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Thailand

1st November 2014 Border entry to Thailand no problems. Laos and Thailand can be considered to be part of the notorious Golden Triangle, and yet both leaving Laos and entering Thailand there where no customs checks at all, not even a cursory one, first time yet, at any border.

Thailand actually feels a lot like Australia i.e. driving on the same side of the road, eucalypts and something about the roads and landscape is very familiar.

We are half way down to Bangkok and it is steamy, hot and humid at 9.30pm.

6th November 2014 We have been free camping along the coast south of Bangkok and have spent the last three days at the Ban Chuen Beach Resort at Thailand’s most southerly point, near the Cambodian border and it costs us just $7.00/day for us to camp right on the waters edge. The South China Sea here is like a lake with sandy beaches and palm trees; Shades of Zanzibar and we nearly have the place to ourselves.

We found a dolphin corpse on the beach and before long a TV crew arrived, interviewing some of the locals (but not us). Must have been a slow news day.

We stayed away from the tourist traps such as Pattaya. Nearly all of the tourists were fat, bald/shaved headed old men holding the hand of a much younger Thai woman.

Cleaning up our car in readiness for Australian Customs.

7th November 2014 Last night we went for a walk along the waterfront and discovered a celebration in full swing. Loi Krathong is Thailand’s Festival of Lights, held on the evening of the twelfth lunar month, where large lanterns are lit and set off into the sky along with floating flower arrangements with candles and fireworks. We joined in setting off our own lantern, watching the fairy lights and of course the full moon.

14th November 2014 We are still here at Ban Chuen Beach Resort, waiting for the Australian Customs approval for the troopy, but we are quite happy with the delay. We spend our days doing not much broken up by the occasional walk or swim. At this rate we’ll never get home.

19th November 2014 Still bumbling around here. We wake up at some time and get breakfast done by about eleven, waste some time, lunch, more bumbling, read a book, perfect sunset, stroll down for some Thai dinner at the native restaurant.

The arrangements for the car are just about done so we are trying to organise our departure from Thailand so that we get back home about a week before Christmas. We ran out of time to try to ship the car to Fremantle and then drive to Sydney so we are shipping directly to Sydney, gives us more space.

This holiday area is very quiet at the moment, which suits us, I don’t know if it’s because of the recent coup. There is no real threat in our area but in the south-eastern provinces there is some kind of terrorist/revolutionary activity going on. Our Government advises us to “Reconsider our need to travel in Thailand”, too late now (They said this about Ethiopia and Sudan also) The country is still officially under Martial Law but in reality things seem normal to us, ignorant, naive, travellers.

22 November 2014 In the evening we strolled down to our regular restaurant and, for a change, it was very well patronised with a karaoke at full tilt. We had a meal and stayed a while watching the entertainment, some of which was quite good. Upon returning to our campsite we noticed Moon Festival balloon/lanterns going up accompanied by fireworks further on up the beach, so we investigated. A party was in full swing also with karaoke so we crashed it and were welcomed with open arms as we were given food to accompany the drinks we bought at the bar. Then the karaoke invitation, and, having been primed earlier on, I could not refuse and gave them my version of jailhouse rock helped on stage (not onto the stage) by a Can Caning chorus line of grinning, sweaty, Thai twenty something’s. Yes you can do the Can Can to Rock&Roll (You have to use 4/1½ time, for you musicians)

At the end we did receive enthusiastic applause although I do note that I wasn’t asked to do another song.

27th November 2014 Still at the same place, I am just sitting outside at the table doing some reading and a long, thin black snake has slithered under my feet. Talk about react, I surprised myself, leapt on to the table but it was gone when I looked under.

Our shipping agent has just told us to bring the troopy up to Bangkok to ready it for shipping. It’s really starting to feel like the end of our holiday.

3rd December 2014 We reached the office of our shipping agent in Bangkok only to find that the Customs office at our entry point to Thailand, Mukdahan, had not issued us with a “simplified customs declaration form (for motor car and motor cycle temporarily imported or exported)” which means we can’t export the car, and, after many phone calls it became clear that we would have go back to the border post to get this form. This is a distance of only 700 kilometres. I still haven’t been able to find compulsory 3rd party insurance, I need new brake pads, the troopy is due for an oil change and I have a flat spare tyre (luckily I carry two). Gee I feel relaxed about this!   NOT.

We reached Mukdahan after ten hours driving spread over a night and a morning. The customs office duly issued the necessary document with an apology but after travelling a little way Judy realised that there was a signature missing, so back to the border post where the signature was duly added. I dread to think of what may have happened if it hadn’t been picked up until returning to Bangkok. I will make no comment about the customs post. The brakes by this time truly needed some attention. On the way up I had used the brakes as little as possible by using the gears to slow down, adding yet another dimension of stress to this episode, and so at the first opportunity we had the repair done at Toyota In Mukdahan, who were really good by doing the work as quickly as possible and arranging accommodation for us. Thank you Edith. I also found compulsory 3rd party insurance.

So we had a most enjoyable evening here going downtown and having a cook-your-own-meal experience where the modified, upside-down wok cooker is placed right in front on the table and you select whatever meats and vegetables you want to cook. When we returned to our hotel we were treated to a karaoke round robin of six female singers all singing melancholy ballads that are so popular here. We did sit through four of the singers, a perfect nightcap.

4th December 2014 Spent the next few days in Bangkok, preparing the car and papers for Australian re-entry, this gave us an opportunity to treat ourselves to a luxury, five day, stay at a five star hotel while we acted the part as true tourists.

 

 

 

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Laos

24th October 2014 Entered Laos with an easy border crossing (see travel notes) reached our first town, had lunch, booked a hotel and Judy is now asleep 3.30pm. I think it will take a few days rest to get over the China Experience.

25th October 2014 Laos is jungle, just as we imagined it to be. It’s hot, humid in what would be our mid autumn although they only have a wet and dry season. This is the start of the dry season but we have already had plenty of rain.

After two nights R&R and clean up in a hotel we motored south east to reach Muang Ngoy which is in a beautiful valley. It is a tourist place with many pale faces in the streets. They all look miserable and wont even return a wave. I miss China already!

This area and a little further south was involved in the Vietnam war with carpet bombing of villages, defoliation and still many land mines. You are warned not to go off the beaten track.

We found a camp by a stream (thank you Troopy Tracks) near a cave, apparently used by the military which we will explore tomorrow.

26th October 2014 The cave was very interesting. To get there I had two eight-year-old Laotian girls to guide me. The bridge had been washed away and only a log replaced it as we trekked through you’re typical, steamy jungle, already 7am. The cave itself had a long concrete staircase to get to the entrance but in the war days it would have been a ladder. It was quite a complex, able to house two hundred men. It had separate vaults such as the Governors room, police room, etc. Some bush furniture was still intact.

As I am now elderly my Laotian guides held my hands through the darker sections of the cave.

And onwards to Luang Prabang which is a real tourist mecca with more Caucasians than we’d seen for months.

This was a real tonic after the rush of China and we bumped into Rob and Heidi, a Swiss couple from Our Convoy. We did lunch and had the first salad roll since Sydney, Just Great. Found a spot to free camp overlooking the Mekong right in restaurant land, had a meal and unlaxed.

We met a lone French overlander, François , also in a troopy and exchanged travel tales.

27th October 2014 What a great day. It started with our first Western breakfast for about a year, checked the local market (non tourist) and headed for the Kuang Si Waterfall some thirty K’s south. A stunning series of cascades with boutique pools for swimming all with clear azure water culminating in a big waterfall at the top. I’m guessing now, 300 metres, not man made.

As an added bonus a bear preservation shelter was also there. I was surprised that bears would live in such latitudes but there they are.

These bears are being decimated to provide bile for Chinese medicine. I also seem to recall Rhino horn, ivory and other exotic Chinese remedies. All of these can be replaced by other chemicals, they are myths and the superstitious beliefs are now making animals extinct.

Not enough beauty we then looked for the Elephant restoration park and we finally found it at about 3pm. It is actually a resort, albeit, with the high moral stance of trying to save the ever dwindling elephant population and also looking after the old elephants, too old to do any more forestry work.

The place was almost deserted, we wandered around the manicured gardens and had a perfect couple of drinks in the cool of the shade, overlooking a river and flat lands as the sun went down.

Now, finally, getting over a bad cough through the high altitudes I have cracked and taken antibiotics, in the words of James Brown, I feel good.

29th October 2014 Reached the town of Phonsavan, the night before, which is known for the plain of jars, a two thousand year old archaeological site which is a mystery to this day. The plain has the added quirk that it had the bejesus bombed out of it during the Vietnam War, with huge craters within this unique site. Laos suffered badly during his war and there are still many unexploded ordinance lying around just waiting for you to tread on them and we are warned to keep to the beaten track.

The rest of the day we travelled southeast through beautiful mountainous areas and small, poor villages, to reach a spot on a river somewhere on the way to Thailand. We have decided not to go to Vientiane.

31st October 2014 Camped under the Friendship Bridge No 2 (No.1 is at Vientiane) at Savannakhet, applied for a 60-day visa and got a 90-day visa for Thailand (see travel notes). Had lunch at a nearby lake in one of a series of grass huts right on the water. The food was true Lao with some very unusual offerings most of which could be identified such as miniature fried fish, various native sausage, some strange eggs and seafoods. After this I fell asleep.

In the afternoon we found a dress shop for Judy which she had mentally bookmarked previously. She picked out some material that she liked and we haggled down the price to about AUD$100.00 and went to the ATM before returning to find that the price was in fact AUD$1000.00. Woops!

Next-door was a miniature tractor shop, which they use on their small farms and I could have bought one for just US$1500.00.

Evening now and we are having dinner in a series of grass huts right on the water, in town this time.

The road from Luang Prabang to here was very scenic and good bitumen, I would recommend this route.

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China

24th September 2014 Passed the Mongolian side of the border with the usual disorganisation and headed for the Chinese entry point where we eventually met the rest of our convoy, two Swiss couples and a German couple who all, very politely in our presence, speak English. The only problem was no Markus and Belinda, the Dutch couple we had met previously in Olgi. Hours passed before they eventually arrived having survived a major visa problem. So, now we are ready to enter China, NO. The border guards would not let us go through, we did not know why. More hours, and after phone calls to our agent, we were allowed to pass and finally meet our guide, Andy (His Anglicised name). He is an immediately likeable fellow and he got us through the Chinese entry point. Complete with Chinese number plates and driving licences, I didn’t not even have to pass the test.

The Chinese officials were efficient and friendly with no extra charges imposed. However, with all of the delays we had to leave the cars in the militarised zone until the following morning to complete paper work. We were not allowed to stay overnight in the militarised zone so the whole crew had to go to Eringot (a city close by) for the night. Small problem. Two of our cars had dogs. So we all walked down the yellow brick road, some five kilometres, into town, to find a hotel that would not only take us, but two dogs also. This was actually easier than it seems, and with a bit of haggling and demonstration of how good the dogs were, we were able to get a room.     Next, dinner.  We walked a couple of doors down, had a great meal together, with a lot of laughs and headed back for sleep.

China is immediately impressive and our newfound friends seem to be a good bunch.

Luckily the dogs didn’t bark at 2am.

25th September 2014 Got up early looking for breakfast, walked downtown and found an enthusiastic, street card game, with about twenty playing, discovered a cake shop and back to our car at the border, in a taxi this time.

Hotel = $16/night. Dinner=$5 each. Taxi=$4. This is good.

The rest of the day was a hell of a drive, many K’s. with us as the lead car. The convoy was slow with only an average of 70K’s/h, finally arriving in Datong at about 9pm. Could not find the hotel. No problem, the local police post suggested we all just park twenty meters to the right of them for the night. We grabbed a quick banquet from some one willing to stay up till 1am and back home to bed in the middle of town( population 6 million) RIGHT ON MAIN STREET. This is a huge city and all night we had people stopping by, taking photos and generally checking us out. A couple of busses stopped. We almost expected tour busses before too long.

In the morning it was something like THE BEATLES HAVE COME TO TOWN. People, a crowd, all friendly and curious, surrounded us. We were posing for pictures; one lady gave us some dumplings, people looking from the units up above. There were even fireworks and loud music. I kid you not.

Then off to the Grotto’s and the Hanging Monastery. This was fantastic. It literally hangs in mid air, on the side of a cliff supported by long branches maybe 5cm wide. They vibrated if you hit them (Not too hard, thank you). On the plus side the monastery has been there for many centuries so it probably won’t fall down.

Andy, our guide, has handled things very well and it is a hard task to keep ten people and two dogs happy.

Now all five cars are parked in the Hanging Monastery car park and chilling out (literally) after our last exciting/stressful days.

It turns out that, in a convoy, you need the slowest car at the lead. I can vouch that this is true as on the second day we tried it and the convoy averaged 15Km/h more.

26th September 2015 The convoy headed off bright and early and had only travelled a few K’s when I heard that grinding noise coming from the back wheel telling me the bearing was gone and confirmed by a red-hot hub. No worries, I had a spare and three of the guys were well versed in all things Toyota. Five hours later it was fixed and we set off for our goal, Beijing.

We got to within 100K’s of Beijing at about 10pm and were stopped in our tracks by the most humungous, gridlock, traffic jam consisting only of trucks. This was mayhem, like a war zone so we just pulled over to the side of the road and stopped for the night. All night the trucks just inched along past our little group, making plenty of wild beast like noises, and loud.

27th September 2014 I have lost a day somewhere. Oh well!

28th September 2014 Visited the Great Wall and entered Beijing to find our camping area in a shopping centre car park, we do attract a lot of attention here with people having a good old look in our cars and taking pictures but all in a good natured way. A couple of them have just gotten into the car alongside me here, as I type. It’s surprising how you can communicate by pantomime.

We almost saw the Forbidden City but just got there too late and were forbidden to see it, unfortunately our schedule is so tight, not to mention the wheel bearing delay, that we will not be able to go back to it another day.

We then went to Tian’anmen Square, apparently Mao’s body is on display there but after seeing Lenin it may be an anticlimax/ ghoulish, and then on to the nightlife area for a sumptuous meal.

Beijing is a 1st class city with good public transport and orderly traffic, hard to find a shower though. Again, as with Russia, so many misconceptions and preconceived ideas.

29th September 2014 Tried to get a shower.

3rd October 2014 Already there are cracks appearing in the convoys’ happiness level.

There are quite a few kilometres between the various attractions and we are a slow convoy owing to the fact that one of the cars can only travel at 80 KPH max. We usually arrive at a town or attraction late in the day and our overnight stays are not quite what we are used to either i.e. mud and glass (and other refuse I will not mention) filled parking lots surrounded by inquisitive crowds.

Yes, this is the life of a celebrity.

We have to search for toilets and showers are even more scarce or usually non-existent. I am a little disappointed in our guide as he is not equipped for rural sleepovers (part of the deal) and we consequently have to stay in a town overnight so that he can have a hotel room.     He gets a shower.

5th October 2014 We saw the Terracotta Army today, it was magnificent with each piece being individual and life sized.

This is National Celebration week and with free tollways the whole country is on the move with huge crowds everywhere, but they are well organised and we don’t have to wait long to see any of the attractions although most of the time we are the attraction as many of them have never seen a European before. They are constantly looking into the car and if there is not enough light for them to see they will shine a torch in. We are constantly being asked to pose with them for photos and they are so good-natured you cannot refuse.

I knew that China had a huge population (1.3 billion) and driving through it you see the huge industrial areas, excellent motorways (very expensive tolls), huge bridges and so many vehicles. The country is wrapped in a constant fog and I don’t know if its natural or smog (Andy says fog). Considering all of this the place is very clean and orderly.

8th October 2014 The cracks are turning into rift valleys with people having temper tantrums and displaying some fairly selfish behaviour. True we are not exactly getting what we thought but some of the crew are definitely over reacting.

Last night we had quite an incident. We were directed to stay overnight at a dirt car park, which could have quite easily been mistaken for a dump. We made the best of it and started to prepare a campfire for our first night of real camping. The guy at the entrance said no fire but later a cleaner of the car park motioned to us that we could have a fire, he even started the makings of it with cardboard and tinder. The guitars came out, a small fire lit, a good time being had by all and, we were the only inhabitants of the car park/tip, not bothering anyone, no one else around for miles. A policeman arrived and told us no fire so we immediately put it out as by now we knew they really meant it. Other petty officials arrived and things escalated but not from our side of things. Two squad cars and a police mini bus arrived and we were evicted to a giant bus parking station some 5K’s away.

The next day the Pandas were great as was the Biggest Buddha in China and The World.

Our guide keeps telling us that the constant fog is natural but it never gets burnt off by the sun and lasts all night. It also makes the Sun a bushfire yellow when you can see it. I believe it to be pollution.

11th October 2014 We find ourselves by the shore of Lake Lugu which is at an altitude about that of about 2700 meters and oddly enough little pollution, for a rest and repair day. This place does not have the same intensity of spectators and I have just had my first hot shower in China. The next few days will see some of us headed almost to Tibet and Shangri-La whilst the others will wait for us at Tiger Leaping Gorge before we all continue on to Laos.

The weather here is perfect with cool nights.

14th October 2014 Two cars, ours and Belinda and Markus with Andy our guide have opted to travel the loop towards Tibet.

The scenery is Himalayan in scale (I’ll let the pictures do the talking) and we reached 4300 meters dropping down to 1800 now at our camp ground/building site. That’s a difference of 2.5 kilometres vertically. It feels like Tibet.

 

We are camped at a small town overlooking the Mekong River which ends up in Vietnam, within view of what looks to be a casino and to our right a karaoke venue which pumps the music out over the valley and just below in a concrete car park maybe a hundred dancers almost line dancing. These guys know how to party and this is only Tuesday night.

The police called in to get our particulars and no problems. They were very friendly.

We have been so busy on the China leg of the journey mostly because of the difficulty of moving our convoy from A to B. This has meant long days ending with adlib searches for camping places and basics such as toilets. I can’t say that the tour company has done the right thing by us. However Andy our guide is a great guy who has copped the flack very well.

Tiger Leaping Gorge.

18th October 2014 Camped at the bus terminal in Dali and had a great day exploring the old city. We started out by getting what we thought was a day tourist bus ticket to travel around the town but it turned out to be a full blown tour with thirty or so Chinese with all commentary in Mandarin. We tagged along for a while but we didn’t understand any of it so we just kind of slinked off and did our own tour which was really good as we found the real Chinese market area with things like burning pigs heads and other unidentifiable foods. Judy got a haircut = AUD$6.

The Chinese are the French epicures of Asia, the food is excellent and you can often mix and match the ingredients that you want. Having done this the food arrives before too long and is delicious. I think many ingredients and sauces is key but they also know how to blend it all into ambrosia. I wonder what Thailand and Vietnam will have to offer?

23rd October 2014 Two days ago we visited the Elephant Vale Elephant Park. It was a very touristic place and we did see the Elephant Show, the highlights of which for me, was the soccer game (good strikers) and the harmonica playing (just like Bob Dylan). These are elephants we’re talking about here.

We then retired to the uninhabited second car park for the night. At about 7.30pm the guards came and told us we could not stay. O’oh our second eviction. The reason why was because of the roaming bands of wild elephants. Of course we were well into cooking meals and a couple of beers. We very reluctantly and slowly packed up and moved to a village a couple of kilometres down the road. Apparently the wild elephants do not roam there.

The highlight of this night was unexpected. For several days Belinda and Markus had heard mewing from the engine bay and tonight the culprit was discovered, a small white pussy. It was in an inaccessible place and would not come out so the battery was removed and further surgery was considered. One of us thought a good idea would be to leave some meat out to coax it out. This did the trick. Hours of fun for all!

Our last night in China was at Mohan and a hotel room for the night, I haven’t showered for four or five days.

Others in our convoy went to the ATM to get cash for the border crossing and would you believe that the machines in this town only operate with six number pin codes, so, no money. In all of our travels this is the only place that has such ATM’s. This meant that they could not pay for a room at our hotel, so, showers all round in our room.

 

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Mongolia Part Three

10th September 2014 Drove up to Terelj National park about 50k’s north east of Ulaan Baatar. It could be another country as both the countryside and village houses look very European complete with golf courses. On the way visited the huge Genghis Kahn riding a horse monument which was very impressive and as an added bonus were able to climb to the top of the horses head.

11th September 2014 Headed back up to the village of Terelj to take a different road through the National park. Just as we left the village we encountered our first river crossing and as we were assessing it a couple of villagers asked us if we could help them with their car which was stopped on the other side. This we did by towing it back across the river. Half way across their tow rope broke and their car was stranded mid stream. Plan B, was to use my winch to pull it the rest of the way. The bolt holding my cable to the axle snapped but some good bush mechanics on their part (they had every size bolt in their kit) soon had the winch fixed and them on dry land again.

At times this road was very bad and at one point two town sedans overtook us. We caught up with them at the next river crossing just in time to see the first sedan get stuck in the middle of the flow. It was able to be pushed out but the second car just drove straight in and began to float before going down with all hands. Time for Mr Winch again but with the added hindrance of the drunk driver, trying to help whilst taking a leak every five minutes.

We stopped to talk to a lone and tired looking hiker, a fairly senior Dutchman, wearing no hat, to make sure he was OK. We gave him some water and talking to him found out that he was only able to walk five kilometres per day, as he was not as fit as he used to be. Somehow the conversation got around to the benefits of electronic cigarettes, which he proceeded to demonstrate.

We nearly made it to the monastery at the end of this road but were stopped by some serious looking mud flats. We will camp here tonight and scout around for a bypass tomorrow we won’t push our luck though.

As we unwound some people on horseback, a guide and three tourists, rode past and shortly after a young European girl, possibly German, came over to us suggesting we should give her a lift back to her camp, which she did not know the location of, as she was seriously saddle sore. At this stage we were fully in camp mode and weren’t really prepared to repack and give her a lift unless it was an emergency. Luckily we were able to suggest she walk around the next corner to the Princess Ger Camp. Appropriate?

They had attempted to get to the monastery on horseback but were unable to traverse the last five K’s so I don’t like our chances of getting there in a car.

12th September 2014 Checked at the Princess Ger Camp and were told that the only way to get to the monastery was by ox and cart.

We stopped for lunch on a side road and on resuming noticed a huge rut about a metre wide and a metre deep running right across the road. As I negotiated around to the side of it the road shoulder gave way to thick black mud and the car went in, sitting at, and I’m not exaggerating, a 45-degree angle, almost at tipping point. I could not get out of my door and we only scrambled out of Judy’s door with great difficulty.

I started getting the winch ready but the trees that I was going to use as an anchor were not at a very good angle to the car. Right then three Mongolian men, in a Troopy, arrived and we were able to use their car as the anchor point at the optimal angle. Even so it was a great struggle to extricate the car as it was at such an acute angle. Two of the Mongolians stood on the high side footboard, just like sailing, as we dragged it out of the slime. We could not even get to the camera, so no pictures.

Thank you Three Mongolian Men in a Troopy.

We have decided that we will attack the Gobi desert proper so tomorrow we will fuel and water up, get supplies and head south.

13th September 2014 Covered about 450K’s today on excellent bitumen road and as we head to the desert, it’s getting more and more arid as we drive. We aim to reach Dalanzadgad tomorrow and from here we start our Gobi crossing toward the east to the town of Sainshand with quite possibly no road to follow, a distance of over 500k.

14th September 2014 Temperature was four degrees at 7am but low twenties by mid afternoon.We reached Dalanzadgad by lunchtime but headed northwest (instead of east) for about 60k to see The Flaming Cliffs and some huge sand dunes.

The entire length of road from Ulaan Baatar to Dalanzadgad (some 650K’s) was excellent bitumen with occasional road works. From Dalanzadgad to Flaming cliffs the road was excellent dirt and when we had to improvise and use no road the terrain was excellent and we just navigated by GPS.

We had planned to stay the night at the Three Camels Lodge, thinking it was overlanders friendly but it was too expensive (see Travel Notes).

Now camped at the Flaming Cliffs overlooking what could be a central Australian scene at sunset.

15th September 2014 Sand dunes in the morning and the Gurvan Saikhan National Park in the afternoon where we walked through a narrow chasm. On the way back we drove through a narrow chasm, just wide enough for the car. This drive was hair raising with many steep lateral angles and inclines as well as having to driving along a river, all be it a shallow one. At the end of the road there was no road and rather than return we went forward on no road. This was a little trickier than on the flat plains of the previous few days. We had some really steep inclines, declines and ravines to test us but we got through to the main road heading back to town.

Tomorrow is a big day, Judy’s 60th Birthday.

16th September 2014 Happy Birthday Judy.

Zero over night but a beautiful sunny morning soon heated things up.

I cooked Judy a special breakfast of crumbled eggs with onion, chapatti and lentils on the side, left over from the night before, almost breakfast in bed, but we didn’t get going until about 12 midday. We headed into town and took a room at the Dalanzadgad Hotel as it has the best restaurant in town (We have eaten here before). This is a hotel very much in the African style i.e. a dodgy construction with slow internet and bad plumbing. The meal was a bit average and did not look like the picture in the menu. Judy ordered the Button soup which turned out to be Mutton soup. We continued to the Karaoke/disco room next door where some fairly uninspiring entertainment ensued.

Hey, take a step back. This is in the middle of the Gobi Desert.

Tomorrow we will start our real adventure through the Gobi. Over 500K’s through the desert with some lengthy patches of no track on any map that I can find.

We had a nice Skype connection with our daughters who were having a Birthday dinner, in Judy’s honour, at our house.

Thank you Daughters.

17th September 2014 We are now camped in the real middle of the Gobi desert. We have had a beautiful sunny day 25c and the evening is mild. Getting here was not as bad as we thought as the areas on the map that showed no road did in fact have a track that we could follow. The tracks were not disastrous either, rough but by no means the worst we have been on. Thank God for GPS as there are often numerous tracks to choose from and it is easy to chose a slightly wrong one and before you know it you are headed off in a completely wrong direction.

It is known that if you walk in a desert you will eventually walk in a circle. We did this the other day, driving and not paying attention to the GPS and sure enough we were making a circle before too long.

We are carrying three GPS devices, two that give a different aspect and the third as backup as well as a paper map.

Just had visit from a local couple again with the usual language difficulties although this time a smattering of Russian words but still not enough to make a meaningful conversation.

18th September 2014 Either we have parked in the middle of a local thoroughfare (although there is no way of telling) or we are the latest novelty here. At 2am a couple on a motorcycle stopped behind us for a few minutes before taking off and then at about 8am a family in a truck pulled up next to us looking. I waved and they waved back pointing to our oddly shaped roof in sleep mode. I don’t think a lot happens around here so we are the entertainment. As I write I hear another motorcycle approaching. He is here now and freely admits that he was part of the 2am crew.

Here comes another one.

19th September 2014 Yet another motorcyclist arrived this morning. They all just want to have a bit of a chat and don’t hang around.

Today reached the town of Sainshand, which we thought ended our Gobi adventure, but no. As we headed south in search of monasteries we find ourselves camped again in the Gobi. Days still 25c with night’s cool, perfect weather. All in all we have travelled over 700k’s through the Gobi.

Quite a few times now, when we have been unsure of a particular direction to take, someone has popped up from nowhere to help us. Today we were in such a predicament and asked a villager for directions. He, unbelievably, spoke perfect English and showed us the way.

20th September 2014 Now at the Chinese border at Zamin Uud, we cross on the 24th so a few days to cool our heels, clean up and get ready for the next phase. It will be good to veg out for a while. Pulled up a bit of desert about 20k”s north of town rather than stay at another hotel room.

It was 33c in town today, not bad for a Mongolian autumn and a little bit sad as we say goodbye to this country, certainly a highlight of our trip.

 

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Mongolia Part Two and Lake Baikal, Siberia

2nd September 2014 We were able to get our Chinese visa yesterday (see Travel notes/Border entry) so we are now free to travel up to Lake Baikal in Siberia. We have heard that the road is good by Mongolian standards so we will spend a week or so up there before heading south to the Chinese border. In Ulaan Baatar we are staying at an overlanders checkpoint, The Oasis Guesthouse. It serves western fast food including Crumbled eggs for breakfast, good description I thought.

3rd September 2014 The road from Ulaan Baatar to Kyakhta, the border post, was all tar of varying quality but just so good compared to what we have been used to. Wild camped at a shallow lake with the usual horse, goat and sheep herds strolling past. We thought the isolated border post would be quiet, which it was, however it still took about four hours to get through. Why I don’t know but the delay was all up in the Russian entry control post. The Russians made a very thorough search of every car and were pleasant about it right up until the final official. I had been directed to park in a certain spot and the official, a harassed looking Mongolian female called me to the office. Curtly told me to sign the documents and gave me a pen. I signed. She said why did you use the red pen, I replied you gave it to me, She questioned why did you park there, I replied I was told to. She threw the documents onto the desk, finished? I asked. Humph was the reply. Nice As soon as we entered Russia we noticed the difference in the landscape back to fir and deciduous trees, just like the Russia we had left. We have noticed this about many countries, that is to say, as soon as you enter a new country it has it’s own characteristic almost straight away. The roads on the Russian side are very good and this is now Eastern Siberia so I expected worse. As we were looking for a suitable camp spot for the night we passed by an abandoned industrial complex just out of Ulan-Ude, spooky, so we drove on through the hilly fields to find a small river just out of Ulan-Ude 80 odd K’s from Lake Baikal. This is it for the night.

4th September 2014 Arrived at Lake Baikal and found a campsite by the water, already the climate is colder with a very strong wind blowing. The sea, I mean lake, is pounding, roaring, very loud, you could almost surf it. Lake Baikal looks and behaves like an ocean, it is huge. All night the wind howled with some rain but we were snug in our little penthouse boudoir.

5th September 2014 Slowly cruised along the east coast looking for potential camping spots and stopping for lunch for Salyonka, a savoury soup of carrots, potato’s, sausage and gherkin and then, a second course of palmeni, a meat filled dumpling. Entered Zabankaliski National Park at the northern end of the lake and found a spot right on a beach just as the weather cleared. Good Russian pine has been provided so we are having a fire as the sun sets. It is cool here anyway as it is now autumn but as soon as the sun goes down you feel a definite drop in temperature. This whole lake is has golden sand beaches, probably the best we have seen on the whole trip so far and there is a crescent of blue mountains surrounding us. Lake Baikal holds the largest volume of fresh water in the world. It is a narrow lake, about six hundred kilometres long and is 1.6 kilometres deep.

6th September 2014 Spent the morning exploring the National park including Svyatoy Nos or Holy Nose, a big pelican head shaped peninsula, put out a small grass fire we found along the way and later drove around some of the backcountry of Siberia getting as far north as the village of Bodon. Suddenly it’s autumn as the trees, overnight, have changed colour giving us an idea of what is yet to come. We did about 350k’s today and are again camped on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal looking at a beautiful sunset. (Half an hour later). This sunset is now like a psychedelic poster, an orange sky with magenta clouds, purple mountains on the other side and mauve waves with crimson crests, no I’m not smoking funny stuff. All of this time driving across Russia/Mongolia and we are still only a little over half way across this biggest country on Earth.

 

7th September 2014 Happy Fathers Day! Judy cooked a special breakfast of crumbled eggs with onions and sausage, fantastic. Drove slowly around the shore of Baikal not really wanting to leave, before stopping for lunch at Ulan Ude where we had a Subway (there are three Subway franchises in this town). A beautiful sunny day saw us say goodbye to Russia and hello again Mongolia. This time the border crossing was much quicker than before with forms and fee payments completely different from both previous entries to, and departures from, both countries. I received a salute from one Russian border soldier. I love that kind of treatment. We didn’t find a campsite until about 8.30pm but lucked in again with a spot on a hill in a wooded area looking down on what appears to be an English village, not your usual Gers.

8th September 2014 Back to Ulaan Baatar and booked the car in for a service at Toyota and camped just out of town on a hill overlooking Ulaan Baatar, the giant Budda statue and accompanying monastery.

Had the quickest haircut back at the Oasis Guesthouse $6.

Days are perfect here at the moment with clear blue sky and 25 to 28 degrees. Much warmer than I expected at his time of year.

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Mongolia Part One

12th August 2014 As soon as we passed the last boom gate entering Mongolia the road changed from perfect tar to average dirt and we were greeted by numerous marmots, squirrel and longhaired bovines (I don’t really know what they were). Yep Yaks.

Now wild camped in open country within sight of the road but no other car has passed by in over three hours. It is quiet and cold. Do we feel isolated?

Judy, as usual, has cooked up a storm, managing to produce something out of nothing, much like a magician.

13th August 2014 Not one car passed by overnight, the silence was deafening, and we woke to a clear blue sky and a few marmots skulking about here and there. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but you have to be careful to cook marmots thoroughly before eating, and wash hands after handling, as they can carry the Bubonic plague. They apparently gave it to the rats who then spread it to Europe in the 1400’s and there are still sporadic outbreaks even now. So that’s the nature lesson for the day.

Breakfast over we drove 40k’s to Elgii (or Olgii or even more correctly Ulgii) and have organised a guide to take us through some remote parts of western Mongolia, chiefly the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. Should take four days. So here we are, we accessed cash from an ATM of which there were plenty as with petrol stations and camped at the back of the Blue Wolf Hostel with proper toilets, showers, power (with an Australian power point, this is truly bizarre) and WIFI. There is even an Irish pub in town (we saw many Irish pubs throughout Europe) The dirt road at the border only lasted 20k and it’s been good tar ever since.

Is this the last frontier? I’m beginning to think that there’s no such animal.

14th August 2014 We met our guide , Dunno (Name changed to protect the guilty, all will be revealed later) a twenty two year old student of English and Chinese, and left at midday immediately hitting the real Mongolian back roads and they are bad, but not the worst roads I’ve driven on. He took us through spectacularly sparse country. There are often many pathways to choose from but it doesn’t matter which one you take as they all join up again eventually (sounds like a good song lyric). On the road we spoke of many things. Dunno mentioned to me that he had tasted wolf meat and said that it was OK (It’s only a dog after all, even Captain Cook partook of canine) and also that his father eats marmot. I told him that I’d eaten kangaroo and crocodile; he was totally disgusted, not.

We have made camp deep into the national park in between the two lakes Khoton and Khurgan and five Russians have appeared and asked if they could fish near us no problem. I was wondering why they needed to be so close to us when they started hauling in fish by the dozen. I guess they knew what they were doing and it looked like trout that they were catching, but no it was something else lost in the translation.

Weather here is perfect blue sky about 28c in the day 15c at night, snow-capped mountains in the distance.

One really odd thing here, which we also noted in Russia, was what looked like big seagulls. Further research required.

We seem to be in the centre of things here as a passing parade of horses, fishermen, motorbikes and camels (one hump or two?) two, are walking past our campsite.

Judy became camp cook and afterwards Dunno and a local, who he befriended, found some wood (no dried yak dung for these guy’s) and lit a fire. Several others soon joined us so I produced the guitar. Turns out one of them can play guitar so we traded songs Mongolian style. The guitarist was a good picker and sang with a slight Chinese twang, an interesting mix. After some time the evening petered out and all went to bed. Later that night came a knock on the door, can we borrow the guitar and you can come too if you like. Stupidly I lent them the guitar and opted to stay home. I hope I see it again.

15th August 2014 Yep saw it again.

Today we drove on the worst road yet, this includes the whole world. Often having to drive at walking pace with numerous river crossings and bogs trying to get to the Tavan Bogd basecamp. Tavan Bogd or five saints are the five peaks that dominate this region the largest of which is Khuiten Uul, biggest in Mongolia (4374m) with an accompanying glacier, which you can access by foot, horse or camel. Having reached it was worth the effort as these peaks are gargantuan and have a very Himalayan look to them, we are now settled beside a raging torrent with the sun setting on these massifs.

Just behind is China and with the sun down it is cold.

16th August 2014 We set off to walk to the glacier rather than ride, as Judy has trouble with her back on four leg drives, and had walked about a kilometre when our guide informed us that it was 17 K’s away ( originally 10K’s) so we just walked up the valley for a couple of hours and then returned.

17th August 2014 We left camp at 8.30am, for the return journey, using the good road, down the other side of the river, this time. Good in Mongolian means even worse, as the road was no different from the incoming road but with the added degree of difficulty of really deep river crossings. We got lost and ended up at at dead end but luckily found a farmer who was just about to leave his farm and do the deep river crossing, he volunteered to show us the way. His method of locking the farmhouse door was interesting, he used a split log to nail across the front door using a stone. The river depth was well above the wheels and I had to turn on my wipers from the wash. At this point I must add that our guide has been most inadequate, not knowing the roads or crossings. He was constantly asking the locals for directions and did not seem to know anything. We missed the best rock drawings in central Asia, a promised ger stay and Lake Khoton Nuur.

We made it back and troopy did not miss a beat. I must say, though, the local farmers and nomads get about in 4WD petrol Lada’s and vans, which seem to handle the terrain just as well as our thoroughbred Landcruiser.

18th August 2014 A recovery day today saw us walk ten minutes into town to do some browsing and copy some documents related to the China leg of our trip. We saw street vendors selling animal skins with legs and hooves still attached and two women dragging what looked like a horse suit, which is exactly what it was, except real, along the street.

In the afternoon we visited the local museum, which was quite interesting and then went to the movies Mongolian style. What this entails is that you buy a ticket and then choose which movie you want to see. This is easy enough if there are only two of you but you can see that any more and it could become complicated. The theatre seats about thirty people. Luckily we were in first and got to see our choice, a Ben Stiller movie The Secret World of Walter Mittey, quite good and in English.

On coming home we met a Dutch couple Belinda and Markus who, it turns out are part of our China convoy and are camped right next door to us.

19th August 2014 Had to register our visa and get some third party insurance for the car and spent futile hours getting neither as it turns out that both are unnecessary.

Marcus and Belinda have proved to be like-minded with us and we seem to bump into them all over, even in the restaurant toilet in town. We all looked through the markets and bid a fond adieu before we set of toward U.B. (Ulaan Baatar) at 4pm.

The first 60K was perfect tar road, what a disappointment. Then suddenly hit really bad dirt road, what a disappointment! No mostly good dirt with but with some hairy water crossings. This is the main southern route I’m talking about. So maybe it is a frontier after all. Nonetheless we feel safe and are wild camped again somewhere.

20th August 2014   Leaving Ulgii We had to pay a road tax at a police post. Later on I wondered why. This is a 4×4 enthusiast’s paradise.

21st August 2014 Rock & Roll, literally. From the large town of Khovd we had perfect tar for 160k’s and then, bang, really bad dirt. One section, many kilometres long, was so bad that you could not use it at any speed, luckily there was a track next to it which was nearly as bad. In the end the best option was to use no road at all. That’s one good thing in Mongolia, if you get lost or want to use another road (There is usually a choice of six or more) you can just shoot off in a direction until it connects with the road you want. I recommend doing this in conjunction with a GPS device.

The Mongol Rally is in progress at the moment and we have travelled along side many of the entrants, we are almost one of them travelling at times with several cars abreast on different tracks, cars weaving all over the place. One condition is that the cars have to have 1 litre engines or less. This means that they are all small cars and how they manage to survive the bad roads and mud I do not know. Actually quite a few cars don’t make it and there is a collection of abandoned cars at Altai.

From Altai we have opted to go north as this seems to be more interesting and I think we will also miss the crazy rally driving.

22nd August 2014 I think we made the right choice as the road is much better and the scenery is very beautiful with undulating hills to small mountains and rocky outcrops interspersed with Ger villages every now and then. Altitude around the Mt Kosciusko mark. Weather here is beautiful with cool nights. The sky, if you look up, is a blackish blue (close to space) but if you look to the horizon it is a vivid pale blue I haven’t seen before.

Found Uliastai to be an interesting town with quite a history and explored it’s market to find a Ger kit seller and the butcher from where we bought some goat meat. Now just wild camped on the outskirts ready for a day of R&R, exploring and doing some home chores and maintenance.

23rd August 2014 Just a washing day as the weather is perfect and we are close to a river.

In the afternoon a cow arrived, on it’s own and after a while we gave it some left over curry, banana skins and bread. She devoured the goat curry and then, obviously loving it, proceeded to make a real pest of herself by trying to lick everything in sight. She was persistent and would not let up until rounded up for the night by the farmers cattle dogs.

23rd August 2014 In the morning as Judy was preparing breakfast who should we see walking across the fields to us but the cow. Which goes to prove that cows do have memories, and I always thought they were stupid. Doing the wrong thing we fed her again, this time with toad in the hole. We won’t get rid of her now.

My dung fire experiment was a great success, it burns like coal with no wood added.

24th August 2014 Drove on reasonable dirt roads through green valleys surrounded by timbered hills to end up camped by a stream at Tosontsengel.

25th August 2014

The roads today were diabolical, giving us a sample of every kind of bad road there is from huge pot holes to shard surfaces, corrugations, sand and at one point an incline which must have been at a 45 degree tilt. (Had to use low range 1st gear to get down) The road building techniques here are similar to the ones we have seen in Africa, building new roads but also scarring the landscape as they go along, some valleys were just a mess.

With no road signage to tell of diversions and the many options of tracks to take it become a true jigsaw puzzle even with GPS, throw in a deep river crossing and confusion reigned as cars drove all over the place trying to find the right way. We did this too.

Now camped by Terkhin Tsagaan Nuur (Nuur means lake in Mongolian).

26th August 2014 Entered the National park surrounding Terkhin Tsagaan Nuur via the village of Tariat and saw the extinct volcano Khorgo Uul. This is a real tourist trap Mongolian style. That is to say there were some stalls selling soft drinks and what looked like beans in a fluid. Two ladies came to our van selling fish and a type of meat piroshky, delicious. From there we started to circumnavigate the lake and came to a mud crossing in the middle of which was a small sedan belonging to a couple of local lads. I think they could not believe their good luck when they saw my winch, we had them out in five minutes and in gratitude gave us a bag of biscuits which they insisted we take.

We drive over these roads thinking them a challenge but the Mongolians seem to get away with, most of the time, using town sedans although there are plenty of LandCruisers about also.

We are now camped at a very beautiful place overlooking the lake surrounded by wooded rises, on a sandy beach with the sun shining and no one else around.

Mongolia has a population of three million, two million of which live in Ulaan Bataar and it is a big country. Last night we camped just off what we thought was a dirt track with huge ruts and pot holes (ravines and valleys, almost impassable) but in fact it was a main thoroughfare with juggernauts passing all through the night.

Driving here in this remote valley we pass three teenage girls wearing what my daughters would wear, looking as if they are on their way to a club. Globalisation is here too.

At about 8.30pm came a tap on the side of the car and when I opened the door I was greeted by a nomad with his horse. He spoke no English or Russian and I no Mongolian. We made noises and he motioned to his mouth which I thought meant food but then he produced some cigarette papers and baccy. He rolled, I lit, and after a while I mentioned the only universal word marijuana?. I quickly add that I did not partake but gave him some of the biscuits, we had received earlier in the day, which he quickly stashed in his coat, and I watched him finish the smoke, involuntarily inhaling some of the fumes.

27th August 2014 Didn’t get going until about eleven and we stopped at a roadhouse for lunch, which smelled of mutton. The hostess greeted us and came out with an artistically crafted dumpling, shaping it right before our eyes, so we agreed to this for lunch. A thermos was produced and into a bowl was poured the Mongolian, warm, salted milk drink which may well have been mare’s milk, not as bad as it sounds, although Judy could not drink much of it. After a while lunch was served. It was just a kind of raw pasta with mutton, not quite what we expected but it tasted OK doused with soya sauce. On the up side, it only cost five dollars total.

We drove on towards Tsetserleg and blow me down if we didn’t get 80k’s of beautiful tar road which was like a small holiday in itself, after all the bumping around of late.

At Tsetserleg we found Fairfield Guest House, owned by an Aussie couple, Murray and Elizabeth from Hurstville in Sydney, just a few short kilometres from where we live back home. We have booked a room for tomorrow night, as tonight it is booked out, and hope for a night out on the town, as there are a few pubs around. Fairfield offers steak and chips so this will be our start. Looking forward to a shower.

Tonight we are camped by the river, five k’s out of town, another beautiful spot.

Our night at Fairfield didn’t turn out as expected. Judy was up all night vomiting with what we thought may have been food poisoning until the next night when I copied her, must have been a bug. So we just took it easy doing only a few miles per day and sleeping in. All better now.

 

31st August 2014  Arrived at Ulaan Bataar or UB as hip travellers call it. It is a large and fairly modern city on first impressions with a dual carriage/toll way, still with potholes, leading into the city for the approaching 20 k’s. In fact it has been tar a lot of the way from Erdenesant.

 

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Russia Part Two

25th July 2014 Yesterday we wild camped at Chechenino on the Volga river. We had read about this place on another overlanders website which mentioned the locals kindness to them. We found a spot right on the river but the mosquitoes were horrendous so after looking further decided on a more friendly site, still on the river. We had just settled in to our, out of the way spot, when an extended family arrived, at dusk, for a swim. We got to talking to them and sure enough they invited us back to their house for dinner and we would have taken them up on their offer but for our tiredness and that our dinner was ready.

A family that swims together stays together.

Today drove on to the city of Kazan, another beautiful place again with its own ancient Kremlin, churches and Macas. It is the Capital of the Tatarstan Republic which is still a part of Russia and ended up wild camped on the shore of Kuybyshev Reservoir.

We are about a thousand kilometres east of Moscow and Judy has just downloaded a book, isn’t technology wonderful?

I have been wondering whether I’ve been speaking some sort of old style Russian as the Russian that I learnt was sixty years ago (I call it Shakespearian Russian) but no, I have figured it out. Today there was a children’s show, on the radio, complete with The Dog Song. I understood it all. So the form of Russian that I speak is six year old’s.

26th July 2014 Passed the city of Ufa, capital of the republic of Bashkortostan, again a part of Russia, and again a modern and attractive city of one million or so. I wonder where these dirty industrial towns, that they keep talking about, are? Cause I haven’t seen any yet.

We had Maccas for lunch and a haircut costing AUD$4.50 but could have had a budget job for AUD$2.50.

Late this evening, looking for a place to stay we again did battle with a mud road before finding a cosy little truck stop alongside about twenty juggernauts and a junk yard.

28th July 2014 We have found our first two Russian National parks, last night Zyuratkul and tonight at Taganai but it has been raining and cold, 11c as a daily maximum. Bear in mind that this is pretty well mid summer. I have been told that this is freakish weather and that it is usually much warmer and that last winter was unusually warm i.e. snow only a foot deep as opposed to the usual one meter.

Today whilst trying to find Taganai N.P. a man insisted on showing us the way. This only took him about twenty kilometres out of his way along wet, muddy roads in his little two wheel drive car, no worries. Thank you Valdimir!

In general the Russians don’t seem to let anything faze them. In the poor weather conditions people were out and about, picnicking, bush walking and they seem to have not so much of a can do attitude as a will do attitude.

1st August 2014 We spent two days at Taganai the weather slowly getting better, regrouping and organising ourselves. One of the highlights was the Banya. This is the traditional Russian sauna where large rocks are heated by coals for two to three hours and water poured over them to produce the steam and release heat from the rocks, a mild thrashing with birch leaves producing a healthy erythema (pinkness) on the skin is followed by a dip in the very cold water of the lake which is right next to the Banya. (Done three or four times to taste) After the intense heat the cold water of the lake is easy to take though it does take your breath away and you have to be careful not to suck in a mouthful of water, as I did.

Yesterday we drove to the city of Chelybinsk where we had to check the T-belt warning light with the local Toyota dealer. This is a huge and modern dealership and we were quite a novelty to them. The General Manager came down and welcomed us and told us of the cross world sailor that they had just sponsored, followed by an interview and photo shoot with our car and the Toyota staff. They gave us a complementary Toyota Frisbee as a parting gift.

Today we dove about 650K’s with the weather really nice now. Russia is so huge and all of it seems to consist of either forest or fields of wheat. The soil throughout all of Russia is that thick black stuff, great for growing but bad for bogging.

The roadhouses offer generally average food and toilets of varying quality from very good to, literally, the pits. Worse than anything Africa threw at us, I wont go into details here. At some you could even get a good shower for a small price.

We haven’t been stopped by any police as yet, so no document inspections or bribes again as we had heard.

Haven’t seen a drunk yet and the roads are OK and whilst the driving is on the aggressive side the truck driving is very good with all sticking to their speed limits and not to many driving gymnastics.

Some myths may be put to rest.

3rd August 2014 We expected the frontier town of Novosibirsk to be a little rough around the edges, maybe fur traders. Instead we spent three hours in Ikea, identical to the one at Rhodes in Sydney back home and while this was good therapy for Judy I quietly slipped into Retail Trance. This is a condition where one can be led anywhere and made to say Yes to anything. We visited a Bunning’s style hangar, which makes our Bunningses look like corner shops and a supermarket with 76 checkouts.

Oh, we also saw the Opera House, which is meant to be even bigger than the Bolshoi in Moscow.

4th August 2014 Arrived at Tomsk about 250k’s north of Novosibirsk as we had heard it is a lively university town with interesting buildings and street life. Scouted around for a camping area where one was shown on our map. It turned out to be a disused youth camp with a dog-training workshop in progress. The Caretaker/Manager, Lena, told us that it hadn’t been used for eight years but that we were welcome to camp overnight, free of charge. Some interesting Soviet era street furniture and an old Aeroflot plane made the place worth staying at and true to form, about an hour later, Lena arrived with homemade jams and bags of berries for us.

The dog seminar has turned out quite funny as we are now surrounded by them and they all seem to be barking, being walked, panting and all of those other doggy things that they do. A girl came over and showed us all the tricks her dog (a kind of miniature Shitszu) had learnt. It must be a very clever dog as there were many of them and she was so proud. All most unexpected at 9pm.

5TH August 2014 Being tourists today and seeing the sights of Tomsk such as the Oppression Museum which shows, among other things, how many punishment camps (Gulags) there were, many many. Tomsk has a good feel about it with old wooden buildings mixed with golden spired churches, historic buildings and gardens.

On the way into town we stopped at a tyre repair place, flat tyre number eight, and had it repaired. The repairer did not want payment and I had to insist of even a small payment.

Judy noticed that she had run out of her tablets and we thought we would spend all day, chasing around finding, a doctor to write a script and then getting them but first I thought I would just ask at a chemist shop. No worries, no script necessary as they could tell from the old box what was needed, and pick them up next day. No RED tape here.

Returned to our camp late to find the guard dog seminar still in progress with lots of growling and barking and later spoke the the head trainer in his full body padding. This guy had been all around Russia and he really recommended that we visit Lake Baikol, he is about the fourth person to say this, so I think, if we have time, we will.

6th August 2014 Judy made pancakes for breakfast and we just took it easy, used our solar shower and went into town to get the tablets, which were waiting for us. Had a trendy meal, rang the girls did a bit of WIFI. This is our third night here at the camp and Lena has just arrived with some Blinnies, a Russian pancake.

7th August 2014 Just as we left Tomsk I was pulled over by the police for crossing an unbroken road line. At first the officer was a bit stern and did check our documents but as we spoke he warmed up and any misdemeanour was soon forgotten. He did ask if I had any Australian money and I thought it was the start of a bribe, but no, he just wanted some coins for his collection. We parted the best of friends. On we travelled via Kemerovo, the capital of the region to almost Novokuznetsk along first class motorways, through large landscapes of fields and big towns. So much for the wild Siberian frontier.

8th August 2014 Finally found the real Siberia just 400 k’s shy of Mongolia. We are in the Altai region, which is mildly mountainous, very pretty, and with a dirt road, although this only lasted for about 50 K’s. Now wild camped on Biya river by Lake Teletskoye, near the village of Artybash, which is a bit of a tourist trap Siberian style i.e. a few souvenir stalls and people standing on the side of the road advertising that their house is available for rent. There are actually some camping grounds here but the toilets are really bad and no showers so we have preferred to just find a nice spot, easy enough, and go al fresco.

Warm enough but looks like the rain has set in. No mozzies or ticks.

9th August 2014 Gorno-Altaysk is the regional capital of the Altai Republic and we may or may not have some daunting visa/registration type of chores to do here. The blogs we have read give conflicting information and things have changed here in very recent years so armed with the information given to us on entry to Russia we think we may just try to wing it and drive to the Mongolian border. The countryside is getting prettier by the kilometre. Last night we wild camped by a river and same again tonight except that tonight we face a small birch island and a full moon. Could be one of those paintings that are too good to be true.

It gets to -40c here in winter.

11th August 2014 Wild camped again last night alongside a crystal clear stream having driven through some beautiful and spectacular country. At the idyllic campsite some very inquisitive cows welcomed us by generally hanging around and occasionally poking heir heads into the back of the car, and they are here now as I write. We are hoping for bears, as this is bear country or a moose or even a squirrel.

After a couple of hours three young blokes approached us saying that we had to pay a camping fee of three hundred roubles ($9.00). I asked for ID, which they produced but I could not read and so I paid, asking for a receipt, which they produced but I could not read. So I don’t know if I’d been had or not.

(think I did) In any case no trouble.

Didn’t get going till 2pm through a changing landscape from coniferous to semi arid with snow-capped mountains in the close distance, starting to feel like Mongolia now. Pulled in to get some last supplies at the second last outpost but people here would not look out of place on the streets of Moscow, tank tops with board shorts or platinum blondes on high heels. No traditional garb yet.

The driving has been ideal with very good roads, no trucks and light traffic.

Now wild camped at Lake Chenbekkel about 8k north of Aktash.

 

12th August 2014 Driving though drier and drier country as we approach Mongolia but still very spectacular and we have lunched by a raging torrent of snow melted water surrounded by mountains with many recent landslides visible. At the last Russian outpost, Kosh-Agach, a real frontier town, we did our last fuel and veg top up and checked with the local police whether we needed any more approvals or permissions. No was their answer.

The border crossing was more complicated than expected, as we had to go through numerous checkpoints. The last stumbling block presented an unexpected problem. We had been given the wrong information at the Russian entry point. We were told that we only needed to register our visa if we stayed at a location for more than seven days but in fact we had to register it every seven days. Result, a fine of 2000 roubles each was mandatory  (total AUD$120.00), however the nice officer only imposed one fine of $60.00 because of our age. It actually turned out to be cheaper than had we gone through the correct registration process.

 

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Russia Part One

14th July 2014 Entered Russia at the Koidula check point with no queues but took two hours to pass through both Estonian and Russian border posts with no trouble. The officers of both countries were polite, cheerful and helpful. We were able to get car insurance ($100 for two months) at a petrol station at the border. A further fee of 150 roubles ($5) road toll, so have some roubles or go to the nearby shop and change Euros or US dollars as I did.

So far the roads aren’t bad nor the Russian’s driving, as we had heard, and there were no more bread queues as we shopped at probably the biggest supermarket we have ever seen, in Pskov, a provincial city, fully stocked. Judy was able to get beauty products that she hasn’t been able to get since Sydney. This supermarket was like Woollies, Big W, Bunning’s and Super Cheap Auto all in one. I wonder what they will be like in a big city?

Our first night in Russia and we are wild camped (bush camped) just off the highway, on our way to Saint Petersburg, should get there tomorrow.

15th July 2014 Driving into Saint Petersburg we see a huge, grand city, the size of Sydney, with wide streets, some with eight lanes surrounded by six storey centuries old buildings, golden spires and domes adorn palaces and churches.

The Olgino Hotel has a camping area, which is past its former glory but has pleasant parkland, the Wi-Fi works and Visa card is accepted. The reception staff is friendly but I’m slightly miffed that no one is paying the slightest attention to my excellent Russian speech.

We thought we had the place to ourselves but the German contingent from Estonia has just arrived, thirteen mobile homes, and, unbeknown to ourselves we have made camp right in the middle of their “booked” area. However they seem to have accepted us. One of their number had a bad crash here in Russia, a write off and unknown injuries.

I later found out that his injuries were not serious.

18th July 2014 Wow! The Hermitage, which is Peter the Great’s palace, is a museum/art gallery, indescribable. More Rembrandt’s than the Louvre, sculpture, period clothing, Egyptian section, Da Vinci’s, Michael Angelo’s, what can I say. As a bonus you walk around these beautiful rooms in which the nobility lived.

Getting around is easy by public transport. The Metro runs at double speed with a train every one to three minutes depending on time of day and cheap. It is day here till midnight so you can fit a lot in.

People are helpful. We got talking to an old Babushka (Grandmother) as we got off the bus, and the next thing you know she is volunteering to be our tour guide to Pushkin, which is meant to have an even more glorious palace than The Hermitage.

We visited the Peter and Paul Cathedral in which all of the Tsars are interred and the Spilled Blood Cathedral (built on the spot where a Tsar was assassinated? Alexander) then took a Neva (river) and canal boat ride. A lot of these buildings have golden spires and when you see them in the flesh they are very impressive.

The Babushka was right, Ekaterina’s palace and grounds, in Pushkin was even more impressive than the Hermitage. The Russian nobility’s wealth must have been huge, too bad about the peasants.

It took us four hours to get out of Saint Petersburg due to traffic jams.

Apparently Vladimir Putin regularly frequents a local eatery in Pushkin.

Russia is pretty well right up to date now. Plenty of Landcruisers, Mercs, Range Rovers, good roads, huge hypermarkets, no drunks and plenty of ATM’S. I believe they put a man into space once.

Now camping on a small lake on the road to Moscow.

Judy wrote her first Russian word today, in Russian, it was Pushkin, and what a word to start with. One of Russia’s greatest literary masters.

Just heard about the Malasian airline plane that was shot down over the Ukraine killing many including some twenty eight Australians.

19th July 2014 Popped into Novgorod to see their Kremlin, fortress and church, impressive as usual and finished the day wild camping on one of the most beautiful spots yet. A halcyon day on the small Tvertsa river just out of Torzhok (and if you can say that you must be a Russian).

We met another overlander couple at a road stop, Hauke and Ragnhild aka Rags (of Max Hunt website), they are professional hunter/ travellers on their way to Kamchatkaand are just ripping their way through Russia to get to the remote wildernesses.

This trip seems to get better and better by the day, and I’m saying this ten months into the trip.

Tomorrow we enter Moscow.

20th July 2014 Saint Petersburg is a village by comparison to Moscow. Massive buildings, sixteen lane roads in the middle of town and twelve million people in residence. It took us all day to find a hotel to stay at and even though it was a Sunday and traffic relatively light I found it very difficult to get from A to B as there are many through roads and one way roads. Very hard to pick from a map.

Subways are very expensive here, not the train but the fast food franchise, however our hotel room is only $80/night. It is central, clean with good facilities provided such as kitchen, gym, cinema and bar. Not bad value as we had heard that Moscow is THE most expensive tourist city.

We have had perfect weather in the high 20’s by day and cool nights.

21st July 2014 We started off the day slowly trying to sort out the parking. There are no parking stations, which will take the height of our car, but you can park in the street and pay an astronomical fee, the problem is that their system doesn’t recognise our number plates (or is it a problem?). Anyway we didn’t get going until midday. From here the day really happened. We got to the Mongolian embassy by metro (the stations are like art galleries) and got our visas that afternoon, paying express US$320 total. In fact the Metro trains are like a conveyor belt, a train coming as little as thirty seconds apart and costing two thirds of bugger all for a ticket.

Had a most delicious lunch of Khinkali, a Georgian dumpling and walking it off along Arbatskaya a shopping and tourist precinct before arriving at Red Square. It looks so drab when you see it on all of those old Red Army parades but drab it aint, being surrounded by not only the Kremlin but an astounding Saint Basils cathedral and other monumental buildings. The scale of Moscow is incomprehensible but if you want BIG forget Red Square, just go to your local shopping mall. You see we used to get stories like this: Moscow has a butcher but sometimes the meat doesn’t come in and there are shortages, also bread lines, look again buddy!

I’m hoping to get a peek into Lenin’s tomb tomorrow ghoul that I am.

23rd July 2014 Yesterday we visited the Kolomneskaya gardens after sorting out our Sony camera, which had a problem with its viewfinder, we found a repairer but also bought a new Canon as a back up.

Today another huge day starting with poached egg on spinach, eggs benedict and two coffee’s = $50, yes these guys have got the gist of capitalism. Next, Lenin’s tomb, he’s is in there alright, for how much longer we do not know. It was a strange sensation, the crypt was very dark and there must be many accidents on the steps leading down to the body, which is bathed in an eerie glow. As I walked past him he gave me a wink but I don’t think anyone else saw.

Next, went on a tourist bus ride followed by a visit to TSUM, a David Jones +++, but not before stopping at the Kamchatka, opposite for some piroshky almost as good as Mum’s.

On the way back to the Kremlin, in a subway, was a three piece, string quartet. Yes that’s right, a three piece that sounded like four or rather forty musicians. The sound was just great.

The Kremlin, again words escape, many cathedrals, the biggest cannon never fired in anger and a huge Tsars bell.

 

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North Eastern Europe

10th July 2014 Entered a rainy Poland yesterday, slept at a truck stop and headed for Bialowieza, close to the Belarus border, the last fragment of primeval growth forest left in Europe once owned by the Russian Tsar . It was used for hunting purposes and some of his remaining buildings are still intact.

We will have to make a beeline for Russia now due to time and insurance purposes (The Green Card Insurance runs out on the 14th).

11th July 2014 Entered a rainy Lithuania driving through mostly flat farm lands until stopping for the night at the Maria Angelu camping area right next to a hill of crosses well known in Lithuania as a symbol of freedom against communism.

Lithuanians have been waving to us and giving us the thumbs up all along the way and everyone seems to know that New South Wales (on our plates) is in Australia, or maybe it’s the kangaroo transfers on our car.

12th July 2014 Lovely old town of Riga known as the Paris of Northern Europe. Lane side restaurants and bars with many bands playing and balmy temperatures. Spent the day there just taking it all in.

13th July 2014 On entering the capital city of Estonia, Tallinn, a roadside temperature gauge told us it was 27c. This is 11c hotter than when we entered Nairobi, surprising, bearing in mind that Tallinn is well above Scotland in latitude and Nairobi is on the equator.

A member of the Estonian chapter of the Hell’s Angels just rode past us, wearing full colours (still allowed here) making this a truly first world country, but seriously the city looks modern and Nordic with the countryside full of fir trees, just what you would expect really.

We are in an urban camping area complete with NO grass and surrounding warehouses. That’s camping! With WiFi.

Our proposed entry point into Russia has a minimum 11 hour queue , due to road works, so we will travel to another entry point further south, this should be easier.

It’s still twilight at midnight.

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Czech Republic

30th June 2014 I have arrived at my spiritual home. Pilsen (Plzen in Czech), in the Czech Republic, where Pilsener (German spelling) beer was invented. Apparently Czechs drink more beer per capita than Germans or Australians, and this means that they are the champion beer drinkers of the world. Tomorrow we will do the Pilsner (not a spelling mistake) Urguell Brewery tour. So if you don’t hear from me for a couple of days you will know why.

They tell me that it is impossible to get a hangover after drinking Pilsner that is brewed here, so I will conduct a scientific experiment.

6th July 2014 I half expected to be greeted by St Peter at the gates of the Brewery, but no. He was inside, roasting barley, creating nectar of the gods. I’m getting a little over the top here, aren’t I. Nonetheless, good brew bro! The brewery reminded me of the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory with huge, polished, copper vats and Oompa Loompas running around. The end of the tour climaxed with a sampling ceremony straight out of the wooden barrel, have I used the word ambrosia yet?

Judy and I ended the afternoon at a typical Czech brassiere scoffing pork knees with dumpling and quaffing still more amber liquids. I think I am putting on a little weight.

I can declare the hangover experiment to be a huge success too,     no pain.

I know it’s a few days since our last blog entry but we have been so busy. We caught up with people we met in Nairobi, part of our, so called, Wildebeest Club.

 

Pavel and Petra have been so kind to us, allowing us to stay with them while the Troopy gets reshod with new tyres (see travel notes) and has a service in readiness for Russia/ Mongolia. They have been our guides through their beautiful Prague and taken us to Liberec, my Father’s hometown, where a Cessna was hired to do an aerial tour. This was a lot of fun. The plane had dual controls, I sat next to the pilot while Judy and Pavel sat behind (Petra opted to stay on land as it is only a four seater) and at one point I held the joy stick/wheel taking a picture of this action with my other hand. This was when the pilot asked do you want to fly it. This was the start of my flying career. What a thrill and I was able to do turns and go up and down, these are technical terms us pilots use, but when I asked if I could land the plane it took a small second for the pilot to say NO.

Climbed Jeschken, the Liberec mountain that my father used to ski/toboggan and had lunch at the top in the award winning tower/restaurant completed in 1973. Mid summer in Liberec is like mid winter in Sydney.

In the evening we went to Marcella and Marek’s home (friends of Pavel and Petra) where they put on a barbecue in our honour. We had a wonderful night and we thank them.

This is what we have done over the last two days or so but today we travelled into Prague by ourselves by train (about a one hour trip) to give Pavel and Petra a break from us as we are still waiting on the Troopy. It is a public holiday weekend here and hopefully it will be ready on Monday.

We wandered the streets of Prague to the Music Museum but decided it was too heavy for us on such a beautiful day so, as we had an all day transport pass, we took a tram to it’s terminus and back just to get a feel for the city. We finished the day at a free concert but misjudged our location and time and then had to run about two kilometres to catch the last train back. We made it by five minutes.

7th July 2014   Car ready.

The Czech mechanics did a great job on the car service and tyres (see travel notes).

9th July 2014 Having spent the previous day cleaning the car in readiness for part 2 of our journey we say farewell to Pavel and Petra who could not have been more welcoming and generous had they been family. Friends like these you find once in a lifetime. If they ever come to Australia we hope to return the favour.

During our last evening we watched Germany demolish Brazil 7/1 in the World Cup semi final and one of the comestibles (eaties) that we had was a Czech delicacy called Nakladani Utopenci, which is a type of pickled sausage. Translated it means something like Dead Man Drowning, and a tasty morsel it is.

Petra saw us off with a home made wholemeal loaf baked in her oven with love.

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