Day 30 – Astana, Greatest Capital in the world!

After a good nights sleep we set off early to get to the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana. Upon arriving we were instantly struck at how empty it was, until we realised that it was 9am on a Sunday morning. We were then treated to some spectacular monuments in a surprisingly modern city that could rival other cities across the globe.

There was a massive golden globe held up by curved pillars, that is shown on all the notes of Kazakhstan currency. We then strolled along the amazingly straight plaza area, passing beautiful rows of coloured flowers, interesting little figures of the city and sophisticated fountains that we cooled our filthy feet in. Further along we got to the parliament building and needless to say it put our own to shame. All the while we were pretty much the only people there, which only added to the grandeur of the monuments.

A five minute drive further on we reached the “Turka”, a massive glass tent that has lots of expensive shops and, on the top floor, a swimming pool. The initial plan of going swimming disappeared when we discovered it cost over
$50 dollars each and so we settled for some “Pizza Supreme” instead.

At around 2ish we set off towards Pavlodar. The long days drive was only punctuated when the “STOP” light and battery light came on one of the ambulances. You can guess which of the ambulances had the problem. That’s right, Adventure. We ascertained that the alternator had given up life stopping the battery from charging. Not such a big issue except that you get fined by police if your lights aren’t on. The solution was to have Endeavor drive in front to warn of police hiding in bushes, a tactic that seemed to get us through the day without trouble.

Unable to fix the issue at the roadside, we waited until camping at 8pm to try and fix it whilst half the group started on dinner. We’d heard that horse meat was a popular Kazakh delicacy, and where better to try it than its home… so we feasted on an exciting concoction of horse meat and white peppers, which turned out to be pretty delicious!

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Day 29 – Truckin’ through Kazakhstan

We woke up to find the mosquito swarm had planned to ambush us on leaving the tents and we were promptly surrounded. We decided to make a quick escape and left without washing up or eating breakfast with the intention of getting as close to Astana as possible.

The first task of the day was to fill up the vehicles wit diesel, a challenge complicated by our lack of local currency. We visited five petrol stations, waving US dollars at the attendants before we got the thumbs up to fill Adventure and Endevour. Our attendants filling the vehicles were good fun and displayed their expert command of English by telling us all the swear-words they knew. They were also happy to dance along to Katy Perry with us, as it took 20 minutes to fill the vehicles due to the rubbish pumps!

It turns out that in Kazahkstan that it is illegal to drive without your lights on, even during the midday sun. Thirty seconds after leaving the petrol station, we were flagged down by a Kazakh cop with a massive hat who pointed at our lights and demonstrated that they were off. We pretty quickly gathered that they were after a bribe. Using all of our anti-bribery techniques including talking English very quickly, giving them all of the wrong documents, and being reeeeally friendly, we managed to knock down their first request of $50 (incidentally, the only English they seemed to know) to a grand total of $2. Although it was our first cash bribe of the trip, paying $2 didn’t seem like too big a loss.

The rest of the days driving turned out fairly uneventful; with smooth road, a huge 25,991 kazahk tenge shop (thats 120 of your finest british pounds) and the only potential interesting event was Endevour narrowly missing an eagle that chose to cross the road without looking both ways.

We settled down 80km from Astana to camp in the endless Kazahk grasslands to have a well earned beer and some dinner.

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Day 28 – Kazakhstan – Tyre Graveyard

An early wake up at 6 o’clock got us onto the road at half 6 for a long days drive. We set off towards Kazahkstan’s second city Almaty and then headed North to try and reach the Balksah Koli Lake by the evening. Today was day 8 without a shower or any form of a wash, so the team was keen to find out whether we were tanned… or just really dirty.

The majority of the roads were in very good condition and we averaged about 50 mph all day long. Mid-morning we drove past the mountain ranges of Kyrgystan, with the first sighting of snow capped peaks. Later in the day we reached the incredible Central Asian steppe, rolling grassland reaching to the horizon in every direction. The roads in the plains were bit dodgy, with all the heavy lorries creating deep rutts and the ambulances bottomed out a few times, luckily all damage was swiftly repaired!

Coming out of the plains we went along a road for about two hours, where we saw what only can be explained as a long tyre graveyard. Every 50m there was a discarded tyre that we can only assume comes from lorries. Intense bordom lead to the invention of the tyre counting game… we counted over 100!

Eventually at around 8 o’clock we saw the massive lake we’d planned on camping at, we took the first road from the main highway down to the shore to jump in and have a wash. The feeling of clean skin was much appreciated by every team member. We were then accompanied by an awesome red full moon whilst we cooked dinner.

We were unfortunately joined by some unexpected visiters for dinner, who’s idea of a good meal… was us! Swarms of mosquitos drove us into our mossie-proof tents for the night at an early 9 o’clock

Due to travelling North, the daytime temperatures thankfully don’t rise above 35 degrees and now we can actually sleep in our sleeping bags during the night. We are all enjoying a cooler night for a better nights sleep after the scorching temperatures of Romania through to Uzbekistan.

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Day 27 – Uzbekistan – Kazakhstan

When we woke up the temperature had dropped vastly to a chilly 24C which had some of the team contemplating a hoody for the first time in weeks. A short 70km drive got us to the Capital of Uzbekistan, Toshkent.

We took the opportunity of the large city to stock up on provisions. This also included a dash across a main road dodging a torrent of Daewoo Matizes. Uzbekistan has a plague of these little abominations racing through the streets overtaking, undertaking and cramming in every little gap in the traffic. It also turns out most of their drivers are blind and have no qualms in driving full pelt at pedistrians crossing roads.

Having restocked we made our way to the closest border crossing to Kazahkstan. Unfortunatly a lot of the borders crossings were for pedestrians only requiring us to drive almost back to our morning campsite to find a vehicle crossing. On reaching our third border we found that the guards were taking a lunch break which required us to stop just short of the gates. When the guards finally opened the gate to the customs area, Endeavour required it’s usual push start. This was promptly followed by the Immobiliser in Adventure refusing to deactivate, causing us to push the second ambulance through the gates as well, much to the guards’ amusement.

Our time at the border did give us a chance to try and sort some of the problems that were plaguing us. The immobiliser turned out to require a small amount of soldering in the no-mans land between the Uzbek-Kazahk borders, much to our relief.

We watched another Mongol rally team go through customs where the guards insisted on them taking there bags out to take through the Xray scanners. We had little concern of having to make this effort as the state of the ambulances would require a search and rescue team complete with sniffer dogs and climbing ropes to find our personal belongings.

Just as we had thought the guards took one look in the back, laughed and waved us through. They were however fasicinated by Rich’s hair trimmers which they were very insistent on sorting out Neil’s ‘Hair Problem’, much to his dismay.

After passing through successfully after four hours at the border, we spent a further hour driving in Kazahkstan before camping in field next to the main road with some donkeys for company.

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Day 26 – Uzbekistan

We woke up a little earlier than usual as we had a long list of things to get done, formost, repair the shock on Adventure that had been knocking about for the last few days, as well as refuelling the vehicles. This second item surprisingly proved to be the more troublesome to get done. In Uzbekistan, during the havest season, Diesel is restricted to agricultural vehicles only, with the only diesel available being super expensive! On our 11th attempt at a petrol station we managed to find diesel, only to learn that a power cut meant we would have to wait to fill up! Half an hour later we were dieseled up and ready to go!

Before we left for Toshkent, we also scoped out some garages, and after exchanging just $10, we had a fully working shock. The roads in Uzbekistan are pretty poor, and it was slow going to the capital. It did give us time to realise that every car in Uzbekistan is either a Daewoo or a Chevrolet, with hardly any cars from other manufacturers! Even Ladas, which had been a common site since Azerbaijan were hard to find here.

We settled down to camp a little way from Toshkent ready to hit the town, and then the Kazakh border the next day. After dinner we were joined by a couple of local Uzbeks who had come complete with bread and COLD BEER! With no fridge in the ambulances we were accustomed to drinking warm beer, and to drink cold beer was a welcome luxury.

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Day 25 – Uzbekistan

The roads started out really quite nice, and we made excellent progress for the first few hours. Pulled over for some food in Tortkol, just outside Urganch, and after a little searching found a place that would accept our US Dollars. There didn’t appear to be a menu, so we just mimed for some food and sat down, not sure what was going to happen. The spread we were presented with could not have been finer: white peppers stuffed with rice and lamb; a pot of subtly sweet tea; some very hot, tasty and watery soup with two big baskets of bread; a tomato salad with onions and more white peppers; and then, when we were already stuffed, more rice with lamb. The total for this veritable feast? $5 each.

Incredibly satisfied, we got back on the road, expecting to make considerable progress on the good roads. Alas, the quality deteriorated quickly and we were reduced to a crawl for several hours. No matter, we knew there was room in the schedule for this, so we just carried on until it started getting dark, then pulled off onto the endless scrubby plain for another beautiful sunset.

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Day 24 – Turkmenistan – Uzbekistan

After an incredible night spent camping next to the gas craters, we awoke at eight o’clock in the morning to already blazing heat and suddenly realised that we were in the middle of a desert! The mercury was rising rapidly and the sun shone strong, we all began to feel the heat very quickly. With only the 4×4 vehicle of Warren Point, we had to take the 7km trip back to where the ambulances were parked in three trips. This time it was much more fun going across the sand dunes and some even saw some massive lizards en-route.

Once we regrouped back at the ambulances, we repacked, sorted out the water and stale bread and began our trip to the Uzbekistan border. As we set off from the lay-by we’d parked in we had fun bump-starting Endeavour on a sand dune with only a foot of space.

We split with the other teams, intending to set a faster pace through to the border although faster turned out to be relative, with the road quality varying constantly along the 300km journey. Some regions we managed to get up to 50mph, but we averaged around 20-30mph on the poor condition roads. The view in the desert was of a barren sandy landscape, with no visible human presence, with the exception of the ‘road’.

We arrived at the Uzbek border crossing shortly before it closed for the evening and instantly made friends with the military guards on the Turkmenistan side. After a few forms and some conversations about the Olympics, football and Neil’s dreadlocks (a recurring theme it seems), we got through to no-mans land. The Uzbekistan border was even quicker, with the guards rushing us through our forms as they hurried to go home, a quick glance into the ambulances and we were told it was all good. THe guards didn’t understand road tax or insurance, we we went on our way without spending any extra dollar, a pretty big win for the unexpected $400 at the Turkmen entry border.

With light fading fast, we found a nice spot next to the main road, which by British standards is an empty country lane, cooked our usual and delicious pasta, sauce and tuna meal and got to bed nice and early.

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Day 23 – Turkmenistan

After a cramped night with the whole team in the two ambulances, the next morning turned out to be an eventful one… We soon realised that the car park in the centre of Ashgabat that we had decided to camp in along with the Drift Kings and Warren Point boys was for a WW2 memorial. We then set out to complete a much needed supermarket sweep, with no local currency and Turkmenistan completely devoid of ATMs it was always going to be an adventure. Minutes after setting off however, ambulance Adventure was up to its usual tricks; it decided that now would be the best time to destroy its fan belt. Hobbling back to the car park, we switched ambulances and bump started Endeavour before driving around town looking for any kind of auto shop.

Heading out of town turned out to be a good decision and we eventually stumbled upon what appeared to be car city, with almost every shop dedicated to car parts or garages. Two hours and a fair amount of miming later we walked away with four new fan belts and two newly-repaired tyres, with only the lack of a starter motor troubling us now.

We returned to our Ashgabat car park feeling pretty pleased with ourselves to find that our new rally friends had also had an eventful morning. Ashgabat is an incredible city, within the government controlled inner city every structure is coated in bright white marble and gilded edges around doors and windows. Unfortunately, despite its beauty, the Turkmen government decided that no photos are allowed to be taken in the capital, and with a policeman literally on every corner, its not a law that is particular easy to flout. The Drift Kings and Warren Point however decided that the city was too incredible not to photograph…. and were promptly arrested outside the presidential palace. After demanding $500 for their release and keeping them for a couple of hours, the police deleted their photos and released them free of charge – although it turned out harmless it was an alarming reminder of the paranoia and heavy-handed policies of the Turkmen government.

With all the teams now present and ready to leave, we were on track to reach one of the most exciting sights of our trip: the burning gas craters in the garagoom desert. This is not your typical tourist attraction. More than forty years ago, the USSR was drilling for oil and gas in the desert when one of their rigs collapsed, opening up a 100m wide sink-hole and released tonnes of natural gas into the atmosphere. Hoping to burn off the excess gas, some bright Russian spark decided to throw a match… and it has been on fire ever since. We arrived at an unmarked lay-by already populated with other Mongol Rally teams, and for the distinct feeling that the Turkmen government is not particular proud of the craters, with only a tiny dirt track over 7km of sand dune and desert and no sight to indicate its presence.

Fortunately for us Warren Point’s four wheel drive Mitsubishi Shogun was more than a match for the desert track and two hours later all twelve members of the group, some walking and some driven, had arrived at the large fire crater.

It is impossible to describe in words, or even with pictures, the fiery crater known as the ‘Gates of Hell’. Its glow can be seen on the desert horizon for miles around, but as your approach the view changes to something not of this world; with the wispy orange flow of the smoke rising slowly from the crater and the intense heat that greets you as you near, you could be on Venus, or Mercury. The flames themselves emerge from a hundred different places and the lack of barriers or health and safety only increased the feeling that we were experiencing something truly unique.

After spending a few hours taking in the sheer beauty of the crater, we camped nearby with a couple of other teams ready to hit the Uzbek border the next day.

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Day 22 – Turkmenbashi – Ashgabat

No sooner having left the border in Turkmenbashi we ran into the Turkmenistan authorities again. For reasons unknown, we were pulled over by the police. All four of our vehicles (our ambulances, the Drift King’s Transit van and Warren Point’s 4×4) now had to have passports checked in detail, even though we hadn’t done anything wrong!

The majority of the day was made up of some questionable road surfaces but some good process and we made it to Ashgabat, the capital, for the evening. We got a real feeling for the amount of government control in the country here, with the beautiful streets containing more police officers than citizens.

After a while walking around, we found a bar to get some much needed food, and most importantly, a cold beer. Once fully fuelled up we had a cheeky sleep in a car park, the first time we have all managed to sleep in the ambulances comfortably.

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Day 21 – No-Mans-Land

Early morning docking gave us some spectacular views of Turkmenistan. A completely different landscape to the one we left on the East of the Caspian Sea. Big mountains of rock, with no clusters of trees or bushes in sight. The water was a beautiful crystal blue and we were once again greeted by a baking hot sun, although it was thankfully not quite the 50 degree heat we were warned about.

A quick unload left us dazed at the ferry port at Turkmenbashi, with just one thought in our minds in the early hours of the morning. Our visas don’t start until tomorrow. The guards said they could start processing our visas at midnight, so we then set up camp at the ferry port for the next 18 hours, sharing some shade with the Drift Kings and Warren Point. Luckily SDOP brought a massive tarpaulin which we set up from the ambulances to make a massive shaded area where we spent the time cooking with the other teams.

The MadVenture group kindly invited us to come and eat dinner with them, as they have big enough facilities to feed 40+ people. They cooked us the best pasta we have had yet on this trip and we spent the time chatting to everyone, hearing all about their adventures so far.

The long day ended with the processing of both our and the ambulances’ papers. We spent four hours walking from room to room and spending $160 per ambulance on tax and insurance. Once this laborious process was completed at 4am we were all ready for a good sleep in the Turkmenbashi visa office waiting room.

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