Two weeks in and my first blog. I never knew a 'holiday' could be so exhausting! Gather some of the others have made postings, but little time now (it's 6am local time - I think 2am in the UK) to read/supplement those, so I'll just do a brief catch-up for family and friends before we set off into the desert later this morning.
I think our initial efforts have now filtered back - departing in a torrential downpour - detour to check the electrics with Frogs Island (how significant that now seems, looking back) - missing the ferry mainly as a result of traffic on the M25 (oh, how we miss that - not!) - frantic search of Dunquerque late at night for our hotel - the 'St Bernard' incident - Wurzburg (good) - Prague (better) - my diversion for Laura's graduation (well done Idiot!), which all went according to plan fortunately, meaning I had 48 hours in the UK before flying into Kiev for a 17 hour sleeper to Mariupol, which was where things all started to go horribly, terribly, wonderfully wrong.. (actually, they weren't that bad - just locked inadvertently into a Spitting Images sketch involving Michael Heseltine telling fairly tales to children! Weird how that happens isn't it - hadn't thought of that one for at least 20 years!).
Anyway, to return to the plot - they didn't arrive! Checked into the Hotel Checka as planned, only to get a text from Linda (Dennif - Hi Linda!) that there had been some problem on the road & I wouldn't see the team until the next day. Killed time in Mariupol, where I think I was the first tourist ever! No postcards on sale, so I wander into an Internet Cafe (another first for me - what a great place!) and was tapping away at an e-mail home when I hear a very familiar voice at the terminal behind me. Turning round I see Nick (Hewer) trying to send his daily blog back to The Telegraph! Transpires he'd remembered where we were staying and checked into the Checka as well, having had a disasterous time at a hotel in Maritpol (?). Back at the hotel I help him 'pimp his ride' (a Renault 4 called Hortense!) by silvering out his rear windows to conceal the kit he has on board for his 10,000 mile expedition to Ulan Bator.
That evening we go out and have an excellent evening at a restaurant called Obana, filled with many lovely young things - plus us two old(ish..) persons! To Nick's obvious chagrin, I am asked to dance! Her name was Ilyana & she was very charming. On our walk back to the hotel Nick & I stopped by a music bar on the seashore for a beer. It was very lively & all quite surreal, somehow..
Next day (19th) Nick moves off and the others arrive an hour later. They've had some adventures/mishaps - see what happens when I'm not around?! I'm sure their blogs coevr this very fully, so I won't go over that again; suffice to say that we no longer have a working fridge! We leave Mariupol in another downpour which stops the trams and leaves the main road like a river. Eventually get through the Russian border, which was an education in itself - 6 hours being checked over by various Border Guards, while armed female soldiers in tight short skirts tottered by on 6" heels! Sleep in Rostov. Next night, arrive in Volgograd after (Dr) Dave - ably assisted by Nurse Berry! - has leapt out to attend to a road accident which occured just in front of us. They see the victim, who was coming to & should be ok, onto the ambulance. As the Russian police drive off they say "THANK YOU VERY MUCH" in perfect English over the megaphone! They are human after all! (Unfortunately, this does not prevent us being stopped at least half a dozen times en route to Volgograd..)
The Hotel Volgograd is a magnificent pile, a leftover from the Tsarist era. The deskstaff speak excellent English - a rarity in Russia, where few seem to speak any English at all (of course, why should they, one might reasonably ask?). The first night we all go out for an excellent meal, at which we are joined by Nick, who is following a similar route to Samarkand. We take a group photo around Hortense. I 'slightly' dent the roof. Ok, it completely caves inwards - well he did ask me to pose on top! Anyway, it pushed out. Mostly.. Berry & I move onto the Russian billiards table where (eventually) I triumph in the 3rd game and decider in our epic battle (unlike it's counterpart in the UK the balls are v large and the pockets very small. In fact it's a miracle anyone ever finishes a game at all!) It is fortunate I win as someone says that at one point I staked The Pips - our home - on it.. Rubbish, of course! End up in the bar at 3 am being brought whisky by a group of Russian Chelsea fans. No common language between us, but we can agree that Man U & Ronaldo are rubbish (sorry, Addie - I had to agree with them!). They refuse to let me pay for any of the drinks, which was fortunate, as I discover I do not have nearly enough..
Next day I do manage to get up at 7.30, but decline the guided tour round Volgograd and after braekfast return to my room for a rest.. Actually, it is an amazing city and well worth a visist on a weekend break - so much to see & the people are so nice. One also notices how calm and well ordered it seems after British towns & cities, albeit much of the recent building work is only half finished & not always done to the standard that we would expect at home.
Nearly up to date! Must rush this bit (which is a shame as there is so much I would like to say, but it is now quarter past sesven and I really need to get ready for breafast as we are to set off early for Kazakstan). Long straight roads form Volgograd to Astrakhan, where we stayed last night. On the way we stopped for lunch unde the shade of a tree in a little village just off the main highway. Next to us was a massive dilapidated Russian Orthodox church, which was closed but clearly being renovated for re-use. It was absolutely wonderful. I wish I could post a picture of it, but unfortunately did not bring the necessary cables. Perhaps one of us may be able to do that.
Astrakhan itself is magical; even though it is still in Russia, spanning the Volga. One really gets the feeling that we have arrived in the East. Many of the people in the streets are clearly of Mongol descent and some of the ancient wooden houses and are beautifully decorated. It must have been wondeful in its heyday, which I guess was mid/late 19 Century? Need to read up about it (as with so much, on my return!)
Well that about brings us up to date. Had to get it down now as we will be setting off into the desert and do not know when we might next have access to such technology (which I cannot say I will greatly miss, though I've enjoyed getting all this down!)
Missing everyone back home very much - look after yourselves.
Love to all..