Hello! Welcome to the Team Michael Schumongol Blog, where hopefully you'll be able to keep track of our progress from the build up to the rally itself.
The Final Update
Posted by Rich at 19th August 2010 at 14:57
Day 17 - Aralsk to Turkistan
In the morning we decided to actually have a look around the town we'd spent the best part of 4 days in, and went down to the old harbour. It was an odd feeling walking through such a large environmental disaster, wandering out past the rusting boats into the desert, knowing that 50 years ago the water would have been well over our heads. We thought that all the people who'd previously been employed in the booming fishing industry must have become policemen, such was the unnecessarily large size of the force in quite a small town.
At half 2 we got on the bus, ready for the scheduled 3 o'clock departure. Apparently it's very easy to get trains into Aralsk but impossible to get them back out again, and we had to be on our way today or James would miss his flight. The bus was an old French one with a lot of cracks all over the windscreen. Over the next hour or so a number of people got on and we were on our way. The bus was less than half full which was nice, so we were able to spread out. We drove on through the night, bouncing around on the seats as the bus lumped its way over the potholes. We went past the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which it turns out is about 200 miles away from Baikonur. At some point in the night we pulled over at what I guess was an M32 Motorway Service Station, though it was more like your nan's kitchen, in a shed, next to some gravel, in the middle of nowhere. Everyone off the bus seemed to be eating so we pointed at something on the menu and had some actually quite nice lamb with bread and onions. When the driver decided it was time to move on he let everyone know by driving off slowly beeping his horn. On the bus I was reading 'Yes Man' by Danny Walace, and he was talking about the ridiculousness of him deciding to go to Barcelona on a bit of a whim, which as I sat on an old French bus, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the desert, in the middle of nowhere, in Kazakhstan, made me laugh a little bit.
Day 18 - Turkistan to Tashkent
At about 5am we rolled into Turkistan. Neither of us realised we were there as we'd been told we'd arrive between 8 and 9, so we just assumed it was another stop, had a quick look in some of the shops and got back on the bus. After a while and with the use of some diagrams we managed to work out with the driver that this was in fact Turkistan and that his brother would be along shortly to take us to Tashkent. Nothing happened for about half an hour, so the notepad and pen came back out and we managed to piece together that a man was going to take us to where his brother was going to be, and that then we would be on our way to Tashkent. We loaded our stuff into this man's car and the bus driver came with us to what was basically a taxi rank, where he explained to a man he'd clearly never met before (maybe families aren't as close in Kazakhstan) that we needed to go to Tashkent. We got in his car and he promptly drove us to someone's house about 400m down the road. We weren't sure this was exactly the right place. Five minutes or so later an Uzbek family joined James in the back and we were on our way. I think we all fell asleep pretty quickly, so it didn't seem long before we were at the border. The whole process from Aralsk to here had cost us about £7 each, which for a twenty-something hour journey seemed pretty good.
The border was absolute chaos. It was closed to cars so everyone was having to go through on foot. There was a metal gate that everyone was piling themselves up against. Every so often one of the guards would force the gate open into the crowd, drag a couple of people through, and then jam it shut again. It was very hot, our bags were heavy, we were thirsty, and this wasn't very much fun at all. Fortunately we found ourselves pressed up against a friendly Uzbek in the crowd. Her name was Dinara, and I'm not sure what we'd have done without her. We explained to her that we were in a rush to get James' flight, and within ten minutes she'd persuaded the guards that we were important and in a rush and that she was our translator, getting us all fast-tracked through. Great success!
Through the gates into Uzbekistan, she helped us sort a taxi to the airport for James to get his flight. James checked into the airport and we said our goodbyes and suddenly I was a bit apprehensive about being in a country I'd never been to before, where I couldn't speak the language, on my own. Before I'd said anything, Dinara has helping me sort my way to the train station, negotiate a black market money deal (the rate being about 25% better than the official one), and book my train ticket to Almaty the following afternoon. The highest denomination note in Uzbekistan is worth 1000sums, or about 40p, which made me feel very wealthy briefly as I handed over a brick of money in exchange for my ticket. Next Dinara made sure I had a hotel sorted, and then offered to show me around Tashkent in the evening. For the second time in a week I was amazed by the sheer kindness and helpfulness of a complete stranger. I was exhausted, however, and felt that Dinara probably had things to do other than looking after lost English people so I checked myself into the hotel and went to sleep. There had been a Rally car parked outside, so I'd left them a note saying what room I was in (my phone wasn't working) and to come and say hello. A few hours later I was woken up by a knock at the door. It was the Italian guys who owned the car outside. We decided to go and get some food and a short taxi ride later we'd found our way to a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant. We swapped stories and they very kindly bought me dinner (thanks Matteo!). It turned out they were going to be stuck in Tashkent for a couple of days with some Visa issues, but were heading to Almaty next so we arranged to meet up there.
Day 19 - Tashkent to Almaty
In the morning I hunted down an internet cafe and managed to get my phone working again (I think that's also where I did the last big update from). I did my best to source a lift for Ed and myself from Almaty, but finding teams who were going to be in the right place at the right time, who had enough room still for two people plus bags, and who would be at the Finish Line in time was a nightmare.
I went to do some sightseeing around Tashkent, playing 'avoid the police' as I went. The Uzbek police were reputed as being the most 'difficult' to deal with in Central Asia, and the whole process seemed a lot more daunting on my own that it had been when we'd been sat in the relative safety of our car, so I adopted a strategy of crossing the road whenever one of the uniforms caught my eye. I'm aware that sounds a bit silly now, but it was just much easier than having to negotiate my way out of non-existant 'infringements' would have been. I met up with Dinara again to get some lunch, and we went to a traditional Uzbek place where I had some 'plov' - a very tasty lamb and rice based dish. Again without asking she left work early to make sure I got my train ok, and at the train station I was incredibly grateful that she had. All the announcements were in Russian, all the signs were in Uzbek, and noone spoke English. I'm very doubtful I'd have found my train, let alone my carriage or seat without her help.
Before long the train was pulling out of the station and I was on my way to Almaty. The carriage was made up of bunk beds, arranged in sets of six. Each was as long and as wide as I am, meaning that lying on my bed I was touching both sides, the top and the bottom at the same time. I had been allotted a top bunk, meaning there wasn't enough room between the bed and the shelf above for me to sit up. This was going to be an interesting journey. The beds immediately surrounding mine were occupied by a couple of friendly but non-English-speaking Uzbek families.
As I lay on my bed the train Conductor came past so I smiled and said "hello". "Maybe he spoke English", I thought - it'd be nice to have someone to talk to on the train. He walked right up to my face and barked. A couple of people laughed and we walked off looking pleased with himself. One of the people nearby gestured that I shouldn't have me shoes on the bed, which I probably should have thought of. I took them off and sat up on my bed, hunching over so as to fit. A short time later the Conductor came past again. Again he came very close to my face and barked. It's interesting how much angry Uzbek sounds like dog. Again he walked off looking pleased with himself, as one of the nearby people gestured that I wasn't supposed to sit in my seat/bed. I hoped this wasn't going to become a theme of the next 25 hours.
The train arrived at the border and someone came around with a carrier bag, collecting up all the passports. I was a bit reluctant to part with it, but that was apparently how things worked and I didn't have a great deal of choice. As the train sat still for a couple of hours sniffer dogs were paraded up and down the carriages and random people were made to unpack their bags. The train was getting hotter and hotter and as I was sat there sweating I was hoping I wouldn't have to empty my bag. I'd crammed everything I could possibly carry from the car into it, and repacking it on the crowded train would have been an absolute nightmare. Fortunately they passed me by each time. A man came back round with the passports, and the train rolled out of Uzbekistan into No Man's Land. A few minutes later the whole process was repeated as we entered Kazakhstan. By the time we were done the train had got so hot it had melted the glue out of Lonely Planet and the pages were going everywhere. I got my passport back again, climbed up onto my bed and went to sleep.
Day 20 - Tashkent to Almaty
I woke up early. It seemed everyone on the train had brought a teapot with them, and everyone was making tea. It wasn't long before my mate the train Conductor came by. He again came very close to my face, paused, (I guess for dramatic effect in his Comedy Theatre) and then made some dog noises before walking off looking smug. One of the friendlier people nearby gestured that the sheet on my bed had come untucked, and was hanging down a massive two or three inches. This would not do. I tucked it back in.
The scenery outside was gradually changing from vast expanses of desert to more and more green. For a period of a few hours the train track was lined on both sides with wild cannabis plants. At each station people would board the train selling bread and melons, before dashing off as it pulled away again. I spent most of the day lying down reading, and eventually the train rolled into Almaty Station at about half 7. Almaty's quite a pretty place. When we had been driving through Kazakhstan it had been amazing in its vast emptiness, with literally nothing between the road and the horizon, and yet now here I was surounded by snow-capped mountains. It was a nice change. I found my way to the nearest Lonely Planet recommended hotel, or where it should have been. The book was starting to show it's age here, a lot of the prices were way out and a number of the landmarks they referred to weren't there any more. I found myself a room, and managed to save half off the price by agreeing to only occupy it for 12 hours. This meant checking out by 8am, but I was just grateful not to have to carry my bag around any more.
Day 21 - Almaty
In Kazakhstan you're required to carry three things with you at all times. Your passport, your Visa, and your Immigration Card. As the train had been pulling away from the border station I'd realised they hadn't given me an Immigration Card, but by this time all the Border Guards had got off the train and we were on our way. In the morning I went down to reception to ask about this and was informed that it was A Very Bad Thing. Fortunately they knew a man who would be able to get me a card (legitimately?), but I would have to leave my passport and therefore my Visa with them until the following morning. I was a bit hesitant to part with it, but it seemed preferable to living in Kazakhstan forever, as I wouldn't be able to leave the country without the Card.
I set off for a walk across the city, again playing 'dodge the police' as this time they wouldn't have to make up an infringement, given that I had none of the required documents with me. I found my way to an internet cafe, where I spent a few hours trying to sort a way for Ed and me to get to Ulaan Baatar. After my experience with trains the day before I was reluctant to rely on them to get us to the Finish Line in an enjoyable manner, and was doubtful we'd be able to get the required tickets anyway (I'd been given one of the last 3 tickets reserved for locals on the train to Almaty, and James and I hadn't been able to get any at all from Aralsk). They also seemed very expensive. I looked at busses but couldn't find a great deal of information about any sort of reliable schedules, which given the time limit we were on ruled them out really, so I messaged a load of teams again, hoping that one of them would be coming by soon with room for a couple of stranded Ralliers.
I walked down to the South end of the city, aiming for the start of the Lonely Planet Walking Tour of Almaty. On route I ended up walking past a sort of faux-gothic looking building, which turned out to be an Irish Pub. I've only been to Ireland a couple of times but I never saw a pub that looked like that. I went in out of curiosity more than anything and ended up staying for a three course lunch and a cup of tea, for the princely sum of £4. The view of the mountains from the South end was quite spectacular made me miss Andorra a little bit.
The walk back didn't go quite so smoothly. As I mentioned before, a lot of the the landmarks Lonely Planet mentions aren't there any more. The map in the book also has all the road names written in the Latin alphabet, where on the road signs they're in Cyrillic. I got very lost, but ended up seeing most of the city by accident I think.
The evening came along and I found my way back to an internet cafe to talk to Ed about what we were going to do. We hadn't managed to find any teams to hitchhike with, trains and busses were looking impractical, unreliable and not particularly enjoyable, and that left us with two options. Either I could fly home the following morning, or I could wait a few days and fly to the Finish Line to meet Ed there and spend a few weeks in Ulaan Baatar. That would be really burning the budget, wouldn't really be in the spirit of the Rally, and we realised that we were probably both only doing it to avoid letting the other down. The decision was made that we would have to accept defeat and I'd fly home in the morning. We'll do the Rally again in a few years and do it properly. I went back to the hotel where my passport would be waiting for me to collect so I could book the flight.
Or perhaps that should be, where my passport should have been waiting. The very nice registration man was supposed to have brought it back 3 hours ago but hadn't arrived and wasn't answering his phone. Maybe I wasn't flying home the next morning after all.
Day 22 - Almaty to Home
At 3am I had a call to say my passport had been returned to reception. A short taxi ride to the airport in the morning and I was on my way back to the UK.
The Rally hadn't ended quite how we'd wanted it to and I was gutted not to have got to the Finish Line. Years of waiting, months of planning and it had all ended up being over in three weeks. In that time I think the Rally managed to be one of the best and worst things I've ever done.
Thank you to everyone who supported us in the build up, everyone who donated to the charity, and everyone we met on the road. We'll be back.
Posted by Rich at 13th August 2010 at 06:33
I've made it to Almaty after a ridiculous 25 hour train journey. Used most of my internet time sorting potential trains/flights/hitch-hiking to the finish line or home so not much time left for a proper update, will sort that later.
In my haste to get the blog up to date before I've realised I missed out a few bits:
Upon leaving Donets'k we developd our first warning light. It was the emmisions one, and we decided that a car with an engine as petite as ours only really emitted sunshine and rainbows so it probably wasn't a problem. I guess it's irrelevant now anyway.
On the road from Atyrau to Aqtobe we saw our first camels! The first ones we saw had floppy humps and looked more like disgruntled horses, but as we carried on we saw some proper, better, two-humped camels! We also saw a number of huge eagles. Upon first sight I genuinely thought one of them was a man wearing a cloak crouching by the side of the road. They were magnficent and we tried to take some photos, though by the time we stopped each time they tended to fly off, though seeing something that size take off was amazing in itself.
I'll fill in the rest from Aralsk to here later today when I've sorted somewhere to stay for the night. Today is decision day, whether we battle on to the finish line or I admit defeat and head home. If any teams are reading this and you think you might be in Almaty in the next few days and might have space for 2 stranded ralliers, please let me know! Email me on rbevan87 [at] hotmail [dot] co [dot] uk or phone me on +447816233320
The Life and Times of Oslo the Cheeky 'Cento (Part 2)
Posted by Rich at 11th August 2010 at 07:35
Day 12 - Volgograd to Atyrau
When we got up in the morning we consulted the map and realised just how far behing we were. To get to where we were supposed to be we would have had to have drived about 2000km in a day, which even on good roads would have been a hell of a challenge. We said goodbye to the Royal Horns girls, who were staying in Russia, and set off for Kazakhstan. After a short while ourselves and Team Shoeless were pulled over by the infamous Russian Police. They took V5s and IDPs off both of us, and gestured for us to follow them over to their little building. We waited outside for a while so they could finish robbing someone else, and did our best to appear smiley, friendly and unintimidated. One of them was very interested in the huge amount of bites Luke had on his legs, leading to us saying "Ukraine, Ukraine" and then waving our arms around and making buzzing noises. Who said language barriers aren't fun? Once they were finished with the other unfortunate chap we were gestured over to the window, where they pointed to a computer showing images of our cars going 115kph in (an unmarked) 70kph zone. I was worried. In England that would spell trouble, so who knew what it would mean here? For five minutes or so we genuinely couldn't understand what they were asking us for, until one of them said "Presents!" Three packets of cigarettes and some lollies later and we were on our way. Earlier in the day MetalrallykhaR had been shaken down for 1000rubels (initially $500) for doing 100kph in (another unmarked) 40 zone, so we were pretty happy with our work.
We eventually arrived at the border and gettign out of Russia was so straightforward that I actually can't remember what happened. Getting into Kazakhstan was a bit more interesting. We'd been warned that the guards would persistently ask us for 'presents', would try to steal our iPods, and would generally try to inconvenience us into giving them things. None of this happened at all, they were smiley, firendly, had a play with a few things in the car and after separating James and myself to ask us a few questions, we were on our way. Neither of the other teams in ourconvoy were quite so lucky. Shoeless' visa didn't actually start until the next day so they were led off back into No Man's Land and we didn't see them again. Dan from MetalrallykhaR was forced to empty out their entire car by himself, then stand there and watch while the guards sat in their camping chairs, playing their guitar and bongos and wearing their viking hats. I wish you were allowed to take videos at border areas.
I drove the car out through the gates and was immediately swarmed by Kazakh children clinging onto the sides of the car. I pulled over, and James battledhis way through the crowd to get in. They were all very smiley and friendly again, and each pointed at pretty much everything in the car, asking if they could have it. We gave them some disgusting melted Russian sweets, negotiated a black market currency deal for our leftover Rubels, and drove on into Kazakhstan with MetalrallykhaR, excited to finally be here.
It was dark, getting late and the roads were pretty poo, so we pulled over to try to get some sleep, with the aim of getting up early the following morning to pack the miles in. It was far too hot in the cars and the area we were in looked a bit sketchy, so half an hour went past and despite all being shattered none of us had slept a wink. We decided to push on to Atyrau. The first hotel we went to wanted twice what Lonely Planet said we should pay, so we tried another, checking in finally at 4am. We were woken up at 7 by a member of another team who's Saxo the hotel man had told us to park behind and blocked in. James moved the car, I went back to sleep.
450 miles, 3774 total.
Day 13 - Atyrau to Aqtobe
We got up some time around 10 and had a good study of the map. Going through Turkmenistan would have meant keeping up the number of miles per day that we'd been doing so far, on terrible roads, and we were already feeling the strain. There was no way we could do it. We were both on a bit of a low, outside of Mongolia itself, Turkmenistan had been the place on the trip I had been looking forward to visiting most. Instead we were now going to drive through Southern Kazakhstan, aiming for the Uzbek border between Shymkent and Tashkent, where James would be able to catch hsi flight home on the 10th. This way we'd get to see the Aral Sea (or where it used to be), and would be on the much more reliable looking M32 most of the way there.
We bought some breakfast from a shop over the road from the hotel and drove to the main square, where we sat underneath a statue of someone on a horse and ate. As we were now going to be spending much more time in Kazakhstan we tried to change some Dollars for Tenghe at the local bank, but were told our 2006 issued notes were too old. We got lost in Aytrau for a couple of hours, and finally found our way out at about 1. We had heard Shoeless had made it into Kazakhstan, and Metalrallykhar were unsure whether to follow us southwards or take the quicker norther route through Kazakhstan, so we drove on alone.
The roads started off alright but quickly got poorer, and by the time we got lost in Manat we were driving around on sand. Our bottletop gearbox fix had also come apart so we pulled over to have another go at fixing it and ask for some directions. Three sets of directions sent us out on a road that only led to a power station. One more attempt and we'd found the right road, but it was insane. There were huge craters everywhere. I'm not exaggerating when I say that we could have hidden our car in some of them. The going was painfully slow, as even on the better sections of road we had to take it slow in case one of these huge holes appeared out of nowhere. At points we drove through the dirt along the side of the road becuse it was it was easier to deal with. We'd put a few sizeable dents in our sump and fuel tank and we were stuggling. As the evening drew on we began to run out of water and couldn't find any sort of shop anywhere. A man at a garage offered us some water out of a tap. It was yellow, but we thought it was better than nothing in an emergency and stuffed a load of purification tabets in it. We had wanted to get to Aqtobe that evening, but concentrating so hard for so long was so draining that at 3am we gave up, around 100km short of our goal. We drove off the side of the road and very quickly fell asleep in the car.
330 miles today, 4104 total
Day 14 - Aqtobe to Aralsk
At about 7am there was a knock on the window. Another rally team in a Landrover had been driving past and seen 3 names on the side of the car but only 2 of us inside so had pulled over to check everything was ok. We thanked them for their concern and set off on our way. Driving on to Aqtobe we saw an ambulance (The Fatalists) pulled over by the side of the road, so we left them a note and drove on. By 10am we were passing through Aqtobe and had been stopped by the Kazakh Police three times. Each time the Stupid Englishman came out, handed over only photocopies, failed to understand that these were not good enough and any requests for presents, and got us away without paying anything.
The M32 on our map, it turned out, was still being built. This meant that we'd be on lovely, fresh, smooth tarmac for a few miles, then diverted off into the desert sand, where we'd have to drive along in second, wheels spinning, to avoid sinking and having to live in the desert for ever. The car was filling with dust and it was hard to breathe. Eventually we found our way onto a gravel 'replacement road' and at the time we were grateful. The speed limit was what seemd an unfathomably slow 40kph on what was a reasonably wide straight road, even if it was a bit slippery. Cars were whizzing past us as us 60+mph. We wanted to finally arrive in a town before it got dark, but at the same time didn't want to trash the underneath of our car any more. I know I'm no Stig, so we were going along at no more than 40mph.
Neither of us is really sure what happened next. We had come over a brow on a straight bit or road and we think that either one of the rear tires went flat, or I swerved to avoid a pothole, but the back end of the car started to slide across the road through the loose gravel. I steered across to try to correct it, but overcompensated and the car began to slide the other way. Again I tried to correct it but again too much, it was all happening a bit fast. One of the rear wheels clipped the edge of the ditch at the side of the road and we rolled. We're not sure if we managed half a roll or one and a half, but we ended up on the roof. James and I both turned to each other, asking if the other was ok. We both responded positively and tried to get out of the car. We undid our seatbelts and fell onto the roof. Neither of the doors would open and my driver's side window was now to small to fit through, so we both had to crawl out through James' side. We both checked ourselved up and down, amazed that we were ok. We each had only a small scratch on our legs.
Oil was pouring everywhere so we reached back into the car to rescue the folder with the passports, money and all the important documents in. I checked myself again, I still couldn't believe I had come out of a car that looked like ours did without any sort of injury. Some Kazakhs in a truck came by and helped us to roll the car back over and disconnect the battery. We were both too busy trying to rescue things from the car to realise that they were standing around waiting for something in return, and they stormed off grumpily. We rang around the other teams we had phone numbers for to see if anyone would be coming by soon. Aralsk was only 10 miles away, so we didn't need to be towed far. Noone was anywhere near. We then realised we had to ring home, in case of any of the other teams posted an update mentioning our crash and people started to worry.
Fortunately a Russian man arrived in a Jeep and flagged down some Kazaks with a digger. They used the digger to bend the roof back into shape enough that someone could fit in the driver's seat, removed the windscree, changed the flat tyres and towed us to the Police Station. I stood nearby, apologising profusely.
We were in the Police Station for hours. Noone there could speak English, and our phrasebook didn't have enough Kazakh for us to explain that we needed some sort of document explaining we'd handed the car over officially so that we would be able to leave the country and get our deposit back off the Adventurists. We seemed to be repeatedly asked two questions, "How old are you?", and "David Beckham?" We weren't really sure how to answer the second. Eventually a translator arrived, a Kazakh girl named Fariza, who helped us go through all our documents with the Police, explained that we would need to come back the following mornign at 9 sharp and that we should expect to be 'fined'.
James booked us into the only hotel in Aralsk while I tried to call home outside. A drink Kazakh army bloke gave me the world's longest handshake and talked very close to my face. He was friendly in a weird sort of way, and I think was trying to gesture that he was the best fighter in the world. He didn't look like it, but I'd had enough near death experiences for one day so I made my excuses and went inside.
There were two other teams staying in the hotel so we went for some food with them and then went to bed, though I didn't really sleep.
Day 15 - Aralsk
We were back at the Police Station before 9, ready to write our report. Nothing happened for hours, but the Police were all very friendly and again kept asking "David Beckham?" We still didn't really know the answer. They kept taking us outside to the car, and each time I saw it I felt a bit worse about ruining the whole adventure for everyone. Eventually we got our report written, were told we had to come back again the next day, and were allowed to go. We had dinner with some German and Polish guys who were backpacking through, and an Italian man who was driving to China on his own. We visited the train station twice to try to sort tickets to Tashkent to get James' flight, but with no luck, and were told to go back there the next day as well.
Day 16 - Aralsk
We went to the train station first thing, but again failed to get any tickets. Back to the Police Station and after a few hours of sitting around while they played games on James' iPhone and asked us "How old are you?" and "David Beckham?" again, we had the documents we needed. We were led out of the Station and into a Police car, I expected to be taken to the bank so they could ask us to withdraw lots of money. Instead they took us to the bus stop, where Fariza helped to book us a place on a bus to Turkistan and organised for the driver's brother to drive us from there to the Uzbek border, a short distance to from Tashkent. Then they gave us a lift back to the hotel and waved us goodbye. I was completely amazed. No fines, just smiles and waves. I guess all the warnings we'd been given about the Kazakh Police were untrue. I doubt she'll read this, but we'd like to say another thank you to Fariza, for essentially giving up her entire weekend to help out two complete strangers.
We travelled to Uzbekistan the next day, but being any sort of journalist is illegal here (not that I think of myself as a journalist, but I don't think my Uzbek is up to explaining the concept of the blog) so I'll write about it when I get back to Kazakhstan. Leaving here at 17:22 on a 25 hour train to Almaty, so I'll do the next update from there. Hello to all at home!
The Life and Times of Oslo the Cheeky 'Cento (Part 1)
Posted by Rich at 8th August 2010 at 10:41
I'll warn you in advance, this is going to be a long one.
When I last wrote we'd done 403 miles into Budapest, bringing the total up to 1210.
Day 5 - Budapest to Sibiu
We treated ourselves to a bit of a lie in and checked ourselves out of The Groove at about half 10. After eventually escaping the Budapest traffic we were on our way to Romania. For the entire motorway journey to the border we seemed to be stopping at alternate service stations to a convoy of Rally teams, each time we'd gone past the turning and decided to push on, we'd look over and see them all stopped, and each time we stopped they'd whizz on past. After a relatively hassle-free crossing into Romania we stopped to buy a Vignette (paper to let you go on the motorway), and found the other group of cars, along with a few more. We set off in a convoy of about 10 cars and promptly lost half of them. The traffic was chaotic, caused by what would turn out to be a theme of our trip to Romania, lorries going off the road.
Romania does not give a good first impression. The roads are terrible, everything is falling apart, and there are abandoned power stations all over the place. It was hard to believe we were still in the EU. Officially unemployment is only 3% here, which means approximately 97% of people must be employed to sit by the side of the road and stare at you. We were heading for Sibiu in convoy with Mongolian Dream (in an ambulance), Shake n' Bake (in a Panda) and Let's Go Mongol (in a Fiesta), with insane Romanian truckers overtaking everywhere. They didn't seem to care whether they could see or not, and when they could see they didn't seem to care if there was oncoming traffic or not. We didn't like this very much, so decided to pull over for a bit. We found a Metro and stocked up on supplies for the evening, intending to camp out at site somewhere near the start of the Transfagarasan Highway. Whilst in there we found another ambulance team, The Buglers.
We set off again towards Sibiu and as it began to get dark we found ourselves in another huge and unmoving traffic jam, again, we are told, caused by a truck going off the road. By chance we'd pulled up alongside a UK registered car, so one of the Danish guys from Mongolian Dream got out to talk to them. Turns out it was two locals, who offered to take us the back way to Sibiu on a road that wasn't on any of our maps, promising it was only about 10km longer. We gladly accepted and set off on our way. They didn't hang about and seemed to forget how terrible all our cars were. It was our first really rally-esque experience trying to keep up on dark, winding, empty roads. It felt a bit like a proper rally night stage, but with more potholes and dogs. The thought cropped up en route that perhaps the reason that two Romanians would have a British car was that they led lost foreigners off the map and then took them, but it was a bit late by then and we were quite enjoying ourselves. We eventually found ourselves back on the main road, where the locals didn't steal our cars and pointed us in the right direction. Lovely.
A bit further along we added two more teams to our convoy, MetalrallykhaR (in a Daihatsu Terios) and Running off the Royal Horns (in a Suzuki Swift). Not far from the Transfagarasan we stopped at a petrol station to ask for directions to the campsite. A Romanian farmer grabbed Ziggy from Mongolian dream and led him off into the darkness. Ten minutes later he was back, and had managed to work out the the Romanian man (Seigfried) was offering to let us camp in his garden. It seemed a bit sketchy but we were all tired to accepted. He took us the wrong way around two roundabouts, through a no entry sign, and into his garden/scrap yard. Once we were all set up he asked for 100 Euro between us, we paid and he disappeared off. A short while later he came back with a wheel barrow, gestured for Sean from MetalrallykhaR to get in, and then wheeled him around the garden. Noone was entirely sure why. A few burgers and some beer pong later and we went to sleep in the car at about 5am.
(385 miles today, 1595 total)
Day 6 - Sibiu to Constanta [The Transfagarasan Highway, Top Gear's "Best Driving Road in the World"]
By the time we got up Seigfried the friendly Romanian had washed up all our pots and pans and, after he pointed out "black man has melons" we were on our way. The short drive up to the Transfagarasan was incredible, some of the guys went swimming in the freezing mountain river, there were wild pigs everywhere and the views were fantastic. Our opinion of Romania was starting to change from our least favourite country to our most favourite. At the top we bought some corn and stale pretzels to eat and I went sledging. The route down again was a lot of fun and impossible to describe here, you'll have to watch the video. We also saw our third crash in three days in Romania - a car had ploughed off the side of the Highway and rolled down the mountain. Scary stuff. There was a beautiful lake at the bottom and we were all boiling hot so tried to go for a swim, but despite driving the entire way around, couldn't actually find a way of getting to it. Undeterred, we pushed on, "Dracula's Castle" was only a few miles down the road. It was also a monumental waste of climbing 1480 steps in the boiling heat, having been lovingly restored into a lump of concrete with a load of steel girders sticking out of it. Some of the stray dogs were surprisingly cute though, even if they do probably have rabies.
Once we were back on the road the Buglers pushed ahead and found a hotel in Constanta. By the time we got there there weren't enough rooms left for all the teams so we drove around a bit and found another one just down the road. Some guys outside asked for some money to look after our car but we played the Stupid Englishmen card and didn't understand them. It had been another long day so we went for a quick beer with Running off the Royal Horns and Let's Go Mongol and went to bed at about 3am. Some of the other teams went out, it must have been a good night as they didn't set off until 5pm the next day!
(315 miles today - 1910 total)
Day 7 Constanta - Reni
Our convoy split into those going North and those going South. We were pretty tired so set off northwards at about 11am with Running off the Royal Horns and MetalrallykhaR. Somewhere along the way we took a wrong turn and ended up having to take a ferry across the river that we hadn't noticed because it conveniently ran along the seam in the map. With the boat swaying about a police 4x4 struggled to get off at the other side, so we were a bit worried about our little wagon. Fortunately by the time it was our turn to get off, things had calmed down a bit and we just about managed it without destroying anything. On the only bit of road in the whole of Romania where they've had a go at repairing the potholes, a loose stone flicked up off the car infront and cracked our windscreen. Our "How to Build a Low Cost Rally Car" book said to try superglueing in to stop it spreading so we had a go, and ait worked a bit, though the crack still spread.
Shortly after, we were at the Romania/Moldova border. To get into Moldova we had to pay 36Euro for a 1 month Green Card for insurance. One hundred yards later we were out the other side of Moldova, feeling thoroughly ripped off. We were tempted to go back just to drive into something to get our money's worth. At least Metalrallykhar had managed to get us all off paying 'import tax' by playing Stupid Englishmen again. Four hours and about two hundred yards after leaving Romania, we got into the Ukraine.
The roads in Reni were the worst he had seen yet so we decided to just set up camp by the 'main road' on the way out of town. I have never seen so many mosquitos in my entire life. We had intended to sleep in the car as it was already dark and we didnt really fancy setting the tent up, but in the short time it had taken us to get the stove out of the car the entire vehicle had filled with mosquitos. We set up the tent, cooked up some pasta, and drank some 1pound vodka. The walkie talkie we'd borrowed off the Buglers earlier in the trip started buzzing, then chattering, in English! It was two other teams talking to each other, on the same channel we'd been using, who happened to be driving past our field. We radioed for them to pull over and they set up camp with us. With a bit more man-power we were able to pull down a dead tree and get a fire going to try to keep the bugs away. The other two teams (This is our Everest and Team Shoeless) had taken 6 hours to get through the borders, so we thought we'd done quite well.
Only 162 miles managed today, 2072 total.
Day 8 - Reni to Odessa
We were woken up by a man driving his plough at us. We hurriedly packed everything up, threw it in the car and went to drive off. The car wouldn't start! We pushed Oslo out onto the road to escape the ploughing man and then gave him a jumpstart. We thought it was odd that the battery was flat as we were pretty sure we hadn't left anything on. We then led the convoy to Odessa, along some crazy roads. There were potholes everywhere, huge piles of rubble dotted all over the road, and at one point the road just ended, leaving us to drive along a spit of sand across the Sea. The car seemed to handle it all remarkably well. By the time we arrived in Odessa though, Everest's Terios was having clutch trouble. They couldn't change gear on the move, and when stopped could put the car in first with the handbrake on, lift the clutch up and not stall. We helped them find a garage, then the Buglers arrived to were planning to stay in Odessa, so we left the Everest guys with them and pushed on a bit further to a campsite by the Sea. We arrived there and got set up, it was a nice place and only cost us 3pounds per team. Ideal. We went down to the beach for a quick swim in the Black (green) Sea, cooked up some more pasta and went to bed. None of us slept very well, there were mosquitos everywhere egain and we were all very hot and itchy.
264 miles today, 2336 total
Day 9 - Odessa to Donets'k
Everyone was a bit grumpy in the morning. The car wouldn't start again, and this time we knew we hadn't left anything on. I wanted to do a little blog statistic for you so tried to count my bites, starting at my left foot. By the time I'd reached my knee I'd hit 50 so I gave up and covered myself in antihistamine cream, which is probably why I fell asleep trying to give James directions shortly after we'd set off. Luke from Team Shoeless had even more bites that I did. We worked out we were about a day behind schedule so set off early and tried to push on as close to the Russian border as possible, aiming for Donets'k. The roads were a bit better, but the Royal Horns girls got pulled over by the Police for overtaking where they shouldn't have, and negotiated their fine down to $40 and a bit of local currency. We were shattered by thetime we arrived in Donets'k and the check-in process took about a month. It was late and we were tired so we dumped our stuff in our rooms, went for a quick McDonald's as it was the only place open, and went to bed. The Rally was getting tough.
418 miles today, 2754 total
Day 10 - Donets'k to somewhere in Russia
We got up in the morning feeling much better, but for the third day in a row Oslo wouldn't start. A friendly Ukrainian man took me to three autoshops to try to find a replacement battery but to no avail. The last place phoned up somewhere that would have the right one for us, but it was about 5km away and we couldn't work out if he was telling us to go North or East. We thought if anything was going to go wrong with the car it would have been something we'd done, so I had a look to see if any of the wiring me and Ed had put in for the extra speakers had come loose and was shorting against something. It seemed unlikely but we thought it was worth a look before shelling out for a taxi ride and a new battery. The wiring was all fine, but the head unit was hotter than the sun. Something must have been shorting inside, and we were amazing it hadn't set the car on fire. After much juggling about and swearing we got it disconnected.
MetalrallykhaR were helpful as ever in getting the car going, but the fault had completely drained the battery, which had caused the ECU to reset. This meant the car wasn't idleing at enough revs to keep itself going, so we had to keep a foot on the accelerator at all times to stop the car from stalling, which made for some very interesting left foot braking and use of the handbrake on the way out of Donets'k.
Not far from the border MetalrallykhaR were pulled over by the Police for not stopping for a Policeman who hadn't asked them to stop. They negotiated their fine down from $500 to $50 and we were on our way again. Fortunately, by then our engine was behaving itself.
At the Ukrainian border the guard wanted $140/team for a Green Card for Russia. We'd heard from a team who'd crossed into Russia from the Ukraine at a different border and not had to pay anything at the Ukrainian side, just $10 for voluntary insurance at the Russian end. We asked about this but the border guard was very unreceptive, so we decided to hold out for a while to see what would happen. A Ukrainian car rolled up and paid for exactly the same Green Card we were after, so we asked how much they'd paid for it. $26. We offered the guard $100 for all four teams but again no joy. We tried adding in a few funny monies and said it was all we had, but again no luck, so we left and drove around to the next border crossing along. They were much friendlier there, we negotiated the Green Card price down to $70 a team and were allowed through, nearly.
The girls went first and were told by passport control that they didn't have the correct stamp so would have to go back to Moldova to get it. They said no and sat there for ages until they were let through. When it was our turn to go through the guards had a quick search of the car, found my american football, and immediately became more friendly. The Russian border guards, strangely, were nicer still, one even swapped email addresses with James. We think that perhaps because this was quite a small crossing they hadn't seen many Rally teams before. Each team filled all their forms in incorrectly at least once, which held us up a bit, but 8 hours after first rocking up at the Ukrainian border, we were in Russia. We tried to push on further but by 5am we were all seriously worried about falling asleep so we pulled into a side road for a few hours kip.
254 miles today, 3008 total
Day 11 Somewhere in Russia to Volgograd
A few hours later we were woken up by a number of trucks rolling past, so we hit the road. After a quick stop outside a service station to use the free water as a shower we ploughed on to Volgograd. The day was fairly uneventful except for the extreme heat and the thick stench of oil in the air as we passed Volgograd. It was Charlie from Team Shoeless' birthday, so we set up camp in a field, ripped some floorboards out of an abandoned building to make a fire, and had a few beers.
316 miles today, 3324 total.
I'm running out of internet time now and want to give our time in Kazakhstan and the crash the time it deserves to write about it properly, so I'll have to write up the rest in a day or two. Suffice to say for now that thankfully James and I are both alright, but the car is dead, all the paperwork had been sorted, and we're heading to Tashkent tomorrow with the aim of arriving the day after, so that James can get his flight home. Word has it that someone from another team was killed on the day we crashed our car, so at the moment we're counting ourselves very lucky to be here. Hope all is good at home.
Posted by Rich at 7th August 2010 at 09:38
Looks like the text updates haven't been working in a while. We're now in Aralsk. The car is dead but we are both fine. Huge amount to sort out at the moment so will fill you in properly later. If any teams are heading through this way and have spare seat it would be very gratefully received. Call me on +447816233320
Province of Volgograd, Russian Federation
Recieved by SMS at 3rd August 2010 at 16:45
Recieved by SMS at 1st August 2010 at 21:30
Odes'ka oblast, Ukraine
Recieved by SMS at 31st July 2010 at 07:10
Recieved by SMS at 29th July 2010 at 23:16
Recieved by SMS at 29th July 2010 at 17:49