Russian Border Guard: Speak Russian?

Hew: No.

Russian Guard: Oh Shit….

Russia is gonna be an experience.

We stopped just after the border as we needed fuel and Tony needed a toilet stop. A long low rumble came from Tony’s direction. Whatever Tony ate last night, it was fighting its way back out. And was winning.

The sound finally revealed itself. With child like delight and suprise (Ok…I squealed) we watched a large pack of horses break out of the nearby tree line and trot across the road just in front if us.

The clatter of their hooves filling evening air. Silhoutted against clouds of dust and the glow of the setting sun, they were followed by a single horseman as he lead them into the nearby town.

Over 7,000 miles of amazing sights and we still manage to be surprised or those petrol fumes really got to me.

The Russian roads are impressive…almost perfect but so boring they should be beige, have 2.3 children and drive a Volvo estate.

We almost miss the madness of the ‘Stan roads. The Panda is purring along…with the odd fart thrown in…just to keep us on our toes.

Russian road making is simple. They just pick two points on a map, draw a straight line between them and pave it, no matter what ow who is in the way.

At one stage we even drove through the back of a small family home. Popular Russian reality show, Love Gulag, was on the tele.

Speaking of driving….the three of us have been together 18 days and still havent killed each other. Although Hew did try…once.

Driving in one hour blocks os controlled by a kitchen timer. This gives everyone two hours off to catch a nap or just enjoy looking out at whatever country we are driving through. Hew window licking can be annoying but it keeps him quiet.

There has been some bonding through casual racial vilification of the token Aussie, laughing at Hew’s Kazakh hair cut for his Grinder profile pic or finding ourselves destroying a Whitney Houston song in unison.

We may need to get our man cards reussied after this trip.

The stench in the car is another matter. It is now so bad, border guards keep asking where the dead body is. This car may need an Exorsism when it’s done.

We arrived late into the industrial town of Barnaul, founded on a thriving copper industry. The metal, not the blokes in uniforms.

A sprawling soviet city…it had a lovely personality. And some truly weird bars.

In one such bar, a large local was deep into a second bottle of vodka when, mid meal, he ripped off his t-shirt and got one of his three “lady friends” to rub his ample, sweaty belly.

I wasn’t sure to be shocked or applaude. They kindly acknowledged my applause.

Next morning, we headed South into more rural land.

Farm life here must be pretty rough as suicidal goats, cows and horses think nothing of stepping into speeding traffic without warning. The cows could have at least used their horns! (Sorry…Hew made me put that in)

We headed south through Siberia to Mongolia and went via the Altai Mountain’s.

God must have had a cracker of a day when made this place. It was breathtaking.

Towering snow capped peaks lay in the distance, home to the snow leopard. Grass flood plains rolled along beside us, snaked with mirror smooth rivers.

Severe Tourist Tourettes had kicked in as we swore at every corner with how beautiful it was. We may actually run out of swear words by the end of the trip.

We even stopped to watch an eagle ride thermals over a wide thundering river. I think I peed my pants…and maybe Tony’s.

The wild flora and fauna are pretty cool. Except for these local squirrel things called Marmots. They are smartasses.

They dart out across the road at the last minute and while you are swerving to avoid the little buggers, they jump into the scrub, laughing as they flip you a finger.

We did hit one, but it took three goes and a lot of bush driving.

As before, the Russians do good roads, which mean good times (speedy…not jiggy jiggy) so there is a small hope I have time to make it all the way to UB.

This means driving the Panda like we stole it.

Eastward tomorrow…but how far?

The Fiat of fate will decide….

FrankenPanda has risen like a Phoenix from the Ashes. We had our doubts but this has been a bigger come back since Lazurus walked in and scared the crap out of his wife and the milkman!

If this was a patient, the local Priest would be reading the Last Rights and two guys would be standing to one side with shovels.

So, last night, we were in bad shape as the Panda staggered into town like a drunk three legged dog in stilettos.

To give the Panda a chance to compose herself, we picked a relatively half decent hotel but the receptionist at the hotel had a face that would curdle milk and the personality to turn it into frozen yoghurt.

If it was just me, her and a goat on a deserted island, I would be getting her to hold the goat.

We woke and headed down stairs to the Panda and much to our shock and pleasure it STARTED!! This, like all worldy pleasures, was short lived.

Three blocks away the Panda yawned, farted and rolled over to play dead. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Bugger all!

With no sign of a Panda pulse, Hew and I decided to walk to find a mechanic. 45 minutes later and no luck, a miracle appeared to our left…Tony pulled up beside us…IN THE PANDA!

A very helpful truck driver and his defibrillator battery had given Tony jump start. He also got the Panda going. Thank the world for truck drivers and their big ass batteries.

Not wanting to risk breaking down in the Mongolian desert, we decided to get the Panda looked at.

After three mechanics were too reluctant (or smart) to assist, we were eventually referred to the sole BMW dealership in town….posssibly even Kazakhstan.

It was so modern and clinically clean, that we felt like backpackers rocking into Dubai’s famed Hotel Jumeirah Al Qa. And asking for The Presidential Suite.

The prognosis wasn’t good. Our Panda had been savaged by the Uzbek, Turkmen and Kazakh “roads”. The engine block had broken off its mounts. The oil pump was smashed in to the sump. Oil pressure was zero and the steering arm was goneski…she was in a bad way.

But as always, skilled surgeons got to work on the Panda and told us to leave them to it and they would see if they could save her.

We headed back into Ust-Kamenogorsk city. Set on a wide winding river at the base of some imposing mountains, you can see the beauty the locals talk about. And…it had a nice personality.

As it was seriously hot and we had the Mongol Rally Runs. It was so bad we could have qualified for the Kazakhstan Olympic Relay Team. We headed back to the hotel for a Spa Day.

As the day dragged on, news trickled through like an extra teary episode of “Greys Anatomy”. With every message from Dr McDreamy Mechanic, things were looking less critical and hope flickered like dim flame in the night. We prayed Karma didn’t let one rip and blow it out.

We were risking lunch when finally we got the news. And it was good…ish! They had fixed her heart and might even be back on the road within a day.

Cue dramatic music and soft focus lenses as we hugged and cried and swore we would take better care of her…actually we just ordered three more beers and a kebab (bloody sick of kebabs).

Next day, we were finally reunited with our Panda. After many tears, thank yous and hand shakes, we took the now standard photo with the Panda and the mechanics. We seem to have met more mechanics than locals on this trip.

And add a Japanese oil filter to the Panda’s United Nation of Parts and questionable DNA….

We are now driving through endless fields of bright yellow sunflowers on our way to the Russian border.

As with every show, there is a plot twist. As we lost three full days of travel, I won’t be able to drive to Ulaanbaatar (UB) with the Mongol Mongrels due to family and work deadlines.

I am currently writing my resignation letter and entering a Witness Relocation Program.

Alternatively, I am looking to make it into Mongolia and then getting a regional flight to UB.

This trip has always been about the journey and not the destination (gotta love fortune cookies) but it’s called the MONGOL RALLY….not the BROKEN DOWN IN THE ASS END OF KAZAKHSTAN RALLY!!

Eastward it is…for now!

On the way to Ust’-something, we hit a mine field that had been incorrectly marked as a road on our map.

We pulled up behind a Land Rover kitted out like Bear Grills Car Club had a fire sale. Tony had enough of the lack of progress and passed the 4×4 on some less than pristine road way. My crying defeaned by the sound of the sump hitting the road.

The look on the face of the khaki shirted, Ray Ban wearing driver being passed at speed by a Fiat Panda must have been priceless . Too bad we couldn’t see because of cloud of dust, stones and humiliation we had just kicked up.

The dirt track we were on had been the most deplorable excuse for a road. Neil Armstrong had better road conditions than we did.

We were beaten. Bashed. Assaulted. Kazakhstan roads danced over us like Ali over Frazier.

We held up our hand and tapped out. We needed a night in a hotel but instead ended up in Brothers Grimm nightmare. Somewhere in the deep dark woods of Kazakhstan, we found what we thought was a hotel. If it was made of gingerbread, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

This place was run by the worlds most evil Hobbit. She was shorter standing up than sitting down and started by shouting at us in Kazakh or Russian or maybe just evil witch tongue.

Drag Queen Yoda led us up the stairs, past the trail of discarded bread crumbs.

My room was so bad even the bed bugs moved out. I did get a complimentary meal in the fridge after “housekeeping” failed to clean out the mould crusted tomato, half eaten bread roll and cheese slices in a lovely shade of green.

I would have assumed this was a crime scene but no one would be desperate enough to die in this room. Well, apart from the double murder/suicide of hope and despair!

I swore, on the way out, I saw a set of twins in blue dresses at the end of the corridor…

The next day we started with almost 160m of flat tarmac before we hit roads with holes so deep we needed our head lights to get out.

The Kazakh roads have officially been reported to the World Wildlife Fund for putting our Panda back on the Endangered Species List.

The Kazakh Panda Pounding was relentless and finally resulted in a bent suspension and a detour into the nearest settlement.

As always, a local wizard was hiding in a garage and weaved his magic by grafting a Lada suspension on to the Fiat. With a mix of Google Translate, and good use of Tony’s two years of Community Mime School, we were back on the road. Thank you Kazakh Gandalf!!

Our FrankenPanda is now an international testament to engineering. An Italian body, an
Iranian clutch, Turkish tyres, Kazakh suspension, Uzbekistan roofrack, Polish carburetor and two Brits and an Aussie on the inside.

If this was an ancestry DNA trace, you would say “Mummy got around…”

This was also the town where Dostoevsky was born. A famous Russian author…but crap at fixing cars apparently.

Onwards into the blue of the night…except for that red oil warning light that just came on.

Nothing a bit of black gaffer tape won’t cover. Problem solved….and turn up that music…

As the Eagles song goes…

‘You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave!’

The Rally Runs hit us hard and we were too scared to move more than 8 feet from the safety of our luxurious hotel toilet. This was a game of boxer shorts roulette! Never bet on brown!

We eventually made it out of the hotel, after “borrowing” several toilet rolls from the house keeping trolley.

Shymkent, our first stop, was a surprisingly modern city. Progress is making its steady march in this growing city, with smooth wide streets, modern cafes, neon signs and duck faced selfie teens everywhere.

We even got a fillet steak and beer at 2am. (note:- a school boy error- refer to first paragraph)

Borat has a lot to answer for. The Kazakh are a friendly, well educated and yet quiet people who obviously work hard and take pride in themselves, many of whom speak great English.

We, on the other hand, were three brash smelly westerners driving a very loud small car with a dead animal and nude leg stuck to the roof. Starting to wonder who is the tourist attraction.

Next day, we headed 700k’s to Almaty along a great driving road..

Kazakhstan is an amazingly beautiful and fertile land, making for a cooling contrast to the dust and heat of the last few countries.

A Caravaggio landscape of rolling hills of straw gold grass and scrub contrasting against the towering brown folds of snow capped mountains set againt azure blue skies, tainted with the whites and greys of billowing clouds.

It’s amazing the details you can take-in having a wee by the side of the road.

Once in Almaty, we checked into separate rooms. Although we had to spend more, the benefit of a cold uninterrupted toilet seat far out weighed the cost.

We got changed and went out for a beer and steak dinner (we are slow learners). FYI, Medium rare steak in Kazakhstan is just short of smacking the cow’s ass as it walks past the grill. Pretty sure mine put itself on to my plate.

After dinner we decided on a quick walk by a post Communism War Wemorial (that looked suspiciously like Captain America) when we heard the doof doof call of a local club.

We walked into a night club that was meant to be modern and upcoming. It was, in 1996. The tunes were all 90’s classics as was the fashion. The night was warm but was still colder than the beer.

Full of warm beer and raw beef, we headed back to the hotel, each of us grabbing an extra toilet roll from reception and the solace of our cold toilets.

At breakfast, the reality of what was ahead of us hit us like a bus. And then it backed over us for a second go before tooting its horn and flipping us the bird!

We only had three countries of the original 20+ to get through but they are the biggest, involving over 5,000kms of the worse roads yet.

These will make Uzbekistan roads feel like a shiatysu massage and cold glass of coconut water.

This trip has been like going to a smorgasbaord buffet meal, gorging ourselves senseless on the free bread and smaller starters but forgetting that the main meal was still to come.

Except the mains were a whole cow, a whole sheep and 152 chickens! With a free side of “You bloody idiots!!”

Oh well, time to slip on the baggy pregnant pants, tuck in the serviette, bite off more than we can chew and chew like hell!!

Next is the 1,100k drive to Ust-somerhing, where the guide book says….”some roads look liked they have been bombed out”.. starting to wonder where that nearest airport is.


Our overnight hotel in Samarqand was a family run affair and obviously catered to different nationalities.

This was confirmed by the varying colours, shapes and lengths of “body hair” still present on our “fresh linen”.

What I thought was an ant with a back pack now looks very much like a flea…

In return, we left their toilet needing the three P’s – a Plumber, a Painter and a Priest.

We met the rest of the convoy and strolled around the old city.

Some had gate crashed a circumcision party (dont ask) and had a great night dancing with locals. I just hope they didn’t eat the calamari rings.

If Bukhara is the young attractive woman in the bar, Samarqand is the older Auntie with the new boob job who also went for the bleach blonde hair and botox.

Once beautiful and exotic, all the renovation work now masks increasing cracks and makes her look a little bit garish and desperate for compliments…and a rich husband.

Samarqand is like any other tourist 15th century town until…you get to Bibi-Khanym Mosque. WOW!.

This monolithic 15th century mosque is awe inspiring and majestic. Turquoise and gold domes catch your eye as does the dozen of pointed arch ways and heavily mosaiced minurettes.

Aunty may have had the facelift but she’s still charming and fun to be around. Just don’t look too close.

Enjoying the minor celebrity status of the Mongol Rally, people were genuinely interested and several asked to have their photos taken with us.

Either that or we just photo bombed six wedding albums and a funeral!

As the Mongol Mongrels were pushing on in a different direction, we said good by to our Rally Convoy friends. This was a mini Brexit moment as the predominantly UK team left the safety and support of the European group.

I, the token The Aussie, applied for but was denied political asylum!!

Our Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan border crossing was a dirty, smelly and down right rude affair.

Hew had to physically wrestle his way to the single Customs window, as truck drivers used their ample weight and even more ample body odour to challenge rivals for the one snarly bored desk jockey.

If he was any less enthusiastic, you would be checking for a pulse.

The road out of the border was another pot holed, mad driver, road rage affair. With a new twist thrown in just for us….

Donkeys are still a form of cheap transport and haulage in Central Asia. They are also as dumb as a bag of broken bricks and very hard to see at night…at 80kmh!

We took a long, blind bend only to see the panic stricken wide eyes of a trembling donkey only feet from our headlights. I swore I heard “SHREK! SHREK. WE ALL GONNA DIE SHREK!!

Onwards to Kazakhstan and I am trying really hard not to do this in a Borat voice!

If you are reading this I am dead or I have crossed over in to Valhalla.

Saturday night was one if the most insane, intense, improptu and unbelievable things I have ever experienced.

Generations of Rallyer children will hear of this and doubt it really happened… even I’m not sure it did.

Named the Gateway to Hell, Darvaza Crater is a massive gas crater burning uncontrollably in the middle of the Turkmenistan desert.

It’s 4 hours into the Karakum Desert (the hottest desert in Asia – my sweaty thighs concur). The road there is so bad, locals charge you to get you un-bogged and wait like sharks hunting baby seals!

The site is a giant hole in the Earth erupting with flames licking its sides, exploding gas balls and intense enough heat to melt a Kardashian at 200m.

This spectacle was mind blowing to say the least and one of the greatest events I have had the pleasure of enjoying…..until….

Hew (Mongol Mongrels) had somehow cohersed/bribed the local band from the previous nights pub to play a one-off gig at the Crater. They even brought their own generator – no gas powered instruments apparently!

And what a Gig it was. With an exclusive audience of 23 drunk travellers and the back drop a raging fire pit against the pitch black dessert night…GASTONBURY 2019 was born!!

With a full five piece band punching out some great English (And Russian) hits and fuelled on a volatile mix of fatigue, the flaming Hell Pit back drop, €3 BOTTLES of vodka and pure adrenaline, the mentally challenged Rallyers…. WENT OFF LIKES FROGS IN A SOCK!!

Dancing out of control to 4.30am, we watching “disgarded” empty gas canisters explode out of the inferno to the sounds of beating drums, wailing guitar riffs and 80’s keyboard – we really did finish with a bang!

We woke to a stunning sunrise and a warm desert breeze across a pristine untouched landscape. The sounds of rustling wild grass, birds on the wing and the retching of guts in nine different languages!

This life altering event was then balanced out with the worst roads we have experienced EVER.

Roads so rough, violent and dangerous they have a to have Parole Officer sign off one day a week!

We seemed to hit every pot hole and sump smashing crevass. We were swearing and laughing with every grinding crunch… We averaged around 46 curses a kilometre!

The road eventually lost the plot and killed our roof rack! This testament to fine Italian engineering and design, now sits on 4 spare tyres held down with several ratchet straps and blind hope. The roof is now caving in and inside head clearance is now reduced with every bounce as the ratchet straps go through the windows!

Uzbekistan awaits…let’s see what they have to offer coz Turkmenistan you mentally hot and sun stroked crazy fecker, you beat us like we owed you money but I will love you for ever!!

Turkey wasn’t that bad so why was everyone punching five shades of balclava out of each other to leave.

The people in queue (I use term VERY looslely) were pushing like there was a sale on bums and they had two for one vouchers.

After barely surviving Turkish passport control (the stitchers come out in six weeks), the 50m walk to Iran Passport Control was like walking from the pits of hell into a day spa.

Air conditioned. Polite, orderly, friendly and amazingly helpful staff. Charmed already and I’ve only moved 150 feet.

Our fixer (Barry the Briber) got us all sorted and on the road in a quick four hours. Apart from Tony… who almost moved in when they stuffed up his Visa. More leg room for us!

We changed some money and with an exchange rate of €1 to 132,000 Rials, we walked in as Rallyers and walked out as multi millionaires. We filled our car for €3.20 …from empty! And hit the road.

Our guide said he would see us in Tabriz. So much for big brother watching our every move. He obviously had better things to do…or knew how bat shit mental Iranian drivers are!!

Google Maps said it was three hours. Google maps left out it was three hours of the scariest white knuckled, yelp enducing, tourettes causing, pants smearing dodge ’em driving I have ever experienced.

Hidden speed humps reach up to rip out your axle, your spleen and your Soul. Pot holes behave like land mines, trying to remove one whole wheel at a time.

Iranian drivers are the worst, enjoying a perverse game of driving Russian Roulette. They overtake. On BLIND corners. THREE abreast. And…. THEY DONT PULL IN…even when TRUCKS come the other way!! And smile doing it!!

I’ve bought a box of man nappies for tomorrows drive to Tehran because a little wee came out today. More than once.

Traffic is officially the biggest killer in Iran. Nahhhhh….? Really?!

All this is worth it because the scenery is National Geogrpahic beautiful. Green fields of crops and yellow seas of bright sun flowers reach out to stunning red and gold mountain ranges that look more like Mars than Earth. Sorry. Got all David Attenborough/Dulux Paint there but bloody hell it’s pretty.

The people here are some of the most inviting and hospitable hosts I have ever met. Helpful to the point you want to punch them.

So friendly that you find your self saying things like ” sure, stay at my place next time and bring all the family….even Uncle Mustafa”.

And so generous that I once had to say “no, thank you, he is very helpful but my wife already has a husband of her own, you keep yours”

We are off to the Tabriz Grand Bazaar tonight to some enjoy Iranian delights and share a couple of Hukas..that sounded so different in my head….

Like A Japanese tourist bus doing Golden Week we smashed through Europe yesterday.

…. driving by, shooting quick pics out the car window like LA gang bangers….

Five countries in one day. Germany.Austria.Slovenia.Croatia.Serbia. Get here.

I can now order a burger and a beer in nine different languages and pay in six different currencies!

So todays Mission Jim, if you choose to accept it, is to get through Serbia and Bulgaria to the Asian side of Turkey.

You Have 18 hours….

Dun dun dada Dun dun dada Dun dun dada Dun dun dada Dun dun dada Dun dun dada

doo de doo doo de doo doo de doo doo do

And Mongol Mongrels are off!!

Today is the day. Ten years in the dreaming. One year in the planning. Six months in the grovelling and a lifetime of memories to be made.

Or the most short lived, over anticipated, anticlimactic moment since that time with Sharon Manisky at the back of the school disco!

The Poms are driving from London and will get the underwater snorkel train (aka Brexit Express) to France while the token Aussie will catch a flight from Dublin with the plan to rendezvous in Luxembourg to:-

A) enjoy a light supper before turning in for an early night.

B) meet up, give man hugs all round, chuck our bags through the door, grab a quick Lynx Shower-in-a-can and roll into Luxembourg like it’s first night of camp and we just got paid!

C) be so knackered, we will have one beer, call it a night by 11.00 and fall asleep like the middle aged old farts we are.

No matter what, this is it.
Oh This time I know it’s the real thing
I can’t explain what I’m feeling
I’m lost for words….

Sorry…Got all Danni Minogue there….

So eastward and onwards it is!!

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