Sunday, 21 November 2010

Mui Ne to SAIGON !!

Breakfast on the beach, a fitting way to start our last day of driving. Great though it is, it still doesnt take the edge off of this being quite a sad day...

We'll miss everything about this trip, even the really rubbish stuff like cleaning the air filters in a bucket of fuel at the side of a dirt road. I cant help but think that its probably the start of many more adventures - I have more adventures planned, this time winged, they're lurking at the side lines and will no doubt make an appearance in due course..

I can't help but think that driving a fuel injected car running on perfectly clean, high quality fuel and driving on smooth tarmac roads filled with reasonably polite drivers just isnt going to cut it.... Once home, I may need to head over to Wales in a 912 every so often to give me a taste of the way it was.... :)

So, for the very last time I check the oil and re-fit the rotor arm to the distributor. We make our way out of Mui Ne and back to Highway 1. Destination Saigon.

Our guide explained previously that driving a filthy dirty car in Saigon is frowned upon, so the plan is to set aside a little time enroute to get it cleaned up. The roads are good, the rain has stopped and its getting much hotter and increasingly humid.

Its a pretty easy drive, nothing much to report. About 100km from town we pull over to get the car cleaned - The guys do a perfect job, the car is washed and leathered dry for about £2.

Into the outskirts of town and the world famous Saigon traffic is building, thousands of scooters everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Vietnam is famous for people carrying crazy things on the back of a scooter - Over the years I've seen some contenders. 7 people, two other scooters , 8 pigs. But today I spot a potential winner, an 8ft statue, you have to see the picture to believe it!

Fortunately, the trip has been one long lesson on dealing with crazy driving - Right from Calais, in one way or another, things have been changing ever so slightly towards the Asian way. Despite the "Welcome to Asia" sign on the bridge spanning the Bospherus river in Istanbul, Asia starts in some tiny sense when England ends...

Its hot in town, we're stationary in traffic for quite a while - I decide to leave the auxillary oil cooler fans on permanently. If they fail it doesnt really matter, they only need to last another 2 hours.

We're being met at the Rex Hotel in Saigon by my expat mate Tim 'beer for breakfast' Plunkett and his lovely wife Loulou. They've been working with the hotel marketing department to celebrate our arrival - Neither of us expected such a fantastic reception from the Rex hotel..

At 4pm we pull up outside the Rex - Exactly sixty days and 18,000km after leaving the UK.

Theres a small crowd outside the lobby door, surely not for us? As we learnt later, the management team have pulled out all the stops to ensure we have a reception to remember. Tim and Louise rush over to the car to greet us, we're presented with bouquets of orchids by the hotel staff - A large custom made banner welcoming us hangs over the main hotel entrance, the hotel management and press flood over for pictures. An awesome reception!

After press photos we head straight to the world famous 5th floor rooftop bar for drinks. During the Vietnam war the American Information Service made its base at the hotel, which soon became the favorite haunt of U.S. officers and the scene of daily press briefings to foreign correspondents, or “five o’clock follies”, as they were called. What better place to end our epic trip.

After a press briefing with the Saigon Times newspaper and one other, we feel its only right to take full advantage of the free bar thats been laid on for us all! Here we learn that on top of everything, the Rex management have also gifted us 4 free nights accommodation in one of their new 5-star suites. Outstanding.

The rest of the evening is spent it and around the bars of Saigon....Catching up with our old friends and sampling the very last batch of beers of the world... !

London to Saigon

Distance covered: 18,000km
Time away: 60 days
Longest drive in one day: 940km
Fuel used: 2,000 Litres (Approx)
Spare fan belts used: 0
Spare tyres used: 0 ! (I hate to think how much we were slowed down by the weight of three spare steel wheels with tyres..)
Countries visited: 17
Hospital stays: 1
Blood tests: 2
Hangovers: 22 (soon to be 23)
Oil changes: 3
Gearbox oil used: None

What went wrong with the car...

1x Parking light bulb
1x Headlight switch burnt out
Distributor points closed up several times
Thats it. Seriously!

Well thats about it from me - Please keep an eye on Classic & Sportscar magazine for a future article on our exploits.

I've enjoyed tapping out this blurb, if you've enjoyed it and you're yet to donate some of that hard earned cash to MAG, please do so. Please! Its a great cause. Thanks :)

Max & Becky

PS - If anyone wants to reach us, my email is: sales@revival-cars.com

Friday, 19 November 2010

Nha Trang to Mui Ne

Wow, it' still raining! Its a late start today, we're all a little shot from the long drive the day before.

Its just 220km down to our next stop, the town of Mui Ne a small beachside resort North of Saigon. The relatively short distance of 22okm takes us around 6 hours of driving, some of the highway has been damaged by the recent flooding - The ever present trucks, coaches and scooters also slow progress significantly. But....its an interesting drive and the scenary is good.

We stop for lunch at a small beach side restaurant, as we do, the rain stops and the sun makes its first appearance in days! I take this opportunity to carry out the last....yes the very last maintenance job on the car. The air filters are filthy dirty from the thick red dust in Quang Tri province, so I quickly swap them over for a set I had pre-cleaned back in Laos. Can we really be coming to the end of our trip...?!

We arrive in Mui Ne just as the sun is setting, its an awesome place, I cant believe this is my first visit. Haivenu have booked us into a great beachfront resort "Seahorse Resort" we'll definitely be returning!

Nha Trang

Good news, the roads have cleared so we can continue onwards to Nha Trang. Its a long way and the roads are bad, we're braced for a 12 hour drive South. It rains heavily for the whole way, theres a huge storm system sat right across Central Vietnam, most of the Southern section of the country is seeing rain.

The drive is interesting, lots of great scenary and even more loony drivers. The key to driving in Vietnam is use of the horn, you toot people to say "I'm here and I'm about to do something". Before you overtake, you toot.
If a cow, kid or chicken looks like its about to step into the road, you toot. In fact you toot for almost everything. The system seems to work pretty well, but the net result is that the roads are constantly noisy with the sound of horns....

Jerry performs perfectly and we arrive in Nha Trang for about 10pm. Knackered, we have an early evening in a great little hotel. Neither of us can believe that we're almost at the end of our epic journey! :(

Danang

The water kept on rising overnight, some of the streets in Hoi An are now flooded. Word is that some of our route is now submerged, we need to wait a day for the road to re-appear. Check out this picture of the hotel bar...



We're not so keen to stay another night in touristy Hoi An, besides, the hotel appears to be slowly sinking... So we head North back to the bright lights of Danang city. Enroute we stop for a breakfast climb of Marble Mountain, a series of five large hills used by local people as a source of marble for sculpture.
At Danang we head to the military museum for a quick look around. The musuem itself is closed, but the staff let us wander through the rows of tanks and aircraft that are dotted in the grounds. Interesting stuff.



The evening is spent back at the Blackjack tables in a new resort by the beach, I cant believe we're still winning! Hopefully the road will have cleared tomorrow so we can continue South to Nha Trang.

Hue to Hoi An

Our guide warned us yesterday that if the rain continued, we could end up getting stuck in Hue for a few days. Luckily it backed off a little overnight so we were able to continue on our planned route to Hoi An, a small fishing village just South of Danang.

We just about make it out of Hue, the first three exit roads leading out of town are flooded but we make it out on the 4th attempt.

Our route takes us South to the infamous "Hai Van" pass, a steep winding road which crosses the tall hills North of Danang. Its a stunning but dangerous drive, even more so when you're being shot at as you ascend it, fortunately 45 years on we aren't. At the summit 1960's U.S military bunkers still line each side of the road. A 1950's era French bunker stands derelict just behind them. Its a history lesson in less than 100ft of tarmac.



We're up in the clouds up here, quite dramatic weather. Two bus loads of tourists arrive, and ask the now extremely familiar question...."Have you guys really driven here all the way from the U.K?" Yep, apparantly so.

Its down the other side of the pass, through Danang, past China Beach and into Hoi An. This place used to be great, on my first visit in 1998 it really was quite a special spot - A very quiet, peaceful place. An ancient fishing port giving a glimpse of times gone by.

Unfortunately progress, as they say, is always a crude intrusion. And no more so than here. The number of tourists visiting has increased so dramatically over the last ten years, that they've had to relocate the original village inhabitants to a new purpose built town outside of town.... Bus loads of tourists cram the tiny streets, its lost its charm.
We check into our hotel, an awesome riverside bungalow with steps straight down to the river bank. However, the river has long since burst its banks, our steps now lead down to a garden flooded with murky brown river water. And its still raining.....
Later that night, 7 steps become 6 then 5, at 3am its 2 steps....
Its not venice, its...flooded!

Hue, Vietnam

Its been raining hard, and I mean HARD ever since we arrived in Vietnam. A quick peak out of the hotel window shows that Hue is starting to flood and quickly - The Perfume River is swollen and appears to be close to bursting its banks.

We're due to head over to some natural hot springs on the outskirts of town today, we try to drive over but the access road is flooded. A sign of things to come...

The rest of the day is spent exploring Hue in the rain, at least its still pretty warm. The evening is spent playing Blackjack at a smart new hotel in town, incredibly we walk away with a decent profit and they even plied us with free beers for the privelege. Result!

Into Vietnam...

We never quite made it to Savannahket, it was getting late so we chose to stay at a small guesthouse just at the junction of Route 9E - The road leading East to the Vietnam border.

Its a long but easy drive to the Vietnamese border, we arrive at the town of Xepon just after lunch. This town is historically significant, it saw quite a lot of fighting towards the end of the Vietnam war when U.S and ARVN forces invaded Laos as part of operation "Dewey Canyon II" . I've been meaning to spend a little time here to visit the numerous sights, but we're in a rush so it'll have to wait until next time..






The sun has vanished and its starting to rain - As expected, the exit process from Laos is a piece of cake. The customs guys have no idea how to formally stamp my Carnet de Passage document, to show that the car had been properly exported. So.....they just stamp every page....Something for me to try and unwind back in the UK. Paul at the RAC, if you're reading this I did try and show them what to do, honest!
At the Vietnamese border post we're met by our guide Phuoc - He takes care of all the entry formalities, in less than an hour we're enroute through the old DMZ to the city of Hue.
Similar to China, driving your own car in Vietnam takes a lot of planning - Our tour company "Haivenu" begun the painstaking process of obtaining all the relevant permissions several months ago. The number of Western registered vehicles drives into Vietnam each year probably stands at about 5, you really have to want to do it. Once granted entry, you must follow a lead vehicle and cannot deviate from your nominated route.

Our route takes us past the former U.S Lang Vei special forces camp and onwards to the site of the old Khe Sanh U.S Marine Corps base. A historic site situated on high ground along route 9. For any readers that arent familiar with this place, if you're interested in military history its worth reading up on:







This is probably the 5th time that I've been to this place - It always has a sad feel to it, but seemingly especially so in the prevailing low cloud and rain, weather which plagued the place when it was active. Neither of us can believe that we've actually driven here from London, crazy!


The rain has turned from drizzle to heavy downpours. We take a look around the base museum. Its deserted all but two U.S veterans who are busy recalling the time they spent based on the surrounding hills during the war, very interesting.
Back in the car and onwards to Hue, probably our favourite place in Vietnam for so many reasons. Its a night drive but Jerry is up to the challenge and is coping well with the latest onslaught of loony drivers..

We arrive in Hue for the early evening and head straight to the best curry house in Vietnam..."Omars" near to the Imperial Hotel, a fine curry and the coldest Huda beer in town!

Konglor Cave - Laos

Bex has spotted a cave complex in the guide book, it sounds quite interesting too so we decide to pay it a visit.



Konglor cave was formed by the natural flow of the Hin Phou river. The river snakes its way through spectacular scenery before burrowing 7km underground - For a small fee you can charter a dugout canoe with local guides for an hour long boat journey right through the cave.


We don flip flops, a headtorch and life jacket before jumping into our small boat....The guide calls for a second guide, a spotter, who sits on the bow of the boat with a high powered torch used to illuminate the pitch black waterways... I was expecting a sedate trip, but I was in for a surprise.




Our driver fires up the makeshift motor on the back of the boat and we slowly motor into the cave. Thirty seconds later the ambient light has disappeared and we're motoring in the pitch black, pretty scary. I can hear what sounds like a small waterfall just up ahead, the spotter picks it out with his torch - Its a shallow but fast moving rapid.

Because we're headed upstream, we're also headed directly into this mini waterfall & surely some kind of small bank of rock that the water is flowing over?!..... Suddenly the driver cranks up the engine and we're heading into the rapid at full speed, the 2-stroke engine screaming away at the back of the boat - I still cant figure our how he did it, but we somehow manage to motor up the rapid against the flow of water and over a small bank of rock!

The rest of the trip is spent motoring at full speed through the inky darkness, dodging cave walls and spikes of rock jutting from the river bed. Its dry season so some of the rapids require portage of the boat....wading about in an underground river, pulling a boat up a rapid by the light of a headtorch is a truly unique experience! A brilliant trip.

Exiting the cave, a Buddhist monk appears from seemingly nowhere and stands on the rocks just ahead of us. I ask if I can take his picture, he agrees and I take an iconic shot.




After the caves we jump back into the car and head towards our last stop in Laos, Savannahket. Checking the map, Bex finds a short cut which will save us re-tracing the two hour long route back to the main road... Its identified as a "National road / Other" on the map, but its a bold enough line, surely it must be OK...... If it works out, we stand to save several hours of driving.

After 3 hours of driving, we arrive at the crossroads and the start of the "Shortcut route". Surely we're on to a winner here! We turn down it and head off into the jungle. In less than 5km the road magically transforms from smooth(ish) tarmac to the surface of the moon. Huge craters, some the size of the car and almost as tall, occupy the entire width of the road.

We crack on and manage to pick our way through them for a little way, just in case its a minor glitch in an otherwise good road. But no....After another 10 minutes the road has become un-passable, worse than anything I've seen. Meanwhile the light is starting to fade and two men in civilian clothes casually stroll past laughing at us, AK47 machine guns slung over their backs.

It struck me that this was probably how people end up 'disappearing' so I make the heartbreaking decision to turn back. It would be another 3 hours back to the caves, 2 hours to the main road then 4 hours to the next stop......Agggghhhhh!!

Heading back towards the cave, a brief wrong turn takes us onto a long stretch of unusually smooth tarmac. Quickly realising we're driving down the length of an old, unmarked runway, I turn back. Its another old CIA Lima Site landing strip.

We're stopped by the police 4 times on our night drive, after nightfall the authorities setup road blocks to control vehicle movements - According to our guide book they've only recently ousted bandits from some of the more rural areas.... All the same the police send us on with nothng more than a chuckle.

We make it to our hotel for 1am.

Vientianne to somewhere in Laos

A slow start....the beers from the night before have definitely taken their toll.....There was either too many of them, or I'm getting old, or both!

We visit the cluster munitions conference at a hotel downtown, a very interesting event attended by lots of high profile political figures. Its a landmark conference, and one which will continue to firm up worldwide efforts to ban the use of cluster munitions and help to clear land which has been contaminated by them.

After some pictures with the car outside the entrance to the conference, we bid farewell to the team from MAG and hit the road. Thanks once again to MAG for their superb hospitality over the previous two days.


The traffic out of town is hectic, because of this and our late start, we only make it a few hundred KM out of town before nightfall. The evening is spent in a small hotel in precisely the middle of nowhere, but is comfortable and pretty cheap too.

Vientianne - Free fuel bonanza...

The bad fuel probably isnt doing us any favours, so the decision is made to pump it out. Lou from MAG has kindly offered us the use of the company car park to take care of the job - We make our way down to the MAG riverfront office after lunch to do the deed.

With a steel skid plate covering the tank drain, the easiest way of draining the fuel is to pump it out using the electric pumps. With the engine bay fuel line disconnected and both the primary and secondary pumps fired up, it comes out a quite a rate. We offer the fuel to some locals who set about filling their motorbikes with it, seven full bike tanks later and the tank is dry!



After this we drop the car back at our hotel car park and get set for the evening - MAG have invited us to the lauch of their photographers' new book: "Laos: Legacy of a secret" by Sean Sutton. A compilation of Sean's finest photographs of MAG's work in Laos, a superb publication which is available online at http://www.maginternational.org/

The book launch proves to be a great success, with some excellent speeches from both Sean and Lou.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Vientiane, Laos

An easy day enjoying downtown Vientiane - This place is said to be the most laid back capital in the world and I'd be inclined to agree, it really is brilliant. A fascinating mix of French and South East Asian cultures, with all the urgency of Antigua!



French colonial building, Laos

Vang Vieng to Vientiane - Fuel problems...

The morning is spent tubing - $7 buys you a one way ride 3km out of town to the start of the route, plus the use of a truck inner tube.



The start point is like a scene out of Mad Max. One giant beach party. After a few warm up beers you just jump straight into the river on your tube and float off downstream. Bars line the first 1km, so anytime you run out of beer you just pull over to the bank for a top up. Unfortunately I'm driving today, so its Cokes only... :(

After tubing its back into the car, destination Vientiane. Its late by the time we leave so unfortunately this quickly becomes a night drive - Still, the roads are fairly empty here so its no big deal.

Just as it turns completely black and we head off down a remote jungle road, the engine decides to run rough. I pull over to the side of the road to check out the problem. Theres nothing quite like trying to fix a car in a jungle at night whilst you're getting bitten by mosquitos....I'll never forget it! Fortunately its just the points gap, I re-set them and we're back on the road in 5 minutes.

We're running low on fuel so I pull over to a rural gas station to fill up. Nobody speaks English and all the pumps have Laos writing. I figured that the black handled nozzle was diesel, the red handled nozzle petrol. And it was, well it was petrol but not the petrol we needed.....Shortly after re-fuelling the engine starts to run rough.

I pull over to the side of an even more rural road and run the usual checks, but its nothing obvious....Suddenly I get a whiff of the exhaust fumes coming out of our tailpipe. They smell like paraffin or heating fuel. Great. Meanwhile Becky swears she's seen something big moving around in the palm trees at the side of the road. She half jokes that its probably a tiger, then locks me out the car!

Theres little I can do about the poor fuel here, so we carry on. I hope to burn off as much as possible, then re-fuel with some good gas further on. Eventually we've managed to use a quarter of a tank, I pull over to a fuel station. The attendant sniffs the fuel cap and looking bewildered shouts "MOTO-BIKE!" I nod, agree and try to explain how the previous station put the wrong fuel in.
However.....The attendent obviously doesnt understand a word of my ramblings. Seeing me nod in response to him saying "Moto-bike" and knowing that its already half full of moto fuel, he proceeds to fill the car back up with poor grade, red, motorbike fuel.....AGGGHHHH!!!!

Aside from the popping and banging, the rest of the ride to Vientiane goes without a hitch...

We make it to Vientiane by about 8pm & check into HOTEL LAO, a great little hotel in the center of town. Dinner is spent in 'Le Vendome', a ridiculously good French restaurant set in a colonial era French villa, awesome and cheap too!

After dinner I drop MAG a line to see if anyone is around to meet up for a beer - We're in luck. As it turns out, theres an international cluster munitions conference being held in town. The CEO of MAG has flown over from the UK to attend, he knows all about our fundraising drive and is keen to meet up with us.


The rest of the evening is spent with several of the guys from MAG - Its a real pleasure to meet them all, including the charities founder 'Lou', a real character and an exeptionally great guy. Thanks again to MAG for such great hospitality and an excellent evening :)

Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, Laos

Today....Is maintenance day. Again. First up are the valve clearances, seems like only yesterday that I did these but because of the large distances being covered each day, its that time again.

Possibly the most inconvenient of jobs to carry out at the side of the street, but they need to be done so its out with the aluminium jack and off with the rocker covers. A monk from the temple opposite our guesthouse wanders over to see exactly why I'm sat in the gutter. He's fascinated by the whole process and stays to watch.

After this we head off to Vang Vieng, a small city North of the capital Vientianne. This once sleepy village has been thrown well and truly into the tourist spotlight by its picture postcard scenery. Giant jungle covered limestone Karsts line the side of the Nam Song river, tourists flock here to ride down the river in a truck inner tube with a cold beer....Not normally my scene, but seeing as we're passing through the town anyway, I thought it would rude not to at least try it!



The drive from LP to Vang Vieng takes about 6 hours, the scenery is the best yet...Almost beyond words. What a shame that its also the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world.

Once in town a quick glance at the map highlights Laos more recent history - Just across the other side of the street is an old CIA air strip "Lima Site 6". One of many in-country dirt airstrips used by the air carrier "Air America" . (Air America provided both direct and indirect support for CIA operations in Laos between 1962 & 1975 - Ferrying arms, ammunition and people around the country in civilian marked aircraft...)



Vang Vieng is ultra touristy, definitely not our style, after a few beers we head back to our hotel. $8 a night, this country is incredibly cheap. Or is the UK incredibly expensive?.....You be the judge.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Into Laos...

The time has come…Goodbye China, hello Laos !

The morning is spent taking care of some outstanding maintenance work on the car. Spark plugs are changed, points gap checked, air filters cleaned etc…

Conveniently, the border gate is located just 500M from our hotel - We take care of the Chinese departure paperwork, which we’re told has taken NAVO HQ two full days to arrange. …The Chinese authorities are almost as reluctant to let you out as they are to let you in…
Earlier on in the blog you may recall a little problem we had with Beckys passport. On entry into Turkmenistan we realised that she’d completely run out of spare pages in her passport - With two more countries (Laos & Vietnam) requiring full page visa stickers, this was a major problem and potential show stopper.

After exploring all legal options, I eventually came up with an ingenious but risky plan to ‘create’ a little extra space, realistically our only remaining option. Careful removal and re-application of Bex’s Chinese visa sticker, followed up by the time consuming removal of two central Asian visas (Careful use of the hotel hair dryer to soften the glue, a ball of blue tack to remove the residue and many hours of work in case you‘re wondering how) ‘created’ one complete new page.

The second free page was almost perfect, but still had a small area of ink from a previous visa. A random piece of paper stapled to the totally clean page would effectively force Laos immigration into applying ther visa onto this semi-dodgy page. A calculated plan, I deem Laos immigration to be significantly less formal than their Viet counterparts.

All being well, this would leave Vietnamese immigration with a brand new empty page for application of their visa sticker.

In due course we’re processed out of China, fortunately Chinese immigration fails to spot the visa re-shuffle. We bid a very sad farewell to Serena who has become a good friend, and make our way into the China / Laos no mans land.

Laos immigration proves to be very straight forward - First stop is disinfection of the cars tyres. A sleepy customs guy reluctantly takes 25,000 Laos Kip from me (£2.50) and sets about splashing the tyres with what looks and smells like plain tap water….. It’s a hot day, keen to get back to sleep he decides only to spray three of the tyres, the fourth one being just that little bit too far away to reach from his chair...

I’m duly issued with a “Certificate of Disinfection“, issue of our Laos visas & motoring insurance goes without a hitch and in no time we’re off into Laos proper.

A little further up we hit a Laos customs post, they ask to see our paperwork. A little peeved that nobody has even hinted at asking to see our Carnet, I offer it to the officer on duty. He says “Yes, yes sometimes we ask this” and takes it from me. The reality is that I could probably have got away without it.

The next problem is that nobody has any idea how to process it, where to sign it or what part to detach. After 20 minutes of deliberating he opts to stamp and sign every part possible, then send us on our way.

Laos scenary really is stunning, our route from the border to the famous town of Luang Prabang takes us onto the countrys’ main arterial highway - A deserted, narrow single lane track with a surface alternating between un-graded gravel and potholed tarmac… Each side of the road is lined with dense green jungle, the only noise to be heard is the deafeningly loud chirping of cicadas & crickets.

After a brief lunch stop in Oudmxay, we arrive in Luang Prabang just after night fall. Driving the dark mountain and jungle roads was quite an experience, but not an especially dodgy one - We only saw a handful of other cars along the way.

Luang Prabang along with much of the rest of Laos, features a lot of French colonial architecture. Our hotel is an old French villa, just a couple of streets back from the Mekong river front - We choose to head over to the local Indian restaurant for dinner, Beerlao and chicken Balti....A perfect combination!

Mohan

Well, we always knew it was just a matter of time until our we were due to leave China - Today is our last day of travelling the country & we’re already a little sad to be leaving.

To be honest neither of us were especially looking forward to China, its never been of any particular interest to either of us but its proved to be great fun - Lovely people, fascinating culture, great sights, superb & varied scenery, awesome food, reasonable beer and a brilliant guide!

Enroute Bex spots a sign for an elephant sanctuary, elephant mad she persuades us to stop off for a brief look around. The sanctuary is located a little way from the main road, set amidst brilliant green jungle.

This proves to be quite a big place, what we expected to be a brief excursion ends up taking the rest of the day. The highlight was a really dodgy but equally awesome cable car ride that takes you on a 3km ride high above the jungle canopy. (See pics)

Once again we end up driving into the night, arriving at the border town of Mohan for around 9pm. The local hotel approved for foreigners is superb and sets us back less than £10 for a room…

Puer...?!

After breakfast we head over to a local travel agents to collect our “Carnet de passage” which I’d had couriered there from the UK just a few days earlier. Whilst it’s taken us around 6 weeks to get here, the carnet makes it over from Southampton, England in less than 72 hours. The miracle of flight (And DHL!) Without this piece of paper we’re technically unable to enter Laos with a foreign registered vehicle.

The Carnet, issued by the RAC in England, is an internationally recognised certificate guaranteeing that we wont permanently leave our car in Laos, thereby circumventing applicable import taxes. Requirement for a carnet varies from country to country, for our route Laos was the only country that required one - Unfortunately they don’t come cheap, this piece of paper set us back a little over £800.….Although technically required, there have been numerous reports of Laos customs failing to ask for a Carnet. This would be frustrating waste of £800, but we cant risk being turned away at the border.

The weather has been sunny for the past few days now but its still a little chilly, especially at night. Although we’re now in the tropics, the high altitude takes the edge off of the temperature.

Its time to hit the road again, destination Puer. Our route takes us back down the mountains; With each hour of decent the engine runs a little better, the trusty custard cake packet deflates a little more and the temperature rises. The scenery changes from mountain peaks to tropical flora set into dense green jungle.

We arrive at Puer just after sunset. Even though its dark, its still pretty warm outside - Bex is relieved that we’re well and truly back into air conditioning territory!

Serena chooses a small local hotel on the outskirts of town, we take a late BBQ dinner in a packed out local curb side restaurant. Empty beer bottles are thin on the ground but the locals seem fairly wasted. It turns out they’re smoking cigarettes with a little extra ‘kick’ courtesy of illegal smuggling from Laos. ..

KUNMING

The roads just keep on climbing, higher and higher. I start to notice a definite reduction of power from the engine but as yet no major problems. I ask Serena just how high we are, she guesses at 1500m above sea level but she‘s not sure - I have suspicions that we’re quite a bit higher…

Earlier on Bex bought a box of the popular Asian junk food “Custard Cake”; Individual cakes sealed in foil packets. Peckish, I pick one out of the box only to discover that the sealed packets have inflated massively and are almost at bursting point. I knew this was because of reduced air pressure, confirming that we are indeed a long way above sea level….From here on a sealed custard cake was to become our make shift altimeter for the mountainous areas of our route!

Meanwhile the power from the engine just keeps on falling, so much so that we’re almost in first gear for some of the steeper inclines. .. A glance over the edge of the mountain pass grants fleeting glimpses of the valley floor a long, long way below. I could lean out the fuel/air mixture to compensate for the altitude by swapping out some parts on the carburettor, but time is marching on, I’m not keen on night driving in the mountains, so we crack on.

The descent down to Kuming takes several hours. With the reduction in altitude comes an anticipated increase in performance and deflation of the custard cake packet....

In due course we arrive at our hotel in Kunming, I waste no time in logging onto the internet to check out the altitude of the region. I’m not entirely surprised to see that the Chinese National high altitude training camp for the Olympic games is based nearby, the altitude varies with some peaks exceeding 5,000m above sea level…… No wonder the engine was struggling at times.

We’re almost at the end of our time in China, its been brilliant so its time to celebrate with a night on the lash. We head into to the centre of town for a Budweiser fuelled evening of cards and cabaret, a pretty funny night, Serena is in top form!

Yuxi - And the place names keep on gettng weirder!

We’ve really broken the back of the driving in China now, we’re on the home stretch leading towards the Laos border. The pace is slowing and todays drive is only around 400km, practically a free day compared to the long hauls we’ve done in the past.

It’s a late start and after loading the car up with fresh fruit we hit the highway. The road climbs into the mountains and keeps on climbing for the duration of the drive….I find myself saying it every day, but the scenary is awesome. Serena explains that this area has some of the most picturesque driving in the whole of China.

The roads really are very impressive. This region of China is covered with mountains, to save drivers having to constantly ascend and descend them, the Chinese have used countless bridges and tunnels to cut through terrain and connect mountains, making for an easy drive in spectacular surroundings.

350km down, we’re nearly there….As we make our way up one snaking mountain pass, I spot a queue of trucks ahead of us. A traffic jam? But we’re in the middle of nowhere…The drivers of the parked vehicles are milling about the road looking very bored.

We slow up a little but continue toward the summit. A little further up I spot some blue lights and something blocking the road. Its an accident, and a bad one. Serena asks one of the drivers whats happened - A heavy lorry descending the hill had brake failure, the driver lost control, hit the crash barrier and flipped the truck on its side, its now blocking the entire carriageway. Sadly we’re told one man has no head, one has no legs and one has no face….This is definitely no place to need medical assistance, the guy with no head probably had the better deal.

We park up and prepare for what could be a very long wait..I can’t imagine how they’re going to move the smashed truck, we’re miles from a major town and halfway up a mountain. There doesn’t seem to be any signs of anyone moving anything yet. Its getting cold, cloud starts to roll down from the mountain tops and the light begins to fade.

One of the truck drivers explains that there’s another route to our destination, the old and now very dodgy single track mountain road on the other side of the valley….We decide its worth a shot and motor back down to the entrance. Here we meet a truck driver who reckons we have practically no chance of making it through the mud and rocks in our car. We turn back and return to our original place in the queue of trucks.

Fortunately Serena has a plan, she reckons it’s a great opportunity for us to learn how to play Chinese poker. The next three hours are spent in a make shift camp in the middle of the road - Cards for entertainment, petrol cooker for heat and a head torch for light. Its ironic that one of our funniest evenings was the result of such tragic circumstances…

11pm - We get word that they’ve shifted the wrecked truck . The queuing traffic starts to crawl up the mountain. We file past a blood stained sheet loosely covering a body at the side of the road and continue to our destination….

Picture album link

Sorry Ladies and Gents - Looks like I somehow managed to delete the picture album link, here it is!

http://s419.photobucket.com/albums/pp277/revivalcars/London%20to%20Saigon%202010/

We just made it into Vietnam, the picture album and blog are quite a bit behind, but I'm on the case and hope to get these up to speed tomorrow.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Chengdu

Starbucks…..Mmmmm Starbucks…Is there nothing that a great cup of coffee cant fix? First KFC, now Starbucks, whats happening to us?! We ended up on the beers last night is a historic district of Chengdu. Unbelievably we ended up in a bar that served two of my favourite beers, Fullers London Pride and Chimay ‘Blue’ from Belgium, great grog.

In the afternoon we motor back out of town to the Porsche center, once again the hospitality is excellent. We’re presented with a gift by the management team, a DIY build your own Porsche 356 Speedster, very cool thanks guys.

Theres quite a large team of press and TV reporters waiting for us, we set about answering questions and posing for photos. (See photos) Our story is broadcast on TV that evening and is set for print in the local papers the following day. With everything wrapped up, we head back to our hotel downtown.

One of the items noted in the recent service was that the rear brake pads were low. We ran out of time at the garage, so I take the spare time available this afternoon to fit new pads in the hotel car park. I’ve become quite competent at carrying out all types of Porsche maintenance in hotel car parks. The key is to ignore the 5 or 6 people that always appear from nowhere and stare intently at you for the duration of the work.

That evening we have tickets for a theatre show in the city, a complimentary gift from Tracy at NAVO. The highlight of the show was the ancient Chinese masks routine, where the performers swap their face masks in the blink of an eye….Red to green to black, all right in front of your eyes, but so fast its hard to see how its done, a great show.

Chengdu

Result….Our hotel is right next door to a KFC restaurant! You know you've been away for a while when a KFC is exciting. That’s breakfast sorted, although we appear to be the only ones eating a whole bucket of fried chicken at this time in the morning…

Back in the UK I did a little research into the location of official Porsche dealerships in China. I fired off an email to Porsche Chengdu to ask if we could stop by and use their inspection ramp (If we made it that far) The center manager replied and said we should drive over to see them if we make it, so we did.

Serena calls the Porsche center over breakfast and arranges us an appointment for 3pm that afternoon. We spend the afternoon shopping in downtown Chengdu, and keen to tick another weird food from our list, we both try “Neck of duck” for lunch. I know what you’re thinking, but actually its pretty tasty!

We arrive at the Porsche showroom for 3pm where we receive a warm welcome from the management staff. They congratulate us on our effort and arrange for the car to get a much needed wash - Its absolutely filthy, the once shiny silver wheels are now almost pure black with brake dust and grime…

We make our way into the showroom to check out some of the latest models, the salesman explains that over 90% of new Porsches sold in China are the Cayenne 4x4 model, bearing in mind the state of some of the roads I can see why. The prices are sky high, there’s a luxury goods tax on Porsche models which literally doubles the price - A base specification Boxster weighs in at around £80,000. A high specification 911 Turbo is quite way North of £220,000..

Three coffees later and Jerry re-appears spotless, so marked is the difference that Serena doesn’t recognise it as being the same car. We drive into the workshop to meet the mechanics, the manager kindly arranges for me to stay with the car for the duration of works. We discuss the price for the scheduled work, I’m pleasantly surprised to hear that the labour rate is a fraction of that in the U.K, less than £50 per hour. Brilliant.

As you might expect, a 44 year old Porsche is entirely different from a modern vehicle in every respect. Because of this, I find myself giving the Porsche mechanics a crash course in 912 servicing - Starting with how to carry out an oil change. They’re keen to use Mobil 1 oil for the change, but I explain its not ideal for a vehicle of this age and we opt instead for the Valvoline oil that I carry on board.

We’re in luck today, the Porsche centre has a senior mechanic visiting from Porsche Dubai. He speaks fluent English and having recently restored a 356 model for a client, he’s fully up to speed with the classic vehicles. We finish up by raising the front suspension just a little, then its back into the office to pay the bill of……Nothing! The centre manager has decided to waive the cost of all the labour. He wishes us good luck and we motor back to the hotel.

Dinner is spent at a great restaurant downtown where we manage to tick off frog, foot of chicken and pigs ear from the weird foods list. We dine with Tracy, one of the managers at NAVO the excellent tour company that has arranged our transit of China. She explains that the press are interested in featuring our trip in the local paper and TV station. Are we interested in arranging a photo shoot? YES! A couple of calls later and we’re booked up for an interview back at the Porsche centre the following afternoon.
place to need medical assistance, the gu

Xi'an to Chengdu

It’s a long drive through yet more stunning scenery - The day follows our usual pattern….Check the oil, warm the engine up, hit the road, re-fuel, eat pot noodle lunch in the garage, check the oil, hit the road, re-fuel, arrive at destination.

Part of the way along our route we spot an elderly lady selling caged birds at the side of a mountain pass. The traffic is slow, so I decide to pull over and check them out - The birds are great, red feathers with bright yellow beaks, but they don’t appear to be too happy.

Serena thinks I’m completely crazy when I ask her to check with the vendor if I can buy one and set it free (Its good luck!) She asks and the answer is yes, the lady presents me with a cage and I’m asked to pick a bird. There’s three in there, I couldn’t pick one to set free and leave the others in the cage, so we strike a deal for all three.
The old lady plucks them from the cage and throws them in a plastic carrier bag. We wander over to the edge of the road, Bex sets the bag down on a rock and we watch the birds fly off into the sunset. Hopefully that will give us some good luck further down the line…

Exactly 780km later we arrive in the provincial capital of Chengdu. Its been a running joke ever since we arrived in China that some of the most popular dishes are pigs trotter, chickens feet, neck of duck, chopped up frog and pigs ear. We pledge to sample each and every one of these before we leave, but our time in China is slipping away so we try trotter for dinner. Interesting….but not recommended!

Xi'an

A day off in Xi'an...
The city is very picturesque and features quite a few historical buildings including a huge city wall which surrounds the centre of town.
On the way into town last night I spotted a Starbucks coffee shop, so this is to be our first stop of the day. China is very much a tea drinking country, we’re both missing coffee big time so its straight in for Venti Cappuccinos.

This city is world famous for the hoards of Terracotta Warriors which were unearthed by a local farmer digging a field back in 1974. We catch a cab out of town to the museum which houses the endless ranks of clay soldiers, they still sit in the pit’s they were discovered in.

The warriors were buried to protect the ruling king “Qin Shi Huang” (259>210 BC) on his journey from earth to the afterlife. The king set about arranging his burial details soon after taking power age 13, the warriors were just a small part of the preparations made in advance of his death. The kings mausoleum is located near to the site of the warriors and is yet to be uncovered - The warriors are incredible but the mausoleum promises to be spectacular if ever opened. The king used no less than 720,000 slave labourers to construct what is said to be a complete underground city, with over 100 rivers of flowing mercury.

From the exterior the site covers an incredible 2,180,000 square meters and appears to be little more than an overgrown hill - Following his entombment, the site was covered over with 300ft of earth top cover to disguise it, it's been sealed ever since…..

After yet another Starbucks, we spend the afternoon cycling a knackered old tandem bicycle around the top of the city wall. Good fun for the first 8km, not such great fun for the last 6km !

Lanzhou to Xi'an

It’s a long drive of about 700km today, so we make an early start. Fortunately the car is still at the police station, the cops looks a little happier and more interested in Jerry than they were at 10pm last night. Lanzhou is famous for a special style of beef noodle, we have these for breakfast and they’re good - In fact all the food in China seems to be great.

The road is generally good, but some mountain stretches are poor and slow progress. Eleven hours later we pull into the ancient city of Xi’an, one of the most popular tourist destinations in China and home of the world famous Terracotta Warriors.

We still haven’t worked out why Chinese food in China tastes really healthy, but Chinese food in England tastes really unhealthy with totally different flavours. Serena Suggests that the Chinese food in the UK is actually Cantonese food, a style popular in Hong Kong featuring many sweet dishes.
Keen to check this out, we track down a Cantonese restaurant for dinner. It looks like Serena is right, the food is much more like the favourites from our local take away in England. Sweet, oily and unhealthy. Mmmmmm

Dunhuang to Lanzhou

The next day we crack on to Lanzhou, the capital city of this province - On arrival our hotel has no car park but reception suggests we try to park in the nearby university. We drive over to ask them, the guard laughs and asks if we’re joking….Five bicycles a night are stolen from the campus, a Porsche doesn’t stand a chance!
He suggests we try to gain entry to the private staff car park which is guarded 24hrs…..We try, but despite Serenas best efforts we’re turned way by the guard, who in turn suggests we try the nearby Police station.

We drive over to the Police station, the cops initially turn us away but eventually relent and grant us a parking spot by the gate.

Lanzhou is famous for its noodle broth, we just about make it to a local restaurant in time to sample some. Pretty good!

Hami to Dunhuang

Not such a long drive today, yet more stunning scenery, will it ever end?.. We make it to the Dunhuang for the late afternoon - This small city was established fairly recently, following the discovery of the now world famous cave complex in the nearby mountains.

The following morning we head out of town to check out the caves, one of the most famous sites in China. The caves were discovered in the early 1900’s by adventurers travelling the ’Silk Road‘, the trade route connecting Europe to China. The caves themselves are a series of around 700 man made grottos set into the side of a sandstone mountain, many dating back to the 5th Century. Their purpose was to serve as private places of Buddhist worship for the rich families who commissioned there construction.

The interior of the caves features highly detailed wall painting and sculptures, some originally contained secret rooms containing early Chinese scriptures and paintings. The British explorer that first found the site wasted no time in stealing as many of these artefacts as possible, sending numerous cases of paintings and books back to the British Museum in London. This artwork was high valuable, its theft is still a sore point to the Chinese who would still like to see it re-patriated.

One cave features a massive hand carved Buddha, around 115ft tall. It was forbidden to take photos at the site, but I’ll try and track done some pictures online and post them in the picture gallery, an awesome sight.

Urumqi to Hami

Not much to report on this leg - Its another long days drive, China really is a big place. More great scenery, we now know the words of almost every song on both the iphone and the ipod - It may be time to start buying CD’s soon.

Weather is still very cold but at least the snow has cleared up. We make it to Hami (pronounced harmee) for around 7pm.

One thing that’s very noticeable in rural China is the ever present smell of burning coal. Coal seems to be used by everyone for everything, most restaurants have a coal fired cooker crackling away in the kitchen.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Yining to Urumqi (China)

Some good news, the snow stopped overnight and it seems fractionally warmer too. Bolstered by the improved weather we set about defrosting the car and prepare to hit the road.

In an earlier blog I said the roads were perfect…..What I SHOULD have said is that the roads which have been completed, are perfect… It seems the government has renewed the vast majority of roads, but has left the trickiest stretches until last. Many stretches of mountain road are still under construction and the surface is pretty horrendous.

Todays route is 700km, the first 200km of which are great and we make some good progress. Shortly after things start to change as we head into the mountains. It also seems as though we’re catching up with the weather, it starts to snow once again and the temperature plummets to well below freezing.

Some of the narrow mountain roads are little more than rubble, icy rubble. As we climb higher and higher into the mountains, the roads are lined with disabled trucks struggling to get traction on the long icy inclines. The air is thick with the pungent smell of burning clutch plates, fortunately not ours!

I recall the day we chose the tyres for the car back in England - Well, actually I left the decision to Chris Marchant at Vintage Tyres (www.vintagetyres.com) I briefed Chris on the trip and asked his advice regards a semi off-road tyre. Chris recommended the Vredenstein 15” Snow Plus tyre. What? A snow tyre? We’re heading through deserts and jungles! OK, its primarily designed for snow, but Chris explained that it also has the perfect combination of being very capable both on and slightly off, road. Well, what a great choice this proved to be.

The Vredenstein has proved itself time and time again. We’ve thrown every type of terrain at these now, from sand through through to mud, snow, ice and everything in between. We’re yet to have so much as a reduction in tyre pressure, let alone a puncture.

As well as the suitable tyres, Jerry has the obvious advantage of having the weight of the engine over the rear wheels, which is also helping us to keep on moving when others can’t.

At the summit of the mountain the road skirts around the shoreline of a huge natural lake, the scenery is spectacularly good. The road surface is spectacularly bad. Its obviously been snowing heavily up here for sometime, the snow has been compacted, then melted and re-frozen to form a 4” thick layer of sheet ice. A red warning sign flashes “-15 “ I thought it sounded a bit excessive, right up until I pulled over to take a leak, at which point it felt more like -115 ! The heater is still holding up and is doing a great job of keeping us not only alive but even too hot at times. (Check out the picture gallery for a few snaps of the mountain roads)

The descent is also pretty hairy, halfway down the mountain the ice has melted and the roads have turned to mud. Deep mud. Cars and grossly overlaiden trucks are sliding about all over the place, but once again our tyres prove their worth and we make it through incident free. :)

After a long day of 12 hours driving we pull into town. By the time we hit the sack its 1am...

Yining (China)

Its snowing! Just a light dusting on the car at the moment, but its cold enough for it to settle.

After breakfast we motor out to the licensing centre and start the long, drawn out process of obtaining Chinese driving licences and vehicle registration plates.

The first port of call is the medical desk for an eyesight test. I quickly realise that I don’t have my glasses with me, but have a crack at it anyway. Despite a few wrong “guesses” we’re issued our medical approval certificate and sent on our way. (When taking an eyesight test, it always helps if your response is translated then dictated to the doctor by your translator - who also happens to be standing next to the eye test chart…!)

We leave the rest of the work to Serena, who spends the next couple of hours queuing in various lines in order to get the required rubber stamps on our paperwork. I use the spare down time to carry out a few minor jobs to the car - “FOG X” is applied to the interior side of all the windows, the plastic rain tray is fitted back underneath the engine grill and I finally manage to come up with a fix for the bonnet. (Its been popping open for weeks now)

An official comes out to inspect the car and take a pencil rubbing of the engine and body number stamps - Unfortunately he’s not happy with the aluminium data plate on the front slam panel and insists on inspecting the factory stamp on the bulkhead as well. A little inconvenient as it means I have to completely empty the luggage compartment in a snowstorm… But after checking this second number, he’s happy and issues the final stamp of approval. We collect our new Chinese driving licences and registration plate before heading back to the hotel for some liquid refreshments.

It’s a long drive through mountain roads tomorrow, if the snow persists overnight we’ll have to delay for another day. There are no gritting trucks over here; Snow, ice and Chinese drivers on narrow mountain roads can be a lethal combination.

Horgas to Yining (China)

We head out to town for a late breakfast, then Serena calls Customs to check on the status of the paperwork. Everything is ready so we’re set to go! Well, almost… Serena briefs us on the plan for the day ahead, first stop is the vehicle test centre. We need a pass certificate before the car can be registered with the Chinese authorities.

Serena explains that the vehicle test checks a lot of different items and questions if the car will make it through OK. Just as I’m about to say that it‘ll fly through, I remember that we’re still carrying a headlight fault from our night ride through the Kazakstan desert…..Ah great, I’ll have to fix this up before we can go anywhere.

Its bitterly cold and is starting to rain, but the work has to be done so I don my raincoat and head out to the parking lot to check out the problem. I was hoping for a faulty headlamp bulb, but I knew it wouldn’t be that simple, nothing ever is, especially when its cold, raining and you’re in a rush!

As suspected, the bulb was perfect but the offside ‘dip’ element of the headlamp was refusing to fire up.
I recalled the smell of burning Bakelite we encountered on the night the lights failed, and knew right away that the fault was probably due to either the light switch or the headlamp stalk switch - Fortunately I was carrying spares of both so it shouldnt be major problem for us.

A few quick checks confirm that it is indeed the steering column mounted headlamp dip switch. After removing the steering wheel and horn ring I encounter the first problem - The one piece cowling which surounds the steering column and houses the stalk switches, features some tiny slot headed screws which are recessed about 1”

I dig out the smallest screwdriver from the tool box, only to see that it’s fractionally too wide to enter the recess….Fortunately I also have a decent file in the tool box, so the next 10 minutes is spent filing down the screwdriver to the correct diameter. From here on it its smooth sailing and thirty minutes later the lights are back in action but my fingers are blue!

Onto the Chinese highway and the roads appear to be brilliant, exceptionally good in fact. We both had preconceived ideas about what Chinese roads would be like, back in the UK we reckoned that any country which eats dogs and cats was clearly going to have bad roads, it was obvious. For the most part we were to be proved very wrong..

The Chinese highway system has three main grades of road, it’s a straight forward system - The more money you pay, the better and/or faster the road you get to use. All three types are pretty good but the top grade, known as the “Express Way” is brilliant. Brand new, spotlessly clean asphalt with typically very little traffic and a relatively high speed limit of 120 kph.

Manual labour is very cheap here, gangs of road sweepers can be seen manually grooming the road surface, brushing loose debris into small piles at the side of the carriageway. The quality of the road surface itself tends to be flawless - As good as, if not better than, the roads in the UK.

There a long, long line of cars waiting to enter the vehicle test centre, we join the back of the queue and sit it out. Meanwhile Serena dives out of the car and into a nearby cab, bound for a nearby vehicle licensing office to get the registration document of the car translated into Chinese.
Ninety minutes later we arrive at the front of the queue, at which point the shutters are rolled down and the centre closes for the day. Shortly afterwards Serena appears and with some sweet talk to one of the station attendants, manages to get us the final test slot of the day.

The safety test, annual for Chinese registered vehicles, is fairly straight forward but still surprisingly advanced for what I always imagined to be a fairly basic country. Lights, horn and tyres are checked, the vehicle weighed, service and parking brake efficiency tested. Jerry breezes through it and thirty minutes later we’re issued a pass certificate.

By this time its too late to visit the vehicle licensing centre for issue of our Chinese driving licenses, so we make our way downtown and check into a hotel for the night. Only certain hotels in each city are permitted to accommodate foreign guests - Our hotel is a very smart, marble clad four star facility - But at £18 a night, it doesn’t break the bank.

The weather keeps on getting colder, the TV weather forecaster says theres a good chance of snow tomorrow....

Monday, 25 October 2010

Horgas, China.

A great nights sleep but unfortunately its still raining...…A pain in the Alpha hole, because I was hoping to do some much needed maintenance to the car this morning. On the job card - Front wheel bearing adjustment, valve clearances and a brakes check.

Never mind.. we head into town to find some breakfast. In an effort to escape the freezing rain we dive into a local café and proceed to kick off the days first game of charades with a request for fried eggs and coffee. Nobody in this city speaks English, but my impression of cracking an egg and flipping it with a spatula does wonders, 5 minutes later out come 4 fried eggs on a plate, almost too easy!
Bolstered by my success with the eggs order I decide to try again - We really need some bread to go with the eggs. I make another impression which I thought was pretty good - Me, cutting a loaf of bread and putting the slices into a toaster, its obviously bread that I’m after. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing! I’m in luck - The waitress nods her head frantically, gives me the thumbs up and jogs out into the street, only to return 2 minutes later with a huge bowl of egg fried rice topped with what looks like chopped up frog. Good effort but no cigar..

After breakfast we meet up with Serena to get the latest from customs - They need more time, the police chief needs to sign the form, but he’s not around until tonight. The rain is starting to ease off, so I crack on with the work to the car - As soon as I break out the tools, a gang of very drunk locals appear in the car park. They love the car and want to know everything about it, fortunately Serena is there to act as translator.

There’s usually a reason why 7 people are drunk before lunchtime, Serena explains that today marks 100 days since the birth of one of their sons. Sounds like a good enough excuse to me. It turns out that the guys all work at our hotel, they’re all bosses and they’re really REALLY keen for us to join them for more drinks. The whole time I’m working on the car they’re right there pestering Serena to ask us to join them for beers.

I finish off the work to the car and Serena calls Customs for the latest update - Still no sign of the head honcho that needs to sign us off before we can leave. Our first scheduled drive is several hours long and its already 4pm, our decision is swayed by the party invitation & we deem it to be too late in the day to leave now. Our best bet is clearly to join in with the party, help the guys drink the 3 cases of ’Wusu’ beer they’ve just unloaded and re-assess the situation in the morning.

Into the hotel Karaoke bar and its beer carnage. Our hosts make it clear that today is a big celebration and that we‘re now guests of honour. On offer- All the beer, local wine (Whiskey) and whiskey you can drink, and its all on the house - Hearing this, I consider it only right and proper to test all three drinks to help perpetuate the celebratory atmosphere.

Thirty minutes later we’re on stage and going for gold with our best rendition of “You’ve lost that loving feeling”… The locals hit back with their favourite song, a jazzy little number entitled “Japan, you will never take China”…..(!) Later we’re told that there’s a huge amount of anti-Japanese sentiment in the air at the moment - Something to do with Japan claiming a Chinese island as their own the week before. People have even been smashing up Japanese cars in the street, so long as Germany doesnt invade any Chinese territory in the next 2 weeks Jerry should make it out OK.

Before we know it we’re mates with one of the hotels owners, he breaks out the best Chinese wine available and a bottle of Johnny Walker. This is followed up by a box of gifts for Becky and one for Serena. The same guy is also a high ranking official in the local Police force - More than a little worse for wear he convinces himself that we must have the Chinese press there to cover our trip, and that they should come immediately. Well, this guy must have had some sway, ten minutes later there’s a TV film crew knocking at the door of the bar!

We head outside, pose for still pictures and they run a small feature in Chinese for the local TV station. (See pic) We retire to the bar for a few more beers and the rest, as they say, is history…...

Into China..

First off, a brief introduction on driving your car into China.

1. Its bloody hard to arrange and its almost prohibitively expensive. Up until fairly recently it was illegal for a foreigner to drive their car into China - But following the change in the law, a couple of specialist firms have popped up offering a bespoke import service.

This border entry took a lot of advance planning with our Chinese tour company, and even after the comprehensive planning it took them another 2 months to arrange the vast array of permits required. Permissions are needed from central government, local government, the army, the police, customs, immigration and every province and district that you drive through etc...

2. Chinese law requires..

a) The tour company to appoint a guide to sit in the vehicle with you whilst you’re driving - We've been told that this is designed to deter James Bond types from being too snap happy with their camera. Our guide has strict instructions not to let us drive past or even near to a military installation etc..
b) The vehicle to have a Chinese MOT test
c) The drivers to be issued with Chinese photo card driving licences (What a cool souvenir!)
d) The car to be issued with Chinese number plates - Another great souvenir.
e) You to specify a fixed route in advance - You cant deviate from this.

Right, enough of the rules and regulations, back to the blog!

Rise and shine…Its time to find out if the Kazak passport police are happy with the number of stamps in our passport… Out to the carpark and the drunk lorry driver from the night before is looking more than a little ropey but still manages a big grin “ I OK, wodka, no goood. Good luck you ma freeeends!”

Back to the border and its all looking good, in less than an hour we’re through Kazak customs and motoring through no mans land towards the Chinese border. The final word from Kazak customs is that we should expect to see them again in less than an hour, hardly anyone gets into China with a car, everyone is sent back to Kazakstan. Fortunately for us, I’ve been using the most professional firm in China to arrange our entry and it was to be entirely hassle free. See you later Kazakstan! Much, much later...

We pull up to the border, a much more formal affair than anything we’ve seen so far. A large Chinese flag billows proudly in the breeze. A soldier walks over to us and spotting our weird GB number plate, forms a cross with his arms and gestures for us to turn around. Just up ahead, camouflaged soldiers with machine guns stare down at us from imposing watch towers that line the road.

We sit tight, eventually a Chinese military officer in pristine dress uniform marches over to the car. He speaks better English than me, I explain that we have a guide waiting for us at the border with all of the required entry permits (Circa 300 sheets of paper I’m told). He’s relieved to hear this and says our tour company must have friends in high places, even today its tricky to get a foreign car into the country.

This officer was to prove a great help, after the initial formalities coversation soon turns to beer, football, Porsches and iPhones. My request for some definitive instruction on the correct pronounciation of “TsingTao” Chinese beer proved to be a great ice breaker! (ChingDao in case you wondered)

He calls our guide “Serena” and issues permission for her to enter the border zone to come and meet us. Five minutes later she arrives and the rest is history, she talks us through every step of the import process and several hours later we’re unleashed onto Chinese roads. Released, but not entirely free. Customs say they need more time to process our permits, so they escort us to a local hotel for the night and we’re told to call again in the morning.

The weather on the day of our aborted entry was superb, hot and sunny, probably about 80 degrees. Things are very different now though, its freezing cold and raining heavily…Hopefully the sun will make a re-appearance soon.

We check into a local hotel, the power for the whole city is down because of the heavy rain, so we retire to our room for some sleep. Later on we head into town for a bowl of delicious homemade noodles and some local beer. (£1 a head for food and beer. Yes, £1 !)

In less than a Kilometre from Kazakstan the food has changed entirely. Out with the dodgy Russian grub and in with noodles, stir fried dishes and fried chickens feet, but more about those later..

Friday, 22 October 2010

Almaty to China - Stage 2 complete !

I still cant believe it, we’re exactly on schedule and are all set to meet our guide at the Chinese border on the 18th. Keen to keep ahead of the game, we decide to position ourselves at the Chinese border the night before.

The road to the border is brilliant, just an hour outside of Almaty the urban sprawl ends and we start to head out into a vast desert wilderness. The terrain is very similar to the desert regions of the Western United States, wide open spaces peppered with rock formations, ravines and canyons.

We make our way to Charyne Canyon an ancient natural valley created by erosion from a local river. The water is fast flowing with a slightly blue hue, typically Asian looking yellow trees line the river banks, it’s a peaceful place and unbelievably picturesque. (See picture gallery photos)

After a wander down the river and quite a few pictures, we head back to the car and crack on towards the border. Daylight fades as we near the border town of Horgas, the headlights do a mediocre job of illuminating the bumpy road ahead. Suddenly there’s a strange smell in the car, no not Becky but the sickly sweet smell of burning Bakelite……The headlights start to flicker but fortunately don’t fail.
We definitely cant stop here, so I decide that unless things get drastically worse, we’ll carry on and check it over at the hotel. Two minutes later both headlights jam on in the full beam position, inconvenient for the oncoming traffic, but also for me as every car blinded by the lights does the same to me with theirs.

We’re running low on gas, but fortunately we’re almost out of the desert. Pulling into civilisation and the first fuel station in ages, we’re greeted by a stocky guy cradling a pump action shotgun. You know you’re in a dodgy area when the fuel station attendant needs a shotgun to do his job….! (See pic)

Whilst re-fuelling, a smart Mercedes S class pulls into the garage. The driver jumps out and walks over, he speaks a little English and is fascinated by the car and our journey - We ask if he knows a hotel nearby, he does and gestures for us to follow him there. I was a little wary of this guy, his face was busted up and scarred, his left eye badly punched up, but he seemed genuine enough and very willing to help us out.

Arriving at the hotel he goes out of his way to arrange a room for us and joins us at the bar for a beer and a bite to eat. Unfortunately we never made a note of his name, but he was an absolute legend , one of the best. We quickly learn that his injuries are down to his job, he’s one of the top boxing champions in Kazakstan. His next big fight is at the Flamingo Casino in Las vegas sometime in November.

The next morning we drive the final 2km to the border, the Kazak guards wave us through to the customs office as priority traffic, the sun is shining and we’re pretty pleased with ourselves - We made it to the border exactly on schedule and everything is looking good…..A customs official walks over to check my passport, he quickly flicks through to the page with my Kazakstan visa and nods his head slowly....

Theres a problem, he gestures for me to read the small print on the rear of the piece of paper stapled to my passport on entry into Kazakstan “VISITORS MUST REGISTER WITH THE IMMIGRATION POLICE WITHIN 5 DAYS OF ENTERING KAZAKSTAN. FAILURE TO DO SO WILL RENDER THE OFFENDER SUBJECT TO PUNISHMENT UNDER KAZAK LAW” Wait a minute…carry the two….add the three….we must have been in country for 6 or 7 days by now…?....

Big deal! I explain that we didn’t know anything about it, and we only want to leave not enter, but he doesn’t look happy. His superior walks over and explains that we need TWO rubber stamps on our visa in order to be able to leave Kazakstan. We didn’t register with the special "immigration police" and have been in country over 5 days, so we’ve broken two rules - The kazak authorities are big on red tape, rubber stamps, useless scraps of paper with official stamps on and receipts of all kinds.

Evidently breaking these rules is a big deal and the chief guy isn’t happy. “You…..You….You must register. Register now!” Surely we can do it here at the international land border? Nope, he draws a map and instructs us to drive back out of the border zone to the nearby town of Zharkent, 30km due West. There’s an immigration police office there, they’ll be able to unwind things for us.

This is bad news, our Chinese guide was waiting for us on the Chinese side of the border and this episode was going to make us late…All this for one rubber stamp. Pointless state burocracy is the perfect way to keep the masses employed in poor states.My personal favourite is Cambodian customs, where a line of eight customs officers process your visa on arrival.
(Man #1 opens your passport and hands it to man #2 who stamps it and hands it to man #3. Who checks the stamp and hands it to man #4 etc....)

I digress...We speed out of the border zone and into Zharkent, a ramshackle town in the middle of nowhere. We soon track down the police station and queue up to speak with the officer on duty. He takes one look at our passport and shouts “ALMATY!” What?……Did he just say Almaty? As in the Almaty that we were in yesterday? The Almaty that’s 400km away through the desert? Surely not, there must be some mistake. I try to ask some questions but he doesn’t speak English, his reply: “ALMATY, ALMATY, ALMATY, ALMATY, ALMATY !!!!” I was more p’d off than I’ve been in a long long time, to make things worse he’s got the biggest grin on his face imaginable. He knows Almaty is an 800km return trip and he’s loving it.

He MUST be able stamp it, surely he’s just being awkward? I pull out a $100 bill and say “Straf” (fine), a feint effort at disguising the fact that I’m offering him a bribe to stamp our passports. His eyes nearly pop out of his head, but its now obvious that there really is nothing he can do…Confronted by an even bigger grin I ask for his “Nachalnik” (Superior officer), another guy wanders over and explains their boss is in Almaty for three days. Great…

Theres nothing we can do, the quicker we leave, the quicker we get back. One thing was certain, we weren’t going to be crossing into China today. The ride back to the capital was an incredibly gutting 4.5 hours of desert driving . The process of getting “the stamp” proves to be incredibly long winded and tedious…numerous forms to complete plus copies of all our documents etc… The fine is $100 a head.

As usual, nobody in the customs office speaks any English and its due to shut any minute. Out of nowhere a lady walks in off the street, she speaks fluent English and offers to help me complete all the forms and arrange the payment. An absolute God send, without her help we’d probably still be there…If you’re reading this, I cant thank you enough.

Its dark so we head back to Hotel Astra for something to eat. I ask the receptionist to check our passports to verify they’re definitely in order. She says she’s not sure, the rules change so often that nobody really knows them anymore, but she’s fairly certain we’re still one stamp missing. The last time she checked you needed three stamps and not two…She could ask her boss, but he’s sick. AAAAGGGHHH !!!

We decide to talk our chances and head back to the border anyway. After a lightning fast meal and three cans of Red Bull, we jump back in the car - It was right about this time I remembered that Jerrys lights were jammed on full beam….. This was going to be an interesting drive. Five gruelling hours later we arrive back at the border town hotel. Partially blind from literally hundreds of main beam jousts with oncoming traffic and very, very tired. Its 2:15am.

At the hotel car park we’re accosted by a drunk Russian truck driver who loves the car. He staggers around the car park swigging from a Vodka bottle, proudly giving us his best rendition of Michael Jacksons “I’m Bad”. “I baaaaa, I baaaaaa, u know, I baaaaaa” Simon Cowell wouldn’t have been impressed, damn funny though!

Stage 2 complete

Istanbul to China = 6,650 km
Distance travelled to date = 9,750km
Fuel burnt = We lost count, garages stopped issuing receipts way back in Georgia.
Punctures = 0
Spare wheels on board = 3 (I’m starting to hope we need to use at least one spare!…)
Speeding tickets received = 7
Fan belts changed = 0
Spare fan belts on board = 5...
Number of times we’ve washed the car = 0
Current favourite songs on the iPod = Deep Purple “Highway Star” and James Gang “Funk #49 “
Breakdowns = 0
Arguments = 2.5
Amount of pointless red tape encountered = Miles and miles..
Worst police = AZERBAIJAN - No Contest
Best police = Georgia
Bribes paid = Some

Current topics of conversation = The state of the last toilet we used, our dog “Bramble”, my aunties newborn baby ‘Freddie’, my brother-in-law Matty learning to fly, Angel City Flyers at Long Beach airport, houses in Thailand and my mate Tim in Hong Kong who’s meeting us for a ‘few quiet beers’ in Saigon if we get there….

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Almaty, Almaty, Almaty...The city of a thousand yawns...

Almaty - October 14th

Becks is under the weather once again…Hopefully not a repeat of her first illness. We spend the whole day confined to our hotel room, hopefully the bug will sort itself out during the course of the day.

On the plus side, I get to spend the day catching up with the blog & answering emails.

Almaty - October 15th

Hurrah! Becks is feeling a little better, but we wander over to the nearby medical clinic just to be sure. Surprise surprise, the Russian doctor doesn’t speak any English, but fortunately the receptionist does, and tries her best to act as an intermediary translator.
After so many doctor visits we‘re now semi-pro at describing symptoms without speaking, so its no big deal. More medical tests…..The verdict? They reckon it’s the same bug as before, which is making a minor come back, a last stand. The Doc prescribes 4 different drugs including a course of antibiotics & reckons it will be cured in less than a week.

That night we catch a cab over to the “Tobe Kok” cable car at the South Eastern edge of town. Its described in the guide book as a sleek, recently refurbished gondola which glides its way to the summit of a small mountain on the edge of town…....When we get there we’re a little disappointed but not really surprised, to see what looks like a dodgy Russian greenhouse hanging for dear life from a rusty cable. Still, it’s a pleasant enough ride to the top, if a little unnerving at times.

The view from the summit is excellent, the bright lights of downtown Almaty stretch out for miles around us. On the walk back to the cable car we stumble across a roller coaster which snakes its way down to the bottom of the mountain - We’re both slightly tempted, but reckon it might be pushing our luck for one day, so we take our chances back on the cable car..

Almaty - October 16th

Our hotel in town is great, but the staff have been pretty rude right from the word go, we decide to move elsewhere. It seems to be the older generation of Russians that really arent too keen on Western Europeans - At checkout the moody Russian receptionist definitely has the last laugh as she hands me a $125 laundry bill. Mental note, always ask how much the laundry costs before handing them 5 carrier bags full of it…

Almaty is bordered by huge snow capped mountains which are only 20 minutes from the city centre by car. Seeing as we need to drive to our new hotel anyway, we decide to venture out of town to check out the mountain scenery.

A new toll road snakes its way into the mountains and up to huge lake nearing the summit. The scenary is stunning but the road is steep, steep, steep ! We push on as far as we can, but nearing the summit it becomes so ridiculously steep that even 4WD vehicles are turning back - Its probably not ideal for our clutch, so we call it a day about 500M from the top and pull over for a brew and a bite to eat.

I scoop some fresh spring water from a nearby mountain river, break out the petrol cooker and get lunch on the go. The Coleman stove proves to be absolutely brilliant and in no time at all we’re tucking into a hot meal. (See pics in gallery)

The engine is now due for another oil change, so the journey back to town is used to hunt down a garage. I spot a small oil service depot just on the edge of town and walk in to check it out - Neither of the two mechanics speak English, but luckily for us an English teacher is sat in the waiting room. Spotting our language problem she quickly sets about translating for us, a real life saver.

The mechanics are keen to work on the car and because we’re on a charity drive, they insist on taking care of the oil change for free. Just twenty minutes later we’re back on the road with new engine oil & filter - The guys did a great job of the oil service, so I ask our friend the English teacher if I can give them some money for helping me out. Something as a token of appreciation, even if its only $10. She quickly explains that $10 would be FOUR TIMES the cost of the work if they charged it out….They really wont take a penny, so we thank them once again and hit the road.

We find new lodgings at Hotel Astra, a really great place at the Northern edge of town with friendly staff, great rooms and good rates. Highly recommended, a great refuge from Almaty city.

That evening I use some down time to adjust the front wheel bearings on the car. Half way through I get a tap on the shoulder… Turning around I'm a little worried to see it’s a soldier, one of a ten man team on a night patrol around our neighbourhood - Carrying batons and torches they look pretty menacing, I cant imagine theres going to be any trouble around here tonight. The Captain explains that he spotted the car earlier and wants to get a photo of it for his son, I take the photo and the team disappear off into the night...

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Taraz (Kazak) to Almaty (Kazak) - Oct 13th

8am - The phone rings in our room, it’s the girl from reception. She wants to know if we’re ready to pay for the room now. Maybe it’s the way we look ?!

Back on the road and the 500km drive to the former capital Almaty is pretty awesome. The road skirts the base of some huge snow covered mountains, the scenery is spectacular.

Various vendors are lined up along the side of the road in each little town, some selling fresh fruit others jars of local honey. Curious to see the fruit stand, I pull over and check one out - I thought I knew every type of fruit going, but I ended up buying a bag of fruit that was completely alien to me. All of it tasted great.

We make good progress down one particularly steep hill, our speed gradually creeps up to about 80kph. You guessed it, out of nowhere a cop flags us down - A small team of local police have setup a radar gun at the side of the road…they revel in showing me how their new Russian camera has caught me, the English Porsche driver, well and truly out.

It’s a fair cop, I was doing 80 in a 60 - But I wasn’t keen on paying anyone any bribes today. The captain asks to see my driving licence, here we go again….I knew what would come next, he takes my licence from me then tells me it’s a $50 fine or he keeps my licence....Blah, blah, blah.. In a moment of genius I tell him I no longer have my licence, the police in Turkmenistan took it away from me.

He looks totally stumped…After several minutes of pacing about, he wags his finger at me and tells me to go. It worked !!
Back on the road, the scenary changes once again. We leave the mountains behind us, now an arrow straight road carves through a totally deserted wasteland and disappears into the horizon. Its easy driving and the roads are fairly good.

We pass through a roadside police check point, I’m actually driving under the speed limit but a cop waves his baton at me and signals for us to pull over. I wave back at him and keep driving, a natural development of the “I’ve lost my licence” tactic. OK, its not entirely right for me to do this, but neither is it right for them to continually try and get money from us. Besides, I could always say that I didn’t see him. Contempt for corrupt cops is entirely justified. (until I get some massive fine, or get locked up for failing to stop, in which case I’ll eat my hat)

Looking at the map, the main highway through Kazakstanh to Almaty actually dips into neighbouring Kyrgystan territory for about 30km. I was unsure how this would resolve itself, whether we would be turned back, or if there would be some kind of customs control. In actual fact, the road is deemed a narrow stretch of no mans land - Barbed wire fences and watch towers line the Kazak side of the road, bored looking soldiers sit on the decking of the watch towers, their feet dangling over the edge.

Desperate for the loo, I pulled over to a wooded section of road to take care of business. Shortly afterwards Becks also disappeared off into the woods, it seemed like a good a place as any to take a leak….We fired up the car and pushed onwards, 100M further down the road was a sign “Danger, absolute no stop, restricted border zone” Oooops, fortunately we weren’t shot for taking a piss on this occasion. I’m sure theres a joke there somewhere!

Shortly afterwards it began to rain, incredibly the first spell of proper rain since we left England. We’d had lightning and some sporadic drizzle in Georgia, but this was proper British style rain. Big, cold drops.

So,after another long days drive we arrive in Almaty. The traffic was the worst we’d seen since Istanbul, total gridlock. It took us around an hour in solid traffic just to get into the center of town & literally every other car would hoot their horn, wave or try to speak with us in Russian - They absolutely loved the car.

Sadly it took us 2 further hours of aimless driving around Almaty before we found our hotel. Even then we were driven there by an off duty Airborne Ranger, who felt sorry for us and insisted on helping us out…
As an example of the problems caused by the Russian signs... The main street is called "Gogla" Street, its pronounced Googler, but its spelt something like "TYVLO" on the street sign.

Shymkent (Kazak) to Taraz (Kazak)

Shymkent to Taraz


Having split two days driving up over three days, we’re in no rush to leave - After breakfast I leave Becky glued to the internet and head down to the car park to carry out some overdue minor maintenance to Jerry. All the plugs are changed, the air filters thoroughly cleaned and noticing that the ignition points are slightly pitted, I take the opportunity to swap those also - The transformation is quite marked and after this minor brush up he’s running better than ever.

Back on the road and we’re enroute to Taraz, it’s a relatively short hop of 4 hours until we arrive in the city centre. Taraz is famous for producing the countries favourite brand of Vodka, potent stuff by all accounts.

The city is fairly quite, its wide leafy roads more remanisant of Western Europe than central Asia. Once again we manage to become utterly lost trying to find our hotel… The major problem for us in Kazakstanh is that the signs are all written in a weird Russian font, totally different to the names published in our book. Its mission impossible!

We stop and ask a local who proves to be extremely helpful, he not only explains where the hotel is, but also insists that we follow his car to the hotel. When we arrive he also refuses to accept any money for his time, a great bloke.

The hotel is OK, but we are noticing a huge jump in prices from those printed in the guide book. Kazakstanh hotels also appear to demand payment for your room up front, something we havent seen before.

That evening we wander into town to find a cash point, after an hour of walking without so much as a hint of a bank we hail a cab and ask for “Bankomat” (Cash point). The driver promptly drives us 250M to the next street where theres a line of four new cash points - He laughs, we pay him the equivalent of about 50p and find a restaurant. Dinner for two with starters and main courses comes to all of £4...