Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Everything You Know is Wrong

Thus far on this trip everything we’d been led to believe has been wrong. Here’s a quiz based on our experiences. Answer true or false to the following questions: 
  1. Border crossings are a reason for officials to extort bribes, needlessly hassle you and try and make you cry.
  2. Romania is full of people impersonating police that will pull you over and steal all your stuff.
  3. The police in <choose your country> target foreign vehicles, pull you over and fine you on the spot for imaginary infractions.
  4. In Kazakhstan your tires will be torn to shreds within 50 km of the border.
  5. In <choose your country> it is a really unsafe to leave your vehicle unattended for any length of time.
  6. There is no gas anywhere and you have to carry gallons, sorry, litres, of your own.
  7. Russia is very dangerous and everyone is a <choose from the following>: terrorist, mafiosi, drug dealer, communist.
  8. People like Americans in this part of the world.
  9. It is unsafe to drive at night under any circumstances.
  10. Europe has only one song.
Answers can be found here: EYKIW 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Perseverance

We have stayed for several days in Ulaanbaatar awaiting our flights home. UB is a great place to absorb the history and culture of Mongolia whether through the National Museum, the Mongolian National Song and Dance Academic Ensemble, or the bronze-age museum under the giant stainless Chinggis Khan. 

What was really on our minds, though, was the fate of the friends we had made along Rally. We asked teams as they came in about the others we had met, and most of all what had happened to our Dutch friends from the Dapp’re Strijders. By our reckoning they should have come in just one or two days after us since all that was left was to dispose of their crunched car and hitch rides with other teams. News was spotty and vague. Then, walking up to the finish line one afternoon, we were greeted with the news that the team had arrived and they had driven the entire route!! Hugs and celebration ensued. A German mechanic had tipped them off to a button on their car that locks out the engine after a crash. They took a big pipe and pushed up the roof, and replaced the windscreen with some steel mesh. Once it was running and driveable the Mongolian border guards had to let them through. They limped to a mechanic in Olgii who straightened their rear axle and that was the last of their car problems. 

Anne-Marie, Dominic, and Iwo repeatedly rejected the easy path of giving up and going their separate ways. They stuck together, worked through each obstacle, and made it to the finish line. The spirit of the Mongol Rally shines through them and all the rally teams that helped them along the way. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Ulaanbaatar!!!

We left Bayanhongor after tackling SIM cards and money exchanges with the vague notion that if we could we’d head all the way to Ulaanbaatar and find a hotel there. Rumor had it that the road from Arvaykheer to UB was paved, so it seemed entirely feasible. Leaving town found us on brand new asphalt for about five kilometers. Our fear was that this was an early start to paved road, but in short order we were back tackling the track. It was something of a relief that we weren’t really done with our Mongolian adventure so soon. Mongolia’s astonishing rate of growth leads us to believe that the entire highway will be paved within the next three or four years. When that time comes the Rally simply won’t be as much fun. 


Our road divided and then divided again into a dizzying array of paths, all going around a huge marsh with herds of yaks. Continuing due east we found our route becoming narrower and narrower and less obviously used by trucks. But we knew we were heading in the right direction. We pressed on, stopping by a ger for directions and climbing a couple of steep hills before finally overlooking the wide Ongi valley and tarmac. It was the spiritual end of the adventure: we had found a shortcut by dead reckoning and driven on a track that was technically challenging for any 4x4 and conquered it with our tiny 2x4. We had used all of our new-found knowledge in one swell foop and success was now all but assured. We were elated. 

Knowing we’d soon be saying goodbye to Swifty was poignant, but just when we thought it was all over, Mongolia found a new way of making roads crappy. This time they introduced randomness. Like water torture the roads would be terrific for miles at a time, then a yawning crater would open up and attempt to swallow Swifty whole. With great patience and perseverance Tom took it upon himself to drive us in to Ulaanbaatar and we arrived shortly after midnight on Tuesday, August 23. Several days of sightseeing and shopping ensued and last Friday we finally turned Swifty over to the Adventurists for sale at auction. She garnered a handsome figure of three million tögrög, some $700 more than we’d paid for her (less tires and accessories). Swifty will lead her new life in Mongolia and we feel completely confident she can handle any adventure that is thrown her way. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Utilities

One definition of a utility is something that you take for granted until it’s not there. Think about electricity. Most of the time we flip a switch or push a button and pay our bills. It’s only when all the lights go out in the neighborhood that we curse the power company and duct tape shut the freezer. Mongolians have lower expectations. Apparently their utilities are still something of a discretionary luxury. 

Our Lonely Planet Guide is an older edition, so we’ll forgive it for misleading us on where to stay in Bayanhongor. Particularly since we discovered on our own that the Bayanhongor Hotel is clearly the best place in town. After a clean bed and no roaches, we had two hotel selection priorities - running water and surfing the web. (Hard lessons were learned from our brief and disappointing visit to a nice looking hotel in Altai - it's always worth visiting the rooms and making sure things are as advertised.)

At seven o’clock, we were assured, the electricity would come back on. With the electricity would come water. The internet, however, was down indefinitely. The transmission tower had been destroyed in a Martian invasion and vaporized. Not even the university had internet! (Sometimes we take liberties with our lack of language skills.) No internet plus no electricity equals no ATM. We squandered the last of our tögrög on beer. Tom bought a Mongolian SIM card for his phone only to discover his Nokia was locked on to Orange’s network. Mike’s phone, however, was more catholic in its tastes and seeing as it was unlocked Tom used it instead of buying another. 

Eventually, Tom negotiated the sale of some Yankee greenbacks so we could pay for dinner. Back at our hotel the most intriguing character was our middle-aged, pot-bellied chef. Asking him what the best thing on the menu was, he immediately pointed at two lines. In 20 minutes we had tender beef in savory Mongolian barbecue sauce, as well as sliced, charcoal broiled, beef complete with a smoking lump of charcoal. Both meals were delicious. At nine o’clock the power suddenly reappeared, the water followed some four hours later and at last we washed off the grime of the past week. Rivulets of brown sludge poured down the drain (is this too much information? - ed.) as we scraped off half of Mongolia. Had the water not been frigid it might just have been the finest shower in history. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Dirty Old Men

It’s been eight nights since Astana and our last shower. We’re grungy, dusty, dirty and smelly. It’s great! Yesterday we made our first big river crossing at the edge of the Gobi. As filthy as we were, we still didn’t consider a dip. Thus far our rivers have been pretty small and we’ve become increasingly overconfident with our abilities to ford them. Here at last was the real thing, the Baydrag Gol, a broad, obviously seasonal river with a massive wash of white stones and grey mud. Two young lads on a motorcycle came up and excitedly made the tow sign and gestured that we should follow them to a waiting tractor. The price was 15,000 tögrög, and being white and tourists we immediately accepted. The freezing waters ran fast and about halfway up Swifty’s doors. The tow line snagged momentarily and we spent an extra minute shipping more water than we’d have liked, but in the end there was only about a quarter inch in the cabin. 


We had met Pascal, who was busy crossing Mongolia by motorcycle, earlier in the day and again by the river. As he was running low on benzine we gave him a few liters from our spare supply. Tom and he got to chatting as Mike entertained a tribe of local kids by taking photos of them. Eventually, the three of us ended up sharing a lunch of rice and gristle in the local ger cafe and talking about life. Pascal has the heart and soul of an explorer. His work with special needs teenagers for the Paris public school system allows him time to travel widely. He learned from a trip across Sumatra last year that buying a bike locally can be cheaper than renting one. It’s pretty easy if you can agree to sell it back to person you bought it from. He also realized on that trip that speaking the local language is essential if you’re going to get the most out of your adventure. We agree wholeheartedly and were impressed that in three months of study Pascal had learned about 400 words of Mongolian. Mental notes for our next adventure. 

We made short work of the remaining 120 brutal, mind-bendingly difficult kilometers to Bayanhongor and found our first true hotel in Mongolia. Itself an experience of mixed emotions. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

What begins with 'F' and ends in 'uck'?

The less than 10-year old rule is waived for teams taking emergency vehicles on the Mongol Rally. This year there’s at least five ambulances, a school bus and a couple of fire engines. Having met Team Ready to Mongol at several points along our journey, we were most chuffed when they joined us at our camp halfway between Khovd and Altai. As the brave six pulled up in their trusty Carmichael/Volvo ‘H’ reg firetruck, we let them know that the price of admission for the campsite was a driving lesson for each of us.  

No problem! No problem at all, said Drew, just let us get set up and we’ll take you for a drive. As I advance in years it’s always a treat when I can tap into the energy and enthusiasm of young adventurers. They have no boundaries and the world is a better place for them. 

Drew got his LGV license as a 21st birthday present and has been around lorries all his life. He has an easy ability to instill confidence in the novice driver and in short order I’d slipped the handbrake, found second gear and started this comparative behemoth on a her way. Earlier in the day the lads had lost a spare wheel off the top of the firetruck, so our objective was to spend a half hour looking for it. We headed onto the dirt track road and despite Drew’s warnings about keeping an eye out for potholes, I opened her up a bit. Mongolia is no kinder to large vehicles than it is to small ones. We immediately hit a brace of divots and humps that had the truck nearly lifting off the ground. Naturally enough I braked, only to discover Volvo’s excellent stopping power was fully capable of throwing the rear seat passengers through the windscreen. More subtlety and finesse was required. Too soon it was time to change drivers and in short order Tom’s sure hand on the wheel had us turned around and back in time for vodkas by the stove. 

Lady Carmichael was donated to the Mongolian fire service at the finish line and will continue to see duty in Ulaanbaatar or its environs. When calculating the smiles per mile ratio, for about £3,000, split six ways, she was a real bargain and did the lads proud.  

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cliff and Berm go to Mongolia

There are no roads in Mongolia. That’s not entirely true. There are roads, some of which are paved after a fashion, but they amount to a paltry 1,500-ish kilometers in a country twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France. The rest of the unasphalted populace runs around on highways that are really only gravel reinforced dirt roads. The good news is if you don’t like the track you’re on, go ahead, make one of your own. Who knows? Others may follow and you’ll have created a new road. Plus driving off the beaten path rubs the sage and releases an incredibly fragrant bouquet.

Liberating as it is, this freedom comes at a price. Just when things are going smoothly and you’re haring along at 40mph, flying through swales of rock and sand like an out of control HotWheels racing car, you’ll run smack into a ditch, a car killing boulder, or both. In short order you learn that driving in Mongolia is organic. You not only have to know your car and its limitations (hint: it’s capable of far more than you might think), you have to know your skills and your limitations (hint: you know a lot less than you might like to believe). Perhaps most importantly you have to understand the topography of the countryside and predict where water will collect, because where there’s water there’s craters and potholes. If you can’t learn the lessons the road is trying to teach you, either your car will die or you will. At 40 mph there’s a lot of learning and a lot of processing going on. We soon realized that to stay alive we’d have to cut our driving shifts from the vague “however long we wanted” down to a maximum of two hours. 

In the last few days we have crossed rivers, sand dunes, rock strewn alleys, marshes, mountains, and climbed 8,500’ passes. We spanked Swifty pretty hard more than once (her bumper is zip-tied on now) and so far she has bounced back. At one point as we zoomed along on a river of mud we worryingly started losing power. Turns out that for almost 50 miles Swifty was firing on only two cylinders - one of her spark plug leads had shaken loose during our third stream crossing. Another time screeching metal on metal sounds made us stop and remove the front right tire for an inspection. Turns out we had inserted a few shards of gravel in the brake caliper after a failed attempt at jumping over a berm. But when you’re doing 40mph, steering by compass, watching for the dips and the cliffs, then accelerating through the curves, Swifty and Mongolia are the best fun on four wheels there is! 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

No Stone Left Unturned

Mongolia! Mongo-liah! Ah! Mon-go-li-ahhh! The rally finally begins in earnest. Those of you that have run a a marathon know that at 21 miles you’re halfway to finishing the 26.2 mile race. The Mongol Rally is no different. We knew there were no roads, no signs, no means of getting to Ulaanbaatar other than on our own. Yet, nothing really prepares you for a week-long drive at 20 mph in the most incredibly beautiful scenery imaginable. But more on that later. 
Carefully making our way down the rocky, pothole strewn pass towards Tsaaganuur, one particular motorcyclist made himself known by flashing a Christina Noble Children’s Foundation (the official Mongol Rally charity) t-shirt at us. Temujin followed us and eventually we gave into his spirited entrepreneurialism and agreed to join him for dinner, besides it had been some 24 hours since we’d eaten and we were starving. Almost as soon as we sat down with his “I Love You”, a head of mutton was produced and Temujin proceeded to carve it up for us as we hungrily dived in. Hygiene, like asphalt, is a thing of the past now. Horse, camel and goat cheeses, traditional breads and hearty broth complemented the meat. 
Grandpa and Grandma welcomed us and after dinner we were joined by the archetypal disco-dancing drunken brother and his young son, then later by the sober, sensible brother who worked for the army, along with his fetching wife and their new son. The circle of Mongolian family life was completed the next morning as we watched the goats being milked. Our version of couch surfing was for us a perfect introduction to this vast, empty country. Temujin gave us directions and recommendations on what and who to avoid along our route. He reassured us that Swifty’s new Barum tires would reach Ulaanbaatar and so far they’re holding out. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Two Steppes Forward, One Step Back

Morning brought tired heads and communal support. The entire camp, now three teams, the Dutch, the Danes and the Americans (us), woke about the same time and started figuring out the next steps for the wrecked Peugeot. Breaking camp and heading back to the crash site found us meeting with another rally team, Ready to Mongol, made up of six strapping lads from the UK driving a firetruck. A cadre was formed and plans hatched. Dominic and Mike headed off for the local hospital in search of another Dutchman, this one suffering from appendicitis, but with a Russian/English speaking girlfriend in tow. Tracking him down led us to the daughter of the head of local administration who spoke English well and knew everyone including a friend in the customs department at the border. Progress was being made! Our new interpreter rode with us back to the crash and from there proved herself invaluable. The firetruck crew and a local rag and bone man collectively manhandled the broken car onto a flatbed truck and the goal of a border crossing that day started becoming a reality. 
Then the border closed for lunch from 1:00 pm to 2:00pm. Swarms of children were entertained with, among other things, strips of duct tape. Official forms were filled in and eventually the gates were lifted. The Peugeot along with its team were towed the 20 kilometers across no man’s land ultimately making their way to Mongolian customs. In short that meant ending up in the holding pen like the rest of us. Swifty’s paperwork came through in about 90 minutes and we were on our way. We left behind an English team participating in another rally that had been there for 36 hours waiting for a bank transfer, another Mongol Rally team driving ambulance, and the Dutch crash victims. The Danes and the firetruck both made the crossing in short order. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Crashing at the Border

My mother used to tell me if I didn’t have anything nice to say don't say anything at all. So here goes. The Altai are frickin’ gorgeous! Growing as they do out of the fields of sunflowers in the rest of Europe they come as an invigorating surprise. The rolling foothills gradually become full sized mountains with some of the most impressive glacial landscape that anyone can imagine. The huge valley torn and formed by the mineral-green Katun and Chuya rivers brings delight and change at every turn. Sweeping moraines and eskers form a foreground for rugged hills with smoothly carved vales, their blends of reds, greens and browns transmuting by the moment. The excellent road climbs steadily and eventually reaches a vast, high plateau that borders Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. Hiking four countries in a single holiday may one day be possible, but given the size of the local radar installation with its extra passport control point it’s unlikely to be soon. 
Pausing only long enough to build a stone cairn to honor those we love and snap a few photos we zoomed towards Tashanta and the border with Mongolia. A team from the Netherlands, the Dapp’re Strijders, coming the opposite way beeped us and we pulled over. Dominic, Anne-Marie and Iwo had just met the Fast and the Furry (a Danish team) and both cars had arrived too late to cross that day. So they were heading back to the village for cash and a bite to eat. We said we’d probably catch up with them, but wanted to have a look at the border anyway.  
The border was indeed closed when we got there. Another double back found us late for a date with a bottle of beer and supper. About 700 meters from where we had first met the Dutch team we had a communal moment of “there but for the grace of G.. go I.” Their Peugeot sat crushed and ruined amongst a field of debris stretching for yards in all directions. Onlookers watched as Anne-Marie attempted to stitch a gash in Iwo’s knee, while Dominic wandered around making phone calls. That these three were alive and almost unhurt is either a miracle or a testimony to Peugeot’s engineers. Reluctantly pulling the medical kit from Swifty’s boot, we examined the troops, dressed their wounds and were amazed at their sang-froid.  It was the silliest of faultless accidents, but without a car the team faced a series of logistical challenges, not least of which was how to reach Ulaanbaatar and how not to pay a huge fine for abandoning their car in Russia.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Southern Exposure

Kulunda - unremarkable save for its place on the border. Having lost our way in the dark and seen more of the town than we wanted we finally consulted a map. Our campsite was on the way to Rodino (sans Hart and Scott) and Barnaul. Reckoning that the road signs were as screwed up as they usually are in Russian towns, we turned left and headed blissfully in the right direction for the next five kilometers - until we ran out of asphalt and understood why the signs for Barnaul were pointed the opposite way. Bugger! We turned around and found the sign we’d missed in the darkness of the night before and were on our way at last.

Romanov presents itself as the county seat for Romanov prefecture. How did we know this? That it has the same name and birches line the main street with its community college, official buildings and statue of Lenin were all clues. A sharp right turn presents a department store and strip club which seemed, perhaps, a little incongruous, but we rolled with it. Carefully cranky some 22 hours since our last real meal we needed to eat! The local supermarket yielded a full roast chicken which we devoured with our hands in the town’s memorial park. After lunch, as Mike took pictures of Lenin’s statue, Tom met an elderly gentleman who said something in Russian, that to Tom’s ears sounded nostalgic. Tom asked him if he spoke English whereupon the man turned pale and said, “Nein!”, then swiftly walked off. 

Barnaul - city of crap signage. Biysk is not southwest, but southeast off the M52 which lies far beyond the city limits across the river. Another doubling back, instinct, intuition, and a check in with the local fuzz had us pointed at the end of a baton in the right direction. Our prime directive, that the driver makes the final decision on which direction to go in, has paid off more than once. 

Mayma is in the foothills of the Russian Altai. The landscape had changed from open expansive fields to rolling forest with a river at our side.  We stopped for a late dinner at a disco cafe. The matron of the restaurant called a woman with perfect English to take our order. We declined the offer of accommodation and instead made camp in a high field overlooking the river in the cool moonlight. 

Back in the USSR

“You need a form like this! For your car!” The boyish-looking immigration officer demanded for the third time as he pointed to the small rectangle of paper that was our pass through the border crossing. You pick it up when you arrive at the border gate, they write down your license plate number and how many people are in the car and you get it stamped by immigration. Without it you can’t leave and you have to go back to the beginning. 

“Yes, we know. That’s it. That’s our piece of paper!” we said in unison.

“No, you need a form like this!”

“Yes. That’s it! The one you’re holding.” 

“You mean,” he said, turning the paper over, “This is it? Ohh! [Swears in Russian]” He laughed and turned beet red as his colleagues in the back room started razzing him. 

This was easily the most fun we’d had crossing a border. It’s a universal truth, once you get people laughing life gets a little easier. We’d had a couple of attempts at being good samaritans during the day. Flying along between Astana and Pavlodar we spied a gentleman optimistically waving cars down. Flat tire, let’s see if we can help. He had been busy taking a shredded tire off its rim and indicated that he needed an inner tube, which we didn’t have. We apologized, but looked for a tube in the next gas station 10 minutes up the road, anyway. To no avail. Our next stop was for a body lying the road, but by the time we’d turned around someone else had revived the corpse. 

Back in Russia we missed the turn for Barnaul in the dark and wound up camping in a field without crickets. The silence was a little disconcerting, but perhaps they’d been eaten by the gigantic mosquitoes. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Kazakhstan - A Few Final Words

There’s a lot to like about Kazakhstan. The roads were faster than we expected, traffic was minimal, and Astana a surprisingly easy town to get around in, but after 48 hours we’d had enough. Stopping overnight in the capital gave us a chance to explore some. Lonely Planet suggested a hotel  that was less expensive than the Ramada at $319 US per night. Our young, Asian, receptionist spoke little English, but when we asked if we could see a room, she said, No. Why not, is it a secret?, Mike asked. She giggled charmingly and changed her mind. Our goal for the rest of the stay was to try and make her laugh. Breakfast in the morning was served by a humourless waitress and we ate in the company of a taxidermy wolf and lynx. 

The Khan Shatyr tent is apparently the largest in the world and rather beautiful in its way. Turns out, though, it’s really a shopping mall, replete with stores like Addidas, Cinnabon and Levis, a monorail, water park, arcade, food court and Tower of Terror. People love it. Facing back towards the city the tourist is presented with dozens of avant-garde buildings, a huge mosque, colorful fountains and a gigantic ball on a stick, all glittering like Las Vegas. Again, it’s a melting pot of ethnicities. 

Our impression is that the government is doing a fair job of investing its oil money and building out the country’s infrastructure. And, yet, with dominant party politics and a strong authoritarian streak it’s not really a democracy. As such it displays some of the aberrant behaviors that goes along with the insecurity of not having a clear mandate from your citizens. Chiefly, controlling the press and media and preventing bloggers from accessing their accounts (yet oddly allowing people to Twitter away). Police checkpoints abound and seem much more enthusiastically staffed than their Russian counterparts. 

After our shakedown (see previous post), we hightailed it for the border. Kazakstan’s unchanging landscape was  punctuated only by the occasional strip mine or toxic waste factory. Power stations here seem very inefficient and their brown hazy fumes, blown by the northerly winds, permanently settle on the horizon. We pined for Mother Russia and determined to make the border crossing Saturday night. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Astana

Editor’s note: This recently discovered manuscript sufficiently closely paralleled our experience in Astana that it is reprinted here in full. 

The edge was coming off the mescaline and my mind cleared just enough that I could see the jack-booted thug waving us down. Gripping the steering wheel I inhaled and glanced over at my lawyer. He lay sleeping off a tequila and ether high, small spit bubbles forming and then bursting on his lips with every rasping breath - I knew he wasn’t going to be of much use. The window cracked with the sound of a baton and I opened my door, stood up and palmed a black bird - I was going to need to focus. 

Indicating that I should follow him into the checkpoint, his Gestapo cohort, sporting a burl handled AK-47, made me understand there was no choice. Gaining equilibrium as the speed finally starting taking effect I followed, reaching into my back pocket for a cigarette. Standing a full head taller than everyone else in the room gave me a view of these petty larcenists I didn’t want to see. The timing and rhythm of their demands, passport, visa, car documents, was practiced to the point of atavistic perfection. Dammit, I needed my lawyer or a belt of scotch, preferably both. 

Reaching into my shirt for another black, I was startled to hear my name, Duke, you Mr. Duke? Twisting around I found myself facing the archvillain, a weasel eyed senior officer, with more coffee stains on his shirt than bars on his shoulders. Sweat broke out on my forehead when he told me to follow him into his office. What did this sick sadistic pervert want with me behind closed doors? My sphincters clenched involuntarily as I slipped the pill under my tongue and dried my palms on my shorts. 

The stench of his greed, the rank odor of dirty money, permeated everything. You not have Kazakhstan insurance, that is very bad. His smoothly broken English lulling me briefly as the walls started closing in. In his left hand he held my license and with his right he reached over and pulled open the top drawer of his desk. Suddenly the room was full of spiders, pouring out of the desk and climbing the walls. Shuddering in horror I jabbered insanely, begging for my life and terrified at his obliviousness to the emergency in hand. We were both about to be consumed by flesh eating arachnids and he only wanted cash. Shaking uncontrollably I scattered roubles on his desk only to see his smile splay into grimace as a giant tarantula savagely tore at his cheeks. 

Somehow the racket of the melee outside broke through my consciousness. The door suddenly blew open. My lawyer, all 6’ 6” and 350 lbs of him drew a bead on me and bellowed, I’m your attorney dammit! How dare you enter into a negotiation without me? We’re leaving. NOW! Staggering to my feet I could only marvel at the carnage. Give me the keys! commanded my lawyer. Raising a choking pall of burning rubber he finally released the handbrake and took off, the gearstick in one hand and a half empty bottle of tequila in the other. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Stepping Out


Our crossing from Russia was efficiently uneventful - the quickest border crossing of outside of the EU so far. The biggest immediate difference was passing from the Caucasian to the Asian in a matter of 500 metres. We looked for an insurance agent, but didn’t see one and figured we’d find one later, or take the risk. It was time to put the hammer down and head for Kostanay and a field for the night. 


Kostanay is one of those dimly lit towns that aspires to be more than the electric grid will allow. Dusty side streets with a small neon-lit core of banks and shops, the town is wholly dingy and on the surface sleepy. Then, what the hell?? In the space of 90 minutes we had been waylaid by an overly friendly woman looking for a ride, a job, a beer - who knows?, ordered blindly from a menu we couldn’t fathom, gotten followed by some sketchy Latvian in a Mercedes, and driven around and around trying to find our way out of town. The highlight of the whole shenanigan was scooting onto a side road with our lights off to evade the Latvian, all the while laughing like teenagers avoiding their parents. Tom booted up his laptop which held our one detailed map of Kazakhstan and looked for our way out of town. 

Northern Kazakhstan is one big field, treeless and as flat as a warm three day old Coke. Straight as a lay line the road stretched out invitingly towards Astana, the capital. If we  had wondered where all the high tech farming had gone, here it is. Huge mechanized reapers like something out of a James Cameron movie thunder down the roads in search of the next harvest. Vast pig farms and chicken coops consume whole villages. All that’s missing is the ADM logo, or perhaps its there, somewhere in the fine print. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Huts of Baba Yaga

Russia is a modern state. By that I mean it has all the trappings that you expect, fast food, highways, high fashion, fast cars and an apparently burgeoning middle class. Fortunately, it hasn’t been completely overrun by global homogenization. Roadside cafes are more than Little Chefs or McDonald’s. They range from Mom and Pop sandwich stalls, to modern buffet Euro-style cafeterias. Even the toilets range from unspeakably rank outhouses to pristine, tiled loos. This is a country with so much going for it, from its natural resources to its people, it is easy to believe that Russia’s turn in the driver’s seat is coming at last. 

Our journey out of Samara pointed us towards the Urals and our first major change in landscape for several days. Hay fields lined with trees steadily fell away as the low rolling foothills of the Urals pitched up stands of birch and conifers. The road narrowed ahead of us and diesel fumes choked the valleys as trucks labored up the steep inclines. 

Pausing for a tasty dinner at an aspiring hotel/resort gave us a chance to practice the two words of Russian we’ve remembered so far, thank-you (spa-si-ba) and check (schyot). By then we’d covered some 450km and were hoping to sleep in the forest for a change. Poking our noses down side roads yielded numerous small logging camps, but little level ground. Eventually we went into a field and were greeted by an owl that flew ahead of Swifty directly down the track. We turned in where the owl disappeared and pitched our tents in the damp undergrowth of a grove of trees. Throngs of killer mosquitoes meant slapping ourselves to sleep. 

Highway Patrol

The cops are everywhere. At at least to our eyes there seems to be lots of them, but we were hyper-sensitized by other traveler’s tales of being pulled over by bent rozzers looking for a bribe. In Russia and Ukraine we’ve not seen real evidence of that kind of behavior, but that’s because we’ve been respecting the rules of the road and generally obeying the speed limits. Besides, most of the horror stories we’ve heard usually end up with an admission of guilt for some traffic infraction  or other. Having said all that, unlike in the United States, with its layers of local and regional police forces, there’s only one cop car here. The distinctive silver and blue livery is found pretty much anywhere you’d expect cops to be, at the sides of roads, behind trees, at intersections munching doughnuts, and more obviously at fixed check points at the outskirts of every large town and city. If the police force's goal is to intimidate drivers into obeying the regulations, it seems to be working. 

By our reckoning we wouldn’t make a very attractive target anyway; there would be language issues, extra paperwork for the officer, that kind of thing. For future reference here’s some of the things that we’ve learned: 
  • Russian cops use radar guns to enforce the 90 kph speed limit on main two lane roads. Massive swathes of potholes and caravans of tractor-trailers slow things down making you obey the speed limit anyway, especially on side roads. 
  • Drivers will flash you, especially in the Ukraine. We finally worked out that flashing is a friendly warning of a cop ahead, not an inducement to get out of the way - although that happens as well. Russians don’t flash as reliably, but they also follow the rules of the road better than the Ukrainians. 
  • Overtaking is a balletic art. We were warned of maniacal overtaking, but it’s clear no one here wants to die on the road.  There are so few four lane highways in Eastern Europe overtaking is a way of life. Mostly its pretty cautious with cars weaving to and fro as gaps open up. With a little practice anyone can do it - given a large enough space and big enough cahones (so grow a pair, okay?).  
  • Pothole surfing can be fun, but requires concentration. Just when you think you’ve got the hang of it a big one will spank your ass. Keep the pressure up in your tires. 
Now, sit back and enjoy the drive! 

What's Samara U?

Our earliest start of the week ended by mid-afternoon as we wandered like lost kittens in the swirling streets of Camapa, or in English, Samara. Our Cyrillic skills are improving steadily. Part of the trick is remembering symbols from high school math and applying them. In a short time we had figured out that a P is an R and B is a V and an H is an N; luckily from there it gets easier: Ф is F, and Г is G, and Л is L, И is I, and naturally П is P.

The Lonely Planet guide recommends the Bristol-Zhiguli hotel in the city center. As we drove blindly through the streets completely disoriented and looking for the river, a young man stuck his baseball capped head out of the window of his black Nissan SUV and asked us, Where are you going? I’ll be happy to show you there. He led, we followed, and he dropped us right where we needed to be. Our hotel was a welcome relief, with hot showers, air conditioning and wifi. After cleaning off five days of dust and diesel Mike’s first order of business was to Skype his bank and get the locks taken off his credit and debit cards. Our young, blond, receptionist was a little stern when she ran Mike’s card and it refused to cooperate, and a little surprised when it worked an hour later. Russians, we have noticed, often start off with a gruff shell, but we have found a bit of friendliness generally yields a warm smile. It doesn’t help that men in Eastern Europe all sport buzz cuts straight out of the Gulag Salon collection. There is a theory that there are two types of people in the world, cat people and dog people. Americans can broadly be described as dog people, in your face friendliness and needing lots of attention, Eastern Europe has thus far been full of cat people, diffident until they come to you, but when they do they respond well to a bit of stroking. 

Downtown Samara is San Diego on the Volga. It’s a young city filled with beautiful people. A long sandy beach stretches for a good kilometer or more and entertains families and sun lovers with beach volleyball, frisbee, and swimming. Along the front rollerbladers preening for each other weave in and out of the crowd. As you walk in the warm air of the evening you are serenaded by karaoke singers on one hand and the clink of beer glasses on the other. Our stroll before dinner provided us some of the best people watching on the trip so far. We liked Camapa and wished we had had more time there. 

Volgograd and Beyond

Premium, groaned Tom, thank god we didn’t by the cheap stuff! Without too many more details, suffice it to say it was well into the afternoon before Tom took the wheel. We broke camp just outside somewhere and were headed as far north as we could get after lunch in Volgograd. That city, formerly known as Stalingrad, is famous mostly for having given its life to stop the Nazis in World War II. Rebuilt after the war with the Soviets sorry lack of style, the main attraction is the memorial to the city’s heroes during the war. An estimated one million Russian men, women and children died in the battle for control of Russia’s main supply line - the Volga. Casualties on the German side amounted to some 750,000. The centerpiece of the memorial is a huge statue of Mother Russia calling the country to arms. It is an imposing monument which extends downhill to a hall with an eternal flame, a reflecting pool flanked by smaller heroic statues and stylized scenes from the battle for the city. What they lacked in architectural nuance, the Soviets certainly made up for with the sheer kinetic intensity and scale of the memorial. 

We ate lunch in a kitsch salon festooned with flags of Lenin and portraits of Stalin, along with endless video loops of scenes from the battle for Stalingrad. Souvenir choices included large caliber pen lighters and bullet casing necklaces. Resisting such temptations we were soon back on our way north. The incredibly difficult roads smoothed out at the top of a vast plateau allowing us to make up some time. As the sun set we noticed there were fewer and fewer trucks in the twilight giving us a clearer view of the road ahead. 

Eventually, we pulled into a truck stop and were accosted by a young man in full combat fatigues, blond hair and a crew cut. We somewhat nervously wondered if we had entered the twilight zone. He asked in Russian if we were looking for a room and I said in English, no only to eat something. We parked and after we sat down the young man reappeared with his cell phone. By typing in Russian it would translate whatever he wrote into English. We would have had quite a conversation except Tom had left his reading glasses in the car and the text was almost too small for me to read. Dinner of borscht and hotpot followed with a smile and a wave goodbye as we set off for bed. Our field that night had nothing going for it other than it was 11pm. Within earshot of the highway and a gas station and overlooking a drilling well we nevertheless crawled into our sleeping bags and slept like rocks until morning bird call. 

Welcome to Russia

Exactly how long Swifty had been leaking oil is unclear, but when we checked her before leaving Galati she was almost empty. We sheepishly replenished her a couple of times before finally crawling around on the ground yesterday morning to discover the second best of all possible scenarios - the oil was leaking steadily from a small hole in Swifty’s oil filter. An attempt to patch the hole with aluminum tape proved futile, so to Rostov-na-Donau (RnD) it was. The border crossing wasn’t bad; after a little sympathetic instruction on form filling by the customs agents we were through in under three hours. Mother Russia! At last! Mike’s alter ego, Boris, was overjoyed at coming home. 
There’s a Ford dealership on the outskirts of RnD that has decided to become a Harvard Business Review case study in customer service. Picture this, two rather stinky, unshaven, Americans in shorts, driving a Suzuki, and speaking only English walk into the gleaming showroom and ask for help, on a Sunday. The very professional receptionist walked over to the service manager who sent out one of his supervisors, who in turn asked us if he could be of help. After quickly giving us and Swifty the once over he explained that he’d have to check with his supervisor and see if there was something he could do - because after all this is a Ford dealership and he wasn’t sure if they had a filter that would fit. He came back after a couple of minutes with a proposal (all of this in far better English than we had any right to expect): Ok, we take car into shop and see if the filter works, if it does, good, if not, then we’ll replace the old one and you’re on your own. Excellent! We said. 
Our mechanic was extraordinarily careful, even to the point of cleaning the oil off Swifty’s undercarriage. We started her up, watched for leaks and tested her oil level. Like vintners at a barrel tasting, the supervisor and mechanic conferred with each other. Then for the princely sum of 300 roubles it was done. That’s about $10. It was an incredible piece of generous good fortune and we can’t thank the team at Rostov Ford enough for going so far out of their way to help us on ours. Bravo Ford Russia for showing the rest of the world what outstanding customer service means. 

Hitting the Road Hard

We awoke in a field. A solitary motorcycle and sidecar ambled by in the early dust of sunrise over the steppe. It was going to be a haul to cross the country in a day, but we were determined to give it a go. Thankfully the border guards had told us about the transit lane in another corner of Moldova through which we had to pass. By the time we got there the line of cars waiting to enter Ukraine stretched along for at least a couple of kilometers. Odessa popped up in front of us and we paused for petrol and more cash - credit cards appear to be a thing of the past now. Odessa has some quaint streets and a park we circumnavigated twice, but it was a day for covering ground. Between the two of us and with the aid of a compass we’ve negotiated most of the big cities pretty successfully and in no time we were once again avoiding potholes as we ate up the miles towards Mariupol. 
Our vague plan was to stop for dinner there. Positioned as it is on the Black Sea’s topmost inlet, we reasoned Mariupol must be a good place for seafood. The west end of town was all modern shopping centers, the middle full of aging postwar buildings, and the east end simply and completely shocked us. Like a huge fist in our faces we were sucker punched by the ugliest steel works Tom or I had ever seen. Easily covering ten square miles, the site sprawled with massive blast furnaces, rail yards, and power plants, their smoke stacks crazing the sky. Looking over our left shoulders we saw industrial waste production facilities lining the valley to the north. We agreed simultaneously that there was no way we’d eat seafood anywhere near the town and the prospect of beef from three legged mutant cattle, or vegetables in heavy metal, was equally unappealing. 
We pressed on towards the border, finally stopping for dinner about 20 kilometers from Russia. Ordering dinner involved a great deal of hand waving and coaching from Oksana, Lillian and Mary, three co-workers, all moms, on a weekend’s brandy drinking escapade. Tom and I tried to be charming, despite an almost complete language barrier. After a couple of beers and sharing our life stories we bid our farewells, finally making camp in the fourth field we found. We’re getting picky about our fields. 

Deliverance

After only 127 hours that movie’s hero had cut his own arm off with a multi-tool. We were not far from doing the same thing three days ago, if only to alleviate the tension. So imagine the jubilation and tears when the post lady arrived with not one, but two letters, both containing a governor’s pardon for teams Red Thread and Jungle Bungle. Tearing the envelopes open, we shouted for joy, and a couple of high fives and let’s get the f*** out of here’s later, we were packed and heading to Moldova. Our Romanian border guard in a fetching grey knee-length pencil skirt, 3.5 inch stilettos and a ponytail flirted with Tom outrageously. The somewhat more dour Moldovian customs agent sent us off to pay a three euro entry fee and we were in at last! Three euros is a relative bargain since Ed and Jim had to pay $20US. At the Ukrainian border crossing at Bolhrad we had hit the timing about right. An efficient chap went through our ‘maschine’ documents and passports and handed us over to a young customs agent. As he was quizzing me if we had long knives, only short ones, weapons, guns? No. Drugs? NO! I asked him if he could recommend a good Ukrainian vodka. 
You can drink as much vodka as you want, but you can only take one litre each across the border, he said. But can you recommend a brand? I asked. He named a couple as we waited for final clearance by a table lined with his colleagues, the others jumped in and confirmed his choice, with one dissenter recommending Finlandia - to hoots of derision. As Tom got directions for Odessa, the compact, silver haired senior officer on duty asked us if we wanted to stop for something to eat, and proceeded to draw us map that included a source of fresh holy water, a cafe recommendation complete with local specialities to try, and a store  to buy vodka. As soon as we got our papers, the officer stood up and said in Ukrainian, follow me, I’m driving a black Audi, I’ll show you the sights of Bolhrad. Tom and I looked a little dumbfounded, but did as we were told. 
Off we shot to the holy shrine and filled our jerry can with really nice, soft water. Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, ok?, asked our guide? Ok!, we said. In minutes we’d sped down the back streets to find a massive cathedral built by Czar Nicolai in 1839, all freshly painted yellow with an astonishingly shiny gold roof. You have five minutes?, our guide asked again. Sure!, we said. Come, I show you something. Through an avenue of low trees we walked to a memorial for the paratroopers killed in an accident in Azerbaijan in 1989. The monument was classically Russian, bold, angular and concrete covered with copper leaf. Plaques naming the soldiers were arranged in a semi-circle and our guide explained where they came from, all over the Russian federation, and that there were Muslims and Christians fighting side by side. At this memorial and the next commemorating heroes from World War II through Iraq we all silently agreed on the futility and waste it represented. From there he led us to the cafe and sadly left us to dine alone on really good borscht and braised lamb’s shank. Our guide spoke only a couple of words of English, but never had a problem communicating his love for his country, nor we’d like to believe, understanding our willingness to learn about it. This is why we travel! 

Romania, Ah! Romania!

Our unplanned stay in Romania has led to one really nice development.... we've come to appreciate the country and it's people more than we ever could have on our original itinerary that had us rocketing through here in less than two days. For us, we came to Romania with the image of the Soviet bloc, and all of the pre-conceptions that go with that. That stereotype hardly tells the story. Start with the Romanian language. It's a Roman language that resembles Italian more than Russian or German. Sure, there is the occasional "Da" thrown in to a conversation, but as I look around the lobby of the hotel, the words that stand out are "Hoteliera'", and "telefoane urgente". The language sounds fast and smooth when spoken. We've found that Spanish is as useful a language to try with the people here as German. 

Then the sights... it's not at all defined by the excessive use of concrete unimaginative structure, but by a mix of eastern and western architecture, the mountains of Transylvania and Carpathia, the beaches of Vama Veche, the wildlife of the Danube delta and the rolling hills and buckboard wagons that connect them all. 

And then there are the people. When you first smile at someone or greet them they may avert their eyes or remain expressionless, which at first seems stern and cool to a westerner. Yet, when we stop and engage people in conversation, they delight in helping us and are quite willing to share there own stories when asked. Many have shown a wonderful, warm sense of humor. Now, as we drive through the southeast of the country, we wave at people along the road... most smile and wave back, seeming to enjoy the site of an oddly decorated car with gear stacked precariously on the roof... how had we missed this in our first two days in the country? All I can say is that first impressions seem consistently misleading here... the woman who seemed so put out to pump gas effused modestly about her country when prompted and then hovered over us inside the station to make sure that our credit card transaction did not go awry. Our waitress in Moghurino sighed with apparent exasperation when we asked for menus, and in the next moment was sharing apologetically what she thought were the most delicious choices. A Romanian businessman who completely ignored us at the hotel's front desk the night we discovered we were marooned in Galati, came over in the dining room unprompted to urge us to get our dinner order in before the kitchen closed, and that we should take advantage of the beer festival and movie festival in town while we waited for our papers. Even the many dogs in Romania instinctively skitter off when first greeted, but warm up immediately if you simply stay down on your haunches for a minute. Romania and it's people have rewarded us every time we've offered her the chance.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Speed Dating on the Danube

First there was Anton, the guy who pulled over and tried to sell us a tour straight off the street. He spoke English well, but was a little too pushy and after all he was the first one to make an offer. We needed a little more experience before we could commit. Our next stop was a woman of a certain age (old) who spoke some German and was offering roughly the same trip for roughly the same price. But she didn't speak any English and we headed down by the river for another try. Our next fellow wasn't the captain of the boat, but spoke Spanish and we decided while interesting, he was more about marketing than delivery since he couldn’t name an exact price or time. We poked our noses into the local marina and Tom spoke to a woman on a borrowed cell phone that made a competitive offer, but she was on the end of a phone and we all know how hard it can be with those long distance relationships. Then we met Vasiliko, who also spoke some Spanish, a language we speculated is enough like Romanian to be relatively easy for the locals to pick up. His price was competitive, but again no English. The next guy that came along spoke good English, but a little flashy and a little expensive, besides, he wasn't particularly committed to the sale. At last we decided that we'd go with Vasiliko, who then played hard to get as we chased him down the street. In short order Tom and he became firm friends and we agreed on an early morning start at 6am. Just then another fella came along, also with good English skills, but it was too late, we were already committed. So in the space of 90 minutes we'd passed over the high maintenance, the flashy, the indifferent, and settled on the one that was playing hard to get. Just like, well, life. 


The tour itself was pretty amazing. The delta is vast, really vast, and each lake we went to had something different to offer. There were flocks of pelicans, lily pads the size of Frisbees, and densely wooded wetlands. Huge reeds reached up over our heads and were a good 10-12ft tall. The wind rustled through them with almost a musical feel. Lots of varieties of birds, familiar black cormorants, herons, storks, seagulls, among others that we didn't even recognize. While we didn't see any crocodiles or wolves, although we are told they're out there. We had a hard time believing we were in Europe, let alone Romania. It was definitely worth the trip and warrants an extended visit all its own. We actually tried convincing Jim he should start an eco-tourism venture. Perhaps one day...


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Galati


\We are not alone. We have met up with another team in the same boat - literally. Jim and Ed of Jungle Bungle and commanding a Fiat Punto were turned away by the Moldovans for not having the requisite letter of authorization from Ed’s dad. Similarly distressed, we have been exploring the watering holes of Galati, which we have pretty much exhausted now, and all together in two cars took off to explore the delta of the Danube. More on that shortly. 

Galati sits on the outskirts of Romania and is the gateway to Moldova and Ukraine. Having driven through Bucharest and seen the rigid uniformity of its concrete towers we were not quite prepared for the charming dilapidation of Galati’s blend of early 20th century neoclassical buildings and eastern orthodox churches that dot the city. There are modern-esque attempts at collective architecture, but Galati appears to have staved off the worst of central planning and retained a vibe all its own. Moreover, we have dined in a couple of first class hostelries for a quarter of the price it would cost at home. One stand-out was the City Pub with it’s selection of carefully prepared meals, local wine that grew on us and a decent selection of Cuban cigars. We are staying at the Hotel Galati which is very comfortable and includes both breakfast and dinner for about 48 euros a night, less at the weekend. There is a university here, a museum of history (NOT! open on Mondays or Tuesdays) and the kind of public garden that you hope to find in every southern European town. It’s a place where all three generations may be found in the evening: the elderly chatting on benches, children squealing at tag and young lovers walking arm in arm. There is an evening chorus of birds in the trees, while the only song Euro-pop knows slips mostly unnoticed from the cafes. Rounding things off are a kick-ass fresh produce market and the Danube. It’s a nice discovery when the only thing between you and the Ukraine is Moldova.