When we booked a tour to China for 100 days we discovered that the Chinese consulate would only give us a visa for 90 days of the tour company said no problems we will get a extension in Chengdu, and when we looked at the itinerary we saw we were in Chengdu for the one day so assumed it was very straightforward and done while you wait.
As we were not going to be in Chengdu before our visa expires we decided to have it done in Kumning, contacting the tour agent to make arrangements for this to be done, we were told that different cities have different rules and some cities require a cash deposit of US$3000 per person to be banked in the bank of China which is refunded one month after you leave China. Other cities require a credit card deposit of the same amount, this is all to do with proving you have enough money to support yourself while you are in China, I would think that the depletion of your funds by the above amount may seriously affect this.
Fortunately in Kumning they do not require this, and also looks like a simpler process than in Chengdu although here it takes five days of the visa to be granted with no urgency where is in Chengdu they do have urgency of three days (not quite sure how this would have been done with us being there for one day) but Chengdu does require a copy of your credit card.
What a lot of people don't realise is that when a company makes a copy of your credit card to use as a guarantee, often that amount of the guarantee is reserved by the credit card company and is not a viable for your use, so if you had a limit of US$7000 and they did a copy of your credit card you could find yourself with just US$4000 available on your card!
It was interesting at the garage that the Kiwi attitude of can-do is badly lacking in China, with the motorhome sitting there for seven days I thought I'd get one of two things fixed, but they're required extensive instruction as to what was to be done along with workshop manuals and electric diagrams in the case of the electric step and in the end I just put it into the too hard basket.
I asked them to seal the skylight, that was still leaking, but was told that was not something that they did, so from the B & Q do-it-yourself shop next door I got a tube of silicon sealer, borrowed their ladder and started ceiling the skylight myself, while young Chinese came along and offered to do that himself, so up on the roof he got, sealed the whole thing extremely well and when I tried to tip him he have nothing to do with it, just saying friend, friend.
One little bit of news that has come through which I would not say was welcome was that Sue will be joining the group again here at Kumning, she evidently has been sitting at Guiyang, a city 500 km away waiting for her change in itinerary to go to Laos to be approved by the Chinese government or whatever, evidently that takes at least 30 days, so I guess when she heard I was in Kumning she felt the need to be with us all again!
So Andy will fly to Guiyang on 26 July to guide Sue on the drive to Kumning and will meet up with Eion and will probably depart for Chengdu on 29 July.
I have told the tour company that when the motorhome is working I will advise them to send me a guide which may take 2 to 3 days and then I will go North following the route planned (to go on any other road needs permission from the government which will take 30 days) but sticking to the motorways and not visiting the city's till I catch up with the group, and the fee for this is surprisingly high.
In our waiting time we wandered round a brand-new shopping centre in the centre of town, here with no cars, basically, new shopping centres are built in the centre of the city rather than on the outskirts like in the West, they have no hesitation about demolishing old buildings for something new, as with seen many apartments, that from the outside, look as good as we've seen in other countries, and are being ripped down to put up I presume the 20 to 30 story new apartment blocks.
The shopping centre was full of beautiful shops, the shops were all attended by well-dressed staff, the day we were there to possibly more staff than they were customers, the goods they had were all up to western high standards, the electronic items were at Western prices, and the clothes were at Western prices, so if your thought is to come to China for some cheap shopping, forget it!
We had lunch in a western styled restaurant, which had very few customers, and we overlooked a Chinese noodles and rice restaurant and that was packed, which goes to show that you set up any restaurant that could be classified as ethnic and any country you could do a freeze !
Tuesday, July 31st
Well the water pump arrived finally today after tracking it all the way on the DHL tracking system from Holland, unfortunately it was the wrong water pump for the wrong vehicle, so I did photographs of the new one and the old one and sent it off for Hank to show Fiat in Holland.
But now appear as if we are going to be here another seven days, at least we getting to know Kumning a little bit better, but it is a crowded city with between four and 6 million people, (depends on what statistics you look at) so you never feel lonely, and of course you very seldom see another white face.
Last night at 11 PM we woke up to some one banging on the door, they weren't going to go away so I peeked through the spy hole and saw a small Chinese woman and thought she does not look dangerous, so I opened the door, put my hand out, and was given a letter, written in English, telling me that they wanted another copy of Ludas passport and more money.
So this morning I went to the front desk with my computer and a translation program and about four Chinese at the front desk can now say in English “ very sorry” of course I doubt that they meant it, it's a different culture with different values and different thinking.
We have been doing a lot of walking around and almost every shop is a small single garage size space that they have crammed as much into as possible so consequently when they cook their meals, which they do at the shop, they do so on the footpath, and that the whole life of some people seem to revolve around the footpath outside their shop.
None of the shops have running water, and with no running water the office we have no waste water systems so they collect all off their water from the communal tap, if it is a restaurant everything gets put into a large dish with the water from the communal tap, everything is washed together so I guess it is clean by their standards.
Now when they are finished with the water, they throw it out onto the footpath, all water one of the many trees, so when you walk through the whole area and has a definite odour all of its own.
Luda has been looking at the dress shops, and they are very similar to Singapore, made for the petite Chinese figure, and the quality in the larger stores does not appear to be up to the standard that Luda expects, and of course the man shops for me have no clothes anywhere near fitting me and like France shoe sizes to stop at about four sizes smaller.
We've seen one or two western restaurants and quite frankly you better taking your luck with a larger Chinese restaurant.
Last time I was here I remember remarking that I had not seen any dogs or cats round the villages or towns, well the economy must be a lot better, because now you see people walking dogs and dogs walking the street unaccompanied.
We had an interesting meal as an ethnic restaurant, Luda had more luck with her dish than I did, and I ordered a large jug of orange juice, or that's what looked like in the menu, however carrot juice arrived, I'm told it is very good for you!
As we walk the streets is common to see a cage with about six chooks outside, often picking away at grain whilst they wait to be the main course for one of the restaurants clientele, I guess you can be sure the food is fresh, and of course the fish restaurants have their main course swimming in a glass tank near the front of the restaurant.
The hotel were in is costing us NZ$56 a day which includes breakfast for two, Chinese breakfast, so if you like soups and noodles and other questionable items you'll do fine, fortunately they have some date buns there so that gets me through breakfast, the other hotel was costing us NZ$76 a day and they had a full service restaurant with Western and Chinese food where is our current hotel just serves breakfast and other meals we had to go outside the hotel which at least gets us looking around the area.
What this hotel is into in a big way is wedding receptions, Saturday and Sunday I counted nine bride and grooms each day, they have a large photograph of themselves out in front of the hotel, and that is where they stand with their wedding party and all the guests mingle round in front of them, there are people with trays piled up high with sweets and cigarettes.
Of course almost everybody in China smokes, I have not seen any non-smoking areas and there are lots of small shops just selling cigarettes and I think I've counted about 30 different brands so that tobacco company is alive and strong in China. As we been driving through the countryside, and different areas were seen vast quantities of tobacco being grown and being dried and smoked and smokehouses so to store a very good economy.
Some large buildings we see around the city are banks and there are a lot of them in China, almost all Chinese, and that I cannot recall seeing a western bank anywhere. There are a few of these banks that will supply money from Western cash card, but that usually got to be affiliated with Visa. The other type of shop we are noticing how the two mobile telephone company shops and they seem to be everywhere, they appear to be almost at least one of each in every block.
Tuesday, 7 August
Well the correct pump finally arrived, but I received a text message that it was slightly damaged and they want to see me at the garage. My immediate thought was Kumning for another seven days, no thank you! So I went to the garage, found a very small chip out of the pulley on the pump assembly, and the mechanics assured me it would not affect its operation and spent a few minutes showing me how it would not, so with a great deal of relief I told them to install it, this they did, and also did a filter and oil change (they managed to find a similar filter in town) and had it ready Wednesday morning.
I told Tracey the progress, said when it was finished I was going to drive it back to the hotel, a distance of less than 2 km, which were travelled so many times in the taxi was like being at home, but she said “ you'll have to do that when the guide arrives” you cannot do it by yourself. This is Pi##@# me off, so I said I will get the mechanic to do it, no response.
Wednesday, August 8
I was due to be there by 10 AM, so at 9 AM I went downstairs to try to find a taxi, me and half of Kumning, so in the end I set off walking, looking every so often for a taxi, but had not seen an empty one by the time I reached the Subaru garage.
The motorhome was finished, but they want me to take it for a test drive, to make sure I was happy with it, and everything was working fine, so off I went with the head man who could speak basic English, but insisted on telling me all about his trips to Australia and to Europe.
The temperature gauge remained steady, which was the signal that everything had been done correctly, so was then back to the garage to pay for the account.
Now included in the account, were two sets of customs clearance for the parcels, a filter and oil change, and a whole lot came to NZ$600, of course I still have the pump to pay for when I got back to Holland but I was quite happy with the result.
With the mechanics in motorhome with me, we were very quickly back to the hotel where I parked it in the hotel car park. I decided we had a total reorganisation to be done in the garage of the M/H, and when I heard about our Kiwi friends wandering through Europe in their Hymer motorhome, admittedly it was of an older model without some of the more modern security built in to the newer ones, but nevertheless, there is was broken into, and almost everything was stolen !
When I think of some other places we have being too it made me think this could happen to me, very easy, so off I went to the good old B&Q do-it-yourself shop and bought a safe that would hold our computers and probably cameras and put that in the garage of the motorhome, to be installed later.
I got back to the hotel and found an e-mail waiting for me from Tracey told me the first flight her guide could get to Kumning was arriving in the city Thursday morning at 0.25 a.m. and he'll be ready for a Thursday morning departure.
Over the last two days I've been stocking up with Coca-Cola Zero that has been on special at one of the French supermarkets, I've also been buying some small carry on suitcases at the bit very expensive price of NZ$9 each, the first one I bought I made the comment be lucky to get it back to the hotel at this price, well only one wheel fell off, the next time it was raining so there was a taxi involved, and it survived!
The next job was a full shopping list to restock the motorhome with groceries. Everything we had when the motorhome was put on the recovery vehicle we gave away, the fridge was going to be off for the goodness knows how long, so we emptied the fridge and Eion and Liz got a week plus of food.
So off we went to the French chain of Carrefour, I decided to buy a larger suitcase that we can check through on the plane which cost $NZ40, I wonder if it will get to Singapore! And some more of the small carry on $9 variety, while Luda was filling up a supermarket trolley with food, everything came to about 1/3 of the same in NZ.
So with all of this in tow we took a taxi back to the hotel, filled up the fridge, and while Luda was cleaning out the motorhome, I totally reorganised the garage.
Thursday, August 9
It's surprising when you stay in a hotel for 14 days and you have access to all of your clothes etc, just how much ends up in the hotel room, so this morning all this was taken down to the motorhome, put away into its location, and while all this was going on, Edward our new guide arrived and we stored his backpack in the reorganised garage, we went and settled the account, and then we were on our way.
That's when the trouble started, Edwards GPS said turn left, ours is said turn right, as were on a one-way street, we turned right. We then tried to leave town and after we passed the same spot for the second time Edward suggested it was time he got a taxi, and his cost, to get us out of town.
I said no, will go by my GPS, and before long we were on our way north having lost 40 minutes circling!
It was back into the Chinese driving, which had the best was chaotic, and at the worst a severe form of lunacy, but we went out on the express highways, paying tolls, which led us onto a standard country road which required serious concentration as were driving through a massive gorge. By this time we discovered Edwards command of the English language whilst it was better than my knowledge of Mandarin, was not adequate to be paying guide, and if I did not have my own GPS with the China maps on them, we probably still would be going in circles back in Kumning, which would certainly have been the case had Edward been guiding Sue.
Despite the lack of English, the Chinese drivers, Edwards lack of knowledge of most things, we did manage to get 534 km off our 4000 km plus distance we have to travel and we have ended up just inside the Yunnan border and will move on to the Sichuan province tomorrow.
Being still in the gorge that runs through this massive range of mountains/hills every service area we have stopped at has had no space, with mountains either side of the road, you don't actually get a lot of space, eventually we found a restaurant, service area with a large open space and was pulled in there for the night.
Friday, August 10
Today we headed off towards our final destination in China, hoping to knock off as many kilometres as possible, in the end we did 734 in 9 1/2 hours. Suffice to say when we stopped, we were glad.
Near the city of Jiangyou we drove over some incredible engineering, the gorge was too narrow to build a new motorway with four lanes so they built pillars in the ground and extended them up about 50 m and then built 20 km of what I would call Skyway through the gorge with the old road way underneath, and all the houses you look down on from the Skyway.
To make things interesting there were tunnels every so often one in excess of 5 km, and as a result of this very expensive engineering we pay the highest toll so far on this trip of 274 yuan, it was worth every yuan to have experienced this.
Not only was the Skyway incredible, the scenery in every direction was just magical, and I'm only glad that now we are shooting digital because if was film with Ludas shooting, I'd be in trouble!
We of course have the usual Chinese drivers all day, edging in where ever there was a space, and reminds me a lot of pigs at the trough, all trying to get more than their share, perhaps I am being unkind!
Right on schedule at 6 PM we arrived at a parking area close to Hanzhong, that we had been advised about by a road sign some 60+ kilometres back and here we are for the night.
Saturday, August 11
We set off at 8 AM on our mad dash to the border, heading East towards Xi'an, so we can go West, we had to do this because we are only allowed to travel on government approved roads, and the direct road, on the map, to Lanzhou was not an approved road, I suspect the government wants everyone to go to Xi'an because of the buried soldiers and the fees there would go towards swelling their coffers.
So are on the road towards Xi'an and my GPS said we should turn off, I checked with Edward, he said yes that is correct, so off we went, paid the toll, he was jabbering away to the girl in the toll box, in their language and when we got through the Tollgate ahead of us was a roundabout and he said we will have to go right round the roundabout and back on to the motorway. I did everything except question his parentage, his only answer was, it's only a little mistake, we haven't travelled very far, and he was smiling, but not when I had finished talking. The Chinese are very fast to say sorry, or verrie sorrie, of course with the Chinese accent, and that goes down like a lead balloon with me.
So we carried on the road towards Xi'an going East so we could go west on a road that was not marked on any map and Edward told me the correct turnoff was a further 350k on. Now the road to Xi’an should have another name and that is the road of tunnels, we must passed through well in excess of 100 and naturally this was through very mountainous terrain with high viaducts to add to the interest.
Now the road that we had to travel on was off the ring road around Xi'an and Edward had been sitting quietly for about two hours when all of a sudden it was his job to tell us where to go, he commented that I was going too fast and he did not know where he was or where he had to go (yes he was lost on a ring road) so he wanted me to stop on the motorway for 30 minutes whilst he thought about things. I asked what he'd been doing for the last two hours, and he's very good at not answering questions.
This government approved road, which was a new motorway, which was supposed to be very fast for us, he had never been on before, but he knew all about it and we would have no problems! Yes and the Pope is going to become Protestant! (Only joking)
Eventually we got to exit 25 and I suggested to Edward that he write this on his map, he thought that was a good idea, so along Highway G70, and he was correct, it was a new motorway, and we did get good speed, but Edward again must've gone to sleep, because Luda who was watching the direction, said, we were travelling north when we should be going west, Edward woke up again, said can we stop, I said no, just tell me we were going, after a bit he said will take the next exit to the right, which we did, which placed us about 350 km off Route, I might add that with all these new motorways neither my Garmin or Edwards Chinese GPS had all the roads, so was the matter for the old-fashioned system of following the road on the map instead of sleeping as Edward must've been doing.
So here we were on a country road and it wasn't too long before we saw the first accident, a mobile crane had hit a small motorbike scooter and from where we were we saw a lot of dust and a bit of smoke, and when that settled the mobile crane was angled across the road and the scooter was in the middle of the road, and eventually that got pushed off the road but the crane stayed where it was, and all of the cars did their best to get round this mess, but wasn't possible for either the tanker in front of us, or us to get through the narrow gap.
So I sent Edward out to ask the crane driver to straighten up his vehicle so people could get past, well really, if you look at Edward you would not hear a word of what he was saying because you would not think it was relevant, (Luda’s comment was that he is like a cat that is frightened of his tail) he came back and told me the man was a minority and he could not understand him.
I got out, went over to that to the minority man, grabbed his arm, in English said to straighten out your bloody vehicle, and with hand signals, and I pulled his arm towards his vehicle, he got the message, the vehicle was straightened and the traffic was cleared, and we were on our way instead of waiting whilst the two involved in the accident finished the negotiations.
I questioned Edward as to why were we, were we are, he assured me it was not his fault, he agreed it wasn't my fault or Luda’s, and then went silent, I questioned him about his claiming to know this road that we went astray on, we narrowed it down to the fact that he must have been lying, and we discussed this a little bit, I was quite upset with all of his stupid decisions made today, he has added at least a day to our travel which could have all been avoided very simply.
It was then on the road towards Lanzhou and when I saw the first road sign with that destination I was happier, but the road was possibly as bad if not worse than the road they would not let us take, and I'm sure it was not a government approved road. It took us through the Hui Muslim minority area and under other circumstances it would have been very interesting, but we were on a mission to get to the border, and Navo and their staff were doing everything in their power, so it seemed, to stop us.
We asked Edward if there was a town ahead of us and he said yes, and gave some name for the type of town, and I asked how many people, five, 50, 500, 5000, 500,000, 5 million, he thought for a bit and came up with a figure of 100,000 and that sound reasonable to me, and I said how far, and he said to where, and I said to Beijing, well that was lost on him and I should not have bothered, I said to the nearest town, he eventually said 50 km, and I realised we get there just before dark so we settled on that.
About this time, he asked me to be careful of my driving, I asked him how long have you been driving? The answer was he hadn't! I told him to shut up and let me concentrate on the job.
Eventually we got to this town and I told him we were looking for a hotel, this was while we're at the only set of traffic lights in town, he said that’s a hotel there, pointing in a nebulous direction ahead, when in actual fact he was talking about a hotel off to the left, he then went on to tell us that he wasn't sure that foreign people were allowed to stay in this hotel, I said we weren't, we are staying in a motorhome, you're sorting it all out with the hotel, eventually we got there to a parking spot in front of the hotel and here we are for the night. Where is Edward, well we have not seen him since, and he hasn't yet retrieved his backpack from the garage, but after writing this he turned up with some fruit to express his sorrow for the days events.
Today we had travelled 777K in 11 hours of driving and it looks like we added 700+ to our route, at this rate we will be lucky to ever get out of China!
We started off at 8 AM again with our handicap of 350 km that had to be made up because of Edwards map reading skills of yesterday. This took us to talk 12 o'clock noon when we reached yesterday's target of Lanzhou.
Today we were working with my GPS, there were no special rules about special roads that we had to travel on that were not on any maps, so Edward could sit back and be a passenger until we came to a toll booth when he had to do his bit telling them we are not a bus but a car.
Now as you may have gathered Edward does not have the most forceful personality in fact a couple days ago the girl petrol attendants almost totally ignored him so I'm not quite sure how he's going to be a tour guide. However back to the toll booth, I passed the card over and before Edward could work out what he had to say the girl had rung up the charge of 197 yuan, I told Edward, start talking, which he did, be at a fraction late, and the charge was reduced down to 119 yuan. The rest of the day he did his toll booths bit without prompting with apparent total success.
Occasionally when he was watching our GPS and told us to turn off the motorway and we knew it just found another route perhaps 2 m shorter and if we know we have to stay on the motorway the full distance so we ignore the GPS, so we had to explain this to him and I think he understood.
We then carried on the G30 we came to the city of Wuwei when the motorway finished and we were faced with a road and the construction for about 30 km.
Today we drove for 10 hours and did 714 km which leaves us about 1500 km to reach Ürümqi city where the rest of the team spent last night, that will take us another two days to reach that location.
We spent most of the day round the 2 km elevation moving up to 3 km on one occasion and the only real excitement, if you can call it that, was a truck lying almost on its side and a front-end loader trying to push it up right, we did not stick around to see the success or failure.
For quite a bit of this afternoon were driving along side the remnants of the great Wall, this part of the wall was built out of Earth, packed earth, and most of that is still standing along with the remains of the watchtowers etc.
Tonight we are at the Shandan service area which is close to the city of the same name, we been driving over the Gobi desert and we have had the motorway very much to ourselves a lot of the time.
Monday, August 13
Today should have been a trouble-free day and a day that Edwards stayed out of trouble, we were on one motorway for most of the day and did not come to a toll booth to later in the day, and I thought Edward can't blow this, he handed her the number plate and spoke to her in their language, I think she thought it was a pretty piece of paper but she didn't look at it and charged us the full price of a 397 yuan, I snapped it Edward, told him speak to her, and speak to her he did, she turned the number plate over at that point under his direction, saw what she was supposed to see the first time, and charged us the price of a car which was 252 yuan.
After this the toll booths were simple and there was no more trouble.
We went past again the massive wind turbine farms, and completed our circle of China round the area of the start of the great Wall at Jiayuguan.
Most of the day were driving through the Gobi desert, or one of the other deserts, very good motorway all the way, we travelled a constant speed of around 93-95, set on the cruise control, was interesting some of the large, overloaded, over width, (by our standards) cruised past us at 100+ and settled in, in front of us, about 500 m, but eventually without constant speed the gap closed and we passed them, not to see them again.
There was a little bit of excitement in the opposite lane, a small pickup of some sort had overturned and melons were everywhere, but were soon passed that and could not tell of the outcome.
Again today we have been driving along side the new railway line for what I would call the bullet train, the train that is expected to go at 350 K per hour. With noticed parts of this line being built as we travel right through China and they certainly have a lot of people working on it, and there still seems to be a lot of work to be done.
Trucks, and more trucks, and more trucks were the order of the day with very little else so we were passing them most of the day until we stopped for lunch or looking for diesel. We stopped at several fuel stations to fill up our tank of diesel but the whole resting areas were packed with trucks, all lined up to get the fuel pump, and I figured I had enough fuel to get to one of the many fuel stations there must be a head, get to them I did, but they were all out of fuel.
Eventually the reserve light came on, and I know I can drive about 90 K on this, but to play it safe after 20 KI stopped and put one of the 20 litre cans into the tank and that got us to the next fuel station with ease, and fact the reserve tank would have done the job.
Naturally after filling up the tank the next four fuel stations within the next 50 km were all open for business and had no large queues, isn't that the way?
Today we drove for 10 hours and on the much better roads managed to 804 km which places us well within striking distance of the rest of the tour tomorrow sometime.
Tuesday, August 14
Again today we had driven 10 hours and covered 717 km, not easy kilometres as most of the day we had been faced with oncoming traffic when one side of the motorway has been closed down, and monstrous trucks that we have to pass when there are none coming towards us.
It was a straightforward day with only one decision to be made, where to top up our water tank and we finally found a small shop that allowed us to use their water tap for the cost of 10 yuan. Giving Edwards his due, he did run round and did the negotiating, and he had no problems today at the numerous tollbooths. Of course he was only there because the Chinese government insist upon a guide and with the straight road and my GPS no guiding was required.
We are now less than 600 km from the border which we will cover tomorrow, we are again in a rest area on the motorway, these are different to a petrol station with a certain amount of parking, there you are not allowed to stay overnight.
Wednesday, August 15
And so is on to the border, the last 600 kilometres, very good road all the way except for the last hundred kilometres which is waiting for the tunnel to be opened to go through the mountain instead of over the mountain as we did, however the views we had were magnificent.
We passed a tremendously large lake called Ebinur Hu and we saw the rest of the team camped by the side of the lake were they will be spending the night. We drove on as we had to get Edward onto a train today or pay an extra day's fee which was unnecessary.
After all the problems I had with Edward at the start, he started learning more as the days went on, and then I gave him some basics on business knowledge and living which sort of opened his eyes.
There was however a lot of problems at the beginning, and Tracy eventually recognise this reducing the fee from 10,000+ to 6000+ yuan of course which bought the 4800 km we drove which worked out at over 1.2 yuan per kilometre!
Today we saw a really bad accident between probably three trucks, the cab on one was almost totally destroyed and is not much doubt about at least one fatality from that scene, but the traffic was chaotic as ever if not quite as bad because of the remoteness of the location that were driving through.
The camped in a parking area of a hotel that is undergoing renovations in the border town of Horgas, which are guides have described as a small town, but it has some of the tallest apartment blocks which one normally associates with larger cities.
Tomorrow before lunch the rest of the team will arrive and our peaceful time that we had over the last three weeks will be over for awhile, Friday we cross the border into Kazakhstan where I will try to either get a transit visa or another entry on my current visa to the Ukraine and we will exit to Europe via that route.
Friday, August 17
The rest of the team with Andy have arrived at Horgas and the bad news is that Roger, who suffered a detached retina in his eye, twice, will not be flying out to join Sue, in fact the indications are that he will lose the sight in his bad eye, not a fate to be wished on anyone.
The good news is that Eion and Sue have decided to return overland through Russia and its Stans, together and will leave us at the Kazakhstan border. Who said that prayers are not answered!
So off we went with Andy to the Chinese border and after waiting for about an hour we started to be processed, there must have been about four different people look through our motorhome for Chinese that we were smuggling out, but none of them found any, mind you they did not look underneath to see five tied to the undercarriage, or did they, because they disappeared.
So eventually everything was finished, we said goodbye to Andy and ventured forth to the Kazakhstan border control. There they had a problem, or thought they had a problem with our visas because the motor vehicle was not mentioned on the Visa and eventually we pulled Luda out of passport control (drivers and passengers go through separate controls) and with a few words in rapid Russian she sorted them out in double quick time.
She was eventually called upon many times to help sort out questions in fact the people at border control looked for her whenever there was a problem. But all that came to an end and eventually we were allowed to go, or so we thought!
We got to the first gate, and while one or the officers put his hand up signalling us to stop and eventually something came over to speak to somebody in Russian, Luda was elected to have the conversation, evidently they had a bad person (whatever that is) go through border control and they were trying to catch him, they want us to place our motorhome across the gate so he could not crashed through the gate, I'm not sure how you say “ you've got be joking” in Russian but I'm sure that is the message Luda conveyed.
So with motorhome out of the picture as a security barrier they put down two tyre shredders to stop the James Bond want to be from either escaping or entering Kazakhstan.
Soon there was a hive of activity at the gate with the shredder being pulled to one side, the gate being opened widely, and a hand being put up to stop us from moving, and a car drove through a high-speed and the poor little guy on the gate threw a salute that would have done well in the Coldstream Guards and then it was back to closing the gate, put the shredder back in place, and carry on with his cigarette, that is when he was not spitting which he did every few moments, and blowing his nose without a handkerchief.
It wasn't too long before the activity resumed and another officer arrived, so the performance was repeated, except the car stopped just inside the gate, all the doors in the car opened, soldiers rushed to the officers door to hold open for him whilst another soldier dashed right round the car with his hat and then the short plump officer waddled down the driveway to the buildings whilst the car backed up quickly turned round and was gone, then it was back to waiting and watching the soldier on the gate with his activity.
All good things come to an end, and eventually we were allowed to go, through about three more gates with the last one inspecting our passports, very carefully, as if we could get this far without going through passport control, but then we could have been James Bond in disguise.
Incidentally nobody on the Kazakhstan side inspected the inside of our motorhome, I guess they knew the Chinese did such a good job that they would be wasting their time.
Finally we were free of all the border Security so off we went, by ourselves, looking for an office selling insurance, we saw nothing until we got to a reasonable sized town where Ludas saw a police station, so we stopped in Luda went off to get some information, but of course it was lunchtime, it was at that point we discovered we had extra 2 hours on the day with that being 2 PM instead of 4 PM Chinese time.
So we carried on North and a couple blocks on, at some traffic lights, I saw an office with a picture of a car, and Luda said yes that's the vehicle insurance. We did a left-hand turn, parked, went into the office, and we were just about to start talking to the girl about insurance, and Eion poked his head round the door, and asked is this where we get insurance, we answered to the positive, and eventually Eion, Liza, and Sue appeared, we got our insurance, paid the 1200 and left the rest of the team with the Russian speaking insurance officer.
By this time we figured the police may have finished their lunch so we went back to the police station, stood outside by an open window behind other people waiting to do their business, eventually we found out that since June Luda can be in the country for a month without registration, but I need to register and we got an address in Almaty which we will try first before we try to contact that the people that supplied the Visa invitation have given us.
So is back out onto the Kazakhstan motorway, a two-lane road full of potholes, there is an 80 km speed limit on these roads that is the speed on the open road with reduced speeds through the villages, and even at that speed it is like driving on a rattle testing course.
We stopped at a sign that said water, and it was cold clear water coming up out of the ground, so we dumped our fresh water tank and filled up with this new water, it is just as well there were two outlets because many people stopped to fill up their bottles with water, or simply wash their legs under the cold water, washed their face, in fact it was quite a meeting point.
Onward we went, through some interesting looking mountains, on this flat uninteresting landscape they would be mountains anywhere else simply hills. We have been trying hard to find a reason to come to Kazakhstan, it's almost all flat, large areas of it are basically desert, and the rest at what the Russians call steppes, the roads are terrible and there any real reason we can come up with is that you have to cross Kazakhstan to get to China and to exit from China!
We found a large parking spot as it was getting late, with a cafe, toilet, and a very strong flow of fresh well water which again was extremely popular with all the cars and trucks that stopped on the way.
Saturday, August 18
We polished off the 106 km into Almaty city and followed the GPS to the address we had for the registration office, we parked nearby and walked back to the office, again Ludas Russian was quite necessary, we happened upon an immigration officer and he said the office was not open until Monday, which is what we expected, and he looked at my visa almost as an afterthought, and said your registration has to be completed by the person that did the invitation.
The next job was to set the GPS to Baibulak which was the address that was given to us from Dmitri who sold us the invitation from New York, however the only spot Luda could find on the GPS was Belibulak so we headed out in that direction, arrived at the correct street in the town to find the house was deserted, so we stopped an old guy on a bicycle and he suggested that the correct town that we wanted was another 6 km further on, a little bit later we found a policeman and he told us that when we came to Talghar would find a street that went off to the right which would lead us to the street we wanted. Of course all these conversations took place in the Russian language!
We got to Talghar, look at the street that went off to the right and said it can't be that, so we drove on a little bit stopped at a major store, they had no perception as to where the town was, but they could tell us where we could buy a Sim card.
Now we had communication we are able to telephone the number that New York gave us, and eventually an older woman answered, in Russian, and said it was her son that we wanted, where was he, she didn't know but if we rang back in five minutes she may be up to tell us.
When we rang back were given another telephone number and finally got through to the guy that issued the invitation, on the Internet, he explained that he used his mother's address as a permanent location, where we did not need to go, and she lived in a very small village which no one really knew where it was so he was not surprised that we could not find it, and that he had quite a chuckle.
He said this was the first time that he's had to do the registration, it could be all of his other invitations were just tourist invitations which are very simple and can be done anywhere, mine was a business invitation because the tourist one would not last the time we were in China and would have had to do another one somewhere in China which would have been quite difficult.
He said he telephoned us back in about three hours, by this time we made our way back into the city from out in the country, we found a nice spot shaded with trees and a very quiet street opposite the bank where we thought we would be right for a couple of days, and this is where we were when he telephoned, Luda was out looking for the street name when he phoned so I answered the telephone, yes he could speak English, but he preferred to speak to Luda, so she rang him when she got back and he came and visited and got all the information he needed, at the same time he was here to security guy from the bank said we can't stop there!
So we wandered round town trying to find another hotel with a car park in the end we just gave up and decided to head for the hills, we got in behind a stretched limo that had a wedding party so we followed that up into the scenic hills, passing very many other stretched limos again with wedding parties, it looks like the whole hill area is covered in restaurants catering for weddings so we eventually left the wedding party were following and carry on up the hill.
The road led to a national park and for 700 Tenge we could drive up into the mountains and stayed the night in one of them very many parking areas, this we did our part in a large open space which looks like it is beside a Kazah holiday spot with home-made cooking and yurt accommodation. Wonderful spot N43.10110 E76.93375
Sunday 19 August
We woke up to find another motorhome camped in front of us, a German couple with their 4 1/2 year old son, had been on the road for seven weeks and will be away from home near Munich for seven months.
They left home and drove through Turkey to Iran which they found delightful (bear in mind he is of Turkish descent so many pass easily in the middle eastern countries) then onto Turkmenistan where they needed a guide and found the roads very bad and the people very poor, then onto Uzbekistan where they hunted for fuel for three days, finally found some low-grade fuel which got them out of the country, but they had to have their fuel system cleaned out when they got to Kyrgyzstan and they had just crossed the border to arrive at this parking spot which has several degrees cooler than the central city.
From here they are due to go to Astana to sort out some visas then on into Russia, Mongolia, China for 22 days down into Laos and finally to Thailand when they put their camper onto a boat to be returned to Germany. They are travelling by themselves except through China when they're going with a group and they have no qualms about safety for them or their child.
Monday 20 August
Today we went in the city and our German friends followed us to the Visa office were we met with the Visa invitation man, he took my passport and entry card and said it would be ready tomorrow at 4 PM so off he went in his Lexus and we went to a large supermarket and replenished our stores and after cooking in the heat of the central city we decided to go back to our parking spot at 1500 m for a little bit of coolness.
Tuesday 21 August
I spent most of the night coughing and woke up feeling lousy so we decided to go in early and visit a pharmacy to stock up on drugs which hopefully will put me back to normal, whatever that is.
We've discovered that we could have, perhaps, had our entry registered at any of the hotel's, which nobody told us about on our way through the country last time, of course we were running against the clock to cross the country on a transit visa so we did not really have time to experiment.
About 5 PM my passport was returned with the necessary stamps then we had to make a decision to go back to the hills or get on our way, we decided The latter in spite of the evening rush hour traffic and we eventually got clear of the city although with some of the driving was more by good luck than good management. As soon as we left the city traffic behind we found a deserted parking spot where we could park a distance from the road so we settled in there for the night.
Today we carried on our 1300 km drive to Astana where I hope to do something with my Ukrainian visa.
Driving through Kazakhstan has got to be the most boring drive in the world, perhaps driving across the Nullarbor Plains in Australia may equal it, but just.
A lot of time today we were beside the massive Balqash lake which evidently is a mixture of fresh and salt water, presumably on different sides of the lake.
With so much water in the centre of the country I'm surprised they have not started irrigation and turned their desert into something productive. Whenever I see this sort of ground and see that non-use that has been put into I think of the land that became Israel and they turned their desert into an oasis.
The roads were not as good as the Chinese motorways but was certainly better than our first experience with this country's roads. But not exactly bursting with traffic and we were driving beside the railway line for awhile and noticed that many long trains pass is going on in both directions so I guess without that the roads would be much worse condition.
The Lexus dealership here in Kazakhstan must be very, very happy, is almost the most popular car was seen since being here so there is evidently not shortage of money amongst some people.
As we carried on our boring drive a small Peugot passed us with the horn blasting, and two young guys in it obviously on the way back to England having just partaken in the Mongol Rally which runs from London to Ulaanbaatar every year, they looked very high spirits and soon disappeared along the extremely straight roads that went off into the horizon.
We carried on until we were close to the city of Balqash where we did a right-hand turn and went down towards the lake to a rest area which was full of New Zealand style batch houses, most had signed up advertising they have a room to rent but we drove on the very bad road towards a yacht club and here we are perched on the top of a hill overlooking the lake with a nice breeze lowering the temperature which is outside in the high 30s.
Now I did say nice breeze didn't I ! Well about 9 PM the nice breeze turned into a mini tornado rocking the motorhome violently, and as we look out towards the horizon there was an incredible display of lightning, it must have been quite a distance away because we had no thunder, but the general consensus was that we should not stay on this elevated point of land exposed to what ever the elements may decide to throw at us.
So we start of the motorhome turn the lights on and start winding our way back the way we had come stopping every so often for the wind to die down and the dust storm that accompanied it to dissipate so we could see where we were driving.
We drove through the holiday village and noticed people tying down their doors and gates, we passed bits of tree that had blown off and a incredible amount of plastic was in motion. Eventually we got to the road that we came into the village on and decided to park on the edge of the road clear of any trees, electric wires and anything else that may land on us. A little bit later it started raining but that did not worry us.
Thursday, August 23
It started out a beautiful day, clear blue sky and moved on up the Mercury until it was about 35°, we carried on North only seeing the police near major centres the rest of the time no sign of the long arm of the law.
We kept on getting passed again today by Lexus vehicles, are almost as common in this country as the Lada is in Russia, or perhaps not quite that common but certainly many more Lexus than there are Ford's.
Eventually we turned north and at that point we must have been passing through the area that we saw all the lightning from last night as there was an immense amount of water lying everywhere.
We went past some mining areas that had very large amounts of slag heaps lying piled up in small mountains covering a large amount of the landscape and the large vehicles that will working on the top of the these slag heaps were quite dwarfed in size. We understand that it is a gold mining area and later we went through a coalmining area.
As we got close to Astana we saw a little holiday spot beside some water and we are sitting there at the moment waiting for them to tell us what the cost will be. It is very reasonable in price costing exactly Zero.
Friday, August 24
Very peaceful life beside the water, we were the second people to leave open the gate by ourselves and quietly departing, making our way into the city to find a Ukrainian embassy, the program on my Samsung note to run it as a GPS for the second time has not the other find the right street number but at least have put us into the area and all we have to do was go back about four blocks.
Being nice and early there are quite a lot of car parks are available so we found one were parked there by 8:45 AM and a few minutes later the park was full with people parking all round us.
We walked over to the embassy and spoke to the guard has said it opened at 10 AM, we should have put our name down on the waiting list but didn't, so when we came back there were three ahead of us.
Eventually it was our turn so we went and saw the embassy officer who told us for New Zealand there was no problems in getting a visa sorted out before 12 noon, when they closed as today was the Ukraine Independence Day, and technically the embassy should have been closed because of extensive holidays be are open today, which was lucky for us.
So we had to dash off to the bank and deposit 25,000 Tenge then back to the motorhome collect a photograph, a copy of my medical insurance and get back to the office with my passport, while Luda was busy in the queue at the bank depositing the money.
By 12 o'clock I had my new Ukrainian visa in my hand and we were on our way north towards Russia some 800 km away.
As we left the city we came very quickly onto some road reconstruction where they had placed a speed limit of 50 K, the speed limit went on and on and on, and Luda who is familiar with Soviet ways, and police ways, said stay to the speed. A little bit later a Porsche 4WD sped past us followed by an Audi was quite gratifying to round a bend and watch them get pulled over by police officer just waiting for somebody like them. Unfortunately the 50 K speed limit was in place for about another 30 K but there were no more police cars and a Porsche did pass us again going at high speed.
It was nice driving for quite awhile and then we saw a notice that for the next 25 km the road was being reconstructed, this meant you had to drive on one of the worst roads you've possibly ever seen, we drove for quite a while at 10 KPH and then I realised just how long would be on the stretch of road at the speed so I dramatically increased our speed to 17 KPH and flew past the truck we been tailing but it still seemed to take forever to reach the end of the 25K.
All good things do come to an end, and we reached the tar seal, again, but that was worse than the road we just come off, so the story was to abandon the seal and drive on what would normally be the grass verge but was a solid stony portion that took us past the real bad bit of the seal.
Then ahead we came to the main road with a indication on our GPS that the next change in direction was 101K away, and the road was smooth and I put the foot down, and eased it off when I thought I was going quite fast, looked at the Speedo and I was doing 70 K, I guess that is all relative to the speed you been doing because 70 K is varsity different to 17 K.
The road was good so all we had to do now was find some way to stop for the night and eventually, in the middle of nowhere there was a large grain silo the large parking area and a cafe so we sweep into that, parked in the parking area, asked the young guy that was watching us park, could we stopped there for the night, feeling very important he said yes so here we are.
Saturday, August 25
Again we're on the road heading north towards Russia, it is interesting driving through the country of Kazakhstan, we get to the end of an extremely long road, go over a slight hill all round a slight bend and beer in front of us the road carries on towards the horizon, and this seems to go on forever across a absolute flat plane very seldom varying over 300 m in elevation with grubby little villages appearing on the side of the road irregularly.
When reaching the north of the country now and the fields of nothing had turned into fields of wheat which seemed to stretch forever and the grubby little villages had turned into grubby little towns with large wheat silos, and as we passed one another appears on the horizon.
Fortunately the road today was good all the way and was stopped just north of Kustanay a large city near the border with Russia. As we get closer to Russia where starting to see more and more cars with Russian numberplates, a lot, as normal, are from Moscow. Currently we have travelled over 2500 km through Kazakhstan since we left China with a distance yet to go.
We've stopped on a noisy parking area beside the motorway and hopefully it won't be too bad for the night.
Sunday, August 26
Today we carried on 120 km drive to the border, about 60 km from the border were met with a police checkpoint where we had to stop our vehicle take all our papers to the office, passing by an armed guard with his AK-47 at the ready, and all of our information was entered into a large ledger by hand, a rare event in today's computerisation and I'd hate to be the person had to look through all the entries looking for somebody that should not have gone through.
It is just as well we had bought our vehicle insurance for this country as there was very sorry looking guy who'd been caught without the insurance and who is going to have to pay lots of money.
That is being done was then on to the border crossing which was totally uneventful, as it should be, the documents were filled in to come into Kazakhstan for the vehicle were constant for Russia know we had to do was buy some insurance at the border which cost us €50 for 15 days and with minor other bits of red tape were on our way into Russia.
Almost immediately after we had crossed the border the scenery had changed and we started seeing forests of silver birch trees they are what Luda calls Russian trees and is certainly a change from the large wheat fields we had been experiencing in the 200 or 300 km drive to the Russian border.
We stopped at a supermarket to replenish our rouble supply and then we're on our way around the ring road of Chelyabinsk before we head towards Ufa. We are currently on the main highway to Moscow and we've stopped at a motel/truckstop were for 100 roubles we can spend the night.
Monday 27 August
We carried on our drive across the province of Chelyabinsk until we reached the province of Bashkortostan on our way towards Ufa. Bashkortostan is the home of the Bashkirs people who comprise 22% of the state and they are basically people whose language is related to the Kipchak group of the western branch of the Turkic languages very similar to that of the Tatars and they are Muslim by religion.
Were almost totally out of water so we went into a village and true to Russian tradition they had standpipes running through the village from which we were able to fill up our water tanks.
Once you leave western Europe with its vast background with the automobile you’ve reached an area where there are traffic laws which I believe no one knows. The passing everywhere we’ve travelled on this trip is frightening and if it wasn’t for the car in the opposite lane pulling on the brake there will be a smash every few seconds, it appears that they rely greatly on the other person giving way when they are overtaking and the supplies equally on the open road or on the brow of a hill. It’s in these sort of circumstances I’d love to be driving a large tank and it would be interested to see if they would still rely on me giving way!
We stopped at another motel/truckstop and for 100 rouble’s were able to spend the night there.