Many of you will ask what inspired me with the idea of driving to China!
I think the first thought was after meeting the two Aussies (ex-Kiwis) who drove from Singapore to Europe and that got me thinking outside the square.
The next nudge came when I visited the Dusseldorf motorhomes show and saw the booth for Perestroika Tours and they offered a tour through China which finished in Singapore which would have been ideal if I had a motorhome that is suitable to bring to New Zealand but the steering wheel was on the wrong side so I was left with having to ship, or drive the motorhome back to Europe from Singapore, and then of course the other thing was the cost which as I recall was €19,000 each person.
Round this time I joined the Silk Road Club and found many of the members were doing incredible journeys by themselves so I decided why not !
We chose as our travelling companions a farmer from Duntroon and a retired vet and electric engineer from Manchester, I considered three or 4 motorhomes to be the ideal number.
Once the decision had been made within a matter of finding a company in China that would supply a guide and draw up an itinerary, if you take a motor vehicle to China the government law is that you must have a guide, you can fly into China by yourself and wander around China for as long as you're visa allows with no problems, but take a car that's a different story.
The first itinerary was for 60 days going through Tibet as part of the circle but as we did not have a four-wheel-drive I said no to that, and with a few of the city's we added an extended out to 80 days and then 100 days which is what we have settled on. We were told the ideal date for arriving was round the beginning of April but that would have meant driving through snow to get their so we did a compromise and selected 9 June.
We then selected a route which would take us through Poland to the Ukraine to Russia to Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan through Kyrgyzstan and then over the Torugart pass at 3500 m into China at Kashgar. It was then a large type of circular route with the other limits of Beijing and Kunming and exiting out of China through the Korgas Pass back into Kazakhstan and then the 7000 odd kilometres across Russia to the Baltic states and back to Europe.
The cost was NZ$11,300 for each motorhome and that was just for the guide around China, add to that all of the other incidentals, like visas, by the time we had received invitations and visas often at an urgent rate for the old Soviet bloc that we were crossing we added another NZ$3500 to that cost, I've always been told you can't take it with you.
In preparation for this I had a new clutch and new brakes fitted to my three-year-old motorhome, winter tyres all around, so in theory I should have no problems whatsoever when I arrived.
I normally fly Lufthansa Singapore airlines but I had left it a little bit late because of having to organise my visas so by the time I booked barely had the expensive seats left so I asked them to find me a cheap business class ticket and when they came up with Arab Emirates I thought they sounded okay so paid my money and booked.
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
The flights depart at about 5 PM and I have always been told that any journey that involves many stops is called the milk run, well the flight I was on was the milk run, stopping at Sydney, where we had to get off the plane and go through security, Bangkok where we could sit on the plane, Dubai where we had to change planes after a three-hour wait, and then the final plane which took us all the way to Amsterdam. The plane was a Boeing 700 - 300 and I'd like to say that Arab Emirates at equal to at least Lufthansa, but to me they don't even rate a close second and they are on a different planet when you compare them to Singapore airlines. Enough of that !
Hank was at the airport to collect me, and was only a short drive to his house where the motorhome is waiting, so it was drop all the suitcase into the motorhome, unpacked and put the suitcases in one of Hank's rooms as the storage space in motorhome will be full for our China trip.
And Hank gave me the bad news that the backing camera was not working, and then I found that to be DVD player would not play so that was too more bits to be fixed before I left.
Filling up with water and switching the water pump on I found the pump was working with out any taps being open and then I discovered the tap over the sink was allowing water to flow in every direction except out the spout, our first thought was that water had been left in the tap and in one of the strong frosts but Holland had this winter the tap froze giving the effect I was watching, however on closer inspection the next day we discovered that the complex mechanism inside just needed readjusting and it was as good as new, almost.
March 24 and 25th
I drove towards Sulzemoos, some 800 km of reasonably boring scenery.
Monday, March 26
Went into Hofstetter and they were already for me to sort out my number plate problem, evidently in Germany when you lose a number plate and has to be reported to the police, they then issue a new number plate and new ownership papers. This costs €130.
My next step was to buy another television with a DVD player included in, and then mounted it as an external item rather than the fold away one that was fitted to the new machine. Tossed out the old DVD player and screen, pulled out all the accompanying wire, and I had a bigger better picture with no more fuss.
My new tom-tom, the most expensive one that they sell, that has been repaired or replaced twice, stopped seeing that satellites today in the middle of a major city not knowing where to go so I gambled and turned right instead of left a few kilometres down the road was able to pull into a shopping centre where a pulled out one of the other GPS’s so from now on I am going to have two GPS’s working, now I know why I am over equipped with this item.
I then drove to the garage that fitted the backing camera and made an appointment to see them at 10 AM tomorrow morning, so I parked in an Aldi (supermarket) car park for the night.
Tuesday, March 27
I have noticed that the automatic levelling device which worked in conjunction with their bags was not working on automatic but I could do it on manual with no problems, and this morning I made a big mistake and I lowered the airbags to see if they are working, and then after that they wouldn't work, so was then a matter of pulling out the air compressor that comes with the vehicle and pumping the airbags up by the four valves I had fitted, then I realised I did not know what pressure they should go up to, so I telephoned England and I was too early for that, so I then rang Holland and we determined through a lot of conversation that was probably something wrong with the wiring survey organised a workshop near the Czech border for me to visit and sort out my problem.
Then it was over to the garage for the backing camera, they discovered that the garage that worked on the motor fitting a new clutch pinched the wire basically breaking all connection that was a total real wire to get the camera working, I did a photograph of the offending bracket and wire and hopefully will get some relief from the garage did the work.
This has got me thinking that perhaps the problem with the airbags is a similar event and time will tell.
The weather has been beautiful since I've arrived in Europe was warm sunny days and temperatures getting down to freezing point at night but the day certainly makes up for it. I have been most grateful to the extremely good heating system built into the motorhome.
Wednesday 28 March
I spent the night at Sulzemoos parked near Hofstetter's, they are making less and less parking available for their customers and bring more and more large €150,000++ motor homes on display. At 10:45 AM the post arrived and with that my green card insurance certificate so then it was on the road to my next destination 17 km away close to the Czech border and I arrived there at 1:15 PM, right on time, the accountant was the only one that could speak English, and he did not have a very good understanding of the mechanics of a motor vehicle, so I took it slowly and managed to get the mechanic on the right track, and it was a wire that had been broken with clutch repair, there is still another problem but I can work around that and will have to wait until I can find a technician they can speak English.
So was on the road again into the Czech Republic with diesel €10 cents cheaper, and it looks like some of the Czechs are embracing capitalism, I presume that is what the five scantily clothed young ladies were doing waiting just over the border!
The roads through the Czech Republic were extremely good, there was a heavy presence of police on the road, there were quite a few new tunnels on this apparently new road and coming out on one of the tunnels my new tom-tom couldn't find the satellites for about 5 km, the Garmin and found them instantly.
My destination is the Polish Ukrainian border, which was some 1200 km from Sulzemoos and this evening I've stopped at a campground 24 km from the motorway near a city called Cervena Recice is it about 120 km from Bruno and 690 km from the Ukrainian border. The campground is closed like many they don't open until April to May and I drove round the edge and found a place I can stop for the night.
Thursday the 29th
Well the automatic air suspension decided this morning it was not going to be automatic, it was as dead as a dodo, fortunately I am experienced now at filling the airbags manually with a compressor, but that's not exactly why I paid all the money to have them fitted.
I'd put the total blame on the designers of the VB FullAir 4C Air Suspension for Campers, they have not put sufficient thought in designing the product, the bits are merely tacked on underneath the motor near the fuel tank, and they work on the assumption that a mechanic will never have to work on the motor, so consequently when we had a new clutch fitted, the poor dumb mechanic did not know what he had struck and consequently I have something that doesn't work. It would be much simpler had they attached the compressor etc to the chassis well away from the motor and had they put the basic kindergarten thought into the design I would have had something that worked. I could carry on for another two or three pages, but I won't bore you. I have obtained a PDF file of the workshop manual on the air suspension, now if I can just find somebody knows what they're doing…….
Once I blown up their bags I was on my way, throughout the Czech Republic have passed many Solar Panel Farms, obviously they get enough sunshine here to warrant the expense, the other spot I've seen lots of courses being down in Spain, it is obvious it is economical and a slightly more northern latitude.
Stopped for a rest at a petrol station and was delighted to find they had free WiFi at first Internet almost a week, the Vodafone roaming charges from New Zealand are extremely sadistic, but when your only in a country for a couple of days is not practical to get a local sim card, of course the phone calls to Holland and England, about the suspension, would have soon blown those cards anyhow.
Then suddenly I was in Poland and I decided to fill up the diesel tank, before I did I thought I should see if they take Visa, I went into the shop, showed them the card, he looked at it as if it was from outer space, and shook his head, fortunately there was a cash machine by the door so that solved the problem.
All the banks and the airlines are now trying to get in on the act with travelcards that you load up with a currency before you leave New Zealand and you save the multiple transaction charges, this is good if your dealings with somebody at the bank, or whatever, that thinks, they gave me a Master charge card last year, charged me for filling it up again this year, and did not tell me that I would not be up to use the card because the card had expired! I guess it's my fault because I should've looked!
Poland is a country with lots of old houses and lots of small villages and everything was built more or less before cars so there's very little provision made for parking, I think it's even worse than England, at least there you can find parking at one of the many pubs throughout the countryside.
I headed towards camping spot tonight and it was raining on the way, and then the rough road that led me to the campsite in the wet weather made me chicken out on the road side ended up in a small village called Baborow Gmina, I'd be surprised if you can find it on any map, I found a little turn around spot near the railway line so hopefully that is not the busiest railway line in Poland.
Friday, March 30
I was 400 km to the Ukrainian border, the first 50 km I'm driving through cute little Polish villages all with their large impressive churches, then I strike a tollway for 150 km leaving the last 200 on doubtful roads through villages main roads with lots of trucks and unbeknown to me a state-sponsored robbery system.
The dictionary defines robbery as “ theft of property: the act or an instance of illegally taking something that belongs to somebody else, is seriously by using force, threats or violence”
Most of Eastern Europe you have to pay a road tax collected by varying methods and is always well signposted that you need to pay for a coupon or whatever to travel on these roads. No problem that is the price of travelling through the country.
In Poland they also collect a roads tax, but they don't tell the tourists about it, I believe this is a deliberate act of robbery and a means of collecting revenue.
I was the innocent victim of a member of the Polish Gestapo acting as a transport inspector who informed me that as I did not have a gizmo on my vehicle was going to cost me 3000 Polish's Zl or €730.
It is my belief that this is deliberate robbery of tourists because they have placed no signs anywhere that there is a roads tax or whatever they call it, and if this was not a deliberate act the person that stopped me would make me aware that this was needed and accompany me to the location where I could buy such a device. No the Gestapo that stopped me was only interested in collecting money is of course has affected my whole outlook on Poland and I wonder if it is the country that I need to visit again with such an attitude, an attitude to the tourists, I've only ever seen once before and that was in Cuba.
This transport inspector, who I called the Gestapo, said he was only doing his job, I believe that was the defence they tried at Nuremberg, though doing precisely what they were told to do even though they knew it was wrong
Don't get me wrong I believe that there must be rules and tourists should abide by those rules, but the government of the country has a duty to inform the tourists of such rules, by prominent signposts,
……think how much more pleasant my experience would have been if I'd been informed of the problem, told instead of paying the fine let us drive 5 km to the next service station and get the gizmo for your vehicle because we like having tourists visit our country. I would return time and time again to this country, but I guess I just had to spend my money elsewhere.
By the way on the news on this morning's weather forecast in Wellington was 20° and driving through Poland today the top temperature was 7° a few minutes, we had rain and snow and the temperature got down to 3° and most today hovered around four and 5°, quite reasonable weather for my above experience.
I found Eion and Liz stopped in a side road as I was driving to the destination and they followed me to a little village near Radymno Gmina near the Ukrainian border, a little while later Sue arrived after her mammoth two day 1400 km drive.
Roger, Sue's husband, hopefully will be joining us somewhere in China, he's had a retina in his eye detach twice so as soon as he is fit to travel he'll be on his way.
The little village that we borrowed some parking space in for the night was most peaceful and round two o'clock the next day….
We drove towards the border, I remembered a very large parking area in 2006 when we crossed over the border into Poland, as we're driving to the border and started seeing trucks parked about 5 km out from the border I realised everything had changed and when we came to a shopping centre we pulled into there to case out for the night.
We went into the shopping centre and discovered it was the first day that it was open and they had a concert party of young Polish Ukrainian's, they lived in Poland but consider themselves to be Ukrainian's, their parents or perhaps grandparents arrived in this part of Poland in about 1947 and they have lived there ever since, the group were 16 and 17-year-olds, male and female, evidently went to a Ukrainian school in Poland and of course with their performing the Ukrainian folk dances in authentic costumes.
I picked that the costumes were Ukrainian so I asked one young guy and he said yes and very soon I had a crowd of about 20 around me all practising their English telling me a little about themselves.
They asked what we were doing and I told them were driving through Ukraine through Russia, and the minute I mentioned the word Russia they were most upset, they say go anywhere but don't go to Russia, it's interesting that Russia considers Ukraine to be part of this country, but the Ukrainian's want no part of Russia, this is not a scientific poll but what I've gathered on my travels.
They commented that they came from very strong churchgoing community's, one said their village is so small that if you don't go to church everybody knows!
They gave a very good long performance, and a variety of costumes from the different parts of the Ukraine and other unexpected highlight a cold wet miserable day.
Sunday, April 1
I woke at 6 AM, it was snowing and the temperature was -1°C, thank goodness the heating system in the motorhome worked.
Were on our way by 7:30 AM it was snowing all the way to the border and when we arrived at the border and had to get out of the vehicle was a very cold wind and I assume it would have had a good chill factor.
We got onto one line, were then sent into another line, went into the wrong line, and drive back to get them to the correct line, fortunately none of this affected the speed with which we went through the two borders, it took us in total two hours going to about six different windows on the Ukrainian side and paying six euro tax the use of their roads, and all of this time it was still snowing with a very cold wind, somehow they did not know I was coming north for the summer!
The temperature got up to a high of 3°C and we went through areas that had varying amounts of snow some I believe was 5 cm deep other parts in a basically disappeared, were driving through snow and rain in various parts and stopped about 1:30 PM the lunch and we all had schnitzel and chips and two of us had ice cream's and it came to €11 for the four of us, it was not quite the quality one would get at Tiffany's but then of course it wasn't the price of Tiffany's.
Other years when we have been in the Ukraine Vodafone sim card would not work, this time we had no problems so the world is getting a smaller place year by year.
We stayed on the E40 motorway heading for a campground on the outskirts of Kiev, and we happened on a truck stop about 294 km out, it's not only a quiet night but that has not been many alternatives.
Monday, 2 April
It was a peaceful night, very cold outside, started off at 0° and this morning it was -3°C, we discovered it was daylight saving this morning so in actual fact we started an hour later in theory than what the clock said we had.
It was a cold and miserable day driving to Kiev, all the time watching out for the traffic police can stop you for any reason whatsoever and come up with a reason to give them a donation to their Christmas fund or their retirement fund.
About 100 km out of Keiv we ran into major road construction and they were ripping up one total side of the motorway and rebuilding it so that reduce the traffic down to a maximum of 70 km an hour, which was the posted speed limit, with no passing, but most of the cars considered to be a recommendation rather than any rule.
Fortunately Campground was on the Polish side of Kiev so we did not have too content with the traffic, but merely save that for our departure. There was nobody else in the campground, and we were very early in the season and none of the amenities were open, so they gave us use of amenities in the hotel, this evening the rest of the group will check out the possibility of a tour to Chernobyl, with the miserable weather we're having at the moment is not high on my list.
We had lunch there, basically the same meal is yesterday, probably better quality, and the cost was three times that of yesterday, still cheap by New Zealand standards.
About 3 PM Luda arrived with her twin daughter and grandson we spent three hours chatting and showing the motorhome to her family which of course was all new to them. Luda will join our tour tomorrow evening after she has placed her family on the train for a 20 hour trip back to Rostov.
Wednesday, April 4
We delayed our departure from Kiev till 10 AM with the thought that the less traffic on the road, we managed to get some water before we left the campground, with the extremely heavy frosts they have all of the outside taps had been turned off for the winter and we had to go over to the boiler house that heats the water for hotel, we opened an electrical box and found a water tap that supplied the water we needed.
Then we were out on the road with two GPSs telling us which way they thought we should go, Luda was looking for the road signs and found one that would take us to the ring road to the other side of Kiev however when both the GPSs suggested we go on a bypass I turned that direction and heard in my right ear Luda’s saying we should be going straight, so we ended up driving through the centre of the city which is quite time consuming, the roads after the winter were quite rough, makes the Christchurch earthquake roads quite pleasant.
We eventually got to the other side of Kiev and that was just on the motorway heading towards Kursk, stopping at delightful little cafe where we had our standard schnitzel and chips, for the five of us about €11.
On the road for about another 60 km and we found a nice little open spot in amongst the trees where we camped for the night, Eion is having a little bit of problems with his alternator resulting in a flat battery so will need to find a garage and have is replacement fitted tomorrow.
Thursday, April 5
Eion got a jump start this morning and then his alternator is seen to start working, I am the other hand had to increase the pressure on the air suspension as it had obviously lost some pressure, all that being done we set sail for the border.
Coming in to the Ukraine Eion had a little bit of trouble with his ownership papers for the motorhome as he had changed his address before he left England and only had a copy, however they let in through the Ukrainian border, however going out was another bigger problem, they did not want to let him out, then there was the large question mark if he could get into Russia, he and I only had a single entry visas to the Ukraine, so I went through into no man's land, and Luda with a Russian passport walked into Russia to talk to the border control, and to put it simply she was not impressed by the politeness of those on the border.
The short answer was Eion had to obtain the original ownership papers, which fortunately he found out while all this was going on that they had been returned to his address in England so now as it's a simple matter of him returning to Kiev, to the motor camp, that has a major hotel, and having the papers Couriered to the hotel, then he would cross the border again and catch up with us a few days later.
Well that took about four hours or more for us to get through the border, they weren't too happy with Sue's papers and they missed the fact that I'd lost a number plate and had a new set of number plates that differed from the papers I had with me, but we were across and on our way…
To one of the roughest roads we have been on, the main road to Moscow of 500+ kilometres I certainly hope it was not like that all the way we turned off after about 50 km heading towards Kursk and while it was a minor road it is in very good condition, quite beautiful with silver birch trees on either side and still traces of snow that had been cleared off the road and thrown to one side.
Russia was +1 hour so we had a little bit of an early stop planned and we found a deserted petrol station that I believe had people living inside the old shop know are quite happy for us to park to one side, the cordinance were in 52.08308 E 35.51783.
We had a text from Eion that he had had a bad day after leaving us, he stopped for a moment on a bus stop to take off his jersey, that cost €50, then doing a wrong turn into a petrol station, the cost €100, and are still 161 km from the campground in Kiev. It's one of these days he should have stayed in bed.
Friday, April 6
It was a peaceful night in the old petrol station, this morning it was 1°C and were soon on our way. We were heading towards Kursk the city that gave its name to the largest tank battle in the world, we were only interested in the supermarket and we stopped at the first one after looking again at the marvellous Soviet monument to this battle and we found the first supermarket on our right hand side. They sold almost everything, but we only bought what we wanted.
Everywhere we go we observe just how much water soaked the ground is, the villages we pass look extremely poor by Western standards, around the houses they only have mud, mud that has been created by the melting snow, almost the total population of the villages were gumboots at this time of the year and the sides of the road are quite churned up by motor vehicles.
It is interesting in one of these villages, that had no footpaths, and churned up mud everywhere, they had a beautiful new church with a beautiful good strong fence off a way round it in good tar sealing down round the church, all this would have been probably paid for by the residents of the village who chose to do this in preference to having a more comfortable life now.
We stopped with our front wheels on what looked like solid ground and I decided to move almost immediately and I believe if I did not have the winter tyres I'd still be there now.
If you are ever thinking of invading Russia do not do it in the springtime as you'll be up to your neck in mud.
It was on the winding road out of the city on towards Saratov in the first major city on the road was Voronezh city located on a river by the same name, we had entered into the city to hopefully find a hotel where we could have our passports stamped in the form of registration, as most people stay in hotels and this is what normally happens, but entering the city we realised what an impossible situation this was and is so we're hoping will escape without registration so we drove on the road out of the city.
The city has the honour of having some of the worst roads we have ever experienced in all of our travel, however in its defence, it is after a heavy winter, with heavy snow and heavy frosts, which plays hell with the roads and even in America the road services that are not perfect after winter.
Here we had massive potholes large enough to hide a small Japanese car, it was on a two-lane highway and on many parts there was only barely one lane available without one of the wheels disappearing, perhaps forever.
With all of this wet ground it made it very hard to find somewhere to stop overnight and currently we are on the road to Siberia some 1500 km away, and we are not finding any spots to stop, so obviously you go direct to Siberia and do not pass go!
We eventually found a parking spot outside a processing plant for pigs and hopefully we will be allowed to stay here the night, just after we pulled in, a German couple in a four-wheel-drive pulled in, they heading towards Mongolia.
We received a text little earlier in the day telling us that Eion had received his documents from England and was on our tail heading once again to the Russian border.
Even though the air suspension was not working on automatic, we're very grateful for the smoother ride they produced. Several times today the signposts which we were following towards our destination disappeared, so without the GPS it would be much more difficult.
Before leaving New Zealand Luda read on a Russian site that heavy Russian registered trucks were forbidden on many of the roads during April because of the delicate nature of the roads at this time of the year and it suggested that only foreign trucks were permitted. Unfortunately we've seen no shortage of Russian trucks on our travels and it would certainly make the travel much easier if this announcement was correct.
Saturday 7th April
Today we carried on our drive towards Saratov heading again in the direction of Siberia, as we get further east we are finding more snow lying on the side of the roads in the fields, still reasonably heavy in some parts, and everything remains waterlogged. The roads today a reasonable temperature started off at 0° and worked his way up to 7°C, quite a lot of trucks on the road, the villages remain the same, waterlogged and waiting for summer to arrive.
Ian and Liz have announced that they have arrived in to Russia, so we're cruising along taking our time, we stopped for the night beside a cafe at N51.37404 E42.49819 and the village appears to be called Tret' Yaki.
We have had a solar panel fitted this year and we are finding that it is making a large difference to the topping up of our leisure batteries, thank you Hank! Our old tom-tom does not know the roads in this part of Russia, and the Garmin with the Russian maps installed is working fine, but the real surprise is my new telephone a Samsung N 7000 with the Sygic aneroid system GPS with the Russian maps seems to be outperforming them all.
Sunday, April 8
This morning we received a text from Eion telling us that he was leaving his overnight spot and driving towards us, we had indicated we would wait, we expected him about 11 o'clock and he arrived at 9:30 AM so after a brief update on his adventures including his four brushes with the law we started on our way to Saratov.
Again the thing that we noticed most was all the snow still on the ground, possibly for somebody from the snow area this observation would not have been worthy of note, and the other thing that we noticed was that the snow had started melting and the water was flowing from little streams into bigger streams and into the rivers, really of course just nature's circle.
The other thing of note today were the roads, and suffice to say that we are glad we had air suspension on our motorhome need with that it is hard going. I won't say these were the worst roads in the world but they would certainly get an honourable mention. Occasionally the road was good and we could cruise along at top speed and then all of a sudden we be down to 30 Km. and trying to choose the best side of the road to drive on.
About one o'clock we came to a crossroad and there are about five cafe there so we did a U-turn and parked outside one and spent 730 roubles for the five of us for lunch, that's about NZ$30 or US$24.
We arrived at Saratov having really found no possible overnight parking's on our way, so we are driving through the city not knowing where to go, just driving in a straight line, and all of a sudden Luda saw a sign for a hotel down a side road, so we went down the side road, and was getting grubbier and grubbier, then across the railway line, and up a road that was flowing with water, then at the top is a magnificent gates through which Luda went, and later appeared with a guy to unlock the gates and we went round the back and parked in a little area was snow all around us. We had to book 2 rooms to be up to register and that will be done within the next 48 hours, location hotel is N 51.37407 E 42.49824.
At the first Luk oil petrol stations we stopped to see if we could get some water but they had all the taps inside because of the severe winters, so a petrol station is not a location that you can refresh your water tanks. So we kept on driving route to the border, and I saw a village off to the left hand side there two water towers, so that at least was a starting point, asked one guy at the bus stop he pointed to the closest water tower that had an exterior tap with an 1.5 inch pipe coming out of it, and none of our water fittings would fit that, and then a nosy neighbour appeared, Luda asked him for water and he pointed down to a boiler unit that heated the water for heating and for washing for the hotel and one or two other buildings.
Monday, April 9
Today were first taxi into Saratov it cost 200 Rouble for the taxi or $NZ8.25, we walked down towards the River Volga, it wasn't quite all covered in ice, then of course we could not see to the other side and the bit we could see had a good solid ice covering.
We walked through a marketplace and were impressed by the quality of the meat that was on sale in fact the quality of all the products looked extremely high.
We walked past a rather beautiful Orthodox Church has some similarities to the one in Moscow but not as grand, we went inside and was surprised at how small the inside portion was, but then of course the congregation does not sit down so does not need as much room.
Once you get onto the centre of the city and the main thoroughfare is very clean and tidy but if you're a fraction outside the main centre you probably will have mud flowing on your streets and probably mud on your footpaths, Eion was heard to remark that he believed his cowshed was cleaner at milking time. It was therefore an incredible to note the extremely modern stiletto heels being worn by a lot of the young ladies.
Back in the 50s I managed three different shoe shops so I was always noted and admired ladies high heel shoes, and I guess being a portrait photographer in gives you the ability to admire very pretty young ladies, well there were plenty of high heels being worn by well-dressed pretty ladies in this city.
We got a taxi from the centre of the city back to the hotel at 4:30 PM, our registration papers were ready, so will leave tomorrow morning at 8:30 AM.
Tuesday, 10 April
We left the hotel car park at 8:30 AM, drove back out of town to the ring road, and got out of that and it almost a complete circle before we crossed over the Volga River on what they call the new bridge, there was one clear Channel, but the rest of the River was covered in cracked ice, and you could still see the tarmac on it and wake cars had been crossing the river, when the ice was thicker. There was about three rivers in all with the Volga being the largest of them are the other two coming in to join it probably after the bridge and then there was another possibly you could call a small lake, where the ice was still thick enough for people to be sitting on the ice fishing through a hole.
We drove down there asked an old guy sitting on a pipe, he said yes down that driveway, which was very muddy, but we made it, with our bags of water fittings we soon had water flowing into the motorhomes, back to the small shop which sold vegetables and after a couple purchases were on our way.
Luda was talking to a well-dressed woman at the boiler station, possibly in her 50s, she spoke of how good the Soviet times were for her in the village, they had a commune, enough work, enough money, she had a small piece of land on which she could have two cows and 10 pigs and chooks and with the combination of all this could live very well. After perestroika, the land was purchased by a rich person, the commune disappeared, she had no way to keep the cows all the pigs with a higher cost of food for the animals, and was now working some nights at the boiler unit for which she was paid a pittance, and the money she had left every month would just purchase lunch we had yesterday.
In spite of this she was extremely well-dressed and made up and had a cheerful outlook on life. She commented that two weeks ago there had been 2 m of snow on the ground and that the winter starts in November normally till the end of March, with a constant temperature of about -35°C, you can well understand with temperatures like that there's plenty of ice on the Volga which will take the weight of a Russian tank.
The roads got no better at all today with the normal speed of about 40 K, occasionally we got a good piece of road and went up to 90 K for a few kilometres and then back down to finding ways through the potholes.
We were stopped by police officer and one of the junctions today, we show him the motorhome papers, which by the way he turned them over and over meant absolutely nothing to them, and a driver's license got the same treatment, but Luda had a good chat with them about the roads we were going to experience.
Up to this point it had been very little snow about, but now we saw piled thick on one side of the road, possibly 3 m deep, and shaped like sand dunes, but with the temperature today at 21° it won't be like that for long.
A little bit further on we found a deserted Petrol station (N51.32269 E47.77707) near Peschanka, with room for our motorhomes and here we are for the night.
Wednesday 11 April
It was back on the roads, nothing different, many potholes, slow driving, much bumping but eventually we got to the border at Ozinki a small border crossing with the border guards not rushed off their feet.
On the Russian side they examined the whole motorhome, looking in every cupboard, inspecting the inside, stamped our passport and were allowed to go. No they did not look at our document entry, no they did not ask for registration, possibly just glad to see the back of us. There are of course is the possibility that everything was computerised and they did not need to see our copies!
My passport which is one of the new ones with a digital card built into it, the first page is extremely thick, for other people in the passport office gathered round it to examine it, then one of the officers took at into higher authority, every else went through and eventually my passport came back out and I was allowed to go on my way.
Then on to the Kazakhstan side of the border, there was a small lake in front of the gate to let us in there, the border guard seemed to want to keep us in the middle of the lake, but eventually the words that Luda was talking to him got to open the gate and were allowed into dry land where we filled in the small piece of paper for the motorhome, and a larger piece of paper for our passport. Then all went through very smoothly and then we're back to our vehicles, yes they were inspected, but think more out of curiosity than customs procedure.
Once through the border we had to purchase vehicle insurance for Kazakhstan and for some reason mine cost the least at 1559 roubles but who knows how they calculate these sorts of things.
Then we were onto the Kazakhstan Steppes was land stretching in every direction and we can imagine in a few months time covered in wheat.
The roads were better on the side of the border, in so much as they were less potholes, but what potholes there were larger so it was still a matter of take care. We noted that the road signs were in Kazak and English and if there was a third language it was of course Russian, which the majority of the people speak.
Yesterday I ran over a piece of metal or something that was thrown up and smashed part of the plastic bodywork on the “plastic fantastic”, today I ran over a small leaf spring about 25 cm long, that was thrown up and made a gash in the passenger's door, have another go at the plastic bodywork, and hit the entry step jamming it closed, so the next town we must find a guy with a sledgehammer to fix it.
Just after this piece of drama we found a flat piece of dry land that we decided to spend the night at, its location is N 51.11 967 E 50.74972, however at about 10:45 PM we heard a tractor type of noise and looked out the window and saw a digger digging a trench about 100 m back from where we were parked along parallel with the road. This went on until midnight and fortunately he stopped.
Thursday, April 12
We drove into the closest city Oral with the intention of registering our visas, this was meant to be done at the police station, so to the police station we went and were told to come back at 3 PM. We went for a walk into the shopping area, it seemed to us to be a typical small Russian town, not much of interest in the couple shops we looked at, and around noon we went into a cafe and all have a steak that is done in the style that was done for the Czar's, it was interesting!
We discovered that the river that flows through the city of Oral is the border between Europe and Asia, so the moment we crossed over that bridge we were in Asia.
We walked back to the motorhome that was part across the road from the police station and after about 15 minutes was time to visit the police station again, were all given forms to fill in, in Russian, use the questions were in Russian and the answers had to be in Russian, so another job for Luda!
After they were finished we waited for another 10 or 15 minutes and then we were ushered into the audience of a higher ranking police officer, possibly Captain, and he spent the next 15 minutes telling us why he could not register us as we had the wrong sort of Visa, which resulted from the wrong sort of invitation, we wanted a visa long enough for Kazakhstan to cover the time before and after our entry into China which was about five months and there any way we could do this, we thought, was to get a business visa.
Well the business visa has to be registered by the person that has done the invitation where as a tourist visa can be registered with the police. To cut a very long story short we have four days to drive 2000 km to the Uzbekistan border so we headed off and fortunately struck a good road and covered little bit over 100 km, after wasting most of the day, and were camped at a flat piece of land beside an older building located at N50.62365 E 52.11765.
The ground was good and clean so I was able to get underneath the motorhome and have a look at what damage was done to the step and it looks like the piece is spring that I drove over slapped into the step cutting it and driving backwards towards the rear of the vehicle by about 45 mm so then I had thought of hooking a tow rope around it, the other end to a telegraph pole beside the motorhome and backing up to put into position. I backed up imported into position, sort of, but the aluminium plate that it was secured to underneath the motorhome had started to crack so that puts the step out of commission for the rest of the trip, and needs the hands of somebody more skilled than I.
Friday 13 April
This morning we set out at 8 AM and drove 603 km towards the Uzbekistan border. We were driving over extremely flat land, land that was called the Kazak Steppes very little of any interest to see and I can understand why some people at the border asked why we were coming here, even they considered it was nothing to see, and the captain of police yesterday is obviously working for the tourist department of some other country because he certainly is not working for the country whose uniform he wears.
We did see one or two herds of camels, many cows and quite a few sheep, the villages we passed through could be very loosely described as typical Russian villages, transplanted into and other country, we had a couple of chats with police today and I believe they just stopped us because life was boring for them.
Driving through parts of the old Russian Soviet when we strike rough roads, we look at the Lada car with different eyes, no matter how rough the road, or how non-existent the road is, the Lada passes us at high speed apparently under full control.
A lot of the illustrations of Kazakhstan shows a Kazak with a hawk or eagle on his hand for hunting, and today was seen a number of hawks of a good size, one, seconds away from collecting a mouse with his claws.
We passed by a very large mining operation with lots of mountains of tailings, Kazakhstan is one of the main sources of chromite, the main ingredient in chromium.
Kazakhstan is about 10 times the size of New Zealand and has a density of population the same as the South Island at about six people per square kilometre.
There are very few roads in Kazakhstan and of the 600 km we drove today, 500 were on super roads and 100, well if you were shown it, you would've commented “ you've got to be joking”, we drove on the dirt on the right-hand side of part of the road and that was much smoother than the tar seal of the proper part of the road.
We found a large parking spot just off the E38 as location of N 50.08244 E59.56909
Saturday 14 April
Back on the road until we start off with the beautiful smooth road to lull you into a sense of false security and all of a sudden wham! You're back on to a road that starts out as a shingle road, they then throw every pothole imagined into the road and you're lucky if you can get 30 KH. Fortunately there is very little other traffic on the road, often you go for an hour without seeing another car and I believe in time the very few roads they do have will be in very good shape but at the moment, we wish we'd come a different route.
On a GPS you always have a distance to the next point of interest be it a crossroad or roundabout or whatever, you know you're in a big country with very few roads when the next point of interest is 560 km away, and then it only veers 30° left or right.
One particularly interesting part was when we crossed over the new motorway from one rough old roads to another rough old road, we found the way ahead of us was just large ridges in the sand, and my first thought was we were here for the next six months, but I think it was the winter tyres with extra grips that save the day as we went through them all not without getting a lot of nervous energy on the way. The next interesting part was a small 12% grade Hill that had a truck and trailer stuck halfway up it, evidently his load was in excess of what is motor capacity was and he could go neither forward or back, eventually another truck showed up attached a rope to him and pulled him up to the top of a hill when we were all able to go past.
We passed a lot of cemeteries, Muslim cemeteries of course, and they were very extensive, in fact looking at some of the houses the final resting place was quite a palace compared to where they lived in this world.
We stopped briefly at Aral, have a look at the four boats had put on display and the dried up bed of this portion of the lake, the environmentalists consider this to be a major disaster, the people of this country consider it utilising the resources, with the water that would normally flow into the lake they have made a major move into cotton growing, and in doing so have put a lot of people to work at the expense of a few fishermen.
One of the first cafes we visited on this trip and a lot of silver birch trees beside the cafe, and they had plastic bags attached to them, and Luda told us that this was to collect the juice from the trees, and she promised to find us some juice that had been bottled at some stage. Today we bought three bottles of silver birch juice, interesting taste, little bit like lemon juice.
We are again crossing the Steppes which had graduated into desert with lots of very small lakes on either side of the road which according to the information we have will slowly disappear until at summer time there will be no water anywhere.
We found a little spot off the new motorway and off the terrible road trip out on a rather nice open spot, having enjoyed a beautiful sunset and a chat to the locals, our location is N45.97945
Sunday, 15 April
On, on, on across the Steppes, and the bad roads, were given the delightful news that was 350 km of bad roads ahead of us, and that information was totally correct, after a while you saw just get numb in the road had very little effect, except the wish to get off them.
We stopped several times today by the police, once when Eion was caught driving without lights, and all the other times we were stopped just because the police could, one came up to my window, and asked tourists? When we answered yes, he who signalled us to drive on, another time both the army and the police inspected us, look at our passports and visas, and told us, we had until tomorrow night to exit the country.
When we had less than 400 km to go to our final destination we started looking for a place to stop for the night, and with all the roadworks it looked like we might be driving right through to the border, and eventually we found a road that led off into the scrub towards the railway line from the main road and were camped here for the night 100 meters from the railway line and hope there are not very many trains, the location is N 44.46186 E 66.25104.
Monday 16 April
Backing out of our overnight spot my front wheel's started digging a hole, as we would say in New Zealand, to China! It soon became obvious that I would need to tow out in this way Sues Toyota hi Lux came in useful, with no apparent effort it soon had me free and on the road.
In all crossing the country we travelled over 2000 km, and of that distance about 1000 km at least were bad roads beside motorway under construction. Most of the motorway under construction was not being worked on and I noted that the road construction was being financed from outside the country. The impression we gathered was that they had possibly been short of road construction equipment and had enough to do a good job on possibly 100 km of road, but they decided, for some reason, to attempt the whole stretch of road at the same time giving a completion date of 2014. Personally I think that dreaming, and that the better to do the road and 20 km stretches.
The other thing we noted was that the parts of the road that had been completed, you had to go onto a rough track around the area that there are now building a bridge for the motorway, in my travels I have observed that this is usually the first thing they build when building a road however it is an interesting way of doing things.
We were then back on the main road to Shymkent and when we realised that the border crossing was about another 60 to 100 km away from that city we reprogrammed our Samsung N7000 tablet telephone for the border area. After several tries we reached the border to Tashkent to find that this particular crossing was for pedestrians only and our border was 100 km away, to a town that was not marked on any maps, but everyone we asked once we found the general direction, knew of the town so it was a matter of driving as fast as the road would allow, in darkness, over roads with massive potholes, with oncoming traffic not knowing to dip their lights, and we eventually got there about 10:45 PM.
The border was closed, and there was a line of trucks that we had to drive past to get there, but it was open for cars so they came, inspected our passports, and then opened the gates for us to go through.
We then all had to traipse into the Kazakhstan border control office where we were informed that we were one day late in crossing the country on a transit visa, remember that we were not able to get our business visa stamped.
They wanted to charge us for being late, and eventually they rang the big boss, and Luda spoke at length to the big boss, were eventually said we could go without penalty, they were amazed that we had driven the distance we had in the time that we had.
So they stamped our passport, then we had to exit our vehicle from Kazakhstan which meant more forms, and there was one particular official had possibly asked us five times have we had a present for him, this is part of the corruption within the old Soviet bloc. I guess he will not be too pleased to see us when we go back through, and I wonder what nasties he will have dreamt up for us.
Then was on to deal with Uzbekistan border control. Now entering this country was like entering probably Russia in the 50s. We had to declare everything we had with us, and by this time was about 1 AM on Tuesday, and we've been driving since 7 AM yesterday, eventually we got the forms filled in, and then it was on to do an import for our vehicles.
The captain that was processing documents was totally amazed that we in the West can borrow somebody's car at a moments notice to drive to the shops or whatever. In most of the old Soviet bloc, the only way a wife can drive her husband's car is with a signed release from a registered notary! This means an all times the person driving the car is the registered owner or has been authorised by a registered notary, it is a interesting way of keeping your teenage son from borrowing your car.
Eventually by 2 AM there was through the final gates, so drove through all the trucks that were lined up through the village and when we reached the end of the trucks, we pulled over, parked, and tried to sleep for the rest of what was left of the morning.
Now when we were coming to Uzbekistan our friends Clive and Ann who travel through this country last July warned us that there was no diesel available in the country, and before we left Kazakhstan were going to fill up all of our jerry cans that we had, but to do that would have to find a petrol station that took visa or find a bankamat, we felt we were running out of time, and we had a conference and could not believe the situation was still the same so we decided to push on with out our reserve of diesel. In hindsight had be stopped to fill up with diesel would have been much later at the border, and would arrive via the following day and it would not be as easy for Luda to get our free passage.
Tuesday 17 April
We're all ready to go about 9 AM and after a conference we decided we had to go on to Tashkent to get insurance for our vehicles, and to get some money from a bankamat.
We got on the outskirts of Tashkent and then started looking for a bankamat, we eventually found one but it was not available for foreign cards, to use a foreign card we had to go to hotel, but Sue managed to cash some Euros which seemed to take at least 30 minutes, and while we'll waiting, a guy that saw us trying to get money from the machine upstairs, offered to guide us to a hotel, Sue had the notes of a hotel here in town, so he guided us to that, and would only accept the equivalent of $NZ4 for a taxi fare.
So we went into the car park, found a space and then checked into the hotel for one night, this got our registration for one day which should make as okay for the next five days, it was then time to check our e-mails with the aid of the hotel's WiFi, and we found that whilst we could get the Internet, we could not download our e-mails, and our telephones would not connect to the local network either in this country or Kazakhstan, so basically nobody can contact us, and I guess no news is good news.
We rested for the rest of the day in nice clean surroundings, almost all of the country we had been travelling through has dirt/dust everywhere, it blows everywhere and everything is covered by it, and I guess you just have to learn to live with it, it's a little bit of a novelty, if you're visiting the area, but to live in it on a daily basis for all of your life, give me Earthquake flattened Christchurch!
Wednesday 18 April
We went and obtained the vehicle insurance, which is basically third-party only, drew some money out of the bankamat in the hotel, the only money it presented were $US20 or $US50 notes which he then had to take to the banks money changer, who worked on what appeared to be a minimum of 4% commission. So we changed sufficient money to allow us to buy diesel on the way to Samarqand, check out the hotel, and then we're on our way south, and we thought we would top up with diesel at the first station we could find.
But after about 12 petrol stations and finding that none of them had diesel, and most of them had not had diesel for at least 12 months we had to rethink what we were going to do.
I believed we had two options, option one leave the country immediately with our registration, or to return to Tashkent, then in we had Tashkent we had two more options, first find diesel, everyone had told us there was diesel in Tashkent, second to check back into the hotel, and book a trip to Samarkand.
We ended up with the last option as everyone wanted to visit Samarkand as we were so close, but we had nowhere to leave our motor vehicles with safety so one of us had checked into the hotel and stay in Tashkent while the others went to Samarkand.
I guess it was going to be a no-brainer that I was the one to volunteer, and the rest of the group said that they would go shares in my hotel expenses, with each vehicle paying one third.
Wandering around the hotel we met an Australian who had just flown in from Australia via Korea as part of a tour group, there were 19 in the tour and he suggested there may be four seats available, so Eion talked to the tour leader and yes they could have a one-way ride to Samarkand and it was going to be at no charge.
Thursday 19 April
8 AM the four travellers bordered the Aussie tour bus and left for Samarkand and I was left in Tashkent for four or five days, I guess you could be generous and say I was resting! However those that know me, will know that for me to stay four days in one spot is not normal.
6 PM, I was in the motorhome collecting my clothes to take to the hotel room and there was a knock on the door, there was a young guy, speaking perfect English, with a white skullcap indicating he had been to Mecca, offering his services as a guide.
He claims he is helped many people with motor homes, and claims he has no problems in finding diesel. He says there is a shortage of diesel, because large companies have signed contracts for the supply of diesel and this is supplied direct to the bulk users.
His name is SARVAR, his phone number is (99897) 707 9279 and his e-mail address is email@example.com. So if you are in Uzbekistan and you are looking for diesel this contact is certainly worth a try.