us writing them for him, which we do in exactly the same format as they are printed in the passport, but it seems to help. Eventually Ant can take no more and walks 20 meters away and leans on the bonnet of I Think I Khan. A smartly dressed middle-aged man who slightly resembles Don Johnson approaches him, and they start to chat. I notice the man withdraw a huge wodge of cash from his pocket. Five minutes later Ant strolls back to us and informs us that Don Johnson is offering very good rates of exchange and has also assured him that it will not be a problem to attain a carnet de passage for I Khan Make It. This is the news we had all hoped to hear, but it still seems far from a certainty. Over the next hours we deal with varying officials. Don J. and an associate of his, both men suffering from deodorant dodger syndrome, assist us through the varying processes until I Think I Khan and I Am Sure I Khan are driven into Iran.
“Another 10 minutes” is a phrase that is repeated with great regularity over the next hour and a half whilst we wait for a friend of Don J.’s to arrive. The friend can, apparently, issue the carnet for I Know I Khan. He eventually arrives at 5 o’clock, walks once around the car, drops an extremely feminine pink lighter from his pocket onto the floor, sits himself down on a ledge, looks up and speaks Iranian incredibly quickly for about 30 seconds which Don J. translates: “tomorrow”.
Our last action in Turkey was to stop at the Ishak Pasha Palace and pose for a group shot.
Day 11 – Stuck
July 24th 2013 – Gori Gol
The border town of Bazargan is a good town to leave. In fact it is one of the most excellent towns to leave I have ever visited. It is a town full of people who walk up and down the same 400 meters of street numerous times a day or sit on boxes and shout “mister, you want change money?” no matter how many times you decline.
Unfortunately we cannot leave because we are waiting for Ant and Joss to return from border control. It is now 12 o’clock. We had been promised — a promise none of us believed — that we would have the carnet by 9.
Dave, Thomas, Julie and I are waiting in the restaurant of the hotel that Don J. had recommended and then kindly escorted us to last night. Here is a brief synopsis of the hotel: The toilet stink emanated to the rooms so badly that it was difficult to sleep, the mattresses were the exact opposite of memory foam (forgetful foam), the breakfast we were assured would be served at 9:30 wasn’t served at all, the hotelier spoke English but was so miserable and rude I wish he hadn’t, and the wallpaper was sticky to the touch. The only slight positive was the toilet flush in Joss and Ant’s room. When used it sent a jet of water from a pipe behind the squat toilet high into the air. Not good in itself, but the sight of Joss exiting the toilet, with his shirt soaked and water dripping from his ears and head, amused Ant and me a great deal.
At 1:30 Ant and Joss return with I Know I Khan victoriously waving the carnet papers. “Another 10 minutes” had apparently gone on for about four hours, until the chief customs official had taken an interest in a rugby ball that one of our sponsors, Sid’s had given to us and then decided he wanted my Mongol Rally t-shirt. Ant and Joss had little choice but to give it to him.
So we are on our way again — behind schedule, but on our way. Driving through a hot, hazy, barren landscape. Arid flatland leads to hills that have the appearance of giant dusty earthworks. We pass through a small, deserted town where three men stand at the side of the road slaughtering a goat. Suspended upside down, head missing, blood ebbing from the carcass to a concrete drain below.
Our little convoy enters the city of Tabriz during late afternoon. The driving is manic, but we are now officially famous. People lean out of other vehicles to shout or wave at us. Pedestrians stop and gaze or bellow greetings that disappear into our slipstream. We spend an hour wandering through the maze of ornate Kasbah tunnels savouring the sensory assault before driving out of town to the all-but-dry Gori Gol wetlands reserve. After a brief interlude with a snake that takes a distinct liking to the shade provided by I Am Sure I Khan, we set up camp and eat pasta under the stars.
The trotters of Tabriz Kasbah
The only just wet wetlands of Gori Gol.
July 25th 2013 – Iran
As we close in on Tehran there are three notable changes:
1. The heat is stifling. The air vents in our car have turned into mini hand dryers more effective the any Dyson Blade. When I leave the car any part of my body that has been in contact with the chair is soaked with sweat.
2. The air quality has deteriorated. Mountains and buildings appear slowly from the smoggy haze that shrouds the city and the surrounding landscape.
3. We have now transformed into full-time superstars.
Driving into Tehran is an intense experience. I hadn’t understood that in Iran the white lines aren’t lane markers but in fact denote where the middle of your car should be. I also hadn’t realized that the indicators (turning lights) were not part of the mechanical makeup of Iranian vehicles. The whole experience is intensified by the drivers and the passengers of other vehicles, or pedestrians, or all the passengers on the bus, waving and shouting or trying to hold conversations as they draw level with our cars. The excitement seems to get the better of them. I lost count of how many times all three cars have nearly met early ends at the hands of over-friendly Iranian drivers who suddenly swerve into the front of us as they pull away. They seem ecstatic that the funny foreigners in their funny tiny cars should be visiting Tehran. Or it might just be that Thomas looks like Joffrey, out of “Game Of Thrones.” Perhaps “Game of Thrones” is exceptionally popular in Iran.
Day 13 – Police
July 26th 2013 – Tehran
Tehran is much bigger city than I had expected. Ant, winner of the 2013 Mr Lavish of Kuala Lumpur title, has booked us into the splendid five-star Espinas accommodation. In fairness to him he has taken finances into account, as there is a Ramadan deal on. The size of Tehran becomes apparent when one of the young ladies behind the front desk of the hotel proudly informs me that a local tourist attraction is only 20 minutes away. “Which way should I walk?” I innocently ask. “By taxi, sir, not walking,” she manages to splutter out as she laughs in my face.
We have just one day in Tehran, and we all do our best to explore the city. I do so in a photographic capacity and the rest of the group do so on a tour organized and led by the hotel concierge. Tehran is not what any of us were expecting. Despite visiting varying mosques and palaces, I don’t feel any of us get the most from Tehran, which obviously needs more than a day to get to the heart of.
Half way through the morning I unexpectedly bump into my Khan teammates on their tour. I join the for a couple of hours as we are visiting the same places. The guide/concierge and his driver turn out to be quite a double act. The driver: a tall, thin, bearded man sporting gold-rimmed Ray Bans whose girlfriend has dumped him today because he decided to come out with us instead of her owns a Land Rover Defender — a fake one, and not a new fake one. Virtually no piece of the Defender’s dashboard was operative. The guide is a small man called Kesra who looks typically Iranian: olive skin, large nose and short thick hair. He turns out to be useful as a guide and very capable in the fixing department. It becomes apparent that if there is anything we want he can get it. We want alcohol.
Travel photography is a funny game. One thing that is not immediately apparent to the uninitiated is the cat-and-mouse game of permissions. In the morning I visited the wonderful Imamzadeh Saleh mosque, which on arrival I was immediately informed I could not photograph. Now, if you give up that easily you will get nowhere. Having assessed that the light would be better in the evening I decided to return later, which I did. With some difficulty and the assistance of an English speaker I gained access to a good location outside the mosque’s grounds. Even so we had to ask mosque security, but this time they assented. Perched four floors up on a ledge, I had been shooting for 15 minutes when I heard a kerfuffle behind me. Three uniformed men appeared, out of breath and sweaty obviously having run up the stairs. They aggressively shout at me. It was very clear they wanted me to stop, which I do. They then demand that I give them all my film! My translator friend, who happens to work for the location we are on top of, explains that there is no film. A brief pause in proceedings is followed by a new order. I now am expected to delete all the pictures and they demand that I show them as I do so. Now I am not the brightest spark but it has already dawned on me they may not be that familiar with digital technology. Having semi deleted the images I am then frogmarched from the premises. I am afraid my translator friend will lose his job.
I take a cab to my next destination, and as I am shooting I notice a small man with a large grey beard on a moped watching me. I am accustomed to being studied as I work. As I pack up he pulls closer and starts to ask me questions. Again, not unusual. What is unusual is the manner in which he is asking them, stern faced and direct: “Why are you in Iran?” “Why are you taking photographs?” “How long do you plan to stay?” “Where are you staying?” I deal with all of these in a friendly manner and hail a cab. The man helps me negotiate with the cab and then winks at me. Every part of me is telling me something is wrong. I jump in the cab and leave the situation behind. Except I don’t. The man immediately pulls out and follows us. Every turn we make he mimics. When we get lost he pulls alongside and helps with directions.
When we stop at the hotel he stops too. I quickly pay the cabbie, try to play it cool by thanking the moped man for his help, and make for the hotel. As my hands reach out for the large glass revolving door I hear a whistle. He is standing astride the moped and beckoning me back. I have very little choice but to return. More questions follow: When will I be leaving? Who am I with? “Where do I live? He then tells me to write down my name and my telephone numbers. I start to do so but I have had enough and turn the questioning round: Who is he? What is his name? For whom does he work? Why does he want my number? He is, apparently, Hussein and he works for the “Post” and he wants my numbers in case he visits England. He has a cousin in Manchester, he tells me. During our five-minute “chat” his serious expression and manner never err. Eventually he pulls away. I don’t like it, not one bit.
Things we have learnt:
- Iranian money is very difficult to understand.
- It is tricky to sleep when you constantly expect the secret police to come crashing through the door.
This picture does not exist…repeat does not exist.
Tehran at night
Day 14 – Forest
July 27th 2013 – Caspian coast
Gorged on a buffet breakfast we once again take position in our little cars. The passenger seat of I Think I Khan is devoid of Ant. Work commitments have demanded he fly home for a week. Our convoy pulls out of Tehran with the sounds of salutations and horns ringing in our ears. We head up into the mountains. The road snakes through the rock faces, a mountain river accompanying us, as we carve our way past makeshift mosques and tiny mining communities on our way to the Caspian
coast. The blue skies fade as the mountains flatten and a sultry grey firmament hangs over us. We search the supposedly beautiful beach for a place to swim and camp. What we find is a flat scrubby marshland unsuitable for even a night’s habitation. We are forced to head for higher ground and eventually pitch camp in a small clearing. Idyllic, until we discover this is the main road to a chicken farm. Lorries noisily steam up the rough stone path throughout the night.
Little bit blowy at Emamzadeh Hashem
Day 15 – England
July 28th 2013 – Iran/Turkmenistan border
Whether it was the lorries, the heat, the noises in the night or just the general discomfort, I don’t know, but some combination managed to rob us of a good night’s sleep. Momentarily we are vaguely cheered by the latest of Dave’s gadgets, an electric shower, but as we set off we are all tired. I Know I Khan has also been a little tired of late, and noisy. Joss assures us it is a bearing, and we stop at Grogan to have it replaced. After 40 minutes of stern assessment and numerous Iranian mechanics fiddling with I Know I Khan’s wheels, they determine that no action is necessary.
After a disappointing trip to Gonbad-e-Kavus Funerary tower, the discovery of a café serving food in the middle of the day during Ramadan — albeit behind newspapered windows — was most welcome. After lunch we head onwards and our road suddenly swerves down to the bottom of a hidden valley. Golden steppes and gullies of the Golestan National Park line our path for an hour until we meander uphill. At the brow, for all the world, we could be in England again. Over 4,000 miles driving, and we are suddenly surrounded by hedgerows, brambles and patchwork fields.
Camping on concrete at a border crossing turns out to be surprisingly comfortable. This is what we have been forced to do. The idea was to meet Joss, whom had gone on before us to find a camping spot, on the road after Quchan. Not only had we not been able to find this road — fortuitously an English-speaking Iranian pulled up on a moped as we pored over the maps and kindly guided us to the correct route — but the road had turned out to be much longer than we expected. In the darkness there was no sign of Joss. Eventually we arrive at the border crossing and find a jovial and most helpful group of bored border guards. Unfortunately their phone calls to the hotel — 100 meters into the crossing, where Joss is currently situated — reveal only that it is shut. So here we are, tents on a concrete path, outside a hotel in the Iranian-to-Turkmenistan border crossing, cooking pasta on a camping stove.
Car wheels can be fascinating.
First camel of the trip.
Day 16 – No Photos
July 29th 2013 – Ashgabat
One guard has his head in I Am Sure I Khan’s roof box, while another is rifling through bags in the boot. The latter raises his head and holds up a couple of small white cylindrical objects before sniffing them and looking quizzically at Dave. “Ladies’ stuff”, Dave explains. The guard seems to understand this and immediately drops them and forgoes the rest of the search. Another guard has discovered a football in I Know I Khan’s roof box, and he and I are now kicking this to each other across the tarmac. As with the Iranian border, it has already become clear that it is officially part of the border guard job description to support Chelsea.
We had been warned that this will be a long crossing and it is proving to be so. The process goes something like this: Passport check, letters of invitation, visas, bank, car registration and insurance, bank, customs administration, customs car check. After the visas stage we tried driving out of the compound, but this simply caused a lot of men in uniform to wave their arms and shout at us.
After five hours we finally emerge into a small hill top car park where Murat, our guide, is waiting by his people carrier to lead our cars down the hill into Ashgabat. After a mile or so I attempt to take a picture. Murat is a tall, thin man who moves and drives laboriously slowly. However, my exit from the car with a camera brings about quite a change in his character. Seldom has a man U-turned a minivan and headed back uphill with such speed and alacrity. “No photo,” he says, a phrase I would hear a lot over the next day. As we continue the journey to the city Thomas and I note a fence that follows the line of the road. Cameras are positioned every 20 meters and a guard posts stand on top of every hill.
Ashgabat — or Dubai Disney Vegas Land, as it should be known — is incredible. I have been to a lot of cities, but never have I been to one where so many of the fountains are functional. Palatial high-rise marble buildings line vast avenues that extend into the distance. It seems impossible to believe that there are enough wealthy people to occupy what I assume is first-class accommodation. Murat allows us to leave the car and take photographs. Despite photography being permitted in this area, we are watched by a policeman the second we leave the vehicle. This may just be paranoia on my part, as we are gazed at by just about everybody in this part of the world. There are very few people on the ultra clean streets, but the roads are packed with shiny modern cars. At the city centre, a vast marble column with a globe at its summit stands in the middle of the road, and marble palaces with golden domes shimmer at its base. Every corner and roundabout has at least two policemen and is very definitely a “no photo” area.
Joss, Dave and Thomas decide to leave Ashgabat and drive for four hours into the night to visit the Darvaza crater, a huge gas crater lit by the Russians. I desperately want to join them on this adventure but I know we only have two days in Turkmenistan, so I opt to explore Ashgabat a little more. A taxi picks me up from the hotel. The driver, a small 50-year-old man with more gold teeth than real, drives for 20 yards before switching the radio on very loud to some terrible 1990s dance music. He turns and grins broadly me at me and then punches the air rhythmically “Eh? Eh?” he questions. It is easiest just to affirm that I am enjoying his musical taste very much.
As dusk falls, it is evident that every building, monument and palace is illuminated and all the bulbs work. As the temperature drops, the parks become crowded with groups of people who sit and talk and eat whilst little children run and play under the sprinklers. Everyone seems happy.
Things we have learnt:
- Turkmenistan women all wear traditional costume. It can be of any colour, is ankle length and reminiscent of a kimono with Peruvian patterning round the collar. An African-style head piece is also often worn. Turkmen women can be very beautiful.
The subject of my first “No Photos” and you can see why! Maybe the guide was simply trying to bring to my attention that it was a rubbish photo.
Sunset over Ashgabat
It is a little known fact that President Niyazov has a pigeon on his head at all times. Ashgabat.
White marble buildings of Berzengi. Ashgabat.
“I don’t know mate it just landed ere alf an hour ago.” Arch of Neutrality, Ashgabat.
Turkmen girls in earring size order.
July 30th 2013 – Mary
The road from Ashgabat to Mary is pristine. Well, at least the first 20 kilometres are.
Achmed is my guide today. He has perfect English as long as the word you want is ‘yes’. Achmed has proved to be a very safe driver and has stayed well within the very low speed limit. At our last stop I made a foot-on-the-floor motion. Achmed understood this and obliged. About 400 meters later the road veered sharply to the left and turned into a very different sort of road. As I slam on the breaks and go through the gears to narrowly avoid hitting a barrier it becomes apparent it is now the kind of road, a road where danger lurks round every corner. Except there aren’t very many corners, so danger has been forced to relocate to all the straights as well. I know little of road construction but I am pretty sure, especially when you’re laying down a road in a hot country, it is pretty imperative to use material that doesn’t melt. This particular road has at some stage become soft — so soft that huge ruts have been created. Fortunately the rutted stretches are interspersed with massive potholes. There are no rules to this road. If one section is less eroded then that is where you drive, regardless of whether it’s your side.
I Know I Khan, which is the car I am driving, requires new shocks and is the only one of the Khan cars that is not four-wheel drive. I Know I Khan is not enjoying this road. There are constant decisions to be made: Should I swerve to miss the pothole and possibly end up on a collision course with a lorry? Or should I slam on the breaks and risk becoming far more familiar with the driver behind me? Or maybe I should take on the pothole, which will probably throw me in front of the lorry anyway. For eight hours we grind our way to Mary. Somewhere there is a fire, and smoke hangs everywhere in the air, softening the sunset to an eerie yellow glow. Just before dusk the road eases a little and we pass under Mary’s enormous entry arch
Achmed guides us straight to our hotel for the night. I am relieved to find I Think I Khan and I Am Sure I Khan parked in front of the hotel. Joss informs me they only arrived five minutes before us and goes on to tell me that the hotel receptionist is “right up my street” and then pulls the knob off the toilet door.
After a quick shower I locate the rest of my team sitting at a table on the patio of the Russian restaurant that neighbours the hotel. We eat dinner together and drink vodka and beer before all turning to bed, tired but happy.
Things we have learnt:
- The blue triangular signs with the word PYGG inscribed on them mean police!
- I have lost count of how many dead dogs I have seen.
The road from Ashgabat to Mary.
Day 18 – Dates
July 31st 2013 – Turkmen/Uzbek border
Ancient Merv really is the most excellently named mud ruins I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. Unfortunately Achmed does not share my pleasure in seeing and photographing Ancient Merv. He has taken to looking at his watch and repeating the word “Farap”, our destination for the day. I was hoping to meet the other Khans at Merv, but seemingly running out of time to make it to Farap we decide to leave.
The road from Mary to Farap is, surprisingly, in far better condition. We make good time. What is noticeable about the middle of Turkmenistan are the vast swathes of nothingness. The land is now desert, but what is technically known as ugly desert. Sparse thorny-looking bushes cling to the sand desperately trying to stave off their metamorphosis to tumbleweed. It also seems that all the world’s haze likes to holiday in this area. Rather unexpectedly for such an arid environment, muddy-looking rivers occasionally intersect the road. Here are the only signs of life we see. The river water has been used to irrigate a few channels, and the reeds that these give life to are being harvested by leather-faced people who have hidden as much as their flesh from the sun as they can. They look a little like Sand People, only their eyes are visible from beneath their hooded cloth wraps.
A man in yet another booth is demanding money from me. I am not sure why he wants the money and I have just paid a hard-faced policeman in a booth two yards away 20 manat. I bend down to peer through the window into the gloom. In the darkness is a pot-bellied man wearing only a vest. I don’t like this. I resolve to pay him immediately and hand him my last money, which equates to $12. At the border there is no sign of the other Khans, but the guards point excitedly through the border and say ‘”friends”. I guess they must have gone through. This worries me a little as I have no money and Joss is the official owner of I Know I Khan so he needs to be present or the car insurance will not be valid.
The border controllers don’t mention Chelsea but they do introduce themselves as Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp. Inside the border there is no sign of the Khans. The normal rigmarole ensues. Whilst my car details are being noted in a large A4 book I do my best to look at previous entries. I can see no Khans, although several other Rally teams have gone through today. With only one further passport stamp required there is still no sign of my teammates. Watching the road nervously from a window for signs of my teammates I chat with two other Mongol teams, Raiders of Ulaanbaatar and Kangaroos. They do their best to assure me all will be ok and offer to lend me money. No longer sure what to do and with no signs of the Khans I approach the desk slightly downcast for my last stamp. It is now that the decision is made for me. The passport officials find something amusing — always a worrying sign — push my passport in my face and point to my Uzbek visa. The entry date is tomorrow. D’oh.
Me posing with Merv.
Thomas, all the Khan cars and the hut that provided us with some shelter at the Turkmenistan – Uzbekistan border.
Day 19 – Latif
August 1st 2013 – Uzbekistan – somewhere
We are trying to find somewhere to camp in Uzbekistan. We have driven about a mile up a dirt track. We are all tired. No sooner had I exited the border gates yesterday back to Turkmenistan than the other Khans arrived. We camped in and around a small, disused hut. The heat and the sand didn’t make for a good night’s sleep. Today we are exhausted and this road is proving fruitless. We pull over to discuss our options.
A small white Daewoo van – a type commonly used as taxis in this part of the world — immediately stops beside us. A small, stocky man is becoming quite animated. Dave appears from his conversation with the man and informs us we can’t camp here. He seems to have determined from the dialogue that this road is used by heavy farming vehicles throughout the night. The man and his tall associate have exited their car and the small man is peering into I Think I Khan, in which Joss and I are seated. It becomes clear, mainly through a series of hand gestures, he would like us to stay at his house. It doesn’t look like he is taking no for an answer.
Ten minutes and several dirt tracks later we are being directed to manoeuvre our cars over a small brook into the entrance of a mud-walled barn. The entrance leads to a small courtyard behind the barn, and next to that stands a building that is obviously the man’s house. He and his wife are laying out rugs and cushions in a neat square and excitedly beckoning us to sit down. No sooner are we seated than food is thrown down before us. Latif is the man’s name and his excitement and pride at having the strange bunch of foreigners as his guests is palpable. He is hurriedly cutting up tomatoes and peppers and mixing them with what looks like yoghurt whilst instructing his wife to cut melons and bring chai. The evening extends before us, the food is all home produced and basic but delicious, and the vodka is ceremonial and free flowing. Latif excitedly invites more and more of his friends over until there are at least 15 of them and us. Numerous phone calls are being made to other friends and the phone passed to us to prove we exist. The obvious surprise on the other end of the phone line causes huge amounts of mirth. Gerant, Latif’s tall associate, makes cycling actions and points to the bikes on the back of I Know I khan. We detach one and he disappears to a mythical supermarket and appears 10 minutes later with a large bottle of beer. Suggestions are being made regarding Thomas and Latif’s attractive 20-year-old daughter. Numerous pictures are taken. Whiskey is dragged from under one of the seats of I Am Sure I Khan and a bowls of flavoursome rice and vegetables are placed in front of us. We drink, laugh and make broken conversation until what feels like deep into the night before the rugs are rearranged into mattresses and we sleep in a row, the five of us and Latif, under the stars in Uzbekistan.
I have woken up to far better sights. Turkmenistan/Uzbek border
We stopped at Bukhara for lunch. Children love Bukhara’s ancient architecture.
August 2nd 2013 – Samarkand
If Fiat is ever in the market for an Uzbek to endorse their cars, they really need look no further than Latif. Joss has vacated the hot seat of I Think I Khan and been replaced by Latif. I am in the passenger seat and have been given strict instructions by Joss: “I am not being funny, but don’t let him break it”.
Far from breaking the car, Latif is driving very sensibly. This is mainly because this moment could well be the happiest of his life and he intends to make it last as long as possible. He has the window wound right down and is almost leaning out of the car as he drives. He waves, shouts and gesticulates to everyone we pass and even a few animals. No one in the village is going to miss him driving the strange little car and leading the even stranger bunch of foreigners, his new friends, out of his village. All except one woman, whom he makes it clear — using the universal language of signs — is a sour-faced cow.
We wave our goodbyes to Latif at the motorway and take its bumpy, eroded course to Samarkand. Yesterday’s desert has given way to lush irrigated fields worked by bent figures, lifting themselves to full height to gaze at us as we pass. Donkeys carry men and drag impossibly overladen carts along the hard shoulder, and the soft morning sun paints everything it touches a golden yellow.
Samarkland is a touristy town full of brightly frescoed mosques and mausoleums. We stop to ask directions at a restaurant and a man in his twenties with a startling high voice leads us to our hotel. The day has become too hot for Englishmen and lady, plus we are all tired from our crack of dawn rise. We recline on cushions in the shade of the hotel courtyard and take tea and watermelon. The hotel has a high terrace to which we adjourn to study our road maps. A refreshing wind and cool beers help the midday pass, and when the temperature finally drops we set out to explore Samarkand.
Latif in restrained mode
The gang behind our sleeping area and blankets.
Backstreets of Samarkand and the Bibi-Khanym, Mosque
Woman selling Uzbek bread at Samarkand market
click pic for more
Day 21- Benzin
August 3rd Aug2013 – Termez
Ant is back and we are a whole team again. The breakfast table is laden with fruit, tea and sweet breads. As we eat the discussion turns to our route. Unfortunately the border we need to cross is shut, which means we must deviate from our initial plans if we are still to drive the Pamir highway. This notoriously hard and dangerous stretch of road has been one of the primary objectives for Ant and Dave since their first Mongol Rally discussions. Return flights and personal schedules may have to be changed but we resolve to try and drive the Pamir.
Since we arrived in Uzbekistan there has been one major difficulty: Benzin! That’s petrol to you and me. The major problem with benzin is there ain’t none. Not one gas station we have pulled into has had any benzin. They have only had gas, as the name would suggest I guess. Uzbekistan is a major natural-gas producer and therefore basically everything runs on gas. The way to buy benzin here is from individuals, and the way you know if an individual has benzin is by looking for a bottle placed on a brick by the side of the road. If you are eagle-eyed enough to spot one of these bottles, the correct course of action is then to pull over, be greeted by an excitable child, wait for them to get an adult, haggle over price, give way, get your funnel and let them fill your vehicle with as much benzin as they have. Which is never enough.
We drive further and further south toward the Afghan border city of Termez. Impossibly there is yet another increase in the amount of donkeys. I had no idea they were still so popular. Cows are now joining in on dogs’ fun and games, waiting until you are virtually on top of them before deciding to cross the road. Nearly dry rivers arch out of the barren lands and run alongside us. To our surprise the river beds are populated by cars and lorries. Young and old men alike gather up the precious water from the rivers and dash it against their vehicles before returning to the road, a new layer of dust already in place.
In the soft evening light the landscape and everything in it has taken on a single hue, a dusty pale brown colour. Brown mud huts snuggle against the brown undulating hills, and the brown faces of the herders and shepherds follow our course as we momentarily touch their lives. We turn off before Termez, stopping at a small village to fill our water tanks and buy beer. In the last evening light we turn left onto a dusty track and pitch our tents on an arid riverbed. Ant brought cheddar with him from KL, which we slice onto our pasta before leaning back with beers in our hands to count the shooting stars.
Looking for a camping spot. Near Termez
Day 22 – Milkshakes
August 4th 2013 – Dushanbe
The manner in which people greet us as we drive has changed in Uzbekistan. It is difficult to put our fingers on how exactly but it is somehow more intimidating. Cars quietly pull alongside us, the occupants unsmiling as they strain to catch a glimpse of us before the driver aggressively punches the horn. They pull away without so much as a glimmer of friendliness in their expression. This is odd, because our experience outside cars has been of a friendly people who are desperate to talk and find out about us or help in any way they can.
There is definitely something different about breakfast this morning. It could be the raised lump of mud we are using as a table and food preparation area. Perhaps it’s the bread and beans that Ant is preparing. Maybe it’s the three-in-one coffee and tea. Or possibly it’s the small Uzbek man squatting two meters behind us with a shepherding stick across his lap.
He is in no way unfriendly, but it would be a struggle to say he was actually friendly. So far he hasn’t smiled or said anything. We have offered him tea, which he drank, and bread and beans. He demolished the bread but suspected the beans poisoned and left them completely untouched. I tried to explain they were Heinz but it made no difference. I am forced to assume he is either a fan of Tesco’s own brand or a total bean avoider. Either way he was happy to squat a couple meters behind us and watch us. If that is his bag we will just have to put up with it.
The border between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan really is rubbish. It’s so rubbish they haven’t even bothered to construct an actual road. A dilapidated half-dirt, half-eroded road guides us from one border to another. The Tajiks seem keen on keeping all foreigners waiting for no apparent reason other than it amuses them, or it is hot outside so they can’t be bothered to check the cars. We eventually pass into Tajikistan and the road alternates between, dirt, gravel and immaculate tarmac. Just as you become accustomed to the tarmac without warning it stops and the road returns to being a bumpy dirt track. Locals drive at top speed, rushing past us and beeping as they do so. Blue-doored single-floor buildings line the road. They have a rustic charm and are obviously still occupied, as families sit in their doorways. Outlines of mountains are now visible through the haze and what look like cool mountain rivers intersect the road. Groups of dark-skinned boys hurl themselves high into the air and land with an enormous splash and shouts of glee into the torrents. When they spot our cars they gather on the roadside in glistening groups and hurl their arms into the air as we pass.
I never suspected I would ever see the inside of a Tajikistan hospital. As I lie with a needle in my arm, I survey the ward. It is white, with orange curtains, and the round light fittings sit slightly proud of their holes. The most noticeable thing is the lack of patients, doctors and nurses. In the 10- to 15-bed ward I am the only patient. There is one doctor and one nurse. Despite the language gap, I can tell both are irritated with me as they want to go home.
About 2 hours ago we arrived in Dushanbe and immediately set about lunching. Having bolted my lunch I left my teammates to finish theirs whilst I rushed off to try and take a few photos of Dushanbe. Quite suddenly I realized I was in trouble. My hands became very itchy very quickly, and with a few minutes I was aware I didn’t have enough energy to make it back to our meeting place. Enough or not I was going to have to, so I packed up and struggled through the sun and eventually found Julie, Dave and Thomas in a shop where we had this conversation:
“Are you all right?”
“No I am not.”
Sometimes basic conversation covers it. An adjoining restaurant to the shop let me sit in their air-conditioned lobby before allowing me to spend 45 minutes in their bathroom throwing up and putting ice and water over myself. Given the way I was feeling and the severity of the Pamir highway, the drive we are about to undertake, it seemed judicious to have myself checked over. That is why I am now prostrate on an immaculately clean bed with two vaguely annoyed people pacing the ward and looking anxiously at their watches and the drip that is feeding into my arm.
We delayed our departure from Dushanbe for a day, and at 10 o’clock in the evening Thomas and I venture out to find food. Which we do in SFC chicken restaurant, a lawsuit waiting to happen. Chatting with the waitresses and drinking milkshakes proves a pleasant end to a surprising day.
Goats love a photo op.
Day 23 – Knockin
August 5th 2013 – Kulob
“Is that a new bang?” I calmly enquire.
“Yes,” Thomas calmly responds.
Either we have run over a midget who is now wedged under the car and repeatedly hitting the undercarriage with great ferocity, or there has been some sort of technical malfunction. The best thing for us to do is to stop and all get down on our hands and knees and watch the underside of the car. Joss wipes off his knees as he stands up.
“That isn’t right,” he says. “Needs to go to a garage.”
So back we head to Kulob, where two earnest and strangely silent mechanics remove the wheel and confirm our suspicions. The bearing we tried to have replaced in Iran is finally kaput. The mechanics seem pleased and indicate it is no problem to replace. Except 10 minutes later it is a problem, a very big problem. The bearing is part of the wheel hub assembly and needs to be bought as one piece. Oddly there aren’t any Fiat Panda dealers in Tajikistan. Dave and I retreat to the local Internet café to try to procure the hub assembly and have it immediately DHL’ed. After a brief fight with Skype we contact the UK and U.S. dealers. We then attempt to contact just about any other Fiat office in the world. When all else fails I text my dad.
Back at the garage there is talk amongst the locals of a direct link from Moscow to Dushanbe and calls are made to locate the part. One thing is for sure: Nothing will happen today. Joss and Ant disappeared a few hours ago to set up camp, but it seems there has been some miscommunication. After a couple of hours waiting for their return Dave, Julie, Thomas and I are forced to search for a hotel. A stocky young man called Latif who thinks I am 25, which is odd as I think he is 25 and in fact we are 40 and 18 respectively, drives us to a horrible 70s Russian-looking building that proclaims itself a hotel. The man behind the desk makes Basil Fawlty seem content. However we are tired and check in. A lady who we assume is his wife appears out of the gloom and shows us to our rooms. Shortly after seeing our rooms and discovering the curtains fall down and there are no light bulbs or running water, we decide to vacate. Today hasn’t gone well.
Ant and Joss giving lollipops to locals! Nurek Resevoir.
Bearing up. Kulob.
Day 24 – C***ts
August 6th 2013
Team harmony isn’t exactly at the levels it should be this morning. Rant and Rave are back for the first time since Turkey. We hold a brief meeting to discuss our options regarding I Know I Khan. It takes a couple of minutes to discern that we are in fact all c***ts and it is in fact everybody’s fault except the person speaking at that precise moment. The mechanics look on with some fascination.
We have three options:
1. Order a new assembly hub. This would more than likely take a week to arrive and some of our team really don’t have that time.
2. Ditch I Know I Khan. This would mean one less car for charity, and we would probably be unable to drive the Pamir highway with three people in each car. Plus we are not sure if we can actually ditch it in Tajikistan. It might be attached to us via our passports.
3. Bodge a bearing. The mechanics seem to have found a way to do so, but Fiat have strongly advised against this for safety reasons.
This adventure was never going to be easy, and with that in mind and in the spirit of adventure we decide to see exactly how bodgy the mechanics’ work will be. One of them disappears to Dushanbe in a taxi to have a bearing compressed into the hub assembly. He returns five hours later with a bearing that looks unbelievably good, particularly to people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Within an hour it is fitted, as is the wheel. I have test-drive I Know I Khan and the new bearing around the block several times hitting as many potholes as possible. All seems good.
So remarkably off we go again. All three cars climb the hill that leads to the road that leads to the Pamir highway. I Think I Khan and I Am Sure I Khan both overheat on the way up, but the brave I Know I Khan struggles to the summit.
At the summit we get our first view of Afghanistan. Our objective today is to make it beyond the part of the road that runs alongside the river that acts as the Tajikistan-Afghan border. The hope is that we can do this before dark and therefore avoid being kidnapped or blown up by landmines as we bang our tent pegs in. From the minute we start over the summit the landscape and road are amazing. The ground crumbles away at the roadside and vertical drops are ominously close. Lorries and taxis in the form of people carriers stream past us churning balls of dust, seemingly unaware of the danger. As much as there is danger there is beauty. The rolling hills give way to rugged cliffs, which in turn give way to a massive, lush, green alluvial plain that extends to the sharply rising red-earth mountains of Afghanistan. We zigzag our way down into the plain, where the road meets the river, and side-by-side we plunge into steeply rising rock faces. The road itself has become rocky and unreliable, often no more than a potholed scarred track, until quite suddenly we hit several kilometres of pristine tarmac.
Afghanistan is only a stone’s throw away from us at all times on this drive and it becomes clear we are not going to make it to our chosen destination. Ant spots a homestay that seems a far more sensible option than erecting our tents in the semi-darkness. It proves a great find and a perfect end to what has been a very hard day. Six mattresses are laid out in a large room where we are to sleep. Our explorations reveal a lack of shower but do reveal a bathing hole in the river. So in the dusk we submerge ourselves in the icy waters of the river before being cooked fish and chips on an open fire whilst we recline on cushions under a huge fig tree.
Start of the Pamir. The road to Khorog.
A good end to a traumatic day.
Day 25 – Hospital
August 7th 2013 – Khorog
It is a little known fact that this part of Tajikistan is home to 93.7% of the world’s dust. It will be significantly less when we leave, as everything in all our cars is now entirely covered in a red layer of it, including us.
The drive to Khorog is spectacular. Refreshed by morning ablutions in the river, which according to my map may well be the River Gunt (please let it be so), we take to the road once again. The road climbs and falls, twists and turns, but is always accompanied by the murky torrent that crashes into submerged boulders and smashes into the riverbanks. Sharp rock faces and parched mountains rise rapidly either side of the river. Villages of mud huts surrounded by oases of lush vegetation cling to plateaus on the hillside or valley floor. Our road is mirrored by what looks like a mud track on the Afghan side. It is cut into mountain and rock alike and at several points appears to dip below the river level. A track occasionally branches off the Afghan and takes an unbelievably precipitous path up the mountainside to goodness knows where. We are fairly sure it must be to a Taliban hideout! The Tajikistan road is fairly well trod/driven, but for all my looking during the drive I see only a single solitary figure on a moped using the Afghan path.
At a checkpoint, a Dutch motorcyclist assists Thomas and me with directions: “Whatever you do, don’t cross the river.” One hour later we are back at the checkpoint crossing the river, which was only a tributary of the Gunt. We are now substantially behind our teammates. The road rises and falls again, and new rock faces loom before us, before quite suddenly the river calms and we are surrounded by green fields and golden stacks of hay. Beautiful girls in colourful dress walk hand-in-hand through the villages, while older women squat by the side of the road cleaning dishes in irrigation trenches and children stare at our cars in amazement.
Things we have learnt:
• If your tripod falls over on the edge of a cliff with a raging torrent of a river below, it is best to grab one of the slowly disappearing legs. Even if you do achieve this, as I did, it will not stop your 70-200mm lens from breaking. I am not sure how well my lens is working, but I know the image stabiliser is not and the auto focus is now dodgy. I think it looks OK optically but it is hard to be sure.
Our washing hole. Pyandzh River (becomes Gunt) separates Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Village in Afghanistan near Jamarj-e Bala from Tajikistan.
Thomas in I Know I Khan crossing Vanch River.
Day 26 – Homestay Tearoom Fish
August 8th 2013 – Alichur
On the map Jelandy boasts some hot springs. In reality it is a small group of disparate houses that don’t even have a town sign to unify or identify them. Unfortunately when we set out from Khorog this morning this is where we had agreed to meet. This is also where we failed to meet.
I am assuming that this is why I am now at the top of the Koy-Tezek pass on the Pamir highway on my own. I Know I Khan has been behaving very well since the bodged bearing, but for about the seventh time in the last couple of hours she has got a little hot. This would be less frustrating if I wasn’t at 4,272 meters and feeling more than a little unusual. I open the door and walk slowly to the bonnet before returning to my seat with equal measure. I haven’t seen another car in about an hour and I am not sure I Know I Khan is going to make it over the small climb that lays ahead of me. Ten minutes later I Know I Khan’s temperature seems to have dropped to an acceptable level to attempt the assent. The climb itself should be no trouble — a small matter of 50 meters — but two-thirds of the way up the rutted road is covered by a four or five meter stretch of sand. I Know I Khan is only a two-wheel drive and is not keen on sand. The small sandy section of road looms ever larger as I struggle up the hill. I feel the rocky track change to soft sand under I Know I Khan’s wheels. All is going well until I feel large rut that was submerged in the sand hit the undercarriage and momentarily pause our progress. Nothing for it but to put my foot to the floor. For two or three seconds I am a stationary sand storm. Just as it seems I am high and dry, a new noise emanates from below me. I Know I Khan has managed to dig deep enough to find some rocks. Her tyres grip and slowly – very, very slowly — her front wheels edge out of the sand and onto the track. We creep to the summit where I would have collapsed with relief except collapsing with relief would have been too tiring at this altitude. I just carry on driving.
Huge, jagged mountains rise out of the smooth desert. A vast snow-white pool stains the desert floor, the salty remnants of an evaporated lake. The track loops down to the desert floor, and I continue my journey hoping to find my teammates and benzin at the first village after the pass. Unfortunately there is no sign of my teammates at Alichur. There is, however, benzin and a homestay. The sun will be setting in a couple of hours, and not knowing the condition of the roads I feel it would be unwise to attempt to drive at night. Three large words are painted on a nearby white wall ‘Homestay tearoom fish’, enough to lure anyone in and I head for an opening in the wall. I am greeted and booked into the homestay by a young lady called Aisha. Maybe my perception is tainted by relief having survived todays’ hair-raising drive, my first experience of high altitude and seemingly being abandoned by my teammates, but Aisha has one of the most beautiful and welcoming smiles I have ever seen.
Alichur is a mishmash of white or mud single-floor buildings that dogs and cows roam freely between. I am befriended by a young man called Daniel, who helps translate as I talk to villagers. He offers me tea at his family home. I remove my shoes, then I am ushered through a small dark hallway into a large, dark room. The circumference is cushioned with the exception of one corner, where the stove sits. Daniel’s brother, Baha, sits cross-legged in the near darkness listening to loud rap music on his phone. And so it is that at 4,000 meters in Tajikistan in near dark, whilst Daniel’s mum prepares tea on a wood-burning stove I play Faithless on my iPhone to Baha.
A roadside village on the Pamir Highway near Khorog.
Lunar lanscape near Alichur, Pamir Highway.
A welcoming smile. Aisha in Alichur
A Tajik cooking stove. Daniel’s house Alichur
Day 27 – Lost
August 9th 2013 – Osh
Ant had warned us that the effects of altitude can be similar to having a panic attack. He proved to be remarkably accurate. Lying down to sleep is tantamount to lying down to seven hours of mild anxiety. It turns out that the symptoms of a panic attack are not conducive to sleep. Therefore I am very tired this morning. It is 6 a.m. and the soft morning light is shining through the smoke that gently rises from the metal tube chimneys of Alichur. The wide, muddy areas that pass for streets are empty except for a dog that sniffs the ground and ambles on. Grassy plains extend from the side of the road, petering out at the base of the mountains. Small marshy areas and lakes, still frozen from the cool night air, reflect the snowy caps.
The road is better than I imagined. Other than the normal bumps, ruts and potholes, it is tarmacked and smooth, and I make good time. Murgab is my first destination of the day. I am hoping that my teammates will have camped there. I arrive to find a larger town than Alichur but somehow more squalid in atmosphere. Finding none of my teammates I depart quickly, heading for the lake town of Karakul.
The high green plains have died away and the mountains and desert are increasingly lunar. Red and black rock now cuts into the sky and the mountainsides are etched with white and green veins. I haven’t seen another car in hours, and I am beginning to doubt if I am on the right road. There is only one, so it would have been one hell of a wrong turn. Another mountain pass and again the tarmac dies away to bone-shuddering track. Every bump and thud fill me with dread that I Know I Khan will finally have had enough, but she keeps going. Finally a glimpse of blue below the horizon: Lake Karakul. The tarmac returns and the road, which straightens out in a manner the Romans would have been proud of, and disappears into the distance.
Joss and Ant are looking tired but reclining on the cushions of the homestay and eating watermelon. Driving round the streets of Karakul, I had given up on being reunited and decided instead to check out the homestays. It was at this moment I noticed I Think I Khan parked in a side alley, with several men poking around under her hood. On enquiry I had been told that there was a problem, but not to worry: The Master, a pleased looking mechanic, was at work and I could find my friends in the homestay. An hour later, after the Master had weaved his magic, we set off together for Kyrgyzstan. A further two hours later, several river crossings and two of the most lax border controls I have ever been through — we had to wake them up – we were weaving our way down a muddy wet road into Kyrgyzstan.
It is 6 o’clock when we enter the massive openness of the Alau Valley. The light is pale and muted, but the scenery is easily the most beautiful of our journey so far, utterly breathtaking. The Chong Alau Range fills my rear view mirror and the Kichi Alay Range my windscreen. We pass between the two on an elevated road through a massive grassy plain. No longer are there donkeys. Now there are men on horses, Asian cowboys herding their livestock and yurts sitting proud amongst the grassland looking as much as part of the natural habitat as the grass itself. Round faced children play in the dirt outside the yurts, their big brown eyes gazing in bewilderment at us as we pass. This is why I came to Mongolia!!
An early morning yoke in Alichur.
The long and not so winding Pamir Highway.
High altitude reflections.
A far braver man than me. Pamir Highway.
Alone at last.
Karakul and Lake Karakul.
Day 28 – Gosh
August 10th 2013 – Ashuut Pass
Osh is an easy place name to rhyme with. That is about as much as I know of Osh. A city even older than Rome, apparently, and the oldest in Asia. Our experiences there include: a cheap hotel, drinking some beer, a couple of packet of crisps — dried snack selection was poor in terms of both variety and taste — speaking to a Russian air pilot and leaving.
Here is something I never thought I would say: Kyrgyzstan may well be the most beautiful country I have ever been to. Unfortunately, I have no pictures to prove it, for two reasons: Our schedule didn’t allow us to stop and the weather was far from great. Despite the weather, Kyrgyzstan was still utterly amazing, more Middle Earth than the Middle Earth in “The Lord Of The Rings.” Huge green slopes sweep down from massive mountains. Tiny white yurts sit snuggly at the bottom of the vast slopes, smoke rising from their chimneys as washing lines adorned with colourful clothes sway in the breeze. Herds of wild horses and cattle appear as distant pinpricks on the precipitous inclines that weather-beaten men ride out to on stallions.
We reach the Too Ashuu Pass, an utterly breath taking road, a never-ending mass of coils. Each one seems to improve the view. As we descend it begins to rain. This is the first rain we have seen since Turkey, and it is not a nice sort of rain. It is exactly the sort of rain that no windscreen wiper setting on your car is designed for. It continues to rain in this manner until we set camp. At this point it rains a lot harder, exactly the sort of rain which would be covered by all windscreen wiper settings. Unfortunately (!) we are now stationary and huddled under the boot of I Am Sure I Khan shovelling noodles into our mouths in semi darkness before retiring for an early night.
Day 29 – Bumpy
August 11th 2013 – Almaty
I haven’t mentioned the police checks. Since we entered the ’Stans there have been a great deal of them. At first they ignored us, but of late they consistently pull one of our cars over.
A policeman with a fluorescent orange baton stands at the side of the road and will wave his baton in an ambiguous ushering motion if he would like you to stop. Once you are stopped he will completely ignore you for as long as possible. Eventually he will wander over to your car and say “passport”, which he will flick through seemingly just for his own enjoyment. Then he will say “machine passport”. This means car passport. Neither of the docs we hand them makes any sense to 90% of the policemen. The next step of the process is to have a conversation regarding our nationality, during which some sort of financial remuneration will be asked for. The correct way to avoid the fine is to say “Grand Britannia” quite loudly until it is understood where you originate from, and at that point you need to say the words “Manchester United”. The conversation then deviates and the fine will be forgotten. We are waved off with smiles.
I am looking at a policeman on the other side of the road at quite a large police checkpoint before the Kazakhstan border. When I return my gaze to the road I Am Sure I Khan is quite a lot larger in my vision than it should be. It also has two red lights twinkling at me. A good way to make an impression on a policeman who was going to ignore you is to slam into the back of your teammate’s car at quite high velocity. I Know I Khan’s brakes are not great at the best of times, but when you start braking as late as I did they just aren’t going to do the job. I Am Sure I Khan becomes increasingly large as the brakes squeal until there is a God-awful crunch. We are all OK, and on first inspection both cars seem to be running despite some superficial damage.
Unfortunately, the policeman is now very interested in us. Very interested indeed. We can see he is lining up for another favourite police word. He saunters over to us and waves his batons at both our cars and then he unleashes it: “problem”. We counter with one of our favourite expressions: “no problem”. But it just isn’t going to cut the mustard. He beckons us to his office, where he demands 2,000 som from each of us. Dave says “no”. I flick through my nearly empty wallet, and he immediately drops to 1,000 som each. Dave throws it on the table and we march off.
We cross to Kazakhstan with some difficulty, but once again football comes to the rescue, as the top customs official is a fan of the Premier League .
On the outskirts of Almaty it becomes clear that we weren’t as lucky with the crash as we had first perceived. I Know I Khan overheats on the forecourt of a petrol station. We strip the front end to find the front bumper severely buckled into the radiator, which in turn has stopped the fan working. We need a garage, and as luck would have it there is one 400 meters away. The mechanics take an initial look and inform us they’re closing soon, so we will have to wait till tomorrow. However, we can see one of them is very interested in us and the car, so we hang around until he starts fiddling inside the bonnet. One hour later he has fixed I Know I Khan and refuses payment other than a carton of cigarettes. We continue into Almaty, home of all the world’s prettiest women and a pizza that causes me to throw up all night.
Day 30 – Dull
August 12th 2013 – Ayagoz
The middle of Kazakhstan is absolutely fascinating for the first five kilometres, and then it is mind-numbingly boring.
It is a flat nondescript piece of land that refuses to undulate, change or offer anything of interest in any way for as long as you care to drive through it or look at it. If you are already feeling a little tired, this is dangerous. Your mind will start to wander on to important issues such as what happens to all the watermelons that aren’t sold. If Kazakhstan is anything to go by there must be millions, and as far as I am aware there are no watermelon by-products. They don’t even juice well, and comedy hats really aren’t that profitable.
As we pull into a garage a huge grey cloud that has been looming ominously over us unleashes its wrath. Shortly afterwards — and with Hardyesque symbolism — Joss and I Think I Khan reduce the population of the local feathered fraternity by one. Whilst on a perfectly flat piece of tarmac at around the 761st km of nothingness, I Know I Khan veers dramatically to the right. Something is most definitely wrong. A roadside inspection reveals the brake block is definitely out of position. A closer roadside inspection once the wheel is removed reveals the snub axle to be sheared off. This has two immediate effects: Dave puts the kettle on, and Joss stands motionless with a frowning expression and stares intently at the wheel for about two minutes.
Dimitri is a tall lean man with a shaved head and eyes that only ever momentarily alight on you even when you are in direct conversation. He is part of a two-car French-Kiwi team that stopped when they saw our stationary convoy. The thing about Dimitri is he is useful and kind and he speaks Russian. The latter of these is proving very helpful at the moment. He has already procured the services of two tow trucks and their drivers via a policeman, neither of which we use, and is currently in heated conversation with at least eight members of a local garage. It is unclear if they want to fix I Know I Khan, tow her, or if one of their brothers wants to buy her, but something is definitely going to happen.
What happens is:
- Bakdaulet, the brother of a small mechanic, arrives.
- Dimitri’s teammates get fed up with waiting for him and demand him back.
- Thomas jumps into I Am Sure I Khan with Dave and Julie and they continue onto the Russian border.
- I have to go to a place called a Notary with Bakdaulet to see if we can obtain the correct paperwork to sell I Know I Khan should she be defunct. We can’t.
It seems that Bakdaulet and his brother Baurzhan think they can fix I Know I Khan, but it will take some time — and we don’t have that time. The only option is to sell I Know I Khan to the brothers and hope they can eventually repair her. As we chat to them it starts to dawn on us that they might be able to implement a fix a lot quicker than they first suggested. Tentatively we try to back out of our deal to sell I Know I Khan. We do this by saying “machine, fix, Mongolia” and making a driving action. A spate of fevered activity leads to Joss and Baurzhan disappearing into town to find a different size bolt leaving Bakdaulet, Ant and I to throw stones at a nearby road sign. When Joss and Baurzhan return with the bolt I Know I Khan makes it about a kilometre up the road towards Ayagoz before her wheel falls off again and Joss and Baurzhan disappear again. It is now late and it is clear that even if we manage a fix we are not going anywhere tonight. Fortunately we are invited to be guests at Bakdaulet’s and Baurzhans’s family house.
Contemplation in a truck stop somewhere in the middle of Kazakhstan.
I Know I Khan’s resting place.
Bakdaulet and Baurzhan’s late night fix.
Day 31 – Paperwork
August 13th 2013 – Ayagoz
The evening at Bakdaulet’s house had been extremely pleasant. Ant, Joss and I were fed handsomely. Plates are apparently not en vogue in Kazakhstan. A large bowl/saucepan of food was placed in the middle of the table from which all the diners liberate forkfuls of food at their whim. Tea was supplied throughout the meal. Little bowls were constantly refilled and placed in front of us. A small amount of black tea from a pot was poured into the bowl and then a larger amount of milk, and finally the bowl was topped up from an electric hot water urn that stood at the head of the table like a tea Darlek.
The many garages and mechanic shops of Ayagoz could not provide a part that Joss had hoped would provide a workable fix, so we are officially a car down and Bakdaulet is a car up — if he can repair it.
Joss and Ant follow Dave, Julie and Thomas and continue onto Russia leaving me alone in Kazakhstan to attempt to glean the correct paperwork to allow me to leave the country without I Know I Khan and Bakdaulet to receive the vehicle as a gift. We spend the entire day traipsing from office to office to procure the documents but fail to attain anything that the authorities will deem official. Several phone conversations with the curt but kind Svetlana at the British consulate leave me in no doubt that I am not allowed to leave Kazakhstan without I Know I Khan. She is also very clear in reminding me that this is an ex soviet country and paperwork and procedures still take time, time I don’t have. Should I be caught I can expect to be here at least a month trying to attain the right paperwork. Svetlana advices me that the most judicious method for me to depart the country would be by flight from one of the major airports. It is extremely unlikely I will be asked to produce my entry declaration at an airport.
I think it is fair to say that I am not overly thrilled with the turn of events. I am now alone in a small town in the middle Kazakhstan without transport or support and will have to break the law in order to leave the country. My supposed team mates willingness to depart leaving me to resolve our now my issues is not what I would have expected at the outset of the Mongol Rally. I had envisaged a team cohesion that has never been present. Possibly my optimistic view was naive. With the exception of Joss I have never met any of my team mates prior to the rally. My late entry into the rally meant I had little participation in the organisation and consequently I felt I had little sway to question or refuse decisions that were hoist on me. Had the team dynamic been different and had I had more input I would not have made these decisions. As I plod round Ayagoz I dwell on this. I feel let down and annoyed but I am at least free of the bickering and the tension that has existed between some of my team mates since day one.
On the plus side Bakdaulet is very very happy. His entire family have sat in I Know I Khan despite her still being jacked up. He demands a photo shoot and then wants another at his brother’s house where 1 or 2 of us will be having dinner. I think it might be a celebration.
Me a child and Bakdaulet.
I Know I Khan’t.
A couple of people over for dinner!!.
Day 32 – Slow
August 14th 2013 – Semey
I have had some good experiences in the backs of cars and I have had some excellent times in larders, but my seven hours in the back of a Lada today was one of the most terminally dull, depressing and frustrating portions of my life. This was the only taxi I have ever been in that was going so slowly the driver rarely needed to watch the road — a road that was a potholed death trap at the best of times. There were times when the driver was fiddling intently with his ear or phone or suddenly found some roadside construction work absolutely fascinating that I wanted to lean over and push his foot to the floor.
When I eventually arrived at Semey airport I found it to be completely deserted. It took me nearly five minutes to locate a member of the staff in the small terminal building. A young, slightly gangly lady with unruly teeth emerged from behind a door and then immediately returned to the room she had emerged from and sat behind a darkened window. She spoke no English, so we used an internet translation tool to determine that there are no flights today and no tickets for flights tomorrow. We order a taxi to take me to the train station, a train station that on first viewing was quite definitely under construction. I cannot make myself understood at the ticket office or to any member of the staff. I have no map, no guidebook, no phrasebook. I am at my lowest ebb and thinking about having a little cry when a quiet voice from behind me says “excuse me can I help?” I go with “YES’ as a response. Yera is a Kazakh and a student of the University of Warwick and boy does he help: Internet, trains, flights, accommodation and much more. I buy Yera dinner.
Day 33 – Extreme
August 15th 2013 – Kazakhstan somewhere on a train
I have been staring at a large, young lady on the train for a while now. Her T-shirt is emblazoned with fluorescent letters that say ” STOP KILLING WHAE”. I am really not sure if this is an obvious joke misspelt, a subtle joke I don’t get or just a misprint. Either way, there is strong chance I am starting to make her feel uncomfortable, and I have spent far too long thinking about it.
The result of my trip to Semey is a train journey back through Kazakhstan to Almaty, where I will spend 18 hours and then attempt to catch a flight to Beijing and from there to Ulaanbaatar. I say attempt because there is an excellent chance customs will not allow me to leave the country without I Know I Khan or the right paperwork. It is going to be an anxious 48 hours.
Pavel and Jenya are extremists. They didn’t mention this fact when they asked if they could share my taxi to the train station or when they helped me find the right carriage or even when they made a special trip down the train to tell me that there was a spare bed near them. Now that we are sitting down to pot noodles and three-in-one tea they are happy to announce they are extremists. They are, in fact, journalists who don’t always take the Kazakhstan government’s angle on stories. They have been reporting on the effects of radiation from nuclear testing that the government carried out near Semey many years ago. Now they are on a sleeper train to Almaty with me and a carriage full of very strange people indeed. I am very grateful to them. They made what could have been a very painful 18 hours journey in a crammed 1960s Russian train a lot more bearable. Extremists are fun.
Just the 18 hours.
Day 34 – Boarding
August 16th 2013 – Almaty
The train pulled into Almaty in the dead of night. Pavel and Jenya’s driver was waiting and whisked us off. We drop Jenya to her house and Pavel and I to his flat where he had kindly agreed to let me sleep for the couple of hours remaining until dawn.
Jenya and I spend the day walking round Almaty. She is an excellent tour guide and obviously loves Almaty. It is sunny and we walk through the cities parks, take a cable car to Kok Tobe view point that overlook s the city and discuss the many differences between our countries. All the while my appointment at the airport is looming closer and I am very aware of the possibility of spending a lot longer in Almaty than just today.
The customs official is regarding me suspiciously. He is aware that is something wrong and something is wrong; I have been traveling for over 40 hours with very little sleep, I have just left my phone in a taxi and I have left a car in his country and I don’t have the relevant paperwork to do so. “Registration” he says, I fumble around in my folder for a small bit of paper that was issued to us on arrival in Kazakhstan. Thankfully it comes easily to hand. This satisfies him momentarily and his eyes return to my passport. I can feel my heart beating, I am aware I am trying to act naturally and trying to act naturally isn’t conducive to acting naturally. The official picks up the stamp to mark my passport and I feel a wave of relief sweep over me. His hand falters and he narrows his eyes before returning them to me and then saying something to me in Kazakh. This time I feel a wave of panic sweep over me. He calls another official, I hope in an interpretation capacity, they both study my passport. The new official looks me straight in the eye and says:
“Where are you traveling?”,
“Ulaanbaatar” I reply,
“Beijing?” he questions
“I transfer there”, I clarify,
They both look down again,
“You only have one boarding pass” he says,
I feel another, much larger, wave of relief sweep over me.
Ascension Cathedral, Panfilov Park, Almaty
Day 35 – UB
August 17th 2013 – Ulaanbaatar
The taxi driver has told me he knows every guest house in Ulaanbaatar. In fact he has told me this about 15 times in an effort to get me in his cab. Eventually I acquiesce to his persistence. We pull out of the airport and into Ulaanbaatar. To be precise we pull out of the airport onto a dusty pot holed road where we immediately become stuck in a traffic jam. An hour later the taxi driver proves good to his word and we edge down a dirt road lined with corrugated fencing behind which ferocious dogs are barking and people are living their lives in tiny dilapidated wooden and corrugated constructions to the guest house.
By hook and by crook, without my car, without my teammates and with substantially less money than I set out with I have made it to Mongolia. I sleep for 12 hours.
A little bit of I Know I Khan made it to Ulaanbaatar.
I Think I Khan, Ant, Joss and I at the finish line.