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!