Our Tours - 2009 Beijing to Paris - Daily Diary
|Taking off from a quick coffee amidst the rape fields and blue
DATE: 24/07/2009 LOCATION: LADENBURG-PARIS
This was the day that we didnt think would ever happen. This was the last travelling day of the trip heading just 400km into Paris, our final destination. It was a day of mixed emotions, some were unhappy that it was all about to finish. Some were pleased that they had made it through without any major vehicle or health issues and for most it was a sense of achievement of a task that they never thought possible. I did however send out a gentle reminder that we still quite a distance to go and that one of the biggest challenges was still to come. That was negotiating the Paris traffic and the notorious perfifique ring road and streets into the centrally located Marriot hotel. As radio communication can be erratic around Paris I produced a map with the intended approach route highlighted so that no one would get lost. That idea was based on our experiences on the 2007 expedition and lessons learnt.
At the lunch time break at a French motorway services we lost the Steeles but expected to see them at the Paris hotel. We were not at all concerned as Peter was well practiced in the use of his GPS and Paris would not be a challenge after some of the Russian cities.
Our timing was perfect and our passage to the hotel was reasonable uninterrupted arriving at the rather nice Marriot Rive Gauche at about 15.45. The only one vehicle to go astray was the McKearneys who dropped off the end of the pack. They resorted to the map and GPS and actually beat us to the hotel anyway.
There was jubilation on arrival in a quite sense of the word with a few congratulatory hugs and kisses even though we had not totally finished yet. We still had the final run to the Eiffel tower to complete tomorrow morning. The next challenge of the day came while trying to park the cars in the hotel underground car park. Some had to remove tyres off roof racks to fit down into the park and when Peter Steel arrived he had to let his tyres down to get in as well as some voluntary labour to compress the suspension.
The planning for a celebratory dinner at the hotel got underway as everybody settled into the palatial Paris rooms. At 7pm we had a few drinks before heading upstairs to a specially prepared area for Rally Tours drinks followed by a few words of congratulations from the tour leader and organiser. Greg especially made mention of the few hard working assistants and supporters that had succeeded in putting together this challenging and successful 2007 Beijing to Paris expedition.
Mark (Doc) Shaw and daughter Clare had collated a montage of photos from day one. Clare had cleverly created the presentation and Marc spoke to the pictures for an hour bringing back memories of those early days in China and Mongolia and even Siberia. Dinner followed on into what could only be described as a really appropriate way to finish such an interesting journey.
DATE: 23/07/2009 LOCATION: PRAGUE - HEIDLBERG/LADENBURG
The anticipated busy exit from Prague was not as bad as expected. We followed the E50 autobahn in the direction of Plzen and the German border. Not long after crossing into Germany Richard and Jude in the Challenger were pulled over by the German police driving an Audi RS4 wagon. Richard was a bit bewildered as he definitely new that he was not exceeding the 130km/ph speed limit. The police were just inquisitive as they did not recognise the NZ number plates on this foreign vehicle.
Meanwhile Errol and Phil had farmed out a couple of bags to other vehicles so that they could accommodate their extra passenger, Sarah for the 200km journey to the Nurnberg railway station where Sarah would continue her European travels. After being part of our friendly and sociable group and travelling first class in the conspicuous white Holden we think Sarah may have been keen to stay on as Errols navigator. Phil did look funny sitting on cushions in the rear passenger compartment of the Aussie Icon.
The weather turned to muck about mid afternoon and we drove in very heavy rain for about an hour. By now the truck traffic was continuously occupying the right lane and the slow moving trucks in the rain meant that concentration levels had to be high. We decided to leave the autobahn and drove up a secluded valley meeting up with the Neckar River just near Heidelberg. This was a pleasant deviation from the fast and boring autobahns. The beautiful old town of Heidelberg is well worth a visit and after spending some time cruising looking for a legitimate car park nominated to occupy some no parking zones in a town square for about an hour while we orientated ourselves with this pretty place. We were hoping of course that the officious German parking wardens had gone home for the day.
Our journey had not finished however and completed the final 15km leg to our hotel location in the neighbouring town of Ladenburg. On arrival the group headed down the street in search of the town centre which according to the map was on the banks of the Neckar River. They found the river and a beautiful little old town centre, some of the buildings on the narrow cobbled streets dating back to the 12th century. This secluded little village with ample eating establishments had to be the find of the trip.
DATE: 22/07/2009 LOCATION: PRAGUE
Our Prague hotel is situated in a semi rural setting not too far from the city. The hotel provided two vans to run everybody into the central city square (named after Good King Wenceslas) Prague has a variety of activities to participate in. Some tried the comprehensive walking tour, some the river boat cruise and the classic car tour. Most of the tours included a walk (or drive) through the old city, across the historic Charles Bridge and a visit to the Prague Palace which overlooks the city.
Prague is a beautiful city and a very popular European tourist destination. Generally it is very busy but partly due to the current worldwide recession Prague was not so full which was a pleasant reprieve for us. The day was also enjoyed by Sarah, Errols wife who had flown in from NZ to join him for a couple of days, boosting our group numbers by one.
Most everybody was feeling a bit jaded after a big day walking the streets and arrived back at the hotel to enjoy a few glasses of the best beer in the world and a meal out on the hotel forecourt. Despite the meal service being slow due to staff inadequacies the sun set of a nice memorable day in Prague.
DATE: 21/07/2009 LOCATION: WARSAW-PRAGUE
We departed the hotel almost on time at 06.15am and travelled south via the E67 and E75 passing through the cities of Czestochowa and Katowice to Oswiecim. Auschwitz is located very close to the latter name and is quite hard to locate. We finally arrived at the camp at 11.30am located our pre arranged guide and after fitting up with some quite sosphificated audio equipment headed in through the barbed wire fence to the Auschwitz 1 complex.
The 2 hour tour was a very sobering account of the atrocities of that time and these events are well documented with hard and fast evidence using the actual surroundings of the camp. This was truly a visit that will stick in the memories of all who go there.
We still had another 500km to travel so set off in the direction of Prague (Czech Republic). We encouraged Rod and Margret in their blue Jeep to be the convoy leader on this leg and their navigating skills were spot on. The autobahn speed limits increased to 130km/ph which was a bit uncomfortable in most of our vehicles and increased the fuel consumption considerable which was an issue now that we were paying more than $NZ 2 per litre for diesel. On top of that we had to purchase a 9 Euro road tax sticker which is attached to the windscreen and is electronically photographed during the autobahn sections. This system is unique to the Czech Republic and is a fairly reasonable charge considering the great roads that enable you to cover long distances in short times.
We really covered the distance and by 9.30am had arrived at our Prague hotel just as the daylight faded. A long day but an interesting and successful day, which will be included in the program next year.
DATE: 20/07/2009 LOCATION: WARSAW- Rest Day
An optional city tour of Warsaw had been arranged overnight which by 9am everybody had decided to do. Two mini buses with English speaking guides arrived and at 10.15 the tour started. It took in all the key sights in Warsaw as well as the Jewish grotto areas which our people were interested in learning more about. The history of Warsaw and the description of the devastation during WW2 and the rebuilding process of Warsaw was extremely interesting. The tour arrived back at the hotel at about 14.30 but some did stay in the old town to absorb some more culture.
Repairs on some of the cars were required which included tracing an indicator fault on the Holden and taping up Dave Hendls damaged rear bumper with a good quality race tape. During the day arrangements had been made for tomorrows unscheduled diversion to Auschwitz concentration camp some 270km south of Warsaw. This required an early start tomorrow morning so most headed to bed early.
DATE: 16/07/2009 LOCATION: HELSINKI - WARSAW
THIS INCORPORATES DAYS 16th to the 19th July.
The Helsinki (Finland) to Tallinn (Estonia) ferry departed at 7.30am so a reluctant early departure was in order to make the boarding time. The Baltic is a busy shipping channel and our ferry the SS Superstar is more like a cruise boat taking only 2 hours to make the crossing.
On arrival the Estonian customs officials singled out the impressive Holden (they dont see many classics in that part of the world) requesting original registration documents that Phil and Errol had left at home for safe keeping. So after some heavy discussions the Holden was let into Estonia. Tallinn is a city of contrasts with a very new business and retail district and the very old walled city, which is the main attraction for visitors coming here. As we had arrived early the hotel St Olav was not yet available to be occupied so after parking the cars in a supervised public car park we all headed off to explore the old city on foot. The central square was alive with lots of day tourists as at least 2 cruise ships and the usual large number of European summer holiday visitors were in the 13th century medieval town frequenting the many traditional restaurants and kerbside bars. While waiting for the hotel rooms many of the group discovered a great little cafe called the Black and White kitchen owned by Kristal a friendly local lady who is a great representative of the hospitality experienced by all in Tallinn.
The next morning (Friday July 17th) we headed around to the car park to retrieve the cars to bring them around to the hotel and into the old city. Much to our dismay the reputation of Tallinn was to be tainted as the Holden and the Steele Jeep had been broken into overnight. The fancy stereo in the Holden had been professionally removed and the jeep had lost a couple of bags from the rear of the vehicle. This necessitated contacting the local police to file reports. So as not to delay the rest of the group Alan Brown led them out of town and in the direction of Riga (Latvia) while I stayed behind to assist the victims through the very thorough police report procedure which took some 4 hours.
The 300km journey from Tallinn to Riga took 5 hours with a border crossing at Ainaz. These border crossings used to be fairly rigorous but as these Baltic countries are now part of the EC the crossings from one country to the next are a non event with not even a stop or passport control required. We enjoyed good but mostly single lane roads all the way to Riga, the capital of Latvia. The Baltic states still have their own currencies and in the case of Latvia they are called Lati and you get 0.332 LVLs to a NZ$. Our overnight stop was at the Nordic Bellevue Hotel right in the central city and close to the towns very attractive old city.
The formula of splitting the group and travelling in 2 groups was about to become a necessity once again today. This time the reason was due to a certain rugby match being played down under at 10.30am Riga time. The Rugby followers had found a sports bar to watch this crucial Australia verses All Blacks game with the hope that their dedication would result in a home win. And it did.
Todays journey for the non rugby supporters again was supervised by Alan Brown. On this occasion while heading in the direction of Vilnius (Lithuania) they sought some relief from the nice smooth seal surfaces and headed off road in search of a picnic lunch spot. Pete Steele had to be reminded that driving his Jeep in some ones highly cultivated wheat field may not be appreciated. Also worth remembering was the fact that this area was one the well used invasion areas during WW2 and that there may be un exploded mines that may affect the performance and the appearance of said Jeep if he happened to run one of these mines over in the grass. He understood that reasoning and helped find a nice spot for lunch and a safe area to park the Jeep.
The city of Vilnius was again a pleasant surprise and a walk into the old city revealed a busy vibrant place with lots of activity during the later hours of Saturday. The main cobbled street of the old city hosted lots of busy restaurants and groups dressed in a variety of outrageous costumes (Nuns, Chickens, mechanics overalls etc). This apparently is the wedding season and these were stag and hens nights leading up to the wedding. This provided us with lots of entertainment over a kerbside dinner in Vilnius.
We left Vilnius headed for Warsaw (Poland) at 8am. Todays drive was 550km and started with some careful navigating. If we took the wrong turn leaving town we could have ended up in the wrong country. We were close to the Belarus border and as visas are required for this country we did not want to go there. Also another caution was required not too far down the road as yet another main route into Poland crosses momentarily through Belarus. Funny that those fancy GPS things that some were relying on did not make this distinction in this case and a good reliable map was required so as to not end up in trouble.
The Polish Border is again a former shadow of itself with no controls in operation but fortunately the currency exchange facilities, the cafe and the toilets are still in operation. This was the lunch stop. After a long day we arrived at our Warsaw hotel, which although was not quite as flash as we had been accustomed to, was comfortable and conveniently located. Some of the group found a local Polish restaurant close to the hotel and suggested that it was the best restaurant meal encountered so far in nicely decorated surroundings.
DATE: 15/07/2009 LOCATION: HELSINKI
The pre arranged Coach and regular Rally Tours Helsinki tour guide Jussi Ala-Marttunen arrived at 9am. With Jussis expert general knowledge on Helsinki and Finland we visited a nearby Lutheran Church with a very interesting grave yard. The headstone names that tell the story of years of foreign occupation in Finland, especially by the Swedes. The next venue on the tour was a climb to the top of the 80 metre lookout tower at the Olympic stadium. This stadium was used for the 1951 games and at that time Finnish athletes were the best in the world. Helsinki is full of surprises and the church that has been carved out of solid rock in the city centre is one of these surprises and although it doesnt look much from the outside the interior and acoustics have to be seen and heard to be believed.
Helsinki is surrounded by water and is a crucial Baltic Sea port. Regular ferries operate to nearby Tallinn in Estonia as well other Scandinavian destinations. There were also a couple of Oceangoing cruise liners docked at the Helsinki terminal. The tour finished in the city centre and everybody had the choice of staying in town or heading back to the hotel by way of local bus.
After entertaining Jussi for lunch I headed back to the Bonus Inn to prepare the red Landcruiser for its short stay in Helsinki. With Murray and Franks departure it will stay in Helsinki for a few weeks and I will return for Rally Finland and then reposition it to the UK via Sweden, Danmark, Holland and France.
Our scheduled sailing tomorrow morning by ferry to Tallinn is at 07.30am so to arrive at the port in sufficient time a 5.15am departure is planned is everybody is planning on a relatively early night despite the fact that the sun is still setting at just prior to midnight. Although just a short stay in Finland the general opinion is that it was a visit well worthwhile.
DATE: 14/07/2009 LOCATION: ST PETERSBURG - HELSINKI
The distance to the Russian Finish border was only 220km but the roads were not that good with heavy truck traffic and not a lot of passing options. We bypassed the only sizable city, Viborg, and stopped just beyond the bypass road to top up with the last of the cheap Russian fuel and to spend the last of our Russian Rubels. Between us we almost cleaned the shop out of beer and water. Needless to say we were looking forward to European civilisation but not at European prices.
The border post at Viborg now has a lot of traffic passing through and hosts nice new buildings but the skeleton of the old buildings used in the 80s still stands as a reminder of the long waits and through searches that used to happen here as part of entering and exiting the Soviet Union.
Our wait was fairly brief and we made our way to the front of the queue quickly. It was a bit difficult to work out the procedure as we were in 3 lines but the customs documentation and the passport control were only happening in two kiosks and it was in the incorrect order, customs first and immigration last. We held up the traffic flow a bit as the Holden underwent a thorough search and had to remove the false wall to their spares locker between the boot and the back seat. The exit from Russia took approximately 1.5 hrs, quite a contrast to the 7 hour entry via Mongolia.
We moved up to the Finish entry point which is a distance of almost 4 kilometres. This has to be one of the most expansive no mans land in the world. Although the border post is quite sizable the formalities were quick and efficient with just a passport control, no customs and no vehicle checks other than a quick look at the compulsory European Green-card document at the exit point.
The next priority was to exchange money, trading in our now useless Rubels for some real money, Euros. This was easily done with a smile at a supermarket / gas station just inside the border. So far and only after a few kilometres, everybody was suitable impressed with Finland, the countryside, the road conditions the warmer weather and the smiles of the somewhat happier people. The short 150km drive on nice roads and a 1 hour time change soon had us outside the Bonus Inn Hotel on the outskirts of Helsinki. The hotel is close to a large shopping centre, has a nice bar and restaurant and in true Finnish tradition a sauna.
It was Murray Stewart and Frank Mathesons last night with us before heading home to work. A farewell group dinner was in order and a few Finnish Karjala beers were consumed in their honour, a few lies and stories told as we farewelled Murray and Frank. Not for long however as they elected to leave most of their gear in the vehicle have reserved the Red P2P09 registered Landcruiser for the London to Beijing run in May of 2010.
DATE: 13/07/2009 LOCATION: ST PETERSBURG
Almost everybody looks forward to a lay-day and a chance to have an hours extra sleep, a leisurely breakfast and catch up on a few domestic chores. However when you are in such a glorious and historically interesting city like St Petersburg, you need to keep moving.
The hop on hop off open top bus tour was a very popular option for the morning and with a basic English commentary was good value for money. It pointed out and explained many of the historically important landmarks in the city giving a much better comprehension of St Petersburgs interesting past. The other very popular sightseeing option was a canal boat cruise, giving a totally different perspective on this busy city.
Marc and Clare enjoyed another session at the Ballet and suggested that it was much better than the Moscow performance. In lieu of a fairly big day tomorrow exiting Russia and crossing the border into Finland most of the team tucked into an early dinner and headed off to get a good nights rest.
DATE: 12/07/2009 LOCATION: VELIKIY NOVGOROD - ST PETERSBURG
Three of the team were keen to get to St Petersburg so departed at sunrise to get there early. The rest of us left at 8.30am for the 2 hour drive to this beautiful city which is located on the Neva River and at the head of the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea. (Formally known as Leningrad prior to 1991)
The Hotel Moscow is huge and caters for a lot of European Tourists who find their way across the borders mostly by road and by Cruise Ships. As the main attraction in St Petersburg, The Winter Palace or The Hermitage as it is more commonly known is closed on a Monday so there was an urgency to fit a tour of this place into the agenda this afternoon. The Metro is the most efficient mode of transport here and is located very close to the hotel and it is just 2 stops to the historical city centre. Consequently nearly everybody managed to squeeze in a Heritage visit despite the fact that the queue for tickets was 2 hours long and the building closed at 5pm. Richard, Jude and Francie cheated and paid some enterprising local the equivalent of $US20 per person to jump the long line of expectant and hopeful tourists. Money well spent was their comment. Never the less everyone was amazed at the splendour and grandeur of contents of this Great Russian building and can only imagine what it was like in its heyday. We still had one more day in St Petersburg to explore its wonders including museums, waterways and the city in general. Some were interested in revisiting the Ballet.
DATE: 11/07/2009 LOCATION: MOSCOW - VELIKIY NOVGOROD
To catch the perfect photo of our P2P vehicles with an iconic Russian background requires getting up a little earlier than normal. The day was perfect and at 04.30am four enthusiastic crews and their cars departed from the hotel to drive to St Basils cathedral in Red Square. This is the only time you can do this as commercial photography in this area is not permitted, but no one is too bothered at this time of the morning. The sun was up and almost perfectly positioned by our arrival time at 5am, so Clare managed to get some great shots of Richard and Judes Mitsi Challenger, The Stewart P2P09 Landcruiser and the Browns Dina Bead sponsored green 80 series Cruiser. The Rally Tours Lead 100 series was present also. (See photo on the website report gallery)
The convoy departed the very comfortable Holiday Inn at 08.30am and followed the A8 and the Moscow ring road to the M10 North. The traffic was heavy despite the fact that it was a Saturday morning. The roads once again changed character and were not as good as expected for a main route between 2 of Russias biggest and busiest cities. Although mostly dual lane you had to be very careful and observe the frequent speed restrictions otherwise suffer the indignity of being spoken to by the law. The Traffic Police presence had been stepped up considerably and now some very up to date radar equipment was in use as well as the traditional tried and true methods of apprehending speedsters.
Lunch today was a traditional picnic out of the back of the trucks at a gas station which had a nice grassy patch under the shade of some big trees. A cafe, good toilet facilities and fuel, if you needed it complimented this pleasant stop which is now recorded in my trip notes. It was just as well that we did stop where we did as we noticed engine coolant leaking from the Steele Jeep Cherokee. The bonnet was lifted to reveal that the radiator cap had loosened and coolant was leaking under pressure. It was an easy fix but could have been a disaster if not noticed.
We arrived in Velikiy (Great) Novgorod at the Sadco Hotel at 17.30 after a pleasant 500km drive. It was suggested a few days earlier that we consider dropping this night stop and continue to St Petersburg, but most agreed that the drive today was enjoyable and more than enough for the day. Novgorod is a real surprise package, with the very pretty Volkov River splitting the town into 2 parts. We wandered a short distance to the riverside from our hotel and crossed the river by foot-bridge and passed through the old 10th century city walls. As it was a Saturday the place was buzzing with Russian families enjoying the summer temperatures, basking on the beach and just having fun. This was something that we had not really experienced or seen in the last few weeks in Russia and it just fortified the fact that these people have strong family values just like us. Most managed to find good places to eat and really enjoyed the experience of this historical town. The conclusion is that Velikiy Novgorod will definitely be included in future itineraries.
DATE: 9/07/2009 LOCATION: MOSCOW
THIS BLOG ALSO INCLUDES FRIDAY 10 JULY
The Metro is the only way to get around in Moscow. It is fast, efficient, cheap and clean. Most everybody headed off to town to explore Moscows environs . The city bus tour is the best way to get to see Moscow and takes in most of the essential sights like Red Square, St Basils, the University, the diplomatic enclave and the very spectacular Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. A Kremlin tour is also a popular option if time permits. The opportunity to shop and eat around the Red Square area is quite special and lots of Russian souvenirs found their way back to the hotel that night.
Doc Shaw had promised to take daughter Clare to a Russian ballet and found that some others were quite keen to join. Not to mention any names, some most unlikely persons tagged along and apparently enjoyed the ballet experience, but were not prepared to admit it in public. Most had a nice busy day in Moscow and walked vast distances taking in the sights. A sizable group of us tried out a Bavarian sausage restaurant close to the hotel. It was also a farewell dinner for Sue Stewart who was reluctantly leaving us to fly home in time to start work in Auckland on Monday morning.
Alan Brown and I headed off to have a couple of very dirty vehicles washed at the Monka (Russian word for car wash) just a few kilometres down the road. Again most of the group headed off into the city to complete sightseeing duties. All activities today centred around our pre arranged visit to the NZ Embassy at 5pm for a beer and BBQ. We had been communicating with the Ambassador Chris Elder for some months just letting them know that 26 Kiwis were on his patch for 22 days. Chris Very kindly suggested that the Embassy would be keen to meet our intrepid travellers and what better way to entertain and meet over a beer or wine and a sausage.
The Embassy is an old traditional Russian building and in the near future is to be renovated. As the weather was a bit inclement the BBQ was held in the well equipped car garages on the property and the hospitality was superb and the food great. Rowena Hume gave us very good metro and walking directions to get from the hotel to the Embassy in the diplomatic enclave. Alan, Val and I drove Alans vehicle as we thought that the staff and visitors may be interested in sighting one of our well prepared 4x4s. The BBQ was well attended by embassy staff and we got to meet all sorts of interesting people including the Russian staff that are part of the Embassy team. There were also a couple of NZ chaps from Palmerston North that had their passports stolen while passing through Moscow on a Trans-Siberian train trip. They were not going too far in the near future so the embassy invited them along to join the party. Thanks again to Chris Elder for his hospitality and the enjoyable meeting with his staff. Our apologies for depleting his entire stock of red wine. That was a nice finale to a pleasant stop in Moscow.
DATE: 8/07/2009 LOCATION: NIZHNIY NOVGOROD - MOSCOW
Immediately the quality of the road and the traffic volumes indicated that we were on the road to the capital of Russia, Moscow. The entire 400km was on good dual carriage motorway which had carved up small villages and sizable towns in its wake. This made for a fairly boring journey and the day felt like it was a lot more than 400km. However we had to be ever vigilant as the law were out in force and on this stretch of road much more sophisticated technology was being used to capture law breaking motorists. The revenue from traffic fines is obviously important these days to ensure the continual improvement of the roading infrastructure and to pay police forces salary bill.
By lunch time Sam Hall now at the wheel of their Landcruiser had involuntarily contributed to the policemans annual ball fund. Sam got pinged at 101km in 70km area on a radarsky device and after quite a long discussion paid $US50 to the not so nice policeman. Warwick was not at all worried as the $US50 note was one that he had been duped on early in the trip and despite several attempts none of the banks so far would accept it. He wished the policeman the best of luck cashing the note in a language he couldnt understand!!
The lunch stop was also a refuel point. Next to the fuel station was an auto parts shop and needless to say the boys were in there quick smart. We purchased their entire stock of RUS stickers (ID stickers that you need attached to your car when travelling in this part of the world) and Mark McKearney found a bad taste Lada Samara decal to attach to the damaged portion of their vehicle. A bit like a fighter pilot attaches stars after every hit to his aircraft.
We relied on the McKearney GPS again to direct us to the hotel Holiday Inn in the Solkoniki district. It did a great job but certainly was not the most direct route. The Hotel is one of the best on the tour but by now we are back in tourist territory with lots of European visitors and tour buses. The hotel has lots of amenities and as Dave Hendl found out when trying to open his securely locked fridge the contents of the mini bar cannot be removed without a credit card imprint. Frank and Francie made the most of the pool facility and Phil Andrews paid 1300 roubles ($NZ45) for a real smart haircut and beard trim. Now he is the coolest Holden driver in Moscow. The hotel locality has lots of restaurants options so everybody spread out for dinner and were really looking forward to doing some serious sightseeing around Moscow over the next 2 days. Alan and John McKearney found a panel shop that were prepared to tackle the repairs on the bent Landcruiser and assured us the parts were available and the vehicle would be finished by Friday night, all for about $NZ1200. A good result.
DATE: 7/07/2009 LOCATION: KAZAN - NIZHNIY NOVGOROD
Since we had arrived late last night we did not get to visit Kazans spectacular Kremlin, so the itinerary was adjusted to find time to do that this morning before leaving town. We weaved our way into the city with the peak commuter traffic arriving at the Kremlin at 9am. The gates were open and everybody flowed through the gates to visit this well respected world heritage site. The Kremlin has a spectacular new Mosque, completed just 3 years ago for the predominant Moslem population in this area. Also an attraction in the Kremlin walls is the crooked tower built by Ivan the Terrible as a gift to a lady he wished to marry. It was built in just 7 days. Also a huge attraction was the Kremlin cafe that had just baked fresh Pasty like goodies which were better that the English version. These are apparently are a national dish so needless to say we had to sample them. As the Kremlin also serves as the location of the Tartastan Parliament we were not surprised to see the President arrive to work. He inconspicuously arrived in a big black Mercedes with an entourage of security on his tail. To complement our short visit to Kazan the group walked a short distance to the Bauman Street walking precinct to admire the tidy European style architecture unique to Kazan.
At 11am we started on the 450km journey to Nizhniy Novgorod. At about the 50km marker and just after passing through a Police check point we received a radio message indicating that the McKearney Landcruiser had been involved in an altercation with a local Lada. The local had turned left out of a side road then immediately executed a U Turn leaving Mark with little option but to clip the LHR corner of the turning vehicle. The damage to the LHF corner of the Landcruiser was quite extensive taking out the headlight and pushing the bumper back 6 or 8 inches. The Lada looked surprisingly good considering the hit. It took at least an hour to get the police to the scene despite the fact that their post was only a kilometre back down the road, and from our perspective they needed to be involved just for the records.
After a few phone calls and assistance in translating as to what had actually happened, the official measurements of the scene began. At this point the rest of the group moved on to continue the journey to Novgorod leaving John and Mark, supported by of Trail crew Alan and Val Brown to deal with the paper work. Fortunately the Landcruiser was still mobile and after some time both parties involved in the incident were taken by the police to a local town for processing. The local Lada driver finally admitted liability and at that point all parties were free to go. The process took almost 5 hours but the end result was better than expected and ended in a hand shake.
Fortunately the rest of our trip for the day was uneventful arriving in Nizhniy Novgorod and the Central Hotel at 18.30. The hotel is located in Lenin Square and the street outside the hotel used as the parade ground during military celebrations. This lovely city is situated on the Volga River and has a huge fortress on the East bank overlooking the river which is spectacular at sunset. Many made the 4km trek across the bridge to the old city but not too many others than Frank and I got to appreciate the sunset and the amazing view looking west toward Moscow. The McKearneys and the Browns arrived at the hotel at 23.00pm after their somewhat interesting experience dealing with the Russian legal system.
DATE: 6/07/2009 LOCATION: PERM - KAZAN
Our day today was going to be a reasonably long one with 700km to cover to Kazan in the state of Tartastan. As much as I would have preferred to leave the Hilton hotel earlier, we had to make the most of this very nice establishment and enjoy the enormous breakfast.
The exit from Perm is spectacular, crossing the large Karma river on huge motorway bridge. For the first 100km the roads were great but rapidly deteriorated to some of the worst that we had encountered to date. Dave and Wendy Hendls Landcruiser developed a concerning suspension rattle which necessitated a stop to see what had broken or come loose. Nothing was obvious and the noise would come and go, possibly it was a rogue stone caught behind a brake pad, but the noise had us mystified. Dave carried on and the noise fortunately disappeared.
The roads improved and the average speeds increased, Phil and Errol giving us hourly reports over the radio on daily trip statistics which included distance covered, average speed and expected arrival times at the destination. However their GPS does not have the experience to know what type of road conditions are ahead!!
For a while various members took over the role of lead vehicle as no real navigation skills were needed until we got close to Kazan and the hotel. Frank inherited the front row in the Red P2P09 Landcruiser and got busted completing an overtaking manoeuvre on a solid white no passing line and found himself sitting in the rear seat of a Lada police car looking at himself on the police video footage. The nice policeman was angling toward wanting 10000 roubles ($NZ300) for the offence. Frank being the cool customer that he is managed to convince the copper that the paper work wasnt worth the effort and offered him free dental care if he ever came to NZ. To every bodies delight and relief the red truck rejoined us after the 45 minute diversion which was just long enough for the rest of us to find an ice cream shop. Pete and Rod also had a brief encounter with the law on this stretch this afternoon while playing tail end Charlie. Pete had stopped earlier because he had found a shop with better ice creams.
For the rest of the 250km journey into Kazan the road was busy and almost every limited speed zone and no passing lane was controlled by Police or as we named them Bears. At one point we were followed to 2 smart looking Mercedes ML500 patrol cars for about 25km as well as a VW Passat in Police livery that actually did a U turn and followed for some distance before disappearing. They appeared to be quite interested in our impressive convoy on their patch.
Our long and interesting day finished at 20.30pm at the Regina Hotel on the outskirts of Kazan. This hotel has huge rooms and a large indoor swimming pool. The lone waitress in the restaurant handled our group well and everybody was fed and watered by the time the sun went down and the thunderstorm started.
DATE: 5/07/2009 LOCATION: YEKATERINBURG - PERM
We have 530km to cover today and a 7am start is necessary as we also plan to visit two tourist attractions enroute today. The exit from the hotel on to the main E22 highway is easy due to the fact that it runs alongside the hotel location.
The first visit this morning is to the Europe Asia border line. This latitude line runs through a point just 15km west of the outskirts of Yekaterinburg. There are actually 2 physical borders, one on the new road and one on the old road. Despite some verbal directions and the wish to find the original border line we resorted to the easier option and stopped at the more commercial point on the main highway to get the obligatory photos of everybody standing with one foot either side of the border line. It was interesting to see that according to a new billboard there are big plans to develop this point and make it a significant landmark in the future. The other significant and better known Europe Asia borderline is the Bospheros Bridge in Istanbul.
We continued on stopping for morning tea at an establishment I called the Bear Cafe. We are now in bear country and the cafe has lots of wooden carved bears as well as a few good examples of stuffed bears. Although we have not seen any bears this is the area that they are to be found in reasonable numbers and the cafe is a reminder of this.
Our second scheduled stop today is at the Kangur Ice Caves. We arrived on the outskirts of the town of Kangur armed with only a small amount to information as to how to find this reasonably famous Siberian tourist attraction. We stopped to ask directions from a local policeman directing traffic. He immediately dropped tools in indicated that we should follow him in his Lada patrol car. With lights flashing, ignoring red traffic lights and driving in the middle of the road we proceeded through the town of Kangur and 5km out into the country to the famous Ice caves, at least that is what we were hoping. The nice policeman delivered to goods and we arrived at the very busy Ice caves. After working out the procedure and paying the 300 Rubel entry we were given a 14.45 tour time. Just like the Waitomo caves, only a certain amount of bodies can enter the cave at one time. We were dressed up warm and expected the temperature to be around -3 degrees for the duration of the tour. The ice caves were quite spectacular in their own interesting way with ice dangling from the high roof and frozen waterways beside the pathways. Instead of limestone Stalactites and Stalagmites at Kangur these were ice. The large internal spring fed lakes were also impressive and the walk took an hour to complete. Although the day on the surface was cold the temperature and humidity difference between the caves and surface was instantly noticeable as we exited. Anyone wearing glasses had an immediate fogging up problem.
We carried on the 100 kilometres to the city of Perm. The traffic was heavy and gridlocked on the outskirts for a short time. All of a sudden oncoming traffic stopped and the Perm bound traffic started to use the Left lane. There were police about every 500 metres promoting everybody to move quickly and use both lanes. It took a little while to work out what was happening but this was their own unique way of dealing with Sunday afternoon traffic congestion and it works.
Perm is a big city and we utilised the GPS to navigate our way through the suburbs to our hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn. I am always a bit suspicious about hotels that use fancy names like the Hilton. But on this occasion we had a genuine Hilton and it was a beautiful hotel with all the amenities and fantastic staff to compliment the establishment. Peter Steele arranged for those interested to go to a sports bar to see the big tennis match played on the big screen. Perm from what we could see was a nice city and with lots of interesting historical buildings and may be worth a 2 night stay next time round.
DATE: 4/07/2009 LOCATION: YEKATERINBURG - Rest Day
Most appreciated a bit of a lazy morning to catch up on sleep. The bus arrived at 10am and with Anja as our local tour guide we preceded into the city firstly visiting 2 large state Universities for which Yekaterinburg is well known for. Education is important to young Russians and to get ahead you must study. The next stop was at a central city office block were it is possible to take a lift to the 19th floor to admire the city vista in all directions. That was great as all the city landmarks and significant historical buildings could be pin-pointed by means of a photo map at the lookout point.
The bus then took us to the Church of blood a cathedral that stands on the site where the Russian Tsar Nicholas and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. These days it is a popular spot for newly married Russians to have their wedding photos taken. Consequently we witnessed about 4 wedding parties pass through the area while we were there.
This evening we had a birthday to celebrate and consequently a group meal was arranged at the Rancho Restaurant (Pectopah is restaurant in Russian). Francie Craig was the birthday girl and a typical Russian birthday cake was organised by Sam and her band of professional retail therapists. That was a bit of a surprise for Francie who actually has been quite critical about the synthetic nature of the Russian cakes and deserts. It was also an opportunity to thank Anja, her boyfriend Anton and her parents Olga and Alex for looking after us while in Yekaterinburg. Olga and Alex sat at the table with Geoff and Judith Hancock and Murray and Sue Stewart all trying very hard to converse in a language common to both parties. At the end of the night the Hancocks and the Stewarts and I were invited to the Volkova residence to view a typical Russian abode. That was an experience that Sue will not forget. The house was situated on the shores of a big lake and we were there just in time to see the sun set at 11.45pm, quite spectacular. The family had a large well cultivated garden with a huge variety of veggies and a few fruit trees. A nice cup of tea was prepared and a tour of the house taken. The life style for the Volkovas is not too far removed from our own but adapted to suit the climate and the location.
DATE: 3/07/2009 LOCATION: TYUMEN - YEKATERINBURG
Due to heavy traffic the exit from Tyumen caused a few problems following a road on to a motorway then to a large roundabout with about 6 exits and very confusing signage. The Steeles and McKearneys had to do 2 laps to find the correct exit but Alan Glen and the Doc went one step further and headed off in the direction of the airport. Although they had to make a 4km detour before being able to back track they made an interesting discovery seeing a paddock full of decommissioned Russian helicopters, just like the big ones that they use in NZ for removing logs out of the forest on the west coast. They reported that it was quite a sight, probably just to justify their excursion.
The weather again turned and as we approached Yekaterinburg the heavens opened, the roads narrowed and the traffic became heavy. The approach to the city was slow. Even 25km out the new motorway was down to one lane and the driving habits and general impatience of the local drivers left a lot to the desired. This continued all the way into the city, possibly the fact that it was a Friday afternoon may have had something to do with traffic volumes. As we approached the outskirts of Yekaterinburg some of the GPS mapping systems coughed into life as it seemed that the Eastern Europe and Russia maps that some had purchased started here. We decided to put John and Marks GPS to the test, but quite quickly decided that the route selected by the GPS was not the most direct and opted to follow the good old tried and true map.
We arrived at our hotel in the middle of the city, but alas they were not expecting us. Somewhere along the line we had been relocated to another hotel but the information about the change had not got through. This was the first and hopefully the last accommodation reservation issue we would have so sought directions to our replacement accommodation 5kms from the city centre. The Izumrud or Emerald hotel proved to bit a bit difficult to find due to its rural location but fortunately the management sent a search party out to find us and guide us there.
Anja Volkova is a local lady from Yekaterinburg and Rally tours met Anja at the speed show in Auckland last September. Anja has been following our expedition progress and just happens to live a few kilometres from the hotel, when she resides in Russia. Anja was keen to show us the sights of the interesting city of Yekaterinburg and had arranged a bus for a city tour the next morning. Anja dropped in to the hotel to meet the group and we discussed tomorrows program over dinner.
DATE: 2/07/2009 LOCATION: ISHIM - TYUMEN
The roads on this leg of the trip were quite rough to start with and progress was slow. We stopped at a new cafe and fuel stop 2 hours into the journey. This place is a sign of things to come with good buffet type food available which almost everybody was keen to try. They also had good espresso and cappuccino coffee available so a morning tea stop became an early lunch. We were entertained by a drunken Russian in the car park who was dumped out of a taxi and staggered across the truck park with his worldly belongings until finally falling into a pile and a deep sleep in the middle of the busy thoroughfare.
We travelled on to Tyumen stopping at the very ornate Soviet Tyumen city sign on the entrance to the town. We needed to grab a photo with the drivers of our convoy wearing the Jenners International Freight caps, kindly given to us by Phil Gibbs, the man responsible for getting our vehicles from Auckland to China and back to NZ from the UK and Rotterdam. Phil wanted a typical Russian photo to add to his gallery in his office. I am sure he will be pleased with this one.
We headed directly to the most interesting city attraction, the 13th century Svyato-Troitsky Cathedral and Monastery. Close by were also panoramic views of the large Tura River where Tyumens historical steam boat building industry started in 1836 servicing a growing trading industry.
Like a lot of the Siberian cities the motor car has taken over with vengeance and the combination of masses of city buses, small commuter vans and private motor vehicles make traffic congestion a modern reality. Alan Brown and I shot off to find our hotel, the Filton which is located near the very busy and newly built Trans-Siberian rail station. This then enabled the convoy to easily make our way to the hotel without any unnecessary diversions.
Although the hotel was a 1.5 km walk to the central city, most braved the changeable Siberian weather and headed for town to explore and eat. Tyumen is a diverse city, very clean and tidy with very pretty and well maintained flower gardens and parks. Some group members found a great Chinese restaurant and others headed for a highly recommended Czech bar and bistro. The walk home to the hotel became interesting for some when in typical Siberian fashion the heavens opened and shelter had to be taken until the storm blew over. Richard, Jude, Francie and Frank took a Taxi ride into town in an old Lada with Boris at the wheel with little or no rear suspension. By all reports that was a memorable experience which Richard will dwell on for a while. He has decided he would like to take a Lada home as a farm hack as he seen what Ladas can endure in Siberia.
DATE: 1/07/2009 LOCATION: OMSK - ISHIM
A late 10am start this morning allowed some to further investigate the sights of this attractive Siberian city. Just outside the gates of our hotel is located the residence that was once occupied by the Governor of Western Siberia in the early 1920s and housed the imperial gold reserves. Like a lot of historical buildings in Omsk this one has been very tastefully restored to its former glory.
To enable the group to see a recently rebuilt cathedral we drove out through the city taking the last of 3 huge bridges that cross the expansive Irtysh River. We had to be cautious this morning about selecting our route. For the last few days we had been following the M51 but this morning we needed to be heading North West on the E30. The reason being, that the M51 would lead out of Russia and into Khasikstan within 200km if followed. Since we only had single entry visas for Russia that was not an option.
Our relatively short journey of 360km today started on initially very good open and fast roads. The presence of more traffic police than usual was not only an indication of what was ahead but possible how much of the new roading is being funded now that the average Russian can afford and acquire fast modern cars. On our Russian road map, near the town of Krutinka we could see 3 large lakes about 2 hours into the day which were positioned about right for a lakeside lunch stop. This could be an interesting diversion. As usual we headed into the centre of the town and located a small supermarket to re-stock picnic lunch supplies. I believe that we possible purchased most of their stock including fresh bread that arrived at about the same time as we did. As we were so close to the Khasikstan border the presence of people in this border town with the typical dark Asian features wearing Muslim caps was immediately obvious.
We left town in search of a lake front area to have lunch. Some may have had ideas of finding something similar to a picnic spot at Lake Taupo which I didnt think was at all possible but Peter Steele located the perfect spot after a little bit of scouting around and we experienced our Siberian lakeside lunch stop which was not so bad.
Ishim our night stop is a small town of about 5,000 inhabitants and has a huge prison on the outskirts that you would not like to visit. The hotel Ishim is probably the best in town and although old is comfortable. Someone suggested that the solid construction resembled that of a mental institution which may have been a possibility. The people seemed friendly enough and Geoff Hancock charmed a couple of old ladies at a roadside stall by taking their photo. He suggested that they were probably Russian Tennis stars from 40 years ago. Not likely Geoff. Since we had found the only decent hotel in town we then set about to locate the only decent restaurant which happened to be just 200 metres away and tucked down a side street. It was extremely elaborate and they did well to cater to the majority of our group who eventually found their way to this place. The food and wine was good and we drank them out of their limited stocks of beer.
DATE: 30/06/2009 LOCATION: BARABINSK - OMSK
We had arranged an 8am breakfast from what we could ascertain was to be at a cafe just a few hundred metres down the road. The rain had arrived again overnight and was still continuing at the time that we started to walk to the cafe. On arrival at the establishment we were obviously not expected. I walked back to the hotel to bring the hotel receptionist to the cafe to sort out the problem. A few heated words were exchanged between the hotel and cafe personnel and very quickly seats were arranged, table settings organised and coffee and chocolate biscuits arrived. Quite clearly the cafe had forgotten the reservation and as a token of apology and in true Russian style 2 bottles of the best Vodka arrived on the table with the appropriate shot glasses. As if a progressive dinner further bits and pieces of food arrived, which included Caviar, ham, cheese, tomatoes and cucumber.
Our Barabinsk experience will be etched in our minds and sure to be one of the most told stories about Siberia. Once back on the highway and heading for Omsk progress was good on much better roads than I remember. Clare, our camera person had been looking for a small typical Siberian village to do a drive through. I remembered a perfect example from 07 where we had some welding repairs done and had been desperately looking to find the same village which possessed everything we needed to make a great video clip. About 40km from Barabinsk I recognised the place and left the rest of the group on the highway and drove in to do some reconnainance. My main concern was that the muddy tracks were negotiable even with 4WD. The location was perfect but 4WD was going to be essential. We did a complete loop of the village slipping and sliding in the slippery conditions to the amusement of the locals. This place is an agricultural village with lots of big Russian articulated tractors, and combine harvesters with the facilities to maintain the equipment. It looked like it would have been a thriving town in the days of communism.
Not to much further up the road we pulled into a truckstop and cafe. The morning tea stop turned into an early lunch when it was discovered that they served good Russian Soylankya noodle soup or meatballs and mashed potato. The food was good and the prices very reasonable. All of a sudden picnic lunches out of the back of the vehicles had become unfashionable, although that may have had something to do with the wet and cold conditions that we were presently encountering.
About 3pm we entered the outskirts of Omsk, the second largest city east of the Ural mountain range. Omsk is situated on the junction of two major rivers, the Irtysh and the Om. From our rooms in the Tourist Hotel we had spectacular views looking down the huge river and at the completely deserted manmade beach just downstream of the hotel. As we had arrived early there was plenty of time to investigate Omsk, looking at some of its interesting historical buildings, walking the beach and eating at some of its excellent restaurants.
DATE: 29/06/2009 LOCATION: NOVOSIBIRSK - BARABINSK
Alan Brown and I needed to pay a courtesy visit to the Novosibirsk based travel agent who has made all of our Russian arrangements. We set our departure time at 11am this morning due to fact that it was only a 300km drive to Barabinsk. It was likely that there would not be a lot to entertain us in this small town on arrival, so time would be better spent in Novosibirsk this morning. Al and I grabbed a taxi to get to the travel agency address and got dropped outside a sizeable building that had all the correct numbers on the outside at least. We walked around the building and traipsed up and down stairs for at least 20 minutes before locating a small office on the ground floor. It is incredibly difficult to find businesses when the signage is limited and it is in a different language. We have also found this with most other services including hotels and restaurants where external advertising and display signage is very limited. Sometimes the only way to see what is inside is to physically open the door and have a look inside to see what they sell. However our visit to see Olga, the Altair Tour company manager was well worth while just confirming that they are a very well organised and capable organisation. So far all the arrangements have been perfect.
Our exit from Novosibirsk was easy, crossing the large Ob River and heading North West on the M51 and following signs for Omsk. The journey today was only short today and on good roads so arrived in Barabinsk late afternoon not having any previous experience of this town. Despite having the hotel name and address in local script no one seemed to know the hotel location, but we were given assistance by a couple of young guys on a motor scooter who gave us a fairly comprehensive tour around the streets of this very primitive Siberian railway town. Finally we pulled up outside a building that definitely bared no resemblance to a hotel, but once inside the door a reception desk of sorts was revealed, this was the place we were looking for. This was obviously the only hotel in town and we may have been the first foreigners to have ever to set foot in this place. Their English was as good as my Russian but as always we get by. Room keys were handed out like a lottery and we at least all had a bed for the night and it was clean and comfortable. The hotel did not have a restaurant, so we were on our own. However some of the group had located a small supermarket just down the road for essential dinner supplies. We are a pretty resourceful lot so it was decided to utilise the emergency food rations that we all had carried from NZ. The cars were rearranged in the secure car park at the rear of the hotel, the deck chairs came out and we started a cook up started. It did not take long before the ukuleles and a guitar appeared and to the amusement of the locals we had a swinging party happening fuelled by local wine and a couple of bottles of vodka and Dr Marc Shaws prize bottle of Jamesons scotch whiskey which he keeps for medicinal purposes. The sing along continued until sunset and certainly the fact that we were in darkest deepest Siberia no longer mattered.
DATE: 28/06/2009 LOCATION: NOVOSIBIRSK
Today is another much appreciated rest day from driving duties and a chance to explore the capital city of Siberia. Our itinerary planning could not be better as tonight the city celebrates its birthday with lots of concerts, and festivities culminating at midnight with a huge fireworks display.
The first task of the day is to tidy up some very dirty vehicles which are covered in 5 days worth of Siberian dirt and grime. Just a kilometre from the hotel is a car wash. These are very common in this part of the world to deal to lots of cars subjected to Russian road conditions. For 710 Rubels ($NZ35)our cars were expertly valeted very thoroughly on the outside and under the bonnet and after only a few hours 7 of the 12 tour vehicles looked like new again and were ready for the road. We also had to attend to John McKearneys flat tyre which the tyre man found no less than 3 punctures in. Although it was Sunday we had no problem getting our chores attended to.
The group members spread out far and wide around the town enjoying the good shopping. Richard Craig finding some very interesting head gear that looked like something Biggles wore under his flying helmet and Rod Hancox enjoying looking at some very good music shops. In Novosibirsk we are also spoilt for dining choices. The Hendls and Halls found a very good Siberian restaurant where the food and wine was superb and despite some communication problems the staff could not do enough to help and make their experience a pleasant and memorable one. Others found themselves in an Irish Pub (very common in this part of the world) where the menu is familiar, the costs reasonable and English understood. By 10pm the build up to celebrations in the square were happening and most headed up to see the fireworks display which was spectacular with thousands of locals filling the closed off roads leading to the huge city square.
A good day was had by all in Novosibirsk and again everybody is mentally prepared for the next 4 days on the road heading west.
DATE: 27/06/2009 LOCATION: KRASNOYARSK - NOVOSIBIRSK
Siberia is a vast expanse of land and the distances between cities is big. Todays challenge was an 890km drive which is Auckland to Christchurch!! Fortunately the road conditions are a vast improvement on the previous day, in fact a total contrast. We covered the first 400km in 5hours (with a coffee stop) cruising at a consistent 100kmph. The cropping on the huge rolling plains for the second part of the journey was a bit of a contrast to yesterdays forest and swampy areas, this was a surprise to most as was the good roads.
A roadside lunch stop in the early afternoon was well received and at the same time John McKearney ran a sweepstake on the All Blacks verses Italian rugby game. I0 Rubels to play and for the next few hours the game progress was texted in to deepest darkest Siberia. Francie Craig took the 170 Rubels stake and she will be shouting the group tonight. At this point Clare decided that she would like some video footage of the convoy negotiating a small Siberian village and shot off in the camera Landcruiser to do a reccee as did Warwick and Sam in their vehicle. The village looked ideal but the access was not. Both Landcruisers decided that the road from both ends of the village was in fact impassable and two stuck vehicles in a remote village was not a good look. However they both had fun returning with plenty of sticky black mud all over the trucks. A good call we all thought.
As well as celebrating an All Black win tonight two other small milestones were recorded during the mornings drive. The Landcruiser being used as the camera car and doctors vehicle (owned by Greg and driven by Alan Glen) clocked over the magic 500,000km and Peter Steeles Jeep turned over 100,000km. Our progress encountered heavy rain approaching the city of Kempovo and that made negotiating the city quite interesting in peak traffic. The temperatures had again dropped to 13 degrees Celsius and at one stage approaching Novosibirsk we had hail. This was a total contrast to what we had expected weatherise. The good news is that the cold was keeping the mosquitoes at bay.
The Sibir Hotel in the centre of Novosibirsk and is easy to find. The convoy of dirty NZ registered vehicles making their way through the streets of the central city was a sight to behold. We only just beat yet another heavy rainstorm to the reception of the hotel. By this time it was 8.30pm but we had the benefit of a 1 hour time change backwards during the day. Tomorrow is a lay day and we have vehicles to wash, a puncture to fix and most will enjoy a walk around the capital city of Siberia. Novosibirsk celebrates its birthday this weekend so there are lots of festivities happening during tomorrow and into the evening.
DATE: 26/06/2009 LOCATION: TULUN - KRASNOYARSK
The streets of Tulun were large pools of muddy water and absolutely no dust around this morning. Knowing exactly what road conditions to expect on todays long drive after today no one would doubt that 4x4, s would be the most suitable vehicle for the job. There was no restaurant in the hotel so were escorted to the other side of the small town to a cafe for an interesting breakfast. We were greeted by a bowl of Ricotta cream cheese which we promptly used to spread on the rye bread and toast to give it some moistness. This amused the cafe staff somewhat. Peter Steele is a gambling man and offered Geoff Hancock 10 Rubels ($NZ5) to devour the fluffy Ricotta cheese which he did on the spot. At least the nice hot cup of tea went down well.
We were escorted out of town by the hotel lady and soon were splashing through the large puddles on rough mostly unsealed Siberian roads. The rain and the mud was relentless for most of the day with brief periods when we were on newly constructed roads which are slowly being forged through the swampy forest areas. Our vehicles now resembled cars those that had been competing in the East African Safari Rally with the only clean part being the windscreen wiper path. We had 700km to cover today and fortunately the last 200km into Krasnoyarsk was not too bad, although the weekend traffic heading in the opposite direction resembled Auckland traffic heading to Pauanui on a long weekend. The passing opportunities were very limited. By now we had mastered the art of overtaking manoeuvres in RHD vehicles which involves team work with the navigator calling the shots. This is almost as much fun as any form of motorsport event.
Krasnoyarsk is not a place that I have stayed at before. It is a town of a million inhabitants and is on the banks of the river Yenisey. We followed our nose into what we were hoping was the city centre with the river on the right. We needed to cross the river at some point to get to the city centre but lost signs for either Krasnoyarsk or UHPT (Russian for centre) so stopped to ask for directions or better still to confirm that we were indeed headed in the right direction. We continued and crossed the river successfully now having honed in on a hotel location. This is a big city, amazing modern and all the buildings look the same. As I have had to do on previous occasions the best policy is to hire a taxi to get them to escort to the hotel. We resorted to this method and within 15 minutes we were parked up at the very nice Krasnoyarsk Hotel. Dinner was the order of the day and the riverside offered a multitude of choices with nice views. It had been a long day covering 700km in 13hours in all sorts of tough driving conditions. Everybody enjoyed the day and some were still up and about at 1am enjoying the Krasnoyarsk experience.
DATE: 25/06/2009 LOCATION: IRKUTSK - TULUN
Our departure from Irkutsk was slow on wet roads after a heavy rainfall overnight. We battled with commuter traffic and numerous dilapidated buses and trams. After an hour we were on good expressway type roads heading west toward our destination, Tulun. The road conditions were generally very good for the majority of the 416 km drive. We took a lunch stop at gas station / cafe at the half way point, not hurrying as we were making very good time. We arrived on the outskirts of the town of Tulun at 4pm and the convoy trundled into the town on broken up gravel roads. There was plenty of dust and the only thing missing was the tie rails for the horses. This was not a town that saw a lot to foreigners. As we stopped in the town to get directions to the hotel a car arrived and indicated that we should follow. In a case like this the lead vehicle goes in search of the accommodation and when located a radio communication to the convoy to proceed to the point. This works much better that everybody following around in ever decreasing circles. As it happened the hotel was only 300 metres behind us so quickly after a U turn in the dusty street everybody was in reception waiting for room keys. Absolutely no English was spoken by the elderly lady who obviously owned the establishment and sorting rooms took a little longer than usual. The rooms were vividly decorated in loud colours and everything was colour coordinated but the hotel was immaculate. It had no dining room and other than a small Cafe down a back street there were no eating establishments in town that we managed to find. Being resourceful Kiwis we soon discovered a well stocked supermarket directly underneath the hotel selling almost everything that was need for a communal dinner. The Handcoxs had the biggest room so we had Salmon for entree, Roast chicken for the main followed by ice cream washed down by a local beer or Vodka. We kept the noise down for fear of being evicted by the landlady and as a storm was brewing outside a night on the street was not a good option. We will not forget Tulun
DATE: 24/06/2009 LOCATION: IRKUTSK
A rest day is always appreciated especially in an interesting place like Irkutsk. For some it was a chance to catch up on the chores like laundry, website blogs and tidying up the vehicles. Alan Brown, Dave Hendl and Alan Glen all headed off to get punctures repaired in the automotive sector of the town. Phil and Errol also joined them but in search of a car wash to tub the grubby Holden. The car wash was not a costly exercise and Phil returned with a very nice cake which he would not, or could not elaborate on how he came to acquire. He did however promise to share it with everybody at lunch the next day.
The urge to mix with the locals and explore this enchanting remote Siberian city came to fruition on the night that we arrived in Irkutsk. Despite the long drive, the long daylight hours tend to encourage you to want to stay awake. While some of us stayed in the hotel to enjoy a meal others walked about 2 km into the city area finding a nice local Siberian restaurant. Some liquid refreshment was enjoyed and the frivolity then attracted some local chaps who then joined the party donating more than one bottle of Vodka to ensure that the foreign visitors enjoyed themselves and had fond memories of their city. Apparently the food was good too but Siberia is no longer the inexpensive place that it once was.
Right next to the hotel Europa was a huge indoor market which kept most of the ladies amused for long periods. It was also a good place to stock up on essential food items for the long driving days to come. Frank indulged in a river boat cruise on the fast flowing that runs for about 200km into Lake Baikal. Others just strolled the town observing the Siberian way of life and enjoying the culture and old architecture. Despite wanting to revisit last nights restaurant the eateries in the town were jammed packed with students celebrating their graduations. So our group of hungry restaurant critics discovered the local British Club that welcomed them in to eat and have a few beverages. Another good night was had by all in Irkutsk.
DATE: 23/06/2009 LOCATION: ULAN UDE - IRKUTSK
On arrival in Ulan Ude, our first night stop in Russia our passports have to be registered with the immigration office. This process is taken care of by the hotel, consequently our departure this morning is at 10am while this registration takes place. It is raining heavily this morning and the temperatures have dropped to a cool 16 degrees. When it rains in these Siberian cities the puddles quickly become muddy lakes and this made for interesting driving conditions as we left town this morning. Also our first experience of purchasing fuel was as we headed toward the road to Irkutsk was on the agenda. In this part of the world you have to pay for the fuel before the pump starts working is a long drawn out process. The lure of many recognisable food delicacies was also too much for some and the process took a little longer than anticipated and the queue for fuel grew longer behind our convoy.
The first part of our 460km drive today takes us North beside a very pretty river valley before the road turns South West and runs along shores of Lake Baikal. This is the largest and deepest fresh water lake in the world containing 5% of the worlds fresh water. As we approached the lake the temperatures dropped by 5 degrees to a chilli 14C. The mountains in the distance still have snow caps from last weeks snow fall which is very uncharacteristic for this time of the year. I had heard a suggestion that if a lakeside stop was possible that some may take the plunge into Lake Baikal. We found a roadside track that led under the Trans-Siberian rail line track to a pretty and stony beach which would be suitable for both lunch and a swim. Amazingly 6 brave members of the group took the plunge into the icy waters citing that it was not every day that you got the chance to swim in the largest lake in the world.
A lot of work has been done on this road since 2007 and our progress today was good although we had to stop a couple of time for Alan Brown to top up the air in a deflating left rear tyre. Once leaving the lake behind us we climbed up and over a forest clad mountain range on windy but good roads arriving on the outskirts of Irkutsk at 7.30pm. That just left us with the task of navigating our way to the Europa Hotel which we did with relative ease in peak hour traffic thanks to good maps of the city which I had purchased in 07.
Some ventured out to dinner by foot in the city centre some 2 km away and others stayed and ate at the hotel. The party that went to a local restaurant in town had a pretty interesting evening, ending up enjoying local hospitality over a bottle or two of Vodka and wine finally arriving back at the hotel at 1am. Once again, a day full of adventures and experiences. Tomorrow is a rest day and a chance to catch up on rest and explore Irkutsk.
DATE: 22/06/2009 LOCATION: SUKHAATAR - ULAN UDE
To be near the front of the queue at this chaotic border crossing you need to up early. Everyone appreciated the urgency to get moving this morning so a 6.30am departure was in order. It is a 25km drive to the Mongolian exit, but even at 7am we were beaten by several local traders and big Russian trucks. We had an hour to wait until the gates opened at this not so salubrious border town.
Tamir had been able to talk to a high ranking official, a colonel by the look of his stripes and big hat. As soon as the gates were opened we were ordered to the front of the line. I think the colonel understands the value of looking after foreign visitors and the contribution that they make to their fragile economy (Tourism NZ could take a leaf out of his book).From this point the formalities on the Mongolian side all fell into place after they worked out how to deal with our Vehicle carnets.
We were released into No Mans two at a time then on another 300 metres up the track and through the wheel wash to the Russian border control. This place is pretty scary and has an air of authority about it with lots of uniformed armed personal, lots of warning signs and barbed wire. This is probably one of the toughest border crossings in the world and they do not see a lot of foreign visitors. I was the guinea pig and at the immigration control no comment was passed about the fact that I had been through this control almost exactly 2 years previous. Visually nothing had changed. Communication with the authorities was the first biggest hurdle we had to to jump. We established that a low ranking guard spoke reasonable English and at least he could communicate if necessary. We watched as 3 Mongolian registered cars got totally emptied and checked over taking almost 3 hours to do so. Finally my carnet and passport was handed over to a female senior official and over the next 30 minutes it went back and forth from one office to another. That was however good news as at least something was happening. Mean while the group was split as just 4 vehicles had progressed to the Russian side while the others, not having a clue what was happing further on were still at the Mongolian exit gate. Patience is a virtue at a border and once a formula has been established and template of what is required on the myriad of forms then things start to happen. We ended up with 3 very helpful customs officials of which two spoke reasonable English. That meant that(by Russian standards) my vehicle was processed, then doctors truck and the Holden. From this point it was taking about 30 minutes per vehicle with a very quick check of our well loaded vehicles once that it was established that we were professional and well organised travellers. Some NZ memorabilia and literature exchanged hands as a token of appreciation. By 4.30pm we had completed formalities and were officially in Russia and Siberia. The crossing had gone well and to plan.
The day was far from over with a further 240km drive to Ulan Ude to complete. This is a pleasant drive on reasonably good roads and we arrived at the hotel Geser just after nine. We had lost an hour during the day as the clocks went forward one hour at the border. By now the sun was not setting until 10pm. That completed one the most challenging days on the itinerary.
DATE: 21/06/2009 LOCATION: ULAANBAATAR - SUKBAATAR
Even after only one official day off the team were itching to get back on the road again, and to see more of what Mongolia had to offer.
The exit from Mongolias capital was relatively easy as like most countries on a Sunday things are slow to get moving so the traffic was light. Immediately the scenery changes as we travel north. The hills are green and rolling with a lot more trees, mostly pines. Dues to the fertile nature of the country side a lot more farming is evident, still lots of small blocks with farmers tending small flocks of sheep and goats. Mongolia is well known for its horsemanship and herders often use horses as their main mode of transport. We stopped for a comfort and coffee stop at a roadside shop / cafe and were offered hot water to go with our coffee that some had brought from NZ as part of their essential supplies. The local shop owner also offered us a local milk tea and refused to take money. However they also had chocolate on the shelf that a few of us could not resist so they did make some sales. In the distance we saw a local farmer approaching on a horse with a cell phone glued to his ear, shouting at the top of his voice. Obviously he lost his connection heading toward us with the phone waving in the air, quite oblivious to our presence, what a photo opportunity. He and the shop owners spent quite some time chatting and exchanging photo opportunities. The horseman also demonstrated his skills by scooping up a stone off the ground at a full gallop Mongolian style. As agreed by the group these unexpected experiences are what this sort of travelling is all about.
We stopped at the second largest town in Mongolia, Darchan, for lunch. That was an opportunity to break the 300km journey as we headed toward the last town in Mongolia, Sukbaatar. We were informed by Tamir, our local guide that Darchan has the prettiest girls in Mongolia which is possibly true.
Our arrival in Sukbaatar was at about 5.30pm. I had purposely delayed the arrival time as much as possible knowing full well that the hotel was not of the standard that we had become accustomed to since starting the trip. Alan Brown and Geoff Hancock took the opportunity to fit the newly purchased rear shocks to Geoff and Judiths Landcruiser. They had plenty of advice from observers from our group and became the main source of entertainment before dinner was served. Tomorrow was the most important day of the tour, crossing the border into Russia. This was the real test as to who was organised with documents etc. I gave a half hour lecture on border procedure and etiquette, a very necessary task. On a more pleasant note we also took the chance to farewell and thank our Mongolian Tour guide Tamir, who did a fantastic job at looking after us and answering all of Francie Craigs difficult questions. The hotel Voyage (the best in town) received a 3 of 10 rating and the dog that protected our vehicles and barked all night a 7 out of ten.
DATE: 20/06/2009 LOCATION: ULANBAATAR
DAY OF REST - FOR SOME
We had organised a facility at a bus company to wash our vehicles this morning as they badly needed a tidy up after the dusty roads. That took longer than anticipated due to the fact that the bus depot workers wanted to have the honour of doing the cleaning for us and would not take no for an answer. As Mongolia is quite a bit cheaper than the mother country it was hard to turn down their offer as a 1000 Toeregs (local currency which is equivalent to a $NZ1.20) is all they expected as payment. A few issues had to be sorted and they included a welding job on the Holdens exhaust, New rear shocks for the Hancocks Landcruiser , new rear bump-stops for the Steeles Jeep and stabiliser bar bushes for the Browns Landcruiser. The motor markets in Ulaanbaatar are unbelievable especially for Landcruiser parts with most items being about 50% of the cost of NZ prices.
Plans for the day centred around the Rugby game due to start at 3pm Mongolian time. Apparently a good time was had by all and the result was right (just). Story of the day is that Phil Andrews ran into a chap in the mens room at the rugby bar who wanted to sell him a couple of sections in Russell NZ. Phil says that will now make his trip tax deductable.
Our trip tomorrow takes us 350km north to Sukbaatar near the Siberian border. We will be sitting at the border at 7am Monday morning patiently waiting to endure the 10hr border crossing. Our destination is Ulan Ude that night. I am not expecting to have internet coverage until Irkutsk on Thursday. We are however hoping that the Astrata GPS will again work in Siberia. It has not been operational since the China border as Vodaphone does not service Mongolia. Maybe someone can have a flee in their ear.
DATE: 19/06/2009 LOCATION: TERELJ NATIONAL PARK
What a surprise to wake up this morning to very cold temperatures and snow on the surrounding hills. 21 of us departed this morning in 8 vehicles and drove south out of town the South East toward our destination, a 13th Century Mongolian village. Today was going to be a real day of mostly pleasant and exciting surprises. At an elevation of 1750m on one of the passes we were close to the snow line and at 4 degrees. After leaving the main road we travelled 15km on dirt tracks to reach the first of 5 reconstructed village sets. Due to the bitter winds we were keen to enter the first Gur quickly. However as Murray Stewart exited his vehicle and pulled his gloves out of his pocket most of his Mongolian money was whisked away by the strong winds closely perused by several fit members of the group. Congratulations Murray on being awarded the plonker of the day.
The fun began with most persons volunteering to be dressed up as Mongol warriors, this suited some of them and most definitely some who shall remain nameless had missed their vocation. The other villages visited included having your name written in ancient script, riding a camel or horse (the camels were fun) and finally at the lunch Gur we had Peter and Amanda and David and Wendy parading as a Mongol King and Queen and sitting on a throne (see photo) The lunch that we were served was spectacular featuring Goat meat cooked in a traditional manner not dissimilar to a Maori Hangi.
We then retraced our steps almost to Ulaanbaatar stopping at a recently completed and prominent statue depicting Ghingis Khaan on horseback. This stainless steel monument is about 5 stories high and we walked up a dark stairwell to the head of the horse to admire the spectacular view of the area. This statue is something that will most definitely put this country on the map in the future. The day still was not finished and we then headed into Teralj National Park. The road trip alongside a clean fast flowing tree lined river was quite a contrast to what we have experienced in this country. The final visit of the day was to a hearders residence. This however was a real Gur occupied by a real family. We were presented with homemade yogurt, Kurd and other delicacies including a very strong Milk Vodka. We were very disappointed that the fermented mares milk was not available to sample. Yeah Right!! Val, Jude, Frank and Rod took the opportunity to show off their horse riding skills.
By the time we arrived back at the hotel it was almost 8pm. We all agreed that it was a truly memorable day and threw a very perspective on Mongolian history, culture and lifestyle.
DATE: 18/06/2009 LOCATION: ULANBAATAR
As per usual the best way to familiarise yourself with a strange city is to take a bus tour. We all departed the hotel in the Juulchin coach. These people are our Mongolian agents and are doing a great job at making sure we are well looked after and not only enjoy Mongolia but that we learn as much about it as possible. The city tour took in the usual sights including a drive to the Zaisan Memorial a high point overlooking the city dedicated to victims of WW2. This is a spectacular view of Ulaanbaatar city. The tour also took in the Gandantegchenling Monastery and the Museum. The later having a very impressive display of Dinosaur remains found in the south eastern Gobi.
We chose a bad day to go city sightseeing as it is the swearing in of the new President of Mongolia today and most of the festivities are centred around the City Square, so while we were honoured to see the spectacular pageantry the associated traffic congestion prolonged the sightseeing somewhat.
Some of the team found a bar just near the square and it just happened to have a big TV that may be able to screen the All Blacks / French game on Saturday. Someone commented that our itinerary lay days were catering to Rugby followers perfectly. That is more good luck than good management I can assure you. Tonight plans were being made by most to taxi back into town to eat, but a huge deluge prevented most from venturing too far. We were hoping that the bad weather would not put a damper on our optional day trip to a 13th century village and Terelj National Park area.
DATE: 17/06/2009 LOCATION: SAINSHAND to ULAANBAATAR
It was a pleasant surprise to awaken to a magnificent sunny day and to discover that our Gur Camp was in fact in the middle of a vast Gobi desert plain. How we managed to actually find the location in the early hours of the morning is a miricale.
The views were spectacular and although we were still quite tired the thought of getting on the road and experiencing another day driving desert tracks seemed to excite most in the group. The general consensus was that last nights drive in the dark desert was an unforgettable experience and should be added to the itinerary as a must do.
Following a hearty breakfast at camp we backtracked to Sainshand finding a much smoother route back to civilisation. Phil and Errol in the Holden preferred to travel a little slower on this rugged bit of road and suggested that they leave a little earlier. They were sure that they could remember the way out. However after a short period of time a call for help was heard over the radio, they were unsure where they were. Indeed they had gone in completely the wrong direction. The desert can be a confusing place suggested Phil and promised not to stray away from the flock again.
After a refuel in Sainshand (see photo on website) we headed off into the desert again, this time keeping a close eye on the rail line. The driving conditions varied considerably but progress was good. Francie Craig took the wheel of the lead Landcruiser and most of the other ladies were now in the driving seat at this time as well. The temperatures reached 36 degrees just before a late morning tea stop. Everybody was itching to get out their cooking equipment and brew up coffee or chew on gingernuts that had come from the mother land. Team Jeep even set up a temporary canvas cover between their vehicles to shade from the 36 degree hot midday sun. There was still a long way to travel to Choyr the next big town, our lunch stop and the start of the seal road. By now everybody was looking forward to the smooth road and the chance to get a few fast kilometres under the belt.
Finally the illusive tarmac arrived and congratulations were in order to all who conquered the mighty Gobi and 600kms of rough sandy gravel tracks. Everybody was reminded that this was the first but certainly not the last of many challenges on this trip. The next 200km into Ulaanbaatar on good roads seemed like an easy Sunday drive that is until you reach the outskirts of UB where traffic dramatically increases in volume and the driving habits deteriorate rapidly. Our 8.30pm arrival at the Palace Hotel was almost civilised and the troops quickly zeroed in on the hotels Garden Bar and the palatable Mongolian beer.
DATE: 16/06/2009 LOCATION: CHINA - MONGOLIA
Erinhot China to Sainshand Mongolia
To cross an international border you have to be organised, especially with a group of 26. The morning started with a bang when the Pacific International hotels power went off at 5.30am. That meant, no hot showers, in fact no water at all and no light until the sun came up. Within an hour the big V12 Russian auxiliary diesel generator had fired into life and things were back to normality. Due to the lack of internet, that meant that the photos I had intended to send to the website this morning did not happen.
We had to patiently wait for the nod from our hard working Chinese travel agents who had been at the border at opening time this morning, to let us know what time we were needed at the border to start the exit process. The departure time from the hotel was set for 9.30am but with the first stop being at a gas station to top up the tanks for the attack on the Gobi. That proved to be a real mission as in this part of China they refuse to fill plastic containers due to safety issues. We of course needed our containers full for the trip through the desert. By the time that we had interrupted the flow of traffic in and out of the gas station with 12 foreign vehicles the attendant was prepared to do anything to get rid of us, so the cans were filled.
The border post was just another 2km up the road. 12 vehicles arriving at this sizable border post immediately created some interest from both customs and immigration officials. It appeared that as the processing took place that it was important to document the procedure by means of numerous photographs, just to prove that the processing was been done thoroughly. Other than an overzealous customs inspector who insisted that he saw each and every engine number the exit from China was reasonably painless and only took about 2 hours. We made our way through no mans land to the Mongolian entry point. What a contrast!! The Zamym-Uud border post is not a very pleasant place but quite typical of a lot of international crossings in especially Asian countries. Due to Swine Flu we had to first of all fill out a health declaration and have our photo taken. The health centre was a temporary army tent pitched on sandy soil. Mongolian Immigration and Customs formalities are a pleasant process and it all happens quite quickly and efficiently. It was at this point that we met Tamir our Mongolian guide from the Juulchin Tourist Corporation. He had endured a 10 hour train ride from Ulaanbaatar to meet us at the border and see us safely into his country. After a few formalities with the Customs Chief we were on the road and trundling just a short distance to a local restaurant for lunch.
On arrival at Zamym-Uud we went to a restaurant and the dining room was set up just like a wedding banquet in colours of green and gold and red, a visual feast. The food was exceptional and quite different to China in that it had a huge western influence with ice cream and strawberries for dessert. Having completed lunch and taken longer than anticipated the convoy trundled out of town dropping off the rough tar sealed road onto the desert tracks. For the next 4 hours the desert tracks changed considerably from fast open roads to windy tracks through rocky outcrops some of which was remarkably similar to countryside in Central Otago. Strangely enough the desert vegetation was surprisingly green due to consistent rain in previous weeks. We encountered several nomadic herdsmen tending goats sheep and camels, which we took a wide berth around so as not to disturb their feeding. The animals appeared to be in good condition. Due to the fact that it was late in the day we had to make progress hoping to reach our destination before dark which at this latitude is about 9.30pm. However the irresistible photographic opportunities meant that several stops had to be made as well as a compulsory urvu stop. Here we have to walk around the pile of rocks 3 times in a clockwise direction to ask the spirits for good luck and guidance for travelling. The road conditions varied from fast open desert road to corrugated tracks which cut our average speed to just above 40kms/hour.
We finally arrived at Ulaan-Uul, the half way point at 8.00pm crossing the railway line and following a desert track supposedly towards Sainshand, our destination for the day. Darkness fell at 9pm at which time we realised that we were headed in the wrong direction and away from Sainshand. After some direction recalculations on GPS we found a track that took us in the right direction, a short detour of about 80kms. Despite the mistake the experience of navigating the desert roads in the dark will be an experience remembered by all. We all agreed that it was like driving in a forest or a tunnel with no perception of what was to our left or right, it was a very airy feeling. Our night stop The Sunrise Gur Camp was finally located at 2am after negotiating a very bumpy rutted track which had been cut up during recent rains. The 4x4s handled the conditions on this road with ease but it was hard going for the poor HQ Holden which had performed very well during the day.
Despite the late arrival at the camp, staff were pleased to see us and served dinner to all who wanted it in a pleasant manner. We were all very happy to lay our weary bodies down and close our eyes after a very long day. A day not to forget quickly.
DATE: 15/06/2009 LOCATION: JINING - ERINHOT
Today is not a long day as we head North 350 kms to the border town of Erinhot. We started at 9.30am and had a fuel stop on the outskirts of town. All the Landcruisers are running at about 9.2km/litre but the petrol Jeeps are hungry getting barely 500km out of their 85 litre tanks so fuel stops will be regular. The road north is now a brand new expressway and has very little traffic use so the 350 km trip was very quick. We did have to use a portion of the old road for about 75km but even that was in good order. This was a two lane road so was a good opportunity to hone our overtaking skills for the rest of the journey.
As we headed toward Erinhot, once again on expressway the Chinese escort vehicle came to a halt in a cloud of steam and antifreeze. The top radiator hose mount had broken off in the header tank so it got a tow for the final 65km into Erinhot behind a Landcruiser. That also was a good chance to exercise our recovery skills, not that we expect to need to use them on our group of well prepared vehicles.
Just outside of Erinhot is a spectacular arrangement of Dinosaur statues one of which straddles the highway entering the town. We sent the camera car ahead to document the convoy passing under the structure which looked really good.
Tomorrow we leave China and enter Mongolia crossing the Gobi Desert as far as Sainshand a Gobi village. We stay in a Tourist Gur Tent village so more about that on arrival in Ulaanbaatar
DATE: 14/06/2009 LOCATION: BEIJING - JINING
The big day that everyone has been patiently waiting for has arrived. By 6am everybody was packing their vehicles in anticipation of setting off on the much awaited 2009 Beijing to Paris expedition. This was the day that we had done so much preparation all for and it had finally arrived. Our departure from the hotel was a little later than anticipated and we then weaved our way through the light Sunday morning traffic toward the NZ Embassy finally arriving in the quiet tree lined diplomatic enclave at 7.20am. The Ambassador Carl Worker, his wife and staff greeted us like long lost friends. The fresh coffee, toast and scones had been specially prepared for the occasion. After a half hour chat and an official speech of good luck we were flagged off by the Ambassador in the direction of Paris.
The first part of the 350km drive to Jining took us out onto the Badaling expressway and to the Great Wall of China just 75km out of Beijing. A compulsory stop for a mandatory group photo was made and some took the option of walking the wall for an hour. We climbed this amazing structure to a spectacular viewpoint and can only wonder what possessed the emperor of the time to build such an amazing wall. I can tell you that climbing the steps is not easy as some of them are 3 times as high as normal steps!!
We carried on toward Jining on fantastic toll roads and progress was fast, the only hold ups being the heavy truck traffic on some of the long steep grinds. Stops to pay road tolls were regular and amounted to about 350 RMB ($NZ 75) for the day which is actually more than the cost of fuel.
Our hotel for the night was the Wulanchabu Guest Hotel, but as we entered the outskirts of the city we were greeted by a group of locals who welcomed us with song and dance, the traditional silk sash and a sip of local rice / wheat wine, which this year tasted a lot better than I remember in 2007. Dinner tonight is a local restaurant and I had made suggestions that the food and the method of cooking was a little different to what we have encountered so far in China. The meal of various meats and vegetables is cooked in a boiling cauldron of water and you simply help yourself to whatever you need. Along with copious quantities of the rice wine (without a name) it was a night to remember, or in some case a night that couldnt be remembered. What we do know however is that the local hospitality is brilliant and will not be forgotten in a hurry.
DATE: 13/06/2009 LOCATION: BEIJING
Our scheduled city tour departed the hotel by coach at 9am. First stop was a point where we transferred from the comfort of a coach to pedal rickshaws. This is known as a Hutong tour where these hard working little chaps pedal us through the narrow streets of old Beijing where the not so wealthy masses live. This is an interesting insight into how the other half live and their lifestyles. A lunch with a local family in the Hutong area was arranged and to be able to visit a local home and enjoy a lunch with them was fascinating.
The tour then continued on to the Olympic stadium. The birdnest is an incredible piece of engineering as are most of the other Olympic complexes spread around Beijing. We had the opportunity to go into the stadium arena which is huge and can only imagine what it would have been like to compete there. Some of the group this afternoon had other important priorities which necessitated a taxi ride back to the Den bar to see the All Blacks get dealt to by the French Rugby team. Needless to say they all returned to the hotel somewhat dejected. Our tour finished off with a visit to a Chinese tea house to lean the finer arts of tea making and of course do some sampling.
The days activities were completed with a Peking Duck dinner which was enjoyed by all. Alan and I however were still running around attempting to get the newly purchased quality Radio telephones working properly. Another great day was had by all.
DATE: 12/06/2009 LOCATION: XI'AN TERRACOTTA WARRIORS
For 13 members of the group an early start was necessary to get to the airport for a 7.30am domestic flight to Xian City, 2hrs South East of Beijing. Xian is the home of the famous Terracotta Warriors and is a major Tourist attraction.
On arrival at Xian airport we were met by China Travel Services guide Candy who was looking after us for the day. The initial drive to Xian city was almost an hour and the first stop a craft centre to see and learn about the construction of a terracotta warrior. You can actually buy a life size warrior and have a terracotta head constructed that resembles your own. We all thought that one of these or perhaps a pair would look great as a gate way ornament.
Next stop was the Terracotta Warrior diggings not to far up the road. This famous archaeological site is considered to be the eighth wonder of the world. This ancient burial site dating back to 200BC was discovered by a local farmer in the 70s while digging a well. To this day the old man still visits the museum daily and he was present the day of our visit. The Terracotta Warrior site is made up of 3 pits, one of which has excellent well preserved examples of thousands of the warriors and horses while the other two pits are quite derelict. Archaeological work is still continuing.
The tour then continued after an hours drive back to Xian city making our way to the gates of this walled city. The wall surrounding the old part of Xian is 14km in circumference and can be negotiated by foot or bike. That was a challenge just wanting to be conquered by some of the more athletic group members. So Francis, Richard, Judy, Val and Alan Glen all headed off to circumnavigate the wall taking just 1 hour to do so. However it was a lot harder than anticipated in the 30 degree + temperatures. The day trip to Xian was a well worthwhile experience and will most definitely be offered as an optional trip again next year.
DATE: 11/06/2009 LOCATION: BEIJING
Today was allocated as a free day to do any necessary work on the vehicles, laundry or what-ever else cropped up. We got off to a bad start with the internet connection failing to connect and the hotel IT technicians spending quite a bit of time trying to sort out the issue. The GPS tracking unit fitted to my Landcruiser had failed to send out a signal since it arrived in China, so we had some time today to sort that problem as well. After several texts back and forth to NZ we located the device under the dash and rebooted the sim card and away it went. If you want to follow our journey on the web go to www.astrata.co.nz. Click on customer log on, and use the USER NAME: GP_RALLY and then Password: gpr877y. When the page appears with a world map tick the box (GP RALLY 1) in the grey shaded area on left and you should get our location. We start moving again on Sunday 14th of June at 06.45am.
We have been waiting for our case full of Radios that were confiscated by the Chinese customs on arrival to be released. The call from the customs department came at lunchtime today requesting that we visit their airport office this afternoon to discuss our situation, hopefully to up lift the units which are vital to our tour operation. In the meantime our application for a licence to operate our radios has been approved. However after a fast trip to Beijings spectacular the airport, Greg and our Chinese representative Darren, talked with a customs officer who informed us of our options of which none suited our time frame or budget. Simply we needed to apply for an import licence, which would take time, and pay a bond which was going to be expensive. Mainly due to time and the refusal to let the radios be exported by road, we decided to have them sent back to NZ on a flight sometime in the future and purchase Chinese units. This is not the only customs issue we are dealing with as Alan Browns Russian GPS maps on a small SD card being sent by DHL to Beijing have also been detained by customs and it is not likely that they will be delivered either.
Today being a free day for most of the group most everybody spread themselves around the town. The most popular visits being the Zoo, to see the Pandas and the silk market, to purchase a variety of clothing goods. Warwick returned with a very nice Toyota hat in competition to the Jeep team shirts that had been purchased earlier in the week. All sorts of interesting stories about the group and their bargaining escapades were told over dinner at a little local restaurant just across the road from the hotel as the hot sun went down on yet another day.
DATE: 10/06/2009 LOCATION: TIANJIN - BEIJING
This morning we all prepared for our 1st stint at long distance driving on the first of many foreign highways. This was to be the first real test of convoy driving on fast expressways on the right hand side of the road.
The decision was made by our Chinese escort vehicle to use a brand new expressway, recently opened to accommodate the heavy traffic flows between Tianjin and Beijing, a total travel distance of 180km for the journey. It took quite some time to negotiate the myriad of city roads and fly-overs to finally reach the new expressway and after collecting a ticket for the toll road we headed North East on an almost deserted new 4 lane highway, managing to cruise at an easy 100kmph for the next hour or so. Running alongside the highway is a new Chinese fast train that travels at almost 400kmph and completes the trip to Tianjin from Beijings South Station in just 29 minutes!! We saw the train in full flight on 3 occasions during our journey and it is quite a sight. Once we came into the outskirts of Beijing it became imperative that we all kept in a tight convoy and avoided getting lost. That all worked well having to adopt a Chinese driving style which appears to be quite aggressive but works well here and we have all got used to that style very quickly. Our arrival at the Qianamen Jianguo Hotel was at 13.00 and the vehicles were parked in a secure compound behind the hotel where they will stay until our departure on Sunday morning.
This afternoon was scheduled for a city tour which would largely concentrate on the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Tony our Chinese guide and local expert enlightened us all with lots of amazing history about these two prominent historical attractions over a 4 hour period in 35 degree temperatures.
However you do not visit Beijing everyday. The temptation to just relax with a cold beer was superseded by persuasion to attend a highly recommended local Kung Fu show. This is a live performance that show-cases the Kung Fu story with lots of on stage action for an hour and a half. The show also travels throughout the world and is good and very educational. This was a great end to a very full day.
DATE: 9/06/2009 LOCATION: TIANJIN
Tangu to Tianjin (95km for the day) The process of completing formalities relevant to wanting to drive imported cars in China continues this morning.
We are waiting for the Chinese Drivers licences and the 3rd party insurance documentation to be completed. Consequently we had untill 11.30 this morning to relax and sort out packing proceedures with the vehicles. Due to the fact that all the cars look the part it was announced that there would be no requirement for the vehicles to go through a testing station. We set off in convoy navigating our way to Tiangin on the freeway to start with, then heading into the narrow and busy streets of the old city. This was a real batism of fire for all especially negotiating the bicycles, pedestrians and regular car and bus traffic. Everyone did exceptionally well and enjoyed the experience, I think. After another big lunch and popping into the police station to collect the licences and number plates (our number is Aoo286) and these are special tourist vehicle issue. I have come to the conclusion that not that many expeditions like ours come to China as my plates from 2007 were just 150 numbers less.
We then headed off into the new city of Tiangin which is spectacular, with lots of redevelopment, parks, rivers and it is super clean. I did not know that such places existed in this part of the world. We also did a drive by for local TV and media, with Clare and I giving interviews outside a tourist shopping centre. The action for the day occured on our way to our lavish hotel "The Chrystal Palace" when some excited traffic police wanted to know what our impressive convoy was all about. With flashing lights and sirens they worked their way to the front of the convoy to have a heated chat with our Chinese convoy leader in the "Black Buick" (with the flashing hazard lights). Fortunately he is one of them, a policeman on special duty we beleive.
The day finished off with a very nice dinner (again) which was not as exciting as the taxi ride there and back for $2 each way.
Greg Paul from Tianjin.
DATE: 8/06/2009 LOCATION: Tangu
At 7am this morning in Beijing we were greeted by torential rain which continued for the duration of the 150km coach journey to Tianjin. The group experienced first hand the heavy traffic and the interesting driving methods while exiting the Beijing area.Our first official engagement this morning was a lecture by traffic police on the basic road rules of Chinese driving.From what we have experienced first hand during our short stay we didnt think that rules of any description actually existed. From there we were taken to a local hospital for a health check apparently this is a requirement of the drivers licence test. They took our photos and requested our heights, that was it. However the visit to the hospital was an experience worthwhile!! Chinese enjoy their food and big lunches are compulsory. Most of the group enjoyed their lunches until they needed to use the washroom facilities.
From there we headed down to the port to be reunited with our long lost vehicles. The volume of containers in one area is a sight to behold. Our 6 containers were all alondside one another at the port and very quickly they were ceremonisly opened one by one to reveal 12 prestine vehicles much to everyones relief. The first out was Warwick Halls Landcruiser but the Steele Jeep failed to start due to an ignition key being left on. Very quickly all of the vehicles were lined up ready for customs inspection and we were expecting the usual thourough going over checking engine and chassis numbers and our spares inventory. With out warning we were given the thumbs up to fire up and depart, the tough inspection had not materialised and we were free to go. That was much easier than 2007. Heading out onto the congested streets of the port town of Tangu driving in China became a test of survival. Just getting out of the port gates was a mission and in the first 5km we lost the last 4 vehicles of the convoy for a short while. Fortunately it was only a short drive to the hotel with a necessary fuel stop on the way. Diesel is costing 5.6 RMB per litre which is about $NZ1.25. Our rather nice hotel tonight is the Hotel Elegance in the centre of Tangu.
DATE: 7/06/2009 LOCATION: BEIJING CHINA
Greg spotted a group of 4x4 vehicles parked in the courtyard, went down to investigate, this group had just completed a 38day 4x4 journey from Singapore via Tibet and finished in Beijing.
An interesting array of 4x4 vehicles Some of the group took the challenge of a bike ride in the park next to the hotel, others either went to the zoo or the Forbidden City. There is plenty to do in the immediate location of the hotel. The day ended with a sing along with the ukulele's, a great start to their adventure. Monday will be going to the port collecting vehicles and clearing customs, back to Beijing on Wednesday
DATE: 6/06/2009 LOCATION: Beijing China
Saturday 6th June The group arrived in Beijing on time to a smoggy and wet 28degrees day. All the group successful through the strict health and customs procedures. Unfortunately, the radios were taken by customs due to not having a 'communication licence'. This will be our guide Tony's first task/challenge to organize the licence and retrieve the radios from customs.
An hour journey's to the hotel, which is a central location and only a 20min walk to Tienanmen Square. The group met at midday for their briefing and ventured out the doors on foot to the local markets, Tienanmen Square and the supermarket for supplies. Greg using his local contacts in Beijing tracked down the bar to watch the Australian's V The Barbarians, this bar is frequented by the ex pats, and serves imported beer. An afternoon well spent for the rugby enthusiasts of the group.The groups first impression of Beijing is favorable.