“How’s the serenity?”

I’m not sure I have enough vocabulary to describe the situation we find ourselves in right now… but it does allow me the time to put together this update at least.

We are in the north(ish) of Mongolia, we have just returned from a jaunt out of Ulaanbaatar that involved one night at Amarbayasgalant Monastery and another at Khovsgol Lake. Tonight we swung in to a ger camp looking for a shower, a toilet and an early night. After extensive negotiation we managed two of these three things… the shower (filthy) and a toilet (filthy with no paper or soap) but most definitely not an early night. In the middle of these utterly idyllic surroundings that include flowing rivers, mountains, huge skies so on and so forth is a DJ and a crooner that make me want to cry myself to sleep. If, in fact, sleep was actually an option.

So, get this right… this other thing that happened today; the tent nearly came off the roof at 100kph [insert clean underpants here]. There’s this track which is more potholes than surface to get round the west side of the lake, it rattles and bumps and jiggles you all about… from the end of that track is a newly built asphalt road that in many places has collapsed creating suspension destroying troughs. To save your suspension from these troughs you achieve quite a lot of ABS assisted braking and with the previous jiggly road that rattles the nuts off everything, including the tent clamps, you find the tent is hanging over the bonnet and off to one side. Ultimately not too difficult to put right as Richard is really great with these sorts of things but if that tent had actually come off…? It doesn’t bare thinking about!

What else has happened since we posted last, we had one lovely evening at Lake Baikal with the sun out, mid-20’s and generally very pleasant. The next day it was 13 and we were walking around in very low cloud and rain that didn’t lift again for a number of days sadly. By the time we had to cross to Mongolia we had seen little of Baikal but enjoyed a fun few nights in Irkutsk and a bit of budget luxury in Ulan-Ude where we had a hotel with heated pool and sauna!!

The change of scenery in Mongolia has been gladly welcomed by both of us plus it seems that half the world’s overlanders are in Mongolia… we have been quite alone the last two months and now we cross paths with other overlanders at least once a day (they even helpfully highlighted our tent issues today but at the time we were clueless as to why they pointed with concern at the roof of our vehicle!). It’s been really great to meet so many people and enjoy some company plus what we have seen in the north of Mongolia is really quite breathtaking, I think you could describe it as biblical in many places. We both said yesterday, in one absolutely enormous valley, that it just looks like a huge and perfect painting. Without a camera it is impossible to capture with accuracy.

Anyway, our next bit of news is that our pre-arranged border crossing to exit China has been destroyed in an earthquake. Our plans are in disarray and we need to reroute. Possible for us, at great expense, but not possible for our China travel buddies and so we have a lot to sort out. This has come to light with only a week to spare and with a very tight schedule that really didn’t accommodate drastic changes… just small convenient changes, haha!

Because of the changes to the China route we now have a little bit of tweaking to do on the truck while waiting for new paperwork to be done and all while hoping to still see something of the Gobi desert if there’s time.

Hashtag, this is not a holiday.

Requesting your positive vibes for China please!

J&R

Swim for your youth…

Feels like an opportunity to celebrate a milestone, we’ve reached Lake Baikal! For some reason this was geographically an important point in the planning of the trip plus it’s pretty nice here too…

From here we are heading south and this is very close to being our most easterly point, at least until Beijing and then the end point of Melbourne anyway.

Apparently you add 5 years to your life for swimming in the brisk waters but I was not inspired… Richard was though and enjoyed the slowest entry in to the water ever known to man, credit where it’s due though! Brrr…

The lake is an interesting spot actually, it holds 20% of the worlds unfrozen fresh water! It is the largest (volume) and deepest lake and is approximately 25 million years old.

Some quick stats for you because I’m very hungry and want to have dinner!

  • Over 8,000 miles travelled
  • Crossed 5 or 6 or even 7 time zones (not entirely sure!)
  • We are 7 hours ahead of London, at the same time as Perth and 4 hours behind Auckland
  • Put diesel in the car 39 times in 8 weeks

Etc etc etc… nosh time!
X J&R

The orange washing machine…

So much to tell you about the last week or so! However, what is important to mention right now is that we are seated in a watering hole in Barnaul and there are drinks and shots and dishes of food flying at us from all corners of the establishment! The locals and patrons here are so friendly and want us to eat and drink their national favourites. Someone even sent the live musician to our table for a special song. It has happened in so many places! It’s very humbling and we have been taught a great lesson in hospitality while in Russia and Kazakhstan.

Anyway, back to the correct timeline, the last time we posted we had had a good night out in Turkestan and were only one night away from Almaty… after using every minute of the midday check out from the hotel in Turkestan we spent all afternoon and evening driving, about 10km from our planned stop and with the sun starting to touch the horizon we picked up a horrid great screw in one of our new tyres. Fortunately our sleeping spot for the night was flat and had a lovely mountain view (mountains!!) but that was it because it was also covered in goat poop, locusts, spiders and massive ants that would bite! Richard was forced to face his insect demons and lay down amongst said insects in an attempt to plug the hissing hole while the wheel was in situ. When this didn’t work and we had to remove the wheel to make the repair was when things really got interesting! After lifting the car enough to remove the wheel the jack started sinking back in to the ground so after we celebrated Richard’s first successful tyre plug we realised the axel was nearly on the dirt and we couldn’t get the wheel back on. The only option left, now in the dark and by light of one head torch, was to empty the car and extract the air jack from the darkest depths of our storage options. The story goes on but it was 3 hours, a lot of aggressive bugs and much dirt later when we were all back in one piece and putting the tent up.

We arrived in Almaty, amazed that it can take 5 days to cover only a portion of one country and very ready for a shower, clean clothes and clean sheets! We spent two nights at European Backpackers sleeping in the noisy street but enjoying a lot of time with other overlanders and travellers with myriad stories to tell and laughs to share. We picked up the essentials… 6 litres of oil, a filter and a sump plug and departed for some long awaited sightseeing.

We reached Kolsai Lake number one a little late (actually a lot late) and so we weren’t able to do the 6-7 hour walk to the second lake which was disappointing but still managed an hour or so around the edge of the first one where some friendly locals insist we try some of their freshly fried bread which was totally delicious! After checking out some of the nearby “guesthouses” in Saty we opted for a steep 4×4 track down to a rocky river bed and slept there instead… the rushing water from the surprisingly large river provided some excellent white noise and for the first time felt truly hidden away. The next day we headed for Kaindy Lake and its underwater forest… it was spectacular and we again met so many friendly Kazakh people wanting photos of us and the truck. Even without the unique lake the track up to the mountains was really great fun and we realised just how long it had been since we had put the truck through some of its paces and enjoyed a small bit of technical challenge. Was worth it for the drive alone!

From there we collected some Norwegian backpackers/hitchhikers and made tracks for Charyn Canyon… the jewel in the crown I think. We asked our hitchhikers to walk in to the canyon for safety as we had read the track in to the canyon was “hairy” and we were not disappointed! The first few hundred metres was super steep, lumpy, bendy and narrow. Of course the truck handled it with ease but the climb back out the next day made me weep a tiny bit at the top. When you can only see the sky and you don’t know if you have the power or grip to carry all our weight up and over the edge things get tense! For me. Not the other one of course.

We came across a sizeable crew from Discover Earth who were very keen to film us and our car on a number of occasions… not sure if that means we will become TV stars but no one asked us if we wanted to partake!

Our night in the canyon was one of the most memorable and after a further few days of hot and dusty trails we were willing to try anything to get refreshed and clean so it was a dip in the fast flowing waters of the Charyn River, our first experience! We entered the icy water breathless and cursing but exited feeling very alive, snap frozen and clean as a whistle… we dressed with numb skin and enjoyed a small camp fire set off by an intense moonlight that had me up most of the night gazing at the blue lit canyon walls.

While in the canyon Richard was told about a singing dune, a white mountain and a town called Basshi. Eventually we put the broken pieces of English together and decided we would go and have a look… the warning words of “bad road” really didn’t cut it! I’m not sure it was worth seeing given how awful the drive was through the Altyn Emel park but I can’t deny it was unique and picturesque so each to their own.

After sleeping the night next to a 700 year old willow tree, that Genghis Khan touched when he visited the area, it was time to get serious and head back towards Russia. We were 2 days behind schedule and we hadn’t known how much worse the roads would become. Let’s go with ‘roads in name only and not actual roads’, remnants of what used to be a road and possibly more like driving on the moon than planet earth. After three plus days of continuous driving in these conditions the front suspension started making some worrying noises, we were physically and mentally exhausted and I had nearly rearranged my face on the dashboard a number of times!

Tonight though, we are set to depart Barnaul, Russia in the morning where we have had the front anti roll bar bushes done on the truck (no booking necessary and for less than a quarter of the price in the UK!). We have done 10 more tonnes of laundry, some personal beautification, lots of photo uploading, supermarket shopping so on and so on and so on… chores chores chores! We are aimed at Lake Baikal but that is 5 to 6 days from here so we’ll update you in a week or so.

J&R

Haircut by JetBoil…

I think we might need to post more often! There’s a lot to remember at the moment, we are moving quickly and covering quite a lot of ground… it’s quite satisfying to see our blue dot on Google maps:

Not an awful lot to report on the last part of Russia, the roads are shrouded in tall tress and forest so you can’t really see anything and then there’s no campgrounds to be found either so we have started to use petrol stations, truck stops and “wild” camping. In Aktobe we slept in the street outside a hostel, it was £1 each for use of their showers and washing machine overnight so we tied some ropes from a gazebo across the inside of our tent and hung up the wet clothes. The heat and the wind had them bone dry in under two hours so we washed two loads of laundry… the rooftent got a lot of attention but we left it there in the middle of the city all day and no one touched a thing. We met another overlanding couple from Germany who were on the home stretch after 11 months travelling the world so we had a lot to talk about during the afternoon and late in to the night.

We have a little shower pump thing that you can stick in to a bucket and have a quick wash but mostly we are wet-wiping and it’s been a blistering hot and dusty trail to this point. We treated ourselves to a hotel here in Turkestan, we were dreaming of the shower yesterday afternoon when trying to rest ourselves and the car in the 40 degree heat, that poor machine just works so hard to do all this for us.

Turkestan has been a welcome reprieve and a genuinely lovely little place to take in some culture. Between 40 and 45 km’s north of the town is an archeological site called Sauran, an ancient silk road city. It was the coolest thing we’ve seen since we left London I think, but we haven’t seen much of anything other than Russian architecture so maybe we are over selling it? Nah, it’s pretty awesome. We even went hooning around the sandy dusty off-road tracks that encircle the site and gave the poor truck a bit of a hard time. Last night, after the longest cold showers ever, we had dinner at Turkestan’s “it” place, Edem Terassa. It was a bit out there but heaps of fun and it was packed with locals (and a few tourists as well!). About every half an hour the dance music would suddenly blast out of the speakers and the young guys and gals would all jump up for a dance, 10 minutes later the music would go back down and everyone would be back at their tables. Later we took a walk around the area of the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yawasi which is totally enormous and apparently one of Kazakhstan’s most important buildings. It was close to midnight but all the local families were out in the dark at a makeshift street carnival, playing games and entertaining their kids… it was fantastic.

Kazakhstan in general has been welcoming and friendly; people always want to talk to us about where we are from, what we think of their country or town or food and so on. People wave and welcome us to their towns. It’s been quite heartwarming and puts me at ease. In terms of the landscape? That’s a tricky one, something Richard said made me think of the following description… it’s so flat that sometimes you think you are going to drive off the edge of the planet. The sunsets are some of the best we’ve seen though and if you can find some lumps and bumps in the surrounds then that’s probably the best place to camp for the night.

Ah, the hair cut by JetBoil, I nearly forgot about that. So we are on to our second water boiling device. The first having fizzled out with a whoosh in Prague taking all the fluffy bits off the cardi I was wearing at the time. The second device almost went the same way yesterday but Richard managed to revive it after losing a fair amount of hair on the left side of his head and the ends of his eyelashes!

There’s probably more to tell you but checkout time is looming and we are trying to reach Almaty tomorrow which is 11 hours of driving from here (doesn’t seem much but it can take a full day to do what is described as “5.5 hours”).

x J&R

All the golden onions…

Well, not all of them but I had to really limit the number of church and cathedral photos I put in this post as we have seen many (like a lot)!

It’s been a very busy week since the last update here, also a busy time on Facebook so I’m guessing the pics and mini updates are pretty popular which is always nice to see… thank you for taking the time!

So, how do we cover everything from Russia so far?! It has been quite the ride; frustrating and fun in equal parts possibly.

Firstly, crossing the border from Imatra to Svetogorsk was very straight forward. Two friendly border guards moved us to the front of the foreign car queue then had a good laugh at our claim of driving to Australia. Passport control had us hang around for a bit while different individuals of varying ranks scrutinised our passports and visas but after some discussion and a few phone calls we were stamped, car and tent briefly inspected and sent on our way through the barriers.

Now for insurance, if we’d had a dollar for every time we had read online “pick up some insurance at the border from a kiosk or a petrol station, they all sell it, very easy, no problem”. Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong! It was flippin’ difficult and absolutely no one would give us this insurance that is apparently mandatory. We ended up in the border town/area for 3-4 hours trying to get it sorted but with no luck. That was with data we could still reach from Finland, help from two Finnish chaps who could translate some Russian for us and numerous phone calls to the UK where we were offered third party insurance for a mere £470 (bollocks to that!). After ruffling a few feathers with the border police and noticing we were discreetly being watched and followed we decided we had to move on without the insurance and figure it out in St. Petersburg. After a couple of mornings trudging about asking for insurance (and some sightseeing of course) we eventually asked the staff at the hotel where we were camping, they found a place about 10 metres away that immediately issued the required insurance for only £72. After all that, can you actually believe it!

Insurance in hand we did a little dance and planned our stop at Catherine Palace on our way to Velikiy Novgorod the next day… after spending an hour queuing in the rain we paid for our ticket, were informed there were no English audio guides (as in they didn’t exist!) and then jostled through the establishment amongst a mass of tour groups. Back outside in the pouring rain we attempted a look at the gardens but the weather was horrendous and it just wasn’t enjoyable. We returned to the sanctuary of the car only to find it had turned in to a Russian registered family sedan in a pleasant shade of white paint. Perfect.

With Richard’s GPS tech we were able to locate the truck about 5 miles away from where we had left it. Who what when where and why! So many scenarios playing out in our minds! We called an Uber and with a speech translation app our driver helped us pinpoint where we needed to get to… and there she was, in all her orange glory, utterly unharmed but towed away for having parked too close to a crossing. The policeman was very nice, even had a couple of English words for us but after he realised there was no protocol for ticketing a foreigner he laughed and waved us off.

Things have gotten easier since then, still the crazy bucketing rain but it has slowly moved on. We had a restful few nights in Velikiy Novgorod and in the Valdai National Park where we visited the Iver Monastery and caught a snippet of their beautiful choir. We have really really enjoyed Moscow and met some lovely people (local and foreign). Even had a long and lazy lunch/dinner with some Aussies we met on a tour today and tomorrow we head for Nizhny Novgorod.

Still trying to work out the live tracking for you guys but we’ll get there, I think… ask Richard.

Bye! X

This is it! The big hitter…

… tomorrow we enter Russia.

We spend three nights in St. Petersburg then on to Velicky Novogorod, Valdai National Park and eventually Moscow.

Today I am homesick I guess you could say (cue roll of the eyes from Richard); the weather is grey, the tent is cold and we are looking ahead to days of rain which means a soggy duvet! It also feels like this is the point of no turning back but don’t ask me why, we can get anywhere from anywhere in this day and age but it’s our last day in Europe and that seems just a wee bit scary.

Going back over the last 10 days or so however; life has been easy and generally fast paced. We flew through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia with just one night in each country. We slept in Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn… all three places offering a totally different experience to the last. Vilnius we slept atop a pile of firewood in a campground that was actually just a small, steep car park outside a backpackers with a public bar that attracted around 600 people on an average night. It was lively and fun and really rather clever in the way they had squeezed an income out of every square inch of the premises! Sleep wasn’t really a thing there.

We arrived in Riga and ended up in the carpark of a convention or events centre, sounds bad right but actually it was jam packed full of travellers and campers and had a nice atmosphere… there was an important football match on and everyone gathered around a TV rigged up in the driveway. It was also the last night of Jāņi, a festival timed around the summer solstice and it was our first taste of the late sunsets to come.

Tallinn, Estonia; really not a lot to say about this… parked the truck in a marina carpark which moonlighted as a campground, Uber’d to the old town where we were immediately steered through the doors of the first beer hall in sight by good friends from Rotherhithe! Didn’t see anything of Tallinn but had a hell of a boozy catch up with a couple of the locals from the Salt Quay. Perfection.

After a horrid 4am start to grab a ferry to Helsinki, we stopped for 5 nights thinking we needed at least a week to arrange a couple of visas for China and Mongolia but as it happens you only need 3 days and 2 nights! Paperwork gets done very quickly in Helsinki with little queuing and similar costs to a snails pace visa in London. We utilised the extra time to arrange our forgotten International Driving Permits, got some help with finally fixing the fridge to the floor of the truck, did approximately 1000 loads of laundry and saw every inch of Helsinki in the process. Shops, cafes, food markets, entry by password cocktail bars, roof top cocktail bars, picnics on fortress islands and the worlds most expensive cheeseburger… and that’s what it boils down to really, everything is suuuper expensive in Helsinki! Yikes.

We have now had a peaceful few days in the lakes near Savonlinna and tonight we are in some sort of fishing camp type thing which is about 20 minutes from the border with Russia. Through all of this last week we have witnessed nights that don’t actually get dark, I swear! I know very well as I haven’t been able to get to sleep until around 4 or 5 in the morning sometimes… it’s like jet lag without the air travel. The sun sets, sits just below the horizon for a few hours of dusk and then comes back up again.

Right, enough of all that. I don’t know what our internet situation will be like from here on in… we’ll post when we can as always, pics:

The Baltic Blitz…

So… almost another thousand miles done and a few things seen and done, not really sure any of it will be of much interest but I will try!

Poland has delivered spectacularly, it was a country I was really looking forward to seeing and it hasn’t disappointed. Loved the Tatra Mountains and Zakopane, Krakow was relaxing and quaint, Warsaw was spacious and very beautiful (for the few hours we had to spare, naughty!) and lastly the Masurian Lake District that we have left behind today. All worthy of a visit but long drives in between with tricky roads and road works to contend with.

We visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, it’s a bit odd to say but I didn’t want to see it but more experience it (even though that isn’t really a thing). I wanted to be moved and appalled and shocked… it was all those things and more. To walk where those people walked and try to imagine the last months, hours or even minutes of their lives, well I don’t know what to say. Madness. Richard and I don’t believe it is a place for photos so you won’t see any from us, it just wasn’t that kind of day.

Within the Masurian Lake District you will find the Wolf’s Lair, a complex village of camouflaged concrete bunkers where Hitler and his Cabinet spent more than 800 days of the war… fascinating to say the least. This is also the location where he was one person away from dying in a suitcase bomb explosion but after the suitcase was moved out from under peoples feet he survived.

So! What next… the baltic blitz! Tonight we are in Vilnius, tomorrow night Riga and Sunday night Tallinn then on to Helsinki where we are stuck for up to a week arranging visas for China and Mongolia plus a follow up jab for tick-borne encephalitis?! That’s a thing apparently.

A few pics below but we have been forgetting to take photos of stuff to be honest!

The first thousand miles

Hello again,

Not really a lot to report, we have been busy bees working on the incomplete tasks we left London with, plus we haven’t really had reliable internet and have burned through a worrying amount of data!

We have covered good ground so far, stopping at Nurburgring for two nights to organise ourselves… one night by the lake at Hainer See… one night on a camping island in Prague… one night behind a busy motorway in a funny little spot called Camp Alpa (great for winding on a new winch rope)… another night in the Tatra Mountains, by a lake again on the Slovakian side and now we find ourselves in a very sweet little campground in Krakow!

We can finally unpack the back of the truck and enjoy three or four nights in one place, we have a little pitch surrounded by tall hedges all to ourselves and the internet is great so here it is, the last 5 days laid out on a blog post with little to talk about! Ha!

Today we travelled through a place called Zakopane, basically a Polish Aspen where the wealthy come to stay in their sprawling holiday homes and tourists pay double for everything. However, there is usually a reason for this type of set up and that is its beauty in the mountains with the spring water, baths/spas and stunning vistas. We opted for sandwiches constructed on the tailgate of the Disco with slightly stale bread and then carried on to Krakow so no living large for us in Zakopane.

Our return to Prague after many years was a big hit, we both realised how much we loved it there. So beautiful and so trendy! There are endless places to eat drink and shop in style… shame I turned up looking like the worst type of tourist! A poorly planned outfit that delivered quite a fright when I caught myself in a mirror later in the day.

We made a creepy detour to the church of the bones outside of Prague, although interesting to see at the time… it was a 2 hour detour for a 5 minute visit and with the catacombs in Paris I’m not 100% convinced it is worth the journey but hey it is ticked off “the list” and it was an experience as always.

There is much to do on this blog/website, there is tracking to add and old information to move aside for the new but we’ll get there. It isn’t as easy as it looks, I swear!

Talk soon x

J&R

Frank! We’re coming to get you…

So we are off! It’s been a mind boggling experience to get to this, the first day of our journey but with a few missing finger nails… bumps… bruises… additional wrinkles and many more grey hairs we have finally set off.

Tomorrow we head for Czech Republic via Leipzig and on to Slovakia. We have caught up with some old friends at Nürburgring today, done some neglected work on the truck and actually packed our possessions instead of throwing them at the open doors from a distance in order to leave the drive way and not miss our tunnel crossing.

With a host of fresh parts fitted underneath and our trusty tent fixed to the roof the truck is feeling great and we are actually starting to get excited about what lies ahead, plus a “twitchy eye” level of anxiety for myself too of course, can’t travel anywhere without that now can I?!

Will let all you chaps know when our website has been updated with our new tech and toys!

J&R

Are you still out there?

This is the real test isn’t it… who still follows the blog after all this time!

T minus 3 weeks folks and we are back on the road heading East and eventually South to Australia (mate).

Myriad tasks, chores and planning yet to be done of course but we’ll get there… we have to because Frank leaves us this week and that is desperately sad

By kiwisinafrica Posted in Asia