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

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Bavarian Sausage to Eau de Cologne

Hotel Madison, Cologne, Germany

Its 8 a.m, we're in Cologne and very soon we have got to load up TT, hope she starts and tuk off to Brussels. Somewhere on route we are meeting up with a BBC cameraman who has come out to film us for the day, before we do a live feed from Brussels city centre tonight. Help. So if you are in the South of England tune into BBC 1 at 6.30pm to have a laugh at our performance. If you live stateside then you can watch it over the internet, but probably not till tomorrow, at www.bbc.co.uk/england/south today.

Also, if you are a Radio 1 listener watch out for a mention of us by Pete Tong on his show tonight, between 6-9 p.m. Again, you can listen live over the internet at www.bbc.co.uk/radio1.

Apart from that, I'm writing this in serious haste so not really enough time to fill you in on all the details...I'll just jot down some of the vital stats, as it were.

In the last few days we've tukked, in filthy rain and cold, from Prague to Cologne, via Bavaria to see Daniel and Susi and meet their TT. They were so lovely; helped us with Ting Tong, who is being a BAD GIRL, fed us, took us to meet Susi's family. They drove their TT all through Mongolia, Japan, Russia and North Africa last year - 38,000 km's in total. Amazing.

Driving on the autobahn is a little hair-raising at first. It must be a funny sight; Porsche, BMW, Audi, Merc, BMW, Porsche, VW, Ferrari...Ting Tong. While we cruise along at a steady 55-60 mph (around 100 km/h) they zoooooom past at well over 120 mph. Alarming.

Only 2 days left of this journey. Can't get my head round it but at the moment we are so occupied with the matter of getting Ting Tong home that there isn't the headspace to worry about what Sunday will be like or what will happen after.

That's all for now. Hope to do another blog before we finish, if not it'll be early next week. xxx Ting Tong

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

D Day is nearly upon us

Waidhaus, Germany

We're in Germany, its pouring with rain, as it has been since we left Ukraine, and today we are heading south to see Daniel and Susi, who last year drove one of Anuwat's TT's all the way back from Thailand also.

I just wanted to do this blog to post a picture we took in Prague at the weekend, which caused much amusement to random passers by. Enjoy.

Only 5 days to go... xxx Ants

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

No butt surfing please we’re British

28th August, Prague

Our hotel in Krakow was a really unique place, rammed full of paintings and antique furnishings. Our bedroom was on the top floor and had a skylight, so we had a good view out over the city. The only drawback was that the early morning light flooded in and woke us up.

The tukkers were both tired and therefore did not spend the day sightseeing, rather pottered around Rynek Glowny square and enjoyed the café culture.

So, Krakow was a fascinating place, but without the time or the energy we didn’t manage to do it justice. There will be many places on our list to return to at a later date as regular tourists e.g. Odessa, Lviv, Krakow.

Our departure from Krakow was slightly delayed by TT. On the way to Krakow the accelerator cable had snapped and TT had started hissing. We had replaced the accelerator cable on the road, but I had made the job more difficult by removing the plastic sheath that should have encased the cable. Before we left we had a poke around to try and find a cause for the hissing and I attempted to rethread the cable. Both jobs were unsuccessful and a guy who was working in the hotel had to sort out my botch job. Next stop was a local mechanic. He managed to rethread the accelerator cable but didn’t really try to find the source of the hissing. Instead, he slightly tightened her drive belt. We didn’t feel particularly confident that she would be sorted, but tukked off anyway and decided that we could stop at another mechanic if the hissing became unbearable.

Our next stop was Auschwitz to visit the site where the Nazis committed heinous crimes against the Jews and other humans back in the 1940s. It was a suitably grey and drizzly day and the sites were very well designed to educate tourists about the atrocities committed. We left feeling a bit depressed that any human being could cause such suffering to other human beings i.e. their brothers and sisters. However, it seems that leaders never really learn from the past and our supposed democratic governments in the western world still think that it is justifiable to kill innocent women, children and men. In the case of the USA they pass it off as that rather vulgar euphemism of ‘collateral damage’. There can never ever be any justification for killing innocent civilians, whether intentional or unintentional. When will some of the people in this world get it into their thick skulls that they are wrong.

As we left Auschwitz the rain became heavier and so we decided to stay in a local hotel. The Hotel Glob was the ultimate concrete communist-era eyesore, but thankfully was much more pleasant inside.

The following morning we were up early for a long drive to Prague. Our darling TT decided that she didn’t want to start and so we had to enlist the help of a young mechanic to get her going. Once we were on our way the drive was OK. The directions were very clearly signposted and the tarmac was pretty smooth. In fact, you would not believe that I drove TT at just over 70mph on the Czech motorway. The border crossing was incredibly simple and took a mere two minutes- unbelievable. The Czech roads were the most consistently good and fast and we got to Prague in daylight, although we got lost for about half an hour once in the city trying to find our apartment.

I will now explain the title of this blog. Butt surfing is not something that people do in the privacy of their bedrooms. What I am referring to is the behaviour that we call tail gating in England. Basically, stupid drivers who think it is a great idea to get right up another vehicle’s ass and drive within a couple of feet. We have had to deal with this behaviour during the whole trip, but the faster the vehicles travel the more potentially lethal it becomes, regardless of whether the vehicle has ABS or not. We have seen so many accidents that have occurred as a direct result of butt surfing. We drive TT so that she keeps a good 2-4 seconds behind the nearest vehicle in front. As the vehicles get faster we are increasing the distance. Sometimes, the large gap we leave between ourselves and the vehicle in front is far too tempting for drivers behind us and they force us to briefly butt surf as they cut in right in front of us. Do people not realize that when you take control of a motorized vehicle you are in control of a potentially lethal piece of machinery. Dangerous driving also encompasses drink driving and anyone that indulges in either is an incredibly selfish idiot. I should have bought the sticker that I have attached to the back of my Vectra in England- ‘Unless you’re a hemorrhoid, keep off my ass’.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Some last minute luxury


Jo and I are sitting here in an internet cafe, sending out press releases and our final (and only 2nd) newsletter. The sights of Prague beckon outside but unfortunately tukking chores come first.

We've had a few bits of press in the last couple of days, see the links below:

BBC News, August 26th


The Eastern Daily Press, August 24th


The Sunday Mirror, August 27th


Now a few quick words about Prague then back to chores.

Jo's Pa Bob has come out to meet us for the weekend and has been thoroughly spoiling us. We're staying in a luxurious apartment in Old Town, overlooking the river, and last night he took us to one of the best restaurants in the city, Kampo Park, where we had the most amazing supper overlooking Karluvy Most. Its so good to be having a bit of luxury and getting some rest in before the very final leg of our journey.

Tomorrow morning we're going to the British Embassy to have a drink with the Ambassador and do some press stuff, then heading for Germany.

Right, back to my list of 'Things to Do'. Hope to see some of you in Brighton on Sunday; 3.30 pm in Bartholomew Square.

xx Ants

Its not over till the fat lady sings

Old Town Apartments, Prague, Czech Republic

I’m not quite sure who the fat lady is, but this aphorism sprung to mind early yesterday morning as, with Jo at the wheel, myself, a security guard and the local mechanic pushed a recalcitrant Ting Tong round a car park in Oswiecim. As it had been a little chilly the night before the Pink Lady’s spark plugs had once again revolted and said they weren’t going anywhere until they had warmed up. It was the fourth time in two days that Her Ladyship had caused us problems, reminding us that we may be 9/10ths of the way through our 14 weeks tukathon but it isn’t over till its over.

It was with great relief that her engine finally turned over and we turned out of our hotel car park towards Prague, 510 km’s away.

The last time I wrote a blog was in Lviv, when Jo and I had been too tired to appreciate the beauty of the place after two very long days on the road. After another bad night’s sleep, feeling far from refreshed, we set off early the next morning for Krakow, 300 km’s away across in Poland.

At 10.30 the first of the day’s incidents occurred when the accelerator cable suddenly went ping. Jo was asleep in the back and was rudely awoken by some bad language coming from the front and the bad news that we were going to have to perform a mechanical procedure. Under a leaden sky, in biting wind, we extracted the tool box and got to work; one and a half hours later we were on our way again, having had a few issues with pieces of wire not fitting where they were supposed to.

At about 1 o’clock we spotted a very, very long queue of cars which signaled our arrival at the Ukraine / Poland border. The crossing was lengthy but uneventful and four hours later we were in Poland, both very sad to be waving goodbye to Ladaland. We’ve spent 6 weeks in Russian speaking countries and have met so many fantastic people and seen so many interesting things. Entering Poland, and the EU, meant saying farewell to all that we had become familiar with; clapped out Ladas, outdoor showers, Kamaz trucks, gold teeth, Tartars, smetana, vodka and officious police. It also meant that we were well and truly embarking on the final leg of our journey and that our arrival in England is scarily imminent.

Driving into Poland was like entering a new world. Within 20 km’s we had spotted a Tesco and a McDonalds, those vile totems of westernization. Gleaming BP and Shell Garages were in place of their more disheveled Ukrainian and Russian counterparts. A surfeit of shiny new road signs marched along the roadside and everywhere the EU stars reminded you of Poland’s new identity. Never before had Jo or I seen so many road signs, it is as if Poland have gone overboard in an attempt to become a paradigmatic EU nation.

As if to complement our grey moods at having entered the western world, at about 5 pm the heavens opened, much to the disdain of TT’s temperamental sparks. They didn’t force us to a standstill but they did slow us down and the next few hours were accompanied by the sound of their spluttering disapproval. That and non-stop roadworks meant that at 10 pm we were still 100 km’s short of Krakow….at which point Ting Tong threw yet another tukking tantrum, suddenly emitting an alarming hissing sound from within the depths of her engine. She’d hissed before, but this was a different matter, and Jo demanded that we stopped and investigated further. I was all for limping on to Krakow and dealing with the problem in the fresh light of morning, but Jo, being the sensible one, decided otherwise. So we pulled into the next petrol station and for the second time that day went through the rigmarole of unscrewing the driver’s seat to get into the engine. The Chief Mechanic, AKA Jo, swiftly identified a large hole in the air hose, which after a bit of fiddling looked like it was sorted, and we carried on. Ten inutes later TT was hissing again, but this time we decided there was no more we could do so ploughed on to Krakow. We pulled up outside our hotel at 12.30, tizzy with fatigue, and after a glass of wine fell into bed and passed out. God what a day, certainly our longest yet at 15 ½ hours, and probably the hardest.

Krakow, like Lviv, is an incredibly beautiful city, with street upon street of architectural delights. And once again, like Lviv, we were far too exhausted to fully check it out. I didn’t actually get out of bed till 2 p.m the next day, and we spent the afternoon ambling about, chilling in cafes and taking a horse-drawn carriage round the Old Town. What surprised us both was the volume of tourists and the amount of American and English voices we heard amidst the crowds. Ukraine and Russia felt a world away and we both hankered for what we had left behind.

There’s an interesting legend about Krakow, which is that many moons ago Lord Shiva threw seven magic stones towards seven parts of the world, one of which landed in Krakow, in the Wawel Castle. The places that had been hit were instantly imbued with the God's energy, and remain so to this day. The seven places, known as the world's chakras, are: Delhi, Delphi, Jerusalem, Krakow, Mecca, Rome and Velehrad. You may dismiss this as hippy nonsense but apparently all sorts of dowsings, tests and divining has been done here and numerous studies published and they all seem to confirm there is something a little bit magic about this place.....

The next morning we headed straight for the nearest mechanic and then south-west out of Krakow, in the general direction of Prague. Our last stop in Poland was Oswiecim, better known by its German name, Auschwitz, a name synonymous with unfathomable cruelty and suffering. Under gathering rain clouds we covered up TT and headed into Birkenau, the first of the two museums here. Although less famous than its neighbour, Birkenau - which held up to 100,000 prisoners - was where the Nazis murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals and any one else they felt like. Although the SS, sensing defeat, tried to cover up evidence of their atrocities much of the camp still remains and as you wander around amongst the endless lines of barbed wire fencing and blown up gas chambers and crematoriums you get a sense of the scale of the Nazi operation. It felt suitable that it was such a dank, miserable day. At the far end is a massive monument in memory of those who died here, which states, in every European language, ‘Let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to all humanity…’. Its shocking to think that what happened here was only 62 years ago, and that so many innocents endured such horror.

Next stop was Auschwitz, 3 km down the road. Established in 1940 for Polish political prisoners it was expanded in 1941-2 to take in European Jews from as far away as Corfu, Greece and Hungary. No one quite knows how many people died here and at Birkenau, since as the war progressed the Nazis didn’t bother registering their victims, they just unloaded them straight off the trains and into the gas chambers. Tragically, many of the Jews who arrived here had been duped by the Nazis into believing they had been transported for ‘resettlement’; the Nazis sold them non-existent plots of land and offered them work in fictitious shops and factories.

Of course I knew about the Holocaust before, and how disgustingly bigoted and cruel it was, but it wasn’t until we walked round Auschwitz that it truly sunk in. Seeing those thousands of photographs, the piles of belongings, reading about the tales of heroic resistance movements, seeing the conditions the prisoners were forced to exist in. Harrowing is not the word, and not for the first time history made me cry. Almost worst of all was a photo of a woman who had weighed 70 kg when she arrived, but at the time of the photograph she was a pathetic 25 kg. As in Volgograd I was left horrified at humanity’s capacity for cruelty and mass destruction.

Everyone knows about the Holocaust, but less people are aware of how badly the Poles suffered at the dual hands of Hitler and Stalin in WWII. Both men set out to wipe Poland off the map, again, and by 1945 Poland had lost over 20% of its prewar population. Worst off were its intelligentsia, whom Hitler and Stalin feared the most. 57% of Poland’s lawyers, 40% of its doctors and 30% of its university lecturers were murdered by these two megalomaniacs. Its no surprise that the handful of Polish pilots who fought for us in the Battle of Britain were some of the most lethal fighters we had.

Anyway, enough history, back to tukking…..

After seeing the museum our night was spent at the unremarkable Hotel Glob, where the next morning we had the debacle of TT once again refusing to start. By the time she got her act together it was 9.30 a.m, and off we sped towards the Czech border. I was only just beginning to get used to Polish Zloty, and having an almost recognizable alphabet, and it was time for another country.

Amazingly, the border crossing took a mere two minutes and was a matter of flashing our passports. 450 km’s later, having cruised along immaculate Czech tarmac, we hit Prague. I’m all blogged out for now so will write more about Prague tomorrow, but my oh my we were glad to get here last night and meet up with Jo’s Pa. And wow there are a lot of tourists here. Xx Ants

Thursday, August 24, 2006

It’s a Brazilian

24th August, Hotel Alef II, Krakow (Poland)

Oops, I have been a bit lazy at following up to our night on the tiles in Odessa. Suffice to say it was quite an eye opener and most red blooded males/lesbians would have been in heaven.

Ants and I were extremely tired as we had a bite to eat in Arkadia beach prior to going to Club Ibiza. I had no idea how I would muster the energy to go clubbing, but we decided to go anyway and see what it was like. We ordered a Mojito each and surveyed the skinny tarted up girls. If I had turned up naked with just the Yi apron on I would have still felt underdressed. The amount of make up on display was to the extent that you couldn’t tell if what was underneath was attractive or otherwise.

I started fantasizing about my bed and just when I was thinking about trying to make a break back to the hotel a Levi’s fashion show started. The girls wore not much other than jeans and the guys somersaulted down the catwalk. After this a crazy guy wearing shiny green tracksuit bottoms, a clashing green T-shirt, a back wig and sunglasses hit the stage with a microphone and proceeded to fire everyone up and dance very badly. We hit the dance floor and were treated to a semi-pornographic display by the scantily clad dancers. The title of this blog is a tribute to those girls. It was a real laugh and we decided to leave while we were still having fun, rather than waiting until we were knackered. We also were aware that we had a long drive ahead of us the following day towards Lviv.

The following morning we set off for somewhere between Odessa and Lviv, with the intention of probably camping. As the sun began to set we pulled off the road and found a quiet wooded clearing to set up camp. Unlike in Russia, there were no killer mozzies, but instead we were bombarded by bugs who liked the look of the head torch. After supper Ants had a bit of an accident and let out a yelp. I though she had been stung (again) but it turned out that she had managed to get boiling water all over her right hand. Poor Ants ended up having my dirty T-shirt wrapped around her hand which had been covered in cold water, while I ferreted around in our Nomad medical kit and found a burn dressing. I then proceeded to bandage her up like a boxer, hoping that her injury would not stop her driving the rest of the trip back to the UK. It is a running joke between us that we don’t want the other one to get hurt in any way that will stop them driving. Much as we adore driving TT we are not too keen to have the sole responsibility of driving her.

The following morning we dragged ourselves from our idiot proof tent and packed up, both of us feeling grubby and tired. We hit the road and headed for Lviv. Luckily we had already reserved a hotel room, which meant that the only stress would be finding it in a reasonably large city. One of the things that can really do your head in after a long day on the road is arriving somewhere, getting lost and/or not finding anywhere to stay e.g. Samara in Russia.

As we drove into Lviv it became quite apparent why the city is a world heritage site. The combination of the attractive buildings and cobbled streets made quite an impression on me. Our hotel was a bit tricky to find as it was tucked away of the street, but it turned out to have just about the best location of any hotel in the whole city i.e. bang in the centre.

The next day we had planned to explore Lviv, but only managed a half hearted attempt due to our ongoing problems with fatigue. I can understand why we get tired on this trip, but why Ants and I seem to have spent most of the trip not sleeping soundly is extremely annoying and means we get a double dose of tiredness. When we get home I am going to get into my bed for 24 hours and not move.

That brings me on to yesterday. We left Lviv at 9am and hoped to be in Krakow in the evening. The border was only about 100km away from Lviv, but we were delayed by TT suffering from a broken accelerator cable. We changed it, but I made the job a whole lot more challenging by removing the wire from its plastic sheath. At the border we joined a very long queue of about 100 other vehicles. We had to wait for about three hours, which wasn’t too bad considering how many cars there were. Just as we neared the front of the queue the heavens opened and TT had a shower. Not only was it raining but it was also cold. Ants and I shivered away cursing the weather and border crossings.

After we had successfully left behind the Ukraine we had to wait for about 30 minutes in no man’s land before being processed by the Polish officials. This was the easiest entrance to a country we have encountered. As Poland is part of the EU we didn’t need any stamps, visas, declarazia, import papers etc….they just entered TT’s and our details on the computer and we were free to go.

Poland turned into a bit of a reverse culture shock, like in Almaty. I have never seen so many road signs in my life and Ants and I dry wretched when we came across a 24hour Tesco, a Shell garage and a McDonalds all within a couple of miles. Yuk, things that I have not missed about England at all are the multinationals reminding you of there presence every couple of miles.

I had tried unsuccessfully to book a hotel in Krakow over the internet and so as I drove Ants rang around 15 hotels before she finally found one with a room for the night. The phrase, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again” springs to mind.

The drive to Krakow was frustrating for a number of reasons. Firstly, the road to Krakow passed through towns and villages with such frequency that it made driving a slow process i.e. constantly slowing down to 70kmh and often 40mph every time a house appeared. Secondly, TT started making the most unbelievable hissing sound- I initially thought the sound was coming from road works. We pulled into a garage and I got on my back and had a poke around. I thought I had found the problem when I spotted that the hose from the air filter had come loose. So I resealed it and hoped that the hissing would stop. We drove along for a few km before TT started making a racket again. The weird thing was that she didn’t always make a racket and the whistling came and went. By this time it was dark and after 11pm. The final challenge was lots and lots of road works, which meant more slow speeds. Still, I was driving in true granny style anyway because of TT’s hissing and the darkness.

We eventually arrived at our hotel at 12.30am last night. I felt like it was 7am and I had been clubbing all night- not pleasant. Will tell you more another time, I am all blogged out. Jo xo

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Into the setting sun

Hotel Wien. Lviv, Ukraine

Ibiza, Odessa

On first impressions Lviv has got to be one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to, if not the most beautiful. Jo and I have just had a brief meander round its cobbled streets and crooked alleyways, past a cornucopia of Renaissance, Baroque, rococo and neoclassical buildings. (In 1998 UNESCO recognised this beauty by declaring the whole city a World Heritage Sight.) Unfortunately however we are both too exhausted to give the city justice, and have had to put ourselves to bed for the afternoon instead. I know that sounds feeble but the last two days have been a bit of an endurance test and with only twelve days to go till Touch Down we need to preserve our energy. If not Jo’s nightmares about collapsing with exhaustion on Brighton Pier will be in danger of becoming reality.

After posting our last blogs we got our best glad rags on and hit the tiles in Odessa, at Arkadia Beach to be precise. Lauded as the Ukraine’s answer to Ibiza this pulsating strip of the Black Sea is a mass of bars, clubs, restaurants, buff boys and tottering girls. We’re used to the Russian and Ukrainian girls dressing to kill but this was something else. The average girl that strutted past was dressed like a hooker and wearing so much make-up you’d have to dig it off with a spade to see what they actually looked like. Skirts were indistinguishable from belts and heels were at least four inches high. If Jo and I had decided to go out in nothing but g-strings and six inch gold heels no one would have batted an eye-lid. The boys here must love it.

Having fortified ourselves with a vodka and watched open mouthed at the human traffic parading past us, we bought our tickets for a club called Ibiza, getting there at 12.30 just as a Levi’s fashion show was kicking off and a troupe of anorexic models were sashaying down a catwalk. The club was even more glamorous than The Snow Project in Yekaterinburg; all open air with white troglodyte-style steps and booths cascading down to the dance floor. Champagne swilling mafia types were everywhere, surrounded by scantily dressed girls clutching Gucci and Chanel handbags. Labels, labels, labels.

The fashion show was followed by the dancers, an array of pornographically (un)dressed boys and girls who were high on a little more than life. Quite a spectacle and very, very different from the sort of clubs we’re used to in London like Fabric and Turnmills. All a laugh though and at 3 a.m we crawled into bed not looking forward to our 400km schlep the next day.

Just as we were checking out the next morning (Sunday) two English men called Donal and Gavin came up and pressed $30 into our hands, saying we had to have a ‘beer on them on the way home’. We’d met them the day before in the lobby and I had jokingly asked them whether they were in Odessa looking for wives, like every other older western man, but in fact they were Davis Cup organizers, the tournament this year being held at the Odessa Lawn Tennis Club. They were the first English / Western people we have spoken to in seven weeks. Thanks for the $ guys if you are reading this.

Jo and I have both been baffled by the reaction of the Ukrainian police to Ting Tong. We’d been warned that the police here could be even trickier than the Russian or Kazakh ones -who turned out to be more nosey than tricksome – but so far we have been stopped only a handful of times. On most occasions they look so flabbergasted as we drive past that by the time they’ve composed themselves enough to wave their baton and stop us its too late.

No doubt spurred on by Jo’s very short shorts and leopard print bikini top, one group of bored cops did stop us on Sunday. They weren’t the least bit interested in our ‘dokumenti’ though, only in taking pictures, sitting in Ting Tong and groping Jo’s boobs. If blogger.com will oblige I’ll post a classic photo of one of the policeman sitting in the driver’s seat, grinning widely, his hand clasped firmly to Jo’s leopard print breast. Jo and I have come to the conclusion that the average Russian or Ukrainian man has an overdose of testosterone pumping through their veins; they make English men seem incredibly tame in comparison.

Jo's new Ukrainian boyfriend

Apart from the randy Cop Stop our drive on Sunday was uneventful. We cruised up the main road to Kiev, turned west at Uman and set up camp in a wood about 350 km from Odessa, both desperately in need of a good night’s sleep. But as usual sleep was not forthcoming in tent land and we awoke early the next morning feeling pretty jaded but with over 450 km’s to cover before Lviv. I’d also managed to pour a saucepan of boiling water over my hand the night before which was agony. Thankfully Nurse Jo and our Nomad medical kit saved the day and my hand is now swathed in special burn bandages. If thats the worst injury we sustain on our trip we’ll have done well.

Only twelve days now till we get back to Brighton so we’ve been busy sorting out the Touch Down plans. We’ll keep you posted but at the moment we are going to land in Brighton at around 3.30 pm and be officially finished by The Mayor, Bob Carden. Fingers crossed we’ll be granted special permission to end in Bartholomew’s Square, outside the Mayoral Office. Then its on to a bar (tbc) for some tukking serious celebrations.

Poland tomorrow...then Prague at the weekend…..followed by Frankfurt, Brussels and home. Can’t believe its getting so close. Xx Ants

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Kamaz, kamaz, kamaz, kamaz, kamaz..............

What am I going on about? Well, yesterday on our 550km drive from Bakshiserai to Odesa we came across a queue of Kamaz i.e. big phat strong Russian mega trucks, on the M24. I first spotted a line of about 0.5km of trucks snaking around a dirt track by the side of the road. As we drove along the road the line of trucks went on....and on.....and on......for a total of about 10km. I have never seen anything like it in my life. It got to the point where we actually started to find it a bit freaky. We didn't stop to say hi to them, but waved at a few as we drove past in the opposite direction. I would have loved to know what they doing in that queue. It must have contained nearly all of the Kamaz trucks in the whole of the Ukraine. Ants and I feel that we are almost part of the trucker fraternity, as we have some appreciation of what it is like to drive.......lots and for long distances. In my early 20s I had considered being a trucker or cabbie, but now I don't think I could deal with driving as a career. Big up respect to truck/cab drivers all over the world.

So, briefly back to Bakshiserai after boring you all to near tears with my truck monologue. I really think that on this trip I have developed a strange fascination with tarmac, trucks and just vehicles in general. GEEEEEEEK!

We went to Bakshierai to visit the ancient cave city of Chafut-Kale. It was a mega uphill walk of at least 2km, which was tiring in the searing heat of the day. Personally, it didn't float my boat all that much i.e. a bit boring, but the view from the top was well worth the hike. I bought a drink at the top of the hill that had what looked like a passion fruit crossed with a pineapple on the label. On tasting this beverage I realised that it tasted like no other fruit I had ever come across, so I looked more closely at the label and realised that I was tasting a concoction of multiple E numbers- yum.

The drive yesterday was nothing particularly interesting and we arrived in Odesa as the sun started to set. After six days using squat loos and outdoor showers I was seduced by the glistening metal and glass structure where we now stay, the hotel 'Ripoffski' Odesa. However, Ants and I both agreed that despite the identikit rooms, the price was worth it for the comfy beds, cleanliness, powerful hot shower, swimming pool, buffet breakfast, gym, free parking etc. The frustrating thing about yesterday's drive was that our darling TT had started pulling to the right again. Just when we thought she was sorted, the same problem rears its ugly head again. We both think she has raging PMT at the moment.

After checking in last night and settling into our room, Ants started to read all of the blurb about the hotel that you get in such establishments. Ants read that as we were staying in a superior room then we ought to have an adjoining room with a balcony. A quick call to reception resulted in housekeeping bringing us a key to unlock the locked door in our room. I was in the shower at the time and Ants popped her head around the door in hysterics. She had unlocked the door and walked in on a couple in bed together. She quickly retreated and relocked the door. We then planned all sorts of unpleasant tricks on our neighbours, a few of which I will mention: taking everything from their minibar, putting Boovie and Wirral (our snuggle blanket and pet squirrel) in their beds, climbing into bed with them ourselves in the middle of the night etc........I could go on, but I have only told you the more innocent pranks we hypothesised. I can tell you that 24 hours on, we have not done anything to our neighbours.

Tonight, Ants and I are hitting Arcadia beach in Odesa, home to many nighclubs and bars. Tomorrow we are taking TT to another mechanic and then driving north west towards Lviv, where we will be spending monday night. Tomorrow we will probably be under canvas and eating pasta with tomato puree. Have a good weekend all.
Jo xoxo

Odessan nights

The Hotel Odessa, Odessa, Ukraine

Odessa, the creation of the indefagitable Catherine the Great, is famous today for several things; neoclassical architecture, Ibizan style 24hr nightclubs, lissome girls and a rampant HIV epidemic. The lissome girls have also made it a major destination for lonely, cashed up Western and Turkish men, one of whom has just mistaken me for a Ukrainian hooker in the lift and launched himself upon me.

For the last few hours Jo and I have been luxuriating in the Turkish Hammam and pool in our hotel, our first slice of luxury in a long time. As I got into the lift up to our room on the 17th floor a lecherous looking Turk scurried in after me. I was clad only in a white bath robe and when he said something to to me I replied, in Russian, that I was English and I didn't understand what he had just said. Being Turkish, the same applied to my answer. He looked at me in an undesirable manner then said 'Sex?', which I did understand, and lunged at me, kissing me on the cheek as I swerved his advance. As the lift sped up through the floors I ducked several more advances then bolted for our room. Yuk. And he had bad breath.

Apart from that little episode, which in retrospect is quite funny, Odessa has been great. We left Bakchiserai at 8 a.m yesterday, having breakfasted under the fruit trees in our host Tanya's garden, and headed north. We had 550 km's to cover in one day so knew we were in for a long one. Moreover, our efforts to prebook a hotel in Odessa had fallen flat so we thought we might have problems at the other end and didn't want to be arriving in the dark to begin hotel hunting, our least favourite sport.

Unsure of which road to take out of Bakshiserai we pulled over and asked a man waiting for a bus. He leapt into TT before we could object and said he would show us the way, which he did for the next 30 km's. Jo was driving so I chatted to him in the back and he told me, as Redvan had, that his name was Emil and he was a Tartar, and that he had only returned from Uzbekistan the year before. Life was clearly not easy for him. He was 36, married with a child and only earns $400 a month as a mechanic. Considering petrol costs $1 a litre here that sort of salary doesn't get you far. At Simferopol he hopped out and off we went. Its funny that after 3 months of nobody except Jo, myself, Bob, my Ma, Jack and Sam being in TT, we had four alien passengers in 24 hours. Not to mention a man leaping out of his car at some traffic lights and kissing us both.

Believe it or not the Ukrainians appear to love TT more than the Russians. In the last few days she has been called a helicopter, an ant, a tractor and an apparition. When people ask where we are going and what we are doing they all say two things; 'klyass' (class I guess) and 'Malatyets!' which means 'Good girls', or something similar. They also press packets of cigarettes, fruit, veg and jams into our hands as gifts. What lovely people.

The drive here was uneventful, so I won't dwell on it, and at 7.30 pm we passed the sign announcing our arrival in Odessa. Unsure of where we were going we tukked towards the centre, past docks, train lines and autorepair shops. Then suddenly we were in the centre, with the famous Potemkin steps on our right and the towering Hotel Odessa on our left. Jo was instantly under the spell of the latter, a glitzy glass and steel affair occupying what must be the best piece of real estate in town. Although mentioned in the guide book we'd dismissed it as too expensive, but since we were tired and it looked big enough not to be full we opted to give it a try. Half an hour later TT was in her pyjamas in their parking lot and a porter was loading all our baggage. Yes the price was far too much but since we've been roughing it for a while we felt the sudden urge for white bathrobes, swimming pools and panoramic views. Thankfully the Hammam, pool, sauna and gym have made up for the fact that the room is identikit and Travelodge like and its basically a revolting rip off, but thats Odessa in the high season for you.

Jo and I had a late, luxurious breakfast this morning then set off for a potter round the city. The guide book raves about the Potemkin steps which are the location of a famous scene in Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925). Not being an expert on B&W films I am afraid I hve never heard of it, and for me they were just a hot climb that necessitated a cold drink at the top. However, Odessa is as beautiful as its lofty reputation states. Crumbling, neoclassical buildings line the streets and well-heeled Odessans sip coffee in Parsian style cafes. Its a shame we only have a single day here and that today, at 39 degrees, it was a little too hot for extensive exploring.

Tonight we're going to hit Arkadia Beach, which is 'Ukraine's Ibiza' and crammed with 24 hour clubs pumping out house, D&B et al. No doubt we will feel underdressed, given the Ukrainian proclivity for very shortskirts and very high heels. Unfortunately I haven't got my Gucci heels stashed away in the bottom of my rucksack, so Birkenstocks it'll have to be.

Two more weeks to go till Brighton, and thirteen weeks ago today we left England. It seems so long ago.

Love to all in England and hoping to see a few of you in Brighton. xx Ants

PS We keep trying to upload photos but blogger.com is being a total pain and won't oblige.

PPS Just re read my last blog and its very dull, apologies, I was super tired when I wrote it.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Another tukking tantrum

Tanya's House, Bakchiserai, The Crimea, Ukraine

The more we do this journey, the more I believe in fate. It seems that every time we need help a new Fairy Godmother (or father) appears and solves our problems. Yesterday was yet another example.

After several divine days of chilling by the Black Sea it was back to reality on Tuesday afternoon when we limped into Sudak with Ting Tong in a quest to get to the root of her latest troubles. As we drove into Vecolny on Saturday afternoon she began to dive ditchwards every time we braked. On the Crimea’s mountainous roads this was not a pleasant experience and we presumed it must be a recurrence of the caliper problem we had had in Balkash. Since TT’s front wheel is the same as a bikes we headed for a biker café we’d got word of in Sudak, hoping they would be able to point us in the direction of the nearest mechanic.

With Jo clutching our last faulty caliper we went up to a heavily tattooed biker who was hanging around outside the café with his madly painted 1962 German machine. Boris, as his name turned out to be, was a tattoo artist, bike fanatic and total dude. He said there was one shop we might be able to find a new caliper in, called Signal. If not then our only hope was Simferopol, 200km’s away, or maybe even Odessa, 600km’s away. But first he said he knew some good mechanics who could have a look at TT, and hitherto dispatched his friend / flunkie Misha to take us there. The ‘good mechanics’ turned out to be a very irritating bunch of lads, who I am sure were half cut, who acted as if they had never seen anything more hilarious than a pink tuk tuk. Apart from having extended hysterics and asking lots of puerile questions they did absolutely bugger all and ½ an hour later we tukked off, still veering dangerously to the right, none the wiser. Since Signal was now closed we had no option but to wait for the next day and try another mechanic we had heard about in our village. After supper with Boris – where he presented me with a silver ring from his collection - we headed home to Vecolny, having gained nothing but a bonkers biker friend.

Having had another insomniac night - frequent occurrences on this trip –we were up early yesterday to head into the village in search of the other mechanic, Tolmek. But Tolmek was away till that night, and we couldn’t afford to hang around all day and risk him not being able to do anything. Finding a new caliper in Signal was our only hope.

A hot traipse around Sudak finally led us to Signal, a tiny shop piled high with every sort of auto part you can imagine. Apart from calipers. The nearest possibility was Simferopol. We looked at each other and groaned. As the reality of our problem was sinking in a voice piped up on my right. ‘What are you looking for?’ it said in heavily accented English. I turned to discover the owner of the voice was a smartly dressed, good looking 20 something man. He introduced himself as Redvan, a mechanic. An hour later he was at our house, stripped down to pair of fetching satin shorts inspecting our sick baby. Despite our misgivings he soon ascertained that the problem was not with the caliper but with our front suspension, the right hand side of which was badly damaged. Boris had said the same yesterday, but we had dismissed his prognosis, convinced it had to be the same problem as in Balkash, five weeks ago.

If Boris and Redvan were right then our problem was even worse, since TT’s suspension is Tuk Tuk specific and we might have to wait up to a week while Anuwat sent a new set from Thailand. Jo was even considering how long it would take her to fly to Bangkok and back to pick up a new set. We stood in the blazing heat, smoking cigarettes, looking at TT and wondering what the hell to do. Redvan said he knew two people in Sudak who might be able to help.

Person number one shook is head and said he was busy for the next week, even TT’s special powers couldn’t persuade him otherwise. Person number two was Serva, who lived down a dusty track amongst half built houses on the outskirts of Sudak. Yes he said, he thought he could do it, come back in three hours. So Jo, Redvan and I went off to Redvan’s uncle’s café and drank coffee and smoked hookahs, waiting anxiously for the outcome. If he failed then we were in serious trouble….

Redvan, only 26 and married for four years, told us all about his people, the Crimean Tartars, and about Stalin’s terrible expulsion of them in 1944 where within a space of a few days he exported every single one of them to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Siberia. Thousands died on the journey and although given an official apology by Krushchev in 1967 it was not until 1989 that they were officially allowed back to their homeland. Today about 12 % of the Crimean population is Tartar, but life is hard for them and many of them struggle against poverty and racial prejudice. All because of the whim of a single megalomaniac.

Full of coffee and Tartar tales we returned after three hours to find Serva putting the finishing touches to Tingers. A test drive would reveal if he had managed to mend her or not. And guess what, he had. Jo and I were so happy, we couldn’t believe it. He had managed to do a job that had taken ten men seven hours in Jinhong, China, the first time our front suspension went. Moreover he had never seen or attended to a three-wheeler before. We thanked him, thanked him, thanked him, thanked him some more, took photos of him and his wife and gleefully drove off into the sunset. Problem solved. Our evening was thus spent celebrating over a few beers with Redvan and his friend Rostom. Please please let it be the last problem Ting Tong has before we get home in two and a half weeks. If Redvan had not been in Signal at the same time as us goodness knows what might have happened. Thank you guardian angels for coming to our rescue again.

This morning we packed up, said goodbye to Nastya and Vova and the Tartar family we had been staying with; Ismail, Aisha, Gulya, Esme and Eleonora, plus their four dogs Naida, Akbar, Dinai and Puppy. I felt as sad about leaving them as I have about leaving anyone else on this trip and would love to come back here one day.

Its bedtime now so I’ll write about today, the cave city we visited and the lovely house under a mountain we are staying in now, next time. The Crimea is fantastic, we love it. You’ve all got to come here….. xx Ants

Over to Jo....

16th August, Smile Café

We have all had a slightly nerve jangling (to put it mildly) couple of days with TT.

Yesterday we went to Sudak to visit one of the last fortresses of the Silk Road. It is amazing that we first encountered the Silk Road i.e. Great Wall of China about 10,000km ago and now we were visiting part of its European route- what an unbelievable overland trip it must have been.

Nastia had told us that there was a biker bar in Sudak and so we visited them to have a chat about TT and asked where we might get a new brake caliper. They told us that we may be able to get one in Sudak or otherwise we may have to go over 100km to get one in Simferopol (capital of the Crimea). They also told us that they thought one of TT’s front shocks had gone. This was not good news as we didn’t have another front shock and they are tuk tuk specific parts only available in Thailand. One of the dudes from the biker bar came with us in TT to visit a local mechanic who they thought may be able to help. The mechanics were all quite young and they found TT hilarious. She ended up being hoisted a metre into the air to have her brakes bled. They thought she may have some air trapped, but unfortunately this didn’t solve the problem. They were unable to offer us anymore assistance with her braking issues and so we returned to the biker bar feeling slightly deflated. However, the day wasn’t a total disaster as we enjoyed visiting the fort and met a crazy Ukranian biker/tattooist/nutter called Boris, who had us in hysterics. He had a slightly freaky tattoo of Chucky from Child’s Play though. That has reminded me, Ants and I are thinking on getting Ting Tong tattooed somewhere on our bodies when we return.

The following morning we went into our village to attempt to track down a mechanic who had come strongly recommended. Unfortunately he was out for the day and the other mechanic in the village was also not around. So, our next move was to get a lift into Sudak. Basically, it is the same deal in the Ukraine as in Russia and Kazakh i.e. you hold out your arm and some random stranger picks you up and delivers you to your destination for a fraction of the cost of a real taxi.

Once in Sudak we located the shop recommended to us by Boris the previous day. We weren’t lucky with the caliper, but we did meet a guy called Redvan who became our saviour of the day. I won’t tell you the story again as Ants already has. Until TT was properly fixed I was trying to work out how long it would take me to fly to BKK and back! Now we are very happy and relieved and have had a really good day. Bed now as we have about 550km to drive tomorrow to Odessa.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Brown girl in the ring...

14th August, Smile Café (Vecolny, Crimea)

We have been staying in a room with the aforementioned Russian punks in a village called Vecolny (which is translated as Merry in english). They are not really punks, just that they have a penchant for facial piercings, wacky hair and tattoos. The room is attached to the Smile Café and owned by a lovely Tartar family. We have spent a couple of very chilled out days on the beach. I stupidly fell asleep in the midday sun and ended up with a slightly pink back and Ants ended up with pink backs of thighs. We were both wearing factor 25, so we probably got off quite lightly. It was so nice to just feel like regular tourists for a short while and just relax e.g. eat lunch in a café on the beach and play backgammon, sunbathe etc.

We also managed to locate the naturist beach just around the bay from our beach. It was a real rock scrambling session and in 30C plus heat this turned into quite an energy sapping experience. The naturist beach was less of a beach and actually some rocks where people either decided to wear clothes (pecker checkers and beaver patrol) or chose not to (naturists). Ants and I found a reasonably flat rock and toasted ourselves. I now look less like a zebra and more like a polecat.

One of our new Russian pals is a girl called Nastia and she speaks fluent English, having spent a year in the states and four years in Holland. Together with her friends from St Petersburg they run a disco on the beach, which we went to last night. It was a laugh and I got far too excited by Boney M tracks.

Nothing much more to report, other than that TT has decided she likes to steer to the right when we apply the brakes. This same problem happened in Kazakshtan and we solved it by changing the front brake caliper. We met a mechanic today who says he can get TT sorted- fingers crossed as we don’t have a spare caliper.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Ting Tong's summer holiday

Vecolny, The Crimea, Ukraine

Those of you who speak Russian might have noticed something funny about the name of the village we are staying in; it means 'Merry'. Which is fitting, since the three of us are indeed having a very merry time here. The sun is shining - almost too hard - the sea is on our doorstep and we have spent the last few days being deliciously idle on the beach. Apart from my rather hot 5.7 km run this morning our time has been spent horizontally, reading and simply soaking up the rays.

Its not that interesting reading about people lying on the beach doing nothing, so I'll keep it short. One thing I do want to say though is that Jo and I found out this afternoon that out of 16,000 entries we have made it down to the last 10 in Cosmo's 'Fun, Fearless Female Award' which is dead exciting. I think the final decision is in September.

We're still living with our Russian friends from St Petersburg, who are hanging out here for the summer running a club and putting on parties. Sleep doesn't seem to be on their agenda and they are very lovely and lots of fun. Check out their website www.osravers.com (Old School Ravers!) We went to a party they put on in the village last night and are tootling off to another one on the beach tonight.

Still loving the Ukraine, although TT's caliper issue is a minor headache which we have got to think of a way to sort out.

With love from the Sun. Ants x

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Love at First Sight

The Crimea, between Sudak and Yalta, the Ukraine.

We’ve been in the Ukraine for a mere 48 hours and already I am under its spell. The countryside is beautiful, the people wonderful and the nightclubs highly entertaining. I think Jo and I have got a great ten days ahead of us and as we tukked round the Crimean coast in the blazing sunshine today I felt the holiday mood set in. Although this journey has been unbelievable it’s also been fairly exhausting at times and for the next few days we are going to kick back, slap on the suncream and pretend we are just a normal pair of Brits abroad. Bliss.

Last time I put finger to keyboard was sitting in the back of Ting Tong at the border two days ago. I was a little nervous at what lay ahead as, since Jo has also explained, we had a little problem with our ‘dokumenti’. Unbeknownst to us the customs at Troitsk had only given Ting Tong a Russian passport till August 7th. We were exiting Russia on the 10th. Their mistake lay buried in the small print of one of the many vital documents we carry around, and had a policeman not pointed it out to us on a routine check the night before we would have had no idea. Now we could be facing serious trouble, through no fault of our own.

The problem was quickly spotted and, a la the Kazakh / Russian border, Jo and I were frogmarched into a small, stark room by an enormous, cross looking official. I didn’t fancy our chances. For ten minutes we were at an impasse, with me trying to explain that we had no idea why Troitsk had made the mistake, and him shaking his head and repeating that we had a problem. Then Jo whipped out a copy of Komsomolskaya Pravda, featuring an article about us written by our friend Evgenia in Almaty, and in an instant the issue of our faulty documents was dropped. He read and re-read the article, went and copied it, then came back and opened a large safe in the corner of the room, from which he produced a handful of Ukrainian Hryvnia and some Euros. As he handed them across the table he said that he understood about mental health problems, we both got the feeling he had either experienced them himself or knew someone who had. Whatever his motives, it was an extraordinary incident, and with our new friend in tow we skipped out of the office and into Ting Tong. After some photos and lots of thank yous the barrier rose up and we said Goodbye to Russia. We couldn’t believe it that at a second border crossing we had actually been given money by people who are notorious for exactly the opposite. What a brilliant end to our two weeks in Russia.

The Ukrainian side of the border passed without major incident and after six hours in Borderland we sped into country number Six. Since we were both dead beat after a night of camping and a series of insomniac nights in Volgograd we stopped for the night in the first town we came across, which happened to be Maryopol, a fairly large town on the Sea of Azov. When we found a hotel, which I can’t begin to remember the name of, I went in to investigate whilst Jo held the TT fort. The heavily made up, perfectly dressed receptionist took one look at my filthy T-Shirt and grubby Thai fisherman’s trousers and snottily said that they had no rooms, only ‘luxe’, i.e you can’t afford it so piss off. But since Jo and I had camped the night before and were in no mood for hotel hunting she had to eat her words and ‘luxe’ it was.

I went out to tell Jo the good news and found her and TT surrounded by a group of handsome young men, all asking the usual questions, with Jo looking perplexed and not understanding a word. Not taking no for an answer, they carried our bags up to our room, bought us beers and supper and then insisted we come out dancing with them. Both of us could think of nothing worse, we were shattered and pretty grubby and could hardly string a coherent sentence together in English, let alone Russian. But for some reason we found ourselves saying yes….

Half an hour later we were washed and downing our first shot of Vodka. An hour later we were at the Santa Barbara nightclub, with two bottles of vodka being planted in front of us and seven excitable Russians toasting England, Russia, three-wheels etc etc. Sasha, Vittya, Sergei, Alexei et al told us they lived in Novosibirsk in Siberia –where it regularly hits -40 - and were all metalworkers. Vittya, who had multiple tattoos and bullet wounds and shaved hair dyed leopard print, had spent four years fighting in Grozhny. From what I could understand the experience had affected him deeply. He was only my age and for the umpteenth time on this trip I appreciated what tame, easy lives we live in England. Sergei had multiple gold teeth and a bad case of wandering hands and Sasha was apparently married with a daughter but spent the evening looking lasciviously at Jo and dragging her off to dance. They also taught us an interesting Russian custom, which I still think they made up just for our / their benefit. Apparently its customary for two people to link their arms, drink a short of Vodka each then kiss each other passionately on the lips. To demonstrate that they weren’t having us on Sergei and Sasha shared a very unmanly kiss on the lips and then told us it was our turn……

At 2 a.m we staggered home, LOCKED the door of our bedroom and passed out. But not before Sasha and Vittya had begged to come in for a ‘nightcap’ and Sasha had been on his knees begging for ‘Diana’ (Joanna after too much vodka). What a funny and totally unexpected night.

Yesterday we awoke, feeling a little bleary but full of the joys of the Ukraine, and set off West for the Crimea. At about 6 0’clock, with a storm brewing in the distance, we pulled over at a ‘rinok’ (market) to get some veggies in case we had to camp. The vendors were all Crimean Tartars - more about them another time – and they loaded us up with every vegetable imaginable then refused to take any money. As we were exchanging phone numbers etc Jo said to one man ‘ Do you have email?’, so we could send him pictures. He let out a throaty laugh and said, ‘Internet? We have no money, only potatoes, how could we have internet?’ They had nothing yet had just given us so much. It was another one of those incidents that leaves you feeling humbled, incredibly grateful and wishing you could give something back.

I’ve written enough now and need to go to bed, so more tomorrow. We’re in a village in the Crimea, somewhere between Sudak and Yalta. No idea what it’s called but its got a beach and we’re sharing a house with some Russian punks from St Petersburg who we met in a café this afternoon. Xx Ants

Border issues and vodka

11th August, North East Crimea (Ukraine)

We successfully crossed into the Ukraine last night after about 6 hours at the border. The Russian side could potentially have been a bit hairy, but thankfully it all turned out OK. For some strange reason, TT had only been given a 2 week visa for Russia, whereas our visas were for one month. We hadn’t realized this until we had been stopped by the police the previous day, who had noticed the error and informed us of it. They were cool though and suggested that we just go to the border and explain that there had been a mistake when we entered Russia at Troitsk.

When I last blogged we were waiting to pass through Russian customs and Ants had just been stung on her bottom. I did tell someone to F off in Russian, but Ants told me to say it and then immediately told me that I said a very rude thing. Basically, we had been waiting in a queue for over three hours and this cheeky bugger drove right down the outside of the queue in his Lada and pulled over just in front of TT. I was pushing her forwards rather than starting the engine to move a few metres and so he managed to sneak in before I could stop him. After I threw a wobbly at him, a babushka jumped on the bandwagon and he got so much grief that he had to go to the back of the queue or he would have suffered death by babushka bashing. You should have seen the look on his face when I said my rude Russian words- it was classic.

Eventually we got to the front of the queue and TT’s overstayed visa was discovered. We had to go and speak to the boss in his office and he seemed none too pleased with us. My heart rate had increased and I thought we may be about to get in big trouble. Ants was trying to explain in her best Russian that it was an unintentional error and that all the rest of our documents were in order. As we had nothing to lose I whipped out the Kazakh paper with our photo and article in it. The previously fierce officer read the article very slowly and carefully and then photocopied it. Then, he gave us some local currency and 15 Euros for Mind, before escorting us out to TT for a photo shoot. Goodness knows what affected him in the article, but something seemed to click- amazing.

The Ukrainian side was easier as we didn’t need a visa and had already purchased TT’s insurance. It was a bit frustrating when they wanted to check the Chassis and Engine numbers, because I cannot remember what part of the engine they are on- all I know is that they are not very easily accessible. Luckily, after about 10 minutes searching they got bored and gave up. So, we tukked into the Ukraine and headed for the nearest biggest city on the M23- not the lovely M23 that goes from London to Brighton. We were pretty pooped, having just crossed a border and camped the previous night. We decided to find a hotel in Maryipol and after a couple of false starts and getting a bit lost we found one of only two hotels in the city. We managed to get the last available room and our bags were carried to our room by our new Russian friends, Sacha et al. They had introduced themselves while Ants went inside to speak some Russki, while I sat in TT and tried to communicate in sign language and the few words in Russian I have heard Ants repeat endlessly. When I think I am telling them about our trip, I am probably actually saying that in Thailand they like tomato salad and bread and that in England I would like to drive on a road with macaroni!!

We decided to have a beer with Sacha and his pals, who were all from Siberia. A beer turned into supper, which then turned into an invite to the local nightclub to drink Russian vodka. Because Sacha had paid for our supper and beer, we felt obliged to say yes. We went upstairs and had a shower and changed, feeling like we had had the energy sucked out of us by a hoover.

We caught a taxi to Santa Barbara, a brightly lit venue right on the Sea of Azov- a sea I had never heard of until we arrived in the Ukraine. Then two large bottles of Russian vodka arrived, along with some cartons of orange juice, water and plates of cold meat, fruit and vegetables. This turned out to be a far more civilized way to enjoy vodka than just knocking back shots. Ants and I had quite enough, danced the night away and finally got a taxi back to the hotel at 2am with the world spinning quite rapidly. That is the first time I have been drunk on this trip and the most drunk I have been in over 3 years. That is not to say we got absolutely hammered, just that I drink only a few times a year. Vodka tastes to me like I imagine paint stripper to taste i.e. minging a la Jade Goody. If vodka wasn’t alcoholic nobody would bother to drink it- ask yourself this question, what tastes better, vodka or fruit juice? The alcoholics are all saying vodka and the non-alcoholics are probably agreeing with me, aren’t you…..?

We woke up the next day and didn't feel at all hungover. Both of our heads felt slightly wooly, but that was probably tiredness as much as the vodka. We packed up TT and headed south west to the Crimea at midday. The road had now become the M26- not the one in Kent. It always makes me laugh when we drive down roads with the same names as English ones, especially when they are so different. Contrary to what we had expected we were not stopped once by the police and the ones who saw us just waved. We finally crossed onto the Crimea after about 6 hours driving, only to be met by grey skies and the threat of rain. We weren’t sure if we would end up camping again and so stopped at some roadside stalls to buy fruit and veggies. The stall holders proudly told us that they were Crimean Tartars (long ago descended from Genghis Khan) and proceeded to give us two melons and a box full of delicious fresh vegetables, all for free. The generosity we have been shown on this trip is truly mind blowing and incredibly humbling. As we drove off it began to rain and there was lots of fork lightning. I worried about TT’s sparks and so drove like a true granny. We found a hotel at a café and decided to stay for the night, as we didn’t know when the opportunity for a bed would arise again if we kept going. A final strange point, there is a grey tom cat here who looks like my mum. I know that sounds weird, but that is the second time a cat has looked like my mother. In Laos a stone Buddha looked like Ants’ dad AKA ‘the biggest boffin in the business’!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Camping it up

10th August Russia/Ukraine border

I am sitting here on the road next to TT while we wait in a queue of 40 cars to cross the border from Russia to the Ukraine. The sun is shining and we know from previous experiences with border crossings that we could be in for a long old day. Oh well, at least we can work on our tans.

Last night we camped just outside Rostov-On-Don, which I think is a very funny name for a Russian city. We were stopped by the police 5 times yesterday, which means I have lost my bet. I estimated we would be stopped less than 30 times in Russia and Ants correctly guessed over 30. I think the total now is 34. My prize as the loser is to pose naked in the Yi apron with TT in a public place. The photo will then be posted on this blog- aren’t you all lucky!!!??? Ants, as chief photographer, will try and keep the photo as decent as possible.

Camping was fun, as it has been all three times we have camped on this trip. Although we never end up getting much sleep, being outside in the middle of nowhere with just the birds and bees to keep you company is quite a special experience. Last night there certainly were bees around, because we camped near some beehives in the woods. Poor Ants was stung on her bottom last night and has just been stung again this morning. Up until last night Ants had managed to avoid being stung, whereas I have already been stung four times, including three times in one day. When we drive, TT turns into an incredible insect killer and every day we have to sweep up the detritus of dead bugs. The bee that stung Ants last night was already dead and so it managed to get its own back from the grave. I tried to be sympathetic, but when someone is stung on the bottom it is quite amusing- even Ants saw the funny side.

We ended up having to stay an extra night in Volgograd, because the camera that arrived from England had a problem with its focus. Ants took both cameras to a repair place and literally begged them to see what they could do. To our great relief, camera number 1 with the sounds issues was not as damaged as had been initially thought and they managed to sort the problem out. We were sad to leave Volgograd as we had turned our hotel room into a mini bedsit and had enjoyed relaxing by the Volga or in local cafes.

For once, the drive out of the city was well signposted and we were soon on our way to Rostov. One of our first police stops of the day made me laugh, because the policeman collected coins from China and Mongolia and once we explained about our trip he asked if we had any Chinese coins. We searched through our bum bags and were able to add a 1 Yuan coin to his collection.

Ants has just returned back from an office at the border with some bad news. Apparently they don’t accept credit cards for our Ukrainian insurance and we don’t seem to have enough money. That could mean a 50km trek to the nearest town- bugger!

Problem over- after ferreting around in our respective bum bags we have enough money, with only $0.5 to spare. She also informed me that she has been stung on the bottom again and walked off rubbing her left cheek (that’s the second time today)!

Hopefully next time we write a blog will be when we are in the Crimea, where Ants will be exploring the history of the area and I will be looking at rock formations. I am also on a mission to find a naturist beach in Fox Bay, so that TT can get an all over tan.

One more thing, TT’s spark plugs all seem fine now and she is driving like a dream. I am hugely relieved, because as chief pseudo-mechanic I would have had to start checking inside her carburetor and distributor and these jobs are best left to the pros. Changing the accelerator cable is about as skilled as I get. One more service before England now and we may be able to blag a free tune up from the Daihatsu service station in Germany if we’re lucky. For those that are interested we have now covered 15,370km from BKK. Only about 5000km left before England and hopefully TT will fly into the record books.


The Russia / Ukraine border between Rostov -on-Don and the Crimea

Another border, another pair of underpants, as Jo would say. After sixteen days in Mother Russia we have eaten our last eggy breakfast, been stopped by our last Russki politzia and drunk our last Russian Baltika beer. Now for country number six, the Ukraine, which lies merely a field from whence I now write. So near but yet so far; with 35 cars between us and the barrier we could be in for a long wait. But at least the sun is shining and we know that on the other side lies the Crimea with its beaches, Silk Road fortresses, cave cities…. and naturist beaches.

Jo, being a devout naturist, is very excited about the latter. She’s been trying to drag me to one since we were thirteen. The last time I was naked in public was at the Arasan Baths in Almaty, where the experience induced a panic attack and Jo had to lead me to safety whilst a gaggle of portly, unclad Babuskhas looked on. Whether I’ll be able to get over my fear of getting my kit off is yet to be seen, I may have to hide behind a large rock while Jo struts her stuff.

Our last night in Russia was spent in a field, watching a harvest moon rise over the trees and listening to a cacophony of insect life. Several of which stung and bit us. Once again the tent experience led to little sleep, but was most enjoyable although unfortunately I left our cutlery in Volgograd so we ate our pasta with toothpicks. There are few things more pleasurable than sitting outside on a warm summer’s evening under a full moon. It seemed an appropriate way to be ending Russia and Jo and I sat and chatted about the last two weeks and the three and a half weeks we have left on the road. Time is slipping by so fast and Brighton is looming out of the future at an alarming rate.

This trip has been like scaling a huge mountain. Our four month preparation was akin to galloping across the plains towards the peak ahead, leaving Bangkok the first step towards the clouds. At Almaty we reached the summit and prepared for the descent. Now I feel as if we are scrambling down the other side, with home just visible through the clouds below. I know that we still have 5000 km’s to go and anything could happen at any moment, but I feel as if we are on the home stretch now, and it’s a funny feeling. My friend Al wrote me an email yesterday in which he reminded me of Gandhi and his philosophy that there is no destination in life, only a journey. The only destination being death. As I lay in the back of TT yesterday I thought about it a lot, how doing this journey and getting home are all a microcosm of that Journey. When we cross the finish line in Brighton this journey may end, this chapter close, but then another chapter will open and the next part of the Journey begin. What that next chapter will be neither Jo or I quite know. As for Ting Tong, her next chapter will be co-habiting a garage in Brighton with eleven smelly ferrets. I don’t envy her.

Thanks to another five police stops yesterday and two today I won our bet as to how many Cop Stops we would rack up in Russia. Jo said under 30, I said over 30. Our final tally is 34. Jo’s forfeit is to pose for a photo for the blog wearing no more than the Yi apron. Ho ho.

Police were one of the things we were most worried about in Russia, but on the whole the stops have been no more than an excuse to have a closer inspection of Ting Tong. A cursory glance at our dokumenti is always accompanied by the usual tukking questions and disbelief that we have no ‘moosh’ (husbands) with us, are in a three-wheeled car and are going all the way to England. One policeman yesterday was a keen collector of coins so we added to his collection with some Yuan and Tenge. So far that is the only money we have had to hand over to men in uniform. At the next stop the policeman, half-joking, asked us if we had any ‘heroin, cocaine, narkotiki’. Yeah right. If a smuggler were to dream up the worst accoutrement to smuggling they could imagine Ting Tong would be it. Today however we met our first bad egg and it was quickly apparent that he was determined to extract roubles from us. He examined our documents, asked to see the engine number, bombarded us with tiresome questions, then marched off to the police station with our passports. But since our docs are perfectly in order and he could find nothing wrong we headed off in the direction of the Ukraine with our wallets and tempers intact.

All in all Russia has been a great experience. Rain, spark plug issues and technological hiccups have not dampened my enthusiasm for this country or its people. More than anywhere else the Russians have loved Ting Tong. Barely five minutes has passed on a Russian road without people laughing, shouting questions out at us, begging us to stop and chat, asking to swop cars and whipping out video cameras. Some classic comments have included, ‘What is this apparition I see before me?’ and ‘Is it a car, is it a motorbike, is it a tractor?’. Some Russians have also been just as surprised to see ‘Anglichankas’ (English girls). In Yekaterinburg one man lurched up to us, beer can in hand and said, ‘Eenglish, never before have I seen an Eenglish’ then just stood and stared. Most bizarre. Apart from the odd Communist fossil or sulky waitress I have found the Russians to be fun, positive, kind and welcoming – a far cry from the cold, hard stereotype we feared. Hopefully the Ukrainians will be the same.

Enough from me for now. The queue is slowly getting shorter and I need to go and have a snooze in the sun. xx Ants

PS Jo just told a queuebarger to ‘F*&K Off’ in Russian, then the babushkas joined in..now he’s reversed in a fury to the back of the queue. I hope he doesn’t hunt us down on the other side. Eek.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Our escape from Volgograd

Hotel Volgrograd, Ulitsa Mira, Volgrograd, Russia

After an unintended four day sojourn in sunny Volgograd it looks like Jo and I will actually be heading south again tomorrow. The Ukraine here we come, referred to as our ‘last doggy spot’ by a post on this blog. I think the doggiest thing there will be the Polizia, we just hope they fall for TT’s charms as all their international counterparts have.

We arrived in Volgograd on Friday night intending to stay here for just the weekend. A new DV camera was being delivered to us on Monday morning from the UK so we had to wait till its arrival.

Monday morning arrived but the camera didn’t. After tracking it down to a depot in Moscow and pestering the staff at our hotel hourly we decided there was nothing to be done except head for the beach, again, and wait. If it had got as far as Moscow it couldn’t be too far away. Our patience and sun-worshipping was rewarded by the arrival of our package when we got back. Phew, we could hit the road again this morning.

But the courier company had obviously been a bit rough with the camera and having excitedly re set it and headed into town to do some filming last night we quickly ascertained that its focus was gone. I despaired. We’d already hung around in Volgograd for longer than necessary and although Dan at ITV very generously said he’d send out another camera, that would have meant risking wasting more time and potentially having the same happen again. I lay ahead for most of last night puzzling over what to do. Did we buy another camera here, risk another one getting sent out or find someone here who could fix one of our two cameras….today?

The last option seemed the only viable one so first thing this morning I was on the phone to Rudy in Yekaterinburg… could he try and find us a Sony centre here?? Of course he could – 10 minutes later he emailed three options and in a flash I was in a taxi to ‘Planet Service’.

A bevy of techys gathered round the two cameras, heads shook and the word ‘Nyet’ was repeated far too many times for my liking. But I wasn’t taking no for an answer. Somehow they had to fix either the sound on camera number one or the focus on camera number two. Today. After much cajoling Sergei, one of the overworked engineers, gave me his mobile and said to ring at 3.30 pm. He’d see what he could do.

And do what he could he did. At 4.30 pm I was walking out of the centre, having thanked Sergei, my new best friend, profusely, with camera number one intact. The relief. The gratitude. So now Jo and I are back on track, with all our equipment in tact, and ready to head home. I’m so happy, albeit a little tired from my sleepless night. Moreover, Chaz, my wonderful friend who is going to edit the footage we have shot, emailed today and said she’s watched the most recent batch of tapes we sent back and is really happy qith what we’ve got. Its so good to hear that all the effort we have put into the filming might actually pay off somehow.

Off to soak up the evening sun now and read my book, A Million Little Piecesby James Frey. Its one of the most compelling books I’ve read for ages, I highly recommend it.

Bye bye from Volgograd and more soon xx Ants

Monday, August 07, 2006

Success and sunbathing

Volgograd 7th August

We have spent the last 2 days enjoying the sunshine in Volgograd and hit the local sandy beach with our uneven zebra tans. Actually, most of our tan had disappeared after the rubbish weather we had experienced during the previous 3 weeks.

To get to the beach we had to get a boat to the other side of the Volga. The beach was absolutely packed, not only with people but also with rubbish strewn all over it. A real shame, because it could have been a nice beach. We settled down for the afternoon and quickly forgot about the miserable rain and cold weather we had thought would never end. It seems that the weather here can be as changeable as back home.

In the evening we went to see Mother Volga, a huge striking statue that Ants mentioned in her previous blog. It was a beautifully clear evening and we enjoyed a spectacular sunset, while Ants explained to me the significance of the spot where we sat and the blood that had been shed during horrific battles in WWII. Why people still feel the need to go to war (including our embarrassing present government) I do not understand. Violence breeds violence and there can be no such thing as a just war.

Today we had expected to hit the road and head west towards the Ukraine. However, we were waiting for a parcel from England that did not arrive. We were told that we may have to wait for another couple of days and so decided to hit the beach again. As it was monday the beach was more empty, but that didn't stop us attracting attention from the local drunk. His name was Valeri and Ants suddenly forgot (intentionally) all of her Russian. Valeri indicated to me that I needed a manicure and he proceeded to try and clean under my fingernails with a biro, which actually just made them go blue. He also then took a grasp of my love handles and didn't let go until Ants and I both let out a yelp. We decided we had had enough sun and headed back across the Volga.

When we got back to the hotel we were thrilled to find that our parcel had arrived. Now we can hit the road tomorrow and should be in the Ukraine on wednesday. After a relaxing and sun filled weekend we are ready for another tukking week.

Is there anybody out there?

Volgograd, 6th August

The tukkers are stuck in Volgograd waiting for some important post from England. Still, not complaining as it is very hot and gives us an opportunity for some admin and sunworshipping.

We enjoy writing our blogs and we are very happy if people enjoy reading them. However, I am nosey and would like to know who is reading our blog. If you are reading this then please could you post a little message after this blog to say hi.

Hope you all have a good week- 28 days and counting before we arrive home....

P.S. For those of you that hadn't guessed, the nosey one is called Jo! xo

Saturday, August 05, 2006

A geek's tour of Volgograd

The Volgograd Hotel, Volga Region, SW Russia

Mamaev Kurgan, Volgrograd

After 650 km's on the road Jo and I chased the setting sun into Volgograd last night, very tired but very happy to have got through another momentous day of tuk to the road. TT's recurrent troubles and a night of being besieged by monster mosquitoes hadn't helped our cause over the previous 36 hours and we were both looking forward to a weekend off in the sunshine.

Arriving in a big city on a Friday night was a novel experience for both of us. Having thrown off the shackles of the working week and no doubt already imbibed in the odd tipple, the inhabitants seemed particularly glad to see Ting Tong. Girls tottering across zebra crossings screeched drunkenly as we tukked past and a red sports car crammed with overexcitable Russian boys /men escorted us most of the way into the centre. "Russian boys...Eenglish girls...gooooood" they shouted hopefully, begging us to pull over 'just for two minutes to have a chat'. On the other side of us a minibus driver shouted questions at Jo and hence we drove into Volgograd blocking the three-lane carriageway, cars glued to either side of Ting Tong. Very funny.

For me Volgograd means one thing: the battle of Stalingrad. Fought between July 1942 and February 1943 it was one of the vilest and most vital battles of WWII. Had the Red Army not fought so doggedly against the Germans the war, and subsequent European history, could have been played out very differently.

But victory came at a terrible cost with at least 600,000 German troops and a million Russian lost in the fighting. Russian casualties here roughly equalled the number of Americans lost in the entire Second World War and by February 1943 the ancient city of Tsaritsyn (renamed Stalingrad in honour of The Great Leader) lay in ruins, not a building remaining intact. Walking round the city today, with its leafy boulevards, cosmopolitan cafes and swanky shops, its hard to believe that only 63 years ago such devastation was wreaked here.

In delicious, blazing sunshine this morning, after Jo and I had sat and watched a load of wedding antics by the Volga, I set off to find out a bit more about the battle, while Jo, suffering from a nasty Russian cold, retired to our room to recuperate. The only evidence that such a struggle occurred here is the ruins of a flour mill, left as a memorial to the battle. Otherwise the city has been entirely reconstructed. There is however an awe-inspiring memorial to the battle, Mamaev Kurgan, crowning what was known as Hill 102 during the battle, the scene of particularly vicious fighting. Mamaev towers over the city, 72m high, a magnificent memorial to the battle, as I stood and craned my neck up at the gigantic statue I felt a pang of sadness about the hideous loss of lives that took place here. It is said that even the Germans were shocked by the Soviet army's tactic of sending massed ranks of men towards the German machine guns, so their bodies would shield the troops behind.

Next stop was the 'Museum of the Defence of Stalingrad', which I am sure would have been a whole lot more interesting had I been well-versed in Russian military terminology. Not a word was in English (and why should it be), so I just pottered round and looked at the pictures, then headed back into the sunshine for a stroll along the Volga.

I know that I have harped on about history quite a lot in my recent blogs, but Russia, more than anywhere else I've been, visibly bears the scars of its tumultuous 20th century history. Whether its cities that were closed to foreigners till 1991 (Yekaterinburg, Samara), tanks and fighter planes on display in city centres, the Romanov remains or stern Communist statues glaring down at you in every city, you are never allowed to forget for long what has happened here since 1918.

Back to Samara...

The further we go on this journey, the more we believe that everything happens for a reason. Two days ago, as Jo has written below, TT threw a tantrum and wouldn't start in Samara. It was those pesky spark plugs again, revolting against the cold and rain. All we could do was wait until they dried out. In the meantime, Irina, a journalist I'd been in touch with for a while, rang me. She was keen to do a TV interview and after playing phone tag for the last 24 hours TT's misdemeanours allowed us to finally hook up. The interview went well and we had a chance to talk about Mind, mental health and the reasons behind our trip. Interestingly, she was the first journalist to ask about Jo's scars, which I find odd. Aren't journos supposed to ask pertinent questions?

After the interview the three of us had a quick lunch and a really interesting chat about Russian literature, mental health here and how the Russians feel about their communist past. Irina seemed hesitant to talk about the issue of mental health, saying that even though the Soviet era is long gone, journalists still need to watch what they say, particularly to foreigners. I've asked quite a few people here the same questions about mental health, and the answer is always unclear. Suicide rates are very high, self-harm is common, alchoholism and domestic abuse are notoriously rife, yet the provisons to care for those with mental illness are barely in place. Aside from that, no one seems able to tell us any more.

At 2pm, after lunch and our spark plugs had pulled themselves together, we set off down the P226 in the general direction of Volgograd. Six hours later we called it a day and pulled into our home for the night, a freshly harvested hay field near Saratov. Lovely as it was, the night was slightly spolit by the mosquitoes, who seemed unperturbed by the faact we were both coated in 100% deet. After a game of badminton, some pasta and a few beers, we snuggled down for a night of typically unsatisfactory tent sleep. I've yet to master the art of proper sleep when in such close proximity with Mother Earth. Since I burnt a hole in my inflatable sleeping mat the first time I used it, it offers little respite from whatever lurks beneath the groundsheet.

As I lay in my sleeping bag my mind strayed to the puzzle of the Romanov remains. As Heid Honcho posted the other day, if they weren't the Tsar et al's bones who were uncovered, then whose were they??? I concluded that the 'identification' of the bones in 1991 smacks of political spin and is suggestive of an attempt to discredit the Communist past and bolster patriotism at a time when the new Russia was throwing off the mantle of 73 years of Soviet rule. Any comments about this wild thesis much appreciated......

Jo and I are very relieved that the sun has at last got his hat on and come out to give some respite from the rain. Ting Tong says she's very happy too, and I hope those darn spark plugs won't give us any more jip from now on.

One final thing. We're going to land in sunny Brighon on Sunday September 3rd so start getting your glad rags on as we are going to have on helluva party. If we haven't died from exhaustion. xx Ants

Sun at long last

5th August, Volgograd (SW Russia)

We have arrived at our last large city in Russia before crossing into Ukraine early next week. We are staying in the originally named Volgograd Hotel, which is a huge characterful building that has been restored to its original splendour after being destroyed in WWII.

We left Samara 2 days ago in the sunshine. The rain had decided to stop and Ants and I were thrilled to cast aside our ponchos and jackets to wear T-shirts again. Ants went off to get TT while I packed up and finished checking out. Ants returned after about 30 minutes with the bad news that TT had stubbornly refused to start. So, I stopped emptying our room and we both returned to TT determined to get her running. Of course I took my faithful 'Auto Repair for Dummies' with me.

We nearly got TT started, but in the end had to accept the kind offer of a pull start from a Lada. Drama over we drove TT back to the hotel. However, the drama was only 50% over as TT was misfiring like a trooper again as the old spark issues seemed to have returned with avengence. We decided to leave her in the sunshine to see if this would cheer her up enough to drive smoothly. In the meantime Ants contacted the local TV crew she had been in touch with and they came over to interview us. We gave an interview and farted up and down the street in TT, before parking her up again and heading off for lunch.

After lunch we went back to the hotel and loaded up TT. As we emerged from the hotel we were suprised to find a British hearse parked outside. It was a team from The Mongol Rally called The Hearse Flies. The aim of the trip is to drive a cheap car from England to Mongolia in a short space of time for charity- see www.mongolrally.com for more details. We would have loved to chat to the brave hearse drivers for longer, but were being shown out of the city by our new pals from the TV station and couldn't keep them waiting.

TT was led out of the city and seemed to be driving well again. We started the long drive towards Volgograd, planning to stop somewhere before Saratov and camp. In the early evening we pulled off the main road and drove about 1km into a field of newly harvested hay. I was a bit worried that we were tresspassing and might get in trouble, but our spot seemed pretty remote and we couldn't see any signs of civilisation. We parked TT behind a hay stack and set up our tent. We had been warned about the mozzies in Russia and Ants and I already displayed their successes on our faces, arms and legs. That field seemed to have an unatural concentration of large, fast and persistent mozzies, who attacked us until we finally retired to our tent a couple of hours later.

Ants set up the trangia and we had a typical camping meal of pasta and tomato sauce from a jar. Thanks to Ivan for finding us some meths, which is apparently illegal to buy in Russia. I couldn't taste a thing as I had caught a stinky Russian cold. After supper we had a game of badminton, before checking our emails and finally going to bed, covered in 100% DEET. If a local farmer had come accross us he probably wouldn't have believed his eyes- 2 foreign girls playing badminton in the middle of his field next to a bright pink tuk tuk.

We awoke the next morning to sunshine and another day of good weather. After a quick breakfast of porridge we packed up TT and tried to start her- can you guess what happened, she wouldn't start. So, we pushed her further across the field into a patch of sunshine and let her sunbathe. After about half an hour she did decide to start and we tukked off towards Saratov, with the intention of reaching Volgograd that night, some 600km plus away.

TT flew along for the first couple of hours but then started to misfire again. I checked that the boots covering her sparks were securely attached and found that one of them was not secure enough. She seemed a bit better but was still not driving brilliantly. We stopped for lunch and there happened to be a mechanic eating in the same cafe. We drove TT over to his garage and it was found that one of her 3 new sparks had already gone. They were all replaced again, thanks to the help of Rudy in Yekaterinburg helping to translate the problem into Russian over the phone for us-thanks Rudy, you're a star.

Off we went again and arrived here in Volgograd last night in the dark. It took us about half an hour to drive the 20km to the centre of the city and we were frequently flanked by cars and vans of jolly Russians, all relaxed and off for a friday night out. One of the cars was full of a group of rowdy young men who begged us to stop for 2 minutes to chat to them and told us that Russian men and Enlgish girls were good together. We politely told them it was late and we needed to get to our hotel and sleep. Thankfully, our room had already been reserved by Oleg (thanks handsome)and so all we had to do was find the hotel. This was not too hard and we finally arrived after one of our longest days on the road to date, exhausted but relieved to have arrived for a weekend of relaxation and hopefully some sunshine.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The famous Yi apron

Not the Samara we had envisaged

Hotel Zhiguli, Volgograd, the Volga Region, Russia

The Lonely Planet says of Samara, where we know find ourselves, that 'in summer the Volga's riverbanks are packed with bathing beauties, rollerbladers and beerdrinkers'. With this idyylic image at the ofrefront of our minds Jo and I left rainy Ufa yesterday feeling very excited about a day or two sunbathing by the banks of Europe's longest river. Such was not to be; as has now become the norm in Russia, I awoke this morning to the symphony of mosquitoes dive-bombing my head and rain hammering on the windows. Visions of spending a sybaritic day lounging by the river evaporated in an instant. And since Ting Tong has made it very clear that driving in the rain is not her favourite pastime (or ours) we opted to don our very fetching tropical ponchos and hang out in soggy Samara for the day instead. What a riot.

Yesterday was our longest day on the road for a while, and it seemed to go on and on and on and on....The countryside was beauiful and the roads passable, but nothing spectacular. The oddest thing was the endless police stops - eight yesterday. But whilst all our previous stops have included a demand for our 'dokumenti', all but one of yesterdays Cop Stops were simply to have a nose at Ting Tong and ask all the usual 'where are you going', 'Where are you from' 'aren't you cold? (YES) 'Where are the men' type questions. Furthermore, most of the police stopping us seemed to know the basic details of our journey, ie that we were travelling from Thailand to England. We suspect that this is thanks to the two policeman who bought us cake and chatted to us in a trukkers cafe at lunch, who then must have warned their cohorts further down the line of the pink oddity heading their way. We can now pretty much guarantee that at every police checkpoint that irritating black and white baton will wave us down as we try and tuk past inconspicuously.

I've discovered in the last 24 hours a peculiar paradox that exists in Russia, one of many I am sure. Our blog during the last week has been full of praise for the incredible hospitality and friendliness we have encountered here. But our infuriating, exhausting quest for a hotel room late last night, after 10 hours on the road, in the rain, was hindered by what I can only call xenophobia. The hatchet faced receptionist at hotel number 1, the digusting looking Hotel Rossiya, informed me VERY frostily that they had no rooms. At hotel number 2 I didn't even get past the door, where I was physically blocked from entering by a bad-tempered old goat who curled his lips in disgust at the sound of my foreign accent and told me that this was a hotel for Russians only. I tried to duck past him to verify this with the receptionist, but he barred my way and sent us packing. Hotel number 3 was the same, and Hotel number 4, the wildly overpriced Zhiguli, let us in. Jo and I objected to paying 3300 roubles (over 60 squid) for a room with no hot water, but it was either that or the pavement.

The highlight of today has been my visit to the Samara Art Gallery, a real gem, full of Russian Art from the 19th and 20th centuries. I know we are in Europe, but I was surprised by the strong European style of the paintings, the portraits of ostentatiously dressed aristocrats could have passed for a Gainsborough. Best of all were the Makovskis and the two Klevers, the latter dark atmospheric landscapes. If anyone reading this should find themselves in Samara I highly reccomend a visit.

Lastly, I want to add an appendage to my blog about the Romanovs from the other day. My father, the Biggest Boffin in the business, who has been to St Peterburg twice, wrote the following in an email a few days ago. "I have in front of me a four page article from the St Petsburgurg Times dated 17thJuly 1998 which casts a huge amount of doubt on the whole business. The most significant piece of evidence is that Tsar Nicholas was attacked by a madman during his 1891 visit to Japan and that his skull was permanently scarred. No sign of such a scar was found by the investigators of the Commmission of the Identification of the Remains established in 1993. At
the time of the reburial in St Petersburg nearly every leading Russian newspaper published articles doubting the authenticity of the bones." Maybe my next foreign sojourn will be a hunt for the Real Romanov remains....

That's all for today. I wish the bloody rain would stop because its getting boring. Hopefully this time next week we'll be soaking up some rays in the Crimea, where we have decided to re-route to in search of sun and extra mileage. Love to all in England and Carrie I hope all the wedding plans are going OK. GUTTED I am going to miss it xxx