Recently by Deborah

I'm Mandi - Fly me!

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What's that all about? Well, firstly we're in the bustling town of Mandi, just below the Kullu valley, where we've been staying in Manali after having to return the same way from Spiti due to the landslides mentioned by Steve in his last. (By the way, when he said we had problems getting back down the Rohtang Pass, he didn't mentioned the military style operation,headed by Dave, that was required to get us past the 2 lanes of stationary oncoming lorries blocking our way, (on what is only just a 2 way road at the best of times!) due to a blockage caused by a steepbit of muddy roadwhich the overladen lorries were getting stuck on. Using handsets and willpower (and by simply standing in their way), Dave stunned the oncoming lorry diveres into submission and wove us a path past the jam - only took 2 hours. We were greeted like old friends at the Mayflower hotel - they have even set out all our room keys in anticipation, even though we hadn't actually told them we were coming back. So a comfortable night and another chance for fabulous trout at Johnsons cafe-bar (and some interesting and very acceptable Indian red wine)and then we had a day sightseeing at Nagar Fort and the Roerech Gallery. David and Mary, if you read this, it's all a bit deja vu. The only other time I've ever been to India, we stayed in Daramashala (which we visited this time for about 1 hour due to time contraints), Manali (which has grown enormously and has better hotels than it did) stayed at Nagar Fort (which has now been restored to within an inch of its life and really best for its view and not much else, but does a good cup of tea,) visited the Roerech Gallery - (which was far better than I remembered but strangely made no reference to Theosophy - which I'm sure it did last time) and stopped in Mandi for lunch at the Raj Mahal- an old Mahararah's palace, very much falling apart but worth seeing. Well, guess where we stayed last night! Yes, restored (to a degree!) full of character and numerous muskets and strange paintings, it is now worth staying at. The food last night was excellent - I think the best so far in India and the place a haven of tranquillity in the noisy and noisome mess that is Mandi - can't say I'd recommend Mandi for anything else!

So today we move on to Shimla and there the female contingent of the party are left to make their way to delhi to get flights home (that includes me) and the chaps continue through Rajistan to Mumbai and the macho delights of getting the vehicles through customs.

 

Sooo looking forward to seeing my family - the hardest part of this trip - in fact the only real hard part has been missing them. They will have to come with me next time!

 

And happy birthday to my lovely Jo who is 15 tomorrow!)

 


Lat: 31.712 Long: 76.933

On Top of the World

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Kashgar - a bustling Chinses city full of minivans and electric scooters and very busy - a bit of a shock after Kyrgistan pastoral scenes. But fun for a dya.
 
Our liaison officer, Abdul, a mild and pleasant Uygur (they make up 15% of the popultation in the Uygur region, Kyrgis - 80% and chinese only 5%) had the unenviable task of trying to keep track of 8 headstrong and differently minded people as he gave us a tour of the bazaars and old town of Kashgar. 'Herding cats' is I think the phrase. However, he accomplished it with real gentleness and politeness and I think even enjoyed the experience. During the course of the day, more carpets/rugs were purchased, along with other interesting items because, after all, we had just had 5 days of genuine deprivation in Kyrgistan where the most exciting purchase was some bottles of beer and a swiss roll.

We had our tastebuds re-awakened be authentic and excellent chinese food on several occasions - my stomach didn't know what to do with all the fresh vegetables - after weeks where the speciality was shashlik (kebabs) when they had any, that is, it was wonderful.
 
Our second night we ate in a restaurant in the former British embassy - now a hotel, but not as nice as the one we stayed in - in the old part, which is over the top Edwardian splendour and was where Shipton - mountaineers may know - lived and worked in between trips up mountains.
 
Then off to the border vis the start of the Karakorum highway.
 
On the chinese side, the highway runs through a flat plain bordered by high mountains. There is pastureland all around and all the way along, groups of yurts and families pasturing their animals, all Kyrkis. We stopped at Kara Kol Lake, about halfway to the border town, for lunch and had fresh baked nan, clotted cream and salt tea in the house of a local family, watching the mother sew one of the traditional felt rugs.
 
Our last night was in Tashgurgan, where we were to leave Abdul once he had seen us through the customs formalities. At dinner, he produced 2 bottles of Tibetan wine, which he had purchased for us, because he knew we were interested in trying anything local and he had asked a friend to recommend something - we were really touched. The wine, which Roger intends to introduce to the Wine Society, proclaimed itself to be 'Tibetan Barley Ice wine" and was very interesting and very drinkable.
 
Chinese customs wasn't too bad - Abdul smoothed it all through, though there were mutterings about us having to stay with a bus because of border troubles, which in the end came to nothing - though they again checked us all with a machine to see if we were harbouring any deadly diseases, or lice!
 
Then on with the road and wound our way gently up, through some check points and suddenly we were at the top of the pass and saying hello to some well spoken Pakistani border police. And no-one down with altitude sickness and no vehicle over heated or with brakes failure.
 
Then the descent and how amazingly different on the other side. On the chinese side, the mountains remained still at a polite and awesome distance right to the top. Once over the pass, they crowded in and we were in precipitous gorges, water roaring by, the very image of the Karakoram. The road surface deteriorated immediately and though I'm sure this is partly due to chinese efficiency and industry, it has to be said they have the easier job. This side rock falls affect the road all the way down and they have teams constantly working to clear them Apparently a 2 year project to upgrade the road is due to start soon, bringing in 10,000 chinese workers.
 
Through Pakistan corder control and customs with the help of Ali, a rep from Walji's, the company HK has links with here - including a medical from to complete confirming we don't have AIDS, bird flu, SARS etc and not suffering from a headache, cough, snivels (!) etc. The got to Karimabad, a town perched on the side of the valley, with green terraces reaching down to the thundering river below and views of snow capped peaks.
 
Today, one way and another we've all been to see the 13th century Hunza fort at the top of the town - some of you will no doubt be getting a postcard of it - it forms part of the entrance ticket. The guide who took me round with Sally, Dave and Ann-Clare was brilliant - an economics student in his summer vacation doing the job for love of it, a local guy, with an absolute passion for the area and its development. I learned more about Pakistan in an hour than I've ever known.
 
After that, strolling around town, into the surrounding fields and - yes, I'm afraid. yet more carpet buying - couldn't possibly say who or what, but there had better not be too many more buying opportunities, or I'll have to get a bank loan.
 
We continue on down tomorrow, passing by Gilgit - we haven't made a decision about stopping there yet - apparently there has been trouble at times and it's not recommended. I wouldn't mind a look just to say I've been there - it was a major name in 'The Great Game'. but we'll see.
 

Lat: 36.307 Long: 74.632

So long Uzbekistan and thanks for all the melon

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We left Uzbekistan last wednesday with many fond memories of the openess and generosity of the people. I've never been anywhere where I have been made to feel so welcome. Time after after time people came up to us or hooted or waved to greet us. As we went through the mountains towards the Kygistan border, we were passed time and again by cars full of beaming Uzbeks, almost shouting with joy to see us. Then, they started wanting to give us things - as we were driving down the mountain passes - and insisted - first a string of nuts and fruit - then an Uzbek hat a, for which we gave them a double decker bus rubber from London and then, to our amazement - a melon - all handed through the window between cars as we sped side by side down the road. They roared with laughter as we accepted the gifts - we passed back some cigarettes - and accompnaied us this way down into the valley.
 
The following day, setting off for the border, we experienced more of this behaviour - this time it was bunches of grapes. Then, stopping for a late breakfast at a roadside chai stall, the locals gathered round us, insisting on us taking photos of them with us, as excited as anything that we were English. Then one of them insisted that we go to his house across the way, meet his family and be treated to more melon as well as grapes plucked from their own vine before our very eyes. The mother then insisted on baking us bread before we could go - the local bread is flat and delicious like nan bread. They brought all the family in to have photos with us and even the babushka made an appearacne, which I think is the ultimate honour. She had her photo taken too. Then, they packed up all the leftover fruit and bread for us to take with us. What amazing people - the impression only slightly spoilt by a set of very officious border guards who lost it with us because the border guards where we entered Uzbekistan hadn't stamped our customs forms or done any for the vehicles.
 
Still, they let us out and we got to Osh and stayed at one of the  nicest places we've yet been to - the Tes Guesthouse. The previous night in Uzbekistan (can't remember the name of the town - began with K) we'd had the worst hotel of the trip or possibly ever - even the most experienced travellers amongst us were horrified, so the Tes Guest house felt like we'd reached heaven.
 
Then off over the mountains towards Sarey Tash the following day.
 
Kyrgistan is so different to Uzbekistan - more varied countryside - mountainous, cooler and much poorer. We passed all the things you think you'll never see - Yurts, Kyrgis horsemen in tall felt hatts and boots, herds of Zows - all much more wry and less smiling than in Uzbekistan.
 
At Sarey Tash, instead of camping we stayed at the sarey Tash geust house - a traditional building with mattresses on the floors and where they took a goat off for slaughter to make our supper - goat soup followed by goat stew and then (you've guessed it -) melon.
 
I should mention that both vehicles have continued to have hiccups - the green had a brake failure on the way to Sarey Tash - we think it was due to not using the gearing properly and is OK; the silver continues to overheat on the ups. this may prove interesting on the Karakorum highway - if we ever get there.

So, last Friday, we got to the border to enter China to be told that all border into China were closed till Monday due to the local problems and the Olympics. Whatever the logic, we found ourselves having to stop in the nearest village for three days - considering quite justifiably that the border 'hotel' was going to be worse than the one in Uzbekistan. We ended up 'renting' a local house for the duration, which was a carbon copy of the guest house at Sarey Tash, though this time with the owners popping back to look at us every few minutes, along with most of the village.
 
Three days of doing almost nothing except wash our clothes in the stream and we set off to tackle the border. Well, they've let us in and we have our very nice liaison officer, Abdul, and we're staying in the best hotel in town, we've had some delicious chinese food - which makes a great change - and now we are told that due to the restrictions they are bringing in daily, sue to the difficulties we (a) can't camp tomorrow night as planned but must be in a town and in a hotel an d(b) we can't travel on the Karakorum Highwway without a special traveller's permit - announced as necessary today - which we must now try to obtain. So, who knows when we'll move on and to where. The International Hotel is feeling something of a guilded cage!


Lat: 39.466 Long: 75.974

Stairway to heaven.... (partially carpeted)

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Carpets took up a substantial part of the rest of our stay in Bukhara - 3 bought so far and a few others mused over. Then set off across more desert followed by a green plain between rocky hills as we neared Samarkand. The plain was hazy with sand being blown across - the hills barely distinguishable. And then reached the dizzy heights of Samarkand - all of 800 feet but already cooler (tho still extremely hot). The Green didn't like the dust again and when we arrived, Steve was anxious to find a mechanic who could do a service and change the oil filters. Looks like that's been achieved today. The car seat covers have even been washed ready for the next leg.

 

Samarkand is where the famous Stairway to Heaven is to be found - linking a number of beautiful mauseleums dating from 13th century onwards and dedicated to members of the Timur dynasty. Timur the Lame, or Tamberlane as we know him, was responsible for much of what was started here  and his successors kept on adding to it. There is too much to see in even 2 days but you get a good feel for the wealth and power that he must have commanded. The monuments are to be found right across the city, which has wide leafy avenues joined by twisty narrow lanes. The monuments themselves ahve been heavily restored and some restoration is still going on. Roger came in the Nineties and says the difference is enormous. Hard to say if it's a good or bd thing, although the museum at the Registan, a centre of 3 madrassahs in the centre, has photos of the buildings from the 19th an early 20th century, when they were being left to rot. The reconstruction has been done at an incredible pace and the buildings are magnificent. In one or two places a little of the decoration has been left as it was to compare. Whilst authenticity is great, there is little doubt that the cit wouldn't aattract the level of tourism it does if they hadn't reconstructed. And it must give a pretty good idea of what the place was like when the Timur empire was in full swing.

It's been really good to have these last 7 days staying in only 3 places. We have all needed to rest - I think everyone has had a tummy bug now and some are still recovering. I wouldn't fancy the next part of the journey without the rest beforehand.

We have seen more tourists here than anywhere and also lots of Mongolian Rally vehicles. One group, with Explore, we encountered at the roadside cafe in the desert and they are stayng in our hotel.But even with so many tourists, the money changing doesn't get quicker tho there are more places to change cash for suma, the local currency. If you want to change travellers cheques, it's the National Bank of Uzbekistan and their many forms (which differ from branch to branch). You can also change dollar cheques for Suma at the President Hotel. The presidnet hotel (which we are NOT staying at) is apparently owned by the president's 2 daughters. along with the biggests hotels in Khiva and Bukhara (which funnily enough we didn't stay in,either) and Maro Polo Travel Company. Hmm, wonder why there is less and less tourist hassle by the police, these days?.....

Off for a swim in our hotel's pool (a roomy oval of 5m x 4m - but lovely and cool!)

 

See you in Kashgar I hope)


Lat: 39.655 Long: 66.976

The Mysteries of the East

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Well, it seems a lifetime away that we were in Astrakan and now we're in Bukhara and seeing the actual hats sold everywhere in the street - thick woolly Russian things - a bit hot for here where it's about 44 in the shade.

Since last blog nine dasy ago we've been through Kazakstan - what an interesting place to see now - clearly being devolped with its oil riches - we've been into what look like shanty towns from the Giold Rush into sophisticated cities. The desert is shrubby and flat and the horizen stretches for miles - camping off the road on three nights, we had trouble getting out of sight without going at least 1km away from the road.

Campning has been compulsory, by the way, in many places, because of the sheer distance between towns and a lack of hotels. The food on offer in cafes was pretty awful - fried eggs are usually the best choice. But the people friendly and helpful . Lots of mongolian features now creeping in amongst the more 'Borat' styles.

Then after 3 nights, we got into Uzbekistan. This is the part of the journey that I have been looking forward to most, but apprehensively, because we were told that Uzbekistan is very difficult to travel through, that getting money is difficult and that the police stop you all the time and try to get bribes out of you if you're foreign.

Well, the money, it has to be said is surprising - mainly because there are 26,000 suma to the pound and it comes in denominations of 1000 notes and under! This results in everyone carrying huge wads of notes and being able to count them amazingly quickly. From our point of view the only hassle is changing travellers cheques (and then wondering how we can possibly haul the cash around). Changing cash, especially dollars is very easy - you can wander into a bazar or go to the hotel desk - pretty much the same exchange rate. Aldo here in Bukhara and yesterday in Khiva, they would take dollars in the shops.

As for the police, save for the first one we encountered on entering the country (who tried it on with Dave and me for $100 and threatened to send me back to England, as which we laughed heartily - he settled for a key ring fro his son) they have all been helpful and charing - even the one who stopped Roger for speeding yesterday (his 2nd speeding offence and thirds overall offence - we're considering taking his international driving licence off him if he does it again - 12 points!) - who fined hin 10,000 suma and then gave it back to him with a laugh. Our border croding was the fastest yet and they didn't even look in the vehicles, though they were making the locals emepy out everything. We met a French guy motor cycling back from Pakistan to France who said he thought they had been told to be nice to tourists, and maybe it's right - we'll see - five more days to go.

Our first day we went to see Muynaq, a town which used to be a fishing port by the Aral sea - it's now 150 km away because the sea has shrunk so - there is a memorial and a row of rusting boats below it to bear witness to what's gone. It's unclear whether the cause is the irrigation needed for the cotton industry imposed by the USSR or global warming or a more natural phenomenon, but it's a very tragic and poignant place to go. And some  local men pumped water for us from their well to fill our reserves, because we didn't understand how to use it, and were clearly very happy to help us.

 

We have had small children waving at us for some days everywhre we go, certainly through Kazakstan and Uzbekistan - they just love seeing the vehicles go by.

Stayed in Nukus, a town on the way towards Khiva which has a fantastic art museum. A local artist fouind and collected dissident soviet art for about 40 years and kept it hidden to preserve it - there are about 70,000 paintings and ceramics and many of the artists ended up in the gulags because of it. The museum itself has been built recently and rotates the exhibition in an attempt to display it. Their numbers more than doubled when we turned up.

Had an intersting meal in a local restaurant the night we got there, where a drunk but very friendly Uzbek called Victor embarrassed his wife and children by insisting we had a photo taken with them and called Sally 'Margaret Thatcher' and another man came up to Dave thinking he was Joe Cocker, so now we all have the image of Joe Cocker being married to Margaret Thatcher.

Got to Khiva very late to a pre-booked hotal of almost morrocan style. The plumbing wasn't up to much but it has AC, unlike the one in Nukus where we all got bitten to death by mossies. But the ladies running it were very sweet and welcoming.

 

A day in Khiva seeing the most beautiful architecture in the old city. It was fairly quiet and very little hassle - most tourists they get seem to be French and we met some Germans. We had some engine trouble with the Green vehicle which seems mostly to be caused by dust and it was fixed in the next town for about six quid.  

And then another drive through more hilly desert yesterday to Bukhara, ending in a luch and verdant plain and fields of cotton as we arrived. This hotel is spanking new and greeted us with local wine and nibbles. The plumbing is fantastic, the breakfast something other than fried eggs and the city is lovely, tho more commercial than Khiva.

We have one more day here and then to Samarkand. Not sure whether to buy a carpet or not....


Lat: 39.772 Long: 64.419

Astrakhan

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We just got into Astrakhan, which is full of old buildings made of wood, highly decorated - many falling apart, but some restoration going on. It has a huge church in the middle high up within a walled centre, all of which is being restored. The feel is very different from anywhere we've been through -and it's very, very hot.

During the drive from Volgograd, the scenery changed and became much flatter and prairie-like. I don't think it's the actual steppes, but close to it. The journey followed the Volga all the way here, although most of the time we couldn't see it - just an edge of green shrub to our left and then an occasional glimpse of where it cuts down through the earth.
Coming out of Volgograd, we passed miles of rotting factories - it's as if they just throw them away when they don't want them - too much space, perhaps.

From today we will be in Kazakstan and possibly camping for several night, so it will be much less pleasant - no chance for a cool shower at the end of the day and certainly no fridge to get cold drinks out of. (And no email or blogging opportunities either)


Lat: 46.347 Long: 48.026

Well, amazingly and with an enormous amount of energy, some very late night driving, a bit of luck and some extraordinary kindness from people allong the way (mostly Ukrainian) we are in Volgograd. It's Monday evening, sitting in a smart cafe that lets you use the internet for the price of a cup of tea, surrounded by very sophisticated Russians, who obviously thinkw we're a bit strange and certainly not fashion-conscious.

It's been rather a race against time since Prague. Weleft Prague and Jeremy in the rain a week ago yesterday (Jeremy returning to Uk to give his daughter a massive surprise by turning up at her graduation ceremony, which she didn't know he's planned) Drove on through(mostly) heavy rain, into Solvakia, where the rain let up for a while and we were able to get to our campsite. As we set up, the heavens opened again and instead of cooking a meal, we retreated to a restuarant (having found the one ATM in town to pay for it).

After a wet night, we packed up in the almost dry and then Dave found that the fridge had stopped working (panic for me because Dave and I both have drugs that need to be kept cool, though in fact there are smaller coolers which work when the cars are going and hotels tend to have fridges, but it makes it a pain to have to keep remembering to move them). In addition, one of the equipment drawers got stuck and we found ourselves involved in a group exercise which would have been worthy of the finest management training course to extract what was wedged in it! (thinking of patenting the idea before the others do)

In the next big town, we spotted a Toyota garage and tipped up to ask them if they could sus out what was wrong with the electrics (the fridge runs off the 2nd battery, which was the problem that should have been sorted by Frogs Island on the day we left) About 5 hours later (as they were locking up to go home) it transpired that they could sort a little of it - which fixed th headlight which hadn't been working properly since France) but it was the additional special dual linking system, the name of which escapes me, but which was nothing to do with Toyota, and which was put in to run all the 2nd battery equipment, that wasn't working, so they couldn't fix it. They charged us for an hour's work, even though they'd been at it for hours (about 35 quid!)

We were expecting to camp  but being much later that intended, couldn't find a site in the time before dark, so we made camp next to a tennis court by the side of the road (the people just leaving seemed to think it would be alright.) and had a the wettest night to date (did I say it was raining)

 

Got up and packed up herredly the next morning, sopping tents and all, and drove toward the border to go into Poland (why not knock off another country, we thought)and then into Ukraine, which took 5 hours of queuing at the border for no reason, except that's what you have to do. Ukraine is noticibly poorer that even Poland and the roads were really ropey. Almost no dual carriageway and huge trucks belching black fumes, so, with that and the border, we got to Lviv and the lovely Lions Castle Hotel ay 8.45 local time. There we had huge rooms (some even had suites) and tried to get dinner out of Olga, the waitressin the restaurant. A wonderful middle aged lady, who went to chek on almost everything we asked for and came back to say that she was 'Sooo sorry!' each time they didn't have it, whilst drawing her eyebrows togther and pursing her lips, and beating her chest in contrition to demonstrate how very sorry she really was not to have it. We suspect that the food we actually got was  hastily bought from the shop down the road, as we ordered it.

Very frustratingly, because we got there so late and because we knew the driving time estimates were well out, we had no chance to see Lviv, so a return visit will be needed.

We drove hard all the next day and, after much searching found our next hotel in Uman at 8.45 only to be told they'd let our rooms, so the guys had to share a triple and Sally, Dave, Ann-Clare and I palyed happy families in a family suite. We headed out to find a cafe and on entering the nearest, were told they hadn't room - it looked like a private part, but before we could leave, Steve and Roger started maing eyes at three middle aged Ukrainian women, who fell for their charm and made the waiter set up a table for us. So we ordered food and then the disco started  and the dais ladies grabbed the men and wouldn't take no for an answer (though judging by the swiftness of the response, 'no' wasn't on the agenda!) But not to discriminate, they all started getting us to dance and then gave us local vodka flavoured with honey and chilli and kept filling up the glasses. Some of the group regretted their enthusiasm for the vodka the following day (thought I wasn't one of them) but they certainly didn't regret the dancing with lovely Ira, Leda and Natali and we have the photos to prove it. (not posted yet - haven't worked that bit out yet - sooo sorry.)

 

Got off early the next day, and hit the road, only to get just past Youzhniukrainsk (where? you say - that wasn't on the itinerary - well look out for it when the next Chernobyl happens - it's the spit and such a loevly view I had from my balcony) for the silver vehicle to break down.

Well, the bonnet goes up and within a minute, 2 Yukrainian guys - one looking like a cross between the Incredible Hulk and my client Gary McDonnell(and turning out to be just as lovely) and the other only less wise, not shorter) came up and started taking bits of the engine apart. After 3 hours (5pm) they felt they were doing no good and we faced the possibility of being towed to Odessa (150km away and off our route) to find aToyata garage. But these guys, just made a phone call, one disappeared and shortyly returned with an off-roading monster and towed us back toYouzhniukrainsk, through tiny alleys, to what looked like arow of sheds where a mechanic came out, hummed and hah-ed, looked puzzled and then said we should return at 8am so he could give an update. Sacha and Garik, our saviours, took us to the only hotel in town, via a friend who spoke perfect english who they'd called up just to meet us in the street for five minutes to ensure we understood what was going on.

 

I should mention that it was Dave's birthday, so we tried out all the local wines at the hotel (brand spaning new, next to the power station, for the Americans, I guess) and then two guys at the next table sent over a bottle of the local vodka (same as last night) so Steve and Roger felt duty bound to econsume it with them, to enable to the rest of us to get an early night - such sacrifice - we heard tales of arm-wrestling and other male bonding activites the next morning, though no grunts reached my room.

The next morning (Saturday - when we were anticipating having to spend at least another night there) Sacha and Garik turned up to say it was all fixed. The mechanic had worked till midnight to diagnose the probem, taken off the engine head (don't ask me) and finally found it was yet another electrical problem, this time realted to the alarm system. The whole bill was $300 and S and G wouldn't accept anything as a thank you except some of our trinkets - it turned out they are off-roaders and there is a fraternity which helps each other out and there is no way they would profit from us. They loved our vehicles and thought we were proper off-roaders and the mere amateurs that we in fact are. So a million thanks to you. Sacha and Garik, you wonderfull people. (David - the Ukey boys may not be as svelt as on Eurobeat, but they are absolute winners with us!)

Well, we drove like mad towards Mariupol where we needed to pick up Jeremy, and where a really nice hotel was booked, but only made it to Melitapol - sounds similar, but nothing like it. Took rooms in an old soviet style concrete and rotting hotel - really not very nice - some peole had cockroaches - for want of anything else, had a good meal round the corner, amongst the Friday night families and youth of Melitapol and set off at 7am the next morning.

Got to Mariupol in torrential rain, with flooding and people wading through (had i mentioned it was raining?) found Jeremy, ogled the nice hotel and made for the Russian border.

Of course, the Russians have to do everything bigger that the Ukrainians, so the crossing to 6 hours. A number of different officials asked us to fill in forms, looked in the bacj and n the drawers, and asked us what was in the blue barrels. during that time. Thanks to another kind and helpful Ukrainian lady who spoke perfect English, and who spent an hour with Steve in a little room (with the customs officer, in case you're wondering) we got through without any bribes at all.

In great jubilation we hit the Russian roads, which are much better that the Ukrainian ones (sorry, Ukraine, but it's true) and got to Roscoff in the dark. Steppes Travel, who had booked the hotel, hadn't thought it necessary to provide a map, so between 11pm and midnight was spent searching the city.


Yesterday, we got off to a good start and got to Volgograd in very good time and without getting lost. 

We, or at least Dave. Roger and Steve. had the chance to pay back a little of the generosity we received in Ukraine as we left Rostoff. On the road out, we passed a lorry and a police car, then saw a smashed motor scooter and a man lying down. We pulled up and Dr Dave grabbed his emergency kit and raced off, followed by Roger and Steve to assist. Between them they stabilised the guy, who was hadly injured, until the ambulance arrived and saw him in. As the police drew away a heavily accented voice came over their loudspeaker -'Zank you very much!

And what a great pace this city is. The hotel was built in 1890, mostly destroyed during the battle of Stalingrad, and has been restored. Huge high ceilings, unsmiling concierged on each floor and wierd toilet-cum-shower rooms, but comfortable.

Las night we met up with a friend of Jeremy's who he'd bumped into in Mariupol, who is doing the Mongolian Rally alone in a 4CV - see, there are people madder than us. His name is Nick (Heyer - not sure) and he is one of Alan Sugar's sidekicks on "The Apprentice" (apparently - I don't watch it). He joined us for dinner and then a drink and I went to bed about 2am, leaving Jeremy, Steve and Nick in the Billiards room (yes, there's a billiards room) drinking  - what else - vodka. Some sore heads today (not mine).

Nick went off this morning and we have at last had a rest day and chance to see round. There is the most incredible memorial to the Russian dead of the Battle of Stalingrad here and if that's all I see of note in Russia, that will be enough.

And at last, an internet cafe to pick up emails and get this blog done. I'm sooo happy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Hard to believe we're here and I've not only found a cyber cafe but I've read my emails, replied to some and now I'm blogging away!

What a send off - England graced us with its very worst weather - we almost drowned before leaving the car park at HK. That's why we all look so wet and shiny on the photos.

We got away about 11.30, with only a few minor last minute hitches, and then spent two hours at Frogs Island Garage, outside Newbury, getting the vehicle batteries checked. They did some changes and checks and it was worth it, although it meant that with the torrential rain and an accident on the M25, we missed the ferry. Steve mentioned at that point that there was a sweepstake at his office on him ever leaving Dunkirk - to which we naturally replied that we had to get there first!

But it wasn't a problem - we got the next ferry and arrived at 2300 local time. Setting off to find the Campanile Hotel I'd booked us into, we had no confirmation as to where we'd actually come into. Thus, we spent an hour looking for what should have been easy to find, frustratingly passed a different Campanile hotel and only found ours by dint of Ann-Clare and I flagging down a passing motorist, while the men tried to work out where we were by compass bearings. What does that say? The couple in the car not only knew where the hotel was, but insisted on leading us there which was just as well, because we'd never have found it.

The next morning was a wet at the previous and th drive through Belgium as confusing as France - almost no signage, which resulted in us driving through Brussels unexpectedly. We did find our way out - more by luck than judgement.

A long drive which gradually got hotter and hotter, the roadsides getting yellower and yellower, and we arrived in Wurzburg about 2015. One of the vehicles made the hotel with the ease, whilst the other drove into a pedestrian precinct and was escorted out by the police and led to the hotel (won't say who was in that vehicle, but I wasn't one of them).

The hotel was unbelievably friendly and the town lovely. it's shame we got there so late, but we had a nice meal out in a little square under the trees and it was very pleasant.

We set off early for Prague on Friday and it continued to get hot. The countryside is big rolling hills with dark forests and occasional glimpses of schlosses, but noticebly further through the season than at home - very much into harvest and the grass no longer green.

The hotel in Prague in just by the tram terminus and is very modern. The rooms are all on the sixth floor and give view right over the city.

We have all split up to do our own thing. Some of us took a short boat trip and now I'm blogging in the Jewish Quarter (hence the title - or not?!) in a cyber cafe full of gap year travellers. Being here blogging with Mika playing in the background feels quite strange, but at least I'm not the oldest one here. There's an elderly lady tapping away next to me. What a strange international place the world has become.

Tonight some of us are going to see a marionette production of Don Giovanni (if we can get tickets) which the Sunday Times recommended. Apparently marionettes are a real tradition here. So an afternoon of wandering round and imagining coming back to see more and then tomorrow off into Slovakia.

Next blog - can't guess where!



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It's two days till off and I've just had my last day at work. It feels very odd to be going off for so long - my desk has never been so tidy! As I left colleagues were eying up the space - I'm getting suspicious that it'll have been re-allocated by the time I get back - are they trying to tell me something??
The last few days have been spent buying all sort of bits and pieces - it's incredible what you think you might need for a ten week trip. The sheer amount of drugs 'just in case' makes me wonder if I'll get stopped at the border and locked up for trafficking! Please keep an eye on the news, especially you Anthony Collins people - I might need some legal assistance to get out! Oh, but if they're after my desk, they won't lift a finger  - is this all some huge conspiracy? Will I ever get home? Help!!.....
Oops, sorry, letting my imagination run away with me, I think. You can see that going on such an amazing trip is making me a little nervous! Leaving home and the family for so long is quite daunting, but I'll be much better when we've set off - honest.
Actually it's all very exciting and everyone is very envious of me, although the children are getting rather sad at the prospect of me actually going. I don't think they thought it was really going to happen, but then, I'm not sure I did either!
Well, all that's left is to pick up yet more drugs from the chemist (antibiotics, malaria - we should have bought them as a job lot - they're on three for two at Boots - we could have saved loads.) and pack my holdall. The blue barrel is almost full, so there isn't much to do but check and re-check my lists - and I'm still bound to forget something.
And a final technology lesson. This bit of blog is written on a laptop and will be transferred via a dongle (I believe that's what they're called) so that I know how to do that bit at a cyber cafe in the middle of nowhere..... which may be the next place we'll be blogging from..... (actually more likely to be Prague!)



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Steve - Proud Owner of 2 Toyota Landcruisers

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