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ISLAMABAD

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Crossed over from China into Pakistan via the Khunjerab Pass with no problem, despite our earlier fears that the Silver Land Cruiser might overheat (absence of this may be something to do with the mods that we introduced pre-China, removing the horns that obstructed the radiator airflow). Magnificent scenery on the way down, with nomad encampments - complete with Yurts - sporadically dotted around. Passed the two huge peaks of Kongur and Mustag Ata (both 7000m +), arriving at Karrimabad,  capital of Hunza (one-time kingdom - now part of Pakistan) that day. The Hunza Embassy Hotel was very comfortable, with a terrace offering magnificent views over the Karakoram.

Next day given a guided tour around the incredible 650 y/o Baltit Fort, captured by the Brtish in 1891, restored in recent years to give a very clear idea of what it must have been like to live in this former palace of the local Mir. By chance, I happened to buy a book by an American soldier who'd lived there as a guest of the Mir shortly after WW11 as part of a personal experiment to bring US ideas and initiatives to (what he described as) 'a primitive people', at a time when the Russians and the Chinese were busy spreading there own forms of communism anongst the peoples of Central Asia. In the end he was beaten by local politics, but a fascinating insight into a 'westerner' trying to adapt to such a tough and rugged lifestyle, where - at the time - starvation and disease were a very real issue for many people.

Trying to leave the next day we were forced to turn back after finding that there had been at least 5 landslides on the road ahead overnight. Checked into the stunning Eagle's Nest Hotel, some 2000' above the Baltit Fort and at the end of a very 'challenging' unmade road! (Signs that this is to be metalled during the coming year) It was a breeze in the Landcruisers..

Carried on the next day towards Gilgit, but again had to retrace our steps for 15k when we found that the central section of the very substantial bridge crossing the Gilgit (Indus) had been completely washed away! Driving through the small towns and villages here we noticed a significant change in the characterof the communities, with very few of any women or girls being evident, whereas in the Hunza valley there were many brightly clothed women mixing socially. The local population ha als been particularly friendly. Then 2 days drive through the stunning Karakoram Highway, eventually arriving at Besham.

Uneventful start to the following day until we came across a (our second!) motorbike accident. At (Dr) Dave's suggetsion we had, in fact, practiced in the Forest of Dean for just such an eventuality (with Debs having a very realistic thigh bone protruding through her bloodsained trousers!) and this worked perfectly in practice: roping off the accident, fluorescent jackets for the people managing the traffic (whiuch was inclined to pause & 'rubberneck' at the scene - very annoying - I now sympathise fully with the police! - so holding up traffic on the narrow mountain pass), emergency medical kite, improvised strecher etc.. The biker (who had broken his leg in two places) was, ironically, a Guide who were leading two British bikers, Mungo and Az (aka the 'Sultan of Sunderland'!), in their attempt to reach the highest point ever on a motor bike (appx 5,700m, I believe) for charity. After waiting for an ambulance for around 1 hour Dave splinted his leg and we took him down to the nearset hospital, 100 km south, at Abbottabad, 'Unfortunately' (!) that meant that there was a third 'bike to be transported down so (after much arm-twisting, Mary - I was very reluctant to do this..) I was persuaded to take it down Although only a Honda 125 the ride through the sweeping roads and towns and villages was certainly one of the most 'interesting' that I have ever experinced - the local Rule of the Road sems to be that there is none! Cars and trucks were overtaking each other on the inside , on the outside - and simulateneaously - around blind bends!

Arrived at the Hotel Margala ("Where Time Sleeps and Dreams Whisper") early evening. Despite the Presidents's resignation yesterday and rumours about what might happen, all seems to be relatively quiet in the capital at the moment..


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Oh Dear!

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The Road to Hell .., as they say, is paved with good intentions - and I did have such intentions to keep an up-to-date record online of our journey, but what with travelling, sightseeing, keeping a journal, working on the machines, the (very!) odd bit of painting, writing (by snail mail - probably quite literally from this distance..), etc.. it just hasn't happened. Sorry folks! I'm afraid you'll just have to rely on Debs no doubt very comprehensive and accurate (unless it says anything adverse about me - in which case I fully reserve my right of reply!)

As will no doubt have been recorded elsewhere, we have had so many incidents / happenings that it would fill a modest book already. I look forward to sharing these with everyone when I (eventually) return home - some may be on a Pay-per-Tell basis - to be negotiated!

Anyway, for me the real highlights of the trip so far (since Mariupol, when I last did a comprehensive blog), have to be (and again, perhaps not in order, as I don't have my journal to hand!):

  • Astrakhan - the faded gentility/mysticism of 19th Century Russia - sadly fast disappearing beneath some possibly over-enthusiastic 'restoration' work
  • Camping in the desert once into Kazakhstan underneath a jet black planetarium of stars, having off-roaded over the dunes to put a sufficinet distance between ourselves and the former Silk Road to China
  • Aral Sea - witnessing the catastrophic consequences ascribed to Stalin's project to create a cotton growing industry to compete with that of the US, resulting in the desertification of vast areas of Kazakhstan and meaning that the former shore of the Aral (once the worlds' 4th largest Sea) is now 100k distant from what remains. As a consequence the fishing industry that had existed for centuries (if not millennia) in that area, has completely ceased to exist, along with entire communities. Horrible and very depressing..
  • Nukis - where we saw the amazing Museum of Modern Art, which was established during the era of Soviet occupation and formed a haven for those avant-garde artists of the 20' and 30's in aprticular who found their works declared 'un-Soviet' and counter-revolutionary. Indeed, even as recently as 1960 one well-known painting - 'The Blue Bull' - so enraged the newly appointed Museum Head that she ordered it's removal on precisely these grounds! (The artist, incidentally, was imprisoned in a mental asylum for 18 years shortly after its production).
  • Khiva -a World Heritage city which has been restored to pristine condition (ok, again, there might be a degree of over-restoration in places), but overall it gives the uninformed - like me - a very good idea of the development of this former slaving centre ( a trade which incidentally extended here well into the last century) over the past 2,500 years. The feeling of tranquility which existed throughout the City, which extended all day and night, was truly magical and a very striking contrast, I'm sad to say, to so many of our town and city centres back home..
  • Bukhara - further along the desert road and again a regional centre which in former times contained a separate (and competing) Kahnate. Larger than Khiva and more vibrant, but still containing some amazing mosques and madressas (universities). Had a massage here in vaults that had been used for such a purpose since the 16th Century.
  • Samarkand - larger still. Here we spent some time sorting out the vehicles. Purely by chance I was invited by a young Uzbek (who had been living in Bristol for the past 7 years who his wife and two young girls, gaining a postgraduate degree in molecular physics) to join him and his large family - there were seventeen of them in all - for lunch in their courtyard garden. It was a wonderful experience and, again, another reminder of the genuine hospitality that is the rule, rather than the exception, in this part of the world.
  • Osh - staying at the Osh Guest House, which is just over the border in Kyrgistan. Lovely place, set up principally to help an NGO develop a scheme to help local farmesr diversify and modernise their businesses. Lovely place with every facility & modcon (unlike the horrific Hotel Khokand in the town of the same name, where we stayed the night before. Too grisly to put down in print, but I have the pictures!)
  • Sary-Tash - up at about 11,500 ft, where we again stayed at a Guest House, although this time one with rather fewer facilities and a Yurt thrown in! Nonetheless, it was expertly run by Elizabeth, a native of this remote Kyrgh mountain village, who spoke 6 languages fluently and was just about to depart for Germany (Hamburg) on a years 'exchange'. Sadly, the UK (where she would have much prefered to come) does not offer such an arrangement, which I can't help feeling is a huge mistake given the very evident commercial opportunities that exist in this part of the world.
  • Kashgar - the first major town over the Chinese border, where we spent the day today. I have to admit that I was staggered (entirely due to my own ignorance, I concede!) by the vibrancy and modernity of the city, which boasts every convenience that one would expect to find in the West, but combined with the informality and cheerful chaos of the East - e.g. 3 or 4 adults/children astride (or even 'side-saddle!) a motor scooter - without helmets, of course! The Old City was magnificent, with each street being given over to some trade or craft. In one, for example, every open-fronted workshop revelead a balcksmith's forge & bellows, with men hammering furiously to create some axe or knife. Other streets contained shop after shop offering spices and herbs that one would never see in the West. This evening 7 of us dined in the private dining room of the former British Consulate where Eric Shipton, the great explorer and one of Steve's all-time heroes, was Consul General early in the last century. In the courtyard was a 124 year old elm tree, planted during the construction of the building, that brought it home to me how very few (if any) elm trees we see nowadays back home. Presumably this one is sufficiently far distant from any others to escape the dreaded Dutch disease?

As we approach the halfway point of our trip, with India and Pakistan (both entirely unknown to me) still to come, I cannot believe how much I have learned. I already have a 'books to be read' list as long as my arm and can only begin to imagine how the journey that we have underrtaken will change my views on the various regions through which we have travelled. Certainly I hope I will be slightly better informed (and more inclined to seek out additional information) if nothing else.

Finally - should anyone read this - I must confess that I am missing Mary, Laura, Tobs, Jo, Rachel (aka Bleut) & Addy (aka - no - I'll spare his blushes!), The Pips (with all its animals/reptile/invertabrates & birds) as well as family, friends and colleagues, more than I can say. The expedition has and will continue (I hope) to be incredible - but so will the homecoming..

Love and very best wishes to one and all

Jeremy / Dad


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How Bazaar..

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Brief notes, just record main impressions since last entry (without my notes, so may well be out of sequence etc..) - think it must have been Astrakhan. What a wonderful romantic place! Shortly after leaving there ploughed through various rather dilapidated Russian manufacturing sites (not very lovely) until we finally reached the border. Standard experience - 4 - 5 hour delay to get through. Bit of a pain in the heatof the day (we seem to arrive at each broder just about the time when the guards are about to start their lunch!)

After that the landscape changed immediately & it was apparent we were entering a far poorer country overall, with small rectangular, single storey flat roofed houses, generally with two windows on the main facade & constructed of a sepia brown mud/straw/dung compound?

Camped the firstnight in the desert, which was my first tented night on the trip, having missed the adventures in the Czech, Slovak & Ukraine Republics. Sky was inky black and stars bright through the roof of my one-man tent (I decide to leave the flysheet off as there was no wind & it was dry). Very comfortable - now that I had my air-matress (not at all like our practice in the Forest of Dean. How long ago that all seems..)

Change of plan! Too difficult to remember exact sequence of events - they all tend to roll into one.. I want to do it justice as we have had some amazing experiences and seen many wonderful places. More than anything, the people have become friendlier and friendlier as we have travelled further east, through Kazakstan and Uzbekistan. Intend to try to update at next stop (Samarkand).

In the meantime, love to all back home..

Jeremy


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Into the desert..

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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..


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Logging on..

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Just testing - my first 'blog'!

 

Jeremy


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