A Travellerspoint blog

Chasing Great Gerbils

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.
Pamir Road

Pamir Road

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.
Hay ride

Hay ride

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.
Lion taimers

Lion taimers

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.
Armed holdup

Armed holdup

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.

Posted by Wheelspin 23:04 Comments (2)

Chopstick Diplomats

0 - 10,000km Review

The challenges of becoming proficient with Chopsticks, learning to drive Chinese style, navigating by guesswork and being the center of attention are all worthwhile to have the opportunity of travelling around a quarter of the world circumference without leaving China. If that isn’t quite enough fun then pop over the 4,800m pass across the Pamir Mountains and continue along the fabled Silk Road through Central Asia towards Europe. You’d best have a 4WD. Our choice was a couple of R50 Nissan Terrano’s – it was an inspired decision.

We expected our 22,000km journey overland from Hong Kong to London to be challenging - and it was. The challenges were however quite different from many expected. The inoculations against every known medical malaise, including one that prevents certain types of warts should one purchase a certain ancient personal service, maintained our good health. Our modern communications and internet mapping resulted in only being occasionally lost - and that was usually the fault of our local guides who knew all about the things we were seeing but had never travelled in the role of navigator before. It seems the view from the back seat of our car was inferior to that of the guides’ previous experiences on top of a donkey. The many border crossing manned by Soviet trained bureaucrats succumbed to my well known charm … and the hope of a hard currency ‘gift’. We weren’t even threatened once. Although on the occasion they held our wives in isolation on the Uzbekistan boarder for a couple of hours, my mate travelling in the other car suggest that we may be in serious trouble for exposing the boarder guards to the dangers of argumentative western womans logic.

The planning and documentation procedure for this journey occupied 18 months. Planning to traverse China in cars is a long and arduous process that starts with providing a preferred itinerary and ends many months and many versions later with being given a route that is acceptable to the Chinese military. This can only be accomplished with the assistance of a good Chinese Travel agency. Ours kept track of us all through China as recipients of regular reports from guides and police. The routes through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were easier to arrange because there are so few ‘roads’. Russia, Ukraine and Poland are complex only in the many options available and the large distances between accommodations. It is virtually impossible to plan a journey through this region without the help of professionals. Fortunately one of the worlds most knowledgeable Central Asia travel agents is based right here in New Zealand. Silk Road Adventures (NZ) Ltd operates from Greymouth from where they juggle all the options, deploy local guides along the way and dispense excellent advice.

Prebooked hotels are mandatory in most countries along this route before visa’s will be issued. The standard of the ‘tourist’ hotels in China is excellent. A ‘tourist hotel’ is one at which the staff have been especially trained to keep the plumbing operational and to serve only food that is recognisable and acceptable to our delicate bowels. There are exceptions and we did manage to track those down a couple of times. These hotels tend to be a little expensive – especially the lavish evening meals which are designed to keep fat businessmen in the shape to which they have evolved. We ate the excellent breakfasts which inevitably involved an egg together with the most unlikely accompaniments. Lunch was usually a ‘picnic’ alongside the road with food purchased from the excellent shops and markets. Contrary to common perception, there is no shortage of food in China and the variety is astonishing. Our guides were sure we would eat our evening meals in the hotels and left us for their more ‘modest’ accommodation. But we preferred to investigate the local restaurant scene and as a result of some interesting communication experiences that usually resulted in our becoming the best entertainment in town, we became gastronomes of Chinese epicurean delights. There are only two limitations to Chinese food – it must be partially digestible and it must be able to be held between 2 sticks or drinkable.

Taking a car into China is difficult and expensive. We endured 5 days waiting in queues at Shenzhen to obtain; customs clearance, WOF inspection, Emissions inspection, Insurance and our Chinese drivers licence. The costs make your eyes water. We gained a respect for the Chinese peoples patience as they waited, sometimes for days, in queue’s only to reach the decision maker and be told their documentation was incomplete. I suspect ours was deficient as well – but the bureaucrats could probably see the murderous glint in my eye. Some lived dangerously but they lived. Once on the road it’s a fascinating country. Astonishing in its magnitude and rate of development.
Many of our preconceived ideas of China were shattered. Its doing more towards cleaning up the environment and reducing pollution than the rest of the world combined. The development of its roading and railway infrastructure is staggering. The completed new highways are magnificent and the other sealed roads are typical of New Zealand standards. The unsealed roads are atrocious and there are lots of them … a bit like NZ in the 1950s before our masters discovered cheap and nasty chipseal. When building new highways, Chinese traffic drives on them throughout all stages of construction. I guess its good compaction. In the areas large machinery is working, the traffic simply drives off into the surrounding countryside and makes its own new temporary dirt road which beggars belief. Our years of 4WDing in New Zealand barely prepared us for these challenges and provided some very interesting and testing driving.

China is like no other country on earth. It’s a country of 2 halves. The Eastern side is the China we all know – rice paddy’s, rickshaws, industry, pollution, green countryside, huge rivers and big bamboo hats. The Western side, virtually half of the country, is enormous deserts. The indigenous population is predominantly Muslim people of Turkish descent wearing turbans and robes that reminded me of Afghanistan. There are few roads or cities and the whole culture is totally different. Its 4WD heaven. No mud and endless places to explore off road – although one is not supposed to deviate too far from the planned route. The rural Eastern Chinese tend their rice paddies by the most astonishing terracing and feats of agricultural engineering. They keep ducks and fancy chickens together with pigs and cows. This is where swine flue originated and it’s easy to see why. The pigs at the back door are like members of the family only more pampered. There are enormous regions where fruit and grain is grown. In the west its fat tailed sheep, goats and even camels. One of the worlds largest viticulture areas is in central China producing some of the finest raisins. Surprising to us was to learn that China ranks first in worldwide farm output. We were amazed and impressed day after day.

The most memorable thing about China is the driving. It’s truly inspirational. Contrary to common perception I consider the driving to be among the best in the world. Here’s why. There is a Chinese Road Code that is a bit like ours. This will come as a bigger surprise to the typical Chinese driver than to you, because few have read it and those who have, take not the slightest bit of notice of it. The general principle of driving is simple … Watch the vehicle in front and react accordingly. That’s it. Visitors should not be surprised and become indignant when other road users cut them off, swerve into tiny gaps, pass on the wrong side, drive 5 abreast on a 2 lane road and even drive on the wrong side of the roads. Nobody indicates – that would give away the element of surprise. Highways in the East are crowded but almost empty in the West. Intersections are a ‘free for all’ with signage and traffic lights used as optional guides. It took us about 3 days to understand that none of the laws and rules of the road which we live by is in the least bit helpful to driving in China. By the end of those three days, the driver of the second Terrano who had been very proud of the fact he had never broken a road rule since he had been married, proudly confessed to have now broken every one and quite few more that he had never conceived. He felt good. Imagine Auckland having 3 times as much traffic and it continuing to move at twice the current pace. Dispensing with rules and driving to maximise the road in every respect makes traffic flow surprisingly efficient. In 10,000km through China we never suffered even a scratch. Accidents caused by their driving habits were rare although there were many that appeared to be the result of mechanical failure.

Generally, Chinese diesel fuel had been of excellent quality. This quality did deteriorate a little as we moved west and was noticed by a slight loss of power. Not that this mattered too much as we competed against hugely overloaded trucks and agricultural machinery.
Big Bus

Big Bus

We were the fast vehicles on the road … and loving that status. Crossing the top of the Taklimakan Desert our speed did create a few issues. It was a surprise to be stopped a few times in deserted areas and told that a camera 10kms back along the highway had recorded our excessive speeds. Speeds which had been quite acceptable in the East of China. The difference was ‘cultural’. In the East the police have other priorities like collecting protection money from big business. In the West they rely on speeding fines to supplement their incomes. Unfortunately for them our attitude differed from the locals who were keen to get on with their journey and simply paid up. We felt the need to ‘bond’ with the law enforcement agency and demonstrated a relaxed friendly attitude in the spirit of building international goodwill. Soon the police realised that all the good payers were speeding by while they chatted with us. They tore up our pictures and wished us a good journey. We left China without a blemish on our fine characters.

Posted by Wheelspin 00:13 Comments (2)

Mastication – everyone’s doing it

We’ll use your brain today.

Ukraine – Poland - Germany

Being a discerning reader I am sure you will be familiar with the sort of material where the author includes quotations from illustrious people that serves to demonstrate their cultural awareness, their educated literary knowledge and their intellectual prowess. I am also feeling the urge to share a quotation from a great person for those same reasons.
“String is a wonderful thing. Rope is thicker but string is quicker”. (Sir Spike Milligan, KBE) The relevance of this inspired concept is profound. Following a fairly uneventful exit from Russia into Ukraine, Flypaper & I were waiting for our travelling companions to escape the attentions of the Ukrainian Customs officers who would have no doubt been trying to remember the English words, “Do you have a gift for us?” I had primed them by magnanimously handing over half a packet of cigarettes that had been purchased on our exit from Auckland specifically for these occasions. Our friends had long run out and were probably trying to charm their way through – a practice I find abhorrent even among people I like and certainly never entertain the notion when in the presence of officialdom. As we snored harmoniously in the warm sun I became aware of some activity on the road behind that included shouting. Shouting is a catalyst that galvanizes most people into action or at least makes them turn their nose into the direction of the noise. Three men, who were of an age that should have made them wiser by far, were about to attempt to tow the vehicle they had just pushed out of Russia all the way through the bureaucratic process and into Ukraine. The ‘tower’ was driving an old rusty van of unknown pedigree while the ’towee’ was in the ubiquitous Lada. They connected the vehicles with the very material Spike referred to, string. And, as Spike so profoundly made us aware, they should have used something thicker. I speculated that either the clutch on the van was a bit vicious or the towee forgot to take off the handbrake because the string broke immediately. Unperturbed and in the way of people who were used to their best plans instantly failing, they joined the two pieces of string with a knot of serious proportions – cleverly thinking that would never fail. It didn’t. But the string broke just a little further along. All three jumped out to apply a remedy and, as the script provides, the towee abused the tower of incompetence while the tower suggested the towee had something to lean about the practice of towing. At least that was my interpretation after 8 days of studying the language. The ‘spare’ man was obviously of much higher intellect because he came up with the idea of doubling the string. While this is a sound principle and there is a mathematical formula that teaches the result will be twice as strong, he hadn’t done lesson 2 which states that the result will be half as long. While you and I would have backed the van closer to the Lada, our lads all grasped the string and tried to pull the Lada closer to the van. The string broke again – but this did reveal the problem – the Lada was in gear. Another round of shouting and another knot. The parties leapt into their respective vehicles with the airs of those who are confident of a successful mission. Sure enough the Lada faithfully followed the Van. So pleased was he with success, the driver of the van stopped – I presume to receive due praise … and the short coupled Lada ploughed into the back of it. Little damage was done – both vehicles were far from pristine and another dent or two would not have altered their paltry values. There was however, another round of shouting and the Lada owner made it quite clear that the towing contract was at an end. The van owner drove of in a huff without untying the tow string – which fortunately broke again; the majority following the van. Once alone, the Lada lads seemed fairly philosophical about it all, uncorked a bottle of Vodka and settled down to wait for the next likely tower to arrive. I mention this incident because it clearly demonstrates that the poor people of Eastern Europe are likely to remain that way for some time. Compounding their lack of intellect is the fact that their country is run by a relatively small band of cunning people – for absolute clarity we’ll call them ‘crooked bastards’ – who have become hugely wealthy and now focus on getting even more loot at the expense of those they look down on. It seems that the capitalism that replaced socialism has many characteristics in common. The biggest change is that the privileged now drive black Range Rovers and Mercedes instead of black Zils. It is quite bizarre to see that many of the small farms still rely on horse & cart. These are commonly found on the better highways which I suspect is a fact used by politicians to illustrate how much better off the rural community now is.

Dnepropetrovsk, Keiv and L’viv are all large Ukrainian cities with decaying historic centers and faster decaying Soviet era suburbs. Many travelers wax lyrical about the churches, monuments, and other historic edifices. I have no doubt that they gain great pleasure from being in the old neighborhoods’ which have principally been the stages for continual suffering by the majority of long periods. In contrast to those travelers who enjoy the ‘atmosphere’ I feel very sorry for the people who live with inadequate plumbing, rising damp, transport difficulties and few opportunities. I also felt very sorry for Flypaper carrying heavy bags up four flights of stairs each evening. I always made sure she had a nice cool drink to aid recovery. Most agree that L’viv is the best of the historic cities and, yes, I’m glad to have been there. However, the very best thing I saw was a lady walking her pig in the principal city square. I suspect her motives were the same as those who stroll about with a hound to catch the eye and break the ice. In my view, a lady with a ‘ham on the hoof’ is far more likely to succeed than one with a poodle.

The mention of pork reminds me that the foods on our journey have been many and varied … and generally delicious. There were times I had no idea what I was ordering or eventually eating. This was probably a good thing. I also discovered a few misconceptions. The Chinese do not live wholly on rice and noodles. (They eat anything at all that that can be held between two sticks) Central Asian desert people do not exclusively eat fat tailed mutton Shish Kebab. (Anything at all that can be skewered is in danger of being masticated) A real surprise for me was Borsch. I always considered the Russian peasants coming home from a hard day in the salt mines having suffered a flogging and a raw potato marinaded in an old sweaty sock had little to look forward to. Not so. All the recipes of Borsch I tasted were delicious and I would have willingly accepted a spanking just to get another plateful. On the other hand, the bread throughout Central Asia and Eastern Europe gives food a bad name. I suspect it was used by Genghis Khan, and others with similar attitudes, to beat their camels if they overslept. Perhaps this was where the ‘Club’ sandwich originated. It tended to be very nice just out of the oven but quickly developed the texture and appearance of muddy custom wood when cool. By lunch it was a toss-up between dunking or using it as a wheel chock. I believe that it would be great stuff to catch birds. Cut it into long slivers replicating worms. When they scoff it down they won’t be able to fly.

The food in the first Polish town, pretty and historic Przemysl was also notable. In fact it, together with our first real rain storm since China, was the most memorable feature of the town for me. Typical of the history of the region, the recipe was stolen. This time from Italy. People have been forever sneaking around Europe nicking stuff from each other. I believe Pizza is now the worlds most popular food. Notice I said popular – there are some foods such as rice and eggs and bread that are eaten in greater quantity but none of these feature on the popularity scale. The central square outdoor restaurant in Przemysl has developed the ‘MegaPizza’ … in 28 varieties. I have shared a MegaPizza in the US, but, with apologies to my US friends who are now well used to being offended by almost everyone; your Pizza is certainly big but lacks the finesse of the European originals. In my view this is due to the determination of the American Pizza Chefs to prove that fat equals excellence. The Przemysl offering was genuine Italian refinement in impressive proportion. 600mm in diameter. Only one aficionado was able to consume his share – they others saved some for the following days lunch. In my view this blew the chance to buy another. It also begs the question of the intellectual property ownership of the word ‘megabyte’.


Throughout the journey there were very few days we were not offered an egg in one form or another for breakfast and tomato / cucumber ‘salad’ to accompany most meals. These seem to be universal foods as I’m presented with them on every continent. If you are providing food for me in the future please consider something else. Things with chocolate as a main ingredient would be a nice option. Here in Europe it’s now ‘Spargel’ season. (We know it as Asparagus) Tomorrow I’m going to order chocolate covered Spargel.

I do confess to having considered Poland as the gateway back to civilization as we know it. I use the word ‘civilization’ reluctantly and with caution. There was a return to the Latin alphabet, an ability to communicate without pantomime and soft perforated toilet paper. There remained however, the feeling that behind the scenes it all continued to be a bit grim. Entry into Germany was yet another step back to our normal way of life. Surprisingly, the feelings of security and stress-free living failed to wash right over me. After about 300km I realized why. Germany, like my own country and all other ‘western’ environments, is a ‘surveillance’ society and one with so many rules that we are fearful of being disobedient, caught and being punished. Throughout Eastern China we never saw any police unless they were attending an accident. They took no notice of our constant misdemeanors. The people we spoke to said that the police were not interested because most people were too poor to pay fines. An advantage of poverty. In Western China and throughout the remainder of Central Asia the police took an interest in supplementing their incomes. It became a bit of a game. Both sides win some and both loose some. Never did we feel threatened or in any danger. Even the presence of impressive firepower served to give us some comfort. In ‘civilized’ Europe I slowly became aware that we were tracked, identifiable and easily punishable for even minor misdemeanors such as poor parking, travelling too close to another vehicle or having an innocent conversation with a lady in fishnet stockings. I also realized that ‘civilization’ was removing my need (and therefore ability) to think. For the past 16,000km we were constantly alert and making decisions. From Germany on we are told what to do by signage at every opportunity. I’ve discovered that to live in ‘civilization’ does not require a working brain.

The next few weeks will be spent racing cars and visiting friends before returning to New Zealand. The journey failed to require the washing machine but did prove conclusively that, if washing underwear in a rusty hand basin without a plug was an Olympic event; Flypaper is a serious contender for gold.

Many have requested an expanded version of this blog - perhaps even bound between two bits of Uzbek bread. I’m thinking about it. I’m also thinking about our next journey. After all, with an oil change and a couple of filters, HeeHaw will be ready to trot. Flypaper is demanding a morning at the hairdresser before seriously considering anything. Until then … who knows.

Posted by Wheelspin 14:14 Comments (11)

Committed to a Sanatorium

“Darling … please pass the soap”

Volgograd – L’viv

During my time here in Russia and Ukraine I have taken to wearing dark glasses. This is not to look cool … sadly it will take more than glasses – but I am assured by the constant advertising of men’s cosmetics that they will do the trick. My reasons for donning the shades is so others won’t see me looking shifty eyed or wonder why my eyeballs are spinning. It’s rather embarrassing but I feel sure you want to know things that others are reluctant to share. It’s the young ladies. Here in the old Soviet Union there is a grave shortage of illegible men. The military activities, secret police and vodka have depleted their ranks until the ratio is about 46:54 … in favour of the male minority you might say. As a result the young woman are desperately trying to ensure they will successfully snare a husband to fulfill their biological instincts. Like all good marketing programs this involves presentation and advertising. To achieve their goal the young ladies have all their assets on display … and they flaunt them shamelessly. I’m pretty certain I saw a stunning young woman wearing nothing more than a belt. I can’t be 100% sure because my shades steamed up and my eyes swiveled past the point of easy return.


The fashion is little skin tight tops that would enable open heart surgery without removal and tiny skirts that could also do service as a bandanna. Below this are legs so long that to view them I found myself nodding just like the funny little man that has a spring neck and hangs on our Christmas tree. Those who decide on trousers for a change must have spray painting equipment. Spraypainters will appreciate the specification – tack coat only, no undercoat. Before this degenerates into a pornographic ramble, I want to assure you there is a balance and my heart rate is given opportunity to stabilize. It’s very strange. I cannot understand how the Soviets have kept their genetic improvement program secret from the rest of the world. The fathers of these stunning creatures appear to be poorly dressed men with big tummies who only have the energy to hoist one side of their braces. The mothers are generally short, wide and quite memorable in their own way. When I asked for her opinion, Flypaper suggested these women would typically wear a 52/EEE and enough elastic to make a trampoline. Given their ample clothing in contrast to their daughters, the textile industry remains quite stable. The other popular and outstanding feature of the mothers is their flaming red hair. I use the word ‘flaming’ because a squirt with a fire extinguisher would likely make a great improvement. I have wondered if red hair was an indication of their political leaning just as the blue rinse is predictable at home.

It’s well known that hindsight is very accurate. I consider it my best talent. You may or may not be old enough to remember the ‘cold war’. In simple terms this was a standoff between Russia and American during a time when each considered the other had ambitions to rule the world. While this was mostly just paranoia between the leaders of each nation, the general populace was drawn in and both sides became very suspicious of the other. I now know that the US could have easily won the cold war by warming the hearts and winning the minds of the Soviet people. All they had to do was send over a couple of planeloads of plumbers. Most Soviet buildings were/are huge standard concrete shells fitted out for whatever purpose considered as having the greatest need at the time. ‘Plumbing’ was an afterthought and surface mounted. It is universally inadequate, prone to blockage and leaking or simply doesn’t work. In spite of constant administrations from the women with the big elastic, it also smells. Our journey through Russia and Ukraine can easily be tracked by the KGB, should they have the urge, by following the series of showerhead repairs, toilet cistern overhauls and tap maintenance that I have busied myself with each night to prepare the facilities for Flypapers pleasures. Sadly, because I know it’s likely to make my hair stand on end, I have been unable to repair many of the light and electrical fittings. Again, the US or even any ambitious country; Fiji for example, could and would be loved by the Russian & Ukrainian people if they shipped over a team of electricians with a bag of those red pointy gadgets that tells where all the electricity has escaped and helps find it again. They should bring a few light bulbs as well. The latest deception, known as privatization, is to reclad the old buildings to look like Dubai transplants. Inside they are often still close relations of Siberian prison camps. All have women in big aprons carrying a mop and a chip on their shoulder.
There have been exceptions. For example, in Volgograd we stayed in a brand new hotel. The rooms were exactly 2.4m x 2.4m plus a 2.4m x 800mm bathroom. The white walls (with bright orange architraves) where paper thin which provided entertainment from the neighbours throughout our stay. (What’s said on tour stays on tour). Living under these conditions requires planning. If I wished to be in the room, Flypaper was required to stand on the tiny refrigerator until I found space on the bed amongst our luggage. Going to the bathroom necessitated a waltz, or easier, ones partner to stand outside in the corridor until recalled after the event. Using the bathroom involved shuffling forward to the hand basin then sideways to the shower or toilet. The toilet was unusable by anyone who qualified as XXL. Showering was interesting. It was possible to stand but not to move ones arms because that turned the water off. If one dropped the soap the only solution was to call for ones partner and hope she was in the mood to help. The one advantage of the tiny room was that the air-conditioning could reduce the temperature from ‘chicken roasting’ to ‘frosty’ in 49 seconds. This of course worked both ways so I was alternately baked or frigid with interludes of standing in the corridor or having my toes tickled by the soap hunter.

The small town of Donetsk on a seldom used Russian / Ukraine boarder is not usually frequented by travelers and had only one place of accommodation. It was a Sanatorium. We eventually found it on the outskirts of the town when a brave and excited young lady offered to accompany us in our car. She communicated by telephoning a friend who had learned a few English words at school. This night proved a very interesting experience and one of the trip highlights … as you can imagine. Not many people are given the opportunity to try a Sanatorium until sent by ‘authorities’ or ones children who are tied of caring for them. Our fellow inmates ranged from young children who appeared to have ‘health’ issues through to strangely quiet and subservient elderly people. We briefly saw them at the evening meal when we were invited to the ‘other’ dining room to watch a young local girl give her interpretation of belly dancing. I suspect she has a great future – but not as an entertainer. There were numerous stern looking ladies in attendance – their ranks apparent by the number of stars on their old fashioned military style caps. Some were waitresses, some nurses, some cooks and cleaners … and I suspect some were guards. Our exclusive dining that evening was together with the facility Komandant and his interpreter. Unfortunately the interpreter he called on duty that evening spoke French. We communicated brilliantly through the ‘bonjour’ stage but struggled thereafter. Our host, who we did enjoy, entertained us in the typical Russian manner … with two bottles of vodka. His party trick was to fill our special little glasses, stand and propose a toast to an unknown entity then, after we all drank it in one large gulp, he expected us to join him in a victorious arm gesture while shouting “Yes” which was the only English word he knew. Fortunately this caused him considerable merriment which lasted quite a while thus postponing the next round. By the end of the evening we were quite relaxed about being committed at some future date to a Sanatorium.

Kiev, the Ukrainian capital is a large city of over 2 million people all scurrying around attending the hundreds of Christian Orthodox churches. These large edifices are impressive with their shining ‘onion’ domes and I suspect are the largest business in the country. The priests all drive new large black cars just like the mafia. Some may say they have similar roles and aspirations. I wasted Sunday afternoon among thousands of people congregated in the main street which is closed off for entertainment and to bolster the restaurant trade. I say wasted because my eyes remained constantly out of focus.

The road to L’viv was far from perfect but the best surface since early China. As a result we were caught speeding on two occasions. Fortunately our travelling companions were in the lead and it was they who were captured by the radar. On the journey we were exposed to so much microwave energy I suspect we arrived half baked. The Ukrainian police were far less greedy than the one I experienced in Russia. After showing Martin the road code and making clear his misdemeanor they finally gave up their negotiations in 4 languages and released him without penalty. I consider that to be a ‘fine’ result. Our cars are dark colour and of reasonable size. This possibly saved many discussions with the police who only stop small cars – mostly Hyundai’s or Lada’s. The large black cars that are driven fast and with total disregard to any rules – they are strangely ignored by the police who seem to be looking elsewhere at the moment they pass. It’s as though they were invisible. We have ventured many opinions about this but are united in the belief that if we lived here we would definitely travel in black and be totally arrogant.

Posted by Wheelspin 08:12 Comments (8)

Highway Robbery

Who put these rocks in my bed?

Aqtau – Volgograd

Those who have the dubious distinction of having seen the movie ‘Borat’ may recall that he introduced his sister who was the 3rd best prostitute in Kazakhstan - and had the trophy to prove it. I don’t think I met her during our visit but I suspect I have spoken to some of the other contestants. Let me hasten to assure you that our conversations were short and I am unable to enlighten you in regard to their special competitive talents. On the few occasions I have been allowed to venture out alone I have been approached by obviously concerned and caring young (and not so young) ladies who enquired, “Are you lonely”? Generally I responded “No” and walked on looking like an obvious liar. In the spirit of research, on one occasion I did say “Yes”. I’m glad I did because the young lady cheered up and with a big smile, showed me some money. When I tried to accept her generous donation to my ‘happiness’ fund she withdrew the offer and tottered off on very high heels to question some other guy.

The language barrier has been quite challenging on occasions and usually makes ordering our evening meal a bit of a lottery. Sometimes another customer or employee with a smattering of English will assist which improves the odds in our favour quite considerably. One restaurant was quite innovative. They telephoned the local school English teacher so I was able to have a very strange game of ‘pass the phone’ involving questions from our unknown interpreter. “What you like?” What do they have? (Chatter between waitress and her teacher). You like soup? Yes. (More chatter). You can see how the game works and can also see that it takes a long time to play. On another occasion, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, a very modern young lady who was obviously expecting to be whisked off to Paris at any moment to show off her choice of clothes, arrived breathlessly from a back room announcing, “You are lucky today. I have been sent by God to help you”. I immediately wondered why God didn’t just stroll out and take our order himself. Again, the soup was delicious. I’ve concluded that learning the word ‘soup’ in every language would keep my belt nice and tight. It wouldn’t be difficult as the words soup and salad are surprisingly similar in almost every language.
Often the interpreter, who will embarrassingly apologize over and over about their failure to remember a word, will labour through pages of menu options and we will courageously make our choice … only to be advised that option is not being provided today. On occasions there has only been one dish on offer but the menu details all of the cuisine that the hidden cook dreams of making should circumstances change.

From Xi’an in China until Atyrua in Kazakhstan we have travelled without variation through desert. Hot, grey, dusty desert – usually with small grey green bushes and tough herb looking vegetation. The quantity and variety of animal and bird life that exists under these conditions has never failed to surprise me. There are the obvious herds, large and small, of sheep, goats, camels, horses, cows – and a few roaming donkeys. (Most donkeys are hard at work while the rest graze.) In addition, lizards, foxes, gophers, snakes, mink, rats, ferrets, rabbits and turtles are examples of things we have seen – we’re told there are more and mysterious furry bumps on the roads confirm this is probably correct. The ants are also extraordinary. Some are 12mm long and, if the power to weight ration of the little ones we are used to is consistent with these monsters, there is little point in applying the hand brake on the car. About 8 of them could steal it without any problem – should they suddenly have the urge to own a Nissan Terrano. So far we’ve been fortunate they must prefer other makes or models. The birds vary from common sparrows, pigeons and pheasants through to brilliantly coloured and extravagantly tailed flyers, waders and walkers.
It is the knowledge of unknown dangers lurking in the bushes that has made me realize that the urge to urinate is purely psychosomatic. I learnt this when Flypaper announced she was about to sneak into the undergrowth for a spot of private meditation. Being both courageous and gallant I offered to go in and clear the site of ferrets, snakes, scorpions, ants and other nasty things that could be exposed to her immodest display. Her urge mysteriously disappeared.

‘As hard as an Uzbek bed’ is a new phrase added to our conversation. Flypaper & I have many unique understandings … well, perhaps not understandings – that may never occur. However, should you be a fly on the wall listening to our conversations, and assuming as a fly you would understand our accent, you are likely to hear many expressions of this nature developed over years of experiencing stuff we would have be better avoiding by staying at home. All beds in Central Asia are hard. This could be due to the traditional lack of rubber trees or it could be that the inner-sprung four poster was difficult to carry around on the horse while out doing a bit of pillaging or even just roaming around looking for a spot of food for the family goat. In our experience however, the Uzbeks have made hard beds their special experience. Again I speculate. Uzbekistan has been particularly unfortunately positioned right between lots of power crazy guys who had ambitions to rule the world. In attempting this challenge they tended to exhibit quite a bit of disrespect for the locals while passing through. As a result, I suspect it is payback time. Current visitors’ are discouraged from returning by providing beds that are best described as exhibiting all the comfort of a concrete slab sprinkled with rocks. As a boy I often went out for the weekend equipped with a big knife given to me for my 6th birthday and a fishing line. These tools could also manufacture a bow and arrow if my interest waivered and I decided to wipe out a pond full of frogs or create some other ecological disaster. On those nights I happily slept on the ground, often in a cave, and reveled in pleasure of being tough. Times have changed. The knife is smaller and I now have to consider the comforts and pleasures expected by Flypaper. She recently (affectionately) expressed displeasure at my inability to keep her in the comforts that I have spoilt her with over the years we have toiled to become weak and soft in spite of jointly adding layers of personal padding. This is grossly unfair as, before I married her, she was tested and passed with honours. We travelled in an old Landrover from London to Capetown without any of the comforts expected in civilization. She never complained – except when the rat that lived in our roof rack continually ate the soap and potatoes – and suffered astonishing hardship. I was impressed and decided that a woman could share my macho world after all. Now the Uzbeks are challenging those standards by providing sleepless nights - often followed by cold showers. As I write, the hardship is reducing. We have entered Southern Russia and the rocks have been removed from the bed. The shower remains an undetermined experience. I feel my role as a satisfactory provider is improving.

I’ve previously commented on the brilliant driving in China based on awareness and lack of restrictive rules. The standards deteriorated as we moved west. Kazakhstan was bad, Russia is truly shocking. Much of this is due to the inability of the drivers to see through the vodka fumes that rise from the bottle clutched between their thighs. Near misses are common, evidence of accidents is everywhere and we regularly see drivers arguing in the middle of the road while their cars appear to be in steamy embrace.
I have deduced that accidents increase in proportion to the number of police and road rules. Our own (western) proliferation of laws also results in poor judgment and a reliance on signs and ‘our rights’ instead of common sense and skill.
As we approached the Russian boarder gate we actually saw an accident take place only a few meters ahead. An eager Lada was parked too close to the narrow gated entry. A huge articulated truck trying to negotiate the gap lost sight of it and lightly scrunched the fender. Then the hilarity started. So many people leapt out of the Lada I thought they must be running around and hoping in the other side. The driver performed like he had just lost his firstborn, or worse, his prize billygoat. There was a rising level of wailing from his passengers who sounded as though they had each lost a vital organ while being flailed by a hedgehog on a salty rope. Adding to the furor were the witnesses who ran in from all directions offering their services to the highest bidder. Quickly the other cars in line started tooting in frustration and some drivers rushed up to the accident threatening much more grievous harm if the narrow way wasn’t cleared pretty damn quickly. I feared that one huge Russian truck driver who had had his voice box replaced an amplified foghorn was about to have a heart attack but changed his performance to simply foaming at the mouth while roaring obscenities and gesticulating like an Italian Opera diva. It was a wonderful show. The only area of calm among the sea of distraught shriekers was the offending truck driver who simply evaluated the damage and peeled of a few Rubles for the Lada owner. Immediately the whole performance stopped and everyone dispersed. We proceeded happy in the knowledge that money fixes everything.

Well, nearly everything. The passage of money didn’t repair my hurt feelings when, for the first time on this journey, I was set up a by a greedy (Russian) policemen and fleeced. It had to happen and will likely do so again. Both our cars were driving together when a chubby little trainee cop leapt out from behind a bus shelter waiving his little red disk which means, “Stop or I’ll shoot you”. I stopped HeeHaw pretty smartly while Bilbo continued over the horizon. The next 30 minutes were spent with chubby boys ‘big hat’ boss in pointless discussion about my serious crime for which he advised the solution was the payment of US$300, 6,000 Rubles or jail. He drew a very nice picture on the back of an arrest warrant indicating I had illegally passed a car in the intersection right in front of the bus stop. None of us saw any other vehicle and I could tell from his reluctance to look directly at me that he hadn’t seen one either. I realized immediately that it was a rort but, having also experienced swindling cops at home, I have a policy of putting up a good fight. Its difficult using logic and reasoning when the parties can’t understand each other. There was a certain satisfaction in calling him names to his face that can’t be printed here. I also called on a military guy, who was lolling around, as my witness – but he was made a better offer by the cop. That was a win to me because it meant the thieving @#*&@#% wasn’t going to get 100% of the funds. After a satisfactory period of arguing he asked me to hop into the passengers’ seat of his car where we reached a settlement (below the level of the windows) of 1,000 rubles. (NZ$50). We all (3) shook hands and I was free to continue our journey. It was clearly highway robbery. A few kilometers down the road I stopped and sterilized my hands.


Posted by Wheelspin 05:07 Comments (3)

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