30 June 2013


I am here: 42 52.332 N 74 36.348 E at 776m as of 17/06/2013 10:42 BST http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:42.87221,74.60581

I'm surprised he has time to run a bar given his day job.

Alive and well in China

After a couple of weeks without Internet access whilst in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and then a week sorting out VPN access for bypassing The Great Firewall of China I'm back online.

Excuse the impending splurge of posts.

See Ya Later, Daisy. Again. (day 63)

Day 63

Yet again we wave "see ya later" to Daisy.

The news from the late night engine fixing this morning wasn't good, but that wasn't a huge surprise given: 1) the problem with the gearbox; 2) that Olly and Jan had been working on it for hours; 3) Olly was obviously preparing contingency plans last night with Claire.

The actual news was that the bearings in the gearbox had gone (I looked at their remains and the whilst I know little about gearboxes I do know that bearings aren't meant to look like they did - misshaped pieces of metal, in pieces, and oil which was a bad colour despite being new) and that we'd be taking a taxi from where we were (the side of the road, just off a motorway slipway) to the nearest town (140km away) and then by public bus to where we actually needed to go to (Urumqi).

As I write this I'm at the tail end of a 6 hour coach journey across the desert, where the aircon (luxury!) on the coach had got the insides down to a cool 28 degC.

It gives me an idea of what travel in South America will be like.

Jan and Claire (translator and knower of local things) stayed with Daisy to get her fixed, which based on overhearing half conversations Olly is having with Jan (very good mobile coverage here) appears to be going fairly well - although it is probably going to be a good few days until we see her again - if nothing else she needs to be towed the 140km and that won't be happening until tomorrow at the earliest.

New words (part 2)

Another new word from Shaun and Karen... Travelgasm.

That moment when travelling, possibly after a few ho-hum days, where you get a moment of pure and utter joy which reminds you of why you travel.

I had my first on this trip whilst on the mountain pass in Georgia (utterly stunning natural beauty) and the latest whilst walking around the old town in Kashgar (the mix of sights, sounds, smells, people, Chinglish - especially the area which specialised in musical instruments & metal goods).

Karakol lake / Half way (day 60)

I am here: 38 27.247 N 75 2.92 E at 3692m as of 23/06/2013 13:07 BST http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:38.45412,75.04867

Livestock market.

Grand bizarre. Not full of tat, but a genuine large bizarre - full of everything (clothes, food, furs, electronics, perfumes & toiletries, housewares, tools, etc). Masses of people. Partly very tight passages lined with stalls, partly a more spacious covered area.

Drive to lake post lunch.
Climbed 2500m in 4-5 hours.
Air noticeably thinner, but AMS not got the better of me yet. Got better of Claire, our guide. (not using Diamox, but need to find some for South America.)

Day 60! Half way through the tour, although I've barely started on my journey.

Bushcamp location (day 62)

Day 62.

I am here: 41 58.49 N 84 32.822 E at 1074m as of 25/06/2013 http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:41.97484,84.54704

The observant among you will note the massive distance between the last breakdown location and our camping spot for the night.
(Although after the best part of 12 hours driving through the desert I'm happy to stop for the night, even if it isn't the best of locations or for the right reasons.)

As I type this Olly & Jan are busy removing the gearbox of the truck - at 23:05, having been under the truck for hours already and with no sign of stopping. I have nothing but praise for the amount of work Olly & Jan do to keep Daisy going, especially Jan - he's the truck mechanic - but the number of breakdowns over the last few weeks has been disappointing at times (it has cost us time in places) and can add headaches (in terms of using alternative transport), but there is a certain acceptances that mechanical things will break, mixed with a tinge of "this truck needs a major service from a Tata specialist and a check of every component and system" and with a good dollop of "this truck has been bounced thousands of km across some crazy terrain and at some semi serious altitude". There is an even bigger dollop of "this is where the stories come from" and "shit happens", so I'm not actually stressed by this in the slightest.

I suspect we are in for an interesting few days.

Update: I happened to wake at 0230 and they were still working on it. Shaun heard the cab being lowered at 0330.
Olly and Jan look tired today.

The Desert (day 61)

Day 61 bush camp
I am here: 39 50.923 N 76 56.197 E at 1257m as of 24/06/2013 http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:39.84872,76.93663

A day of contrast. Having woken at 0630, very pre dawn, we had breakfast in the dark and cold; an early start to allow us time to walk around the lake we'd camped at.
(very pre dawn: China operates on Beijing time, which is UTC +8. The region of China I'm in has a local time (UTC +6), which is based on its actual location and not the government's sayso. We operate on Beijing time as this is the standard for the country, but it does mean that getting up for 0630 is more like getting up at 0430 in terms of the light.)
A gentle walk around the lake in the pre dawn, dawn and then early morning light is a fabulous way to start a day. Me, Shaun, Karen and Matt.

A few hours later and we'd decended the 2500m we'd climbed yesterday and had gone from warm hats & down jackets to the least we could wear and not be naked - low single digit degC to ~35 in a few hours. It stayed at this temperature all day.

Nice little camp just off the main road.

A little touch rugby after dinner.

I like camping in the desert as I like the cold and the clear skies. We had very clear, very bright, skies with a full moon (lovely light on the hills and mountains, even if it means we didn't see many stars), but the temperature just didn't drop like I'm use to - a hot night, with the added bonus of mozzies eating my legs.

Fun places to breakdown (part 7)

I am here: 41 58.869 N 84 32.773 E at 1085m as of 25/06/2013 12:20 BST http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:41.98115,84.54623

The slip road off a motorway, thus blocking it.

You'll note how soon after #6 this is. The gearbox isn't happy and the reoccurring engine (engine management?) problem continues.

Fun places to break down (part 6)

I am here: 41 50.931 N 84 1.976 E at 1053m as of 25/06/2013 11:41 BST http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:41.84886,84.03295

The middle of the desert. Again. (The previous desert breakdown being in Turkmenistan).

I've not blogged the various breakdowns before, but I'm going to start recording the locations if for no other reason I do wonder where we are when we get stuck.

Thankfully we are out of the "no stopping, you can't camp here" zone which we've been driving through for part of today - the zone created by military things being in the area and the government being a little bit sensitive about it.

Yet more yurts

I am here: 40 49.347 N 75 17.371 E at 3109m as of 19/06/2013 06:38 BST http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:40.82246,75.28952

Day 56

Tashrabat (Day 56)

I am here: 41 25.536 N 76 1.359 E at 2051m as of 18/06/2013 http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:41.42562,76.02267

DAY 56

More yurts.
Met Shaun & Karen.
Walk along the valley.
Olly rescued woman who fell into river.
Sweets & biscuits galore within meals - hospitality.
Cake for breakfast. (homemade. Delicious.)

New words (part 1)

For some reason the collective noun of various animals has been discussed on the truck, which led to a wonderful new (to me) word....

The collective noun for overlanders.

Mank. As in Mank of Overlanders.

Lunchtime views (day 66)

Hole in the wall dinner place, on the way between Heavenly Lake and Turpan.

Seemed surprised to have a group of westerners turn up.

Heavenly Lake (day 64 & 65)

I am here: 43 53.575 N 88 6.911 E at 1993m as of 27/06/2013 http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:43.89293,88.11519

Day 64.

Day 65.

Walked around the lake. First half very easy, flat, walking. Second half proper hiking.

Lunchtime views (day 65)

I am here: 43 52.632 N 88 8.419 E at 1909m as of 28/06/2013 05:44 BST http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:43.87721,88.14032

16 June 2013

The first proper homestay (day 41)

I am here: 41 20.422 N 72 55.269 E at 1517m as of 04/06/2013 16:10 BST http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:41.34037,72.92116

Day 41.

Our sleeping place for the night was a homestay, which unlike the one in Georgia was actually someone's home, where a little space had been given over to housing visitors. After spending too long in hotels in Uzbekistan it was nice to be somewhere a lot more simple. And simple it was.

When we arrived there was no electricity as a storm had taken the power out again, but this wasn't a real issue - dinner (something Olly had arranged for us as he knew we'd be late in because of the roadblock) was cooked on wood powered ovens, as was all the other food.

Never underestimate just how good a cuppa (+ bread & honey) is after an eventful day.

Whilst waiting for the food to be prepared another storm rolled in - 30 minutes of driving rain, big thunder & lightning, howling winds - I stood in a sheltered spot by the kitchen and watched it all; nature having a bit of a show, all surrounded by the mountains (which makes the thunder sound so much more).

Thankfully we had power (generators, I think) to not eat in the dark, but we lost power again not long after - cue another round of storm watching, which was even more stormy than the previous. I don't think I've seen horizontal lightning before.

Day 42 (5 June 2013)
Olly went off early to arrange more alternative transport, as Daisy hadn't arrived overnight and we needed to be able to carry on with the schedule as much as we could.
The group spent the day doing a half day walk, not hike, up and around the local hills.
Stunning views, as you'd expect, and good fun, if wet - we got caught in a storm on the way down and got soaked; my jacket kept the top half of me dry, but my waterproof trousers were used to protect my camera.

Our guide for the day wasn't our normal guide for Kyrgyzstan, he'd gone with Olly to help get transport, and he'd not really judged the capability of the group or kept a good enough eye on those of us towards the back of the fairly spread-out group.
I turn around expecting to see the 4 people behind me who are the last 4 and they're not there - waiting for 5+ min and they still aren't in sight. A quick run to catch up with the rest of the group to double check they'd not past me and they hadn't - man down. Bugger.
Que some quick backtracking to where they were last seen, with the guide going another way to see if they'd taken a wrong turn in to town.
Thankfully they turned up as I approached where I'd last seen them - they'd taken a wrong turn, but not the one the guide thought they might of.

Today's lesson - keep a better eye on those behind you in the group and make sure you don't lose visibility of people when you've got a spread out group.

Welcome to Kyrgyzstan (day 41)

I am here: 40 33.678 N 72 46.051 E at 936m as of 04/06/2013 10:23 BST http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:40.5613,72.76752

Stopped in Osh for what turned out to be a really good lunch. Which, given the rest of the day, is probably just as well.

Having pulled out of Osh Olly was in the back, which is unusual. He'd spent lunchtime doing something, which he was now informing us about - there was a roadblock ahead of us and had been for days - he'd been aware of it for a day or so, but the information was that it should have been cleared by the time we'd crossed the border. Alas, it wasn't.

Olly had hired a taxi to drive ahead of us and to call us with information so that we knew in advance what we were going to hit. This went slightly wrong when the car we hired ran out of petrol (easily fixed) and was then stopped by the police (one "fine" later...).
Olly, Dragoman, had also arranged alternative transport in the event the roadblock was still in place - the advantages of doing this type of travel with a well organised company who've got local contacts to get information from the ground.

We eventually did hit the roadblock and yet again it was time to leave Daisy & Jan behind (crossing the Caspian being the other time) - we all had to take everything we needed for a week+ from the truck (ie practically everything) and walk through the roadblock and go and find the alternative transport, a minibus (Sprinter van).
As with many other places, ok - everywhere, we stood out. Daisy draws attention and in a remote part of a remote Asian country a group of western travellers stand out. Cue the hellos from a lot of people, lots of smiles and quick conversations with people keen to say hello and use their English. It amazes me just how many people can speak a little English and it is great to talk with them, although too often my inner Londoner kicks in and I wonder why a stranger is being friendly to me - hopefully by the time I'm home again strangers being nice won't be unusual and I hope to be a little more forgiving towards tourists in London. Unless they stand on the left, of course.

Having packed everything we all own into the back of the van and then wedged ourselves around the kit, a very tight fit, we set off. The next couple of hours was driving through the countryside toward our homestay for the night, part of which was brought to by local music (ie more of the endless Russian europop, made better with some silly big-fish dancing with Casey). *twitch*

After weeks of being in Central Asia it was good to see something that is very Asian - a rice paddy. A sense of place.

Country number 6.

Now at BST +5 (UTC +6).

15 June 2013

Evening view (day 47)

I am here: 42 9.976 N 77 27.919 E at 1629m as of 10/06/2013 13:40 BST http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:42.16627,77.46532

Another day, another bush camp. Although this isn't a real bushcamp - it had a pre dug toilet! Luxury!

3 June 2013

Heading into Kyrgyzstan

I hadn't expected this trip to allow me as much Internet access as it has, but having what I've had is no bad thing. The next few weeks should be very different as I'm heading in to Kyrgyzstan and in to the proper wilds and remote - say goodbye to hotels, showers and Internet, say hello to a lot of (bush) camping and a lot less Internet access.

Hopefully I'll write all the blog posts I've been meaning to write for the last weekend or so. :)

The "original" Quran

This trip will allow me to see more amazing things than I have any hope of remembering; I can't remember all over seen so far and I've only been on the road a little over a month. What is saw today will stay with me - a book from 7 CE (7 AD in old money) which is arguably one of the original Qurans.

It's not everyday that you get to see something like this, but Tashkent is home to the Othman Quran.