We set off for the Altai Mountains from Novosibirsk by keeping to the rather good M52 road. We knew we were in the Altai when we started seeing these quite beautiful mountains and accompanying rivers. There were many guest houses and some camp spots on the way, though none seemed suitable to us. Too close to a house. Too close to a road.
As dusk fell we found ourselves in a very wet misty area of the Altai where the road struck off from the main river. After some abortive searching we found a suitable place, though the road was too muddy to take our Micra to our camp site. We ended up parking the car by the road and carrying our stuff to the sodden camping ground near a worryingly high stream. We setup just before a downpour. In the rain we cooked Ramen and we ate it in the tent. Thunder and lightning made it a bit of a dreary/exciting night, nonetheless I am kind of glad to have the experience.
The next day we were back on the M52 heading for Tashanta. After a couple of hours the damp mist lifted and a warming sun came out. We stopped and made eggs with smoked wieners on the bank of a scenic [apart from all the rubish :(] river where we found out that we had been featured in an online Nsk newspaper, being the most popular article (15,000 hits!) and even acquired a female fan! We laid out all our wet camping gear, which dried very quickly in the morning sun. The news, the drying and the breakfast all lifted our previously damp [haha] spirits and we hit the road, very keen to get into Mongolia.
Somewhat surprisingly the landscape very quickly changed from green mountainsides to light brown sandy slopes. It looked like Mongolia all of a sudden. Usual border crossing shenanigans entailed, including our first really thorough search upon leaving Russia, though I felt like a veteran at this stage and I was almost sad that it was our last one!
It was off that the Russian immigration officer wanted 100 rubles in some registration fee. What cheek. It was worse on the Mongolian side. A 5USD disinfectant fee? Passport control offering to change money? Various fees from 7 to 10 dollars for god knows what. Anyhoo, we got through.
There was a list of all the Mongol ralliers and it was interesting to see that yes, indeed, we were one of the very last to cross.
We met 2 Norwegians in a fire truck which was good. Then on the road we met the four motorcyclists/mopedists we'd met in Turkey, who'd already stopped to camp. They were in good spirits and I must say they must have had quite a strenuous rally! From the insurance office on the border we'd picked up a female hitch hiker, who later sang in our car, which provided us some entertainment on the way to Olgii.
We were keen to get to Olgii as Team America had been in touch with us, they must have realised we were only a day behind and were looking for someone to travel with to UB. We were too tbh, so I was glad to see their invite. We are about to breakfast with them and they are keen to go off the beaten track and take the more challenging "Northern route". As opposed to the "Southern route" which the Mongol Rally handbook seems to only mention. Tbh I am keen to do the track other ralliers do, but then again I am brimming with confidence.
As the handbook says, fast speeds and big rocks end badly. It also mentions if everything goes well, you should make UB in 5 days. Jamie now has 6.5 days until his flight, so this going to be tight.
We towed the Peugeot 306 to the drop off point in Bayanhongor and said goodbye to the Icelanders. They were going to catch a bus and meet us in UB (Ulaanbaatar).
Altai to Bayanhongor definitely seemed like the hardest stretch and we saw 5 or 6 cars at the drop off point that also didn't finish. We ate our last packet of Nong Shim Ramen from the 20 pack box I bought back in New Malden and we got underway by 2pm. I was quite worried we might be pushing our luck as we had been told that it would take 4-5hrs to get to Arvaikheer. Thankfully the weather was fine, most of the snow seemed to disappear and we made it in 4.5hrs. This was our last piece of dirt road, since we knew the next leg was all sealed. How I am going to miss those Mongolian roads, they were really good fun. Intense concentration was required.
So we arrived in Arvaikheer with an hour of sunlight left, so we thought we had plenty of time to evaluate its hotels. The first one was a building site outside, but was warm and an OK standard, but a bit dear at ~40USD. The next place didn't have its heating on and it had a policemen's party on the floor below. You could clearly hear the excruciating Karaoke from below. The next places were shitholes and we were directed by a Mongolian guide to a couple of other hotels, but we frustratingly couldn't find them. After an hour I thought we should go for the very first hotel, only to find the room was now unavailable. Tired, cold, hungry and frustrated. Not a good combination. So we settled on the place with the Karaoke and we told it would finish by 11pm. Which it did actually, thankfully.
Next we tried to find food and we did find a place with a waitress who was about 16 but amazingly could speak English. We ate dinner and breakfast there. Breakfast is a nerve racking affair in Mongolia. I am in wonder how they will screw up the eggs. Broken? Stone cold? Anything is possible.
I almost forgot to mention we went next door to a night club called "New Leader" in Arvaikheer. It was cold, the sound system sounded like the speakers were all blown. The music was a bit hardcore and there tables of mostly hard looking men ordering a beer for each and a large bottle of vodka for the table. No doubt people were going to get seriously drunk!
Anyway Arvaikheer was our last night on the road and I was miserable, I hope you can tell by reading this.
Bulgaria was surprisingly OK. For me it's a strange mix of Russian (they understand it, unlike the Romanians seemingly) and France (cute rustic buildings and amazing countryside). Food is pretty bad and I'm totally unconvinced on Bulgarian's sense of taste and style.
Varna and resorts to the south seemed popular for the English tourists and to be honest the prices and women are quite attractive. Ahem.
So we quickly did the UNESCO tourist trap of Nessebar and headed into Turkey. Border crossing was great... friendly staff and an initial hiccup with their computer failing. What a super drive. The scenery was stunning and dropping into Turkey was like entering another world. Fantastic scenery. Awesome sunset. Incredible.
Turkish roads and infrastructure seem amazingly good. We were a little worried we forgot the Vignette, though we picked up a KSG Auto-bahn card at a petrol station. We were easily averaging 100km/h and we made it into Istanbul with the help of Google maps... without incident. Nuts. [Good driving, huh? - Jamie]
The 50EUR per night twin room hostel in Istanbul's Sultanahmet is a bit poor value for money to say the least. There seems to be a chasm between "hostel" and "hotel" and it's really hard to bridge it. I am not interested really in talking with tourists from UK and the West [unless they're good looking]. I'm more keen to chat with locals. A decent wifi Internet connection would be nice too!
Today the weather is pretty hot, though I've got the Blue Mosque, the bath and the Sofia Mosque out the way and I'm feeling pretty weak and dazed. There is a lot of history here which makes me feel a little depressed tbh. Life is incredibly short in the scheme of things and I worry a bit how I fit in...
Frustratingly Google Maps does not work (very strange) and we don't have a map of Iran*. Can't help but feel our lack of planning ahead is catching up with us. And finding information with a shit internet connection in Istanbul is crazy hard compared to London.
Must thank Ruth who I contacted to help find some accommodation in Turkey for us. I did another shout out for help tomorrow, wonder if anyone gets it (Folks did!! Thank you ). I guess we should just chance it, but it could easily cost us a lot of time. I'm keen to spend 2-3 days in Tehran.
I've had the epiphany that Istanbul is well... the centre of the world. They way it bridges continents and the understated Black and Aegean sea. It's just insanely strategic. I want Turkey in the EU.
* Jamie: After going to multiple bookshops and drawing a complete blank on Iranian maps I was advised by a tourist agency to try the Iranian Consulate. I pictured an office block, but arriving I found a gated community. Nervous I asked the Turkish policeman on guard whether it was alright to bother them, he said yes and upon entering I found a small man, who understood enough English to give me a map of attractions. It doesn't have any roads on it but it's better than nothing.
After breakfasting on the usual carrot jam and boiled egg with bread that tasted like a rug, we took a taxi to main Iman Khomeni square.
The square is an outstanding piece of Iranian architecture. With an amazing tiled Mosque on one end, a square bizarre around the edge and a couple of "historical houses" dotted above the bazaar.
I found the arts and crafts particularly good. Also the northern mural had a depiction of a battle we've been informed between the Persians and our friends the Portuguese.
I was fearing the border crossing to Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan, just north of Bishkek and most of my fears came true*. I would like to call it the worst border crossing I've been to, though all in all, despite some confusion, we crossed in probably 2 hours, which is pretty remarkable. Still the fact that people in camouflaged balaclavas are milling around the Kazakh side armed to the teeth was a bit unnerving to say the least.
We filled up without issue and on we went to Almaty [Pronounced Al-Murray]. We then spotted a Mongol Rally ambulance in a scenic lay-by (above). We stopped, chatted and with the 3 girls and 2 boys of that team [They hadn't seem to have decided on a name] and they kindly made us some Earl Grey tea. Yes, they were English too. They had been in Kazakhstan for 3 days already, and were taking it slow.
We made it to Almaty, a place I actually visited 7 years ago, to be met with my old Russian Kazakh friend Ivan. I incorrectly remembered Almaty as being quite small and initially I felt confident I would find the centre. Second time around Almaty seems to have changed dramatically. Many more cars and buildings.
Ivan did find me and on we went together with the 3 Icelanders to find an apartment. The first lady swiftly excused herself from offering a flat after seeing us... 3 of us had long beards, all of us had tans, shorts and looked pretty ragged.
Eventually Jamie and I stayed at Ivan's and we found a place for the 3 Icelanders really close to city centre. Not without incident, since we had dinner before where we all had a glass of beer. Ivan then said, in no uncertain terms that we could not possibly drive, since Kazakhstan is zero tolerant on alcohol (which we didn't know, apparently enforced by police using just their noses). We tried to go out though a couple of us still had diarrhoea and the bar we initially went to had a private function. At 1am we were all glad to get some sleep. What a long day...
Speaking with Ivan the next day, he seemed incredulous that we have driven all this way. Through Kyrgyzstan which he regards as being very unsafe, and then onto Russia which is 3 days solid drive away. He also informed us there is a petrol crises in Kazakhstan, making it hard to find fuel. Not again I thought... most of central Asia and even Iran can have long queues for petrol. It was particularly bad in Uzbekistan. Though we have avoided most issues so far, I guess mainly due to friendly locals sharing private stock.
The days we spent recovering and catching up on the few days we were off the Internet. The Icelanders left for Astana yesterday (Sunday 28th), though I was too ill to leave. Also Ivan's mother was very kindly cleaning our laundry.
It's Monday morning now and we've packed up after enjoying a couple of poached eggs for breakfast. It's time for the 16-20hr drive north to Astana.
* False. Kai told me that the Kazakh border would be the most corrupt and dodgy border that we would encounter. I was asked for $10 in order to re-enter the border after accidentally leaving it, but I didn't pay and we didn't lose any money or possessions, unlike many other borders that we have crossed so far.
After camping near Kevron (where the M41 hits Afghanistan) on quite a nice spot on the River (Afghanistan a stone throw away), we woke up to drive to Horugh which is also known as Khorog, depending on how the Cyrillic is transliterated (so annoying).
We were feeling pretty bad because we were supposed to be in Khorog that night in order to keep to the plan to do the Pamirs in just 3 days in order not to overrun our Tajikistan visa.
When we finally arrived in Khorog around lunch we were delighted that we caught up with the Icelanders who we've hung out before in Turkmenistan. We were convinced they were a day ahead of us, so we were really surprised we somehow caught up with them.
We also came across an Ambulance rally team who were stuck in Khorog because of some repairs they needed. They said they predicted they would only be in Almaty on the 2nd of September (last Mongol Rally party is on the 3rd in UB). All this time I had thought we were running incredibly late. I'm writing this from Almaty and we plan on leaving on the 29th, so we are days and days ahead of that convoy we came across in the Pamirs.
So we hastily pushed on east on the Pamir in convoy with Thor, Gunnar & Ale, and we made good progress. The roads were actually quite alright, it was only the first stretch around Khist where it was crazy.
We didn't make Murgarb and by nightfall but we found a "Yurt hotel" and agreed on 50USD for 5 of us to sleep there, including a dinner of Plov and a breakfast of slightly sour, undercooked rice pudding.
I've never stayed in a yurt before, though after freezing my ass off in there with a bit of altitude sickness (we were at 4200m+), I must say I am not keen on ever staying in a yurt again. Our hostess was very nice, but it was clear to me she was extremely poor so the food et al was pretty unsophisciated and meagre by my snobbish standards.
The next day we made a bid for the border in order not to overrun our visa.
If I can scan the kit list of what we brought, I thought I should extol which was good and what was a waste of space.
Tomtom & Google Maps
We cheated. Team Geekout relied heavily on GPS for navigation during the Mongol Rally. The Tomtom saved us hours in Europe until it stopped working as we entered Ukraine. From that point on Google maps helped us, except for a fairly entertaining instance in Ukraine.
Otherwise we didn't use it for turn by turn navigation, just as a guide to ensure we were going to the right direction on the right road. The new-ish Google maps pre-cache map area looked cool, but since you can't search offline I must say it sucked. Especially in big crazy cities like Tehran. It was better than nothing though.
There are lots of annoying seething bugs in Google maps for Android, like when you accidentally press the back button and lose current navigation. So sometimes I would switch to using the Iphone4's Google maps application, or use both and as both would somehow have different levels of cache of the same road.
Despite my initial apprehensions, the SPOT connect actually worked rather well. The device demands lithium batteries which are frankly impossible to source. Normal Alkaline Duracell lasted about 2 working days and cheap Chinese ones, less than a day. Which was very annoying. It does have a mini-USB slot underneath it and looks like it could be powered by it, but it didn't seem to work frustratingly.
Despite the clunky client and UI, the SPOT tracklog worked and we now have a fantastic tracklog of our journey. Was that worth 300GBP despite fact one could collate GPS tracklogs?! I think so... because it kept our followers engaged in realtime. It was also handy in the very rare instances our mobiles or Jamie's kindle didn't work to send a little 41 character message out.
Our blogging platform, Branchable
Many other Mongol rally teams failed to get past one or two blogs. Jamie and I blogged continuously through the trip... How? Without an internet connection? We used git to commit blogs, and when we had internet in the briefest of moments we pushed and our readership got to enjoy our updates! Other blogging platforms basically assume you are on the Internet whilst writing the post, which sucks. Branchable powered by Ikiwiki rocks.
Jamie has talked about this before in numerous tweets and FB updates. Amazingly this device kept him connected in every country bar Turkmenistan, though it was a bit flaky through the 'stans. From our experience Amazon's coverage map seems quite accurate. Incredibly useful. I will purchase the next update myself.
Could have printed my mobile number though, otherwise super useful. Expensive unreliable mobile calls were the no. 1 way teams communicated unfortunately.
Vegabond Systems Source Widepac Water bladder 3L in the micra
I love this bladder, although Jamie correctly pointed out we could just use water bottles. I liked it because:
- We could hang it off the headrest behind the passenger seat and have the tube sit around the handbrake, in easy reach of hydration.
- One could hydrate while keeping both hands on the steering wheel and have clear vision
- We kept it in hot countries in a cooler box with ice, so it delivered cool water all day (You can actually freeze the whole damn thing)
- 3L typically holds two plastic water bottles and it's less unsightly than keeping bottle upon bottle in the car
It did exhibit problems after hard use. Later in the car journey it fealt a bit gassy, as we sucked there seemed to be air coming in from somewhere. Near the very end of the journey the Widepac started to leak.
It amazes me how many different camping stove non-standards there are. I recommend the Korean gas cooker. It's not great if you are hiking since it fits in a bulky looking briefcase. Though if you are in a car, it's perfect. The butane gas canisters are the easiest fuel source to obtain practically anywhere in the world.
I must also mention that our Korean Nong Shim ramen we bought, esp. with an egg is a much better meal than some of this dehydrated protein ration packs we saw other teams use.
Jamie was dubious as to how well the Crafty Plugger would work on a puncture caused by a stone, but we used it on the one puncture we had after the Pamir Highway and it was very quick and easy and worked very well.
Jamie laughed at Kai for buying the non-slip mat, but has to admit that it was pretty useful, until Kai lost it. It was one of Geekout's lowest days.
GoPro Hero HD
The GoPro was going strong, until we ran it over. The camera itself was undamaged (despite getting wet) but the sucker mount was broken beyond repair and the clip holding the main case together was broken. We resorted to one of the sticky mounts and tape respectively. Unfortunately I didn't realise that the white rubber bit is for damping those mounts, and consequently the audio is pretty much useless, and the video not much better. The angle that it shot from the dashboard was pretty bad too, I should have taken the plunge and stuck it straight onto the windscreen.
The GoPro UI is pretty simple, just two buttons. However if you don't use it much and can't see the light or hear the beeps, or know what the beeps mean, then it can be difficult to know what/if the button you have just pressed has done. Hence we have a lot of recordings of quizzical faces looming into view to check that it's recording. I personally found it difficult to remember which button did what when the camera was upside down. It also wasn't much cop in darker conditions.
The battery would last for approximately two to three hours, which was enough, the problem was that the battery meter was practically useless, it would sink from three bars to empty in minutes, meaning that we had to either remember how much we had used it, or just charge it whenever we could. Strangely the GoPro seemed to use almost as much battery while on but not doing anything as it did when it was actually filming. While it does have a battery meter, there is no meter at all for available space on the SD card, which is something that GoPro really needs to address.
HTC Double USB Car Adapter
Very useful and lasted the entire journey. In fact it was probably one of the most reliable things we, erm, relied on. Especially once Jamie had taped it up with the cigarette lighter splitter.
The Kelly Kettle was very good at what it did, boiling water, quickly and efficiently. We could have used it a bit more if we'd camped more, it wasn't great in desert conditions, unless you could find some dung. I have to admit that it was a bit bulky and didn't pack-up that well.
I wanted to love the 10L Ortlieb water bladder I bought in Dresden. Unfortunately the tap became far too stiff and it leaked. The rubber ring was far too easy to dislodge I suspect. Also the straps could be far more comfortable to carry. Pity it sucked compared to my wonderful Ortlieb pannier which I took with my on the Mongol rally for keeping my documents and laptop in shape!
I was in uproar when I heard BBC were suspending shortwave broadcasts, though honestly trying to use my shortwave kit whilst Jamie was say reading the Guardian on the Kindle, made me think... maybe the world has moved on. I did catch FOOC once in Iran, but I could have downloaded the podcast in a number of previous opportunities.
Shortwave broadcasts still work in the Afghanistan region and I wish I could jettison my kit there somehow.
And going back to Iran, their Internet needs improving... I wonder if Tooway could maybe made to work in Tehran. That would be cool.
Love the quality of video and how easy it is to mail off photographs on the move. It has some bad sides, like how do I now update the "Standard Definition" video uploads with "High Definition" videos now that I'm on a better internet connection? Suck...
Travelling with two passports
Jamie had two passports. One had four valid visas in that Jamie needed for the trip, but which was full up and had been invalidated by the passport office by having the corner removed. The other passport was fully valid and had my three remaining visas in. Generally this wasn't a problem, surprisingly especially at borders. More often it was local police that saw an opportunity for a bribe.
I bought the "PowerMonkey Explorer" which I was excited about at first and it stopped working on day 2. Although email@example.com provided good customer service, she could have told me: "Send to this address and we will re-imburse you". It takes two backpack pouches and I ended up carrying it needlessly for 20k kms, which is madness. I seeth with hate when I accidentally open one of my pouches and all it's bit and bobs fall out. The device was completely unnecessary since we had a 2 Slot micro-USB car charger anyway. Avoid!
This 50GBP kit I ended up giving away in Ulaanbatar because I couldn't sell it. Later as I took a taxi to the airport, I did realise he was using a CB radio and I therefore should have pitched my wares to a Taxi firm. We used it once with Rick on the road out of Goodwood. Since that we found no other team with such communication kit. It's a far better idea to buy good quality small walky talkies. I recommend the Motorola T8s.
You seriously don't need a jerry can on the Mongol rally. Petrol in a can expands and it's often pressurized when you open it. The vapour can easily ignite and can leave you in a very dangerous situation!
Spare shock absorber
We lugged around a spare Micra shock absorber. Wtf Jamie. WTF? [It was about as heavy and bulky as your pillow, you pussy :P] Spares like the air filter were unnecessary as you can easily knock the dust out of a filter on the move.
Car Cigarette Lighter Socket Splitter
We tried two of these, we didn't even bother taking the 4-way (bottom right here, detail here), the 2-way was still very annoying and Jamie ended up taping it right up in order to stop it cutting out on bumpy roads. If we'd been using the CB radio we would have needed it, but as it was the double USB adapter we had was enough.
What we didn't take
Mains USB Charger
Although we didn't really miss it I recently bought a 4 port mains USB charger which handily comes with both UK and EU plugs, which would have been very handy.
There are plenty of cheapish external mics for iPhones, any of which I'm sure would have improved our audio iPhone recordings no end. One particular problem was that it seemed quite easy for Kai to cover the mic with his hand meaning we got virtually no audio at all.
I assume that we could have also attached an external mic to the GoPro, whose audio is even worse than the iPhone's.
So after waking up in the yurt after an uncomfortable night's sleep we packed up early for a dash to Murghab where we should have been that morning and onto the border. We met An American Team Bruce Almaty and a South African solo team named Guy there, which was nice. We also took on an Israeli hitchhiker called Dal who was desperate to get to Bishkek by the 26th for a flight to India, which was the matched our itinerary.
We were a bit nervous as we heard a couple of reports of challenging roads once we set off. We went through one after another fearing that was worse to come, and we were all surprised when we unexpectedly hit the border. The border was just a shack where it looked like a checkpoint that we've seen time and time again.
We struggled to pay the least possible bribe and eventually settled on $10 for both teams.
At this point we had a flat and another tyre had a bulge in the side the size of a golf ball, so we did the Pamirs with some scars to prove it. As usual we completed a major leg of the journey and it was an anti-climax. It is difficult to celebrate when you're exhausted and there is no champagne.
We pushed onto Osh and after some insane night driving where there was far too many animals and other dangers on the road. We checked into a LP recommendation Hotel Altai and it was absolutely abysmal. Nothing worked, not even in the taps in the room.
The next day we wanted to deal with the two tyres before setting off on the 10hr drive to Bishkek. We found the "Car (Machina) Bizaare" with the help of Team Bruce Almaty and we hoped we could get everything sorted in a bit more than an hour, in order to leave by midday.
Two hours later, blood, sweat, tears and ~30USD lighter we managed to get both done. What was silly was that the power for the block was out, so I to search out a place with a generator. It also didn't help the first second hand tyre we were sold had a massive hole in it. The next one was the wrong size, slightly bigger. We didn't notice until we drove off with it. So now when we hit a bump on the back right side, we can hear it hitting the wheel arch!
Nonetheless we moved on with Dal still in the back. It soon transpired we could not close on Bishkek, though we managed to find a pleasant hotel in Totagul on the way. Early next morning we aimed for Almaty.
After spending most of the night weeing out of my bottom in the absolutely disgusting, but thankfully en suite and functional (unlike the "shower" or basin) toilet of our room at Hotel Altai (I must appologise to the four other people sharing the room) I wasn't exactly feeling great. As I didn't think stopping every five mintutes for a toilet break was really an option I decided to take something to stop the diarrhea, and then we went out for a hearty breakfast, one of the heariest breakfasts we've had. Taking Imodium and then eating a large meal is not something that I recommend. As we looked around the tyre market in the heat and checked out a few prospective tyres I felt sicker and sicker. Really like the food in my stomach had nowhere to go. I just prayed that it wouldn't go upwards. Kai took the bulging tyre off to be changed and left me with the car. I got the punctured spare out and started the process of fixing it using the Crafty Plugger kit I'd brought from London, battling with a kid from one of the tyre places who thought, wrongly, that he knew how to use it better than I did. The sun beat down. I got a bowl out of the car and prepared for the worse.
Two days later and I have finally recovered. I swear I will never drink that fizzy yak's milk again. Though having said that no one else was fool enough to drink it, and they all came down with the same symptoms, at some point.
So we set off from our pitiful campsite too close to the main road to Dervaza and drove back to Ashgabat. Since we left before 9am it wasn't so hot and the ride went quite quickly. Except for the 3 times we were stopped by police and the crazy 30km/h sign and the associated 15USD bribe.
Back in Ashgabat at midday we needed a break, so we decided to go back to Grand Turkmen Hotel and pretend we were still guests. We enjoyed to the pool, tried to use their internet and got some supplies from the Russian market opposite.
We then thought we should drive the 600km/s to Turkmenabat and get out of Turkmenistan as there seemed plenty more to do in Uzbekistan. We left about 1pm.
Unfortunately the road running east of Ashgabat was very poor indeed. We made slow progress as well as lost a hub cab, rattled and swerved the car through mountains and valleys of warped asphalt shaped by heavy trucks no doubt.
Finally we arrived in Mary (200km off our target) an hour after sunset. My impression of the time was surprisingly a very typical Soviet layout with a large square and a horrendous looking Soviet style hotel at one end. In the square we noticed a couple of busy looking restaurants and there we saw a red Mongol rally car belonging to Team America. We joined them and their Turkmen hosts for food and beer. [The food in Iran was really very disappointing, and boring. I can't count the number of times we had rice and kebab, and a grilled tomato if we were lucky. By comparison the Turkmen food has been very good, particularly on this evening when we were served braai-ed lamb with some very nice bread, which interestingly they call "naan" - Jamie]
The Turkmen have been very friendly though it's pretty hard for us to reciprocate when we are frankly exhausted and I speak very little Russian and none of their Turkmen language.
Next phase was the four us trying to find a hotel. I tried to argue for the more upscale one as I know that Russian budget options can be pretty fucking awful. I'd rather start on the high end and then take steps down. The one chosen was a motel a little outside town and thankfully a guy I met at the bar, Max, helped direct us there, by riding in the car.
The motel is quite a sight. Lots of trucks parked to the side. A dark tree/bush lined courtyard crawling with punters, pimps and whores. The room looked like a fight had occurred in it, judging by the broken fittings. [I know Kai will think I'm being pedantic here, but it really wasn't "crawling", I saw one prostitute. And the room was very tidy, not a fight scene. - Jamie] Nonetheless with the revered A/C on, I had a good sleep after the mandatory shower.
So after our early start we headed for Novosibirsk and the road was fine.
We made a wrong turning getting into Lenina, the place to hang about and ended up having to cross the river Ob (strangely the same name as "water" in Persian) again and I was furious. Traffic was pretty awful.
Anyway, after that navigation blunder (google maps routing does not work here) we did find parking and we nervously checked into Centralnaya Hotel. Centralnaya looked like a typical Soviet hotel and it is. However it's the best run hotel of its kind. Its a little dear, but those of us who have had nightmares staying in similar looking hotels should try this. Everything works. Including Internet. And it has a fantastic central location.
We then had a leisurely lunch at "Pechki Lavochki", an excellent Russian restaurant a few doors up. The food was great and it was just so awesome not to be in some shithole for lunch or eating Ramen (again) on the road.
In 2004 I took this photo of Novosibirsk's theatre
Again in 2011, the roads are better and the roof is looking good. Otherwise, nothing has changed drastically like Kazakhstan, which personally I find comforting.
He asked us lots of questions about the Mongol Rally, and like my other journalist friend in Kazakhstan, seemed to have little idea that 300 or so teams are gallivanting across their backyard!
Later his colleague met with us from their Novosibirsk news site, asking us about our impressions of the town, since not many tourists come here. Tbh I think Novosibirsk has a lot going for it:
- It's on the trans-siberian railroad
- It's not an overbearing city like Moscow or St. Petersburg
- Great Russian food can be found here
- Best Jazz club in the world here, Tuba
- Providing you have a host or contact, they treat you like gold
- Lots of students and there is some nearby science town
After a lot of good conversation with Kas, his wife & colleague, Jamie and I wound up in the said Novosibirsk Jazz institution to see some remarkable impromptu performances by locals. Fantastic stuff.
The next morning we are taking it easy since from this point on, it's camping. I've now booked my flight out for the 12th to see my sister and girlfriend. Jamie is off on the 10th. So we have 9 days to reach Ulan Bator, else Jamie misses his flight back home to dreary London. Wish us luck!