Beijing to Paris 2011- Daily Diary
Report #3 St Petersburg to Paris
(From Greg Paul)
After traversing the vast continent of Russia for almost 8,000 km, the crossing of a border into Eastern European “Estonia” seemed hard to believe. We had become very used to a whole host of Russian peculiarities including the rough and broken tarmac roads, the pesky Russian policemen with their striped wooden batons, the currency, the language and the inexpensive diesel to name but a few things. We would also have to endure another border crossing which we had got out the practice of doing just recently. Fortunately the border crossing into Estonia at Narva is accustomed to European traffic and not quite so far removed from the real world and quite different to the entry border from Mongolia.
Just before the border we filled our fuel tanks to the max using the last of our Russian Roubles and enjoying for the last time a tank full of fuel that costs less than $NZ100. The Russians farewelled us on a wet miserable and cold day and the Estonians although inquisitive about where we had come from, processed our entry very quickly and we had entered the country of one of the newer entrants to the European Union in no time at all. All of a sudden the roads were smooth, the fields were highly cultivated by modern European machinery and we could recognise the signs as being written in a Latin script. We had arrived back in civilisation, or had we?
It is always nice to visit Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Its historical buildings in the old city are medieval and date back to the 13th century. Our hotel the “St Olav” was built in the early 1500’s so it is a bit of a mission to find it amongst Tallinn’s narrow cobbled streets and there are certainly no lifts in this building. However it is an experience to stay here and is part of Tallinn’s charming history and is located very close to the town square.
On our first day of our two day stay in Tallinn we left the country and headed for the city of Helsinki in Finland. It is only 2 hours on a large ferry across the Baltic waters to Helsinki and a shame not to visit this charming city while so close. We had arranged in advance a short introductory city sightseeing bus tour on arrival and the rest of the afternoon was at leisure with some visiting a heritage museum, Maurice taking a boat ride on the harbour and others enjoying the shopping at the huge “Stockmans” department store in downtown Helsinki. Although the day was fine the temperatures were in the cool teens a stark contrast from a few weeks prior when we had clients attending the WRC Rally Finland. Unbeknown to us this was going to be the norm until we reached Paris. In Tallinn the next day Murray, Ross, Veronika and Georgia found an excursion to an old air base where they could re-live some of their child-hood ambitions and physically fire almost any type of gun that you wished to including an AK47. That was before they came back to reality and spent the afternoon in a local Laundromat.
It is not often that you can travel through 3 countries in a day. We do, as we leave Estonia and travel through Latvia and into Lithuania to their capital city “Vilnius”. This city has a lot of history and is home to a sizable cathedral. The historic walking street hosts some excellent restaurants and is always fun to visit and is sometimes very busy and hard to find a seating. Leaving Vilnius is a navigating challenge as if you elect to follow GPS instructions and take the shortest route you will end up in neighbouring Belarus, which you do not want to do as you need a visa!!
Instead we head west and inland for a distance before turning south to cross the border in Poland. A compulsory stop is required at the now abandoned Polish border post to change real money into Polish currency, the Zloty. Our lunch stop today is at a very pretty riverside town called Augusto before continuing on to Polish capital, Warsaw. We stay at the “Novotel Centrum” in the centre of the city which requires some negotiation of the busy city streets which we also share with a super modern tram system. Warsaw was destroyed during WW2 so the Warsaw we see today was predominately rebuilt in the late 40’s and 50’s. It has a grim history and well worth indulging in an informative city tour to learn more about this interesting place, which is what our group did on the spare day in Warsaw returning to the hotel late afternoon full of knowledge.
To continue leaning about Poland we headed the 300km from Warsaw to Krakow. This is where the famous concentration camp, Auschwitz is located in the small and obscure town of Oschweim. I generally advise our group members that this place will tug on the heart strings and it is a moving experience no matter how tough you may be. This was the biggest Nazi concentration camp in Europe situated geographically exactly in the middle of Europe with a sophisticated rail system from all directions leading to Auschwitz. While this place is well worth a visit it is a place that you will probably only want to visit once.
Krakow is our overnight stop and this year we decided to make this city a 2 night stop due to the fact that it is hard to appreciate its beautiful old city in a short time. We also visit the Salt Mines at Wieliczka just south of the city, descending almost 600 metres underground into an almost mystical world where back in history the salt mined was worth more than gold!! That evening we had time to discover the wonderful old city of Krakow with its big and busy town square and huge castle. Murray went up in a hot air balloon to get a better look at the vista and enjoyed a long boat ride on the city river. Our decision to make Krakow a two night stop was a popular one with all appreciating the extra time here.
Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic is always a popular stop and is a nice compromise between a typical European city with the charm of the old Eastern Bloc. It is however very accessible to the rest of Europe and at this time of the holiday season hosts a lot visitors. Prague is best seen on foot or by tram and is dominated by the old city, the river and Prague Palace situated high on the hill above the city. We stayed in a charming hotel in the old city where everything was within easy walking distance.
By this stage we are getting the feeling that our amazing journey is coming to an end quickly. From Prague we have just 2 days driving left until Paris. Last year we discovered an amazing motor museum at Sinsheim near Heidelberg in Germany. It is impossible to pass by this place if anyone is vaguely interested in motor vehicles or aeroplanes. On display is the Concorde’s Russian equivalent called the Tupolev TU144 and probably one of the best variety of cars and military equipment in the world. Our 2 hours here although sufficient to see most of the displays is probably not long enough to do the displays justice but is enjoyable never the less. We drive through Heidelberg via the scenic route following the “Nekka” river to our night stop Ladenburg.
With some intrepidation we departed Ladenburg for the last 500 km of our 13,000km Beijing to Paris expedition. We crossed into France mid-morning and interestingly there was more of a border patrol presence at the line that I have seen in previous years. This is in line with media discussions in Europe at the moment that suggest that some member European Union countries are concerned about the ability of the free movement of nationalities to move throughout Europe without controls at present.
Paris, for those who have not been there before is a dream city especially known for its landmarks, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame etc. No matter how many times you visit Paris it does not loose its charm. The Eiffel Tower is a fitting location to finish our epic journey as did the pioneers of the original Peking to Paris Raid in 1907. Despite having a quiet group celebration and dinner on the night of our arrival we were up and at the Eiffel Tower at 07.30 to get the ultimate photo of our vehicles and team at the finish line followed by the obligatory drive along the Champs d Elyse and a circuit around the Arc d Triumph . It is hard to believe it is all over for yet another year. Congratulations to Murray and Ross, Veronika and Georgia and Maurice for putting in a perfect driving performance to complete the challenge without as much as a scrape, a puncture or any mechanical issues. Well done team and thanks to all who assist Rally Tours to make such journeys possible.
At the completion of our day in Paris, Veronika and Georgia stayed on in Paris to enjoy the sights for another two days before heading in the direction of the UK for more leisurely sightseeing before shipping the Land Rover Defender 110 home to NZ on the 30th August. Murray and Ross headed across the English Channel with Maurice and I to London where they were going to spend another few days sightseeing and resting before heading home. The two Rally Tours Land Cruisers continued on to our UK base near Northampton where we gave them the big clean-up, a quick service and locked them up until next April when we will do this all over again. I am detoured via Perth and Melbourne for client visits and Maurice is returned to the “shaky isles” via Hong Kong.
Greg and Rally Tours would like to acknowledge the following key organisations and persons for their assistance in 2011 for making our expeditions a reality.
- Deb Hollier and Jennie Paul in the “Rally Tours Home office”
- Gavin Finlay of House of Travel Papakura.
- Murray and Pat Reedy of Silk Road Adventures, Greymouth.
- Sharon Huang of China Travel Services, Auckland.
- Phil Gibbs of GT Logistics, our shipping agents in Auckland.
- Alan Chesterman at the Automobile Association in Auckland
Along the way we meet, work with and make friends with lots of other people that help us make the tours what they are. I would like to thank the following.
David Brown at Cars UK, Iain Freestone, Richard Arrowsmith, Abdul Jappa our Turkmen guide, Dima and Ishmail in Tajikistan,
Our Chinese guides Sadik and Tony Fan and the CTS team in China who work so hard behind the scenes on our behalf especially, Mrs Lui and Mrs Jui. Also thanks to the NZ Ambassador in Beijing, Karl Worker and his assistant Andrew Robinson for their hospitality.
In Mongolia Mr Tamir Dasdavaa, our Mongolian guide and his boss and our agent the delightful Elise.
In Russia thanks to Olga Antonova and her team in Novosibirsk, and Yekaterinburg guide Veronika Logunova and my good friends Alex and Olga Volkova who I know I can call on if we get into trouble in Russia.
Jussi Ala-Martunnen in Helsinki, Finland. Not mentioned are many more associates that we deal with to make our tours happen, thanks everybody.
- Greg Paul.
Report #2 Ulaanbaatar to St Petersburg
(From Greg Paul St Petersburg, Russia - 7th August 2011)
Our time in Russia has passed very quickly and at present we have only 2 days left in this amazing country before we exit into Eastern Europe. It will be sad to leave Russia as this time the crossing of this vast continent from East to west has not failed to impress me yet again and leave a very different opinion with my fellow travellers of what they had expected of Russia.
It appears that Russia is waking up to the Western world in a rush, certainly faster than some of their “super power” neighbours. We had had a great time in Mongolia and loved the remoteness, the culture and the friendliness of the country and its inhabitants. We were very well looked after by our travel agent hosts and our very efficient and helpful guide Mr Tamir. Tamir has been our local for the last 3 years, our job is unique in comparison to what he normally does but he annually makes time to ensure that our bunch of adventurous Kiwi overlander’s make it safely through the remote Gobi Desert. Although I must say that his navigation skills are questionable from time to time but we are educating him after 3 crossings and occasionally we do try a few new tracks to make it exciting.
The exit from Mongolia has been practiced on previous occasions and the border officials seem to appreciate our timetable restraints so things happened quickly and efficiently and by 9am we were sitting on the entry point to Russia filling in immigration forms. As luck would have it the chief customs lady recognised us as regulars and the entry documentation and formalities were completed for all three vehicles in record time of just over 3 hours. In comparison to a 10 hour crossing in 2007 that is a vast improvement. This efficiency and general hospitality is definitely a reflection on a fast developing and happy Russian society.
With evolution the costs also escalate and fuel, food and tour excursions make up the majority of our spending. We cover 6,000km from one side of Russia to the other so the 30% diesel fuel price increase in the last 12 months is significant. This is however still cheap with diesel in most cases less than $NZ 1 per litre. Food prices and the cost of a lunch or dinner seems to have remained stable but it not hard to spend 1000 Rubels ($NZ 40) per person at the dinner table for a nice meal and a couple of beers. The cost of doing laundry using the hotel services are still prohibitive and damage the spending budget. The cost of crossing this vast land is still acceptable and with the NZ dollar being strong at present. After tallying up costs Russia is still a relatively cheap and exciting place to visit.
We are not subject to any road tolls while travelling across Russia and some would argue that on the rough sections that we should be paid to travel on the roads. Russia has spent a lot of money in the last 3 years improving the road network, especially in the Eastern Siberian regions and as a result the roads are 500% better than they were not that long ago. I am pleased to say that there are still some rough sections of old road just to remind the veterans of the trans-Siberian road journey what it used to be like. For those ex Rally Tours P2P participants reading this, the “cowboys” have also disappeared. These convoys of right hand drive Japanese used cars were driven at speed from Vladivostok to various destinations in Russia and were somewhat menacing when passing at speed on the rough roads weaving and dodging the large potholes and sometimes overtaking in precarious places.
Navigation in Russia is pretty daunting, but with a combination of experience, a good set of notes detailing places to stop, good lunch venues, preferable fuel stations and good directions to hotels the cross Russia journey is quite refined. GPS mapping is still a bit hit and miss as even the latest maps are about 4 years out of date and are quite ineffective in Eastern Siberia, so a good paper map is essential even this day and age.
We headed into Siberia firstly stopping at Ulan Ude just 260km from the Mongolian border. This town is a major junction on the Trans-Siberian railway and is where the Trans- Mongolian meets and passengers transfer trains for the trip west. Ulan Ude is close to Lake Baikal and within 2 hours of leaving the city we are driving along the shores of Baikal which contains 20% of the world’s fresh water and is one big ice berg for 9 months of the year. Consequently when you arrive at Baikal the outside temperature drops 5 to 10 degrees as the cool winds blow down the lakes length. Despite it being a cooler and wet day Maurice, Georgia and Ross all decided to add a swim in Baikal’s chilly waters to their list of lifetime achievements at the same time as we shared smoked fish for lunch purchased from one of many local vendors selling these delicacies on the roadside. Our destination Irkutsk is one of my favourite places as it represents true Siberian life. There are lots of big wooden log cabin type houses, some very old and dilapidated, lots of busy market areas where you can virtually buy anything, including an “AK47” and the people are uniquely Siberian and enjoy each-others company especially down by the riverside on a warm summers night. We have two nights here to enjoy the area and the atmosphere before moving west.
The driving challenge starts here with a short day to the town of Tulun where we stop to break the journey to Krasnoyarsk the next sizable city in Siberia. Tulun doesn’t see too many tourists, no one speaks English and the hotel although very clean and tidy does not have a restaurant. Dinner in Tulun is purchased from the well- stocked supermarket downstairs and a group room dinner takes place in the largest room available. Breakfast is a repeat of that process. The hotel does however have a sauna (banya) and we put that to good use after dinner ensuring a good night’s sleep in preparation for a long drive on bad roads the next day.
Krasnoyarsk is a delightful city located on the Yenisey River and the view from our hotel of the bridge is replicated on a Russian 10 Rubel note. The 2 night stop in Krasnoyarsk is always appreciated after negotiating the long but very interesting drive through one of the more challenging sections of the Siberian forest drive where we can say that the roads are still tracks in some places. Fortunately we had lots of rain today that kept the dust down but turned the roads into a bit of a bog reminding me of why we prefer to use 4x4 type vehicles for this trip. At each of these overnight stops I make suggestions as to what our team can look at during the day to occupy themselves depending on what their interests are and most places have plenty to see, Cathedrals, famous landmarks and in some cases nature reserves and zoos.
On our arrival in Novosibirsk the local zoo was indeed the main attraction for our group. It was a Saturday and also the last weekend of the Russian school holidays. The Novosibirsk zoo is one of the best and biggest in Russia and features a variety of interesting animals including a couple of very active Panda bears who keep the masses of visitors well entertained. The locals are proud of their zoo and after I had finished my business with our Russian travel agent, who resides in Novosibirsk I too was taken to see this prime visitor attraction. We finished the day at the car wash just for something different. Needless to say after 10 days on the Siberian road our trucks were looking a bit grubby. In Russia the locals operate numerous “Monka” or commercial car wash facilities and for not a lot of money the vehicle gets a very effective water blast hand wash which restores them to almost show-room condition and ready for the next leg of the journey to Omsk.
Generally at about this stage of the journey we start to see a few other adventurous overland travellers, generally Europeans heading in a west to east direction. This year we haven’t seen so many but did run into a group of five Thai Toyota Surf type vehicles travelling from Singapore to London. We briefly encountered them on the Mongolian Russian border then occasionally on the Baikal road to Irkutsk. In Novosibirsk we shared the hotel car park with two well set up Toyota 75 series Landcruisers from Italy with camper bodies. This combination of this type vehicle set up is a favourite set up with many European travellers now and see quite a few like this in Central Asia. This arrangement is a bit more practical than the large Unimog type vehicles that they used to prefer. There was also a lone Belgium registered motorcycle in the car park at the hotel. Although most of these travellers are independent and self- sufficient the Russians insist that they stay at an approved hotel every 3 nights and have a passport registration done. As time passes I believe that this practice will cease but at the moment it is the way that visitors are tracked while in the Russian Federation. On arrival in Omsk at the Ibis hotel we parked alongside two GB registered motorcycles that were travelling from Vladivostok in the east of Russia back to the UK. Whilst we didn’t meet the riders they left a card on our windscreen indicating that we may be interested in their travel blog. We read the next day that they had made the fatal mistake of following their GPS out of Omsk which took them on the M51 road directly to the Kazakhstan border. With no entry visa to Kazakhstan they had to retrace their steps and lost a day of travel doing so. Had we met I could have warned them about that trap!!
Omsk is a pleasant 2 night stop and is situated on the intersection of two rivers the sizable “Irtysh” and the smaller “Om”. As Maurice is a boat owner and enthusiast, he is always happy when on the water so was quick to take the opportunity to experience a dusk ride on one of the many river cruise boats for a couple of hours which apparently was a pleasant thing to do. Omsk has an interesting old city and they are very proud of their heritage with a huge emphasis on preserving that history. Our team spent most of the spare day walking in the old part of town, and along the sandy riverside beach. Georgia braved a dip in the Irtysh River along with the locals.
Yekaterinburg represents a milestone in the journey across Russia as this is where Asia meets Europe and just 17km outside of Yekaterinburg is where you can stand with one foot in either region. This year we allocated a 3 night stop in this interesting and cosmopolitan city. Yekaterinburg developed as a result of WW2 when a lot of industry and education facilities were de-centralised from Western Russia and out of range of the German bombers. It is also famous as the place where the Russian Tsar and his family were executed by the red army in 1918. Our first day in Yekaterinburg takes in the sights of the city in a chartered mini bus with our delightful guide Veronika. This tour is with an emphasis on the Romanov family deaths which includes a trip out into the forest to “Ganina Yama” monastery where the bodies were disposed of after the execution. I had repairs to make on a starter problem with my 80 series so called on my friends Alex and Olga Volkova to assist. Even Russia is a small place sometimes as their friend Oleg just happens to be the GM at Yekaterinburg Toyota. The vehicle was taken away, washed and worked on in their immaculate workshop until 8pm at night. Their business hours are 8am to 8pm. The problem sorted and a meagre 3000RR ($NZ120) paid. During the day I was entertained by Alex and Olga at their home, not too far from the Toyota workshop. The food kept progressively flowing off Alex’s home built BBQ throughout the day and too keep me occupied we indulged in a real “Banya” or Siberian sauna which is almost a daily tradition in most households. My experience also included the traditional beating with the birch branches or “Venik” as they call it and then into a cold plunge pool. The pool is a non-event in the winter due to the pool icing up but apparently you roll in the snow instead to cool down!! I can’t wait to try a winter Banya.
We are now heading to Moscow via Perm, Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod. After leaving Yekaterinburg we make a detour to the Kangur Ice Caves, the Russian version of Waitomo. The temperature inside the Kangur caves however ranges between -2 and -5 degrees. This is very popular attraction and only limited numbers are able to be guided through at a time so our wait to enter then caves is about 2 hours just enough time for one of our elaborate picnic lunches off the tailgate of the Landcruiser.
Perm to Kazan is one of our longer days but is helped by the fact that we loose 2 hours due to crossing date lines. We are heading for Kazan which is located in the state of Tartastan. They were keen to become an independent state in the 1990’s along with the other Central Asian countries that USSR released but because of its location and wealth Russia wanted to hold Tartastan. It is famous for its Kremlin which is today a world heritage site. Kazan is a temporary breath of fresh air from what we have seen for the last 3 weeks and with the pretty architecture you could actually be in any central European city. Police rule in this region is strict with no litter to be dropped in the streets and no alcohol allowed in public places. The road Police are also very proactive and drive fast VW Passat’s. Mercedes C class and Audi’s. Much to the amusement of my fellow travellers, I made a small token of appreciation to two policemen for their efficiency and made a contribution to the traffic policeman’s social fund not too far out of Kazan for apparently passing at a place where I shouldn’t have. That is still debatable in my mind but they had it on video which is hard to argue.
Travelling through to Nizhny Novgorod, the traffic gets heavier and more impatient not unlike travelling between Levin and Wellington on a Sunday afternoon as I keep reminding Murray Taylor who is familiar with that track. The short and frequent passing lanes that you need to be awake and on the case otherwise fast moving trucks and dark coloured fast cars with tinted windows soon let you know that you are hindering their progress. At least this year we could admire the scenery as we entered Nizhny Novgorod, a beautiful city located on the top of a hill overlooking the rivers “Volga and the “Oka”. Last year our vision was blurred by the terrible forest fires that plagued the Novgorod and Moscow regions and the views of either city were neglible not to mention the smokey smell associated with these fires. To the contrary, our exit the next morning from Nizhny Novgorod bound for Moscow was in wet and cold weather. While some were quietly complaining about the colder temperatures it was a pleasant relief from previous years when warmer temperatures made it really feel like summer time in the Northern Hemisphere. It has been about 5 degrees cooler all the way from Beijing this year which has meant that the feared mosquitos and flies have not materialised which makes life much more pleasant in Siberia and Russia.
Our arrival late afternoon in Moscow at the Holiday Inn Solkolniki was in rainy conditions. This year we have reduced the Moscow stay-over to two nights so organised ourselves to do the mandatory hop on hop off bus tour in the morning from close to “Red Square” This involves a ride on the famous Moscow Metro which despite the stations being written in Russian are easy to negotiate and very in-expensive. The Capital Tours 2 hour bus tour is simply an introduction to the sights of Moscow. Maurice decided to return Victory Park to have a better look at some Russian military equipment and enjoy the area. As I have a classic car tour headed in this direction next June Murray, Ross and I took the metro to the extremes of Moscow to check out 2 notable car collections, one of which was excellent and worth a visit and the other not. Our last mission and an annual must do task was to drive from the hotel to Red Square at 5am to get the obligatory team photos outside St Basils Cathedral. The drive alone through the streets of Moscow at the early hour is worth getting up for. The daylight cooperated and some nice and surely memorable photos were taken by all except Veronika who forgot her camera and radio in the excitement of getting up early. Yeah right!!
The drive from Moscow to St Petersburg is achievable in one day but we choose to break it at Veliky- Novgorod which is just 200km short of St Petersburg. This is a fascinating town associated with some of Russia’s earliest history some dating back to the 8th century. Crossing the “Volkov” river that splits the town into two parts you enter the 10th century walled old city that has a restored cathedral reputed to be one of the oldest building remaining in Russia, having been built in 1052. This time we stumbled on a gathering in the town square where signatories’ and locals were welcoming back military personnel from active service in Chechnya. After a nice dinner at the “Nice” restaurant we circumnavigated the old city wall and came across a touch rugby game on the beach. The advertisement on the pole indicated that this Sunday the 7th August (today) the Rugby World Cup for Beach rugby would take place at this very point. I wonder if the IRB knows about this event especially as they were using their prized and protected logo on the poster?? Once again this small but interesting town managed to touch the hearts of all on the trip and justify its place on our itinerary.
St Petersburg is now a 3 night stop due to popular demand and an opportunity to gather breath before heading into Eastern Europe. Despite the fact that is very much like a lot of other European cities its history, architecture and waterways always impress visitors. We stay at the very busy Hotel Moscow at the end of the famous “Nevskiy Prospect” Getting in and out of town is easy by bus or metro and there is lots to do. Maurice arranged a boat trip of the canals for 2 hours and with 6 of us willing to participate we were able to charter the small boat which was extremely pleasant on one of St Petersburg’s supposed 35 fine days per year. We followed that up with a 2 hour bus tour with an English commentary. The team took a fancy to the extensive Russian military museum, and got off the bus and spent a few hours wandering around the huge area. Maurice is off to the Ballet tonight which is a must see in St Petersburg if you are musically inclined.
Tomorrow we farewell Russia which will be sad as our time here has been very enjoyable and we have met lots of interesting people, seen lots of great sights and generally enjoyed the Russian hospitality . We travel to Estonia via the Narva border and hopefully getting out of the country will be as easy as getting in. This border with Estonia is used to foreigners as lots of Europeans cross here by coaches and private cars to visit St Petersburg. We will be fuelling with cheap Russian diesel before we leave as it now cost at least twice the price in Eastern Europe and 3 times as much in Central Europe. The good thing about leaving Russia is that I know that I will be back again soon. - Greg Paul
Report #1 Beijing to Ulaanbaatar
(From Greg Paul Omsk, Siberia. 25th July 2011)
Beijing (China) to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -
With the ash cloud situation in Chile and the flight disruptions that were happening in NZ we were a little nervous that our Beijing to Paris clients, Veronika and Georgia Cox from Auckland and Maurice Perwick from Christchurch may not make it to Beijing at all. That would have made for a very interesting scenario if Veronika’s well-prepared black Land Rover Defender 110 made it to China and she didn’t.
The gods were with us and Air NZ delivered all three of them to Beijing on time. The Beijing smog was particularlily bad on that day which came as a bit of a shock to them. I must have neglected to mention the smog at the various presentations that Veronika attended. However they all adapted well to the smog, the temperatures and food across the road at my favourite local eatery.
The trip by fast train to Tianjin was pretty exciting for our Kiwis from Wellington, Christchurch and Coatesville. The train station is more like an airport and the train ride is pretty exhilarating as it reaches 330kmph and delivers us to Tianjin in less than 30 minutes. We are here in Tianjin, 250km South of Beijing to collect Veronica’s Defender. This is normally a pretty seamless process, and it is quite a buzz to physically cut the padlock off the container and reverse the vehicle out of the container and lots of photographs and general excitement are always in order. This year the first part of the plan went well but then for some reason our hard working Chinese representatives who prepare all the paperwork ran into some un-expected problems with the customs department that had them on tender hooks for the next 2 days. We build in at least a spare day for contingencies and we needed every minute of it as Veronika and the Land Rover arrived in Beijing less than 6 hours before our intended departure time from the Beijing hotel.
As always the NZ ambassador and his staff were pleased to host us to a departure breakfast and waved the NZ flag to signify the start of our epic journey. It is always good to catch up with our fellow New Zealander’s who are representing the country in a foreign land and they are always keen to listen to our travel tales. Our next two days in China are not too demanding, the roads are good, but Veronika and Maurice are a bit shocked at some of the inside overtaking, or “undertaking” as I call it which is unique to 2 days travelling either side of Beijing. This is necessary as the slow moving and overloaded trucks often occupy both fast lanes on the long slow hill climbs heading for the border regions. Unlike our new recruits our other seasoned overlander’s Murray and Ross Taylor in the 100 series are now educating Veronika and Maurice in the finer art of road craft in this part of the world.
We are all looking forward to moving into Mongolia and attacking the Gobi Desert. As always we have our border crossing procedures all sorted and the necessary vehicle paperwork at close hand with our hard to read engine numbers written on the back of our hand. Past participants of our tour will know what I am talking about!! Our Chinese representatives are always happy to see us leave China safely as am I. This means that we can then recover the significant amount of money that we have deposited with the Chinese customs department as a bond on our foreign vehicles. This year the wait at the hotel for the word to travel to the border for processing out of China was a bit slow at coming. By 3pm we decided to drive to the border and make our presence obvious if nothing else. This proved to be very entertaining watching multiple Mongolian nationals who had been on shopping trips to China for the day, squeeze into local Russian Jeeps to hitch a ride across the border. The Chinese border closes at 6pm and by 5.30pm our exit was not looking good due to the fact that departure documents had not yet turned up from the customs HQ. By some good fortune just after the alarm bells started ringing the gates opened, the flag dropped and a Chinese border exit that normally takes 3 hours plus was completed in 20 minutes and we were in no-man’s land heading into Mongolia.
Our Mongolian guide, “Tamir” was really pleased to see us although we were in contact by text with him and his superiors in Ulaanbaatar keeping them informed of our delays in their neighbouring country. The Mongolian authorities greeted us with a welcome and processed us into their country quickly and efficiently which made us all feel very comfortable and happy to be there. We also ran into an 8 car “Toyota” self-drive tour from Thailand who had been delayed at the border and at 7.30pm at night were heading into the Gobi hoping to make the 200km journey to Sainshand. “Good Luck guys” was about all I could say!!
Our Gobi crossing couldn’t have been better. The day was cool and overcast and the dust not too bad. We departed at 8am and had a good 14 hours of daylight to get to our next destination, the “Sunrise Gobi” Gur camp village. Having done this on 4 occasions the directions in the desert are not too difficult although at the advice of our guide we tried a slightly different route to the Buddest Monastery and Energy Centre which is located in the middle of a remote valley and not visible until you literally stumble upon it. From here the Gur camp is just 14km away following numerous sandy tracks to arrive at this very civilised settlement in the middle of nowhere. This year we were treated to the Gur accommodation with the en-suites which were under construction last year. Having experienced a night drive in the Gobi in 2009, I decided that the conditions were right to pass on this experience to our class of 2011. Just after dark at 10pm we headed out into the Gobi for a 20km return trip witnessing some interesting night life and lots of stars, unique to this part of the world.
We continued our Gobi journey the next morning via the Gobi town of Sainshand. We would normally fuel up here but Mongolia is short of diesel this year so we have stocked up and have sufficient fuel to cover the 900kms to Ulaanbaatar. There is a new tarmac road being built through the Gobi to Sainshand but I am pleased to report that progress is slow and according to the signage at the start of the sealed section near the town of Choyr is will not open until 2013. We hit the seal section at about 4pm and drove 40km until we again took to the desert heading for Delger-Khan. This time we struck mud and water on the track which from time to time was quite challenging and fun. We arrived at our Gur camp at 20.00 after making several stops, one to photograph camels and another to play in a river crossing where Veronika lost her front number plate. That was funny as we all waited for the river to clear so that we could find the essential vehicle identification plate.
The first 100km of our 300km day into Ulaanbaatar was splashing in and out of deep water holes on the desert track, until we made it back on to the tarmac road. We visit another excellent Mongolian heritage attraction 17km off the main highway simple called “the 13th century village” This depicts different facets of life in that era and is a fun afternoon. We have the chance to wear traditional clothes, experience farm life, and eat at the Kings table before moving on to the amazing Genghis Khan statue. This complex is developing a little more every year since we first discovered it as a new attraction in 2009 soon after it had been opened. It is now a popular local attraction and as it is the Mongolian “Nadam” holiday lots of locals were visiting the area. Most of us took the chance to climb up to the view point on the horses head which is almost the equivalent of a 9 story building. I did warn of the hectic remaining 50km drive into UB and as it was a holiday it lived up to its reputation. The city had experience a lot of rain in previous days and the depth of the pot holes was not easily identified with small cars ducking and diving to avoid the deep holes which could easily swallow then whole. Our centrally located hotel the “Bayangol” is close to the central city and a perfect location to explore Ulaanbaatar where we will be for the next 2 days before moving North toward Siberia.
- Greg Paul.