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 ( 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...

Friday, 15 October 2010

Tashkent (Uzbek) to Shymkent (Kazak)

A quick glance at the map over breakfast shows that we’re almost on top of the border crossing to Kazakstanh. Brilliant! A short hop across the border and we’ll be in Kazakstanh in no time, what could possibly go wrong…..

Outside in the car park we meet a really nice Swiss guy called Patrick. He’s on a 3 year drive around the world with his mate, their weapon of choice - A fully kitted out Nissan Patrol 4x4. They’ve just arrived in Tashkent having driven through the night from Tukmenistan. They’re shocked to see us in the little Porsche, and remark that the roads in Turkmenistan were absolutely bad enough for their 4x4, let alone one of Stuttgart’s finest! Are we crazy? Most definitely yes.

Patrick entered Turkmenistan from Iran, which he said was brilliant, something I’ve heard many times before - The hospitality of the Iranians appears to be legendary. Unfortunately whilst staying at a 4* hotel in Tehran their vehicle was stolen from a secure hotel car park, right in front of a surveillance camera. Luckily it was recovered three days later, albeit minus its contents….. I’ve become a little complacent with the security of Jerry of late, I heed this as a warning and have been fitting the steering wheel lock and removing the rotor arm over night ever since…

We take some pictures, exchange contact details and hit the road. Patrick, if you’re reading this, I wish you all the best with your trip, its going to be brilliant - You can follow Patrick’s progress at (Select the Nissan Patrol.)

After just 45 minutes on the road we arrive at the border with Khazakstan, only to find that its closed to vehicles. Doh! We stop a local and ask where the next nearest border is, she explains that its back the way we came, about 70km South of Almaty. If you’ve been keeping tabs on our satellite tracker page, you will have seen our track double back on itself for a few hundred KM, now you know why…

We get completely lost trying to find the Kazak border and end up stopping to ask about 20 different people on the outskirts of Tashkent. Eventually we figure out the way, and three hours later we’re at the Yellama border, a small and fairly quiet crossing South West of Tashkent.

The border guards are fairly helpful and for some reason give us priority treatment over the locals. One of the customs guys takes a shine to the car and goes out of his way to guide us through the numerous hoops, even teaching Bex the verbal commands used to control the sniffer dog. After a car X-ray, we’re unleashed on the Kazakstanh highway.

Roads are good and we make some great progress - The scenary appears very different from Uzbekistan, vast open spaces stretch as far as the eye can see. A whole lot of nothing, and it reallys is nothing….With 2.7 million KM of land, most of which is completely empty, this place ranks as the 9th largest country in the world.

The long days of driving without breaks are starting to take their toll, so we decide to split the Kazak legs down from two to three shorter hops. Our first stop is Shymkent, a small city famous for smelting lead, making cigarettes and refining oil. As usual we arrive fairly late, so we waste no time in parking up the car and walking into town for beers…

Bukhara (Uzbek) to Tashkent (Uzbek)

We leave Bukhara, perhaps a little sorry that we didn’t have more time to explore what looks like a very interesting little town.

Approaching the city of Samarkand we begin to run low on gas, the yellow warning lamp flickers into life with each sharp corner. We’ve timed it about right, we should easily be able to make it into the town, and we still have a can of 91 Octane strapped to the roof, just in case…

We pass a garage but it appears to be shut, then another and another…Each one is either closed or is dispensing LPG gas only .We pull into an open looking garage and proceed to execute our now well rehearsed charade - I ask the attendant for “Benzine” and Bex scribes 96 in the thick dust layering the screen. Hah! 96 Octane…?..Those were the days, no chance...

The attendant speaks a few words of English and says "no fuel, Sunday" - Is it really Sunday already? Our days have long since merged into an endless cycle of refuelling the car, checking into and out of hotels and talking about the state of roads, the local police and all things toilet related.

We never did find out why garages would only dispense LPG on a Sunday - Uzbekistan is a deeply religious country which may have something to do with it, or the city may simply have run out of fuel. But one thing was clear, and that was that we were running out of fuel and fast. Why is it that the little needle on the fuel gage always takes ages to move from full to nearly full, but drops like a stone from ¼ full to empty!?

I pull over and pour the reserve 4 Litre can into the car, we plan to use this to find fuel in the city - It won’t make much of a dent in the vast desert that surrounds us, so if we cant find fuel we’re here for the night.

We pull into another garage, fortunately for us the manager is there and he takes a keen interest in our car. “You have Benzine?” I ask. He laughs and says not until tomorrow. I ask why, but its lost in translation and he begins to talk about the old favourite “Mancheta Uniteee”. Just as I’d resigned myself to staying in what looks like a pretty dull city, he suddenly says “OK….For you, maximum 20 Litre”

We snap up the offer, and with 20 Litres on board (Just under a half tank) we venture out of town. By this time we’re both starving and decide to stop at a small restaurant at the side of the road - From the outside it’s a fairly unassuming place, but inside the tables are lavishly decorated with bows, flowers and finery - A little odd, but in a good way.

The owner proves to be extremely helpful and in no time his staff have whipped up a gourmet meal of our central Asian favourites : Mantee (Meat filled dumplings) Chai,(tea) nan (Flat bread) and Pomodoro (Chopped tomato salad). Bex glances outside and spots a large crowd of around fifty people gathered around Jerry - We’ve inadvertently gate crashed a local wedding reception, and the guests have just arrived. We pay the bill and make our way outside.

Everyone is all absolutely fascinated by the car and its countless handshakes and mutterings of “Assalamu aleykum” (Peace be with you). One of the faces in the crowd speaks English & explains that us arriving at their wedding reception is good luck, he asks us to stay. I spot the guy in the next car unloading dozens of cases of local Vodka, its starting to sounds like a good idea…But we still have a way to go so we make our excuses and hit the road once again.

Later than evening we arrive in the glitzy capital of Tashkent - A very smart city with towering buildings and monuments galore. We spend an hour or so trying to track down our chosen hotel. Eventually we find the location, only to find that its been closed down… Arriving in a town or city is always a headache for us, the Garmin GPS Worldmap shows only major highways and cities, so once we reach a large built up area we tend to get lost fairly quickly.

Exhausted and tired of driving, I chose the next nearest hotel and we retired for the evening. Unfortunately this turned out to be a 5 star joint, but the budget has long since been smashed so it didn’t really matter as much. Did it?! Ask me in 5 weeks time when we’ve run out of money in Laos..!

Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan

Despite the early start, I still found it very amusing that our room at Hotel Rahaat actually has its very own resident rat! Actually it looks more like a baby field mouse, it keeps peering at us from behind the wardrobe so I decide to feed it some breakfast - Iranian soft cheese, cake and coffee. It only took to the cheese and cake though…

Downstairs to Jerry and in no time we’re back on the road. Onward and upwards to Farap, the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. First of all we stop at the ancient city of Merv, a ruined city dating from the 3rd century BC.

Incredibly, despite being made of nothing more than straw and mud, the towering walls of Giaur Kala castle are still very much intact. We stop and take a quick look around, its an impressive structure and the views over the neighbouring farmland are superb. We head on to the ruined city of Erk Kala, an even older city dating back to the 6th Century BC - Structurally theres little more remaining than a 50M tall pile of earth, but the floor is absolutely littered with shards of ancient earthenware pots and the like.

Angela explains that following the Soviet invasion of Turkmenistan, this site was quickly fenced off as a Soviet military base. The Russian military carried out some basic archaeological digs, but quickly lost interest and to this day the site remains almost totally undisturbed - No doubt there a still some very interesting artefacts lurking beneath the sandy soil, just waiting to be discovered.

Back in the car and after a brief lunch stop near to Turkmanabat, we arrive at the Farap border crossing. Angela does a great job of making our formal exit from Turkmenistan as painless as possible, she accompanies us through customs and we’re out in less than 10 minutes. We’re both very sad to say goodbye to Angela, who has become a good friend in just three days - We exchange contact details, bid farewell and head off to the Uzbekistan border.

After the usual palaver at the Uzbek border, we’re in without excessive delay. I’d heard some horror stories about this crossing point, but the staff proved to be very helpful and it was all quite painless. Bored, I flick through our Lonely Planet guide book and stumble across a small snippet of extra info on the ferry that we took from Baku to Turkmenbashi - Apparantly one of them sank in 2002, killing all 51 people on board...

Uzbekistan roads prove to be a whole lot better than Turkmen ones, but once again we find ourselves heading into the darkness as we motor onwards to our night stop.

Several incident free hours later we arrive at the very picturesque town of Bukhara, where coach loads of German and French tourists seem absolutely aghast that we’ve driven here from England. By the time we check into hotel Asia, every restaurant in town is shut and we’re starving…. We find a cab and using two of the six local words we know “Shashlik” (kebab) and “Piva” (beer) we’re whisked out of town to the cabies favourite late night beer and food joint.

We make it back to the hotel for midnight, another long day of 12+ hours on the road. We’re both looking forward to our scheduled 5 days off in Almaty, Kazakhstan - A good chance for some R&R before we hit China on the 18th

Ashgabat to Mary

We spend the morning carrying out a little maintenance to the car - The ignition points have magically closed up a little and need re-setting,. Also, the constantly deteriorating quality of fuel means that each day I need to re-set the timing, which is running more and more retarded to keep the ‘pinking’ at bay.

Meanwhile, our guide Angela spends the morning carrying out our 'OVR' registration with the immigration police. Yet more forms and rubber stamps, the country is very secretive and appears to be fairly paranoid about foreign visitors…The previous evening we were told how our visa application would have gone through five different national security departments before being approved... Its common place for visa applications, especially those from Indian and Russian nationals, to be denied for no apparent reason.

The drive takes us onwards through the Karakum desert, past countless camels and an endless vista of sand dunes. Strange looking miniature straw fences jut out from the dunes, the latest effort at preventing the shifting sands from engulfing the road - We're told how just a few years ago two school buses collided in this area, around 50 people died in the tragedy which was partly due to narrowed lanes from blowing sand.

Its hot and the road starts to make its way up hill, an incline that goes on and on and on…..Two hours later and we’re still going up! Its the hill from hell that just keeps on giving… But with the auxiliary oil cooler fans on, the engine maintains a healthy temperature and eventually we reach the summit for lunch.

It’s a long drive, but despite our best efforts at avoiding night drives, we eventually find ourselves once again heading into the abyss. The roads once again start to deteriorate and we’re back to the Porsche destruction derby….. The car crashes and bangs its way through countless craters and troughs. Our headlights are no match for the swirling clouds of dust and sand, it’s just a case of point, shoot and hope for the best.

All of a sudden there’s a serious BANG! The car decelerates and swerves right, stunned we pull over to the side of the road. Right behind another car that has also just driven straight into the 2ft pile of tarmac left in the middle of the road by workmen…It had dried rock hard in the sun, Jerry had clipped the side of it with its offside front torsion bar cover.

A quick peak under the front with my trusty Maglite showed one side of the front suspension caked in concrete and tarmac, I walked around to the rear of the car where one of the rear light units was found dangling by its earth lead, completely ejected from its housing by the force of the impact. This wasnt the time or the place to be fixing things properly, so I set about duct taping the light unit back in place.

The other car appeared to have come off slightly worse, its engine wouldn’t start and its occupants were pretty peeved about the whole incident. Satisfied that we’d had a lucky escape, I turned the key only to hear the rapid whine of our high torque starter but no ignition….After running some basic checks on the engine, I find that the force of the impact had jolted the distributor, which I now leave only hand friction tight for ease of adjustment, to an excessively retarded position. I re-set it, turn the key and we’re off, this time more slowly.

An hour later we arrive at Mary (pronounced Mahreeee and nothing to do with a Lady). it’s a busy town, notable for its lack of interesting sights…Just an endless stream of HGV lorries making their way to the Uzbek and Iranian borders. We check into our hotel “Rahaat” and after a dinner of vodka and kebabs, hit the sack.

Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat

I wake up and decide to read a little more from the Lonely Planet guide book “Be aware that all top range hotel rooms are bugged, as are many offices, restaurants and anywhere that foreigners meet. Reserve sensitive conversations….” Oooops, I probably should have read that before last night…

Feeling more than a little worse for wear following our Vodka session the night before, we make our way downstairs to check out. A Kiwi oil worker dressed in reflective work gear approaches us “Hey! Are you the nut jobs driving the Porsche out in the parking lot from London to Veeeetnam?” Yep, that would be us….. “Its great, I love it! Make sure you get yourself some thermal underwear for China, you’re gonna freeze your nuts off! Its gonna start getting cold around here soon, I’m on the next flight home. Good luck, you’ll need it!”

We jump in the car and head for the desert. Our first stop is for fuel, incredibly cheap fuel. 40 Litres of Turkmenistans finest 95 (80?!) octane, sets me back a shade over £4. Cheaper than water, result. Unfortunately I think it may well have been partly water, because this was to be the start of yet more fuel quality issues…

I couldn’t believe how cheap the fuel was, but our guide explained that up until fairly recently the typical cost was….Get ready for it……$0.02c a Litre. A shade over 1p.

Talking of cheap stuff, here’s an interesting little fact about Turkmenistan….The country is awash with natural gas, because of this the president kindly supplies it free of charge to all homes. But, the country is still very poor - So, to save the cost of a match, people will leave their gas hob burning 24/7 ! Brilliant.

The roads start off great, but as we head out through the sands they turn incredibly bad. The Russians used a very soft pure tarmac to surface the road 40 years ago - Forty years of HGV use later, deep ruts have been ploughed through the tarmac, making the road look more like a ploughed field….Some of it is beyond words, so I’ll just post some photos up - This drive was like a Porsche destruction derby. My biggest concern was bottoming out the underside of the car, specifically the engine, on the peaks of the ridges.

We pass a huge beer factory which appears closed, Angela explains that it was once a thriving company producing some of the countries best beer. One day the police arrived and arrested the owner, he’s never been seen since. I ask why, but she explains that you never know why, in Turkmenistan people just disappear…

Despite the countless pitfalls, after eleven hours of smashing up the car on insanely bad roads, we arrive safely in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.

Just short of the city centre, we stop at a stable yard which specialises in breeding the famous ‘Akhal Teke’ horses. These are considered to be the original horse from which all modern breeds descend. I’m no expert on horses, but these really do look entirely different from your average nag. Narrow bodies and heads, long legs, elongated necks and skin so thin you can see the blood beneath it.

The owner is a friendly chap, he asks one of the staff to parade a few of his best horses out in front of us, whilst we make short work of the green tea and dried dates on offer. Becky, a professional rider, jumps straight onto one of the more lively horses and speeds off into the desert, hot on the heals of the yard manager who is riding a famous Ashgabat based race horse. I head back to the car to make yet more minor adjustments to the timing.

With oil and gas prices rocketing year on year, this poor country is beginning to become increasingly wealthy - However…its somewhat eccentric leader decided to use this new found wealth in a rather unusual way. Perhaps it may have been a good idea to start at the bottom - New roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, maybe even a non-corrupt police force?

No….Instead, he’s ploughed hundreds of millions of US Dollars into transforming the capital into a perfectly manicured, OCD clean, glittering jewel of marble and glass. Even dirty cars are illegal in tinsel town, it’s a $50 instant fine….His latest projects include a $63 million artificial river through the city, $17 million for a library in the shape of a book and countless fountains, large sculptures and palaces.

Another ’interesting’ project was to build a 37km concrete staircase into the side of the nearby Kopet Dag mountains, known as the “Walk of Health”. Once a year, the president required all civil servants to walk to the top dressed in suits and ties, he would see them off at the bottom, then fly to the top by helicopter to check they made it OK.

Ashgabat, a new city surrounded by crumbling Soviet infrastructure - Its ironic that you cant actually reach it by road without almost destroying your car!

We check into our hotel and make our way to the English Bar - A very cool little place just down the road from our hotel. Its full of expats and we enjoy the evening sampling local beers alongside staff from the nearby U.S Embassy.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

NEW! Trip photo album now live..

Into the 'Stans...

1030hrs: We’re off! The engines have fired up and they’re dragging the anchor back in.

We slowly motor our way into port - Because the ship is carrying train carriages in the hold, docking is a precision affair. The ship has to line up the fixed train tracks in the hold, with the tracks on the mainland. The Captain does a good job of lining us up, the final stages of docking uses a pilot tug to push the ship sideways into the port.

Its here that we learn our delay wasn’t due to high volumes of traffic, but high winds rolling down from the steep terrain surrounding the port. If the winds are blowing in a certain direction and speed, the effect they have on the ship exceeds the power available from the tug boats and its impossible to dock.

The number 2 comes over and explains there’s a wait for customs to do their thing before we can leave the ship. He spots Becky sat on her bag in a corridor looking half asleep and cold, he promptly beckons us into his cabin for tea and biscuits. Very nice too!

Eventually its time to go and we make our way down to the cargo hold to find Jerry. On the docks, a six man team of pretty stern looking soldiers wearing camoflage and wide brimmed boonie hats, are evenly spaced along each side of the dock side.

We fire up Jerry and motor out, the best part of being last to enter the hold is being the first to leave it! I park the car on the docks and walk over to the office building - Suddenly I hear a lady calling out, “Hey Max!” it’s our mandatory Turkmenistan guide, Angela.

I mentally prepare myself for the infamously complicated arrival paperwork, and walk into the customs hall to meet Angela. A Turkmen national, she speaks both fluent English and Russian, the main language spoken throughout the ‘Stans - This was to prove invaluable right from the word go.

Problem 1: Passport control….We hand our passports over to the passport guy for him to fix our visas into. He jabbers something to Angela, who quickly explains that Beckys passport doesn’t have a free page in her passport for the full page visa sticker. Uh oh….some problems are insurmountable, and this could be one of them. I couldnt believe it, I'd calculated how many pages we'd need for each country, then left another 5 spare. It turned out that Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Turkey had been randomly stamping new pages at each border....

Fortunately after 40 minutes of waiting and wondering, the guy asked where Antigua is - I explain, but he’s never heard of it. Two minutes later the Antigua stamp has been replaced with a shiny new visa sticker! Happy days. This problem is ongoing though, we still need two more free pages for visas, one for Laos, the other for Vietnam. This could require some creative thinking further down the line…

Problem 2: Next stop is the border police. Two plain clothes guys in a side office, one old and one young, both very smart with shiny shoes. Top tip, beware the plain clothes officials wearing shiny shoes… They’re usually the ones high up the command chain, firmly holding all of the cards…

The elderly of the two says very little, but sits at the back of the room watching, listening to every word. He nods to his junior who calmly and quietly pronounces “Porsche? My friend, sportscars are illegal in Turkmenistan” Uh oh… Surely this is some mistake, I turn to Angela for some re-assurance that she’ll be able to sort things out but even she appears concerned…

Thirty minutes later there’s no change, rules are rules and theres nothing they can do to help. I start planning a re-route, the only option open to us would be to head back on the boat to Baku, then take a ferry from Baku to Aktau, Kazakstanh. This would be a costly exercise in terms of both time and money. I reckoned on an extra $600 and a week of travelling.

Angela tries her best to reason with the two guys, she explains that the car isn’t a Sportscar. After all, theres no mention of sportscar anywhere on the registration document… After presenting her case to them, the younger guy starts to study every inch of the registration document for any sign of the word Sportscar.

In the meantime, Alec, another tour company representative comes into the room. He speaks with both guys to check on the problem, he’s never heard of this new law and sceptical, asks to see the rule book. Five minutes later he returns solemn faced….”Sorry guys, I checked the book and its a genuine new law” He then explains to the police that an Azeri Prince who was gifted a new Aston Martin last by the British Government last year (!) recently drove it through with no problems, but this falls on deaf ears.

The police say they will refer the case to HQ in Ashgabat, but its unlikely we’ll be granted permission. In the meantime, we’ll have to leave the car in a compound at the docks.

Everyone leaves the room for a cigarette, all but me and the younger of the two officers, he turns to me and quietly says “Mr Levell….you have a problem, I can ‘fix’ your problem. If I fix your problem, how much will you give me?” An offer of $50 is accepted, he immediately issues an entry permit and starts preparing the reams of paperwork. One hour and $400 in permits later and we’re ready to leave the port.

The initial plan was to drive straight to Ashgabat, a hardcore drive on dangerously poor desert roads littered with camels. Yes, camels! Alec explains that the drive is bad enough in the day, at night it’s a death wish. We’re guaranteed to either crash, wreck the car or both. Its getting late, so we decide to stay the night and make an early start in the morning.

That night is spent with Angela and Alec enjoying some outstanding local Shaslik kebabs, washed down with some top of the range local Vodka (£2 a bottle) and beer. Four bars later we hit the sack, entirely unprepared for our early start the next day....

Boring snoring...

Well, another decent nights sleep, but still no sign of anything happening anytime soon…More Russian blurb over the tanoy every now and then - Dinner is served or abandon ship, who knows!?

I fired up the GPS earlier on, it shows that we’re anchored inside a huge natural harbour created by a curved spit of land surrounding Turkmenbashi (AKA Krasnovodsk) port. We’re approximately 12km from land. This sheltered mooring helps explain why the sea is near enough dead calm now.

0900hrs - Ventured out of the cabin for a walk around the deck and to see what’s occurring. As usual the place is deserted. The canteen is shut, so there’s no chance of breakfast. Frustratingly the staff canteen upstairs seems to be working 24hrs a day, churning out plates full of delicious smelling food and fresh bread for the crew...

We had some of our field rations for lunch yesterday, so we’re now running low on supplies. Just a foil packet of chicken curry and one of lemon cake with custard left. Their quite tasty but not great when cold, we’re also down to one half litre bottle of water. Theres lots more on the car, but I’m not sure its possible to access the hold whilst at sea.

1200hrs- Two of the crew are fishing off the side of the boat, they can’t catch anything though. Not surprising seeing as the Caspian is one of the worlds most poluted waterways…

1300hrs - Bex made friends with an elderly Turkmen woman yesterday. Today we bumped into the lady again, she was waiting by the canteen doors which were still firmly shut - A large soup ladle jammed between the door handles on the inside. Our new friend was soon joined by four others, they were all hungry and decided it was time for the crew to get off their butts and open the canteen for us.

The lady disappears off shouting something, then returns smiling and gestures for us to come back in 15 minutes. We walk back to our cabin, shortly after she knocks at our cabin door and gestures its food time. Quite a result as we’re both starving.

We dine with five elderly Turkmen women, they organise an order of pasta with some form of unidentifiable protein on the top of it. Delicious though, I think it was tuna, or chicken, Bex put her money on either lamb or camel! Our friend explains that the kitchen are running low on food, seems this delay wasn’t expected.

The conversation comes around to payment for food. Well, I say conversation, but seeing as nobody understands English it’s the usual comedy charrades effort, which can be quite hard work at times. Apparently there is no payment, its supposed to be free…Just what I thought.

Managed to buy a bottle of soft drink to take back to our cabin, so we’re now on the “Gulustan” pear drink, which tastes like liquid pear drops. Hopefully we don’t have to spend another night on bored. Pun intended.

Our Turkmenistan guide has been waiting at the docks for us since yesterday at 9am, we have to pay $100 for each day she has to wait for us, so this delay could also prove quite costly.

1430hrs - Cabin fever. Man, I’m bored, bored, bored. Surely we cant be holed up in this ship for another night? It must be costing the operator quite a bit to keep it moored up offshore. The whisper quiet diesel generator is running day and night to supply power, and we were told earlier that the skeleton crew for the ship is a minimum of 30. So someone must be paying heavily for this delay….Hopefully they’re working to get it sorted.

1800hrs: Watch another DVD on the laptop then head outside for a wander. We bump into a sailor who confirms we will indeed be spending yet another night on the prison ship….AAggghhhhhh!!!! I call my dad on the satellite phone to inform him of the delay.

1900hrs: Back to the canteen for dinner and they’re definitely running out of food - We each get given a pile of boiled lentils with a small spoonful of mashed up meat on the top. Filling but not great….The Captain wanders into the room with one of the crew “Captain asks who you were speaking with on satellite phone?” I explain I was talking with my dad in England. The crew translates this to the Captain who gives me an old fashioned look. Without saying another word they both walk out of the room…

MS MERCURI - Hurry up and wait...

Well, it has to be said we both had a great nights sleep - The Caspian Sea had a light to moderate swell this morning causing us both to stagger about like a pair of drunks which was pretty funny. The bathroom door has also been opening and closing on its own all night, and the wooden cabin furniture creaking with each pitch and roll.

We arrived approximately 5 miles offshore from Turkmenbashi port at 1500 hrs this afternoon. Waiting, wondering and waiting some more… The ship dropped anchor shortly after we arrived, and we’ve been wondering what’s happening ever since. Nobody speaks any English, but as far we can make out we’re waiting for a slot to enter the port.

Every few hours a stern sounding Russian voice announces something over the cabin loud speaker, but we have no clue what its saying. Could be the lottery results for all we know! We have enough rations and bottled water in our rucksack for another day.

1900hrs - The passengers cafeteria just opened up downstairs for the first time. A moody Russian waitress tried her best to ignore us both, but eventually gave in and sauntered over to our table. Food! We get a plate of deep fried chicken, hand cut chips and local bread, just what the doctor didn’t order but delicious all the same. We spend the next hour sat in the canteen drinking a full pot of local tea trying to kill some time. I ask how much, first she says nothing, then a chef asks for $10. I pay and they all laugh, it goes straight into his pocket.

2100 hrs - Looks like we’re staying another night on board, no great hardship, it’s a good chance to kick back and relax.

23:00hrs - OK...Boredom is definitely kicking in now. We know our way around the ship fairly well, but I’m yet to organise a visit to the engine rooms and bridge. Tested the satellite phone on the roof of the ship, works perfectly.

Good night!

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Kazak & Chinese governments ban blogs !

So...just as we get some good internet access, I find out that the Kazakstanh government has blocked the entire countries access to Apparantly this is also the case in China - When the government owns the countries sole internet server, they can do whatever they like. But there are still ways and means..

I've found a loophole which lets me post basic text uploads but no photos, I still need to work on a way around that. I dont really understand how the loophole works, its a service offered by a U.S company "".

I think they access the internet from the U.S, then forward the pages to me automatically, whilst also disguising the identity of my computer...Sounds a bit technical but it seems to work OK, and the £15 subscription was pretty reasonable.

So - No thanks at all to the Kazak government, who have also taken it upon themselves to ban the websites of all opposition political parties. Nice touch Kazakstanh, Borat would be proud!

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Blog update

We've had absolutely no net access since our last posting, the internet appears to be almost illegal in Turkmenistan.

Anyway, we've just arrived in Tashkent, Uzbekistan so I can finally start to upload some new (old)blogs using our hotel internet service. I also have some cool photos to accompany the text, but these will be added over the next couple of days. They take ages to upload, the internet is really slow here..

All is going to plan and amazingly we're exactly on schedule!  Bex is now fully recovered from her stomach bug, and Jerry is in top form.  Keep checking back for more new blogs over the next 24hrs.  :)

"The nose that knows.."

Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan

We wake up and head over to the breakfast room. Sat at our breakfast table are a Swiss financier and a young French lady. Banter quickly turns to our trip and Georgia - The Swiss guy asks if we had any problems with the police in Azerbaijan.. I fill him in with the gory details. And Georgia? No, not a single problem with the police.

He goes on to explain that Georgia used to have a very bad reputation for corrupt cops hassling people. Apparently as soon as the current president came to power, he set about sacking the entire traffic police and re-hiring new people who were very well paid. The transformation has been amazing and his plan worked perfectly. Its amazing what you can learn over a full English breakfast!

We head outside to explore downtown Baku to search for the notorious ferry port and ticket office. The city itself is very smart and clean - The pockets of the upper classes here have been swelled by the relatively recent oil boom. They obviously have money to burn, and the shops are ready to help them burn it. Designer label outlets line both sides of the street, and enroute to the docks we pass a new Bentley showroom…

There’s a new paved sidewalk under construction down at the sea front. It winds its way along the sea front through lush green gardens peppered with benches and popcorn vendors. It’s a pleasant stroll to the docks where we find the entrance to the ticket office, a small unmarked door at the side of a narrow alleyway. The clerk is out to lunch, but we hang around and sure enough he eventually makes an appearance.

He speaks no English but gestures the ship is leaving tonight, and that we should return at 8pm that evening to arrange the paperwork. A definite stroke of luck, there is no schedule for our ship which often runs only every 3rd or 4th day, we could have ended up waiting the rest of the week in Baku.

The ship itself is an ageing Russian cargo ship, operating a freight service between Baku and Turkmenbashi Port, Turkmenistan. Its not designed to ferry passengers, but a crew cabin can be hired for $20 or so.

When I woke up this morning I had the dreaded stomach twinges, these lead on to frequent loo stops….Could I have contracted Rebeccas dodgy stomach illness!? With the lengthy ferry trip looming and our next 10 days to be spent in the bad lands of the ’Stans, I decided it would be best to check us into the best medical facility in town for a once over. We jumped in a cab & headed over to the Baku “Mediclub” where we made an appointment to speak with an English speaking doctor.

The hospital was more like a luxury hotel than the military field hospital we experienced in Georgia! Our doctor came out to meet us, I explained our problem, he confirmed that becoming ill in Tukmenistan would be less than ideal & came up with a brilliant plan. I was to have a blood test, poo test, ultra sound and general check up. For Bex he would check her existing prescription and carry out an ultra sound test on her stomach.

They ran the tests as high priority and within an hour we’d both recived the all clear. As a precautionary measure I was also prescribed three different types of drugs, which he assured me would almost definitely fix me up. The results of more involved tests would be emailed to me in a few days time, great service!

Boosted by our results we went straight to the nearest Kebab house for a late lunch. In hindsight, the chilli donor kebab & lager probably wasn’t the smartest of moves...

Down at the docks we started the agonisingly protracted process of buying a ticket and getting customs clearance for the car - As you might imagine, this wasn’t the easiest of things to arrange at midnight in pitch black docks, especially when the only spoken language is Russian.

I use some dead time to clean the air filter elements on the carbs which are now black with dust and dirt - This draws a small crowd of friendly locals who seem utterly bewildered by our choice of car. “Misooobishi cruiser, good!” “Porscha mashin, no good!”. 

Later on I find one person that speaks some English, he points me towards the Customs office and we chat briefly. Suddenly a body builder type chap walks into the room - The guy leans over and in a hushed voice says “ Him, my brother. Him Chechen rebel fighter” .Gulp. I make my excuses and head back to the car.

Five hours later and we board the good ship “Ms Mercuri” for our voyage to Turkmenistan. Jerry is parked in the cargo hold, sandwiched between two lines of train carriages that were shunted in by a pair of knackered Russian trains an hour or so before.

We made our way up the gangway and into the ship, before being shown to our crew quarters. At the booking office we’d opted for the more expensive officers quarters. A pretty good room complete with ensuite vacuum flush toilet & shower, bunk beds and an opening window. It shows its age and stinks pretty badly, but the bathroom is a life saver and its actually pretty comfortable. Bex said it reminds her of her horsebox living area.

We spend that evening exploring the very large ship which is deserted all but about 10 passengers. At 1am we sail off into the night, destination Turkmenbashi. I hope their radar isn’t as rusty as the ship…!

Georgia to Azerbaijan

The road out of Tbilisi heads up into the surrounding hills as it snakes its way to the Azerbaijan border. The scenery changes quite dramatically from urban sprawl to a limitless vista of baron, scorched central Asian "steppe".   Becky spots a cowboy at the side of the road..

Soon enough we arrive at the Georgian border, once again the police are helpful and friendly. Everything new in this country is modelled and styled very much on the U.S, right down to the police uniforms. Interestingly some of the guards wear U.S pattern camouflage clothing, others U.S styled police shirts. All carry U.S made Colt firearms and wear baseball caps. I have no doubt this is intended on some level to highlight the countries Western allegiance to neighbouring Russia…

We joke with the guard on the final barrier as he tells us to prepare ourselves for a very different attitude in Azerbaijan. “What can I say? Some people like the West….Some don’t. Good luck guys. Remember, just be patient!” He taps the roof of the car, hands me my passport and we’re off. I ask for permission to snap a picture. “Sure!”

The difference between Georgia and Azerbaijan was quite astonishing. As we queue for the Azerbaijan border, stern looking border agents dressed in Russian urban camouflage with large peaked caps stare distrustfully at us. One guard walks past and sarcastically shouts “Hey England, America, our friends! Welcome in Georgia not Azerbaijan!” A second guy laughs and they both walk off.

It was right about now that I noticed people checking out my shorts…A pretty standard pair of khaki cotton shorts, they weren’t exactly garish. I then noticed that despite the scorching hot weather, everyone else was wearing trousers. Hmmmmm, something was up. I picked up my trusty Lonely Planet guide book and leafed through to the section on clothing…… “Wearing of shorts is considered to be mildly offensive by the local population…“ DOH! Great move Max. I did think about changing into trousers but figured getting semi-naked at the border post probably wouldn’t go down too well either.

Its probably boring to read about the details of getting through the process, so I’ll just highlight some of the more interesting points - In reality I guess the fact that I’m driving a Porsche doesn’t really work in my favour in some of these places (!)
$50 pocket money to the border agent to get the car through - In fairness once again this proved to be money well spent. The entry process is hell, and he smoothed things along where possible.

One stage of the entry process requires a guy to transfer some basic details from a form onto a computer. The data entry guy sat at his desk playing a game on his phone for 90 minutes, whilst I and another 20 or so drivers sat there waiting. Every now and then he’d put the phone down and type in one or two words using only one finger and at a painfully slow speed, then start playing the game again with a grin. If anyone asked anything he’d ignore them. Unbelievable! After waiting here for 90 minutes, just 3 or 4 of the drivers had left with their papers stamped. Just when I was about to walk out, the guy that I’d paid $50 to earlier on came into the room looking for me. He shouted at the guy on the phone and I was out in less than a minute.

Azerbaijan had a civil war with a neighbouring Negron in the not too distant past - One border guard marched up to the car whilst I was queuing, he spotted the Lonely Planet guide book on the drivers seats and asked to see it. Obviously familiar with the book, he leafed immediately to the section on ***** ripped the whole chapter out and walked off! Quite funny.
In due course we make it into Azerbaijan. Out on the open road and its great to be moving again - We pass through a Police checkpoint, but the cops blow a whistle and we’re flagged down. The cop walks up to the car “Radarrrrr speed, too much. Radarrrr” He’s jovial and we both know I need to pay to get going again, I wasn’t speeding. $20 later and we’re back enroute.

Twenty minutes later and blue lights flash up ahead. Same story, different face. The Police here have a fleet of brand new, gleaming white BMW 3-Series cars - They’re on every street corner and seem to just cruise about shouting at people via a loud speaker bolted to the roof. “Speeding. Radarrrrr $50” I manage to negotiate down to $30 and we’re off.

Another twenty minutes later, blue lights again. At this point I’m getting pretty pissed off, its becoming a joke - I video the guy, at least I’ll get something good for the blog out of this! At this rate I’ll be broke before we make it to Baku.

The wise words of the Georgian border guard echo in my mind and I decide to bite my lip. I calmly explain to the cop that we’ve already been stopped for money twice. He doesn’t care. “Seat belt. $50” I explain that we both had belts on. And walk back to the car to show him Becky, who still has her belt on. “Seatbelt, $50. Now” I refuse to pay, and he gives me the option of paying $50 now, or $150 in Baku when we get there.

Great I thought, I’ll go for the Baku option. Then just jump on the ferry boat to Turkmenistan and you can stick your fine. He then went on to explain that they keep my driving licence until payment……I negotiate to $20 pocket money and we’re off.

The car is still running great and despite some high temperatures its keeping cool. We motor on towards Baku, a grand total of 14 hours later we make it…

The majority of roads from the border to Baku were rough , some were dirt. But as you get to within 10km or so of Baku, things start to transform. Roads become new, then cats eyes & street lighting appear out of nowhere. Cresting a hill, the capital itself comes into a view - A vast, wealthy metropolis of grand marble buildings, spotless streets with ornate fountains and delicately paved walkways. The oil boom has paid dividends here and the powers that be seem keen to flaunt it - The feel is similar to that of Dubai in places.

Seemingly every other car is a new BMW or Mercedes - A brand new Porsche Cayenne GTS special edition screams passed us with the windows down and music blaring. All four occupants stick their head out the window cheering as they pass, they’re all about 17 years of age…

Using the now preferred tactic of hiring a cab to lead the way to our hotel, we check into the very nice “Azcot Hotel” a renovated mansion in the heart of town. Time for some well deserved sleep….

Tbilisi hospital...

The Palace Hotel, 1am. Still experiencing bad stomach pains, I ask Becky if she would like to see a doctor. No, she thinks she’ll be OK.

4am - On goes the bedroom light. “ I need to see a Doctor.... now!”

We make our way back to reception and ask the receptionist how we can arrange a doctor call. They set about calling an ambulance, definitely better to be safe than sorry. Bex takes a seat and I pick up a copy of the “Georgia Times”.
Civil Georgia: An explosive device went off at about 1am on Wednesday in a suburb of Tbilisi, about 100 Metres from the U.S Embassy building, police said. No one was injured. police destroyed with water canon a second explosive device found in the same site…….Police declined to reveal the type of explosive used, or any other details relating to the incident”

Feeling even more uneasy, I read on....Another article has some really interesting facts on Georgias economy:
 “In august 2010, the average wage of a two person family was defined as $103 USD” I knew the country was poor, but that came as quite a shock to me.  Anyway, back to Becky.

The reception doors open and in step two female paramedics. After much poking and prodding, they decide to take her back to see a doctor. They proceed to put an I.V fluid shunt in her arm and walk her outside to the waiting ambulance. The next scene was straight out of a comedy film, but at the time it didn’t do much to quell our growing anxiety… !

Becky lays down on the stretcher in the back of the ambulance, the nurse plumbs in a bottle of I.V saline solution. I slam the sliding door, and we’re off…..Or not. The driver turns the key, a sluggish turn over and then a clicking noise. The battery is flat.

Embarrassed looking nurses call for a second vehicle, meanwhile I walk over to the driver and gesture that we bump start it. Both nurses plus me and the driver push the ambulance like crazy, the driver jumps in and the ageing Mercedes rattles into life with a cloud of black smoke.

The Docs surgery is in a bad way, rusting metal gates hang loosely from their hinges and the whole facility looks shot. After more proding, a sleepy Russian doctor pronounces “Stomak infecty” he speaks no other English . We jump back in the ambulance and proceed to Tbilisi general hospital.

Not quite so bad as the first place but definitely bad enough…Hard to summarise but I guess it was reminiscent of a 1950’s Russian hospital on a bad day. An elderly Russian doctor completes the necessary paperwork, confirms the diagnosis and we make our way to the blood test room. You can probably guess what it was like. A bucket of a strange looking. stale purple fluid sits in the corner of the room... The pungent smell of stale bleach lingers in the air.

Upstairs and to bed. I spend the following two days and nights shuttling between the hospital and our hotel. The hospital provides no food or water, and incredibly no soap or loo roll. So I head out in the day time to collect provisions and clothes from our $140 a night empty hotel room, then spend the night in the bed next to Becky.

But the beds are comfortable and one of the nurses supplies me with a course Russian army blanket, it actually proves to be quite a comfortable stay. If only they cleaned the two hospital toilets more than once a week….Especially considering we were in the “Infectious Disease Research Hospital” or CRAP for short.

The horror of those loos, I was convinced I would emerge from my two night stay in a worse state than Becky!
But all things considered Becky continues to make good progress. Two days, six bags of saline solution a two bags of 5% Glucose Infusion later and she’s up and about. Unfortunately nobody in the hospital speaks any English so it’s a constant battle to gleam any  information from the staff. I decide to call CEGA air ambulance, our medical insurance company. A very professional sounding chap answers the phone and they’re straight on the case. An outstanding firm!

Meanwhile, I’ve made a new friend in town. George the cab driver .He speaks a little English and seems to be a good egg, with genuine concern for Beckys welfare. I take down his mobile number, anytime I need a cab ride to the shops or hotel he’s there in 15 minutes flat. It sounds ridiculous, but when nobody speaks any English and even the alphabet is different, this sort of help is invaluable.

Having access to a translator of sorts I decide to use some of the downtime to investigate the suspension problem with the car. I explain the problem to George who immediately shouts “Autoservis!”. Back at the hospital, we’re now friends with our Russian Doctor and one of the nurses, they’re taking good care of Becky who after 3 days is now keen to leave. A lasting memory of the hospital will be the constant smell of cigarette smoke, visitors and Doctors alike all smoke constantly inside the building.

The Doc prescribes a bag of pills, we pay our hospital bill (Less than £100 all in) and we’re off. I must say that despite the state of the hospital itself, the staff were all really friendly and helpful. Our Doctor was a great guy and went out of his way to keep an extra eye on Becky. Doc, if you’re reading this, cut back on the smoking !

I drop Bex back at the hotel and head off with George to the Autoservis centre. I expected a pretty ropey back street garage, but instead we arrive at a superb and very large 15 bay car service facility - A spotlessly clean and very professional “Tageta Motors”.

As soon as we pull up most of the mechanics down tools and walk over to check out the car. They love it and it’s the usual thumbs up from everybody. The manager comes over and we chat. He explains that they’re already a MAN truck and OPEL main agent, and that Porsche Stuttgart had been over to inspect the facility with a view to making it a Porsche approved garage in 2011. Great choice George!

I explain the problem to the mechanics using George as translator. I already know the problem is down to a spacer in the shock absorber strut, and set about showing the guys what to do. They machine a spacer from a piece of steel, fit it to the shocker housing and we’re all done. The manager brings over two large Tageta Motors stickers which now sit proudly on the bonnet.

Meanwhile CEGA medical call me from the U.K. They’ve spoken to our Russian Doctor, he explains that the problem was due to a bacterial infection of the stomach and that the drugs should cure the problem. Very kindly he offered to call the hospital again next week to get the last of the test results, then call me with the info. Superb service, thanks Felix!
I make my way back to the hotel in a ‘clonk free’ 912, and bid farewell to George. Bex is looking great so we head out for dinner at a local restaurant. Fortunately they have a micro brewery in site, I feel duty bound to try out the special dark ale….Great stuff! J

Turkey to Tbilisi

We make a late start out of our hotel in Trabzon. Bex seems to have become weaker overnight and finds it a struggle to carry her bags back to the car. But after numerous prods with a sharp stick and some light verbal harassment, she picks up her bags and stumbles onwards. (Ok, ok….I carry the bags and she strolls to the car park)

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Medical medleys and other setbacks

Please standby for the next blog updates, we've had a few setbacks since the last posting and now we're struggling to find net access. Until the full blown story gets posted up, heres a brief summary of what's fallen off the car, and us, since we last posted...

1. Becky spent three days in Tbilisi hospital following her stomach illness....(It never did get better)  She's well and truly on the mend now though.

2. The car developed some weird and wonderful suspension noises approaching Tbilisi, the roads were dire...It was stripped down in a garage and we fixed it up.

3. Right now we're in Baku, Azerbaijan. The land of 1001 corrupt policeman....Three fictitious speeding fines received within the first hour of entering the country. Thanks guys! Losers..

4. We're just about to catch the freight ship from Baku to Turkmenbashi Port in Turkmenistan. With a fair wind its a 15 hour crossing, so we should be there sometime tomorrow lunchtime.  Its supposed to be a nightmare trip, so whether or not we actually get on the boat is another matter....

More details and some very cool pictures to follow soon. Stay tuned!