10,001 - 22,000km
Chasing ‘Great Gerbils’ in a 4WD is excellent fun. Like all fun, there has to be a downside. Usually it’s either illegal, immoral or makes you fat. In this instance the problem is finding them. We had to drive 14,000kms through 4 countries, over a 4,800m high mountain range, navigate shocking roads, dodge hundreds of suicidal jaywalkers and thousands of cyclists with a death wish, through huge dust storms, survive tens of thousands of overloaded trucks driven by kamikaze pilots and continually endure the unspeakable aroma of overflowing pit toilets. After the chase there was the matter of a further 8,000km traversing more appalling roads in 45 degree temperatures and negotiating with corrupt policemen before making it back to civilization. If the idea interests you, put aside 3 months and buy a Nissan Terrano.
Following a month in China with nothing more serious than a bothersome weight gain and a new appreciation of Western toilet facilities, we continued West across the Irkeshtam pass over the Pamir Mountains towards Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan enroute for Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Europe. 4 people in 2 cars with a wish to see parts of the world that relatively few travelers have driven in their own vehicles. Perhaps few people are that silly.
China is divided from Central Asia by the rugged Pamir Mountains. There are only a few road passes over these mountains and they are only open during the summer after the snow has receded. Our route over the Irkeshtam pass rose to 4,800 meters and the snow plowed road had only been open a few days. The road summit is 1,000 meters higher than Mount Cook! The views in the eerily still and amazingly clear air were breathtaking. When traversing the pass I suspect the Terrano ECU was unable to adjust for the elevation and the cars blew huge amounts of black smoke. A couple of days later it all returned to normal at lower altitude.
The accommodation in the ‘stans’ and Russia / Ukraine included a night in a Sanitarium – which I considered one of the highlights of the journey. I felt quite at home and we received medication that appeared and tasted astonishingly like vodka. Other nights were spent on hard concrete floors in private unfurnished homes or on equally hard beds in old Soviet multistory hotels. These usually featured a lack of lifts and steep narrow concrete stairways with stains and remains of previous guests who had failed to make it up to their room. The poor sanitary facilities, antiquated electrical systems and 1950’s appliances provided challenges - not to mention the risk of spiky hair.
We had been warned to expect bedbugs through Central Asia. Having never seen a bedbug I wasn’t sure whether to take armaments or a simple truncheon. In the end we opted for weapons of mass destruction – Raid Insect spray. The plan was to kick the door to our room open, scream a warning in case the chamber maid was still loitering and then to unleash a cloud of toxicity. Given we never developed the anticipated itch or inflammation this excitement was totally forgotten. It seems that bedbugs are attracted by carbon dioxide, warmth and certain chemicals such as those contained in antiperspirant. Given our breath was probably masked with Vodka which the locals seem to imbibe for every good reason, it was freezing cold at night in these desert regions and our antiperspirant was an unknown foreign brand, there was no issue.
The roads of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan should not be confused with roads as we know them. Most evolved from animal tracks and the camels, donkeys, sheep & goats are still among the most common users. Often, hundreds of kilometers will be rough, pot holed and dusty challenges driven at about 40kph. Sometimes there are hundreds of kilometers of desert between towns. These roads are invariably unsealed – always rough and sometimes rocky making it impossible to work up much speed. In these instances everyone drives off into the desert and either follows the sandy trails or makes their own new track across country. This can be exhilarating. 60 – 80kph is possible with enormous clouds of dust billowing out behind. Unfortunately the tracks often cross, creating large ruts and bumps that launch the cars into space if the pace can’t be reduced fast enough. Its here that families of ‘Great Gerbils’ make for good sport. We careered recklessly across the sandy shrub covered countryside shouting “Where did it go?” Occasionally snakes, tortoise, cats, foxes and rabbits can be seen – as are herds of domesticated camels, goats, horses and sheep.
The ‘stans’ as they are genially known by nonchalant travelers in this part of the globe are all former Soviet Republics that gained back full independence and since 1991 are now part of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Generally they have exchanged one tyrannical leader for another – but are moving towards economic wealth at a rate we envy. It helps if there is no RMA, OSH or other restrictive compliance policies. They are predominantly Muslim and very friendly. We never felt threatened even when we were looking down the little black hole on the front end of a Kalashnikov but were quite nervous when looking at the black hole on the back end of a camel. Crossing boarders was challenging. Even though we were able to jump to the front of the queue it usually took 3 – 4 hours of pointless paperwork. Neither we nor our vehicles were ever searched.
Much of the countryside is badly in need of water, but where that is available the crops are abundant. Food was plentiful and delicious … except the regional national food. This is a dish known as ‘Plov’. Essentially its rice soaked in mutton fat with the reluctant addition of carrots and onions. The taste is as expected, predominantly greasy mutton fat. We were unable to understand why the locals eat it 3 times a day. We continued to gain weight given the expected regular purging due to diarrhea never eventuated.
The ‘Silk Road’ runs from Eastern China across Central Asia then either North to Russia or South to Turkey. The ancient cities of Osh, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are fascinating and often make one feel transported hundreds of years into the past. Other times they made me feel sweaty and dusty. While the culture and architecture remains to be seen today, this area is changing fast. Historic sites will endure but the trend towards Western culture will reduce the adventure travelers pleasure. For example, the Kazakh prostitutes are legendary. I’m pretty sure we saw some but they are no longer so friendly and, in the western way have been tucked away out of sight. I’m told they are extremely entertaining in exchange for hard currency.
Russia, Ukraine & Poland can be compared to Europe about 40 years ago. They are interesting places to visit although parts of each country are quite depressing as a result of Soviet era influence. Again the roads are a mixed bag. The main highways are excellent. Secondary roads and roads in towns are usually terrible. I suspect the highways are created and maintained by central government while everything else is the responsibility of local government which has no funds. Driving around rural towns is an extremely laborious exercise and seldom at speeds above 25kph. The ubiquitous Lada is the most popular form of transport for the masses – but Range Rovers, and Porsche / Mercedes / Lexus SUVs are becoming quite common. Those without one of these luxury vehicles say it’s only a matter of time before they can steal one from Europe too.
It is possible to traverse this whole journey in a 2WD vehicle and most of the local cars and trucks have only 2WD. Given the rough road conditions and the fact they are driven totally without mechanical sympathy or consideration for the occupants, the lifespan of a vehicle is very short. The exception to this is the Lada which must be the worlds most abused vehicle. They are constantly overloaded, thrashed and mistreated but seem to survive or at least remain mobile. They seldom look like they have enjoyed life. There is a growing population of Hyundai cars throughout Central Asia. Hyundai has identified this as a big growth region and opened car manufacturing plants in Uzbekistan. Hyundai’s must be damned tough too.
Travelers attempting this journey are advised to take a vehicle that is strong enough to stand the daily pounding. This has to be a Japanese 4WD. Our choice of 2 Diesel 1996 Nissan Terrano’s was inspired. Previous experience and research in the vehicle repair industry reveled that the 4WD least seen in repair shops is the R50 Terrano. They are far more reliable than a popular brand that shall remain nameless which suffers cylinder head and overheating problems. The Terrano is large enough to carry a substantial amount of luggage, small enough to be easily driven in Asian cities and inconspicuous enough to not be stolen. It’s economical, able to cover 600km on the standard tank of diesel. Powerful enough to shame all the small Asian cars and to overtake lines of trucks. Relatively comfortable and quiet to enable long days on the trail. A standard truck is well equipped with air conditioning, radio/CD player and excellent dust seals – all will be well used during the journey. Prior to departure the trucks were given a full service and all hoses, belts, fluids replaced. We changed the engine oil after 10,000km in Western China and regularly tapped out the air filter after particularly dusty days. Nothing further was done to my truck until we reached England where it was again given a full service and the engine oil replaced together with oil / fuel /air filters. The other (higher mileage) vehicle required replacement rear trailing arm bushes in Russia as a result of the constant pounding throughout the journey. The trucks performed magnificently and again I claim they are the perfect vehicles for a journey of this nature.
Our travelling companions were well up to the challenges. Flypaper also proved she has a few kilometers of life left in her in spite of a period of sustained coughing in a dusty part of the journey. I’m sure the predicted ‘bandits’ along the way never bothered us because the saw Flypaper wearing her mask and probably thought we were already being robbed. The two ladies did learn new skills from visiting Asian toilets. Jeanette is now considering the sport of free diving given she can hold her breath for 7 minutes. Flypaper learnt to tiptoe through the overspill and thinks she could easily hop skip and jump through a minefield – could be handy as a peacekeeper, especially if she wears her mask.
Would we do it again – no.
But only because there is other challenges out there somewhere. Flypaper has spied a gap on the map where there doesn’t appear to be too many footprints so she’s checking to be sure she will need a new and appropriate wardrobe for the expedition.