Lots of pictures

We’ve taken loads and loads of pictures but our internet connections are often spotty at best so here are a mix of pics that we’ll probably have to explain later 🙂 enjoy! we’ll try to sort things out in a bit…

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Paul and Zoya getting ready to cross into Dunkerque

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Yes, this vodka is called "respect yourself"

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Our bread and cheese diet has done wonders for getting us back into our "skinny" jeans

Obviously how we should have decorated our cars...

Obviously how we should have decorated our cars...

Annie and Paul doing their best parking lot waltzIMGP5463_enfuse-smallIMGP5468_enfuse-smallIMGP5492_enfuse-smallIMGP5587_enfuse-smallIMGP5741_enfuse-small

Annie and Paul doing their best parking lot waltz

The Micra Army

The Micra Army

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Brad's secret identity...pregnant suitcase toting Russian spy

Brad's secret identity...pregnant suitcase toting Russian spy

Final domes of St Petersburg.

Final domes of St Petersburg.

First of several run-ins with Russian police

First of several run-ins with Russian police

Moscow Morning

Moscow Morning

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Hooru Samara, G’Day Kazakhstan!

SAMARA (CAMAPA) After 3 days of following signs for Samara and watching the kilometers to our destination drop, we arrived in the afternoon in good spirits. We took a dip in the inviting Volga, on a beach packed like sardines, with fantastic swimwear in all directions. Our plan for that evening was to find a campsite about 50kms from the border in order to get to cross early the next morning. We tried staying on a sunflower farm, with sunflowers growing for miles, it was the perfect setting for a campsite. However, the owner did not agree with us and we were hurried away from the farm. Tired and unable to find an appropriate place to sleep we kept driving, eventually ending up at the border itself. Everything we had read and heard about the border between Samara in Russia and Uralsk in Kazakhstan indicated that the border was closed at night, but much to our surprise the border was in full operation when we pulled up at midnight. After some discussion and rapid stashing of our money in various (hopefully) inconspicious places (such as bathing suit tops) we started the three hour process of leaving Russia and entering Kazakhstan. To our suprise we were an immediate hit with teh border gaurds. While three guards poured through every bit of our possessions they took time to make fun of them, they were especially amused by the number of sleeping bags we had, our red spearkly cowboy hats (modeled by Annie) and our water guns. They also took the time to tell Paul he was crazy and enjoy some pistachios. After being let through the last Russian gate by a ridiculously cheery, tall and curvey gaurd in heels and camo, we drove the unpaved, unlit road tothe Kazakh side, where Paul and Brad disappeared to pay varuious import and insurance fees while the girls spent some quality time with the border guards and Kyle spent quality time operating on his mangeled toenail. Zoya was was asked for the first and second time if she was Kazakh, which has since become a normal part of our conversations with everyone we meet. The border guards eventualy signed our cars along with a tourbus full of Kazakhs heading in the opposite direction. When the official stuff was finally done, our charm successfully prevented us form havign our cars searched for the second time that night. Weary but in highj spirits over having gotten to Kazakhstan, we drove 20 meters into the country, peed behind a semi-truck and passed out on the side of teh road around 3:30 in the morning. In the morning we made the short trip to uralsk where within an hour we had been stopped at least three times by curious policemen. Three blocks from the hotel in Uralsk we got into our first fender bender when a woman suffering from temporary blindness drove striaght into Cratesky’s right rear wheel and then immediately fled. While most of the team replaced the bumper, Alisha and Kyle secured hotel rooms for teh night with the help of Sevgeny, a cafe owner and translator. At the same time a friendly local caught up with the cars, saying he’d seen the accident, and had alerted teh police who ten minutes later had tracked down the lady who had recovered her vision but had taken to hiding behind her sunglasses. There was much motioning about insurance but we eventually parted ways thoroughly confused. The rest of the afternoon was spent showering, napping in beds (luxury!) and running errands including fixing the cars, which had develoiped rattle, grocery shopping and getting tenge (Kazakh currency), That night we went out for a big dinner of grilled meats and later Kyle and Todd went exploring with some Kazakhs, one of which claimed to be part of the Kazakh equivalent of the FBI. Rubbing elbows with the powerful. the next tmorning we started trying to get ourselves registered in Kazakhstan, a process very different from registering in Russia, as it is free and only has be done once. Naivly we thought his meant it would be simple. After finding the registration office we began an hour-long argument over whether the Uralsk officials were going to register us – that’s what we get for tryign to do administrative things one hour before the close of business hours on Saturday. Their argument was centered around the fact that we had five days to register and were goin g to be in other cities with offices, ours was centered ont he fact that we drive 12 hours a day and didn’t think we would be in another city during office hours, ANd the fact that we were already at the correct office in Uralsk. The leader of their pack, affectioneately nicknamed skunk head for being all-around awful and suffering from a bad dye job eventually relented and in 20 minutes we were out with registraion stamps complete. We exited the office building to find 4 police inspecting our cars. Much to our surprise they did not want to exhort money from us but instead took pictures with us in front of the same same statue Todd and Kyle had been fined for taking a picture of the nigth ebfore and even signed our cars. They then gave us a police escort to help us navigate Saturday market traffic. The lights swirled and sirens wirled and we were minor celebrities for the morning. When we finally got out of Uralsk at about 3pm, we drove for an hour before stopping at a river to take a swim. we joined some boys who were already there and did bank dives into the river and danced to club remixes. Overall a nice reward for a long hour of driving… That night we decided to set up camp in field, this time we were not chased off by angry farmers and instead watched a beautiful sunset while cooking pasta and making plans for teh rest of our time in Kazakhstan.

White Nights, Bright Lights

Arrival time: 5:30am
Location: St. Petersburg, Russia (CAHKT-ПETEPБУPГ, POCCИЯ)
Latitude: 60°00’N
A city of unexpected grandeur. A city infamous for bad streets, pickpockets and some of Russia’s best architecture. From the get go, the former capital of the Russian Empire made no attempt to hide its Soviet pride with a cavalcade of cars parading the communist “hammer & sickle” flag through the streets as some sort of salute to hundreds of Russian sailors that had docked in the city’s port. The rhythmic clapping of the audience in complete unison at the end of a ballet performance in the city centre, as if keeping time to a medium-paced folk song, further hit home their collective communist mindset.
According to our diary entry we rocked into St. Pete’s around 5:30am. The sky was already getting light and the incredible thunderstorm-cross-torrential rainfall we had experienced throughout the 10 hour drive from the Russian border had subsided. One of our roof racks shook loose and dug into the side of the car when a gaping hole in a central road appeared too late to be avoided. Shortly afterwards, the rack was back in place and we were on our way to the hostel where we scored free parking spots – but that was not for another hour and a half. A few of us decided to sacrifice a warm inviting bed for the safety of the cars by sleeping in them until the carpark opened.
A short kip was had by all and by one o’clock that afternoon we had found enough energy to scramble out of the hostel and onto the sprawling, colourful streets, ready for a day of running errands. Firstly, according to all accounts we have come across, one must register their presence in Russia (in either a police station or an official hotel/hostel) within 3 days of arriving and roughly every 3 days thereafter whilst still in the country. We chose the hostel option as a visit to a Russian police station does not sound particularly fun or straightforward – no matter how simple the request. We handed in our passports to reception along with an unavoidable fee and they were handed back with small stamped slips of paper attached.
The other big pending issue was that of car insurance. Our understanding was that we would be required to buy insurance at the border.. Simple. Right? After the fourth and final border checkpoint, it became evident that we had just crossed into Russia uninsured (we think the lovely and helpful lady at the border got a little confused with all of our paperwork that she forgot to ask). Luckily, probably due to the intense rainstorm, we managed to drive an entire evening and early morning into one of Russia’s biggest cities without being pulled over by the police. We had to recify this ASAP as our luck would probably not hold out for too long, and we managed to find reasonable coverage from a local dealer run by two more very helpful and friendly locals, who seemed to be more interested in our trip than selling us their insurance.
Later that evening we took in a ballet performance, dressed in our finest flip-flops. Fittingly, the performance was set in a place close to our hearts, Scotland (our official rally starting point), and showcased an abundance of kilts. Following this a few of us headed out for some dinner and drinks to finish off our first official day in Russia.
Our next day progressed at a much more leisurely pace and we started out by meandering about the city until we found the famous Hermitage, which is situated in an impressively large and ornate teal and white building adorned with gold-plated columns and numerous statues and urns. A quick spot of lunch later and we began our exploration of the three enormous floors of the Hermitage, which houses thousands of pieces of artwork, sculptures and relics from all over the world, including a large section devoted, not surprisingly, to Russian history.
On the walk back towards the hostel, following one of the many canals that weave aimlessly across the city, we came across a small tourist-oriented marketplace – with $100 Russian hats and Obama babushka dolls – which was overshadowed by the colourful and flamboyant Church On Spilled Blood. This is the classic popular image of Russian architecture; spiralled onion-shaped bulbs resting atop vibrant, intricately decorated church spires. A wonderful sight, indeed.
The evening came and following a communal homecooked pasta dinner (true backpacker style), some rearranging of our gear and an internet session, we hit the sack ready for the big 700km drive south to the country’s capital, Moscow!

Of course there was a plague of locusts…

We’ve jumped another time zone, kids and we just braved about 200km of Kazakh supposed “good” roads. And by “good” roads, we mean dodging craters that could swallow our car and dust storms that have given us a form of black lung.

After our first night of camping outside of Uralsk, we made it to Aktobe for a brief water refill and trip around the “Hypermarket” which would have been heaven if it had had a bathroom. We stocked up on water and dish soap, but left the “Respect Yourself” vodka on the shelf (see photo in the Lots of Pictures post).

We opted for a picnic lunch just off the highway and when left with 5 hard boiled eggs from the day before that were smelling less than fresh, someone challenged Paul to the first 2009 Mongol Rally Food Wars. Can he really eat 5 hard boiled eggs in less than a minute? Stay tuned for the video to see his splendid finish (repeated later that night with a mystery fish salad made with the best of intentions).

Little did we know that after the lovely stretch of highway directly in front of us that allowed us to travel at 60mph, it would take us more than 3 hours to drive about 35 miles. We met another rally team at a crossroads who had been stuck for a few days due to a clogged fan motor and while we gave our cars a little rest, they joined us for some of the tastiest lunch we’ve had so far. Two other teams also poked their heads in for a bite and spoke of caravaning, but we realized that as one was a 4×4 and the other was a driver of a sedan who didn’t care about bottoming out at every bump, our caravan would only last a few minutes.

We’ve spent the better part of yesterday and today navigating giant potholes and figuring out how to bridge ditches. The Micra army is now covered in a layer of silty dust, perfect for drawing various amusing pictures on the back windows of our cars. Racing at a breakneck speed of 20mph, the Micra army conquered the dirt roads, stopped for camel and horse crossings, and definitely shouted a few “Woohoo!”s when we made it thru some of the more treacherous stretches. We killed several birds in our cars’ grills, a couple of desert rodents, and when the swarms of locusts (yes, plural swarms) were flying around, we claimed a number of locust lives as well. Emerging from the dirt and back onto semi-paved roads, Annie also scored a cow skull just outside of the city limits, complete with horns, which will soon decorate the hood of one of our cars!

The gates of Aralsk finally greeted us around 8pm and most of us agreed that the Bradt Kazakhstan guide does not describe this town appropriately. Rather than “grim…dim…pale…” as Paul Brummell describes, we choose to describe Aral as “rustic…quaint…even charming, with a touch of authenticity and realness.” The Pied Piper-esque gaggle of kid bandits running after our cars shouting “Hello!” brought smiles to all of our faces after a long day of driving. The team inhaled some meat and chicken at a little restaurant with a terrace and then descended upon Aral Hotel’s finest deluxe rooms for AC, showers and an impromptu dance party. Nevermind that the hot water didn’t actually work, there was no water pressure, and when we inquired at the front desk about it, the sign language conversation mostly resulted in the understanding that someone, far away, did not do their job of putting water in the water tank that feeds the pipes that go to the town that then go to the hotel which go to our shower. We mobilized in the morning to get ready to find a dry seabed with washed up ships in it and found another team roaming the steets of Aralsk about to do the same (you can check them out at wwww.thegoodthebadthemongol.com) but they soon learned of our turtle herd mentality and decided to continue on their way. Turns out the ship graveyard is pretty far away and the roads are not driveable at speeds higher than 10-15mph so we turned around after an hr or so and made our way back to Aralsk for gas where we bumped into a couple of other rally teams (www.themongoliamachine.co.uk).

We leave you now to head to Kyzylorda in southern central Kazakhstan and dodge a few more animal traffic jams. The Micra army has narrowly escaped death by grazing cows and successfully emerged from the herd of goats who chose to cross a highway bridge with us.

Blog updates coming, we swear!

We’ve written them, but they’re stuck on our laptops and our most valiant efforts to upload them last night failed when the laptop battery died and the cord was stuck in the car parked in someone’s driveway. We’re heading out of Aralsk, Kazakhstan today and making our way thru Kazakhstan. Keep checking – pictures and videos and adventures coming soon!

Welcome to Kazakhstan!

We’ve made it to Kazakhstan! Had an eventful morning so we’re off to catch up on sleep and food…will update you on our Kazakh adventures thus far soon…

Heading towards Samara

Out of the tent at 5 am, on the road at 5:30. Silver mileage: 68580. We were pulled over twice but only had to pay the bribe once and it was only 500 rubles this time, mostly because of Alisha’s charm. “Good-bye my baby” were his parting words. We got stuck in the sand by the side of the road (which doesn’t bode well for Kazakhstan and Mongolia) but the good news is our cars are so small they are pretty easy to push out of harms way. We had lunch by a dilapidated church in some nameless town off the M5 between Moscow and Samara where we were besieged by a hoard of teenage boys on bikes. They were at first too cool for pistachios but soon we lured them in and by the end we were discussing our route in broken Ruske and for sure they were making us say obscene things in Russian. Pretty sure we joined the Russian version of the Pen15 club (“a sphincter says what” in Russian….?)

Because we can learn from our mistakes we pulled off the road much earlier and found a beautiful campsite in a meadow that was sufficiently out of sight and off the main road. (and got our first taste of off roading in our little cars). The bugs were still huge and in attack mode but we remained unmolested for the most part for the evening.

The Micra fleet is holding up well although not without some afflictions. Happy Pallatsky lost a bumper (we managed to tie it back on) and seems to be invested with bees, Cratesky smells of rotten vegetables and sour milk, and Senior is being forced to carry a larger and larger load but is doing well with his mustachioed face-lift.