Still at the border

It's 7am and SOOO cold. No sign of any border guards. The border finally opened at 9am. I went to a little box with the V5 form. Long wait to get a stamp on a small sheet of paper. You're supposed to get it stamped if you have been in the Altai region for longer than three working days - which we were. The man in the office pointed at the blank space where the stamp wasn't. I did the international dance for 'No Hotel. No stay. Just drive. Hello. Have been at the border since Saturday."

10am and a big bus drove past and went straight in. No sign of any cars being let through yet.

Finally... Finally... Finally we got through to the Mongolian Border and confusion reigned supreme.

Russian Border

Sixteen hours to wait at the Russian / Mongolian border. Lots of kids holding out their hands for stuff. Understandable perhaps but there's no gratitude and they just hold out their hands for more and more stuff and try open your car door to get more.

Occasionally people drive up to the border and put their arms through the barbed wire and have a photo taken. Not sure why. Perhaps it's their 'Look at me, i'm in Mongolia' picture - even though they're not, they're just in a part of the Russian border.

Uzbekistan

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Slowly we plodded through the last bit of Kazakhstan.  Leaving Kazakhstan (although slow wasn't as painful as arriving).

We arrived in Uzbekistan very late and immediately went to get some petrol.  Scammed.  That early experience felt like a good description of the whole country.  Everyone out to screw you over at each turn (though it's to be noticed that the gas station in the photo isn't the one that over-charged us, that was a little way further down the road).

It was the early hours of the morning in what felt, thus far, like a pretty sketchy country.

We'd pulled over onto a dirt track and a police car pulled up.  The policeman wandered over and we explained through the international language of "we're trying to find somewhere to sleep".  Out of this car staggered a few drunk teenagers who promptly fell down into a ditch.  "Wait until I get back." he barked, dragged the kids into the car and drove off.  We then had a lively discussion as to whether to wait or scarper.  One of us (not me) suggested we stay as it mightn't be a good idea to annoy the police so soon into our arrival into their (rubbish) country.  Somehow - and i'm not sure how - that single vote carried and we kicked our heels waiting for the policeman to return.

After what seemed like ages he did indeed return and told us to follow him.  So through the early hours of the morning he sped through red lights and we dutifully followed him into the back end of nowhere before pulling up outside a large hotel.  It was, we were informed, his brothers (or brother-in-laws?  or somesuch.)  After sitting in the lobby for a while discussing who was going to be chief negotiator and quibbling over the price for a while we unpacked and went to our rooms.  We were the only guests in the hotel.  We locked the door and went to sleep.

Towards Shimkent, Kazakhstan

We stayed on the M32 towards Shymkent. Got some petrol, had a breakfast of what we thought may have been lamb ribs and signed the garage owner's fridge. Got stopped by the police fairly early in the day and showed our documents.

On the way we continued to see people selling watermelons by the side of the road and figured it was about time to buy one.  Figures were drawn in the sand and as far as we could make out they were asking for about fifty dollars.  Perhaps they thought we wanted to buy the van.  We handed over the equivalent of a couple of dollars and for some reason this seemed to equate to about ten massive watermelons.  In a cramped car, or indeed even for a big car that's really nine too many watermelons.

Knackered we treated ourselves to a four star hotel.  £10 a person.  Bargain. *

(* Because two of us booked a double room for £40, then two more sneaked up and we shared the costs.  We are rebels.)

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Towards Baikonur

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Up relatively early and after some breakfast and a chat with our kind hosts we set off towards Baikonur (formerly known as Leninsk), the town set up to service the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Every so often some graves would break up the monotony.  Seemingly always situated quite a way outside of the town they served they were relatively grand affairs.  As with Eastern Europe, you tended to get engravings of the deceased person's face etched onto the grave.

At some point (though tiredness prevents from remembering) we passed either through or very close to Baikonur.  I only remember vaguely as we'd stopped for gas at a service station and a child drew a picture of a rocket ship on the bonnet of our car.

By 2 am we were still driving. 16 hours and counting.

3am and we stopped to sleep. We're pretty sure it's a landfill site. We have warm gin and tonic. It's been a LONG day. Warmed by a pair of Andrew's trainers burning merrily on the path.
 

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Foxes, Broken sump guards, gherkins and vodka

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An amazing driving through some of Kazakh desert.  We drove into the darkness with desert wolves (not the technical name i'm sure) around us.

The sump guard that the local garage had kindly fitted was taking a real battering and after driving over a rough piece of ground decided it'd had enough and promptly fell off.  Kieran managed to get it back on again whilst I very helpfully took a photograph.

Finally getting to the edges of the desert we came across a house and the people sitting on the porch beckoned us over.  We joined them for a midnight feast of gherkins and vodka.  A lot of gherkins.  A lot of vodka.  We slept on the porch which was covered it a LOT of moths (I mean literally hundreds).  I HATE moths.

Aktobe, Kazakhstan

Having spent yesterday travelling North to avoid an awful road; today we get to travel East towards Aktobe.  Exciting times.  After seven hours driving in a straight line we reached Aktobe.  Time to get a little closer to Aral (not to be confused with Oral which is where we started off from this morning).  By 11:30pm and we'd pulled off the main road, away from some shanty towns and into a... field (Oh... and we just saw either a jet or a UFO. Not sure which.)

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Finding spark plugs in Kazakhstan

So then it's 2pm. Someones car isn't starting so they're off to get some new spark plugs. Fingers crossed because it'd be nice to be getting some miles done.

Why is it raining in Kazakhstan? Surely that can't be right.


Eventually we set off and the zen of driving kicked in.  We drove on a road that I kid you not didn't bend for over four hours (bar the curvature of the Earth, pedants).

Eagles are soared above us.

Most importantly for the day we clocked our 4000th mile. We're halfway (probably) to Mongolia (if not the capital).

What the road lacked in bends it made up for in smoothness.  REALLY smooth.  Good work Kazakhstan.

Every 15 minutes or so people are camped out on what is essentially a motorway selling watermelons. I can't imagine they sell many.

Stopping to eat (and on this trip we really don't eat much at all.) I boiled up some Hot dogs wrapped in tortilla with American mustard. Best campfood yet. Wish I'd dropped less on the floor though.
 

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Driving through Kazakhstan

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We'd heard news through the Rally Team grapevine that the Mongolian border guards weren't being paid and that the border was closed.  Not good news.  Not good at all.

On the plus side I saw a man is herding goats on a camel so swings and roundabouts.

In other news... No, there is no other news.  We drove - that's it.  Nothing happened.  Driving, driving and more driving.

Oh, we slept in a field.  That's not news, right?

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Finally... into Russia.

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The continued push to the border.  Finally, after many rubbish roads, we got to the border at 2:30 pm.  By 4:30 pm the other teams have caught up and we all drive to the beginning of customs together.

We took our V5, Ukrainian exit bit of paper and passports to the window.  The guy behind the glass pointed at our Ukrainian transit visa stamp.  "Three days.  You here six.  Little problem."  It was actually five but still obviously not three.  He sent us over for insurance and we filed over to a shed to get what probably isn't worth the paper it's written on.  Insurance for Russia $60 for two weeks.  We'll need to get more when we re-enter Russia.

We took our insurance back to the border guard thingy we could move on to the next stage.  No.  He pointed to the "three-day transit" visa again.  Despite our being Europeans and therefore entitled to thirty days is will still "a problem".  Back to our car. Phone calls were made and after fifteen minutes we were beckoned over.  "$20 make the problem go away".  Out first non-speeding bribe.  We probably could have sat it out but between three of us it was only about £4 each and didn't seem worth it.

Bribe paid we moved on to the second stage of trying to leave the Ukraine.

The guards were more friendly this time and were seemingly coin collectors (not a euphemism for thieves and wanted to swap an Irish Euro for a Ukrainian coin.  I gave them a sew on patch with the Union Jack on.  All was good and we drove the short distance to Russian border control.

As the registered owner of our vehicle, I was taken into a room to fill in a form.  The Russian guard was pretty helpful.  After a brief mishap with ticking a box saying we had no communication equipment (we had the CB Radio) and my using the internationally recognised mime for 'we only use our CD radios inside Europe) I was sent to another room where a big burly guy typed the details from the form into his computer, printed out another form and got me to sign it and then proceeded to stamp the hell out of it.  Oh, how they love stamping things.  Suddenly he thrusted the form at me and bellowed "BYE! GO!".  It was very hard not to laugh.  We drove through the barrier.  We were in Russia!  Only four hours to get through customers.  Not bad at all. 

We drove until about 11 pm until we found a bar and ordered food.

I popped out to the car to get some mustard (as you do) and saw one of the Irish guys chatting to a bunch of Russians.  One called Vladimir kept shaking my hand and saying "We best friends."  In the spirit of international relations, I said "Yes" and spent the next hours and a half getting asked for my mobile number.

He seemed very keen that we all go swimming in a local river at one in the morning in some town I didn't know.  It really didn't seem like the best way to spend the evening.

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We left by 2 am or so to try and find a field to camp in.  We were flagged down by a policeman who just seemed curious and didn't seem bothered that women had drawn various things on our windscreen in lipstick.

At last, we found a field.  It was about 3 am.

Some Tweets from the day

In a field on the Uzbekistan / Russian border drinking tea out of a bowl before going through the looking glass.

2:30pm and all we've had for food is a cup of tea. It's the infamous Mongol Rally diet.

Watching a man herd geese with a whip whilst waiting for more teams to turn up so we can cross the border together.

Trying to leave Ukraine. Three day transit visa but this is day five. May be a problem even though as Europeans we should get thirty days.

A nod, a wink and a ten dollar bribe... Now in no man's land waiting to try and get into Russia.

Sat in room with various Russian peeps and filled out car related forms. Fours hours in total and we're now in Russia!

Russian border guard came over to find put why I was taking photos near a border. I showed him a picture of a dog and he went away again.

In the world's loudest bar trying to figure out if a photo is fish, chicken or some as yet identified animal.

Best guess having tasted it is that it's chicken mixed with honey puffs. Ride to get some American mustard from the car?

Why does a drunk Russian man keep asking for my phone number? It's all getting odd.

We find ourselves in a Russian field. We were pulled over by the police but all is well.

It appears a prostitute has written her number on our windscreen in lipstick. Which is odd. I only wanted a cup of tea.

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Driving

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You really don't appreciate how big the Ukraine is until you have to drive across the bloody thing (about 1000 miles west to east, well and no doubt in the other direction too).

Pretty much just a long push to the Ukraine/Russian border. All the hotels were full so we found a field and set up camp.
 

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Two cars into one

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Woke to a light breakfast. Went back to the car in its secure parking.  We pared down what we were carrying.  Took the roof rack off the Terios and put it onto the much small Micra.

It was HOT work in the baking sun.  With that job done the car was sent off to a local orphanage.  Little did we know the trouble this was going to cause us (well, John).

John joined us in our car and we set off further into the seemingly endless Ukraine.

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Off to Chernigov

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Pulled over for a late breakfast of orange juice and borscht. 90p or so. So cheap and so tasty.

Lots of the gardens we were driving past had livestocks. Cows, chickens and the like. Most gardens were also chock full of vegetables.

The bus shelters were decorated with colourful mosaics and each was as different as the next.

The Cyrillic alphabet is a nightmare. "P" is really "R" but oddly "P" is still the universal symbol for parking.

When we reached Kiev we split from the convoy with John in the ailing Terios and us heading North to stay the night with Kieran's friends in Chernigov (fifty miles East of Chernobyl). In the morning we'd transfer the roofrack from the Terios onto our Micra, Ted, and move as much of John's kit into ours. We could then give John's car to a local orphanage.

The apartment was in a block of flats with a large bomb shelter at its base. Apparently this is the norm. Lovely people set up with poppy seed rolls, potato and herb things. The simple meal of potatoes and eggs was quite the nicest thing i've tasted in a long, long time.

They left us alone to sleep (no idea where they went).

Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan gets the vote for the most beautiful country.

Kieran, my co-rallyer was not really enjoying the trip so far as we disagreed on the issue of whether it was best to travel in a big convoy for both safety and the camaraderie whereas I felt that a big convoy makes it feel like a package holiday with all the best experiences we'd had (sleeping on a porch in Kazakhstan and feasting with their family), we'd had because it was just a few of us.

The trip is changed, I argued, by turning up en-masse.  Keiran got a flight from a local airport and went home.  Just me in the car now, though thankfully continuing to tag along with Cat and Andy.  God bless Cat and Andy.

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Volgograd

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We got a taxi into town to look for Russian hats (as I promised to buy Max one).  We walked over to see the "Mother Russia" statue (or rather than better translation, the "Mother Homeland" statue).

We were wandering around looking at the sites (such as the Eternal Flame located at Mameyev Kurgan in the Hall of the Warrior Glory in tribute to those who died defending the city between 1942 and 1943) when word came through that because our newly acquired travel companion wasn't allowed to leave Russia due his giving away his car in the Ukraine.  The car had now become flagged as stolen   He was, we were told, now a fugitive in Russia.  We went to lunch.  Whilst waiting for steak whilst John phoned the Irish embassy in Ukraine about being a fugitive in Russia.  Between a fixer in Ukraine and the number for some top guy in the Irish government it was turning into an interesting afternoon.  The basic details from the embassy were for John to get out of Russia and fast.


I hung around with some of the teams in a square in front of the Museum of Tractor factory and Kieran sped him to the airport.  He was given a police escort, though i'm not quite sure why since the police were out to arrest John.  We also heard news that another team was rushed to hospital with rabies after being bitten by a dog.  Good times.

11:30pm local time. Very heavy rain. We tried to decide whether to push on for drier roads and camp or find a cheap hotel. Best make a cup of tea and ponder it was the plan.

In the end we stayed in yet another field.

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Ukrainian customs

Woke up at 7am with the intention of pushing on by 8am. Yet another convoy car with a problem. Two hours at a garage and they got a new clutch cable fitted for £30.

Drive. Drive. Drive.

Ukrainian customs. Pretty much straight through for us. We had a worry about John's Terios as Cillian had taken a taxi to the airport and to our utter disappointment we found that the car was registered in his name. Seemed to be okay for Ukraine but Russia could be a problem.

One car had only brought a photocopy of their V5. They had a l-o-n-g wait.

One team with an ambulance was asked to find $10,000 for a carnet. In cash. A fire engine was also asked for $10,000 in cash.

Our remaining problem is John's car being registered to Cillian. The current idea is to get some documents faxed to Kiev.

We headed towards Kiev with the intention of finding somewhere to camp. A team had mentioned camping near a lake so we drove around trying to find it. Quite a few of the roads were new and didn't appear on the maps. Some roads just stopped. Eventually, we found it. All tall grass, deeply rutted tracks and LOTS of mosquitoes.

After a bit more driving we found a £10 hotel. Soft bed/shower. Lovely.

The Bone Church

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We'd got some miles behind us the day before and had stayed at a small campsite called 'Santa Barbara' . Our convoy of five teams drove the 5km to the 'Bone church'.

I drove for about seven hours and by 6:30pm we were at the Auschwitz holocaust museum. Standing in a gas chamber and seeing the ovens was an unsurprisingly grim experience.  

The museum was closing down and alone, upstairs somewhere, I found myself walking past some horrible photos when the lights went out and I was thrown into complete darkness. The longest ten seconds of my live passed before they came on again. "Sorry, we were closing." the caretaker said. I bet he does the same thing to people every evening.  Bastard.

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Had a pizza and headed towards the Ukrainian border where we set up camp for the night.

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