Tuk to the Road

The trials and tukulations of Jo, Ants and Ting Tong the tuk tuk and our three-wheeled odyssey from Bangkok to Brighton...in aid of the mental health charity Mind. For more information please see www.tuktotheroad.com

Monday, July 31, 2006

Crossing the Divide

Hotel Tourist, Ufa, Bashkortostan Autonomous Republic, Russia

After four days off the road the traveling trio once again hit the tarmac yesterday morning to head for Ufa…and Europe. Under a leaden sky we loaded up a sodden Ting Tong and headed out of Yekaterinburg, Jo driving with Oleg in the back, and me with Rudy, filming our soggy exit from the city. We never even meant to go to Yekaterinburg, let alone to stay there for four days, but as Ivan, quoting Voltaire, said ‘Everything happens for a reason’. I don’t go for the full Celestine Prophecy version of nothing being coincidence, everything being some part of a pre-destined design, but I do subscribe to the attitude that many occurrences in our lives are more than simply an accident, and Yekaterinburg was a classic example. Jo and I went on a whim, deciding it sounded interesting and worth the 300 km northern diversion, and thanks to that whim we ended up meeting Ivan, Rudy and Oleg, all extremely lovely people, who did everything they could to help us and show us round their city. As we said goodbye to Ivan he said it was his dream to come to England, ‘To see Stratford-upon-Avon, and to perform the Tempest. But first I must be wise, for for a man to perform thees play, I think he must be wise’. Ivan, with his passion for Shakespeare, Voltaire and Irish Folk Music, is already wise, and it was a joy to meet such an unusual, intelligent person in the midst of a city we never intended to visit.

10 km’s outside of Yekaterinburg we came to the Europe / Asia border, where we parked up, took some snaps, and contemplated what had been before and what lies ahead. As I stood with one leg in each continent I thought of all the places and faces we have seen, all the extraordinary experiences we’ve had, and wondered what the next leg of Tuk to the Road held in store for us. I wondered how you can just draw a line and say that right there one world ends and another begins. Moreover, the Russia we have experienced has rarely felt even faintly Asian. The last time I felt we were truly in Asia was at Saryam Lake in China, amongst the nomads and yurts. Since then that Asian sense of otherness has faded, each day seeming more and more familiar, more European. But then again Russia doesn’t feel quite like the Europe most of us know, there’s an edge to it you don’t get in the Bois de Bouloigne, plus a hell of a lot more hookers and hummers. But it feels a very long way from NW China, where only a month ago we were sweltering in 40 degrees heat.

After our first lunch in Europe we said a sad goodbye to Rudy and Oleg and set off in the general direction of Ufa, not really sure of where we would end up that night. There was no direct road so after studying the Russian Atlas we decided to go the scenic route, dropping down through the Middle Urals and into the Bashkortostan Republic. Aside from the incessant rain, which we all have a strong aversion to, and the almost as incessant police checks, we had an uneventful drive through beautiful country. Not since China have we driven through such natural beauty. The road plunged, weaved and climbed through rolling green countryside, populated by Silver Birch copses, herds of grazing animals and an abundance of wild flowers. Freshly cut piles of hay dotted the fields and farm workers laboured with scythes, looking up in astonishment as we drove past. Occasionally we passed through a village of wooden houses, all with ornate, brightly coloured windows. Beautiful.

Five police stops later, at 8 pm, we came across a hotel and decided to call it a day, where I left Jo with TT and dived in to check it out. After the corpulent receptionist had finished getting her oversize knickers in a twist about the fact that firstly we were ‘inostranka’ (foreingers) and secondly had a curious vehicle that was ‘nyet motorcycle and nyet mashina’, we were allowed in. Twenty minutes and one beer later, Jo and I had acquired our next pair of Russian boyfriends, Roma and Zanil, both from Tyumen in Siberia. As we have both said before, Russians are wonderfully friendly people, sometimes the men a little over so, and its hard to sit anywhere for five minutes without being accosted by a potential suitor. Before long a third, slightly inebriated gentleman had come over to our table and was declaring undying love for Jo. It was 1 a.m before we finally got to bed.

This morning we set off, again in the rain, for the last 170 km to Ufa, capital of the autonomous Bashkortostan republic, home to the Muslim Turkic Bashkir people. We met our first Baskhir, Zoofar, last night, whom very kindly asked us to his sanatorium ‘bezplatno’ (free) - a kind of Russian shrublands. Although the idea of being pampered in the mountains for one day was very appealing, we opted to hit the road and head south west in search of the sunshine. Having spent the last week getting cold and wet every day we’re craving some heat, and have decided to re-route south along the Black Sea Coast via Odessa for a few days of sun, sea and surf.

This afternoon was spent tukking along a spectacular road across the heart of the Urals. Trucks loaded with German cars bound for Kazakhstan clanked past us and a constant line of bored looking babushkas hawked honey by the roadside. Although honey isn’t the most practical thing to travel with, we couldn’t resist and pulled over by the most needy looking babushka we could find to make a purchase. A Kazakh lorry was parked 20 metres away and I had a quick chat with the driver, who told me he drives back and forwards between Germany and Kazakhstan, 7000 km’s in 10 days. Poor man, I don’t envy his job.

As we turned Ting Tong onto the road a lady selling berries next door ran after us and pushed a large jar of raspberries into my hands, wishing us a good journey. A small gesture that is typical of the kindness of the Russians.

Its midnight now so time to go to bed…but one last anecdote before lights off. As we arrived at our hotel this evening a stumbling, red faced group of army officers lurched out of the adjacent bar. One of them, toad faced, middle aged more than a little tipsy, locked his eyes lasciviously on Jo and planted a lingering, sloppy kiss on her cheek. By the time I had got us a room five minutes later Jo had been fully groped, kissed repeatedly and proposed to. Evoking our imaginary husbands was no use at all and Jo and I had to dash into the hotel under the cover of our baggage to avoid further gropage. At this rate we could have multiple husbands by the time we leave Russia, should we wish. What a thought.

Bedtime now…Samara tomorrow….xx Ants

TT does it 5 times in one day!

Yesterday we managed to get stopped 5 times by the police and today we were stopped twice. Mostly, they just want to see our documents and ask questions about TT. Even though Ants speaks very good Russian, when we get pulled over with that irritating white baton she speaks as much Russian as I do- NONE! Given that the weather has been incredibly English i.e. cold, wet and grey, we are starting to find these all too frequent police stops in the cold a little trying.

We left Yekaterinburg yesterday morning, driving in convey with Rudy and Oleg to the Asia/Europe border. We parked TT with her front end in Europe and her back end in Asia. It gave us a brief moment to reflect on how long we've been tukking and how far we've travelled. We left BKK 9 weeks ago and have travelled 13,000km. Being back in Europe has made us start to think about our arrival back in Brighton and we need to start planning for a big homecoming and work out quite how we are going to raise another 29K for Mind.

Saying goodbye to Rudy and Oleg was really sad and I cried. Even though we'd only known them for 4 days, we'd spent nearly every waking moment with them and become really close. If it wasn't for meeting them, TT would never had got to flirt with those sexy beamers, nor would we have been on the local news and been allowed to speak about our trip and mental health. It was also sad saying goodbye to Ivan, the first friend we made in Yekaterinberg, after we literally kidnapped him to show us where our hotel was.

On friday night Ants and I hit the tiles for ther first time this trip with Rudy and Oleg. They had managed to get us VIP tickets to a funky club in Yekaterinburg called the Snow Project. Ants and I had both been quite tired earlier in the day and had returned to the hotel for a siesta before even contemplating going clubbing. We suprised ourselves by managing to stay up until 6am. The club was full of glammed up young Russina girls and guys dressed in shirts and trousers- basically, everyone looked quite smart and Ants and I turned up in our trainers and T-shirts. We hung out in the VIP area all night, hitting the dancefloor a couple of times to throw down some shapes. Some of the people in the club looked (and acted) like they were high on more than just the music. The music was house, not garage and not uplifting garden shed- why the stupid names for dance music genres I really don't know. There was an English DJ playing that night and so Ants and I were introduced to him once his set had finished- he asked what we were doing in Yekaterinburg and I explained, before thrusting a busines card into his hand and telling him to read our website.

Last night we stayed at a sweet hotel in the middle of rolling hills and pine forests. It was a beautiful setting and we had a BBQ and chatted to a couple of guys visiting from Siberia. They came to our room and chatted for a bit before finally allowing us some sleep at midnight.

Russia has definitely exceeded my expectations and I would suggest that people come and check out areas outside St. Petersberg and Moscow. My only complaints are the Baltic weather and the overly- efficient traffic cops.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Photos Galore

Dear All,

I know that there has been a serious lack of pictures on our blog. So here are a few that should sate everyone's photgraphic desires, taken by a friend of Oleg's here called Alexei. Just click on the link and enjoy...

Here are also two links to news channels / papers in Yekaterinburg who have fallen for TT's charms.

Love from us in Russia xx






Raving with the Romanovs….

Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovskaya oblast, Russia

Rudy and Oleg with Tingers, Yekaterinburg

A glaring anachronistic impossibility I know, but read on and all will make sense.

Jo and I are still in Yekaterinburg, where we’ve now been for four days. We didn’t quite mean to stay this long but since Russia is the first country we haven’t had to pelt through in a dash to make our visa and permit deadlines, we thought we needed to wind down for a day or two. TT is now happily fixed and purring like a pink pussy cat and we’ve got ourselves registered with OVIR, two essential chores we had to do here. Unfortunately the problem of the DV camera hasn’t been resolved and we’ve either got to wait here for three weeks while it is sent off to Moscow for a spare part, or see if I can get another one sent out from England. The latter option is far more likely.

Yekaterinburg is an interesting city, somewhere rarely frequented by foreigners and famous predominately for three things; the Romanovs were murdered here, Yeltsin was born here, and there was a spate of violent mafia killings in the early 1990’s. Furthermore, WWII turned the city into a major producer of arms and the city was closed to foreigners until 1990 because of is plethora of defence plants. Today the surrounding countryside around still hides a number of these plants – someone we met the other days father is the boss of one such place, which produces ground to air missiles from a factory deep beneath the ground outside the city.

With Jo engaged with her bevvy of BMW mechanics on Thursday, and my camera fixing errands over, I set off for a walk round the city to explore some of this history. The highlight was the grandiose Church of the Blood, built in 2003 on the spot where Tsar Nicholas II, his family and servants were horribly murdered by the Bolsheviks. The house where they died, Dom Ipateva, was destroyed by the then governor Boris Yeltsin in 1977, and today the exact spot is marked by a simple cross in the shadow of the gold-domed church honouring them.

The tale of the Romanov’s demise doesn’t make for pleasant reading. On July 16th 1918 the Tsar and his family were murdered by their Bolshevik guards, having been interned here for months in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution. For decades the question of what happened to the family after their death remained unanswered. Then in 1976 a group of local scientists discovered their remains near Ganina Yama, 16 km’s outside the city. So politically sensitive was this issue during the Soviet era that the discovery was kept quiet, and the remains not fully excavated until 1991 when the bones of the nine people found were tentatively identified as those of the Tsar, his wife Alexandra, three of their four daughters, the royal doctor and three servants. Absent were those of the fourth daughter, Anastasia, and their only son, Alexey.

In 1992, with the help of Prince Philip’s DNA (a grandson of the Tsarina’s sister) and the pioneering work of a British forensic team, it was established with 98.5% accuracy that these were indeed the Romanov remains. The full story of their ignominious end was then unfurled by a Russian enquiry.

According to this enquiry all five children had died with their parents in the cellar of Dom Ipateva. The bodies were then dumped in the aforementioned Ganina Yama, an abandoned mine shaft nearby, followed by several grenades intended to collapse the shaft and hide the evidence. The grenades failed, the bodies hauled out, and an acids expert summoned who, with 160 litres of acid at the ready, fell off his horse galloping to the spot, broke his leg and was unable to finish the job. The Bolsheviks, now in a bit of a pickle, decided to hide the bodies in a series of smaller mines in the area and pour the acid on them. But the lorry carrying them got stuck in a swamp forcing the bungling disposal team to bury them on the spot. They tried burning two of the bodies in preparation, then realized it would take days to burn them all fully, so opted in desperation to throw them all in a pit and cover them in acid. So badly did they do their job that the bones were still almost fully intact when unearthed 73 years later. What a gruesome end for Russia’s last Tsar and his family, who thankfully today have been sainted and buried at St’s Peter & Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg.

What I couldn’t understand on my walk was why within a km, both the Romanovs and Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, are remembered. Like many Russian cities the main thoroughfare here is called Prospekt Lenina, and an austere statue of Lenin dominates the main square. Yet it was his party, his revolution, which killed the Romanovs, whom the city have recently gone to great lengths to commemorate. I went to see Kevin Lynch, the British Consul General, here yesterday and put this question to him. He replied that of course the Russians are aware of the contradiction, but Lenin is an integral part of 20th century history and what happened in 1917-18 can not simply be wiped from the history books. A fair and valid point of course, but I would be intrigued to find out more about how Russians today view Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution.

Right, history lesson over…onto the raving bit.

Last night Jo and I hit the tiles for the first time in our nine week tukathon. We started at Tinkoffs for drinks with the British and American consulate’s gang, then headed off to The Snow Project with Oleg and Vadim (AKA Rudy…NOT Randy as I absent mindedly wrote before) Yet again, we’re very grateful for the help of the British FO, and thank you in particular to Kevin Lynch for his help and support – see you at the RGS on 12th December Kevin.

Jo and I obviously met the right boys in Oleg and Rudy, for we strolled into the uber-hip Snow Project at midnight waving the free VIP passes they had procured for us all - it normally costs 500 roubles to get in. I’d expected to go to a few clubs in Russia, and had heard that there were some decent ones, but never expected to find anywhere like this. After going though the obligatory metal detectors, everywhere here, and getting our UV stamps, we entered the most incredible main room, far more glamorous and better decked out than any British club I’ve ever been to. Girls with the most ridiculous pairs of legs danced on podiums and everyone was schnazzed up to the nines. Girls sashayed past in absurdly high heels, skirts they might as well not have bothered wearing, and make-up several inches thick. Enormous sunglasses and blingtastic jewels completed the look. And there were Jo and I in our jeans and trainers.

With Graeme Lloyd, from Turnmills in London, on the ones and twos, we all danced till 5 a.m, leaving as the sunrise was flooding the horizon red. Graeme spun some great tracks and we were introduced to him after his set where we had a quick chat before leaving him to two keen blondes. All in all it was a fantastic night out and Jo and I think we should make it the first of many nights out on the European leg of the trip.

Which takes me onto my next subject…Russian women. When on earth do they make the transition from tottering dollybird to doddering babushka? It must be overnight, for there doesn’t seem to be any transition between the two. Jo and I stick out like sore thumbs in Russia for the simple fact we lack three-inch heels, heavily dyed hair and a hefty helping of make-up.

I’d love to write more but we’re in a Wifi café now and the battery is running out, and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of a plug. Tomorrow morning we leave Yekaterinburg for Ufa, via the Urals. Tomorrow we will cross the divide into Europe, a strange thought. Home is almost in sight.

That’s all for now. Russia’s great and we’ll be very sad to say goodbye to Oleg and Rudy, who have looked after us like Princesses. Thank you guys. Xx Ants

TT the people magnet

27th July, Yekaterinburg (Russia)

Ting Tong and Russian comrades in Yekaterinburg

It is the beginning of our third full day in Russia and I am writing this blog in our hotel room while I wait for a phone call from one of our new friends. Ivan is a local who we met at about 11pm the night before last as we desperately tried to find our hotel after a very trying day on the road. I will recap.

We left Troitsk two days ago with a special gift from the market. Ants had gone to the local market to get some food and drinks and also to try and find us some warmer clothes. She returned and on entering our room instructed me to put my cigarette outside and close my eyes. I though she had a pink anorak for me, or some other item of warm clothing, but I was confused as to why this may require me to stop smoking. I opened my eyes to a box with a pink towel in it, which I initially thought might have been some clothes. On closer inspection I found a baby hedgehog. Ants had come across a couple of young boys selling him in the market and felt obliged to buy him for 85 roubles (just over a quid). We named him Henry and gave him a saucer of milk to drink. Then, we had to smuggle him out of the hotel without the babushkas catching on to our little animal rescue mission. Henry looked in good condition, but we were very anxious that we didn’t want him to die of stress. As we drove through town Ants popped to the local market again to get Henry some meat; this consisted of a chicken wing, some sausages (which I ate) and some local pate, which looked similar to what we feed our cat in England. We hit the main road and turned off onto a farmer’s track and headed for some woods. Henry, Ants and I waded through a waist high wheat field and found a shady collection of trees far from the road and civilisation. We gave him some more milk and put the pate in his box. Henry wasn’t interested in hanging around to eat his lunch and scuttled off into the undergrowth, hopefully to a free and happy life.

Then began our nightmare drive. The weather was cold and windy and it soon started to piss down with rain. Big trucks and cars were flying past TT, sending torrents of water all over us and her. Anuwat (our tuktuk guru) had warned me that if it is very wet the spark plugs may get wet and cause her problems. Sure enough TT started to misfire, struggle and lose momentum. We pulled over and I had a real ‘oh shit’ moment. We were in the middle of two cities, with nothing really in between, it was pouring with rain and TT had semi-broken down. Some locals we had met earlier had warned us that on the road we might meet mafia and banditos- great. Furthermore, our phone had decided not to let us make outgoing calls and so we had to just hope that the rain would ease off and TT’s sparks would dry out, if indeed that was the problem. I pulled out my faithful “Auto Repair for Dummies” and had a read of all the info relating to spark plugs. I knew that we had about 10 spare spark plugs in the boxes on the roof rack, but I wasn’t too keen to start trying to change them by the side of the road in the pouring rain. Luckily, my dad phoned at that moment and provided much needed moral support. He told us to wait for about 30 minutes and then to try driving again.

It continued to rain, although with less intensity. We had no choice but to keep driving and I prayed that TT would be able to safely take us to our intended destination. She was still having some issues and could only drive at about 35mph, but at least she was moving. We finally arrived on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg at 10pm, but were initially delayed by a police stop, where our documents were checked and we were kept waiting for a good 20 minutes. This was the second time we had been stopped by the police that day and we were cold, stressed, tired and not really in the mood to make small talk.

TT had now started farting i.e. backfiring and Ants and I willed her to just get us to our hotel. We found the right street but could not find our hotel. We pulled up outside a shop that randomly happened to still be open at 10.30pm. Ants went inside to ask for directions and a guy came over to me and started asking about our trip- luckily for me he spoke English. His name was Ivan and he was a presenter for a local radio station. Ants asked him if he would join our search for the elusive hotel, which to our surprise he did. After a couple of phone calls and about 20 minutes we located our hotel down a small road that was well and truly hidden off the road that the hotel was meant to be on. There were no signs or indications that our hotel was a hotel and how anyone manages to find it is quite beyond me. We unloaded our bags and then set off with Ivan to find a secure place to park. After a couple of tries we managed to persuade a security guard to let us park TT outside his hut for 60R a night. Relieved, hungry and tired we then ended up in a Belgian restaurant with Ivan, eating Greek salad and drinking beer at gone midnight. We then returned to our hotel and hit the hay.

The following morning we had a bit of lie in and then headed into town to register our visas (compulsory for tourists in Russia within 3 working days of arrival). We initially went to the wrong place and eventually arrived at the correct office with only 30 minutes to spare. As we tried to register our visas we were informed that it would not be possible because first we had to go to the state bank and pay 1R for each of the days that we planned to be in Yekaterinburg. As the office was soon closing we would have to wait until the Friday to register our visas. This meant that we would be a day late registering and may end up having to pay a $50 fine each- hopefully we can work some TT magic and escape unpunished. Ants and I had no idea that these complicated rules for registering existed and we didn’t where the state bank was. Luckily for us we had got chatting to a lovely couple who offered to take us to the bank and help us. Christina was a local and she was with her Turkish boyfriend, Elich, who needed to get his visa registered. They had been dating for two years and met through an internet chat site. Christina showed us to the bank and helped us to fill out our forms in Russian, before we paid the cashier 6R each- whether this makes sense or is economically profitable for the Russians I will let you be the judge!? We then went out for a drink and had a long and interesting chat with our new friends about Turkey, Russia and life.

We then went to an internet café where a random coincidence occurred. Ivan had written on a local internet site about meeting us and some other people that had seen TT had also posted blogs. Two guys, Rudy and Oleg, had read the posting and decided to try and find us. The first internet place they walked into happened to be where we were doing our blogs and checking emails. They asked us if we were driving a tuktuk back to England, to which we replied that we were. They then told us that we had mechanical problems with TT and we were both thinking ‘how the hell do they know”. Ivan had mentioned that TT had some problems with misfiring. What a small world. Oleg and Rudy both spoke nearly fluent English and we went off for a walk, drink and meal with them. Oleg had spent the last 4 years abroad studying and Rudy had worked in the states. Later that evening they walked us back to our hotel and pointed out some of the local sights. They told us they could help find a mechanic for TT and we swapped numbers.

The following morning Ants went off to try and fix the video camera and I went off to get TT fixed. Ivan came over and said he knew a mechanic but the guy didn’t have a phone number. About 30 minutes later Rudy and Oleg arrived with their friend who was a keen photographer and also knew a good garage that dealt with BMWs. We went to pick up TT and I then discovered that she was missing a bolt from under the housing for the accelerator cable and also that one of the screws that secured the cable was loose. This meant that the accelerator pedal didn’t return to its proper position after being fully depressed.

Alexei (Oleg’s friend) led the way in his BMW and we arrived at a very professional garage full of smart beamers. TT could hardly contain her excitement at being in the company of such attractive, powerful and sleek cars. I explained about the problems with the accelerator, spark plugs and windscreen wiper (which was misbehaving and had developed a mind of its own) and it was translated into Russian. I got out three new spark plugs and the mechanics set to work, promising that they would let me know when it was time to change the spark plugs. Meanwhile I relaxed upstairs on a leather sofa watching National Geographic and playing with a black kitten, which the guys informed me couldn’t understand English!

Alexei and Ting Tong with her BMW friends

I was fetched to see the old spark plugs and watch the new ones being inserted. The old ones were coated in black muck and I was told that they were bad. They thought this was probably caused by the fuel quality we have had during our 12,000km drive from Thailand. They showed me how to insert new ones and I watched carefully, in case the need arises for some DIY on the road mechanics relating to spark plugs. TT started first time with her new plugs and revved happily. Then it was time for a quick photo with all the mechanics, who then refused any payment for their services- what total dudes.

We headed back into town and stopped to get some petrol. Oleg phoned up a local news station and they agreed to come and film us when we arrived back in town. I tried to track down Mr Ant but she was still ferreting around town. After a quick pizza we met the TV crew and they interviewed me, Rudy and Oleg, before filming TT driving around town. They found the bottle of vodka that Ants had been drinking and I had to hold it up to the camera, as well as my mechanics book and a Russian map that I couldn’t read.

Tuk to the Road PR over and we went back to the hotel and met up with Ants, who had been for a jog. After a quick shower we headed out for supper and some drinks and a bit of sightseeing. Apparently we were on the news at 8.30pm, but we were out and I didn’t have to worry about seeing myself on camera. Back in the hotel now and I am sitting in the shower room writing this blog. I need to get to bed as it is 1.30am and we have an early start. We are splitting up again, with Ants off to the British council and me to get our visas registered. Then around midday we are meeting Ivan for a radio interview.

I am very pleasantly surprised by Russia, although I didn’t really know what to expect. It is an interesting place, the food is good, the cities attractive and most importantly the people are great. Goodnight.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

What a relief

25th July, Troitsk (Russia)

At last we have made it to Russia and despite the Kazakh/Russian border taking 9 hours to cross, we both feel incredibly relieved to be here and are looking forward to exploring a new country.

We both hoped that our night under the stars in the wood would be our last in Kazakhstan and that we would be able to make it to the border that day. The roads and adverse weather conditions (very windy) made this impossible and so our last night in Kazakh was spent in Kostanai, just over 100km from the border.
Camping was a special experience and we are both proud to say that we have now camped in Kazakhstan. The sun set over the wheat fields and we were in such a remote area, with just the trees and birds for company. We were undisturbed by people or animals in our tent, but kept from sleeping well by the freezing temperatures. Neither of us were prepared for the cold temperatures we have experienced in Kazakhstan, particularly after we had been told to expect temperatures in the mid 30s from our guidebook. I ended up curled into a tiny ball in my tropical quilt, wishing that instead I had an arctic quilt. We finally extricated ourselves from our tent at 8am and luckily the embers were still going in our fire, so we threw on some more logs and tried to warm ourselves. We packed up our kit and loaded it onto TT and I jogged in front to tell Ants if she had enough head clearance for TT’s roofrack. Due to our lack of cold weather gear we were both dressed in a random collection of layers. This included our bright green tropical quilts (that made us look like caterpillars) and our tropical ponchos (that made us look like green bogies). I also wore my apron and my SARS mask from China. As I trotted out of the wood with TT and Ants in tow we met a bunch of trukkers on the road, who must have thought they were hallucinating.

Our drive north towards the border that day was pretty unpleasant. It was cold, windy and sometimes rained. The road was pretty crap and we wondered if we would ever see civilization again. I was also worried about where we would be able to get petrol. Eventually we came to a settlement and managed to get petrol and a snack at a roadside café. I really don’t know how people live in such remote bleak areas, especially when the weather is mixed in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. I don’t know if it is because I am English, but bad weather gets my spirits down and that drive really ground down my mood.

After driving all day we had to accept that we would be spending another night in Kazakhstan and so found a hotel in Kostanai. Actually, a kind local showed us to a nice hotel as we drove behind him. The only issue was that TT was too high with all her spare parts to fit into the secure parking area of the hotel. This meant that all of the boxes on her roofrack had to be untied and removed. I could pretend that we did this ourselves, but we had the help of a couple of strong Kazakh men.

So, yesterday morning we woke early (7am) and tukked towards Russia. The road was initially good, but then deteriorated as the main road was under construction and we had to travel along a stony dirt track running parallel. At one point we saw cars driving down the main road and we decided to copy them. So TT climbed up a sandy track and we hit the new tarmac, smugly flying past all of the other vehicles. However, we soon realized why everyone wasn’t driving on the new main road. Our path ended up against a 4ft pile sand barrier and TT put her tailpipe between her wheels and we tukked back. I tried to find a short way down, but this ended up with TT nearly being grounded on a (too) large hump.

We arrived at the border after 4 hours on the road and had a bite to eat before joining the queue of cars. Ants went off to do some paperwork and I sat in TT trying to communicate with the locals. The queue wasn't that long, but it moved at a snail's pace and it took us the best part of two hours to move about 15 car lengths. Our visas were 4 days out of date and we knew that we could be in for a bollocking, or worse. The first two checkpoints made no comment and we thought we had got away with it. The passport control booth spotted our misdemeanor and our passports were carted off to another building. Ants was asked to sit in a room on her own while I sat outside in TT. She reported back to me later that the first guy told her we would have to go back to Astana to sort out our visas. Astana was at least a 2 day drive away and we knew that even if we did return there it would not be possible to extend our tourist visas. We presented our newspaper articles and the guards took a shine to TT. Eventually, they stamped our passports without so much as a word of warnind and we tukked to no man's land between the 2 countries. To enter the Russian side we again had to wait in a queue of cars for a long time. Finally we passed through and then had to sort our customs declaration forms and TT's documents and insurance. We had hoped to get to Chelyabinsk (200km away) that night, but as we didn't leave the border until gone 10pm we decided to go to Troitsk instead.

We arrived in Troitsk in the dark and attempted to find a room for the night. The first place said they were full, even though Ants had seen not a single person inside the hotel. The second hotel was also full and we were beginning to think that another night al fresco may be necessary. The third hotel we tries had a spare room, but if we had not been helped by a local they may have again stated that they were 'full'. I don't think they see many western tourists in Troitsk. We devdied to have some supper before bed and sat in a restaurant that contained a DJ and a couple of very drunk locals throwing some great moves in the dancefloor. They tried to encourage us to dance and even attempted bribery by beer, but we were too knackered. We went ot bed reliebed to have crossed into a new country trouble-free.

From Russia with love

Yekaterinburg, Russia

I know, the title is a terrible cliche, but sometimes cliches are hard to resist - and Jo and I were so relieved to make it into Russia late on Monday night it was love at first sight.

On Monday morning, after a rocky 200km drive from Kostanai in NW Kazakhstan, we tukked up to the Russian border at Troitsk, 200km south of Chelyabinsk. We had every reason to be a little nervous since our Kazkakh visa had expired four days previously. Earthquakes, mechanical problems and bad roads meant that we'd been unbale to keep to the tight two week visa issued to us three months ago in the UK..and its almost impossible to extend tourist visas in Kazakhstan. So we were just going to have to smile angelically and hope the guards were in a good mood.

Things started well. In the shadow of three colossal factory chimneys belching black smoke across the plains, we pulled up at the back of a small queue of (mainly) Ladas. Jo insisted we behaved well and didn't do our usual habit of queue-barging since, as she said, we didn't 'want to draw any attention to ourselves'. Considering the nature of our vehicle I thought this was fairly impossible, but complied anyway. Fistful of documents in hand, I walked into the small wooden hut by the barrier where a woman with scarily dyed red hair was busily stamping documents and a man was snoring noisily in the corner. A faint whiff of vodka hung in the air. Ten minutes later I was gone, clutching more documents and feeling very relieved that she hadn't noticed the little problem of our invalid visa. It seemed that all we had to do know was wait until, car by car, we were let through the barrier to passport control.

Three hours later we were through to the next stage, where Jo and TT waited while I went to meet our fate at passport control. A surly looking man said 'zdrasvitzye' through the small window and took our passports, while I gave him my most winning smile. It didn't work. Within a nanosecond the window was abruptly slammed shut and the man disappeared into another building across the road. We were in trouble. Two minutes later he and another guard reappeared and summoned me into a small, drear room where a number of officials came in and questioned me about why we were late exiting the country. I gulped as one of them told me glumly that we had a 'bolshoi problem' and would have to go back to Astana to validate our visas. Considering it had taken us over two days of hellish driving to get from the capital this was a most unappealing option.

Yet once again the Gods were on our side. No one it seems can resist the charms of Ting Tong and I was soon told that we could go...not even a fine. Unbelievable. Here we were in Kazakhstan, a country notorious for corrupt officials dying to extract dollars from all and sundry, we had every reason to be fined and beaten, and we were about to sail through to Russia without even a telling off. As we were leaving the hut we saw the other side of the coin however. Three Turkish men were engaged in heated conversation with the same group of officials who had been so lenient with us. The youngest of the Turks came and spoke to us, furious that they were being forced to pay money for no reason. They'd driven from Ankara to here, and no where else had they experienced problems. I guess we were very, very lucky indeed.

It was 5.30 pm by the time we tukked across the border, waving goodbye to Kazakhstan and hello to Russia. Only Ladas, barriers and wooden huts stood between us and the biggest country in the world. Once again I took our documents and headed for the barrier hut where I was greeted by Anatoly Konstanteenovich Lookanov, the lone guard on duty. His green eyes were full of mirth as he looked through the documents, asked about the journey and tried to decipher TT's Thai registration documents. So fascinated was he by the sight of this rare Thai species that he left the confines of his hut and came for a closer inspection, joining the gold-toothed crowd that had gathered in my absence, and creasing with laughter at TT's three-wheels and hot pink paintwork.

More waiting.... for another three hours we sat in the queue, making friends with everyone, letting all the children have a TT experience, letting people take pics...until finally the barriers opened and the whole queue of cars was ushered through to passport control. The end was in sight - and within 10 minutes we had all the right stamps and were heading for the door. Until we remembered the small matters of insurance for Ting Tong and the dreaded 'deklaratzia'. Insurance was easy enough, once the bleached blonde assistant had got over the shock of the Thai papers, but the deklaratzia took us an agonising extra two hours to finalise. In short, a deklaratzia is a vital piece of paper for anyone coming into Russia. If you don't fill it in correctly and get all the right stamps, you are liable to get all your money and equipment confiscated when you leave. This would have meant losing cameras, laptops, BGAN's etc etc - not an option. As Dimi, the 26 year old guard, was filling out our deklaratzia for the eighth time I asked him if many English people came through this border. He screwed up his face and thought hard, "In May we have a Holland, and in February we have two Australians, I can't rememeber Eenglish here". No wonder it was all taking so long.

At last, at 10.30 pm, in the dwindling light, we walked out to TT and into Russia. Five or six guards came over to ask questions and send us on our way, and ask casually if we had any drugs on us. After drawing us a map to a hotel in Troitsk, the nearest town, we were off. What relief, what a day.

But it wasn't over yet.

In Troitsk, 30 km from the border, we drew up outside the aforementioned hotel, a grandiose mansion in the early stages of decrepitude. The receptionist shook her head, they were full. Yeah right I thought, a huge hotel like this full on a Monday night. We'd heard that some Russian hotels can be unwilling to take foreigners, a hangover from the Soviet era, and I am sure it was this unwillingness rather than a genuine lack of rooms that was the reason we were turned away. The same thing happened at the second hotel and Jo and I started to wonder if we might have to pitch our tent on the pavement. But thank goodness hotel number three, the 'Gostiniza Kaspi' said yes, they had one room left. Phew.

At 11.45 pm, tired, grubby and much in need of tipple and tiffin, we sat down for supper in the hotel restaurant. Our only fellow diners were three very drunk men in one corner, and a pair of heavily made up, fairly drunk 30 something women in another corner. It wasn't long before we were spotted by the former, and subsequently accosted, whilst a DJ appeared out of nowhere and put on hideous, earsplittingly loud eurotechno. Having successfully used having supper as an excuse not to join our prospective paramours - Mikhail, Dimitri and Alexei, they retreated to the dancefloor and began throwing some serious shapes and blowing kisses in our direction. Very funny. They soon returned however, to propose that they be our boyfriends in Russia - despite the fact they all had wedding rings on and Jo and I both said we were married. We've been warned this might happen a bit here...

At 2 a.m we crashed into bed, elated to be in Russia and looking forward to the next stage of the adventure.

Tuesday 25th July

The next morning I awoke early and left Jo snoring in bed to go and investigate the local market. We'd been so paralysingly cold in the last few days I wanted to find us some warm clothes so we wouldn't have to drive in our sleeping bags.

Two hours later I returned not with any warm clothes, but with a baby hedgehog, called Henry. I'd found Henry in the market, being sold by two mischievious little boys who'd caught the unfortunate beast the day before. Henry looked very unhappy in his little box, being prodded by passers by, so the only solution was to rescue him and think about what to do with him later. He was SO sweet, with beatly black eyes and a long twitchy nose, it was tempting to secrete him in TT, give him some goggles and bring him back to England with us. But of course this wasn't possible and two hours later we released him in a silver birch copse in the middle of some farmland, where he scuttled off into the undergrowth without even a wave goodbye.

Our destination that day was Yekaterinburg, about 400 km north west of Troitsk. The roads were good and we banked on being there in time for supper. But at 3 pm the heaven's opened. Anuwat warned us to be careful in the rain and that Ting Tong's spark plugs wouldn't be happy if they got wet, but we'd always been OK before and we carried on driving through the rain at a sedate 40 km/h. Anuwat's wise words soon became reality and TT began to splutter in an unseemly manner. It wasn't until 11 pm that we finally made it here, to Yekaterinburg, having crawled along in the rain at 40 km/h for the last 150 km's with TT choking and backfiring.

We've only been in Yekaterinburg for 36 hours and once again Jo and I have been overwhelmed by the kindess of strangers. Whilst fruitlessly searching for our hotel late on Tuesday night we met Ivan, a local radio presenter who speaks very good English. Without him we would never have found the 'Gostiniza Academia Geologia', tucked away on a dark side street behind Prospekta Lenina. Nor would we have found a safe place to park our three-wheeled friend. Ivan, a philosophical, highly intelligent 31 year old, was fascinated with our trip and went home and posted all about it on a website read by people here. Amongst those who read the sight were two 21 year old boys, Oleg and Vadim, who, with nothing else better to do, decided to go and search for the 'tuk tuk girls'. So here we were, in a random little internet cafe yesterday evening, when two (very handsome indeed) boys came over and said "Are you the two drving the pink car to England?". By total chance they had come to this cafe to use the internet and track us down, and here we were. Extraordinary -Yekatinburg is a big city with 1.4 million inhabitants and they had stumbled opon us by total chance. Even funnier was when they showed us the website Ivan had posted on, with a long thread all about the funny pink car that had been spotted last night coming into the city. Oleg and Vadim knew exactly where we had been, where we had got lost, where we had parked to ask directions...just from the replies to Ivan's posting.

Thismorning Jo has gone off to get TT seen with Ivan, Oleg and Randy, by a mechanic found by Ivan through his posting, and I've gone off to take our DV camera to the Sony service centre and do internet chores. The little bugger (excuse my language) has an audio problem which might not be fixable. I don't even want to think about it and I begged to engineer at the centre to to his very best to sort it out.

This afternoon we're going to check out some of the city and go and see the Bloodhound Gang with Oleg and Vadim tonight. I have no idea who they are, but Jo and the boys seem very excited and assure me they are some hot American group. Jo described them as the music the US troops in Iraq like to drive their tanks around to - sounds grrreat.

Ever since learning Russian at school its somwhere I have always wanted to go and I am really excited to be here. My Russian teacher, Mrs Ainsworth (she'd married an Englishman hence the surname), seemed determined to paint as bad a picture as possible about her homeland to her three pupils, and delighted in showing us videos about the Aral Sea, Chernobyl and glue-sniffing kids in Moscow. But then it was the early 90's when Russia was painfully emerging from the mantle of Sovietism and the fistfuls of roubles Mrs Ainsworth would show us in class wouldn't even buy a loaf of stale bread. But the gargantuan size of Russia and its epic history has always fascinated me and I think it will be one of the highlights of the trip. The driving is a bit hairy, but then so was it in China and Kazakhstan. By the time Jo and I get back to England we'll probably have caught a host of bad road habits.

That's enough for now I think - sorry its so long but we just havn't had a chance to post in the last few days and so much has happened I didn't want to miss anything out. Apologies also to all those who have sent me lovely emails over the last few weeks who I haven't yet replied to - Alice S, Jemila, Charlie, Lara G... thank you so much and I will reply when we have a moment. Love to everyone in England and send some sunshine our way xx Ants

A very quick blog from Russia

Yekaterinburg, Russia

A very quick one to say Jo and I are In Russia....in Yekaterinburg to be precise. We have masses to report but are running around today getting a new phone, getting DV camera fixed, getting TT fixed, registering with OVIR before they arrest us... so will both do a megablog when we have a moment. xx Ants

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The rocky road to Russia

22nd July, a wood in the middle of nowhere, NW Kazakhstan


We left the peaceful Lake Tenghiz and headed back towards Astana. We woke to clouds and temperatures normally experienced during an English summer. During our 12 days in Kazakhstan the weather has generally been a bit on the pants side. Our guidebook warns that Kazakhstan at this time of year is uncomfortably hot e.g. 36C and above. I think they might be talking about a different country, because bar a couple of beautiful sunny days it has been cloudy with drizzle and a few sunny spells. We stopped off to get petrol and food on the way. At the shop we bumped into Nikolai, the dude who allowed us into the park at 10pm the other night. He met us with huge smiles and asked to come back to England with us in TT- this is quite a frequent request. He wanted me to get together with his 18 year old son and when I told him I was engaged he suggested throwing the ring away and marrying him instead. Next was the petrol station, my least favourite hangout in Kazakhstan. The petrol was 50% more expensive than anywhere else. We got the feeling we were being ripped off, but perhaps the remoteness of the station pushed up prices, although I am not convinced. There were lots of very pissed locals there and they decided to join in the fun of TT’s mealtime. I think we only lost about 10% of our 10 litres to the petrol forecourt this time. One of the locals then decided to hide our keys, which he finally produced much to our annoyance. We got in TT and drove off quickly, because the men were all a bit drunk and creepy.

During the drive back it started to rain and the wind produced strong gusts reducing our speed from 60mph to about 45mph. We eventually got to Astana and ferretd out a hotel that seemed like a ripoffski for what it was. Apparently the hotel prices in Astana (the capital) have skyrocketed over the last couple of years and so we were reluctant to search around to save a few dollars. A grumpy old man tried to get us to park TT in a secure gated compound, but the guards there made us wait outside for over 20 minutes in the rain, before refusing us entry. Some friendly men from Azerbaijan tried to help us, but the gates remained firmly shut. So, poor TT ended up being parked on the street outside the hotel watched over by the old man.

As it was Fiona’s last night she kindly took us out for supper. We picked a local Russia restaurant and enjoyed a mixture of salads, chicken (not for Mr Ant as she is vegetarianski) and mushrooms with cheese. During supper we were serenaded by a group of men who looked decidedly un-Russian or Kazakh. It turned out they were Indian and sung beautiful Russian folk music while flashing us their gleaming gold gnashers. I think they have been in Kazakh awhile and picked up the local fashion.

Up this morning and we had decided to change our route and head out of Kazakh north west rather than north, because we were informed this was the main road towards Europe and the roads would be better. Also, this took us nearer to our first city in Russia, Chelyabinsk. The roads started off OK, although the condition was not as good as the road from almaty to astana. The wind was quite strong and we were slowed down by over 20mph, cruising in forth at just under 40mph. This was very frustrating as needed to cover just over 750km to get to the city nearest the Kazakh border. I optimistically thought we may have entered Russia today- not a hope in hell.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside café and pulled up next to a wedding party. They spotted TT and came over to have a photo shoot with her. The bride was wearing a flowing white gown and TT made her look even more stunning. We went inside the café and ordered a pretty basic lunch: tomato salad, fried eggs, macaroni and bread. I bet you’re jealous when you guys in the UK are probably enjoying Pimms and BBQs- bastards (only joking). The waitress was hunched over and in tears during our whole meal. We workied out she had really bad period pains, went to TT’s medical kit and gave her some paracetamol. Hopefully they helped a bit.

After lunch the wind continued to gust and the roads began to deteriorate. We both started having flashbacks of Yunnan in China. Still, striaght perfect tarmac can get a bit boring after awhile. We soon realised that we didn’t have a hope of getting to our intended rendezvous point. So, right now we are in a wood sitting around a roaring campfire. We have had some samphire (sea asparagus picked at Lake Tenghiz by Ants and Fiona), tomatoes and bread. I have managed to burn myself on a hot brick and our tent is erected and ready for us to crawl into. Hopefully we will not be disturbed by drunk locals or wild animals and any sleep would be a bonus. Tomorrow we continue towards the border and hopefully this time tomorrow we will be in Russia. I cannot think of a more perfect way to spend our last night in Kazakhstan. I had better let Ants do her blog now, as she is half way through a bottle of vodka.

I nearly forgot a couple of things so I will add them now. Three is the magic number and if to prove it I was stung today three times by small bees. Kazakhstan is a multicultural country e.g. we started our campfire using a Chinese sanitary towel and Swedish fire stick, we drank Russina vodka, TT is a Thai tuktuk and our tent is from Korea. We have witnessed some amazing sunsets, particularly over Lake Tenghiz and we have been priveledged to see birds of prey hunting in their natural environment. That’s all folks…..xx



July 22nd

A wood somewhere in NW Kazakhstan

The camp fire is burning, an orchestra of insects is keeping us company and Jo and I are camping in a wood in the middle of not quite sure (no)where. Since there are only about 3 trees in the steppe, this is quite an achievement in itself.

This trip has been a series of ‘I can’t believe its..’. It has progressed from ‘I can’t believe we are actuually doing it’ through ‘ I can’t believe we are in Thailand…I can’t believe we are leaving today…I can’t believe we are in China…through China…in Kazakakhstan’ and now finally ‘I can’t believe we are about to hit Russia’. As I have said before, time has never passed so quickly.

This time tomorrow evening, we will (hopefully) be in Russia, in Chelyabinsk to be precise. It seems like yesterday that we were celebrating our passage into Kazakhstan, and the minute we get used to it we are speeding out the other side, in the flash of a gold tooth. Each day Jo and I are so engaged in driving, navigating, blogging, filming etc that sometimes the future springs upon on before we are fully aware it has arrived. Russia is a perfect example. The day before yesterday saw us frantically extracting the Russian Lonely Planet from TT’s lock box and invetsigating what lay ahead. Lots of vodka it seems. When I was writing the route page for our website on a cold winter’s afternoom in February, it felt like we would never actually be driving along the far off roads that I was writing about. I remember eulogising about the ‘fabled Urals’ and wondering what it would be like when one day we arrived there. That day is now only thee away. Amazing.

Our approach to a new border is always accompanied by a certain amount of trepidation and wonderment. Have we got all the correct documentation? Is everything in order? What is waiting in store for us? We have got used to every day being a mystery, but borders are a different kettle of fish. Hopefully Russia will be as easy as all the rest and tomorrow night we will be happily ensconced in Chelyabinck, eating Borscht and (me) swigging vodka. Before you get the wrong idea by the way, I’m not descending into alcoholism, I’m just partial to the odd cockle-warming voddy.

The last few days, like all our time in Kazkahstan, have been a surprise. Our last night with my mother was spent in the capital, Astana (originally meaning ‘capital’ in Kazakh) where we dined at a hilarious Russian joint called Egorkino where the waitresses were garbed in 17th Russian peasant gear and the music was provided by a motley crew of gold toothed Indians. Classic. This morning it was time for Jo and I to finally strike off solo, and leave my Ma for Russia and home. Tears were shed and we sped off west towards Kostanai, with little idea of how far we would get today but just a desire to get as far as we could. Thanks to terrible roads and TT swallowing pot-holes we now find ourselves in the only wood in NW Kazakhstan. And having felt rather unsure about camping it has turned out to be an absolute delight. As the sun set and burnt the steppe gold and orange, we tukked into the wood, erected the tent in a masterly fashion, whipped up a fire and settled down for the night. Now, as I type, Jo is gathering fire wood and a kestrel is crying overhead. Camping isn’t so bad afterall. Thank you Charlie for the excellent Trangia cooker, and Nobby for teaching us how to light a camp fire with tampax and a Swedish fire still on our survival course in March.

Back to the camp fire and onwards to Russia. Xx Ants


July 23rd, Kostanai, north west Kazakhstan

Well we didn’t make it to Russia today (Sunday) and tonight Jo, Ting Tong and I find ourselves in Kostanai, a big town in NW Kazakhstan, a hop, skip and a jump away from the Russian border. As we sat round the camp fire last night we didn’t think for a minute that we would be spending another night in Kazakhstan, feeling sure that today would see us crossing the border at Troitsk and tukking onto Chelyabinsk.

On Friday night, in Astana, we got talking to Nurzhan, a handsome, expensively dressed Kazakh. Jo and I had been sitting in the bar of our hotel poring over the map and deliberating our best route to Russia. Since we were racing against time to beat the expiration date of our Kazakh visa, we were after the fastest route possible. It was either north to Petropavlosk or north west to Kostanai. Nurzhan strolled into the bar, and as is customary here, immediately struck up a conversation with us. Being a native, we felt sure he could advise us of the best route. After a short period of careful consideration he pointed towards Kostanai. “Zees one ees best I think, zis is the main route to Europe, ze route all the big trucks take from Russia and Germany”. Since the road was encouragingly called the M36 and cut an impressive red line across north west Kazakhstan, our decision was made. The M36 it was.

Cut to 18 hours later, where Jo and I are driving along this Central Asia – Europe superhighway. Its a single lane track across corn fields and we have’t seen a car for two hours. Kostanai is another 350 km’s….at 8pm we decide we haven’t a hope in hell or heaven of reaching civilization by nightfall and set up camp in our little copse.

I’m not the best of campers. I love the romantic notion of being in some beautiful spot, at one with nature, the stars twinkling overhead, waking up to the sun rising over a meadow of flowers. But the reality is somewhat different – a cold, sleepless night spent terrified the local axe-murderer will come and finish you off. Last night, however, was excellent. Yes it was a little cold and no we didn’t get much sleep, but it was so much fun camping in the middle of our wild wood at the end of the earth, and warming our mitts round a blazing camp fire that I’m willing to gloss over the minor discomfort. So it was with high spirits that Jo and I tukked out of our sylvan shelter at 8.30 a.m today. Having been freezing all night, we were both attired a little strangely. Jo in her Yi apron – of course – and me at the wheel in two rugs and my sleeping bag. Just as we emerged from the trees, with Jo running beside TT to guide us out, a truck drove past and we were met by an ‘Am I seeing things?’ look from the quizzical driver. What a funny sight we must have been; a pink tuk tuk and two very odd looking girls emerging from the undergrowth early on a Sunday morning.

Our high spirits soon evaporated when the reality of the road became apparent. For two hours we saw not a single car. The road, dotted with sporadic signs to Yekatinberg in Russia (800 km hence), was cratered with HUGE holes. Moroever, the sky was an angry mass of low black clouds and an ill wind was buffetting Ting Tong in an alarming manner. All we saw were flocks of black crows taking off in fright as we tukked past, and the occasional herd of horses. No houses, no cars, and no people. Just as we were becoming concerned about our petrol situation and I was wondering if this road really went anywhere, a town appeared in the distance. As we drew closer I could see that the houses were derelict, the windows mainly smashed and the roofs full of holes. It must have been abandoned. I began to get the feeling that this whole area had been abandoned with the collapse of the USSR, hence the hideous disrepair of the road and the antiquated signs to Yekatinberg.

I was wrong. As we drove through the edge of the town I saw an old babushka hobbling along the street, and a bashed up old Lada creaking along. More surprisingly, we were able to find petrol, where the prices on the rusted pumps were still in roubles. The whole place was really eerie, neither of us could believe that people actually lived here, in this desolate, windswept corner of the steppe. It felt like a ghost-town, with people clinging onto the shreds of civilization. I wondered what life must be like for the inhabitants. Judging by the shelves full of vodka in the local store escapism is a popular choice. (The average life expectancy for men here is 58, mainly thanks to alcohol abuse). My oh my seeing that place made me appreciate how lucky we are in our cosy little western lives.

Lunch was a classic. Jo and I stopped at the only café we’d seen for hours and extricated ourselves from Ting Tong, both still wearing our ridiculous outfits. For some reason Jo’s Yi apron never ceases to make me cry with laughter, it must look even funnier to a bunch of Russian truckers in a roadside café. Our hair was standing on end from all the wind and we tripped into the café in a flurry of ponchos, rugs, aprons and sleeping bags. Whether it was the apron , Ting Tong or our English charm, we quickly befriended two truckers, who’d seen us on TV in Almaty. When we asked for the bill they very kindly insisted on paying and off we went.

After eight, freezing, windy hours we arrived in Kostanai. Neither of us expected to experience such bitter weather in Kazakhstan, even though we are just south of Siberia here today was a chilly reminder that TT sure aint a cold weather car. Tomorrow we are going to equip ourselves with some hardcore cold weather gear incase of further inhospitable climes in Russia.

Enough from me for now. I’m off to have a sauna to warm up then tip into bed for an early night. Tomorrow we hope we really will be in Russia…..x x Ants

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Our mission to Lake Tenghiz

20th July Tengiz Lake (North Kazakhstan, the middle of nowhere)

On our last morning in Balkash we headed to the local market. On the way I purchased a pair of bright pink sunglasses, which really don’t suit me and Ants purchased a pair that look cool, but also make her look a bit like a fly i.e. very large. The market was more how we imagined a local market, with women selling their fruit, vegetables, cheeses and kumis (fermented mare’s milk that tastes of bile). The men sold the meat and a Kazakh man dressed in nothing more than a towel around his waist chopped up a cow carcass with a huge axe. We bought some fruit and veggies, goat cheese and some honey- surprisingly costing 2 quid a jar. The women mostly had various numbers of gleaming gold teeth and their hair was back combed on top of their heads with a small hat. We were accosted by a local woman who wrapped her arms around Fiona and then me. We gave her a small amount of money and she later returned for more cuddles. I had earlier seen a man rummaging through the bins outside and so I bought him some salad to eat. Compared to the market in Almaty, this place was cheaper and far more relaxed e.g. they allowed us to take photos, rather than a security guard telling us to stop.

We left Balkash and drove north to Karaganda. The steppe became less monotonous and was replaced by more lush grass, rugged hills to our east and west and on a couple of occasions large groups of horses grazing. Ants and I both thought the scenery looked like Tellytubby land and I expected TinkyWinky to pop up and say ‘Eh-Oh’. TT cruised happily at about 60mph and we enjoyed the drive much more than we had the drive to Balkash from Almaty.

We stayed the night in Karaganda and were led to a hotel by a kind Kazakh guy in his van- we had no idea where we were going and had asked for directions. He also helped us to check in and managed to haggle the price down a bit. Kazakh people rock. As we drove through the town people were beeping and waving at us. Most of the time this is good fun, but sometimes people pull up within a couple of feet of us and try to chat or take photos, often when a big Kamaz truck is bearing down on them in the opposite direction. It gives us flashbacks of China and trucks trying to make a TT sandwich. We dragged our bags to the fifth floor as the lift wasn’t working. Then we decided to go out to supper and asked a taxi driver to take us to a nice restaurant. We ended up at an expensive Belgian restaurant, which had a strange fusion menu of Kazakh mixed with Greek mixed with Belgian. I had a Belgian waffle with chocolate sauce for pudding and it was the best waffle I have ever eaten. The plate ended up being licked, much to Ants’ amusement and I ended up looking like a toddler after their first birthday party. My parents would have been ashamed of my behaviour. Just as we were about to go to bed, a guy that had chased us to our hotel earlier in a white Merc burst into our room at gone 11pm and asked us to go for a drive and drink beer with him and his brother. He got out our map of Kazakhstan and tried to draw our route on it. We asked him to leave as politely as possible, because he was only been friendly and trying to help us.

The next morning (yesterday) Ants had a three hour headache trying to upload some photos. It takes at least 20 minutes per photo and even with Image Shack it still takes ages. We need to find a Russian Photo Shop equivalent to sort out our photo issues and then we can post loads of photos on our blogs. We left about midday for Tenghiz Lake and the Khurgalzhino Nature Reserve. Everything was going smoothly until we got totally lost in a big Kazakh city. There were absolutely no signs and everyone told us different directions. In the end we found the right road and drove 130km down a reasonably well tarmaced road and the got lost again. We ended up in a random town at the end of a very long road and unfortunately asked a local drunk for directions. We didn’t initially realize he was drunk until he had hopped into TT and got us lost again. Ants asked him in her best Russian to get out of TT because he was pissed and we asked some children and a local family for new directions. They explained the way and we set off back down the road we had come down, fortunately only for 4km before we turned off onto the right road. We had to drive 45km and the road deteriorated to large clumps of mud and some stones. The road wasn’t bad enough to really slow us down and TT cruised along at a sedate 30mph. The sun was starting to set and we wondered if we may have to camp for the night. Eventually we came to the entrance of the nature reserve and were told it was too late for us to enter. We felt like crying and I tried to think of something sad so that they may feel sorry for us. Instead I just ended up laughing at the situation- we were in the middle of nowhere 50km from the nearest form of civilization, the sun had set and it was 9.30pm. The man on duty at the gate said that we could sleep in his hut, but we didn’t really want to because it smelt of sheep. We were desperate to get to the lake and after a few walkie talkie calls with the director we were allowed to enter. A short 8km to the guesthouse was all we had to manage before hopefully finding a bed for the night. However, a Kazakh 8km is like a Chinese 8km and this means double it and add 5. Eventually we saw lights in the distance and finally arrived at our destination. Our bed for the night was a small log cabin by the lake with four beds crammed into it, plus a fridge and a TV. We eventually got to sleep after a very tiring evening, relieved to have arrived at all.

I slept like a log last night and apparently my snoring was not too intrusive. I slept in the bed furthest from everyone else, with my head near to the door and I tried to stay awake for as long as possible to let everyone else get to sleep. We woke up to a beautiful day, hot and sunny with not a cloud in the sky. This was a pleasant change, because everyone in England is having the hottest summer on record and the weather in Kazakhstan has been more like an English summer i.e. drizzle, sometimes sunny, mostly cloudy and not that hot. We had heard that there was a beach 8km away, so after a lunch of stale bread and some salad we headed off in TT across the steppe. I was driving and within a couple of hundred meters had successfully got TT stuck in a muddy ditch. I didn’t think the puddle was so muddy and TT had here rear right wheel totally stuck and no amount of pushing or pulling could extract her. We saw a Lada driving over and out got a Russian with a moustache and large belly. He attached TT to his Lada with her dressing gown cord (i.e. rope that we secure her silver cover with) and after him revving and me revving TT shot out of the ditch and onto dry land. I began to doubt whether trying to find a beach was such a good idea. After that we drove at a maximum of 20mph and Ants hung of the side to tell me how to avoid any future hazards. We though we had found the beach after about 5km and parked TT in the steppe while we went to investigate. What we found were mudflats which we proceeded to walk across to try and reach the lake. The mud was hot, black and smelt of sulphur and we soon sunk above our ankles in it. Ants squeaked as something had wriggled between her toes and he hastily returned to the safety of dry land. We carried on driving and were sure we had now found the ‘real’ beach. We had a little paddle, but abandoned any hope of swimming because there were loads of midges and Fiona got bitten twice by a horsefly. Oh well, at least it was an adventure and it was great being in such a remote and desolate spot.

When we got back we ended up being invited to join three men enjoying a feast of vegetables, pasta, rice, horsemeat and of course vodka. We opted to just have drinks and out came the vodka. I pretended to drink mine but didn’t really, Ants had three large glasses and Fiona had one. One of the men was a Kazakh Korean who was a Dr from St Petersburg (random) and he pulled out a magnifying glass and looked into Ants’ and Fiona’s eyes. He then walked around the table and squeezed Fiona’s tummy. He looked at my scars and proclaimed that he could rid me of them in three days. After our brief meeting with our new friends Ants felt quite tipsy and decided that she would crash out after I refused her challenge to a game of badminton. When it was a bit cooler we had a short game and squeaked and grunted our way around a makeshift volleyball court, watched by all the local men. Tomorrow we are heading to Astana where we leave Fiona and then head to the Russian border. I hope the food improves otherwise I will turn into a piece of stale bread.

A country of anomalies

Kurghalzhino Nature reserve, 150 k m south west of Astana, Kazakhstan

Here it is, the blog I had such good intentions of writing last night until we got collared by our vodka swilling friends. Since Jo doesn’t drink and my mother doesn’t like swigging back glassfuls of vodka, it was left to me to do the toasts keep the union jack flying high. Unfortunately that meant no blog, no video diary, a rather pie-eyed attempt at Badminton and no intended run.

I feel like I have hardly written a blog recently, having got so into the habit in China, our writing has slightly fallen by the wayside in Kazakhstan. This week my excuse is that I have been busily writing a piece for the Mail on Sunday, which should hopefully be in the review section this weekend. Its been a bit of a pavlova, as Jo would say, with a flurry of emails going back and forwards between myself and my friend Anna at the Mail. Thank you so much Anna for all your help and can’t wait to chat about normal, non- work related things next week xx.

Back to Balkash, where I last put pen to paper, as it were. In a perverse way, Balkash was one of the most interesting places I have ever been. A few months ago I read AA Gill’s excellent account of his visit to Moynaq, on the shores of what was once the Aral Sea in west Kazakhstan. He describes it as the ‘worst place in the world’, with the rusting ghosts of fishing boats languishing in the middle of the desert, 150 km from the edge of the sea they once fished. Lake Balkash, Central Asia’s 4th largest lake, is going the same way and a UN report in 2004 stated that over 2000 km2 had already been lost, largely thanks to over use of the Ili River in China. For the visitor, this is not yet apparent, but the pollution and poverty are. In the 1930’s the Russians set up Copper smelting works in the town, on the north shore of the lake, and these grim chimneys still pump out poison into the atmosphere daily. Chromosomal diseases are on the rise, and many of the residents of Balkash complain of constant headaches. I even noticed it, the acid smoke getting in the back of your throat and causing you to choke. Our new friend Maxat, told us that the factory is one of the biggest in the world and employs 17 different nationalities and that British and Canadian pollution experts are currently working to reduced the impact of the factories on the environment. Until then, it remains yet another example of the Russian legacy to Kazkakhstan, along with the shrinking Aral Sea and the nuclear testing ground at Semey.

(Quick interlude, my new friend Morgea just brought us some freshly caught fish for breakfast, so kind.)

Yet despite the pollution, the filth, the dereliction and the disintegrating apartment blocks, Balkash had its good points. As Jo has already written, we were saved by a young Kazakh called Maxat, who found us a mechanic and filled the holes which my elementary Russian couldn’t cover. Neither of us can get over how kind and generous the Kazkahs are, they will go to any lengths to help you and make you feel welcome in their country. At times, however, this can go a little far. Whilst navigating our way through Karaganda two nights ago a white Mercedes drew up beside us. The blacked-out window wound down to reveal a gleaming set of gold teeth owned by a handsome young Kazakh. "Where are you going?" He shouted in Russian. For the next ten minutes we drove in precarious tandem to our hotel, me attempting to dodge the oncoming traffic while simultaneously conducting a conversation with Goldie next door. Later that night the same man, dressed head to toe in pin stripes and moc-croc, burst into our hotel room brandishing beer and insisting he showed us round the local hotspots. After much polite negotiation, we declined and he was off as rapidly as he had appeared. How he found his way to our hotel room remains a mystery.

The Kazakhs also have a nerve-wracking habit of pulling up beside you at 60 mph, so close you could tweak their moustaches, and firing a barrage of questions at you, “Where are you from? How much was your car? Where are you going? Do you want to come and stay with me?” The more persistent ones force you to pull over and have impromptu photoshoots, the encounter ending with a handing out of phone numbers and insistence you pay them a visit. Yesterday it was two cars full of ‘Polizi’, all apparently called Eric, the day before a BMW crammed with well-fed men, whom I felt sure were up to no good.

We have spent the last 36 hours in the Kurghalzhino Nature Reserve, famed for its pink flamingos, of which we have seen not a whisker. It’s a strange place, a cursory attempt at eco-tourism which doesn’t quite work. We are the only people staying here and the rest of the inhabitants are builders and random, slightly drunk men. Our arrival here the other night was even odder. Having driven along the longest, straightest road from Astana (where I had completely lost my rag after getting lost for ages) we came to the town of Khurgalzhino, which we assumed must be where the reserve was. It was 8 pm and the sun was sinking rapidly in th sky. After a brief diversion from the village drunk we ascertained that in fact the reserve was another 45 km’s up a dirt track…so off we sped. Atlast, out of the gloom, appeared the gateway to the ‘famous’ reserve, which we had been assured was well signed. As we pulled up, a ruddy faced, inebriated looking Russian limped out of the wooden hut, clearly wondering whether he was hallucinating or not. We quickly discoved that the reserve was closed for the night and we would have to wait till the morning to get in. We looked around despondently – nothing for miles. Just the lonely steppes. Eventually, after much pleading and gesturing that my mother was far too old and delicate to camp (which she isn’t), and a series of phonecalls to the ‘Director’ our luck changed. Nikolai, the limping Russian, who smelt exceptionally sheepy, gave us our tickets, relieved us of $60 and off we went, assuring us that 8km beyond was a Gostiniza, with soft towels and moonshine. As we tukked off down the track into the darkness (it was now 10pm) I found it hard to believe that there was any civilization in such a place, let alone hot water and a place to lay our heads for the night. What we found, was a strange collection of wooden hurts, a single yurt and a lot of drunk Kazakhs. After haggling for another half an hour over the costs of our simple hut, we hit the sack, exhausted.

Its eight weeks on Sunday since we left Bangkok, amazing. Neither Jo or I can believe it. Even stranger is the fact that we’ve been in Kazkahstan for ten days, and it seems like only yesterday that we were sitting by Saryam Lake mourning the end of our passage through China. In two days we will be in Russia, leaving Asia firmly behind us. Kazakhstan has been a curious experience, it’s a country of anomalies where nothing quite adds up, neither Asia or Europe, but betwixt and between. It’s the ninth largest country in the world, yet with a population of only 15 million, and falling. Its (benevolent) dictator Nazarbaev, has a grandiose economic plan for the country “Kazakhstan 2030”, yet everywhere you go poverty stares you in the face. I saw a perfect example of this in Balkash. In front of a decrepit tower block stood a huge “Kazakhtan 2030” sign, the golden snow-leopard peeling off the blue-paintwork. It seemed a microcosm of Kazakhstan, trying so hard to escape the shackles of poverty and the Soviet era, but not yet able to shed its old skin.

Kazakhstan is also full of anomalies in other, minor ways. In Karaghanda two nights ago, a steppe town famed for coal and gulags, we found ourselves in a Belgian restaurant, serving Hoegarden and waffles. And in Almaty last week, we had a pint of Guinness in an Irish Pub called Mad Murphy’s where a trio of maudlin Russians sang bizarre renditions of Beatles songs.

That’s it for now. We’re off to Astana today and my Ma flies home tomorrow to leave us to Russia and its rhinoceros sized mosquitoes. xx

Blame it on the Vodka

Kurghalzhino Nature Reserve, Kazakhstan

Well I was going to write a long, studious blog about our last few days in Kazakhstan. But then we met Valeri, Morgea and Dalod and they forced me to drink copious amount of Vodka...so it'll have to wait till the morning when I can think and type straight. For the moment though, love from Jo and I in the strangest place I think either of us have ever been. xx Ants

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Kindness of Strangers

Hotel Balkash, Balkash, Kazakhstan. July 17th, 2006


I know, I know, there’s been a serious absence of blogs recently. Apologies. Our ‘days off’ in Almaty were crammed with chores and our first day back on the road yesterday was a 750 km tukathon which left no time or energy for blogging.

Kazakhstan has been a revelation. Even more so than China it was a void in our imaginations filled only with Borat, oil and steppe. We had no idea what the reality of travel here would be like, and were convinced that we’d be forking out bribes every few kilometres. How wrong we were. Every day strangers have shown us astonishing kindness and hospitality, and every day we are left thinking how cold and inhospitable us Brits are.

Anyroad, I shall start at the beginning. As I mentioned briefly last week, Almaty is an expensive, westernized city. Having driven from Khorgos through rural villages where donkey carts far outnumbered cars, it was a surprise to suddenly be in Almaty with its plethora of German metal. Every second car there is a Mercedes, Audi, BMW, VW or Porsche. Every other second car is an ancient old Lada. Whilst there we learnt that a great proportion of these cars are driven in huge trucks from Europe, where crashes have rendered them undriveable under EU regulations. Here however no one cares -status before safety it seems.

Such a surfeit of speed makes the driving in Almaty LETHAL. Speed is at a maximum and spatial respect at a minimum. No journey through the city was completed without seeing at least two prangs, and most of the cars carried some sort of battle scars. On the last day there we were lucky to escape one of these, when a Lada careered straight into the back of a black Mercedes less than a metre away from us. The Mercedes came off much worse and as we tukked off, thanking our lucky stars that the Lada driver hadn’t taken evasive action into Tingers, we saw three large Russians emerge from the Merc and stride menacingly towards the quivering Lada driver. I didn’t fancy his chances.

The other notable thing about driving in Almaty is the ‘taxis’. On day one we noticed that everyone seemed to be hitchhiking, sticking their arms out by the side of the road and immediately being picked up by any passing car. So we decided to try it out. Sure enough, 30 seconds later, a wheezing old Lada pulled up, we negotiated a price, and off we went. Having been ripped off by several taxi drivers on our first day this became our preferred method of transport, and in our week there we all got picked up by people claiming to own the ‘oldest Lada in Almaty’. It’s such a good idea, people do it to make a bit of petrol money as they scoot around town. I might start trying it at home.

So many people in Almaty were so kind to us, I don’t know where to start. First up are Michael Steen and his wife Gemma. Whilst talking to my friend Adam about the trip back in February, he said, “Oh, my friend Mike lives in Almaty, you should get in touch with him”. Ever since then Mike has been the recipient of a number of emails from me and has obliged us with wealth of information about traveling here. So it was great to eventually meet him and Gemma, who works for the EU, and thank him for all his help. Mike has been Reuter’s senior correspondent here for 3 years and is a mine of information on ‘the Stans’. As Jo has already mentioned, our supper with them at ‘Mamma Mia’ was spiced up by the presence of a juicy maggot in my salad which I luckily spied before it was too late.

Next in our line of Almaty Angels is Catherine Inglehearn, the Deputy Ambassor here for the last three years. Catherine, like Mike, has dispensed a great deal of advice and support to us over the last few months, when I am sure she has far more important matters to deal with. With the help of her press officer, Yulia Kaufman, she arranged a press conference for us at SATR on Thursday. The idea to combine with SATR was inspired, since it made people realize that we are not just two dippy girls driving round the world in a toy car, but we’re trying to raise money and awareness for an important cause. The ensuing articles in Komsomolskaya Pravda (www.kp.kz), Liter (www.liter.kz) and The Kazakhstan Express all talked about Mind and why mental health is a global problem that we all need to be aware of. As for SATR (www.satr.kz), what a fantastic place. Its founder and matriarch Dr.Gulnur Khakimzhanova, deserves global acclaim for her work. It was a privilege to meet her and her team. Thank you to Catherine and Yulia for arranging the day, and also for the pasta and Wendsleydale!

Then there was Evgenia Salagdinova and the members of the Kazakhstan Feminist League (www.women.kz). Before I left, my Russian teacher Vanda (whom I’d been taught by through the excellent Toniks Languages (www.toniks.com), had suggested I contact a few of her contacts in Kazakhstan. I subsequently got several emails back from various members of Feminist League’s here, most notably from Evgenia, asking how they could help us ‘dear ladies’. So on Wednesday afternoon Jo and I found ourselves in a smoky room, eating olives and being interviewed by these lovely people. Evgenia is a delight and like me shares a passion for fairies and all things pointy eared. When she and her husband Alexander came to supper a few days later she told us how Tolkien is very popular here and that every weekend members of the Tolkien Fan Club dress up in medieval armour and run round the Tien Shan mountains acting out scenes from the Lord of the Rings. Classic. Even better, I now know all the Russian words for hobbit, elf, orc, fairy and pixy.

Our last day in Almaty was spent going into these very same mountains, where Shamil Zhumatov, the Reuters photographer, took some photos of us and TT. Shamil, a handsome, black eyed Tartar, has covered the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and was with the 4th US Marine Division when they captured Saddam. He was one of the few journalists to see inside Saddam’s hole. And here he was spending his Saturday photographing TT. Shymbulak, where we went, is the playground of Almaty, where they ski in winter and get married in summer. Judging by the 27 wedding corteges we saw on the way down, NO expense is spared. We wondered where they found enough white Mercs to feed such extravagant taste.

Betwixt our chores in Almaty we squeezed in a few touristic endeavours, the Zelyony (Green) Bazaar and the Arasan Baths. Apart from being a total rip off, the bazaar was interesting for its bizarre offerings of Shubat and Khymiz, fermented camel and horse milk. Both are Kazakh favourites and whilst we wrinkled up our noses at the alien taste Kazakhs queued up for pints of the stuff. As for the baths…for some peculiar reason they induced a panic attack the like of which I haven’t had since I used to suffer from them regularly a few years ago. Whilst large, naked babushkas watched in perplexity Jo had to tell me to breathe and lead me off to recover. Most odd.

So yesterday, after five days in leafy Almaty, we set off for Balkash, 750 km’s north up the M36. Since our notions of camping had been destroyed after hearing of the wolves that roam these grasslands, and with nothing but steppe wilderness between the two cities, we had no choice but to drive this far. The novelty of nothingness wore off after a while and the drive here went on and on and on and on and on……..Just a straight road, the flat steppe and the unbounded blue vault above. Even more so than the Gobi, this felt like a corner of the earth which civilization had forgotten about. Every 100 km’s or so we passed a crumbling village, where rusting hulls of cars languished and half destroyed houses stood. Occasionally a herd of camels or horses could be seen punctuating the horizon. And that was it.

At last, at 8.30 last night, we arrived in Balkash, which sits to the north of its eponymously named lake. The aquamarine of the lake stood in violent contrast to the filthy, industrial town that greeted us. Balkash is just as you would imagine a ramshackle Soviet era town to be; depressing apartment blocks, factories belching out toxic fumes, long abandoned parks. But having asked two gold-toothed Kazakh men where the nearest ‘gostiniza’ was, we found ourselves at the Hotel Balkash, a pleasant anomaly amidst such depressing surrounds. Since TT has got a mysterious mechanical issue which we’ve been spending all day investigating, we have found ourselves here for a second night. Tomorrow we head north again to Karanganda, famous for coal and gulags.

A final point, which we have found again and again in our short time here. Never have I come across such kind people. Whether it was the passers by who gave us free petrol from their jerry can yesterday, the taxi driver turned mechanic who refused to accept any money for tinkering with TT today or Maxat who has asked us to supper with his family tonight, the Kazkakh’s kindness is unbounded. It puts us to shame. As I wrote today in an article I am writing for the Mail on Sunday, this trip has shown me that human beings are essentially kind and that the world is a much safer place than we all imagine. I recommend that everyone should do a long distance trip in a pink tuk tuk. It really does reaffirm your faith in human nature.

Enough waffle from me… HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my darling, favouritest, big sis Zed, 33 today xxxxxxxxxxxx

Who wants to Live Forever?

Almaty, 15th July


The title of this blog is also the title of a Queen song that I was listening to on Ants’ I-pod during the last week in China (as well as scaring away the local wildlife by singing along). I find the song very emotive and it makes me want to disagree and say that I do want to live forever. I certainly haven’t always wanted to be immortal and there were a number of years when I wished that I could just fall asleep and never wake up.

This trip just makes me so happy to be alive; even the difficult and stressful days make me appreciate the gift of life. I am also very grateful that I am able to do this trip and very briefly get glimpses into how other people live in different environments and cultures. There is too much to see and do in this world that it is not possible to fit it into one lifetime. I would like to live many lives, on the one condition that all the people (and animals) that I love could share my experiences with me.

I have just finished a brilliant book called “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry. If you enjoy a beautifully written book and/or love India then this is a book for you. At the end of the book one of the main characters commits suicide and you are left with so many unanswered questions e.g. why did he do it? This is probably the main question that loved ones ask when someone close to them chooses to take their own life. Suicide may seem like a selfish choice, but suicidal people are not cowards and to judge someone’s actions when you don’t know their feelings is wrong. I have suffered from depression and I know the feeling when life seems so helpless that there are no apparent reasons to carry on living. I acutely remember feeling like a living corpse and I wasn’t able to experience any emotions e.g. I knew that I should love my family but I could not connect in any way with any positive emotions.

So, we have been in Almaty for a few days and leave tomorrow for Lake Balkash, a short 700km drive away. I am not really sure what I think of Almaty. It has many tree lined streets, but this does not necessarily make it a beautiful city. Everything is very expensive here e.g. 4 pounds for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and 2 pounds per hour to use the internet. Ants and I are suffering a reverse culture shock i.e. returning to a very westernized place after having been in Asia for so long. We intended to relax and rest a little, but instead our days have been filled with chores that need to be done e.g. press conference, registering passports, organizing third party insurance, getting TT serviced etc….. However, the people here are very friendly and we have met some really interesting characters this week.

On Tuesday evening we went out to supper with Mike (Reuters chief central Asia correspondent) and his wife Gemma, who have provided us with lots of useful information about Kazakhstan. We went out to an Italian restaurant and Mr Ant was lucky enough to have a gleaming white healthy maggot in her cauliflower salad- well, I am always trying to tell her that she needs more protein in her diet! On Wednesday we met up with a Kazakhstan feminist group, who do a brilliant job helping to promote equal rights for women here. Thursday was the most serious day of the trip to date. We took TT along to a press conference that had been organized by the British Embassy in Almaty. It took place at the headquarters of an organization called SATR, which work with children and young people with mental and physical disabilities. We had no idea what to expect and were thoroughly shocked to be filmed driving through the streets and then to be met by well over 10 journalists and a handful of TV crews. Microphones were thrust towards us as we each gave a short speech about our trip (Ants) and about Mind and mental health in England (me). We had to speak in very short sentences so that what we’d said could be translated into Russian. It was a pretty nerve wracking experience and I am so glad that Ants and I could share the load of public speaking- one of my least favourite hobbies. Still, it is good to think that we are getting the opportunity to speak about the problems associated with mental health.

Yesterday I took TT off to be serviced and she now has fresh oil (for high performance cars), a new oil filter, fuel filter and front brake pads. The mechanic was a real character who spoke very little English and so he and I communicated mainly through hand signals for three hours. He noticed that part of TT’s rear suspension was missing from one side and after a few minutes with a blow torch had fixed the part and reinserted it. I was shocked that the oil cost 20 quid, but I think it is oil designed for very high performance cars like Porsches. I gave him a packet of Chinese cigarettes to say thank you and asked how much I owed him. He refused to take any money from me and demonstrated yet again the generosity of the people we have met throughout our journey.

Today we drove to Shymbulak (ski resort just outside Almaty) with the Reuters
photographer, who took some photos of us and TT. The roads were incredibly steep and
TT struggled up the mountain in 2nd gear. We got a chair lift up the mountain and then walked back down, trying not to let our legs run away with us. I felt inspired to sing songs from “A Sound of Music” e.g. Climb Every Mountain sung by the nun to Maria when she visits the convent. As usual, plants started to wither, animals collapsed and children began to cry. I know exactly what Sam would have said, “Preeease, save my face”! TT did not enjoy the drive back down the mountain; she struggled to control her revs in 2nd gear and I had to use the breaks heavily; the smell of burning metal was not nice. On the drive down we saw 27 convoys of wedding cars traveling up the mountain. I have never seen so many white Mercs in my life. Apparently, the majority of people who get married in Almaty during the summer then get driven to the mountains to drink champagne and have photos taken.

Back on the road tomorrow and I am looking forward to it. We have been in one place
for 5 days and I am getting itchy feet. It is time to hit that tarmac and I hope it is smooth and beautiful and black.

17th July, Lake Balkash

Firstly, let me apologise to my mum, who I know doesn’t like us posting multiple blog
entries on the same day. It would be much better if we blogged regularly three or more times a week, but sometimes this just isn’t possible. Ants’ mum has said that she now realizes that Tuk to the Road is quite hard work and there is not much time for letting our hair down and relaxing- Ants’ mum, Fiona, is traveling with us for 2 weeks through Kazakhstan.

Lake Balkash is the fourth largest lake in Asia (I think) and we spent over 200km
yesterday driving around its western edge before finally arriving at Balkash city. After over 700km of driving north through the steppe I was thoroughly exhausted and feeling very flat.

As we drove out of Almaty yesterday morning I was just praying that we would manage
to leave the city without having an accident in TT. I initially thought the driving here was better than in China, but Almaty takes the prize for reckless motoring. The
combination of fast German cars and not paying proper attention to the road and the other road users results in multiple daily crashes. Every day we would either see an accident that had just occurred, see cars parked that had obviously been kissing over cars’ backsides or see the tell tale sign of broken glass on the road. It was the first time that I have really felt nervous driving TT. As we were nearing the city limits a man walked out onto a pedestrian crossing and just seemed to stop and stare at the traffic- perhaps he was staring at TT. Anyway, the first car braked quite suddenly at the pedestrian crossing, the Merc behind braked suddenly to avoid smashing into the first car, which left the Lada driving third smashing at about 30mph into the back of the Merc. We were very lucky that the Lada driver decided to rear end the Merc rather than swerve straight into us. My heart started pounding and I uttered a few expletives, as did Ants. We drove around the crash to see three rather butch men get out of the Merc and walk back towards the Lada driver- God, I hope he had insurance. Guess which car came off worse? The Merc lost 1-0 to the Lada, which only suffered a small dent to its front bumper.

After safely leaving Almaty we started on the very long drive north to Balkash. I had an image of the steppe in my head and the reality matched my imagination. Hundreds of kilometers of endless scrubby grassland to the east, west, north and south followed all the way to Balkash. I loved driving through barren landscapes in China, but the steppe did not stir up so many positive emotions. I didn’t dislike the drive, but it did feel a bit like driving in a computer game. Occasionally the monotony of the drive was broken up by eagles flying overhead or small herds of horses and camels grazing. Petrol stations were few and far between and a couple of times I was worried we might run out. We were flagged down a couple of times by Kazakh families who wanted to chat and take photos. The first family that stopped gave us 5 liters of petrol and refused any payment for it.

Another example of the Kazakh hospitality that has been bestowed upon us and TT. At
one of the petrol stations the petrol was pumped by hand. This involved two men turning a handle very fast to get the petrol from its underground tank into the vehicle. As usual, the petrol attendants wouldn’t listen to us asking them not to fully insert the nozzle into TT and this resulted in 17 liters for TT and 3 liters for the petrol forecourt. At least this time it wasn’t me that ended up covered in petrol.

Balkash is not a particularly attractive town and it is towered over by large industrial chimneys, which constantly belch out acidic smoke. Ants used her Russian skills to find us a hotel and we dragged our luggage up to the third floor. I had a room to myself and Ants shared with Fiona. Due to my unsociable snoring it is good for Ants to get few nights’ unbroken sleep while she can. The hotel rooms are more like a granny bedsit than a hotel room, with a small bed, table and chairs, some crockery, a large fridge and a bathroom- oh, and really horrible wall paper (no offense meant to grannies living in bedsits).

We had a rather uninspiring supper (goulash and potatoes), which tasted rather like
school dinners and then went to our respective bedrooms. I stayed up for a couple of
hours reading, writing and smoking- without Ants nagging me to get into bed and turn
out the light I start pottering around and stay up well past midnight- such a crazy girl.

For once, I slept like a baby and was woken up by Ants just before midday. We had
planned to explore the nicer parts of the lake today, but instead spent the afternoon
tending to TT and her newly acquired noise. For the last couple of hundred of kilometers yesterday she was making a grinding noise in her front end at slower speeds. Also, when you braked she veered to the right side of the road. As I opened up the tool box and wondered what to do a handsome young man came and introduced himself. His name was Max and he helped me to jack up TT and remove her caliper and brake pad. We thought that the brake was making her grind and drift. After removing both of these the wheel was spinning smoothly without any resistance. We went for a short drive, but TT was still grinding away, although she had stopped veering when the brakes were applied.

Max introduced us to a couple of mechanics who spent the next couple of hours trying to work out where the grinding noise was coming from. We changed the front caliper and brake pad and had another test drive- the grinding noise continued. Then, they tried to balance the wheels by removing a washer next to the tyre. This reduced the grinding but did not stop it completely. They concluded that the noise wasn’t causing any damage and would probably disappear. We just have to hope that they are right, because apparently there aren’t many (if any) motorcycle mechanics in Kazakhstan. We offered them payment but they refused any. God, the Kazakh people are generous and kind.

This evening we went out for a meal, which tasted like school dinners again. That is not a complaint, because I used to quite like school dinners. Max came along with his father and then a random journalist asked if he could interview us and take some photos. He worked for the local paper and the interview was translated from Kazakh to English and back again by Max, with Ants managing to answer some questions in Russian. The waitress had a full set of gold front teeth- very bling and I think a bit of a fashion statement here in Kazakhstan. Ants has decided that she would also like a gold tooth to fit in with the locals more and as a memento of Kazakhstan. Apparently there is a gold factory here, so perhaps we will find a dentist in the morning to give her a smile like Jaws (metal mouth in James Bond). After supper we drove further into town past a local nightclub, before stopping by the lake. The chimneys could be seen in the distance pumping out their noxious fumes. A couple were obviously hoping to have a romantic moment by the lake, but TT drove up and disturbed them. We got chatting to some of the locals and they asked if we were going to the local nightclub. Ants and I used our normal excuse of having to drive the next day and needing a good night’s sleep- both true, but
also we are becoming quite old and square and haven’t got the energy to drink lots of
vodka and dance- perhaps we would if I invoked the power of my Yi apron.

So far the best thing about Kazakhstan is the people. They are mostly incredibly friendlyand many have gone out of their way to help us. Kazakh people have told us that they are famed for their hospitality and I would have to agree. Tonight TT is tucked up in the guarded forecourt of Balkash police station. The police would like us to take them for a two hour drive tomorrow morning- 20 minutes is more likely. As Ants has said, a great photo opportunity. Anyway, bedtime now as it’s after 12.30am and I need to sleep well in my rather small bed to be full of beans for another long drive through the steppe.