Benjie here, resuming our Mongolian narrative from the middle of the interminably long valley between Khovd and Altai that essentialized our fourth day in the country. This may have been the most frustrating stretch of our drive through Mongolia: the landscape was flat and repetitive, offering no distraction from the torturous, obscenity-inducing washboard road we were forced to drive on. Roads like these wreak havoc on cars’ suspension systems, and while ours remained intact (for the moment) our Danish friends had frequent problems including one harrowing moment when their left rear suspension spring cracked entirely and busted through the frame of their car, allowing the person in the back seat to see straight through to the road below.
After ten hours and several stops for MacGyver-esque repairs to the Danes’ Fiat, we emerged from the Valley of Death and climbed over some small mountains onto a beautiful green plateau that puts the ubiquitous Windows desktop picture to shame. We careened along, thrilled to be back on pleasant dirt roads. The skiing metaphor mentioned in our last post is entirely apt: some lines are better than others, and I would alternately cackle as we flew by other cars or mutter oaths after making a bad choice. Our English friends, Rob and Jack, were a little over-zealous and gunned it over the plateau too fast to notice a massive pothole in front of them that stopped their car dead in its tracks and caused their roof rack to fly a good ten feet further. Two days, two roof racks gone—but hey, it’s Mongolia, that’s what’s supposed to happen.
Eventually we reached the edge of the plateau where the little town of Altai unfolded below us, its bright multicolored roofs contrasting sharply with the endless brown, green, and blue of the steppe. The paved roads were mediocre by American standards, but to us they felt like silk. Our English and Northern Irish friends were on a tighter schedule and decided to press on that night, while we stayed in Altai with our Danish and Israeli friends to wait on repairs for the Fiat and treat ourselves to a hot meal, cold beer, bed, and toilet.
The next morning we all met up back at the repair place, where an apparently drunk mechanic, cigarette in mouth and no eye protection, was busily welding various pieces of metal onto the Danes’ car in an attempt to restore their suspension to a semi-intact state. Around noon, we rolled out of town and spent about 100km on a nice paved road which ended with absolutely no warning just over the crest of a small hill. I wasn’t disappointed, though: save for the washboard stuff, off-roading in Mongolia was the most fun I’ve ever had behind the wheel. With dark clouds building and the wind picking up, Keshav Pothole got its first flat tire of the trip; fortunately, changing a tire is within our extremely limited realm of auto-expertise. Soon after, the storm began in earnest—and with the rain being blown in sheets across the unprotected steppe, the Danes lost their roof rack to an unexpected ridge. The poor guys could not get a break. Three days, three roof racks.
We made it across hills and valleys covered in bizarre rock formations to a little town where we came upon a Scottish team and a French team who were getting repairs. They joined us at our campsite just past the town, where we had an excellent bonfire with the remains of Rob and Jack’s roof rack, drank brandy, and had a lovely conversation that took full advantage of the myriad nationalities and languages represented by our convoy. Being in convoy with other teams was a crucial part of crossing Mongolia: it’s safer and a hell of a lot more fun. Anybody crazy enough to do the Rally is likely someone you would be happy to spend time with.
The next morning we negotiated a small stream and then made decent time over the endless steppe with only animals for company: confused sheep, curious goats, arrogant camels. The Danes didn’t have to stop for repairs until mid-afternoon, easily a record, and at this point we found ourselves next to a few yurts, one of which had a food sign on it. We walked inside expecting a restaurant of sorts, but it turned out it was just a family’s home: two beds, some chairs, and a central stove that burned cakes of dung. We asked if they could cook us food; they nodded and began showing us different ingredients: carrots, turnips, noodles, a large piece of an unidentified animal. Everything was cut up and thrown into a massive metal bowl on top of the stove with a healthy amount of salt. We drank hot horse milk while waiting, and eventually were treated to a hearty—if rather bland—meal.
We continued our journey. Mongolia is indeed one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but it’s huge and the landscape, though stunning, becomes repetitive. Still, every once in a while we were treated to moments of the sublime, like when we crested a hill with the golden evening light behind us, dark storm clouds in the distance, and a perfect 180-degree rainbow dead ahead.
That evening, about 20km from Bayankhongor, KP sustained its first relatively serious injury when our rear left suspension spring snapped. We were initially worried, but fortunately our friends reassured us that we would still be able to drive and for the moment it was mainly an issue of comfort. So we said the hell with it and pressed on—the Danes, after all, had been driving without a fully-functioning suspension for days. We camped a few kilometers after Bayankhongor; it was the first campsite in Mongolia from which we could see any signs of habitation. But the stars were still incredible.
We were told that “the fun is over after Bayankhongor,” meaning that from there to Ulaanbaatar the roads are all paved. Turns out this is not entirely the case: there are still stretches of unfinished highway, and the paved roads are mediocre at best (since the roads out of the capital were the first to be built, they’re the oldest in the country). Nevertheless we made good progress and ended our day about 180km from the finish line in UB. Our final night camping was bittersweet: though we looked forward to beds and toilets and real food, we had come to really enjoy sitting around and cooking pasta together under the stars, bundling up against the cold, and crawling in to our sleeping bags at the end of a long day.
That being said, we were close enough that we could taste the finish, and the next day we constantly monitored the odometer as the kilometers ticked slowly by. The roads improved, the land became more developed, and eventually we hit a toll booth. Just after was a most welcome sign: Ulaanbaatar. We made our way to the “graveyard,” from where the cars will be shipped back to Europe, and blasted music while we drove up onto the finish line platform and climbed out of the car for some celebratory photos, followed by the Israelis and, incredibly, the Danes in their embattled Fiat.
We were ecstatic, but it felt surreal at the same time: we had been planning this trip for over a year, and we’d been on the road for nearly six weeks through an extraordinary succession of different places and cultures. Remarkably, our little car had taken us all this way with hardly any problems. And here we were, suddenly finished, packing up our gear and driving away in a taxi, never to see our beloved KP again. Hopefully, of course, we will eventually see the real Keshav Poddar again once he has finished saving India from various diseases, pollution, corruption, and heat, but his close relative Keshav Pothole is destined for Lithuania, where it will be sold for charity.
Our taxi took us to the Office Hotel in central Ulaanbaatar. Its slogan: “Help Your Business.” Well, the Rally was certainly helping its business, as the Adventurists have turned it into the finish line headquarters. Most of the finishing Ralliers stay here, and there is a big lobby full of velvet chairs where you can eat and drink beer and trade stories from the road. Teams can write their names on a huge board in the order that they finished (in case you’re curious, we filled the esteemed #154 spot) so throughout the day you can have a look to see who else has come in. We’ve gotten to reconnect with the majority of teams we spent time with on the road, which has been wonderful. And the city itself—despite being the coldest and most polluted national capital in the world—has been very enjoyable. Decent Western food abounds, and I have spent my days eating eggs and bacon, drinking coffee, eating more bacon, reading and writing. Cooper ate steak for three consecutive meals. And Nick, before flying off this morning, reveled in the abundant free wifi. It’s a very cheap city too: I got an hour-long massage the other day for $19. Cooper followed suit this afternoon. All in all, UB has provided excellent closure to an incredible experience.
The Mongol Rally truly is an amazing thing to do, and I’ll admit to being a little surprised—as I’m sure some of you probably are—that we managed to complete it. While on the road I had always been a bit anxious in the back of my mind and therefore expected to be thrilled when it was over, which I was. But there was also a twinge of sadness and already part of me feels nostalgic for the open road. When you fly, you’re sort of like a gopher: popping up in a new place with no sense of what lies in between. Traveling by car may not be the most efficient method, but it allows you to see everything along the way, which we often found to be more interesting and rewarding than the destination itself. We hope you’ve enjoyed the blog, and that it’s helped to give you a sense of the Great In-Between. Thanks again for all of your support—we truly couldn’t have done this without you.
Tumbling across the steppe
Racing a herd of wild horses (they won)
Benjie enjoys some fresh air
The Danes’ Fiat, under the torch in Altai
The Rubikhans pause for a quick team photo
Nick changes our one and only puncture (while Benjie and Cooper look on and drink beer)
Our convoy, viewed from above. (Photo courtesy of Benjie’s drone/GoPro setup!)
KP passes a yurt (another drone shot)
Dark storm clouds loom overhead…
Producing this marvellous light display
And this rainbow
One of many livestock crossings
KP flies by with Benjie at the helm
“Enjoying” warm horse milk in a yurt
Our new roofbox, replete with one of our super handy Goal Zero solar panels (and our power pack inside Cooper’s bag)
Benjie and Adi (one of the Israelis) show off a last-minute cosmetic addition to the car
We made it!
Final country beers! It’s been a wild ride.
Mongolia, Mongolia. Where to begin?
We’ve decided to split this country into two party-sized posts (as opposed to one king-sized post), since our traversal of Mongolia was really the culminating stage of our journey. This is Part I; Part II will be posted tomorrow. We’re just trying to keep you entertained.
Anyway, we (Nick and Cooper) will pick up where we left off: in Barnaul, Russia.
After stocking up on supplies (read: an assortment of commie-brand instant noodle packets and cans of something that turned to be anything BUT tuna), we hit the good Russian motorway and made for the Altai Mountains. The smooth, winding mountain roads gave us little trouble – in fact, they were some of the nicest roads we’d encountered in weeks, and they offered incredible alpine views, to boot. So, we turned up the volume on Cooper’s Tuvan throat singing collection and tumbled along at a heady 80km/h. It was almost as though we’d suddenly returned to Europe (and, depending on how you define Russia geographically, perhaps we did).
After a day and a half on the road, the mountains abruptly crumbled back into the endless steppe, and before long, we reached the border – well, the Russian exit border, that is. Before actually entering Mongolia, we had to pass through 20km of no-man’s land, occupied solely by some goats of ambiguous nationality, some blubbery beaver-like marmots skittering about (they’ll make a return appearance), and a man bizarrely mowing a small patch of grass next to the road. Also in no-man’s land, Keshav “the KP Cruiser” Pothole’s odometer hit 100,000km, and the road turned from asphalt to dirt.
What began as a relatively routine border crossing (“passport, mister!” “driver here, passenger there, mister!”) took a turn for the Mongolian when a border agent asked us to sell him some petrol from our jerry can. Since he still had Nick’s passport and unstamped documents in hand, we were in no position to refuse. He proceeded to explain to us, while carelessly smoking a cigarette inches from the fuel, that he needed the petrol to go hunting after work. We asked if we could come along. And so began one of the strangest side-trips of our adventure.
The border official told us to wait for him in a small restaurant down the road, and 40 minutes later, while were feasting on buuz (delicious Mongolian dumplings), our friend rolled up in a souped-up Prius, accompanied by another border guard and a .22 rifle. We piled into the back seat and sped off, abandoning the dirt path (or “highway,” as our maps labeled it) to careen up a grass hill in search of the large Tarbagan marmots that burrow in the hillsides. Spotting one particularly plump beast scuttling around in the rocks, our hosts chased it into its hole, pulled up nearby – utilizing the lethal silence of our hybrid cruiser – and trained the rifle out the passenger window. Thirty seconds later, the marmot peeped his little head up for a looksie, and was immediately nailed between the eyes. While the shooter whooped and hollered, his friend leapt out of the car, ran over to the hole, and reaching down, grabbed the twitching marmot by its tail and flung it a full 10 feet into the air. Once the poor beast was sufficiently dead, our hosts bagged it up, and stuck it in the trunk.
Ten minutes and one marmot later, and we were speeding back across the hills and toward our car, while our new friends regaled us with glorious tales of wolf-hunts with AK-47s and marksmanship competitions with the Russian guards. By all accounts, it had been a successful outing: our friends had procured their dinner for the night, and we had the somewhat reassuring knowledge that the Toyota Prius was considered a suitable off-roading vehicle.
As the sun began to set, we serendipitously ran into the English and Northern Irish guys with whom we had caravanned through Kyrgyzstan, as well as a Danish and an Israeli team. After driving about 20km from the border, we set up camp in the center of a massive valley with nothing but nothing in every direction. The stars were stunning.
We celebrated our entrance into Mongolia with champagne (sabred with a poop trowel) and an encounter with a local guy on a motorcycle who insisted on drinking all of our alcohol, wrestling Jon, one of the Danes (who sadly lost), and singing (err, shouting) traditional folk songs. Oddly, our nameless Mongolian friend insisted on wearing his motorcycle helmet the entire time he was with us.
The next day delivered our first taste of Mongolian off-roading. While the dirt roads, river crossings, and the Danes’ 1984 Fiat 127 hindered our progress, we had a blast tearing across the rugged steppe, dangling out the car windows with wanton disregard for our personal safety, and hooting and hollering like we were young again. Sometimes, the dirt paths would diverge, and our entire convoy would barrel ahead five cars abreast. Though our speed rarely exceeded 40km/h, it felt like we were flying over the dirt. This is what Mongolia was all about. This is what we’d traveled all this way to experience.
At one point, a particularly muddy mud pit rendered the Israelis immobile. Fortunately, a local jeep, commandeered by a man who was almost certainly drunk, arrived on the spot, and offered to tow them out from behind. The driver got a bit overzealous, and yanked the Israeli’s Renault Kangoo across the mud like a water skier, while Stav, the driver, helplessly jamming on the brakes and handbrake and bellowing “stop!”, before the tow hook mercifully snapped. We all had a good laugh. The jeep driver offered to tow the rest of us, and we quickly declined. Onward we trekked, our clothes a little mudder and our cars a little creakier. As the sun began to set, we pitched camp at the foot of a steep slope, the hillside offering solid protection from the wind.
We got an early start the next morning, hoping to recoup some of the mileage (kilometerage?) that we’d lost the previous day. For hours, we sped through the hills and mountains on interwoven dirt paths. The driving experience itself was akin to backcountry skiing: we carefully picked our lines to avoid bumpy roads and loose boulders, weaving left and right around tightly banked turns, power sliding over loose sand, and literally flying over small crests in the road. It was wild fun, unlike any driving we’d encountered previously. Frankly, we were ‘shocked’ (foreshadowing) that our little Alto could handle the abuse.
Unfortunately, however, our roof box (which, you may recall, began to disintegrate in Turkmenistan) had plans of its own. Somewhere near Khovd, a nasty, well-concealed bump sent us completely airborne, and the rough landing launched the roof box forward, so that it dangled precariously over the windshield. We happily poured the rest of our jerry can into the tank, strapped Cooper’s bag to the roof, and stuffed what we could into the trunk. To the rest, we said good riddance and gave it a new home in the middle of the steppe.
By late afternoon, our convoy arrived in Khovd. We were dirty, exhausted, and still slightly buzzing from the adrenaline high. While we refueled and restocked, we shared stories about our favorite sections of road, craziest maneuvers, and preferred driving playlists. We pressed on, and were treated to 200km of brand new tarmac leaving town. (Mongolia is in the midst of an extensive project to pave the entire east-west highway. While the project is supposed to be complete by 2020, the only proof of progress is this stretch leading out of Khovd, and a similar stretch leading out of Altai, which we’d hit a few days later.) Our suspensions and constitutions were immensely grateful for the reprieve.
The tarmac eventually ended, however, and was sadly replaced by the horrible washboard gravel of an under-construction motorway. We shaked and rattled over the gruesome bumps for several kilometers before we noticed a series of trails winding about on either side. When Mongolians don’t like a road, they create their own. So, we departed from the main road, made for the the side paths, and zigzagged through an immense valley plain until a setting sun induced us to camp. Everyone slept well that night.
And so concludes Part I. In Part II, you’ll hear about our next five days in Mongolia, including our final push to the finish line (spoiler alert: we finished).
We want to extend our enormous gratitude for the ridiculous amount of support we’ve received over the past seven weeks and the year of preparation before. The Mongol Rally has been a huge part of our lives since we started scheming last August, and it literally has been our lives since we touched down in London a month and a half ago. We’re amazed how an adventure that took us one third of the way around the world and thousands of miles from home could bring us so much closer with so many of the people we love and care about. We’ve reconnected with the countless friends and family members who have reached out with their enthusiastic support (and obscure restaurant recommendations in Olgii – the chicken was delicious, by the way). We can’t wait to see you all and finally catch up face to face.
While the Rally has made all three of us acutely aware of just how vast the world actually is, it has also reminded us that our network of loved ones is equally immense. And that’s something we’ll remember long after we fly home.
Our final border crossing
Hunting marmots out the window of a Prius
Curious Mongolian children near the border
The long and not-so-winding road to Ulaanbaatar (extremely limited edition tarmac variant)
The endless Mongolian steppe
Our campsite on the first night
Milky Way x Comfort Cathedral collaboration
A young horseman who paid our camp a visit
The English, Danish, and Northern Irish teams bounce along through the desert
Celebrating our first day of off-road driving
Cooper points at the local fauna (part 1)
Cooper points at the local fauna (part 2)
KP takes on a mountain stream
Benjie and Nick ponder the long road ahead
Rob climbs the window out for a better view
The Israelis’ Kangoo, stuck in the mud
KP, after a good wallow
Cooper’s fashionable attempt to overcome the dust
Nick “inspects” a post-roofbox KP
Our Danish friends, just hanging out
A gang of Bactrian camels in the shadow of the mountains
The full convoy, just outside Khovd
KP, dwarfed by the massive scale of the Mongolian steppe
Below are a handful of photos from our weeklong passage across the Kazakh steppe and Russian taiga. Next up: a detailed breakdown (pun entirely intended) of our time in Mongolia!
Team photo from our second night in Kazakhstan. (Taken by a kind goat who happened by)
The Tandoori Terror (our undersized car) and the Cathedral of Comfort (our oversized tent) – a match made in heaven
Sunset over the steppe
One of the many fascinating roadside city/region signs we passed in Kazakhstan
Keshav Pothole earns her stripes
A lonely train, somewhere in Kazakhstan
Camping with our Austrian friends from Team Adventureland
Cooper’s shameless steppe selfie
A cosy Russian dacha in the Altai Republic
KP flies by in the rain
The Altai Mountains (sort of)
One of the spectacular Russian motorways
The Rubikhans are in Russia!
Hello from the Siberian plain! Nick here. We’ve made it to Barnaul, Russia, having successfully navigated the famous Kyrgyz peaks and the infamous Kazakh steppe. Since it’s been a while since we’ve treated you to a full update (Tashkent methinks), let’s backtrack a bit to fill you in. Unfortunately, Russia has blacklisted our website (we can’t imagine why…), and so we’re using a proxy service to post this. As a result, we can’t upload any photos. We’ll add them as soon as possible.
There are several segments of this journey that I expected to be beautiful—the Croatian coast, Istanbul, and Bukhara to name a few. Then there are those moments that catch you totally by surprise. The landscapes and cities that we’d overlooked and subsequently took our breath away. These moments are what the Rally is all about. And the drive into the Fergana Valley was one of those moments.
Mostly known as a bastion of Islamic fundamentalism and for the tragic massacre of 2005, we were traversing the Fergana simply as a means to get between Tashkent and Osh, gateway to Kyrgyzstan and the towering Tian Shan mountains. Entering the valley from Tashkent required several police checkpoints and one massive mountain pass. Keshav Pothole chugged up and up and up until we finally got a glance behind us and were met with a stunning vista of the valley behind us.
Working our way through the pass, we stumbled upon a traditional mountainside teahouse and spread out on the carpeted benches to nibble on shashlyk and enjoy the mountain air. Cooper taught Benjie and me the traditional way to pour tea—which was not, as I had hoped, onto Cooper’s head. Our bellies full, we descended into the valley and sped our way towards Osh, making it to the border just before it closed for the evening.
We had just checked in to our bazaar-adjacent hotel and were retrieving our bags while chatting with a local family who had parked by us. Next thing we know, we were sitting in their nearby apartment, having been invited to dinner. We had experienced some pretty exceptional Central Asian hospitality—local people going way out of their way to help us out and welcome us to their towns—but this took the cake. Cooper was beyond ecstatic, presumably realizing that he would soon spend a full year immersed in the pervasive generosity and kindness that are central tenants of Kyrgyz culture.
The reason for our invitation was an upcoming test. The younger son was taking English in university and was unprepared for a major exam, two weeks away. We like to think our conversation helped give him a little more comfort with the language, but my mind was on the delicious potatoes and watermelon we slowly polished away as we talked. What a way to be welcomed to a new country.
Cooper and Benjie took to the bazaar the next morning while I took advantage of the finally cool weather to go for a run. We said goodbye to Osh just before noon and pushed headword into the mountains, stopping to link up with a few more Ralliers, one of whom graciously noted that a lug nut on our front wheel was missing. Thanks for the heads up!
Several hours of progressively higher foothills brought us to an emerald blue reservoir with a swimming area and café. Needless to say, we stopped for a couple hours of swimming and eating, which culminated in the loquacious owner bringing forth a bottle of vodka to drink with us. The non-drivers toasted with him as we endured detailed descriptions of his business plan and the tourism industry (Allen family—picture a Kyrgyz Sharky).
We left the reservoir and wound our way up the side of a deep and narrow canyon before darkness set and the three teams set up camp in the backyard of a roadside café, where we were quickly joined by a fourth team who had spotted our ubiquitous Mongol Rally stickers from the highway.
The mountains on the next day’s drive cannot, should not, and will not be described in words. Cooper’s pictures will surely tell a better story (our update from Almaty had a sneak peek—peak?—as well).
We thoroughly enjoyed the stunning scenery and good road, taking pictures, whipping out the drone for a thin-air flight, and mostly just staring out the windows in wonder. We descended into Bishkek early enough to stock up on camping supplies, grab a meal and push across the Kazakh border to Almaty.
It felt weird spending so little time in the city that Cooper is two weeks away from calling home, but it was early in the day and we had heard bad things about the roads in Kazakhstan so we wanted a head start. Also Cooper will be spending enough time there soon enough—all’s fair in love and rallying.
From Almaty we gritted our teeth and trekked north, ready for the 1,100km of potholed roads we had heard so much about. Suburbs quickly gave way to vast nothingness—just the rolling hills and massive grass plain of the steppe—and the roads were indeed bad. In typical Central Asian fashion, a brand new but not-quite –open highway paralleled our route as we bumped and rattled along before the highway disappeared all together and the roads got…better? They weren’t good by any standards, but they were better than we expected and by the time the sun was setting, we had made surprisingly good progress.
We pulled off onto a dirt track and found a creek-side grove of trees in which to pitch our tent. As the sky turned orange, we meandered out of the grove to watch the sun set over an endless ocean of grass—the horizon line perfectly straight, as if over an actual sea.
We awoke early the next day and traversed the tranquil steppe on surprisingly ok roads (with the occasional nasty surprise) until, just as we had started to look for places to camp, we were passed by none other than our Austrian friends, Team Adventureland! This was our fifth time running into Alexander and Niklas and the first since Bukhara, where we had had dinner with them a week before.
So we went to the next town, picked up some necessities (water and beer) and pulled off to camp in a field a few hundred kilometers from the highway. But we cooked, and we drank our beers, and we happily chatted until the late hour of 9:30, when we retreated to our tents to prepare for one last day of Kazakhstan.
We said goodbye to the Austrians at the campsite—they were off to see the Polygon, a defunct nuclear testing zone from the Soviet era where the leftover radiation still plagues the residents of nearby Semey.
We were also going through Semey and were met with 150km of almost-finished highway. In the starkest road quality contrast of the entire rally to date, we alternated between spanking new tarmac and a horrible concoction of rocks-that are-a-little-too-big-to-be-considered-gravel and sneaky, vicious pot holes.
So overall we made decently good time, and worked our way to the Russian border, where getting out of Kazakhstan turned out to be a much bigger pain than getting into Russia. So long Central Asia!
I write to you now from the backseat as we speed our way up first-rate Russian highways to Barnaul, where we hope to post this update, but not before getting a much-needed shower.
Thanks for indulging us by reading, writing and following our GPS map! Can’t wait to update you from Mongolia itself—aiming to reach the border tomorrow! It feels like the true rally is just beginning.
Greetings from Almaty, Kazakhstan, where we arrived late last night. Since our last dispatch, we’ve enjoyed three truly incredible days of driving. First, we descended into Uzbekistan’s fecund Fergana Valley, crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan, and enjoyed a wonderful homecooked meal in the region’s cultural capital, Osh. Then, we headed north into the foothills of the Tien Shan mountain range, and camped by a massive, emerald-blue reservoir. And yesterday, we continued our climb through the Tien Shan, passing over two 10,000-foot passes before descending into Bishkek (where Cooper will be living next year), crossing into Kazakhstan, and bombing across the motorway to Almaty in time for a late dinner and a round of cold beers.
We’re eager to hit the road this morning, and so we don’t have time for a full update, but we’ll provide you with a full rundown of the past few days as soon as we have wifi again. Remember, you can check out our live-tracking map to view our progress. Below are a couple photos to whet your appetite for the full post.
Chaikhana lunch in central Uzbekistan
Tearing across the Fergana Valley
Yurts in the Tien Shan Mountains
Benjie and Cooper celebrate the high altitude mark of the trip (somewhere around 12,000ft), while Nick ogles a rock
Late-night driver swap, somewhere in Kazakhstan
They say that there is no such thing as perfect conditions for writing. Well, I’m writing to you now from a small shack on the side of a rural highway, about halfway between Bukhara and Samarkand. We’re out of gas. We didn’t plan to be out of gas – this isn’t one of those out-of-gas moments where you’re almost out of gas, see a gas station and think you can press on to the next one but you don’t make it. No – we started today in Bukhara with 2/3 of a tank. And we haven’t passed a single open gas station since.
There seems to be some sort of fuel shortage in Uzbekistan – closed petrol stations litter the side of the road. So we’ve been forced to try our luck on the petrol black market. Benjie is currently in a local’s car, en route to who-knows-where, armed with two empty water bottles to bring back who-knows-what. But more on that later. For now, let me catch you up on the past few days:
The Turkmenbashi-Ashgabat “highway” (a generous use of the term) was fine for the first couple hundred kilometers (we’ve taken to the metric system), save for the occasional rough patch. We tore across the stark Karakum Desert as fast as our steed would carry us, with nothing but camels to keep us company. Then we hit the war zone. We’re unsure if an actual war had taken place on this 150km stretch of “highway,” but it sure seemed like it. The potholes were a little smaller than our car, or about the same size as Benjie’s driving hubris.
It was on these roads that our steed earned its name, and it is with great excitement that we can now introduce to you the Tandoori Terror, the Massala Menace, the Vindaloo Vehicle: Keshav Pothole! Indeed, we’ve chosen to memorialize our late teammate by naming our car after him. There’s one catch, however – we’ve already determined that our car is a female. Sorry, Shav.
Just when we thought we couldn’t take the brutal roads any longer, Ashgabat’s gaudy, opulent tentacles reached out in the form of a freshly paved four-lane highway, replete with gold and white fencing and shimmering statues of the Dear Leader. The bridges were still crap though.
So we coasted into Ashgabat, a city best described as equal parts Las Vegas and Pyongyang. The buildings were white marble with liberal amounts of gold trim. Pictures and statues of Turkmenbashi (literally, “Leader of the Turkmen) and his successor, the equally self-righteous Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (say that ten times fast) were everywhere, as were police. Benjie’s attempt to film our drive into the city center was hampered by a distinct fear that a police officer would pull us over, take the camera, and unceremoniously smash it onto the ground (this didn’t happen but they really don’t like people taking photos).
After a night’s rest in one of the more Soviet establishments in town, we attempted to fix our roof rails, which had slid forward about six inches at some point in Pothole Land, as well as our roof box, which had by now lost both of its hydraulic arms as well as one of its two hinges. We soon realized that our efforts had caused more harm than good, so we duct taped the box in place and hit the road for another day of potholes.
The Rubikhans slowly navigated their way out of Ashgabat (no thanks to three inexplicably closed highways), and eventually wound up on more beautiful tarmac – the gaudy tentacles of Ashgabat extending out towards Mary, our destination for the night. Cautiously optimistic that the tarmac would continue for quite some time, we were pleasantly surprised to make it a solid 100km out of the city before returning to Pothole Land. So we grueled through it, our suspension shaking and groaning, our roof box rattling, and our teeth chattering. We fought off the 114-degree desert heat with warm water and open windows.
And we were rewarded for our toilsome efforts, for our accommodations in Mary had the one thing we needed most but didn’t expect to find in the desert: a swimming pool. And we swam, and we feasted on “Hot Amerikan Pizza,” and we slept, and we woke up to try to fix the roof box again, and we broke it even more, and we applied even more duct tape, because why not? And we drove off toward the Uzbekistan border.
Despite Turkmenistan’s reputation as a hermit kingdom second only in isolationism to North Korea, the people we encountered proved to be wonderfully hospitable and friendly. On one occassion, a fellow driver even got out of his car at a traffic light to gift us some tasty bread! And countless cars honk and wave at us as they (inevitably) pass us on the highway. It seems as though everyone we’ve encountered on this tremendous journey is willing us to succeed. And without their support, we wouldn’t have made it this far.
The roads from Mary were thankfully not terrible, and we made it to the border by early afternoon. We suffered a bit of PTSD at the Turkmen exit border (only about five pointless stations this time) and drove on to Uzbekistan, where the border guards had big guns and bigger senses of humor.
We had been dreading the thorough search of the car that other teams had encountered at the Uzbek border, but the guards just had us open a couple doors, tried on our sunglasses, and waved us into their country, telling us to bring girls next time. Maybe not, given how we smell right now.
After hours upon hours of bleak desert terrain, arriving in Bukhara was like dream. We dropped our bags at the hotel (which had, along with many other hotels in the city, incidentally lost all electricty), and then meandered through the carefully preserved old city, surrounding ourselves in a buzzing maze of sandstone mosques, turquoise minarets, and lush courtyards. It’s no wonder that this city is heralded as one of the most beautiful in Eurasia. It hardly felt real.
We presently decided to exchange some money on the ubiquitous “black market,” where a US dollar goes for ~2800som. Since 1000som is the largest denomination in circulation, exchanging $20 dollars gave each of us stacks of 56 bills. I hadn’t felt this rich since my brother landed on my Boardwalk hotel in Monopoly. It was so much money, I couldn’t fit it in a lunchbox (Michael “BDM” Parets, 2011).
Benjie here, taking over the narration (with Cooper adding serial commas and supplementary commentary). Fortunately, at this point I was wearing cargo shorts, giving me the perfect place to keep my stacks of money. We decided to go to dinner and were on our way there when we saw two guys looking at us quizzically; after a few seconds we realized that they were the Austrian ralliers we had met all the way back at the London launch party. One of them had given me a stamped and punched “One-way ticket to Adventureland,” and lo and behold we meet them here, most certainly in the heart of Adventureland. An amazing coincidence, but just one of many occasions on which we have chanced upon another Rally team and been instantly and happily united by our shared quest – to me, this is one of the coolest parts of the Rally experience.
After an excellent breakfast from our lovely hosts the next morning, we set off for Samarkand in high spirits. Unfortunately, as Nick mentioned, these were quickly crushed. Potholes and bumps everywhere. Dozens of closed gas stations – the only open one we saw had a line that stretched over a hundred yards. And then our roof rack, which has been slowly deteriorating, finally cracked and the lid to our front compartment flew off like a leaf in the breeze. Fortunately, no one was behind us, and so we simply pulled off the road and stuffed our tent and sleeping bags into the car, bringing our packing jigsaw puzzle to an entirely new level.
It was also at this point that gas became a serious problem, and we decided to pull off by the small shack/repair shop where Nick began writing this blog post. Eventually, we communicated with the proprietors that we wanted petrol, and agreed on a price for the 6.5 liters we could carry in our empty plastic water bottles. So I rode off with our generous providers, a father and his son who had outfitted their Soviet-era Lada Riva with a set of massive Pioneer speakers that blasted Uzbek dance music at a nearly intolerable volume. We went to the next town over where a nice lady filled the water bottles out of a massive black plastic drum next to her shop, and we were off to Samarkand!
Generally thought to be the pearl of Central Asia, Samarkand is a mystically beautiful city that was once the most powerful point on the Silk Road and an important center of Islamic learning. Its central square, known as the Registan, is bordered on three sides by medressas (Islamic theological schools) that were built beginning in the 1400s. Because we arrived too late to see them last night, Cooper and I woke up at 7am this morning to have a look, and were rewarded with an incredible experience.
Since the buildings didn’t open to the public until 8:am, hardly anyone was around: just a couple of policemen and a few babushkas sweeping the square, which was bathed in morning light. The exquisite geometric patterns that adorn the ancient buildings glowed in soft hues of turquoise and green and gold. For 12,000 som – a little over four dollars – a policeman allowed us to clandestinely climb the narrow spiral steps up one of the minarets from which we could observe the whole scene from above. Words can’t do it justice, so have a look at the pictures below, but without a doubt it was one of the most remarkable places I have ever seen.
After buying more black market gasoline in Samarkand – this time, with the help of our English-speaking B&B host – we set off for the sprawling capital of Tashkent. The roads proved to be much better than we’d seen in previous days, so we made good progress and arrived with plenty of time to explore a bit and have a massive dinner of various unnamed Uzbek delicacies which may or may not wreak havoc on our stomachs tomorrow. But they were sure tasty. We rounded out the night with a couple of beers in the square next to our hotel, where some local kids engaged us in a riveting conversation consisting of random English words for things they saw: Tomato! Food! Refrigerator! Instagram! Sexy!
Tomorrow (assuming we can find enough gas) we are off to Osh, the largest city in southern Kyrgyzstan. We are told that the roads are decent, and are fervently hoping that this is the case – because Vishnu knows, Keshav Pothole could use a break.
KP on the road to Ashgabat
Our first encounter with roving camels
Ostentatious mosque/government building on the outskirts of Ashgabat
“Mom, I’m five kilometers from Iran!”
Ridin’ dirty on the donkey cart (note the iPod)
Dusk in Bukhara
One of the countless mosques/madrassas in Bukhara’s old city
Team photo in the window
Old city road
Benjie flaunts his money (worth about $16)
The Registan, in Samarkand, in the early morning light
Uzbek women inside one of the Registan’s three primary madrassas
The Ulugh Beg Madrassa (the eldest of the three), viewed from a minaret
Intricate tilework on the ceiling of the Ulugh Beg Madrassa
Benjie ogles the Registan. (Note the kimono, which was loaned to him by our kind hostess, who was worried that he’d get cold)
New friends in Samarkand
The Tashkent circus. Tomorrow, Kyrgyzstan!