Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Washing line fitted to inside of the car...

A minor problem for us at the moment is that we never stay anywhere long enough to get laundry done. We're typically on the road for 10 hours a day, and will check into a hotel at around 8pm.  Leaving at 8am the next day, theres just no time to get it done.

Hand laundering clothes in the shower is the way forward - We've just setup a clothes line inside the vehicle to dry everything on. Works a treat when the windows are open, possibly as fast as a proper clothes dryer on a hot day!

Backup satellite tracking page now active

Well, we're still having trouble getting the inset map on the londontosaigon.com site to work properly.  But we do have a backup map that shows our location each day:


Tuesday 28th - Turkey to Turkey, its a big place!

After a spot of laundry in the hotel sink, we make our way downstairs to Jerry. 

Becky manages to ask the hotel chef if he can fill our thermos flask with coffee for a fee.  Nobody here speaks a word of English.... I overhear the conversation, a comical combination of pigeon English and charades. I wasn't entirely convinced that he wasn't going to fill our flask with sand or something, but sure enough, he returned with a flask full of fresh brewed coffee. Blinding.

Motel car park, somewhere dusty in North-East Turkey

Back on the road, and all is well. We stop off at a road side cafe for a local breakfast, yet more football talk about "Mancheta Uniteeee".  Not being a football fan, I keep nodding and agreeing that they are, quite clearly, the best team in the world. 

Seven hours later we arrive at Trabzon, a fairly large city on the shores of the Black Sea. Loads of people, traffic, fumes and car horns.  Narrow streets and 1001 signs for Kofte, which I think is some kind of kebab affair.

Jerry is parked in a dodgy looking car park in the centre of town. I was a little concerned, until I realised it was right next to the military police HQ - A soldier in French desert fatigues watched over as I parked, hopefully he'll keep an eye on things for us.

Becky came down with some form of bug earlier today and is now resting in bed, not feeling too well at all. I'm sure she'll be all set by the morning though.  Hotel has wireless internet, so I can finally catch up with the blog and will hopefully fix the tracker too.

Tomorrow - Turkey to Tbilisi, Georgia.

Monday 27th - "Welcome to Asia"

1000hrs. We make our way to the car and prepare to hit the road.  The hotel receptionist says he's counted 67 people taking pictures since 7am, not bad at all.

Just as I prepare to climb back in the saddle, a sixty something American guy wonders over. "Are you guys really going to Vietnam?"   I explain that its a charity drive, and that yes we really do hope to make it that far.  He laughs and says "I've been there before, keep your windows up and don't stop for sh*t, you should be OK!"   A classic line from a Vietnam Veteran.

Istanbul traffic rears its ugly head yet again, it takes us over an hour to cross the bridge into Asia. But the fact we've actually made it to Asia proper makes up for everything. We pull up to the toll booths at the bridge, everyone else flashes a red colored plastic card at the machine. A card we don't have..

With a queue of cars behind us, I couldnt back out, so I accelerate through the red light and out onto the highway.  We repeat this episode twice more on the same day, so I may have a stack of traffic fines waiting for me at the exit border on Wednesday...

Meanwhile the pinking from the engine is definitely getting worse... Its a bad thing, so I pull over and retard the ignition some more. Its absolutely scorching outside, but the twin electric fans over the external oil cooler seem to be doing a great job of keeping the engine cool. After several more distributor adjustments that day I find the optimum position, and its running great again - No significant increase in running temperature either.

Roads are mountainous with some severe and very long inclines in 95+ degree heat.  Not much fun, especially for the poor old motor, but it seems to be coping OK.  

After another long day, 9 hours driving, we arrive at a motel somewhere in the middle of northern central Turkey.  The staff are fascinated by the car. Although they have no liquor licence, the manager procures us some cold beers but we have strict instructions to keep them hidden from view at all times.  This wasnt to be a problem, by the time he'd told us, the cans were already half empty..!

Istanbul sights and cab stitch up

Shocked that we made it as far as Turkey, Saturday night was spent celebrating in various bars around Istanbul. A late start on Sunday and straight into a quick maintenance check on the car.

All looks good, just one front wheel bearing to adjust and its ready to go again.  Huge thanks to the brilliant staff of the Avicenna hotel in Istanbul. If you find yourself looking for a place to stay over there, book in with them - A great little hotel in a perfect location, friendly and helpful staff. Thanks again guys! :)


The rest of the day is spent sightseeing, and we take a cruise on the Bospherus river which officially seperates Europe from Asia. Have we really almost made it as far as Asia?!

Bridge over the river Bospherus - Waterfront properties exchange hands for anything between 4 & 100 million Euros..!

Later that day we take a cab back to our hotel. On arrival the driver asks for 30TL  (£15).  I hand him a 100TL note, he takes it and distracts us by pointing to a landmark ahead. In the next sentence..."Sir, you gave me only 20TL, the fare is 30TL, you understand?"  He waves a crisp new 20TL note at me, a note I've never seen before..  

For once, I saw it coming. There was no mistake on my part, the 100TL note that I gave him was the only note in my pocket...

I tell him exactly what the deal is, and that he's picked the wrong chump to trick. He promptly apologises for his 'mistake'. My original 100TL magically re-appears. he hands it back to me and our embarrased looking driver speeds off into the darkness.  Not a bad scam, but he needs more practice at it!

Saturday 25th - Serbia to Turkey

All those that entered the sweep stake on us only making Clackett Lane services on the M25, you've lost your bets! We just made it to Turkey.

Saturday 25th / 8am: Jerry appeared to be hungover from the rave the night before, so we treated him with a body wash and picked the flies out of his nose. A freshen up for the journey ahead. (Bex cleaned the windscreen)

Cruising along the riverside market by Nis historic fort, we dodge a weird mix of horse drawn carriages and old Russian cars, as we slowly make our way out of town. We have seen so many funky looking Russian vehicles in the area, that we’ve decided to start taking pictures. We'll list our favourite top five models on the blog soon.

Mountain roads enroute to the Bulgarian border

Further along the route we stop at an old Serbian roadside Café to grab a quick bite to eat. Fresh stone baked bread, with handmade cheese and local ham. Mmmmmm. Then its straight into the Suva Plannina Mountains, an awesome drive through tunnels and gorges which finally leads to flat farmland as we near Bulgaria.
Jerry at Bulgarian cafe - Is that bonnet open?...!

We arrive at the Bulgarian border, and after a quick chat with the Customs official about the genius of Manchester United, we’re ushered across the border without delay. Sofia proves to be a nightmare, very poor roads with major roadworks throughout the city, the diversions for which even had Mr. Garmin stumped… Jerry hits his first major pothole in central Sofia, a big bang but fortunately no damage.

Its hot and we’re running late for a dinner date with my parents in Istanbul. The car in front is driving at 55kph in a very rural 60 zone, there’s a queue of cars behind me. Curiously nobody is overtaking, in any other situation they’d be streaming past with lights flashing and horns blaring.

After 15 minutes of this, I decide to overtake and push on a little quicker. Literally 5 seconds after I pass the car in front, a Bulgarian Police officer appears from nowhere and waves a baton at the car.. I pull over to the side of the road , he walks over to us : “Please, your documents, passports, driving licences. Follow me”
I walk back to the patrol car, he checks through the paperwork and hands it back. After a brief chat in Bulgarian to his colleague in the passenger seat, he turns and asks where I’m headed. “Istanbul, then Vietnam” I explain.

I quickly reel off the planned route ahead. A brief silence then: “Mr Levell…..Mr Max Levell….I would like to shake your hand” Shocked, I shake the guys hand. “I shake your hand, because I think maybe you are a little bit crazy!!” Its laughs all round, they wish me good luck and send us both on our way. I did think about getting a picture for the blog, but thought it might be pushing my luck just a little. A classic moment and one I wont forget in a hurry.

Jerry & Bex at Belgrade fort

Eventually we arrive at the Turkish border. The entrance formalities and brilliantly rubbish, you would struggle to devise a more ridiculous and infuriatingly inefficient system…After queuing up in your car, you reach window number 1. The guy asks if you have a visa. No, I would like a visa on arrival please. OK, no problem, proceed to window number 2. When you’ve spoken to them, park your car, walk back to me and apply for a visa.

We proceed to window 2. Do you have Turkish insurance? No. OK, proceed to the car park. Go to window number 1 to get a visa, then come back to window 2 and see me to arrange insurance…..Eventually I arrange the necessary papers and we proceed to the final checkpoint. Only to be told there’s one rubber approval stamp missing from my passport, please return to window 36. Here a Turkish customs official jokes and says there’s actually nothing missing, but he’ll stamp my passport anyway…

We make it into Turkey just as the sun is setting. After two hours on excellent, almost totally deserted highways, we see hazard lights on the hard shoulder just up ahead. An elderly man flags us down frantically. We feel compelled to pull over, after all it could be some kind of medical emergency...

Nobody in the car speaks a word of English, but we manage to communicate via a dodgy combination of French, Russian and German. Apparently his car has broken down because the battery is flat…..Hmmmm, thats a first! I ask him to turn the key so I can see what’s happening, it spins over perfectly. Its full of fuel and there’s nothing obviously wrong in the engine bay, so I explain that a jump start isn’t going to help and we continue on our way to Istanbul.

At last we reach Istanbul - Incredible traffic and an exceptionally rubbish standard of driving, ridiculously bad in fact. Some guy in an ageing Honda speeds past us on the hard shoulder absolutely flat out in the heart of town. He swerves into a regular lane, but the traffic lights change to red. The car in front of him brakes, he locks all the wheels up and snakes all over the road narrowly missing three other cars...Why is our video camera never on when we need it to be?!  

Everyone from cab drivers to bikers toot, wave and shout with thumbs up at every turn. We arrive at the hotel in the historic Sultahnmet district, narrow cobbled streets lined with cafes and bars. My dad meets us there and has arranged parking for the car right outside the Avicenna hotel.
A small crowd of tourists & locals soon gather around the car, asking questions and taking photos. The hotel manager says its drawing so much attention to his hotel, that we’re welcome to leave it there as long as we like. Result!

London to Istanbul

Distance = 3050 km
Time enroute = 4 days
Fuel burnt = 300 Litres  (ish)
Punctures = 0
Breakdowns = 0
Police tickets = 0 (only just..)

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Progress update

Well, we're still working on fixing the pecky tracker unit for the car, it should be fixed soon  -So far we've made it to a hot & steamy Istanbul in Turkey, and will be crossing the Bospherus river to enter Asia tomorrow...

Weber tweeks - Wild Bean cafe, Austria.

Zagreb, Belgrade, Nis

0845hrs Zagreb, Croatia - Dense morning rush hour traffic in heavy fog...  
We leave Zagreb behind us and head out onto a murky highway. After stopping at a dodgy fuel station, the engine starts to 'pink' under heavy load from poor fuel. Perhaps its time to break out the octane booster, or possibly retard the ignition just a fraction to help Jerry along?  In the end I decide to take it easy, burn off the dodgy fuel and stick to BP or Shell stations where possible from now on.

Jerry at a rural truck stop between Zagreb & Belgrade

The original Porsche bonnet latch doesn't like bumpy roads, or so it would seem. I've lost count of the number of times the bonnet has popped open and sat on the safety latch - Whilst it was never an issue motoring along the leafy lanes of Surrey, its definitely a problem over here!  I've tried all the usual fixes, but I'm pretty certain the latch itself is worn. No major problem though, I have a plan to make a rubber strap to secure it in place.

The fog lifts to mist, then clears to a hot, sunny day. We arrive in Belgrade at lunchtime - A big mistake, as we end up stuck in traffic for over an hour just trying to get into town. Worth it in the end though, its good place to stretch our legs and walk around the historical fortress in the heart of town. Amazing views on top of the fortress overlooking the river and the city.  Max takes a keen interest in the WW2 tank collection nearby..

German tanks, Belgrade fortress

After lunch and a spot of a sightseeing, we jump back into the car and head for the bright lights of Nis, Serbia...

Arriving in Nis, we stop for the night at the Ambassador Hotel. A towering concrete monstrosity planted in the very heart of town back in the late 60's - These days its a bad way. In the words of the Lonely Planet guide book..."The reception walls are covered with period photos of the famous acress Elizabeth Taylor, who had the misfortune of staying here in 1971"  It doesn't say much else about the place, but that's all you would need to know.

Its a long, long way up to 'luxury' room 1408 on the 14th floor, the main lift is out of service and has been for some time.  The doors are taped up, the floor level indicator lights smashed out.  We're directed over to the service lift, which creeks and groans its way up to the top floor.

As expected, our room proved to be a 70's eastern bloc masterpiece.. Tired red carpets, sky blue tiles falling from the walls, flea bitten hand towels and crumbling window frames.  Fortunately neither of us really care about the decor, we're just glad to have somewhere to sleep at such short notice. A major bonus is that the hotel offers secure parking, with a 24hr guard on the gate.  As we park the car and start to unpack our kit, we soon have a small crowd assembled around us, some asking questions, some taking pictures but mostly just staring- Jerry is as popular as ever.
Cleaning Serbian bugs from our windows before setting off from Nis

For some strange reason, the food choice in Nis came down to a choice of three items, and three items only..  1. Cake   2. Popcorn   3. Ice Cream. We walked for a mile or so trying to find somewhere to eat, but found nothing but street after street of cake shops and ice cream booths, peppered with popcorn peddlers.  Finally we found a Mcdonalds, and headed for home.   All was good until the locals started a rave in the town square at 1am...

For all its faults, the Ambassador had quite a bit of character. As I sit here typing this from my spotless, air conditioned room at the Istanbul Holiday Inn. Theres definitely a part of me that would rather be back in the Ambassador trying to fix the shower unit with my pocket knife!

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Nurnberg to Zagreb

1050hrs and we leave Nurnberg, a lovely sunny drive through forest and mountains. The Car ’Jerry’ is coping tremendously well with the long mileage, especially considering the overall weight we must be at.  We pass a convoy of Humvee U.S military trucks, and get a thumbs up from the lead driver.

Into Austria, the land of 1,000 tunnels through a mountain - The first one was cool, the 27th one was less so.  But none the less the scenary was stunning, and from an engineering view the tunnels are pretty amazing.  Great job Austria!

Weaving through the Alps was pretty amazing, some fantastic scenary and challenging climbs for Jerry. (Pictures to follow soon)  From Austria we enter Slovenia, shortly after we're knocking on the door of Croatia..

The Croatian border formalities proved to be pretty straight forward, the Customs lady appeared to think  for just a second about asking us to remove all our kit from the car for inspection.  Seeing the mountains of junk inside the car she then thought again, laughed and asked if we had anything new. Only new items for an old car I explained, which seemed to confuse her just enough to waive us through with a grin.

We motor on into the sunset, next stop Zagreb.  The scenary turns from alpine mountains to rural farmland, and the roads become ever so slightly worse.

We arrive in Zagreb just as the sun sets. Not the easiest of cities to navigate at night, and driving can be pretty dicey at times with tram drivers and locals competing to cut you up. A very pretty city though, with some great architecture too.

As usual, Jerry proves to be a major hit with the locals. Cameras flash and people point as we make our way through the city to our hotel. Outside the Fourpoints hotel, a group of Jap tourists come rushing out the hotel lobby  to take pictures, quite entertaining.   People ask when the rest of the London to Saigon rally cars are due to arrive.   "0900 tomorrow and en-mass"  I couldnt help it...

Our hotel appears to be boarded up and shutdown....  So we try the next one in the book, which also appears to have been shutdown....It looked like we were in the dodgy side of town, I wasnt too keen on leaving Jerry to fend for himself overnight around here anyway.   At this point, a guy pulls up in a car next to us at the traffic lights and beckons me to wind down the window.

"Hey....I'm liking your car Sir, she is veeeeeey beautiful!  Heh, I tell you one thing my friend.  If I was to steal one car tonight, just one car in the whole city. I would take your car my friend! "   Is that a compliment lost in translation, or a warning to heed?... He speeds off with a cackle.  Meanwhile we turn around and book straight into the Sheraton, its great!   :)

Tune in on the 24th for the next thrilling installment - Zagreb to Sofia via Belgrade..

Tracker problems

We're having a few problems with the satellite tracker fitted to the car - Right now we're in Zagreb, Croatia. But the tracker still shows us in Germany.  We're working on this, and hope to have it sorted in the next day or so.

London to Nuremberg

Collection of passports from the Azerbaijan embassy went seamlessly, and with a full set of seven visas in our passports we were ready to go....

After a brief (lame) effort at re-packing the piles of kit in the car, we hit the road enroute Le Tunnel. Thanks to Airpets http://www.airpets.com/ for the awesome leaving party as we left.

Just two minor hiccups en-route to Folkstone - Firstly, Becky’s new diary slipped out the interior roof net, flew straight out the window and found a new home on the hard shoulder... Secondly, the heavy duty pneumatic support strut for the engine lid decided to ram the engine lid fully open on the M25.   The last thing we needed was an air brake, so the stut was unclipped and added to 'the pile' inside the car.

The tunnel and first section of the route through France and Belgium was all uneventful, a good thing. We lost count of the number of 'thumbs ups' and toots along the way, the car proved to be quite a hit with everyone.

Into Germany.....after 3 wrong turns in Bavaria, the last of which had us making a U turn in a pitch black, misty farmers field; Becky decided it was time to devise a special points system.... One point was to be awarded for each wrong turn made by the driver. Needless to say, by the time we hit Nurnburg I had a 5 point lead.

Dinner was spent at a Burger King truck stop, listening to the latest Stateside sounds broadcast by the U.S AFN (Armed Forces Network) 'Eagle' radio station.  Bizarre, but quite cool.

0150hrs After hours and hours of driving, almost all up steep hills, or so it seemed... we arrived at our hotel in Nurnberg. What a drive!

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Roofrack and final sponsor logos

Last minute welding to the roof rack was completed this weekend. We felt it needed some extra strength, so steel plates were welded along the sides and major joints triangulated.  The rack was then bolted to the roof. Although it pained me to drill holes in the roof, it was reckoned to be the safest option...Sorry car :(

Last week we received a very generous MAG donation from the founder of 'Mute' records. In return their logo was placed in pole position across the top of the bonnet. Thanks again to Daniel from Mute for a superb donation.  http://www.mute.com/

We're also proud to have CEGA Air Ambulance on board: http://www.cega-air-ambulance.com/

CEGA are maket leaders in medical repatriation, operating a fleet of well equipped Bechcraft turbo-prop airplanes from their hub at Bournemouth International airport.  Should you ever have the misfortune of being involved in an accident abroad, and require the services of an air ambulance - These guys will probably be flying you back to blighty.

Thanks to Mark at CEGA for helping us to arrange our medical insurance for the trip. Fingers crossed we don't see any of his flight crew or doctors anytime soon!...

Friday, 17 September 2010

Rolling Road run at Bob Watson Engineering

Last minute Weber adjustments + power check on Bob's famous rolling road - After a few minor tweeks to the idle jets she's running better than ever..

Thursday, 16 September 2010


A 600 mile test run in Wales ended succesfully last weekend.

True to form it rained the whole time, but it was good fun, and highlighted a few minor issues that needed attention. 

The rear screen defrost needed a tweek, and we badly needed to fit a rubbish bin inside the car.  Just two days down and we were drowning in empty coffee cups and sandwich boxes! 

Although in fairness, I'm not sure there'll be a Wild bean Cafe on every street corner in Turkmenistan...


The day was spent in London yesterday, thanks entirely to the Uzebekistan embassy.

Despite sending our passports to them over a month ago, with an expected turn around of 10 days, it turns out they had done precisely nothing with them. Twenty-seven calls to the embassy later, and I never once managed to get anything other than a "Sorry...this mailbox is full" message.  With time running low, the only option was to pay them a visit.

A chain smoking Uzbek character in the office finally located our passports amongst a pile of others, and somewhat reluctantly processed the application there and then.

This unexpected delay put our remaining visa applications off of schedule. Next up was a dash to the extremely helpful and professional Azerbaijan embassy in Kensington...The quickest they could possibly process our visa was now Wednesday 22nd, so our planned 6am departure has been bumped to 1130am.  No great hardship, and it will save us waiting three days for a visa in Tibilisi.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010