We have been really excited about visiting Turkmenistan, on the crossing over the Turkish lorry drivers keep saying "Turkmenistan" and then pulling strange faces this doesn't bode to well! But before we talk about our adventures a little background info about Turkmenistan.
Until 2006 Turkmenistan had a president who was basically bonkers. In 1985 he was elected general secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan (CPT) and retained power until the collapse of the soviet union in 1991 when Turkmenistan gained its independence. He then proceeded to change the name of the CPT to the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan before banning all other Political parties and remaining in power, in 1999 he declared himself president for life.
To say this guy was a little bit full of himself is an understatement, He has been reported to have been one of the most totalitarian and repressive dictators and his own glorification far out weighing any benefit for to his people. He renamed a town after himself and some months of the year and days of the week were re-named after his family members. He erected large gold statues of himself around Ashgabat the Capital, one particularly famous one now removed was 12meters high and rotated to always be facing the sun.
He also liked to ban things he banned Ballet, Opera and the Circus as it was "unturkman-like" music of any sort was not allowed to be played in cars. dogs were banned from the city as they were deemed to be a bit smelly and in 2004 he decided that men would no longer be allowed to have long hair or beards - since he died in 2006 some of these bans have been lifted but his legacy lives on in many ways. He ordered an ice rink or as he called it an "ice palace" to be built in Ashgabat so the people of the country could learn how to skate - this country is 80% desert!!!!!!!!!! This was completed in 2008 2yrs after his death.
He was also renowned for the book he wrote called the Ruhnama - it is supposed to be a spiritual and moral guide for the nation on how the Turkman people should live their lives according to him. It is mandatory to be read in schools and there are exams on its teachings. There is even elements of the book you have to know about to get your driving licence. In 2006 he was recorded to have said that he "had interceded with God and if you read the book three times you would be guaranteed entry into heaven" - Fruit loop or what!!! Even today "The book" is still as popular as ever and exams are still set on its content
At his death in 2006 the nation was distraught with lots of weeping and wailing as they had lost a great leader - the new president is slightly less loony but only slightly - There is very little internet in the whole of the country, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all blocked and banned and probably any other type of social media. Reporters Without Borders a French organisation reported Turkmenistan was second only to North Korea for being the worst offenders for freedom of press.
So with all this loony baggage it's no wonder that the Turkmen people don't particularly like foreigners. Getting into the country took hours the bureaucracy was ridiculous, there were so many bits of paper and many many dollars, it seems they can tax you on everything including the roads, you are going to use which are probably the worst roads in the world, the bridge you need to get off the ferry, and the petrol you haven't yet used regardless if you have a full tank when you arrive or not. We also had to have a guide with us for the whole time except when we were in Ashgabat he met us at immigration and if we hadn't had him to help I think we would still be there now. Our passports and visas were endlessly checked from one end of a room to another goodness knows what was supposed to have happened to them in the intervening few meters between getting checked! And smiling it seemed was frowned upon and definitely not encouraged!
We swap dogs and cows on the roads for Camels!
After a good few hours we eventually set off we are not going as far as the Capital Ashgabat in one hit we are too tired after the boat journey and its hot, there are now 4 of us in the van the windows are open and with 41degrees we feel like a hairdryer is being blown on us The roads are full of pot holes and we think this is bad, little do we know how bad the roads are going to get! After a 3 hour sweaty bumpy ride we arrive at a fairly modern looking hotel a little "Central Asian" in its decor but it has decent showers, air con and surprisingly a swimming pool but no wifi - we really can't understand this at all having just come from countries where even the local public convenience seems to have wifi! We are excited about the swimming pool until we get out and look at it, its an interesting shade of green not sure when it last saw any chlorine or cleaning solutions. The sun loungers are all broken and it is unbearably hot, we do swim a little but its not the fun experience we were hoping for more slimy and warm than cool and refreshing plus I'm paranoid that we are all going to get ear infections or worse from the water - hey ho it can only get better in the capital can't it?
We do venture out later that evening to eat the guide Rustam has told us about a local restaurant a short walk away. Walking around the town is strange, there are no gardens as it is all desert and all the houses/apartment blocks seem to have bars on the windows, we don't think this is anything to do with crime as Rustam tells us that Turkemenistan is virtually crimeless (unless you include ripping off tourists then I think they have a high crime rate!) but more of a hangover from the soviet days. The town doesn't look like a town at all, more of a gathering of dusty buildings no shops you can actually see as they are all hidden behind the barred windows and there is a distinct lack of advertising so all in all everything seems very barren.
We eventually find the restaurant decor is circa 1970's but it's full of young people so, it is obviously the local hip and happening place. Rustam has suggested we try the local camel milk which is camel milk mixed with fizzy water, an interesting mix once tried never forgotten and not to be repeated, it would also seem that you don't buy your vodka by the glass here but by the bottle! The food is unremarkable but in the middle of the meal the lights go out and the disco starts, with full on trance dance music, everyone is up and throwing some shapes - this is obviously why vodka is sold by the bottle!
The following day we drive to Ashgabat it was a full day's drive but we stop off for a swim in some extremely smelly underground caves, and another stop to look at some ancient mud houses, which I'm sure were really interesting but in 40degree heat with no shade seemed to lose their appeal a little.
Stinky underground lake
Ashgabat well the only word to describe it is Bonkers! You drive from the arid desert where there is absolutely nothing and then you come across this completely huge marble city, everything is made from marble and gold there are lavish palaces, manicured gardens and lots of fountains it looks like a cross between Las Vegas and Disney. The roads are huge and wide but there is no one on them, other than a sneaky policeman with his enormous Russian type hat trying to catch you out for speeding!
Where is everybody?!!
Rustam became quite animated as we arrived pointing out the varies ministry buildings. There was the Ministry of Education and the building was shaped to look like a book, the Ministry of foreign affairs with a globe on the top, the Ministry of Energy was built to look like a cigarette lighter with a flame, Ministry of communications building represented a mobile phone and my favourite the ministry of health looks like a the top of a needle and syringe! I think there were others but James and I were so busy sniggering in the back we probably missed a few was there going to be a ministry of funny walks shaped like a leg?
Ministry on Education - in the shape of a book!
Ministry of communication - in the likeness of a mobile phone - really?
Ministry of foreign affairs - with the globe on the top
Ministry of Health, in the shape of a needle!
He also pointed out the world's only indoor air conditioned Ferris Wheel (why?) and what used to be the largest flagpole in the world until a few yrs ago - they have a national flag day where they fly a flag 52x34m which weighs nearly half a ton.
Indoor Ferris Wheel
The city did look very impressive from afar all the buildings are covered in marble and it is the world's most marbled city, we asked Rustam if Turkmenistan produced marble ? No they import it all from where ever they can. The city it would seem has been built on off the back of Turkmens oil and gas revenue and is trying to tell the world something. We were also told that Turkmenistan is the third largest producer of gas - can you feel this theme emerging with the world biggest, Rustam was always keen to point out these little nuggets of information and seemed genuinely proud of each of these facts.
The Turkmen people are given virtually free gas, electricity and water by the government. Everything else is expensive, the average persons wages is around $400 per mth. We were told a story by another traveller who had heard that because the gas was free but matches were expensive people often kept the gas burner running the whole time so they didn't have to buy matches how true this is I don't know but they do seem to have a disregard for energy saving, or green issues.
We spent two nights in Ashgabat one law we did have to adhere to is that it is illegal to have a dirty vehicle so we had to get Tigger washed otherwise we would be fined! we spent the next day or so wandering around the city worried to take photos as its illegal to take pictures of some government buildings and there seems to be a scowling sullen faced policeman on every street corner watching us and waiting for us to do something wrong. No one was friendly no one spoke with us but positively went out of their way to ignore us, we felt we were being ripped off whenever we did buy anything. We didn't see any other tourists either, not surprising really as apparently it is the 7th least visited country in the world - that was a world statistic Rustam didn't tell us about!
It is forbidden to take pictures of the palace - whoops, what is that with the gold domes??!!
Marble Marble everywhere
We were happy to leave the controlling marble city behind, but it had a little goodbye gift for us. Driving out of the city we were pulled over and caught for speeding - John thinks it was very dubious that we were speeding but who were we to argue. The fine should have been 100manet (around £25) but this needed to be paid into a bank and it was Sunday and banks are closed, so the alternative is to take our licence off of us until we pay the fine the following day. To give Rustam his due he argued hard with the policeman that we needed to be out of the country the following day due to visas etc so couldn't wait around to pay the fine, consequently we paid 50manet to the policeman which "apparently" he would pay into the bank the following day - funnily enough we didn't get a receipt for that 50manet!
Next stop is the Gas crater which requires driving across the Karakum desert, this is Central Asia's hottest desert and you drive for hours through the same scenery of sand, dunes and camels. The Gas crater is a result of exploration for oil in the 1970's while the soviets were drilling the ground collapsed and the crater appeared. Because the crater was leaking gas they decided to set the crater on fire and expected it to burn for a few weeks - over four decades later it is still burning.
We camped here for the night and it was great to be back with Tigger
An early evening photo, spot the person and it gives you and idea of how big the crater is
And at night - it is also known as the "Door to Hell" and you can see why
It was a bit scary next to the edge and very hot
The following day we set out for the border which took more or less 12hrs continuous driving on the most abysmal roads, in fact we wouldn't even call them roads in the UK more likunusable farm tracks, deeply rutted in fact so bad it was better to drive off the road than on it if we could.
The border we had been heading for we heard was now closed so we had to drive a further 150km was there no end to this nightmare, we eventually reached the border at 5:40pm and they told us we were too late as they closed at 6pm however a $50 fine for using the extra road to get to unclosed border ensured that we got through that evening - funnily enough we didn't get a receipt for that $50 either and it seemed to go directly in someones top pocket!
By this time we didn't care we just wanted to get out of there, it was a hasty goodbye to Rustam,as everything was rushed .
So nothing bad happened in Turkmenistan it just wasn't our best experience, as soon as we crossed over the border into Uzbekistan it felt instantly different, friendlier, happier, so much more relaxed. However I have no doubt we will remember Turkmenistan for a long time to come!]]>
Area 447,400sq meters
Population 29.3million - the most populated of the Central Asian countries
John has decided he would like to have a say in the blog as well so his comments etc are in blue/italics
and will probably be the format from now on or until he gets fed up!
As soon as we left Turkmenistan customs the atmosphere immediately changed. Everything
was more relaxed and we were made to feel as though we were actually welcome in the
country and the guards smiled! As always as we have come to find out it takes a while to
get through a border with a car but the whole experience was a breeze compared to
Once we had driven into the country proper, people were waving and smiling at Tigger and
making us feel very welcome and at ease, this is what we came travelling for. To meet
happy friendly people. And to get away from work, the rat race and stress.
We arrived in Khiva at just about sunset desperate for something to eat, a shower and a
bed after the horrendous drive we had had that day. It was truly a harrowing drive. I felt
as though my eyes were going to squeeze out of my head and melt onto the red hot dash.
Such was the concentration level required to avoid the ruts, bumps and holes.
First of all, we needed some money, we had been told and read that the best way to get money is on the black market as you get about a third more and everyone does it. The young lad, where were staying, was very helpful in this matter so we gave him a $100 to get us going, obviously, we had no idea for the feel of how expensive/cheap everything was going to be so we wouldn't get too much cash out in the first instance
This is how much $100 is in Uzbek Som!!!
We are so millionaires here!! Actually, it's a real pain in the proverbial as I can barely fit enough money in my bag to go out for dinner due to the volume of cash - yeah. It's normally " can't fit enough money into her bag to buy a pair of shoes!"you get around 4300Som to one Dollar and they come in 1000Som notes - it is a lot of cash even to have a cup of tea which is very cheap!!
So after getting our heads around the vast wads of cash we need to carry around we head off into the old town. Khiva is beautiful and there is no one here, no hordes of tourists and virtually empty streets, but what beautiful streets they are.
Uzbekistan, we are to find out, is far too hot to venture out during the normal daytime. You are probably ok until around 10am then you need to stay out of the sun until at the very least 5pm - over 40 degrees as far as I'm concerned is not conducive to of course, so how the Uzbek people carry out tasks for normal daily living, I've no idea. We spend most of our time sitting on the covered balcony of our hotel just chilling out, wifi intermittent but good enough to post a little on FB and Twitter and get in touch with home, and chatting with other travellers as this is a bit of a "travellers" hotel. John thinks it is the comfiest bed we have had since leaving home and the breakfast is huge all for $30 dollars a night - funny how standards change!
We don't manage to venture out in the mornings but we do later when the evening light is at its best, and you can imagine what it must have been like to have been a silk route trader.
Khiva old city is surrounded by a 10m high and 6-8m wide clay wall which is an attraction in its self. The wall is decorated on the top. Most likely they are not decorations but had some practical purpose like shooting arrows but I just think it makes it look exotic and romantic in the evening sun.
Battlements I think is the terminology required here. Decorations!!! "Ooo, come and have a go at my decorated city wall if you think you are hard enough" was the taunting cry often heard from within the city under siege conditions.
We walked the wall in the evening with the local children running up and down the wall, 10 metres is fairly high and there are no railings and they could so easily fall off!
In fact, I'm nagging at James to keep away from the edge (and he is 19!) but the local kids just scoot up and down without a second thought.
James if having fun at his mum's expense by mock tripping over things right on the edge of the wall. Little tinker.
We spend a few days in Khiva just relaxing, taking tea and watching the world go by from the balcony. It's good to do this as it seems a while since we could.
Next stop Bukhara. We know it's going to be a long days drive on probably not very good roads so we want to set off early - All ready to get going and we go to get James only to find out he has been vomiting and had upset tummy during the night and he still feels awful. Dilemma, do we try and stay another night where we are and re-arrange our onward hotels or do we dose him up with appropriate meds and carry on????
Or in true Top Gear tradition, leave him behind!
He feels a little better so we decide on the latter but in retrospect, this probably wasn't the right decision. It's very hot in the van we don thave AC so 40 degrees even with the windows down and the wind blowing is bloody hot!So there he is in the back of the van hanging on for dear life to "The Bucket" (the amazing collapsible one I bought - would thoroughly recommend for lots of uses in over landing including Sick Bucket!)
The road is dreadful. Potholes and bumps everywhere. So we can't go very fast and James is being thrown around the back seat whilst trying to make sure he hits the target of the bucket. When he isn't being thrown around and throwing up, we are stopping for toilet stops which are frequent! I feel terrible and wish we had stayed at the hotel. I'm seriously concerned about his hydration status as he can't keep anything down even after the anti-emetics and have visions of administering I.V. fluids on the side of the road!! It is seriously hot. John and I are drinking bottle after bottle of water. Our mouths feel like sandpaper and we have a constant thirst so how James feels I can't imagine. After 3 hours the roads get better and he manages to lay down on the back seat and sleep. Around 6 hours he manages to keep some fluids down and we eventually arrive in Bukhara after a 9-hour journey -phew what a journey! An air-conditioned room has never been more appreciated.
We are only here for a couple of nights and stay at a lovely little place called Amelia'sBoutique B&B. Our host couldn't be more friendly, helpful and welcoming after our horrendous journey Bukhara is much busier than Khiva but just as atmospheric. It is Uzbekistan's holiest city with buildings spanning hundreds of centuries and nestled in the centre of the town is a little oasis, a pond surrounded by mulberry trees offering shelter from the fierce heat of the day - the pond has been here since ancient times, giving respite to silk route traders and now to the silk route tourists! It is the hub of the city and people flock there, especially in the evening, as there is a coolness near the water. It's a bit of shame that it now has Uzbek equivalent of fast food restaurants and a children's playground including sit on camels around the edge but it still seems to retain some of its magic and charms from times past.
It would be great to wax lyrical about Bukhara but it was so incredibly hot, around 45 degrees, that it is an effort just to get out of the air-conditioned room. We only have two nights here and during the day a short wander around, before retreating somewhere cool to drink tea is as much as we can manage.
Cooling pond complete with ride on camel
Tea Bukhara Style
Uzbekistan, although nowhere near like Turkmenistan in as far as its dictatorial presidents are concerned, is still a police state and has in power the same president since the Soviet breakup in 1991.
Opposition it seems is in short supply! For the tourist to Uzbekistan this means that you are required to register at hotels, presumably, so they know where you are. The registration process is a legal requirement, and we need to collect and keep the registration slips to prove where we have been as there is no camping allowed. Consequently, Uz although a cheap enough country for food, fuel etc having to stay in hotels is an added expense.
There is a big police presence on the roads and frequent road blocks where you have to show your papers, everyone is pretty friendly about it and it doesn't take more than a few moments. We did actually get pulled over once for jumping a red light - which was a complete accident and once for speeding both times the policemen were very nice they would like to have given us a ticket/fine but as we don't speak Russian "Niet parle Russki" said the policemen shaking their heads in astonishment, how could we not speak Russian! Consequently, it was really too much hassle to give us a ticket so we were sent on our way with a Russian warning of don't do it again - well we think that's what they were saying - sometimes it pays to be ignorant!!
Next stop Samarkand, thankfully a much less eventful journey than our one to Bukhara., Again very, very hot but we do manage to get out and visit the Registan which is the centrepiece of the city and would have been the main trading place and commercial centre in silk route times. There is no getting away from the sheer magnificence of these Medressas which would have been wall to wall bazaars. We admire the amazing intricacy of the patterns in the tiles before we rush back to the joys of the AC room in our hotel. Amazing also is the wonkiness of the towers and the jaunty angles of the facades whichhave all tilted over the centuries. It's really eye catching.
Beautiful ceiling inside one of the Medressas
We head for Tashkent, the capital, for no other reason than it is too far to get to the border without stopping. It is a pretty unremarkable city other than its architecture being very "Soviet" including their metro stations which are very art deco-ish. I love the angular designs of the metro trains and carriages. All so soviet and 50's.
Metro station Tashkent
Tashkent more Soviet than Silk Route!
We have two nights in a hotel with half decent wifi, the first for a long time, so the majority of our time is taken up with catching up with blogs, emails, and the outside world in general. It is great seeing all of these amazing sights and places and of course the reason why we came away, but the need to touch base with the real world and friends and family is incredibly strong and needs to be sated every now and then!
After having access to wifi again, we have worked out that our route to Kyrgyzstan its still too far to get to in one hit. Uz is a big country and Tigger is slow. Driving south we head for the Fergana valley which is the complete opposite of the arid hot desert we have just come from, green and lush, this is the breadbasket of Uz. Crumbs!
We had heard that Diesel is difficult to get in Uz but up until now we hadn't come across any particular problems and we are in the capital city so should be easy to fill up shouldn't it? We try at least 5 petrol stations on the way out of Tashkent when we ask if there is diesel the usual response was "Diesel?!!!" laughter "no diesel" oh dear we do have our trusty reserve tank and this John assure us will get us to our next destination if for some reason we can't find any on the way. We have stopped at numerous petrol stations still no diesel we are nearly down to our last 50km worth of fuel and our destination is just a little bit more than that, the atmosphere in the van is tense, to say the least! "you said it would get us there" was a phrase I was trying very hard to suppress, but after 28yrs of marriage it didn't really have to be voiced! ( yes. After 28 years of marriage, I know when to tell her what she wants to hear!) Fortunately, we did eventually find somewhere, we didn't dare completely fill up as we weren't 100% sure it was diesel as all the writing was in Russian. We were convinced for a while that we would get a little way up the road and Tigger would start coughing and spluttering as we had put petrol in - thankfully this didn't happen and Diesel was the first word we learnt to spell in Russian!
Towards the end of the Fergana valley, we get pulled over for another routine police check and I am summoned to the roadside booth to give our details. Meanwhile, an elderly gent on his bike had gone over to the van to invite us back to his home for tea. Suzanne has accepted this and comes over to tell me whilst I am still waiting on the policeman to finish make sense of our V5c and satisfy himself that he has all of our details. When we get back to the van the man has gone so we head off again towards the border, a little disappointed and also a little relieved it has to be said. But hold on. There he is waiting a couple of hundred metres up the road. We pull over and do the usual charades and he confirms that we should follow him which we dutifully do. Down a dirt track side road, past old ladies and small children sitting or playing by the roadside, we follow him to his house. We are welcomed into his back garden with his wife and 2 grandchildren and an outside dining area is prepared with tea and homegrown fruit and veg. A sad story unfolds about his daughter having died leaving he and his wife responsible for the grand children.
Tigger visits Uzbek family
And there was meat stew - when we explained that James was Vegetarian "no meat" the lump of meat was removed from the bowl and given to John - voila Vegetarian!! James good lad managed to eat most of it!
The Children are an absolute delight, the little girl brings out her very well worn English school book and we communicate via the book, she loved practicing her English and is all smiles. She drags me into to one of the rooms where there is a little shrine to her mother, she is very keen for me to meet her Mumma, so very sad. We work out that they don't have any computers at the school and certainly not in the house. John lets the little lad play a game on his phone, immediately he has half the neighbourhood gathered around him and like boys all over the world is completely immersed in the game!
Such a lovely little girl and so keen to talk to us and practice her English
We dispense some small toys and trinkets brought for just such an occasion and huge smiles from the kids are our reward. We were hoping to rush through to the border this afternoon but this little deviation has been a wonderful experience for us and we have been moved by the generosity of these lovey people. We leave with fresh tomatoes, grapes, potatoes and cucumbers from their garden and off again to another tedious border crossing.
Last chance to unload the surplus Uz sum so we buy some water melon and a few more veg, over pay a bit and still have thousands of the doodahs left. They will make fun souvenirs then Into Kyrgyzstan
John bartering with the locals
We have enjoyed Uzbekistan immensely the architecture has been breathtaking and the people so friendly and welcoming. Roads in places could have been better but on the whole not too bad, Diesel was really cheap at around 37p a litre but of course you had to find it first!
Oddities - all the hotels double rooms had twin beds! And Gold teeth are all the rage it would seem, even the poorest person on the street seems to manage to have a least 2 gold teeth to smile at you with.
Would definitely recommend a visit but go when it's a bit cooler!
We haven't left ourselves much time to get to Mongolia. We know we will have to rush through Kazakhstan but that's ok by us as we are a little "Stan'd" out! Kyrgyzstan is going to be a hard act to follow and we are ready to move on to something different - as in Russia. We have also heard lots of horror stories about the Kazakh police and being stopped and fined so we are keen not to spend too much time in Kazakhstan at all.
Ah yes. So it occurs to me why this group of countries are collectively known as the “Stan’s”. It’s because of the “stan’d and deliver” stan’ce taken by the police! Any given opportunity to stuff a few extra dollars into their greedy pockets. To be fair, this has not been our experience so far. Only got caught and fined for speeding twice and bribed at the Turkmenistan exit border.
This is my first border crossing without crew member number three, John goes through with Tigger and I have to go through the walking channel , it's fairly painless but I have to wait more than two hours on the other side for Tigger to arrive, just as well I have water this time as its searingly hot!
Usual run-around for the foreign tourist with the car. Go here, get the stamp. Go there, get inspected after a long wait whilst nothing else is happening. Go back to the last place only to be told that you didn’t get the stamp from the last place. Go back to the last place and queue up again until the “ official “ decides you have waited long enough then you get your stamp and continue the merry-go-round. Even thinking about it makes my blood pressure start to rise, but, keep calm. It’s a means to an end…smile smile.
We have been given two stamps on a special piece of paper which mean we have 15days visa free in Kazakhstan and we don't have register either! However, we are in a rush and decide we are going to get through in 5 days. Kazakhstan is a big country - the 9th biggest in the world and the biggest country in Central Asia , 2.7million sq km. And we want to keep away from those pesky police!
First thing we notice where are the mountains? There are apparently mountains around Almaty but we bypass the city. It is mostly vast open spaces of Steppe , a distinct lack of animals and yurts just lots and lots of nothing.
Lots and lots of ..............nothing!
We drive more or less non-stop during daylight hours, we have a lot of ground to cover. The first 200km are on good roads, after that though it all changes. The roads are still tarmac but full of lumps and bumps, Tigger is heavy and he bounces, so we have to take things very slowly and carefully
Yep. Roads. What happened to “ driving is fun?”. Now it’s just a chore. Can’t take your eyes off the road to enjoy the scenery, not even for the briefest of time because that’s when the pothole pops up and threatens to remove one of your wheels.
We camp mostly just off the side of the road, we travel with a Swiss Motorcyclist Jonathon for a short while and camp together one night but all in all Kazakhstan is pretty uneventful, even the dreaded police don't make much of a show. We do get stopped once to get papers checked and the guard asks if we have a souvenir he could have so we give him a postcard of Cambridge - he seems more than happy with that.
Nice to have some company on the road
And even Laybys can be pretty as the sun goes down
It's exhausting driving sometimes 9 hours per day - well I know I'm not actually driving but I am there helping John drive! People have asked what do you do with the time - well amazingly we talk and also, we don't talk! We watch the scenery go by we listen to music (I have discovered John's IPod shame!) ( hey! Look who’s talking! I have the usual Man music, rock and roll stuff you know. But the Abba and 70’s disco I have Andrew Watson to thank for that. He showed me the way on our numerous boy's ski holidays in Chamonix. He would often treat us to a display of hip swinging and air punching disco dance moves whilst off pisting in the Les Houches hills listening to his iPod.) and also to talking books. But mostly in places like Kaz we are watching the road looking for potholes and bumps and sneaky policemen - John has named me his "Sat Nag" as I am always shouting the speed limits out to him!
About 3 days into the journey John has noticed a new noise coming from Tigger, an unusual banging noise, we empty cupboards to check it’s not something we have put away awkwardly, we are constantly listening for when it happens it seems worse when going over bumps, but we just can't figure out where it is coming from. Probably because the roads are so awful there are frequent ramps on the side of the road which you can drive your car on to and look underneath, which we did but still none the wiser. John even lets me drive while he sits in the back trying to identify where the noise is coming from, he must be worried!! ( double jeopardy! )
The noise was only a suspension strut rubber bearing which had disintegrated. We stopped in a gas station forecourt so I could whip the wheel off and have a look. There were a couple of locals there who immediately became interested and once I had identified the problem one of the guys ushered me to his car so he could take me to place where I could get a replacement. But another chap grabbed my arm and lead me to the boot of his car and there under the carpet he produced a plastic bag with a selection of new bushes. One of them fitted and he even helped fit it. In fact, I couldn’t stop him helping! It fitted a treat. He point blank refused to take payment for this – what fantastic people. Not at all what we were expecting here. Thank you guys J
We haven't really give Kazakhstan much of a chance as all we have done is drive through but highlights are the soaring birds of prey which are everywhere and the desolate beauty of the Steppe which has grown on us over the journey. As we get closer to the Russian border the county side changes and we find a forest to camp in, which is pretty and an improvement on all other roadside camps. We are also particularly pleased with ourselves as we manage to get through the whole country only changing $100! This includes petrol (well it is only 35p a litre) buying insurance and food - surely this means we can stay in a luxury hotel in Russia!!!
Goodbye Central Asia
Kazakhstan is our last "Stan" and the last country in Central Asia we are visiting. Overall we have loved the Stan’s, and they should really be on everyone's wish list of places to go (well maybe not Turkmenistan!) So here is our quick round up of what Central Asia meant to us
Driving - Driving in Central Asia is like driving in a country of boy racers, It's terrifying! The roads are mostly dreadful and there is always a policeman hiding round every corner waiting to catch you speeding. On the upside petrol/diesel at its most expensive was 40p a litre and its cheapest 20p
Award for the worst roads goes to Turkmenistan
Award for worst driving - the whole of Central Asia!
Food - Unless you are a big fan of boiled mutton, salted milk balls and horses milk then you could be disappointed with the food. However, we did find lots of fresh fruit and veg being sold on the roadside throughout , which although limited was always seasonal and fresh but tended to lack variety, there is only so much you can do with a tomato, cucumber and an Aubergine!. ( !!!!!! ) Driving along you tend to find whole areas selling a particular food - for instance, Apricots (which you have to buy by the bucket load) and once you have passed that area you don't see apricots again!
Vodka is the drink of choice everywhere and is incredibly cheap, you can pick up a bottle for anything between £1.50 and £4.50 (and that’s expensive!) I mostly chose them for the prettiness of the bottle as Vodka to me doesn't seem to have much of a taste, but when in Rome and all that!
Other recreational substances are readily available growing by the roadside!
The scenery has been breathtaking and diverse. From deserts to snow-capped mountains, beautiful lakes and the miles and miles of unending landscapes of the Steppe.
Central Asia and especially Kyrgyzstan (although not exclusively) are great examples of man living in harmony with nature, herds of animals graze everywhere, the animals are farmed but they live happy lives, looked after by shepherds who move them around to graze from one luscious pasture to the next, living simply - no large machinery, no pesticides just the animals and a yurt or two! We didn't see any animals that look badly cared for and that included cats and dogs. There is a real respect for animals here even if it is based on them being a supply for food or as a work vehicle
Award for the most beautiful Country for us was Kyrgyzstan - go before it gets spoilt, you won't be disappointed.
Award for the craziest City - Ashgabat - the while marbled city is weird on so many levels
Award for the most beautiful City - Khiva in Uzbekistan. You are transported back to another time with the sights, sounds and smells of the silk route.
But what really made Central Asia special for us were the people, everyone is so friendly and welcoming and were genuinely interested in us. They so wanted us to like their country and went out of their way to make our trip so very special.
Next issue– Russia…..
Even though we have rushed through Kaz we only have a week left on our Russian visa and are worried we won't be able to cover the amount of km we need to in a week. However, we needn't have panicked, compared to Kaz the roads are a dream! No potholes, no unexpected bumps, just tarmac - we can barely remember what this is like. Tigger is very happy.
My first impressions of Russia are of surprise. It is so totally different to Kaz at the border. There are small orderly villages, proper roads and as we leave the small built up area we head into farmland with huge fields of single crops. Something we haven’t seen in Central Asia. The overall feel for this corner of Russia is that it is so much more organised that what we have seen for the last couple of months. We have one-night wild camping just off the road in a young wood that hides us from view. We settle in a clearing amongst tall yellow flowers and bright purple thistles. A tiny little oasis of colour and gently rustling leaves. Would have been a lovely spot to stay for a couple of nights but we have to get on to the border with Mongolia and the promise of a good hotel in the big city.
Agriculture and lots of it! Well they do have a lot of people to feed
Our wildflower camp stop
We gave Tigger some purple thistle eyelashes - he looked very dashing!
This was our last night's camping before we get to the large city Barnaul on our route and treat ourselves to a hotel - 6 days constant driving and camping with no shower we are ready for a little R&R for sure. We don't have a sim card as only staying in Russia for a week and aren't sure of the word for "Hotel" in Russian - surely it will just be "Hotel" it is everywhere else in the world Barnaul is a big city it will be easy - No! We drive around for what seems like hours and eventually spot the world "Tourist" it is a hotel - hurrah! - well, a sort of hotel, the rooms come themed with a picture menu and I think we could possibly hire by the hour! We opt for the Matrix room which is interesting - it does have wifi so we spend the evening searching for another hotel to stay.
Well, this made for an interesting night!
We find a hotel which is less seedy but a little boring and business like however it does have a rather nice cafe/restaurant which is where we spend most of our time on the computers, drinking coffee/wine and eating cake - ahh civilisation. ( Ahh indeed! The cake is very good here. A little too good if truth be told. Eclairs, 5 at a time and 10 once! ) While we are in the cafe/restaurant we are inundated with Brides - at varying times at least 20 different couples come into the cafe area complete in wedding attire have some photos taken, have a cup of tea and leave - bit odd
Russia has been a wonderful surprise in the eating and drinking department, it is virtually western we even get Heinz Baked Beans in the Supermarket and real wine. John is very fond of the cakes and is on a mission to try every flavour of eclair that exists.( Yes, I just said that ;-) )
Real food at last - not a bit of boiled mutton in sight!
We also bump into some Mongol Rally guy - think Tigger is in love!
After recharging our batteries and having eaten too much cake and drunk too much wine we head off in the direction of Mongolia. We have been in contact with an Austrian couple Klaus and Andrea who we will be travelling with us through China so we arrange to meet with them in the next town and travel with them to Mongolia. It takes us three nights to get to the border and the camping is fun, we pick up a couple of hitchhikers for two of the nights (they have a tent - Tiggers hospitality doesn't stretch to B&B) ( A hippyish blonde Russian girl who has temporarily teamed up with a beardy Brazilian young man who is very keen to keep telling us how crap the UK is. Thanks a lot buddie. Perhaps you would like to sod off and stop accepting our hospitality and free food! – Some people eh? ) Klaus and Andrea introduced to a game called " Cards Against Humanity" which if you have never played it is the most un-PC game ever! Was a bonding game for the Austria/England group!
Camp Tigger and friends
The Russian scenery has been a big surprise it's very pretty and alpine. We find some great camp spots along the way and are disappointed we can't stay longer, we don't even have time to explore as our visa is about to run out. One night we stop off at a grassy spot by a small fresh stream and set up camp. We gather dead wood for our fire and get settled in. Just before dark we are surprised that a car stops and a young couple set up their tent and a small fire. In true Russian style and form, the young man returns from the woods with a tree trunk for the fire which is so big I doubt that I could have lifted it let alone set fire to it! Our Russian hitch hike chats with them and discovered that they are members of a professional traditional singing group and she invites them over to share our fire. They then treat us to a couple of songs which is extremely atmospheric and a surprising and fun end to the evening.
Our last night before the Mongolian border we camp on the Russian Steppe among the Birds of prey with our dung fire and cocktails ( urgh! You wouldn’t sell many tickets to that gig describing it like that! ) Klaus, with his usual boyish enthusiasm, talks us into storming off the road and straight up the nearest hill across the grassland. There are faint tracks that we follow that lead us in the direction of a farm building so we veer away and up the hill in the opposite direction. More tracks but they don’t look as though they have been used in months so we think we are safe to settle here. Right on top of the hill. Just over the brow I walk into a magnificent Kite just sitting on the edge of a gully. It seems quite un-phased by my appearance so I manage to get within 5m for some great photos. There is plenty of dry dung around so we gather this up and make an excellent coal-like fire to drive off the night chill. The two girls knock back of a couple of bottles of wine and we had a relaxed campfire chat before hitting the hay. That’s my version of the event. Not like a woman to use fewer words than a man to describe something J
Excuse me it wasn't a couple of bottles of wine but some serious cocktail making with vodka, cranberry and secret herbs to make a delicious concoction not known by man which I now name "The Red Russian"
Camping on the Russian Steppe - and yes that is Chrysler Voyager!!
Always time for cocktails darling!
Our dung fire - and it keeps the mozzies away as well
He didn't seem to mind us getting fairly close
And then off he went
We had only thought of Russia as a transit between Kazakhstan and Mongolia hence why we hadn't planned to spend much time there. Oh how we wish we had researched a little more. Once you get into the Alti region it is stunningly beautiful, the food is good the people friendly and there are wonderful places to camp. Out of all the places we have been to so far our biggest regret is not being in Russia for much longer and it will be top of the list to re-visit in the future.
Some views along the way
Wish we could have stopped longer
The Alti region is a must - we will be back!
Through the Russian border with ease and surprisingly there is a 20km no-mans land to the Mongolian side. I wonder what would happen if you stopped here? Well, we weren’t about to find out so its swiftly in and out and through the cattle trough to de-bug our vehicles as we set tyres on the Mongolian steppe.]]>
After experiencing the Mongolian roads for 2 weeks we had already made the decision not to go north and visit Khovsgol Nuur which is the largest lake in Mongolia. Tigger was suffering from road fatigue and frankly so were we. The bad condition of the roads was relentless, barely getting out of second gear and if we weren't being shaken to bits by washboard roads then we were negotiating "roads" full of rocks and/or potholes, it was exhausting, and frustrating at the end of the day realising we had done only half the amount of kilometres we had planned to do which probably involved getting lost as well!
We are heading south towards the Gobi and decide to visit some hot springs on route, partly for some relaxation but also for a shower - it's been a while! just as well there are only the two of us in the van, I think we did get lost someone could smell us out!
We were pleased to see that the road to the hot springs seemed pretty ok, it wasn't really a road obviously but it was a fairly good track without pot holes or too many bumps until we get around 10km away, where we hit marshy, boggy, muddy land , this is totally Tiggers Nemesis he really isn't a fan of mud , We can see where we need to go but it involves picking our route very carefully - the magic button (Diff lock thingy) is engaged and we go for it . It is much more slippery and wet than anticipated and Tigger is having real trouble not to slip into a rather large ditch full of water - the back wheels for sure want to take us into the ditch for a swim and where we will definitely fall over! The moment is a little tense but we manage to avoid the ditch using the Jeremy Clarkson manoeuvre. POWER! But drive directly into a big muddy hole which although ultimately preferable to the ditch, is still a right royal pain in the rear axle which is now kissing the mud and we are now a hostage of the muddy mire.
So after the application of more power…. We are still stuck. Suzanee returns from the river with a local on horseback and a load of stones from the river which I hope will help if I throw them into the wheel holes. No good. Then tried some bigger rocks and bits of tree. Also no good. Anything to avoid getting the jack and waffle boards out! So. Its waffle board time! Carefully positioning my clean self, I dig out one of the rear wheels. Still clinging on to ‘not being caked in mud’, I jack up the rear using bits of split log to spread the weight of the jack and slip the waffleboard under the wheel. Bingo! Success! We are out and I am still clean. Double bubble!
Obviously I would have helped but one of us had to keep clean!
Getting out of a muddy situation! Video link to watch John get out!
Less than 100 metres away from where we are stuck is a river crossing, I watch a horse and rider come through and see the water is up the horses belly! Not feeling too confident about getting across, however, John walks the river and finds a slightly shallower crossing and Tigger is just about to pick his way around the shallow edge when a local Ger family in an ancient Uaz Jeep speed across the middle of the river and stop! They are totally stuck, water is pouring into their vehicle and the engine has completely packed up! Tigger to the rescue!! We cross the river (at the shallow edge without a problem) and then have to tow the Uaz out, it's hilarious that we are the foreigners towing the locals out! They are extremely grateful and show their appreciation but insisting on giving us some salty hard cheese/yoghurt balls - hmm! Video link to see Tigger the Hero
Post river crossing
We finally manage to get to the hot springs and decide to reward ourselves by staying the night in a " Spa Resort Hotel" The all knowing Lonely Planet cites the Duut Resort as being the most "Luxurious" available so that's the one we opt for obviously! Now you mustn't get Western luxury and Mongolian luxury confused otherwise you may be sorely disappointed but it actually isn't too bad the room has a private Western loo which always makes me happy , there are hot showers and the spa pools have an amazing view over the Mongolian landscape To top it all the food is pretty good and yes they have Western wine - woo hoo!
Luxury Mongolian Style!
Rejuvenated from the spa waters we head off knowing we have a lot of driving ahead to get to the Gobi. On the map it doesn't seem very far but we have learnt our lesson and know that a small stretch of bad road can take hours to cross so we brace ourselves to be shaken by the washboard roads and thrown about by the potholes - but wait this looks like, yes it is TARMAC!!! What deep joy driving on smooth roads and getting into 4th gear!!! We follow the tarmac more or less until it runs out, even though it does slightly deviate from our route - never mind we will find a road that takes us to where we want to go and 3hours of driving on tarmac is equivalent to a whole days drive normally!
Once back on the "normal" Mongolian roads we realise we need to stock up with food and water . Everything we have read about going to the Gobi in your own car makes it very clear that you should have enough water and food to last at least a week, it's pretty remote and can be very hot! As we are trying to find a town big enough which has everything we need we are flagged down by a group of what look like Mongolian tourists, they are beside the road taking photos in their huge Toyota 4x4 (which everyone has here) Now we don't usually stop as hardly anyone speaks English and its hard work to get yourself understood but still in a frivolous mood from the hot springs and tarmac we decide to stop and chat. They love Tigger and want to look inside and nose around and as usual, everyone has to have their photo taken with us and Tigger then they ask how many dollars did it cost to buy - this is a common question which we get asked all the time we have decided that we won't reveal the true cost as partly we are not sure we really know how much it cost after refit and secondly we don't want it to seem an expensive vehicle that might be worth stealing - so $20000 is what we normally say , on this occasion it was a mistake and we probably should have told them something nearer to the true cost as now they want to buy Tigger! We laugh politely and say he isn't for sale - they can't speak much English so telephone their daughter and get her to ask us how much will we sell Tigger for, no he's not for sale.
After the formalities are observed we make a hasty retreat to the town buy our provisions, waving and smiling goodbye. But wait. They are following us. We reach the town and a small group of people gather around to look at Tigger. Our stalkers are still with us and one of them finds someone in the crowd who can speak English so they can continue the negotiations in buying the van with John , in the meantime I have gone into the shop and in hot pursuit is lady stalker running behind me with phone in her hand shouting "Mrs, Mrs" thrusting the phone in my face. It is her daughter on the phone again explaining how they REALLY want to buy Tigger and in the end, I have to be quite rude in telling her "It is our home and is not for sale for any price"
Eventually, we leave behind the disappointed Mongolians and have continually wondered since, actually how much would they have paid for Tigger?
John protecting Tigger from the stalkers!
We camp at a place called Bogd which is the last village before we get to the Gobi, it's exciting and a little scary that we are not sure when we are going to see civilisation again so we make sure we are well stocked with food and water. The weather doesn't seem at all desert like in fact it's raining and rather miserable and we are worried about mud. We head off in the direction we think is right but in retrospect it probably wasn't!
After battling with the terrain for three hours the road appears to come to a dead end - this is really disheartening. Getting anywhere is such an enormous effort the thought of turning around and going back is so defeatist, plus we are not really sure where to go instead. The dead end is, in fact, a dry river bed full of stones and rocks so it can't possibly be a road. John puts on his waterproofs and walks up the riverbed to see if there is a road we can't see on the other side of the river, it's very difficult to see anything with the rain lashing and thick mist he reports back and there is no road on the other side . As we are staring at the riverbed wondering what to do next a moped appears out of the mist. Ok. Let's see if we can ask these people where the road is as they must have come from somewhere - after lots of gesticulation we gather that the river bed IS the road and they assure us it will be fine for Tigger!
So. Peering through the rain and mist it is highly improbable that this is going to end well. You know when you have that feeling that you are just about to do something unwise? Should we turn back? But to what? Ok. Press on it is then. The river bed is actually good to drive on. Like a firm shingle beach. But for how long. We can't even be sure that there isn’t an actual river up ahead in the gloom. It's so irresponsible! What am I doing?! Calm down! Following the intermittent single set of bike tyre tracks we wind our way up the river into the heart of the mountain range for a good hour or more until we find a track leading away from the river. This leads us into another river / gully just wide enough for us and heads down. Luckily this doesn't get any narrower but it is now too steep to get out and getting deeper, no way out now!. Around a bend and out! Hurrah! The rain has stopped and the fog has cleared and now we are out into the plain the other side of the mountains and back on our route.
Finally, after another day of driving we are in the Gobi, we really do feel remote here, I don't think we have seen any other cars or people for a couple of days, although if you look hard enough through the binoculars you can usually spot a Ger somewhere on the horizon. The driving is better, fewer potholes and rocks but the roads are more or less non-existent even for Mongolian standards. You can usually follow a faint track (which is classed as a road!) but here there is nothing. We are confronted by a rocky canyon and have no idea how to navigate through it - no tracks, not on the sat nav or the map - this was one of my "OMG" moments fearing we would never get out and no one would ever find us, wishing we had brought with us that distress flare, although not really sure who would have seen it! After a quite a few "wrong" turns and doubling back on ourselves not to mention a few tense driver/navigator moments we escape to the other side.
Feels pretty Lonely out here!
The road leading to the range disappears once inside! Video of a small bit of the drive
And out the other side
And the rain was good for something we get to see these desert flowers - very rare apparently!
Finally, we spot the dunes in the distance
We have been heading for some of the biggest and most spectacular sand dunes in Mongolia called Khongoryn Els. The largest of the dunes are up to 300mtrs high and are there, of course, to be climbed. (Yep. No other reason. There are a couple of guys with shovels who work tirelessly to replace the sand that tourists displace when they climb up. This is not true.) For anyone who hasn't climbed a sand dune let me tell you its really hard work, for each step forward be prepared to take two backwards as the sand slides away from under you - it's exhausting!!! (as I am in one of my pedantic moods I feel as though I should point out that this last piece of information is also not accurate, otherwise you would actually be walking backwards but I think you know what the author is intimating ) but we did it and the view from the top was worth the effort and nearly as much fun as the yomp down the dunes - an hour to get up and 20mins to get down!
The may look tame from here!
Made it to the top without a cardiac event!
Bit windy at the top!
Nope still can't see anyone!
After what seems like a mammoth journey across Mongolia we are ready for civilization , the lure of a hot shower and a sit down toilet are too much (probably too much information here but at one point we hadn't had our lovely butts on a western loo for over a week!) so after the dunes we head for the capital Ulaanbaatar (which wins first prize in the category of “place that we visited with the most "A"s in its name)
After a few days relaxing and catching up with friends at the Overlanders pit stop, the Oasis hotel, we head off to see the Chenngis Khan Monument just outside UB where legend has it Chenngis found his famous golden whip. The monument is impressive and enormous!
We spend a night wild camping in the national park which is lovely and wooded and reminds us of Europe. The morning surprises us with a hard frost covering tigger and the whole of the valley. This soon burns off whilst we have breakfast and then we head back to UB for a final couple of nights before heading to the Mongolia/China border where we will rendezvous with our fellow travellers with whom we will travel through China.
We also get to see someone taking their camel for a walk - like you do!
By now we were more than ready to leave Mongolia as we were fed up with the roads or lack of them and we were desperate to eat some decent food ie anything other than salty rock hard yoghurt or boiled mutton, however in retrospect if was an amazing adventure and certainly fulfilled all of our (Johns!) dreams in the off-road driving department! If you want seclusion, never-ending landscapes and REALLY getting away from it all then Mongolia is the place for you!
It was indeed very demanding. Especially so when you consider you are trying to preserve your 27-year-old vehicle and that it is you, and only you, who is going to get you out of the s**t when ( not if ) you get in it. And I don’t mean the millions of tons of animal poop! It was a fab driving experience and fulfilled all and so much more of my expectations for off roading and I have to admit I would love to do it again ( a few mods required to Tigger first though)
Passing out of Russia was via a 20km no man's land to reach Mongolia, hilly grassland with only the occasional car track heading up steep inclines to goodness knows where. We were told that there was no stopping or camping in this buffer zone between the two countries which although obvious, hadn’t occurred to us to do so as I guess, like every other transient making this crossing, we were going onwards and were excitedly looking forward to the next realm #( not the border control of course!) Whilst waiting at the Russian exit gate we meet up with a couple of crews doing the Mongol and Mongolian Rallies. A British team, Ewan and Nick, driving a 1968 Morris Minor Traveller. This vehicle had a history that Nick was keen to share with us. It had been a part payment to him for work carried out on a house for a lesbian commune who had owned the car for ages but not used it and he had spied it in the garage gathering dust. So he made them an offer for it and hey presto, he had his rally car! A Polish couple in a Nissan Patrol which I quite envied. A bit old but looked very fit for purpose. 4 mid-20s ( can't remember where they were from ) team in a small Mazda I don’t recognise. Hand painted front like a tiger J but just loved their logo “ Genghis Khan’t stop us” They had taken turns driving the last 48 hours to get to the border before permits expired. Must have been quite stressful! The first time Tigger had to wade through a quarantine sheep dip as we approached the Mongolian side. With 4 times more animals than humans in the country, I guess it's understandable that they need to keep out infectious diseases to protect the main industry. Mongolia is very strict about controlling the vehicles that come into the country now it has become quite common, apparently, for Mongol Rally drivers to “ donate “ their clapped out steeds and head home without them. We got a little caught up in this what with being there at the same time as rally crossings but everything is smooth in the end and we are in Mongolia! The driving adventure is about to begin in earnest. We drive on with Klaus and Andrea in “Voyager One” to the first town Balgin Olgi to find a hotel get cash out of an ATM – that’s always a relief – we had only entered with £1’s worth of Turig given to us by Eva, our neighbour in Cambridge. She had been here years ago on one of her pre-children adventures J.
We are a bit camped out and really would like a nice hotel for a couple of nights but the best we can come up with is a town yurt or Ger as they are known here - honest it's not just me that wants the luxuries of a hotel
Trip advisor suggests Blue Wolf which is a small collection of town yurts – must start calling them gers now as they are actually slightly different. ( try reading this with the voice of the single male nerdy pub bore – we all know one ) (think that might be you darling!) Yes, well. The central Asian yurt has a taller roof than the Mongolian ger as they use longer and bent roof spokes than the lower Mongolian ones which do not have the bend coming up from the wall plate. Also, the Mongolians tend to have their fire in the centre of the ger whereas the central Asian yurt had the fire in the front to the right of the door. J
Family who run the Ger Camp
So, back to Blue Wolf. Nice enough place. Clean gers, up off the floor on decking and has a reasonable restaurant. It’s a sort of backpackers place really, not that there is anything wrong with that, but it's pretty basic and only $10 per night. They have a little kitten tied up with a string which I think is a bit cruel but I'm told later that it is to prevent it from wandering off into the open where the ever circling scavenger Kites would certainly take it for food.
The blog wouldn't be complete without at least one cute animal picture!
It was an ok night, except for hearing everyone walking to the loo in the middle of the night as the Gers are mounted on wooden boards and very noisy! We decide to book ourselves into the best hotel in town after all it is my birthday tomorrow! Oh dear. We are just finding out that any expectations of finding nice hotels anywhere in Mongolia are to be seriously reduced and, as so often is to be the case, sleeping in Tigger is a far better and luxurious option.
Think you can tell the calibre of the hotel from the delicious breakfast
Birthday morning, and how many people can say they got a jar of pickles for their birthday!
We have entered from the top left-hand corner of Mongolia in the west and although ultimately we should be heading east we want to explore a little more in the west first. We find out we are not allowed to go to this region alone but have to have a guide with us - not totally sure why but it's cheap enough around £10 per day - and who knows when we will be passing by again!
Drive to mountains
We pick up our guide from the hotel as arranged, do some provision shopping ready for the next part of the journey. We stop briefly at the guides house where we meet some of her sisters family, get given our first piece of deep fried yoghurt cheese stuff, a handcrafted purse is given to Suzanne as a birthday present and then we are off! Goodbye smooth roads. The plan is to drive to the Alti Tavan Bogd National Park in the western mountains that border Russia, China and Kazakhstan in one day. En-route we have arranged to visit a local eagle hunter and hoping to see some flying eagles. Unfortunately, this is not the hunting season and the birds are at rest until the winter but the experience is still worth it. We are invited into the Eagle hunters Ger and are given salty milky tea, (which is pretty disgusting!) cream and deep fried bread, cheese of various degrees of inedible hardness ranging from “ too hard to bite” to “ why have I just put this rock into my mouth?” Our host has a 2 stringed guitar-like instrument hanging up behind where he is sitting and he treats us to an impromptu song.
Next, still nursing our broken jaws from the polite attempt at eating the cheeses, we are ushered outside to wear his hunting coat, hat and belt, don the hunting glove and hold one of the eagles to pose for our partners to capture the silly looking westerners in the Kazak hunting attire. Actually, Klaus looked quite the part with his goatee. I know this is a well-trodden path for tourists but nonetheless, it's not like what you see in the towns where the birds are nothing more than an organ grinder's monkey dancing for pennies. These are working hunting eagles and this is a family of traditional eagle hunters and this chap is a national celeb it would seem. He has the photos and press cuttings to prove it! It's also comforting to know that these birds are taken as chicks, trained, well cared for and worked for only 10 years and then released for the remainder of their 60-year life so that they can breed in the wild.
As we were late leaving today we have only just finished at the eagle hunters by tea time. Clearly we are not going to make it to the mountains today as there is still another 90km to go. We stop at a small village where the guide used to live with her family and drop her off to stay with one of her sisters. We camp on the other side of the river with voyager and celebrate Suzanne's birthday with bubbly, cake and a candle in a pink champagne flute. Very tacky – Mongolia's finest in this region lol!
Birthday Celebrations! Cake courtesy of Klaus and Andrea, different but tasty
We continue to the mountains discovering the variety of road conditions that is on offer. By mid afternoon we have to cross a river that is too steep and deep for Voyager. They go back to find a crossing elsewhere and we continue but agree to wait. They join us about 2 hours later but not much further and there is an impossible river for them to cross. We part here and they return and we go on with the guide. We agree to meet in Olgi in 4 days.
River crossings are to become a large part of driving in Mongolia, and involve a full and “in-depth” assessment before driving through - this involves John walking the river to see if Tigger will be ok to cross without any nasty surprises like hidden holes,big rocks, nasty mud or just being too deep.
John and Klaus checking out the river
We make the national park late that evening but have some extremely difficult terrain to deal with. Averaging 15Kmph we spend the next 2 hours crossing rivers, gullies only just wide enough for our entry and exit clearance’s, over boulder fields and some steep inclines both in pitch and roll. Tigger is really being tested now , however, whilst trying to give a swamp a wide birth I failed to notice a hidden rivulet overgrown with grass and reeds. Even though I walked it first I missed the edge of it and managed to drop the back wheel into it. It was really weird. As we weren’t expecting this we couldn’t understand what was happening. We stopped moving forward, then rolled back a little, then the front went up in the air! Luckily I had engaged both front and rear diff locks because we only had 2 opposite corner wheels on terra firma otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to “ simply “ drive out of it. Not quite “ stuck “ and also not quite a self-recovery but scary anyway.
For those that don't know what a "Diff lock" is (which is me) it is a button on the dashboard that is magic and gets you out of holes - but you must have turned it on before you get in the hole - therefore following this rather harrowing experience every time we went near anything that looked suspicious I would gently remind John by shouting "use the button, use the button"!
But even getting stuck was worth the views
Camp is at the end of the settlement of about 20 gers. Shepherds who live here with their families in the summer, tending goats, sheep, cows, horses and yak. Before sunset, the sheep and goats are brought in from the mountains to be safe near the humans. They are funny animals, goats. They love to bundle each other for possession of a rock to stand on. Always sparring. Soft little hoof noises on the rocks. Surprisingly soft. At night, there is the deep quiet of the mountain occasionally interrupted by a bleat, woof, moo but more just the occasional goat fart! Man, they are gassy creatures!
The noisy goats! Parp!!
Next day. Have arranged a horse ride out into the mountains. (Gluttons for punishment, you would have thought four days in the saddle in Kyrgyzstan would have been enough!) Our Guide is not really interested and speaks no English. Along the way, he slips off to do a bit of Yak herding so we join in. Don’t think our help was actually helpful but we enjoyed it. Yak boy and girl for an hour in outer Mongolia. Sounds way more glam that it really was. Got to the end of the trail, saw the mountains in the distance that are on the China/Kazakhstan/Russia border. Took photos, put on rain coats and trousers and turned back. Wonderful scenery and as usual, incredible to think how remote we always are in this country.
Helping to herd the Yak - not sure if we are a help or a hindrance!
The Yak also breed with Cow's so my question is what do you call a cross between a cow and a yak?
A Cak or a Yow????
Russia on the left and China on the right!
No wonder Ghenghis Khan was so miserable these saddles were so uncomfortable!!!
Back at the van, Suzanne is making dinner and I am away from the van looking at the goats. She turns around whilst inside the van, looking out the door she is shocked to see about 10 local men standing right at the door , all gazing in watching her every move. It was funny to watch her turn around and gasp at the surprise of the audience as much as they were a little surprised at her reaction.
They weren't so much standing outside as nearly inside the van all glaring in, I nearly dropped our delicious Yak meat stew (minus the Yak) Little did we know this was very normal Mongolian behaviour - ahh the joys of travel
The journey back from the mountains was less eventful but still our average speed was around 15km/hr due to the delightful roads - or lack of them! so we still needed an overnight stop. We break at the same village as our outward journey but stay a little outside the village away from everyone, or so we think! within 15mins of making camp we are surrounded by a group of the local children who are immensely interested in Tigger and the sweets we are distributing. John keeps them amused by showing them his collection of knives and different types of machete, appropriate for a group of 5-10yr olds while I cook dinner!
It's time to head east and we realise due to the condition of the roads (the word road is said in the very loosest of terms ) that we are not going to be able to cover as much of Mongolia as we had hoped even though we have 3 weeks left on our visa. So we need to choose our route carefully. There are three major routes across Mongolia from West to East, the northern route is muddy - not for Tigger, the southern route is the quickest and probably the least interesting and then there is the middle route - doesn't seem to be much said about this one so must be ok!
We head out of Olgi and up the last couple of Km of tarmac we are going to see for a long time!! By evening time, we make it to the outskirts of Khovd, and camp in the foothills overlooking the town and the fork in the road that tomorrow will split us and Voyager up. The rear shock absorber mounting bush has failed again but I only managed to get a solid replacement in the last town so I have to shape it by paring it down to shape with my newest and sharpest knife. Takes a while but whiles the time away whilst the girls prepare dinner and Klaus re-wires something from his car.
An overlanders work is never done!
We say goodbye to voyager and set off on the central road towards Ulaanbaatar our final destination. We plan to go across the country until we meet the north-south road where we will decide if we have time to go to the lake in the north before going south to the Gobi, or to settle on the Gobi only. Satnav, GPS app and map are going to be used to navigate from now on. First stop for us on our own is in the middle of what I would call a desert. There are small spiky plants and grasses but very sparse. Too little to support grazing animals by the look of things. Nothing around here for miles, not people or animals it's rather spooky. I gather up enough spiky plants to make a fire, dig a pit, and make a cosy little campfire for us to sit around and wonder, yet again, at the amazing privilege we have been lucky enough to have been granted to be here on this journey. This is the first of many, really lonely, remote camp sites we will enjoy over the next few weeks, and come to miss in the future. Even out here in the middle of nowhere, a Mongolian couple in a van stops by to say hello. They ask us where we are going so we show them on a map. It would seem that they are also holidaying and not just travelling home from work. Later that evening we are treated to a magnificent sunset reminiscent of the one on Patara sand dunes in Turkey. Sometime in the middle of the night, we are woken by a minivan pulling up beside us. Someone gets out and is pacing around looking at us, coughing loudly and obviously wanting to attract the occupiers attention. Well, forgive me Chinghis if I don’t get up, get dressed and come out into the desert night to sign language our life's story to you tonight! The ignoring ploy works! They eventually go off back into the night to wherever they were going and leave us to resume our beauty sleep
We continue to head east. The landscape is endless with nothing to see for mile upon mile. There is the occasional white speck on the horizon which when examined through the binoculars reveal a solitary Ger. We pass herds of Bactrian camels of the two hump variety who seem very inquisitive to see Tigger and for your information they stink so we don't hang around them too long!
Lovely eyelashes but phew they stink!
Navigation is an issue - on the map it seems pretty straight forward, where we are going, straight across from west to east and it just looks like one road, haha, haha, haha!!!! there is never just one road, sometimes there are "10 roads" so which one do you choose? who knows we certainly didn't! We found the map wasn't detailed enough, the sat nav didn't even show the roads we were driving on . We did have a GPS co-ordinates app and this was sort of helpful and meant we could pinpoint on the map where we were supposed to be but as the map wasn't detailed enough it only really gave us a rough idea of where we might be as there weren't any geographical landmarks to pinpoint where we actually were! Towns are few and far between in Mongolia, the population is only 3 million of which half live in the capital Ulaanbaatar so there aren't many people to ask directions and even if there were nobody can speak English anyway. There are 41Million animals in the country shame none of them could give us directions!
Where are we???!!!
To say we felt remote is an understatement! I had to suppress a little panic every now and then as we did feel very inaccessible and isolated at times and I worried what would happen if we broke down or one of us became ill or injured - but basically had to put the thoughts out of our heads and get on with getting across Mongolia! Our journey was tediously slow as well , as the roads are so awful, if we could reach 40km an hour in 3rd gear it was a noteworthy occasion, the majority of the time was 15-20km per hour in second gear with our worst day being around 60km in 7hrs which may have involved getting lost!
Consequently, we spend an awful amount of time in the van driving in fact all day every day. I had read somewhere that we should all spend an hour a day doing 20mins exercise, 20mins planning and 20mins learning and decided to implement this into our daily routine
We plan all the time! what route to take, what road to take, what can we make for dinner with limited resources, where we need to be tomorrow etc etc - Exercise we try and make the effort in the mornings to get up and do something before setting off for the day, this usually involves walking up a nearby hill and invariably takes longer than 20mins. The 20mins learning takes a bit more thought, John has his" Dangerous Book For Boys" with him (of course) and after a quick flick through we see it has the full list of Kings and Queens of England - our task is set! Every day we learn a few names and dates and we can now recite all the Kings and Queens of England since 1066 including the dates of their reign ever useful for pub quizzes on our return we thought and means Mongolian roads were good for something!
Essential Overland Reading
We have "planned " to follow the map and are still heading east hoping to locate the volcano and hot springs on the way. Our sense of direction lets us down a bit here ( my direction this time, not the trusty navigator ) and I am sure that the road we should be following turns out to be a dead end. Of course, being a man, I insist that we follow the road to the end just to make sure but alas, it fizzles out just after a solitary ger half way up the mountain. We press on because I have a hunch that the faint track will lead us over the mountain to the road we are looking for. It does not. Then it becomes a little challenge between the mountain, my nerve and Tiggers ability. Sadly Tigger runs out of power even in G gear and we grind to halt on an incline. I drop down a little until we have a reasonably level pitch and we stop for the night. It's another amazing spot. Totally remote apart from the ger that we know is down in the valley, spectacular views over the surrounding lower mountains and forests and the rising peak of the mountain we are on behind us. We gather up some dead wood for a fire and then an elderly shepherd sporting some very snappy specs, arrives on horseback to see what we are up to. Behind us, there is a wood with horses in a coral and a big pile of firewood. Although we are a couple of hundred metres away from these I suppose the locals were rightly concerned for their property. Don’t think that they get to see too many foreign cars, least alone tiger striped ones, driving up their mountain obviously lost so I would think they wanted to check us out and make sure that we are not up to no good. He seems satisfied with my “ we are just going to sleep here tonight” gesture and trots off and returns a moment later with a big armful of firewood! No doubt keeping us sweet and hoping we would not touch their stuff and move on in the morning. We have a really good fire with the wood and dung that I collect and a wonderfully atmospheric evening watching the sun go down, the night closes in and the silence falls upon us like a heavy blanket. All we can see in the bright orange firelight is ourselves and Tigger. A little unnerving but we are getting used to this.
Another night, another camp in the middle of nowhere!
View from our newly instigated 20-minute exercise routine walk - which actually took over an hour
More Mongolian cross country driving brings us to tonight's campsite. In a grassy valley not far from a couple of ger camps just off the road. The light failed us and this is where we ended up. A clear sky is spoiled by a bright moon so no night sky photos tonight. We are woken by a very strange sensation of the van being moved from side to side gently but powerfully. Can't hide behind the curtains so I peer out and there is nothing to see apart from the pale moonlit hills and grasslands. Oh, and something big and dark leaning against the door. If fact lots of things now that my eyes are getting accustomed to the light. Cows! Relieved at the sight I throw open the sliding door and jump out waving my arms and shouting to make them move away. Limited success! They don’t go far and head back for some reason. I have to get out of bed again later and shoo them off again. Eventually, they drift off and all is quiet again. Wonder why they kept bumping the van. We will never know.
We eventually arrive at Khorgo Terkhin Tsagaan Nuur national park where there is an extinct volcano and I climb down into it. A little bit exciting even though it's extinct it still feels a little intimidating. When I get to the bottom about half an hour later I see that all the bottom of the crater is covered with piled up rocks. Thousands of other people must have been down here. There are bits of ribbon, wood and countless low-value paper money offerings on the stone piles, which are Buddhist offerings.
View from the top of the volcano
View from the bottom of the Volcano - spot the money offerings
We drive back out of the car park, which is so rocky that I doubt that many cars make it this far, around the lake, up a steep hill that looks like a ski slope, down the other side and find an elevated outcropping which serves as the camp for the next 2 days. A great view of the lake, the mountains behind us and the dismal grey cold sky to the north.
Pick your route!
Tigger camped by the lake - photo courtesy of a Tigger Spotter who was across the other side of the lake. Thank you, Andrea, from Germany
More Buddhist offerings at the lake
August Bank holiday Monday and it's raining, almost felt at home!
Our next destination the hot springs where we are hoping for a shower but we got more than we bargained for on the way - but that will have to wait until next time]]>
We are now more or less half way through our China adventure, the only downside is that we don't have more time. Getting across China from north to south in one month is an awful lot of driving and certainly doesn't allow for all of the stops we would have liked. Camping is also an issue, the Chinese don't really do "Camping" they don't have campsites and there is barely a spare spot to camp anywhere, every piece of land is either covered in buildings, car parks or growing crops. We spend a lot of time camped in car parks, which is ok when you want to be the first people into an attraction but not so good on the toilet and shower front! Consequently, we did treat ourselves to a few hotel stops which is tough but we manage!
The second half of the journey also takes in the Chinese National holiday week - when apparently 750million of the 1,401,586,609 population take to the roads! We are passed Beijing which is the worst traffic spot but the roads are still busy, the silver lining is that all motorway tolls are waived which helps the budget for hotel stays!
We have a particularly fraught journey to the Terracotta Army, which involves Tigger having two little bumps with some loony Chinese drivers - this is a testing time for the navigator and pilot and proves that driving is China is a law unto itself!
The first bump was just a clip of wing mirrors but the second was contact. What happens when the irresistible force meets the immovable object? The small Chinese car bounces off of the robust German Syncro! " No. My little persistent friend, I am not letting you push in front of me. See. The road is running out so you must give way now. No? Oh well. Guess you will have learned a little street wisdom from that encounter. Bye! " But really, don't judge me too harshly. I had resisted this for days and days but this was the straw that did it sadly. Back to being calm and going with the flow again.
The number of lucky charms is increasing the further we go - think we need them!
We camp in the car park as per normal and get into the museum early, but it is still very busy. Top tip if visiting - there are three vaults to visit, it's much better to see them in reverse order so you save the best until last - vaults 2 and 3 - excavation is still ongoing and therefore don't have so many warriors on show, some of those that are displayed are still in process of being restored. Vault 1 is the biggest and has the most restored warriors and consequently the most impressive, with around 2000 warriors on display. We took binoculars in as well - odd you may think but each and every one of the warriors sports a different facial feature and expression, they really are individuals. You also get to see where the original discovery was made by a Chinese farmer digging for a well - it's amazing they were ever found as the location of the well is right in the corner of the site he only just found them!
Vault one is the largest and most impressive with nearly 2000 warriors on display
And the warriors needed their trusty steeds as well - 520 of them!
Just caught these in the morning sunlight
You can even see the detail of the hair
The next stop is one I have been looking forward to since we entered China, Pandas! Chengdu is the home of a research and breeding facility for giant Pandas. In the 70-80's, their habitat was dying out and 250 Pandas starved to death in the region. Six very sick panda's were rescued and originating from them there have been 116 births resulting in 172 little bundles of gorgeousness! Chengdu is the largest artificial breeding centre for captive pandas in the world, they use artificial insemination but have also successfully bred Pandas naturally.
The Panda's lived up to all my expectations, they were adorable and not the least bit shy, in fact, some of them were positively posing for us! When looking through our photos to select some for the blog I realised we have hundreds of Panda pics, so difficult to choose which ones to include so excuse the indulgence!!
I was a little sceptical it was going to be very zoo like , which it was to an extent but the enclosures were spacious, clean and full of fun things for the pandas to play on - however when we were there the only thing they were interested in was eating and boy do they like bamboo! They eat between 12-38kg of Bamboo a day which is also supplemented with other tasty treats such as fruit and special panda biscuits little clip of a bamboo munching Panda
There is nothing more delicious than some bamboo
I think this one was posing!
Who wouldn't love a panda?
We also go to see some baby pandas in the nursery - too cute!
Actually, what you are looking at here is a load of toys with flat batteries. The Duracell bunny has legged it down to the souvenir shop! By the time we got there all the working ones had been snapped up leaving the duds behind. So we didn't buy one.
If you have enjoyed the pictures you can read more about the Research centre here
More driving, more camping on sides of roads and car parks. John had found a firework shop on route so one evening is Firework Night! We usually stop somewhere during the day as a group for lunch, which is generally at a service station where the locals typically swarm around taking photos and asking to have their pictures taken with us - fame at last! On one particular stop, there was a group of people who insisted on doing some sort of dance routine for us in the middle of the car park with their boom box View the car park dance just for us! - never a dull moment here
A small box of fireworks to sate Johns Pyromania
Watching them, watching us!
Leshan's giant Buddha wasn't on our original itinerary, but really glad we made the effort to visit (thank you Mark and Mirijam) The giant Buddha is carved into the side of the mountain and apparently is the world's largest stone Buddha standing at 71meters high. Somebody recently pointed out to me that most Buddhist countries seem to have the biggest Buddha in the world of some sort, which is probably true! However this Buddha was impressive his head alone is 15m and each eyebrow 5.5m! His shoulders are 28m wide and his fingers 3m long each! To get from the top to bottom involves walking along and down a flight of steep and narrow stairs that zig-zag back and forth undercutting the flight above. How on earth did this get carved out by hand back in the 8th century when it was built by Chinese monks? Like all Chinese attractions the Buddha isn't cheap to go and see at 90 Yuan per ticket, but you not only get the Buddha but some beautiful temples as well. A trip well worth the visit and the ticket price.
The stairs were an attraction in themselves
We are covering a vast amount of km and the scenery is ever changing as are the roads. Take a look at this elevated road running parallel to us. The weird thing is that this is the road we are on and we will end up there very shortly. To understand what is going on look at the next picture.
This a snapshot of our GPS. The road runs along beside the mountain then goes into it spiralling up (or down depending on which way you are going of course) and exiting just above itself. I guess this is because there is not enough room in the valley to climb high enough at an acceptable gradient. What a fantastic feat of engineering. I thought the app had a virus or a glitch!
Our convoy is to be split up in the next few days as Elton has developed a problem and parts have to be ordered from Germany. Voyager One stays with Spring and Elton, which makes Cupcake, Mothership and Tigger a convoy of three. We are heading for Lugu Lake which is a beautiful drive but all on National roads and slow due to the increased traffic. We are hoping to camp by the lake for a couple of days and get some respite from all the driving. We arrive at the lake too late to find a proper camp spot so we end up in a lay-by (one up from a car park) for the night, hoping for better things in the morning. The national holiday has made everywhere mad busy and Lugu lake isn't the camping idyll we had hoped for. Cupcake and Tigger are able to go slightly off road a bit away from the lake and up the mountain and find a spot in the woods to camp but Mothership hasn't got our off-road capabilities (even if it does have a sitting room, shower, toilet and kitchen - no not jealous, much!) and has to find an alternative camp so we arrange to meet the following day.
Lugu Lake from the shore
And from our campsite spot
Dub Camp at Lugu Lake
Although we are now only 3 vehicles we need to stick to the itinerary so we can meet with the others once Elton is fixed. We keep in touch with Spring by phone and she contacts us every night to make sure all is ok. Our next destination is Leijing but unfortunately, the road we need to take is closed so we have to take the scenic route. What was supposed to be a leisurely 4hr drive turns into more than 8hrs on mountain roads. The mountain drive is beautiful though and takes us through rural China, 51% of the population live in rural areas and despite having unparalleled economic growth in recent years we are able to see the huge gap between the impoverished villages and the booming cities Here is a little clip we took from the car as we passed through one of the villages
Woman from the Yi Tribe - Ethnic group in China
Drive along the mountain road
We arrive in Lijiang exhausted just as it is getting dark, one of our main objectives for getting to Leijing that evening is that we have a hotel booked! And what a wonderful hotel it is, situated right in the old town with the comfiest beds ever, I'm not sure if we will ever leave!
Lijiang is an ancient town in the Yunnan Province and another Unesco world heritage site. Many of the old town buildings have been restored, there are two small rivers running through the town amongst winding cobbled streets making it very pretty. Yes, it is touristy, (mostly Chinese tourists) but it is still a very attractive city and so colourful! It was busy as well but if didn't seem to matter, either that or we are getting used to the Chinese way of life. While wandering around the bustling streets we come across some more random dancing - boy the Chinese just love to dance, never happier than when dancing! video clip here
All in all a lovely place to spend a couple of nights recovering from some mammoth drives.
Need a towel?
Lots of flowers and chilli peppers.
Even the food was pretty!
Black Dragon Pool is a large park and lake situated on the edge of the old town, there is an entry fee but the park is very pretty featuring temples, pavilions and pagodas, and well, very Chinese! not a bad way to spend an afternoon
Revived after our two days in the hotel we get back on the road, destination Tiger Leaping Gorge. Another long days drive and arrive at the gorge late afternoon. The Gorge is impressive but the weather isn't so good and finding somewhere to camp for three vehicles isn't easy. We eventually find another lay-by and camp the night, the following day we had planned to go for a hike, but it's miserable and raining so we turn around and head back out - we do stop at the tourist look-out point and hike down (and back up!) what seems like hundreds of steps to get close to the raging river
Could be worse places to spend the night! Lay-by camp
Camp veiw of the gorge
According to legend, a tiger once leapt across the gorge using the stone in the middle of the river as a stopping point, also the river really is raging and very noisy, and supposed to sound like a tigers roar - hence Tiger Leaping Gorge!
We have an extra day in hand as Spring always builds a spare day into the Itinerary for emergencies - we decide to head to Dali lake in the hope of the ever elusive good camp spot - and this time we find it, right by the lake. But the weather isn't on our side so our day of R&R is spent in the van watching DVDs and generally doing nothing. Actually, this is fine as we didn't realise how tired we were and a day doing nothing turns out to be a bit of a treat, even adventurers need a day off!
Trusty Ted gazing over Dali lake
And there were some great views along the way
Our China adventure is at an end - Impressions of China? It's been great, we have enjoyed the country, the culture and the people, our only regret is not having longer and maybe having to stick to a rigid itinerary. It would have been nice to be able to go where the fancy took us but it was still an adventure. China also isn't as cheap as you might imagine, most sightseeing attractions had an entrance fee of between 90-120 Yuan (£10-15ish) And motorway tolls were the steepest we have come across since leaving Europe.
We were especially impressed with the friendliness of the people. We had heard so many stories of how unfriendly the Chinese were but this wasn't our experience at all. We weren't impressed with the spitting, done by all and sundry, old men, young men, old women (especially!) and young girls, it's a national pastime! Another national pastime appears to be posing for photos including when you are taking a selfie!
Food has been amazing from high-end restaurants (a treat in Pingyao) to street food, mostly it was all wonderful, however, some things on the menu were a little too adventurous even for us!
Yummy street food
And some not so yummy food!
Travelling with other Overlanders was a fun experience, swapping stories, sharing meals, and helping each other out when needed all added to the overall journey. All of the vehicles had minor mechanical/technical problems (or in Elton's case not so minor!) so it was great for us all to have help with the fixes. So new friends as well as adventures. Spring was a great guide and if anyone is thinking of a tour through China we would highly recommend her - she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, and be sure to send her our love
Four legs are better than two! (unless you are forking out for Jimmy Choo shoes!)
And last but not least China wins the amusing sign competition - so far! So we will leave you with these to chuckle over.
Next stop Laos and some volunteering work
Hmm! might give this one a miss
Your guess is as good as mine!
Seems London has moved since we have been away, and I think Dublin has a real problem!]]>
China is an exciting and different part of our journey as we will be travelling with other overlanders in a convoy!.
You are not allowed to travel through China without a Chinese guide with you which makes the trip an expensive one. To help cut down on the expense, most overlanders team up with others to help share the costs, and we hope the fun! We contacted a guide called Mrs Spring around January 2015 to find out if she had a group crossing at the time we wanted to go and she did - woo hoo! September 14th, 2015 was our meeting date at the China/Mongolia border of Erenhot - back in January we could barely imagine we would get this far, it all seemed like some fantastical dream!
Our group consists of three German vehicles and one Austrian ( our Austrian companions Klaus and Andrea who we met in Russia) The famous John Cleese as Basil Fawlty quote was discussed in private and we agreed that it should not be used, but that sound advice was ignored by my husband – at an entirely appropriate humorous juncture I would like to add! - however, all was well!
So now we have a convoy! We are all given walkie talkies - which is great fun! So if we have to have walkie talkies then we must have nick-names…
Vehicle one - a huge motor home - 8 tons and 8 metres , - this belongs to Peter and Katerina and their two children and dog - Lisa - Now named the Mothership
Vehicle two - a VW LT 45, owned by Pigu - Named eLTon
Vehicle three - another VW LT 45 owners Marc and Mirijam and Diago the dog - given name Cupcake because of its white high top over maroon body
Vehicle four - the Chrysler Voyager - nickname "Voyager one" belonging to Klaus and Andrea
Vehicle five - the fabulous Tigger!
For the actual border crossing, we also met with another German couple who are Professional adventurers - they are currently attempting a completely unsupported electric bike overland journey across Mongolia and China with their huge dog. Check out their blog at www.denis-katzer.de
We meet “Spring” our guide on the Chinese side and she helps us through the paperwork that needs to be done. We then have to leave our cars overnight at customs until the following morning so we head off to spend the night in Erenhot and our first real introduction to China
Wow - after the remoteness and sleepiness of Mongolia just about all of our senses are woken up with a huge bang! It’s noisy. It’s busy. It’s bright with flashy lights and the food - oh the food is wonderful! Spring takes us to a restaurant and orders for us all. There is a revolving table and we all share - we have to cook the meat in our own little pots of boiling soup we are given and we are all stuffed but happy and the end of the meal - let the adventure begin!
The following day we collect the cars and head off to the police station for the drives to collect their Chinese driver's licences and a number plate for Tigger - The local police enforcement officer who has to issue these is a bit of a jobsworth. Apparently to complete the paperwork we have to show the VIN number. On new vehicles, it is on the dash and visible through the windscreen but on ours and the other older VW's it is still stamped onto a metal plate and riveted somewhere on the vehicle. For us, it's inside the door frame. This does not compute with madame plod and she nearly has a meltdown. But luckily for us, she lets it go as there are 3 of us with the same situation and she probably wants to go home sometime today!
Chinese Driving Licence - no test required!
Eventually we are off - because the whole driving licence thing takes longer than expected we don't get as far as we would have liked on our first day - however after visiting some model dinosaurs on the site of a fossil find, we chance upon a camp spot big enough for all of us and we settle down to get to know each other around a campfire. (The fire log that I made in from a fallen tree in a forest in the Alti region of Kazakhstan just before entering into Russia)
More than a couple of old dinosaurs there!
Log fire made from a log we found at a camp stop in Kazakhstan
We are heading for Beijing and to see the Great wall on route. As we get closer to Beijing the smog gets worse and worse with everything in the distance looking very hazy, this doesn't bode well for our visit to the wall. We camp outside the visitors entrance so we will be the first customers in the morning, a bit of an odd campsite but we put our vehicles in a circle and Spring can put her tent in the middle and it works. (yee-haa! Just like the wild west! ) We are woken in the night by a huge thunderstorm lots and lots of thunder and lightning and lashing rain - poor Spring in her tent! When we wake in the morning it is bright blue sky and not a bit of smog in sight - how lucky are we?!
The wall in the smog
Much better today
And we are the only ones here!
And some pretty amazing views as well
Next stop Beijing. It’s as mad and busy as you would imagine with a population of now exceeding 21 million. Driving is interesting , to say the least, and we all have a steep learning curve to climb. It seems that the mindset for driving in China is…’overtake and push in whenever you feel like it and someone will let you in’. As a western driver, this is very difficult to accept but the lid has to be kept on the road rage pot and try and find the natural flow. No good. There is no natural flow! These guys just don’t know the first thing about road safety and all common sense has been removed. I think it is probably due to the relatively short period of time that they have been driving and there are most likely a huge percentage of first-time novice drivers. We only have a couple of days and there is so much to fit in - we manage to visit the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, some downtown shopping, the Chinese Opera and sample the Beijing Duck meal - In fact food featured quite a lot in Beijing and not all of it good! It was a whirlwind visit but an enjoyable one all the same
Everywhere is busy,busy,busy!
One of many huge squares in the Forbidden City
Beijing food market street
Some of the yummy delights! - And the legs were still moving!!!
but they did have dead ones as well
Your guess is as good as ours!
These guys are practising writing ancient Chinese with huge brushes and water
This might say John or Suzane or possibly neither!
The Summer Palace was lovely - where the Emperor used to take his Concubines for the summer, not all 20,000 though!
it was so, well Chinese!
Our dragon boat for the trip across the lake
And time for the Opera
Not quite the same as European Opera Have a listen here
John decided after all the sightseeing he had earned himself a massage at the hotel but it didn't look anywhere near luxurious enough for me, I left him to it.
Well, here’s the low down of my first Chinese massage…. It was a little basic. Not seedy exactly but, well, it was not the spa experience we have usually gone for. A glass fronted shop unit with a big curtain that is drawn over when I enter to premises. The price menu A board is brought in and the door is closed and locked. Just as well. Don’t want anyone else walking in and spoiling my peace and quiet time. As massages go, it's ok. Half an hour on my front then turn over for the front half. After leg 2, a very light touch where it’s not supposed to be makes me look up and I have a face in my field of vision whispering in my ear “ you want some more?”!! When “ more” is explained to me I have to press home my negative answer several times with the only explanation I could think of.. “ I’m married!” and this seems to work. Phew. Not the relaxing end to a massage that I was hoping for but I have to admit, It was funny. We can’t use the expression “more” without a giggle now.
The others in our group had chosen to camp in a public park around 40mins from the city centre - for those of you that know me given the choice of hotel in a city or a park - well there is no choice! (I have known you a long time and remember when you were happy in a park, car park or…oh dear, I think we are at cross-purposes!) I don't mind wild camping in the "wild" but camping in Tigger without a toilet in a public park was not what we wanted to do. We plan to meet with the others at our next destination , however as we drive out of the city we spot the Mothership, who would have thought , so we are a small convoy again.
Next stop Yungang Grotto. We don't get there until quite late and it’s been a full on days driving and everyone is tired - we camp just behind the entrance to the grottos where it is very quiet and peaceful - well that is until around 5am when we are woken by the Chinese going through their early morning exercise regime. One of the games they are playing involves a ball with feathers on top - this gets kicked from one person to the next a bit like a game of keepy-uppy with a shuttlecock - it looked quite easy so John joined in - hmmm not so easy then! (thanks babe!)
Watch a game of keepy uppy here - bit long but the first 30secs should give you a good idea
We didn't really know much about the grottos and it was a pretty miserable day cold and rainy, but we were there felt as though we should make the effort to go and see some Buddha’s in caves, albeit a bit unenthusiastically - wow what a surprise these grottos were really impressive. 252 caves and 51,000 statues from tiny to enormous, dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries - well worth the visit should you happen to be passing!
That's one big Buddha!
Our convoy makes for an interesting spectacle, or at least the Chinese seem to think so, we are constantly waved at and cars are always slowing down beside us and taking pictures - which can be a bit unnerving if they are in the process overtaking and there is oncoming traffic! We usually have a morning meeting with Spring to discuss the days driving etc - this usually consists of our group standing in front of our vehicles with Spring facing us and talking and behind her are about 20 Chinese peeps taking photos of us! Did feel a little odd but it’s amazing what you get used to!
Next stop Pingyao. Pingyao is in central Shanxi province, and roughly 715 kilometres south-west of Beijing so we can't get there in one day as its too far. Up until now we have mostly been using the motorways which although expensive at an average of £10 per motorway trip, the roads were very good, and fairly empty allowing us to make good progress. Today however we think we might try the "National Roads" which are equivalent to A roads in the UK -hmmm this was a huge mistake!
My bit again? Usual boring stuff for the driver to talk about. Yes, it is a mistake leaving the calm of the motorway in exchange for the free national roads. It’s truly bonkers here. All the lorries use these roads because of the cost of the motorways I guess, which means miles of slow or stationary lorry convoys with the impatient car drivers over and undertaking with nowhere to get back into the line. Effing idiots! Overtaking into the path of oncoming traffic with no consideration for others. Just the short term solution to getting a few metres ahead. I tried. I really did. For many hours. In fact many days. But eventually, I couldn’t let it go any longer and stopped letting people in. Actually, I have to admit I really enjoyed it. I like to think I was helping to educate the Chinese drivers and show them how dangerous and selfish it is to attempt an overtaking manoeuvre when there is no safe place available to complete the move. Ah. Wifey is now telling me not to write too much so that must be my cue to bring this mini rant to a close. Bye!
The upside to the rubbish roads was we get a bit more off the beaten track and get to camp next to part of the great wall for the night, the next morning we even manage a small run along the wall - this part of the wall hadn't been restored so it's not the easiest of runs but still amazing
Some DubLove at the great wall camp
Harder to run along than you might think
We arrive in Pingyao and decide to treat ourselves to a hotel - ahh a shower! During the Quin Dynasty Pingyao was a financial centre of China. The ancient city, whose history dates back some 2,700 years is renowned for its well-preserved city walls, is a UNESCO world heritage site and is very pretty, especially at night - our hotel is set in one of the old buildings but fortunately has modern conveniences!
Our Bedroom from the outside
And the bed - fit for an Empress!
The old town buildings are so pretty
Even the roof tops are pretty
Famous for its Vinegar - which comes in huge pots
And at night it all gets better
Pingyao was a lovely treat what with the hotel and pretty city, but time waits for no man - and neither does our China convoy so it's on the road again heading for the Terracotta Army.
This will have to wait until next time as this blog has taken soooo long to upload John is fearing for his life as I get more and more frustrated not to mention angry - ahh for decent wifi, the trials of an overlander - next blog coming soon - well as soon as good wifi turns up anyway
We felt a little lost without crew member number 3, so we headed off to the beach to drown our sorrows. The beach is actually another lake as Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country, Issy Kol is the second largest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca in South America. It's much more commercial than Song Kol more of a holiday resort where many of the Kyrgyz and Kazaks come for their summer holidays. However at more than 170km in length and up to 60km wide in places it wasn't hard to find a quiet spot to park Tigger. The water was lovely and clear and let's say rather bracing!
Spot the snow-capped mountains in the background
Camp Issy Kol
Apparently if you burn animal dung it keeps the mozzies away - we didn't know this at this point!
We had a few days to kill as we had booked ourselves onto a 4-day horse trek (yes 4days!!) on the south side of the lake and wasn't due there for another week. We decided to drive around the lake north to south stopping along the way. The mountains surrounding Issy Kol are stunningly beautiful and after a few days of beach (and a few billion mozzies) we opt for a change of scenery and drive into the mountains
Drive up to the Karakol Valley
It's so so pretty just like the French Alps but prettier and much less crowded. The wildflowers are amazing and I can't believe how many of these I have growing in our garden at home and here they are growing up a Kyrgyzstan mountain!
The mountains really were alive with colour
Jeti Oguz Valley
We camp here, nestled in amongst the trees just of the hiking path for a couple of days. Our neighbours are a herd of nursing mares and their foals in the morning and then cows descending for the evening milking. One cow herder wanders past on foot and nods disinterestedly. In the morning I decide to have a field shower as there is no one around, or likely to be, so I thought! Just got my pants on in time as 3 disapproving hikers suddenly appear around the trees straight into our camp. Ooops. Just goes to show, you are never truly alone here for very long
Our second campsite is in a national park where we there is a huge field set aside for camping ( it's not a field set aside for camping! It’s the countryside in the mountains!) mostly for hikers and cyclists, there are lots of yurts for sleeping in but also selling food and offering horse rides up to a small waterfall - it feels like we are at a festival! We park Tigger a little way from the main area and enjoying watching the world go by, we give the horse rides a miss as we think we are going to have enough of horse riding on our 4-day trek (4 days!!!)
Could be Glastonbury!!
Mountain camp two
Our morning visitors
even in the heat the walks are stunning
And the views worth the hike in the searing heat
The day finally arrives when we head off to the ranch for our horse riding adventure, we are to spend four days and three nights up the mountain on horseback. We are a little apprehensive , we only really wanted a two-day trip as we thought that was as much as our butts would manage, and as previously mentioned its been a while since we have ridden properly -but it was four days or nothing so best we get on with it!
Last time we did more than a few hours in the saddle I had my padded cycling shorts. Unfortunately, I don’t have them on this journey but fortunately, my arse is now naturally padded judging by the photos! Hmmph. Why is life bitter sweet?
There were four of us riding plus our two guides Canat and Respet who both spoke a little English. Our two companions were Markus and Nicholi two lads from Denmark who were in Kyrgyzstan for a holiday, it was their first time on a horse, I was beginning to feel sorry for the guides and the horses. 4 novices to look after!
Our Danish companions Nikkoli and Markus - Who were master horsemen after the four-day trek!
Cowboy John - who thinks he is in some John Wayne Movie!
Me and my lovely horse - never could pronounce his name so he was just "boy"
The yellow tent is the dining and entertainment tent
The bathroom facilities were a bit basic!
Canet preparing dinner and it was always yummy
Picnic stops were a welcome rest for our poor butts
There were rivers to cross
And some were really deep!
We climbed until we found snow
this is the pass at 3900m!
herds of horses everywhere
Party time with the shepherds
And before we know it, it's our last picnic! what a fabulous experience it has been
The ride was outstanding and even more so because you just wouldn’t be able to get away with the route we took here if it was in the UK or the US. Up steep single tracks strewn with boulders, squeezing through trees and thorn bushes, over and through rocky streams and occasionally belly deep in rivers when the paths were impassable. No hard hats of course. But wow! What a rush and an adventure. This really feels like pioneering trekking to us even though we know the guides do this all the time. Just heading off into the wilderness with only the resources we are carrying to sustain us and water from the streams. The scenery is mind blowing. One time, vast plains of grassland, next rugged mountain passes and then, surrounded by a crown of jagged snow peaked mountains. It's got to be one of the 100 things to do in your lifetime in my books. We have been exceptionally fortunate with the weather though. As we all know and are often reminded, the conditions here can change at the drop of a felt hat but luckily for us, Respet kept his on his head and we enjoyed clear blue skies all through our 4 days. Suzanne's mount is a stallion and whenever we encounter a herd of wild horses he gets very frisky and difficult and this is a worry. But she manages to keep him on a short reign and all is well. We are not sorry to see the transporter at the end of day 4, waiting to take us back to the house where we will spend our last night with these lovely people who gave us a memory to treasure forever
Now, back in the van to head on back to Bishkek as my darling wife has decided that the only way to be sure we get our China visas sorted is for her to go back to the UK to see her friends and Emily and James oh, and go to the Chinese embassy!! Well, that’s ok by me as I will have a couple of days at the Asia Mountains Hotel, catch up with work emails, watch some action and sci-fi movies, swim in the pool and get a massage from the archetypal Russian lady shotputter who tried her best to remove my skin. Ouch! But she is another story best not told here! ( nothing rude, just….wierd ).
Which apparently includes sticking a finger in his belly button - that is disgusting!
Then off to the lake and a bit of sunbathing. I end up on a wild beach up the east end of the north coast and park up right on the sand 10m from the water. Perfect. 4 days of sun, swimming listening to my iPod and….. being constantly approached by the hoards of curious locals. Of course, they are all lovely and friendly. But after 2 days of being the main attraction, I hit upon the brainwave of just locking the van and putting my chair and table right on the waters edge then no one knew I was associated with Tigger and I had some peace and quiet. The last night I had a bit of trouble with 7 extremely drunk guys who wanted something from me at 2.30am. Grrrr!!! They understood a raised fist and “f##k off” and moved away but I wasn’t going to hang around now so packed up and calmly slipped off into the night, stalling a couple of times in the deep sand and hoping they weren’t going to come after me J. Back to Bishkek for 2 nights to await Suzanne's return with the visas
And what a lovely time I have seeing all my lovely friends
Lots of eating lovely food and drinking lovely wine with lovely people
being very spoilt by my hosts who put up with me for the week
And spending time with my lovely Charlie and friends
spending time in my favourite city with my favourite people
The week flew past and it was wonderful to see all my lovely friends and family and I did get the visas! However, it was also good to have Tigger and our adventure to go back to. but my friend's refill has done me the world of good
We are going to hang around in Kyrgyzstan to minimise the time we need to spend in Kazakhstan as we are now concerned about the aggro with police that other travellers are posting so we are going to lake Toktogul for a few days. This turns out to be a remote reservoir accessed by dirt track with no proper beaches as such, just muddy banks but it absolutely beautiful. Glassy smooth water with the mountains and clouds mirrored on its surface. The water is warm and fresh, crystal clear and the best swim we have had yet.
Worth coming back for I think!
After a couple of nights here its back to Bishkek via a 150km washboard dirt track. Wonderful scenery again with scree falls spilling down over half the road in places, pushing us ever closer to the edge and the river and the crumbling cliff edges. Nothing new there then! It is torture driving on this sort of road. Our suspension is very hard and everything is shaking and rattling including our brains inside our heads so when we get the usually rutted potholed tarmac back again it’s a sheer delight. Imagine the pleasure of finally re-joining the highway a few hundred km later on.
Another couple of days in Bishkek then off to the dreaded Kazakhstan. We have to go to Bishkek and back to our favourite hotel as we need to get laundry done and we might as well use the pool while we are there, well it would be rude not to
Goodbye Kyrgyzstan you have been amazing, we don't really want to leave but adventures await - we will be back
Capital - Bishkek
Area 198,500sq Mtrs
Currency - Som
Languages - Kyrgyz and Russian
Your mission, should you choose to accept it..is to read on!
As we have been rather busy the blog is a little behind so I'm writing this 6 weeks into our trip to Kyrgyzstan. So firstly all I will say is don't come here it's an awful, dreadful place so keep well away!
Well, that's the story we want everyone to know - so we can keep all for ourselves! It is the most unspoilt, beautiful country on our trip so far, the people are so friendly and hospitable and it's incredibly cheap. Lots and lots of outdoor activities much like the alps in the summer, (and skiing in the winter!) but more beautiful, less busy and much, much cheaper. We can't understand why there aren't more tourists, probably because it is a "Stan"!
Point of order author. There are quite a lot of tourists here but they are mostly from Kazhakstan. They too are also very friendly and equally keen for us to like their country as are the Kyrgs. :-)
It is the only "Stan" you can visit free for 60 days and it is very accessible with major airlines flying to Bishkek regularly and cheaply - Think I might need a job with the Kyrgyz tourist board! Come here now people, it's going to change once the secret is out .
Back to our trip, we arrived in Kyrgyzstan at the end of June, after our wonderful but stifling time in Uz. There we had been restricted to staying in hotels so we were all looking forward to getting back to Tigger and freedom. We were also excited about being able to cook for ourselves again, we haven't written much about food in the blog mostly because there hasn't been a lot to write about, Central Asia is certainly not known for its food unless you are a big fan of boiled mutton that is!
I love meat but I have to say that central asia has found a way to knacker it good and proper. Not much pork around for obvious religious reasons so that leaves lamb, chicken, beef ( at least thats what I think it was ) goat, yak and horse. Boil for at least 24 hours and serve in a thin watery stock. Mmmmmm.
For our first night back on the road we find some rolling hills and tuck Tigger away out of the sight of the road for the night. A passing horseman gives us a wave as we are setting up camp - ahh its nice to be home! And even better after a rummage around in the food cupboard we find a real treat,
Spanish omelette and beans for tea - nothing like the taste of home. Or to quote James "That hits the spot"
I have to laugh a little to myself when “we” drive or move about in the van because as far as I can recall the nearest that the author has been to getting behind the wheel is when she is sitting in the back!
We head off to a place called Arslanbob (snigger like a schoolboy) which is home to the world's largest walnut grove. We have with us only a small amount of money which we changed at the border, this is a shame as we could have made more of our time here, you can cycle, horse ride, and hike the area and all can be arranged by the local CBT (community-based tourism) office ( as opposed to cognitive behavioural therapy office!)
CBT is a great organisation which allows tourism to directly benefit the local community and arranges homestays, yurt stays and activities all at affordable prices and has offices all over the country.
We decided to go for a hike on our own to the local waterfall which, to be honest is a bit underwhelming but the surrounding scenery is beautiful and little do we know but just a taste of what is to come. We get hopelessly lost but have enjoyed our walk anyway and met lots of Kyrgyz people who unlike the Uzbeks love having their photos taken
"Take our photo Meester"
Central Asia? could be the Alps!
We need to get some money, Arslanbob doesn't have a bank, nowhere takes credit cards so we need to head off to a bigger town, so unfortunately cut short our visit and head off in search of an ATM. On route to the next town, we spy some pools with people swimming - its hot and we are feeling bothered so we decided to stop and go for a swim. There are a number of what seem like pits and we have to pay 20som each to use them - which is a whopping 20p each. Bliss after the hot van and while we are in the water James is chatted to by a lady who insists on giving him/us a watermelon.
It was actually better than it looks - slightly!
Everyone wants to talk to us and practice their English - which mostly is pretty limited to "Hello", "Where are you from" and "My name is ......" This we are to find out is pretty universal across the country, everything else is done via charades. We do however meet one lady who is an English teacher and invites us back to her home in Jalal-Abad for something to eat and help us find an ATM
We spend the evening with Aligul and her family. It is truly humbling to see how little these people have and yet how much they want to share. We sleep in Tigger outside her house, which is on the hillside overlooking the city, although she would have been very happy for us to have stayed in the house, but we didn't want to turf anyone out of their beds! As well as a teacher she is an artist and very proud co-owner of a local gallery where she teaches local children to speak English as well as teaching painting. We are taken to see the gallery the following day. Aligul is very proud of her achievement in establishing the gallery/school and rightly so, not only is she a teacher in a local school as well, she also has 5 children, the youngest being only 2! We are very grateful to Aligul for her hospitality and insight into her life and amazed at her achievements, resilience and optimism given her circumstances.
Supper with the family
Aligul in her gallery
John is quite excited about the next part of the journey as we are heading off on roads that are only accessible for 4x4 vehicles and only during the summer months as in the winter they are impassable due to snow. Will Tigger be up for it - his first real test? We are driving to lake Song-Kol which is Kyrgyzstan's highest lake at 3016mtrs. To say we are driving on roads is said only in the loosest of terms, steep rutted rocky tracks would be a better description, not to mention the terrifying drops off the sides of the road - no barriers here!
Yes, it's true. I was indeed looking forward to this driving part of the journey. Is that wrong? Great fun to be had to drive your 4x4 Syncro van off road. A test of man and machine. Man vs mountain. Husband vs wife! Good god woman. Take your fingernails out of the dashboard, drop a Valium and let me drive! But seriously, I do have to concentrate on the road and not glance down too often as it is quite an adrenaline rush tempered only by the absolute amazement of the whole experience. To use a much over-used expression, it is truly awesome. J
A taste of the road going up
I have since looked up our route on the most dangerous roads in the world website and the Song Kol road is in there! Especially noted for its hairpin bends - just as well I didn't see this before we left!
Don't go too close to the edge!!!!!!!
Despite this death defying drive (skilfully managed by the driver) it is probably the most beautiful drive/place on earth we have ever been. Each time we reached a summit, breathtaking views, driving through mountain valleys filled with herds of beautiful horses roaming free, nomad yurt camps nestled alongside mountain streams. We take our time to reach the lake partly because we couldn't rush if we wanted to due to the roads and secondly it is so stunningly beautiful we want to savour the journey.
We have two amazing wild campsites en route which I'm pretty sure are going to be up there in our top ten campsites for our trip. We make use of our camp shower and feel totally back to nature!
Campsite number one
Campsite number 2 ( can you see tigger? )
While driving along there are lots of shepherd families and kids who love to wave and shout "hello" as they run or gallop their horses alongside the van. Children of all ages ride horses (no helmet of course) usually young boys of around 10yrs who's job it seems to be is to look after the animals. We stop to have some lunch and are soon surrounded by the local shepherd community. They aren't backwards in coming forwards and they all come along as we are eating our lunch to peer inside the van. Nobody can speak English and we don't speak Russian so all communication is done via sign language and guessing! We do understand that they love to have their photos taken, although its a bit odd that they feel as though they have to put on a serious face as soon as you pick up the camera -- nooo where are those happy faces of a second ago?!
Yes, it's really frustrating when you see the picture opportunity, get a happy and smiling permission to go ahead and then the serious face pops up! No amount of coaxing can get them to drop it either – God knows I tried!
this is Kamil and he had a lovely smile - honest!
The young lad Kamil who invited us back to the family home raced us down the hill on his poor little donkey but he looked so happy and made up that we had accepted his invite, how could you feel cross with him? I’m sure the donkeys get far harder tasks than a quick canter home. Top tip out here. Hospitality is very serious. You have to accept everything offered to you but if you don’t like it, don’t neck it or you get more!
We stop to chat with some more locals and are invited back for Chai with the family, it is a wonderful experience, the whole family want to chat/charades with us - a couple of the kids have a smattering of English and we are able to communicate, who needs to speak the same language, laughter seems to be the order of the day. We are also treated to our first taste of horse milk - Yes HORSE milk - a large bucket is brought out and the milk is laddled into cups. It's an interesting taste, to say the least! They have so many cows not really sure what the attraction of the horse milk is other than they ferment some of it so it's alcoholic! The stuff we had wasn't alcoholic and tasted foul but we smiled and said lovely. John made the mistake of finishing his cup and it was promptly filled back up again! Wisely I didn't finish mine and it was returned to the communal bucket for use later on. These were such lovely genuine people, they didn't expect anything from us other than to enjoy our company, we did give the kids a few gifts we had but they would have been happy with just a wave and a Spacebo (Thankyou)
Horse milk yummy - hmmm!
So so friendly
And so sweet!
Song Kol is too cold for habitation during the winter and only really accessible from June until September, therefore, it is not commercial in any way whatsoever, there are no shops, no petrol stations nothing. Absolutely nothing man made that is permanent - just the nomad yurts and animals grazing - herds of horses, cows and goats are in the majority here . As we approach the lake we see the snow-capped mountains in the distance surrounding the lake and I feel overwhelmed with emotion. It is so, so beautiful and unspoilt it makes me cry! - obviously, the rest of the crew think I have lost the plot, as I blubber away "it's so beautiful" I'm putting it down to altitude!!
I’m putting it down to the effect of alcohol in high altitude or menopause. Actually, why is it called the menopause? Shouldn’t it be called the menostop?
Pictures really don't do it justice
Not quite warm enough for a swim and rather a lot of Mozzies next to the lake
We have read in the all knowing Lonely Planet that there are yurts which you can stay in beside the lake, you just need to look for groups of more than 3. We stop at the first big group we see. Yes they can put us up, breakfast and evening meal included 1000som per person (£10)
With a bit of luck they will give you enough fuel to burn on the stove so you can keep warm. Ours, unfortunately, didn’t and when it burned out about midnight it got really cold.
We head off for a walk after a substantial lunch of lamb stew (veggie for James) but before we go we ask in charade like manner if we can do any horse riding - we understand that our host will sort something out and we head off to the hills
A note for all you vegetarians out there. Lamb stew with the lamb taken out counts as vegetarian here.
Spot our Yurt camp near the lake
As we are wandering back from our walk we are approached by two young lads holding on to three horses, they pass the horses over and wander off, so we are going horse riding unaccompanied it would seem - please also note last time we went riding my lovely husband ended up on the floor and James has barely ridden!!!!!!!!!! So off we go rather cautiously, they seem to stop when we want them to which in my opinion is the most important factor and we even manage to finish on a little canter!
Excuse me – This was in Bali. I ended up on the floor because my kamikaze horse was going to run straight into a boat on the beach, or as I suspect even worse, attempt jump it with me on board. So I gracefully baled out. That’s my account of the situation and I'm sticking to it!
James felt quite happy
This is my slightly nervous face in case you were wondering!
When we get back to Yurt camp central a group of French tourists have joined us and it would seem that some traditional horse games have been arranged for them and we are also invited to watch. The games are due to start in around 30mins so we rest in our yurt after our horse adventure. Just before we are about to leave we hear what sounds like a baby crying. It sounds terrible. Surely the French people didn't bring with them a baby to the middle of nowhere?? We go outside and the crying is getting worse, we notice a huddle of men around something that is thrashing around and then I remember something I have read in the all knowing Lonely Planet, horse games involve the slaughter of a goat as the torso is required to "play" the games with. As I remember this and start to tell John and James, all of a sudden it becomes very quiet, no more crying, the deed has been done. James refuses to watch the games and John isn't too sure either, my feeling is, it's traditional and it's dead now so might as well see what the poor goat gave up its life for!
Can you spot Mr Goat?
They are riding pretty fast - how come they don't fall off?!
When Suzanne told us that she had heard about how a goat's head was used to play the games it made me quite angry. Normally I go with the flow on things local, especially customs and traditions, but I considered this to be unnecessarily barbaric so I too decided to boycott the display and prepared to settle down to listen to some iPod shame. Suzanne came back in to tell us it was the goats headless carcase and that seemed strangely less horrific and I relented and went to have a look. I’m glad that I did because after witnessing the show I get it. It’s a development of huntsman's horse riding skills. You have to be there and witness it yourself before it makes sense so I won't try to justify it now. And what a fantastic photo opportunity to see these young men show off their horse skills. Picking up objects like paper money from the ground whilst zooming past at full gallop hanging almost upside down from the saddle with only one foot in the stirrups. Respect! Well, at least Billy gets used for dinner later so it's not done just for the sport, the sport being a by-product of the nomad way of life.
Perfect end to a perfect day
After our Song kol adventure, we head to Bishkek the Capital to say goodbye to crew member number 3 and put him on a flight back to the UK - he has been with us for nearly 6wks and he thinks that's long enough with his parents! Which is fine - Still sad to see him go though. We allow ourselves a couple of nights in a hotel with a pool just as a treat you understand before we bid him goodbye and continue with the next instalment of the adventure.]]>
Warning! Not our usual chatty, flippant travel tales. A bit more serious but stick with it and learn about the lovely people of Laos and their lives.
After leaving China through the ornate border gate and the commerce of the Chinese trading town of Erenhot the difference of Laos is striking. This often is the case when crossing between rich and poor countries as it was leaving Mongolia into China. It’s quite relaxed and the officials don’t seems much bothered with us. There are no customs, or if there is then we didn’t see it so we gingerly edge our way into Laos looking where to go next. There is the ATM. Ah. That’s nice. We are millionaires again! About 12,000Kip to the pound.
The roads are not so good in Laos. Mostly just very bumpy so we have to keep the speed down and progress is a little slow but this is not a bad thing really. It gives the driver chance to look around and get to see the countryside instead of just looking at a blur through the windows. Laos is extremely rural with little villages of timber and tin lining the road in little communities. People, animals and children wander apparently carefree along the roadside outside their houses and we wonder at the mortality rate. Why is it that the poorer communities we see, seem to be the smiliest?
Hello Laos - we like you already
Rice drying outside the houses
Typical Laos houses lining the road
Into Luang Prabang. Don’t like it! There are so many Western tourists here and mostly backpackers. It somehow dilutes the magical feeling of being one of a rare breed ( glorified tourists ourselves of course ) but nonetheless it’s a little bit of a shock. It is a beautiful town though and especially at night when the central tourist area comes to life and the grime is shrouded from sight by the shadows. We stay in a centrally located hotel just off the night market road and are allowed to park Tigger in the monastery next door. The side streets here are only just wide enough for us, but the height of overhead cables and stall umbrellas is our limiting factor. We get a little stuck a couple of times until we learn our lesson and just stick to the main roads from now on. On the hotel street there is the morning market which starts at about 5.00am every day so we get up to sample this and are rewarded with a real market offering, food (live and otherwise fish, poultry and amphibian) and as a bonus we see the monks doing the rounds picking up their daily food offerings from the faithful. There is lots going on here in LP. Restaurants are many and there are quite a lot of top notch French and fusion eateries to choose from. It’s a little bit more expensive here but that’s to be expected as it is the main tourist destination in Laos. We are warming to the place.
They also have bread, real bread! Due to the French influence in Laos, they have the most wonderful crusty French Baguettes, this is the first decent bread we have had since Europe - Luang Prabang seems much better all of a sudden!
The morning market is for the locals, vibrant and colourful - no tourist tat here
Not always easy to identify all the veggies- answers on a postcard as to what the logs are bottom right!
The reward for getting up early - to see the monks collecting alms
We have a meeting with the NGO, a German organisation called Bamboo School and get our instructions and introduction. When I say we, I mean Suzanne as it is a hospital appointment but I am promised some construction work in another village near to our posting so I’m looking forward to that. We get a food allowance for one person, and a room in a guest house. I’m not officially appointed so nothing for me. Boo hoo! The next few days we hang around town, visit a couple of waterfalls about 20 km outside the town and enjoy the good food (and wine they have wonderful wine here as well!)
Some cooling off required at the waterfalls
Next, off to the village of Nong Khiaw for Suzanne’s post. We have a new room that has been added between the stilts of the guest house building and it has a largish balcony which we convert into our outside kitchen, lounge and sitting area. The view is limited but beautiful. Forested mountains the other side of the river, bungalows lining the riverside just beside us, banana and mango trees loaded with ripening fruit in the garden which, if you get up out of your chair, we are allowed to pick and eat. But to be honest, that’s such an effort we just sit back until the landlord picks them and gives some to us! Seriously, it is so relaxing here that there is a very real risk that you may fall over backwards as it is so laid back!
Buntings up - that must mean we are setting up home!
Nong Khiaw is really two villages either side of the river Nam Ou. This river is rising rapidly thanks to the development of 7 Chinese dams which are going to generate electricity soon but at the expense of many river villages that will be flooded as the river level rises. This is predominantly a river and mountain environment and almost no road system to join the numerous settlements that exist scattered along the river and up in the mountains. I didn’t know that rice also grows on the side of mountains in fields not dissimilar to wheat in the west. However, the farming method is not the best for the land as the farmers mostly strip the rice from the plant by hand and then burn the fields. This is also how they open up new fields by destroying the jungle with fire. Can’t blame them though. They are lucky if they are food sufficient. They have no surplus cash to buy equipment or invest in the land. They are continually in fear of digging up unexploded ordinance especially in new land. What else can they do? When you have seen a typical Laos / Mong village you will understand. No electricity. One water standpipe in the middle of the village shared by all, for all purposes.
The river Nam Ou as seen from the bridge in Nong Khiaw
So this is home for 6 weeks. Tigger is parked next to the main guest house family building and I can carry out various minor repairs and mods but I can’t find a new intercooler anywhere so that will have to wait until Bangkok. Hope I can keep it going until then. The local food is a bit samey here and not as varied or good quality as China but it is certainly fresh. Be prepared to wait at least an hour even for a papaya salad. After you order the lady usually jumps on her moped to go and buy the ingredients! Seems like most restaurants work like this. One cook/waiter and one meal at a time. Top tip…both order the same meal then you might get served at the same time. Only might though, no guarantee. You may even get a different meal altogether and to be honest, it's just too much hassle to send it back and wait another hour - hey ho this is laid back Laos!
Our original plan had been only to stay in Laos a couple of weeks before moving on to Thailand. Mirjam, a German Doctor and one of our fellow travellers through China, told us about the volunteering job and I applied through a website called Workaway https://www.workaway.info. After a few emails and exchanging of CVs, I found myself employed for six weeks! It felt a bit strange, the thought of working somewhere again after 8mths of doing nothing, having to get up and be somewhere 5 days a week like a "normal" person. Actually, I was quite looking forward to it and realised I had missed some sort of routine in our lives. We hadn't really planned for this in the grand scheme of things and hadn't done any research on Laos, we, therefore, had no idea how very poor and undeveloped the country is.
The Hospital in Nong Khaiw
Neither staff or patients wear shoes in the hospital!
Out of the estimated population of 6.6 million, only 32% live in urban areas. The rest of the population is scattered in mountainous, hard to reach parts of the country. For some of the patients that visited our hospital, it involved more than a 2-hour boat trip to reach us. The mountain people are barely food sufficient, consequently, malnutrition in the young and old is a common occurrence. Access to water, sanitation and healthcare are also inadequate in rural areas, the villages we visited didn't have toilets you just took yourself off into the bush, diarrhoea and dehydration were a common complaint. The main cause of mortality and morbidity are still communicable diseases, such as Malaria and the main cause of death for children under 5-year-old is lower respiratory infections. It is reported that in rural areas infant mortality is around 350 per 1000 which means 35 percent of children die before the age of one year .
Our hospital was very, very basic and had virtually no facilities. The laboratory had one blood analyser which could give a full blood count, kits for diagnosing Malaria and Dengue fever, a blood glucose monitor and some urine dipsticks, there was an Ultra Sound - but nobody was qualified or knew hot to use it!. The emergency room didn't have an ECG or Defib but did have a small supply of emergency drugs even with a lack of resources, the nurses did a great job. They were fantastic at patching up the frequent motorbike accidents and their suturing skills should have won prizes, some days everything that walked through the front door they had to deal with, without any medical back from Doctors - anything from a headache due to too much Lao-Lao (the local hooch) to dying babies.
The emergency room
Emergency room equipment
IV fluids were often administered but obviously no blood products. Regularly you would see people on the back of a motorcycle with their IV fluids hanging from a stick as they zoom along, heading off to do something more important while they had their infusion. There was a maternity unit which was supported by Save The Children, it wasn't exactly state of the art but with the help of the charity, it was fairly well equipped. The hospital itself was, more like a Doctors surgery than a hospital, although it did have an inpatient ward with four beds. Infection control is shall we say "minimal" sheets don't always get changed from one patient to the next, OPD beds don't have disposable paper and are not wiped down between patients. Paper towels for drying your hands after washing are too expensive so you just let your hands air dry. During the 6 weeks we were working, a red hand towel hung next to the sink in our OPD room, it was never washed to our knowledge.
On the ward, there weren't any curtains to separate the beds, usually, the whole family come to the ward to be with their sick relative, food isn't supplied by the hospital so the family would join the patient for dinner, it could feel like a bit of a party! Usually, people were only admitted for observation or IV administration (if you could keep them there) as anything more serious would need to be dealt with at the larger hospital in Luang Prabang, which was a 3.5hr bumpy truck ride away. We did have an ambulance although in reality all this was, was a glorified Tuk Tuk including an Oxygen bottle, nothing else.
The hospital was mainly run by nurses, there were doctors but they weren't there every day, as they were often teaching. The hospital had a very good teaching programme which taught health promotion to villagers from the more remote areas, plus each village had a birthing assistant to help mothers who could not get to the hospital in time to give birth.
One doctor had recently had a baby so used to bring him in to work with her, bouncing him on her knee as she spoke to patients. Confidentiality doesn't seem to be in the Laos dictionary, but nobody seems to mind, one patient would be being seen/examined while another patient would just wander into the room to ask a question - often there would be 4 or 5 staff/patients in the room, with at least two consultations going on at the same time . It seemed totally chaotic to us but it's just the way things are!
Cuddle Duty :) :)
So that's six people in the picture and there were two more - a usual consultation!
The use of traditional medicines and spirit healers are a big part of the Laos culture, There are lots of teas and tinctures which will cure anything and everything and of course don't cost as much as conventional drugs so are very popular.
The remote villagers will usually visit the spirit healer before coming to the hospital. On one occasion we witnessed an extremely sick 5wk old baby brought to the hospital only after the spirit doctor had spent a number of hours trying to heal her. The family arrived with the mother clutching the baby wrapped in a bundle of rags to her breast attempting to get the pale and flaccid infant to feed. The baby was daubed with black ash marks all over her head and tiny body where the spirit healer had been presumably anointing her. The baby was way past feeding and didn't even complain at our numerous attempts to insert a cannula. Our hospital was not equipped to deal with the severity of this case so she was sent in the "Ambulance" to Luang Prabang accompanied by one of our nurses, we know she survived the journey but beyond that, we don't know.
Mirijam and I were both surprised with the liberal use of medicines especially antibiotics - it seemed that everyone who came in to be seen left with a prescription with at least 5 items and one would always be an antibiotic irrelevant of what was wrong with them! A slight exaggeration maybe but they really do dish out the AB like sweets. In the West, we would have done many more diagnostic tests before making a definitive diagnosis but in our tiny hospital this wasn't an option and the patient often couldn't even afford a blood test let alone anything else. The expectation of the patient was to receive drugs when they came to the hospital and the more drugs they got the more likely they were to get better.
During our first few days there we checked the admissions book (no computers here!) to see what the most common cases were and what we would likely be dealing with, it broadly fell into three categories and I quote - "Fever", "Gastric problems" and "Muscular aches and pains" with a sprinkling of Diabetes and Hypertension thrown in for good measure. So where were all the other more serious problems? surely not everyone came in with a temperature, a tummy ache or a pulled shoulder? Of course, there were more serious problems, but they sort of fit them in under these headings. Unfortunately, nothing more is usually done about the suspected cancer or the thyroid problem or whatever else it might be because the majority of the time the patient can't afford to pay for the bus fare to the city let alone the investigations or treatment.. Some government assistance is given but not enough for these very very poor people
The staff were lovely though and did their best with what was available to them. We went in with lots of ideas of how we could change things for what we thought would be for the better but quickly realised that as a Westerner who was there for 6 weeks we were going to change very little. I totally enjoyed my experience and believe we helped support the staff but you can't change a culture in 6 weeks.
The lovely team we worked with
Being part of the community was a great part of the volunteering , our guesthouse was around 2 km from the hospital so we hired bikes to travel to and from work. We would pass the same people every day and the locals would wave and shout good morning to the crazy Westerners on their bicycles. We became great friends with our guesthouse hosts who invited us to family meals, shared BBQ's with us and invited me to a healing ceremony. We also wore the traditional Laos skirt called a Sinh to work as a sign of respect, which they loved - one of my skirts was a particular favourite with the nurses, when I wore it there was always a chorus of "beautful, beautiful" as they stroked the skirt and smiled. - so I wore that one most even if it was a bit hot!
Our traditional Sinh skirts for our uniform - although this isn't my beautiful one!
Not a bad bike ride to work every day
Overall it was a wonderful and humbling experience and made us realise how lucky we are to have been born in the West. We have so much and yet take it for granted, simple things like running water, sanitation and healthcare, we don't even think twice about them, yet here in Laos, they are a luxury . You could say they don't know any different, but surely in today's world of affluence, people should not have to live without basic needs such as food, water and healthcare - but that argument is for another day. The Laos people are happy, smiling and welcoming, and never seem to complain about what they don't have or can't afford. So I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to give something back to this tiny little Laos village even if only for a short while.
So whilst Suzanne is helping at the village hospital I have offered to help with a water supply project that the NGO is going to undertake in another small isolated village up the river. They get all of their water from a stream 1 km away on the other side of the river Ou (the river water is not good enough to use) and is piped 300m across the river to the village suspended from a steel cable. In the wet season, the river rises 8m and then the water pipe is in the river and gets damaged by passing debris so needs to be replaced and raised higher. Luckily we have a good friend in the UK who is a structural engineer and he advises us. We construct new concrete ground anchors and fabricate a steel post to support the new cable and pipe
The concrete has to be transported up the river in a small boat
The village Pump
The pump is used by the whole village for drinking, washing and laundry water
Work is completed by midday and we leave for the next village. I have been foolish and refuse to eat the local meal of fishy water and sticky rice thinking I will catch up with food later at the next place or from our own snacks. The result is I struggle later in the day suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration, needing Dioralyte! Moral of the story – don’t be a wuss and eat the local food as it keeps you going and take plenty of water, I will next time! What a berk!
John advising on some building aspects at the school
Despite this stupidity on my part, we have a fantastic trek for 4 hours solid and make the village at dusk. I thought the last place was rustic. Here we were shown to our accommodation. Several bamboo huts built 10 years ago and probably not used much since then. Each has a plastic mat to put down on the slatted floor, a very poor quality and ragged mosquito net, a moth-eaten mattress and a couple of pillows. Imagine you put this lot in your garden shed and shut the door on it for a few years. Now you sleep on it. No problem. I don’t get phased by dirt and dust or even a few creepy crawly. But man! Cockroaches the size of fag packets, spiders bigger than your hand and mouse droppings and nests in the mattress. Hell. I am too tired and weak to care. I put my head torch on the lowest setting and keep the beam pointed down on the bed area whilst I get it all set up. No way am I looking around to see what else is in there with me. Into bed. Wrap the covers and mozzie net around me so nothing can get in and I’m off to sleep. Morning sees us up early and surveying the school floor. I make my notes and recommendations to the village elder and then we are off to catch a river taxi which will be about 5 hours trekking away.
Everyone has to help with the rice harvest including the children - this little poppet is carrying a heavy bag of rice on her back/head
One of the mountain village schools - click on the link here to see the Village kids showing us their morning routine
The climbing frame at the school
Can you see the huge nails sticking out?
There is very little animal life in the Laos jungle here as it seems that the people have eaten most things over the years of hardship and nature has yet to re-balance. It is beautiful none the less. Spectacular views from the hill tops, clouds, rice fields on the impossible slopes, remnants of trees burned to make way for the rice and eventually…the river!! Mid-afternoon this far up river doesn’t seem to be a favourable time to get a boat to stop for us. We wait for hours, nearly dusk before we are rescued from the remote clearing by the river. At least we can relax now. Well, not really. It's flipping uncomfortable but its transport home and that’s all that matters. I’m glad to have been a part of this and hopefully some help. If you get the chance then grab it with both hands and do something to help others. It's immensely rewarding for both parties.
Fishing on the river
We have to go back to Luang Prabang to renew our visas and enjoy it much more on the second visit - the bright lights after the sleepy backwater of Nong Khiaw. We also treat ourselves to some luxury in a nice hotel with a pool! LP isn't cheap, probably the most expensive place to stay in the whole of Laos, but we deserve a bit of luxury for a couple of days - well that is what we convince ourselves anyway!
If you happen to be visiting LP then a few tips on where to eat are (although none of these are particularly budget!)Utopia for western boozer, but atmospheric and fun, Elephant for French fine dining, Blue Lagoon good top end fusion, Tamarind is also very good Laos food even if we did have a slightly dodgy tummy the day after going! Most of the higher end restaurants require you to book a table as they do get very busy. Bamboo Tree is also very good and apparently run an excellent cookery school as well. LP also has a curfew time of 11.30pm everything shuts (including your guesthouse!) so don't expect any late night raving here! Apparently if you want late night boozing you can go to the bowling alley - suffice to say we didn't!
After 6 weeks we are done. We decide to visit Vietnam but will do this without Tigger as its too expensive and complicated to drive in. We have agreed to leave Tigger at the guest house.
We spend a few days in Vientiane before flying to Vietnam, primarily to meet up with some members of AMEND (Association for Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Disorders) the charity we support on our travels. We spend a lovely afternoon with Kerensa, David and the adorable Eden . AMEND is a UK-registered charity, it is a patient group providing information and support services to families affected by multiple endocrine neoplasia disorders and associated endocrine tumours and syndromes. www.amend.org.uk.
We discover that David is working for the charity MAG (Mines Advisory Group), Which helps to clear landmines and unexploded ordnance around the world. From 1964 to 1973, as part of the Secret War operation conducted during the Vietnam War, the US military dropped 260 million cluster bombs – about 2.5 million tonnes of munitions – on Laos over the course of 580,000 bombing missions. This is equivalent to a planeload of bombs being unloaded every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years – nearly seven bombs for every man, woman and child living in Laos. This is more than all the bombs dropped in Europe throughout World War II, leaving Laos, a country approximately the size of the UK, with the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in history. These bombs are still being found today, and often by children, with horrifying consequences. It also prevents land being used for growing food and the building of schools as people are too scared to use the land - this helps to perpetuate the poverty in Laos. MAG do an amazing job by training the local people (and therefore giving them jobs) to identify and either detonate or make safe the ordnance, allowing fields to be used for growing food, building schools, roads and helping to make these very poor people more food sufficient. Read more about their work here http://www.maginternational.org/the-problems/the-uxo-problem-in-laos-statistics/
We were so touched by the work they have done John has decided to support them through his business at home www.johncurran.co.uk
We also go to the visitor centre for the charity ‘COPE’ (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) COPE helps with providing artificial limbs and rehabilitation for those affected by UXO, the visitor centre re-tells some very sad stories of how in rural communities simple tasks like just lighting a fire to cook a meal can cause a bomb to explode and change people's life forever. It’s very sad, moving and uplifting all at the same time. It’s impossible to visit these places without feeling upset , take lots hankies when visiting. http://www.copelaos.org/
On a happier note Vientiane – not a bad place. We found a cheap hotel place to stay for a few days, Vientiane Garden Hotel. Got a pool too! Within walking distance of most places, it fits the bill for us. Lots of temples including the oldest in Laos. Some shabby and dirty, some beautiful and wonderfully charismatic and even a very blingy one! The night market by the river is big and full of same same tat but not different! Amusing for 10 minutes or so. A fantastic curry restaurant near the Thai Embassy which we dined at 3 times called The Dheli Derbar. Yum. A taste of home! :-)
The Lonely Planet suggests going to the largest temple in Laos at sunset - they fail to mention that it will be shut! Still worth the visit!
John receiving his string bracelet for health and happiness from a monk
And this was the blingy one!
And so to Vietnam….”you don’t know man! (unless you were there!)
We are back into Laos just in time for us to see in the new year.
The guest house family invite us to their party It’s a big low table with low chairs and laden with local delicacies like goat meat, buffalo innards and all of its other bits, (which aren't always easy to identify, I have become vegetarian in Laos so have a valid excuse to refuse some of the very dubious looking dishes!), fish from the river which is not so tasty, river weed which is quite good, morning glory and so on. It looks like it’s going to be a bit boozy too what with the beer Laos and Lao Lao whisky, (this all kicks off at 3 in the afternoon so I am going to have to pace myself if I want to make midnight, especially as drinking Lao Lao every few minutes seems obligatory!) Later on there is a village party in the centre where there will be fireworks and dancing so we go there about 11pm and by now most of the village is in attendance and the party is in full swing. It’s fun and sort of low-key at the same time. Dancing involves a slow synchronised shuffle around the dance floor in an anticlockwise direction and you have to negotiate this swirling mass to get to the bar. It's quicker to go against the flow than with it but safer to conform for the return journey with hands full of beer!
Preparing the feast for New Years Eve
And the party begins!
We pack the van and it’s time to leave sleepy Nong Khiaw for the last time. Our home for 2 months, new friends, favourite restaurants and cute puppies and kittens are going to be left behind now but we have become restless to move on to pastures new.
Goodbye guest house family - we will miss you
Saying goodbye to our lovely friends made for a fun evening!
A minor disaster becomes apparent that night as we set up camp for the night. Where is Ted? Our dearest teddy toy given to us by our good friends at the Norfolk Overlanders group as a going away present is MISSING! (Even though he is a ‘Land Rover’ accessory he is welcomed into the VW community. After all, he wants to get to the end of his journey rather than spend most of it under his ride!!! Ooops Landy people.( Only kidding.) We contact Sergio who is still working at the village and he discovers ‘Landy Andy’ is now in the possession of the landladies grandchildren. Little scamps. They abducted him whilst we were packing. One of the other volunteer nurses will take him with her to Bangkok later and our contact there will look after him until we arrive. It’s strange being on the road again after 3 months. A little nervous like when we started back in April 2015 but soon enough we are in full stride and rolling along nicely until…..
Pop goes the intercooler again. Thought I had fixed it really well last time but no, it’s blown apart again under the strain of hill climbing. I’m so pissed at the guy in Telford with whom I placed my trust to do a solid job with quality products. Cheap intercoolers made of plastic and alloy are not fit for purpose but now the allow lugs that hold the plastic inlets pipe in place have started to break off and even though it’s held together with cable ties it still blows apart between the secure points and we are losing power and oil again. I foresaw this in Laos and bought some rubber pipes and now I throw away the intercooler plastic bits and replace the whole thing with the new hoses. These proved to be inferior too and only lasted a few kilometres before splitting. More makeshift repairs and we change our route to head directly to Bangkok where we have contacts in the Thai VW community. They will get this sorted. Our new route takes us to Vang Vieng. Once a mecca for tubing nutters but now a bit of a grimy backpacker town. Still able to hire canoes and tubes etc. but the drug and booze bars that used to line the river are gone and so are the deaths by misadventure. We camp the opposite side of the river not far from the town centre and have an ok undisturbed night after the loud music ceases midnightish. Now to Vientiane again to make the border crossing.
Goodbye Laos. You have been a wonderful experience and so chilled and relaxing. We will miss you. and over the Friendship bridge to Thailand.
Laos has been a very different and enlightening part of our travels for us and it will always be defined by our volunteer experience. It brought home that travelling isn't always about seeing the best view, or the world renowned monuments but seeing how other people live in very difficult circumstances and the daily challenges they face. In rural Laos this is often as simple as getting water and food, (and always with a grateful smile it would seem). Volunteering has made us realise how much we take for granted in the West yes, but also to appreciate the small things in life, and the difference between what you "want" and what you "need". In our life we have never experienced real hunger or watched our children dying of malnutrition or not had access to healthcare to where preventable diseases can be treated. A humbling experience and hopefully we will be able to volunteer somewhere else around the globe. Goodbye Laos you will always have a special place in our hearts.
Getting the Thai visa.
Go early. Be prepared to queue a couple of hours to submit your application. Return the next day to collect. Mornings to submit and afternoons to collect. You don’t need the help of the many local fixers prowling around outside. We applied for a 3-month visa but only available as a single entry. The visa needs to be stamped for the final 30 days at immigration where ever you are in Thailand to complete the 90-day status. A "visa" for the car will be issued at the Thai border it is only ever for one month. It’s frustrating but you can get the car visa renewed every month and this is done at Customs and is free. Failure to do this is a $25 fine per day!!! Also, don’t be shocked at the value they estimate your vehicle to be. It's academic unless you try to leave without your vehicle.
VW. VW. VW. Be prepared for an overload! We are going to the Siam VW Festival in Bangkok, invited by our new Thai VW friends. Our first taste of a Dub meet, and we are super excited. Every type of VW is ours to gaze at, Beetles, Golfs, Kalman's and just about every sort of van you can think of; shiny ones, rusty ones, old ones, new ones, low ones, and jacked up ones they are all here for our delectation!
South East Asia is bursting with VW enthusiasts, many clubs travelling from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore for the festival - we didn't spot any other Brits though or Europeans for that matter - so we gave ourselves the furthest travelled badge!
We set up Tigger with the other Syncro guys, awning out, and Union Jack flying so that people can see where we are from and have a little patriotic moment. Tigger is a constant source of attention, and we have a steady stream of people wanting to talk to us over the two days. Everyone wants to know about him, and John is more than happy to give" the tour" including engine inspections -yawn! Ha! You get great pleasure discussing the curtains and cushions woman! We even got to meet a couple of Tigger followers from Facebook who sought us out, Tigger's fame is spreading far and wide.
Evening means time for the disco lights, flashing away along with the laser lights spiralling on the ground, Tigger is a party animal given half a chance. The little kids are mesmerised by the lights and lasers and love dancing and jumping up and down on the psychedelic patterns projected on the floor. We are even a photo opportunity for a honeymoon couple who we find posing for their photographer sitting in the laser and disco lights.
The guys from the Malaysian club are making a documentary, and we get interviewed by them for their film - so we must appear to be interesting! Suzanne quickly finds something immensely important and extremely urgent to take care of elsewhere when the mic is brought out, so I get the job celeb on my own. Thanks a bunch honey! :) (are you suggesting I'm not interesting?!) Being the centre of attention has always been my room 101. No. Really. It has!! But I'm never going to watch the film so who cares (that's what he thinks!) No! I'm not!
The Malaysian VW group, are called Negawsklov (Volkswagen backwards) and are really keen that we visit them in Kuala Lumpur; We haven't been planning to go to Malaysia, but hey, why not? We have got this far so what's a few more thousand kilometres.
We loved the festival experience, meeting lots of enthusiasts and seeing so many interesting vehicles. Little do we know, but the friends and contacts we have made here are going to lead to new adventures in Malaysia, which is what makes travel the exciting adventure it is - The VW love spreads far and wide.]]>
Finally, it's holiday time for us, yes I know people think we are on one long holiday, but really we aren't, honest! Long term travel is amazing, exciting and an adventure for sure BUT it also means leaving behind your family and friends for extended periods of time. Yes, there is Skype and Facetime, but nothing is a substitute for the real thing, being able to give your kids a hug or spend hours laughing and whiling away the time over a glass of wine with your friends. To say we are beyond excited to get the news that two of our three kids will be visiting us, along with two of our lovely friends is an understatement! - and they can bring cheese! (Cheese – we dream of nice tasty familiar cheeses. And chocolate. In fact, I am fantasising about both right now just writing about it!)
The Ferry over from the mainland - a taste of what is to come
We choose to go to Koh Chang (Elephant Island) as it is a relatively easy 6hr drive from Bangkok where the boys and our friends fly to. It is a touristy Island, but I'm not sure where isn't in Thailand, but it ticks all our boxes for holiday time. We have rented a bungalow for a month, in the small town of Kai Bae, renting long term made for very cheap accommodation it worked out at around £8 per day - not per person, but for the whole bungalow! And we can have a shower every day!!!
Home for a month!
Koh Chang is the second largest Thai Island after Phuket, but nowhere near as busy, settled in the Gulf of Thailand. It has everything you would expect from a Thai island, beautiful sandy beaches, amazing sunsets, inexpensive massages and cheap cocktails - what more could you want? The main area of Kae Bae is compact and most things are within a short walking distance, bars, restaurants, massage places. night -life can be as quiet or as party as you want - and we did both!
Koh Chang - all you expect from a Thai Island
Thailand is all about the beaches and the crystal clear waters which are excellent for snorkelling - There are some great boat trips to the Marine National Park where get to snorkel in the warm water at two or three spots during the day. We have a fabulous day swimming with the fishes, jumping in the water and having an all round jolly time sunning ourselves on deck and return sun- kissed (AKA burnt!)
Food in Koh Chang is varied, you can, of course, get Thai food, but it 's nice to take a break from rice and noodles once in awhile. Luckily for John and the boys, there is an excellent curry restaurant across the road, but you can get Italian, French and other western food as well as rather delicious wine, a welcome break from Pad Thai and a Singha beer
It's not bad having a holiday!
But enough of this luxury, these guys need to know what life is like on the road! We get the co-ordinates of a secluded beach at the other end of the island and
o take these soft hotel types to see what Overlanding is really like and treat them to a night in Tigger
A bit of Man Friday going on here! Girls got the honour of sleeping in Tigger on a windy night!
There are masses of waterfalls on the island, the closest to Kai Bae is a short 10minute drive away. You reach the waterfall, by taking a small hike in the shady jungle so by the time you reach the falls you are more than ready for a refreshing dip. The water is well; let's say stimulating, especially compared to the sea and teeming with fish, which like nothing more than to give you a little nibble if you stand still for too long! Lots of opportunities to jump in and have diving competitions and not too busy on any of the times we went. You do have to pay an entrance fee, but it was minimal around $3 per person
All good things come to an end and before we know it it's time to say goodbye to our lovely friends and family.
We enjoyed Koh Chang our only regret is that we didn't stay longer, it's a great island to kick back and chill out on - but we have an appointment in Bangkok for a VW festival, and Tigger is the star of the show!
Exotic Thailand here we come! We are so excited having been landlocked for months we are dreaming of golden sandy beaches, crystal clear waters and kicking back Thai style - this is what it's all about surely, spending our days lying on beaches doing nothing more energetic than rubbing on some sun lotion? But we have to wait as Tigger's need is greater than ours and he is desperately in need of a spa treatment.
We enter Thailand through the Laos border at Vientiane, buy our car insurance and off we go. We are just in time it would seem as since then Thailand has made it much more difficult for foreign vehicles to enter, needing permits with time restrictions on how long you can stay, and the latest news we heard is that foreign vehicles now need a guide in a Thai car to travel with them. For up to date information have a look at Overland Asia Facebook page - good for all things Asia related https://www.facebook.com/groups/510330665669757/.
Tigger has been limping a little, and our main aim is to get to Bangkok to the garage where he will undergo a long overdue spa treatment, Tigger's needs are greater than ours unfortunately, that beach still seems a long way off (We are still suffering from the cheap intercooler failure was fitted in the UK. We did find an exact replacement in Turkey but didn’t realise then, that we needed to remove the crappy plastic bits and fabricate alloy replacements in their place. The new Turkish one blew apart the same as the original one, but this time, there was no option but to repair the unrepairable. Hence, frequent annoying repair stops to keep us going until we could get another replacement in Bangkok.)
So how do you find a reputable garage in a new country? Well, you know someone who knows someone! We made our VW Bangkok contact in Turkey, on the balloon flight in Cappadocia. John was wearing his "Tigger's Travels" Tee-shirt, which one of the girls in our basket spotted, she recognised the Syncro and told us her Dad was the president of the Syncro Club in Thailand - sorted! The VW family stretches far and wide as we are to find out!
On route to the garage, we decide to risk a trip to Khao Yai national park even if Tigger is coughing and spluttering a little. It's famed for its elephants, but we don't see any (well you wouldn’t would you if you are prancing around dressed up like a giant tiger!) - we did see some more scary wildlife, though! (nothing compared to the scary wildlife I share the van with on a day-to-day basis!)
Please note I am standing much further back shouting "they run fast you know - and I can't drive the van"
I did think he might be a "pretend" croc - but no, he moved!
The waterfall used in the film The Beach, have to say it wasn't quite as exotic as in the movie!
The park is quite hilly, and Tigger is not a happy Tiger, so we have to cut the trip short and head for the garage in Bangkok. Think Bangkok, think exotic temples and wild nightlife - well not quite the case in Min Buri where the garage is, far off any known tourist route and probably the least glamorous place in Thailand but hey ho it's for Tigger. We find a cheap hotel with a swimming pool (one has standards you know!) while Tigger has his spa treatment and count the days until we can get to the beach (we? I am in the garage every day up to my ears in oil and sweat!) oil and sweat wouldn't suit me, stop whinging!
Even Min Buri can look pretty good at sunset
Ok. So here is a summary of what happened at the garage. Mrs C is adamant that it is not of interest to you, the avid reader. And she is probably right but here goes. I feel a list coming on.
Finally, we are sorted, thanks to the help of our Bangkok VW garage guys. Now we can begin the holiday; we are beyond excited as two of our three kids are coming to visit along with two of our lovely friends - excitement levels are through the roof, not only can we see these gorgeous people - but they can bring cheese!
Holiday time in Koh Chang coming next!
Hanoi for us will always be remembered as our "City of requirement" a bit like in Harry Potter's room of requirement - everything we needed was there.
We arrived in Hanoi at "Silly 'O' Clock", weary from another overnight train journey. Although it was really early in the morning we decided to go to our hotel and just sit in the lobby and wait for our room to be ready, or at least dump our bags while we go to find some breakfast. We had chosen a cheap 2* hotel and had to wake the sleeping night porter from his slumber on the reception couch. Fortunately, he didn't mind, fed us some tea and the wifi code and we were happy. Change of shift and the nice lady at reception informed us "So sorry there is something wrong with your room, we will have to move you to our sister hotel" Oh dear, well alright then as long as it's at the same cost. We were taxied across town at the hotel's expense to the Hotel Marvellous, and oh marvellous it was! We are talking 4* beautiful hotel in perfect downtown location - yes there is a God! (that’s a bit strong, missus! Let's just say thanks to St. Julian https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_the_Hospitaller who looks like a bit of a shirt lifter in this Wikipedia entry!) The hotel had only been open a few weeks and reading between the lines they were moving people here from the cheaper hotel to fill up the new place and get reviews and a presence online. We are more than happy to oblige with a glowing review, even if we do look like the scruffy guests who they have dragged off the street!
So 4star hotel for 2star price - we are very happy bunnies.
We didn't really want to leave the room, quite happy to luxuriate in the lovely comfy bed but felt we should at least look at Hanoi. Another vibrant Vietmenese city, but we are a bit travelled out, after being on the road for 8months and all we really want are a few home comforts - Hence a trip to Toni and Guy for haircuts, (yes they have T&G in Vietnam!) get our nails painted and a massage, even hardy overlanders need a bit of pampering now and then. (Oh how I can hear the really hardy overlanders scoff at this lol!) Yes, true we aren't very hardy! Finally, and something which makes John very happy, a trip to the Cinema to see the new Star Wars film - ahh feeling much better now, Thank you Hanoi - you provided us with everything we needed. We will be back and do some sight-seeing soon, honest!
We even got to meet a Star-Trooper (note the haircut!)
It's Christmas! (I can hear the distinct vocals of Roy Wood bellowing out Wizards hit Christmas song!)
Suitably scrubbed up with our new haircuts and painted nails we head off to Halong Bay for our Christmas treat. We have decided to indulge ourselves with a Cruise around Halong bay for the 24th and 25th. These cruises can be picked up very cheaply in Hanoi but we had been warned by other travellers not to go for the cheapest as you could end up in a rat infested boat, with dubious safety. (actually, if its rat infested it should at least indicate that the boat isn't about to sink!) We booked online a two-night trip with Halong Paloma Crusie, It is inclusive of food and drink (not alcohol) and a number of excursions. We had high expectations due to the cost, however, after the delights of the aptly named "Marvellous Hotel" the boat was a bit of a letdown, everything a little bit tired and in need of some TLC - never mind it's Christmas and everyone is in a festive mood, so let the party begin!
Halong bay really is tourist central! There were literally hundreds of boats going out for the night, and they all run a very tight ship following their set schedule, it feels like you are on a conveyer belt with instructions being given to you from all directions - “Get on boat!” , “Go to room!”, “Come to deck!”, “Get off boat!”, “Go on excursion!” “Chop, Chop!” Too exhausting for us and we miss the first excursion to some caves - how could they be better than Phong Nah anyway!
Most people only seem to do the one night cruise, which really only gives you a fleeting glimpse of the amazing seascape. Halong bay is a world heritage UNESCO site, famed for the thousands of limestone karsts rising out of the blue, blue water and creating a surreal backdrop, you definitely feel you are in a movie set here! It is stunning, and probably one of the most beautiful places we have ever been BUT BEWARE - it is known for its party boats, which of course is fine if that is what you want, but if it's not your scene then, not so much fun. All boats congregate in one spot for the first night, also on a one night cruise, you don't get the opportunity to get away from the main tourist area, the water closer to the bay is dirty and has various objects of suspicious content floating around, and you will always be in sight of another (or several) other cruise ships
Beautiful Halong Bay
The two-night option allows you to get away from the party boats, the dirty water and to see so much more of the bay, away from all the crowds. On the second day (Christmas day for us) we were taken off by tender to a much more remote part of Halong bay where we didn't see any other ships or people - we Kayaked around the huge limestone Karsts, through caves and even went for a refreshing dip after dinner, the weather wasn't so kind to us and it rained a bit, but this didn't take away any of the fun of the day, and it is December after all!
Christmas Day, Halong Bay style!
Just a little more about the boat, there were probably around 50 guests onboard the food was mediocre but not bad and alcohol expensive, happy hour meant half price cocktails and a very persuasive barman who was the life and soul of the party and wanted you to try all of his concoctions! We woke up on the first morning to find our cabin roof leaking and a big puddle at the end of the bed! We were going off on the tender to the other end of the bay, and the staff said we should pack all of our things and they could move us to another cabin, we didn't really want to pack up and move, we only had one more night so we said it would be fine if they just cleaned up and we would manage. Everything was spick and span when we got back at the end of the day so we didn't think any more about it until we came to fill in the evaluation form at the end of the trip. Question - would you recommend Paloma Halong Cruises to a friend? Answer - No. After our farewell lunch, we were summoned by Mr Head Steward as he wanted to "speak with us" feeling a bit nervous, had we done something wrong? But no, they wanted to wipe our bar tab clean, to apologise for the leaky roof, anyone who knows me, knows that wasn't a cheap option for them! So well done Paloma Cruise for doing the right thing :)
Cheers Paloma Cruises! I seem to have two drinks, but look at the lovely nails!
We had a couple more days back in Hanoi before returning to Laos, where we half-heartedly did some sight-seeing, we wanted to go to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum but we missed our chance as it was closed the day we had earmarked for it (closed Monday's and Friday's) We had also heard that Mr Minh wasn't in residence anyway as he had gone back to Russia for his annual - re-embalmment spa - lucky escape for us I think!
So that's what we didn't do! We did visit the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, where you watch a traditional water puppet show - These originate from when the paddy fields were flooded and villagers would stand waist deep in water and entertain with their wooden puppets. These guy's exhibited a real skill in moving the puppets around their watery stage - yes it is touristy but well worth an hour of anyone's time.
Downtown Hanoi - as the street bar gets busier the road gets smaller as more and more chairs come out!
A stroll around the lake at night
We walked around the lake, visited the old quarter, ate lots of delicious street food, and generally took in the atmosphere - yes we probably should have done more temples and tours but there are only so many temples a person can take before they all merge into one!
Kids playing badminton outside of St Joseph's Cathedral - who needs a net when you have bikes!
Vietnamese Drip Coffee - John loved it, strong and served with condensed milk!
No need for expensive restaurants in Vietnam - Street food is the tastiest
I got a pair of prescription aviator sunglasses made in less that 24 hours for the equivalent of £15 and a pair of ”North Face” walking trousers for £12 so retail therapy was cheap here too!
Goodbye Vietnam, you have supplied adventure, culture, history and some amazing food - I think we will be back some day. Definitely. It’s a wonderful place with so much to discover and a people you have to admire for their friendliness and resilience.]]>
Time waits for no man (or Tigger) and all that, so although we would have loved to have stayed longer on the beach, it's time to move north and on to Hoi An. It's a long journey, and we decided to try the train, you need to pre-book which is easily done online, and as it's so cheap we go for the luxury option of the overnight sleeper in a four berth cabin - the best your Dong (snigger) can buy! Luxury may be stretching it a little, the "beds" could have been a tad more comfortable, and it was best not to look too closely at the sheets and blanket. (I'll say it's stretching it….more like a prison cell with hot and cold running insects and rodents! I particularly enjoyed the way the nylon sheet slid around on the 2” thick PVC mattress. Made for a whole night of entertaining bed acrobatics in order not to slip off the bunk) I employed my standard ploy of fluid restriction to minimise the trips to the loo, Asian toilets and a moving train are not the best combination! We shared the cabin with a Vietnamese couple plus a number of cockroaches and possibly a mouse, but we had somewhere to power our devices so all was well.
Hoi An is a popular destination on the tourist route and for good reason. It is a delightful little town, famed for its architecture, food and tailor shops. You can't walk for more than a couple of minutes without seeing signs for "custom made clothes" just show them a photo and they will make you what you want within a few days, our Airbnb even had its own tailor shop! It's an ancient town, made up of a mixture of Chinese, Japanese and European architecture all rolled in with an appealing riverside setting. The yellow coloured buildings are draped with colourful bougainvillaea and meandering pedestrian only small streets give the place a charming atmosphere and picture postcard feel. Yes, it is touristy but it is charismatic touristy and an easy town to just wander around and soak up the ambience.
Street life in Hoi An - those baskets are really heavy but the little Vietnamese ladies make it look really easy
One of the best ways to see the town is by bike. We were lucky enough to have bikes thrown in as part of our accommodation package so we used these, day and night and get a lot of ground covered It is especially beautiful at night and there are thousands of different coloured lanterns on the shop fronts particularly along the riverfront. There is also a custom for placing floating lanterns onto the river from the low ancient bridge. The vendors drop them in from long poles and fishing lines, a little like the reverse of “hook the duck” at the funfair.
Feeling at home with our bicycles
Sooo pretty at night
Cookery classes are the thing to do here so I booked myself into the Green Bamboo Cookery School http://www.greenbamboo-hoian.com The day starts early, you are picked up from your hotel at 8am for a trip to market to buy the ingredients for the dish you have chosen to cook, given your plastic shopping basket, don your Vietnamese hat and off you go! If the day had stopped there it would have been a great experience in itself, the hustle and bustle of the market, buying your ingredients when some of them were still alive and some things you didn't have a clue what they were anyway!
Cheesy photo, but had to be done - when in Vietnam!
shopping at the market - the guys is removing the flesh from the coconuts, this was then used to make the coconut milk for our curry
This lady is over 90yrs old and has been working in the market all of her life - wonder what she makes of all us westerners?!
Back at Green Bamboo, Van the owner and Chef in residence set us off cooking - we have each chosen two dishes, my choice was Vietnamese spring rolls and a noodle dish, but we all get to help cook/prepare everything, we had the most amazing spread of food to eat! It was totally scrumptious making my mouth water just thinking about it, those ugly squirming prawns turned out to be quite tasty after all, and the chicken curry was to die for, spicy but tasty in a thick creamy coconut sauce - made with fresh coconut soaked in its own water and then squeezed by hand, all so yummy.
The Chef at work - and look at those chopsticks!
Just a selection of the yummyness
All this cost $40 which I thought was exceptional value. It is possible to get cheaper cookery classes, but they are usually bigger and not so intimate, at the time of writing it was the number on trip advisor and in the lonely planet Picture
I decided not to do the cookery course as I had found a photography walking tour which interested me and luckily it was available the same time as the cooking course.I thoroughly enjoyed this informal course and as there was only one other person we had a good amount of 1-1 time. I was keen to learn a bit about portrait photos as I have always been shy about snapping at strangers and got a little bit of my phobia sorted although it has come back again since then. Pieter has been doing this course for a while now so has quite a lot of ‘tame and willing’ subjects along the back streets who are happy to pose for a small fee and we met two amazing women. One with astonishing long hair and a really lovely older lady with an infectious smile. I can recommend this as a great way to walk the back streets with your own guide and pro photographer. A complete package and at a reasonable cost too. Have a look at the website Www.hoianphotowalks.com my review is posted as jsnowybear, don’t ask why!!!!
Bet that takes forever to dry!
Captured this young couple having a washing fight - well they seemed to be enjoying themselves :)
A fellow traveller had told us not to miss Phong Nha, this is not so much on the tourist trail, but these guys had raved about it so much we thought it would be worth a visit. What we hadn't banked on was the cold! We so did this tour the wrong way round, going north it is getting progressively colder, so cold in fact there is a cosy fire to welcome us in the Phong Nha Farmstay and it was warranted! The farm stay is run by an Australian guy, Ben and his Vietnamese wife - it offers dormitory or private rooms and is set in the beautiful lush countryside, surrounded by paddy fields. It has a restaurant with good food, including some lovely comfort food like bangers and mash, for when you just can't face yet another plate of noodles or rice -oh and they have wine! http://phong-nha-cave.com/farmstay/
For me, one of the lasting memories will be a feeling of home. Difficult to explain considering the polar difference between a Vietnamese paddy field and the East Anglian fens in winter, but there was something about it. I went for a run out into the farmlands and found a tremendous calm and a powerful nostalgic feeling I couldn’t account for. Perfect running weather. Cold and grey. It would have been great to have my camera but a couple of phone snaps will suffice to remember it by.
cold wet and muddy, make it like the fens - have to ignore the mountains in the background!
Phong Nha is famous for its caves and one of the biggest caves in the world was recently discovered here in 2009. If you want to hike through it, it will take you 7 days as it is 126km long and will cost you the best part of $3000pp! needless to say, we didn't hike through it but it is supposed to be spectacular. However this isn't the only cave in the area, Phong Nha-K? Bàng national park is a UNESCO world heritage site and is riddled with beautiful caves and grottos.
We cycle from the homestay to the national park, and take a boat trip to visit our first cave, you motor along the river until you get the cave mouth and then the engine is turned off and this tiny little Vientmenese lady paddles the boat, full of big Westerners inside and around the cave, it does look extremely hard work and I really feel John should be giving her a hand! ( I think this is a bit degrading but I put my hands together and give her a big round of applause! Not really! ) It is spectacular, the stalactites and stalagmites are huge and all beautifully illuminated - there are strange rock formations which if you squint and look sideways they might look like the name they have been given -" man-eating fish" or whatever! This cave is just the warm up for the bigger and better cave we are going to see in a couple of days time so everyone kept telling us, supporting act, or not we were impressed with this one.
Top tip -You buy the tickets for the boat trip at the entrance to the park, you pay per boat so expensive for just a couple of you,hang around the ticket office, others will come along and you can share the boat and the cost.
Action man John thinks it's a good idea to go jungle trekking the following day, heralded as the "Top Trip" to take it involves a 7hour hike through dense jungle, requiring a "good fitness level" After sitting on my butt for the last 8 months I have a good level of extra padding, and not much fitness, hmm wonder why this isn't really appealing to me, plus as an added extra you get to go into the "Dark Cave" Whoopdy do! I hate dark caves, surely if it's dark you shouldn't go in there! (What are you talking about woman! Dark cave says ‘ come explore my hidden secrets and be adventurous. What's the worse that can happen? ‘ Hmmm, when you disappear into the pitch black and you can't see the mouth of the cave anymore you start to imagine what might be in there with you. Spiders! Blasted things get everywhere. What do they live on in here? There's nothing!! or is there?)
John went a bit feral in the Jungle!
The Dark Cave entrance
We were the only tourists on the hike but had our own, guide, cook and park ranger - the upside of it not being hot meant it was good hiking weather, I don't think I would have enjoyed it in the searing heat. The Dark Cave, was, well dark, and involved a fair amount of scrambling over sharp rocks to get past the cave mouth. I ventured in but didn't want to go where we couldn't see the entrance, John and the guide strode off with head torches to the dark bits! I can't add anything to this. It was too dark to make any observations!!!! Advertised as the highlight of the tour is a swim in a cave lake, quite a bit of it is outside which makes me happy - now on a stinking hot day I imagine you would be running in eager to cool down, not so much on a chilly day in December, however having come this far we felt we had to do the thing, and the water did look a very inviting turquoise blue. Yes. Flippin cold which was only kept at bay by vigorous swimming and a fake merry Christmas shout at the video camera held by the wise guide who offered to stay dry and record this event for us. Of course he did, he knew how cold it was!
Lunch jungle style
So we made it back to civilisation at the end of the day - don't think Mr Park Ranger was very impressed though!
The last trip we went on was probably the most touristy but super fun. You get to visit Paradise caves which are massive caves recently found in 2005 by a local man, the stalagmites and stalactites are truly impressive, and make you feel quite insignificant as you gaze up at these giant formations- it is well set up for tourists with boardwalks and sensitive lighting , you are able to walk around 1km into the cave but they extend to 31km all told. The entrance to the cave is a tiny 2x2 m opening which reveals the cavernous interior. Quite stunning!
We have literally hundreds of photos of this cave, not one of which shows off its magnificence - so here are a few just to give you an idea
Then the fun really begins - an exhilarating Zip-line to the mouth of the cave, a short swim across the lake before checking head torches and heading off into the cave and the mud! Winding through narrow passage we slip and slide our way to a cavern which is one big mud bath, here you are literally knee deep in the slippery stuff and can lie down and sort of float in your mud bath - torches were turned off for a short while and the very odd feeling of being completely in the dark while lying in mud! Not sure I really liked that bit! We finish off with another swim to try and wash away mud - which it turns out we will be finding for days afterwards We had a great time in Phong Nha and if you heading to Vietnam definitely pay a visit.
View from the top of the zip wire - no photos of inside the cave, so you will just have to imagine the muddy fun!
Our trip to Vietnam is almost over just a couple more stops and Christmas to enjoy - coming soon (ish)]]>
From the chaos of Ho Chi Min City, we travel south to the Mekong Delta. Known as the "rice bowl" of Vietnam, it provides more than half of the rice for the country, in addition to the vast assortment of fruit and vegetables produced. It is a maze of waterways, Islands and swamps, surrounded by paddy fields, and the main form of transport is by Vietnamese long boat. It all sounds so romantic, exotic and yet calming we can't wait to get there, we are still reeling from Saigon!
We are especially excited about visiting the renowned floating markets, where you can watch the daily life of the Delta folk trading their wares on the river. We have booked an Air B&B in Cai Be, which proudly boasts it is a 5-minute walk from the floating market, great we only have two days so this will be perfect - won't it?!
The Air B&B provides transfers from HCMC , so a pleasant couple of hours are spent watching the world go by in an air conditioned car - (a bit of a novelty for us) We get dropped off at the water’s edge and are greeted by our hostess who ushers us onto the small rickety ferry along with several mandatory mopeds, ducks and chickens, and across to the waiting mopeds who will take us and our bags (one big bag each) down the narrow dirt tracks that wind between the waterways and ditches to our accommodation
Our first ferry across the Mekong
We are free for the afternoon and there are bicycles available, so we borrow a small photocopy map of the immediate area and cycle out around the waterways and the palm-shaded houses exploring the neighbourhood. It's a really enjoyable ride, you don't go more that 50mtrs without someone waving and shouting out "hello, where you from Meester"
Our Air B&B was called Durian Lodge - fortunately, it didn't require the eating of them- although I think this might be a Jackfruit?
It’s a lot further than it looked on the map so we are out for a couple of hours and ready for a delicious freshly pressed ‘sugar cane over ice’ drink before we get home. - Well, John is, it is teeth-jarringly sweet - which I suppose it would be as it is basically just a cup of sugar, can't see how anyone would find this refreshing - I'll opt for a glass of Prosecco back at the ranch!
Note the interesting child seat on the motorbike!
Driving and steering the ferry is a pretty relaxed affair!
During our cycle ride, we also happened upon some maintenance work on the overhead power lines. We think this video clip could be used in a health and safety video in Europe see what you think!
Click to see How to get things done, Vietnam-style!
It’s very peaceful here. No cars, only mopeds and bicycles and the drone of the cargo boats chugging along in the background. That is until. Stone the crows!!! Sounds like there is a festival kicking off somewhere nearby. Our host's husband, who is an interesting character from Austria, informs us that this noise is a local tradition of “who has the biggest and badest home karaoke system” and can last quite a while. Neighbours have even come to blows over this with serious outcomes apparently. We just have to weather the storm. Another local custom we learn about is fishing with electricity. One car battery, one boat, one set of electrodes and one dumb ass fisherman…zap. Dead fish rise up around the boat. One heavily intoxicated local, goaded by his wife to provide food, sets down his bottle, yanks a power line down from the pole at the end of his garden on the banks of the river and, with his feet in the water, plunged the cable into the shallows and joins the “choir invisible!”
I am very keen to find out what time the floating market starts, by all accounts you need to be an early bird, but this is the highlight of the trip so it will be worth it, so what time does it all kick off I eagerly ask? Hostess looks confused and tells us that the floating market in this area has ceased to be for about 15yrs!!!!! I am so disappointed, not to mention angry! I really want to know why the **** does it say on your listing that you are a 5 min walk away???? We never really get a satisfactory answer to this but she promises to arrange a river trip for us the following day -- GRRRR
We hire a local lady and her working boat to take us out and show us the sights . The boat lady didn't speak a word of English and our tour took in her delivering a boat full of watermelons to a motorcyclist. She was super lovely and didn't stop smiling the whole trip as well as providing John with one of his favourite portrait photos.
Our lovely boat lady
The bags are full of watermelons, after a balancing act, the one on the floor was put In the front between his legs!
She took us in and around the few cargo boats that are the only thing left of the river trade on this part of the delta. We stopped at a floating fruit and veg store and sat a while drinking coconut and mango drinks and trying not to gag on the pong of the freshly cut durian that the Vietnamese (and all Asians by the sound of it) love. Phew! It’s a tall order but just have to hold it down until we pay for our drinks and high-tail it out of there!
Ensuite facilities onboard all boats
Riverside properties are also available
Although we didn't get to see "The floating market" with its colourful boats selling everything and anything (sigh) we did get to see some real local river life and it which wasn't full of tourists, we were the only westerners wandering around the land market, and our river trip was pretty unique, so in hindsight maybe it was a blessing in disguise. Still wanted to see the floating markets though! Grumble,mumble, moan!
Leaving the delta by private transfer we go back to HCMC to catch a bus to M?i Né. It's unbelievably cheap at about £5.00 per person for a 4-hour journey. Lay down on the seat/bed and wrap up in the blanket provided and drink the free bottle of water. Stop off half way at a street food service station sort of place for rice and chilli and a piece of unknown meat. It's ok when you are hungry, really. The bus journey ends about 10Km from our destination but there is a taxi laid on for the final leg so, which took us directly to the hotel.
Taking the bus - and yes there are two levels!
Had a seat next to this dodgy character
Pretty good service for 5 quid! This is our first beach since Turkey which seems a long time ago now, so we treat ourselves to a beachfront hotel. White Sands, is quiet as it is at the end of the Mui Ne beach, and is almost deserted as it is on the outskirts of the town,
Excellent. The sea is clean and warm and just what we needed for a few days. There is little exciting to do here so it’s just a sunny beach (and pool) stop and a chance to chill. A little bit of running on the quiet roads and on the empty beach will do nicely thank you!
Pretty much as busy as it got!
Next stop Hoi- An, where we go back to school :)
Wow, wow and wow! What an introduction to Vietnam! Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is like an over excited child on a sugar rush, wearing bright vivid colours, shouting, dancing and dragging you by the hand to come and explore, and absolutely not taking no for an answer! Possibly the most vibrant and alive city we have been to so far. It's hot, crowded, noisy, and yes, fun!
Formally Saigon until 1976, it was re-named after the North Vietnamese troops captured the city, most of the locals however still refer to it as the more sentimental Saigon. The population is 8.224 million and the most recent count I could find for January 2016, stated they have 7.4 million motorbikes!! Due to an extensive number of fatalities caused by motorbike accidents it was made law in 2007 for helmets to be worn on all roads, by drivers and passengers , however there seems to be a loophole for children - so everyone seems to wear helmets except the little kids , which to us was a bit odd - surely they are the ones you want to protect most of all!
There are whole internet forums dedicated to how to cross the road in HCMC, with over 7 million motorbikes, plus cars, trucks and bicycles it feels like you are taking your life in your hands when you cross the road, the traffic doesn't really stop so you just have to take a deep breath, and walk - slowly and steadily, look straight ahead and NOT at the traffic that is heading straight for you, don't hesitate, don't run, just walk it will flow around you - honestly! (or in Suzanne’s case, dragged by the arm whilst I do the walking) The Vietnamese are an impatient lot so if there is a traffic light or reason to stop the motorbikes often take the path of least resistance and drive around the obstacle which usually means on the pavement! Click here to see a bit of traffic light avoidance!
Whole new meaning to taking the dog out!
This is the first time we are travelling without Tigger, although after seeing the manic traffic, maybe it's not such a bad thing. (pah! I would have enjoyed the adrenalin rush. Not sure if I would have enjoyed the tongue lashing I would have undoubtedly received from the navigator) We feel a bit vulnerable, no trusty Tigger to fall back on if we can't find anywhere to sleep, or whisk us off us off to our chosen destination at our bidding, we are tourists here, not overlanders, and this requires planning! Tigger-less we decide to try using Air B&B, instead of a hotel, this will be our first venture into the Air B&B world and we don't really know what to expect, but we strike lucky. “Christina's”, an Air B&B in HCMC, has a great central location, is beautifully furnished and goes the extra mile on attention to detail. This was 5-star accommodation for us after our rather basic guesthouse in Laos, we almost want to spend our whole time in our room!
Get up - we have sight- seeing to do!!
We only have a visa for a month so we are on a tight schedule to see everything we want in Vietnam, so when Christina's told us they organised motorbike tours to see the Cu Chi tunnels we take it up. The tunnels are around a 1.5hrs from HCMC and we are going by motorbike, after seeing the roads I am a little unnerved by the prospect but have faith that the guys driving the bikes don't want to meet their maker either and go for it!
You can't see just how tightly I'm holding on to this poor chap! Click here to see a short video clip from the back of the bike
It's pretty exciting whizzing along the streets of HCMC with the 7 million other bikes and mopeds, weaving in and out of traffic, as I hang on to my lovely guide for dear life! (not me – I’m having a great time and only wish I was riding my own bike. I miss my Harley back home) Junctions and roundabouts are interesting, traffic going in every direction all at the same time, I mostly shut my eyes at this point but we didn't collide with anything so it must work.
Who is that?
On route to Cu Chi tunnels, we make a couple of sightseeing stops and much needed "Butt Rest" breaks - big respect to all of our overland friends who ride motorbikes around the world you guys must have Buns of steel!
To make rice noodles, mix rice with water to make a paste, put into the sun to dry on wooden racks as above then cut into noodle shapes - easy!
A quick look at a rubber plantation and how they Collect rubber from the tree
The Cu Chi tunnels are part of a large underground network that was used during the Vietnam War by the Viet Cong. The tunnels were more than hiding spots during combat, they were several storeys deep and included living quarters, supply routes and field hospitals. They were accessed by hidden trap doors and allowed the VC to control a large area, at its peak, the tunnels stretched more than 250km
As a tourist, you get the opportunity to crawl through the tunnels, if you can get through the tiny trap door - which apparently have been made bigger to accommodate the larger western frame!
One of the" must see sights" according to the most guide books is the Saigon Central Post Office, designed by Gustav Eiffel. As it's early December and we have some Christmas gifts to send we think it would be a novel idea to send our gifts from this famous landmark. We spend the best part of two hours individually wrapping each present - and there are a few of them! We then pack them carefully in two boxes, lovingly wrapping these as well. Very pleased with our efforts we arrive at the post office boxes in hand, only to be told at the counter that we have to unwrap everything!!!! All of our lovely presents so beautifully wrapped have to be unwrapped and shown to Mr Post Office man, documented what they are and then re-wrapped - so top tip if sending a parcel from Vietnam, don't bother with the gift wrap until you get to the post office and declare what you are sending.
The French built Post Office
Parcels all ready to go - or so we thought!
We have come to realise that this part of the world holds some very sad memories. The War Remnants Museum documents the atrocities of the Vietnam War, from a Vietnamese perspective. Before you enter the museum in the courtyard is an impressive collection of American military planes, helicopters, and tanks, emphasising how much military power the Americans had and yet, they still lost.
Mostly this is a photographic documentation, with some of the most disturbing and graphic photos of war we have ever seen, and not appropriate to share here. It is criticised for being one-sided with an emphasis on the victim, not the victor, but many of the distressing photographs illustrating the US violence are actually from US sources.
Included is the iconic photo of the girl running, screaming after suffering napalm burns - you can read the wonderful story of how she not only survived but recently had laser treatment to help heal her wounds click here
Despite the grim content we would still put this on the list of top places to visit, but make sure you take plenty of tissues.
No visit to HCMC would be complete without a mention of food. We booked a street food tour with XO tours, and of course, the only way to get around is on the back of a moped! XO tours USP is that is the only "all-female motorbike tour company". (the”lovely gels” as Father Ted would have described them, give us specific instructions on how and how not to hold on to them although I think that was directed at the chaps, not the ladies!)
The" Lovely Gels"
We were taken to a number of districts around HCMC and given a little bit of history and information about each place as well as stopping for some street food. You can eat and drink as much as you want and the food was pretty good but the highlight of the tour was being on the bike a night. Whizzing through the busy streets was really exhilarating! Our only criticism would be they don't let you take photos while on the back of the bike, probably because they want to sell you their video (they have an accompanying backup crew with them, taking photos) They do email you some pictures afterwards but we never got round to downloading them.
This is Hot Vit Lon or Balut, a developing bird embryo which is boiled after 19-21 days incubation. You get to eat duck and egg at the same time, well John did, I didn't!
Yummy food to BBQ, well some of it anyway - not so keen on amphibian on my grill!
We were in Saigon for 4 days, 3 nights and this was just about the right amount of time. Would recommend a visit if you happen to be passing. Mekong Delta next stop
Having an extended trip home due to health issues, we thought this would be the ideal opportunity to catch up with our shamefully out of date blog. No more excuses for not having the time or WIFI to be able to upload blog posts, we would have plenty of both and be able to get the blog bang up to date. What we hadn't counted on was a severe case of Blog Fatigue. We are so far behind schedule that it has turned into one of those "jobs". All of a sudden, ironing underwear or cleaning the kitchen floor with a toothbrush seems much more important and preferable way to pass the time. Trying to remember details of our trip, to Cambodia, which feels like a lifetime ago (and was in fact well over a year) seems sort of pointless and consequently the blog stays on the top of the to-do list, but just never quite gets crossed off.
The last few posts have felt boring and If it bores us to write it, no doubt it's going to be pretty boring to read, which makes it all pointless in the first place; all we wanted to do was get something posted, which in retrospect was the wrong thing to do. There were some pretty pictures, but on the whole, they are not very informative or particularly interesting, a waste of our time and enough to put any potential followers off ever visiting the blog again.
Now we are about to restart our journey, and the thought of the dreaded blog rears its head again, what do we do, ditch it completely? Well Tigger has the website plastered all over him, we have Tee-shirts and cards made up, all with website on, we sort of feel obliged, but things are going to change, we can't go back to stuff from a year or more ago, so we are going to start a fresh, with some new rules and hopefully new enthusiasm.
So after some research, this is mostly a list of stuff we haven't done in our blogs but should have, and hopefully will help any budding bloggers out there not to a make the same mistakes as us
1- Know your audience. Like many Overlanders, we said our blog was for friends and family and a way to keep in touch. Of course, we were secretly hoping it would become a huge success with thousands of followers, which would then fund the rest of our journey - sadly this never happened. After writing the first few blogs, we quickly realised most of our friends and family weren't that interested in watching us swan off round the world on an extended holiday, but the people who are interested and wanted to read about our journey were other travellers/overlanders. Leading on to point two
2-Make it informative, facts, focus. Some of our previous blogs lack enough traveller information. Not saying you can't write about your travelling anecdotes and everyday stuff, people love that but make sure you put in some information about the place as well. This does require a bit of work on your part; people like to know how much things cost, names of restaurants, GPS coordinates, etc. - you know the sort of stuff! It can be a little tedious constantly jotting things down, you think you won't forget - but you will!!
3- Update often. Try and keep the blog up to date; you are more likely to remember things if you only did them a few days ago, unlike us, who in the last couple of months have been trying to remember from photographs! Travelling through Turkmenistan was an amazing if not somewhat bizarre experience, and we wrote this blog as we went along. Although we could have added a few more travel details, this is one of my favourite blogs, as it has the detail and enthusiasm of having everything fresh in our minds - or maybe it was just a bonkers place.
4. Keep it brief There is so much information on the internet, that apparently our attention span is down to about 8.25seconds! Bullet points are good for people to be able to scan and find the information they want, with the ideal number of words for a blog being 600-1250 so have shorter blogs and update often. Definitely, one we have failed on.
5. Pictures and Videos Not usually difficult for us travelling types, a picture tells a thousand words and all that. How quickly your page loads though is important, do remember to re-size your photos, so they don't take forever to download otherwise in all likelihood your readers will have clicked off the page before it has fully downloaded. We use FastStone Photo Resizer, which was a free download
6. Don't post it straight away A lovely travel writer friend of ours gave us this tip, and it's invaluable. Read it, read it again - then sleep on it overnight and read it again. I will guarantee you will spot mistakes every time. Also read it out loud - yep it sounds and feels a bit odd, but it's amazing what mistakes you can pick up by doing this. We could go on about grammar, creating your own writing style and being engaging but you know all that and anyway.
We aren't promising to keep to all of the above with future blogs especially the keeping it short, but we are hoping to be more focused on travelling information along with our travelling tales. And as we aren't going to do any proper blogs now on Cambodia, Malaysia, here are a few of our favourite memories - I just couldn't resist, and the rules do say photos are good!
Temples and sunsets
Kratie and fun!
Cambodia driving days
Angkor Wat, huge highlight
Malaysia was mostly about food!
and some tea
Quite a bit of street art
And a side trip to Borneo
A home stay in a long house
And lots of wild life]]>
So this was it finally after months of planning we were on our way, all felt a bit weird, weird but good!
We have decided to try and avoid toll roads so the first part of our route sees us heading into Belgium. We had downloaded lots of maps from an App call maps.me for Europe rather than have lots of paper maps. It works by tracking you on the maps via GPS. However thinking we wouldn’t be in France for long we wouldn’t download as there is a memory issue – Wrong!! Hence we didn’t get quite as far as we had anticipated on day one due to a couple on minor detours (minor according to the navigator, slightly larger detours according to the pilot!)
We eventually find ourselves camping for the night at a small campsite on the French/Belgium border. Where we promptly unpack most of the stuff we threw in the night before as we don’t have a clue where anything is!
Day two started so well with hot showers and cups of tea – it was all downhill from then on. Driving along the motorways of Luxembourg and making up for lost time all of a sudden our horn beeps when going past a huge articulated lorry – “What did you do that for” ???? Did we really want to pick an argument with a big lorry? “I didn’t touch it” – maybe it was touched accidently , and we carry merrily on our way – then it happens again and again and again until finally we are driving along with our horn continuously honking - toooooo embarrassing!!! We pull off the road as soon as we can as John is frantically trying to stop the blasted horn from blaring – as if Tigger isn’t noticeable enough already! - So repairs first repairs on day two as Tigger has his horn disconnected!!
So on we go hornless – we are now going to look for somewhere to camp for the night – there is bound to be somewhere if we pull off the motorway isn’t there?
After leaving the waterfalls we head for the coast - which is absolutely stunning. Think we are lucky coming this time of year as all the purple wild Iris and Euphorbia are growing in abundance on the road side and it all looks so pretty
The coast road is definitely worth the trip with lots of little villages hugging the sides of the cliffs, we stop for some lunch and eat some yummy anchovies. Which I have to say were better in real life than the picture!
We find somewhere to camp this evening as its too far to get to Dubrovnik in one hit – we are camping at a camp site right next to the sea which looks so inviting and is amazingly clear and blue- however on the touch test too cold for swimming! Its also an opportunity to get some laundry done, who would have thought I would be so excited to see a washing machine -We bump into the German guy we met at the last campsite – small world
The following day more beautiful coastline, we get to Dubrovnik later afternoon and stay at a camp more or less in town. It more expensive than we usually pay per night but is very central and means we won’t have to drive tomorrow so probably worth the extra. Just about to pop out for something to heat and who do we meet – our German friend again (who we have secretly named Pieter – but is actually called Michael) We eat out with Michae/Pieter this evening and chat about our travels past and future
Not sure who is stalking who - But nice to meet you Michael/Pieter
Dubrovnik old town is the jewel in Croatia’s crown – it is very touristy and would probably be a nightmare in the summer but right now it is great. We take the wall walk – which is what you do when you are in Dubrovnik which is a photo opportunity around every corner
Tomorrow we head for Montenegro and Albania! Montenero is supposed to be beautiful and Albania you are supposed to be robbed and murdered at every corner, plus the roads are supposed to be rubbish - read the next instalment to find out what happens- Especiall the lovely Ali, Al and Dot who we met for an evening in Dubrovnik you will not regret your decision!!!
While driving through Europe it has been stinking hot, in fact so hot I got sunburnt through the window – the day we decide to give ourselves a day off it rains!
However the Plitvice lakes in middle Croatia could not disappoint whatever the weather.
Plitvice national park is a world Unesco site and not without reason – absolutely stunning lakes and waterfalls. The water is crystal clear, in fact so clear it sort of gives a 3D effect, and from a distance the colour of the water is the bluest blue.
A picture speaks a thousand words and all that so will let the pictures do the talking
if you get the opportunity we would definitely reccomend a visit. The entrance fee is 100Kuna per person but you have all day and this includes buses and boats to get you around the park.
Further pics will be uploaded when technical errors sorted - ie when I get to work out how to do it!!
So you would think that living in something with limited space you would be able to lay your hand to anything anytime you wanted it - think again people I have no ******* idea where anything is and virtually have to unpack the van every time we want to brush our teeth! You think to yourself I would like to brush my hair - simple everyday task, ah no not in Tigger - its a "where are we game" and I am fed up with playing!
We have tried so hard to be organised and here lies the problem! both of us putting things where we think are the "most obvious" places are actually not that obvious - yes we have been married for 28yrs and should be able to read each others minds but living in Tigger is testing that for sure - On so many levels!
Living with a menopausal woman in a van the size of a box probably allows John a ticket into heaven if nothing else!
We also didn't allow in our budget for my bladder. Who knew it was going to cost so much to pee across Europe? At each wee stop costing between 50-70cents we are seriously making a dent in our finances - I have had three children you know!!! Yes, Yes I know I will have to get down to basics soon and I have been as well but I am easing myself into those more difficult toilet stops
Well short rant over - there will be more.......................]]>
The last part of our journey in Turkey was a mixture of the best and the worst with Cappadocia most definitely being the former - the amazing landscape feels prehistoric but yet alien you could almost think you have been transported to another world. In fact some of the rock formations are called "Fairy Chimneys" making you feel as part of some bizarre fairystory.
There are lots of activities in Cappadocia, but the one "must do" thing is ballooning. Our campsite was in a great position overlooking one of the take off points for the early morning flights, on our second morning we work early to the sound of intermittent roars as the balloons slowly making their way up above the valley, it really was an amazing sight, there were so many balloons we stopped counting at 80 and there were many many more. As The morning sun rose and the balloons were just floating it seemed almost silently across the sky , that's when we thought, blow the budget lets do it!
View from the campsite of early morning balloons
Our balloon ride was pretty fab too
Another "not to be missed" activity is to hike the Red and Rose Canyon, all very well seeing the landscape from above in the balloon but you need to be in it and feel the enormity of some of the rock formations and see the colours close up to appreciate the full beauty . We were told the hike would be between 4-5hrs which we were looking forward to after a 9hr drive a few days before. Most eager hikers set off for the walk around 8am lazy tigers, didn't get going until 11:30am just as it started to really heat up! So we really were mad dogs and Englishmen, it was so hot!
We managed to get lost at one point and were debating the decidedly dodgy map we had been given heatedly, in more ways than one, when we noticed a local farmer enjoying a siesta laying on the floor under a tree, he was dressed in native Muslim clothes long galibaha thing including a scarf wrapped around his head he waved us over to join him he wasn't going out in the searing heat! he didn't speak English but he did speak Turkish, German and French, embarrassingly more French than us, how could this be??? every French word we ever knew abandoned us in our moment of need making us feel very inadequate which of course we were - we did eventually with a fair amount of charades work out the route, but thank you Mr Farmer man for sending us on our way otherwise we could well be still wandering around or frazzled to a crisp
Yes Cappadocia is commercialised in the towns but fundamentally nothing can take away from the area the amazing landscapes which were jaw droppingly stunning when we were out on our walk we barely saw another person (probably because no one else goes out in the mid day sun I know!) there are of course coach loads of tourists but not so many of them choose to go hiking as we did so you can easily lose yourselves and escape to another world in Cappadocia
Ankara is the next stop, number one job pick up number two son from Ankara airport, he is joining us for around 6weeks . We also have the boring jobs to do here get van repairs done and pick up visas for Uzbekistan
Picking up our Uzbek visa was an interesting experience and will relay the tale for anyone else who might be thinking of getting visas in Ankara . On the website it does not tell you opening times, in fact in barely tells you anything but fortunately we did turn up on a day the embassy was issuing visas but apparently it only does this on certain days of the wk. When we got into the embassy it was heaving with people and a very shouty Uzbek man behind a window barking instructions at people. When it was our turn to be shouted at we were beckoned over and we handed over the required bits of paper. now to pay for the visa $80 each thank you very much. You have to pay the money into a Turkish bank, but and its a big but you can't pay money into a Turkish bank unless you have a Turkish identity card, slight problem there then! The God of Uzbek visas must have been looking down on us that day as also waiting in the embassy was a very lovely Turkish student who was there with a French friend of his, he offered to use his identity number for us so we could pay the money to the bank. As it was lunchtime we offered to buy him some lunch but all he would have was a cup of coffee while we waited 2hours for the bank to open. Money paid Uz visa safely in the passport - sorted
We had thought we could get Tigger serviced at a VW garage in Ankara and in fact had been in email contact. James was bringing over some spare parts so all should fine - deep sigh, not going to go into the ins and outs here John will need to update the VAN part of the blog but basically something got fixed which while doing this something else got broken which we didn't find out about until we lost power going up a road in the middle of nowhere.
We do owe the Syncro club of Turkey a huge shoutout as without them Tigger would not be on the road. They were amazing and co-ordinated guys from all over Turkey to help us out. Eventually some lovely guys in Samsun on the Black Sea coast sorted us out big thank you guys.
The rest of the journey in Turkey was uneventful , weather was awful and we were ready for the next instalment of our adventure.
Turkey round up
So what do we take away from our month in Turkey,
As overlanders and the amount of driving we do we need to comment on the roads. in general they are very good usually duel carriageways and other than Istanbul and major cities not very busy. The Turkish drivers are well - Turkish! once you get used to the random overtaking really not too bad.
Heading up to the Black Sean
Petrol is expensive - apparently the second most expensive petrol in the world although the strength of the £ helped so it didn't hurt too much!
What you do see on the roads at least every 100m are either stray dogs or old people - or usually both, even in the middle of nowhere! Amazing there are so many dogs and they haven't been run over by the random overtaking Turkish drivers and that there are so many old people as they haven't already died from some smoking related disease!
Smoking! Now as a person who has been known to partake in the odd cigarette I don't usually mind people smoking but Turkey takes it to a whole new level - everyone smokes all of the time, so how anyone lives to a ripe old age beats me
It is a truly beautiful country with some incredible scenery from beautiful beaches, stunning mountains to crazy moonscape canyons, so why oh why does there have to be litter everywhere? Absolutely everywhere we went no matter how remote the camping spot we found we always found litter - water bottles, beer bottles, paper and of course cigarette packets and butts. Sort it out Turkey you are spoiling your wonderful country
Tea- everywhere you go you get given tea, and it is much more than a thirst quenching cuppa - its part of the Turkish culture it is a hand of friendship, and once you get used to not having milk and adding just a little sugar its really quite tasty
Smells - now you would think these would be the unpleasant kind but no - Turkey is full of the most wonderful fragrances, possibly because we were there in spring time the blossom was amazing orange blossom, lemon blossom, even pomegranate. they were all intoxicating . the scents just filled the air I would have liked to have put them in a bottle and been able to use it in some of the less fragrant places we have been to!
But mostly what we will take away from our trip to Turkey is the friendliness and generosity of the people. On more than one occasion we were helped out by Turkish people all purely altruistic never wanting anything in return. Always a smile, always a friendly face and always a cup of tea]]>
Turkey part two
Well I think we have to fess up here and say we have been on holiday in Turkey! a sort of holiday within a holiday. We have done some roughing it and overlanding plus a bit of culture and adventure mixed with a sprinkling of luxury thanks to our lovely friends Mandy and Paul. So all in all its been a busy fun few weeks.
Having visited Turkey cough err- 30yrs ago as a back packer I was keen to revisit some of the places that had so impressed then and show them off to John - this has been a mixture of success with some of the sites living up to my memory and others completely ruined by dreadful disregard for natural beauty in favour of tacky tourism.
After leaving Istanbul we headed south to visit Ephesus the ruins of the Greco-Roman ancient city - this was one of the sites that I didn't feel let down by the city and remains were just as magnificent as I remembered them to be all of those years ago. Apparently only 18% of the city has been unearthed and archaeologists continue to make discoveries so it was probably better than 30yrs ago!
We visited in the early evening firstly to avoid the crowds and secondly to avoid the heat - this also gave us the added bonus of fantastic light to take photos. We went around 6:30pm and virtually had the place to ourselves we felt as if we were in an episode of "Up Pompeii! you could almost hear the togas swishing in the wind the wine being drunk and Frankie Howard making some lewd remark, it really was very atmospheric . We performed a little in the Amphitheatre, sat on the latrines and marvelled at the Library all in all a good cultural experience all round. After a great visit we drove around 5km to the nearest beach and camped for night, watching the sun go down first, and then indulging in some star gazing on a dark night - managed to spot the constellation LEO with help of our astronomy app so a great end to a really great day.
The following morning we visited Selcuk the nearest village to Efes and houses the Ephesus museum - well worth your 10TL we were the first people in at 8am - mostly as we were desperate to use the loos after our night wild camping on the beach -( in fact the toilets were worth the 10TL alone in my opinion) however we did look around and was impressed with the number of artifacts and treasures and how well preserved they all were worth a visit and the 10 TL.
We then spent the rest of the day at ST JOHNS CAFE which is a wonderful little cafe in Selcuk which has wifi and great food we ended up staying for breakfast and lunch while catching up on emails etc etc - living without wifi does take some getting used to!
Next on the agenda is Pamukkale again last visited 30yrs ago. here are brilliant white calcite shelves overrunning with mineral waters, which are warm, blue and inviting - well that was what I remember and what all the tourist pictures would have you believe however sadly tourism has taken its toll despite it now being a UNESCO world heritage site
What a disappointment when we get to the top the wonderful pools which are the ones you will see on all of the tourist posters are empty!! It would also seem that the pools are being managed and dammed maybe to preserve them I don't know. It also isn't as gleaming white as I remember either and even late in the evening is still teeming with tourists, goodness only knows what it would be like in the summer months - we take our pictures like a good tourist does and plan to get out of there the next day!
Oludeniz was the next place on the itinerary this is the beautiful beach lagoon seen on all of the ads for Turkey - now I was quite excited about going here again, I knew it would be more commercialised than 30yrs ago but I hadn't banked on it turning into Benidorm and quite honestly that may be doing Benidorm a dis-service! !!! The beach you now have to pay to go on and what were a few coffee shops and low key tourist shops have now become Karaoke bars, Restaurants with neon signs flashing "English breakfast" and lots and lots of tacky tourist shops. To top it all the campsite we were staying at was awful, and didn't even have any hot water - however it did have wifi hence why we stayed!
Needless to say we moved on fairly swiftly to Patara beach apparently one of the longest sandy beaches in the med measuring 18km. Beautiful and what a contrast, here we set up camp and watched one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen - picture are without any filter that's just how it was. We couldn't believe our luck at finding such a sweet place to camp paradise in fact. So after a wonderful evening of sunsets and wine we turned in around 10pm. All was fine until around 11:30pm when we were woken by an urgent banging on the van!!! Apparently this part of the beach and dunes are part of an archaeological site so no camping allowed! So at 11:30pm we pack up our camp and head off to find somewhere else to spend the night still in our JimJams!
We are very lucky to have friends who live in Turkey in Kas who kindly agreed to put up with us for a few nights on our travels - we were so looking forward to seeing them, and their shower, toilet, washing machine and bed! And what a fabulous few days we had here - we almost forgot we were on an overland adventure!
Lovely drinks, with lovely friends
The villa is just up there, view from the yacht - did I mention the yacht?
And we had to swim in that water shame hey!
Thank you so much Mandy and Paul we had a fab time and we will be back!!!
I was hoping to finish more of this blog but the wifi is being very tempremental so this will have to do for now. It is sort of the right place to stop as when planning our route there was always the "Before Mandy" and the "After Mandy" The before Mandy meant we had somewhere to aim for friends to help and a wonderful luxury villa to stay in. The after Mandy is when the real adventure begins no luxury villas and friends to help us out. What we did have to look forward to is picking up 3rd crew member our youngest son James - so all of that will now have to wait until next time!]]>
So after our traumatic journey through Albania we found ourselves in Greece - where Tigger is strip searched again crossing the border. They didn't seem interested in anything other than secret compartments for presumably drugs but irritating that we had to take everything out of the van while they went round knocking on all the panels. If this is only Greece dread to think what it is going to be like later on!
We eventually get into Greece and find our self a free campsite without any facilities but that's ok we make camp and get out our witches hat and make a fire and cook up our dinner!
And very yummy they were too!
We are keen to get going the next day and decide we want a proper campsite with luxuries such as showers and toilets having been without these for a few days now. It would seem that most campsites in Northern Greece don't open until 1st May and its only the 31st April and apparently wild camping is not allowed in Greece - aaarrgh everything is closed - we are hot, bothered and want to stop. We find another campsite just outside of Thessaloniki which is closed BUT if we don't mind not having hot water until the next day we can stay - we don't even ask how much we just want to get out of the van. We spend a two nights at" the campsite without hot water" as it will be known (as they never really got it going while we were there) just chilling, sorting the van - which we do on a regular basis, and enjoying not driving! We did eventually have a luke warm shower which was better than nothing!
Beautiful but the water is a bit too chilly for a dip
Our Entrance to Turkey
We eventually get to the Turkish border where the armed guards are waiting with their machine guns and then Tigger decides to announce his arrival by beeping his horn, loudly and continuously!! The Guards look at us suspiciously at the same time as grabbing on to their machine guns with both hands, meanwhile we are frantically pulling over to one side waving our arms in the air manically and shouting" Kaput, Kaput"!! John jumps out with his trusty leatherman to take off the front of the van where he can disable Tiggers horn , The guards stand over John with their guns poised as he quietens our beast - We have one hormonal Tigger who needs to get his horn sorted out!
Turkey so far has been a real mixture of extremes, from wild camping without any to facilities to the complete luxury of a hotel. In my former days before I was an adventurer I would have turned my nose up at a Raddison thinking them nothing more than a business hotel preferring to stay somewhere more exclusive and "Boutique" Well that's all changed for sure!! I loved the Raddison couldn't fault it on any level, and the staff were lovely, helpful and captivated by Tigger, so I will do nothing other than big up the Raddison Blu in Istanbul. Our wild camping has also been better than expected, the en suite facilites are actually pretty good
Raddison Blu Shower - which one do you prefer?
Istanbul was fun we visited all the things you should, The Blue Mosque which required us to don extra clothing - I have to say I felt quite claustrophobic having something over my head the whole time and irritated that John didn't have to experience the same - ok so I'm not going to be a Muslim then!
Aya Sofya the Cathedral in Istanbul is bigged up in the tourist books but we were a bit disappointed, other than having a fresco of the Virgin Mary surrounded by the symbols for Allah and Muhammad, not something you see everyday and a cat (a real one ) sitting on the alter - who was getting more of a photo shoot than the Virgin Mary - it wasn't anything too special and at 30TL for entry in our opinion not really worth it. To be fair it was extremely busy and there was lots of renovation work going on so we may not have seen it at its best
An unexpected highlight were the Cisterns which we would thoroughly recommend (as soon as you get past the guys trying to get you to have your photo taken dressed up as a Sultan! ) they are in Roman origin and have been sympathetically renovated, apparently according to a friend have an amazing echo although we didn't actually try that out! They are also a great place to get out of the sun and delightlfully cool and serene.
We visited the Grand Bazaar the largest covered Bazaar in the world and it really was huge, not being able to buy anything because we don't have the room was torture! We are going to have to find a solution to this my retail urges won't cope! As we HAD to buy something we stopped for an Apple tea - definitely the best so far served in a caffitere type pot with what looks like chunks of dried apple - after infusing for a couple of minutes we had to add further ingredients cinnemon, mint and a piece of orange - all in all yummy yummy!
Lastly we were scrubbed, lathered , washed and massaged in a Turkish Hamman - it was sort of relaxing - in bits! Don't think we are going to be this clean for a while! We didn't really have enough time in Istanbul (a recurring theme?) but we did enjoy our time there it has a great atmosphere and we ate some wonderful food another one on the list to come back to!
Cisterns - where there is also an upside down Medusa head!
The Blue Mosque
Mosque ladies wear
Bye Bye Istanbul you were fun
After a two days of luxury in Istanbul its back to reality and the road We head off over the Bospherous in search of Asia!
Goodbye Europe Hello Asia!
So to sum up so far
12 Countries (can you guess what they are? Answers at the bottem of the page - bet you miss one!)
Campsites 10 nights
Wild camping 4 nights (if you include one night in a service station car park - well I was pretty wild to be sleeping there for the night!)
I’m proud to say I have had clean underwear every day bar one and have moisturised and put make up on every day. Showers have been less frequent, but we are managing to wash in the van and I am forever grateful for the feminine hygiene gifts I received before we left – for anyone doing a similar trip would put high on list of essentials!
Finding things is becoming easier and we are slowly working out the the best places to keep everyday items, so we don’t have to spend half an hour looking for a towel. Tigger does have a habit of hiding things as well, for instance I know I brought my kindle charger – As I am now at the critical part on the book (thriller whodunit) the kindle needs charging – charger nowhere to be found – will I ever know who didit? We are also getting used to constantly having to unpack and pack the whole van to do virtually anything - so is the life of an adventurer!
When choosing a camping spot it is mostly dependent on my bladder – forget the lets not be too near the loos – in the Curran camp its lets park as close as we can, as my twice nightly visits to the loo do not need long treks-the bladder is not that good. If we are wild camping then it has to be somewhere we can just hop out and be “discrete”! We will move on to “The Stool” ie the thing you can sit on in another part of the blog as too much detail for here!
We are slowly settling into a sort of routine, and both finding our roles. John is driver, second navigator, mechanic, bed assembler, bed de-assembler, general maintenance and fixer of most things. I do a bit of navigating and a bit of cooking and cleaning, making the van look pretty plus quite a bit of moaning and worrying of where we might find the next campsite, toilet, supermarket etc.
My major role however is chief tour leader and I decide what we get to visit/sightsee. This is definitely my favourite bit, but it is hampered by not having good access to the internet for research purposes, hence I feel it is important to stay in hotels occasionally giving us an opportunity to be able to do quality research and therefore enriching the rest of the trip. The hotels need to be of a good enough standard to have good WIFI connection otherwise it’s a waste of money! John however I don’t think feels the same but I “NEED” the Hotel/WIFI for the sake of the trip – not to mention the bed, shower, toilet –maybe I should re-name my part of the blog “The Reluctant Adventurer”
We have done a lot of driving and I can’t believe how busy we have been, I was hoping to have mastered the Cyrillic alphabet, and the periodic table by now (two of my many objectives for the trip) but haven’t had a chance to look at either – navigating has been pretty full on when driving and once we camp its eat, clean up (which you need to do immediately otherwise as there isn’t any room to do anything else) and get the bed ready.
This then leaves a bit of time for evening entertainment. We have taken to playing cards and I would just like it to be known than Gin Rummy is a stupid game – however I think Crib maybe better. Do let us know of any other games you would suggest that don’t induce divorce.
I am sure things will evolve over the next few months and it will be interesting to look back on these early days – what I do know is that at the moment we seem to have a shed load of stuff we don’t need – but when we are in the middle of nowhere…………………………..
Answers to the Countries : France, Belgium, Luxembourg. Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina (that’s the one that got you!) Montenegro, Albania, Greece and Turkey]]>
Borders seem to be becoming progressively more of a hassle, at the Turkey/Georgia border James and I have to get out of the van and have to queue with what seems like hundreds of Turks/Georgians to get through customs while John goes through with the van. We are in a queue with lots of very pushy and dare I say it smelly sweaty people - by the time we are in Georgia James says he feels as if he has been violated!
Georgia is located in the Caucaus region of Euro Asia. Located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe Not European but not Asian - if it were European it would have the highest mountains as in the north of the country, the range is over 5000m, bigger than Mont Blanc! Unfortunately we don't have time to visit as we need to catch a ferry in Azerbaijan never mind next time
Immediately it feels different to Turkey, how can that be a small strip of land can make one place feel so different to another ? The biggest difference we notice is the driving - if we thought Turkish driving was a bit dodgy then Georgian driving takes things to a totally new level. So this is how it works, Georgian drivers will overtake anywhere and I truly mean anywhere, blind corners, approaching the top of a hill, when it seems impossible to overtake because there is another car coming!!! the norm is that the car being overtaken brakes while the oncoming traffic breaks and everyone moves slightly over for the overtaking vehicle then with a bit of luck we will avoid an accident - now that may all seem bad enough but you need to throw in to the mix random animals on the road, we were used to dogs but now we had to look out for cows, pigs and dogs and not just on what we might call B roads but A roads and motorways!
Slip road on to motorway just need to negotiate the cows!
We decide to spend our first night along the black sea coast we are hoping that it may be more alluring in Georgia, than it had been in Turkey. we wild camp just outside of a place called Poti which could have been so lovely if it hadn't been for the rubbish, not so different then! a beautiful spot ruined by garbage. We gain a couple of friends for the night - two sweetie pie little dogs, oh how easy it would be just to pop them in the van, we miss our furry friends from home so much.
James woke us in the night to let us know that a police car had just pulled up near us, we have no idea if wild camping is allowed in Georgia but they haven't bothered us so presumably they are just checking us out, me on the other hand now can't sleep at all as we are obviously going to be murdered in our beds by corrupt policeman - must have nodded off at some point and still alive the next day!
Next stop Tbilisi the Capital, not usually a big fan of cities but this one is lovely. It so reminds me of Paris, lots of tree lined streets, coffee shops and a general relaxed and European feel - even the people are a little grumpy like the Parisians we almost feel at home!
A little left bankish don't you think?
Interesting fact - Georgia has a population of 5million of which 1million live in the Capital Tbilisi, The state of Georgia in the US has nearly 10million population!
Even some of the signs look a bit French
We have a couple of days to head for the border so decide to visit a Monastery which is bigged up in the Lonely Planet book. The monastery is 50k off the main road, and a very bumpy off road 50k but the upside is the stunning scenery beautiful rolling meadows full of early summer flowers beautiful.
We stop for a photo/wee stop and I consult the all knowing Lonely Planet book, which informs me that we "should beware of Poisonous Vipers in the area especially between May and July!!!! It is June!!!! I call the boys back from their wee/photo spot trying to convey how dangerous it is out there - they laugh at me, but not for long! As we are driving along the bumpy road an enormous- (stretches arms out wide) snake crosses the road, now John says it gets bigger every time I tell the story but it truly was at the very least a metre long and really really fat at least the diameter of a golf ball (according to John) more like a tennis ball according to me - maybe somewhere inbetween?? Consequently this means i don't want to get out of the van at all!
We eventually get to the monastery too late to visit but thought we could camp for the night nearby so we went to ask the benevolent monks if it would be ok, Well we have never met such a miserable bunch of holy men they were so rude, they were very indifferent to us camping but verging on the downright unpleasant, and in my mind scary so now if we survived the venomous snakes we would no doubt be murdered in our beds by the crazy monks. As it transpired we had a really peaceful night in the Georgian hills unbothered by crazy monks or snakes.
Lots of these little guys around
The following morning we visited the monastery which had the most exquisite chapel and bought some of the wine made by the miserable monks which felt exciting but like the monks was disappointing before heading back along the 50k bumpy road
Beautiful little Chaple at the Monastary
We did stay another night in Georgia close to the border village of Lagodekhi where there is a picturesque national park, we managed a short walk in the very alpine like woods again reminding us of France, there were even snow capped mountains in the distance, it would have been good to stay and explore more but we need to get to Azerbaijan as we have ferry to catch!
General overall impressions were very European like country, people not over friendly and completely mad drivers - Would love to come back and explore properly as we only really skimmed the surface of what is on offer. As we are uploading this a few weeks after the visit we were very sad to hear of the floods in Tbilisi it was a very pretty city and we only hope the damage is not beyond repair.]]>
We have heard lots of horror stories about Azerbaijan, how the police are really corrupt and the people are unfriendly so as we cross the border from Georgia we are greeted with this sign it doesn't do anything to make us feel better!
Usual stuff James and I have to get out of the van while John drives through, glad I'm not on my own going to miss James when he goes. We go through customs uneventfully coming out the other end to wait for Tigger. Lots of taxi drivers mill around the exit/entry to the border - "taxi Mrs, taxi"? It's really really hot there is nowhere to wait, no seats and no shade, we ask one of the border guards how long it usually takes to get a vehicle through, anything from between 2 and 5hours!!!!!!! we don't even have any water, this could be the worse border crossing yet.
Tigger eventually comes through in around two and a half hours so it wasn't as bad as anticipated. however we have a problem, we have visas for us for one month but the border guard will only give Tigger a pass of 4days, which means a big rush to get across the country plus we can't get into Turkmenistan for 6 days so what will do? We decided to head for Baku and hope it will sort itself out what else are we going to do?!
After checking out the speed limits we head off with some trepidation, as seems to be the case when entering a new country. What will the roads be like?, What will the drivers be like?, what will the people be like? The roads and the drivers are most definitely better than Georgia, so far so good.
We head for a small town called Sheki known for its Caravansay and supposed to be very pretty. We are so ready for a stop, after wild camping for 2 nights and in the heat of the day we are more than ready for a hot shower and some clean sheets, you could say the van is humming!
The "Caravansary" is where travellers of the silk route would have stopped for the night to be fed and watered they are characterised by their large central courtyard. it is very atmospheric, as we arrive in the late afternoon the light is wonderful along the arched corridors - and just as a bonus it even has decent wifi!
We have to get some Azerbaijan doo dahs (think they were Manet) so pop into town. The town central square is taken over by men sitting outside drinking tea, putting the worlds to rights and playing backgammon we decide to have a cup of tea and once seated and served realise that John is the only man in shorts on and I am the only woman in the entire square of at least 100 men, should I even be there? We drink our tea a bit more self consciously now, when it is time to pay the owner of the Cafe welcomes us to Azerbaijan and says the tea is on him - how lovely and what a surprise
Because we are lazy and the restaurant looks pretty we decided to eat at the hotel, the restaurant is situated in the garden, we are told there is no alcohol and a limited menu, never mind we aren't so hungry and anyway, we have wifi in the room so let's have a quick something to eat and then get back to the wifi zone - we are more hungry for the wifi than the food! We order from the limited menu, John's chicken looks like road kill that has been scrapped of the road, James and I are happy with our veggie option of a tomato a bit of cucumber. Just as we are about to leave for the delights of the wifi the waiter approaches us and says that the gentleman at the next table who is a highly eminent politician I'll have you know would like to buy us a ceremonial tea plus anything else we would like, he also sends over vodka shots and a bottle of wine - sorry thought there was no alcohol?? the food doesn't stop coming and none of us are that hungry!
Our feast sent over by Mr Politician
We go over and thank Mr Eminent Politician and there is lots of handshaking, smiling and back patting and we work out that he wants to welcome us to Azerbaijan. We also realise that we are here just before the start of the European Games which Azerbaijan is hosting in Baku in just a few days time. It is the first of its kind and it is being called the European Olympic Games and has a torch to be lit and opening ceremony just like the Olympics - hmm now not being cynical but I wonder if the hospitality would have anything to do with this?
Our ceremonial tea in the Samavar
Our original plan was to take in more of Azerbaijan but with the restriction on Tigger with his 4 day visa we have to move much faster than we had planned. We are going to head for Baku but we have a spare night to go visit the mud volcanoes! They are sort of geysers but through mud, probably geographically it has a special term but mud bubbles with farty noises is what it boils down to!
To call them volcanoes is a bit of an exaggeration but they are an amusing distraction and a novel place to camp for the night with the "volcanoes" farting around you. It's good to be wild camping with no one else around and we enjoy our bush kitchen
Next morning we head off to Baku, where we will wait for the ferry. Our apartment which is supposed to have wifi is rubbish but the city itself is fantastic. It is so hyped up for the European games which will start in the next few days it is buzzing! We even get interviewed by the Azerbaijan TV while walking around !! Everyone in the city is so keen to know "do you like our city" and "hello, hello, where are you from?" Everyone wants to be our friend.
Yes this is the real fame of Azerbaijan!
And they love their modern statues!
Fun is had in Baku but we need to catch the ferry to Turkmenistan and we are worried about Tigger's visa running out. The website http://caravanistan.com/ is a great website for anything in Central Asia and had telephone numbers for the ferry company and a girl who spoke English so we could at least see if there was a ferry leaving. You are unable to book a crossing on the ferry as it goes when it is full plus it is weather dependant so if the weather isn't good then the ferry doesn't go and Baku is known as the windy city! We telephoned and were told that (think Russian accent in your head) "there is no ferry today" this happened three days in a row!! We are very worried about Tigger's visa what will happen will we be fined large amounts of money for being illegal is this where the Azerbaijan's turn nasty??? As it happens we have to go to some customs office in the centre and pay around $20 however if we had gone to the customs place before hand we could have had an extension and not paid anything, so again nothing sinister.
We park Tigger in the port and wait for the ship. All the customs guys are very friendly and keen to help us there are also a little litter of puppies just where we have parked the van - surely no one would notice if we just took one!? We buy our ticket once it has been confirmed the boat is going , its not cheap nearly $700 for us and Tigger to cross the Caspian sea but we don't have much choice so just get on with it.
So who is getting on? Mostly Turkish lorry drivers and a French guy who is a Dragoman (adventure overland tour company) driver with his truck. We all wait in the port for 12hrs before being allowed on the ship. There is a short reprieve where we can see the "Flames" of Baku from a distance and there is a firework display, no doubt in preparation for the games.
The crossing - so where are the swimming pool and spa facilities? Well that would be funny if there were any facilities at all - toilets were at the most basic and only used on an absolute have to basis the showers, well lets not even talk about them! We were shown to our cabin which had bunk beds and blankets, no sheets, and very smelly and very dirty. The communal room was mostly taken over by the chain smoking Turkish lorry drivers who as always very friendly but smelly none the less - this was going to be a long crossing. We spent most of our time in our cabin, we did have a cup of tea on deck but other than that we ate from our reserves not quite trusting the delights of the ship.
Thankfully we arrived in Turkembashi 24hours after we left Baku, apparently it is very common to sit just outside the port for a number of days (due to bad weather the winds we think) before being able to dock. Someone was looking down on us that day as we were able to get in immediately.
so overall impression of Az - Great, not sure where all the awful people are but we didn't meet any. Really don't want to be cynical and believe it was all because of the European games as most of the people we met seemed very genuine and friendly, just a shame we couldn't have spent more time in the country as it seemed to have a lot to offer]]>
Montenegro was a bit disappointing and sad, we kept waiting for it to get better but in never did. Same old broken down feel and we only have Albania to look forward to tonight!
Cross the border with no issues and late at night we have no prospect of a camp site but wild camping is permitted. Blimey, we thought some of the other places we had been through we a bit poor but this takes the biscuit so far. 3 wheeler motorcycle contraptions loaded up carrying plastic and tin cans for recycling cash.
WE were told the roads would be awful here but they are not so bad. So far. And then…a few pot holes, then a few more, string them together and where the hell has the road gone?!
Its late now and navigator directs us towards a river off the beaten track where it is hoped there will be a pretty spot to pitch up. WRONG! Down a small rough tarmac track, into the depths of fen-like farm territory. Tarmac disappears and replaced with deeply rutted rock and rubble track, perfectly fine if your car is a Massey Fergusson!
Deeper into pikey land and we are looking for the kid with the banjo. And I don’t even have my bass to reply with! We get to the end of the road and there is the river. No pretty place this, just dirt tracks, farm buildings and locals looking at us. A group of kids look at us with a quizzical smile – they are very confused by the appearance of Tigger and the wazzocks who have got themselves lost. They smile and wave back to us as we make the return journey towards the tarmac about 2 kilometres hence we came.A couple of farmers on bikes give us a friendly wave on our way. It’s a surreal place but I’m not sad to get the hell outFull steam out of Albania via the Capital, Terane, but we are severely hindered by the worsening condition of the roads and an unfortunate navigational error in the city where we head for the as yet un-built motorway and get horribly lost in the back streets. Even the main dual carriageway through the centre of the city is in a terrible state. Unfinished, half repaired dug up and left for now! One gets the feeling it is always like this and will continue to be so.
We come to a village at the end of a lake, the men and boys are congregating outside a bar along with the packs of wild dogs - who eventually move out of the way for us to pass, we go to the end of the road, turn around in a 9 point procedure, and head back down the lakeside road to a couple of likely but previously rejected stopping points. We pick one which is no more than about a single cars space on the outside of a bend, get approximately level and stop! That will have to do. The various old folk on bicycles, younger lads on mopeds and the odd bus give us the odd wave and don’t seem much interested so we are good for the night.
Tiggers resting place for the night
To be fair the view wasn't too bad
The follwoing day after an interesting nights sleep we decide to deviate through Macedonia to Greece as it looks slightly shorter. Tigger gets stripped searched by the Albanian authorities who are a very pleasant bunch of guys. The young lad takes our card and is now following us on Facebook. They are interested in us from a journey point of view and we have a fun chat discussing where we are from and where we are going. Apparently our cooking knife is a bit too big though but he lets us off with a caution. ( Thank you ? ).
The Macedonian police want us to pay another €50 for a green card for 1 day so we decide not to go ahead and we turn back and re-enter Albania and enter Greece further south at the end of the afternoon.
Side note from Suzanne, all Albanians drive like they have a death wish and are complete lunatics on the road. They overtake at any given opportunity, on blind corners in fact overtaking at high speed absolutely anywhere is the norm - I looked up causes of death for Albania and if you don't die of a smoking related disease (which eveyone does all the time, along with talking on the mobile phone all while driving) Then they die from RTA - enough said!
Also we passed through some beautiful countryside and interesting coloured houses!
Brightly coloured houses are the order of the day in Albania!
It occurred to me that followers of the blog who join along the way won't know what we are doing (and for those friends who didn't pay attention when I was endlessly going on) thought we would just go over the route and what we hope to achieve in leg one
Once the decision had been made to commit to this adventure we had to pin down a route to go around the world– now if you look at a map of the world it looks very easy to pick your route across the countries you would like to visit to get from A to B in reality it is not easy at all!
You have to consider visas, borders, countries to avoid due to political unrest, borders, the time of year you will be in the particular country and borders ! Yes borders are a bit pain in the proverbial some are not open to international travellers, and they are invariably never where you want them to be.
Our route has changed more times than I care to remember, originally we were going to drive to Vladivostok (hankering back to our original idea of taking the Trans Siberian express) however this would mean we would end up shipping over to America and arriving in the States during their winter, this isn’t what we wanted to do, so plan B leaps into action and is what we have finally decided on:
Leg one is the most detailed part of the journey so far, as it’s too difficult too plan so far in advance for the other parts of the journey so we will plan Legs two and three en route – all routes are proposed and who knows how closely we will stick to them! If all goes to plan we leave the UK on 19th April
Leg one – France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, will be fairly rushed through Croatia and Montenegro we would like to linger a little. Then onwards through Albania, Greece and arrive in Turkey where we will spend a few days in Istanbul before we meander down to Kas where we have a lovely friend who has a lovely villa with an infinity pool but more importantly a washing machine and toilet!!
We will then head off in search of Troglodytes in Cappadocia for a few days before picking up James (number two son) in Ankara. James isn’t the only thing we will be picking up as we have to get our Uzbek visas here as well. We then strike north and will travel along the black sea coast and into Georgia, I haven’t research too much about it but understand it is supposed to be stunning and produces very good wine apparently, you can count on more of that being reported on!
Azerbaijan on the other hand only seems to be famous for the European Song Contest and grumpy and corrupt police however we will have to make up our own minds on that one. The most important thing about Azerbaijan is that it has the ferry where we will cross into Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan looks to be exciting as we have to be escorted through the country by an official government guide– The guide will be with us in the car for the whole time other than when we are in the capital where are deemed to be allowed to roam free! We are here for 5 day before we cross the border to Uzbekistan.
In Uzbekistan we hope to visit the ever shrinking Aral sea, before our culture bombardment in Khiva, Bukhara and Samkarand – this is the heart of the silk route and if the guide books are anything to go by a bit of a showstopper.
After Uzbekistan we will move to the mountains and lakes of Kyrgyzstan – which gets me every time with the spelling and will therefore now be referred to as KY!!! Hopefully here we can get in a few days horse riding, along with some hiking and general outdoorsy stuff as we will be mostly wild camping. The great thing about KY is that it is a 60day visa free zone! So we are not as restricted as here as other places. Next stop Kazakhstan where we will say goodbye to James and he flys back to the UK ?
Kazakhstan we have to get through quickly as we only 15days visa free days. On to Russia or more precisely Siberia only here for a few days before we enter into Genghis Khan Territory and Mongolia.
We will have a month in Mongolia where we hope mostly - not to get lost! Tarmac and road signs are in short supply. We have to get our visas for China in Ulaanbaatar before meeting up with the group we are travelling through China with. Again we have to have a guide to take us through but we are travelling with 3 other vehicles so it may well be party time!
We exit China into Laos and transit into Thailand where we intend to find a small apartment and have a well earned rest for a couple of months. Hopefully Emily (daughter) and Matthew (number one son) will join us for Christmas.
A number of friends have also expressed an interest in visiting us while we are stationary and in living in a place that doesn’t have wheels, - I don’t know why they don’t want to make use of our “Guest Tent” when we are in the van – there is no pleasing some folk!
Here endeth leg one - if we have any money left and are still talking leg two will consist of travelling the pan american highway from north to south America
Let Three will be travelling up through Africa - however that is a long way off!]]>
What a fantastic send off we had from our lovely friends and family. As reported here Cambridge News Paper !!]]>
Day Minus 4
So 8mths ago we decided to buy the van and head off around the world, you would think 8mths would be enough time to get ready, think again!
The Van – this has taken much longer than anticipated not particularly anyone fault other than ours for not getting it started earlier than after Christmas. If we thought something would take one week it has invariably taken two or three. I think you could have re-wired a house quicker than it has taken to wire the van but it is Tres complicated, however we do have some very pretty lights and nearly as many sockets as are in my house plus solar energy to boot! Consequently the van is still having work done!
More “technical stuff “ will be updated in the Van section with big thanks to all the amazing guys who have worked so hard on getting it ready for us
Route planning - anyone thinking of heading across the “Stans” should know this requires military precision planning due to the number of visas required. You can’t get visas too far in advance, as they will run out and some of them we will have to pick up en route – which is always a bit worrying what if they don’t give them to us!!! For a number of countries such as Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan you have to have a Letter of Invitation which needs to come from a tour agent. Would recommend David at Stantours he has been very helpful and tolerant of my daily worrying emails about something or other, I think he will breathe a sigh of relief once we have gone!
Azerbaijan Evisa still yet to turn up but David at StanTours has reassured me (daily) that they will
Would also NOT recommend putting the wrong address on the self-addressed envelope to return your passports from the Turkmenistan Embassy. That caused a few heated words to say the least, but after a few frantic phone calls to the post office and speaking to a very nice helpful man our passports did eventually find their way to Girton Rd, Cambridge as opposed to Cambridge Rd, Girton – phew!
Packing – well we haven’t as yet! Have started to put a few bits in the van but can’t really finish until the work is finished. One thing I am pretty sure of is that it isn’t all going to fit in. Unfortunately Tigger hasn’t turned out to be a Tardis as I had hoped
Here it is the long awaited blog! Our friends and family have been pestering us to get the blog up and running but we have been too busy organising and believe me planning a round the world trip does take some organising!
We are frantically writing this in the last week before we leave, having left everything to the last minute and not really sure where to start. No doubt it will be an evolving process which will include a steep learning curve and hopefully get more interesting as we A actually get on the travels and B find our style and get better at writing our rants and musings.
Our vision of the blog is to relay our adventures the high and the low points, for the amusement of our friends and family plus also to help other overlanders who may follow in our path, we have learnt so much from other blogs it will be good to be able to put something back into the overlanding community. We will try and populate each section of the blog as we go along but it may take a little while so bear with us.
We love Tigger, we love camping and living the outdoor life, but every now and then we hanker for the comforts of the real world, wifi, washing machines, showers, an oven and space!
Long-term travel means being very careful with the pennies, so unless we are in countries where our pound goes an awfully long way, which isn't very many these days (Thanks, Brexit) staying in hotels is a rare treat, so what is the alternative for a bit of downtime from Tigger? Well, we could try couch-surfing or stay with friends but sometimes all we really want is our own space to bake lots cakes and binge watch box sets on TV, house-sitting just about ticks all the boxes!
Why House Sit?
• Gives us access to Wifi, which we need for research purposes for our travels, visas etc blog writing time, skyping friends and family and nearly always researching spare parts for Tigger
• It gives us an address to have things sent to - usually spare parts for Tigger!
• Gives us the opportunity to work on Tigger, without the hassle of having to put him back together every night so we can go to bed
• Laundry facilities
• Often use of a vehicle, so we can still go out even if Tigger is being repaired
• It's a great way to visit Cities, Overlanding in a City environment is not always easy, and hotels are usually too expensive
• Use of a kitchen, we love to cook and we don't have an oven in the van, the opportunity to bake is always welcome and to cook those oh so missed dishes from home
• Introduction to local neighbourhood attractions; the homeowners often leave a list of good places "not to miss" and on occasions, we have been given parking permits, and guest passes for places of nearby interest
John is always happy when we housesit - it usually means cake!
• The primary responsibility is to look after pets, we have looked after cats, dogs, chickens and tortoises, and once all of those at the same time! I don't suppose you have to be an animal lover but it helps - fortunately, we do like animals, and especially love having a dog to walk, gets you out exploring the local area
• General house stuff, watering of plants, collecting mail and keeping the house safe and tidy. Summer, you are more likely to have things to do in the garden, and we would usually mow the lawn before the homeowners get home. John especially keen to do if there is a ride on lawn mower to be had!
Fabulous Sit in Bath UK, views from the bedroom window don't get much better and fresh eggs every day
How to get a house sit
There are plenty of websites out there, by far the biggest and most popular being Trusted Housesitters, which is the one we use, It is a worldwide site and we have house sat in the UK, Singapore, Malaysia and the USA, the cost to join is £89 per year but if you use this link you can get a 20% discount and we get a free couple of months. It has served us pretty well as we are now on our 14th house through this site.
Other sites include
MindMyHouse $20 annual joining fee, International site
Nomador $89 annual joining fee, International but specialises in European house sits
House Sit Match £35/£75 Standard or Premium memberships, International but with a focus on UK and Europe
This is far from an exclusive list but gives you an idea of what is out there
Top Tips for bagging the house-sit you want
• Get the daily email alerts and act on them asap! You would be amazed how many people are out there looking for house-sits, if you are looking for a popular destination like New York, for instance, you are going to have to be very quick - these guys get lots of applications and are snapped up quickly. What Is particularly annoying is when you don't get an answer back from your email even to say the position has been filled, in our experience, this tends to occur when the house owner has been overwhelmed with applications, and you never get an answer, if we don't hear back within a 48hours then we presume the position has been filled and move on.
• You need to make a good profile about yourselves, which will be seen by all house owners and then you need a cover letter for each application- we have a template, but we always personalise for each sit, making sure we mention the pets by name and talk about what experience we have had with that particular type of animal, If you haven't looked after Chickens/ Iguana /snakes before then fess up but let them know how keen you are to learn about poultry /reptile husbandry!!
It's worth spending some time on this, as it's your CV for house sitting, most websites give you an idea of what to write, talk a little about yourself, why you want to house sit, what experience you have had. An advantage as Overlanders is that our prime objective is to be in the house not out sightseeing, although we do do that as well, but probably not as much as someone who is using it as a holiday opportunity! Homeowners seem to like the fact we will be around for their pets rather than out holidaying
• Always offer to Skype/Facetime, so you can have a face to face chat, there is only so much you can put over in your application, whereas with a real chat we find people warm to you much more. If possible (and we have done this a few times) go and visit the guys and meet them and the pets, this has worked really well for us and won us a couple of cracking sits. It's remarkable how many people leave advertising their sit until the last minute so you might easily find a sit in the city where you are heading in the next few days
• Be flexible with your dates - often people like you to arrive the day before they leave and be able to run through the day to day stuff, others are happy for you to turn up and leave without ever meeting them.
We genuinely fell in love with Bertie, and could easily have dognapped him!
Before the house sit starts
• Make sure you know what the rules are before you take the sit, for instance, if you think you will have guests, visitors, check this is ok with the homeowner - mostly guys are more than happy for you to entertain, but occasionally they would rather no one else is in the house, if this is going to be a problem then you need to know beforehand. When we were in the UK we always asked if our children could visit or stay over usually it was never a problem
• It's interesting we have had sits where we have never met the homeowners and keys have just been left in a designated place or with a neighbour and others where we have had to give copies of our passport or sign long agreements that state we won't have wild parties -really! So expect one extreme to the other, in our experience, no two sits are quite the same
• Remember this is a two-way agreement, yes you are getting free accommodation, but you are also offering an amazing service. No doubt it would cost the homeowners quite a bit to have their fur babies looked after in kennels and catteries, plus the trauma to the animal. There have been a couple of sits we decided not to take further due to the commitments required, make sure you are happy with what is expected of you.
• Get everything you can think of sorted out BEFORE the sit starts, we had a sit where John's prescription glasses were chewed by the dog, they were on a high table, not a coffee table but he was a bit of a naughty puppy, gorgeous but naughty - The owners never warned us he was a chewer, but it taught us the lesson to check who will pay for these sort of accidents should they occur - and yes they did pay up for his specs in the end. We did contact Trusted House Sitters, but they were not interested in helping with the issue, stating we should have our own insurance in place and agreements should be made beforehand - your £89 per year doesn't extend to helping you if there is a problem it would seem!
Oops, there go the prescription specs!
Once you are there
• We always offer to take and pick up from airport/railway station if needed, saves a taxi fare at the very least for the homeowner and they are always very grateful
• Keep in touch via, email, WhatsApp or facebook - send lots of pictures of the lovely fur babies having fun, we message on average a couple of times a week
• Most people will want you to finish off any food that is about to go off in the fridge, however if you use anything else and finish it then replace it - I usually agree with the guys that we can use spices, oils, dishwasher stuff but it's very much on a house to house basis and how long you are there -
• We now take photos of where we find things and of the oven - sounds ridiculous but we always forget where things go in a big kitchen and the oven, can get dirtier than you think - oven cleaner is a good house sit staple!
• Always, always, always leave the property as clean if not cleaner than you found it. I always try and wash the bed linen and remake the bed as well
• If staying longer than a weekend we leave a meal in the fridge for their return. If they have been on a big international flight and will have jet lag, we will usually leave a supper in the fridge, if it's just been a week somewhere not too far then especially if for a family I'll bake a cake or some buns. This isn't necessary at all, but feel it is a nice touch which always goes down well.
• Leave yourself time to handover before you leave or if that's not possible leave a note on how everything has been. Ask if they can give you a reference on the house-sitting website as this is important in securing further house sits. Follow up with an email outlining the fun you had at their house, everyone we have sat for has wanted us to have a good time. Once you have a couple of good references behind you, you are off!
We are now on our 22nd house sit in Los Angeles, California for Christmas 2017, looking after two adorable Pit balls, who would have thought I would ever say adorable and Pitbull in the same sentence, but Charlie Brown and Daisy really are, see what surprises await you with house sitting!. This won't be our last housesit by far, it works well for us as a respite from Overlanding, and we are already thinking about Mexico in Feb or March it really is a win-win situation - happy house sitting!
Ernie and John, Steed and his tongue and Malu the puppy]]>
Having missed the autumn/fall in the East last year we were determined to catch it this time around, we had a vague romantic plan of driving up the East Coast, taking in the outstanding autumn colours -dazzling reds, shimmering golds and beautiful bronzes; we could go for long hikes on crisp autumnal days, camp in the forest and then cook our supper over a crackling campfire - funny how things never quite turn out how you imagine!
What we hadn't banked on was difficulty in finding places to camp, wild camp spots are like unicorn poo, the occasional place we found was often accompanied by hunters and their guns. There were plenty of tourist campsites but they were eye wateringly expensive some as much as $70 or more. State Parks are great, but you don't often get more than a pit toilet and that will set you back $20-$30 per night as well, that's if you can get in as you often need to book in advance. It was definitely easier to camp in Outer Mongolia than on the East Coast of the USA! The problem is we have been spoilt, because in the West and certainly in Canada you can just slip off the road, tuck yourself into a little spot and settle down for a few days. The East, however, is much more populated and seemingly every bit of land is owned by someone, you know its owned by someone as there are numerous POSTED signs usually accompanied by NO TRESSPASSING signs to make it very clear that parking for the night is not wanted or allowed.
We did find places usually with the help of Freecampsites.net this was the best resource we found, however many of the stops were either Walmart or Casinos. Our usual go-to app is ioverlander.com which we used all through Asia and Canada, but it just isn't as reliable in this part of the US, the App is reliant on members contributing and sharing wild camping spots as well as legitimate campsites but many of the spots are out of date, we stopped using it for a couple of reasons, firstly on more than one occasion we drove a significant number of miles out of our way just to find the spot didn't exist at all or had been "posted" meaning it was no longer available or secondly the official campsites listed were just too expensive. According to the website, they are addressing the issue of updating the app so it may be better in the future
So what did we do? Well we did find the odd sweet spot, but they were few and far between, we used a few of the State Park campsites especially along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and we chanced our luck a few times in places we thought we probably we shouldn't, and got moved on by Mr Policeman a couple of times, and lastly, we slept at Walmart carparks way too often!
Perfect spot for the night, but Mr Ranger didn't think so "No camping Sir"
Walmart really isn't our favourite camp spot but it serves a purpose, if you need to cover a lot of miles and want to turn up somewhere at night when its dark then it's great, you know there will be bathrooms (that's just a toilet for the English speaking English not a bathroom with showers !) a relatively safe place to park (I'm sure there have been issues in the car parks be we have yet to hear of any) and you can pick up your groceries as well. However it isn't a particularly lovely place to camp - you aren't encouraged to get your table and chairs out, and nor would you really want to, it's much more of a place just to park for the night. In the beginning, I was worried about going to the store in my jimjams for my 2 am pee, what would people think, It could be very embarrassing? but soon realised that they have probably seen much worse than a middle-aged Brit in her fleecy pyjamas and a sweat top, nobody batted an eyelid, common practice it would seem, people wandering the aisles in their nightwear - there is even a hashtag #peopleofwalmart look it up I might even feature!!!
The East Coast is graced by some amazing cities which we really wanted to visit, but cities and van life are pretty much a contradiction in terms, it's a bit like saying Tigger is a great van for stealth camping in, it just doesn't work. I know some Overlanders are happy to park on the street in busy built-up areas, but firstly Tigger is sort of noticeable, secondly we don't have a toilet, its one thing getting out to pee in the middle of the night in a forest, something quite different in a city, and thirdly we weren't happy about leaving Tigger on the street all day while we were off sightseeing especially in places like NYC, so we came up with three different solutions for our city stays
No 1 - Stay with friends! Obviously this isn't an option if you don't have friends in said City you want to visit but you could, of course, go Couch Surfing and use their parking slot, or often in the VW world there are people who will offer their driveways for you to camp on, there are numerous Facebook groups which you can join for this, I'm sure its the same for Landrovers or Toyota groups. However we did happen to have some friends who live just outside Philadelphia, the main reason for our visit was to see them but our day trip to Philly and the Barnes Foundation was well worth it.
Apparently "Philidelphia" is spelt incorrectly on the Liberty Bell -who knew! And how many trees have you seen that have been to the moon an back!
No2 - House Sitting- We love house sitting, for so many reasons and I may well write a blog post just about this. We bagged a housesit in Washington DC with somewhere safe to park Tigger, we got to do our laundry, have unlimited showers and WiFi in a luxury apartment all to ourselves. We did have to look after two adorable little doggies called Grin and Bareitt but that wasn't a problem it was a total plus point, and a 20min bus ride got us into the centre of Washington DC - perfect. We are members of Trustedhousesitters.com a website for finding housesits, if you are interested in joining then let me know, I can get you 20% off joining fee and we get a couple of free months
Washington, Art, Culture and doggies!
No 3 - Campsites - Yes in most major cities there are campsites, but the pay off is they are expensive we stayed at the Liberty Harbour Rv Park which is actually in New Jersey but a short train ride to Manhattan - you are on a different metro system to Manhattan the PATH system but the metro card if you get the right one - Yellow card which says METRO in blue will work for both lines. You can also catch their commuter ferry which is very close to the RV park, but this only runs at busy times so we didn't use it. So how expensive is expensive? *@%*@** expensive is the answer, for this particular site anyway - including tax $102 PER NIGHT and it's going up in 2018, a licence to print money me thinks! so why did we do it? A hotel would have been way more expensive at least for one with a carpark and secondly peace of mind, no worries about leaving Tigger all day. It was really just a very expensive car park, that said it did have pretty good showers and a laundry, you were supposed to be able to get wifi on the site but we could only ever get it by going into the office
So this is what you get for $100 per night, and there were no concessions for smaller vehicles, so we had to pay the same as the huge RV's !
But for all our moaning, it was worth it - LOVE NYC
But the best thing about this trip down the East Coast has been the people, we have met some amazing guys who have taken us into their homes, looked after us, fed us, laughed with us and shared stories with us - we are complete strangers yet we have been made to feel so welcome and part of a family, we have come away with genuinely new friends. This isn't unique to the East Coast we had the same experience last year in the West, American hospitality is absolutely second to none, so no matter what bad press you hear about Americans and America, there are plenty more great guys than there are nutcases we can tell you from firsthand experience that there are some super good people here,.
New Friends and a couple of old ones :)
Oh and what about the Autumn colours? apparently worse fall for years, been too dry, the leaves have just fallen off and not stayed on the trees and developed colour - Never mind not sure we were really that bothered anyway, our lives have been made much richer by the people we have met than the leaves on the trees
Nine months, 17 house sits, one new hip and we are finally back on the road.
It's been a strange 9 months. Enjoyable to be home and see family and friends and to be surrounded by all that is familiar. Eat cheese, marmite and marmalade (not necessarily together, but it would work!) (Are you insane woman? Marmite and cheese is indeed a match made in umami heaven, but with marmalade? No thanks!) and to do normal activities like going to the cinema and have folk over to dinner. (and take the Harley out for a spin around the block. Rebel without a MOT!) However, it has also been fraught with anxiety. Will we ever get back on the road? If we do will Tigger be up to the job after months of neglect by us? Do we actually want to get back out there? (durrr, yes) Life at home is actually pretty comfortable and we have seen quite a bit of the world already. Do we need to do anymore? (Yes!) Have we lost our wanderlust?!!!! (NO!!!)
After 10 days back out here, it is beginning to feel like an adventure again. The wanderlust is returning and thoughts of home, showers, flushing toilets and marmalade are fading fast, to be replaced by the realisation that we can do what we want when we want, how we want, - well, within the constraints of vanlife and the dreaded budget! Google Maps is constantly being studied for the best routes and apps like IOverlander and Boondocking have been updated. I probably know more about America's National Parks than the average park ranger! (thank you, Yogi) and we have maxed out our Ipad memory by downloading all our favourite programmes to be watched and savoured at a later date - OK we are ready! However, as yet we haven't done any serious camping (One night at Crisp County Hydro beside a dam, and someone thought it would be a good idea to open the door at night to cool down a bit... woke up with my feet munched off by the 'skeeters"!) as these pesky Americans keep offering us their amazing hospitality with comfy beds, showers and dinners... - well, it would be rude to refuse, plus I feel it is helping with our transition back to vanlife. That's the best excuse I can come up with and I'm sticking with it. (I'm with you on that one xxx)
So what are our plans other than sleeping in random strangers houses and using their facilities? We have been accepted as a Showcase vehicle at the Overland Expo East (the big US Overlanding show) in Ashville North Carolina, at the end of September/ beginning of October - and that is about the only thing in our diary - which is how we want it. No more rushing, no more deadlines, just take each day/week as it comes. We have a vague idea that we want to stay east for the Autumn/Fall, and have a few ideas of places we want to visit, (mostly those national parks I know all about), then head west and south, until eventually we hit Baja where we think we might like to be around December. But who knows? If something exciting comes up in the meantime and waylays us then so be it.
(On the van front, there have been a few issues to get my teeth into. 2/3 solar panels have failed and the manufacturers, GB-Sol, don't want to know, so we are going to replace those with some different ones and hopefully, they will last longer than 12 months.(Great Big rSols!) Leisure batteries are not getting charged properly so we are investing in a "smart" alternator to battery charger by Stirling Power. Just arrived today so will install that in the next week and I hope that will improve the situation. The plastic window in the sliding door has started to disintegrate so we sent out a plea for anyone in the VW Vanagon forums over here (America) for help in locating a replacement of some sort. David Wilhite, just outside Nashville, said he had one so as luck would have it, we were only an hour away from him and we called by to see if it would do. Long and short, we got there late and he kindly offered us a bed for the night and gave us the sliding window on the off chance that it would fit and wouldn't take a penny for it. Thank you, David, for your hospitality and the window. It took 2 days of altering but it is now in and looking mighty fine! Top tip. Plastic windows just aren't up to extreme heat. At least these German ones had lasted a couple of years of Africa and Spain, unlike the piece of rubbish sold to us by Brickwerks in the Uk. That one broke after about 9 months and they wouldn't refund us or even tell us who the manufacturers were so we could approach them for advice. Some people eh? Scallywags! That feels better. Needed to name and shame these two for months now!)
So that's it for now - keeping to our new blog rules short, sweet, and often, which could be applied to so much in our lives! Until next time x]]>
We hadn't planned to travel to Northern Baja, and had been the warned the roads were awful, there was a lot of desert and not much else, but as it turned out we didn't have much choice as our TIP (Temporary Import Permit) for the van needed renewing and this has to be done at a border, so drive north is what we do.
Absolutely true there is a lot of desert, but what people forget to tell you is that the desert can be extraordinarily beautiful. We were travelling through in June and lots of the cacti were in flower, who knew a desert could be so colourful. Regrettably, we didn't stop and take many photos as it was so freaking hot! The temperature gauge barely dropped below 40 degrees and topped out at around 44C (111F) the breeze when driving was more like a fan oven on high heat and gave no respite from the punishing temperatures. Our top tip would be don't travel through the desert in the summer unless you have to, I'm pretty sure it would be a far more pleasant experience during the winter months
The best we could do for photos were a few taken while whizzing along in the van, too hot to get out and there might have been snakes!
There was an Oasis insight though, Northern Baja has vineyards, The Guadalupe Valley is Mexico's wine capital with 90% of Mexican wine being produced here, just north of Ensenada and close enough to the USA to make it a doable trip from the states. It's been called the new Napa, a bit rougher around the edges than the Napa we visited and all the better for it, although it was full of the hip and trendy American and Mexicans when we were there so maybe those rough edges will be smoothed off soon, I hope not, that's all part of the charm
It would have been rude not to stop and taste the produce!
As said we hadn't planned to drive Northern Baja, and to be honest were a bit miffed that we had to go back to the border to renew this blooming TIP, but what a stroke of serendipity that turned out to be. While doing our bit for the Mexican economy and touring a few of the vineyards we bumped into a German friend who we had met at a VW jam earlier in the year,( one of the perks of having a high vis vehicle, once seen never forgotten) who in turn had been invited by a guy who he met totally by chance when looking for a Jerry can, to camp at his ranch, and here begins the story of a fabulous ranch and a wonderful friendship.
17km off the main highway, down a single track rough dirt road and nestled in the mountains you will find Rancho La Bellota. This is a working guest ranch with real Cowboys or Vaquero in Spanish There is no electricity, no WIFI signal, but plenty of horses, sheep, dogs and tranquillity.
After our two-day hard drive up through the desert it was a relief to land somewhere so peaceful and welcoming, Without electricity the ranch is lit with kerosene lamps at night giving you the feeling you have just stepped back in time or you have landed a part in a Spaghetti Western but instead of sliding bourbon shots down the bar its Tequila! We were only going to stay a night, but we stayed three and then came back a second time, sometimes you can't get enough of a good thing, and we got to play Cowboys!
Raul and Caroline who own the ranch are keen Overlanders themselves and are hoping to run tours of the Baja Peninsula with a fleet of their own overland vehicles if you only have a few weeks to spare and you want to explore Baja the overland way these guys can help you do it, you can contact them on their Facebook or Instagram Page Rancho La Bellota
The stunning views on our trail ride]]>
Baja is one of the longest Peninsula's in the world, it's 760 miles (1,220 km) long from top to tip and split into two states Baja California in the North and Baja Sur in the south. It boasts two quite different coastlines, the Pacific to the west great for catching a wave and the pristine Sea of Cortez, or as Jacques Cousteau called it the "Worlds Aquarium" to the east. The winter months are the best time to visit but be warned it gets busy, busy, busy as this is the "Go-To" place and often quoted "Ultimate Road Trip" for American and Canadian Snowbirds, its cold in the north so these guys travel down for the winter to escape the chill, you can expect it to be an extension of the US and Canada from October to April. In the summer you will more or less have the place to yourself but it is too hot for man, beast or Tigger, we were virtually melting when we were there in June/July (no aircon! Gasp!!!)
One of the great things about Baja is the wild camping or Boondocking. You could spend the whole winter here and just wild camp on the beach and many do, bringing huge rigs and towing a car as well. Some of the best beaches will be busy all winter, but with 3,000 km (1,900 miles) of coastline it's not too hard to find a little bit of beach for yourself especially if you are prepared to go off the beaten track, there's a lot of wilderness here, it's paradise for a 4x4 enthusiast! The busy beaches aren't all bad either it's a good opportunity to meet up with other Overlanders and help rescue each other when you get stuck in the sand! (a note of warning to other rigs like Tigger with narrow tyres, air down on the sand here, it's very variable and deceptive! Luckily we have our TMax compressor)
And of course, our favourite people to camp with are VW's!
Go a little bit off track and the beach is all yours
We spent quite a long time around La Paz as this is where the VW garage is, everyone that has a VW and drives in Baja usually ends up here at some time or other and we had been saving up our routine maintenance to be done at Geraldo's VW garage. There could be worse places to hang out while your van is getting fixed, La Paz has an arty Malecon (Waterfront) which is pleasant to stroll along to spot the marine-themed statues and street art, plus a quirky little Whale museum, where we spent one June afternoon escaping the searing heat.
You can also swim with sea lions (which we didn't do) or swim with Whale sharks which we did do, this, unfortunately, unlike our whale watching experience wasn't such a success, not being the world's best sailor, more time was spent hanging over the boat feeding the fishes than swimming with them! (whale vomit, Ambergris is a highly prized and valuable sea treasure, wife vom is not!) Whale Sharks are HUGE, adults can grow to be between 6-12 meters in length (25-40 feet) and are the biggest fish in the world plus I would just like to say they have an enormous mouth! Fortunately human isn't on their menu but even so, the size of them makes them pretty intimidating. We needn't have worried they weren't in the least bit interested in us and although they look as though the swimming effortlessly they move really fast, our little boat has to get in front of the Mr Whale Shark and he swims past you, and you get to join him for a short while before he whizzes off again.
Ok, ok not our picture, I nicked it off Google, but need to see how darn big these things are!
When the van wasn't in the garage, we explored the Eastern Cape and Cabo Pulmo which has some of the best diving and snorkelling in Baja. We took the coast road from the north which is mostly dirt track but ok to drive even without 4x4, but enough washboard to be annoying at times, this seems to put off the big RV’s from coming down here, suppose we can be grateful for small mercies!. We mixed wild camping with a lovely little campsite which had great snorkelling and ended up staying until we were forced to leave as we had run out of food, and had had one too many bad hair days!
We have some lovely friends in Todo Santos, who had invited us to stay with them for a few days, well it would be rude not to and who are we to turn down a hot shower. Todo Santos is a small coastal town, and the prettiest I think in Baja, it lies in the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains, on the Pacific coast and has a great surfing beach, it's sweet, artsy and a bit touristy but still worth a wander around and how could we not go, this is where Hotel California is! it's not the one from the Eagles Album picture but that is somewhere nearby apparently, anyway who are we to miss a photo opportunity
Downtown Arty Todos Santos
We enjoyed Baja Sur, but to be honest were a bit beached-out by the time we left, there is only so much time you can spend on a beach doing not much, and we certainly made the most of doing not much!
This is mostly how we spent our days!
Next stop in Northern Baja, for some unexpected adventures
Baja will remain special in our hearts forever, not for its beautiful beaches or its rugged untamed deserts or even its pretty colonial towns, we loved all of these of course, but what made Baja so special were the whales and an experience that will remain with us always
Our main reason for coming to Baja is to see the whales, I have done the research, read all about them on National Geographic and am super, super excited that we are going to be here at exactly the right time to see them. Every year between December and April, Grey Whales migrate from the cold waters of Alaska to mate and calve in the warm waters of two or three lagoons along the Baja Pacific coast, this is the only place in the world where they do this. Whale watching along this coast is world renowned and known for where you can get up close and personal with a whale, literally, up close as I have read you can actually touch them! John is sceptical - that's me! Mr Doubting Thomas. All too often you get excited about doing or seeing something only to find it doesn't live up to the hype....but this time was the exception
Our Canadian friends who we were travelling with have heard good things about San Ignacio Lagoon so this is where we head for, campsite, Kuyima Eco Lodge is 16km from the San Ignacio town on a dirt track with enough washboard road to make you feel you are going off on a real adventure, they offer camping in tents but we opted to stay in our vans, at a cost of $7pppn, and sign up for the Whale Watching Tour the following morning for $50pp (US Dollar) - I am so excited, I'm like a kid on Christmas eve, i'm not sure i'm going to be able to sleep
The drive out to camp is pretty remote, but you do get to see some Osprey on the way
We arrive early evening and are treated to a wonderful sunset at the camp
We turn up at 9 am for our briefing about the tour, there are 220 whales in the lagoon - here I go... nobody actually counted them but the experts estimated this number. We did see a lot though, I was impressed! - we will definitely see whales but they can't guarantee we will be able to touch any, the Whales have to approach the boat, the boat is not allowed to approach the whales. Each boat or Panga as they are called hold around 10 people plus your trusty Captain who we are hoping knows the best place to hang out and find the whale who wants a tickle
Now I have been on a few Whale Watching tours in my time and if you get to see a whale breach you feel like you have got your monies worth, if you get to see two whales breach then you have definitely hit the jackpot! As we were riding out to the lagoon on the boat, whales seemed to be popping up everywhere, it was like we were in Whale central station and it was rush hour! We really didn't know where to look next as whales popped up and down like "whack a mole" and we tried to catch them with our cameras, If we didn't see them we could hear them venting their blowholes, it was truly amazing, but none of them were approaching our boat. I consoled myself that if this was any other whale watching tour then I would be ecstatic that we had seen so many, without any exaggeration we must have seen 30 if not more. Our lovely Captain tried a few different spots and then waited and waited and finally, our whale came
The Whales were breaching all around us, we didn't know which way to look, as everyone in the boat is shouting there's one
The whale was with us for a good 30minutes, rolling over getting her belly rubbed, swimming under the boat and around again, even opening her mouth so she could have a good old tongue scratch, every so often her blowhole gave us a salty shower which made the whole boat shriek with delight, she so obviously enjoyed the human contact and wanted to be petted, it was difficult to tell who was getting the most out of this experience us or the whale. I, on the other hand, spent most of my time crying because I was so overwhelmed to be touching a whale. (I didn't know where to look, bless!)
Yes, that is MY HAND touching a whale!!!!
She has her eye closed in this picture but she did look right at me a couple of times, and I honestly felt a connection, it was almost as if she was saying thank you
What makes this already incredible experience even more amazing is that these whales were ruthlessly hunted in the late 19th, early 20th Century, almost to the point of extinction, they had a reputation for being dangerous as they attacked the fishing boats, overturning them. Sometime in the 1970's the whales started to approach the fishermen's boats often with their calves as if to come in peace, since then there has been a special relationship between the whales their calves and humans, a trust has been formed, fishermen have become the protectors no longer the hunter.
This was a never to be forgotten day, totally epic and definitely up there with my top life experiences after giving birth, and a lot less painful! (yes, I'll vouch for that) I read an article that Stephen Fry visited San Ignacio and his response to his day with the whales was
"Suck my pants and call me Noreen," he said. "That was the best day of my life. What a phenomenal experience. Epic. Epic. Epic." Think that pretty much sums it up!