Our Tours - 2007 Beijing to Paris - Daily Diary
Sitting in a hotel in
This must mean we are on our journey. One thing people don’t like is a lumpy bed. Our beds in the Hotel Kimberly aren’t lumpy. It is one big lump with the consistency of high grade concrete so it’s lumpy I guess. The last few weeks have been so hectic it was hard to get a grip on just where reality lies.
So many last minute things to do and organize. I foolishly thought once the cars were on the water it would be all plain sailing. There were the Russian visa’s to organize for the 16 of us and getting together all the necessary documentation to our agents Murray and Pat Reedy of Silk Road Adventures in Greymouth. Murray and Pat did a great job at short notice and I recommend them to anyone doing trips in the part of the world we are off to.
The team members were great in getting documentation to me at short notice and it is good to deal with people who are right behind our mission. We also had to arrange insurance for ourselves, our luggage and the third party for the cars. Thanks to Kirsty Taylor of Cameron Chote Financial Services for her work on this despite her bad back. It is almost impossible to get third party insurance if you are a Kiwi and want to travel to some obscure countries. Graeme Sharp did a great job and we owe him a beer for his efforts.
On a trip like this it’s hard to get it right in terms of what to take and what to leave behind. This means you pack, unpack, re-pack etc trying to get it right. When you suitcase weighs a little under 40kgs without your carry on luggage it’s time to ditch some stuff. The carpet and underlay had to go and so did the rechargeable torch and other items.
Having things like the satphone, BGAN unit (satellite communications device) along with the batteries and charging units means you are on the back foot. First aid kits are fairly important and each one weighs 3kgs. So you will get the picture. Daryl’s next door neighbour, Wayne, was great in giving us a run down on medical conditions in trauma situations. I am lucky for two reasons namely Daryl knows exactly what
Wayne was saying and we were also given a book along with the medical kits.
On the trip there are only a few places I believe where we are more than a day or so from medical help so we won’t be having any accidents or illnesses in those places.There were a few tears at the airports when we left then it was up to
Auckland. Qantas put us in a great mood by upgrading us to business class. They were rewarding us for the business we gave when the cars were being built in
When we unloaded the cases and items we needed to take there was an impressive pile of it. The people at Cathay Pacific scared us at the overweight baggage payments that were likely. Gavin Findlay from House of Travel Papakura came down and helped with negotiations. How many times does your travel agent come to the airport to make sure things go smoothly. Thanks Gavin. It was agreed that we pay just over a thousand dollars in excess luggage. Cathay Pacific has been great to us in getting our flights to Beijing and back from
London and we would like to acknowledge them for this.
While were chatting over the luggage issues our pilot for the flight to
Hong Kong, Dave Saggs, came and chatted. He was interested in our rally and the cars. It seems he is a recent graduate of flying R44 helicopters and he mentioned he was going down to the
South Island in the near future. I have a friend who flies one in
Canterbury and after a few calls the two of them will contact each other soon. Dave gave us a welcome on board announcement so that gave us something to smile about.
Because it was cheaper to pay for the excess luggage all the way to Beijing rather than pay in Auckland and again
Hong Kong all the luggage except for carry on luggage was sent ahead of us. Hotel toothbrushes come in real handy. Still a clean body in dirty clothes is better than a dirty body and dirty clothes. I bet it won’t be the last time we wear dirty clothes on the trip.
Well we are about to head off to Beijing. Good flight up to Beijing with DragonAir. Didn’t see much when we landed as Beijing was shrouded in low cloud and that kept the pollution at a low level. When we arrived there was a little apprehension about whether our luggage that had been sent ahead would arrive. There were no problems at all and in fact our luggage came up the chute first.
We filled the back of a van with our gear and were off to the hotel. The rooms are very spacious and clean and tidy at a very reasonable rate. Like the beds in Hong Kong they are consistent. “Consistently hard”. We went for a rather long walk and it took a little while to get my bearings but it was soon familiar. We didn’t manage to hook up with the others on the trip because we walked so far and we developed hunger pains.
The guys soon learned the road rules and pedestrian crossings in Beijing. Use them at your peril. We had a nice dinner and taxied back to the hotel. I basically crashed and slept the sleep like the dead on a concrete bed.
This morning we had a call from Geoff Ridley asking us all to meet to discuss progress on de-vanning the cars. It seems like the authorities want to inspect the cars to make sure we are the genuine article and not carrying contraband of any kind. Geoff, Graeme Mathieson and Warren Burt will go to the port to open the cars and let them be fully inspected. If this all goes to plan then the collection of the cars will be allowed minus too many formalities. Dallas and I spent the afternoon at the Forbidden City. There has been a lot of upgrading since I was here 2 years ago. There must be an event or two coming up in 2008. A few of the locals tried out there English on us. Greg and Daryl have been out looking for facilities to finish off the No 2 Fiat and to check on security at the Hotel we will stay in when we get the cars.
Tonight we are having a meeting to discuss progress made on the car unloading and to have a few drinks. Tomorrow morning first thing we are off to Tianjin to get the cars.
Dallas has just reminded me people don’t know who “I” is so I have put my name on the bottom.
Beijing – Tianjin, Beijing 5th, 6th, 7th June
How do you have more fun than Targa? The answer is by driving the motorway from Tianjin to Beijing. It is a two hundred kilometre special stage on a motorway that is basically a large dodgem track. The rules are quickly acquired, and they are simply to move to any space where there is half a gap, the other driver will provide the other half, and do not hit anything, especially the multitude of large lorries crawling along under the strain of their 60 to 90 ton loads of steel. We think that most of the world’s steel has to be here, as it is stacked up like we see logs on our ports in NZ.
Tianjin to Beijing was our first driving experience since arriving in China and as you have probably gathered it was hugely enjoyed by our entire group.
Two days earlier we had travelled by bus from Beijing to Tianjin, the port, to pick up our cars. The bus ride was through all flat country side with lots of small fish farms and shepherds tending their six sheep, and being overshadowed with huge new motorways under construction and about to crisscross the countryside.
We were expecting it to take a couple of days to get the cars through Customs but this was not the case. Our group’s agent in China had done a fantastic job for us and upon arrival we were invited into the wharf area where all our containers were lined up side by side waiting for us. The seals on the containers were broken and one after another all seven cars were started and driven out for inspection. This was a moment of great anticipation and relief to see our cars safe and sound after their journey half way around the world.
The check was a painless process and after photos of the customs officers sitting in the cars, they were put back into the containers, which were resealed while the paper work was completed. Our agent whisked us away to a banquet lunch which was to last to late afternoon until we got the call that we could come and collect our vehicles and take them to the hotel for the night. We still did not have our local driver’s license all registration so we were told that this was a one- time drive under escort and the cars had to stay in numbered order.
Next morning we waited while the next stage of the paper work was being done. This gave Greg time to fit a new fan to the Fiat as the original one was faulty and causing over heating problems. We also packed our cars with all our gear for the first time. We were sure that it would not all fit and this proved to be the case. So we donated Greg’s fridge to the Ford Capri, which has a roof rack, on the condition that they have a cold beer in it for us each night.
After lunch we got the call to bring our cars to the testing station for inspection and to get our Chinese drivers licenses. When it was time for the Greg and Daryl Fiat to be inspected there seemed to something wrong but it was simply that we had broken their computer. Instead of giving the emission reading from the exhaust it was saying cactus in Chinese which translates to broken.
The final part of the process was a gathering around and the awarding of our drivers licenses and registration plates to us. There were more photos with all the Chinese people involved in this and then we were free to be let loose on the local roads, driving on the right hand side of the road in right hand drive cars.
The drive back to Beijing from Tianjin was very exhilarating. Apart from the traffic we also had to cope with temperatures inside the cars touching on 50 degrees. Many of the cars were running hot and experiencing some fuel vaporisation issues. As we drove the late afternoon sun was not a problem as you never get to see it. At best it is a dull orange glow in the sky that you can look at directly without having to squint at all.
The smog is a permanent fog. As one local Chinese put it “pictures of NZ blue sky blue water, China grey sky grey water, pollution very bad”. You can see global warming happening here and it makes what we do in NZ seem so insignificant, but that is not to say that we shouldn’t be sending our message out to the world even if it is just a very small voice.
Despite a major hold up on the motorway we all arrived into our hotel in Beijing not too late. Although hot and tired everybody was in good spirits. We had achieved in two days what could have taken five.
When we had first arrived in Beijing Greg and Daryl had searched out a local Fiat dealer (30,000 Fiats in Beijing) and they had offered us the use of their workshop. So yesterday was spent doing last minute tuning and finishing a number of jobs that did not get completed before the cars left NZ. An Tong, the dealership manager, and his staff could not do enough for us. They made a hoist available for our use and at one point we counted nine mechanics working on the two Fiats. With sign language and drawing pictures we communicated very well. We even got two spring spacers made for the Greg and Daryl Fiat as it was riding a bit low in the rear.
Geoff and Dallas were lucky to make it there as the distributor had come loose on their car and it died as they drove in the gate, after threatening to stop in the middle of the expressway in the peak hour. As if the Fiats are not already attracting enough attention with passing motorists hanging out their windows, waving and taking photos as they dodge other cars. With cars for the masses being such a relatively new innovation here you just do not see any old cars on the road.
After a day in the Fiat workshop it was time to say goodbye to our newly made friends.
An Tong would not accept any payment from us. He said “you now have friend in Beijing”, and for all of us that made our day.
Day 1 - 10 June 2007 Beijing to Jining
The official start day of the Peking to Paris Expedition.
This is the day that most of our group of seven cars have been eagerly awaiting for.
We needed to be at the New Zealand Embassy located in Beijing’s diplomatic enclave by 7am for the ambassador Tony Brown to flag us away. This meant an early start to pack and ready the cars which was a good idea considering the anticipated high temperatures expected today.
Today’s journey of just over 400 km took us north east out of Beijing firstly on the number two ring road and then quickly on to the Badaling expressway. Being a Sunday morning this was a relatively painless exercise. The road climbs steadily for 30km and after an hour of travelling made a compulsory stop at the Badaling Gate at the Great Wall for photos and to experience the sheer mountainous countryside.
Everybody appeared to be eager to keep moving before the heat of the day arrived. Once on the plateau, the fantastic newly completed expressway enabled us to gobble up the distance with ease with most cars cruising at the 100km speed limit for another two hours until we arrived at our pre arranged lunch top at the city of Zhangjiakou.
They don’t often see foreign visitors in this town so as part of the lavish Chinese style lunch a local musical group of 3 singers arrived to entertain us.
Once back on the road the fun began with the slow truck traffic beginning to intensify. The road also steadily started to climb over a long distance to quite high elevations. Although our Fiats are handling the hot temperatures with ease the two Saab’s and the Volvo had overheating and fuel vaporisation issues today in outside temperatures in the high 30’s. Lengthy stops at the numerous Toll gates didn’t help the situation with the cars susceptible to overheating.
At the last toll gate of the day as we entered the city Jining we were herded over to the side of the expressway and given a civic welcome by a cultural group of pretty young ladies dressed in the very colourful local costume offering our group a
Warm welcome to the region. A fitting end to the long and hot first day’s journey.
Our hotel wasn’t too much further down the road and located in the central city. This area is classified as Outer Mongolia and already the cultural changes the physical appearances of the people and the food varieties indicate that we are now getting close to Mongolia.
From “Jining” Greg and Daryl.
Day Two - Jining to Erenhot
- Monday the 11th
Another early start in an attempt to get some miles under us before the heat of the day.
Breakfast this morning was a challenge for some as there weren’t too many western options.
We left Jining bound for the border town of Erenhot (about 350km) traveling through Outer Mongolia, as the Chinese prefer to call it. The landscape appeared more barren as we headed north towards the Gobi desert. This was a steady climb to around 5000 feet with vast stretches of prairie land disappearing into the distance.
Around half way to Erenhot the two lane road suddenly changed into a four lane motorway. Having been recently opened it was in perfect condition & we got along at a fair clip. The highway was virtually empty which does beg the question as to why such a fantastic road exists to the border, when after that there is no road!
The only casualty was one of the Saabs losing a throttle linkage but this was soon fixed. Both Fiats were running well.
As the temperatures were down a little (around 30-34 degrees) there was no problem with fuel vaporization today.
Coming into Erenhot Fiat #2 (Greg & Daryl) hit a bump in the road which took out an exhaust clamp. Off to the local fixit shop saw a rather unusual replacement. Not having a suitable clamp, a conrod & piston assembly appeared, to then be cut off near the base. This left the bottom of the rod & the cap to form a perfect clamp. Job done.
A refuel late in the day proved a little more difficult for the Fiats. The local gas station didn’t like our plastic fuel cells. They made the cars park away from the pumps & the fuel was transferred by metal cans 10 litres at a time. Each fill was charged for separately – quite a lengthy process. Mid way, a dispute developed between our crew & a motorbike rider who swiped the can. We got there in the end.
The hotel tonight is a little better than the last one although the one thing that is consistent so far has been the poor plumbing. Most showers end up in a bathroom flood after the almost obligatory blocked drain.
This part of China doesn’t see too many ‘round eyes’ so we’re quite a novelty. Unlike Beijing, very little English is spoken but sign language usually works OK. Being unaccustomed to the local ways our eating habits seem to regularly bemuse the hotel staff. The food has been very good though, it’s just we don’t recognize a lot of it! The portions are almost American in size. Just too much for some of us (except Greg).
Away from tourist areas we see the true local prices for goods & in our currency they are pretty cheap. Good beer can cost as little as 75 cents a bottle. An ice cream trumpet around 15 cents. Petrol is a bit closer to NZ prices but still a bargain at around 80 cents per litre.
Tomorrow it’s the border crossing into Mongolia & the Gobi desert. Our first night camping under the stars!
Day 3 - 12 June 2007 - Erenhot to the Gobi
We woke up to the sounds of trains shunting in the rail yards. Despite the fact that we had been in the country for around a week or more and had our cars and driven them in China this was our first serious day one of the scheduled trip. There was a little excitement together with a little apprehension about what our journey would provide us with.
After a rather lazy start to the day we had breakfast that was a rather sparse selection of Chinese food unlike the mixture of Chinese and European we had been used to. A few of us went and bought some water and a few snacks for the day. Prices were far cheaper than we had been paying at the hotels, which is hardly a surprise. The little dairy type shops charged about 35 cents for a bottle of water.
We packed the cars and headed for the border crossing, which was scheduled for 10am. The team from China Travel Services had done some preparation on our behalf and this assisted us greatly. Notwithstanding the prep work getting the 16 of us plus the 7 cars through the Chinese section took time as they advised us they had to wait for the invitation from the Mongolian side.
Finally we all had our passports stamped to leave China. We said goodbye to the team from China Travel Services and passed to them some little give-a-ways to say thanks for the very good services they provided. Compared to some experiences we had been told our group had minimal delays in all aspects of the time in China including the cars being unloaded and inspected, driving licenses, safety checks, hotels meals etc so it is a big WELL DONE to them.
Then we were off to no-mans-land. Too late to run for home now. We were met by Doggie our Mongolian Guide. He was a bit of a live wire with a good sense of humour, a ready smile and a man of action. He soon had us lined up filling in forms and sorting out the drivers from the passengers and getting the cars ready for inspection. The inspection was brief, very brief in fact.
As we headed for the entry point to Mongolia we saw the vehicles being used to freight people and goods to Mongolia. To see a van roll up stacked to the gunwhales with goods it was a surprise to see up to 10 people emerge as well. Large trucks were straining with the loads they were carrying. The cabs of the trucks had up to five people in them.
Before leaving we changed our Chinese Yuan for Mongolian money. Some of us were rich if you take the denomination value on the currency as opposed to the purchasing power of the notes. Geoff Ridley shouted us all into Mongolia. His generosity amounted to 2000 Togrogs per car or around $1.50. By the time we entered Mongolia it was a shade under 3 hours for the border crossing.
We got some directions from locals and began the trip to Ulaanbaatar. We took a wrong path and had only travelled about 1km when we struck soft sand. When trying to extricate the number 2 Saab of Graeme and Diane from the soft sand there was a knock and it was believed a CV joint was the issue. All the vehicles returned to the border town of Zamyn-Uud with the Saab under tow from the Volvo.
The incident had a major affect on us all. Here we were heading into a vast desert an unknown quantity to us and within one kilometre a vehicle succumbed to the elements. More than one of us had a moment of apprehension.
Doggie our Mongolian guide who was scheduled to return to Ulaanbaatar was phoned for assistance. Luckily his train was not due for ten hours. We had all parked outside the local Police Station and a passing mechanic who didn’t speak English offered to help. Some 6 hours later the CV joint had been repaired but unfortunately this was not the problem. The CV joint had been in need of repair but the knock appeared to be from the crown wheel and pinion.
A method which had been tried and effected was to weld the broken tooth in layers and then grind the welded tooth with an angle grinder to shape. When this was suggested it was not favoured. We reluctantly left Graeme Sharp and Diane Brandish with Doggie to see what could be done to get the car repaired or shipped to either Ulaanbaatar or somewhere else where repairs could be effected.
Because of the late time of day we drove for about an hour and pitched our tents for the night. There was a range of skills displayed in pitching the tents. Some were proficient and others blamed the gentle zephyr and the approaching darkness for their lack of skills. Everyone pitched in to help the camping novices and it was not long we had boiled the water and were tucking into the freeze dried food. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast and this was our first meal on the road.
Day 4 - 13 June 2007 - “In the Gobi Desert”
We awoke around 5am and began to pack our gear. The first night hadn’t been without the odd mishap. During the night I suffered cramp and went to the car to get quinine tablets. The Fiat has a security system which automatically disabled the car if it is not set with a certain timeframe. I had set the alarm but Dallas had been to the car after I entered my tent. Dallas left the security system off.
Suffering cramp I and believing I had to unlock the alarm to get into the car I pushed the remote control and ended up waking up most of the camp when the alarm went off. The snoring and other extraneous noises I had been hearing ceased immediately and there were lots of offers to “help
During the night we heard the sounds of trucks thundering past our campsite as we camped too close to the “road”. It was a lesson we learnt and the next night we would camp further off the track.
It took a little while to pack our gear and the Fiat occupants missed breakfast. It proved to be a bad decision as it was about 14 hours before we next ate. The tracks in the Gobi are plentiful so there are lots of options to take. Some are acceptable and others have corrugations that will rattle the fillings in your teeth.
Driving in the desert is lots of fun but it requires tons of concentration at all times. There are holes, bumps, sharp rocks and soft sand. Any lapse of concentration like taking a look across the vast landscapes can result in the instant removal of your exhaust system, breaking of your suspension, a hole in the sump or bending of gearbox mounting brackets etc. The two Fiats performed well and received their share of knocks to the exhausts and brackets.
Greg and Daryl’s Fiat was running a little bit hotter than they were comfortable with. Our car was using considerably more fuel than it should have and the idle speed moved up and down without any human contact. It was running too rich and we intended giving it a once over in Ulanbaatar.
At times there are four of five tracks being used by the various team members. If you see someone making better progress you head for the track they are on. There was very little traffic in the area of the desert we travelled. We saw some trucks very early in the morning but after that didn’t see any other traffic for around 6 hours.
Because of the vastness of the desert and the wide-open spaces we envisaged the fun that could be had in something like a beach buggy or a rally car. Dallas mentioned that some Kiwi’s from Tauranga were crossing the Gobi in land yachts.
Throughout the day the temperature climbed steadily and for the first time we began to see blue sky. The pollution in China meant we could identify where the sun was but we were able to look directly at it without it affecting our eyes. The Saab V4 suffered fuel vaporization problems on a fairly regular basis so we had a number of unscheduled stops.
We stopped to pay our respects at some “ouvoo” and tossed on some stones to add to those already there and circled the monument as tradition calls for. There were a few moments of reflection of those back home and how we missed them.
We passed some small settlements which were rather spartan. The Mongolian people are indeed a hardy lot to survive in such a harsh environment. We saw quite large herds of horses, a number of camels and some yaks. When we stopped for minor mechanical problems we saw ground squirrels and lots of different insects. We wondered about the change of lifestyle that will no doubt occur with the completion of the roads through the desert.
We gassed up the cars at Sainshand. Fuel was 92 octane and cost less than a dollar a litre. The owner of the gas station also owned a shop and a restaurant. We think from his actions and the people who stopped and listened to what he had to say that he might be the mayor of the town.
The “mayor” then drove us in his Prado back to his shop where we bought life saving water supplies and snacks. The total cost was NZ$21. We returned to the service station and then the mayor showed us the best way out of town and the track north. He drove quite a distance out into the desert and for a time I thought he was joining our party.
Around 5pm we stopped to set up camp. After 14 hours on the “road !!!!” we had covered about 220 kilometres. Setting up camp was a much quicker exercise than the previous night. A boil of the billy and freeze dried food for dinner. A night cap and a chat made for an enjoyable end to the day.
We wondered about how Diane and Graeme were getting on with preparations for the car repair and rejoining the trip. A strong wind blew up as we went to bed and we wondered how our tents would perform in the conditions.
Day Five - 14 June 2007 - Gobi Desert to Ulaanbaatar
We all awoke this morning and crawled out of our tents at 4:30 am just as the sky became daylight, as we estimated that we had at least twelve hours ahead of us to Ulaanbaatar. We were feeling somewhat tired as the wind storm during the night had lashed our tents with sand, and we had lay awake hoping that our tents didn’t blow off into the dessert like tumbleweeds with the occupants still inside.
After packing away the tents it was a quick- freeze dried cooked breakfast, which none of us faced with great enthusiasm no offence to Geoff’s cooking, and then we hit the Gobi trails for another day. As we departed I was thankful that during the two nights in the Gobi the most threatening creatures I had seen were the little sand geckos, and not scorpions.
We started the mornings run on a wide- open and relatively ‘smooth’ plain. A short distance up the track we came across a small group of camels so stopped for photos. One had the worst set of teeth I have ever seen, it was certainly not a pretty smile.
The day had started out very cold and there were the odd light rain showers, which we were not expecting in the Gobi. Despite this after a couple of hours our Fiat started to run hot again so we were having to stop every half hour and give it five minutes to cool. The strong tail wind was not helping to get any air through the radiator. After a few stops Greg and I came to the conclusion that it was a water flow problem, most likely to be a stuck thermostat. We had a spare thermostat housing so we so stopped and changed it in 12 minutes. Much to our relief this fixed the problem.
After passing through the small town of Ayrag the trail deteriorated until we came to an impassable sand drift. After some quick scouting the group agreed that we needed to negotiate the rough rocky hill beside us. This was done successfully and without damage to see us back on the trail again.
After a period of slow going we came across a wide graded dirt “motorway” out in the middle of nowhere. We had to manoeuvre the cars over the dirt embankment to get onto it and then we were away.
There were coal trucks using the road so we had to be careful to stay right. We had embraced this “good” piece of road with such enthusiasm that it took a while to realise that any sign of the power lines which had guided us to this point had disappeared. We needed to give up this highway and get back on track. We flagged down a passing coal truck and the driver’s gestures seemed to indicate the option of taking a trail back behind us or just ahead. We came to realise later that his facial expressions were indicating the state of those tracks.
After leaving the highway we travelled along what could be described as a good NZ farm road for about 10 minutes and then the track steadily deteriorated. We spent the next two hours negotiating deep ruts, rocks, and dried up river beds. This trail provided the most extreme limits of terrain that the cars could hope to negotiate. Both Fiats suffered damage to their exhausts and gearbox mounts.
Out in the distance a mirage appeared, is that a tar sealed highway we all observed unbelievably. This turned out to be the start of the new highway that is going through to Saynshand from Ulaanbaatar. We all stopped just before the start of the tar seal and celebrated our successful effort of crossing the Gobi.
A few kilometres along the new highway we reached the town of Choyr. There is still no traffic on this highway but three gas stations sat adjacent to each other. Dallas accurately described filling up here as being similar to Waiouru in the middle of winter, and we were all reaching for our thermals.
Shortly after leaving Choyr, Kevin and Sandra’s Ford Capri just stopped. We all turned around and went back to assist. After some time of trying to trace the source of an electrical problem it was decided to put it on a tow rope behind the Volvo.
The highway now climbed steadily and we were at 1770 meters at one point, somewhat higher than the Desert Road in NZ. The landscape was changing very quickly with greenish pasture and mountains in the distance. Driving required some caution as although the highway was a very good fast road there are no fences so the horses, cows, sheep and goats frequently threatened to wonder onto the road.
At Zuummod we left the new tar sealed highway and were now on the old Russian concrete road which required close attention, both to the road surface and the driving habits of the locals. When wanting to pass they straddle the centre line no matter what is coming in the other direction and then on most occasions the inevitable passing manoeuvre is completed with evasive action required by the oncoming vehicle.
Just before Ulaanbaatar Geoff and Dallas’s car dropped its exhaust on the road. We were able to make a temporary repair which included using wire found on the roadside. Our accommodation was at a Ger camp just outside of Ulaanbaatar, but on the other side of the city. The traffic was chaotic, to us, and we did not envy the Capri on the tow rope. We were also hoping that both our
Fiats would make it to the camp without losing their exhausts. When we hit the dirt track up to the camp we were cringing at every bump and there were many that were extremely harsh, but we made it.
We arrived tired, hungry and cold at our night stop at 20.30 having completed 480kms, with our cars in a bit of a battered state.
UB had not made a good first impression on us, as it is a dirty, polluted and run down city, although cranes dotted the landscape with new construction under way. Initially the Ger camp did not seem that inviting, but we ventured in to look at our Gers. They were surprisingly cosy and once we got our pot belly fires lit they quickly became as warm as toast and we were happy to be there.
Days Six and Seven - 15th & 16th June 2007 - “Ulaanbaatar”
Our two days in Ulaanbaatar were scheduled for rest & for some, vital car maintenance.
Our ger (basically a felt tent) camp accommodation is great & being 20km from town gives us a relaxing environment to unwind in.
Various repairs & patch ups were effected in the car park to the amusement of the other guests. The two Fiats needed their exhaust pipes remounting along with a few other smaller jobs. The
Capri was diagnosed with a broken heel on the ignition points.
Fortunately the Volvo carried a spare set & these and were the same as the Ford.
Some of those without work to do ventured into Ulaanbaatar for sightseeing.
Unlike the countryside, the city could hardly be described as pretty. The Soviet influence over many decades has left its mark with jerry-built apartment blocks, central city coal powered power stations & urban sprawl. Nothing would ever win an architecture award.
Despite this, the downtown area is quite lively with many up market shops & fine eateries. Traditional gers sit along side multi storied apartments in an odd mix of old & new. Lots of new construction is under way with many cranes dotting the skyline.
A visit was made to the car fair & parts market with a surprising number of Japanese imports on sale, i.e. RH drive cars in a LH market. All the familiar models were available in large quantities, in fact the roads of
Ulaanbaatar are clogged with late model vehicles. The Russian Lada is no longer a common sight, much to the disappointment of Team Fiat (we wanted some spares).
Despite the relative poverty seen in the rural areas Ulaanbaatar obviously has its share of wealthy people.
Mongolia has been a battle ground for control at various times by both the Russians & the Chinese. Although the country was declared officially independent from China in 1924 the Soviets had other ideas & essentially ran it until the end of communism in 1990. Since then it has had democratically elected governments. Mining & a growing tourism market are the main sources of income. The country is huge but has less than 3 million people. Half of the population is nomadic, living in villages in the harsh winters & grazing their animals on the steppes during the rest of the year. The national hero of Mongolia is obviously one Genghis Khan.
News from Graeme & Diane is that they & the Saab have arrived here in Ulaanbaatar by train. The car will be shipped back to NZ but they will continue on by rail planning to meet up with us on route & then join us in Europe.
Tomorrow we leave for Sukhbaatar near the Russian border.
Day Eight - 17 June 2007 - Ulaanbaatar to Suhbaatar
This morning we departed our Ger camp in Ulaanbaatar and headed north to Suhbaatar or as some maps would spell it, Sukhbaatar. The countryside very much resembled that of the road south from Blenheim.
The days’ driving was to be uneventful after a tentative start with a minor electrical problem being quickly rectified in the Capri.
As we headed north the land became greener with rolling pastures and much livestock, we even saw a few Yak grazing with the cows. The pastures were scattered with the Ger’s of the family’s whose livestock were grazing in the pastures and the farmers and their children were all doing their chores on horseback, no farm bikes here.
We also passed a couple of open cast gold mines, and we suspect that the future for Mongolia lies with its mineral resources.
The major stop of the day was in Darhan, which is the second largest city in Mongolia with 100,000 people, somewhat less the one million population of Ulaanbaatar.
We had been told that the reason that the Mongolian people are so friendly and welcoming is that in such a large country with so few people they are just really pleased to see you, and this has been our experience.
We found a supermarket in a local shopping centre and spent some time stocking up on a few essential supplies for our upcoming night in our tents. At the checkout the cashier had run out of larger notes so my change included ten 100 Torag notes, a grand total of about one NZ dollar i.e. 10 cents each.
Once again our cars had attracted huge interest in the car park, not from just the men but also from the mothers bringing their children to look.
We had been advised by the locals in Ulaanbaatar not to stay at our hotel in Suhbaatar as it was not a very salubrious establishment and they were also concerned about the security of our cars. They suggested that we camp off the road by a river about 20 kilometers before the town.
We duly came across the bridge that had been described to us and we headed off across the pasture to find a suitable campground, remembering that that there are no fences. We had just completed erecting our tents when two young boys arrived from out of no where on horseback and offered us a container of fresh milk. We gave them some small kiwi gifts in appreciation and then they galloped off across the paddock and disappeared. Later that evening we had a car arrive with nine people in it and they just come to welcome us also.
It was a beautiful warm clear blue sky afternoon when we arrived at our campground. Geoff said he wasn’t going to worry about out putting the fly on his tent. As we finished setting up camp we could see some very menacing weather coming towards us. We had just set up our Began satellite unit with the laptop out in open ground and had made a couple of phone calls home it. Dallas had just phoned his Dad when the wind suddenly hit and he had to hastily finish his call as we raced to pack everything into the tents and cars.
The storm arrived a few minutes later and for the next hour and a half we all huddled into a couple of the larger tents while we were lashed by a thunder and lightning storm. The storm eased and then disappeared just as quickly as it had arrived, but not before presenting us with the most magnificent rainbow that I have ever seen. It arched over our paddock from one side to the other with all of its brilliant colours fully displayed for its entire length.
We all ventured out for photographs and then prepared our dinner under a clear blue sky. It was an early night for us all as we had to be up at 4:30 am to ensure that we arrived at the Russian border at 7:00am the next morning. The expectation was that this border crossing could take all day to complete.
Day Nine - 18 June 2007 - “Suhbaatar to Ulan Ude”
The intention had been to leave the camp site south of Suhbaatar at 6am. Lying in the tent all snuggled up was great until Ian Dickson needed to have his early morning cigarette. The tent zip being opened woke us ap and all of a sudden there was a of activity with tents being taken down and cars being packed so everybody joined in. Incidentally it was 4.15am.
We drove into Suhbataar and filled up with gas and drove to the border crossing post. We arrived at 7am and were told that the gates would not open until 8am. We had parked in the wrong place because the cars which were waiting in the queues to cross looked like they were from a wreckers yard. Most could not start under their own power and had to be pushed started. I can’t remember seeing a more battered lot of wrecks anywhere.
Our guide turned up and went off to see what he could do to facilitate the exit from Mongolia. In the meantime we had coffee at the “hotel” at the border post. We were initially allowed to use the toilets but as the day wore on they were locked. Our guide returned to say we would probably go to the exit at 10am. Some of the people at the head of the queue had been there for four days.
In the meantime the locals were most intrigued by the cars and asked to see the engines and poked and prodded the cars and those who had some English asked heaps of questions. We were a little confused about the local people putting on layers and layers of clothes. While it was cool all those clothes seemed a bit over the top.
It was then we twigged that they were taking the clothes into Russia to sell. Once the people had as many layers on as possible making them resemble the Michelin man they then took other clothes from the wrapping to make them look like personal effects and dumped the wrapping on the roadside.
Finally we were called to go through the gate around 10.30am to begin the exit from Mongolia. For some reason the customs people wanted to see a few of our items and we got our visa’s stamped and we were off to no-man’s-land. This little exercise took five and a half hours from our arrival at the border post.
Then we were up the hill and through a car wash for the underside of the cars and into the car park. Luckily the day was rather mild and it made the wait more bearable. Initially the security guards asked us to stay in our machines. As the day wore on the guards and the immigration staff became more relaxed and took more and more interest in the cars.
We were processed one by one and the guard who I nicknamed “hat hair” came out carrying his stamp and got us from the cars one by one rather than having us walk up to his sentry box. His hat came on when he left the box and off when he re-entered. He carried his stamp with him all the time even during his smoke breaks which were rather frequent.
The last page of our passports has a rather smudged picture frame type rectangle on it. This intrigued the guy and after putting the passports through the ultra-violet light he got his magnifying glass out and gave it a thorough investigation.
We then filled out more forms and paid the fee for the entry and the drivers were asked for the car papers showing details of ownership. The MR3 certificate of ownership, the MR 31 and the carnet were not acceptable. The guy in the customs area who I called “Smiley” spoke very good English and took the details off the carnet and put them on their standard form.
When we were asked for details of what electronic equipment we had the Satellite phones caused some confusion. They hadn’t seen them before and I was taken off with the phone to have it checked out. I drew some pictures of how it worked using stick figures and a satellite in the sky. They could not find any details of the iridium satphone in their books and in the end told me to go.
A inspection of the cars took place. We were asked by the Smiley customs guy if we had guns or drugs and he laughed when he asked. As they realised that we were genuine the inspections became shorter and shorter.
At 5pm the last car entered Russia. We shook hands all round at making the entry to Russia. Because the day had been a series of unknowns it was a long one and most of us were a bit buggered.
We believe that only about 15 cars a day get through the crossing. There were a number of trucks carrying logs and large new trucks being delivered that also crossed. Smiley actually apologized for the time taken but said it was the Russian way. In fact we spent more time exiting Mongolia
than we did entering Russia.
We then set sail for Ulan Ude about 210 km up the road. The road was quite good but had some areas with undulations that bounced the cars and a few bumps that could do serious damage to your exhaust if you hit them.
Near Ulan Ude Greg Paul took the lead as he said he knew how to get to the hotel. For some reason he drove a little faster than Michael Schmacker and lost the Kombi van off the tail. For reasons unknown Martin in the Kombi had his radio off and we couldn’t contact him. Greg and Daryl back tracked and found the lost sheep and brought them back to the flock.
After doing a site seeing trip of Ulan Ude the hotel was located.
We had a light meal as the restaurant was closed when we arrived at 9pm China time, which was 10pm Russian time. The bed was a welcome relief after a very long day, our first on Russan soil.
Day Ten - 19 June - “Ulan-Ude to Urkutsk”
A lazy start this morning after enjoying the comfort of a hotel room at “Hotel Geser”
We finally departed at 12 midday after taking time to find a bank in the nearby town square and shopping for basic food items at a very local shop close to the hotel. To aquire our bananas, water and biscuits the transactions were done through a 25 x 25cm square hole in the side of the building, definitely shades of the old Russia I remember from the eighties.
Having been nominated as the team to navigate our group in and out of the Russian cities Daryl and I lead out of town. We made our first stop on the outskirts to refuel at a sophisticated service station which gave us a choice of octane ratings from 80 to 98. As we hadn’t experienced a Russian gas station previously we soon learnt that payment for the fuel was required before delivery was made.
The road initially followed a river tributary of Lake Baikal for the first 60km through attractive forested areas not dissimilar to areas that I have seen in Finland. We initially headed in a Northerly direction on good road and saw for the first time the waves of Jap import cars been driven from the port of Vladivostok in the East to various Western Russian destinations. These cars easily identifiable by the copious quantities of tape used to protect venerable panel parts from the rigors of Russian roads. These guys, have become known to us as “Cowboys” as they constantly perform risky overtaking manoeuvres especially on the rough road sections.
For the next few hours before reaching the shores of Lake Baikal (the world’s largest inland lake) we experienced some sections of lumpy road which unbeknown to us was nothing compared to what lay ahead. As we approached the lake shores the temperature suddenly dropped dramatically due to the icy winds blowing down the lake. As we knew Lake Baikal is iced over for the majority of the year. The lake was a welcome and beautiful sight but camping opportunities were limited due to extensive swampy areas on both sides of the roads and the main Railway running beside the lake shore. A unanimous decision was made to continue to Urkutsk some 150kms further on.
The last stage of the journey was over hilly, mountainous and forested terrain which the drivers enjoyed and particularly suited the Fiats. We finally arrived in the city of Urkutsk at around 22.30, just on dark. Unfortunately Hotel Victory could not accommodate us so Geoff Guenole and I set about scouring the town for any type of accommodation, finally settling on Hotel Arena. This was a very basic accommodation (a dive) and by the time the necessary payment negotiations were completed for six rooms it was just past midnight. Martin and Kevin nominated to sleep in their vehicles so that all the cars were protected from the inquisitive but friendly locals.
Daryl and Greg.
Day Eleven - 20 June 2007 - “Irkutsk”
It was a great relief to find our cars untouched in the morning – posting two of the party in the vehicles no doubt helped. There were several visits by the mafia through the night but no problems.
We moved to our pre booked hotel late in the morning. After spending the past few nights with minimal facilities it was great to get back to ‘civilization’. Some went for a wander, others spent the day repairing damage to the underside of their cars. Both Fiats have suffered more than the others with exhaust problems. The Geoff/Dallas car had the manifold taken off for the removal of a broken stud. With the help of the hotel maintenance dept this was finished late afternoon. Greg & Daryl’s car was given a check over & further temporary repairs made to its exhaust.
Meanwhile the restaurant manager’s sister contacted the local TV station. Within 15 minutes cameras appeared, with both Geoff & Sandra (Capri) interviewed for the evening news. We all watched at 6:30 not having a clue as to what was being said by the announcer – probably something about the ‘crazy’ New Zealanders. Geoff & Sandra’s words were dubbed into Russian.
Irkutsk is the nearest big city to Lake Baikal. It dates back around 500 years being formed as a Cossack garrison to control the locals. It was also eastern Siberia’s main trading post with Mongolia , Tibet & China. Today the city is known more as an industrial & scientific centre.
Day Twelve - 21 June 2007 - “Irkutsk to Alzamay”
We were a little late departing Irkutsk at 7:20 am, which may have something to do with Hotel Victory being so nice with exceptionally helpful and friendly staff. Greg and Daryl having navigated the group into the city were promptly voted by the others to be lead car. We all needed a fuel stop before leaving the city, and a small water leak from a pipe in the Geoff and Dallas Fiat was attended to with the addition of a bottle of stop leak which did the trick.
The roads for the first 50 kilometers were motorway and were pretty good but at Tulun it all changed dramatically. We had seen some video clips at home of some Russian roads but did not think that they were in the area where we would be travelling. Oh how wrong of us to make that assumption. The M53 is the main motorway, as you expect from the “M” designation.
We were on a track that had many of the group believing that we had led them the wrong way. The M53 sign was soon spotted and everyone realised that this was for real. The dirt and mud track was deeply rutted with mounds so high and holes so deep that we wondered on many occasions if the cars would actually negotiate them. This was Landcruiser country and even then it would be a challenge. To our utter amazement we were meeting very large truck and trailers coming the other way. They were literally crawling through, using any part of the road that they could negotiate. If it rained they were going to be stuck, as would we for that matter.
Every so often we would come across a small town with all the houses constructed in the same old log cabin style and with their large vegetable gardens all about. The cows and goats wandered around freely and frequently we would have to manoeuvre around a cow that had no intention of moving off the road.
We spent long periods where we would not get over 30 kms per hour. After twelve hours on the road we had managed to cover 540 kms. We were at Alzamay which is half way between Tulun and Kansk. Kansk had been our target for the day but we were well short of that. The road at Alzamay had improved dramatically. It was sealed and ok. Everyone had had enough driving for the day, it had been extremely challenging with intense concentration required. The decision was made to find a place to camp and get an early start in the morning.
We found a side track that led us down to a suitable flat area close to a river and we made camp for the night. The tents are now going up considerably quicker than earlier on in the journey. This was despite being under constant attack by the man eating mosquito’s. Thank goodness for “Bushmans” mossie and tick repellent. Dallas and Daryl are none to keen on the sound of the ticks so we are not too conservative with the spray extending to trousers, shoes and socks.
After settling into bed we hear a “hello, hello” in Russian. The thought of opening up our tents to the invading mozzies meant that Greg volunteered to be our ambassador. The rest of us thought this was fair as they had “knocked” on his tent. A local family had come to greet us at midnite with some fresh cows milk. Greg thanked them and gave the children some of our Kiwis as a return gift. It was then off to sleep knowing that we had to be packed up and on the road by 6:00 am
Daryl and Greg.
Day Thirteen - 22 June 2007 - “Alzamay to Suslovo”
We were on the road by 6:00 am as we needed to cover 800 kms today to make up for yesterday. It was foggy and cold and the road north from Alzamay was good. We felt that we had left the bad road behind us but a short distance on it deteriorated again. We made a roadside stop for breakfast at 8:00 am and then began to encounter small stretches of new sealed motorway.
This was a tease as just as we got going it would stop and we would be back onto the dirt again. Eventually the dirt stopped, but not before a rock had successfully pushed our exhaust hard up against the underside of the car, so now the drumming and vibrating of the exhaust made the bumps sound even worse.
Geoff and Dallas had to rotate a front and rear tyre as a front wheel had been knocked out of alignment and the tyre was wearing badly on one side.
Now we were on the old Russian concrete road with all the rutted out joins and reinforcing wire sticking up out of the broken concrete. There were many cars stopped along the way fixing punctures but our group did not get any. We were driving somewhat more carefully and conservatively than the locals as our cars still have a long way to go to reach Paris.
When we got back onto seal it was just patches in the dirt and the ruts and corrugations were vicious if you took the wrong path. Whereever possible we used the whole road to avoid the car breakers, and much of the time it was better to drive on the dirt berm than on the actual road.
We had many stops for the railway crossings which are all manned, with nice wooden huts for the gate keepers to stay in. One woman put the barriers down to come out and sweep her crossing. There was no train coming. She even had a nice pot plant box in the front window. The huts are all different and really quite cute. Don’t even think about not stopping though, as big steel barriers rise up out of the road as the barrier arms come down.
We also had several police stops today but none of them proved to be troublesome. They are just curious about what we are doing and want to see the cars.
Just before Krasnoyarsk the road improved significantly and we were now making good progress. Just north of Achinsk a road side dinner stop consisted of boiling the billy and pulling out some freeze dried meals. This seemed more attractive than the café that we had actually stopped at.
The group decided to press on for a couple more hours and get some miles done before dark. When we decided to stop for the night we could not find anywhere for a campsite. Off the road was very damp and swampy which was what it had been like for much of the day. One car would break off from the group and explore the side tracks as we came to them. Kevin and Sandra in the Capri eventually struck it lucky and found some slightly elevated ground hidden away off the road. It was 11:45 pm when we finally stopped driving and made camp. We had been on the road for 18 hours and despite crawling along for the first few hours we had amazingly covered just over 800 kms for the day and had gotten ourselves back on schedule again.
We got our tents up in double quick time as here the mozzies were as big as small aeroplanes. Some of the group just stayed in their cars to sleep as they figured that it wasn’t worth the effort for four or five hours sleep. We on the other hand couldn’t face a night in our seats after having numb bums for the last several hours, and no amount of shifting or squirming in the seat would relieve it. So for us it was lights out in the comfort of our tents at 12:30 just as it got dark.
Daryl and Greg
Day Fourteen - 23 June 2007 - “Suslovo to Novosibirsk”
We pitched our tents just before the sun went down at midnight. We had been virtually in a coma from tiredness, after the drive of over 800 km and 19 hours the previous day, when we were woken from our dreams with the blare of a car horn at about 4.15am. It’s quite unreal for most of us that the sun sets at around midnight and rises about 5am.
Not all of us had sensibly pitched our tents and gone to sleep in a comfortable place. Some of the group had decided to sleep in their vehicles. With the Fiats having race seats this option didn’t receive any votes whatsoever. The car horn was a wake up call from those that had slept in their vehicles and they were keen to hit the road after their uncomfortable night, whereas the rest of us were still in a deep sleep.
We tumbled out of our tents and they were all ready to go. We took our tents down and quickly packed. Soon we were back on the M53 heading for Novosibirsk. We had met our target the day before of over 800 km for the day, so we had about 560km to go. We were hoping for a lot better roads than we had experienced for the previous two days and fortunately this turned out to be the case with reasonably “good” sealed road for most of the way.
Luckily we only received a small amount of rain. Dallas had only commented minutes before the rain arrived that we hadn’t had any rain in Siberia. Talk about tempting fate. The changeable weather is something that we have all noticed. It can go from very cold to very hot and wet to fine several times in a day. In fact we started off the morning in fog.
Around 8am we stopped on the roadside and cooked breakfast. We get recognition from truckies and the car delivery boys with hoots on the horn as they flash past. Maybe they saw the piece on the TV about our trip while we were in Irkutsk.
As we travel west the quality of the cars improves and we see more later models that come with the luxury and higher price tags. We get stopped every now and then by the Police but the inspections are cursory and most don’t want to see any paperwork.
Geoff Ridley had arranged for a laminated sheet written in English, Chinese and Russian languages telling briefly the purpose of the trip and where we were going. It came in extremely handy and once we presented the sheet to people they immediately wanted to help us. One policeman on seeing the sheet kept repeating Kaikoura, Kaikoura. Whether he has been there or seen a TV program about Kaikoura on TV we don’t know. We swapped coins, a Russian one for a Kiwi dollar, as he collected them and we were on our way.
We stopped for lunch at a roadside café. The food was fine but the toilets across the road were diabolical. These would easily make it high on the list of the worst dunnies in the world. Two “ladies” from our group were seen watering the worms in long grass on the roadside rather than use them.
Less than 100km from Novosibirsk Greg and Daryl’s Fiat decided to spit the rear muffler out the back. After the shocks and bumps the cars had received over nearly 2000km in three days it was hardly surprising that some fatigue had occurred. Soon as it cooled and placed in the boot we were back on the road.
The drive today has been quite picturesque with very green rolling pasture land and large forests off into the distance, which Greg commented to be quite similar to southern France and some parts of England.
Novosibirsk was soon in our sights. Greg and Daryl once again did a good job in getting us to the hotel. When we were very close to the hotel some teenagers who took an interest in our cars provided a little help.
Getting to a certain spot in a city you have never been to and where the maps are in a foreign language is not an easy task and Greg and Daryl have to do quite a lot of preparation work before getting near the destination. It’s a thankless task as if they get it wrong they have a dozen critics and if they get it right it’s what was expected.
It was a hot 30 degrees when we arrived at our hotel and with three days of accumulated dirt to remove from our bodies the showers have never felt so good. There is a heap of washing to be done as the dust and dirt makes keeping clothes clean very difficult. Then there is a cold beer to look forward to after several very long and challenging days.
Day Fifteen - 24 June 2007 - Day in Novosibirsk
Our reporting can be a little erratic at times. This is because internet access is not always available to us. Some hotels have only a rudimentary service & whilst we have a satellite connection for when we camp in the countryside, we are usually too knackered to set it up.
The Novosibirsk stop included a layover day. We had arrived in plenty of time the previous afternoon which allowed Greg to find a local garage to help with further repairs to the Fiat’s exhaust. This time it was meant to be a complete rebuild rather than a patch up. However language difficulties saw a less than satisfactory job done. Half way through the repair a car load of thugs pulled up & started to beat the daylights out of the mechanic. They dragged him away for a further ‘touch up’, while Greg asks them to delay their beating until after the exhaust is finished.
The next day is Sunday so we thought the chances of finding another garage would be slim. But with translation help from the hotel staff a 24 hour service centre is found. Finally a proper rebuild. The cost was minimal & the garage gave Greg a bottle of vodka into the bargain.
After some general maintenance on the remaining cars in the oppressive heat, some of us wandered into the town centre (yet another ‘Lenin Square’). It happened to be the cities birthday celebration, with the streets closed off. Entertainment included traditional Russian singing & dancing plus a market.
Around 7:00 we witnessed a huge electrical storm, thunder, lightning, and deluge - the whole works.
Later some ventured into the restaurant area of town for a meal & a bit of drinking in a nearby bar. A few arrived rather late back at the hotel………
To cap it off around midnight there was a huge fireworks display – just for us.
Novosibirsk is a city that grew around the Trans-Siberian railway so it doesn’t date back that far. It’s Siberia’s largest city with around 1.5 million people & serves as a transport centre for the surrounding coalfields & mineral deposits.
On the road again tomorrow, this time camping somewhere near Ishim.
Day Sixteen - 25 June 2007 - Novosibirsk to Tatarsk (100kms before Omsk)
An unusually late start today. Geoff headed off in search of a travel agency that could help with further onward hotel bookings. Not much luck however – nowhere with the required seven rooms. Meanwhile Greg met up with a German who was plotting the course in his Porsche Cayenne for a Trans-Siberian rally later in the year.
The roads are steadily improving but occasionally large holes appear – just to keep you awake. We witnessed a few accidents, one with a Jap import coming off second best after colliding with a truck. It would appear that upwards of half the vehicle fleet are Jap imports, all RH drive. Whereas we have the benefit of a passenger to see if it’s safe to pass, RH cars driven solo by the locals don’t. So it’s quite common the see an oncoming car pull out from behind a truck & move over to our side of the road before deciding it’s too risky. Other times they just pass anyway. Quite exciting……..
A stop mid afternoon for lunch & refuel went down well. However the VW Kombi wouldn’t start, result of a flat battery. Tests showed that it wasn’t charging. The quick fix was to swap the battery with another from one of the Fiats. We would then look at the problem later.
Mysteriously the VW ‘fixed’ itself only to suffer from carb problems but we pushed on. Meanwhile the Saab was making noises from the front suspension. The LH shock mount had broken. At the next village we went in search of someone with a welder. Finally a large building with dismantled tractors was spotted & in the distance we could see welding going on. By the appearance it looked like a village collective from the old communist days. An effective repair for minimal cost was made & we were on the road again.
We finally camped near a small village called Tatarsk, about 100km short of Omsk.
A great location for the night, even the mozzies were reasonably friendly.
The temperatures have kept us guessing in Siberia. It varies quite widely from day to day. As low as 10 degrees & sometimes into the 30s. We are passing through several time zones which make long days even longer. It finally gets dark around midnight & light again four or five hours later. Tomorrow on to Tyumen.
Day Seventeen - 26 June 2007 - Omsk to Ishim
The group departed our campsite at 8:00, a leisurely start in comparison to most mornings and made the mandatory stop after two hours of travelling at a big new truck stop to refuel and buy bottled water. The truck stops usually have a café and a basic motel type facility attached and there are many of these new complexes popping up along the highway as we head west.
We headed for Omsk and ventured into the city centre, some of the group were not quite so keen to do so because of the traffic and navigating around a foreign town. Omsk is built on the intersection of two rivers and turned out to be a pretty and modern town. We stopped for lunch at “Friday’s” and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and western food. The nice clean toilets were utilized by all.
We took some time to find our way back to the E30 and the road to Ishim. Once again the road deteriorated and we arrived on the outskirts of Isham at 7:00pm. Some of the group wanted to eat dinner in Isham due to the very unpleasant flies and mozzies. We now had hoards of large angry flies that bite to deal with as well as the mozzies and the thought of cooking our own meals at a camp site with these monsters attacking both us and our food was a situation we did not want to contend with.
A local of Ishim noticed our slow precession of vehicles through the town and stopped us to see if he could help us. He and his wife spoke no English but after much sign language they led us to a pectopah (restaurant). For 46 Russian roubles each (less than $2:00 NZ) we had some local fish caught from the river, lentils, bread and cola. Once again not all of the group wished experience the local cuisine but we are able to report that it was very tasty and we had no after affects.
We drove for another two hours and found an off road campsite at 10:45pm. Some of the group had decided not to stop in Tyumen the next night so we announced our intention to break away from the group as we wished to experience more of Russia rather than just drive past. This was received with a mixed response but it is our intention to rejoin the group at Yekaterinburg.
The flies and mozzies were really oppressive so we covered ourselves up, pitched our tents quickly and then hid inside and went off to bed. We had covered 650 kms for the day.
Daryl and Greg
Day Eighteen - 27 June 2007 - Ishim to Tyumen
We departed at 8:00am from our campsite which was west of Isham and 105 kms from Tyumen. We had done some extra miles the night before as there was no point in camping early because as soon as the tents went up it was straight inside and zipped in to get away from the flies and mozzies.
There was a one hour time change (backwards) this morning which we picked up from the café at the truck stop which was just opening for breakfast. A breakfast of fried eggs, bread and coffee was arranged by Ngaire on behalf of the group. We have learnt quickly that due to language barriers, that it is easier if only one person communicates and makes arrangements for things like meals and asking directions etc.
At this point the group set off with different agendas. Our two Fiats headed in the direction of Tyumen with the intention of over-nighting there whilst the remainder of the group by-passed Tyumen headed for Yekaterinburg, or at least we thought that was the intention.
With only a short distance to cover before a midday check in at the “Quality Hotel” we travelled slowly toward Tyumen. On entering the outskirts of the city we spotted a series of newly built buildings displaying many of the major motor manufactures brands, Volvo, Land Rover, Renault, Citroen, the Russian brand “UAS” (pronounced WAZ) and to our surprise, Fiat / Alfa Romeo. Needless to say a U turn had to be made to see if the Fiat people were at all interested in our cars and what we were doing.
Seconds after we pulled up out front a reception committee came out of the Fiat show room to see what had arrived. Interested was an under statement. The manager of the dealership, Alexi with the help of English speaking Irina, extended an invitation of any assistance, if we needed it. As we had two issues with both cars, an urgent wheel alignment on Geoff’s car and a broken front wheel stud on Greg’s car we thought it a good opportunity to have these jobs sorted out.
The facilities at the Fiat Alfa dealership were fantastic with up to date equipment and immaculately clean tiled floors. They even surprised us by having alignment specs for the 125 on record. We were hosted for lunch and gave a short interview for a local dealer publication. To fill in time whilst the cars were being worked on, car sales man “Micha” took us for a spin in a new Alfa 159 JTA and demonstrated its speed and handling abilities!!
Micha escorted us into the city to the hotel arriving at 15.15. The hotel facilities were much appreciated and a welcome opportunity to catch up with the website reports.
Later that evening we ventured out to a great local restaurant with a German theme to enjoy a meal other than dehydrated camp food.
Our conclusion is that Tyumen is a very pleasant city with very hospitable people and an experience that we would not have wanted to miss.
Greg and Daryl.
Day Nineteen - 28 June 2007 - Tyumen to Yekaterinburg
We awoke to a leisurely start to the day in Tyumen. Our days prior had been a little more hectic and it was good to be more relaxed. Breakfast was followed by a taxi ride to see the Trinity Monastery built in 1727 beside the Tura River.
The monastery is undergoing renovation but the very striking gold topped domes are visible from some distance. When we visited there was a service in the Peter and Paul Church but we were still allowed to enter. The paintings inside are magnificent but they are topped by a seven level candelabra. Despite the heat of the day the church was very cool due to the thick concrete walls.
We took pictures of the church and the associated monastery buildings. Daryl was taking a picture of the associated gardens when the gardener an elderly gent with a long beard and an even longer hoe indicated that taking a picture of him was not allowed. Despite the language difficulty Daryl knew what the story was.
We walked back to our hotel and on the way saw a number of old churches and war memorials as well as more modern buildings. The walk along the Tura River was very pleasant and we saw large a barge type passenger boat taking tourists along the river.
Back at the hotel we received a call from the other group members that they had decided to bypass Yekaterinberg and drive straight to Perm. Given the very pleasant stay we had in Tyumen including the excellent hospitality we received I think the others may have missed an opportunity to see the city and meet some lovely people.
A quick pack of the cars and we were on the road to Yekaterinberg just after midday. There was about 10km of road of poorer quality than we had recently experienced which kept our concentration high but in the main the road was satisfactory.
Notwithstanding the stories we had heard about the rain in Siberia, it took a special rain dance from Dallas to achieve much rain at all. We received the benefit of the rain removing the huge flies, mosquitoes etc that populated the area in huge numbers around Tyumen, from the radiator and headlight screens.
Lunch was had a roadside café. The food was light and cheap, around $9 including drinks of soft drink and water. An ideal meal for on the road. The locals were bemused by us especially our lack of Russian and they kept talking to us despite our obvious inability to reply or understand. As always, the similarity of the Fiats to Lada’s evoked interest and comment from others on the road and the locals.
The 300 plus Km journey took us around 6 hours including stops. The main delays were caused by slow moving trucks of an older vintage and the difficulty of passing them in the rain. Modern cars have much better acceleration so even when gaps appear the faster cars overtake first and we have to wait.
Entering Yekaterinberg, which is a large city of around 1.3 million people was a little more difficult than we have had entering other cities. We asked a policeman who called up an associate who arrived in a car in a very short time and we were led to the vicinity of our hotel. It seems the idea with hotels is to use an address which is as popular as can be even if your hotel is only in that vicinity.
The Hotel Eurotel, which is about 1.5km from the city centre, is modern and clean and tidy. Connecting to the internet in Russian hotels usually presents a few difficulties and this one was no exception. They do have internet in some rooms but they are an exception and trying to update the website takes considerable effort including a number of visits from the internet ”expert” at the hotel. Daryl’s patience is to be commended.
We had a very pleasant dinner at a restaurant near the hotel and returned for a well earned rest.
Day Twenty - 29 June 2007 - Yekaterinburg
As there were no problems with the cars and we had the opportunity to spend a day looking at the sights of Yekaterinburg.
The city has a population of around 1.3 million & dates back to the early 1700’s. It’s known as the economic & cultural capital of the Urals region.
However it’s best known for its bloody history. Most recently with high profile Mafia killings but more significantly what happened in 1918. At a spot near the city centre Tsar Nicholas ll & his family were executed.
The Bolsheviks murdered the Romanov family on the 16th of July 1918. Not all of the bodies were recovered, leading to speculation that the youngest daughter Anastasia had somehow escaped. On this site there is now the massive Byzantine-style ‘Church of the Blood’.
The city became a major industrial centre during WW2 as hundreds of factories were transferred from vulnerable areas west of the Urals. It was closed to foreigners until 1990 because of its many defence plants.
So we spent the day walking about the central city visiting more than a few of the local bars & eateries. Like a lot of the Russian cities its ‘work in progress’, with much needed redevelopment taking place everywhere we looked.
The people we met were friendly & helpful. A stop at ‘Gordon’s Bar’ (a Scottish pub!) saw us meet up with an American who is overseeing the dismantling of old style Russian nuclear reactors.
Later that evening outside the hotel we met 3 guys riding from Vladivostok to
Germany on their motorbikes. Two were German & one from Alaska. Like us they were having a great time in Russia.
Then it was out to yet another restaurant/bar (tough life!) before returning to the hotel.
An early start for the next day’s long drive.
Day Twenty One - 1 July 2007 - Yetaterinburg to Chelny via Perm
We had planned a 7:00 am start but the lure of a hotel breakfast was too great so got on the road at 7:30 am and we had no issues departing the city as traffic was still relatively light at that time on a Saturday morning.
We had a lot of distance to cover today so progress was important. The roads were however proving to be not that good and combined with lots of traffic and some very rough patches of road our progress was slow.
As we moved into the Ural Mountains we expected hills and terrain that would be quite defining but other than undulating road the driving was easy and not what we had expected. In actual fact it was quite an anti climax.
The mineral wealth of the area was quite evident today with small oil wells and drilling machinery dotting the country side. Many of the oil wells were surrounded by grazing dairy cows in lush green pasture.
By early evening we were following a lake which brought us to a small resort type town where lots of people appeared to be holidaying and having fun. We found a restaurant in the area that was abuzz with activity and stopped there for dinner. The staff made us feel extremely welcome and even though they spoke no English and the menu was in Russian we still managed to get nice meal. They insisted on photos and one young chap even did a good sales job in selling each of us a traditional Russian whistle for 120 roubles i.e. $6 NZ dollars.
We attempted to establish if there was a camp ground in the area but drew a blank. At one point we think that they thought we wanted to buy tents. Once back on the road two further enquiries for camp grounds proved to be fruitless. We also had another two police stops and it was approaching 10:30 pm by this time, but darkness was still at least an hour away.
We found a suitable camp site hidden away off the road about 11:30 pm and pitched our tents quickly as once again the mozzies saw us as their evening meal. We had covered 800 kms for the day and had been on the road for 16 hours so we were very glad to crawl into our sleeping bags.
Daryl and Greg
Day Twenty Two - 1 July 2007 - Chelny to Kazan
We were on the road by 7:45 am and travelled for two hours before finding a suitable café (kafe) for breakfast where the usual two eggs, sausages and bread was the standard serving. This was received with a degree of tolerance as the standard breakfast. Nestle iced green tea has become a favourite beverage and can be found in the café fridge next to the beer and vodka.
The traffic flows have increased, presumably as we are getting closer to
Moscow. The volume of truck traffic seemed to out number the cars. At one point while Greg was videoing we got run off the road by a “Kamaz” truck. Greg thought he had dropped the camera down as we took evasive action but this was not the case and it was all fully captured on film.
We endured multiple police stops which were no problem but as we head west they are becoming more demanding in seeing our licences and vehicle documentation. The novelty of these stops has now well worn off, especially when we get two within one kilometre as we move from one district to another. But we must continue to smile and speak lots of English which they don’t understand, to the point where we become too hard for them to deal with and they wave us on with a flick of their striped pogo sticks.
We arrived in Kazan mid afternoon. We had received good instructions re the location of Hotel Regina where we were staying and drove straight there. We met up with the rest of the group here and they had only arrived a couple of hours before us. We also had a two hour time change (backwards) and were now on Moscow time.
After a very welcome shower we got a taxi into the city to view the sights. The main attraction is
Kazan’s Kremlin, which is a Unesco world heritage site. It is also the Tatar head of state government. The Tatar people make up about 60 percent of the population of Kazan.
Kazan is a strikingly beautiful and clean city with a very high security presence which made us feel very safe in walking around. The walking precinct of ul Baumana was buzzing with activity. The stunning architecture of the old buildings dominates the city and there is a lot of restoration underway.
We had an evening meal at one of the many restaurant bars and met a Danish chap, Kenneth, who works in Kazan. He was able to interpret for us and joined us for dinner. It was very interesting listening to his perspective on Kazan and local life and politics.
We got a taxi back to the hotel about 10 pm after a very memorable and enlightening time in
Kazan. Shortly after walking into the hotel a spectacular thunder and lightening storm arrived, thank goodness we were not in our tents tonight.
Daryl and Greg.
Day Twenty Three - 2 July 2007 - Kazan to Nizhny-Novgorod
It had been good the previous evening to catch up with the rest of the group and to share the different experiences we had over the past few days. The others had arrived before us so we were soon directed to the “beer garden” at the back of the hotel. The English language can be rather funny in that the same sounding
words have very different meanings. What we found at the rear of the hotel was a room that sold beer and there were some bears in it.
The next morning we had our breakfast and made a rather leisurely start on the road to Nizhny Novgorod. The Saab, Volvo, Ford and the Kombi were ahead of us but we soon caught up. The Saab had suffered damage to the inside guard and shock absorber mount which had to be welded up. Because of the ground conditions the new shock absorber had to be fitted in a place where clean ground conditions existed.
When we stopped at a local café the chance was taken to fit the shock absorber. Luckily the rain that morning was limited and the shock was fitted and we were back on the road again. Stopping at roadside café’s was now common place and the locals were making the best of our pointing and gesticulating to indicate what we wanted to eat. Those that understood what we wanted the best received a little give-a-way in the form of a fluffy Kiwi with a NZ flag.
The local people many of whom drove Lada’s stopped to view our cars and look at the engines etc. Of course we were obliged to see their pride and joy as well. We appreciated the interest however the delays meant our average miles per hour was sometimes slow.
The Police were stopping us more and more often. Most were amused when we could not understand what they were saying and after reading our mission statement waved us on. However the experience of Daryl and Greg was not so amusing. A truck had passed a slow moving vehicle and Daryl and Greg followed the truck. The officer contended that they had passed in a no passing area, which is normally designated by a solid middle line.
In this instance there was no sign or no lines on the road. The speed with which the truck driver left the scene indicated to us that a transaction had taken place. The officer then insisted a traffic notice should be issued. After much pleading and a donation of cigarettes no traffic notice was required to be issued. About 10 minutes after the initial “offence” Geoff Ridley and Graeme Mathieson were also stopped. The one donation fixed both traffic offences.
Along the road we saw some rather stupid passing maneuvers and also the results where they did not occur without damage. Several trucks were parked in rather odd positions. One had its nose down a bank into the bush and a rather large truck lay on its side. The driver appeared to be digging holes under the wheels in preparation for an attempt to get the truck back upright. The results of further accidents were on the roadside and one held us up for a short time before we were able to move on.
Nearing the city of Nizhny Novgorod, founded in 1221, on the banks of the mighty Volga the two Fiats peeled off from the convoy to spend the night.
At 3700 km the River Volga is the longest in Europe. We hadn’t booked a hotel in the city, which is Russia’s third largest with a population around 1.3 million. A quick look in the Lonely Planet identified several to look at. If ever a book was worth its weight in gold Lonely planet has to be it.
I asked a young lady whose name we later found out to be Maria if she could speak English. Not only could she speak perfect English but also Japanese.
This young lady walked with me about a kilometre to the Hotel Volga and also helped with the enquiries about the rooms. It is her intention to win a scholarship to Japan. With her attitude and helpfulness she would be a worthy recipient. She loved the little Kiwi’s and we gave her a book about New Zealand and a flag.
The Hotel Volga must have been magnificent in its hay day but now it is need of a major retrofit. None-the-less it was clean and tidy and the staff friendly and helpful. There are great views of the Volga and we could see large barges and boats plying the river.
We went to dinner in one of the restaurants in the mall area and wandered back towards the hotel. Across the road from the hotel high above the river there was music and dancing even though it was a Monday evening. The atmosphere and the twilight were great with people enjoying themselves. It was good to see people socialising rather then being couch potatoes in front of TV sets.
A quick chat on the hotel balcony to some Americans in Russian learning the language and it was time for bed.
Day Twenty Four - 3 July 2007 - Nizhny-Novgorod to Moscow
Today was a short hop to Moscow which symbolises the successful completion of the arduous and relatively unknown road journey across Siberia. We all regard reaching Moscow as a return to civilisation. In reality the last few cities that we have visited, most of which have only been open to foreigners since the early 1990’s, have been very cosmopolitan and surprisingly pleasant and enjoyable places to visit.
The road from Nizhny-Novgorod to Moscow was fairly good four lane highway for most of the way. We covered the 440 kms in good time and arrived in Moscow by late afternoon. As our map and directions to the hotel were fairly basic it was going to be a challenge to find the hotel in a city of close to 10 million people.
We knew that some guess work would be required and with some assistance from helpful locals we found our way to within sight of the hotel but became stuck in a massive traffic jam. The ability of Russian drivers to escalate a small traffic delay into total chaos and gridlock has to be seen to be believed. The result was that it took us an hour to go the last 500 meters to the hotel. The traffic manoeuvres, waving arms, horns and flowing Russian language provided free entertainment.
Our hotel, the Izmialovo Delta, is a complex of 8000 beds built for the 1980 Olympic Games. It is a very self contained complex and is located 9 kms from the city centre. As we are here for a couple of days we spent the evening familiarising ourselves with the facility.
Daryl and Greg
Days Twenty Five & Twenty Six - 4th & 5th July 2007 - Moscow
These 2 days were scheduled as maintenance time or to play tourists in
Russia’s near thousand year old capital city.
The Geoff/Dallas Fiat required further exhaust repairs involving the removal of 2 broken studs from the manifold. Not an easy job with limited tools in a hotel car park.
So for most, the days were spent looking around the various sights of this large city.
Focal point is of course Red Square and the Kremlin. Highlights include St. Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s tomb & many, many museums. A self guided tour of this area was taken on the first day & then an evening guided tour of the city the next night.
Ideally we needed a full week here but no time!
Early on the morning of departure Greg & Daryl took their Fiat in to
Red Square for a photo shoot outside St Basils.
Day Twenty Seven - 6th July 2007 - Moscow to Novgorod
Having spent several days out of the car sightseeing and sleeping in a hotel bed it was with a little reluctance that we packed the bags and loaded the car up once again. It seemed like we had some unfinished business in Moscow because there was so much to see and we hadn’t seen it all. The cars were definitely a little heavier because the markets next door to the hotel had a huge variety of things to buy and some had taken the opportunity to buy the once in a lifetime showpiece for home.
Dallas had decided he would not lead the convoy for the day but within a short time he unwittingly assumed the role. Warren and Ian were looking for fuel and took some wrong turns. We followed for a short time and then went back to the main road. Geoff Ridley found a roadhouse for the night and was joined by Warren and Ian. The other four cars had opted for the comfort of a hotel if one could be found plus a look around historic Novgorod.
When we found out we were leading the convoy by some distance we slowed down and took a few pictures of derelect houses which
Dallas quipped you would need crampons to walk from one end to the other. When we stopped outside a little roadside shop there was not a soul in sight. Soon the word was out and the locals had some urgent shopping to do. For once they were very discreet and didn’t approach us and instead did their shopping and took discreet glances at the people in the funny coloured “Lada’s” with writing all over them.
While we were driving slowly we got a text from Daryl as we were out of radio coverage. Our radio was the runt of the litter because we could hear one sided messages from one car but not what the others were saying. The Combi had a problem and it was being looked at. It seemed that the fuel pump was the issue and it was replaced. It turned out that there were other issues which needed to be sorted out as well.
It was decided that Dallas and I would go on to Novgorod and get accommodation if it was available while the others got the Combi back on the road. One of the problems we had when entering cities was marrying up the road maps of Russia which are written in Russian but do not show smaller streets with maps in the Lonely Planet which are written in English and also don’t show all side streets.
Nearing Novgorod I was looking at the Lonely Planet to see which hotel they recommended. The map showed the road to Moscow which I believed was the road we were on when in fact there were several roads to Moscow.
By chance we stopped a short distance from where we wanted to be. I asked some locals for help and we found the Hotel Akron. It seemed that in our time in Russia with few exceptions when we got very close to our hotel and sought help it was difficult for locals to direct us. The hotel could put the 10 of us up for the night but were worried we would want to stay longer and there was some difficulty in explaining we definitely wanted one night only.
A Muscovite named Sacha who spoke very good English was holidaying with his wife and family in Novgorod. He did an excellent job in translating and helping with car security and left his cellphone number in case we had any glitches. His kids loved our little Kiwi give-a-ways and we gave him a NZ hat to say thanks.
Before long the others joined us after getting the Combi back on the road. Carpark security was getting dearer the further West we travelled. We started off at around 50 roubles in
Siberia and now we were paying 350 per day. Still car security is paramount and $17.50 a day is good insurance.
We had a very pleasant dinner at La Chocolat a café located just across from the hotel which served light meals. It was Kevin and Sandra’s 39th wedding anniversary and we had wine to help with the celebration.
Novgorod is a smaller city of 240,000 and has lots of charm. The city is split by the
Volkhov River and it is said Russian history began here as this was the first permanent settlement by Varangian Norsemen who established the embryonic Russian state.
Novgorod means “new town” but it has been around since the 9th century. Methodically trashed by the Nazi’s the town was one of the first reconstruction projects by the Soviet government. It also suffered from Ivan the Terrible killing 60,000 of it’s people.
The highlight of the city is the cathedral of St Sophia but there are many lovely small churches and the fortress originally built in the 9th century and rebuilt in brick in the 14th century is well preserved and one of the best of it’s kind in existence. A walk around the kremlin and across the
Volkhov River early in the morning capped off a lovely stay in Novgorod.
Day Twenty Eight - 7 July 2007 - Novgorod to St Petersburg
When we left on this trip my expectations for St Petersburg were high. With the history surrounding the city, its various name changes according to who held power after the wars and the various rulers who had made the city what it is today and the atrocities committed there it was to be one of the highlights of my journey. I was looking forward to getting there.
It was only a short hop from Novgorod to St Petersburg and we had arranged to meet with the Saab, and the Volvo crews at a road marker on the way. It was just after we met them and gassed up that Daryl began feeling unwell. His cheery disposition meant that we hadn’t noticed he wasn’t 100 per cent. He was having stomach cramps and after discussion with Graeme Mathieson it was decided he would take some pills from the medical kit for dysentery.
He believed that he may have had some chicken in Moscow at the hotel that had upset his stomach. You will see from the picture of him with the no piddling sign that his smile never wavered.
On the way to St Petersburg the high speed miss in the engine began to get a little more frequent. The manifold gasket repair we did in Moscow was working well and although there was a leak where the two into one connection occurred it didn’t allow any fumes into the car. There was a bit of a rattle where the exhaust touched the underside of the car but the car okay. The Combi was not too well and the repairs done the day before had been temporary only.
There was a bit of a hiccup when we arrived in St Petersburg as on our original schedule showed we were to stay at the Hotel Azamut but this was the only hotel we hadn’t had confirmed. When we arrived at the hotel we were not booked in and I looked at the voucher delivered to us in
Novosibirsk. Ooops the Hotel name was the Mockba Hotel not the Azamut. I had taken this to be a typo as I didn’t expect the Hotel Moscow to be in St Petersburg.
By this time Daryl was in quite a bit of pain and it was obvious we had to get him help. The Hotel Azamut where we had called in had a doctor but only on weekdays. The hotel staff quickly found us a medical clinic and I talked to them and an ambulance was sent. They were experienced in dealing with such instances and dealt with medical insurance companies regularly. They spoke excellent English so communication was good.
They took Daryl to their clinic and Greg went with him in the car. The Combi was having problems so they went off to the VW service people we had passed on the way to the Hotel. The rest of us went off to the Hotel Moscow. Murray and Pat Reedy of Silk Road Adventures had once again done a great job in getting us a good hotel.
The main problem with Russian Hotels is the internet. Almost all, even the big ones, don’t have internet in the rooms and the wireless cards don’t provide very good service. There were only two computers in the business centre on the ground floor. It makes it very difficult to keep the site up to date and to communicate back home. In this respect Chinese hotels are light years ahead.
A group of us walked up the road from the hotel for a meal. It was a bit of fun because we had decided we would have some wine. Russians are not big wine drinkers it seems and the range at many restaurants we had been to, had been limited and expensive. This restaurant wine license had expired and they didn’t have any wine for a “few days”. I spoke to the waitress and she got the manager to take me to a liquor outlet to buy some wine. Bring your own was fine.
Initially we were a bit somber because of Daryl not being well and we missed him being with the group. We were confident of him being looked after because of the efficiency the guys from the “Euromed Clinic” had displayed. We were soon laughing at Ngairie and Sandra as after a few wines they decided to do some singing. Let’s say their busking wasn’t that rewarding financially and not that good on our ears. Their rendition of God Defend New Zealand in the lift of the hotel was just as bad.
Greg advised us he was happy with the way Daryl was being looked after and that the clinic was doing tests to diagnose what the issue was. It was believed that it was food poisoning.
We had hoped to do some sightseeing that day but circumstances all round had changed and we were looking forward to going to The Hermitage the following day.
Day Twenty Nine - 8 July 2007 - St Petersburg
The day started in a leisurely manner with an 8am breakfast in the huge dining room of the inappropriately named “Moscow” hotel in St Petersburg. We were now surrounded by a cocktail of mostly European tourists on a pilgrimage to the city that was once known as
Leningrad, prior to the mid 80’s. Our aim today was to see and experience as much of the city as possible in a day. Try as we may to make arrangements for some sort of group city tour, it seemed as though it wasn’t going to happen.
At 9am the majority of our group, with the exception of Daryl who was still in the care of a local private hospital, caught a # 27 bus into the “Hermitage” St Petersburg’s premier attraction.
As it was Sunday the Hermitage, which was the winter palace of the great Tsars and leaders of
Russia didn’t open until 10am, by which time sizable ques of visitors had assembled outside. Not one for queing and with at least half an hour to wait, Jaffas and I took a stroll to the nearby river “Tega” which is the main and sizable waterway that St Petersburg relies on for its commerce and transport.
This was a special moment for me as I was testing my memory, having been to
Leningrad on two previous occasions in the early 80,s. I am pleased to say that not a lot had changed and most landmarks were as I remembered them.
On our return to the Hermitage the rest of the group were inside the building and had latched on to “Alexandri” a enthusiastic Russian guide who spoke perfect English and wanted to tell us all about the exciting history of not only the Hermitage but Russian history in general. She entertained us for almost 2 hours and was excellent. Alexandri was a real character with an interesting personal history of which we didn’t get to here about but could only imagine. We wandered across the bridge after a café lunch to the Navel Museum. We spent a good one and a half hours at this superb display of the Russian Naval might. The only disappointment was that all the explanations were in a language that we couldn’t read. Out touring day ended with a walk though a park where the very first monument in Russia was erected. You probably need to appreciate just how prolific monuments and statues are in Russia to appreciate the significance of this particular one.
On arrival back at the hotel our focus changed to our travelling companion, Daryl. Jaffas, Martin and I took a taxi to the hospital with some items that Daryl had requested. We were also hoping to here results of the tests that Daryl had earlier that afternoon. We found him happy and feeling a lot better and we concluded that he was in good hands having met both, his doctor Andre, and the hospital administration and nursing staff.
I am always keen to try local dishes, so the day concluded with a visit to “Restaurant Rasputin” where I enjoyed a traditional bowl of Borsch soup followed by Beef Stroganoff. From my experience if you order local food it arrives quickly and is much cheaper.
Day Thirty - 9 July 2007 - St Petersburg - Pskov
A team meeting was called for at 9am this morning following breakfast. Two major issues needed to be discussed and departure times from St Petersburg adjusted accordingly. We had not only an ill Daryl in hospital with a yet un-diagnosed stomach disorder, but we also had a sick Volkswagen Kombi which was still at the VW workshop with major starter and electrical gremlins. Definite release times for either Daryl or the Kombi still had not been determined. Russian visa exit dates for all parties were a crucial factor at this time.
Daryl’s condition had deteriorated overnight and his problem was now to be assessed by a top surgeon who just happened to be in the area. We were fairly confident that we would be leaving
St Petersburg without him, later in the day. A departure time of midday was agreed upon for those who could leave which turned out to be the Ridley Saab and the Burt Volvo only. Sandra and Kevin Lamb in the Capri elected to stay with the Kombi crew, now with an amended departure time of 17.00.
Jaffas, Dallas and I spent most of the day with Daryl, nipping out occasionally for food at a local café and a walk around the block to check out a local hotel in case we did elect to stay another day with the view of taking Daryl with us. Our hopes were dashed at about 17.30 when Dr Andre announced that they had found the problem and that Daryl would have to stay until Wednesday. The contingency plan was to fly him to Prague literally hours before his visa expired. After communication with the NZ high commission in Moscow we were aware that extending Daryl’s visa for a longer stay in Russia was not an option. Even serious medical conditions were not considered to be a sufficient excuse for a visa extension.
After a quick re organisation of Daryl’s essential possessions the 2 Fiats departed from
St Petersburg at 19.30. Traffic was not too bad at that time but the rain began to fall steadily making the going slow for several kilometres. Nearing the out-skirts of the city we picked up the Kombi and Capri on our radio frequency and they were just a few kilometres ahead having departed from the VW service centre later than expected.
Contact had also been made with the Saab and Volvo who had left St Petersburg earlier in the day and to our surprise they had only travelled 80 kms and were tucked up in a roadhouse. We elected to cover more distance that evening as the driving and road conditions had improved and it was important to arrive at the border for our exit from Russia with time to spare as we were not sure what to expect. We began looking for suitable roadside free camping spots at about 10.30pm with the usual difficulties, which included: to swampy, to close to the road, not a suitable access etc. At 11.00pm we finally settled on a disused shingle pit, attempting to pitch tents before darkness set in, and before the threatening rain arrived and before the mosquitoes discovered we had arrived in their territory. We had covered 214km for the day with just a couple of hours left to the border.
Day Thirty One - 10 July 2007 - Pskov (Russia) to Daugavpils (Latvia)
Today was exit day from Russia. So with still 150 km still to cover and no idea how long the border crossing would take, we departed camp just before 7am. We had a little trouble getting our car started this morning but put it down to the colder temperatures. However, just a few kilometres down the road it started to backfire and almost came to a halt. It came right and we preceded without a problem, perhaps just a protest at leaving Russia. Ironically, after gathering up the rest of the #1 group (as we became known) and just 20km from the border the second Fiat had exactly the same issue, except on this occasion it brought the car to a halt. Suspecting a “closed points” issue we removed the distributor opened and cleaned the points and refitted the dizzy. That didn’t fix the problem. Out came the distributor again and a replacement condenser attached. The car ran perfectly much to the relief of Geoff and Dallas.
We arrived at the border at 10am but still had to await the arrival of the Ridley Saab and the Burt Volvo. We refuelled and spent our remaining Ruebels on delicacies like Russian Champagne and chocolate, and finished off with a coffee and café lunch. The line of cars exiting from Russia was growing steadily and by the time we lined up at midday we were about 8th in the queue. Progress was slow as the Russians only process 4 cars at a time. We were lucky on this occasion as they permitted all 6 of us into the compound. I was first in the line and was nominated to do the explority work so that I could relay details to the rest of the group. Initially it looked like this exit was going to be a tricky one, with the lone immigration and customs lady a bit bewildered with the documents that we had to offer. This was combined with a total lack of command of the English language by anyone at this remote border post. However after a short period and the fact that the queue of cars behind us was expanding rapidly our exit was quickened up and we were all processed with haste.
I proceeded ahead into Latvia and met with a stern and serious customs officer. We worked out that they needed passports, the original vehicle registration papers and our NZ card type drivers licence. An international driver’s licence was not acceptable to Latvia, according to this officer. After a short time we had the entire Latvian customs staff, including a chap with lots of stars on his shoulders, laughing and joking with our group.
The initial 10 kilometres into Latvia was lined with trucks intending to travel into Russia. We estimated that they would have to wait at least a week to cross this border. Our journey continued on much improved Latvian roads. Our intention was to make it to Daugavpils this evening, but short of there we stopped at a gas station with an almost new motel / hotel close by. It was a very nice establishment, we had group drinks on the balcony, discussed the plan for travelling in the direction of Paris and enjoyed an exquisite dinner. The food costs in Latvia appeared to be extremely inexpensive.
Day Thirty Two - 11 July 2007 - Daugavpils (Latvia) to Lithuania to Warsaw (Poland)
Three countries in one day, this was going to be a big one, with Warsaw as our destination. The day started with steady rain and colder temperatures. As we had left before breakfast was on offer, we drove for the mandatory 2 hours and stopped at a quant Latvian café where an Omelette pie was prepared for the entire group. The convoy was now reduced to 4 vehicles since the Saab and Volvo crews had elected to take a route across northern Germany.
The roads had improved somewhat but the passing opportunities were limited and progress although steady was slow. Just after an 11am fuel stop we suffered our first car damage when a sizable rock hit the windscreen from a passing truck. It was lucky that we had gone to the expense of fitting laminated screens before leaving NZ.
We crossed out of Lithuania and into Lithuania at an almost non existent border, a nice change after what we had experienced so far during our journey. After negotiating one of the larger cities in Latvia, “Kaunas” we headed for the Polish border which I expected to be a little tougher. Due to a motorway diversion and a navigating indiscretion by the lead car (no names mentioned) it took an hour longer to reach the border. The crossing was a breeze with neither customs nor immigration that interested in our well travelled, dirty and overloaded cars displaying “very foreign” number plates and an NZ country of origin decal. We still had a 200km run into Warsaw with 16.30pm showing on the clock. We were assisted once again by a 1hr time change backward which would give us another hours travelling time. The remaining journey into Warsaw on Polish roads was tough with lots of truck traffic, narrow roads, lots of interconnecting villages and very little passing opportunities.
We had no hotel arranged and little knowledge of what to expect of Warsaw. With our very basic map I once again led into the city with the help of Kerry’s navigating skills. We managed to cross the 2nd bridge into a very busy central city and just happened to stop to regroup outside a hotel complex. After a quick discussion with the hotel reception we were informed that hotel accommodation in Warsaw was totally full. Just what you want to hear at 10pm at night after an 800km drive. The hotel receptionist was however very helpful and located 6 rooms at the new “Etap” one star hotel near the riverbank. That would do nicely. After about an hour of negotiating central Warsaw in the pitch dark we drove into the fabulous Etap hotel. There was no food available, but a shower and bed were on most of the teams agenda. Feeding would have to wait until tomorrow morning when the included breakfast was available.
Day Thirty Three - 12 July 2007 - Warsaw
We earned a later start this morning after yesterday’s marathon. The majority of the group were eager to explore the history of this interesting city. While they took a walk in the vicinity of the hotel, I spent the time in the hotel catching up with the lost days in my diary and tallying up mileages and fuel consumptions. To date we had already covered almost 11,000km in 33 days and consumed 900 litres of fuel.
A city bus tour had been arranged for 2pm as this is the easiest way to get to know a foreign city, its environs and history. Kate was our English speaking guide and as it happened we were the only passengers in a mini van. Kate was a fantastic guide and the tour was very personalised. We visited the Palace on the Water and Chopin’s monument in the beautiful 200 acre Royal Gardens. The Old city is a fascinating place featuring the Old Town Square and the Royal Castle. The Old City Walls were particularly impressive. A trip to Warsaw would not be complete with out a pilgrimage to the Jewish Ghettos. This is a part of European history that we from the other side don’t know a lot about and can only imagine the horrors. We discovered that the Poles including our tour guide remember and honour not only this grim part of history but also honour the victims as well as the heroes.
Our return to the hotel was at 17.30 just enough time to get cleaned up before dinner. On our travels around the Old City we had seen many authentic Polish restaurants, had received some tips on what the national Polish dishes consisted of and headed into town by Taxi for a group meal. As it was Ngaire’s birthday (not allowed to mention any numbers) a great night was had.
The extra mileage covered to visit Warsaw was indeed well worth the effort.
Day Thirty Four - 13 July 2007 - Warsaw (Poland) to Prague (Czech Republic)
I led the group out of Warsaw this morning at 7.30am. The roads for the first 100kms were fantastic with dual lane motorway for the first hour or so. As we turned off the main motorway and headed South West the roads once again became the familiar narrow single lane type with heavy truck traffic with little overtaking opportunities. We made our first fuel stop in Poland and had to decipher what fuel was on offer and what we wanted. The pump with the letters “PB95” with a slash through the letters seemed to be the best option. This indicated lead-free 95 octane or at least we hoped that was the case. We also realised that we were now paying the equivalent of $NZ2.20 per litre.
The day went without a hitch and we crossed out of Poland into the Czech Republic at an almost non existent border at 15.30. The first 100km into Czech (as the locals refer to it) was through narrow village streets which almost connected all the villages together. Czech’s most noticeable icon, the Skoda was evident as the most popular mode of transport and probably accounted for 60% of the cars on the road. We finally found the motorway into Prague which allowed us to cover the last 120km with ease. We arrived on the outskirts of the Czech capital at 17.30. The first purchase was a city map to enable Geoff and Dallas to navigate the group into the “Thalia” hotel in the central city. This was the hotel that we would be reunited with Daryl after his extended stay in the St Petersburg hospital and flight to Prague just hours before his Russian visa was due to expire.
Daryl was there to greet us and looking well again. We were indeed pleased to have him back with the team and back in the navigator’s seat of the Fiat. As he had been in Prague for a couple of days he had a reasonably good idea of the city layout. His job tonight was to lead us all into the old city and find a nice restaurant. He passed the test and a nice night was enjoyed in this truly mystical and beautiful city.
Day Thirty Five - 14 July 2007 - Prague (Czech)
Today’s plan was to participate in a walking tour of the city. According to the brochure that Sandra found in the hotel lobby this also included a boat ride on the river, a restaurant lunch, a tram ride and a visit to the spectacular Prague Palace. This was going to cost $1000 Czech Crowns ($US50). This sounded like a pretty good deal by European standards.
We walked a short distance to the start point of the tour, near the statue of the well known, “Good King Wenceslas”. Our multicultural group of about 20 tourists was guided by a very enthusiastic lady with an amazing historical knowledge of Prague and its environs. She also had some very definite political opinions that just 10 years ago would had her spending an extended period in a Czech jail.
The first part of the tour was through the incredible “Old City” area, which leads us down to the rivers edge for the second leg of the tour, the boat ride. The Prague River has a series of man made weirs which restrict the boat traffic to a distance of about 2km in either direction. The free beer served on board was appreciated as the temperatures started to reach the mid 30’s. After a longer than expected walk we reached the restaurant for the included lunch which was a 1.5hr affair but more than satisfactory and an opportunity for some of us to rest our legs. The next and final part of the program took us across the historic “Charles” Bridge to a tram stop where we boarded on of Prague’s impressive trams which quickly took us up to the Prague Palace. On entry to the Palace was a collection of live exotic birds including Owls, Falcons and Eagles. For a small cost there was an opportunity to handle one of these birds. Daryl was keen to take up the offer and some great photos were taken of him with a huge and heavy Eagle perched on his arm.
The Palace location offered fantastic views of Prague city. This point was also the end of the tour from where we made our way by foot back to the hotel. In conclusion a great tour in an interesting city. We completed the day with a meal at a nearby restaurant which offered Afghan food. As is common in Europe, many of the restaurateurs originate from Middle Eastern and Asian countries. The Kebabs and Biriani made a pleasant change.
Day Thirty Six - 15 July 2007 - Prague (Czech) to Heidelberg (Germany)
The car was removed from the secure National Museum car park at great expense. It was now costing almost as much to park the cars as it was for a hotel room on a daily basis.
Being a Sunday morning our 9am exit from Prague was a breeze. Immediately we were travelling on European type roads with 130km/ph speed limits. This may be fine for late model cars but our classic’s travel comfortably and economically at 100kph. This meant that a careful watch has to be made for fast approaching cars in the fast lane as we are now travelling just a little faster that the truck traffic. The left hand exterior mirror has now become the most important accessory on the car.
The Czech German border was a non event and our progress through Germany was just a matter of covering the vast distance. After a brief team discussion it was confirmed that we would make the city of Heidelberg, situated on the River Neckar our destination today. I was aware of a nice campsite located on the river from my camping tour days so we headed for there. Just prior to turning off the E50 autobahn we passed close to one of Germany’s motor racing circuits, Hochenheim.
We were now back to a camping situation, although some of us took the opportunity to take a couple of available cabins, so no need to erect a tent tonight. We also now had the pleasure of a top quality European campsite with novelties like warm showers and clean cooking facilities. Over a camp dinner of boil in the bag food and some duty free Russian bubbly and beer we reflected on the past days of the trip and the now fast approaching finish in Paris.
Day Thirty Seven - 16 July 2007 - Heidleberg (Germany) to Meaux (France)
We negotiated our way out through Heidelberg commuter traffic and headed for the E50 autobahn which would take us all the way to Paris. Initially we missed the turn that we needed and ended up on the outskirts of Manheim, the home of Mercedes Benz. When travelling on European autobahns, navigating skills have to be fined tuned otherwise the probability of heading off in the wrong direction is easy.
By 11.00am we had crossed the border into France. No passport check was necessary as both Germany and France belong to the EU. Immediately we knew that we had changed countries. The quality of the road deteriorated slightly and the road signs reverted to the characteristic French variety that I remember from my coach driving days. The other very obviously change being the language which we had to deal with at the first fuel stop just another 100km down the road.
Our destination today was a campsite at “Jablines” about 40km outside of Paris where we planned to re unite with the rest of the group and a few friends. This was to be the last night before making our way into our final destination, the Eiffel Tower in central Paris.
The final part of the drive toward Jablines was on easy French Autoroute though mostly flat fertile cropping country with sizable fields of wheat, barley and colourful sunflowers.
We were running alongside the railway for much of the day which was built for the 350km/hr French SNF fast train. The tracks are more like a slot car track than a rail line.
We had received good instructions from Geoff Ridley earlier in the day by way of text.
The selected route took us via the E50 then the A104 to exit 8. We followed a complex series of country roads passing through some beautiful small country villages that are not always visible from the main autoroutes. On arrival at the campsite we were greeted by the rest of the team as well as a big welcome sign in French posted on the reception window. We enjoyed comparing notes with the other members of the group who had elected to take the Northern Germany route. A plan was discussed regarding tomorrows drive into the Eiffel Tower and a 10am departure from the campsite agreed on.
Greg and Daryl.
Day Thirty Eight - 17 July 2007 - Meaux (France) to Paris and the Finish at the Eiffel Tower.
The Final Day!! Some apprehension was evident this morning as we prepared for the last 40km leg into the Paris finish point, the Eiffel Tower”.
Some of the group, including ourselves were sorry to see this fantastic trip coming to an end. Others were ready to return home to loved ones and normality. Some were obviously just happy to make it to the end and having achieved what we set out to do in the first place. Some of the cars were running on borrowed time and some like our 2 Fiats were running better than when we started the journey. The VW Kombi had starting issues having stripped off ring gear teeth, the Saab had a disconnected front shock absorber which had been destroying top mounts and breaking up the inner guard. Clutch problems had also given the Ridley, Matheson crew some sleepless nights from day 1. The Capri and Volvo had run well and endured the rugged roads well having suffered only ignition and bent rim issues.
The last part of the journey into the Eiffel Tower did prove to be a final test as suspected.
We found ourselves on a very congested “Paris Peripherique” south bound heading for the Port Dauphine exit which would take us via some well know Paris Landmarks. At this point the grand plan of all the cars arriving in convoy at the Eiffel Tower fell to pieces. Three of the team missed the exit in the busy traffic and had to use their own resources to navigate to our finish point. The rest of us negotiated our way around the Arc de Triomph and drove down a busy Champs d’Eleysee. We crossed the Seine River and found enough available car parks to assemble the cars with the very imposing Eiffel Tower in the background. The rest of the group arrived some 15 minutes later.
Lots of celebratory photos were taken for the personal history books.
We had arrived at our final destination at 12.15 pm as planned several months previous. The finish was not a wild celebration but rather a mood of satisfaction and accomplishment having completed such an ambitious challenge.
Our sincere thanks to our loyal sponsors, supporters, families and friends all of who will be acknowledged when we return to normality. Without the support of the above mentioned this ambitious challenge would not have been possible.
Greg, Daryl, Geoff and Dallas.