Wednesday 17 December 2014

End of the road for now. More in 2015.

I was recently admonished for not telling our reader that the previous post, re the arrival in Almaty on 17 July 2014, represented the end of the 2014 section of the trip. She had been hanging out for the next exciting episode, but there was only clear air.

Well we are very sorry folks. This was a serious breach of our communications Standard Operating Procedures and Style Guide. Since 17 July we have not driven a single kilometre. The cars are on blocks in an Almaty shed. We are Down Under, enjoying an Aussie summer and planning the next leg of the trip.

I can now reveal that the engines will be cranked over in May 2015, and it all starts again, along the Silk Road through Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, then south to Turkmenistan, west to the Caspian Sea, across to Baku, Azerbaijan, then Georgia and Armenia and up through Russia to St Petersburg and on to Finland, by late August.

So relax, enjoy the festive season, and we'll be back in May.

Thursday 17 July 2014

Almaty: by Ian Neuss

Today at 4 pm we reached Almaty.

We have seen more road rage and accidents in two days here than in 56 days in China.

The quote of the trip is

Gerard to customs officer in an unnamed Stan : I am from Australia where we have some crocodiles that eat people.

Customs officer : here the police are crocodiles.

Friday 11 July 2014

Tash Rabat stories: This could only happen in Kyrgyzstan, by Rex Hewett

Tuesday 1 July, Dateline Kyrgyzstan.

The Whippet seemed to enjoy the cold clean Kyrgyzstan air and Bill and I headed off like bats out of hell after the border. Forgetting that we had agreed to drive to Tash Rabat, and missing the half metre high sign, we finished up lost, and in the well-intentioned hands of a couple of locals in a well worn late '80's Audi (the car of choice here). Handshakes were exchanged plus the occasional shot of Stollie. Remember that this was in our first few hours in Kyrgyzstan and we had yet to purchase Kyrgyz SIM cards, so no phone contact.

Eventually we set off back to the last checkpoint with less than 4 litres to spare in the tank. Soldiers appeared from everywhere and in broken English explained that the Toyota and Dodge had set off down a side road to squat in a Yurt near the original Silk Road gateway (the caravanserai).

Two young soldiers, Bukyt & Syrgar (pronounced, and always fondly remembered, as Bucket and Sugar), kindly agreed to drive us to Tash Rabat, leaving the Whippet in the secure hands of the remaining 20+ checkpoint guards. In fading light we set off on a 50km trip into the unknown. Sitting in the rear seat we noticed the fuel gauge on empty as Bukyt pressed pedal to metal in his Nissan Bluebird. Just before the turn-off to Tash Rabat, Bukyt spotted the guage and phoned a friend who duly appeared in an old Lada 10 km further on and frantic petrol siphoning began.

With an additional 10 litres on board we resumed the search, arriving at the Tash Rabat valley in darkness at around 11 pm. A fruitless search through the first Yurt camp left us even more fearful that we may have to share quarters with our second best soldier friends. Finally Syrgar was inspired and directed Bukyt to drive to a small caravan. Awakening a soldier friend Syrgar kept repeating 'white Toyota Landcruiser'. Finally the friend connected 'yes I saw white Toyota Landcruiser at my friends Yurt camp today'.

So off we go again, this time testing the waterproofing on the Nissan as it careered through streams and paddocks into yet another Yurt camp. Success at last -- the white Landcruiser and 1920 Dodge sitting amongst the Yurts.

Hugs and congratulations with our new mates (our old ones didn't even wake to welcome us), and the wonderful Yurt owner offered a light meal and tea in solace. Much to their delight Bukyt & Syrgar secured 10 litres of fuel, barely enough to make it back to the border gate, and Bill and I secured a warm Yurt bed for the night and reunion with the team next morning. Next day, as we collected the Whippet from the checkpoint, the story had spread and cameras recorded the legend.

Rex Hewett

Ten grand

Congratulations to all our followers. Yesterday our blog passed 10,000 hits.

Thanks for your interest, stamina, and sacrifice of time that could probably have been better spent.


The B2B Expeditionaries.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Felt and Community Based Crafts

The locals, with the help of a Swiss Group, have set up women's cooperatives to make and sell the felt and leather-based crafts produced mainly during the long winter months.

The felt is produced from local sheeps wool, working it into sheets by rolling it behind horses along the road. Of course Yurts are the main product and they are warm and cosy and keep out the chilling wind on the high summer pastures. Some are highly decorated both inside and out. Carpets are the next on the list to cover the floor of the summer yurt or at home in the village. Slippers and wall hangings, both embroidered, look great. Natural dyes are the fad and cases for phones and iPad are appearing.

Ian Neuss

The Road to the Sky, by I Neuss

A quick look at the map shows that there is a road from Naryn, west along the Naryn River, then north up to Song Kol. Looks good, looks easy, and we can continue north around the lake to Lake Yssyk-Kol. We leave Naryn late in the day and drive ‘til it’s late and camp on the banks of the large Naryn River at Ak Tal. We get visited by numerous locals some of whom offer us a drive of their car if they can drive ours. No thanks. They return with a few mates later for more photos and "can we have a drive" again.

It’s a short 125 km to the lake the next day, and a few bends, so we set out early on a beautiful morning. The road passes a few villages and farms and starts to go through a beautiful limestone gorge. The landscape turned from brown to green and pine trees started to appear and the road got steeper and rougher, and rougher, and stonier. Turning the corner at the end of the gorge all was revealed with the 9 switchbacks appearing up the hill.
Not a worry for both cars. A thousand metre climb to the pass and a few tourists coming down, jumping out of their cars to take photos. A few locals all packed up going to the summer pastures with their yurt and the kitchen sink were enjoying the beautiful morning as well. Coffee and lots of photos with local tourists at the top at 3400m and on to find a yurt to stay in.

All uneventful for the two cars.

Ian Neuss

Song Kol

Song Kol exceeds all cliches. A shallow basin surrounded by a ring of mountains, with the lake in the middle and the sky above. It's a bit over 3000 metres and has very changeable weather, and all three seasons, Autumn, Winter and Spring. We had blue sky, thunderclaps, rain and sleet.
We were made very welcome at Jolamon and Zamira's yurt-stay, described accurately by Naryn CBT as a good Kyrgyz family. The kids put on a show for us on the first night. To see our welcome concert to Song Kol click HERE

All audio-visual records of the reciprocal team performance of Waltzing Matilda have been destroyed.

Tex Hewett surveys his domain.

Our first yurt-stay

Tash Rabat is the location of a 15th century 'caravanserai', a resting place for caravans on the Silk Road (some scholars think it may be even older, a 10th century Christian monastery). It's in a valley, off the main road, with a number of locals happy to provide B&B in their spare yurts, all part of Kyrgyzstans' flourishing Community-Based Tourism (CBT) network. The Tash Rabat valley is a comfortable day's drive from Kashgar, China, even with Chinese bureaucracy and 2 cars with a combined age of 182 years.
We had worried about how to contact the CBT, but no need to worry as it contacts you (Tursu of Sabyrbeks yurts waved us down on the road), and their tourist information offices are findable among the jumble of street-front labels in most towns.
Sabyrbeks had the added luxury of a banya, in this case a stone sauna. Just the ticket after a long drive, in the bracing air of a 3000m mountain valley. The photo shows the banya in the background, with Ian eschewing the shelter of the yurt.

We would have no hesitation in recommending Tursu's Sabyrbek yurt-stay, especially the banya.

Kyrgyzstan on a handshake

After the gentle climb from Kashgar to the border post at the 3700m Torugart Pass, and the paper warfare of getting out of China, Kyrgyzstan opened up.

The two border officials walked up to our cars and SHOOK HANDS with us. They waved away our carefully completed visa applications, with photos attached, and stamped our passports. A couple of us walked through the Red - Something to Declare door, the Green - Nothing to Declare door was rusted shut, past the large Duty Free sign over the cobwebbed and empty "shop", and out the back door. After the usual photo-shoot of the cars, they waved us on. This meant driving to the boomgate, which was closed. We waited a minute or so before realising that this was a DIY border gate, so I got out, braving potential machine gun bursts, and lifted the chain on the gate, swung it open, and there we were, in Kyrgyzstan. We had been so conditioned to restrain our own photography with officials (and the recalcitrant Michael Noyce had gone home a few days before) that the only photo we have is one taken of us, BY the Kyrgyz officals.

The difference doesn't end there. To borrow a cliche, Kyrgyzstan is Big Sky country. The constant smog, and desert and cement dust of China disappears. The air is disturbingly clear, the mountains brilliantly coloured, only the roads disappoint.

Much more to come.

Xinjiang and "The Situation"

Xinjiang Province is also called the Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Situation is well known and security is visible everywhere, even in the city squares where people are dancing in the evenings.

Note the position of the trigger finger. He was probably more scared of his officers than any external threat.

I'm sure they'd rather be shooting unthreatening, funny old cars with their i-pads.

Xinjiang: by Ian Neuss

Xinjiang is the largest Chinese administrative division and borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It is also the home of 7 ethnic groups of which the Uyghurs are the largest. Reputably only 4.3% of the land is fit for human habitation. Its rivers disappear into the desert or salt lakes, fed by snow from the surrounding mountains.

The deserts are rich in salt, borax, oil, gas, coal and jade, with metals and gold in the surrounding mountains. The desert is also rich in subterranean water but most life and agriculture clings to the present water courses where cheap flood irrigation methods are available.

It is 1/6 of China and is divided into two basins, the Dzungarian and Tarim basins, by the Tian Shan mountains, and is surrounded by mountains pushed up by India, the Pamir and Karakoram to the south west, Kunlun in the south, and Altai in the north east. It has huge tourist potential and a rich and romantic history.

It is very poor with a very low GDP and it shows. The Uygurs feel they are being swamped by recent Han Chinese and they are. Although their standard of living has increased they feel their voice in local affairs is not being heard. This was felt by all in our travels through the region when ever we came in contact with Uyghur individuals.

Monday 30 June 2014

Note to readers: 1 July to 15 July

On Tuesday 1 July we cross into Kyrgyzstan and will be there for about 2 weeks. We are unsure of how often we will be able to access the internet as we will be camping in remote parts for most of the time.

You will be able to pinpoint where we are by going to the Delorme InReach GPS site, as described in the page about the "eye in the sky". ie, but there may not be any new posts on this blog until we get to Bishkek or Almaty.

You may be able to see the map of our planned trip here

Between Aktal and Kochkor we will be camping at the lake shown, Song-Kul, for about 3 nights. The route on the map shows us missing the lake, but that's not the plan.

Kashgar and the famous Sunday Market; 29 June 2014

Xinjiang Province is the Uyghur Autonomous Region and the Sunday livestock market in Kashgar is a showpiece of its rural commerce. Given the proximity of the Taklimakan Desert, and a seeming scarcity of green pasture, the offerings today had been pretty well prepared. Maybe there's gold in them there distant hills.

A mirage?

We're in the heart of muslim Xinjiang, the Uyghur Autonomous Region. Is this a mirage, sent to baffle thirsty Australians after hundreds of kilometres of slow, hot desert driving? It was enough to decide which hotel we stayed in that night.

Desert animals

The Qiemo museum had photos and listed local district mountain and desert animals to include wolf, snow leopard, camel, bear, ibex, lynx, mole, leopard, boar, eagle, owl and doves. We had seen what we thought must have been moles on the Tibetan Plateau. Any others seemed thin on the ground.

We saw several groups of camels on each of the desert stretches we drove. Their condition varied. Some resembled New Zealand stayers, all rib.

A pair of dogs, hunting together, had us wondering about origins. They resembled dingoes, but also fitted a description of a Chinese native Michael found in his extensive Wollombi library of canine natural history. Then again, they might just have just been pets gone feral. They were miles from anywhere and we saw no other prey, so they were definately tough.

Bill's Blog 1 (for rev-heads and tinkerers)

An adventure is when the unexpected unknown comes out of the blue, or out of the dust in the case of the Taklimakan Desert. And the B2B has been an adventure from the first day in Bangkok where the Whippet cleared customs, started first kick and loaded without a hitch, then travelled to the border in one day, to yesterday’s Turkish bath in the basement of this excellent hotel where an ugly chinaman, after putting out his cigarette, nonchalantly scratching his nuts, took a pot scourer to my somewhat less than clean body. A slightly pinker but very clean Bill presented for dinner in full B2B regimental dress an hour later, feeling a million dollars. Expect the unexpected!

Although the continuum of adventure is fantastic I think the most pleasure I have had to date is seeing a near instant sequence of expression on the faces of young kids from; true disbelief, amazement, repeated disbelief and then shear delight when they see the old cars appear in their village. The adults have equal pleasure but are not quite as expressive until they see the wooden spoked wheels which they always tap, feel, then laugh and give a thumbs up.

Our cuisine has been superb as one would imagine and reported by our resident food and wine writer (MN) but I must include the red date and chicken head soup from Sichuan shown in accompanying photograph, the chicken head and chicken feet being quite obvious.

No doubt there are petrol head vintage blog followers who are interested in the vehicles mechanical progress and would like some more detail. My conspicuous absence from blogging may reflect that I have been attending to things mechanical and not literal. So an attempt to satisfy those is made here. Both Dodge and Whippet continue to continue on and seem to be improving with every mile possibly because we have now slowed the pace by around 5 mph to around 35, this requires less fuel, less heat and not much more overall time.

The heating problems of the Whippet were because it left Australia with an exhaust leak between number two and a water way after a particularly vigorous test drive, possibly something the previous owner Stan Perry had repaired. The replacement, suspected head gasket, didn't arrive until too late and was never fitted. This should have been changed on the wharf in Bangkok but I didn't, and made the car labour over the ranges through Laos, overheating on some of the long climbs, and me swearing to change the gasket at the first opportunity each time we tipped cold water into the hot engine. This we addressed at Lake Lugu to find the gasses had cut a valley in the block about 5 thousands of an inch deep, just too much to be taken up by the new head gasket. So I annealed an old copper one and pulled the head down harder to reduce the gas in the water to a small stream of bubbles and planned to find a reco shop that could weld or skim the block in situ.

An initial search in Xichang found a mechanical shop who were unwilling to do the work but sold us a special copper coat high temperauture head gasket spray, something I had not seen before and but they strongly recommended. So the head was removed again to find a small crack had also developed in the block from the water way, which I drilled to stop it propagating further. We annealed an old copper gasket on the primus stove in the hotel car park and torqued the head down again using copper coat gasket cement to 65ft/lbs. This did not fix it to my satisfaction so we by-passed the mechanical work shop and went to the machine shop directly.

These guys were well fitted out with mills, lathes, presses and most importantly, experience. They also had a mechanical and spray shop next door where I did the work with assistance from the local boys. I cannot say I enjoyed the work but I did enjoy working with the enthusiastic Chinese lads. The Whippet suffered the indignity of being towed through a busy town by the Toyota to this shop. On arrival the head mechanic recommended patching the block by cold welding a thickness of shim metal over the depression in the block in stages which we ground down slowly by hand with a grinding wheel. This I had never seen before but it seemed plausible. We rubbed in the valves on two and three, and had the radiator flushed and reassembled. I poured in my supply of new oil, only to find gas still in the coolant. Not too happy I may say. We then torqued the head down to 50 ft/lbs and stripped two threads in the block. We removed the head once again and used the 7/16 helicoils and new set of head bolts I had brought with me. Torqued the head down to 70ft/lds and, at last, no gas in the exhaust.

On a rigorous test drive with my delighted Chinese offsider in the passenger seat we found still too much heat but basically acceptable if not driven at full throttle even on this quite hot day. I retarded the ignition somewhat although the engine was not pinging this seemed to help too. We had only flushed the radiator as I would not let them strip the top tank off and rod it, and was still quite concerned about the stop leak (I had put in in Australia) stopping flow in the radiator.

Peter had carried a spare radiator, taken from Ted the other whippet, with another wheel, in from Australia which we fitted before tackling the big climbs onto the Tibetan Plateau. On the first day with the new radiator the ambient temperature was very low (see photo) and the engine temperature never exceeded a 120F, which I felt was somewhat damaging to be developing full power and revs on a cold engine all day. We then covered the radiator with a pillow slip and operated at 160-180F and happily (apart from having to back out of a motor way 2kms as we had overshot the turn off) progressed toward Xining. The car is now returning 6kms/lt and running well.

After dropping down into the Taklimakan some 2000m we have reduced speed and the whippet is returning 7kms /lt which I think is consistent with what this car can do. Unfortunately I think I can hear a big end knocking at low revs and the engine is using a pint of oil a day on the long runs across the desert and some blow-by is evident in the breather.

We have now run out of the Penrite 40-70W oil and have changed over to a synthetic 20-50W, oil pressure is still good at 30psi, but the knock still( just) audible, and we will see what the usage is like (just put in a Wynnns product) climbing out of China tomorrow. The water pump requires a tighten every day or so but all else is fine, gear oil still fresh (now nearly 6000mls travelled) diff oil black but full, rear uni will not hold oil but quiet and cool running, front uni greased, thrust bearing talks occasionally, the timing chain is just audible. So lets hope the next 500mls are as uneventful mechanically as the last.

I think everyone enjoys driving the little car which responds well when required to keep up with the better pulling power of the Big Dodge and handles well on the tight steep roads.

Horace's PBs

Highest climb: 3800m

Climbs in a day over 3000m : 2

Distance travelled to 1 July : 11,000km (Ed. note: this is the Toyota's total; due to crew slackness there is no logbook evidence to credit Horace and Stanley with more than an estimated 9000km)

Breakages : 2 rear wheel bearings

Repairs : footbrake linings renewed

Longest day : 580km

Longest tunnel: 10.4 km
Longest descent : 45 km at 3.4 degrees including a circular tunnel then on bridges and road viaduct two lanes each way.
Biggest crowd puller : Hotan swarm and wooden wheels

Highest speed : 80 km/hr (downhill)

Punctures : 0

Dings: 1 - backed in to a wall , pushed a taxi

Narrow escapes : 100's in traffic at intersections when its a relative free-for-all from all directions.

Rewards : new points

Petroleum usage : about 7km/Lt

Coldest day : Snow on the Tibetan plateau and in Hexian corridor pass and south of Dunhuang

Best rain : Tropical downpour in Lao for 50km.

Drinks : China 93 octane fuel, clean and readily available.

Most Scenic spot : Lake Lugu

Best Lunch spot : smoked pork n noodles

More desert: Huatugou to Ruoqiang, 17 June 2014

Huatugou to Ruoqiang was 340 km of stark landscape, with a sandstorm thrown in. The general bleakness was heightened by the appearance of a dust-producing asbestos mine looming behind a grim village, home to the mine workers.

We were delayed by police because of high winds and a sandstorm in a mountain pass ahead. Trucks with wide and wider, or long and longer loads were also halted.

After an hour and a half we were all allowed to depart. Ever tried to beat 50 semis up a hill? We decided to go last. A further steady climb to 3600m, then the wind came up, or we arrived at the scene of the sandstorm, so we put the curtains up on the offside of each of the cars and continued to crawl up the hill. Then a long descent through gorges to 1200m, followed by a straight flat drive of 150km.
This started off well until the wind swung round, gusting to 80 km/hr, blowing sand across the road into the cars, as well as every crevice in the body. Windows went on the other side of the Dodge, but the Whippet ploughed on. After 150 km of this we arrived at the cross road of the northern and western highways.

Ian, Michael, John

Poor goat, by Michael N

In the Uighur area of Kashgar I was sitting resting on a bench when I heard a goat bleating and looked across and saw a goat on the footpath with legs tired and head hanging over the gutter in a large metal bowl. Kneeling beside him was a man who proceeded to cut the poor goat's throat with the blood running into the bowl. Another man brought an air pump that you pump with your feet, slit a leg, pushed the rubber hose up the leg and proceeded to inflate the goat to at least twice it's size. He then turned the goat on its back, skinned it and completed the actual butchering on the footpath. After all, this was outside a 'butchers shop' and with late night trading he had to prepare his stock.

All this time people were walking past ignoring what was happening while another goat that was tethered to a nearly pole was bleating very loudly; understandable, having witnessed his own fate. It sure is a different world here.

Michael Noyce

How to survive Uighur truckies: Michael Noyce

We, together with over 150 trucks and their drivers, were stopped at a police road block due to heavy sand blown across the road about 10km ahead. Our ever friendly blogger John found the perfect way to pass the time and build goodwill with the locals.

Note his audience of 3 out of a possible 200 or more. Perhaps it says something about the tuning of the Uke, or is it something else?

Michael Noyce

Dancing in the Streets

In every town and city we have visited in China, the evenings bring out the dancers. The town square has music, and people dance. The men are a bit shy but the women really turn out. Sometimes it’s traditional or particular to the local ethnic minority. Sometimes, such as here in Hotan on the longest day of the year, we see the graduates of the local Arthur Murray school.

Excuse the photo quality. I only had my phone with me that late in the evening.

If you would like to brush up on your steps look HERE

Friday 27 June 2014

Hotan market

Just a small selection, typical of this prosperous Uighur oasis city.
And even the kitchen sink!