Re-entry has been wonderful and overwhelming all at the same time. We have so many memories of this trip that it is impossible to condense them into a summarized post. I have loads of video that I took along the way that I haven't even touched yet. In all we drove 8500 miles in about 5 weeks. It is a life-changing experience for certain. One neither of us will ever forget.
We blasted through most of Europe as quickly as we could. Later in the journey when we were pulling 20 hour days, I looked back and realized we could have made better time however. Our philosophy was that we would likely be back to Europe (maybe take the kids) but when would we be back to Central Asia/Mongolia? That is where we wanted to spend our time.
We camped in the woods off some logging road in Germany one night - it actually reminded me a bit of the Northwest. Very green, beautiful rolling hills and BMW’s everywhere. The autobahn was a trip. Kelsey spent most of the time not getting run over than actually looking ahead. It was hysterical to look at our speedo (doing 85-90mph) and get passed by people like we were standing still.
We both really enjoyed the Czech Republic. The scenery was pretty - the food was great. We stopped in the town of Plzen which is the birthplace of pilsner-style beer. Had a fantastic lunch and our first taste of unfiltered pilsner. Yummy.
Plzen, Czech Republic:
We camped along the Black Sea in the Crimea in Ukraine right before entering Russia. It as absolutely jammed with Russian tourists on holiday. It was really beautiful if just a little disappointing for all the litter.
It took us 24 hours to get across the border from Ukraine into Russia. There was a 20 minute ferry ride in between that only took about 15-20 cars at a time. Thinking forward to the end of the trip where we were so pressed for time, we would have liked to have this 24 hours back.
Border sign leaving Ukraine:
Western Kazakhstan looks just like Wyoming. Oil fields and not much else. The roads in and around Atyrau were fabulous as the oil companies had recently paved them apparently not wanting their trucks to be reduced to shreds in a matter of weeks. A few hundred kilometers outside of Atyrau, the road turned to dirt track just like that. We followed it all the way to the Uzbekistan border where we stayed the night just outside the checkpost.
We entered Uzbek in the very northwest corner which is a semi-autonomous region called Karakalpakstan. The first thing we noticed was how friendly (the friendliest of all the countries) the people were. Their big smiles and genuinely interested faces were a total surprise. There is a difference between people being nice because they think they might profit from you and people being nice because they genuinely want to know more about you. The Uzbeks were the latter. They were very eager to practice their english on us. Cars regularly honking at us - in a “hello my friend!” kind of way. People going completely out of their way to give us directions. The country itself was okay to look at, but the people were absolutely beautiful.
We made our way to the Aral Sea and saw the devastation that the over-zealous Soviets caused in their pursuit of higher cotton yields. The irrigation project initiated by the Soviets was known even before they started to be the death of the Aral, but apparently they felt the cost justified. The Aral was once the fourth largest body of fresh water in the world - and yet it has been destroyed in less than a generation. The good news is that the north Aral has been dammed up with hopes of saving that small piece. The southern Aral where we visited is nearly gone. To add insult to injury, the Soviets performed chemical and biological weapons testing here in the 1980’s and the local population still suffers the ills. It is eerie to walk about the desert and see ships stranded, to see seashells that 20 years ago were under water.
By far our favorite spot in Uzbekistan was Bukhara. The Kalon Mosque and Kalon Tower were impressive. The Kalon Mosque is said to be one of the oldest and largest in Central Asia. Built to house the entire male population of Bukhara for Friday prayers. The Kalon Tower was built in 919 and was originally a minaret used for the call to prayer. At times in its history it was also used for marching criminals to the top and chucking them over to fall to their death. I guess they probably didn’t have trouble with prison overcrowding.
Most of you heard about the gas shortage in Uzbek. And the purchasing of fuel of unknown origins. The result was known as gasoline alley:
We entered Tajikistan and you could immediately feel/see the difference. Tajikistan is mountainous, therefore very beautiful but also very poor compared to the other Central Asian countries. Sharing a porous border with Afghanistan, a good portion of their economy (if you can call it that) is based on the opium/heroin trade. Having experienced a civil war in which 60,000 people were killed in the last 25 years has left the country without much in terms of leadership, infrastructure or direction. The people were (understandably) more guarded and withdrawn than their Uzbek neighbors.
On the way to Dushanbe, we went through this awful tunnel in the mountains that felt like it had been dug out with a couple of shovels 100 years ago. No lights, water was pouring in from the top and it lasted for what felt like 10 miles. But there were big signs all around of their president in some grandiose pose, gesturing at this “modern” tunnel as if to say “You’re Welcome Tajikistan”.
Dushanbe was a shit-hole. To be fair we didn’t see much of it, but what we saw was polluted and depressing. The other Central Asian countries have made an effort to distinguish themselves from their former Soviet rule. Tajikistan seems content to hang on to that legacy, not by maintaining it but letting it fall into a state of total disrepair and rot. Dushanbe had only soviet-style block hotels and we opted for what the guide book said was one of the nicest to choose from. The next two photos tell it all. We were all scarred for a couple days after and were wishing for our tents.
Leaving Dushanbe we headed to Khorog which was to be the official start of the Pamir Highway. The road to Khorog ended up being equally as exciting. The road hugged sheer cliffs on our side with views of Afghanistan just across the river on the other. One of many strange coincidences came one evening while driving along we stopped to see about camping at a teahouse along the road. A Landcruiser had pulled up as well and out popped this westerner so we went to have a chat with her. As it turns out she is from Shelton, WA - just about 100 miles from here. She had been living in Khorog for the last year. Strange.
We actually did see cars going across this, but we opted to go around:
Old Soviet tank in the river:
View of Afghanistan:
Official start of the Pamir Highway - the first car to ever make the journey:
It doesn’t look like it from the photos, but the highways the second highest highway in the world. The plateau on which you drive is about about 14,000 feet in elevation with the surrounding peaks soaring much higher than that.
The highest pass we drove over at 15,272 feet:
Another washed out road. This one ended up costing us half the day as we had to cross a river several times to get around it.
Good to know the locals get stuck too!
I am trading my car in on a Yaris - this little thing was unstoppable!
It is a pity we had to rush through Kyrgyzstan so quickly. I will remember it for: Amazing roads, easy border crossings and stunning scenery.
Home stay just across the border in Sary-Tash, Kyrgyzstan:
Eastern Kazakhstan turned out to be a bit more scenic than Western Kaz. But not by much. There were at least some irrigated areas and bluffs to look at. The infamous 24-hour period of hell on the car happened here - crushed oil pan, broken windshield, tire blow out and rear differential leak. I guess a lot of abuse we had given the car finally caught up with us.
But isn’t the sky amazing?
Our friends in the ambulance towed us back into town to the mechanic they had used the day before in fixing one of their shocks. Despite the communication barrier, the guy was on it. He worked all day (and two others as well) with no break and finally got the oil pan repaired.
Considering our lost time we drove straight through the remainder of Kazakhstan and Russia (again) to reach the Mongolian border. We drove two full days straight and stopped for only 4 hours total to sleep.
A little work on the differential while stuck overnight trying to get across Russian border with Mongolia:
In terms of scenery and wide open spaces - Mongolia is exactly as I had imagined. Silent, peaceful, wonderful. In terms of the people - it was quite different than I had imagined. I will preface this with saying we met kind, honest people. They were just not the norm. I will also say if you were on a tour with guide that spoke the language - it would be a different story.
“Re-appropriation” of ones belongings seems to be widely accepted as is muscling your way through a queue. It doesn’t seem that it is considered theft or cutting - just “Hey - you aren’t looking so now it belongs to me”.
The children were very aggressive. They would try to climb into the car if they saw something they wanted. A couple people reported them throwing rocks at their car if they didn’t hand something out. We had kids trying to block the road with their horse.
We did have a very fun experience while waiting for our friends in the ambulance to catch up - a man in a motorcycle came rolling up and needed gas. Kelsey gave him some from our jerry cans and as he is filling the bike up we notice he has a live golden eagle strapped to the back. He apparently uses it for hunting rodents and such - so to say thank you he let Jerry and Kelsey hold the thing.
And then the end finally came. The rear-end seized up on the car about 40 miles west of Khovd. We had our last night together with our friends under the Mongolian sky. We drank warm beer and set fire to the owners manual for our car and the maintenance records for the ambulance. It was perfect.
The next morning as we were loading our things into the ambulance for our ride to town, another team took what has to be one of my favorite pics of the rally. All seven of us standing on the dead cop-car. Says it all.
The guys dropped us off in Khovd so we could find our way to UB in what we thought would be a quicker fashion. Had we known it would turn out to be such a disaster, we would have taken them up on their offer to let us hitch the rest of the way with them. Absolutely great people, we feel very lucky to have gotten to know them.
Most of you have already read the ordeal on this blog so I won’t go into it, but this is a photo of the "bus" carrying 21 people and their luggage:
The last time we saw the car it was being offloaded from the flatbed truck which had to steal it back from the guy in the ger who had stolen it from the side of the road. Or “re-appropriated” I guess.
I have posted the full gallery of photos (or at least most of them) for anyone who wants the un-edited version.
Mongol Rally Album