Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Crazy Drivers

One of the takeaways from this trip was that everyone east of Germany (or anywhere in Russia) drives like they're playing a video game. In Greece and Turkey, it's absolutely expected that you drive on the shoulder all the time, just in case someone might want to pass you. In Russia, a two lane road is actually a four lane road with the lane markings (clearly) in the wrong place. As for the rest, they seem to have the ability to see around corners.

I think this picture illustrates the general idea. There you are being all aggressive and passing some slowpoke, when much to your surprise... you are the slowpoke!

How many crazy people can you get in the back Kia?

5, apparently. On a night out with the British caravan (Teams Quid Grid and Marco Polo). From left to right, that's me (duh), Lloyd, a dude who wasn't in the caravan (sorry I suck with names), Pete, and the top of Richard's head. I'm guessing Andy took the picture. Not sure how he got shotgun. Bollocks!

More pics are up

Alex is on top of things as always, and has uploaded the latest pictures, including the Novosibirsk to Ulaan Baatar leg. Here are some choice morsels from that group:

1758km to Irkutsk... this was a sobering sign. Of course, the fact that there was a sign held the promise of reasonable roads...

Sadly, those reasonable roads soon disappeared and turned into multiple 70km stretches of this crud:

Anyway, after two days of driving we finally arrived in Irkutsk. A nice enough city, but they seem to have a problem with people in wheelchairs...

After Irkutsk, we hit lake Baikal, which apparently was a triumphant moment for me...

Fast forward to Ulan Bataar, where the Brits and I carried on the tradition of stupidity by climbing the welcome sign. Climbing While Theo? Nope, no injuries. I'm the dot on the left.

And finally, the Lada is delivered to the orphanage outside of UB. The old man waits anxiously for me to leave so he can take her for a spin.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Lada has a new home

Just got finished dropping the Lada off at the orphanage in the hills near UB. One of my new British friends (Lloyd) was nice enough to give me a lift the 30km back which made it much easier.

The orphanage was surprisingly nice looking -- nestled in a green valley, with lots of space around it. We pulled up to the administrative office, and immediately a cluster of old men were very interested in the Lada. One wanted the stereo, and another to take the car for a spin. Turns out that Ladas are very rare in Mongolia... I haven't seen one since we arrived.

After getting past the gauntlet and taking some farewell pictures of the Lada, I handed over the paperwork and keys and got the official "you've delivered the car" stamp... so now we're Lada-less. I'm actually a bit sad to see her go... we've been through so much together, and the car has been nearly flawless.


Irkutsk to Ulaan Baatar or Ulan Bator or Ulan Batar or something

Passed by Lake Baikal and stopped for some pics... very beautiful. Unfortunately weren't able to camp on the shores. Camped overnight a couple hundred km from the Mongolian border, in another random field... somehow all our randomly chosen campsites have been quite nice, and this was no exception.

The Russia -> Mongolia crossing was reasonably easy... got to the boarder around 2pm, and out around 7. The line to get into the line to get out of Russia (yes, a line for a line) was very disorganized, but after chatting up one of the border guards (Andrew, who spoke english!) we managed to sort things out and get into the next line.

Once in the actual line we got a new set of border guards, who were very very puzzled by the transit tags on the Lada. But after 45 minutes and a bunch of calling around to see what they should do with/to me, they decided to let me through with a stern warning never to bring this car into russia again. Ok. :)

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Location confirmed...

The Lada and I have actually reached UB! Got in at 1pm, after spending the night with the new brits in a field about 50km from UB. Staying in an amazingly nice hostel at $3 a night, and managed to book tickets to Seattle via Beijing and San Francisco for Monday morning. (7:25am, yikes) Turns out all the flights are booked up, partly because the Dalai Lama is in town. Might get to see him speak tomorrow!

All in all, UB is a great city so far... it's cheap, and everything we need is readily accessible. Except a SIM... working on that.

Lots of new pics of Novosibirsk -> UB to come once I get home.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Theo's in Ulan Battor

Rumor (a phone call from Cyrus) has it that Theo has arrived in Ulan Battor!

We've been in the news!

We ran into Simon Ostrovsky in Baku, a reporter for the French news service AFP, who helped us out quite a bit in Baku and also apparently found our little adventure stupid enough to merit a story:

Thursday, August 24, 2006

More Pictures

I've added a lot more pictures to our Archive here: Look in the RustBox.360 folder to get to most of them.

Made Irkutsk

I'm finally in Irkutsk. The roads from Novosibirsk to Irkutsk (the "M-53") were much worse than expected... some great stretches, but mixed in with some of the worst roads I've seen on this trip. And lots f railroad crossings (with trains crossing at each one). Pics to come at some point. Caravaning with the new brits (teams Quid Grid and Marco Polo) has been great. They're also good cover through police checkpoints... British plates distract the cops from my crazy Moscow transit tags.

Speaking of transit tags... 95% of the cars on the M-53 going west (against us) were brand new cars with transit tags. It's amazing that it's cheaper to destroy the cars over rutted muddy roads than to stick 'em on a train.

Oh, and big albino mosquitos everywhere. Somehow their albinoness makes them more threatening... I think you can see the stinger better. Anyway, DEET FTW. And despite the annoyances, Siberia is very beautiful.

Now we're off to the Mongolian border, and hopefully to UB tomorrow. We have about 700km to the border, and 350 more to UB. Go Lada go.

p.s. Pot grows wild on the side of the road in part of Siberia. Who would have guessed??? No, I didn't roll it an smoke it. :)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Mongolia or Bust!

- August 18: Cyrus went bust when Kazakhstan wouldn't give him a second visa at the border, and then there were two.

- August 22: Alex went bust when I had to fly back to work from Novosibirsk (but I have now taken a hot shower in my very own bathroom, and that almost made the 17 hour flight on three separate airplanes worth it) and then there was one.

- Theo and the LADA are still going strong. I am now convinced that the Lada is capable of just going forever, deliver her to the poor Mongolians, Theo - they certainly aren't getting a better car our of this rally!

Made it to Barnaul, Russia and caught up with a couple of other teams to keep Theo company on the way to Mongolia (including Dan and Simon, who had managed to escape Camp Baku to Turkmenistan a few days before the rest of us left for Kazakhstan)

All terrain Lada

Or how we got just a little lost and went off-roading in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is a really big country. Kazakhstan is a really big country with some of the consistently worst stretches of road we've seen anywhere along the way so far. Kazakhstan is a really big country, with terrible roads, that I lost our map for somewhere in Uzbekistan (have I mentioned we didn't enjoy Uzbekistan?). So, all of this being the case, Theo and I were actually making pretty good progress through the country - driving with few stops for things like taking somebody to a hospital, and on the morning of the 20th we had arrived at Lake Balqash, which is a vast, beautiful body of water on the way up North from Almaty. We had hoped to actually camp out there during the night, but getting out of Almaty took longer than we might have hoped.

After this brief interlude (which was also the closest thing I got to a shower during the three days in Kazakhstan), we were faced with a choice: our map said that we needed to get Norht to the town of Aktogai, we could take the direct route there, but the locals had warned that the road was bad, or we could take a roughly 250 km detour. In the stupid spirit of the rally, we obviously went straight. Over the next three hours, we were driving along the singularily worst stretch of road I had seen so far on the trip.

It wasn't really that the were a lot of pot holes (of course there were), the real problem was that the road had turned itself into a giant washboard, that was threatening to completely shake the car loose. Eventually, I realized that the washboard was actually the worst in places that were more heavily trafficed, so I first started trying to pick parts of the road that had received less traffic. This shortly turned to simply trying to drive next to the road surface as opposed to on it whenever I could see the surface well enough. As if to underscore just how screwed we would be if the car had broken down or anything else had gone wrong, over the course of the three hour drive, I did not see a single other car on the "road" and I saw something resembling a settlement once.

Theo, however, slept comfortably (we had been on the road for approaching 36 hours straight at that point):

Eventually, we reached another settlement, roughly where I thought Aktogai should have been, and I thought our off-roading days were done. This was once again proven thoroughly incorrect - Aktogai was still 18km away, and getting there now involved following tracks through open fields and meadows. Conveniently enough, there were actually people to give us directions in some of the most obscure places in these fields.

And then, we hit pavement again, and there was much rejoicing!

The final slap in the face came when we realized that our map had been copmletely wrong and we didn't need to go to Aktogai at all, and the paved route, that we thought was a detour would have actually been shorter... oh well, by then I felt being lost for 4 hours on unpaved roads in the empty middle of Kazakhstan was well within the spirit of the rally! The rest of the drive to the Russian border was fairly unremarkable, except for plenty more stretches of terrible roads, of course. And the Lada, for the record, came through the gravel washboard none the worse for it - these cars were built for this!

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Adventures of the Lone Rallier

Alex flew out of Novosibirsk last night at 1am, so I am now the Lone Rallier. Going to try to meet up with some other northern route teams to caravan and maybe share driving. 1800km to Irkutsk, another thousand to UB. Hi ho, Silver, away!

Saturday, August 19, 2006

How to eat Mexican food in Azerbaijan!

So now with Azerbaijan (I can still spell it) over a week behind us it's time to blog some of the events that happened there. Though being stuck in Beku for 10 days was extremely frustrating a LOT of good things came out of it. We met some extraordinary people in Beku and had some great times. As is well known we setup camp at the port customs lot and pretty much came and went as we pleased. Hatched many plans and even discussed what our chances were of navigating the Caspian if we commandeered a ferry.

This photo is from our group as we boarded our ship to Kazakhstan. By this point Simon and Dan had already left us as we discovered the day before that they in fact had VISA's for Turkministan the entire time. Woops. Pictured here are Tommy (125cc Motorcycle), Rambo (Suzuki SJ), Henry (Citron 2CV), Oliver (Rover Metro), Alex (Lada), Jamie (Suzuki SJ), Drew (Rover Metro), Hugh (Rover Metro), Cyrus (Lada), Theo (Lada), Elenor (2CV), and Bart (Bicycle)

So on one of the more frustrating days we had to go get our VISA's renewed since we had stayed long enough so Alex, Theo, Tommy and I wondered around town until we found the Ministry of Security (I think) and stood in line to get VISA's. While there we ran into the Pandit family bringing the count to six stranded Americans with expired passports. They had actually been in the process of boarding their plan when they were told their VISA's had expired the day before and they couldn't leave until they were extended.

The next day I got a text message from them inviting us to Mexican food for dinner. Me and Theo jumped on that invite. Well ok it actually took us almost two hours to get there but that was super fast in Azerbaijanian time. On the way over Theo asked how they were cooking Mexican food without a kitchen so when we showed up at their hotel we laughed because they had taken over the hotels kitchen to make Mexican food. When we arrived the food was almost ready and the staff at the hotel was extremely curios and seemed to have never seen Mexican food before. All told there were nine of us eating and everyone helped show the locals how to make Taco's. My favorite part of the meal though had to be when they grabbed some flat bread to put on the table since you simply cannot eat a meal in Beku without flat bread.
Pictured here is Neelima, Theo, Salil, Cyrus, and Anjuli. In the background is the hotel Concierge who was pretty cool and helped out with everything we needed and mastered Mexican food after just a few taco's. Well I'm being liberal with the term mastered. Due to my crappy memory I can't remember his name right now but I'm sure Salil will remind me. Neelima lives in Kazakhstan with her husband who was working and couldn't make the trip but Salil and Anjuli are going to college in the US. They also gave us lots of advice for navigating Kazakhstan and told us some great stories about both the current and past trips they had been on. This is one well traveled family, they got me beat hands down and I'm up to 30 something countries.

The next day we all "dressed" up and put in an appearence at the office of the folks who owned the ferries. They were more interested in figuring out how we managed to find them than actually talking to us and told us point blank that it wasn't financially viable to send a ferry to Kazakhstan right now so we would be stuck for at least another week. The person on the right is Simon. He was a local expat working for the AFP as a field journalist and tried to help us broker a deal with the ferry owners. But at the end of the day we knew we had failed.

Later that day the Pandit family invited all of us to go to a local restaurant called Chanek Kala so we showed up in four cabs and sat down to a table of 16. The place was this absolutely amazing outdoor restaurant that could literally seat 200 easily. It had a giant dancing area with load music. I of course left my camera at home (Customs lot) but hopefully we'll get pictures of it soon and I'll edit this blog. We had just gotten news that Simon and Dan had VISA's and would be leaving the next day so we celebrated their good fortune. Maybe a bit in excess. By the end of the night I was sure that the Pandit family would never talk to us again and that we were on a permanent ban list at Chanek Kala but it was a great evening. Food for 16, 25ish bottles of beer & 7 large bottles of Vodka put the total bill at $208. The place was amazing. We had all assumed we were in for $30 - $40 each by the time the meal was over.

I texted Neelima the next day and apologized for how rowdy we got and she told me not to worry. That was quite a releaf. We then got a call from the Ferry Management office telling us they were sending a ferry for us the next day so we were in high spirits. We still don't know why the ferry came but we all doubt it was actually because of us. Unless you include the MASSIVE disturbence we made when we returned from Chanek Kala in the wee hours of the morning... So went back to Chanek Kala that night expecting to get turned away but instead they immidiatly seated us and started bringing Vodka which we turned away as we'd given our boddies enough abuse for the day.

Playing the stupid American card

Up to the this point on the rally, Alex has generally been front-and-center at each border crossing, speaking to the guards in perfect Russian to try to smooth things along. But for the Uzbek/Kazak border, we tried something a little different. Cyrus and I went first, and Alex pretended to speak just a wee bit of Russian when prompted.

We first tried this tactic during the effort to get Cyrus into Kazakstan and it failed, but other than that, it was amazingly successful and very amusing. Alex forced himself to mix random english words into his Russian sentences, and look as confused as possible when asked questions. The end result was the quickest border crossing we've had yet, with the customs guy actually filling out my customs form for me, in duplicate. Stupid American.

We'll see how it works at the next border crossing... back into Russia.

Uzbekistan to Almaty... an interesting 15 hours

Once Alex and I crossed the Uzbek/Kazak border, our first order or business was fuel for the car. The needle was dangerously close to empty, because we had rushed to the Uzbek border at the request of our last customs escort, because the border was supposedly closing. Like all things uttered by Uzbek customs officials during the last week, that was bull, um spit.

We ended up in Kazakhstan at 10pm with very little gas. Alex asked the Kazak border guards (in broken Russian, but that's another story) for the nearest gas station. When we arrived there, it had no gas! We met some local folks who were in the same predicament, and walked around with them, looking for gas. (it's not uncommon for folks to have water bottles full of gas lying around for sale.) No dice. One gas station said they hadn't had gas in 20 days! Isn't Kazakhstan sitting on a ton of oil??? Anyway... in the end, we were pointed to another gas station, 35km away. We rolled the dice and drove to it in super-efficient mode (4th gear at 60km/h) and made it. Whew... disaster averted.

Once we were gassed up, Alex took the wheel and I took the passenger seat for a good night's rest. About 30 minutes after I'd dozed off, I was awakened by the brakes on the Lada locking up solid for about 5 seconds, followed by a thump and then the sound of us going off the road. Turns out there had been a car accident a couple minutes ahead of us, and one of the cars had lost its rear bumper, and then placed the thing in the middle of the road as a "warning" to oncoming cars. Alex had seen the bumper, braked, hit it, and then turned off the road to see exactly what he'd hit. (I am glad to report that the Lada came out completely unscathed, as always! - Alex)

Then out of one of the wrecked cars came a Kazak man with a severe head injury and broken arm. He hadn't been wearing his seatbelt, and naturally got banged around when his car rolled over. And so the Lada became an ambulance... we shuttled the injured man and a compatriot about 120km to the nearest hospital, in Shymkent. The compatriot promised to get us into a newspaper story about foreigners helping a local... so be sure to read your copy of the Shymkent Daily News this week.

Naturally, on the way to the hospital neither of our passengers wore their seatbelts.
We're looking for the Ambulance sign for the Lada's hood, but haven't been able to locate one yet.

Asian Bird Flew...

Into our windshield this morning, on the way to Almaty. This is the third bird strike we've had in Central Asia. What is it about the Lada? Aerodynamics? Next time we'll have to drive something more wedge-shaped. Seriously, I feel bad.

The car is OUT of Uzbekistan!!! but I'm not...

Well we always knew the lack of a double entry VISA would bite me in the ass and it did.

Let me give some background. All three of us had to get VISA's to Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. For Uzbekistan & Kyrgyzstan we needed single entry VISA's. For Kazakhstan we needed double entry VISA's and for Russia we needed a multiple entry VISA.

Now for Alex and Theo this process was simpler since they could ship off their passports to Washington D.C. and get the VISA's they needed. However since I've been traveling non stop for a while I needed my Passport with me so that wasn't an option. As a result I got my Kazakhstan & Russia VISA's in Hong Kong and my Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan VISA's in Beijing. The only slight issue around this was that the Consular official for Kazakhstan in Hong Kong wasn't authorized to issue double entry VISA's. However he told me to call him and he would arrange for a VISA to be waiting at the border for me. He also said I could get a three day Transit VISA at the border if needed.

Needless to say I wasn't overly confident this would work out fine so the night before we went to the border we hatched a plan during Bart's birthday celebration. Bart is a Dutch guy we met in Baku who has been bicycling around Europe/Asia/Africa for the last 6 months and we talked him into joining our group to go on to Mongolia. Anyway the plan was I'd just show up at the border and try and bluff my way into Kazakhstan and if it didn't work out I'd meet up with the crew and hitch a ride into Kyrgyzstan which is the direction the rest of the Camp Beku group was going.

So we got an early start only to be waylaid by the incredibly inefficient banking system in Uzbekistan. It took us over an hour to get money at the bank. We asked around if this was normal and everyone said the bank was always broken. So we made it out of the city by 11:00 and then stopped on the side of the highway about half way to the border so that we could have yet another Customs Agent change (we change customs guys in each city) and that took over 3 hours in 100 degree sun. Then we drove for about 30 minutes before we had another 45 minute "Watermelon" break. Finelly we got to border but try as we might they wouldn't let me in. We had to convince them to send just me back and let Theo & Alex continue on with the car. Otherwise the car would have been in Customs hands again and we didn't want that.

So I caught a ride into Tashkent with one of the guards while Theo and Alex continued on to Almaty. Unfortunantly for me the mobile phone coverage is such crap in this country that I wasn't able to get a hold of the Camp Beku crew until they had reached the border to Kyrgyzstan.

So I'm in Tashkent now and I'll have to fly ahead of Alex & Theo to keep ahead of them. This means either I fly on to Novosibirsk (On a Tupoluv..) and join up with Alex and Theo there or fly back to Beijing and go back to work. We'll have it decided in the next few hours.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Quick update from Uzbekistan.

Well we made it out of Kazakhstan into Uzbekistan and then the real problems started.
A note to any future ralliers reading this site:

Uzbekistan has been the weirdest climate so far. It started off as nothing but desolate desert but has slowly gotten prettier as we went through the country. Samarqand is beautiful and there's quite a bit to see. Temp is perfect here as opposed to when we entered Kazak/Uzbek desert where it was so hot that opening a window felt like getting hit with a blow torch.

The Problem:
We had to pay 120 Euro's at the border because of our Transit plates and we were assigned an escort who takes us slowly from city to city which has caused us to slip from the Camp Beku caravan. However we keep passing eachother.

Gotta go. Out "Customs Officer" is pissed I'm taking so long. Can't wait to be back in Kazakhstan where we will have our independance back.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Leaving Baku?

A couple of news and notes, while using the slowest internet connection I've seen in years at a Baku Internet Klub.

- we are not actually as depressed as Cyrus' post makes it sounds like. Baku has actually been plenty of fun, in large part bacause there's 15 of us stuck here together. We just want to keep going. And, as somebody has commented, no we have not so far regretted our decision to come out here! I've regretted some (most?) of the major choices we've made along the way, but the overall idea has been sound.

- we're closer to leaving Baku than we've been so far. The ferry port is saying there's a 99% chance that the ferry atrriving at 7 tonight will go to Kazakhstan. Heading over there to find out more now. If we leave today, I think we still have a shot at actually making Ulan Bator!

- As we're likely to have extrmely limited internet access frome here on out, we finally seem to have the text messaging system working on the rally site, so you can keep up with us here: We'll try to get the progress map correctly updated too eventually, but that might take a little bit of time.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Camp Beku (Day 137)

I've been listening to a British comedian that one of the teams here has on their iPod. He does this skit about why swear words were invented, it's good and right now it really rings true.

Were fucked.

That's really about the only way to describe our situation. We talked yesterday with the head of the ferry boat administration and he told us they won't send another ferry to Kazakhstan for at least another week. So we are literally stuck here.

Our options at this point are:
  1. Wait for a ferry to Kazakhstan which may someday show up.
  2. Get VISA's for Turkministan and take the daily ferry there.
  3. Drive North around the Caspian sea.
  4. Drive South around the Caspian sea.

1) I've already described the issue with number 1. Specifically that it's a long ways off and we have no evidence it'll even go next week.

2) VISA's for Turkministan cannot be acquired in Azerbaijan because of a dispute of oil in the Caspian sea. So for us to get VISA's to Turkministan we have to drive to Armenia. Well the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia is also closed due to a border dispute. So to get there we'd have to drive back to Georgia. Apply for a VISA to Armenia in Georgia and then go to Armenia. Once in Armenia we could apply for a VISA to Turkministan. Then go back to Georgia and apply for new VISA's to Azerbaijan. Come back here and catch a ferry.

3) Drive North around the Caspian. Well here's the problem. Between the Black sea and the Caspian sea is Georgia and Azerbaijan. North of them is Russia. So easy choice since we've got multiple entry VISA's for Russia. Except the border between Georgia and Russia is closed completely and the border between Azerbaijan and Russia is closed to foreigners. Why are they closed? Because Chechnya and Dagestan are Russian republics to the north and there's a guerilla war going on. Now from everything we've heard Dagestan is actually fairly safe but they won't let us go that route.

4) Drive South around the Caspian. Directly south of Azerbaijan and continuing east around the Caspian is a little country called Iran. Which we would happily drive through at this point however we have to get permission from the state department prior to requesting the VISA and then we'd have to get Iran to approve the VISA which would take quite a bit of time itself. In addition we have to leave a $1500 deposit to bring the car in.

So were fucked. We've decided to go with option number 2 but we are leaning on our consulates to get the VISA's issued in Turkministan and courriered over here. I called the American Consulate in Turkministan and they told me to screw off. Actually their exact words were "I'm sorry it's against the law for us to help private citizens with VISA issues even in emergency situations." WTF? Who would write a law like that. Needless to say I've already written a long letter to both our Senators asking why we would have a law preventing Consulates from helping Americans.

The British on the other hand have been more helpful to their citizens (though it probably doesn't hurt that we have the daughter of a member of parliament with us) and to us as well. They agreed to not only work out VISA's for the Brits but to handle ours as well. However they aren't sure how long it will take. They say 5-10 days is likely.

So at the end of the day the chances of us making Mongolia are now extremely low. But on the plus side we are thinking of going into the mountains to go camping for the next three days.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Camp Baku (Day 5)

5 DAYS.... 5 DAYS!!

We couldn't have gotten stuck in Istanbul. No we HAD to break down in Azerbaijan. I didn't even know how to spell Azerbaijan before I came here and now I feel like I'm living here.

Top 10 things to do while in Beku.
  1. Bug the customs guys in the vague hope that they get annoyed enough with you to make the ferry company ship you off.
  2. Apply for new VISA since your original ones actually expired.
  3. Drive around behind giant dump trucks carrying (presumably) asbestos filled building debree while the wind blows tons of dust out of it into your face.
  4. Get your car raised up a couple inches for $40.
  5. Marvel at the Caspian Sea (From at least 30 feet away)
  6. Get disgusted by the Caspian Sea (From less than 30 feet away)
  7. Ask a Customs agent where the trash is only to have him lead you to the side of the railroad tracks and instruct you to just throw it on the ground.
  8. Drink Georgian home brewed Vodka that the Brits picked up on the way. (YEEOUCH that burned)
  9. Wake up to the smell of burning plastic and realize that it's almost certainly the plastic bottle you "Threw away" the previous day.
  10. Make friends with a bunch of Brits who have clearly made equally bad choices.

All in all the stop has been fun as we've had a heck of a time at "Camp Baku" which is actually the customs parking lot that we have commandeered. It's inside the "Secure" customs area since our car's VISA's have all expired.

Here's some pictures.

This was the sleeping arrangedments on the first night. We all just laid out on this tarp thing that team Blazing Camels brought along. It was actually reasonable comfortable and the sun woke us in the morning. Then the guards asked us to move because they wanted to load another ferry. We've played a lot of cards and drank our share of beer and Vodka with the guards. Alex has been in charge of making sure the customs folks like us. We tossed a rugby ball around with them last night and one of them really got into it. He was about 60 and we later found out he used to be on the Azerbaijanian national rugby team.

Blazing Camels in driving a 2CV which might be the most ridiculous car on the rally. It's got something like a 600cc engine and is air cooled but it's got loads of style. Since we are about to hit 120/45 degree weather in the desert we are all a bit curios how it'll work out there.

The funniest moment we had today happened shortly after Theo, Alex and I went to the Caspian. We backed off 30 feet to a bench so we could enjoy it and Theo said (with some sarcasm in his voice) "Ahh Beku, how beautiful you would be if your citizens didn't pollute the crap out of you." and right as he said pollute the woman walking by in front of us casually tossed her empty 1 litre bottle of sprite directly into the Caspian. It was sad but we laughed our assess off for about five minutes. Then we tried to get ourselves killed while crossing a road.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Istanbul to Samarquand in 27 million simple steps

Original plan: take a ferry from Istanbul to Odessa, Ukraine, enjoy Odessa, then leisurely drive along the North coast of the Black Sea to Sochi, on to Volgograd, into Kazakhstan and down across the desert into Uzbekistan towards Samarquand - perfect!

Problem: the ferries out of Istanbul are all booked up, we'd have to wait almost another full week to get on one.

Plan #2: drive through the night to Trabzon, on the Eastern part of Turkey, take a short ferry from there to Sochi, Russia, on the Black Sea's northern coast, continue original plan from there.

Problem: the ferry is in port and ready to go, but the guy wants $500 for the car and $75 per person. Bargain down to $350 for the car and $65 per person - that still seems awfully expensive, can't we just drive around to Sochi!? There's another ferry running two days later, and they would only charge $50 for the car, but we don't want to wait. So...

Plan #3: drive around the east coast of the Black Sea into Georgia (US citizens can get a Georgian visa at the border) up to Sochi, back to the original route from there.

Problem: We get into Georgia fine (well, not fine, since we spent two hours at the border, but that's par for the course by now) - got to drive along the Black Sea coast for a while - that was beautiful! Georgia, however, wants us to specify an explicit exit point on our visas, and they won't let it be Sochi, since they think that Russian border is closed due to instability in that area. Naturally, the plan evolves:

Plan #4: Drive into Tbilisi, Georgia (Theo gets pulled over a few more times along the way - we've lost count of how many now. A cop in Azerbaijan got $5 for his efforts, another gets 10 Turkish Lira as a souvenir. Incidentally, Cyrus and I have driven through multiple police check points without so much as a second look - Theo's definitely shady), get visas into Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan while there, drive to Baku, Azerbaijan, take a ferry to Turkmenistan, drive on to Samarquand.

Problem: There is no Turkmenistan embassy in Georgia... Why in the world not?! Oh well,

Plan #4a: Get the Azerbaijan visa in Tbilisi, drive down to Baku, get the Turkmen visa there - really shouldn't change anything.

Problem: We get to Baku Wednesday morning (the border crossing takes forever again, but we get lots of commentary on our choice of car, and how it's better than any Mercedes!). In Baku, discover that they do have regular ferries to Turkmenistan. What they don't have is a Turkmenistan embassy, so we can't get a visa... Apparently, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have been contending some oil territories in the Caspian for the last few years and don't like each other much as a result - why can't we all just get along?

Plan #5: Fine, we can skip Turkmenistan and just go to Kazakhstan instead. There's a ferry coming on Thursday supposedly, even though the information is a little scarce. From Aqtaw, Kazakshstan, we can still drive to Samarquand, it's not all that much further.

Problem: On Thursday, the details on the Kazakh ferry become a little sketchy - we don't really know when it's coming or when it's leaving, but it sounds like it should still be OK on Friday. Friday, we get to the port around 11 in the morning and discover that the ferry arrived late last night and left at 6AM this morning! Without us! There's a lot of if, when's, but's, and I'm not sure's in when it's going to be back. I can't belive we missed our ferry!

Plan #17842 (I may have lost count): Can't we just drive around the Caspian?

Problem: Chechnya. It's 'unstable'. We don't actually have to go through Chechnya, but we have to go through its neigbor Dagestan, which is also unstable. The locals here actually tells us it should be fine, the US embassies, on the other hand, don't recommend it. The Russian embassy is uncertain. You can also go south through Iran, but even we weren't stupid enough to consider that (plus I hear an Iranian visa wouldn't be able to happen on the spot).

Plan #17843: On Friday, we find out that there actually is some rhyme and reason to the Kazakhstan ferry - it sails for about 18 hours in each direction, spends 5 to 6 hours in port, then goes back, so what happened last night is fairly reasonable, it would have just helped if we had actually been told that the ferry was close to arriving when we talked to them on Wednesday. If we can actually get out of here Sunday morning, that gets us into Kazakhstan by Sunday night, which is how long it would have taken to get there driving, so we might as well sail.

Problem? Seems like we've had enough so far, so maybe this plan will actually work. As of Friday night, we're still in Baku, still planning to take the ferry Sunday morning, we'll see what happens. Current problem is that our Azerbaijan visas actually run out Saturday night, but the customs guys have told us that they'll let us out anyway. I'll believe it when I see it! By the way, this ferry is also going to cost $350, so we obviously should have taken the one from Trabzon to Sochi (or we could've waited for the $50 one two days later, oh well, hindsight...)

Seattle to Istanbul in 72 hours

Day [-1]: gotta pack, leaving town (also subsitute state, country, continent) for three weeks. Gotta fix bugs, leaving town soon. Gotta pack, gotta fix bugs. Compromise: fix bugs til midnight, stay up packing til 3. No problem, ready to go, I think.

Day 0: up at shortly after 8AM to go wakeboarding. Can't miss wakeboarding - leaving country for three weeks, plus the water and the temperature on the lake are perfect, I'm going to miss wakeboarding. Cyrus keeps talking about going riding on the Black Sea - seems like a good idea... On to work, leave work to head directly to the airport to catch my 11:30PM flight. Come close to missing the flight - apparently they won't let you use the computer check in for an international flight, and talking to a real agent takes forever. Well, actually I'm able to get my tickets in roughly 30 seconds, everybody else in front of me in line takes forever...

Day 1: arrive in Chicago, on time, 5:10AM, Central time, about 3:10 Seattle time. Sleep on the plane a little, so not a total loss. Running total: up for 19 hrs. flying for 3.5 hrs.

Hang out at the airport for four hours - at least they've got internet access! Meet up with Cynthia a couple of hours after arriving - she's flying to Quebec the same morning, hang out for a little while. 9:10AM - get on a plane to London. Get a little sleep again - at least they still feed you on cross-Atlantic flights! Get to London just before midnight local time, 4PM in Seattle. Got six hours before my morning flight to Athens - getting a hotel doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense, I have to go to Gatwick anyway for the Greece flight - 1.5 hr bus ride...

Day 2: Running total: been up for 38 hrs, flying: 11 hrs, driving: 1.5 hrs. 6:30 AM, leave London on an easyJet flight to Athens (btw.easyJet sucks!). Get to Athens at noon local time - flight once again uneventful, except that I'm really sick of flying by now! Normally, restlessness starts a couple of hours after take off, by now, it sets in almost immediately, complete lack of leg room doesn't help (have I mentioned my feelings on the easyJet airlines?

In Athens we quickly discover that the ferries we had wanted to take to Turkey are all full since this is THE time to take vacation if you're Greek... So, we're driving to Istanbul. Having napped a little along the various flights, and now having had a full mean in Athens, I'm actually feeling pretty well! I also only have a vague idea by now of what time it is in Seattle anymore, or how long I've been up. Running total: up for 47 hours, flying: 14.5 hrs, driving: 1.5 hrs.

Leave Athens around 5, on the way to Istanbul - we're running pretty well behind, so we're probably not going all the way tonight, but we want to go as far as we can. This ends up going til we reach the city Kawala, Greece at 2AM! The hotel offers the promise of a bed and a shower, I'm sold! 56 hours later, and a bed again! The most comfortable bed I've seen in years!

Day 3: Kawala to Turkish border - three hours no problem. The border: everybody's stuck for two hours anyway. We're stuck longer because Turkish customs, as usual, doesn't like our car... After having been sent between four different check point stations, where noone speaks much English (or Russian), they let us through. Istanbul is now close! Except that the traffic sucks... The roads aren't bad actually, but there's a ton of cars, when the roads get wider, they're now toll roads - more delays. 10PM - we're in Istanbul! Get lost for a while (naturally), but we find our way. And in slightly more than 72 hours (78 to be exact), I've travelled across 10 time zones and made it to Istanbul.

Final total: 78 hours total; 7 hours of sleep (plus a few naps), 14.5 hours of flying, 16.5 hours of driving, 2 hrs at a border crossing - Mongolia next!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Athens to Istanbul

The original master plan was to take a ferry from Greece to Turkey. This would save miles on the car, give us a taste of the Greek Islands, and allow us to meet up with our friend Steph and her cohorts who are vacationing on the coast of turkey. But alas... it was not to be. It turns out that around July 29th, all Greeks who are not immediately essential to the tourist industry flee the mainland and go to the islands, thereby filling up every single ferry. No soup for us. Or Uzo. Whatever.

With no ferry, we were forced to drive back up Greece to Thessalonki, and then east to Istanbul - about 1200km. The drive was mostly uneventful, except for a huuuuge line at the Turkish border, which when combined with confusing car paperwork resulting in a 3 hour border crossing.

Coming soon...
PICTURE 039 - now drinkanddrive.jpg

The border was where we first learned of the Turkish affinity towards honking. I mean, the Greeks liked honking too, but the Turks seemed to make an art form out of it. The video below should give some indication.


After the border, it was more traffic and more honking but eventually we made it to Istanbul and found a pretty kickin' hotel on the cheap.

Walking While Theo

After we found a hotel in Istanbul, the first order of business was eating. Since our hotel was conveniently located on Taksim Square (a cool pedestrian shop/restaurant area) we walked around to find food. Winding our way through the friendly touts offering strip clubs, we found a nice litle Kebab place nestled in a basement storefront, with outdoor seating. We ordered 3 lamb shish's, got a table outside in the fresh evening air, and I went inside to wash my hands. When I was done washing my hands, I came bounding up the stairs of the (belowground) restaurant, ready for some food. But instead I got a rude awakening when my head met up with the low doorway leading back to the sidewalk.

It bled a bit, but Cyrus examined it and we determined that it wasn't immediately life threatening. The blood made quite an impression on the shop owners though. We ate quickly, and then headed back to the hotel. Cyrus called his mom (a nurse) for advice, and we were instructed to clean, disinfect, and ice it. And (worst of all) Cyrus was instructed to wake me up in the middle of the night to make sure I wasn't dead and could still do math. He did, and I did. The swelling is now mostly down. :)

Coming soon... HEAD INJURY PICTURES! 073075

Our second day in Istanbul was another ferry SNAFU. Apparently the Istanbul -> Odessa ferry which we were planning on taking was filled up by a surplus of Ukranian hookers returning home. Long story short, we decided to drive to eastern Turkey and try our luck with another ferry. Stupid? Maybe. But we do have a backup plan of driving through Georgia. Stay tuned...

The Soviet Bloc: Round 1

Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria...

Cy and I heard that Serbia was charging $180 for insurance, so we decided to avoid Serbia. This means going through Romania and Bulgaria, and we had no idea what we were getting into. You've probably already read Cy's post about the speeding ticket in Bulgaria... we also got pulled over one more time because of our weird Russian transit plates. (and DWT)

But the most most striking parts of Romania and Bulgaria for me was the general state of the buildings and infrastructure. The roads varied widely from short stretches of new superhighway (funded mostly by the EU) to looooong stretches of absolutely terrible twisty mountain roads, going through tiny run-down towns.
There were also some remnants of the soviet era -- giant housing blocks that look exactly the same from town to town. But now where there might have been a picture of Stalin or a hammer a sickle... we get an ad for 7up.

Here's a kinda crummy picture of soviet housing. More to come...

Finally... the gas stations. Probably because gas is the most expensive thing around (still around 6 bucks a gallon) the gas stations are invariably the nicest buildings in town. They have restaurants attached, with air conditioning, outdoor umbrellas, etc... It's eerie against the backdrop of the gray soviet housing. They're also open late at night, so they end up being the place to hang out, at least for the rich kids.

All in all, the detour through Romania and Bulgaria ended up taking a ton of time and at least $100 in mysterious border fees (my personal favorite being the Environmental Insurance, which was $16 but we talked them down to $10 because we were just driving through). But it was great fun.

Our luxurious ferry from Romania to Bulgaria. Ok, so it was only 300 yards. Interesting tidbit from the ferry ride... a couple of our fellow passengers -- large Bulgarian ladies, apparently, had bought a bunch of cigarettes on the Romanian side, and were smuggling them into bulgaria... in their bras. It was very amusing to watch the cigarette placement process, which was performed in a very obvious and open manner. No, we didn't take any pictures.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Sitting in the Georgian sun...

Well It's sunset in Georgia. We are waiting at the border crossing to Azerbaijan. We had problems with the ferries in Turkey so we decided to go out via Georgia to Russia. But Georgia wouldn't let us leave that way because of the war in Chechnia so now we are headed to Azerbaijan and then either Russia or hopefully Terkministan.

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